Chapter 09 — Julie
Paragraph One follows — 1:
The gate closed with a click, and the sound of Frank’s footsteps was soon lost in the darkness. Paul stuffed some more tobacco in his pipe and lit it. He remembered to stamp on the matches he dropped in the dry winter grass.
Close to his ear there was a whisper: ‘Paul? Is that you?’
‘Who is it?’ He had grabbed for his revolver, but of course he wasn’t carrying it. His heart was pounding.
‘It’s me, Julie. Did I frighten you?’
‘Yes, you did frighten me! I was alone with my thoughts. Thinking in French, for once. Then you jump out at me.’
He puffed on his pipe to calm himself. ‘This moonlight is so bright and so strange, I think I can see the ghosts of the black people hiding behind the trees, like shadows.’
‘Do you have your gun with you?’
‘What? Are you making a joke of it?’ It was almost a shout, and she jerked back as though he’d struck her. His voice became a furious whisper. ‘You must not joke like that! They were killers. They would have murdered you, like they murdered the driver. Perhaps — perhaps they would have done worse things.’
‘I didn’t mean to talk about that,’ she said, and looked down. ‘I don’t know what made me mention it. I don’t know what’s wrong with me lately. My whole personality seems to be out of shape. Out of whack, as Mr Quoign says.’ She plucked at a button on her dress. ‘Sometimes you seem like a monster, to me. If you’ll excuse my saying so, your manners are appalling.’
‘My manners?’ He grinned, but the grin was not a smile; it was more a grimace. ‘What are you saying, a monster?’
She seemed about to reply, hesitated, then changed the topic. ‘My father’s gone to bed; he’s tired. I came out here because — because I wanted to apologise for what my fiancé — for what Mr Stern did to you.’
‘Please forget it.’ He turned away. ‘It lies in the past now.’
She went on, as though he hadn’t spoken. Her voice was level, but it had a strained quality. ‘But what I couldn’t say, in front of my father, not yet anyway, is that Mr Stern is not my fiancé any more.’
‘What? What do you mean? What have you done?’
‘I’ve been growing more and more concerned for some time now about Joe’s — his temper, his inclination to violence. He wasn’t like that, not before. He was a little bad-tempered, but he kept it under control. I had hoped that when we married… I know he’s under pressure from the bank, and the drought has made things worse. Still, that’s no excuse. What he did tonight was the last straw.’
It was his turn to be grope awkwardly for the right words, among the tangled thickets of English. ‘I hope — I hope that I am not to blame — I hope that I have not been the cause of ruining your plans, your plans for happiness.’
She gave a short laugh. ‘I think you have saved me from a lifetime of misery. Joe admits he has a temper, but he mentions it as though he’s talking about a favourite horse that’s a trifle high-spirited. I’m supposed to frown at it because I’m a lady, but also to overlook it because he’s a gentleman. But this — to assault you, a man he has never met before, just because you danced with me — can you imagine what my life would be like if I married him? Soon he’d be beating me, too.’
‘Oh no, I do not think so. A country gentleman who owns many sheep and many acres of land does not do such a thing.’
‘You don’t understand. I don’t know where you come from, or what you imagine life is like in this colony, but I can tell you that you don’t know what goes on around here. You walk along the street and the houses look very pleasant; there is a nice church on the hill, everyone has a garden, it’s all very civilised.’ Her voice took on an angry edge. ‘But behind those doors, in those polite parlours, there are lives of horrible despair. And those are the nice houses. You should see the dirty hovels down along the river, where people live like animals, hovels lit with home-made tallow candles stinking of sheep fat; they’re the ones with a bit of money. Many only have rush flares, if they’re lucky, and they seldom light them at night. Do you know why?’
‘They’re afraid the light will attract robbers and murderers. Isn’t that frightful? Living in the dark every evening, all night long, because the poor things are afraid of being murdered. And the shacks where they buy cheap rum and drink themselves into oblivion and sleep in a pool of their own vomit — I’ve been there with my father on his rounds. I asked him to stop going there, down by the river.’
She turned about restlessly. ‘They never pay,’ she said. ‘They have no money, and it’s such hopeless work, the diseases are endemic and untreatable, it makes my father feel wretched. But he says he has to treat them; if he doesn’t, then no one will help them. You see children beaten and abused, all kinds of viciousness — there was a man who killed his wife with a rabbit-trap.’
‘Julie, you should stop.’
‘No. She was lying in the cabbage patch out the back with her skull beaten in; it was pouring rain, I remember; there was mud everywhere. The police came for him while we were there. “I didn’t mean it, Doctor,” he said; “we quarrelled, and it was the grog, I was sick with the drink, I didn’t know what I was doing. What shall I do now? She meant everything to me. I want to die.” He was crying his eyes out. “I think you’ll get your wish,” the Constable said, “with the help of a piece of rope,” and he put the handcuffs on the poor man.’
Paul looked away, at the dim horizon. A cloud drifted at the very edge of the sky, lit from behind by the moon. ‘I got to know farming people when I was young,’ he said. ‘There’s something about poverty which can give a simplicity to people, a species of nobility; or perhaps not, perhaps that is a European way of looking at things. There is also something cruel and mean about it — dirt, disease, crime.’ He looked at her. In the pale moonlight her skin and blonde hair seemed to glow faintly. ‘I can just see you with muddy feet.’
She looked at him and straightened her back slightly. ‘I’m not quite the person you might think I am, Paul. I imagine you think I’m silly and vain, a bush girl, not cultivated in the European manner. But I spent two years in Europe, getting an education, and it’s one I’m not ashamed of. I’ve learned to think for myself. I’ve travelled in France and Italy, and through Turkey and Egypt, with my father. We might be isolated here, but we read.’
‘Oh of course,’ agreed Paul.
‘Yes, we get books from Sydney as you know, and Blackwood’s magazine — my mother had a subscription when she and father were in England. And Miss Mackenzie passes on her copies of the Edinburgh Review. I even — I even write. I’ve had a couple of pieces published.’
Paul’s pipe had gone out. He knocked it against his heel, and took his time replying. ‘Oh, you write,’ he murmured. ‘Hmmm. Tell me, what is it that you write? Or can I guess?’ She pulled at a button on her dress, and made no reply. Perhaps she should have said nothing.
‘Do you write of the stars in the night sky over Wagga Wagga?’ He looked up. ‘That is romantic, the moon sailing through the clouds up there, so lonely. But the stars are somehow wrong. The English Romantics wrote of the northern constellations; here they are upside-down and reversed. What is the mirror image of Romanticism — Cynicism, perhaps? Yes, you could start an Antipodean School of Cynical Verse. I should gladly join, and become your first disciple. We could put on public readings at the Mechanics’ Institute. I noticed it the other day — a little brick building, a shed, really. The kangaroos would gather in the dusk and listen to us perform.’
‘You have a cruel streak, don’t you?’
Paul thought for a moment. ‘You have had a taste of adventure,’ he said at last, ‘sailing to the other side of the world, the night lights of Europe, la vie Parisienne. And now you are buried in this sleepy town at the bottom of the world, among the farmers and the grocer’s boys. Their horizon is just over that hill, maybe the lights of the next town fifty miles away through the dark, empty bush. They can’t see any further than that. But you have seen more.’
‘I have!’ she said angrily. ‘You cannot know —’
‘Yes,’ he went on, ‘a rich, cultured life has been held up in front of you like a tapestry — candlelight, a glass of good French wine, the crowded cafés buzzing with literary conversation, a night at the Opéra, perhaps Teresa Stolz in Aida.’ Her breathing was heavy and ragged, as though she might cry. But she was not that type, he decided. Perhaps she was angry.
He went on: ‘Then it is snatched away, and replaced by the nightmares of the Outback. Staring out at the heat and the rocks, until your mind goes blank and you cannot think any more.’
She turned and took a step away from him. ‘Stop it! You’re making me feel dizzy.’
‘I know what it is like to suffocate in la campaigne, the countryside,’ he said. ‘There is no place there for the imagination. You have to break away, at some point, to find that.’
She took a few more steps, in a small circle, staring around her at the dry garden in the moonlight, and came back to face him again. ‘I know it can seem awful,’ she said, in a furious whisper, ‘but it doesn’t have to be that bad. I won’t give in! Each year, you have another chance. It’s spring. Can’t you smell it in the air?’
‘Oh yes,’ he admitted.
‘The frosts are easing up, and it’s slightly warmer every morning. The animals know it; the plants know when to put out shoots. The only thing wrong is us, with our talk and our intellects.‘
‘But what would we be without that?’
‘I can remember when I was a young girl, at Goulburn,’ Julie went on. ‘I’d walk into the bush, and I’d find I was talking to myself. There was no one there for fifty miles, and it didn’t matter what I said. I could yell, or scream; no one would ever hear me. There were times when I wanted to die. But my body kept on living and growing. Sometimes I think there’s more faith in my little finger than in my mind.’
Paul looked at her. He went to speak, but stopped.
‘The blood keeps circulating. When you get a cut, the skin repairs itself: it doesn’t need a degree in chemistry to know how to do that. It’s just us that’s wrong, our — our blather, our endless talking, our hopes and our wrong decisions and mistakes.’
‘You talk about spring,’ he said, ‘but winter comes too, every year, freezing the grass and killing the leaves. You have to put that into the equation. And then again, your problems, they belong only to the white middle class. The poor people and the blacks, they don’t worry about the life of the imagination, or about visiting Europe. You won’t find philosophy in the local pub.’
‘No. I didn’t find it in Sydney Town either.’
‘You went looking for philosophy in Sydney?’
‘When I was seventeen. I always wanted to get away. I won an art scholarship. I wanted to be a painter.’
‘I was too young to leave home, father said, so I waited for a year. I felt as though I had been buried under a bale of wool that blanketed out the sound of life. Then I threatened to run away unless he allowed me to take up the scholarship, and he gave in. I went down to Sydney, and stayed with a doctor and his family, friends father had made years before when he worked at the hospital there. I know Sydney Town is not a city, really, but to me it seemed like one. After the mud-and-wattle huts and bark hovels of the bush it was dazzling. There were people who were interested in the life of the mind.’
‘Ah,’ said Paul. ‘Greenleaves said that Australians everywhere read voraciously; even in the bush. Did you have to go to Sydney to find people who cared about the life of the mind?’
‘I suppose he’s right, in a way. But they are all cranky readers out here. D’you know what I mean? Autodidacts, most of them. People who’ve learned to read from old encyclopaedias; they’ll drone on for hours about the different mechanisms in the new American repeating rifles, and lecture you about spelling reform until you have a headache. Oh, it’s so tiresome. When you get to mix with people who have real learning, it’s like a breath of fresh air.’
‘And did you learn about art in Sydney Town, on your scholarship? I don’t see any great paintings in your house; just some coloured sketches, rather nice, of little birds.’
‘I learned to draw; that’s something. But painting — I didn’t have any original ideas. It was hard to accept, but I just didn’t have that kind of talent.’
‘Huh! That sounds like most of the painters I know. And yet they go on.’
‘It might be all right for some, but it wasn’t good enough for me. It made me sick when I realised teaching wouldn’t help. You either have the gift or you don’t. It’s like mathematics, or music. There’s no point taking piano lessons if you’re tone-deaf.’ She paused for a moment and reflected. ‘Of course there are phonies everywhere, as Frank would call them.’
‘People who pretend to more knowledge than they possess. David, my art teacher —’ She halted.
‘Oh, what does it matter now? I was young and foolish. I thought he was wonderful. He spoke like a proper English gentleman, with a charming drawl. At least I thought it was charming at first, until I realised it was put on. He’d grown up poor in a country town, his father was a drunk, his mother took in washing. He was nothing, really, but he’d managed to get to Rome and Florence to study, and he had a titled friend who owned a villa in Tuscany — I had no idea where Tuscany was, would you believe, I thought it was one of the provinces of France — David had seen actual Caravaggios and Raphaels with his own eyes, he could speak Italian, or so he said. He had dark wavy hair which he grew long and combed across to cover his little bald spot, and he was very handsome — he was almost as handsome as he was conceited, and that’s saying something.’
‘Ah. I’m beginning to see a kind of story here.’
‘It was very disillusioning. You come to a point where you grow tired of being lied to.’
‘Lied to about — ?’
‘David was a fraud. I can see it all so plainly now, it makes me ashamed to think how gullible I was. I sometimes see an image of myself as I was then, with a cow-like smile on my face, spouting the most stupid opinions, and imagining I was the only one he cared about. In fact he was having love affairs with three or four of the other girls at the same time. A year of that was enough.’
‘So — you didn’t go on with it. Your art training.’
‘That’s right. I gave it away. I came back to Goulburn, like a dog with its tail between its legs.’ She thought for a while, then continued. ‘Oh, it wasn’t altogether a waste of time. I learned a lot about political thought. I studied anarchism and communalism — it was a fashion among the art students then. It was an interesting year. I learned a few things about human nature, too. Those students were so full of idealism, yet their idealism was somehow arrogant and selfish.’
‘Oh, idealism. I think I have seen some of that.’
‘I suppose a few of them really felt those things, but many of them were posing like the models in the life class: they’d put on an interesting opinion the same way they’d put on an interesting hat, to try it out. If it didn’t seem to suit them, or if they grew tired of it, they’d toss it away and pick up another one.’
Paul smiled to himself. ‘I knew a hundred people just like that in Paris,’ he said. ‘Artists, writers. What a lot of frauds. It was very hard for people, there was a lot of hunger. You wouldn’t believe it out here in the colonies where everything seems so abundant and easy, even in a dry year; but people starved there. And I had a friend, an older man, who knew Paris in the sixties. He knew a lot of painters then. Out of his dozen friends, two had starved to death, and four others killed themselves from hunger and despair. A noble life, a tragic death, and yet most of them were frauds. It is ironic, is it not?’
‘That’s awful. No one I’ve ever known has had to live like that.’
‘Well, it is awful, yes,’ Paul said, ‘but to kill yourself — I despise it all the same. Despair, is that not a sin? At least, it is a weakness. Those people should get a job paper-hanging, or sweeping the tons of horse shit from the street. Where do they get these affected ideas? From the wives of mill-owners, with their penny novelettes? Most of these people have wealthy parents; they are the worst, calling for the destruction of the world of their parents, full of childish hatred of their fathers.’
‘You knew some writers in Paris?’
‘Indeed. They make me sick. I met de l’Isle-Adam once; now there is a genuine type for you. Have you heard of him? He is a writer, a total failure, very droll.’
‘No, I’m sorry.’
‘Oh well, he is unknown even in Europe. So poor he almost has to beg, and he writes upon scraps of paper, whatever he can find. He is from a noble family originally, of Breton aristocrats, now ruined; and he is full of a most vigorous despair. What a great fellow!’
‘Vigorous despair? Are you being deliberately perverse?’
‘No, I mean it. Of course his work is full of a peculiar snobbery, but it is so bizarre you cannot help liking him. D’you know how the word bizarre got into English?’
‘No, I’ve no idea.’
‘It’s Basque, would you believe. I means “bearded”. But there I am, trotting out useless knowledge like one of your tedious autodidacts.’ He fiddled with the gate: it made a squeaking sound, and he stopped.
‘I keep meaning to oil the hinge,’ Julie said. ‘But father says a wise man oils his neighbour’s gate, not his own. And as I don’t want to be seen oiling old Ma Clampitt’s gate, I leave it to squeak.’ She closed the latch gently, her hand brushing his.
‘Aren’t you cold?’ he asked.
‘No, I don’t notice the cold.’ Her green velvet dress was inky black in the moonlight, and the swell of her breasts gleamed like marble. Her eyes were searching his face. What did she want? He had nothing to give her; he didn’t have the answer to her problems. ‘And you,’ she said, ‘where will you go when you leave here?’ Her voice was lighter now, and he could smell her perfume, faint and delicate.
He searched carefully for the words: ‘I may not leave here. If I find a piece of gold lying in a paddock, I might stay. I might marry and settle down. I have noticed… I have noticed one or two very beautiful young women.’
She turned away. ‘You won’t stay. Like me, you’ve had your dreams, too, I think; dreams that have gone wrong, like father’s photography experiments — spoiled before they’ve developed fully. You have that look in your eye, always gazing over the horizon, always ready to cut your ties and move on. And of course you’re a man; you’re free to go where you will.’
‘That is true. Once I was different, once I wanted to tie myself — to tie myself to a person I loved — I had so much faith then, such a passionate faith in the future, it is hard to believe now — well, perhaps I expected too much. I do not know what I wanted, in the end. Paris, all that, it makes me sick.’ He hadn’t meant the conversation to move quite so far in this direction.
‘You were a writer, weren’t you? In Paris.’
He took a deep breath, and fumbled to gather the words: ‘Sometimes I have a vision of Europe suffocating under a mountain of books. At least the books you write here will be fresh. No Parnassian poet could survive a week in this countryside.’ He looked around and gave a harsh laugh. ‘For a start, there are no cafés. There is no absinthe to drink, only convict rum. Those poets, their delicate skins would be burnt to a crisp by the tropical heat. Even your criminals — they do not make a pact with the devil at midnight, like Faust. They make a pact with the blue sky and the open air, and their crimes multiply under the sun.’
‘Must you talk about those horrible people?’ she said.
‘Your literature will be different,’ he went on. His voice sounded slightly feverish; it echoed in his ears. Her face seemed to fill his vision, and he noticed the perfume again, or was it the scent of her skin? Each time she breathed in, her breasts strained against her dress. ‘You shall write poems in the saddle, rounding up the sheep. I can see you now, with your hair blowing in the wind, a notebook in your hand —’ As he turned his head a sharp pain stabbed through his jaw. ‘Ah, damn it!’
She touched the bandage. ‘I know father says you’re all right, but I’m worried your cheekbone might be broken.’
She stroked his cheek, then came into his arms as she had when they had danced. The kiss seemed to happen of its own accord; he drowned in her scent, while his jaw flared with pain. He felt her body press against his, warm and strong, then she pulled back.
‘No — that was not right. I am sorry,’ she said. She drew herself away and walked quickly to the house, speaking over her shoulder in an unsteady voice: ‘We should go in, now, I think.’
It took a moment for the pain to die down and for his head to stop spinning. A light wind had come up and a veil of cloud had drifted over the moon. In the fading light she seemed like a ghost, blown silently across the grass and along the path to the veranda. Though she seemed strong and independent, there was also something sad and hopeless about her life, he thought, though he couldn’t say exactly what it was. It wasn’t her failure as an artist: she had learned from that experience, and moved on. It was something else, deeper and more pervasive.
‘Good night, Julie,’ he said. ‘Sweet dreams.’
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