Chapter 15 - Jack Slaps Back
Chapter follows chapter, and nothing doing. But man is a thought-adventurer, and his falls into the Charybdis of ointment, and his shipwrecks on the rock of ages, and his kisses across chasms, and his silhouette on a minaret: surely these are as thrilling as most things.
To be brief, there was a Harriet, a Kangaroo, a Jack and a Jaz and a Vicky, let alone a number of mere Australians. But you know as well as I do that Harriet is quite happy rubbing her hair with hair-wash and brushing it over her forehead in the sun and looking at the threads of gold and gun-metal, and the few threads, alas, of silver and tin, with admiration. And Kangaroo has just got a very serious brief, with thousands and thousands of pounds at stake in it. Of course he is fully occupied keeping them at stake, till some of them wander into his pocket. And Jack and Vicky have gone down to her father's for the week-end, and he's out fishing, and has already landed a rock-cod, a leather-jacket, a large schnapper, a rainbow-fish, seven black-fish, and a cuttlefish. So what's wrong with him? While she is trotting over on a pony to have a look at an old sweetheart who is much too young to be neglected. And Jaz is arguing with a man about the freight-rates. And all the scattered Australians are just having a bet on something or other. So what's wrong with Richard's climbing a mental minaret or two in the interim? Of course there isn't any interim. But you KNOW that Harriet is brushing her hair in the sun, and Kangaroo looking at huge sums of money on paper, and Jack fishing, and Vicky flirting and Jaz bargaining, so what more do you want to know? We can't be at a stretch of tension ALL the time, like the E string on a fiddle. If you don't like the novel, don't read it. If the pudding doesn't please you, leave it, leave it. I don't mind your saucy plate. I know too well that you can bring an ass to water, etc.
As for gods, thought Richard, there are gods of vengeance. "For I, the Lord thy God, am a jealous God." So true. A jealous God, and a vengeful - "Visiting the sins of the fathers upon the children, unto the third and fourth generation of them that hate me." Of course. The fathers get off. You don't begin to pay the penalty till the second and third generation. That is something for US to put in our pipes and smoke. Because WE are the second generation, and it was our fathers who had a nice rosy time among the flesh-pots, cooking themselves the tit-bits of this newly-gutted globe of ours. They cooked the tit-bits, we are left with the carrion.
"The Lord thy God am a jealous God."
So he is. The Lord thy God is the invisible stranger at the gate in the night, knocking. He is the mysterious life-suggestion, tapping for admission. And the wondrous Victorian Age managed to fasten the door so tight, and light up the compound so brilliantly with electric light, that really, there WAS no outside, it was all in. The unknown became a joke: is still a joke.
Yet there it is, outside the gate, getting angry. "Behold I stand at the gate and knock." "Knock away," said complacent, benevolent humanity, which had just discovered its own monkey origin to account for its own monkey tricks. "Knock away, nobody will hinder you from knocking."
And Holman Hunt paints a pretty picture of a man with a Stars-and-Stripes lantern and a red beard, knocking. But whoever it is that's knocking had been knocking for three generations now, and he's got sick of it. He'll be kicking the door in just now.
"For I the Lord thy God am a jealous God."
It is not that He is jealous of Thor or Zeus or Bacchus or Venus. The great dark God outside the gate is all these gods. You open the gate, and sometimes in rushes Thor and gives you a bang on the head with a hammer; or Bacchus comes mysteriously through, and your mind goes dark and your knees and thighs begin to glow; or it is Venus, and you close your eyes and open your nostrils to a perfume, like a bull. All the gods. When they come through the gate they are personified. But outside the gate it is one dark God, the Unknown. And the Unknown is a terribly jealous God, and vengeful. A fearfully vengeful god: Moloch, Astarte, Ashtaroth, and Baal. That is why we dare not open now. It would be a hell-god, and we know it. We are the second generation. Our children are the third. And our children's children are the fourth. Eheu! Eheu! Who knocks?
Jack trotted over to Coo-ee on the Sunday afternoon, when he was staying with his wife's people. He knew Richard and Harriet would most probably be at home: they didn't like going out on Sundays, when all the world and his wife in their exceedingly Sunday clothes, swarmed on the face of the earth.
Yes, they were at home: sitting on the verandah, a bit of rain spitting from the grey sky, and the sea gone colourless and small. Suddenly, there stood Jack. He had come round the corner on to the grass. Somers started as if an enemy were upon him. Jack looked very tall and wiry, in an old grey suit. He hesitated before coming forward, as if measuring the pair of unsuspecting turtle doves on the loggia, and on his face was a faint grin. His eyes were dark and grinning too, as he hung back there. Somers watched him quickly. Harriet looked over her shoulder.
"Oh, Mr. Callcott - why - how do you do?" And she got up, startled, and went across the loggia holding out her hand, to shake hands. So Jack had to come forward. Richard, very silent, shook hands also, and went indoors to fetch a chair and a cup and a plate, while Jack made his explanation to Harriet. He was quite friendly with her.
"Such a long time since we saw you," she was saying. "Why didn't Mrs. Callcott come, I should have liked so much to see her?"
"Ah - you see I came over on the pony. Doesn't look very promising weather." And he looked away across the sea, averting his face.
"No - and the TERRIBLE cold winds! I'm so glad if it will rain. I simply love the smell of rain in the air: especially here in Australia. It makes the air seem so much KINDER, not so dry and savage - ."
"Ah - yes - it does," he said vaguely, still averting his face from her. He seemed strange to her. And his face looked different - as if he had been drinking, or as if he had indigestion.
The two men were aloof like two strange tom-cats.
"Were you disgusted with Lovat when he didn't turn up the other Saturday?" said Harriet. "I do hope you weren't sitting waiting for him."
"Well - er - yes, we did wait up a while for him."
"Oh, but what a shame! But you know by now he's the most undependable creature on earth. I wish you'd be angry with him. It's no good what I say."
"No," said he - the peculiar slow Cockney no - "I'm not angry with him."
"But you should be," cried Harriet. "It would be good for him."
"Would it?" smiled Jack. His eyes were dark and inchoate, and there seemed a devil in his long, wiry body. He did not look at Somers.
"You know of course what happened?"
"Er - when?"
"When Lovat went to see Mr. Cooley."
"Er - no."
Again that peculiar Australian no, like a scorpion that stings with its tail.
"Didn't Mr. Cooley tell you?" cried Harriet.
"No." There was indescribable malice in the monosyllable.
"Didn't he - !" cried Harriet, and she hesitated.
"You be quiet," said Lovat crossly to her. "Of course YOU'D have to rush in."
"You think angels would fear to tread in such a delicate mess?" said Harriet, with a flash of mocking wit that sent a faint smile up Jack's face, like a red flame. His nose, his mouth were curiously reddened. He liked Harriet's attacks. He looked at her with dark, attentive eyes. Then he turned vaguely to Somers.
"What was it?" he asked.
"Nothing at all new," said Somers. "You know he and I start to quarrel the moment we set eyes on one another."
"They might be man and wife," mocked Harriet, and again Jack turned to her a look of black, smiling, malicious recognition.
"Another quarrel?" he said quietly.
But Somers was almost SURE he knew all about it, and had only come like a spy to take soundings.
"Another quarrel," he replied, smiling, fencing. "And once more shown the door."
"I should think," said Harriet, "you'd soon know that door when you see it."
"Oh, yes," said Richard. He had not told her the worst of the encounter. He never told her the worst, nor her nor anybody.
Jack was looking from one to the other to see how much each knew.
"Was it a specially bad blow-up?" he said, in his quiet voice, that had a lurking tone of watchfulness in it.
"Oh, yes, final," laughed Richard. "I am even going to leave Australia."
"I think in six weeks."
There was silence for some moments.
"You've not booked your berths yet?" asked Jack.
"No. I must go up to Sydney."
Again Jack waited before he spoke. Then he said:
"What's made you settle on going?"
"I don't know. I feel it's my fate to go now."
"Ha, your fate!" said Harriet. "It's always your fate with you. If it was me it would be my foolish restlessness."
Jack looked at her with another quick smile, and a curious glance of dark recognition in his eyes, almost like a caress. Strangely apart, too, as if he and she were in an inner dark circle, and Somers was away outside.
"Don't you want to go, Mrs. Somers?" he asked.
"Of course I don't. I love Australia," she protested.
"Then don't you go," said Jack. "You stop behind."
When he lowered his voice it took on a faint, indescribable huskiness. It made Harriet a little uneasy. She watched Lovat. She did not like Jack's new turn of husky intimacy. She wanted Richard to rescue her.
"Ha!" she said. "He'd never be able to get through the world without me."
"Does it matter?" said Jack, grinning faintly at her and keeping the husky note in his voice. "He knows his own mind - or his fate. You stop here. We'll look after you."
But she watched Richard. He was hardly listening. He was thinking again that Jack was feeling malevolent towards him, wanting to destroy him, as in those early days when they used to play chess together.
"No," said Harriet, watching Lovat's face. "I suppose I shall have to trail myself along, poor woman, till I see the end of him."
"He'll lead you many a dance before that happens," grinned Richard. He rather enjoyed Jack's malevolence this time.
"Ha, you've led me all your dances that you know," she retorted. "I know there'll be nothing new, unfortunately."
"Why don't you stay in Australia?" Jack said to her, with the same quiet, husky note of intimacy, insistency, and the reddish light on his face.
She was somewhat startled and offended. Wasn't the man sober, or what?
"Oh, he wouldn't give me any money, and I haven't a sou of my own," she said lightly, laughing it off.
"You wouldn't be short of money," said Jack. "Plenty of money."
"You see I couldn't just live on charity, could I?" she replied, delicately.
"It wouldn't be charity."
There was a very awkward pause. Then a wicked redness came into Jack's face, and a flicker into his voice.
"Appreciation. You'd be appreciated." He seemed to speak with muted lips. There was a cold silence. Harriet was offended now.
"I'll just clear the table," she said, rising briskly.
Jack sat rather slack in his chair, his long, malevolent body half sunk, and his chin dropped.
"What boat do you think you'll catch?" he asked.
"The Manganui. Why?"
But Jack did not speak. He sat there with his head sunk on his chin, his body half-turgid, as if he were really not quite sober.
"You won't be honouring Australia long with your presence," he said ironically.
"Nor dishonouring it," said Richard. He was like a creature that is going to escape. Some of the fear he had felt for Kangaroo he now felt for Jack. Jack was really very malevolent. There was hell in his reddened face, and in his black, inchoate eyes, and in his long, pent-up body. But he kept an air of quiescence, of resignation, as if he were still really benevolent.
"Oh, I don't say that," he remarked in answer to Richard's last, but in a tone which said so plainly what he felt: an insulting tone.
Said Richard to himself: "I wouldn't like to fall into your clutches, my friend, altogether: or to give your benevolence a chance to condemn me."
Aloud, he said to Jack:
"If I can't join in with what you're doing here, heart and soul, I'd better take myself off, hadn't I? You've all been good to me, and in a measure, trusted me. I shall always owe you a debt of gratitude, and keep your trust inviolable. You know that. But I am one of those who must stand and wait - though I don't pretend that by so doing I also serve."
"You take no risks," said Jack quietly.
"Why - I would take risks - if only I felt it was any good."
"What does it matter about it's being any good? You can't tell what good a thing will be or won't be. All you can do is to take a bet on it."
"You see it isn't my nature to bet."
"Not a sporting nature, you mean?"
"No, not a sporting nature."
"Like a woman - you like to feel safe all round," said Jack, slowly raising his dark eyes to Somers in a faint smile of contempt and malevolence. And Richard had to acknowledge to himself that he WAS cutting a poor figure: nosing in, like a Mr. Nosy Parker, then drawing back quickly if he saw two sparks fly.
"Do you think I've let you down? I never pledged myself," he said coldly.
"Oh, no, you never pledged yourself" said Jack laconically.
"You see I don't BELIEVE in these things," said Somers, flushing.
"What's that you don't believe in?"
And Jack watched him with two black round eyes, with a spark dancing slowly in each, in a slow gaze putting forth all his power. But Somers now looked back into the two dark, malevolent pools.
"In revolutions - and public love and benevolence and feeling righteous," he said.
"What love, what benevolence and righteousness?" asked Jack, vaguely, still watching with those black, sardonic eyes. "I never said anything about them."
"You know you want to be the saviours of Australia," said Richard.
"I didn't know. But what's wrong with it?"
"I'm no good at saving."
"We don't pretend to be saviours. We want to do our best for Australia, it being our own country. And the Pommies come out from England to try to upset us. But they won't. They may as well stop in their dead-and-rotten old country."
"I'm sorry it looks to you like that," said Richard.
"Oh, don't apologise," said Jack, with a faint, but even more malevolent smile. "It's pretty well always the same. You come out from the old countries very cocksure, with a lot of criticism to you. But when it comes to doing anything, you sort of fade out, you're nowhere. We're used to it, we don't mind."
There was a silence of hate.
"No, we don't mind," Jack continued. "It's quite right, you haven't let us down, because we haven't given you a chance. That's all. In so far as you've had any chance to, you've let us down, and we know it."
Richard was silent. Perhaps it was true. And he hated such a truth.
"All right," he said. "I've let you down. I suppose I shall have to admit it. I'm sorry - but I can't help myself."
Jack took not the slightest notice of this admission, sat as if he had not heard it.
"I'm sorry I've sort of fizzled out so quickly," said Richard. "But you wouldn't have me pretend, would you? I'd better be honest at the beginning."
Jack looked at him slowly, with slow, inchoate eyes, and a look of contempt on his face. The contempt on Jack's face, the contempt of the confident he-man for the shifty she-man, made Richard flush with anger, and drove him back on his deeper self once more.
"What do you call honest?" said Jack, sneering.
Richard became very silent, very still. He realised that Jack would like to give him a thrashing. The thought was horrible to Richard Lovat, who could never bear to be touched, physically. And the other man sitting there as if he were drunk was very repugnant to him. It was a bad moment.
"Why," he replied, in answer to the question, while Jack's eyes fixed him with a sort of jeering malevolence: "I can't honestly say I feel at one with you, you and Kangaroo, so I say so, and stand aside."
"You've found out all you wanted to know, I suppose?" said Jack.
"I didn't WANT to know anything. I didn't come asking or seeking. It was you who chose to tell me."
"You didn't try drawing us out, in your own way?"
"Why, no, I don't think so."
Again Jack looked at him with a faint contemptuous smile of derision.
"I should have said myself you did. And you got what you wanted, and now are clearing out with it. Exactly like a spy, in my opinion."
Richard opened wide eyes, and went pale.
"A spy!" he exclaimed. "But it's just absurd."
Jack did not vouchsafe any answer, but sat there as if he had come for some definite purpose, something menacing, and was going to have it out with the other man.
"Kangaroo doesn't think I came spying, does he?" asked Richard, aghast. "It's too impossible."
"I don't know what he thinks," said Jack. "But it isn't 'too impossible' at all. It looks as if it had happened."
Richard was now dumb. He realised the depths of the other man's malevolence, and was aghast. Just aghast. Some fear too - and a certain horror, as if human beings had suddenly become horrible to him. Another gulf opened in front of him.
"Then what do you want of me now?" he asked, very coldly. "Some sort of security, I suppose," said Jack, looking away at the sea.
Richard was silent with rage and cold disgust, and a sort of police-fear.
"Pray what sort of security?" he replied, coldly.
"That's for you to say, maybe. But we want some sort of security that you'll keep quiet, before - we let you leave Australia."
Richard's heart blazed in him with anger and disgust.
"You need not be afraid," he said. "You've made it all too repulsive to me now, for me ever to want to open my mouth about it all. You can be quite assured: nothing will ever come out through me."
Jack looked up with a faint, sneering smile.
"And you think we shall be satisfied with your bare word?" he said uglily.
But now Richard looked him square in the eyes.
"Either that or nothing," he replied.
And unconscious of what he was doing, he sat looking direct down into the dark, shifting malice of Jack's eyes. Till Jack turned aside. Richard was now so angry and insulted he felt only pure indignation.
"We'll see," said Jack.
Somers did not even heed him. He was too indignant to think of him any more. He only retreated into his own soul, and turned aside, invoking his own soul: "Oh, dark God, smite him over the mouth for insulting me. Be with me, gods of the other world, and strike down these liars."
Harriet came out on to the verandah.
"What are you two men talking about?" she said. "I hear two very cross and snarling voices, though I can't tell what they say."
"I was just saying Mr. Somers can't expect to have it all his own way," said Jack in his low, intense, slightly husky voice, that was now jeering viciously.
"He'll try his best to," said Harriet. "But whatever have you both got so furious about. Just look at Lovat, green with fury. It's really shameful. Men are like impish children - you daren't leave them together for a minute."
"It was about time you came to throw cold water over us," smiled Jack sardonically. Ah, how sardonic he could be: deep, deep and devilish. He too must have a very big devil in his soul. But he never let it out. Or did he? Harriet looked at him, and shuddered slightly. He scared her, she had a revulsion from him. He was a bit repulsive to her. And she knew he had always been so.
"Ah, well!" said Jack. "Cheery-o! We aren't such fools as we seem. The milk's spilt, we won't sulk over it."
"No, don't," cried Harriet. "I hate sulky people."
"So do I, Mrs. Somers, worse than water in my beer," said Jack genially. "You and me, we're not going to fall out, are we?"
"No," said Harriet. "I don't fall out with people - and I don't let them fall out with me.
"Quite right. Don't give 'em a chance, eh? You're right of it. You and me are pals, aren't we?"
"Yes," said Harriet easily, as if she were talking to some child she must soothe. "We're pals. But why didn't you bring your wife? I'm so fond of her."
"Oh, Vicky's all right. She's A1 stuff. She thinks the world of you, you know. By golly, she does; she thinks the world of you."
"Then why didn't you bring her to see me?"
"Eh? Why didn't I? Oh - let me see - why, she'd got her married sister and so forth come to see her, so she couldn't leave them. But she sent her love, and all that sort of sweet nothing, you know. I told her I should never have the face to repeat it, you know. I was to give you HEAPS of love. "Heaps of love to Mrs. Somers!" Damn it, I said, how do I know she wants me dumping down heaps of love on her. But that was the message - heaps of love to Mrs. Somers, and don't you forget it. I'm not likely to forget it, by gee! There aren't two Mrs. Somers in the universe: I'm ready to bet all I've got on that. Ay, and a bit over. Now, look here, Mrs. Somers, between you and me and the bed-post - ."
"Do you mean Lovat is the bed-post?" put in Harriet. "He's silent enough for one."
Jack glanced at Somers, and also relapsed into silence.