Over the fathomless grey seas that tossed between, dissevering the ancient and gigantic continent from the tiny motherland, unsettling rumours ran. After close on forty years’ fat peace, England had armed for hostilities again, her fleet set sail for a foreign sea. Such was the news the sturdy clipper-ships brought out, in tantalising fragments; and those who, like Richard Mahony, were mere birds-of-passage in the colony, and had friends and relatives going to the front, caught hungrily at every detail. But to the majority of the colonists what England had done, or left undone, in preparation for war, was of small account. To them the vital question was: will the wily Russian Bear take its revenge by sending men-of-war to annihilate us and plunder the gold in our banks — us, months removed from English aid? And the opinion was openly expressed that in casting off her allegiance to Great Britain, and becoming a neutral state, lay young Australia’s best hope of safety.
But, even while they made it, the proposers of this scheme were knee-deep in petty, local affairs again. All Europe was depressed under the cloud of war; but they went on belabouring hackneyed themes — the unlocking of the lands, iniquitous licence-fees, official corruption. Mahony could not stand it. His heart was in England, went up and down with England’s hopes and fears. He smarted under the tales told of the inefficiency of the British troops and the paucity of their numbers; under the painful disclosures made by journalists, injudiciously allowed to travel to the seat of war; he questioned, like many another of his class in the old country, the wisdom of the Duke of Newcastle’s orders to lay siege to the port of Sebastopol. And of an evening, when the store was closed, he sat over stale English newspapers and a map of the Crimea, and meticulously followed the movements of the Allies.
But in this retirement he was rudely disturbed, by feeling himself touched on a vulnerable spot — that of his pocket. Before the end of the year trade had come to a standstill, and the very town he lived in was under martial law.
On both Ballarat and the Bendigo the agitation for the repeal of the licence-tax had grown more and more vehement; and spring’s arrival found the digging-community worked up to a white heat. The new Governor’s tour of inspection, on which great hopes had been built, served only to aggravate the trouble. Misled by the golden treasures with which the diggers, anxious as children to please, dazzled his eyes, the Governor decided that the tax was not an outrageous one; and ordered licence-raids to be undertaken twice as often as before. This defeat of the diggers’ hopes, together with the murder of a comrade and the acquittal of the murderer by a corrupt magistrate, goaded even the least sensitive spirits to rebellion: the guilty man’s house was fired, the police were stoned, and then, for a month or more, deputations and petitions ran to and fro between Ballarat and Melbourne. In vain: the demands of the voteless diggers went unheard. The consequence was that one day at the beginning of summer all the troops that could be spared from the capital, along with several pieces of artillery, were raising the dust on the road to Ballarat.
On the last afternoon in November work was suspended throughout the diggings, and the more cautious among the shopkeepers began to think of closing their doors. In front of the “Diggers’ Emporium,” where the earth was baked as hard as a burnt crust, a little knot of people stood shading their eyes from the sun. Opposite, on Bakery Hill, a monster meeting had been held and the “Southern Cross” hoisted — a blue bunting that bore the silver stars of the constellation after which it was named. Having sworn allegiance to it with outstretched hands, the rebels were lining up to march off to drill.
Mahony watched the thin procession through narrowed lids. In theory he condemned equally the blind obstinacy of the authorities, who went on tightening the screw, and the foolhardiness of the men. But — well, he could not get his eye to shirk one of the screaming banners and placards: “Down with Despotism!” “Who so base as be a Slave!” by means of which the diggers sought to inflame popular indignation. “If only honest rebels could get on without melodramatic exaggeration! As it is, those good fellows yonder are rendering a just cause ridiculous.”
Polly tightened her clasp of his arm. She had known no peace since the evening before, when a rough-looking man had come into the store and, with revolver at full cock, had commanded Hempel to hand over all the arms and ammunition it contained. Hempel, much to Richard’s wrath, had meekly complied; but it might have been Richard himself; he would for certain have refused; and then. . . . Polly had hardly slept for thinking of it. She now listened in deferential silence to the men’s talk; but when old Ocock — he never had a good word to say for the riotous diggers — took his pipe out of his mouth to remark: “A pack o’ Tipperary boys spoilin’ for a fight — that’s what I say. An’ yet, blow me if I wouldn’t ‘a bin glad if one o’ my two ‘ad ‘ad spunk enough to join ’em,”— at this Polly could not refrain from saying pitifully: “Oh, Mr. Ocock, do you really MEAN that?” For both Purdy and brother Ned were in the rebel band, and Polly’s heart was heavy because of them.
“Can’t you see my brother anywhere?” she asked Hempel, who held an old spyglass to his eyes.
“No, ma’am, sorry to say I can’t,” replied Hempel. He would willingly have conjured up a dozen brothers to comfort Polly; but he could not swerve from the truth, even for her.
“Give me the glass,” said Mahony, and swept the line. —“No, no sign of either of them. Perhaps they thought better of it after all. — Listen! now they’re singing — can you hear them? The MARSEILLAISE as I’m alive. — Poor fools! Many of them are armed with nothing more deadly than picks and shovels.”
“And pikes,” corrected Hempel. “Several carry pikes, sir.”
“Ay, that’s so, they’ve bin ‘ammerin’ out bits of old iron all the mornin’,” agreed Ocock. “It’s said they ‘aven’t a quarter of a firearm apiece. And the drillin’! Lord love yer! ‘Alf of ’em don’t know their right ‘and from their left. The troops ‘ull make mincemeat of ’em, if they come to close quarters.”
“Oh, I hope not!” said Polly. “Oh, I do hope they won’t get hurt.”
Patting her hand, Mahony advised his wife to go indoors and resume her household tasks. And since his lightest wish was a command, little Polly docilely withdrew her arm and returned to her dishwashing. But though she rubbed and scoured with her usual precision, her heart was not in her work. Both on this day and the next she seemed to exist solely in her two ears. The one strained to catch any scrap of news about “poor Ned”; the other listened, with an even sharper anxiety, to what went on in the store. Several further attempts were made to get arms and provisions from Richard; and each time an angry scene ensued. Close up beside the thin partition, her hands locked under her cooking-apron, Polly sat and trembled for her husband. He had already got himself talked about by refusing to back a Reform League; and now she heard him openly declare to some one that he disapproved of the terms of this League, from A to Z. Oh dear! If only he wouldn’t. But she was careful not to add to his worries by speaking of her fears. As it was, he came to tea with a moody face.
The behaviour of the foraging parties growing more and more threatening, Mahony thought it prudent to follow the general example and put up his shutters. Wildly conflicting rumours were in the air. One report said a contingent of Creswick dare-devils had arrived to join forces with the insurgents; another that the Creswickers, disgusted at finding neither firearms nor quarters provided for them, had straightway turned and marched the twelve miles home again. For a time it was asserted that Lalor, the Irish leader, had been bought over by the government; then, just as definitely, that his influence alone held the rebel faction together. Towards evening Long Jim was dispatched to find out how matters really stood. He brought back word that the diggers had entrenched themselves on a piece of rising ground near the Eureka lead, behind a flimsy barricade of logs, slabs, ropes and overturned carts. The Camp, for its part, was screened by a breastwork of firewood, trusses of hay and bags of corn; while the mounted police stood or lay fully armed by their horses, which were saddled ready for action at a moment’s notice.
Neither Ned nor Purdy put in an appearance, and the night passed without news of them. Just before dawn, however, Mahony was wakened by a tapping at the window. Thrusting out his head he recognised young Tommy Ocock, who had been sent by his father to tell “doctor” that the soldiers were astir. Lights could be seen moving about the Camp, a horse had neighed — father thought spies might have given them the hint that at least half the diggers from the Stockade had come down to Main Street last night, and got drunk, and never gone back. With a concerned glance at Polly Mahony struggled into his clothes. He must make another effort to reach the boys — especially Ned, for Polly’s sake. When Ned had first announced his intention of siding with the insurgents, he had merely shrugged his shoulders, believing that the young vapourer would soon have had enough of it. Now he felt responsible to his wife for Ned’s safety: Ned, whose chief reason for turning rebel, he suspected, was that a facetious trooper had once dubbed him “Eytalian organ-grinder,” and asked him where he kept his monkey.
But Mahony’s designs of a friendly interference came too late. The troops had got away, creeping stealthily through the morning dusk; and he was still panting up Specimen Hill when he heard the crack of a rifle. Confused shouts and cries followed. Then a bugle blared, and the next instant the rattle and bang of musketry split the air.
Together with a knot of others, who like himself had run forth half dressed, Mahony stopped and waited, in extreme anxiety; and, while he stood, the stars went out, one by one, as though a finger-tip touched them. The diggers’ response to the volley of the attacking party was easily distinguished: it was a dropping fire, and sounded like a thin hail-shower after a peal of thunder. Within half an hour all was over: the barricade had fallen, to cheers and laughter from the military; the rebel flag was torn down; huts and tents inside the enclosure were going up in flames.
Towards six o’clock, just as the December sun, huge and fiery, thrust the edge of its globe above the horizon, a number of onlookers ran up the slope to all that was left of the ill-fated stockade. On the dust, bloodstains, now set hard as scabs, traced the route by which a wretched procession of prisoners had been marched to the Camp gaol. Behind the demolished barrier huts smouldered as heaps of blackened embers; and the ground was strewn with stark forms, which lay about — some twenty or thirty of them — in grotesque attitudes. Some sprawled with outstretched arms, their sightless eyes seeming to fix the pale azure of the sky; others were hunched and huddled in a last convulsion. And in the course of his fruitless search for friend and brother, an old instinct reasserted itself in Mahony: kneeling down he began swiftly and dexterously to examine the prostrate bodies. Two or three still heaved, the blood gurgling from throat and breast like water from the neck of a bottle. Here, one had a mouth plugged with shot, and a beard as stiff as though it were made of rope. Another that he turned over was a German he had once heard speak at a diggers’ meeting — a windy braggart of a man, with a quaint impediment in his speech. Well, poor soul! he would never mouth invectives or tickle the ribs of an audience again. His body was a very colander of wounds. Some had not bled either. It looked as though the soldiers had viciously gone on prodding and stabbing the fallen.
Stripping a corpse of its shirt, he tore off a piece of stuff to make a bandage for a shattered leg. While he was binding the limb to a board, young Tom ran up to say that the military, returning with carts, were arresting every one they met in the vicinity. With others who had been covering up and carrying away their friends, Mahony hastened down the back of the hill towards the bush. Here was plain evidence of a stampede. More bloodstains pointed the track, and a number of odd and clumsy weapons had been dropped or thrown away by the diggers in their flight.
He went home with the relatively good tidings that neither Ned nor Purdy was to be found. Polly was up and dressed. She had also lighted the fire and set water on to boil, “just in case.” “Was there ever such a sensible little woman?” said her husband with a kiss.
The day dragged by, flat and stale after the excitement of the morning. No one ventured far from cover; for the military remained under arms, and detachments of mounted troopers patrolled the streets. At the Camp the hundred odd prisoners were being sorted out, and the maimed and wounded doctored in the rude little temporary hospital. Down in Main Street the noise of hammering went on hour after hour. The dead could not be kept, in the summer heat, must be got underground before dark.
Mahony had just secured his premises for the night, when there came a rapping at the back door. In the yard stood a stranger who, when the dog Pompey had been chidden and soothed, made mysterious signs to Mahony and murmured a well-known name. Admitted to the sitting-room he fished a scrap of dirty paper from his boot. Mahony put the candle on the table and straightened out the missive. Sure enough, it was in Purdy’s hand — though sadly scrawled.
HAVE BEEN HIT IN THE PIN. COME IF POSSIBLE AND BRING YOUR TOOLS. THE BEARER IS SQUARE.
Polly could hear the two of them talking in low, urgent tones. But her relief that the visitor brought no bad news of her brother was dashed when she learned that Richard had to ride out into the bush, to visit a sick man. However she buttoned her bodice, and with her hair hanging down her back went into the sitting-room to help her husband; for he was turning the place upside down. He had a pair of probe-scissors somewhere, he felt sure, if he could only lay hands on them. And while he ransacked drawers and cupboards for one or other of the few poor instruments left him, his thoughts went back, inopportunely enough, to the time when he had been surgeon’s dresser in the Edinburgh Royal Infirmary. O TEMPORA, O MORES! He wondered what old Syme, that prince of surgeons, would say, could he see his whilom student raking out a probe from among the ladles and kitchen spoons, a roll of lint from behind the saucepans.
Bag in hand, he followed his guide to where the latter had left a horse in safe-keeping; and having lengthened the stirrups and received instructions about the road, he set off for the hut in the ranges which Purdy had contrived to reach. He had an awkward cross-country ride of some four miles before him; but this did not trouble him. The chance- touched spring had opened the gates to a flood of memories; and, as he jogged along, he re-lived in thought the happy days spent as a student under the shadow of Arthur’s Seat, round the College, the Infirmary and old Surgeons’ Square. Once more he sat in the theatre, the breathless spectator of famous surgical operations; or as house-surgeon to the Lying-in Hospital himself assisted in daring attempts to lessen suffering and save life. It was, of course, too late now to bemoan the fact that he had broken with his profession. Yet only that very day envy had beset him. The rest of the fraternity had run to and from the tents where the wounded were housed, while he, behung with his shopman’s apron, pottered about among barrels and crates. No one thought of enlisting his services; another, not he, would set (or bungle) the fracture he had temporarily splinted.
The hut — it had four slab walls and an earthen floor — was in darkness on his arrival, for Purdy had not dared to make a light. He lay tossing restlessly on a dirty old straw palliasse, and was in great pain; but greeted his friend with a dash of the old brio.
Hanging his coat over the chinks in the door, and turning back his sleeves, Mahony took up the lantern and stooped to examine the injured leg. A bullet had struck the right ankle, causing an ugly wound. He washed it out, dressed and bandaged it. He also bathed the patient’s sweat-soaked head and shoulders; then sat down to await the owner of the hut’s return.
As soon as the latter appeared he took his leave, promising to ride out again the night after next. In spite of the circumstances under which they met, he and Purdy parted with a slight coolness. Mahony had loudly voiced his surprise at the nature of the wound caused by the bullet: it was incredible that any of the military could have borne a weapon of this calibre. Pressed, Purdy admitted that his hurt was a piece of gross ill-luck: he had been accidentally shot by a clumsy fool of a digger, from an ancient holster-pistol.
To Mahony this seemed to cap the climax; and he did not mask his sentiments. The pitiful little forcible-feeble rebellion, all along but a futile attempt to cast straws against the wind, was now completely over and done with, and would never be heard of again. Or such at least, he added, was the earnest hope of the law-abiding community. This irritated Purdy, who was spumy with the self-importance of one who has stood in the thick of the fray. He answered hotly, and ended by rapping out with a contemptuous click of the tongue: “Upon my word, Dick, you look at the whole thing like the tradesman you are!”
These words rankled in Mahony all the way home. — Trust Purdy for not, in anger, being able to resist giving him a flick on the raw. It made him feel thankful he was no longer so dependent on this friendship as of old. Since then he had tasted better things. Now, a woman’s heart beat in sympathetic understanding; there met his, two lips which had never said an unkind word. He pushed on with a new zest, reaching home about dawn. And over his young wife’s joy at his safe return, he forgot the shifting moods of his night-journey.
It had, however, this result. Next day Polly found him with his head in one of the great old shabby black books which, to her mind, spoilt the neat appearance of the bookshelves. He stood to read, the volume lying open before him on the top of the cold stove, and was so deeply engrossed that the store-bell rang twice without his hearing it. When, reminded that Hempel was absent, he whipped out to answer it, he carried the volume with him.
But his first treatment of Purdy’s wound was also his last. Two nights later he found the hut deserted; and diligently as he prowled round it in the moonlight, he could discover no clue to the fate of its occupants. There was nothing to be done but to head his horse for home again. Polly was more fortunate. Within three days of the fight Ned turned up, sound as a bell. He was sporting a new hat, a flashy silk neckerchief and a silver watch and chain. At sight of these kickshaws a dismal suspicion entered Mahony’s mind, and refused to be dislodged. But he did not breathe his doubts — for Polly’s sake. Polly was rapturously content to see her brother again. She threw her arms round his neck, and listened, with her big, black, innocent eyes — except for their fleckless candour, the counterpart of Ned’s own — to the tale of his miraculous escape, and of the rich gutter he had had the good luck to strike.
Meanwhile public feeling, exasperated beyond measure by the tragedy of that summer dawn, slowly subsided. Hesitation, timidity, and a very human waiting on success had held many diggers back from joining in the final coup; but the sympathy of the community was with the rebels, and at the funerals of the fallen, hundreds of mourners, in such black coats as they could muster, marched side by side to the wild little unfenced bush cemetery. When, too, the relief-party arrived from Melbourne and martial law was proclaimed, the residents handed over their firearms as ordered; but an attempt to swear in special constables failed, not a soul stepping forward in support of the government.
There was literally nothing doing during the month the military occupied Ballarat. Mahony seized the opportunity to give his back premises a coat of paint; he also began to catalogue his collection of Lepidoptera. Hence, as far as business was concerned, it was a timely moment for the arrival of a letter from Henry Ocock, to the effect that, “subject of course to any part-heard case,” “our case” was first on the list for a date early in January.
None the less, the announcement threw Mahony into the fidgets. He had almost clean forgotten the plaguey affair: it had its roots in the dark days before his marriage. He wished now he had thought twice before letting himself be entangled in a lawsuit. Now, he had a wife dependent on him, and to lose the case, and be held responsible for costs, would cripple him. And such a verdict was not at all unlikely; for Purdy, his chief witness, could not be got at: the Lord alone knew where Purdy lay hid. He at once sat down and wrote the bad news to his solicitor.
At six o’clock in the morning some few days later, he took his seat in the coach for Melbourne. By his side sat Johnny Ocock, the elder of the two brothers. Johnny had by chance been within earshot during the negotiations with the rascally carrier, and on learning this, Henry had straightway subpoenaed him. Mahony was none too well pleased: the boy threatened to be a handful. His old father, on delivering him up at the coach-office, had drawn Mahony aside to whisper: “Don’t let the young limb out o’ yer sight, doc., or get nip or sip o’ liquor. If ‘e so much as wets ‘is tongue, there’s no ‘olding ’im.” Johnny was a lean, pimply-faced youth, with cold, flabby hands.
Little Polly had to stay behind. Mahony would have liked to give her the trip and show her the sights of the capital; but the law-courts were no place for a woman; neither could he leave her sitting alone in a hotel. And a tentative letter to her brother John had not called forth an invitation: Mrs. Emma was in delicate health at present, and had no mind for visitors. So he committed Polly to the care of Hempel and Long Jim, both of whom were her faithful henchmen. She herself, in proper wifely fashion, proposed to give her little house a good red-up in its master’s absence.
Mahony and Johnny dismounted from the coach in the early afternoon, sore, stiff and hungry: they had broken their fast merely on half-a-dozen sandwiches, keeping their seats the while that the young toper might be spared the sight of intoxicating liquors. Now, stopping only to brush off the top layer of dust and snatch a bite of solid food, Mahony hastened away, his witness at heel, to Chancery Lane.
It was a relief to find that Ocock was not greatly put out at Purdy having failed them. “Leave it to us, sir. We’ll make that all right.” As on the previous visit he dry-washed his hands while he spoke, and his little eyes shot flashes from one to the other, like electric sparks. He proposed just to run through the morrow’s evidence with “our young friend there”; and in the course of this rehearsal said more than once: “Good . . . good! Why, sonny, you’re quite smart.” This when Johnny succeeded in grasping his drift. But at the least hint of unreadiness or hesitation, he tut-tutted and drew his brows together. And as it went on, it seemed to Mahony that Ocock was putting words into the boy’s mouth; while Johnny, intimidated, said yes and amen to things he could not possibly know. Presently he interfered to this effect. Ocock brushed his remark aside. But after a second interruption from Mahony: “I think, sir, with your permission we will ask John not to depart from what he actually heard,” the lawyer shuffled his papers into a heap and said that would do for to-day: they would meet at the court in the morning. Prior to shaking hands, however, he threw out a hint that he would like a word with his brother on family matters. And for half an hour Mahony paced the street below.
The remainder of the day was spent in keeping Johnny out of temptation’s way, in trying to interest him in the life of the city, its monuments and curiosities. But the lad was too apathetic to look about him, and never opened his mouth. Once only in the course of the afternoon did he offer a kind of handle. In their peregrinations they passed a Book Arcade, where Mahony stopped to turn the leaves of a volume. Johnny also took up a book, and began to read.
“What is it?” asked Mahony. “Would you like to have it, my boy?”
Johnny stonily accepted the gift — it was a tale of Red Indians, the pages smudged with gaudy illustrations — and put it under his arm.
At the good supper that was set before him he picked with a meagre zest; then fell asleep. Mahony took the opportunity to write a line to Polly to tell of their safe arrival; and having sealed the letter, ran out to post it. He was not away for more than three minutes, but when he came back Johnny was gone. He hunted high and low for him, ransacked the place without success: the boy had spoken to no one, nor had he been seen to leave the coffee-room; and as the clock-hands were nearing twelve, Mahony was obliged to give up the search and go back to the hotel. It was impossible at that hour to let Ocock know of this fresh piece of ill-luck. Besides, there was just a chance the young scamp would turn up in the morning. Morning came, however, and no Johnny with it. Outwitted and chagrined, Mahony set off for the court alone.
Day had broken dim and misty, and by the time breakfast was over a north wind was raging — a furnace-like blast that bore off the sandy deserts of the interior. The sun was a yellow blotch in a copper sky; the thermometer had leapt to a hundred and ten in the shade. Blinding clouds of coarse, gritty dust swept house-high through the streets: half-suffocated, Mahony fought his way along, his veil lowered, his handkerchief at his mouth. Outside those public-houses that advertised ice, crowds stood waiting their turn of entry; while half-naked barmen, their linen trousers drenched with sweat, worked like niggers to mix drinks which should quench these bottomless thirsts. Mahony believed he was the only perfectly sober person in the lobby of the court. Even Ocock himself would seem to have been indulging.
This suspicion was confirmed by the lawyer’s behaviour. No sooner did Ocock espy him than up he rushed, brandishing the note that had been got to him early that morning — and now his eyes looked like little dabs of pitch in his chalk-white face, and his manner, stripped of its veneer, let the real man show through.
“Curse it, sir, and what’s the meaning of this, I’d like to know?” he cried, and struck at the sheet of notepaper with his free hand. “A pretty fix to put us in at the last minute, upon my word! It was your business, sir, to nurse your witness . . . after all the trouble I’d been to with him! What the devil do you expect us to do now?”
Mahony’s face paled under its top-dressing of dust and moisture. To Ocock’s gross: “Well, it’s your own look-out, confound you! — entirely your own look-out,” he returned a cool: “Certainly,” then moved to one side and took up his stand in a corner of the hall, out of the way of the jostle and bustle, the constant going and coming that gave the hinges of the door no rest.
When after a weary wait the time came to enter court, he continued to give Ocock, who had been deep in consultation with his clerk, a wide berth, and moved forward among a number of other people. A dark, ladder-like stair led to the upper storey. While he was mounting this, some words exchanged in a low tone behind him arrested his attention.
“Are you O.K., old man?”
“We are, if our client doesn’t give us away. But he has to be handled like a hot —” Here the sentence snapped, for Mahony, bitten by a sudden doubt, faced sharply round. But it was a stranger who uncivilly accused him of treading on his toe.
The court — it was not much more than twenty feet square — was like an ill-smelling oven. Every chink and crack had been stopped against the searing wind; and the atmosphere was a brew of all the sour odours, the offensive breaths, given off by the two-score odd people crushed within its walls. In spite of precautions the dust had got in: it lay thick on sills, desks and papers, gritted between the teeth, made the throat raspy as a file.
Mahony had given up all hope of winning his case, and looked forward to the sorry pleasure of assisting at a miscarriage of justice. During the speech for the plaintiff, however, he began to see the matter in another light. Not so much thanks to the speaker, as in spite of him. Plaintiff’s counsel was a common little fellow of ungainly appearance: a double toll of fat bulged over the neck of his gown, and his wig, hastily re-donned after a breathing-space, sat askew. Nor was he anything of an orator: he stumbled over his sentences, and once or twice lost his place altogether. To his dry presentment of the case nobody seemed to pay heed. The judge, tired of wiping his spectacles dry, leant back and closed his eyes. Mahony believed he slept, as did also some of the jurors, deaf to the Citation of Dawes V. Peck and Dunlop V. Lambert; to the assertion that the carrier was the agent, the goods were accepted, the property had “passed.” This “passing” of the property was evidently a strong point; the plaintiff’s name itself was not much oftener on the speaker’s lips. “The absconding driver, me Lud, was a personal friend of the defendant’s. Mr. Bolliver never knew him; hence could not engage him. Had this person not been thrust upon him, Mr. Bolliver would have employed the same carrier as on a previous occasion.” And so on and on.
Mahony listened hand at ear, that organ not being keyed up to the mutterings and mumblings of justice. And for all the dullness of the subject-matter and counsel’s lack of eloquence his interest did not flag. It was the first time he heard the case for the other side stated plainly; and he was dismayed to find how convincing it was. Put thus, it must surely gain over every honest, straight-thinking man. In comparison, the points Ocock was going to advance shrank to mere legal quibbles and hair-splitting evasions.
Then the plaintiff himself went into the witness-box — and Mahony’s feelings became involved as well. This his adversary! — this poor old mangy greybeard, who stood blinking a pair of rheumy eyes and weakly smiling. One did not pit oneself against such human flotsam. Drunkard was stamped on every inch of the man, but this morning, in odd exception to the well-primed crew around him, he was sober — bewilderedly sober — and his shabby clothing was brushed, his frayed collar clean. Recognising the pitiful bid for sympathy, Mahony caught himself thinking: “Good Lord! I could have supplied him with a coat he’d have cut a better figure than that in.”
Bolliver clutched the edge of the box with his two hands. His unusual condition was a hindrance rather than a help to him; without a peg or two his woolly thoughts were not to be disentangled. He stammered forth his evidence, halting either to piece together what he was going to say, or to recollect what he had just said — it was clear he went in mortal fear of contradicting himself. The scene was painful enough while he faced his own counsel, but, when counsel for the defence rose, a half-hour followed in which Mahony wished himself far from the court.
Bolliver could not come to the point. Counsel was merciless and coarsely jocose, and brought off several laughs. His victim wound his knotty hands in and out, and swallowed oftener than he had saliva for, in a forlorn endeavour to evade the pitfalls artfully dug for him. More than once he threw a covert glance, that was like an appeal for help, at all the indifferent faces. Mahony drooped his head, that their eyes should not meet.
In high feather at the effect he was producing, counsel inserted his left arm under his gown, and held the stuff out from his back with the tips of all five fingers.
“And now you’ll p’raps have the goodness to tell us whether you’ve ever had occasion to send goods by a carrier before, in the course of your young life?”
“Yes.” It was a humble monosyllable, returned without spirit.
“Then of course you’ve heard of this Murphy?”
“N . . . no, I haven’t,” answered Bolliver, and let his vacillating eyes wander to the judge and back.
“You tell that to the marines!” And after half a dozen other tricky questions: “I put it to you, it’s a well-known fact that he’s been a carrier hereabouts for the last couple o’ years or more?”
“I don’t know — I sup . . . sup-pose so.” Bolliver’s tongue grew heavy and tripped up his words.
“And yet you’ve the cheek, you old rogue you, to insinuate that this was a put-up job?”
“I . . . I only say what I heard.”
“I don’t care a button what you heard or didn’t hear. What I ask, my pretty, is do you yourself say so?”
“The . . . the defendant recommended him.”
“I put it to you, this man Murphy was one of the best known carriers in Melbourne, and THAT was why the defendant recommended him — are you out to deny it?”
“N . . . n . . . no.”
“Then you can stand down!” and leaning over to Grindle, who was below him, counsel whispered with a pleased spread of the hand: “There you are! that’s our case.”
There was a painful moment just before Bolliver left the witness-box. As if become suddenly alive to the sorry figure he had cut, he turned to the judge with hands clasped, exclaimed: “My Lord, if the case goes against me, I’m done . . . stony-broke! And the defendant’s got a down on me, my Lord —‘e’s made up his mind to ruin me. Look at him a-setting there — a hard man, a mean man, if ever you saw one! What would the bit of money ‘ave meant to ’im? But . . .”
He was rudely silenced and hustled away, to a sharp rebuke from the judge, who woke up to give it. All eyes were turned on Mahony. Under the fire of observation — they were comparing him, he knew, with the poor old Jeremy Diddler yonder, to the latter’s disadvantage — his spine stiffened and he held himself nervously erect. But, the quizzing at an end, he fumbled with his finger at his neck — his collar seemed to have grown too tight. While, without, the hot blast, dark with dust, flung itself against the corners of the house, and howled like a soul in pain.
Counsel for the defence made an excellent impression. “Naturally! I can afford to pay a better-class man,” was Mahony’s caustic note. He had fallen to scribbling on a sheet of paper, and was resigned to sitting through an adept presentment of Ocock’s shifts and dodges. But the opening words made him prick up his ears.
“My Lord,” said counsel, “I submit there is here no case to go to the jury. No written contract existed between the parties, to bring it within the Statute of Frauds. Therefore, the plaintiff must prove that the defendant accepted these goods. Now I submit to you, on the plaintiff’s own admission, that the man Murphy was a common carrier. Your Lordship will know the cases of Hanson V. Armitage and various others, in which it has been established beyond doubt that a carrier is not an agent to accept goods.”
The judge had revived, and while counsel called the quality of the undelivered goods in question, and laid stress on the fact of no money having passed, he turned the pages of a thick red book with a moistened thumb. Having found what he sought, he pushed up his spectacles, opened his mouth, and, his eyes bent meditatively on the speaker, picked a back tooth with the nail of his first finger.
“Therefore,” concluded counsel, “I hold that there is no question of fact to go to the jury. I do not wish to occupy your Lordship’s time any further upon this submission. I have my client here, and all his witnesses are in court whom I am prepared to call, should your Lordship decide against me on the present point. But I do submit that the plaintiff, on his own showing, has made out no case; and that under the circumstances, upon his own evidence, this action must fail.”
At the reference to witnesses, Mahony dug his pencil into the paper till the point snapped. So this was their little game! And should the bluff not work . . .? He sat rigid, staring at the chipped fragment of lead, and did not look up throughout the concluding scene of the farce.
It was over; the judge had decided in his favour. He jumped to his feet, and his coat-sleeve swept the dust off the entire length of the ledge in front of him. But before he reached the foot of the stairs Grindle came flying down, to say that Ocock wished to speak to him. Very good, replied Mahony, he would call at the office in the course of the afternoon. But the clerk left the courthouse at his side. And suddenly the thought flashed through Mahony’s mind: “The fellow suspects me of trying to do a bolt — of wanting to make off without paying my bill!”
The leech-like fashion in which Grindle stuck to his heels was not to be misread. “This is what they call nursing, I suppose — he’s nursing ME now!” said Mahony to himself. At the same time he reckoned up, with some anxiety, the money he had in his pocket. Should it prove insufficient, who knew what further affronts were in store for him.
But Ocock had recovered his oily sleekness.
“A close shave that, sir, a VE-RY close shave! With Warnock on the bench I thought we could manage to pull it off. Had it been Guppy now . . . Still, all’s well that ends well, as the poet says. And now for a trifling matter of business.”
“How much do I owe you?”
The bill — it was already drawn up — for “solicitor’s and client’s costs” came to twenty odd pounds. Mahony paid it, and stalked out of the office.
But this was still not all. Once again Grindle ran after him, and pinned him to the floor.
“I say, Mr. Mahony, a rare joke — gad, it’s enough to make you burst your sides! That old thingumbob, the plaintiff, ye know, now what’n earth d’you think ‘e’s been an’ done? Gets outer court like one o’clock —‘e’d a sorter rabbit-fancyin’ business in ‘is backyard. Well, ‘ome ‘e trots an’ slits the guts of every blamed bunny, an’ chucks the bloody corpses inter the street. Oh lor! What do you say to that, eh? Unfurnished in the upper storey, what? Heh, heh, heh!”
How truly “home” the poor little gimcrack shanty had become to him, Mahony grasped only when he once more crossed its threshold and Polly’s arms lay round his neck.
His search for Johnny Ocock had detained him in Melbourne for over a week. Under the guidance of young Grindle he had scoured the city, not omitting even the dens of infamy in the Chinese quarter; and he did not know which to be more saddened by: the revolting sights he saw, or his guide’s proud familiarity with every shade of vice. But nothing could be heard of the missing lad; and at the suggestion of Henry Ocock he put an advertisement in the ARGUS, offering a substantial reward for news of Johnny alive or dead.
While waiting to see what this would bring forth, he paid a visit to John Turnham. It had not been part of his scheme to trouble his new relatives on this occasion; he bore them a grudge for the way they had met Polly’s overture. But he was at his wits’ end how to kill time: chafing at the delay was his main employment, if he were not worrying over the thought of having to appear before old Ocock without his son. So, one midday he called at Turnham’s place of business in Flinders Lane, and was affably received by John, who carried him off to lunch at the Melbourne Club. Turnham was a warm partisan of the diggers’ cause. He had addressed a mass meeting held in Melbourne, soon after the fight on the Eureka; and he now roundly condemned the government’s policy of repression.
“I am, as you are aware, my dear Mahony, no sentimentalist. But these rioters of yours seem to me the very type of man the country needs. Could we have a better bedrock on which to build than these fearless champions of liberty?”
He set an excellent meal before his brother-in-law, and himself ate and drank heartily, unfolding his very table-napkin with a kind of relish. In lunching, he inquired the object of Mahony’s journey to town. At the mention of Henry Ocock’s name he raised his eyebrows and pursed his lips.
“Ah, indeed! Then it is hardly necessary to ask the upshot.”
He pooh-poohed Mahony’s intention of staying till the defaulting witness was found; disapproved, too, the offer of a reward. “To be paid out of YOUR pocket, of course! No, my dear Mahony, set your mind at rest and return to your wife. Lads of that sort never come to grief — more’s the pity! By the bye, how IS Polly, and how does she like life on the diggings?”
In this connection, Mahony tendered congratulations on the expected addition to Turnham’s family. John embarked readily enough on the theme of his beautiful wife; but into his voice, as he talked, came a note of impatience or annoyance, which formed an odd contrast to his wonted self-possession. “Yes . . . her third, and for some reason which I cannot fathom, it threatens to prove the most trying of any.” And here he went into medical detail on Mrs. Emma’s state.
Mahony urged compliance with the whims of the mother-to-be, even should they seem extravagant. “Believe me, at a time like this such moods and caprices have their use. Nature very well knows what she is about.”
“Nature? Bah! I am no great believer in nature,” gave back John, and emptied his glass of madeira. “Nature exists to be coerced and improved.”
They parted; and Mahony went back to twirl his thumbs in the hotel coffee-room. He could not persuade himself to take Turnham’s advice and leave Johnny to his fate. And the delay was nearly over. At dawn next morning Johnny was found lying in a pitiable condition at the door of the hotel. It took Mahony the best part of the day to rouse him; to make him understand he was not to be horsewhipped; to purchase a fresh suit of clothing for him: to get him, in short, halfway ready to travel the following day — a blear-eyed, weak-witted craven, who fell into a cold sweat at every bump of the coach. Not till they reached the end of the awful journey — even a Chinaman rose to impudence about Johnny’s nerves, his foul breath, his cracked lips — did Mahony learn how the wretched boy had come by the money for his debauch. At the public-house where the coach drew up, old Ocock stood grimly waiting, with a leather thong at his belt, and the news that his till had been broken open and robbed of its contents. With an involuntary recommendation to mercy, Mahony handed over the culprit and turned his steps home.
Polly stood on tip-toe to kiss him; Pompey barked till the roof rang, making leaps that fell wide of the mark; the cat hoisted its tail, and wound purring in and out between his legs. Tea was spread, on a clean cloth, with all sorts of good things to eat; an English mail had brought him a batch of letters and journals. Altogether it was a very happy home-coming.
When he had had a sponge-down and finished tea, over which he listened, with a zest that surprised him, to a hundred and one domestic details: afterwards he and Polly strolled arm-in-arm to the top of the little hill to which, before marriage, he used to carry her letters. Here they sat and talked till night fell; and, for the first time, Mahony tasted the dregless pleasure of coming back from the world outside with his toll of adventure, and being met by a woman’s lively and disinterested sympathy. Agreeable incidents gained, those that were the reverse of pleasing lost their sting by being shared with Polly. Not that he told her everything; of the dark side of life he greatly preferred little Polly to remain ignorant. Still, as far as it went, it was a delightful experience. In return he confessed to her something of the uncertainty that had beset him, on hearing his opponent’s counsel state the case for the other side. It was disquieting to think he might be suspected of advancing a claim that was not strictly just.
“Suspected? . . . YOU? Oh, how could anybody be so silly!”
For all the fatigues of his day Mahony could not sleep. And after tossing and tumbling for some time, he rose, threw on his clothing and went out to smoke a pipe in front of the store. Various worries were pecking at him — the hint he had given Polly of their existence seemed to have let them fairly loose upon him. Of course he would be — he was — suspected of having connived at the imposture by which his suit was won — why else have put it in the hands of such a one as Ocock? John Turnham’s soundless whistle of astonishment recurred to him, and flicked him. Imagine it! He, Richard Mahony, giving his sanction to these queasy tricks!
It was bad enough to know that Ocock at any rate had believed him not averse from winning by unjust means. Yet, on the whole, he thought this mortified him less than to feel that he had been written down a Simple Simon, whom it was easy to impose on. Ah well! At best he had been but a kind of guy, set up for them to let off their verbal fireworks round. Faith and that was all these lawyer-fellows wanted — the ghost of an excuse for parading their skill. Justice played a negligible role in this battle of wits; else not he but the plaintiff would have come out victorious. That wretched Bolliver! . . . the memory of him wincing and flushing in the witness-box would haunt him for the rest of his days. He could see him, too, with equal clearness, broken-heartedly slitting the gizzards of his, pets. A poor old derelict — the amen to a life which, like most lives, had once been flush with promise. And it had been his Mahony’s., honourable portion to give the last kick, the ultimate shove into perdition. Why, he would rather have lost the money ten times over!
To divert his mind, he began next morning to make an inventory of the goods in the store. It was high time, too: thanks to the recent disturbances he did not know where he stood. And while he was about it, he gave the place a general clean-up. A job of this kind was a powerful ally in keeping edged thoughts at bay. He and his men had their hands full for several days, Polly, who was not allowed to set foot in the store, peeping critically in at them to see how they progressed. And, after business hours, there was little Polly herself.
He loved to contemplate her.
Six months of married life had worked certain changes in his black-eyed slip of a girl; but something of the doe-like shyness that had caught his fancy still clung to her. With strangers she could even yet be touchingly bashful. Not long out of short frocks, she found it difficult to stand upon her dignity as Mrs. Dr. Mahony. Besides, it was second nature to Polly to efface herself, to steal mousily away. Unless, of course, some one needed help or was in distress, in which case she forgot to be shy. To her husband’s habits and idiosyncrasies she had adapted herself implicitly — but this came easy; for she was sure everything Richard did was right, and that his way of looking at things was the one and only way. So there was no room for discord between them. By this time Polly could laugh over the dismay of her first homecoming: the pitch-dark night and unfamiliar road, the racket of the serenade, the apparition of the great spider: now, all this might have happened to somebody else, not Polly Mahony. Her dislike of things that creep and crawl was, it is true, inborn, and persisted; but nowadays if one of the many “triantelopes” that infested the roof showed its hairy legs, she had only to call Hempel, and out the latter would pop with a broomstick, to do away with the creature. If a scorpion or a centipede wriggled from under a log, the cry of “Tom!” would bring the idle lad next door double-quick over the fence. Polly had learnt not to summon her husband on these occasions; for Richard held to the maxim: “Live and let live.” If at night a tarantula appeared on the bedroom-wall, he caught it in a covered glass and carried it outside: “Just to come in again,” was her rueful reflection. But indeed Polly was surrounded by willing helpers. And small wonder, thought Mahony. Her young nerves were so sound that Hempel’s dry cough never grated them: she doctored him and fussed over him, and was worried that she could not cure him. She met Long Jim’s grumbles with a sunny face, and listened patiently to his forebodings that he would never see “home” or his old woman again. She even brought out a clumsy good-will in the young varmint Tom; nor did his old father’s want of refinement repel her.
“But, Richard, he’s such a kind old man,” she met her husband’s admission of this stumbling-block. “And it isn’t his fault that he wasn’t properly educated. He has had to work for his living ever since he was twelve years old.”
And Mr. Ocock cried quits by remarking confidentially: “That little lady o’ yours ‘as got ‘er ‘eadpiece screwed on the right way. It beats me, doc., why you don’t take ‘er inter the store and learn ‘er the bizness. No offence, I’m sure,” he made haste to add, disconcerted by Mahony’s cold stare.
Had anyone at this date tried to tell Polly she lived in a mean, rough home, he would have had a poor reception. Polly was long since certain that not a house on the diggings could compare with theirs. This was a trait Mahony loved in her — her sterling loyalty; a loyalty that embraced not only her dear ones themselves, but every stick and stone belonging to them. His discovery of it helped him to understand her allegiance to her own multicoloured family: in the beginning he had almost doubted its sincerity. Now, he knew her better. It was just as though a sixth sense had been implanted in Polly, enabling her to pierce straight through John’s self-sufficiency or Ned’s vapourings, to the real kernel of goodness that no doubt lay hid below. He himself could not get at it; but then his powers of divination were the exact opposite of Polly’s. He was always struck by the weak or ridiculous side of a person, and had to dig laboriously down to the virtues. While his young wife, by a kind of genius, saw the good at a glance — and saw nothing else. And she did not stint with her gift, or hoard it up solely for use on her own kith and kin. Her splendid sympathy was the reverse of clannish; it was applied to every mortal who crossed her path.
Yes, for all her youth, Polly had quite a character of her own; and even thus early her husband sometimes ran up against a certain native sturdiness of opinion. But this did not displease him; on the contrary, he would have thanked you for a wife who was only an echo of himself. To take the case of the animals. He had a profound respect for those creatures to which speech has been denied; and he treated the four-footers that dwelt under his roof as his fellows, humanising them, reading his own thoughts into them, and showing more consideration for their feelings than if they had been able to speak up for themselves. Polly saw this in the light of an exquisite joke. She was always kind to Pompey and the stately Palmerston, and would as soon have forgotten to set Richard’s dinner before him as to feed the pair; but they remained “the dog” and “the cat” to her, and, if they had enough to eat, and received neither kicks nor blows, she could not conceive of their souls asking more. It went beyond her to study the cat’s dislike to being turned off its favourite chair, or to believe that the dog did not make dirty prints on her fresh scrubbed floor out of malice prepense; it was also incredible that he should have doggy fits of depression, in which up he must to stick a cold, slobbery snout into a warm human hand. And when Richard tried to conciliate Palmerston stalking sulky to the door, or to pet away the melancholy in the rejected Pompey’s eyes, Polly had to lay down her sewing and laugh at her husband, so greatly did his behaviour amuse her.
Again, there was the question of literature. Books to Mahony were almost as necessary as bread; to his girl-wife, on the other hand, they seemed a somewhat needless luxury — less vital by far than the animals that walked the floor. She took great care of the precious volumes Richard had had carted up from Melbourne; but the cost of the transport was what impressed her most. It was not an overstatement, thought Mahony, to say that a stack of well-chopped, neatly piled wood meant more to Polly than all the books ever written. Not that she did not enjoy a good story: her work done, she liked few things better; and he often smiled at the ease with which she lived herself into the world of make-believe, knowing, of course, that it WAS make-believe and just a kind of humbug. But poetry, and the higher fiction! Little Polly’s professed love for poetry had been merely a concession to the conventional idea of girlhood; or, at best, such a burning wish to be all her Richard desired, that, at the moment, she was convinced of the truth of what she said. But did he read to her from his favourite authors her attention WOULD wander, in spite of the efforts she made to pin it down.
’TIS THE SUNSET OF LIFE GIVES US MYSTICAL LORE,
AND COMING EVENTS CAST THEIR SHADOWS BEFORE,
and his pleasure in the swing of the couplet was such that he repeated it.
Polly wakened with a start. Her thoughts had been miles away — had been back at the “Family Hotel”. There Purdy, after several adventures, his poor leg a mass of supuration, had at length betaken himself, to be looked after by his Tilly; and Polly’s hopes were all alight again.
She blushed guiltily at the repetition, and asked her husband to say the lines once again. He did so.
“But they don’t really, Richard, do they?” she said in an apologetic tone — she referred to the casting of shadows. “It would be so useful if they did —” and she drew a sigh at Purdy’s dilatory treatment of the girl who loved him so well.
“Oh, you prosaic little woman!” cried Mahony, and laid down his book to kiss her. It was impossible to be vexed with Polly: she was so honest, so transparent. “Did you never hear of a certain something called poetic licence?”
No: Polly was more or less familiar with various other forms of licence, from the gold-diggers’ that had caused all the fuss, down to the special licence by which she had been married; but this particular one had not come her way. And on Richard explaining to her the liberty poets allowed themselves, she shifted uncomfortably in her chair, and was sorry to think he approved. It seemed to her just a fine name for wanton exaggeration — if not something worse.
There were also those long evenings they spent over the first hundred pages of WAVERLEY. Mahony, eager for her to share his enthusiasm, comforted her each night anew that they would soon reach the story proper, and then, how interested she would be! But the opening chapters were a sandy desert of words, all about people duller than any Polly had known alive; and sometimes, before the book was brought out, she would heave a secret sigh — although, of course, she enjoyed sitting cosily together with Richard, watching him and listening to his voice. But they might have put their time to a pleasanter use: by talking of themselves, or their friends, or how further to improve their home, or what the store was doing.
Mahony saw her smiling to herself one evening; and after assuring himself that there was nothing on the page before him to call that pleased look to her young face, he laid the book down and offered her a penny for her thoughts. But Polly was loath to confess to wool-gathering.
“I haven’t succeeded in interesting you, have I, Pollikins?”
She made haste to contradict him. Oh, it was very nice, and she loved to hear him read.
“Come, honestly now, little woman!”
She faced him squarely at that, though with pink cheeks. “Well, not much, Richard.”
He took her on his knee. “And what were you smiling at?”
“Me? Oh, I was just thinking of something that happened yesterday”— and Polly sat up, agog to tell.
It appeared that the day before, while he was out, the digger’s wife who did Polly’s rough work for her had rushed in, crying that her youngest was choking. Bonnetless, Polly had flown across to the woman’s hut. There she discovered the child, a fat youngster of a year or so, purple in the face, with a button wedged in its throat. Taking it by the heels she shook the child vigorously, upside-down; and, lo and behold! this had the opposite effect to what she intended. When they straightened the child out again the button was found to have passed the danger-point and gone down. Quickly resolved, Polly cut slice on slice of thin bread-and-butter, and with this she and Mrs. Hemmerde stuffed the willing babe till, full to bursting, it warded them off with its tiny hands.
Mahony laughed heartily at the tale, and applauded his wife’s prompt measures. “Short of the forceps nothing could have been better!”
Yes, Polly had a dash of native shrewdness, which he prized. And a pair of clever hands that were never idle. He had given her leave to make any changes she chose in the house, and she was for ever stitching away at white muslin, or tacking it over pink calico. These affairs made their little home very spick and span, and kept Polly from feeling dull — if one could imagine Polly dull! With the cooking alone had there been a hitch in the beginning. Like a true expert Mrs. Beamish had not tolerated understudies: none but the lowliest jobs, such as raisin-stoning or potato-peeling, had fallen to the three girls’ share: and in face of her first fowl Polly stood helpless and dismayed. But not for long. Sarah was applied to for the best cookery-book on sale in Melbourne, and when this arrived, Polly gave herself up to the study of it. She had many failures, both private and avowed. With the worst, she either retired behind the woodstack, or Tom disposed of them for her, or the dog ate them up. But she persevered: and soon Mahony could with truth declare that no one raised a better loaf or had a lighter hand at pastry than his wife.
Three knocks on the wooden partition was the signal which, if he were not serving a customer, summoned him to the kitchen.
“Oh, Richard, it’s ripen beautifully!” And, red with heat and pride, Polly drew a great golden-crusted, blown-up sponge-cake along the oven shelf. Richard, who had a sweet tooth, pretended to be unable to curb his impatience.
“Wait! First I must see . . .” and she plunged a knife into the cake’s heart: it came out untarnished. “Yes, it’s done to a turn.”
There and then it was cut; for, said Mahony, that was the only way in which he could make sure of a piece. Afterwards chunks were dealt out to every one Polly knew — to Long Jim, Hempel, Tommy Ocock, the little Hemmerdes. Side by side on the kitchen-table, their feet dangling in the air, husband and wife sat boy-and-girl fashion and munched hot cake, till their appetites for dinner were wrecked.
But the rains that heralded winter — and they set in early that year — had not begun to fall when more serious matters claimed Mahony’s attention.
It was an odd and inexplicable thing that business showed no sign of improving. Affairs on Ballarat had, for months past, run their usual prosperous course. The western township grew from day to day, and was straggling right out to the banks of the great swamp. On the Flat, the deep sinking that was at present the rule — some parties actually touched a depth of three hundred feet before bottoming — had brought a fresh host of fortune-hunters to the spot, and the results obtained bid fair to rival those of the first golden year. The diggers’ grievances and their conflict with the government were now a turned page. At a state trial all prisoners had been acquitted, and a general amnesty declared for those rebels who were still at large. Unpopular ministers had resigned or died; a new constitution for the colony awaited the Royal assent; and pending this, two of the rebel-leaders, now prominent townsmen, were chosen to sit in the Legislative Council. The future could not have looked rosier. For others, that was. For him, Mahony, it held more than one element of uncertainty.
At no time had he come near making a fortune out of storekeeping. For one thing, he had been too squeamish. From the outset he had declined to soil his hands with surreptitious grog-selling; nor would he be a party to that evasion of the law which consisted in overcharging on other goods, and throwing in drinks free. Again, he would rather have been hamstrung than stoop to the tricks in vogue with regard to the weighing of gold-dust: the greased scales, the wet sponge, false beams, and so on. Accordingly, he had a clearer conscience than the majority and a lighter till. But even at the legitimate ABC of business he had proved a duffer. He had never, for instance, learned to be a really skilled hand at stocking a shop. Was an out-of-the-way article called for, ten to one he had run short of it; and the born shopman’s knack of palming off or persuading to a makeshift was not his. Such goods as he had, he did not press on people; his attitude was always that of “take it or leave it”; and he sometimes surprised a ridiculous feeling of satisfaction when he chased a drunken and insolent customer off the premises, or secured an hour’s leisure unbroken by the jangle of the store-bell.
Still, in spite of everything he had, till recently, done well enough. Money was loose, and the diggers, if given long credit when down on their luck, were in the main to be relied on to pay up when they struck the lead or tapped a pocket. He had had slack seasons before now, and things had always come right again. This made it hard for him to explain the present prolonged spell of dullness.
That there was something more than ordinarily wrong first dawned on him during the stock-taking in summer. Hempel and he were constantly coming upon goods that had been too long on hand, and were now fit only to be thrown away. Half-a-dozen boxes of currants showed a respectable growth of mould; a like fate had come upon some flitches of bacon; and not a bag of flour but had developed a species of minute maggot. Rats had got at his coils of rope, one of which, sold in all good faith, had gone near causing the death of the digger who used it. The remains of some smoked fish were brought back and flung at his head with a shower of curses, by a woman who had fallen ill through eating of it. And yet, in spite of the replenishing this involved, the order he sent to town that season was the smallest he had ever given. For the first time he could not fill a dray, but had to share one with a greenhorn, who, if you please, was setting up at his very door.
He and Hempel cracked their brains to account for the falling-off — or at least he did: afterwards he believed Hempel had suspected the truth and been too mealy-mouthed to speak out. It was Polly who innocently — for of course he did not draw her into confidence — Polly supplied the clue from a piece of gossip brought to the house by the woman Hemmerde. It appeared that, at the time of the rebellion, Mahony’s open antagonism to the Reform League had given offence all round — to the extremists as well as to the more wary on whose behalf the League was drafted. They now got even with him by taking their custom elsewhere. He snorted with indignation on hearing of it; then laughed ironically. He was expected, was he, not only to bring his personal tastes and habits into line with those of the majority, but to deny his politics as well? And if he refused, they would make it hard for him to earn a decent living in their midst. Nothing seemed easier to these unprincipled democrats than for a man to cut his coat to suit his job. Why, he might just as well turn Whig and be done with it!
He sat over his account-books. The pages were black with bad debts for “tucker.” Here however was no mystery. The owners of these names — Purdy was among them — had without doubt been implicated in the Eureka riot, and had made off and never returned. He struck a balance, and found to his consternation that, unless business took a turn for the better, he would not be able to hold out beyond the end of the year. Afterwards, he was blessed if he knew what was going to happen. The ingenious Hempel was full of ideas for tempting back fortune — opening a branch store on a new lead was one of them, or removing bodily to Main Street — but ready money was the SINE QUA NON of such schemes, and ready money he had not got. Since his marriage he had put by as good as nothing; and the enlarging and improving of his house, at that time, had made a big hole in his bachelor savings. He did not feel justified at the present pass in drawing on them anew. For one thing, before summer was out there would be, if all went well, another mouth to feed. And that meant a variety of seen and unforeseen expenses.
Such were the material anxieties he had to encounter in the course of that winter. Below the surface a subtler embarrassment worked to destroy his peace. In face of the shortage of money, he was obliged to thank his stars that he had not lost the miserable lawsuit of a few months back. Had that happened, he wouldn’t at present have known where to turn. But this amounted to confessing his satisfaction at having pulled off his case, pulled it off anyhow, by no matter what crooked means. And as if this were not enough, the last words he had heard Purdy say came back to sting him anew. The boy had accused him of judging a fight for freedom from a tradesman’s standpoint. Now it might be said of him that he was viewing justice from the same angle. He had scorned the idea of distorting his political opinions to fit the trade by which he gained his bread. But it was a far more serious thing if his principles, his character, his sense of equity were all to be undermined as well. If he stayed here, he would end by becoming as blunt to what was right and fair as the rest of them. As it was, he was no longer able to regard the two great landmarks of man’s moral development — liberty and justice — from the point of view of an honest man and a gentleman.
His self-annoyance was so great that it galvanised him to action. There and then he made up his mind: as soon as the child that was coming to them was old enough to travel, he would sell out for what he could get, and go back to the old country. Once upon a time he had hoped, when he went, to take a good round sum with him towards a first-rate English practice. Now he saw that this scheme had been a kind of Jack-o’-lantern — a marsh-light after which he might have danced for years to come. As matters stood, he must needs be content if, the passage-moneys paid, he could scrape together enough to keep him afloat till he found a modest corner to slip into.
His first impulse was to say nothing of this to his wife in the meantime. Why unsettle her? But he had reckoned without the sudden upward leap his spirits made, once his decision was taken: the winter sky was blue as violets again above him; he turned out light-heartedly of a morning. It was impossible to hide the change in his mood from Polly — even if he had felt it fair to do so. Another thing: when he came to study Polly by the light of his new plan, he saw that his scruples about unsettling her were fanciful — wraiths of his own imagining. As a matter of fact, the sooner he broke the news to her the better. Little Polly was so thoroughly happy here that she would need time to accustom herself to the prospect of life elsewhere.
He went about it very cautiously though; and with no hint of the sour and sorry incidents that had driven him to the step. As was only natural, Polly was rather easily upset at present: the very evening before, he had had occasion to blame himself for his tactless behaviour.
In her first sick young fear Polly had impulsively written off to Mother Beamish, to claim the fulfilment of that good woman’s promise to stand by her when her time came. One letter gave another; Mrs. Beamish not only announced that she would hold herself ready to support her “little duck” at a moment’s notice, but filled sheets with sage advice and old wives’ maxims; and the correspondence, which had languished, flared up anew. Now came an ill-scrawled, misspelt epistle from Tilly — doleful, too, for Purdy had once more quitted her without speaking the binding word — in which she told that Purdy’s leg, though healed, was permanently shortened; the doctor in Geelong said he would never walk straight again.
Husband and wife sat and discussed the news, wondered how lameness would affect Purdy’s future and what he was doing now, Tilly not having mentioned his whereabouts. “She has probably no more idea than we have,” said Mahony.
“I’m afraid not,” said Polly with a sigh. “Well, I hope he won’t come back here, that’s all”; and she considered the seam she was sewing, with an absent air.
“Why, love? Don’t you like old Dickybird?” asked Mahony in no small surprise.
“Oh yes, quite well. But. . .”
“Is it because he still can’t make up his mind to take your Tilly — eh?”
“That, too. But chiefly because of something he said.”
“And what was that, my dear?”
“Oh, very silly,” and Polly smiled.
“Out with it, madam! Or I shall suspect the young dog of having made advances to my wife.”
“Richard, DEAR!” Little Polly thought he was in earnest, and grew exceedingly confused. “Oh no, nothing like that,” she assured him, and with red cheeks rushed into an explanation. “He only said, in spite of you being such old friends he felt you didn’t really care to have him here on Ballarat. After a time you always invented some excuse to get him away.” But now that it was out, Polly felt the need of toning down the statement, and added: “I shouldn’t wonder if he was silly enough to think you were envious of him, for having so many friends and being liked by all sorts of people.”
“Envious of him? I? Who on earth has been putting such ideas into your head?” cried Mahony.
“It was ‘mother’ thought so — it was while I was still there,” stammered Polly, still more fluttered by the fact of him fastening on just these words.
Mahony tried to quell his irritation by fidgeting round the room. “Surely, Polly, you might give up calling that woman ‘mother,’ now you belong to me — I thank you for the relationship!” he said testily. And having with much unnecessary ado knocked the ashes out of his pipe, he went on: “It’s bad enough to say things of that kind; but to repeat them, love, is in even poorer taste.”
“Yes, Richard,” said Polly meekly.
But her amazed inner query was: “Not even to one’s own husband?”
She hung her head, till the white thread of parting between the dark loops of her hair was almost perpendicular. She had spoken without thinking in the first place — had just blurted out a passing thought. But even when forced to explain, she had never dreamt of Richard taking offence. Rather she had imagined the two of them — two banded lovingly against one — making merry together over Purdy’s nonsense. She had heard her husband laugh away much unkinder remarks than this. And perhaps if she had stopped there, and said no more, it might have been all right. By her stupid attempt to gloss things over, she had really managed to hurt him, and had made him think her gossipy into the bargain.
She went on with her sewing. But when Mahony came back from the brisk walk by means of which he got rid of his annoyance, he fancied, though Polly was as cheery as ever and had supper laid for him, that her eyelids were red.
This was why, the following evening, he promised himself to be discreet.
Winter had come in earnest; the night was wild and cold. Before the crackling stove the cat lay stretched at full length, while Pompey dozed fitfully, his nose between his paws. The red-cotton curtains that hung at the little window gave back the lamplight in a ruddy glow; the clock beat off the seconds evenly, except when drowned by the wind, which came in bouts, hurling itself against the corners of the house. And presently, laying down his book — Polly was too busy now to be read to — Mahony looked across at his wife. She was wrinkling her pretty brows over the manufacture of tiny clothes, a rather pale little woman still, none of the initial discomforts of her condition having been spared her. Feeling his eyes on her, she looked up and smiled: did ever anyone see such a ridiculous armhole? Three of one’s fingers were enough to fill it — and she held the little shirt aloft for his inspection. Here was his chance: the child’s coming offered the best of pretexts. Taking not only the midget garment but also the hand that held it, he told her of his resolve to go back to England and re-enter his profession.
“You know, love, I’ve always wished to get home again. And now there’s an additional reason. I don’t want my . . . our children to grow up in a place like this. Without companions — or refining influences. Who knows how they would turn out?”
He said it, but in his heart he knew that his children would be safe enough. And Polly, listening to him, made the same reservation: yes, but OUR children . . . .
“And so I propose, as soon as the youngster’s old enough to travel, to haul down the flag for good and all, and book passages for the three of us in some smart clipper. We’ll live in the country, love. Think of it, Polly! A little gabled, red-roofed house at the foot of some Sussex down, with fruit trees and a high hedge round it, and only the oast-houses peeping over. Doesn’t it make your mouth water, my dear?”
He had risen in his eagerness, and stood with his back to the stove, his legs apart. And Polly nodded and smiled up at him — though, truth to tell, the picture he drew did not mean much to her: she had never been in Sussex, nor did she know what an oast-house was. A night such as this, with flying clouds and a shrill, piping wind, made her think of angry seas and a dark ship’s cabin, in which she lay deathly sick. But it was not Polly’s way to dwell on disagreeables: her mind glanced off to a pleasanter theme.
“Have you ever thought, Richard, how strange it will seem when there ARE three of us? You and I will never be quite alone together again. Oh, I do hope he will be a good baby and not cry much. It will worry you if he does — like Hempel’s cough. And then you won’t love him properly.”
“I shall love it because it is yours, my darling. And the baby of such a dear little mother is sure to be good.”
“Oh, babies will be babies, you know!” said Polly, with a new air of wisdom which sat delightfully on her.
Mahony pinched her cheek. “Mrs. Mahony, you’re shirking my question. Tell me now, should you not be pleased to get back to England?”
“I’ll go wherever you go, Richard,” said Polly staunchly. “Always. And of course I should like to see mother — I mean my real mother — again. But then Ned’s here . . . and John, and Sarah. I should be very sorry to leave them. I don’t think any of them will ever go home now.”
“They may be here, but they don’t trouble YOU often, my dear,” said Mahony, with more than a hint of impatience. “Especially Ned the well-beloved, who lives not a mile from your door.”
“I know he doesn’t often come to see us, Richard. But he’s only a boy; and has to work so hard. You see it’s like this. If Ned should get into any trouble, I’m here to look after him; and I know that makes mother’s mind easier — Ned was always her favourite.”
“And an extraordinary thing, too! I believe it’s the boy’s good looks that blind you women to his faults.”
“Oh no, indeed it isn’t!” declared Polly warmly. “It’s just because Ned’s Ned. The dearest fellow, if you really know him.”
“And so your heart’s anchored here, little wife, and would remain here even if I carried your body off to England?”
“Oh no, Richard,” said Polly again. “My heart would always be where you are. But I can’t help wondering how Ned would get on alone. And Jerry will soon be here too, now, and he’s younger still. And HOW I should like to see dear Tilly settled before I go!”
Judging that enough had been said for the time being, Mahony re-opened his book, leaving his wife to chew the cud of innocent matchmaking and sisterly cares.
In reality Polly’s reflections were of quite another nature.
Her husband’s abrupt resolve to leave the colony, disturbing though it was, did not take her altogether by surprise. She would have needed to be both deaf and blind not to notice that the store-bell rang much seldomer than it used to, and that Richard had more spare time on his hands. Yes, trade was dull, and that made him fidgety. Now she had always known that someday it would be her duty to follow Richard to England. But she had imagined that day to be very far off — when they were elderly people, and had saved up a good deal of money. To hear the date fixed for six months hence was something of a shock to her. And it was at this point that Polly had a sudden inspiration. As she listened to Richard talking of resuming his profession, the thought flashed through her mind: why not here? Why should he not start practice in Ballarat, instead of travelling all those thousands of miles to do it?
This was what she ruminated while she tucked and hemmed. She could imagine, of course, what his answer would be. He would say there were too many doctors on Ballarat already; not more than a dozen of them made satisfactory incomes. But this argument did not convince Polly. Richard wasn’t, perhaps, a great success at storekeeping; but that was only because he was too good for it. As a doctor, he with his cleverness and gentlemanly manners would soon, she was certain, stand head and shoulders above the rest. And then there would be money galore. It was true he did not care for Ballarat — was down on both place and people. But this objection, too, Polly waived. It passed belief that anybody could really dislike this big, rich, bustling, go-ahead township, where such handsome buildings were springing up and every one was so friendly. In her heart she ascribed her husband’s want of love for it to the “infra dig” position he occupied. If he mixed with his equals again and got rid of the feeling that he was looked down on, it would make all the difference in the world to him. He would then be out of reach of snubs and slights, and people would understand him better — not the residents on Ballarat alone, but also John, and Sarah, and the Beamishes, none of whom really appreciated Richard. In her mind’s eye Polly had a vision of him going his rounds mounted on a chestnut horse, dressed in surtout and choker, and hand and glove with the bigwigs of society — the gentlemen at the Camp, the Police Magistrate and Archdeacon Long, the rich squatters who lived at the foot of Mount Buninyong. It brought the colour to her cheeks merely to think of it.
She did not, however, breathe a word of this to Richard. She was a shade wiser than the night before, when she had vexed him by blurting out her thoughts. And the present was not the right time to speak. In these days Richard was under the impression that she needed to be humoured. He might agree with her against his better judgment, or, worse still, pretend to agree. And Polly didn’t want that. She wished fairly to persuade him that, by setting up here on the diggings where he was known and respected, he would get on quicker, and make more money, than if he buried himself in some poky English village where no one had ever heard of him.
Meanwhile the unconscious centre of her ambitions wore a perplexed frown. Mahony was much exercised just now over the question of medical attendance for Polly. The thought of coming into personal contact with a member of the fraternity was distasteful to him; none of them had an inkling who or what he was. And, though piqued by their unsuspectingness, he at the same time feared lest it should not be absolute, and he have the ill-luck to hit on a practitioner who had heard of his stray spurts of doctoring and written him down a charlatan and a quack. For this reason he would call in no one in the immediate neighbourhood — even the western township seemed too near. Ultimately, his choice fell on a man named Rogers who hailed from Mount Pleasant, the rise on the opposite side of the valley and some two miles off. It was true since he did not intend to disclose his own standing, the distance would make the fellow’s fees mount up. But Rogers was at least properly qualified (half those claiming the title of physician were impudent impostors, who didn’t know a diploma from the Ten Commandments), of the same ALMA MATER as himself — not a contemporary, though, he took good care of that! — and, if report spoke true, a skilful and careful obstetrician.
When, however, in response to a note carried by Long Jim Rogers drew rein in front of the store, Mahony was not greatly impressed by him. He proved to be a stout, reddish man, some ten years Mahony’s senior, with a hasty-pudding face and an undecided manner. There be sat, his ten spread finger-tips meeting and gently tapping one another across his paunch, and nodding: “Just so, just so!” to all he heard. He had the trick of saying everything twice over. “Needs to clinch his own opinion!” was Mahony’s swift diagnosis. Himself, he kept in the background. And was he forced to come forward his manner was both stiff and forbidding, so on tenterhooks was he lest the other should presume to treat him as anything but the storekeeper he gave himself out to be.
A day or so later who but the wife must arrive to visit Polly! — a piece of gratuitous friendliness that could well have been dispensed with; even though Mahony felt it keenly that, at this juncture, Polly should lack companions of her own sex. But Rogers had married beneath him, and the sight of the pursy upstart — there were people on the Flat who remembered her running barefoot and slatternly — sitting there, in satin and feathers, lording it over his own little Jenny Wren, was more than Mahony could tolerate. The distance was put forward as an excuse for Polly not returning the call, and Polly was docile as usual; though for her part she had thought her visitor quite a pleasant, kindly woman. But then Polly never knew when she was being patronised!
To wipe out any little trace of disappointment, her husband suggested that she should write and ask one of the Beamish girls to stay with her: it would keep her from feeling the days long.
But Polly only laughed. “Long? — when I have so much sewing to do?”
No, she did not want company. By now, indeed, she regretted having sent off that impulsive invitation to Mrs. Beamish for the end of the year. Puzzle as she would, she could not see how she was going to put “mother” comfortably up.
Meanwhile the rains were changing the familiar aspect of the place. Creeks — in summer dry gutters of baked clay — were now rich red rivers; and the yellow Yarrowee ran full to the brim, keeping those who lived hard by it in a twitter of anxiety. The steep slopes of Black Hill showed thinly green; the roads were ploughed troughs of sticky mire. Occasional night frosts whitened the ground, bringing cloudless days in their wake. Then down came the rain once more, and fell for a week on end. The diggers were washed out of their holes, the Flat became an untraversable bog. And now there were floods in earnest: the creeks turned to foaming torrents that swept away trees and the old roots of trees; and the dwellers on the river banks had to fly for their bare lives.
Over the top of book or newspaper Mahony watched his wife stitch, stitch, stitch, with a zeal that never flagged, at the dolly garments. Just as he could read his way, so Polly sewed hers, through the time of waiting. But whereas she, like a sensible little woman, pinned her thoughts fast to the matter in hand, he let his range freely over the future. Of the many good things this had in store for him, one in particular whetted his impatience. It took close on a twelvemonth out here to get hold of a new book. On Ballarat not even a stationer’s existed; nor were there more than a couple of shops in Melbourne itself that could be relied on to carry out your order. You perforce fell behind in the race, remained ignorant of what was being said and done — in science, letters, religious controversy — in the great world overseas. To this day he didn’t know whether Agassiz had or had not been appointed to the chair of Natural History in Edinburgh; or whether fresh heresies with regard to the creation of species had spoiled his chances; did not know whether Hugh Miller had actually gone crazy over the VESTIGES; or even if those arch-combatants, Syme and Simpson, had at length sheathed their swords. Now, however, God willing, he would before very long be back in the thick of it all, in intimate touch with the doings of the most wide-awake city in Europe; and new books and pamphlets would come into his possession as they dropped hot from the press.
And then one morning — it was spring now, and piping hot at noon — Long Jim brought home from the post-office a letter for Polly, addressed in her sister Sarah’s sloping hand. Knowing the pleasure it would give her, Mahony carried it at once to his wife; and Polly laid aside broom and duster and sat down to read.
But he was hardly out of the room when a startled cry drew him back to her side. Polly had hidden her face, and was shaken by sobs As he could not get her to speak, Mahony picked up the letter from the floor and read it for himself.
Sarah wrote like one distracted.
OH, MY DEAR SISTER, HOW CAN I FIND WORDS TO TELL YOU OF THE TRULY “AWFUL” CALAMITY THAT HAS BEFALLEN OUR UNHAPPY BROTHER. Mahony skipped the phrases, and learnt that owing to a carriage accident Emma Turnham had been prematurely confined, and, the best medical aid notwithstanding — JOHN SPARED ABSOLUTELY “NO” EXPENSE— had died two days later. JOHN IS LIKE A MADMAN. DIRECTLY I HEARD THE “SHOCKING” NEWS, I AT ONCE THREW UP MY ENGAGEMENT— AT “SERIOUS” LOSS TO MYSELF, BUT THAT IS A MATTER OF SMALL CONSEQUENCE— AND CAME TO TAKE MY PLACE BESIDE OUR POOR DEAR BROTHER IN HIS GREAT TRIAL. BUT ALL MY EFFORTS TO BRING HIM TO A PROPER AND “CHRISTIAN” FRAME OF MIND HAVE BEEN FRUITLESS. I AM INDEED ALARMED TO BE ALONE WITH HIM, AND I TREMBLE FOR THE CHILDREN, FOR HE IS POSSESSED OF AN “INSANE” HATRED FOR THE SWEET LITTLE LOVES. HE HAS LOCKED HIMSELF IN HIS ROOM, WILL SEE “NO ONE” NOR TOUCH A “PARTICLE” OF NOURISHMENT. DO, MY DEAREST POLLY, COME AT ONCE ON RECEIPT OF THIS, AND HELP ME IN THE “TRULY AWFUL” TASK THAT HAS BEEN LAID UPON ME. AND PRAY FORGIVE ME FOR USING THIS PLAIN PAPER. I HAVE HAD LITERALLY NO TIME TO ORDER MOURNING “OF ANY KIND.”
So that was Sarah! With a click of the tongue Mahony tossed the letter on the table, and made it clear to Polly that under no consideration would he allow her to attempt the journey to town. Her relatives seemed utterly to have forgotten her condition; if, indeed., they had ever grasped the fact that she was expecting a child.
But Polly did not heed him. “Oh, poor, poor Emma! Oh, poor dear John!” Her husband could only soothe her by promising to go to Sarah’s assistance himself, the following day.
They had been entirely in the dark about things. For John Turnham thought proper to erect a jealous wall about his family life. What went on behind it was nobody’s business but his own. You felt yourself — were meant to feel yourself — the alien, the outsider. And Mahony marvelled once more at the wealth of love and sympathy his little Polly had kept fresh for these two, who had wasted so few of their thoughts on her.
Polly dried her eyes; he packed his carpet-bag. He did this with a good deal of pother, pulling open the wrong drawers, tumbling up their contents and generally making havoc of his wife’s arrangements. But the sight of his clumsiness acted as a kind of tonic on Polly: she liked to feel that he was dependent on her for his material comfort and well-being.
They spoke of John’s brief married life.
“He loved her like a pagan, my dear,” said Mahony. “And if what your sister Sarah writes is not exaggerated, he is bearing his punishment in a truly pagan way.”
“But you won’t say that to him, dear Richard . . . will you? You’ll be very gentle with him?” pleaded Polly anxiously.
“Indeed I shall, little woman. But one can’t help thinking these things, all the same. You know it is written: ‘Thou shalt have none other gods but Me.’”
“Yes, I know. But then this was JUST Emma . . . and she was so pretty and so good”— and Polly cried anew.
Mahony rose before dawn to catch the coach. Together with a packet of sandwiches, Polly brought him a small black mantle.
“For Sarah, with my dear love. You see, Richard, I know she always wears coloured dresses. And she will feel so much happier if she has SOMETHING black to put on.” Little Polly’s voice was deep with persuasion. Richard was none too well pleased, she could see, at having to unlock his bag again; she feared too, that, after the letter of the day before, his opinion of Sarah had gone down to zero.
Mahony secured a corner seat; and so, though his knees interlocked with those of his VIS-A-VIS, only one of the eight inside passengers was jammed against him. The coach started; and the long, dull hours of the journey began to wear away. Nothing broke the monotony but speculations whether the driver — a noted tippler — would be drunk before Melbourne was reached and capsize them; and the drawling voice of a Yankee prospector, who told lying tales about his exploits in California in ‘48 until, having talked his hearers to sleep, he dropped off himself. Then, Mahony fell to reflecting on what lay before him. He didn’t like the job. He was not one of your born good Samaritans: he relished intruding as little as being intruded on. Besides, morally to sustain, to forbear with, a fellow-creature in misfortune, seemed to him as difficult and thankless a task as any required of one. Infinite tact was essential, and a skin thick enough to stand snubs and rebuffs. But here he smiled. “Or my little wife’s inability to recognise them!”
House and garden had lost their air of well-groomed smartness: the gate stood ajar, the gravel was unraked, the verandah-flooring black with footmarks. With all the blinds still down, the windows looked like so many dead eyes. Mahony’s first knock brought no response; at his second, the door was opened by Sarah Turnham herself. But a very different Sarah this, from the elegant and sprightly young person who had graced his wedding. Her chignon was loose, her dress dishevelled. On recognising Mahony, she uttered a cry and fell on his neck — he had to disengage her arms by force and speak severely to her, declaring that he would go away again, if she carried out her intention of swooning.
At last he got her round so far that she could tell her tale, which she did with a hysterical overstatement. She had, it seemed, arrived there just before her sister-in-law died. John was quarrelling furiously with all three doctors, and, before the end, insulted the only one who was left in such a fashion that he, too, marched out of the house. They had to get the dead woman measured, coffined and taken away by stealth. Whereupon John had locked himself up in his room, and had not been seen since. He had a loaded revolver with him; through the closed door he had threatened to shoot both her and the children. The servants had deserted, panic-stricken at their master’s behaviour, at the sudden collapse of the well-regulated household: the last, a nurse-girl sent out on an errand some hours previously, had not returned. Sarah was at her wits’ end to know what to do with the children — he might hear them screaming at this moment.
Mahony, in no hesitancy now how to deal with the situation, laid his hat aside and drew off his gloves. “Prepare some food,” he said briefly. “A glass of port and a sandwich or two, if you can manage nothing else — but meat of some kind.”
But there was not a morsel of meat in the house.
“Then go to the butcher’s and buy some.”
Sarah gasped, and bridled. She had never in her life been inside a butcher’s shop!
“Good God, woman, then the sooner you make the beginning the better!” cried Mahony. And as he strode down the passage to the door she indicated, he added: “Now control yourself, madam! And if you have not got what I want in a quarter of an hour’s time, I’ll walk out of the house and leave you to your own devices!” At which Sarah, cowed and shaken, began tremblingly to tie her bonnet-strings.
Mahony knocked three times at the door of John Turnham’s room, each time more loudly. Then he took to battering with his fist on the panels, and cried: “It is I, John, your brother-in-law! Have the goodness to unlock this door at once!”
There was still an instant of suspense; then heavy footsteps crossed the floor and the door swung back. Mahony’s eyes met a haggard white face set in a dusky background.
“You!” said John in a slow, dazed way, and blinked at the light. But in the next breath he burst out: “Where’s that damned fool of a woman? Is she skulking behind you? I won’t see her — won’t have her near me!”
“If you mean your sister Sarah, she is not in the house at present,” said Mahony; and stepping over the threshold he shut the door. The two men faced each other in the twilight.
“What do you want?” demanded John in a hoarse voice. “Have you, too, come to preach and sermonise? If so, you can go back where you came from! I’ll have none of that cant here.”
“No, no, I leave that to those whose business it is. I’m here as your doctor”; and Mahony drew up a blind and opened a window. Instantly the level sun-rays flooded the room; and the air that came in with them smacked of the sea. Just outside the window a quince-tree in full blossom reared extravagant masses of pink snow against the blue overhead; beyond it a covered walk of vines shone golden-green. There was not a cloud in the sky. To turn back to the musty room from all this lush and lovely life was like stepping down into a vault.
John had sunk into a seat before a secretaire, and shielded his eyes from the sun. A burnt-out candle stood at his elbow; and in a line before him were ranged such images as remained to him of his dead — a dozen or more daguerrotypes, of various sizes: Emma and he before marriage and after marriage; Emma with her first babe, at different stages of its growth; Emma with the two children; Emma in ball-attire; with a hat on; holding a book.
The sight gave the quietus to Mahony’s scruples. Stooping, he laid his hand on John’s shoulder. “My poor fellow,” he said gently. “Your sister was not in a fit state to travel, so I have come in her place to tell you how deeply, how truly, we feel for you in your loss. I want to try, too, to help you to bear it. For it has to be borne, John.”
At this the torrent burst. Leaping to his feet John began to fling wildly to and fro; and then, for a time, the noise of his lamentations filled the room. Mahony had assisted at scenes of this kind before, but never had he heard the like of the blasphemies that poured over John’s lips. (Afterwards, when he had recovered his distance, he would refer to it as the occasion on which John took the Almighty to task, for having dared to interfere in his private life.)
At the moment he sat silent. “Better for him to get it out,” he thought to himself, even while he winced at John’s scurrility.
When, through sheer exhaustion, John came to a stop, Mahony cast about for words of consolation. All reference to the mystery of God’s way was precluded; and he shrank from entering that sound plea for the working of Time, which drives a spike into the heart of the new-made mourner. He bethought himself of the children. “Remember, she did not leave you comfortless. You have your little ones. Think of them.”
But this was a false move. Like a belated thunderclap after the storm is over, John broke out again, his haggard eyes aflame. “Curse the children!” he cried thickly. “Curse them, I say! If I had once caught sight of them since she . . . she went, I should have wrung their necks. I never wanted children. They came between us. They took her from me. It was a child that killed her. Now, she is gone and they are left. Keep them out of my way, Mahony! Don’t let them near me. — Oh, Emma . . . wife!” and here his shoulders heaved, under dry, harsh sobs.
Mahony felt his own eyes grow moist. “Listen to me, John. I promise you, you shall not see your children again until you wish to — till you’re glad to recall them, as a living gift from her you have lost. I’ll look after them for you.”
“You will? . . . God bless you, Mahony!”
Judging the moment ripe, Mahony rose and went out to fetch the tray on which Sarah had set the eatables. The meat was but a chop, charred on one side, raw on the other; but John did not notice its shortcomings. He fell on it like the starving man he was, and gulped down two or three glasses of port. The colour returned to his face, he was able to give an account of his wife’s last hours. “And to talk is what he needs, even if he goes on till morning.” Mahony was quick to see that there were things that rankled in John’s memory, like festers in flesh. One was that, knowing the greys were tricky, he had not forbidden them to Emma long ago. But he had felt proud of her skill in handling the reins, of the attention she attracted. Far from thwarting her, he had actually urged her on. Her fall had been a light one, and at the outset no bad results were anticipated: a slight haemorrhage was soon got under control. A week later, however, it began anew, more violently, and then all remedies were in vain. As it became clear that the child was dead, the doctors had recourse to serious measures. But the bleeding went on. She complained of a roaring in her ears, her extremities grew cold, her pulse fluttered to nothing. She passed from syncope to coma, and from coma to death. John swore that two of the doctors had been the worse for drink; the third was one of those ignorant impostors with whom the place swarmed. And again he made himself reproaches.
“I ought to have gone to look for someone else. But she was dying . . . I could not tear myself away. — Mahony, I can still see her. They had stretched her across the bed, so that her head hung over the side. Her hair swept the floor — one scoundrel trod on it . . . trod on her hair! And I had to stand by and watch, while they butchered her — butchered my girl. — Oh, there are things, Mahony, one cannot dwell on and live!”
“You must not look at it like that. Yet, when I recall some of the cases I’ve seen contraction induced in . . .”
“Ah yes, if you had been here . . . my God, if only you had been here!”
But Mahony did not encourage this idea; it was his duty to unhitch John’s thoughts from the past. He now suggested that, the children and Sarah safe in his keeping, John should shut up the house and go away. To his surprise John jumped at the proposal, was ready there and then to put it into effect. Yes, said he, he would start the very next morning, and with no more than a blanket on his back, would wander a hundred odd miles into the bush, sleeping out under the stars at night, and day by day increasing the distance between himself and the scene of his loss. And now up he sprang, in a sudden fury to be gone. Warning Sarah into the background, Mahony helped him get together a few necessaries, and then walked him to a hotel. Here he left him sleeping under the influence of a drug, and next day saw him off on his tramp northwards, over the Great Divide.
John’s farewell words were: “Take the keys of the house with you, and don’t give them up to me under a month, at least.”
That day’s coach was full; they had to wait for seats till the following afternoon. The delay was not unwelcome to Mahony; it gave Polly time to get the letter he had written her the night before. After leaving John, he set about raising money for the extra fares and other unforeseen expenses: at the eleventh hour, Sarah informed him that their young brother Jerry had landed in Melbourne during Emma’s illness, and had been hastily boarded out. Knowing no one else in the city, Mahony was forced, much as it went against the grain, to turn to Henry Ocock for assistance. And he was effusively received — Ocock tried to press double the sum needed on him. Fortune was no doubt smiling on the lawyer. His offices had swelled to four rooms, with appropriate clerks in each. He still, however, nursed the scheme of transferring his business to Ballarat.
“As soon, that is, as I can hear of suitable premises. I understand there’s only one locality to be considered, and that’s the western township.” On which Mahony, whose address was in the outer darkness, repeated his thanks and withdrew.
He found Jerry’s lodging, paid the bill, and took the boy back to St. Kilda — a shy slip of a lad in his early teens, with the colouring and complexion that ran in the family. John’s coachman, who had shown himself not indisposed — for a substantial sum, paid in advance — to keep watch over house and grounds, was installed in an outbuilding, and next day at noon, after personally aiding Sarah, who was all a-tremble at the prospect of the bush journey, to pack her own and the children’s clothes, Mahony turned the key in the door of the darkened house. But a couple of weeks ago it had been a proud and happy home. Now it had no more virtue left in it than a crab’s empty shell.
He had fumed on first learning of Jerry’s superfluous presence; but before they had gone far he saw that he would have fared ill indeed, had Jerry not been there. Sarah, too agitated that morning to touch a bite of food, was seized, not an hour out, with sickness and fainting. There she sat, her eyes closed, her salts to her nose or feebly sipping brandy, unable to lift a finger to help with the children. The younger of the two slept most of the way hotly and heavily on Mahony’s knee; but the boy, a regular pest, was never for a moment still. In vain did his youthful uncle pinch his leg each time he wriggled to the floor. It was not till a fierce-looking digger opposite took out a jack-knife and threatened to saw off both his feet if he stirred again, to cut out his tongue if he put another question that, scarlet with fear, little Johnny was tamed. Altogether it was a nightmare of a journey, and Mahony groaned with relief when, lamps having for some time twinkled past, the coach drew up, and Hempel and Long Jim stepped forward with their lanterns. Sarah could hardly stand. The children, wrathful at being wakened from their sleep, kicked and screamed.
For the first time in her young married life, Polly felt vexed with her husband.
“Oh, he shouldn’t have done that . . . no. really he shouldn’t!” she murmured; and the hand with the letter in it drooped to her lap.
She had been doing a little surreptitious baking in Richard’s absence, and without a doubt was hot and tired. The tears rose to her eyes. Deserting her pastry-board she retreated behind the woodstack and sat down on the chopping-block; and then, for some minutes, the sky was blotted out. She felt quite unequal, in her present condition, to facing Sarah, who was so sensitive, so easily shocked; and she was deeply averse from her fine-lady sister discovering the straitness of Richard’s means and home.
But it was hard for Polly to secure a moment’s privacy.
“An’ so this is w’ere you’re ‘idin’, is it?” said Long Jim snappishly — he had been opening a keg of treacle and held a sticky plug in his hand. “An’ me runnin’ my pore ol’ legs off arter you!” And Hempel met her on her entry with: “No further bad news, I ‘ope and trust, ma’am?”— Hempel always retained his smooth servility of manner. “The shopman PAR EXCELLENCE, my dear!” Richard was used to say of him.
Polly reassured her attendants, blew her nose, re-read her letter; and other feelings came uppermost. She noticed how scribbly the writing was — Richard had evidently been hard pushed for time. There was an apologetic tone about it, too, which was unlike him. He was probably wondering what she would say; he might even be making himself reproaches. It was unkind of her to add to them. Let her think rather of the sad state poor John had been found in, and of his two motherless babes. As for Sarah, it would never have done to leave her out.
Wiping her eyes Polly untied her cooking-apron and set to reviewing her resources. Sarah would have to share her bed, Richard to sleep on the sofa. The children . . . and here she knitted her brows. Then going into the yard, she called to Tom Ocock, who sat whittling a stick in front of his father’s house; and Tom went down to Main Street for her, and bought a mattress which he carried home on his shoulder. This she spread on the bedroom floor, Mrs. Hemmerde having already given both rooms a sound scouring, just in case a flea or a spider should be lying perdu. After which Polly fell to baking again in good earnest; for the travellers would be famished by the time they arrived.
Towards ten o’clock Tom, who was on the look-out, shouted that the coach was in, and Polly, her table spread, a good fire going, stepped to the door, outwardly very brave, inwardly all a-flutter. Directly, however, she got sight of the forlorn party that toiled up the slope: Sarah clinging to Hempel’s arm, Mahony bearing one heavy child, and — could she believe her eyes? — Jerry staggering under the other: her bashfulness was gone. She ran forward to prop poor Sarah on her free side, to guide her feet to the door; and it is doubtful whether little Polly had ever spent a more satisfying hour than that which followed.
Her husband, watching her in silent amaze, believed she thoroughly enjoyed the fuss and commotion.
There was Sarah, too sick to see anything but the bed, to undress, to make fomentations for, to coax to mouthfuls of tea and toast. There was Jerry to feed and send off, with the warmest of hugs, to share Tom Ocock’s palliasse. There were the children . . . well, Polly’s first plan had been to put them straight to bed. But when she came to peel off their little trousers she changed her mind.
“I think, Mrs. Hemmerde, if you’ll get me a tub of hot water, we’ll just pop them into it; they’ll sleep so much better,” she said . . . not quite truthfully. Her private reflection was: “I don’t think Sarah can once have washed them properly, all that time.”
The little girl let herself be bathed in her sleep; but young John stood and bawled, digging fat fists into slits of eyes, while Polly scrubbed at his massy knees, the dimpled ups and downs of which looked as if they had been worked in by hand. She had never seen her brother’s children before and was as heartily lost in admiration of their plump, well-formed bodies, as her helper of the costliness of their outfit.
“Real Injun muslin, as I’m alive!” ejaculated the woman, on fishing out their night-clothes. “An’ wid the sassiest lace for trimmin’! — Och, the poor little motherless angels! — Stan’ quiet, you young divil you, an’ lemme button you up!”
Clean as lily-bells, the pair were laid on the mattress-bed.
“At least they can’t fall out,” said Polly, surveying her work with a sigh of content.
Every one else having retired, she sat with Richard before the fire, waiting for his bath-water to reach the boil. He was anxious to know just how she had fared in his absence, she to hear the full story of his mission. He confessed to her that his offer to load himself up with the whole party had been made in a momentary burst of feeling. Afterwards he had repented his impulsiveness.
“On your account, love. Though when I see how well you’ve managed — you dear, clever little woman!”
And Polly consoled him, being now come honestly to the stage of: “But, Richard, what else could you do?”
“What, indeed! I knew Emma had no relatives in Melbourne, and who John’s intimates might be I had no more idea than the man in the moon.”
“John hasn’t any friends. He never had.”
“As for leaving the children in Sarah’s charge, if you’ll allow me to say so, my dear, I consider your sister Sarah the biggest goose of a female it has ever been my lot to run across.”
“Ah, but you don’t really know Sarah yet,” said Polly, and smiled a little, through the tears that had ripen to her eyes at the tale of John’s despair.
What Mahony did not mention to her was the necessity he had been under of borrowing money; though Polly was aware he had left home with but a modest sum in his purse. He wished to spare her feelings. Polly had a curious delicacy — he might almost call it a manly delicacy — with regard to money; and the fact that John had not offered to put hand to pocket; let alone liberally flung a blank cheque at his head, would, Mahony knew, touch his wife on a tender spot. Nor did Polly herself ask questions. Richard made no allusion to John having volunteered to bear expenses, so the latter had evidently not done so. What a pity! Richard was so particular himself, in matters of this kind, that he might write her brother down close and stingy. Of course John’s distressed state of mind partly served to excuse him. But she could not imagine the calamity that would cause Richard to forget his obligations.
She slid her hand into her husband’s and they sat for a while in silence. Then, half to herself, and out of a very different train of thought she said: “Just fancy them never crying once for their mother.”
* * * * *
“Talking of friends,” said Sarah, and fastidiously cleared her throat. “Talking of friends, I wonder now what has become of one of those young gentlemen I met at your wedding. He was . . . let me see . . . why, I declare if I haven’t forgotten his name!”
“Oh, I know who you mean — besides there was only one, Sarah,” Mahony heard his wife reply, and therewith fall into her sister’s trap. “You mean Purdy — Purdy Smith — who was Richard’s best man.”
“Smith?” echoed Sarah. “La, Polly! Why don’t he make it Smythe?”
It was a warm evening some three weeks later. The store was closed to customers; but Mahony had ensconced himself in a corner of it with a book: since the invasion, this was the one place in which he could make sure of finding quiet. The sisters sat on the log-bench before the house; and, without seeing them, Mahony knew to a nicety how they were employed. Polly darned stockings, for John’s children; Sarah was tatting, with her little finger stuck out at right angles to the rest. Mahony could hardly think of this finger without irritation: it seemed to sum up Sarah’s whole outlook on life.
Meanwhile Polly’s fresh voice went on, relating Purdy’s fortunes. “He took part, you know, in the dreadful affair on the Eureka last Christmas, when so many poor men were killed. We can speak of it, now they’ve all been pardoned; but then we had to be very careful. Well, he was shot in the ankle, and will always be lame from it.”
“What! — go hobbling on one leg for the remainder of his days? Oh, my dear!” said Sarah, and laughed.
“Yes, because the wound wasn’t properly attended to — he had to hide about in the bush, for ever so long. Later on he went to the Beamishes, to be nursed. But by that time his poor leg was in a very bad state. You know he is engaged — or very nearly so — to Tilly Beamish.”
“What?” said Sarah once more. “That handsome young fellow engaged to one of those vulgar creatures?”
“Oh, Sarah . . . not really vulgar. It isn’t their fault they didn’t have a better education. They lived right up-country, where there were no schools. Tilly never saw a town till she was sixteen; but she can sit any horse. — Yes, we hope very much Purdy will soon settle down and marry her — though he left the Hotel again without proposing.” And Polly sighed.
“There he shows his good taste, my dear.”
“Oh, I’m sure he’s fond of Tilly. It’s only that his life is so unsettled. He’s been a barman at Euroa since then; and the last we heard of him, he was shearing somewhere on the Goulburn. He doesn’t seem able to stick to anything.”
“And a rolling stone gathers no moss!” gave back Sarah sententiously — and in fancy Mahony saw the cut-and-dried nod with which she accompanied the words.
Here Hempel passed through the store, clad in his Sunday best, his hair plastered flat with bear’s-grease.
“Going out for a stroll?” asked his master.
“That was my h’intention, sir. I don’t think you’ll find I’ve left any of my dooties undone.”
“Oh, go, by all means!” said Mahony curtly, nettled at having his harmless query misconstrued. It pointed a suspicion he had had, of late, that a change was coming over Hempel. The model employee was a shade less prompt than heretofore to fly at his word, and once or twice seemed actually to be studying his own convenience. Without knowing what the matter was, Mahony felt it politic not to be over-exacting — even mildly to conciliate his assistant. It would put him in an awkward fix, now that he was on the verge of winding up affairs, should Hempel take it in his head to leave him in the lurch.
The lean figure moved on and blocked the doorway. Now there was a sudden babble of cheepy voices, and simultaneously Sarah cried: “Where have you been, my little cherubs? Come to your aunt, and let her kiss you!”
But the children, who had frankly no great liking for Aunt Sarah, would, Mahony knew, turn a deaf ear to this display of opportunism and make a rush for his wife. Laying down his book he ran out. “Polly . . . cautious!”
“It’s all right, Richard, I’m being careful.” Polly had let her mending fall, and with each hand held a flaxen-haired child at arm’s length. “Johnny, dirty boy! what HAVE you been up to?”
“He played he was a digger and sat down in a pool — I couldn’t get him to budge,” answered Jerry, and drew his sleeve over his perspiring forehead.
“Oh fy, for shame!”
“Don’ care!” said John, unabashed.
“Don’ tare!” echoed his roly-poly sister, who existed but as his shadow.
“Don’t-care was made to care, don’t-care was hung!” quoted Aunt Sarah in her severest copybook tones.
Turning his head in his aunt’s direction young John thrust forth a bright pink tongue. Little Emma was not behindhand.
Polly jumped up, dropping her work to the ground. “Johnny, I shall punish you if ever I see you do that again. Now, Ellen shall put you to bed instead of Auntie.”— Ellen was Mrs. Hemmerde’s eldest, and Polly’s first regular maidservant.
“Don’ care,” repeated Johnny. “Ellen plays pillers.”
“Edn pays pidders,” said the echo.
Seizing two hot, pudgy hands Polly dragged the pair indoors — though they held back mainly on principle. They were not affectionate children; they were too strong of will and set of purpose for that; but if they had a fondness for anyone it was for their Aunt Polly: she was ruler over a drawerful of sugar-sticks, and though she scolded she never slapped.
While this was going on Hempel stood, the picture of indecision, and eased now one foot, now the other, as if his boots pinched him.
At length he blurted out: “I was wondering, ma’am — ahem! Miss Turnham — if, since it is an agreeable h’evening, you would care to take a walk to that ‘ill I told you of?”
“Me take a walk? La, no! Whatever put such an idea as that into your head?” cried Sarah; and tatted and tatted, keeping time with a pretty little foot.
“I thought per’aps . . .” said Hempel meekly.
“I didn’t make your thoughts, Mr. Hempel,” retorted Sarah, laying stress on the aspirate.
“Oh no, ma’am. I ‘ope I didn’t presume to suggest such a thing”; and with a hangdog air Hempel prepared to slink away.
“Well, well!” said Sarah double quick; and ceasing to jerk her crochet-needle in and out, she nimbly rolled up her ball of thread. “Since you’re so insistent . . . and since, mind you, there’s no society worth calling such, on these diggings . . . .” The truth was, Sarah saw that she was about to be left alone with Mahony — Jerry had sauntered off to meet Ned — and this TETE-A-TETE was by no means to her mind. She still bore her brother-in-law a grudge for his high-handed treatment of her at the time of John’s bereavement. “As if I had been one of the domestics, my dear — a paid domestic! Ordered me off to the butcher’s in language that fairly shocked me.”
Mahony turned his back and strolled down to the river. He did not know which was more painful to witness: Hempel’s unmanly cringing, or the air of fatuous satisfaction that succeeded it. When he returned, the pair was just setting out; he watched Sarah, on Hempel’s arm, picking short steps in dainty latchet-shoes.
As soon as they were well away he called to Polly.
“The coast’s clear. Come for a stroll.”
Polly emerged, tying her bonnet-strings. “Why, where’s Sarah? Oh . . . I see. Oh, Richard, I hope she didn’t put on that —”
“She did, my dear!” said Mahony grimly, and tucked his wife’s hand under his arm.
“Oh, how I wish she wouldn’t!” said Polly in a tone of concern. “She does get so stared at — especially of an evening, when there are so many rude men about. But I really don’t think she minds. For she HAS a bonnet in her box all the time.” Miss Sarah was giving Ballarat food for talk, by appearing on her promenades in a hat: a large, flat, mushroom hat.
“I trust my little woman will never put such a ridiculous object on her head!”
“No, never . . . at least, not unless they become quite the fashion,” answered Polly. “And I don’t think they will. They look too odd.”
“Another thing, love,” continued Mahony, on whom a sudden light had dawned as he stood listening to Sarah’s trumpery. “I fear your sister is trifling with the feelings of our worthy Hempel.”
Polly, who had kept her own counsel on this matter, went crimson. “Oh, do you really think so, Richard?” she asked evasively. “I hope not. For of course nothing could come of it. Sarah has refused the most eligible offers.”
“Ah, but there are none here to refuse. And if you don’t mind my saying so, Poll, anything in trousers seems fish to her net!”
On one of their pacings they found Mr. Ocock come out to smoke an evening pipe. The old man had just returned from a flying visit to Melbourne. He looked glum and careworn, but livened up at the sight of Polly, and cracked one of the mouldy jokes he believed beneficial to a young woman in her condition. Still, the leading-note in his mood was melancholy; and this, although his dearest wish was on the point of being fulfilled.
“Yes, I’ve got the very crib for ‘Enry at last, doc., Billy de la Poer’s liv’ry-stable, top o’ Lydiard Street. We sol’ poor Billy up yesterday. The third smash in two days that makes. Lord! I dunno where it’ll end.”
“Things are going a bit quick over there. There’s been too much building.”
“They’re at me to build, too —‘Enry is. But I says no. This place is good enough for me. If ‘e’s goin’ to be ashamed of ‘ow ‘is father lives, ‘e’d better stop away. I’m an ol’ man now, an’ a poor one. What should I want with a fine noo ’ouse? An’ ‘oo should I build it for, even if I ‘ad the tin? For them two good-for-nothin’s in there? Not if I know it!”
“Mr. Ocock, you wouldn’t believe how kind and clever Tom’s been at helping with the children,” said Polly warmly.
“Yes, an’ at bottle-washin’ and sweepin’ and cookin’ a pasty. But a female ‘ud do it just as well,” returned Tom’s father with a snort of contempt.
“Poor old chap!” said Mahony, as they passed out of earshot. “So even the great Henry’s arrival is not to be without its drop of gall.”
“Surely he’ll never be ashamed of his father?”
“Who knows! But it’s plain he suspects the old boy has made his pile and intends him to fork out,” said Mahony carelessly; and, with this, dismissed the subject. Now that his own days in the colony were numbered, he no longer felt constrained to pump up a spurious interest in local affairs. He consigned them wholesale to that limbo in which, for him, they had always belonged.
The two brothers came striding over the slope. Ned, clad in blue serge shirt and corduroys, laid an affectionate arm round Polly’s shoulder, and tossed his hat into the air on hearing that the “Salamander,” as he called Sarah, was not at home.
“For I’ve tons to tell you, Poll old girl. And when milady sits there turning up her nose at everything a chap says, somehow the spunk goes out of one.”
Polly had baked a large cake for her darling, and served out generous slices. Then, drawing up a chair she sat down beside him, to drink in his news.
From his place at the farther end of the table Mahony studied the trio — these three young faces which were so much alike that they might have been different readings of one and the same face. Polly, by reason of her woman’s lot, looked considerably the oldest. Still, the lamplight wiped out some of the shadows, and she was never more girlishly vivacious than with Ned, entering as she did with zest into his plans and ideas — more sister now than wife. And Ned showed at his best with Polly: he laid himself out to divert her; forgot to brag or to swear; and so natural did it seem for brother to open his heart to sister that even his egoistic chatter passed muster. As for young Jerry, who in a couple of days was to begin work in the same claim as Ned, he sat round-eyed, his thoughts writ large on his forehead. Mahony translated them thus: how in the world I could ever have sat prim and proper on the school-bench, when all this — change, adventure, romance — was awaiting me? Jerry was only, Mahony knew, to push a wheelbarrow from hole to water and back again for many a week to come; but for him it would certainly be a golden barrow, and laden with gold, so greatly had Ned’s tales fired his imagination.
The onlooker felt odd man out, debarred as he was by his profounder experience from sharing in the young people’s light-legged dreams. He took up his book. But his reading was cut into by Ned’s sprightly account of the Magpie rush; by his description of an engine at work on the Eureka, and of the wooden airpipes that were being used to ventilate deep-sinkings. There was nothing Ned did not know, and could not make entertaining. One was forced, almost against one’s will, to listen to him; and on this particular evening, when he was neither sponging, nor acting the Big Gun, Mahony toned down his first sweeping judgment of his young relative. Ned was all talk; and what impressed one so unfavourably — his grumbling, his extravagant boastfulness — was the mere thistledown of the moment, puffed off into space. It mattered little that he harped continually on “chucking up” his job. Two years had passed since he came to Ballarat, and he was still working for hire in somebody else’s hole. He still groaned over the hardships of the life, and still toiled on — and all the rest was just the froth and braggadocio of aimless youth.
Not twenty-four hours later, Sarah had an accident to her MACHOIRE and returned post-haste to Melbourne.
“A most opportune breakage!” said Mahony, and laughed.
That day at the dinner-table he had given his sister-in-law a piece of his mind. Sarah had always resented the name bestowed on her by her parents, and was at present engaged in altering it, in giving it, so to speak, a foreign tang: henceforth she was to be not Sarah, but Sara (spoken Sahra). As often as Polly’s tongue tripped over the unfamiliar syllable, Sara gently but firmly put her right; and Polly corrected herself, even begged pardon for her stupidity, till Mahony could bear it no longer. Throwing politeness to the winds, he twitted Sara with her finical affectations, her old-maidish ways, the morning sloth that expected Polly, in her delicate state of health, to carry a breakfast-tray to the bedside: cast up at her, in short, all that had made him champ and fret in silence. Sara might, after a fitting period of the huff, have overlooked the rest; but the “old-maidish” she could not forgive. And directly dinner was over, the mishap to her mouthpiece was made known.
Too much in awe of Mahony to stand up to him — for when he was angry, he was very angry — Sara retaliated by abusing him to Polly as she packed her trunk.
“Manners, indeed! To turn and insult a visitor at his own table! And who and what is he, I should like to know, to speak to me so? Nothing but a common storekeeper. My dear, you have my deepest sympathy. It’s a DREADFUL life for you. Of course you keep everything as nice as possible, under the circumstances. But the surroundings, Polly! . . . and the store . . . and the want of society. I couldn’t put up with it, not for a week!”
Polly, sitting on the side of the tester-bed and feeling very cast down at Sara’s unfriendly departure, shed a few tears at this. For part of what her sister said was true: it had been wrong of Richard to be rude to Sara while the latter was a guest in his house. But she defended him warmly. “I couldn’t be happier than I am; Richard’s the best husband in the world. As for his being common, Sara, you know he comes of a much better family than we do.”
“My dear, common is as common does; and a vulgar calling ends by vulgarising those who have the misfortune to pursue it. But there’s another reason, Polly, why it is better for me to leave you. There are certain circumstances, my dear, in which, to put it mildly, it is AWKWARD for two people of OPPOSITE sexes to go on living under the same roof.”
“Sarah! — I mean Sara — do you really mean to say Hempel has made you a proposal?” cried Polly, wide-eyed in her tears.
“I won’t say, my dear, that he has so far forgotten himself as to actually offer marriage. But he has let me see only too plainly what his feelings are. Of course, I’ve kept him in his place — the preposterous creature! But all the same it’s not COMME IL FAUT any longer for me to be here.”
“Did she say where she was going, or what she intended to do?” Mahony inquired of his wife that night as she bound the strings of her nightcap.
No, she hadn’t, Polly admitted, rather out of countenance. But then Sara was like that — very close about her own affairs. “I think she’s perhaps gone back to her last situation. She had several letters while she was here, in that lady’s hand. People are always glad to get her back. Not many finishing governesses can teach all she can”— and Polly checked off Sara’s attainments on the fingers of both hands. “She won’t go anywhere under two hundred a year.”
“A most accomplished person, your sister!” said Mahony sleepily. “Still, it’s very pleasant to be by ourselves again — eh, wife?”
An even more blessed peace shortly descended on the house; for the time was now come to get rid of the children as well. Since nothing had been heard of John, they were to be boarded out over Polly’s illness. Through the butcher’s lady, arrangements were made with a trooper’s wife, who lived outside the racket and dust of the township, and had a whole posse of little ones of her own. —“Bless you! half-a-dozen more wouldn’t make any difference to me. There’s the paddock for ’em to run wild in.” This was the best that could be done for the children. Polly packed their little kit, dealt out a parting bribe of barley-sugar, and saw them hoisted into the dray that would pass the door of their destination.
Once more husband and wife sat alone together, as in the days before John’s domestic catastrophe. And now Mahony said tentatively: “Don’t you think, love, we could manage to get on without that old Beamish woman? I’ll guarantee to nurse you as well as any female alive.”
The question did not come as a surprise to Polly; she had already put it to herself. After the affair with Sara she awaited her new visitor in fear and trembling. Sara had at least stood in awe of Richard and held her tongue before him; Mrs. Beamish prided herself on being afraid of nobody, and on always speaking her mind. And yet, even while agreeing that it would be well to put “mother” off, Polly drooped her wings. At a time like this a woman was a woman. It seemed as if even the best of husbands did not quite understand.
“Just give her the hint we don’t want her,” said Mahony airily.
But “mother” was not the person to take a hint, no matter how broad. It was necessary to be blunt to the point of rudeness; and Polly spent a difficult hour over the composition of her letter. She might have saved her pains. Mrs. Beamish replied that she knew her darling little Polly’s unwillingness to give trouble; but it was not likely she would now go back on her word: she had been packed and ready to start for the past week. Polly handed the letter to her husband, and did not say what she thought she read out of it, namely that “mother,” who so seldom could be spared from home, was looking forward with pleasure to her trip to Ballarat.
“I suppose it’s a case of making the best of a bad job,” sighed Mahony; and having one day drawn Mrs. Beamish, at melting point, from the inside of a crowded coach, he loaded Long Jim with her bags and bundles.
His aversion was not lightened by his subsequently coming on his wife in the act of unpacking a hamper, which contained half a ham, a stone jar of butter, some home-made loaves of bread, a bag of vegetables and a plum pudding. “Good God! does the woman think we can’t give her enough to eat?” he asked testily. He had all the poor Irishman’s distrust of a gift.
“She means it kindly, dear. She probably thought things were still scarce here; and she knew I wouldn’t be able to do much cooking,” pleaded Polly. And going out to the kitchen she untied the last parcel, in which was a big round cheese, by stealth.
She had pulled Mrs. Beamish over the threshold, had got her into the bedroom and shut the door, before any of the “ohs” and “ahs” she saw painted on the broad, rubicund face could be transformed into words. And hugs and kisses over, she bravely seized the bull by the horns and begged her guest not to criticise house or furnishings in front of Richard.
It took Mrs. Beamish a minute or two to grasp her meaning. Then, she said heartily: “There, there, my duck, don’t you worry! I’ll be as mum as mum.” And in a whisper: “So, ‘e’s got a temper, Polly, ‘as ‘e? But this I will say: if I’d known this was all ‘e ‘ad to h’offer you, I’d ‘a’ said, stop w’ere you are, my lamb, in a comfortable, ‘appy ‘ome.”
“Oh, I AM happy, mother dear, indeed I am!” cried Polly. “I’ve never regretted being married — never once!”
“There, there, now!”
“And it’s only . . . I mean . . . this is the best we can afford in the meantime, and if I am satisfied . . .” floundered Polly, dismayed to hear her words construed into blame of her husband. “It’s only that it upsets Richard if people speak slightingly of our house, and that upsets me — and I musn’t be worried just now, you know,” she added with a somewhat shaky smile.
“Not a word will I say, ducky, make yer pore little mind easy about that. Though such a poky little ‘en-coop of a place I never was in!”— and, while tying her cap-strings, Mrs. Beamish swept the little bedroom and its sloping roof with a withering glance. “I was ‘orrified, girls, simply ‘ORRIFIED!” she related the incident to her daughters. “An’ I up an’ told ‘er so — just like me, you know. Not room enough to swing a cat in, and ’im sittin’ at the ‘ead of the table as ‘igh an’ mighty as a dook! You can thank yer stars, you two, ‘e didn’t take one o’ you instead o’ Polly.” But this was chiefly by way of a consolation-prize for Tilly and Jinny.
“An’ now, my dear, tell me EVERYTHING.” With these words, Mrs. Beamish spread her skirts and settled down to a cosy chat on the subject of Polly’s hopes.
But like the majority of her sex she was an adept at dividing her attention; and while making delicate inquiries of the young wife, she was also travelling her shrewd eye round the little bedchamber, spying out and appraising: not one of poor Polly’s makeshifts escaped her. The result of her inspection was to cause her to feel justly indignant with Mahony. The idea! Him to rob them of Polly just to dump her down in a place like this! She would never be able to resist telling him what she thought of him.
Here, however, she reckoned without Polly. Polly was sharp enough to doubt “mother’s” ability to hold her tongue; and saw to it that Richard and she were not left alone together. And of an evening when talk languished, she would beg her husband to read to them from the BALLARAT STAR, until, as often as not, Mrs. Beamish fell asleep. Frequently, too, she persuaded him to go out and take a hand in a newlyformed whist club, or discuss politics with a neighbour.
Mahony went willingly enough; his home was less home than ever since the big woman’s intrusion. Even his food lost its savour. Mrs. Beamish had taken over the cooking, and she went about it with an air that implied he had not had a decent bite to eat since his marriage.
“There! what do you say to that now? That’s something LIKE a pudding!” and a great plum-duff was planked triumphantly down in the middle of the dinner-table. “Lor, Polly! your bit of a kitchen . . . in this weather . . . I’m fair dished.” And the good woman mopped her streaming face and could herself eat nothing.
Mahony much preferred his wife’s cooking, which took account of his tastes — it was done, too, without any fuss — and he persisted in upholding Polly’s skill, in face of Mrs. Beamish’s good-natured disbelief. Polly, on edge, lest he should openly state his preference, nervously held out her plate.
“It’s so good, mother, I must have a second helping,” she declared; and then, without appetite in the cruel, midday heat, did not know what to do with the solid slab of pudding. Pompey and Palmerston got into the way of sitting very close to her chair.
She confided to Richard that Mrs. Beamish disapproved of his evening outings. “Many an ‘usband takes to goin’ out at such a time, my dear, an’ never gets back the ‘abit of stoppin’ at ‘ome. So just you be careful, ducky!” This was a standing joke between them. Mahony would wink at Polly when he put his hat on, and wear it rakishly askew.
However, he quite enjoyed a crack with the postmaster or the town-surveyor, at this juncture. Colonial politics were more interesting than usual. The new Constitution had been proclaimed, and a valiant effort was being made to form a Cabinet; to induce, that was, a sufficient number of well-to-do men to give up time to the service of their country. It looked as if the attempt were going to fail, just as on the goldfields the Local Courts, by which since the Stockade the diggers governed themselves, were failing, because none could afford to spend his days sitting in them.
Yet however high the discussion ran, he kept one ear turned towards his home. Here, things were at a standstill. Polly’s time had come and gone — but there was no end set to their suspense. It was blazing hot now in the little log house; walls and roof were black with flies; mosquitoes made the nights hideous. Even Polly lost patience with herself when, morning after morning, she got up feeling as well as ever, and knowing that she had to steer through another difficult day.
It was not the suspense alone: the strain of keeping the peace was growing too much for her.
“Oh, DON’T quarrel with her, Richard, for my sake,” she begged her husband one night. “She means so well. And she can’t help being like she is — she has always been accustomed to order Mr. Beamish about. But I wish she had never, never come,” sobbed poor Polly. And Mahony, in a sudden flash of enlightenment, put his arms round her, and made humble promises. Not another word should cross his lips! “Though I’d like nothing so well as to throw her out, and her bags and bundles after her. Come, laugh a little, my Polly. Think of the old lady flying down the slope, with her packages in a shower about her head!”
Rogers, M.D., looked in whenever he passed. At this stage he was of the jocular persuasion. “Still an unwelcome visitor, ma’am? No little tidbit of news for me to-day?” There he sat, twiddling his thumbs, reiterating his singsong: “Just so!” and looking wise as an owl. Mahony knew the air — had many a time seen it donned to cloak perplexity — and covert doubts of Rogers’ ability began to assail him. But then he fell mentally foul of every one he came in touch with, at present: Ned, for the bare-faced fashion in which he left his cheerfulness on the door-mat; Mrs. Beamish for the eternal “Pore lamb!” with which she beplastered Polly, and the antiquated reckoning-table she embarrassed them by consulting.
However, this state of things could not last for ever, and at dawn, one hot January day, Polly was taken ill.
The early hours promised well. But the morning wore on, turned to midday, then to afternoon, and matters still hung fire. While towards six o’clock the patient dismayed them by sitting up in bed, saying she felt much better, and asking for a cup of tea. This drew: “Ah, my pore lamb, you’ve got to feel worse yet afore you’re better!” from Mrs. Beamish.
It ended in Rogers taking up his quarters there, for the night.
Towards eleven o’clock Mahony and he sat, one on each side of the table, in the little sitting-room. The heat was insupportable and all three doors and the window were propped open, in the feeble hope of creating a draught. The lamp had attracted a swarm of flying things: giant moths beat their wings against the globe, or fell singed and sizzling down the chimney; winged-ants alighted with a click upon the table; blowflies and mosquitoes kept up a dizzy hum.
From time to time Mahony rose and stole into the bedroom, where Mrs. Beamish sat fanning the pests off Polly, who was in a feverish doze. Leaning over his wife he let his finger lie on her wrist; and, back again in the outer room, he bit nervously at his little-finger nail — an old trick of his when in a quandary. He had curtly refused a game of bezique; so Rogers had produced a pack of cards from his own pocket — soiled, frayed cards, which had likely done service on many a similar occasion — and was whiling the time away with solitaire. To sit there watching his slow manipulation of the cards, his patent intentness on the game; to listen any longer to the accursed din of the gnats and flies passed Mahony’s powers of endurance. Abruptly shoving back his chair, he went out into the yard.
This was some twenty paces across — from the row of old kerosene-tins that constituted his flower-garden, past shed and woodstack to the post-and-rail fence. How often he walked it he did not know; but when he went indoors again, his boots were heavy with mud. For a brief summer storm had come up earlier in the evening. A dense black pall of cloud had swept like a heavy curtain over the stars, to the tune of flash and bang. Now, all was clear and calm again; the white star-dust of the Milky Way powdered the sky just overhead; and though the heat was still intense, the air had a fragrant smell of saturated dust and rain-soaked earth — he could hear streamlets of water trickling down the hillside to the river below.
Out there in the dark, several things became plain to him. He saw that he had not had any real confidence in Rogers from the start; while the effect of the evening spent at close quarters had been to sink his opinion to nothing. Rogers belonged to an old school; his method was to sit by and let nature take its course — perhaps just this slowness to move had won him a name for extreme care. His old fogyism showed up unmistakably in a short but heated argument they had had on the subject of chloroform. He cited such hoary objections to the use of the new anaesthetic in maternity cases as Mahony had never expected to hear again: the therapeutic value of pain; the moral danger the patient ran in yielding up her will (“What right have we to bid a fellow-creature sacrifice her consciousness?”) and the impious folly of interfering with the action of a creative law. It had only remained for him to quote Genesis, and the talking serpent!
Had the case been in his own hands he would have intervened before now. Rogers, on the contrary, was still satisfied with the shape of affairs — or made pretence to be. For, watching lynx-eyed, Mahony fancied each time the fat man propelled his paunch out of the sickroom it was a shade less surely: there were nuances, too, in the way he pronounced his vapid: “As long as our strength is well maintained . . . well maintained.” Mahony doubted Polly’s ability to bear much more; and he made bold to know his own wife’s constitution best. Rogers was shilly-shallying: what if he delayed too long and Polly slipped through his hands? Lose Polly? Good God! the very thought turned him cold. And alive to his finger-tips with the superstition of his race, he impetuously offered up his fondest dream to those invisible powers that sat aloft, waiting to be appeased. If this was to be the price exacted of him — the price of his escape from exile — then . . . then . . .
To come back to the present, however, he was in an awkward position: he was going to be forced to take Polly’s case out of the hands of the man to whom he had entrusted it. Such a step ran counter to all the stiff rules of conduct, the punctilios of decorum, laid down by the most code-ridden profession in the world.
But a fresh visit to Polly, whose pulse had grown markedly softer, put an end to his scruples.
Stalking into the sitting-room he said without preamble: “In my opinion any further delay will mean a risk to my wife. I request you to operate immediately.”
Rogers blinked up from his cards, surprise writ across his ruddy countenance. He pushed his spectacles to his forehead. “Eh? What? Well, well . . . yes, the time is no doubt coming when we shall have to lend Mother Nature a hand.”
“Coming? It’s come . . . and gone. Are you blind, man?”
Rogers had faced many an agitated husband in his day. “Now, now, Mr. Mahony,” he said soothingly, and laid his last two cards in line. “You must allow me to be the judge of that. Besides,” he added, as he took off his glasses to polish them on a red bandanna; “besides, I should have to ask you to go out and get some one to assist me.”
“I shall assist you,” returned Mahony.
Rogers smiled his broad, fat smile. “Easier said than done, my good sir! . . . easier said than done.”
Mahony considerately turned his back; and kept it turned. Emptying a pitcher of water into a basin he began to lather his hands. “I am a qualified medical man. Of the same university as yourself. I studied under Simpson.” It cost him an effort to get the words out. But, by speaking, he felt that he did ample penance for the fit of tetchy pride which, in the first instance, had tied his tongue.
Rogers was dumbfounded.
“Well, upon my word!” he ejaculated, letting his hands with glasses and handkerchief fall to the table. “God bless my soul! why couldn’t you say so before? And why the deuce didn’t you yourself attend —”
“We can go into all that afterwards.”
But Rogers was not one of those who could deal rapidly with the unexpected: he continued to vent his surprise, and to shoot distrustful glances at his companion. He was flurried, too, at being driven forward quicker than he had a mind to go, and said sulkily that Mahony must take full responsibility for what they were about to do. Mahony hardly heard him; he was looking at the instruments laid out on the table. His fingers itched to close round them.
“I’ll prepare my wife,” he said briskly. And going into the bedroom he bent over the pillow. It was damp with the sweat that had dripped from Polly’s head when the pains were on her.
“‘Ere, you girl, get in quick now with your bucket and cloth, and give that place a good clean-up afore that pore lamb opens ‘er eyes again. I’m cooked — that’s what I am!” and sitting heavily down on the kitchen-chair, Mrs. Beamish wiped her face towards the four points of the compass.
Piqued by an unholy curiosity young Ellen willingly obeyed. But a minute later she was back, having done no more than set her pail down inside the bedroom door. “Oh, sure, Mrs. Beamish, and I can’t do’t!” she cried shrilly. “It’s jus’ like Andy Soakes’s shop . . . when they’ve bin quarterin’ a sheep.”
“I’ll QUARTER you, you lazy trollop, you!” cried Mrs. Beamish, rising to her aching legs again; and her day-old anxiety found vent in a hearty burst of temper. “I’ll teach you!” pulling, as she spoke, the floorcloth out of the girl’s hand. “Such airs and graces! Why, sooner or later, milady, you’ve got to go through it yourself.”
“ME . . .? Catch me!” said Ellen, with enormous emphasis. “D’yer mean to say that’s ‘ow . . . ‘ow the children always come?”
“Of course it is, you mincing Nanny-hen! — every blessed child that walks. And I just ‘ope,” said Mrs. Beamish, as she marched off herself with brush and scrubber: “I ‘ope, now you know it, you’ll ‘ave a little more love and gratitoode for your own mother than ever you ‘ad before.”
“Oh lor!” said the girl. “Oh, lor!” And plumping down on the chopping-block she snatched her apron to her face and began to cry.
Two months passed before Mahony could help Polly and Mrs. Beamish into the coach bound for Geelong.
It had been touch and go with Polly; and for weeks her condition had kept him anxious. With the inset of the second month, however, she seemed fairly to turn the corner, and from then on made a steady recovery, thanks to her youth and an unimpaired vitality.
He had hurried the little cradle out of sight. But Polly was quick to miss it, and quite approved of its having been given to a needy expectant mother near by. Altogether she bore the thwarting of her hopes bravely.
“Poor little baby, I should have been very fond of it,” was all she said, when she was well enough to fold and pack away the tiny garments at which she had stitched with such pleasure.
It was not to Mahony’s mind that she returned with Mrs. Beamish — but what else could be done? After lying a prisoner through the hot summer, she was sadly in need of a change. And Mrs. Beamish promised her a diet of unlimited milk and eggs, as well as the do nothing life that befitted an invalid. Just before they left, a letter arrived from John demanding the keys of his house, and proposing that Polly should come to town to set it in order for him, and help him to engage a housekeeper. A niggardly — a truly “John-ish”— fashion of giving an invitation, thought Mahony, and was not for his wife accepting it. But Polly was so pleased at the prospect of seeing her brother that he ended by agreeing to her going on to Melbourne as soon as she had thoroughly recuperated.
Peace between him and Mrs. Beamish was dearly bought up to the last; they barely avoided a final explosion. At the beginning of her third month’s absence from home the good woman grew very restive, and sighed aloud for the day on which she would be able to take her departure.
“I expec’ my bein’ away like this’ll run clean into a fifty-poun’ note,” she said one evening. “When it comes to managin’ an ’ouse, those two girls of mine ‘aven’t a h’ounce o’ gumption between them.”
It WAS tactless of her, even Polly felt that; though she could sympathise with the worry that prompted the words. As for Mahony, had he had the money to do it, he would have flung the sum named straight at her head.
“She must never come again,” said Polly to herself, as she bent over the hair-chain she was making as a gift for John. “It is a pity, but it seems as if Richard can’t get on with those sort of people.”
In his relief at having his house to himself, Mahony accepted even Polly’s absence with composure. To be perpetually in the company of other people irked him beyond belief. A certain amount of privacy was as vital to him as sleep.
Delighting in his new-found solitude, he put off from day to day the disagreeable job of winding up his affairs and discovering how much — or how little — ready money there would be to set sail with. Another thing, some books he had sent home for, a year or more ago, came to hand at this time, and gave him a fresh pretext for delay. There were eight or nine volumes to unpack and cut the pages of. He ran from one to another, sipping, devouring. Finally he cast anchor in a collected edition of his old chief’s writings on obstetrics — slipped in, this, as a gift from the sender, a college chum — and over it, his feet on the table, his dead pipe in the corner of his mouth, Mahony sat for the better part of the night.
The effect of this master-mind on his was that of a spark on tinder. Under the flash, he cursed for the hundredth time the folly he had been guilty of in throwing up medicine. It was a vocation that had fitted him as coursing fits a hound, or house-wifery a woman. The only excuse he could find for his apostasy was that he had been caught in an epidemic of unrest, which had swept through the country, upsetting the balance of men’s reason. He had since wondered if the Great Exhibition of ‘51 had not had something to do with it, by unduly whetting people’s imaginations; so that but a single cry of “Gold!” was needed, to loose the spirit of vagrancy that lurks in every Briton’s blood. His case had perhaps been peculiar in this: no one had come forward to warn or dissuade. His next relatives — mother and sisters — were, he thought, glad to know him well away. In their eyes he had lowered himself by taking up medicine; to them it was still of a piece with barber’s pole and cupping-basin. Before his time no member of the family had entered any profession but the army. Oh, that infernal Irish pride! . . . and Irish poverty. It had choke-damped his youth, blighted the prospects of his sisters. He could remember, as if it were yesterday, the jibes and fleers called forth by the suit of a wealthy Dublin brewer, who had been attracted — by sheer force of contrast, no doubt — to the elder of the two swan-necked, stiff-backed Miss Townshend-Mahonys, with their long, thin noses, and the ingrained lines that ran from the curled nostrils to the corners of their supercilious mouths, describing a sneer so deep that at a distance it was possible to mistake it for a smile. “Beer, my dear, indeed and there are worse things in the world than beer!” he heard his mother declare in her biting way. “By all means take him! You can wash yourself in it if water gets scarce, and I’ll place my kitchen orders with you.” Lucinda, who had perhaps sniffed timidly at release, burnt crimson: thank you! she would rather eat rat-bane. — He supposed they pinched and scraped along as of old — the question of money was never broached between him and them. Prior to his marriage he had sent them what he could; but that little was in itself an admission of failure. They made no inquiries about his mode of life, preferring it to remain in shadow; enough for them that he had not amassed a fortune. Had that come to pass, they might have pardoned the rude method of its making — in fancy he listened to the witty, cutting, self-derisive words, in which they would have alluded to his success.
Lying back in his chair he thought of them thus, without unkindliness, even with a dash of humour. That was possible, now that knocking about the world had rubbed off some of his own corners. In his young days, he, too, had been hot and bitter. What, however, to another might have formed the chief crux in their conduct — it was by squandering such money as there was, his own portion among it, on his scamp of an elder brother, that they had forced him into the calling they despised — this had not troubled him greatly. For medicine was the profession on which his choice would anyhow have fallen. And to-night the book that lay before him had infected him with the old enthusiasm. He re-lived those days when a skilfully handled case of PLACENTA PREVIA, or a successful delivery in the fourth position, had meant more to him than the Charge of the Light Brigade.
Fresh from this dip into the past, this foretaste of the future, he turned in good heart to business. An inventory had to be taken; damaged goods cleared out; a list of bad and less bad debts drawn up: he and Hempel were hard at work all next day. The result was worse even than he had expected. His outlay that summer — ever since the day on which he had set off to the aid of his bereaved relative — had been enormous. Trade had run dry, and throughout Polly’s long illness he had dipped blindly into his savings. He could never have said no to Mrs. Beamish when she came to him for money — rather would he have pawned the coat off his back. And she, good woman, was unused to cheeseparing. His men’s wages paid, berths booked, the numerous expenses bound up with a departure defrayed, he would have but a scanty sum in hand with which to start on the other side.
For himself he was not afraid; but he shrank from the thought of Polly undergoing privations. So far, they had enjoyed a kind of frugal comfort. But should he meet with obstacles at the outset: if patients were laggardly and the practice slow to move, or if he himself fell ill, they might have a spell of real poverty to face. And it was under the goad of this fear that he hit on a new scheme. Why not leave Polly behind for a time, until he had succeeded in making a home for her? — why not leave her under the wing of brother John? John stood urgently in need of a head for his establishment, and who so well suited for the post as Polly? Surely, if it were put before him, John must jump at the offer! Parting from Polly, and were it only for a little while, would be painful; but, did he go alone, he would be free to do his utmost — and with an easy mind, knowing that she lacked none of the creature-comforts. Yes, the more he considered the plan, the better he liked it. The one flaw in his satisfaction was the thought that if their child had lived, no such smooth and simple arrangement would have been possible. He could not have foisted a family on Turnham.
Now he waited with impatience for Polly to return — his reasonable little Polly! But he did not hurry her. Polly was enjoying her holiday. Having passed to Melbourne from Geelong she wrote:
JOHN IS SO VERY KIND. HE DOESN’T OF COURSE GO OUT YET HIMSELF, BUT I WAS PRESENT WITH SOME FRIENDS OF HIS AT A VERY ELEGANT SOIREE. JOHN GAVE ME A HEADDRESS COMPOSED OF BLACK PEARLS AND FROSTED LEAVES. HE MEANS TO GO IN FOR POLITIES AS SOON AS HIS YEAR OF MOURNING IS UP.
ENJOY YOURSELF, MY HEART, AND SET ALL THE SIGHTS YOU CAN.
While into more than one of his letters he slipped a banknote.
FOR YOU KNOW I LIKE YOU TO PAY YOUR OWN WAY AS FAR AS POSSIBLE.
And at length the day came when he could lift his wife out of the coach. She emerged powdered brown with dust and very tired, but radiantly happy: it was a great event in little Polly’s life, this homecoming, and coming, too, strong and well. The house was a lively place that afternoon: Polly had so much to tell that she sat holding her bonnet for over an hour, quite unable to get as far as the bedroom; and even Long Jim’s mouth went up at the corners instead of down; for Polly had contrived to bring back a little gift for every one. And in presenting these, she found out more of what people were thinking and feeling than her husband had done in all the eight weeks of her absence.
Mahony was loath to damp her pleasure straightway; he bided his time. He could not know that Polly also had been laying plans, and that she watched anxiously for the right moment to unfold them.
The morning after her return, she got a lift in the baker’s cart and drove out to inspect John’s children. What she saw and heard on this visit was disquieting. The children had run wild, were grown dirty, sly, untruthful. Especially the boy. —“A young Satan, and that’s a fact, Mrs. Mahony! What he needs is a man’s hand over him, and a good hidin’ six days outer seven.”
It was not alone little Johnny’s misconduct, however, that made Polly break silence. An incident occurred that touched her still more nearly.
Husband and wife sat snug and quiet as in the early days of their marriage. Autumn had come round and a fire burnt in the stove, before which Pompey snorted in his dreams. But, for all the cosy tranquillity, Polly was not happy; and time and again she moistened and bit at the tip of her thread, before pointing it through her needle. For the book open before Richard, in which he was making notes as he read, was — the Bible. Bending over him to drop a kiss on the top of his head, Polly had been staggered by what she saw. Opposite the third verse of the first chapter of Genesis: “And God said, Let there be light: and there was light,” he had written: “Three days before the sun!” Her heart seemed to shrivel, to grow small in her breast, at the thought of her husband being guilty of such impiety. Ceasing her pretence at sewing, she walked out of the house into the yard. Standing there under the stars she said aloud, as if some one, THE One, could hear her: “He doesn’t mean to do wrong. . . . I KNOW he doesn’t!” But when she re-entered the room he was still at it. His beautiful writing, reduced to its tiniest, wound round the narrow margins.
Deeply red, Polly took her courage in both hands, and struck a blow for the soul whose salvation was more to her than her own. “Richard, do you think that . . . is . . . is right?” she asked in a low voice.
Mahony raised his head. “Eh? — what, Pollykin?”
“I mean, do you think you ought . . . that it is right to do what you are doing?”
The smile, half-tender, half-quizzical that she loved, broke over her husband’s face. He held out his hand. “Is my little wife troubled?”
“Richard, I only mean. . .”
“Polly, my dear, don’t worry your little head over what you don’t understand. And have confidence in me. You know I wouldn’t do anything I believed to be wrong?”
“Yes, indeed. And you are really far more religious than I am.”
“One can be religious and yet not shut one’s eyes to the truth. It’s Saint Paul, you know, who says: we can do nothing against the Truth but for the Truth. And you may depend on it, Polly, the All-Wise would never have given us the brains He has, if He had not intended us to use them. Now I have long felt sure that the Bible is not wholly what it claims to be — direct inspiration.”
“Oh, Richard!” said Polly, and threw an anxious glance over her shoulder. “If anyone should hear you!”
“We can’t afford to let our lives be governed by what other people think, Polly. Nor will I give any man the right to decide for me what my share of the Truth shall be.”
On seeing the Bible closed Polly breathed again, at the same time promising herself to take the traitorous volume into safe-keeping, that no third person’s eye should rest on it. Perhaps, too, if it were put away Richard would forget to go on writing in it. He had probably begun in the first place only because he had nothing else to do. In the store he sat and smoked and twirled his thumbs — not half a dozen customers came in, in the course of the day. If he were once properly occupied again, with work that he liked, he would not be tempted to put his gifts to such a profane use. Thus she primed herself for speaking. For now was the time. Richard was declaring that trade had gone to the dogs, his takings dropped to a quarter of what they had formerly been. This headed just where she wished. But Polly would not have been Polly, had she not glanced aside for a moment, to cheer and console.
“It’s the same everywhere, Richard. Everybody’s complaining. And that reminds me, I forgot to tell you about the Beamishes. They’re in great trouble. You see, a bog has formed in front of the Hotel, and the traffic goes round another way, so they’ve lost most of their custom. Mr. Beamish never opens his mouth at all now, and mother is fearfully worried. That’s what was the matter when she was here — only she was too kind to say so.”
“Indeed it is. But about us; I’m not surprised to hear trade is dull. Since I was over in the western township last, no less than six new General Stores have gone up — I scarcely knew the place. They’ve all got big plate-glass windows; and were crowded with people.”
“Yes, there’s a regular exodus up west. But that doesn’t alter the fact, wife, that I’ve made a very poor job of storekeeping. I shall leave here with hardly a penny to my name.”
“Yes, but then, Richard,” said Polly, and bent over her strip of needlework, “you were never cut out to be a storekeeper, were you?”
“I was not. And I verily believe, if it hadn’t been for that old sober-sides of a Hempel, I should have come a cropper long ago.”
“Yes, and Hempel,” said Polly softly; “Hempel’s been wanting to leave for ever so long.”
“The dickens he has!” cried Mahony in astonishment. “And me humming and hawing about giving him notice! What’s the matter with him? What’s he had to complain of?”
“Oh, nothing like that. He wants to enter the ministry. A helper’s needed at the Baptist Chapel, and he means to apply for the post. You see, he’s saved a good deal, and thinks he can study to be a minister at the same time.”
“Study for his grave, the fool! So that’s it, is it? Well, well! it saves trouble in the end. I don’t need to bother my head now over what’s to become of him . . . him or anyone else. My chief desire is to say good-bye to this hole for ever. There’s no sense, Polly, in my dawdling on. Indeed, I haven’t the money to do it. So I’ve arranged, my dear, with our friend Ocock to come in and sell us off, as soon as you can get our personal belongings put together.”
Here Polly raised her head as if to interrupt; but Mahony, full of what he had to say, ignored the movement, and went on speaking. He did not wish to cause his wife uneasiness, by dwelling on his difficulties; but some explanation was necessary to pave the way for his proposal that she should remain behind, when he left the colony. He spent all his eloquence in making this sound natural and attractive. But it was hard, when Polly’s big, astonished eyes hung on his face. “Do you think, for my sake, you could be brave enough?” he wound up, rather unsurely. “It wouldn’t be for long, love, I’m certain of that. Just let me set foot in England once more!”
“Why . . . why, yes, dear Richard, I . . . I think I could, if you really wished it,” said Polly in a small voice. She tried to seem reasonable; though black night descended on her at the thought of parting, and though her woman’s eyes saw a hundred objections to the plan, which his had overlooked. (For one thing, John had just installed Sara as housekeeper, and Sara would take it very unkindly to be shown the door.) “I THINK I could,” she repeated. “But before you go on, dear, I should like to ask YOU something.”
She laid down her needlework; her heart was going pit-a-pat. “Richard, did you ever.. . I mean have you never thought of. .. of taking up your profession again — I mean here — starting practice here? — No, wait a minute! Let me finish. I . . . I . . . oh, Richard!” Unable to find words, Polly locked her fingers under the tablecloth and hoped she was not going to be so silly as to cry. Getting up, she knelt down before her husband, laying her hands on his knees. “Oh, Richard, I wish you would — HOW I wish you would!”
“Why, Polly!” said Mahony, surprised at her agitation. “Why, my dear, what’s all this? — You want to know if I never thought of setting up in practice out here? Of course I did . . . in the beginning. You don’t think I’d have chosen to keep a store, if there’d been any other opening for me? But there wasn’t, child. The place was overrun. Never a medico came out and found digging too much for him, but he fell back in despair on his profession. I didn’t see my way to join their starvation band.”
“Yes, THEN, Richard! — but now?” broke in Polly. “Now, it’s quite, quite different. Look at the size Ballarat has grown — there are more than forty thousand people settled on it; Mr. Ocock told me so. And you know, dear, doctors have cleared out lately, not come fresh. There was that one, I forget his name, who drank himself to death; and the two, you remember, who were sold up just before Christmas.” But this was an unfortunate line of argument to have hit on, and Polly blushed and stumbled.
Mahony laughed at her slip, and smoothed her hair. “Typical fates, love! They mustn’t be mine. Besides, Polly, you’re forgetting the main thing — how I hate the place, and how I’ve always longed to get away.”
“No, I’m not. But please let me go on. — You know, Richard, every one believes some day Ballarat will be the chief city — bigger even than Geelong or Melbourne. And then to have a good practice here would mean ever such a lot of money. I’m not the only person who thinks so. There’s Sara, and Mrs. Beamish — I know, of course, you don’t care much what they say; but still —” Polly meant: still, you see, I have public opinion on my side. As, however, once more words failed her, she hastened to add: “John, too, is amazed to hear you think of going home to bury yourself in some little English village. He’s sure there’d be a splendid opening for you here. John thinks very, very highly of you. He told me he believes you would have saved Emma’s life, if you had been there.”
“I’m much obliged to your brother for his confidence,” said Mahony dryly; “but —”
“Wait a minute, Richard! You see, dear, I can’t help feeling myself that you ought not to be too hasty in deciding. Of course, I know I’m young, and haven’t had much experience, but . . . You see, you’re KNOWN here, Richard, and that’s always something; in England you’d be a perfect stranger. And though you may say there are too many doctors on the Flat, still, if the place goes on growing as it is doing, there’ll soon be room for more; and then, if it isn’t you, it’ll just be some one else. And that DOES seem a pity, when you are so clever — so much, much cleverer than other people! Yes, I know all about it; Mrs. Beamish told me it was you I owed my life to, not Dr. Rogers”— at which Mahony winced, indignant that anyone should have betrayed to Polly how near death she had been. “Oh, I DO want people to know you for what you really are!” said little Polly.
“Pussy, I believe she has ambitions for her husband,” said Mahony to Palmerston.
“Of course I have. You say you hate Ballarat, and all that, but have you ever thought, Richard, what a difference it would make if you were in a better position? You think people look down on you, because you’re in trade. But if you were a doctor, there’d be none of that. You’d call yourself by your full name again, and write it down on the visiting list at Government House, and be as good as anybody, and be asked into society, and keep a horse. You’d live in a bigger house, and have a room to yourself and time to read and write. I’m quite sure you’d make lots of money and soon be at the top of the tree. And after all, dear Richard, I don’t want to go home. I would much rather stay here and look after Jerry, and dear Ned, and poor John’s children,” said Polly, falling back as a forlorn hope on her own preference.
“Why, what a piece of special pleading!” cried Mahony, and leaning forward, he kissed the young flushed face.
“Don’t laugh at me. I’m in earnest.”
“Why, no, child. But Polly, my dear, even if I were tempted for a moment to think seriously of what you say, where would the money come from? Fees are high, it’s true, if the ball’s once set a-rolling. But till then? With a jewel of a wife like mine, I’d be a scoundrel to take risks.”
Polly had been waiting for this question. On hearing it, she sat back on her heels and drew a deep breath. The communication she had now to make him was the hub round which all turned. Should he refuse to consider it. . . . Plucking at the fringe of the tablecloth, she brought out, piecemeal, the news that John was willing to go surety for the money they would need to borrow for the start. Not only that: he offered them a handsome sum weekly to take entire charge of his children. —“Not here, in this little house — I know that wouldn’t do,” Polly hastened to throw in, forestalling the objection she read in Richard’s eyes. Now did he not think he should weigh an offer of this kind very carefully? A name like John’s was not to be despised; most people in their position would jump at it. “I understand something about it,” said the little woman, and sagely nodded her head. “For when I was in Geelong, Mr. Beamish tried his hardest to raise some money and couldn’t, his sureties weren’t good enough.” Mahony had not the heart to chide her for discussing his private affairs with her brother. Indeed, he rather admired the businesslike way she had gone about it. And he admitted this, by ceasing to banter and by calling her attention to the various hazards and inconveniences the step would entail.
Polly heard him out in silence. Enough for her, in the beginning, that he did not decline off-hand. They had a long talk, the end of which was that he promised to sleep over John’s proposal, and delay fixing the date of the auction till the morning.
Having yielded this point Mahony kissed his wife and sent her to bed, himself going out with the dog for his usual stroll.
It was a fine night — moonless, but thick with stars. So much, at least, could be said in favour of the place: there was abundant sky-room; you got a clear half of the great vault at once. How he pitied, on such a night, the dwellers in old, congested cities, whose view of the starry field was limited to a narrow strip, cut through house-tops.
Yet he walked with a springless tread. The fact was, certain of his wife’s words had struck home; and in the course of the past year he had learnt to put considerable faith in Polly’s practical judgment. As he wound his way up the little hill to which he had often carried his perplexities, he let his pipe go out, and forgot to whistle Pompey off butcher’s garbage.
Sitting down on a log he rested his chin in his hands. Below him twinkled the sparse lights of the Flat; shouts and singing rose from the circus. — And so John would have been willing to go surety for him! Let no one say the unexpected did not happen. All said and done, they were little more than strangers to each other, and John had no notion what his money-making capacities as a doctor might be. It was true, Polly had been too delicate to mention whether the affair had come about through her persuasions or on John’s own initiative. John might have some ulterior motive up his sleeve. Perhaps he did not want to lose his sister . . . or was scheming to bind a pair of desirables fast to this colony, the welfare of which he had so much at heart. Again, it might be that he wished to buy off the memory of that day on which he had stripped his soul naked. Simplest of all, why should he not be merely trying to pay back a debt? He, Mahony, might shrink from lying under an obligation to John, but, so far, the latter had not scrupled to accept favours from him. But that was always the way with your rich men; they were not troubled by paltry pride; for they knew it was possible to acquit themselves of their debts at a moment’s notice, and with interest. This led him to reflect on the great help to him the loan of his wealthy relative’s name would be: difficulties would melt before it. And surely no undue risk was involved in the use of it? Without boasting, he thought he was better equipped, both by aptitude and training, than the ruck of colonial practitioners. Did he enter the lists, he could hardly fail to succeed. And out here even a moderate success spelled a fortune. Gained double-quick, too. After which the lucky individual sold out and went home, to live in comfort. Yes, that was a point, and not to be overlooked. No definite surrender of one’s hopes was called for; only a postponement. Ten years might do it — meaty years, of course, the best years of one’s life — still . . . . It would mean very hard work; but had he not just been contemplating, with perfect equanimity, an even more arduous venture on the other side? What a capricious piece of mechanism was the human brain!
Another thought that occurred to him was that his services might prove more useful to this new country than to the old, where able men abounded. He recalled many good lives and promising cases he had here seen lost and bungled. To take the instance nearest home — Polly’s confinement. Yes, to show his mettle to such as Rogers; to earn respect where he had lived as a mere null — the idea had an insidious fascination. And as Polly sagely remarked: if it were not he, it would be some one else; another would harvest the KUDOS that might have been his. For the rough-and-ready treatment — the blue pills and black draughts — that had satisfied the early diggers had fallen into disrepute; medical skill was beginning to be appreciated. If this went on, Ballarat would soon stand on a level with any city of its size at home. But even as it was, he had never been quite fair to it; he had seen it with a jaundiced eye. And again he believed Polly hit the nail on the head, when she asserted that the poor position he had occupied was responsible for much of his dislike.
But there was something else at work in him besides. Below the surface an admission awaited him, which he shrank from making. All these pros and cons, these quibbles and hair-splittings were but a misfit attempt to cloak the truth. He might gull himself with them for a time: in his heart he knew that he would yield — if yield he did — because he was by nature only too prone to follow the line of least resistance. What he had gone through to-night was no new experience. Often enough after fretting and fuming about a thing till it seemed as if nothing under the sun had ever mattered so much to him, it could happen that he suddenly threw up the sponge and bowed to circumstance. His vitality exhausted itself beforehand — in a passionate aversion, a torrent of words — and failed him at the critical moment. It was a weakness in his blood — in the blood of his race. — But in the present instance, he had an excuse for himself. He had not known — till Polly came out with her brother’s offer — how he dreaded having to begin all over again in England, an utter stranger, without influence or recommendations, and with no money to speak of at his back.
But now he owned up, and there was no more need of shift or subterfuge: now it was one rush and hurry to the end. He had capitulated; a thin-skinned aversion to confronting difficulties, when he saw the chance of avoiding them, had won the day. He intended — had perhaps the whole time intended — to take the hand held out to him. After all, why not? Anyone else, as Polly said, would have jumped at John’s offer. He alone must argue himself blue in the face over it.
But as he sat and pondered the lengthy chain of circumstance — Polly’s share in it, John’s, his own, even the part played by incorporeal things — he brought up short against the word “decision”. He might flatter himself by imagining he had been free to decide; in reality nothing was further from the truth. He had been subtly and slily guided to his goal — led blindfold along a road that not of his choosing. Everything and every one had combined to constrain him: his favours to John, the failure of his business, Polly’s inclinations and persuasions, his own fastidious shrinkings. So that, in the end, all he had had to do was to brush aside a flimsy gossamer veil, which hung between him and his fate. Was it straining a point to see in the whole affair the workings of a Power outside himself — against himself, in so far as it took no count of his poor earth-blind vision?
Well, if this were so, better still: his ways were in God’s hand. And after all, what did it matter where one strove to serve one’s Maker — east or west or south or north — and whether the stars overhead were grouped in this constellation or in that? Their light was a pledge that one would never be overlooked or forgotten, traced by the hand of Him who had promised to note even a sparrow’s fall. And here he spoke aloud into the darkness the ancient and homely formula that is man’s stand-by in face of the untried, the unknown.
“If God wills. . . . God knows best.”
Last updated Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at 14:12