The conversations at cur.., p.7
The Conversations At Curlew Creek,
Blue-eyed, red-haired, with an easy athletic style to the way she carried herself, she was not a tomboy, not at all; but her father treated her exactly as he had treated his sons. She had nothing about her of the falsely demure. Encouraged to speak up for herself, even among her father’s guests, where she very competently played hostess, she was quite certain of her place in the world, and when Adair was inclined to fall behind, soon got him going again with her own fierce example. He had no idea, till she confessed her own, that he should have an ambition.
‘I think I shall be a soldier,’ he told her innocently. He was eight years old.
Perhaps it was because she knew it was a field that was barred to her that she gave him such a withering answer: ‘You might at least have said a general.’
It was his first apprehension of the difference between them.
He was always aware of limits. Not because he was timid, or out of modesty, or even because reasonableness was so much part of his nature, but because he had already come to understand that his position was an anomalous one. He might be treated like a little lord, but he had no natural rights, no assured title or place. He was dependent on the kindness, the charity, of others, and on what he could do in the way of service, or command in the way of affection, to keep it. This was humiliating. Though he had never been made to feel it, he was acute enough to have discovered all this for himself, and suffered, though without resentment. It also meant that he could take nothing in his life as given.
Virgilia accepted no limits, either to the wildness of her imaginings or to her own capacity to make them real. He thought she was wrong in this. His understanding of his position, he thought, made him wiser than she was or less trusting. There grew up in him a belief, it was his one great secret, that when she too discovered the truth of things, when she had broken herself on the hard facts of the world, she would find her best comfort in him.
What she had determined upon was the role of lady traveller in Morocco or the Morea or the plains of Anatolia, or to lead a party into the jungles of West Africa. Her mind, in a way that astonished him, had already moved beyond the Park, and Oughterard, and even Dublin, and he wondered if it wasn’t this, some sense in which she brought back from the places her imagination moved to a vision of desert wastes under the moon, of equatorial heat and a sky continuously alive with lightning, that made him at times a little afraid of her, as well as for her; as if what she had in her head might be more real to her than the things they were surrounded by and from which he, in his stolid way, took so much comfort: the chalk in the knuckles of his square, rather stumpy fingers; the nails in his boots; the ticks and crosses in his exercise book that marked a sum either right or wrong; but also the cart with its yellow splashboard that took him back and forth under rain so fierce and slashing at times that it was like shining gravel flung at your face, and seagulls squatting white in the furrows like unseasonable snow, and on other occasions, real snow, dirty white, fretted and frozen on the ridges, with ravens wheeling above it like scavenger spirits unloosed from graveyards, filling an unforgiven world with their savage cry. He was sober and practical. Weighed down not only by his boots, the dirt under his nails, the landscape of potato-clamps and flashes of boggy water that was reflected in his eyes, but in his accepting all this, as Virgilia did not, as the grounds of his nature.
Nothing made this more plain than the difficulty he had with a side of Virgilia that from the beginning both disturbed and confused him: the lies she told.
At first he was merely confused. She was testing him, to see how far she could go before he would stand up to her.
But she had on these occasions such an excited glow, was so full of imperious assurance, that though his mind said, This is a story, she’s making it up, he drew back from challenging her outright. There was something in him that wanted the stories, since they meant so much to her, to be true.
They were all of encounters, on walks out from the Park, with strangers no one else had ever laid eyes on, though they must have been conspicuous enough on roads where the only traffic was labourers going to and from the fields and the occasional wagon or cart.
Once it was a troupe of acrobats in yellow and blue silk pyjama-suits, who were chattering to one another as they walked in what she took to be Chinese. They turned off into a clearing, strung a rope between two trees, and went walking up and down on it carrying parasols which they opened, tossed in the air, and caught twirling on a fingertip.
On another occasion it was an Italian lady who had been put out of a passing carriage and was sitting, with all her luggage about her, on a camp-stool in the shade of an elm. She had a negro with her, a little pageboy all in white; they were playing cards. She was waiting, but not in an anxious way, for the lover she had offended to think better of it and come back. Meanwhile, she and the little negro were enjoying their game, slapping down their cards and insulting one another, but were delighted, when she turned up, to have some new diversion. The little negro unpacked another stool from one of the lady’s trunks and brought them lemonade in silver cups. When the carriage, as the lady had predicted, came rolling back, she gave Virgilia a farewell present of a musical box in the shape of a scollop shell, which she refused to show him, and a silver coin with the head of the King of Naples on it, which she did – but he had seen it before.
‘You don’t believe me, do you?’ she demanded. ‘Well, do you?’
But how could he? His notion of the truth was firm and unblinking but he could not look her in the eye. Instead he looked at his boots, and saw in their roundness what it was that she was challenging in him: his refusal to do what she was doing, to take flight from dusty reality and make their dull world yield up wonders. That was why she told only lies that he would immediately recognize; with her fierce integrity she would have despised a lie that was intended to deceive. The world must conform – that is what she was claiming – to her own high demands of it.
But lies, his hob-nailed, earthbound nature insisted, were lies. The world would not conform. And what then? Virgilia’s, he thought, was a dangerous principle; even if what impelled it was a spirit of idealism, the wish that life should be larger, wilder, more curious than it was.
And wasn’t she wrong even in this?
Mary McGee, one of their maids at Ellersley, had a brother who was nine years old and had never been out of bed. His head, which was the size of a pumpkin, was so heavy that the wizened stalk of his body could not carry it about.
Dinny McManus, the son of the Park gamekeeper, had shown them a fairy-ring in the field they called the Fianna’s Ground just at the entrance to the woods: a perfect circle of mushrooms in which fairies danced.
In Pennsylvania, Benjamin Franklin had collected an electric charge from a cloud. It was a new kind of power. One day, Eamon Fitzgibbon had told him, houses, whole towns would be lighted with it, and the light would be of an intensity no man had ever seen, more than a thousand candles worth. Even the brightest day would not match it.
They took their lessons in the Schoolroom, which was in the second storey of the Park and close enough to the Library for Eamon Fitzgibbon to drop in, sometime towards noon, to see how they were progressing and to quiz them in front of their tutor about what they had learned.
The Schoolroom looked out on to a lawn where the branches of a great dark cedar of Lebanon reached almost to the ground. While you were waiting for the answer to come, or simply day-dreaming, you could crawl into the dark maze of roots there where no one could reach you, and tumble about in the skin of a vole, with a vole’s tiny heart-beat.
Sometimes, fallow deer came right up to the wall where the Italian garden was laid out, an intricate geometry of box hedges and fragrant herbs. They stood very still like statues and you held your breath. They raised their heads, motionless, intent, as if the answer Mr Meecham was waiting for were being whispered out there on the still air and all you had to do was freeze, hold your breath, be all attention as they were, to get wind of it.<
Mr Meecham was a red-faced Englishman with watery blue eyes and a pinched nose encrimsoned by the over-use of snuff. His face above his starched cravat went steadily darker on these occasions. He furrowed his brow with the effort of getting the answer out of his own head into yours; pushed his lips forward to offer a hint of the first consonant, though they declined to read it. Virgilia, especially, despised him for being so anxious, and might have punished him by deliberately giving a wrong answer, but was too proud to pretend to an ignorance she did not suffer from, or to deceive her father in a thing that meant so much to him. The limit of her malice was to keep poor Mr Meecham swelling and teetering; though sometimes this holding back had another reason, which was to give him the chance to answer, since he too at times grew anxious under the old man’s stern and, he felt, unforgiving gaze, or stumbled out of shyness, so that what he knew quite well flew clean out of his head.
The belief that he had got the answer before her made him secretly triumphant. When he saw the truth he was doubly humiliated. Only then did he see that a characteristic generosity and largeness of spirit always took precedence over her vanity or the wish to insist on a superiority that had no need of proof. This amazed him since he found nothing like it in himself.
‘So then,’ Paddy would ask as they drove away, ‘what did they learn ye this time?’ And he would retail to Paddy some of the facts the tutor had passed on to them, things that made Paddy puzzle and scratch his head.
In the early days he had been patronizing.
‘Well, ye’re right there,’ he’d say, ‘that’s the truth, they’re not tellin’ you any lie. On’y I thought you would of known that, Master Mick. I did. I’d of told you it meself if I’d of known you didn’t. I could’ve been your schoolmaster, what d’e say to that, eh?’ And he laughed. ‘So what else did they tell yer?’
But later, when they got on a little, he changed his tune.
‘Well, is that true now, who’d of thought it? Tell it to me again, lad, slow like. It’s hard that, I don’t think I’ve got hold of it. Maybe it won’t go into me thick skull. Try me agin.’
He was reluctant, the boy saw with a little surge of affection, to have him pass out of a stage where they could be on terms of equal understanding.
Later, in the pantry where they were decanting wine, he would hear Paddy, in a lordly way, instructing Gerald, the new footman, in something he had till just that afternoon been entirely ignorant of but which now filled his mind as if he had always known it, and which he presented to the footman as a thing he had better knock into his head pretty smartly if he meant to get anywhere.
But it could not go on.
‘I’ll tell you something, Mickey, darlin’,’ he confessed one day when he had let Adair take the reins, ‘just between you and me like. I know you won’t hold it against me.’ He rubbed hard the end of his nose with the heel of his hand. ‘I cannot read, it’s a great grief to me. I niver learned. I’ll niver know what’s in them books you traipse back ’n forth unless you tell it to me. It’d be a real charity, me love, if one day you took the trouble and learned me me letters. Would you do that for your ol’ Paddy? It’d be a real satisfaction to me to be able to read a little in one o’ them books before I go to me grave.’
To the amazement of the girls, and the wonder of Mrs Upshaw, they sat at the kitchen table, the seven-year-old boy and the man of nearly sixty, and puzzled it out. By the end of the year, with his glasses at the end of his nose, Paddy could work his way through one or two paragraphs of the newspaper. ‘I don’t reckon,’ he told the boy with a grin, ‘that I need go on to Latin. You can tell me about that, love. I’ll stick to English. There’s enough in that, I dare say, to keep me goin’.’
He and Virgilia had gone on to Latin. And Greek.
They still took their lessons with Mr Meecham, but when they were finished with mathematics and spelling and the globe, they went off to the big dim library where the gold, leather-bound volumes on the shelves glowed like the trunks of a forest, and on the ceiling overhead Mnemosyne sat looking smug at the head of a committee of pert bluestockings, her nine pink-mouthed, small-breasted daughters. There, Eamon Fitzgibbon, in a plain cravat like a Frenchman, took them patiently through their conjugations. They read about the schoolmaster of Falerii, how a good charm for thunder and lightning can be made out of a mixture of onions, hair and pilchards, and how Remus saw six vultures but Romulus twice as many, and how, since then, the Romans, in their divination by the flight of birds, chiefly observe the vulture since ‘it is a creature the least mischievous of any, pernicious neither to corn, plants nor cattle, and neither kills nor preys upon anything that has life, and as for birds, does not touch them even when they are dead because they are of its own nature, whereas eagles, owls and hawks tear and kill their own kind’ – ‘Like men,’ Eamon Fitzgibbon added. ‘And how many great men, nobles and patriots, do we see choosing the vulture as their emblem?’
He was a more patient teacher than Mr Meecham. He knew more of a child’s mind, and for all his austere nature, was more inclined to make a game of their lessons and to joke. Adair, quite soon, was no longer afraid of him. He was inducting them, like an old magician, into a world that was all oddness and enchantment, but one too where the virtues he admired could be seen in their ideal form and where Virgilia, and the boy too in time, would discover the perfect examples of what, without quite knowing it, they already aspired to and had begun to play out in their games. Adair became a great favourite with the old man, who saw in the boy’s earnest and curious nature, his devotion to duty, his rigorous self-control, but also perhaps in some darker aspects which he also recognized, his ideal offspring, the child – sprung fully formed into the world – of his own moral nature. And in this Virgilia, though she remained the cleverer of the two, acquiesced. Her power over each of them, in every other area of their lives, was absolute.
The Park and its many dependencies was modelled on the Roman villa. A marvel of order and economy, it was a monument as well to the owner’s love of fantasy and play.
Eamon Fitzgibbon’s passion for engineering had gone into the hydraulic works that drained the boggy soil for the home farm and created a lake and a string of fish-ponds, but also into decorative waterworks and, in a grotto made of fan after fan of shells brought all the way from Sicily, a series of fountains that struck up as you approached, through a clockwork mechanism, a set of minuets and Turkish marches, and when you got close enough shot a jet of water in your face.
Adair loved the part that clocks played in the life of the Park.
Everything there was timed to the last minute. Clocks were everywhere. There was no corner of the place, he sometimes thought, where you were out of the sound of their ticking. They were the true gods, the Lares and Penates, of the household: tall ones in walnut cases, with a copper sun and moon on the face, mantel clocks in gilt ormolu, upheld by sinuous nymphs and youths all muscle, that sat on marble-topped commodes and mantel-pieces and occasional tables inlaid with flowers in pietra dura; water clocks, carriage clocks in which you saw all the flywheels and little copper rods at work under a glass dome, convenient timepieces in the pocket of all the Park servants, who soon learned that promptness, a proper attention to the hour, was the local style of worship, a tribute to the great organizer of the universe, which was also a kind of clock, though it was to the Bréguet watch in their master’s waistcoat-pocket that their own was synchronized, which was the heart of their own little universe and to whose ticking their ear, their attention, their every gesture was distantly attuned. Throughout their lesson it sat on the Réamur desk at Eamon Fitzgibbon’s elbow, and all the activities of a great enterprise, in granary and mill and ice-house and chandlery, in the kitchen with its cauldrons and turning spits, out in the fields where scythes flashed and whistled and women were gathering and binding sheaves or giving their children a breast in the shade of a whitethorn hedge, were timed and measured as they revolved about it.
But time was not an enemy at the Park, to be warred with and buried under a pile of empty trophies. The aim of life, Eamon Fitzgibbon preached, was Freedom and Joy. To use time well, he believed, frees us, and Freedom and Joy in the end are one.
As a youth of sixteen, he had been on the Grand Tour and, already master of the Park, had brought back paintings and marbles of every sort to make the place beautiful as well as habitable, but also a great many fragments of bone, knuckle-bones and vertebrae, that were the remains of real Romans and had come out of their tombs and were laid out now, annotated by his own hand, in cases behind glass.
Educated in France, he had gone back at the time of the Revolution, and it was Robespierre he spoke of with the warmest admiration and regret, another vulture perhaps, and in the same way slandered and misrepresented, he explained, by common minds.
On formal occasions, as when he came in a phaeton with the apron back to pay his respects to Mama Aimée on her birthday, or in a closed carriage at New Year, he wore a powdered wig, but otherwise his dress was the plain one of a citizen, his reddish-grey hair in a loose knot, an eye-patch over his left eye, which made the right one, Adair thought, which was a startling blue but rimmed with blood, all the more commanding. In the ideal landscape of his dreams, it hung over the misty fields, round, ever watchful, like a fierce but beneficent sun.
Before long Fergus too made the trip each day to the Park. Not yet as a scholar, he was too young for that, but because he would not allow the older boy out of his sight, and because there was nowhere else for him to go. He soon became another element in the life there. They took it in turns to rock or comfort him but it was Adair who cared for the child’s physical needs.
The Conversations At Curlew Creek by David Malouf / History & Fiction have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes