Black Gold, Chapter 08

Chapter 08 — Patched Up
… In which Paul Nouveau has his bruised cheek fixed by the application of Goanna Salve, by Doctor Bell. He and Frank walk to the gate in the mooonlight, and talk some more.

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‘This salve is guaranteed to destroy any microbes,’ Bell said, ‘and to — ah — counter the malign influences of the planets. Julie, would you — would you hold the lamp over this way — thank you.’ He scooped some ointment from the jar with a butter knife. ‘I’ve sterilised the knife. Now — ah — hold still — there.’ He daubed the ointment onto the red welt on Paul’s cheek. Julie winced in sympathy; Paul flinched.


‘Ah, did that hurt?’


Paul gritted his teeth. ‘No, no. It — it stings, just a little.’


The doctor taped a gauze bandage over the bruise. Paul noticed a slight tremor in his touch. ‘People say it should hurt, if it’s going to do any — do any good, but I think that’s dangerously close to the — close to the Manichean heresy.’


‘What kind of bush remedy is this?’ Paul asked. He picked up the jar: there was a picture of a lizard on the label. ‘Goanna Salve? What is it? Is it from boiling lizards?’


Bell smiled. ‘It’s either a salve for sick goannas, or one manufactured by them.’


‘Goannas? And what is this?’


‘A kind of lizard,’ Frank said. ‘As big as a dog.’

The Perentieis, Australia’s largest goanna.


‘A dog?’


Frank laughed. ‘Sure, pal. They have a reputation for mistaking people for trees. Or so they tell me. In grassy country they’ll run up your back and stand on your head to get a good look around. It can frighten you half to death, but apparently they’re harmless.’


Bell laughed. ‘The — ah — the blacksmith down by the river was out hunting kangaroos one day, and a goanna ran up his back. They have — they have huge claws, for digging and climbing trees. Old Joe had no idea — no idea what had attacked him, and he let out a scream, dropped his gun, and bolted for home. The fellows in the back bar of the Criterion Hotel were laughing about it for weeks.’ He lowered his voice. ‘Ah — how’s that now?’


‘You could say it was painful.’


‘Good. They — ah — they don’t guarantee the treatment to make the face any more handsome, mind you. Just healthier.’


‘Healthier will be good.’ Paul touched his face carefully. There were no broken bones, but his jaw was swollen and tender. ‘You seem quite practised at this kind of work. Of course in Wagga, people attack one another at any opportunity.’


‘Hey, why don’t I put on a jug of coffee?’ Frank suggested.


‘We got some fresh coffee the other day,’ Julie said. ‘Here, I’ll show you where it is.’ They went off into the kitchen.


‘You might like to — ah — warm up that pigeon pie if you’re hungry,’ Bell called. ‘The stove is alight.’


‘I am sorry this fight happened,’ Paul said. ‘Julie is upset now. I hope I have not spoiled her engagement.’ He could hear her talking companionably with Frank in the kitchen. He looked downcast, and Bell smiled to himself.


‘Perhaps Stern might — um — might apologise tomorrow,’ Bell said. ‘This sort of thing has happened before. Yes.’ He put the liniment away in a cupboard. ‘He has an unfortunate temper. I’m sure he — ah — regrets what he did.’


‘Oh, if you will excuse me to say this, but I think he enjoyed what he did. Oh, never mind.’ Paul shook his head, and the pain made him wince again. ‘It will be a further piece of gossip for the landlady of Frank.’


Bell smiled. ‘Miss Mackenzie? She’s not — ah — not such an old dragon really. I knew her at Cambridge.’


‘Cambridge? At the university?’


‘Some of us in the colonies have a decent education, Paul. Would you — ah — would you like a drink? A medicinal brandy?’


‘Thank you, yes.’

University of Cambridge, Museum of Archeology and Anthropology.


Bell took a stoneware jug from a cupboard. ‘Yes, I met her once or twice. She took — ah — Classics, I think it was.’ He poured two generous drinks. ‘This was at a time when it was difficult for women to attend the university. Cheers.’


À la vôtre,’ said Paul. ‘So there is someone in Wagga for you to talk to.’ The brandy burned his stomach and the warmth spread through his veins very pleasantly.


‘Oh, there are a few, actually. The chemist’s a bit quirky, you know, but he is — ah — well-informed about politics. And there’s Fred Dobbs at the Joint Stock Bank, he’s active in the School of Arts Library, helping to get a book, a book club together. And of course I have my own books. Indeed. And I have my — my research.’ He looked into his glass, and swirled the drink.


Paul looked at him.


‘There’s so much to learn, you see. I think of — I think of Da Vinci sometimes: an artist, but a scientist too. Yes. Science at a certain level can be like — like an art.’


‘It goes hand-in-hand with industry and with profit. Surely the factory is the temple of science in the modern world.’


‘Well, yes, I admit there is a kind of science that’s really engineering, or industrial chemistry, you might call it, that panders to the mill owners, just as there is a kind of art that is merely decoration. But — but what’s wrong with that? And that, that doesn’t mean that the Mona Lisa was painted as an expensive wall-hanging. It has a — it has a soul. You could say.’


‘What are you researching now?’


‘Now? Well, I’m beginning to explore the science of photography now. Yes, photography. Do you know anything about it?’


‘No,’ Paul said. ‘I had a photograph made when I was — eleven, I think. With my brother Frédéric; it was our première communion. You wouldn’t believe how I looked.’ He laughed. ‘Not like now, beaten and covered with bandages. But photography can not say anything new, it can never surprise you. It can tell you one thing, what is in front of the machine. That is all.’


‘It may not speak the truth about people, but it — ah — it speaks the truth about appearances. You can photograph a crowd of people, and count every face. Every one.’


‘Yes,’ Paul said with a touch of sarcasm in his voice, ‘the Paris police have been quick to use this thing, for the identification of criminals. What kind of art can it be, I wonder, this art that the Paris police embrace so fervently?’

Mug shot of prisoner in the 1870s.


‘I know that the painters, yes, they are horrified by the accuracy of the photograph,’ agreed Bell. ‘They fear — ah — they fear it will supplant painting altogether. It has already, for portraits. Yes. Except for colour, of course. That’s a problem, a fascinating one. How do you capture colour?’ Bell stared into the distance, his eyes unfocussed, his collar undone. He’d raised his glass to drink, but the puzzle of colour photography had struck him in all its complexity, and the glass remained suspended in the air.


Paul had a brief vision of Bell toiling in his basement laboratory night after night, out of touch with the latest developments in England and Europe, unshaven, his equipment out of date, exploring one blind alley after another.


Frank was standing quietly at the door. ‘Well, Paul, old buddy, if you’re okay now, I shall be going.’


‘Yes, I am okay now. I shall walk with you to the gate.’ He got up from his chair, wincing again as his bruised stomach muscles pulled against his weight. For a moment he felt old and tired and defeated, like a man drowning at the bottom of a well. He took a deep breath and shook himself. ‘The lizard ointment was good, Doctor. And the brandy.’


Crickets were making a faint chirping noise in the grass as the two men walked down the path to the gate. The strange stars glittered against a sky that was the colour of blued steel. The stars of the Southern Cross had slowly wheeled across the heavens, and lay tilted now against a low hill in the west. A dog barked, a long way off. Frank put his arm around Paul’s shoulder. ‘I’m sorry your first night in Wagga turned out so badly.’


Paul winced. ‘I have been beaten, remember?’


‘Sorry.’ Frank took his arm away.


‘Oh, it is not so bad here. It is all an adventure, is it not? I have met characters more dangerous than this Stern, and suffered worse treatment at their hands.’ He could smell Frank’s sweat, blended with the scent of his skin.


‘You know, Paul,’ Frank said, ‘there’s an innocence about this country, and yet there’s an undercurrent of something else — anger, almost. It’s like the American West, in a way. It seems there’s some kind of smoke or drug in the air we breathe here, that causes people to quarrel.’


‘Perhaps it is a curse. Perhaps there’s a spirit who hates the British invaders.’

Preparing to kill.


‘Maybe it’s the ghosts of the blacks they killed. Some bad things happened here.’ They paused at the end of the path, and Frank leaned on the gate. In the distance a night bird gave a long, strangled cry. ‘I sometimes had that feeling back in the States. We had our Civil War, it finished only a decade ago; it tore the country in half. I lost two uncles. I can just remember them: they were decent men, yet they went off to kill other Americans, and in the end they were killed by their own countrymen. Maybe the spirits of the Indians we robbed of their land had caused it to happen. Perhaps their medicine men placed a curse on us, so we’d tear each other to pieces in a frenzy of madness.’


‘Yes, I have read about America,’ said Paul.


‘And yet there’s an optimism in America that you don’t find here,’ Frank said.


‘Certainly. Every poor European wishes to go there and to find gold, or to grow some wheat on the prairie and to become like a rich farmer. Optimism is easy in such a country. Australia is different, I think. It was a hard place full of misery to all those criminals and prisoners and convicts who built the roads and buildings.’


Frank plucked a stalk of dry grass from near his feet, and stripped the leaves from it. ‘Sometimes I think there’s nothing here. It’s all desert from one side of the continent to the other, two thousand miles of nothing. You can starve to death, in the centre of Australia. They’ve cultivated the laconic mode as a way of avoiding all those melancholy reflections. Ask an American how he’s doing, and he’ll answer “Fine, fine!” An Australian? “Not so bad,” he’ll say.’ Frank gave a dry laugh.


‘And why did you come to this place?’ Paul asked. ‘For the gold? To escape from the law? You don’t seem the law-breaking type to me.’


Frank gave a little laugh, and was silent for a while. ‘Right, pal. I jumped ship, but I’m no outlaw,’ he said eventually. ‘I had to get out, that’s all. I had to break away from Boston. After my Dad died, the business — I just had to get away. Maybe if Elizabeth — my wife — maybe if she had lived, things might have turned out differently.’ He thought to himself for a while. ‘We had one good year together. That’s something, I suppose.’


Paul looked at him closely; Frank was staring at the moonlit horizon, his jaw muscles working.


Paul let the silence hang for a while. ‘I know that — that feeling,’ he said, ‘that emptiness. It is like taking an iron ball and chain from off your leg, and walking away. Society, it loses its grip on you, and you walk through the crowds like a man who is invisible.’


They said nothing more for a while, each lost in his own thoughts.


‘Something about these starlit nights,’ Frank said at last. ‘They encourage philosophy. Maybe Australia will breed a nation of philosophers. Well, I’ve been talking your head off, here, and it’s way past midnight. I must be going.’ He opened the gate and put his hand on Paul’s shoulder. ‘Good night, Paul. For a man who’s had the shit beaten out of him, you look all right. I hope you feel better in the morning.’


Paul managed a smile. ‘Thank you, Frank. Good night.’
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