On the summit of one of the clay heaps, a woman shot into silhouette against the sky. An odd figure, clad in a skimpy green petticoat, with a scarlet shawl held about her shoulders, wisps of frowsy red hair standing out round her head, she balanced herself on the slippery earth, spinning her arm like the vane of a windmill, and crying at the top of her voice: “Joe, boys! — Joe, Joe, Joey!”
It was as if, with these words, she had dropped a live shell in the diggers’ midst. A general stampede ensued; in which the cry was caught up, echoed and re-echoed, till the whole Flat rang with the name of “Joe.” Tools were dropped, cradles and tubs abandoned, windlasses left to kick their cranks backwards. Many of the workers took to their heels; others, in affright, scuttled aimlessly hither and thither, like barnyard fowls in a panic. Summoned by shouts of: “Up with you, boys! — the traps are here!” numbers ascended from below to see the fun, while as many went hurriedly down to hiding in drive or chamber. Even those diggers who could pat the pocket in which their licence lay ceased work, and stood about with sullen faces to view the course of events. Only the group of Chinamen washing tail-heaps remained unmoved. One of them, to whom the warning woman belonged, raised his head and called a Chinese word at her; she obeyed it instantly, vanished into thin air; the rest went impassively on with their fossicking. They were not such fools as to try to cheat the Government of its righteous dues. None but had his licence safely folded in his nosecloth, and thrust inside the bosom of his blouse.
Through the labyrinth of tents and mounds, a gold-laced cap could be seen approaching; then a gold-tressed jacket came into view, the white star on the forehead of a mare. Behind the Commissioner, who rode down thus from the Camp, came the members of his staff; these again were followed by a body of mounted troopers. They drew rein on the slope, and simultaneously a line of foot police, backed by a detachment of light infantry, shot out like an arm, and walled in the Flat to the south.
On the appearance of the enemy the babel redoubled. There were groans and cat-calls. Along with the derisive “Joeys!” the rebel diggers hurled any term of abuse that came to their lips.
“The dolly mops! The skunks! The bushrangers! — Oh, damn ’em, damn ’em! . . . damn their bloody eyes!”
“It’s Rooshia — that’s what it is!” said an oldish man darkly.
The Commissioner, a horse-faced, solemn man with brown side whiskers, let the reins droop on his mare’s neck and sat unwinking in the tumult. His mien was copied by his staff. Only one of them, a very young boy who was new to the colony and his post, changed colour under his gaudy cap, went from white to pink and from pink to white again; while at each fresh insult he gave a perceptible start, and gazed dumbfounded at his chief’s insensitive back.
The “bloodhounds” had begun to track their prey. Rounding up, with a skill born of long practice, they drove the diggers before them towards the centre of the Flat. Here they passed from group to group and from hole to hole, calling for the production of licences with an insolence that made its object see red. They were nice of scent, too, and, nine times in ten, pounced on just those unfortunates who, through carelessness, or lack of means, or on political grounds, had failed to take out the month’s licence to dig for gold. Every few minutes one or another was marched off between two constables to the Government Camp, for fine or imprisonment.
Now it was that it suddenly entered Long Jim’s head to cut and run. Up till now he had stood declaring himself a free-born Briton, who might be drawn and quartered if he ever again paid the blasted tax. But, as the police came closer, a spear of fright pierced his befuddled brain, and inside a breath he was off and away. Had the abruptness of his start not given him a slight advantage, he would have been caught at once. As it was, the chase would not be a long one; the clumsy, stiff-jointed man slithered here and stuck fast there, dodging obstacles with an awkwardness that was painful to see. He could be heard sobbing and cursing as he ran.
At this point the Commissioner, half turning, signed to the troopers in his rear. Six or seven of them shook up their bridles and rode off, their scabbards clinking, to prevent the fugitive’s escape.
A howl of contempt went up from the crowd. The pink and white subaltern made what was almost a movement of the arm to intercept his superior’s command.
It was too much for Long Jim’s last mate, the youthful blackbeard who had pluckily descended the shaft after the accident. He had been standing on a mound with a posse of others, following the man-hunt. At his partner’s crack-brained dash for the open, his snorts of indignation found words. “Gaw-blimy! . . . is the old fool gone dotty?” Then he drew a whistling breath. “No, it’s more than flesh and blood . . . . Stand back, boys!” And though he was as little burdened with a licence as the man under pursuit, he shouted: “Help, help! . . . for God’s sake, don’t let ’em have me!” shot down the slope, and was off like the wind.
His foxly object was attained. The attention of the hunters was diverted. Long Jim, seizing the moment, vanished underground.
The younger man ran with the lightness of a hare. He had also the hare’s address in doubling and turning. His pursuers never knew, did he pass from sight behind a covert of tents and mounds, where he would bob up next. He avoided shafts and pools as if by a miracle; ran along greasy planks without a slip; and, where these had been removed to balk the police, he jumped the holes, taking risks that were not for a sane man. Once he fell, but, enslimed from head to foot, wringing wet and hatless, was up again in a twinkling. His enemies were less sure-footed than he, and times without number measured their length on the oily ground. Still, one of them was gaining rapidly on him, a giant of a fellow with long thin legs; and soon the constable’s foot filled the prints left by the young man’s, while these were still warm. It was a fine run. The diggers trooped after in a body; the Flat rang with cheers and plaudits. Even the Commissioner and his retinue trotted in the same direction. Eventually the runaway must land in the arms of the mounted police.
But this was not his plan. Making as though he headed for the open, he suddenly dashed off at right angles, and, with a final sprint, brought up dead against a log-and-canvas store which stood on rising ground. His adversary was so close behind that a collision resulted; the digger’s feet slid from under him, he fell on his face, the other on top. In their fall they struck a huge pillar of tin-dishes, ingeniously built up to the height of the store itself. This toppled over with a crash, and the dishes went rolling down the slope between the legs of the police. The dog chained to the flagstaff all but strangled himself in his rage and excitement; and the owner of the store came running out.
“Purdy! . . . you! What in the name of . . .?”
The digger adroitly rolled his captor over, and there they both sat, side by side on the ground, one gripping the other’s collar, both too blown to speak. A cordon of puffing constables hemmed them in.
The storekeeper frowned. “You’ve no licence, you young beggar!”
And: “Your licence, you scoundrel!” demanded the leader of the troop.
The prisoner’s rejoinder was a saucy: “Now then, out with the cuffs, Joe!”
He got on his feet as bidden; but awkwardly, for it appeared that in falling he had hurt his ankle. Behind the police were massed the diggers. These opened a narrow alley for the Camp officials to ride through, but their attitude was hostile, and there were cries of: “Leave ’im go, yer blackguards! . . . after sich a run! None o yer bloody quod for ’im!” along with other, more threatening expressions. Sombre and taciturn, the Commissioner waved his hand. “Take him away!”
“Well, so long, Dick!” said the culprit jauntily; and, as he offered his wrists to be handcuffed, he whistled an air.
Here the storekeeper hurriedly interposed: “No, stop! I’ll give bail.” And darting into the tent and out again, he counted five one-pound notes into the constable’s palm. The lad’s collar was released; and a murmur of satisfaction mounted from the crowd.
At the sound the giver made as if to retire. Then, yielding to a second thought, he stepped forward and saluted the Commissioner. “A young hot-head, sir! He means no harm. I’ll send him up in the morning, to apologise.”
(“I’ll be damned if you do!” muttered the digger between his teeth.)
But the Chief refused to be placated. “Good day, doctor,” he said shortly, and with his staff at heel trotted down the slope, followed till out of earshot by a mocking fire of “Joes.” Lingering in the rear, the youthful sympathiser turned in his saddle and waved his cap.
The raid was over for that day. The crowd dispersed; its members became orderly, hard-working men once more. The storekeeper hushed his frantic dog, and called his assistant to rebuild the pillar of tins.
The young digger sat down on the log that served for a bench, and examined his foot. He pulled and pulled, causing himself great pain, but could not get his boot off. At last, looking back over his shoulder he cried impatiently: “Dick! . . . I say, Dick Mahony! Give us a drink, old boy! . . . I’m dead-beat.”
At this the storekeeper — a tall, slenderly built man of some seven or eight and twenty — appeared, bearing a jug and a pannikin.
“Oh, bah!” said the lad, when he found that the jug held only water. And, on his friend reminding him that he might by now have been sitting in the lock-up, he laughed and winked. “I knew you’d go bail.”
“Well! . . . of all the confounded impudence . . . .”
“Faith, Dick, and d’ye think I didn’t see how your hand itched for your pocket?”
The man he called Mahony flushed above his fair beard. It was true: he had made an involuntary movement of the hand — checked for the rest halfway, by the knowledge that the pocket was empty. He looked displeased and said nothing.
“Don’t be afraid, I’ll pay you back soon’s ever me ship comes home,” went on the young scapegrace, who very well knew how to play his cards. At his companion’s heated disclaimer, however, he changed his tone. “I say, Dick, have a look at my foot, will you? I can’t get this damned boot off.”
The elder man bent over the injury. He ceased to show displeasure. “Purdy, you young fool, when will you learn wisdom?”
“Well, they shouldn’t hunt old women, then — the swine!” gave back Purdy; and told his tale. “Oh, lor! there go six canaries.” For, at his wincing and shrinking, his friend had taken a penknife and ripped up the jackboot. Now, practised hands explored the swollen, discoloured ankle.
When it had been washed and bandaged, its owner stretched himself on the ground, his head in the shade of a barrel, and went to sleep.
He slept till sundown, through all the traffic of a busy afternoon.
Some half-a-hundred customers came and went. The greater number of them were earth-stained diggers, who ran up for, it might be, a missing tool, or a hide bucket, or a coil of rope. They spat jets of tobacco-juice, were richly profane, paid, where coin was scarce, in gold-dust from a match-box, and hurried back to work. But there also came old harridans — as often as not, diggers themselves — whose language outdid that of the males, and dirty Irish mothers; besides a couple of the white women who inhabited the Chinese quarter. One of these was in liquor, and a great hullabaloo took place before she could be got rid of. Put out, she stood in front of the tent, her hair hanging down her back, cursing and reviling. Respectable women as well did an afternoon’s shopping there. In no haste to be gone, they sat about on empty boxes or upturned barrels exchanging confidences, while weary children plucked at their skirts. A party of youngsters entered, the tallest of whom could just see over the counter, and called for shandygaffs. The assistant was for chasing them off, with hard words. But the storekeeper put, instead, a stick of barley-sugar into each dirty, outstretched hand, and the imps retired well content. On their heels came a digger and his lady-love to choose a wedding-outfit; and all the gaudy finery the store held was displayed before them. A red velvet dress flounced with satin, a pink gauze bonnet, white satin shoes and white silk stockings met their fancy. The dewy-lipped, smutty-lashed Irish girl blushed and dimpled, in consulting with the shopman upon the stays in which to lace her ample figure; the digger, whose very pores oozed gold, planked down handfuls of dust and nuggets, and brushed aside a neat Paisley shawl for one of yellow satin, the fellow to which he swore to having seen on the back of the Governor’s lady herself. He showered brandy-snaps on the children, and bought a polka-jacket for a shabby old woman. Then, producing a bottle of champagne from a sack he bore, he called on those present to give him, after: “‘Er most Gracious little Majesty, God bless ‘er!” the: “‘Oly estate of materimony!” The empty bottle smashed for luck, the couple departed arm-in-arm, carrying their purchases in the sack; and the rest of the company trooped to the door with them, to wish them joy.
Within the narrow confines of the tent, where red-herrings trailed over moleskin-shorts, and East India pickles and Hessian boots lay on the top of sugar and mess-pork; where cheeses rubbed shoulders with tallow candles, blue and red serge shirts, and captain’s biscuits; where onions, and guernseys, and sardines, fine combs, cigars and bear’s-grease, Windsor soap, tinned coffee and hair oil, revolvers, shovels and Oxford shoes, lay in one grand miscellany: within the crowded store, as the afternoon wore on, the air grew rank and oppressive. Precisely at six o’clock the bar was let down across the door, and the storekeeper withdrew to his living-room at the back of the tent. Here he changed his coat and meticulously washed his hands, to which clung a subtle blend of all the strong-smelling goods that had passed through them. Then, coming round to the front, he sat down on the log and took out his pipe. He made a point, no matter how brisk trade was, of not keeping open after dark. His evenings were his own.
He sat and puffed, tranquilly. It was a fine night. The first showy splendour of sunset had passed; but the upper sky was still aflush with colour. And in the centre of this frail cloud, which faded as he watched it, swam a single star.
With the passing of a cooler air the sleeper wakened and rubbed his eyes. Letting his injured leg lie undisturbed, he drew up the other knee and buckled his hands round it. In this position he sat and talked.
He was a dark, fresh-coloured young man, of middle height, and broadly built. He had large white teeth of a kind to crack nuts with, and the full, wide, flexible mouth that denotes the generous talker.
“What a wind-bag it is, to be sure!” thought his companion, as he smoked and listened, in a gently ironic silence, to abuse of the Government. He knew — or thought he knew — young Purdy inside out.
But behind all the froth of the boy’s talk there lurked, it seemed, a purpose. No sooner was a meal of cold chop and tea over than Purdy declared his intention of being present at a meeting of malcontent diggers. Nor would he even wait to wash himself clean of mud.
His friend reluctantly agreed to lend him an arm. But he could not refrain from taking the lad to task for getting entangled in the political imbroglio. “When, as you know, it’s just a kind of sport to you.”
Purdy sulked for a few paces, then burst out: “If only you weren’t so damned detached, Dick Mahony!”
“You’re restless, and want excitement, my boy — that’s the root of the trouble.”
“Well, I’m jiggered! If ever I knew a restless mortal, it’s yourself.”
The two men picked their steps across the Flat and up the opposite hillside, young Purdy Smith limping and leaning heavy, his lame foot thrust into an old slipper. He was at all times hail-fellow-well-met with the world. Now, in addition, his plucky exploit of the afternoon blazed its way through the settlement; and blarney and bravos rained upon him. “Golly for you, Purdy, old ‘oss!” “Showed ’em the diggers’ flag, ‘e did!” “What’ll you take, me buck? Come on in for a drop o’ the real strip-me-down-naked!” Even a weary old strumpet, propping herself against the doorway of a dancing-saloon, waved a tipsy hand and cried: “Arrah, an’ is it yerrself, Purrdy, me bhoy? Shure an’ it’s bussin’ ye I’d be afther — if me legs would carry me!” And Purdy laughed, and relished the honey, and had an answer pat for everybody especially the women. His companion on the other hand was greeted with a glibness that had something perfunctory in it, and no touch of familiarity.
The big canvas tent on Bakery Hill, where the meeting was to be held, was already lighted; and at the tinkle of a bell the diggers, who till then had stood cracking and hobnobbing outside, began to push for the entrance. The bulk of them belonged to the race that is quickest to resent injustice — were Irish. After them in number came the Germans, swaggering and voluble; and the inflammable French, English, Scotch and Americans formed a smaller and cooler, but very dogged group.
At the end of the tent a rough platform had been erected, on which stood a row of cane seats. In the body of the hall, the benches were formed of boards, laid from one upturned keg or tub to another. The chair was taken by a local auctioneer, a cadaverous-looking man, with never a twinkle in his eye, who, in a lengthy discourse and with the single monotonous gesture of beating the palm of one hand with the back of the other, strove to bring home to his audience the degradation of their present political status. The diggers chewed and spat, and listened to his periods with sang-froid: the shame of their state did not greatly move them. They followed, too, with composure, the rehearsal of their general grievances. As they were aware, said the speaker, the Legislative Council of Victoria was made up largely of Crown nominees; in the election of members the gold-seeking population had no voice whatsoever. This was a scandalous thing; for the digging constituent outnumbered all the rest of the population put together, thus forming what he would call the backbone and mainstay of the colony. The labour of THEIR hands had raised the colony to its present pitch of prosperity. And yet these same bold and hardy pioneers were held incapable of deciding jot or tittle in the public affairs of their adopted home. Still unmoved, the diggers listened to this recital of their virtues. But when one man, growing weary of the speaker’s unctuous wordiness, discharged a fierce: “Why the hell don’t yer git on to the bloody licence-tax?” the audience was fire and flame in an instant. A riotous noise ensued; rough throats rang changes on the question. Order restored, it was evident that the speech was over. Thrown violently out of his concept, the auctioneer struck and struck at his palm — in vain; nothing would come. So, making the best of a bad job, he irately sat down in favour of his successor on the programme.
This speaker did not fare much better. The assemblage, roused now, jolly and merciless, was not disposed to give quarter; and his obtuseness in dawdling over such high-flown notions as that population, not property, formed the basis of representative government, reaped him a harvest of boos and groans. This was not what the diggers had come out to hear. And they were as direct as children in their demand for the gist of the matter.
“A reg-lar ol’ shicer!” was the unanimous opinion, expressed without scruple. While from the back of the hall came the curt request to him to shut his “tater-trap.”
Next on the list was a German, a ruddy-faced man with mutton-chop whiskers and prominent, watery eyes. He could not manage the letter “r.” In the body of a word where it was negligible, he rolled it out as though it stood three deep. Did he tackle it as an initial, on the other hand, his tongue seemed to cleave to his palate, and to yield only an “l.” This quaint defect caused some merriment at the start, but was soon eclipsed by a more striking oddity. The speaker had the habit of, as it were, creaking with his nose. After each few sentences he paused, to give himself time to produce something between a creak and a snore — an abortive attempt to get at a mucus that was plainly out of reach.
The diggers were beside themselves with mirth.
“‘E’s forgot ‘is ‘ankey!”
“‘Ere, boys, look slippy! — a ‘ankey for ol’ sausage!”
But the German was not sensitive to ridicule. He had something to say, and he was there to say it. Fixing his fish-like eyes on a spot high up the tent wall, he kept them pinned to it, while he mouthed out blood-and-thunder invectives. He was, it seemed, a red-hot revolutionist; a fierce denouncer of British rule. He declared the British monarchy to be an effete institution; the fetish of British freedom to have been “exbloded” long ago. What they needed, in this grand young country of theirs, was a “republic”; they must rid themselves of those shackles that had been forged in the days when men were slaves. It was his sound conviction that before many weeks had passed, the Union Jack would have been hauled down for ever, and the glorious Southern Cross would wave in its stead, over a free Australia. The day on which this happened would be a never-to-be-forgotten date in the annals of the country. For what, he would like to know, had the British flag ever done for freedom, at any time in the world’s history? They should read in their school-books, and there they would learn that wherever a people had risen against their tyrants, the Union Jack had waved, not over them, but over the British troops sent to stamp the rising out.
This was more than Mahony could stomach. Flashing up from his seat, he strove to assert himself above the hum of agreement that mounted from the foreign contingent, and the doubtful sort of grumble by which the Britisher signifies his disapproval.
“Mr. Chairman! Gentlemen!” he cried in a loud voice. “I call upon those loyal subjects of her Majesty who are present here, to join with me in giving three cheers for the British flag. Hip, hip, hurrah! And, again, hip, hip, hurrah! And, once more, hip, hip, hurrah!”
His compatriots followed him, though flabbily; and he continued to make himself heard above the shouts of “Order!” and the bimming of the chairman’s bell.
“Mr. Chairman! I appeal to you. Are we Britons to sit still and hear our country’s flag reviled? — that flag which has ensured us the very liberty we are enjoying this evening. The gentleman who has been pleased to slander it is not, I believe, a British citizen. Now, I put it to him: is there another country on the face of the earth, that would allow people of all nations to flock into a gold-bearing colony on terms of perfect equality with its own subjects? — to flock in, take all they can get, and then make off with it?” a point of view that elicited forcible grunts of assent, which held their own against hoots and hisses. Unfortunately the speaker did not stop here, but went on: “Gentlemen! Do not, I implore you, allow yourselves to be led astray by a handful of ungrateful foreigners, who have received nothing but benefits from our Crown. What you need, gentlemen, is not revolution, but reform; not strife and bloodshed, but a liberty consistent with law and order. And this, gentlemen — —”
(“You’ll never get ’em like that, Dick,” muttered Purdy.)
“Not so much gentlemening, if YOU please!” said a sinister-looking man, who might have been a Vandemonian in his day. “MEN’S what we are — that’s good enough for us.”
Mahony was nettled. The foreigners, too, were pressing him.
“Am I then to believe, sir, what I frequently hear asserted, that there are no gentlemen left on the diggings?”
(“Oh lor, Dick!” said Purdy. He was sitting with his elbows on his knees, clutching his cheeks as though he had the toothache.)
“Oh, stow yer blatherskite!”
“Believe what yer bloody well like!” retorted the Vandemonian fiercely. “But don’t come ’ere and interrupt our pleasant and h’orderly meetings with YOUR blamed jaw.”
Mahony lost his temper. “I not interrupt? — when I see you great hulks of men —”
(“Oh, lor!” groaned Purdy again.)
“— who call yourselves British subjects, letting yourselves be led by the nose, like the sheep you are, by a pack of foreigners who are basely accepting this country’s hospital’ty?”
“Here, let me,” said Purdy. And pushing his way along the bench he hobbled to the platform, where several arms hoisted him up.
There he stood, fronting the violent commotion that had ensued on his friend’s last words; stood bedraggled, mud-stained, bandaged, his cabbage-tree hat in his hand. And Mahony, still on his feet, angrily erect, thought he understood why the boy had refused to wash himself clean, or to change his dress: he had no doubt foreseen the possibility of some such dramatic appearance.
Purdy waited for the hubbub to die down. As if by chance he had rested his hand on the bell; its provoking tinkle ceased. Now he broke into one of the frank and hearty smiles that never fail to conciliate.
The strongly spoken words induced an abrupt lull. The audience turned to him, still thorny and sulky it was true, but yet they turned; and one among them demanded a hearing for the youngster.
“Brother diggers! We are met here to-night with a single purpose in view. Brother diggers! We are not met here to throw mud at our dear old country’s flag! Nor will we have a word said against her most gracious Majesty, the Queen. Not us! We’re men first, whose business it is to stand up for a gallant little woman, and diggers with a grievance afterwards. Are you with me, boys? — Very well, then. — Now we didn’t come here to-night to confab about getting votes, or having a hand in public affairs — much as we want ’em both and mean to have ’em, when the time comes. No, to-night there’s only one thing that matters to us, and that’s the repeal of the accursed tax!” Here, such a tempest of applause broke out that he was unable to proceed. “Yes, I say it again,” he went on, when they would let him speak; “the instant repeal! When that’s been done, this curse taken off us, then it’ll be time enough to parlez-vous about the colour of the flag we mean to have, and about going shares in the Government. But let me make one thing clear to you. We’re neither traitors to the Crown, nor common rebels. We’re true-blue Britons, who have been goaded to rebellion by one of the vilest pieces of tyranny that ever saw the light. Spies and informers are everywhere about us. Mr. Commissioner Sleuth and his hounds may cry tally-ho every day, if ’tis their pleasure to! To put it shortly, boys, we’re living under semi-martial law. To such a state have we free-born men, men who came out but to see the elephant, been reduced, by the asinine stupidity of the Government, by the impudence and knavishness of its officials. Brother diggers! When you leave the hall this evening, look over at the hill on which the Camp stands! What will you see? You will see a blaze of light, and hear the sounds of revelry by night. There, boys, hidden from our mortal view, but visible to our mind’s eye, sit Charley Joe’s minions, carousing at our expense, washing down each mouthful with good fizz bought with our hard-earned gold. Licence-pickings, boys, and tips from new grog-shops, and the blasted farce of the Commissariat! We’re supposed —”
But here Mahony gave a loud click of the tongue — in the general howl of execration it passed unheard — and, pushing his way out of the tent, let the flap-door fall to behind him.
He retraced his steps by the safe-conduct of a full moon, which showed up the gaping black mouths of circular shafts and silvered the water that flooded abandoned oblong holes to their brim. Tents and huts stood white and forsaken in the moonlight: their owners were either gathered on Bakery Hill, or had repaired to one of the gambling and dancing saloons that lined the main street. Arrived at the store he set his frantic dog free, and putting a match to his pipe, began to stroll up and down.
He felt annoyed with himself for having helped to swell the crowd of malcontents; and still more for his foolishness in giving the rein to a momentary irritation. As if it mattered a doit what trash these foreigners talked! No thinking person took their bombast seriously; the authorities, with great good sense, let it pass for what it was — a noisy blowing-off of steam. At heart, the diggers were as sound as good pippins.
A graver consideration was Purdy’s growing fellowship with the rebel faction. The boy was too young and still too much of a fly-by-night to have a black mark set against his name. It would be the more absurd, considering that his sincerity in espousing the diggers’ cause was far from proved. He was of a nature to ride tantivy into anything that promised excitement or adventure. With, it must regretfully be admitted, an increasing relish for the limelight, for theatrical effect — see the cunning with which he had made capital out of a bandaged ankle and dirty dress! At this rate, and with his engaging ways, he would soon stand for a little god to the rough, artless crowd. No, he must leave the diggings — and Mahony rolled various schemes in his mind. He had it! In the course of the next week or two business would make a journey to Melbourne imperative. Well, he would damn the extra expense and take the boy along with him! Purdy was at a loose end, and would no doubt rise like a fish to a fly at the chance of getting to town free of cost. After all, why be hard on him? He was not much over twenty, and, at that age, it was natural enough — especially in a place like this — for a lad to flit like a butterfly from every cup that took his restless fancy.
Restless? . . . h’m! It was the word Purdy had flung back at him, earlier in the evening. At the time, he had rebutted the charge, with a glance at fifteen months spent behind the counter of a store. But there was a modicum of truth in it, none the less. The life one led out here was not calculated to tone down any innate restlessness of temperament: on the contrary, it directly hindered one from becoming fixed and settled. It was on a par with the houses you lived in — these flimsy tents and draught-riddled cabins you put up with, “for the time being”— was just as much of a makeshift affair as they. Its keynote was change. Fortunes were made, and lost, and made again, before you could say Jack Robinson; whole townships shot up over-night, to be deserted the moment the soil ceased to yield; the people you knew were here to-day, and gone — sold up, burnt out, or dead and buried — to-morrow. And so, whether you would or not, your whole outlook became attuned to the general unrest; you lived in a constant anticipation of what was coming next. Well, he could own to the weakness with more justification than most. If trade continued to prosper with him as it did at present, it would be no time before he could sell out and joyfully depart for the old country.
In the meantime, why complain? He had much to be thankful for. To take only a small point: was this not Saturday night? To-morrow the store was closed, and a string of congenial occupations offered: from chopping the week’s wood — a clean and wholesome task, which he gladly performed — through the pages of an engrossing book to a botanical ramble round old Buninyong. The thought of it cheered him. He stooped to caress his two cats, which had come out to bear him the mute and pleasant company of their kind.
What a night! The great round silver moon floated serenely through space, dimming the stars as it made them, and bathing the earth in splendour. It was so light that straight black lines of smoke could be seen mounting from chimneys and open-air fires. The grass-trees which supplied the fuel for these fires spread a pleasant balsamic odour, and the live red patches contrasted oddly with the pale ardour of the moon. Lights twinkled over all the township, but were brightest in Main Street, the course of which they followed like a rope of fireflies, and at the Government Camp on the steep western slope, where no doubt, as young Purdy had impudently averred, the officials still sat over the dinner-table. It was very quiet — no grog-shops or saloons-of-entertainment in this neighbourhood, thank goodness! — and the hour was still too early for drunken roisterers to come reeling home. The only sound to be heard was that of a man’s voice singing OFT IN THE STILLY NIGHT, to the yetching accompaniment of a concertina. Mahony hummed the tune.
But it was growing cold, as the nights were apt to do on this tableland once summer was past. He whistled his dog, and Pompey hurried out with a guilty air from the back of the house, where the old shaft stood that served to hold refuse. Mahony put him on the chain, and was just about to turn in when two figures rounded the corner of a tent and came towards him, pushing their shadows before them on the milk-white ground.
“‘D evenin’, doc,” said the shorter of the two, a nuggetty little man who carried his arms curved out from his sides, gorilla-fashion.
“Oh, good evening, Mr. Ocock,” said Mahony, recognising a neighbour. — “Why, Tom, that you? Back already, my boy?”— this to a loutish, loose-limbed lad who followed behind. —“You don’t of course come from the meeting?”
“Not me, indeed!” gave back his visitor with gall, and turned his head to spit the juice from a plug. “I’ve got suthin’ better to do as to listen to a pack o’ jabberin’ furriners settin’ one another by th’ears.”
“Nor you, Tom?” Mahony asked the lad, who stood sheepishly shifting his weight from one leg to the other.
“Nay, nor ’im eether,” jumped in his father, before he could speak. “I’ll ‘ave none o’ my boys playin’ the fool up there. And that reminds me, doc, young Smith’ll git ‘imself inter the devil of a mess one o’ these days, if you don’t look after ’im a bit better’n you do. I ‘eard ’im spoutin’ away as I come past — usin’ language about the Gover’ment fit to turn you sick.”
Mahony coughed. “He’s but young yet,” he said drily. “After all, youth’s youth, sir, and comes but once in a lifetime. And you can’t make lads into wiseacres between sundown and sunrise.”
“No, by Gawd, you can’t!” affirmed his companion. “But I think youth’s just a fine name for a sort o’ piggish mess What’s the good, one ‘ud like to know, of gettin’ old, and learnin’ wisdom, and knowin’ the good from the bad, when ev’ry lousy young fathead that’s born inter the world starts out again to muddle through it for ‘imself, in ‘is own way. And that things ‘as got to go on like this, just the same, for ever and ever — why, it makes me fair tired to think of it. My father didn’t ‘old with youth: ‘e knocked it out of us by thrashin’, just like lyin’ and thievin’. And it’s the best way, too. — Wot’s that you say?” he flounced round on the unoffending Tom. “Nothin’? You was only snifflin’, was you? You keep your fly-trap shut, my fine fellow, and make no mousy sounds to me, or it’ll be the worse for you, I can tell you!”
“Come, Mr. Ocock, don’t be too hard on the boy.”
“Not be ‘ard on ’im? When I’ve got the nasty galoon on me ‘ands again like this? — Chucks up the good post I git ’im in Kilmore, without with your leave or by your leave. Too lonely for ‘is lordship it was. Missed the sound o’ wimmin’s petticoats, ‘e did.” He turned fiercely on his son. “‘Ere, don’t you stand starin’ there! You get ‘ome, and fix up for the night. Now then, wot are you dawdlin’ for, pig-‘ead?”
The boy slunk away. When he had disappeared, his father again took up the challenge of Mahony’s silent disapproval. “I can’t ‘ardly bear the sight of ’im, doc. — disgracin’ me as ‘e ‘as done. ‘Im a father, and not eighteen till June! A son o’ mine, who can’t see a wench with ‘er bodice open, but wot ‘e must be arter ‘er. . . . No, sir, no son o’ mine! I’m a respectable man, I am!”
“Of course, of course.”
“Oh! but they’re a sore trial to me, these boys, doc. ‘Enry’s the only one . . . if it weren’t for ‘Enry — Johnny, ‘e can’t pass the drink, and now ’ere’s this young swine started to nose arter the wimmin.”
“There’s good stuff in the lads, I’m sure of it. They’re just sowing their wild oats.”
“They’ll sow no h’oats with me.”
“I tell you what it is, Mr. Ocock, you need a woman about your place, to make it a bit more homelike,” said Mahony, calling to mind the pigstye in which Ocock and his sons housed.
“Course I do!” agreed Ocock. “And Melia, she’ll come out to ‘er daddy soon as ever th’ol’ woman kicks the bucket. — Drat ‘er! It’s ‘er I’ve got to thank for all the mischief.”
“Well, well!” said Mahony, and rising knocked out his pipe on the log. Did his old neighbour once get launched on the subject of his wife’s failings, there was no stopping him. “We all have our crosses.”
“That I ‘ave. And I’m keepin’ you outer your bed, doc., with me blather. — By gum! and that reminds me I come ’ere special to see you to-night. Bin gettin’ a bit moonstruck, I reckon,”— and he clapped on his hat.
Drawing a sheaf of papers from an inner pocket, he selected one and offered it to Mahony. Mahony led the way indoors, and lighting a kerosene-lamp stooped to decipher the letter.
For some weeks now he had been awaiting the delivery of a load of goods, the invoice for which had long since reached him. From this communication, carried by hand, he learnt that the drayman, having got bogged just beyond Bacchus’s marsh, had decamped to the Ovens, taking with him all he could cram into a spring-cart, and disposing of the remainder for what he could get. The agent in Melbourne refused to be held responsible for the loss, and threatened to prosecute, if payment for the goods were not immediately forthcoming. Mahony, who here heard the first of the affair, was highly indignant at the tone of the letter; and before he had read to the end resolved to let everything else slide, and to leave for Melbourne early next morning.
Ocock backed him up in this decision, and with the aid of a great quill pen stiffly traced the address of his eldest son, who practised as a solicitor in the capital.
“Go you straight to ‘Enry, doc. ‘Enry’ll see you through.”
Brushing aside his dreams of a peaceful Sabbath Mahony made preparations for his journey. Waking his assistant, he gave the man — a stupid clodhopper, but honest and attached — instructions how to manage during his absence, then sent him to the township to order horses. Himself, he put on his hat and went out to look for Purdy.
His search led him through all the drunken revelry of a Saturday night. And it was close on twelve before, having followed the trace from bowling-alley to Chinese cook-shop, from the “Adelphi” to Mother Flannigan’s and haunts still less reputable, he finally succeeded in catching his bird.
The two young men took to the road betimes: it still wanted some minutes to six on the new clock in the tower of Bath’s Hotel, when they threw their legs over their saddles and rode down the steep slope by the Camp Reserve. The hoofs of the horses pounded the plank bridge that spanned the Yarrowee, and striking loose stones, and smacking and sucking in the mud, made a rude clatter in the Sunday quiet.
Having followed for a few hundred yards the wide, rut-riddled thoroughfare of Main Street, the riders branched off to cross rising ground. They proceeded in single file and at a footpace, for the highway had been honeycombed and rendered unsafe; it also ascended steadily. Just before they entered the bush, which was alive with the rich, strong whistling of magpies, Purdy halted to look back and wave his hat in farewell. Mahony also half-turned in the saddle. There it lay — the scattered, yet congested, unlovely wood and canvas settlement that was Ballarat. At this distance, and from this height, it resembled nothing so much as a collection of child’s bricks, tossed out at random over the ground, the low, square huts and cabins that composed it being all of a shape and size. Some threads of smoke began to mount towards the immense pale dome of the sky. The sun was catching here the panes of a window, there the tin that encased a primitive chimney.
They rode on, leaving the warmth of the early sun-rays for the cold blue shadows of the bush. Neither broke the silence. Mahony’s day had not come to an end with the finding of Purdy. Barely stretched on his palliasse he had been routed out to attend to Long Jim, who had missed his footing and pitched into a shaft. The poor old tipsy idiot hauled up — luckily for him it was a dry, shallow hole — there was a broken collar-bone to set. Mahony had installed him in his own bed, and had spent the remainder of the night dozing in a chair.
So now he was heavy-eyed, uncommunicative. As they climbed the shoulder and came to the rich, black soil that surrounded the ancient cone of Warrenheip, he mused on his personal relation to the place he had just left. And not for the first time he asked himself: what am I doing here? When he was absent from Ballarat, and could dispassionately consider the life he led there, he was so struck by the incongruity of the thing that, like the beldame in the nursery-tale, he could have pinched himself to see whether he waked or slept. Had anyone told him, three years previously, that the day was coming when he would weigh out soap and sugar, and hand them over a counter in exchange for money, he would have held the prophet ripe for Bedlam. Yet here he was, a full-blown tradesman, and as greedy of gain as any tallow-chandler. Extraordinary, aye, and distressing, too, the ease with which the human organism adapted itself; it was just a case of the green caterpillar on the green leaf. Well, he could console himself with the knowledge that his apparent submission was only an affair of the surface. He had struck no roots; and it would mean as little to his half-dozen acquaintances on Ballarat when he silently vanished from their midst, as it would to him if he never saw one of them again. Or the country either — and he let his eye roam unlovingly over the wild, sad-coloured landscape, with its skimpy, sad-coloured trees.
Meanwhile they were advancing: their nags’ hoofs, beating in unison, devoured mile after mile of the road. It was a typical colonial road; it went up hill and down dale, turned aside for no obstacles. At one time it ran down a gully that was almost a ravine, to mount straight up the opposite side among boulders that reached to the belly-bands. At others, it led through a reedy swamp, or a stony watercourse; or it became a bog; or dived through a creek. Where the ground was flat and treeless, it was a rutty, well-worn track between two seas of pale, scant grass.
More than once, complaining of a mouth like sawdust, Purdy alighted and limped across the verandah of a house-of-accommodation; but they did not actually draw rein till, towards midday, they reached a knot of weatherboard verandahed stores, smithies and public-houses, arranged at the four Corners of two cross-roads. Here they made a substantial luncheon; and the odour of fried onions carried far and wide. Mahony paid his three shillings for a bottle of ale; but Purdy washed down the steak with cup after cup of richly sugared tea.
In the early afternoon they set off again, revived and refreshed. Purdy caught at a bunch of aromatic leaves and burst into a song; and Mahony. . . . Good God! With a cloudless sky overhead, a decent bit of horseflesh between his knees, and the prospect of a three days’ holiday from storekeeping, his name would not have been what it was if he had for long remained captious, downhearted. Insufficient sleep, and an empty stomach — nothing on earth besides! A fig for his black thoughts! The fact of his being obliged to spend a few years in the colony would, in the end, profit him, by widening his experience of the world and his fellow-men. It was possible to lead a sober, Godfearing life, no matter in what rude corner of the globe you were pitchforked. — And in this mood he was even willing to grant the landscape a certain charm. Since leaving Ballan the road had dipped up and down a succession of swelling rises, grass-grown and untimbered. From the top of these ridges the view was a far one: you looked straight across undulating waves of country and intervening forest-land, to where, on the horizon, a long, low sprawling range of hills lay blue — cobalt-blue, and painted in with a sure brush — against the porcelain-blue of the sky. What did the washed-out tints of the foliage matter, when, wherever you turned, you could count on getting these marvellous soft distances, on always finding a range of blue-veiled hills, lovely and intangible as a dream?
There was not much traffic to the diggings on a Sunday. And having come to a level bit of ground, the riders followed a joint impulse and broke into a canter. As they began to climb again they fell naturally into one of those familiar talks, full of allusion and reminiscence, that are only possible between two of a sex who have lived through part of their green days together.
It began by Purdy referring to the satisfactory fashion in which he had disposed of his tools, his stretcher-bed, and other effects: he was not travelling to Melbourne empty-handed.
Mahony rallied him. “You were always a good one at striking a bargain, my boy! What about: ‘Four mivvies for an alley!’— eh, Dickybird?”
This related to their earliest meeting, and was a standing joke between them. Mahony could recall the incident as clearly as though it had happened yesterday: how the sturdy little apple-cheeked English boy, with the comical English accent, had suddenly bobbed up at his side on the way home from school, and in that laughable sing-song of his, without modulation or emphasis, had offered to “swop” him, as above.
Purdy laughed and paid him back in kind. “Yes, and the funk you were in for fear Spiny Tatlow ‘ud see us, and peach to the rest!”
“Yes. What young idiots boys are!”
In thought he added: “And what snobs!” For the breach of convention — he was an upper-form boy at the time — had not been his sole reason for wishing to shake off his junior. Behind him, Mahony, when he reached home, closed the door of one of the largest houses in the most exclusive square in Dublin. Whereas Purdy lived in a small, common house in a side street. Visits there had to be paid surreptitiously.
All the same these were frequent — and for the best of reasons. Mahony could still see Purdy’s plump, red-cheeked English mother, who was as jolly and happy as her boy, hugging the loaf to her bosom while she cut round after round of bread and butter and jam, for two cormorant throats. And the elder boy, long-limbed and lank, all wrist and ankle, had invariably been the hungrier of the two; for, on the glossy damask of the big house, often not enough food was set to satisfy the growing appetites of himself and his sisters. —“Dickybird, can’t you see us, with our backs to the wall, in that little yard of yours, trying who could take the biggest bite? — or going round the outside: ‘Crust first, and though you burst, By the bones of Davy Jones!’ till only a little island of jam was left?”
Purdy laughed heartily at these and other incidents fished up by his friend from the well of the years; but he did not take part in the sport himself. He had not Mahony’s gift for recalling detail: to him past was past. He only became alive and eager when the talk turned, as it soon did, on his immediate prospects.
This time, to his astonishment, Mahony had had no trouble in persuading Purdy to quit the diggings. In addition, here was the boy now declaring openly that what he needed, and must have, was a fixed and steadily paying job. With this decision Mahony was in warm agreement, and promised all the help that lay in his power.
But Purdy was not done; he hummed and hawed and fidgeted; he took off his hat and looked inside it; he wiped his forehead and the nape of his neck.
Mahony knew the symptoms. “Come, Dickybird. Spit it out, my boy!”
“Yes . . . er. . . . Well, the fact is, Dick, I begin to think it’s time I settled down.”
Mahony gave a whistle. “Whew! A lady in the case?”
“That’s the chat. Just oblige yours truly by takin’ a squint at this, will you?”
He handed his friend a squarely-folded sheet of thinnest blue paper, with a large purple stamp in one corner, and a red seal on the back. Opening it Mahony discovered three crossed pages, written in a delicately pointed, minute, Italian hand.
He read the letter to the end, deliberately, and with a growing sense of relief: composition, expression and penmanship, all met with his approval. “This is the writing of a person of some refinement, my son.”
“Well, er . . . yes,” said Purdy. He seemed about to add a further word, then swallowed it, and went on: “Though, somehow or other, Till’s different to herself, on paper. But she’s the best of girls, Dick. Not one o’ your ethereal, die-away, bread-and-butter misses. There’s something OF Till there is, and she’s always on for a lark. I never met such girls for larks as her and ‘er sister. The very last time I was there, they took and hung up . . . me and some other fellers had been stoppin’ up a bit late the night before, and kickin’ up a bit of a shindy, and what did those girls do? They got the barman to come into my room while I was asleep, and hang a bucket o’ water to one of the beams over the bed. Then I’m blamed if they didn’t tie a string from it to my big toe! I gives a kick, down comes the bucket and half drowns me. — Gosh, how those girls did laugh!”
“H’m!” said Mahony dubiously; while Purdy in his turn chewed the cud of a pleasant memory. —“Well, I for my part should be glad to see you married and settled, with a good wife always beside you.”
“That’s just the rub,” said Purdy, and vigorously scratched his head.
“Till’s a first-class girl as a sweetheart and all that; but when I come to think of puttin’ my head in the noose, from now till doomsday — why then, somehow, I can’t bring myself to pop the question.”
“There’s going to be no trifling with the girl’s feelings, I hope, sir?”
“Bosh! But I say, Dick, I wish you’d turn your peepers on ‘er and tell me what you make of ‘er. She’s AI ‘erself, but she’s got a mother. . . . By Job, Dick, if I thought Tilly ‘ud ever get like that . . . and they’re exactly the same build, too.”
It would certainly be well for him to inspect Purdy’s flame, thought Mahony. Especially since the anecdote told did not bear out the good impression left by the letter — went far, indeed, to efface it. Still, he was loath to extend his absence by spending a night at Geelong, where, a, it came out, the lady lived; and he replied evasively that it must depend on the speed with which he could put through his business in Melbourne.
Purdy was silent for a time. Then, with a side-glance at his companion, he volunteered: “I say, Dick, I know some one who’d suit you.”
“The deuce you do!” said Mahony, and burst out laughing. “Miss Tilly’s sister, no doubt?”
“No, no — not her. Jinn’s all right, but she’s not your sort. But they’ve got a girl living with ’em — a sort o’ poor relation, or something — and she’s a horse of quite another colour. — I say, old man, serious now, have you never thought o’ gettin’ spliced?”
Again Mahony laughed. At his companion’s words there descended to him, once more, from some shadowy distance, some pure height, the rose-tinted vision of the wife-to-be which haunts every man’s youth. And, in ludicrous juxtaposition, he saw the women, the only women he had encountered since coming to the colony: the hardworking, careworn wives of diggers; the harridans, sluts and prostitutes who made up the balance.
He declined to be drawn. “Is it old Moll Flannigan or one of her darlints you’d be wishing me luck to, ye spalpeen?”
“Man, don’t I say I’ve FOUND the wife for you?” Purdy was not jesting, and did not join in the fresh salvo of laughter with which Mahony greeted his words. “Oh, blow it, Dick, you’re too fastidious — too damned particular! Say what you like, there’s good in all of ’em — even in old Mother Flannigan ‘erself — and ‘specially when she’s got a drop inside ‘er. Fuddle old Moll a bit, and she’d give you the very shift off her back. — Don’t I thank the Lord, that’s all, I’m not built like you! Why, the woman isn’t born I can’t get on with. All’s fish that comes to my net. — Oh, to be young, Dick, and to love the girls! To see their little waists, and their shoulders, and the dimples in their cheeks! See ’em put up their hands to their bonnets, and how their little feet peep out when the wind blows their petticoats against their legs!” and Purdy rose in his stirrups and stretched himself, in an excess of wellbeing.
“You young reprobate!”
“Bah! — you! You’ve got water in your veins.”
“Nothing of the sort! Set me among decent women and there’s no company I enjoy more,” declared Mahony.
“Fish-blood, fish-blood! — Dick, it’s my belief you were born old.”
Mahony was still young enough to be nettled by doubts cast on his vitality. Purdy laughed in his sleeve. Aloud he said: “Well, look here, old man, I’ll lay you a wager. I bet you you’re not game, when you see that tulip I’ve been tellin’ you about, to take her in your arms and kiss her. A fiver on it!”
“Done!” cried Mahony. “And I’ll have it in one note, if you please!”
“Bravo!” cried Purdy. “Bravo, Dick!” And having gained his end, and being on a good piece of road between post-and-rail fences, he set spurs to his horse and cantered off, singing as he went:
SHE WHEELS A WHEELBARROW, THROUGH STREETS WIDE AND NARROW, CRYING COCKLES, AND MUSSELS, ALIVE, ALIVE-OH!
But the sun was growing large in the western sky; on the ground to the left, their failing shadows slanted out lengthwise; those cast by the horses’ bodies were mounted on high spindle-legs. The two men ceased their trifling, and nudged by the fall of day began to ride at a more business-like pace, pushing forward through the deep basin of Bacchus’s marsh, and on for miles over wide, treeless plains, to where the road was joined by the main highway from the north, coming down from Mount Alexander and the Bendigo. Another hour, and from a gentle eminence the buildings of Melbourne were visible, the mastheads of the many vessels riding at anchor in Hobson’s Bay. Here, too, the briny scent of the sea, carrying up over grassy flats, met their nostrils, and set Mahony hungrily sniffing. The brief twilight came and went, and it was already night when they urged their weary beasts over the Moonee ponds, a winding chain of brackish waterholes. The horses shambled along the broad, hilly tracks of North Melbourne; warily picked their steps through the city itself. Dingy oil-lamps, set here and there at the corners of roads so broad that you could hardly see across them, shed but a meagre light, and the further the riders advanced, the more difficult became their passage: the streets, in process of laying, were heaped with stones and intersected by trenches. Finally, dismounting, they thrust their arms through their bridles, and laboriously covered the last half-mile of the journey on foot. Having lodged the horses at a livery-stable, they repaired to a hotel in Little Collins Street. Here Purdy knew the proprietor, and they were fortunate enough to secure a small room for the use of themselves alone.
Melbourne is built on two hills and the valley that lies between.
It was over a year since Mahony or Purdy had been last in the capital, and next morning, on stepping out of the “Adam and Eve,” they walked up the eastern slope to look about them. From the summit of the hill their view stretched to the waters of the Bay, and its forest of masts. The nearer foreground was made up of mud flats, through which a sluggish, coffee-coloured river wound its way to the sea. On the horizon to the north, the Dandenong Ranges rose storm-blue and distinct, and seemed momently to be drawing nearer; for a cold wind was blowing, which promised rain. The friends caught their glimpses of the landscape between dense clouds of white dust, which blotted everything out for minutes at a time, and filled eyes, nose, ears with a gritty powder.
Tiring of this they turned and descended Great Collins Street — a spacious thoroughfare that dipped into the hollow and rose again, and was so long that on its western height pedestrians looked no bigger than ants. In the heart of the city men were everywhere at work, laying gas and drain-pipes, macadamising, paving, kerbing: no longer would the old wives’ tale be credited of the infant drowned in the deeps of Swanston Street, or of the bullock which sank, inch by inch, before its owner’s eyes in the Elizabeth Street bog. Massive erections of freestone were going up alongside here a primitive, canvas-fronted dwelling, there one formed wholly of galvanised iron. Fashionable shops, two storeys high, stood next tiny, dilapidated weatherboards. In the roadway, handsome chaises, landaus, four-in-hands made room for bullock-teams, eight and ten strong; for tumbrils carrying water or refuse — or worse; for droves of cattle, mobs of wild colts bound for auction, flocks of sheep on their way to be boiled down for tallow. Stock-riders and bull-punchers rubbed shoulders with elegants in skirted coats and shepherd’s plaid trousers, who adroitly skipped heaps of stones and mortar, or crept along the narrow edging of kerb.
The visitors from up-country paused to listen to a brass band that played outside a horse-auction mart; to watch the shooting in a rifle-gallery. The many decently attired females they met also called for notice. Not a year ago, and no reputable woman walked abroad oftener than she could help: now, even at this hour, the streets were starred with them. Purdy, open-mouthed, his eyes a-dance, turned his head this way and that, pointed and exclaimed. But then HE had slept like a log, and felt in his own words “as fit as a fiddle.” Whereas Mahony had sat his horse the whole night through, had never ceased to balance himself in an imaginary saddle. And when at daybreak he had fallen into a deeper sleep, he was either reviewing outrageous females on Purdy’s behalf, or accepting wagers to kiss them.
Hence, diverting as were the sights of the city, he did not come to them with the naive receptivity of Purdy. It was, besides, hard to detach his thoughts from the disagreeable affair that had brought him to Melbourne. And as soon as banks and offices began to take down their shutters, he hurried off to his interview with the carrying-agent.
The latter’s place of business was behind Great Collins Street, in a lane reached by a turnpike. Found with some trouble, it proved to be a rude shanty wedged in between a Chinese laundry and a Chinese eating-house. The entrance was through a yard in which stood a collection of rabbit-hutches, while further back gaped a dirty closet. At the sound of their steps the man they sought emerged, and Mahony could not repress an exclamation of surprise. When, a little over a twelvemonth ago, he had first had dealings with him, this Bolliver had been an alert and respectable man of business. Now he was evidently on the downgrade; and the cause of the deterioration was advertised in his bloodshot eyeballs and veinous cheeks. Early as was the hour, he had already been indulging: his breath puffed sour. Mahony prepared to state the object of his visit in no uncertain terms. But his preliminaries were cut short by a volley of abuse. The man accused him point-blank of having been privy to the rascally drayman’s fraud and of having hoped, by lying low, to evade his liability. Mahony lost his temper, and vowed that he would have Bolliver up for defamation of character. To which the latter retorted that the first innings in a court of law would be his: he had already put the matter in the hands of his attorney. This was the last straw. Purdy had to intervene and get Mahony away. They left the agent shaking his fist after them and cursing the bloody day on which he’d ever been fool enough to do a deal with a bloody gentleman.
At the corner of the street the friends paused for a hasty conference. Mahony was for marching off to take the best legal advice the city had to offer. But Purdy disapproved. Why put himself to so much trouble, when he had old Ocock’s recommendation to his lawyer-son in his coat pocket? What, in the name of Leary-cum-Fitz, was the sense of making an enemy for life of the old man, his next-door neighbour, and a good customer to boot?
These counsels prevailed, and they turned their steps towards Chancery Lane, where was to be found every variety of legal practitioner from barrister to scrivener. Having matched the house-number and descried the words: “Mr. Henry Ocock, Conveyancer and Attorney, Commissioner of Affidavits,” painted black on two dusty windows, they climbed a wooden stair festooned with cobwebs, to a landing where an injunction to: “Push and Enter!” was, rudely inked on a sheet of paper and affixed to a door.
Obeying, they passed into a dingy little room, the entire furnishing of which consisted of a couple of deal tables, with a chair to each. These were occupied by a young man and a boy, neither of whom rose at their entrance. The lad was cutting notches in a stick and whistling tunefully; the clerk, a young fellow in the early twenties, who had a mop of flaming red hair and small-slit white-lashed eyes, looked at the strangers, but without lifting his head: his eyes performed the necessary motion.
Mahony desired to know if he had the pleasure of addressing Mr. Henry Ocock. In reply the red-head gave a noiseless laugh, which he immediately quenched by clapping his hand over his mouth, and shutting one eye at his junior said: “No — nor yet the Shar o’ Persia, nor Alphybetical Foster! — What can I do for you, governor?”
“You can have the goodness to inform Mr. Ocock that I wish to see him!” flashed back Mahony.
“Singin’ til-ril-i-tum-tum-dee-ay! — Now then, Mike, me child, toddle!”
With patent reluctance the boy ceased his whittling, and dawdled across the room to an inner door through which he vanished, having first let his knuckles bump, as if by chance, against the wood of the panel. A second later he reappeared. “Boss’s engaged.” But Mahony surprised a lightning sign between the pair.
“No, sir, I decline to state my business to anyone but Mr. Ocock himself!” he declared hotly, in response to the red-haired man’s invitation to “get it off his chest.” “If you choose to find out when he will be at liberty, I will wait so long — no longer.”
As the office-boy had somehow failed to hit his seat on his passage to the outer door, there was nothing left for the clerk to do but himself to undertake the errand. He lounged up from his chair, and, in his case without even the semblance of a knock, squeezed through a foot wide aperture, in such a fashion that the two strangers should not catch a glimpse of what was going on inside. But his voice came to them through the thin partition. “Oh, just a couple o’ stony-broke Paddylanders.” Mahony, who had seized the opportunity to dart an angry glance at Purdy, which should say: “This is what one gets by coming to your second-rate pettifoggers!” now let his eyes rest on his friend and critically detailed the latter’s appearance. The description fitted to a nicety. Purdy did in truth look down on his luck. Unkempt, bearded to the eyes, there he stood clutching his shapeless old cabbage-tree, in mud-stained jumper and threadbare smalls — the very spit of the unsuccessful digger. Well might they be suspected of not owning the necessary to pay their way!
“All serene, mister! The boss’ull take you on.”
The sanctum was a trifle larger than the outer room, but almost equally bare; half-a-dozen deed-boxes were piled up in one corner. Stalking in with his chin in the air, Mahony found himself in the presence of a man of his own age, who sat absorbed in the study of a document. At their entry two beady grey eyes lifted to take a brief but thorough survey, and a hand with a pencil in it pointed to the single empty chair. Mahony declined to translate the gesture and remained standing.
Under the best of circumstances it irked him to be kept waiting. Here, following on the clerk’s saucy familiarity, the wilful delay made his gorge rise. For a few seconds he fumed in silence; then, his patience exhausted, he burst out: “My time, sir, is as precious as your own. With your permission, I will take my business elsewhere.”
At these words, and at the tone in which they were spoken, the lawyer’s head shot up as if he had received a blow under the chin. Again he narrowed his eyes at the couple. And this time he laid the document from him and asked suavely: “What can I do for you?”
The change in his manner though slight was unmistakable. Mahony had a nice ear for such refinements, and responded to the shade of difference with the promptness of one who had been on the watch for it. His irritation fell; he was ready on the instant to be propitiated. Putting his hat aside he sat down, and having introduced himself, made reference to Ballarat and his acquaintance with the lawyer’s father: “Who directed me to you, sir, for advice on a vexatious affair, in which I have had the misfortune to become involved.”
With a “Pray be seated!” Ocock rose and cleared a chair for Purdy. Resuming his seat he joined his hands, and wound them in and out. “I think you may take it from me that no case is so unpromising but what we shall be able to find a loophole.”
Mahony thanked him — with a touch of reserve. “I trust you will still be of that opinion when you have heard the facts.” And went on: “Myself, I do not doubt it. I am not a rich man, but serious though the monetary loss would be to me, I should settle the matter out of court, were I not positive that I had right on my side.” To which Ocock returned a quick: “Oh, quite so . . . of course.”
Like his old father, he was a short, heavily built man; but there the likeness ended. He had a high, domed forehead, above a thin, hooked nose. His skin was of an almost Jewish pallor. Fringes of straight, jet-black hair grew down the walls of his cheeks and round his chin, meeting beneath it. The shaven upper lid was long and flat, with no central markings, and helped to form a mouth that had not much more shape or expression than a slit cut by a knife in a sheet of paper. The chin was bare to the size of a crown-piece; and, both while he spoke and while he listened to others speaking, the lawyer caressed this patch with his finger-tips; so that in the course of time it had arrived at a state of high polish — like the shell of an egg.
The air with which he heard his new client out was of a non-committal kind; and Mahony, having talked his first heat off, grew chilled by the wet blanket of Ocock’s silence. There was nothing in this of the frank responsiveness with which your ordinary mortal lends his ear. The brain behind the dome was, one might be sure, adding, combining, comparing, and drawing its own conclusions. Why should lawyers, he wondered, treat those who came to them like children, advancing only in so far as it suited them out of the darkness where they housed among strangely worded paragraphs and obscure formulas? — But these musings were cut short. Having fondled his chin for a further moment, Ocock looked up and put a question. And, while he could not but admire the lawyer’s acumen, this did not lessen Mahony’s discomfort. All unguided, it went straight for what he believed to be the one weak spot in his armour. It related to the drayman. Contrary to custom Mahony had, on this occasion, himself recommended the driver. And, as he admitted it, his ears rang again with the plaints of his stranded fellow-countryman, a wheedler from the South Country, off whose tongue the familiar brogue had dripped like honey. His recommendation, he explained, had been made out of charity; he had not forced the agent to engage the man; and it would surely be a gross injustice if he alone were to be held responsible.
To his relief Ocock did not seem to attach importance to the fact, but went on to ask whether any written agreement had existed between the parties. “No writing? H’m! So . . . so!” To read his thoughts was an impossibility; but as he proceeded with his catechism it was easy to see how his interest in the case grew. He began to treat it tenderly; warmed to it, as an artist to his work; and Mahony’s spirits rose in consequence.
Having selected a number of minor points that would tell in their favour, Ocock dilated upon the libellous aspersion that had been cast on Mahony’s good faith. “My experience has invariably been this, Mr. Mahony: people who suggest that kind of thing, and accuse others of it, are those who are accustomed to make use of such means themselves. In this case, there may have been no goods at all — the thing may prove to have been a put-up job from beginning to end.”
But his hearer’s start of surprise was too marked to be overlooked. “Well, let us take the existence of the goods for granted. But might they not, being partly of a perishable nature, have gone bad or otherwise got spoiled on the road, and not have been in a fit condition for you to receive at your end?”
This was credible; Mahony nodded his assent. He also added, gratuitously, that he had before now been obliged to reclaim on casks of mouldy mess-pork. At which Ocock ceased coddling his chin to point a straight forefinger at him, with a triumphant: “You see!”— But Purdy who, sick and tired of the discussion, had withdrawn to the window to watch the rain zig-zag in runlets down the dusty panes, and hiss and spatter on the sill; Purdy puckered his lips to a sly and soundless whistle.
The interview at an end, Ocock mentioned, in his frigidly urbane way, that he had recently been informed there was an excellent opening for a firm of solicitors in Ballarat: could Mr. Mahony, as a resident, confirm the report? Mahony regretted his ignorance, but spoke in praise of the Golden City and its assured future. —“This would be most welcome news to your father, sir. I can picture his satisfaction on hearing it.”
—“Golly, Dick, that’s no mopoke!” was Purdy’s comment as they emerged into the rain-swept street. “A crafty devil, if ever I see’d one.”
“Henry Ocock seems to me to be a singularly able man,” replied Mahony drily. To his thinking, Purdy had cut a poor figure during the visit: he had said no intelligent word, but had lounged lumpishly in his chair — the very picture of the country man come up to the metropolis — and, growing tired of this, had gone like a restless child to thrum his fingers on the panes.
“Oh, you bet! He’ll slither you through.”
“What? Do you insinuate there’s any need for slithering . . as you call it?” cried Mahony.
“Why, Dick, old man. . . . And as long as he gets you through, what does it matter?”
“It matters to me, sir!”
The rain, a tropical deluge, was over by the time they reached the hollow. The sun shone again, hot and sticky, and people were venturing forth from their shelters to wade through beds of mud, or to cross, on planks, the deep, swift rivers formed by the open drains. There were several such cloud-bursts in the course of the afternoon; and each time the refuse of the city was whirled past on the flood, to be left as an edging to the footpaths when the water went down.
Mahony spent the rest of the day in getting together a fresh load of goods. For, whether he lost or won his suit, the store had to be restocked without delay.
That evening towards eight o’clock the two men turned out of the Lowther Arcade. The night was cold, dark and wet; and they had wound comforters round their bare throats. They were on their way to the Mechanics’ Hall, to hear a lecture on Mesmerism. Mahony had looked forward to this all through the sorry job of choosing soaps and candles. The subject piqued his curiosity. It was the one drop of mental stimulant he could hope to extract from his visit. The theatre was out of the question: if none of the actors happened to be drunk, a fair proportion of the audience was sure to be.
Part of his pleasure this evening was due to Purdy having agreed to accompany him. It was always a matter of regret to Mahony that, outside the hobnob of daily life, he and his friend had so few interests in common; that Purdy should rest content with the coarse diversions of the ordinary digger.
Then, from the black shadows of the Arcade, a woman’s form detached itself, and a hand was laid on Purdy’s arm.
“Shout us a drink, old pal!”
Mahony made a quick, repellent movement of the shoulder. But Purdy, some vagrom fancy quickened in him, either by the voice, which was not unrefined, or by the stealthiness of the approach, Purdy turned to look.
“Come, come, my boy. We’ve no time to lose.”
Without raising her pleasant voice, the woman levelled a volley of abuse at Mahony, then muttered a word in Purdy’s ear.
“Just half a jiff, Dick,” said Purdy. “Or go ahead. — I’ll make up on you.”
For a quarter of an hour Mahony aired his heels in front of a public-house. Then he gave it up, and went on his way. But his pleasure was damped: the inconsiderateness with which Purdy could shake him off, always had a disconcerting effect on him. To face the matter squarely: the friendship between them did not mean as much to Purdy as to him; the sudden impulse that had made the boy relinquish a promising clerkship to emigrate in his wake — into this he had read more than it would hold. — And, as he picked his muddy steps, Mahony agreed with himself that the net result, for him, of Purdy’s coming to the colony, had been to saddle him with a new responsibility. It was his lot for ever to be helping the lad out of tight places. Sometimes it made him feel unnecessarily bearish. For Purdy had the knack, common to sunny, improvident natures, of taking everything that was done for him for granted. His want of delicacy in this respect was distressing. Yet, in spite of it all, it was hard to bear him a grudge for long together. A well-meaning young beggar if ever there was one! That very day how faithfully he had stuck at his side, assisting at dull discussions and duller purchasings, without once obtruding his own concerns. — And here Mahony remembered their talk on the ride to town. Purdy had expressed the wish to settle down and take a wife. A poor friend that would be who did not back him up in this intention.
As he sidled into one of the front benches of a half-empty hall — the mesmerist, a corpse-like man in black, already surveyed its thinness from the platform with an air of pained surprise — Mahony decided that Purdy should have his chance. The heavy rains of the day, and the consequent probable flooding of the Ponds and the Marsh, would serve as an excuse for a change of route. He would go and have a look at Purdy’s sweetheart; would ride back to the diggings by way of Geelong.
In a whitewashed parlour of “Beamish’s Family Hotel” some few miles north of Geelong, three young women, in voluminous skirts and with their hair looped low over their ears, sat at work. Books lay open on the table before two of them; the third was making a bookmark. Two were fair, plump, rosy, and well over twenty; the third, pale-skinned and dark, was still a very young girl. She it was who stitched magenta hieroglyphics on a strip of perforated cardboard.
“Do lemme see, Poll,” said the eldest of the trio, and laid down her pen. “You ‘AVE bin quick about it, my dear.”
Polly, the brunette, freed her needle of silk and twirled the bookmark by its ribbon ends. Spinning, the mystic characters united to form the words: “Kiss me quick.”
Her companions tittered. “If ma didn’t know for certain ’twas meant for your brother John, she’d never ‘ave let you make it,” said the second blonde, whose name was Jinny.
“Girls, what a lark it ‘ud be to send it up to Purdy Smith, by Ned!” said the first speaker.
Polly blushed. “Fy, Tilly! That wouldn’t be ladylike.”
Tilly’s big bosom rose and fell in a sigh. “What’s a lark never is.”
Jinny giggled, agreeably scandalized: “What things you do say. Till! Don’t let ma ‘ear you, that’s all.”
“Ma be blowed! —‘Ow does this look now, Polly?” And across the wax-cloth Tilly pushed a copybook, in which she had laboriously inscribed a prim maxim the requisite number of times.
Polly laid down her work and knitted her brows over the page.
“Well . . . it’s better than the last one, Tilly,” she said gently, averse to hurting her pupil’s feelings. “But still not quite good enough. The f’s, look, should be more like this.” And taking a steel pen she made several long-tailed f’s, in a tiny, pointed hand.
Tilly yielded an ungrudging admiration. “‘Ow well you do it, Poll! But I HATE writing. If only ma weren’t so set on it!”
“You’ll never be able to write yourself to a certain person, ‘oos name I won’t mention, if you don’t ‘urry up and learn,” said Jinny, looking sage.
“What’s the odds! We’ve always got Poll to write for us,” gave back Tilly, and lazily stretched out a large, plump hand to recover the copybook. “A certain person’ll never know — or not till it’s too late.”
“Here, Polly dear,” said Jinny, and held out a book. “I know it now.”
Again Polly put down her embroidery. She took the book. “Plough!” said she.
“Plough?” echoed Jinny vaguely, and turned a pair of soft, cow-like brown eyes on the blowflies sitting sticky and sleepy round the walls of the room. “Wait a jiff . . . lemme think! Plough? Oh, yes, I know. P-l . . . .”
“P-l-o” prompted Polly, the speller coming to a full stop.
“ P-l-o-w!” shot out Jinny, in triumph.
“Not QUITE right,” said Polly. “It’s g-h, Jinny: p-l-o-u-g-h.”
“Oh, that’s what I meant. I knew it right enough.”
“Well, now, trough!”
“Trough?” repeated Jinny, in the same slow, vacant way.
“Trough? Wait, lemme think a minute. T-r-o . . . .”
Polly’s lips all but formed the “u,” to prevent the “f” she felt impending. “I’m afraid you’ll have to take it again, Jinny dear,” she said reluctantly, as nothing further was forthcoming.
“Oh, no, Poll. T-r-o-” began Jinny with fresh vigour. But before she could add a fourth to the three letters, a heavy foot pounded down the passage, and a stout woman, out of breath, her cap-bands flying, came bustling in and slammed the door.
“Girls, girls, now whatever d’ye think? ‘Ere’s Purdy Smith come ridin’ inter the yard, an’ another gent with ’im. Scuttle along now, an’ put them books away! — Tilda, yer net’s ‘alf ‘angin’ off — you don’t want yer sweet-’eart to see you all untidy like that, do you? —‘Elp ’em, Polly my dear, and be quick about it! — H’out with yer sewin’, chicks!”
Sprung up from their seats the three girls darted to and fro. The telltale spelling and copy-books were flung into the drawer of the chiffonier, and the key was turned on them. Polly, her immodest sampler safely hidden at the bottom of her workbox, was the most composed of the three; and while locks were smoothed and collars adjusted in the adjoining bedroom, she remained behind to look out thimbles, needles and strips of plain sewing, and to lay them naturally about the table.
The blonde sisters reappeared, all aglow with excitement. Tilly, in particular, was in a sad flutter.
“Girls, I simply CAN’T face ’im in ’ere!” she declared. “It was ’ere, in this very room, that ‘e first — you know what!”
“Nor can I,” cried Jinny, catching the fever.
“Feel my ’eart, ‘ow it beats,” said her sister, pressing her hands, one over the other, to her full left breast.
“Mine’s every bit as bad,” averred Jinny.
“I believe I shall ‘ave the palpitations and faint away, if I stop ’ere.”
Polly was genuinely concerned. “I’ll run and call mother back.”
“No, I tell you what: let’s ‘ide!” cried Tilly, recovering.
Jinny wavered. “But will they find us?”
“Duffer! Of course. Ma’ll give ’em the ‘int. — Come on!”
Suiting the action to the word, and imitated by her sister, she scrambled over the window sill to the verandah. Polly found herself alone. Her conscientious scrupling: “But mother may be cross!” had passed unheeded. Now, she, too, fell into a flurry. She could not remain there, by herself, to meet two young men, one of whom was a stranger: steps and voices were already audible at the end of the passage. And so, since there was nothing else for it, she clambered after her friends — though with difficulty; for she was not very tall.
This was why, when Mrs. Beamish flourished open the door, exclaiming in a hearty tone: “An’ ’ere you’ll find ’em, gents — sittin’ at their needles, busy as bees!” the most conspicuous object in the room was a very neat leg, clad in a white stocking and black prunella boot, which was just being drawn up over the sill. It flashed from sight; and the patter of running feet beat the floor of the verandah.
“Ha, ha, too late! The birds have flown,” laughed Purdy, and smacked his thigh.
“Well, I declare, an’ so they ‘ave — the NAUGHTY creatures!” exclaimed Mrs. Beamish in mock dismay. “But trust you, Mr. Smith, for sayin’ the right thing. Jus’ exackly like birds they are — so shy an’ scared-like. But I’ll give you the ‘int, gents. They’ll not be far away. Jus’ you show ’em two can play at that game. — Mr. S., you know the h’arbour!”
“Should say I do! Many’s the time I’ve anchored there,” cried Purdy with a guffaw. “Come, Dick!” And crossing to the window he straddled over the frame, and disappeared.
Reluctantly Mahony followed him.
From the verandah they went down into the vegetable-garden, where the drab and tangled growths that had outlived the summer were beaten flat by the recent rains. At the foot of the garden, behind a clump of gooseberry-bushes, stood an arbour formed of a yellow buddleia. No trace of a petticoat was visible, so thick was the leafage; but a loud whispering and tittering betrayed the fugitives.
At the apparition of the young men, who stooped to the low entrance, there was a cascade of shrieks.
“Oh, lor, ‘OW you frightened me! ‘Owever did you know we were ’ere?”
“You wicked fellow! Get away, will you! I ‘ate the very sight of you!”— this from Tilly, as Purdy, his hands on her hips, gave her a smacking kiss.
The other girls feared a like greeting; there were more squeaks and squeals, and some ineffectual dives for the doorway. Purdy spread out his arms. “Hi, look out, stop ’em, Dick! Now then, man, here’s your chance!”
Mahony stood blinking; it was dusk inside, after the dazzle of the sun. At this reminder of the foolish bet he had taken, he hurriedly seized the young woman who was next him, and embraced her. It chanced to be Jinny. She screamed, and made a feint of feeling mortally outraged. Mahony had to dodge a box on the ears.
But Purdy burst into a horselaugh, and held his sides. Without knowing why, Tilly joined in, and Jinny, too, was infected. When Purdy could speak, he blurted out: “Dick, you fathead! — you jackass! — you’ve mugged the wrong one.”
At this clownish mirth, Mahony felt the blood boil up over ears and temples. For an instant he stood irresolute. Did he admit the blunder, his victim would be hurt. Did he deny it, he would save his own face at the expense of the other young woman’s feelings. So, though he could have throttled Purdy he put a bold front on the matter.
“CARPE DIEM is my motto, my boy! I intend to make both young ladies pay toll.”
His words were the signal for a fresh scream and flutter: the third young person had escaped, and was flying down the path. This called for chase and capture. She was not very agile but she knew the ground, which, outside the garden, was rocky and uneven. For a time, she had Mahony at vantage; his heart was not in the game: in cutting undignified capers among the gooseberry-bushes he felt as foolish as a performing dog. Then, however, she caught her toe in her dress and stumbled. He could not disregard the opportunity; he advanced upon her.
But two beseeching hands fended him off. “No . . . no. Please . . . oh, PLEASE, don’t!”
This was no catchpenny coquetry; it was a genuine dread of undue familiarity. A kindred trait in Mahony’s own nature rose to meet it.
“Certainly not, if it is disagreeable to you. Shall we shake hands instead?”
Two of the blackest eyes he had ever seen were raised to his, and a flushed face dimpled. They shook hands, and he offered his arm.
Halfway to the arbour, they met the others coming to find them. The girls bore diminutive parasols; and Purdy, in rollicking spirits, Tilly on one arm, Jinny on the other, held Polly’s above his head. On the appearance of the laggards, Jinny, who had put her own interpretation on the misplaced kiss, prepared to free her arm; but Purdy, winking at his friend, squeezed it to his side and held her prisoner.
Tilly buzzed a word in his ear.
“Yes, by thunder!” he ejaculated; and letting go of his companions, he spun round like a ballet-dancer. “Ladies! Let me introduce to you my friend, Dr. Richard Townshend-Mahony, F.R.C.S., M.D., Edinburgh, at present proprietor of the ‘Diggers’ Emporium,’ Dead Dog Hill, Ballarat. — Dick, my hearty, Miss Tilly Beamish, world-famed for her sauce; Miss Jinny, renowned for her skill in casting the eyes of sheep; and, last but not least, pretty little Polly Perkins, alias Miss Polly Turnham, whose good deeds put those of Dorcas to the blush.”
The Misses Beamish went into fits of laughter, and Tilly hit Purdy over the back with her parasol.
But the string of letters had puzzled them, roused their curiosity.
“ What’n earth do they mean? — Gracious! So clever! It makes me feel quite queer.”
“Y’ought to ‘ave told us before ‘and, Purd, so’s we could ‘ave studied up.”
However, a walk to a cave was under discussion, and Purdy urged them on. “Phoebus is on the wane, girls. And it’s going to be damn cold to-night.”
Once more with the young person called Polly as companion, Mahony followed after. He walked in silence, listening to the rattle of the three in front. At best he was but a poor hand at the kind of repartee demanded of their swains by these young women; and to-day his slender talent failed him altogether, crushed by the general tone of vulgar levity. Looking over at the horizon, which swam in a kind of gold-dust haze below the sinking sun, he smiled thinly to himself at Purdy’s ideas of wiving.
Reminded he was not alone by feeling the hand on his arm tremble, he glanced down at his companion; and his eye was arrested by a neatly parted head, of the glossiest black imaginable.
He pulled himself together. “Your cousins are excellent walkers.”
“Oh, yes, very. But they are not my cousins.”
Mahony pricked up his ears. “But you live here?”
“Yes. I help moth . . . Mrs. Beamish in the house.”
But as if, with this, she had said too much, she grew tongue-tied again; and there was nothing more to be made of her. Taking pity on her timidity, Mahony tried to put her at ease by talking about himself. He described his life on the diggings and the straits to which he was at times reduced: the buttons affixed to his clothing by means of gingerbeer-bottle wire; his periodic onslaughts on sock-darning; the celebrated pudding it had taken him over four hours to make. And Polly, listening to him, forgot her desire to run away. Instead, she could not help laughing at the tales of his masculine shiftlessness. But as soon as they came in view of the others, Tilly and Purdy sitting under one parasol on a rock by the cave, Jinny standing and looking out rather aggressively after the loiterers, she withdrew her arm.
“Moth . . . Mrs. Beamish will need me to help her with tea. And . . . and WOULD you please walk back with Jinny?”
Before he could reply, she had turned and was hurrying away.
They got home from the cave at sundown, he with the ripe Jinny hanging a dead weight on his arm, to find tea spread in the private parlour. The table was all but invisible under its load; and their hostess looked as though she had been parboiled on her own kitchen fire. She sat and fanned herself with a sheet of newspaper while, time and again, undaunted by refusals, she pressed the good things upon her guests. There were juicy beefsteaks piled high with rings of onion, and a barracoota, and a cold leg of mutton. There were apple-pies and jam-tarts, a dish of curds-and-whey and a jug of custard. Butter and bread were fresh and new; scones and cakes had just left the oven; and the great cups of tea were tempered by pure, thick cream.
To the two men who came from diggers’ fare: cold chop for breakfast, cold chop for dinner and cold chop for tea: the meal was little short of a banquet; and few words were spoken in its course. But the moment arrived when they could eat no more, and when even Mrs. Beamish ceased to urge them. Pipes and pouches were produced; Polly and Jinny rose to collect the plates, Tilly and her beau to sit on the edge of the verandah: they could be seen in silhouette against the rising moon, Tilly’s head drooping to Purdy’s shoulder.
Mrs. Beamish looked from them to Mahony with a knowing smile, and whispered behind her hand: “I do wish those two ‘ud ‘urry up an’ make up their minds, that I do! I’d like to see my Tilda settled. No offence meant to young Smith. ‘E’s the best o’ good company. But sometimes . . . well, I cud jus’ knock their ‘eads together when they sit so close, an’ say: come, give over yer spoonin’ an’ get to business! Either you want one another or you don’t. — I seen you watchin’ our Polly, Mr. Mahony” — she made Mahony wince by stressing the second syllable of his name. “Bless you, no — no relation whatsoever. She just ‘elps a bit in the ’ouse, an’ is company for the girls. We tuck ‘er in a year ago —‘er own relations ‘ad played ‘er a dirty trick. Mustn’t let ‘er catch me sayin’ so, though; she won’t ‘ear a word against ’em, and that’s as it should be.”
Looking round, and finding Polly absent from the room, she went on to tell Mahony how Polly’s eldest brother, a ten years’ resident in Melbourne, had sent to England for the girl on her leaving school, to come out and assist in keeping his house. And how an elder sister, who was governessing in Sydney, had chosen just this moment to throw up her post and return to quarter herself upon the brother.
“An’ so when Polly gets ’ere — a little bit of a thing in short frocks, in charge of the capt’n — there was no room for ‘er, an’ she ‘ad to look about ‘er for somethin’ else to do. We tuck ‘er in, an’, I will say, I’ve never regretted it. Indeed I don’t know now, ‘ow we ever got on without ‘er. — Yes, it’s you I’m talkin’ about, miss, singin’ yer praises, an’ you needn’t get as red as if you’d bin up to mischief! Pa’ll say as much for you, too.”
“That I will!” said Mr. Beamish, opening his mouth for the first time except to put food in it. “That I will,” and he patted Polly’s hand.” The man as gits Polly’ll git a treasure.”
Polly blushed, after the helpless, touching fashion of very young creatures: the blood stained her cheeks, mounted to her forehead, spread in a warm wave over neck and ears. To spare her, Mahony turned his head and looked out of the window. He would have liked to say: Run away, child, run away, and don’t let them see your confusion. Polly, however, went conscientiously about her task, and only left the room when she had picked up her full complement of plates. — But she did not appear again that night.
Deserted even by Mrs. Beamish, the two men pushed back their chairs from the table and drew tranquilly at their pipes.
The innkeeper proved an odd, misty sort of fellow, exceedingly backward at declaring himself; it was as though each of his heavy words had to be fetched from a distance. “No doubt about it, it’s the wife that wears the breeches,” was Mahony’s inward comment. And as one after another of his well-meant remarks fell flat: “Become almost a deaf-mute, it would seem, under the eternal female clacking.”
But for each mortal there exists at least one theme to fire him. In the case of Beamish this turned out to be the Land Question. Before the gold discovery he had been a bush shepherd, he told Mahony, and, if he had called the tune, he would have lived and died one. But the wife had had ambitions, the children were growing up, and every one knew what it was when women got a maggot in their heads. There had been no peace for him till he had chucked his twelve-year-old job and joined the rush to Mount Alexander. But at heart he had remained a bushman; and he was now all on the side of the squatters in their tussle with the Crown. He knew a bit, he’d make bold to say, about the acreage needed in certain districts per head of sheep; he could tell a tale of the risks and mischances squatting involved: “If t’aint fire it’s flood, an’ if the water passes you by it’s the scab or the rot.” To his thinking, the government’s attempt to restrict the areas of sheep-runs, and to give effect to the “fourteen-year-clause” which limited the tenure, were acts of folly. The gold supply would give out as suddenly as it had begun; but sheep would graze there till the crack of doom — the land was fit for nothing else.
Mahony thought this point of view lopsided. No new country could hope to develop and prosper without a steady influx of the right kind of population and this the colony would never have, so long as the authorities, by refusing to sell them land, made it impossible for immigrants to settle there. Why, America was but three thousand miles distant from the old country, compared with Australia’s thirteen thousand, and in America land was to be had in plenty at five shillings per acre. As to Mr. Beamish’s idea of the gold giving out, the geological formation of the goldfields rendered that improbable. He sympathised with the squatters, who naturally enough believed their rights to the land inalienable; but a government worthy of the name must legislate with an eye to the future, not for the present alone.
Their talk was broken by long gaps. In these, the resonant voice of Mrs. Beamish could be heard rebuking and directing her two handmaidens.
“Now then, Jinny, look alive, an’ don’t ack like a dyin’ duck in a thunderstorm, or you’ll never get back to do YOUR bit o’ spoonin’! — Save them bones, Polly. Never waste an atom, my chuck — remember that, when you’ve got an ’ouse of your own! No, girls, I always says, through their stomachs, that’s the shortcut to their ‘earts. The rest’s on’y fal-de-lal-ing.”— On the verandah, in face of the vasty, star-spangled night, Tilly’s head had found its resting-place, and an arm lay round her waist.
“I shall make ’im cut off ‘is beard first thing,” said Jinny that night: she was sitting half-undressed on the side of a big bed, which the three girls shared with one another.
“Um! just you wait and see if it’s as easy as you think,” retorted Tilly from her pillow. Again Purdy had let slip a golden chance to put the decisive question; and Tilly’s temper was short in consequence.
“Mrs. Dr. Mahony . . . though I do wonder ‘ow ‘e ever keeps people from saying Ma-HON-y,” said Jinny dreamily. She, too, had spent some time in star-gazing, and believed she had ground for hope.
“Just listen to ‘er, will you!” said Tilly angrily.” Upon my word, Jinny Beamish, if one didn’t know you ‘ad the ‘abit of marrying yourself off to every fresh cove you meet, one ‘ud say you was downright bold!”
“YOU needn’t talk! Every one can see you’re as mad as can be because you can’t bring your old dot-and-go-one to the scratch.”
“Oh, hush, Jinny” said Polly, grieved at this thrust into Tilly’s open wound.
“Well, it’s true. — Oh, look ’ere now, there’s not a drop o’ water in this blessed jug again. ‘Oo’s week is it to fill it? Tilly B., it’s yours!”
“Serves you right. You can fetch it yourself.”
“Think I see myself!”
Polly intervened. “I’ll go for it, Jinny.”
“What a little duck you are, Poll! But you shan’t go alone. I’ll carry the candle.”
Tying on a petticoat over her bedgown, Polly took the ewer, and with Jinny as torch-bearer set forth. There was still some noise in the public part of the house, beside the bar; but the passage was bare and quiet. The girls crept mousily past the room occupied by the two young men, and after several false alarms and suppressed chirps reached the back door, and filled the jug at the tap of the galvanised-iron tank.
The return journey was not so successful. Just as they got level with the visitors’ room, they heard feet crossing the floor. Polly started; the water splashed over the neck of the jug, and fell with a loud plop. At this Jinny lost her head and ran off with the candle. Polly, in a panic of fright, dived into the pantry with her burden, and crouched down behind a tub of fermenting gingerbeer. — And sure enough, a minute after, the door of the room opposite was flung open and a pair of jackboots landed in the passage.
Nor was this the worst: the door was not shut again but remained ajar. Through the chink, Polly, shrunk to her smallest — what if one of them should feel hungry, and come into the pantry and discover her? — Polly heard Purdy say with appalling loudness: “Oh, go on, old man-don’t jaw so!” He then seemed to plunge his head in the basin, for it was with a choke and a splutter that he next inquired: “And what did you think of the little ’un? Wasn’t I right?”
There was the chink of coins handled, and the other voice answered: “Here’s what I think. Take your money, my boy, and be done with it!”
“Dick! — Great Snakes! Why, damn it all, man, you don’t mean to tell me . . . .”
“And understand, sir, in future, that I do not make bets where a lady is concerned.”
“Oh, I know — only on the Tilly-Jinny-sort. And yet good Lord, Dick!”— the rest was drowned in a bawl of laughter.
Under cover of it Polly took to her heels and fled, regardless of the open door, or the padding of her bare feet on the boards.
Without replying to the astonished Jinny’s query in respect of the water, she climbed over Tilly to her place beside the wall, and shutting her eyes very tight, drew the sheet over her face: it felt as though it would never be cool again. — Hence, Jinny, agreeably wakeful, was forced to keep her thoughts to herself; for if you lie between two people, one of whom is in a bad temper, and the other fast asleep, you might just as well be alone in bed.
Next morning Polly alleged a headache and did not appear at breakfast. Only Jinny and Tilly stood on the verandah of romantic memories, and ruefully waved their handkerchiefs, keeping it up till even the forms of horses were blurred in the distance.
His tent-home had never seemed so comfortless. He ended his solitary ride late at night and wet to the skin; his horse had cast a shoe far from any smithy. Long Jim alone came to the door to greet him. The shopman, on whose doltish honesty Mahony would have staked his head, had profited by his absence to empty the cash-box and go off on the spree. — Even one of the cats had met its fate in an old shaft, where its corpse still swam.
The following day, as a result of exposure and hard riding, Mahony was attacked by dysentery; and before he had recovered, the goods arrived from Melbourne. They had to be unloaded, at some distance from the store, conveyed there, got under cover, checked off and arranged. This was carried out in sheets of cold rain, which soaked the canvas walls and made it doubly hard to get about the clay tracks that served as streets. As if this were not enough, the river in front of the house rose — rose, and in two twos was over its banks — and he and Long Jim spent a night in their clothes, helping neighbours less fortunately placed to move their belongings into safety.
The lion’s share of this work fell on him. Long Jim still carried his arm in a sling, and was good for nothing but to guard the store and summon Mahony on the appearance of customers. Since his accident, too, the fellow had suffered from frequent fits of colic or cramp, and was for ever slipping off to the township to find the spirits in which his employer refused to deal. For the unloading and warehousing of the goods, it was true, old Ocock had loaned his sons; but the strict watch Mahony felt bound to keep over this pretty pair far outweighed what their help was worth to him.
Now it was Sunday evening, and for the first time for more than a week he could call his soul his own again. He stood at the door and watched those of his neighbours who were not Roman Catholics making for church and chapel, to which half a dozen tinkly bells invited them. The weather had finally cleared up, and a goodly number of people waded past him through the mire. Among them, in seemly Sabbath dress, went Ocock, with his two black sheep at heel. The old man was a rigid Methodist, and at a recent prayer-meeting had been moved to bear public witness to his salvation. This was no doubt one reason why the young scapegrace Tom’s almost simultaneous misconduct had been so bitter a pill for him to swallow: while, through God’s mercy, he was become an exemplar to the weaker brethren, a son of his made his name to stink in the nostrils of the reputable community. Mahony liked to believe that there was good in everybody, and thought the intolerant harshness which the boy was subjected would defeat its end. Yet it was open to question if clemency would have answered better. “Bad eggs, the brace of them!” had been his own verdict, after a week’s trial of the lads. One would not, the other apparently could not work. Johnny, the elder, was dull and liverish from intemperance; and the round-faced adolescent, the news of whose fatherhood had raced the wind, was so sheep-faced, so craven, in the presence of his elders, that he could not say bo to a battledore. There was something unnatural about this fierce timidity — and the doctor in Mahony caught a quick glimpse of the probable reverse of the picture.
But it was cold, in face of all this rain-soaked clay; cold blue-grey clouds drove across a washed-out sky; and he still felt unwell. Returning to his living-room where a small American stove was burning, he prepared for a quiet evening. In a corner by the fire stood an old packing-case. He lifted the lid and thrust his hand in: it was here he kept his books. He needed no light to see by; he knew each volume by the feel. And after fumbling for a little among the tumbled contents, he drew forth a work on natural science and sat down to read. But he did not get far; his brain was tired, intractable. Lighting his pipe, he tilted back his chair, laid the VESTIGES face downwards, and put his feet on the table.
How differently bashfulness impressed one in the case of the weaker sex! There, it was altogether pleasing. Young Ocock’s gaucherie had recalled the little maid Polly’s ingenuous confusion, at finding herself the subject of conversation. He had not once consciously thought of Polly since his return. Now, when he did so, he found to his surprise that she had made herself quite a warm little nest in his memory. Looked back on, she stood out in high relief against her somewhat graceless surroundings. Small doubt she was both maidenly and refined. He also remembered with a sensible pleasure her brisk service, her consideration for others. What a boon it would have been, during the past week, to have a busy, willing little woman at work, with him and for him, behind the screen! As it was, for want of a helping hand the place was like a pigsty. He had had neither time nor energy to clean up. The marks of hobnailed boots patterned the floor; loose mud, and crumbs from meals, had been swept into corners or under the stretcher-bed; while commodities that had overflowed the shop added to the disorder. Good Lord, no! . . . no place this for a woman.
He rose and moved restlessly about, turning things over with his foot: these old papers should be burnt, and that heap of straw-packing; those empty sardine and coffee-tins be thrown into the refuse-pit. Scrubbed and clean, it was by no means an uncomfortable room; and the stove drew well. He was proud of his stove; many houses had not even a chimney. He stood and stared at it; but his thoughts were elsewhere: he found himself trying to call to mind Polly’s face. Except for a pair of big black eyes — magnificent eyes they seemed to him in retrospect — he had carried away with him nothing of her outward appearance. Yes, stay! — her hair: her hair was so glossy that, when the sun caught it, high lights came out on it — so much he remembered. From this he fell to wondering whether her brain kept pace with her nimble hands and ways. Was she stupid or clever? He could not tolerate stupidity. And Polly had given him no chance to judge her; had hardly opened her lips before him. What a timid little thing she was to be sure! He should have made it his business to draw her out, by being kind and encouraging. Instead of which he had acted towards her, he felt convinced, like an ill-mannered boor.
He did not know how it was, but he couldn’t detach his thoughts from Polly this evening: to their accompaniment he paced up and down. All of a sudden he stood still, and gave a short, hearty laugh. He had just seen, in a kind of phantom picture, the feet of the sisters Beamish as they sat on the verandah edge: both young women wore flat sandal-shoes. And so that neatest of neat ankles had been little Polly’s property! For his life he loved a well-turned ankle in a woman.
A minute later he sat down at the table again. An idea had occurred to him: he would write Polly a letter — a letter that called for acknowledgment — and form an opinion of the girl from her reply. Taking a sheet of thin blue paper and a magnum bonum pen he wrote:
DEAR MISS TURNHAM,
I WONDER IF I MIGHT ASK YOU TO DO ME A FAVOUR? ON GETTING BACK TO BALLARAT, I FIND THAT THE RAIN HAS SPOILT MY STORE FLAG. WOULD YOU BE SO KIND AS TO MAKE ME A NEW ONE? I HAVE NO LADY FRIENDS HERE TO APPLY TO FOR HELP, AND I AM SURE YOU ARE CLEVER WITH YOUR NEEDLE. IF YOU CONSENT, I WILL SEND YOU THE OLD FLAG AS A PATTERN, AND STUFF FOR THE NEW ONE. MY KIND REGARDS TO ALL AT THE HOTEL.
P.S. I HAVE NOT FORGOTTEN OUR PLEASANT WALK TO THE CAVE.
He went out to the post with it himself. In one hand he carried the letter, in the other the candle-end stuck in a bottle that was known as a “Ballarat-lantern” for it was a pitchdark night.
Trade was slack; in consequence he found the four days that had to pass before he could hope for an answer exceptionally long. After their lapse, he twice spent an hour at the Post Office, in a fruitless attempt to get near the little window. On returning from the second of these absences, he found the letter waiting for him; it had been delivered by hand.
So far good: Polly had risen to his fly! He broke the seal.
I shall be happy to help you with your new flag if I am able. Will you kindly send the old one and the stuff down by my brother, who is coming to see me on Saturday. He is working at Rotten Gully, and his name is Ned. I do not know if I sew well enough to please you, but I will do my best.
Mahony read, smiled and laid the letter down — only to pick it up again. It pleased him, did this prim little note: there was just the right shade of formal reserve about it. Then he began to study particulars: grammar and spelling were correct; the penmanship was in the Italian style, minute, yet flowing, the letters dowered with generous loops and tails. But surely he had seen this writing before? By Jupiter, yes! This was the hand of the letter Purdy had shown him on the road to Melbourne. The little puss! So she not only wrote her own letters, but those of her friends as well. In that case she was certainly not stupid for she was much the youngest of the three.
To-day was Thursday. Summoning Long Jim from his seat behind the counter, Mahony dispatched him to Rotten Gully, with an injunction not to show himself till he had found a digger of the name of Turnham. And having watched Jim set out, at a snail’s pace and murmuring to himself, Mahony went into the store, and measured and cut off material for the new flag, from two different coloured rolls of stuff.
It was ten o’clock that night before Polly’s brother presented himself. Mahony met him at the door and drew him in: the stove crackled, the room was swept and garnished — he flattered himself that the report on his habitat would be a favourable one. Ned’s appearance gave him a pleasant shock: it was just as if Polly herself, translated into male terms, stood before him. No need, now, to cudgel his brains for her image! In looking at Ned, he looked again at Polly. The wide-awake off, the same fine, soft, black hair came to light — here, worn rather long and curly — the same glittering black eyes, ivory-white skin, short, straight nose; and, as he gazed, an offshoot of Mahony’s consciousness wondered from what quarter this middle-class English family fetched its dark, un-English strain.
In the beginning he exerted himself to set the lad at ease. He soon saw, however, that he might spare his pains. Though clearly not much more than eighteen years old, Ned Turnharn had the aplomb and assurance of double that age. Lolling back in the single armchair the room boasted, he more than once stretched out his hand and helped himself from the sherry bottle Mahony had placed on the table. And the disparity in their ages notwithstanding, there was no trace of deference in his manner. Or the sole hint of it was: he sometimes smothered a profane word, or apologised, with a winning smile, for an oath that had slipped out unawares. Mahony could not accustom him self to the foul language that formed the diggers’ idiom. Here, in the case of Polly’s brother, he sought to overlook the offence, or to lay the blame for it on other shoulders: at his age, and alone, the boy should never have been plunged into this Gehenna.
Ned talked mainly of himself and his doings. But other facts also transpired, of greater interest to his hearer. Thus Mahony learned that, out of a family of nine, four had found their way to the colony, and a fifth was soon to follow — a mere child this, on the under side of fifteen. He gathered, too, that the eldest brother, John by name, was regarded as a kind of Napoleon by the younger fry. At thirty, this John was a partner in the largest wholesale dry-goods’ warehouse in Melbourne. He had also married money, and intended in due course to stand for the Legislative Council. Behind Ned’s windy bragging Mahony thought he discerned tokens of a fond, brotherly pride. If this were so, the affair had its pathetic side; for, from what the boy said, it was evident that the successful man of business held his relatives at arm’s length. And as Ned talked on, Mahony conceived John to himself as a kind of electro-magnet, which, once it had drawn these lesser creatures after it, switched off the current and left them to their own devices. Ned, young as he was, had tried his hand at many trades. At present he was working as a hired digger; but this, only till he could strike a softer job. Digging was not for him, thank you; what you earned at it hardly repaid you for the sweat you dripped. His every second word, indeed, was of how he could amass most money with the minimum of bodily exertion.
This calculating, unyouthful outlook was repugnant to Mahony, and for all his goodwill, the longer he listened to Ned, the cooler he felt himself grow. Another disagreeable impression was left by the grudging, if-nothing-better-turns-up fashion, in which Ned accepted an impulsive offer on his part to take him into the store. It was made on the spur of the moment, and Mahony had qualms about it while his words were still warm on the air, realizing that the overture was aimed, not at Ned in person, but at Ned as Polly’s brother. But his intuition did not reconcile him to Ned’s luke-warmness; he would have preferred a straight refusal. The best trait he could discover in the lad was his affection for his sister. This seemed genuine: he was going to see her again — getting a lift halfway, tramping the other twenty odd miles — at the end of the week. Perhaps though, in the case of such a young opportunist, the thought of Mrs. Beamish’s lavish board played no small part; for Ned had a rather lean, underfed look. But this only occurred to Mahony afterwards. Then, his chief vexation was with himself: it would have been kinder to set a dish of solid food before the boy, in place of the naked sherry-bottle. But as usual, his hospitable leanings came too late.
One thing more. As he lighted Ned and his bundle of stuff through the shop, he was impelled to slip a coin into the boy’s hand, with a murmured apology for the trouble he had put him to. And a something, the merest nuance in Ned’s manner of receiving and pocketing the money, flashed the uncomfortable suspicion through the giver’s mind that it had been looked for, expected. And this was the most unpleasant touch of all.
But, bless his soul! did not most large families include at least one poorish specimen? — he had got thus far, by the time he came to wind up his watch for the night. And next day he felt sure he had judged Ned over-harshly. His first impressions of people — he had had occasion to deplore the fact before now — were apt to be either dead white or black as ink; the web of his mind took on no half tints. The boy had not betrayed any actual vices; and time might be trusted to knock the bluster out of him. With this reflection Mahony dismissed Ned from his mind. He had more important things to think of, chief among which was his own state with regard to Ned’s sister. And during the fortnight that followed he went about making believe to weigh this matter, to view it from every coign; for it did not suit him, even in secret, to confess to the vehemence with which, when he much desired a thing, his temperament knocked flat the hurdles of reason. The truth was, his mind was made up — and had been, all along. At the earliest possible opportunity, he was going to ask Polly to be his wife.
Doubts beset him of course. How could he suppose that a girl who knew nothing of him, who had barely seen him, would either want or consent to marry him? And even if — for “if’s” were cheap — she did say yes, would it be fair of him to take her out of a comfortable home, away from friends — such as they were! — of her own sex, to land her in these crude surroundings, where he did not know a decent woman to bear her company? Yet there was something to be said for him, too. He was very lonely. Now that Purdy had gone he was reduced, for society, to the Long Jims and Ococks of the place. What would he not give, once more to have a refined companion at his side? Certainly marriage might postpone the day on which he hoped to shake the dust of Australia off his feet. Life A DEUX would mean a larger outlay; saving not prove so easy. Still it could be done; and he would gladly submit to the delay if, by doing so, he could get Polly. Besides, if this new happiness came to him, it would help him to see the years he had spent in the colony in a truer and juster light. And then, when the hour of departure did strike, what a joy to have a wife to carry with one — a Polly to rescue, to restore to civilisation!
He had to remind himself more than once, during this fortnight, that she would be able to devote only a fraction of her day to flagmaking. But he was at the end of his tether by the time a parcel and a letter were left for him at the store — again by hand: little Polly had plainly no sixpences to spare. The needlework as perfect, of course; he hardly glanced at it, even when he had opened and read the letter. This was of the same decorous nature as the first. Polly returned a piece of stuff that had remained over. He had really sent material enough for two flags, she wrote; but she had not wished to keep him waiting so long. And then, in a postscript:
MR. SMITH WAS HERE LAST SUNDAY. I AM TO SAY MRS. BEAMISH WOULD BE VERY PLEASED IF YOU ALSO WOULD CALL AGAIN TO SEE US.
He ran the flag up to the top of his forty-foot staff and wrote:—
WHAT I WANT TO KNOW, MISS POLLY, IS, WOULD YOU BE GLAD TO SEE ME?
But Polly was not to be drawn.
WE SHOULD ALL BE VERY PLEASED.
Some days previously Mahony had addressed a question to, Henry Ocock. With this third letter from Polly, he held the lawyer’s answer in his hand. It was unsatisfactory.
YOURSELF ATS. BOLLIVER. WE THINK THAT ACTION WILL BE SET DOWN FOR TRIAL IN ABOUT SIX WEEKS’ TIME. IN THESE CIRCUMSTANCES WE DO NOT THINK ANY USEFUL PURPOSE WILL BE SERVED BY YOU CALLING TO SEE US UNTIL THIS IS DONE. WE SHOULD BE GLAD IF YOU WOULD CALL AFTER THE ACTION IS ENTERED.
Six weeks’ time? The man might as well have said a year. And meanwhile Purdy was stealing a march on him, was paying clandestine visits to Geelong. Was it conceivable that anyone in his five senses could prefer Tilly to Polly? It was not. In the clutch of a sudden fear Mahony went to Bath’s and ordered a horse for the following morning.
This time he left his store in charge of a young consumptive, whose plight had touched his heart: the poor fellow was stranded on Ballarat without a farthing, having proved, like many another of his physique, quite unfit for work on the diggings. A strict Baptist this Hempel, and one who believed hell-fire would be his portion if he so much as guessed at the “plant” of his employer’s cash-box. He also pledged his word to bear and forbear with Long Jim. The latter saw himself superseded with an extreme bad grace, and was in no hurry to find a new job.
Mahony’s nag was in good condition, and he covered the distance in a trifle over six hours.
He had evidently hit on the family washing-day. The big boiler in the yard belched clouds of steam; the female inmates of the Hotel were gathered in the out-house: he saw them through the door as he rode in at the gate. All three girls stood before tubs, their sleeves rolled up, their arms in the lather. At his apparition there was a characteristic chorus of cheeps and shrills and the door was banged to. Mrs. Beamish alone came out to greet him. She was moist and blown, and smelt of soap.
Not in a mood to mince matters, he announced straightway the object of his visit. He was prepared for some expression of surprise on the part of the good woman; but the blend of sheep-faced amazement and uncivil incredulity to which she subjected him made him hot and angry; and he vouchsafed no further word of explanation.
Mrs. Beamish presently so far recovered as to be able to finish wiping the suds from her fat red arms.
Thereafter, she gave way to a very feminine weakness.
“Well, and now I come to think of it, I’m blessed if I didn’t suspeck somethin’ of it, right from the first! Why, didn’t I say to Beamish, with me own lips, ‘ow you couldn’t ‘ardly take your eyes off ‘er? Well, well, I’m sure I wish you every ‘appiness — though ‘ow we’re h’ever goin’ to get on without Polly, I reelly don’t know. Don’t I wish it ‘ad bin one o’ my two as ‘ad tuck your fancy — that’s all! Between you an’ me, I don’t believe a blessed thing’s goin’ to come of all young Smith’s danglin’ round. An’ Polly’s still a bit young — only just turned sixteen. Not as she’s any the worse o’ that though; you’ll get ‘er h’all the easier into your ways. An’ now I mus’ look smart, an’ get you a bite o’ somethin’ after your ride.”
In vain did Mahony assure her that he had lunched on the road. He did not know Mrs. Beamish. He was forced not only to sit down to the meal she spread, but also, under her argus eye, to eat of it.
When after a considerable delay Polly at length appeared, she had removed all traces of the tub. The hand was cold that he took in his, as he asked her if she would walk with him to the cave.
This time, she trembled openly. Like a lamb led to the slaughter, he thought, looking down at her with tender eyes. Small doubt that vulgar creature within-doors had betrayed him to Polly, and exaggerated the ordeal that lay before her. When once she was his wife he would not consent to her remaining intimate with people of the Beamishes’ kidney: what a joy to get her out of their clutches! Nor should she spoil her pretty shape by stooping over a wash-tub.
In his annoyance he forgot to moderate his pace. Polly had to trip many small steps to keep up with him. When they reached the entrance to the cave, she was flushed and out of breath.
Mahony stood and looked down at her. How young she was . . . how young and innocent! Every feature of her dear little face still waited, as it were, for the strokes of time’s chisel. It should be the care of his life that none but the happiest lines were graved upon its precious surface.
“Polly,” he said, fresh from his scrutiny. “Polly, I’m not going to beat about the bush with you. I think you know I came here to-day only to see you.”
Polly’s head drooped further forward; now, the rim of her bonnet hid her face.
“You aren’t afraid of me, are you, Polly?”
Oh, no, she was not afraid.
“Nor have you forgotten me?”
Polly choked a little, in her attempt to answer. She could not tell him that she had carried his letters about with her by day, and slept with them under her pillow; that she knew every word in them by heart, and had copied and practised the bold flourish of the Dickens-like signature; that she had never let his name cross her lips; that she thought him the kindest, handsomest, cleverest man in the world, and would willingly have humbled herself to the dust before him: all this boiled and bubbled in her, as she brought forth her poor little “no.”
“Indeed, I hope not,” went on Mahony. “Because, Polly, I’ve come to ask you if you will be my wife.”
Rocks, trees, hills, suddenly grown tipsy, went see-sawing round Polly, when she heard these words said. She shut her eyes, and hid her face in her hands. Such happiness seemed improbable — was not to be grasped. “Me? . . . your wife?” she stammered through her fingers.
“Yes, Polly. Do you think you could learn to care for me a little, my dear? No, don’t be in a hurry to answer. Take your own time.”
But she needed none. With what she felt to be a most unmaidenly eagerness, yet could not subdue, she blurted out: “I know I could. I . . . I do.”
“Thank God!” said Mahony. “Thank God for that!”
He let his arms fall to his sides; he found he had been holding them stiffly out from him. He sat down. “And now take away your hands, Polly, and let me see your face. Don’t be ashamed of showing me what you feel. This is a sacred moment for us. We are promising to take each other, you know, for richer for poorer, for better for worse — as the good old words have it. And I must warn you, my dear, you are not marrying a rich man. I live in a poor, rough place, and have only a poor home to offer you. Oh, I have had many scruples about asking you to leave your friends to come and share it with me, Polly my love!”
“I’m not afraid. I am strong. I can work.”
“And I shall take every care of you. Please God, you will never regret your choice.”
They were within sight of the house where they sat; and Mahony imagined rude, curious eyes. So he did not kiss her. Instead, he drew her arm though his, and together they paced up and down the path they had come by, while he laid his plans before her, and confessed to the dreams he had dreamt of their wedded life. It was a radiant afternoon in the distance the sea lay deep blue, with turquoise shallows; a great white bird of a ship, her canvas spread to the breeze, was making for . . . why, to-day he did not care whether for port or for “home”; the sun went down in a blaze behind a bank of emerald green. And little Polly agreed with everything he said — was all one lovely glow of acquiescence. He thought no happier mortal than himself trod the earth.
Mahony remained at the Hotel till the following afternoon, then walked to Geelong and took the steam-packet to Melbourne. The object of his journey was to ask Mr. John Turnham’s formal sanction to his marriage. Polly accompanied him a little way on his walk. And whenever he looked back he saw her standing fluttering her handkerchief — a small, solitary figure on the bare, red road.
He parted from her with a sense of leaving his most precious possession behind, so close had words made the tie. On the other hand, he was not sorry to be out of range for a while of the Beamish family’s banter. This had set in, the evening before, as soon as he and Polly returned to the house — pacing the deck of the little steamer, he writhed anew at the remembrance. Jokes at their expense had been cracked all through supper: his want of appetite, for instance, was the subject of a dozen crude insinuations; and this, though everyone present knew that he had eaten a hearty meal not two hours previously; had been kept up till he grew stony and savage, and Polly, trying hard not to mind but red to the rims of her ears, slipped out of the room. Supper over, Mrs. Bearnish announced in a loud voice that the verandah was at the disposal of the “turtle-doves.” She no doubt expected them to bill and coo in public, as Purdy and Matilda had done. On edge at the thought, he drew Polly into the comparative seclusion of the garden. Here they strolled up and down, their promenade bounded at the lower end by the dense-leaved arbour under which they had first met. In its screening shadow he took the kiss he had then been generous enough to forgo.
“I think I loved you, Polly, directly I saw you.”
In the distance a clump of hills rose steep and bare from the waste land by the sea’s edge — he could see them at this moment as he leant over the taffrail: with the sun going down behind them they were the colour of smoked glass. Last night they had been white with moonlight, which lay spilled out upon them like milk. Strange old hills! Standing there unchanged, unshaken, from time immemorial, they made the troth that had been plighted under their shield seem pitifully frail. And yet. . . . The vows which Polly and he had found so new, so wonderful; were not these, in truth, as ancient as the hills themselves, and as undying? Countless generations of human lovers had uttered them. The lovers passed, but the pledges remained: had put on immortality.
In the course of their talk it leaked out that Polly would not feel comfortable till her choice was ratified by brother John.
“I’m sure you will like John; he is so clever.”
“I shall like everyone belonging to you, my Polly!”
As she lost her shyness Mahony made the discovery that she laughed easily, and was fond of a jest. Thus, when he admitted to her that he found it difficult to distinguish one fair, plump, sister Beamish from the other; that they seemed to him as much alike as two firm, pink-ribbed mushrooms, the little woman was hugely tickled by his his masculine want of perception. “Why, Jinny has brown eyes and Tilly blue!”
What he did not know, and what Polly did not confess to him, was that much of her merriment arose from sheer lightness of heart. — She, silly goose that she was! who had once believed Jinny to be the picked object of his attentions.
But she grew serious again: could he tell her, please, why Mr. Smith wrote so seldom to Tilly? Poor Tilly was unhappy at his long silences — fretted over them in bed at night.
Mahony made excuses for Purdy, urging his unsettled mode of life. But it pleased him to see that Polly took sides with her friend, and loyally espoused her cause.
No, there had not been a single jarring note in all their intercourse; each moment had made the dear girl dearer to him. Now, worse luck, forty odd miles were between them again.
It had been agreed that he should call at her brother’s private house, towards five o’clock in the afternoon. He had thus to kill time for the better part of the next day. His first visit was to a jeweller’s in Great Collins Street. Here, he pushed aside a tray of showy diamonds — a successful digger was covering the fat, red hands of his bride with them — and chose a slender, discreetly chased setting, containing three small stones. No matter what household duties fell to Polly’s share, this little ring would not be out of place on her finger.
From there he went to the last address Purdy had given him; only to find that the boy had again disappeared. Before parting from Purdy, the time before, he had lent him half the purchase-money for a horse and dray, thus enabling him to carry out an old scheme of plying for hire at the city wharf. According to the landlord of the “Hotel Vendome,” to whom Mahony was referred for fuller information, Purdy had soon tired of this job, and selling dray and beast for what he could get had gone off on a new rush to “Simson’s Diggings” or the “White Hills.” Small wonder Miss Tilly was left languishing for news of him.
Pricked by the nervous disquietude of those who have to do with the law, Mahony next repaired to his solicitor’s office. But Henry Ocock was closeted with a more important client. This, Grindle the clerk, whom he met on the stairs, informed him, with an evident relish, and with some hidden, hinted meaning in the corners of his shifty little eyes. It was lost on Mahony, who was not the man to accept hints from a stranger.
The hour was on lunch-time; Grindle proposed that they should go together to a legal chop-house, which offered prime value for your money, and where, over the meal, he would give Mahony the latest news of his suit. At a loss how to get through the day, the latter followed him — he was resolved, too, to practise economy from now on. But when he sat down to a dirty cloth and fly-spotted cruet he regretted his compliance. Besides, the news Grindle was able to give him amounted to nothing; the case had not budged since last he heard of it. Worse still was the clerk’s behaviour. For after lauding the cheapness of the establishment, Grindle disputed the price of each item on the “meenew,” and, when he came to pay his bill, chuckled over having been able to diddle the waiter of a penny.
He was plainly one of those who feel the constant need of an audience. And since there was no office-boy present, for him to dazzle with his wit, he applied himself to demonstrating to his table-companion what a sad, sad dog he was.
“Women are the deuce, sir,” he asserted, lying back in his chair and sending two trails of smoke from his nostrils. “The very deuce! You should hear my governor on the subject! He’d tickle your ears for you. Look here, I’ll give you the tip: this move, you know, to Ballarat, that he’s drivin’ at: what’ull you bet me there isn’t a woman in the case? Fact! ‘Pon my word there is. And a devilish fine woman, too!” He shut one eye and laid a finger along his nose. “You won’t blow the gab? — that’s why you couldn’t have your parleyvoo this morning. When milady comes to town H. O.‘s NON EST as long as she’s here. And she with a hubby of her own, too! What ‘ud our old pa say to that, eh?”
Mahony, who could draw in his feelers no further than he had done, touched the limit of his patience. “My connexion with Mr. Ocock is a purely business one. I have no intention of trespassing on his private affairs, or of having them thrust upon me. Carver, my bill!”
Bowing distantly he stalked out of the eating-house and back to the “Criterion,” where he dined. “So much for a maiden attempt at economy!”
Towards five o’clock he took his seat in an omnibus that plied between the city and the seaside suburb of St. Kilda, three miles off. A cool breeze went; the hoofs of the horses beat a rataplan on the hard surface; the great road, broad enough to make three of, was alive with smart gigs and trotters.
St. Kilda was a group of white houses facing the Bay. Most were o’ weatherboard with brick chimneys; but there were also a few of a more solid construction. Mahony’s goal was one of these: a low, stone villa surrounded by verandahs, in the midst of tasteful grounds. The drive up to the door led through a shrubbery, artfully contrived of the native ti-tree; behind the house stretched kitchen and fruit-gardens. Many rare plants grew in the beds. There was a hedge of geraniums close on fifteen feet high.
His knock was answered by a groom, who made a saucy face: Mr. Turnham and his lady were attending the Governor’s ball this evening and did not receive. Mahony insisted on the delivery of his visiting-card. And since the servant still blocked the entrance he added: “Inform your master, my man, that I am the bearer of a message from his sister, Miss Mary Turnham.”
The man shut him out, left him standing on the verandah. After a lengthy absence, he returned, and with a “Well, come along in then!” opened the door of a parlour. This was a large room, well furnished in horsehair and rep. Wax-lights stood on the mantelpiece before a gilt-framed pierglass; coloured prints hung on the walls.
While Mahony was admiring the genteel comfort to which he had long been a stranger, John Turnham entered the room. He had a quiet tread, but took determined strides at the floor. In his hand he held Mahony’s card, and he looked from Mahony to it and back again.
“To what do I owe the pleasure, Mr. . . . er . . . Mahony?” he asked, refreshing his memory with a glance at the pasteboard. He spoke in the brusque tone of one accustomed to run through many applicants in the course of an hour. “I understand that you make use of my sister Mary’s name.” And, as Mahony did not instantly respond, he snapped out: “My time is short, sir!”
A tinge of colour mounted to Mahony’s cheeks. He answered with equal stiffness: “That is so. I come from Mr. William Beamish’s ‘Family Hotel,’ and am commissioned to bring you your sister’s warm love and regards.”
John Turnham bowed; and waited.
“I have also to acquaint you with the fact,” continued Mahony, gathering hauteur as he went, “that the day before yesterday I proposed marriage to your sister, and that she did me the honour of accepting me.”
“Ah, indeed!” said John Turnham, with a kind of ironic snort. “And may I ask on what ground you —”
“On the ground, sir, that I have a sincere affection for Miss Turnham, and believe it lies in my power to make her happy.”
“Of that, kindly allow me to judge. My sister is a mere child — too young to know her own mind. Be seated.”
To a constraining, restraining vision of little Polly, Mahony obeyed, stifling the near retort that she was not too young to earn her living among strangers. The two men faced each other on opposite sides of the table. John Turnham had the same dark eyes and hair, the same short, straight nose as his brother and sister, but not their exotic pallor. His skin was bronzed; and his large, scarlet mouth supplied a vivid dash of colour. He wore bushy side-whiskers.
“And now, Mr. Mahony, I will ask you a blunt question. I receive letters regularly from my sister, but I cannot recall her ever having mentioned your name. Who and what are you?”
“Who am I?” flared up Mahony. “A gentleman like yourself, sir! — though a poor one. As for Miss Turnham not mentioning me in her letters, that is easily explained. I only had the pleasure of making her acquaintance five or six weeks ago.”
“You are candid,” said Polly’s brother, and smiled without unclosing his lips. “But your reply to my question tells me nothing. May I ask what . . . er . . . under what . . . er . . . circumstances you came out to the colony, in the first instance?”
“No, sir, you may not!” cried Mahony, and flung up from his seat; he scented a deadly insult in the question.
“Come, come, Mr. Mahony,” said Turnham in a more conciliatory tone. “Nothing is gained by being techy. And my inquiry is not unreasonable. You are an entire stranger to me; my sister has known you but for a few weeks, and is a young and inexperienced girl into the bargain. You tell me you are a gentleman. Sir! I had as lief you said you were a blacksmith. In this grand country of ours, where progress is the watchword, effete standards and dogging traditions must go by the board. Grit is of more use to us than gentility. Each single bricklayer who unships serves the colony better than a score of gentlemen.”
“In that I am absolutely not at one with you, Mr. Turnham,” said Mahony coldly. He had sat down again, feeling rather ashamed of his violence. “Without a leaven of refinement, the very raw material of which the existing population is composed —”
But Turnham interrupted him. “Give ’em time, sir, give ’em time. God bless my soul! Rome wasn’t built in a day. But to resume. I have repeatedly had occasion to remark in what small stead the training that fits a man for a career in the old country stands him here. And that is why I am dissatisfied with your reply. Show me your muscles, sir, give me a clean bill of health, tell me if you have learnt a trade and can pay your way. See, I will be frank with you. The position I occupy to-day I owe entirely to my own efforts. I landed in the colony ten years ago, when this marvellous city of ours was little more than a village settlement. I had but five pounds in my pocket. To-day I am a partner in my firm, and intend, if all goes well, to enter parliament. Hence I think I may, without presumption, judge what makes for success here, and of the type of man to attain it. Work, hard work, is the key to all doors. So convinced am I of this, that I have insisted on the younger members of my family learning betimes to put their shoulders to the wheel. Now, Mr. Mahony, I have been open with you. Be equally frank with me. You are an Irishman?”
Candour invariably disarmed Mahony — even lay a little heavy on him, with the weight of an obligation. He retaliated with a light touch of self-depreciation. “An Irishman, sir, in a country where the Irish have fallen, and not without reason, into general disrepute.”
Over a biscuit and a glass of sherry he gave a rough outline of the circumstances that had led to his leaving England, two years previously, and of his dismayed arrival in what he called “the cesspool of 1852”.
“Thanks to the rose-water romance of the English press, many a young man of my day was enticed away from a modest competency, to seek his fortune here, where it was pretended that nuggets could be gathered like cabbages — I myself threw up a tidy little country practice. . . . I might mention that medicine was my profession. It would have given me intense satisfaction, Mr. Turnham, to see one of those glib journalists in my shoes, or the shoes of some of my messmates on the OCEAN QUEEN. There were men aboard that ship, sir, who were reduced to beggary before they could even set foot on the road to the north. Granted it is the duty of the press to encourage emigration —”
“Let the press be, Mahony,” said Turnham: he had sat back, crossed his legs, and put his thumbs in his armholes. “Let it be. What we need here is colonists — small matter how we get ’em.”
Having had his say, Mahony scamped the recital of his own sufferings: the discomforts of the month he had been forced to spend in Melbourne getting his slender outfit together; the miseries of the tramp to Ballarat on delicate unused feet, among the riff-raff of nations, under a wan December sky, against which the trunks of the gum-trees rose whiter still, and out of which blazed a copper sun with a misty rim. He scamped, too, his six-months’ attempt at digging — he had been no more fit for the work than a child. Worn to skin and bone, his small remaining strength sucked out by dysentery, he had in the end bartered his last pinch of gold-dust for a barrow-load of useful odds and ends; and this had formed the nucleus of his store. Here, fortune had smiled on him; his flag hardly set a-flying custom had poured in, business gone up by leaps and bounds —“Although I have never sold so much as a pint of spirits, sir!” His profits for the past six months equalled a clear three hundred, and he had most of this to the good. With a wife to keep, expenses would naturally be heavier; but he should continue to lay by every spare penny, with a view to getting back to England.
“You have not the intention, then, of remaining permanently in the colony?”
“Not the least in the world.”
“H’m,” said John: he was standing on the hearthrug now, his legs apart. “That, of course, puts a different complexion on the matter. Still, I may say I am entirely reassured by what you have told me — entirely so. Indeed, you must allow me to congratulate you on the good sense you displayed in striking while the iron was hot. Many a one of your medical brethren, sir, would have thought it beneath his dignity to turn shopkeeper. And now, Mr. Mahony, I will wish you good day; we shall doubtless meet again before very long. Nay, one moment! There are cases, you will admit, in which a female opinion is not without value. Besides, I should be pleased for you to see my wife.”
He crossed the hall, tapped at a door and cried: “Emma, my love, will you give us the pleasure of your company?”
In response to this a lady entered, whom Mahony thought one of the most beautiful women he had ever seen. She carried a yearling infant in her arms, and with one hand pressed its pale flaxen poll against the rich, ripe corn of her own hair, as if to dare comparison. Her cheeks were of a delicate rose pink.
“My love,” said Turnham — and one felt that the word was no mere flower of speech. “My love, here is someone who wishes to marry our Polly.”
“To marry our Polly?” echoed the lady, and smiled a faint, amused smile — it was as though she said: to marry this infant that I bear on my arm. “But Polly is only a little girl!”
“My very words, dearest. And too young to know her own mind.”
“But you will decide for her, John.”
John hung over his beautiful wife, wheeled up an easy chair, arranged her in it, placed a footstool. “Pray, pray, do not overfatigue yourself, Emma! That child is too heavy for you,” he objected, as the babe made strenuous efforts to kick itself to its feet. “You know I do not approve of you carrying it yourself.”
“Nurse is drinking tea.”
“But why do I keep a houseful of domestics if one of the others cannot occasionally take her place?”
He made an impetuous step towards the bell. Before he could reach it there came a thumping at the door, and a fluty voice cried: “Lemme in, puppa, lemme in!”
Turnham threw the door open, and admitted a sturdy two-year-old, whom he led forward by the hand. “My son,” he said, not without pride. Mahony would have coaxed the child to him; but it ran to its mother, hid its face in her lap.
Forgetting the bell John struck an attitude. “What a picture!” he exclaimed. “What a picture! My love, I positively must carry out my intention of having you painted in oils, with the children round you. — Mr. Mahony, sir, have you ever seen anything to equal it?”
Though his mental attitude might have been expressed by a note of exclamation, set ironically, Mahony felt constrained to second Turnham’s enthusiasm. And it was indeed a lovely picture: the gracious, golden-haired woman, whose figure had the amplitude, her gestures the almost sensual languor of the young nursing mother; the two children fawning at her knee, both ash-blond, with vivid scarlet lips. —“It helps one,” thought Mahony, “to understand the mother-worship of primitive peoples.”
The nursemaid summoned and the children borne off, Mrs. Emma exchanged a few amiable words with the visitor, then obeyed with an equally good grace her husband’s command to rest for an hour, before dressing for the ball.
Having escorted her to another room, Turnham came back rubbing his hands. “I am pleased to be able to tell you, Mr. Mahony, that your suit has my wife’s approval. You are highly favoured! Emma is not free with her liking.” Then, in a sudden burst of effusion: “I could have wished you the pleasure, sir, of seeing my wife in evening attire. She will make a furore again; no other woman can hold a candle to her in a ballroom. To-night is the first time since the birth of our second child that she will grace a public entertainment with her presence; and unfortunately her appearance will be a brief one, for the infant is not yet wholly weaned.” He shut the door and lowered his voice. “You have had some experience of doctoring, you say; I should like a word with you in your medical capacity. The thing is this. My wife has persisted, contrary to my wishes, in suckling both children herself.”
“Quite right, too,” said Mahony. “In a climate like this their natural food is invaluable to babes.”
“Exactly, quite so,” said Turnham, with a hint of impatience. “And in the case of the first child, I made due allowance: a young mother . . . the novelty of the thing . . . you understand. But with regard to the second, I must confess I— How long, sir, in your opinion, can a mother continue to nurse her babe without injury to herself? It is surely harmful if unduly protracted? I have observed dark lines about my wife’s eyes, and she is losing her fine complexion. — Then you confirm my fears. I shall assert my authority without delay, and insist on separation from the child. — Ah! women are strange beings, Mr. Mahony, strange beings, as you are on the high road to discovering for yourself.”
Mahony returned to town on foot, the omnibus having ceased to run. As he walked — at a quick pace, and keeping a sharp look-out; for the road was notoriously unsafe after dark — he revolved his impressions of the interview. He was glad it was over, and, for Polly’s sake, that it had passed off satisfactorily. It had made a poor enough start: at one moment he had been within an ace of picking up his hat and stalking out. But he found it difficult at the present happy crisis to bear a grudge — even if it had not been a proved idiosyncrasy of his, always to let a successful finish erase a bad beginning. None the less, he would not have belonged to the nation he did, had he not indulged in a caustic chuckle and a pair of good-humoured pishes and pshaws, at Turnham’s expense. “Like a showman in front of his booth!”
Then he thought again of the domestic scene he had been privileged to witness, and grew grave. The beautiful young woman and her children might have served as model for a Holy Family — some old painter’s dream of a sweet benign Madonna; the trampling babe as the infant Christ; the upturned face of the little John adoring. No place this for the scoffer. Apart from the mere pleasure of the eye, there was ample justification for Turnham’s transports. Were they not in the presence of one of life’s sublimest mysteries — that of motherhood? Not alone the lovely Emma: no; every woman who endured the rigours of childbirth, to bring forth an immortal soul, was a holy figure.
And now for him, too, as he had been reminded, this wonder was to be worked. Little Polly as the mother of his children — what visions the words conjured up! But he was glad Polly was just Polly, and not the peerless creature he had seen. John Turnham’s fears would never be his — this jealous care of a transient bodily beauty. Polly was neither too rare nor too fair for her woman’s lot; and, please God, the day would come when he would see her with a whole cluster of little ones round her — little dark-eyed replicas of herself. She, bless her, should dandle and cosset them to her heart’s content. Her joy in them would also be his.
He sawed, planed, hammered; curly shavings dropped and there was a pleasant smell of sawdust. Much had to be done to make the place fit to receive Polly. A second outhouse was necessary, to hold the surplus goods and do duty as a sleeping-room for Long Jim and Hempel: the lean-to the pair had occupied till now was being converted into a kitchen. At great cost and trouble, Mahony had some trees felled and brought in from Warrenheip. With them he put up a rude fence round his backyard, interlacing the lopped boughs from post to post, so that they formed a thick and leafy screen. He also filled in the disused shaft that had served as a rubbish-hole, and chose another, farther off, which would be less malodorous in the summer heat. Finally, a substantial load of firewood carted in, and two snakes that had made the journey in hollow logs dispatched, Long Jim was set down to chop and split the wood into a neat pile. Polly would need but to walk to and from the woodstack for her firing.
Indoors he made equal revolution. That her ears should not be polluted by the language of the customers, he ran up a partition between living-room and store, thus cutting off the slab-walled portion of the house, with its roof of stringy-bark, from the log-and-canvas front. He also stopped with putty the worst gaps between the slabs. At Ocock’s Auction Rooms he bought a horsehair sofa to match his armchair, a strip of carpet, a bed, a washhand-stand and a looking-glass, and tacked up a calico curtain before the window. His books, fetched out of the wooden case, were arranged on a brand-new set of shelves; and, when all was done and he stood back to admire his work, it was borne in on him afresh with how few creature-comforts he had hitherto existed. Plain to see now, why he had preferred to sit out-of-doors rather than within! Now, no one on the Flat had a trimmer little place than he.
In his labours he had the help of a friendly digger — a carpenter by trade — who one evening, pipe in mouth, had stood to watch his amateurish efforts with the jack-plane. Otherwise, the Lord alone knew how the house would ever have been made shipshape. Long Jim was equal to none but the simplest jobs; and Hempel, the assistant, had his hands full with the store. Well, it was a blessing at this juncture that business could be left to him. Hempel was as straight as a die; was a real treasure — or would have been, were it not for his eternal little bark of a cough. This was proof against all remedies, and the heck-heck of it at night was quite enough to spoil a light sleeper’s rest. In building the new shed, Mahony had been careful to choose a corner far from the house.
Marriages were still uncommon enough on Ballarat to make him an object of considerable curiosity. People took to dropping in of an evening — old Ocock; the postmaster; a fellow storekeeper, ex-steward to the Duke of Newcastle — to comment on his alterations and improvements. And over a pipe and a glass of sherry, he had to put up with a good deal of banter about his approaching “change of state.”
Still, it was kindly meant. “We’ll ‘ave to git up a bit o’ company o’ nights for yer lady when she comes,” said old Ocock, and spat under the table.
Purdy wrote from Tarrangower, where he had drifted:
HOORAY, OLD DICK, GOLLY FOR YOU! OLD MAN DIDN’T I KICK UP A BOBBERY WHEN I HEARD THE NEWS. NEVER WAS SO WELL PLEASED IN MY LIFE. THAT’S ALL YOU NEEDED, DICK— NOW YOU’LL TURN INTO A FIRST-RATE COLONIAL. HOW ABOUT THAT FIVER NOW I’D LIKE TO KNOW. YOU CAN TELL POLLY FROM ME I SHALL PAY IT BACK WITH INTEREST ON THE FATAL DAY. OF COURSE I’LL COME AND SEE YOU SPLICED, TOGS OR NO TOGS— TO TELL THE TRUTH MY KICKSIES ARE ON THEIR VERY LAST LEGS— AND THERE’S NOTHING DOING HERE— ALL THE LOOSE STUFF’S BEEN TURNED OVER. THERE’S OCEANS OF QUARTZ, OF COURSE, AND THEY’RE TRYING TO POUND IT UP IN DOLLIES, BUT YOU COULD PUT ME TO BED WITH A PICK-AXE AND A SHOVEL BEFORE I’D GO IN FOR SUCH TOMFOOLERY AS THAT. — DAMN IT ALL, DICK, TO THINK OF YOU BEING COTCHED AT LAST. I CAN’T GET OVER IT, AND IT’S A BIT OF A RISK, TOO, BY DAD IT IS, FOR A GIRL OF THAT AGE IS A DARK HORSE IF EVER THERE WAS ONE.
Mahony’s answer to this was a couple of pound-notes: SO THAT MY BEST MAN SHALL NOT DISGRACE ME! His heart went out to the writer. Dear old Dickybird! pleased as Punch at the turn of events, yet quaking for fear of imaginary risks. With all Purdy’s respect for his friend’s opinions, he had yet an odd distrust of that friend’s ability to look after himself. And now he was presuming to doubt Polly, too. Like his imperence! What the dickens did HE know of Polly? Keenly relishing the sense of his own intimate knowledge, Mahony touched the breast-pocket in which Polly’s letters lay — he often carried them out with him to a little hill, on which a single old blue-gum had been left standing; its scraggy top-knot of leaves drooped and swayed in the wind, like the few long straggling hairs on an old man’s head.
The letters formed a goodly bundle; for Polly and he wrote regularly to each other, she once a week, he twice. His bore the Queen’s head; hers, as befitted a needy little governess, were oftenest delivered by hand. Mahony untied the packet, drew a chance letter from it and mused as he read. Polly had still not ceded much of her early reserve — and it had taken him weeks to persuade her even to call him by his first name. She was, he thanked goodness, not of the kind who throw maidenly modesty to the winds, directly the binding word is spoken. He loved her all the better for her wariness of emotion; it tallied with a like streak in his own nature. And this, though at the moment he was going through a very debauch of frankness. To the little black-eyed girl who pored over his letters at “Beamish’s Family Hotel,” he unbosomed himself as never in his life before. He enlarged on his tastes and preferences, his likes and dislikes; he gave vent to his real feelings for the country of his exile, and his longings for “home”; told how he had come to the colony, in the first instance, with the fantastic notion of redeeming the fortunes of his family; described his collections of butterflies and plants to her, using their Latin names. And Polly drank in his words, and humbly agreed with all he wrote, or at least did not disagree; and, from this, as have done lovers from the beginning of time, he inferred a perfect harmony of mind. On one point only did he press her for a reply. Was she fond of books? If so, what evenings they would spend together, he reading aloud from some entertaining volume, she at her fancy work. And poetry? For himself he could truly say he did not care for poetry . . . except on a Saturday night or a quiet Sunday morning; and that was, because he liked it too well to approach it with any but a tranquil mind.
I THINK IF I KNOW YOU ARIGHT, AS I BELIEVE I DO, MY POLLY, YOU TOO HAVE POETRY IN YOUR SOUL.
He smiled at her reply; then kissed it.
I CANNOT WRITE POETRY MYSELF, said Polly, BUT I AM VERY FOND OF IT AND SHALL INDEED LIKE VERY MUCH DEAR RICHARD TO LISTEN WHEN YOU READ.
But the winter ran away, one cold, wet week succeeding another, and still they were apart. Mahony urged and pleaded, but could not get Polly to name the wedding-day. He began to think pressure was being brought to bear on the girl from another side. Naturally the Beamishes were reluctant to let her go: who would be so useful to them as Polly? — who undertake, without scorn, the education of the whilom shepherd’s daughters? Still, they knew they had to lose her, and he could not see that it made things any easier for them to put off the evil day. No, there was something else at the bottom of it; though he did not know what. Then one evening, pondering a letter of Polly’s, he slapped his forehead and exclaimed aloud at his own stupidity. That night, into his reply he slipped four five-pound notes. JUST TO BUY YOURSELF ANY LITTLE THING YOU FANCY, DEAREST. IF I CHOSE A GIFT, I MIGHT SEND WHAT WOULD NOT BE ACCEPTABLE TO YOU. Yes, sure enough, that was it — little Polly had been in straits for money: the next news he heard was that she had bought and was stitching her wedding-gown. Taxed with her need, Polly guiltily admitted that her salary for the past three months was owing to her. But there had been great expenses in connection with the hotel; and Mr. B. had had an accident to his leg. From what she wrote, though, Mahony saw that it was not the first time such remissness had occurred; and he felt grimly indignant with her employers. Keeping open house, and hospitable to the point of vulgarity, they were, it was evident, pinchfists when it came to parting with their money. Still, in the case of a little woman who had served them so faithfully! In thought he set a thick black mark against their name, for their cavalier treatment of his Polly. And extended it to John Turnham as well. John had made no move to put hand to pocket; and Polly’s niceness of feeling had stood in the way of her applying to him for aid. It made Mahony yearn to snatch the girl to him, then and there; to set her free of all contact with such coarse-grained, miserly brutes.
Old Ocock negotiated the hire of a neat spring cart for him, and a stout little cob; and at last the day had actually come, when he could set out to bring Polly home. By his side was Ned Turnham. Ned, still a lean-jowled wages-man at Rotten Gully, made no secret of his glee at getting carried down thus comfortably to Polly’s nuptials. They drove the eternal forty odd miles to Geelong, each stick and stone of which was fast becoming known to Mahony; a journey that remained equally tiresome whether the red earth rose as a thick red dust, or whether as now it had turned to a mud like birdlime in which the wheels sank almost to the axles. Arrived at Geelong they put up at an hotel, where Purdy awaited them. Purdy had tramped down from Tarrangower, blanket on back, and stood in need of a new rig-out from head to foot. Otherwise his persistent ill-luck had left no mark on him.
The ceremony took place early the following morning, at the house of the Wesleyan minister, the Anglican parson having been called away. The Beamishes and Polly drove to town, a tight fit in a double buggy. On the back seat, Jinny clung to and half supported a huge clothes-basket, which contained the wedding-breakfast. Polly sat on her trunk by the splashboard; and Tilly, crowded out, rode in on one of the cart-horses, a coloured bed-quilt pinned round her waist to protect her skirts.
To Polly’s disappointment neither her brother John nor his wife was present; a letter came at the eleventh hour to say that Mrs. Emma was unwell, and her husband did not care to leave her. Enclosed, however, were ten pounds for the purchase of a wedding-gift; and the pleasure Polly felt at being able to announce John’s generosity helped to make up to her for his absence. The only other guest present was an elder sister, Miss Sarah Turnham, who, being out of a situation at the moment, had sailed down from Melbourne. This young lady, a sprightly brunette of some three or four and twenty, without the fine, regular features of Ned and Polly, but with tenfold their vivacity and experience, caused quite a sensation; and Tilly’s audible raptures at beholding her Purdy again were of short duration; for Purdy had never met the equal of Miss Sarah, and could not take his eyes off her. He and she were the life of the party. The Beamishes were overawed by the visitor’s town-bred airs and the genteel elegance of her dress; Polly was a mere crumpled rose-leaf of pink confusion; Mahony too preoccupied with ring and licence to take any but his formal share in the proceedings.
“Come and see you?” echoed Miss Sarah playfully: the knot was tied; the company had demolished the good things laid out by Mrs. Beamish in the private parlour of an hotel, and emptied a couple of bottles of champagne; and Polly had changed her muslin frock for a black silk travelling-gown. “Come and SEE you? Why, of course I will, little silly!”— and, with her pretty white hands, she patted the already perfect bow of Polly’s bonnet-strings. Miss Sarah had no great opinion of the match her sister was making; but she had been agreeably surprised by Mahony’s person and manners, and had said so, thus filling Polly’s soul with bliss. “Provided, of course, little goosey, you have a SPARE ROOM to offer me. — For, I confess,” she went on, turning to the rest of the party, “I confess I feel inordinately curious to see, with my own eyes, what these famous diggings are like. From all one hears, they must be MARVELLOUSLY entertaining. — Now, I presume that you, Mr. Smith, never touch at such RUDE, OUT-OF-THE-WORLD places in the course of YOUR travels?”
Purdy, who had discreetly concealed the fact that he was but a poverty-stricken digger himself, quibbled a light evasion, then changed the subject, and offered his escort to the steam-packet by which Miss Sarah was returning to Melbourne.
“And you, too, dear Tilly,” urged little Polly, proceeding with her farewells. “For, mind, you promised. And I won’t forget to . . . you know what!”
Tilly, sobbing noisily, wept on Polly’s neck that she wished she was dead or at the bottom of the sea; and Polly, torn between pride and pain at Purdy’s delinquency, could only kiss her several times without speaking.
The farewells buzzed and flew.
“Good-bye to you, little lass . . . beg pardon, Mrs. Dr. Mahony!”——
“Mind you write, Poll! I shall die to ‘ear.”——
“Ta-ta, little silly goosey, and AU REVOIR!”—“Mind he don’t pitch you out of the cart, Polly!”—“Good-bye, Polly, my duck, and remember I’ll come to you in a winkin’, h’if and when . . .” which speech on the part of Mrs. Beamish distressed Polly to the verge of tears.
But finally she was torn from their arms and hoisted into the cart; and Mahony, the reins in his hand, began to unstiffen from the wooden figure-head he had felt himself during the ceremony, and under the whirring tongues and whispered confidences of the women.
“And now, Polly, for home!” he said exultantly, when the largest pocket-handkerchief had shrunk to the size of a nit, and Polly had ceased to twist her neck for one last, last glimpse of her friends.
And then the bush, and the loneliness of the bush, closed round them.
It was the time of flowers — of fierce young growth after the fruitful winter rains. The short-lived grass, green now as that of an English meadow, was picked out into patterns by the scarlet of the Running Postman; purple sarsaparilla festooned the stems of the scrub; there were vast natural paddocks, here of yellow everlastings, there of heaths in full bloom. Compared with the dark, spindly foliage of the she-oaks, the ti-trees’ waxy flowers stood out like orange-blossoms against firs. On damp or marshy ground wattles were aflame: great quivering masses of softest gold. Wherever these trees stood, the fragrance of their yellow puff-ball blossoms saturated the air; one knew, before one saw them, that they were coming, and long after they had been left behind one carried their honeyed sweetness with one; against them, no other scent could have made itself felt. And to Mahony these waves of perfume, into which they were continually running, came, in the course of the hours, to stand for a symbol of the golden future for which he and Polly were making; and whenever in after years he met with wattles in full bloom, he was carried back to the blue spring day of this wedding-journey, and jogged on once more, in the light cart, with his girl-wife at his side.
It was necessarily a silent drive. More rain had fallen during the night; even the best bits of the road were worked into deep, glutinous ruts, and the low-lying parts were under water. Mahony, but a fairish hand with the reins, was repeatedly obliged to leave the track and take to the bush, where he steered a way as best he could through trees, stumps, boulders and crab-holes. Sometimes he rose to his feet to encourage the horse; or he alighted and pulled it by the bridle; or put a shoulder to the wheel. But to-day no difficulties had power to daunt him; and the farther he advanced the lighter-hearted he grew: he went back to Ballarat feeling, for the first time, that he was actually going home.
And Polly? Sitting motionless at her husband’s side, her hands folded on her black silk lap, Polly obediently turned her head this way and that, when Richard pointed out a landmark to her, or called her attention to the flowers. At first, things were new and arresting, but the novelty soon wore off; and as they went on and on, and still on, it began to seem to Polly, who had never been farther afield than a couple of miles north of the “Pivot City,” as if they were driving away from all the rest of mankind, right into the very heart of nowhere. The road grew rougher, too — became scored with ridges and furrows which threw them violently from side to side. Unused to bush driving, Polly was sure at each fresh jolt that this time the cart MUST tip over; and yet she preferred the track and its dangers to Richard’s adventurous attempts to carve a passage through the scrub. A little later a cold south wind sprang up, which struck through her thin silk mantle; she was very tired, having been on her feet since five o’clock that morning; and all the happy fuss and excitement of the wedding was behind her. Her heart sank. She loved Richard dearly; if he had asked her, she would have gone to the ends of the earth with him; but at this moment she felt both small and lonely, and she would have liked nothing better than Mrs. Beamish’s big motherly bosom, on which to lay her head. And when, in passing a swamp, a well-known noise broke on her ear — that of hundreds of bell-frogs, which were like hundreds of hissing tea-kettles just about to boil — then such a rush of homesickness took her that she would have given all she had, to know she was going back, once more, to the familiar little whitewashed room she had shared with Tilly and Jinny.
The seat of the cart was slanting and slippery. Polly was continually sliding forward, now by inches, now with a great jerk. At last Mahony noticed it. “You are not sitting very comfortably, Polly, I fear?” he said.
Polly righted herself yet again, and reddened. “It’s my . . . my feet aren’t long enough,” she replied.
“Why, my poor little love!” cried Mahony, full of quick compunction. “Why didn’t you say so?” And drawing rein and getting down, he stuffed some of Mrs. Beamish’s bundles — fragments of the feast, which the good woman had sent with them — under his wife’s feet; stuffed too many, so that Polly drove the rest of the way with her knees raised to a hump in front of her. All the afternoon they had been making for dim blue ranges. After leaving the flats near Geelong, the track went up and down. Grey-green forest surrounded them, out of which nobbly hills rose like islands from a sea of trees. As they approached the end of their journey, they overtook a large number of heavy vehicles labouring along through the mire. A coach with six horses dashed past them at full gallop, and left them rapidly behind. Did they have to skirt bull-punchers who were lashing or otherwise ill-treating their teams, Mahony urged on the horse and bade Polly shut her eyes.
Night had fallen and a drizzling rain get in, by the time they travelled the last couple of miles to Ballarat. This was the worst of all; and Polly held her breath while the horse picked its way among yawning pits, into which one false step would have plunged them. Her fears were not lessened by hearing that in several places the very road was undermined; and she was thankful when Richard — himself rendered uneasy by the precious cargo he bore — got out and walked at the horse’s head. They drew up before a public-house. Cramped from sitting and numb with cold, Polly climbed stiffly down as bidden; and Mahony having unloaded the baggage, mounted to his seat again to drive the cart into the yard. This was a false move, as he was quick to see: he should not have left Polly standing alone. For the news of the arrival of “Doc.” Mahony and his bride flew from mouth to mouth, and all the loafers who were in the bar turned out to stare and to quiz. Beside her tumulus of trunk, bag, bundle little Polly stood desolate, with drooping shoulders; and cursing his want of foresight, Mahony all but drove into the gatepost, which occasioned a loud guffaw. Nor had Long Jim turned up as ordered, to shoulder the heavy luggage. These blunders made Mahony very hot and curt. Having himself stowed the things inside the bar and borrowed a lantern, he drew his wife’s arm through his, and hurried her away.
It was pitch-dark, and the ground was wet and squelchy. Their feet sank in the mud. Polly clung to Richard’s arm, trembling at the rude voices, the laughter, the brawling, that issued from the grog-shops; at the continual apparition of rough, bearded men. One of these, who held a candle stuck in a bottle, was accosted by Richard and soundly rated. When they turned out of the street with its few dismal oil-lamps, their way led them among dirty tents and black pits, and they had to depend for light on the lantern they carried. They crossed a rickety little bridge over a flooded river; then climbed a slope, on which in her bunchy silk skirts Polly slipped and floundered, to stop before something that was half a tent and half a log-hut. — What! this the end of the long, long journey! This the house she had to live in?
Yes, Richard was speaking. “Welcome home, little wife! Not much of a place, you see, but the best I can give you.”
“It’s . . . it’s very nice, Richard,” said Polly staunchly; but her lips trembled.
Warding off the attack of a big, fierce, dirty dog, which sprang at her, dragging its paws down her dress, Polly waited while her husband undid the door, then followed him through a chaos, which smelt as she had never believed any roofed-in place could smell, to a little room at the back.
Mahony lighted the lamp that stood ready on the table, and threw a satisfied glance round. His menfolk had done well: things were in apple-pie order. The fire crackled, the kettle was on the boil, the cloth spread. He turned to Polly to kiss her welcome, to relieve her of bonnet and mantle. But before he could do this there came a noise of rowdy voices, of shouting and parleying. Picking up the lantern, he ran out to see what the matter was.
Left alone Polly remained standing by the table, on which an array of tins was set — preserved salmon, sardines, condensed milk — their tops forced back to show their contents. Her heart was heavy as lead, and she felt a dull sense of injury as well. This hut her home! — to which she had so freely invited sister and friend! She would be ashamed for them ever to set eyes on it. Not in her worst dreams had she imagined it as mean and poor as this. But perhaps . . . . With the lamp in her hand, she tip-toed guiltily to a door in the wall: it opened into a tiny bedroom with a sloping roof. No, this was all, all there was of it: just these two miserable little poky rooms! She raised her head and looked round, and the tears welled up in spite of herself. The roof was so low that you could almost touch it; the window was no larger than a pocket-handkerchief; there were chinks between the slabs of the walls. And from one of these she now saw a spider crawl out, a huge black tarantula, with horrible hairy legs. Polly was afraid of spiders; and at this the tears began to overflow and to trickle down her cheeks. Holding her skirts to her — the new dress she had made with such pride, now damp, and crushed, and soiled — she sat down and put her feet, in their soaked, mud-caked, little prunella boots, on the rung of her chair, for fear of other monsters that might be crawling the floor.
And then, while she sat thus hunched together, the voices outside were suddenly drowned in a deafening noise — in a hideous, stupefying din, that nearly split one’s eardrums: it sounded as though all the tins and cans in the town were being beaten and banged before the door. Polly forgot the tarantula, forgot her bitter disappointment with her new home. Her black eyes wide with fear, her heart thudding in her chest, she sprang to her feet and stood ready, if need be, to defend herself. Where, oh where was Richard?
It was the last straw. When, some five minutes later, Mahony came bustling in: he had soothed the “kettledrummers” and sent them off with a handsome gratuity, and he carried the trunk on his own shoulder, Long Jim following behind with bags and bundles: when he entered, he found little Polly sitting with her head huddled on her arms, crying as though her heart would break.
Last updated Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at 14:12