Chapter 04 — Wagga Wagga
Paragraph One follows — 1:
The morning sun filtered in through the dusty window and shone full on Paul’s face, tinting the stubble on his cheeks a pale gold. He squinted against the glare. A slow clock ticked in a corner, reminding him of his aunt’s house in Douai. The sound made him feel sleepy. For a moment he wasn’t sure where he was.
The Constable was dictating to his clerk; perhaps because it was the custom, perhaps because he himself couldn’t write, Paul thought; but most likely because it made him look important. The voice droned on: ‘… notify the Police Magistrate… that the bodies of the outlaws Woolcott, aged fifty-nine, and Heeney, aged twenty-one… ’
The clerk’s pen scratched on the paper. He dipped the nib nervously in the ink-well and scratched again.
‘Who had, ah, who had murdered six people, and terrorised the people of the district for the past year… you getting this?’
The clerk bobbed his head. ‘Oh yes sir, every word, sir. Perhaps if you could speak more slowly, Mr Sloesser.’
The Constable paused, then went on: ‘Were recovered and brought to the Wagga Wagga Police Court early on Friday, the… ’ — he cast about for the date, and discovered it on a desk calendar — ‘ah… this eighth day of September, eighteen hundred and seventy-six. I think that’s all that’s required. Oh, don’t write that last bit down, about required.’ He plucked a watch from his fob pocket and opened it, glanced at it, shook it, and checked it again. He gave Paul a close look from under his eyebrows. ‘Is there anything else to add, young feller?’
‘No, nothing. That’s what happened.’ Paul wiped his palm on his thigh.
The clerk carefully blew on the page, looked at it against the light, and passed it to the Constable. ‘There you are, sir,’ he said.
‘Thank you, Mr Gamp. Good. Hmmm.’ Constable Sloesser took his time, following the lines with his finger. ‘It must have been grisly for the three of you, having to spend the night in the coach with the bodies. Mr Russell did well to bring the coach in before daylight. Not everyone can handle a coach and team. Poor Mr Finnegan; he was a rare fellow. They say he was the best coachman in the colony. Altogether a very nasty business. Now, if you would sign the deposition there.’ He dipped a pen in the ink-well, and passed pen and paper across.
Paul wrote out his first name, making the ‘P’ full-bellied and messing up the final ‘l’, as he usually did, and dipped the pen in the ink again. He hesitated a moment before writing ‘Nouveau’. The policeman followed the movement of the nib as though searching for an imperfection, a tell-tale error of penmanship or spelling. It was like being watched by a detective, Paul thought. He’d been followed by detectives before; he felt a slow flush of anger spreading through his veins. He sketched a sweeping line under the signature, but the nib caught on the paper and sputtered a few drops, spoiling the curve of the final flourish.
The policeman cleared his throat. ‘I suppose we shall just have to take your identity on trust, Mr —’ He hesitated, and tilted his head to squint at the signature again — ‘Mr Nouveau. A shame about losing your papers in that storm off the Dutch East Indies.’ It was clear that the place called the Dutch East Indies was an impossibly long way off; perhaps even imaginary.
‘Yes, a shame. And I’m lucky to be alive. And it’s a good thing that I can remember my name, or I should not know exactly who I am.’
‘Of course.’ Sloesser chuckled at the ridiculous thought: fancy not knowing exactly who you were! But then, this fellow was a foreigner, and they could be peculiar.
‘And — and my pistol?’ Paul asked. ‘You have kept it aside. It cost me quite a deal of trouble — a deal of money. It is an English gun, very well made.’
‘Ah yes, I don’t see how we can hold the revolver any further, under the current regulations. You will be allowed to keep it, for the time being. You might like to put it away safely.’ Sloesser passed it across the desk carefully. The gun had been wrapped in its oilcloth again, and the police clerk had sealed it in a large waxed brown-paper envelope and tied it up thoroughly with pink linen tape; apparently the naked sight of such an implement of death was some breach of manners.
‘The Police Magistrate His Honour Sir William Manning calls next Tuesday week to hear cases here at the Police Court,’ Sloesser said. The mention of the Magistrate deepened the severity of his tone. ‘If you could stay in Wagga until then, Mr Nouveau, I’m sure His Honour would like to hear your account of the matter.’ He was clearly annoyed about the whole business, and Paul guessed that he’d be even unhappier when he had to explain to the Magistrate how it was not he, the Constable on duty, but a mere youth — and a foreigner at that — who had, with such dispatch, rid the district of a pair of murderers.
The clerk sat quietly, looking out through the dusty windows at the traffic in the street — a horse pulling a dray loaded with milk cans, a horse and buggy trotting by, three old men at the hitching rail engaged in an unhurried conversation.
Paul pushed back his chair. ‘I shall explain everything to the Police Magistrate if it’s necessary,’ he said.
The Constable nodded. ‘Now, your friends are waiting at the coach yard… ’
Paul walked out into the sunlight.
The coach house was in a side street a few blocks from the police station. Paul enjoyed the walk; the morning air was fresh, and he felt strangely happy. The ghastly events of the coach holdup were over now, and behind him.
He looked around: Wagga was pleasant enough, but strange, to Paul’s taste. He wasn’t used to the space or the bright colours. In France the streets were narrow, with steel-grey cobbles and grey stone and dark houses built high and closely crowded together. Even in Sydney there was a feel of busy crowds and things to do.
But here the streets were perhaps thirty yards across, with wide brick footpaths in the town centre and grassy footpaths on the side streets that led off from them, and large shade trees everywhere. The houses were lightly built, some of red brick but mainly of timber, set back from the road and spaced widely apart with lawns and gardens. Large willows marked the course of a meandering, muddy river that ran through the town. In the distance a dray clattered over a wooden bridge. There were a few people about here and there; their movements were slow and thoughtful. Everything felt casual: it seemed a comfortable, lazy kind of place. The sky was vast, and pale blue, and the light poured down in a way that reminded him of the light above the desert that surrounded the Suez Canal.
For a moment he was disoriented. Where was he, again? He realised that he hadn’t eaten anything since luncheon yesterday.
Frank and Julie were waiting at the coach shed. Paul was conscious of how mature they looked, Frank not quite out of his twenties, and Julie few years older. ‘How’s our private security officer?’ Frank said, as Paul joined them. ‘All finished?’
‘Yes, the gendarmes now have the story of my adventures in the bush, all written out in a very embroidered kind of English and signed and dated.’ He smiled, and turned to Julie. ‘And how are you after your adventure, Miss Bell?’
She tossed her long blonde hair. ‘Well, I didn’t get much sleep last night, as you can imagine, and thought I’d never recover, but it seems I have. I suppose you saved our lives.’
Paul stared at her blankly for a moment. He frowned. ‘I — I wasn’t thinking what I did.’ He glanced around at the half-empty yard; a dog scratched himself in the shade of a peppercorn tree, and two men stood talking idly by the gate, smoking pipes. ‘I should get my bag,’ he said.
She spoke up. ‘Do you have somewhere to stay in Wagga, Mr Nouveau?’
‘Ah… No, I have not thought about that… ’
‘I’m sure my father would like to meet you. I remember you talking on the coach, before — before that thing happened — talking about chemistry and science. My father’s a doctor, he has a degree in science, and he’s interested in that kind of thing. He’s starved for such talk in a small town like this, hundreds of miles from anywhere. Won’t you at least call by and have some afternoon tea?’
‘Go on, Paul,’ Frank said. ‘Why don’t you join the lady? You frightened her half to death, then saved her life. At least you can take a cup of tea with her.’
‘Oh, very well,’ Paul replied, his voice unwilling.
‘Then since we’re going to be friends, she said, ‘you may call me Julie.’ Paul made a stiff bow. ‘And while you’re getting your bag, perhaps you could fetch my box of books as well: it’s in the shed over there, a pine box about so big. Just ask Mr Birtwhistle for it.’
Paul went into the shed to enquire, but Birtwhistle was busy loading some barrels of brandy onto a dray out the front. Paul found his bag and the heavy pine box easily enough, and he was carrying them out of the shed when a large man placed the tip of his cane on the ground in front of his feet. The stranger was tall, middle aged, with a pale face and penetrating grey eyes; he wore a dark beard cut to a point. ‘I say,’ he said, in an accent that Paul realised was perhaps British. ‘I’m sorry, but you seemed to have picked up my box by mistake.’ His voice was deep and his manner pleasant, though firm.
‘This box, this books is —’ Paul stumbled on the English — ‘Excuse me, books for Miss Bell.’
The cane tapped the ground again. ‘I think the box for Miss Bell is by the counter, over there.’ The cane waved and pointed: there was another smaller box; ‘For Bell, Wagga’ was painted neatly on the side in green letters.
Paul put his burden down heavily. The box he had been carrying had the words ‘E.Remington & Sons’ stencilled on the side. ‘I’m stupid,’ he said. ‘In the Outback, I expected no one to be interested in buying so many books.’
The man smiled. ‘Forgive me, my friend, but you’re quite mistaken. You’ll find that the Outback is full of enthusiastic readers. There’s something about the barren silence of the Western Plains that leads men to ponder the meaning of their lives, and eventually they go to books in search of answers.’
‘Oh? This is hard to believe.’
‘But it’s true. You’ll come upon them camped by a waterhole philosophising on their dangling billies among a dawn chorus of cockatoos, and in the evening wasting the light of a kerosene lamp on the border ballads or the stringent theorems of Hegel. You’ll find them late at night in the back room of the Wagga Wagga Mechanics’ Institute arguing fine points of idealist philosophy or Communalism over a bottle of rum. The name’s Greenleaves,’ he said affably. ‘I noticed you coming out of the Police Court a moment ago. Not in trouble, are you?’
‘No, not in trouble. At least, I don’t think so.’ There was a pause. ‘Oh, my name’s — Nouveau.’
‘How d’you do.’
‘Your box,’ Paul said. ‘It’s not books, is it? Isn’t a Remington a kind of gun?’
‘The repeating rifle, yes. But in this case the product of the Remington manufactory is a writing machine.’
‘I had a friend in Paris who developed a kind of writing machine. It wasn’t very successful. Then a kind of phonograph, but he was too late demonstrating it to the Academy. But this is American, and it’s factory-made. How does it work?’
Greenleaves smiled. ‘I’m afraid I haven’t the time to set it up and show you. Perhaps some other day. Goodbye.’ He shook Paul’s hand, and went off to find Birtwhistle. Paul took his bag and got the smaller box, and carried it out into the stable yard.
‘I have to get over to the Advertiser office,’ Frank said. ‘I have a busy afternoon ahead of me. And then there’s the story of our encounter with the bushrangers to be written up.’
Paul gripped him by the arm. ‘Now Frank, do not write something stupid about what happened. I have no wish to be in the newspaper.’
‘I’m sorry, old pal, but you’re just going to have to put up with it. My boss would kill me if I didn’t write up the story. And I can hardly say that some unknown person accidentally caused the bushrangers to faint and kill themselves by falling off their horses. Now can I?’
Paul made a grimace, and shifted his feet. ‘Damn it, do what you have to. I wash my hands of it. Scripsi quod scripsi.’
‘Stop worrying, Paul. I’ll catch up with you tonight. Are you going to the Bachelor’s Ball?’
‘He must go to the Ball,’ Julie put in.
‘No, oh no,’ Paul said. ‘I do not imagine I have the clothes for such a grand event. And as for dancing, well, ah, I think not.’
‘Don’t be shy,’ Julie said, taking his arm. ‘It’s Friday night, everybody in town will be there, whether they can dance or not. Frank will lend you a jacket, won’t you? Frank may be a little taller, but you’re almost the same build.’
‘Well, perhaps. Frank, I need to talk to you later about the old Belgian, to get directions. Will you be at the newspaper?’
‘Just call in and ask for me,’ said Frank. ‘Bye.’
Paul slung his bag over his shoulder and picked up the box.
‘Over here,’ Julie said, and went across the stable yard to where a black man was washing down a horse. He touched his cap when he saw Julie. ‘Anything I can do for you today, Miss Bell?’
‘Yes, Jimmy, when you have a moment I’d like you to get the trap and bring this box of books around to the house.’
‘Certainly, miss,’ the black man said.
‘Just put it down there, Mr Nouveau.’ Paul put down the box with a grunt of relief. ‘Oh, Jimmy, this is my friend Mr Nouveau. He came in the coach with us from Sydney.’
‘G’day,’ Jimmy said, and touched his cap again.
‘Mr Nouveau, I’d like you to meet Jimmy Skylark.’
Paul held out his hand. Jimmy looked at it for a moment, then shook it. Though his hands were horny and strong, he had a delicate handshake.
‘Pleased to meet you,’ Paul said. ‘Ah — that’s a nice horse.’
Jimmy looked at the horse: it was a bay mare, past its prime. ‘Well, she’ll pull a dog-cart,’ he said, ‘but anything heavier than that and she gets up an awful sweat. Don’t you, Amy?’ He picked up the bucket and tipped the soapy water over the horse’s back. ‘Old Amy’s about ready for the glue factory, I reckon.’
‘You’ll be reading about Mr Nouveau in the Advertiser tomorrow, Jimmy. Come, Mr Nouveau.’ Paul scowled and followed her.
They walked in silence for a while through the wide, shady streets. Julie broke the silence.
‘Did you leave any children back in Europe, Mr Nouveau?’
The question took Paul by surprise. ‘What do you mean? No, no, I did not leave any person back in Europe. I am too young to have any children. That is a strange suggestion.’ He looked at her sternly, then made an effort to get his good humour back. ‘Perhaps I left one or two I failed to know about. In English you call them bastards, I think, but then this is also a bad word, so I shall not use it in the presence of a lady.’
Julie laughed. ‘Most of the men here are married at twenty, if they can find anyone to take them. You can’t be much more than that.’
‘But I am more than that. Next month I shall be twenty-two. What, do I look like a child?’ She didn’t answer. Julie seemed so much more mature and capable than any other young woman he had met.
‘But Miss Bell, you are also a year or two more than twenty, I think; if you will excuse me.’
‘Oh, I won’t see my twenties again.’
‘And no children?’
The smile left her face. ‘No,’ she said, in a cool voice.
‘I am sorry, I did not mean to poke about in your personal life.’
‘It’s been my own choice. But that will change. That will change.’
Paul didn’t know what to make of this, and they walked on in silence for a while.
‘What did you think of Jimmy?’ Julie asked. ‘He is an interesting character. You should find time to have a talk with him one day. He’s been a great help to Frank at the newspaper office.’
‘Doing odd jobs, and things like that?’
‘No. Well, yes, he does odd jobs around town. But at the Advertiser he helps with the printing and the proof-reading.’
‘Do you mean he reads English? But he’s —’ Paul looked for an appropriate word.
‘He’s borrowed every book my father owns, including some scientific books in Latin. He’s read more books than Axel Greenleaves, and that’s saying something.’
‘Everyone I meet seems to be a great reader,’ Paul said. ‘The town of Wagga must be the hiding place of a secret clan of book-lovers. I think I met Mr Greenleaves when I was collecting your box of books. Is he the high priest of the sect?’
‘No; quite the opposite. He’s rather a hermit. I was surprised to see him in town.’
‘And he reads?’
‘That’s about all he does. He’s shut himself up in his family home. They say he was quite outgoing when he was young, and a clever student, but he’s hardly spoken to anyone now for twenty years or more.’
‘So he’s never left Wagga?’
‘Oh, he’s travelled. He went to the university college in Sydney Town, and he had a book of his writings published in London when he was still quite young. No one heard from him for years, then one day he was back, busy with his studies. He spent a year in Europe some time ago.’
‘A scholar,’ Paul said. ‘The kind of person I should like to meet.’
‘Well, you’ve said how d’you do already. People are fairly informal in the bush, though Mr Greenleaves perhaps less so than most. Father can give you an introduction, if you wish. Mr Greenleaves was ill once, and old Mrs Emmott the housekeeper called father to attend him. There used to be an old gardener, but he died years ago, and the place is overgrown now.’
‘He doesn’t talk with anyone?’
‘Not much. The postmaster says that he sends letters to the journals from time to time: thick envelopes addressed to the Editor of this and that newspaper or magazine. But I don’t think anyone publishes them.’
‘The postmaster hasn’t steamed one open and read it, by any chance?’
‘Mr Nouveau! The idea!’
‘Well, why not? Do not you people have any curiosity? I would. But then, perhaps I am not the postmaster type of person.’ They laughed.
‘But you do like books, don’t you?’ Julie said. ‘I don’t just mean scientific subjects, but books in general.’
‘Yes and no. They have their uses. Why do you ask?’
‘It’s just that you seemed to me to be a scholarly person. I noticed from one or two things you said in the coach that you know some German, and some Latin.’
‘Schoolboy tricks,’ he said. It sounded surly, and he hadn’t meant that. He went on: ‘Perhaps I’m like my father. He spent some years in Algeria with his regiment, and he had good Arabic, they say. I have picked up half a dozen languages in the last few years. I am not fluent in any of them, except perhaps English. I taught in London for a while, and in Reading, a town near there.’
‘Have you ever had anything to do with publishing?’
‘Publishing? Well —’ He hesitated for a moment, then replied: ‘No, not really. Why do you ask?’
‘Frank’s made me excited about it. He took me into his office at the Advertiser. Have you ever been into a printing office, Mr Nouveau?’
‘I used to write for a radical paper, many years ago. The office had an odd odour, with the ink, and so on.’
‘It’s magical, isn’t it? And then to see the machines working: the pure white sheet of paper slides under the press, then thump! and it emerges with thousands of tiny words all perfectly formed, in crisp black ink, for tens of thousands of people to read. Why, I think it’s the most wonderful thing in the world.’
‘You talk like a religious convert.’
She laughed; then said seriously ‘But think of what it’s meant for the education of the ordinary people. Once it was only the rich who could afford books, and the good schools to teach them how to use the books.’
‘Oh, yes,„ said Paul.
‘I believe in education for all, and with the way printing’s progressing, everyone shall be able to afford them.’
‘Oh yes, books,’ Paul said doubtfully.
‘Yes, we’re starting up a library at the School of Arts; there are a dozen people on the committee, including Mr Dobbs from the bank, and my father, and others. Democracy is based on equality, and there can be no equality until everyone has equal access to knowledge.’
Her enthusiasm seemed to made Paul angry. ‘Oh yes,’ he said, ‘democracy is a wonderful thing. It will spread all over the earth, hand in hand with its ugly brother, colonialism.’
She hadn’t heard. ‘Here we are,’ she said. They had arrived at her house: a large bungalow, with a deep front garden shaded by trees. Paul thought there was something casual and friendly about the way the house lounged among its shade, its cool veranda sprawling around it on all sides. A cane table and three chairs had been set out on a patch of lawn in a haphazard fashion, with a grey cat asleep on one of the chairs and a newspaper lying folded on the table beside a jug of water. Paul had a sudden feeling of familiarity, as though he had been made welcome by some old relatives he had forgotten about. He took a deep breath and let it out slowly, and felt his body relax. He realised he’d been holding himself alert and aware for days, his muscles constantly tensed. There was the Dutchman, perhaps dead in a Sydney gutter. And then there had been the holdup, and the interview with Constable Sloesser. But now all that was over and done with.
Julie apologised for the lawn, which looked dry and burnt: ‘There’s been a drought, I’m afraid, and the grass has suffered. But we’re hoping for rain. Oh, father shall be so pleased to meet you.’
‘And your mother?’
She looked at the garden and her smile faded. ‘My mother died a long time ago, not so many years after she arrived in Australia.’
They had come to a halt in the middle of the path that led up to the house. Paul wasn’t sure what was required of him. ‘How did she die?’
‘She was bitten by a snake. It was very quick, my father says. She didn’t suffer.’ She seemed lost for words for a moment.
‘Well, that much is good,’ Paul said. ‘To go quickly.’
‘Oh, perhaps father said that to spare me. I don’t know. I hardly knew her. Anyway, let’s not stand here. Come on in.’
[»»] Back to the Contents page