Chapter 15 — At the Magic Show
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.
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.
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!’
‘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.’
‘What do you mean, from right to left? Are you serious? It goes from the east to the west.’ She laughed.
‘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.’
‘No doubt they thought they met a queer type, too.’
‘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?’
‘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.’
‘Anyway, tomorrow he will teach me how to follow the tracks of animals and people in the bush.’
‘Teach you tracking? Paul, whatever for?’
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.’
‘I can’t imagine what use that would be in Paris.’
He laughed. ‘Paris! What use is anything in Paris? I need a bath, I am hot and dusty.’
‘Help me carry this wood in, and I’ll light the fire under the copper for you.’
‘No,’ Paul said. ‘Let me do that.’
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.
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.
‘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.’
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.
‘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.’
‘You don’t want to watch the show? You should watch the magic acts, to see how it’s done.’
‘I have my magic,’ she said, and left the room silently.
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.
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.
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.
‘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.
‘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.’
‘A fellow survivor of the Australian mania for shooting, though the bullets they fired at you were real.’
Paul made no reply, and Dobbs showed his teeth in a grin. ‘Miss Dunn was quite taken with you.’
‘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.’
‘She must have been drunk, or dreaming. Join the Flower Society? I should need to be mad.’
‘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.’
‘Thanks. But tell me, why did you come here? You’re not a British colonial, I think.’
‘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.’
‘The Civil War?’
‘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.’
‘So they quarrelled.’
‘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.’
‘And Wagga Wagga is that better place?’
‘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!’
‘No, I don’t rob banks.’
‘What is it that you do, then?’
‘I did some teaching, in London,’ Paul said, ‘of French language and culture. I thought perhaps I might teach here for a while.’
‘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.
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?’
‘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.’
‘This is bad manners, to wear the medal?’
‘Well, I suppose it shouldn’t be. Perhaps in London it might look all right, but not here.’
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.’
Paul, to his annoyance, fell asleep during the magic show. He snored slightly, and Julie dug her elbow into his ribs.
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.
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.
‘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?’
‘No, I do not think so.’
‘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.’
‘Really? That certainly does seem to run against conventional wisdom. Now why would He do that?’
‘To give us an idea of what awaits: clouds of smoke, and people disappearing through trapdoors.’
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.’
‘Oh yes, it is suffocating. I fail to understand how you survive. I should shoot myself.’
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.’
‘Of the Flower Society? We are talking about the same thing, aren’t we?’
‘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.’
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.’
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?’
Paul had the urge to say something savage, but he noticed Julie glance at him through the crowd, and he clenched his teeth instead.
‘Cat got your tongue?’ asked Miss Dunn.
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.
‘Tell me, what was before Hobart Town?’ Paul asked.
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.’
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?’
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.
‘You’ve upset her,’ Julie whispered, ‘with your abrupt manners. What did you have to do that for? She meant well.’
‘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.’
‘That’s very unkind.’
‘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.’
‘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.’
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.’
‘I’m not surprised,’ Julie said. ‘You were asleep most of the time. Frank was there, at the back.’
‘Well, he could have come up to say how d’you do?’
‘I can’t imagine why he didn’t,’ Julie said. ‘Perhaps he’s jealous.’
‘What do you mean? Jealous of what? You didn’t tell him —‘
‘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?’
‘Why, yes I am. I noticed the bushrangers in the scrub, when even the coach driver failed to see them.’
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.’
‘Very well. And you can explain what you mean by these ambiguous remarks.’
‘I’ll fetch my coat. Meet me outside.’
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.
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.
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.
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.
‘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?’
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.
‘You knew I would?’
‘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.’
‘You are raving.’
‘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.’
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.
‘What are you doing?’ Julie said, pulling his sleeve. ‘I can’t leave you alone for a minute without your insulting and frightening people.’
‘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!’
‘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.
‘And that woman,’ he said, ‘the Succubus of Horticulture, mauling that man in the darkness like a prostitute!’
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?’
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.
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.
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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