Chapter 12 — Verheeren
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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.’
‘Good. Thank you, Mr Lee. He is kind to spare the time.’
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.’
‘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.
‘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.
‘Thank you, yes,’ Paul said. ‘Tell me, what do you, ah — what do you sell, here?’
‘There is no selling here. It is just my humble house. ’
‘But surely that is not correct. People do come here. My friend Frank said that your place is well known —’
Lee interrupted quietly. ‘Perhaps your friend is mistaken. Nobody comes here to purchase anything. I offer some medical advice, that is all.’
‘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.
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.
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.
‘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.’
‘One is usually polite with strangers.’
‘Not to cause trouble, you see. Mr Verheeren has anxieties of being followed around.’
‘No, of course, I shall not cause trouble. I suspect that you are carrying something in that bag — is it a pistol?’
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.’
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.’
‘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.’
‘An American gentleman, ruler of his people.’
‘How long have you lived here, Mr Lee?’
‘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.’
‘I have read about those times, the gold rush. People say the gold was easy in those days.’
‘For some. Not for me.’
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?’
‘And did you find gold?’
‘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.’
‘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.
‘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.’
Paul put down his cup. ‘It has been good talking to you, Mr Lee. But I do have business with Mr Verheeren.’
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.’
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.
‘Your guest is here, sir,’ he said. Paul went in and the door was closed behind him. He heard the latch click.
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.
‘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.
‘You are Verheeren?’
‘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.’
‘I am not counting the days. I have a message for you, and I have a gift for you.’
‘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?’
‘Gift. It is giftig, your gift. It is a poison. Huh. That is the German.’
‘I’m not German.’
‘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!’
‘So you say.’
‘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.’
‘You have Mr Lee, and his comforts.’
‘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.’
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?
Verheeren went still. He licked his lips and seemed about to speak, but nothing came out.
‘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.’
‘What do you want?’ Verheeren spat out. ‘Out with it, or I shall call Lee. I have listened to enough of your callowness.’
‘Yes, the message. Do you remember Dewi?’
‘Dewi?’ he asked. The strength was gone from his voice.
‘Dewi. The name means ”princess„, in Javanese. Surely you remember her?’
‘Dewi? Little Dewi?’ He said something in Flemish, but Paul couldn’t follow it.
‘She’s alive, though not well. But I think you knew that, didn’t you? You knew that she had an illness?’
‘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!’
‘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.’
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.
‘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.’
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 —’
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.’
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.
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.
‘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.
‘Oh my God. I touched it. I touched it!’ He flung the thing onto the floor.
‘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.’
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.’
‘What are you talking about?’
‘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.’
‘Head hunters? What do you mean?’
‘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?’
‘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.’
‘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!’
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?
‘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.’
The eyes looked up at him from under their hooded lids. ‘I have protection,’ he said.
‘What kind of protection? What could protect you against the wrath of God? Are you mad?’
‘I have a bargain made long ago. You could not understand. And also, I have various rituals. There are ways to ward off evil.’
‘Who could protect you? Some jungle ju-ju man, with a doll made of straw and dipped in chicken blood?’
‘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.’
‘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?’
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.
‘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.
‘They promised me protection always,’ Verheeren said, in a weak voice.
‘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.’
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!’
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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