Chapter 16 — The Stalker
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.
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.
‘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.’
‘Paul,’ said Julie.
‘I was there,’ Frank said. ‘I just wrote about what I saw.’
‘What you saw! The facts are one thing, but then you embroider them with this Yankee style of newspaper writing.’
‘What do you mean, Yankee style?’
‘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.’
‘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?’
‘You know what I mean.’
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.’
‘A child?’ Paul had flushed a dull red. ‘I was in the Dutch Army. They don’t take children!’
‘You didn’t last long in the Dutch Army.’
‘What? What do you mean? That I am a coward?’ He stood up, knocking his chair over.
‘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.’
‘What do you mean, eating cake?’
‘Please, Frank,’ Julie said.
‘You mean run away? What are you saying?’
‘I don’t mean that,’ Frank said. ‘You’ve got guts, I’m not denying that. It’s something else.’
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.
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.
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.
‘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.
‘Does he mean to be so damned rude?’ Frank asked.
‘Who knows?’ said Julie.
‘Well, what’s wrong with the man?’
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.’
‘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.
‘Feeling what, Frank?’
‘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?’
‘No. One of his patients died last night. He’s gone to see the family.’
Frank frowned. ‘That must be a difficult thing to do.’
‘I suppose doctors just have to get used to it. What happened?’
‘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.’
‘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.’
‘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.’
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.
‘How did you progress with the lore of the bush?’ she asked.
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.
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.
‘Why is it that I am a hopeless failure?’ he asked. His voice sounded hoarse. ‘I am not so stupid, surely.’
She looked back at her book. The spell was broken. ‘Why do you say that?’
‘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!’
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?’
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.’
‘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.’
‘Oh, I’m sure you have your reasons. ’ She noted her place, and closed the book. ‘Was your father a bully?’
He stumbled on the words. ‘M-my father — he —’
‘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.’
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.
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.
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.
‘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.’
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.’
She seemed to relax somewhat, now the gun was out of sight. ‘I suppose it’s the bushrangers,’ she said.
‘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.
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.
‘My cousin killed himself with a gun,’ Mary said. ‘A year ago last week. He was a boundary rider.’
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.
‘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.
‘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.’
‘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.’
‘Sook? What is a sook?’
‘Like a cry-baby.’ She sniffed and carefully wiped her face. ‘You won’t tell Julie, will you?’
‘That I cried.’
‘Oh, but you did not cry. I did not see anyone cry.’
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.
‘Thanks for not telling,’ she whispered.
Julie put her arm through his as they walked back. It was chill, and she leaned against his coat. ‘What are you thinking?’
‘Oh, nothing,’ he said irritably. The older man — the homosexual — always used to ask him what he was thinking: he hated it.
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.
She took her arm from his without a word and continued walking.
‘I — I don’t have a key,’ he called.
‘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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Guanjin, that was her name. He whispered the word to himself: Guanjin.
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?
‘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?’
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.
‘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.’
‘The goddess — when you pray to her, does she answer your prayers?’ The question surprised even Paul, who had, after all, asked it.
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.
‘Silent? Is that how you pray?’ A cricket chirped in the weeds. From further away, the drunken men sang and laughed in a chorus.
‘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.’
‘I am not an Englishman.’
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.’
‘Very well,’ Paul said.
‘He does not live here,’ Lee said. ‘He lives in another place.’
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.
‘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.’
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
‘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.’
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.
‘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!’
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.
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?
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?’
‘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.
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.
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.
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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