Authors: Graham Masterton
Tags: #Fiction, #Romance, #Historical, #General
More than anything else, said Netty, her mother would like a musical box for Christmas: one of those musical boxes with six or seven different and interchangeable cylinders, so that she could play âSilent Nigh' and âThe Wonderful Polka' and âSweet Heart's Deligh'; and think of all the days gone by, happy and sad, and how God had blessed her so, and punished her, too.
Eyre listened with amusement, smoking his cigar, his eyes bright; and at last he said. âVery well, if that's what you want to give her, I'll ask Mr Granger,' and he reached out to lay his hand on the parting of his daughter's shining hair, as gently as a blessing. His only daughter, and although he didn't yet know it, his only child.
Outside, in the garden, the sun shone in brilliant skeins, like the straw in Rumpelstiltskin which had been spun into gold; and the birds whooped and laughed, and one of the grooms called âWayandah! Wayandah!' as he tried to lead Eyre's favourite stallion back into the stables. And across the lawns, watered and fed so that they looked unnaturally green in this dusty December landscape, Charlotte moved this way and that in her clotted-cream-coloured dress, bobbing now and again to pick a flower, stopping occasionally to scold the gardening-boy; Charlotte with her
perfect bonnet and her perfect ribbons and her perfect parasol; a picture of perfection wherever she went, and whatever she did.
Only Eyre understood what pain and loss her perfection so perfectly concealed. Only Eyre heard her sobbing at night, a thin, inconsolable whining; or knew what she was thinking about on those evenings when the sun was gradually burning itself out behind the branches of the stringy-bark trees, and she stared out across the river valley; silent, her face severe.
He said to Netty, âShe'd like some perfume, too, if I can get Mr McLaren to send some up.'
' enthused Netty. âAnd some lace, too, if there's any to be had. I could make a collar for that green velvet dressâthe one she wore at Governor McConnell's birthday party.'
âNetty,' smiled Eyre, âI sometimes think you were sent by the angels.' Netty took his hand, and pressed it against her cheek. âDear father,' she said. âI hope I can be everything to you: friend, and son, and daughter, all three.'
Eyre drew her towards him, and kissed her twice, once on each cheek. âYou always look so much like your mother,' he smiled. âThere was one night, long ago â¦ well, you look just like her, the way she did on that night.'
Netty said nothing. She knew that he was flattering her, for her mother was still a remarkably beautiful woman. But she also understood that he was thinking back to the time before her mother was sad, those few brief months before the loss of her son, Netty's brother, whom Netty had never known. His absence from their family, even after twenty years, was like an empty bedroom, or a photograph-frame with no picture in it. Every year, on his birthday, her mother would light candles for him. Every year, she would buy him a small Christmas gift, and lay it beside the others, in case he came back. A necktie, or a diary. Once, she had bought him a harmonica.
Eyre smoked for a while, and then said, There always used to be snow at Christmas, when I was a boy.'
Netty smiled, and shook her head. âI can't imagine it. I've tried. I've looked at pictures. But I just can't imagine it.'
âWell,' he said, âit isn't easy to describe. It isn't so much the whiteness, or the coldness, it's the
of it. The whole world suddenly becomes muffled. Everything somehow seems to be more private. They say Eskimos are great natural philosophers, you know. Perhaps that's because the snow makes you turn in on yourself. Think more.'
The desert must do that, too,' said Netty.
Eyre looked at her and his eyes were peculiarly remote. The desert?' he asked her. He was still smiling, but his smile had nothing at all to do with his eyes.
âYes,' she said, uncertainly. âIt must be very silent out there.'
âNo,' he told her. Then, after another long pause: âNo. The desert isn't silent at all. The desert is â¦ Babel, a whole Babel of voices. All speaking at the same time. Never quiet. Thousands of them: the voices of the past and the voices of the future.'
âI don't understand what you mean. What voices?'
Eyre was about to say something more, but suddenly he stopped himself, and smiled instead, and stroked Netty's hair. âA figure of speech,' he explained; but Netty wouldn't be put off.
âWhat do they say?' she asked him, intently.
âWhat does who say?'
The voices. The ones in the desert.'
They don't say anthing,' Eyre told her. âNow, come on, let's forget all about it, and call your mother in for tea.'
âBut they must say
' Netty insisted. âOtherwise you wouldn't have called them voices.'
Eyre twisted his side-whiskers thoughtfully. They were greying now, and made him look less saturnine than when he was young; although his eyebrows were still dark and swept-up; and his cheeks were still hollow. Charlotte had once teased him that he looked like the night-devil; but
that was before they had lost their son. She would never tease him like that now.
Eyre said, âThe voices tell stories. Everything that happened in the past, how the mountains were made, why the lakes are all dry, how the blue heron brought in the tide, how the no-drink bear lost his tail. And they tell what will happen in the future, too. Which years are going to be dry, which years are going to be happy. Who will die, who will lose his way. Who will honour his promises, and who will not.'
He was silent for a moment, and then he added, in a dead-sounding voice, âWho will regret what he has done.'
Netty sat on the floor looking up at him. âDo they really say things like that? Can you really hear them?'
âYou hear whatever is inside your own head,' said Eyre. âThat is why the desert is never quiet.'
A whole hour seemed to pass between them in what could only have been a few seconds. Charlotte came in from the garden, and kissed them both, Eyre and Netty, and Eyre said, âHow's Yalagonga? Do you think he's going to make a good gardener?'
Charlotte put down her basket of flowers, and unlaced the ribbons of her bonnet. âHe's confident, I'll give him that! He wanted to clear all the wattle from the back fence and cut down my favourite apple tree. But, I think he's going to do. I'd rather have a boy who's going to be strict with the garden, than one who lets it grow wild. Do you remember Jackie? He wouldn't cut a single weed, in case it offended the spirits.'
âShall we have some tea?' asked Eyre, in the manner of someone who has been asking the same question day after day for nearly twenty years.
âI think I deserve it,' replied Charlotte. âIn fact, I think I may have some of the coconut biscuits, too.'
Eyre nodded to Netty, who got up from the floor and went over to the large carved limestone fireplace, and rang the bell-cord.
âI suppose you two have been discussing politics again,' said Charlotte.
Eyre smiled. âActually, we've been trying to decide what to buy you for Christmas.'
âWell, that's easy enough. It doesn't need a discussion. I want a new hut for treating the children, more linseed oil, and as much tincture of catechu as you can get.'
âDon't be so practical,' said Eyre. âI'm talking about perfume, and lace.'
âWhat on earth is the use of perfume and lace, out here at Moorundie? I'd rather have medicines.'
âCharlotte â¦' Eyre began, but then he sat back, and tried to keep on smiling as if he had only been teasing her about the perfume, and the lace. He knew that the children were her main preoccupation, with their sores and their runny noses and their shivering-fits. He knew why, too. And he knew that whatever he gave her for Christmas, it would never do anything to make up for the loss of their boy-child.
He could see it now, as clearly as if it had happened last night, instead of twenty years ago. The open window, the curtain blowing in the warm night wind. The empty crib, still warm and indented from the baby's sleeping body; still smelling of mother's milk and freshly-washed hair. And he could remember the pain, too: the pain that was so much greater than he had expected. More than a sense of loss; more than a sense of sacrifice, and duty. It had been like having his arm twisted and torn out of its socket by the roots. An actual physical tearing-away.
The black trackers had spent hours scouring the garden. âThree,' they had said. âTwo men, one woman, all barefoot, blackfellow.' They had tried to follow the footprints into the bush, but the kidnappers had been too wily. They had backtracked, run through streams and brushed their trail with wattle-branches. The black trackers had come back four hours later glistening with sweat, and admitted that whoever had taken the boy had been an exceptionally skilful hunter; or a ghost.
Fly-posters offering rewards had been displayed all around Moorundie for weeks. But the boy seemed to have disappeared without a trace; melted into the setting sun. Eyre had offered Â£500 and a free pardon for his return. But there had been nothing, not a word; although the ironic part about it had been that Eyre had actually known where his son was; or at least who it was that had taken him. Yet he had been unable to speak, for fear of condemning himself, and for fear of destroying both his marriage and his career.
For somebody that night had left the main gates of the house unlocked. And somebody had carelessly (or thoughtfully) propped up a ladder by the child's bedroom window. And somebody had left the window unlatched, so that all an intruder had to do was ease up the sash, and climb straight into the room.
The blackfellows must have been ten miles to Woocalla before anybody had noticed that the boy was gone. And Eyre had known, as he had stood at the end of the crib, breathing in the very last vestiges of baby-smell, that any attempt to take the boy away from them would be suicidal, perhaps worse. An Aborigine uprising had always been on the cards. Any attempt to arrest blackfellows
, or take reprisals against them, would be madness.
Times had changed since he had first arrived in Australia. Your blackfellow nowadays was either a great deal more skilled and co-operative, or else a great deal more vicious.
When the last of the scouts and the trackers had reported no sign of the baby, Eyre had been obliged to say, âThat's it. Don't search any more. Whoever took him means to keep him.'
But of course life had never been the same since then; and Eyre had always felt that Charlotte was accusing him of carelessness, or cold-heartedness, or both. They wanted the baby because it was yours, she had insisted, over and over again. They wanted the baby because you're famous, and because you always show them that you understand
them. Perhaps they kidnapped him as a compliment. What a compliment, to lose your own flesh and blood. They probably worship him, as if he were the son of God.