Pukeahu Anthology

Ole Underwood

Katherine Mansfield was born in Wellington in 1888. This excerpt comes from her short story, ‘Ole Underwood’, which first appeared in 1913 in the London literary journal Rhythm. Inspired by her memories of the notorious Wellington personality George Underwood, the story’s images of the prison on the hill evoke the Mount Cook prison that loomed over the Wellington of Mansfield’s childhood.

Down the windy hill stalked Ole Underwood. He carried a black umbrella in one hand, in the other a red and white spotted handkerchief knotted into a lump. He wore a black peaked cap like a pilot; gold rings gleamed in his ears and his little eyes snapped like two sparks. Like two sparks they glowed in the smoulder of his bearded face. On one side of the hill grew a forest of pines from the road right down to the sea. On the other side short tufted grass and little bushes of white manuka flower. The pine-trees roared like waves in their topmost branches, their stems creaked like the timber of ships; in the windy air flew the white manuka flower. Ah-k! shouted Ole Underwood, shaking his umbrella at the wind bearing down upon him, beating him, half strangling him with his black cape. Ah-k! shouted the wind a hundred times as loud, and filled his mouth and nostrils with dust. Something inside Ole Underwood’s breast beat like a hammer. One, two — one two — never stopping, never changing. He couldn’t do anything. It wasn’t loud. No, it didn’t make a noise — only a thud. One, two — one, two — like some one beating on an iron in a prison, some one in a secret place — bang — bang — bang — trying to get free. Do what he would, fumble at his coat, throw his arms about, spit, swear, he couldn’t stop the noise. Stop! Stop! Stop! Stop! Ole Underwood began to shuffle and run.

Away below, the sea heaving against the stone walls, and the little town just out of its reach close packed together, the better to face the grey water. And up on the other side of the hill the prison with high red walls. Over all bulged the grey sky with black web-like clouds streaming.

Ole Underwood slackened his pace as he neared the town, and when he came to the first house he flourished his umbrella like a herald’s staff and threw out this chest, his head glancing quickly from right to left. They were ugly little houses leading into the town, built of wood — two windows and a door, a stumpy verandah and a green mat of grass before. Under one verandah yellow hens huddled out of the wind. “Shoo!” shouted Ole Underwood, and laughed to see them fly, and laughed again at the woman who came to the door and shook a red, soapy fist at him. A little girl stood in another yard untwisting some rags from a clothes line. When she saw Ole Underwood she let the clothes prop fall and rushed screaming to the door, beating it, screaming “Mum-ma — Mum-ma!” That started the hammer in Ole Underwood’s heart. Mum-ma — Mum-ma! He saw an old face with a trembling chin and grey hair nodding out of the window as they dragged him past. Mum-ma — Mum-ma! He looked up at the big red prison perched on the hill and he pulled a face as if he wanted to cry. At the corner in front of the pub some carts were pulled up, and some men sat in the porch of the pub drinking and talking. Ole Underwood wanted a drink. He slouched into the bar. It was half full of old and young men in big coats and top boots with stock whips in their hands. Behind the counter a big girl with red hair pulled the beer handles and cheeked the men. Ole Underwood sneaked to one side, like a cat. Nobody looked at him, only the men looked at each other, one or two of them nudged. The girl nodded and winked at the fellow she was serving. He took some money out of his knotted handkerchief and slipped it on to the counter. His hand shook. He didn’t speak. The girl took no notice; she served everybody, went on with her talk, and then as if by accident shoved a mug towards him. A great big jar of red pinks stood on the bar counter. Ole Underwood stared at them as he drank and frowned at them. Red — red — red — red! beat the hammer. It was very warm in the bar and quiet as a pond, except for the talk and the girl. She kept on laughing. Ha! Ha! That was what the men liked to see, for she threw back her head and her great breasts lifted and shook to her laughter. In one corner sat a stranger. He pointed to Ole Underwood. “Cracked!” said one of the men. “When he was a young fellow, thirty years ago, a man ’ere done in ’is woman, and ’e found out an’ killed ’er. Got twenty year in quod up on the ’ill. Came out cracked.” “Oo done ’er in?” asked the man. “Dunno. ’E don’ no, nor nobody. ’E was a sailor till ‘e marrid ’er. Cracked!” The man spat and smeared the spittle in the floor, shrugging his shoulders. “’E’s ’armless enough.” Ole Underwood heard; he did not turn, but he shot out an old claw and crushed up the red pinks. “Uh-uh! You ole beast! Uh! You ole swine!” screamed the girl, leaning across the counter and banging him with a tin jug. “Get art! Get art! Don’ you never come ’ere no more!” Somebody kicked him: he scuttled like a rat.

He walked past the Chinamen’s shops. The fruit and vegetables were all piled up against the windows. Bits of wooden cases, straw, and old newspapers were strewn over the pavement. A woman flounced out of a shop and slushed a pail of slops over his feet. He peered in at the windows, at the Chinamen sitting in little groups on old barrels playing cards. They made him smile. He looked and looked, pressing his face against the glass and sniggering. They sat still with their long pigtails bound round their heads and their faces yellow as lemons. Some of them had knives in their belts and one old man sat by himself on the floor plaiting his long crooked toes together. The Chinamen didn’t mind Ole Underwood. When they saw him they nodded. He went to the door of a shop and cautiously opened it. In rushed the wind with him, scattering the cards. “Ya-ya! Ya-ya!” screamed the Chinamen, and Ole Underwood rushed off, the hammer beating quick and hard. Ya-ya! He turned a corner out of sight. He thought he heard one of the Chinks after him, and he slipped into a timber-yard. There he lay panting . . . . Close by him, under another stack there was a heap of yellow shavings. As he watched them they moved and a little grey cat unfolded herself and came out waving her tail. She trod delicately over to Ole Underwood and rubbed against his sleeve. The hammer in Ole Underwood’s heart beat madly. It pounded up into his throat, and then it seemed to half stop and beat very, very faintly. “Kit! Kit! Kit!” That was what she used to call the little cat he brought her off the ship — Kit! Kit! Kit! — and stoop down with the saucer in her hands. “Ah! my God! — my Lord!” Ole Underwood sat up and took the kitten in his arms and rocked to and fro, crushing it against his face. It was warm and soft, and it mewed faintly. He buried his eyes in its fur. My God! My Lord! He tucked the little cat in his coat and stole out of the woodyard, and slouched down towards the wharves. As he came near the sea, Ole Underwood’s nostrils expanded. The mad wind smelled of tar and ropes and slime and salt. He crossed the railway line, he crept behind the wharf-sheds and along a little cinder path that threaded through a patch of rank fennel to some stone drain pipes carrying the sewage into the sea. And he stared up at the wharves and at the ships with flags flying, and suddenly the old, old lust swept over Ole Underwood. “I will! I will! I will!” he muttered. He tore the little cat out of his coat and swung it by its tail and flung it out to the sewer opening. The hammer beat loud and strong. He tossed his head, he was young again. He walked on to the wharves, past the wool bales, past the loungers and the loafers to the extreme end of the wharves. The sea sucked against the wharf-poles as though it drank something from the land. One ship was loading wool. He heard a crane rattle and the shriek of a whistle. So he came to the little ship lying by herself with a bit of a plank for a gangway and no sign of anybody — anybody at all. Ole Underwood looked once back at the town, at the prison perched like a red bird, at the black, webby clouds trailing. Then he went up the gangway and on to the slippery deck. He grinned, and rolled in his walk, carrying high in his hand the red and white handkerchief. His ship! Mine! Mine! Mine! beat the hammer. There was a door latched open on the lee-side, labelled “Stateroom.” He peered in. A man lay sleeping on a bunk — his bunk — a great big man in a seaman’s coat with a long fair beard and hair on the red pillow. And looking down upon him from the wall there shone her picture — his woman’s picture — smiling and smiling at the big sleeping man.