Chapter 03 — Memories of Sydney
… In which Paul Nouveau continues his travels by coach to Wagga Wagga, after killing the two bushrangers, and — half asleep — remembers his arrival in Sydney not long before, and his getting the Dutchman drunk and stealing his money and his revolver. He remembers watching an organ-grinder and his monkey, and a strange blackfellow, who stares at him. Then he sleeps.
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It grew darker outside the coach. The bodies, the two bushrangers and poor Mr Finnegan the driver, were tied to the top of the coach, and in front of them Frank was driving, but not very well. The coach rolled, stalled, and jerked into motion again. Miss Bell drew back from Paul as though he were unclean. He lay back against the seat and tried to sleep, or tried to stay awake, he wasn’t sure which. Memories flooded into his mind, memories of Sydney Town, his first evening in the colony. The pistol, that’s what it was.
In a bar crowded with sailors and working men Paul fell in with a lieutenant in the Dutch Navy who was off duty for the evening. He had a manner that was bullying and effeminate at the same time, and Paul disliked him intensely. He was not wearing his uniform, but sharkskin trousers and a blue silk shirt blotched with sweat. ‘Dey better look out,’ he said. ‘It’s mine day off, I’m a pirate. Sydney Town, dey better look out for its women und children.’ He was hardly convincing in the part — he was a fat, pale-skinned man with a sparse white beard — but he wore a cutlass slung from his belt and a pistol in a white leather holster at his side. They drank their way through a bottle of lemon schnapps.
‘You look angry, mine friend,’ he said. ‘What is it, making you angry? You don’t like Sydney?’
‘Is it because you French? You don’t like these English here?’
‘They took some money,’ Paul said. ‘Some piece of shit took it from my pocket. I was drunk today, just — just a certain amount. So they watch, and they take it, steal it. The people in this place are stinking pigs.’
‘I got money,’ the Dutchman said. ‘Fuck the English.’
It didn’t take much persuading to get the Dutch lieutenant drinking, but it seemed to take a lot to get him drunk. Paul wanted his revolver, a handsome English pistol, a six-shot centre-fire with a knurled pattern on the butt. He thought half a dozen rums should do it, but after visiting three different bars around the Sydney waterfront by midnight the lieutenant had taken on much more than that, and he was still acting sober. Paul bought him beer, he bought him Java rum, he bought him schnapps, but the Dutchman was still clear-headed and full of amiable chatter. Paul had a stinking headache, and eventually he had to go outside to vomit. That cleared his head.
Finally Paul bought him a double absinthe — ‘a taste of France’, he said — because the strong anise flavour would disguise the taste of the sleeping draught he’d brought with him. When the Dutchman went outside to piss, Paul poured half the little bottle of chloral hydrate into his glass. Ten minutes later his victim was slumped in his seat, peering at Paul and trying to focus.
‘You, sailor,’ Paul said. ‘You said to me one more bar.’ He pulled the lieutenant to his feet and helped him out into the street. It had started to rain. There were sailors hanging around in groups outside, so Paul half-carried and half-dragged his burden a hundred yards along the street, talking to him in a mixture of broken Dutch and French like an old friend, until they came to a side alley where he dragged him into the shadows and lowered him to the ground. He got the purse without any problems. It was full of money, more than fifty pounds in notes, and half a dozen gold sovereigns.
‘Il pleut,’ the Dutchman mumbled, ‘It is raining with the cats and the dogs,’ and he tried to raise his head, but the effort was too much for him. He slumped onto the ground and started to snore.
Paul watched him carefully for a moment. When it seemed safe he went to take the gun, but it stuck in the holster. ‘Damn you, I’ll take the lot,’ he said to himself, and he pulled the belt off roughly, rolling his victim over in the process so that he struck his forehead on the edge of the gutter. The pain roused him and he let out a bellow.
‘You bastard,’ he yelled, ‘What are you doing here? What is it? You said you were my friend!’ He got to his knees, slipping on the wet cobblestones, and grabbed for the cutlass that dangled from the belt. ‘My friend!’ he spat out. ‘No, you are the dog shit.’
Paul jerked the cutlass from his grasp. He was almost on his feet when Paul hit him on the forehead with the butt of the gun, splitting the skin open.
‘Down, you bastard!’ he grunted, but the Dutchman rallied and grabbed at Paul’s coat, blood streaming down his rain-wet beard. Paul hit him again, knocking him down into a crouching position, then, holding the barrel of the gun with both hands and using all his strength, struck a third blow to the back of his head. He heard a crack as the skull split. Then he ran.
Something his mother had said years before came back to him. He frowned, and half grunted in his sleep. My poor Paul, she had said, wiping her hands on her apron and tilting her head to one side: What will become of you?
And a few days before, near the main railway station at Redfern in Sydney, an organ-grinder was cranking out a tune, and a few people had gathered. Paul paused to listen: the swelling fall of the music blended into the jerky swooning motion of the coach. He almost woke, then fell back into sleep again. The melody was an odd blend of gaiety and melodrama. A monkey on a chain darted about rattling a tin cup, begging for coins. The animal’s lips grimaced constantly, changing from smile to a scowl in a moment, then back again, showing his sharp yellow teeth. The people in the crowd were clearly frightened of him. ‘Hey, Little Bob won’t bite you,’ the organ-grinder shouted. ‘Give the little feller a penny. Make him smile.’
Among the crowd enjoying the show Paul noticed an Australian blackfellow dressed in working clothes. He wondered what the man made of the music, with its melodies and scales that had changed and developed and matured over a period of three thousand years of European history. The moods the music went through seemed obvious enough: jolly one moment, dramatic the next; the language it spoke was self-evident, but of course to an individual from another culture, the sounds must have meant absolutely nothing.
Paul realised the blackfellow’s eyes were fixed on his — the stare was level and intense, but curiously empty. Like a strange piece of music, its meaning was hard to fathom. His felt his skin crawl under the unfamiliar gaze, and he moved on. The music followed him through the streets, fading, taking on more echoes, until it was finally buried under the sound of steel cart wheels and horses’ hooves clashing on the cobbles, and he was back in the mail coach again, rocking and jerking through the dark, something far too horrible to remember troubling his dreams.
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