Novel: Black Gold / Chapter 20

Chapter 20 — Morphy
… In which Paul Nouveau goes to meet Jimmy Skylark, waits, grows impatient and goes to Greenleaves’ place, where to his surprise he meets a gang of schoolchildren under the supervision of Mary Cameron. Greenleaves tells Paul that they have been studying the geography of South America. The two men withdraw to the study to talk. Greenleaves tells Paul of meeting a young Paul Morphy, the American chess champion, in Paris, who easily defeats Greenleaves at a game of chess. Paul is very interested in the way Morphy has withdrawn from the world of chess, somewhat in the same way that Paul has withdrawn from the world of writing. Greenleaves reminds Paul of the evening at the Café Tabourey. Paul tells of being shot at, in Belgium, and Greenleaves tells him of his uncle Ebenezer’s death, and the value of a new human life.

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The next day Paul went looking for Jimmy, to learn more about tracking. A road led out of the town and lost itself in a tangle of tussocks and blackberries. At the edge of a clearing where the forest began, almost in the shade of a stand of gum trees, Jimmy had built a one-room bark hut with a corrugated iron chimney and a lean-to shelter at the side, as though he wanted to keep one foot in the cleared area, and one in the shadows of the bush where his ancestors had lived. The flap of hessian that served as a door was hooked back on its nail. Paul called out, but there was no answer: though Jimmy had arranged to meet him, there was no one home. A plume of smoke drifted from the chimney, a fowl clucked and scratched idly in the yard, the dingo pup whimpered on his chain, These quiet domestic touches only made the scene more lonely.

Hut. From the internet.


He thought for a moment of trying to find Jimmy by following his tracks, then he laughed at the thought. He couldn’t track a draught horse across a freshly-ploughed field. So he waited, sitting on a sawn-off stump. It must have been a giant once: the trunk was five or six feet across. Now the tree was a thousand boards of sawn timber, perhaps in the shape of a house, protecting some English migrant from the harsh Australian weather.


What would an Impressionist painter make of this scenery, he wondered. Dry grass, khaki-coloured scrub, trees with shreds of bark hanging from the ragged trunks. Everywhere a harsh direct light that blazed down from the sky. In Europe it was possible to conceive of a kind of continuity with ancient times: a shepherd in the French countryside today looked more or less as a shepherd would have looked in the time of Theocritus. A tale of fauns and forest spirits was easily believable if you read it, as he had read from his tattered volume of Ovid, one evening in the courtyard of an inn at the foot of the Italian alps. In a small field behind the inn a goat had grazed at the lush grass; insects had drifted above the still surface of the mill pond. Here in this empty landscape no shepherd had ever dreamed, no water-wheel had ever turned; until the British came, no shoe had trodden the earth in more than a million years.


After half an hour, when no one had turned up, he decided to call on Greenleaves again. He made his way to the edge of town, through the gate covered with creeping purple flowers, and up the long shaded drive. The day was warm, and small birds kept up a light chattering in the trees and bushes. From further down in the shaded hollows and gullies he heard the faint hooting he had noticed before, a mournful sound full of foreboding. It was a sound like a pigeon’s call, but deeper and with a heavier timbre, coloured like old mahogany. His shadow walked before him on the ground, foreshortened, unrecognisable, but his nonetheless. Like his soul, he thought — equally stubborn, just as dim and misshapen, as dogged and as faithful.


He wondered whether he’d be made welcome when he arrived. He liked what he’d seen of Greenleaves: he seemed to Paul like a wise old badger who lives deep in the forest and shuns the other animals.


The hill was long and steep, and he was tired when he reached the house.


There were noises coming from inside. They were noises he hadn’t expected to hear in this place — the sound of children’s voices laughing and playing. For a strange moment he was transported back to his childhood. He could hear the seething chatter of schoolboys in the playground, the voice of a teacher calling for order, and the cawing of the rooks that gathered in the great yew trees behind the college buildings. He was a long way from that schoolyard now, and he had a strong feeling of dissociation, of being an observer at a ceremony whose meaning he didn’t quite understand, or an audience member waiting for a play to begin. The children’s voices were off-stage, and the small silent clearing where he stood in the warm sunlight in front of Greenleaves’ house was like a vestibule, a magical space that led to another world. The front door was ajar, and he went in.


He met Mrs Emmott in the hall, wearing an apron and carrying a large tray of scones. ‘You’re just in time for tea and biscuits,’ she said. ‘They’ve finished with the stereoscope, and Mr Greenleaves said if I don’t stuff their mouths with food of some description he’ll be driven deaf!’ She laughed. ‘Come on through.’


Paul followed her into the sun-room at the side of the house. Seven or eight children were chattering in a circle around Greenleaves, who was trying to explain how a South American gaucho captures a steer with his bolas. ‘He swings them like so,’ he said, gesturing with a skipping rope which he swung in a circle around his head, ‘and lets them go like so, and the heavy weights tangle around the beast’s neck, then you pull on the rope.’ He pretended to capture a small girl, and the group clapped and laughed. ‘Are you all right, my dear? There you are. Now, look carefully in the photograph and you’ll see how he holds the bolas.’


‘It’s like a lasso!’ one of the children cried, and the others joined in. ‘My turn! Let me see!’


Mary Cameron smacked one of the children with a ruler, and the others quietened down. ‘Mrs Emmott’s brought something to eat,’ Mary said. ‘Any more noise, and it’ll be no scones for anyone! Do you hear?’


They ignored her, and swirled like starving birds around the tray of food.


Greenleaves spotted Paul standing awkwardly to one side. ‘My dear fellow!’ he called. ‘How good of you to drop by. I say, you don’t happen to know anything about South American geography, do you?’


‘Uh, no, not a thing. I did not know you were a teacher.’


Greenleaves laughed. ‘Oh no, Mary’s the teacher here. D’you know Miss Cameron? It’s her birthday today.’


‘But yes, of course.’


Mary smiled and nodded gravely, and turned back to the serious job of controlling the appetites of her schoolmates. She was taller and older than the others, who were about eight or nine; that and the seriousness of her demeanour gave her an adult air. Her hair was tied back with a tartan ribbon and she wore a long dress of navy blue. She could have passed for a young teacher.


‘Mary has brought some of her school friends to look through my collection of stereoscopic photographs of Paraguay and the Argentine. It’s their geography topic this month. Their teacher’s an old friend of mine, and the school thought it was a good idea. I bought the photographs in London. Here, why don’t we leave this rabble to Miss Cameron, and have a chat in the library. Come on through.’


They passed into the large study where they had talked before, filled again with green light. Paul noticed that the typewriting machine had been moved to the main desk, and was surrounded by sheets of paper, typewritten on and scribbled across.


‘You have mastered the machine?’


‘No, it’s mastered me,’ Greenleaves said with a scowl. ‘I have been drawn into its vortex. I sit up all night fiddling with the various adjustments and oiling the keys, and typewriting gibberish under the impression that I’m making sense because the letters look so fine and finished. I am the machine’s slave.’ He laughed. ‘Oh well, we all need a hobby, that’s what Doctor Bell says, and it’s better than shooting pheasants, which is what my father did in his spare time. Killed a thousand birds by the age of fifty, he used to boast, though no one believed him. I don’t know if anyone ate the wretched things. Perhaps he threw them to the servants. Would you care for a coffee? I’ll ask Mrs Emmott to brew some.’


When he returned he noticed Paul musing over the chess board. ‘Do you play chess?’


‘Chess? No, no. I study the game when I was young, and I played a little in the cafés. It has no practical use.’


Greenleaves laughed. ‘Too true. But that doesn’t stop people ruining their lives over it.’ He looked up at a sketch framed on the wall. ‘See that fellow? Most remarkable chess player I ever met.’


Paul examined the drawing. It was a pen and ink piece about the size of a foolscap page, a portrait of a delicate young man in semi-formal dress sitting on a cushion. The artist had caught a haughty and withdrawn expression at the point where the sitter seemed to be receding, drawing away from contact with the artist and with the viewer. His lips had a sulky half-smile, and his eyes looked out at you, but they were not looking at anything at all.

Paul Morphy as drawn by Winslow Homer from Ballou’s Pictorial, 1859. Courtesy of The Strong, Rochester, New York. From the internet.


‘It is cleverly done. Who made the drawing?’


‘Winslow Homer’s the artist, a smart young American. It’s a sketch for a portrait; I picked it up in New York a few years ago. But it’s the sitter who’s of more interest to me. That’s Paul Morphy. A damned good likeness, too. You can almost feel the cool pressure of those small hands — plump and pale. I played a game against him once, in Paris. I lasted five minutes. Those tiny hands gently moved piece after piece across the board, and in a few moments I was destroyed.’


‘I heard something about him. I think de l’Isle-Adam said he had played a game with him once. In Paris, you said?’


‘That’s where I met him; it must have been, oh, ten years ago. He’d given up playing professionally by that time. He was in Europe on a private visit, and he avoided the chess haunts. He played an occasional friendly game, no more. Played like an angel.’


‘He gave up playing?’


‘It’s an odd story. He came to Paris in Fifty-eight, and beat Anderssen, Harrwitz, and Loewenthal. He conquered the best that Europe could throw against him, one after the other. He was the greatest chess player in the world at the age of twenty-one. He was the first American ever to be the best in the world at anything. They idolised him in New York — your average American doesn’t care that much for chess, but they carried Morphy through the streets in triumph. Then he went back to New Orleans — to practise law he said — and gave it all away. Must be middle-aged now. He’s still there, as far as I know, a recluse.’


‘Huh,’ said Paul. ‘Like you.’


Greenleaves snorted. ‘I’m no Morphy,’ he said. ‘In this town you’re considered stand-offish if you don’t drink every day in the pub with the blacksmith and the grooms. I choose not to help out at the cake stall each weekend, I decline invitations to attend the church soirée, and they call me a misanthrope. Well, damn them.’ He stroked his beard and glared. From the adjoining greenhouse, flooded with submarine light, a crimson parrot glared back. It bobbed its head and shook out its feathers as though in irritable agreement.


Mrs Emmott appeared with the coffee; Greenleaves poured.


Paul’s mind was running on another track. ‘But why did he throw it away?’


‘Morphy? Why? Oh, people say it was because someone insulted him over the board. He was a sensitive fellow. But to give up the game? I don’t know. Some say it was because Staunton refused his challenge. Staunton was the best player in Britain, but not up to Morphy’s standard, and he was cunning enough to stay well out of Morphy’s reach, like a rat hiding in the cellar when a terrier’s hunting him upstairs. And some say it was because a young beauty back in New Orleans threw him over for a wealthy lawyer. Morphy had Creole blood in his veins. And then there was the war.’


‘The war?’


‘The American war, North against South. He was a Southerner, but he couldn’t make up his mind to fight for one side or the other, apparently. That must have been pretty sticky, in New Orleans, when fellows were going off to get shot as a matter of honour. But that may have had nothing to do with it. Perhaps he couldn’t stand the sudden blaze of fame, strangers chattering at him in the street, desperate people begging him for money. Perhaps he was a bit touched. God knows the real reason.’


‘But you met him. You faced him, you sat close enough to touch him, you looked into those eyes, those hooded eyes. Did you not ask him?’


‘Ask him? What?’


‘Did you not ask him why he gave it away? I would ask him.’


‘Dammit, a fellow doesn’t do that sort of thing.’ Greenleaves looked cross, and shrugged his shoulders into his jacket in a gesture of annoyance. ‘As a matter of fact, I prefer to believe that there isn’t a reason.’


‘No reason? What do you mean?’


‘That he got sick of the whole thing, and just gave it away, for no real reason at all. What do you think?’


The question was sudden: Paul withdrew into himself. ‘This matter, I do not have an opinion.’


Greenleaves regarded him closely. ‘But I think you do have an opinion.’


Paul turned back to look at the sketch. Morphy was gazing out from his frame at a slight angle, he realised now, just enough to avoid the eye of the artist or the viewer, looking over the viewer’s shoulder, in fact, at something else: perhaps at his own receding fame. His body seemed small, his trunk short; perhaps that was the reason for the cushion. One arm rested on a desk with a chess game set out. The other hung hesitantly against his side, the fingers slightly closed, as though he was about to put something into his trouser pocket, or perhaps to take something out. The expression was hard to read: it was both confident and evasive at once. He must have been in his early twenties: Paul’s age.


‘Once I should have had an opinion,’ Paul said carefully. ‘Not any more. Perhaps you are right. He grew sick of it and gave it away. After all, it is a miserable profession, putting your skill and reputation to the test in a smoky café over a pointless game, and doing it time after time, in different cities of the world. It must be like performing tricks in front of a crowd of sticky-beaks, like that chimpanzee at the show. What was his name? Consul.’


‘I remember a remark Morphy made, about the brief period when he was famous. He said he felt like a chess automaton, but with no person inside. A quaint idea.’




‘Yes, a machine,’ Greenleaves said, ‘like an elaborate clock or a mechanical bird, a machine that plays chess. There was one at the court in Vienna, I believe, a hundred or so years ago. A lot of people were taken in. They say there was a dwarf inside, but no one ever proved it. Think of him, poor fellow, doomed to hide his light under a bushel.’


‘How ironic.’


‘I’ve noticed that you fasten onto the ironic aspect of things, my friend. It’s as though you are looking at everything through my stereoscope. You seem to focus on the ordinary events of the world so that their imperfections and their slight contradictions stand out in sharp relief, with the extra dimension of irony. Is it a talent of the French, I wonder, or just something that is particular to your personality?’

The Mechanical Turk. From the internet.


‘Oh, I believe it is the secret operating principle of life in the modern world. Was it not Michelet who said that everything important happens twice: the first time as melodrama, the second time as irony. But think of such a dwarf — eh? — an artistic genius whose canvas is the chess board, but who is fated to toil in darkness. A lifetime of clever moves and brilliant victories, but all of it meaningless to him, because he may never claim any of it for himself. His lot is silence and absence. And if one fateful day, one day in a fit of frustration, he should give in to the temptation to throw off his mask and claim the fame due to his genius, why, that would be the moment of his greatest shame.’ Paul’s blue eyes were sparkling.


He noticed that Greenleaves was gazing at him with a penetrating stare. He stopped himself, and checked his hands in the middle of a dramatic gesture. The door was open slightly and the children’s voices came from the sun-room, light and clear as though they were the actors in a fairy tale laughing at some trick a goblin had played on the princess. Again he had the feeling that he stood on the edge of another world that had a peculiarly intense quality of meaning, perhaps a world of memory or dream.


‘Ah, memory,’ said Greenleaves, as though he had been reading his thoughts. ‘When your eyes glitter like that I seem to see the Café Tabourey that November midnight, All Souls’ eve, a chill wind blowing in under the door, and that miserable boy sitting on his own. What was he thinking, gazing at the bottom of his glass, I wonder.’


Paul stared at him intently for a moment, and then the words rushed out, thick with anger: ‘You are a calm, sensible man. You have family wealth to indulge your talents and your dreams. I had to beg money from my mother for my vanities. And when my pathetic little book was printed in Belgium at great expense — what did I know about publishing? Nothing! — and when a handful of copies had been sent out to the people who matter in Paris, I went to these critics on my knees to see if they might give the book a notice.’


‘You? On your knees?’ Greenleaves pursed his lips and shook his head slightly. ‘I hope you’ll forgive me if I suggest that I find that unlikely. What were the notices like? Not good?’


‘Notices? There were no notices. Those who declined to spit on me refused to answer the door. They were “not at home”, at least not to me, permanently and forever.’ His voice rose to a shout. ‘Not at home!’


‘No notices? Nothing? What happened to your book?’


‘There is no book, apart from those few copies, now in various wastebaskets or rotting on a garbage heap. I could not pay for the rest, and I presume the printer cut them up for waste. That is what they do, is it not? Cut them up for waste?’


‘What had you done to these people to make them hate you so?’


‘You know what I had done. You were in the Tabourey, it was only three years ago, you were there with your friend Poussin, you said, gossiping with the rest of them, those hyenas who were “not at home” to me. Surely they told you.’


Greenleaves looked at him quietly for a while. ‘Suppose you tell me. I shan’t judge.’


Paul gave him a surly glance, and looked at the parrot. ‘I might as well vindicate myself to your resident critic here. What was his name, did you say? Pater?’ The parrot gave an angry whistle and bobbed on his branch. Paul stared at him for a while, his eyes unfocussed, going over old things in his mind. At length he spoke, in a calmer voice. ‘There were two things. One, I had been rude to many of them. As it happens, most of the litterateurs in Paris are cretins and frauds. I suppose it is always the way, perhaps it is a law of nature that in any culture at any time in history, most of the people who want to be writers are in fact vain incompetents. I have a temper. So, I said cruel things, I mocked them for their dull rhymes, their stolen metaphors — quite rightly. I said their scribblings were amateurish drivel. It is all true, but I got what I deserved. Well, it is history now.’


‘And the other reason these people hated you?’


‘That business with the old homosexual man. You know he tried to murder me.’ Paul rubbed his wrist. ‘He shot at me, I was just lucky the bullet hit my arm and didn’t pass through into my body and kill me. He was a weakling, a drunk, a would-be murderer. The weakness — I hated that. Then in the street the next day he tried to murder me again, and this time I grabbed a policeman who was there. Perhaps that was a moment of cowardice, who knows? I do not have to justify that, surely. They put me in hospital where I nearly died of fever from the bullet wound, and they put him in prison for two years. His friends — well, they were sorry for him, and they hated me for it, they called me a corrupter. Me! I was a sixteen-year-old schoolboy when I met that bastard. What did they want, that I should lie there on the pavement in Brussels in the rain, and beg him to shoot me in the face? Is that what they wanted?’


‘Prison must have been hard on him, all the same.’


‘Well, prison, that I had not meant to happen. I tried to take back the charges, to take it back, but there were political considerations at work. We had both been connected with the Commune, we had written for various radical papers, angry things. Police spies had followed us from England. The spies always follow you. The authorities, they wanted to get their revenge.’


‘Police spies?’


‘Yes, spies. Oh, you would not understand, you have nothing like it in this colony. There are more spies in France than there are people. The Brussels police had a doctor examine him and they found… ’ Paul stopped here, and swallowed once or twice. ‘They found certain evidence… The Belgians, they are like a mob of old village women, but more vicious, perhaps. There was nothing anyone could do at that point to save him from prison. Oh yes, and if that was hard for him, what about his attempt to murder me? Would that have been easy to recover from, a bullet in the head?’


‘I said I wasn’t going to judge.’


‘It was like the end of a dream, for me. It was as though for years I had been gazing into a large, beautiful mirror with tinted glass and bevelled edges, admiring my image there, an image built of childish fantasies. And then — then the mirror shatters, and there is nothing there but a piece of shit lying on the floor, stinking out the room. People talk about disillusionment as though it is something mournful and aesthetic. No, it is not. It is like wanting to vomit so hard you vomit out your own stomach. It is not morals I talk about. The morals of it fail to interest me.’


‘There must have been something there at first.’


‘Oh, at first, God knows. He was famous, he knew everyone, he was clever… I thought I was grown up, but I was just a child. He took advantage of me.’ He gave a sour laugh. ‘But perhaps I took advantage of him. That is what he said. That is what they all said. But then, he was such a hypocrite. Well, who knows?’


‘That’s the problem,’ Greenleaves said thoughtfully, ‘with the hot fevers of adolescence. To avoid the disasters that follow them, you need to have learned from the experience of those disasters, and you can’t do that until you have experienced them. It’s a circular problem, and it’s insoluble. Pearls in the gutter. Ah well. I have a doleful memory or two of my own, so I can sympathise. No wonder you didn’t want to chat with poor Poussin.’


‘No. By then I was like a dog infected with rabies. No one there would speak to me. They would turn their backs, and sneer. I would not even — I would not even go up to them, I would not beg, I would not give them that pleasure.’ He looked at Greenleaves, and for a moment he seemed defenceless and wounded, like a child, perhaps like one of the children playing in the sun-room nearby.

Cafe Scene, by Edouard Manet, 1878. From the internet.


Greenleaves felt sorry for him. ‘The French middle class,’ he said, ‘they can be very rigid about form and manners. You must have been very disappointed.’


‘Disappointed? I doubt you could ever know the depth of the hatred and despair I felt that night.’ His hands were shaking; he abruptly clutched them together. He walked a few steps away, then back again. ‘What did the English poet Gray say, in his dismal churchyard? Some mute inglorious Milton here may rest — In the Wagga Wagga graveyard, I wonder how many unknown poets have left their bones to rot. Not many, I should think. But you may make up that number one day — a distant day, I hope, pray do not misunderstand me. What am I saying? But you — you have felt some of these things, you have sipped at the venom I was so greedy to drink by the bottle. Your book was treated with contempt by the critics, you say. Well, then, tear it up! Since it is not possible to poison a book and stuff it down their throats, then burn it!’ He turned suddenly and went to the glass doors that gave onto the greenhouse, and stood there, his hands stuffed into his jacket pockets. Greenleaves could see his shoulders straining with anger.


He waited a moment for Paul’s temper to cool. ‘I suppose you’re right,’ he said, ‘to bring up Gray’s elegy. Mind you, that’s an English churchyard: mist at eventide, green grass, deep mossy soil. Here the graveyard is a paddock too stony to plough, and no good for anything else.’


Paul walked back to the desk, and flung himself into a leather chair. ‘I wish to God I had been as lucky, to have been given a useful talent, and to make a little money — instead of that bloated vanity to indulge for four long years. Anger and regret is bad for the soul, it is like one of the acids that Doctor Bell concocts that can eat through any metal. I have so many years to make up for, and what do I do? Nothing.’

Cemetery in the Bush. From the internet.


There was a burst of laughter from the sun-room. Greenleaves turned his head with a slight smile. ‘I should imagine they’ve demolished the scones by now. I wonder how Mrs Emmott’s coping with the drain on her provisions.’


‘And do you think there is any talent among them?’ Paul asked.


‘Oh, Mary’s going to make something of her life; I don’t know what, but something. The others — who knows? Children — well, I’m not one to talk, never having had any, but with children, you never know.’ He picked up the little book on chess and tested its weight in his hand. ‘The weight of a book,’ he said, and stroked his moustache. ‘The heft and weight of the thing, like one of the tablets of the law.’ He put the book down and stared into the greenhouse. ‘The weight of a book,’ he said again, ‘it’s a sad thing to me now. My uncle Ebenezer took ill last year. He never married; I don’t think he wanted the nuisance of a wife and noisy children and all the bother that goes with it, so there was no one to look after him. I went down to Sydney to see what I could do. Nothing, as it happened. On his deathbed he called for his books. A talent for scribbling must run in the family: he had written a few things — verses about gum trees and yachts on the water, a dozen haikus, an amateur’s reflections on old Chinese porcelain and the Buddhist religion, reams of watery ramblings that had been popular for a while, then had faded out of fashion decades ago.

Deathbed scene. From the internet.


‘I brought them in, and laid them upon his bony knees. There were perhaps half a dozen volumes in all, nothing very substantial. I noticed tears in his eyes as his hands touched and stroked the bindings. “Never mind, Ben,” I said thoughtlessly, “they’ll come back into fashion, don’t you worry.” He looked up at me, his mouth drawn into a pitiful grimace. “Fashion?” he said: “What does that matter? They had their fame, these little volumes. I had my moment of glory. I have my medal, safe in its box at the bank.” The Rhymers’ Club had awarded him their silver medal years before. How pathetic, I thought, but I had misunderstood. He choked and blubbered for a while, and said “It’s the weight.” They couldn’t have been very heavy. I thought he was wandering. “The weight? Is it bothering you?” I went to lift the heap of books and pamphlets, but he clung to them, and looked up into my eyes. “Oh God, if only it were the weight of a little child!” he cried out. “A child with soft hair that I could stroke, a child whose warm body I could hold!” He clutched the books to his chest and sobbed terribly. I admit it got to me. “I’d ask it what it might want to eat,” he cried out, “and I should only give it the nicest things. I should hold its little hand, and walk alongside all the way to school!” I admit I choked up somewhat at that point. I turned aside for a moment and wiped my eyes, and when I looked at him again, he was gone.’
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