Chapter 19 — Dead Letters
Paragraph One follows — 1:
Verheeren’s room was a high attic, at the back. The walls had been freshly painted in pale blue, with cream trim on the skirting board and the picture rail. On one side was a single bed, and a washstand with a basin and pitcher of water. On the other side a window looked out onto a back yard full of blackberries and an old peach tree just coming into leaf. The lace curtains had been drawn back, and moved slightly in the morning breeze.
There was a small fireplace with the remains of a wood fire covered with ash. Above the mantelpiece some curios had been hung on the wall — a scowling native mask painted rusty red and white, and a bundle of crudely-made arrows daubed with ochre and tied with raffia. Paul looked around for the bow, and found it on the floor near the window. It was long and slender, carved roughly out of dark wood; no doubt the one that Verheeren had been flexing when Paul had spotted his shadow against the blind. Perhaps he had dropped it there when the murderer had surprised him. The bow hadn’t been much help to him after all.
Against the other side of the room was a carved desk and a captain’s chair. Someone had put a bowl of freesias on the desk. They were looking a little tired now, but they still filled the room with their gentle scent. A pair of coloured engravings hung on the wall above the desk: a country scene with a windmill, and a seascape with a fine ship in full sail — the ocean was coloured a deep ink green, the sky a swirl of dark blue storm clouds; the white sails of the ship stood out against the gloomy background.
Beside the desk was a small chest, with the drawers hanging half open. Paul began pulling them open and rummaging among their contents.
‘It’s such a surprise,’ Julie said. ‘I expected Miss Mackenzie’s rooms to be nice — Frank’s is really lovely — but somehow I thought Mr Verheeren’s room would be old and smelly. But it’s not, at all. The pale blue makes it quite heavenly, like a child’s room.’
Paul stopped and gave her a long look, then went back to his search.
There was a rug in the middle of the floor, partly covered by a khaki-coloured cloth. Julie touched the edge of the cloth with the toe of her shoe, and shivered.
‘I suppose that piece of oilcloth is to cover the bloodstains. Thank goodness they’ve taken the body away.’ Paul made no reply. ‘What are you looking for?’ she asked.
‘A blue canvas bag. It should be here somewhere.’ He abandoned the chest of drawers with its spilled contents and swung around to investigate the desk. The drawers were unlocked. ‘Of course the murderer was looking for it, too, so it may be gone’.
‘It’s funny,’ she said, ‘there are no musical instruments. I expected to see a double bass, or at least a viola.’
‘A viola?’ He looked around. The morning sunlight pouring in through the window caught and dazzled in her blonde hair, and seemed to find flecks of gold in her eyes. God, she was pretty, he thought. ‘A double bass? Why? Verheeren was a bookkeeper, not a musician.’
‘Because of the string he bought at Mr Koellner’s the other day, for a double bass.’ She looked around the room. ‘I remember thinking that he might be practising in his spare time, to play a polka at the Ball.’ Paul went back to his work, pulling out a pile of folders and old bills of account from the drawers.
Julie wandered around the room, looking under things. ‘Oh — the canvas bag — is that it?’
She pointed: ‘There, under the chest of drawers.’
‘Oh, God, you’re right.’ He dropped to his knees and pulled at the bag. It came out easily. ‘Ah, yes, yes. Now let’s see… ’ He dusted the bag, though there was no dust on the polished floor, and turned it over. It was like a schoolboy’s satchel, with two small buckles. It came open easily.
‘There!’ he said triumphantly, and brought it over to the desk. ‘It has a label on it,’ he said, tilting his head to read it, ‘addressed to his wife, in Antwerp. Let’s see what’s in here.’ He spilled the contents onto the desk. They were letters, some tied in bundles, some loose. The envelopes were worn and ragged.
‘It looks like… papers, correspondence,’ Julie said. ‘You said you were looking for family photographs.’
‘Oh, Julie,’ he said, with a trace of exasperation in his voice. ‘The things you believe… ’ He opened an envelope and quickly checked its contents, then another. ‘You’re right,’ he said. ‘Papers. They’re letters, that’s what. This one’s addressed to Verheeren, in Sulawesi. That’s in the Dutch East Indies. And this one, to Verheeren in Batavia, that’s on the island of Java. Let’s see.’ He read quickly, his eyes flicking back and forth across the script. ‘My dear Emile — so many years have passed… ’ His voice faded to a murmur as he scanned the page.
‘Is it in Dutch?’
‘Mainly Dutch,’ he said. ‘There’s some French, too. I long for you to — to find some success, to circumvent the plotting of your enemies and to show them up for what they are… It must be from his wife. Yes, from your dear wife, it says. Here’s one, in a different hand. Ah, it’s from Verheeren, a letter from — from Borneo, from him to his wife. But why is it here, in an envelope, with stamps on it, if he’s sent it to his wife? Perhaps it’s a copy. Or maybe he didn’t send it; maybe there was no mail packet from Borneo. It’s a god-forsaken place. My Dear Freda, you will be pleased to know that my — uh — my attack of melancholy has passed… and so on. Hmmm, I wager he doesn’t mention the opium.’
‘Opium?’ asked Julie, but Paul went on: ‘Another one from his wife… My dear Emile, I know how difficult it must be for you in the East, so far from your old friends and the civilised comforts of home… and so on. And so on.’ His voice grew angry: ‘She goes on, it’s just a letter. They’re just letters! Letters, in purple ink, from his stupid wife in Belgium. Christ, is that all?’
He sounded like a spoilt child, Julie thought. ‘Why, Paul, what did you expect? You said you had some photographs to collect —’
‘Julie, please!’ He threw down the heap of paper and went to the window. ‘I need some fresh air. Letters, just letters —’ He stretched his arms behind his head, then bent forward to look out the window. He pulled back with a curse, holding his left hand in his right.
‘What happened? Are you all right?’
‘Yes, I’m all right. I just cut my hands on this stupid nail sticking out from the bottom of the window.’ He wiped his forehead, and looked at his hand: there was a smear of blood. ‘I hope it doesn’t have poison on it, like his poisoned arrows. What idiot put it there?’
Julie stared at the blood, and drew back slightly. ‘Not Miss Mackenzie, I’m sure. Perhaps Mr Verheeren put it there.’
‘I seem to be injured constantly in this country. Three weeks in the jungles of Java and not a scratch. A week in Australia and I am wounded, I am —’ He searched for the right word — ‘I am a cripple!’
‘Nothing’s going right for you today, is it?’ Her smile had faded. She watched him wipe the blood from his hand with a handkerchief. ‘I hope you don’t get lockjaw.’ She straightened her back. ‘Paul —’
‘What is it?’ She didn’t reply for a moment. ‘What is it, Julie?’
She looked down at her hands. ‘You didn’t — You didn’t have anything to do with this, did you?’
He stared at her intently. ‘What, this murder? Are you serious? Is this a serious question you ask me?’
‘Because you — you are so good with guns. The way you killed those men, with such deliberateness, first the one, then the other — and you hated Verheeren, you told me so the other night outside the magic show, you said he didn’t deserve to live. And last night — last night you went about in the dark carrying that revolver with you —’ She faced his stare.
‘Yes, it is true I disliked him,’ he said. ‘I hated him, and I cannot pretend to be sorry that someone did this. But it was not me who did this thing. I think I know who did it; it was Heeney, the brother of the bushranger I killed. He came to rob the old man, because it is easy, no? Easy to get in through the window, and there were rumours Verheeren had some kind of treasure from the East Indies. I do not know why Heeney killed him. They say Heeny is a madman — perhaps he did not need a reason.’ He turned and walked back into the room. ‘I am sorry to hear you say such things. If you think those things, then Christ help me. I do not have any friends in this place at all.’
She was about to reply when they heard heavy steps on the stairs, and the door burst open.
It was Stern, his face flushed. ‘Ah, the Frenchman,’ he shouted, and strode across to Paul.
‘Joe!’ Julie cried.
Stern spun around and stared at her for a moment. ‘Julie! What a shame you had to be here, involved in this horrible business.’ He stared at her a moment longer, then noticed the bag. He and Paul grabbed for it at the same time. Paul got to it first, and held it to his chest. Stern lunged at it.
‘You, give me that!’
‘Let go of me!’ Paul said. They struggled; Stern struck Paul across the face with a savage blow from the back of his hand, knocking him to the floor, and tore the bag from his grasp as he fell.
‘There! You should know better than to interfere with me when my temper’s up. Haven’t you learned your lesson yet?’
‘What right do you have to take those papers?’ Paul spat onto the floor; he was bleeding from the mouth.
‘More right than you do. Verheeren worked for me as a bookkeeper.’ Stern looked at Julie, as though appealing to her sense of justice. ‘I have reason to suspect he was fiddling the accounts. I have every right to search and recover anything that belongs to me.’ He hugged the bag, and grinned, showing his discoloured teeth. ‘I went through the room this morning without result, but it seems I overlooked this.’ He spilled the contents out onto the desk and began to rummage through the papers.
‘I can save you the trouble of reading them all,’ Paul said, wiping his mouth. He had managed to get to his feet, but he was unsteady from the blow. ‘They are letters, from his wife, that is all.’
‘Save your breath, you rotten little shit.’
They watched him as he scrabbled among the papers. His breathing gradually slowed. ‘This is rubbish,’ he said, as though he had been tricked. ‘Rubbish! Letters… more letters. All in some bloody foreign lingo!’ He tried to read some of the pages, without result. Finally he slowed to a stop.
‘You see, Joe?’ said Julie. ‘They’re just old letters, in a foreign language. They’re of no value to anyone, now.’
He was taken with a sudden storm of rage: spittle flecked his lips. ‘I have to warn you, Julie, that if you keep up your friendship with this filthy foreigner, I shall feel compelled to call off our engagement.’ The formality of the words was absurd.
‘Oh, you men are so stupid!’ Julie shouted. Stern stared at her; her face was pale with anger. ‘That’s all over, that’s finished! Do you imagine I would chain myself to a brute like you for the rest of my life? You must think I’m weak-minded.’ She took her engagement ring from the pocket of her skirt and flung it onto the floor. It bounced and rattled under the chest of drawers.
He recoiled, and stared at her for a moment. ‘Who do you think you are, a bloody princess?’ He tossed the empty canvas bag aside and advanced on her. ‘Where in Wagga are you going to find someone like me, with my position?’ The sweat was standing out on his forehead; Julie could see a vein throbbing on his temple. ‘Do you want to work as a scullery maid for the rest of your life, scrubbing people’s floors till your hands go red and raw?’ Julie felt her hands tremble slightly, and she clutched them together. Was it fear, or anger? Her mind was whirling; she couldn’t tell. ‘Your father’s a failure and a drunk,’ Stern spat out, ‘he’s worth nothing! You have no future without someone like me for a husband!’
‘How dare you speak about my father like that! Tell us about your wealth, Mister Stern. Tell us about your arrangements with the Joint Stock Bank!’
It was like a bucket of cold water: Stern stopped dead in his tracks. ‘What? What are you talking about?’ The rage that had filled him had turned suddenly to weakness, or something worse. His right hand hung half-raised, moving slightly, as though pawing the air.
‘Tell us about your dummy selector schemes,’ Julie shouted, ‘and the land you’ve claimed under other people’s names.’ Paul stood open-mouthed: her skin glowed, she had gone pink; her hands were shaking with rage. ‘Tell us about your mortgage, and how it’s drawing near to its foreclosure date. Everyone at the Show was talking about it!’
He leaned back, and clenched his fists. ‘That old blabbermouth Tom Eliot’s been gossiping again, has he? The bank won’t foreclose. They’re not entirely stupid. They’d lose every penny of their investment.’ He spun on his heel and turned to Paul, as though appealing for understanding. ‘Women have no idea how business is done,’ he explained. ‘This one has the brain of an ant. The bank knows I’m good for ten thousand —’
‘I thought you had a hollow ring about you, Stern,’ Paul interrupted. ‘I thought the hollowness was in your soul, perhaps, but it seems the hollowness is in your bank account.’
Stern stared at him. He breathed heavily, like a runner after a race. Bank account? What would this stupid Frenchman know about mortgages and bank accounts? He sagged against the desk and wiped his forehead. Then he got down on his hands and knees and retrieved the ring, and stood up awkwardly. He turned it over in his hand and stared at it. Then he dropped it into his fob pocket.
‘I know they’re talking behind my back,’ he said to Julie. ‘Do you think I’m deaf? I can’t sleep at night, I can hear their voices in my head.’ He walked to the window, stared out for a moment, and walked back to the desk and fingered a piece of paper. ‘We’ve had a drought, and we’re all in trouble. The rain we’ve had is not nearly enough. You’d think everyone would pitch in to help one another. But they want me to fail.’ He looked up at Paul. ‘That’s the sickness in this colony. It’s not yellow fever, it’s not malaria, it’s jealousy. Cutting down the tall plants, so the weeds can get the sunlight.’ He tugged at his collar, trying to loosen it. He is finished, Paul thought. ‘And the bank, what do they do? You think they’d help — isn’t that their business, to help their clients succeed? Ruining people doesn’t do anybody any good in the end.’ He held his hands out, appealing to Julie, who turned her head away. ‘But no, they want to see me fail too! Where’s the sense in that?’ He must have realised what a pathetic figure he made, begging for sympathy, papers littering the floor around his feet. He straightened his shoulders and tugged his shirt, and tucked it back into the top of his trousers.
‘They despised my father because he spoke with an accent. But they despised him more because he was a Jew. No one would lend him a penny. In Melbourne, he —’
His voice caught, but he forced himself to go on, his voice rising to a shout: ‘He tried to join their high and mighty gentlemen’s clubs, but they blackballed him! He dressed well, he copied their manners. He did his best! They laughed at him, behind his back. And they were scum, most of them. Acting like the bloody upper class!’ He glared at Julie accusingly, then swung his gaze on Paul. ‘He came to the bush, to get away from the prejudice, and he found it waiting for him here. He tried to join the local progress association, but there were difficulties — he wasn’t quite British, you know. British! Jesus Christ! This was a man who could quote Pushkin by the page, who knew Goethe in the German. They patronised him. These farmers, they patronised him! He struggled to get things going here. A dredging concession. A sugar plantation, which never did any good, the climate was wrong. He had left everything behind in Russia, family, friends, people in power who might have supported him. He came out here where he was unknown to make something of himself, and to help the new colony grow. I remember him talking to me when I was little: We all have an obligation to give something back to our society, he used to say. To be part of a community, you have to give. In the end it all broke his heart. He died in poverty. Well, damn them, I will not!’
He took a moment to get his breath back. ‘This town,’ he said, in a quieter, almost confidential voice, ‘it looks very prosperous, but it has a secret. Everyone’s in debt. Did you know that?’ He was speaking to Paul: Paul shook his head from side to side. ‘Yes, hidden away in a locked drawer in every house in this town is a bank account booklet or a piece of white paper ruled in vertical red and blue columns, the colours of the flag, with the sums carefully calculated and written down, the amount of how much is owed to this or that store or bank or pawnshop. The substantial people like me go to Tom Eliot or Fred Dobbs one of the other banks. The poor people go to Solomon the moneylender. Why, even the Dutchman hocked something at the pawnshop. I saw him sneaking out of there last week.’ He seemed to be winding down, like a mechanical toy that had run out of energy. He looked down at the scattered papers, gathered up a bundle and tore them in half, and scattered them across the room. ‘Damn him. Letters! Useless paper!’
‘What were you hoping for?’ Paul asked. ‘Diamonds? Black gold?’
This surprised Stern, and he stared hard at Paul for a moment. ‘You’ve heard the rumours, then?’
‘I suspect I started them.’
‘Pathetic, isn’t it?’ asked Stern. ‘Grown men. When we need something badly enough, we become childish. We believe anything. Diamonds, from the East Indies. Some new kind of gold alloy, dark coloured and as hard as steel. Treasure maps.’ He had the ring in his hand again; he stared at it for moment, then slipped it back into his pocket. ‘I remember once when I was a child, hoping I’d get a horse for my birthday. We were poor, we could never afford to keep a horse, but how is a child supposed to understand things like that? I hoped and I hoped. I prayed, on my knees. I sobbed, the tears ran down my face, I wiped them from my cheeks. Was God listening?’ He looked at Julie longingly for a moment. She lowered her eyes. Stern passed his hand across his face as though erasing a memory. ‘I believed you loved me, Julie. I hoped that you’d forgive my anger, that you’d put up with my ugliness and my stupidity, that you’d look on my faults with a charitable eye. That you’d stick with me when the road got rough. Well, I was wrong.’ He turned to the door. ‘Damn the lot of you!’ he said. ‘Damn you all to Hell!’ He slammed the door behind him.
Paul took Julie’s hand; it was hot and dry. ‘Are you all right?’
Julie took a moment to reply. She swallowed. ‘Yes, I’m all right. What was that talk about diamonds? Was Mr Verheeren supposed to be a rich old miser?’
‘Just gossip, that’s all.’
‘If Mr Verheeren had been rich,’ Julie said, ‘he’d hardly have wished to live like this. The room is very pretty, but it’s not a rich man’s room.’
‘Julie — what you said to Stern, about —’
Julie spoke quickly, as though wanting to get something over and done with. ‘I meant what I said. Joe and I are finished. It’s over. Mr Stern’s temperament is not compatible with mine.’
‘You can say that again,’ Paul said. He realised it was an American turn of phrase; he must have picked it up from Frank.
‘It has nothing to do with you,’ she added. ‘I hope you understand.’
‘Of course.’ He was confused for a moment: what had she been thinking of? What he felt for her, the tangle of desire and anxiety, it had nothing to do with marriage in the Outback, with country towns, and churches, and a future in the sheep grazing industry.
‘It’s odd,’ she said thoughtfully. ‘It’s strange, how you can look at something, and simply not see what you’re looking at. When you want to escape from some unpleasant condition, and when you imagine the social landscape you might inhabit if you make good your escape, its colours are tinted by your hopes. It’s like looking at the world through a piece of coloured glass — people and scenery are transformed into a something mysterious and two-dimensional.’
‘What do you mean?’
‘I thought I was in love with Mr Stern; with Joe. He seemed so appropriate. He was going to settle one of his grazing properties on me, Dunraven Station. It was worth a fortune. At least, he’d borrowed a fortune to buy it. I would learn to manage the house and the servants; we would have children, start a dynasty, God knows what fantasies I concocted. Father could retire from medical practice and devote time to his researches; he could travel to London and Paris, purchase the books he needed and new equipment, and bring it all back to a new laboratory where he would make discoveries that would astound the medical world.’ She brushed a tear from her cheek. ‘It’s pathetic. And so it went on, a future out of some penny novelette, with bridesmaids and wedding bells and grandchildren sitting on my knee — I must have been dreaming.’
‘We all make mistakes.’ Paul added up some of his own. ‘Several mistakes, in some cases.’
‘Well, I’ve only had two stabs at falling in love, and they’ve both been disasters.’
‘I told you a little about him. My art teacher in Sydney.’
‘Oh, yes. The long-haired drawling fellow with titled friends in Tuscany. I must confess I conceived a dislike for him. A loathing, almost. Loathing, that is a good English word, it makes you sneer, and your lips put on an expression as though you were about to throw up. You can feel it pulling your guts up as you say it.’
She smiled. ‘I’m going to miss you, you know. There’s no one quite like you in Wagga.’
‘I should hope not. What a town it would be if there were others of the brotherhood of spleen, a village full of corrosive misanthropes like me. They would need a full company of troopers just to stop us strangling each other out of spite and despair. Huh!’
She laughed. ‘See? You do me good, making me laugh like that.’
‘And this dauber?’
‘That was youthful folly. Mr Stern was the despair of an old maid. Between those two sad adventures, my future slipped through my fingers.’
‘Your future, tied to some man? You should be ashamed to set the value of your future like that, like a — like a broker selling a parcel of shares on the Bourse.’
‘Of course you’re right, in a way. But you’re not in the position I’m in. I doubt that you could ever understand it. There’s something crippled and humiliating about the position women are forced into. We have been writing pamphlets and books about it for a hundred years, but what’s the use? The men who make the rules just laugh. Let them write their tracts, they say. Why not? They’re harmless. We’re treated like some lunatic religious sect. They have their mistresses and their illegitimate children and nobody minds, while we are forced to shame, to abortion, to a kind of slavery. In Sydney, I hoped —’
A silence hung in the air; Paul let it rest there.
She stared at him sadly for a few moments, then turned and looked out the window at the sunlit town. ‘Well, that was once upon a time. My dreams of a life in Sydney ended in a shambles, and a life of misery began.’ There was a bitter tone in her voice.
‘What do you mean, a life of misery?’
She looked at him again, and stroked his jaw. His beard was thickening, and was losing its blond tint. ‘Oh, perhaps some day I’ll tell you. Perhaps not.’ She looked around the room, and gathered herself. ‘For now, we should go. You have met Miss Mackenzie and alarmed her. You have searched poor Mr Verheeren’s room and ended up with nothing except a cut on your arm, and you’ve fought with Mr Stern again so that your nose is bleeding. That should satisfy you for the time being, I hope. I should like to go home now; I have a pupil later this morning. And I must say, I can’t wait to get out of this room.’ She cast a look at the oilcloth.
‘The house seems to have an evil spirit in it,’ Paul said, looking around. A slight breeze came in through the open window, stirring the lace curtain so that it fluttered feebly. ‘It is time we should go.’
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