Dear Lovat, also Mrs. Lovat: I don’t think it is very nice of you that you don’t even call with a tract or a tube-rose, when you know I am so smitten. Yours, Kangaroo. P.S. — Bullets in my marsupial pouch.
Of course Richard went up at once: and Harriet sent a little box with all the different strange shells from the beach. They are curious and interesting for a sick man.
Somers found Kangaroo in bed, very yellow, and thin, almost lantern-jawed, with haunted, frightened eyes. The room had many flowers, and was perfumed with eau-de-cologne, but through the perfume came an unpleasant, discernable stench. The nurse had asked Richard, please to be very quiet.
Kangaroo put out a thin yellow hand. His black hair came wispily, pathetically over his forehead. But he said, with a faint, husky briskness:
“Hello! Come at last,” and he took Somers’ hand in a damp clasp.
“I didn’t know whether you could see visitors,” said Richard.
“I can’t. Sit down. Behave yourself.”
Somers sat down, only anxious to behave himself.
“Harriet sent you such a silly present,” he said. “Just shells we have picked up from the shore. She thought you might like to play with them on the counterpane —.”
“Like that sloppy Coventry Patmore poem. Let me look.”
The sick man took the little Sorrento box with its inlaid design of sirens and peered in at the shells.
“I can smell the sea in them,” he said hoarsely.
And very slowly he began to look at the shells, one by one. There were black ones like buds of coal, and black ones with a white spiral thread, and funny knobbly black and white ones, and tiny purple ones, and a bright sea-orange, semi-transparent clamp shell, and little pink ones with long, sharp points, and glass ones, and lovely pearly ones, and then those that Richard had put in, worn shells like sea-ivory, marvellous substance, with all the structure showing; spirals like fairy stair-cases, and long, pure phallic pieces that were the centres of big shells, from which the whorl was all washed away: also curious flat, oval discs, with a lovely whorl traced on them, and an eye in the centre. Richard liked these especially.
Kangaroo looked at them briefly, one by one, as if they were bits of uninteresting printed paper.
“Here, take them away,” he said, pushing the box aside. And his face had a faint spot of pink in the cheeks.
“They may amuse you some time when you are alone,” said Richard, apologetically.
“They make me know I have never been born,” said Kangaroo, huskily.
Richard was startled, and he didn’t know what to answer. So he sat still, and Kangaroo lay still, staring blankly in front of him. Somers could not detach his mind from the slight, yet pervading sickening smell.
“My sewers leak,” said Kangaroo, bitterly, as if divining the other’s thought.
“But they will get better,” said Richard.
The sick man did not answer, and Somers just sat still.
“Have you forgiven me?” asked Kangaroo, looking at Somers.
“There was nothing to forgive,” said Richard, his face grave and still.
“I knew you hadn’t,” said Kangaroo. Richard knitted his brows. He looked at the long, yellow face. It was so strange and so frightening to him.
“You bark at me as if I were Little Red Riding-hood,” he said, smiling. Kangaroo turned dark, inscrutable eyes on him.
“Help me!” he said, almost in a whisper. “Help me.”
“Yes,” said Richard.
Kangaroo held out his hand: and Richard took it. But not without a slight sense of repugnance. Then he listened to the faint, far-off noises of the town, and looked at the beautiful flowers in the room: violets, orchids, tube-roses, delicate yellow and red roses, iceland poppies, orange like transmitted light, lilies. It was like a tomb, like a mortuary, all the flowers, and that other faint, sickening odour.
“I am not wrong, you know,” said Kangaroo.
“No one says you are,” laughed Richard gently.
“I am not wrong. Love is still the greatest.” His voice sank in its huskiness to a low resonance. Richard’s heart stood still. Kangaroo lay quite motionless, but with some of the changeless pride which had lent him beauty, at times, when he was himself. The Lamb of God grown into a sheep. Yes, the nobility.
“You heard Willie Struthers’ speech?” said Kangaroo, his face changing as he looked up at Somers.
“It seemed to me logical,” said Richard, not knowing how to answer.
“Logical!” Even Kangaroo flickered with surprise. “You and logic!”
“You see,” said Richard very gently, “the educated world has preached the divinity of work at the lower classes. They broke them in, like draught-horses, put them all in the collar and set them all between the shafts. There they are, all broken in, WORKERS. They are conscious of nothing save that they are workers. They accept the fact that nothing is divine but work: work being service, and service being love. The highest is work. Very well then, accept the conclusion if you accept the premises. The working classes are the highest, it is for them to inherit the earth. You can’t deny that, if you assert the sacredness of work.”
He spoke quietly, gently. But he spoke because he felt it was kinder, even to the sick man, than to avoid discussion altogether.
“But I don’t believe in the sacredness of work, Lovat,” said Kangaroo.
“No, but they believe it themselves. And it follows from the sacredness of love.”
“I want them to be men, men, men — not implements at a job.” The voice was weak now, and took queer, high notes.
“Yes, I know. But men inspired by love. And love has only service as its means of expression.”
“How do you know? You never love,” said Kangaroo in a faint, sharp voice. “The joy of love is in being with the beloved — as near as you can get —‘And I, if I be lifted up, will draw all men unto me.’— For life, for life’s sake, Lovat, not for work. Lift them up, that they may live.”
Richard was silent. He knew it was no good arguing.
“Do you think it can’t be done?” asked Kangaroo, his voice growing fuller. “I hope I may live to show you. The working men have not realised yet what love is. The perfect love that men may have for one another, passing the love of women. Oh, Lovat, they still have that to experience. Don’t harden your heart. Don’t stiffen your neck before your old Jewish Kangaroo. You know it is true. Perfect love casteth out fear, Lovat. Teach a man how to love his mate, with a pure and fearless love. Oh, Lovat, think what can be done that way!”
Somers was very pale, his face set.
“Say you believe me. Say you believe me. And let us bring it to pass together. If I have you with me I know we can do it. If you had been with me this would never have happened to me.”
His face changed again as if touched with acid at the thought. Somers sat still, remote. He was distressed, but it made him feel more remote.
“What class do you feel that you belong to, as far as you belong to any class?” asked Kangaroo, his eyes on Richard’s face.
“I don’t feel I belong to any class. But as far as I DO belong — it is to the working-classes. I know that. I can’t change.”
Kangaroo watched him eagerly.
“I wish I did,” he said, eagerly. Then, after a pause, he added: “They have never known the full beauty of love, the working classes. They have never admitted it. Work, bread has always stood first. But we can take away that obstacle. Teach them the beauty of love between men, Richard, teach them the highest — greater love than this hath no man — teach them how to love their own mate, and you will solve the problem of work for ever. Richard, this is true, you know it is true. How beautiful it would be! How beautiful it would be! It would complete the perfect circle —.”
His voice faded down into a whisper, so that Somers seemed to hear it from far off. And it seemed like some far off voice of annunciation. Yet Richard’s face was hard and clear and sea-bitter as one of the worn shells he had brought.
“The faithful, fearless love of man for man,” whispered Kangaroo, as he lay with his dark eyes on Richard’s face, and the wisp of hair on his forehead. Beautiful, he was beautiful again, like a transfiguration.
“We’ve got to save the People, we’ve got to do it. And when shall we begin, when shall we begin, you and I?” he repeated in a sudden full voice. “Only when we dare to lead them, Lovat,” he added in a murmur. “The love of man for wife and children, the love of man for man, so that each would lay down his life for the other, then the love of man for beauty, for truth, for the Right. Isn’t that so! Destroy no love. Only open the field for further love.”
He lay still for some moments after this speech, that ended in a whisper almost. Then he looked with a wonderful smile at Somers, without saying a word, only smiling from his eyes, strangely, wonderfully. But Richard was scared.
“Isn’t that all honest Injun, Lovat!” he whispered playfully.
“I believe it is,” said Richard, though with unchanging face. His eyes, however, were perplexed and tormented.
“Of course you do. Of course you do,” said Kangaroo softly. “But you are the most obstinate little devil and child that ever opposed a wise man like me. For example, don’t you love me in your heart of hearts, only you daren’t admit it! I know you do. I know you do. But admit it, man, admit it, and the world will be a bigger place to you. You are afraid of love.”
Richard was more and more tormented in himself.
“In a way, I love you, Kangaroo,” he said. “Our souls are alike somewhere. But it is true I don’t WANT to love you.”
And he looked in distress at the other man.
Kangaroo gave a real little laugh.
“Was ever woman so coy and hard to please!” he said, in a warm, soft voice. “Why don’t you want to love me, you stiff-necked and uncircumcised Philistine! Don’t you want to love Harriet, for example?”
“No, I don’t want to love anybody. Truly. It simply makes me frantic and murderous to have to feel loving any more.”
“Then why did you come to me this morning?”
The question was pertinent. Richard was baffled.
“In a way,” he said vaguely, “because I love you. But love makes me feel I should die.”
“It is your wilful refusal of it,” said Kangaroo, a little wearily. “Put your hand on my throat, it aches a little.”
He took Richard’s hand and laid it over his warm, damp, sick throat, where the pulse beat so heavy and sick, and the Adam’s apple stood out hard.
“You must be still now,” said Lovat, gentle like a physician.
“Don’t let me die!” murmured Kangaroo, almost inaudible, looking into Richard’s muted face. The white, silent face did not change, only the blue-grey eyes were abstract with thought. He did not answer. And even Kangaroo dared not ask for an answer.
At last he let go Richard’s hand from his throat. Richard withdrew it, and wanted to wipe it on his handkerchief. But he refrained, knowing the sick man would notice. He pressed it very silently, quietly, under his thigh, to wipe it on his trousers.
“You are tired now,” he said softly.
“I will tell the nurse to come?”
“Good-bye — be better,” said Richard sadly, touching the man’s cheek with his finger-tips slightly. Kangaroo opened his eyes with a smile that was dark as death. “Come again,” he whispered, closing his eyes once more. Richard went blindly to the door. The nurse was there waiting.
Poor Richard, he went away almost blinded with stress and grief and bewilderment. Was it true what Kangaroo had said? Was it true? Did he, Richard, love Kangaroo? Did he love Kangaroo, and deny it? And was the denial just a piece of fear. Was it just fear that made him hold back from admitting his love for the other man?
Fear? Yes, it was fear. But then, did he not believe also in the God of fear? There was not only one God. There was not only the God of love. To insist that there is only one God, and that God the source of Love, is perhaps as fatal as the complete denial of God, and of all mystery. He believed in the God of fear, of darkness, of passion, and of silence, the God that made a man realise his own sacred aloneness. If Kangaroo could have realised that too then Richard felt he would have loved him, in a dark, separate, other way of love. But never this all in all thing.
As for politics, there was so little to choose, and choice meant nothing. Kangaroo and Struthers were both right, both of them. Lords or doctors or Jewish financiers SHOULD not have more money than a simple working man, just because they were lords and doctors and financiers. If service was the all in all it was absolutely wrong. And Willie Struthers was right.
The same with Kangaroo. If love was the all in all then the great range of love was complete as he put it: a man’s love for wife and children, his sheer, confessed love for his friend, his mate, and his love for beauty and truth. Whether love was all in all or not this was the great, wonderful range of love, and love was not complete short of the whole.
But — but something else was true at the same time. Man’s isolation was always a supreme truth and fact, not to be forsworn. And the mystery of apartness. And the greater mystery of the dark God beyond a man, the God that gives a man passion, and the dark, unexplained blood-tenderness that is deeper than love, but so much more obscure, impersonal, and the brave, silent blood-pride, knowing his own separateness, and the sword-strength of his derivation from the dark God. This dark, passionate religiousness and inward sense of an inwelling magnificence, direct flow from the unknowable God, this filled Richard’s heart first, and human love seemed such a fighting for candle-light, when the dark is so much better. To meet another dark worshipper, that would be the best of human meetings. But strain himself into a feeling of absolute human love, he just couldn’t do it.
Man’s ultimate love for man? Yes, yes, but only in the separate darkness of man’s love for the present, unknowable God. Human love, as a god-act, very well. Human love as a ritual offering to the God who is out of the light, well and good. But human love as an all in all, ah, no, the strain and the unreality of it were too great.
He thought of Jack, and the strange, unforgettable uptilted grin on Jack’s face as he spoke of the satisfaction of killing. This was true, too. As true as love and loving. Nay, Jack was a killer in the name of Love. That also has come to pass again.
“It is the collapse of the love-ideal,” said Richard to himself. “I suppose it means chaos and anarchy. Then there will have to be chaos and anarchy: in the name of love and equality. The only thing one can stick to is one’s own isolate being, and the God in whom it is rooted. And the only thing to look to is the God who fulfils one from the dark. And the only thing to wait for is for men to find their aloneness and their God in the darkness. Then one can meet as worshippers, in a sacred contact in the dark.”
Which being so, he proceeded, as ever, to try to disentangle himself from the white octopus of love. Not that even now he dared quite deny love. Love is perhaps an eternal part of life. But it is only a part. And when it is treated as if it were a whole, it becomes a disease, a vast white strangling octopus. All things are relative, and have their sacredness in their true relation to all other things. And he felt the light of love dying out of his eyes, in his heart, in his soul, and a great, healing darkness taking its place, with a sweetness of everlasting aloneness, and a stirring of dark blood-tenderness, and a strange, soft iron of ruthlessness.
He fled away to be by himself as much as he could. His great relief was the shore. Sometimes the dull exploding of the waves was too much for him, like hammer-strokes on the head. He tried to flee inland. But the shore was his great solace, for all that. The huge white rollers of the Pacific breaking in a white, soft, snow-rushing wall, while the thin spume flew back to sea like a combed mane, combed back by the strong, cold land-wind.
The thud, the pulse of the waves: that was his nearest throb of emotion. The other emotions seemed to abandon him. So suddenly, and so completely, to abandon him. So it was when he got back from Sydney and, in the night of moonlight, went down the low cliff to the sand. Immediately the great rhythm and ringing of the breakers obliterated every other feeling in his breast, and his soul was a moonlit hollow with the waves striding home. Nothing else.
And in the morning the yellow sea faintly crinkled by the inrushing wind from the land, and long, straight lines on the lacquered meadow, long, straight lines that reared at last in green glass, then broke in snow, and slushed softly up the sand. Sometimes the black skulking fin of a shark. The water was very clear, very green, like bright green glass. Another big fish with humpy sort of fins sticking up, and horror, in the green water a big red mouth wide open. One day the fins of dolphins near, it seemed almost over the sea edge. And then, suddenly, oh wonder, they were caught up in the green wall of the rising water, and there for a second they hung in the watery, bright green pane of the wave, five big dark dolphins, a little crowd, with their sharp fins, and blunt heads, a little sea-crowd in the thin, upreared sea. They flashed with a sharp black motion as the great wave curled to break. They flashed in-sea, flashed from the foamy horror of the land. And there they were, black little school, away in the lacquered water, panting, Richard imagined, with the excitement of the escape. Then one of the bold bucks came back to try again, and he jumped clean out of the water, above the wave, and kicked his heels as he dived in again.
The sea-birds were always wheeling: big, dark-backed birds like mollyhawks and albatrosses with a great spread of wings: and the white gleaming gannets, silvery as fish in the air. In they went, suddenly, like bombs into the wave, spitting back the water. Then they slipped out again, slipped out of the ocean with a sort of sly exultance.
And ships walked on the wall-crest of the sea, shedding black smoke. A vast, hard, high sea, with tiny clouds like mirage islets away far, far back, beyond the edge.
So Richard knew it, as he sat and worked on the verandah or sat at table in the room and watched through the open door. But it was usually in the afternoons he went down to it.
It was his afternoon occupation to go down to the sea’s edge and wander slowly on the firm sand just at the foam-edge. Sometimes the great waves were turning like mill-wheels white all down the shore. Sometimes they were smaller, more confused, as the current shifted. Sometimes his eyes would be on the sand, watching the wrack, the big bladder-weed thrown up, the little sponges like short clubs rolling in the wind, and once, only, those fairy blue wind-bags like bags of rainbow with long blue strings.
He knew all the places where the different shells were found, the white shells and the black and the red, the big rainbow scoops and the innumerable little black snails that lived on the flat rocks in the little pools. Flat rocks ran out near the coal jetty, and between them little creeks of black, round, crunchy coal-pebbles: sea-coal. Sometimes there would be a couple of lazy, beach-combing men picking the biggest pebbles and putting them into sacks.
On the flat rocks were pools of clear water, that many a time he stepped into, because it was invisible. The coloured pebbles shone, the red anemones pursed themselves up. There were hideous stumpy little fish that darted swift as lightning — grey, with dark stripes. An urchin said they were called toads. “Yer can’t eat ’em. Kill yer if y’ do. Yer c’nt eat black fish. See me catch one o’ these toads!” All this in a high shrill voice above the waves. Richard admired the elfish self-possession of the urchin, alone on the great shore all day, like a little wild creature himself. But so the boys were: such wonderful little self-possessed creatures. It was as if nobody was responsible for them, so they learned to be responsible for themselves, like young elf creatures, as soon as they were hatched. They liked Richard, and patronised him in a friendly, half-shy way. But it was they who were the responsible party, the grown-up they treated with a gentle, slightly off-handed indulgence. It always amused friend Richard to see these Australian children bearing the responsibility of their parents. “He’s only a poor old Dad, you know. Young fellow like me’s got to keep an eye on him, see he’s all right.” That seemed to be the tone of the urchins of ten and eleven. They were charming: much nicer than the older youths, or the men.
The jetty straddled its huge grey timbers, like a great bridge, across the sands and the flat rocks. Under the bridge it was rather dark, between the great trunk-timbers. But here Richard found the best of the flat, oval disc-shells with the whorl and the blue eye. By the bank hung curtains of yellowish creeper, and a big, crimson-pink convolvulus flowered in odd tones. An aloe sent up its tall spike, and died at its base. A little bare grassy headland came out, and the flat rocks ran out dark to sea, where the white waves prowled on three sides.
Richard would drift out this way, right into the sea, on a sunny afternoon. On the flat rocks, all pocketed with limpid pools, the sea-birds would sit with their backs to him, oblivious. Only an uneasy black bird with a long neck, squatting among the gulls, would wriggle his neck as the man approached. The gulls ran a few steps, and forgot him. They were mostly real gulls, big and pure as grey pearl, suave and still, with a mat gleam, like eggs of the foam in the sun on the rocks. Slowly Richard strayed nearer. There were little browner birds huddled and further, one big, dark-backed bird. There they all remained, like opalescent whitish bubbles on the dark, flat, ragged wet-rock, in the sun, in the sea sleep. The black bird rose like a duck, flying with its neck outstretched, more timid than the rest. But it came back. Richard drew nearer and nearer, within six yards of the sea-things. Beyond, the everlasting low white wall of foam, rustling to the flat-rock. Only the sea.
The black creature rose again, showing the white at his side, and flying with a stretched-out neck, frightened-looking, like a duck. His mate rose too. And then all the gulls, flying low in a sort of protest over the foam-tips. Richard had it all to himself — the ever-unfurling water, the ragged, flat, square-holed rocks, the fawn sands inland, the soft sand-bank, the sere flat grass where ponies wandered, the low, red-painted bungalows squatting under coral trees, the ridge of tall wire-thin trees holding their plumes in tufts at the tips, the stalky cabbage-palms beyond in the hollow, clustering, low, whitish zinc roofs of bungalows, at the edge of the dark trees — then the trees in darkness swooping up to the wall of the tors, that ran a waving skyline sagging southwards. Scattered, low, frail-looking bungalows with whitish roofs, and scattered dark trees among. A plume of smoke beyond, out of the scarp front of trees. Near the sky, dark, old, aboriginal rocks. Then again all the yellowish fore-front of the sea, yellow bare grass, the homestead with leafless coral trees, the ponies above the sands, the pale fawn foreshore, the sea, the floor of wet rock.
He had it all to himself. And there, with his hands in his pockets, he drifted into indifference. The far-off, far-off, far-off indifference. The world revolved and revolved and disappeared. Like a stone that has fallen into the sea, his old life, the old meaning, fell, and rippled, and there was vacancy, with the sea and the Australian shore in it. Far-off, far-off, as if he had landed on another planet, as a man might land after death. Leaving behind the body of care. Even the body of desire. Shed. All that had meant so much to him, shed. All the old world and self of care, the beautiful care as well as the weary care, shed like a dead body. The landscape? — he cared not a thing about the landscape. Love? — he was absolved from love, as if by a great pardon. Humanity? — there was none. Thought? — fallen like a stone into the sea. The great, the glamorous past? — worn thin, frail, like a frail, translucent film of shell thrown up on the shore.
To be alone, mindless and memoryless between the sea, under the sombre wall-front of Australia. To be alone with a long, wide shore and land, heartless, soulless. As alone and as absent and as present as an aboriginal dark on the sand in the sun. The strange falling-away of everything. The cabbage-palms in the sea-wind were sere like old mops. The jetty straddled motionless from the shore. A pony walked on the sand snuffing the sea-weed.
The past all gone so frail and thin. “What have I cared about, what have I cared for? There is nothing to care about.” Absolved from it all. The soft, blue, humanless sky of Australia, the pale, white unwritten atmosphere of Australia. Tabula rasa. The world a new leaf. And on the new leaf, nothing. The white clarity of the Australian, fragile atmosphere. Without a mark, without a record.
“Why have I cared? I don’t care. How strange it is here, to be soulless and alone.”
That was the perpetual refrain at the back of his mind. To be soulless and alone, by the Southern Ocean, in Australia.
“Why do I wrestle with my soul? I have no soul.”
Clear as the air about him this truth possessed him.
“Why do I talk of the soul? My soul is shed like a sheath. I am soulless and alone, soulless and alone. That which is soulless is perforce alone.”
The sun was curving to the crest of the dark ridge. As soon as the sun went behind the ridge, shadow fell on the shore, and a cold wind came, he would go home. But he wanted the sun not to sink — he wanted the sun to stand still, for fear it might turn back to the soulful world where love is and the burden of bothering.
He saw something clutch in a pool. Crouching, he saw a horror — a dark-grey, brown-striped octopus thing with two smallish, white beaks or eyes living in a cranny of a rock in a pool. It stirred the denser viscous pool of itself and unfurled a long dark arm through the water, an arm studded with bright, orange-red studs or suckers. Then it curled the arm in again, cuddling close. Perhaps a sort of dark shore octopus, star-fish coloured amid its darkness. It was watching him as he crouched. He dropped a snail-shell near it. It huddled closer and one of the beak-like white things disappeared; or were they eyes? Heaven knows. It eased out again, and from its dense jelly mass another thick arm swayed out studded with the sea-orange studs. And he crouched and watched, while the white water hissed nearer to drive him away. Creatures of the sea! Creatures of the sea! The sea-water was round his boots, he rose with his hands in his pockets, to wander away.
The sun went behind the coal-dark hill, though the waves still glowed white-gold, and the sea was dark blue. But the shore had gone into shadow, and the cold wind came at once, like a creature that was lying in wait. The upper air seethed, seemed to hiss with light. But here was shadow, cold like the arm of the dark octopus. And the moon already in the sky.
Home again. But what was home? The fish has the vast ocean for home. And man has timelessness and nowhere. “I won’t delude myself with the fallacy of home,” he said to himself. “The four walls are a blanket I wrap around in, in timelessness and nowhere, to go to sleep.”
Back to Harriet, to tea. Harriet? Another bird like himself. If only she wouldn’t speak, talk, feel. The weary habit of talking and having feelings. When a man has no soul he has no feelings to talk about. He wants to be still. And “meaning” is the most meaningless of illusions. An outworn garment.
Harriet and he? It was time they both agreed that nothing has any meaning. Meaning is a dead letter when a man has no soul. And speech is like a volley of dead leaves and dust, stifling the air. Human beings should learn to make weird, wordless cries, like animals, and cast off the clutter of words.
Old dust and dirt of corpses: words and feelings. The decomposed body of the past whirling and choking us, language, love, and meaning. When a man loses his soul he knows what a small, weary bit of clockwork it was. Who dares to be soulless finds the new dimension of life.
Home, to tea. The clicking of the clock. Tic-tac! Tic-tac! The clock. Home to tea. Just for clockwork’s sake.
No home, no tea. Insouciant soullessness. Eternal indifference. Perhaps it is only the great pause between carings. But it is only in this pause that one finds the meaninglessness of meanings — like old husks which speak dust. Only in this pause that one finds the meaninglessness of meanings, and the other dimension, the reality of timelessness and nowhere. Home to tea! Do you hear the clock tick? And yet there is timelessness and nowhere. And the clock means nothing with its ticking. And nothing is so meaningless as meanings.
Yet Richard meandered home to tea. For the sun had set, the sea of evening light was going pale blue, fair as evening, faintly glazed with yellow: the eastern sky was a glow of rose and smoke blue, a band beyond the sea, while from the dark land-ridge under the western sky an electric fierceness still rushed up past a small but vehement evening star. Somewhere among it all the moon was lying.
He received another summons to go to Kangaroo. He didn’t want to go. He didn’t want any more emotional stress, of any sort. He was sick of having a soul that suffered or responded. He didn’t want to respond any more, or to suffer any more. Saunter blindly and obstinately through the days.
But he set off. The wattle-blooms — the whitish, mealy ones — were aflower in the bush, and at the top of huge poles of stems, big, blackish-crimson buds and flowers, flowers of some sort, shot up out of a clump of spear-leaves. The bush was in flower. The sky above was a tender, virgin blue, the air was pale with clarity, the sun moved strong, yet with a soft and cat-like motion through the heavens. It was spring. But still the bush kept its sombreness along all the pellucid ether: the eternally unlighted bush.
What was the good of caring? What was the point of caring? As he looked at the silent, morning bush grey-still in the translucency of the day, a voice spoke quite aloud in him. What was the good of caring, of straining, of stressing? Not the slightest good. The vast lapse of time here — and white men thrown in like snow into dusky wine, to melt away and disappear, but to cool the fever of the dry continent. Afterwards — afterwards — in the far-off, far-off afterwards, a different sort of men might arise to a different sort of care. But as for now — like snow in aboriginal wine one could float and deliciously melt down, to nothingness, having no choice.
He knew that Kangaroo was worse. But he was startled to find him looking a dead man. A long, cadaverous-yellow face, exactly the face of a dead man, but with an animal’s dark eyes. He did not move. But he watched Richard come forward from the door. He did not give him his hand.
“How are you?” said Richard gently.
“Dying.” The one word from the discoloured lips.
Somers was silent, because he knew it was only too true. Kangaroo’s dark eyebrows above his motionless dark eyes were exactly like an animal that sulks itself to death. His brow was just sulking to death, like an animal.
Kangaroo glanced up at Somers with a rapid turn of the eyes. His body was perfectly motionless.
“Did you know I was dying?” he said.
“I was afraid.”
“Afraid! You weren’t afraid. You were glad. They’re all glad.” The voice was weak, hissing in its sound. He seemed to speak to himself.
“Nay, don’t say that.”
Kangaroo took no notice of the expostulation. He lay silent.
“They don’t want me,” he said.
“But why bother?”
“I’m dying! I’m dying! I’m dying!” suddenly shouted Kangaroo, with a breaking and bellowing voice that nearly startled Richard out of his skin. The nurse came running in, followed by Jack.
“Mr. Cooley! Whatever is it?” said the nurse.
He looked at her with long, slow, dark looks.
“Statement of fact,” he said, in his faint, husky voice.
“DON’T excite yourself,” pleaded the nurse. “You KNOW it hurts you. Don’t think about it, don’t. Hadn’t you perhaps best be left alone?”
“Yes, I’d better go,” said Richard, rising.
“I want to say good-bye to you,” said Kangaroo faintly, looking up at him with strange, beseeching eyes.
Richard, very pale at the gills, sat down again in the chair. Jack watched them both, scowling.
“Go out, nurse,” whispered Kangaroo, touching her hand with his fingers, in a loving kind of motion. “I’m all right.”
“Oh, Mr. Cooley, DON’T fret, DON’T,” she pleaded.
He watched her with dark, subtle, equivocal eyes, then glanced at the door. She went, obedient, and Jack followed her.
“Good-bye, Lovat!” said Kangaroo in a whisper, turning his face to Somers and reaching out his hand. Richard took the clammy, feeble hand. He did not speak. His lips were closed firmly, his face pale and proud looking. He looked back into Kangaroo’s eyes, unconscious of what he saw. He was only isolated again in endurance. Grief, torture, shame, seethed low down in him. But his breast and shoulders and face were hard as if turned to rock. He had no choice.
“You’ve killed me. You’ve killed me, Lovat!” whispered Kangaroo. “Say good-bye to me. Say you love me now you’ve done it, and I won’t hate you for it.” The voice was weak and tense.
“But I haven’t killed you, Kangaroo. I wouldn’t be here holding your hand if I had. I’m only so sorry some other villain did such a thing.” Richard spoke very gently, like a woman.
“Yes, you’ve killed me,” whispered Kangaroo hoarsely.
Richard’s face went colder, and he tried to disengage his hand. But the dying man clasped him with suddenly strong fingers.
“No, no,” he said fiercely. “Don’t leave me now. You must stay with me. I shan’t be long — and I need you to be there.”
There ensued a long silence. The corpse — for such it seemed — lay immobile and obstinate. Yet it did not relax into death. And Richard could not go, for it held him. He sat with his wrist clasped by the clammy thin fingers, and he could not go. Then again the dark, mysterious, animal eyes turned up to his face.
“Say you love me, Lovat,” came the hoarse, penetrating whisper, seeming even more audible than a loud sound.
And again Lovat’s face tightened with torture.
“I don’t understand what you mean,” he said with his lips.
“Say you love me.” The pleading, penetrating whisper seemed to sound inside Somers’ brain. He opened his mouth to say it. The sound ‘I—’ came out. Then he turned his face aside and remained open-mouthed, blank.
Kangaroo’s fingers were clutching his wrist, the corpse-face was eagerly upturned to his. Somers was brought to by a sudden convulsive gripping of the fingers around his wrist. He looked down. And when he saw the eager, alert face, yellow, long, Jewish, and somehow ghoulish, he knew he could not say it. He didn’t love Kangaroo.
“No,” he said, “I can’t say it.”
The sharpened face, that seemed to be leaping up to him, or leaping up at him, like some snake striking, now seemed to sink back and go indistinct. Only the eyes smouldered low down out of the vague yellow mass of the face. The fingers slackened, and Richard managed to withdraw his wrist. There was an eternity of grey silence. And for a long time Kangaroo’s yellow face seemed sunk half visible under a shadow, as a dusky cuttle-fish under a pool, deep down. Then slowly, slowly it came to the surface again, and Richard braced his nerves.
“You are a little man, a little man, to have come and killed me,” came the terrible, pathetic whisper. But Richard was afraid of the face, so he turned aside. He thought in his mind: “I haven’t killed him at all.”
“What shall you do next?” came the whisper. And slowly, like a dying snake rearing itself, the face reared itself from the bed to look at Somers, who sat with his face averted.
“I am going away. I am leaving Australia.”
“Where are you going?”
“To San Francisco.”
“America! America!” came the hissing whisper. “They’ll kill you in America.” And the head sank back on the pillow.
There was a long silence.
“Going to America! Going to America! After he’s killed me here,” came the whispered moan.
“No, I haven’t killed you. I’m only awfully sorry —.”
“You have! You have!” shouted Kangaroo, in the loud, bellowing voice that frightened Richard nearly out of the window. “Don’t lie, you have —.”
The door opened swiftly and Jack, very stern-faced, entered. He looked at Somers in anger and contempt, then went to the bedside. The nurse hovered in the doorway with an anxious face.
“What is it, ’Roo?” said Jack, in a voice of infinite tenderness, that made Somers shiver inside his skin. “What’s wrong, Chief, what’s wrong, dear old man?”
Kangaroo turned his face and looked at Somers vindictively.
“That man’s killed me,” he said in a distinct voice.
“No, I think you’re wrong there, old man,” said Jack. “Mr. Somers has never done anything like that. Let me give you a morphia injection, to ease you, won’t you?”
“Leave me alone.” Then, in a fretful vague voice: “I wanted him to love me.”
“I’m sure he loves you, ’Roo — sure he does.”
Jack looked at Richard and made him a sharp, angry sign with his brows, as if bidding him comply.
“You love our one-and-only Kangaroo all right, don’t you, Mr. Somers?” he said in a manly, take-it-for-granted voice.
“I have an immense regard for him,” muttered Richard.
“Regard! I should think so. We’ve got more than regard. I love the man — love him — love him I do. Don’t I, ’Roo?”
But Kangaroo had sunk down, and his face had gone small, he was oblivious again.
“I want nurse,” he whispered.
“Yes, all right,” said Jack, rising from bending over the sick man. Somers had already gone to the door. The nurse entered, and the two men found themselves in the dark passage.
“I shall have to be coming along, Mr. Somers, if you’ll wait a minute,” said Jack.
“I’ll wait outside,” said Somers. And he went out and down to the street, into the sun, where people were moving about. They were like pasteboard figures shifting on a flat light.
After a few minutes Jack joined him.
“Poor ’Roo, it’s a question of days now,” said Jack.
“Hard lines, you know, when a man’s in his prime and just ready to enter into his own. Bitter hard lines.”
“That’s why I think you were a bit hard on him. I DO love him myself, so I can say so without exaggerating the fact. But if I hated the poor man like hell, and saw him lying there in that state — why, I’d swear on red-hot iron I loved him, I would. A man like that — a big, grand man, as great a hero as ever lived. If a man can’t speak two words of pity for a man in his state, why, I think there’s something wrong with that man. Sorry to have to say it. But if Old Harry himself had lain there like that and asked me to say I loved him I’d have done it. Heart-breaking, it was. But I suppose some folks is stingy about sixpence, and others is stingy about saying two words that would give another poor devil his peace of mind.”
Richard walked on in angry silence. He hated being condemned in this free-and-easy, rough-and-ready fashion.
“But I suppose chaps from the old country are more careful of what they say — might give themselves away or something of that. We’re different over here. Kick yourself over the cliff like an old can if a mate’s in trouble and needs a helping hand, or a bit of sympathy. That’s us. But I suppose being brought up in the old country, where everybody’s frightened that somebody else is going to take advantage of him, makes you more careful. So you’re leaving Australia, are you? Mrs. Somers want to go?”
“I think so.” Not very emphatically, perhaps.
“Wouldn’t want to if you didn’t, so to speak? Oh, Mrs. Somers is all right. She’s a fine woman, she is. I suppose I ought to say lady, but I prefer a woman, myself, to a lady, any day. And Mrs. Somers is a woman all over — she is that. I’m sorry for my own sake and Vicky’s sake that she’s going. I’m sorry for Australia’s sake. A woman like that ought to stop in a new country like this and breed sons for us. That’s what we want.”
“I suppose if she wanted to stop and breed sons she would,” said Richard coldly.
“They’d have to be your sons, that’s the trouble, old man. And how’s she going to manage that if you’re giving us the go-by?”
Richard spent the afternoon going round to the Customs House and to the American Consulate with his passport, and visiting the shipping office to get a plan of the boat. He went swiftly from place to place. There were no difficulties: only both the Customs House and the Consulate wanted photographs and Harriet’s own signature. She would have to come up personally.
He wanted to go now. He wanted to go quickly. But it was no good, he could not get off for another month, so he must preserve his soul in patience.
“No,” said Richard to himself, thinking of Kangaroo. “I don’t love him — I detest him. He can die. I’m glad he is dying. And I don’t like Jack either. Not a bit. In fact I like nobody. I love nobody and I like nobody, and there’s the end of it, as far as I’m concerned. And if I go round ‘loving’ anybody else, or even ‘liking’ them, I deserve a kick in the guts like Kangaroo.”
And yet, when he went over to the Zoo, on the other side of the harbour — and the warm sun shone on the rocks and the mimosa bloom, and he saw the animals, the tenderness came back. A girl he had met, a steamer-acquaintance, had given him a packet of little extra-strong peppermint sweets. The animals liked them. The grizzly bear caught them and ate them with excitement, panting after the hotness of the strong peppermint, and opening his mouth wide, wide, for more. And one golden brown old-man kangaroo, with his great earth-cleaving tail and his little hanging hands, hopped up to the fence and lifted his sensitive nose quivering, and gently nibbled the sweet between Richard’s fingers. So gently, so determinedly nibbled the sweet, but never hurting the fingers that held it. And looking up with the big, prominent Australian eyes, so aged in consciousness, with a fathomless, dark, fern-age gentleness and gloom. The female wouldn’t come near to eat. She only sat up and watched, and her little one hung its tiny fawn’s head and one long ear and one fore-leg out of her pouch, in the middle of her soft, big, grey body.
Such a married couple! Two kangaroos. And the blood in Richard’s veins all gone dark with a sort of sad tenderness. The gentle kangaroos, with their weight in heavy blood on the ground, in their great tail! It wasn’t love he felt for them, but a dark, animal tenderness, and another sort of consciousness, deeper than human.
It was a time of full moon. The moon rose about eight. She was so strong, so exciting, that Richard went out at nine o’clock down to the shore. The night was full of moonlight as a mother-of-pearl. He imagined it had a warmth in it towards the moon, a moon-heat. The light on the waves was like liquid radium swinging and slipping. Like radium, the mystic virtue of vivid decomposition, liquid-gushing lucidity.
The sea too was very full. It was nearly high tide, the waves were rolling very tall, with light like a menace on the nape of their necks as they bent, so brilliant. Then, when they fell, the fore-flush in a great soft swing with incredible speed up the shore, on the darkness soft-lighted with moon, like a rush of white serpents, then slipping back with a hiss that fell into silence for a second, leaving the sand of granulated silver.
It was the huge rocking of this flat, hollow-foreflush moon — dim in its hollow, that was the night to Richard. “This is the night and the moon,” he said to himself. Incredibly swift and far the flat rush flew at him, with foam like the hissing, open mouths of snakes. In the nearness a wave broke white and high. Then, ugh! across the intervening gulf the great lurch and swish, as the snakes rushed forward, in a hollow frost hissing at his boots. Then failed to bite, fell back hissing softly, leaving the belly of the sands granulated silver.
A huge but a cold passion swinging back and forth. Great waves of radium swooping with a down-curve and rushing up the shore. Then calling themselves back again, retreating to the mass. Then rushing with venomous radium-burning speed into the body of the land. Then recoiling with a low swish, leaving the flushed sand naked.
That was the night. Rocking with cold, radium-burning passion, swinging and flinging itself with venomous desire. That was Richard, too, a bit of human wispiness in thin overcoat and thick boots. The shore was deserted all the way. Only, when he came past the creek on the sands, rough, wild ponies looking at him, dark figures in the moon light lifting their heads from the invisible grass of the sand, and waiting for him to come near. When he came and talked to them they were reassured, and put their noses down to the grass to eat a bit more in the moon-dusk, glad a man was there.
Richard rocking with the radium-urgent passion of the night: the huge, desirous swing, the call clamour, the low hiss of retreat. The call, call! And the answerer. Where was his answerer? There was no living answerer. No dark-bodied, warm-bodied answerer. He knew that when he had spoken a word to the night-half-hidden ponies with their fluffy legs. No animate answer this time. The radium-rocking, wave-knocking night his call and his answer both. This God without feet or knees or face. This sluicing, knocking, urging night, heaving like a woman with unspeakable desire, but no woman, no thighs or breast, no body. The moon, the concave mother-of-pearl of night, the great radium-swinging, and his little self. The call and the answer, without intermediary. Non-human gods, non-human human being.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:57