1: Front Page

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  John Tranter

  Front Page
  and How To Use This Site

  JOURNAL

Please see The Malley Variations: at: http://johntranter.net/poetry/john-tranter-the-malley-variations/,
part of the Poetry Category page. Here are the Notes:

Notes

These poems are collaborations, utilising the ‘Breakdown’ computer program; the voice of Ern Malley is inspired by and speaks through the voices of other writers at key moments in their careers.

— ‘An American in Paris’, Ern Malley and Henry Miller, Tropic of Cancer.
— ‘Benzedrine’, Ern Malley and Allen Ginsberg, ‘Howl’.
— ‘The Master of the Black Stones’, Ern Malley and Yasunari Kawabata, The Master of Go.
— ‘Flying High’, Ern Malley and Captain W.E.Johns, Biggles Defies the Swastika.
— ‘Pussy Willow’, Ern Malley and Louisa May Alcott, Little Women.
— ‘Smaller Women’, Ern Malley and Louisa May Alcott, Little Women.
— ‘Transatlantic’, Ern Malley and Gertrude Stein, The Autobiography of Alice B.Toklas.
— ‘Under Tuscan Skies’, Ern Malley and Edward Morgan Forster, Room With a View.
— ‘Year Dot’, Ern Malley and real estate advertisements for properties offered for sale in Sydney’s Eastern Suburbs, June and July 1994.
— ‘The Urn of Loneliness’, Ern Malley and Radclyffe Hall, The Well of Loneliness.

 

Dorothy Malone, 1924 (1925?)-2018

< -- EXCERPT: Among Malone’s first films at Warners was Howard Hawks’s classic film noir The Big Sleep (1946) in which, despite appearing in a single sequence lasting a little over three minutes, she made a huge impact.§ -->

Among Malone’s first films at Warners was Howard Hawks’s classic film noir The Big Sleep (1946) in which, despite appearing in a single sequence lasting a little over three minutes, she made a huge impact. The scene, which Hawks considered cutting because it was not indispensable to the complicated plot, was saved, according to the director, “just because the girl was so damn pretty”.

It involved the private eye Philip Marlowe (Humphrey Bogart), on a case, popping into a bookshop run by Malone, to find out if she knows the suspicious owner of a rival bookshop across the road. She is bespectacled and wears her hair up — a Hollywood signifier of an intellectual — though she seems to be flirting with him. “You begin to interest me… vaguely,” she says. Marlowe starts to leave, but it is raining outside and when she says, “It’s coming down pretty hard out there,” something in her voice suggests she wants him to stay.

“You know, as it happens I have a bottle of pretty good rye in my pocket,” he says. “I’d a lot rather get wet in here.” She puts the closed sign on the door, lowers the shade, takes her glasses off and lets down her hair. “Looks like we’re closed for the rest of the afternoon,” she says. Audiences were left to make up their own minds about what happened next.

Dorothy Malone, left, with Humphrey Bogart, in the movie The Big Sleep (1946), photo Warner Brothers, Rex, Shutterstock.

The Pub with no Beer

XXXX Beer Bottles, Queensland.

For my sins I lived in Brisbane, capital of the Northern State of Queensland, during the 1970s, producing over 40 radio plays for the ABC during the two years I was there, including a play (‘Corruption in the Palace of Justice’, by Italian Ugo Betti) that ran over two hours and was in full stereo. But the important thing in Brisbane was not radio drama: it was the beer, known as 4X, brewed at the Castlemaine and Perkins Brewery.
          I drove into the bottle shop there one Friday afternoon. The bloke on duty looked crestfallen. “No beer, mate,” he said. ‘They’ve had a strike at the brewery. Beer’s off’.
          ‘No beer?’ I cried. ‘Jesus, that’s tough.’
          ‘Sorry, mate. There’s nuthin’ I can do. All out.’
          ‘Ah, bugger it,’ I said, and prepared to drive away.
          ‘Of course I can let you have some of that Southern Beer,’ he called after me. ‘Victoria Bitter, stuff like that. We’ve got plenty of that.’

TriBeCa

I saw a couple of Chinese-Australians (well, that sounds better than calling them Chinese people) driving a modern car called a (Subaru, or Ford, or Chevy, or Dodge, whatever) “TriBeCa” the other day. I wonder if they have any idea of what “TriBeCa” means? It’s a term borrowed from New York real estate speak, meaning “the triangle below Canal Street”. To a New Yorker it’s meaningful, to anyone else less so. To an Australian-born couple or a Chinese-born couple in Sydney, Australia it must be well-nigh incomprehensible. It’s like “Soho”… South of Houston Street, pronounced “Howston street” by the locals. No, “LoCal” doesn’t mean anything, though it may well mean “Lower California” to someone from the west coast. The West Coast of the USA, that is.

Residencies, Grants and Tours

  John Tranter

  Residencies,
  Grants and Tours

 
  JOURNAL

Paragraph One follows: 1:

I enjoyed a good number of Literature Board Grants (each just enough to live on for a year or two, or three) and made some twenty-one visits to New York after 1984, when I was forty-one, some trips paid for with my own money, most paid for by the Literature Board and the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade. Australia under Gough Whitlam’s Labour Government offered solid support for the Arts though the arms-length (arms-length from government, that is) funding by the Literature Board of the Australia Council, and the Conservative (Liberal) side of Government followed suit, though each side was guilty of ‘Stacking the Board’ with their supporters from time to time.

2:

What follows is the text of some dozen or so Reports to the Literature Board, usually written just after a successful year of writing and travelling and sent in to the Board in the hope that such Reports might be of use to writers following in my footsteps. What happened to these Reports? God knows. But I tried.
 

Black Gold, Chapter 24

Chapter 24 — The Hunted
… In which Paul Nouveau clambers onto the buggy, and Julie joins him beside Frank, in order to bring the buggy home. Jimmy Skylark joins them, with an old flintlock revolver. They set off for Junee in the moonlight, but soon young Heeney and another horseman attack them. Paul retrieves his revolver and loads it, as young Heeney attacks Frank. Paul shoots Heeney’s horse, and they escape. In Sydney, Paul sells Verheeren’s stamps for a large sum, most of which he gives to Frank. He thinks of returning to Europe where he belongs. Frank should go back to Wagga, and to Julie, whom he loves.

Paragraph One follows — 1:

But it wasn’t Frank; it was Jimmy. He was wearing a black overcoat a couple of sizes too large for him. ‘The horses are harnessed and the buggy’s ready, Mister Paul,’ he said, rubbing his hands together to warm them. ‘And the Doctor and Mister Russell, they’re waiting for you.’

2:

‘Jimmy!’ Julie said. ‘What on earth are you doing here, at this time of night?’

3:

‘Well, Miss, I felt kind of responsible for Mr Nouveau here being locked up, seeing as how I mentioned about his tracks to the Constable. I felt I should keep an eye on things. And I had a feeling that something odd was going on tonight. I saw Mr Russell and Mr Nouveau wandering along the road in the dark, and later Mr Russell floundering around in the bottom paddock frightening the horses, so I thought I’d better lend a hand.’

4:

They went around to the driveway. The buggy was a roomy covered four-wheeled affair, with a box at the back for luggage. Frank had already loaded his and Paul’s bags in the back, and he was sitting in the seat holding the reins. The sight reminded Paul of the way Frank had brought the coach into town, with the bodies of the bushrangers lashed onto the luggage rack on the top, alongside Mr Finnegan’s body. ‘Climb up,’ Frank said. ‘There’s plenty of room for two.’

5:

Paul shook hands with the Doctor, and kissed Julie. He wanted the thing to be over. ‘Goodbye,’ he said. ‘Adieu.’ He climbed up into the seat next to Frank.

6:

‘I’ll cover your back,’ Jimmy said. ‘I got a bad feeling about this.’ He took a pistol from the pocket of his coat and tucked it into his belt.

7:

‘What have you got there?’ Paul asked.

8:

‘That’s a flintlock pistol my uncle gave me. There’s plenty of bad characters on the roads these days. There’s only one shot in this old thing, so I’d better aim good.’

9:

‘There’s no need for you to come,’ Frank said. ‘There aren’t likely to be any bushrangers on the roads at night. There’s nothing for them to rob.’

10:

‘Well how’s the Doctor going to get the buggy back from Junee? If you’re going to Sydney with Mr Nouveau, someone has to go and fetch it back again, and I’d rather ride there than walk, and sure as damnation that’s what I’m going to have to do.’ He hoisted himself up onto the luggage box at the back of the buggy, behind the canopy.

Coach and pair. From the internet.

11:

‘Perhaps you’d better keep your voices down,’ Bell said. ‘My neighbour’s a nosey old thing.’

112:

Julie went around to Paul’s side of the buggy. He thought she might be going to cling to him, or perhaps start crying. Instead she climbed in beside him. ‘Push over,’ she said. ‘I’ve decided I’m coming for the ride.’

13:

Her father frowned. ‘But Julie —’

14:

‘Don’t worry, father. Jimmy and I will be back by midday.’

15:

Frank laughed. ‘When Julie Bell makes up her mind, that’s it,’ he said. ‘Let’s go.’

16:

The moon showed the road clearly, a pale ribbon winding under the dappled shadow of the trees. The ground was level, and the road good, though bumpy. Once they were clear of the town Frank let the horses go at their own pace, and the buggy moved along at a good clip.

17:

They talked of this and that for a while, in a tense kind of way, then the gloom of the bush took over and they fell silent and watched the inky shadows slide past them.

18:

Something about the atmosphere of the ride reminded Paul of a spring night about ten years before when his family had been staying at the farm at Roche. He and his older brother Frédéric and his mother had been to a neighbouring town to buy a second-hand dray and some seed and fertilizer, and it was dusk by the time they set out to return. The full moon rose yellow in the south-eastern sky and lit up the road and the surrounding farms. His mother had the reins, and for a while they rode in silence. Then something— some memory from her own childhood, perhaps — had provoked her to sing. She had sung an old folk song, and then another. Frédéric was asleep, snoring lightly, but Paul was wide awake, perched on a sack of corn, listening. His mother was a taciturn person — she usually didn’t speak unless it was necessary, and Paul had not heard her sing since he was a little child. Her voice was surprisingly light and youthful. The horse’s hooves clip-clopped, the dray wheels rumbled on the roadway, and among the silence of the moonlit fields and hedgerows his mother’s voice floated on the air.

19:

He used to play red indians with a gang of local children, dodging in and out among those hedgerows and thickets, whooping and waving a home-made bow made from a split hickory branch and a length of green cord.

20:

The bow reminded him of Verheeren. He thought of the old Belgian alone in his lamplit room, muttering to himself, loading his revolver with the one bullet that was all he would need, and snapping the cylinder shut for the last time, the breeze through the open window ruffling the curtain. Then testing the head-hunter’s bow from Borneo, pulling the string tight again and again, surrounded by whispering spirits urging his death. Perhaps he had looked through his stamp collection for the last time, perhaps he had read through one or two of his wife’s letters. Then he had fixed the bow on its nail…

21:

The moon had been obscured for a while behind a drift of high cloud; now the cloud shifted slowly, and the moon came out in all its brilliance. The shadow of the buggy ran beside them, jerking and flickering on the dry grassy ground beside the track. And what of Heeney, the brother of the bushranger Paul had killed? He was Paul’s age, and Paul’s type — an angry young man from a country town. Walking home from the magic show, Paul had felt his presence slipping from shadow to shadow under the trees. It was almost as though Paul had imagined him into existence, and bestowed on him his own qualities of anger and despair. And then the stealthy attack with the knife, while the town had been sleeping.

222:

His reverie was broken by the sound of hooves behind them. Jimmy called from the back of the buggy: ‘Someone comin’ up on us, Mister Frank. There’s two of ’em.’

23:

Frank whipped the horses. They lunged forward and the buggy was suddenly moving at what seemed like twice the speed.

24:

Paul twisted in his seat and looked behind. The buggy lurched to the side, and he grabbed the upright that supported the canvas cover. Two figures on horseback were racing under the shadows of the trees, and gaining on them. They were only twenty yards behind, and coming up fast. One of them stood up in the saddle and yelled out hoarsely: ‘Is that the murdering Frenchman? Your time has come, you bastard!’

25:

‘What in God’s name is happening?’ Frank said.

Bushranger: could stand in for young Heeney. From the internet.

26:

‘It is Shawn Heeney,’ Paul said. ‘This is the brother of the bushranger I killed. He has been following me. Now that he has found us out in the bush, alone, he is making his move. Damn it! God Damn it! Why did I not see this coming?’

27:

Julie grabbed Frank’s arm. ‘Faster, Frank. We don’t have any guns. We’ll have to outrun them.’

28:

‘There’s no way we can outrun two men on horseback,’ Frank said. ‘The horses are doing their best, but they’re pulling four people and a buggy.’

29:

‘My pistol is in my bag,’ Paul said. ‘I am so stupid! Why did I not carry the thing?’ He called out: ‘Jimmy! Pass my bag, quickly!’

30:

‘They’re gaining,’ Jimmy called. ‘They’re armed. One has a rifle. Look out!’

31:

Two shots rang out close together. One plucked a ragged hole in the canvas top, bounced off the metal frame and made a sad shrieking noise in the night air. The other must have struck Jimmy; he grunted and cried out: ‘I’m hit. The bastard got me.’ He fired his flintlock: there was a bang, a flash and a cloud of blue smoke.

332:

‘I got one,’ he cried. ‘I got one of the mongrels!’

33:

One of the horsemen fell heavily to the ground, tumbled and slid, and lay there like a sack of wheat; the other wheeled back to investigate. They had a few minutes’ grace.

34:

‘Jimmy! My bag! Pass the bag.’

35:

‘I can’t, Mr Nouveau. It’s all I can do to hang on. They got me in the guts.’

36:

‘I can’t slow down,’ Frank said. ‘We have to get clear while we can.’

37:

They had made good time across the level ground, but now the track was beginning to rise as it climbed a long hill, and the buggy slowed. Paul worked his way around the side. ‘Hang on, Jimmy,’ he called, but when he got around to the back Jimmy was nowhere to be seen. ‘Jimmy has gone,’ he called. He wedged himself against the back of the canopy and took his revolver from the bag. He had cleaned and emptied the gun when he packed it away, and now his fingers scrabbled desperately in the bottom of the bag for the box of cartridges. He endured a moment’s sick horror when he couldn’t find it — perhaps he’d left it on the top of the dresser in his room, and now the gun was empty! But no — there it was.

38:

Frank’s voice called out: ‘Have you got your gun?’

39:

‘Yes, it is here. I have to load the damn thing. Keep going, as fast as you can.’

40:

He spilled a handful of bright copper cartridges onto his lap. He had to hold the loading gate open against its spring with his thumb, and push the cartridges into the cylinder one by one. The first one jammed, and he cursed, in French. He tried to pull it out, but it was stuck, and his fingers slipped on the metal. He tried again, and it came loose.

41:

‘Someone’s coming,’ Julie called. Paul looked up — there was a horseman not a dozen yards behind, aiming a rifle.

442:

‘Die, you murdering bastards!’ he yelled. ‘You killed my brother. Now you have killed my sister! You bastards! Now you’re going to die!’

43:

Paul pushed at the cartridge, and it finally went into the cylinder. He grabbed another one, and pushed that in.

44:

There was a shot, and a bullet smacked into a piece of wood near his leg — splinters flew into the air. The outlaw was close now, a dozen yards away, close enough for Paul to hear the rifle click on the next cartridge. It had jammed.

45:

‘God damn it!’ The horseman spurred his mount to overtake.

46:

Paul had three bullets in the revolver; that would do. He snapped the loading gate shut and swung himself around and into the front seat beside Julie. ‘His rifle has jammed,’ he said. ‘I hope to God he does not have another gun.’

47:

The buggy was jolting on the rough track, and the outlaw’s horse was pulling level with it, on Frank’s side. Paul could see his face now, close by the side of the buggy, jerking with the movement of his mount. His blond hair was flying in the wind. Julie was in the middle, between Paul and the outlaw, and Paul was afraid to shoot. ‘The name’s Heeney,’ the outlaw called out. He leaned forward and spat in Frank’s face. ‘I want you to know, before you die. You killed my brother and now that black bastard’s shot my sister. You’re all going to die.’

48:

‘Go fuck yourself!’ Frank called out, and Heeney swung his rifle like a club. There was a smacking sound and Frank fell back, blood spurting from his face, and Julie grabbed the reins.

49:

Heeney flung his useless rifle away, and brandished a long-bladed knife. ‘The black man’s dead,’ he screamed. ‘He was moving, so I cut his throat to make sure. See?’ He held up the knife — the blade was stained with blood. ‘You’re next, I’ll slit your throats from ear to ear, you mongrel foreign bastards!’ He laughed, and reached out to grab the side of the buggy. Paul stood up in his seat and aimed his revolver. He could feel rage and nausea coiling in his stomach. Julie was screaming again, or was that a hallucination, a memory from the coach holdup? His finger tightened on the trigger, and he saw the outlaw’s pupils huge and black in the moonlight, tears streaming down his face, spittle running from his lips, his eyes glittering like a madman’s. The buggy was rocking, and Paul grasped the hood with his left hand to steady himself.

50:

‘Quickly!’ Julie called. ‘For Christ’s sake, do something! Quickly!’

51:

Everything slowed down, just as it had before. He was trying to run through his dream and his legs were moving more and more slowly, but that seemed right, somehow. The outlaw looked across at him — there was something cunning in his grimace, a kind of connivance, as though he and Paul were actors in a play, and they had arranged this scene full of struggle and horror to trick the audience. But who was watching? Only God. In the silence of the bush, there was no one else.

552:

Silence, that was it. The silence that drifted and flickered under the trees. Heeney was scrabbling for a foothold on the side of the buggy. His horse was drenched with sweat, its head seemed huge, and as it slowly tossed its head back and forth its mane waved in the wind and spume flew from its mouth. Paul tilted the revolver to aim at the horse’s head, and squeezed his finger on the trigger. The blast of sound, the flash, the brief burst of stinking smoke snatched away by the wind, the scream from the outlaw as he and his dead horse plunged head-first down and onto the dirt under the wheels of the buggy, the snap of broken limbs, and then the wind in his face. It was over.

53:

They reached Junee at dawn. They took Frank to the local doctor to get the cut on his forehead bandaged, then they went to the coach station and booked two seats on the mail coach to Yass. Julie kissed them both goodbye. ‘I want to see you both back here in a week,’ she called as she wheeled the buggy and pair out onto the main street.

54:

Paul walked the streets of Sydney looking for a stamp dealer. There was supposed to be one in George Street down near the Quay, but Paul couldn’t find him. It was one of those days when everyone in the street looked ugly or misshapen — everywhere he looked he saw a squint, a limp, a complexion the colour of stale dough, a wen. It must be his mood, darkened by the thought of Europe rising over the horizon, black and ancient and threatening, his mood colouring everything he saw with his own spleen.

55:

And there was the stamp dealer’s place, right in front of him. He went in, and as the door opened it tinkled against a little bell. Solomon, Paul thought. He had a little bell just like that, with the same musical note.

56:

Paul left the stamp-dealer’s shop with a thick parcel in his pocket. He found a stationer’s nearby, and bought three sturdy parchment envelopes of the sort used for wills and legal documents, and wandered down through the crowded, narrow streets looking for the Botanical Gardens. His head ached, and he suddenly wanted to be back in Wagga Wagga, with its clear skies and the scent of eucalyptus in the air.

57:

The terrible massed particularities of the human tribe struck him — its seething restlessness, the uncountable millions of actions, getting to office or factory one way or another, eating millions of different meals each day, scraping and cleaning a hundred million dirty plates each week, winding a million different pocket-watches and mantel clocks and pendulum clocks, each fractionally incorrect — it all seemed to him dizzyingly insane, a kind of collective mechanical madness.

Early Sydney. From the internet.

58:

What had he hoped for? To find, here at the southern end of the planet, under the large empty skies with their peculiar constellations, a civilisation that was fresh, new and simple. The continent was virtually unspoiled — no warring nations had scarred it, no great cities had defiled it with mountains of rubbish and pits of excreta.

59:

Yet Sydney Town was a busy port town just like any of a dozen in England, its streets a clashing cacophony of animals, carts and shouting people. There was crime and poverty in the air, and drunkenness and despair in the back alleys. Here he was, his fine new jacket coated with dust, his boots splattered with horse shit, and his head ringing with a headache that came from too much glare and noise.

60:

In the gardens he found the spot where he had rested two weeks before and sat down under the shade of a gum tree. He looked around carefully. It was late afternoon, and the gardens were almost empty.

61:

When he was sure he was unobserved he opened the packet and took out a thick bundle of notes. He counted it over twice, divided it into three smaller bundles, and folded them each into a separate envelope. He stuffed these into the inside pockets of his jacket.

662:

In his shirt pocket he found a small folded card. He opened it absent-mindedly. It was the double silhouette of Julie and her mother. He stared at it for several minutes, then carefully put it away.

63:

A cold breeze blew off the waters of the Harbour. Among the throng of ships and steam ferries at the Quay he could make out the Trade Winds at anchor. A streamer of black smoke was drifting from the funnel.

Shipping, Sydney. From the internet.

64:

He walked to the hotel where he had left Frank, and bought a beer at the bar. He finished it in one long draught, bought another, and made his way through the crowd to the back room. He found Frank reading a newspaper at a corner table, frowning and squinting in the dim light. The wound on his forehead was still bandaged, and a stain of blood had begun to seep through the cloth. It gave him a desperate air. Paul sat down beside him with a grunt.

65:

‘Well, Paul, did you sell the stamps?’

66:

‘He was so suspicious of me,’ Paul said. ‘Where did I get them? How long had I been collecting stamps, and so on. I told him for ten years I had been collecting stamps, since I was a child, that I had brought them with me from France, and now I needed money to marry a girl so we could go prospecting for gold.’ Paul laughed. ‘He seemed to understand that, so it seems. But he was right to be careful. They were worth a lot. So the widow Veuve Verheeren misses out on her insurance money, and now she misses out on the stamps, too. Good, good.’ He leaned forward and put his arm around Frank’s shoulder. ‘Well, Frank, do you not wish to know how much price I obtained for them?’

67:

‘Oh, I’m sure you got a good price. You had a firm look in your eye when you set out today.’

68:

‘But do you not wish to know how much money?’

69:

‘It’s not my business, Paul.’ He took a sip from his glass of rum.

70:

Paul didn’t seem to hear him. He spoke quietly. ‘Fourteen hundred pounds.’

71:

Frank’s eyes widened. He went to speak, then hesitated. He shrugged his shoulders. ‘Jesus Christ. You’re a lucky guy. That’s a lot of money. Several years of wages. Jesus!’

772:

Paul sat back and sipped at his beer. It was cold, and fresh, and delicious. ‘Poor Veuve Verheeren,’ he said in a sarcastic voice. ‘Oh well, I am certain that she owns some stamps of her own, tucked away in Antwerp. And if she ever needs money, why, she can always reclaim the brothels of her husband in Batavia. Perhaps she could marry the Police Inspector there, and they should live happily ever after.’

73:

‘You’re a cynical bastard, Paul.’

74:

Paul laughed. ‘No, I am a sentimental fool!’ he said. ‘Did you not know that?’

75:

‘No, I didn’t know that.’

76:

Paul looked at him closely. ‘There is some wrong thing, Frank. What is it?’

77:

‘Wrong? No. Well, I’ve been sitting here thinking.’ He looked around the bar. ‘The first time I saw this place, a year and a half ago, I was a lost soul. Fresh off a ship, no plans. And now, the funny thing is, I feel exactly the same. Back to where I started from.’

78:

Paul frowned. ‘But you have friends here now,’ he said. ‘More than friends, I think. And a position at the newspaper, the Wagga Wagga Advertiser. You are a man — what do they say? — you are now a man of substance.’

79:

Frank’s mouth turned down. ‘Oh, well, water under the bridge. I think I’d better be on the move again. They want me home in Boston, I guess, but do you know what? Fuck Boston. I think I’ll try Africa. They say there’s gold there.’

80:

Paul stared at him. ‘How long have you been drinking that rum? Are you drunk? What about your job at the newspaper? I thought you liked that kind of thing, the bourgeois life.’

81:

‘Well, maybe I’ve had enough of that stuff.’

882:

‘And what about Julie?’

83:

Frank looked down at his drink. ‘Cut it out, Paul. You know it’s you that Julie’s thinking of. You’re the man with the gun, the dashing hero. Julie and I, we were just friends, and Julie has plenty of friends in the town. That means nothing to her, nor to me. No, you go back to Wagga with your saddlebags stuffed with money. You’ll impress the hell out of her. All of them. Their eyes will pop out.’ He drank.

84:

Paul took a quiet pull at his beer, and smiled to himself. ‘I thought you were the steady type,’ he said, licking the froth from his lips. ‘And now you remind me of a crazy Frenchman, always running away from home.’ He laughed, then he patted his coat. ‘Here,’ he said. He drew two envelopes from his jacket and slipped them under Frank’s newspaper. ‘Take these, and look after them. Five hundred for you, and five hundred for Julie.’

85:

‘Is this some kind of joke? I can’t do that. I cannot take it. I am not going back there.’ He pushed the envelopes back across the table angrily.

86:

‘Yes you can, damn it.’ He put his hand on Frank’s arm. ‘I talked to Johanssen, I have a job on the Trade Winds, I sail in the morning. And as for Julie, you would have to be stupid not to see how she feels about you.’ He gave a sad laugh. ‘She is like my mother,’ he said. ‘She is too smart for me. She can see through me, like a sheet of glass in a shop window. To her, I am a child with a nasty temper. I might not know much, I think, but I know that much.’ Paul pushed the envelopes back under the paper. ‘Keep them out of sight. And do not let any bushrangers get at them. Perhaps I should give you my English pistol, so you can protect yourself. I shall not need it any more, I hope.’

87:

Frank frowned. ‘But why aren’t you going back to Wagga?’

88:

‘I think I should suffocate in Wagga. And it is you she shall want to see, in the end, this is obvious. Can you not see the logic in it?’

89:

‘Logic? What are you talking about?’

90:

‘She shall be a great help to you, when you finally go back to Boston and take up your career in publishing where your father left off. Do you not think that?’

91:

Frank stared at Paul for a moment. ‘How did you know I was thinking of doing that? Have you been reading my mind?’

992:

‘I have psychic “powers”. I have been drinking the Magnetical Water.’ Paul laughed. ‘I am not really human, did you not know that? No, I am from beyond the grave, I think.’ He regarded Frank for a while with a strangely intense stare, until Frank grew embarrassed. ‘I have to go home to Europe, Frank. This time — thanks to the dead Belgian pig — I will have the comfort of passenger class, instead of scrubbing the deck and shovelling shit for my passage. Also, there are too many policemen in Australia for my taste.’ He finished his beer, and looked around the bar. A man was sleeping behind the door — Paul could see his feet sticking out. Perhaps that was a custom in Australia.

93:

He looked at Frank: dependable Frank. ‘I shall visit you in Boston one day,’ he said. ‘You shall have half a dozen children, in no time. In winter they shall make a snowman in the yard, and run around, yelling and throwing snowballs at each other… ’ He looked away, and took a deep breath. ‘No, I think old Baudelaire was right, in the end. The knowledge you get from travelling can be like bitter medicine, to make you sick in your stomach. Java was a disaster. Sometimes I find it difficult to believe, no, I cannot believe how stupid I am.’ He looked around the bar as though searching for something, but whatever he was looking for was not to be found. His nerves were jangling, and he felt as though he had not slept for a week. ‘I have to let go at last,’ he said to himself, and punched a fist into his hand.

94:

‘What’s waiting for you, back in Europe?’

95:

‘Not fame and glory, for sure. An obscure fate in a provincial town.’ He shook his head. ‘You have not been to France, is that what you said when I met you in Goulburn?’

96:

‘That’s right,’ Frank said. ‘Never been there.’

97:

‘It will be winter when I get back. The ponds, they will be covered with a layer of black ice. You cannot see the sky — there is a kind of low, cold mist in the air, damp and full of ice crystals. It presses down on you. You come in from the yard and open the back door — it makes a creaking noise, no one has ever fixed the hinge. In the kitchen, the fire shall be glowing in the grate. A chipped blue jug of coffee shall be sitting on the stove. My old mother, dozing in her chair. My sister Isabelle, studying like a good girl, murmuring the names of the South American rivers over and over.’ He sniffed, and wiped his sleeve against his cheek. He noticed his hands were trembling slightly. ‘And my stupid brother drunk in a corner, snoring, wasting his life, as usual. Everything changing a little, yet everything the same, as it has been for centuries.’

98:

They were silent for a while. Around them, the bar echoed with the shouts of the crowd. A man was playing a fiddle, and a quartet of sailors were singing, badly out of tune. The air was full of smoke and noise. Paul seemed to be in a trance, staring sightlessly ahead.

99:

Finally he shook himself, and spoke. ‘I know! We shall have a grand dinner. Let us find the best hotel in Sydney, and order a dozen kangaroo steaks, and a case of the best Australian champagne!’

100:

‘I think the money’s gone to your head, Paul.’

101:

‘We have to celebrate the future,’ Paul said. ‘Your future with the headstrong Julie, and — God help me — the future, horrible or beautiful, or maybe nothing at all, whatever descends on me from the heavens, that is waiting for me!’
 
[»»] Back to the Contents page.

Black Gold, Chapter 23

Chapter 23 — A Mystery Solved
… In which Frank helps Paul Nouveau escape from Gaol in Wagga, and they make their way back to Doctor Bell’s house. Doctor Bell muses on Paul’s problem, and discovers the duplicitous solution to Verheeren’s odd death — Paul is in the clear. Paul decides to return to Europe. Frank agrees to go to Sydney with Paul, and goes off the fetch the horses. Paul and Julie talk in the garden, and a lot is revealed. Frank returns.

Paragraph One follows — 1:

Paul was woken by the faint jingle of a bunch of keys. He was in a cell, swimming up out of sleep into a room filled with darkness. But where — Java? No; it was too cold for that. Perhaps he’d been a prisoner for years. Someone nearby was snoring unevenly. Then he heard the keys again, and a faint scraping noise. He was still only half awake, drifting on the edge of nightmare, and the idea stole into his mind that his gaolers were coming to kill him in his sleep. His blood ran cold and he tried to call out, but he seemed unable to make a sound. Then he heard a whisper: ‘Paul? Paul, are you there?’

2:

He fumbled for the English words. ‘Who is it? What do you want?’

3:

‘It’s Frank.’ Paul was awake now, and it all came back. He was in gaol in Wagga, held on suspicion of murder. ‘Careful,’ Frank whispered, closer this time. ‘I couldn’t risk using a lamp.’

4:

‘Where are you?’

5:

There was a dim glow of moonlight in the air, but not enough to see clearly. A shape moved near the door; Paul felt his way towards it. He reached out and touched an arm, then Frank’s hand, and grabbed it. ‘I thought you had abandoned me,’ he whispered. ‘How did you get the cell door open? What about Sloesser?’

6:

‘He’s in his bed, fast asleep. I’ll explain once we get out of here. Take your shoes off. I don’t want to wake Barnaby here.’

7:

‘Nothing would wake him, I think.’ Paul took off his boots.

8:

‘Through here,’ whispered Frank, and they felt their way along a corridor and into the office at the side of the building. The moonlight shining in through the window spilt in ghostly lakes on the polished floor. A clock ticked slowly in a corner. Paul recognised the sound: this was the first room he had entered in Wagga, the room in the Police Station where he had described the attack by bushrangers and signed the deposition, where Sloesser had reluctantly handed him his revolver in a parcel of brown paper tied with pink tape.

9:

Frank put the keys down gently on the desk. ‘I’ll leave these here,’ he said, ‘where Sloesser will find them in the morning. Now, follow me.’

10:

They padded through another corridor and down a side passage. An open door showed an expanse of cold moonlit lawn. ‘We’re clear, pal,’ Frank said. ‘There’s no one about.’ They sat on the step and put their boots on, then they walked quickly across the damp grass and under the gloom of the trees that shaded the footpath.

11:

‘I hate sneaking around in the dark like that,’ Frank admitted. ‘I don’t have the nerve to enjoy it. How are you? Are you okay, pal?’

12:

‘Yes, I am okay. It feels good to be in the open.’ There was a faint scent of eucalyptus in the air. Paul breathed in gratefully, and looked around: the town was fast asleep. ‘And the moon is out; wonderful.’ He felt a different person from the one who’d listened to Barnaby’s stories: his few hours of sleep had somehow changed the makeup of his mind. The open air exhilarated him, but he felt that his mood was unstable, and could change at any moment. He put his hand on Frank’s shoulder. ‘My thanks go to you, for hauling me out of there, Frank. That was risky. If Sloesser saw you, I think you would end up behind the bars too. Or he might have shot at you.’

13:

‘Don’t thank me; Julie asked me to get you out. And as for Sloesser, he’s not going to be doing anything tonight except sleeping very soundly.’ Frank gave a short laugh. ‘Doctor Bell invited him over for a game of cards after dinner this evening, and a drink or two. Or three or four, as it turned out. The Constable felt he’d been through a lot today, and deserved a drink. The Doctor slipped him a concoction of his, some kind of drug to ensure a sound night’s rest. I walked him home and made sure he went to bed, and borrowed his keys.’

14:

They walked on in silence for a while. ‘You do not mind the police, do you?’ Paul asked.

15:

‘Why, no,’ Frank replied. ‘They’re very handy when you need them, especially in a place like this. Why, do they have some problem with the police in Europe? I believe they’ve done some good in London.’

16:

‘Done some good? My, you are an optimistic fellow, are you not? To listen to you, the police are some kind of charity organisation, a brotherhood of good Samaritans.’

17:

‘Take it easy. Do I have to remind you that I just got you out of gaol?’

French police. From the internet.

18:

‘I have seen how they work, the police, and I cannot tell you how much I hate them. It is good to have nothing to do with them, to stay out of their grasp. They pretend to be protecting lives, and helping poor old ladies, but all the time they are acting as political spies, serving the state and the magistrates, conniving with the rich burghers and brothel-keepers and landowners, helping to prop up the vast bureaucracy of privilege and power. In the end, they are just an extension of the political prison.’

19:

Frank took a moment to answer. ‘Well, I don’t know about that,’ he said carefully. ‘I guess we have different needs back home. We think of the law as being there to protect a man’s liberty. That’s the way we look at it, anyhow.’ Paul didn’t answer, and Frank added: ‘I guess things are different in Europe. Maybe that’s why so many people want to emigrate to America. As for New South Wales, I really don’t know. Up until the gold rush in the fifties, most of the people who came out here didn’t exactly want to emigrate; they came in chains, and they had no choice. The convicts were mainly Irish, transported for stealing a crust of bread to feed themselves; and most of the police were English. Least that’s what people say. That’s a quarrel I don’t want to buy into.’

20:

Paul didn’t reply; he was lost in his own thoughts. Suddenly he said: ‘The envelopes. What happened about that? Did Stern realise what they were worth?’

21:

‘No, they’re safe back at the house. I haven’t told anyone about the stamps yet. I, ah… I was going to say something to Doctor Bell. Do you think I should?’

22:

‘No, Frank, no. Let us keep it to ourselves for a while, as a kind of secret.’ Frank reminded him of an earnest recruit, keen to do the right thing. You had to work your way around such people; they swallowed whatever people told them, and they seemed to look at the world through a haze of goodwill. ‘I need to work out what I should do,’ he said. ‘This colony is not so pleasant as I thought. I could end up hanging by the neck, and all over a misunderstanding.’

23:

‘You’re not wrong,’ Frank said. ‘If they don’t find who did it, it will look bad for you.’

24:

‘It was Heeney, the younger brother. I know it was. He could be a hundred miles away by now. Then again, he might have doubled back to have another try at murdering me. The police here are stupid, fumbling around looking for horse thieves; they would never find him. And then if they discover who I am, that I deserted from the Dutch Army, then everything will be worse. I feel there are tentacles reaching out for me, from both sides of the law.’

25:

Their footsteps crunched on the gravel. Somewhere far off a night bird made a long, mournful cry. ‘It’s the bunyip,’ Paul said, and they laughed. In the silence that followed the sound, Paul thought he could hear, almost below the threshold of hearing, a distant drone, the humming sound he’d heard when he was rowing on the river with Julie. It seemed to exist underneath or behind the silence of the bush, and it wavered, rising slightly and falling again, like the distant lowing of a bullock in pain, though it continued for several minutes without a break, almost too faint to hear. He said nothing to Frank, and they walked on under the thick shade of the trees, past the sleeping houses.

26:

‘Well, Paul,’ Doctor Bell said, ‘Ah — we’re all criminals now. I’ve drugged and incapacitated a member of the police force, and — ah — Frank has aided and abetted a prisoner to escape from lawful custody.’

27:

‘Not so lawful,’ Paul said. ‘That bastard had no right to lock me up.’

28:

‘Well, you’re not locked up any more. In any case, I think I’m  — ah — justified in prescribing another medicinal brandy.’ Bell was hungover and his hands shook slightly. ‘Julie, will you join us?’

29:

‘Thank you, father. Here, I’ll pour.’

30:

‘Make it a big one,’ Frank said.

31:

‘I spent an hour patching up Ben Pollock earlier this evening,’ Bell added, ‘the lad who got knocked on the head by those horse thieves. I think he’ll be all right now. So I’ve done my good deed for the day, and I feel I’m not entirely a reprobate. Ah — as Barnaby might say: laying up treasures in heaven. St Matthew, Chapter six.’

32:

Paul laughed. ‘Do you have a Shakespeare quote? Barnaby prefers the poets. What did you do to Sloesser?’

33:

‘Oh, a brandy, and — ah — a little sleeping draught. To sleep: perchance to dream. Chloral hydrate.’

34:

Paul gave a start: that was what he’d given the Dutch lieutenant in the bar in Sydney, so he could rob him. For a moment he had the strange idea that his crime had followed him like a restless spirit, and would not leave him alone until he made up for it by some act of confession or penance. But no, it was stupid to think like that. He was over-tired.

35:

‘Oh, chloral’s harmless enough,’ said Bell, who had noticed his unease. ‘It — ah — it mixes well with alcohol, though you have to be careful with the dose. I’ve prescribed it for old folks who get night terrors and imagine robbers are lurking in the woodshed. They — ah — they seem to take it all right, so I thought old Sloesser could handle it. Besides, he’s distraught with overwork, and he needs a good night’s sleep. I was doing him a kindness, you might say.’

36:

‘Sloesser owes you, anyway,’ Frank put in. ‘Didn’t you say you’d once cured him of a vampire’s bite?’

37:

Bell laughed. ‘Oh, that was nothing.’

Australian flying fox. From the internet.

38:

‘Father’s reluctant to tell,’ Julie put in. ‘But I’m not a doctor, and I can tell you. Mr Sloesser came in one evening a couple of years ago in a terrible state — shaking, as white as a sheet, spittle drooling from his lips. I was in the surgery. “What the devil’s the matter with you?” my father asked. “I’ve been bitten by a bloody great bat,” he said, “one of them South American vampire bats. I think I’ve got Rabies, and I fear I’m going to die. It’s worse than Lockjaw, isn’t it?” Well, it turned out he’d gone to sleep in a hammock on the back veranda of the police station — half drunk, I’d say — and there’d been a flying fox asleep in the hammock, under a blanket.’

39:

‘You cannot tell me that you have foxes in this country which fly,’ Paul said.

40:

‘No,’ said Bell. ‘It’s — it’s just the name we give to the giant fruit bat. It has reddish fur, and it — ah — it looks like a small fox — with wings, of course. Yes. They flap about in flocks of a hundred or so in late summer, late summer when the fruit are ripe.’

41:

Julie was impatient to continue. ‘Well, in his slumbers,’ she said, ‘Sloesser rolled over onto the bat and half-crushed the poor animal — it was a pet, apparently, belonged to a neighbour — and the creature attacked him in self-defence. When he awoke and found it attached to his stomach biting for all it was worth he had some kind of a seizure, and the neighbour found him shrieking and rolling about on the lawn with foam coming out of his mouth.’

42:

‘Was it rabies?’

43:

‘No, no,’ said Bell. ‘There’s no rabies in this colony. If it had been rabies, he’d be a dead man. Fruit bats — ah — they don’t hurt you. It was nothing, it was all in his mind. I put some antiseptic on the wound, gave him a stiff drink, and sent him home.’

44:

They all laughed, and Bell refilled their glasses. Paul felt light-headed and cheerful, though he knew the feeling wouldn’t last. It was well after midnight. In a few hours the citizens of Wagga would be going about their business in the broad light of day, and the cell would be found empty.

45:

Bell steered the conversation away from these anxieties. ‘While you two were out enjoying your criminal scrapes and adventures, Julie has been improving her mind.’

46:

‘Oh?’ inquired Paul. ‘And how does a lady do that in Wagga?’ He had avoided looking at her directly until now. ‘Is this the literary evening you mentioned?’

47:

‘Yes,’ she said. ‘The recital at the Mechanics’ Institute, full of good literary intentions. Sir Walter Scott, Tennyson, and a tale by Dickens to keep the ordinary reader happy.’

48:

Her father interrupted: ‘And Edgar Allan Poe, didn’t you say?’

49:

‘Yes, that was very popular with the ladies.’

50:

‘Did they read — ah — read his poem “The Raven”?’

51:

‘Of course, father. They always do.’

52:

Bell’s eyes sparkled. He straightened his back and recited, in a rich and melodramatic manner:

53:

‘Once upon a midnight dreary,
While I pondered, weak and weary,
Over many a quaint and curious
Volume of forgotten lore… ’

54:

Frank and Julie laughed. ‘You should go on the stage, father.’

55:

‘Hmmm,’ said Paul, who was less impressed. ‘It seems to be about somebody, I canot think of whom. It’s not a portrait of you at your alchemical researches, is it, Doctor Bell?’

56:

Bell gave a faint smile. ‘Well, ah, “weak and weary” is not far wrong.’

57:

‘I know that poem, it’s ludicrous,’ Paul said. ‘To me it is like an old Gothic ruin, covered with gargoyles, and painted purple. Trochaic tetrameter, a stumbling measure. And it goes on forever, like a steam train.’

58:

‘Oh, Paul,’ said Julie. ‘You’re bamboozling us with technicalities. People enjoy hearing it go on like a steam train; that’s part of the fun!’

French poet Charles Baudelaire. Photo by Nadar. From the internet.

59:

‘Baudelaire did translate Poe into French,’ Bell said quietly.

60:

‘Oh, that is true,’ Paul admitted irritably. ‘I cannot imagine why he did this thing.’

61:

Frank slapped him on the shoulder. ‘Come now, Paul, it’s a marvellous poem. The French aren’t the only people with a poetic soul. And if a great writer like Baudelaire thought enough of it to translate it, there must be something in it that his soul could answer to.’

62:

Paul had an obstinate look on his face — like a stubborn schoolboy, Julie thought. ‘Maybe in French it loses something in the translation,’ she offered, by way of a concession.

63:

‘As a friend of mine once said, it loses something in the original,’ said Paul. They all laughed at this. Paul was pleased at the success of his joke. ‘But alas,’ he said, ‘let us not argue about poetry.’

64:

‘I think we get more out of amateur theatricals like that,’ Julie said, ‘than the people of Sydney do out of their grand shows. It’s like a reward for living out here in the bush. Remember the magic show, father?’

65:

Bell put his hand on her arm. ‘Full of tricks. Ah — what was her name? “Miss Estella, the Magicienne,” as she calls herself, with a so-called “Professor Hennecki”. And who was that fellow on the piano?’

66:

‘That was our own Professor Goulstone on the piano, father. You remember I had lessons from him, a few years ago.’

67:

Bell chuckled. ‘Mirrors, mirrors and magic tricks,’ he said. ‘Marvellous. Ah — Wagga gets quite lively — ah — during Show Week.’

Smoke and mirrors. From the internet.

68:

There was a pause in the conversation; it lasted a fraction too long. Julie shivered. ‘Oh, she said, ‘someone just walked over my grave.’ Paul gave her a puzzled look. ‘It’s just a saying,’ she said, but her eyes were troubled. The silence settled on the room again.

69:

Paul turned to the doctor. ‘Frank said you talked to the Constable on my behalf today, Doctor Bell. It was good of you. You hardly know me.’

70:

‘Oh, that’s all right.’ Bell looked into his glass, and swirled the liquid around. ‘I — ah — I’m afraid I didn’t do much good, though.’

71:

‘And then, to risk what you have done tonight —’

72:

‘My boy, we know you had nothing to do with the Dutchman’s murder,’ Bell said. ‘It’s — ah — it is just a mess of coincidence and confusion. And Stern, I’m sorry to say, is taking advantage of it to persecute you. It doesn’t seem right to stand by and let that happen.’ Julie looked down at her hands. They were twisting together in her lap, and she stilled them with an effort.

73:

‘Sloesser didn’t hit you, did he?’ Bell asked.

74:

‘No,’ Paul said. ‘Though he would enjoy doing it, I am certain. Why do you ask?’

75:

Bell peered at him over the top of his spectacles. ‘You — you have a fresh cut on your arm. Was that there yesterday?’

76:

Paul touched the scar and frowned. It was still tender. ‘Oh, that.’

77:

‘Would you like me to put something on it?’

78:

‘No, it’s nothing. I banged my arm on a nail sticking out from the bottom of the window, in Verheeren’s room. Julie will tell you, she was with me. The stupid old fool.’

79:

Bell blinked and tilted his head to one side. For a brief moment he reminded Paul of the galah in the pawnshop. ‘Now why would he drive a nail into the bottom of a window? Ah — to keep it slightly open? But it’s barely spring, it’s still cold at night. And there are much simpler ways of keeping a window open.’

80:

‘You’re right,’ Julie said. ‘I noticed he’d had a fire going. It seemed sad and rather strange to me that the fire should keep burning through the night, when the man who had lit the fire was long dead, and growing cold.’

81:

Bell stroked the stubble on his chin, and murmured to himself: ‘Mirrors and magic tricks… I wonder if he was insured.’

82:

‘Why, yes, he was,’ Julie said. ‘Miss Mackenzie mentioned it yesterday. Didn’t she, Paul? His wife — his widow, I mean, in Antwerp, she’ll get some money, from Lloyd’s of London.’

83:

Paul watched Bell closely. ‘But why are you interested in that?’ he asked. ‘You are following something, no? Like one of Barnaby’s dogs on the scent of a rat.’

Bows. From the internet.

84:

Bell stretched back in his chair and closed his eyes. ‘You see all sorts of things, as a doctor — ah — all sorts of things. There was a bank manager once, in Goulburn, he’d been embezzling money for years, and he knew they were about to catch up with him. He killed himself by falling on a kitchen knife, but he tried to make it look like an accident. Because of the insurance, among other considerations. Once you added up the circumstances — ah — it was obvious what he’d done.’

85:

Frank shuddered. ‘My God, that’s awful!’ he said.

86:

Bell hardly heard him. ‘But with Verheeren,’ he said, ‘there was no weapon. After I’d finished with the body I went over to the boarding house to take a look; you can’t trust Sloesser to notice things. Ah — no pistol, no little Deringer concealed behind a curtain, nothing. There were the bow and the arrows, of course, but they were never used —’ He stopped short, and sat bolt upright. ‘Of course!’

87:

‘Of course what, father?’ Julie asked.

88:

‘Ah, now that’s what I call clever!’ Bell said.

89:

‘Clever? What do you mean?’ Frank asked.

90:

‘Remember?’ Bell grabbed Julie’s arm. ‘Julie, you said you saw him in the music shop the other day, buying — what was it?’

91:

‘He said he wanted a string for a double bass. That’s what he asked for. “It must be the strongest sheepsgut,” he said. “Not to break!” I hadn’t ever thought of him as the sort of person who might be interested in music. It seemed out of character.’

92:

Bell leaned back and stroked his chin. ‘He must have needed to repair the bow. Why, it’s — ah — it is almost a work of art,’ he said, ‘the way it fits together. Yes, the window.’ He had a pleased smile on his face.

93:

‘The window?’ Paul asked. ‘The window where the killer escaped? What, did he swing out the window on the piece of sheepsgut, like Consul the chimpanzee?’ He laughed, and touched the cut on his arm. ‘I hope he didn’t hurt his arm.’

94:

‘He didn’t hurt his arm,’ Bell said. ‘You see — ah — no one climbed out the window. There was no murderer. Well, there was a killer, but not quite a murderer, perhaps. His name was Verheeren!’

95:

‘The Dutchman?’ Frank asked. ‘He killed himself? But how? And why would he want to do a thing like that?’ They were all staring at Bell.

96:

‘The insurance policy helps to explain it. There was something wrong with Verheeren. He — ah — he drank a lot, he took opium. He was melancholy. He seemed afraid and suspicious, always seeing implications in the most harmless things. He tried to tell me that an article in the paper, about some embezzler in Germany, was secretly about him. He — ah — he could read between the lines, he said. He threatened Luther Quoign over it. His mind was quite unbalanced. Perhaps some business ventures of his had failed, I don’t know.’

97:

‘That’s what happened, all right,’ Paul said. ‘He had a business in Java — an unpleasant business — and he got into trouble with the police. He was hunted out of the East Indies.’

Jungle. From the internet.

98:

‘Ah,’ said Bell. ‘Well, some people can take that sort of setback, and then some can’t. He was getting on, I suppose. So — ah — in his madness and despair he wanted to do away with himself, and yet he wanted his wife to get the insurance money. He couldn’t let it look like suicide. Ah — the insurance company wouldn’t pay.’

99:

Frank looked puzzled. ‘Are you saying he shot himself in the chest, then — then threw the gun out the window?’

100:

‘Yes. Yes!’ Bell laughed and clapped his hands together. ‘It sounds impossible, doesn’t it? That’s the wonderful thing about art, to achieve the impossible.’ He laughed again, and patted Julie on the arm. ‘But Miss Estella the Magicienne could have told you how he did it.’

101:

‘The bow,’ said Paul. ‘Of course. It has been staring us all at the face.’ He was reminded of a puzzle he had seen as a child, a complicated line drawing of a forest scene. Cunningly worked into the details of the leaves and branches were the outlines of a lion, a bear and a hunter. If you knew what to look for you could spot them easily.

102:

‘But Paul, what do you mean?’ Frank said. ‘Verheeren wasn’t shot with the bow. No one was shot with the bow.’

103:

‘Frank, when you first told me about Verheeren,’ Paul said, ‘remember, in your hotel room in Goulburn? — you said he had an old bow with a broken string, and a handful of poisoned arrows. Isn’t that what you said?’

104:

‘Why, yeah, I suppose so.’

105:

‘But the bow, when I saw it on the floor of his room yesterday, the string was not broken. Remember?’

106:

‘My God yes, you’re right.’

107:

‘Yes,’ Paul said. ‘The bow was strung tight. He must have used the double bass string to repair it — it is made of sheep’s gut, just like a bowstring. Maybe not quite as strong, but close enough.’

108:

‘You’ve got it,’ said Bell. ‘He did it like this. He opened the window and fixed the nail in place sticking down from the bottom of the sash. Then he took the bow, hooked it over the nail from beneath, hooked the butt of his revolver upside-down against the bowstring, and walked back into the room, holding the gun by the barrel so it pulled the bow tight.’ He hesitated here, and frowned. ‘He — ah — he must have pushed the trigger with his other thumb. The poor man.’

109:

Julie put her hand to her mouth; they were all silent. It seemed to Paul that a gulf opened up before them: suicide was an ugly, nightmarish thing, but for a brief moment they had imagined themselves in that room and had glimpsed the horror of it. Paul thought of the amulet he had handed to Verheeren: the twist of black human hair, the slivers of bone that were woven among the hair. He had hated Verheeren, and wanted him dead; he had delivered the amulet, and death had crept into that room in its most hideous aspect.

110:

Bell sighed, and shook his head. ‘As soon as the gun went off,’ he said, ‘Verheeren’s body fell backwards, and the bow shot the gun out through the open window into the dark. Frank, what’s out there in the back yard?’

111:

‘Just some old trees, and a heap of weeds and blackberries.’

Blackberries. From the internet.

112:

‘That’s where you’ll find the gun. That’s where the Constable should have found the gun, if he’d been doing his job. And of course the bow was too wide to pass through the open window, so it bounced back off the window frame and dropped to the floor.’

113:

‘It’s clever,’ Frank said. ‘I saw the bow lying there, sure — everybody did, I suppose — but I never would have dreamed that anything as complicated as that lay behind it.’

114:

Julie grasped her father’s hands. ‘So Paul’s in the clear?’

115:

‘More or less. It will take that dim-witted policeman a day or so to sort it all out.’ He looked at Paul. ‘And then there’s the problem of escaping from lawful custody, of course. Stern will — ah — will encourage the police to make things difficult for you.’

116:

‘I would argue about how lawful it is to gaol a man on such thin suspicions,’ Paul said. ‘But then, my arguments seem to fall on deaf ears. Perhaps it is my accent. Not English enough. I had better hide for a few days. Perhaps a trip to Sydney would be a good idea.’ The huge distances of the Australian bush now seemed attractive to him. He could get lost there, perhaps, discover some hidden valley in the interior, set up a tent, and never be found again. No, that was an idle dream.

117:

‘There seem to be currents of suspicion and confusion in the town,’ Bell said. ‘It might be best to steer clear of them for a while.’

118:

Julie looked at Paul with a silent question in her eyes. He looked away. He was thinking of the job that was waiting for him on the Trade Winds. The sacks of wheat and wool bales would be just about loaded by now. When the engine was fixed, she would be ready to sail. He should sign on by Tuesday at the latest. Today was Friday — well, Saturday. He only had a few days to get there. How long to Marseilles? Fifty days, Johanssen had said. And then Queenstown, in Ireland, a busy port, and then Europe.

Ship at sea. From the internet.

119:

And there was the problem of what to do with the Dutchman’s stamps. He emptied his glass. He had been so concerned for his safety that he had not given much thought to the stamps. But they were worth something, perhaps a lot, and with the money from the stamps he would have a chance to build a normal life, to put down roots, if that’s what he wanted, or in fact to embark on any kind of life he could imagine.

120:

He could imitate Doctor Bell, and perform an experiment or two: he could set up as an explorer, and see how his character reacted to the stresses of that occupation, rather as you might test a new metal alloy. Or he could set up as a cynical chronicler of the new colony, noting down and dissecting characters like the eccentric Greenleaves, or the Dutchman, or the bitter Miss Dunn, disappointed in love, in articles for the Paris papers: Observations of the Colonial Denizens, From a Foreign Visitor.

121:

Or he could buy a small sugar plantation in Java, and set the workers free — he could become the benefactor of the local village, perhaps, and be treated like a minor deity in his old age. He smiled to himself. He was dreaming again, like the beggar with his lottery ticket.

122:

And then there was Julie. Her character and her potential were waiting to be set free from the restrictions of their colonial setting. But would it be right for him to tie his life to that of another human being? He thought of a helmsman lashed to the mast in a storm. He wasn’t ready for that kind of stress, or that degree of painful intimacy. He had once thought he was on a level with the angels, or with the devils, it didn’t matter; he now knew how weak and dishonest he really was. Would anyone want to share their life with him, to put up with his buried angers, the flickering coals of his vanity, his caustic despair?

123:

‘I could take you across to Junee,’ Frank said. ‘It’s a small place, no one would recognise you. There’s an early coach to Yass.’

124:

Paul gave Frank a level stare. ‘Frank, will you come with me? To Sydney?’

125:

Frank took in the request. Sydney? Three hundred miles there, and three hundred back? Paul’s gaze was cool, vacant, the blue eyes almost hypnotic. ‘Sure I will. Why not?’

126:

‘You had better take my buggy,’ Bell said. ‘The horses are down in the back paddock, and might take some catching. There’s still plenty of moon. You should be there by sunup.’

127:

Paul brought his bag out onto the veranda and put it down. Julie was sitting on the steps looking at the garden. She had a shawl draped around her shoulders against the cold, a bright tartan pattern of red, yellow and deep green. In the dim light, the colours had taken on an inky glow. Her head was tilted against her shoulder as though she was listening to something whispering among the flowers.

128:

‘Well, my packing is done,’ he said.

129:

She looked at the bag. ‘You manage with so little.’

130:

‘It is better that way, when you are moving around. Did you see Frank? Is he ready?’

131:

‘Yes, he’s gone off to get the horses.’

132:

There were many things that Paul wanted to say; they gathered and clamoured in his mind, so that he couldn’t sort them out into a clear pattern. And then there was the problem of the language — he seemed to have to detour, climb over fences, wade through swamps of misunderstanding. Whatever he wanted to say came out slightly at an angle to his intentions.

133:

‘There is moonshine,’ he said. ‘Would you like to walk in the garden?’

134:

‘Very well. Just for five minutes.’

135:

They walked down the steps and onto the grass. In the daytime it looked dry and brown; in this soft light it had no colour at all. It was a cool night; he put his arm around her shoulder. They walked down to the shadow of the trees at the front gate. The roadway shone in the gloom. He imagined it gleaming like that across the ridges, past the rock beside the clearing where he had killed those two men, across the grassy plains, beside the creeks and rivers, all the way to Sydney. And beyond Sydney, the ocean. It was twelve thousand miles to Europe; to the other end of the world. They walked around to the side of the house, where the shade was deeper, and where a fountain driven by some device of the Doctor’s splashed water into a fish pond. When Julie spoke, the sound of her voice startled him.

136:

‘Did you pack your book?’ she asked.

137:

He hesitated. ‘My book?’

138:

‘I didn’t mean to pry, but you did leave a book open on the veranda. You must have been reading it yesterday. You forgot to take it inside. I put it by your bed.’

139:

‘Oh, it was you who put it there.’

140:

‘It has a strange title. Une Saison en Enfer. Is that the right pronunciation?’

141:

He looked down at his feet. He hadn’t wanted the conversation to go in this direction; but it had, and he had to deal with it. ‘It will do.’

142:

‘Not a pretty name for a book,’ she said. ‘Did you mean for me to find it?’

143:

He looked about, seeking a means of escape, knowing he had to face her questions, and where they led. ‘I do not know,’ he said unhappily. ‘You said you spoke French?’

144:

‘Quite well. But not quite well enough, apparently.’ There was a firmness behind her voice; it was almost anger. And puzzlement as well. For a moment Paul was reminded of his mother: her distress, and her endless patience. His life had a meaning, he knew that dimly, but the trouble was he couldn’t make out any pattern in it. Perhaps others could; perhaps he was the only one who would never see the pattern. ‘What do you mean?’ he asked. ‘Do you not grasp the words?’

145:

‘Word for word it’s not difficult,’ she said.

146:

Could she see the pattern? ‘The failure of belief?’ he asked.

147:

‘Like my father, belief in alchemy and dreams.’ Just as Frank had done, she plucked a stalk of dry grass. ‘That’s really quite old-fashioned, by now, isn’t it? On a different level, it’s like wanting to believe in elves and fairies. I wonder if there’s any place for that today.’

148:

‘Well, you are correct, no person thinks like that any more.’

149:

‘The last few pages are very disconsolate.’ She stripped the leaves from the stalk. ‘And yet, of course, it’s written very strongly.’ She looked up at him. In the moonlight, the colour had leached out of his eyes: the irises were such a washed-out blue they were almost invisible, and the blond stubble on his cheeks had become silver and grey. It gave him a very strange appearance, she thought, like an old wise man; but then he was a very odd creature, not quite human, in some ways. ‘What does it all mean?’

150:

‘Well, means, I do not know. It means what it says.’ He drew back into himself. How could he explain what was staring out from the page? She had a hunger for a deeper meaning to her life than the superficial decencies allowed in a small colonial town, but that longing could well be a conventional bourgeois affectation. Was she prepared to follow it to uncover what lay at the bottom of the pit, where art and vanity met and mingled, and where the paying passengers of art fed themselves on lies? He shook his head. ‘Perhaps you would prefer the rhymes of Alfred, Lord Tennyson,’ he said, ‘or Sir Walter Scott. The Lord of the Highland Sheep.’ He pictured her sitting quietly among the audience in the Mechanics’ Institute, listening to the professional reciter running through his melodramatic spiel. ‘Or Mr Edgar Poe, Lord of the Ravens.’

151:

His bitterness had no more effect than a gnat; she brushed it aside. ‘That is your book, isn’t it?’ she asked.

152:

‘I own it, yes.’

153:

‘No, you know what I mean.’

154:

There it was: the name the Dutch military police had recorded in their log books, the name he had dropped and buried in the rotting soil in the jungles of Java, the name cut clumsily into a school desk in a town in the north of France. He was free to roam the surface of the earth, but his name was chained to his leg. He tossed his head back and forth, and ground his teeth. ‘Ah, damn it,’ he said. ‘Damn it all.’ He walked away for a few paces, and stood there kicking the grass. He took a deep breath, and looked up. There was a drift of cloud to the west; high in the sky over the country of wild black tribes, he thought. The blacks would be sleeping around their campfires now, in the open desert. Perhaps he would never see it, after all.

155:

He walked back, and took her hand. ‘It is over, finished. I have been dragging that thing around with me like the body of a dead child for three years now. I should let it go.’

156:

‘Oh?’

157:

He turned away and walked a few steps, and turned back to her, raising his voice. ‘I used to believe that the world of literature was somehow special. What a pitiful delusion!’ He ran his fingers through his spiky, dishevelled hair, and spat on the ground. ‘Like everything else, it is set up and managed by the bourgeoisie. A sideshow. And like Miss Estella the Magicienne, it is made from cheap tricks and mirrors.’

Smoke and mirrors, again. From the internet.

158:

‘You seem very bitter about the bourgeoisie,’ she said patiently. ‘They must have done something to offend you.’ He seemed about to reply, but said nothing. ‘I suppose by “the bourgeoisie” you mean ordinary people like my father. Or like me. But such people invented the modern world, Paul. But I don’t want to argue with you,’ she said in a calmer voice. She came up and put her arms around him and rested her head against his chest.

159:

He thought for a long time before replying. ‘You are one of the few people I feel I can talk to. You have a toughness in your spirit that I like.’ The light dimmed: a cloud had drifted across the moon. ‘I do not know if I shall come back,’ he said.

160:

They stood close against each other for a while, feeling the warmth and solidity of each other’s bodies. Under the brim of his hat his face was in shadow. She felt the muscles under his back. She tried to remember his features one by one: the sharp nose, the intense blue eyes, the rough brown-blond stubble on his cheeks, the cynical smile he wore. She wanted to record the features as a camera would, and hold them against the slow erosion of time.

161:

‘No, I am not such a good person, really,’ he said.

162:

She laughed. ‘I didn’t think you were.’ She held him tight for a moment. ‘I didn’t think you were a good person for a single moment. I realised right off that you were a bad type. Quite rotten.’

163:

Was she being humorous? ‘Well, not quite rotten all through,’ he said. ‘Perhaps I have one or two qualities, what do you say, redeeming qualities.’

164:

‘I believe you. I’m sure they’d be appreciated in Europe more than they are in the colonies. You’re like a fish out of water here, aren’t you?’

165:

He didn’t reply. After a moment he said ‘Do you want to go to Europe again?’

166:

‘Yes, of course,’ she said. ‘I should like to live in Europe, somehow. But I don’t think that kind of opportunity comes often. I had my chance, when I was twenty.’

167:

‘Why did your father take you? Was it a reward for doing well at art school?’

Grand Tour.

168:

She thought a while before answering. ‘You might as well know,’ she said. ‘It was a reward for doing badly at art school. And for doing badly at the game of life.’

169:

‘What do you mean?’

170:

‘Father took me to Europe to help me forget.’

171:

‘Oh, yes. The art teacher you fell in love with.’

172:

‘More than that. When people fall in love, things happen.’

173:

He laughed. ‘Something happens to their heart, yes, even I have heard of that.’

174:

‘No, to their bodies. They have babies. There’s a kind of logic to it, I suppose.’

175:

‘You —’

176:

‘Yes. Not a child I wanted. We were living outside of Goulburn then. That is, my father was. My mother died when I was little, and perhaps if she had lived, I might have done things differently.’

177:

‘But — what happened to the child?’

178:

‘I gave the child away. I was distraught. What else could I do?’

179:

He loosened his arms and moved back a pace. ‘I do not know. Do not ask me, the answers to these things. I know nothing.’

180:

‘I can’t tell you how I hated that man. He’d made three of the students pregnant, everyone knew about his affairs but me, it seemed. I didn’t know what to do with my life. I wanted to kill myself, for a while. That’s when my father took me to Europe. The change of scenery, the different cultures I’d read about but didn’t really know at all, that saved me. You’ve grown up in Europe, to you it must seem quite ordinary, boring, even, but I can’t tell you how novel it all was to me. How rich, how tangled up in history, how complex and mysterious. The food, the smells, the language, the different way people eat, the way they — I could never have imagined such variety. The way they promenade in the evening, and sit in cafés till midnight arguing about history, and politics. It was a revelation to me. A revelation of how second-rate and limited it is here in this colony. We have no history. All we have is the future, and there’s no foundation to build it on. It’s like trying to build a castle on wet sand.’

181:

‘And — the child, have you ever seen it again? How old would it be?’

182:

Julie’s voice seemed smaller. ‘Why do you ask that? About Mary’s age,’ she said. ‘That’s about how old. You think I haven’t counted every birthday?’

183:

‘I can imagine your unhappiness,’ Paul said. ‘I do not know quite how to say it, and perhaps I am being rude without meaning it. But I can understand what you went through, having the child, giving it up, and living on like a stranger outside the gate, looking in from the darkness at the warm fireside, and the family eating and talking — ’

184:

‘Please don’t,’ she said. Her voice was like something caught in a trap: tight and tense, and Paul felt she was about to cry.

185:

Paul frowned, and thought for a while. ‘You know,’ he said, ‘I sometimes thought how like you Mary is. She could be your little sister.’

186:

There was a silence for a while. ‘Of course she’s like me,’ Julie said. ‘Of course she is.’

The Piano Lesson, 1785, by Marguerite Gerard. From the internet.

187:

Paul remembered catching sight of them through the glass doors that led from the verandah to Julie’s study. Mary had just finished her lesson and they had been standing beside the piano with their arms around each other, eyes closed, swaying slightly. ‘Of course,’ he said under his breath. His mind struggled to make the readjustment: he had thought of Julie as being in some essential way untouched by the harsh physical aspects of life — rather like his maiden aunts at Douai — living on in this house, keeping the garden full of life and colour, looking after her father, cooking and mending. Now, as this sad story unravelled, he seemed to catch the full force of the human energy that pulsed through her veins. He thought briefly of the physical agony of childbirth — the blood, the mess, the screams.

188:

‘And so you are condemned… every day to see the child, but never to speak about the one thing that matters.’

189:

Julie sat down on the edge of the pond. The fountain had faltered; only a thin stream of water trickled and dabbled into the pool. ‘I keep telling myself how fortunate I am. Mary is a healthy, beautiful child, and she’s growing into a brave young woman. Worse things might have happened.’

190:

‘Do you ever… do you think that one day, perhaps… ’

191:

‘Of course I want children. Why do you think I entertained the thought of marrying Joe? Oh, I know you hate him, and I don’t blame you, but he does have a good side. His manner is rough, but he feels he has to put on a show of strength to survive in this place, and he is capable of tenderness, believe it or not. I didn’t want his properties or his money. I wanted a chance to have a family.’

192:

‘Oh.’

193:

‘I doubt you’d understand. You don’t sound like a family man, to me.’

194:

‘No.’

195:

Julie tossed a pebble into the pond. A ghostly shape drifted towards it, wavering under the surface ripples.

196:

‘What’s that? A man-eating eel?’

Carp in water. From the internet.

197:

She laughed. ‘No, that’s Davy Jones, an old carp. Mr Lee gave him to my father many years ago. He’s supposed to symbolise something in Chinese culture: a wise old age, perhaps. I come to watch him from time to time, and we have a little conversation. He drifts and dreams in his watery prison. I used to wonder what goes through his mind, far from his home. Well, he does without family, and seems none the worse for it.’

198:

‘It is better.’

199:

‘For fish, perhaps.’

200:

‘It is better to be able to survive alone,’ Paul said. ‘Family, it sounds very secure. But what does it mean? They can abandon you, or they want to force you into some stupid old set of moral ideals they got from their grandparents, that were beaten into them as children, and that do not apply any more in the modern world, these rules. The old people, they sit at home knitting in front of the hearth; what do they know of life? They have been nowhere, and they have done nothing with their lives. There should be a give and take, they should back you up no matter what, but that never happens. And in the end you are alone, in any case, and you have to survive somehow. A friend, that can be some use. A companion. But family, it is an illusion, born of the middle class.’

201:

‘Well, here’s your friend,’ Julie said in a quiet voice. ‘Frank, we’re over here.’
 
[»»] Back to the Contents page

Black Gold, Chapter 22

Chapter 22 — Gaol
… In which Paul Nouveau dozes in his cell fitfully, and is woken by the arrival of Barnaby. Paul recognises him as the dog trainer whose kelpies would bring him fame. He has taken on a few drinks too many, and enthuses at length about Professor Culpepper’s miraculous Magnetical Water, which — from a source under the Himalayas — is guaranteed to make you well and strong. Miss Dunn arrives with some meat loaf for Barnaby — and none for the French foreigner, who could well be a murderer for all Miss Dunn knows. Constable Sloesser arrives hot and bothered and sorts things out. Paul sleeps again, fitfully, and is woken by Barnaby, who reminisces about poor Larry Lecouter, who shared a cell with Barnaby, and who was hanged at Darlinghurst Jail, and a year later found to be innocent. Paul is comforted by the thought that Frank may rescue him later that night.

Paragraph One follows — 1:

Hours passed. Paul lay on the bunk and dozed, then woke in a sweat and paced the cell. It was large and spacious; a high window showed a patch of bright blue sky, and splashed a flag of sunshine against the whitewashed wall. There was no glass in the window, just three iron bars, and the sounds of the town floated on the air, distant and muffled. From time to time he heard a cart and once a bullock wagon crossing the bridge, making the planks rattle and thud so the sound echoed across the water. The sound was familiar to him now. Someone chopped wood slowly for perhaps half an hour; and once he heard a harmonium playing hymns, which provoked him to utter a short laugh.

2:

He was worried. In this violent colony plagued by bandits and murderers they could easily hang him. Of course there was no real evidence that he’d done anything wrong, but there were plenty of circumstantial shreds that could be woven together to make up a pattern — his angry words to Verheeren outside the magic show, his movements on the night of the murder wandering about the town, the marks he left at the back of the house detected so surely by Jimmy’s uncanny tracking skills, the drop of blood on the tankstand nail — the more he thought about it the more facts he turned up that seemed incriminating, and the more afraid he became. He was a stranger here, and he’d never had much of a talent for getting people to like him — the Bells were friendly, true, and so was Frank, but what influence did they have, and how far would they go to protect a stranger?

Hanging. Piranesi. From the internet.

3:

He threw himself on the hard bunk and closed his eyes. In a few moments he was asleep, his mind filled with a jumble of anxious dreams.

4:

He awoke to the jingle of keys, the scrape of the cell door opening, and the sounds of an argument. A lamp cast a wavering glow on the wall — it had grown dark. He rubbed the sleep from his eyes. The door slammed, the sound of keys retreated down the stone corridors, and he found he had a companion.

5:

‘Murgatroyd’s the name, and murder’s the game. Har har har! No, I’m just making a little joke. What’s your name, young feller?’

6:

Paul knew the high, shaky voice, though for a moment he couldn’t place the stranger. He peered at his visitor: the kerosene lamp was hanging on the far wall and it was hard to make out his features. He was a small man, unshaven and pale underneath his flushed cheeks. He may have been sixty, he may have been thirty. He blew his nose on a dirty piece of rag, and went on: ‘Well, damn your hide for not speaking civilly, but that won’t incapacitate my bloody manners.’ He drew a pack of cards from his coat. ‘D’you play cards? Eh? What’s up, boy, you been struck speechless?’

7:

‘I know you. You are the man with the crazy dogs. You breed them, no? Barnaby, that is your name.’

8:

‘My name will be known throughout the breadth of the colony, one day,’ Barnaby said with some vehemence, ‘and covered with glory, because of the wonderful work done by my cattle dogs. By his works ye shall know him. “But the deed is all, the glory nothing.” Goethe. And who’s this?’

9:

‘Why do you want to know?’ Paul replied. ‘Who it is that I am, that is my own business. Did you say Goethe?’

10:

‘Hmmm, that’s a Belgian accent,’ Barnaby guessed. ‘Tell me, you look like a farming boy, do you know the Belgian Keeshond? What about the retrieving poodle, with big one with the ruffs on its elbows?’ He licked his lips, and leaned forward as though imparting an important secret. His breath smelled of whisky. ‘The ruffs of fur, you know what they’re for? They’re not decoration. They’re to prevent arthritis of the joints. The European retrieving poodle’s terrible prone to arthritis. It’s the climate. Damp and wet. We don’t have them kind of problems here. Our problem’s the heat.’

Poodle. From the internet.

11:

‘The heat? After the tropics, it seems not so hot to me.’

12:

‘You ain’t seen nothin’. The Outback’s the place, in summer. It gets warm there, by God. On a bad day you can work a dog to death rounding up wild cattle in that heat. The Smithfield Collie, he can’t take it. And the red bob-tail’s a brave dog, though he’s a terrible biter, and he can’t stand the heat neither. Only the native dog can take the heat. They fear no more the heat o’ the sun, nor the furious winter’s rages. Cymbeline. But they’re not worth a damn to a working man. So you don’t know the Keeshond?’

13:

‘I think I maybe saw one in Antwerp. They live on the river boats, but I do not know about that kind of animal. I grew up in a town most of the time, and we did not keep a dog.’

14:

‘Well, you’re no good to me.’ Barnaby snorted, and look at Paul suspiciously, blinking in the dim light and shaking his head slowly. ‘That’s an accent you’ve got there. You should do something about that. A foreigner, eh? Where are you from?’

15:

‘Oh, please go away,’ Paul said. ‘I do not wish for company. Find another place to play cards.’

16:

‘You must be a devil’, Barnaby said. ‘They know everything, and are sent to torment us with it. And what fine manners. Find another place! I wish I bloody could. Well, the colony is full of foreigners these days. That’s what the blacks say, at any rate. Har har har! Get the point, boy?’

17:

‘What, don’t the black people like Frenchmen?’

18:

‘God strike a light, they’ve put me in with an imbecile. They don’t — now pay attention, son — they don’t like bloody immigrants, that’s my point, man. Whites. Europeans. British. They’re all foreigners to them. Get it? White, Chinese, Red Indian or brindle, the blacks hate the bloody lot of us, and I don’t blame them. I’d do the same. God bless ’em.’ He took a small flask from a pocket and sipped from it delicately. ‘They missed this, the silly bastards. Want a swig?’ Paul shook his head. ‘Won’t hurt you. Well, not in the short run. Ah, that’s better. There’s more drink in heaven and earth, than is dreamed of in your philosophy, Horatio. Shakespeare. Ever read the great Shakespeare?’ Paul shook his head. ‘Well, fair enough. He’s not French, is he? Why would you? Why would you go to the toil and trouble? Why would you bother trying to read some stuff written out in a foreign lingo? I can understand that.’ He looked around the cell. ‘Ah, not so bad. A bed for the night. A blanket to keep Jack Frost away. Been outside? Evening’s coming on, and there’s a breeze, it bites shrewdly, it is very cold. Aye, it is a nipping and an eager air. Hamlet. Reminds me of vinegar, it does. Vine, eager… Well then, what’s for dinner, old son?’

19:

‘What?’

20:

‘I was enquiring as to the culinary arrangements for this evening, my good fellow. That’s my drift. What’s cooking? That’s the question. There’s the rub.’

21:

‘I do not have an idea. Perhaps we shall starve. Perhaps that is to be our punishment.’

22:

‘Hmmm. I can’t remember actually ingesting a feed for some considerable amount of time. The tucker’s been a bit thin on the ground, rations have been short, you might say. As a matter of fact I could eat a bloody horse, and chase the rider. The Sergeant’s wife is out of town, they tell me, visiting a half-witted cousin in Gumly Gumly. The Sergeant’s away too. Rats from a sinking ship, eh?’

23:

‘What has that to do with our dinner? Do we need the permission of the Sergeant before we may eat?’

Woman at stove: stock photo. From the internet.

24:

‘Well, it’s usually the Sergeant’s wife who does the cooking for the prisoners, see. She gets an allowance, a few bob a week from the Government. But she’s shot through, the Sergeant’s over at Hay after a bunch of bloody horse thieves, and the Constable likewise in the opposite direction, chasing a couple of lads up some gully out the back of Junee, or so they tell me.’ He thumped the heel of his hand against the cell door. ‘Think of it, being locked up by a bloody police clerk. My old mother would turn in her grave, God bless her.’

25:

‘Is that who brought you in? The clerk? What had you done?’

26:

‘Bloody mortifying. All right, I’d had a couple. I’ll admit that. I’d had a few. No need for some officious little bastard to lock a man up just because he’s taken a few on board.’

27:

‘A few? On board? Are you a ship? A few of what?’

28:

‘Drinks, drinks, what do you think I’d be having? Lemonades? Bloody sarsaparilla? God starve the lizards, I’d give my right arm for a draught of the true, the blushful Hippocrene, with beaded bubbles winking at the brim. Keats.’

Glad of wine. From the internet.

29:

‘Hippocrene? That is in Greece, no? Perhaps you were a scholar of Ancient Greek in a previous life.’ Paul laughed. ‘Is that where you learned to drink, in the symposiums of the Academy at Athens?’

30:

Barnaby grunted. ‘Give a bloke a break. You sound like a real smart alec. No need to poke fun.’

31:

But Paul went on. ‘Perhaps in your other life you attended literary evenings at the great Library at Alexandria in the days of the poet Apollonius, and lounged on a couch with a slave boy to fetch you beakers of wine.’ He laughed aloud, pleased at the image he’d conjured up.

32:

‘Oh, don’t talk about it, it brings on my headaches. There’s a good fellow. Fair crack o’the whip.’

33:

Paul noticed Barnaby’s smell: sour, stale, a mixture of old sweat and vomit. There was a stain down the lapel of his jacket, which had been black once, and was now a blend of inky tones. His wrinkled shirt was stamped with the history of many unsteadily-eaten meals, and his trousers were held up by piece of old rope tied in a knot at the waist. Paul remembered that Barnaby had doffed his hat, a battered bowler, to Doctor Bell at the Agricultural Show; the hat was nowhere to be seen now. His legs were thin and bony, and he seemed to have no backside at all. Barnaby noticed the appraising stare, and bounced shakily to the attack.

34:

‘I know who you are, you’re the feller who killed them bushrangers, Heeney and his chum, shot the poor bugger’s face off. What are you looking at, Lord Frog? You might be a prize killer, but you’re in the same pickle as me, if you don’t mind a stranger pointing it out, your Bloody Highness. Locked in the same stinking cell! Don’t get obstreperous with me! For all you know, I’m a man with a cruel reputation for slitting throats. Keep your peepers to yourself!’ For all his bravado, he seemed nervous of Paul, and kept as much distance as the cell allowed. He wiped his nose on his sleeve and slumped onto his bunk. ‘It was the magnetical water that did it, that’s what it was. I should have left it alone. It’s too powerful for the likes of me.’

35:

Barnaby’s outburst had inexplicably frightened Paul — he could feel his pulse racing — and he didn’t particularly wish to pursue this topic, but he couldn’t resist his curiosity. ‘The what?’

Magnetical water. From the internet.

36:

‘The Professor’s magnetical water. Cure anything, they reckon. But I’m the man who proves the rule. Tests it, that is, until it breaks. Prove all things — hold fast that which is good. Thessalonians.’

37:

‘What professor? Is this Professor Goulstone, the piano player? What are you talking about?’

38:

‘You haven’t heard of Professor Culpepper? You must be the only one. Well, I suppose being a foreigner, you might be excused your ignorance. He was there at the Show, large as life. He had a display of his own, a big wagon all painted up in purple and gold like a cohort of bloody Assyrians. They say he’s over a hundred, they say he saw Robespierre in the flesh, and he doesn’t look a day older than me. Fit as a fiddle. Memory tricks, you wouldn’t believe it. They got a fellow to recite a poem from the audience, some piece of malarkey he’d made up about life in the bush, all bullshit and gooli-gum — all in proper rhymes, though — and the Professor he read it right back at him, word for word, but with each line in reverse order from the back to the front. Then a fellow called out two numbers each twelve digits long, and the Professor just laughed and repeated the numbers back at him word perfect, then — this made them blink — then he read out the product of the two numbers multiplied together, a number so long it went on for ten minutes. People stood up and cheered. All due to the Water.’

39:

‘Hmmm. And how did he come to invent this wonderful drink?’

40:

‘Oh, no one invented it. He discovered it. It’s always been there, from biblical times. They say he came across it in India when he was investigating those mystical philosophies, the ones where devotees in a trance fling themselves under the wheels of the Juggernaut at Puri, or lie roasting on hot coals and never feel a thing. He found it in a cave near Malabar, they reckon, a deep spring of water that flows underground from the Himalayas, where those fakirs live in the snow with nothing on. Professor Culpepper’s Magnetical Water, guaranteed to make you Well and Strong.’

41:

‘You believe that?’

42:

‘Thousands do, old son. It’s a matter of gospel among the folk in the bush, like Goanna Liniment and Epsom Salts.’

Goanna Liniment. From the internet.

43:

Paul rubbed his bruised jaw absent-mindedly. ‘I have experienced the liniment. Spare me from the Epsom Salts. And this water, what does it make? How does it work, exactly?’

44:

Barnaby’s reedy voice softened and took on a solemn tone: ‘They say it has absorbed the magnetical powers of the Himalayas. When you take it into your body, it permeates every pore and fibre of your being. It stiffens the sinews, and summons up the blood — Henry The Fifth — and makes its way along the arteries and veins into your very brain itself. You can’t feel it there — oh, no, it’s very subtle. Your mind becomes aligned with the magnetical currents that flow under the earth. You’ve held a compass, haven’t you?’

45:

‘A compass? With the little hand that points to the North?’

46:

‘The needle, the needle points to the North.’

47:

‘Yes, of course.’

48:

‘There you are, then! That needle, wobbling and trembling, what makes it turn? What makes the lodestone to the north advance his subtle point? Sir John Davies. A more natural sounding poet than Shakespeare sir, at rhyming stuff. You can’t see or feel what makes it do that, now can you? It’s an invisible force. Think of the power of the Himalayas! The Professor’s Magnetical Water floods your entire being, and brings it into harmony with the great vitalising forces of the universe. Why, the Doctor takes it, Doctor Bell. He swears it’s good for rheumatism. He takes a little every day with his evening whisky, or so he tells me.’

49:

Paul smiled, and shook his head. ‘I thought you said, just now a minute ago, you said that you should leave it alone. What, did you take too much and get drunk?’

50:

There was a touch of derision in Paul’s voice, and Barnaby glared at him. ‘You’re not mocking me, are you? With that Frog accent I can’t tell what you’re up to. Remember, you’ve got no guns in here.’ His voice rose to a shaky shout. ‘We’re all equal in here, man and dog! You might be a murderer, but I’m not afraid of you!’

51:

Paul noticed that the man’s thin body was trembling uncontrollably, and a wave of pity washed over him. A lump came to his throat, and he felt his eyes swell with unshed tears. He was immediately angry with himself for this involuntary expression of an emotion he didn’t really feel. He hardly knew this man, and he didn’t really care whether he lived or died, yet he couldn’t help or prevent the salt water that rose to his eyes. He shook his head and blinked furiously, and cleared his throat firmly a couple of times. ‘No, no, I’m sorry,’ he said. ‘I didn’t mean to offend you. If Doctor Bell says it works, then there must be something in it.’

52:

Barnaby sagged back onto his bunk, and blew his nose on the piece of rag. ‘Oh, it’s true, sir. I’ve seen it cure a dumb man, hadn’t spoken for seven years since he was hit by lightning out on Hangman’s Ridge one rainy afternoon, bringing his expectant wife into town in a sulky, the horse knocked unconscious and the poor woman killed, just a girl, really. People don’t believe about the Water until they’ve taken some, and it’s had time to work on them. Do you believe in spirits? Well it doesn’t matter if you do or not, they’re listening to us right now, I’ll tell you that for nothing. The Water helps you to hear and understand. I’ve said enough.’

53:

‘Spirits? What do you mean, that you talk to ghosts? I cannot believe this.’

Ghosts, in prison. From the internet.

54:

‘The spirits will provide. I’ve said enough. I’ve said too much. Look out, who’s this?’ The door opened with a rattle of keys and a squeak of hinges, and the worried police clerk ushered in Miss Dunn. Her dog was yapping and whining in the background — it must have nipped the clerk, because he swore at it under his breath. She had dressed up for the occasion in a pale grey print skirt and jacket, short grey gloves, and a white silk blouse; a necklace of tiny pink glass beads sparkled at her throat. Incongruously for the late hour, she wore a large straw hat. She gave Barnaby a bright smile. ‘You poor man!’

55:

‘Whom d’you mean?’ Barnaby was taken aback.

56:

‘Old Mrs Clampitt mentioned that the Sergeant’s wife was away, and no one to provide for the prisoners. Why, you could starve in this dismal cell, and no one would be any the wiser. Mr Gamp here —’ she indicated the hapless clerk with a wave of her hand — ‘poor Mr Gamp is overworked, he tells me, and supplying provisions and cooking are not part of his official duties. Besides which he admits to being a bachelor, with no culinary skills save boiling water for a pot of tea. So much for duty. Until you are tried and sentenced, you are innocent before the law. But here you are, forsaken and abandoned. I felt it my duty. I will not fail thee, nor forsake thee, as the Good Book says. I happened to have some meat loaf to spare, and a jar of pickles.’ She handed Barnaby a basket covered with a chequered cloth. He seemed at a loss to know quite what to do with it.

57:

The clerk pushed his way forward. ‘No knives in that basket, is there?’ he inquired, poking under the cloth. ‘I’d look a proper booby if he cut his way out and stabbed someone.’

58:

‘For goodness sake, Mr Gamp, the poor man is not a criminal. The inebriate is not generally a vicious person, rather the contrary, in my experience. In Hobart Town I did good works amongst the indigent and the inebriate, and they were generally quite humble in address and demeanour.’ She sniffed. ‘There’s a common table knife, quite blunt — the man has to be able to cut the meat loaf. That is all, in the way of cutlery.’

59:

All this time she had quite ignored Paul, who was standing only a few feet from her. ‘Why, if it is not Miss Dunn,’ he said, smiling unpleasantly. ‘How nice of you to wade into the gutter, as it were, and pay a visit to us poor unfortunates. What a fine and noble spirit you have. And your clothes, so ethereal, dressed like an angel.’ She ignored Paul, and smiled brightly at Barnaby, who looked back and forth between them, and grew more confused.

60:

‘There’s the office bell,’ said Gamp. ‘I’ll just be a moment. Don’t try anything funny.’ He aimed a kick at the dog as he went out. ‘And who’s going to look after this pesky animal, that’s what I’d like to know. Go on, get out!’ He hurried off, pulling the steel door shut after him.

61:

‘I shall take back to Europe with me,’ Paul said, ‘the vision of you standing here like a spirit from another world, a living example of the beneficial effect upon the human soul of the colonial climate and the study of horticulture and literature.’

62:

Miss Dunn flushed and turned on him. ‘I’m surprised you dare to address me, sir. You have been accused of murder, and only a few hours ago you were brought to this place in chains.’

63:

‘Oh, that is hardly true. Chains? No, only the gentle hand of Old Slosher, as I believe he is called.’

64:

The dog had started yapping loudly just outside the cell, distracting Miss Dunn. She went to open the door, then turned back to Paul. ‘You shot and killed those two men out on the Sydney Road, and it’s common knowledge in the town that you were involved in poor Mr Verheeren’s murder. What hideous brutality! And here you are, locked in a cell, sir, like a criminal!’

65:

‘Ah, yes,’ Paul admitted. ‘The Constable wanted to be sure my liking for chatter did not wane while he was away. Unfortunately he was called to other conversations, with men on horseback.’

66:

Barnaby laughed. ‘True enough! More than likely he’s having a chin-wag with ’em right now, on some track out the back of Junee. I’ll bet they’re having a great old natter. Har har! Oh that’s rich, that is. Well, what have we got in here?’ He sat on the bunk, and took the meat loaf out and unwrapped it. ‘Hmmm, this smells good. Nice and rich. I bet the cook put a good dash of sherry in there.’ He hacked off a piece of the loaf and held it out to Paul. ‘There you go, mate, get stuck into a bit of this.’

67:

Miss Dunn reached out quickly and pushed his hand away. ‘It’s not for him! It’s for you, you poor fool, not for him!’

68:

‘Pray do not worry,’ Paul said. ‘I shall not eat any. Thank you Barnaby, all the same, regardless of the outcome. You are a gentleman.’

69:

‘The police have their duty,’ Miss Dunn said. ‘I can only do so much. I cannot provide for every Tom, Dick and Harry.’ The dog’s barking grew louder. ‘Marcel! Oh, where’s Mr Gamp? I do wish he’d do something to comfort the poor animal; it’s so distracting. I do hope the Constable can finish with this ugly business. Perhaps when the Sergeant comes back from Hay.’ She wiped her eyes with the corner of her handkerchief.

70:

‘If he is lucky,’ Paul said, ‘I wish it so. The Constable may bring the murderer back with him from Junee, though I lack faith in his talents. He performs a duet very nicely with Mr Stern as one of a pair of bullies, but solo, he is not as convincing.’

71:

‘I always thought there was something odd about you, Mr Nouveau. Something not quite right.’

72:

‘Not quite British, if that is what you mean.’

Frenchman, not quite British. From the internet.

73:

‘You seem exceedingly ready to cut other people down to size. Coming from a vagabond and a foreigner, that’s hardly appropriate. I thought you were cultured, but I learned in Paris that it’s possible for men to be cultured and villainous at the same time.’

74:

‘Only men?’ He suddenly reached out and gripped her by the arm. ‘I could introduce you to some Parisian ladies who would teach you about villainy, things that would turn your stomach!’

75:

‘Steady on,’ said Barnaby, his mouth full of food. Miss Dunn drew back from his grip, and put her handkerchief to her mouth.

76:

‘What’s going on here?’ It was Sloesser, pushing his way into the cell, red-faced and angry, with the clerk bobbing anxiously in his wake. The yapping had reached a crescendo. ‘I leave the place alone for five minutes and all hell breaks loose. Gamp, keep that bloody dog away from me, do you hear? Now, now, Miss Dunn, you should have left that food at the front desk. Come on now, no fraternising.’

77:

‘Constable Sloesser, I am merely doing my duty as a citizen — ’

78:

‘Never you mind what you might be merely doing, madam. Rules is rules. I must ask you to leave. Why, you might have a file stashed away in that basket, or a revolver. Here, man, give it here!’

79:

Barnaby handed over the basket, bewildered, a piece of meat loaf in his mouth. ‘You want this, sir?’

80:

‘No, I don’t want your damned food, man. Don’t be stupid. Go on, eat it, finish it.’ Sloesser turned back to Miss Dunn. ‘This man could well be a dangerous murderer, who’s to know?’

81:

‘Barnaby? You must be joking!’

Sir William Montagu MANNING, K.C.M.G., Q.C., LL.D (1811 – 1895) Date of Birth: 20/06/1811, Place of Birth: Alphington, Devon, England, Date of Death: 27/03/1895, Place of Death: Sydney, New South Wales, Australia. From the internet.

82:

‘Not him, that other one, the foreigner. Mr Nouveau, here.’ He scowled at Paul. ‘Never mind, Nouveau, it will all be straightened out next week, when the Police Magistrate arrives. The Circuit Court opens on Tuesday, with His Honour Sir William Manning in attendance. He’s got a brain like a dingo trap, that one. Hard steel. One look at you, and Snap! You’re gone! Everything will be sorted out then, don’t you worry. Where everybody was at what particular time of day, what they were up to, all that kind of thing. Now out, madam, please.’

83:

‘Oh, very well.’

84:

‘Mr Gamp should be shot for letting all this fraternising go on behind my back. As if I don’t have enough to worry about.’

85:

‘And did you get your man, Constable?’

86:

‘No, madam, I didn’t get my bloody man, begging your pardon. How could I? No other officers to lend a hand, one tired-out horse that’s fit for the knacker’s yard, and a desk heaped with reports and ledgers and station bookkeeping that’s got to be done by next week or His Honour will want to know why. I’m not a company of troopers, I can’t perform bloody miracles, if you’ll excuse my French. Now out! Please!’ The door slammed, and the key turned in the rusty lock.

87:

‘Well, old Slosher seemed a little discombobulated,’ Barnaby said. ‘Still, I got a mouthful of decent tucker while I had the chance. Pity about you, though. Not a cracker. You should have grabbed a bite or two. It’s going to be a long night. The old girl has it in for you, all right, young feller. I think she’s in love with you, and doesn’t want to admit it.’

88:

‘He seemed what? What was that word you said?

Distraction in his aspect… From the internet.

89:

‘Eh? Slosher? Discombobulated. It’s a Latin word. You probably don’t have it in French. You know, tears in his eyes, distraction in his aspect. Hamlet. Tasty meat loaf, nice and spicy. Actually, I’m a bit upset with all that coming and going. I think I shall have a little nap.’ Barnaby gave a long burp, settled himself on the narrow bunk and in a few minutes was fast asleep, a slight tremor running through his body from time to time. He reminded Paul of an old dog, tired out with the chase, dreaming and twitching in a shadowy corner of the kitchen.

90:

An hour passed. The sounds of the town slowed. Paul dozed, and woke, and dozed again.

91:

At nine o’clock Julie came to see him, bringing a bowl of stew and some thick slices of brown bread. Mary was with her; she hugged Paul, then sat in the corner with Barnaby and played knucklebones.

92:

Paul looked at them, eating ferociously the while. ‘Should you bring the child here?’ he asked, his mouth full.

93:

‘She’s not a child; she turned eleven today. And I wouldn’t be here at all without Mary’s help. Her father Mr Cameron is the pound-keeper. He and Sloesser are as thick as thieves, something to do with stolen horses that the Police keep in the pound. Mr Cameron is also an inn-keeper, at Downside, and all kinds of things go on there, I’ve heard. I wouldn’t be surprised if their connection wasn’t a little… well, not quite illegal, after all the Constable is a Constable, but at least stretching the law. Mary’s father sent her with a note to Sloesser, and he let us in most politely.’

94:

‘What was in the note?’

95:

‘I have no idea. The Constable read it over several times and put it away carefully in his pocket.’

96:

‘You didn’t open it and read it?’

97:

‘Of course not.’

98:

Paul shook his head. ‘So polite, you English. The more forlorn and forsaken the settlement, the more civil the inhabitants. The father of Mary is Sloesser’s friend, then. Life in a small town, it is like life in an aquarium; a tiny fish and a shark swim together, and the eel is best friends with the clam. No, I cannot imagine anyone being on friendly terms with that puffed-up fool.’

99:

‘Now, now. Father’s asked the Constable over for a glass of port after dinner.’

100:

‘Sloesser? But your father is a civilised man, a scholar. I can’t imagine how —’

101:

‘Hush! You’re prone to solve a problem by hitting it hard with your head. There are more ways than one to skin a cat. How’s the stew?’

102:

‘Wonderful. Is this the goat curry you were planning in the kitchen the other day? It seems part Irish, and part Indian.’ He ate some more, then paused and looked at her. ‘I was thinking of you in the kitchen, licking that pencil, writing out your mother’s recipe. You’re very beautiful, do you know that?’

103:

Julie looked down at her hands.

104:

‘That moment, it was a kind of dream, a dream of domestic happiness — the kettle steaming on the stove, the cat sleeping on a chair… It is hard for me to accept that there is any good quality in kitchens; they are too warm in winter, too cool in summer, too full of contentment. I hate that, it is soft and weak. But I thought of you writing in your book — there is a kind of strength in the way you do things, just simple things. I do not know, I am not explaining myself well in English. It is like a cat in my throat, choking back what I want to say. I was feeling abandoned, I suppose. Now I feel more human.’ He addressed the food again, scooping spoonful after spoonful into his mouth. ‘Did Frank tell you I was here?’

105:

‘Oh, the whole town knows. I’ve followed the gossip like a beagle on the scent, from old Ma Clampitt over the back fence, to Castro’s butcher shop, to Miss Mackenzie’s — you can imagine the commotion there, buzzing like a nest of ants kicked by a cruel boy — to the Advertiser office, and back again. I’ve heard how Miss Dunn brought food for poor Barnaby — one of God’s little fallen sparrows, she called him, according to Luther Quoign at the printery, who just about laughed his head off at the thought — but when you begged her for a mouthful — this is according to Miss Dunn — she hardened her heart against you and beat off your ravenous advances with a wooden spoon.’

106:

‘But the bitch —’

107:

‘Knowing you as I do, my dear young man, I’m sure there was no begging. Miss Dunn was just squeezing every drop of drama from her adventures among the criminal underworld.’

108:

He had stopped eating, and was staring at her. ‘What did you call me?’

109:

She looked away, at Mary playing happily in the corner, throwing and catching the bones on the back of her small hands. She was singing to herself in a light voice: See-saw, Marjorie Daw, Jackie shall have a new master…

110:

‘They’re the wrong words,’ Barnaby complained. ‘You should sing the proper words, like they used to be when I was a kid. It’s a game of Jacks, and they’re the wrong words for the game.’

111:

‘This is a dirty place,’ Paul said. ‘I think there are — what do you say? Little things that bite.’

112:

‘Bedbugs.’

113:

‘Yes, bedbugs. It’s good for the ruminative soul, this semi-darkness. I am remembering — I think of that bath I had the other day — hot water, steam rising in the room, scrubbing with the laundry soap. I am thrown from that experience into its opposite, into darkness and dirt.’

114:

Julie gazed at him, a slight smile on her lips.

115:

‘Well,’ he said, ‘you should not smile at me like that. You know they will cook up some story to hang me.’

116:

‘Oh no, I don’t think so. We do have justice here in this colony, of a sort.’

117:

‘They will try to hang me, I know it. I thought I could scrub away my crimes — my vanity, I mean.’ He mopped at the gravy with a crust of bread. ‘A bath, a clean white shirt, and I thought I was the captain of the ship, the manager of the bank, the governor of the colony. Then it seems I am involved in a murder, then I find myself plunged into the gutter where I belong among the bugs and the drunks. From the lights of Paris to the ends of the earth, to the friendship of criminals and little children playing with the bones of dead creatures in the shadow of the gallows.’

118:

‘Spoken like a poet. Talking of poets, I’m going out later.’

119:

‘I wish I could join you,’ he said bitterly.

120:

‘There’s a poetry recital at the Mechanics’ Institute.’

121:

‘Oh, really? You seem to have an event to go to almost every night.’

Poe. From the internet.

122:

‘Wagga Wagga is like that. Tonight, Tennyson, Poe, that sort of thing.’

123:

‘Melodrama, eh? Well, enjoy yourself. I shall be thinking of you.’ His voice was anxious now. The image of Julie moving easily among the crowd, laughing, making jokes, returning home to a glass of milk and a comfortable bed — it made him feel just how desperate his position was.

124:

She touched him on the cheek. ‘You need a shave.’

125:

‘I need a lot of things. A file, or a gun, that would be good. Some blasting powder, perhaps.’

126:

She lowered her voice. ‘Frank will try to get you out. One way or another.’

127:

‘What, tonight?’

128:

‘Later.’

129:

His eyes widened. ‘But — oh, that is wonderful. I cannot tell you, I feel I am suffocating in this place. Of course it is dangerous, whatever he tries. Why should he — well, anything, try anything, but get me out of here. But why should he do that, to risk that, for me?’

130:

Julie smiled again. ‘Because I asked him.’

131:

Of course, Paul thought. Frank would do anything for her.

132:

‘I must go now.’ She touched the girl on the shoulder. ‘Mary, say good night. It’s time to leave.’

133:

Paul woke to the sound of Barnaby’s voice. ‘What is it?’ he asked in alarm.

134:

‘I was just saying, it’s like that time I was in Darlinghurst Gaol, locked in the cell with Larry Lecouter.’

135:

‘What are you raving about? Let me sleep.’

136:

‘You’ll have plenty of time for that, in the grave.’

137:

There was a faint light from the window; Paul guessed the moon was out.

138:

Barnaby was lying on his bunk staring at the ceiling. ‘Yes, there’s enough time then,’ he said, ‘for regret and recrimination, over on the other side. Poor bugger.’

139:

‘Who, me?’

140:

‘No, that Larry Lecouter. They reckon he killed the old man. They took him out and hanged him the next morning, just as the sun came up. They all stood around. Put the hood over his head. Pulled back the trap with a snap and a rattle. Then the briefest moment of silence, as the body fell through the air, then — Thump. Not a loud sound, the sound of a body reaching the end of the rope, but it’s one you never forget. It breaks the neck, you see. The knot, tucked under the left ear. Crack. It’s more merciful that way.’

141:

The story had rushed up on Paul out of the darkness and caught him unprepared — he was sick with fear. ‘For the love of Christ, will you shut up!’

142:

Barnaby was silent for a while, then he spoke quietly: ‘I hear it in my sleep sometimes, wakes me in a terrible fright. It’s like your heart stopped in your sleep, and you have to try to wake up with what little breath you’ve got left. If you don’t quite make it awake, then I reckon you’re a goner. That’ll happen to me one night. My lungs aren’t getting any bigger.’

143:

‘What old man did he kill? What had he done, this criminal?’

144:

‘Well, he was in love with this girl, see, out the back of Brogo. He went up to ask her uncle — the parents were dead, the uncle looked after her — went to ask him for the girl’s hand in marriage. That’s what he said, at any rate. The uncle was a charitable man, the townsfolk said, but he had a temper, and he was built like a brick shithouse, a big ugly bugger with a head on him like a robber’s dog. The girl was in Sydney at the time, playing up with this sailor she’d met. That came out later. They had some kind of an argument, Larry and the uncle. Well, the next day the Raleigh (pron: raw-lee) man happened to call by there with his wagon loaded up with liniment and things to sell.’

145:

‘Of course, the Raleigh man.’

146:

‘So he calls at the farm, knocks on the door, no one answers. Well, that looks funny, he thinks, because the bloke’s horse is there in the yard, a roan mare, the dogs yapping, and all that. So he walks around the back and creeps inside and finds things broken, and papers and furniture strewn about. The place had been robbed, that’s clear. Then he finds the uncle in the kitchen as dead as a doornail, his throat cut from ear to ear. Blood all over the floor, must have been a bucket of it, he said. Who would have though the old man to have had so much blood in him? Macbeth.’

Trial. From the internet.

147:

Barnaby was silent then for quite some time, digesting the implications of this scene. Then he sighed, and went on: ‘Well, Lecouter, he had no explanation of where he was at the time, and two fellers had seen him plain as day going out to the farm the morning of the murder, so the police brought him in. They found money on him, a lot of money. He said it was pay for some fencing work, the uncle had paid him for it the day before, but then he admitted having the argument with the uncle. He should have kept his trap shut and he would have been all right, but he got the wind up and started talking. I suppose the police said to him, if you’re innocent, then what’s the harm in talking? You have nothing to hide! No one else seemed to be the likely perpetrator, so they brought him to court, and the jury took a dislike to him, and they sentenced him to be taken hence to a place of execution and there hanged by the neck until dead.’

148:

‘They took a dislike to him? Why was that?’

149:

‘Well, indeed, there’s a worry. There’s a worry for you. You see, he was a foreigner, like you. Didn’t have much of an accent, but he was French, or Flemish, on his father’s side, or something like that. Who wants to help a foreigner? It’s only natural. He that is surety for a stranger shall smart for it. Proverbs.’

150:

Paul was feeling sick: perhaps it was his fear, but he wished he hadn’t bolted so much of the stew. He turned over and faced the wall. ‘I should like to go to sleep now,’ he said.

151:

‘Poor young feller. Normally they put them in a cell all by themselves, but he said he wanted company, and Darlinghurst was crowded with felons anyway, so they brought him in to where I was and locked the door. I’m a harmless sort of bloke, I suppose. He asked me to tell him a story, to keep his mind off it. I couldn’t think of what to say, so I told him some stuff out of the Bible, but that got all gloomy, and then I quoted a few lines from the immortal Bard, the Swan of Avon, but he got sick of that, so I sang him a few sailors’ songs I’d learned once upon a time, and that reminded him of his girl going off with the sailor down in Sydney, so in the end I chucked it in and said nothing. Slowly the cell grew light, piccaninny daylight they call it, that pale glow before the real dawn. I always liked the sunrise when I was a lad, it makes you feel kind of light and optimistic. Rosy-fingered dawn. Homer. But not after that day. The parson came in with his Bible. I wished it would never get light again. I prayed for it, I did, under my breath.’

152:

‘So they hanged him,’ Paul said. There was a chill in the air, and he drew the thin blanket around his shoulders.

153:

‘Oh, the sound of that rope. I wish I’d never heard it, or seen it happen. Puts a mark on you. It damages something inside you, seeing a man die. It’s like a lame leg.’

154:

‘A lame leg?’

155:

‘You can mend the bones, but you’ll always limp a little: you’re never quite the same again. Aye, they hanged the poor wretch, and all for nothing. Another man confessed to it a year later.’

156:

Paul thought he’d misheard. ‘What did you say?’

Two robbers. From the internet.

157:

‘Well, there were two of them, bad types like you used to get in those days. They’d been roaming around the bush doing odd jobs here and there, and robbing people when they got the chance. They got picked up by the special constable in the main street of Numbugga one winter’s night trying to break into a feed shed to get some corn for a parrot one of them had caught. A bloodstained hammer was found in the saddlebags, and in the end they confessed to three murders, including the one that poor Larry was hanged for. They went to rob the house while the uncle was away, it seems, but he came back to get some tobacco and surprised them, so they cut his throat, and made their getaway. They hadn’t meant to kill him for any particular reason. It was all a misunderstanding. People make their plans, but what are they? Plans are nothing. The world’s like that, you see, made up of most disastrous chances, of moving accidents by flood and field. Othello.’ This seemed to satisfy Barnaby at last: he turned on his side and went to sleep.

158:

Paul tried to sleep too, but the images that Barnaby had put into his mind were too dramatically outlined and too horrible in their implications to let him sleep. In the end he sat with his back against the cold stone wall, his blanket wrapped around his shoulders, and watched the cell fill with pale moonlight.

159:

Despite Barnaby’s uneven breathing and slight trembling from time to time, the cell seemed empty, and Paul felt quite alone. He felt that he’d detached himself from the human race piece by piece, like a barnacle slowly tearing itself from a rock. He’d left his mother and his family, he’d put behind him for good the town he’d grown up in and all the people he knew there, he’d left the Paris he’d come to know as a youth, he’d left Europe with its winter fogs and endless brick and cobblestones. Now he seemed to have left the human race entirely, and he felt as though he was hanging suspended in the air over the endless plains of outback Australia.

160:

There was a peculiar quality to his experiences in the Australian bush that he tried to fix his mind on. It was a negative quality like emptiness or absence, and it was hard for the thinking mind to grasp. It was not simply an absence of human characters: the desert surrounding the Suez Canal, seen from the deck of the troop ship, was empty, but it seemed to wait for people. When a group of Arabs appeared with their camels slowly making their way across the distant horizon they seemed to add the finishing touch to a picture that had been waiting for them for a thousand years; there was a rightness about their being there, and they made the landscape complete. He had thought of Napoleon and his French army in Egypt, and of the poet de Nerval’s travels in the East, through Cairo, Beirut, and Constantinople. He reflected on how the mysteries of those regions had been taken into the French consciousness and domesticated there, so that a café in a dirty back street in Cairo seemed incomplete without cushions, a bubble pipe and a caramel-skinned serving boy, and a desert sandhill seemed to wait for the decorative touch of its camels.

161:

But the Australian bush was different. The British had not impressed it with their character, they only seemed to camp on its outer surface, and the bush seemed not to want people at all.

162:

It wasn’t a visual problem, either, the way the jungle in Java, once you left the main track, had been a nightmare of incomprehensible shapes: vines, branches, leaves, a tangle of slippery green forms on the jungle floor that could be edible fruit, or poisonous vines, or harmless pythons, or deadly snakes, so that you felt you could become fatally lost in a gloomy patch of greenery the size of a farmyard.

163:

No, the hostile and negative ambience of the bush was more like a human emotion, but since it existed in the landscape, outside the mind, it must be like a mould of an emotion, the way a stamp for a coin is the hollowed-out reverse of the coin’s design.

164:

Then he remembered the quiet in the empty Masonic Hall that afternoon, less than a week ago. There was the same absence in the dusty air, in the honour roll of names inscribed in gilt lettering — colonial soldiers fighting for the English Queen, lost and buried twenty years ago in some forgotten province of Africa, or when the British garrison at Kabul was wiped out, or perhaps in the Crimea, where his father had fought and seen his friends die among the battering blasts of the cannon.

165:

He was drawn to this sense of absence: he felt its giddy attraction. He’d had enough of boasting, of pushing himself forward, of arrogant claims on the universe. Now he longed to become invisible, to pass through the cities crowded with stinking human bodies and to push on, out into the hinterland where the sun baked the empty rocks, to sink into that blaze of silence. Perhaps that was where God lay waiting for him, hidden behind an invisible curtain of blue sky.

166:

A cloud must have gone over the moon — the cell went completely dark, as though someone had blown out a lamp. He lay down and tried to go to sleep.
 
[»»] Back to the Contents page

Black Gold, Chapter 21

Chapter 21 — Stamps
… In which Paul Nouveau leaves Greenleaves’ place and returns to the Advertiser office. There he meets Jimmy Skylark with a bluetongue lizard, and Jimmy tells Paul that he has found his tracks at the back of the boarding house, and that Paul is under suspicion for the murder of Verhereen. Paul talks Frank into visiting Solomon Goldstein, the pawnbroker, and discovers that Verheeren had tried to pawn some stamps. They go back to Verheeren’s room and Paul discovers that the stamps on Verheeren’s letters are not genuine, and are in fact very valuable. He has been collecting rare first editions and misprints, and no one has guessed that the stamps are not the real thing. Stern and Constable Sloessor arrive, and they take Paul off to the Police Station to answer some awkward questions. Just as Sloessor is starting to question Paul, a distraught youth arrives with an urgent message: two masked men had knocked out the stable boys and made off with two horses. Paul is locked in the cells and Sloessor goes to investigate.

Paragraph One follows — 1:

Greenleaves was moved by the memory of these events. Paul found the story soaked in pathos to an unusual degree, but otherwise not very interesting. The uncle seemed to be one of those dilettantes and failures who had so annoyed him in the literary world of Paris. He was about to comment that the story was ironic, but Greenleaves would have expected him to say that, so he held his tongue. He felt uneasy, as he often had in this situation. Someone related an experience that had affected them deeply, but it failed to affect Paul at all. Was there something missing from his feelings? Or were other people sometimes too sentimental, as he suspected? Greenleaves didn’t seem that type — he had a healthy streak of cynicism and kept his distance from human folly. But then perhaps, in his uncle’s story, Greenleaves had been given a vision of his own fate — living on without friends or family in his mouldering mansion in the bush, talking to his parrots, playing chess against himself, poring over old writers whose reputations had sunk into oblivion, and finally growing old alone.

2:

Mary appeared at the door to thank Greenleaves for his hospitality. Her frank manner, her clear eyes and skin, the light timbre of her voice all helped to dispel the bitter mood that had gripped Paul. He stood at the window and watched the children running down the path, laughing and yelling to each other. ‘I must go too,’ he said to Greenleaves. ‘The past, that’s finished. Here the sun is shining, and a man has been murdered. You heard about the old Belgian?’

3:

‘Yes, Mrs Emmott was full of it. She’s normally a reticent soul, but this morning she delivered herself of a long complaint about the police and their failings. It sounds a nasty business.’

4:

‘I talked to Verheeren only the other day. I should like to find out more about him. Thank you for the coffee, and the talk.’

5:

‘It was my pleasure. Do call by again, Mr —’ he gave a slight smile and a little bow — ‘Mr Nouveau.’

6:

Paul found Frank chatting to Jimmy on the front veranda of the Advertiser office. Jimmy’s pup was not in evidence; instead, he was holding a large lizard in his arms and stroking its back gently. It seemed to be asleep. It was fat, banded with grey-blue and black, and about a foot long: it reminded Paul of an engraving he’d seen in a book of animals of the world: the poisonous Gila monster of Arizona.

Bluetongue Lizard. From the internet.

7:

‘Does that thing kill people too?’ Paul asked.

8:

Frank laughed. ‘What do you say, Jimmy? He looks mean enough, but I don’t think Jimmy would be buddies with him if he were poisonous.’

9:

‘Old Bob’s not harmful, Mr Nouveau,’ Jimmy said. ‘I found him asleep in the sun out the back, where he’s liable to get run over by a dray. You’ve been up to see that Greenleaf bloke.’

10:

‘Greenleaves,’ said Paul. ‘News travels fast; I’ve just come from there.’

11:

‘You carrying the tracks with you,’ Jimmy said, pointing to Paul’s boots. There was a faint line of white clay around the front of the left boot, where Paul had stepped in a puddle. ‘That’s white pipeclay from the side of the hill,’ Jimmy said. ‘My people used to have a need for that, once upon a time.’

12:

‘Well, Jimmy’ said Frank, ‘if the printing trade takes a down-turn, you can always get a position as a detective.’

13:

‘I turned up for my lesson this morning,’ Paul said. ‘I couldn’t seem to find you.’

14:

Jimmy looked down at the ground. ‘Oh, I’m real sorry about that, Mr Nouveau. You see, Constable Sloesser wanted me.’

15:

‘Oh? What for? Nothing bad, I hope.’

16:

‘No, no. He’s trying to find that murderer feller. He had me take a look around the back of Miss Mackenzie’s place. Looking for tracks.’ Jimmy spat on the ground. ‘He should have thought of that on Thursday morning early, right after it happened, not today. Place was a mess. Tracks everywhere.’

17:

Paul felt a chill go down his spine. He licked his lips. ‘Did you — did you find anything?’

18:

‘Nothin’ much. There were tracks there from the people who live at that place. My own tracks, from when I was cutting blackberries there.’ He looked up at Paul. ‘And your tracks, Mr Nouveau.’

19:

‘Of course. You remember, I called there yesterday with Miss Bell.’ Paul could hear his blood pounding in his ears, and for a moment he imagined that Frank and Jimmy could hear it too.

20:

‘Well, that’s the problem, Mr Nouveau. You see… these tracks of yours were out the back, around the back yard and the veranda there, and beside the water tank. That was where the feller climbed up onto the roof, I reckon. He must have cut himself on a nail: he left a smudge of his blood there, quite fresh, on that nail. Now, I recollect I was working at the side and the back of the house, and I don’t recall you or Miss Julie going around the back yesterday.’

21:

‘But I did. I went out the back to look around, just for a minute. You must have been somewhere else at the time.’ He felt himself flush, and hoped it might be taken for anger.

22:

Jimmy shrugged. ‘Well, whatever you say. I’m just the tracker, I just tell what I see. It’s up to them fellers in uniforms to make use of it.’

23:

‘The police, they’re hopeless,’ Paul said angrily. ‘They should be looking for that outlaw.’

Police. From the internet.

24:

‘Who’s that?’ Frank asked.

25:

‘That Heeney, the brother. You know he attacked me that night. He is the brother of the man I killed, one of the bushrangers. He was roaming about that night, looking to murder someone. He has already killed a man, with a shotgun, arguing over some horse out the back of a grog shop in Jerilderie. That’s what that Barnaby fellow said. Everyone knew the old Belgian had money of some kind; it is obvious that some criminal like that did it. Why do not they track him down, and bring him in?’

26:

‘Old Sloesser never said anything about him,’ Jimmy said. ‘There were some tracks there I couldn’t be certain of. Anyhow, I got to go. Come on, old boy,’ he said to the lizard, and went into the printing shop.

27:

Paul took a few deep breaths, and tried to calm his racing pulse. ‘Ah, this town,’ he said. ‘It looks so pleasant, the farms, the river with its willow trees brushing the water. But I didn’t come to the country to find things like this.’

28:

‘Like what?’ Frank asked.

29:

‘Things like bushrangers, and murders.’ He wiped his forehead, and looked around. ‘That boat will not wait for me.’

30:

‘Boat?’

31:

‘I have a job on the Trade Winds, the ship is sailing back to Marseilles, I have to get back to France. Johanssen said he’d keep the job for me, for two weeks, then the ship sails with or without me. They had to get the steam engine repaired. It will be fitted, and the ship loaded and ready to sail, on Tuesday, only a few days away.’

Ships in Harbour, Sydney, 1871. From the internet.

32:

‘Didn’t you say… didn’t you say Sloesser wanted you to stay in town until then, to speak to the Police Magistrate about the holdup?’

33:

‘Oh, damn Sloesser! What, am I his servant, to wait on his pleasure?’

34:

Frank looked down at his feet. ‘Whatever you say.’

35:

‘I do not want to speak to Police Magistrates.’ Paul could hear his voice getting louder than he meant it to sound. ‘You do not know what it is like, those people are like spies, they follow you around, they take down each scrap of evidence, they try to trap you with some little thing you may have said, some harmless remark about the weather, where you were one morning, what you said, joking, to a friend, they weave it into some plot of their own.’ He paced up and down the veranda. ‘You mention the slightest thing, they make something of it that was never there, they concoct some fantastic story that has coils and suckers like an octopus, that wraps its arms around you and drags you down. It is far better to stay out of their reach. Because they are always thinking of some crime done in the darkness, and you are just talking about innocent things done in the light of day. They are like a master criminal, wise and powerful, and you are like a baby, smiling and babbling silly things that they use, they use these things to incriminate you.’ He brushed back his spiky hair. ‘The boat, I do not know what to do. It is like a lifeline to Europe, to my home.’

36:

‘Well, that’s your decision,’ Frank said. ‘By the way, what do you think of Greenleaves?’

37:

‘Greenleaves? Oh — he’s an odd bird. We had a good long talk. He — he had been in Paris when I was there. You know he has one of those writing machines. Huh — you should see it, it prints like a newspaper.’

38:

Frank smiled. ‘I see enough of print right here, thanks.’

39:

Paul seemed to have calmed down. ‘Frank, I want to ask you something. Do you know the pawn shop in Wagga?’

40:

‘Old Solomon’s? Sure thing. Why, are you short of money? Don’t be embarrassed to ask. I could lend you some.’

41:

Paul laughed, and put his hand on Frank’s shoulder. ‘Oh, Frank,’ he said, ‘you must never go into your family business. You would give all the money away.’ Frank gave a half-hearted grin. ‘No, I want to follow up a suspicion; what you would call a hunch. Stern mentioned that Verheeren had made a visit there last week: I wonder why. From what I heard of him in Java, he had no need to go to pawnbrokers. I should like to pay a visit to Mr Solomon.’

42:

‘Sure, it’s only a block or two. I’ll take you there.’

43:

The shop was in a side street in an unassuming part of the town. Willow trees drowsed in the heat. A bell tinkled over the door when they entered. The room was small and dim, with a glass-fronted display counter that offered a violin with no strings, a backgammon board, and a case of surveyor’s instruments. A battered bugle hung on the wall. There was a large bird-cage by the door at the back, and a fat grey bird with a pink head bobbed and weaved on his perch, alarmed at the intrusion.

44:

‘That is a beautiful parrot,’ Paul said.

45:

‘It’s not a parrot, exactly; it’s a galah,’ Frank said. ‘They’re supposed to be very stupid.’

46:

‘Ah,’ said Paul to himself. ‘So this is the galah.’

47:

The owner came out slowly from the back room, followed by a smell of frying onions. He was a short balding fellow of comfortable girth, wearing a flannel pyjama top, old trousers held up by braces, and carpet slippers. He needed a shave, and the grey cardigan he was pulling on had holes at the elbows. ‘It’s all right, Fritz,’ he said to the bird, as he passed. ‘Just some gentlemen come to visit.’ The accent was tinted with something European, and a touch of American. ‘And what do you want, gentlemen?’ he asked. ‘To sell or to buy?’ His voice was friendly, but his face was expressionless.

48:

Paul explained the purpose of their visit.

49:

‘The Belgian, or the Dutchman, whatever,’ said Solomon, and scratched his chin. ‘Yes, he came here once only, poor man. A week ago. What do you want to know, did he pawn something? Why else would a man come here?’

Stamps. From the internet.

50:

‘What was it he wanted to pawn with you?’ Paul asked.

51:

‘Are you interested in stamps?’

52:

‘Stamps?’ asked Paul. ‘You mean, collecting them, for a hobby? Not really; no.’

53:

‘That’s what he offered me: stamps. An album of stamps.’ Solomon hooked his thumbs in his braces. ‘That was a fashion for a while in Europe, ten or fifteen years ago, but it never made much of an impression here in the back of beyond. I said to the Dutchman — he looked tired and unhappy — I said to him, there’s not much interest hereabouts in stamp collections. It was a craze for a while, and now people are tired of it. But he wanted to sell. It’s not bad, considering.’ He drew a large red-bound book from under the counter, and opened it for them to see. ‘It’s quite a large collection. And many exotics.’

54:

Paul turned a few pages. ‘It’s beautiful,’ he said. ‘All those different stamps, all the colours.’ He turned another page.

55:

‘There must be hundreds of them,’ Frank said.

56:

Paul traced his finger lightly over the page. ‘Luxembourg, Great Britain, Dutch East Indies. Dark green, orange-red, yellow, black. All the different countries in the world.’ He stared at the page for a while, then gathered his thoughts. ‘Might I ask what it’s worth, Mr Solomon?’

57:

The pawnbroker frowned and scratched his chin again. ‘Solomon Goldstein,’ he said. ‘Well, I hadn’t thought of a value for it yet. Oh, I could let you have it for — say — twelve guineas’.

58:

‘Twelve guineas?’ Paul spoke more to himself than to Goldstein. ‘Half a lifetime in Java, and you end up with a stamp collection worth twelve guineas. Is that all?’

59:

Goldstein blinked at him. ‘Well,’ he said, ‘well, I could charge you more, if you insist.’ He laughed; but the joke went nowhere.

60:

‘My father once gave me an envelope full of stamps that he’d collected from around the world,’ Paul said. ‘Algeria, Italy, the Crimea. I thought they were wonderful.’

61:

‘Yes, I gave some to my sister’s kids a couple of years back,’ Frank said. ‘From places I’d been to, in the navy.’

62:

‘I can still see those stamps — I could count them all for you now. They were mainly pictures of kings and queens. I pasted them into an album I made up from an old school book, and I collected coloured pictures of the different countries the stamps were from, and put them next to the stamps. There was a picture of a mountain with snow on it, all in pale blue ink — that’s Helvetia — uh, I think you say Switzerland. A man ploughing a field, with the sun shining through a big cloud on the hill, dark blue and yellow, Great Britain. And a large picture from the Belgian Congo, a steam boat on the river, all purple and jungle green. Maybe I’d see a crocodile hiding in the reeds by the water’s edge: why, I’d grab my gun from the cabin and shoot him, just like that! And I’d never miss!’

63:

He laughed excitedly, and Frank joined in: ‘You’re a sharp shooter, all right!’

64:

Paul stared at the page of stamps, but he was seeing something else: a coach and team of horses in a courtyard; snow was falling from the grey sky. A tall man in an officer’s uniform was climbing aboard the coach. An ostler slammed the door shut and the horses stamped their feet and began to pull; the coach was moving out. A child was running across the cobbled yard, crying out something, and waving. Then the courtyard was empty.

Coach in Snow. From the internet.

65:

Solomon Goldstein didn’t know what to make of the silence. He cleared his throat. This must be the Frenchman people were talking about. ‘You the feller that shot them bushwhackers?’ he asked.

66:

They both looked at Paul, but he didn’t seem to have heard the question. Frank answered for him: ‘He sure is.’

67:

‘Yes, I heard about that,’ Solomon said, in his matter-of-fact tone. ‘We used to have bandits like that in California. Back in the gold rush days, that was. It’s all tame, now. Gone to the Devil.’

68:

Paul looked up, interest showing in his eyes. California? It seemed hard to believe that this stooped old man with his moth-eaten cardigan had fought and gambled in the American gold fields. ‘Were you in California, in the gold rush?’

69:

‘Yup. I sure was. I’m from Prussia myself, originally, then I emigrated to America as soon as I was old enough. If you could get out of Prussia, you got out. Some bad things happened; I lost some family there. I ended up in Virginia. That was a mistake. The people there, they don’t like my type. So I pushed on to California, for the gold rush, but I missed it.’ He gave a wheezing laugh and held his side. ‘That’s right, I missed the damn thing! No gold left by the time I got there. Then I came out here for the Australian gold rush, but I must have missed that, too. Couldn’t catch a train, that’s me.’ He laughed, and patted his stomach.

70:

‘Did you ever go to Florida?’ Paul asked. ‘I had a book with some pictures of the Everglades, the swamps they have there. I wanted to go there once.’

71:

‘Florida? Nah, full of alligators. I had a friend once, got bitten by an alligator. Chopped a piece right out of his thigh.’ He made a scraping motion with his hand, like a man scooping a chunk of ice-cream from a bucket. ‘And those water-snakes — ugh! Terrible!’ His hands now seemed to push something loathsome away from him. ‘Australia has enough snakes, thank you very much. Come to think of it, I don’t know why I came here. Or why I stayed.’

Florida. From the internet.

72:

‘What about New York?’ Paul asked. The stamp album had been forgotten. ‘They say it’s full of foreigners, and nobody minds where you come from.’

73:

‘Don’t you believe it,’ Solomon said. He pulled a cigar from his pyjama pocket and bit the end off it. ‘I heard plenty of bad things about New York.’ He inspected the cigar, stuck it in his mouth, and lit it. ‘I only spent a week there, on my way through to the South, but the folks hereabouts reckon I come from New York. What should I know about New York? Den of iniquity. No, I married a lady there, and went to live in Virginia. I must have been drunk, I reckon.’

74:

Frank had been browsing through the album, and he looked up. ‘Did you bring her with you to Australia?’ he asked.

75:

‘Nah, she left me. The marriage didn’t last. Religious differences.’ Solomon tapped the cigar against an ash tray, a florid piece of pink venetian glass with flowers painted around its bowl. ‘There’s so much individuality in that country, people can hardly bother to say good morning to one another. Every man for himself, shark eat shark. That’s why I packed my bags and got on the move again. I didn’t belong. I was feeling lost, at a loose end.’

76:

‘But in America —’ Paul began, but Goldstein was sick of it: ‘Oh, America,’ he said, brushing the topic away, ‘I want to forget America. And Prussia, Europe, all of it. That’s why I settled in this place, miles from anywhere. There’s no past here, just the future. I want to forget everything. Do you ever have that feeling? That you want to bury it all, and walk away?’

77:

‘Oh, yes,’ Paul said.

78:

‘Maybe you could beat him down on the price,’ Frank said. ‘There are some stamps missing there.’ He pointed at a page with two conspicuous blank spaces.

79:

‘Hmmm, you’re right,’ Paul said. ‘There are two missing.’ He took the album and turned the page. ‘And here, a blank space where another one has been taken out.’ His eyes narrowed, and he turned another page. ‘And here, three more. Every page has one or two missing.’ His voice had an edge of puzzlement and tension to it. Frank looked at him, and then at the album, trying to see what the puzzle was.

80:

‘Well,’ said Goldstein, ‘maybe the Dutchman had a couple of favourites he wanted to keep for himself. Maybe someone had sent him a love letter, and he wanted to keep the stamps for sentimental reasons.’ He began to laugh at his joke, but Paul’s voice cut the laugh short.

81:

‘What? What did you say?’

82:

Now he was confused. ‘I, uh, why, I just said —’

83:

‘Of course!’ Paul said, slamming the album shut. The galah shrieked in his cage, and danced with anger. ‘I knew there was some trick to this.’ He dropped the album onto the counter and grabbed Frank’s arm.

84:

‘I don’t know what you’re up to,’ Frank said, ‘but I suppose I ought to tag along.’

85:

‘But gentleman,’ Goldstein said, ‘the stamps! You’re forgetting the stamp album.’ They were already at the door, and he raised his voice: ‘All right, for you, ten guineas!’ But it was too late. The bell jingled, and the door slammed. Through the window he could see their figures hurrying across the dusty street.

86:

‘Ah, Fritz — people these days,’ he said to the galah. ‘What’s the use? Always rushing somewhere different. What’s wrong with them? It’s like they can’t wait for the end of the world.’ Fritz bobbed his agreement.

87:

The room was quiet and still. The pool of sunlight from the window had moved across the floor and now glowed in the centre of the carpet where Verheeren had fallen. The letters were where they had been left, scattered on the desk and across the floor. Paul dropped to his knees and gathered some of the envelopes, tossing the letters away. ‘See?’ he said. ‘This letter, posted to his wife. His address is given as Batavia.’

88:

Frank picked up an envelope from the desk. He examined the stamps, and looked across at Paul’s. ‘So the stamps should be, what — Dutch East Indies, right?’

89:

‘That’s right. But look — one English, an old one too. And this one from Western Australia — “4-d” — quatre denier, denari — that’s four pennies, isn’t it?’ He squinted at it closely, and held the envelope out for Frank to see. ‘You can see the outside frame of the stamp has been printed upside-down.’ He took it back, and looked at the third stamp closely. ‘This one’s from Belgium. They should all be Dutch East Indies stamps, but they’re not.’

90:

‘And this envelope, from Sulawesi, it says.’ Frank held it out. ‘But the stamps are from Luxembourg and British Guiana!’

91:

‘Let me see.’ Paul looked it over. ‘That Luxembourg one, see? The printing is wrong. The orange ink is crooked. This envelope was never posted like this. It was never meant to be posted.’

92:

They scrabbled among the scattered papers again. ‘Look at this,’ Frank said with real excitement in his voice. ‘An American Confederate stamp! Can you believe it? A Confederate stamp! And I didn’t even notice it before!’ He stared at the stamp as though it was a calling card left by a visitor from another world, as in a way it was. He turned to Paul, who had just about finished collecting the envelopes and separating them from their contents. ‘How many’s that now?’

93:

‘Ah — twenty-four envelopes, with the two you have there. Each one has two stamps; some have three. Altogether — fifty-four — fifty-five stamps.’

94:

‘What are they worth? Do you know?’

95:

‘No, I’m not an expert. But I know this one — from Western Australia — it’s worth hundreds of pounds. The British penny black, maybe thousands. And this blue Belgian twenty centimes — you can see it has been printed twice by mistake. That makes it rare, and valuable. Altogether, a lot of money; but how much, I couldn’t guess.’

96:

Frank sat in the captain’s chair, and leaned his arm on the desk. He looked around the silent room: the empty bed so neatly made, the motionless pool of sunlight, the belongings of the dead man spilling from the desk drawers, the bow on the floor and the poisoned arrows from Borneo hung on the wall above the mantelpiece. And the square of oilcloth covering the blood-soaked carpet. It seemed unreal. Perhaps it hadn’t sunk in properly yet: the strange murder, the treasure hidden so cunningly. ‘I wonder how he collected so many different stamps, while he was living in Java. He must have been obsessed with the hobby.’

97:

Paul didn’t answer for a moment; he was thinking. It all made a beautiful pattern, to him. The mark of the man was on everything he did, the way a man’s signature and his ordinary handwriting were intimately linked. The culture taught you to write in a certain way, to form the letters like so. The muscles of the arm and hand then responded and formed the letters slightly differently for each person, like so. The style was imposed from the outside, and the interpretation of that style answered from the inside of the body, and where they met, there was the handwriting, there was the signature.

98:

‘The stamps?’ he said. ‘No, no. I don’t think he even cared about the stamps. They were simply a way of making sure his earnings were safe. A diamond trader is always at risk. This way his profits were safe from thieves — who would steal some old letters? And of course safe from customs and tax inspectors, who like to know about such things as pearls and diamonds. Verheeren had spent half a lifetime in trade and travel, moving back and forth across the world. He had endless opportunities to work out ways of concealing his business.’ Paul thought for a minute, and said with disdain: ‘Of course his girls, he could not bring them.’

99:

‘His girls?’

100:

‘Verheeren owned brothels in Batavia and Semarang. He had something like thirty girls, altogether. He was making a lot of money.’ Paul thought of Dewi for a moment, in a room lit by a flickering lamp, combing her long dark hair in front of a mirror. ‘Of course he was giving bribes to the Police Inspector in Batavia, but he got greedy and tried to cheat him. You don’t cheat people like that. So he had to get out of the East Indies in a hurry.’

101:

Frank shook his head. ‘I had no idea he was that kind of a man. He did a bit of accounting work, and he kept to himself. Always rude and argumentative to the men, always flattering to the ladies. And running through his mind all the time must have been this other life he’d left behind.’

102:

Paul gave a bitter laugh. ‘He wasn’t the kindly old Dutch uncle that Miss Mackenzie imagines, puffing on his pipe and dreaming of the windmills of Holland. Well, perhaps he was puffing on a pipe; an opium pipe. And he was dreaming of something quite different from windmills. It’s all part of the colonial way of doing things. First you get your army to conquer a less advanced culture. Then you get your slaves.’

103:

‘Slaves?’ Frank was perturbed. What was this talk of slaves? The Dutch had never been involved in the slave trade, not as far as he knew.

104:

‘The Dutch,’ said Paul. ‘You know they have turned the whole island of Java into slave labour for their sugar plantations, and spices. God help me, my job as a soldier was to keep the slaves in line. And if someone like Verheeren wants to have his own private slave girls working for him in a brothel, why, the Dutch think it’s fine, as long as they get their cut of the profits.’

105:

This sounded like French Communard politics, and Frank wasn’t comfortable in those murky waters. ‘I’m still trying to figure out.’ Frank said, ‘how he managed to collect so many different valuable stamps, while he was in Java.’

106:

‘I think he converted his earnings into rough diamonds, then he sent the diamonds to Amsterdam to be cut. And then he exchanged them for the stamps. Maybe his wife managed that side of it, from Antwerp. I imagine she would have quite a collection, too’.

107:

Frank looked at the heap of worn and grubby envelopes on the desk. ‘What do you think we should do with them?’

108:

Paul gave a nasty laugh. ‘Well, his wife can have the letters. Why not? But the envelopes, and their stamps — they represent the profits of an evil life.’ He gave Frank a long stare from his serious blue eyes. ‘What do you think we should do with them, Frank?’

109:

Frank shifted in his chair. ‘Well,’ he said. He felt uncomfortable. To steal from a thief — it had a certain moral aptness to it. ‘Well, I — I don’t know. It’s up to you, Paul. You were the one who worked it all out.’

110:

Paul was about to speak when the door opened. Once again, it was Stern who stood framed there, scowling. Paul felt a wave of anger wash through him: they had already been through this ridiculous charade.

111:

‘So here they are,’ Stern said in his hard voice, ‘just as Miss Mackenzie said. Searching through the murdered man’s belongings.’

112:

The anger was like a drug; Paul he felt his breathing quicken and his hands clench. ‘What are you doing here, Stern?’ he spat out.

113:

But there was another man pushing through behind Stern, a chubby man in a dark blue uniform. Paul recognised him as the police Constable who had taken his deposition a few days ago.

114:

Stern stood aside to let him past, and pointed at Paul: ‘There you are, Constable. Arrest this man.’

115:

The Constable cleared his throat. ‘Mr Nouveau,’ he said. ‘I’d like you to come with me, sir, to the Police Station.’

116:

The words were ridiculous. The light seemed to fade, and the room whirled around him. ‘What do you mean, come to the Police Station? What on earth do you want with me? Why aren’t you out looking for Heeney? He tried to murder me the other night.’

117:

‘Never mind about Heeney. It’s you I’m interested in, sir. We have found certain tracks at the rear of the building. I’d like to satisfy myself as to your whereabouts at the time Mr Verheeren was murdered. I’d like you to help me with certain inquiries, sir.’

118:

‘But this is ridiculous,’ Frank said.

119:

The Constable was unperturbed; he didn’t look at Frank, but kept his gaze fixed on Paul. ‘And I’m afraid I must confiscate your revolver, sir. Would you be carrying that, at the present time?’

120:

‘My gun is at Doctor Bell’s house,’ Paul said angrily. ‘I do not usually carry it about with me. But why are you doing this?’

121:

Stern spoke: ‘You’re a foreigner, Mr Nouveau, if that’s your name. We don’t know who you really are, or where you come from, or what your business is. To put it politely, Nouveau, you’re a suspicious character. Is that right, Constable?’

122:

‘That would be one way of putting it, sir. No one in Wagga has any idea who the murderer might be. It’s not a local person. They’re decent people around here, and that would be very unlikely. So we’re looking at a stranger as the likely suspect. You fit that description, as well as being foreign. I feel obliged to make thorough enquiries.’

123:

‘At the urging of Mister Stern, I see.’ Paul’s jibe was pointless; things had been arranged.

124:

‘You’ve shown that you’re capable of cold-blooded killing, Nouveau,’ Stern went on. ‘It was only yesterday that you shot and killed two men.’

125:

Frank appealed to the Constable: ‘But that was self-defence. I was there.’ He swung on Stern, who looked away. ‘Those two men, they were murderers! Mr Nouveau was protecting the lives of the other passengers — one of whom was your fiancée! Do you realise what might have happened if those bushrangers had found us unarmed and helpless?’

126:

None of this had any effect on the Constable, who might as well have been deaf. He had made up his mind long ago. ‘Don’t make it difficult for yourself, sir. It will only take a day or two to look into the matter.’

127:

‘Very well. I shall come along with you, Constable. Oh, Frank. I should be glad if you could clean up the mess we have made here. I would not want Miss Mackenzie to think that we had left one of her rooms in a state like this.’

128:

Frank looked around at Verheeren’s clothes spilling out of the open drawers, at the letters scattered about the floor, and at the pile of envelopes on the desk. He glanced at Stern, but Stern was staring at Paul, a triumphant sneer on his face.

129:

‘Yes, of course, pal,’ Frank said. He looked at Paul. ‘I’ll see that everything’s tidied up.’

130:

Miss Mackenzie’s guests stared as Paul was led from the house. He had not been handcuffed, but the Constable held his arm in a firm grip, and Paul was very much a man under suspicion.

131:

They walked in silence. He knew it would be futile to plead with either of his gaolers; they would enjoy mocking him. As they trudged down the dusty sunlit street a few people looked from the safety of their verandas, and pointed and talked. Men stopped on street corners and stared after them until they passed out of view. The afternoon sun was warm, and Paul felt sweat prickling on his neck. He wanted to take his jacket off, but said nothing. When they got to the Police Station in the centre of the town Stern left them. ‘Half my sheep are starving, and I’ve business at Redding’s feed store,’ he said to the Constable. ‘Now mind, I want you to get the dirt on this fellow. And keep your eye on him.’ He spat on the ground, and glared at Paul. ‘He’s as sly as a rat.’

132:

They went inside; Sloesser called for the clerk and asked him to bring pen and paper. ‘We’ll have a little talk,’ he said to Paul, ‘and the clerk will write it down, like we did before. I intend to get to the bottom of this business, to dig out the facts of the matter, like Mr Stern said. I want to know where you were at every moment for the last few days, witnesses, that sort of thing. For example, you were seen in the vicinity of the Chinaman’s place the other evening. You were seen wandering in the bush on your own, carrying something heavy. I don’t want to give anything away, so I’ll say no more. But when it’s all written out, a pattern will show up. We’ll track down your movements, all right.’

133:

Paul scowled and swallowed, but said nothing. His brain was whirling with a mixture of fear and rage, and he sat on his hands to stop them shaking.

134:

‘There’s the pearls, too. Now what do you know about that?’

135:

‘Pearls?’ asked Paul. ‘What are you talking about?’

136:

‘The old Dutchman. He had a money purse clutched in his hand. Now what do you think was in it? Eh?’

137:

‘Why, some money, I suppose. What else?’

138:

‘There were two pearls in there. Worth a few quid.’

139:

Paul’s blood ran cold. The amulet!

140:

Sloesser was watching him closely. ‘I reckon you know something about those pearls.’

141:

‘If I did know something about it, and if I murdered him, then why did I not take the pearls? Am I supposed to be stupid as well as criminal?’

142:

‘You could have left them there to throw people off your trail. You’re a peculiar character, very deep. Don’t you worry, we’ll get to the bottom of this.’

143:

Sloesser was settling himself in his chair, preparing to start the interview, when a distraught youth appeared with the news that there had been a fire at the stables, deliberately lit, and that under cover of the commotion two horses had been stolen. ‘Two of the stable boys were knocked down and hurt,’ he said.

144:

‘Who?’

145:

‘Bill and Ben, the Pollock boys,’ the youth said. ‘Ben’s unconscious and bleeding at the ears. You’ll have to come.’

146:

Sloesser hit the desk with the flat of his hand. ‘Hell and damnation! Who did it?’

147:

‘No one’s sure who did it — there were two of them, and they had their faces covered. Mr Birtwhistle reckons they aren’t locals.’

148:

‘Did they use firearms?’

149:

‘One of them was carrying a gun, but he didn’t fire it. He hit Ben with the butt, gave him an awful crack across the side of the head. You should have heard it. Whack!’

150:

Sloesser cursed. ‘Why does it always have to happen just when the Sergeant’s away with the other men? I’m blowed if I know. And who are these bloody horse thieves? Probably the very blokes the Sergeant’s looking for over at Hay, more than likely.’

151:

‘That is Heeney, I am sure of it,’ Paul said excitedly. ‘He killed Verheeren, can you not see that? And he knows he has to get away from the town before he can be caught. That is the reason why he stole the horses.’ He was shouting in his excitement. ‘Go and catch him! There you will find your murderer!’

152:

‘Don’t try to tell me my job,’ Sloesser snapped. ‘Damn and blast it. I’m short-handed. I’m going to have to lock you up.’

153:

‘But there are no charges against me! You can question me if you like, but to lock me up like a criminal? What sort of justice is this?’

154:

‘Now don’t you worry about what sort of justice it is. This is a proper Police Station, and we have proper procedures here. The clerk will write it all down in the Register Book.’

155:

‘How dare you —’

156:

‘Don’t get shirty, son, it’ll do you no good. It’s just for an hour or so. You’re my main suspect for a case of murder, and I’d look a bloody fool if I let you slip away now. God knows where you’d end up. The clerk will be in the other room, minding the place, so don’t try any funny business. Come on now, don’t make trouble, or you’ll regret it.’

157:

He led Paul to a cell at the back of the building and locked him in.
 
[»»] Back to the Contents page

Black Gold, Chapter 20

Chapter 20 — Morphy
… In which Paul Nouveau goes to meet Jimmy Skylark, waits, grows impatient and goes to Greenleaves’ place, where to his surprise he meets a gang of schoolchildren under the supervision of Mary Cameron. Greenleaves tells Paul that they have been studying the geography of South America. The two men withdraw to the study to talk. Greenleaves tells Paul of meeting a young Paul Morphy, the American chess champion, in Paris, who easily defeats Greenleaves at a game of chess. Paul is very interested in the way Morphy has withdrawn from the world of chess, somewhat in the same way that Paul has withdrawn from the world of writing. Greenleaves reminds Paul of the evening at the Café Tabourey. Paul tells of being shot at, in Belgium, and Greenleaves tells him of his uncle Ebenezer’s death, and the value of a new human life.

Paragraph One follows — 1:

The next day Paul went looking for Jimmy, to learn more about tracking. A road led out of the town and lost itself in a tangle of tussocks and blackberries. At the edge of a clearing where the forest began, almost in the shade of a stand of gum trees, Jimmy had built a one-room bark hut with a corrugated iron chimney and a lean-to shelter at the side, as though he wanted to keep one foot in the cleared area, and one in the shadows of the bush where his ancestors had lived. The flap of hessian that served as a door was hooked back on its nail. Paul called out, but there was no answer: though Jimmy had arranged to meet him, there was no one home. A plume of smoke drifted from the chimney, a fowl clucked and scratched idly in the yard, the dingo pup whimpered on his chain, These quiet domestic touches only made the scene more lonely.

Hut. From the internet.

2:

He thought for a moment of trying to find Jimmy by following his tracks, then he laughed at the thought. He couldn’t track a draught horse across a freshly-ploughed field. So he waited, sitting on a sawn-off stump. It must have been a giant once: the trunk was five or six feet across. Now the tree was a thousand boards of sawn timber, perhaps in the shape of a house, protecting some English migrant from the harsh Australian weather.

3:

What would an Impressionist painter make of this scenery, he wondered. Dry grass, khaki-coloured scrub, trees with shreds of bark hanging from the ragged trunks. Everywhere a harsh direct light that blazed down from the sky. In Europe it was possible to conceive of a kind of continuity with ancient times: a shepherd in the French countryside today looked more or less as a shepherd would have looked in the time of Theocritus. A tale of fauns and forest spirits was easily believable if you read it, as he had read from his tattered volume of Ovid, one evening in the courtyard of an inn at the foot of the Italian alps. In a small field behind the inn a goat had grazed at the lush grass; insects had drifted above the still surface of the mill pond. Here in this empty landscape no shepherd had ever dreamed, no water-wheel had ever turned; until the British came, no shoe had trodden the earth in more than a million years.

4:

After half an hour, when no one had turned up, he decided to call on Greenleaves again. He made his way to the edge of town, through the gate covered with creeping purple flowers, and up the long shaded drive. The day was warm, and small birds kept up a light chattering in the trees and bushes. From further down in the shaded hollows and gullies he heard the faint hooting he had noticed before, a mournful sound full of foreboding. It was a sound like a pigeon’s call, but deeper and with a heavier timbre, coloured like old mahogany. His shadow walked before him on the ground, foreshortened, unrecognisable, but his nonetheless. Like his soul, he thought — equally stubborn, just as dim and misshapen, as dogged and as faithful.

5:

He wondered whether he’d be made welcome when he arrived. He liked what he’d seen of Greenleaves: he seemed to Paul like a wise old badger who lives deep in the forest and shuns the other animals.

6:

The hill was long and steep, and he was tired when he reached the house.

7:

There were noises coming from inside. They were noises he hadn’t expected to hear in this place — the sound of children’s voices laughing and playing. For a strange moment he was transported back to his childhood. He could hear the seething chatter of schoolboys in the playground, the voice of a teacher calling for order, and the cawing of the rooks that gathered in the great yew trees behind the college buildings. He was a long way from that schoolyard now, and he had a strong feeling of dissociation, of being an observer at a ceremony whose meaning he didn’t quite understand, or an audience member waiting for a play to begin. The children’s voices were off-stage, and the small silent clearing where he stood in the warm sunlight in front of Greenleaves’ house was like a vestibule, a magical space that led to another world. The front door was ajar, and he went in.

8:

He met Mrs Emmott in the hall, wearing an apron and carrying a large tray of scones. ‘You’re just in time for tea and biscuits,’ she said. ‘They’ve finished with the stereoscope, and Mr Greenleaves said if I don’t stuff their mouths with food of some description he’ll be driven deaf!’ She laughed. ‘Come on through.’

9:

Paul followed her into the sun-room at the side of the house. Seven or eight children were chattering in a circle around Greenleaves, who was trying to explain how a South American gaucho captures a steer with his bolas. ‘He swings them like so,’ he said, gesturing with a skipping rope which he swung in a circle around his head, ‘and lets them go like so, and the heavy weights tangle around the beast’s neck, then you pull on the rope.’ He pretended to capture a small girl, and the group clapped and laughed. ‘Are you all right, my dear? There you are. Now, look carefully in the photograph and you’ll see how he holds the bolas.’

10:

‘It’s like a lasso!’ one of the children cried, and the others joined in. ‘My turn! Let me see!’

11:

Mary Cameron smacked one of the children with a ruler, and the others quietened down. ‘Mrs Emmott’s brought something to eat,’ Mary said. ‘Any more noise, and it’ll be no scones for anyone! Do you hear?’

12:

They ignored her, and swirled like starving birds around the tray of food.

13:

Greenleaves spotted Paul standing awkwardly to one side. ‘My dear fellow!’ he called. ‘How good of you to drop by. I say, you don’t happen to know anything about South American geography, do you?’

14:

‘Uh, no, not a thing. I did not know you were a teacher.’

15:

Greenleaves laughed. ‘Oh no, Mary’s the teacher here. D’you know Miss Cameron? It’s her birthday today.’

16:

‘But yes, of course.’

17:

Mary smiled and nodded gravely, and turned back to the serious job of controlling the appetites of her schoolmates. She was taller and older than the others, who were about eight or nine; that and the seriousness of her demeanour gave her an adult air. Her hair was tied back with a tartan ribbon and she wore a long dress of navy blue. She could have passed for a young teacher.

18:

‘Mary has brought some of her school friends to look through my collection of stereoscopic photographs of Paraguay and the Argentine. It’s their geography topic this month. Their teacher’s an old friend of mine, and the school thought it was a good idea. I bought the photographs in London. Here, why don’t we leave this rabble to Miss Cameron, and have a chat in the library. Come on through.’

19:

They passed into the large study where they had talked before, filled again with green light. Paul noticed that the typewriting machine had been moved to the main desk, and was surrounded by sheets of paper, typewritten on and scribbled across.

20:

‘You have mastered the machine?’

21:

‘No, it’s mastered me,’ Greenleaves said with a scowl. ‘I have been drawn into its vortex. I sit up all night fiddling with the various adjustments and oiling the keys, and typewriting gibberish under the impression that I’m making sense because the letters look so fine and finished. I am the machine’s slave.’ He laughed. ‘Oh well, we all need a hobby, that’s what Doctor Bell says, and it’s better than shooting pheasants, which is what my father did in his spare time. Killed a thousand birds by the age of fifty, he used to boast, though no one believed him. I don’t know if anyone ate the wretched things. Perhaps he threw them to the servants. Would you care for a coffee? I’ll ask Mrs Emmott to brew some.’

22:

When he returned he noticed Paul musing over the chess board. ‘Do you play chess?’

23:

‘Chess? No, no. I study the game when I was young, and I played a little in the cafés. It has no practical use.’

24:

Greenleaves laughed. ‘Too true. But that doesn’t stop people ruining their lives over it.’ He looked up at a sketch framed on the wall. ‘See that fellow? Most remarkable chess player I ever met.’

25:

Paul examined the drawing. It was a pen and ink piece about the size of a foolscap page, a portrait of a delicate young man in semi-formal dress sitting on a cushion. The artist had caught a haughty and withdrawn expression at the point where the sitter seemed to be receding, drawing away from contact with the artist and with the viewer. His lips had a sulky half-smile, and his eyes looked out at you, but they were not looking at anything at all.

Paul Morphy as drawn by Winslow Homer from Ballou’s Pictorial, 1859. Courtesy of The Strong, Rochester, New York. From the internet.

26:

‘It is cleverly done. Who made the drawing?’

27:

‘Winslow Homer’s the artist, a smart young American. It’s a sketch for a portrait; I picked it up in New York a few years ago. But it’s the sitter who’s of more interest to me. That’s Paul Morphy. A damned good likeness, too. You can almost feel the cool pressure of those small hands — plump and pale. I played a game against him once, in Paris. I lasted five minutes. Those tiny hands gently moved piece after piece across the board, and in a few moments I was destroyed.’

28:

‘I heard something about him. I think de l’Isle-Adam said he had played a game with him once. In Paris, you said?’

29:

‘That’s where I met him; it must have been, oh, ten years ago. He’d given up playing professionally by that time. He was in Europe on a private visit, and he avoided the chess haunts. He played an occasional friendly game, no more. Played like an angel.’

30:

‘He gave up playing?’

31:

‘It’s an odd story. He came to Paris in Fifty-eight, and beat Anderssen, Harrwitz, and Loewenthal. He conquered the best that Europe could throw against him, one after the other. He was the greatest chess player in the world at the age of twenty-one. He was the first American ever to be the best in the world at anything. They idolised him in New York — your average American doesn’t care that much for chess, but they carried Morphy through the streets in triumph. Then he went back to New Orleans — to practise law he said — and gave it all away. Must be middle-aged now. He’s still there, as far as I know, a recluse.’

32:

‘Huh,’ said Paul. ‘Like you.’

33:

Greenleaves snorted. ‘I’m no Morphy,’ he said. ‘In this town you’re considered stand-offish if you don’t drink every day in the pub with the blacksmith and the grooms. I choose not to help out at the cake stall each weekend, I decline invitations to attend the church soirée, and they call me a misanthrope. Well, damn them.’ He stroked his beard and glared. From the adjoining greenhouse, flooded with submarine light, a crimson parrot glared back. It bobbed its head and shook out its feathers as though in irritable agreement.

34:

Mrs Emmott appeared with the coffee; Greenleaves poured.

35:

Paul’s mind was running on another track. ‘But why did he throw it away?’

36:

‘Morphy? Why? Oh, people say it was because someone insulted him over the board. He was a sensitive fellow. But to give up the game? I don’t know. Some say it was because Staunton refused his challenge. Staunton was the best player in Britain, but not up to Morphy’s standard, and he was cunning enough to stay well out of Morphy’s reach, like a rat hiding in the cellar when a terrier’s hunting him upstairs. And some say it was because a young beauty back in New Orleans threw him over for a wealthy lawyer. Morphy had Creole blood in his veins. And then there was the war.’

37:

‘The war?’

38:

‘The American war, North against South. He was a Southerner, but he couldn’t make up his mind to fight for one side or the other, apparently. That must have been pretty sticky, in New Orleans, when fellows were going off to get shot as a matter of honour. But that may have had nothing to do with it. Perhaps he couldn’t stand the sudden blaze of fame, strangers chattering at him in the street, desperate people begging him for money. Perhaps he was a bit touched. God knows the real reason.’

39:

‘But you met him. You faced him, you sat close enough to touch him, you looked into those eyes, those hooded eyes. Did you not ask him?’

40:

‘Ask him? What?’

41:

‘Did you not ask him why he gave it away? I would ask him.’

42:

‘Dammit, a fellow doesn’t do that sort of thing.’ Greenleaves looked cross, and shrugged his shoulders into his jacket in a gesture of annoyance. ‘As a matter of fact, I prefer to believe that there isn’t a reason.’

43:

‘No reason? What do you mean?’

44:

‘That he got sick of the whole thing, and just gave it away, for no real reason at all. What do you think?’

45:

The question was sudden: Paul withdrew into himself. ‘This matter, I do not have an opinion.’

46:

Greenleaves regarded him closely. ‘But I think you do have an opinion.’

47:

Paul turned back to look at the sketch. Morphy was gazing out from his frame at a slight angle, he realised now, just enough to avoid the eye of the artist or the viewer, looking over the viewer’s shoulder, in fact, at something else: perhaps at his own receding fame. His body seemed small, his trunk short; perhaps that was the reason for the cushion. One arm rested on a desk with a chess game set out. The other hung hesitantly against his side, the fingers slightly closed, as though he was about to put something into his trouser pocket, or perhaps to take something out. The expression was hard to read: it was both confident and evasive at once. He must have been in his early twenties: Paul’s age.

48:

‘Once I should have had an opinion,’ Paul said carefully. ‘Not any more. Perhaps you are right. He grew sick of it and gave it away. After all, it is a miserable profession, putting your skill and reputation to the test in a smoky café over a pointless game, and doing it time after time, in different cities of the world. It must be like performing tricks in front of a crowd of sticky-beaks, like that chimpanzee at the show. What was his name? Consul.’

49:

‘I remember a remark Morphy made, about the brief period when he was famous. He said he felt like a chess automaton, but with no person inside. A quaint idea.’

50:

‘Automaton?’

51:

‘Yes, a machine,’ Greenleaves said, ‘like an elaborate clock or a mechanical bird, a machine that plays chess. There was one at the court in Vienna, I believe, a hundred or so years ago. A lot of people were taken in. They say there was a dwarf inside, but no one ever proved it. Think of him, poor fellow, doomed to hide his light under a bushel.’

52:

‘How ironic.’

53:

‘I’ve noticed that you fasten onto the ironic aspect of things, my friend. It’s as though you are looking at everything through my stereoscope. You seem to focus on the ordinary events of the world so that their imperfections and their slight contradictions stand out in sharp relief, with the extra dimension of irony. Is it a talent of the French, I wonder, or just something that is particular to your personality?’

The Mechanical Turk. From the internet.

54:

‘Oh, I believe it is the secret operating principle of life in the modern world. Was it not Michelet who said that everything important happens twice: the first time as melodrama, the second time as irony. But think of such a dwarf — eh? — an artistic genius whose canvas is the chess board, but who is fated to toil in darkness. A lifetime of clever moves and brilliant victories, but all of it meaningless to him, because he may never claim any of it for himself. His lot is silence and absence. And if one fateful day, one day in a fit of frustration, he should give in to the temptation to throw off his mask and claim the fame due to his genius, why, that would be the moment of his greatest shame.’ Paul’s blue eyes were sparkling.

55:

He noticed that Greenleaves was gazing at him with a penetrating stare. He stopped himself, and checked his hands in the middle of a dramatic gesture. The door was open slightly and the children’s voices came from the sun-room, light and clear as though they were the actors in a fairy tale laughing at some trick a goblin had played on the princess. Again he had the feeling that he stood on the edge of another world that had a peculiarly intense quality of meaning, perhaps a world of memory or dream.

56:

‘Ah, memory,’ said Greenleaves, as though he had been reading his thoughts. ‘When your eyes glitter like that I seem to see the Café Tabourey that November midnight, All Souls’ eve, a chill wind blowing in under the door, and that miserable boy sitting on his own. What was he thinking, gazing at the bottom of his glass, I wonder.’

57:

Paul stared at him intently for a moment, and then the words rushed out, thick with anger: ‘You are a calm, sensible man. You have family wealth to indulge your talents and your dreams. I had to beg money from my mother for my vanities. And when my pathetic little book was printed in Belgium at great expense — what did I know about publishing? Nothing! — and when a handful of copies had been sent out to the people who matter in Paris, I went to these critics on my knees to see if they might give the book a notice.’

58:

‘You? On your knees?’ Greenleaves pursed his lips and shook his head slightly. ‘I hope you’ll forgive me if I suggest that I find that unlikely. What were the notices like? Not good?’

59:

‘Notices? There were no notices. Those who declined to spit on me refused to answer the door. They were “not at home”, at least not to me, permanently and forever.’ His voice rose to a shout. ‘Not at home!’

60:

‘No notices? Nothing? What happened to your book?’

61:

‘There is no book, apart from those few copies, now in various wastebaskets or rotting on a garbage heap. I could not pay for the rest, and I presume the printer cut them up for waste. That is what they do, is it not? Cut them up for waste?’

62:

‘What had you done to these people to make them hate you so?’

63:

‘You know what I had done. You were in the Tabourey, it was only three years ago, you were there with your friend Poussin, you said, gossiping with the rest of them, those hyenas who were “not at home” to me. Surely they told you.’

64:

Greenleaves looked at him quietly for a while. ‘Suppose you tell me. I shan’t judge.’

65:

Paul gave him a surly glance, and looked at the parrot. ‘I might as well vindicate myself to your resident critic here. What was his name, did you say? Pater?’ The parrot gave an angry whistle and bobbed on his branch. Paul stared at him for a while, his eyes unfocussed, going over old things in his mind. At length he spoke, in a calmer voice. ‘There were two things. One, I had been rude to many of them. As it happens, most of the litterateurs in Paris are cretins and frauds. I suppose it is always the way, perhaps it is a law of nature that in any culture at any time in history, most of the people who want to be writers are in fact vain incompetents. I have a temper. So, I said cruel things, I mocked them for their dull rhymes, their stolen metaphors — quite rightly. I said their scribblings were amateurish drivel. It is all true, but I got what I deserved. Well, it is history now.’

66:

‘And the other reason these people hated you?’

67:

‘That business with the old homosexual man. You know he tried to murder me.’ Paul rubbed his wrist. ‘He shot at me, I was just lucky the bullet hit my arm and didn’t pass through into my body and kill me. He was a weakling, a drunk, a would-be murderer. The weakness — I hated that. Then in the street the next day he tried to murder me again, and this time I grabbed a policeman who was there. Perhaps that was a moment of cowardice, who knows? I do not have to justify that, surely. They put me in hospital where I nearly died of fever from the bullet wound, and they put him in prison for two years. His friends — well, they were sorry for him, and they hated me for it, they called me a corrupter. Me! I was a sixteen-year-old schoolboy when I met that bastard. What did they want, that I should lie there on the pavement in Brussels in the rain, and beg him to shoot me in the face? Is that what they wanted?’

68:

‘Prison must have been hard on him, all the same.’

69:

‘Well, prison, that I had not meant to happen. I tried to take back the charges, to take it back, but there were political considerations at work. We had both been connected with the Commune, we had written for various radical papers, angry things. Police spies had followed us from England. The spies always follow you. The authorities, they wanted to get their revenge.’

70:

‘Police spies?’

71:

‘Yes, spies. Oh, you would not understand, you have nothing like it in this colony. There are more spies in France than there are people. The Brussels police had a doctor examine him and they found… ’ Paul stopped here, and swallowed once or twice. ‘They found certain evidence… The Belgians, they are like a mob of old village women, but more vicious, perhaps. There was nothing anyone could do at that point to save him from prison. Oh yes, and if that was hard for him, what about his attempt to murder me? Would that have been easy to recover from, a bullet in the head?’

72:

‘I said I wasn’t going to judge.’

73:

‘It was like the end of a dream, for me. It was as though for years I had been gazing into a large, beautiful mirror with tinted glass and bevelled edges, admiring my image there, an image built of childish fantasies. And then — then the mirror shatters, and there is nothing there but a piece of shit lying on the floor, stinking out the room. People talk about disillusionment as though it is something mournful and aesthetic. No, it is not. It is like wanting to vomit so hard you vomit out your own stomach. It is not morals I talk about. The morals of it fail to interest me.’

74:

‘There must have been something there at first.’

75:

‘Oh, at first, God knows. He was famous, he knew everyone, he was clever… I thought I was grown up, but I was just a child. He took advantage of me.’ He gave a sour laugh. ‘But perhaps I took advantage of him. That is what he said. That is what they all said. But then, he was such a hypocrite. Well, who knows?’

76:

‘That’s the problem,’ Greenleaves said thoughtfully, ‘with the hot fevers of adolescence. To avoid the disasters that follow them, you need to have learned from the experience of those disasters, and you can’t do that until you have experienced them. It’s a circular problem, and it’s insoluble. Pearls in the gutter. Ah well. I have a doleful memory or two of my own, so I can sympathise. No wonder you didn’t want to chat with poor Poussin.’

77:

‘No. By then I was like a dog infected with rabies. No one there would speak to me. They would turn their backs, and sneer. I would not even — I would not even go up to them, I would not beg, I would not give them that pleasure.’ He looked at Greenleaves, and for a moment he seemed defenceless and wounded, like a child, perhaps like one of the children playing in the sun-room nearby.

Cafe Scene, by Edouard Manet, 1878. From the internet.

78:

Greenleaves felt sorry for him. ‘The French middle class,’ he said, ‘they can be very rigid about form and manners. You must have been very disappointed.’

79:

‘Disappointed? I doubt you could ever know the depth of the hatred and despair I felt that night.’ His hands were shaking; he abruptly clutched them together. He walked a few steps away, then back again. ‘What did the English poet Gray say, in his dismal churchyard? Some mute inglorious Milton here may rest — In the Wagga Wagga graveyard, I wonder how many unknown poets have left their bones to rot. Not many, I should think. But you may make up that number one day — a distant day, I hope, pray do not misunderstand me. What am I saying? But you — you have felt some of these things, you have sipped at the venom I was so greedy to drink by the bottle. Your book was treated with contempt by the critics, you say. Well, then, tear it up! Since it is not possible to poison a book and stuff it down their throats, then burn it!’ He turned suddenly and went to the glass doors that gave onto the greenhouse, and stood there, his hands stuffed into his jacket pockets. Greenleaves could see his shoulders straining with anger.

80:

He waited a moment for Paul’s temper to cool. ‘I suppose you’re right,’ he said, ‘to bring up Gray’s elegy. Mind you, that’s an English churchyard: mist at eventide, green grass, deep mossy soil. Here the graveyard is a paddock too stony to plough, and no good for anything else.’

81:

Paul walked back to the desk, and flung himself into a leather chair. ‘I wish to God I had been as lucky, to have been given a useful talent, and to make a little money — instead of that bloated vanity to indulge for four long years. Anger and regret is bad for the soul, it is like one of the acids that Doctor Bell concocts that can eat through any metal. I have so many years to make up for, and what do I do? Nothing.’

Cemetery in the Bush. From the internet.

82:

There was a burst of laughter from the sun-room. Greenleaves turned his head with a slight smile. ‘I should imagine they’ve demolished the scones by now. I wonder how Mrs Emmott’s coping with the drain on her provisions.’

83:

‘And do you think there is any talent among them?’ Paul asked.

84:

‘Oh, Mary’s going to make something of her life; I don’t know what, but something. The others — who knows? Children — well, I’m not one to talk, never having had any, but with children, you never know.’ He picked up the little book on chess and tested its weight in his hand. ‘The weight of a book,’ he said, and stroked his moustache. ‘The heft and weight of the thing, like one of the tablets of the law.’ He put the book down and stared into the greenhouse. ‘The weight of a book,’ he said again, ‘it’s a sad thing to me now. My uncle Ebenezer took ill last year. He never married; I don’t think he wanted the nuisance of a wife and noisy children and all the bother that goes with it, so there was no one to look after him. I went down to Sydney to see what I could do. Nothing, as it happened. On his deathbed he called for his books. A talent for scribbling must run in the family: he had written a few things — verses about gum trees and yachts on the water, a dozen haikus, an amateur’s reflections on old Chinese porcelain and the Buddhist religion, reams of watery ramblings that had been popular for a while, then had faded out of fashion decades ago.

Deathbed scene. From the internet.

85:

‘I brought them in, and laid them upon his bony knees. There were perhaps half a dozen volumes in all, nothing very substantial. I noticed tears in his eyes as his hands touched and stroked the bindings. “Never mind, Ben,” I said thoughtlessly, “they’ll come back into fashion, don’t you worry.” He looked up at me, his mouth drawn into a pitiful grimace. “Fashion?” he said: “What does that matter? They had their fame, these little volumes. I had my moment of glory. I have my medal, safe in its box at the bank.” The Rhymers’ Club had awarded him their silver medal years before. How pathetic, I thought, but I had misunderstood. He choked and blubbered for a while, and said “It’s the weight.” They couldn’t have been very heavy. I thought he was wandering. “The weight? Is it bothering you?” I went to lift the heap of books and pamphlets, but he clung to them, and looked up into my eyes. “Oh God, if only it were the weight of a little child!” he cried out. “A child with soft hair that I could stroke, a child whose warm body I could hold!” He clutched the books to his chest and sobbed terribly. I admit it got to me. “I’d ask it what it might want to eat,” he cried out, “and I should only give it the nicest things. I should hold its little hand, and walk alongside all the way to school!” I admit I choked up somewhat at that point. I turned aside for a moment and wiped my eyes, and when I looked at him again, he was gone.’
 
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Black Gold, Chapter 19

Chapter 19 — Dead Letters
… In Verheeren’s room, in which Paul Nouveau goes through Verheeren’s letters, from Verheeren himself and from his wife in Antwerp, and finds nothing of value. Stern arrives, argues with them both, and ransacks the satchel of letters. Nothing. Julie tells him their engagement is over, and says she knows about Stern’s debts. He tells them about his father, a Jew who was never made welcome either in Melbourne, or in Wagga. Wagga is full of debt, he says. They all leave.

Paragraph One follows — 1:

Verheeren’s room was a high attic, at the back. The walls had been freshly painted in pale blue, with cream trim on the skirting board and the picture rail. On one side was a single bed, and a washstand with a basin and pitcher of water. On the other side a window looked out onto a back yard full of blackberries and an old peach tree just coming into leaf. The lace curtains had been drawn back, and moved slightly in the morning breeze.

2:

There was a small fireplace with the remains of a wood fire covered with ash. Above the mantelpiece some curios had been hung on the wall — a scowling native mask painted rusty red and white, and a bundle of crudely-made arrows daubed with ochre and tied with raffia. Paul looked around for the bow, and found it on the floor near the window. It was long and slender, carved roughly out of dark wood; no doubt the one that Verheeren had been flexing when Paul had spotted his shadow against the blind. Perhaps he had dropped it there when the murderer had surprised him. The bow hadn’t been much help to him after all.

Freesias. From the internet.

3:

Against the other side of the room was a carved desk and a captain’s chair. Someone had put a bowl of freesias on the desk. They were looking a little tired now, but they still filled the room with their gentle scent. A pair of coloured engravings hung on the wall above the desk: a country scene with a windmill, and a seascape with a fine ship in full sail — the ocean was coloured a deep ink green, the sky a swirl of dark blue storm clouds; the white sails of the ship stood out against the gloomy background.

4:

Beside the desk was a small chest, with the drawers hanging half open. Paul began pulling them open and rummaging among their contents.

5:

‘It’s such a surprise,’ Julie said. ‘I expected Miss Mackenzie’s rooms to be nice — Frank’s is really lovely — but somehow I thought Mr Verheeren’s room would be old and smelly. But it’s not, at all. The pale blue makes it quite heavenly, like a child’s room.’

6:

Paul stopped and gave her a long look, then went back to his search.

7:

There was a rug in the middle of the floor, partly covered by a khaki-coloured cloth. Julie touched the edge of the cloth with the toe of her shoe, and shivered.

8:

‘I suppose that piece of oilcloth is to cover the bloodstains. Thank goodness they’ve taken the body away.’ Paul made no reply. ‘What are you looking for?’ she asked.

9:

‘A blue canvas bag. It should be here somewhere.’ He abandoned the chest of drawers with its spilled contents and swung around to investigate the desk. The drawers were unlocked. ‘Of course the murderer was looking for it, too, so it may be gone’.

10:

‘It’s funny,’ she said, ‘there are no musical instruments. I expected to see a double bass, or at least a viola.’

11:

‘A viola?’ He looked around. The morning sunlight pouring in through the window caught and dazzled in her blonde hair, and seemed to find flecks of gold in her eyes. God, she was pretty, he thought. ‘A double bass? Why? Verheeren was a bookkeeper, not a musician.’

12:

‘Because of the string he bought at Mr Koellner’s the other day, for a double bass.’ She looked around the room. ‘I remember thinking that he might be practising in his spare time, to play a polka at the Ball.’ Paul went back to his work, pulling out a pile of folders and old bills of account from the drawers.

Bass strings. From the internet.

13:

Julie wandered around the room, looking under things. ‘Oh — the canvas bag — is that it?’

14:

‘Where? Where?’

15:

She pointed: ‘There, under the chest of drawers.’

16:

‘Oh, God, you’re right.’ He dropped to his knees and pulled at the bag. It came out easily. ‘Ah, yes, yes. Now let’s see… ’ He dusted the bag, though there was no dust on the polished floor, and turned it over. It was like a schoolboy’s satchel, with two small buckles. It came open easily.

17:

‘There!’ he said triumphantly, and brought it over to the desk. ‘It has a label on it,’ he said, tilting his head to read it, ‘addressed to his wife, in Antwerp. Let’s see what’s in here.’ He spilled the contents onto the desk. They were letters, some tied in bundles, some loose. The envelopes were worn and ragged.

18:

‘It looks like… papers, correspondence,’ Julie said. ‘You said you were looking for family photographs.’

19:

‘Oh, Julie,’ he said, with a trace of exasperation in his voice. ‘The things you believe… ’ He opened an envelope and quickly checked its contents, then another. ‘You’re right,’ he said. ‘Papers. They’re letters, that’s what. This one’s addressed to Verheeren, in Sulawesi. That’s in the Dutch East Indies. And this one, to Verheeren in Batavia, that’s on the island of Java. Let’s see.’ He read quickly, his eyes flicking back and forth across the script. ‘My dear Emile — so many years have passed… ’ His voice faded to a murmur as he scanned the page.

20:

‘Is it in Dutch?’

Old Dutch writing. From the internet.

21:

‘Mainly Dutch,’ he said. ‘There’s some French, too. I long for you to — to find some success, to circumvent the plotting of your enemies and to show them up for what they are… It must be from his wife. Yes, from your dear wife, it says. Here’s one, in a different hand. Ah, it’s from Verheeren, a letter from — from Borneo, from him to his wife. But why is it here, in an envelope, with stamps on it, if he’s sent it to his wife? Perhaps it’s a copy. Or maybe he didn’t send it; maybe there was no mail packet from Borneo. It’s a god-forsaken place. My Dear Freda, you will be pleased to know that my — uh — my attack of melancholy has passed… and so on. Hmmm, I wager he doesn’t mention the opium.’

22:

‘Opium?’ asked Julie, but Paul went on: ‘Another one from his wife… My dear Emile, I know how difficult it must be for you in the East, so far from your old friends and the civilised comforts of home… and so on. And so on.’ His voice grew angry: ‘She goes on, it’s just a letter. They’re just letters! Letters, in purple ink, from his stupid wife in Belgium. Christ, is that all?’

23:

He sounded like a spoilt child, Julie thought. ‘Why, Paul, what did you expect? You said you had some photographs to collect —’

24:

‘Julie, please!’ He threw down the heap of paper and went to the window. ‘I need some fresh air. Letters, just letters —’ He stretched his arms behind his head, then bent forward to look out the window. He pulled back with a curse, holding his left hand in his right.

25:

‘What happened? Are you all right?’

26:

‘Yes, I’m all right. I just cut my hands on this stupid nail sticking out from the bottom of the window.’ He wiped his forehead, and looked at his hand: there was a smear of blood. ‘I hope it doesn’t have poison on it, like his poisoned arrows. What idiot put it there?’

Window frame. From the internet.

27:

Julie stared at the blood, and drew back slightly. ‘Not Miss Mackenzie, I’m sure. Perhaps Mr Verheeren put it there.’

28:

‘I seem to be injured constantly in this country. Three weeks in the jungles of Java and not a scratch. A week in Australia and I am wounded, I am —’ He searched for the right word — ‘I am a cripple!’

29:

‘Nothing’s going right for you today, is it?’ Her smile had faded. She watched him wipe the blood from his hand with a handkerchief. ‘I hope you don’t get lockjaw.’ She straightened her back. ‘Paul —’

30:

‘What is it?’ She didn’t reply for a moment. ‘What is it, Julie?’

31:

She looked down at her hands. ‘You didn’t — You didn’t have anything to do with this, did you?’

32:

He stared at her intently. ‘What, this murder? Are you serious? Is this a serious question you ask me?’

33:

‘Because you — you are so good with guns. The way you killed those men, with such deliberateness, first the one, then the other — and you hated Verheeren, you told me so the other night outside the magic show, you said he didn’t deserve to live. And last night — last night you went about in the dark carrying that revolver with you —’ She faced his stare.

34:

‘Yes, it is true I disliked him,’ he said. ‘I hated him, and I cannot pretend to be sorry that someone did this. But it was not me who did this thing. I think I know who did it; it was Heeney, the brother of the bushranger I killed. He came to rob the old man, because it is easy, no? Easy to get in through the window, and there were rumours Verheeren had some kind of treasure from the East Indies. I do not know why Heeney killed him. They say Heeny is a madman — perhaps he did not need a reason.’ He turned and walked back into the room. ‘I am sorry to hear you say such things. If you think those things, then Christ help me. I do not have any friends in this place at all.’

35:

She was about to reply when they heard heavy steps on the stairs, and the door burst open.

36:

It was Stern, his face flushed. ‘Ah, the Frenchman,’ he shouted, and strode across to Paul.

37:

‘Joe!’ Julie cried.

38:

Stern spun around and stared at her for a moment. ‘Julie! What a shame you had to be here, involved in this horrible business.’ He stared at her a moment longer, then noticed the bag. He and Paul grabbed for it at the same time. Paul got to it first, and held it to his chest. Stern lunged at it.

39:

‘You, give me that!’

40:

‘Let go of me!’ Paul said. They struggled; Stern struck Paul across the face with a savage blow from the back of his hand, knocking him to the floor, and tore the bag from his grasp as he fell.

41:

‘There! You should know better than to interfere with me when my temper’s up. Haven’t you learned your lesson yet?’

42:

‘What right do you have to take those papers?’ Paul spat onto the floor; he was bleeding from the mouth.

43:

‘More right than you do. Verheeren worked for me as a bookkeeper.’ Stern looked at Julie, as though appealing to her sense of justice. ‘I have reason to suspect he was fiddling the accounts. I have every right to search and recover anything that belongs to me.’ He hugged the bag, and grinned, showing his discoloured teeth. ‘I went through the room this morning without result, but it seems I overlooked this.’ He spilled the contents out onto the desk and began to rummage through the papers.

44:

‘I can save you the trouble of reading them all,’ Paul said, wiping his mouth. He had managed to get to his feet, but he was unsteady from the blow. ‘They are letters, from his wife, that is all.’

45:

‘Save your breath, you rotten little shit.’

46:

They watched him as he scrabbled among the papers. His breathing gradually slowed. ‘This is rubbish,’ he said, as though he had been tricked. ‘Rubbish! Letters… more letters. All in some bloody foreign lingo!’ He tried to read some of the pages, without result. Finally he slowed to a stop.

47:

‘You see, Joe?’ said Julie. ‘They’re just old letters, in a foreign language. They’re of no value to anyone, now.’

48:

He was taken with a sudden storm of rage: spittle flecked his lips. ‘I have to warn you, Julie, that if you keep up your friendship with this filthy foreigner, I shall feel compelled to call off our engagement.’ The formality of the words was absurd.

49:

‘Oh, you men are so stupid!’ Julie shouted. Stern stared at her; her face was pale with anger. ‘That’s all over, that’s finished! Do you imagine I would chain myself to a brute like you for the rest of my life? You must think I’m weak-minded.’ She took her engagement ring from the pocket of her skirt and flung it onto the floor. It bounced and rattled under the chest of drawers.

Engagement ring. From the internet.

50:

He recoiled, and stared at her for a moment. ‘Who do you think you are, a bloody princess?’ He tossed the empty canvas bag aside and advanced on her. ‘Where in Wagga are you going to find someone like me, with my position?’ The sweat was standing out on his forehead; Julie could see a vein throbbing on his temple. ‘Do you want to work as a scullery maid for the rest of your life, scrubbing people’s floors till your hands go red and raw?’ Julie felt her hands tremble slightly, and she clutched them together. Was it fear, or anger? Her mind was whirling; she couldn’t tell. ‘Your father’s a failure and a drunk,’ Stern spat out, ‘he’s worth nothing! You have no future without someone like me for a husband!’

51:

‘How dare you speak about my father like that! Tell us about your wealth, Mister Stern. Tell us about your arrangements with the Joint Stock Bank!’

52:

It was like a bucket of cold water: Stern stopped dead in his tracks. ‘What? What are you talking about?’ The rage that had filled him had turned suddenly to weakness, or something worse. His right hand hung half-raised, moving slightly, as though pawing the air.

53:

‘Tell us about your dummy selector schemes,’ Julie shouted, ‘and the land you’ve claimed under other people’s names.’ Paul stood open-mouthed: her skin glowed, she had gone pink; her hands were shaking with rage. ‘Tell us about your mortgage, and how it’s drawing near to its foreclosure date. Everyone at the Show was talking about it!’

54:

He leaned back, and clenched his fists. ‘That old blabbermouth Tom Eliot’s been gossiping again, has he? The bank won’t foreclose. They’re not entirely stupid. They’d lose every penny of their investment.’ He spun on his heel and turned to Paul, as though appealing for understanding. ‘Women have no idea how business is done,’ he explained. ‘This one has the brain of an ant. The bank knows I’m good for ten thousand —’

Mortgage document. From the internet.

55:

‘I thought you had a hollow ring about you, Stern,’ Paul interrupted. ‘I thought the hollowness was in your soul, perhaps, but it seems the hollowness is in your bank account.’

56:

Stern stared at him. He breathed heavily, like a runner after a race. Bank account? What would this stupid Frenchman know about mortgages and bank accounts? He sagged against the desk and wiped his forehead. Then he got down on his hands and knees and retrieved the ring, and stood up awkwardly. He turned it over in his hand and stared at it. Then he dropped it into his fob pocket.

57:

‘I know they’re talking behind my back,’ he said to Julie. ‘Do you think I’m deaf? I can’t sleep at night, I can hear their voices in my head.’ He walked to the window, stared out for a moment, and walked back to the desk and fingered a piece of paper. ‘We’ve had a drought, and we’re all in trouble. The rain we’ve had is not nearly enough. You’d think everyone would pitch in to help one another. But they want me to fail.’ He looked up at Paul. ‘That’s the sickness in this colony. It’s not yellow fever, it’s not malaria, it’s jealousy. Cutting down the tall plants, so the weeds can get the sunlight.’ He tugged at his collar, trying to loosen it. He is finished, Paul thought. ‘And the bank, what do they do? You think they’d help — isn’t that their business, to help their clients succeed? Ruining people doesn’t do anybody any good in the end.’ He held his hands out, appealing to Julie, who turned her head away. ‘But no, they want to see me fail too! Where’s the sense in that?’ He must have realised what a pathetic figure he made, begging for sympathy, papers littering the floor around his feet. He straightened his shoulders and tugged his shirt, and tucked it back into the top of his trousers.

58:

‘They despised my father because he spoke with an accent. But they despised him more because he was a Jew. No one would lend him a penny. In Melbourne, he —’

59:

His voice caught, but he forced himself to go on, his voice rising to a shout: ‘He tried to join their high and mighty gentlemen’s clubs, but they blackballed him! He dressed well, he copied their manners. He did his best! They laughed at him, behind his back. And they were scum, most of them. Acting like the bloody upper class!’ He glared at Julie accusingly, then swung his gaze on Paul. ‘He came to the bush, to get away from the prejudice, and he found it waiting for him here. He tried to join the local progress association, but there were difficulties — he wasn’t quite British, you know. British! Jesus Christ! This was a man who could quote Pushkin by the page, who knew Goethe in the German. They patronised him. These farmers, they patronised him! He struggled to get things going here. A dredging concession. A sugar plantation, which never did any good, the climate was wrong. He had left everything behind in Russia, family, friends, people in power who might have supported him. He came out here where he was unknown to make something of himself, and to help the new colony grow. I remember him talking to me when I was little: We all have an obligation to give something back to our society, he used to say. To be part of a community, you have to give. In the end it all broke his heart. He died in poverty. Well, damn them, I will not!’

1996-6, Portrait of Solomon Isaacs, Artist: Jarvis, Photographer: John Parnell, Photo © The Jewish Museum, New York. From the internet.

60:

He took a moment to get his breath back. ‘This town,’ he said, in a quieter, almost confidential voice, ‘it looks very prosperous, but it has a secret. Everyone’s in debt. Did you know that?’ He was speaking to Paul: Paul shook his head from side to side. ‘Yes, hidden away in a locked drawer in every house in this town is a bank account booklet or a piece of white paper ruled in vertical red and blue columns, the colours of the flag, with the sums carefully calculated and written down, the amount of how much is owed to this or that store or bank or pawnshop. The substantial people like me go to Tom Eliot or Fred Dobbs one of the other banks. The poor people go to Solomon the moneylender. Why, even the Dutchman hocked something at the pawnshop. I saw him sneaking out of there last week.’ He seemed to be winding down, like a mechanical toy that had run out of energy. He looked down at the scattered papers, gathered up a bundle and tore them in half, and scattered them across the room. ‘Damn him. Letters! Useless paper!’

61:

‘What were you hoping for?’ Paul asked. ‘Diamonds? Black gold?’

62:

This surprised Stern, and he stared hard at Paul for a moment. ‘You’ve heard the rumours, then?’

63:

‘I suspect I started them.’

64:

‘Pathetic, isn’t it?’ asked Stern. ‘Grown men. When we need something badly enough, we become childish. We believe anything. Diamonds, from the East Indies. Some new kind of gold alloy, dark coloured and as hard as steel. Treasure maps.’ He had the ring in his hand again; he stared at it for moment, then slipped it back into his pocket. ‘I remember once when I was a child, hoping I’d get a horse for my birthday. We were poor, we could never afford to keep a horse, but how is a child supposed to understand things like that? I hoped and I hoped. I prayed, on my knees. I sobbed, the tears ran down my face, I wiped them from my cheeks. Was God listening?’ He looked at Julie longingly for a moment. She lowered her eyes. Stern passed his hand across his face as though erasing a memory. ‘I believed you loved me, Julie. I hoped that you’d forgive my anger, that you’d put up with my ugliness and my stupidity, that you’d look on my faults with a charitable eye. That you’d stick with me when the road got rough. Well, I was wrong.’ He turned to the door. ‘Damn the lot of you!’ he said. ‘Damn you all to Hell!’ He slammed the door behind him.

65:

Paul took Julie’s hand; it was hot and dry. ‘Are you all right?’

66:

Julie took a moment to reply. She swallowed. ‘Yes, I’m all right. What was that talk about diamonds? Was Mr Verheeren supposed to be a rich old miser?’

67:

‘Just gossip, that’s all.’

68:

‘If Mr Verheeren had been rich,’ Julie said, ‘he’d hardly have wished to live like this. The room is very pretty, but it’s not a rich man’s room.’

69:

‘Julie — what you said to Stern, about —’

70:

Julie spoke quickly, as though wanting to get something over and done with. ‘I meant what I said. Joe and I are finished. It’s over. Mr Stern’s temperament is not compatible with mine.’

71:

‘You can say that again,’ Paul said. He realised it was an American turn of phrase; he must have picked it up from Frank.

72:

‘It has nothing to do with you,’ she added. ‘I hope you understand.’

73:

‘Of course.’ He was confused for a moment: what had she been thinking of? What he felt for her, the tangle of desire and anxiety, it had nothing to do with marriage in the Outback, with country towns, and churches, and a future in the sheep grazing industry.

74:

‘It’s odd,’ she said thoughtfully. ‘It’s strange, how you can look at something, and simply not see what you’re looking at. When you want to escape from some unpleasant condition, and when you imagine the social landscape you might inhabit if you make good your escape, its colours are tinted by your hopes. It’s like looking at the world through a piece of coloured glass — people and scenery are transformed into a something mysterious and two-dimensional.’

75:

‘What do you mean?’

76:

‘I thought I was in love with Mr Stern; with Joe. He seemed so appropriate. He was going to settle one of his grazing properties on me, Dunraven Station. It was worth a fortune. At least, he’d borrowed a fortune to buy it. I would learn to manage the house and the servants; we would have children, start a dynasty, God knows what fantasies I concocted. Father could retire from medical practice and devote time to his researches; he could travel to London and Paris, purchase the books he needed and new equipment, and bring it all back to a new laboratory where he would make discoveries that would astound the medical world.’ She brushed a tear from her cheek. ‘It’s pathetic. And so it went on, a future out of some penny novelette, with bridesmaids and wedding bells and grandchildren sitting on my knee — I must have been dreaming.’

Country homestead. From the internet.

77:

‘We all make mistakes.’ Paul added up some of his own. ‘Several mistakes, in some cases.’

78:

‘Well, I’ve only had two stabs at falling in love, and they’ve both been disasters.’

79:

‘The other?

80:

‘I told you a little about him. My art teacher in Sydney.’

81:

‘Oh, yes. The long-haired drawling fellow with titled friends in Tuscany. I must confess I conceived a dislike for him. A loathing, almost. Loathing, that is a good English word, it makes you sneer, and your lips put on an expression as though you were about to throw up. You can feel it pulling your guts up as you say it.’

82:

She smiled. ‘I’m going to miss you, you know. There’s no one quite like you in Wagga.’

83:

‘I should hope not. What a town it would be if there were others of the brotherhood of spleen, a village full of corrosive misanthropes like me. They would need a full company of troopers just to stop us strangling each other out of spite and despair. Huh!’

84:

She laughed. ‘See? You do me good, making me laugh like that.’

85:

‘And this dauber?’

86:

‘That was youthful folly. Mr Stern was the despair of an old maid. Between those two sad adventures, my future slipped through my fingers.’

87:

‘Your future, tied to some man? You should be ashamed to set the value of your future like that, like a — like a broker selling a parcel of shares on the Bourse.’

88:

‘Of course you’re right, in a way. But you’re not in the position I’m in. I doubt that you could ever understand it. There’s something crippled and humiliating about the position women are forced into. We have been writing pamphlets and books about it for a hundred years, but what’s the use? The men who make the rules just laugh. Let them write their tracts, they say. Why not? They’re harmless. We’re treated like some lunatic religious sect. They have their mistresses and their illegitimate children and nobody minds, while we are forced to shame, to abortion, to a kind of slavery. In Sydney, I hoped —’

89:

A silence hung in the air; Paul let it rest there.

90:

She stared at him sadly for a few moments, then turned and looked out the window at the sunlit town. ‘Well, that was once upon a time. My dreams of a life in Sydney ended in a shambles, and a life of misery began.’ There was a bitter tone in her voice.

91:

‘What do you mean, a life of misery?’

92:

She looked at him again, and stroked his jaw. His beard was thickening, and was losing its blond tint. ‘Oh, perhaps some day I’ll tell you. Perhaps not.’ She looked around the room, and gathered herself. ‘For now, we should go. You have met Miss Mackenzie and alarmed her. You have searched poor Mr Verheeren’s room and ended up with nothing except a cut on your arm, and you’ve fought with Mr Stern again so that your nose is bleeding. That should satisfy you for the time being, I hope. I should like to go home now; I have a pupil later this morning. And I must say, I can’t wait to get out of this room.’ She cast a look at the oilcloth.

93:

‘The house seems to have an evil spirit in it,’ Paul said, looking around. A slight breeze came in through the open window, stirring the lace curtain so that it fluttered feebly. ‘It is time we should go.’
 
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Black Gold, Chapter 18

Chapter 18 — At Miss Mackenzie’s
… In which Paul Nouveau goes with Julie to visit Miss Mackenzie and takes tea with them, after almost being robbed by Miss Mackenzie’s monkey, Bob. Miss Mackenzie tells them about the judicial killing of two Wiradjuri aboriginal runaways, a story sent to her by Mr Gow. Paul asks to see Mr Verheeren’s room, and takes Julie with him.

Paragraph One follows — 1:

While Julie knocked on the door, Paul stood a little behind, and looked around at the Reddinggarden: a scattered handful of daffodils brightened the otherwise bare beds with their green and gold livery, and a tired-looking climbing rose bush struggled over its frame. A man was cutting blackberries with a bill-hook at the side of the house. A large monkey sat on the veranda watching the man with the bill hook intently, perhaps hoping for a mouse to be flushed from the bushes. He was an old animal, with a mangy grey coat; while he stared at the blackberries he plucked absent-mindedly at his fur. He noticed the newcomers and loped along the veranda to greet them, a loose chain tinkling in his wake.

2:

&Though he was old, he was lively: he poked his bony hands into Paul’s pockets deftly, searching them one by one. Paul was too alarmed to offer any resistance — the animal had adopted a grimace that bared its sharp, stained teeth. Was he smiling, or snarling? The features were like some parody of a human face, and the intentions behind the grimace were impossible to deduce. The creature looked off to one side while it practised its thieving tricks, perhaps in the belief that if it appeared to have its attention firmly fixed on a passing buggy, Paul would not realise that it was busy robbing him.

Barbary macaque, Gibraltar. From the internet.

3:

‘Bob, get down!’ Julie scolded. ‘Down, this minute!’ The monkey bared its teeth at her and made an angry chuckling noise. It weaved back and forth on its skinny haunches, and for a moment Paul thought it might leap to the attack, but it turned and dodged away along the veranda, the chain whipping and rattling from side to side.

4:

‘Isn’t he wicked! Did he take anything?’

5:

‘No, I don’t think so.’

6:

‘The more Miss Mackenzie tries to discipline him, the more mischievous he gets. Really, she should keep the wretch chained to his kennel.’

7:

The gardener had been watching the scene over his shoulder. He straightened his back and waved. Paul realised it was Jimmy; he waved back.

8:

They were ushered in by a maid, who guided them through the hall. Paul avoided looking at her — it might be Alice, who had so nearly discovered his hiding place the night before when she had come searching for the kerosene. Miss Mackenzie was waiting in an inside room. She was a tall, strongly-built woman in her sixties, dressed in black with a dark green tartan shawl over her shoulders. Julie introduced Paul.

9:

‘Come into the parlour here, Miss Bell,’ she said, ‘where we shan’t be disturbed. I’ve had quite enough disturbance for one morning, I can tell you.’ She clapped her hands. ‘Alice!’ The maid reappeared. ‘Go and give Bob a dressing-down. He’s been bothering our guests.’

10:

‘Yes, mum.’

11:

Miss Mackenzie turned to Paul to explain. ‘Bob was sent to me by a friend. He’s a Barbary ape from Gibraltar, and the climate in Edinburgh didn’t agree with him; he much prefers it out here. But I’m sad to say he lost all his manners when he came out to the colony. Last week he bit the butcher’s boy, who had just called from Castro’s butchery. One more time, and I’ll have him put down. I hope he didn’t frighten you. He makes some people nervous.’

12:

‘No, not at all.’

13:

The parlour was overstuffed with furniture. The several occasional tables each had its doily, and maroon drapes kept out the spring sunlight. There was an upright piano in the corner, and along the top were ranged a dozen silver-framed photographs: scenic views and portraits of severe old ladies in white lace bonnets. Miss Mackenzie rang a bell.

14:

‘You must feel very distressed,’ Julie said, ‘with such a dreadful thing happening under your roof.’

15:

‘It’s disgraceful. You know, my dear, I have eight guests boarding with me here, and to think that this murderer was sneaking about among us in the middle of the night, up and down the staircase and clambering over the roof, with a revolver in his hand — it’s macabre.’

16:

The maid appeared again: ‘Yes, mum?’

17:

‘Oh Alice, bring us some tea. There’s a fresh pot in the kitchen, Cook just brewed it.’

18:

‘Yes, mum.’

19:

‘Sometimes I think I must have been mad,’ Miss Mackenzie went on, ‘coming out here. The only domestic servants seem to be Irish, and you have to be at them all the time. They’re a likeable race, but feckless. Some people say it’s the drink, some say it’s their religion.’ She took a cheroot from a silver case. ‘Not that I have anything against the Roman persuasion, but any faith that lets people get away with murder as long as they apologise to a priest the following Sunday has something lacking, in my opinion.’ She struck a match and puffed on the cheroot until the end glowed red. ‘That’s better. Nothing like a little tobacco to soothe the nerves. And the blacks are a trial. I took on a black woman as a cook a few years ago, as a favour to old Mr Kennedy who couldn’t afford to keep her on; and I swear she gave me goanna one day instead of chicken.’

Domestic Interior. From the internet.

20:

‘Nonsense, Miss Mackenzie. You must have imagined it. I notice you have Jimmy Skylark doing some gardening work.’

21:

‘He needed a few shillings, my dear; what can you do? He knows nothing about English flowers, but he can cut out the English blackberries, which have become such a pest. He’s a very knowledgeable man in other ways. You know I’m interested in their legends and their ancestral tales. Jimmy has been good enough to tell me some of those, and I have written them down.’

22:

‘I was talking to Jimmy the other day,’ Paul said. ‘He told me a strange and gloomy story about an uncle of his, a black tracker.’

23:

‘Those trackers can do remarkable things. They seem to question the land, and the land seems to answer them.’

24:

‘I would not have believed half of what he told me, but he took me into the bush yesterday and showed me how it is done. He can read the slightest mark in the grass.’

25:

‘They seem to live in a different universe from ours,’ Julie said.

26:

‘We mustn’t think of the aborigines as peculiar and savage,’ said Miss Mackenzie. ‘It’s convenient for the English to do so, for then the English can rob them of their land with a clear conscience. Mind you, they had plenty of practice. They drove my Scots ancestors off their land, and killed a fair number while they were at it.’

27:

‘So long ago, though,’ Julie put in.

28:

‘Gone, but not forgotten,’ replied Miss Mackenzie. ‘But the aborigines, people say their morals are not morals at all, and their religion is not a religion because it doesn’t have a god or a bible. They don’t know what they’re talking about. The blacks, they’re much stricter than even my grandparents, and that’s saying something. Mr Gow sent me a tale he had gathered from a tribe on the Western Riverina, not so very far from here, about a tragic event not so many years ago. It illustrates a moral firmness in their view of marriage laws that the most rigid church elder would be impressed by. If you wished, I could tell you the story.’

29:

Julie looked somewhat unwilling, but Paul was keen. Miss Mackenzie sat up a little straighter, and continued.

30:

‘This was the Wiradjuri tribe, the ones who lived hereabouts. Their name for this area, Wagga Wagga, means ‘place of many crows’, by the way. I’ve always felt it was not the most pleasant omen for the townspeople to adopt, the crow being associated so often with dead or dying animals. In any case, a long time ago, in this area, a young man and woman who were parallel cousins, and who should not marry, had the misfortune to fall in love. Knowing the elders would never countenance their liaison, they decided to elope.’

31:

‘Elope?’ Paul asked.

32:

‘Indeed. One night they fled; the guardian spirits of the tribe, an owl and an old dingo, angered by this breach of the sacred law, set up a wailing and a screaming that terrified the tribe. The next morning they were found to be missing. The best trackers set out to find them. They followed their tracks through the forest, then lost them, then found them in the hills, and followed them around and about to the creek where they had begun, and they caught up with the young couple and captured them.

33:

‘They were tried by the elders and found guilty. The only punishment for that crime was death. They were taken to a secluded part of the forest and made to face the opposite sides of a large gum tree; their hands were joined around the trunk and bound together with strong thread, and there they were left to die, able to touch and speak, but not to see each other. For many years the tribe avoided the area where this awful sentence was carried out.’

Aboriginal settlement in the bush. From the internet.

34:

‘What a ghastly thing to do!’ Julie said. ‘It is savage; you can’t say it’s not!’

35:

‘My dear, in the Bible one may read of more brutal punishments. And of course the aborigines are no longer what they were. Their stories and their legends may seem bizarre, but they must be preserved.’ She turned to Paul. ‘I know it might seem eccentric, Mr Nouveau, for an old Scottish woman to be writing down what a blackfellow says, but someone has to preserve their knowledge or it will be lost to the human race forever. They have no writing of their own.’ Her cheroot had gone out; she struck another match and lit it again.

36:

‘One does not see many of them in the town,’ Paul said.

37:

‘The poor blacks are dying out because we put sheep and cattle on their land, and because of the diseases we brought here with us from Europe. And the curse of drink is making their ruin certain. We have a lot to answer for.’ She looked at Julie. ‘Yes, their punishments may seem savage, Miss Bell, but have you ever seen a public hanging? And what of the horrible execution that was done in this house last night, a senseless act that has no reason, no justification, and no excuse? The black man never killed without a solemn reason. There were no madmen or murderers among them, at least as far as I have been able to discover. Oh, the times we live in. Murder and robbery! I was a fool to come out here. Back in Edinburgh nothing like this ever happened.’

38:

‘Oh, I hope you will excuse me,’ Paul said carefully, ‘but I seem to have heard of Burke and Hare, who lived in Edinburgh, and who murdered people to be chopped up for medical experiments.’

Burke and Hare. From the internet.

39:

Miss Mackenzie started back, handkerchief to her mouth. ‘Well, I never!’ she managed. ‘Really, Mr Nouveau! That Mr Burke was an Irishman, not an Edinburgh man, I can assure you. And that was a long time ago.’

40:

Julie swung the conversation back on track: it was like handling a pair of fractious horses, she thought. ‘Mr Verheeren — he was Belgian, wasn’t he?’

41:

‘Yes, he was Belgian, I believe, or perhaps Dutch. I confess I never can tell the Continentals apart.’ She looked at Paul. ‘That is, the ones from the Low Countries,’ she added graciously. ‘Of course the French are different. They have a distinction that derives from their respect for culture.’

42:

The maid brought in the tea tray and set it out. There was tea, and milk, and shortbread biscuits. The teacups and saucers sported a rim of bright tartan.

43:

‘Yes, Mr Verheeren tended to keep to himself,’ Miss Mackenzie said. ‘He didn’t mix well. We sometimes have a harmless game of cards, or gather around the piano: Professor Goulstone occasionally plays a few pieces for us. Such a lovely pianist. Didn’t he teach you once, my dear? I thought so. But Mr Verheeren didn’t join in. He seemed — he seemed suspicious of people, for some reason, and he preferred his own company. I think he did some bookkeeping work for various people in the town. At least he was a regular guest, always proper in settling his own account.’

44:

Perhaps this was a joke. Julie ventured a smile.

45:

Paul hesitated, then spoke. ‘Miss Mackenzie — I was wondering if I could look in Mr Verheeren’s room.’

46:

Miss Mackenzie gave him a hard stare: this was clearly going too far. ‘I’m not at all sure that would be right,’ she said.

47:

‘You see I have been in Java recently — I have just come from there — and a friend asked me to seek out Mr Verheeren when I came to Australia.’

Indonesian girls. From the internet.

48:

‘What an extraordinary coincidence!’ Miss Mackenzie said. ‘Java?’

49:

‘My friend was the main reason I came to Wagga. Ah — Mr Verheeren was — was her uncle, and my friend particularly wanted me to obtain some old family photographs which she had lent, and Mr Verheeren had promised to return them. I spoke to the poor man only yesterday, at the Chinaman’s place, and he seemed quite anxious to help me. He was very fond of his niece.’

50:

This was an extraordinarily complex piece of gossip to have dumped on one’s doorstep in such a cavalier fashion. ‘Ah, I see,’ said Miss Mackenzie, trying to take it all in. ‘Well. Yes. You mentioned a Chinaman.’

51:

‘Mr Lee, I think that was his name.’

52:

‘Yes, it’s true, Mr Verheeren was sometimes to be found at Mr Lee’s house. He spoke of obtaining some Chinese medical treatment for his rheumatism. It’s all mumbo-jumbo, of course.’

53:

‘Mr Verheeren talked to me a lot about his niece, and about his time in the East Indies, as a trader.’

54:

‘Yes, that’s quite true, he lived in Java, and in Borneo too.’ She turned to Julie. ‘He’d left his wife behind in Antwerp, you see, and set out for the East Indies to make his fortune. But apparently it hadn’t turned out as well as he hoped it might. People weren’t friendly there, they tried to ruin his business, he said. He was there for many years, in that terrible climate.’ She frowned. Her boarders were like children, she sometimes thought, more a source of trouble than happiness. ‘It was the climate that gave him the rheumatism, he told me. It was warm enough, but it was also damp, terribly damp. He said if you left a dish of salt on the table after dinner, it would be a pool of water by morning. And the food the natives gave you was spiced beyond endurance. Everything there seemed to disagree with him. Poor Mr Verheeren had a morbid disposition, and suffered from melancholy, like many of the people from the Low Countries. Why he came to Wagga I don’t really know.’

55:

‘The air is much healthier here, I suppose,’ Julie said.

56:

‘Yes, that’s true. At least his poor wife — widow, that is — will be looked after.’

57:

‘How is that, Miss Mackenzie?’ Julie asked.

58:

‘He had invested in some life assurance scheme with Lloyd’s of London, the shipping insurance firm. They used to insure his trading goods, you see. At least that’s what he told Mr Dobbs, at the Joint Stock Bank. Mr Dobbs sometimes takes a cup of tea with me here. If ever anything — any accident happened to poor Mr Verheeren, his wife was to be paid out quite a large amount of money. So at least some good has come out of this terrible affair.’

59:

‘I used to hope,’ Julie said, ‘that Australia would become a civilised country one day, like England or Europe. But the place seems to attract the worst type. The gold brings them, and then when the gold runs out, they roam about with their weapons, seeking whom they might rob and kill.’

60:

‘It’s no place for a young woman, my dear — madness and murder wherever you turn. Of course I heard about your terrible experiences on the mail coach, from Mr Russell. You have my sympathy.’

Bushrangers attacking a coach. From the internet.

61:

‘Francis? Yes, I was so glad he was there. But of course it was Mr Nouveau here who saved our lives. When the bushrangers attacked the coach they killed the poor driver straight off, and none of us had any weapons to defend ourselves with. Except for Mr Nouveau, who had happened to bring a revolver with him.’

62:

‘So we read in the newspaper,’ said Miss Mackenzie. ‘You must be brave, Mr Nouveau, to face such dangerous and desperate men. Brave, or reckless.’

63:

‘Oh, I just try to do my duty, Miss Mackenzie, that is all. And I was trained to use guns in the army. And now I have another duty, this time to the niece of Monsieur Verheeren. I am certain that she will be sad to hear this terrible news. And the family photographs will be even more precious to her now. So, do you think we could look in his room? Julie will come with me, Julie, is it not?’ He laid his hand gently on Julie’s arm and gave her a smile.

64:

This wasn’t what she had in mind for the visit; rummaging about in a dead man’s room. She sighed. ‘If you wish.’

65:

‘Well, I don’t know,’ Miss Mackenzie said. ‘The Constable did ask me to keep everything exactly as it was. But if Miss Bell will be with you, and if you promise not to disturb anything… I should go with you, of course, but I cannot bring myself to go back into that room, where such a loathsome thing happened.’

66:

‘Of course, Miss Mackenzie. We shall leave everything exactly as it is.’ He rose, and almost upset the tea tray. ‘Thank you. You are most kind.’
 
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Black Gold, Chapter 17

Chapter 17 — Hands
… In which Julie sleeps badly because of a nightmare, and is woken by a loud gunshot, or so she thinks. She goes to the kitchen and talks there to her father, who has also heard the shot. Julie has broken off her engagement to Mr Stern. Bell goes to his laboratory, and Julie goes back to bed. Paul Nouveau creeps in at dawn, and explains to the Doctor that Heeney’s younger brother had tried to stab him, but Paul had defended himself with his revolver. The Doctor patches up Paul’s cut, and shows him Jane Dorlac’s hands in formalin, then her hanged husband’s hands. Paul tells him of a dream he has had, about an Egyptian priest. They go to bed, and the next morning Frank arrives with the news that Mr Verheeren has been shot in his locked room, with the open window showing how the murderer escaped. He and Bell leave, and Julie and Paul go to visit Mrs Mackenzie at the boarding house. The unspoken question hangs over them: did Paul shoot Verheeren?

Paragraph One follows — 1:

Julie was dreaming. She was playing with a little golden-haired girl in the garden at the back of their old house in Goulburn, pushing her on a swing, back and forth. The swing made a rhythmic creaking noise, and with each swing, the child grew smaller and smaller. Julie was anxious — soon she would lose her altogether. She stopped the swing and held her, and tried to tie a ribbon in her hair so she could find her if she became lost, but the child wriggled out of her grasp and ran away. Julie searched for her, looking in among the bushes and flowers, but the foliage was tangled and overgrown. The further she went, the more the garden seemed like a jungle. Soon she had wandered down a gully buried under a dense tangle of quince trees, a long way from the house. As she pushed her way through the thicket it became darker, and now she was slipping in the muddy soil, grabbing the branches to steady herself. The bark discoloured her hands and the sap had an acrid smell. She tried to wipe it off, and found she’d stained her dress — now her mother would be angry.

2:

A creek ran along the bottom of the gully and the water made a trickling sound that grew louder and louder. She must be nearing the place where the creek ran into the flooded river — the water was stained red with mud and clay, and she could hear the rush and tumble of rapids near by. It was growing dark now, and a cold rain was beginning to patter on the leaves. A wood pigeon fluttered away into the gloom with a clatter of wings, then another one. She remembered that they always seemed to go about in pairs, perhaps out of loyalty to one another. But where was the little girl? Julie turned around, and realised she was lost.

3:

Close by there was a flash of light and a loud bang, like a charge of blasting powder exploding — her heart began to pound. Someone had fired a gun, that was it. She awoke, her pulse racing and her mouth dry with fear.

4:

But she was in her bedroom, quite safe. She shivered. What time was it? She got up and pulled a wrap around her shoulders and lit the little lamp beside her bed. She had won the lamp at the shooting gallery; perhaps that was what had made her dream of the sound of a gun. She went to the kitchen to get a cup of milk, and found her father there, reading by the light of the kitchen lamp.

5:

‘Father, you’ll ruin your eyesight!’

6:

‘What are you doing up, my dear? Can’t you sleep?’

Kitchen. From the internet.

7:

She told him about her dream, how she had searched for the little girl in the overgrown garden at the back of the house at Goulburn.

8:

He sighed, and rubbed his eyes. ‘Goulburn. Ah — it seems like yesterday. After your mother died the garden — the garden went to the dogs.’

9:

‘It’s like a hundred years ago, to me. A lifetime away.’

10:

‘Never mind, my dear. Never mind. It was just a dream. I’ve got the stove going, and the kettle’s boiled. Ah — make yourself a cup of tea, if you like.’

11:

‘I think I’ll make some warm milk. It might help me sleep.’ She poured some milk into a pan and put it on the stove.

12:

‘I noticed our guest hasn’t returned.’

13:

Julie looked around in alarm. ‘Paul?’ She checked the clock on the mantelpiece. ‘But it’s nearly morning.’

14:

‘I hope he knows what he’s doing, ah — wandering around in the dark. The moon’s gone now; it’s like pitch out there.’

15:

The window was dark, and reflected the lamplit kitchen. ‘I thought I heard — I mean, I dreamed I heard a shot,’ she said. She stirred a spoonful of chocolate into her milk, and some brown sugar.

16:

Her father looked at her. ‘I thought I heard a shot too, about ten minutes ago. Ah — but my hearing’s not so good any more. I thought perhaps I had imagined it.’

17:

‘I wish he wouldn’t carry that revolver about with him.’

18:

‘Well, after his — ah — his experience on the coach, I suppose he feels it’s an investment in his future.’

19:

She brought her cup of chocolate to the table. ‘Sometimes I think if there’d never been any men in the world, there would never have been any killing.’ As she sat down she noticed her father looking at her left hand. She put it out of sight on her lap. They looked at each other: she held her father’s gaze for a moment, then dropped her eyes.

20:

‘I see you’re not wearing Mr Stern’s ring,’ Bell said. ‘Ah — I noticed the other day, but I thought I’d not say anything. I thought perhaps it was a temporary thing. That — ah — that you might come to your senses.’

21:

‘But I have come to my senses. That’s what it’s all about, father. You saw what he did to Paul.’

Stern. From the internet.

22:

He frowned, and went to say something, and checked himself; then tried again. ‘Julie, you’re nearly thirty years of age. You put all that other business behind you, in Goulburn, years ago. Ah — you said you had made up your mind to marry him.’

23:

‘And I’ve made it up again, not to marry him. You can’t force me to.’

24:

‘You know quite well that I wouldn’t force you.’

25:

‘Well then.’

26:

Her father compressed his lips. ‘I — I hope I’ve done the right thing.’

27:

‘What do you mean?’

28:

‘Oh, over the years. I had to — Ah — I had to make my own life as best I could, and follow my studies in my spare time. It must have been hard on you growing up without a mother. I just don’t know if I did the right thing. And now it’s — it’s too late. If I got it wrong, well, ah — now it’s too late.’

29:

‘Oh, don’t be so gloomy, father. We always had a housekeeper. I never went hungry. I should have hated it if you’d gone to work in a bank or behind a counter in some grocer’s shop, so you could be a normal kind of parent keeping regular hours. Or if you’d married some woman just so I could have a mother in the house. You know that.’

30:

‘I did leave you alone rather too much.’

31:

‘I like being on my own.’

Little girl. From the internet.

32:

‘I remember one time — you must have been six or seven — ah — I came in very late one evening, and the housekeeper had gone home. A lamp had been lit in the kitchen, but the rest of the house was full of shadows. You were sitting there in the hall in the half-dark, playing with an old rag doll you’d had since you were two. When I came in the door you ran to me and hugged me so tightly I thought you’d never let me go. I felt so — I felt as though you had no one, no one for a friend.’

33:

‘You are being gloomy, aren’t you? You’re like Paul, too hard on yourself. I remember you used to read to me after dinner, every night. You used to take me on your rounds.’

34:

‘Some of that can’t have been very edifying. Ah — you must have seen some very sad things.’

35:

‘You’re musing again, father. I think I’ll try to get some more sleep.’

36:

‘I don’t feel sleepy. I’ve been reading up on Maxwell’s colour process. I think there’s a way to get the subtractive colour you need for printing colour positives — you use two sets of negative processes sequentially, using the complementaries of the three primaries. A double negative makes a positive, see? I think I’ll do some work downstairs.’ He paused at the door. ‘My dear — if you are sure — if you are sure about this Stern business, well, ah — I suppose you’ll have to do what you think is right. But I should like to think of you with a family of your own, some day. That’s all. Good night, my dear.’

37:

‘Good night, father.’

38:

Half an hour later Julie was fast asleep, and the sun was tinting the sky pink and gold. Paul arrived at the house and moved quietly around the back to avoid the squeaking front gate. As Julie had said, they didn’t use keys: the french doors on the veranda opened silently at his touch. In the chill light the daffodils stood silently in their vase. The petals gave out a dim, sulphurous glow, an underwater colour; they seemed to take fire from the glints of light in the crystal vase. The piano was mute. He tip-toed through to the darkened kitchen and poured himself a glass of water. The room felt warm, and he realised that the stove was still hot. He frowned, trying to work out why that should be so. Someone must have risen early and lit it, then gone back to bed. Or perhaps they’d stayed up late and kept the fire going. He was on his way to his room when he thought he heard a noise downstairs. He crept along the hall and down the steep brick steps to the basement. A light shone under the door of the workroom. He carefully opened the door and went in.

39:

‘Ah — Goodness, you startled me,’ Bell said. He’d been writing something in a notebook. ‘I thought I heard a gun go off, earlier on. My nerves have been on edge lately.’

40:

‘Yes,’ Paul said. ‘There was a gun, and it went off. This is not such a quiet town after all.’

41:

‘You’ve hurt yourself,’ said Bell. Paul was holding his left arm against his side.

42:

‘Just a cut,’ he said. ‘It would have been deeper, and nearer to my heart, but I moved quickly enough.’

43:

‘What happened?’

44:

‘Someone tried to kill me.’ He looked around the room. ‘Why do I do these things? To bring danger on myself? I could be killed.’ His eyes shifted around the room. Bell noticed a tension in his voice, a note of suppressed excitement or anxiety.

45:

‘Let me look at it.’

Medicine chest. From the internet.

46:

Paul took off his heavy woollen coat. The sleeve of his shirt had been cut, and it was stained with blood. ‘Hmmm, it’s not so bad,’ Bell said. ‘A small, narrow wound, more of a deep scratch. I’d better make sure it’s clean. Nothing is safe; not even a scratch from a rusty nail. Once infection sets in, there’s nothing you can do about it. I lost a patient a month ago that way.’ He led Paul over to the sink in the corner and cleaned the wound. Paul noticed his slight limp again.

47:

‘Is your rheumatism hurting?’ he asked Bell.

48:

‘No, no. I ignore it and it goes away.’

49:

‘Do I need the giant lizard ointment?’

50:

Bell laughed. ‘Goanna Salve? I don’t think so. Ah — just a bandage. There. That’s not too tight?’

51:

‘No, it’s just right.’

52:

‘Tell me, what happened? Here, sit on this stool.’ He went to move Paul’s coat and felt the weight of the gun. ‘What’s this?’ he asked, holding up the coat. ‘What’s in the pocket?’

53:

‘I’m sure you can guess. This, in the pocket, it’s an English revolver, heavy calibre, very well made. It’s what saved my life, for the second time, now. When I fired the gun there was a noise like thunder and a great flash, and I was hidden in a cloud of blue smoke like some oracle, or a god come down to earth from Mount Olympus to deliver great revelations amid storm and lightning. But I wasn’t a god, and when my gun spoke, it spoke to no effect. Can you not smell the burnt powder, Doctor?’

54:

Bell put the coat down on a bench. ‘Julie heard it too, in her sleep. Ah — what happened?’

55:

‘Some young man,’ said Paul, ‘wearing a cloth over his face, and waiting for the cover of darkness to attack. But I know who it was, it was the brother of Heeney, the man I killed, though he didn’t speak and I didn’t see his face. He must have followed me about the town all night long, watching what I was doing, where I was going. When I was coming home, when the moon had almost gone, he crept up on me. I could hear his steps dogging mine, his boots on the gravel following my own footsteps, and I had my hand on the gun. He stabbed at me, and I turned and made the shot quickly, and lost my footing and fell on the ground.’

56:

‘Good God, did you kill him?’

The dark bush at night. From the internet.

57:

‘No, no, I didn’t kill him. He ran away. Limping, is that what you say? Like this?’ He limped, in mime.

58:

‘Yes. Ah — limping.’

59:

‘So, this Heeney, he will try to kill me again. Well, what can I do? I am not the expert killer, I do not always hit my target. Ask Julie, she showed us all how to shoot with a rifle, at the sideshow. She is the top shot, the winner of the lamp.’ He went to the kerosene lamp on the bench, and held his hand over the glass chimney. ‘But me, I am just the amateur. I am afraid of guns. I will admit that to you. Especially when the barrel points at me. First the bushrangers, then the madman Verheeren, then Mr Lee, all pointing their guns at my head, all threatening to kill me.’

60:

‘Verheeren? He had a gun?’

61:

‘Perhaps it was just a toy. Who knows, until it fires? Then it is too late to know anything.’ Paul moved his hand back and forth in the wavering stream of heat. ‘You said Julie heard the shot in her sleep. What do you mean? How could you know this? Do you have mental contact with her while she sleeps?’

62:

Bell chuckled. ‘No, no. My scientific experiments haven’t taken me quite that far yet. Ah — I was reading in the kitchen an hour or so ago; Julie woke from a bad dream and came in to talk to me. She said she’d dreamed that she’d heard a gun go off.’

63:

‘Ah, so it was you who lit the stove. The room was warm. I thought someone had been awake.’

64:

‘Yes. It was cold. I see you’ve been practising the deductive method, as taught at the Edinburgh medical school. Yes, Julie and I talked for a while. She had a hot chocolate and went back to bed.’

65:

‘To sleep, to dream some more.’

66:

As Paul moved his hand in the flow of warm air from the lamp, the shadow of his arm moved against the wall and on the low ceiling. He was reminded of an illustration he’d seen as a child, in a book of fairy stories. A frightened little gnome carried a lamp through a cave, his own shadow huge and menacing on the wall behind him. Paul knew with a sudden certainty that human knowledge was like that, a frail and troubled lamp giving out a feeble glow, and creating giants and monsters made of shadows. His own fears, angers, vanities — for a moment he dimly understood them as somehow the product of his own intelligence, as it vainly cast a light onto things he didn’t understand and made shadows where it failed to grasp them. He had fought to subdue his own weaknesses, to burn away his faults and fears and hatreds, but they were his own nonetheless. They had faithfully followed him around the world, just like the gnome’s shadow.

67:

On the bench behind the lamp Paul could see perhaps a dozen large glass jars containing various animal specimens. One held a tiny embryo of a kangaroo floating in pale fluid like the ghost of a dreaming mouse; another held an octopus whose dark purple skin was patterned with pastel blue spots and rings. The light from the lamp, shining upwards from a low angle, gave them an especially sinister aspect. He gave a start as he saw, in a jar he hadn’t noticed previously, a pair of human hands. ‘What in the name of God is that?’

68:

‘Oh, they’re Jane’s hands,’ Bell said. ‘Now that’s a gruesome story.’

69:

‘I do not think I wish to hear it.’

70:

Bell grunted. ‘Ah — very well. Perhaps it’s best if you don’t. People say they want to hear it, and — ah — then they’re sorry.’

71:

Paul looked at the hands again. There was a ring on the wedding finger: an amethyst set in silver. ‘You shall have to tell me. I cannot believe the ring. That is — that is horrible.’

72:

Bell sat on a stool and took out a small cigar. ‘‘This all happened fifteen or twenty years ago,’ he said. There was a little spirit lamp burning under a beaker of liquid, and he lit the cigar with that. The smoke was scented with port or brandy; it was rich and sweet. When he had the cigar burning evenly, he went on: ‘Jane Dorlac was a pianist. Born in Birmingham. Her technique was not very good, according to the critics, but — ah — she had a vigorous spirit that came through in her playing, and it was much liked by the middle classes and by the London shopgirls and their fellows on a Saturday afternoon. She — ah — she played popular venues — a little higher than a music hall, perhaps, but not by much — in the days when it was unusual for women to perform on the piano in public. She specialised in bravura performances of heady, emotional stuff — Chopin, Liszt, gypsy melodies, mixed in with some popular romantic tunes. People — ah — people used to swoon.

73:

‘Her husband — Lemayne was his name — he acted as her manager; they took quite a bit of money, apparently. He was a violent man, and a jealous one — a big frame, and thick red hair — and he drank like a fish. They travelled around England and the Continent for a few years, mainly the holiday spots, building up her name, and drinking and quarrelling. One — ah — one northern winter they made a tour of the colonies — Capetown, Malaya, Sydney, Wellington. On the New Zealand leg, Jane’s husband caught her flirting with a baritone in Wanganui. Worse than flirting, actually: one moonlit night he found them together in the woodshed out the back of the hotel, at three in the morning. Lemayne grabbed the axe — he was drunk — and he — I can see his eyes glaring, I can see the damned axe glinting in the light — ah — he chopped off her hands. Thump! Thump! ”Now you won’t play the bloody piano,„ he said, ”and you won’t bloody-well play around, either!„ The poor woman died before they could get her proper medical help: shock, loss of blood.’

74:

‘The husband?’

Legal team. From the internet.

75:

‘They hanged him, of course. His only mistake, he said, was geographical. Well — ah — tragico-juridico-geographical, as Hamlet’s players might have put it.’

76:

‘What do you mean?’

77:

‘If he’d waited until they were in France on one of their tours, and then killed her while his blood was hot in a fit of jealous rage — which was certainly the case, in Wanganui — he would have got away scot free. The French understand such things. There’s — ah — there’s a certain leniency for a crime of passion.’

78:

‘Well, perhaps. The French execute murderers too, you know. But how did you — the hands, how did they end up here?’

79:

‘The coroner in Wellington was a friend, a colleague from my Edinburgh days. He remembered that I had been interested in galvanism, so when the case was over and things had quietened down, he sent them to me. At one stage I had an idea of doing some research — galvanic conduction in muscle tissue — but somehow I lacked the heart for it. The husband’s hands are there too, you see. My coroner friend obtained them, after the hanging.’ Bell moved the jar, and brought forward another from behind it, with a larger pair of hands moving slowly in the blue-green fluid. The nails were wide and blunt. Paul could see thick reddish hairs on the back of the hands. He felt ill, and looked away.

Woman playing piano. From the internet.

80:

‘Yes, it usually takes people like that,’ Bell said. ‘These days I don’t show them much, unless I’m asked. I — ah — I don’t know that I ever wanted to have the damned things.’ He looked around. ‘You know, sometimes I think the workshop is haunted. I think of the poor woman — there are times when I imagine I can hear Chopin being played faintly, perhaps from behind the wall over there, or in that dark corner, behind the Japanese screen. I — ah — I go to look, and the sound fades. At first I thought it might be Julie practising upstairs — the sound travels down through the floor. But no: Julie was out at the time, and in any case she thinks the Romantic composers are cheap. There are times when I conceive that I might have psychic capabilities; but — ah — I suppose it’s just an overworked imagination. Whatever the cause, it gives me the willies when it happens. I should throw the things out, but I can’t bring myself to do that.’

81:

‘Perhaps you should give them away.’

82:

‘But who would take them? The only museum who might want them would be one of those sideshow places full of gruesome murder mementoes, like Madame Tussaud’s. Or those fellows at the show, with their so-called Wild Man from Borneo and their deformed animals on display. Poor Jane deserves better than that.’ He stubbed out his cigar. He looked tired. ‘Sometimes I think my — ah — my workshop is really a kind of morgue; various dreams of mine are embalmed here, and lie sleeping in their bath of preservative.’

83:

Paul smiled at Bell’s gloomy tone. ‘I had a dream last night,’ he said. ‘I mean the night before last; this night I have not had any sleep. I wanted to tell you about it, since you are partly responsible. And it might cheer you up. I seem to have caught your dream, the way you might catch a fever from another person.’

84:

‘My dream? What do you mean?’

85:

‘You said an ancient Egyptian priest told you about magnetism.’

86:

‘Oh yes, that. Years ago.’ Bell gave a short laugh. ‘He — he hasn’t bothered to call again, with the details.’

87:

‘I had a dream, so complicated, and that old Egyptian appeared in it. I was being pursued — it is little wonder I have such dreams, so many people threaten me — I am being pursued by someone or something in the uniform of an officer, and wearing a long black cape. I have broken some military rule or regulation, and this officer, this creature — for he is like some kind of demon — he is trying to capture me, to take me back so the firing squad can shoot me. I try to escape, I run and run through the streets, into a large public garden, then the plants in the garden become larger, the bushes turn into trees, overhanging, now it is a forest, and I run further under the trees. Soon I shall have to face him, soon I shall have to turn like a cornered rat and fight. So at last, at the bottom of some ravine, with mud and branches everywhere, a kind of thick darkness in the air instead of light, I turn.

88:

‘I turn, and the thing is there close on my heels, panting and gnashing its teeth, and I fire my gun. Like tonight, there is a great flash and a blinding cloud of smoke. I am choking, I cannot see. I have killed someone, but I am already terribly afraid that it is a mistake. I should not have killed this person at all. The smoke clears, and I am in my family living room, in the house we used to own when I was a little boy. There is my father —’ Paul’s voice caught. He took a deep breath, composed himself, and continued. ‘There is my father, lying on the carpet. He has been horribly wounded in the belly, the blood has stained his white shirt, but he is holding a book over his stomach, so I shall not see the wound. He doesn’t want me to be frightened, to see the terrible thing I have done.’

89:

‘What is the book?’

90:

‘What? It’s just a book.’

91:

‘Yes, but what book? Perhaps it means something.’

92:

Paul stared at him intently for a moment, then he looked back at the lamp. ‘Yes, the book,’ he said to himself. His eyes stared into the lamp flame, but he was looking at something else. He shook himself. ‘But that is not important. The scene changes slightly, the mood shifts, and this man comes into the room. He is your Egyptian priest. He touches my shoulder, and I am carried away somehow. We are in Egypt, in the ancient city of Luxor, in the open courtyard of one of the temples there. The bright sun is pouring down onto the stone floor and lighting up the coloured hangings. He tells me to look up — and high on the wall among the beautiful hieroglyphics, green and scarlet, I can make out my own name inscribed in a kind of silver ink — ’ He stopped here, and gave Bell a quick look.

Luxor, Egypt, circa 1870s. From the internet.

93:

‘Nouveau,’ Bell said. ‘Didn’t you say that was your name?’

94:

‘Well,’ said Paul, with a slight smile, ‘I did say that.’ He frowned again. ‘The priest said that I had a task to perform, I suppose like the twelve labours of Hercules, when to do penance for killing his wife and children in a bout of insanity he had to clean out the Augean stables, and to do many other dangerous and impossible things. The priest said that when I have finished this task, this penance to make up for the crimes I have committed in my long fit of madness — then I shall be redeemed, and my name will be known throughout the world.’

95:

‘It’s a remarkable dream.’ Bell’s voice was solemn. ‘It’s like a fragment from a parable.’

96:

‘Absurd, isn’t it?’

97:

‘Absurd? No, not at all. It speaks in the secret language of your forgotten memories and your buried thoughts. And what is your task?’

98:

‘My task?’

99:

‘What did the priest give you to do?’

100:

Paul looked at him for a moment. ‘Why, to gather all the books in the world, and to consign them to the flames: to burn them, burn them all, until there was nothing but ashes left.’

101:

At breakfast, they were all uneasy. Paul had slept badly, and Bell’s laboratory work had not gone well. Julie awoke in a distracted mood, and allowed a saucepan of milk coffee to boil over. She wanted to talk to Paul, and he wanted to talk to her, but the presence of her father made that awkward. The meal was a subdued affair.

102:

They were finishing their porridge when there was an insistent knocking on the front door.

103:

Julie went to answer it, and they heard Frank’s voice in the hallway, sounding grave. ‘It certainly is a distressing thing,’ he said as he came into the room. ‘Miss Mackenzie was very upset. Good morning, Paul. Doctor Bell.’

104:

‘Oh good morning, Francis. Ah — you’re an early caller.’

105:

‘I’m afraid my news is rather unpleasant.’

106:

‘Oh? What is it?’

107:

Frank had his grey stetson hat in his hand, and he twisted the rim between his hands as he looked for the right words. Then he shrugged, and said ‘What the hell, there’s no way to say this politely. I’m afraid there’s been a murder.’

108:

‘A murder?!’ Julie’s hand went to her mouth. Bell put down his paper slowly on the table and looked over the top of his spectacles with a frown. ‘What’s — what has happened?’ he asked.

109:

‘It’s the old Belgian you saw on Saturday, Paul. Mr Verheeren. He was found shot dead in his room last night.’

110:

Paul stared at him. He had gone pale. There was a moment’s silence.

111:

‘In Miss Mackenzie’s boarding house?’ Bell asked. ‘Was anyone else hurt?’

112:

‘Shot dead?’ Julie cried out. ‘But why? Who would do such a terrible thing?’ She clutched her apron into a knot and held it tight against her waist.

113:

‘No one knows who did it. Some time after midnight, when everyone was in bed asleep, there was a gunshot. It was very loud — it woke everybody. When we ran up to his room — I had to break the door in — we found Verheeren on the floor, shot through the chest at point blank range. It was a heavy calibre revolver by the look of the wound. There was nothing anyone could do. Apparently the murderer escaped through the window and climbed down from the roof and got away.’

114:

‘Was it robbery?’ Bell asked.

115:

‘No one knows exactly what happened.’

116:

‘You might expect this kind on thing on the gold fields,’ Bell said, ‘but — ah — Wagga is a quiet farming town.’

117:

‘Poor Mr Verheeren,’ Julie said. ‘Why, I spoke to him only the other day. I was at Mr Koellner’s music shop, buying a piece of music which I wanted Mary to learn, and Mr Verheeren came in. He seemed distressed about something — you know how he is always muttering — that is, how he was always muttering to himself. He said he wanted a string for a double bass. It had to be the longest one, the lowest note, I can’t remember what they call it. He didn’t seem the musical type, to me. And now he’s dead.’

Music shop. From the internet.

118:

‘No one has any idea who would want to do a thing like that,’ Frank said. ‘Well, I can’t stay. I’m on my way to the Police Station to give what evidence I can. They took the body there. Oh, Doctor… Constable Sloesser asked me to mention that he’d like you to call by. It’s something to do with the Coroner’s inquiry.’

119:

Bell gathered himself. ‘Ah, yes, I expect so.’ He got up from the table and looked around. ‘Ah — I’ll just get my things.’

120:

‘Oh, and Julie, you might like to call on Miss Mackenzie. She’s putting on a tough front, but I know she’s upset.’

121:

‘The poor woman. Would you like to come with me, Paul?’

122:

‘What?’ His face was white, and he licked his lips. ‘To come to the boarding house? Well, yes. Of course. I — I should be glad to come along.’
 
[»»] Back to the Contents page

¡Those Peons!

It seems that the Hispanics of China have developed another string to their bow. In an article on the front page of Saturday’s ‘Business News’ (21 January 2017) in Rupert Murdoch’s paper The Australian, Alan Kohler’s ‘Letter from Davos’ mentioned Xi Jinping’s talk (at Davos, naturally) that was sprinkled with ‘peons to the wonder of free trade, globalisation and innovation.’

Alan Kohler also appears on the ABC television, Business Spectator, the Eureka Report, and from time to time as an adjunct professor at Victoria University, and has been editor of The Age newspaper in Melbourne. I wonder why he can’t spell paean? I can.

Back to his musings, which forced me to have a mental image of lots of peons — according to my dictionary, Spanish-American day labourers or unskilled farm workers — walking up and down Money Avenue in Davos wearing a billboard advertising the wonders of capitalism. Like a GorillaGram, or a StripperGram, only with a peon: HispanoGram, perhaps.

I hope the idea catches on with those fat cats in Switzerland; we need more variety and more literature on the glittering streets of Davos.

Black Gold, Chapter 16

Chapter 16 — The Stalker
… In which Paul Nouveau argues with Frank and Julie, and stalks off to visit Verheeren at the Chinaman’s house. Lee, with his Deringer, surprises Paul at a window, and they talk of the Buddhist Goddess of Mercy, Guanjin. Paul leaves, and visits Miss Mackenzie’s boarding house, where they are all eating dinner, and where he is nearly surprised by Alice, the maid. He watches Verheeren go off to bed, and climbs up by a tankstand to watch him through the window. He reflects how easy it would be to kill the old man.

Paragraph One follows — 1:

Frank called by the next day with a copy of the Wednesday edition of the Advertiser, and Julie asked him to stay for the midday meal. It was a fine day, and they ate on the veranda.

2:

Paul was annoyed that Frank hadn’t spoken to him the night before at the magic show, and his manner was sullen. Also, he felt uneasy about what had happened between him and Julie. She’d known Frank for a year or so and they were friends: Paul was a stranger who’d blown into town, an unknown person from somewhere else, and he couldn’t tell what his real position was. There didn’t seem any way to bring his confused feelings about Julie into the open, so he turned to the article Frank had written about the holdup.

3:

‘The story on Saturday was bad enough,’ he said. ‘But this second installment — it makes me look like a chap who is doing the British Empire thing — defending the ladies, bringing order and the rule of law to the colony. You know I do not give a shit about the rule of law.’

4:

‘Paul,’ said Julie.

5:

‘I was there,’ Frank said. ‘I just wrote about what I saw.’

6:

‘What you saw! The facts are one thing, but then you embroider them with this Yankee style of newspaper writing.’

7:

‘What do you mean, Yankee style?’

8:

‘You are writing for the shopkeepers. What do you call me here? ”A brave visitor from the Old World!„ Like a fop from the Faubourg Saint-Germain, with a duelling scar.’

9:

‘I’m doing a job, Paul. I’m not one of those radical friends of yours from the Paris Commune who overthrew the authorities and raped and ransacked their way through the houses of the rich. Ordinary people buy the paper, and I write for them. Surely it doesn’t hurt to colour things somewhat. Are you trying to tell me how to write articles?’

10:

‘You know what I mean.’

11:

Frank gave him a long look. ‘There’s something odd about you,’ he said. ‘You’ve lived through the horrors of war and revolution, or so you say; you’ve travelled half-way around the world, you’ve shot dead two armed men, and yet underneath, it’s as though you’re spoiled, like a spoiled child.’

12:

‘A child?’ Paul had flushed a dull red. ‘I was in the Dutch Army. They don’t take children!’

13:

‘You didn’t last long in the Dutch Army.’

14:

‘What? What do you mean? That I am a coward?’ He stood up, knocking his chair over.

15:

‘Oh, Paul, I didn’t mean that,’ Frank said, in a conciliatory tone. ‘I mean that you seem to want things to be a certain way, yet you don’t want to take the responsibility of making them work out that way. You want to have your cake and eat it too. You set something up, then you walk away from it.’

16:

‘What do you mean, eating cake?’

17:

‘Please, Frank,’ Julie said.

18:

‘You mean run away? What are you saying?’

19:

‘I don’t mean that,’ Frank said. ‘You’ve got guts, I’m not denying that. It’s something else.’

20:

Paul felt as though he was wading through molasses. ‘The way you people talk, it is all double meanings.’ He hit the table with the flat of his hand so the cups rattled. ‘There is no plain speaking here!’ He turned his back on them and stalked along the veranda.

21:

He was struck with the artificiality of the scene: the carefully paved garden path, the cane table, the pot of tea with its knitted woollen jacket to keep it warm. Just outside the town boundaries all this pretence dissolved: there the earth was scarred by the plough, and stumps and broken boughs littered the ground; the trees were misshapen, with ragged shreds of bark hanging from their trunks. The river was full of mud and snags. Sticks and leaves lay strewn around on the forest floor, a rubbish of dead undergrowth infested with poisonous snakes and spiders that no one seemed to do anything about. The bush, uninhabited except for the forlorn and dejected blacks, stretched for more than a thousand miles, mainly trackless and unsurveyed, unfenced, unworked, useless.

22:

He hadn’t realised quite how European he was: how the fields, hedgerows and paved roads that had been part of Europe for thousands of years gave a sense of plan and human purpose to a landscape. His struggle to read a meaning in the appearance of the bush was somehow suffocating: it felt like learning an ancient language that had no perceivable pattern, where every verb was irregular. But the blacks knew the language. They had invented it, or perhaps learned it from the land itself.

23:

‘Jimmy Skylark is going to explain the secret language of the bush to me,’ he said over his shoulder. He got his jacket and left without a backward glance.

Tea. From the internet.

24:

‘Does he mean to be so damned rude?’ Frank asked.

25:

‘Who knows?’ said Julie.

26:

‘Well, what’s wrong with the man?’

27:

Julie thought for a moment. ‘He has to grow up, and I don’t think he knows how. He’s like a priest who abandons the church and sets out to build a normal life, but who never quite fits into society. He gets trivial things wrong. He doesn’t know how to handle money. He doesn’t know how to tell a joke, or compliment a woman, or how to flirt politely. He doesn’t quite understand how to manage a friendship.’

28:

‘That’s for sure. I thought he’d be pleased with the piece I wrote, but from the way he responded you’d think I’d insulted him. There’s a nasty streak in him. He’s sarcastic about everything and everybody. I can’t help feeling —’ He paused.

29:

‘Feeling what, Frank?’

30:

‘Oh, like I want to knock his teeth out.’ He stirred his tea. ‘Well, he’s not worth getting upset about. Where’s your father? Working in his laboratory?’

31:

‘No. One of his patients died last night. He’s gone to see the family.’

32:

Frank frowned. ‘That must be a difficult thing to do.’

33:

‘Yes.’

34:

‘I suppose doctors just have to get used to it. What happened?’

35:

‘The man was a timber-cutter, injured when a tree fell on him last month. Father did what he could, but infection set in. Sometimes I think he wasn’t really cut out to be a doctor. He broods on things. Scientific investigation, that’s what he’s suited to. He wants to find a way to kill the microbes that infect wounds and then get into the bloodstream. Carbolic acid kills them, but you can’t inject that into a patient.’

36:

‘He should be working in London or Boston. You can’t expect to get far with that sort of thing out here, miles from anywhere.’

37:

‘I wish he’d go back to Edinburgh, where he studied.’ She stirred her tea. ‘I’ve tried to persuade him to, but he won’t. Oh, what’s the use.’

38:

Paul came back late in the afternoon, looking tired and unhappy. He went straight to his room; Julie heard the bedsprings creak as he threw himself down to rest. She was reading through an old book of recipes in the kitchen; ten minutes later he came in to make himself a cup of coffee.

39:

‘How did you progress with the lore of the bush?’ she asked.

40:

He shook his head and muttered something in French. When the coffee was ready he brought it to the table. Julie was copying out an old recipe of her mother’s into a notebook with an indelible pencil. As she started each new line she licked the end of the pencil to make its trace darker, and it left a blurred purple-blue mark on the tip of her tongue. Paul gazed at it, fascinated: the moist pink flesh, and the purple smear. She didn’t wear lipstick, and this strange emblem seemed like a substitute: a partly erased tattoo, perhaps, or a secret stigma to indicate some crime or moral lapse she had committed. She looked up at him, thinking of some meal her mother had once cooked for her as a child, half noticing his interest, half gazing into space, the pencil touching the tip of her moist tongue. ‘Roast hogget,’ she said to herself. Time seemed to slow and stop, and a prickling electrical feeling hung in the air, like the scent of thunderstorms. He wanted to tear off her dress, to touch and bruise her soft white skin as he had before. He thought of Bell’s galvanic experiments — here in this room was a current of electrical energy that could burn your skin off. He felt his pulse pounding.

41:

But if he went to get up he would knock over his coffee, if he touched her hand it would be too roughly, and she would pull away, angry and hurt; if he went to speak, some crude lie would leap from his mouth like a toad. He forced himself to look down at his coffee.

42:

‘Why is it that I am a hopeless failure?’ he asked. His voice sounded hoarse. ‘I am not so stupid, surely.’

43:

She looked back at her book. The spell was broken. ‘Why do you say that?’

44:

‘Jimmy Skylark is a very patient man, but everything he showed me seemed to be invisible. A piece of grass, bent a certain way — they all look the same to me, bent or not bent. And the marks of the feet of the horses — this because I am so blind, he has to show me the most obvious marks, stamped into the clay, of the shoes of the horses, going this way and that, but one horse is lame, he says. Well, which one? All I could see is a gabble of marks, a gibberish of feet, all going every different way to hell and damnation!’

More tea. From the internet.

45:

She laughed. ‘It takes a lifetime to learn those things. And you expect to pick it up in an hour? You’re too hard on yourself.’ She looked back at her book. ‘You’re always too hard on yourself, I suspect. Now, given that the Castro’s the butcher has plenty of hoggett this week, should I cook a roast?’

46:

He was frowning. ‘Too hard on myself? That does not seem right. I am not hard enough. I am lazy, that is my problem. A wastrel.’

47:

‘You’re wrong, you push yourself too hard. You’re like a father bullying a lazy child, always prodding, pushing, and criticising. You’re the lazy child, and you’re also the angry father. You should let the old man take a holiday once in a while. Send him fishing, with some cake and a bottle of beer. Give the poor child some respite.’

48:

‘But —’

49:

‘Oh, I’m sure you have your reasons. ’ She noted her place, and closed the book. ‘Was your father a bully?’

50:

He stumbled on the words. ‘M-my father — he —’

51:

‘Of course, you told me. He left, when you were a child. I’m being personal, and forgetful, and thoughtless. Perhaps that’s my character defect; do you think?’ She put her book down. ‘It’s late. I’d better get along to the butcher shop.’

52:

Mary Cameron called by after dinner to ask Julie if she would help her with some homework. The topic was geography. From his room Paul could hear their voices in unison reciting the names of the South American rivers from an atlas — Magdelena, Orinoco, Negro, Japur, Amazon, Madeira, São Francisco, Paraná, Uruguay, Plata, Colorado — a murmur just like the voices of his sisters going over their homework phrase by phrase.

53:

Through his window he could see the full moon rising over the hills behind the town. It appeared to be snagged in the high branches of an old oak, with a wisp of cloud sailing by like a floating reef, its fringes illuminated with golden light.

54:

He didn’t feel tired, he felt restless. He decided to take a walk, and he got out his heavy sea-coat and took the revolver from his bag. The coat had large pockets that would hold the gun comfortably. He spun the cylinder. A slight noise made him look up. Mary was standing just outside the half-open door, her wide eyes staring.

55:

‘Mr Nouveau, Julie said —’ she began, and stopped. She swallowed and tried again. ‘Julie said to ask you if you would like to come for a walk. She’s — she’s walking as far as my place.’

56:

Paul felt absurdly embarrassed by the way the girl’s gaze was fixed on the gun. He put it into the pocket of his coat. ‘I have to protect myself,’ he said. ‘You wouldn’t understand.’

57:

She seemed to relax somewhat, now the gun was out of sight. ‘I suppose it’s the bushrangers,’ she said.

58:

‘Yes. They have friends and relatives, they all hate me now. But leave that. It is my business. Yes, I should like to walk with you both. Some fresh air — I shall join you in a minute.’ He wanted her to go, to release him from this unpleasant moment, but she seemed rooted to the spot.

59:

She stood there for a few moments, then spoke again. ‘I’m sorry, I can’t help it. I’m terribly afraid of guns.’ He noticed that her hands were trembling slightly and he felt suddenly ashamed. He hadn’t meant to frighten her. How old was she — ten, eleven? He tried to think of something adult and reassuring to say, but all that came into his mind was a sudden vivid memory of the bushranger being shot. He swallowed and tried to think of the English words he needed.

60:

‘My cousin killed himself with a gun,’ Mary said. ‘A year ago last week. He was a boundary rider.’

61:

He didn’t want to hear the rest, and he held up his hand as if to ward off the story, but the girl wanted to go on. He stood with his head down, staring at the polished floorboards.

1877: photo of “Arizona Charlie”. From the internet.

62:

‘He took a shot at a snake that had frightened his horse. Something must have been stuck in the barrel of the rifle, and it blew up.’ She twisted a handkerchief in her fingers. ‘It hurt his eye mostly, and the side of his head. He — he managed to ride back to town. Doctor Bell patched him up. I was in the kitchen when they brought him in — Julie was showing me how to make strawberry jam. Toby was his name. My cousin Toby.’ She was crying; at least, her eyes were wet, and now her face. Paul shifted his feet and ground his teeth together. He realised he was clenching his fists and tried to relax them.

63:

‘He cried out a lot,’ Mary said, ‘until Julie’s dad gave him something to make him go to sleep. He never —’ She clamped the handkerchief over her mouth for a moment, took a deep ragged breath, and tried again. ‘He never woke up again.’

64:

‘I’m sorry.’

65:

‘So you can see why I’m a bit of a sook. That’s what my dad says. But I can’t help it, really.’

66:

‘Sook? What is a sook?’

67:

‘Like a cry-baby.’ She sniffed and carefully wiped her face. ‘You won’t tell Julie, will you?’

68:

‘Tell Julie?’

69:

‘That I cried.’

70:

‘Oh, but you did not cry. I did not see anyone cry.’

71:

Julie and Mary talked together quietly as they walked through the town with Paul a few paces behind them. He could feel the weight of the gun pulling at his coat. They stopped at the top of a slight rise, and Julie hugged Mary and said good night; then the girl raised her cheek to Paul for a kiss. Her skin had the fresh, slight scent of childhood.

72:

‘Thanks for not telling,’ she whispered.

73:

Julie put her arm through his as they walked back. It was chill, and she leaned against his coat. ‘What are you thinking?’

74:

‘Oh, nothing,’ he said irritably. The older man — the homosexual — always used to ask him what he was thinking: he hated it.

75:

They came to a narrow footbridge over a pond, a motionless backwater of the river. He could hear a frog or perhaps a cricket croaking in the reeds. ‘I need to be alone for a while,’ he said.

76:

She took her arm from his without a word and continued walking.

77:

‘I — I don’t have a key,’ he called.

78:

‘We don’t have keys here,’ she said over her shoulder. Her figure dwindled along the path and under the shadow of a willow tree. For a few moments more he could hear her footsteps on the gravel, then they were gone.

79:

He walked quietly through the back streets. Somewhere a dog barked and was answered by another faint barking from out beyond the town limits, where the streets became muddy tracks and petered out among thistles and broken-down sulkies and prickly brush, where the scrub turned into the blank wall of the bush. Then, faintly from the far distance, came a long howl that didn’t sound like a dog at all. Perhaps it was a native dog; perhaps Jimmy was hunting in the night with his warrigal pup.

80:

There was the Criterion Hotel, its slate roof gleaming like a slab of pewter in the moonlight, its windows glowing with warmth and light. There in an inky gully behind the hotel’s vegetable patch was the Chinaman’s house, its veranda leaning at an angle and its roof crooked. Smoke drifted from the chimney. At the back, a blackberry bush sprawled up against a rusty rainwater tank.

81:

Paul stepped carefully through the weeds to the shadow of the wall, and eased his way along to a side window low to the ground. He looked in: it was the room where he had waited on Verheeren. A single tiny lamp, no more than a wick floating in a saucer of oil, gave out a dull glow. There was the screen with the native boy and his buffalo, there was the tiny golden clock. He could make out Lee’s figure. He seemed to be sitting on a mat, quite motionless, gazing at something in the corner of the room with his eyes half closed. Perhaps he was listening to someone speaking, perhaps to Verheeren: Paul couldn’t hear. He moved quietly to the end of the building and looked around the corner. There, half way along the back wall, a small window spilled its light onto the yard. To reach it he’d have to pass the back door, and he had an irrational fear that it would open just as he crept past, and he’d be face to face with Lee and his deadly little gun. He waited until his pulse slowed down, and inched his way along to the window.

82:

Waves of noise came from the bar of the hotel — laughter and singing. He made out the sound of an accordion. People here were always making music, he thought, perhaps to keep the horrible silence of the bush at bay.

Night in the bush. From the internet.

83:

From among the babble of voices he thought he heard the name ‘Heeney’. The hairs on the back of his neck prickled and a chill went through his body. No, he had imagined it. Heeney was an outlaw like his dead brother; he wouldn’t come into town with his guns to stand drinking at the bar. He’d hide and skulk and spy among the shadows, as Paul was doing now.

84:

Through the small window he could see what the Chinaman had been looking at: it wasn’t Verheeren, it was the statuette of what Lee had called the Goddess of Mercy. What was her name? Behind the glitter of gilt and crimson porcelain Paul caught a likeness of the Virgin Mary again. Perhaps it was the slight smile on the face of the goddess, perhaps the half-gesture of benediction she was making with her slender fingers. But where was Lee? He should have been visible from where Paul was crouching.

85:

Guanjin, that was her name. He whispered the word to himself: Guanjin.

86:

He felt something icy cold gently touch the back of his neck. The shock turned his muscles to jelly. He should have reached for his gun, but it was too late — why hadn’t he taken it out before, cocked the hammer, made himself ready?

87:

‘So lucky you spoke the name of the goddess,’ Lee whispered, close to his ear. ‘It stayed my hand. Mr Deringer was about to speak, and blow your brains out the front of your face. The Frenchman, is it?’

88:

Paul turned slowly, and licked his lips. The short, fat double barrels glinted in the light from the window. Where they looked at him were two black holes, like rotten teeth. Lee’s hand was remarkably steady.

89:

‘Tell me,’ Lee said, ‘who was it you came to see? Not me, I think. We came to the end of our talking a few days ago.’

90:

‘The goddess — when you pray to her, does she answer your prayers?’ The question surprised even Paul, who had, after all, asked it.

91:

Lee thought for a moment. The barrel was lowered an inch or two. ‘The goddess remains silent,’ he said. He appeared to reflect for a moment longer, turning over possibilities in his mind. ‘I remain silent,’ he offered.

92:

‘Silent? Is that how you pray?’ A cricket chirped in the weeds. From further away, the drunken men sang and laughed in a chorus.

93:

‘It is hard to explain to a barbarian,’ Lee said quietly. Why were they whispering? ‘It is hard to explain how we pray to a statue, a long way from her proper homeland,’ he added. ‘There are no questions, and no answers, there is no chatter like that kind of thing. I have been to the Christian church here in this colony, one or two times. In such a church there is a lot of talking, and many questions, and much begging and pleading and singing aloud. With the goddess Guanjin, it is best to be quiet. Many years ago she came from India with another name, bringing the scriptures, and some people say the scriptures are just the outer shell of things, as the husk protects the grains of corn within, and that the true meaning is hidden and sheltered there, so that silence is the best thing. It is most difficult to explain to an Englishman.’

94:

‘I am not an Englishman.’

95:

Lee looked at him for what seemed a long time. ‘If you must hunt down poor Mr Verheeren,’ he said quietly, ‘you must not do it here, in this house. It makes bad trouble.’

96:

‘Very well,’ Paul said.

97:

‘He does not live here,’ Lee said. ‘He lives in another place.’

98:

Paul backed away slowly. ‘I am sorry I alarmed you.’ He could feel the weight of his revolver in his coat pocket, but he wasn’t going to reach for it now. He noticed how the moonlight glittered on the purple leaves of the blackberry bush.

99:

‘It is sensible for you to carry a gun at this time,’ Lee said. ‘People say that you will have need of it. You should take a great deal of care to be more ready at all times, both in the night and in the day, you should make a practice of it. There are people who will not stay their hand, as I have done. The goddess cannot help you a second time. Once is enough.’

100:

Paul made to reply, but Lee was no longer there. There was no one on the veranda, and the yard, thick with glistening weeds and thistles, was empty.

101:

He skirted the hotel and made his way across town in the direction of the boarding house where Verheeren stayed. Crossing a back lane he paused in the patch of gloom under the branches of a tall gum tree. He thought he could hear a pair of boots crunching on the gravel somewhere behind him, but when he stopped the sound vanished. Perhaps it was the echo of his own footsteps that he had heard. He waited for a few minutes — nothing.

102:

He found the boarding house on the edge of town, nestled in a clearing near where Greenleaves’ hill ran down a long ridge and met the river. At the front was a garden, with a gate and a path that led up to the porch. Orchard trees grew at the sides, and around the back was a tangle of trees, weeds and bushes, and a fowl-yard fenced with wire netting. He circled the property carefully, keeping his distance from the building.

Boarding House, 1877. From the internet. Emanuel I. de Medicis’ boarding house, 1877.

103:

He was worried that there might be a dog to give the alarm, and he took his time approaching the house, but no dog appeared. All the doors and windows were closed against the cold, and the windows at the side were heavily curtained. The sound of voices came from a room towards the back of the house, together with the noise of cutlery and crockery — they were having supper. At the back, the wide veranda had been partly partitioned off and covered in, and what looked like a pantry and bathroom had been added. He explored. A small storeroom at the end of the veranda had been left unlocked. It looked directly into the dining room through a glassed-in window — he could look in, but if he was careful he would not be seen.

104:

Half the dining table was visible: he could see an elderly man — a bank clerk, perhaps — the back of another man, and two ladies of middle age. They were all busy talking and eating at the same time. The man with his back to him got up and brought a bowl from the table to a bench just under the window where Paul was looking in. It was Frank; Paul was so surprised he forgot to draw back into the shadow of the storeroom, and only the fact that Frank was busy spooning something into the bowl allowed him to escape detection. Of course, Frank lived here — in the tension of the evening Paul had forgotten this elementary fact. Frank made some joke as he took the bowl back to the table, and they all laughed. He was popular, of course; polite, confident, at his ease. Paul felt a twinge of jealousy. But why shouldn’t Frank be popular? Perhaps it came with being American.

105:

Paul pulled his collar up and blew on his fingers. He felt cold and tired all of a sudden, but the sound of Verheeren’s voice made him prick up his ears.

106:

‘Only ze Dutch know how to make chocolate,’ the voice said, and though the sounds weren’t clear among the noise of the busy dining room, the loud voice and the thick vowels were unmistakable. ‘And so I bid you all good bye.’

107:

Paul could see his back, moving towards the door. ‘You mean au revoir,’ a woman’s voice said, and Verheeren replied gruffly ‘Of course I mean good night, not good bye. Good night, damen und herren.’ He moved out of sight. Paul could hear footsteps going up the stairs, then a distant door slammed.

108:

‘I spoke to you about the lamps before, Alice,’ a woman’s voice said sharply. It was Miss Mackenzie — the accent was unmistakably Scottish. ‘This one’s completely empty. It’s beginning to smoke. Now fetch some kerosene this minute!’

109:

Kerosene? Paul sniffed — he could smell kerosene, in the storeroom, next to him, somewhere, and Alice, whoever she was, would soon come looking for it. Should he leave his position and lose himself in the darkness of the yard? Or would it be better to wedge himself into the shadows at the back of the small room and hope not to be seen? His mind was made up for him. He heard the back door open, and quick footsteps came across the veranda. It was too late to escape. The back of the storeroom was full of tins and bottles, and a mop and broom: he’d make too much noise trying to hide there. He took a deep breath and wedged himself behind the door.

110:

It swung open quickly and a hand reached into the darkness. It fumbled around on the floor for a moment. He felt her fingers brush his boot. ‘Now where’s the damned thing?’ She moved further into the room, with her back to him. If she turned, he would be seen. What could he possibly say?

111:

A man’s voice came from the house: ‘Alice, the kerosene’s here in the pantry. I thought you said you wanted it this afternoon, so I brought it in. Haven’t you filled the blessed things yet?’

112:

‘I don’t have time to do every bloody thing!’ said Alice under her breath, and swung the door closed. He heard her footsteps go back across the veranda, and the back door slammed shut.

113:

The noise from the dining room continued — Frank’s light laughter, the chatter of the others, the Scottish tint of Miss Mackenzie’s voice as sharp as the fume of whisky against the night air. He crept out into the yard, rubbing his arms for warmth, and looked back at the house. High up there was a glow, as though perhaps a lamp was shining onto the roof. A rain-water tank was on a level with the roof at the back, perched on a stand made of upright logs. Paul climbed up the framework of rough timber to get a better look, and cut his left arm painfully on a protruding nail. He cursed, and kept going, and was soon perched on the platform that supported the base of the tank. The metal made a booming noise as he worked his way around the edge, and he paused, then moved on with extra stealth. From there it was only a step across onto the roof, and now he could see where the glow was coming from. A dormer window was lit up — the sash was wide open, and a breeze bothered the curtain. Verheeren, he thought: that’s where he lives, up under the eaves like a bat.

114:

A shadow moved across the blind, then back again. It was the figure of a man, holding something up, a curved stick, and moving his arms slowly back and forth. The stick bent, then straightened, and Paul realised it was a bow being stretched. Poor mad Verheeren was playing with bows and arrows, like a child. Perhaps he was afraid that one of his jungle familiars had hunted him down; the spirit of the volcano, say, or perhaps a witch doctor, his dark skin dabbled with paint and chicken blood, and feathers in his hair. But the poisoned arrows from Borneo would keep them away.

115:

Paul smiled to himself. Verheeren might keep his door locked, but anyone with a gun could get the old fool through the window.
 
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