Chapter 01 — The Coach Ride
… In which newcomer to nineteenth-century Australia Paul Nouveau travels by coach to Yass and Gundagai, meanwhile meeting a fellow-traveller, an American sailor and deserter named Frank, who lives in Wagga and works on the Advertiser newspaper there as a journalist.
Paragraph One follows — 1:
He was leaning back in the rear seat on top of the moving coach, and the sky filled his vision, a huge mass of pale blue. A lacework of eucalypt branches and leaves crept across it, tilting back and forth as the coach wheels negotiated the ruts in the road. The steel rims of the wheels ceaselessly ground over the stones and gravel, and to Paul, half asleep in the warmth of the afternoon sun, the noise seemed like the great juggernaut of history rolling slowly into the future, crushing millions of human lives under it. Deep in the bush itself there was almost silence: the occasional call of a bird alone in the forest, a distant buzzing of cicadas.
The sun was shining full in Paul’s face, and he draped his handkerchief over his eyes. The day’s journey seemed to be folded in with all the other journeys he had taken, like pressed flowers folded in between the pages of an old family bible, each flower like all the others. The scenery changed, and he was on the deck of a small steam boat, leaning on the rail, on the last leg of the trip from Europe to the Far East. The coast of Sumatra drifted by in the dusk, the humid air full of rich and strange scents: burning sandalwood, spices, the sweet rotting smell of the jungle. The engine of the boat throbbed through the planking under his feet. His head fell forward and his breath caught and snored in his throat, but the sound was far away. Then he felt a hand press on his shoulder, and an icy shock of fear went through his veins — the military police! — and he woke with a start. But it was only the strap of his bag pulling against his arm.
Paul looked around, at the unending forest. No towns, no villages for mile upon mile, just the occasional lonely hut built of bark slabs perched on a hillside in the blazing sunlight, surrounded by bracken fern and a few motionless sheep.
A flock of birds started up from the blonde grass and wheeled and turned as though racing the coach. He could hear their high-pitched, strident screeching clearly in the air. They sheered away from the coach, then back again, rising and falling between invisible hoops and hurdles in the air. Their pastel colours flashed blue and green and yellow when they dipped against the trees, then as they climbed like a rising wave for a moment into the sky their tints and tones disappeared against the glaring blue background and they became like starlings, their sharp individuality gone, a mere restless gathering of dark dots tied together each to all the others. They streamed and dipped, a shawl, a net, a sketch for a wind-blown spirit.
Something was stirring deep in his memory: it had the flavour of escape, excitement, adventure. What was it? He knew if he tried to catch it too quickly it would dissolve like smoke, so he let his thoughts play around the edges of the memory so as to catch it by its tail.
A ship, a boat, a ferry. A winter sky, shreds of grey cloud driven over the water. Yes; swarming birds — they were European starlings: he remembered a flock wheeling alongside the ferry as it drew out from the wharf and pushed into the chop of the Channel. Leaving the Continent for England, and the sky filled with a seething bother of tiny dark angry birds, their feathers filled with lice, lifting up over the mast of the boat and turning with one agitated multiple mind back through the sea-mist to the coast of France.
The sound of the wheels changed; they were clattering over a bridge now, and the rolling banks dropped away and down to a sandy river-bed. Tall poplars lined the banks in a casual fashion, planted here and there in clumps. If a man happened to stumble across a nugget of gold, why then he could plant his trees any damn way he liked, thought Paul. He gave a harsh laugh. The sun danced gold and silver, glinting on the shallow stream, and the hollow clatter of the wheels on the bridge echoed back from the banks.
Growing between and beside the poplars was a thicket of large dark green trees, forming a high bank that shadowed the watercourse. He knew the name of the tree, but couldn’t think of it now: not poplar, not willow. Just then a gust of wind caused the leaves to flutter and turn over, showing their silver underside: the whole grove of trees turned from dark green to moonlight white, as the wave of air brushed across them. The effect, so swift and unexpected, reminded him of a tree by the river near his home: whitebeam, that’s what it was called in English, he thought; perhaps alizier in French. As a child, he remembered he had thought that the living spirit of the tree had turned into a ghost in a second; the effect was a prefiguring of the tree’s death.
It also seemed to him like hands explaining something, saying: well, what can one do? and shrugging helplessly. It reminded him of something about his father, though he couldn’t think what. How old had he been when his father left? He must have been five or six years old — just a child. His jaw muscles were working, he realised; he relaxed them with an effort, took a deep breath, and straightened his back against the hard seat.
The young American next to him broke his reverie. ‘Ah, fresh air, old pal. As long as the sun’s not too hot, the top of the coach is a fine place to daydream and philosophise.’
Paul looked around: the country was undulating open forest: the slender trees had pale grey trunks and branches, and lacy olive-grey foliage. ‘Why are there no bears around here? I’ve hardly seen any animals.’
‘Do you mean koala bears? I think they sleep in the daytime.’ The American yawned. ‘We should be in Yass by midday, then Gundagai at nightfall.’ He called over his shoulder: ‘Yass in a few hours, is that right, Mr Finnegan?’
‘About that,’ called the driver.
A rut in the road made the coach lurch, and Paul grabbed for the rail to steady himself. ‘Why do these damn diligences move so badly?’ he yelled to the driver. ‘I’m nearly sea-sick up here, and it’s worse inside the coach.’
Finnegan the driver was a big, rough-natured Irishman who kept a half-smoked cheroot in his mouth and consequently reeked of tobacco, even in the open air on top of the coach. He wore an old navy coat that was so dirty it was almost black, and took a fortifying swig from a worn pewter flask from time to time. He called over his shoulder: ‘A diligence? That’s a European gadget, my boy. A fast mail coach. Out here you could say we’re not so diligent. The mail coaches are slow-coaches. Har har har!’ He spat onto the roadway.
‘I’ve been in coaches in England, they don’t lurch like this.’
‘Too true, my lad, too true. The English coach, it’s not known as a lurcher.’
‘A coach is a coach, isn’t it? I thought they were all the same.’
Finnegan laughed, and rubbed his neck. He had a wen on the back of his neck, a shiny lump the size of a plum; Paul was fascinated by it. ‘Damn neck’s aching. Going to rain, that’s for sure. Yes, son, in England all the coaches are the same, more or less. They have steel springs, you see. Very fine, very comfortable, and all that kind of thing, just the ticket for an English Lord, by Jesus. I must admit I like a coach with steel springs, as long as you’re riding along Piccadilly on a fine sunny day. Them springs give you a nice soft sideways rolling motion; very nice. But they’re no bloody use in New South Wales, son, no bloody use at all.’
‘Why is that? What’s wrong with this place?’
‘Take a look at the bloody road, will you then. I’ve seen goat tracks better than this. On a rainy day you could drive a paddle-steamer down the middle of the ruts in the road, I swear it. We used to have English coaches out here, I’ve driven more than one, I’ve driven bloody English coaches more months on end than you’ve had hot dinners. But the damn springs break. That’s the thing, y’see. It’s the springs. You hit one of them ruts with a half-ton load aboard and the springs crack like a bloody biscuit. I don’t know how many times I found myself out back o’Bourke with a set of busted springs, and the nearest coach shop two hundred miles away. My God, they were the days.’ He laughed again. ‘Two hundred miles home, and no bloody springs at all. You should try it one day. That’ll rattle your bones till your bum falls off! Har har har!’
‘But if you don’t have springs, what do you have?’
‘Good question, son, and I’ll tell you the answer. Concord coaches, that’s what we have.’
‘But isn’t Concord in America?’
‘You’re not wrong, son. That Yankee feller Freeman Cobb brought them out to Melbourne. I was there when he unloaded the first one off the boat from San Francisco. I helped the boys hoist it off the ship. This one’s you’re riding on is twenty years old, would you believe, and as good as new. This is a Cobb coach, built to the same pattern.’
‘But you cannot tell me the springs do not break!’
‘Springs? Never busted a spring, son, because there aren’t any! The body’s slung lengthwise on two big leather thongs. Did you see them thongs under the coach, son? If you hadn’t had your nose stuck in a book you would’ve seen ’em, bloody big compound straps a foot or more wide, running the whole length of the body. You hit a bump, the body sways forward, then back again, like a rocking-horse.’
‘So that’s what’s making me ill.’
‘Heh heh. Better than broken springs, young feller.’
Paul took a clay pipe from his pocket and lit it. He puffed once or twice, and reflected to himself that Mr Finnegan, in a sense, held their lives in his hands. If he were careless in the way he handled the reins at a bridge approach, for example, they could well put a wheel over the embankment, tilt into the water and be trapped under the coach, and drown.
They passed another man on foot, as they had many times before. Coach travel was for the rich, Paul reflected. He laughed to himself. Well, he had money.
‘Yass by midday,’ he murmured to himself. ‘Just when I was enjoying the lack of crowds. The sky is so dry, and so blue, like a desert sky.’ He turned to the young American beside him. ‘You know, I feel a weight lifting off the shoulders. Is that what you say?’
‘That’s about right, pal.’ The American seemed friendly enough, but it was clear he wanted to keep to himself.
The road had been cut along the side of a ridge; Paul could see for miles across a distant valley to the south. A creek wound through the trees, but there were no signs of habitation. ‘It is so empty here,’ he said. ‘You colonials don’t know the feeling of the generations of the dead pressing down on you. You have left all that behind in Europe. Suffocating!’
‘I’m not sure I like being called a colonial,’ the American complained. ‘I belong to a free nation, and I’ll thank you to remember it! The name’s Frank, by the way.’
They shook hands awkwardly.
‘Anyhow, I thought you Europeans had a revolution, like we did. I thought you’d got rid of all that old stuff.’
‘Oh yes, we got rid of it,’ Paul said. ‘The workers chopped off its head, then the bourgeoisie stuck it back again. Then in forty-eight, in France, a revolution, then it was crushed again.’ Paul’s eyes stared ahead, but they were looking inward at something else. ‘Then five years ago in Paris we had another revolution, the Communards, and that too was crushed. I saw people — I saw things there, that I never wanted to see. There was no use to surrender: men or women, they put them up against a wall and shot them all.’
Frank looked at him closely. ‘You must have been just a kid.’
‘Sixteen. A kid?’ He spat. ‘Not for long. Not for long.’
‘Hell, what were your parents doing, letting you get involved with that kind of thing?’
‘My father — I never knew him much. He went away, when I was young. He was in the military.’
Paul frowned. ‘No, he was a real soldier. It was serious, for him, a whole life. Well, I ran away, I ran away to Paris, I had some stupid idea in my head about adventure, and about politics, I don’t know.’ His eyes flickered back and forth, as though he was searching the empty bush for some puzzle, a hidden pattern in the tangle of leaves and branches, but whatever he was looking for eluded his gaze. ‘In the end I changed my mind about many things. Then I wasted years studying languages and mathematics and God knows what else. I don’t know what I was looking for.’
What was he was looking for now, he wondered, drifting through a British colony with stolen money in his pocket and a stolen British pistol in his bag? Once he had finished his business with the Belgian, then what would he do? Would he hide in some town deep in the bush? It could be very pleasant, he thought, to earn a modest living teaching French, as he had done in London, but this time not among the smoke and stink and cold of a European city, but in a country town, under that vast blue Australian sky, a town where people smiled and nodded to you in the street. He put the idea to his American friend, but he was not so keen on it.
‘I can’t see much use for anyone wanting to learn French, buddy. I mean to say, how far away is Paris from here? Twelve thousand miles? You don’t need much French on an outback farm, to talk to the pigs. But I’ll admit your English is very good.’
‘I spend a lot of time in England. I was a teacher there. Of course the English are generally stupid, and they hate the Frogs, what they call the French, but they have a respect, some respect for French culture, for the way of life there, for the language. Maybe there are sheep ranchers in Wagga who want their children to gain some touch of European culture. Perhaps I could obtain a position as tutor to some children, and teach them about the Parisian perversions, how to drink absinthe and how to smoke hashish, how to storm the Bastille and behead the aristocrats and reform the calendar and invade the rest of Europe and kill a million men like Napoleon did, for the glory of his fatherland. This would be the place to start, a new country. As the English say, remembering their schoolrooms, to wipe the slate clean.’
The American laughed. ‘Hey, you’d be run out of town on a rail if you talked like that. I know you’re joking; other people might not.’
They stopped for some food at Yass, and when darkness caught up with the coach at Gundagai they found a hotel for the night, a coach-house where Mr Finnegan could change his horses.
When Paul walked into the bar he bought a drink, then noticed Frank, trying to read a newspaper in the dim light. A half-empty bottle of rum stood on the table beside him.
‘Can I join you here?’
‘Sure, make yourself at home.’ The tone of voice was amiable. He eyed the newcomer. ‘Your name’s Paul, right? We met earlier today. You’re French, right?’
‘Hmmm. That’s odd. I’d say you were more like a Dutchman. Would that be right? Off a Dutch ship. Am I getting close?’
Paul stared at him for a moment. ‘No, I’m not Dutch! Why did you say I was Dutch?’ He could hear his accent getting thicker. ‘Are you a spy from the police?’
‘Hey, hey, cool yourself down, my friend. I was just kidding. That’s a Dutch belt buckle there, isn’t it? Dutch East Indies Army?’
‘A lot of people have those. I got it from a friend.’ Even though his ear for English wasn’t perfect, he could tell how lame it sounded. ‘What do you want to know for? What does it matter to you?’
‘For Christ’s sake, calm down, will you? Nobody here gives a damn where people come from, or who they are. This colony is the end of the road. Well, almost. There’s always Tasmania, that’s even further away, but no one in their right mind goes there except convicts or whaling ships.’ He took a drink. ‘I used to be on a ship, once. US Navy.’ He made a grimace, and looked around the bar. ‘Maybe I should have kept my trap shut. What the hell.’
‘What happened, did they throw you off the ship?’ Paul looked closely at the American. He was dressed in a loose grey suit and a grey stetson hat, and hardly looked like a sailor. A gold wedding ring shone on his finger. He was slim and wiry, a little taller than Paul, and already balding a little at the temples, though he couldn’t have been over thirty. His eyes were light hazel, with a mischievous sparkle. He noticed Paul’s stare, shrugged, and looked away. ‘Oh Hell,’ he said, ‘I should learn to drink up and shut up, that’s all. Would you like to top up your rum? Now there’s a sailor’s drink.’ He held the bottle up to the light, then filled Paul’s glass. ‘Well, here’s to the Navy.’
‘Fuck the Navy,’ Paul said. ‘I choose to drink to my own health, if you don’t mind.’ The rum burnt his throat. Was he holding his drink? He hadn’t eaten, except for a joint of cold chicken and some sherry at the inn in Yass. Perhaps the sherry was what was making him light-headed; he couldn’t be sure. With the smoke and the noise, the place reminded him of the bar in Sydney where he’d drugged the Dutch lieutenant. He had a weak head for drink; he ought to be careful.
‘Frank Russell, that’s my full name,’ the American said. ‘Francis Russell, to give the moniker I was christened with. Down in Sydney Town the fellows think Francis is an effeminate name. I’ve got a broken nose to prove it.’
‘Your nose, is that broken?’
‘Sure is,’ Frank laughed. ‘Twelve months ago. And you, Mister Frenchman? Or is it Mister Dutchman?’
‘My nose is all right.’ He faltered, and felt his face go red. ‘Of course, I’m being stupid. My name, it is — uh —’ His mouth worked silently for a moment. ‘My name’s Nouveau. Paul Nouveau. It’s Belgian, actually. It means’ He stared at his glass. ‘It means new.’
The American laughed. ‘Very dry, Mister Nouveau. Yes, that sounds like an old Belgian name. You from Antwerp?’
‘Near there. A town on the river Meuse, near the border.’
‘Well, I can’t say I’ve ever sailed on the Meuse,’ Frank said, stretching back in his chair. The newspaper had been put aside. ‘Hell, I’ve been most places, though. You say you have been to England. Been to London?’
Paul spat onto the floor, and wiped his mouth. ‘I hate London. Where are you from?’
‘I’m from Boston originally. Where all the Irish went.’
‘Your family, were they in business?’
‘Yeah, my dad wanted me to go into the family business, printing and publishing. But I couldn’t stand the thought of being cooped up in an office for the rest of my life, checking the accounts and arguing with compositors. I did some academic study, but it didn’t seem to lead anywhere. I wanted to see something of the world, so I joined up. A few months’ training here and there, and next thing I found myself assigned to the Navy ship Nicholas. London, Rio de Janiero, Samoa. Then Australia.’
‘Where you jumped ship. Right?’
Frank gave a sly grin. ‘The world is full of adventure, Mr New. Mr Nouveau.’
‘So, a deserter.’
‘Birds of a feather, Mr Nouveau. Am I right?’ Paul avoided the question, and looked around the bar. Now there were two men sleeping behind the door. The smoke was thicker, and there was a faint smell of stale piss in the air.
‘Never mind,’ Frank said. ‘They say there are more deserters in the South Seas than locals. And as for the Dutch Army — nobody likes them.’ He took another drink. ‘I’ve been in Australia a year or more now, roaming about like a tramp. I dug for gold — without any luck. I was burnt in the sun, and in the winter I bloody-well froze.’ He laughed. ‘But what the Hell. I finally found a berth in the bush, in a town called Wagga Wagga.’
Paul looked at him sharply. ‘You live in Wagga? You work there? What do you do? ’
‘I do odd jobs for one of the local newspapers, the Advertiser. I do some writing as well — they have two papers in Wagga Wagga. Strange names they have here, don’t you think? Like the seasons, everything’s upside-down.’
‘Wagga Wagga. I’m going there,’ Paul said. ‘There’s someone there I need to talk to, an old Belgian.’
‘There’s an old Dutchman, or Belgian, lives in the boarding-house where I stay, he may be your man.’ Frank said. ‘His name’s Verheeren. He’s a bit cracked in the head. I think he’s a bookkeeper of some kind. Then there’s a Pole, Mr Sheneski… there’s an Italian… ’
A thin smile twisted Paul’s lips into an ugly shape. ‘Verheeren… that’s him. I knew I’d find him. He was trading in pearls, and in black gold, this new kind of gold alloyed with some other metal they found in Borneo, and in other things.’
‘So he was a trader?’
‘Oh, also he had a general store, and a few little brothels. They say he kept something valuable in a blue canvas bag: a map, or maybe a book, or maybe some things made out of that gold. And because he’d cheated so many people in Java, the Dutch police too, on the end he took boat to Australia where he imagined to hide. But I am here now.’
‘Well, it’s a good thing you’re not going to Wagga for the scenery. You would be out of luck, pal. In the department of spectacular views there’s bugger-all.’ He laughed.
‘No, no, no scenery. I have to give something to this Verheeren. And I’d like to try my hand at prospecting for gold, too. The Outback… it’s mostly desert, isn’t it?’
‘The Outback? There’s no gold in the Outback. There’s no water, no food, no people, no nothing. No white people, that is; except the dead ones. There are a few of those.’
‘You would think I’ve travelled far enough,’ Paul said, ‘but there must be more. One day you may turn a bend in the road and there will be a town where you could live out your life in peace.’
Frank smiled and shook his head. ‘Are you crazy?’
‘But if you found it, you’d be on your way again within a week. Do you know what I mean?’
‘Sure I do,’ Frank said. ‘You’re talking to a sailor, pal. We’re permanently infected with the disease.’
There was something about this American that Paul liked — the quick, crooked smile, or the touch of Irish in his accent. Perhaps it was the rum affecting Paul’s judgment and making him feel unusually expansive. It didn’t seem to matter.
‘But as for desert,’ Frank said, ‘no, it’s not really desert. That’s further out. Wagga’s quite civilised. Well-bred young ladies play the piano, as the evening breeze drifts through the gum trees, and the koala bears sing in the branches.’
‘Well, they’re not really bears. They make a kind of howling, barking noise.’
Paul’s eyes narrowed, and he stared at his drink. ‘And they say you can disappear in the bush. That’s what my friend thought. He thought that no one would find him there, but he will find out how wrong a stupid old man can be.’
‘Well, we’ll be in Wagga tomorrow, God and the mail coach willing. I want to catch the Agricultural Show. Now that’s something.’
‘An agricultural show? What is a show?’
‘It’s like a State Fair,’ Frank said. ‘Where the farmers show off. I think we should have one more drink, then maybe find some dinner.’
‘All right. Let’s drink to Wagga Wagga. I shall go with you on your journey there. To the Outback!’
They clinked their glasses, and drank.
Frank had taken a room at the coaching inn in Gundagai, and after dinner and a few more drinks he invited Paul to stay the night on the settee. They found some blankets, and Paul was soon bunked down.
‘Are you sure you’ll be comfortable there?’ Frank asked. They were sharing another bottle of rum, and a pot of coffee that Paul had persuaded the manager’s wife to bring up.
‘Oh, I shall sleep all right,’ Paul said. ‘After what I’ve been through in the last few years I can sleep anywhere. I must pay you for my share of the room.’
‘Oh, never mind. One sailor to another. You can buy me a beer one day.’
‘I have money. The Dutch paid me a bonus of three hundred florins when I joined up in the service of the high ambitions of the Low Countries. And then I have three months’ pay, or most of it.’ And the Dutch lieutenant’s pay as well, he could have added.
Paul remembered he still had the half-empty bottle of chloral hydrate in his bag; now that he was a successful and experienced thief, he could have doped this American tonight, and taken his money. Paul looked around the room. It was small, with bare floorboards, and a narrow window giving onto an alley at the back of the hotel. The walls were painted dark green, and the window frame had been painted maroon. The gauze curtain was grimy and the holland blind torn. To Paul it seemed quite comfortable. ‘Some people made a lot of money in Java,’ he said. ‘Smuggling, spices, pearls — diamonds, even.’
‘Did you make some of this money?’
‘Me? No, I am stupid, I just earned my pay. To make real money you need to be able to make jokes and get along with that kind of people, the clever and conniving people you find hanging out in the bars around the waterfront. I know not how to perform an act like that. I do not like the Dutch. I am not in tune with the English. Not in England, not in this colony.’ He was tired and drunk, and when he reached for the right word he could feel his English slipping, like a fisherman who has hooked a fish too strong and heavy for his strength to manage. He finished his drink, and stared down at the fireplace. They had built a fire, and the room was warm. It may have been the rum, or perhaps the glow from the coals reminding him of his bedroom when he was a child, but he felt a wave of contentment wash over him. Without thinking what he was saying he asked ‘Do you have any children?’
There was a moment’s silence. ‘Why, no,’ Frank said. He looked at the wedding ring on his finger. ‘My wife —’ He tried again: ‘My wife died. Some years ago now.’
‘Oh, I am being stupid. Sorry.’
‘No, don’t be sorry. That was ten thousand miles away, in another life. It doesn’t matter. Really.’ Frank got out a small clay pipe and stuffed it methodically with tobacco. It took some time to get it alight properly.
‘I had a sister,’ Paul said after a while. ‘Vitalie — such a sad name, Vitalie, it means “life” — she died last December. It’s less than a year ago, but it seems like a decade, so much has happened to me since then.’
They fell quiet. In the street outside a gang of drunks were singing a song about the saga of a young man who had gone bad; the words ‘wild colonial boy’ floated through the window. One or two of the men knew the words of the song, and the others did not, and they were all out of tune. The noise faded along the street, and the silence in the room seemed to deepen.
Frank went to say more, and stopped. He hardly knew this young Frenchman. We were expecting a child, he thought to himself. And that went bad too. I was left right back where I started from, in the back bedroom of my parents’ house in Boston; nothing behind me, and nothing in front of me. Damn it. His pipe had gone out; he spent some time scraping it clean and filling it with tobacco again.
Paul got to his feet and went to the window and pulled up the blind. The moon was out, and its light had painted the alley full of inky shadows. A wind had come up from somewhere, blowing scraps of paper along the ground and bothering a scrubby tree behind the building so that a branch scraped back and forth against the window frame. The silence in the sleeping town seemed to creep into the room.
‘My dad wanted me to go into the family business,’ Frank said. He paced up and down between the bed and the settee. ‘He’d built it up, and he wanted to hand it on to someone who would value it. Me, I wanted to kick over the traces and run free. That kind of struggle, it leaves a twist in your personality, a weak spot.’
‘You got away in the end. It needs guts to keep on with that, to find your own fate and live by it. I ran away a dozen times.’
Frank smiled to himself. ‘That means you went back a dozen times.’
Paul laughed. ‘Correct,’ he said. ‘I always went back. Back to my mother, time after time. Does that make me a weakling?’
‘I didn’t say that.’
‘But this time… I wonder.’ Paul stared into the dying embers in the grate. How many times had he sneaked out of his room and run away? He tried to count them. And here he was, like a restless dog at the furthest reach of the chain. He put some more coal on the fire. ‘You know,’ he said, ‘Wagga must be full of criminals and people on the run.’
‘Oh, Wagga’s not so romantic as all that,’ Frank said. ‘It’s farmers, mostly, hard cases, and a few shopkeepers, in the towns.’
‘People who are a bit mad. Out in the bush, people tend to run in their own grooves. They get obstinate.’
‘Well,’ Frank murmured. ‘You seem to get worked up over him. I can’t see the old guy I know as much of a success at anything. He has a collection of rubbish he showed me — a bow with a broken string and half a dozen poisoned arrows from some head-hunting tribe in Borneo — well, he said they were poisoned — and a shrunken human head, although it looks like a monkey’s head to me. He goes on about black magic, lunatic talk like that, and about how people are plotting against him. And his room is always locked. Most people don’t bother locking their doors. You don’t like him? Huh. I don’t blame you.’
‘That is correct, what you say, I do not like him.’ Paul thought of his revolver, wrapped up and packed in his bag.
Frank yawned. ‘Well, you can tell him to his face tomorrow. The Show’s on this week, and the town will be busy; full of farmers and their wives, and cows, and sheep. There’s a dance on Friday night. I’ll be too busy to see much of it. I have a new font of printing type I’m taking back with me from Sydney; that has to be set up at the Advertiser office and checked out. And I have a dozen or more stories to write up, items I’ve collected from the overseas telegraph.’
‘You speak like the businessman, not the sailor; always making yourself busy. But I did enjoy the train trip to Goulburn, and the coach.’ His mouth worked. ‘But wherever they take you, when you step down from the carriage onto the cinders and stones with your bag over your shoulder and a crust of bread in your pocket, when you look up at a blue sky shining over a town you have never seen, where no one has ever heard of you, why, there you are, waiting in the shadow of a railway building, a sly unhappy fellow with his memories hanging around his neck like a headache.’
‘Finely spoken,’ Frank put in, and yawned. Above the glowing coals, a little violet flame fluttered and danced. ‘In England they call that blue flame the stranger. It means a visit from someone.’
‘Did you ask the manager’s wife to wake us early?’ Paul asked.
‘She will. The coach leaves at dawn. I asked her to bring us breakfast, and some strong coffee.’
Paul made to answer, but the effort was too much for him, and Frank’s voice seemed to fade way. He felt himself falling into a dark cloud of sleep, deeper and deeper, just as the Dutch lieutenant must have felt when he drank his double absinthe, a sinking that was so swift that he almost felt dizzy. He thought he could hear the ocean washing and foaming outside the window as it had outside his cabin, but it was only the spring wind combing the branches of the tree. The branches scraped and whispered at the glass.
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