In Eleanor Catton’s 1000-page brick of a novel, it is 1866 in New Zealand; gold has been found in the local hills and prospectors from all over have descended on the small town of Hokitika. Twelve men meet in a hotel room; stranger Walter Moody joins them. It’s tense.
Behind him one of the billiard players made a shot: a doubled crack, a velvet plop, a ripple of appreciation from the other players. The clergyman shook out his paper noisily; another man coughed; another struck the dust from his shirtsleeve, and shifted in his chair.
‘I was asking about your quarrel,’ Balfour said.
‘The quarrel—’ Moody began, and then stopped. He suddenly felt too exhausted even to speak.
‘The dispute,’ prompted Balfour. ‘Between you and your father.’
‘I am sorry,’ Moody said. ‘The particulars are delicate.’
‘A matter of money! Do I hit upon it?’
‘Forgive me: you do not.’ Moody ran his hand over his face.
‘Not of money! Then—a matter of love! You are in love … but your father will not approve the girl of your choosing …’
‘No, sir,’ Moody said. ‘I am not in love.’
‘A great shame,’ Balfour said. ‘Well! I conclude: you are already married!’
‘I am unmarried.’
‘You are a young widower, perhaps!’
‘I have never been married, sir.’
Balfour burst out laughing and threw up both his hands, to signal that he considered Moody’s reticence cheerfully exasperating, and quite absurd.
While he was laughing Moody raised himself up on his wrists and swivelled to look over the high back of his armchair at the room behind him. He had the intention of drawing others into their conversation somehow, and perhaps thus diverting the other man from his purpose. But nobody looked up to meet his gaze; they seemed, Moody thought, to be actively avoiding him. This was odd. But his posture was awkward and he was being rude, and so he reluctantly resumed his former position and crossed his legs again.
‘I do not mean to disappoint you,’ he said, when Balfour’s laughter subsided.
‘Disappoint—no!’ Balfour cried. ‘No, no. You will have your secrets!’
‘You mistake me,’ Moody said. ‘My aim is not concealment. The subject is personally distressing to me, that is all.’
‘Oh,’ Balfour said, ‘but it is always so, Mr. Moody, when one is young—to be distressed by one’s own history, you know—wishing to keep it back—and never to share it—I mean, with other men.’
‘That is a wise observation.’
‘Wise! And nothing else?’
‘I do not understand you, Mr. Balfour.’
‘You are determined to thwart my curiosity!’
‘I confess I am a little startled by it.’
‘This is a gold town, sir!’ Balfour said. ‘One must be sure of his fellows—one must trust in his fellows—indeed!’
This was still more odd. For the first time—perhaps because of his growing frustration, which served to focus his attention more squarely upon the scene at hand—Moody felt his interest begin to stir. The strange silence of the room was hardly testament to the kind of fraternity where all was shared and made easy … and moreover, Balfour had offered very little with respect to his own character and reputation in the town, by which intelligence Moody might be made to feel more assured of him! His gaze slid sideways, to the fat man closest to the hearth, whose closed eyelids were trembling with the effort of pretended sleep, and then to the blond-haired man behind him, who was passing his billiard cue from one hand to the other, but seemed to have lost all interest in the game.
Something was afoot: of this he was suddenly certain. Balfour was performing a role, on behalf of the others: taking his measure, Moody thought. But for what purpose? There was a system behind this battery of questions, a design that was neatly obscured by the excess of Balfour’s manner, his prodigious sympathy and charm. The other men were listening, however casually they turned the pages of their papers, or pretended to doze. With this realisation the room seemed suddenly to clarify, as when a chance scatter of stars resolves into a constellation before the eye. Balfour no longer seemed cheery and effusive, as Moody had first believed him to be; instead he seemed overwrought, strained; even desperate. Moody wondered now whether indulging the man might serve better purpose than denying him.