Chapter 06 — Jimmy Skylark
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Lamps were being lit one by one in the shops and houses. As Paul strolled through the streets he had a glimpse through a lamplit window, and then another, of the intimate life of the town — a woman in long white sleeves was taking a roast from the oven; in the yellow light of another window a man smoked a pipe contentedly, and from inside the house someone played a hymn on a harmonium. The sound swelled and flowed onto the evening air, as sweet as honey, and it seemed to Paul with the same dark amber colouring.
He walked on, turning aside to follow the long shadow under the trees that marked the course of the river with the peculiar guttural name: Murrumbidgee. The evening felt homely and familiar — the scale and the colours were different, but Paul was surprised how similar it was to a spring evening in northern France.
Fires were being lit in stoves and fireplaces; people were returning home from their day’s work. There was the same warm feeling that made him homesick; the same empty bored feeling that made him irritable. And there was the dance tonight: perhaps for once he would shine and have an adventure or two, perhaps he would be noticed and admired. He owned a gleaming new revolver; he had killed two savage outlaws: people would be talking about him. Good.
A grey-blue cloud of woodsmoke from the various chimneys had gathered in the dusk and now hung in the air. It seemed to follow the path of the river, floating on a faint breeze, but barely moving. It appealed to him as a metaphor for the way Bell and his daughter had settled into the habits and movements of the town, drifting into a pattern of association that had the same kind of half-conscious meaning as the smoke wavering on an air current or the water flowing along the stream bed.
A sailor on the Trade Winds had told him an old Chinese saying: water is the most powerful force because it has no will of its own, but obeys the irresistible will of nature. It its ancient way, water wears down mountains. But is nature the same at the bottom of the planet, he wondered. Here the rivers ran the wrong way inland from the coast, even the trade-winds that drove the clouds and the seasons flowed counter to the proper way of things.
He took his pipe from his pocket and lit it, and leaned on the railing of the bridge to smoke for a while. The water flowing below was muddy and swift; wide enough and deep enough for paddle steamers to come up from the coast. A gust of wind ruffled his hair, and he looked up at the dark foliage of the trees that crowded along the banks of the stream.
During his high school years his mother had moved to an apartment on the Quai de la Madeleine overlooking the river. While he was supposed to be doing his Latin homework he had spent many hours staring out the window at the trees that grew along the river bank and the dark woods on the opposite shore.
Paul went on to the Advertiser office, but Frank wasn’t there. A young woman with a severe expression guarded the front room. She looked up from her account books and sniffed. ‘I think they’ve gone off to the Agricultural Society,’ she said. ‘You could ask Jimmy Skylark. He’s in the shop, back in there somewhere.’ She went back to her figures.
In the silent room the nib made a faint scratching sound. Paul paused for a moment to listen. Something about the mood of the moment — the failing evening light, the faint odour of woodsmoke in the air, the pen’s monotonous whispering — caused a wave of homesickness to wash through him. How many quiet lamplit evenings had he spent accompanied by the patient scratching of a nib on paper? There was a sense of pleasure and contentment in the memory, but also a sense of loss, of something spent and forfeited, as though he had long ago abandoned and forsworn such a life and no longer deserved its rewards. People didn’t think highly of you for being good, they took advantage of it instead, and no one cared if your handwriting was clear or if your conversation was full of clever insights.
The young woman looked up suspiciously. He shook himself and went through to the back of the building.
Paul expected to find Jimmy washing another horse in the gloom of the yard, but instead he was sorting through a box of metal type under a hanging kerosene lamp in the main printing shop. A sandy-coloured pup played around at his feet.
‘Mister Frank? He’s gone over to the Showground,’ Jimmy said. ‘He and the boss, they have a lot of things to do, what with writing up the names of all the competitors in the various events, and to see that the name of the prize bull is spelled correctly, and all that kind of thing. Now I have to sort out this case of old type that Mister Frank brought back from Sydney. Oh well.’
He smiled at Paul, and his teeth flashed a startling white in the black features. His large eyes regarded Paul steadily: they seemed to have a slight film of tears, and the effect gave them a peculiar gleam. ‘Do you have Agricultural Shows where you come from, Mr Nouveau?’
‘Well, we have fêtes, and we have market days, but perhaps they are not quite the same,’ Paul said. ‘I do not understand the Agricultural Show, really.’ He was still somewhat ill at ease in Jimmy’s company. He had read many books and articles about the South Seas as a child, and he reflected that many people would share his assumption that the Australian aborigines were clumsy savages; it was a surprise for him to find one with such easy manners, so absorbed among the skills of printing.
Paul picked up a handful of type: each piece was about the size of a large nail with a square shank, with a tiny back-to-front letter standing out in relief on the end. ‘They are beautiful,’ he said; ‘like jewels. So — so exquisitely cut to such a small shape.’
‘Me, I couldn’t cut a letter to save my life. I can compose a line of type, though, and lay out a page and lock up the forme real neat ready for the press.’
Paul was little confused by the technical talk, and by the sight of Jimmy handling the type with such ease and confidence. Click, click: the pieces of metal were sorted into their pigeon-holes in the wooden type case. ‘Mind you,’ Jimmy added, ‘hyphenation is not my strong point.’
He wore the same faded blue canvas shirt and overalls that he’d been wearing in the stable yard, but now he had added a pair of steel-rimmed spectacles. It was hard to tell his age, but he must have been at least forty or so, to need the glasses. The pup tugged at his trouser cuff, and growled with mock ferocity. Jimmy reached down to pat the dog, and spoke a few words to it in a low voice.
‘That is a nice dog,’ Paul said.
‘Well, he’s nice enough, but by rights he’s not a dog at all. That’s a warrigal pup,’ Jimmy said. ‘They’re obstinate, like me.’
‘Obstinate? You seem an amiable man.’
Jimmy grunted. ‘You ain’t seen me drunk. I’m not so amiable then. Fair warning.’
‘I can get somewhat disorderly myself, with a few drinks on board. Do you work here? I thought you worked at the stables.’
‘I work here from time to time,’ Jimmy said. ‘They might drag me in to help out now and then, when Mister Quoign’s too drunk to compose type straight, or when they’re short-handed. I don’t mind the work, but after a while I get sick of it, cooped up in a room all the day long. Otherwise I prefer working with animals, in the open air. You know, in Sydney I’m treated like a wild black man. Even here, where I’m known to some townsfolk as a friend, I’m not really welcome in many places. I’m betwixt and between, where nobody wants to live.’
‘You have your own life, though, where you belong, apart from the farmers and shopkeepers of this town. You have your own people. You can always go back to that.’
Jimmy looked at him for a moment. ‘Huh,’ he said. ‘So much you know, but forgive me for thinking that you know very little. My people? They are scattered. All the old knowledge is gone. If things had been left the way they were, I should have been a teacher of my people; at least the boys. But things changed. My people changed.’
‘What would you have taught them? Reading and writing? Printing, perhaps?’
‘Printing? No. More important things than that. There were stories I should have learned from my grandfather, about my tribe the Wiradjuri, about the Dreaming, about how the hills around Wagga Wagga came to be the way they are, about how certain spirits came to look after my tribe and protect them.’
‘What spirits do you mean? The ghosts of your ancestors?’
‘No, the spirits are not like that. My guardian spirits are an old warrigal and a spotted owl. They appear in times of danger. It was my duty to learn these things and many other things from the old men, and to pass them on to the boys, so the land could be cared for in the proper way. But my people were struck down, they got white man’s sickness, and they were scattered, and my father took me to Sydney, and before I was able to come back to this place I ended up learning this stuff which no one needs to know, and which I am useless to teach.’ He put down the type.
‘But printing,’ Paul said, ‘it lasts. People may die, yes; the white people, they die, but the things they have learned, these things, they — they live on, in these printed books.’
Jimmy looked out through the doorway at the lights along the street. ‘See that Police Court across the street there? That kind of justice the white man brought here, he brought it with him and imposed it on us from above. It comes out of those books that were written and printed in Britain where they hang people by the neck, many thousands of miles away. The judges have their law books, and the policemen have their statute books too. My father’s brother, he joined the Native Police. He had a different learning; he didn’t have any of that book learning. He was a tracker.’
‘My people can track things through the bush; that’s how you find your food, the animals you have to hunt and catch to eat. Those animals, they bruise the grass where they disturb the land. A black man or woman can read the land just like a white judge can read a book of law. He can track another man through the bush just as easy. A black man can track things you can’t even see.’ Jimmy looked at Paul for a minute or two.
‘I shall tell you a story,’ he said at last, ‘You think you know everything about black people. Well, you don’t know so much. The black man is different to the white man in this country. My uncle was a police tracker, and one time he was sent to track down a bad man, a blackfellow by the name of Kadjuk. This Kadjuk, he fell in love with a girl from another tribe, his cousin, but she was wrong sign, wrong totem, wrong everything, and besides, she was promised to another man. Kadjuk should have listened to his elders, but he got a bad spirit in him and he didn’t listen to anybody. He wanted this girl for himself, and he was selfish.’
Jimmy took his glasses off and wiped them with a handkerchief. He looked at Paul again gravely with his large watery eyes, perhaps considering whether he was the proper kind of person to hear the story, then nodded slightly to himself, and went on:
‘Kadjuk, he was a strong man, a warrior, and he got some magic. Nobody knows where he got the magic from; it was some crooked kind of magic he got from his bad spirit, a spirit from some other place, not from here. He roamed about, he roamed away from his own tribe, and he got this magic and it made the girl fall in love with him; she followed him everywhere. He took her away, and when her brother came to take her back, Kadjuk killed him with a spear, and he took the girl away into the eastern country, a long way into the high country where our people don’t usually go, and where they don’t belong.
‘So the police came out and fetched my uncle to track this Kadjuk fellow, and they went off together into the bush, and two white policemen rode along with him all the while with their guns loaded and ready. That was a cold time, my uncle told me, plenty of snow up there on the hills, and those whitefellers got sick with the cold, but they kept on.
‘By and by my uncle realised he was tracking in a big circle three day’s journey around the outside of it, so that Kadjuk was tracking him now. My uncle told the policemen that Kadjuk was wheeling around in this unusual manner, but they didn’t take any account of that: they had their horses and their guns, and a black man on foot meant nothing to them. So my uncle did what he was told and kept his counsel. They travelled on, around and about. Then one morning my uncle woke up and he knew that he was alone.’
Jimmy paused here and stared at the floor for a while, and gathered his thoughts. The dingo pup had gone to sleep against his foot; a front paw twitched slightly as he dreamed of chasing something. Jimmy gave a deep sigh, and went on.
‘So, on this cold, dark morning my uncle woke up and he knew he was alone there in the bush. The mist was so thick you couldn’t see a thing. He went to the policemen’s tent and looked in. Well, it was a bad thing he saw there in that tent. Kadjuk had come up in the night and he’d cut their throats with a sharp knife. But he’d left my uncle alone; my uncle’s brother was an elder of the same clan and Kadjuk was forbidden to kill him, and even his evil spirit couldn’t make him break that law.
‘My uncle went after him in earnest then, and caught up with him in two days. Kadjuk was thinking to cross the big river there so his tracks would be washed away, but my uncle saw him a long way off, on a high place above the water, and he took a shot at him with the policeman’s gun.’
‘Did he kill him?’
‘Kadjuk and the girl, they were standing there together on a ledge making up their mind to jump down into the river; it flowed fast and deep at that place, and plenty cold in the winter. The mist was blowing through the valley, and the wind was chasing it along. My uncle was freezing and shaking with the cold and the wet, so it wasn’t easy to make a good shot there, but he leaned the rifle against the branch of a tree to steady his aim, and that’s where he shot at them. Well, they went down together into the water, and no one ever saw them again, coming or going, in the eastern bush or anywhere else. My uncle went across to see, and there was blood on the rock where they had stood, so he knew he’d hit one of them, the man or the girl, he couldn’t say. But how hard the bullet hit them, or what happened to them after that, no one can tell you.’ He thought for a moment, then said: ‘Maybe that bad spirit came and took his magic back, and took them with it.’
There was a long silence; Jimmy picked up the last few pieces of type and sorted them. ‘That’s it,’ he said, and placed a cloth over the type box. ‘Mister Frank, he’s back, and the boss.’ He called his pup, and without saying anything more, left through a side door.
Paul went into the front office. Frank and the proprietor, Luther Quoign, had just come in; Frank introduced Paul, and Quoign shook his hand. His handshake felt odd, and Paul noticed that two of his fingers were missing.
Frank handed Paul a parcel. ‘This should fit you,’ he said. ‘Julie seemed determined that you should go to the Ball, and she’s not easily put off. And you met Doctor Bell?’
‘Oh yes. I thought to find practical people here in the bush, but Doctor Bell is the other type, a dreamer. His head is full of daydreams. Some of these dreams are inspired, I think, and some have cracks in them.’
‘They’re an odd mixture in this colony,’ Quoign put in. ‘The country people here, they can mend a steam tractor or a broken printing press with a piece of fencing wire. Then they’ll sit up all night around a pot of tea arguing about the rights of the working class and reciting ballads. There’s a lot of the Irish in them, I think that’s what it is.’
Frank laughed. ‘Bejesus,’ he said. ‘It’s no wonder I feel at home here, then.’
Quoign was a tall, pale-skinned man with curly dark hair, and a strangely gentle manner. While he was speaking he seemed to be looking over Paul’s shoulder at someone standing just behind him. Paul felt a shiver go down his spine — was there someone there? He was about to turn and check when he realised that Quoign had a wall eye, or perhaps a glass eye. One eye was looking at him steadily, the other looked off to the side.
‘Frank’s done up a story about the bushrangers, Mr Nouveau,’ Quoign said. ‘We’ll print it in the paper. What you did was remarkable.’
‘Remarkable? No, I do not think that.’
‘Come on, shooting two armed men like that — Woolcott and Heeney were desperate characters; between them they’d killed six men, including two police officers. How on earth did you manage it?’
‘Well, I do not understand that. I think they were not expecting anyone to fire at them.’
‘That’s right,’ Frank said. ‘The coach was half empty; we weren’t carrying any gold, and there was no police escort. It must have looked like an easy job.’
‘And they were carrying rifles,’ Paul said. ‘In close combat a pistol is easier to handle and faster to use. Once I fired the first shot the horses reared back. The young man was dead by then. I’d hit him in the chest, and it’s a large calibre bullet. And then — and then the second shot got him in the face.’
‘Jesus Christ,’ said Quoign, and took an involuntary step back.
‘And the other man, he needed one hand to control the horse, and it’s not easy to aim and fire a rifle with the other hand.’ Paul licked his lips; the scene was playing itself out again. He could hear the sound of the shots, loud and yet distant. Someone was screaming.
Quoign’s good eye looked him over carefully. ‘That’s strong meat,’ he said, ‘for a young feller like you. Blowing a hole in a man’s chest. The second shot must have just about taken his head off. It didn’t upset you?’
‘What are you talking about? I trained with guns, I can handle a revolver. I can handle myself.’
‘Sure,’ Quoign said. ‘Sure you can.’
There was an awkward pause. Quoign took a bottle from a cupboard and picked up three tumblers with his crooked hand. ‘I’ll tell you what,’ he said, ‘I was just going to have a glass of rum. Would you gentlemen care to join me?’
‘Yes,’ Paul said. ‘I should like to join you with a glass of rum.’
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