The conversations at cur.., p.14
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       The Conversations At Curlew Creek, p.14
 

           David Malouf
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  He appeared at Ellersley less often now, and when he did there was no longer between him and Mama Aimée the old easy accord that had made them, despite all, a couple who, so long as they were in the same room together, could barely keep their hands off one another – to the point sometimes of public amusement and scandal. She had lost patience at last: with his infidelities, his debts, the assumption in the man of fifty that he was the same engaging fellow she had been so taken with at nineteen, and had only to show her the smallest sign of affectionate interest to win her indulgence for any folly, any betrayal.

  Perhaps what she could not forgive in him was something she could see clearly now because it was reproduced, though in a different form, in Fergus, and was hard on Fergus because she recognized in him the charm of the father and would not be fooled a second time.

  As for James Connellan, deeply hurt that his good nature, which was real, should be rejected after so long, he grew first resentful, then belligerent, but fell back at last on a natural indifference. He no longer tried to keep things up to the mark. So long as there was food on the table and whiskey to drink, he raised no questions and turned a blind eye to the many manifestations of a growing disorder; sat up at night with his cronies playing cards or leading them, armed with candelabra, in madcap races across the lawn, slept till noon, strode about in a quilted gown giving unnecessary orders to impress his friends with his authority as master, then rode off again.

  Mama Aimée had simply withdrawn even further into herself. She was more often than ever in a ‘condition’. Paddy continued to bully her, but he himself was older, more forgetful, less able to rule.

  Terrible wars raged in the kitchen. Mrs Upshaw, after days of spying and counting and re-counting the napkins or measuring the tea in her caddies, would launch into hysterical accusations against one or other of the servants. An inquisition would be held that involved tears and bad language of a kind that would never previously have been tolerated, and one or more of the servants, a stuttering footman it might be, or a voluble but dim scullery maid, would be disgraced and, since Mama Aimée had no wish to see them punished, consigned to destitution.

  ‘Don’t tell me about these things,’ Mama Aimée wailed, ‘I don’t want to know what’s going on down there, Paddy. That’s your affair.’

  Whole families of beggars, foul-mouthed, brutal-looking people, barefoot and in rags, with neither work nor shelter, would refuse to be dealt with at the kitchen door where Paddy stood shouting and came swarming into the yard.

  They snatched at Mama Aimée’s leather stirrup, and holding up small children like sickly dolls with their heads lolling, raised their voices in a general wail. ‘Paddy, this is shameful,’ Mama Aimée would complain, genuinely distressed, for she was always full of compassion, but terrified as well by the clamour and by so many dirty, upraised hands. ‘Why aren’t these people being dealt with decently?’ The dogs would be moiling about, yelping and showing their teeth.

  The dogs too were out of control. At times, with Fergus driving them, they would come bounding up the steps and break in a pack into the hall, their claws sending them slipping and sliding, all floppy-eared, over the marble floor.

  Up the stairs they plunged, to run in and out of the rooms, sniffing at corners, peeing against the walls. There would be uproar as the younger footmen, who thought it a great lark, rushed here and there trying to catch and hold them, at last running them out again and to their kennels across the yard.

  Eamon Fitzgibbon, hearing tales of a crisis, sent his steward De Vere across to make sense of the accounts, which Mama Aimée insisted on managing herself. They spent an hour locked up in her floral writing-room, and the De Vere who emerged was like a man who had seen the apocalypse.

  ‘Poor Mr de Vere,’ she told them at dinner. ‘He was rather overcome by my system. He talked round and round in such a complicated way. In an absolute terror, I think, of being – comprehended. As if I’m such a fool that I don’t know, haven’t known for ages, that Mr Connellan has ruined us. Yes, that’s the truth of the matter, but what’s to be done about it? We must go on. You would have thought they were spiders instead of just a column of figures, the way the poor man jumped when he looked at them. I told him, I’m not afraid of crises, Mr de Vere, any more than I am of spiders. I’m not one of your crewel and cambric creatures. I’ve been dealing with crises for thirty years.’

  Fergus meanwhile, at sixteen, was a man. Already over six feet three and no longer amenable to discipline, he was allowed to go about pretty much as he pleased, had his own horses, his own pack of harriers; barelegged, dishevelled, he came and went according to his own wishes and ignored even his mother’s easy regimen.

  Only on the rarest occasions now did Mama Aimée decide to make an effort and invite company. The call would go out to Mrs Upshaw to deploy her forces. Servants would be despatched to wash the walls down where the dogs had pissed. Buckets of suds would be sluiced over the marble floor of the entry-hall and three or four girls from the kitchen would slosh about on their knees with a scrubbing brush. Adair would be sent to find Fergus, with an order that he was to clean up and make himself presentable.

  It was Adair’s nature to hold himself apart, so far as he could, from the new disorder. He stepped over the messes the dogs had left, turned aside when he heard shouting on the stairs, since it was Mama Aimée and Fergus these days who were involved in the public altercations there that sent chambermaids scurrying for cover and made footmen pause and creep backwards through a door. Now that he had lost all power to deal between them he preferred not to listen.

  He had only a limited influence over Fergus, and since the one appeal he could make involved old affections between them that he felt were sacred and should not be resorted to for the often trivial demands that Mama Aimée was likely to make, he avoided her commissions and no longer bullied Fergus on her behalf. But he could not always escape.

  ‘You look like one of the stable-boys,’ he told him as dirty-faced, his stockings round his ankles, his hair loose where the knot that tied it had come undone, he rolled about with one of the dogs licking his face.

  He sat up, or tried to, pushing the big dog off.

  ‘Enough now, Cinna. Enough!’ and he wrestled the dog and threw it aside. It landed on all fours and crouched expectantly. ‘Enough,’ he said, panting, and sat pushing his damp hair back into the knot.

  ‘You’d better wash and get changed,’ Adair said lightly. ‘The McMahons are coming.’

  ‘Damn the McMahons!’ He rolled on his back, and laughing, let the big dog lap his cheek. ‘Honestly, Mickey, be honest now, do you really care what Milly McMahon thinks? She’s a stupid bitch, and so are Alice and Emma, and Charlie’s worse. Stupid. The lot of them.’

  ‘Mama Aimée will be upset, that’s all.’

  He turned away.

  ‘What you really mean is, you want to make a good impression on Charlie McMahon. God only knows why. He’s an idiot. All he ever thinks about, the great ox, is the buttons on his waistcoat and the set of brushes his godfather sent him.’

  It was all very well for him, Adair thought. He never tried to make an impression, good or bad, cared for no one’s opinion, but the McMahon girls just the same were besotted with him. They found his scowls Byronic, hung on his moody silences. When he broke into smiles, because his natural charm and good humour could not long contain itself, they thought him the most delightful boy in all Ireland. It wasn’t true what people said of him. That he was half savage and unfit for society.

  It made no difference that he had not washed or changed his shirt. Some grace had been afforded him that belonged so completely to his nature that he had never considered it, may even have thought it so general as to be beyond consideration. Adair, who had spent every day of his life with him, and would have known immediately if there was any element of calculation or self-consciousness in him, had no more resistance to it than the latest appearing and most unreflective stranger.

  ‘Well
,’ he said now, ‘have it your own way. I won’t argue with you.’

  ‘Oh, all right then. For you, Mickey, if it’s going to fret you.’ He pushed the dog off, got to his feet. ‘Don’t be angry with me. But honestly, the McMahons! Tell Mason to fetch me a clean shirt. I’ll wash in the yard,’ and with Cinna flopping at his heels he bounded off to douse his head and shoulders at the pump where Paddy washed the cart. He towelled himself down with the shirt he was wearing and came back shining.

  And now it was Virgilia who pressed him at every moment to know where Fergus had got to, why she never saw him, what he thought, what he felt.

  ‘Why do you ask me these things?’ Adair said. ‘You’re closer to him than I am.’

  He saw the little burst of pleasure this gave her.

  ‘Am I?’

  ‘You should ask him these things.’

  ‘You know why I don’t.’

  He turned away. She knew him too well; he would not let her see his smile of satisfaction.

  It was her transparency that made him cruel.

  They saw more of each other than ever, he and Virgilia. He caught at every glimmer of feeling in her, read every novel she dropped a hint of, seeking greedily what her eye might have found there, training himself in the pursuit of feelings, and little twists and turns of feeling, to guess what it was in this or that episode she had mentioned that had struck her, searching out her sticky fingerprints and the catches of her breath so that he could know more intimately how her heart moved, and the secret signs by which she told what she did not intend to tell or what, when she told it, she meant no one to hear, and was disconcerted when, as often happened, she appeared to confound with her lightness his deep discoveries.

  ‘Honestly, Michael, you weren’t really impressed by that foolish Amalie.’ They were talking of the heroine of a new novel. ‘She’s a goose. Perfect – pluperfect! I don’t believe she’s ever had the experience, poor girl, of an uncooked turnip or a dirty stocking. Are only those who are blessed with nerves, or fading away with interesting diseases, to come into the light? Are we doomed by fresh air and the amount of potatoes we put away, you too, Michael’ – she clasped his hand and for a moment her body swung lightly towards him – ‘to remain forever healthy and dull? Except, as you know, for the chickenpox we had together when we were seven I’ve been well for the whole of my life and mean to stay that way. Is good spirits and high ideals an impossible combination?’

  Her tone of gentle mockery was intended, he saw, to be a rebuke to something in himself rather than a revelation of what he had failed to perceive in her. He knew the quality of her spirit already, her brightness and good health. What dismayed him was the implied criticism of his own.

  She had sides – that’s what she wanted him to see, but he knew it already; and some of them were turned away from him. Well, he had begun to see that too.

  Though the housekeeper at the Park was perfectly competent, she liked, for example, to be on duty on big wash-days when, after a week of cloud-watching and divination and argument and postponement, the coppers were filled, starch made, and great snowy piles of linen appeared over nearly half an acre of lawn and bushes, growing lighter and more airy with every watchful minute till, the unpredictable sky taking a turn for the worse and the housekeeper having tested a pillowcase against her cheek, the signal went out and droves of chambermaids and kitchen girls and footmen were sent scurrying from bush to bush, like peasants getting the harvest in under a threat of hail, but in a holiday mood of light-hearted hilarity as they plucked up table-cloths, napkins and armfuls of bed-linen, darting easily out of one another’s path in a kind of dance or deliberately, deliciously colliding.

  She had a different look on these occasions from the Virgilia he knew from the Library or in the ballroom or on their outings to horse-trials or county fairs. She was at the centre of a world whose activities and forms – the bottling of fruit from the orchard, the making of crab-apple jelly and elderberry wine – demanded a competence, a judgement about the consistency of a syrup or the setting-point of a jam, that she appeared to have acquired from nowhere. Except that she hadn’t of course. He saw from the way the underwomen looked to her for judgement that her experience was trusted and her competence old. It was the first indication he had had that the world she shared with Fergus and himself, and which he had taken as all-embracing, was not the only area in which her ready spirit worked – or her mind, either. It was, he thought, something picked up from her domestic concerns, another rhythm, another way of seeing, that was behind the things she said that most surprised him, even when the domestic as he understood it was at the furthest distance from what they had in hand.

  ‘The tendency of all things, you know, isn’t towards extinction – that is what you think, isn’t it?’

  ‘What?’ he asked.

  ‘I’ve noticed. You act always, I’ve seen it, as if the essential movement in things is a kind of running down. I suppose that comes from physics, but it comes from something else too – your mind being so fixed on the body. You take that as the model of everything.’

  ‘Do I?’ he said, genuinely surprised. He blushed. Had she seen that he was only half-listening? While she spoke of tendencies and physics, he had chiefly been aware of the pressure of her palm against his own – the warmth of it, this outpost of her body’s heat.

  ‘Well, don’t you? And because you believe the only end of everything is extinction you can’t wait to prove it so, and since it can’t be avoided, you grow more and more impatient for it, you can’t wait for it to be consummated. There’s the whole principle of masculine activity!’

  ‘Has this got something to do,’ he asked, ‘with my going away to be a soldier?’

  ‘No,’ she told him, ‘it has not. You take everything back to yourself.’ He accepted this; admiring, as always, the spiritedness of her attack. She was so utterly present, mind and body, in everything she did. ‘It’s got to do with the way the world is. The real movement, I think, is towards refinement, towards the essence, something so fine that we think it is gone but all it has done, in fact, is become more absolutely itself. There’s no question of extinction!’

  ‘And where did you hear all this?’

  ‘I worked it out – oh, from quite practical cases, I assure you. I do think, you know.’

  ‘Too much,’ he found himself saying.

  ‘No, not too much. I don’t think about myself – except as an example like the rest. I think but I don’t rationalize,’ she explained. ‘It isn’t a straight line, it’s all – leaps.’

  ‘Do I think in a straight line? Is that what you’re saying?’

  ‘No,’ she said. ‘I would rather say, in a circle.’

  ‘Is that good or bad?’ He was quite at sea.

  ‘Well, it’s nicer than a straight line, my dear. Or anyway, I like it better. But I can’t say your captain when you are in the army will prefer it.’

  They spent long hours walking hand in hand in the Park or sitting at the end of the matchwood pier. Anyone observing them might have seen in it the intimacy of a loving pair who could not get enough of one another’s company, and in a way, it was true, they were. But if her eyes lit up at his appearance in a doorway to interrupt her reading, or if, glancing up from her favourite spot on the ornamental bridge, she saw him emerging from the woods, it was, he knew, because she would be free now to speak of Fergus, to excite herself, before their time together was quite over, by having his name upon her lips. And if he tormented himself by indulging her, it was because, in allowing her this opportunity to pursue her passion, he could, in the sound of her voice, so vibrant and full of feeling, in the sight of her profile as she walked beside him, so easily gratify his own.

  They had much to talk of. Fergus, who could never be relied upon to turn up when he promised or to stay when he did, had developed a life apart from theirs that was a constant puzzle to them. Not in its details, since he hid nothing from them of the names and occupations of his new c
ompanions, but in what it was that drew him. This he could not express, or would not.

  ‘What do you mean?’ he would ask. ‘They’re friends, that’s all.’ The attempt to get at his reasons, to make motives of what, from his point of view, was mere whim or interest, went against the grain with him as he grew more and more to distrust words, and more often than ever now escaped, even when he was with them, into that distance that had always enraged Virgilia, or later, when she had learned to disguise it, threw her into an unaccustomed panic, and which Adair had accepted ages ago as a line between them that could not be crossed.

  His new companions were daredevils and rowdies, ungovernable youths not much older than himself, the sons of the Galway gentry, or young lawyers – clerks from town, who swore deep allegiance and played at conspiracy and led one another when they were drunk into the sort of talk that a generation before had bathed the whole country in blood.

  Virgilia was fiercely admiring of such rebel passions, and if women had been included might have been one of them, a leader even and more ardent than the rest. But women were not included, and it vexed her that Fergus, out of loyalty to his friends, and a boyish delight in oaths and cabals, would do no more than hint at what was in the wind.

  Wild-eyed, tongue-tied fellows would appear at Ellersley and stand, cap in hand, till he came out and spoke to them; fellows with straw in their hair, who travelled to county fairs and brought him news, or so they claimed, of horses he might be interested in, in villages forty miles off in another county. He would ride off with them and be gone whole nights and days, looking, when he got back, as if he had slept in ditches or been in a brawl. Mama Aimée raged. James Connellan, preoccupied as always with his own affairs, shrugged his shoulders; the boy was his own master. Virgilia, for whom he had become the agent of her own spirit of rebellion and heroic adventure, was torn between frustration that he was never there when she wanted him and an impatient wish to have him range out, return and lay his exploits at her feet. If she could not ride with him she could at least be the sharer of his secrets.

 
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