Excerpt

The Great Fire

Shirley Hazzard

December 16, 2019 
The following is an excerpt from the novel by Shirley Hazzard that won the National Book Award. Shirley Hazzard (1931-2016) is the author, most recently, of Greene on Capri, a memoir of Graham Greene, and several works of fiction, including The Evening of the Holiday, The Bay of Noon, and The Transit of Venus, winner of the 1981 National Book Critics Circle Award. She lived in New York City and Capri.

In the crystal morning, Leith was driving with Talbot into green hills: discarding the exploded dockland, winding around ledges of emerald rice. They stopped the jeep on a spur, jumping down among tough grasses to look out at sea and islands and to watch, some moments, the small white departing ship, elderly, simple, and shapely, that would have carried Gardiner to Hong Kong on the first leg of his deleted journey. Men and women are said to grow young again in death, but Gardiner, his snappers removed, his slack jaw bound up forever, had appeared immeasurably withered on the night of his death. The little ship, sailing to its appointments, passed among islands all glorious with morning, on a blue course channelled by mine- sweepers. The man watching was aware of Japanese grasses beneath his boots—of earth and gravel and of stunted shrubbery trembling nearby. There were tufted wildflowers and specks of red and purple that might be speedwell or some odder saxifrage. He was aware of the reprieve.

From a distance, on an outer ledge of terraced rice, his fellow man looked back at him: a single figure wearing a hat of conical straw and a red shift that came to his knees.

The young driver, profiting from the hiatus, had meanwhile peed behind bushes. When they resumed the ride, with Leith at the wheel, Talbot remarked, “I don’t suppose you got much sleep.”

“A couple of hours. Not that there was much to do for him, poor chap.”

“Rough on you, starting out with that.”

“With a death, you mean—a bad augury?”

Well, one was there. No one else really knew who he was. It was another war death, deferred.” Side effects, after-effects. This time yesterday I hadn’t met him. Today he’s dead, and I’m his only mourner.

They had churned into wooded country. “Pines, are they?” asked the boy, indifferent. “These are cedars, these tall ones. Pines are up there, on the right.”

“We weren’t taught about trees. At Sydney it was gum trees and Moreton Bays.” Bushes of wattle, bottlebrush. “Soil’s sandy.” Then, “We heard more about British trees, from the songs and books: Hearts of Oak, beeches, birches. How green and wet they are, and how they play for dead in winter. Seemed more spectacular than the gums and the Bush.”

Leith said, “My home, if I have one, is near the North Sea. Bleak country in winter, the wind sweeping over, and the sleet. Bitter, solitary. Where I am, it’s not forested, although there are stands of trees, nurtured. It has its beauty.”

“How’s that?”

“Oh—changing lights and skies, and the low land. Sense of separation, almost from terra firma.” He laughed. “Away from it, as I’ve mostly been, I can become sentimental.” He noticed how often he qualified the reference to home: If I have one; I’m mostly away.

Brian Talbot said, “I’d like to see places before I settle down.” The settling taken for granted. Down, down. The wife and kiddies, the house and mortgage, the lawn and lawnmower, the car. “I suppose being here is a start.” He was not really convinced that these uncongenial scenes, and these impenetrable people—tireless, humorless, reclusive—could meet the case.

Thought made him vulnerable. That was the Australian way: say anything out of the ordinary and there was the laugh—the good laugh, not having much to do with goodness. You had to watch yourself. But you got curious, all the same. And then, Leith was not likely to take advantage. “You won’t need war now, Talbot, to see the world—hardship, maybe, but not slaughter. Until this, war has been the way out, for most men.” Soldiering, or seamanship. Young recruits with their dreams of transformation: of conquest, plunder, fornication. Even, in some, the dream of knowledge. Inconceivable, in advance, the red mess and shallow grave.

Women’s yearnings had scarcely featured, being presumably of mating and giving birth. Their purpose had been supplied to them from the first: their lot. A woman who broke ranks was ostracized by other women. Rocking the boat instead of the cradle.

Mrs. Driscoll was of middling height only, an illusory tallness being created by her large forcible head and martial shoulders.

The wheels threw up dirt and noisy gravel. Laborers passed them in pairs and foursomes, all moving downhill, all bearing burdens; each falling silent as the car approached, not meeting glances from these invulnerable strangers in their well-fed uniforms. Wrapped in shabby darkness, women came shuffling, one with a great bundle of kindling on her back, another hooped under a strapped child.

The man thought, Their lot. A brute word. He said, “It’s the devil, Talbot.”

Talbot looked at the roadside. He hadn’t expected this contest, continual, between a decreed strength and the nagging humanity of things. Any show of softness would bring, from his companions, the good laugh—to shut him up, perhaps, they being baffled as he. Yet the man at the wheel felt it, too—who, with his colored ribbons and great medal, couldn’t be accused. Talbot had been told that this warrior, though wounded and captured, had escaped his prison and fought again in the last winter of the European war. So the story went, anyway, and some of it plainly true. Straightforward matters you could understand.

“You speak the lingo. Sir.”

“I’ve made a beginning. My languages are from China, where I was a schoolboy. Here, I need a teacher.” That morning, at Kure, he had called on the tutor recommended by Gardiner.

Talbot looked at his own hands, which were spread on his knees. Young hands, seemingly unveined, broad, supple, modestly capable, and with decent nails. He compared them with his companion’s, resting on the wheel: brown, definite, broad in the palm, and long-fingered; like the man, experienced. By extension of impressions, Brian would have liked to ask, Do you have a wife, a girl? But refrained.

Leith said, “The teacher, this morning. You saw him, elderly, respectable. If I were to get up a small class with him—depending on what I find here—would you care to join in? A few hours a week; I’d square it with your outfit, I think I could do that.”

It was too much like having your bluff called. Brian, hedging, said, “But you—you’re already halfway there. You know a lot of it.”

“I’ll be seeing him more often, he’ll probably come to me up here. In your case it would be separate, with a few of your chaps if they care to join. That would be down in Kure, near your quarters.” Leith said, “Think it over.”

The boy’s impulse was to withdraw. It was too outlandish, and too much trouble. You despised Japs, you ridiculed and killed them. They’d behaved like animals. You didn’t learn their lingo. You didn’t study any language, even your own. He’d done a bit of French at school, compulsory: Je m’appelle Brian, donnez-moi à manger, je suis né en Australie. Donnez-moi à boire. Arriving at Kure, he’d been given a Japanese phrase book got up for Occupation forces; but had no use for it. “Well, thanks. Well, yair, I’ll see about it. Let you know.”

He could imagine the hoots of his mates. Yet knew that, to them, he would defend the idea.

He asked, “Ar—what would this . . . ?”

“I’ll take care of that, it won’t be much.” Leith thought of the teacher, on his beam ends.

“Your shout, then?”

“My shout.”

They drove on, less contented. Another mile or two and they’d arrive.

*

Brigadier Driscoll was coming from the pond. In youth an athlete, Driscoll continued to hold himself in past tension, barreled against every challenge. Wet and near naked, his body was corded by evidence of past exploits, muscles and sinews pushing up through tissue, as roots of an old tree might displace a pavement—the impression confirmed by a trunkish neck, seared by pale creases. On head, chest, limbs, the curled hair was grey.

There was no view, or sense, of woods, hills, or far-off sea: distance had been conjured, and enclosed.

Driscoll cried out, “Dench”—loudly, although the uniformed subordinate was by his side. Dench, a small man, had already  registered the approach of Aldred Leith. Mumbling at Driscoll’s ear, Dench let his glance wander on the stones and beaten earth of the path, among clustered azaleas, on a Nissen hut in the trees. Throughout the coming months of their acquaintance, Captain Dench never did look Major Leith in the eye.

Driscoll stood. The expression “stock-still” might have originated with him. Driscoll said, “Fresh water,” and, as Leith came up, began to towel himself, currying with circular vigor the matted hair of chest and head. “Never drank it. Never thought I’d swim in it.” Blew out his cheeks and spat. Under fizzing brows, the splenetic stare. “Beats their flaming bathhouse, at any rate.” He told Leith, “In Australia, we have the ocean.”

Leith agreed. “Very lucky.”

“Too right there.” Buried his face in the rough stripes of the towel, hands pressed to eyes. “Luckiest in the world.” The two men walked on. Dench, a sallow phantom, followed, coughing. “You’re Leith, are you. You just made it for lunch.” He said, “We don’t wait.”

Leith was looking at a house among trees: the house, clearly, that Gardiner had praised. He had nearly forgotten the Driscolls, to whom Gardiner had attached a sense of struggle and whose impulse to resentment he did not understand. It would be pleasant, now, to see the house and, as he discovered, its enclosed garden, coming into view: a small plane of pebbles, into which a man in black was working concentric patterns with a long-handled brush.

They stood at the negligible threshold. “You’ve seen your quarters.”

“Yes.”

“We had those plywood jobs put up right off. Bit of a walk down there, but you’ve got your comforts. We use this place once in a while as a mess. A bit of local color. We like to be congenial.” Driscoll broke off to shout, “Melb! Over here.”

In red rayon, his wife was arriving.

Mrs. Driscoll was of middling height only, an illusory tallness being created by her large forcible head and martial shoulders, and by fluffed white hair that, upswept, made its contribution. Behind spectacles, at the centre of a thick lens, the eye shone, small, animate, and marble. To Leith, who went forward putting out his hand, she said, “I’m sorry for you.” A piping voice, active with falsity. “Arriving on such a humid day. We’re just going to table. We put in a proper table, we don’t eat off the floor. But I suppose you like things to be Japanese.”

“I have no preference.”

“I’m a decisive person myself.”

As yet immune to her, Leith waited to perceive her effect. Driscoll himself, while maintaining drilled belligerence, showed some loss of patina. A partnership, but not an equal one.

Dench had come back, carrying military clothing on a coat hanger.

Melba was saying, “We don’t wait. We don’t stand on ceremony here, no matter who. The parliamentary delegation left on Friday, now it’s the university lot. To us, they’re just people.”

With Dench’s help, Driscoll was struggling into his clothes.

Leith was weighing the possibility of rooms in the town.

The woman said, “We don’t go in for conversation here: we like plain talk. We Australians are easygoing.”

Driscoll put in, “We’re a good-natured lot. Have our faults, like the rest of you. But the old heart’s in the right place.”

Beyond its partitions, the house opened on the garden of placed rocks and stunted trees. There was no view, or sense, of woods, hills, or far-off sea: distance had been conjured, and enclosed.

“Their awful gardens.” He’d forgotten her.

Benedict said, “There might be a danger in doing one thing well. People get waylaid into the single segment of knowledge.”

There was a small commotion of greeting, and Western men were seating themselves at a table. Finding a place on the long bench, Leith was relieved at the sight of a burly scholar he had met in Nanking, a historian named Calder—who, changing place, came to sit beside him, perhaps with a similar sense of deliverance. A short taste of Driscolls engendered solidarity.

Calder said, “So you got here.”

“And just in time, I’m told.”

Someone murmured, “We don’t wait,” and there was clandestine laughter, like school. At each end of the longish table, a Driscoll kept watch. Barry Driscoll was telling that he preferred dogs to cats any day, read real books rather than novels, and thought opera a joke. As Gardiner had said, the Driscolls were disquieting as a symptom of new power: that Melba and Barry should be in the ascendant was not what one had hoped from peace. It did not even seem a cessation of hostilities.

They had grasped, eagerly enough, at a future as yet unrevealed to Leith and to what they would have called his kind.

There was beer, and sake in tiny cups. Dishes had been set out, tea was poured, and flowers floated in a bowl. Two women in kimono, possibly mother and daughter, slipped about, providing and removing. The girl was extremely slight, in body nearly a child; her unobtrusiveness so notable that one watched to see how it was done. The older woman’s face was a tissue of wrinkles, expressionless. There was also a young man in dark Japanese dress, who came and went and was seemingly in charge.

Calder told Leith that the youth had been partly educated in England, son of an ambassador or a minister of legation. Brought here to act as interpreter, he had become a sort of maggiordomo: “God knows what he’s thinking.”

Opposite, there had arrived a boy of indeterminate youth, a Westerner to whom the serving women gave soft attentions—he in turn addressing them in unpracticed words of their language, little beak aloft; then looking around the company with bright dispassionate eyes. Beneath a rick of fair hair, the face was triangular. In sunless skin, the lips, unexpectedly full, made strokes of mobility and colour. There was special food for him, and difficulty in eating it. The boy, hunched and angular, was afflicted by some abnormality. On this theme, too, Leith recalled the words of Gardiner.

Gardiner who, yesterday at that hour, had been alive, awaiting him. Who was proving indispensable.

Down the table, a civil engineer from Bradford was recounting an experience at Kagoshima— one of those tales in which the traveller is the clever one, the indigenous inhabitant venal or infantile. He said, “I’m just giving facts,” mistrustful of anything that might be called a story. Leith, half-turned, half-listening, was looking along the reddish flowers and red lacquer, the ceramic cups and Western cutlery. He could see a hand at rest. It was extended on the tabletop, where it lay like silence. He waited for the other hand to appear, as a watcher of birds awaits the arrival of the mate, the pairing. And soon the right hand came, shifting a disc of sauce before settling alongside its fellow, while the soldier looked with pleasure.

“Mr. Leith.”

Across the table, the boy, smiling, might have seen it all.

“Is it true . . .” Voice neither fully broken nor childish. Except for bright eyes, the lifted face was mask-like: apertures—of eyes and nostrils—so precise and close as to recall the little muzzle of a cat. As with a cat, too, some charm of clairvoyance.

The boy stretched his hand. Leith had to rise, in order to clasp it.

“Benedict Driscoll.”

So this was the son of those.

“Why did you walk across China?”

“I wanted to do it, and it was proposed to me.” To answer candidly, with no indulgent smile, was to exorcise the gratuitous suspicion that stood sentinel at either end of the table. “But I can’t say that I walked across. I had to bear south, due to the civil war. I’d hoped to take the northern route of an Italian traveller of long ago, but it wasn’t workable.” What had been possible for the monk Carpini in 1245, in heroic old age, was no go in 1946 for a modern man in prime of life. “And I wasn’t always on foot. In trains, often, or waggons, or carts, or on a mule. Or by river.”

“It was the large idea, though.” The boy looked down, shy about what moved him.

“Which is perhaps necessarily formless, except in the traveler’s mind. I mean that it can’t be comprehensive, like a single objective, or done conclusively.”

Benedict said, “There might be a danger in doing one thing well. People get waylaid into the single segment of knowledge.”

Calder said, “And why not?” Was a don again, snubbing a cheeky freshman. “If one has given, devoted, a life, one’s energies. Easy to talk of erudition as if it were limiting, pass judgement out of sheer ignorance. I myself would not judge people by their knowledge of Erasmus; but have possibly earned the right to do so.”

“Erasmus?” The boy’s bright eyes resting on Calder. People were listening. “Erasmus of Rotterdam was born in 1466, not at Rotterdam as one might suppose, but at Gouda. Real name possibly Geert. Studied at Paris, and entered the priesthood with reluctance in the momentous year 1492. In 1499, was welcomed at Oxford. Taught Greek at Cambridge, but wrote mainly in Latin. Died at Basel in 1536, unattended by any priest. Is paradoxically remembered for his translation of the New Testament.”

Calder grinned. “Fair enough.” Leith was laughing outright. Benedict, satisfied, was fatigued by his little performance. The young manservant came to stoop over him, and helped him away. The table was disbanding.

Calder said, “Well, I’ll be blowed.” He would have liked a smoke, a chat. But Leith told him, “I’ve been hoping for an hour to look into the garden.”

Mrs. Driscoll, materializing, said, “We lock up here now. The staff has to clear away.”

“Closing time in the gardens of the East,” said Calder.

__________________________________

From The Great Fire by Shirley Hazzard. Reprinted with the permission of the publisher, Picador, a division of Macmillan. All rights reserved.




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