“What do you think of things in general?” Callcott asked of Somers one evening, a fortnight or so after their first encounter. They were getting used to one another: and they liked one another, in a separated sort of way. When neither of them was on the warpath, they were quite happy together. They played chess together now and then, a wild and haphazard game. Somers invented quite brilliant attacks, and rushed in recklessly, occasionally wiping Jack off the board in a quarter of an hour. But he was very careless of his defence. The other man played at this. To give Callcott justice, he was more accustomed to draughts than to chess, and Somers had never played draughts, not to remember. So Jack played a draughts game, aiming at seizing odd pieces. It wasn’t Somers’ idea of chess, so he wouldn’t take the trouble to defend himself. His men fell to this ambush, and he lost the game. Because at the end, when he had only one or two pieces to attack, Jack was very clever at cornering, having the draughts moves off by heart.
“But it isn’t chess,” protested Somers.
“You’ve lost, haven’t you?” said Jack.
“Yes. And I shall always lose that way. I can’t piggle with those draughtsmen dodges.”
“Ah well, if I can win that way, I have to do it. I don’t know the game as well as you do,” said Jack. And there was a quiet sense of victory, “done you down”, in his tones. Somers required all his dignity not to become angry. But he shrugged his shoulders.
Sometimes, too, if he suggested a game, Callcott would object that he had something he must do. Lovat took the slight rebuff without troubling. Then an hour or an hour and a half later, Callcott would come tapping at the door, and would enter saying:
“Well, if you are ready for a game.”
And Lovat would unsuspectingly acquiesce. But on these occasions Jack had been silently, secretly accumulating his forces; there was a silence, almost a stealth in his game. And at the same time his bearing was soft, as it were submissive, and Somers was put quite off his guard. He began to play with his usual freedom. And then Jack wiped the floor with his little neighbour: simply wiped the floor with him, and left him gasping. One, two, three games — it was the same every time.
“But I can’t see the board,” cried Somers, startled. “I can hardly distinguish black from white.”
He was really distressed. It was true what he said. He was as if stupefied, as if some drug had been injected straight into his brain. For his life he could not gather his consciousness together — not till he realised the state he was in. And then he refused to try. Jack gave a quiet little laugh. There was on his face a subtle little smile of satisfaction. He had done his high-flying opponent down. He was the better man.
After the first evening that this had taken place, Somers was much more wary of his neighbour, much less ready to open towards him than he had been. HE NEVER AGAIN INVITED JACK TO A GAME OF CHESS. And when Callcott suggested a game, Somers played, but coldly, without the recklessness and the laughter which were the chief charm of his game. And Jack was once more snubbed, put back into second place. Then once he was reduced, Somers began to relent, and the old guerilla warfare started again.
The moment Somers heard this question of Jack’s: “What do you think of things in general?”— he went on his guard.
“The man is trying to draw me, to fool me,” he said to himself. He knew by a certain quiet, almost sly intention in Jack’s voice, and a certain deference in his bearing. It was this false deference he was most wary of. This was the Judas approach.
“How in general?” he asked. “Do you mean the cosmos?”
“No,” said Jack, foiled in his first move. He had been through the Australian high-school course, and was accustomed to think for himself. Over a great field he was quite indifferent to thought, and hostile to consciousness. It seemed to him more manly to be unconscious, even blank, to most of the great questions. But on his own subjects, Australian politics, Japan, and machinery, he thought straight and manly enough. And when he met a man whose being puzzled him, he wanted to get at the bottom of that, too. He looked up at Somers with a searching, penetrating, inimical look, that he tried to cover with an appearance of false deference. For he was always aware of the big empty spaces of his own consciousness; like his country, a vast empty “desert” at the centre of him.
“No,” he repeated. “I mean the world — economics and politics. The welfare of the world.”
“It’s no good asking me,” said Somers. “Since the war burst my bubble of humanity I’m a pessimist, a black pessimist about the present human world.”
“You think it’s going to the bad?” said Jack, still drawing him with the same appearance of deference, of wanting to hear.
“Yes, I do. Faster or slower. Probably I shall never see any great change in my lifetime, but the tendency is all downhill, in my opinion. But then I’m a pessimist, so you needn’t bother about my opinion.”
Somers wanted to let it all go at that. But Callcott persisted.
“Do you think there’ll be more wars? Do you think Germany will be in a position to fight again very soon?”
“Bah, you bolster up an old bogey out here. Germany is the bogey of yesterday, not of to-morrow.”
“She frightened us out of our sleep before,” said Jack, resentful.
“And now, for the time being, she’s done. As a war-machine she’s done, and done for ever. So much scrap-iron, her iron fist.”
“You think so?” said Jack, with all the animosity of a returned hero who wants to think his old enemy the one and only bugbear, and who feels quite injured if you tell him there’s no more point in his old hate.
“That’s my opinion. Of course I may be wrong.”
“Yes, you may,” said Jack.
“Sure,” said Somers. And there was silence. This time Somers smiled a little to himself.
“And what do you consider, then, is the bogey of to-morrow?” asked Jack at length, in a rather small, unwilling voice.
“I don’t really know. What should you say?”
“Me? I wanted to hear what you have to say.”
“And I’d rather hear what you have to say,” laughed Somers.
There was a pause. Jack seemed to be pondering. At last he came out with his bluff, manly Australian self.
“If you ask me,” he said, “I should say that Labour is the bogey you speak of.”
Again Somers knew that this was a draw. “He wants to find out if I’m socialist or anti,” he thought to himself.
“You think Labour is a menace to society?” he returned.
“Well,” Jack hedged. “I won’t say that Labour is the menace, exactly. Perhaps the state of affairs forces Labour to be the menace.”
“Oh, quite. But what’s the state of affairs?”
“That’s what nobody seems to know.”
“So it’s quite safe to lay the blame on,” laughed Somers. He looked with real dislike at the other man, who sat silent and piqued and rather diminished: “Coming here just to draw me and get to know what’s inside me!” he said to himself angrily. And he would carry the conversation no further. He would not even offer Jack a whisky and soda. “No,” he thought to himself. “If he trespasses on my hospitality, coming creeping in here, into my house, just to draw me and get the better of me, underhandedly, then I’ll pour no drink for him. He can go back to where he came from.” But Somers was mistaken. He only didn’t understand Jack’s way of leaving seven-tenths of himself out of any intercourse. Richard wanted the whole man there, openly. And Jack wanted his own way, of seven-tenths left out.
So that after a while Jack rose slowly, saying:
“Well, I’ll be turning in. It’s work to-morrow for some of us.”
“If we’re lucky enough to have jobs,” laughed Somers.
“Or luckier still, to have the money so that we don’t need a job,” returned Jack.
“Think how bored most folks would be on a little money and no settled occupation,” said Somers.
“Yes, I might be myself,” said Jack, honestly admitting it, and at the same time slightly despising the man who had no job, and therefore no significance in life.
“Why, of course.”
When Callcott came over to Torestin, either Victoria came with him, or she invited Harriet across to Wyewurk. Wyewurk was the name of Jack’s bungalow. It had been built by a man who had inherited from an aunt a modest income, and who had written thus permanently his retort against society on his door.
“Wyewurk?” said Jack. “Because you’ve jolly well got to.”
The neighbours nearly always spoke of their respective homes by their elegant names. “Won’t Mrs. Somers go across to Wyewurk, Vicky said. She’s making a blouse or something, sewing some old bits of rag together — or new bits — and I expect she’ll need a pageful of advice about it.” This was what Jack had said. Harriet had gone with apparent alacrity, but with real resentment. She had never in all her life had “neighbours”, and she didn’t know what neighbouring really meant. She didn’t care for it, on trial. Not after she and Victoria had said and heard most of the things they wanted to say and hear. But they liked each other also. And though Victoria could be a terribly venomous little cat, once she unsheathed her claws and became rather “common”, still, so long as her claws were sheathed her paws were quite velvety and pretty, she was winsome and charming to Harriet, a bit deferential before her, which flattered the other woman. And then, lastly, Victoria had quite a decent piano, and played nicely, whereas Harriet had a good voice, and played badly. So that often, as the two men played chess or had one of their famous encounters, they would hear Harriet’s strong, clear voice singing Schubert or Schumann or French or English folk songs, whilst Victoria played. And both women were happy, because though Victoria was fond of music and had an instinct for it, her knowledge of songs was slight, and to be learning these old English and old French melodies, as well as the German and the Italian songs, was a real adventure and a pleasure to her.
They were still singing when Jack returned.
“Still at it!” he said manfully, from the background chewing his little pipe.
Harriet looked round. She was just finishing the joyous moan of Plaisir d’amour, a song she loved because it tickled her so. “Dure toute la vie — i — i — ie — i — e,” she sang the concluding words at him, laughing in his face.
“You’re back early,” she said.
“Felt a mental twilight coming on,” he said, “so thought we’d better close down for the night.”
Harriet divined that, to use her expression, Somers had been “disagreeable to him”.
“Don’t you sing?” she cried.
“Me! Have you ever heard a cow at a gate when she wants to come in and be milked?”
“Oh, he does!” cried Victoria. “He sang a duet at the Harbour Lights Concert.”
“There!” cried Harriet. “How exciting! What duet did he sing?”
“Larboard Watch ahoy!”
“Oh! Oh! I know that,” cried Harriet remembering a farmer friend of Somers’, who had initiated her into the thrilling harmony, down in Cornwall.
“There wasn’t a soul left in the hall, when we’d finished, except Victoria and the other chap’s wife,” said Jack.
“Oh, what a fib. They applauded like anything, and made you give an encore.”
“Ay, and we didn’t know another bally duet between us, so we had to sing Larboard Watch over again. It was Larboard Alarum Clock by the time we got to the end of it, it went off with such a rattle.”
“Oh, do let us sing it,” said Harriet. “You must help me when I go wrong, because I don’t know it well.”
“What part do you want to sing?” said Jack.
“Oh, I sing the first part.”
“Nay,” said Jack. “I sing that part myself. I’m a high tenor, I am, once I get the wind up.”
“I couldn’t possibly sing the alto,” said Harriet.
“Oh, Jack, do sing the alto,” said Victoria. “Go on, do! I’ll help you.”
“Oh well, if you’ll go bail for me, I don’t care what I do,” said Jack.
And very shortly Somers heard a gorgeous uproar in Wyewurk. Harriet breaking down occasionally and being picked up. She insisted on keeping on till she had it perfect, and the other two banged and warbled away with no signs of fatigue. So that they were still hailing the Larboard Watch Ahoy when the clock struck eleven.
Then when silence did ensue for a moment, Mrs. Callcott came flying over to Torestin.
“Oh, Mr. Somers, won’t you come and have a drink with Jack? Mrs. Somers is having a glass of hop bitters.”
When Somers entered the living room of Wyewurk, Jack looked up at him with a smile and a glow in his dark eyes, almost like love.
“Beer?” he said.
“What’s the alternative?”
“Nothing but gas-water.”
Harriet and Victoria were still at the piano, excitedly talking songs. Harriet was teaching Victoria to pronounce the words of a Schubert song: for there was still one person in the world unacquainted with: “Du bist wie eine Blume.” And Victoria was singing it in a wavering, shy little voice.
“Let’s drink our beer by the kitchen fire,” said Jack. “Then we shall be able to hear ourselves speak, which is more than we can do in this aviary.”
Somers solemnly followed into the tiny kitchen, and they sat in front of the still hot stove.
“The women will keep up the throat-stretching for quite a time yet,” said Jack.
“If we let them. It’s getting late.”
“Oh, I’ve just started my second awakening — feel as sharp as a new tin-tack.”
“Talking about pessimism,” he resumed after a pause. “There’s some of us here that feels things are pretty shaky, you know.” He spoke in a subdued, important sort of voice.
“What is shaky — Australian finance?”
“Ay, Australian everything.”
“Well, it’s pretty much the same in every country. Where there’s such a lot of black smoke there’s not a very big fire. The world’s been going to the dogs ever since it started to toddle, apparently.”
“Ay, I suppose it has. But it’ll get there one day. At least Australia will.”
“What kind of dogs?”
“Maybe financial smash, and then hell to pay all round. Maybe, you know. We’ve got to think about it.”
Somers watched him for some moments with serious eyes. Jack seemed as if he were a little bit drunk. Yet he had only drunk a glass of lager beer. He wasn’t drunk. But his face had changed, it had a kind of eagerness, and his eyes glowed big. Strange, he seemed, as if in a slight ecstasy.
“It may be,” said Somers slowly. “I am neither a financier nor a politician. It seems as if the next thing to come a cropper were capital: now there are no more kings to speak of. It may be the middle classes are coming smash — which is the same thing as finance — as capital. But also it may not be. I’ve given up trying to know.”
“What will be will be, eh,” said Jack with a smile.
“I suppose so, in this matter.”
“Ay, but, look here, I believe it’s right what you say. The middle classes ARE coming down. What do they sit on? — they sit on money, on capital. And this country is as good as bankrupt, so then what have they left to stand on?”
“They say most countries are really bankrupt. But if they agree among themselves to carry on, the word doesn’t amount to much.”
“Oh, but it does. It amounts to a hell of a lot, here in this country. If it ever came to the push, and the state was bankrupt, there’d be no holding New South Wales in.”
“The state never will be bankrupt.”
“Won’t it? Won’t there be a financial smash, a proper cave-in, before we’re much older? Won’t there? We’ll see. But look here, do you care if there is?”
“I don’t know what it means, so I can’t say. Theoretically I don’t mind a bit if international finance goes bust: if it can go bust.”
“Never mind about theoretically. You’d like to see the power of money, the power of capital, BROKE. Would you or wouldn’t you?”
Somers watched the excited, handsome face opposite him, and answered slowly:
“Theoretically, yes. Actually, I really don’t know.”
“Oh to hell with your theoretically. Drown it. Speak like a man with some feeling in your guts. You either would or wouldn’t. Don’t leave your shirt-tail hanging out, with a theoretically. Would you or wouldn’t you?”
“Why, yes, I would,” he said, “and be damned to everything.”
“Shake,” cried Jack, stretching over. And he took Somers’ small hand between both his own. “I knew,” he said in a broken voice, “that we was mates.”
Somers was rather bewildered.
“But you know,” he said, “I never take any part in politics at all. They aren’t my affair.”
“They’re not! They’re not! You’re quite right. You’re quite right, you are. You’re a damned sight too good to be mixing up in any dirty politics. But all I want is that your feelings should be the same as mine, and they are, thank my stars, they are.”
By this time Somers was almost scared.
“But why should you care?” he said, with some reserve. The other however did not heed him.
“You’re not with the middle classes, as you call them, the money-men, as I call them, and I know you’re not. And if you’re not with them you’re against them.”
“My father was a working-man. I come from the working people. My sympathy is with them, when it’s with anybody, I assure you.”
Jack stared at Somers wide-eyed, a smile gathering round his mouth.
“Your father was a working-man, was he? Is that really so? Well, that IS a surprise! And yet,” he changed his tone, “no, it isn’t. I might have known. Of course I might. How should I have felt for you as I did, the very first minute I saw you, if it hadn’t been so. Of course you’re one of us: same flesh and blood, same clay. Only you’ve had the advantages of a money-man. But you’ve stuck true to your flesh and blood, which is what most of them don’t do. They turn into so much dirt, like the washings in the pan, a lot of dirt to a very little gold. Well, well, and your father was a working man! And you now being as you are! Wonderful what we may be, isn’t it?”
“It is indeed,” said Somers, who was infinitely more amazed at the present Jack, than ever Jack could be at him.
“Well, well, that brings us a great deal nearer than ever, that does,” said Callcott, looking at Somers with glowing, smiling eyes which the other man could not quite understand, eyes with something desirous, and something perhaps fanatical in them. Somers could not understand. As for the being brought nearer to Callcott, that was apparently entirely a matter of Jack’s own feeling. Somers himself had never felt more alone and far off. Yet he trembled at the other man’s strange fervour. He vibrated helplessly in some sort of troubled response.
The vibration from the two men had by this time quite penetrated into the other room and into the consciousness of the two women. Harriet came in all wondering and full of alert curiosity. She looked from one to the other, saw the eyes of both men shining, saw the puzzled, slightly scared look on her husband’s face, and the glowing handsomeness on Jack’s, and she wondered more than ever.
“What are you two men talking about?” she asked pointedly. “You look very much moved about something.”
“Moved!” laughed Jack, “We’re doing fifty miles an hour, and not turning a hair.”
“I’m glad I’m not going with you then,” said Harriet. “It’s much too late at night for me for that sort of thing.”
Victoria went over to her husband and stood close at his side, ruffling up his brown, short, crisp, bright hair.
“Doesn’t he talk nonsense, Mrs. Somers, doesn’t he talk nonsense,” the young wife crooned, in her singing, contralto voice, as she looked down at him.
Harriet started at the sudden revelation of palpitating intimacy. She wanted to go away, quick. So did Somers. But neither Jack nor Victoria wanted them to go.
Jack was looking up at Victoria with a curious smile, touched with a leer. It gave his face, his rather long, clean-shaven face with the thick eyebrows, most extraordinarily the look of an old mask. One of those old Greek masks that give a fixed mockery to every feeling. Leering up at his young wife with the hearty leer of a player masked as a faun that is at home, on its own ground. Both Harriet and Somers felt amazed, as if they had strayed into the wrong wood.
“You talk all the sense, don’t you, kiddie?” he said, with a strong Australian accent again. And as he spoke with his face upturned to her, his Adam’s apple moved in his strong white throat as if it chuckled.
“Of course I do,” she crooned in her mocking, crooning contralto. “Of course I do.”
He put his arm round her hips. They continued to look into each other’s faces.
“It’s awfully late. We shall have simply to fly to bed. I’m so sleepy now. Good-night. Thank you so much for the singing. I enjoyed it awfully. Good-night!”
Victoria looked up with a brightly-flushed face, entirely unashamed, her eyes glowing like an animal’s. Jack relaxed his grip of her, but did not rise. He looked at the Somers pair with eyes gone dusky, as if unseeing, and the mask-like smile lingering on his face like the reflection from some fire, curiously natural, not even grotesque.
“Find your way across all right?” he said. “Good-night! Good-night!” But he was as unaware of them, actually, as if they did not exist within his ken.
“Well,” said Harriet, as they closed the door of Torestin. “I think they might have waited just TWO minutes before they started their love making. After all, one doesn’t want to be implicated, does one?”
“One emphatically doesn’t,” said Somers.
“Really, it was as if he’d got his arm round all the four of us! Horrid!” said Harriet resentfully.
“He felt he had, I’m sure,” said Somers.
It was a period when Sydney was again suffering from a bubonic plague scare: a very mild scare, some fifteen cases to a million people, according to the newspapers. But the town was placarded with notices “Keep your town clean,” and there was a stall in Martin Place where you could write your name down and become a member of a cleanliness league, or something to that effect.
The battle was against rats, fleas, and dirt. The plague affects rats first, said the notices, then fleas, and then man. All citizens were called upon to wage war with the vermin mentioned. Alas, there was no need to call on Somers to wage the war. The first morning they had awakened in Torestin, it was to a slight uneasy feeling of uncleanliness. Harriet, who hated the thought of contamination, found the apples gnawed, when she went to take one to eat before breakfast. And rat dirts, she said, everywhere.
Then had started such a cleaning, such a scouring, such a stopping of holes, as Torestin had never known. Somers sourly re-christened the house Toscrubin. And after that, every night he had the joyful business of setting two rat-traps, those traps with the powerful fly-back springs. Which springs were a holy terror to him, for he knew his fingers would break like pipe-stems if the spring flew back on them. And almost every morning he had the nauseous satisfaction of finding a rat pinned by its nose in the trap, its eyes bulging out, a blot of deep red blood just near. Sometimes two rats. They were not really ugly, save for their tails. Smallish rats, perhaps only half grown, and with black, silky fur. Not like the brown rats he had known in the English country.
But big or little, ugly or not ugly, they were very objectionable to him, and he hated to have to start the day by casting one or more corpses gingerly, by the tip of the tail, into the garbage tin. He railed against the practice of throwing cans and everything promiscuously on to any bit of waste ground. It seemed to his embittered fancy that Sydney harbour, and all the coast of New South Wales, was moving with this pest. It reminded him of the land of Egypt, under the hand of the Lord: plagues of mice and rats and rabbits and snails and all manner of crawling things. And then he would say: “Perhaps it must be so in a new country.” For all that, the words “new country” had become like acid between his teeth. He was always recalling what Flinders Petrie says somewhere: “A colony is no younger than the parent country.” Perhaps it is even older, one step further gone.
This evening — or rather midnight — he went to the back kitchen to put every scrap of any sort of food beyond rat-reach, and to bait the two traps with bits of cheese-rind. Then he bent back the two murderous springs, and the traps were ready. He washed his hands hard from the contamination of them. Then he went into the garden, even climbed the tub-like summer house, to have a last look at the world. There was a big slip of very bright moon risen, and the harbour was faintly distinct.
Now that night had fallen, the wind was from the land, and cold. He turned to go indoors. And as he did so he heard a motor-car run quickly along the road, and saw the bright lights come to a stop at the gate of Wyewurk. Wyewurk was in darkness already. But a man left the car and came along the path to the house, giving a peculiar whistle as he did so. He went round to the back door and knocked sharply, once, twice, in a peculiar way. Then he whistled and knocked again. After which he must have heard an answer, for he waited quietly.
In a few minutes more the lights switched on and the door opened; Jack was there in his pyjamas.
“That you, Jaz boy?” he said in a quiet tone. “Why the blazes didn’t you come half an hour sooner, or half a minute later? You got me just as I’d taken the jump, and I fell all over the bloomin’ hedge. Come in. You’ll make a nervous wreck of me between you.”
The figure entered. It was William James, the brother-in-law. Somers heard him go again in about ten minutes. But Harriet did not notice.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:57