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OUR BOOKS > WHO COULD LOVE THE NIGHTINGALE?

Nightingale
Novel
Written by Chester Eagle
Edited by Hilary McPhee, of William Heinemann, Australia
Designed by Wren Publishing, Melbourne
First published 1973 by Wren Publishing
Circa 146,000 words
3,036 copies printed
Electronic publication 2006 by Trojan Press
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Here’s what it says on the cover:

The time is 1971. The places are Melbourne, Sydney, and the tract of land between the Murray and Murrumbidgee Rivers.

This is a novel about personality and how personality is shaped by place and period. It is also a novel of poignant human relationships: Edward Le Rossignol, the nightingale who won’t allow his personality to be squashed flat and dull. Margaret Ward, a beautiful young art teacher who has yet to develop her own personality remote from her wealthy family and associates, turns to Edward.

Their affair develops gradually – not a love relationship in the ordinary sense of the word, but an elaborate, intricate affair of vital importance to them both. As awareness of each other’s personality grows, the reader is carried along, not merely as observer but as participants, committed to the characters. We become aware of a richly inflected medium, full of cross references, conveying the inner and outer lives of the characters who gain their full reality and stature at the moment of leaving the action, rather like a piece of music which is completed not by the last sounds but by the haunting echoes and reverberations left in the mind.


To read some extracts from the book click here:
The nightingale
Country towns
Margaret returns
The Windsor Hotel
Pictures
Back to Sydney

To read about the writing of this book click here.

The nightingale

The nightingale was Edward Leon le Rossignol, forty-six, born in Australia though his parents were French. The one who nearly loved him was Margaret Ward.

She was new to the area, it repelled her, she felt she had to show an interest. His stories sucked her in.

It was a new irrigation district, he was a channelling contractor. He told her about the day the water was turned on. He said, 'It meant lots of work for me, all those ditches and channels they wanted me to dig. I was never so busy in my life. Up till then I scooped out the occasional dam, and I couldn't even do that in the really dry months. I called it a living but it was my defence against work. Back in the old dry days I used to keep a broken scoop or a harness in need of repair up the front of my shed. Then when people came to see me, I was busy!'

He's a strange man, she thought. The rest of them are so solid, despite their problems. They've all got identity, they're quite aggressive about it. Edward is the one who hasn't. He's got a way of being all of them, and yet he's got no weight. I like him, but he's a wisp.

Edward said, 'The day they turned the water on, I thought a new life was starting. And it was; I was just about to get married. So was John Comstock; we got married on the same day, the very next weekend. A difficult man, you might meet him one of these days. I was at the Methodist, John was at the C. of E.'

At opposite ends of the town, Margaret remembered, rather pleased that her local knowledge ran thus far; country people seemed to expect it of one. There was a baker called Bailiff in the shopping street, and she had given a nervous laugh when someone told her to go to the bailiff's; she thought it was an obscure legal joke. But by then she had sensed enough of country life to know that one didn't explain; she fed her misconception to Myra Denham, whose boarder she was, knowing that Myra would pass another current through the circuit, and clear her name of snobbishness. Small towns were so difficult to handle, yet Edward managed to wriggle through the maze of traps; it was one of the reasons why she liked him.

He said, 'Oh it was a very grand occasion. The Premier was there, and the local Member with his tweeds and pipe. They had a big marquee for the invited guests and trestles outside for the rest. Did I ever tell you I made a speech?'

'You've never told me anything about it, I wish you would.'

'Ah, it's my big story, I have to keep something back, or I won't have anything to keep you near me.'

She smiled politely.

'I was to represent the Labour Force. The rest of them said Aw, gee, imagine gettin' up there with all the nobs. A man wouldn't know what to say! But I felt I had plenty to offer, so I went to see Mr Watchett, the water supply engineer, and said I'd like to do it. He said I could have two and a half minutes, they had a tight schedule.'

'I suppose you talked for hours.'

'I said just what needed to be said.'

He's got such a strange sense of humour, he probably sent the whole thing high as a cloud. 'Perhaps you weren't solemn enough Edward.'

'You know what the mirror-maker said: if you've never seen yourself, you're going to hate me.'

I suppose he means the truth about oneself; is there any such solid thing? A year in this place might tell me.

'Edward, when will we be going to Parton? I'm dying to see it you know."

'I'll take you there tomorrow, fledgling, if you and Cecily don’t get yourselves a hangover."

'Will we be going in the truck?'

He nodded. He knew she doubted her appearance, though her coming had been quite an event in Turrumburrah. Porters at the station had gawked, and men had come to the goods shed window to whistle—loudly enough for the men at their shoulder to hear anyway. And people had come to like her, she tried so hard, but she was slow in making friends. She had Cecily, at the same high school, the Denhams she boarded with, and me, Edward Leon le Rossignol. We were mysteries to ourselves, and therefore with each other.

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Country towns

Night wore on, in the way of country towns. Cars thrashed away from the drive-in, little pubs on the outskirts got glassy-eyed, with love and vendettas taking on strange unreality. Hamburger shops closed, street lights blinked and were gone. The disused picture theatre gloomed over an empty intersection, and the Royal's publican handed out his last and final dozen carton under the fire escape stairs. The muzak tapes at the motel were silent, the planks on the bridge still rattling. Down at the Servicemen's Club—membership half the town—the one-armed bandits grew more mechanically alluring, the conversation more inane; even the towelling on the bar was sloshed. The raucous band packed up, and only the cigarette vending machines were as potent as ever. Cops prowled the streets, a towtruck flashed vulgarly at a minor smash. Rejuvenated Fords came thundering in from the outlying dance halls. Deadening, insulating night lay heavily on the ragtag of human affairs. Emotion in Australia is often raw; the expression of feeling, except in isolated pockets, has to sneak behind curtains of embarrassment. Pregnancy, if contracted by the river, has still to be carried through streets where rules of no one's making—and therefore everyone's—grind on all. Custom loses its grip only to let people expose themselves more clearly, interlock more closely in the net of no man's making. Dark and drunkenness make all men more beholden to each other if only for an audience, that least of services, the giving of an ear.

Tom Dawson said, 'You're hooked on sex, Johnny. That's easy. All the normal outlets are open. Do what you like and boast a bit, there's someone'll admire you. What about me?'

Comstock said, 'She wouldn't speak to me. You hear that? She wouldn't even see me. All she did all day was dodge me. Anyone ever do that to you? No, they wouldn't do that, you're only a poofter.'

Smash him down a bit, he's only the mad bird's unsexual son.

'Well, Johnny, if you think I like to hold other boys, you're up the creek. I mightn't be much, I mightn't be anything, but at least I don't hate myself like you do.'

Another prop gone, or going.

The non-point struck like a hammer-blow. Comstock slumped on the sofa, and Tom, who delivered the hurt, spread out on the fold-up bed, trapped in the moral monolith of rural life.

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Margaret returns

Edward felt a tremendous exhilaration. Between him and the horizon there was nothing. If he wished, he could claim every-thing, one enormous flat, one enormous dome, as his. Now in the sky were eight great clouds, and the declining sun. It was half past three; an hour to go. The light fell in huge shafts and fans, describing the clouds by their fringes; one had to look harder, into the tones of blue, to see the turbulence aloft. Edward hopped in his car and drove, calm for the first time that day. The enormous rafts of rain made their majestic progress above him as he went to the meeting-place. Loose grey veils trailed sidelong out of clouds, as if falling down crevices in air. Sometimes rain swept his car, and the road, and then the droplets on the wind-screen glittered when he entered the next patch of light. Once out of gloom, it seemed unthinkable that anything could ever replace the blaze of light that found an answer in the endless daisy-acres, the innumerable buttons of white. New fences gleamed. Old rusty wire dripped tiny globules from every barb. Yet when the shadow came again, and the rain swept his watertight machine, he felt a reassurance, a comfort as profound as the knowledge of night and day. Creation! He felt a guest at the process. Erosion and simplicity! What was wrong with them if they led to this ultimate turnover, this changeabout of fundamentals. Light and dark, rain and dry. In the darkest, wettest periods he felt warm and secure, ready to open with the light. Which, when it came, made everything glisten. He passed a spot where there had once been a house; now there was only a pepper tree, a remnant of fence, and some ageing fruit trees coming into bud. He wondered what bees did when they got their wings wet. Good job planes don't shake themselves! Now some movement of air threw thin silks before the sun and filtered light transfigured everything. In an ecstasy of readiness and surety he took his eyes from the miracles in the west and fixed them on the road. Darkness swept it again, turning the bitumen black, and then far ahead he saw the world's gloomy rim grow bright as the next patch of openness caught the trees along the river. Somewhere in there's Jingellic, he thought, and it didn't disturb him a bit. Comstock was in Sydney and his power to upset him gone for good. His time was past and Edward's about to come. When he hit the main road he waved to passing cars as if their drivers had just been born and he was acknowledging their entry to the world. Seeya friends, good luck!

He bought petrol on the outskirts of Blythe and drove to the airstrip. This too was dark, but just as old Des Carrington came out with his trolley, saying, 'Could be a bit rough up there, eh?' there was a cleavage in the clouds and from this act of heavenly parturition came shining down the gleam, the glint, the metal wings of Margaret's plane.

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The Windsor Hotel

We were formal in the Windsor dining room, with its acres of white linen. There was no rush, and the heaviest moment was already over, though we hadn't said so, hadn't realized it perhaps, not consciously; the service was a relief to lean on, we were white and quiet. Time ran out, time ran away, we both knew this; things that might have been felt or said had to be squeezed in the circumstances that came along. The dining room was stable, so well managed; one flick of a cloth and we might both have vanished. The Cheshire cat left his grin in the air; if I'd been whisked out of existence there'd have been waves in the air all right, like that poor mad Johnny—you see, I'd lost my snobbishness; I was common clay with the recluse and the coke-girl—waves in the air all right, of a girl wanting a woman's power, wanting to build, settle, create, wanting to be without interruption or doubt, and—this was the change—knowing I could. He was wrong, I wasn't putting everything on the man, but there had to be one, and he wasn't sitting in front of me. Though I wasn't sure of that; if he came good he'd be marvellous, but you couldn't separate him from his circumstances, his age, his period, his town; he talked so much about spirit but they were embedded in place and period just as much with Edward as with anyone else, and the place and period weren't mine. But then I grew impatient too in Sydney, with Cecily and the rest—though I wanted to hear Judith play again, and I suppose I couldn't avoid Michael at some stage of the holiday—grew impatient, and the impatience was a deep and driving part of me, like a birth pang. People could get stuck at a stage of their development, like Robards/Robert had, but I had a feeling this wouldn't happen to me. I was too strong to be held in forever.

He sensed my aggression and stayed quiet; as dinner ended he reached around and switched our glasses. It had a peculiar power, that gesture: of apology for failure, of joy in four days shared, of putting the present into a poignant retrospect so that we seemed to be looking at each other through a film of years—and this made him so dear to me, and me to him, that I wondered if I'd ever value anyone as much. Could people still get closer? I had to believe they could, I did; but to say one could go further was not to deny what one had. I had the most generous, soulful man sitting looking love at me and my sense of inadequacy was stronger than my determination of a minute before. My eyes were wet; I said, 'Well done, Edward, I think I'm your creation,' and my pride at most deeply touching him joined with his pride at my ... not compliment, my worship of him, and we were both too moved to speak. We left the glasses where they were, the wine looking deep green/gold, and went upstairs. I think if he'd come in while I was dressing I'd have forgotten the train, or I'd have taken him with me, or gone back in his car, or something. It would have been wrong, a mistaken idea of our profound connection, but it could have happened; I know how worked up I was. But Edward, whatever else he was, was not one to make a messy mistake of that sort. We went separate ways from the lift, just nodding as if we'd be joining each other for coffee, and I got a taxi to the train.

The sleeper was comfortable; she slept. The Wards didn't meet trains; she got another taxi to Point Piper. Her mother met her in the doorway, 'Pet, at last! He'll be so relieved.'

What?

'That Michael boy's been ringing up and calling. I don't know what else he's had time for.'

He didn't go! He didn't take anyone else, didn't go without me.

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Pictures

I'd shown her my world, and now I found she'd seen it differently. I thought I knew all her drawings; there were lots I hadn't seen. There was a group of women playing cards; one of them was Myra. Two of them had hats on and they had whisky glasses next to their piles of chips. They looked heavy and depressed. Out the window you could see a man working on the engine of a truck. The bonnet up looked like a mouth that was swallowing him. And he was much darker than the figures you were supposed to look at.

I got my masses wrong in that one. I lightened off the women too much. But the practical background dominating what passed for an inner life was something I was getting at.

She had an Aboriginal woman wheeling a pram over the Tuckarimbah bridge, down the end of town. The woman had a jaunty look about her, as if she was of the same metal as the springs of the pram. I don't know how she did that, it must have been with the same sort of curves for drawing both. There was a nice little study of kids' bikes at school, all heaped together in a tangle, and a marvellous one of two figures riding away on a horse. They were only tiny, they weren't anyone in particular, but gosh it surprised me; the one on the back was hanging on so tightly it looked like one body. That one unnerved me, and yet I could see it was the most deeply felt. There was a satirical one of our worthy councillor Bartlett, all bottom and paunch, leaning on his shark-mouthed Dodge; she'd got him, all right, but it didn't sting the way I think she meant it to.

I was going to do more when I got back to Sydney; it'd help me get the whole thing out of my system.

She had delightful sketches of birds, mostly galahs, swooping low over paddocks, or swallows on telephone wires. And she'd done lots of willows on the canal, but seen from far off; and the wobbly old telephone posts out past Boon, where they'd never got round to replacing the first twisty poles of local black box. And she'd done a few of weary old fences ... anything where loops and squiggles and broken little attempts at pattern tried to counter the flat horizon I loved, especially out near Blythe. She'd done one of a water wheel, such an interloper, and dozens of people—I don't know where she got the chance to study half of them; they were people she could only have seen once or twice.

These were the ones I worried about; I wondered if he'd like them.

They set me back a bit; they amounted to her summary of my world, if you took away her loyalty to me. What a mixture they were! They looked forthright, yet they seemed half-haunted. They were all weather-marked or weather-reddened. They had nothing substantial round them, though when she gave them a prop, it really meant something. She could make a shovel look like the staff of life; there was an old boat on the Murray that sat half in the water, half out. Goodness me! It looked dumpy, it looked dumped. It looked leathery like the river, it looked cheeky too, as if the next rise in the river would take it off; the mooring rope was trailing on the bank in one of those in-twining curves Marg could do so well. Off it was going to go—but where? You could see around the next bend and it was just the same as where the artist was standing.

She'd done a glorious watercolour of Jingellic; this one wrung me. The garden was in brilliant blossom, under an ominous sky—the sky we saw the day I got her at the airstrip; the sky we saw from two sadly different positions. All you could see of the homestead was the roof, part of the tankstand, and two horses. But not a single living soul.

I worried about that one, perhaps it was unfair.

I told her it was marvellous; she'd have to have an exhibition. I wasn't any judge of art but her things seemed wonderful to me, and ... I was going to say she'd have to invite me, but then I realized ...

This was when I cracked.

... this was my—what do they call it?—private viewing.

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Back to Sydney

We came to Narrandera. I remembered the girl from Blythe and wondered how she was. I was half-expecting she'd be aboard the train to Sydney; when she wasn't, I envied her; I wished I was pregnant and sure of my man and my place in the world ... To hell with that too, things were as they were and that was that. We came to Junee, a funny place with a single-ended platform; you go out the same way you come in. You know? When the train started to move I wanted to scream, pull the stop-cord; I sat up blazing-eyed, I felt like a mad evangelist with a lot of apathetic sinners. Couldn't they see what was happening? We were being dragged back, back, back to ...

No, we weren't; the train started to take its enormous curve, and I got the man to show me my sleeper. I asked Edward to forgive that nasty, treasonous little outburst. I wondered what he'd say.

It grew dark. It struck me I hadn't cried for a long time. It also struck me I hadn't slept much last night. I got out a nighty, carefully not touching my clothes for tomorrow; I owed my man that much while I was still in his territory. Somewhere in the night the divide would be crossed, and, God willing, I'd be out like a light. When we woke up we'd be in Moss Vale or one of those places; I could expect to see orchards, the grass wouldn't be so dry, it'd be twenty degrees cooler ...

I hoped. And that first moment of optimism in—how long? Four hours? Seventeen days? Twelve months?—gave me a sudden lift in the heart I didn't write off as treason. All dues were paid, the train was thundering downhill, sometimes we went through tunnels and roared into the light. There were cars and people; country people, true, but closer, closer every minute, to the mad, hectic city where humanity was dense and everything stirring in my heart might find an answer if I looked long enough, looked in the right places. If nature was the absence of artifice, I was happy, for the time, to be rid of it. I'd get my hair cut, I'd buy some clothes. I knew some people that liked sailing on the harbour ... I believed in myself again. I didn't mind living at home again, it was better than the pose-world and the stresses of Cecily's people. No, not to hell with them, but they would go aside too, till I felt ready.

And ready I was, ready and stable, confident of the things that made the human heart. Not aggressively so, like the late John Comstock, not skittering like my darling on the plains, not humbugged like poor Jenny Watchett, who was forceful and ashamed of herself ...

Not like any of these people, but the peculiar combination which was myself, and yet so like all the rest that it was going to be easy to live heaped with others' ambitions, talents, and desires—there was always my humour and my realism (thank you, Edward, thank you, father) to help me cut them back to size where necessary. It was going to be easy to duck the false trails, to love generously, to put all things together and in proportion. I wanted, now, harmony, balance and completeness ... and as we drove violently down the tracks I considered that if the world was, as some said, chaos, each must make in it an order for himself/herself. I had more confidence than Watchett, because he was dependent on institutions, whereas I ...

... had found it in myself. My nightingbird, my darling man, I thank you..

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The writing of this book:

As a result of publishing my first book in 1971 I applied for a one year grant from the Literature Board (now known as the Australia Council) and was a little surprised to get it. Six thousand dollars. It was less than I earned from teaching but it would keep us comfortably enough. For the first time I didn’t have to go to work in the mornings but could settle at my desk. Mary, my wife, went to the university and I had the children for most of the daylight hours, and this turned out to be a blessing I hadn’t expected. I grew very close to my son and daughter in a way that wasn’t available to most men in the old pattern of men working, women keeping house. It wasn’t long before I could pick very easily those men who were truly close to their children and those who pretended to be, or blustered at them. I knew I was lucky. My first book had been a man’s book, but this second one was the beginning of the development of the feminine side of my nature, though there was a long way to go before this could be said to have been achieved.

I set the novel in the area of southern New South Wales where I had grown up, and I made it the story of a young woman who had one year in a little town, teaching. She was loved by, and eventually came to love, a quaint, older man, not well understood by his townsfolk: the Nightingale of the title. Who could love Edward Le Rossignol? Margaret loves him and leaves him because she’s going back to Sydney, richer for having been loved, poorer for putting behind her a powerful experience. I’m not quite sure what I was doing in writing this book, though I’m fond of it when I pick it up. Its style of writing isn’t my style of today, but it was and is a step on a path that had to be taken. One feature of the book that I admire for its boldness, though it certainly adds to the book’s difficulty, is that I allow five of the characters a voice of their own. That is to say, there is a conventional narrator, who has the last word on everyone except the central five characters who have the right, if that’s the word, to speak for themselves as well. This gives the book an inner-and-outer character which I’ve never attempted again, though I found it easy to do and was happy with the results at the time. The book is, I suppose I have to say, a step on the way to somewhere else but, looking back, I’m pleased to see myself trying to get a male/female, inner/outer balance which didn’t come easily from the world I’d grown up in.

The book ends with Margaret Ward, the young art teacher from a wealthy family, returning to Sydney on a train, after a year away, grateful to Edward Le Rossignol for having helped her find herself, establish that inner order which is the only remedy for the world’s chaos. Rereading the book’s ending, I feel, today, that I was finding myself through Margaret’s finding of herself, and that her return to Sydney is my arrival in the world that I would shape, and create, by the writing I was going to do.

The book didn’t make much of a stir. It was published by Dennis Wren who had by then been pushed out of William Heinemann because he’d been doing too many Australian titles for the liking of his masters back in London. I followed Dennis because I felt loyal to him, but he didn’t have enough of the marketing machinery that commercial publishers need, and was operating on borrowed money. More of this in relation to my next book, Four faces, wobbly mirror.

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