Excerpt of The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton
(Page 2 of 15)
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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 polite 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 neighboring 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, pigpens, piles of scrap and sheet iron, broken cradles and flumeseverything abandoned, or in some relative state of disrepair. The clock had struck that late hour of twilight when all colors seem suddenly to lose their richness, and it was raining hard; through the cockled glass the yard was bleached and fading. Inside, the spirit lamps had not yet succeeded the sea-colored light of the dying day, and seemed by virtue of their paleness to accent the general cheerlessness of the room's decor.
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 anise, or of peppermint, and thereafter the merest twitch of one's finger toward 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 detailthe mound of dirty wax beneath this candle, the rime of dust around that glasscaused 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 fortunein 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 largessethan 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 civilized 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 himas if a door had chinked open, in the corner of his mind, to show a band of graying 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.
Excerpted from The Luminaries
by Eleanor Catton. Copyright © 2013 by Eleanor Catton.
Excerpted by permission of Little Brown & Company. All rights
reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted
without permission in writing from the publisher.