Chapter 24 — The Hunted
Paragraph One follows — 1:
But it wasn’t Frank; it was Jimmy. He was wearing a black overcoat a couple of sizes too large for him. ‘The horses are harnessed and the buggy’s ready, Mister Paul,’ he said, rubbing his hands together to warm them. ‘And the Doctor and Mister Russell, they’re waiting for you.’
‘Jimmy!’ Julie said. ‘What on earth are you doing here, at this time of night?’
‘Well, Miss, I felt kind of responsible for Mr Nouveau here being locked up, seeing as how I mentioned about his tracks to the Constable. I felt I should keep an eye on things. And I had a feeling that something odd was going on tonight. I saw Mr Russell and Mr Nouveau wandering along the road in the dark, and later Mr Russell floundering around in the bottom paddock frightening the horses, so I thought I’d better lend a hand.’
They went around to the driveway. The buggy was a roomy covered four-wheeled affair, with a box at the back for luggage. Frank had already loaded his and Paul’s bags in the back, and he was sitting in the seat holding the reins. The sight reminded Paul of the way Frank had brought the coach into town, with the bodies of the bushrangers lashed onto the luggage rack on the top, alongside Mr Finnegan’s body. ‘Climb up,’ Frank said. ‘There’s plenty of room for two.’
Paul shook hands with the Doctor, and kissed Julie. He wanted the thing to be over. ‘Goodbye,’ he said. ‘Adieu.’ He climbed up into the seat next to Frank.
‘I’ll cover your back,’ Jimmy said. ‘I got a bad feeling about this.’ He took a pistol from the pocket of his coat and tucked it into his belt.
‘What have you got there?’ Paul asked.
‘That’s a flintlock pistol my uncle gave me. There’s plenty of bad characters on the roads these days. There’s only one shot in this old thing, so I’d better aim good.’
‘There’s no need for you to come,’ Frank said. ‘There aren’t likely to be any bushrangers on the roads at night. There’s nothing for them to rob.’
‘Well how’s the Doctor going to get the buggy back from Junee? If you’re going to Sydney with Mr Nouveau, someone has to go and fetch it back again, and I’d rather ride there than walk, and sure as damnation that’s what I’m going to have to do.’ He hoisted himself up onto the luggage box at the back of the buggy, behind the canopy.
‘Perhaps you’d better keep your voices down,’ Bell said. ‘My neighbour’s a nosey old thing.’
Julie went around to Paul’s side of the buggy. He thought she might be going to cling to him, or perhaps start crying. Instead she climbed in beside him. ‘Push over,’ she said. ‘I’ve decided I’m coming for the ride.’
Her father frowned. ‘But Julie —’
‘Don’t worry, father. Jimmy and I will be back by midday.’
Frank laughed. ‘When Julie Bell makes up her mind, that’s it,’ he said. ‘Let’s go.’
The moon showed the road clearly, a pale ribbon winding under the dappled shadow of the trees. The ground was level, and the road good, though bumpy. Once they were clear of the town Frank let the horses go at their own pace, and the buggy moved along at a good clip.
They talked of this and that for a while, in a tense kind of way, then the gloom of the bush took over and they fell silent and watched the inky shadows slide past them.
Something about the atmosphere of the ride reminded Paul of a spring night about ten years before when his family had been staying at the farm at Roche. He and his older brother Frédéric and his mother had been to a neighbouring town to buy a second-hand dray and some seed and fertilizer, and it was dusk by the time they set out to return. The full moon rose yellow in the south-eastern sky and lit up the road and the surrounding farms. His mother had the reins, and for a while they rode in silence. Then something— some memory from her own childhood, perhaps — had provoked her to sing. She had sung an old folk song, and then another. Frédéric was asleep, snoring lightly, but Paul was wide awake, perched on a sack of corn, listening. His mother was a taciturn person — she usually didn’t speak unless it was necessary, and Paul had not heard her sing since he was a little child. Her voice was surprisingly light and youthful. The horse’s hooves clip-clopped, the dray wheels rumbled on the roadway, and among the silence of the moonlit fields and hedgerows his mother’s voice floated on the air.
He used to play red indians with a gang of local children, dodging in and out among those hedgerows and thickets, whooping and waving a home-made bow made from a split hickory branch and a length of green cord.
The bow reminded him of Verheeren. He thought of the old Belgian alone in his lamplit room, muttering to himself, loading his revolver with the one bullet that was all he would need, and snapping the cylinder shut for the last time, the breeze through the open window ruffling the curtain. Then testing the head-hunter’s bow from Borneo, pulling the string tight again and again, surrounded by whispering spirits urging his death. Perhaps he had looked through his stamp collection for the last time, perhaps he had read through one or two of his wife’s letters. Then he had fixed the bow on its nail…
The moon had been obscured for a while behind a drift of high cloud; now the cloud shifted slowly, and the moon came out in all its brilliance. The shadow of the buggy ran beside them, jerking and flickering on the dry grassy ground beside the track. And what of Heeney, the brother of the bushranger Paul had killed? He was Paul’s age, and Paul’s type — an angry young man from a country town. Walking home from the magic show, Paul had felt his presence slipping from shadow to shadow under the trees. It was almost as though Paul had imagined him into existence, and bestowed on him his own qualities of anger and despair. And then the stealthy attack with the knife, while the town had been sleeping.
His reverie was broken by the sound of hooves behind them. Jimmy called from the back of the buggy: ‘Someone comin’ up on us, Mister Frank. There’s two of ’em.’
Frank whipped the horses. They lunged forward and the buggy was suddenly moving at what seemed like twice the speed.
Paul twisted in his seat and looked behind. The buggy lurched to the side, and he grabbed the upright that supported the canvas cover. Two figures on horseback were racing under the shadows of the trees, and gaining on them. They were only twenty yards behind, and coming up fast. One of them stood up in the saddle and yelled out hoarsely: ‘Is that the murdering Frenchman? Your time has come, you bastard!’
‘What in God’s name is happening?’ Frank said.
‘It is Shawn Heeney,’ Paul said. ‘This is the brother of the bushranger I killed. He has been following me. Now that he has found us out in the bush, alone, he is making his move. Damn it! God Damn it! Why did I not see this coming?’
Julie grabbed Frank’s arm. ‘Faster, Frank. We don’t have any guns. We’ll have to outrun them.’
‘There’s no way we can outrun two men on horseback,’ Frank said. ‘The horses are doing their best, but they’re pulling four people and a buggy.’
‘My pistol is in my bag,’ Paul said. ‘I am so stupid! Why did I not carry the thing?’ He called out: ‘Jimmy! Pass my bag, quickly!’
‘They’re gaining,’ Jimmy called. ‘They’re armed. One has a rifle. Look out!’
Two shots rang out close together. One plucked a ragged hole in the canvas top, bounced off the metal frame and made a sad shrieking noise in the night air. The other must have struck Jimmy; he grunted and cried out: ‘I’m hit. The bastard got me.’ He fired his flintlock: there was a bang, a flash and a cloud of blue smoke.
‘I got one,’ he cried. ‘I got one of the mongrels!’
One of the horsemen fell heavily to the ground, tumbled and slid, and lay there like a sack of wheat; the other wheeled back to investigate. They had a few minutes’ grace.
‘Jimmy! My bag! Pass the bag.’
‘I can’t, Mr Nouveau. It’s all I can do to hang on. They got me in the guts.’
‘I can’t slow down,’ Frank said. ‘We have to get clear while we can.’
They had made good time across the level ground, but now the track was beginning to rise as it climbed a long hill, and the buggy slowed. Paul worked his way around the side. ‘Hang on, Jimmy,’ he called, but when he got around to the back Jimmy was nowhere to be seen. ‘Jimmy has gone,’ he called. He wedged himself against the back of the canopy and took his revolver from the bag. He had cleaned and emptied the gun when he packed it away, and now his fingers scrabbled desperately in the bottom of the bag for the box of cartridges. He endured a moment’s sick horror when he couldn’t find it — perhaps he’d left it on the top of the dresser in his room, and now the gun was empty! But no — there it was.
Frank’s voice called out: ‘Have you got your gun?’
‘Yes, it is here. I have to load the damn thing. Keep going, as fast as you can.’
He spilled a handful of bright copper cartridges onto his lap. He had to hold the loading gate open against its spring with his thumb, and push the cartridges into the cylinder one by one. The first one jammed, and he cursed, in French. He tried to pull it out, but it was stuck, and his fingers slipped on the metal. He tried again, and it came loose.
‘Someone’s coming,’ Julie called. Paul looked up — there was a horseman not a dozen yards behind, aiming a rifle.
‘Die, you murdering bastards!’ he yelled. ‘You killed my brother. Now you have killed my sister! You bastards! Now you’re going to die!’
Paul pushed at the cartridge, and it finally went into the cylinder. He grabbed another one, and pushed that in.
There was a shot, and a bullet smacked into a piece of wood near his leg — splinters flew into the air. The outlaw was close now, a dozen yards away, close enough for Paul to hear the rifle click on the next cartridge. It had jammed.
‘God damn it!’ The horseman spurred his mount to overtake.
Paul had three bullets in the revolver; that would do. He snapped the loading gate shut and swung himself around and into the front seat beside Julie. ‘His rifle has jammed,’ he said. ‘I hope to God he does not have another gun.’
The buggy was jolting on the rough track, and the outlaw’s horse was pulling level with it, on Frank’s side. Paul could see his face now, close by the side of the buggy, jerking with the movement of his mount. His blond hair was flying in the wind. Julie was in the middle, between Paul and the outlaw, and Paul was afraid to shoot. ‘The name’s Heeney,’ the outlaw called out. He leaned forward and spat in Frank’s face. ‘I want you to know, before you die. You killed my brother and now that black bastard’s shot my sister. You’re all going to die.’
‘Go fuck yourself!’ Frank called out, and Heeney swung his rifle like a club. There was a smacking sound and Frank fell back, blood spurting from his face, and Julie grabbed the reins.
Heeney flung his useless rifle away, and brandished a long-bladed knife. ‘The black man’s dead,’ he screamed. ‘He was moving, so I cut his throat to make sure. See?’ He held up the knife — the blade was stained with blood. ‘You’re next, I’ll slit your throats from ear to ear, you mongrel foreign bastards!’ He laughed, and reached out to grab the side of the buggy. Paul stood up in his seat and aimed his revolver. He could feel rage and nausea coiling in his stomach. Julie was screaming again, or was that a hallucination, a memory from the coach holdup? His finger tightened on the trigger, and he saw the outlaw’s pupils huge and black in the moonlight, tears streaming down his face, spittle running from his lips, his eyes glittering like a madman’s. The buggy was rocking, and Paul grasped the hood with his left hand to steady himself.
‘Quickly!’ Julie called. ‘For Christ’s sake, do something! Quickly!’
Everything slowed down, just as it had before. He was trying to run through his dream and his legs were moving more and more slowly, but that seemed right, somehow. The outlaw looked across at him — there was something cunning in his grimace, a kind of connivance, as though he and Paul were actors in a play, and they had arranged this scene full of struggle and horror to trick the audience. But who was watching? Only God. In the silence of the bush, there was no one else.
Silence, that was it. The silence that drifted and flickered under the trees. Heeney was scrabbling for a foothold on the side of the buggy. His horse was drenched with sweat, its head seemed huge, and as it slowly tossed its head back and forth its mane waved in the wind and spume flew from its mouth. Paul tilted the revolver to aim at the horse’s head, and squeezed his finger on the trigger. The blast of sound, the flash, the brief burst of stinking smoke snatched away by the wind, the scream from the outlaw as he and his dead horse plunged head-first down and onto the dirt under the wheels of the buggy, the snap of broken limbs, and then the wind in his face. It was over.
They reached Junee at dawn. They took Frank to the local doctor to get the cut on his forehead bandaged, then they went to the coach station and booked two seats on the mail coach to Yass. Julie kissed them both goodbye. ‘I want to see you both back here in a week,’ she called as she wheeled the buggy and pair out onto the main street.
Paul walked the streets of Sydney looking for a stamp dealer. There was supposed to be one in George Street down near the Quay, but Paul couldn’t find him. It was one of those days when everyone in the street looked ugly or misshapen — everywhere he looked he saw a squint, a limp, a complexion the colour of stale dough, a wen. It must be his mood, darkened by the thought of Europe rising over the horizon, black and ancient and threatening, his mood colouring everything he saw with his own spleen.
And there was the stamp dealer’s place, right in front of him. He went in, and as the door opened it tinkled against a little bell. Solomon, Paul thought. He had a little bell just like that, with the same musical note.
Paul left the stamp-dealer’s shop with a thick parcel in his pocket. He found a stationer’s nearby, and bought three sturdy parchment envelopes of the sort used for wills and legal documents, and wandered down through the crowded, narrow streets looking for the Botanical Gardens. His head ached, and he suddenly wanted to be back in Wagga Wagga, with its clear skies and the scent of eucalyptus in the air.
The terrible massed particularities of the human tribe struck him — its seething restlessness, the uncountable millions of actions, getting to office or factory one way or another, eating millions of different meals each day, scraping and cleaning a hundred million dirty plates each week, winding a million different pocket-watches and mantel clocks and pendulum clocks, each fractionally incorrect — it all seemed to him dizzyingly insane, a kind of collective mechanical madness.
What had he hoped for? To find, here at the southern end of the planet, under the large empty skies with their peculiar constellations, a civilisation that was fresh, new and simple. The continent was virtually unspoiled — no warring nations had scarred it, no great cities had defiled it with mountains of rubbish and pits of excreta.
Yet Sydney Town was a busy port town just like any of a dozen in England, its streets a clashing cacophony of animals, carts and shouting people. There was crime and poverty in the air, and drunkenness and despair in the back alleys. Here he was, his fine new jacket coated with dust, his boots splattered with horse shit, and his head ringing with a headache that came from too much glare and noise.
In the gardens he found the spot where he had rested two weeks before and sat down under the shade of a gum tree. He looked around carefully. It was late afternoon, and the gardens were almost empty.
When he was sure he was unobserved he opened the packet and took out a thick bundle of notes. He counted it over twice, divided it into three smaller bundles, and folded them each into a separate envelope. He stuffed these into the inside pockets of his jacket.
In his shirt pocket he found a small folded card. He opened it absent-mindedly. It was the double silhouette of Julie and her mother. He stared at it for several minutes, then carefully put it away.
A cold breeze blew off the waters of the Harbour. Among the throng of ships and steam ferries at the Quay he could make out the Trade Winds at anchor. A streamer of black smoke was drifting from the funnel.
He walked to the hotel where he had left Frank, and bought a beer at the bar. He finished it in one long draught, bought another, and made his way through the crowd to the back room. He found Frank reading a newspaper at a corner table, frowning and squinting in the dim light. The wound on his forehead was still bandaged, and a stain of blood had begun to seep through the cloth. It gave him a desperate air. Paul sat down beside him with a grunt.
‘Well, Paul, did you sell the stamps?’
‘He was so suspicious of me,’ Paul said. ‘Where did I get them? How long had I been collecting stamps, and so on. I told him for ten years I had been collecting stamps, since I was a child, that I had brought them with me from France, and now I needed money to marry a girl so we could go prospecting for gold.’ Paul laughed. ‘He seemed to understand that, so it seems. But he was right to be careful. They were worth a lot. So the widow Veuve Verheeren misses out on her insurance money, and now she misses out on the stamps, too. Good, good.’ He leaned forward and put his arm around Frank’s shoulder. ‘Well, Frank, do you not wish to know how much price I obtained for them?’
‘Oh, I’m sure you got a good price. You had a firm look in your eye when you set out today.’
‘But do you not wish to know how much money?’
‘It’s not my business, Paul.’ He took a sip from his glass of rum.
Paul didn’t seem to hear him. He spoke quietly. ‘Fourteen hundred pounds.’
Frank’s eyes widened. He went to speak, then hesitated. He shrugged his shoulders. ‘Jesus Christ. You’re a lucky guy. That’s a lot of money. Several years of wages. Jesus!’
Paul sat back and sipped at his beer. It was cold, and fresh, and delicious. ‘Poor Veuve Verheeren,’ he said in a sarcastic voice. ‘Oh well, I am certain that she owns some stamps of her own, tucked away in Antwerp. And if she ever needs money, why, she can always reclaim the brothels of her husband in Batavia. Perhaps she could marry the Police Inspector there, and they should live happily ever after.’
‘You’re a cynical bastard, Paul.’
Paul laughed. ‘No, I am a sentimental fool!’ he said. ‘Did you not know that?’
‘No, I didn’t know that.’
Paul looked at him closely. ‘There is some wrong thing, Frank. What is it?’
‘Wrong? No. Well, I’ve been sitting here thinking.’ He looked around the bar. ‘The first time I saw this place, a year and a half ago, I was a lost soul. Fresh off a ship, no plans. And now, the funny thing is, I feel exactly the same. Back to where I started from.’
Paul frowned. ‘But you have friends here now,’ he said. ‘More than friends, I think. And a position at the newspaper, the Wagga Wagga Advertiser. You are a man — what do they say? — you are now a man of substance.’
Frank’s mouth turned down. ‘Oh, well, water under the bridge. I think I’d better be on the move again. They want me home in Boston, I guess, but do you know what? Fuck Boston. I think I’ll try Africa. They say there’s gold there.’
Paul stared at him. ‘How long have you been drinking that rum? Are you drunk? What about your job at the newspaper? I thought you liked that kind of thing, the bourgeois life.’
‘Well, maybe I’ve had enough of that stuff.’
‘And what about Julie?’
Frank looked down at his drink. ‘Cut it out, Paul. You know it’s you that Julie’s thinking of. You’re the man with the gun, the dashing hero. Julie and I, we were just friends, and Julie has plenty of friends in the town. That means nothing to her, nor to me. No, you go back to Wagga with your saddlebags stuffed with money. You’ll impress the hell out of her. All of them. Their eyes will pop out.’ He drank.
Paul took a quiet pull at his beer, and smiled to himself. ‘I thought you were the steady type,’ he said, licking the froth from his lips. ‘And now you remind me of a crazy Frenchman, always running away from home.’ He laughed, then he patted his coat. ‘Here,’ he said. He drew two envelopes from his jacket and slipped them under Frank’s newspaper. ‘Take these, and look after them. Five hundred for you, and five hundred for Julie.’
‘Is this some kind of joke? I can’t do that. I cannot take it. I am not going back there.’ He pushed the envelopes back across the table angrily.
‘Yes you can, damn it.’ He put his hand on Frank’s arm. ‘I talked to Johanssen, I have a job on the Trade Winds, I sail in the morning. And as for Julie, you would have to be stupid not to see how she feels about you.’ He gave a sad laugh. ‘She is like my mother,’ he said. ‘She is too smart for me. She can see through me, like a sheet of glass in a shop window. To her, I am a child with a nasty temper. I might not know much, I think, but I know that much.’ Paul pushed the envelopes back under the paper. ‘Keep them out of sight. And do not let any bushrangers get at them. Perhaps I should give you my English pistol, so you can protect yourself. I shall not need it any more, I hope.’
Frank frowned. ‘But why aren’t you going back to Wagga?’
‘I think I should suffocate in Wagga. And it is you she shall want to see, in the end, this is obvious. Can you not see the logic in it?’
‘Logic? What are you talking about?’
‘She shall be a great help to you, when you finally go back to Boston and take up your career in publishing where your father left off. Do you not think that?’
Frank stared at Paul for a moment. ‘How did you know I was thinking of doing that? Have you been reading my mind?’
‘I have psychic “powers”. I have been drinking the Magnetical Water.’ Paul laughed. ‘I am not really human, did you not know that? No, I am from beyond the grave, I think.’ He regarded Frank for a while with a strangely intense stare, until Frank grew embarrassed. ‘I have to go home to Europe, Frank. This time — thanks to the dead Belgian pig — I will have the comfort of passenger class, instead of scrubbing the deck and shovelling shit for my passage. Also, there are too many policemen in Australia for my taste.’ He finished his beer, and looked around the bar. A man was sleeping behind the door — Paul could see his feet sticking out. Perhaps that was a custom in Australia.
He looked at Frank: dependable Frank. ‘I shall visit you in Boston one day,’ he said. ‘You shall have half a dozen children, in no time. In winter they shall make a snowman in the yard, and run around, yelling and throwing snowballs at each other… ’ He looked away, and took a deep breath. ‘No, I think old Baudelaire was right, in the end. The knowledge you get from travelling can be like bitter medicine, to make you sick in your stomach. Java was a disaster. Sometimes I find it difficult to believe, no, I cannot believe how stupid I am.’ He looked around the bar as though searching for something, but whatever he was looking for was not to be found. His nerves were jangling, and he felt as though he had not slept for a week. ‘I have to let go at last,’ he said to himself, and punched a fist into his hand.
‘What’s waiting for you, back in Europe?’
‘Not fame and glory, for sure. An obscure fate in a provincial town.’ He shook his head. ‘You have not been to France, is that what you said when I met you in Goulburn?’
‘That’s right,’ Frank said. ‘Never been there.’
‘It will be winter when I get back. The ponds, they will be covered with a layer of black ice. You cannot see the sky — there is a kind of low, cold mist in the air, damp and full of ice crystals. It presses down on you. You come in from the yard and open the back door — it makes a creaking noise, no one has ever fixed the hinge. In the kitchen, the fire shall be glowing in the grate. A chipped blue jug of coffee shall be sitting on the stove. My old mother, dozing in her chair. My sister Isabelle, studying like a good girl, murmuring the names of the South American rivers over and over.’ He sniffed, and wiped his sleeve against his cheek. He noticed his hands were trembling slightly. ‘And my stupid brother drunk in a corner, snoring, wasting his life, as usual. Everything changing a little, yet everything the same, as it has been for centuries.’
They were silent for a while. Around them, the bar echoed with the shouts of the crowd. A man was playing a fiddle, and a quartet of sailors were singing, badly out of tune. The air was full of smoke and noise. Paul seemed to be in a trance, staring sightlessly ahead.
Finally he shook himself, and spoke. ‘I know! We shall have a grand dinner. Let us find the best hotel in Sydney, and order a dozen kangaroo steaks, and a case of the best Australian champagne!’
‘I think the money’s gone to your head, Paul.’
‘We have to celebrate the future,’ Paul said. ‘Your future with the headstrong Julie, and — God help me — the future, horrible or beautiful, or maybe nothing at all, whatever descends on me from the heavens, that is waiting for me!’
[»»] Back to the Contents page.