Chapter 17 — Hands
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Julie was dreaming. She was playing with a little golden-haired girl in the garden at the back of their old house in Goulburn, pushing her on a swing, back and forth. The swing made a rhythmic creaking noise, and with each swing, the child grew smaller and smaller. Julie was anxious — soon she would lose her altogether. She stopped the swing and held her, and tried to tie a ribbon in her hair so she could find her if she became lost, but the child wriggled out of her grasp and ran away. Julie searched for her, looking in among the bushes and flowers, but the foliage was tangled and overgrown. The further she went, the more the garden seemed like a jungle. Soon she had wandered down a gully buried under a dense tangle of quince trees, a long way from the house. As she pushed her way through the thicket it became darker, and now she was slipping in the muddy soil, grabbing the branches to steady herself. The bark discoloured her hands and the sap had an acrid smell. She tried to wipe it off, and found she’d stained her dress — now her mother would be angry.
A creek ran along the bottom of the gully and the water made a trickling sound that grew louder and louder. She must be nearing the place where the creek ran into the flooded river — the water was stained red with mud and clay, and she could hear the rush and tumble of rapids near by. It was growing dark now, and a cold rain was beginning to patter on the leaves. A wood pigeon fluttered away into the gloom with a clatter of wings, then another one. She remembered that they always seemed to go about in pairs, perhaps out of loyalty to one another. But where was the little girl? Julie turned around, and realised she was lost.
Close by there was a flash of light and a loud bang, like a charge of blasting powder exploding — her heart began to pound. Someone had fired a gun, that was it. She awoke, her pulse racing and her mouth dry with fear.
But she was in her bedroom, quite safe. She shivered. What time was it? She got up and pulled a wrap around her shoulders and lit the little lamp beside her bed. She had won the lamp at the shooting gallery; perhaps that was what had made her dream of the sound of a gun. She went to the kitchen to get a cup of milk, and found her father there, reading by the light of the kitchen lamp.
‘Father, you’ll ruin your eyesight!’
‘What are you doing up, my dear? Can’t you sleep?’
She told him about her dream, how she had searched for the little girl in the overgrown garden at the back of the house at Goulburn.
He sighed, and rubbed his eyes. ‘Goulburn. Ah — it seems like yesterday. After your mother died the garden — the garden went to the dogs.’
‘It’s like a hundred years ago, to me. A lifetime away.’
‘Never mind, my dear. Never mind. It was just a dream. I’ve got the stove going, and the kettle’s boiled. Ah — make yourself a cup of tea, if you like.’
‘I think I’ll make some warm milk. It might help me sleep.’ She poured some milk into a pan and put it on the stove.
‘I noticed our guest hasn’t returned.’
Julie looked around in alarm. ‘Paul?’ She checked the clock on the mantelpiece. ‘But it’s nearly morning.’
‘I hope he knows what he’s doing, ah — wandering around in the dark. The moon’s gone now; it’s like pitch out there.’
The window was dark, and reflected the lamplit kitchen. ‘I thought I heard — I mean, I dreamed I heard a shot,’ she said. She stirred a spoonful of chocolate into her milk, and some brown sugar.
Her father looked at her. ‘I thought I heard a shot too, about ten minutes ago. Ah — but my hearing’s not so good any more. I thought perhaps I had imagined it.’
‘I wish he wouldn’t carry that revolver about with him.’
‘Well, after his — ah — his experience on the coach, I suppose he feels it’s an investment in his future.’
She brought her cup of chocolate to the table. ‘Sometimes I think if there’d never been any men in the world, there would never have been any killing.’ As she sat down she noticed her father looking at her left hand. She put it out of sight on her lap. They looked at each other: she held her father’s gaze for a moment, then dropped her eyes.
‘I see you’re not wearing Mr Stern’s ring,’ Bell said. ‘Ah — I noticed the other day, but I thought I’d not say anything. I thought perhaps it was a temporary thing. That — ah — that you might come to your senses.’
‘But I have come to my senses. That’s what it’s all about, father. You saw what he did to Paul.’
He frowned, and went to say something, and checked himself; then tried again. ‘Julie, you’re nearly thirty years of age. You put all that other business behind you, in Goulburn, years ago. Ah — you said you had made up your mind to marry him.’
‘And I’ve made it up again, not to marry him. You can’t force me to.’
‘You know quite well that I wouldn’t force you.’
Her father compressed his lips. ‘I — I hope I’ve done the right thing.’
‘What do you mean?’
‘Oh, over the years. I had to — Ah — I had to make my own life as best I could, and follow my studies in my spare time. It must have been hard on you growing up without a mother. I just don’t know if I did the right thing. And now it’s — it’s too late. If I got it wrong, well, ah — now it’s too late.’
‘Oh, don’t be so gloomy, father. We always had a housekeeper. I never went hungry. I should have hated it if you’d gone to work in a bank or behind a counter in some grocer’s shop, so you could be a normal kind of parent keeping regular hours. Or if you’d married some woman just so I could have a mother in the house. You know that.’
‘I did leave you alone rather too much.’
‘I like being on my own.’
‘I remember one time — you must have been six or seven — ah — I came in very late one evening, and the housekeeper had gone home. A lamp had been lit in the kitchen, but the rest of the house was full of shadows. You were sitting there in the hall in the half-dark, playing with an old rag doll you’d had since you were two. When I came in the door you ran to me and hugged me so tightly I thought you’d never let me go. I felt so — I felt as though you had no one, no one for a friend.’
‘You are being gloomy, aren’t you? You’re like Paul, too hard on yourself. I remember you used to read to me after dinner, every night. You used to take me on your rounds.’
‘Some of that can’t have been very edifying. Ah — you must have seen some very sad things.’
‘You’re musing again, father. I think I’ll try to get some more sleep.’
‘I don’t feel sleepy. I’ve been reading up on Maxwell’s colour process. I think there’s a way to get the subtractive colour you need for printing colour positives — you use two sets of negative processes sequentially, using the complementaries of the three primaries. A double negative makes a positive, see? I think I’ll do some work downstairs.’ He paused at the door. ‘My dear — if you are sure — if you are sure about this Stern business, well, ah — I suppose you’ll have to do what you think is right. But I should like to think of you with a family of your own, some day. That’s all. Good night, my dear.’
‘Good night, father.’
Half an hour later Julie was fast asleep, and the sun was tinting the sky pink and gold. Paul arrived at the house and moved quietly around the back to avoid the squeaking front gate. As Julie had said, they didn’t use keys: the french doors on the veranda opened silently at his touch. In the chill light the daffodils stood silently in their vase. The petals gave out a dim, sulphurous glow, an underwater colour; they seemed to take fire from the glints of light in the crystal vase. The piano was mute. He tip-toed through to the darkened kitchen and poured himself a glass of water. The room felt warm, and he realised that the stove was still hot. He frowned, trying to work out why that should be so. Someone must have risen early and lit it, then gone back to bed. Or perhaps they’d stayed up late and kept the fire going. He was on his way to his room when he thought he heard a noise downstairs. He crept along the hall and down the steep brick steps to the basement. A light shone under the door of the workroom. He carefully opened the door and went in.
‘Ah — Goodness, you startled me,’ Bell said. He’d been writing something in a notebook. ‘I thought I heard a gun go off, earlier on. My nerves have been on edge lately.’
‘Yes,’ Paul said. ‘There was a gun, and it went off. This is not such a quiet town after all.’
‘You’ve hurt yourself,’ said Bell. Paul was holding his left arm against his side.
‘Just a cut,’ he said. ‘It would have been deeper, and nearer to my heart, but I moved quickly enough.’
‘Someone tried to kill me.’ He looked around the room. ‘Why do I do these things? To bring danger on myself? I could be killed.’ His eyes shifted around the room. Bell noticed a tension in his voice, a note of suppressed excitement or anxiety.
‘Let me look at it.’
Paul took off his heavy woollen coat. The sleeve of his shirt had been cut, and it was stained with blood. ‘Hmmm, it’s not so bad,’ Bell said. ‘A small, narrow wound, more of a deep scratch. I’d better make sure it’s clean. Nothing is safe; not even a scratch from a rusty nail. Once infection sets in, there’s nothing you can do about it. I lost a patient a month ago that way.’ He led Paul over to the sink in the corner and cleaned the wound. Paul noticed his slight limp again.
‘Is your rheumatism hurting?’ he asked Bell.
‘No, no. I ignore it and it goes away.’
‘Do I need the giant lizard ointment?’
Bell laughed. ‘Goanna Salve? I don’t think so. Ah — just a bandage. There. That’s not too tight?’
‘No, it’s just right.’
‘Tell me, what happened? Here, sit on this stool.’ He went to move Paul’s coat and felt the weight of the gun. ‘What’s this?’ he asked, holding up the coat. ‘What’s in the pocket?’
‘I’m sure you can guess. This, in the pocket, it’s an English revolver, heavy calibre, very well made. It’s what saved my life, for the second time, now. When I fired the gun there was a noise like thunder and a great flash, and I was hidden in a cloud of blue smoke like some oracle, or a god come down to earth from Mount Olympus to deliver great revelations amid storm and lightning. But I wasn’t a god, and when my gun spoke, it spoke to no effect. Can you not smell the burnt powder, Doctor?’
Bell put the coat down on a bench. ‘Julie heard it too, in her sleep. Ah — what happened?’
‘Some young man,’ said Paul, ‘wearing a cloth over his face, and waiting for the cover of darkness to attack. But I know who it was, it was the brother of Heeney, the man I killed, though he didn’t speak and I didn’t see his face. He must have followed me about the town all night long, watching what I was doing, where I was going. When I was coming home, when the moon had almost gone, he crept up on me. I could hear his steps dogging mine, his boots on the gravel following my own footsteps, and I had my hand on the gun. He stabbed at me, and I turned and made the shot quickly, and lost my footing and fell on the ground.’
‘Good God, did you kill him?’
‘No, no, I didn’t kill him. He ran away. Limping, is that what you say? Like this?’ He limped, in mime.
‘Yes. Ah — limping.’
‘So, this Heeney, he will try to kill me again. Well, what can I do? I am not the expert killer, I do not always hit my target. Ask Julie, she showed us all how to shoot with a rifle, at the sideshow. She is the top shot, the winner of the lamp.’ He went to the kerosene lamp on the bench, and held his hand over the glass chimney. ‘But me, I am just the amateur. I am afraid of guns. I will admit that to you. Especially when the barrel points at me. First the bushrangers, then the madman Verheeren, then Mr Lee, all pointing their guns at my head, all threatening to kill me.’
‘Verheeren? He had a gun?’
‘Perhaps it was just a toy. Who knows, until it fires? Then it is too late to know anything.’ Paul moved his hand back and forth in the wavering stream of heat. ‘You said Julie heard the shot in her sleep. What do you mean? How could you know this? Do you have mental contact with her while she sleeps?’
Bell chuckled. ‘No, no. My scientific experiments haven’t taken me quite that far yet. Ah — I was reading in the kitchen an hour or so ago; Julie woke from a bad dream and came in to talk to me. She said she’d dreamed that she’d heard a gun go off.’
‘Ah, so it was you who lit the stove. The room was warm. I thought someone had been awake.’
‘Yes. It was cold. I see you’ve been practising the deductive method, as taught at the Edinburgh medical school. Yes, Julie and I talked for a while. She had a hot chocolate and went back to bed.’
‘To sleep, to dream some more.’
As Paul moved his hand in the flow of warm air from the lamp, the shadow of his arm moved against the wall and on the low ceiling. He was reminded of an illustration he’d seen as a child, in a book of fairy stories. A frightened little gnome carried a lamp through a cave, his own shadow huge and menacing on the wall behind him. Paul knew with a sudden certainty that human knowledge was like that, a frail and troubled lamp giving out a feeble glow, and creating giants and monsters made of shadows. His own fears, angers, vanities — for a moment he dimly understood them as somehow the product of his own intelligence, as it vainly cast a light onto things he didn’t understand and made shadows where it failed to grasp them. He had fought to subdue his own weaknesses, to burn away his faults and fears and hatreds, but they were his own nonetheless. They had faithfully followed him around the world, just like the gnome’s shadow.
On the bench behind the lamp Paul could see perhaps a dozen large glass jars containing various animal specimens. One held a tiny embryo of a kangaroo floating in pale fluid like the ghost of a dreaming mouse; another held an octopus whose dark purple skin was patterned with pastel blue spots and rings. The light from the lamp, shining upwards from a low angle, gave them an especially sinister aspect. He gave a start as he saw, in a jar he hadn’t noticed previously, a pair of human hands. ‘What in the name of God is that?’
‘Oh, they’re Jane’s hands,’ Bell said. ‘Now that’s a gruesome story.’
‘I do not think I wish to hear it.’
Bell grunted. ‘Ah — very well. Perhaps it’s best if you don’t. People say they want to hear it, and — ah — then they’re sorry.’
Paul looked at the hands again. There was a ring on the wedding finger: an amethyst set in silver. ‘You shall have to tell me. I cannot believe the ring. That is — that is horrible.’
Bell sat on a stool and took out a small cigar. ‘‘This all happened fifteen or twenty years ago,’ he said. There was a little spirit lamp burning under a beaker of liquid, and he lit the cigar with that. The smoke was scented with port or brandy; it was rich and sweet. When he had the cigar burning evenly, he went on: ‘Jane Dorlac was a pianist. Born in Birmingham. Her technique was not very good, according to the critics, but — ah — she had a vigorous spirit that came through in her playing, and it was much liked by the middle classes and by the London shopgirls and their fellows on a Saturday afternoon. She — ah — she played popular venues — a little higher than a music hall, perhaps, but not by much — in the days when it was unusual for women to perform on the piano in public. She specialised in bravura performances of heady, emotional stuff — Chopin, Liszt, gypsy melodies, mixed in with some popular romantic tunes. People — ah — people used to swoon.
‘Her husband — Lemayne was his name — he acted as her manager; they took quite a bit of money, apparently. He was a violent man, and a jealous one — a big frame, and thick red hair — and he drank like a fish. They travelled around England and the Continent for a few years, mainly the holiday spots, building up her name, and drinking and quarrelling. One — ah — one northern winter they made a tour of the colonies — Capetown, Malaya, Sydney, Wellington. On the New Zealand leg, Jane’s husband caught her flirting with a baritone in Wanganui. Worse than flirting, actually: one moonlit night he found them together in the woodshed out the back of the hotel, at three in the morning. Lemayne grabbed the axe — he was drunk — and he — I can see his eyes glaring, I can see the damned axe glinting in the light — ah — he chopped off her hands. Thump! Thump! ”Now you won’t play the bloody piano,„ he said, ”and you won’t bloody-well play around, either!„ The poor woman died before they could get her proper medical help: shock, loss of blood.’
‘They hanged him, of course. His only mistake, he said, was geographical. Well — ah — tragico-juridico-geographical, as Hamlet’s players might have put it.’
‘What do you mean?’
‘If he’d waited until they were in France on one of their tours, and then killed her while his blood was hot in a fit of jealous rage — which was certainly the case, in Wanganui — he would have got away scot free. The French understand such things. There’s — ah — there’s a certain leniency for a crime of passion.’
‘Well, perhaps. The French execute murderers too, you know. But how did you — the hands, how did they end up here?’
‘The coroner in Wellington was a friend, a colleague from my Edinburgh days. He remembered that I had been interested in galvanism, so when the case was over and things had quietened down, he sent them to me. At one stage I had an idea of doing some research — galvanic conduction in muscle tissue — but somehow I lacked the heart for it. The husband’s hands are there too, you see. My coroner friend obtained them, after the hanging.’ Bell moved the jar, and brought forward another from behind it, with a larger pair of hands moving slowly in the blue-green fluid. The nails were wide and blunt. Paul could see thick reddish hairs on the back of the hands. He felt ill, and looked away.
‘Yes, it usually takes people like that,’ Bell said. ‘These days I don’t show them much, unless I’m asked. I — ah — I don’t know that I ever wanted to have the damned things.’ He looked around. ‘You know, sometimes I think the workshop is haunted. I think of the poor woman — there are times when I imagine I can hear Chopin being played faintly, perhaps from behind the wall over there, or in that dark corner, behind the Japanese screen. I — ah — I go to look, and the sound fades. At first I thought it might be Julie practising upstairs — the sound travels down through the floor. But no: Julie was out at the time, and in any case she thinks the Romantic composers are cheap. There are times when I conceive that I might have psychic capabilities; but — ah — I suppose it’s just an overworked imagination. Whatever the cause, it gives me the willies when it happens. I should throw the things out, but I can’t bring myself to do that.’
‘Perhaps you should give them away.’
‘But who would take them? The only museum who might want them would be one of those sideshow places full of gruesome murder mementoes, like Madame Tussaud’s. Or those fellows at the show, with their so-called Wild Man from Borneo and their deformed animals on display. Poor Jane deserves better than that.’ He stubbed out his cigar. He looked tired. ‘Sometimes I think my — ah — my workshop is really a kind of morgue; various dreams of mine are embalmed here, and lie sleeping in their bath of preservative.’
Paul smiled at Bell’s gloomy tone. ‘I had a dream last night,’ he said. ‘I mean the night before last; this night I have not had any sleep. I wanted to tell you about it, since you are partly responsible. And it might cheer you up. I seem to have caught your dream, the way you might catch a fever from another person.’
‘My dream? What do you mean?’
‘You said an ancient Egyptian priest told you about magnetism.’
‘Oh yes, that. Years ago.’ Bell gave a short laugh. ‘He — he hasn’t bothered to call again, with the details.’
‘I had a dream, so complicated, and that old Egyptian appeared in it. I was being pursued — it is little wonder I have such dreams, so many people threaten me — I am being pursued by someone or something in the uniform of an officer, and wearing a long black cape. I have broken some military rule or regulation, and this officer, this creature — for he is like some kind of demon — he is trying to capture me, to take me back so the firing squad can shoot me. I try to escape, I run and run through the streets, into a large public garden, then the plants in the garden become larger, the bushes turn into trees, overhanging, now it is a forest, and I run further under the trees. Soon I shall have to face him, soon I shall have to turn like a cornered rat and fight. So at last, at the bottom of some ravine, with mud and branches everywhere, a kind of thick darkness in the air instead of light, I turn.
‘I turn, and the thing is there close on my heels, panting and gnashing its teeth, and I fire my gun. Like tonight, there is a great flash and a blinding cloud of smoke. I am choking, I cannot see. I have killed someone, but I am already terribly afraid that it is a mistake. I should not have killed this person at all. The smoke clears, and I am in my family living room, in the house we used to own when I was a little boy. There is my father —’ Paul’s voice caught. He took a deep breath, composed himself, and continued. ‘There is my father, lying on the carpet. He has been horribly wounded in the belly, the blood has stained his white shirt, but he is holding a book over his stomach, so I shall not see the wound. He doesn’t want me to be frightened, to see the terrible thing I have done.’
‘What is the book?’
‘What? It’s just a book.’
‘Yes, but what book? Perhaps it means something.’
Paul stared at him intently for a moment, then he looked back at the lamp. ‘Yes, the book,’ he said to himself. His eyes stared into the lamp flame, but he was looking at something else. He shook himself. ‘But that is not important. The scene changes slightly, the mood shifts, and this man comes into the room. He is your Egyptian priest. He touches my shoulder, and I am carried away somehow. We are in Egypt, in the ancient city of Luxor, in the open courtyard of one of the temples there. The bright sun is pouring down onto the stone floor and lighting up the coloured hangings. He tells me to look up — and high on the wall among the beautiful hieroglyphics, green and scarlet, I can make out my own name inscribed in a kind of silver ink — ’ He stopped here, and gave Bell a quick look.
‘Nouveau,’ Bell said. ‘Didn’t you say that was your name?’
‘Well,’ said Paul, with a slight smile, ‘I did say that.’ He frowned again. ‘The priest said that I had a task to perform, I suppose like the twelve labours of Hercules, when to do penance for killing his wife and children in a bout of insanity he had to clean out the Augean stables, and to do many other dangerous and impossible things. The priest said that when I have finished this task, this penance to make up for the crimes I have committed in my long fit of madness — then I shall be redeemed, and my name will be known throughout the world.’
‘It’s a remarkable dream.’ Bell’s voice was solemn. ‘It’s like a fragment from a parable.’
‘Absurd, isn’t it?’
‘Absurd? No, not at all. It speaks in the secret language of your forgotten memories and your buried thoughts. And what is your task?’
‘What did the priest give you to do?’
Paul looked at him for a moment. ‘Why, to gather all the books in the world, and to consign them to the flames: to burn them, burn them all, until there was nothing but ashes left.’
At breakfast, they were all uneasy. Paul had slept badly, and Bell’s laboratory work had not gone well. Julie awoke in a distracted mood, and allowed a saucepan of milk coffee to boil over. She wanted to talk to Paul, and he wanted to talk to her, but the presence of her father made that awkward. The meal was a subdued affair.
They were finishing their porridge when there was an insistent knocking on the front door.
Julie went to answer it, and they heard Frank’s voice in the hallway, sounding grave. ‘It certainly is a distressing thing,’ he said as he came into the room. ‘Miss Mackenzie was very upset. Good morning, Paul. Doctor Bell.’
‘Oh good morning, Francis. Ah — you’re an early caller.’
‘I’m afraid my news is rather unpleasant.’
‘Oh? What is it?’
Frank had his grey stetson hat in his hand, and he twisted the rim between his hands as he looked for the right words. Then he shrugged, and said ‘What the hell, there’s no way to say this politely. I’m afraid there’s been a murder.’
‘A murder?!’ Julie’s hand went to her mouth. Bell put down his paper slowly on the table and looked over the top of his spectacles with a frown. ‘What’s — what has happened?’ he asked.
‘It’s the old Belgian you saw on Saturday, Paul. Mr Verheeren. He was found shot dead in his room last night.’
Paul stared at him. He had gone pale. There was a moment’s silence.
‘In Miss Mackenzie’s boarding house?’ Bell asked. ‘Was anyone else hurt?’
‘Shot dead?’ Julie cried out. ‘But why? Who would do such a terrible thing?’ She clutched her apron into a knot and held it tight against her waist.
‘No one knows who did it. Some time after midnight, when everyone was in bed asleep, there was a gunshot. It was very loud — it woke everybody. When we ran up to his room — I had to break the door in — we found Verheeren on the floor, shot through the chest at point blank range. It was a heavy calibre revolver by the look of the wound. There was nothing anyone could do. Apparently the murderer escaped through the window and climbed down from the roof and got away.’
‘Was it robbery?’ Bell asked.
‘No one knows exactly what happened.’
‘You might expect this kind on thing on the gold fields,’ Bell said, ‘but — ah — Wagga is a quiet farming town.’
‘Poor Mr Verheeren,’ Julie said. ‘Why, I spoke to him only the other day. I was at Mr Koellner’s music shop, buying a piece of music which I wanted Mary to learn, and Mr Verheeren came in. He seemed distressed about something — you know how he is always muttering — that is, how he was always muttering to himself. He said he wanted a string for a double bass. It had to be the longest one, the lowest note, I can’t remember what they call it. He didn’t seem the musical type, to me. And now he’s dead.’
‘No one has any idea who would want to do a thing like that,’ Frank said. ‘Well, I can’t stay. I’m on my way to the Police Station to give what evidence I can. They took the body there. Oh, Doctor… Constable Sloesser asked me to mention that he’d like you to call by. It’s something to do with the Coroner’s inquiry.’
Bell gathered himself. ‘Ah, yes, I expect so.’ He got up from the table and looked around. ‘Ah — I’ll just get my things.’
‘Oh, and Julie, you might like to call on Miss Mackenzie. She’s putting on a tough front, but I know she’s upset.’
‘The poor woman. Would you like to come with me, Paul?’
‘What?’ His face was white, and he licked his lips. ‘To come to the boarding house? Well, yes. Of course. I — I should be glad to come along.’
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