They went back to Sydney on the Thursday, for two days, to pack up and return to Coo-ee. All the time, they could hear the sea. It seemed strange that they felt the sea so far away, in Sydney. In Sydney itself, there is no sea. It might be Birmingham. Even in Mullumbimby, a queer raw little place, when Somers lifted his head and looked down Main Street and saw, a mile away, the high level of the solid sea, it was almost a shock to him. Half a mile inland, the influence of the sea has disappeared, and the land-sense is so heavy, buried, that it is hard to believe that the dull rumble in the air is the ocean. It sounds like a coal-mine or something.
“You’ll let Mr. Somers and me have a little chat to ourselves, Mrs. Somers, won’t you?” said Jack, appearing after tea.
“Willingly. I assure you I don’t want to be bothered with your important affairs,” said Harriet. None the less she went over rather resentfully to Victoria, turned out of her own house. It wasn’t that she wanted to listen. She would really have hated to attend to all their high-and-mighty revolution stuff. She didn’t believe in revolutions — they were vieux jeu, out of date.
“Well,” said Jack, settling down in a wooden arm-chair and starting his pipe. “You’ve thought it over, have you?”
“Over and over,” laughed Somers.
“I knew you would.”
He sucked his pipe and thought for a time.
“I’ve had a long talk with Kangaroo about you to-day,” he said.
“He’s the First,” replied Jack slowly. And again there was silence. Somers kept himself well in hand, and said nothing.
“A lawyer — well up — I knew him in the army, though. He was one of my lieutenants.”
Still Somers waited, without speaking.
“He’d like to see you. Should you care to have lunch with him and me in town to-morrow?”
“Have you told him you’ve talked to me?”
“Oh yes — told him before I did it. He knows your writings — read all you’ve written, apparently. He’d heard about you too from a chap on the Naldera. That’s the boat you came by, isn’t it?”
“Yes,” said Somers.
“Yes,” echoed Jack. “He was all over me when I mentioned your name. You’d like Kangaroo. He’s a great chap.”
“What’s his name?”
“Cooley — Ben — Benjamin Cooley.”
“They like him on the Bulletin, don’t they? Didn’t I see something about Ben Cooley and his straight talk?”
“Yes. Oh, he can talk straight enough — and crooked enough as well, if it comes to that. You’ll come to lunch then? We lunch in his chambers.”
Somers agreed. Jack was silent, as if he had not much more to say. After a while he added reflectively:
“Yes, I’m glad to have brought you and Kangaroo together.”
“Why do they call him Kangaroo?”
“Looks like one.”
Again there was a silence, each man thinking his own thoughts.
“You and Kangaroo will catch on like wax, as far as ideas go,” Jack prognosticated. “But he’s an unfeeling beggar, really. And that’s where you WON’T cotton on to him. That’s where I come in.”
He looked at Somers with a faint smile.
“Come in to what?” laughed Somers.
Jack took his pipe from his mouth with a little flourish.
“In a job like this,” he said, “a man wants a mate — yes, a mate — that he can say ANYTHING to, and be absolutely himself with. Must have it. And as far as I go — for me — you don’t mind if I say it, do you? — Kangaroo could never have a mate. He’s as odd as any phoenix bird I’ve ever heard tell of. You couldn’t mate him to anything in the heavens above or in the earth beneath or in the waters under the earth. No, there’s no female kangaroo of his species. Fine chap, for all that. But as lonely as a nail in a post.”
“Sounds something fatal and fixed,” laughed Somers.
“It does. And he IS fatal and fixed. Those eyeglasses of his, you know — they alone make a man into a sort of eye of God, rather glassy. But my idea is, in a job like this, every man should have a mate — like most of us had in the war. Mine was Victoria’s brother — and still is, in a way. But he got some sort of a sickness that seems to have taken all the fight out of him. Fooling about with the wrong sort of women. Can’t get his pecker up again now, the fool. Poor devil an’ all.”
Jack sighed and resumed his pipe.
“Men fight better when they’ve got a mate. They’ll stand anything when they’ve got a mate,” he went on again after a while. “But a mate’s not all that easy to strike. We’re a lot of decent chaps, stick at nothing once they wanted to put a thing through, in our lodge — and in my club. But there’s not one of them I feel’s quite up to me — if you know what I mean. Rattling good fellows — but nary one of ’em quite my cut.”
“That’s usually so,” laughed Somers.
“It is,” said Jack. Then he narrowed and diminished his voice. “Now I feel,” he said cautiously and intensely, “that if you and me was mates, we could put any damn mortal thing through, if we had to knock the bottom out of the blanky show to do it.”
Somers dropped his head. He liked the man. But what about the cause? What about the mistrust and reluctancy he felt? And at the same time, the thrill of desire. What was offered? He wanted so much. To be mates with Jack in this cause. Life and death mates. And yet he felt he couldn’t. Not quite. Something stopped him.
He looked up at Callcott. The other man’s face was alert and waiting: curiously naked a face too. Somers wished it had had even a moustache, anything rather than this clean, all-clean bare flesh. If Jack had only had a beard too — like a man — and not one of these clean-shaven too-much-exposed faces. Alert, waiting face — almost lurking, waiting for an answer.
“Could we ever be QUITE mates?” Somers asked gently.
Jack’s dark eyes watched the other man fixedly. Jack himself wasn’t unlike a kangaroo, thought Somers: a long-faced, smooth-faced, strangely watchful kangaroo with powerful hindquarters.
“Perhaps not as me and Fred Wilmot was. In a way you’re higher up than I am. But that’s what I like, you know — a mate that’s better than I am, a mate who I FEEL is better than I am. That’s what I feel about you: and that’s what makes me feel, if we was mates, I’d stick to you through hell fire and back, and we’d clear some land between us. I KNOW if you and me was mates, we could put any blooming thing through. There’d be nothing to stop us.”
“Not even Kangaroo?”
“Oh, he’d be our way, and we’d be his. He’s a sensible chap.” Somers was tempted to give Jack his hand there and then, and pledge himself to a friendship, or a comradeship, that nothing should ever alter. He wanted to do it. Yet something withheld him as if an invisible hand were upon him, preventing him.
“I’m not sure that I’m a mating man, either,” he said slowly.
“You?” Jack eyed him. “You are and you aren’t. If you’d once come over — why man, do you think I wouldn’t lay my life down for you?”
Somers went pale. He didn’t want anybody laying down their lives for him. “Greater love than this —.” But he didn’t want this great love. He didn’t BELIEVE in it: in that way of love.
“Let’s leave it, Jack,” he replied, laughing slowly and rising, giving his hand to the other man. “Don’t let us make any pledges yet. We’re friends, whatever else we are. As for being mates — wait till I feel sure. Wait till I’ve seen Kangaroo. Wait till I see my way clear. I feel I’m only six strides down the way yet, and you ask me to be at the end.”
“At the start you mean,” said Jack, gripping the other man’s hand, and rising too. “But take your time, old man.” He laid his hand on Somers’ shoulder. “If you’re slow and backward like a woman, it’s because it’s your nature. Not like me, I go at it in jumps like a kangaroo. I feel I could jump clean through the blooming tent-canvas sometimes.” As he spoke he was pale and tense with emotion, and his eyes were like black holes, almost wounds in the pallor of his face.
Somers was in a dilemma. Did he want to mix and make with this man? One part of him perhaps did. But not a very big part, since for his life he could not help resenting it when Jack put his hand on his shoulder, or called him “old man”. It wasn’t the commonness either. Jack’s “common” speech and manner was largely assumed — part of the colonial bluff. He could be accurate enough if he chose — as Somers knew already, and would soon know more emphatically. No, it was not the commonness, the vulgar touch in the approach. Jack was sensitive enough, really. And the quiet, well-bred appeal of upper-class young Englishmen, who have the same yearning for intimate comradeship, combined with a sensitive delicacy really finer than a woman’s, this made Somers shrink just the same. He half wanted to commit himself to this whole affection with a friend, a comrade, a mate. And then, in the last issue, he didn’t want it at all. The affection would be deep and genuine enough: that he knew. But — when it came to the point, he didn’t want any more affection. All his life he had cherished a beloved ideal of friendship — David and Jonathan. And now, when true and good friends offered, he found he simply could not commit himself, even to simple friendship. The whole trend of this affection, this mingling, this intimacy, this truly beautiful love, he found his soul just set against it. He couldn’t go along with it. He didn’t want a friend, he didn’t want loving affection, he didn’t want comradeship. No, his soul trembled when he tried to drive it along the way, trembled and stood still, like Balaam’s Ass. It did not want friendship or comradeship, great or small, deep or shallow.
It took Lovat Somers some time before he would really admit and accept this new fact. Not till he had striven hard with his soul did he come to see the angel in the way; not till his soul, like Balaam’s Ass, had spoken more than once. And then, when forced to admit, it was a revolution in his mind. He had all his life had this craving for an absolute friend, a David to his Jonathan, Pylades to his Orestes: a blood-brother. All his life he had secretly grieved over his friendlessness. And now at last, when it really offered — and it had offered twice before, since he had left Europe — he didn’t want it, and he realised that in his innermost soul he had never wanted it.
Yet he wanted SOME living fellowship with other men; as it was he was just isolated. Maybe a living fellowship! — but not affection, not love, not comradeship. Not mates and equality and mingling. Not blood-brotherhood. None of that.
What else? He didn’t know. He only knew he was never destined to be mate or comrade or even friend with any man. Some other living relationship. But what? He did not know. Perhaps the thing that the dark races know: that one can still feel in India: the mystery of lordship. That which white men have struggled so long against, and which is the clue to the life of the Hindu. The mystery of lordship. The mystery of innate, natural, sacred priority. The other mystic relationship between men, which democracy and equality try to deny and obliterate. Not any arbitrary caste or birth aristocracy. But the mystic recognition of difference and innate priority, the joy of obedience and the sacred responsibility of authority.
Before Somers went down to George Street to find Jack and to be taken by him to luncheon with the Kangaroo, he had come to the decision, or to the knowledge that mating or comradeship were contrary to his destiny. He would never pledge himself to Jack, nor to this venture in which Jack was concerned.
They arrived at Mr. Cooley’s chambers punctually. It was a handsome apartment with handsome jarrah furniture, dark and suave, and some very beautiful rugs. Mr. Cooley came at once: and he WAS a kangaroo. His face was long and lean and pendulous, with eyes set close together behind his pince-nez: and his body was stout but firm. He was a man of forty or so, hard to tell, swarthy, with short-cropped dark hair and a smallish head carried rather forward on his large but sensitive, almost shy body. He leaned forward in his walk, and seemed as if his hands didn’t quite belong to him. But he shook hands with a firm grip. He was really tall, but his way of dropping his head, and his sloping shoulders, took away from his height. He seemed not much taller than Somers, towards whom he seemed to lean the sensitive tip of his long nose, hanging over him as he scrutinised him sharply through his eye-glasses, and approaching him with the front of his stomach.
“Very glad to see you,” he said, in a voice half Australian, half official.
The luncheon was almost impressive: a round table with a huge bunch of violets in a queer old copper bowl, Queen Anne silver, a tablecloth with heavy point edging, Venetian wine-glasses, red and white wine in Venetian wine-jugs, a Chinaman waiting at table, offering first a silver dish of hors d’oeuvres and a handsome crayfish with mayonnaise.
“Why,” said Somers, equivocally, “I might be anywhere.”
Kangaroo looked at him sharply. Somers noticed that when he sat down, his thighs in his dark grey, striped trousers were very thick, making his shoulders seem almost slender; but though his stomach was stout, it was firm.
“Then I hope you feel at home,” said Kangaroo. “Because I am sure you are at home anywhere.” And he helped himself to olives, putting one in his queer, pursed, thick-lipped mouth.
“For which reason I’m never at home, presumably.”
“That may easily be the case. Will you take red or white wine?”
“White,” said Somers, oblivious of the poised Chinaman.
“You have come to a homely country,” said the Kangaroo, without the ghost of a smile.
“Certainly to a very hospitable one.”
“We rarely lock our doors,” said Kangaroo.
“Or anything else,” said Jack. “Though of course we may slay you in the scullery if you say a word against us.”
“I’m not going to be so indiscreet,” said Somers.
“Leave the indiscretion to us. We believe in it. Indiscretion is the better part of valour. You agree, Kangaroo?” said Jack, smiling over his plate directly at his host.
“I don’t think I’d care to see you turn discreet, boy,” returned the other. “Though your quotation isn’t new.”
“Even a crystal-gazer can’t gaze to the bottom of a deep well, eh? Never mind, I’m as shallow as a pie-dish, and proud of it. Red, please.” This to the Chink.
“That’s why it’s so nice knowing you,” said Kangaroo.
“And you, of course, are a glass finger-bowl with a violet floating on it, you’re so transparent,” said Jack.
“I think that describes me beautifully. Mr. Somers, help yourself to wine, that’s the most comfortable. I hope you are going to write something for us. Australia is waiting for her Homer — or her Theocritus.”
“Or even her Ally Sloper,” said Jack, “if I may be permitted to be so old-fashioned.”
“If I were but blind,” said Somers, “I might have a shot at Australian Homerics.”
“His eyes hurt him still, with looking at Sydney,” said Jack.
There certainly is enough of it to look at,” said Kangaroo.
“In acreage,” said Jack.
“Pity it spreads over so much ground,” said Somers.
“Oh, every man his little lot, and an extended tram-service.
“In Rome,” said Somers, “they piled up huge houses, vast, and stowed them away like grubs in a honeycomb.”
“Who did the stowing?” asked Jack sarcastically.
“We don’t like to have anybody overhead here,” said Kangaroo. “We don’t even care to go upstairs, because we are then one storey higher than our true, ground-floor selves.”
“Prop us up on a dozen stumps, and we’re cosy,” said Jack. “Just a little above the earth level, and no higher, you know. Australians in their heart of hearts hate anything but a bungalow. They feel it’s rock bottom, don’t you see. None of your stair-climbing shams and upstairs importance.”
“Good honest fellows,” said Kangaroo, and it was impossible to know if he were joking or not.
“Till it comes to business,” said Jack.
Kangaroo then started a discussion of the much-mooted and at the moment fashionable Theory of Relativity.
“Of course it’s popular,” said Jack. “It absolutely takes the wind out of anybody’s sails who wants to say “I’m IT.” Even the Lord Almighty is only relatively so and as it were.”
“How nice for us all,” laughed Somers. “It needed a Jew to lead us this last step in liberty.”
“Now we’re all little ITS, chirping like so many molecules one with another,” said Jack, eyeing the roast duck with a shrewd gaze.
The luncheon passed frivolously. Somers was bored, but he had a shrewd suspicion that the other two men really enjoyed it. They sauntered into the study for coffee. It was a smallish room, with big, deep leather chairs of a delicate brown colour, and a thick, bluey oriental carpet. The walls even had an upper panelling of old embossed cordovan leather, a bluish colouring with gilt, old and tarnished away. It was evident that law pays, even in a new country.
Everybody waited for everybody to speak. Somers, of course, knew it was not his business to begin.
“The indiscreet Callcott told you about our Kangaroo clubs,” said the host, smiling faintly. Somers thought that surely he had Jewish blood in him. He stirred his little gold coffee-cup slowly.
“He gave me a very sketchy outline.”
“It interested you?”
“I read your series of articles on Democracy,” said Kangaroo. “In fact they helped me to this attempt now.”
“I thought not a soul read them,” said Somers, “in that absurd international paper published at the Hague, that they said was run absolutely by spies and shady people.”
“It may have been. But I was a subscriber, and I read your essays here in Sydney. There was another man, too, writing on a new aristocracy. But it seemed to me there was too much fraternising in his scheme, too much reverence for the upper classes and passionate pity for the working classes. He wanted them all to be kind to one another, aristocrats of the spirit.” Kangaroo smiled slowly. And when he smiled like that, there came an exceedingly sweet charm into his face, for a moment his face was like a flower. Yet he was quite ugly. And surely, thought Somers, it is Jewish blood. The very best that is in the Jewish blood: a faculty for pure disinterestedness, and warm, physically warm love, that seems to make the corpuscles of the blood glow. And after the smile his face went stupid and kangaroo-like, pendulous, with the eyes close together above the long, drooping nose. But the shape of the head was very beautiful, small, light, and fine. The man had surely Jewish blood. And he was almost purely KIND, essential kindliness, embodied in an ancient, unscrupulous shrewdness. He was so shrewd, so clever. And with a rogue or a mean man, absolutely unscrupulous. But for any human being who showed himself sincere and vulnerable, his heart was pure in kindness. An extraordinary man. This pure kindliness had something Jehovah-like in it. And in every difficulty and every stress, he would remember it, his kindly love for real, vulnerable human beings. It had given his soul an absolute direction, whatever he said about relativity. Yet once he felt any man or woman was cold, mean, barren of this warmth which was in him, then he became at once utterly unscrupulous in defeating the creature. He was not angry or indignant. He was more like a real Jehovah. He had only to turn on all the levers and forces of his clever, almost fiendishly subtle will, and he could triumph. And he knew it. Somers had once had a Jewish friend with this wonderful, Jehovah-like kindliness, but also, without the shrewd fiendish subtlety of will. But it helped him to understand Cooley.
“Yes — I think the man sent me his book,” said Somers. “I forget his name. I only remember there was a feverish adulation of Lord Something-or-other, and a terrible cri du coeur about the mother of the people, the poor elderly woman in a battered black bonnet and a shawl, going out with sixpence ha’penny to buy a shillings-worth of necessaries for the home.”
“Just so,” said Kangaroo, smiling again. “No doubt her husband drank. If he did, who can wonder.”
“The very sight of her makes one want to shove her out of the house — or out of the world, for that matter,” said Somers.
“Nay,” said Jack. “She’s enjoying her misery, dear old soul. Don’t envy her bits of pleasures.
“Not envy,” laughed Somers. “But I begrudge them her.”
“What would you do with her?” asked Kangaroo.
“I wouldn’t do anything. She mostly creeps in the East End. where one needn’t bother about her. And she’s as much at home there as an opossum is in the bush. So don’t bother me about her.”
“Just so,” smiled Kangaroo. “I’d like to provide public kitchens where the children can get properly fed — and make the husband do a certain amount of state labour to pay for it. And for the rest, leave them to go their own way.”
“But their minds, their souls, their spirits?” said Somers.
“They must more or less look after them themselves. I want to keep ORDER. I want to remove physical misery as far as possible. That I am sure of. And that you can only do by exerting strong, just POWER from above. There I agree with you.”
“You don’t believe in education?”
“Not much. That is to say, in ninety per cent of the people it is useless. But I do want those ninety per cent none the less to have full, substantial lives: as even slaves had under certain masters and as our people hardly have at all. That again, I think, is one of your ideas.”
“It is,” said Somers. But his heart sank. “You want a kind of benevolent tyranny, then?”
“Not exactly. You see my tyrant would be so much circumscribed by the constitution I should establish. But in a sense, he would be a tyrant. Perhaps it would be nearer to say he would be a patriarch, or a pope: representing as near as possible the wise, subtle spirit of life. I should try to establish my state of Australia as a kind of Church, with the profound reverence for life, for life’s deepest urges, as the motive power. Dostoevsky suggests this: and I believe it can be done.”
“Perhaps it might be done here,” blurted Somers. “Every continent has its own way, and its own needs.”
“I agree,” said Kangaroo. “I have the greatest admiration for the Roman Catholic Church, as an institution. But the creed and the theology are not natural to me, quite. Not quite. I think we need something more flexible, and a power less formal and dogmatic; more generous, shall I say. A GENEROUS power, that sees all the issue here, not in the after-life, and that does not concern itself with sin and repentance and redemption. I should try to teach my people what it is truly to be a MAN, and a woman. The salvation of souls seems too speculative a job. I think if a man is truly a man, true to his own being, his soul saves itself in that way. But no two people can save their souls alive, in the same way. As far as possible, we must leave it to them. Fata volentem ducunt, nolentem trahunt.”
“I believe that too.”
“Yet there must be law, and there must be authority. But law more human, and authority much wiser. If a man loves life, and feels the sacredness and the mystery of life, then he knows that life is full of strange and subtle and even conflicting imperatives. And a wise man learns to recognize the imperatives as they arise — or nearly so — and to obey. But most men bruise themselves to death trying to fight and overcome their own new, life-born needs, life’s ever-strange new imperatives. The secret of all life is in obedience: obedience to the urge that arises in the soul, the urge that is life itself, urging us on to new gestures, new embraces, new emotions, new combinations, new creations. It is a subtle and conflicting urge away from the thing we are. And there lies the pain. Because man builds himself in to his old house of life, builds his own blood into the roads he lays down, and to break from the old way, and to change his house of life, is almost like tearing him to pieces: a sacrilege. Life is cruel — and above all things man needs to be reassured and suggested into his new issues. And he needs to be relieved from this terrible responsibility of governing himself when he doesn’t know what he wants, and has no aim towards which to govern himself. Man again needs a father — not a friend or a brother sufferer, a suffering Saviour. Man needs a quiet, gentle father who uses his authority in the name of living life, and who is absolutely stern against anti-life. I offer no creed. I offer myself, my heart of wisdom, strange warm cavern where the voice of the oracle steams in from the unknown; I offer my consciousness, which hears the voice; and I offer my mind and my will, for the battle against every obstacle to respond to the voice of life, and to shelter mankind from the madness and the evil of anti-life.”
“You believe in evil?”
“Ah, yes. Evil is the great principle that opposes life in its new urges. The principle of permanency, everlastingness is, in my opinion, the root of evil. The Ten Commandments which Moses heard were the very voice of life. But the tablets of stone he engraved them on are millstones round our necks. Commandments should fade as flowers do. They are no more divine than flowers are. But our divine flowers — look at those hibiscus — they don’t want to immortalise themselves into stone. If they turned into stone on my table, my heart would almost stop beating, and lose its hope and its joy. But they won’t. They will quietly, gently wither. And I love them for it. And so should all creeds, all gods, quietly and gently curl up and wither as their evening approaches. That is the only way of true holiness, in my opinion.”
The man had a beautiful voice, when he was really talking. It was like a flute, a wood-instrument. And his face, with that odd look of a sheep or a kangaroo, took on an extraordinary beauty of its own, a glow as if it were suffused with light. And the eyes shone with a queer, holy light, behind the eyeglasses. And yet it was still the kangaroo face.
Somers watched the face, and dropped his head. He sat feeling rebuked. He was so impatient and outrageous himself. And the steady loveliness of this man’s warm, wise heart was too much for him. He was abashed before it.
“Ah, yes,” Kangaroo re-echoed. “There is a principle of evil. The principle of resistance. Malignant resistance to the life principle. And it uses the very life-force itself against life, and sometimes seems as if it were absolutely winning. Not only Jesus rose from the dead. Judas rose as well, and propagated himself on the face of the earth. He has many children now. The life opposers. The life-resisters. The life-enemies. But we will see who wins. We will see. In the name of life, and the love of life, as man is almost invincible. I have found it so.”
“I believe it also,” said Somers.
They were silent, and Kangaroo sat there with the rapt look on his face: a pondering, eternal look, like the eternity of the lamb of God grown into a sheep. This rather wicked idea came into Somers’ mind: the lamb of God grown into a sheep. So the man sat there, with his wide-eyed, rapt face sunk forward to his breast, very beautiful, and as eternal as if it were a dream: so absolute.
A wonderful thing for a sculptor. For Kangaroo was really ugly: his pendulous Jewish face, his forward shoulders, his round stomach in its expensively tailored waistcoat and dark grey, striped trousers, his very big thighs. And yet even his body had become beautiful, to Somers — one might love it intensely, every one of its contours, its roundnesses and downward-drooping heaviness. Almost a grotesque, like a Chinese Buddha. And yet not a grotesque. Beautiful, beautiful as some half-tropical, bulging flower from a tree.
Then Kangaroo looked with a teasing little smile at Somers.
“But you have your OWN idea of power, haven’t you?” he said, getting up suddenly, with quick power in his bulk, and gripping the other man’s shoulder.
“I thought I had,” said Somers.
“Oh, you have, you have.” There was a calm, easy tone in the voice, slightly fat, very agreeable. Somers thrilled to it as he had never thrilled.
“Why, the man is like a god, I love him,” he said to his astonished self. And Kangaroo was hanging forward his face and smiling heavily and ambiguously to himself, knowing that Somers was with him.
“Tiger, tiger, burning bright
In the forests of the night”
he quoted in a queer, sonorous voice, like a priest. “The lion of your might would be a tiger, wouldn’t it. The tiger and the unicorn were fighting for the crown. How about me for a unicorn? — if I tied a bayonet on my nose?” He rubbed his nose with a heavy playfulness.
“Is the tiger your principle of evil?”
“The tiger? Oh dear, no. The jackal, the hyaena, and dear, deadly humanity. No, no. The tiger stands on one side of the shield, and the unicorn on the other, and they don’t fight for the crown at all. They keep it up between them. The pillars of the world! The tiger and the kangaroo!” he boomed this out in a mock heroic voice, strutting with heavy playfulness. Then he laughed, looking winsomely at Somers. Heaven, what a beauty he had!
“Tiger, tiger, burning bright,” he resumed, sing-song, abstracted. “I knew you’d come. Ever since I read your first book of poems — how many years is it ago? — ten? — eleven? I knew you’d come.
‘Your hands are five-branded flames —
Noli me tangere.’
Of course you had to come.”
“Well, here I am, anyhow,” said Somers.
“You are. You ARE!” shouted the other, and Somers was quite scared. Then Kangaroo laughed again. “Get up,” he said. “Stand up and let me look at you.”
The two men stood facing one another: Kangaroo large, with his full stomach and his face hulking down, and his queer, glaring eyes: Somers slight and aloof-looking. Cooley eyed him up and down.
“A little bit of a fellow — too delicate for rough me,” he said, then started quoting again:
‘Your hands are five-branded flames —
Noli me tangere.’
I’ve got fat and bulky on all the poetry I never wrote. How do you do, Mr. Somers? How do you like Australia, and its national animal, the kangaroo?” Again he smiled with the sudden glow of warmth in his dark eyes, startling and wonderful.
“Australia is a weird country, and it’s national animal is beyond me,” Somers said, smiling rather palely.
“Oh no, it isn’t. You’ll be patting it on the back as soon as you’ve taken your hands out of your pockets.”
He stood silent a long while, with feet apart, looking abstractedly at Somers through his pince-nez.
“Ah, well,” he sighed at last. “We shall see. We shall see. But I’m very glad you came. You understand what I mean, I know, when I say we are birds of the same feather. Aren’t we?”
“In some ways I think we are.”
“Yes. In the feathery line. When shall I see you again?”
“We are going back to the South Coast on Saturday.”
“Then let me see you to-morrow. Let me call for you at your house — and bring you back into town for dinner in the evening. May I do that?”
“Thank you,” said Somers.
“What does ‘thank you’ mean? Danke! No, thank you.”
“Yes, thank you,” said Somers.
“Don’t thank ME, man,” suddenly shouted the other. “I’m the one to do the thanking.”
Somers felt simple startled amazement at these sudden shouts — loud shouts, that you might almost hear in the street.
At last Jack and Somers left. Jack had felt it his business to keep quiet: he knew his chief. But now he opened his mouth.
“What do you think of Kangaroo?” he asked.
“I’m beyond thinking,” said Somers.
“I know, that’s how he leaves you when he makes a set at you. But he’s a rattling fine sort, he is. He puts a heart into you when your chest’s as hollow as an old mustard tin. He’s a wonder, is Kangaroo: and he keeps on being a wonder.”
“Yes, he’s certainly a wonder.”
“My, the brain the man has! I say, though, talking about tigers and kangaroos reminded me of a thing I once saw. It was up in the North. I was going along when I heard snarls out of some long buffalo grass that made my hair stand on end. I had to see what it was, though, so into the grass goes I. And there I saw a full-grown male kangaroo backed up against a tree, with the flesh of one leg torn clean from the bone. He was gasping, but he was still fighting. And the other was a great big cat, we call ’em tiger-cats, as big as a smallish leopard, a beauty — grey and black stripes, and straighter than a leopard. And before you could breathe, a streak of black and grey shot at the ’roo’s throat, seemed to twist in mid air — and the ’roo slipped down to the ground with his entrails ripped right out. I was so dumbfounded I took a step in the grass, and that great hulking cat stopped and lifted his face from his warm food that he’d started on without ever looking up. He stood over the ’roo for ten seconds staring me in the eyes. Then the skin wrinkled back from his snout, and the fangs were so white and clean as death itself, and a low growl came out of his ugly throat. “Come on, you swine,” it said as plain as words. I didn’t, you bet. I backed out of that beastly grass.
“The next one I saw was a dead one. And beside him lay the boss’ best staghound, that had been trained to tackling wild boars since he was a pup: dead as well. The cat had come fossicking round our camp on the Madden River.
“My gad, though, but the size of the brute, and muscle like you couldn’t find in any other beast. I looked at the claws on the pads. They’re as sharp as a lancet, and they’d tear the guts out of a man before he could squeak. It was good-bye ’roo, that time.”
“They put that yarn in the Bulletin. And some chap wrote and said it was a stiff ’un, and the wild cat must be descended from escaped tame cats, because this country has no pussy aboriginal of any sort. Couldn’t say myself, except I saw that tiger-cat, and it didn’t look much like the son of a homely tissey, either. Wonder what put the thing in my head. Perhaps Kangaroo’s fat belly.”
“He’s not so very fat,” said Somers.
“No, he’s not got what you’d call a corporation and a whole urban council in front of him. Neither is he flat just there, like you and me.”
Kangaroo arrived the next day at Torestin with a large bunch of violets in his hand: pale, expensive, late winter violets. He took off his hat to Harriet and bowed quite deep, without shaking hands. He had been a student at Munich.
“Oh, how do you do!” cried Harriet. “Please don’t look at the horrid room, we leave in the morning.”
Kangaroo looked vacantly around. He was not interested, so he saw nothing: he might as well have been blind.
“It’s a very nice room,” he said. “May I give you the violets? The poet said you liked having them about.”
She took them in her two hands, smelling their very faint fragrance.
“They’re not like English violets — or those big dark fellows in Italy,” he said. “But still we persuade ourselves that they ARE violets.”
“They’re lovely. I feel I could warm my hands over them,” she said.
“And now they’re quite happy violets,” he replied, smiling his rare, sweet smile at her. “Why are you taking the poet away from Sydney?”
“Lovat? He wants to go.”
“Lovat! What a good name to call him by!” He turned to Somers, looking at him closely. “May I call you Lovat?”
“Better that than ‘the poet’,” said Somers, lifting his nose slightly with aversion.
The other man laughed, but softly and happily.
“His muse he’s not in love with,” he murmured to himself.
“No, he prefers his own name,” said Somers.
“But supposing now,” said Kangaroo, as if alert and interested, “your name was Cooley: Benjamin Cooley — Ben, for short. You’d prefer even Kangaroo to that.”
“In Australia the kangaroo is the king of beasts,” said Somers.
“The kangaroo is the king of beasts,
Inviting the other ones out to feasts,”
sang the big man continuing: “Won’t you both come to dinner with the king of beasts? Won’t you come too, Mrs. Somers?”
“You know you only want Lovat, to talk your MAN’S stuff.”
“I’m not a man, I’m a kangaroo. Besides, yesterday I hadn’t seen you. If I had known, my dear Somers, that your wife, who is at this moment in her room hastily changing her dress, was such a beautiful person — I don’t say woman merely — I’d have invited you for her sake, and not for your own.”
“Then I wouldn’t have come,” said Somers.
“Hear them, what a haughty pair of individuals! I suppose you expect the king of beasts to go down on his knees to you, like the rest of democratic kings to their constituents. Won’t you get ready,” Mrs. Somers?”
“You are quite sure you want me to come?” said Harriet suspiciously.
“Why, if you won’t come, I shall ask Lovat — dear Lovat, by the happiest fluke in the world not Lovelace — to let me stay here to tea, dinner, or supper — that is, to the next meal, whatever name it may bear.”
At this Harriet disappeared to put on a proper dress.
“We will go as soon as you are ready,” called Kangaroo. “We can all squeeze into that automobile at your gate.”
When Harriet reappeared the men rose. Kangaroo looked at her with admiration.
“What a remarkably beautiful person you are,” he said. “But mind, I don’t say WOMAN. Dio liberi!” He scuttled hurriedly to the door.
They had a gay dinner. Kangaroo wasn’t really witty. But he had such an innocent charm, an extraordinary winsomeness, that it was much more delicious than wit. His presence was so warm. You felt you were cuddled cosily, like a child, on his breast, in the soft glow of his heart, and that your feet were nestling on his ample, beautiful “tummy”.
“I wonder you were never married,” said Harriet to him.
“I’ve been married several times,” he replied.
“Really!” she cried.
“First to Benny Cooley — then to immortal verse — after that to the law — once to a haughty lady — and now I’m wedded to my ideals. This time it is final. I don’t take another wife.”
“I don’t care about the rest. But were you ever married, really?”
“To a woman? A mere woman? Why yes indeed. A young Baroness too. And after seven months she told me she couldn’t stand me for another minute, and went off with Von Rumpeldorf.”
“Is it true?”
“And is there still a Mrs. Kangaroo?”
“Alas, no! Like the unicorn, the family knows no female.”
“But why couldn’t she stand you?” cried Harriet.
“Think of it now. Could ANY woman stand me?” he asked, with a slight shrug.
“I should have thought they’d have ADORED you,” she cried.
“Of course they do. They can’t stand me, though. And I thoroughly sympathize with them.”
Harriet looked at him thoughtfully.
“Yes,” she said slowly. “You’re too much like Abraham’s bosom. One would feel nowhere.”
Kangaroo threw down his napkin and pushed back his chair and roared with laughter — roared and roared with laughter. The Chinese man-servant stood back perturbed. Harriet went very red — the dinner waited. Then suddenly he became quiet, looking comically at Harriet, and still sitting back from table. Then he opened his arms and held them outstretched, his head on one side.
“The way to nowhere,” he said, ironically.
She did not say any more, and he turned to the manservant.
“My glass is empty, John,” he said.
“Ah well,” he sighed, “if you please one woman you can’t please all women.”
“And you must please all women,” said Harriet, thoughtfully. “Yes, perhaps you must. Perhaps it is your mission.”
“Mission! Good God! Now I’m a fat missionary. Dear Mrs. Somers, eat my dinner, but don’t swallow ME in a mouthful. Eating your host for hors d’oeuvres. You’re a dangerous ogre, a Medusa with her hair under her hat. Let’s talk of Peach Melba. Where have you had the very best Peach Melba you ever tasted?”
After this he became quiet, and a little constrained, and when they had withdrawn for coffee, the talk went subduedly, with a little difficulty.
“I suppose your husband will have told you, Mrs. Somers, of our heaven-inspired scheme of saving Australia from the thieves, dingoes, rabbits, rats and starlings, humanly speaking.”
“No, he hasn’t told me. He’s only told me there was some political business going on.”
“He may as well put it that way as any other. And you advised him not to have anything to do with it?”
“No,” said Harriet, “I let him do as he likes.”
“Wonderful woman! Even the wind bloweth where it listeth.”
“So does he.”
“With your permission.”
“The wind has permission too,” said Harriet. “Everything goes by permission of something else, in this world.” But she went rather red.
“Bravo, a Daniel come to judgement!” Then his voice changed, became gentle and winning again. It was as if he had remembered to love her, in his way of love. “It’s not quite a political thing,” he said. “We want to take away the strain, the nervous tension out of life, and let folks be happy again unconsciously, instead of unhappy consciously. You wouldn’t say that was wrong, would you?”
“No,” she replied, rather unwilling.
“And if I have to be a fat old Kangaroo with — not an Abraham’s bosom, but a pouch to carry young Australia in — why — do you really resent it?”
Harriet laughed, glancing involuntarily at his lowest waistcoat button. It seemed such a true figure.
“Why should I resent it? It’s not my business.”
“Let it be your business just a little bit. I want your sympathy.”
“You mean you want Lovat?”
“Poor Lovat. Richard Lovat Somers! I do indeed want him. But just as much I want your sympathy.”
Harriet smiled enigmatically. She was being her most annoying. A look of almost vicious anger came over the man’s face as he leaned back in his chair, seeming to make his brows narrower, and a convulsion seemed to go through his belly. Then he recovered his calm, and seemed to forget. For a long time he lay silent, with a strange hypnotic stillness, as if he were thinking far away, quite far away. Both Harriet and Somers felt spellbound. Then from the distance came his small voice:
“Man that is born of woman is sick of himself. Man that is born of woman is tired of his day after day. And woman is like a mother with a tiresome child: what is she to do with him? What is she to do with him? — man, born of woman.
“But the men that are born like ants, out of the cold interval, and are womanless, they are not sick of themselves. They are full of cold energy, and they seethe with cold fire in the anthill, making new corridors, new chambers — they alone know what for. And they have cold, formic-acid females, as restless as themselves, and as active about the ant-hill, and as identical with the dried clay of the building. And the active, important, so-called females, and the active, cold-blooded, energetic males, they shift twig after twig, and lay crumb of earth upon crumb of earth, and the females deposit cold white eggs of young. This is the world, and the people of the world. And with their cold, active bodies the ant-men and the ant-women swarm over the face of the earth.
“And where then are the sons of men? Where are the sons of men, and man that is born of woman? Man that is born of woman is a slave in the cold, barren corridors of the ant-hill. Or if he goes out, the open spaces are but spaces between ant-hill and ant-hill. And as he goes he hears voices claiming him, saying: “Hello, here comes a brother ant.” And they hail him as a brother ant. And from this there is no escape. None. Not even the lap of woman.
“But I am a son of man. I was once a man born of woman. And by the warm heart of the mother that bore me, even if fifty wives denied me, I would still go on fighting with a warm heart to break down the ant-hill. I can fight them with their own weapons: the hard mandibles and the acid sting of the cold ant. But that is not how I fight them. I fight them with the warm heart. Deep calls to deep, and fire calls out fire. And for warmth, for the fire of sympathy, to burn out the ant heap with the heat of fiery, living hearts: that is what I stand for.
“And if I can make no one single woman happy, I will make none unhappy either. But if I can let out the real fire of happiness from the heart and bowels of man that is born of woman and woman that is born of man.” Then suddenly he broke off: “And whether I can or not, I LOVE them,” he shouted, in a voice suddenly become loud and passionate. “I love them. I LOVE you, you woman born of man, I do, and I defy you to prevent me. Fiery you are, and fiery am I, and fire should be friends with fire. And when you make me angry, with your jealousy and mistrust like the ants, I remember, I remind myself: “But see the beauty of the fire in her! And think how the ants have tortured her and filled her with fear and with horror!” And then the rage goes down again, and I know I love you, and I know that fire loves fire, and that therefore you love me. And I chalk up another mark against the ants, who have tortured you with their cold energy and their conscious formic-acid that stings like fire. And I love you because you’ve suffered from them as I have. And I love you because you and your husband cherish the fire between you, sacred, apart from the ants. A bas les fourmis.
“I have been like a man buried up to his neck in an ant-heap: so buried in the daily world, and stung and stung and stung again, because I wouldn’t change and grow cold, till now their poison is innocuous, and the formic-acid of social man has no effect on me. And I’ve kept my warmth. And I will keep it, till I give it up to the unknown, out of my poor fat body. And it is my banner, and my wife and my children and my God — just a flicker that is in my heart like a fire, and that I live by. I CAN’T speculate about God. I can’t do it. It seems to me a cold, antish trick. But the fire that is in my heart is God, and I will not forswear it, no, not if you offer me all the world. And fire is full of seeds — full of seeds — and let them scatter. I won’t cherish it on a domestic hearth. I say I won’t. So don’t bring that up against me. I won’t cherish it on the domestic hearth. I will use it against the ants, while they swarm over everything. And I’ll call fire to my fire, and set the ant-heap at last in a blaze. Like kerosene poured in. It shall be so. It shall be so. Don’t oppose me. Believe the flame in your heart, once and for all, and don’t oppose me. Believe the flame of your own heart, and be with me. Remember I am with you against the ants. Remember that. And if I am Abraham’s bosom — isn’t it better than no bosom, in a world that simmers with busy ants? And would you leave every young, warm, naked thing on the ground for the ants to find. Would you?”
He looked at her searchingly. She was pale, and moved, but hostile. He swung round in his chair, swinging his heavy hips over and lying sideways.
“Shall I tell you a thing a man told me. He had it from the lady’s own lips. It was when the Prince of Wales was in India just now. There had been a show — and then a dinner given by the governor of the town — some capital or other. The Prince sat next to the governor’s lady, and he was glum, silent, tortured by them all a bit beyond bearance. And the governor’s lady felt she ought to make conversation, ought to say something to the poor devil, just for the show’s sake and the occasion. So she COULDN’T think what to tell him that would interest him. Then she had a brilliant idea. ‘Do you know what happened to me last week?’ she said. ‘You’ve seen my adorable little Pekinese, Chu? She had puppies — four darling queer little things — tiny little creepy-crawlies. Of course we loved them. But in the night I thought I heard them crying — I wasn’t sure. But at last I went down. And what do you think! There was a swarm of white ants, and they were just eating up the last bits of them. Wasn’t it awful.’ The Prince went white as death. And just then an ant happened to come on the tablecloth. He took his glass and banged it over it, and never spoke another word all evening. Now that story was told by the woman herself. And this was what she did to a poor nerve-racked lad she was supposed to honour. Now I ask you, where was the living heart in her? She was an ant, a white ant, too.”
He rolled over in his chair, bitterly, with massive bitterness, turning his back on Harriet. She sat with a pale, blenched face, and tears in her eyes.
“How cruel!” she said. “But she must have been a fool.”
“Vile! Vile! No fool! Quite brilliant ant-tactics. There was warmth in the lad’s heart, and she was out to do HER bit of the quenching. Oh, she gave him her nip and sting. Ants, social ants. Social creatures! Cold — I’m as cold as they are when it comes to them. And as cunning, and QUITE as vicious. But that’s not what I care for. I want to collect together all the fire in all the burning hearts in Australia: that’s what I want. Collect the heart-fire, and the fire will be our fire. That’s what I do want; apart from all antics and ant-tricks. ‘We have lighted such a fire this day, Master Latimer.’ Yes, and we’ll light another. You NEEDN’T be with me if you don’t want to — if you’re frightened of losing your monopoly over your precious husband. Take him home then — take him home.”
And he rolled his back on her more than ever, finishing in a sudden gust of anger and weariness. He lay there rolled in his chair, a big, queer, heavy figure, with his face almost buried in the soft leather, and his big hips sticking out. Her face was quivering, wanting to cry. Then suddenly she broke into a laugh, saying rather shakily, venomously:
“Well, anyhow, you needn’t turn the wrong end of you at me quite so undisguisedly.”
“How do you know it IS the wrong end of me?” he said, sitting up suddenly and letting his head hang, scowling.
“Facon de parler,” she said, laughing rather stiffly.
Somers was silent, and kept silent till the end. He was thankful that Kangaroo was fighting the battle this time.
Their host sent them home in his motor-car. Neither of them had anything to say. Then, as Harriet shut the door of Torestin, and they were quite alone, she said:
“Yes, he’s right. I absolutely believe in him. I don’t care WHAT he does with you.”
“I do, though,” said Somers.
The next day they went to Mullumbimby. And the day after that, each of them wrote a letter to Kangaroo.
“Dear Kaiser Kangaroo,” began Harriet, “I must thank you very much for the dinner and the violets, which are still quite fresh and blue in Coo-ee. I think you were very horrid to me, but also very nice, so I hope you don’t think the worst of me. I want to tell you that I DO sympathize, and that I am awfully glad if I can be of any use to you in any way. I have a holy terror of ants since I heard you, but I know what you mean by the fire. Lovat will hand over my portion when he comes to see you. But I shall make myself into a Fire Brigade, because I am sure you will be kindling fires all over everywhere, under the table and in the clothes-cupboard, and I, poor domestic wretch, shall have to be rushing to put them out. Being only a poor domestic female, I really don’t feel safe with fires anywhere except in fire-places and in grates with hearths. But I do want you to know you have my sympathy — and my Lovat.” She then signed herself Harriet Somers, and felt even more fluttered than when she had signed the marriage register.
She received for answer:
“Dear Mrs. Somers: I am much honoured and very grateful for the assurance of your sympathy. I have put a one-and-sixpenny government stamp under your signature, to make your letter a legal document, and have further forged the signatures of two witnesses to your deed of gift of Lovat, so I am afraid there is no court of law in New South Wales in which you could now substantiate a further claim over him. I am sorry to take this mean advantage over you, but we lawyers know no scruples.
“I should be more than delighted if I could have the honour of entertaining once more in Sydney — say next Thursday — a beautiful person and remarkable woman (one and the same individual) who tells me to my nose that I am a Jew and that my name, instead of Benjamin, should be Abraham. Do please come again and call me Abraham’s Bosom, but don’t fail to bring your husband, for the simple look of the thing.”
“The Kangaroo is a fighting beast, I believe,” said Somers, looking at Harriet and laughing. He was not sorry when for once some other person gave her a dig.
“I think he’s rather foolish,” she said briefly.
These days Somers, too, was filled with fury. As for loving mankind, or having a fire of love in his heart, it was all rot. He felt almost fierily cold. He liked the sea, the pale sea of green glass that fell in such cold foam. Ice-fiery, fish-burning. He went out on to the low flat rocks at low tide, skirting the deep pock-holes that were full of brilliantly clear water and delicately-coloured shells and tiny, crimson anemones. Strangely sea-scooped sharp sea-bitter rock-floor, all wet and sea-savage. And standing at the edge looking at the waves, rather terrifying, rolling at him, where he stood low and exposed, far out from the sand-banks, and as he watched the gannets gleaming white, then falling with a splash like white sky-sparrows into the waves, he wished as he had never wished before that he could be cold, as sea-things are cold, and murderously fierce. To have oneself exultantly ice-cold, not one spark of this wretched warm flesh left, and to have all the terrific, ice energy of a fish. To surge with that cold exultance and passion of a sea thing! Now he understood the yearning in the seal-woman’s croon, as she went back to the sea, leaving her husband and her children of warm flesh. No more cloying warmth. No more of this horrible stuffy heat of human beings. To be an isolated swift fish in the big seas, that are bigger than the earth; fierce with cold, cold life, in the watery twilight before sympathy was created to clog us.
These were his feelings now. Mankind? Ha, he turned his face to the centre of the seas, away from any land. The noise of waters, and dumbness like a fish. The cold, lovely silence, before crying and calling were invented. His tongue felt heavy in his mouth, as if it had relapsed away from speech altogether.
He did not care a straw what Kangaroo said or felt, or what anybody said or felt, even himself. He had no feelings, and speech had gone out of him. He wanted to be cold, cold, and alone like a single fish, with no feeling in his heart at all except a certain icy exultance and wild, fish-like rapacity. “Homo sum!” All right. Who sets a limit to what a man is? Man is also a fierce and fish-cold devil, in his hour, filled with cold fury of desire to get away from the cloy of human life altogether, not into death, but into that icily self-sufficient vigour of a fish.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:57