The conversations at cur.., p.10
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       The Conversations At Curlew Creek, p.10

           David Malouf
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  He held on now to the old image, boy and horse; held it clear in his mind, let all the rush of feeling that swelled his heart touch it with a light that made the whole hut blaze up so that even Daniel Carney must be aware of it, and put the question that was meant to lead Carney to his own version of it – Fergus, taller now, broader, a dozen years older, and the horse no longer the bay, Eldrich, but a black Arabian brought in via India. If he could only see clearly enough what Daniel Carney conjured up and made burn in the dark between them, he might have something like proof.

  So once again, but beginning some way off so that the man himself would find his way to it, he spoke.


  * * *

  * * *

  ‘TELL ME SOMETHING,’ Adair said, subdued, matter-of-fact, ‘about your time out there on the ranges.’

  Carney looked up. His face brightened.

  ‘Ah,’ he said, ‘that was a grand time. I niver in all me days knew a better.’

  ‘Wasn’t it hard? To be in hiding always, on the run. I’ve seen the place. It’s rough country.’

  ‘It is, sir, it is rough. It amazed me sometimes – you know, the horses. How they could manage it. They’re amazing creatures, don’t you think, sir, the way they adapt? But a hard life is what I’ve always had, it wasn’t no harder than the rest. An’ for the first time, like, I had companions.’ He mused on this and slowly shook his head. ‘No, it wasn’t hard, even the sleepin’ rough with not a bit of a shed or that to crawl into when the rain come peltin’. At least there was no mortar to pound or rocks to break and no man standin’ over you.’

  ‘And the others? Were they runaways too?’

  ‘One was, Lonergan, the others wasn’t. Cassidy, for instance. Well, I reckon he must a’ been runnin’ from something, he was the sort nothin’ can hold. You know, wild, he was as wild a feller as I ever come across. But nobody was after him. He just rode up one day out of nowhere and says, “I’m Cassidy,” and that was that.’ He gave a throaty laugh. ‘The troopers couldn’ find us, but he did. Rode right up out of nowhere an’ announced himself, “I’m Cassidy,” just like that, an’ there he was, told us ’e was sixteen. We believed it at first, ’e was tall enough. Skinny as a broomstick but tall. It was on’y later we found out different. And fierce. If he thought you were makin’ fun of ’im he’d get that mad you had to worry he might just up an’ put a bullet between your eyes. He was capable of it, he’d of done it sure as winkin’. Knew more ’n a hundred songs I reckon, words ’n all. ’E weren’t much of a singer, for the voice like, but ’e’d picked up all the words somehow and wasn’t shy about beltin’ out a tune.’ He shook his head. ‘I’m sorry they got ’im.’

  ‘They say he shot two men who weren’t even armed. Made them kneel down in a barn and put a bullet into the back of their neck.’

  ‘I can believe that. It’s what I said, he was fierce. Considerin’.’

  ‘Considering his age, you mean?’

  ‘Yes, sir, that too. I don’t know, just considerin’.’ He sat silent a moment. ‘He was always itchin’ to do something – we weren’t active enough for ’im. He couldn’ sit still, even for a minute, and we did a lot of, you know, just sittin’ around an’ waiting, sittin’ the days out. Wet days, days when we had to stay put, lie low, like. Dolan was always very cautious. I reckon’ ol’ Luke was disappointed in us. There’d been – you know, a lot of talk in the towns about what a dangerous lot we was, and he’d heard it. He was expectin’ more. We weren’t wild enough for ’im.’ He laughed outright.

  ‘What were you waiting for, that Dolan had to be so – cautious?’

  ‘For our tracks to go cold. If we’d slipped into some little settlement and, like, done something.’

  ‘Is that all?’

  ‘What do you mean?’

  ‘Wasn’t he maybe waiting for something else?’

  ‘Like what, sir?’

  ‘For someone to contact him. Some group, for instance.’

  ‘Oh,’ the man said, ‘the Irish, you mean. That was just talk. There wasn’t no gathering intended, if that’s what you mean.’

  ‘Are you sure?’

  The man looked at him hard. A small line of self-assertion came to the broken face. ‘I was there,’ he said. ‘Wouldn’ I know if there was something like that goin’?’

  ‘Not if he didn’t mean you to,’ Adair said coolly.

  Carney frowned and dropped his head. When he glanced up again the eyes had a sidelong, injured look. ‘Why shouldn’t he?’ he said at last. ‘I was one of ’em. We was all in it together.’

  ‘Maybe he didn’t want too many of you to be in the know.’

  ‘You mean in case we got caught?’

  ‘That would be one reason.’

  The man shook his head rapidly from side to side. He was beginning to be distressed. ‘You’re wrong, sir. You don’t understand. There wasn’t a man of us would have given ’im away. Not for any money,’ he said passionately. ‘Not for our lives.’

  Adair let a little time pass – Carney, meanwhile, continued to sit tense and troubled – then he said: ‘You weren’t with him from the beginning.’

  ‘No, I wasn’t, it’s true. But I was there at the end. An’ if there was anything like that intended I would of known. Rebellion is a serious thing. Even I know that. We would of known. He would of told us.’

  ‘But you were rebels already, weren’t you?’

  ‘I was a runaway, sir. Maybe that made me a rebel, I don’t know. Is that what they say? Am I to be hanged as a rebel?’

  Adair shook his head. ‘No,’ he said, ‘there’ll be no talk of rebellion. But would you care so much?’

  ‘No, sir, it’d be all the same to me. It’ll be all the same, as far as I’m concerned, this time tomorrer. It’s just that it wasn’t so. I was there. I know what it was.’

  ‘So who was with him,’ Adair persisted, ‘before you?’

  ‘Lonergan. McBride –’

  ‘Wasn’t McBride the first?’

  ‘Yes sir, you’re right in that, he was. I think ’e was. They’d bin together a few months. Up north somewhere.’

  ‘And suppose I told you McBride was also a runaway –’

  ‘He wasn’t, sir. I’d of known if ’e was –’

  ‘Not your ordinary sort of convict. A political. And that he was in contact with others, an Irish group up at Castle Hill. Did you ever hear any talk of that? Or see any letters?’

  ‘I told you already, sir, I can’t read.’

  ‘I mean, did you see any brought? To McBride. Or Dolan. Or carried away again?’

  Carney shook his head. He looked desperately unhappy. Adair feared he might at any moment cut the conversation off and turn away. It was shameful, he knew, to harry the man like this, to unsteady his last hour or two with useless doubts.

  He had no interest in the official rigmarole of unrest and rebellion; not much belief in it either. Though he could not be sure of this, he was inclined to set it down to the large measure of fantasy that governed what happened here, in a place where rumour – the insignificant dust-whirl, not much bigger than your hand, that in just minutes could build, circle on circle, into a raging vortex – too easily replaced reasonable argument. But somewhere, somewhere in all this, if he drove the man hard enough, was the breakaway word, the one identifying fact, that would bring him certainty. At the expense – he knew he could in no way justify the exaction – of this poor fellow’s distress.

  ‘Could it be,’ he said at last, ‘that Cassidy didn’t just find you, as you say, but knew where to come because he was sent?’

  ‘But ’e was just a kid. He never knew any more about such things than I did, than any of us did. You’re mistaken, sir, I know you are. All he ever talked about was – you know, women an’ that. What’d ’e’d done in this place, what ’e’d got up to in that. But to tell the truth, no one of us ever believed ’e’d ’ad more than a sniff of a cunt – I’m sorry, sir. It got on our nerves sometimes, the way
’e went on about it. I don’t know, sir, I don’t know –’ He was terribly agitated, trying to hang on hard to his view of what had happened, the way things had been. ‘I think you must be wrong, sir. It wasn’t the way you’re suggestin’. I know it wasn’t, I was there.’

  ‘All right, all right, Carney, don’t distress yourself, we’ll drop it. It doesn’t matter at this date.’

  ‘You’re right, sir, it doesn’t. They’re all dead anyway, God help ’em.’

  ‘It’s all right. No need to say any more of it.’

  Carney sat hunched into himself. He was silently shaking his head. ‘You mustn’ ask me any more questions, sir, I won’t answer ’em. I won’t say any word more of it.’ He shook his head again, and said, as if to himself: ‘It’ll be over soon enough.’

  ‘I was just going to ask about something else. Don’t worry, it’s not about that business. I was going to ask about the songs Cassidy sang. You said he knew a lot of songs. There’s no harm in that, is there?’

  ‘No, sir, I suppose there isn’t. They was comic mostly, we got a good laugh out of ’em. Bawdy. Do you know that word, sir? Is it right? Bad, like. But he could do all the voices and make you laugh.’

  ‘Are they the ones Dolan liked?’

  ‘They were, yes. He was like the rest of us in that. He liked a good laugh.’

  ‘And there were sad ones as well? Irish songs?’

  ‘Yes. A few, not so many. I’m gettin’ a bit tired now, sir, if you don’t mind. I reckon I might try to sleep.’

  ‘Was there one that was a favourite with him?’

  ‘With Cassidy, sir?’

  ‘With all of you. Dolan, for instance.’

  ‘Yes, there might of been.’

  ‘Can you remember what it was?’

  ‘Not the words, sir. I’m no good for words.’

  ‘The tune, then.’

  ‘Do you mean can I sing it?’

  ‘Yes. It might settle us. Then we could try to sleep.’

  ‘Well then –’

  He began to croon an old air that was familiar enough but was not, as Adair had hoped it might be, one of the songs they had learned in the kitchen at Ellersley or sung on more formal occasions in the music room at the Park. The man’s voice was rough, and shaky at first, but he held a tune well, and as he warmed to it there was, in the close dark of the hut, a sadness, a kind of beauty too, in the way the melody rose and was held a moment, a long high moment, on the man’s breath, prolonged in the exaggerated Irish fashion, Adair thought, that had a natural theatricality and sense of performance to it.

  The shape it made created its own following silence, and they sat, both, in the ease of it. Once again they were, as the old tune lingered, just two men in the one place, in the one moment together, and far from where they had begun.

  ‘I think I’ll just sleep a little,’ Carney said. He rolled himself in his blanket, turned away, and must have dropped off almost immediately.

  Alone again in the half dark and listening to his laboured breathing, Adair felt a kind of desolation creep over him. The edges of his being grew fuzzy, acquired the unreality of a dream – and not his own dream either. He might have been conjured up, he felt, out of the other’s uneasy sleep, and left dangling, with no will or purpose of his own, till the man’s consciousness, here in these last hours of a life about which he knew nothing except the official facts, discovered a reason for his presence and devised a form, however irrational, that would allow him to act and speak.

  So he thought, and only after a good deal of time had passed, in which he was blown upon the air, disembodied, aimless, did he understand that this was his own dream. He was sleeping, but lightly enough to have taken the other’s breathing, which he was still aware of, for his own, as if Carney had taken on the job of drawing breath for both of them, so that when the man spoke he was startled, had to catch back, he felt, the responsibility of breathing for himself, an old habit that for a space he had been in danger of losing.

  ‘I’m sorry, sir, were you sleeping? I’ve got a gut-ache. It comes on sudden, like. I need to use the bucket.’

  It took Adair a moment to grasp what he meant.

  ‘I’m sorry, sir. If you was sleepin’.’

  ‘No,’ Adair said. ‘No. It’s early yet. I could do with stretching my legs for a bit.’

  He got to his feet, rather stiffly, and pushed at the door, letting in a flood of moonlight. The fuzziness he had felt sprang into focus. Air, a breath of pine. Heavy. Resinous. He was himself again.


  * * *

  * * *

  STEPPING OUT INTO the chill of it, Adair was struck once again by the vastness of the world up here on the high plains, by how much closer the sky was – so close you felt the weight of the stars, their mineral quality, and marvelled that they should hang there, glowing and turning.

  The earth was all dazzle. Smoky shadows flowed across it and seemed, in their blue-blackness, more substantial than what cast them, a line of clouds just lit at the edge by a risen but invisible moon. Other shadows were on the move among the she-oaks that marked the edge of the stream. These were the horses, his own chestnut among them, and it was she, sensing his presence, who made a movement more nervous than hitherto and set the little mob going at a more rapid pace, back and forth, unsettling the dark.

  After the hut, with its close smell of humanity and its earthy damp, the sharpness in his nostrils made him dizzy. That or his empty stomach. I’ll eat something now, he thought. But before he approached the fire with its companionable glow, he lifted his face once again to the vastness of the night.

  Sometimes, when the moon was just a sliver, the fact of its being reversed down here gave you the odd sensation of being turned about, as if you had somehow got yourself on the wrong side of the mirror. He was used to working by the sky. As a boy, walking back at night from the Park, and later bivouacked on the Polish plain, he had found a kind of assurance in the stars up there being so punctual as they rolled towards dawn, and in knowing, because Eamon Fitzgibbon had taught them to him, the names like old friends of the various constellations, all drawn as they were out of folk-tales or classical mythology, Charles’s Wain, the Pleiades, Berenice’s Hair.

  Here there was a different sky to read. He had had to begin all over again, as if he had been set down on a new planet rather than the far side of the old one. He let the cold air fill his lungs now and resettled himself by naming, and allowing to blaze out in his head, the bright star up there in the very centre of the heavens, Canopus, like the point of a tent-pole from which the whole blazing firmament was suspended; for a moment he felt closer to it, far off as it was, than to the fire not twenty yards off with its promise of food and talk.

  Suddenly, all in a rush and at a speed he might have thought unnatural, the moon sailed out. The horses now were a play of luminous forms among the trees, dilating and darkening, massing, then breaking, and lit from behind by the firelight flames, and all at different angles, the men’s heads turned towards him. A fair boy leapt to his feet.

  ‘I thought,’ Adair said, ‘I might get a bite to eat.’

  He moved to join them.

  ‘Stew,’ the boy offered. ‘There’s Kersey’s stew.’

  ‘You’ll be sorry,’ said another youth, who sat up from where he had been laid out with his head against his packsaddle.

  ‘Don’t you take no notice of ’em,’ Kersey put in, making a place for him. ‘They talk like that just for the sake of it. It’s pigeon, topknots. I shot ’em meself. An’ a couple a’ bronzewings. It’s good.’

  ‘I’ll make some tea to wash it down,’ the fair boy, Langhurst, offered. He took up a sooty quart-pot. ‘We’ll need more wood,’ he said significantly, setting off for the creek, and the other, the lean dark one, shifted his haunches, rose up and followed. Adair heard the horses stir as Langhurst approached them, then his voice where he had stopped a moment to settle them. It travelled so clearly on the still air that he might have b
een back again at their side.

  They are all very accommodating, he thought, these fellows. Even the black had stirred at his presence. But only to the extent, he saw, of moving further into the shadows on the far side of the fire, where, cross-legged and guardedly intent, he could make himself invisible, Adair thought, to whatever authority he might represent.

  Kersey meanwhile, from a billy on the fire, ladled a mound of thick stew on to a plate and handed him a wooden spoon. Then stood waiting for him to taste it and approve.

  He took a good spoonful and looked up, nodding. It was too hot in his mouth to allow of speech. Kersey, appeased or justified, went back to lying with one knee crooked upon the other, a begrimed and bony foot dangling in the air and swinging.

  ‘It’s good,’ Adair said at last. It was, too.

  ‘Them boys complain just for the sake of it,’ Kersey told him again. ‘Just t’ hear themselves speak. I don’t take no notice of it.’

  Langhurst, looming up out of the dark, heard him and gave a derisive chuckle. He squatted and settled the pot over the fire.

  ‘He ain’t the worst of ’em,’ Kersey said.

  ‘I suppose that’s me, is it?’ said the lean boy, Garrety, who appeared with a pile of branches in his arms, which he dumped unceremoniously beside the fire. In the sudden updraught the fire snapped, then flared, sending up a shower of sparks, a dozen of which caught Langhurst’s sleeve where he was still squatting.

  ‘Hey,’ he shouted, leaping up and beating at his jacket. ‘Watch what you’re doing, you silly bugger. You almost set fire to me.’

  ‘Oh, stop moanin’,’ the other retorted, mock-weary. ‘You ain’t hurt. The tea ain’t spilled, is it?’

  ‘They’re like an old married couple,’ Kersey told him confidentially. ‘They never let up. Scrap like that night an’ noon.’

  ‘Shut yer mouth, Kersey,’ the lean boy said, but mildly. ‘No one ast your opinion.’

  They went on like this, cheerfully trading insults, and Adair had the sense of its being a show put on especially for him, to demonstrate how lively and aggressive they were, its form so settled as to be merely ritual.

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