Chapter 14 — The River
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.’
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
‘Excuse me,’ he said, opening the doors. ‘Julie, did you want to go in the boat?’
‘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.
‘You are playing well, Mary,’ Paul said, for once putting courtesy first. ‘Tell me, did you see the stars the other night?’
‘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.’
‘You’d say Gaelic, the old language of the Scots.’
‘You speak Gaelic?’
‘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.’
‘Oh, are you a friend of Jimmy Skylark?’
‘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!’
‘I could bet you a shilling that I know what you want to be when you grow up.’
‘All right, have a guess. But I won’t take your shilling; that wouldn’t be proper.’
Paul smiled at her seriousness. ‘Not a seamstress,’ he said.
‘I should hope not.’
‘And — ah — not a milkmaid.’
‘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.’
‘Very well, third time lucky. I think you wish to be a teacher.’
‘Yes!’ Mary shouted and jumped up and down. ‘Yes, of course! You guessed right. Julie, he guessed what I want to be.’
‘That wouldn’t be all that difficult,’ Julie called.
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.
‘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.
‘They tell me you get steamers coming up the river,’ Paul said. ‘Is that true?’
‘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.’
‘Snags? What is this?’
‘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.’
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.
‘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.
‘That snake, is that kind dangerous?’ Paul asked.
‘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.
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.
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.
‘Must we march to Sydney Town, is that your plan?’ Paul complained. ‘Even the Dutch Army permits you to rest once in a while.’
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.
‘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.’
‘A Scottish word,’ he said. ‘That’s interesting.’
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.
‘How on earth do the sea shells come to be here?’ he asked. ‘Did they bring them all the way from the coast?’
‘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.’
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?’
‘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.’
‘And how long were they here, these black people?’
‘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.’
‘Magic? Does he mean it can affect people?’
‘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.’
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.
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.
‘No,’ she said, and took his hand in hers. ‘No, it won’t rain.’
‘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?’
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.
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.
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.
‘No, I do not know,’ he said. ‘I am ignorant, completely.’
‘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.’
‘You know I grew up in a town in the north of France.’
‘And that I did well at school, got a bit of Latin, later ran away to Paris.’
‘Oh, you ran away, did you? And then?’
‘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.
‘Poor man, left out in the rain.’
‘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.’
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?’
‘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.’
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.’
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.’
‘I shall make him answer a few questions.’
‘Such as why did he take my sister Vitalie. She had done nothing wrong in her whole life.’
‘But — you can’t ask that.’
‘And other questions. Such as: What does he want of me? What does he have in store for me?’
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.’
‘Where? What is it?’
‘A black man. I saw a black man, watching us. Now he’s gone.’ She was pale, and gripped his hand tightly.
‘Do you want me to chase him?’ Why hadn’t he brought his gun?
‘No, no. It’s all right.’
‘Do you know who it was?’
‘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.’
Paul thought for a moment of the young outlaw’s brother, searching for revenge.
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.’
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