The Pleasure of Eliza Lynch (19 page)

BOOK: The Pleasure of Eliza Lynch
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‘As well as being the First Lady of Paraguay,’ said Eliza, her voice a little hurt, and proud.

‘Of course,’ he said.

‘But they would hate me anyway, I think. Honestly. You might as well be in Ireland. You might as well be in Mallow – where I grew up you know – a bitter town, it made my mother weep – but we all come from bitter towns, do we not, Doctor? Every unfortunate on the surface of this earth comes from some or other bitter little town.’

He could not but agree.

And as he slept and woke for the next while (sometimes while looking straight at her) she continued to speak. She was most eloquent, though she had the disconcerting habit of suddenly appearing in a different place in the room.

‘My dear friend’s greatness is a burden to him,’ she might say.

Or,

‘All I want is to be with my family at this terrible time.’

The surprising thing was that she meant it. Here in the middle of everything, she was talking about nothing at all.

‘You know that I came to Humaitá to escape his brother’s contempt, and the contempt of his mother and sisters in Asunción. That is why I came to the field of battle, even though I was with child at the time. Because real bullets are as nothing to me when compared to the slights I suffer at the hands of those women. I came to tell him as much. I found him and flung myself at his feet.’

Stewart woke. He sensed a conclusion in the air.

‘For every enemy that he has, I have two, because for every man that hates him there is another who says that whatever he does it is at my urging; because a woman’s ambition is a fathomless thing – as though I was some witch who hexed him into my bed, and whispered, “You must, my darling, invade the Mato Grosso before the spring.” And so we suffer, Doctor. A woman has no limits, because she may not act. She is all reputation, because she may not act. So, even as we do nothing, our reputations grow more impossible, and fragile, and large.’

This seemed to him partly true, though a little bit dull. To say that women were beside the point always struck him as being – well, beside the point, somehow.

‘My dear Eliza,’ he said.

She paused. She had let herself down. And feeling it keenly, she tried to make him hers again. Stewart was entirely awake as she turned to him with ardent, very female eyes.

‘We have come a long way together, William Stewart – you and I. Sometimes I wonder how we got here, at all.’

There was a lot to disagree with in what she had said. He might start with the word ‘we’. He might point out that,
though
they were together in this room, they had ‘arrived’, each of them, in very different places. And he had a huge yearning for the life he might have led – a life that was familiar with flowers and unfamiliar with Eliza Lynch. But as he tried to enter it, and imagine it, he found he could not. Whatever life he was living now, it was the only one he had got, and it was bound, however loosely, to this irritating woman. He could not conjure one without her.

‘At least I have a friend, in you, Doctor. At least I have that.’

He stood rather smartly, and bowed and sat back down again. Perhaps she meant it. Their silence was so profound it drew López at last – he snatched back the door hanging and put his mad face into the room. For a second, Stewart was afraid, but López was not jealous in the least. Such was Stewart’s smallness, in the scheme of things. And indeed, Eliza stood and walked towards him as a Great Woman might walk towards a Great Man. At which, Stewart’s stomach notified him, of a sudden, that he had eaten more in the last few hours than in all the previous week.

On the way back to his hut, Stewart tried to remember that he was in love with this woman, in a dashing sort of way. He tried to relive the high, more spiritual love he felt when Eliza walked out on her big wheel, with a boy laying a plank in front of her, and another boy snatching one up from behind.

‘All love is fuss,’ he said, not for the first time, and perhaps out loud. He sought a sight of the moon. And it was there. The moon was white, and he loved Eliza Lynch. Of course, a spiritual love is a question of faith. You say ‘I love’ and it is as true as mutton. And so we survive.

At the edge of the compound he passed some of the mud-coloured women scrabbling under the door of a shed. It might have been a privy but, from the human whine that came from it, Stewart realised that it was some sort
of
lock-up or oubliette. The women – there were two of them – were scraping a hole under the door. It looked as though they were trying to feed the person inside. Such generosity, he thought. Such love.

‘Goodnight,’ he cheerfully said, to the cheerfully saluting sentry. López had his own private prison; another hole where rumour might breed – that he locked up men for Eliza to eat, or that Eliza locked up women for López to ravish, such was the love they had for each other – and with the genderless whine of the prisoner teasing his back, Stewart made his way back downhill and into his bed. And as he fell asleep in his broadcloth – even as he pulled away the rag at his throat – he thought that if he had his war again he would not tear up his last linen to save a dying man. If he had his war again he would treasure his linen – of which there was so little – and leave the dying, of which there were far too many.

A few weeks later, word came that the
Ygureí
was sunk and the
Tacuarí
scuttled by its own crew. Stewart escaped with López across the river into the swamplands, leaving Paulino Alén with a small force to defend Humaitá. The boy had got his promotion. Eliza must have liked him, at dinner.

The River

Part 3

Champagne

December 1854, Río Paraná

WE HAVE ENTERED
Paraguay!

Sometime in the afternoon, after long hours spent slapping about this vast puddle, we found the channel. The tan of the water began to grow thin. I did not notice until Whytehead pointed it out to me, but the general muck that we have lived upon for so many days was splitting, by liquid degrees, into the red of the Río Paraná and the clearer grey of the Río Paraguay.

The meeting of the waters. Over to starboard, the red thickened and settled into a streak of colour that clung to the bank, as though some huge painter had cleaned out his brush, far upstream. We were watching this, myself and Whytehead, and being very geological, when my dear friend gave a shout and all the home contingent ran to the rails. They pointed at the rusty discharge that was not yet a separate river, but still a current within the larger stream. And I thought of all the waters of the world, twining themselves in a watery plait like this, on their way down to the sea.

My friend came over to announce that we were approaching friendly territory.

‘My country,’ he said, and gravely bowed.

I took the moment to talk a little. I pointed to the wash of red in the clear grey. I said that this was the way that we should be, now that the course of our lives had met. I said we should mingle our two watery souls.

He looked over the rail.

‘It might be some battle,’ I said. ‘Or a wounded god, staining the far waters red,’ and he blushed almost, at the insistence of my tone. My wrists are bruised with his finger marks, and we are not easy with each other, all day.

‘It comes from the far north,’ he said. ‘From the Mato Grosso and the mountains of Maracaju.’ Then,

‘When we are old, we will tend our garden there.’

For which I was grateful indeed.

And so the river forked, and in the widening crotch, or so I was told, is the country that I will learn to call home. I looked at the spit of land where it exactly began. Paraguay. It looked like an island in the middle of the river: but from one side of the island came red, and from the other grey, and we chose the grey. And so our path diverged from itself. We were beyond the confluence of the two rivers, and I bid farewell to the Río Paraná, hidden behind the swell of new land. And I said goodbye, too, to the far country it brings to us, spilling into the stream.

Later in the morning, Miltón sidles by to say that the red earth comes from a place without evil. And yes, he says, I was right about the blood. It is indeed blood that comes downstream. Surely not so much, I say, if the place is innocent. He looks at me, and I see the calculations run across his face of how much to say, and how it will be received.

He has taken, my little savage, to telling me things. It is a flattery of sorts – at least I find it so, as he lets something indifferently drop about this daemon or that tree. Of course he is young. I tell him that he is a very leaky Indian. If he keeps talking he will leak all his soul away.

And now, my dear friend’s country is on the right-hand bank, while, to the left, a grey swamp sheers flatly from us, all the way to the horizon’s line. Sometimes it lies quite low, this flatness: other times, the whole plane of it seems to rise up and bisect the sky. The effect is quite distracting. I tell Miltón to sling the
hamaca
the other way, so I might look at the other bank, and this he does, quite solemnly, unstringing and gathering it, and turning it and hanging it up again, while I stand there and look at him. Then I see the futility of it, and laugh. It is very dull to be this stupid, it is very wearing, and it puts me to endless trouble. Still, Francine hands me into the about-faced sling while Miltón stands proud enough – as though the pointless west-to-east of it had given him some satisfaction, too.

And so I lie, watching, now, the right-hand bank: which is Paraguay. It is indeed an Arcady, as my friend promised; all wild orange groves, and ‘bosky glens’. It looks soft. You can see the mist hang on distant forests and the hills are quite medieval, in their trackless pastoral. Endless and ancient, and waiting for the story to begin.

‘Tell me about your daemons,’ I say to Miltón. ‘Are they very bad?’

‘They are big,’ he says.

‘How big? As big as a jaguar, as big as a tree?’

‘Not big like that,’ he says, after a while. ‘They are big like a song is big.’

They are like a song, which you cannot hear – except that sometimes you
can
hear it. They are in the shape of things, but they have no shape. I tell him that he is a very philosophical Indian. He says that, actually, some of them
are
as big as a jaguar. And they look like a jaguar, and all the rest of it. It seems I have insulted him then, because he wanders off and I must coax him back with a smile.

Later, I tell my dear friend all this, and he gives me a sharp
look
– not annoyed, just close. And I feel, once again, that he knows me to the bone.

But since we have entered his own country, there is a kind of innocence to him, an ease and an urgency. He wants to be doing things. He wants to get things done.

We come in sight of Humaitá; a busy little place, with a bright Spanish church gleaming on the hill. My dear friend waves like a boy while the captain blows the whistle and a bright flotilla disentangles itself from the general trade. The sharp canoes run across the water; a shoal of fish, or a litter of boatlets, coming to suckle at our big wooden side. The Indians have decked themselves out with ribbons; they flutter from the ends of their spears, and it all looks very gay and savage. In each prow a man stands easy, with his cloak drifting back; revealing, in each case, his ‘all’.

I am a little giddy with it, the sun and the ribbons and all the rest. Who would have thought it? Of all places – who would have thought I might end up here, in this distant spot, looking at so much male flesh, and with such equanimity? Because it is very brown flesh, I tell myself, and, as such, no great insult to my virtue – this last
aperçu
I cannot turn to say, half-laughing, to my dear friend, whose nativeness seems less an affectation now that the sun has licked the white off him. It has, I realise, made him quite black or, at the very least, nut-brown – as brown as the men in the boats; as brown as the faces that peer from between the trees on the bank, so utterly still they seem at one with the bark.

In the canoes, the men wear spurs and hat brims with neither hats nor boots. My dear friend tells me that the spurs are just for decoration; these men have, most of them, never ridden a horse. He seems almost proud of this fact, and it is borne in on me that these are his people and that he loves them, and so I must love them too.

‘How funny,’ I say.

The hat brims, he says, are all that is left of Francia, the first Dictator, who required the entire country to wear hats so they could be doffed when he passed. Over the years, the hats fell apart, but the brims remain. It is a way of telling the people that they are governed, he says. And I say,

‘They will be lifted, some day, for you.’

I look at these naked men, their heads and heels circled with silver and felt, and think them already innocent and lovely. And they do doff the brims; they wave the little circlets in the air, and hulloo.

We receive the Governor of the district in his own parlour – a mismatched little man with a frock coat and nankin pants. He will come with us now, as far as Asunción, but first we must dine in his courtyard, and have speeches, and roast a pig, and all the rest. At dinner, I notice he hides his feet beneath the table and takes off his shoes. Despite which, he is altogether very sonorous and grave.

I take my chance to ask him about Francia – whose name, I realise, has been in the air ever since I met my dear friend. So – gravely, sonorously – he describes a man dressed all in black with a tricorn hat; a man who read Rousseau and Voltaire; a man ‘who would be his own revolution, his own guillotine’. When Francia walked out, the streets were empty – all the shutters in Asunción were pulled to. Even the dogs were shot, so they would not bark at him while he rode, like Lady Godiva, through the town.
El Supremo
, they called him. And every fifth man was a spy. He closed the borders and started a nation, which was the nation whose soil we stood on, now. The Spanish colonists were his particular enemy. There would be no such thing as ‘pure’ blood, he said. From now on, all blood was pure, all blood was Paraguay.

BOOK: The Pleasure of Eliza Lynch
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