Chapter 07 — The Bachelor’s Ball
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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.’
‘Oh gosh, perhaps they do things differently in Europe,’ Frank said.
She laughed. ‘Do you mean they dance clockwise instead of anti-clockwise? Never mind, I’ll make a dancer out of him yet.’
‘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.’
‘You’re coming on fine, Mr Nouveau. Or perhaps I should call you Paul, now we’re almost friends?’
‘Oh, please, do what you wish.’ He realised the phrase hadn’t come out the way he meant it. ‘I mean, yes, of course.’
‘You do look smart. Quite the gentleman.’
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.
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.
‘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.’
Julie looked down at her gloves and adjusted them. ‘No,’ she said. ‘He — he went home.’
‘Is something the matter?’ Frank asked.
‘My father went home a while ago,’ she said. ‘He’d had too much of the punch, I’m afraid.’
‘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?’
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.’
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?’
‘Why, certainly, Mr Nouveau.’
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!’
‘I’ll look the other way,’ Frank said, and got himself a drink.
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.
‘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.
‘Now what are you looking at?’ he asked.
‘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.
She looked away. ‘You haven’t told us what you do, Mr Nouveau. I mean, Paul.’ She looked back with a smile.
‘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.’
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.’
‘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.’
‘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?’
He shook his head abruptly. ‘No.’
‘Oh? And why not?’
‘Because I am a foreigner. There is a regulation against it. That is what the policeman said.’
‘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.’
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.’
‘You had it, and then you lost it? What do you mean?’
‘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.’
‘Well, if you have a fortune to give away, I know several worthy charities.’
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.’
‘Oh no,’ she said. ’Go on.’
‘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.’
‘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.’
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.
‘You are speaking about your father, I think.’
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.’
‘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.’
‘You talk like one of those anarchists,’ she said. It didn’t sound like a compliment.
‘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.’
‘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.
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!’
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.
‘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.
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?
‘Joe!’ Julie cried out.
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.
‘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.’
Paul struggled to find the English: ‘Hey, excuse me, what are you doing!’
‘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!’
‘Joe, please! This is Mr Nouveau, who acted so bravely today when our coach was attacked by bushrangers.’
‘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.
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.’
He joined Frank at the drinks table and poured another glass of the punch. It was half full of pink fruit.
‘As good as a meal,’ he said.
‘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.’
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.
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.
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.
Close by a tap turned on, and he could hear water pouring into a bucket. ‘Who is that?’ he asked.
‘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.
‘Are you not going in for a dance, Jimmy? Everyone seems to be there.’
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.
Paul touched his arm. ‘I am sorry,’ he said, cursing his inadequate English. ‘I — I did not mean —’
‘I know that, sir. Good night.’ Jimmy moved off.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Frank’s voice startled him: ‘There you are, Paul. I was wondering if you’d gone and become lost in the bush.’
‘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.
‘It’s warm for this time of year,’ Frank said. ‘Early spring.’
‘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.’
‘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.’
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.
‘I don’t know,’ Frank said. ‘Sometimes I feel I made a mistake dropping anchor in this town. You ever get homesick?’
‘Home sick?’ The words were unfamiliar.
‘You know, like nostalgia. Wanting to be home, where you belong, with your family.’
‘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.’
‘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.’
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.’
‘So it is the loud Mr Stern,’ Paul said. ‘The man with many sheep.’
‘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.
‘Your manners are very strange in this country,’ Paul said.
‘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.’
‘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.’
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.
‘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.’
‘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.
‘Okay.’ said Stern. ‘That’s enough. That’s enough. Don’t you get involved, Mister Russell.’
‘I’ll report you to the police for this. You’re no more than a thug.’
‘Leave the police alone.’ Stern’s voice was receding. ‘And tell that Frog bastard to remember who I am.’
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.’
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.’
‘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.
‘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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