In the evening they met at Murdoch’s house for a sundowner in accordance with an old Australian custom. Besides Wirt were present Harold Rintoul, bank manager, and Michael Mauch, newspaper publisher.
Darkness set in rapidly, bringing to life the voices of the night, which stir the heart and sharpen the intellect. As if a conductor had given the signal to an anxious chorus to start, the tiny frogs commenced their rousing tune.
To Wirt’s surprise Murdoch disported himself with abandon. He behaved outright puckish. Out came the bottles, glass, and crushed ice. Unusually chipper, with hoorays on his tongue and mischief in his eyes, he filled everyone’s glasses, which they raised to each other.
“Prost, skoal, to your health,” could be repeatedly heard.
Soon the glasses were empty which delighted Murdoch, who refilled them with playful dexterity. Relieved from the day’s heat and the vexing routine, they became outright frolicsome. The conversation, surprisingly versatile, flowed free and easy. No one put on airs; even Murdoch acted in a jocular manner, of which Wirt had never thought him capable of. Mauch’s ribald banter was received with mock indignation, yet encouraged at the same time. He proved to be an intrepid freethinker; well read, widely travelled, and endowed with an enterprising spirit. He neither minced matters, nor showed any traces of hypocrisy. Setting his sails to the wind evidently never occurred to him.
It was a boisterous, albeit congenial gathering, till the mood suddenly changed. Somehow the discussion drifted onto a controversial field, which quickly set Mauch and Murdoch at loggerheads. They soon monopolised the conversation, leaving Wirt and Rintoul on the sideline. Words and expressions were bandied about by the host and the Irishman, which were Greek to Wirt. True, he had read about voodoo and such matters, but paid little heed, and even less credence to it.
Mauch and Murdoch went at it tooth and nail; with gusto at first, degenerating gradually into animosity. Wirt barely managed to conceal his amazement noticing his otherwise prim colleague breaking out in regular rants. He doggedly stuck to opinions with a sourness of temper, never suspected of the aloof botanist.
Mauch, evidently no slouch in the matter of the occult, gave tit for tat. Though shying away from outright verbal abuse, Wirt deemed their behaviour offensive. He and Rintoul couldn’t get a word in, they just sat there in bewilderment, listening to the others strident argument.
Murdoch bridled up:
“Are you saying that you actually believe such mumbo-jumbo like voodoo or obeah?” he snorted derisively.
Mauch, affecting an air of shocking incredulity, wanted to know:
Feeling twitted, Murdoch half rose and bellowed while throwing both hands in the air:
“Old wives tales, nothing but skulduggery, spread by fools or opportunists intending to lend mystique upon the island, in order to attract adventurers with deep pockets and shallow brainpans.”
Looking at Rintoul he asked:
“Am I correct?”
Rintoul nodded eagerly, not because he agreed, but for the sake of peace, because Murdoch had reached a state of temple madness, a blind zealotry unbefitting the occasion. To tell the truth he, and Wirt no less felt perturbed by the acrimony displayed. Mauch too showed traces of deprecation, judging by his reluctance to continue the discourse.
Afterwards the mood of the party changed; the previous hilarity became overshadowed by a painful awkwardness none could dispel. Murdoch, and to a lesser degree Mauch, remained visibly petulant, especially with each other. Both spoke guardedly about trifling topics; they realised that they had stepped beyond the pale. Observing the others with sheepish eyes and guilty grins, they searched for traces of rebuke. Mauch’s the-devil-a-bit attitude gave way to conciliatory inclinations. Being men of the world the previous spirit of good fellowship returned. Murdoch, remembering the duty of a host, regaled the company with his wonted flair. By degrees their festive mood returned; the former exuberance dispersed the remnants of lingering animosity.
Rintoul said it first:
“Time to go, fellows. One for the road, and that’s it for me.”
The others followed suit; they soon shook hands and left. Rintoul’s dwelling stood in an opposite direction to Mauch’s and Wirt’s, who silently walked side by side, lost in thought, thinking of what should be said. Noticing Mauch’s sideways glances, seemingly wrestling with the notion to bridge the silence, Wirt spoke first:
“What is obeah?” he asked.
Mauch, regarding him obliquely, answered evasively:
“It’s quite a subject, spectral, and no less disputatious.”
“I noticed that while listening to you and Murdoch.”
“I warrant you did,” Mauch chuckled.
“I find it odd that Murdoch, whom I consider to be cool-headed, got all worked up over an innocent debate.”
“I wonder,” Mauch remarked deliberately.
“Hm, how should that be taken?” Wirt conjectured.
Mauch, halting his steps, thereby compelling Wirt to do the same, cleared his throat several times, then observed:
“As mentioned, obeah is a fascinating, albeit controversial topic, best discussed quietly in a peaceful surrounding.”
“Is that an invitation?”
“It’s meant to be.
“Well, where shall we meet?”
“At my house, if it suits you.”
Seeing Wirt’s inquiring look, he added:
“I am a bachelor.”
“When?” Wirt inquired.
After setting a date and time, and Mauch had explained where he lived, they shook hands and went their ways.