Chapter 18 — At Miss Mackenzie’s
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While Julie knocked on the door, Paul stood a little behind, and looked around at the garden: a scattered handful of daffodils brightened the otherwise bare beds with their green and gold livery, and a tired-looking climbing rose bush struggled over its frame. A man was cutting blackberries with a bill-hook at the side of the house. A large monkey sat on the veranda watching the man with the bill hook intently, perhaps hoping for a mouse to be flushed from the bushes. He was an old animal, with a mangy grey coat; while he stared at the blackberries he plucked absent-mindedly at his fur. He noticed the newcomers and loped along the veranda to greet them, a loose chain tinkling in his wake.
Though he was old, he was lively: he poked his bony hands into Paul’s pockets deftly, searching them one by one. Paul was too alarmed to offer any resistance — the animal had adopted a grimace that bared its sharp, stained teeth. Was he smiling, or snarling? The features were like some parody of a human face, and the intentions behind the grimace were impossible to deduce. The creature looked off to one side while it practised its thieving tricks, perhaps in the belief that if it appeared to have its attention firmly fixed on a passing buggy, Paul would not realise that it was busy robbing him.
‘Bob, get down!’ Julie scolded. ‘Down, this minute!’ The monkey bared its teeth at her and made an angry chuckling noise. It weaved back and forth on its skinny haunches, and for a moment Paul thought it might leap to the attack, but it turned and dodged away along the veranda, the chain whipping and rattling from side to side.
‘Isn’t he wicked! Did he take anything?’
‘No, I don’t think so.’
‘The more Miss Mackenzie tries to discipline him, the more mischievous he gets. Really, she should keep the wretch chained to his kennel.’
The gardener had been watching the scene over his shoulder. He straightened his back and waved. Paul realised it was Jimmy; he waved back.
They were ushered in by a maid, who guided them through the hall. Paul avoided looking at her — it might be Alice, who had so nearly discovered his hiding place the night before when she had come searching for the kerosene. Miss Mackenzie was waiting in an inside room. She was a tall, strongly-built woman in her sixties, dressed in black with a dark green tartan shawl over her shoulders. Julie introduced Paul.
‘Come into the parlour here, Miss Bell,’ she said, ‘where we shan’t be disturbed. I’ve had quite enough disturbance for one morning, I can tell you.’ She clapped her hands. ‘Alice!’ The maid reappeared. ‘Go and give Bob a dressing-down. He’s been bothering our guests.’
Miss Mackenzie turned to Paul to explain. ‘Bob was sent to me by a friend. He’s a Barbary ape from Gibraltar, and the climate in Edinburgh didn’t agree with him; he much prefers it out here. But I’m sad to say he lost all his manners when he came out to the colony. Last week he bit the butcher’s boy, who had just called from Castro’s butchery. One more time, and I’ll have him put down. I hope he didn’t frighten you. He makes some people nervous.’
‘No, not at all.’
The parlour was overstuffed with furniture. The several occasional tables each had its doily, and maroon drapes kept out the spring sunlight. There was an upright piano in the corner, and along the top were ranged a dozen silver-framed photographs: scenic views and portraits of severe old ladies in white lace bonnets. Miss Mackenzie rang a bell.
‘You must feel very distressed,’ Julie said, ‘with such a dreadful thing happening under your roof.’
‘It’s disgraceful. You know, my dear, I have eight guests boarding with me here, and to think that this murderer was sneaking about among us in the middle of the night, up and down the staircase and clambering over the roof, with a revolver in his hand — it’s macabre.’
The maid appeared again: ‘Yes, mum?’
‘Oh Alice, bring us some tea. There’s a fresh pot in the kitchen, Cook just brewed it.’
‘Sometimes I think I must have been mad,’ Miss Mackenzie went on, ‘coming out here. The only domestic servants seem to be Irish, and you have to be at them all the time. They’re a likeable race, but feckless. Some people say it’s the drink, some say it’s their religion.’ She took a cheroot from a silver case. ‘Not that I have anything against the Roman persuasion, but any faith that lets people get away with murder as long as they apologise to a priest the following Sunday has something lacking, in my opinion.’ She struck a match and puffed on the cheroot until the end glowed red. ‘That’s better. Nothing like a little tobacco to soothe the nerves. And the blacks are a trial. I took on a black woman as a cook a few years ago, as a favour to old Mr Kennedy who couldn’t afford to keep her on; and I swear she gave me goanna one day instead of chicken.’
‘Nonsense, Miss Mackenzie. You must have imagined it. I notice you have Jimmy Skylark doing some gardening work.’
‘He needed a few shillings, my dear; what can you do? He knows nothing about English flowers, but he can cut out the English blackberries, which have become such a pest. He’s a very knowledgeable man in other ways. You know I’m interested in their legends and their ancestral tales. Jimmy has been good enough to tell me some of those, and I have written them down.’
‘I was talking to Jimmy the other day,’ Paul said. ‘He told me a strange and gloomy story about an uncle of his, a black tracker.’
‘Those trackers can do remarkable things. They seem to question the land, and the land seems to answer them.’
‘I would not have believed half of what he told me, but he took me into the bush yesterday and showed me how it is done. He can read the slightest mark in the grass.’
‘They seem to live in a different universe from ours,’ Julie said.
‘We mustn’t think of the aborigines as peculiar and savage,’ said Miss Mackenzie. ‘It’s convenient for the English to do so, for then the English can rob them of their land with a clear conscience. Mind you, they had plenty of practice. They drove my Scots ancestors off their land, and killed a fair number while they were at it.’
‘So long ago, though,’ Julie put in.
‘Gone, but not forgotten,’ replied Miss Mackenzie. ‘But the aborigines, people say their morals are not morals at all, and their religion is not a religion because it doesn’t have a god or a bible. They don’t know what they’re talking about. The blacks, they’re much stricter than even my grandparents, and that’s saying something. Mr Gow sent me a tale he had gathered from a tribe on the Western Riverina, not so very far from here, about a tragic event not so many years ago. It illustrates a moral firmness in their view of marriage laws that the most rigid church elder would be impressed by. If you wished, I could tell you the story.’
Julie looked somewhat unwilling, but Paul was keen. Miss Mackenzie sat up a little straighter, and continued.
‘This was the Wiradjuri tribe, the ones who lived hereabouts. Their name for this area, Wagga Wagga, means ‘place of many crows’, by the way. I’ve always felt it was not the most pleasant omen for the townspeople to adopt, the crow being associated so often with dead or dying animals. In any case, a long time ago, in this area, a young man and woman who were parallel cousins, and who should not marry, had the misfortune to fall in love. Knowing the elders would never countenance their liaison, they decided to elope.’
‘Elope?’ Paul asked.
‘Indeed. One night they fled; the guardian spirits of the tribe, an owl and an old dingo, angered by this breach of the sacred law, set up a wailing and a screaming that terrified the tribe. The next morning they were found to be missing. The best trackers set out to find them. They followed their tracks through the forest, then lost them, then found them in the hills, and followed them around and about to the creek where they had begun, and they caught up with the young couple and captured them.
‘They were tried by the elders and found guilty. The only punishment for that crime was death. They were taken to a secluded part of the forest and made to face the opposite sides of a large gum tree; their hands were joined around the trunk and bound together with strong thread, and there they were left to die, able to touch and speak, but not to see each other. For many years the tribe avoided the area where this awful sentence was carried out.’
‘What a ghastly thing to do!’ Julie said. ‘It is savage; you can’t say it’s not!’
‘My dear, in the Bible one may read of more brutal punishments. And of course the aborigines are no longer what they were. Their stories and their legends may seem bizarre, but they must be preserved.’ She turned to Paul. ‘I know it might seem eccentric, Mr Nouveau, for an old Scottish woman to be writing down what a blackfellow says, but someone has to preserve their knowledge or it will be lost to the human race forever. They have no writing of their own.’ Her cheroot had gone out; she struck another match and lit it again.
‘One does not see many of them in the town,’ Paul said.
‘The poor blacks are dying out because we put sheep and cattle on their land, and because of the diseases we brought here with us from Europe. And the curse of drink is making their ruin certain. We have a lot to answer for.’ She looked at Julie. ‘Yes, their punishments may seem savage, Miss Bell, but have you ever seen a public hanging? And what of the horrible execution that was done in this house last night, a senseless act that has no reason, no justification, and no excuse? The black man never killed without a solemn reason. There were no madmen or murderers among them, at least as far as I have been able to discover. Oh, the times we live in. Murder and robbery! I was a fool to come out here. Back in Edinburgh nothing like this ever happened.’
‘Oh, I hope you will excuse me,’ Paul said carefully, ‘but I seem to have heard of Burke and Hare, who lived in Edinburgh, and who murdered people to be chopped up for medical experiments.’
Miss Mackenzie started back, handkerchief to her mouth. ‘Well, I never!’ she managed. ‘Really, Mr Nouveau! That Mr Burke was an Irishman, not an Edinburgh man, I can assure you. And that was a long time ago.’
Julie swung the conversation back on track: it was like handling a pair of fractious horses, she thought. ‘Mr Verheeren — he was Belgian, wasn’t he?’
‘Yes, he was Belgian, I believe, or perhaps Dutch. I confess I never can tell the Continentals apart.’ She looked at Paul. ‘That is, the ones from the Low Countries,’ she added graciously. ‘Of course the French are different. They have a distinction that derives from their respect for culture.’
The maid brought in the tea tray and set it out. There was tea, and milk, and shortbread biscuits. The teacups and saucers sported a rim of bright tartan.
‘Yes, Mr Verheeren tended to keep to himself,’ Miss Mackenzie said. ‘He didn’t mix well. We sometimes have a harmless game of cards, or gather around the piano: Professor Goulstone occasionally plays a few pieces for us. Such a lovely pianist. Didn’t he teach you once, my dear? I thought so. But Mr Verheeren didn’t join in. He seemed — he seemed suspicious of people, for some reason, and he preferred his own company. I think he did some bookkeeping work for various people in the town. At least he was a regular guest, always proper in settling his own account.’
Perhaps this was a joke. Julie ventured a smile.
Paul hesitated, then spoke. ‘Miss Mackenzie — I was wondering if I could look in Mr Verheeren’s room.’
Miss Mackenzie gave him a hard stare: this was clearly going too far. ‘I’m not at all sure that would be right,’ she said.
‘You see I have been in Java recently — I have just come from there — and a friend asked me to seek out Mr Verheeren when I came to Australia.’
‘What an extraordinary coincidence!’ Miss Mackenzie said. ‘Java?’
‘My friend was the main reason I came to Wagga. Ah — Mr Verheeren was — was her uncle, and my friend particularly wanted me to obtain some old family photographs which she had lent, and Mr Verheeren had promised to return them. I spoke to the poor man only yesterday, at the Chinaman’s place, and he seemed quite anxious to help me. He was very fond of his niece.’
This was an extraordinarily complex piece of gossip to have dumped on one’s doorstep in such a cavalier fashion. ‘Ah, I see,’ said Miss Mackenzie, trying to take it all in. ‘Well. Yes. You mentioned a Chinaman.’
‘Mr Lee, I think that was his name.’
‘Yes, it’s true, Mr Verheeren was sometimes to be found at Mr Lee’s house. He spoke of obtaining some Chinese medical treatment for his rheumatism. It’s all mumbo-jumbo, of course.’
‘Mr Verheeren talked to me a lot about his niece, and about his time in the East Indies, as a trader.’
‘Yes, that’s quite true, he lived in Java, and in Borneo too.’ She turned to Julie. ‘He’d left his wife behind in Antwerp, you see, and set out for the East Indies to make his fortune. But apparently it hadn’t turned out as well as he hoped it might. People weren’t friendly there, they tried to ruin his business, he said. He was there for many years, in that terrible climate.’ She frowned. Her boarders were like children, she sometimes thought, more a source of trouble than happiness. ‘It was the climate that gave him the rheumatism, he told me. It was warm enough, but it was also damp, terribly damp. He said if you left a dish of salt on the table after dinner, it would be a pool of water by morning. And the food the natives gave you was spiced beyond endurance. Everything there seemed to disagree with him. Poor Mr Verheeren had a morbid disposition, and suffered from melancholy, like many of the people from the Low Countries. Why he came to Wagga I don’t really know.’
‘The air is much healthier here, I suppose,’ Julie said.
‘Yes, that’s true. At least his poor wife — widow, that is — will be looked after.’
‘How is that, Miss Mackenzie?’ Julie asked.
‘He had invested in some life assurance scheme with Lloyd’s of London, the shipping insurance firm. They used to insure his trading goods, you see. At least that’s what he told Mr Dobbs, at the Joint Stock Bank. Mr Dobbs sometimes takes a cup of tea with me here. If ever anything — any accident happened to poor Mr Verheeren, his wife was to be paid out quite a large amount of money. So at least some good has come out of this terrible affair.’
‘I used to hope,’ Julie said, ‘that Australia would become a civilised country one day, like England or Europe. But the place seems to attract the worst type. The gold brings them, and then when the gold runs out, they roam about with their weapons, seeking whom they might rob and kill.’
‘It’s no place for a young woman, my dear — madness and murder wherever you turn. Of course I heard about your terrible experiences on the mail coach, from Mr Russell. You have my sympathy.’
‘Francis? Yes, I was so glad he was there. But of course it was Mr Nouveau here who saved our lives. When the bushrangers attacked the coach they killed the poor driver straight off, and none of us had any weapons to defend ourselves with. Except for Mr Nouveau, who had happened to bring a revolver with him.’
‘So we read in the newspaper,’ said Miss Mackenzie. ‘You must be brave, Mr Nouveau, to face such dangerous and desperate men. Brave, or reckless.’
‘Oh, I just try to do my duty, Miss Mackenzie, that is all. And I was trained to use guns in the army. And now I have another duty, this time to the niece of Monsieur Verheeren. I am certain that she will be sad to hear this terrible news. And the family photographs will be even more precious to her now. So, do you think we could look in his room? Julie will come with me, Julie, is it not?’ He laid his hand gently on Julie’s arm and gave her a smile.
This wasn’t what she had in mind for the visit; rummaging about in a dead man’s room. She sighed. ‘If you wish.’
‘Well, I don’t know,’ Miss Mackenzie said. ‘The Constable did ask me to keep everything exactly as it was. But if Miss Bell will be with you, and if you promise not to disturb anything… I should go with you, of course, but I cannot bring myself to go back into that room, where such a loathsome thing happened.’
‘Of course, Miss Mackenzie. We shall leave everything exactly as it is.’ He rose, and almost upset the tea tray. ‘Thank you. You are most kind.’
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