Chapter 22 — Gaol
Paragraph One follows — 1:
Hours passed. Paul lay on the bunk and dozed, then woke in a sweat and paced the cell. It was large and spacious; a high window showed a patch of bright blue sky, and splashed a flag of sunshine against the whitewashed wall. There was no glass in the window, just three iron bars, and the sounds of the town floated on the air, distant and muffled. From time to time he heard a cart and once a bullock wagon crossing the bridge, making the planks rattle and thud so the sound echoed across the water. The sound was familiar to him now. Someone chopped wood slowly for perhaps half an hour; and once he heard a harmonium playing hymns, which provoked him to utter a short laugh.
He was worried. In this violent colony plagued by bandits and murderers they could easily hang him. Of course there was no real evidence that he’d done anything wrong, but there were plenty of circumstantial shreds that could be woven together to make up a pattern — his angry words to Verheeren outside the magic show, his movements on the night of the murder wandering about the town, the marks he left at the back of the house detected so surely by Jimmy’s uncanny tracking skills, the drop of blood on the tankstand nail — the more he thought about it the more facts he turned up that seemed incriminating, and the more afraid he became. He was a stranger here, and he’d never had much of a talent for getting people to like him — the Bells were friendly, true, and so was Frank, but what influence did they have, and how far would they go to protect a stranger?
He threw himself on the hard bunk and closed his eyes. In a few moments he was asleep, his mind filled with a jumble of anxious dreams.
He awoke to the jingle of keys, the scrape of the cell door opening, and the sounds of an argument. A lamp cast a wavering glow on the wall — it had grown dark. He rubbed the sleep from his eyes. The door slammed, the sound of keys retreated down the stone corridors, and he found he had a companion.
‘Murgatroyd’s the name, and murder’s the game. Har har har! No, I’m just making a little joke. What’s your name, young feller?’
Paul knew the high, shaky voice, though for a moment he couldn’t place the stranger. He peered at his visitor: the kerosene lamp was hanging on the far wall and it was hard to make out his features. He was a small man, unshaven and pale underneath his flushed cheeks. He may have been sixty, he may have been thirty. He blew his nose on a dirty piece of rag, and went on: ‘Well, damn your hide for not speaking civilly, but that won’t incapacitate my bloody manners.’ He drew a pack of cards from his coat. ‘D’you play cards? Eh? What’s up, boy, you been struck speechless?’
‘I know you. You are the man with the crazy dogs. You breed them, no? Barnaby, that is your name.’
‘My name will be known throughout the breadth of the colony, one day,’ Barnaby said with some vehemence, ‘and covered with glory, because of the wonderful work done by my cattle dogs. By his works ye shall know him. “But the deed is all, the glory nothing.” Goethe. And who’s this?’
‘Why do you want to know?’ Paul replied. ‘Who it is that I am, that is my own business. Did you say Goethe?’
‘Hmmm, that’s a Belgian accent,’ Barnaby guessed. ‘Tell me, you look like a farming boy, do you know the Belgian Keeshond? What about the retrieving poodle, with big one with the ruffs on its elbows?’ He licked his lips, and leaned forward as though imparting an important secret. His breath smelled of whisky. ‘The ruffs of fur, you know what they’re for? They’re not decoration. They’re to prevent arthritis of the joints. The European retrieving poodle’s terrible prone to arthritis. It’s the climate. Damp and wet. We don’t have them kind of problems here. Our problem’s the heat.’
‘The heat? After the tropics, it seems not so hot to me.’
‘You ain’t seen nothin’. The Outback’s the place, in summer. It gets warm there, by God. On a bad day you can work a dog to death rounding up wild cattle in that heat. The Smithfield Collie, he can’t take it. And the red bob-tail’s a brave dog, though he’s a terrible biter, and he can’t stand the heat neither. Only the native dog can take the heat. They fear no more the heat o’ the sun, nor the furious winter’s rages. Cymbeline. But they’re not worth a damn to a working man. So you don’t know the Keeshond?’
‘I think I maybe saw one in Antwerp. They live on the river boats, but I do not know about that kind of animal. I grew up in a town most of the time, and we did not keep a dog.’
‘Well, you’re no good to me.’ Barnaby snorted, and look at Paul suspiciously, blinking in the dim light and shaking his head slowly. ‘That’s an accent you’ve got there. You should do something about that. A foreigner, eh? Where are you from?’
‘Oh, please go away,’ Paul said. ‘I do not wish for company. Find another place to play cards.’
‘You must be a devil’, Barnaby said. ‘They know everything, and are sent to torment us with it. And what fine manners. Find another place! I wish I bloody could. Well, the colony is full of foreigners these days. That’s what the blacks say, at any rate. Har har har! Get the point, boy?’
‘What, don’t the black people like Frenchmen?’
‘God strike a light, they’ve put me in with an imbecile. They don’t — now pay attention, son — they don’t like bloody immigrants, that’s my point, man. Whites. Europeans. British. They’re all foreigners to them. Get it? White, Chinese, Red Indian or brindle, the blacks hate the bloody lot of us, and I don’t blame them. I’d do the same. God bless ’em.’ He took a small flask from a pocket and sipped from it delicately. ‘They missed this, the silly bastards. Want a swig?’ Paul shook his head. ‘Won’t hurt you. Well, not in the short run. Ah, that’s better. There’s more drink in heaven and earth, than is dreamed of in your philosophy, Horatio. Shakespeare. Ever read the great Shakespeare?’ Paul shook his head. ‘Well, fair enough. He’s not French, is he? Why would you? Why would you go to the toil and trouble? Why would you bother trying to read some stuff written out in a foreign lingo? I can understand that.’ He looked around the cell. ‘Ah, not so bad. A bed for the night. A blanket to keep Jack Frost away. Been outside? Evening’s coming on, and there’s a breeze, it bites shrewdly, it is very cold. Aye, it is a nipping and an eager air. Hamlet. Reminds me of vinegar, it does. Vine, eager… Well then, what’s for dinner, old son?’
‘I was enquiring as to the culinary arrangements for this evening, my good fellow. That’s my drift. What’s cooking? That’s the question. There’s the rub.’
‘I do not have an idea. Perhaps we shall starve. Perhaps that is to be our punishment.’
‘Hmmm. I can’t remember actually ingesting a feed for some considerable amount of time. The tucker’s been a bit thin on the ground, rations have been short, you might say. As a matter of fact I could eat a bloody horse, and chase the rider. The Sergeant’s wife is out of town, they tell me, visiting a half-witted cousin in Gumly Gumly. The Sergeant’s away too. Rats from a sinking ship, eh?’
‘What has that to do with our dinner? Do we need the permission of the Sergeant before we may eat?’
‘Well, it’s usually the Sergeant’s wife who does the cooking for the prisoners, see. She gets an allowance, a few bob a week from the Government. But she’s shot through, the Sergeant’s over at Hay after a bunch of bloody horse thieves, and the Constable likewise in the opposite direction, chasing a couple of lads up some gully out the back of Junee, or so they tell me.’ He thumped the heel of his hand against the cell door. ‘Think of it, being locked up by a bloody police clerk. My old mother would turn in her grave, God bless her.’
‘Is that who brought you in? The clerk? What had you done?’
‘Bloody mortifying. All right, I’d had a couple. I’ll admit that. I’d had a few. No need for some officious little bastard to lock a man up just because he’s taken a few on board.’
‘A few? On board? Are you a ship? A few of what?’
‘Drinks, drinks, what do you think I’d be having? Lemonades? Bloody sarsaparilla? God starve the lizards, I’d give my right arm for a draught of the true, the blushful Hippocrene, with beaded bubbles winking at the brim. Keats.’
‘Hippocrene? That is in Greece, no? Perhaps you were a scholar of Ancient Greek in a previous life.’ Paul laughed. ‘Is that where you learned to drink, in the symposiums of the Academy at Athens?’
Barnaby grunted. ‘Give a bloke a break. You sound like a real smart alec. No need to poke fun.’
But Paul went on. ‘Perhaps in your other life you attended literary evenings at the great Library at Alexandria in the days of the poet Apollonius, and lounged on a couch with a slave boy to fetch you beakers of wine.’ He laughed aloud, pleased at the image he’d conjured up.
‘Oh, don’t talk about it, it brings on my headaches. There’s a good fellow. Fair crack o’the whip.’
Paul noticed Barnaby’s smell: sour, stale, a mixture of old sweat and vomit. There was a stain down the lapel of his jacket, which had been black once, and was now a blend of inky tones. His wrinkled shirt was stamped with the history of many unsteadily-eaten meals, and his trousers were held up by piece of old rope tied in a knot at the waist. Paul remembered that Barnaby had doffed his hat, a battered bowler, to Doctor Bell at the Agricultural Show; the hat was nowhere to be seen now. His legs were thin and bony, and he seemed to have no backside at all. Barnaby noticed the appraising stare, and bounced shakily to the attack.
‘I know who you are, you’re the feller who killed them bushrangers, Heeney and his chum, shot the poor bugger’s face off. What are you looking at, Lord Frog? You might be a prize killer, but you’re in the same pickle as me, if you don’t mind a stranger pointing it out, your Bloody Highness. Locked in the same stinking cell! Don’t get obstreperous with me! For all you know, I’m a man with a cruel reputation for slitting throats. Keep your peepers to yourself!’ For all his bravado, he seemed nervous of Paul, and kept as much distance as the cell allowed. He wiped his nose on his sleeve and slumped onto his bunk. ‘It was the magnetical water that did it, that’s what it was. I should have left it alone. It’s too powerful for the likes of me.’
Barnaby’s outburst had inexplicably frightened Paul — he could feel his pulse racing — and he didn’t particularly wish to pursue this topic, but he couldn’t resist his curiosity. ‘The what?’
‘The Professor’s magnetical water. Cure anything, they reckon. But I’m the man who proves the rule. Tests it, that is, until it breaks. Prove all things — hold fast that which is good. Thessalonians.’
‘What professor? Is this Professor Goulstone, the piano player? What are you talking about?’
‘You haven’t heard of Professor Culpepper? You must be the only one. Well, I suppose being a foreigner, you might be excused your ignorance. He was there at the Show, large as life. He had a display of his own, a big wagon all painted up in purple and gold like a cohort of bloody Assyrians. They say he’s over a hundred, they say he saw Robespierre in the flesh, and he doesn’t look a day older than me. Fit as a fiddle. Memory tricks, you wouldn’t believe it. They got a fellow to recite a poem from the audience, some piece of malarkey he’d made up about life in the bush, all bullshit and gooli-gum — all in proper rhymes, though — and the Professor he read it right back at him, word for word, but with each line in reverse order from the back to the front. Then a fellow called out two numbers each twelve digits long, and the Professor just laughed and repeated the numbers back at him word perfect, then — this made them blink — then he read out the product of the two numbers multiplied together, a number so long it went on for ten minutes. People stood up and cheered. All due to the Water.’
‘Hmmm. And how did he come to invent this wonderful drink?’
‘Oh, no one invented it. He discovered it. It’s always been there, from biblical times. They say he came across it in India when he was investigating those mystical philosophies, the ones where devotees in a trance fling themselves under the wheels of the Juggernaut at Puri, or lie roasting on hot coals and never feel a thing. He found it in a cave near Malabar, they reckon, a deep spring of water that flows underground from the Himalayas, where those fakirs live in the snow with nothing on. Professor Culpepper’s Magnetical Water, guaranteed to make you Well and Strong.’
‘You believe that?’
‘Thousands do, old son. It’s a matter of gospel among the folk in the bush, like Goanna Liniment and Epsom Salts.’
Paul rubbed his bruised jaw absent-mindedly. ‘I have experienced the liniment. Spare me from the Epsom Salts. And this water, what does it make? How does it work, exactly?’
Barnaby’s reedy voice softened and took on a solemn tone: ‘They say it has absorbed the magnetical powers of the Himalayas. When you take it into your body, it permeates every pore and fibre of your being. It stiffens the sinews, and summons up the blood — Henry The Fifth — and makes its way along the arteries and veins into your very brain itself. You can’t feel it there — oh, no, it’s very subtle. Your mind becomes aligned with the magnetical currents that flow under the earth. You’ve held a compass, haven’t you?’
‘A compass? With the little hand that points to the North?’
‘The needle, the needle points to the North.’
‘Yes, of course.’
‘There you are, then! That needle, wobbling and trembling, what makes it turn? What makes the lodestone to the north advance his subtle point? Sir John Davies. A more natural sounding poet than Shakespeare sir, at rhyming stuff. You can’t see or feel what makes it do that, now can you? It’s an invisible force. Think of the power of the Himalayas! The Professor’s Magnetical Water floods your entire being, and brings it into harmony with the great vitalising forces of the universe. Why, the Doctor takes it, Doctor Bell. He swears it’s good for rheumatism. He takes a little every day with his evening whisky, or so he tells me.’
Paul smiled, and shook his head. ‘I thought you said, just now a minute ago, you said that you should leave it alone. What, did you take too much and get drunk?’
There was a touch of derision in Paul’s voice, and Barnaby glared at him. ‘You’re not mocking me, are you? With that Frog accent I can’t tell what you’re up to. Remember, you’ve got no guns in here.’ His voice rose to a shaky shout. ‘We’re all equal in here, man and dog! You might be a murderer, but I’m not afraid of you!’
Paul noticed that the man’s thin body was trembling uncontrollably, and a wave of pity washed over him. A lump came to his throat, and he felt his eyes swell with unshed tears. He was immediately angry with himself for this involuntary expression of an emotion he didn’t really feel. He hardly knew this man, and he didn’t really care whether he lived or died, yet he couldn’t help or prevent the salt water that rose to his eyes. He shook his head and blinked furiously, and cleared his throat firmly a couple of times. ‘No, no, I’m sorry,’ he said. ‘I didn’t mean to offend you. If Doctor Bell says it works, then there must be something in it.’
Barnaby sagged back onto his bunk, and blew his nose on the piece of rag. ‘Oh, it’s true, sir. I’ve seen it cure a dumb man, hadn’t spoken for seven years since he was hit by lightning out on Hangman’s Ridge one rainy afternoon, bringing his expectant wife into town in a sulky, the horse knocked unconscious and the poor woman killed, just a girl, really. People don’t believe about the Water until they’ve taken some, and it’s had time to work on them. Do you believe in spirits? Well it doesn’t matter if you do or not, they’re listening to us right now, I’ll tell you that for nothing. The Water helps you to hear and understand. I’ve said enough.’
‘Spirits? What do you mean, that you talk to ghosts? I cannot believe this.’
‘The spirits will provide. I’ve said enough. I’ve said too much. Look out, who’s this?’ The door opened with a rattle of keys and a squeak of hinges, and the worried police clerk ushered in Miss Dunn. Her dog was yapping and whining in the background — it must have nipped the clerk, because he swore at it under his breath. She had dressed up for the occasion in a pale grey print skirt and jacket, short grey gloves, and a white silk blouse; a necklace of tiny pink glass beads sparkled at her throat. Incongruously for the late hour, she wore a large straw hat. She gave Barnaby a bright smile. ‘You poor man!’
‘Whom d’you mean?’ Barnaby was taken aback.
‘Old Mrs Clampitt mentioned that the Sergeant’s wife was away, and no one to provide for the prisoners. Why, you could starve in this dismal cell, and no one would be any the wiser. Mr Gamp here —’ she indicated the hapless clerk with a wave of her hand — ‘poor Mr Gamp is overworked, he tells me, and supplying provisions and cooking are not part of his official duties. Besides which he admits to being a bachelor, with no culinary skills save boiling water for a pot of tea. So much for duty. Until you are tried and sentenced, you are innocent before the law. But here you are, forsaken and abandoned. I felt it my duty. I will not fail thee, nor forsake thee, as the Good Book says. I happened to have some meat loaf to spare, and a jar of pickles.’ She handed Barnaby a basket covered with a chequered cloth. He seemed at a loss to know quite what to do with it.
The clerk pushed his way forward. ‘No knives in that basket, is there?’ he inquired, poking under the cloth. ‘I’d look a proper booby if he cut his way out and stabbed someone.’
‘For goodness sake, Mr Gamp, the poor man is not a criminal. The inebriate is not generally a vicious person, rather the contrary, in my experience. In Hobart Town I did good works amongst the indigent and the inebriate, and they were generally quite humble in address and demeanour.’ She sniffed. ‘There’s a common table knife, quite blunt — the man has to be able to cut the meat loaf. That is all, in the way of cutlery.’
All this time she had quite ignored Paul, who was standing only a few feet from her. ‘Why, if it is not Miss Dunn,’ he said, smiling unpleasantly. ‘How nice of you to wade into the gutter, as it were, and pay a visit to us poor unfortunates. What a fine and noble spirit you have. And your clothes, so ethereal, dressed like an angel.’ She ignored Paul, and smiled brightly at Barnaby, who looked back and forth between them, and grew more confused.
‘There’s the office bell,’ said Gamp. ‘I’ll just be a moment. Don’t try anything funny.’ He aimed a kick at the dog as he went out. ‘And who’s going to look after this pesky animal, that’s what I’d like to know. Go on, get out!’ He hurried off, pulling the steel door shut after him.
‘I shall take back to Europe with me,’ Paul said, ‘the vision of you standing here like a spirit from another world, a living example of the beneficial effect upon the human soul of the colonial climate and the study of horticulture and literature.’
Miss Dunn flushed and turned on him. ‘I’m surprised you dare to address me, sir. You have been accused of murder, and only a few hours ago you were brought to this place in chains.’
‘Oh, that is hardly true. Chains? No, only the gentle hand of Old Slosher, as I believe he is called.’
The dog had started yapping loudly just outside the cell, distracting Miss Dunn. She went to open the door, then turned back to Paul. ‘You shot and killed those two men out on the Sydney Road, and it’s common knowledge in the town that you were involved in poor Mr Verheeren’s murder. What hideous brutality! And here you are, locked in a cell, sir, like a criminal!’
‘Ah, yes,’ Paul admitted. ‘The Constable wanted to be sure my liking for chatter did not wane while he was away. Unfortunately he was called to other conversations, with men on horseback.’
Barnaby laughed. ‘True enough! More than likely he’s having a chin-wag with ’em right now, on some track out the back of Junee. I’ll bet they’re having a great old natter. Har har! Oh that’s rich, that is. Well, what have we got in here?’ He sat on the bunk, and took the meat loaf out and unwrapped it. ‘Hmmm, this smells good. Nice and rich. I bet the cook put a good dash of sherry in there.’ He hacked off a piece of the loaf and held it out to Paul. ‘There you go, mate, get stuck into a bit of this.’
Miss Dunn reached out quickly and pushed his hand away. ‘It’s not for him! It’s for you, you poor fool, not for him!’
‘Pray do not worry,’ Paul said. ‘I shall not eat any. Thank you Barnaby, all the same, regardless of the outcome. You are a gentleman.’
‘The police have their duty,’ Miss Dunn said. ‘I can only do so much. I cannot provide for every Tom, Dick and Harry.’ The dog’s barking grew louder. ‘Marcel! Oh, where’s Mr Gamp? I do wish he’d do something to comfort the poor animal; it’s so distracting. I do hope the Constable can finish with this ugly business. Perhaps when the Sergeant comes back from Hay.’ She wiped her eyes with the corner of her handkerchief.
‘If he is lucky,’ Paul said, ‘I wish it so. The Constable may bring the murderer back with him from Junee, though I lack faith in his talents. He performs a duet very nicely with Mr Stern as one of a pair of bullies, but solo, he is not as convincing.’
‘I always thought there was something odd about you, Mr Nouveau. Something not quite right.’
‘Not quite British, if that is what you mean.’
‘You seem exceedingly ready to cut other people down to size. Coming from a vagabond and a foreigner, that’s hardly appropriate. I thought you were cultured, but I learned in Paris that it’s possible for men to be cultured and villainous at the same time.’
‘Only men?’ He suddenly reached out and gripped her by the arm. ‘I could introduce you to some Parisian ladies who would teach you about villainy, things that would turn your stomach!’
‘Steady on,’ said Barnaby, his mouth full of food. Miss Dunn drew back from his grip, and put her handkerchief to her mouth.
‘What’s going on here?’ It was Sloesser, pushing his way into the cell, red-faced and angry, with the clerk bobbing anxiously in his wake. The yapping had reached a crescendo. ‘I leave the place alone for five minutes and all hell breaks loose. Gamp, keep that bloody dog away from me, do you hear? Now, now, Miss Dunn, you should have left that food at the front desk. Come on now, no fraternising.’
‘Constable Sloesser, I am merely doing my duty as a citizen — ’
‘Never you mind what you might be merely doing, madam. Rules is rules. I must ask you to leave. Why, you might have a file stashed away in that basket, or a revolver. Here, man, give it here!’
Barnaby handed over the basket, bewildered, a piece of meat loaf in his mouth. ‘You want this, sir?’
‘No, I don’t want your damned food, man. Don’t be stupid. Go on, eat it, finish it.’ Sloesser turned back to Miss Dunn. ‘This man could well be a dangerous murderer, who’s to know?’
‘Barnaby? You must be joking!’
‘Not him, that other one, the foreigner. Mr Nouveau, here.’ He scowled at Paul. ‘Never mind, Nouveau, it will all be straightened out next week, when the Police Magistrate arrives. The Circuit Court opens on Tuesday, with His Honour Sir William Manning in attendance. He’s got a brain like a dingo trap, that one. Hard steel. One look at you, and Snap! You’re gone! Everything will be sorted out then, don’t you worry. Where everybody was at what particular time of day, what they were up to, all that kind of thing. Now out, madam, please.’
‘Oh, very well.’
‘Mr Gamp should be shot for letting all this fraternising go on behind my back. As if I don’t have enough to worry about.’
‘And did you get your man, Constable?’
‘No, madam, I didn’t get my bloody man, begging your pardon. How could I? No other officers to lend a hand, one tired-out horse that’s fit for the knacker’s yard, and a desk heaped with reports and ledgers and station bookkeeping that’s got to be done by next week or His Honour will want to know why. I’m not a company of troopers, I can’t perform bloody miracles, if you’ll excuse my French. Now out! Please!’ The door slammed, and the key turned in the rusty lock.
‘Well, old Slosher seemed a little discombobulated,’ Barnaby said. ‘Still, I got a mouthful of decent tucker while I had the chance. Pity about you, though. Not a cracker. You should have grabbed a bite or two. It’s going to be a long night. The old girl has it in for you, all right, young feller. I think she’s in love with you, and doesn’t want to admit it.’
‘He seemed what? What was that word you said?
‘Eh? Slosher? Discombobulated. It’s a Latin word. You probably don’t have it in French. You know, tears in his eyes, distraction in his aspect. Hamlet. Tasty meat loaf, nice and spicy. Actually, I’m a bit upset with all that coming and going. I think I shall have a little nap.’ Barnaby gave a long burp, settled himself on the narrow bunk and in a few minutes was fast asleep, a slight tremor running through his body from time to time. He reminded Paul of an old dog, tired out with the chase, dreaming and twitching in a shadowy corner of the kitchen.
An hour passed. The sounds of the town slowed. Paul dozed, and woke, and dozed again.
At nine o’clock Julie came to see him, bringing a bowl of stew and some thick slices of brown bread. Mary was with her; she hugged Paul, then sat in the corner with Barnaby and played knucklebones.
Paul looked at them, eating ferociously the while. ‘Should you bring the child here?’ he asked, his mouth full.
‘She’s not a child; she turned eleven today. And I wouldn’t be here at all without Mary’s help. Her father Mr Cameron is the pound-keeper. He and Sloesser are as thick as thieves, something to do with stolen horses that the Police keep in the pound. Mr Cameron is also an inn-keeper, at Downside, and all kinds of things go on there, I’ve heard. I wouldn’t be surprised if their connection wasn’t a little… well, not quite illegal, after all the Constable is a Constable, but at least stretching the law. Mary’s father sent her with a note to Sloesser, and he let us in most politely.’
‘What was in the note?’
‘I have no idea. The Constable read it over several times and put it away carefully in his pocket.’
‘You didn’t open it and read it?’
‘Of course not.’
Paul shook his head. ‘So polite, you English. The more forlorn and forsaken the settlement, the more civil the inhabitants. The father of Mary is Sloesser’s friend, then. Life in a small town, it is like life in an aquarium; a tiny fish and a shark swim together, and the eel is best friends with the clam. No, I cannot imagine anyone being on friendly terms with that puffed-up fool.’
‘Now, now. Father’s asked the Constable over for a glass of port after dinner.’
‘Sloesser? But your father is a civilised man, a scholar. I can’t imagine how —’
‘Hush! You’re prone to solve a problem by hitting it hard with your head. There are more ways than one to skin a cat. How’s the stew?’
‘Wonderful. Is this the goat curry you were planning in the kitchen the other day? It seems part Irish, and part Indian.’ He ate some more, then paused and looked at her. ‘I was thinking of you in the kitchen, licking that pencil, writing out your mother’s recipe. You’re very beautiful, do you know that?’
Julie looked down at her hands.
‘That moment, it was a kind of dream, a dream of domestic happiness — the kettle steaming on the stove, the cat sleeping on a chair… It is hard for me to accept that there is any good quality in kitchens; they are too warm in winter, too cool in summer, too full of contentment. I hate that, it is soft and weak. But I thought of you writing in your book — there is a kind of strength in the way you do things, just simple things. I do not know, I am not explaining myself well in English. It is like a cat in my throat, choking back what I want to say. I was feeling abandoned, I suppose. Now I feel more human.’ He addressed the food again, scooping spoonful after spoonful into his mouth. ‘Did Frank tell you I was here?’
‘Oh, the whole town knows. I’ve followed the gossip like a beagle on the scent, from old Ma Clampitt over the back fence, to Castro’s butcher shop, to Miss Mackenzie’s — you can imagine the commotion there, buzzing like a nest of ants kicked by a cruel boy — to the Advertiser office, and back again. I’ve heard how Miss Dunn brought food for poor Barnaby — one of God’s little fallen sparrows, she called him, according to Luther Quoign at the printery, who just about laughed his head off at the thought — but when you begged her for a mouthful — this is according to Miss Dunn — she hardened her heart against you and beat off your ravenous advances with a wooden spoon.’
‘But the bitch —’
‘Knowing you as I do, my dear young man, I’m sure there was no begging. Miss Dunn was just squeezing every drop of drama from her adventures among the criminal underworld.’
He had stopped eating, and was staring at her. ‘What did you call me?’
She looked away, at Mary playing happily in the corner, throwing and catching the bones on the back of her small hands. She was singing to herself in a light voice: See-saw, Marjorie Daw, Jackie shall have a new master…
‘They’re the wrong words,’ Barnaby complained. ‘You should sing the proper words, like they used to be when I was a kid. It’s a game of Jacks, and they’re the wrong words for the game.’
‘This is a dirty place,’ Paul said. ‘I think there are — what do you say? Little things that bite.’
‘Yes, bedbugs. It’s good for the ruminative soul, this semi-darkness. I am remembering — I think of that bath I had the other day — hot water, steam rising in the room, scrubbing with the laundry soap. I am thrown from that experience into its opposite, into darkness and dirt.’
Julie gazed at him, a slight smile on her lips.
‘Well,’ he said, ‘you should not smile at me like that. You know they will cook up some story to hang me.’
‘Oh no, I don’t think so. We do have justice here in this colony, of a sort.’
‘They will try to hang me, I know it. I thought I could scrub away my crimes — my vanity, I mean.’ He mopped at the gravy with a crust of bread. ‘A bath, a clean white shirt, and I thought I was the captain of the ship, the manager of the bank, the governor of the colony. Then it seems I am involved in a murder, then I find myself plunged into the gutter where I belong among the bugs and the drunks. From the lights of Paris to the ends of the earth, to the friendship of criminals and little children playing with the bones of dead creatures in the shadow of the gallows.’
‘Spoken like a poet. Talking of poets, I’m going out later.’
‘I wish I could join you,’ he said bitterly.
‘There’s a poetry recital at the Mechanics’ Institute.’
‘Oh, really? You seem to have an event to go to almost every night.’
‘Wagga Wagga is like that. Tonight, Tennyson, Poe, that sort of thing.’
‘Melodrama, eh? Well, enjoy yourself. I shall be thinking of you.’ His voice was anxious now. The image of Julie moving easily among the crowd, laughing, making jokes, returning home to a glass of milk and a comfortable bed — it made him feel just how desperate his position was.
She touched him on the cheek. ‘You need a shave.’
‘I need a lot of things. A file, or a gun, that would be good. Some blasting powder, perhaps.’
She lowered her voice. ‘Frank will try to get you out. One way or another.’
His eyes widened. ‘But — oh, that is wonderful. I cannot tell you, I feel I am suffocating in this place. Of course it is dangerous, whatever he tries. Why should he — well, anything, try anything, but get me out of here. But why should he do that, to risk that, for me?’
Julie smiled again. ‘Because I asked him.’
Of course, Paul thought. Frank would do anything for her.
‘I must go now.’ She touched the girl on the shoulder. ‘Mary, say good night. It’s time to leave.’
Paul woke to the sound of Barnaby’s voice. ‘What is it?’ he asked in alarm.
‘I was just saying, it’s like that time I was in Darlinghurst Gaol, locked in the cell with Larry Lecouter.’
‘What are you raving about? Let me sleep.’
‘You’ll have plenty of time for that, in the grave.’
There was a faint light from the window; Paul guessed the moon was out.
Barnaby was lying on his bunk staring at the ceiling. ‘Yes, there’s enough time then,’ he said, ‘for regret and recrimination, over on the other side. Poor bugger.’
‘No, that Larry Lecouter. They reckon he killed the old man. They took him out and hanged him the next morning, just as the sun came up. They all stood around. Put the hood over his head. Pulled back the trap with a snap and a rattle. Then the briefest moment of silence, as the body fell through the air, then — Thump. Not a loud sound, the sound of a body reaching the end of the rope, but it’s one you never forget. It breaks the neck, you see. The knot, tucked under the left ear. Crack. It’s more merciful that way.’
The story had rushed up on Paul out of the darkness and caught him unprepared — he was sick with fear. ‘For the love of Christ, will you shut up!’
Barnaby was silent for a while, then he spoke quietly: ‘I hear it in my sleep sometimes, wakes me in a terrible fright. It’s like your heart stopped in your sleep, and you have to try to wake up with what little breath you’ve got left. If you don’t quite make it awake, then I reckon you’re a goner. That’ll happen to me one night. My lungs aren’t getting any bigger.’
‘What old man did he kill? What had he done, this criminal?’
‘Well, he was in love with this girl, see, out the back of Brogo. He went up to ask her uncle — the parents were dead, the uncle looked after her — went to ask him for the girl’s hand in marriage. That’s what he said, at any rate. The uncle was a charitable man, the townsfolk said, but he had a temper, and he was built like a brick shithouse, a big ugly bugger with a head on him like a robber’s dog. The girl was in Sydney at the time, playing up with this sailor she’d met. That came out later. They had some kind of an argument, Larry and the uncle. Well, the next day the Raleigh (pron: raw-lee) man happened to call by there with his wagon loaded up with liniment and things to sell.’
‘Of course, the Raleigh man.’
‘So he calls at the farm, knocks on the door, no one answers. Well, that looks funny, he thinks, because the bloke’s horse is there in the yard, a roan mare, the dogs yapping, and all that. So he walks around the back and creeps inside and finds things broken, and papers and furniture strewn about. The place had been robbed, that’s clear. Then he finds the uncle in the kitchen as dead as a doornail, his throat cut from ear to ear. Blood all over the floor, must have been a bucket of it, he said. Who would have though the old man to have had so much blood in him? Macbeth.’
Barnaby was silent then for quite some time, digesting the implications of this scene. Then he sighed, and went on: ‘Well, Lecouter, he had no explanation of where he was at the time, and two fellers had seen him plain as day going out to the farm the morning of the murder, so the police brought him in. They found money on him, a lot of money. He said it was pay for some fencing work, the uncle had paid him for it the day before, but then he admitted having the argument with the uncle. He should have kept his trap shut and he would have been all right, but he got the wind up and started talking. I suppose the police said to him, if you’re innocent, then what’s the harm in talking? You have nothing to hide! No one else seemed to be the likely perpetrator, so they brought him to court, and the jury took a dislike to him, and they sentenced him to be taken hence to a place of execution and there hanged by the neck until dead.’
‘They took a dislike to him? Why was that?’
‘Well, indeed, there’s a worry. There’s a worry for you. You see, he was a foreigner, like you. Didn’t have much of an accent, but he was French, or Flemish, on his father’s side, or something like that. Who wants to help a foreigner? It’s only natural. He that is surety for a stranger shall smart for it. Proverbs.’
Paul was feeling sick: perhaps it was his fear, but he wished he hadn’t bolted so much of the stew. He turned over and faced the wall. ‘I should like to go to sleep now,’ he said.
‘Poor young feller. Normally they put them in a cell all by themselves, but he said he wanted company, and Darlinghurst was crowded with felons anyway, so they brought him in to where I was and locked the door. I’m a harmless sort of bloke, I suppose. He asked me to tell him a story, to keep his mind off it. I couldn’t think of what to say, so I told him some stuff out of the Bible, but that got all gloomy, and then I quoted a few lines from the immortal Bard, the Swan of Avon, but he got sick of that, so I sang him a few sailors’ songs I’d learned once upon a time, and that reminded him of his girl going off with the sailor down in Sydney, so in the end I chucked it in and said nothing. Slowly the cell grew light, piccaninny daylight they call it, that pale glow before the real dawn. I always liked the sunrise when I was a lad, it makes you feel kind of light and optimistic. Rosy-fingered dawn. Homer. But not after that day. The parson came in with his Bible. I wished it would never get light again. I prayed for it, I did, under my breath.’
‘So they hanged him,’ Paul said. There was a chill in the air, and he drew the thin blanket around his shoulders.
‘Oh, the sound of that rope. I wish I’d never heard it, or seen it happen. Puts a mark on you. It damages something inside you, seeing a man die. It’s like a lame leg.’
‘A lame leg?’
‘You can mend the bones, but you’ll always limp a little: you’re never quite the same again. Aye, they hanged the poor wretch, and all for nothing. Another man confessed to it a year later.’
Paul thought he’d misheard. ‘What did you say?’
‘Well, there were two of them, bad types like you used to get in those days. They’d been roaming around the bush doing odd jobs here and there, and robbing people when they got the chance. They got picked up by the special constable in the main street of Numbugga one winter’s night trying to break into a feed shed to get some corn for a parrot one of them had caught. A bloodstained hammer was found in the saddlebags, and in the end they confessed to three murders, including the one that poor Larry was hanged for. They went to rob the house while the uncle was away, it seems, but he came back to get some tobacco and surprised them, so they cut his throat, and made their getaway. They hadn’t meant to kill him for any particular reason. It was all a misunderstanding. People make their plans, but what are they? Plans are nothing. The world’s like that, you see, made up of most disastrous chances, of moving accidents by flood and field. Othello.’ This seemed to satisfy Barnaby at last: he turned on his side and went to sleep.
Paul tried to sleep too, but the images that Barnaby had put into his mind were too dramatically outlined and too horrible in their implications to let him sleep. In the end he sat with his back against the cold stone wall, his blanket wrapped around his shoulders, and watched the cell fill with pale moonlight.
Despite Barnaby’s uneven breathing and slight trembling from time to time, the cell seemed empty, and Paul felt quite alone. He felt that he’d detached himself from the human race piece by piece, like a barnacle slowly tearing itself from a rock. He’d left his mother and his family, he’d put behind him for good the town he’d grown up in and all the people he knew there, he’d left the Paris he’d come to know as a youth, he’d left Europe with its winter fogs and endless brick and cobblestones. Now he seemed to have left the human race entirely, and he felt as though he was hanging suspended in the air over the endless plains of outback Australia.
There was a peculiar quality to his experiences in the Australian bush that he tried to fix his mind on. It was a negative quality like emptiness or absence, and it was hard for the thinking mind to grasp. It was not simply an absence of human characters: the desert surrounding the Suez Canal, seen from the deck of the troop ship, was empty, but it seemed to wait for people. When a group of Arabs appeared with their camels slowly making their way across the distant horizon they seemed to add the finishing touch to a picture that had been waiting for them for a thousand years; there was a rightness about their being there, and they made the landscape complete. He had thought of Napoleon and his French army in Egypt, and of the poet de Nerval’s travels in the East, through Cairo, Beirut, and Constantinople. He reflected on how the mysteries of those regions had been taken into the French consciousness and domesticated there, so that a café in a dirty back street in Cairo seemed incomplete without cushions, a bubble pipe and a caramel-skinned serving boy, and a desert sandhill seemed to wait for the decorative touch of its camels.
But the Australian bush was different. The British had not impressed it with their character, they only seemed to camp on its outer surface, and the bush seemed not to want people at all.
It wasn’t a visual problem, either, the way the jungle in Java, once you left the main track, had been a nightmare of incomprehensible shapes: vines, branches, leaves, a tangle of slippery green forms on the jungle floor that could be edible fruit, or poisonous vines, or harmless pythons, or deadly snakes, so that you felt you could become fatally lost in a gloomy patch of greenery the size of a farmyard.
No, the hostile and negative ambience of the bush was more like a human emotion, but since it existed in the landscape, outside the mind, it must be like a mould of an emotion, the way a stamp for a coin is the hollowed-out reverse of the coin’s design.
Then he remembered the quiet in the empty Masonic Hall that afternoon, less than a week ago. There was the same absence in the dusty air, in the honour roll of names inscribed in gilt lettering — colonial soldiers fighting for the English Queen, lost and buried twenty years ago in some forgotten province of Africa, or when the British garrison at Kabul was wiped out, or perhaps in the Crimea, where his father had fought and seen his friends die among the battering blasts of the cannon.
He was drawn to this sense of absence: he felt its giddy attraction. He’d had enough of boasting, of pushing himself forward, of arrogant claims on the universe. Now he longed to become invisible, to pass through the cities crowded with stinking human bodies and to push on, out into the hinterland where the sun baked the empty rocks, to sink into that blaze of silence. Perhaps that was where God lay waiting for him, hidden behind an invisible curtain of blue sky.
A cloud must have gone over the moon — the cell went completely dark, as though someone had blown out a lamp. He lay down and tried to go to sleep.
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