Fragment of Voss, a novel.
So the party entered the approaches to hell, with no sound but that of horses passing through a desert, and saltbush grating in a wind.
This devilish country, flat at first, soon broke up into winding gullies, not particularly deep, but steep enough to wrench the backs of the animals that had to cross them, and to wear the bodies and nerves of the men by the frantic motion that it involved. There was no avoiding chaos by detour. The gullies had to be crossed, and on the far side there was always another tortuous gully. It was as if the whole landscape had been thrown up into great earthworks defending the distance.
In the course of the assault, the faces of all those concerned began to wear an expression of abstraction. In the lyrical grasslands through which they had lately ridden, they had sung away what was left of their youth. Now, in their silence, they had even left off counting their sores. They had almost renounced their old, wicker bodies. They were tired at sunset. Only the spirit was flickering in the skull. Whether it would leap up in a blaze of revelation remained to be seen.
Then, one evening as they scrambled up towards a red bridge, one of the horses, or skeleton of a gelding, of which the eyes had gone milky with blight, and the crimson sores were the only signs of life, stumbled, and fell back with a thin scream into the gully, where he lay, and lunged, and continued to scream.
At once every man, with the exception of the leader, raised his voice, in curses, commands, or words of advice. All together. What they intended to achieve by their outcry, the men themselves could not have explained, except that they had been compelled to join with the horse in expression of their common agony.
Then Voss said:
— I suggest that you shoot the beast, Mr. Judd.
Judd dismounted, and when he had unslung his gun, and descended the slope, quickly dispatched the poor horse. This humane act was the only one that reason could have suggested, yet, when the convict had stripped the pack-saddle from the carcase, pulling at the leather with such force as he could still summon, almost falling back under the surviving weight of his once powerful frame, he took stones, and began to pelt the dead horse. He pelted slowly and viciously, his broad back turned to the group of his companions, and the stones made a slow, dead noise on the horse’s hide.
Until Voss insisted:
— Come up, Mr. Judd. It is foolish of you to expend your energy in this way.
It did seem foolish. Or terrifying. Harry Robarts, who had respected, and even fallen in love with his mate, was terrified. But he, poor boy, was simple.
As soon as Judd had recovered his customary balance, and his legs had returned him to the horse he had been riding, the party struggled a little farther, climbing out upon what appeared to be a considerable plateau, arid certainly, but blessedly flat.
— Here I think we will camp, decided Voss, when they had come to a few twisted trees.
He did not say more. There were occasions when, out of almost voluptuous perversity, he did respect the feelings of others.
All sat in the dusk, nursing in their mouths a little tepid water, that tasted of canvas, or a sad, departed civilization.
But Harry Robarts went wandering across the desert of the moon, stumbling quite drunkenly, and when the actual moon had risen, the tears were icy in the ravines of the boy’s aged face. Rambling and snivelling, he fell to counting such mercies as he had received, and in so doing, recalled the many acts of kindness of his mate the convict. These appeared more poignant, perhaps, since all human ties must be cut.
When, suddenly, in the mingling of dusk and moonlight, the boy realized that he was looking into animals’ eyes. In the interval before fear, the situation remained objective for all concerned. Then it became better understood. The boy saw that the eyes were those of a blackfellow, squatting in a hollow beside two women, his equals in nakedness and surprise, who were engaged in coaxing a firestick into marriage with a handful of dry twigs. The attitudes of all were too innocent to be maintained. The boy stumbled back upon his heels, mumbling the curses he had learned, the black man leaped, faster than light, blacker than darkness, into the nearest gully, followed by his two women and their almost independent breasts.
The boy was still cursing the shock he had received, and the absence of that courage which he always hoped would come to match his strength, when he heard a wailing from the natives, and from the distance, a blurred burst of answering cries. Upon telling his story afterwards, he remembered also to have caught sight of a second, more distant fire the moment before it was
— So we did not throw off the damn blacks, panted Harry Robarts in his own camp circle.
Voss, alone of all his party, remained persistently cheerful.
— There is no reason to believe that these natives are not of our present locality, he said, and it could suggest that we have come to better country.
Such logic persuaded those who wished to be persuaded.
— It is unreasonable, laughed Voss, when we have practically ignored the presence of the natives in the past, to behave of a sudden like a number of nervous women.
We were strong then, said Judd, passionately. And had hopes.
— You, surely, of all men, have known before the unwisdom of abandoning hope, the leader replied.
Seeking to comfort him with human precepts, in what was possibly an unearthly situation, the comforter alone was strengthened.
When Voss had lifted the flap of his tent and got inside, Judd the convict muttered to his own teeth:
— In those days, I knew how much and how little I was capable of. I knew where / was headed. Now I do not know about
After that, everybody went to bed, with firearms ready to hand, but slept deeply, as they were exhausted.
In the morning there was a bright, cold dew upon the world, and even the travellers, as they looked out across the austere plateau, were sensible of some refreshment, if only from sleep.
Voss himself was up earliest, and was going about gathering the dew with a sponge and squeezing it into a quart pot to make use of all possible moisture for his own consumption. Palfreyman soon joined him at his work.
— It could be idyllic, the ornithologist remarked, if we were to keep our heads lowered, and concentrate our whole attention on these jewels.
— This is the way, I understand, in which some people acquire religious faith, the German replied.
Palfreyman, whose own faith had suffered considerably, was prepared to accept the remark as punishment of a sort.
— Some people, he agreed.
— Ah, Palfreyman, said Voss, you are humble. And humility is humiliating in men. I am humiliated for you.
As Palfreyman did not answer, he added, though more for himself: — I suspect we shall soon learn which of us is right.
He could have continued to humiliate his unresisting friend and to exalt himself in that metallic light, for the mornings were still relentlessly cold and conducive to sharp detachment, if an uproar of voices had not at that moment arisen from the camp nearby. On going and enquiring into it, he and Palfreyman were informed by their companions that an axe, a bridle, and the surviving compass had disappeared, indeed from under canvas, in the course of the night.
— It is these blacks, sir, Judd protested. With your permission, I will go in search of them.
— We cannot accuse the natives on no evidence, Voss replied.
— I will soon find evidence, said Judd.
— If they did not help themselves to our property, Turner spluttered biliously, and they could have without much effort, simply by lifting the canvas, who else would have taken the things?
Both Turner and Judd, remembering Jildra, were trembling to say more, but were held back by some lack of daring. Or was it by Voss? His strength had been increased by sight of the great, trembling Judd.
— At least, here are the natives themselves, Palfreyman broke the awkwardness.
Everybody looked, and saw a group of several blackfellows assembled in the middle distance. The light and a feather of low-lying mist made them appear to be standing in a cloud. Thus elevated, their spare, elongated bodies, of burnt colours, gave to the scene a primitive purity that silenced most of the whites, and appealed particularly to Voss.
— Good, he cried. Here is an excellent opportunity to satisfy Judd’s eternal craving for material evidence.
— I do not understand, shouted the exasperated Judd. I will give as well as find evidence. I will fire a few shots right into the middle of ’em.
— Wait, I will come with you. Dirty blacks, contributed Turner, the spotless. But I must find my gun first.
— Neither of you will do anything so foolish, Voss said sharply. I will go, and you will wait here. Na, mach, Jackie! he called to the native boy.
A lot will come of your hob-nobbin’ with the blacks. As always, Judd panted. I cannot dream dreams no longer. Do you not see our deluded skeletons, Mr. Voss?
— If you are suffering from delusions, it is the result of our unavoidable physical condition, said the German, rather primly.
— Arrrr, groaned Judd.
But everyone fell silent, even Judd himself, while the aboriginals, of superior, almost godlike mien, waited upon their cloud, to pass judgment, as it were.
— As our friend Judd is jealous of my attempts to establish understanding and sympathy between the native mind and ourselves, Voss observed finally, I will ask Mr. Palfreyman to go amongst them, and investigate this matter of our stolen property. He, at least, is unprejudiced, and will act politic.
Somebody sighed. It could have been Palfreyman, who was startled by this sudden exposure of himself. His skin had turned yellow.
— I am certainly unbiassed, he said, and smiled thinly. I shall go, he agreed. I only hope that I may acquit myself truly, he added.
There he halted. Everyone was aware that he, an educated gentleman, no longer had control over the words he was using.
— Excellent, applauded Voss.
The circumstances to which they were reduced prevented him from wetting his lips. He was confident, however, that by a brilliant accident he had hit upon a means of revealing the true condition of a soul.
— Here, said Judd, offering Palfreyman his own weapon.
— Will you go armed? asked Voss, lowering his eyelids.
— No, said Palfreyman. Of course not. Not armed.
— Will you, at least, take the native?
— I doubt whether they would understand him.
— Scarcely, said Voss. But his presence.
— I will go. I will trust to my faith.
It sounded terribly weak. Voss heard with joy, and looked secretly at the faces of the other men. These, however, were too thin to express anything positive.
Palfreyman, who was certainly very small, in what had once been his cabbage-tree hat, had begun to walk towards the cloudful of blacks, but slowly, but deliberately, with rather large strides, as if he had been confirming the length of an important plot of land. As he went forward he became perfectly detached from his surroundings, and was thinking of many disconnected incidents, of a joyful, as well as an unhappy nature, of the love that he had denied his sister, of the bland morning in which he had stood holding the horse’s bridle and talking to Miss Trevelyan, even of the satisfaction that he and Turner had seemed to share as he shaved the latter’s suppurating face. Since it had become obvious that he was dedicated to a given end, his own celibacy could only appear natural. Over the dry earth he went, with his springy, exaggerated strides, and in this strange progress, was at peace and in love with his fellows. Both sides were watching him. The aboriginals could have been trees, but the members of the expedition were so contorted by apprehension, longing, love or disgust, they had become human again. All remembered the face of Christ that they had seen at some point in their lives, either in churches or visions, before retreating from what they had not understood, the paradox of man in Christ, and Christ in man. All were obsessed by what could be the last scene for some of them. They could not advance farther.
Voss was scourging his leg with a black stick.
Palfreyman walked on.
Harry Robarts would have called out, if his voice had not been frozen. Then, we are truly damned, Frank Le Mesurier knew, his dreams taking actual shape.
Palfreyman continued to advance.
If his faith had been strong enough, he would have known what to do, but as he was frightened, and now could think of nothing, except, he could honestly say, that he did love all men, he showed the natives the palms of his hands. These, of course, would have been quite empty, but for the fate that was written on them.
The black men looked, fascinated, at the white palms, at the curiously lidded eyes of the intruder. All, including the stranger himself, were gathered together at the core of a mystery. The blacks would soon begin to see inside the white man’s skin, that was transfigured by the morning; it was growing transparent, like clear water.
Then one black man warded off the white mysteries with terrible dignity. He flung his spear. It stuck in the white man’s side, and hung down, quivering. All movements now became awkward, the awkward white man stood with his toes turned in. A second black, of rather prominent muscles, and emotional behaviour, rushed forward with a short spear, or knife, it could have been, and thrust it between the white man’s ribs. It was accomplished so easily.
— Ahhhhh, Palfreyman was laughing, because still he did not know what to do.
With his toes turned in.
But clutching the pieces of his life.
The circles were whirling already, the white circles in the blue, quicker and quicker.
— Ah, Lord, he said, upon his knees, if I had been stronger. But his voice was bubbling. His blood was aching through a hole which the flies had scented already.
Ah, Lord, Lord, his mind repeated, before tremendous pressure from above compelled him to lay down the last of his weakness. He had failed evidently.
Then Harry Robarts did scream.
Then Judd had discharged his gun, with none too accurate aim, but the muscular black was fumbling with his guts, tumbling.
Voss was shouting in a high voice.
— I forbid any man to fire, to make matters worse by shooting at this people.
For they were his.
All the blacks had streaked from the scene, however, except the second murderer, who had stumbled, straddled a rock, toppled, before the violence of uncontrol flung him away, somewhere, into a gully.
Mr. Palfreyman was already dead when the members of the expedition arrived at his side and took him up. Nor was there a single survivor who did not feel that part of him had died.
In the course of the morning a grave was dug in the excessively hard ground, by which time the eyelids of the dead man had thickened, and the black blood was clotting in his wounds. Death had turned him into wax.
Pious peasants wore their knees out worshipping similar effigies, Voss remembered with disgust. The face of Laura Trevelyan, herself waxen amongst the candles, did reproach him for a moment during the orgy of mortality at which they were assisting, but he drove: her off, together with the flies, and spoke very irritably, for flesh, like candles, is designed to melt.
— The sooner he is below ground, the better, he said, in such heat.
We must read the burial service, mumbled Judd.
— I prefer not to, Voss replied.
— I cannot, said Judd.
Frank Le Mesurier, whose wasted face was running with yellow sweat, declined.
— I cannot, Judd kept repeating, as he knelt upon the stones, beside the trench in which it was intended to put the dead man, but would if I had the education.
It was terrible for him to have to admit.
Finally, Ralph Angus read the service, correcting himself time and again, for the meaning of the words was too great for him to grasp; he had been brought up a gentleman.
In the case of Harry Robarts, however, truth descended upon ignorance in a blinding light. He saw into the meaning of words, and watched the white bird depart out of the hole in Mr. Palfreyman’s side as they lowered the body into the ground.
As for Judd, he cried for the sufferings of man, in which he had participated to some extent, if not yet in their entirety.
During the afternoon the leader went in search of the body of the black, which he said they should bury too, but members of the tribe appeared already to have crept up and removed it. So Voss returned, furious with the flies, and the devotion of Laura Trevelyan, which did not allow her to leave him unattended. She was dragging after him, across the stones. And the Christ-picture. He could have shouted.
But on coming within a hundred yards or so of the camp, his attention was attracted by the glitter of some substance that proved to be glass, and in it the needle of the stolen compass.
— Mr. Judd! he called in triumph.
When Judd had come, the German pointed to the patch.
This will obviate the necessity of deciding who will take the one compass.
He laughed, but Judd, who had already been tried too sorely, stood silent, looking at the little arrow that was pointing and pointing on the bare earth.
Since the clay was already far advanced, and every man, as the result of the recent disaster, aching as if he had ridden miles over the very roughest country, it was decided not to push on until the following morning. In the course of the afternoon, Judd followed the tracks of the stock that had wandered in a direction roughly south of the encampment, and there found them congregated along the banks of a river, of which the course was in general dry, though there remained a few passable waterholes to which the animals had been attracted. Thin horses stood easing a tired pastern, humbly twitching a grateful lower lip. One or two surviving goats looked at the newcomer without moving, admitting him temporarily to the fellowship of beasts.
The man-animal joined them and sat for a while upon the scorching bank. It was possibly this communion with the beasts that did finally rouse his bemused human intellect, for in their company he sensed the threat of the knife, never far distant from the animal throat.
— I will not? I will not! he cried at last, shaking his emaciated body.
Since his own fat paddocks, not the deserts of mysticism, nor the transfiguration of Christ, arc the fate of common man, he was yearning for the big breasts of his wife, that would smell of fresh-baked bread even after she had taken off her shift.
That evening, after the canvas water-bags had been filled against an early start, and the men were picking half-heartedly at a bit of damper and dried meat, Judd approached their leader,’ and said:
— Voss, sir, I do not feel we are intended to go any further. I have thought it over, and am turning back.
Some of them caught their breath to hear their own thoughts expressed. They were sitting forward.
— Do you not realize you are under my leadership? Voss asked, although quite calmly, now that it had happened.
— Not any more I am not, Judd replied.
You are suffering from fatigue, pronounced the leader.
The corroboration of his worst fears was making him firm, bright, almost joyful.
—Go to bed now, he said, I cannot allow myself to suspect a brave man of cowardice.
— It is not cowardice, if there is hell before and hell behind, and nothing to choose between them, Judd protested. I will go home. Even if I come to grief on the way, I am going home.
— I do not expect more of you, then, said Voss. Small minds quail before great enterprises. It is to be hoped that a small mind will stand the strain of such a return journey, and unaccompanied.
— I am a plain man, said Judd. I do not understand much beyond that plainness, but can trust my own self.
Voss laughed. He sat culling stones out of a little pile.
— So I am going back, Judd ended. And I will lead anybody that is of like mind.
This was to be the test, then. Voss threw a hateful stone into the darkness.
At once Turner jumped up, and was straining his throat to utter the words. He was like a gristly fowl escaping from the block.
— You can count on me, he cried too quickly, and Ralph will come.
— Speak for yourself, snapped Angus, ashamed at being stripped naked by such trash, who was, moreover, his friend.
— No doubt others will have made up their minds by morning, Voss Gentlemen, I will wish you good-night. You have several hours. The nights are still cold, and will favour thought.
Then he crawled into his tent, and was not altogether ungainly in doing so, it was realized.
The situation did crystallize, if painfully, under the stars, and by morning each knew what he must confess. In some cases the decision was too obvious to require putting into words. There would have been no hope for Frank Le Mesurier, for instance, on any course other than his leader’s, and Voss, who had read what was written, would not have dreamed of asking for proof of loyalty. Frank was busy strapping and buckling. Somewhere he had stowed his book, that he valued still, but in which he no longer wrote, as if all were said.
Turner was gabbling. The prospect of a return to sanity had brought out the streak of madness that is hidden in all men.
— I will not eat, Albert, he was saying craftily, and the load will be so much lighter for the provisions we do not have to carry. It is surprising how little a man need eat. I will be the headpiece, you will see. Food, they say, only numbs the brain.
Just then the German came across, and insisted upon a fair division of stores. He and Judd arranged these matters quite naturally and amicably in the pale morning. Although they were shivering, and their teeth chattering, it was from the cold.
— And the compass! laughed Voss, who had become a thin, distinguished, reasonable being.
— There is no need for any compass, laughed the big, jolly Judd.
As Ralph Angus approached them, he was terribly uncertain in his certainty, and in need of that macassnr which provided half the assurance of young, personable gentlemen.
— I have decided, he said, who had been deciding all night.
— Yes? asked Voss, who knew, and who would have let him off.
— I have decided to throw in my lot, said Angus, sweating in the cold, to go with Judd. It seems to me questionable to continue any farther into this wilderness. I have enough land, he finished rather abruptly, and did not mention the. acreage, for this would have been in bad taste.
— You are rich, then, remarked Voss, with elaborate seriousness.
— I mean, stuttered the unhappy young man, there is land enough along the Coast for anyone to stake a reasonable claim.
At that moment, his leader, as Judd the convict had become, put his strong hand on the landowner’s . arm and asked him to do something.
— All right, said Ralph Angus, surlily, but with every intention of
He went to do it, and at the same moment gave his life into the keeping of Judd. As the latter’s hands were capable ones, it could have been a wise move, although the young man himself felt he was betraying his class, both then, and for ever.
All was got ready in quickest time. Nobody could have criticized the almost unbroken smoothness and amiability with which their departure was prepared. When the moment came, however, movements grew abrupt and unnatural. As the two parties were separating, each man remembered how the others knew him far too intimately, with the consequence that nobody experienced any real desire to look back.
Only Harry Robarts called to his mate:
— Good-bye then, Mr. Judd.
They had forgotten about Harry, who was of course a lad, and a simpleton. Even Judd had forgotten, who had sensed the boy’s affection, while always knowing that he must lose him.
— Ah, good-bye, Harry, the convict replied, now that he had been accused.
When he had cleared a passage in his throat, he added rather furrily:
— You are leaving me. And I would not have expected it.
Although it was not true.
— I would come with you, the boy began, and hesitated.
Then why would not Harry come? There was no reason, except that it was not intended.
— I would come if I wanted to, he shouted into his friend’s face.
And began to dig his heels into the sides of his horse.
— But I do not, he cried. Get on, then! Arr, get on! Or I will bust your ribs open!
The two parties now rode in opposite directions. With the exception of Harry Robarts, whose fate was tormenting him, the spirits of all were considerably revived. The blackfellow Jackie, who rode still at the German’s right hand, was grinning as he bounced upon his horse’s shambly skeleton. There was a great deal the young native found incomprehensible, but, at least, he was not dead. So the invisible rope that joined the cavalcade was slowly broke, and then, in the immediate landscape, nothing remained of the expedition except a small cairn of stones that marked the grave of Mr. Palfreyman.