The following evening Somers could feel waves of friendliness coming across the hedge, from Victoria. And she kept going out to the gate to look for Jack, who was late returning home. And as she went, she always looked long towards the verandah of Torestin, to catch sight of the Somers.
Somers felt the yearning and amicable advance in the atmosphere. For some time he disregarded it. Then at last he went out to look at the nightfall. It was early June. The sun had set beyond the land, casting a premature shadow of night. But the eastern sky was very beautiful, full of pure, pure light, the light of the southern seas, next the Antarctic. There was a great massive cloud settling low, and it was all gleaming, a golden, physical glow. Then across the upper sky trailed a thin line of little dark clouds, like a line of porpoises swimming in the extremely beautiful clarity.
“Isn’t it a lovely evening again?” Victoria called to him as he stood on the summer-house top.
“Very lovely. Australia never ceases to be a wonderland for me, at nightfall,” he answered.
“Aha!” she said. “You are fond of the evening?”
He had come down from his point of vantage, and they stood near together by the fence.
“In Europe I always like morning best — much best. I can’t say what it is I find so magical in the evening here.”
“No!” she replied, looking upwards round the sky. “It’s going to rain.”
“What makes you think so?” he asked.
“It looks like it — and it feels like it. I expect Jack will be here before it comes on.”
“He’s late to-night, is he?”
“Yes. He said he might be. Is it six o’clock?”
“No, it’s only a little after five.”
“Is it? I needn’t be expecting him yet, then. He won’t be home till quarter past six.” She was silent for a while. “We shall soon have the shortest day,” she said. “I am glad when it has gone. I always miss Jack so much when the evening comes, and he isn’t home. You see I was used to a big family, and it seems a bit lonely to me yet, all alone in the cottage. That’s why we’re so glad to have you and Mrs. Somers next door. We get on so well, don’t we? Yes, it’s surprising. I always felt nervous of English people before. But I love Mrs. Somers. I think she’s lovely.”
“You haven’t been married long?” asked Somers.
“Not quite a year. It seems a long time in some ways. I wouldn’t be without Jack, not for anything. But I do miss my family. We were six of us all at home together, and it makes such a difference, being all alone.”
“Was your home in Sydney?”
“No, on the South Coast — dairy-farming. No, my father was a surveyor, so was his father before him. Both in New South Wales. Then he gave it up and started this farm down south. Oh yes, I liked it — I love home. I love going down home. I’ve got a cottage down there that father gave me when I got married. You must come down with us some time when the people that are in it go. It’s right on the sea. Do you think you and Mrs. Somers would like it?”
“I’m sure we should.”
“And will you come with us for a week-end? The people in it are leaving next week. We let it furnished.”
“We should like to very much indeed,” said Somers, being polite over it because he felt a little unsure still, whether he wanted to be so intimate. But Victoria seemed so wistful.
“We feel so ourselves with you and Mrs. Somers,” said Victoria. “And yet you’re so different from us, and yet we feel so much ourselves with you.”
“But we’re not different,” he protested.
“Yes, you are — coming from home. It’s mother who always called England home. She was English. She always spoke so prettily. She came from Somerset. Yes, she died about five years ago. Then I was mother of the family. Yes, I am the eldest, except Alfred. Yes, they’re all at home. Alfred is a mining engineer — there are coal mines down the South Coast. He was with Jack in the war, on the same job. Jack was a Captain and Alfred was a Lieutenant. But they drop all the army names now. That’s how I came to know Jack: through Alfred. Jack always calls him Fred.”
“You didn’t know him before the war?”
“No, not till he came home. Alfred used to talk about him in his letters, but I never thought then I should marry him. They are great friends yet, the two of them.”
The rain that she had prophesied now began to fall — big straight drops, that resounded on the tin roofs of the houses.
“Won’t you come in and sit with us till Jack comes?” asked Somers. “You’ll feel dreary, I know.”
“Oh, don’t think I said it for that,” said Victoria.
“Come round, though,” said Somers. And they both ran indoors out of the rain. Lightning had started to stab in the south-western sky, and clouds were shoving slowly up.
Victoria came round and sat talking, telling of her home on the south coast. It was only about fifty miles from Sydney, but it seemed another world to her. She was so quiet and simple, now, that both the Somers felt drawn to her, and glad that she was sitting with them.
They were talking still of Europe. Italy, Switzerland, England, Paris — the wonderworld to Victoria, who had never been out of New South Wales in her life, in spite of her name — which name her father had given her to annoy all his neighbours, because he said the State of Victoria was run like a paradise compared to New South Wales — although he too never went a yard out of his home state, if he could help it; they were talking still of Europe when they heard Jack’s voice calling from the opposite yard.
“Hello,” cried Victoria, running out. “Are you there, Jack? I was listening for the motor-bike. I remember now, you went by tram.”
Sometimes she seemed a little afraid of him — physically afraid — though he was always perfectly good-humoured with her. And this evening she sounded like that — as if she feared his coming home, and wanted the Somers to shelter her.
“You’ve found a second home over there, apparently,” said Jack, advancing towards the fence. “Well, how’s things?”
It was dark, so they could not see his face. But he sounded different. There was something queer, unknown about him.
“I’ll come over for a game of chess to-night, old man, if you’ll say the word,” he said to Somers. “And the ladies can punish the piano again meanwhile, if they feel like it. I bought something to sweeten the melodies with, and give us a sort of breathing-space now and then: sort of little ear-rest, you know.”
“That means a pound of chocolates,” said Victoria, like a greedy child. “And Mrs. Somers will come and help me to eat them. Good!” And she ran in home. Somers thought of a picture advertisement in the Bulletin.
“Madge: I can’t think what you see in Jack. He is so unintellectual.”
“Gladys: Oh, but he always brings a pound of Billyer’s chocolates.”
Or else: “Sweets to the Sweet. Give her Billyer’s chocolates”; or else: “Billyer’s chocolates sweeten the home.”
The game of chess was a very quiet one. Jack was pale and subdued, silent, tired, thought Somers, after his long day and short night. Somers too played without any zest. And yet they were satisfied, just sitting there together, a curious peaceful ease in being together. Somers wondered at it, the rich, full peace that there seemed to be between him and the other man. It was something he was not used to. As if one blood ran warm and rich between them. “Then shall thy peace be as a river.”
“There was nothing wrong at the Trewhellas’, was there, that made William James come so late?” asked Somers.
Jack looked up with a tinge of inquiry in his dark eyes at this question: as if he suspected something behind it. Somers flushed slightly.
“No, nothing wrong,” said Jack.
“I beg your pardon for asking,” said Somers hastily. “I heard a whistle when I’d just done setting the rat-traps, and I looked out, and heard you speak to him. That’s how I knew who it was. I only wondered if anything was wrong.”
“No, nothing wrong,” repeated Jack laconically.
“That’s all right,” said Somers. “It’s your move. Mind your queen.”
“Mind my queen, eh? She takes some minding, that lady does. I feel I need a special eye at the end of my nose, to keep track of her. Come out of it, old lady. I’m not very bright at handling royalty, that’s a fact.”
Somers was now silent. He felt he had made a faux pas, and was rebuffed. They played for some time, Jack talking to himself mostly in that facetious strain which one just had to get used to in him, though Somers occasionally found it tiring.
Then after a time Jack put his hands into his lap, and looked up at Somers.
“You mustn’t think I get the wind up, you know,” he said, “if you ask me a question. You can ask me what you like, you know. And when I can tell you, I’ll tell you. I know you’d never come shoving your nose in like a rat from under the skirting board when nobody’s looking.”
“Even if I SEEM to,” said Somers, ironically.
“No, no, you don’t seem to. And when I CAN tell you, I’ll do so. I know I can trust you.”
Somers looked up wondering, and met the meditative dark eyes of the other man resting on his face.
“There’s some of us chaps,” said Jack, “who’ve been through the war and had a lick at Paris and London, you know, who can tell a man by the smell of him, so to speak. If we can’t see the COLOUR of his aura, we can jolly well size up the QUALITY of it. And that’s what we go by. Call it instinct or what you like. If I like a man, slap out, at the first sight, I’d trust him into hell, I would.”
“Fortunately you haven’t anything VERY risky to trust him with,” laughed Somers.
“I don’t know so much about that,” said Jack. “When a man feels he likes a chap, and trusts him, he’s risking all he need, even by so doing. Because none of us likes to be taken in, and to have our feelings thrown back in our faces, as you may say, do we?”
“We don’t,” said Somers grimly.
“No, we don’t. And you know what it means to HAVE them thrown back in your face. And so do I. There’s a lot of the people here that I wouldn’t trust with a thank-you, I wouldn’t. But then there’s some that I would. And mind you, taking all for all, I’d rather trust an Aussie, I’d rather trust an Australian than an Englishman, I would, and a lot rather. Yet there’s some of the rottenest people in Sydney that you’d find even if you sifted hell over. Rotten — absolute yellow rotten. And many of them in public positions, too. Simply white-anting society, that’s what they’re doing. Talk about public affairs in Sydney, talk about undercurrents of business in Sydney: the wickedest crew on God’s earth, bar none. All the underhanded tricks of a Chink, a blooming yellow Chinaman, and all the barefaced fair talk of an Englishman. There you are. And yet, I’m telling you, I’d rather trust even a Sydney man, and he’s a special sort of wombat, than an Englishman.”
“So you’ve told me before: for my good, I suppose,” laughed Somers, not without irony.
“No, now don’t you go running away with any wrong ideas,” said Jack, suddenly reaching out his hand and laying it on Somers’ arm. “I’m not hinting at anything. If I was I’d ask you to kick me out of your house. I should deserve it. No, you’re an Englishman. You’re a European, perhaps I ought to say, for you’ve lived about all over that old continent, and you’ve studied it, and you’ve got tired of it. And you’ve come to Australia. Your instinct brought you here, however much you may rebel against rats and tin cans and a few other things like that. Your instinct brought you here — and brought you straight up against me. Now that I call fate.”
He looked at Somers with dark, burning, questioning eyes.
“I suppose following one’s deepest instinct IS one’s fate,” said Somers, rather flatly.
“There — you know what I mean, you see. Well then, instinct brings us together. I knew it the minute I set eyes on you when I saw you coming across from the Botanical Gardens, and you wanted a taxi. And then when I heard the address, 51 Murdoch Street, I said to myself, ‘That chap is coming into my life.’ And it is so. I’m a believer in fate, absolute.”
“Yes,” said Somers, non-committal.
“It’s fate that you left Europe and came to Australia, bit by bit, and unwilling to come, as you say yourself. It’s fate that brings you to Sydney, and makes me see you that dinner-hour coming from the Botanical Gardens. It’s fate that brings you to this house. And it’s fate that sets you and me here at this minute playing chess.”
“If you call it playing chess,” laughed Somers.
Jack looked down at the board.
“I’m blest if I know whose move it is,” he said. “But never mind. I say that fate meant you and Mrs. Somers to come here: her as much as you. I say fate meant me and you and Victoria and her to mean a lot to one another. And when I feel my fate, I absolutely give myself up to it. That’s what I say. Do you think I’m right?”
His hand, which held Somers’ arm lightly, now gripped the biceps of that arm hard, while he looked into the other man’s face.
“I should say so,” said Somers, rather uncomfortably.
Jack hardly heeded the words. He was watching the face.
“You’re a stranger here. You’re from the old country. You’re different from us. But you’re a man we want, and you’re a man we’ve got to keep. I know it. What? What do you say? I can trust you, can’t I?”
“What with?” asked Somers.
“What with?” Jack hesitated. “Why everything!” he blurted. “Everything! Body and soul and money and every blessed thing. I can trust you with EVERYTHING! Isn’t that right?”
Somers looked with troubled eyes into the dark, dilated glowing eyes of the other man.
“But I don’t know what it means,” he stammered. “EVERYTHING! It means so much, that it means nothing.”
Jack nodded his head slowly.
“Oh yes it does,” he reiterated. “Oh yes it does.”
“Besides,” said Somers, “why should you trust me with ANYTHING, let alone everything. You’ve no occasion to trust me at all — except — as one neighbour trusts another, in common honour.”
“Common honour!” Jack just caught up the words, not heeding the sense. “It’s more than common honour. It’s most uncommon honour. But look here,” he seemed to rouse himself. “Supposing I came to you, to ask you things, and tell you things, you’d answer me man to man, wouldn’t you? — with common honour? You’d treat everything I say with common honour, as between man and man?”
“Why, yes, I hope so.”
“I know you would. But for the sake of saying it, say it. I can trust you, can’t I? Tell me now, can I trust you?”
Somers watched him. Was it any good making reservations and qualifications? The man was in earnest. And according to standards of commonplace honour, the so-called honour of man to man, Somers felt that he would trust Callcott, and that Callcott might trust him. So he said simply:
A light leaped into Jack’s eyes.
“That means you trust me, of course?” he said.
“Yes,” replied Somers.
“Done!” said Jack, rising to his feet and upsetting the chessmen. Somers also pushed his chair, and rose to his feet, thinking they were going across to the next house. But Jack came to him and flung an arm round his shoulders and pressed him close, trembling slightly, and saying nothing. Then he let go, and caught Somers by the hand.
“This is fate,” he said, “and we’ll follow it up.” He seemed to cling to the other man’s hand. And on his face was a strange light of purpose and of passion, a look at once exalted and dangerous.
“I’ll soon bring the others to see it,” he said.
“But you know I don’t understand,” said Somers, withdrawing his hand and taking off his spectacles.
“I know,” said Jack. “But I’ll let you know everything in a day or two. Perhaps you wouldn’t mind if William James — if Jaz came here one evening — or you wouldn’t mind having a talk with him over in my shack.”
“I don’t mind talking to anybody,” said the bewildered Somers.
“Right you are.”
They still sat for some time by the fire, silent; Jack was pondering. Then he looked up at Somers.
“You and me,” he said in a quiet voice, “in a way we’re mates and in a way we’re not. In a way — it’s different.”
With which cryptic remark he left it. And in a few minutes the women came running in with the sweets, to see if the men didn’t want a macaroon.
On Sunday morning Jack asked Somers to walk with him across to the Trewhellas. That is, they walked to one of the ferry stations, and took the ferry steamer to Mosman’s Bay. Jack was a late riser on Sunday morning. The Somers, who were ordinary half-past seven people, rarely saw any signs of life in Wyewurk before half-past ten on the Sabbath — then it was Jack in trousers and shirt, with his shirt-sleeves rolled up, having a look at his dahlias while Vicky prepared breakfast.
So the two men did not get a start till eleven o’clock. Jack rolled along easily beside the smaller, quieter Somers. They were an odd couple, ill-assorted. In a colonial way, Jack was handsome, well-built, with strong, heavy limbs. He filled out his expensively tailored suit and looked a man who might be worth anything from five hundred to five thousand a year. The only lean, delicate part about him was his face. See him from behind, his broad shoulders and loose erect carriage and brown nape of the neck, and you expected a good square face to match. He turned, and his long lean rather pallid face really didn’t seem to belong to his strongly animal body. For the face wasn’t animal at all, except perhaps in a certain slow, dark, lingering look of the eyes, which reminded one of some animal or other, some patient, enduring animal with an indomitable but naturally passive courage.
Somers, in a light suit of thin cloth, made by an Italian tailor, and an Italian hat, just looked a foreign sort of little bloke — but a gentleman. The chief difference was that he looked sensitive all over, his body, even its clothing, and his feet, even his brown shoes, all equally sensitive with his face. Whereas Jack seemed strong and insensitive in the body, only his face vulnerable. His feet might have been made of leather all the way through, tramping with an insentient tread. Whereas Somers put down his feet delicately, as if they had a life of their own, mindful of each step of contact with the earth. Jack strode along: Somers seemed to hover along. There was decision in both of them, but oh, of such different quality. And each had a certain admiration of the other, and a very definite tolerance. Jack just barely tolerated the quiet finesse of Somers, and Somers tolerated with difficulty Jack’s facetious familiarity and heartiness.
Callcott met quite a number of people he knew, and greeted them all heartily. “Hello Bill, old man, how’s things?” “New boots pinchin’ yet, Ant’ny? Hoppy sort of look about you this morning. Right ’o! So long, Ant’ny!” “Different girl again, boy! go on, Sydney’s full of yer sisters. All right, goodbye, old chap.” The same breezy intimacy with all of them, and the moment they had passed by, they didn’t exist for him any more than the gull that had curved across in the air. They seemed to appear like phantoms, and disappear in the same instant, like phantoms. Like so many Flying Dutchmen the Australian’s acquaintances seemed to steer slap through his consciousness, and were gone on the wind. What was the consecutive thread in the man’s feelings? Not his feeling for any particular human beings, that was evident. His friends, even his loves, were just a series of disconnected, isolated moments in his life. Somers always came again upon this gap in the other man’s continuity. He felt that if he knew Jack for twenty years, and then went away, Jack would say: “Friend o’ mine, Englishman, rum sort of bloke, but not a bad sort. Dunno where he’s hanging out just now. Somewhere on the surface of the old humming-top, I suppose.”
The only consecutive thing was that facetious attitude, which was the attitude of taking things as they come, perfected. A sort of ironical stoicism. Yet the man had a sort of passion, and a passionate identity. But not what Somers called human. And threaded on this ironical stoicism.
They found Trewhella dressed and expecting them. Trewhella was a coal and wood merchant, on the north side. He lived quite near the wharf, had his sheds at the side of the house, and in the front a bit of garden running down to the practically tideless bay of the harbour. Across the bit of blue water were many red houses, and new, wide streets of single cottages, seaside-like, disappearing rather forlorn over the brow of the low hill.
William James, or Jas, Jaz, as Jack called him, was as quiet as ever. The three men sat on a bench just above the brown rocks of the water’s edge, in the lovely sunshine, and watched the big ferry steamer slip in and discharge its stream of summer-dressed passengers, and embark another stream: watched the shipping of the middle harbour away to the right, and the boats loitering on the little bay in front. A motor-boat was sweeping at a terrific speed, like some broom sweeping the water, past the little round fort away in the open harbour, and two tall white sailing boats, all wing and no body, were tacking across the pale blue mouth of the bay. The inland sea of the harbour was all bustling with Sunday morning animation: and yet there seemed space, and loneliness. The low, coffee-brown cliffs opposite, too low for cliffs, looked as silent and as aboriginal as if white men had never come.
The little girl Gladys came out shyly. Somers now noticed that she wore spectacles.
“Hello kiddie!” said Jack, “Come here and make a footstool of your uncle, and see what your Aunt Vicky’s been thinking of. Come on then, amble up this road.”
He took her on his knee, and fished out of his pocket a fine sort of hat-band that Victoria had contrived with ribbon and artificial flowers and wooden beads. Gladys sat for a moment shyly on her uncle’s knee, and he held her there as if she were a big pillow he was scarcely conscious of holding. Her stepfather sat exactly as if the child did not exist, or were not present. It was neutrality brought to a remarkable pitch. Only Somers seemed actually aware that the child was a little human being — and to him she seemed so absent that he didn’t know what to make of her.
Rose came out bringing beer and sausage rolls, and the girl vanished away again, seemed to evaporate. Somers felt uncomfortable, and wondered what he had been brought for.
“You know Cornwall, do you?” said William James, the Cornish singsong still evident in his Australian speech. He looked with his light-grey, inscrutable eyes at Somers.
“I lived for a time near Padstow,” said Somers.
“Padstow! Ay, I’ve been to Padstow,” said William James. And they talked for a while of the bleak, lonely northern coast of Cornwall, the black huge cliffs, with the gulls flying away below, and the sea boiling, and the wind blowing in huge volleys: and the black Cornish nights, with nothing but the violent weather outside.
“Oh, I remember it, I remember it,” said William James. “Though I was a half-starved youngster on a bit of a farm out there, you know, for everlasting chasing half a dozen heifers from the cliffs, where the beggars wanted to fall over and kill themselves, and hunting for a dozen sheep among the gorsebushes, and wading up to my knees in mud most part of the year, and then in summer, in the dry times, having to haul water for a mile over the rocks in a wagon, because the well had run dry. And at the end of it my father gave me one new suit in two years, and sixpence a week. Ay, that was a life for you. I suppose if I was there still he’d be giving me my keep and five shillin’ a week — if he could open his heart as wide as two half-crowns, which I’m doubting very much.”
“You have money out here, at least,” said Somers. “But there was a great fascination for me, in Cornwall.”
“Fascination! And where do you find the fascination? In a little Wesleyan chapel of a Sunday night, and a girl with her father waiting for her with a strap if she’s not in by nine o’clock? Fascination, did you say?”
“It had a great fascination for me — a magic — a magic in the atmosphere.”
“All the fairy tales they’ll tell you,” said William James, looking at the other man with a smile of slow ridicule. “Why ye didn’t go and believe them, did ye?”
“More or less. I could more easily have believed them there than anywhere else I’ve been.”
“Ay, no doubt. And that shows what sort of a place it be. Lot of damn silly nonsense.” He stirred on his seat impatiently.
“At any rate, you’re well out of it. You’re set up all right here,” said Somers, who was secretly amused. The other man did not answer for some time.
“Maybe I am,” he said at last, “I’m not pining to go back and work for my father, I tell you, on a couple of pasties and a lot of abuse. No, after that, I’d like you to tell me what’s wrong with Australia.”
“I’m sure I don’t know,” said Somers, “Probably nothing at all.”
Again William James was silent. He was a short, thick man, with a little felt hat that sat over his brow with a half humorous flap. He had his knees wide apart, and his hands clasped between them. And he looked for the most part down at the ground. When he did cock his eye at Somers, it was with a look of suspicion marked with humour and troubled with a certain desire. The man was restless, desirous, craving something — heaven knows what.
“You thinking of settling out here then, are you?” he asked.
“No,” said Somers. “But I don’t say I won’t. It depends.”
William James fidgeted, tapping his feet rapidly on the ground, though his body was silent. He was not like Jack. He too, was sensitive all over, though his body looked so thick it was silently alive, and his feet were still uneasy. He was young too, with a youth that troubled him. And his nature was secretive, maybe treacherous. It was evident Jack only half liked him.
“You’ve got the money, you can live where you like and go where you like,” said William James, looking up at Somers. “Well, I might do the same. If I cared to do it, I could live quietly on what I’ve got, whether here or in England.” Somers recognized the Cornishman in this.
“You could very easily have as much as I’ve got,” he said laughing.
“The thing is, what’s the good of a life of idleness?” said William James.
“What’s the good of a life of work?” laughed Somers.
Shrewdly, with quick grey eye, Trewhella looked at the other man to see if he were laughing at him.
“Yet I expect you’ve got some purpose in coming to Australia,” said William James, a trifle challenging.
“Maybe I had — or have — maybe it was just whim.”
Again the other man looked shrewdly, to see if it were the truth.
“You aren’t investing money out here, are you?”
“No, I’ve none to invest.”
“Because if you was, I’d advise you not to.” And he spat into the distance, and kept his hands clasped tight.
All this time Jack sat silent and as if unconcerned, but listening attentively.
“Australians have always been croakers,” he said now.
“What do you think of this Irish business?” asked William James.
“I? I really don’t think much at all. I don’t feel Ireland is my job, personally. If I had to say, offhand, what I’d do myself, why, if I could I’d just leave the Irish to themselves, as they want, and let them wipe each other out or kiss and make friends as they please. They bore me rather.”
“And what about the Empire?”
“That again isn’t my job. I’m only one man, and I know it. But personally, I’d say to India and Australia and all of them the same — if you want to stay in the Empire, stay; if you want to go out, go.”
“And suppose they went out?”
“That’s their affair.”
“Supposing Australia said she was coming out of the Empire and governing herself, and only keeping a sort of entente with Britain. What do you think she’d make of it?”
“By the looks of things, I think she’d make a howling mess of it. Yet it might do her good if she were thrown entirely on her own resources. You’ve got to have something to keep you steady. England has really kept the world steady so far — as steady as it’s been. That’s my opinion. Now she’s not keeping it very steady, and the world’s sick of being bossed, anyhow. Seems to me you may as well sink or swim on your own resources.”
“Perhaps we’re too likely to find ourselves sinking.”
“Then you’ll come to your senses, after you’ve sunk for the third time.”
“What, about England? Cling to England again, you mean?”
“No, I don’t. I mean you can’t put the brotherhood of man on a wage basis.”
“That’s what a good many people say here,” put in Jack.
“You don’t trust socialism then?” said Jaz, in a quiet voice.
“What sort of socialism? Trades unionism? Soviet?”
“I really don’t care about politics. Politics is no more than your country’s housekeeping. If I had to swallow my whole life up in housekeeping, I wouldn’t keep house at all; I’d sleep under a hedge. Same with a country and politics. I’d rather have no country than be gulfed in politics and social stuff. I’d rather have the moon for a motherland.”
Jaz was silent for a time, contemplating his knuckles.
“And that,” he said, “is how the big majority of Australians feel, and that’s why they care nothing about Australia. It’s cruel to the country.”
“Anyhow, no sort of POLITICS will help the country,” said Somers.
“If it won’t, then nothing will,” retorted Jaz.
“So you’d advise us all to be like seven-tenths of us here, not care a blooming hang about anything except your dinner and which horse gets in?” asked Jack, not without sarcasm.
Now Richard was silent, driven into a corner.
“Why,” he said, “there’s just this difference. The bulk of Australians don’t care about Australia — that is, you say they don’t. And why don’t they? Because they care about nothing at all, neither in earth below or heaven above. They just blankly don’t care about anything, and they live in defiance, a sort of slovenly defiance of care of any sort, human or inhuman, good or bad. If they’ve got one belief left, now the war’s safely over, it’s a dull, rock-bottom belief in obstinately not caring, not caring about anything. It seems to me they think it manly, the only manliness, not to care, not to think, not to attend to life at all, but just to tramp blankly on from moment to moment, and over the edge of death without caring a straw. The final manliness.”
The other two men listened in silence, the distant colonial silence that hears the voice of the old country passionately speaking against them.
“But if they’re not to care about politics, what are they to care about?” asked Jaz, in his small, insinuating voice.
There was a moment’s pause. Then Jack added his question:
“Do you yourself really care about anything, Mr. Somers?”
Richard turned and looked him for a moment in the eyes. And then, knowing the two men were trying to corner him, he said coolly:
“Why, yes. I care supremely.”
“About what?” Jack’s question was soft as a drop of water falling into water, and Richard sat struggling with himself.
“That,” he answered, “you either know or don’t know. And if you don’t know, it would only be words my trying to tell.”
There was a silence of check-mate.
“I’m afraid, for myself, I don’t know,” said Jack.
But Somers did not answer, and the talk, rather lamely, was turned off to other things.
The two men went back to Murdoch Street rather silent, thinking their own thoughts. Jack only blurted once:
“What do you make of Jaz, then?”
“I like him. He lives by himself and keeps himself pretty dark — which is his nature.”
“He’s a cleverer man than you’d take him for — figures things out in a way that surprises me. And he’s better than a detective for getting to know things. He’s got one or two Cornish pals down town, you see — and they tip one another the wink. They’re like the Irish in many ways. And they’re not uncommonly unlike a Chink. I always feel as if Jaz had got a bit of Chinese blood in him. That’s what makes the women like him, I suppose.”
“But do the women like him?”
“Rose does. I believe he’d make any woman like him, if he laid himself out to do it. Got that quiet way with him, you know, and a sly sort of touch-the-harp-gently, that’s what they like on the quiet. But he’s the sort of chap I don’t exactly fancy mixing my broth with, and drinking out of the same can with.”
Somers laughed at the avowal of antipathy between the two men.
They were not home till two o’clock. Somers found Harriet looking rather plaintive.
“You’ve been a long time,” she said. “What did you do?”
“And did you like them?”
“Yes, quite well.”
“And have you promised to see them again to-day?”
“Why, any of them — the Callcotts.”
“Oh. They’re becoming rather an institution.”
“You like them too?”
“Yes, they’re all right. But I don’t want to spend my life with them. After all, that sort of people isn’t exactly my sort — and I thought you used to pretend it wasn’t yours.”
“It isn’t. But then no sort of people is my sort.”
“Yes, it is. Any sort of people, so long as they make a fuss of you.”
“Surely they make an even greater fuss of you.”
“Do they! It’s you they want, not me. And you go as usual, like a lamb to the slaughter.”
“Baa!” he said.
“Yes, baa! You should hear yourself bleat.”
“I’ll listen,” he said.
But Harriet was becoming discontented. They had been in their house only six weeks: and she had had enough of it. Yet it was paid for for three months: at four guineas a week. And they were pretty short of money, and would be for the rest of the year. He had already overdrawn.
Yet she began to suggest going away: away from Sydney. She felt humiliated in that beastly little Murdoch Street.
“What did I tell you?” he retorted. “The very look of it humiliated me. Yet you wanted it, and you said you liked it.”
“I did like it — for the fun of it. But now there’s all this intimacy and neighbouring. I just can’t stand it. I just can’t.”
“But you began it.”
“No, I didn’t; you began it. And your beastly sweetness and gentleness with such people. I wish you kept a bit of it for me.”
He went away in silence, knowing the uselessness of argument. And to tell the truth he was feeling also a revulsion from all this neighbouring, as Harriet called it, and all this talk. It was usually the same. He started by holding himself aloof then gradually he let himself get mixed in, and then he had revulsions. And to-day was one of his revulsions. Coming home from Mosman’s Bay, he had felt himself dwindle to a cipher in Jack’s consciousness. Then, last evening, there had been all this fervour and protestation. And this morning all the cross-examination by Trewhella. And he, Somers, had plainly said all he thought. And now, as he walked home with Jack, Jack had no more use for him than for the stump of cigar which he chewed between his lips merely because he forgot to spit it away. Which state of affairs did not go at all well with OUR friend’s sense of self-importance.
Therefore, when he got home, his eyes opened once more to the delicacy of Harriet’s real beauty, which he knew as none else knew it, after twelve years of marriage. And once more he realized her gay, undying courage, her wonderful fresh zest in front of life. And all these other little people seemed so common in comparison, so common. He stood still with astonishment, wondering how he could have come to betray the essential reality of his life and Harriet’s to the common use of these other people with their watchful, vulgar wills. That scene of last evening: what right had a fellow like Callcott to be saying these things to him? What right had he to put his arm round his, Richard’s shoulder, and give him a tight hug? Somers winced to think of it. And now Callcott had gone off with his Victoria in Sunday clothes to some other outing. Anything was as good as anything else: why not!
A gulf there was between them, really, between the Somers and the Callcotts. And yet the easy way Callcott flung a flimsy rope of intimacy across the gulf, and was embracing the pair of his neighbours in mid-air, as it were, without a grain of common foothold. And Somers let himself be embraced. So he sat pale and silent and mortified in the kitchen that evening thinking of it all, and wishing himself far away, in Europe.
“Oh, how I detest this treacly democratic Australia,” he said. “It swamps one with a sort of common emotion like treacle, and before one knows where one is, one is caught like a fly on a flypaper, in one mess with all the other buzzers. How I hate it! I want to go away.”
“It isn’t Australia,” said Harriet. “Australia’s lonely. It’s just the people. And it isn’t even the people — if you would only keep your proper distance, and not make yourself cheap to them and get into messes.”
“No, it’s the country. It’s in the air. I want to leave it.”
But he was not very emphatic. Harriet wanted to go down to the South Coast, of which she had heard from Victoria.
“Think,” she said, “it must be lovely there — with the mountain behind, and steep hills, and blackberries, and lovely little bays of sand.”
“There’ll be no blackberries. It’s end of June — which is their mid-winter.”
“But there’ll be the other things. Let’s do that, and never mind the beastly money for this pokey Torestin.”
“They’ve asked us to go with them to Mullumbimby in a fortnight. Shall we wait till then and look?”
Harriet sat in silence for some moments.
“We might,” she said reluctantly. She didn’t want to wait. But what Victoria had told her of Mullumbimby, the township on the South Coast, so appealed to her that she decided to abide by her opportunity.
And then curiously enough, for the next week the neighbours hardly saw one another. It was as if the same wave of revulsion had passed over both sides of the fence. They had fleeting glimpses of Victoria as she went about the house. And when he could, Jack put in an hour at his garden in the evening, tidying it up finally for the winter. But the weather was bad, it rained a good deal; there were fogs in the morning, and foghorns on the harbour; and the Somers kept their doors continually blank and shut.
Somers went round to the shipping agents and found out about boats to San Francisco, and talked of sailing in July, and of stopping at Tahiti or at Fiji on the way, and of cabling for money for the fares. He figured it all out. And Harriet mildly agreed. Her revulsion from Australia had passed quicker than his, now that she saw herself escaping from town and from neighbours to the quiet of a house by the sea, alone with him. Still she let him talk. Verbal agreement and silent opposition is perhaps the best weapon on such occasions.
Harriet would look at him sometimes wistfully, as he sat with his brow clouded. She had a real instinctive mistrust of other people — all other people. In her heart of hearts she said she wanted to live alone with Somers, and know nobody, all the rest of her life. In Australia, where one can be lonely, and where the land almost calls to one to be lonely — and then drives one back again on one’s fellow-men in a kind of frenzy. Harriet would be quite happy, by the sea, with a house and a little garden and as much space to herself as possible, knowing nobody, but having Lovat always there. And he could write, and it would be perfect.
But he wouldn’t be happy — and he said so — and she knew it. She saw it like a doom on his brow.
“And why couldn’t we be happy in this wonderful new country, living to ourselves. We could have a cow, and chickens — and then the Pacific, and this marvellous new country. Surely that is enough for any man. Why must you have more?”
“Because I feel I MUST fight out something with mankind yet. I haven’t finished with my fellow-men. I’ve got a struggle with them yet.”
“But what struggle? What’s the good? What’s the point of your struggle? And what’s your struggle for?”
“I don’t know. But it’s inside me, and I haven’t finished yet. To make some kind of an opening — some kind of a way for the afterwards.”
“Ha, the afterwards will make its own way, it won’t wait for you. It’s a kind of nervous obstinacy and self-importance in you. You DON’T like people. You always turn away from them and hate them. Yet like a dog to his vomit you always turn back. And it will be the same old game here again as everywhere else. What are these people after all? Quite nice, but just common and — and not in your line at all. But there you are. You stick your head into a bush like an ostrich, and think you’re doing wonders.”
“I intend to move with men and get men to move with me before I die,” he said. Then he added hastily: “Or at any rate I’ll try a bit longer yet. When I make up my mind that it’s really no good, I’ll go with you and we’ll live alone somewhere together, and forget the world. And in Australia too. Just like a business man retiring. I’ll retire away from the world, and forget it. But not yet. Not till I feel I’ve finished. I’ve got to struggle with men and the world of men for a time yet. When it’s over I’ll do as you say.”
“Ah, you and your men, men! What do these Callcotts and these little Trewhella people mean to you after all? Are they men? They are only something you delude yourself about. And then you’ll come a cropper, and fall back on me. Just as it always is. You fall back on me, and I’m expected to like it. I’m good enough to fall back on, when you’ve made a fool of yourself with a lot of tuppenny little people, imagining you’re doing something in the world of MEN. Much men there is about it. Common little street-people, that’s all.”
He was silent. He heard all she had to say: and he knew that as far as the past went, it was all quite true. He had started off on his fiery courses: always, as she said, to fall back rather the worse for the attempt on her. She had no use at all for fiery courses and efforts with the world of men. Let all that rubbish go.
“Well,” he said. “It’s my need to make these tries, yet. Wait till I’ve exhausted the need, and we’ll have a little place of our own and forget the world, really. I know I can do it. I could almost do it now: and here in Australia. The country appeals to me that way: to lose oneself and have done with this side of life. But wait a bit longer.”
“Ah, I suppose I shall have to,” she said recklessly. “You’ll have to go on making a fool of yourself till you’re tired. Wives are SUPPOSED to have to take their husbands back a little damaged and repentant from their LOVE AFFAIRS with other women. And I’m hanged if it wouldn’t be more fun than this business of seeing you come back once more fooled from your attempts with MEN— the world of men, as you call it. If they WERE real men I wouldn’t mind. But look at your Jack Callcott. Really, and you’re supposed to have had some experience of life. ‘Clip in, old man!’” She imitated Jack’s voice and manner. “And you stand it all and think it’s wonderful! Nay, men are too foolish for me to understand them; I give them up.”
He laughed, realizing that most of what she said was true.
“You see,” he said, “I have the roots of my life with you. But I want if possible to send out a new shoot in the life of mankind — the effort man makes forever, to grow into new forms.”
She looked at him. And somehow she wanted to cry, because he was so silly in refusing to be finally disappointed in his efforts with mankind, and yet his silliness was pathetic, in a way beautiful. But then it WAS so silly — she wanted to shake him.
“Send out a new shoot then. Send it out. You do it in your writing already!” she cried. “But getting yourself mixed up with these impudent people won’t send any shoots, don’t you think it. They’ll nip you in the bud again, as they always do.”
He pondered this also, stubbornly, and knew it was true. But he had set his will on something, and wasn’t going to give way.
“I want to do something with living people, somewhere, somehow, while I live on the earth. I write, but I write alone. And I live alone. Without any connection whatever with the rest of men.”
“Don’t swank, you don’t live alone. You’ve got ME there safe enough, to support you. Don’t swank to me about being alone, because it insults me, you see. I know how much alone you are, with me always there keeping you together.”
And again he sulked and swallowed it, and obstinately held out.
“None the less,” he retorted, “I do want to do something along with men. I AM alone and cut off. As a man among men, I just have no place. I have my life with you, I know: et praeterea nihil.”
“Et praeterea nihil! And what more do you want? Besides, you liar, haven’t you your writing? Isn’t that all you want, isn’t that DOING all there is to be done? Men! Much MEN there is about them! Bah, when it comes to that, I have to be even the only man as well as the only woman.”
“That’s the whole trouble,” said he bitingly.
“Bah, you creature, you ought to be grateful,” cried Harriet.
William James arrived one morning when the Callcotts were both out, and brought a little basket of persimmons and passion fruits for Harriet. As it happened, Somers also was out.
“I remember you said you like these date-plums, Mrs. Somers. Over at our place we don’t care for them, so if you like to have them you’re welcome. And these are about the last of the passion fruit, seemingly.”
The persimmons were good big ones, of that lovely suave orange-red colour which is perhaps their chief attraction, and they were just beginning to go soft. Harriet of course was enchanted. William James came in and sat down for a few minutes, wondering what had become of Victoria. He looked round the room curiously. Harriet had, of course, arranged it to her own liking, taken away all the pictures and ornaments, hung a Tunis curtain behind the couch, stood two tall red lacquer candlesticks on the mantelpiece, and altogether given the room that air of pleasant distinction which a woman who knows how to do it finds so easy, especially if she has a few shawls and cushion-covers and bits of interesting brass or china. Harriet insisted on travelling with a few such things. She was prepared to camp in a furnished bungalow or cottage on any continent, but a few of her own things she must have about her. Also she wore a dress of Bavarian peasant stuff, very thin black woollen material, sprinkled all over with tiny pink roses with green leaves. And on her feet she had heelless sandals of plaited strips of leather, from Colombo. William James noticed every one of these things. They had a glamour like magic for him.
“This is quite a pleasant room you have here,” he said in his Cornish voice, with the alert, subtle, faintly smiling look of wonder on his face.
“It isn’t bad,” said Harriet. “But a bit poky.”
“Poky you call it? Do you remember the little stone holes they have for rooms in those old stone Cornish cottages?”
“Yes — but we had a lovely one. And the great thick granite walls and the low ceilings.”
“Walls always letting the damp in, can’t keep it out, because all the chinks and spaces are just stuffed with plain earth, and a bit of mortar smeared over the outside like butter scraped on bread. Don’t I remember it! I should think I do.”
“Cornwall had a great charm for me.”
“Well, I don’t know where you found it, I’m sure. But I suppose you’ve got a way of your own with a place, let it be Cornwall or where it may, to make it look well. It all depends where you’re born and where you come from.”
“Perhaps,” said Harriet.
“I’ve never seen an Australian cottage looking like this, now. And yet it isn’t the number of things you’ve put into it.”
“The number I’ve taken out,” laughed Harriet.
William James sat there with his quiet slumberous-seeming body, watching her: watching the quick radiance of her fair face, and the charm of her bearing. There was something quick and sure and, as it were, beyond the ordinary clay, about her, that exercised a spell over him. She was his real Cornish idea of a lady: simple, living among people as if one of themselves, and yet not one of themselves: a sort of magic about her. He could almost see a glow in the air around her. And he could see that for her he was just a nice fellow who lived in another world and on another plane than herself, and that he could never come up or she come down. She was the queen that slumbers somewhere in every Cornish imagination, the queen ungrudged. And perhaps, in the true Celtic imagination slumbers the glamorous king as well. The Celt needs the mystic glow of real kingliness. Hence his loneliness in the democratic world of industry, and his social perversity.
“I don’t suppose Rose could ever learn to do this with a room, could she now?” he asked, making a slight gesture with his hand. He sat with his clear, queer, light grey eyes fixed on Harriet’s face.
“I think so,” cried Harriet; then she met the watchful eyes. “In her own way she could. Every woman has her own way, you know.”
“Yes, I do know,” he answered.
“And you see,” said Harriet, “we’re more or less lazy people who have no regular work in the world. If we had, perhaps we should live in a different way.”
William James shook his head.
“It’s what’s bred into you,” he said, “that comes out. Now if I was a really rich man, I think I could learn to carry it off with the best of them, out here. But when it comes to being the real thing, why, I know it would be beyond me, so there you are.”
“But can one be sure?” she cried.
“I think I can. I can see the difference between common and uncommon. I can do more than that. I can see the difference between gentlemen who haven’t got the gift, and those that have. Take Lord Washburn, for example. He’s a gentleman all right — he comes of an old family, they tell me. But I doubt very much if he’s any better than I am.”
“Why should he be?” cried Harriet.
“What I mean is,” said William James, “he hasn’t got the gift, you know.”
“The gift of what?” said Harriet, puzzled.
“How shall I put it? The gift that you’ve got, now: and that Mr. Somers has as well: and that people out here don’t have.”
“But that may only be manner,” said Harriet.
“No, it’s more than manner. It’s the gift of being superior, there now: better than most folks. You understand me, I don’t mean swank and money. That’ll never give it you. Neither is it THINKING yourself superior. The people that are superior don’t think it, and don’t even seem to feel it, in a way. And yet in a way they know it. But there aren’t many of them out here. And what there are go away. This place is meant for all one dead level sort of people.”
He spoke with curious sarcasm.
“But,” said Harriet, “you are Australian yourself now, aren’t you? Or don’t you feel it?”
“Oh yes, I suppose I feel it,” he said shifting uneasily on his seat. “I AM Australian. And I’m Australian partly because I know that in Australia there WON’T be anybody any better than me. There now.”
“But,” laughed Harriet, “aren’t you glad then?”
“Glad?” he said. “It’s not a matter for gladness. It’s a fact. But I’m not one of the fools who think there’s nobody any better than me in the world. I know there are.”
“How queer to hear you say so!”
“But this isn’t the place for them. Here in Australia we don’t want them. We want the new-fashioned sort of people who are all dead-level as good as one another. You’re going to Mullumbimby this week-end with Jack and Victoria, aren’t you?”
“Yes. And I thought if we liked it we might stay down there for a while — by the sea — away from the town.”
“You please yourselves, of course. Perhaps better there than here. But — it’s no business of mine, you know that”— he shrugged his shoulders. “But there’s something comes over me when I see Mr. Somers thinking he can live out here, and work with the Australians. I think he’s wrong — I really do. They’ll drag him down to their level, and make what use they can of him — and — well, in my opinion you’d both be sorry for it.”
“How strange that you should say so, you who are one of them.”
“I am one of them, and I’m not. I’m not one of anybody. But I haven’t got only just the two eyes in my head that can tell the kettle from the teapot. I’ve got another set of eyes inside me somewhere that can tell real differences, when there are any. And that’s what these people don’t seem to have at all. They’ve only got the outside eyes.”
Harriet looked at him in wonder. And he looked at her — at her queer, rather large, but thin-skinned, soft hands.
“You need a thick skin to live out here,” he said.
But still she sat with her hands folded, lost in meditation.
“But Lovat wants so much to do something in the world, with other men,” she said at last. “It’s not MY urging, I assure you.”
“He’s making a mistake. He’s making a mistake to come out here, tell him from me. They’ll take him at their own level, not at his.”
“But perhaps he wants to be taken at their level,” said Harriet, rather bitterly, almost loving the short, thick man opposite for his quiet, Cornish voice and his uncanny grey eyes, and his warning.
“If he does he makes the mistake of his life, tell him from me.” And William James rose to his feet. “You’ll excuse me for stopping talking like this, over things that’s no business of mine,” he added.
“It’s awfully good of you,” said Harriet.
“Well, it’s not often I interfere with people’s doings. But there was just something about you and Mr. Somers —.”
“Awfully good of you.”
He had taken his little black felt hat. He had an almost Italian or Spanish look about him — from one of the big towns, Barcelona or even Palermo.
“I suppose I’ll have to be getting along,” he said.
She held out her hand to him to bid him good-bye. But he shook hands in a loose, slack way, and was gone, leaving Harriet uneasy as if she had received warning of a hidden danger.
She hastened to show Somers the persimmons when he came home, and to tell of her visitor.
“And he’s queer, Lovat, he’s awfully queer — nice too. He told me we were superior people, and that we made a mistake coming here, because they’d bring us down to their level.”
“Not if we don’t let them.”
“He says we can’t help it.”
“Why did he come to tell you that, I wonder.”
They were going down to Mullumbimby in two days’ time — and they had hardly seen anything of Jack and Victoria since the Sunday at Mosman’s Bay. But Victoria called across the fence, rather hesitatingly:
“You’re going with us on Saturday, aren’t you, Mrs. Somers?”
“Oh yes, we’re looking forward to it immensely — if it really suits you.”
“I’m so glad. I thought perhaps you didn’t want to go.”
That same evening Jack and Victoria came across for a few minutes.
“Look at the lovely cacchi,” said Harriet, giving the persimmons their Italian name. “William James brought them me this morning.”
“William James brought them!” cried Victoria and Jack in a breath. “Why, whatever have you done to him?”
“Nothing,” laughed Harriet. “I hope not, I’m sure.”
“You must have given him a glad eye,” said Jack. “Did he come in?”
“Yes, he came in and talked to me quite a long time. He said he would see you to-morrow in town.”
“Wonders never cease! I tell you, you’ve done it on him. What did he talk to you about, then?”
“Oh. Australia. He said he didn’t think we should really like it.”
“He did, did he? Wanted to warn you off, so to speak.”
“Perhaps,” laughed Harriet.
“The little mingo. He’s as deep as a five hundred feet boring, and I’ve never got down to sweet water in him yet.”
“Don’t you trust him?” said Harriet.
“Trust him? Oh yes, he’d never pick my pocket.”
“I didn’t mean that.”
“That’s the only way I have of trusting folks,” said Jack.
“Then you don’t trust them far,” mocked Harriet.
“Perhaps I don’t. And perhaps I’m wise of it.”
Last updated Saturday, May 23, 2015 at 22:23