IN JUNE he had gone to Sydney for the mid-winter holidays. It was delightful even to walk up George Street and back through Pitt Street. The human life of the streets seemed so fresh and joyous, and there was such a strange new assurance and elasticity in his own step. Once in Pitt Street, in the bald waste place that lay beyond the Post Office, he saw a lady standing, with a smile on her face, waiting for her husband. She might have been thirty years old. She looked so strong and elate in every large and gracious curve of her body, so full of life in every fibre of muscle and nerve. He longed to go up to her and put his arms round her and kiss her; the life that was in that woman’s body (was it love? he asked himself) was the life that he felt in his own heart.
He stayed at a boarding-house in Castlereagh Street, not far from the Theatre where an Italian Opera Company was playing every evening. The Theatre had just been rebuilt; the pale fresh colors of the place seemed enchanting to him, as he sat usually in the third row of the Stalls, and listened to the music of Rossini or Meyerbeer or Verdi. He knew little of music; he thought “Il Trovatore” beautiful; to sit lazily there when the orchestra had started on its gay or melodiously tragic career, and the swift various play of actors passed across the stage, was enough. All the multitudinous possibilities of life seemed to rehearse themselves deliciously along his nerves; all the sensuous potentialities of his nature were summoned in a sweet vague stream, as though something within him stirred and responded to the far-off sexual cry in which music began. He cared little that he could not always understand the story; the shifting panorama of the stage, so close that it revealed all its nakedness — the tawdry costumes, the unclothed arms with their vaccination scars, the stage tricks — only accentuated the music. Even the preliminary booms and whirs of the instruments in the orchestra, the gloved uplifted hand of the conductor, the playbill, became soon mixed in the same glamor. When the Opera was over he usually walked about the streets for a little while; in George Street near the Market he passed the woman who boldly sought to catch his attention, and he walked quickly and shyly on; in Castlereagh Street he saw the couples who glided up dark alleys; all the frank licence of a colonial city came before him, and fascinated him, and was strange to him.
One evening he was accompanied to Rossini’s “Barbiere” by a young chemist who was living in the same boarding-house. Afterwards they strolled along the streets and the chemist introduced him to a young woman. They walked along together. She looked up at him at last in a tender, confiding way and said in a nasal voice.
“Aint the moon lovely?”
He replied, “Yes.”
There was a pause. Then he felt a sudden feeling of suffocation, an irresistable longing for fresh air, and without venturing to look at his companion’s astonished face, he broke away, turning down the next street: “I must go in this direction. Good night.”
The boarding house was kept by a pale, pretty, weary-looking widow, who trailed in and out of the room with slipshod feet. Besides himself there were in the house only the young chemist and another young widow, a little woman, always dressed in black, who talked and went about with a quiet, prim, consciously-composed air. She said that her husband had been a sea-captain and that she had a little boy at school. At frequent intervals she had visits from near relatives, now a brother, now an uncle, now a brother-in-law.
A large, coarse, fat woman, with double chin, came to dinner one day. She seemed to have business with the little widow. When dinner was over, by way of pleasantry, she threw a serviette from behind at the young schoolmaster’s head. They told him afterwards that thirty years ago that woman was the prettiest girl in Sydney. That vision of the prettiest girl in Sydney left an ineffaceable impression on the young schoolmaster’s mind, and he often pondered over it.
Once a man came in during the evening with a young woman — Mr. Shaw they called him — a fair, good-natured, middle-aged man. “Let me introduce you to Mrs. Shaw,” he said, and the tall, rather handsome young woman, dressed plainly, but with rather a gay hat, nodded and smiled, with a careless air, a trifle defiant. They all chatted pleasantly for a while and when the visitors had gone, the landlady, who had whispered with them in the hall, flared up indignantly.
“Now this is what I call disgusting,” she said fiercely, with an intensity that seemed to show something of personal bitterness, “to see a married man flaunting about the place like that with his housemaid; the headmaster of a big school, too, and his wife as nice a little woman as you’d wish to find.” And when her anger had died down the sympathetic little widow in black agreed.
On the last night of his stay in Sydney he went early to his room, where loud occasional bursts of merriment reached him till long past midnight. When he came down in the morning the room was disarranged, and the air close and heavy, with a vague odor of brandy; a woman’s chignon of those days lay on the floor, a neckhandkerchief on the sofa. He experienced a sudden shock, as though he had unexpectedly set his foot in a strange and unknown land. At breakfast the landlady did not appear and the chemist was not in his room; the young widow in black presided, and looked after his wants in her quiet, thoughtful fashion. She took two cups of coffee upstairs; then she disappeared into her own room behind, whence there came a report of two soda-water bottles; the breakfast-room door was quietly shut, and, standing at the window, he saw a tall man, with thick neck and red face, go quickly out of the front door. He noted these things, curiously, impartially, always accepting the transparent veil thrown over them. Without himself realising it, he shrank instinctively from contact with all that was not in the line of his own shy and solitary emotional life. Now he was back in Kanga Creek, and the old life of mingled routine and freedom had begun again. He wandered again over the ridge of the range beyond which lay Blair’s Creek, or he walked up and down the path his feet had worn on the eastern side of the schoolhouse. Usually he had a book in his hand; perchance a little green volume called “Poems and Ballads,” bought in Sydney, which had repelled him at first, but whose large images and broad rhythmical sweep soon fascinated him; and after the children had gone, and the sun had sunk behind the western hills, he walked swiftly up and down the well-trodden path, shouting aloud enthusiastically the strong irresistible lines. And in the morning, when the sun looked over the ridge into that little valley of giant myrtles, as he came up from the well, over the dull grass, in trousers and flannel shirt, balancing two buckets of water in his hands, a fresh spirit leapt along his veins and he repeated softly to himself:
Nothing is better I well think
Than love; the hidden well water
Is not so delicate to drink.
One day — it was Sunday — he set out in his old grey alpaca coat, and with the little green volume in his hand, on the path towards Ayr. He seldom walked that way, and today he kept at some distance from the path; he would rather not be passed by the Carrolls who, with their sisters, might be going into Ayr today. He only looked into his book now and then, and walked on, dreaming perhaps, yet always with an undercurrent of attention to possible snakes, and once he sprang instinctively forward as some dry Slick turned up beneath his foot and struck his leg. He was going towards a lagoon he had found out; for it seemed to him a pleasant place by which to sit and read. It was a silent spot, with an air of melancholy peace brooding over it. Sometimes the lagoon was full of water, and then it was soothing to look at; but often the water receded to the centre and left a great expanse of dark mud. Down the faint slopes that led to it the trees grew sparsely; and near the edge there lay about great rotten trunks, the abodes of many snakes. Towards this spot the young schoolmaster slowly wandered with his book. Suddenly he was brought up by a large black snake almost at his feet. He stood still for a moment in admiration of the strong and lovely curves of its body, the perfect poise of its flattened and wedge-shaped head. Then he walked on slowly, keeping his eyes on the ground. When he next lifted them he saw, fifty yards to the side, a woman who lay on the ground. She was lying stretched beneath the slight shadow of a gum-tree, resting on her elbows, a broad straw hat on her head. It was a manna-gum, for now and again she slowly picked up and ate the small sweet fragments around. Involuntarily he turned and looked towards her; she saw him and swiftly jumping up walked away, upright and very deliberately. A moment after he came upon an open book; he took it up; it was a well-worn anthology of French poetry. He felt already a curious attraction to this woman; now he had an excuse for speaking to her. He came up to her and said with a shy glance,
“I think this is your book.”
“Thank you,” she said, “I left it by the tree.”
Her eyes were brown; her complexion was of the common creamy brown Australian sort, faintly freckled and mottled; there were large buttons all the way down her plain and predominantly blue dress; at the breast a button was undone or gone, and there was a glimpse of white, as though she had grown out of her dress, but she was older than himself. So much he noticed, and not being able to think of anything more to say he was about to go away. He hesitated a moment; he could not at once cut the first link that had by chance connected him with this interesting intruder on his domain, and at the moment that he was finally about to lift his hand to his hat he interrupted himself awkwardly, and caught at the last conversational straw.
“Do — do you read French?”
“I am learning to.”
These questions and responses were rather colorless. He looked round for an instant, again about to go yet trying to find something else to say. But she had now taken in the situation, and when he glanced at her he saw a smile in her brown eyes and it occurred to him, for the first time, that she was rather pretty. “I know you,” she said, with a touch of colonial assurance, “I saw you coming out of Ayr before you came here. My school is at Warrie Creek.”
This declaration at once threw their relations into a state of more stable equilibrium. When a little later he thought it was time to go he boldly held out his hand and their eyes met and rested on each other for a perceptible instant, almost with a sense of camaraderie. He meditated on this glance and tried to analyse it, while with rapid steps he traversed the miles that separated him from Kanga Creek, negligent of snakes and once nearly stepping into the midst of a gay party of parakeets absorbed in a family quarrel.
Last updated Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at 14:08