THE Somers-Callcott acquaintance did not progress very rapidly, after the affair of the dahlias. Mrs. Callcott asked Mrs. Somers across to look at their cottage, and Mrs. Somers went. Then Mrs. Somers asked Mrs. Callcott back again. But both times Mr. Somers managed to be out of the way, and managed to cast an invisible frost over the rencontre. He was not going to be dragged in, no, he was not. He very much wanted to borrow a pair of pincers and a chopper for an hour, to pull out a few nails, and to split his little chunks of kindling that the dealer had sent too thick. And the Callcotts were very ready to lend anything, if they were only asked for it. But no, Richard Lovat wasn’t going to ask. Neither would he buy a chopper, because the travelling expenses had reduced him to very low water. He preferred to wrestle with the chunks of jarrah every morning.
Mrs. Somers and Mrs. Callcott continued, however, to have a few friendly words across the fence. Harriet learned that Jack was foreman in a motor-works place, that he had been wounded in the jaw in the war, that the surgeons had not been able to extract the bullet, because there was nothing for it to “back up against”— and so he had carried the chunk of lead in his gizzard for ten months, till suddenly it had rolled into his throat and he had coughed it out. The jeweller had wanted Mrs. Callcott to have it mounted in a brooch or a hatpin. It was a round ball of lead, from a shell, as big as a marble, and weighing three or four ounces. Mrs. Callcott had recoiled from this suggestion, so an elegant little stand had been made, like a little lamp-post on a polished wood base, and the black little globe of lead dangled by a fine chain like an arc-lamp from the top of the toy lamp-post. It was now a mantelpiece ornament.
All this Harriet related to the indignant Lovat, though she wisely suppressed the fact that Mrs. Callcott had suggested that “perhaps Mr. Somers might like to have a look at it.”
Lovat was growing more used to Australia — or to the “cottage” in Murdoch Road, and the view of the harbour from the tub-top of his summer-house. You couldn’t call that all “Australia”— but then one man can’t bite off a continent in a mouthful, and you must start to nibble somewhere. He and Harriet took numerous trips in the ferry steamers to the many nooks and corners of the harbour. One day their ferry steamer bumped into a collier that was heading for the harbour outlet — or rather, their ferry boat headed across the nose of the collier, so the collier bumped into them and had his nose put out of joint. There was a considerable amount of yelling, but the ferry boat slid flatly away towards Manly, and Harriet’s excitement subsided.
It was Sunday, and a lovely sunny day of Australian winter. Manly is the bathing suburb of Sydney — one of them. You pass quite close to the wide harbour gate, The Heads, on the ferry steamer. Then you land on the wharf, and walk up the street, like a bit of Margate with sea-side shops and restaurants, till you come out on a promenade at the end, and there is the wide Pacific rolling in on the yellow sand: the wide fierce sea, that makes all the built-over land dwindle into non-existence. At least there was a heavy swell on, so the Pacific belied its name and crushed the earth with its rollers. Perhaps the heavy, earth-despising swell is part of its pacific nature.
Harriet, of course, was enraptured, and declared she could not be happy till she had lived beside the Pacific. They bought food and ate it by the sea. Then Harriet was chilled, so they went to a restaurant for a cup of soup. When they were again in the street Harriet realized that she hadn’t got her yellow scarf: her big, silky yellow scarf that was so warm and lovely. She declared she had left it in the eating-house, and they went back at once for it. The girls in the eating-house — the waitresses — said, in their cheeky Cockney Australian that they “hedn’t seen it”, and that the “next people who kyme arfter must ’ev tyken it”.
Anyhow, it was gone — and Harriet furious, feeling as if there had been a thief in the night. In this unhappy state of affairs Somers suggested they should sit on the tram-car and go somewhere. They sat on the tram-car and ran for miles along a coast with ragged bush loused over with thousands of small promiscuous bungalows, built of everything from patchwork of kerosene tin up to fine red brick and stucco, like Margate. Not far off the Pacific boomed. But fifty yards inland started these bits of swamp, and endless promiscuity of “cottages”.
The tram took them five or six miles, to the terminus. This was the end of everywhere, with new “stores”— that is, flyblown shops with corrugated iron roofs — and with a tramshelter, and little house-agents’ booths plastered with signs — and more “cottages”; that is, bungalows of corrugated iron or brick — and bits of swamp or “lagoon” where the sea had got in and couldn’t get out. The happy couple had a drink of sticky aerated waters in one of the “stores”, then walked up a wide sand-road dotted on either side with small bungalows, beyond the backs of which lay a whole aura of rusty tin cans chucked over the back fence. They came to the ridge of sand, and again the pure, long-rolling Pacific.
“I love the sea,” said Harriet.
“I wish,” said Lovat, “it would send a wave about fifty feet high round the whole coast of Australia.”
“You are so bad-tempered,” said Harriet. “Why don’t you see the lovely things!”
“I do, by contrast.”
So they sat on the sands, and he peeled pears and buried the peel in the yellow sand. It was winter, and the shore was almost deserted. But the sun was warm as an English May.
Harriet felt she absolutely must live by the sea, so they wandered along a wide, rutted space of deep sand, looking at the “cottages” on either side. They had impossible names. But in themselves, many of them were really nice. Yet there they stood like so many forlorn chicken-houses, each on its own oblong patch of land, with a fence between it and its neighbour. There was something indescribably weary and dreary about it. The very ground the houses stood on seemed weary and drabbled, almost asking for rusty tin cans. And so many pleasant little bungalows set there in an improvised road, wide and weary — and then the effort had lapsed. The tin shacks were almost a relief. They did not call for geraniums and lobelias, as did the pretty Hampstead Garden Suburb “cottages”. And these latter might call, but they called in vain. They got bits of old paper and tins.
Yet Harriet absolutely wanted to live by the sea, so they stopped before each bungalow that was to be let furnished. The estate agents went in for abbreviations. On the boards at the corner of the fences it said either “4 Sale” or “2 Let”. Probably there was a colonial intention of jocularity. But it was almost enough for Somers. He would have died rather than have put himself into one of those cottages.
The road ended on the salt pool where the sea had ebbed in. Across was a state reserve — a bit of aboriginal Australia, with gum trees and empty spaces beyond the flat salt waters. Near at hand a man was working away, silently loading a boat with beach-sand, upon the lagoon. To the right the sea was rolling on the shore, and spurting high on some brown rocks. Two men in bathing suits were running over the spit of sand from the lagoon to the surf, where two women in “waders”, those rubber paddling-drawers into which we bundle our children at the seaside, were paddling along the fringe of the foam. A blond young man wearing a jacket over his bathing suit walked by with two girls. He had huge massive legs, astonishing. And near at hand Somers saw another youth lying on the warm sand-hill in the sun. He had rolled in the dry sand while he was wet, so he was hardly distinguishable. But he lay like an animal on his face in the sun, and again Somers wondered at the thick legs. They seemed to run to leg, these people. Three boys, one a lad of fifteen or so, came out of the warm lagoon in their bathing suits to roll in the sand and play. The big lad crawled on all fours and the little one rode on his back, and pitched off into the sand. They were extraordinarily like real young animals, mindless as opossums, lunging about.
This was Sunday afternoon. The sun was warm. The lonely man was just pushing off his boat on the lagoon. It sat deep in the water, half full of sand. Somers and Harriet lay on the sand-bank. Strange it was. And it HAD a sort of fascination. Freedom! That’s what they always say. “You feel free in Australia.” And so you do. There is a great relief in the atmosphere, a relief from tension, from pressure. An absence of control or will or form. The sky is open above you, and the air is open around you. Not the old closing-in of Europe.
But what then? The VACANCY of this freedom is almost terrifying. In the openness and the freedom this new chaos, this litter of bungalows and tin cans scattered for miles and miles, this Englishness all crumbled out into formlessness and chaos. Even the heart of Sydney itself — an imitation of London and New York, without any core or pith of meaning. Business going on full speed: but only because it is the other end of English and American business.
The absence of any inner meaning: and at the same time the great sense of vacant spaces. The sense of irresponsible freedom. The sense of do-as-you-please liberty. And all utterly uninteresting. What is more hopelessly uninteresting than accomplished liberty? Great swarming, teeming Sydney flowing out into these myriads of bungalows, like shallow waters spreading, undyked. And what then? Nothing. No inner life, no high command, no interest in anything, finally.
Somers turned over and shut his eyes. New countries were more problematic than old ones. One loved the sense of release from old pressure and old tight control, from the old world of water-tight compartments. This was Sunday afternoon, but with none of the surfeited dreariness of English Sunday afternoons. It was still a raw loose world. All Sydney would be out by the sea or in the bush, a roving, unbroken world. They all rushed from where they were to somewhere else, on holidays. And to-morrow they’d all be working away, with just as little meaning, working without any meaning, playing without any meaning; and yet quite strenuous at it all. It was just dazing. Even the rush for money had no real pip in it. They really cared very little for the power that money can give. And except for the sense of power, that had no real significance here. When all is said and done, even money is not much good where there is no genuine culture. Money is a means to rising to a higher, subtler, fuller state of consciousness, or nothing. And when you flatly don’t want a fuller consciousness, what good is your money to you? Just to chuck about and gamble with. Even money is a European invention — European and American. It has no real magic in Australia.
Poor Richard Lovat wearied himself to death struggling with the problem of himself, and calling it Australia. There was no actual need for him to struggle with Australia: he must have done it in the hedonistic sense, to please himself. But it wore him to rags.
Harriet sat up and began dusting the sand from her coat — Lovat did likewise. Then they rose to be going back to the tram-car. There was a motor-car standing on the sand of the road near the gate of the end house. The end house was called St. Columb, and Somers’ heart flew to Cornwall. It was quite a nice little place, standing on a bluff of sand sideways above the lagoon.
“I wouldn’t mind that,” said Harriet, looking up at St. Columb.
But Somers did not answer. He was shut against any of these humiliating little bungalows. “Love’s Harbour” he was just passing by, and it was “4 Sale”. It would be. He ploughed grimly through the sand. “Arcady”—“Stella Maris”—“Racketty-Coo.”
“I say!” called a voice from behind.
It was Mrs. Callcott running unevenly over the sand after them, the colour high in her cheeks. She wore a pale grey crepe de chine dress and grey suede shoes. Some distance behind her Jack Callcott was following, in his shirt-sleeves.
“Fancy you being here!” gasped Mrs. Callcott, and Harriet was so flustered she could only cry:
“Oh, how do you do!”— and effusively shake hands, as if she were meeting some former acquaintance on Piccadilly. The shaking hands quite put Mrs. Callcott off her track. She felt it almost an affront, and went red. Her husband sauntered up and put his hands in his pockets, to avoid mistakes.
“Ha, what are YOU doing here,” he said to the Somers pair. “Wouldn’t you like a cup of tea?”
Harriet glanced at Richard Lovat. He was smiling faintly.
“Oh, we should LOVE it,” she replied to Mr. Callcott. “But where? — have you got a house here?”
“My sister has the end house,” said he.
“Oh, but — will she want us?” cried Harriet, backing out.
The Callcotts stood for a moment silent.
“Yes, if you like to come,” said Jack. And it was evident he was aware of Somers’ desire to avoid contact.
“Well, I should be awfully grateful,” said Harriet. “Wouldn’t you, Lovat?”
“Yes,” he said, smiling to himself, feeling Jack’s manly touch of contempt for all this hedging.
So off they went to “St. Columb”. The sister was a brown-eyed Australian with a decided manner, kindly, but a little suspicious of the two newcomers. Her husband was a young Cornishman, rather stout and short and silent. He had his hair cut round at the back, in a slightly rounded line above a smooth, sunburnt, reddened nape of the neck. Somers found out later that this young Cornishman — his name was Trewhella — had married his brother’s widow. Mrs. Callcott supplied Harriet later on with all the information concerning her sister-in-law. The first Trewhella, Alfred John, had died two years ago, leaving his wife with a neat sum of money and this house, “St. Columb”, and also with a little girl named Gladys, who came running in shaking her long brown hair just after the Somers appeared. So the present Trewhellas were a newly-married couple. The present husband, William James, went round in a strange, silent fashion helping his wife Rose to prepare tea.
The bungalow was pleasant, a large room facing the sea, with verandahs and other little rooms opening off. There were many family photographs, and a framed medal and ribbon and letter praising the first Trewhella. Mrs. Trewhella was alert and watchful, and decided to be genteel. So the party sat around in the basket chairs and on the settles under the windows, instead of sitting at table for tea. And William James silently but willingly carried round the bread and butter and the cakes.
He was a queer young man, with an Irish-looking face, rather pale, an odd kind of humour in his grey eye and in the corners of his pursed mouth. But he spoke never a word. It was hard to decide his age — probably about thirty — a little younger than his wife. He seemed silently pleased about something — perhaps his marriage. Somers noticed that the whites of his eyes were rather bloodshot. He had been in Australia since he was a boy of fifteen — he had come with his brother — from St. Columb, near Newquay — St. Columb Major. So much Somers elicited.
“Well, how do you like Sydney?” came the inevitable question from Mrs. Trewhella.
“The harbour, I think, is wonderful,” came Somers’ invariable answer.
“It is a fine harbour, isn’t it. And Sydney is a fine town. Oh yes, I’ve lived there all my life.”
The conversation languished. Callcott was silent, and William James seemed as if he were never anything else. Even the little girl fluttered into a whisper and went still again. Everybody was a little embarrassed, rather stiff: too genteel, or not genteel enough. And the men seemed absolute logs.
“You don’t think much of Australia, then?” said Jack to Somers.
“Why,” answered the latter, “how am I to judge! I haven’t even seen the fringe of it.”
“Oh, it’s mostly fringe,” said Jack. “But it hasn’t made a good impression on you?”
“I don’t know yet. My feelings are mixed. The COUNTRY seems to me to have a fascination — strange —.”
“But you don’t take to the Aussies, at first sight. Bit of a collision between their aura and yours,” smiled Jack.
“Maybe that’s what it is,” said Somers. “That’s a useful way of putting it. I can’t help my aura colliding, can I?”
“Of course you can’t. And if it’s a tender sort of aura, of course it feels the bump.”
“Oh, don’t talk about it,” cried Harriet. “He must be just one big bump, by the way he grumbles.”
They all laughed — perhaps a trifle uneasily.
“I thought so,” said Jack. “What made you come here? Thought you’d like to write about it?”
“I thought I might like to live here — and write here,” replied Somers smiling.
“Write about the bushrangers and the heroine lost in the bush and wandering into a camp of bullies?” said Jack.
“Maybe,” said Somers.
“Do you mind if I ask you what sort of things you do write?” said Jack, with some delicacy.
“Oh — poetry — essays.”
“Essays about what?”
“Oh — rubbish mostly.”
There was a moment’s pause.
“Oh, Lovat, don’t be so silly. You KNOW you don’t think your essays rubbish,” put in Harriet. “They’re about life, and democracy, and equality, and all that sort of thing,” Harriet explained.
“Oh, yes?” said Jack. “I’d like to read some.”
“Well,” hesitated Harriet, “He can lend you a volume — you’ve got some with you, haven’t you?” she added, turning to Somers.
“I’ve got one,” admitted that individual, looking daggers at her.
“Well, you’ll lend it to Mr. Callcott, won’t you?”
“If he wants it. But it will only bore him.”
“I might rise up to it, you know,” said Jack laconically, “if I bring all my mental weight to bear on it.”
Somers flushed, and laughed at the contradiction in metaphor.
“It’s not the loftiness,” he said, rather amused. “It’s that people just don’t care to hear some things.”
“Well, let me try,” said Jack. “We’re a new country — and we’re out to learn.”
“That’s exactly what we’re not,” broke out William James, with a Cornish accent and a blurt of a laugh. “We’re out to show to everybody that we know everything there is to be known.”
“That’s some of us,” said Jack.
“And most of us,” said William James.
“Have it your own way, boy. But let us speak for the minority. And there’s a minority that knows we’ve got to learn a big lesson — and that’s willing to learn it.”
Again there was silence. The women seemed almost effaced.
“There’s one thing,” thought Somers to himself, “when these Colonials DO speak seriously, they speak like men, not like babies.” He looked up at Jack.
“It’s the world that’s got to learn a lesson,” he said. “Not only Australia.” His tone was acid and sinister. And he looked with his hard, pale blue eyes at Callcott. Callcott’s eyes, brown and less concentrated, less hard, looked back curiously at the other man.
“Possibly it is,” he said. “But my job is Australia.”
Somers watched him. Callcott had a pale, clean-shaven, lean face with close-shut lips. But his lips weren’t bitten in until they just formed a slit, as they so often are in Colonials. And his eyes had a touch of mystery, of aboriginal darkness.
“Do you care very much for Australia?” said Somers, a little wistfully.
“I believe I do,” said Jack. “But if I was out of a job like plenty of other unlucky diggers, I suppose I should care more about getting a job.”
“But you care very much about your Australia?”
“My Australia? Yes, I own about seven acres of it, all told. I suppose I care very much about that. I pay my taxes on it, all right.”
“No, but the future of Australia.”
“You’ll never see me on a platform shouting about it.”
The Lovats said they must be going.
“If you like to crowd in,” said Jack, “we can take you in the car. We can squeeze in Mr. Somers in front, and there’ll be plenty of room for the others at the back, if Gladys sits on her Dad’s knee.”
This time Somers accepted at once. He felt the halting refusals were becoming ridiculous.
They left at sunset. The west, over the land, was a clear gush of light up from the departed sun. The east, over the Pacific, was a tall concave of rose-coloured clouds, a marvellous high apse. Now the bush had gone dark and spectral again, on the right hand. You might still imagine inhuman presences moving among the gum trees. And from time to time, on the left hand, they caught sight of the long green rollers of the Pacific, with the star-white foam, and behind that the dusk-green sea glimmered over with smoky rose, reflected from the eastern horizon where the bank of flesh-rose colour and pure smoke-blue lingered a long time, like magic, as if the sky’s rim were cooling down. It seemed to Somers characteristic of Australia, this far-off flesh-rose bank of colour on the sky’s horizon, so tender and unvisited, topped with the smoky, beautiful blueness. And then the thickness of the night’s stars overhead, and one star very brave in the last effulgence of sunset, westward over the continent. As soon as night came, all the raggletaggle of amorphous white settlements disappeared, and the continent of the Kangaroo reassumed its strange, unvisited glamour, a kind of virgin sensual aloofness.
Somers sat in front between Jack and Victoria Callcott, because he was so slight. He made himself as small as he could, like the ham in the sandwich. When he looked her way, he found Victoria watching him under her lashes, and as she met his eyes, she flared into a smile that filled him with wonder. She had such a charming, innocent look, like an innocent girl, naive and a little gawky. Yet the strange exposed smile she gave him in the dusk. It puzzled him to know what to make of it. Like an offering — and yet innocent. Perhaps like the sacred prostitutes of the temple: acknowledgement of the sacredness of the act. He chose not to think of it, and stared away across the bonnet of the car at the fading land.
Queer, thought Somers, this girl at once sees perhaps the most real me, and most women take me for something I am not at all. Queer to be recognized at once, as if one were of the same family.
He had to admit that he was flattered also. She seemed to see the wonder in him. And she had none of the European women’s desire to make a conquest of him, none of that feminine rapacity which is so hateful in the old world. She seemed like an old Greek girl bringing an offering to the altar of the mystic Bacchus. The offering of herself.
Her husband sat steering the car and smoking his short pipe in silence. He seemed to have something to think about. At least he had considerable power of silence, a silence which made itself felt. Perhaps he knew his wife much better than anyone else. At any rate he did not feel it necessary to keep an eye on her. If she liked to look at Somers with a strange, exposed smile, that was her affair. She could do as she liked in that direction, so far as he, Jack Callcott, was concerned. She was his wife: she knew it, and he knew it. And it was quite established and final. So long as she did not betray what was between her and him, as husband and wife, she could do as she liked with the rest of herself. And he could, quite rightly, trust her to be faithful to that undefinable relation which subsisted between them as man and wife. He didn’t pretend and didn’t want to occupy the whole field of her consciousness.
And in just the same way, that bond which connected himself with her, he would always keep unbroken for his part. But that did not mean that he was sworn body and soul to his wife. Oh no. There was a good deal of him which did not come into the marriage bond, and with all this part of himself he was free to make the best he could, according to his own idea. He loved her, quite sincerely, for her naive sophisticated innocence which allowed him to be unknown to her, except in so far as they were truly and intimately related. It was the innocence which has been through the fire, and knows its own limitations. In the same way he quite consciously chose not to know anything more about her than just so much as entered into the absolute relationship between them. He quite definitely did not want to absorb her, or to occupy the whole field of her nature. He would trust her to go her own way, only keeping her to the pledge that was between them. What this pledge consisted in he did not try to define. It was something indefinite: the field of contact between their two personalities. Where their two personalities met and joined, they were one, and pledged to permanent fidelity. But that part in each of them which did not belong to the other was free from all enquiry or even from knowledge. Each silently consented to leave the other in large part unknown, unknown in word and deed and very being. They didn’t WANT to know — too much knowledge would be like shackles.
Such marriage is established on a very subtle sense of honour and of individual integrity. It seems as if each race and continent has its own marriage instinct. And the instinct that develops in Australia will certainly not be the same as the instinct that develops in America. And each people must follow its own instinct, if it is to live, not matter whether the marriage law be universal or not.
The Callcotts had come to no agreement, verbally, as to their marriage. They had not thought it out. They were Australians, of strongly, subtly-developed desire for freedom, and with considerable indifference to old formulae and the conventions based thereon. So they took their stand instinctively and calmly. Jack had defined his stand as far as he found necessary. If his wife was good to him and satisfied him in so far as HE went, then he was pledged to trust her to do as she liked outside his ken, outside his range. He would make a cage for nobody. This he openly propounded to his mates: to William James, for example, and later to Somers. William James said yes, but thought the more. Somers was frankly disturbed, not liking the thought of applying the same prescription to his own marriage.
They put down the Trewhellas at their house in North Sydney, and went on to Murdoch Road over the ferry. Jack had still to take the car down to the garage in town. Victoria said she would prepare the high tea which takes the place of dinner and supper in Australia, against his return. So Harriet boldly invited them to this high tea — a real substantial meal in her own house. Victoria was to help her prepare it, and Jack was to come straight back to Torestin. Victoria was as pleased as a lamb with two tails over this arrangement, and went in to change her dress.
Somers knew why Harriet had launched this invitation. It was because she had had a wonderfully successful cooking morning. Like plenty of other women Harriet had learned to cook during war-time, and now she loved it, once in a while. This had been one of the whiles. Somers had stoked the excellent little stove, and peeled the apples and potatoes and onions and pumpkin, and looked after the meat and the sauces, while Harriet had lashed out in pies and tarts and little cakes and baked custard. She now surveyed her prize Beeton shelf with love, and began to whisk up a mayonnaise for potato salad.
Victoria appeared in a pale gauze dress of pale pink with little dabs of gold — a sort of tea-party dress — and with her brown hair loosely knotted behind, and with innocent sophistication pulled a bit untidy over her womanly forehead, she looked winsome. Her colour was very warm, and she was gawkily excited. Harriet put on an old yellow silk frock, and Somers changed into a dark suit. For tea there was cold roast pork with first-class brown crackling on it, and potato salad, beetroot, and lettuce, and apple chutney; then a dressed lobster — or crayfish, very good, pink and white; and then apple pie and custard-tarts and cakes and a dish of apples and passion fruits and oranges, a pine-apple and some bananas: and of course big cups of tea, breakfast-cups.
Victoria and Harriet were delighted, Somers juggled with colour-schemes on the table, the one central room in the bungalow was brilliantly lighted, and the kettle sang on the hearth. After months of India, with all the Indian decorum and two silent men-servants waiting at table: and after the old-fashioned gentility of the P. and O. steamer, Somers and Harriet felt this show rather a come-down maybe, but still good fun. Victoria felt it was almost “society”. They waited for Jack.
Jack arrived bending forward rather in the doorway, a watchful look on his pale, clean-shaven face, and that atmosphere of silence about him which is characteristic of many Australians.
“Kept you waiting?” he asked.
“We were just ready for you,” said Harriet.
Jack had to carve the meat, because Somers was so bad at it and didn’t like doing it. Harriet poured the great cups of tea. Callcott looked with a quick eye round the table to see exactly what he wanted to eat, and Victoria peeped through her lashes to see exactly how Harriet behaved. As Harriet always behaved in the vaguest manner possible, and ate her sweets with her fish-fork and her soup with her pudding spoon, a study of her table manners was not particularly profitable.
To Somers it was like being back twenty-five years, back in an English farm-house in the Midlands, at Sunday tea. He had gone a long way from the English Midlands, and got out of the way of them. Only to find them here again, with hardly a change. To Harriet it was all novel and fun. But Richard Lovat felt vaguely depressed.
The pleasant heartiness of the life he had known as a boy now depressed him. He hated the promiscuous mixing in of all the company, the lack of reserve in manner. He had preferred India for that: the gulf between the native servants and the whites kept up a sort of tone. He had learned to be separate, to talk across a slight distance. And that was an immense relief to him, because it was really more his nature. Now he found himself soused again in the old familiar jolly and cosy, spirit of his childhood and boyhood, and he was depressed.
Jack, of course, had a certain reserve. But of a different sort. Not a physical reserve. He did keep his coat on, but he might as well have sat there in his shirt-sleeves. His very silence was, so to speak, in its shirt-sleeves.
There was a curious battle in silence going on between the two men. To Harriet, all this familiar shirt-sleeve business was just fun, the charades. In her most gushing genial moments she was still only masquerading inside her class — the “upper” class of Europe. But Somers was of the people himself, and he had that alert INSTINCT of the common people, the instinctive knowledge of what his neighbour was wanting and thinking, and the instinctive necessity to answer. With the other classes, there is a certain definite breach between individual and individual, and not much goes across except what is intended to go across. But with the common people, and with most Australians, there is no breach. The communication is silent and involuntary, the give and take flows like waves from person to person, and each one knows: unless he is foiled by speech. Each one knows in silence, reciprocates in silence, and the talk as a rule just babbles on, on the surface. This is the common people among themselves. But there is this difference in Australia. Each individual seems to feel himself pledged to put himself aside, to keep himself at least half out of count. The whole geniality is based on a sort of code of “You put yourself aside, and I’ll put myself aside.” This is done with a watchful will: a sort of duel. And above this, a great geniality. But the continual holding most of himself aside, out of count, makes a man go blank in his withheld self. And that, too, is puzzling.
Probably this is more true of the men than of the women. Probably women change less, from land to land, play fewer “code” tricks with themselves. At any rate, Harriet and Victoria got on like a house on fire, and as they were both beautiful women, and both looking well as they talked, everything seemed splendid. But Victoria was really paying just a wee bit of homage all the time, homage to the superior class.
As for the two men: Somers SEEMED a gentleman, and Jack didn’t want to be a gentleman. Somers SEEMED a real gentleman. And yet Jack recognized in him at once the intuitive response which only subsists, normally, between members of the same class: between the common people. Perhaps the best of the upper classes have the same intuitive understanding of their fellow-man: but there is always a certain reserve in the response, a preference for the non-intuitive forms of communication, for deliberate speech. What is not said is supposed not to exist: that is almost code of honour with the other classes. With the true common people, only that which is NOT said is of any vital significance.
Which brings us back to Jack and Somers. The one thing Somers had kept, and which he possessed in a very high degree, was the power of intuitive communication with others. Much as he wanted to be alone, to stand clear from the weary business of unanimity with everybody, he had never chosen really to suspend this power of intuitive response: not till he was personally offended, and then it switched off and became a blank wall. But the smallest act of real kindness would call it back to life again.
Jack had been generous, and Somers liked him. Therefore he could not withhold his soul from responding to him, in a measure. And Jack, what did he want? He saw this other little fellow, a gentleman, apparently, and yet different, not exactly a gentleman. And he wanted to know him, to talk to him. He wanted to get at the bottom of him. For there was something about Somers — he might be a German, he might be a bolshevist, he might be anything, and he MUST be something, because he was different, a gentleman and not a gentleman. He was different because, when he looked at you, he knew you more or less in your own terms, not as an outsider. He looked at you as if he were one of your own sort. He answered you intuitively as if he were one of your own sort. And yet he had the speech and the clear definiteness of a gentleman. Neither one thing nor the other. And he seemed to know a lot, Jack was sure that Somers knew a lot, and could tell him a lot, if he would but let it out.
If he had been just a gentleman, of course, Jack would never have thought of wanting him to open out. Because a gentleman has nothing to open towards a man of the people. He can only talk, and the working man can only listen across a distance. But seeing that this little fellow was born a gentleman and not a gentleman; seeing he was just like one of yourselves, and yet had all the other qualities of a gentleman: why, you might just as well get the secret out of him.
Somers knew the attitude, and was not going to be drawn. He talked freely and pleasantly enough — but never as Jack wanted. He knew well enough what Jack wanted: which was that they should talk together as man to man — as pals, you know, with a little difference. But Somers would never be pals with any man. It wasn’t in his nature. He talked pleasantly and familiarly — fascinating to Victoria, who sat with her brown eyes watching him, while she clung to Jack’s arm on the sofa. When Somers was talking and telling, it was fascinating, and his quick, mobile face changed and seemed full of magic. Perhaps it was difficult to locate any definite SOMERS, any one individual in all this ripple of animation and communication. The man himself seemed lost in the bright aura of his rapid consciousness. This fascinated Victoria: she of course imagined some sort of God in the fiery bush. But Jack was mistrustful. He mistrusted all this bright quickness. If there was an individual inside the brightly-burning bush of consciousness, let him come out, man to man. Even if it was a sort of God in the bush, let him come out, man to man. Otherwise let him be considered a sort of mountebank, a show-man, too clever by half.
Somers knew pretty well Jack’s estimation of him. Jack, sitting there smoking his little short pipe, with his lovely wife in her pink georgette frock hanging on to his side, and the watchful look on his face, was the manly man, the consciously manly man. And he had just a bit of contempt for the brilliant little fellow opposite, and he felt just a bit uneasy because the same little fellow laughed at his “manliness”, knowing it didn’t go right through. It takes more than “manliness” to make a man.
Somers’ very brilliance had an overtone of contempt in it, for the other man. The women, of course, not demanding any orthodox “manliness”, didn’t mind the knock at Jack’s particular sort. And to them Somers’ chief fascination lay in the fact that he was never “pals”. They were too deeply women to care for the sham of pals.
So Jack went home after a whisky and soda with his nose a little bit out of joint. The little man was never going to be pals, that was the first fact to be digested. And he couldn’t be despised as a softy, he was too keen; he just laughed at the other man’s attempt at despising him. Yet Jack did want to get at him, somehow or other.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:57