The conversations at cur.., p.17
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       The Conversations At Curlew Creek, p.17
 

           David Malouf
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  ‘No,’ Virgilia told him, ‘it’s just her way. Of insisting on her place here. That she’s important to me. In fact she’s quite fond of you.’

  ‘She disguises it well enough.’

  ‘She has her dignity to protect. She remembers the conditions under which you first saw her. But her fierceness is all show. Give her a little affection and she’s a perfect lamb.’

  In the Library, while Eamon Fitzgibbon waited impatiently in his chair, he watched her lay out on the green baize table-top the counters of their ‘talk’.

  Unlike Marnie, he felt more at home in this room than anywhere else in the Park. So much of what was most passionate in him had had its first stirrings here, so much of what he knew was shut up safe in the books round its walls, or hovering in the air in dusty whispers not yet stilled. It was also the place where he felt closest to her.

  Certain spaces, with their shadows and secrecies, seem inevitably associated in our minds with particular forms of feeling, so much so that we think of them as their perfect counterpart; if they were different, if the light that filled them had a different quality, or fell at a different angle, what we feel would be different; or so it seems. And so it was, for him, in the Library. Even the memory of it, of its particular dimensions, the way the light, at its dim edges, touched the gilt spines of the volumes along a wall, like the entrance there to a mysterious wood, could evoke in him a mood in which she was immediately and substantially present, as she was now, her back bent, her pale fingers sorting the letters that had been traced on wooden blocks.

  Turning them upwards, she arranged them in broken lines.

  When they were ready she took a little ivory stick and pointed to each one in turn while the old man nodded or furiously shook his head.

  Slowly, painfully, the words appeared that constituted a conversation between them.

  Looking on, Adair was surprised, moved too, by the patience she showed, but the tension in the room was terrible. The gestures involved were so small, and he had thought of them both, father and daughter, as having spirits that ranged over large tracts of time and space – to ancient Rome and back, in Eamon’s case, with a large-minded ease and eagle grasp of illimitable vistas; even further perhaps in her case, into spaces not yet named or imagined, though they might, for practical purposes, go under the code-name of desert or equatorial forest.

  He watched her point now to a single letter and have it rejected. To another, trying to guess where his mind was moving. Rejected again.

  The old man, whose quickness of intellect and wit was quite unimpaired, clenched his fist and his brow, worked his throat in a hopeless effort to suggest the letter he intended. The veins stood out on his brow. The skull with its grizzled hair was bursting.

  And Virgilia, holding in her own impetuous spirit, sat slowing her pulse – he could feel it – steeling her nerves, submitting herself to this snail’s pace at which they lumbered across the afternoon dragging behind them letter after letter, word after word, to make the cryptic messages laid out between them, nouns, verbs, for which, as she wrote them down on a pad, she had to supply by trial and error the teasing connectives.

  ‘You should rest,’ Adair told her. ‘Let me do this. I can do it. Can’t I, Eamon?’ and he laid his hand affectionately on the old man’s sleeve.

  ‘No,’ she told him. ‘I must. It’s all right, I’m not tired. It’s all right, Pa,’ she told her father, who was alarmed but also, Adair saw, ashamed, ‘I’m not going anywhere.’

  Later, when they went out to walk a little in the snowy park, she explained. ‘Of course you could do it, Michael, anyone could. And he’s fond of you – there’s no one he loves more. But it’s me he needs to keep – talking to. It’s like the tiniest tiniest air-hole that he’s breathing through. If it wasn’t there he’d have no will to live. I’m the one who has to be on the other side of it. But you can help me read to him, he’d like that. We’ll take turns.’

  So it was, once again after so long, like their earliest days in this room. They read in turn, one or two pages at a time, but not haltingly now, from the lives of Numa and Cato and Lucullus, stern masters of Roman virtues, and something in these texts that had shaped them both shone again with the force of revelation, renewed in them an old reciprocal understanding, so that this reading back and forth, tuning their ear to the timbre of the other’s voice, listening for the note of affirmation or mature scepticism or late recognition of an irony they had formerly missed, became another form of correspondence and they felt closer in these hours, with the silent but watchful presence in the winged chair opposite and a man who had been dead for nearly eighteen hundred years to find the words for them, than when they slipped out to take in the invigorating air, or in those briefer moments when she came down herself to help him into his coat and kissed him, in a sisterly way, at the door.

  9

  * * *

  * * *

  HE SLEPT AGAIN, and this time what he dreamed he did remember.

  He was standing in clear sunlight at the edge of a vast sheet of water, so dazzling with salt and reflected light that he could not see the farther shore and had for a moment to shield his eyes against its blinding throb. He was aware of another presence, close at his side but slightly behind. He felt its heaviness there, but knew he must not turn his head to look or it would vanish, and with it the lake or inland sea and its wash of light, and he too, since he understood that the figure there at his side was himself, a more obscure, endangered self with a history that was his but had somehow been kept secret from him. The tenderness and concern he felt was for both of them.

  He knew this country well enough by now to be sceptical of his senses. The lake, with the next step he took, could quite easily shrivel up with a cackle, and there would be in its place only an equally vast expanse of sharp and dazzling stones. Meanwhile, mirage or not, he held it. I have to take the risk, he told himself, and the figure at his side granted assent.

  He took a step. The vision held. The great sheet of light exulted, all ripples.

  Another.

  Again it shivered, shook out lines of light, and he saw now that sea-birds were brooding in the furrows, gulls, and that other birds, waders on long stilts, were either stilled in the shallows or walking in a stately manner, one clawed foot raised, held, then solemnly lowered, in a parade along the shore. Fish heaved in shoals below its smooth and polished surface, great swathes of shadow that suddenly showed silver where their backs broke water and their scales caught the sun. Such plenty!

  It is real, he breathed. It is a door in the darkness, a way out. His heart lifted at the thought and there came a clatter, far out, an explosion of wings, and he saw that in the midst of the commotion was a boat, a low dug-out driven by many rowers; far out but rapidly approaching. He stepped forward to call to them. But the moment his breath flew out there was an answering upheaval, as if a sudden wind had struck the lake. Its surface rippled like silk, and the whole weight and light of it was sucked upwards in a single movement that took his breath away; a single, shiningly transparent sack, it was being hauled upwards, as in a theatre, by invisible hands. He tried to shout but was breathless. He reached up, with a terrible tightening of his chest, to pluck it back.

  It was moving fast now, like an air-balloon, soaring aloft till it was just a distant, spherical drop, rather milky; then, as the sun struck it, a brilliant speck. Gone, with all its vision, of light, birds, fish, men, rescue. He was choking. At the end of his breath. But the presence at his side was still there, breath labouring, pumping.

  He woke, and had the uneasy feeling of having stepped from one dream into another that was even more remote. He laboured to catch his breath. Daniel Carney’s one eye was fixed upon him with a savage watchfulness.

  ‘I must have dozed off,’ he said. It was half a question.

  ‘Yes sir, you did sleep for a bit.’

  ‘How long?’

  ‘A minute or two. Maybe less.’

  A minute or two?
Had he really experienced so much in so short a time? Could the mind – out of what rich well? – draw up such bright, such enlarging images, play so powerfully on the nerves, hold out the promise of hopeful issue, of escape from the hard facts of circumstance, only so that some natural or supernatural force could pluck it away again, and all this in the space of a hundred tumultuous heart-beats?

  As on many occasions before, he was struck by the difference between minutes as the watch in his pocket might have ticked them off and this other time he carried in his head, which was infinitely expandable and had nothing to do with the movements of either the earth or the sun.

  Again he was aware of Carney’s gaze upon him, intense, almost predatory, as if he might have news to bring him out of what he had dreamed. News of rescue, was it? Could he know that? Of a rescue that at the last moment had failed? He felt a kind of warning that he should control his thoughts if he did not want them known; that the space they shared was no longer a contained one with fixed walls and a roof, but was open, and in such a way that the normal rules of separation, of one thing being distinct to itself and closed against another, no longer applied.

  I am not properly awake, he thought. I was right the first time. I have wakened into another dream.

  My dear Virgilia, he began writing in his head, my dear, my dearest . . .

  ‘It must be nearly dawn,’ Carney said.

  It was. He saw it now. A faint greyness showed through the cracks in the door and was breaking in through gaps in the walls.

  But there was nothing of fear in the man’s voice. The hollow note was resignation, a patience of long habit brought now to its last test, acceptance that what his breath, his life was tied to was the inexorable rolling of great stones about the sky. Adair found himself struck with despondency. He had not thought he would feel such dread of the moment when he must say, It is time, I think. What had he thought? That the announcement would come from some impersonal voice out of the air?

  Despondency – that is what this feeling was called. Darker than dejection. A sense of impotence before the powers.

  There were days, waking here to the peppery scent of unfamiliar dust, and an air sick, already exhausted, loaded with heat, when, in a depression of spirit in which his moral fibre and all his nerves were worried and frayed, he felt the hopelessness, the absurdity of his endeavours and of all that had brought him half-way round the world to this impossible country.

  In such moments it came to him that he would never, in the sense he had intended, reach Virgilia’s heart. She would grow old in the fanaticism of her first love. The languor and excited anguish it caused her would become in time – he knew only too well this particular adjustment – its own satisfaction, bitter but also reassuring. She would cling to what she had lost for no other reason than to prove that she had once possessed it, turn devotion into a cult. Though it was on her urging that he had come, would she forgive him for being the bearer to her of the news that Fergus was dead, buried somewhere, under an outlaw’s name, in the wastes of this country? Would she believe it? After all, what proof did he have, unless he went out with the black Jonas to find, in all that burning space out there, the shallow ditch with its bones. And whose bones? By what criteria could he ever, with certainty, identify them? And suppose he did, and she accepted at last that Fergus was dead. Would she welcome him into the empty place in her heart? Mightn’t the very reminder of Fergus and her loss make his presence intolerable to her?

  There were times when, out of despair, he was tempted to stay rather than go back and face her. The sons and daughters he dreamed of, who were her children too, would turn their faces from him, step back into the dark. The seed in his loins would sizzle and dry up. Life here, with its desperate routine and sparse amenities, its brutal pleasures, might come in time to seem normal to him. Every shift of the light would search his soul and ask mockingly, Are you still here then, Michael Adair, Michael Adair? Have you decided after all not to escape?

  All this was exaggeration and melancholic fancy; he knew that, but when a certain mood of sick self-pity was on him he could not resist the torment as, turn after turn, he himself applied the screw.

  He did have an imagination after all, he had Virgilia to thank for that. It was she who had forced into existence this unlikely faculty in him, leading him, as he blindly stumbled in search of her, through romances where he had hoped to learn the language of feeling in her, as well as the secrets of her heart, and had found instead a language for his own. Had found too in the intertwining of their lives – his life with hers, both their lives with that of a present but absent Fergus – a configuration he recognized as belonging to fiction, melodrama, opera; once it was allowed to play over the mess that was ordinary living, it was part of the mind’s delight in its own ingenuity to find some deep conformity between the shape of story and the shape of dreams.

  But his nature was in the end too robust not to reject such grim imaginings. He turned back at last, with deepening breath, to what was restoratively healthy in him.

  ‘Perhaps,’ he wrote, ‘you could get the terrible Marnie to put in a word for me.’

  He said this jokingly, but meant it too. He felt he had at last earned some credit in that quarter. It was Marnie who had first brought them news that Fergus might be in New South Wales. It had come from her father, who thought he had seen him there. A fellow like that, how could he miss him? Was there another such? So it was Marnie, for whom assurance, once she got hold of a thing, was like second sight, not to be challenged with disbelief, who had stepped forward and, in a pleated bonnet in which her pinched little face was lost, stood at the gate to usher him through into the underworld.

  The image pleased him. It was sufficiently absurd. He had had a vision of them then – he, Virgilia, Fergus – as figures in a melodrama he had already seen in a dozen forms in the half-light of a dozen smoky theatres, and had laughed at, though as soon as the music struck up he had shivered and was caught. He and Fergus would have their encounter at last on some rocky promontory at the world’s end while the band in the pit thumped and sawed and the whole house held its breath.

  Well, it hadn’t been like that. Still, he had good hopes of Marnie. ‘See if that flinty heart,’ he wrote, ‘has not relented enough to speak a word or two in a poor man’s favour.’

  He had set out only half-believing he might find some trace of Fergus in the colony, tracking from one place to another the rumour of a tall fellow who did and did not fit his description, this Dolan who had cut such a swathe through the small community, gathering about him as he went the sort of improbable attributes and events that made him, even before he had been shovelled underground, a figure created half out of legend to fulfil the demands of some for a breakaway hero, of others for an embodiment of that spirit of obduracy or malign intent that sets some men defiantly above the law, and wearing so many rags of lurid romanticism that every aspect of the man himself had been lost. What he was after was some shred of proof: some bit of cloth out of a sleeve, it might be, whose texture you could feel between thumb and finger, whose stitches might be recognized as the work of a particular hand; a few words that in themselves provided a signature; a phrase that was the remnant of a secret language, the last echo of a joke made so long ago that it was no more now than an empty habit of speech.

  But he had found nothing. Only the conviction that in coming close to Daniel Carney he had at moments been close to Fergus, that the shadow that stepped between them had been his, so near that he could hear in the gap between Carney’s breath and his own an easy breathing he knew from many nights at home or by a camp-fire on Ben Breen, and so materially present that he could smell him, if shadows can be smelled and ghosts retain some essence of their former heat and sweat. But what was there to tell in any of that? What was there to show? Mere feeling, mere intimations that know no proof. An emotion he had caught perhaps from the other, and so strongly that he believed he saw what Carney saw; but were the two apparitions identical?
A coincidence of feeling – again, feeling – which was gone in a moment and which, quite soon now, only he would be left to recall.

  And suppose he did find his clutch of bones. Would they know for certain, either of them, the fingerbones of his hand, the roundness, under the fleshpads of their fingers, of his skull? What would he – what would she – have to go on but again feeling, the same that he had now.

  What he had experienced here in the hut was more substantial than that – a shadow, thrown on the heart, of what was as alive in his senses as anything he had ever known, as alive as the man hunched opposite who would himself, in less than an hour now, be a ghost, but till then was still wrapped in the warmth of body-heat and that smell, that was, Adair thought, no more the smell of the soiled and unwashed body, but of life itself.

  Proof? There was none. The emptiness of his hand, the fullness of his heart – that was the proof. To accept it she would have to trust him and acknowledge both. If she accepted the second, then the first would not matter, there would be no need of proof, because the power of what his heart had known and held would be more precious to her than the certainty that her old love was dead.

  My dear Virgilia, my dear, my dearest . . . let me recommend to you my best quality, since I have at last discovered its name: durability, the durability – I am unabashed by the comparison – of old pewter, old timber – old bones too, I want to say; Paddy’s for instance, or mine in the end, for I have a vision before me of years, of a life wonderfully extended. Durability does not shine or flash out. It goes about its daily business of being useful and itself, and for that reason, necessary. This fellow here, this Daniel Carney, whom you do not know, my dearest, and might not at first appreciate – he is crude enough – he has it, we are alike in that, though unlike in so many other ways; and what it constitutes in him, as I see because it has been forced upon me, is a kind of dignity; of beauty too. He is durable, he has proved that; he is here, and would go on being if it was up to him – he has spirit enough; but will not be permitted, I do not know by what law – Well yes, I do. By our law, the law of the land, of the world we have made. I mean, I do not know by what larger law. For I confess, privately, to you only my darling, that this lesser law I do not and cannot accept. What is it worth, if all it achieves is the breaking of a man in good health who might, if the world were kinder and more just, be of some use to it, and whose dignity, I do believe, is the equal of those who have judged and will deprive him, in an hour from now, of his one unconditional right in the world, breath, and the full span of what his rude health must decree as ‘natural’? – Virgilia, I love these old, durable, worn and useful things, of no particular beauty. But you see it is my own case I am pleading. Isn’t that what we argue, each of us, just by being what we are? – As for his case, Daniel Carney’s I mean, which is hopeless, I know only that in a world where there is no justice the thing we must cling to above all else is pity if we are to retain some semblance of what makes us men.

 
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