Read The Colour Online

Authors: Rose Tremain

The Colour (9 page)

BOOK: The Colour
11.38Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
Joseph folded the handkerchief, tied a knot in it so tightly that not a scintilla of gold dust could escape and put it in the pocket of his muddy trousers. It was only then that he became aware that, all around him, the light was failing and the winter dusk was coming on.
The following day, Harriet returned.
The crossing of the Ashley River was less terrifying on the homeward journey, the donkey quieter and more obedient, as though it knew it was returning home. The cart was loaded with milk and mutton and some pots of peach jam made by Dorothy Orchard. And Harriet felt buoyed up by her expedition, by the fast ride over the acres of empty land, by the idea of cropping her own long hair, by the promise of the dog, Lady.
The sun was low in the sky as she drove up to the Cob House. As she got down from the cart, she heard the wind sighing in the beeches and felt her buoyancy diminish and then slip away. She lifted the milk churn from the cart, unhitched the donkey and led it to the pasture, where it grazed for a moment or two and then lay down by a fence post and closed its eyes. Harriet walked slowly back to the house and went inside.
Silence reigned here. No lamps had been lit yet. The white calico of the rooms moved almost imperceptibly with the opening of the door.
Harriet didn't call out. She supposed that Lilian was asleep and that Joseph was working on the pond. She moved to the kitchen and set down the heavy milk churn, thinking how, with a dog to greet her, a homecoming would not be quite like this, not quite so sombre.
To cheer herself, Harriet lit a lamp, banked up the range, drank a mug of the cool, fresh milk. Her back ached from her journey, so, unbuttoning her cloak as she went, she decided to lie down on her bed for half an hour.
She was amazed to find Joseph asleep in the calico room. His body was buried deep under the eiderdown, his head barely visible. One pale hand clutched the eiderdown's edge.
Harriet's entry into their bedroom with the lamp didn't wake him and, although on the point of uttering his name, Harriet remained quite still, deciding to say nothing, remained exactly where she was, staring at Joseph and remembering that moment in Orchard House . . . that moment when, tying her boots, her hands had let the laces drop . . .
She didn't know why Joseph was lying here in the afternoon. She thought that a loving wife would have felt concern, would have woken him to ask him whether he was ill, would have hurried to make tea for him, would have kissed his head. But Harriet merely stood there with her lamp, unmoving. She knew that, at that moment, she felt no pity for him, no pity and no love.
The terror of these feelings created such a pain in her chest, it was as if a weight had lodged there. She asked herself how or where she could unburden herself of this weight. She clutched at her breast. The sight of Joseph's pale fingers repelled her and she went hurriedly out of the room.
She sat alone by the range, hoping that neither Joseph nor Lilian would wake up for a long while. She decided that what mattered was to find a way – any way – of being able to carry on, for what else was there to do? She closed her eyes. She must hide her feelings, she thought desperately, hide them, banish them, consign them to some place where they would never come to light. But how could one consign or banish what was inside and had no way out?
After a while of sitting completely still, Harriet walked to a high shelf in the kitchen and took down the Chinese tea box, bought at Read's Commodities in Christchurch. The decorated label, depicting the two herons' necks entwined, had been pasted into her scrapbook, but the box remained, still smelling of tea, kept because it was the kind of object she might one day find a use for, a finely made box of cheap wood, the lid fastened with nails.
Harriet prised the lid open with a knife, the nails lifting easily and cleanly. She stared at the empty box, which must have crossed the Pacific on some interminable sea-voyage from Canton. Tea and silk. Opium and ebony. Chinese settlers hoping for money and gold . . . All these, like her with her dreams of land and children, had made their way to Aotearoa, to the Land of the Long White Cloud, to a new world.
And there was only this now, this new world. She had to make of it what she could. So there and then, as the dark of the afternoon gathered at the windows, Harriet imagined that she was consigning to the box all the weight of her dislike for Joseph, and that this box – this object of no account – would enable her to go on with her life. She embodied the weight as a lump of some unknown metal which fitted the box so precisely that it might have been made, not for tea, but only and ever for this. She knew that what she was doing was childlike, but she didn't mind.
If it helped her to go on, what did it matter?
Harriet nailed down the lid of the box and placed it exactly where she had found it on the high shelf. And then she went to Joseph and woke him gently. He took her hand in his, which was burning hot. He told her he had some kind of a fever, foolishly got, he said, by staying too long by the river, getting cold while trying to work out where the channel would run to bring water to his pond.
That night, while Joseph sighed and sweated in the bed, Harriet slept beside him on the earth floor. Twice she woke when he cried out, trying to piss into a flask and feeling his urine come out of him like fire.
She brought him water, turned his pillows, wiped the moisture from his face and returned to her place on the ground.
She didn't mind the hardness of the earth. She dreamed she was miles from here, in the mountains, alone with the sound of rushing water and the silent brilliance of the stars. Not far from where she lay stood a tall horse, motionless, as if keeping watch.
Joseph's fever had come on very fast.
Returning with the gold knotted in his handkerchief and worrying about where to hide it in this house that was not really a house and in which he had no corner to call his own, he'd begun to shiver. He put more lignite on the fire of the range and sat leaning towards it, but, though his cheeks burned, he couldn't get warm. His legs twitched and ached. There was a pain in his bladder.
Lilian had made a meal of pilchards and onions, but Joseph couldn't eat this. He felt as though he were going to fall on to the floor from some colossal height. He remembered the glass spangles on the costumes of the circus acrobats and saw the people hurtling down and everything breaking apart in the dust. He crept to his bed, the gold still scrunched in his pocket. He couldn't bear to take off his clothes. Lilian brought him a bowl and a rag and sat by him for a while. ‘The trouble with this pioneer life,' she observed, ‘is that it does not allow for human frailty.'
Joseph's dreams were mad. He saw ostriches dancing like music-hall girls, revealing petticoats of feathers. He saw his father, wearing his hard top hat, beat at the ostrich-girls with a whittled stick, and one by one they fell down. He knew in the dream that his father had stolen his gold dust and concealed it in his pocket watch, where it sullied the well-oiled mechanism, and brought the watch to a stop.
When Harriet returned and woke him, Joseph was still wearing his shirt and trousers and his coat, damp and muddy from the river. The bed was soaked by this cold moisture and by Joseph's sweat. As tenderly as she could, Harriet helped him to undress and put clean sheets on the bed.
His coat, where the gold lay concealed, she folded and placed on a chair and Joseph was too weak to discover some way of asking for it, to have it near him – so that he could hold on to it until he had thought of a proper hiding place. He merely lay there, fighting sleep, watching the chair, until his dreams swept him away.
In the night, pissing into the flask, tortured by pain, Joseph saw the coat still there on the chair, but beside it, so close to it that she could easily reach out and put her hand into the pockets, Harriet's makeshift bed on the floor.
‘Give me my coat, Harriet,' he said, when she returned from emptying the flask.
‘You don't need your coat, my dear,' she said gently.
‘I want it, to cover me.'
‘I can fetch another coverlet . . .'
‘Pass me the coat!'
She didn't argue, but brought the coat to him and laid it over the top of the eiderdown and at once he could smell the outdoors on it, the moss and the earth, as though it were made of these things, and he tugged it close to his face and held it there.
In the cold of morning, before Harriet was awake, he stirred and knew his fever had diminished a little. He tried to move, but could only lie there shivering, afraid for himself with the pains in his bladder, and afraid for the gold, which was rightly his, but which had to be hidden. He reached out his hand and found the coat pocket with the handkerchief and seized hold of it and brought it into the warmth under the bedclothes. He pressed it to his face, then clenched it into a ball in his fist.
He wanted to cry out with frustration and fear. If he could only find the strength to get out of this bed, to tiptoe across the room without waking Harriet, then the perfect hiding-place for the gold would reveal itself to him. Even in a house like this one, there must be somewhere – some ingenious somewhere – a place that was never visited . . .
He drifted to sleep again, then woke to find Lilian sitting beside the bed.
‘What were you doing yesterday,' she asked, ‘to make yourself so ill?'
He thought about this. Things arrive, he wanted to say; you, above all people, know this. Not everything is of our own making.
‘I stayed at the pond too late,' he said. ‘I had not noticed how cold the air had become.'
Lilian stared at him, her only child. There was a new salting of grey in his beard. The skin of his neck was beginning to pucker. While he had been outside catching this fever of his, she had written her letter to Mrs Dinsdale and hidden it under her mattress. She was impatient to send it, but knew that, at this moment when Joseph had been taken ill, sending it would constitute a betrayal of her son.
‘It is all too much for you,' she announced, looking round the bare little room and sighing. ‘In England, everything was to hand. We are not cut out for these terrible distances.'
Joseph managed to smile. ‘We knew,' he said, ‘that the first winter would be hard. In the spring and summer, we will start to see progress.'
Lilian blew her nose. She recognised how, since arriving at the Cob House, her belief in anything that anybody said had faltered. She thought that she had been a trusting person, until now . . . or perhaps not quite until now. She had been a trusting person until Roderick had died, and since then she had had to become far more vigilant, far more sceptical.
It was a shame, really, because Lilian knew that she didn't entirely enjoy this constant questioning of things; she'd preferred the time when she hadn't felt the need to question anything. Her days then had been so much easier to pass.
She made some broth for Joseph from chicken bones and began trying to spoon this into his mouth, sitting by him on the bed with the soup cup in her hands. He sucked in the broth like a child, his lips braced for the spoon, as if for some fearful kiss he had been forced to bestow. Then, after a few mouthfuls, he gagged and a look of terror came into his face. Lilian held a cloth under his chin, thinking he was about to vomit up the broth, but he didn't vomit, just turned his head aside, and Lilian could tell that some kind of panic had begun to overtake him.
‘What?' she asked. ‘What?'
He shook his head, then began searching for something under his bedclothes. ‘What, Joseph?' Lilian said again.
‘Go away,' he said. ‘Let me be. Please let me be.'
‘You must eat –' began Lilian.
‘Take everything away,' he said, gesturing at the broth. ‘Let me alone.'
So she had no choice but to do as he asked and remove the soup and the cloth, wiping his lips before leaving. As she returned to the range and served herself a bowl of the pale broth, she thought how those who are ill can exert a surprising power over those who are well and that illness might yet play a part in her plan to escape from this wilderness and return to an orderly life.
My dear Mrs Dinsdale. My dear Lily. I am writing to tell you that barely a day goes by in which I do not think about my very pleasant sojourn in Christchurch and find myself wishing that I was back there once more with you . . .
Joseph felt tears spill out of his exhausted eyes and roll down his face.
His handkerchief containing the gold had disappeared.
With frantic hands, he fumbled under the pillows, in the tuck of the sheet, beneath his body and in the sleeve of his nightshirt. With his feet, curved like a dancer's, he searched the crumpled darkness of the bottom of his invalid's bed. Then, bracing himself for the effort of this, he knelt and rolled the covers back and ran his hands over the surface of everything and then he lay down, the wrong way round, and hung his face over the edge of the mattress and his tears spilled and made tiny dark stains on the earth floor.
As Joseph searched, he told himself that if he had found this much gold at the creek, then of course there would be more and so this handkerchief of yellow dust wasn't important; as soon as he was well again, he would resume his panning of the mud and, eventually, the precious thing they called ‘the colour' would come . . .
But he still couldn't stop himself from weeping. He wept for his lost secret. He knew that neither Harriet nor Lilian would put a handkerchief into the wash knotted like this. They would unfold it and discover what it held and so the knowledge of the gold would be out – out into the avaricious wider world. It would thereafter belong to them all – shared, known, talked about, divided. And this was what broke Joseph's heart. He saw that he now lived in a world where nothing – not even something which he and no one else had seen – belonged to him alone.
BOOK: The Colour
11.38Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

Other books

The Morrow Secrets by McNally, Susan
Mismatched by Elle Casey, Amanda McKeon
Mission Under Fire by Rex Byers
The Bad Kitty Lounge by Michael Wiley
No Distance Too Far by Lauraine Snelling