Black Gold, Chapter 23

Chapter 23 — A Mystery Solved
… In which Frank helps Paul Nouveau escape from Gaol in Wagga, and they make their way back to Doctor Bell’s house. Doctor Bell muses on Paul’s problem, and discovers the duplicitous solution to Verheeren’s odd death — Paul is in the clear. Paul decides to return to Europe. Frank agrees to go to Sydney with Paul, and goes off the fetch the horses. Paul and Julie talk in the garden, and a lot is revealed. Frank returns.

Paragraph One follows — 1:

Paul was woken by the faint jingle of a bunch of keys. He was in a cell, swimming up out of sleep into a room filled with darkness. But where — Java? No; it was too cold for that. Perhaps he’d been a prisoner for years. Someone nearby was snoring unevenly. Then he heard the keys again, and a faint scraping noise. He was still only half awake, drifting on the edge of nightmare, and the idea stole into his mind that his gaolers were coming to kill him in his sleep. His blood ran cold and he tried to call out, but he seemed unable to make a sound. Then he heard a whisper: ‘Paul? Paul, are you there?’


He fumbled for the English words. ‘Who is it? What do you want?’


‘It’s Frank.’ Paul was awake now, and it all came back. He was in gaol in Wagga, held on suspicion of murder. ‘Careful,’ Frank whispered, closer this time. ‘I couldn’t risk using a lamp.’


‘Where are you?’


There was a dim glow of moonlight in the air, but not enough to see clearly. A shape moved near the door; Paul felt his way towards it. He reached out and touched an arm, then Frank’s hand, and grabbed it. ‘I thought you had abandoned me,’ he whispered. ‘How did you get the cell door open? What about Sloesser?’


‘He’s in his bed, fast asleep. I’ll explain once we get out of here. Take your shoes off. I don’t want to wake Barnaby here.’


‘Nothing would wake him, I think.’ Paul took off his boots.


‘Through here,’ whispered Frank, and they felt their way along a corridor and into the office at the side of the building. The moonlight shining in through the window spilt in ghostly lakes on the polished floor. A clock ticked slowly in a corner. Paul recognised the sound: this was the first room he had entered in Wagga, the room in the Police Station where he had described the attack by bushrangers and signed the deposition, where Sloesser had reluctantly handed him his revolver in a parcel of brown paper tied with pink tape.


Frank put the keys down gently on the desk. ‘I’ll leave these here,’ he said, ‘where Sloesser will find them in the morning. Now, follow me.’


They padded through another corridor and down a side passage. An open door showed an expanse of cold moonlit lawn. ‘We’re clear, pal,’ Frank said. ‘There’s no one about.’ They sat on the step and put their boots on, then they walked quickly across the damp grass and under the gloom of the trees that shaded the footpath.


‘I hate sneaking around in the dark like that,’ Frank admitted. ‘I don’t have the nerve to enjoy it. How are you? Are you okay, pal?’


‘Yes, I am okay. It feels good to be in the open.’ There was a faint scent of eucalyptus in the air. Paul breathed in gratefully, and looked around: the town was fast asleep. ‘And the moon is out; wonderful.’ He felt a different person from the one who’d listened to Barnaby’s stories: his few hours of sleep had somehow changed the makeup of his mind. The open air exhilarated him, but he felt that his mood was unstable, and could change at any moment. He put his hand on Frank’s shoulder. ‘My thanks go to you, for hauling me out of there, Frank. That was risky. If Sloesser saw you, I think you would end up behind the bars too. Or he might have shot at you.’


‘Don’t thank me; Julie asked me to get you out. And as for Sloesser, he’s not going to be doing anything tonight except sleeping very soundly.’ Frank gave a short laugh. ‘Doctor Bell invited him over for a game of cards after dinner this evening, and a drink or two. Or three or four, as it turned out. The Constable felt he’d been through a lot today, and deserved a drink. The Doctor slipped him a concoction of his, some kind of drug to ensure a sound night’s rest. I walked him home and made sure he went to bed, and borrowed his keys.’


They walked on in silence for a while. ‘You do not mind the police, do you?’ Paul asked.


‘Why, no,’ Frank replied. ‘They’re very handy when you need them, especially in a place like this. Why, do they have some problem with the police in Europe? I believe they’ve done some good in London.’


‘Done some good? My, you are an optimistic fellow, are you not? To listen to you, the police are some kind of charity organisation, a brotherhood of good Samaritans.’


‘Take it easy. Do I have to remind you that I just got you out of gaol?’

French police. From the internet.


‘I have seen how they work, the police, and I cannot tell you how much I hate them. It is good to have nothing to do with them, to stay out of their grasp. They pretend to be protecting lives, and helping poor old ladies, but all the time they are acting as political spies, serving the state and the magistrates, conniving with the rich burghers and brothel-keepers and landowners, helping to prop up the vast bureaucracy of privilege and power. In the end, they are just an extension of the political prison.’


Frank took a moment to answer. ‘Well, I don’t know about that,’ he said carefully. ‘I guess we have different needs back home. We think of the law as being there to protect a man’s liberty. That’s the way we look at it, anyhow.’ Paul didn’t answer, and Frank added: ‘I guess things are different in Europe. Maybe that’s why so many people want to emigrate to America. As for New South Wales, I really don’t know. Up until the gold rush in the fifties, most of the people who came out here didn’t exactly want to emigrate; they came in chains, and they had no choice. The convicts were mainly Irish, transported for stealing a crust of bread to feed themselves; and most of the police were English. Least that’s what people say. That’s a quarrel I don’t want to buy into.’


Paul didn’t reply; he was lost in his own thoughts. Suddenly he said: ‘The envelopes. What happened about that? Did Stern realise what they were worth?’


‘No, they’re safe back at the house. I haven’t told anyone about the stamps yet. I, ah… I was going to say something to Doctor Bell. Do you think I should?’


‘No, Frank, no. Let us keep it to ourselves for a while, as a kind of secret.’ Frank reminded him of an earnest recruit, keen to do the right thing. You had to work your way around such people; they swallowed whatever people told them, and they seemed to look at the world through a haze of goodwill. ‘I need to work out what I should do,’ he said. ‘This colony is not so pleasant as I thought. I could end up hanging by the neck, and all over a misunderstanding.’


‘You’re not wrong,’ Frank said. ‘If they don’t find who did it, it will look bad for you.’


‘It was Heeney, the younger brother. I know it was. He could be a hundred miles away by now. Then again, he might have doubled back to have another try at murdering me. The police here are stupid, fumbling around looking for horse thieves; they would never find him. And then if they discover who I am, that I deserted from the Dutch Army, then everything will be worse. I feel there are tentacles reaching out for me, from both sides of the law.’


Their footsteps crunched on the gravel. Somewhere far off a night bird made a long, mournful cry. ‘It’s the bunyip,’ Paul said, and they laughed. In the silence that followed the sound, Paul thought he could hear, almost below the threshold of hearing, a distant drone, the humming sound he’d heard when he was rowing on the river with Julie. It seemed to exist underneath or behind the silence of the bush, and it wavered, rising slightly and falling again, like the distant lowing of a bullock in pain, though it continued for several minutes without a break, almost too faint to hear. He said nothing to Frank, and they walked on under the thick shade of the trees, past the sleeping houses.


‘Well, Paul,’ Doctor Bell said, ‘Ah — we’re all criminals now. I’ve drugged and incapacitated a member of the police force, and — ah — Frank has aided and abetted a prisoner to escape from lawful custody.’


‘Not so lawful,’ Paul said. ‘That bastard had no right to lock me up.’


‘Well, you’re not locked up any more. In any case, I think I’m  — ah — justified in prescribing another medicinal brandy.’ Bell was hungover and his hands shook slightly. ‘Julie, will you join us?’


‘Thank you, father. Here, I’ll pour.’


‘Make it a big one,’ Frank said.


‘I spent an hour patching up Ben Pollock earlier this evening,’ Bell added, ‘the lad who got knocked on the head by those horse thieves. I think he’ll be all right now. So I’ve done my good deed for the day, and I feel I’m not entirely a reprobate. Ah — as Barnaby might say: laying up treasures in heaven. St Matthew, Chapter six.’


Paul laughed. ‘Do you have a Shakespeare quote? Barnaby prefers the poets. What did you do to Sloesser?’


‘Oh, a brandy, and — ah — a little sleeping draught. To sleep: perchance to dream. Chloral hydrate.’


Paul gave a start: that was what he’d given the Dutch lieutenant in the bar in Sydney, so he could rob him. For a moment he had the strange idea that his crime had followed him like a restless spirit, and would not leave him alone until he made up for it by some act of confession or penance. But no, it was stupid to think like that. He was over-tired.


‘Oh, chloral’s harmless enough,’ said Bell, who had noticed his unease. ‘It — ah — it mixes well with alcohol, though you have to be careful with the dose. I’ve prescribed it for old folks who get night terrors and imagine robbers are lurking in the woodshed. They — ah — they seem to take it all right, so I thought old Sloesser could handle it. Besides, he’s distraught with overwork, and he needs a good night’s sleep. I was doing him a kindness, you might say.’


‘Sloesser owes you, anyway,’ Frank put in. ‘Didn’t you say you’d once cured him of a vampire’s bite?’


Bell laughed. ‘Oh, that was nothing.’

Australian flying fox. From the internet.


‘Father’s reluctant to tell,’ Julie put in. ‘But I’m not a doctor, and I can tell you. Mr Sloesser came in one evening a couple of years ago in a terrible state — shaking, as white as a sheet, spittle drooling from his lips. I was in the surgery. “What the devil’s the matter with you?” my father asked. “I’ve been bitten by a bloody great bat,” he said, “one of them South American vampire bats. I think I’ve got Rabies, and I fear I’m going to die. It’s worse than Lockjaw, isn’t it?” Well, it turned out he’d gone to sleep in a hammock on the back veranda of the police station — half drunk, I’d say — and there’d been a flying fox asleep in the hammock, under a blanket.’


‘You cannot tell me that you have foxes in this country which fly,’ Paul said.


‘No,’ said Bell. ‘It’s — it’s just the name we give to the giant fruit bat. It has reddish fur, and it — ah — it looks like a small fox — with wings, of course. Yes. They flap about in flocks of a hundred or so in late summer, late summer when the fruit are ripe.’


Julie was impatient to continue. ‘Well, in his slumbers,’ she said, ‘Sloesser rolled over onto the bat and half-crushed the poor animal — it was a pet, apparently, belonged to a neighbour — and the creature attacked him in self-defence. When he awoke and found it attached to his stomach biting for all it was worth he had some kind of a seizure, and the neighbour found him shrieking and rolling about on the lawn with foam coming out of his mouth.’


‘Was it rabies?’


‘No, no,’ said Bell. ‘There’s no rabies in this colony. If it had been rabies, he’d be a dead man. Fruit bats — ah — they don’t hurt you. It was nothing, it was all in his mind. I put some antiseptic on the wound, gave him a stiff drink, and sent him home.’


They all laughed, and Bell refilled their glasses. Paul felt light-headed and cheerful, though he knew the feeling wouldn’t last. It was well after midnight. In a few hours the citizens of Wagga would be going about their business in the broad light of day, and the cell would be found empty.


Bell steered the conversation away from these anxieties. ‘While you two were out enjoying your criminal scrapes and adventures, Julie has been improving her mind.’


‘Oh?’ inquired Paul. ‘And how does a lady do that in Wagga?’ He had avoided looking at her directly until now. ‘Is this the literary evening you mentioned?’


‘Yes,’ she said. ‘The recital at the Mechanics’ Institute, full of good literary intentions. Sir Walter Scott, Tennyson, and a tale by Dickens to keep the ordinary reader happy.’


Her father interrupted: ‘And Edgar Allan Poe, didn’t you say?’


‘Yes, that was very popular with the ladies.’


‘Did they read — ah — read his poem “The Raven”?’


‘Of course, father. They always do.’


Bell’s eyes sparkled. He straightened his back and recited, in a rich and melodramatic manner:


‘Once upon a midnight dreary,
While I pondered, weak and weary,
Over many a quaint and curious
Volume of forgotten lore… ’


Frank and Julie laughed. ‘You should go on the stage, father.’


‘Hmmm,’ said Paul, who was less impressed. ‘It seems to be about somebody, I canot think of whom. It’s not a portrait of you at your alchemical researches, is it, Doctor Bell?’


Bell gave a faint smile. ‘Well, ah, “weak and weary” is not far wrong.’


‘I know that poem, it’s ludicrous,’ Paul said. ‘To me it is like an old Gothic ruin, covered with gargoyles, and painted purple. Trochaic tetrameter, a stumbling measure. And it goes on forever, like a steam train.’


‘Oh, Paul,’ said Julie. ‘You’re bamboozling us with technicalities. People enjoy hearing it go on like a steam train; that’s part of the fun!’

French poet Charles Baudelaire. Photo by Nadar. From the internet.


‘Baudelaire did translate Poe into French,’ Bell said quietly.


‘Oh, that is true,’ Paul admitted irritably. ‘I cannot imagine why he did this thing.’


Frank slapped him on the shoulder. ‘Come now, Paul, it’s a marvellous poem. The French aren’t the only people with a poetic soul. And if a great writer like Baudelaire thought enough of it to translate it, there must be something in it that his soul could answer to.’


Paul had an obstinate look on his face — like a stubborn schoolboy, Julie thought. ‘Maybe in French it loses something in the translation,’ she offered, by way of a concession.


‘As a friend of mine once said, it loses something in the original,’ said Paul. They all laughed at this. Paul was pleased at the success of his joke. ‘But alas,’ he said, ‘let us not argue about poetry.’


‘I think we get more out of amateur theatricals like that,’ Julie said, ‘than the people of Sydney do out of their grand shows. It’s like a reward for living out here in the bush. Remember the magic show, father?’


Bell put his hand on her arm. ‘Full of tricks. Ah — what was her name? “Miss Estella, the Magicienne,” as she calls herself, with a so-called “Professor Hennecki”. And who was that fellow on the piano?’


‘That was our own Professor Goulstone on the piano, father. You remember I had lessons from him, a few years ago.’


Bell chuckled. ‘Mirrors, mirrors and magic tricks,’ he said. ‘Marvellous. Ah — Wagga gets quite lively — ah — during Show Week.’

Smoke and mirrors. From the internet.


There was a pause in the conversation; it lasted a fraction too long. Julie shivered. ‘Oh, she said, ‘someone just walked over my grave.’ Paul gave her a puzzled look. ‘It’s just a saying,’ she said, but her eyes were troubled. The silence settled on the room again.


Paul turned to the doctor. ‘Frank said you talked to the Constable on my behalf today, Doctor Bell. It was good of you. You hardly know me.’


‘Oh, that’s all right.’ Bell looked into his glass, and swirled the liquid around. ‘I — ah — I’m afraid I didn’t do much good, though.’


‘And then, to risk what you have done tonight —’


‘My boy, we know you had nothing to do with the Dutchman’s murder,’ Bell said. ‘It’s — ah — it is just a mess of coincidence and confusion. And Stern, I’m sorry to say, is taking advantage of it to persecute you. It doesn’t seem right to stand by and let that happen.’ Julie looked down at her hands. They were twisting together in her lap, and she stilled them with an effort.


‘Sloesser didn’t hit you, did he?’ Bell asked.


‘No,’ Paul said. ‘Though he would enjoy doing it, I am certain. Why do you ask?’


Bell peered at him over the top of his spectacles. ‘You — you have a fresh cut on your arm. Was that there yesterday?’


Paul touched the scar and frowned. It was still tender. ‘Oh, that.’


‘Would you like me to put something on it?’


‘No, it’s nothing. I banged my arm on a nail sticking out from the bottom of the window, in Verheeren’s room. Julie will tell you, she was with me. The stupid old fool.’


Bell blinked and tilted his head to one side. For a brief moment he reminded Paul of the galah in the pawnshop. ‘Now why would he drive a nail into the bottom of a window? Ah — to keep it slightly open? But it’s barely spring, it’s still cold at night. And there are much simpler ways of keeping a window open.’


‘You’re right,’ Julie said. ‘I noticed he’d had a fire going. It seemed sad and rather strange to me that the fire should keep burning through the night, when the man who had lit the fire was long dead, and growing cold.’


Bell stroked the stubble on his chin, and murmured to himself: ‘Mirrors and magic tricks… I wonder if he was insured.’


‘Why, yes, he was,’ Julie said. ‘Miss Mackenzie mentioned it yesterday. Didn’t she, Paul? His wife — his widow, I mean, in Antwerp, she’ll get some money, from Lloyd’s of London.’


Paul watched Bell closely. ‘But why are you interested in that?’ he asked. ‘You are following something, no? Like one of Barnaby’s dogs on the scent of a rat.’

Bows. From the internet.


Bell stretched back in his chair and closed his eyes. ‘You see all sorts of things, as a doctor — ah — all sorts of things. There was a bank manager once, in Goulburn, he’d been embezzling money for years, and he knew they were about to catch up with him. He killed himself by falling on a kitchen knife, but he tried to make it look like an accident. Because of the insurance, among other considerations. Once you added up the circumstances — ah — it was obvious what he’d done.’


Frank shuddered. ‘My God, that’s awful!’ he said.


Bell hardly heard him. ‘But with Verheeren,’ he said, ‘there was no weapon. After I’d finished with the body I went over to the boarding house to take a look; you can’t trust Sloesser to notice things. Ah — no pistol, no little Deringer concealed behind a curtain, nothing. There were the bow and the arrows, of course, but they were never used —’ He stopped short, and sat bolt upright. ‘Of course!’


‘Of course what, father?’ Julie asked.


‘Ah, now that’s what I call clever!’ Bell said.


‘Clever? What do you mean?’ Frank asked.


‘Remember?’ Bell grabbed Julie’s arm. ‘Julie, you said you saw him in the music shop the other day, buying — what was it?’


‘He said he wanted a string for a double bass. That’s what he asked for. “It must be the strongest sheepsgut,” he said. “Not to break!” I hadn’t ever thought of him as the sort of person who might be interested in music. It seemed out of character.’


Bell leaned back and stroked his chin. ‘He must have needed to repair the bow. Why, it’s — ah — it is almost a work of art,’ he said, ‘the way it fits together. Yes, the window.’ He had a pleased smile on his face.


‘The window?’ Paul asked. ‘The window where the killer escaped? What, did he swing out the window on the piece of sheepsgut, like Consul the chimpanzee?’ He laughed, and touched the cut on his arm. ‘I hope he didn’t hurt his arm.’


‘He didn’t hurt his arm,’ Bell said. ‘You see — ah — no one climbed out the window. There was no murderer. Well, there was a killer, but not quite a murderer, perhaps. His name was Verheeren!’


‘The Dutchman?’ Frank asked. ‘He killed himself? But how? And why would he want to do a thing like that?’ They were all staring at Bell.


‘The insurance policy helps to explain it. There was something wrong with Verheeren. He — ah — he drank a lot, he took opium. He was melancholy. He seemed afraid and suspicious, always seeing implications in the most harmless things. He tried to tell me that an article in the paper, about some embezzler in Germany, was secretly about him. He — ah — he could read between the lines, he said. He threatened Luther Quoign over it. His mind was quite unbalanced. Perhaps some business ventures of his had failed, I don’t know.’


‘That’s what happened, all right,’ Paul said. ‘He had a business in Java — an unpleasant business — and he got into trouble with the police. He was hunted out of the East Indies.’

Jungle. From the internet.


‘Ah,’ said Bell. ‘Well, some people can take that sort of setback, and then some can’t. He was getting on, I suppose. So — ah — in his madness and despair he wanted to do away with himself, and yet he wanted his wife to get the insurance money. He couldn’t let it look like suicide. Ah — the insurance company wouldn’t pay.’


Frank looked puzzled. ‘Are you saying he shot himself in the chest, then — then threw the gun out the window?’


‘Yes. Yes!’ Bell laughed and clapped his hands together. ‘It sounds impossible, doesn’t it? That’s the wonderful thing about art, to achieve the impossible.’ He laughed again, and patted Julie on the arm. ‘But Miss Estella the Magicienne could have told you how he did it.’


‘The bow,’ said Paul. ‘Of course. It has been staring us all at the face.’ He was reminded of a puzzle he had seen as a child, a complicated line drawing of a forest scene. Cunningly worked into the details of the leaves and branches were the outlines of a lion, a bear and a hunter. If you knew what to look for you could spot them easily.


‘But Paul, what do you mean?’ Frank said. ‘Verheeren wasn’t shot with the bow. No one was shot with the bow.’


‘Frank, when you first told me about Verheeren,’ Paul said, ‘remember, in your hotel room in Goulburn? — you said he had an old bow with a broken string, and a handful of poisoned arrows. Isn’t that what you said?’


‘Why, yeah, I suppose so.’


‘But the bow, when I saw it on the floor of his room yesterday, the string was not broken. Remember?’


‘My God yes, you’re right.’


‘Yes,’ Paul said. ‘The bow was strung tight. He must have used the double bass string to repair it — it is made of sheep’s gut, just like a bowstring. Maybe not quite as strong, but close enough.’


‘You’ve got it,’ said Bell. ‘He did it like this. He opened the window and fixed the nail in place sticking down from the bottom of the sash. Then he took the bow, hooked it over the nail from beneath, hooked the butt of his revolver upside-down against the bowstring, and walked back into the room, holding the gun by the barrel so it pulled the bow tight.’ He hesitated here, and frowned. ‘He — ah — he must have pushed the trigger with his other thumb. The poor man.’


Julie put her hand to her mouth; they were all silent. It seemed to Paul that a gulf opened up before them: suicide was an ugly, nightmarish thing, but for a brief moment they had imagined themselves in that room and had glimpsed the horror of it. Paul thought of the amulet he had handed to Verheeren: the twist of black human hair, the slivers of bone that were woven among the hair. He had hated Verheeren, and wanted him dead; he had delivered the amulet, and death had crept into that room in its most hideous aspect.


Bell sighed, and shook his head. ‘As soon as the gun went off,’ he said, ‘Verheeren’s body fell backwards, and the bow shot the gun out through the open window into the dark. Frank, what’s out there in the back yard?’


‘Just some old trees, and a heap of weeds and blackberries.’

Blackberries. From the internet.


‘That’s where you’ll find the gun. That’s where the Constable should have found the gun, if he’d been doing his job. And of course the bow was too wide to pass through the open window, so it bounced back off the window frame and dropped to the floor.’


‘It’s clever,’ Frank said. ‘I saw the bow lying there, sure — everybody did, I suppose — but I never would have dreamed that anything as complicated as that lay behind it.’


Julie grasped her father’s hands. ‘So Paul’s in the clear?’


‘More or less. It will take that dim-witted policeman a day or so to sort it all out.’ He looked at Paul. ‘And then there’s the problem of escaping from lawful custody, of course. Stern will — ah — will encourage the police to make things difficult for you.’


‘I would argue about how lawful it is to gaol a man on such thin suspicions,’ Paul said. ‘But then, my arguments seem to fall on deaf ears. Perhaps it is my accent. Not English enough. I had better hide for a few days. Perhaps a trip to Sydney would be a good idea.’ The huge distances of the Australian bush now seemed attractive to him. He could get lost there, perhaps, discover some hidden valley in the interior, set up a tent, and never be found again. No, that was an idle dream.


‘There seem to be currents of suspicion and confusion in the town,’ Bell said. ‘It might be best to steer clear of them for a while.’


Julie looked at Paul with a silent question in her eyes. He looked away. He was thinking of the job that was waiting for him on the Trade Winds. The sacks of wheat and wool bales would be just about loaded by now. When the engine was fixed, she would be ready to sail. He should sign on by Tuesday at the latest. Today was Friday — well, Saturday. He only had a few days to get there. How long to Marseilles? Fifty days, Johanssen had said. And then Queenstown, in Ireland, a busy port, and then Europe.

Ship at sea. From the internet.


And there was the problem of what to do with the Dutchman’s stamps. He emptied his glass. He had been so concerned for his safety that he had not given much thought to the stamps. But they were worth something, perhaps a lot, and with the money from the stamps he would have a chance to build a normal life, to put down roots, if that’s what he wanted, or in fact to embark on any kind of life he could imagine.


He could imitate Doctor Bell, and perform an experiment or two: he could set up as an explorer, and see how his character reacted to the stresses of that occupation, rather as you might test a new metal alloy. Or he could set up as a cynical chronicler of the new colony, noting down and dissecting characters like the eccentric Greenleaves, or the Dutchman, or the bitter Miss Dunn, disappointed in love, in articles for the Paris papers: Observations of the Colonial Denizens, From a Foreign Visitor.


Or he could buy a small sugar plantation in Java, and set the workers free — he could become the benefactor of the local village, perhaps, and be treated like a minor deity in his old age. He smiled to himself. He was dreaming again, like the beggar with his lottery ticket.


And then there was Julie. Her character and her potential were waiting to be set free from the restrictions of their colonial setting. But would it be right for him to tie his life to that of another human being? He thought of a helmsman lashed to the mast in a storm. He wasn’t ready for that kind of stress, or that degree of painful intimacy. He had once thought he was on a level with the angels, or with the devils, it didn’t matter; he now knew how weak and dishonest he really was. Would anyone want to share their life with him, to put up with his buried angers, the flickering coals of his vanity, his caustic despair?


‘I could take you across to Junee,’ Frank said. ‘It’s a small place, no one would recognise you. There’s an early coach to Yass.’


Paul gave Frank a level stare. ‘Frank, will you come with me? To Sydney?’


Frank took in the request. Sydney? Three hundred miles there, and three hundred back? Paul’s gaze was cool, vacant, the blue eyes almost hypnotic. ‘Sure I will. Why not?’


‘You had better take my buggy,’ Bell said. ‘The horses are down in the back paddock, and might take some catching. There’s still plenty of moon. You should be there by sunup.’


Paul brought his bag out onto the veranda and put it down. Julie was sitting on the steps looking at the garden. She had a shawl draped around her shoulders against the cold, a bright tartan pattern of red, yellow and deep green. In the dim light, the colours had taken on an inky glow. Her head was tilted against her shoulder as though she was listening to something whispering among the flowers.


‘Well, my packing is done,’ he said.


She looked at the bag. ‘You manage with so little.’


‘It is better that way, when you are moving around. Did you see Frank? Is he ready?’


‘Yes, he’s gone off to get the horses.’


There were many things that Paul wanted to say; they gathered and clamoured in his mind, so that he couldn’t sort them out into a clear pattern. And then there was the problem of the language — he seemed to have to detour, climb over fences, wade through swamps of misunderstanding. Whatever he wanted to say came out slightly at an angle to his intentions.


‘There is moonshine,’ he said. ‘Would you like to walk in the garden?’


‘Very well. Just for five minutes.’


They walked down the steps and onto the grass. In the daytime it looked dry and brown; in this soft light it had no colour at all. It was a cool night; he put his arm around her shoulder. They walked down to the shadow of the trees at the front gate. The roadway shone in the gloom. He imagined it gleaming like that across the ridges, past the rock beside the clearing where he had killed those two men, across the grassy plains, beside the creeks and rivers, all the way to Sydney. And beyond Sydney, the ocean. It was twelve thousand miles to Europe; to the other end of the world. They walked around to the side of the house, where the shade was deeper, and where a fountain driven by some device of the Doctor’s splashed water into a fish pond. When Julie spoke, the sound of her voice startled him.


‘Did you pack your book?’ she asked.


He hesitated. ‘My book?’


‘I didn’t mean to pry, but you did leave a book open on the veranda. You must have been reading it yesterday. You forgot to take it inside. I put it by your bed.’


‘Oh, it was you who put it there.’


‘It has a strange title. Une Saison en Enfer. Is that the right pronunciation?’


He looked down at his feet. He hadn’t wanted the conversation to go in this direction; but it had, and he had to deal with it. ‘It will do.’


‘Not a pretty name for a book,’ she said. ‘Did you mean for me to find it?’


He looked about, seeking a means of escape, knowing he had to face her questions, and where they led. ‘I do not know,’ he said unhappily. ‘You said you spoke French?’


‘Quite well. But not quite well enough, apparently.’ There was a firmness behind her voice; it was almost anger. And puzzlement as well. For a moment Paul was reminded of his mother: her distress, and her endless patience. His life had a meaning, he knew that dimly, but the trouble was he couldn’t make out any pattern in it. Perhaps others could; perhaps he was the only one who would never see the pattern. ‘What do you mean?’ he asked. ‘Do you not grasp the words?’


‘Word for word it’s not difficult,’ she said.


Could she see the pattern? ‘The failure of belief?’ he asked.


‘Like my father, belief in alchemy and dreams.’ Just as Frank had done, she plucked a stalk of dry grass. ‘That’s really quite old-fashioned, by now, isn’t it? On a different level, it’s like wanting to believe in elves and fairies. I wonder if there’s any place for that today.’


‘Well, you are correct, no person thinks like that any more.’


‘The last few pages are very disconsolate.’ She stripped the leaves from the stalk. ‘And yet, of course, it’s written very strongly.’ She looked up at him. In the moonlight, the colour had leached out of his eyes: the irises were such a washed-out blue they were almost invisible, and the blond stubble on his cheeks had become silver and grey. It gave him a very strange appearance, she thought, like an old wise man; but then he was a very odd creature, not quite human, in some ways. ‘What does it all mean?’


‘Well, means, I do not know. It means what it says.’ He drew back into himself. How could he explain what was staring out from the page? She had a hunger for a deeper meaning to her life than the superficial decencies allowed in a small colonial town, but that longing could well be a conventional bourgeois affectation. Was she prepared to follow it to uncover what lay at the bottom of the pit, where art and vanity met and mingled, and where the paying passengers of art fed themselves on lies? He shook his head. ‘Perhaps you would prefer the rhymes of Alfred, Lord Tennyson,’ he said, ‘or Sir Walter Scott. The Lord of the Highland Sheep.’ He pictured her sitting quietly among the audience in the Mechanics’ Institute, listening to the professional reciter running through his melodramatic spiel. ‘Or Mr Edgar Poe, Lord of the Ravens.’


His bitterness had no more effect than a gnat; she brushed it aside. ‘That is your book, isn’t it?’ she asked.


‘I own it, yes.’


‘No, you know what I mean.’


There it was: the name the Dutch military police had recorded in their log books, the name he had dropped and buried in the rotting soil in the jungles of Java, the name cut clumsily into a school desk in a town in the north of France. He was free to roam the surface of the earth, but his name was chained to his leg. He tossed his head back and forth, and ground his teeth. ‘Ah, damn it,’ he said. ‘Damn it all.’ He walked away for a few paces, and stood there kicking the grass. He took a deep breath, and looked up. There was a drift of cloud to the west; high in the sky over the country of wild black tribes, he thought. The blacks would be sleeping around their campfires now, in the open desert. Perhaps he would never see it, after all.


He walked back, and took her hand. ‘It is over, finished. I have been dragging that thing around with me like the body of a dead child for three years now. I should let it go.’




He turned away and walked a few steps, and turned back to her, raising his voice. ‘I used to believe that the world of literature was somehow special. What a pitiful delusion!’ He ran his fingers through his spiky, dishevelled hair, and spat on the ground. ‘Like everything else, it is set up and managed by the bourgeoisie. A sideshow. And like Miss Estella the Magicienne, it is made from cheap tricks and mirrors.’

Smoke and mirrors, again. From the internet.


‘You seem very bitter about the bourgeoisie,’ she said patiently. ‘They must have done something to offend you.’ He seemed about to reply, but said nothing. ‘I suppose by “the bourgeoisie” you mean ordinary people like my father. Or like me. But such people invented the modern world, Paul. But I don’t want to argue with you,’ she said in a calmer voice. She came up and put her arms around him and rested her head against his chest.


He thought for a long time before replying. ‘You are one of the few people I feel I can talk to. You have a toughness in your spirit that I like.’ The light dimmed: a cloud had drifted across the moon. ‘I do not know if I shall come back,’ he said.


They stood close against each other for a while, feeling the warmth and solidity of each other’s bodies. Under the brim of his hat his face was in shadow. She felt the muscles under his back. She tried to remember his features one by one: the sharp nose, the intense blue eyes, the rough brown-blond stubble on his cheeks, the cynical smile he wore. She wanted to record the features as a camera would, and hold them against the slow erosion of time.


‘No, I am not such a good person, really,’ he said.


She laughed. ‘I didn’t think you were.’ She held him tight for a moment. ‘I didn’t think you were a good person for a single moment. I realised right off that you were a bad type. Quite rotten.’


Was she being humorous? ‘Well, not quite rotten all through,’ he said. ‘Perhaps I have one or two qualities, what do you say, redeeming qualities.’


‘I believe you. I’m sure they’d be appreciated in Europe more than they are in the colonies. You’re like a fish out of water here, aren’t you?’


He didn’t reply. After a moment he said ‘Do you want to go to Europe again?’


‘Yes, of course,’ she said. ‘I should like to live in Europe, somehow. But I don’t think that kind of opportunity comes often. I had my chance, when I was twenty.’


‘Why did your father take you? Was it a reward for doing well at art school?’

Grand Tour.


She thought a while before answering. ‘You might as well know,’ she said. ‘It was a reward for doing badly at art school. And for doing badly at the game of life.’


‘What do you mean?’


‘Father took me to Europe to help me forget.’


‘Oh, yes. The art teacher you fell in love with.’


‘More than that. When people fall in love, things happen.’


He laughed. ‘Something happens to their heart, yes, even I have heard of that.’


‘No, to their bodies. They have babies. There’s a kind of logic to it, I suppose.’


‘You —’


‘Yes. Not a child I wanted. We were living outside of Goulburn then. That is, my father was. My mother died when I was little, and perhaps if she had lived, I might have done things differently.’


‘But — what happened to the child?’


‘I gave the child away. I was distraught. What else could I do?’


He loosened his arms and moved back a pace. ‘I do not know. Do not ask me, the answers to these things. I know nothing.’


‘I can’t tell you how I hated that man. He’d made three of the students pregnant, everyone knew about his affairs but me, it seemed. I didn’t know what to do with my life. I wanted to kill myself, for a while. That’s when my father took me to Europe. The change of scenery, the different cultures I’d read about but didn’t really know at all, that saved me. You’ve grown up in Europe, to you it must seem quite ordinary, boring, even, but I can’t tell you how novel it all was to me. How rich, how tangled up in history, how complex and mysterious. The food, the smells, the language, the different way people eat, the way they — I could never have imagined such variety. The way they promenade in the evening, and sit in cafés till midnight arguing about history, and politics. It was a revelation to me. A revelation of how second-rate and limited it is here in this colony. We have no history. All we have is the future, and there’s no foundation to build it on. It’s like trying to build a castle on wet sand.’


‘And — the child, have you ever seen it again? How old would it be?’


Julie’s voice seemed smaller. ‘Why do you ask that? About Mary’s age,’ she said. ‘That’s about how old. You think I haven’t counted every birthday?’


‘I can imagine your unhappiness,’ Paul said. ‘I do not know quite how to say it, and perhaps I am being rude without meaning it. But I can understand what you went through, having the child, giving it up, and living on like a stranger outside the gate, looking in from the darkness at the warm fireside, and the family eating and talking — ’


‘Please don’t,’ she said. Her voice was like something caught in a trap: tight and tense, and Paul felt she was about to cry.


Paul frowned, and thought for a while. ‘You know,’ he said, ‘I sometimes thought how like you Mary is. She could be your little sister.’


There was a silence for a while. ‘Of course she’s like me,’ Julie said. ‘Of course she is.’

The Piano Lesson, 1785, by Marguerite Gerard. From the internet.


Paul remembered catching sight of them through the glass doors that led from the verandah to Julie’s study. Mary had just finished her lesson and they had been standing beside the piano with their arms around each other, eyes closed, swaying slightly. ‘Of course,’ he said under his breath. His mind struggled to make the readjustment: he had thought of Julie as being in some essential way untouched by the harsh physical aspects of life — rather like his maiden aunts at Douai — living on in this house, keeping the garden full of life and colour, looking after her father, cooking and mending. Now, as this sad story unravelled, he seemed to catch the full force of the human energy that pulsed through her veins. He thought briefly of the physical agony of childbirth — the blood, the mess, the screams.


‘And so you are condemned… every day to see the child, but never to speak about the one thing that matters.’


Julie sat down on the edge of the pond. The fountain had faltered; only a thin stream of water trickled and dabbled into the pool. ‘I keep telling myself how fortunate I am. Mary is a healthy, beautiful child, and she’s growing into a brave young woman. Worse things might have happened.’


‘Do you ever… do you think that one day, perhaps… ’


‘Of course I want children. Why do you think I entertained the thought of marrying Joe? Oh, I know you hate him, and I don’t blame you, but he does have a good side. His manner is rough, but he feels he has to put on a show of strength to survive in this place, and he is capable of tenderness, believe it or not. I didn’t want his properties or his money. I wanted a chance to have a family.’




‘I doubt you’d understand. You don’t sound like a family man, to me.’




Julie tossed a pebble into the pond. A ghostly shape drifted towards it, wavering under the surface ripples.


‘What’s that? A man-eating eel?’

Carp in water. From the internet.


She laughed. ‘No, that’s Davy Jones, an old carp. Mr Lee gave him to my father many years ago. He’s supposed to symbolise something in Chinese culture: a wise old age, perhaps. I come to watch him from time to time, and we have a little conversation. He drifts and dreams in his watery prison. I used to wonder what goes through his mind, far from his home. Well, he does without family, and seems none the worse for it.’


‘It is better.’


‘For fish, perhaps.’


‘It is better to be able to survive alone,’ Paul said. ‘Family, it sounds very secure. But what does it mean? They can abandon you, or they want to force you into some stupid old set of moral ideals they got from their grandparents, that were beaten into them as children, and that do not apply any more in the modern world, these rules. The old people, they sit at home knitting in front of the hearth; what do they know of life? They have been nowhere, and they have done nothing with their lives. There should be a give and take, they should back you up no matter what, but that never happens. And in the end you are alone, in any case, and you have to survive somehow. A friend, that can be some use. A companion. But family, it is an illusion, born of the middle class.’


‘Well, here’s your friend,’ Julie said in a quiet voice. ‘Frank, we’re over here.’
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