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.

¡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 03

Chapter 03 — Memories of Sydney
… In which Paul Nouveau continues his travels by coach to Wagga Wagga, after killing the two bushrangers, and — half asleep — remembers his arrival in Sydney not long before, and his getting the Dutchman drunk and stealing his money and his revolver. He remembers watching an organ-grinder and his monkey, and a strange blackfellow, who stares at him. Then he sleeps.

Paragraph One follows — 1:

It grew darker outside the coach. The bodies, the two bushrangers and poor Mr Finnegan the driver, were tied to the top of the coach, and in front of them Frank was driving, but not very well. The coach rolled, stalled, and jerked into motion again. Miss Bell drew back from Paul as though he were unclean. He lay back against the seat and tried to sleep, or tried to stay awake, he wasn’t sure which. Memories flooded into his mind, memories of Sydney Town, his first evening in the colony. The pistol, that’s what it was.

2:

In a bar crowded with sailors and working men Paul fell in with a lieutenant in the Dutch Navy who was off duty for the evening. He had a manner that was bullying and effeminate at the same time, and Paul disliked him intensely. He was not wearing his uniform, but sharkskin trousers and a blue silk shirt blotched with sweat. ‘Dey better look out,’ he said. ‘It’s mine day off, I’m a pirate. Sydney Town, dey better look out for its women und children.’ He was hardly convincing in the part — he was a fat, pale-skinned man with a sparse white beard — but he wore a cutlass slung from his belt and a pistol in a white leather holster at his side. They drank their way through a bottle of lemon schnapps.

Early Sydney, the Rocks, from the internet

3:

‘You look angry, mine friend,’ he said. ‘What is it, making you angry? You don’t like Sydney?’

4:

‘No.’

5:

‘Is it because you French? You don’t like these English here?’

6:

‘They took some money,’ Paul said. ‘Some piece of shit took it from my pocket. I was drunk today, just — just a certain amount. So they watch, and they take it, steal it. The people in this place are stinking pigs.’

7:

‘I got money,’ the Dutchman said. ‘Fuck the English.’

8:

It didn’t take much persuading to get the Dutch lieutenant drinking, but it seemed to take a lot to get him drunk. Paul wanted his revolver, a handsome English pistol, a six-shot centre-fire with a knurled pattern on the butt. He thought half a dozen rums should do it, but after visiting three different bars around the Sydney waterfront by midnight the lieutenant had taken on much more than that, and he was still acting sober. Paul bought him beer, he bought him Java rum, he bought him schnapps, but the Dutchman was still clear-headed and full of amiable chatter. Paul had a stinking headache, and eventually he had to go outside to vomit. That cleared his head.

9:

Finally Paul bought him a double absinthe — ‘a taste of France’, he said — because the strong anise flavour would disguise the taste of the sleeping draught he’d brought with him. When the Dutchman went outside to piss, Paul poured half the little bottle of chloral hydrate into his glass. Ten minutes later his victim was slumped in his seat, peering at Paul and trying to focus.

Early Sydney, Tattersals hotel, from the internet

10:

‘You, sailor,’ Paul said. ‘You said to me one more bar.’ He pulled the lieutenant to his feet and helped him out into the street. It had started to rain. There were sailors hanging around in groups outside, so Paul half-carried and half-dragged his burden a hundred yards along the street, talking to him in a mixture of broken Dutch and French like an old friend, until they came to a side alley where he dragged him into the shadows and lowered him to the ground. He got the purse without any problems. It was full of money, more than fifty pounds in notes, and half a dozen gold sovereigns.

11:

‘Il pleut,’ the Dutchman mumbled, ‘It is raining with the cats and the dogs,’ and he tried to raise his head, but the effort was too much for him. He slumped onto the ground and started to snore.

12:

Paul watched him carefully for a moment. When it seemed safe he went to take the gun, but it stuck in the holster. ‘Damn you, I’ll take the lot,’ he said to himself, and he pulled the belt off roughly, rolling his victim over in the process so that he struck his forehead on the edge of the gutter. The pain roused him and he let out a bellow.

13:

‘You bastard,’ he yelled, ‘What are you doing here? What is it? You said you were my friend!’ He got to his knees, slipping on the wet cobblestones, and grabbed for the cutlass that dangled from the belt. ‘My friend!’ he spat out. ‘No, you are the dog shit.’

Early Sydney. Saint Leonards, from the internet.

14:

Paul jerked the cutlass from his grasp. He was almost on his feet when Paul hit him on the forehead with the butt of the gun, splitting the skin open.

15:

‘Down, you bastard!’ he grunted, but the Dutchman rallied and grabbed at Paul’s coat, blood streaming down his rain-wet beard. Paul hit him again, knocking him down into a crouching position, then, holding the barrel of the gun with both hands and using all his strength, struck a third blow to the back of his head. He heard a crack as the skull split. Then he ran.

16:

Something his mother had said years before came back to him. He frowned, and half grunted in his sleep. My poor Paul, she had said, wiping her hands on her apron and tilting her head to one side: What will become of you?

17:

And a few days before, near the main railway station at Redfern in Sydney, an organ-grinder was cranking out a tune, and a few people had gathered. Paul paused to listen: the swelling fall of the music blended into the jerky swooning motion of the coach. He almost woke, then fell back into sleep again. The melody was an odd blend of gaiety and melodrama. A monkey on a chain darted about rattling a tin cup, begging for coins. The animal’s lips grimaced constantly, changing from smile to a scowl in a moment, then back again, showing his sharp yellow teeth. The people in the crowd were clearly frightened of him. ‘Hey, Little Bob won’t bite you,’ the organ-grinder shouted. ‘Give the little feller a penny. Make him smile.’

Early Sydney, George Street (main street), 1883

18:

Among the crowd enjoying the show Paul noticed an Australian blackfellow dressed in working clothes. He wondered what the man made of the music, with its melodies and scales that had changed and developed and matured over a period of three thousand years of European history. The moods the music went through seemed obvious enough: jolly one moment, dramatic the next; the language it spoke was self-evident, but of course to an individual from another culture, the sounds must have meant absolutely nothing.

19:

Paul realised the blackfellow’s eyes were fixed on his — the stare was level and intense, but curiously empty. Like a strange piece of music, its meaning was hard to fathom. His felt his skin crawl under the unfamiliar gaze, and he moved on. The music followed him through the streets, fading, taking on more echoes, until it was finally buried under the sound of steel cart wheels and horses’ hooves clashing on the cobbles, and he was back in the mail coach again, rocking and jerking through the dark, something far too horrible to remember troubling his dreams.
 
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Black Gold, Chapter 15

Chapter 15 — At the Magic Show
… In which Paul Nouveau meets Jimmy Skylark, argues about the direction of the sun’s travels in the southern hemisphere, attends the Magic Show, drinks a brandy or two with Mr Dobbs the banker, and sleeps through most of the show. He later harangues Miss Dunn, catches her and Brownlee quarrelling in the dark, and meets Verheeren, who seems paranoid and unhinged. He walks Julie home, and thinks how lucky he is.

Paragraph One follows — 1:

The next day Paul set out to explore the town and the surrounding country, to ‘get a feel for the shape of the place,’ as he put it. The stronger reason was his need to be alone for a while, to get some distance from Julie. A deep sexual longing for her was battling with an equally intense fear, a need to escape, to clear some safe emotional ground between himself and others.

2:

Julie warned him not to get lost, and packed sandwiches and a flask of coffee. She noticed with dismay that his bag was heavy, and guessed correctly that he had taken his pistol.

3:

He returned just on dusk, when a light mist was rising from the river flats and drifting over the town. Julie was chopping wood at the back of the house when his figure appeared around the side veranda, stalking through the peach trees like a ghost. She gave a start and gripped the axe handle, then called out in relief and annoyance ‘Oh, it’s you!’

4:

‘I was lost,’ he said. ‘The sun goes in a different direction, from right to left. My shadow was on the wrong side of me. I just can’t get used to it. I must have walked five miles the wrong way.’

5:

‘What do you mean, from right to left? Are you serious? It goes from the east to the west.’ She laughed.

6:

‘Of course! But you see, in this hemisphere, except in summer when it is directly overhead, it travels across the northern sky, from the north-east to the north-west; and that means it goes from right to left, and your shadow moves around your feet anti-clockwise. I am used to it going the other way, from left to right across the southern horizon, so my shadow travels clockwise, on the northern side of me. It is all back-to-front down here at the bottom of the world. Never mind. I asked the directions from a man I met on the road. I met some queer types today.’

7:

‘No doubt they thought they met a queer type, too.’

8:

‘And I ran into Jimmy Skylark. He was wandering about out there in the bush, alone. I tried to explain about the sun, how in the northern hemisphere the seasons were the opposite to what they are here, but I don’t think he followed my meaning. Perhaps he fails fully to believe that the earth is a globe. Or I had the thought that perhaps he was pretending not to understand, to test me. Do you think that is possible?’

9:

‘There’s always more going on in Jimmy’s head than you think,’ Julie said. ‘I wouldn’t make any assumptions about what he was thinking.’

10:

‘Anyway, tomorrow he will teach me how to follow the tracks of animals and people in the bush.’

Cape York Peninsula Native Police patrol, c1900. From the internet.

11:

‘Teach you tracking? Paul, whatever for?’

12:

Paul looked surprised. ‘Why, it is interesting. Do you not think it might be interesting? How to tell what happened in the forest, the whole story of whether a man was running or walking, or carrying something heavy, or perhaps dragging a body, or smoking a certain kind of cigar? You look at the bush, you see many trees, perhaps a path wandering along beside a stream. It is silent, motionless. Nothing ever happens there, you imagine. But looking at the same scene with the knowledge of the black tracker, why, it must be like reading a novel, with all the movement, all the characters going about their lives, and unknowingly leaving these secret traces.’

13:

‘I can’t imagine what use that would be in Paris.’

14:

He laughed. ‘Paris! What use is anything in Paris? I need a bath, I am hot and dusty.’

15:

‘Help me carry this wood in, and I’ll light the fire under the copper for you.’

16:

‘No,’ Paul said. ‘Let me do that.’

17:

The laundry tubs and the copper were in a lean-to at the back of the house. He got the fire going with some kindling and a copy of the Advertiser. He smiled as he watched the lurid story of the killings go up in a crackle of flame. A gust of wind filled the small room and blew the smoke back into his face. The ghost of a murdered man might rush at your face like that, hot and acrid, choking and stinging. He fanned the flame grimly, squinting his streaming eyes and wiping the tears from his cheeks.

18:

When he was dressing Julie came into his room silently and put her arms around him. He didn’t know quite what to do, and stood quietly while she slid her hand under his shirt and across his chest and stomach. ‘What do you want?’ he whispered. She didn’t reply. Perhaps she was dreaming. ‘Are you making a wish?’ he whispered.

19:

‘You can speak up,’ she murmured. ‘Father’s down in his dungeon inventing the future. You can’t hear a thing down there.’ She kissed him, a long, deep kiss, then drew back, as though to examine the effect, her head tilted slightly. ‘Though I think perhaps we had better not fuck.’

20:

It took him a second or two to absorb the meaning of the sentence. This was not what he had expected, even with her hand warm on his skin, even through the filter of translation. She smiled slightly to see the look of surprise spread across his face. ‘Fuck,’ she said. ‘It’s not even French. How can you be shocked by a word in a foreign language?’ He laughed, and reached for words, but the array of responses that paraded before him weren’t at all right.

21:

‘You had better not use it in public,’ she said. ‘People would think I’d been teaching you dirty words.’ She went to the small window and looked out. A thrush was warbling in a bush just outside the window, and when it noticed her it flew away. ‘We’re going to the magic show tonight. Please come with us. Sit next to me. I want to watch their faces.’

22:

‘You don’t want to watch the show? You should watch the magic acts, to see how it’s done.’

23:

‘I have my magic,’ she said, and left the room silently.

24:

The Magic Show was a local event, designed to raise funds for a new library, and it had been set up in the School of Arts hall. The Chinese lanterns had been hung along the porch and around the side of the building. Miss Dunn and Mr Brownlee were lighting the candles in the last few lanterns as Paul and the Bells arrived. Inside, the other decorations and the debris from the Bachelors’ Ball had disappeared, and the building had taken on a new personality.

25:

Instead of the loud, open space of the dance floor, the feeling was now intimate, restrained and formal. The small stage at the front where the band had blared and fiddled was closed off with a purple velvet curtain. The kerosene lamps around the walls were trimmed a little lower and gave out a warmer and more intimate glow. Ladies were dispensing cups of tea from a large samovar at a side table — perhaps the same table that had offered the fruit punch spiked with rum. Some of the crowd were accepting a glass of brandy offered by a uniformed waiter; Paul took one and drank it off in one swallow. It was sweet and astringent at the same time, and the flavour was pungent. It reminded him of the local spirits he had drunk in Java, though it was much smoother.

26:

There was a large crowd, and it seemed the main business of the evening was gossip, with the magic show a kind of anti-climax or coda at the end. Again Paul felt eyes following him, though few people stared at him directly. He hung back, following Julie and Doctor Bell as they made their greetings and their small talk. He was introduced to Mr Dobbs, the banker whose caricature he had noticed at the shooting stall at the Show.

27:

‘So you survived being shot at,’ Paul said. Dobbs looked at him blankly for a moment, then gave a short laugh. He spoke with an American accent.

28:

‘Oh yes, at the Show,’ he said. ‘Every year at the Show, I die a thousand deaths.’ He spoke though his teeth with a slight whistle. ‘Ah well, it keeps the farmers from lynching me. And you’ve been in the wars too.’

29:

‘The wars?’

30:

‘A fellow survivor of the Australian mania for shooting, though the bullets they fired at you were real.’

31:

Paul made no reply, and Dobbs showed his teeth in a grin. ‘Miss Dunn was quite taken with you.’

32:

‘Oh?’

33:

‘She was telling me you’re interested in joining the Floral Art Society. And the Literary Arts Society as well. Cultured people are rare out here, you know.’

34:

‘She must have been drunk, or dreaming. Join the Flower Society? I should need to be mad.’

35:

‘Here, have one of these,’ Dobbs said, taking a drink from the passing waiter and pushing it into Paul’s hand. ‘You’ll be drunk, or dreaming, soon enough.’

36:

‘Thanks. But tell me, why did you come here? You’re not a British colonial, I think.’

37:

‘Me? No, I’m an American. Well, I was looking for a better place, I guess. I got sick of things after the war. It just about wrecked our country, you know.’

38:

‘The Civil War?’

39:

‘A young country, just like this one, only better, richer, we had everything mankind could ask for, and we had to go and do that to ourselves. I had a friend came out here from California to New South Wales for the gold, wrote me a letter, said it was a good place to be. He said there were too many Irish out here, and he’s right, it’s like Boston on Saint Patrick’s Day, but a man can handle that. No chance of a Civil War out here, he said. No niggers, for one thing; not that the war had anything to do with emancipating the slaves, that was just propaganda. It was about power, who had the power. The North had the guns and the factories to make more guns and the railways to carry the guns; the South had cotton, slaves and gentlemen.’

The U.S. Army of 1876 was a far cry from the fighting force that had won the American Civil War a decade earlier. From the internet.

40:

‘So they quarrelled.’

41:

‘Ah, I don’t give a damn about quarrels like that. I grew up on the West Coast, a continent away from those old hatreds. I worked in banks in the West, then I moved East a little, worked for a bank in Fargo, in the Dakota Territory. Well, when I saw a friend of mine shot in half — he took a blast from a double-barrel shotgun — that was the end of the United States for me. Bank robbers are more common than citizens, it seems. I blame the war. It teaches fellers to kill, gets them used to things that no human being should ever get used to. There had to be a better place.’

42:

‘And Wagga Wagga is that better place?’

43:

‘Except for the damned bushrangers. But you’re likely to know more about that than I would, I reckon. You’re handy with a gun, I hear. I hope you haven’t come to Australia to rob banks. Heh heh!’

44:

‘No, I don’t rob banks.’

45:

‘What is it that you do, then?’

46:

‘I did some teaching, in London,’ Paul said, ‘of French language and culture. I thought perhaps I might teach here for a while.’

47:

‘French?’ Dobbs laughed. ‘Oh, that’s rich, that is. French? Har har! I can just see the shearers exchanging quips in French with their cook. Well, a kind of French.’ He took out a handkerchief, and mopped his brow. ‘Oh, there’s Brownlee, wearing his medal again, I see. Excuse me, won’t you — I should catch him while I can; I have to speak with him about his account.’ He moved off; his quarry didn’t seem too pleased to see him coming.

48:

Paul could see a glitter of gold on Brownlee’s lapel. Julie and her father were talking together nearby, and Paul joined them. ‘This medal of Brownlee’s — is this the English knighthood? Do they give these to colonials?’

49:

‘No,’ Julie laughed. ‘Mr Brownlee was given some kind of gold medal from the Literature Society down in Sydney, for a volume of poems he’d written — Leaves From the Forest, I think it was called. He happened to be on the Committee of the Society at the time, which made his acceptance of a medal seem somewhat inappropriate, to put it politely. He’s terribly vain about it, and takes every opportunity to show it off.’

50:

‘This is bad manners, to wear the medal?’

51:

‘Well, I suppose it shouldn’t be. Perhaps in London it might look all right, but not here.’

52:

Bell joined in. ‘It’s a sad irony,’ he said, ‘that those — ah — those whose claim on the attention of posterity is the weakest should be the ones who struggle the hardest to gather their medals and baubles; though — ah — it has a certain logic to it, I suppose. People with low breeding should never be given the things, but of course they’re just the ones who are so desperate to obtain them.’

The Magic Show. From the internet: conversazione.

53:

Paul, to his annoyance, fell asleep during the magic show. He snored slightly, and Julie dug her elbow into his ribs.

54:

He remembered the mirrors that reflected the dim kerosene lamps, the clouds of smoke that obscured the stage at one point, and he remembered ‘Miss Estelle the Magicienne’, a local girl of about eighteen, made up for the stage and loving every minute of it. She was pretty — her hair was a deep black, her lips a pout of living pink, her eyes glowed like live coals. A ‘Professor Goulstone’ played theatrical chords upon the ill-tuned piano and assisted with the more complex tricks. A dove appeared and disappeared in a puff of green chemical smoke; a ghost glimmered for a moment against a painted backdrop while the piano thundered; a girl seemed to be sawn in half. That much Paul remembered; perhaps he’d had too much to drink before the show, and the rest was sleep.

55:

There was a buffet supper with more cups of tea and more brandy afterwards. The nap had refreshed Paul and he was feeling quite cheerful. Doctor Bell was tired and went home, and Julie offered to help in the kitchen, so he was left alone. He noticed Miss Dunn and Mr Brownlee arguing in a corner — Miss Dunn seemed upset, and clutched at Brownlee’s sleeve. Paul sensed trouble and moved away, but a few minutes later he heard Miss Dunn’s voice behind him, and he found himself cornered behind the cake table. He thought for a moment of Barnaby and the dogs at the Show; how deftly they cut out the sheep or cow they wanted and herded them into a corner or through a narrow gate.

56:

‘Did you enjoy the entertainment, Mr Nouveau? I think even the popular theatre has much to teach us, those who are prepared to listen, don’t you think?’

57:

‘No, I do not think so.’

58:

‘You don’t?’

59:

‘Magic, though, has its purposes,’ he said. ‘The Church speaks against communing with spirits and divining the future, but I happen to believe that God invented magic.’

60:

‘Really? That certainly does seem to run against conventional wisdom. Now why would He do that?’

61:

‘To give us an idea of what awaits: clouds of smoke, and people disappearing through trapdoors.’

62:

She allowed a doubtful titter to escape. ‘I suspect you are being provocative, Mr Nouveau. We must seem awfully lacking in culture here in the bush; coming from cosmopolitan Paris as you do.’

63:

‘Oh yes, it is suffocating. I fail to understand how you survive. I should shoot myself.’

64:

She had not expected such forceful agreement. ‘Well, it’s not that bad. We do have culture here. One just has to look for it. Why don’t you come along to one of our evenings? You’d be pleasantly surprised, I’m sure.’

65:

‘Of the Flower Society? We are talking about the same thing, aren’t we?’

66:

‘Oh no, no, Mr Nouveau. I haven’t explained. I meant the Literary Arts Society. Most cultured people in Wagga belong to that also. There are many paths to culture.’ She gave a light laugh. ‘We have readings. Last week Mr Brownlee read a lovely piece, one he had composed himself. Most artistic. I was quite emotional by the end of it. Of course the true end of poetry is human emotion, isn’t it? There is narrative, of course; we mustn’t forget old Homer weaving at his loom, but it’s the emotions in the end that matter. I think Mr Brownlee had a tear or two in his eyes as he recited, if I’m not mistaken.’

67:

Paul held back the reply that sprang to his lips. His jaw muscle worked. ‘Do go on,’ he said. ‘Your comments are so bizarre that I am almost enjoying myself.’

68:

She blinked. Perhaps she hadn’t quite heard what he’d said. ‘Sometimes, when life seems too much of a burden, literature is the one thing we can rely on to console us.’ She studied her half-empty glass. ‘You’re a young man.’ She looked him up and down. He had borrowed Frank’s topcoat again, though it didn’t fit all that well. His hair had half grown out of its military cut and stuck out like brown straw, and his skin was still burnt from the tropical sun. ‘A handsome fellow,’ she went on, ‘and I’m sure you’ve travelled and seen the world. It’s so much easier in Europe, of course; one can simply hop on a train. I remember when I was last in Paris… Mr Brownlee happened to be there, by coincidence, on a little cultural pilgrimage of his own… ’ She stared into the crowd, her eyes unfocussed. ‘Never mind. Long ago. Best forgotten. But you don’t know how difficult it can be here, no one could imagine, struggling to convince people to take an interest in what is good for them. And there are many interfering busybodies to get in the way.’ She blinked again, and fixed her gaze on Paul’s tie. ‘But literature endures. Like flowers at a funeral, poetry can be such a consolation, don’t you think, Mr Nouveau?’

69:

Paul had the urge to say something savage, but he noticed Julie glance at him through the crowd, and he clenched his teeth instead.

70:

‘Cat got your tongue?’ asked Miss Dunn.

71:

‘What?’

72:

She flinched from the sharpness of his tone. ‘It’s a saying. An old English saying,’ she said. She seemed tired, or perhaps it was the brandy.

73:

‘Tell me, what was before Hobart Town?’ Paul asked.

74:

She stared at him for a moment, surprised by the question. ‘Before? Before Hobart Town? Why… ’ She looked around the room, as though the answer might be printed upon the wall, or written on the smoke-filled air, or whispered among the loud chatter that filled the room. ‘I came out to Hobart Town from England, with a thieving servant and a harmonium quite ruined by sea-water, to become engaged.’

75:

Paul stared at her. ‘And? Were you engaged? And married? Did you have a dozen children? Did your husband run off with a barmaid to join the bushrangers, and leave you to a lonely old age?’

76:

She went to speak, then hesitated, unsure of how to respond. ‘My engagement was an event… an event which sadly failed to eventuate. Before that, I was raised in a lovely English seaside town. Was it lovely? Hard to remember.’ She shook her head, and seemed to lose her balance for a moment. ‘It was either cold and empty, or full of coachloads of chattering Londoners. Before that, a school. Some time ago. Long ago. The cat has my tongue, or rather my memory. I think it must be well past my usual bed-time. Good evening.’ She put down her empty glass, and moved away.

77:

‘You’ve upset her,’ Julie whispered, ‘with your abrupt manners. What did you have to do that for? She meant well.’

78:

‘Meant well? She’s the sort of woman who wants to control everybody’s life, to push and bully, but she does it in the sacred name of art.’

79:

‘That’s very unkind.’

80:

‘Rubbish. For her, literature is a kind of scented handkerchief. She sniffs into it, she dabs at her tears with it, she wipes her arse with it. People like that take over art like a rich investor takes over a failing business, to strip it of its assets, and then to move on like a vulture. They make me sick.’

81:

‘Really; financial metaphors! Perhaps you were a stockbroker in a previous incarnation, pacing the floor of the Bourse with the glint of art in your eyes.’

82:

Paul looked at her sideways. He was about to reply when he noticed Frank across the room, talking with Mr Dobbs. ‘There is Frank,’ he said. ‘I failed to notice him in the audience this evening.’

83:

‘I’m not surprised,’ Julie said. ‘You were asleep most of the time. Frank was there, at the back.’

84:

‘Well, he could have come up to say how d’you do?’

85:

‘I can’t imagine why he didn’t,’ Julie said. ‘Perhaps he’s jealous.’

86:

‘What do you mean? Jealous of what? You didn’t tell him —‘

87:

‘No! Don’t be stupid.’ Julie looked down at her gloves. ‘I don’t know, perhaps he’s jealous of all the attention you’re getting. You’re not so good at noticing things, are you?’

88:

‘Why, yes I am. I noticed the bushrangers in the scrub, when even the coach driver failed to see them.’

89:

She tossed her head irritably. ‘That’s not what I mean. I mean the way people speak, the way they look, a certain tone in the voice. Oh, perhaps it’s the language, perhaps it’s the accent that you’re not used to. Come on, it’s late. Take me home.’

90:

‘Very well. And you can explain what you mean by these ambiguous remarks.’

91:

‘I’ll fetch my coat. Meet me outside.’

92:

On the porch a small group of late-stayers milled about chatting and making their goodbyes. Paul stood off a little to one side, in the dust of the street. The town was dark and silent under a blanket of stars that seemed to glitter more fiercely than he had seen them shine in Europe. There was something metallic about the way their light sparkled among the rivers of cold air high in the dark sky.

93:

Paul wandered around to the yard at the side. In the gloom at the back of the building a couple of people were taking down the Chinese lanterns and blowing out their candles. There, under the peppercorn tree, was the water tank where he had embarrassed Jimmy. His footsteps crunched on the patch of damp gravel where Stern had knocked him down. He touched the side of his face — it still ached, though not as much as it had. Was there a bloodstain on the ground to mark his stay in Wagga? He looked, and raked the gravel with the toe of his boot, but it was too dark to see. The sun would dry the blood into rusty flakes, the rain would wash it away: soon there would be no trace of his passing. The idea pleased him. He thought of the small migrating birds who beat their way from Greenland down the west coast of Europe to the warm sands of Africa every winter, each tiny struggling journey remarkable for its blind courage, but in the mass, the millions of migrations over hundreds of thousands of years were as evanescent as a cloud drifting and dissolving in the sky.

94:

He noticed a movement near the shadow of the tank — two figures seemed to be struggling ineffectually. He heard a man’s voice say ‘No!’ in an angry tone. He was about to investigate, perhaps to intervene, when he heard Miss Dunn’s voice: ‘Oh Grant my dear, why do you always push me away?’ and the sound of her sobbing.

95:

Paul’s concern changed into anger in a flash. He checked himself, turned on his heel, and stalked back to the front of the building. As he came around the corner he bumped into a shadowy figure, and gave a start when he realised it was Verheeren, pulling on an old velvet coat.

96:

‘So, mynheer, you were at the magic show,’ Paul said, the unfocussed anger tinting his voice with sarcasm. ‘Nothing like the black magic you found in the jungles of Java, is it? I hope you took note of the disappearing trick. The one you essayed did not work so well, is it not so?’

97:

Verheeren backed away and put his arm up as though to ward off a blow. ‘You have followed me,’ he spat out, ‘just as I knew you would.’ His voice was a thick whisper, the Dutch vowels heavily coloured.

98:

‘You knew I would?’

99:

‘Of course. The signs were everywhere: in the newspaper, in the advertisements, buried under the print, plenty of symbols. I’m not blind when the message is pushed under my nose. Ordinary men leave their tracks behind them; devils like you when they walk on the earth leave their tracks in the future, so we can tell when they are coming. In the sky last evening, a certain cloud, lit like the colour of blood, pointing like a finger.’

100:

‘You are raving.’

101:

‘And in the show tonight, in the Professor’s signals from the keyboard. Do you think I’m deaf? I could hear what he was saying. Always at night; huh! So obvious! You might be secretly in league with him, but every syllable of your plot was spelled out for me to read.’

102:

Paul laughed. ‘Dewi is looking for revenge, you old lunatic,’ he taunted, and laughed again. Verheeren backed further into the dark, turned, and was gone.

103:

‘What are you doing?’ Julie said, pulling his sleeve. ‘I can’t leave you alone for a minute without your insulting and frightening people.’

104:

‘The madman. He is a pig,’ Paul said. His pulse was racing. ‘Let us go out of here, please. We all have to die one day, but he deserves it more than most. God damn him!’

105:

‘Paul, please control yourself.’ She took his arm and they set off for home. The moon had come out, strong enough to throw their shadows on the ground before them as they walked, and the dusty road glowed cold and white through the dark trees.

106:

‘And that woman,’ he said, ‘the Succubus of Horticulture, mauling that man in the darkness like a prostitute!’

107:

Julie gave a light laugh. ‘Honestly, you’re like an angry child sometimes. Poor Mr Brownlee. And poor Miss Dunn. She always takes a little too much brandy at occasions like these and ends up behaving badly, and then she’s ashamed to be seen for weeks afterwards. She hides in the back of their little shop and reads sermons on the theme of consolation, and gets the grocer’s boy to deliver her groceries. Oh well, I suppose they have no one else. Why do you dislike them so much?’

108:

Paul made no reply. Julie rested her head on his shoulder and they walked on in silence through the drowsing town. Paul breathed in the perfume of her hair and thought how lucky he was.

109:

But how, exactly, was he lucky? A boy from a country town — and he saw himself like that, despite his years in Paris and London, and his adventures in the East — such a youth would be exhilarated at the thought of possessing her beauty and her sexuality, but that flooded Paul with a vague kind of anxiety. He was impressed by something else, her enigmatic strength, her mysterious maturity. It was this that was so valuable, so seldom offered, so rarely exchanged. He put his arm around her shoulder.

110:

And all the while he kept a close eye on the shadows that crept across the footpaths and under the trees, the shadows that drifted under the verandas and across the dry lawns of the sleeping town. He feared — he knew — that a man rather like himself walked there quietly in the dark, weighed down with guns, hungry for revenge.
 
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Black Gold, Chapter 14

Chapter 14 — The River
… In which Paul Nouveau walks back from Greenleaves’ place, and finds himself in the Masonic Hall, which disturbes him. Later he sleeps, and absorbs the rhythms of Mrs Angel who cleans Julie’s house. He reads the bizarre stores of the disasters and triumphs of the people of Wagga Wagga, in the Advertiser. He remembers his time in London, years ago. He and Julie embark on a boat trip up the river, to an aboriginal midden ground, ending in their making love. Julie cries out, having seen a black man or someone like a black man watching them from the shadows. ‘But no,’ she said, and shook her head. ‘They’re long gone.’

Paragraph One follows — 1:

On his way back from Greenleaves’ place Paul took a short cut across the town outskirts. The path led through an abandoned paddock. The afternoon sun glared on the thin dry grass, and for a moment it looked like ripe wheat, turning a tawny colour in the slanting light. A broken buckboard lay on its side, the wood weathered to a silvery grey, one wheel with its rusty rim and splintered spokes tilted to the sky. A few empty kerosene drums poked from the sea of grass like rocks on a silent shore.

2:

The path skirted around the back of an old hall built of weathered wood with a rusty corrugated iron roof. Paul noticed that the side door was ajar, and on an impulse he looked in. The room was empty, the corners full of shade. A little light leaked in around the edges of the tin shutters that blocked the windows. He tiptoed in. From the inside, it looked much larger than he had expected. A sign on the far wall told him it was the Masonic Hall. Beside the sign was a plaque: he walked over and looked at it more closely. It was painted in gilt on a sheet of mottled golden wood. There was a list of names in two columns, all Anglo-Saxon, some kind of Honour Roll; he wasn’t interested in deciphering them, nor understanding why they were proclaimed in this temple of silence and shadow.

Bush hall. From the internet.

3:

A stage at one end was concealed behind heavy maroon drapes. He quietly made his way around the edge of the stage and parted the curtains. There was a musty smell in the air, the smell of rooms long closed and abandoned, the odour of dust and piles of mouldy clothing and mildew. The stage had been set for a play of some sort, and a domestic interior had been faked: a small cane table was set with cups and saucers and a pink porcelain tea-pot. There was a harmonium in a corner, four cane chairs, a trunk spread with a lace cover, and on the trunk a large stuffed bird under a glass jar. The room was waiting for the curtain to open, and for something to happen: for an audience to arrive, or for two or three actors to walk through the door at the back of the stage and begin to speak their lines, to say the words that had brought them into being. What would they say?

4:

And yet this wasn’t a theatre in the proper sense: it was a Masonic Hall, which in Paul’s mind made it more like a church than a theatre. Did the Masons believe in God? As a child he had been told that they danced around in a pagan ritual, that the leader of the cult wore a leather apron and rode on a goat, that they kept their religious regalia and implements in a locked trunk in a locked room. Was that the trunk, half-hidden under the shawl? Perhaps the Masonic god or devil was hiding in there, like the Arabian genie who waited a thousand years for someone to find and polish the lamp.

5:

The back of the stage had a large door in the centre of the false wall. What was behind it? A room full of costumes and old props, perhaps: tennis racquets with loose strings, an old piano, a folding card table with moth-eaten green baize? Perhaps God was waiting in that locked room for a sinner, like a priest in a confessional in a church belonging to a sect that had died out centuries ago. Paul had seen a mummified priest, once, in the crypt under a church in Paris: he had a momentary vision of the mouldering fabric of the priest’s robe, the spiderwebs around the legs, the bony sightless face staring into the centuries of darkness.

6:

Perhaps he was the sinner, and this silent temple had been waiting for him to appear and speak. How long since he had spoken to a priest? A lifetime ago.

7:

He tiptoed back through the curtains — why was he being so quiet? — across the hall full of shadows and past the Roll of Honour to the door, and out into the dazzling afternoon. He took a deep breath of the chill air. There was no one in sight; the town seemed deserted. The grey grass moved slightly in the breeze.

8:

The next day Paul slept in late; Julie woke him at nine. Her father had patients to see, and would be busy all day with his rounds. ‘I thought it might be pleasant to go on a picnic today,’ she said. ‘I sometimes borrow Mr Quoign’s little rowboat, and row up the river a mile or so. It’s very peaceful. I have one more pupil, and when she’s finished I’ll pack something to eat and we’ll set off. Mrs Angel is dusting and polishing this morning, so try not to get in her way.’

9:

Mrs Angel was in no way pale or ethereal, and seemed determined to be as unlike her name as possible: she was a stout and cheerful middle-aged woman with masses of thick brown hair piled up on her head. She clattered and cleaned in the kitchen for a while, humming to herself while she worked, then set to polishing the large oak dining table with a hearty vigour that made Paul feel quite inadequate. He took the Advertiser onto the veranda.

10:

The sweet warm scent of the beeswax filled the house and followed him there to hang in the air. He half-closed his eyes and imagined he could hear the murmuring of the bees around their hive; he could almost smell the honey collecting slowly in the long summer afternoons. Again he was reminded of his aunts’ house at Douai; they dusted and polished almost every day, so the house glowed like an interior painted by a Dutch master, and the fresh fragrance of beeswax hung in the hallway and in the pantry and in the cool drawing room. He had run away from home more than once and found shelter and kindness there, and books, too: dozens of books rich with myths and legends, and stories of travel and adventure. For a moment he felt a twinge of sorrow for that eager boy of sixteen, with his head stuffed full of half-realised hopes and ideas, devouring book after book. Abandon hope, he whispered to himself; and he repeated it in Latin: ‘spes omnes relinquite, o vos intrantes!’ But he knew that wasn’t it.

Abandon hope! Painting, c.1410. From the internet.

11:

He turned back to the paper and sat reading the strange snippets of life in Wagga and of the hamlets and farms in the district, while the notes of the piano limped through the rooms of the house and under the eaves. He avoided the piece on the coach holdup. He noted that the recent Church of England soirée at Grenfell in aid of the church building fund had been a great success, some four hundred people having sat down to tea.

12:

He saw that a clergyman had gone mad and hung himself in a lonely bush hut. The paper’s correspondent in the town of Wombat complained bitterly about the Postmaster-General. A three-year-old child who had scalded herself with boiling coffee had died the following day. An eighty-pound cod fish had been caught at Wagga Wagga. It went on for pages: fragments of complex and bizarre stories that were unconnected with his life or his interests. He put the paper aside. He could hear Mrs Angel humming loudly to herself: it sounded like a hymn.

13:

The spring flowers were vigorous after the rain. Here and there daffodils nodded, and the mauve and peach-coloured freesias that were scattered about the lawn seemed to have multiplied, casting their scent freely onto the air. In the London suburb, in the miserable garden of the lodging-house where he’d lived, there had been daffodils and crocuses struggling to break through the sooty acid soil. He realised that it was only two years ago — perhaps three, at the most — that he and his poet friend Germain Nouveau had worked in a cardboard-box factory, scraping and saving their wages, and visiting the library to study on Saturday afternoons. There he had read Tom Paine, and studied the life of the alchemist John Dee, and the poems of the young forger Chatterton. That time of freezing cold, hunger, poverty and impatient study seemed unbelievable here.

Crocus. From the internet.

14:

The lesson finally came to an end, and Paul went to the french doors to see if Julie was ready to leave. Through the glass he could see Julie and Mary Cameron in a close embrace. They stayed like that for some time, their arms around each other, eyes closed, swaying slightly. The scene reminded Paul of his sisters Isabelle and Vitalie.

15:

‘Excuse me,’ he said, opening the doors. ‘Julie, did you want to go in the boat?’

16:

‘In a moment, yes,’ Julie said. ‘Isn’t Mary a good pupil? She’s progressing so fast. I’ll pack a basket.’ She went into the kitchen.

17:

‘You are playing well, Mary,’ Paul said, for once putting courtesy first. ‘Tell me, did you see the stars the other night?’

18:

‘Through Mrs Bluett’s telescope, yes; they’re ever so bright. And the moon, sailing up over the trees by the river, yellow as a buttercup, as clear as the next-door paddock!’ Her eyes sparkled, and Paul noticed they had the same amber-green tint as Julie’s. She was tall for her age, and could almost have been Julie’s younger sister. ‘Mrs Bluett knows all the ancient legends about the stars and planets, where they came from, what they symbolise, all that kind of thing. My Dad has some stories in Erse about the stars, but that’s different.’

19:

‘Erse?’

20:

‘You’d say Gaelic, the old language of the Scots.’

21:

‘You speak Gaelic?’

22:

‘At home we speak Erse, it’s my parent’s tongue. No one here speaks it, Scots or Irish — it’s sad, but they’ve lost it all. That’s what happens with the British, they stamp out that kind of thing, and make us all speak English. Honestly, I had no idea there were so many stories about the stars, from ancient times, Greek and Roman and even further back! I’m going to learn them all, and one day I’ll put them in a book for children to study. Jimmy Skylark has his own stories about them, too. They’re much harder to understand, though they’re more interesting, in a way.’

Stargazing. From the internet.

23:

‘Oh, are you a friend of Jimmy Skylark?’

24:

‘Yes, I’ll say. We spend hours together. He tells me all the things he’s learned, and I tell him all the things I’ve learned. He says we’ll end up twice as smart as each other!’

25:

‘I could bet you a shilling that I know what you want to be when you grow up.’

26:

‘All right, have a guess. But I won’t take your shilling; that wouldn’t be proper.’

27:

Paul smiled at her seriousness. ‘Not a seamstress,’ he said.

28:

‘I should hope not.’

29:

‘And — ah — not a milkmaid.’

30:

‘Well, I can milk old Bess pretty good; but no, not a milkmaid. I think you’re just teasing. I don’t think you know what I really want to be, after all.’

31:

‘Very well, third time lucky. I think you wish to be a teacher.’

32:

‘Yes!’ Mary shouted and jumped up and down. ‘Yes, of course! You guessed right. Julie, he guessed what I want to be.’

33:

‘That wouldn’t be all that difficult,’ Julie called.

34:

Paul took the oars, though he had a suspicion that Julie was better at handling boats than he was. The oars jumped out of their rowlocks once or twice, until he got the hang of it. The knocking sound they made was loud, and echoed over the water. The rain had bloated the surface of the river, and the muddy current ran slow, but strong.

Rowboat. From the internet.

35:

‘Up-river,’ Julie said, and he turned the boat into the flow and put his back into it. Though the current was against him, the boat made good headway. They were soon well away from the town. Huge river gums and she-oaks fringed the stream. There was a slight breeze, and it made a thin, sad sighing noise in the she-oak needles.

36:

‘They tell me you get steamers coming up the river,’ Paul said. ‘Is that true?’

37:

‘The Amphibious is due next week,’ Julie said. ‘It’s a twin-screw steamer owned by a Mr Warren. When the water’s high it’s no problem; but if the river goes down, a boat can get stuck for six months. And then there’s the difficulty of snags.’

38:

‘Snags? What is this?’

39:

‘Fallen trees, just under the surface of the river. The branches break off and leave a pointed piece of wood sticking up that can smash through the bottom of a boat. The government sent a snagging boat to clear the Murray River last year, but it hit a snag, would you believe, and sank.’

40:

He was absorbed in the unfamiliar task of rowing. The boat was moving, but erratically. He concentrated on balancing the effort that he put into each oar, so they would pull the boat straight ahead, instead of left then right along the wavering track it seemed inclined to follow. He had to turn around from time to time to check his path, and then he would lose the rhythm of the strokes. If Julie was amused at his fumbling attempts, she kept it to herself.

41:

‘Oh look, there’s a snake,’ she said. Paul watched it swim close by, its tiny head held up from the thin ripple of its wake. Julie picked up a piece of wood from the bottom of the boat and watched it warily.

Snake in river. From the internet.

42:

‘That snake, is that kind dangerous?’ Paul asked.

43:

‘Oh yes,’ she said. ‘That’s a brown snake. They’re quick, and aggressive. If they bite you, you’re dead. But we’re all right. I don’t think it will come into the boat.’ But she kept her eye on the snake until it disappeared from view among a bunch of reeds. ‘That’s how my mother died,’ she said, and dropped the piece of wood.

44:

After a while he settled into the rhythm of rowing. Julie trailed one hand in the water. She gazed up at the sky through half-closed eyes. A wisp of hair had drifted across her face, and she blew it away and shook her head. The sky was pale blue today, with a drift of hazy cloud high up, like celestial mist. Perhaps it was the effort of rowing, perhaps it was the pumping of blood in his ears, but he thought he could hear a kind of humming in the air, a rhythmic sound almost below the threshold of hearing, a tuneless dirge. He said nothing about it to Julie.

45:

They had rowed for two or three miles when Julie said ‘This will do,’ and Paul put the boat in to the bank, where a clear creek ran into the river and a lip of sand tinted the water gold and amber, the colour of tea that had been left stewing in the pot too long. He was exhausted. He tied up the boat and they rested for a while on the bank, listening to a thrush warbling in the undergrowth, until Julie ordered him on again, this time walking.

46:

‘Must we march to Sydney Town, is that your plan?’ Paul complained. ‘Even the Dutch Army permits you to rest once in a while.’

47:

They carried their picnic things along the creek bank for half a mile, until the stream grew narrow. ‘There’s a spring in the hills that feeds the creek,’ Julie explained. ‘That’s why it’s so clear.’ Paul spread their rug on the grassy bank under the shade of some willows, and Julie laid out the food — corned beef and pickle sandwiches, cucumber sandwiches, scones, biscuits, some dried figs, and a bottle of home-made lemonade.

48:

‘We’ll need a fire to boil the billy,’ she said. Paul looked at her. ‘A billy,’ she repeated. ‘It’s a Scottish word. It’s a little can with a handle, for boiling water. You put tea-leaves in it. Oh, I’ll show you.’ She had a fire going in a few minutes, in a hollow between two stones. ‘Whatever you do,’ she said, ‘don’t get lost in the bush.’

49:

‘A Scottish word,’ he said. ‘That’s interesting.’

50:

When they had finished their luncheon, she took him along the creek a little way to the site of an old aboriginal camp in a gloomy clearing among a forest of massed she-oak trees. It was marked by a large, low mound filled with charcoal and small stones. To one side a heap of broken shells had been piled up.

51:

‘How on earth do the sea shells come to be here?’ he asked. ‘Did they bring them all the way from the coast?’

Aboriginal midden. From the internet.

52:

‘They’re not sea shells, they’re from fresh-water mussels. The river was full of them once.’ Julie picked up a small rock chipped into the shape of a blade. ‘They must have brought this from the ridge over there,’ she said, handing it to Paul. ‘I don’t know how old it is. Perhaps thousand of years. There are lots of these lying around.’

53:

He turned the piece of flint over in his hand. It was a deep blue-black, and glittered like glass. The scalloped edges were still sharp. ‘Is it all right for us to be here?’

54:

‘I don’t know. I suppose so. There’s no one here any more. The tribe who lived around here were called the Wiradjuri. They’re mostly gone now. And no one has any use for the stone tools now. They’re just implements, they have no magical value. Jimmy uses a rifle when he goes hunting.’

55:

‘And how long were they here, these black people?’

56:

‘No one knows for certain. But the Wiradjuri go back further than the ancient Greeks. Tens of thousands of years, perhaps more. Jimmy says this is a magic place, where the hill meets the river.’

57:

‘Magic? Does he mean it can affect people?’

58:

‘Well, I’m never sure what Jimmy means by magic. I think he means that around Wagga generally, and around this place in particular, there’s a supernatural power, a kind of guardian spirit. It’s like the faded remnants of the old spirits who used to care for the land and the black people. They’re all gone, and the spirit waits for them to return. I think you’d need to be black to understand what he means.’

59:

Paul put the blade in his pocket. Nearby a crow gave its long, sarcastic cry, and another replied from a distance. The harsh and melancholy sounds and the emptiness that followed them seemed to emphasise the quiet of the bush, the way the empty frames in Greenleaves’ house pointed to the absent paintings; it was the same silence he had felt after he had killed the bushrangers, the silence that crept under the trees like a cloud shadow moving across the land. He felt as though something was stalking him through the bush, creeping from tree to tree, but when he turned to look there was nothing there.

60:

He had not known anything quite like it in Europe, or even in Java, where almost everything was strange and alien. Here it was an absence that he could sense. It was not the spirit of the land, in the way that Jimmy perhaps could sense it, but the lack of a comprehensible spirit, or perhaps the presence of something so alien that nothing in European experience could provide the words or the thoughts needed to understand it. He noticed that the sky, clear this morning, had turned a vague featureless grey. He couldn’t tell whether the clouds were high rain clouds, or a close layer of mist just above the treetops. There was no breeze. ‘Will it rain?’ he asked. Julie was standing close to him.

61:

‘No,’ she said, and took his hand in hers. ‘No, it won’t rain.’

62:

‘Why, how do you know? Are you like the frontier scout, the skilful bush girl who can read the tracks of the animals and scent the rain miles away? Why will it not rain?’

63:

Her eyes had clouded over like the sky, and seemed unfocussed. ‘Because I don’t want it to,’ she whispered. Her hands were behind his head now, and she drew his lips down onto hers. The muscles of her back rippled strongly under his hands. The cloth was thin. His fingertips seemed supernaturally sensitive, and he could almost feel the freckles on her skin, a small mole on her lower back, each slight imperfection in its place. Her muscles worked again under his fingers and her arms moved violently, pushing her dress up over her shoulders. He helped her roughly, and she gave a small cry of annoyance or despair, he couldn’t tell which.

64:

He pushed her body down onto the heap of crumpled fabric, and stopped for a moment, dazzled by the sight of her soft skin and the triangle of dark blonde hair. A breeze touched his face, and he felt a light breath of rain, hardly more than a trace of mist on the air. For a moment he was sick with fear, as he had been in the storm at sea off Java — a grey mountain of water tilting over him, now moving forward as the frail ship plunged down into the trough of the wave and further under the cliff of ocean, its timbers creaking horribly — then he was free, lifted above and away from all that, his heart thumping in his chest.

65:

They dressed with their backs to each other. As he was doing up the Dutch belt buckle Julie put her arms around him again, and once more he felt the strength and warmth of her body press against his. He pulled her closer. She kissed him lightly, and rested her head on his chest. ‘You know something?’ she asked.

66:

‘No, I do not know,’ he said. ‘I am ignorant, completely.’

67:

‘You’re like a book in a foreign language — I don’t mean French, some language like Hindi or Chinese, that I can’t understand. I open the book, look at a few pages, and close it again. I have seen it, but I haven’t understood it. Do you know what I mean? I know nothing about you.’

68:

‘You know I grew up in a town in the north of France.’

69:

‘Yes.’

70:

‘And that I did well at school, got a bit of Latin, later ran away to Paris.’

71:

‘Oh, you ran away, did you? And then?’

72:

‘And then — then I lost myself for a while. I put myself down like a parcel of books, on a park bench, in the Bois de Boulogne.’ He was frowning, and stroking her hair absent-mindedly.

73:

‘Poor man, left out in the rain.’

74:

‘Yes. And when I went back to collect myself some years later, why, some devil had stolen my soul to feed the fires of Hell, and poor Paul was nowhere to be found.’

Paris. From the internet.

75:

She laughed. ‘So you think he took your soul to Australia? Is that what you’re looking for? A soul wrapped in brown paper?’ He didn’t reply. ‘You mentioned Java the other day. What did you find there?’

76:

‘Did I mention Java? No, there was nothing in Java. Nothing that you would want to know.’ She raised her head and looked at him closely, but he looked away. ‘There is nothing to know,’ he said. ‘I do not exist, really. I am just a dream you are having. A nightmare, perhaps. When you wake, I shall be gone.’

77:

She traced the outline of his jaw with a finger. ‘Oh no, you’re real enough. You’re like a sheet of thick glass, a shop window, very solid, quite clear, with nothing painted on it. But I wonder what you want here.’ She pressed her head against his chest again. ‘I can hear your heart pumping away.’

78:

He was silent for a while. ‘I am looking for the god who runs things,’ he said. ‘The God of the Humans, the Titan who bred us in the first place and condemned us to live here, in the world of pain and death. I nearly had him once, but he got away. Now I shall track him down.’

79:

‘And?’

80:

‘I shall make him answer a few questions.’

81:

‘Such as?’

82:

‘Such as why did he take my sister Vitalie. She had done nothing wrong in her whole life.’

83:

‘But — you can’t ask that.’

84:

‘And other questions. Such as: What does he want of me? What does he have in store for me?’

85:

She was about to answer when her body stiffened, and she gave a choked cry. For a moment he thought she must be ill, perhaps about to vomit, but her eyes were wide open, staring at something behind him. ‘There!’ she said, pointing, her hand to her mouth. ‘There was a man there, in the bush.’

86:

‘Where? What is it?’

87:

‘A black man. I saw a black man, watching us. Now he’s gone.’ She was pale, and gripped his hand tightly.

88:

‘Do you want me to chase him?’ Why hadn’t he brought his gun?

Dark wood. From the internet.

89:

‘No, no. It’s all right.’

90:

‘Do you know who it was?’

91:

‘No, just that it was a man with a dark face, staring out from the bushes over there. He may not even have been a black, it’s dark under the trees, and he may have been a white man, burnt by the sun. Oh, I don’t know.’ She held the back of her hand to her mouth and her eyes flickered back and forth, searching the gloom under the great she-oak trees. ‘The bush gets thicker in there, there’s no point looking.’

92:

Paul thought for a moment of the young outlaw’s brother, searching for revenge.

93:

Julie was looking at the heap of shells. ‘Perhaps they’ve come back.’ she said. He followed her glance. ‘But no,’ she said, and shook her head. ‘They’re long gone.’
 
[»»] Back to the Contents page

Black Gold, Chapter 13

Chapter 13 — Greenleaves
… In which Paul Nouveau begins by walking Julie to Church, but soon veers off to visit Mr Axel Greenleaves, the local hermit, who lives in a vast, old estate. Greenleaves has recently returned from Paris where he took the paintings of a friend in an attempt to interest some of the Impressionists in them. He failed, and comments caustically on artistic fame in the colonies. Paul discusses his favourite historian Michelet, to little effect. Greenleaves has an ironic view of life, a view unsuitable to his position as a citizen of Wagga Wagga. Paul leaves, mentally stimulated.

Paragraph One follows — 1:

Sunday dawned bright and clear, with a touch of frost in the air. Paul saw Julie at breakfast, and she told him that her father was already working in his basement laboratory and didn’t want to be disturbed. After breakfast Julie asked Paul if he’d like to come to church with her. He refused, then grudgingly said he’d walk part of the way.

2:

‘If you wish I can carry your prayer book, like a gentleman,’ he said, and she laughed. The church was on the other side of the town; they could hear the bell’s slow, clanky tones clearly across the rooftops. The sky was a huge empty bowl. Somewhere — it seemed high in the sky, and miles away — Paul thought he heard a lark’s bright agitated song. Here and there along the side of the road were pools of water from the rain the night before, reflecting the sky in their blue mirrors.

3:

‘Doesn’t your father go to church with you?’

4:

‘My father gave away orthodox religion long ago, after my mother died.’

5:

‘And you?’

6:

‘Me?’

7:

‘You still believe?’

8:

She thought for a moment. ‘I have a need, that’s all,’ she said at last. ‘We all have a need to believe. It’s what you lack that you go to church for, not because of something you have.’

9:

‘I am told that this is the conventional view.’

10:

‘You’re saying that it sounds stupid. You know, it’s not considered good manners to talk about one’s religious faith.’

Bush Church. From the internet.

11:

Paul laughed. ‘It is difficult to believe the truth of you British people in the bush,’ he said. ‘A matter of life and death, and you say no, it is not polite.’ She gave him a searching look, but said nothing. They walked a few blocks in silence.

12:

‘I used to be in love with him,’ Paul said.

13:

‘What? What did you say?’

14:

‘I used to worship God. It was like having a father again. Well, they call Him God the Father. I remember — I must have been ten or eleven — some older boys had stolen some holy water from the font. They were drinking it on the front steps of the church and laughing. I flew into a rage and attacked them, hitting and biting them. I can still remember the taste of that cheap serge cloth in my mouth, tasting of dirt and the sweat of others. I nearly snapped off my teeth, I bit so furiously. They were big boys, but I was so crazy with rage that I frightened them away. Oh, I was so proud of myself. A warrior for Christ!’

15:

Julie gave him a sideways look. ‘And now?’

16:

‘Oh, He would not care to have a thing to do with me now.’ Paul wiped his face across his eyes as if to erase the sight of something.

17:

‘It’s not right to make judgments like that,’ she said, ‘presuming what God might or might not care to do.’

18:

He ignored the remark. ‘I had a thought the other day. You know, the Bible says ”In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was God.„ So, He speaks, He gives the name for things and they happen, like a factory owner installing a new steam boiler. ”Start the Engine,„ he says, and the thing bursts into movement, the factory comes to life.’ Paul’s eyes were sparkling, and his hands moved in time with his words, making shapes in the air.

19:

‘Or the president of a great shipping line stands at the side of the dry dock — they have built a new ship for him, bigger than any before, as big as a city. Everyone is waiting, motionless. ”Launch the Ship!„ he says, and suddenly there is movement, they cut the rope, and the ship slides down the greased planks into the water to begin its life as a kind of nation floating on the sea.’ Now he hesitated, and his hands closed into fists.

Ship Launch. From the internet.

20:

‘Well, when I was concocting those glittering paragraphs, creating things no one had ever imagined before, then I thought —’ His breathing had become uneven. He hesitated, and glanced at her. She waited for him to continue, but he swallowed once or twice, and swung away onto another tack. ‘But I suspect the view of God the Speaker of Holy Words is all wrong. God is hiding, yes, but not among the noisy prayers and pleading of the congregation, and not in among the notes of the organ reverberating in the rafters, but in silence. Perhaps that is what I am looking for, in the end: silence, the absence of the vain and wicked self calling out and quarrelling and begging to be noticed.’

21:

‘Well, there’s silence enough here in the Australian bush,’ Julie said.

22:

‘And what is on the other side of silence? Peace, perhaps. At least I hope so. Maybe you are correct to have such a modest faith, perhaps that is where to find Him, hidden under the leaves in the forest, among the lost and invisible things.’ His eyes flickered from side to side as he walked.

23:

‘You won’t find God in the grass at the side of the road,’ Julie said. ‘If you look properly, you may find Him in church, where everyone else goes to look.’

24:

‘It is a superstition, to think like that. Perhaps that is why He is not there,’ Paul said. ‘Or is that blasphemy?’

25:

She bit her lip, but made no reply.

26:

He sighed, and shook himself, and looked around. ‘Julie,’ he said, ‘I should like to visit Greensleeves, the man I met in the coach shed the other day — you remember, we began in some confusion about the box of books.’

27:

Julie laughed, and put her arm through his. ‘It’s ”Greenleaves„, not ”Greensleeves„. ”Greensleeves„ is a tune, an old English song. Yes, he lives in his family home, up on the hill. You can’t see it from here. I’ll show you how to get there; it’s more or less on the way.’

28:

‘Will he answer the door to visitors?’

29:

‘I suppose so. You should mention father’s name, perhaps; he’s treated him once or twice. I’m sure Mr Greenleaves would find you — well, interesting. And I’m sure you’d enjoy talking with him more than listening to a sermon on the evils of the flesh.’

30:

Soon they came to the entrance of a large, wooded estate. The gates were rusted and hung crooked on their hinges, and were smothered with a climbing creeper with tiny purple flowers. ‘This is it,’ Julie said. ‘Just go up the drive.’ She shook his hand gravely. Paul held her hand a moment longer than was necessary, and she gave him a calm, level stare.

31:

She took her hand from his, and went off down the street. He stood watching her. Her slight limp seemed more pronounced when her figure was isolated in the half-empty landscape. After fifty yards or so she turned to look back, and stopped for a moment, surprised to see Paul still standing there. Paul waved.

32:

She smiled uncertainly and waved back. ‘Good bye,’ she called.

33:

‘Good bye, Julie.’

34:

Weeds were struggling to reclaim the gravel path as it wound around the hill under the thick shade of the trees. Paul guessed that few horses or carriages had passed that way for ten years or more. It should have grown lighter as he climbed up towards that blue sky, but it seemed to grow darker instead, and the branches leaned overhead more and more heavily. The distant sounds of the town faded as he walked on, with only the crunch of gravel under his boots to keep him company. Soon his footsteps were muffled on the moss that grew over the path. There was a minty scent in the air — perhaps it was eucalyptus. He expected to find a lawn or a clearing of some sort, but when he finally came across the front door it was like stumbling against a cliff-face in the jungle: the foliage grew almost up to the face of the building. He stepped back and looked up.

Abercrombie House, from the internet.

35:

It was a big house, more than two stories high, with an attic at the top, built of a grey-blue stone with dark slate roofing, and it had a vaguely European air. He could make out the name ‘Kurland’ chiselled into a granite nameplate over the door; it was partly obscured by a spider web. There was an iron knocker in the shape of a claw, and it made a hard clanking sound when he hammered it against the striker plate. The silence seemed to grow deeper after the loud knocking; it stretched under the trees. Nothing happened; he waited a minute or two, and tried a second time. The sound of the hammer blows seemed to leap away down the hill into the bush like a giant bounding down a steel staircase. Again nothing.

36:

He stepped back a few paces and surveyed the face of the house. There were tall windows of latticed glass panes, shaded with heavy drapes. An overgrown apple tree pushed up against one of the windows, half strangled with vines and creepers. He could hear a bird of some kind giving an occasional mournful hoot deep in the shade of the gully. The birds and the animals were strange and somehow wrong down here at the bottom of the world, he thought. He walked around to the side of the house, but a thicket of old quince trees blocked his way. He walked back to try the other side, to see if he could get around to the back of the house, when he noticed with a start that the front door had been opened, and a man was standing in the shadow of the doorway looking at him.

37:

‘Mr Greenleaves?’ Paul asked. His voice sounded strangely loud in the noon hush. ‘We… we met before, at the coach depot. We had a — a misunderstanding about some books. Ah — I am a friend of Mr Bell, the doctor. And of his daughter.’

38:

The man stared vaguely at Paul, and made no answer. He was wearing a green quilted smoking jacket of an old-fashioned cut.

39:

‘Perhaps you remember, we talked in the coach shed,’ Paul went on. ‘I am from Paris. I am — I am travelling in this part of the country, and I hoped —’

40:

Greenleaves frowned and seemed to sink into contemplation: he stroked his beard slowly. ‘Paris,’ he said at last. ‘Indeed. Yes, I think I know you, sir.’

41:

The bird hooted once more; then, after an interval, again.

42:

‘Well, you have travelled a long way for nothing, but you might as well come in. We can continue our interrupted conversation.’

43:

He disappeared into the gloom of the house, and Paul, after a moment’s hesitation, followed. They walked through an entrance hall, past a staircase sweeping up into the gloom, and into a library, with lozenged windows at one end that looked onto a tangle of foliage. It was a greenhouse, Paul saw, an extension of the main building, that seemed to plunge forward into a jungle of luxuriant growth like the prow of a ship built of panes of glass. The light in the library was bright green, and spilled down from the high windows past the paintings and mirrors and the glass-fronted bookcases onto the carpets and across the desk that filled the centre of the room. A chess game had been interrupted; beside the board was a diagram of the moves. A dozen or so books lay open, and sheets of paper covered with scribbled notes lay scattered among them. On a corner table sat the typing machine which Greenleaves had collected from the coach shed. A sheet of paper lay on the table, half filled with typewritten characters.

44:

‘I have been working,’ Greenleaves said, ‘or rather, struggling with this damned machine. But I was just about to have some tea.’ He rang a small bell; the delicate metal tones tinkled through the house. It seemed unlikely that anyone would be there to answer it. ‘Would you care for some?’

45:

‘Thank you, yes.’

46:

‘Axel Greenleaves is my name; but then you know that.’

47:

‘Yes.’

48:

After a moment Greenleaves prompted him. ‘And yours?’

49:

‘Oh, yes. Mine is Paul — Nouveau.’

50:

Greenleaves regarded him coolly. ‘So you say,’ he said. They waited for a minute or so. Presently a woman appeared in the doorway.

51:

‘Mrs Emmott, this is Mr Nouveau, a visitor from Paris. We should like some tea.’ Mrs Emmott gave Paul a long stare, and left. ‘She’s a good woman,’ Greenleaves said. ‘A better servant than I deserve. You struck me on a lucky day; Mrs Emmott only comes once a week. Otherwise I’m alone. When alone I subsist almost entirely on a brew of weak tea and whisky, which is hardly proper fare to offer a visitor. Please, sit.’ He indicated a leather sofa to one side of the desk. Paul sat, and looked around the room. Among the paintings he now noticed a number of large empty frames hung high on the walls. Greenleaves stared at him for a while, then shook himself. ‘I’m sorry,’ he said. ‘I’ve completely forgotten my manners. The empty frames — they must look odd to people. They’re paintings — ah, they used to hold paintings done by a friend of mine. But I’m wandering. Please, tell me why on earth you chose to visit this distant colony?’

52:

‘Well —’

53:

‘Were you looking for picturesque sights? Are you a photographer, perhaps?’

54:

‘No, not at all —’

55:

‘We had a photographer in the district a dozen years ago, like you a visitor from France, but he left, having failed to find anything to interest him. I believe he was hunting the duck-billed platypus, but like me, the platypus is an elusive creature. In those days photography was a dangerous art. Ether and guncotton, indeed. The fumes are poisonous. I had to call the good doctor.’ Greenleaves gazed at his heap of books and brooded for a moment. ‘Poor Doctor Bell,’ he said. ‘He still believes he has a duty to save the middle classes. But from what? Smallpox? Diphtheria? If so, a noble aim. But he has the soul of a philosopher, I think, and there is no place for the dreams of philosophers in today’s world.’

56:

‘Indeed.’ Paul He looked around him. Set high into the windows were stained glass panels that featured family crests and coats of arms. They glowed green and purple in the afternoon light. ‘What did your family do?’ he asked.

57:

Greenleaves snorted. ‘Do? They were a clan of proficient and thriving robbers, as far as I can make out. My father made a fortune in woollen mills, in the Midlands. He sent me off to school as soon as I was strong enough to stand it. This stuff —’ he waved at the stained glass — ‘it’s confectionery, and fake confectionery at that. Ah, the tea.’

58:

Mrs Emmott laid out a tray of tea things, and a plate of scones with jam and cream, then went silently away; they helped themselves.

59:

Greenleaves held out a plate. ‘A scone?’

60:

‘Thank you. Your parents, they live in England?’

61:

‘Drowned in a storm off the East Indies, both of them, sad to say. Though I believe the workers in my father’s factories were delighted at the news. They staged an impromptu holiday, I’m told, and danced in the streets.’ He dabbed some more cream onto his scone and jam. ‘Paris. What’s the news from Paris? I haven’t been there for a couple of years — Seventy-four, I think, was the last time I was in Europe.’

62:

Paul hesitated for a moment. ‘Well, to speak the truth, I have not traveled there much myself, for the last few years. London, Germany, Italy, yes; but not Paris.’

63:

Greenleaves appeared not to have heard him. He sipped his tea, then he held his head on one side like a bird listening carefully for a worm in the ground. He held this odd pose for some time, then said softly: ‘Café Tabourey, that was the name of the place. All Saints’ Eve, November Seventy-three.’

64:

Paul was still.

65:

‘I was there with a friend,’ Greenleaves went on, ‘the writer Poussin. He was from the country, fresh in town, and he knew less about Paris than I did. It was a holiday, I remember, and we were drinking with a crowd of people at the bar, artists and journalists, whatever; and there was a fellow who looked rather like you, sitting at a corner table, alone. Younger than you. Unshaven.’ Paul stroked the blond stubble on his chin in an unconscious gesture. ‘Looked rather wretched, in fact. Young Albert offered him a drink, tried to talk to him, but he was met with a snub.’ He tilted his head the other way, and looked at Paul. ‘Someone said it was the poet — what was his name? Not the old man, he was in gaol in Belgium for sodomy and attempted murder; no, that other one, the boy.’ Paul remained silent, but coloured slowly. ‘Well, whatever his name was. No one would speak to him. And he went away in the end.’

66:

There was silence for a while; Greenleaves sipped his tea. ‘I heard he burnt all his manuscripts, soon after that. Whatever his name was.’

67:

Paul swallowed, and looked away. ‘They cannot have meant all that much to him.’

68:

‘To the contrary. They must have meant everything in the world to him, don’t you think?’

69:

‘Poets can be very tiresome,’ Paul said.

70:

‘You mean their vanity?’

71:

‘That is a part of it, yes.’

72:

‘Or perhaps it’s their sleight-of-hand,’ Greenleaves said, ‘the way they manage to profess a deep concern with the state of men’s souls, while stabbing their friends in the back at the same time — perhaps that’s what you’re thinking of.’

73:

There was a dry quality to Greenleaves’ voice; Paul laughed in spite of himself. ‘You know the world of the artists and poets, then,’ he said. ‘Is that why you shut yourself away here?’

74:

Greenleaves got up abruptly and walked around to the other side of the desk. He leafed through a sheaf of papers, then put them down. ‘No,’ he murmured. ‘Not really.’

75:

‘Julie — Miss Bell, she said you had a book published in England. Is that right?’

76:

Greenleaves stared at him for a moment. ‘Oh, that,’ he said. ‘Juvenilia. The work of a youth. It was received well enough, and then forgotten. Thank goodness. But my second book — it was not understood. That would be one way of putting it.’

77:

‘Oh? Julie failed to mention a second book. Why was it — misunderstood, is that what you said?’

78:

‘My, you’re quite to the point, aren’t you? No, don’t apologise. Your questions are refreshing. Well, why was that? I have a dozen different answers, each depending on which of my misanthropic hats I’m wearing at the time.’ He strolled to the window and looked through into the greenhouse. Paul joined him.

79:

‘It was a book of poems in prose,’ Greenleaves said. ‘I admit some of it was difficult, but then I didn’t write it for shop assistants to read on their day off. It was mainly ignored, and when it was reviewed it was reviewed stupidly by people who could barely understand it.’

80:

Paul laughed. ‘You are surprised? Then you surprise me. But that is always the way, is it not?’

81:

‘Indeed. What sort of people get to be the arbiters of literary taste in the modern world? Spiteful grovellers, that’s who; it’s a kind of inverted Darwinism, a natural selection of the least fit by the even less fit. Why go on, I thought, presenting these arduously harvested pearls to those swine?’ Greenleaves laughed, a short, dry laugh. ‘Like my older brother Simon. A poet, quite accomplished, in Latin. No one read his Latin poems. No one. So he translated them into English. The reviewers were very cruel to them, those who bothered to note them at all. Well, I said, perhaps they were just reviewing the English.’ Greenleaves laughed again. ‘To be frank, the English was not all that good. I suggested that he might not be such an accomplished translator. Oh well. Water under the bridge.’

82:

He frowned, and his jaw muscles worked. ‘In any case, I have my own critics right here, with more brains then most reviewers. Do you like parrots?’ He tapped on the glass. ‘That one’s a hundred years old; or so old Malley the gardener used to reckon.’ He pointed into the foliage of the greenhouse, and Paul noticed a splash of crimson and blue: it was a huge macaw climbing awkwardly along a branch. ‘I call that one Pater Familias. He can parrot a dozen of Walter Pater’s opinions on the aesthetic history of the Renaissance with as much conviction and as much understanding as any critic.’ He laughed. ‘Then there’s a white cockatoo called Obiter Dictum — he’s hiding somewhere — and a galah called Michelet, after the historian.’

83:

‘A galah?’

84:

‘The galah is a dim-witted kind of parrot; grey and pink. I think he’s asleep somewhere.’

85:

‘And you named him Michelet?’ Paul was clearly annoyed.

86:

‘Do you have a fondness for Michelet? Of course; he’s French. I didn’t mean to be rude. Allow me to apologise; my games have become too private, perhaps. I have no one to share them with.’

87:

Paul took a moment to reply. ‘Please do not bother to apologise,’ he said. ‘It is of no importance. You say your second book consisted of poems in prose. Tell me, was your first book verse? That would satisfy Michelet, who predicted such a shift from verse to prose as humankind developed.’

French historian Michelet. From the internet.

88:

‘That’s very perceptive of you,’ said Greenleaves. His tone was cool.

89:

‘After all, poetry is a very rudimentary form: Homer is full of a brutal energy, but he is primitive compared to the sophistication of a Flaubert. But the next step is more difficult: beyond literature, into action.’

90:

‘Did Michelet advise that, specifically?’

91:

‘He said that the modern hero would be the man of action. The age of dreamers and philosophers was over. The future belonged to explorers, inventors and scientists.’

92:

‘And Satan, I think he said, was the first scientist.’ Greenleaves looked at Paul shrewdly. ‘And pride goeth before a fall.’

93:

Paul was at a loss for a reply. He turned to the desk, littered with learning. ‘And this? Is this the building material from which you shall make your third book? There’s certainly enough of it. But then, perhaps you have turned your back on your readers.’

94:

Greenleaves shot him a look. ‘Wouldn’t you?’ he said. ‘I saw those pathetic figures in the Paris cafés, the poets and the journalists, lashing the middle class with one hand and begging for their recognition with the other.’

95:

Paul stared at him. ‘So did I,’ he said. The parrot clambered back along the branch, and gazed at them through the glass with its rheumy eyes. It bobbed its head, and cried out in a harsh voice. Paul looked at the three large frames hanging empty at the end of the room. He wondered what they had held: the conventional thing, a painting of a stag on a windy mountain crag with a rushing stream at his feet, perhaps; or something more contemporary, a romantic seascape?

96:

Greenleaves followed his gaze, and smiled. ‘You’re wondering about my friend’s paintings,’ he said. ‘It’s a sad story. A kind of fable, penned by a bad fairy, to illustrate the cruelty of provincialism. I think you’d appreciate the irony of it.’

97:

‘Provincialism?’

98:

‘One of the reasons I went to Paris was that I hoped to promote the work of a friend of mine, an Australian painter called Whiteman, very modern. The man had unknowingly reinvented something like Impressionism, though more vigorous and full of the most violent emotional expressions. One of those frames held a still life, though it was anything but still: it seemed to want to jump out of the canvas at you, and instead of a hare whose fur catches the light like an expensive coat, the animal is flayed, and the red flesh glares out at the viewer. This one —’ Greenleaves pointed ‘— was a landscape with a bushfire, dark and threatening and shot through with orange flame; it seemed to heave like the sea, and burning animals writhed in its depths. And the other, over here, was a shipwreck: waves that reared up higher than a building and showed you through their glassy flanks glimpses of a green hell a thousand feet deep. You can imagine how little his work is understood here in the colony.’

99:

‘I think I know these shipwrecks.’

100:

‘Well, the popular thing here is a picture of a horse and carriage, or a dog in a bonnet. Paris, I thought; the centre of the modern world. They’ll understand him there. I mentioned I was in Paris in ’73; the Salon de Réfuses had everybody excited. That kind of artistic turmoil is exactly where his work should be situated, at the centre of the whirlpool, I thought. I had some of his canvases with me. I hoped to interest some of the dealers; perhaps a few critics, a painter or two.’

101:

‘I think I can predict the end of your story. A paradoxical ending.’

102:

‘Indeed. I talked to a few of the Impressionist painters. Did you see their exhibition in ’74?’

103:

‘No, I was in England for most of the year, then Germany. I heard something about it.’

104:

‘I thought some of them would understand what Whiteman was up to. But no. You see, in Paris they didn’t want to hear about a good second-rank colonial Impressionist, they couldn’t be bothered, they had their careers to think about: you had to be part of the pack in Paris to matter. No one in the colony here understood his work, and no one in Paris cared.’

105:

‘But time is on his side. These things take time.’

Australian artist John Peter Russell, “Seascape”, nineteenth century. From the internet.

106:

‘Oh no, forgive me, but you’re quite wrong. In the world of fashion — and the world of painting, like dressmaking, is of course a branch of the fashion industry — time, or timing, is of the essence. Impressionism will change and develop into something new and within a year or two poor Whiteman’s work will be out of date as well as avant-garde, and really buried for good. That’s the price you pay for the peace and quiet of the countryside. That’s the curse of provincialism. No matter how good the work, it is doomed to be ignored by history, for history is written elsewhere, among the gossip of cliques.’

107:

‘That is sad,’ Paul said. ‘I trust he had the spirit to keep on with his work. After all, what do a few painters and critics at the other end of the world matter? In a country as empty as this, where everything must be invented all over from the beginning, any original artist with the courage of his convictions must be especially valuable. Your history lies ahead of you.’

108:

‘I took you for a cynic, dyed in the wool,’ Greenleaves said, ‘and you disappoint me. Here you are showing your colours as an optimist and a patriot.’

109:

Paul laughed. ‘Perhaps I was carried away by the drama of the artistic problems of your Mister Whiteman. But tell me about the empty frames.’

110:

Greenleaves gazed at them for a moment, as though trying to recreate in his mind’s eye the paintings that had once hung there: the violent still life that seemed to leap from the frame, the bushfire consuming its creatures, the murderous green flood. ‘He asked to have them back for a while, to copy them, he said. But that wasn’t the reason; he’d reached the end of the road. He destroyed all his work in a fit of madness. He burnt his studio to the ground, and everything in it.’

111:

‘Ah. Yes, of course. Of course. Either too weak, or too proud, to go on. Tell me, does anything survive? I should like to see something, even a sketch, perhaps.’

112:

‘No, there’s nothing left, as far as I can determine,’ Greenleaves said. ‘It’s over for him. He drank; and the blend of alcohol and failure is lethal to talent in the end, one way or another. Either the long road of decline and dissolution, or the quick descent into the dark. He’s still alive, I believe, but no longer as a painter.’

113:

‘You are correct, the road leads nowhere. You know, it seems proper what he did. I mean, to extinguish it all, to wipe out all traces of what he had tried to do. I can understand that. In fact, I admire it.’

114:

‘Do you?’ Greenleaves asked. ‘I find it childish, I’m afraid.’

115:

‘The motivation may be childish, perhaps, but the implications of the act are on a grander scale than that.’

116:

Greenleaves shook his head. ‘Sophistry,’ he said. He walked over to the desk and looked through a few pages of the notes he had been working on. ‘I sometimes wonder why there is so much emotion attached to art — I mean, to the making and selling of art. Why can’t people paint and sell pictures the way people make and sell wallpaper? That’s the mystery. Is it just vanity? You don’t hear of a wallpaper manufacturer taking to drink because no one understands his flock patterns, or a house painter in a fit of despair because people don’t want green verandas any more.’

117:

Paul smiled. ‘Your Australian bungalows need their verandahs — both words are Hindi, originally, aren’t they, bungalow, and verandah? Verandas have a use,’ he said. ‘No one needs a painting, or a novel.’ He indicated the writing machine on its table. ‘Have you found that you can obtain inspiration from your machine?’

Chess, Mirror. From the internet.

118:

‘I spend most of my time hunting for the letter I want. One day I shall become as proficient as one of those young typewriting fellows who work in business offices. It has a strange effect, one I hadn’t predicted: I find my thought wanders quite poetically when I’m composing upon the writing machine, which happens to be an irritant at present. I’m trying to compose an essay on symmetry in chess, and I need to keep my style severe.’ From among the heap of papers he picked up a leather-bound booklet with the title On the Use of Mirrors in the Game of Chess. ‘I’ve been researching it as best I can. It’s an absorbing topic. The chess board is bilaterally symmetrical on the diagonal axis, yet the basic patterns of the game are enantiomorphic across the horizontal and vertical axes.’

119:

‘Forgive me, I do not grasp your point here.’

120:

‘It’s a technical term. Your left hand is an enantiomorph of your right; a glove pulled inside out is its own enantiomorph: a three-dimensional mirror image. But I mustn’t drag you down these obscure mental pathways of mine. Would you care for some more tea? I’m afraid this lot has gone cold. No? I think I have some American whiskey somewhere — Never mind.’

121:

‘To talk of Michelet in Wagga Wagga is quite a surprise. It has made me think — about Paris, about many things I thought I had put behind me. I trust you will forgive me for leaving. My mind is racing, as you say. Speeding along. I think I should go now.’ He shook Greenleaves’ hand. ‘Goodbye.’
 
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Black Gold, Chapter 12

Chapter 12 — Verheeren
… In which Paul Nouveau visits Verheeren in the town’s Chinese opium den. He has a long conversation with Mr Lee, the Chinaman, about how Lee came to from Java to Australia looking for gold, the difficulties he faced, and the Chinese Buddhist goddess of Mercy, Guanjin. Finally Paul meets Verheeren, explores Verheeren’s time in Java, and gives him an amulet he has been carrying for this purpose. Verheeren shows fear, and Paul dislikes him intensely.

Paragraph One follows — 1:

The Chinaman was gone for a few minutes, then he came back through the bead curtain. It tinkled with a dull sound, like a child’s wooden xylophone. His slippered feet made hardly a whisper on the rugs that covered the floor. He’d been carrying a small cloth bag slung over his shoulder when he’d answered the door, and Paul noticed that he still carried it. It was elaborately embroidered in emerald green and yellow silk, and held something heavy. ‘Ah, Mr Nouveau. Mr Verheeren says that the signs are not propitious, but as he cannot avoid you, he shall see you.’

2:

‘Good. Thank you, Mr Lee. He is kind to spare the time.’

3:

Lee gave a slight bow. ‘He has plenty of time.’ He sat on an upholstered stool a few feet from Paul and turned his head away politely. ‘He has been resting. I shall take you to him in a moment.’

Chinaman, 1860s, Australia. From the internet.

.

4:

‘Thank you.’ There were traces of a heavy odour hanging on the air: a mixture of incense and opium. Paul had been given a cup of tea, and he sipped it while he waited. It was thin and scented, and seemed to clear his head.

5:

‘Are you enjoying your tea, Mr Nouveau?’ Lee asked. There was a lacquered screen across from where Lee was sitting, and he seemed to address it rather than Paul. The room had grown shadowy, and three small lamps cast a halting glow on the yellow walls. The robe Lee wore was yellow too: he seemed to blend into the room like a ghost or spirit.

6:

‘Thank you, yes,’ Paul said. ‘Tell me, what do you, ah — what do you sell, here?’

7:

‘There is no selling here. It is just my humble house. ’

8:

‘But surely that is not correct. People do come here. My friend Frank said that your place is well known —’

9:

Lee interrupted quietly. ‘Perhaps your friend is mistaken. Nobody comes here to purchase anything. I offer some medical advice, that is all.’

10:

‘Mr Verheeren? He comes here regularly.’ Paul felt like a bumbling peasant, with his clumsy questions. At the same time he felt that Mr Lee’s elaborate courtesy was a kind of mask or sleight of hand designed to conceal things from him. He could hear a light, ceaseless ticking — it came from a small gilt clock in a corner. For some reason he thought of clocks as being peculiarly European; it seemed odd to find one in such an oriental setting. In the other corner was an alcove containing a statuette of a Chinese goddess, coated with glossy red and gold lacquer, with a bowl of joss sticks burning at her feet. One hand was raised in a gesture of benediction, and for a moment she reminded Paul of the Virgin Mary, though translated into something incomprehensible and alien.

11:

Lee bowed slightly again, glanced at Paul, and resumed his study of the screen. ‘Mr Verheeren? Ah, that gentleman is an old family friend. There are obligations.’ He slipped a small folding fan from his sleeve and fanned his face a few times, though the evening was quite cool.

12:

On the painted screen a boy standing on a river bank tugged at a rope, which went across the panel onto another scene. On that panel reeds and bushes decorated the background and a buffalo pulled against the other end of the rope: a struggle that was perpetual.

13:

‘You see,’ Lee went on, ‘I have family in the East Indies, many years. My uncle, my other uncle, and so on. Shopkeepers in Java and Sumatra, many years. So, Mr Verheeren, he has some contact with me already, when he comes here from Java.’ Perhaps the buffalo on the screen was Javanese: Paul had seen buffaloes like that trudging through the rice fields. ‘When you see Mr Verheeren,’ Lee said carefully, ‘you must be polite to him.’

14:

‘One is usually polite with strangers.’

15:

‘Not to cause trouble, you see. Mr Verheeren has anxieties of being followed around.’

16:

‘No, of course, I shall not cause trouble. I suspect that you are carrying something in that bag — is it a pistol?’

17:

Lee patted the bag and gave a polite laugh. ‘Ah, most observant.’ He seemed pleased that Paul had spotted the gun so easily. ‘Unfortunately it is necessary, in these times,’ he confided. ‘Here the English are very obedient to the idea that everyone must keep their money in some bank accounts. These banks are strong buildings, made of heavy bricks. But in our experience such bank accounts are delicate things, and can blow away in the slightest wind. It is better to look after the safety of our belongings in our own way. In this colony many people roam about, seeking to make trouble. I believe you have some recent experience of that.’

18:

All of Wagga must have heard about the episode with the bushrangers by now; the notoriety gave Paul no pleasure. ‘Yes. But as you can see, I do not carry a weapon of any sort.’

19:

‘Indeed, I had already come to that conclusion. A most welcome reassurance. Myself, I have with me a modest pistol made by Mr Deringer, now dead, alas, and engraved with his name. Only two chances to shoot, but then, that should be enough. It was enough for poor Mister Lincoln, who was killed with such a gun. At least, so the newspapers of the day told us.’

20:

‘Mister Lincoln?’

21:

‘An American gentleman, ruler of his people.’

22:

‘How long have you lived here, Mr Lee?’

23:

‘In this place?’ Lee looked at him for a moment. ‘Perhaps about as long as you have been alive, I think. A quarter of a century ago I left my home and my parents in Surabaya, to come to the colony of Melbourne for the gold that was in the ground.’

24:

‘I have read about those times, the gold rush. People say the gold was easy in those days.’

25:

‘For some. Not for me.’

26:

‘Oh?’

27:

Mr Lee counted on his fingers. ‘One, we were prevented from landing near Melbourne where our passage was supposed to take us, or anywhere near that place, by the people there. They drove us off, and drove us away. Two, we were put into the water at Adelaide, and if we could swim we lived, and if not, not. We who survived made our way through the bush to the vicinity of Bendigo. Three, on the goldfields there came some more unpleasantness.’ He touched the back of his head in an unconscious gesture. ‘But what’s the use to count?’

28:

‘And did you find gold?’

29:

‘A little. But the gold finished quickly. We Chinese people, we were told to take the poorer soil, where the metal had been mostly used up and the ground hard to dig. The work injures the body, and now my back is crooked. I sent some gold home to my family, unfortunately not very much, and came over the river to New South Wales. This place is near the crossing of many paths, which is good luck, so my people say, and brings prosperity.’

30:

‘Is that the Goddess of Prosperity? I am not sure she is doing such a good job.’ Paul pointed to the garish statuette in the corner of the room.

31:

‘Prosperity?’ Lee looked at the figurine as though surprised. ‘Oh no. That lady is called Guanjin. It is complicated to explain. She is Chinese Buddhist goddess. She is Goddess of Mercy, you would say.’

Guanyin as Guide of Souls, banner painted in ink and colors on silk, from Dunhuang Cave 17 storeroom, late Tang or Five Dynasties Ten Kingdoms period. From the internet.

32:

Paul put down his cup. ‘It has been good talking to you, Mr Lee. But I do have business with Mr Verheeren.’

33:

Lee smiled, and considered the painted screen for a while, and seemed to make up his mind. He put his fan away. ‘I think we may go in now.’ He rose and ushered Paul through the bead curtain: ‘Just through here. Please to mind your head.’

34:

Lee took a candle, and they went through a dark passageway, Paul following, and down a set of narrow stone steps to the cellar. The dim flickering light and the steep stairs gave the place the air of a dungeon. They came to a low door. Lee unlatched it.

35:

‘Your guest is here, sir,’ he said. Paul went in and the door was closed behind him. He heard the latch click.

36:

The smell of incense was stronger here, and the only light in the small room was a candle on a low table. The opening and closing of the door had made a small breeze, and the candle flame swayed and guttered, throwing moving shadows on the walls. A figure was resting on a bunk.

37:

‘So, you have tracked me down,’ he said, in a dry voice. ‘You have caught me.’ The voice was that of an old man; the accent had the same Low Country vowels that Paul had come to dislike so much. He felt a cold chill run down his spine.

38:

‘You are Verheeren?’

39:

‘Why should I talk to you, mynheer?’ His voice was angry now, and he weaved his head sideways like a snake as he inspected his visitor. Paul could make out a thin, beaked nose and a straggly beard. The eyes seemed colourless, like tawny glass in the amber candle-light. ‘What do you want? What do you want with me? I see you have prepared things — it is the hour when darkness falls, and it is the ninth hour of the evening of the ninth day of the ninth month. But I am ready.’

40:

‘I am not counting the days. I have a message for you, and I have a gift for you.’

41:

‘I want no messages, and you can keep your poisoned gifts.’ He gave a short laugh. ‘Gift’, he said, giving the word a thick accent. ‘Do you know German?’

42:

‘Some.’

Opium den, Australia, 1890s. From the internet.

43:

‘Gift. It is giftig, your gift. It is a poison. Huh. That is the German.’

44:

‘I’m not German.’

45:

‘Indeed not. With those blue eyes of yours, you should have light blond hair, not that brownish blond colour. Are you one of those Belgian peasants? Eh?’ Paul made no reply. His eyes gradually adjusted to the sickly light, and he looked around the room, though there was little to see: it was a room for taking opium, and a bunk and a candle were all that was required. ‘I’m a sick man,’ Verheeren went on. His voice had a petulant tone. ‘A sick man. Too many years in the tropics. The tropics are not right for the European races. Too near the Equator, where evil spirits breed under the sun. There are diseases, you would not believe your eyes: I have seen a man put under a spell by a witch-doctor, his skin thickened and hardened like the skin of a rhinoceros. I have seen intestinal worms taken from a girl’s stomach as big like a sack of grass. As big as that, coiling and moving. Disgusting!’

46:

‘So you say.’

47:

‘Do you know they have a flower in Java,’ Verheeren went on, ‘that smells of rotting meat? A gorgeous, huge flower, as large as a corn sack. What woman could wear such a flower? Imagine it, at the Opéra. What a sensation! Rotting meat! That would knock the fashion people on their backs, how to come to terms with the experience. I have seen it, in the jungle, and gagged on the filthy smell. I sent one back to the arboretum in Brussels, in a teak box full of jungle soil. Too long in the tropics, that’s my trouble, with the fates conspiring against me. And now this place, this village in the Outback, a village of dimwits and farmers.’

48:

‘You have Mr Lee, and his comforts.’

49:

‘Mr Lee is a physician. Not like a European doctor, they know nothing; I found that out in Java. He understands how the magnetical energy flows through the body like a river under the ground, and many other things that are shown by obscure signs. But you would not understand that. Within the limits of your knowledge, you can say that he is a herbalist. He has herbs and various potions, they help my rheumatism.’

50:

The mention of rheumatism reminded Paul of Doctor Bell’s strangely stiff walk. He felt a slight wave of disorientation as he remembered that underneath the incense smell hanging in the air, there was the sickly tang of opium. The low-ceilinged room wavering in the smoky light seemed a thousand miles away from the Bell home, with its piano and velvet drapes and bookcases and the old violin under its cloth in the basement. Paul sniffed. ‘Mr Lee is a herbalist, is he? Yes, someone has been burning herbs,’ he said. ‘There is quite a stink of it in the air. I know it from the London docks. Tell me — for I am new to the colony of New South Wales — tell me, is opium legal here?

51:

Verheeren went still. He licked his lips and seemed about to speak, but nothing came out.

52:

‘I should not have thought it was legal,’ Paul went on, pushing his advantage. ‘Of course, tincture of opium, the stomach medicine, that is a penny a bottle in London, and not so much more in Sydney Town. But to actually smoke the opium, in a pipe… I believed they only let Chinamen do that.’ The old man was motionless. ‘Of course, an old habit is hard to break. After all those years in the East Indies.’

53:

‘What do you want?’ Verheeren spat out. ‘Out with it, or I shall call Lee. I have listened to enough of your callowness.’

54:

‘Yes, the message. Do you remember Dewi?’

55:

‘Dewi?’ he asked. The strength was gone from his voice.

56:

‘Dewi. The name means ”princess„, in Javanese. Surely you remember her?’

57:

‘Dewi? Little Dewi?’ He said something in Flemish, but Paul couldn’t follow it.

58:

‘She’s alive, though not well. But I think you knew that, didn’t you? You knew that she had an illness?’

59:

‘Illness? What do you mean? You’re European, can’t you speak a proper language? Why English all the time? I’m sick to death of it!’

60:

‘An illness that can only get worse, that she caught in your brothel in Semarang. She’s seventeen, and the doctor told her she has maybe six or seven years to live. That’s her message.’

61:

Verheeren made no sign the he had heard. His eyes seemed to be entirely vacant. He seemed to have sunk back into the opium world of shadows and dreams. Perhaps he was back in Java again, at dusk, with the tropical rain beating on the roof, Dewi preparing the opium pipe and bringing a tray of sweet coffee.

Gamelan. Alamy stock photo. From the internet.

62:

‘In Semarang,’ he said in a whisper, ‘I had a servant, he played in the village gamelan. And at the end of the day he would play for me after the evening meal, on his own little gongs and bells, he had a set for practice. Play anything, I would ask him. Just anything, it did not matter. I understood the soul of that place, and that soul had been captured in their music. They only had to play a certain tune, a tune based upon the right numerical intervals, you see, and a certain spirit would be compelled to appear, to do their bidding. Their bidding. They had hundreds of such spirits, each with its own qualities: some cruel, some consoling, and so on. It would grow dark, and the little gongs would beat out their tangled rhythm. Slowly, slowly it would grow dark, the dusk would steal in from the east, the clouds piled up over the mountains would change colour from orange to purple, then quickly the soft night would fall. You could hear the chatter from the market nearby, you could smell the cooking. But I would not permit them to light the lamps. They thought I was a devil, living in the darkness like that, but I would not permit them to light the lamps until he had finished playing, until the spirit had come and gone. That music, it ate into my soul.’ He looked aside. ‘You would not understand.’

63:

Paul reached into his pocket and took out a small parcel. He leaned forward to hand it to Verheeren. ‘Dewi. She asked me to give you this —’

64:

The old man came alive quickly, rearing back on the bed, and a gun was suddenly glinting in his hand. ‘Do not touch me! Do not attempt to come near to me. I have a pistol here. Yes, I shall use it. You may have tracked me down. Oh yes. But I shall not be caught. I shall not be trapped and caught.’

65:

Paul was short of breath in the stuffy room. He could feel his heart pounding. ‘Thou art a very stupid old man,’ he said. He noticed his voice was uneven. ‘You have been smoking that stuff for too long, it has rotted your brains. Dewi asked me to give you this gift, and I have travelled half way around the world to get it to you. She must have some feeling left for you, even after what you did to her. But these things are beyond my understanding. Women usually are. Here.’ He tossed the packet onto the small table beside the bed.

66:

Verheeren dropped the pistol on the pillow and scrabbled at the packet. He tore at the string and paper. ‘What is it, a letter? What does she say?’ Paul watched him with a kind of disgust. In a young man, his eagerness to open the packet would have been touching; but Verheeren was old and sick, with skin jaundiced by malaria, his hands like claws, and Paul found him nauseating. Finally he got the paper off.

67:

‘What is it,’ he asked, ‘a present?’ It was a flat object like a small money purse, dark brown, bound with black fibres and decorated with bits of shell and bone. Verheeren fiddled with it, trying to get it open, then he froze and stared at what he was holding. His voice, when it came, was cracked with fear.

68:

‘Oh my God. I touched it. I touched it!’ He flung the thing onto the floor.

69:

‘It is an amulet,’ Paul said. ‘Dewi said her grandmother made it, so Dewi said; she made it out of the skin of a bat. Dewi put two pearls inside it, to symbolise her love for you. One of them is a black pearl that you gave her once. She said it represented your black heart. It seems the black pearl may be worth money, a lot of money.’

70:

Verheeren stared at the amulet. He swallowed once or twice, then spoke, as if talking to himself: ‘I touched the damned thing, and now I am finished. What a stupid fool I am! They did it at last. Her family, they swore they would hunt me down.’ He stared up at Paul. ‘And you, still a boy, not even a man, and you are the one who brought it about.’

71:

‘What are you talking about?’

72:

‘You idiot! You tourist! How long did you live in the East? A year? A month? And how long did you know little Dewi? A week? Tell me, did you fall in love with her? Eh?’ Paul clenched his fists and started forward, but the gun glinted in the smoky light again. ‘Do not move! I shall blow your head off. I have done worse things without a second thought. And I am a dead man now, in any case. What is the use? What is the use of any of it?’ He pointed at the amulet with the barrel of his gun, and nudged it with his foot. ‘D’you see this knot, tied around the amulet? The sliver of bone woven into the knot? Human bone, that is what it is. Are you completely blind and stupid? And this strand of hair? It is human hair, hair from a dead man. Dewi’s grandmother was a Dyak, a Dyak witch. She failed to tell you that, did she not? Do you know about the Dyaks? They are head-hunters.’

73:

‘Head hunters? What do you mean?’

Artificial shrunken heads, From the internet.

74:

‘I traded in Borneo for seven years, I grew to know them well. That is where I bought Dewi, for fifty guilders. Not cheap; not cheap. They use poison darts and arrows — I have one of their hunting bows in my room, a souvenir — and they — they cut off the heads of their victims and smoke them over a fire.’ The voice was hoarse now, the accent thicker. ‘This filthy thing — it is a Dyak death curse, meant for me. And I touched it. Do you understand?’

75:

‘You are a lunatic, that is what you are. I know those dreams you suck into your lungs, how they curdle like sour milk, how they stink and grow poisonous. How long have you been smoking it? Thirty years? Forty? It has turned against you, it has poisoned your mind.’

76:

‘You young men! You make me sick! Full of arrogance, always quick to judge others, always quick to condemn. What do you know of my life? What would you know, you, a Belgian boy, how could you know a tenth of what I have seen, what I have given up? Those high and mighty Europeans! The tropical heat brought out their hypocrisy like boils. On Saturday night they would visit my establishment, and choose half a dozen of the native girls for their amusement. On Sunday they would go to church and bleat about Christian morals. They make me sick. You make me sick, with your face like a calf. Wait until you have lived a little, then speak.’ He looked at the amulet again. ‘You have no idea of the things I have seen. The things that happened in the jungle. In Europe a man would be hanged for such things — I cannot go back to Europe. What, to sit in the corner café with the retired postmaster and play a game of cards and perhaps drink a glass of schnapps? To chortle over the stupid village humour? After what I have done, what I have seen? I have seen monsters walking in the daylight, I have spoken with devils and eaten the flesh of children! I could tell them things that would make their hair go white while they listened to me. God damn it all!’

77:

The candle flickered once or twice. Silence crept into the room, while Verheeren stared at the amulet. His mind was far away. From Belgium, to the tropics, to this shack in the Australian outback. He was an old man now; when he was a schoolboy, Belgium had not even existed as a country. How much further could he travel?

78:

‘Those things go against the word of God,’ Paul said. He wanted to reach out somehow and wound the repulsive old man. ‘Perhaps you have been damned.’

79:

The eyes looked up at him from under their hooded lids. ‘I have protection,’ he said.

80:

‘What kind of protection? What could protect you against the wrath of God? Are you mad?’

81:

‘I have a bargain made long ago. You could not understand. And also, I have various rituals. There are ways to ward off evil.’

82:

‘Who could protect you? Some jungle ju-ju man, with a doll made of straw and dipped in chicken blood?’

83:

‘Have you seen a volcano erupt? The power that boils up out of the earth, the flood of poisonous gas that kills whole villages while they sleep, the rock molten to white heat? There you have strength. I have made a bargain, that is all.’

84:

‘And what was your sacrifice? To get the attention of these illiterate gods, you have to offer something. Was it a human life, thrown into the boiling mud?’

85:

The old man gave him a look that Paul felt was tinged with fear. He pushed forward: ‘Was it one of your girls, perhaps?’ Verheeren drew the thin covering up to his chest. Paul had a sudden inspiration. ‘Of course. They become pregnant, they have children from time to time. Such a nuisance for you. So, was it one of the unwanted babies? That was it, was it not?’ He leaned forward, and the pistol came up to point at his chest again, but the old man said nothing.

86:

‘But look at you. That amulet, it has put the fear of God into you. Where is your guardian spirit now? In this room? I cannot see anyone here. Perhaps Mr Lee is your protector. A Chinaman with a woman’s pistol in his bag.’ He laughed.

87:

‘They promised me protection always,’ Verheeren said, in a weak voice.

88:

‘Yes, they promised. But how far can their power reach? You old fool, you are thousands of miles from Java. There is no jungle here, there are no witch-doctors. All they have here in the way of powerful gods is the portrait of Queen Victoria hung on the wall of the Police Station.’

Rain. From the internet.

89:

There was a distant crack and rumble of thunder; Paul could faintly hear the rain begin to gust and beat on the roof in waves blown by the wind. The airless underground room felt like a tomb. I should have brought the gun and done it now, he thought; but no, Lee was waiting outside. For all he knew, the Chinaman might be spying on the scene through a peephole, his hand on the little pistol he kept in his bag. He had plenty of time, and there would be better opportunities. ‘Well, you have your news of Dewi,’ he said, speaking above the sound of the rain, ‘and you have your amulet. You should wear it around you neck to remind you of what you have done.’ He tried the latch, and it opened easily. Lee was standing in the passage outside, a few feet away. Paul turned back to Verheeren. ‘May you rot in Hell!’

90:

But Verheeren wasn’t listening. He was hunched on the bed, rocking back and forth, the revolver cradled against his chest.
 
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Black Gold, Chapter 07

Chapter 07 — The Bachelor’s Ball
… In which Paul Nouveau dances with Julie at the Bachelor’s Ball, interrupted by Mr Stern, who treats him roughly. Paul speaks to Jimmy Skylark outside, then smokes a quiet pipe in the dark. He is joined by Frank, then Stern appears and savagely beats Paul. Frank helps Paul walk away.

Paragraph One follows — 1:

The foxtrot finished with a flourish from the band, and Frank and Julie rejoined Paul at the side of the hall. ‘Did you learn to dance like that in Boston, Francis?’ Julie asked. ‘You’re really very accomplished. Unlike our Mr Nouveau, here.’

2:

‘Oh gosh, perhaps they do things differently in Europe,’ Frank said.

3:

She laughed. ‘Do you mean they dance clockwise instead of anti-clockwise? Never mind, I’ll make a dancer out of him yet.’

4:

‘You do not have to make a comic turn out of this mess,’ said Paul. ‘I am sorry about treading on your dress, Julie. I told you I am not so good at this dancing.’

5:

‘You’re coming on fine, Mr Nouveau. Or perhaps I should call you Paul, now we’re almost friends?’

6:

‘Oh, please, do what you wish.’ He realised the phrase hadn’t come out the way he meant it. ‘I mean, yes, of course.’

7:

‘You do look smart. Quite the gentleman.’

8:

Paul scowled. ‘Well, this coat… the sleeves are too long. I feel like one of the farmers’ pigs, dressed up for market. And the air, it is too hot in here.’ He tugged at his collar, which was damp with sweat. Perhaps he should have had a bath.

9:

Frank looked around the hall. The dance committee had covered the walls with ribbons and dozens of coloured Chinese lanterns, and someone had tacked large sprigs of leaves like palm fronds at intervals around the room. A noisy gang of children ran around and around the drinks table, knocking into people and sliding in the sawdust that had been sprinkled on the floor.

10:

‘I thought I saw your father earlier on,’ Paul said, ‘talking to Fred Dobbs from the Joint Stock Bank, but I cannot see him now.’

11:

Julie looked down at her gloves and adjusted them. ‘No,’ she said. ‘He — he went home.’

12:

‘Is something the matter?’ Frank asked.

13:

‘My father went home a while ago,’ she said. ‘He’d had too much of the punch, I’m afraid.’

14:

‘Oh.’ There was a pause. Frank plunged on: ‘Yeah, the punch, I think someone put some rum in it. Oh well, everyone’s having a drink or two, it’s part of the fun. That’s what a bush dance is for. What do you think, Paul?’

15:

Paul looked at his glass. ‘It seems fine to me,’ he said. ‘Back home we say it’s not a perforateur de rhum without the rum, ah, not a punch without some spirits.’

Dance, 1890. From the internet.

16:

There was a clumsy fanfare from the band, and the bandleader called out: ‘Ladies and gentlemen, take your partners please, for the Wagga Waltz!’ A murmur ran through the crowd. Paul expected a lively bush tune, but the band embarked, rather erratically, on a slow waltz. Everyone seemed to be joining in. Paul hesitated, then spoke. ‘Miss Bell,’ he said, ‘since it seems your fiancé has not arrived yet, might I have the pleasure of this dance?’

17:

‘Why, certainly, Mr Nouveau.’

18:

He took her awkwardly in his arms, and as they moved out onto the floor he called back to Frank: ‘You are not to watch!’

19:

‘I’ll look the other way,’ Frank said, and got himself a drink.

20:

They drifted on the river of music for a while. The steps came easily enough to him now, and he began to relax. ‘That’s much better,’ Julie said, like someone encouraging a child.

21:

‘Well, I try. This is not my normal social setting.’ He seemed to settle into the flow of the music, like a leaf drifting and turning on a stream of water. He was conscious of the warmth of her body moving easily against his. He realised that she was looking at him.

22:

‘Now what are you looking at?’ he asked.

23:

‘Your eyes. They are the most extraordinary colour, like — like the summer sky. I’ve never seen a blue like it.’ Perhaps if he held his breath, he wouldn’t colour. Perhaps if he breathed evenly.

24:

She looked away. ‘You haven’t told us what you do, Mr Nouveau. I mean, Paul.’ She looked back with a smile.

25:

‘Well —’ What could he say? ‘I have done many things. I have — perhaps I am waiting to find out what it is that I am meant to do. I am still young, after all is added up.’

Soldier, 1890. From the internet.

26:

She regarded him carefully. ‘On the coach, I thought that perhaps you had been a scholar. You seemed to know languages, and lots of facts. Then I thought you might be a military man. A soldier of some kind.’

27:

‘A soldier?’ He stiffened; for a moment he was angry with her for stirring up the rush of ugly memories. It was like a nightmare that he had wanted to put behind him and forget. But she knew nothing about that; to her a soldier was a young man in a handsome uniform. Perhaps the months of training had somehow beaten a military manner into the way he walked, sat, moved about, so that he looked like a soldier even when he was asleep, or when he was dancing clumsily, as he knew he was at this moment. ‘No, I am not a soldier,’ he said. ‘Well, perhaps. Perhaps I was a soldier, in the past tense. But that is now finished.’

28:

‘Then there are people who hunt down bushrangers,’ she said, ‘for the reward. Bounty hunters. Sometimes the prize is quite large. Will you be getting a reward, for what you did?’

29:

He shook his head abruptly. ‘No.’

30:

‘Oh? And why not?’

31:

‘Because I am a foreigner. There is a regulation against it. That is what the policeman said.’

32:

‘Nonsense! There must be a reward. I’ll ask Frank to look into it. You shouldn’t believe what you’re told by a policeman.’

33:

One minute he felt like a professional killer; the next like a rather stupid schoolboy having things explained to him by a teacher. ‘It does not matter,’ he said. He wanted to move the conversation onto a more serious level. Who was he? What did he do? The question was small talk, perhaps, but it seemed to lead somewhere important, and he tried to find some kind of answer. ‘All I know is, what I have done up to now, it is not right.’ No, the English wasn’t coming out fluently. ‘I mean, it was not what I should do, not my proper profession, whatever that is.’ And now it seemed trivial, this talk of professions, as though he were planning to become a solicitor’s clerk. He tried to speak his mind, though he knew it wasn’t much of an answer: ‘My job, how I earn my money from day to day, that is one thing, and I do not think it matters very much as long as I can eat. As for my fate, that is something else. I had it, and then I lost it. It is what I search for, from one country to another, but it escapes from me.’

34:

‘You had it, and then you lost it? What do you mean?’

35:

‘Oh, it is hard to explain. You know how the Church has saints — some for kindness to animals, like Saint Francisco, the Italian. Some for mercy, some for suffering. And there are saints of renunciation. I am not a saint — more of a devil, I think, a junior devil — but it is renunciation that is tied around my neck like a bell, a bell for a leper. I want to give more and more away, to become less and less. To disappear.’

36:

‘Well, if you have a fortune to give away, I know several worthy charities.’

37:

He laughed. ‘Oh, no, I have nothing to give away. Not money. I did not mean to sound like that. When I left school I had — I had a richness of talent, an excess of ability in a field, a particular field; that was my treasure. I thought I could pay my way into — not into Heaven, perhaps into Hell. Or perhaps there is a third place for people like me, a kind of Limbo with the qualities of both Heaven and Hell, a little of each. Do you think that is possible? No. It sounds stupid.’

38:

‘Oh no,’ she said. ’Go on.’

39:

‘What did I want, so young, so earnest, scribbling long into the night? It is hard to explain. I do not understand it any more.’ She wasn’t following him, he felt. He was growing tired. The crude dance music seemed to beat in his ears, the movements of the dance itself confused him, and the strain of struggling with a foreign language left him exhausted. He felt she would understand ambition, so he said, ‘In Java they told me there was gold in the Outback in Australia. I thought perhaps I could make some money looking for gold.’

40:

‘Gold!’ The tone in her voice was odd, a mixture of sadness and contempt. ‘So many dreams have come to nothing in this country. There used to be gold. There still is some, at Araluen, and elsewhere, alluvial gold. But the gold rush, that’s finished.’ She tossed her blonde hair back. ‘Oh, you may find a nugget one day, in the bush. They say a man stumbled over a piece of gold as big as a barrel last year, while he was ploughing a paddock. But there are thousands of paddocks, and the work is back-breaking.’

41:

They drifted on the music for a while. The crowd of bodies had warmed up the air in the dance hall, and Julie had a light film of perspiration on her upper lip. Paul was close enough to see the fine down of golden hair on her cheeks. She was wearing scent, something sweet and floral that mingled with the scent of her skin. That made Paul uncomfortable enough, but her green velvet dress was cut low at the front, and the swell of her breasts made him almost sick with desire. ‘Sometimes I think dreams like that are cruel,’ she went on. ‘They make you drag out your life unhappily, to no purpose, when you could be quite happy with less.’ She frowned, and looked away.

42:

‘You are speaking about your father, I think.’

43:

She pursed her lips, and thought for a while. ‘Perhaps. He’s lost so much. And his mind is filled with these complicated plans and dreams that never seem to amount to anything.’

44:

‘I think his only mistake is to believe that culture has a religious value. This is the century of the bourgeois fantasy, so that is quite normal. All these factories the rich have built, they have destroyed nature with their bricks and their smoke. I grew up in a sleepy country town, like this one. I have walked from one side of Europe to the other, through factory towns, across the Alps, and through the countryside. In six years I have worn out four pairs of boots.’ She laughed. ‘No, it is true. I know what has been destroyed.’ She seemed not to be following his drift. ‘What we have destroyed, it has left a huge hole, a black pit. So we fill up the abyss we have made with romantic novelettes and young women playing the piano and reciting poetry, and we invent romantic and exotic experiences to replace the natural experiences we have wiped out. And then we look in the mirror, and — and we imagine we have saved our souls.’

45:

‘You talk like one of those anarchists,’ she said. It didn’t sound like a compliment.

46:

‘But the other dreams of your father,’ he said, and the English words were fluent now, ‘the ancient Egyptian priests, the magic of chemistry, the mysteries of animal magnetism — I think these come from the deeply buried part of his mind, not from the chatter of shopkeepers, and they have a value, a genuine value, because of that.’

47:

‘Deeply buried? You sound like a gardening enthusiast. I know! I think you’re a novelist, a famous French novelist, in disguise. And you’re voyaging around the world gathering experiences, listening to stories and observing characters that you can weave into your novels. Those two men you killed, they’ll feature in one of your adventures. Maybe we’ll all end up in one of your stories.’ She laughed. ‘Am I right?’ The music seemed to be whirling faster now.

48:

Three men, he thought to himself. Two bushrangers, and the Dutch lieutenant, bleeding in the rain-soaked gutter. ‘Or perhaps I’m a famous French composer,’ he ventured, ‘wandering around the world and gathering the songs of the different birds, and the squeaks of the different carriage-wheels, and the music of the Wagga Waltz, and the chatter of the inhabitants of the countryside, to weave into a symphony of the songs of the colony of New South Wales!’

49:

She threw her head back and laughed. Her teeth were white, and there was a vein at the base of her throat that showed her pulse throbbing.

50:

‘But I am not that composer,’ he said, half to himself. ‘And there is no such symphony.’ Had the music slowed? Had the lights dimmed slightly? He felt confused and unwell. He shouldn’t have had those few drinks at the newspaper office; and then there was the extra rum in the punch. ‘Damn it, I think I have overdone my rations,’ he said.

51:

A loud voice almost in his ear startled him: ‘Ah, so here you are, Julie.’ A rough hand grabbed his arm and pulled. In a flash the strangeness of the scene dazed him: the lights, the harsh music, the swirling crowd talking loudly in English and laughing. Was he being arrested? Had the police caught up with him?

52:

‘Joe!’ Julie cried out.

53:

Paul was face to face with a ruddy thick-set man in his forties dressed in rough tweed. His lips were parted in a smile that was more like a snarl, showing his discoloured teeth. The powerful grip on his arm tightened.

54:

‘Excuse me,’ he said loudly. ‘That’s my fiancée you’re dancing with.’ He jerked Paul aside, pulling him off balance, and pushed himself between them. ‘You won’t mind if I cut in for the rest of this dance, I presume.’

55:

Paul struggled to find the English: ‘Hey, excuse me, what are you doing!’

56:

‘It’s all right, Paul,’ Julie said. ‘This is my fiancé, Mr Stern.’ Stern scowled at her: a flush of anger deepened the colour of his heavily tanned skin. ‘Oh, it’s “Paul”, is it?’ he said. ‘So you’re on first-name terms with this bloody foreigner!’

57:

‘Joe, please! This is Mr Nouveau, who acted so bravely today when our coach was attacked by bushrangers.’

58:

‘Yes, I heard the gossip. You may leave, sir, and continue drinking rotgut with your American friend.’ He turned his back on Paul and pushed Julie into the rhythm of the waltz.

59:

Her voice was almost lost among the music and the chatter and laughter of the crowd: ‘Good bye, Mr Nouveau. Thank you for the dance.’

60:

He joined Frank at the drinks table and poured another glass of the punch. It was half full of pink fruit.

61:

‘As good as a meal,’ he said.

Drinks table, 1890.

62:

‘The punch? Strong stuff,’ Frank replied. ‘Give strong drink unto him that is ready to perish, and wine unto those that be of heavy heart. Proverbs, Chapter Thirty-one.’

63:

Paul laughed, and looked around at the crowd. They were a noisy lot, old mingling with young. He knew that people were pointing at him and talking about the holdup. Occasionally a woman would glance nervously from behind her fan; now and then he caught an older man looking him over coolly, like a farmer appraising a new bull. The men generally offered a belligerent scowl, and Paul felt that if he had been alone, if he lacked the protection of Frank’s friendship, one of these beefy fellows would challenge him to show how brave he really was, and knock his teeth out.

64:

When he had been dancing with Julie in his arms, the music had sounded bright and amusing, like the barrel-organ he had listened to in the streets of Sydney Town. Now it seemed to have grown louder, the fiddle jarring against the accordion and piano in a grating cacophony, and all three nagged along by the insistent kettle-drum. The hall was full, and the circle of exuberant dancers had grown and swelled until it pushed against the walls. Paul had to be careful not to get his drink knocked from his hands. He had thought the punch might help to relax his nerves, but it didn’t seem to do much good: if anything it made him feel worse.

65:

He finished the drink, left Frank talking about the newspaper to an enthusiastic and somewhat incoherent Luther Quoign, and wandered outside. There was a large grassed area behind the hall, and a patch of damp gravel where a corrugated iron tank collected rainwater from the roof. More Chinese lanterns hung around the tank, and glimmered from the branches of a peppercorn tree. The mixture of the exotic and the banal seemed charming: in the fresh night air the empty scene was somehow magical.

66:

Close by a tap turned on, and he could hear water pouring into a bucket. ‘Who is that?’ he asked.

67:

‘Why it’s me, Mr Nouveau.’ It was Jimmy’s voice. Paul went around the tank to where the only light shone from a single lantern. Jimmy turned off the tap and picked up his bucket. ‘Got a cow over in the back paddock there needs some water,’ he said. ‘Otherwise, how are we going to get any milk in the morning?’ His face was almost invisible in the dim light, apart from the gleam of his eyes.

68:

‘Are you not going in for a dance, Jimmy? Everyone seems to be there.’

69:

It was obviously the wrong thing to say, and he immediately felt his stomach sink with dismay: Jimmy stared at him out of the dark for quite a while. When he spoke, his voice was sad: ‘No, Mr Nouveau. I shall not go in for a dance. I don’t think you understand, exactly, how things are in this place. Now if you’ll excuse me.’ He made to walk off.

70:

Paul touched his arm. ‘I am sorry,’ he said, cursing his inadequate English. ‘I — I did not mean —’

71:

‘I know that, sir. Good night.’ Jimmy moved off.

72:

‘Good night.’

73:

Jimmy’s feet made no sound: there was just the squeak of the bucket handle, fading into the dark. Paul cursed himself again, and kicked a stone against the tank: it made a dull clunk.

74:

It was late, and growing chill. He stuffed his clay pipe with tobacco and took his time lighting it. He still found the scent of pipe smoke magical: it had a richness and held out a promise that both hashish and opium lacked, though they delivered the dreams that tobacco only hinted at. It was like coffee, he thought: no matter how good the coffee, the scent was always better than the taste, but you cannot drink the scent. He inhaled slowly and blew a cloud of smoke onto the still night air. It hung there like a ghost.

75:

The calming effect of the tobacco flooded through his veins, into his arms, into his legs, into his stomach. He could feel the muscles relaxing, one by one. Events had battered him, he felt, and he wanted time to gather them in and sort out their meaning. His desertion, the exhausting trek in the heat along jungle roads, the ship, the storm off Java, all that was a tangled nightmare. His memories seemed to stabilise when he reached Sydney Town: the harbour choked with ships and the town with its brick and sandstone buildings reminded him of England, and he was familiar with that. But then there was the episode of stealing the Dutch lieutenant’s revolver and money, and then the train journey into a countryside that grew drier and drier by the mile until it turned into what seemed like a desert, then the coach ride through the scrubby open bush with its endless horizon and hundreds of identical dry ridges with their spare covering of grey-brown trees, and everywhere the walking men, trudging along the dusty roadway.

76:

And then the killings. He had pushed that into the back of his mind, but he knew it would always be waiting there, ready to leap out when he was sick with fever, or over-tired, ready to catch him in some moment of weakness and chill his blood with horror.

77:

What was he doing here? Above his head the constellations were strange and misshapen. The dance music played on and on in the background. He thought he could feel the planet turning in the night.

78:

Frank’s voice startled him: ‘There you are, Paul. I was wondering if you’d gone and become lost in the bush.’

79:

‘Oh, Frank: so, it is you.’ His pipe had gone out, and he struck a match against his boot to light it again. ‘No, no, not lost. I just wanted to smoke a quiet pipe. It is a beautiful night.’ He puffed, the pipe flared and glowed, and the scented smoke rose again.

80:

‘It’s warm for this time of year,’ Frank said. ‘Early spring.’

81:

‘Spring? Of course, I was forgetting. In France it should be late summer, what you call the Fall. They are preparing to bring in the harvest. Maybe the leaves are starting to turn yellow, along the river bank.’

82:

‘Oh, I love the Fall,’ Frank said. ‘The trees don’t turn those colours down here in Australia. The bush stays a dull green all year round.’ He picked up a pebble and tossed it out into the dark. There was a clink as it hit an empty bottle. ‘Back home in Boston, the leaves will turn red and then brown. And then in a month or so there’ll be the first snow. My sister’s kids always make a snowman in the front yard.’

83:

It was a while before he spoke again. The band had taken up a different tune, one with a vaguely military air, and it seemed to Paul more mechanical than before, like a steam calliope at a country fair.

84:

‘I don’t know,’ Frank said. ‘Sometimes I feel I made a mistake dropping anchor in this town. You ever get homesick?’

85:

‘Home sick?’ The words were unfamiliar.

86:

‘You know, like nostalgia. Wanting to be home, where you belong, with your family.’

87:

‘Oh,’ said Paul, and gave it some thought. ‘Sometimes I want to be there, so I can rest, like a tired old dog. But then I get my strength back, and I want to move on. My home may be there, but I do not suspect that is where I belong.’ He looked up at the unfamiliar stars again. ‘Maybe I belong in the desert, with the black people.’

88:

‘I don’t think you’d like that much,’ Frank said. ‘And the blacks are not exactly inclined to be that welcoming, after what the whites have done to them.’

89:

The music stopped, and there was a murmur of talk and laughter from the hall. ‘I think he’s over there,’ a boy’s voice said, and a bulky figure strode out of the circle of light. It was Stern, his voice cutting through the background of cheerful noise: ‘There you are, hiding out here in the dark. You, Frenchman. I want to talk to you.’

90:

‘So it is the loud Mr Stern,’ Paul said. ‘The man with many sheep.’

91:

‘Don’t try to make fun of me, son. I’m twice your weight. I could make mince-meat out of you.’ He moved close, and in the dim light Paul could see his clenched fists, and a lump rippling on the side of his face as his jaw muscle worked. He had a strong farmyard smell about him.

92:

‘Your manners are very strange in this country,’ Paul said.

93:

‘Never you mind my bloody manners. Just keep your paws off Julie. Do you understand? I hear you’ve talked the old man into letting you stay in their house.’ He moved closer, and shoved Paul hard in the chest. ‘Just remember who I am, son.’

94:

‘Stop pushing me!’ Paul pushed back, but it was ineffectual: it was like pushing against a draft horse. Frank laid a hand on their shoulders. ‘Hey, hey, wait a minute,’ he said, ‘both of you.’

95:

Stern’s hand gripped Paul’s wrist and twisted. He seemed unbearably ugly; a kind of school bully whose bullying had grown worse with adulthood. ‘You ignorant pig!’ Paul spat at him, and Stern suddenly pushed him back so hard he stumbled and almost fell.

96:

‘Don’t bloody talk to me like that!’ Stern shouted. ‘I’ll teach you some manners!’ Paul didn’t have time to regain his balance before the first blow smashed into his face. A second punch knocked the wind from his stomach and sent a burst of pain through his chest. The force and speed of the violence was extraordinary. A third blow smashed the side of his face and he spun into the gravel. Through the wheeling blackness he heard Stern’s voice again, from far away: ‘There! Let that be a lesson to you, you little shit! You might be somebody when you’ve got a gun in your hand, and you might like showing off for the ladies. But you’re no match for me.’

97:

‘What have you done!’ Frank yelled. It had all happened in a couple of seconds. He wheeled and struggled with Stern, who pushed him back.

98:

‘Okay.’ said Stern. ‘That’s enough. That’s enough. Don’t you get involved, Mister Russell.’

99:

‘I’ll report you to the police for this. You’re no more than a thug.’

100:

‘Leave the police alone.’ Stern’s voice was receding. ‘And tell that Frog bastard to remember who I am.’

101:

Paul was struggling to get to his feet. Frank went to help him. ‘Are you all right, Paul? Are you okay? Here, I’ll give you a hand.’

102:

The spinning subsided, and the pain began to flood over his face in waves. The front of his face was warm and wet. ‘Uh — my God, now I think I have a broken nose, too. So we shall be twins.’

103:

‘Come on, pal, let’s get you home.’ Frank helped him up. Paul couldn’t seem to get his breath: he heaved and pulled at the air, as it tore and burnt his throat and rushed into his lungs. He remembered being kicked in the stomach by the draft horse; it was just like this. He hadn’t died then, so perhaps he wouldn’t now. Frank had his arm around him. ‘Can you walk okay?’ he asked.

104:

‘Yes, yes, I can walk. I shall be all right.’ They limped into the darkness. In the distance the band began a slow waltz.
 
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