An extract from Eleanor Catton’s new novel.
Mercury in Sagittarius
(January 27, 1866)
The 12 men congregated in the smoking-room of the Crown Hotel gave the impression of a party accidentally met. For all their variety of comportment and dress – frock-coats, tailcoats, Norfolk jackets with buttons of horn, yellow moleskin, cambric, and twill ― they might have been 12 strangers on a railway-car, each bound for a separate quarter of a city that possessed fog and tides enough to divide them; indeed, the studied isolation of each man as he pored over his paper, or leaned forward to tap his ashes into the grate, or placed the splay of his hand upon the baize to take his shot at billiards, conspired to form the very type of bodily silence that occurs, late in the evening, on a public railway ― deadened here not by the slur and clunk of the coaches, but by the fat clatter of the rain.
Such was the perception of Mr Walter Moody, from where he stood in the doorway with his hand upon the frame. He was innocent of having disturbed any kind of private conference, for the speakers had ceased when they heard his tread in the passage; by the time he opened the door, each of the 12 men had resumed his occupation (rather haphazardly, on the part of the billiard-players, for they had forgotten their places) with such a careful show of absorption that no-one even glanced up when he stepped into the room.
The strictness and uniformity with which the men ignored him might have aroused Moody’s interest, had he been himself in body and temperament. As it was, he was queasy and disturbed. His stomach was empty, his trousers were stained with salt-water, and the floorboards kept shifting unpleasantly beneath his feet. He had known the voyage to West Canterbury would be fatal at worst, an endless rolling trough of white water and spume that ended on the shattered graveyard of the Hokitika bar, but he had not been prepared for the particular horrors of the journey, of which he was still incapable of speaking, even to himself. Moody was by nature impatient of any deficiencies in his own person ― fear and illness both turned him inward – and it was for this reason that he very uncharacteristically failed to assess the tenor of the room he had just entered.
Moody’s natural expression was one of readiness and attention. His grey eyes were large and unblinking, and his supple, boyish mouth was usually poised in an expression of polite concern. His hair inclined to a tight curl; it had fallen in ringlets to his shoulders in his youth, but now he wore it close against his skull, parted on the side and combed flat with pomade that darkened its golden hue to an oily brown. His brow and cheeks were square, his nose straight, and his complexion smooth. He was not quite eight-and-twenty, still swift and exact in his motions, and possessed of the kind of roguish, unsullied vigour that conveys neither gullibility nor guile. He presented himself in the manner of a discreet and quick-minded butler, and as a consequence was often drawn into the confidence of the least voluble of men, or invited to broker relations between people he had only lately met. He had, in short, a face that betrayed very little about his own character, and a face that others were immediately inclined to trust.
Moody was not at all unaware of the advantage his inscrutable grace afforded him. Like most excessively beautiful persons he had spent many hours gazing at his own reflection, and in a way, knew himself from the outside best; he was always in some chamber of his mind perceiving himself from the exterior. He had passed a great many hours in the alcove of his private dressing room, where the mirror tripled his image into profile, half-profile, and square ― van Dyck’s King Charles, though a good deal more striking. It was a private practice, and one he would likely have denied ― for how roundly self-examination is condemned, by the moral prophets of our age! As if the self had no relation to the self, and one only looked in mirrors to have one’s arrogance confirmed; as if the act of self-regarding was not as subtle, fraught, and ever-changing as any bond between twin souls. In his fascination Moody sought less to praise his own beauty than to master it. Certainly whenever he caught his own reflection, in a window-box, or in a pane of glass after nightfall, he felt a thrill of satisfaction – but as an engineer might feel, chancing upon a mechanism of his own devising and finding it splendid, flashing, properly oiled, and performing exactly as he had predicted it should.
He could see his own self now, poised in the doorway of the smoking-room, and he knew that the figure he cut was one of perfect composure. He was near trembling with fatigue; he was carrying a leaden weight of terror in his gut; he felt shadowed, even dogged; he was filled with dread. He surveyed the room with an air of mild detachment and respect.
It had the appearance of a place rebuilt from memory after a great passage of time, when much has been forgotten (andirons, drapes, a proper mantel to surround the hearth) but small details persist: a picture of the late Prince Consort, for example, cut from a magazine and affixed with shoe tacks to the wall that faced the yard; the seam down the middle of the billiard table, which had been sawn in two on the Sydney docks to better survive the crossing; the stack of old broadsheets upon the secretary, the pages thinned and blurry from the touch of many hands. The view through the two small windows that flanked the hearth was over the hotel’s rear yard, a marshy allotment littered with crates and rusting drums, separated from the neighbouring plots only by patches of scrub and low fern, and, to the north, by a row of laying hutches, the doors of which were chained against thieves. Beyond this vague periphery, one could see sagging laundry-lines running back and forth behind the houses one block to the east, latticed stacks of raw timber, pig-pens, piles of scrap and sheet iron, broken cradles and flumes – everything abandoned, or in some relative state of disrepair. The clock had struck that late hour of twilight when all colours seem suddenly to lose their richness, and it was raining hard; through the cockled glass the yard was bleached and fading. Inside, the rush-lights had not yet succeeded the sea-coloured light of the dying day, and seemed by virtue of their paleness to accent the general cheerlessness of the room’s décor.
For a man accustomed to his club in Edinburgh, where all was lit in hues of red and gold, and the studded couches gleamed with a fatness that reflected the girth of the gentlemen upon them; where, upon entering, one was given a soft jacket that smelled pleasantly of wealth, and thereafter the merest twitch of one’s finger towards the bell-rope was enough to summon a bottle of claret on a silver tray, the prospect was a crude one. But Moody was not a man for whom offending standards were cause enough to sulk: the rough simplicity of the place only made him draw back internally, as a rich man will step swiftly to the side, and turn glassy, when confronted with a beggar in the street. The mild look upon his face did not waver as he cast his gaze about, but inwardly, each new detail ― the mound of dirty wax beneath this candle, the rime of dust around that glass ― caused him to retreat still further into himself, and steel his body all the more rigidly against the scene.
This recoil, though unconsciously performed, owed less to the common prejudices of high fortune – in fact Moody was only modestly rich, and often gave coins to paupers, though (it must be owned) never without a small rush of pleasure for his own largesse – than to the personal disequilibrium over which the man was currently, and invisibly, struggling to prevail. This was a gold town, after all, new-built between jungle and surf at the southernmost edge of the civilised world, and he had not expected luxury.
The truth was that not six hours ago, aboard the barque that had conveyed him from Port Chalmers to the wild shard of the coast, Moody had witnessed an event so extraordinary and affecting that it called all other realities into doubt. The scene was still with him ― as if a door had chinked open, in the corner of his mind, to show a band of greying light, and he could not now wish the darkness back again. It was costing him a great deal of effort to keep that door from opening further. In this fragile condition, any unorthodoxy or inconvenience was personally affronting; he felt as if the whole dismal scene before him was an aggregate echo of the trials he had so lately sustained, and he recoiled from it in order to prevent his own mind from following this connexion, and returning to the past. Disdain was useful. It gave him a fixed sense of proportion, a rightfulness to which he could appeal, and feel secure.
He called the room luckless, and meagre, and dreary ― and with his inner mind thus fortified against the furnishings, he turned to the twelve inhabitants. (An inverted pantheon, he thought sourly, and again felt a little steadier, for having indulged the conceit.)
The men were bronzed and weathered in the manner of all frontiersmen, their lips chapped white, their carriage expressive of privation and loss. Two of their number were Chinese, dressed identically in cloth shoes and grey cotton shifts. They were passing a tobacco pipe solemnly back and forth between them. A Maori native, wearing digger’s serge and a red sash about his waist, was standing a little apart from the billiard players and watching their game with a shadow of a smile upon his face. Of the others, Moody could not guess the origin. He did not yet understand how the diggings could age a man in a matter of months; casting his gaze around the room, he reckoned himself the youngest man in attendance, when in fact several were his juniors and his peers. The glow of youth was quite washed from them. They would be crabbed forever, restless, snatching, grey in body, coughing dust into the brown lines of their palms. Moody thought them coarse, even quaint; he thought them men of little influence; he did not wonder why they were so silent. He wanted a brandy, and a place to sit and close his eyes.
He stood in the doorway a moment after entering, waiting to be received, but when nobody made any gesture of welcome or dismissal he took another step forward and pulled the door softly closed behind him. He made a vague bow in the direction of the window, and another in the direction of the hearth, to suffice as a wholesale introduction of himself, then moved to the side-table and engaged himself in mixing a drink from the decanters set out for that purpose. He chose a cigar and cut it; placing it between his teeth, he turned back to the room, and scanned the faces once again. Nobody seemed remotely affected by his presence. This suited him. He seated himself in the only available armchair, lit his cigar, and settled back with the private sigh of a man who feels his daily comforts are, for once, very much deserved.
His contentment was short-lived. No sooner had he stretched out his legs and crossed his ankles (the salt on his trousers had dried, most provokingly, in tides of white) than the man on his immediate right leaned forward in his chair, prodded the air with the stump of his cigar, and said, “Look here ― you’ve business, here at the Crown?” .