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Authors: Robert Barnard

Death of an Old Goat

BOOK: Death of an Old Goat
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CONTENTS

C
HAPTER
I: A
T
D
RUMMONDALE
S
TATION

C
HAPTER
II: A
T
B
EECHER'S

C
HAPTER
III: G
UEST
L
ECTURE

C
HAPTER
IV: P
ARTY:
O
NE

C
HAPTER
V: P
ARTY:
T
WO

C
HAPTER
VI: B
ODY

C
HAPTER
VII: I
NSPECTOR
R
OYLE

C
HAPTER
VIII: P
ROFESSOR
W
ICKHAM

C
HAPTER
IX: K
ENILWORTH

C
HAPTER
X: T
HE
M
ETHODIST
L
ADIES

C
HAPTER
XI: T
HE
D
RUMMONDALE
S
CHOOL

C
HAPTER
XII: T
HE
E
NGLISH
D
EPARTMENT

C
HAPTER
XIII: W
OMEN OF
P
ROPERTY

C
HAPTER
XIV: D
ARK
I
NTERLUDE

C
HAPTER
XV: A
FTER
M
IDNIGHT

C
HAPTER
XVI: P
RIVATE
L
IVES

C
HAPTER
XVII: P
ARTY
-S
PIRIT

C
HAPTER
XVIII: I
N AT THE
K
ILL

CHAPTER I
AT DRUMMONDALE STATION

I
N THE LATE
autumn sunshine the little station at Drummondale dozed on, regardless of its vital position in the nationwide network of connecting lines which the State Railways Board mentioned in its advertisements, and regardless too of the fact that the express train from Sydney was due in two minutes' time. For the fact that a train was due rarely implied that it was about to arrive. And if it did turn up, by some quirk of organizational chance, the station could put itself into its usual state of preparedness by the ticket-collector lounging out on to the platform from the station-master's office (where at this very moment he was admiring himself in front of a long, dirty mirror, his oily hands twisted round behind his back, poised to squeeze a festering yellow boil on his neck) and by the stray porter, who was forbidden by his doctor from carrying anything, pushing his cap back a fraction of an inch from its present position, where it was shielding most of his face from the early evening sun. But as yet there was no sign of either functionary stirring himself into what passed for action, so it was clear that a train was expected only in the most nominal sense.

Professor Wickham walked in his tense, abrupt way up and down the station, sometimes banging one fist nervously into the palm of the other hand, sometimes grinning automatically — in the way he did to students that he thought he might have seen before — at a couple of stray dogs running along the platform and across the line. His hair was very fair, and brushed forwards, and his eyes were an indeterminate blue. From a distance he looked like a dreamy
Scandinavian; from close to he looked merely ineffectual. He was medium-height, but thick-set, and his hair flopped over his eyes periodically, making him look much younger than he really was. When he had been appointed to his chair at Drummondale he had been young to be a Professor, though not as young to be a Professor as most Australian Professors are. Now, twelve years later, and after several disappointed attempts to be called to Chairs elsewhere, he was beginning to lose his pleasant, puppyish air, and to settle despondently into his fifties, conscious that here he was, and here he was likely to stay. At the moment he looked, and was, distinctly worried, and when a glance at his watch coincided in his perambulations with the door of the station-master's office, he put his head inside, and met the suspicious gaze of the youthful ticket-collector, who was wiping pus from his neck with a dirty rag.

Professor Wickham cleared his throat nervously:

‘Er . . . er . . . could you tell me when the train from Sydney is due?' he asked, in that tentative tone of voice he used for members of the lower orders he thought might turn nasty. The young man looked at him aggressively, and sized him up as a University bloke. Not one of the local graziers, and not likely to complain.

‘Do you know this is private, this room?'

‘Er — private?'

‘Yes, private. You see that notice on the door? Private, it says. P-R-I- — can you see it?'

‘Oh, er, yes . . . yes.'

‘Well, then. Private, see. The general public not allowed in. Get it?'

‘Yes, oh yes, sorry,' said Professor Wickham, withdrawing his head.

Having won his little victory, the ticket-collector decided to be obliging, in the best traditions of his service. He lounged over to the door, and draped himself by the doorpost.

‘Now, what was it?'

‘Er — is the train from Sydney due?' said Wickham.

‘Oh, it's due,' said the young man.

‘And when will it arrive then?'

‘I don't know, do I? Your guess is as good as mine, I'd say — probably better, in fact, 'cos I'm not guessing.'

He turned his eyes towards the horizon, in the direction of Brisbane, to signify his professional indifference to whatever might be coming his way from Sydney. Professor Wickham resumed his lonely stroll, thinking wistfully of the polite employees of the British Railway system in his Oxford days, whom his memory had covered with a sentimental haze. He had not been married when he first went to England, and almost everything that had happened to him before his marriage was covered in his mind with a sentimental haze. There had been precious little room for sentiment since.

It really was very difficult. Lucy had impressed on him not to be late, because they had to be over at the Turbervilles' by half past eight, and it was a forty-mile drive. In the ordinary course of events Lucy was far from unappreciative of a visiting Professor as a means of relieving the rural monotony of the University of Drummondale — and she particularly appreciated a specimen from one of the older Universities. But it was especially unfortunate that the present one, with all the glories of Oxbridge on his head, had happened to coincide with the twenty-first party of the eldest Turberville, a party she had gone to enormous lengths to get an invitation to. The Professor would have to be shunted off to his motel for the night in plenty of time for Wickham to get back home, dress, and drive himself and Lucy out to the barbecue-dance. That was how Lucy had planned it. And if the State Railways didn't fit in with her plans, all hell would break loose over the head of her husband — which was not logical, even if it was standard marital practice.

Professor Wickham wondered a little to himself about the arrangements. Something always seemed to go wrong when Visiting Professors arrived. There was that vulgar little Welshman whom they'd taken out to the McKays the night he arrived to see what real graziers' hospitality was like. The only glimpse the students had caught of him was his rigid form being dumped on to the train, en route from one cancelled lecture in Drummondale to another cancelled lecture in Brisbane. Then there was the swinging American Professor whom Lucy had refused to have in the house, and whom he'd had put up in the guest-room of one of the two women's colleges. He blamed himself a good deal for that. Of course there was no guarantee it had been his child. Daisy Bates College prided itself on the nunnery-like strictness of its rules, but Australia was an open-air country, and what couldn't be done in the comfort of a bed could very easily take place in the snake-infested undergrowths around the campus. Still, the girl had said it was the American, and it didn't do the Department any good.

He ran over things as presently arranged. He might be able to pass off tonight, since it could be presented as the tactful thing to leave Professor Belville-Smith to have a good night's rest after his tiring journey. He was as old as the hills, of course — otherwise he wouldn't be out here at all. It was really incredible how old all the visiting lecturers sent by institutions like the British Council were. Perhaps the more vigorous younger scholars insisted on Europe or America, and the ones who were too old to have any ‘pull' were given Australia. It hardly improved the British image. But if the old chap was just dying to collapse into his bed that was all to the good. Professor Wickham did wonder about arrangements for the next few days, though. He had sensed an undercurrent of resentment among his own staff over the tea-and-scones arrangement for tomorrow afternoon. Yet Lucy had been very insistent that this was all she was going to give the ‘academics'. Could it have got to
their ears that there was going to be a party the very same evening for Belville-Smith to which only the local notables were to be invited? Wickham sighed. Of course it must have reached them. Nothing was secret in a town the size of Drummondale. That must explain their coldness to him. That dreadful girl Alice O'Brien had practically cut him in the corridor that morning! Cut by a temporary lecturer! Well, her time would be up soon. Perhaps he could get some nice young Englishman to take her place. Lucy always liked the ones fresh from Oxbridge, and they were always polite to her for the first year or so. It made things so much easier. And he did think they gave the department
tone.
Most of the other departments were desperately lacking in
tone.

He sighed, and looked into the darkness. There was no sign of the train. Lucy would be livid with him. Why had she never got livid with him before they were married? It would have made things so much easier. He would certainly still have married her, but there would be less of this feeling of having been
had.

• • •

As the pace of the Sydney-Brisbane express train slowed down to a near halt going up the Northern ranges, the cold of an Australian autumn on the Northern Tableland struck chill into the aged bones of Professor Belville-Smith. He sat huddled in the corner of a dull and dirty first-class compartment, which had not been thoroughly cleaned since the last Royal Tour, and which he was sharing with various less than first-class companions. At the beginning of the day, which seemed an age away, his mind had just been lively enough to take notice of these companions, to tut-tut mentally at their vowel-sounds and their shirts, and even to throw glances of conspiratorial horror at the British Council representative who had seen him off in Sydney; but the long day's journey into night across the grey-green monotony of the Australian countryside had dampened his far-from-sparkling
spirits, so that now, when very little was to be seen outside, he was close to extinction.

As he looked out into the murk at the grazing sheep, and they looked at him with an equally lively interest, the rhythm of the wheels made words in his brain, and the words made fragments of the lectures, the lectures he had been giving to large and small groups of bored students and teachers in the lecture-rooms of Universities, in capital city after hideous capital city. ‘The
CHARM
of her
PROSE
and the
GRACE
of her
MANN
er.' The words were familiar to him not only from their recent over-repetition: they also seemed, now, a part of his boyhood. He had been delivering that lecture since 1922. The same lecture, in the same words. Less frequently of late, perhaps. For by the time he got to Mrs Gaskell the students had sometimes faded away to nothingness, and he had packed his lecture away again and slowly made his way back to his college, for he was not one of those who believed that a lecture should be given, regardless of whether or not there were students there to hear it. That was carrying things a little too far. Last term he had not even gone along to see if there was any audience for some of his later lectures — ‘Charles Reade, an unjustly neglected novelist' and ‘Mrs Oliphant — a lesser Trollope'. Perhaps it was better that the latter lecture never got delivered these days. How strange that the revival in Mrs Oliphant's reputation which he had been predicting all these years had never actually come about! Why, he wondered? It must be something to do with the modern world. But he turned his old mind from that thought with horror. The modern world was something he had never seen, and didn't want to see. He had a vague idea that, if he didn't take any notice of it, it might pass away before very long, and his own world come back.

BOOK: Death of an Old Goat
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