Chapter 05 — Doctor Bell
Paragraph One follows — 1:
‘Of course there are those who would say that the alchemical study is — ah — entirely metaphorical,’ said Doctor Bell, spreading some blackberry jam onto a scone, ‘and worth nothing.’ The scones were delicious: warm, sweet, thickly spread with butter, with a fine dusting of flour. Paul had eaten six, and now he reached for another. ‘But they’re — they’re wrong,’ Bell went on, and took a sip of his tea. ‘More tea, Mister Nouveau?’
‘Do you have anything stronger than English tea?’ Paul asked. ‘I am hot and dusty. I should like a beer.’
Doctor Bell blinked. ‘Julie — ah — would you see if we have some beer in the pantry?’
‘That would be good,’ Paul said.
‘Naturally they say it’s rubbish. That is the way the new science pushes itself forward — um — by pushing the old science back into the dark.’ It was a speech he’d given before. He took out his spectacles, polished them, and put them back in his pocket.
Julie gave her father an exasperated look. ‘Oh, father,’ she said, as she popped open the glass stopper. ‘Do up your collar.’
His collar had not been buttoned properly, and he had forgotten to shave. The effect was untidy rather than casual. ‘But the alchemical science has much to teach us,’ he went on, ‘if only we knew how to — how to listen. It’s like the Art of Memory, which has been quite — ah — forgotten, except for a few music-hall professors. Huh!’
Julie brought Paul his beer. ‘Thank you,’ he said, and drank half the glass in one long swallow. ‘Ah, that’s better. Which art of memory do you have in mind, Doctor Bell?’
‘That of Cicero. Do you know of it?’
‘Oh yes,’ Paul said. ‘I studied my Latin at school. He stole it from the Greeks.’
‘The Romans stole everything from the Greeks,’ countered Bell. ‘Yes, you’re quite right. Cicero took it from the Greeks. One of these days some scholar will trace the whole story through to the Renaissance and on to the music halls of today! But not here. Here in the Australian Outback we can only — ah — fumble in the dark.’ He stroked the white stubble on his chin as though it was an imposing beard.
‘I do wish you would remember to shave, father,’ Julie said. ‘Every time I go to Yass and leave you alone for a day or two, I dread to think what state I’ll find you in when I return.’
‘You’re always reminding me to focus on the present, my dear. It’s — ah — kind of you, and I appreciate it, but it’s not always the most — um — agreeable place to live. I am forced to do that in my medical work, to deal with what’s in front of me, and, my goodness, I really — sometimes I wish I didn’t have to see it. My research — um — that is what I really care about.’
Paul finished his beer. ‘Your research?’
‘Yes. You’re a gentleman — ah — with an education, and with an inquiring mind. I’d like to show you the workshop I’ve put together downstairs.’
‘Workshop? If you wish.’
Julie started clearing away the cups and saucers. ‘I’ve seen it all before,’ she said. ‘You go on ahead.’
‘It’s just through this way,’ Bell said, and he guided Paul into the hallway. His walk was slow and oddly stiff — rheumatism, perhaps. They passed an open doorway that gave a glimpse of a library filled with large bookcases, and passed through a study with a piano in a corner flanked by two smaller bookcases, and a table littered with papers. The afternoon sunlight flooded in through the wide glass doors and reflected a splash of gold and violet light from the bevelled edge of a mirror above the mantelpiece. Daffodils were arranged in a crystal vase on the table. Paul thought he’d never seen a room with so much light in it.
‘Is this your study?’
‘No, this is Julie’s study. Mine’s at the front of the house. Julie takes pupils, you know, tutoring in school subjects, homework, that sort of thing. And she teaches music. She writes, too. She had a piece about life on the Murrumbidgee River published in Sydney Sketches last month. You must ask her about it. The basement’s through here. Not many houses in the country have a basement, but there are many practical reasons for constructing one. It — ah, through here — it forms an excellent wine cellar, for example. Yes indeed. Meanwhile, I’m a pioneer, at least in Wagga. Ah — just down a few steps here.’
The climbed down a set of brick steps and came to a door which was secured with a padlock. Bell drew a key on a gold chain from his fob pocket and opened the lock. The door creaked open. It was late afternoon, and the room within was dim. Some light shone through the mottled green glass of a high window at the back, and a blue glow came from some equipment on a bench. A hum filled the air. Paul took a few moments to get used to the gloom and the strange atmosphere.
‘I call it Plato’s Cave,’ Bell said, ‘where the shadows of ignorance are dispelled by — you know, by the light of reason.’ He regarded Paul with an expectant smile.
‘Well,’ Paul said at last, ‘it is remarkable. Those huge bottles of chemicals, and the strange light, like a… a kind of phosphorescence. And what is that noise I can hear?’
‘Ah, my galvanic generators. Using energy from a small windmill in the yard, a windmill, I am charging a set of Leyden jars with galvanic current. I’m trying to explore further among Maxwell’s work in experimental physics at Cambridge; he has a brilliant mind, brilliant, but there are many unanswered questions. Yes, questions. The electrical current causes the glow when there’s gas present in the charging tubes, though I’m not quite sure why it should do so. Odd, isn’t it? You have heard of animal magnetism?’
‘But of course. Everyone in Europe has heard of —’
‘I have certain theories, certain theories that relate the galvanic force, the magnetic force and the life force.’ Bell stared at his little gold key, and turned it over in his hand. ‘Oh, I know many people have such theories. Many. Mine are based on observation. And on a kind of — a kind of inspiration.’ He looked at Paul. ‘Do you believe in inspiration? In — in the importance of dreams?’ He laid his hand lightly on Paul’s arm. ‘The ancient Egyptians had the secret of the galvanic force. Ten years ago, I had a vivid dream, a dream in which the spirit of an Egyptian priest told me to search out the galvanic force. Search it out! That, he said, was the secret of their science!’ Paul hadn’t replied; Bell examined his face intently. ‘Ah well, you look sceptical.’
Paul sighed. ‘I have been through a lot these last few days. And such ideas are no longer of much interest to me. Once, I believed —’ he searched for the words — ‘believed — in science, and in alchemy. I even believed in democracy —’ he laughed — ‘which in a British colony like this must seem like a fantasy.’ He looked around. There was a fine layer of dust everywhere. The cellar, the complicated equipment, Bell’s dreams: it all seemed absurd and amateurish, like his collar hanging crooked, and his unshaven chin. ‘When I sleep, I sleep like an animal,’ Paul said. ‘When I wake, I leave my dreams behind me.’
Bell frowned, and shook his head in small repeated movements. ‘No, no, no,’ he insisted. ‘No, a man cannot live without some kind of dream. Can’t go on. You can’t go on.’
‘Of course you can go on.’ Paul shrugged. ‘Where else do you go?’
The sound of the piano came faintly on the air. The notes were slow and awkward. ‘One of Julie’s pupils,’ Bell said. He went to a bench and picked up an old violin that was lying there under a cloth. He tucked it under his chin, picked up the bow, and drew out a few slow notes in a minor key. ‘I find — I find music helps me think,’ Bell said. The bow slowed and stopped, and he stood motionless, staring into space. The distant piano continued, climbing and falling.
‘The trouble is,’ he said, almost speaking to himself, ‘you get older, and it’s all so much more effort. All this — this work, this work.’ He put down the violin. ‘When I was younger, I thought —’ He seemed about to go on, but he sighed and changed tack. ‘The modern world needs all kinds of inventions. I developed an improvement in gold separation, using mercury. It’s a complicated process, indeed, in chemical terms, but it works. It made us some money. But money, that’s not why I became interested in science. Not at all.’
‘I thought you were a medical doctor.’
‘Well, I’m a doctor, in my day-to-day work here in Wagga, but initially I trained in chemistry at Cambridge. I’d be there today, oh yes, if it hadn’t been for the accident. You might have noticed that I don’t walk as well as I might. Fulminate of mercury; nasty stuff. Very nasty. There was — uh, there was an explosion, an accident. One of my colleagues was killed, a fellow called Riley. Poor Riley. I ended up with a bad back. And now it’s gone rheumatic. Oh well, at least I’m alive. It was hard then. I was ill for a while, quite a while. And they blamed me. It was poor Riley’s fault, as it happened, yes, but of course he wasn’t available to testify: he was dead. Oh —’ he waved his hand around his head as though brushing at a fly — ‘they wanted to get rid of me anyway, because of my radical ideas. Well, damn them all. Damn them. I had some family money: my parents were both dead, and I’d been left some money; not much, not much, but enough. I went off to medical school in Edinburgh. Did you ever go to university?’
The question surprised Paul. ‘Me? No. What use is that kind of thing? No, I did not attend the university. But why did you come out here? It is a long road from Cambridge or Edinburgh.’
Bell hesitated. ‘It sounds peculiar, I suppose, but the truth is I hated England. Hated it.’
Paul laughed. ‘I hate England too, but me, I am French. At least I have that excuse. I hate the English petty-mindedness. They are a people without passion. How they manage to breed is a mystery to me.’
‘I just wanted to get away from the arrogance of the ruling class. I don’t know what it’s like in France, but the class system is like a disease in Britain.’
‘In France they chop it down every fifty years, so it can grow back stronger.’
Bell laughed. ‘If only they’d chop it back in England! It promotes servility and hatred. Any cretin can get a preferment as long as his father knows someone; but if you’re not a member of the club you might as well give up, just give up. Oh, they’ll let you struggle and clamber half-way up the ladder, half-way, but no higher. I came out here to get away from all that. We found that Sydney was full of it at that time; I believe it’s better now, but then it was run by a clique. Horrible. We went up to Goulburn. It was a new town, and the air was cleaner. Then my wife — my wife died of snake-bite, poor thing.’
‘Julie said something about that.’
‘It’s a terrible thing. There’s no real remedy. None.’ He picked up a jar of chemicals, and stared at it intensely. The jar was half full of dull greenish crystals. He put it down again. ‘It’s not like any other poison. There’s no antidote. The animals out here are monstrous. Do you know there’s a spider as big as a child’s hand that lives under the rocks in the bush — and it’s just as happy thriving in a garden in the town — that can spring out and sink its fangs into you, fangs that can puncture a leather boot, and kill you dead in an hour or so — yet its bite is harmless to a rabbit? Harmless! When I was down in Sydney I saw a fellow die from its bite; a sailor from Samoa, poor fellow. There was nothing the staff could do for the poor man — an awful greenish foam comes gushing up out of the lungs, it seems endless, and the agony is unspeakable. What in God’s name is the purpose of these creatures?’
He turned away, and his voice broke. ‘Oh, if only I could bring her back, back. I’d go back to Scotland, I’d go to any place that made her happy. She was never happy here, not here, in this wretched place.’ He made an effort to gather himself, and walked stiffly about the workshop, picking things up in an agitated way and putting them down.
‘I suspect we must to live with what we are given,’ Paul said. ‘It sounds stupid, perhaps, but is that not the way the world goes? To undo every mistake — what an opportunity for gamblers and criminals!’
Bell gave a short laugh. ‘God Almighty,’ he said, ‘what sort of a host you must think me — where did I diverge, what was I saying before I embarked on my ravings? I was talking about the gold process, yes, gold.’ He scratched at his stubble. ‘Well, that was successful, for a while.’ He picked up a worn text book with the title Assay Methods, and flicked through its pages. ‘But now they have a better process, apparently, involving hydrocyanic acid; in any case, there’s not so much gold here any more. The flush of gold fever, that’s given way to the pallor of sobriety. I should have — I should have invested in the business side of it. That would have been more sensible — much more sensible. Then there might have been something to hand on to my daughter.’
‘I noticed Julie is wearing an engagement ring —’
‘Oh, that. Yes. She went and got herself engaged to marry a local fellow, fellow called Stern, or something. I don’t know where his family came from, but he’s made something of himself in the colony. Sheep, wool, that sort of thing. He owns Duldrudjuri Station, and a couple of other grazing properties hereabouts. He’s what they call a man of substance. Yes, indeed.’ Bell seemed indifferent to these facts, and Paul couldn’t tell whether he genuinely didn’t care, or whether he was affecting a deliberate lack of concern with class and money.
‘And is he interested in your… your researches?’
‘Stern?’ Bell seemed surprised, then gave a light laugh. ‘Not really. Do you know what? He asked me once if I could solve a problem to do with his sheep. Some disease they are prone to here in Australia, here in the bush. I know nothing about sheep. I’m not an animal doctor, a veterinarian. And he had some crackpot idea about manufacturing a machine to shear the wool off the sheep —’ he laughed aloud now — ‘a machine driven off a steam engine. An engine. I told him it would frighten the wool off the sheep! Ridiculous.’
‘Perhaps you should think about it again. There’s a lot of money to be made from ideas like that. Of course a clever idea is one thing, and manufacturing and selling that idea is another thing altogether. And Julie… is she interested in looking after sheep?’
‘Oh, I dare say she’ll find some interest in helping to manage the property. They’re getting married next year. Frankly, there aren’t that many eligible men in this district. Gamblers and illiterates, fools, most of them. Most of them are fools.’
Paul recalled the bookcases he had seen earlier. ‘I notice you have a good library upstairs.’
Bell’s eyes brightened. ‘Oh, that’s Julie’s library. But I have books too. Ah, books. Would you like to see them?’
‘Yes, I’d like that. Do you have books on gold prospecting?’
‘Oh yes. Quite a few. Let’s go up. You’ve seen enough of this for now.’ He picked up the jar of green crystals, then set it down again, and gave the workshop a last look. Paul thought the gesture had something forlorn in it. Bell locked the door behind them, and the low hum faded as they climbed the steps.
‘I don’t like interrupting Julie’s music lessons, so we’ll go the other way, around the veranda. It’s not much of a library, really, no, not really. The scientific books are a bit out of date, but I try to keep up with literature and philosophy, that kind of thing. I have a good stock of magazines, too, mainly for Julie’s sake: art reviews, essays, poetry; some of it in French. Are you interested in that sort of thing?’
The question caught Paul unawares. ‘No,’ he said, and shook his head. ‘Not in that sort of thing.’
‘But you’re a literary man, surely,’ Bell protested. ‘The way you spoke this afternoon, the way you think. Your knowledge of the Latin authors is quite remarkable —’
‘I was a good little boy at school.’ There was a contemptuous edge to Paul’s voice. ‘I won a Latin prize.’
They went in to the large front-facing room that served as Bell’s library. Tall bookcases stood around the walls, and a baize-topped desk filled the centre of the room, littered with papers. Two lamps were lit, though there was plenty of light. Bell took a decanter from a sideboard and offered Paul a drink, and when he declined, poured one for himself.
The notes of the piano echoed through the house, faltering as they climbed and fell. The melody spoke of Europe more than a century ago, but in the spaces between the notes the silence of the Australian bush seemed to creep and linger. Bell noticed Paul listening. ‘Sometimes — sometimes I wish Julie’s pupils could play a little more fluently. Then again, there’s a lovely quality to their hesitancy, the slow, awkward steps toward mastery of the art. Ah, that mastery. Don’t you think? Eh?’
A year before, Paul had persuaded his mother to rent a piano so he could learn the instrument. Though the tune that floated on the air now was tentative and half-formed, he recognised it as a Bach piece he had once practised, and it took him back to those evenings in the lamplit kitchen at home when he would play his exercises, with his mother going over the farm accounts in the corner, and his sisters reading over their homework aloud at the table.
He went to make some reply, but found to his surprise that there was a lump in his throat — ‘a cat in his throat’, he thought to himself. He nodded silently.
Bell picked up a volume that was lying open on the desk. ‘Here we are; we’re not so out of touch, you see. This volume from Paris, Parnasse Contemporain.’ He turned a few pages. ‘It’s a few years old, I admit, but occasionally you find a lovely poem in it. My wife used to read French better than I. I don’t read it all that well.’ He paused at a particular page and began reading, pronouncing the words awkwardly: ‘Amer savoir, celui —’
Paul took over the line without thought or effort: ‘ — celui qu’on tire du voyage,’ he said. The sound of his own voice surprised him: it seemed to come out of nowhere, or perhaps out of a forgotten past that was suddenly all around him.
Bell blinked and looked at him with a delighted smile. ‘Ah! You know it! Now what does that mean, exactly?’
Paul was lost for a moment. The poem was Baudelaire’s, and some years before Paul had heard the poet Banville read it at the Café de Cluny. He despised the air of make-believe and the sentimentality that soaked the words, and later, after Banville’s reading, he had gone over the poem a dozen times, taking it apart clause by clause, rhyme by rhyme, and had confirmed his judgment. What was he doing in this room cluttered with books and magazines, talking in English with a stranger? ‘Uh — the line means “What a bitter knowledge we obtain from travelling.” It’s — it’s Baudelaire. From his poem “The Voyage”. I used to know it well.’
‘Of course, Baudelaire. Somewhat of a debauchee, they say. But what a poet. Makes the Romantics like Keats or Coleridge and those nature poets seem a bit old-fashioned, a bit dull, eh? So modern, don’t you think? The poetry of action, of movement.’
It was true, in a sense; people in Paris had been saying that ten or twenty years ago, but Paul felt that he had looked more deeply into Baudelaire than most, and found him lacking. The word ‘debauchee’ particularly irritated him. ‘You really think so?’ He checked himself; in this over-furnished room his voice was louder than he had meant it to be. But he rushed on: ‘I must confess, to my mind a machine for shearing sheep would be worth a thousand pages of that rubbish. “The Voyage”? Baudelaire would be lucky to voyage to the grocer’s shop, on an errand for his mother!’
If Bell was offended by this outburst he made no sign. He went on browsing through the pages, murmuring the occasional phrase in French. Then he looked up at the ceiling, his head at an angle. ‘Nouveau… Isn’t there a French writer called Nouveau? That’s your family name, isn’t that what you said?’
‘I believe he was perhaps a — a distant cousin of my father’s,’ Paul lied. He felt the colour rising to his face. ‘He was — he was some kind of religious fanatic, I’ve been told.’ That, at least, was true. ‘Please, all this literature, it makes my head spin. If you would excuse me, I have an errand which I want to get over and done with. Julie suggested I should go to this Ball tonight, but I don’t have quite suitable clothes for it. Frank said he would make a loan to me, a top coat; I should find him. I think it is becoming late.’
‘I shall say au revoir to Julie.’
He left Bell in the library and went through to Julie’s study. The piano lesson had finished and the pupil was just leaving.
‘Paul, this is Mary Cameron. She’s my best pupil.’
Mary shook his hand and smiled at him frankly. She was a pretty girl of ten or eleven, with freckles and long dark hair tied back in a plaid bow. ‘I think Miss Bell’s just being nice to me,’ she said. ‘I always get bad marks in music.’
‘Bad marks,’ Paul said. ‘Don’t talk about bad marks. You should hear me play. I was terrible.’
‘Were you punished? I sometimes get punished. Not by Miss Bell, by the teacher at school.’
Paul smiled. ‘I used to tell people, I played the piano, and the piano won.’ They laughed. ‘And what’s your favourite subject?’
‘History, I think.’
‘History? Why not music, when it seems you are good at it?’
Mary frowned as she considered the question. ‘I think everyone should be able to play a musical instrument,’ she said, ‘and paint or draw. But there are more important things than art or music.’
‘Oh? And what might they be?’
‘Well, half the people in this town can barely read, and they know nothing about where they came from or why they’re here. That’s one thing. And when you look in the history books, well, all you read about is conquest here and conquest there, which is war, really. We’ve been very lucky never to have had a war in Australia. That sort of thing is horrible.’
Paul stared at her. ‘Good God, you are young for an anarchist. But yes, that is true, killing people is horrible.’
Julie put her arm around the child and gave her a hug. ‘We’d better not keep you any longer.’
Mary laid her head against Julie’s chest. ‘Do you know what I’m doing tonight, Julie?’
‘Mrs Bluett said I could come over for tea, and afterwards we’d have a look through her new telescope.’ She looked up at Julie, her eyes shining. ‘You can see the moon and everything, and the rings around Saturn. Mrs Bluett knows all about the stars and the planets. I’m so excited. But it has to be a clear night. Oh, I hope there are no clouds! I shall see you on Saturday, then. Goodbye. ’Bye, Mr Nouveau.’
She ran across the veranda and was gone. Julie closed the glass doors; there was a chill in the air.
‘Did she bring you those daffodils?’
‘No, I picked them myself. Aren’t they lovely?’
‘They seem to fill the whole room with light. They — they go with the colour of your hair.’
Julie looked at him steadily. ‘Is that a compliment, Paul?’
‘Well, I am not fluent with English, but that was the idea, the general idea, to make a compliment. Would you give me a passing mark for my effort?’
She smiled and narrowed her eyes, and tilted her head slightly. She made no reply, but gazed at him for a while. What was going through her mind? Why couldn’t he think of something elegant to say? Most of the men he had met in Paris were his mental inferiors in every way, yet they could make small talk with a pretty woman at the drop of a hat. Why was he such a slow-witted clod?
He stroked the lid of the piano. ‘Such a popular instrument among middle-class ladies,’ he said. ‘Do you know in Stuttgart I met a fellow who was a salesman for a piano factory. He was worn out with his work. Such competition! There were salesmen crawling all over Europe, and also the colonies, Africa and the East, anything for a sales advantage.’
‘Yes, selling is difficult work.’
‘He told me that in 1870, a few years ago, there were over four hundred piano factories in Germany alone, churning out God knows how many thousands of machines a month, all to satisfy this bourgeois hunger. Can you believe that?’
She gave him a wry smile. ‘How interesting,’ she said. ‘Four hundred factories. My goodness. And it’s a bourgeois hunger, did you say?’
‘Well of course. The working people, they cannot afford the time or the money to learn. And the rich, they pay someone else to play the instrument for them. That leaves the bourgeoisie, the earnest middle class.’
Bell saved him from making a further fool of himself; he came in and gave Paul directions to the newspaper office, where he could find Frank.
‘Thank you. Also the boarding house where he stays I am not sure about. I also wish to call on a Belgian who lives there, an old man called Verheeren; but that can wait.’
‘Oh, Verheeren,’ Bell said. ‘I believe Frank’s mentioned him. He’s an eccentric fellow, always looking over his shoulder. He does some accounting work here and there, but Frank would be the best person to see. The boarding house, that’s Miss Mackenzie’s place over by the river.’
Julie came up to Paul and pulled a loose thread of cotton from his jacket. ‘I can tell you how to get to Miss Mackenzie’s; it’s not far. She’s a great gossip, isn’t she, father? I know she’s just dying to hear of our adventures on the Sydney Road. She wants to know everything that happens in Wagga.’ She put her arm through his. ‘I’ll show you to the door.’
Bell followed them. ‘Miss Mackenzie? Well, yes, yes; she does like to know what’s going on. She’s a decent woman, though, a decent woman.’
‘You are planning to attend the Bachelor’s Ball this evening, I hope,’ Julie said. ‘You promised.’
Paul grimaced. ‘Did I actually promise, in real life? But yes, I shall attend. I hope the shopkeepers’ and farmers’ wives of Wagga would find my manner correct.’ If he had meant this as a witty remark, it failed to find its target. Julie frowned slightly.
Dusk was settling over the town; the trees along the wide street were wreathed in shadow, and the pale surface of the roadway took on a ghostly glow in the last of the light from the sky. Paul picked up his bag. He felt the weight of the revolver. Should he take it? Perhaps not this time; he didn’t want to be tempted to use it before he was ready. Inside him there was a hoard of anger heaped up, and a wrong move could set it loose. No; he would find a cheap hotel, and leave the gun there.
‘Why don’t you leave your bag here?’ suggested Doctor Bell. ‘Come to think of it, why don’t you — why don’t you stay here with us while you’re in Wagga, Paul? We never seem to use it, to use the spare room.’
‘Oh, no, Doctor, thank you, but I think I may be under the feet a nuisance to you. I can take a room in a hotel… ’
‘I think not,’ Julie said. ‘The hotels are all full. It’s Show week, and everyone in the district has come to town. Do say you’ll stay.’
Paul frowned, and thought. ‘Oh, very well, Julie, as you say. It is most kind of you.’ He put the bag down, relieved at not having to sleep in another barracks bed or crowded cabin or stale hotel room. ‘I shall be back in an hour or so, God willing.’
‘You had better take a lantern,’ Julie said. Would you fetch one for him, father? The only street lights in Wagga are a few kerosene lamps near the park, and they’re hardly ever lit.’
They seemed an odd pair, Paul thought, as he walked down the path and onto the cool dusty street. Independent, yet friendly. They seemed to like Frank, and Paul reflected that the Bells were rather like he imagined Americans to be; artless, yet with their own type of sophistication; satisfied to live far from the centres of civilisation, yet curious and avid for learning.
He could still feel Julie’s arm through his, and the light touch of her hand. Why could he not have made some clever remark? Her young pupil was more self-assured than he had been. Was all his learning for nothing?
‘Good bye, young fellow,’ called Bell, and waved.
[»»] Back to the Contents page