Kangaroo died and had a great funeral, but Richard did not go up. He had fixed his berths on the Manganui, and would sail away in twenty days. To America — the United States, a country that did not attract him at all, but which seemed to lie next in his line of destiny.
Meanwhile he wandered round in the Australian spring. Already he loved it. He loved the country he had railed at so loudly a few months ago. While he “cared” he had to rail at it. But the care once broken inside him it had a deep mystery for him, and a dusky, far-off call that he knew would go on calling for long ages before it got any adequate response, in human beings. From far off, from down long fern-dark avenues there seemed to be the voice of Australia, calling low.
He loved to wander in the bush at evening, when night fell so delicately yet with such soft mystery. Then the sky behind the trees was all soft, rose pink, and the great gum-trees ran up their white limbs into the air like quicksilver, plumed at the tips with dark tufts. Like rivulets the white boughs ran up from the white trunk: or like great nerves, with nerve-like articulations, branching into the dusk. Then he would stand under a tall fern-tree, and look up through the whorl of lace above his head, listening to the birds calling in the evening stillness, the parrots making a chinking noise.
Sitting at the edge of the bush he looked at the settlement and the sea beyond. He had quite forgotten how he used to grumble at the haphazard throwing of bungalows here and there and anywhere: how he used to hate the tin roofs, and the untidiness, It recalled to him the young Australian captain: “Oh, how I liked the rain on the tin roofs of the huts at the war. It reminded me of Australia.”
“And now,” thought Richard to himself, “tin roofs and scattered shanties will remind me of Australia. They seem to me beautiful, though it’s a fact they have nothing to do with beauty.”
But, oh, the deep mystery of joy it was to him to sit at the edge of the bush as twilight fell, and look down at the township. The bungalows were built mostly on the sides of the slopes. They had no foundations, but stood on brickwork props, which brought them up to the level. There they stood on the hillsides, on their short legs, with darkness under their floors, the little bungalows, looking as if they weighed nothing. Looking flimsy, made of wood with corrugated zinc roofs. Some of them were painted dark red, roofs and all, some were painted grey, some were wooden simply. Many had the white-grey zinc roofs, pale and delicate. At the back was always one big water-butt of corrugated iron, a big round tank painted dark-red, the corrugation ribs running round, and a jerky, red-painted pipe coming down from the eaves. Sometimes there were two of these tanks: and a thin, not very tidy woman in a big straw hat stooping to the tap at the bottom of the tank. The roof came down low, making a long shade over the wooden verandahs. Nearly always a little loggia at the back, from which the house-door opened. And this little verandah was the woman’s kitchen; there she had a little table with her dirty dishes, which she was going to wash up. And a cat would be trotting around, as if it had not an enemy in the world, while from the verandah a parrot called.
The bungalows near the bush edge had odd bits of garden nipped out of the paddocks and carefully railed in: then another little enclosure for the calf. At the back the earth was scratched, there was a rubbish heap of ashes and tins slipping into the brambles, and very white fowls clustering for bedtime. In front of the house, in another bit of garden with wooden palings, two camellia trees full of flowers, one white and one red, like artificial things, but a bit seared by the wind. And at the gate the branching coral trees still flowering flame from their dark, strong-thrusting, up-curving buds.
So, with evening falling. There were green roads laid out in the wild, with but one lost bungalow to justify them. And a lost horse wildly galloping round the corner of this blind road, to quiet down and look around. A belated collier galloping stiffly on his pony, out of the township, and a woman in a white blouse and black skirt, with two little girls beside her, driving a ramshackle little buggy with a quick-legged little pony, homewards through the trees.
Lights were beginning to glint out: the township was deciding it was night. The bungalows scattered far and wide, on the lower levels. There was a network of wide roads, or beginnings of roads. The heart of the township was one tiny bit of street a hundred yards long: Main Street. You knew where it was, as you looked down on the reddish earth and grass and bush, by the rather big roof of pale zinc and a sandy-coloured round gable of the hotel — the biggest building in the place. For the rest, it looked, from above, like an inch of street with tin roofs on either side, fizzling out at once into a wide grass-road with a few bungalows and then the bush. But there was the dark railway, and the little station. And then again the big paddocks rising to the sea, with a ridge of coral-trees and a farm-place. Richard could see Coo-ee with its low, red roof, right on the sea. Behind it the rail-fences of the paddocks, and the open grass, and the streets cut out and going nowhere, with an odd bungalow here and there.
So it was all round — a far and wide scattering of pale-roofed bungalows at random among grassy, cut-out streets, all along the levels above the sea, but keeping back from the sea, as if there were no sea. Ignoring the great Pacific. There were knolls and pieces of blue creek-hollow, blue of freshwater in lagoons on the yellow sands. Up the knolls perched more bungalows, on very long front legs and no back legs, caves of dark underneath. And on the sky-line, a ridge of wiry trees with dark plume-tufts at the ends of the wires, and these little loose crystals of different-coloured, sharp-angled bungalows cropping out beneath. All in a pale, clear air, clear and yet far off, as it were visionary.
So the land swooped in grassy swoops, past the railway, steep up to the bush: here and there thick-headed palm trees left behind by the flood of time and the flood of civilisation both: bungalows with flame-trees: bare bungalows like packing-cases: an occasional wind-fan for raising water: a round well-pool, perfectly round: then the bush, and a little colliery steaming among the trees. And so the great tree-covered swoop upwards of the tor, to the red fume of clouds, red like the flame-flowers, of sunset. In the darkness of trees the strange birds clinking and trilling: the tree-ferns with their knob-scaly trunks spreading their marvellous circle of lace overhead against the glow, the gum-trees like white, naked nerves running up their limbs, and the inevitable dead gum-trees poking stark grey limbs into the air. And the thick aboriginal dusk settling down.
Richard wandered through the village, homewards. Horses stood motionless in the middle of the road, like ghosts, listening. Or a cow stood as if asleep on the dark footpath. Then she too wandered off. At night-time always these creatures roaming the dark and semi-dark roads, eating the wayside grass. The motor-cars rushing up the coast road must watch for them. But the straying cattle were not troubled. They dragged slowly out of the way.
The night in the township was full of the sound of frogs, rattling, screeching, whirring, raving like a whole fairy factory going at full speed in the marshy creek-bottom. A great grey bird, a crane, came down on wide soft wings softly in the marshy place. A cream coloured-pony, with a snake-like head stretched out, came cropping up the road, cropping unmoved, though Richard’s feet passed within a few yards of his nose. Richard thought of the snaky Praxiteles horses outside the Quirinal in Rome. Very, very nearly those old, snaky horses were born again here in Australia: or the same vision come back.
People mattered so little. People hardly matter at all. They were there, they were friendly. But they never entered inside one. It is said that man is the chief environment of man. That, for Richard, was not true in Australia. Man was there, but unnoticeable. You said a few words to a neighbour or an acquaintance, but it was merely for the sake of making a sound of some sort. Just a sound. There was nothing really to be said. The vast continent is really void of speech. Only man makes noises to man, from habit. Richard found he never wanted to talk to anybody, never wanted to be with anybody. He had fallen apart out of the human association. And the rest of the people either were the same, or they herded together in a promiscuous fashion. But this speechless, aimless solitariness was in the air. It was natural to the country. The people left you alone. They didn’t follow you with their curiosity and their inquisitiveness and their human fellowship. You passed, and they forgot you. You came again, and they hardly saw you. You spoke, and they were friendly. But they never asked any questions, and they never encroached. They didn’t care. The profound Australian indifference, which still is not really apathy. The disintegration of the social mankind back to its elements. Rudimentary individuals with no desire of communication. Speeches, just noises. A herding together like dumb cattle, a promiscuity like slovenly animals. Yet the basic indifference under everything.
And with it all, toiling on with civilisation. But it felt like a clock that was running down. It had been wound up in Europe, and was running down, running right down, here in Australia. Men were mining, farming, making roads, shouting politics. But all with that basic indifference which dare not acknowledge HOW indifferent it is, lest it should drop everything and lapse into a blank. But a basic indifference, with a spurt of excitement over a horse-race, and an occasional joy in a row.
It seemed strange to Somers that Labour should be so insistent in Australia — or that Kangaroo should have been so burning. But then he realised that these men were all the time yoked to some work, they were all the time in the collar. And the work kept them going a good deal more than they kept the work going. Nothing but the absolute drive of the world’s work kept them going. Without it they would have lapsed into the old bushranging recklessness, lapsed into the profound indifference which was basic in them.
But still, they were men, they were healthy, they were full of energy, even if they were indifferent to the aim in front. So they embraced one aim or another, out of need to be going somewhere, doing something more than just backing a horse. Something more than a mere day’s work and a gamble. Some smack at the old-established institution of life, that came from Europe.
There it is, laid all over the world, the heavy established European way of life. Like their huge ponderous cathedrals and factories and cities, enormous encumbrances of stone and steel and brick, weighing on the surface of the earth. They say Australia is free, and it is. Even the flimsy, foundationless bungalows. Richard railed at the scrappy amorphousness, till two nights he dreamed he was in Paris, and a third night it was in some other city, of Italy or France. Here he was staying in a big palazzo of a house — and he struggled to get out, and found himself in a high old provincial street with old gable houses and dark shadow and himself in the gulf between: and at the end of the street a huge, pale-grey bulk of a cathedral, an old Gothic cathedral, huge and massive and grey and beautiful.
But, suddenly, the mass of it made him sick, and the beauty was nauseous to him. So strong a feeling that he woke up. And since that day he had been thankful for the amorphous scrappy scattering of foundationless shacks and bungalows. Since then he had loved the Australian landscape, with the remote gum-trees running their white nerves into the air, the random streets of flimsy bungalows, all loose from one another, and temporary seeming, the bungalows perched precariously on the knolls, like Japanese paper-houses, below the ridge of wire-and-tuft trees.
He had now a horror of vast super-incumbent buildings. They were a nightmare. Even the cathedrals. Huge, huge bulks that are called beauty. Beauty seemed to him like some turgid tumour. Never again, he felt, did he want to look at London, the horrible WEIGHT of it: or at Rome with all the pressure on the hills. Horrible, inert, man-moulded weight. Heavy as death.
No, no, the flimsy hills of Australia were like a new world, and the frail INCONSPICUOUSNESS of the landscape, that was still so clear and clean, clean of all fogginess or confusion: but the frail, aloof, inconspicuous clarity of the landscape was like a sort of heaven — bungalows, shacks, corrugated iron and all. No wonder Australians love Australia. It is the land that as yet has made no great mistake, humanly. The horrible human mistakes of Europe. And, probably, the even worse human mistakes of America.
“Then why am I going?” he asked himself.
“Wait! Wait!” he answered himself. “You have got to go through the mistakes. You’ve got to go all round the world, and then halfway round again, till you get back. Go on, go on, the world is round, and it will bring you back. Draw your ring round the world, the ring of your consciousness. Draw it round until it is complete.”
So he prepared with a quiet heart to depart.
The only person that called at Coo-ee was Jaz.
“You’re leaving us, then?” he said.
“Rather suddenly at the end.”
“Perhaps. But it’s as well I should go soon if I’m going.”
“You think so? Taken against the place, have you?”
“No — the contrary. If I stay much longer I shall stay altogether.”
“Come quite to like it!” Jaz smiled slowly.
“Yes. I love it, Jaz. I don’t love people. But this place — it goes into my marrow, and makes me feel drunk. I love Australia.”
“That’s why you leave it, eh?”
“Yes. I’m frightened. What I want to do is to go a bit further back into the bush — near some little township — have a horse and a cow of my own — and — damn everything.”
“I can quite understand the ‘damn everything’ part of it,” laughed Jaz. “You won’t do it, though.”
“I never was so tempted in my life. Talk about Eve tempting man to a fall: Australia tempts me. Retro me —.”
Jaz was silent for a few moments.
“You’d repent it, though,” he said quietly.
“I’ll probably repent whatever I do,” replied Somers, “so what’s the odds. I’ll probably repent bitterly going to America, going back to the world: when I want Australia. I want Australia as a man wants a woman. I fairly tremble with wanting it.”
Jaz looked at Somers with his curious, light-grey eyes.
“Then why not stop?” he said seductively.
“Not now. Not now. Some cussedness inside me. I don’t want to give in, you see. Not yet, I don’t want to give in to the place. It’s too strong. It would lure me quite away from myself. It would be too easy. It’s TOO tempting. It’s too big a stride, Jaz.”
Jaz laughed, looking back at Richard’s intense eyes.
“What a man you are, Mr. Somers!” he said. “Come and live in Sydney and you won’t find it such a big jump from anywhere else.”
“No, I wouldn’t want to live in Sydney. I’d want to go back in the bush near one of the little townships. It’s like wanting a woman, Jaz. I want it.”
“Then why not do it?”
“I won’t give in, not yet. It’s like giving in to a woman; I won’t give in yet. I’ll come back later.”
Jaz suddenly looked at Richard and smiled maliciously.
“You won’t give in, Mr. Somers, will you? You won’t give in to the women, and Australia’s like a woman to you. You wouldn’t give in to Kangaroo, and he’s dead now. You won’t give in to Labour, or Socialism. Well, now, what will you do? Will you give in to America, do you think?”
“Heaven preserve me — if I’m to speak beforehand.”
“Why, Mr. Somers!” laughed Jaz, “seems to me you just go round the world looking for things you’re not going to give in to. You’re as bad as we folk.”
“Maybe,” said Richard. “But I’ll give in to the Lord Almighty, which is more than you’ll do —.”
“Oh, well, now — we’d give in to Him if we saw Him,” said Jaz, smiling with an odd winsomeness he sometimes had.
“All right. Well I prefer not to see, and yet to give in,” said Richard.
Jaz glanced up at him suspiciously, from under his brows.
“And another thing,” said Richard. “I won’t give up the flag of our real civilised consciousness. I’ll give up the ideals. But not the aware, self-responsible, deep consciousness that we’ve gained. I won’t go back on that, Jaz, though Kangaroo did say I was the enemy of civilisation.”
“You don’t consider you are, then?” asked Jaz, pertinently.
“The enemy of civilisation? Well, I’m the enemy of this machine-civilisation and this ideal civilisation. But I’m not the enemy of the deep, self-responsible consciousness in man, which is what I mean by civilisation. In that sense of civilisation I’d fight forever for the flag, and try to carry it on into deeper, darker places. It’s an adventure, Jaz, like any other. And when you realise what you’re doing, it’s perhaps the best adventure.”
Harriet brought the tea-tray on to the verandah.
“It’s quite nice that somebody has come to see us,” she said to Jaz. “There seems such a gap, now Kangaroo is gone, and all he stood for.”
“You feel a gap, do you?” asked Jaz.
“Awful. As if the earth had opened. As for Lovat, he’s absolutely broken-hearted, and such a trial to live with.”
Jaz looked quickly and inquiringly at Somers.
“Sort of metaphysical heart,” Richard said, smiling wryly.
Jaz only looked puzzled.
“Metaphysical!” said Harriet. “You’d think to hear him he was nothing but a tea-pot brewing metaphysical tea. As a matter of fact Kangaroo went awfully deep with him, and now he’s heart-broken, and that’s why he’s rushing to America. He’s always breaking his heart over something — anything except me. To me he’s a nether millstone.”
“Is that so!” said Jaz.
“But one feels awful, you know, Kangaroo dying like that. Lovat likes to show off and be so beastly high and mighty about things. But I know how miserable he is.”
They were silent for some time, and the talk drifted.
In the newspapers Somers read of a big cyclone off the coast of China, which had engulfed thousands of Chinese. This cyclone was now travelling south, lashing its tail over the New Hebrides, and swooping its paws down the thousands of miles of east coast of Australia. The monster was expected to have spent itself by the time it reached Sydney. But it hadn’t — not quite.
Down it came, in a great darkness. The sea began to have a strange yelling sound in its breakers, the black cloud came up like a wall from the sea, everywhere was dark. And the wind broke in volleys from the sea, and the rain poured as if the cyclone were a great bucket of water pouring itself endlessly down.
Richard and Harriet sat in the dark room at Coo-ee, with a big fire, and darkness raging in waters around. It was like the end of the world. The roaring snarl of the sea was of such volume, the volleying roar of the wind so great as to create almost a sense of silence in the room. The house was like a small cave under the water. Rain poured in waves over the dark room, and with a heaviness of spume. Though the roof came down so far and deep over the verandahs, yet the water swept in, and gurgled under the doors and in at the windows. Tiles were ripped off the verandah roof with a crash, and water splashed more heavily. For the first day there was nothing to do but to sit by the fire, and occasionally mop up the water at the seaward door. Through the long, low windows you saw only a yellow-livid fume, and over all the boom you heard the snarl of water.
They were quite cut off this day, alone, dark, in the devastation of water. The rain had an iciness, too, which seemed to make a shell round the house. The two beings, Harriet and Lovat, kept alone and silent in the shell of a house as in a submarine. They were black inside as out. Harriet particularly was full of a storm of black chagrin. She had expected so much of Australia. It had been as if all her life she had been waiting to come to Australia. To a new country, to a new, unspoiled country. Oh, she hated the old world so much. London, Paris, Berlin, Rome — they all seemed to her so old, so ponderous with ancient authority and ancient dirt. Ponderous, ancient authority especially, oh, how she hated it. Freed once, she wanted a new freedom, silvery and paradisical in the atmosphere. A land with a new atmosphere, untainted by authority. Silvery, untouched freedom.
And in the first months she had found this in Australia, in the silent, silvery-blue days, and the unbreathed air, and strange, remote forms of tree and creature. She had felt herself free, free, free, for the first time in her life. In the silvery pure air of this undominated continent she could swim like a fish that is just born, alone in a crystal ocean. Woman that she was she exulted, she delighted. She had loved Coo-ee. And she just could not understand that Richard was so tense, so resistant.
Then gradually, through the silver glisten of the new freedom came a dull, sinister vibration. Sometimes from the interior came a wind that seemed to her evil. Out of the silver paradisical freedom untamed, evil winds could come, cold, like a stone hatchet murdering you. The freedom, like everything else, had two sides to it. Sometimes a heavy, reptile-hostility came off the sombre land, something gruesome and infinitely repulsive. It frightened her as a reptile would frighten her if it wound its cold folds around her. For the past month now Australia had been giving her these horrors. It was as if the silvery freedom suddenly turned, and showed the scaly back of a reptile, and the horrible jaws.
Out of all her bird-like elation at this new-found freedom, freedom for her, the female, suddenly, without warning, dark revulsions struck her. Struck her, it would seem, in her deepest female self, almost in her womb. These revulsions sent her into a frenzy. She had sudden, mad loathings of Australia. And these made her all the more frenzied because of her former great, radiant hopes and her silvery realisations. What, must it all be taken back from her, all this glisten of paradise, this glisten of paradise, this silvery freedom like protoplasm of life? Was it to be revoked?
There was Richard, that hell-bird, preaching, preaching at her: “Don’t trust it. You can’t have this absolved sort of freedom. It’s an illusion. You can’t have this freedom absolved from control. It can’t be done. There is no stability. There will come a reaction and a devastation. Inevitable. You must have deep control from within. You must have a deep, dark weight of authority in your own soul. You must be most carefully, sternly controlled from within. You must be under the hand of the Lord. You can’t escape the dark hand of the Lord, not even in free Australia. You’ll get the devils turning on you if you try too much freedom. It can’t be done. Too much freedom means you absolve yourself from the hand of the Lord, and once you’re really absolved you fall a prey to devils, devils. You’ll see. All you white females raging for further freedom. Wait, wait till you’ve got it and see how the devils will bite you with unclean, reptile sort of mouths. Wait, you who love Australia and its freedom. Only let me leave you to the freedom, till it bites you with a sort of sewer-mouth, like all these rats. Only let me abandon you to this freedom. Only let me —.”
So he had preached at her, like a dog barking, barking senselessly. And oh, how it had annoyed her.
Yet gradually, quite apart from him, it had begun to happen to her. These hateful revulsions, when Australia had turned as it were UNCLEAN to her, with an unclean sort of malevolence. And her revulsions had possessed her. Then the death of Kangaroo. And now this blackness, this slew of water, this noise of hellish elements.
To Richard it was like being caged in with a sick tiger, to be shut up with Harriet in this watery cave of gloom. Like a sullen, sick tiger, she could hardly get her self to move, the weight of her revulsion was so deep upon her. She LOATHED Australia, with wet, dark repulsion. She was black, sick with chagrin. And she hated that barking white dog of a Richard, with his yap-yap-yapping about control and authority and the hand of the Lord. She had left Europe with her teeth set in hatred of Europe’s ancient encumbrance of authority and of the withered, repulsive weight of the Hand of the Lord, that old Jew, upon it. Undying hostility to old Europe, undying hope of the new, free lands. Especially this far Australia.
And now — and now — was the freedom all going to turn into dirty water? All the uncontrolled gentleness and uncontaminated freedom of Australia, was it going to turn and bite her like the ghastly bite of some unclean-mouthed reptile, an iguana, a great newt? Had it already bitten her?
She was sick with revulsion, she wanted to get out, away to America which is not so sloppy and lovey, but hard and greedy and domineering, perhaps, but not mushey-lovey.
These three days of dark wetness, slew, and wind finished her. On the second morning there was an abatement, and Richard rushed to the post. The boys, barefoot, bare-legged in the icy water, were running to school under mackintosh capes. Down came the rain in a wind suddenly like a great hose-pipe, and Richard got home a running, streaming pillar of water. Home into the dark room and the sulky tiger of Harriet.
The storm went on, black, all day, all night, and the next day the same, inside the house as well as out. Harriet sulked the more, like a frenzied sick tigress. The afternoon of the third day another abatement into light rain, so Richard pulled on thick boots and went out to the shore. His grass was a thin surface stream, and down the low cliffs, one cascade stream. The sea was enormous: wave after wave in immediate succession, raving yellow and crashing dull into the land. The yeast-spume was piled in hills against the cliffs, among the big rocks, and in swung the raving yellow water, in great dull blows under the land, hoarsely surging out of the dim yellow blank of the sea. Harriet looked at it for a few moments, shuddering and peering down like a sick tigress in a flood. Then she turned tail and rushed indoors.
Richard tried to walk under the cliffs. But the whole shore was ruined, changed: a whole mass of new rocks, a chaos of heaped boulders, a gurgle of rushing, clayey water, and heaps of collapsed earth.
On the fourth day the wind had sunk, the rain was only thin, the dark sky was breaking. Gradually the storm of the sky went down. But not the sea. Its great yellow fore-fringe was a snarl of wave after wave, unceasing. And the shore was a ruin. The beach seemed to have sunk or been swept away, the shore was a catastrophe of rocks and boulders. Richard scrambled along through the dank wetness to a bit of sand, where seaweed was piled like bushes, and he could more or less walk. But soon he came to a new obstacle. The creek, which formerly had sunk at the edge of the beach in a long pool, and left the sloping sand all free and beautiful, had now broken through, levelled the sand, and swept in a kind of snarling river to the snarling waves; across the cut-out sand. The fresh-water met the waves with a snarl, and sometimes pushed on into the sea, sometimes was shoved back and heaped up with a rattle of angry protest. Waters against waters.
The beach never recovered, during the Somers’ stay, the river never subsided into the sand, the sandy foreshore never came back. It was a rocky, boulder-heaped ruin with that stream for an impasse. Harriet would not go down to the sea any more. The waves still raved very high, they would not go back, and they lashed with a venomousness to the cliffs, to cut a man off. Richard would wander cold and alone on this inhospitable shore, looking for shells, out of the storm. And all the time the waves would lash up, and he would scramble out. It seemed to him female and vindictive. “Beastly water, beastly water, rolling up so high. Beastly water, beastly water, rolling up so high, breaking all the shells where they lie”— he crooned to himself, crooning a kind of war-croon, malevolent against the malevolence of this ocean.
Yet it was August, and spring was come, it was wattle-day in Sydney, the city full of yellow bloom of mimosa. Richard and Harriet went up to the United States Consul, to the shipping office: everything very easy. But he could not bear to be in Sydney any more. He could hear Kangaroo all the time.
It was August, and spring, and hot, hot sun in a blue sky. Only the sea would not, or could not return to its old beauties. Richard preferred to go inland. The wattle-trees and the camellia-trees were full in bloom in the bungalow gardens, birds flew quickly about in the sun, the morning was quick with spring, the afternoon already hot and drowsy with summer. Harriet, in her soul, had now left Australia for America, so she could look at this land with new, relieved eyes again. She never more passionately identified herself with it as at first.
Richard hired a little two-wheeled trap, called in Australia a sulky, with a little pony, to drive into the bush. Sometimes they had gone in a motor-car, but they both much preferred the little, comfortable sulky. There sat Harriet full and beaming, and the thin Richard beside her, like any Australian couple in a shabby sulky behind a shabby pony, trotting lazily under the gum-trees of the high-road and up the steep, steep, jungle-dense climb of the mountain to the pass.
Nothing is lovelier than to drive into the Australian bush in spring, on a clear day: and most days are clear and hot. Up the steep climb the tree-ferns and the cabbage-palms stood dark and unlighted as ever, among the great gums. But once at the top, away from the high-road and the sea-face, trotting on the yellow-brown sandy trail through the sunny, thinly scattered trees of the untouched bush, it was heaven. They splashed through a clear, clear stream, and walked up a bank into the nowhere, the pony peacefully marching.
The bush was in bloom, the wattles were out. Wattle, or mimosa, is the national flower of Australia. There are said to be thirty-two species. Richard found only seven as they wandered along. The little, pale, sulphur wattle with a reddish stem sends its lovely sprays so aerial out of the sand of the trail, only a foot or two high, but such a delicate, spring-like thing. The thorny wattle with its fuzzy pale balls tangles on the banks. Then beautiful heath-plants with small bells, like white heather, stand in tall, straight tufts, and above them the gold sprays of the intensely gold bush mimosa, with here and there, on long, thin stalks like hairs almost, beautiful blue flowers, with gold grains, three-petalled, like reed-flowers, and blue, blue with a touch of Australian darkness. Then comes a hollow, desolate bare place with empty greyness and a few dead, charred gum-trees, where there has been a bush-fire. At the side of this bare place great flowers, twelve feet high, like sticky dark lilies in bulb-buds at the top of the shaft, dark, blood-red. Then over another stream, and scattered bush once more, and the last queer, gold red bushes of the bottle-brush tree, like soft-bristly golden bottle-brushes standing stiffly up, and the queer black-boys on one black leg with a tuft of dark-green spears, sending up the high stick of a seed-stalk, much taller than a man. And here and there the gold bushes of wattle with their narrow dark leaves.
Richard turned and they plunged into the wild grass and strange bushes, following the stream. By the stream the mimosa was all gold, great gold bushes full of spring fire rising over your head, and the scent of the Australian spring, and the most ethereal of all golden bloom, the plumy, many-balled wattle, and the utter loneliness, the manlessness, the untouched blue sky overhead, the gaunt, lightless gum-trees rearing a little way off, and sound of strange birds, vivid ones of strange, brilliant birds that flit round. Save for that, and for some weird frog-like sound, indescribable, the age-unbroken silence of the Australian bush.
But it is wonderful, out of the sombreness of gum-trees, that seem the same, hoary for ever, and that are said to begin to wither from the centre the moment they are mature — out of the hollow bush of gum-trees and silent heaths, all at once, in spring, the most delicate feathery yellow of plumes and plumes and plumes and trees and bushes of wattle, as if angels had flown right down out of the softest gold regions of heaven to settle here, in the Australian bush. And the perfume in all the air that might be heaven, and the unutterable stillness, save for strange bright birds and flocks of parrots, and the motionlessness, save for a stream and butterflies and some small brown bees. Yet a stillness, and a manlessness, and an elation, the bush flowering at the gates of heaven.
Somers and Harriet left the pony and clambered along the stream, past trees of the grey, feathery-leaved wattle, most sumptuous of all in soft gold in the sky, and bushes of the grey-hard, queer-leaved wattle, on to the thick green of strange trees narrowing into the water. The water slithered rushing over steep rocks. The two scrambled down, and along after the water, to an abrupt edge. There the water fell in a great roar down a solid rock, and broke and rushed into a round, dark pool, dark, still, fathomless, low down in a gruesome dark cup in the bush, with rocks coming up to the trees. In this tarn the stream disappeared. There was no outlet. Rock and bush shut it in. The river just dived into the ground.
It was a dark, frightening place, famous for snakes. Richard hoped the snakes were still sleeping. But there was a horror of them in the air, rising from the tangled undergrowth, from under the fallen trees, the gum-trees that crashed down into the great ferns, eaten out by white ants.
In this place already the Christmas bells were blooming, like some great heath with hanging, bright red bells tipped with white. Other more single bell-flowers, a little bit like foxgloves, but stiff and sharp. All the flowers stiff, sharp, like crystals of colour come opaque out of the sombre, stiff, bristly bush plants.
Harriet had armfuls of bloom, gold plumage of many branches of different wattles, and the white heather, the scarlet bells, with the deep-blue reed-blobs. The sulky with all the bloom looked like a corner of paradise. And as they trotted home through the bush evening was coming, the gold sun slanting. But Richard kept jumping out from among the flowers, to plunge into the brake for a new flower. And the little pony looked round watching him impatiently and displeased. But it was a gentle, tolerant, Australian little beast, with untold patience. Only Harriet was frightened of the coming dusk.
So at length they were slipping down the steep slopes again, between the dense, creeper-tangled jungle and tree ferns, dark, chilly. They passed a family moving from nowhere to nowhere, two colts trotting beside the wagon. And they came out at last at the bottom, to the lost, flickering little township, at nightfall.
At home, with all the house full of blossom, but fluffy gold wattle-bloom, they sat at tea in the pleasant room, the bright fire burning, eating boiled eggs and toast. And they looked at one another — and Richard uttered the unspoken thought:
“Do you wish you were staying?”
“I— I,” stammered Harriet, “if I had THREE lives, I’d wish to stay. It’s the loveliest thing I’ve EVER known.”
“I know,” he answered, laughing. “If one could live a hundred years. But since one has only a short time —.”
They were both silent. The flowers there in the room were like angel-presences, something out of heaven. The bush! The wonderful Australia.
Yet the day came to go: to give up the keys, and leave the lonely, bare Coo-ee to the next comers. Even the sea had gone flowery again at last. And everybody was so simple, so kindly, at the departure. Harriet felt she would leave behind her forever something of herself, in that Coo-ee home. And he knew that one of his souls would stand forever out on those rocks beyond the jetty, towards Bulli, advanced into the sea, with the dark magic of the tor standing just inland.
The journey to Sydney was so spring-warm and beautiful, in the fresh morning. The bush now and then glowed gold, and there were almond and apricot trees near the little wooden bungalows, and by the railway unknown flowers, magenta and yellow and white, among the rocks. The frail, wonderful Australian spring, coming out of all the gummy hardness and sombreness of the bush.
Sydney, and the warm harbour. They crossed over once more in the blue afternoon. Kangaroo dead. Sydney lying on its many-lobed blue harbour, in the Australian spring. The many people, all seeming dissolved in the blue air. Revolution — nothingnesses. Nothing could ever matter.
On the last morning Victoria and Jaz’s wife came to see the Somers off. The ship sailed at ten. The sky was all sun, the boat reared her green paint and red funnel to the sun. Down below in the dark shadow of the wharf stood all those who were to be left behind, saying good-bye, standing down in the shadow under the ship and the wharf, their faces turned up to the passengers who hung over the rail. A whole crowd of people down on the wharf, with white uplifted faces, and one little group of quiet Chinese.
Everybody had bought streamers, rolls of coloured paper ribbon, and now the passengers leaning over the rail of the lower and middle decks tossed the unwinding rolls to their friends below. So this was the last tie, this ribbon of coloured paper. Somers had a yellow and a red one: Victoria held the end of the red streamer, Jaz’s wife the end of the yellow. Harriet had blue and green streamers. And from the side of the ship a whole glittering tangle of these colours connecting the departing with the remaining, a criss-cross of brilliant colour that seemed to glitter like a rainbow in the beams of the sun, as it rose higher, shining in between the ship and the wharf shed, touching the faces of the many people below.
The gangway was hoisted — the steamer gave long hoots. Only the criss-crossing web of brilliant streamers went from the hands of the departing to the hands of those who would be left behind. There was a sort of silence: the calling seemed to die out. And already before the cables were cast loose, the gulf seemed to come. Richard held fast to the two streamers, and looked down at the faces of the two women, who held the other ends of his paper threads. He felt a deep pang in his heart, leaving Australia, that strange country that a man might lose so hopelessly. He felt another heart-string going to break like the streamers, leaving Australia, leaving his own British connection. The darkness that comes over the heart at the moment of departure darkens the eyes too, and the last scene is remote, remote, detached inside a darkness.
So now, when the cables were cast loose, and the ship slowly left the side of the wharf and drew gradually towards the easier waters of the harbour, there was a little gulf of water between the ship and the wharf. The streamers lengthened out, they glittered and twinkled across the space almost like music, so many-coloured. And then the engines were going, and the crowd on the wooden quay began to follow slowly, slowly, holding the frail streamers carefully, like the ends of a cloud, following slowly down the quay as the ship melted from shadow to the sun beyond.
One by one the streamers broke and fluttered loose and fell bright and dead on the water. The slow crowd, slow as a funeral, was at the end, the far end of the quay, holding the last streamers. But the ship inexorably drifted out, and every coloured strip was broken: the crowd stood alone at the end of the wharf, the side of the vessel was fluttering with bright, broken ends.
So, it was time to take out handkerchiefs and wave across space. Few people wept. Somers waved and waved his orange silk kerchief in the blue air. Farewell! Farewell! Farewell Victoria and Jaz’s wife, farewell Australia, farewell Britain and the great Empire. Farewell! Farewell! The last streamers blowing away, like broken attachments, broken heartstrings. The crowd on the wharf gone tiny in the sun, and melting away as the ship turned.
Richard watched the Observatory go by: then the Circular Quay, with all its ferry-wharves, and a Nippon steamer lying at her berth, and a well-known, big buff and black P. and O. boat at the P. and O. wharf, looking so like India. Then that was gone too, and the Governor’s Palace, and the castellated Conservatorium of Music on its hill, where Richard had first seen Jack — the Palace Gardens, and the blue inlet where the Australian “Fleet” lay comfortably rusting. Then they drifted across harbour, nearer to the wild-seeming slope, like bush, where the Zoo is. And then they began to wait, to hang round.
There ahead was the open gate of the harbour, the low Heads with the South Lighthouse, and the Pacific beyond, breaking white. On the left was Manly, where Harriet had lost her yellow scarf. And then the tram going to Narrabeen, where they had first seen Jaz. Behind was the great lobed harbour, so blue, and Sydney rather inconspicuous on the south hills, with its one or two sky-scrapers. And already, the blue water all round, and a thing of the past.
It was midday before they got out of the Heads, out of the harbour into the open sea. The sun was hot, the wind cold. There were not very many passengers in the first class: and nobody who looked possible to the Somers pair. Richard sat in the sun watching the dark coast of Australia, so sombre, receding. Harriet watched the two seamen casting rubbish overboard: such a funny assortment of rubbish. The iron sank in the deep, dark water, the wood and straw and cardboard drearily floated. The low Sydney Heads were not far off.
Lovat watched till he could see the dark of the mountain, far away, behind Coo-ee. He was almost sure of the shape. He thought of the empty house — the sunny grass in front — the sunny foreshore with its new rocks — the township behind, the dark tor, the bush, the Australian spring. The sea seemed dark and cold and inhospitable.
It was only four days to New Zealand, over a cold, dark, inhospitable sea.
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Last updated Saturday, May 23, 2015 at 22:23