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Authors: Nevil Shute

Beyond the Black Stump

BOOK: Beyond the Black Stump
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FIRST VINTAGE INTERNATIONAL EDITION, OCTOBER 2010

Copyright © 1956 by William Morrow & Co. Inc
.

All rights reserved. Published in the United States by Vintage Books, a division of Random House, Inc., New York. Originally published in book form in Great Britain by William Heinemann Ltd., London and in the United States by William Morrow & Co. Inc., New York, in 1956. This edition first published in Great Britain by Vintage Books, an imprint of The Random House Group Limited, London, in 2009. Copyright © The Trustees of the Estate of Nevil Shute Norway.

Vintage is a registered trademark and Vintage International and colophon are trademarks of Random House, Inc.

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.

eISBN: 978-0-307-47403-2

www.vintagebooks.com

v3.1

Contents
One

A
NUMBER
of substances that are trapped in the earth’s crust will influence a Geiger counter sufficiently to set it clicking, and one of the feeblest of these influences is oil imprisoned in a salt dome or an anticline. Stanton Laird sat in an office of the Topeka Exploration Company Inc., on the eighteenth floor of the Topex Building in Cedar Street in downtown New York City, and explained his work again to Mr. Sam Johnson. He believed that the work that he had done upon his own initiative in analysing the radioactive indications at the bottom of the pilot drillings at Abu Quaiyah had shortened the seismic observation programme by some weeks and had brought the No. 3 well to production so much sooner, and this was the first bore on that site to produce oil in commercial quantities. He had explained this previously to Mr. Johnson in a fairly lengthy report that he had typed with sweating, gritty hands in the hut beside the oil rig where he had lived with the drilling crew, and he had known as he typed that Mr. Johnson would either be too busy to read it at all or, at best, he would skim it through and merely study the conclusions at the end. In fact, he had done the latter, and he had forgotten all the detail. Only a vague impression on his mind remained, that Stanton Laird was a good youngster who didn’t sit around complaining of the heat but got on with his job.

Mr. Johnson didn’t say much while the young man talked, for the simple reason that he couldn’t trust himself. Like all oil executives he had a general knowledge of petrology, but he had never himself been a geologist. He had come into the oil industry forty years before as an organic chemist, but he had been on the executive of Topex now for many years and his organic chemistry was thirty years out of date, and half forgotten. In dealing with the young technicians who worked under his control he had developed a technique of making them do the talking while he sat back and listened, encouraging them on with phrases such as “Surely”, or “That sounds reasonable to me”, or “Dr. Streeter was working on this last fall. I’d like you to have a talk with
him.” In this way he maintained the fiction that he understood what Stanton Laird was talking about, while his acute subconscious mind summed the young man up and filed the essential data that would determine his advancement in the Topex organisation. Long years of practice had made him clever with these phrases, so that Stanton Laird believed that his painstaking techniques had made a good impression on his boss. In that he was correct, but not quite in the way he thought. His techniques meant little to Mr. Johnson because he didn’t fully understand them, but his approach to the job and his industry meant quite a lot.

Presently the older man glanced at the clock, which showed ten minutes past noon, and steered the conversation to a close. “I guess we’ll go and get some lunch,” he said. “Which hotel are you staying at?”

“I checked my bags,” the young man said. “I’ve got a friend has an apartment in Peter Cooper Village. I’ll call him later on, see if he’s got a bed.”

“Didn’t you get in yesterday?”

Stanton shook his head. “We got a twenty hours’ delay at Lisbon. They had to change a motor on the plane.”

Mr. Johnson glanced again at his technician. He had always been a pale young man, with very short mousy hair and little colour in his face. Three years in Arabia had bronzed him to a deep yellow rather than a brown; he seemed more adult and self-reliant than when he had last sat in that office, but he did not look very well. Perhaps that was fatigue.

“What time did you get in?”

“I’d say we landed around eight o’clock,” the young man replied. “I took a shower at the airport, ’n came on in to town.”

“Get any sleep on the way over?”

“Not very much.”

Mr. Johnson pressed a bell on the side of his desk, and when the girl came in, sleek and young and well groomed, he said, “Sharon, call the club and tell them I’ll be bringing a guest in for lunch. Table for two. I’ll be right over.” The young man’s eyes flickered quickly over the stenographer, a motion which did not escape the notice of his boss. Three years in Arabia was tough on a young man.

When the girl had gone out, Mr. Johnson said, “Have any trouble with your health?”

“Not a thing. You don’t have to, if you stick by the rules. I’m glad to be out of it before the real hot weather, though.”

His boss nodded. “Three summers is enough in Arabia, out in the field.” The sun of mid-July streamed in through the slats of the Venetian blind. “I suppose you wouldn’t call this a hot day.”

The young man smiled. “Kind of humid, after the dry heat. I wouldn’t want to work here through the summer.”

“We all come to it as we get on in life,” said Mr. Johnson. “That’s unless we fail to make it, and go run a gas station. There’s worse things to do than that, too. That’s what I think sometimes, commuting from Norwalk through August, with the temperature way up in the nineties.” He heaved his massive body up from the desk. “Let’s go and get some lunch. How much leave have you got coming? Ten weeks?”

“Nine,” said Stanton. “I took a week in Cairo last year.”

“That time you flew up to meet P.K. about the core analysis?”

“That’s right.”

“Maybe we’ll give you that. Where are you going for it? Out West?”

Stanton nodded. “I’ll go home and stay with my folks, for a while, anyway. I guess I’ll be around there most of the time.”

They left the office and walked to the elevator. “Oregon, isn’t it?” said the older man. “Way in from Portland somewhere?”

“That’s right,” said the geologist. “Place called Hazel, in the back of the state. That’s where I come from.”

As they descended in the elevator the older man said vaguely, “I knew a man one time went fishing in the Hazel River, runs into the Snake. Would that be the same?”

“That’s right,” said Stanton. “Hazel’s on the Hazel River, in the north-east corner of the state. There’s good fishing in the river—trout.”

“Is Hazel a big place?”

The young man shook his head. “About ten thousand at the last count, I think.”

At the entrance to the Topex Building and in the street the crowds thronged around them, making conversation impossible; they walked in silence for a couple of blocks and went into another building and up in another elevator. They
walked out into the air-conditioned coolness of the club and checked their hats. They went to the washroom and then Mr. Johnson led his guest into the bar. “What’s it to be?”

“Orange juice,” said the young man.

Mr. Johnson ordered it, with rye on the rocks for himself. “Still sticking to your principles?”

“I guess so,” said the geologist. “It’s mighty easy to stick to some principles.” He laughed. “I just don’t like it.”

In fact, he had an aversion to alcoholic beverages that was almost pathological. He felt about alcohol as other people might feel about cocaine, that it was most dangerous stuff to take even in the smallest quantities. It was habit-forming. If you took one drink you would want another, and another, and another; with each essay the craving would increase till it became overpowering. The end, inevitably, was that you would become an alcoholic, unable to hold down a job, unable to walk down the street without falling flat on your face, fit only for Skid Row. If you were very fortunate you might be rehabilitated by Alcoholics Anonymous, but throughout your life thereafter you would be wrestling with the ever-present temptation. In many ways cocaine was less dangerous, because it was less readily obtainable.

These feelings were connected, rather strangely, with his first driving licence; he had sowed his wild oats younger than most men. His father, Stanton Laird, was a Presbyterian of remote Scots descent; he had married early and had had four children, two daughters, Stanton Junior, and Dwight. Both daughters were now married, and Dwight was serving with the U.S. Army on the Rhine. In his youth the father had founded the Hazel Cold Storage Corporation, and he had worked it up into a sizeable concern by 1938. With the coming of war to the world he had guessed shrewdly that cattle might prove more profitable than cold storage, and this change in his views corresponded with a restless wish to change his way of life. He had sold the cold storage business and had bought three ranches in the district, and he had profited over the war years from the demand for beef for the armies. As peace approached he looked ahead to the peacetime demand for automobiles, and in 1944 he bought a gas station in Hazel with a vacant lot beside it and two more behind. In 1945 he sold his ranches and in 1946 he built a showroom and extensive modern workshops behind his gas station, with the result that in
1949 HE
succeeded in wresting the Ford franchise from the ageing local dealer. Since then he had prospered more than ever.

The change from cold storage to ranching had come when Junior was fourteen years old, and leaving grade school for Hazel High. The change meant that the family removed from the house on Franklin Avenue, which was now too small for them anyway, and went to live about fifteen miles from Hazel on a ranch. In a district where boarding schools were virtually unknown this would have made difficulties in the education of the children but for a thoughtful provision of the State of Oregon, which decreed that in such circumstances a child could get a driving licence, theoretically limited to the route between his home and school. Accordingly Stanton Junior got his first motor car driving licence at the age of fourteen when he entered Hazel High School, driving Dwight to grade school every day in an old Chevrolet and going on himself to High School. With the driving licence and the car he became free from all parental or any other control.

Like most reputable citizens of Hazel, Stanton Laird never drank in his home town. At cold storage Conventions in Portland or Seattle he would drink whisky for business conviviality in a naïve ignorance of when to stop, so that he got sick and had a hangover next morning, ailments which he regarded as a necessary part of business life like a sagging abdomen due to sitting at a desk all day, and which had influenced his restless change to ranching. His home was happy and well ordered but no tobacco and no alcohol ever entered it, so that it was only natural for Junior, on attaining to the freedom of his own car at the age of fourteen, to start experimenting with both. Since Hazel High School was, of course, co-educational, his experimenting wasn’t limited to whisky and cigarettes.

It is a deep conviction of all right-thinking Americans that a boy shows independence, manliness, and self-respect by working his way through college, and a good preparation for this way of life is to encourage him to earn his pocket money while he is in High School. While the Lairds had lived in Hazel they had encouraged Junior to earn by delivering newspapers around the district where they lived. With the coming of war to the world the demand for such services increased, and soon after they moved to the ranch
he took on the delivery of Donald Duck bread in the Chev as well as the newspapers, wearing a peaked cap embellished with the emblem of the order, rampant. This new assignment took a good deal longer and made his hours away from home irregular; at the same time it provided him with a considerable income, the extent of which was unknown to his parents, which he could spend on cigarettes, rye whisky, and girls.

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