They had another ferocious battle, Somers and Harriet; they stood opposite to one another in such fury one against the other that they nearly annihilated one another. He couldn’t stay near her, so started walking off into the country. It was winter, but sunny, and hot walking. He climbed steadily up and up the highroad between the dense, damp jungle that grew at the base and up the steep rise of the tor-face, which he wanted to get to the top of. Strange birds made weird, metallic noises. Tree-ferns rose on their notchy little trunks, and great mosses tangled in with more ordinary bushes. Overhead rose the gum-trees, sometimes with great stark, dead limbs thrown up, sometimes hands over like pine-trees.
He sweated up the steep road till at last he came to the top. There, on the farther side, the dip slope, the hills sank and ran in spurs, all fairly densely wooded, but not like the scarp slope up which he had toiled. The scarp slope was jungle, impenetrable, with tree-ferns and bunchy cabbage-palms and mosses like bushes, a thick matted undergrowth beneath the boles of the trees. But the dip slope was bush: gum trees rather scattered, and a low undergrowth like heath. The same lonely, unbreakable silence and loneliness that seemed to him the real bush. Curiously unapproachable to him. The mystery of the bush seems to recede from you as you advance, and then it is behind you if you look round. Lonely, and weird, and hoary.
He went on till he could look over the tor’s edge at the land below. There was the scalloped sea-shore, for miles, and the strip of flat coast-land, sometimes a mile wide, sprinkled as far as the eye could reach with the pale-grey zinc roofs of the bungalows: all scattered like crystals in the loose cells of the dark tree-tissue of the shore. It was suggestive of Japanese landscape, dark trees and little, single, scattered toy houses. Then the bays of the shore, the coal-jetty, far off rocks down the coast, and long white lines of breakers.
But he was looking mostly straight below him, at the massed foliage of the cliff-slope. Down into the centre of the great, dull-green whorls of the tree-ferns, and on to the shaggy mops of the cabbage palms. In one place a long fall of creeper was yellowish with damp flowers. Gum-trees came up in tufts. The previous world! — the world of the coal age. The lonely, lonely world that had waited, it seemed, since the coal age. These ancient flat-topped tree-ferns, these towsled palms like mops. What was the good of trying to be an alert conscious man here? You couldn’t. Drift, drift into a sort of obscurity, backwards into a nameless past, hoary as the country is hoary. Strange old feelings wake in the soul: old, non-human feelings. And an old, old indifference, like a torpor, invades the spirit. An old, saurian torpor. Who wins? There was the land sprinkled with dwellings as with granulated sugar. There was a black smoke of steamers on the high pale sea, and a whiteness of steam from a colliery among the dull trees. Was the land awake? Would the people waken this ancient land, or would the land put them to sleep, drift them back into the semi-consciousness of the world of the twilight?
Somers felt the torpor coming over him. He hung there on the parapet looking down, and he didn’t care. How profoundly, darkly he didn’t care. There are no problems for the soul in its darkened, wide-eyed torpor. Neither Harriet nor Kangaroo nor Jaz, nor even the world. Worlds come, and worlds go: even worlds. And when the old, old influence of the fern-world comes over a man, how can he care? He breathes the fern seed and drifts back, becomes darkly half vegetable, devoid of preoccupations. Even the never-slumbering urge of sex sinks down into something darker, more monotonous, incapable of caring: like sex in trees. The dark world before conscious responsibility was born.
A queer bird sat hunched on a bough a few yards away, just below; a bird like a bunch of old rag, with a small rag of a dark tail, and a fluffy pale top like an owl, and a sort of frill round his neck. He had a long, sharp, dangerous beak. But he too was sunk in unutterable apathy. A kukooburra! Some instinct made him know that Somers was watching, so he just shuffled round on the bough and sat with his back to the man, and became utterly oblivious. Somers watched and wondered. Then he whistled. No change. Then he clapped his hands. The bird looked over its shoulder in surprise. What! it seemed to say. Is there somebody alive? Is that a live somebody? It had quite a handsome face, with the exquisite long, dagger beak.
It slowly took Somers in. Then he clapped again. Making an effort the bird spread quite big wings and whirred in a queer, flickering flight to a bough a dozen yards farther off. And there it clotted again.
Ah well, thought Somers, life is so big, and has such huge ante-worlds of grey twilight. How can one care about anything in particular!
He went home again, and had forgotten the quarrel and forgotten marriage or revolutions or anything: drifted away into the grey pre-world where men didn’t have emotions. Where men didn’t have emotions and personal consciousness, but were shadowy like trees, and on the whole silent, with numb brains and slow limbs and a great indifference.
But Harriet was waiting for him rather wistful, and loving him rather quiveringly. And yet even in the quiver of her passion was some of this indifference, this twilight indifference of the fern-world.
Jack and Victoria came for the week-end, and Somers and Callcott met in a much nearer sympathy than they had ever known before. Victoria was always thrilled and fascinated by both the Somers: they had an inexhaustible fascination for her, the tones of their voices, their manner, their way with each other. She could not understand the strange sureness they had in themselves, the sureness of what they were saying or going to say, the sureness of what they were feeling. For herself, her words fluttered out of her without her direct control, and her feelings fluttered in her the same. She was one perpetually agitated dovecot of words and emotions, always trying consciously to find HERSELF amid the whirl, and never quite succeeding. She thought someone might TELL her. Whereas the Somers had an unconscious sureness, something that seemed really royal to her. But she had in the last issue the twilight indifference of the fern-world. Only she still quivered for the light.
Poor Victoria! She clung to Jack’s arm vibrating, always needing to vibrate outwards. And he seemed to become more Australian and apathetic every week. The great indifference, the darkness of the fern-world, upon his mind. Then spurts of energy, spurts of sudden violent desire, spurts of gambling excitement. But the mind in a kind of twilight sleep.
He made no more appeals. He was just static, and quite gentle. Even at table he was half oblivious of the presence of the other people. Then Victoria would poke him with her elbow, poke him hard, into consciousness, and bring back the lively Jack that the Somers had first known. Strange that the torpor had come on him so completely of late. Yet there was a queer light in his eyes, as if he might do something dangerous. And when he was once talking, he was perfectly logical and showed surprising calm common-sense. When he was discussing or criticising, he seemed so unusually sane as to be peculiar. Like a man in his sleep.
Just outside the station was the football field, and Mullumbimby was playing Wollondindy, Mullumbimby in royal blue, and Wollondindy in rather faded red. Along the roadside buggies and motor-cars were pulled up, the ponies were taken out of harness and left to feed on the roadside grass. Two riders sat on horseback to survey the scene. And under the flowering coral-trees, with their sharp red cockatoo flowers, stood men in their best clothes smoking pipes, or men in their best clothes squatting on the fence, and lasses mingling in or strolling past in white silk stockinette frocks, or pink crepe de chine, or muslin. Just like prostitutes, arm in arm, strolled the lasses, airing themselves and their pronounced hips. And the men apathetically took no notice, but watched the field.
This scene was too much for Jack Callcott. Somers or no Somers, he must be there. So there he stood, in his best clothes and a cream velour hat and a short pipe, staring with his long, naked, Australian face, impassive. On the field the blues and the reds darted madly about, like strange bird-creatures rather than men. They were mostly blond, with hefty legs, and with prominent round buttocks that worked madly inside the little white cotton shorts. And Jack, with his dark eyes, watched as if it was Doomsday. Occasionally the tail-end of a smile would cross his face, occasionally he would take his pipe-stem from his mouth and give a bright look into vacancy and say, “See that!” Heaven knows what it was that he saw. The game, the skill? Yes. But more, the motion, the wild combative motion. And most of all, fate. Fate had a fascination for him. It was the only real point of curiosity left in him: how would chance work things out. Chance! Now then, how would chance settle it? Even the football field, with its wildly scurrying blues and bits of red, was only a frenzied shuffling of fate, with men for the instruments. The living instruments of fate! And how would it work out, how would it work out? He could have stood there, static, with his little pipe, till Doomsday, waiting for fate to settle it. The wild scurrying motion, and the jumps in the air, of course made his heart beat faster. Towards the close one of the chaps got a kick on the jaw, and was knocked out. They couldn’t finish the game. Hard lines.
Jack was a queer sight to Somers, when he was in this brightly vacant mood, not a man at all, but a chance thing, gazing spellbound on the evolutions of chance. And in this state, this very Australian state, you could hardly get a word out of him. Or, when he broke into a little volley of speech, you listened with wonder to the noise of it, as if a weird animal had suddenly given voice.
The indifference, the marvellous, bed-rock indifference. Not the static fatalism of the east. But an indifference based on real recklessness, an indifference with a deep flow of loose energy beneath it, ready to break out like a geyser. Ready to break into a kind of frenzy, a berserk frenzy, running amok in wild generosity, or still more wild smashing up. The wild joy in letting loose, in a smash-up. But will he ever let loose? Or will the static patience settle deeper, and the fern-twilight altogether envelop him. The slow transmutation! What does to-day matter, or this country? Time is so huge, and in Australia the next step back is to the fern age.
The township looked its queerest as dusk fell. Then the odd electric lights shone at rather wide intervals, the wide, unmade roads of rutted earth seemed to belong again to the wild, in the semi-dark, and the low bungalows with the doors open and the light showing seemed like shacks in the wilderness, a settlement in the fierce gloom of the wilderness. Then youths dashed fiercely on horseback down the soft roads, standing in the stirrups and crouching over the neck of the thin, queer brown racehorses that sprinted along like ghosts. And the young baker, in emulation, dashed through the village on his creamy pony. A collier who had been staying somewhere cantered stiffly away into the dark on a pony like a rocking horse. Young maidens in cotton dresses stood at the little rail gates of their bungalow homes talking to young men in a buggy, or to a young man on foot, or to the last tradesman’s cart, or to youths who were strolling past. It was evening, and the intense dusk of the far-off land, and white folks peering out of the dusk almost like aborigines. The far-off land, just as far-off when you are in it: nay, then furthest off.
The evening came very dark, with lightning playing pallid in the south-east, over the sea. There was nothing to be done with Jack but to play draughts with him. He wasn’t in a real sporting mood, so he let himself be beaten even at draughts. When he was in a sporting mood he could cast a spell of confusion over Somers, and win every time, with a sort of gloating. But when he wasn’t in a sporting mood he would shove up his men recklessly and lose them. He didn’t care. He just leaned back and stretched himself in that intense physical way which Somers thought just a trifle less than human. The man was all body: a strong body full of energy like a machine that has got steam up, but is inactive. He had no mind, no spirit, no soul: just a tense, inactive body, and an eye rather glazed and a trifle bloodshot. The old psyche slowly disintegrating.
Meanwhile Victoria in a trill of nervous excitement and exaltation was talking Europe with Harriet. Victoria was just the opposite of Jack: she was all a quiver of excited consciousness, to know, to see, to realise. She would almost have done anything, to be able to LOOK at life, look at the inside of it, see it in its intimacy. She had had wild ideas of being a stewardess on a boat, a chambermaid in an hotel, a waitress in a good restaurant, a hospital nurse — anything, so that she could SEE intimacies, touch the private mysteries. To travel seemed to her the great desirable: to go to Europe and India, and SEE it all. She loved Australia, loved it far more quiveringly and excitedly than he. But it wasn’t Australia that fascinated her: it was the secret intimacies of life, and what OTHER FOLKS FELT. That strange and aboriginal indifference that was bottommost in him seemed like a dynamo in her. She fluttered in the air like a loose live nerve, a nerve of the sympathetic system. She was all sympathetic drive: and he was nearly all check. He sat there apathetic, nothing but body and solid, steady, physical indifference. He did not oppose her at all, or go counter to her. He was just the heavy opposite pole of her energy. And of course she belonged to him as one pole belongs to the other pole in a circuit.
And he, he would stretch his body continuously, but he would not go to bed, though Somers suggested it. No, there he sat. So Somers joined in the more exciting conversation of the women, and Jack sat solidly there. Whether he listened or whether he didn’t, who knows? The aboriginal SYMPATHETIC apathy was upon him, he was like some creature that has lost its soul, and simply stares.
The morning was one of the loveliest Australian mornings, perfectly golden, all the air pure gold, the great gold effulgence to seaward, and the pure, cold pale-blue inland, over the dark range. The wind was blowing from inland, the sea was quiet as a purring cat with white paws, becoming darkish green-blue flecked with innumerable white flecks like rain-spots splashing the surface of a pool. The horizon was a clear and hard and dark sea against an almost white sky, but from far behind the horizon showed the mirage-magic tops of hazed, gold-white clouds, that seemed as if they indicated the far Pacific isles.
Though it was cold, Jack was sauntering about in his shirtsleeves with his waistcoat open and his hands in his pockets: rather to the vexation of Victoria. “Pull yourself together, Jack dear, do. Put your collar and tie on,” she coaxed, fondling him.
“In a minute,” he said.
The indifference — the fern-dark indifference of this remote golden Australia. Not to care — from the bottom of one’s soul, not to care. Overpowered in the twilight of fern-odour. Just to keep enough grip to run the machinery of the day: and beyond that, to let yourself drift, not to think or strain or make any effort to consciousness whatsoever. That was Jack, sauntering down there in his shirt-sleeves, with his waistcoat open showing his white shirt, his strong neck bare: sauntering with his hands in his pockets beside Somers, at the water’s edge. Somers wore a dark flannel jacket, and his necktie hung dark and broke the intimacy of the white shirt-breast.
The two women stood on the cliff, the low, bushy cliff, looking down. Harriet was in a plain dress of dark-coloured purplish-and-brown hand-woven stuff of cotton and silk mixture, with old silver lace round the collar; Victoria in a pale-green knitted dress. So they stood in the morning light, watching the men on the fawn-coloured sand by the sea-fringe, waiting to wave when they looked up.
Jack looked up first. The two women coo-eed and waved. He took his pipe from his mouth and held it high in his hand, in answer. A strange signal. The pale-green wisp of Victoria in the sky was part of his landscape. But the darker figure of Harriet had for some reason a menace to him, up there. He suddenly felt as if he were down below: he suddenly realised a need to bethink himself. He turned to Somers, looking down and saying in his peculiar Australian tone:
“Well, I suppose we’d better be going up.”
The curious note of obedience in the manly twang!
Victoria made him put on coat and collar and tie for breakfast.
“Yes, dear, come on. I’ll tie your tie for you.”
“I suppose a man was born to give in,” said he, with laconic good humour and obstinacy. But he was a little uneasy. He realised the need to gather himself together.
“You get like the rest of them,” Victoria scolded him in a coaxing tone. “You used to be so smart. And you promised me you’d never go slack like they all are. Didn’t you, you bad boy?”
“I forget,” said he. But nevertheless the constraint of breakfast pulled him up. Because Harriet REALLY disapproved, and he didn’t know what was inside that rose-and-brown-purple cloud of her. The ancient judgment of the Old World. So he gathered himself somewhat together. But he was so far, fern-lost, from the old world.
“My God!” thought Somers. “These are the men Kangaroo wants to build up a new state with.”
After breakfast Somers got Jack to talk about Kangaroo and his plans. He heard again all about the Diggers’ Clubs: nearly all soldiers and sailors who had been in the war, but not restricted to these. They had started like any other social club: games, athletics, lectures, readings, discussions, debates. No gambling, no drink, no class or party distinction. The clubs were still chiefly athletics, but not SPORTING. They went in for boxing, wrestling, fencing, and knife-throwing, and revolver practice. But they had swimming and rowing squads, and rifle-ranges for rifle practice, and they had regular military training. The colonel who planned out the military training was a clever chap. The men were grouped in little squads of twenty, each with sergeant and corporal. Each of these twenty was trained to act like a scout, independently, though the squad worked in absolute unison among themselves, and were pledged to absolute obedience of higher commands. These commands, however, left most of the devising and method of execution of the job in hand to the squad itself. In New South Wales the Maggies, as these private squads were called, numbered already about fourteen hundred, all perfectly trained and equipped. They had a distinctive badge of their own: a white, broad-brimmed felt hat, like the ordinary khaki military hat, but white, and with a tuft of white feathers. “Because,” said Ennis, the colonel, “we’re the only ones that can afford to show the white feather.”
These Maggies, probably from Magpies, because Colonel Ennis used to wear white riding-breeches and black gaiters, and a black jacket and a white stock, with his white hat — were the core and heart of the Digger Movement. But Kangaroo had slaved at the other half of the business, the mental side. He DID want his men to grip on to the problem of the future of Australia. He had insisted on attendance at debates and discussions: Australia and the World, Australia and the Future, White Australia, Australia and the Reds, Class Feeling in Australia, Politics and Australia, Australians and Work, What is Democracy? What is an Australian? What do our Politicians do for Australia? What our State Parliament does for us, What our Federal Parliament does for us, What side of the Australian does Parliament represent? Is Parliament necessary to Democracy? What is wrong with Soviet rule? Do we want a Statesman, or do we want a Leader? What kind of Leader do we want? What aim have we in view? Are we Australians? Are we Democratic? Do we believe in Ourselves?
So the debates had been going on, for a year and a half now. These debates were for club members only. And each club numbered only fifty members. Every member was asked to take part in the debates, and a memorandum was kept of each meeting. Then there were monthly united gatherings, of five or six or more clubs together. And occasionally a mass-meeting, at which Kangaroo spoke.
All this went on in the open, and roused some comment in the press: at first a great deal of praise, later some suspicion and considerable antagonism, both from Conservatives and Labour. Ben Cooley was supposed to be working himself in as a future Prime Minister, with a party behind him that would make him absolute, a Dictator. As soon as one paper came out with this alarm, an opponent sneered and pooh-poohed, and spoke of the Reds lounging about, a fearful menace, in Sydney, and recalled the Reigns of Terror in Paris and in Petrograd. Was another Reign of Terror preparing for Sydney? Was a bloodthirsty Robespierre or a ruthless Lenin awaiting his moment? Would responsible citizens be lynched in Martin Place, and dauntless citizenesses thrown into the harbour, when the fatal hour struck? Whereupon a loud burst from the press: were we to be alarmed by the knock-kneed, loutish socialist gang that hung round Canberra House? These gentry could hardly kill the vermin in their own clothing, not to speak of lynching in Martin Place. Whereas the Maggies were a set of efficient, well-armed, and no doubt unscrupulous tools of still more designing and unscrupulous masters. If we had to choose between Napoleon, in the shape of Ben Cooley, or Lenin, in the lack-of-shape of Willie Struthers, we should be hard put to it to know which was worse. Whereupon a fierce blast about our returned heroes and the white-livered skulkers who had got themselves soft jobs as coast-watchers, watching that the sharks didn’t nibble the rocks, and now dared lift their dishonourable croaks against the revered name of Digger. And a ferocious rush-in from Labour, which didn’t see much Napoleon in Ben Cooley, except his belly and the knack of filling his pockets. Napoleon, though but a Dago and not a Jew, had filled one of the longest pockets Europe had ever emptied herself into, so where would poor little Australia be when the sham Kangaroo, with the help of the Magpies, which were indeed strictly Butcher Birds, started to coin her into shekels?
Then the boom died down, but the Digger Clubs had grown immensely on the strength of it. There were now more than a hundred clubs in New South Wales, and nearly as many in Victoria. The chief in Victoria was a smart chap, a mining expert. They called him the Emu, to match Kangaroo on the Australian coat of arms. He would be the Trotsky to the new Lenin, for he was a born handler of men. He had been a lieutenant-colonel in the war, a very smart soldier, and there had been a great cry to keep him on, for the Defence Force. But he had got the shove from Government, so he cleared out and went back to his mining.
But every club had its own committee, and this committee was composed of five or six of the best, surest members, sworn in to secrecy and to absolute obedience to any decision. Each club committee handled every question of development, and the master and the teller went to section-meetings. A section consisted of ten clubs. A decision at a section meeting was carried to the state meeting, where the chief of the state always had the ruling vote. Once a decision was passed, it became a law for all members, embodied in the person of the chief, and interpreted by him unquestioned save by his lieutenant, the chief of all the secretaries, or tellers.
The public members of the clubs were initiated into no secrets. The most important questions were discussed only among the chiefs. More general secrets were debated at the section meetings. That is, the great bulk of the members gave only their allegiance and their spirit of sympathy. The masters and chiefs carefully watched the response to all propositions at all open discussions. They carefully fostered the feeling they wished for, or which they were instructed to encourage. When the right feeling was arrived at, presumably, then the secret members started the discussion of propositions proposed from above. A secret member was allowed to make a proposition also, and the list was read over at the section meetings. But the Jack, the chief of the tellers, had right of absolute veto.
Somers could not get it very clear, from Jack Callcott’s description. But it seemed to him as if all the principal ideas originated with the chief, went round the circuit of the clubs, disguised as general topics for debate, and returned as confirmed principles, via the section meetings and the state meetings. All the debates had been a slow, deliberate crystallising of a few dominant ideas in all the members. In the actual putting into practice of any principle, the chief was an autocrat, though he might, if he chose, send his propositions through the section meetings and the state meetings for criticism and amendment.
“What I feel,” said Somers to Jack, “is that the bulk of you just don’t care what the chief does, so long as he does something.”
“Oh, we don’t lose our sleep at nights. If he likes to be the boss, let him do the thinking. We know he’s our man, and so we’ll follow him. We can’t all be Peter and Paul and know all about it.”
“You just feel he’s your man?”
“Oh, we do.”
“But supposing you go in and win — and he is the boss of Australia. Shall you still leave things to him?”
Jack thought lazily for a time.
“I should think so,” he replied, with a queer, mistrustful tone.
And Somers felt again so distinctly they were doing it all just in order to have something to do, to put a spoke in the wheel of the present bosses, to make a change. Just temporary. There would be a change, and that was what they wanted. There was all the time the excitement. Damn the consequences.
“You don’t think it would be as well to HAVE a Soviet and Willie Struthers?”
“No, I don’t,” said Jack, in a thin, sharp voice. “I don’t want to be bullied by any damned Red International Labour. I don’t want to be kissing and hugging a lot of foreign labour tripe: niggers and what the hell. I’d rather have the British Empire ten thousand times over, and that bed’s a bit too wide, and too many in it for me. I don’t like sleeping with a lot of neighbours. But when it comes to going to bed with a crowd of niggers and dagoes, in an International Labour Combine, with a pair of red sheets so that the dirt won’t show, I’m absolutely sure I won’t have it. That’s why I like Kangaroo. We shall be just cosy and Australian with a boss like a father who gets up first in the morning, and locks up at night before you go to bed.”
“And who will stop in the Empire?”
“Oh, I suppose so. But he won’t be asking even the British to go to bed with him. He knows the difference between Australia and the rest of the Empire, The Empire’s like a lot of lock-up shops that you do your trade in. But I know Kangaroo well enough to know he’s not mixing his family in. He’ll keep Australia close and cosy. That’s what I want. And that’s what we all want, when we’re in our senses and aren’t bitten into spots by the Red International bug.”
Somers then mentioned Jaz’s proposition, of a red revolution first.
“I know,” said Jack. “It may be so. He’s one of your sly, crawling devils, Jaz is, and that seems to be the road nowadays. I wouldn’t mind egging the Reds in, and then slapping them clean out into nowhere. I wouldn’t mind at all. But I’m bound to follow Kangaroo’s orders, so I’m not bothering my chump over Jaz’s boodle.”
“You don’t care which way it happens?”
Jack looked at him sideways, like the funny bird.
“No,” he said, with an Australian drawl. “So long as it does happen. I don’t like things as they are, and I don’t feel safe about them. I don’t mean I want to feel safe as if nothing would ever happen. There’s some sorts of sport and risk that you enjoy, and there’s others you hate the thought of. Now I hate the thought of being bossed and messed about by the Old Country, or by Jew capitalists and bankers, or by a lot of labour bullies, or a Soviet. There’s no fun in that sort of sport, to me, unless you can jolly well wipe the bleeders out afterwards. And I don’t altogether want the mills of the British Empire to go grinding slowly on, and yourself compelled to do nothing but grind slowly with ’em. It’s too much of a sameness altogether, and not as much sport as a tin Lizzie. We’re too much mixed up with other folk’s business, what’s absolutely no fun for us. No, what I want is a cosy, lively little Australia away from all this blooming world-boost. I’ve no use for a lot of people across a lot of miles of sea nudging me while I handle my knife and fork. Leave us Australians to ourselves, we shall manage.”
They were interrupted by Harriet calling for Somers to come and rescue the tea-towel from the horns of a cow who had calmly scrambled through the fence on to their grass. Somers was used to the cow: she had scrambled through the Coo-ee fence long before the Somers had ever walked through the gate, so she looked on them as mild intruders. He was quite friendly with her, she ate the pumpkin rind and apple parings from his hand. Now she looked at him half guiltily out of one eye, the kitchen towel hanging over the other eye. She took it quite calmly, but had a disreputable appearance.
“Come here,” said he. “Come here and have it taken off. Of course you had to poke your head into the bush if you thought there was a towel on it.”
She came mildly up and held her head while he disentangled the towel from her horns. Then she went calmly on, snuffing at the short, bitten grass for another mouthful, and twitching leaves off the stunted bushes.
So they were, the cows, so unafraid. In Cornwall, Harriet said, the cows had always sniffed in when she came near, and then breathed out heavily, nnh! nnh! as if they did not like the smell of human beings, breathing out against her, and backing. And that had scared her. But these cows didn’t do that. They seemed so calm. They fed over all the bush, the unoccupied grassy lots above the sea, among the unbuilt streets. And they pushed in among the trees and bushes where the creek came in. And then at dusk a boy would come on a cream-coloured pony riding round and driving them in, scaring a sort of crane or heron bird from the still waters of the marshy creek-edge. Then the cows walked or trotted placidly home: so unconcerned. And the bird with the great, arched grey wings flapped in a low circle round, then settled again a yard or two from where she was before.
So unconcerned. Somers had noticed a pair of fishing birds by the creek, queer objects nearly as big as ducks, perched at the extremity of a dead gum-tree, above the water. They flew away at his coming, but while he stood looking, they circled with their longish necks stretched out and their wings sharply flicking in the high air, then one returned and sat again on the tree, and the other perched on another dead tree. The near one looked sideways at him.
“Yes, I’m here,” said he aloud.
Whereupon she did the inevitable, turned her back on him and he no longer existed for her. These ostriches needed no sand. She so far forgot him as to turn sideways to him again, so he had her in profile, clutched grey like an old knot at the tip of the stark, dead grey tree. And there she performed queer corkscrew exercises with her neck in the air. Whether it was she was getting down a last fishbone in her gizzard, or whether she was merely asserting herself in the upper air, he could not tell.
“What a fool you look,” he said aloud to her.
Then away the birds rose. And he saw a seedy, elderly man in black, in a long-skirted black coat like a cast-off Methodist parson, spying at him furtively from behind the bushes on the other side of the creek. This parson-looking weed carried a gun, and was shooting heaven knows what. He thought Richard Lovat a very suspicious bird, and Richard Lovat thought him the last word in human weeds. So our young man turned away to the sands, where the afternoon sea had gone a very dark blue. Another human weed with a very thin neck and a very red face sat on the sand ridge up which the foam-edge swished, his feet wide apart, facing the ocean, and tending a line which he had in some way managed to cast out into the low surf. An urchin, barefoot, was pottering round in silence, like a sandpiper. The elderly one made unintelligible noises as Somers approached. The latter realised it meant he was not to catch with his foot the line, which reached out behind the thin fisherman, covered with sand. So he stepped over it. The brown, barefoot urchin pottered round unheeding. He did not even look up when the elder made more unintelligible sounds to him.
My father is a fisherman,
Oh a fisherman! Yes a fisherman!
He catches all the fish-e-can.
Mondays, Wednesdays, and Saturdays were the library nights. When you had crossed the iron foot-bridge over the railway, you came to a big wooden building with a corrugated iron roof, standing forlorn at an unmade corner, like the fag-end of the village. But the village was an agglomeration of fag ends. This building might have been a temporary chapel, as you came at it from the back. But in front it was labelled “Pictoria”, so it was the cinema. But there was also a black board with gilt letters, like a chapel notice-board, which said “School of Arts Library”. And the Pictoria had a sort of little wing, all wood, like a little school-room. And in one section of this wing was the School of Arts Library, which the Somers had joined. Four rows of novels: the top row a hundred or more thin books, all Nat Gould or Zane Grey. The young women came for Zane Grey. “Oh, ‘The Maid of Mudgee’ is a lovely thing, lovely”— a young woman was pronouncing from the top of the broken chair which served as stool to give access to this top row. “Y’aven’ got a new Zaine Greye, have yer?” She spoke in these tones of unmitigated intimacy to the white-moustached librarian. One would have thought he was her dear old dad. Then came a young railway man who had heard there was a new Nat Gould.
“But,” said Somers, as he and Harriet went off with a Mary E. Mann and a George A. Birmingham, “I don’t wonder they can’t read English books, or only want Nat Gould. All the scruples and the emotions and the regrets in English novels do seem waste of time out here.”
“I suppose,” said Harriet, “if you don’t have any inside life of your own it must seem a waste of time. But look at it — look!”
The object she bade him look at was a bone of contention between them. She wanted to give five pounds to have four posts and an iron chain put round it, and perhaps a bit of grass sowed inside the enclosure. He declared that they’d probably charge ten pounds for the chain alone, since it was Australia. And let it alone. It was of a piece with the rest. But Harriet said she couldn’t leave the place till she’d had something done to it. He said she was an interfering female.
The object was the memorial to the fallen soldiers. It was really a quite attractive little monument: a statue in pale, fawnish stone, of a Tommy standing at ease, with his gun down at his side, wearing his puttees and his turned-up felt hat. The statue itself was about life size, but standing just overhead on a tall pedestal it looked small and stiff and rather touching. The pedestal was in very nice proportion, and had at eye level white inlet slabs between little columns of grey granite, bearing the names of the fallen on one slab, in small black letters, and on the other slabs the names of all the men who served: “God Bless Them”. The fallen had “Lest we forget”, for a motto. Carved on the bottom step it said, “Unveiled by Grannie Rhys”. A real township monument, bearing the names of everybody possible: the fallen, all those who donned khaki, the people who presented it, and Grannie Rhys. Wonderfully in keeping with the place and its people, naive but quite attractive, with the stiff, pallid, delicate fawn-coloured soldier standing forever stiff and pathetic.
But there it stood, a few yards from the corner of the corrugated Pictoria, at the corner of the fag-end road to the station, like an old milk-can someone had set down and forgotten: or a bran new milk-can. Old rags of paper littered the ground at the base, with an old tin or two. A little further back was a German machine gun, also looking as if it had been scrapped and forgotten. Standing there, with its big metal screen-flap, it looked exotic, a thing of some higher culture, demoniac and fallen.
Harriet was dying to rescue the forlorn monument that seemed as if it had been left there in the bustle of removal. She wanted to enclose it. But he said: “Leave it. Leave it. They don’t like things enclosed.”
She still had in her mind’s eye an Australia with beautiful manorial farm-houses and dainty, perfect villages. She never acquiesced in the UNCREATEDNESS of the new country, the rawness, the slovenliness. It seemed to her comical, for instance, that no woman in Australia would carry a basket. Harriet went shopping as usual with her pretty straw basket in the village. But she felt that the women remarked on it. Only then did she notice that everybody carried a suit-case in this discreet country. The fat old woman who came to the door with a suit-case must, she thought, be a visitor coming to the wrong house. But no. “Did you want a cabbage?” In the suitcase two cabbages and half a pumpkin. A little girl goes to the dairy for six eggs and half a pound of butter with a small, elegant suit-case. Nay, a child of three toddled with a little six-inch suit-case, containing, as Harriet had occasion to see, two buns, because the suit-case flew open and the two buns rolled out. Australian suit-cases were always flying open, and discharging groceries or a skinned rabbit or three bottles of beer. One had the impression that everybody was perpetually going away for the week-end: with a suit-case. Not so at all. Just a new-country bit of convention.
Ah, a new country! The cabbage, for example, cost tenpence in the normal course of things, and a cauliflower a shilling. And the tradesmen’s carts flew round in the wilderness, delivering goods. There isn’t much newness in MAN, whatever the country.
That old aeroplane that had lain broken-down in a field. It was nowadays always staggering in the low air just above the surf, past the front of Coo-ee, and lurching down on to the sands of the town “beach”. There, in the cold wind, a forlorn group of men and boys round the aeroplane, the sea washing near, the marsh of the creek desolate behind. Then a “passenger mounted”, and men shoving the great insect of a thing along the sand to get it started. It buzzed venomously into the air, looking very unsafe and wanting to fall in the sea.
“Yes, he’s carrying passengers. Oh, quite a fair trade. Thirty-five shillings a time. Yes, it seems a lot, but he has to make his money while he can. No, I’ve not been up myself, but my boy has. No, you see, there was four boys, and they had a sweepstake: eight-and-six apiece, and my boy won. He’s just eleven. Yes, he liked it. But they was only up about four minutes: I timed them myself. Well, you know, it’s hardly worth it. But he gets plenty to go. I heard he made over forty pounds on Whit Monday, here on this beach. It seems to me, though, he favours some more than others. There’s some he flies round with for ten minutes, and that last chap now, I’m sure he wasn’t up a second more than three minutes. No, not quite fair. Yes, he’s a man from Bulli: was a flying-man all through the war. Now he’s got this machine of his own, he’s quite right to make something for himself if he can. No, I don’t know that he has any licence or anything. But a chap like that, who went through the war — why, who’s going to interfere with his doing the best for himself?”
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:57