CAPTIVITY

CHAPTER XXI

Even the two days' journey in the most uncomfortable train on earth could not damp their ardour. Most of the time Louis was gay and unusually chivalrous; at night, tiredness and heat cracked his nerves a little, making him cross and cynical until, sitting bolt upright on the wooden seat, she drew his head on her knee and stroked his eyes with softened fingers till he fell asleep. At the stations where they alighted to stretch cramped limbs she stayed beside him all the time. Once, by a specious excuse, he tried to get rid of her, but she saw through it and stayed beside him. He resented it bitterly.

"Damned schoolmistress," he growled. "Always round me, like a limpet." In his eyes she read a flash of hate.

"My dear, do you think I want to be a limpet?" she said, "if I don't you know we'll never catch the train when it starts again."

"Never have a free hand," he muttered.

She was puzzled. It seemed impossible to keep a constant watch on a man of Louis's temperament. He resented her vigilance though he demanded it. If she seemed to be leading him, he bolted. If she let him have his head, he still bolted.

When they were in the train again, drawing away through miles of scrub further and further from the cities, she felt very glad that the strain was going to end soon: she would get a rest and so would he where probably he would have to go fifty miles to get a drink. But she tormented herself with the fear that inaccessibility was not going to strengthen him; rather it would weaken, she was afraid.

At five o'clock the second day the train, which had dwindled down to one coach and five trucks, rattled and groaned into Cook's Wall. The station consisted of a rough wooden platform raised on wooden supports with a weather-board hut which the stationmaster called porter's room, booking-office, luggage-office and station hotel. Someone had ambitiously painted the name on the station. "COOK'S WAL" and "STATION HOT" appeared in green letters on the face of the structure. "L" and "EL" appeared round the corner in red.

The surroundings of the station looked quite hopeless; a few sun-baked sheep-pens and races stretched behind the Station Hotel, shimmering and wavering in the heat haze; half a mile away was a collection of home-made huts consisting of boxes and kerosene tins piled on top of each other. A primitive winding-gear and a heap of slag marked the position of a small manganese mine which had been the cause for prolonging the single line railway so far into the Bush. To the west and south and north stretched scrub and bush, right away to forest and purple hills on the far horizon. Eastward the glittering rails shone back to the city, sending out blinding little flashes of light as the sun caught them.

The guard and driver got leisurely out of the train and stood on the platform; the stationmaster-cum-porter-cum-hotel-keeper, in a pair of dungaree trousers and a dusty vest of flesh-coloured cellular material which gave him the effect of nakedness, stared at them as though passengers were the last phenomenon he had expected to see.

"Cripes! What yous want?" he said.

"Are we far from anywhere?" asked Marcella, smiling at him. He spat assiduously through a knothole in the boarding and looked from her to Louis.

"Depends on what you call far," he said reflectively. "There's Gaynor's about fifteen miles along, an' Loose End nigh on thirty. Where yous makin' for, then?"

"I should say Loose End would suit us, by the sound of it," said Louis with a laugh. "But it isn't much use starting out to-night."

The stationmaster looked proprietorially towards the station and the hotel site. There seemed room for tickets, and for the man who sold them—if he were not a very large man. There was not much hope for visitors.

"I'm running up a bosker hotel soon's I can get a bit of weather-boarding and a few nails along," he said hopefully.

"That doesn't solve th-th-the immediate problem," said Louis.

"Let's sleep with half of us in the hotel and half on the platform," said Marcella, delighted with the authentic lack of civilization.

"Be et up with h'ants," the driver informed them. "Look here, chum, if I was you I'd sleep in the train. She don't set off till between seven and eight to-morrow."

They jumped at the idea, and the stationmaster, suddenly helpful, offered them the loan of his hut, his spirit lamp, his kerosene tins and his creek which was half a mile away among a few trees, low-growing, stunted blue gums.

"Have to have a wash," the stationmaster told himself unhappily, and suggested the same course to the driver and guard as there was a lady to dinner. Then he piloted Marcella and Louis to his hut.

It struck a homely note in several ways. The name of Rockefeller came to them in the flattened out kerosene tins which, nailed to supports, formed the roof; boxes stencilled with the names of well-known proprietary English goods formed the walls. Inside was a bed in shape of a frayed hammock; upturned boxes formed the chairs and there was an incongruous leather-topped, mahogany-legged writing-table. A kerosene tin was the toilet apparatus: another, cut in two, was used for boiling water. Given a supply of kerosene tins in the Bush, one can make a villa and furnish it, down to cooking utensils and baby's bath.

"Next time's yous happen along, I'll have a bonser hotel," he said, and leading Marcella outside showed her, under the shade of a tree, a cache of dozens of eggs laid by the hens that ran wild, and buried in the earth; half a sheep wrapped in canvas, surrounded by great clouds of flies gave evidence that it had been long dead.

"Help yourself, missus. We'll all kip together. You'll find a bag o' flour in the hammock," said the stationmaster, and wandered off to get on with his hotel and his station.

Marcella looked at Louis and laughed.

"What luck! Here's a chance to experiment! If we get to the station where they want a cook, to-morrow, I'll be able to say I gave every satisfaction in my last place."

"Always supposing we're aren't all dead before then," said Louis.

The first job was to boil water and wash the plates on which she amused herself by tracing the remains of quite half a dozen different meals. She felt sickened by the sight of the dead sheep; Louis seemed unmoved as he ran an anatomical eye over it and hacked off slices with a blunt knife. He became very wise on the subject of flapjacks and felt that Marcella was not quite playing up to him when she preferred to make omelets. The meal was quite a success in spite of the fact that, when it was ready Louis had difficulty in beating up the host and the other guests, and there was nowhere to keep warm the mutton which congealed and stuck hard on the plates. But no one troubled about such a detail. They ate with enjoyment and drank vast quantities of tea with much sugar and no milk.

They had an unbearably stuffy night in the breathless railway carriage; once Marcella went out on the platform and sat down for awhile listening to the echo-like barking of dingoes out on the ranges. In less than five minutes she was back again, her feet and hands prickling and sore with the bites of ants and sandflies. She was not at all sorry when dawn came at half-past three. She was disappointed in the creek; it had sounded luxuriously moist from the note of pride in the stationmaster's voice when he mentioned it. It turned out to be a suncracked water-course with a little muddy water lying in hollows, and one or two deeper holes from which the manganese miners got their water. She had been hoping for a swim: she had to be content with dipping a handkerchief in one of the hollows and wiping her face with it, since all the rest was needed for drinking.

"Next time yous come along we'll have had a drop o' rain, an' then you can drownd yourselfs if you want to," said the stationmaster.

They started out at four o'clock with the information that Gaynor's Station was a collection of weather-board huts, a homestead put together by five lads from England who were trying to make a fortune each. They had not yet made a living between them. Loose End was owned by an elderly squatter with many children. Five big gums, which could be seen for miles, stood sentinel over the homestead on a rising knoll of ground.

"But if yous ain't lucky, don't hit up Loose End. Old Twist has lots o' luck, but it's mostly bad luck. A kid every year, an' eether a bush fire or a flood or something to make up for it. His eldest is going on for ten, I think—an' how's he to pay for labour to clear his land?"

Neither of them knew, but they decided to make for Loose End and see what was going on under the five gums.

That day was the strangest experience to them both. Louis had tramped before in the cooler New Zealand summer; Marcella had walked miles on Lashnagar. But this walking through the dry, sun-scorched scrub, on which their feet slipped and slid was an experience quite unique. The heat rose from the ground to meet that blazing down from the sky of Prussian blue. At eight o'clock they were both tired, but Marcella, who plodded on, calm and unworried, was not nearly so tired as Louis who made himself hot and dissipated much energy in wondering when they would get there—wherever "there" might be. He had started the day whistling and gay; by ten o'clock he was in the depths of despair and took Marcella's attempts to chaff him as insults and injuries. As soon as they reached a patch of stunted bushes she decreed a halt and a rest. They filled the billy from their water-bottles and, making a fire with the scorched scrub, had it boiling in a few moments. Louis, though he was revived to interest by the pannikin of tea and a cigarette and biscuits, sank back into deep depression after a few minutes, saying that their coming into the Bush had been the act of lunatics, that they would die of starvation and thirst—until she made him take out his map and find out where they were.

Together they pored over it. After much wrangling they located Loose End beside a small lake and decided that they would reach there to-morrow with considerable effort.

"Anyway, we'll have to, because of our water," said Louis. "Otherwise we'll die." But Marcella found that, by going a few miles west, they would catch up the creek that drained into the little lake.

"It'll only be a dried water-course," said Louis miserably.

"No it won't. It's sure to be a foaming torrent if I say it shall. Didn't you know I was a witch?" she told him, and she was certainly more right than he, for that night they camped under great eucalyptus trees beside a water-course which ran deep and still at their feet. The first thing they did was to gather wood and make a great fire. After the day's anxiety about water it was intoxicating to know that unlimited quantities were to be dipped up and made into tea. While the water boiled they splashed about in the water, shaking sand out of the folds of their underclothes and their hair.

They had brought eggs and flour and salt. Louis, looking pleased with himself, produced a tin of Eno's Fruit Salt.

"Always take this stuff into the Bush," he explained. "If you can only get muddy water, this makes it more possible. And it's dashed good stuff for making damper less damping."

He put in too much and the damper was so light that it crumbled and got mixed up in the wood ashes. But they were both too hungry to notice whether they were eating damper or wood ash, and much too blissful to care.

They spread the blankets against the roots of a great tree, over a bed of heathery scrub, very soft and springy; they had no axe or any means of chopping wood, but there was a thick carpet of dead stuff under the trees. Noticing dead branches hanging by thin strips of bark Marcella made a lasso with the swag straps and pulled them down. As far as warmth went, there was no need for fire at all as soon as the meal was cooked: but out there in the vast purple-blackness of the night with pin-points of starlight in the illimitable loneliness the rose and gold of the spurting flames was comforting and comradely. They piled the dead wood upon it before they lay down; as one resinous branch after another caught fire the trees danced round in giant shadows, as though they were doing a death-dance for their limbs on the funeral pyre. The silence was a complete blank except when a flapping of wings beat the air where some bird changed its night perch, or a parrot squawked hoarsely for a moment, causing a fluttering of smaller wings that soon settled to silence again.

Louis rolled over; like Marcella he had been lying on his back, staring through the trees at the stars. His hand sought hers and held it, quivering a little.

"You know, it's going to be a hell of a fight, Marcella," he said.

"Oh my dear, do you think so?" she asked, surprised that he was confirming her opinion.

"Yes. In the city, you see, I only have to fight myself. I know, there, that I can always get the stuff—even if I've no money I can beg or pinch it—All I've to fight there is the accessibility of it. Here I've to fight the inaccessibility...."

"I don't quite understand that, Louis."

"I don't suppose you do. You see, dearie, out here it's quite on the cards that I shall go completely off my rocker." He spoke quietly, rather wistfully and sadly.

"Louis!" she cried, sitting up and looking down at him.

"I know I can't get whisky, you see. It's probably a hundred miles away. And I've no money. You must keep it all. This craving comes on and simply eats me up, dear. It's like a cancer, gnawing through bone and flesh and muscle. In the city when the gnawing gets too awful there's always an anesthetic in the nearest pub. In a way, to conquer it in the city is more noble. I said 'noble' in inverted commas, dear. I don't think it is particularly noble. But it's going to be the devil of a fight."

She did not know what to say or think. It seemed, at any rate, better that he should be removed from whisky, however hard it was going to be for him.

"I've thought a lot about it," he went on, speaking more impersonally than she had thought he could. "It's going to be so awful for you. I'll be a fiend to you, I expect, when the hunger comes on. I suppose this is one of the advantages of an inebriates' home. They'd shove me in a straight jacket or give me drugs when I got like that. Out here, you see, there's only you. I can't control myself. I may hurt you."

"You won't. If you do, I'll fight you, so you needn't worry on my account. I think it's all a silly convention that says a man in a temper mustn't thump a woman! If you want to thump me, do! But you'll probably get a much worse thumping than you give."

He tried to be cheered by her, but could not. After awhile, she said:

"Besides, if you do get well here—and you're going to. I don't doubt that for a moment—think how splendid it will be to know you've done it without the sort of restrictions, and treatments you'd get in a Home. Doing it just by your own strength is great, Louis."

He saw that, and was happier, but he could not break out of his morbid introspection. Even after they had said good night and she was in the hinterland of sleep, he wakened her by sitting up and lighting a cigarette.

"Can't you sleep?" she murmured drowsily.

"I'm thinking about you," he said gloomily. "Marcella, I was a cad to bring you out here into the backblocks, just because I wanted to escape temptation. You need civilization just now—you need all the comforts of civilization—care and—Oh the million things a woman needs."

"Oh, Louis, do be quiet!" she said, "all I need at this moment is a good sleep."

He lay down again for ten minutes. Once more he started up, dragging the blanket right away from her.

"How can you expect me to sleep? Marcella, what right had I to make you have a child? We've no money."

"They don't cost anything," she said wide-awake now.

He made a gesture of impatience.

"We've no home—you've no attention."

She sighed.

"Listen to me, Louis, and then, my dear, for ever hold your peace. If the Lord, or whoever it is that's responsible for babies, had meant them to make women invalids, they'd never have been invented at all. Because there's no real room in the world for invalids. They'd have been grown on bushes, or produced by budding, wouldn't they? So just you forget it! The baby is my affair. It's nothing to do with you, and I positively refuse to be fussed over. I call it indecent to talk about ill-health. It's the one thing in life I'd put covers on and hide up. You must just think you've been to a factory and ordered a baby, and they said, 'Yes, sir—ready in six months from now, sir.' And then you walk away and call again in six months!"

"Oh Lord!" he groaned, "why did I marry a kid?"

"You can talk about him as much as you like," she went on calmly, "the finished article. But I simply won't have you fussing about the details of his manufacture, and all his trimmings. And that's final."

"But he's my child," protested Louis.

"Not yet! In six months' time, perhaps. But you've enough worries, real worries, without making them up. There, dear heart, I don't mean to be cross with you. But you're such an idiot, and I'm so sleepy."

They said good night once more, and she was falling asleep when he pulled her hair gently. He was frowning, with deep lines on his forehead.

"But look here, old lady. If we're going right away from everywhere without any home, where's the child going to be born?"

"On the battlefield," she murmured sleepily.

He groaned, and once more his impatient twistings snatched the blanket away.

"Oh damn the Keltic imagination! Why can't you get a grip on things and be practical?"

Once more she was wide-awake, laughing with intense enjoyment.

"I can't see what there is to laugh at," he protested. "Marcella, has it occurred to you what sort of heritage this kiddy of ours has?"

Purposely misunderstanding him she flung out both arms wide, to embrace the whole of Australia, bush and forest, mountain, river and desert from sea to sea.

"You know what I mean," he said desperately. "Me, his father, a drunkard, with drink in his family, and you the descendant of dozens of drunkards. And what's more, though you are not a drunkard, you're as mad as a hatter. What the devil is the poor little beggar going to do?"

She was suddenly awake and very serious.

"Listen, Louis," she said, holding his hands very tight. "I got that jerk-back most dreadfully in Sydney. Mrs. King was saying that the crowning mercy of her life was the fact that she hadn't any children. But it's a mad, bad, heretical sort of fear, the sort of heresy against nature that people ought to be burnt at the stake for believing! This child is no more your child and mine than Jesus was the child of Joseph the carpenter, or—or Romulus and Remus were the children of the wolf-mother. We've given him his flesh. We're his foster-parents, if you like. But God and Humanity are his father and mother. I found all this out one night on the roof in Sydney. He's a little bit of the spirit of God incarnate for awhile."

"Keltic imagination," he said tentatively.

"Very well, then. If you don't like it my way, I'll put it in the scientific way. You twitted me once for forgetting that biology applied to us two. Doesn't it apply here? Biology shows that nature's pushing out, paring down weaknesses and things that get in the way. If a drunkard—who is a weakness, a scar on the face of nature—was going to have drunkard babies, nature would make something happen to drunkards so that they can't have children at all...."

"She does—in the last stages," murmured Louis.

"That's a good thing, perhaps. But I don't believe in inheriting things like drinking. I don't believe my people inherited it at all. They inherited a sort of temperament, perhaps—and it was the sort of temperament that was accessible to drink-hunger. People talk about drinking, or other weaknesses being in their families. Drinking seems to be in most families nowadays, simply because people are slack and lazy and drinking is the easiest and least expensive weakness to pander to. But I certainly believe most hereditary weakness comes from legend or from imitation. It's idiotic nonsense. When you're a kiddie you hear all sorts of family talk about family characteristics; it becomes a sort of legend and you live up to it unconsciously. You see your parents doing things, and because you're with your parents a great deal just at the time when you're soft, like a jelly just poured into a mould, you get like your parents. And then it's too late—too late to alter, I mean, unless you take a fork and beat the jelly up again, or warm it on the fire and make it melt. I've read a lot about this, and I believe it's at the bottom of half the morbid stuff people write and talk about hereditary drunkards and criminals...."

"But statistics," began Louis.

"The worst of statistics is that people only quote the statistics that will prove their argument. They don't quote those for the other side. If drunkards' children become drunkards it's probably because their lives are so desperately miserable that they take the most obvious way of drowning the misery. Anyway, Louis—"

"Lord, you are getting dictatorial, Marcella," he said.

"Yes. I know. I mean to be, on this subject. I'll tell you this much, my dear. If you tell this child of ours that you're a drunkard, I'll shake the life out of you and then run away with him where he'll never see you again. And if he sees you drunk—! But he won't. Anyway, you won't be any more. And now, seriously, after all that speech, let's go to sleep."

It was his turn to lie awake for hours this time, thinking and listening to her quiet breathing.



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