The house stood not far from the Great Swamp. It was of weather-board, with a galvanised iron roof, and might have been built from a child’s drawing of a house: a door in the centre, a little window on either side, a chimney at each end. Since the ground sloped downwards, the front part rested on piles some three feet high, and from the rutty clay-track that would one day be a street wooden steps led up to the door. Much as Mahony would have liked to face it with a verandah, he did not feel justified in spending more than he could help. And Polly not only agreed with him, but contrived to find an advantage in the plainer style of architecture. “Your plate will be better seen, Richard, right on the street, than hidden under a verandah.” But then Polly was overflowing with content. Had not two of the rooms fireplaces? And was there not a wash-house, with a real copper in it, behind the detached kitchen? Not to speak of a spare room! — To the rear of the house a high paling-fence enclosed a good-sized yard. Mahony dreamed of a garden, Polly of keeping hens.
There were no two happier people on Ballarat that autumn than the Mahonys. To and fro they trudged down the hill, across the Flat, over the bridge and up the other side; first, through a Sahara of dust, then, when the rains began, ankle-deep in gluey red mud. And the building of the finest mansion never gave half so much satisfaction as did that of this flimsy little wooden house, with its thin lath-and-plaster walls. In fancy they had furnished it and lived in it, long before it was even roofed in. Mahony sat at work in his surgery — it measured ten by twelve — Polly at her Berlin-woolwork in the parlour opposite: “And a cage with a little parrot in it, hanging at the window.”
The preliminaries to the change had gone smoothly enough — Mahony could not complain. Pleasant they had not been; but could the arranging and clinching of a complicated money-matter ever be pleasant? He had had to submit to hearing his private affairs gone into by a stranger; to make clear to strangers his capacity for earning a decent income.
With John’s promissory letter in his pocket, he had betaken himself to Henry Ocock’s office.
This, notwithstanding its excellent position on the brow of the western hill, could not deny its humble origin as a livery-barn. The entry was by a yard; and some of the former horse-boxes had been rudely knocked together to provide accommodation. Mahony sniffed stale dung.
In what had once been the harness-room, two young men sat at work.
“Why, Tom, my lad, you here?”
Tom Ocock raised his freckled face, from the chin of which sprouted some long fair hairs, and turned red.
“Yes, it’s me. Do you want to see ‘En —” at an open kick from his brother —“Mr. Ocock?”
“If you please.”
Informed by Grindle that the “Captain” was at liberty, Mahony passed to an inner room where he was waved to a chair. In answer to his statement that he had called to see about raising some money, Ocock returned an: “Indeed? Money is tight, sir, very tight!” his face instantly taking on the blank-wall solemnity proper to dealings with this world’s main asset.
Mahony did not at once hand over John’s way-soothing letter. He thought he would first test the lawyer’s attitude towards him in person — a species of self-torment men of his make are rarely able to withstand. He spoke of the decline of his business; of his idea of setting up as a doctor and building himself a house; and, as he talked, he read his answer pat and clear in the ferrety eyes before him. There was a bored tolerance of his wordiness, an utter lack of interest in the concerns of the petty tradesman.
“H’m.” Ocock, lying back in his chair, was fitting five outstretched fingers to their fellows. “All very well, my good sir, but may I ask if you have anyone in view as a security?”
“I have. May I trouble you to glance through this?” and triumphantly Mahony brandished John’s letter.
Ocock raised his brows. “What? Mr. John Turnham? Ah, very good . . . very good indeed!” The brazen-faced change in his manner would have made a cat laugh; he sat upright, was interested, courteous, alert. “Quite in order! And now, pray, how much do we need?”
Unadvised, he had not been able, said Mahony, to determine the sum. So Ocock took pencil and paper, and, prior to running off a reckoning, put him through a sharp interrogation. Under it Mahony felt as though his clothing was being stripped piece by piece off his back. At one moment he stood revealed as mean and stingy, at another as an unpractical spendthrift. More serious things came out besides. He began to see, under the limelight of the lawyer’s inquiry, in what a muddle-headed fashion he had managed his business, and how unlikely it was he could ever have made a good thing of it. Still worse was his thoughtless folly in wedding and bringing home a young wife without, in this settlement where accident was rife, where fires were of nightly occurrence, insuring against either fire or death. Not that Ocock breathed a hint of censure: all was done with a twist of the eye, a purse of the lip; but it was enough for Mahony. He sat there, feeling like an eel in the skinning, and did not attempt to keep pace with the lawyer, who hunted figures into the centre of a woolly maze.
The upshot of these calculations was: he would need help to the tune of something over one thousand pounds. As matters stood at present on Ballarat, said Ocock, the plainest house he could build would cost him eight hundred; and another couple of hundred would go in furnishing; while a saddle-horse might be put down at fifty pounds. On Turnham’s letter he, Ocock, would be prepared to borrow seven hundred for him — and this could probably be obtained at ten per cent on a mortgage of the house; and a further four hundred, for which he would have to pay twelve or fifteen. Current expenses must be covered by the residue of this savings, and by what he was able to make. They would include the keep of the horse, and the interest on the borrowed money, which might be reckoned roughly at a hundred and twenty per annum. In addition, he would be well advised to insure his life for five to seven hundred pounds.
The question also came up whether the land he had selected for building on should be purchased or not. He was for doing so, for settling the whole business there and then. Ocock, however, took the opposite view. Considering, said he, that the site chosen was far from the centre of the town, Mahony might safely postpone buying in the meanwhile. There had been no government land-sales of late, and all main-road frontages had still to come under the hammer. As occupier, when the time arrived, he would have first chance at the upset price; though then, it was true, he would also be liable for improvements. The one thing he must beware of was of enclosing too small a block.
Mahony agreed — agreed to everything: the affair seemed to have passed out of his hands. A sense of dismay invaded him while he listened to the lawyer tick off the obligations and responsibilities he was letting himself in for. A thousand pounds! He to run into debt for such a sum, who had never owed a farthing to anyone! He fell to doubting whether, after all, he had made choice of the easier way, and lapsed into a gloomy silence.
Ocock on the other hand warmed to geniality.
“May I say, doctor, how wise I think your decision to come over to us?” — He spoke as if Ballarat East were in the heart of the Russian steppes. “And that reminds me. There’s a friend of mine. . . . I may be able at once to put a patient in your way.”
Mahony walked home in a mood of depression which it took all Polly’s arts to dispel.
Under its influence he wrote an outspoken letter to Purdy — but with no very satisfactory result. It was like projecting a feeler for sympathy into the void, so long was it since they had met, and so widely had his friend’s life branched from his.
Purdy’s answer — it was headed “The Ovens”— did not arrive till several weeks later, and was mainly about himself.
IN A WAY I’M WITH YOU, OLD PILL-BOX, he wrote. YOU’LL CUT A JOLLY SIGHT BETTER FIGURE AS AN M.D. THEN EVER YOU’VE DONE BEHIND A COUNTER. BUT I DON’T KNOW THAT I’D CARE TO STAKE MY LAST DOLLAR ON YOU ALL THE SAME. WHAT DOES MRS. POLLY SAY? — AS FOR ME, OLD BOY, SINCE YOU’RE GOOD ENOUGH TO ASK, WHY THE LESS SAID THE BETTER. ONE OF THESE DAYS A POOR WORN OLD SHICER’LL COME CRAWLING ROUND TO YOUR BACK DOOR TO SEE IF YOU’VE ANY CAST-OFF DUDS YOU CAN SPARE HIM. SERIOUSLY, DICK, OLD MAN, I’M STONY-BROKE ONCE MORE AND THE LORD ONLY KNOWS HOW I’M GOING TO WIN THROUGH.
In the course of that winter, custom died a natural death; and one day, the few oddments that remained having been sold by auction, Mahony and his assistant nailed boards horizontally across the entrance to the store. The day of weighing out pepper and salt was over; never again would the tinny jangle of the accursed bell smite his ears. The next thing was that Hempel packed his chattels and departed for his new walk in life. Mahony was not sorry to see him go. Hempel’s thoughts had soared far above the counter; he was arrived at the stage of: “I’m just as good as you!” which everyone here reached sooner or later.
“I shall always be pleased to hear how you are getting on.”
Mahony spoke kindly, but in a tone which, as Polly who stood by, very well knew, people were apt to misunderstand.
“I should think so!” she chimed in. “I shall feel very hurt indeed, Hempel, if you don’t come and see us.”
With regard to Long Jim, she had a talk with her husband one night as they went to bed.
“There really won’t be anything for him to do in the new house. No heavy crates or barrels to move about. And he doesn’t know a thing about horses. Why not let him go home? — he does so want to. What would you say, dear, to giving him thirty pounds for his passage-money and a trifle in his pocket? It would make him very happy, and he’d be off your hands for good. — Of course, though, just as you think best.”
“We shall need every penny we can scrape together, for ourselves, Polly. And yet, my dear, I believe you’re right. In the new house, as you say, he’ll be a mere encumbrance. As for me, I’d be only too thankful never to hear his cantankerous old pipe again. I don’t know now what evil genius prompted me to take him in.”
“Evil genius, indeed!” retorted Polly. “You did it because you’re a dear, good, kind-hearted man.”
“Think so, wifey? I’m inclined to put it down to sheer dislike of botheration — Irish inertia . . . the curse of our race.”
“Yes, yes, I knoo you’d be wantin’ to get rid o’ me, now you’re goin’ up in the world,” was Long Jim’s answer when Polly broached her scheme for his benefit. “Well, no, I won’t say anythin’ against you, Mrs. Mahony; you’ve treated me square enough. But doc., ‘e’s always thought ‘imself a sight above one, an’ when ‘e does, ‘e lets you feel it.”
This was more than Polly could brook. “And sighing and groaning as you have done to get home, Jim! You’re a silly, ungrateful old man, even to hint at such a thing.”
“Poor old fellow, he’s grumbled so long now, that he’s forgotten how to do anything else,” she afterwards made allowance for him. And added, pierced by a sudden doubt: “I hope his wife will still be used to it, or . . . or else . . .”
And now the last day in the old house was come. The furniture, stacked in the yard, awaited the dray that was to transport it. Hardly worth carrying with one, thought Mahony, when he saw the few poor sticks exposed to the searching sunlight. Pipe in mouth he mooned about, feeling chiefly amazed that he could have put up, for so long, with the miserable little hut which his house, stripped of its trimmings, proved to be.
His reflections were cut short by old Ocock, who leaned over the fence to bid his neighbours good-bye.
“No disturbance! Come in, come in!” cried Mahony, with the rather spurious heartiness one is prone to throw into a final invitation. And Polly rose from her knees before a clothes-basket which she was filling with crockery, and bustled away to fetch the cake she had baked for such an occasion.
“I’ll miss yer bright little face, that I will!” said Mr. Ocock, as he munched with the relish of a Jerry or a Ned. He held his slice of cake in the hollow of one great palm, conveying with extreme care the pieces he broke off to his mouth.
“You must come and see us, as soon as ever we’re settled.”
“Bless you! You’ll soon find grander friends than an old chap like me.”
“Mr. Ocock! And you with three sons in the law!”
“Besides, mark my words, it’ll be your turn next to build,” Mahony removed his pipe to throw in. “We’ll have you over with us yet.”
“And what a lovely surprise for Miss Amelia when she arrives, to find a bran’-new house awaiting her.”
“Well, that’s the end of this little roof-tree,” said Mahony. — The loaded dray had driven off, the children and Ellen perched on top of the furniture, and he was giving a last look round. “We’ve spent some very happy days under it, eh, my dear?”
“Oh, very,” said Polly, shaking out her skirts. “But we shall be just as happy in the new one.”
“God grant we may! It’s not too much to hope I’ve now seen all the downs of my life. I’ve managed to pack a good many into thirty short years. — And that reminds me, Mrs. Townshend-Mahony, do you know you will have been married to me two whole years, come next Friday?”
“Why, so we shall!” cried Polly, and was transfixed in the act of tying her bonnet-strings. “How time does fly! It seems only the other day I saw this room for the first time. I peeped in, you know, while you were fetching the box. DO you remember how I cried, Richard? I was afraid of a spider or something.” And the Polly of eighteen looked back, with a motherly amusement, at her sixteen-year-old eidolon. “But now, dear, if you’re ready . . . or else the furniture will get there before we do. We’d better take the short cut across Soldiers’ Hill. That’s the cat in that basket, for you to carry, and here’s your microscope. I’ve got the decanter and the best teapot. Shall we go?”
And now for a month or more Mahony had been in possession of a room that was all his own. Did he retire into it and shut the door, he could make sure of not being disturbed. Polly herself tapped before entering; and he let her do so. Polly was dear; but dearer still was his long-coveted privacy.
He knew, too, that she was happily employed; the fitting-up and furnishing of the house was a job after her own heart. She had proved both skilful and economical at it: thanks to her, they had used a bare three-quarters of the sum allotted by Ocock for the purpose — and this was well; for any number of unforeseen expenses had cropped up at the last moment. Polly had a real knack for making things “do”. Old empty boxes, for instance, underwent marvellous transformations at her hands — emerged, clad in chintz and muslin, as sofas and toilet-tables. She hung her curtains on strings, and herself sewed the seams of the parlour carpet, squatting Turk-fashion on the floor, and working away, with a great needle shaped like a scimitar, till the perspiration ran down her face. It was also she who, standing on the kitchen-table, put up the only two pictures they possessed, Ned and Jerry giving opinions on the straightness of her eye, from below: a fancy picture of the Battle of Waterloo in the parlour; a print of “Harvey Discovering the Circulation of the Blood” on the surgery wall.
From where he sat Mahony could hear the voices of the children — John’s children — at play. They frolicked with Pompey in the yard. He could endure them, now that he was not for ever tumbling over them. Yes, one and all were comfortably established under the new roof — with the exception of poor Palmerston the cat. Palmerston had declined to recognise the change, and with the immoderate homing-instinct of his kind had returned night after night to his old haunts. For some time Mahony’s regular evening walk was back to the store — a road he would otherwise not have taken; for it was odious to him to see Polly’s neat little appointments going to rack and ruin, under the tenancy of a dirty Irish family. There he would find the animal sitting, in melancholy retrospect. Again and again he picked him up and carried him home; till that night when no puss came to his call, and Palmerston, the black and glossy, was seen no more: either he had fallen down a shaft, or been mangled by a dog, or stolen, cats still fetching a high price on Ballarat.
The window of Mahony’s room faced a wide view: not a fence, hardly a bit of scrub or a tuft of grass-tree marked the bare expanse of uneven ground, now baked brown as a piecrust by the December sun. He looked across it to the cemetery. This was still wild and unfenced — just a patch of rising ground where it was permissible to bury the dead. Only the day before — the second anniversary of the Eureka Stockade — he had watched some two to three hundred men, with crepe on their hats and sleeves, a black-draped pole at their head, march there to do homage to their fallen comrades. The dust raised by the shuffling of these many feet had accompanied the procession like a moving cloud; had lingered in its rear like the smoke from a fire. Drays and lorries crawled for ever laboriously along it, seeming glued to the earth by the monstrous sticky heat of the veiled sun. Further back rose a number of bald hills — rounded, swelling hills, shaped like a woman’s breasts. And behind all, pale china-blue against the tense white sky, was the embankment of the distant ranges. Except for these, an ugly, uninviting outlook, and one to which he seldom lifted his eyes.
His room pleased him better. Polly had stretched a bright green drugget on the floor; the table had a green cloth on it; the picture showed up well against the whitewashed wall. Behind him was a large deal cupboard, which held instruments and drugs. The bookshelves with their precious burden were within reach of his hand; on the top shelf he had stacked the boxes containing his botanical and other specimens.
The first week or so there was naturally little doing: a sprained wrist to bandage, a tooth to draw, a case of fly-blight. To keep himself from growing fidgety, he overhauled his minerals and butterflies, and renewed faded labels. This done, he went on to jot down some ideas he had, with regard to the presence of auriferous veins in quartz. It was now generally agreed that quartz was the matrix; but on the question of how the gold had found its way into the rock, opinions were sharply divided. The theory of igneous injection was advanced by some; others inclined to that of sublimation. Mahony leaned to a combination of the two processes, and spent several days getting his thoughts in order; while Polly, bursting with pride, went about on tiptoe audibly hushing the children: their uncle was writing for the newspapers.
Still no patients worth the name made their appearance. To fend off the black worry that might get the better of him did he sit idle, he next drew his Bible to him, and set about doing methodically what he had so far undertaken merely by fits and starts — deciding for himself to what degree the Scriptures were inspired. Polly was neither proud nor happy while this went on, and let the children romp unchecked. At present it was not so much the welfare of her husband’s soul she feared for: God must surely know by this time what a good man Richard was; he had not his equal, she thought, for honesty and uprightness; he was kind to the poor and the sick, and hadn’t missed a single Sunday at church, since their marriage. But all that would not help, if once he got the reputation of being an infidel. Then, nobody would want him as a doctor at all.
Casually begun, Mahony’s studies soon absorbed him to the exclusion of everything else.
Brought up in the cast-iron mould of Irish Protestantism, to which, being of a sober and devout turn of mind, he had readily submitted, he had been tossed, as a youthful student, into the freebooting Edinburgh of the forties. Edinburgh was alive in those days to her very paving-stones; town and university combined to form a hotbed of intellectual unrest, a breeding-ground for disturbing possibilities. The “development theory” was in the air; and a book that appeared anonymously had boldly voiced, in popular fashion, Maillet’s dream and the Lamarckian hypothesis of a Creation undertaken once and for all, in place of a continuous creative intenention. This book, opposing natural law to miracle, carried complete conviction to the young and eager. Audacious spirits even hazarded the conjecture that primitive life itself might have originated in a natural way: had not, but recently, an investigator who brought a powerful voltaic battery to bear on a saturated solution of silicate of potash, been startled to find, as the result of his experiment, numberless small mites of the species ACARUS HORRIDUS? Might not the marvel electricity or galvanism, in action on albumen, turn out to be the vitalising force? To the orthodox zoologist, phytologist and geologist, such a suggestion savoured of madness; they either took refuge in a contemptuous silence, or condescended only to reply: Had one visited the Garden of Eden during Creation, one would have found that, in the morning, man was not, while in the evening he was! — morning and evening bearing their newly established significance of geological epochs. The famous tracing of the Creator’s footsteps, undertaken by a gifted compromiser, was felt by even the most bigoted to be a lame rejoinder. His ASTEROLEPSIS, the giant fossil-fish from the Old Red Sandstone, the antiquity of which should show that the origin of life was not to be found solely in “infusorial points,” but that highly developed forms were among the earliest created — this single prop was admittedly not strong enough to carry the whole burden of proof. No, the immutability of species had been seriously impugned, and bold minds asked themselves why a single act of creation, at the outset, should not constitute as divine an origin of life as a continued series of “creative fiats.”
Mahony was one of them. The “development theory” did not repel him. He could see no impiety in believing that life, once established on the earth, had been left to perfect itself. Or hold that this would represent the Divine Author of all things as, after one master-stroke, dreaming away eternal ages in apathy and indifference. Why should the perfect functioning of natural law not be as convincing an expression of God’s presence as a series of cataclysmic acts of creation?
None the less it was a time of crisis, for him, as for so many. For, if this were so, if science spoke true that, the miracle of life set a-going, there had been no further intervention on the part of the Creator, then the very head-and-corner stone of the Christian faith, the Bible itself, was shaken. More, much more would have to go than the Mosaic cosmogony of the first chapter of Genesis. Just as the Elohistic account of creation had been stretched to fit the changed views of geologists, so the greater part of the scriptural narratives stood in need of a wider interpretation. The fable of the Eternal’s personal mediation in the affairs of man must be accepted for what it was — a beautiful allegory, the fondly dreamed fulfilment of a world-old desire. And bringing thus a sharpened critical sense to bear on the Scriptures, Mahony embarked on his voyage of discovery. Before him, but more as a warning than a beacon, shone the example of a famous German savant, who, taking our Saviour’s life as his theme, demolished the sacred idea of a Divine miracle, and retold the Gospel story from a rationalistic standpoint. A savagely unimaginative piece of work this, thought Mahony, and one that laid all too little weight on the deeps of poetry, the mysteries of symbols, and the power the human mind drew from these, to pierce to an ideal truth. His own modest efforts would be of quite another kind.
For he sought, not to deny God, but to discover Him anew, by freeing Him from the drift of error, superstition and dead-letterism which the centuries had accumulated about Him. Far was it from His servant’s mind to wish to decry the authority of the Book of Books. This he believed to consist, in great part, of inspired utterances, and, for the rest, to be the wisest and ripest collection of moral precept and example that had come down to us from the ages. Without it, one would be rudderless indeed — a castaway in a cockleshell boat on a furious sea — and from one’s lips would go up a cry like to that wrung from a famous infidel: “I am affrighted and confounded with the forlorn solitude in which I am placed by my philosophy . . .begin to fancy myself in the most deplorable condition imaginable, environed by the deepest darkness.”
No, Mahony was not one of those who held that the Christian faith, that fine flower of man’s spiritual need, would suffer detriment by the discarding of a few fabulous tales; nor did he fear lest his own faith should become undermined by his studies. For he had that in him which told him that God was; and this instinctive certainty would persist, he believed, though he had ultimately to admit the whole fabric of Christianity to be based on the Arimathean’s dream. It had already survived the rejection of externals: the surrender of forms, the assurance that ceremonials were not essential to salvation belonged to his early student-days. Now, he determined to send by the board the last hampering relics of bigotry and ritual. He could no longer concede the tenets of election and damnation. God was a God of mercy, not the blind, jealous Jahveh of the Jews, or the inhuman Sabbatarian of a narrow Protestantism. And He might be worshipped anywhere or anyhow: in any temple built to His name — in the wilderness under the open sky — in silent prayer, or according to any creed.
In all this critical readjustment, the thought he had to spare for his fellow-men was of small account: his fate was not bound to theirs by the altruism of a later generation. It was a time of intense individualism; and his efforts towards spiritual emancipation were made on his own behalf alone. The one link he had with his fellows — if link it could be termed — was his earnest wish to avoid giving offence: never would it have occurred to him to noise his heterodoxy abroad. Nor did he want to disturb other people’s convictions. He respected those who could still draw support from the old faith, and, moreover, had not a particle of the proselytiser in him. He held that religion was either a matter of temperament, or of geographical distribution; felt tolerantly inclined towards the Jews, and the Chinese; and did not even smile at processions to the Joss-house, and the provisioning of those silent ones who needed food no more.
But just as little as he intermeddled with the convictions of others would he brook interference with his own. It was the concern of no third person what paths he followed in his journeyings after the truth — in his quest for a panacea for the ills and delusions of life. For, call it what he would — Biblical criticism, scientific inquiry — this was his aim first and last. He was trying to pierce the secret of existence — to rede the riddle that has never been solved. — What am I? Whence have I come? Whither am I going? What meaning has the pain I suffer, the evil that men do? Can evil be included in God’s scheme? — And it was well, he told himself, as he pressed forward, that the flame in him burnt unwaveringly, which assured him of his kinship with the Eternal, of the kinship of all created things; so unsettling and perplexing were the conclusions at which he arrived.
Summoned to dinner, he sat at table with stupid hands and evasive eyes. Little Johnny, who was, as Polly put it, “as sharp as mustard,” was prompt to note his uncle’s vacancy.
“What you staring at, Nunkey?” he demanded, his mouth full of roly-pudding, which he was stuffing down with all possible dispatch.
“Hush, Johnny. Don’t tease your uncle.”
“What do you mean, my boy?”
“I mean . . .” Young John squeezed his last mouthful over his windpipe and raised his plate. “I mean, you look just like you was seein’ a emeny. — More puddin’, Aunt Polly!”
“What does the child mean? An anemone?”
“NO!” said John with the immense contempt of five years. “I didn’t say anner emeny.” Here, he began to tuck in anew, aiding the slow work of his spoon with his more habile fingers. “A emeny’s d emeny. Like on de pickshur in Aunt Polly’s room. One . . . one’s de English, an’ one’s de emeny.”
“It’s the Battle of Waterloo,” explained Polly. “He stands in front of it every day.”
“Yes. An’ when I’m a big man, I’m goin’ to be a sojer, an’ wear a red coat, an’ make ‘bung’!” and he shot an imaginary gun at his sister, who squealed and ducked her head.
“An ancient wish, my son,” said Mahony, when Johnny had been reproved and Trotty comforted. “Tom-thumbs like you have voiced it since the world — or rather since war first began.”
“Don’t care. Nunkey, why is de English and why is de emeny?”
But Mahony shrank from the gush of whats and whys he would let loose on himself, did he attempt to answer this question. “Come, shall uncle make you some boats to sail in the wash-tub?”
“Wiv a mast an’ sails an’ everyfing?” cried John wildly; and throwing his spoon to the floor, he scrambled from his chair. “Oh yes, Nunkey — dear Nunkey!”
“Dea Unkey!” echoed the shadow.
“Oh, you cupboard lovers, you!” said Mahony as, order restored and sticky mouths wiped, two pudgy hands were thrust with a new kindness into his.
He led the way to the yard; and having whittled out for the children some chips left by the builders, he lighted his pipe and sat down in the shade of the house. Here, through a veiling of smoke, which hung motionless in the hot, still air, he watched the two eager little mortals before him add their quota to the miracle of life.
Polly had no such absorbing occupation to tide her over these empty days of waiting; and sometimes — especially late in the afternoon, when her household duties were done, the children safely at play — she found it beyond her power to stitch quietly at her embroidery. Letting the canvas fall to her knee, she would listen, listen, listen till the blood sang in her ears, for the footsteps and knocks at the door that never came. And did she draw back the window-curtain and look out, there was not a soul to be seen: not a trace of the string of prosperous, paying patients she had once imagined winding their way to the door.
And meanwhile Richard was shut up in his room, making those dreadful notes in the Bible which it pinched her heart even to think of. He really did not seem to care whether he had a practice or not. All the new instruments, got from Melbourne, lay unused in their casings; and the horse was eating its head off, at over a pound a week, in the livery-barn. Polly shrank from censuring her husband, even in thought; but as she took up her work again, and went on producing in wools a green basket of yellow fruit on a magenta ground, she could not help reflecting what she would have done at this pass, had she been a man. She would have announced the beginning of her practice in big letters in the STAR, and she would have gone down into the township and mixed with people and made herself known. With Richard, it was almost as if he felt averse from bringing himself into public notice.
Only another month now, and the second instalment of interest would fall due. Polly did not know exactly what the sum was; but she did know the date. The first time, they had had no difficulty in meeting the bill, owing to their economy in furnishing. But what about this one, and the next again? How were payments to be made, and kept up, if the patients would not come?
She wished with all her heart that she was ten years older. For what could a person who was only eighteen be supposed to understand of business? Richard’s invariable answer, did she venture a word, was not to worry her little head about such things.
When, however, another week had dribbled away in the same fashion, Polly began to be afraid the date of payment had slipped his memory altogether. She would need to remind him of it, even at the risk of vexing him. And having cast about for a pretext to intrude, she decided to ask his advice on a matter that was giving her much uneasiness; though, had he been REALLY busy, she would have gone on keeping it to herself.
It related to little Johnny.
Johnny was a high-spirited, passionate child, who needed most careful handling. At first she had managed him well enough. But ever since his five months’ boarding-out, he had fallen into deceitful ways; and the habit of falsehood was gaining on him. Bad by nature, Polly felt sure the child was not; but she could not keep him on the straight path now he had discovered that a lie might save him a punishment. He was not to be shamed out of telling it; and the only other cure Polly knew of was whipping. She whipped him; and provoked him to fury.
A new misdeed on his part gave her the handle she sought. Johnny had surreptitiously entered her pantry and stolen a plateful of cakes. Taxed with the theft he denied it; and cornered, laid, Adam-like, the blame on his companion, asserting that Trotty had persuaded him to take the goodies; though bewildered innocence was writ all over the baby’s chubby face.
Mahony had the young sinner up before him. But he was able neither to touch the child’s heart, nor to make him see the gravity of what he had done: never being allowed inside the surgery, John could now not take his eyes off the wonderful display of gold and purple and red moths, which were pinned, with outstretched wings, to a sheet of cork. He stood o-mouthed and absentminded, and only once shot a blue glance at his uncle to say: “But if dey’re so baddy . . . den why did God MAKE lies an’ de debble?”— which intelligent query hit the nail of one of Mahony’s own misgivings on the head.
No real depravity, was his verdict. Still, too much of a handful, it was plain, for Polly’s inexperience. “A problem for John himself to tackle, my dear. Why should we have to drill a non-existent morality into his progeny? Besides, I’m not going to have you blamed for bad results, later on.” He would write to John there and then, and request that Johnny be removed from their charge.
Polly was not prepared for this summary solution of her dilemma, and began to regret having brought it up; though she could not but agree with Richard that it would never do for the younger child to be corrupted by a bad example. However she kept her wits about her. Did John take the boy away, said she, she was afraid she would have to ask for a larger housekeeping allowance. The withdrawal of the money for Johnny’s board would make a difference to their income.
“Of course,” returned Mahony easily, and was about to dismiss the subject.
But Polly stood her ground. “Talking of money, Richard, I don’t know whether you remember . . . you’ve been so busy . . . that it’s only about a fortnight now till the second lot of interest falls due.”
“What! — a fortnight?” exclaimed her husband, and reached out for an almanack. “Good Lord, so it is! And nothing doing yet, Polly . . . absolutely nothing!”
“Well, dear, you can’t expect to jump into a big practice all at once, can you? But you see, I think the trouble is, not nearly enough people know you’ve started.” And a little imploringly, and very apologetically, Polly unfolded her artless schemes for self-advertisement.
“Wife, I’ve a grave suspicion!” said Mahony, and took her by the chin. “While I’ve sat here with my head in the clouds, you’ve been worrying over ways and means, and over having such an unpractical old dreamer for a husband. Now, child, that won’t do. I didn’t marry to have my girl puzzling her little brains where her next day’s dinner was to come from. Away with you, to your stitching! Things will be all right, trust to me.”
And Polly did trust him, and was so satisfied with what she had effected that, raising her face for a kiss, she retired with an easy mind to overhaul Johnny’s little wardrobe.
But the door having clicked behind her, Mahony’s air of forced assurance died away. For an instant he hesitated beside the table, on which a rampart of books lay open, then vigorously clapped each volume to and moved to the window, chewing at the ends of his beard. A timely interruption! What the dickens had he been about, to forget himself in this fool’s paradise, when the crassest of material anxieties — that of pounds, shillings and pence — was crouched, wolf-like, at his door?
That night he wakened with a jerk from an uneasy sleep. Though at noon the day before, the thermometer had registered over a hundred in the shade, it was now bitterly cold, and these abrupt changes of temperature always whipped up his nerves. Even after he had piled his clothes and an opossum-rug on top of the blankets, he could not drop off again. He lay staring at the moonlit square of the window, and thinking the black thoughts of night.
What if he could not manage to work up a practice? . . . found it impossible to make a living? His plate had been on the door for close on two months now, and he had barely a five-pound note to show for it. What was to be done? Here Polly’s words came back to him with new stress. “Not nearly enough people know you’ve started.” That was it! — Polly had laid her finger on the hitch. The genteel manners of the old country did not answer here; instead of sitting twiddling his thumbs, waiting for patients to seek him out, he ought to have adopted the screaming methods of advertisement in vogue on Ballarat. To have had “Holloway’s Pills sold here!” “Teeth extracted painlessly!” “Cures guaranteed!” painted man-high on his outside house-wall. To have gone up and down and round the township; to have been on the spot when accidents happened; to have hobnobbed with Tom, Dick and Harry in bars and saloons. And he saw a figure that looked like his the centre of a boisterous crowd; saw himself slapped on the back by dirty hands, shouting and shouted to drinks. He turned his pillow, to drive the image away. Whatever he had done or not done, the fact remained that a couple of weeks hence he had to make up the sum of over thirty pounds. And again he discerned a phantom self, this time a humble supplicant for an extension of term, brought up short against Ocock’s stony visage, flouted by his cocksy clerk. Once more he turned his pillow. These quarterly payments, which dotted all his coming years, were like little rock-islands studding the surface of an ocean, and telling of the sunken continent below: this monstrous thousand odd pounds he had been fool enough to borrow. Never would he be able to pay off such a sum, never again be free from the incubus of debt. Meanwhile, not the ground he stood on, not the roof over his head could actually be called his own. He had also been too pushed for money, at the time, to take Ocock’s advice and insure his life.
These thoughts spun themselves to a nightmare-web, in which he was the hapless fly. Putting a finger to his wrist, he found he had the pulse of a hundred that was not uncommon to him. He got out of bed, to dowse his head in a basin of water. Polly, only half awake, sat up and said: “What’s the matter, dear? Are you ill?” In replying to her he disturbed the children, the door of whose room stood ajar; and by the time quiet was restored, further sleep was out of the question. He dressed and quitted the house.
Day was breaking; the moon, but an hour back a globe of polished silver, had now no light left in her, and stole, a misty ghost, across the dun-coloured sky. A bank of clouds that had had their night-camp on the summit of Mount Warrenheip was beginning to disperse; and the air had lost its edge. He walked out beyond the cemetary, then sat down on a tree-stump and looked back. The houses that nestled on the slope were growing momently whiter; but the Flat was still sunk in shadow and haze, making old Warrenheip, for all its half-dozen miles of distance, seem near enough to be touched by hand. But even in full daylight this woody peak had a way of tricking the eye. From the brow of the western hill, with the Flat out of sight below, it appeared to stand at the very foot of those streets that headed east — first of one, then of another, moving with you as you changed position, like the eyes of a portrait that follow you wherever you go. — And now the sky was streaked with crimson-madder; the last clouds scattered, drenched in orange and rose, and flames burned in the glass of every window-pane. Up came the tip of the sun’s rim, grew to a fiery quarter, to a half; till, bounding free from the horizon, it began to mount and to lose its girth in the immensity of the sky.
The phantasms of the night yielded like the clouds to its power. He was still reasonably young, reasonably sound, and had the better part of a lifetime before him. Rising with a fresh alacrity, he whistled to his dog, and walked briskly home to bath and breakfast.
But that evening, at the heel of another empty day, his nervous restlessness took him anew. From her parlour Polly could hear the thud of his feet, going up and down, up and down his room. And it was she who was to blame for disturbing him!
“Yet what else could I do?”
And meditatively pricking her needle in and out of the window-curtain, Polly fell into a reverie over her husband and his ways. How strange Richard was . . . how difficult! First, to be able to forget all about how things stood with him, and then to be twice as upset as other people.
John demanded the immediate delivery of his young son, undertaking soon to knock all nasty tricks out of him. On the day fixed for Johnny’s departure husband and wife were astir soon after dawn. Mahony was to have taken the child down to the coach-office. But Johnny had been awake since two o’clock with excitement, and was now so fractious that Polly tied on her bonnet and accompanied them. She knew Richard’s hatred of a scene.
“You just walk on, dear, and get his seat,” she said, while she dragged the cross, tired child on her hand to the public-house, where even at this hour a posse of idlers hung about.
And she did well to be there. Instantly on arriving Johnny set up a wail, because there was talk of putting him inside the vehicle; and this persisted until the coachman, a goat-bearded Yankee, came to the rescue and said he was darned if such a plucky young nipper shouldn’t get his way: he’d have the child tied on beside him on the box-seat — be blowed if he wouldn’t! But even this did not satisfy Johnny; and while Mahony went to procure a length of rope, he continued to prance round his aunt and to tug ceaselessly at her sleeve.
“Can I dwive, Aunt Polly, can I dwive? Ask him, can I dwive!” he roared, beating her skirts with his fists. He was only silenced by the driver threatening to throw him as a juicy morsel to the gang of bushrangers who, sure as blazes, would be waiting to stick the coach up directly it entered the bush.
Husband and wife lingered to watch the start, when the champing horses took a headlong plunge forward and, together with the coach, were swallowed up in a whirlwind of dust. A last glimpse discovered Johnny, pale and wide-eyed at the lurching speed, but sitting bravely erect.
“The spirit of your brother in that child, my dear!” said Mahony as they made to walk home.
“Poor little Johnny,” and Polly wiped her eyes. “If only he was going back to a mother who loved him, and would understand.”
“I’m sure no mother could have done more for him than you, love.”
“Yes, but a real mother wouldn’t need to give him up, however naughty he had been.”
“I think the young varmint might have shown some regret at parting from you, after all this time,” returned her husband, to whom it was offensive if even a child was lacking in good feeling. “He never turned his head. Well, I suppose it’s a fact, as they say, that the natural child is the natural barbarian.”
“Johnny never meant any harm. It was I who didn’t know how to manage him,” said Polly staunchly. —“Why, Richard, what IS the matter?” For letting her arm fall Mahony had dashed to the other side of the road.
“Good God, Polly, look at this!”
“This” was a printed notice, nailed to a shed, which announced that a sale of frontages in Mair and Webster Streets would shortly be held.
“But it’s not our road. I don’t understand.”
“Good Lord, don’t you see that if they’re there already, they’ll be out with us before we can say Jack Robinson? And then where shall I be?” gave back Mahony testily.
“Let us talk it over. But first come home and have breakfast. Then . . . yes, then, I think you should go down and see Mr. Henry, and hear what he says.”
“You’re right. I must see Ocock. — Confound the fellow! It’s he who has let me in for this.”
“And probably he’ll know some way out. What else is a lawyer for, dear?”
“Quite true, my Polly. None the less, it looks as if I were in for a run of real bad luck, all along the line.”
One hot morning some few days later, Polly, with Trotty at her side, stood on the doorstep shading her eyes with her hand. She was on the look-out for her “vegetable man,” who drove in daily from the Springs with his greenstuff. He was late as usual: if Richard would only let her deal with the cheaper, more punctual Ah Sing, who was at this moment coming up the track. But Devine was a reformed character: after, as a digger, having squandered a fortune in a week, he had given up the drink and, backed by a hard-working, sober wife, was now trying to earn a living at market-gardening. So he had to be encouraged.
The Chinaman jog-trotted towards them, his baskets a-sway, his mouth stretched to a friendly grin. “You no want cabbagee to-day? Me got velly good cabbagee,” he said persuasively and lowered his pole.
“No thank you, John, not to-day. Me wait for white man.”
“Me bling pleasant for lilly missee,” said the Chow; and unknotting a dirty nosecloth, he drew from it an ancient lump of candied ginger. “Lilly missee eatee him . . . oh, yum, yum! Velly good. My word!”
But Chinamen to Trotty were fearsome bogies, corresponding to the swart-faced, white-eyed chimney-sweeps of the English nursery. She hid behind her aunt, holding fast to the latter’s skirts, and only stealing an occasional peep from one saucer-like blue eye.
“Thank you, John. Me takee chowchow for lilly missee,” said Polly, who had experience in disposing of such savoury morsels.
“You no buy cabbagee to-day?” repeated Ah Sing, with the catlike persistence of his race. And as Polly, with equal firmness and good-humour, again shook her head, he shouldered his pole and departed at a half-run, crooning as he went.
Meanwhile at the bottom of the road another figure had come into view. It was not Devine in his spring-cart; it was some one on horseback, was a lady, in a holland habit. The horse, a piebald, advanced at a sober pace, and —“Why, good gracious! I believe she’s coming here.”
At the first of the three houses the rider had dismounted, and knocked at the door with the butt of her whip. After a word with the woman who opened, she threw her riding-skirt over one arm, put the other through the bridle, and was now making straight for them.
As she drew near she smiled, showing a row of white teeth. “Does Dr. Mahony live here?”
Misfortune of misfortunes! — Richard was out.
But almost instantly Polly grasped that this would tell in his favour. “He won’t be long, I know.”
“I wonder,” said the lady, “if he would come out to my house when he gets back? I am Mrs Glendinning — of Dandaloo.”
Polly flushed, with sheer satisfaction: Dandaloo was one of the largest stations in the neighbourhood of Ballarat. “Oh, I’m certain he will,” she answered quickly.
“I am so glad you think so,” said Mrs. Glendinning. “A mutual friend, Mr. Henry Ocock, tells me how clever he is.”
Polly’s brain leapt at the connection; on the occasion of Richard’s last visit the lawyer had again repeated the promise to put a patient in his way. Ocock was one of those people, said Richard, who only remembered your existence when he saw you. — Oh, what a blessing in disguise had been that troublesome old land sale!
The lady had stooped to Trotty, whom she was trying to coax from her lurking-place. “What a darling! How I envy you!”
“Have you no children?” Polly asked shyly, when Trotty’s relationship had been explained.
“Yes, a boy. But I should have liked a little girl of my own. Boys are so difficult,” and she sighed.
The horse nuzzling for sugar roused Polly to a sense of her remissness. “Won’t you come in and rest a little, after your ride?” she asked; and without hesitation Mrs. Glendinning said she would like to, very much indeed; and tying the hone to the fence, she followed Polly into the house.
The latter felt proud this morning of its apple-pie order. She drew up the best armchair, placed a footstool before it and herself carried in a tray with refreshments. Mrs. Glendinning had taken Trotty on her lap, and given the child her long gold chains to play with. Polly thought her the most charming creature in the world. She had a slender waist, and an abundant light brown chignon, and cheeks of a beautiful pink, in which two fascinating dimples came and went. The feather from her riding-hat lay on her neck. Her eyes were the colour of forget-me-nots, her mouth was red as any rose. She had, too, so sweet and natural a manner that Polly was soon chatting frankly about herself and her life, Mrs. Glendinning listening with her face pressed to the spun-glass of Trotty’s hair.
When she rose, she clasped both Polly’s hands in hers. “You dear little woman . . . may I kiss you? I am ever so much older than you.”
“I am eighteen,” said Polly.
“And I on the shady side of twenty-eight!”
They laughed and kissed. “I shall ask your husband to bring you out to see me. And take no refusal. AU REVOIR!” and riding off, she turned in the saddle and waved her hand.
For all her pleasurable excitement Polly did not let the grass grow under her feet. There being still no sign of Richard — he had gone to Soldiers’ Hill to extract a rusty nail from a child’s foot — Ellen was sent to summon him home; and when the girl returned with word that he was on the way, Polly dispatched her to the livery-barn, to order the horse to be got ready.
Richard took the news coolly. “Did she say what the matter was?”
No, she hadn’t; and Polly had not liked to ask her; it could surely be nothing very serious, or she would have mentioned it.
“H’m. Then it’s probably as I thought. Glendinning’s failing is well known. Only the other day, I heard that more than one medical man had declined to have anything further to do with the case. It’s a long way out, and fees are not always forthcoming. HE doesn’t ask for a doctor, and, womanlike, she forgets to pay the bills. I suppose they think they’ll try a greenhorn this time.”
Pressed by Polly, who was curious to learn everything about her new friend, he answered: “I should be sorry to tell you, my dear, how many bottles of brandy it is Glendinning’s boast he can empty in a week.”
“Drink? Oh, Richard, how terrible! And that pretty, pretty woman!” cried Polly, and drove her thoughts backwards: she had seen no hint of tragedy in her caller’s lovely face. However, she did not wait to ponder, but asked, a little anxiously: “But you’ll go, dear, won’t you?”
“Go? Of course I shall! Beggars can’t be choosers.” “Besides, you know, you MIGHT be able to do something where other people have failed.”
Mahony rode out across the Flat. For a couple of miles his route was one with the Melbourne Road, on which plied the usual motley traffic. Then, branching off at right angles, it dived into the bush — in this case a scantly wooded, uneven plain, burnt tobacco-brown and hard as iron.
Here went no one but himself. He and the mare were the sole living creatures in what, for its stillness, might have been a painted landscape. Not a breath of air stirred the weeping grey-green foliage of the gums; nor was there any bird-life to rustle the leaves, or peck, or chirrup. Did he draw rein, the silence was so intense that he could almost hear it.
On striking the outlying boundary of Dandaloo, he dismounted to slip a rail. After that he was in and out of the saddle, his way leading through numerous gateless paddocks before it brought him up to the homestead.
This, a low white wooden building, overspread by a broad verandah — from a distance it looked like an elongated mushroom — stood on a hill. At the end, the road had run alongside a well-stocked fruit and flower-garden; but the hillside itself, except for a gravelled walk in front of the house, was uncultivated — was given over to dead thistles and brown weeds.
Fastening his bridle to a post, Mahony unstrapped his bag of necessaries and stepped on to the verandah. A row of French windows stood open; but flexible green sun-blinds hid the rooms from view. The front door was a French window, too, differing from the rest only in its size. There was neither bell nor knocker. While he was rapping with the knuckles on the panel, one of the. blinds was pushed aside and Mrs. Glendinning came out.
She was still in hat and riding-habit; had herself, she said, reached home but half an hour ago. Summoning a station-hand to attend to the horse, she raised a blind and ushered Mahony into the dining-room, where she had been sitting at lunch, alone at the head of a large table. A Chinaman brought fresh plates, and Mahony was invited to draw up his chair. He had an appetite after his ride; the room was cool and dark; there were no flies.
Throughout the meal, the lady kept up a running fire of talk — the graceful chitchat that sits so well on pretty lips. She spoke of the coming Races; of the last Government House Ball; of the untimely death of Governor Hotham. To Mahony she instinctively turned a different side out, from that which had captured Polly. With all her well-bred ease, there was a womanly deference in her manner, a readiness to be swayed, to stand corrected. The riding-dress set off her figure; and her delicate features were perfectly chiselled. (“Though she’ll be florid before she’s forty.”)
Some juicy nectarines finished, she pushed back her chair. “And now, doctor, will you come and see your patient?”
Mahony followed her down a broad, bare passage. A number of rooms opened off it, but instead of entering one of these she led him out to a back verandah. Here, before a small door, she listened with bent head, then turned the handle and went in.
The room was so dark that Mahony could see nothing. Gradually he made out a figure lying on a stretcher-bed. A watcher sat at the bedside. The atmosphere was more than close, smelt rank and sour. His first request was for light and air.
It was the wreck of a fine man that lay there, strapped over the chest, bound hand and foot to the framework of the bed. The forehead, on which the hair had receded to a few mean grey wisps, was high and domed, the features were straight with plenty of bone in them, the shoulders broad, the arms long. The skin of the face had gone a mahogany brown from exposure, and a score of deep wrinkles ran out fan-wise from the corners of the closed lids. Mahony untied the dirty towels that formed the bandages — they had cut ridges in the limbs they confined — and took one of the heavy wrists in his hand.
“How long has he lain like this?” he asked, as he returned the arm to its place.
“How long is it, Saunderson?” asked Mrs. Glendinning. She had sat down on a chair at the foot of the bed; her skirts overflowed the floor.
The watcher guessed it would be since about the same time yesterday.
“Was he unusually violent on this occasion? — for I presume such attacks are not uncommon with him,” continued Mahony, who had meanwhile made a superficial examination of the sick man.
“I am sorry to say they are only too common, doctor,” replied the lady. —“Was he worse than usual this time, Saunderson?” she turned again to the man; at which fresh proof of her want of knowledge Mahony mentally raised his eyebrows.
“To say trewth, I never see’d the boss so bad before,” answered Saunderson solemnly, grating the palms of the big red hands that hung down between his knees. “And I’ve helped him through the jumps more’n once. It’s my opinion it would ha’ been a narrow squeak for him this time, if me and a mate hadn’t nipped in and got these bracelets on him. There he was, ravin’ and sweatin’ and cursin’ his head off, grey as death. Hell-gate, he called it, said he was devil’s-porter at hell-gate, and kept hollerin’ for napkins and his firesticks. Poor ol’ boss! It WAS hell for him and no mistake!”
By dint of questioning Mahony elicited the fact that Glendinning had been unseated by a young horse, three days previously. At the time, no heed was paid to the trifling accident. Later on, however, complaining of feeling cold and unwell, he went to bed, and after lying wakeful for some hours was seized by the horrors of delirium.
Requesting the lady to leave them, Mahony made a more detailed examination. His suspicions were confirmed: there was internal trouble of old standing, rendered acute by the fall. Aided by Saunderson, he worked with restoratives for the best part of an hour. In the end he had the satisfaction of seeing the coma pass over into a natural repose.
“Well, he’s through this time, but I won’t answer for the next,” he said, and looked about him for a basin in which to wash his hands. “Can’t you manage to keep the drink from him? — or at least to limit him?”
“Nay, the Almighty Himself couldn’t do that,” gave back Saunderson, bringing forward soap and a tin dish.
“How does it come that he lies in a place like this?” asked Mahony, as he dried his hands on a corner of the least dirty towel, and glanced curiously round. The room — in size it did not greatly exceed that of a ship’s-cabin — was in a state of squalid disorder. Besides a deal table and a couple of chairs, its main contents were rows and piles of old paper-covered magazines, the thick brown dust on which showed that they had not been moved for months — or even years. The whitewashed walls were smoke-tanned and dotted with millions of fly-specks; the dried corpses of squashed spiders formed large black patches; all four corners of the ceiling were festooned with cobwebs.
Saunderson shrugged his shoulders. “This was his den when he first was manager here, in old Morrison’s time, and he’s stuck to it ever since. He shuts himself up in here, and won’t have a female cross the threshold — nor yet Madam G. herself.”
Having given final instructions, Mahony went out to rejoin the lady.
“I will not conceal from you that your husband is in a very precarious condition.”
“Do you mean, doctor, he won’t live long?” She had evidently been lying down: one side of her face was flushed and marked. Crying, too, or he was much mistaken: her lids were red-rimmed, her shapely features swollen.
“Ah, you ask too much of me; I am only a woman; I have no influence over him,” she said sadly, and shook her head.
“What is his age?”
“He is forty-seven.”
Mahony had put him down for at least ten years older, and said so. But the lady was not listening: she fidgeted with her lace-edged handkerchief, looked uneasy, seemed to be in debate with herself. Finally she said aloud: “Yes, I will.” And to him: “Doctor, would you come with me a moment?”
This time she conducted him to a well-appointed bedchamber, off which gave a smaller room, containing a little four-poster draped in dimity. With a vague gesture in the direction of the bed, she sank on a chair beside the door.
Drawing the curtains Mahony discovered a fair-haired boy of some eight or nine years old. He lay with his head far back, his mouth wide open — apparently fast asleep.
But the doctor’s eye was quick to see that it was no natural sleep. “Good God! who is responsible for this?”
Mrs. Glendinning held her handkerchief to her face. “I have never told any one before,” she wept. “The shame of it, doctor . . . is more than I can bear.”
“Who is the blackguard? Come, answer me, if you please!”
“Oh, doctor, don’t scold me . . . I am so unhappy.” The pretty face puckered and creased; the full bosom heaved. “He is all I have. And such a bright, clever little fellow! You will cure him for me, won’t you?”
“How often has it happened?”
“I don’t know . . . about five or six times, I think . . . perhaps more. There’s a place not far from here where he can get it . . . an old hut-cook my husband dismissed once, in a fit of temper — he has oh such a temper! Eddy saddles his pony and rides out there, if he’s not watched; and then . . . then, they bring him back . . . like this.”
“But who supplies him with money?”
“Money? Oh, but doctor, he can’t be kept without pocket-money! He has always had as much as he wanted. — No, it is all my husband’s doing,”— and now she broke out in one of those shameless confessions, from which the medical adviser is never safe. “He hates me; he is only happy if he can hurt me and humiliate me. I don’t care what becomes of him. The sooner he dies the better!”
“Compose yourself, my dear lady. Later you may regret such hasty words. — And what has this to do with the child? Come, speak out. It will be a relief to you to tell me.”
“You are so kind, doctor,” she sobbed, and drank, with hysterical gurglings, the glass of water Mahony poured out for her. “Yes, I will tell you everything. It began years ago — when Eddy was only a tot in jumpers. It used to amuse my husband to see him toss off a glass of wine like a grown-up person; and it WAS comical, when he sipped it, and smacked his lips. But then he grew to like it, and to ask for it, and be cross when he was refused. And then . . . then he learnt how to get it for himself. And when his father saw I was upset about it, he egged him on — gave it to him on the sly. — Oh, he is a bad man, doctor, a BAD, cruel man! He says such wicked things, too. He doesn’t believe in God, or that it is wrong to take one’s own life, and he says he never wanted children. He jeers at me because I am fond of Eddy, and because I go to church when I can, and says . . . oh, I know I am not clever, but I am not quite such a fool as he makes me out to be. He speaks to me as if I were the dirt under his feet. He can’t bear the sight of me. I have heard him curse the day he first saw me. And so he’s only too glad to be able to come between my boy and me . . . in any way he can.”
Mahony led the weeping woman back to the dining-room. There he sat long, patiently listening and advising; sat, till Mrs. Glendinning had dried her eyes and was her charming self once more.
The gist of what he said was, the boy must be removed from home at once, and placed in strict, yet kind hands.
Here, however, he ran up against a weak maternal obstinacy. “Oh, but I couldn’t part from Eddy. He is all I have. . . . And so devoted to his mammy.”
As Mahony insisted, she looked the picture of helplessness. “But I should have no idea how to set about it. And my husband would put every possible obstacle in the way.”
“With your permission I will arrange the matter myself.”
“Oh, how kind you are!” cried Mrs. Glendinning again. “But mind, doctor, it must be somewhere where Eddy will lack none of the comforts he is accustomed to, and where his poor mammy can see him whenever she wishes. Otherwise he will fret himself ill.”
Mahony promised to do his best to satisfy her, and declining, very curtly, the wine she pressed on him, went out to mount his horse which had been brought round.
Following him on to the verandah, Mrs. Glendinning became once more the pretty woman frankly concerned for her appearance. “I don’t know how I look, I’m sure,” she said apologetically, and raised both hands to her hair. “Now I will go and rest for an hour. There is to be opossuming and a moonlight picnic to-night at Warraluen.” Catching Mahony’s eye fixed on her with a meaning emphasis, she changed colour. “I cannot sit at home and think, doctor. I MUST distract myself; or I should go mad.”
When he was in the saddle she showed him her dimples again, and her small, even teeth. “I want you to bring your wife to see me next time you come,” she sad, patting the horse’s neck. “I took a great fancy to her — a sweet little woman!”
But Mahony, jogging downhill, said to himself he would think twice before introducing Polly there. His young wife’s sunny, girlish outlook should not, with his consent, be clouded by a knowledge of the sordid things this material prosperity hid from view. A whited sepulchre seemed to him now the richly appointed house, the well-stocked gardens, the acres on acres of good pasture-land: a fair outside when, within, all was foul. He called to mind what he knew by hearsay of the owner. Glendinning was one of the pioneer squatters of the district, had held the run for close on fifteen years. Nowadays, when the land round was entirely taken up, and a place like Ballarat stood within stone’s-throw, it was hard to imagine the awful solitude to which the early settlers had been condemned. Then, with his next neighbour miles and miles away, Melbourne, the nearest town, a couple of days’ ride through trackless bush, a man was a veritable prisoner in this desert of paddocks, with not a soul to speak to but rough station-hands, and nothing to occupy his mind but the damage done by summer droughts and winter floods. No support or comradeship in the wife either — this poor pretty foolish little woman: “With the brains of a pigeon!” Glendinning had the name of being intelligent: was it, under these circumstances, matter for wonder that he should seek to drown doubts, memories, inevitable regrets; should be led on to the bitter discovery that forgetfulness alone rendered life endurable? Yes, there was something sinister in the dead stillness of the melancholy bush; in the harsh, merciless sunlight of the late afternoon.
A couple of miles out his horse cast a shoe, and it was evening before he reached home. Polly was watching for him on the doorstep, in a twitter lest some accident had happened or he had had a brush with bushrangers.
“It never rains but it pours, dear!” was her greeting: he had been twice sent for to the Flat, to attend a woman in labour. — And with barely time to wash the worst of the ride’s dust off him, he had to pick up his bag and hurry away.
“A very striking-looking man! With perfect manners — and beautiful hands.”
Her head bent over her sewing, Polly repeated these words to herself with a happy little smile. They had been told her, in confidence, by Mrs. Glendinning, and had been said by this lady’s best friend, Mrs. Urquhart of Yarangobilly: on the occasion of Richard’s second call at Dandaloo, he had been requested to ride to the neighbouring station to visit Mrs. Urquhart, who was in delicate health. And of course Polly had passed the flattering opinion on; for, though she was rather a good hand at keeping a secret — Richard declared he had never known a better — yet that secret did not exist — or up till now had not existed — which she could imagine herself keeping from him.
For the past few weeks these two ladies had vied with each other in singing Richard’s praises, and in making much of Polly: the second time Mrs. Glendinning called she came in her buggy, and carried off Polly, and Trotty, too, to Yarangobilly, where there was a nestful of little ones for the child to play with. Another day a whole brakeful of lively people drove up to the door in the early morning, and insisted on Polly accompanying them, just as she was, to the Racecourse on the road to Creswick’s Creek. And everybody was so kind to her that Polly heartily enjoyed herself, in spite of her plain print dress. She won a pair of gloves and a piece of music in a philippine with Mr Urquhart, a jolly, carroty-haired man, beside whom she sat on the box-seat coming home; and she was lucky enough to have half-a-crown on one of the winners. An impromptu dance was got up that evening by the merry party, in a hall in the township; and Polly had the honour of a turn with Mr. Henry Ocock, who was most affable. Richard also looked in for an hour towards the end, and valsed her and Mrs. Glendinning round.
Polly had quite lost her heart to her new friend. At the outset Richard had rather frowned on the intimacy — but then he was a person given to taking unaccountable antipathies. In this case, however, he had to yield; for not only did a deep personal liking spring up between the two women, but a wave of pity swept over Polly, blinding her to more subtle considerations. Before Mrs. Glendinning had been many times at the house, she had poured out all her troubles to Polly, impelled thereto by Polly’s quick sympathy and warm young eyes. Richard had purposely given his wife few details of his visits to Dandaloo; but Mrs. Glendinning knew no such scruples, and cried her eyes out on Polly’s shoulder.
What a dreadful man the husband must be! “For she really is the dearest little woman, Richard. And means so well with every one — I’ve never heard her say a sharp or unkind word. — Well, not very clever, perhaps. But everybody can’t be clever, can they? And she’s good — which is better. The only thing she seems a teeny-weeny bit foolish about is her boy. I’m afraid she’ll never consent to part with him.”— Polly said this to prepare her husband, who was in correspondence on the subject with Archdeacon Long and with John in Melbourne. Richard was putting himself to a great deal of trouble, and would naturally be vexed if nothing came of it.
Polly paid her first visit to Dandaloo with considerable trepidation. For Mrs. Urquhart, who herself was happily married — although, it was true, her merry, red-haired husband had the reputation of being a LITTLE too fond of the ladies, and though he certainly did not make such a paying concern of Yarangobilly as Mr. Glendinning of Dandaloo — Mrs. Urquhart had whispered to Polly as they sat chatting on the verandah: “Such a DREADFUL man, my dear! . . . a perfect brute! Poor little Agnes. It is wonderful how she keeps her spirits up.”
Polly, however, was in honour bound to admit that to her the owner of Dandaloo had appeared anything but the monster report made him out to be. He was perfectly sober the day she was there, and did not touch wine at luncheon; and afterwards he had been most kind, taking her with him on a quiet little broad-backed mare to an outlying part of the station, and giving her several hints how to improve her seat. He was certainly very haggard-looking, and deeply wrinkled, and at table his hand shook so that the water in his glass ran over. But all this only made Polly feel sorry for him, and long to help him.
“My dear, you ARE favoured! I never knew James make such an offer before,” whispered Mrs. Glendinning, as she pinned her ample riding-skirt round her friend’s slim hips.
The one thing about him that disturbed Polly was his manner towards his wife: he was savagely ironic with her, and trampled hobnailed on her timid opinions. But then Agnes didn’t know how to treat him, Polly soon saw that: she was nervous and fluttery — evasive, too; and once during lunch even told a deliberate fib. Slight as was her acquaintance with him, Polly felt sure this want of courage must displease him; for there was something very simple and direct about his own way of speaking.
“My dear, why don’t you stand up to him?” asked little Polly.
“Dearest, I dare not. If you knew him as I do, Polly. . . . He TERRIFIES me. — Oh, what a lucky little woman you are . . . to have a husband like yours.”
Polly had recalled these words that very morning as she stood to watch Richard ride away: never did he forget to kiss her good-bye, or to turn and wave to her at the foot of the road. Each time she admired afresh the figure he cut on horseback: he was so tall and slender, and sat so straight in his saddle. Now, too, he had yielded to her persuasions and shaved off his beard; and his moustache and side-whiskers were like his hair, of an extreme, silky blond. Ever since the day of their first meeting at Beamish’s Family Hotel, Polly had thought her husband the handsomest man in the world. And the best, as well. He had his peculiarities, of course; but so had every husband; and it was part of a wife’s duty to study them, to adapt herself to them, or to endeavour to tone them down. And now came these older, wiser ladies and confirmed her high opinion of him. Polly beamed with happiness at this juncture, and registered a silent vow always to be the best of wives.
Not like — but here she tripped and coloured, on the threshold of her thought. She had recently been the recipient of a very distressing confidence; one, too, which she was not at liberty to share, even with Richard. For, after the relief of a thorough-paced confession, Mrs. Glendinning had implored her not to breathe a word to him —“I could never look him in the face again, love!” Besides, the affair was of such a painful nature that Polly felt little desire to draw Richard into it; it was bad enough that she herself should know. The thing was this: once when Polly had stayed overnight at Dandaloo Agnes Glendinning in a sudden fit of misery had owned to her that she cared for another person more than for her own husband, and that her feelings were returned.
Shocked beyond measure, Polly tried to close her friend’s lips. “I don’t think you should mention any names, Agnes,” she cried. “Afterwards, my dear, you might regret it.”
But Mrs. Glendinning was hungry for the luxury of speech — not even to Louisa Urquhart had she broken silence, she wept; and that, for the sake of Louisa’s children — and she persisted in laying her heart bare. And here certain vague suspicions that had crossed Polly’s mind on the night of the impromptu ball — they were gone again, in an instant, quick as thistledown on the breeze — these suddenly returned, life-size and weighty; and the name that was spoken came as no surprise to her. Yes, it was Mr. Henry Ocock to whom poor Agnes was attached. There had been a mutual avowal of affection, sobbed the latter; they met as often as circumstances permitted. Polly was thunder-struck: knowing Agnes as she did, she herself could not believe any harm of her; but she shuddered at the thought of what other people — Richard, for instance — would say, did they get wind of it. She implored her friend to caution. She ought never, never to see Mr. Ocock. Why did she not go away to Melbourne for a time? And why had he come to Ballarat?
“To be near me, dearest, to help me if I should need him. — Oh, you can’t think what a comfort it is, Polly, to feel that he IS here — so good, and strong, and clever! — Yes, I know what you mean . . . but this is quite, quite different. Henry does not expect me to be clever, too — does not want me to be. He prefers me as I am. He dislikes clever women .. . would never marry one. And we SHALL marry, darling, some day — when . . .”
Henry Ocock! Polly tried to focus everything she knew of him, all her fleeting impressions, in one picture — and failed. He had made himself very agreeable, the single time she had met him; but. . . . There was Richard’s opinion of him: Richard did not like him or trust him; he thought him unscrupulous in business, cold and self-seeking. Poor, poor little Agnes! That such a misfortune should befall just her! Stranger still that she, Polly, should be mixed up in it.
She had, of course, always known from books that such things did happen; but then they seemed quite different, and very far away. Her thoughts at this crisis were undeniably woolly; but the gist of them was, that life and books had nothing in common. For in stories the woman who forgot herself was always a bad woman; whereas not the harshest critic could call poor Agnes bad. Indeed, Polly felt that even if some one proved to her that her friend had actually done wrong, she would not on that account be able to stop caring for her, or feeling sorry for her. It was all very uncomfortable and confusing.
While these thoughts came and went, she half sat, half knelt, a pair of scissors in her hand. She was busy cutting out a dress, and no table being big enough for the purpose, had stretched the material on the parlour floor. This would be the first new dress she had had since her marriage; and it was high time, considering all the visiting and going about that fell to her lot just now. Sara had sent the pattern up from Melbourne, and John, hearing what was in the wind, had most kindly and generously made her a present of the silk. Polly hoped she would not bungle it in the cutting; but skirts were growing wider and wider, and John had not reckoned with quite the newest fashion.
Steps in the passage made her note subconsciously that Ned had arrived — Jerry had been in the house for the past three weeks, with a sprained wrist. And at this moment her younger brother himself entered the room, Trotty throned on his shoulder.
Picking his steps round the sea of stuff, Jerry sat down and lowered Trotty to his knee. “Ned’s grizzling for tea.”
Polly did not reply; she was laying an odd-shaped piece of paper now this way, now that.
For a while Jerry played with the child. Then he burst out: “I say, Poll!” And since Polly paid no heed to his apostrophe:
“Richard says I can get back to work to-morrow.”
“That’s a good thing,” answered his sister with an air of abstraction: she had solved her puzzle to within half a yard.
Jerry cast a boyishly imploring glance at her back, and rubbed his chin with his hand. “Poll, old girl — I say, wouldn’t you put in a word for me with Richard? I’m hanged if I want to go back to the claim. I’m sick to death of digging.”
At this Polly did raise her head, to regard him with grave eyes. “What! tired of work already, Jerry? I don’t know what Richard will say to that, I’m sure. You had better speak to him yourself.”
Again Jerry rubbed his chin. “That’s just it — what’s so beastly hard. I know he’ll say I ought to stick to it.”
“So do I.”
“Well, I’d rather groom the horse than that.”
“But think how pleased you were at first!”
Jerry ruefully admitted it. “One expects to dig out gold like spuds; while the real thing’s enough to give you the blight. As for stopping a wages-man all my life, I won’t do it. I might just as well go home and work in a Lancashire pit.”
“But Ned —”
“Oh, Ned! Ned walks about with his head in the clouds. He’s always blowing of what he’s GOING to do, and gets his steam off that way. I’m different.”
But Jerry’s words fell on deaf ears. A noise in the next room was engaging Polly’s whole attention. She heard a burr of suppressed laughter, a scuffle and what sounded like a sharp slap. Jumping up she went to the door, and was just in time to see Ellen whisk out of the dining-room.
Ned sat in an armchair, with his feet on the chimney-piece. “I had the girl bring in a log, Poll,” he said; and looked back and up at his sister with his cheery smile. Standing behind him, Polly laid her hand on his hair. “I’ll go and see after the tea.” Ned was so unconcerned that she hesitated to put a question.
In the kitchen she had no such tender scruples; nor was she imposed on by the exaggerated energy with which Ellen bustled about. “What was that noise I heard in the dining-room just now?” she demanded.
“Noise? I dunno,” gave back the girl crossly without facing her.
“Nonsense, Ellen! Do you think I didn’t hear?”
“Oh, get along with you! It was only one of Ned’s jokes.” And going on her knees, Ellen set to scrubbing the brick floor with a hiss and a scratch that rendered speech impossible. Polly took up the laden tea-tray and carried it into the dining-room. Richard had come home, and the four drew chairs to the table.
Mahony had a book with him; he propped it open against the butter-cooler, and snatched sentences as he ate. It fell to Ned to keep the ball rolling. Polly was distraite to the point of going wrong in her sugars; Jerry uneasy at the prospect of coming in conflict with his brother-in-law, whom he thought the world of.
Ned was as full of talk as an egg of meat. The theme he dwelt longest on was the new glory that lay in store for the Ballarat diggings. At present these were under a cloud. The alluvial was giving out, and the costs and difficulties of boring through the rock seemed insuperable. One might hear the opinion freely expressed that Ballarat’s day as premier goldfield was done. Ned set up this belief merely for the pleasure of demolishing it. He had it at first hand that great companies were being formed to carry on operations. These would reckon their areas in acres instead of feet, would sink to a depth of a quarter of a mile or more, raise washdirt in hundreds of tons per day. One such company, indeed, had already sprung into existence, out on Golden Point; and now was the time to nip in. If he, Ned, had the brass, or knew anybody who’d lend it to him, he’d buy up all the shares he could get. Those who followed his lead would make their fortunes. “I say, Richard, it’ud be something for you.”
His words evoked no response. Sorry though I shall be, thought Polly, dear Ned had better not come to the house so often in future. I wonder if I need tell Richard why. Jerry was on pins and needles, and even put Trotty ungently from him: Richard would be so disgusted by Ned’s blatherskite that he would have no patience left to listen to him.
Mahony kept his nose to his book. As a matter of principle. He made a rule of believing, on an average, about the half of what Ned said. To appear to pay attention to him would spur him on to more flagrant over-statements.
“D’ye hear, Richard? Now’s your chance,” repeated Ned, not to be done. “A very different thing this, I can tell you, from running round dosing people for the collywobbles. I know men who are raising the splosh any way they can to get in.”
“I dare say. There’s never been any lack of gamblers on Ballarat,” said Mahony dryly, and passed his cup to be refilled.
Pig-headed fool! was Ned’s mental retort, as he sliced a chunk of rabbit-pie. “Well, I bet you’ll feel sore some day you didn’t take my advice,” he said aloud.
“We shall see, my lad, we shall see!” replied Mahony. “In the meantime, let me inform you, I can make good use of every penny I have. So if you’ve come here thinking you can wheedle something out of me, you’re mistaken.” He could seldom resist tearing the veil from Ned’s gross hints and impostures.
“Oh no, Richard dear!” interpolated Polly, in her role of keeper-of-the-peace.
Ned answered huffily: “‘Pon my word, I never met such a fellow as you, for thinking the worst of people.”
The thrust went home. Mahony clapped his book to. “You lay yourself open to it, sir! If I’m wrong, I beg your pardon. But for goodness’ sake, Ned, put all these trashy ideas of making a fortune out of your mind. Digging is played out, I tell you. Decent people turned their backs on it long ago.”
“That’s what I think, too,” threw in Jerry.
Mahony bit his lip. “Come, come, now, what do you know about it?”
Jerry flushed and floundered, till Polly came to his aid. “He’s been wanting to speak to you, Richard. He hates the work as much as you did.”
“Well, he has a tongue of his own. — Speak for yourself, my boy!”
Thus encouraged, Jerry made his appeal; and fearing lest Richard should throw him, half-heard, into the same category as Ned, he worded it very tersely. Mahony, who had never given much heed to Jerry — no one did — was pleased by his straightforward air. Still, he did not know what could be done for him, and said so.
Here Polly had an inspiration. “But I think I do. I remember Mr. Ocock saying to me the other day he must take another boy into the business, it was growing so — the fourth, this will make. I don’t know if he’s suited yet, but even if he is, he may have heard of something else. — Only you know, Jerry, you mustn’t mind WHAT it is. After tea I’ll put on my bonnet and go down to the Flat with you. And Ned shall come, too,” she added, with a consoling glance at her elder brother: Ned had extended his huff to his second slice of pie, which lay untouched on his plate.
“Somebody has always got something up her sleeve,” said Mahony affectionately, when Polly came to him in walking costume. “None the less, wife, I shouldn’t be surprised if those brothers of yours gave us some trouble, before we’re done with them.”
In the weeks and months that followed, as he rode from one end of Ballarat to the other — from Yuille’s Swamp in the west, as far east as the ranges and gullies of Little Bendigo — it gradually became plain to Mahony that Ned’s frothy tales had some body in them after all. The character of the diggings was changing before his very eyes. Nowadays, except on an outlying muddy flat or in the hands of the retrograde Chinese, tubs, cradles, and windlasses were rarely to be met with. Engine-sheds and boiler-houses began to dot the ground; here and there a tall chimney belched smoke, beside a lofty poppet-head or an aerial trolley-line. The richest gutters were found to take their rise below the basaltic deposits; the difficulties and risks of rock-mining had now to be faced, and the capitalist, so long held at bay, at length made free of the field. Large sums of money were being subscribed; and, where these proved insufficient, the banks stepped into the breach with subsidies on mortgages. The population, in whose veins the gold-fever still burned, plunged by wholesale into the new hazard; and under the wooden verandahs of Bridge Street a motley crew of jobbers and brokers came into existence, who would demonstrate to you, a la Ned, how you might reap a fortune from a claim without putting in an hour’s work on it — without even knowing where it was.
A temptation, indeed! . . . but one that did not affect him. Mahony let the reins droop on his horse’s neck, and the animal picked its way among the impedimenta of the bush road. It concerned only those who had money to spare. Months, too, must go by before, from even the most promising of these co-operative affairs, any return was to be expected. As for him, there still came days when he had not a five-pound note to his name. It had been a delusion to suppose that, in accepting John’s offer, he was leaving money-troubles behind him. Despite Polly’s thrift, their improved style of life cost more than he had reckoned; the patients, slow to come, were slower still to discharge their debts. Moreover, he had not guessed how heavily the quarterly payments of interest would weigh on him. With as good as no margin, with the fate of every shilling decided beforehand, the saving up of thirty odd pounds four times a year was a veritable achievement. He was always in a quake lest he should not be able to get it together. No one suspected what near shaves he had — not even Polly. The last time hardly bore thinking about. At the eleventh hour he had unexpectedly found himself several pounds short. He did not close an eye all night, and got up in the morning as though for his own execution. Then, fortune favoured him. A well-to-do butcher, his hearty: “What’ll yours be?” at the nearest public-house waved aside, had settled his bill off-hand. Mahony could still feel the sudden lift of the black fog-cloud that had enveloped him — the sense of bodily exhaustion that had succeeded to the intolerable mental strain.
For the coming quarter-day he was better prepared — if, that was, nothing out of the way happened. Of late he had been haunted by the fear of illness. The long hours in the saddle did not suit him. He ought to have a buggy, and a second horse. But there could be no question of it in the meantime, or of a great deal else besides. He wanted to buy Polly a piano, for instance; all her friends had pianos; and she played and sang very prettily. She needed more dresses and bonnets, too, than he was able to allow her, as well as a change to the seaside in the summer heat. The first spare money he had should go towards one or the other. He loved to give Polly pleasure; never was such a contented little soul as she. And well for him that it was so. To have had a complaining, even an impatient wife at his side, just now, would have been unbearable. But Polly did not know what impatience meant; her sunny temper, her fixed resolve to make the best of everything was not to be shaken.
Well, comforts galore should be hers some day, he hoped. The practice was shaping satisfactorily. His attendance at Dandaloo had proved a key to many doors: folk of the Glendinnings’ and Urquharts’ standing could make a reputation or mar it as they chose. It had got abroad, he knew, that at whatever hour of the day or night he was sent for, he could be relied on to be sober; and that unfortunately was not always the case with some of his colleagues. In addition his fellow-practitioners showed signs of waking up to his existence. He had been called in lately to a couple of consultations; and the doyen of the profession on Ballarat, old Munce himself, had praised his handling of a difficult case of version.
The distances to be covered — that was what made the work stiff. And he could not afford to neglect a single summons, no matter where it led him. Still, he would not have grumbled, had only the money not been so hard to get in. But the fifty thousand odd souls on Ballarat formed, even yet, anything but a stable population: a patient you attended one day might be gone the next, and gone where no bill could reach him. Or he had been sold off at public auction; or his wooden shanty had gone up in a flare — hardly a night passed without a fire somewhere. In these and like accidents the unfortunate doctor might whistle for his fee. It seldom happened nowadays that he was paid in cash. Money was growing as scarce here as anywhere else. Sometimes, it was true, he might have pocketed his fee on the spot, had he cared to ask for it. But the presenting of his palm professionally was a gesture that was denied him. And this stand-offishness drove from people’s minds the thought that he might be in actual need of money. Afterwards he sat at home and racked his brains how to pay butcher and grocer. Others of the fraternity were by no means so nice. He knew of some who would not stir a yard unless their fee was planked down before them — old stagers these, who at one time had been badly bitten and were now grown cynically distrustful. Or tired. And indeed who could blame a man for hesitating of a pitch-dark night in the winter rains, or on a blazing summer day, whether or no he should set out on a twenty-mile ride for which he might never see the ghost of a remuneration?
Reflecting thus, Mahony caught at a couple of hard, spicy, grey-green leaves, to chew as he went: the gums, on which the old bark hung in ribbons, were in flower by now, and bore feathery yellow blossoms side by side with nutty capsules. His horse had been ambling forward unpressed. Now it laid its ears flat, and a minute later its master’s slower senses caught the clop-clop of a second set of hoofs, the noise of wheels. Mahony had reached a place where two roads joined, and saw a covered buggy approaching. He drew rein and waited.
The occupant of the vehicle had wound the reins round the empty lamp-bracket, and left it to the sagacity of his horse to keep the familiar track, while he dozed, head on breast, in the corner. The animal halted of itself on coming up with its fellow, and Archdeacon Long opened his eyes.
“Ah, good-day to you, doctor! — Yes, as you see, enjoying a little nap. I was out early.”
He got down from the buggy and, with bent knees and his hands in his pockets, stretched the creased cloth of his trousers, where this had cut into his flesh. He was a big, brawny, handsome man, with a massive nose, a cloven chin, and the most companionable smile in the world. As he stood, he touched here a strap, there a buckle on the harness of his chestnut — a well-known trotter, with which he often made a match — and affectionately clapped the neck of Mahony’s bay. He could not keep his hands off a horse. By choice he was his own stableman, and in earlier life had been a dare-devil rider. Now, increasing weight led him to prefer buggy to saddle; but his recklessness had not diminished. With the reins in his left hand, he would run his light, two-wheeled trap up any wooded, boulder-strewn hill and down the other side, just as in his harum-scarum days he had set it at felled trees, and, if rumour spoke true, wire-fences.
Mahony admired the splendid vitality of the man, as well as the indestructible optimism that bore him triumphantly through all the hardships of a colonial ministry. No sick bed was too remote for Long, no sinner sunk too low to be helped to his feet. The leprous Chinaman doomed to an unending isolation, the drunken Paddy, the degraded white woman — each came in for a share of his benevolence. He spent the greater part of his life visiting the outcasts and outposts, beating up the unbaptised, the unconfirmed, the unwed. But his church did not suffer. He had always some fresh scheme for this on hand: either he was getting up a tea-meeting to raise money for an organ; or a series of penny-readings towards funds for a chancel; or he was training with his choir for a sacred concert. There was a boyish streak in him, too. He would enter into the joys of the annual Sunday-school picnic with a zest equal to the children’s own, leading the way, in shirt-sleeves, at leap-frog and obstacle-race. In doctrine he struck a happy mean between low-church practices and ritualism, preaching short, spirited sermons to which even languid Christians could listen without tedium; and on a week-day evening he would take a hand at a rubber of whist or ecarte — and not for love — or play a sound game of chess. A man, too, who, refusing to be bound by the letter of the Thirty-nine Articles, extended his charity even to persons of the Popish faith. In short, he was one of the few to whom Mahony could speak of his own haphazard efforts at criticising the Pentateuch.
The Archdeacon was wont to respond with his genial smile: “Ah, it’s all very well for you, doctor! — you’re a free lance. I am constrained by my cloth. — And frankly, for the rest of us, that kind of thing’s too — well, too disturbing. Especially when we have nothing better to put in its place.”
Doctor and parson — the latter, considerably over six feet, made Mahony, who was tall enough, look short and doubly slender — walked side by side for nearly a mile, flitting from topic to topic: the rivalry that prevailed between Ballarats East and West; the seditious uprising in India, where both had relatives; the recent rains, the prospects for grazing. The last theme brought them round to Dandaloo and its unhappy owner. The Archdeacon expressed the outsider’s surprise at the strength of Glendinning’s constitution, and the lively popular sympathy that was felt for his wife.
“One’s heart aches for the poor little lady, struggling to bear up as though nothing were the matter. Between ourselves, doctor”— and Mr. Long took off his straw hat to let the air play round his head — “between ourselves, it’s a thousand pities he doesn’t just pop off the hooks in one of his bouts. Or that some of you medical gentlemen don’t use your knowledge to help things on.”
He let out his great hearty laugh as he spoke, and his companion’s involuntary stiffening went unnoticed. But on Mahony voicing his attitude with: “And his immortal soul, sir? Isn’t it the church’s duty to hope for a miracle? . . . just as it is ours to keep the vital spark going,” he made haste to take the edge off his words. “Now, now, doctor, only my fun! Our duty is, I trust, plain to us both.”
It was even easier to soothe than to ruffle Mahony. “Remember me very kindly to Mrs. Long, will you?” he said as the Archdeacon prepared to climb into his buggy. “But tell her, too, I owe her a grudge just now. My wife’s so lost in flannel and brown holland that I can’t get a word out of her.”
“And mine doesn’t know where she’d be, with this bazaar, if it weren’t for Mrs. Mahony.” Long was husband to a dot of a woman who, having borne him half a dozen children of his own feature and build, now worked as parish clerk and district visitor rolled in one; driving about in sunbonnet and gardening-gloves behind a pair of cream ponies — tiny, sharp-featured, resolute; with little of her husband’s large tolerance, but an energy that outdid his own, and made her an object of both fear and respect. “And that reminds me: over at the cross-roads by Spring Hill, I met your young brother-in-law. And he told me, if I ran across you to ask you to hurry home. Your wife has some surprise or other in store for you. No, nothing unpleasant! Rather the reverse, I believe. But I wasn’t to say more. Well, good-day, doctor, good-day to you!”
Mahony smiled, nodded and went on his way. Polly’s surprises were usually simple and transparent things: some one would have made them a present of a sucking-pig or a bush-turkey, and Polly, knowing his relish for a savoury morsel, did not wish it to be overdone: she had sent similar chance calls out after him before now.
When, having seen his horse rubbed down, he reached home, he found her on the doorstep watching for him. She was flushed, and her eyes had those peculiar high-lights in them which led him jokingly to exhort her to caution: “Lest the sparks should set the house on fire!”
“Well, what is it, Pussy?” he inquired as he laid his bag down and hung up his wide-awake. “What’s my little surprise-monger got up her sleeve to-day? Good Lord, Polly, I’m tired!”
Polly was smiling roguishly. “Aren’t you going into the surgery, Richard?” she asked, seeing him heading for the dining-room.
“Aha! So that’s it,” said he, and obediently turned the handle. Polly had on occasion taken advantage of his absence to introduce some new comfort or decoration in his room.
The blind had been let down. He was still blinking in the half-dark when a figure sprang out from behind the door, barging heavily against him, and a loud voice shouted: “Boh, you old beef-brains! Boh to a goose!”
Displeased at such horseplay, Mahony stepped sharply back — his first thought was of Ned having unexpectedly returned from Mount Ararat. Then recognising the voice, he exclaimed incredulously: “YOU, Dickybird? You!”
“Dick, old man. . . . I say, Dick! Yes, it’s me right enough, and not my ghost. The old bad egg come back to roost!”
The blind was raised; and the friends, who had last met in the dingy bush hut on the night of the Stockade, stood face to face. And now ensued a babel of greeting, a quick fire of question and answer, the two voices going in and out and round each other, singly and together, like the voices in a duet. Tears rose to Polly’s eyes as she listened; it made her heart glow to see Richard so glad. But when, forgetting her presence, Purdy cried: “And I must confess, Dick. . . . I took a kiss from Mrs. Polly. Gad, old man, how she’s come on!” Polly hastily retired to the kitchen.
At table the same high spirits prevailed: it did not often happen that Richard was brought out of his shell like this, thought Polly gratefully, and heaped her visitor’s plate to the brim. His first hunger stilled, Purdy fell to giving a slapdash account of his experiences. He kept to no orderly sequence, but threw them out just as they occurred to him: a rub with bushrangers in the Black Forest, his adventures as a long-distance drover in the Mildura, the trials of a week he had spent in a boiling-down establishment on the Murray: “Where the stink wa so foul, you two, that I vomited like a dog every day!” Under the force of this Odyssey husband and wife gradually dropped into silence, which they broke only by single words of astonishment and sympathy; while the child Trotty spooned in her pudding without seeing it, her round, solemn eyes fixed unblinkingly on this new uncle, who was like a wonderful story-book come alive.
In Mahony’s feelings for Purdy at this moment, there was none of the old intolerant superiority. He had been dependent for so long on a mere surface acquaintance with his fellows, that he now felt to the full how precious the tie was that bound him to Purdy. Here came one for whom he was not alone the reserved, struggling practitioner, the rather moody man advancing to middle-age; but also the Dick of his boyhood and early youth.
He had often imagined the satisfaction it would be to confide his troubles to Purdy. Compared, however, with the hardships the latter had undergone, these seemed of small importance; and dinner passed without any allusion to his own affairs. And now the chances of his speaking out were slight; he could have been entirely frank only under the first stimulus of meeting.
Even when they rose from the table Purdy continued to hold the stage. For he had turned up with hardly a shirt to his back, and had to be rigged out afresh from Mahony’s wardrobe. It was decided that he should remain their guest in the meantime; also that Mahony should call on his behalf on the Commissioner of Police, and put in a good word for him. For Purdy had come back with the idea of seeking a job in the Ballarat Mounted Force.
When Mahony could no longer put off starting on his afternoon round, Purdy went with him to the livery-barn, limping briskly at his side. On the way, he exclaimed aloud at the marvellous changes that had taken place since he was last in the township. There were half a dozen gas-lamps in Sturt Street by this time, the gas being distilled from a mixture of oil and gum-leaves.
“One wouldn’t credit it if one didn’t see it with one’s own peepers!” he cried, repeatedly bringing up short before the plate-glass windows of the shops, the many handsome, verandahed hotels, the granite front of Christ Church. “And from what I hear, Dick, now companies have jumped the claims and are deep-sinking in earnest, fortunes’ll be made like one o’clock.”
But on getting home again, he sat down in front of Polly and said, with a businesslike air: “And now tell me all about old Dick! You know, Poll, he’s such an odd fish; if he himself doesn’t offer to uncork, somehow one can’t just pump him. And I want to know everything that concerns him — from A to Z.”
Polly could not hold out against this affectionate curiosity. Entrenching her needle in its stuff, she put her work away and complied. And soon to her own satisfaction. For the first time in her married life she was led to discuss her husband’s ways and actions with another; and, to her amazement, she found that it was easier to talk to Purdy about Richard than to Richard himself. Purdy and she saw things in the same light; no rigmarole of explanation was necessary. Now with Richard, it was not so. In conversation with him, one constantly felt that he was not speaking out, or, to put it more plainly, that he was going on meanwhile with his own, very different thoughts. And behind what he did say, there was sure to lurk some imaginary scruple, some rather far-fetched delicacy of feeling which it was hard to get at, and harder still to understand.
Summer had come round again, and the motionless white heat of December lay heavy on the place. The low little houses seemed to cower beneath it; and the smoke from their chimneys drew black, perpendicular lines on the pale sky. If it was a misery at this season to traverse the blazing, dusty roads, it was almost worse to be within doors, where the thin wooden walls were powerless to keep out the heat, and flies and mosquitoes raged in chorus. Nevertheless, determined Christmas preparations went on in dozens of tiny, zinc-roofed kitchens, the temperature of which was not much below that of the ovens themselves; and kindly, well-to-do people like Mrs. Glendinning and Mrs. Urquhart drove in in hooded buggies, with green fly-veils dangling from their broad-brimmed hats, and dropped a goose here, a turkey there, on their less prosperous friends. They robbed their gardens, too, of the summer’s last flowers, arum-lilies and brilliant geraniums, to decorate the Archdeacon’s church for the festival; and many ladies spent the whole day beforehand making wreaths and crosses, and festoons to encircle the lamps.
No one was busier than Polly. She wanted to give Purdy, who had been on short commons for so long, a special Christmas treat. She had willing helpers in him and Jerry: the two of them chopped and stoned and stirred, while she, seated on the block of the woodstack, her head tied up in an old pillow-case, plucked and singed the goose that had fallen to her share. Towards four o’clock on Christmas Day they drew their chairs to the table, and with loosened collars set about enjoying the good things. Or pretending to enjoy them. This was Mahony’s case; for the day was no holiday for him, and his head ached from the sun. At tea-time Hempel arrived to pay a call, looking very spruce in a long black coat and white tie; and close on his heels followed old Mr. Ocock. The latter, having deposited his hat under his seat and tapped several pockets, produced a letter, which he unfolded and handed to Polly with a broad grin. It was from his daughter, and contained the news of his wife’s death. “Died o’ the grumbles, I lay you! An’ the first good turn she ever done me.” The main point was that Miss Amelia, now at liberty, was already taking advice about the safest line of clipper-ships, and asking for a reply BY RETURN to a number of extraordinary questions. Could one depend on hearing God’s Word preached of a Sunday? Was it customary for FEMALES to go armed as well as men? Were the blacks CONVERTED, and what amount of clothing did they wear?
“Thinks she’s comin’ to the back o’ beyond, does Mely!” chuckled the old man, and slapped his thigh at the sudden idea that occurred to him of “takin’ a rise out of ‘er.” “Won’t she stare when she gits ’ere, that’s all!”
“Well, now you’ll simply HAVE to build,” said Polly, after threatening to write privately to Miss Amelia, to reassure her. Why not move over west, and take up a piece of ground in the same road as themselves? But from this he excused himself, with a laugh and a spit, on the score that no land-sales had yet been held in their neighbourhood: when he DID turn out of his present four walls, which had always been plenty good enough for him, he wanted a place he could “fit up tidy”; which it ‘ud stick in his throat to do so, if he thought it might any day be sold over his head. Mahony winced at this. Then laughed, with an exaggerated carelessness. If, in a country like this, you waited for all to be fixed and sure, you would wait till Domesday. None the less, the thrust rankled. It was a fact that he himself had not spent a sou on his premises since they finished building. The thought at the back of HIS mind, too, was, why waste his hard-earned income on improvements that might benefit only the next-comer? The yard they sat in, for instance! Polly had her hens and a ramshackle hen-house; but not a spadeful of earth had been turned towards the wished-for garden. It was just the ordinary colonial backyard, fenced round with rude palings which did not match, and were mended here and there with bits of hoop-iron; its ground space littered with a medley of articles for which there was no room elsewhere: boards left lying by the builders, empty kerosene-tins, a couple of tubs, a ragged cane-chair, some old cases. Wash-lines, on which at the moment a row of stockings hung, stretched permanently from corner to corner; and the whole was dominated by the big round galvanised-iron tank.
On Boxing Day Purdy got the loan of a lorry and drove a large party, including several children, comfortably placed on straw, hassocks and low chairs, to the Races a few miles out. Half Ballarat was making in the same direction; and whoever owned a horse that was sound in the wind and anything of a stepper had entered it for some item on the programme. The Grand Stand, a bark shed open to the air on three sides, was resorted to only in the case of a sudden downpour; the occupants of the dust-laden buggies, wagonettes, brakes, carts and drays preferred to follow events standing on their seats, and on the boards that served them as seats. After the meeting, those who belonged to the Urquhart-Glendinning set went on to Yarangobilly, and danced till long pastmidnight on the broad verandah. It was nearly three o’clock before Purdy brought his load safely home. Under the round white moon, the lorry was strewn with the forms of sleeping children.
Early next morning while Polly, still only half awake, was pouring out coffee and giving Richard who, poor fellow, could not afford to leave his patients, an account of their doings — with certain omissions, of course: she did not mention the glaring indiscretion Agnes Glendinning had been guilty of, in disappearing with Mr. Henry Ocock into a dark shrubbery — while Polly talked, the postman handed in two letters, which were of a nature to put balls and races clean out of her head. The first was in Mrs. Beamish’s ill-formed hand, and told a sorrowful tale. Custom had entirely gone: a new hotel had been erected on the new road; Beamish was forced to declare himself a bankrupt; and in a few days the Family Hotel, with all its contents, would be put up at public auction. What was to become of them, God alone knew. She supposed she would end her days in taking in washing, and the girls must go out as servants. But she was sure Polly, now so up in the world, with a husband doing so well, would not forget the old friends who had once been so kind to her — with much more in the same strain, which Polly skipped, in reading the letter aloud. The long and short of it was: would Polly ask her husband to lend them a couple of hundred pounds to make a fresh start with, or failing that to put his name to a bill for the same amount?
“Of course she hasn’t an idea we were obliged to borrow money ourselves,” said Polly in response to Mahony’s ironic laugh. “I couldn’t tell them that.”
“No . . . nor that it’s a perpetual struggle to keep the wolf from the door,” answered her husband, battering in the top of an egg with the back of his spoon.
“Oh, Richard dear, things aren’t quite so bad as that,” said Polly cheerfully. Then she heaved a sigh. “I know, of course, we can’t afford to help them; but I DO feel so sorry for them”— she herself would have given the dress off her back. “And I think, dear, if you didn’t mind VERY much, we might ask one of the girls up to stay with us . . . till the worst is over.”
“Yes, I suppose that wouldn’t be impossible,” said Mahony. “If you’ve set your heart on it, my Polly. If, too, you can persuade Master Purdy to forgo the comfort of your good feather-bed. And I’ll see if I can wring out a fiver for you to enclose in your letter.”
Polly jumped up and kissed him. “Purdy is going anyhow. He said only last night he must look for lodgings near the Police Station.” Here a thought struck her; she coloured and smiled. “I’ll ask Tilly first,” said she.
Mahony laughed and shook his finger at her. “The best laid plans o’ mice and men! And what’s one to say to a match-maker who is still growing out of her clothes?”
At this Polly clapped a hand over his mouth, for fear Ellen should hear him. It was a sore point with her that she had more than once of late had to lengthen her dresses.
As soon as she was alone she sat down to compose a reply to Mrs. Beamish. It was no easy job: she was obliged to say that Richard felt unable to come to their aid; and, at the same time, to avoid touching on his private affairs; had to disappoint as kindly as she could; to be truthful, yet tactful. Polly wrote, and re-wrote: the business cost her the forenoon.
She could not even press Tilly to pack her box and come at once; for her second letter that morning had been from Sara, who wrote that, having decided to shake the dust of the colony off her feet, she wished to pay them a flying visit before sailing, “POUR FAIRE MES ADIEUX.” She signed herself “Your affectionate sister Zara,” and on her arrival explained that, tired of continually instructing people in the pronunciation of her name, she had decided to alter the spelling and be done with it. Moreover, a little bird had whispered in her ear that, under its new form, it fitted her rather “FRENCH” air and looks a thousand times better than before.
Descending from the coach, Zara eyed Polly up and down and vowed she would never have known her; and, on the way home, Polly more than once felt her sister’s gaze fixed critically on her. For her part, she was able to assure Zara that she saw no change whatever in her, since her last visit — even since the date of the wedding. And this pleased Zara mightily; for as she admitted, in removing hat and mantle, and passing the damped corner of a towel over her face, she dreaded the ageing effects of the climate on her fine complexion. Close as ever about her own concerns, she gave no reason for her abrupt determination to leave the country; but from subsequent talk Polly gathered that, for one thing, Zara had found her position at the head of John’s establishment — “Undertaken in the first place, my dear, at immense personal sacrifice!” — no sinecure. John had proved a regular martinet; he had countermanded her orders, interfered about the household bills — had even accused her of lining her own pocket. As for little Johnny — the bait originally thrown out to induce her to accept the post — he had long since been sent to boarding-school. “A thoroughly bad, unprincipled boy!” was Zara’s verdict. And when Polly, big with pity, expostulated: “But Zara, he is only six years old!” her sister retorted with a: “My dear, I know the world, and you don’t,” to which Polly could think of no reply.
Zara had announced herself for a bare fortnight’s stay; but the man who carried her trunk groaned and sweated under it, and was so insolent about the size of the coin she dropped in his palm that Polly followed him by stealth into the passage, to make it up to a crown. As usual Zara was attired in the height of fashion. She brought a set of “the hoops” with her — the first to be seen on Ballarat — and once more Polly was torn between an honest admiration of her sister’s daring, and an equally honest embarrassment at the notice she attracted. Zara swam and glided about the streets, to the hilarious amazement of the population; floated feather-light, billowing here, depressing there, with all the waywardness of a child’s balloon; supported — or so it seemed — by two of the tiniest feet ever bestowed on mortal woman. Aha! but that was one of the chief merits of “the hoops,” declared Zara; that, and the possibility of getting still more stuff into your skirts without materially increasing their weight. There was something in that, conceded Polly, who often felt hers drag heavy. Besides, as she reminded Richard that night, when he lay alternately chuckling and snorting at woman’s folly, custom was everything. Once they had smiled at Zara appearing in a hat: “And now we’re all wearing them.”
Another practical consideration that occurred to her she expressed with some diffidence. “But Zara, don’t you . . . I mean . . . aren’t they very draughty?”
Zara had to repeat her shocked but emphatic denial in the presence of Mrs. Glendinning and Mrs. Urquhart, both ladies having a mind to bring their wardrobes up to date. They agreed that there was much to be said in favour of the appliance, over and above its novelty. Especially would it be welcome at those times when . . . But here the speakers dropped into woman’s mysterious code of nods and signs; while Zara, turning modestly away, pretended to count the stitches in a crochet-antimacassar.
Yes, nowadays, as Mrs. Dr. Mahony, Polly was able to introduce her sister to a society worthy of Zara’s gifts; and Zara enjoyed herself so well that, had her berth not been booked, she might have contemplated extending her visit. She overflowed with gracious commendation. The house — though, of course, compared with John’s splendour, a trifle plain and poky — was a decided advance on the store; Polly herself much improved: “You DO look robust, my dear!” And — though Zara held her peace about this — the fact of Mahony’s being from home each day, for hours at a stretch, lent an additional prop to her satisfaction. Under these conditions it was possible to keep on good terms with her brother-in-law.
Zara’s natty appearance and sprightly ways made her a favourite with every one especially the gentlemen. The episcopal bazaar came off at this time; and Zara had the brilliant idea of a bran-pie. This was the success of the entertainment. From behind the refreshment-stall where, with Mrs. Long, she was pouring out cups of tea and serving cheesecakes and sausage-rolls by the hundred, Polly looked proudly across the beflagged hall, to the merry group of which her sister was the centre. Zara was holding her own, even with Mr. Henry Ocock; and Mr. Urquhart had constituted himself her right hand.
“Your sister is no doubt a most fascinating woman,” said Mrs. Urquhart from the seat with which she had been accommodated; and heaved a gentle sigh. “How odd that she should never have married!”
“I’m afraid Zara’s too particular,” said Polly. “It’s not for want of being asked.”
Her eyes met Purdy’s as she spoke — Purdy had come up laden with empty cups, a pair of infants’ boots dangling round his neck — and they exchanged smiles; for Zara’s latest AFFAIRE DU COEUR was a source of great amusement to them.
Polly had assisted at the first meeting between her sister and Purdy with very mixed feelings. On that occasion Purdy happened to be in plain clothes, and Zara pronounced him charming. The next day, however, he dropped in clad in the double-breasted blue jacket, the high boots and green-veiled cabbage-tree he wore when on duty; and thereupon Zara’s opinion of him sank to null, and was not to be raised even by him presenting himself in full dress: white-braided trousers, red faced shell jacket, pill-box cap, cartouche box and cavalry sword. “La, Polly! Nothing but a common policeman!” In vain did Polly explain the difference between a member of the ordinary force and a mounted trooper of the gold-escort; in vain lay stress on Richard’s pleasure at seeing Purdy buckle to steady work, no matter what. Zara’s thoughts had taken wing for a land where such anomalies were not; where you were not asked to drink tea with the well-meaning constable who led you across a crowded thoroughfare or turned on his bull’s eye for you in a fog, preparatory to calling up a hackney-cab.
But the chilly condescension with which, from now on, Zara treated him did not seem to trouble Purdy. When he ran in for five minutes of a morning, he eschewed the front entrance and took up his perch on the kitchen-table. From here, while Polly cooked and he nibbled half-baked pastry, the two of them followed the progress of events in the parlour.
Zara’s arrival on Ballarat had been the cue for Hempel’s reappearance, and now hardly a day went by on which the lay-helper did not neglect his chapel work, in order to pay what Zara called his “DEVOIRS.” Slight were his pretexts for coming: a rare bit of dried seaweed for bookmark; a religious journal with a turned-down page; a nosegay. And though Zara would not nowadays go the length of walking out with a dissenter — she preferred on her airings to occupy the box-seat of Mr. Urquhart’s four-in-hand — she had no objection to Hempel keeping her company during the empty hours of the forenoon when Polly was lost in domestic cares. She accepted his offerings, mimicked his faulty speech, and was continually hauling him up the precipice of self-distrust, only to let him slip back as soon as he reached the top.
One day Purdy entered the kitchen doubled up with laughter. In passing the front of the house he had thrown a look in at the parlour-window; and the sight of the prim and proper Hempel on his knees on the woolly hearthrug so tickled his sense of humour that, having spluttered out the news, back he went to the passage, where he crouched down before the parlour-door and glued his eye to the keyhole.
“Oh, Purdy, no! What if the door should suddenly fly open?”
But there was something in Purdy’s pranks that a laughter-lover like Polly could never for long withstand. Here, now, in feigning to imitate the unfortunate Hempel, he was sheerly irresistible. He clapped his hands to his heart, showed the whites of his eyes, wept, gesticulated and tore his hair; and Polly, after trying in vain to keep a straight face, sat down and went off into a fit of stifled mirth — and when Polly did give way, she was apt to set every one round her laughing, too. Ellen’s shoulders shook; she held a fist to her mouth. Even little Trotty shrilled out her tinny treble, without knowing in the least what the joke was.
When the merriment was at its height, the front door opened and in walked Mahony. An instant’s blank amazement, and he had grasped the whole situation — Richard was always so fearfully quick at understanding, thought Polly ruefully. Then, though Purdy jumped to his feet and the laughter died out as if by command, he drew his brows together, and without saying a word, stalked into the surgery and shut the door.
Like a schoolboy who has been caned, Purdy dug his knuckles into his eyes and rubbed his hindquarters — to the fresh delight of Trotty and the girl.
“Well, so long, Polly! I’d better be making tracks. The old man’s on the warpath.” And in an undertone: “Same old grouser! Never COULD take a joke.”
“He’s tired. I’ll make it all right,” gave Polly back.
—“It was only his fun, Richard,” she pleaded, as she held out a linen jacket for her husband to slip his arms into.
“Fun of a kind I won’t permit in my house. What an example to set the child! What’s more, I shall let Hempel know that he is being made a butt of. And speak my mind to your sister about her heartless behaviour.”
“Oh, don’t do that, Richard. I promise it shan’t happen again. It was very stupid of us, I know. But Purdy didn’t really mean it unkindly; and he IS so comical when he starts to imitate people.” And Polly was all but off again, at the remembrance.
But Mahony, stooping to decipher the names Ellen had written on the slate, did not unbend. It was not merely the vulgar joke that had offended him. No, what really rankled was the sudden chill his unlooked-for entrance had cast over the group; they had scattered and gone scurrying about their business, like a pack of naughty children who had been up to mischief behind their master’s back. He was the schoolmaster — the spoilsport. They were all afraid of him. Even Polly.
But here came Polly herself to say: “Dinner, dear,” in her kindest tone. She also put her arm round his neck and hugged him. “Not cross any more, Richard? I know we behaved disgracefully.” Her touch put the crown on her words. Mahony drew her to him and kissed her.
But the true origin of the unpleasantness, Zara, who in her ghoulish delight at seeing Hempel grovel before her — thus Mahony worded it — behaved more kittenishly than ever at table: Zara Mahony could not so easily forgive; and for the remainder of her stay his manner to her was so forbidding that she, too, froze; and to Polly’s regret the old bad relation between them came up anew.
But Zara was enjoying herself too well to cut her visit short on Mahony’s account. “Besides, poor thing,” thought Polly, “she has really nowhere to go.” What she did do was to carry her head very high in her brother-in-law’s presence; to speak at him rather than to him; and in private to insist to Polly on her powers of discernment. “You may say what you like, my dear — I can see you have a VERY GREAT DEAL to put up with!”
At last, however, the day of her departure broke, and she went off amid a babble of farewells, of requests for remembrance, a fluttering of pocket-handkerchiefs, the like of which Polly had never known; and to himself Mahony breathed the hope that they had seen the last of Zara, her fripperies and affectations. “Your sister will certainly fit better into the conditions of English life.”
Polly cried at the parting, which might be final; then blew her nose and dried her eyes; for she had a busy day before her. Tilly Beamish had been waiting with ill-concealed impatience for Zara to vacate the spare room, and was to arrive that night.
Mahony was not at home to welcome the new-comer, nor could he be present at high tea. When he returned, towards nine o’clock, he found Polly with a very red face, and so full of fussy cares for her guest’s comfort — her natural kindliness distorted to caricature — that she had not a word for him. One look at Miss Tilly explained everything, and his respects duly paid he retired to the surgery, to indulge a smile at Polly’s expense. Here Polly soon joined him, Tilly, fatigued by her journey and by her bounteous meal, having betaken herself early to bed.
“Ha, ha!” laughed Mahony, not without a certain mischievous satisfaction at his young wife’s discomfiture. “And with the prospect of a second edition to follow!”
But Polly would not capitulate right off. “I don’t think it’s very kind of you to talk like that, Richard,” she said warmly. “People can’t help their looks.” She moved about the room putting things straight, and avoiding his eye. “As long as they mean well and are good. . . . But I think you would rather no one ever came to stay with us, at all.”
Fixing her with meaning insistence and still smiling, Mahony opened his arms. The next moment Polly was on his knee, her face hidden in his shoulder. There she shed a few tears. “Oh, isn’t she dreadful? I don’t know WHAT I shall do with her. She’s been serving behind the bar, Richard, for more than a year. And she’s come expecting to be taken everywhere and to have any amount of gaiety.”
At coach-time she had dragged a reluctant Purdy to the office. But as soon as he caught sight of Tilly: “On the box, Richard, beside the driver, with her hair all towsy-wowsy in the wind — he just said: ‘Oh, lor, Polly!’ and disappeared, and that was the last I saw of him. I don’t know how I should have got on if it hadn’t been for old Mr. Ocock, who was down meeting a parcel. He was most kind; he helped us home with her carpet-bag, and saw after her trunk. And, oh dear, what do you think? When he was going away he said to me in the passage — so loud I’m sure Tilly must have heard him — he said: ‘Well! that’s something like a figure of a female this time, Mrs. Doc. As fine a young woman as ever I see!’”
And Polly hid her face again; and husband and wife laughed in concert.
That night a great storm rose. Mahony, sitting reading after everyone else had retired, saw it coming, and lamp in hand went round the house to secure hasps and catches; then stood at the window to watch the storm’s approach. In one half of the sky the stars were still peacefully alight; the other was hidden by a dense cloud, which came racing along like a giant bat with outspread wings, devouring the stars in its flight. The storm broke; there was a sudden shrill screeching, a grinding, piping, whistling, and the wind hurled itself against the house as if to level it with the ground; failing in this, it banged and battered, making windows and doors shake like loose teeth in their sockets. Then it swept by to wreak its fury elsewhere, and there was a grateful lull out of which burst a peal of thunder. And now peal followed peal, and the face of the sky, with its masses of swirling, frothy cloud, resembled an angry sea. The lightning ripped it in fierce zigzags, darting out hundreds of spectral fangs. It was a magnificent sight.
Polly came running to see where he was, the child cried, Miss Tilly opened her door by a hand’s-breadth, and thrust a red, puffy face, framed in curl-twists, through the crack. Nobody thought of sleep while the commotion lasted, for fear of fire: once alight, these exposed little wooden houses blazed up like heaps of shavings. The clock-hands pointed to one before the storm showed signs of abating. Now, the rain was pouring down, making an ear-splitting din on the iron roof and leaping from every gutter and spout. It had turned very cold. Mahony shivered as he got into bed.
He seemed hardly to have closed an eye when he was wakened by a loud knocking; at the same time the wire of the night-bell was almost wrenched in two. He sat up and looked at his watch. It wanted a few minutes to three; the rain was still falling in torrents, the wind sighed and moaned. Wild horses should not drag him out on such a night! Thrusting his arms into the sleeves of his dressing-gown, he threw up the parlour window. “Who’s there?” The hiss of the rain cut his words through.
A figure on the doorstep turned at the sound. “Is this a doctor’s? I wuz sent here. Doctor! for God’s sake . . .”
“What is it? Stop a minute! I’ll open the door.”
He did so, letting in a blast of wind and a rush of rain that flooded the oilcloth. The intruder, off whom the water streamed, had to shout to make himself audible.
“It’s me — Mat Doyle’s me name! It’s me wife, doctor; she’s dying. I’ve bin all night on the road. Ah, for the love of —”
“Where is it?” Mahony put his hand to the side of his mouth, to keep his words from flying adrift in the wind.
“Paddy’s Rest. You’re the third I’ve bin to. Not one of the dirty dogs’ull stir a leg! Me girl may die like a rabbit for all they care.”— The man’s voice broke, as he halloed particulars.
“Paddy’s Rest? On a night like this? Why, the creek will be out.”
“Doctor! you’re from th’ ould country, I can hear it in your lip. Haven’t you a wife, too, doctor? Then show a bit o’ mercy to mine!”
“Tut, tut, man, none of that!” said Mahony curtly. “You should have bespoken me at the proper time to attend your wife. — Besides, there’ll be no getting along the road to-night.”
The other caught the note of yielding. “Sure an’ you’d go out, doctor dear, without thinkin’, to save your dog if he was drownin’. I’ve got me buggy down there; I’ll take you safe. And you shan’t regret it; I’ll make it worth your while, by the Lord Harry I will!”
“Pshaw!”— Mahony opened the door of the surgery and struck a match. It was a rough grizzled fellow — a “cocky,” on his own showing — who presented himself in the lamplight. His wife had fallen ill that afternoon. At first everything seemed to be going well; then she was seized with fits, had one fit after another, and all but bit her tongue in two. There was nobody with her but a young girl he had fetched from a mile away. He had meant, when her time came, to bring her to the District Hospital. But they had been taken unawares. While he waited he sat with his elbows on his knees, his face between his clenched fists.
In dressing, Mahony reassured Polly, and instructed her what to say to people who came inquiring after him; it was unlikely he would be back before afternoon. Most of the patients could wait till then. The one exception, a case of typhoid in its second week, a young Scotch surgeon, Brace, whom he had obliged in a similar emergency, would no doubt see for him — she should send Ellen down with a note. And having poured Doyle out a nobbler and put a flask in his own pocket, Mahony reopened the front door to the howl of the wind.
The lantern his guide carried shed only a tiny circlet of light on the blackness; and the two men picked their steps gingerly along the flooded road. The rain ran in jets off the brim of Mahony’s hat, and down the back of his neck.
Having climbed into the buggy they advanced at a funeral pace, leaving it to the sagacity of the horse to keep the track. At the creek, sure enough, the water was out, the bridge gone. To reach the next bridge, five miles off, a crazy cross-country drive would have been necessary; and Mahony was for giving up the job. But Doyle would not acknowledge defeat. He unharnessed the horse, set Mahony on its back, and himself holding to its tail, forced the beast, by dint of kicking and lashing, into the water; and not only got them safely across, but up the steep sticky clay of the opposite bank. It was six o’clock and a cloudless morning when, numb with cold, his clothing clinging to him like wet seaweed, Mahony entered the wooden hut where the real work he had come out to do began.
Later in the day, clad in an odd collection of baggy garments, he sat and warmed himself in the sun, which was fast drawing up in the form of a blankety mist the moisture from the ground. He had successfully performed, under the worst possible conditions, a ticklish operation; and was now so tired that, with his chin on his chest, he fell fast asleep.
Doyle wakened him by announcing the arrival of the buggy. The good man, who had more than one nobbler during the morning could not hold his tongue, but made still another wordy attempt to express his gratitude. “Whither me girl lives or dies, it’ll not be Mat Doyle who forgits what you did for him this night, doctor! An’ if iver you want a bit o’ work done, or some one to do your lyin’ awake at night for you, just you gimme the tip. I don’t mind tellin’ you now, I’d me shootin’-iron here” — he touched his right hip —“an’ if you’d refused — you was the third, mind you — I’d have drilled you where you stood, God damn me if I wouldn’t!”
Mahony eyed the speaker with derision. “Much good that would have done your wife, you fathead! Well, well, we’ll say nothing to MINE, if you please, about anything of that sort.”
“No, may all the saints bless ‘er and give ‘er health! An’ as I say, doctor . . . .” In speaking he had drawn a roll of bank-notes from his pocket, and now he tried to stuff them between Mahony’s fingers.
“What’s this? My good man, keep your money till it’s asked for!” and Mahony unclasped his hands, so that the notes fluttered to the ground.
“Then there let ’em lay!”
But when, in clothes dried stiff as cardboard, Mahony was rolling townwards — his coachman, a lad of some ten or twelve who handled the reins to the manner born — as they went he chanced to feel in his coat pocket, and there found five ten-pound notes rolled up in a neat bundle.
The main part of the road was dry and hard again; but all dips and holes were wells of liquid mud, which bespattered the two of them from top to toe as the buggy bumped carelessly in and out. Mahony diverted himself by thinking of what he could give Polly with this sum. It would serve to buy that pair of gilt cornices or the heavy gilt-framed pierglass on which she had set her heart. He could see her, pink with pleasure, expostulating: “Richard! What WICKED extravagance!” and hear himself reply: “And pray may my wife not have as pretty a parlour as her neighbours?” He even cast a thought, in passing, on the pianoforte with which Polly longed to crown the furnishings of her room — though, of course, at least treble this amount would be needed to cover its cost. — But a fig for such nonsense! He knew but one legitimate use to make of the unexpected little windfall, and that was, to put it by for a rainy day. “At my age, in my position, I OUGHT to have fifty pounds in the bank!”— times without number he had said this to himself, with a growing impatience. But he had not yet managed to save a halfpenny. Thrive as the practice might, the expenses of living held even pace with it. And now, having got its cue, his brain started off again on the old treadmill, reckoning, totting up, finding totals, or more often failing to find them, till his head was as hot as his feet were cold. To-day he could not think clearly at all.
Nor the next day either. By the time he reached home he was conscious of feeling very ill: he had lancinating pains in his limbs, a chill down his spine, an outrageous temperature. To set out again on a round of visits was impossible. He had just to tumble into bed.
He got between the sheets with that sense of utter well-being, of almost sensual satisfaction, which only one who is shivering with fever knows. And at first very small things were enough to fill him with content: the smoothness of the pillow’s sleek linen; the shadowy light of the room after long days spent in the dusty glare outside; the possibility of resting, the knowledge that it was his duty to rest; Polly’s soft, firm hands, which were always of the right temperature — warm in the cold stage, cool when the fever scorched him, and neither hot nor cold when the dripping sweats came on. But as the fever declined, these slight pleasures lost their hold. Then he was ridden to death by black thoughts. Not only was day being added to day, he meanwhile not turning over a penny; but ideas which he knew to be preposterous insinuated themselves in his brain. Thus, for hours on end he writhed under the belief that his present illness was due solely to the proximity of the Great Swamp, and lay and cursed his folly in having chosen just this neighbourhood to build in. Again, there was the case of typhoid he had been anxious about, prior to his own breakdown: under his LOCUM, peritonitis had set in and carried off the patient. At the time he had accepted the news from Polly’s lips with indifference — too ill to care. But a little later the knowledge of what it meant broke over him, and he suffered the tortures of the damned. Not Brace; he alone would be held responsible for the death; and perhaps not altogether unjustly. Lying there, a prey to morbid apprehensions, he rebuilt the case in memory, struggling to recall each slight variation in temperature, each swift change for better or worse; but as fast as he captured one such detail, his drowsy brain let the last but one go, and he had to beat it up anew. During the night he grew confident that the relatives of the dead woman intended to take action against him, for negligence or improper attendance.
An attempt to speak of these devilish imaginings to wife and friend was a failure. He undertook it in a fit of desperation, when it seemed as if only a strong and well grounded opposition would save his reason. But this was just what he could not get. Purdy, whom he tried first, held the crude notion that a sick person should never be gainsaid; and soothingly sympathised and agreed, till Mahony could have cried aloud at such blundering stupidity. Polly did better; she contradicted him. But not in the right way. She certainly pooh-poohed his idea of the nearness of Yuille’s Swamp making the house unhealthy; but she did not argue the matter, step by step, and CONVINCE him that he was wrong. She just laughed at him as at a foolish child, and kissed him, and tucked him in anew. And when it came to the typhoid’s fatal issue, she had not the knowledge needed to combat him with any chance of success. She heard him anxiously out, and allowed herself to be made quite nervous over a possible fault on his part, so jealous was she for his growing reputation.
So that in the end it was he who had to comfort her.
“Don’t take any notice of what I say to-day, wife. It’s this blessed fever. . . . I’m light-headed, I think.”
But he could hear her uneasily consulting with Purdy in the passage.
It was not till his pulse beat normally again that he could smile at his exaggerated fears. Now, too, reviving health brought back a wholesome interest in everyday affairs. He listened with amusement to Polly’s account of the shifts Purdy was reduced to, to enter the house unseen by Miss Tilly. On his faithful daily call, the young man would creep round by the back door, and Tilly was growing more and more irate at her inability to waylay him. Yes, Polly was rather redly forced to admit, she HAD abetted him in his evasions. (“You know, Poll, I might just as well tie myself up to old Mother B. herself and be done with it!”) Out of sheer pique Tilly had twice now accepted old Mr. Ocock’s invitation to drive with him. Once, she had returned with a huge bag of lollies; and once, with a face like a turkey-cock. Polly couldn’t help thinking . . . no, really, Richard, she could not! . . . that perhaps something might COME of it. He should not laugh; just wait and see.
Many inquiries had been made after him. People had missed their doctor, it seemed, and wanted him back. It was a real red-letter day when he could snap to the catches of his gloves again, and mount the step of a buggy.
He had instructed Purdy to arrange for the hire of this vehicle, saddle-work being out of the question for him in the meantime. And on his first long journey — it led him past Doyle’s hut, now, he was sorry to see, in the hands of strangers; for the wife, on the way to making a fair recovery, had got up too soon, overtaxed her strength and died, and the broken-hearted husband was gone off no one knew where — on this drive, as mile after mile slid from under the wheels, Mahony felt how grateful was the screen of a hood between him and the sun.
While he was laid up, the eternal question of how to live on his income had left him, relatively speaking, in peace. He had of late adopted the habit of doing his scraping and saving at the outset of each quarter, so as to get the money due to Ocock put by betimes. His illness had naturally made a hole in this; and now the living from hand to mouth must begin anew.
With what remained of Doyle’s money he proposed to settle his account at the livery-stable. Then the unexpected happened. His reappearance — he looked very thin and washed-out — evidently jogged a couple of sleepy memories. Simultaneously two big bills were paid, one of which he had entirely given up. In consequence, he again found himself fifty pounds to the good. And driving to Ocock’s office, on term day, he resolved to go on afterwards to the Bank of Australasia and there deposit this sum.
Grindle, set off by a pair of flaming “sideboards,” himself ushered Mahony into the sanctum, and the affair was disposed of in a trice. Ocock was one of the busiest of men nowadays — he no longer needed to invent sham clients and fictitious interviews — and he utilised the few odd minutes it took to procure a signature, jot down a note, open a drawer, unlock a tin box to remark abstractedly on the weather and put a polite inquiry: “And your good lady? In the best of health, I trust?”
On emerging from the inner room, Mahony saw that the places formerly filled by Tom and Johnny were occupied by strangers; and he was wondering whether it would be indiscreet to ask what had become of the brothers, when Ocock cut across his intention. “By the way, Jenkins, has that memorandum I spoke of been drawn up?” he turned to a clerk.
With a sheet of foolscap in his hand, he invited Mahony with a beck of the chin to re-enter his room. “Half a moment! Now, doctor, if you happen to have a little money lying idle, I can put you on to a good thing — a very good thing indeed. I don’t know, I’m sure, whether you keep an eye on the fluctuations of the share-market. If so, you’ll no doubt have noticed the . . . let me say the extreme instability of ‘Porepunkahs.’ After making an excellent start, they have dropped till they are now to be had at one-twentieth of their original value.”
He did not take much interest in mining matters was Mahony’s reply. However he knew something of the claim in question, if only because several of his acquaintances had abandoned their shares, in disgust at the repeated calls and the lack of dividends.
“Exactly. Well now, doctor, I’m in a position to inform you that ‘Porepunkahs’ will very shortly be prime favourites on the market, selling at many times their original figure — their ORIGINAL figure, sir! No one with a few hundreds to spare could find a better investment. Now is the time to buy.”
A few hundreds! . . . what does he take me for? thought Mahony; and declined the transaction off-hand. It was very good of Mr. Ocock to think of him; but he preferred to keep clear of that kind of thing.
“Quite so, quite so!” returned Ocock suavely, and dry-washed his hands with the smile Mahony had never learnt to fathom. “Just as you please, of course. — I’ll only ask you, doctor, to treat the matter as strictly confidential.”
“I suppose he says the same to everyone he tells,” was Mahony’s comment as he flicked up his horse; and he wondered what the extent might be of the lawyer’s personal interest in the “Porepunkah Company.” Probably the number of shareholders was not large enough to rake up the capital.
Still, the incident gave him food for thought, and only after closing time did he remember his intention of driving home by way of the Bank.
Later in the day he came back on the incident, and pondered his abrupt refusal of Ocock’s offer. There was nothing unusual in this: he never took advice well; and, was it forced upon him, nine times out of ten a certain inborn contrariness drove him to do just the opposite. Besides, he had not yet learned to look with lenience on the rage for speculation that had seized the people of Ballarat; and he held that it would be culpable for a man of his slender means to risk money in the great game. — But was there any hint of risk in the present instance? To judge from Ocock’s manner, the investment was as safe as a house, and lucrative to a degree that made one’s head swim. “Many times their original figure!” An Arabian-nights fashion of growing rich, and no mistake! Very different from the laborious grind of HIS days, in which he had always to reckon with the chance of not being paid at all. That very afternoon had brought him a fresh example of this. He was returning from the Old Magpie Lead, where he had been called to a case of scarlet fever, and saw himself covering the same road daily for some time to come. But he had learned to adjudge his patients in a winking; and these, he could swear to it, would prove to be non-payers; of a kind even to cut and run, once the child was out of danger. Was he really justified, cramped for money as he was, in rejecting the straight tip Ocock had given him? And he debated this moot point — argued his need against his principles — the whole way home.
As soon as he had changed and seen his suspect clothing hung out to air, he went impetuously back to Ocock’s office. He had altered his mind. A small gift from a grateful patient: yes, fifty, please; they might bring him luck. — And he saw his name written down as the owner of half a hundred shares.
After this, he took a new interest in the mining sheet of the STAR; turned to it, indeed, first of all. For a week, a fortnight, “Porepunkahs” remained stationary; then they made a call, and, if he did not wish to forfeit, he had to pay out as many shillings as he held shares. A day or two later they sank a trifle, and Mahony’s hopes with them. There even came a day when they were not mentioned; and he gave up his money for lost. But of a sudden they woke to life again, took an upward bound, and within a month were quoted at five pounds — on rumour alone. “Very sensitive indeed,” said the STAR. Purdy, his only confidant, went about swearing at himself for having let the few he owned lapse; and Mahony itched to sell. He could now have banked two hundred and fifty pounds.
But Ocock laughed him out of countenance — even went so far as to pat him on the shoulder. On no account was he to think of selling. “Sit tight, doctor . . . sit tight! Till I say the word.”
And Mahony reluctantly obeyed.
In the course of the following winter John Turnham came to stand as one of two candidates for the newly proclaimed electoral district of Ballarat West.
The first news his relatives had of his intention was gleaned from the daily paper. Mahony lit on the paragraph by chance one morning; said: “Hullo! Here’s something that will interest you, my dear,” and read it aloud.
Polly laid down her knife and fork, pushed her plate from her, and went pink with pleasure and surprise. “Richard! You don’t mean it!” she exclaimed, and got up to look over his shoulder. Yes, there it was — John’s name in all the glory of print. “Mr. John Millibank Turnham, one of the foremost citizens and most highly respected denizens of our marvellous metropolis, and a staunch supporter of democratic rights and the interests of our people.” Polly drew a deep breath. “Do you know, Richard, I shouldn’t wonder if he came to live on Ballarat — I mean if he gets in. — Does Trotty hear? This is Trotty’s papa they’re writing about in the papers. — Of course we must ask him to stay with us.” For this happened during an interregnum, when the spare room was temporarily out of use.
“Of course we must do nothing of the kind. Your brother will need the best rooms Bath’s can give him; and when he’s not actually on the hustings, he’ll be hobnobbing in the bar, standing as many drinks as there are throats in the crowd,” gave back Mahony, who had the lowest possible opinion of colonial politics.
“Well, at least I can write and tell him how delighted we are,” said Polly, not to be done.
“Find out first, my dear, if there’s any truth in the report. I can hardly think John would have left us in the dark to this extent.”
But John corroborated the news; and, in the letter Polly read out a week later, announced the opening of his campaign for the coming month.
I SHALL FEEL MUCH OBLIGED TO YOUR HUSBAND IF HE WILL MEANWHILE EXERT HIS INFLUENCE ON MY BEHALF. HE IS NO DOUBT ACQUAINTED PROFESSIONALLY WITH MANY OF THE LEADING SQUATTERS ROUND BALLARAT, WHOM HE CAN INDUCE TO SUPPORT MY CANDIDATURE.
“Umph!” said Mahony grumpily, and went on scooping out his egg. “We’re good enough to tout for him.”
“Ssh!” warned Polly, with a glance at Trotty. “Think what it means to him, Richard, and to us, too. It will do your practice ever so much good if he gets in — to be the brother-in-law of the member! We must help all we can, dear.”
She was going driving to Yarangobilly that day with Archdeacon Long to see a new arrival Richard had recently brought into the world; and now she laid plans to kill two birds with one stone, entering into the scheme with a gusto that astonished Mahony. “Upon my word, wife, I believe you’re glad to have something to do.”
“Will my own papa gimme a dolly? . . . like Uncle Papa?” here piped Trotty.
“Perhaps. But you will have to be a VERY good girl, and not talk with your mouth full or dirty your pinnies. Oh, here’s a postscript!” Polly had returned to the sheet, and was gloating over it. “John writes:
“ESPECIALLY MUST HE ENDEAVOUR TO WIN LAWYER OCOCK OVER TO MY SIDE. I LAY GREAT WEIGHT ON O.‘S SUPPORT.
“Oh, Richard, now ISN’T that unfortunate? I do hope it won’t make any difference to John’s chances.”
Polly’s dismay had good grounds. A marked coolness had sprung up between her husband and the lawyer; and on no account, she knew, would Richard consent to approach Mr. Henry. Some very hot remarks made by the latter had been passed on to her by Mrs. Glendinning. She had not dared to tell Richard the worst.
The coolness dated from an afternoon when Tilly Beamish had burst into the house in a state of rampant excitement. “Oh, Polly! oh, I say! my dear, whatever do you think? That old cove — old O. —‘as actually had the cheek to make me a proposal.”
“Tilly!” gasped Polly, and flushed to the roots of her hair. “Oh, my dear, I AM pleased!” For Polly’s conscience was still somewhat tender about the aid she had lent Purdy in his evasions. The two women kissed, and Tilly cried a little. “It’s certainly her first offer,” thought Mrs. Polly. Aloud, she asked hesitatingly: “And do you . . . shall you . . . I mean, are you going to accept him, Tilly?”
But this was just where Tilly could not make up her mind: should she take him, or should she not? For two whole days she sat about debating the question; and Polly listened to her with all the sympathy and interest so momentous a step deserved.
“If you feel you could really learn to care for him, dear. Of course it WOULD be nice for you to have a house of your own. And how happy it would make poor mother to see you settled!”
Tilly tore the last veil from her feelings, uttered gross confidences. Polly knew well enough where her real inclination lay. “I’ve hoped against hope, Poll, that a CERTAIN PERSON would come to the scratch at last.” Yes, it was true enough, he had nothing to offer her; but she wasn’t the sort to have stuck at that. “I’d have worked my hands to the bone for ’im, Poll, if ‘e’d ONLY said the word.” The one drawback to marriage with “you know ‘oo” would have been his infirmity. “Some’ow, Polly, I can’t picture myself dragging a husband with a gammy leg at my heels.” From this, Tilly’s mind glanced back to the suitor who had honourably declared himself. Of course “old O.” hadn’t a great deal of the gentleman about him; and their ages were unsuitable. “‘E owns to fifty-eight, and as you know, Poll, I’m only just turned twenty-five,” at which Polly drooped her head a little lower over the handkerchief she was hemming, to avoid meeting her friend’s eye. Poor dear Tilly! she would never see thirty again; and she need hardly have troubled, thought Polly, to be insincere with her. But in the same breath she took back the reproach. A woman herself, she understood something of the fear, and shame, and heartburning that had gone to the making of the lie. Perhaps, too, it was a gentle hint from Tilly what age she now wished to be considered. And so Polly agreed, and said tenderly: yes, certainly, the difference was very marked. Meanwhile Tilly flowed on. These were the two chief objections. On the other hand, the old boy was ludicrously smitten; and she thought one might trust her, Tilly B., to soon knock him into shape. It would also, no doubt, be possible to squeeze a few pounds out of him towards assisting “pa and ma” in their present struggle. Again, as a married woman she would have a chance of helping Jinny to find a husband: “Though Jinn’s gone off so, Polly, I bet you’d hardly know her if you met ‘er in the street.” To end all, a bird in hand, etc.; and besides, what prospects had she, if she remained a spinster?
So, when she was asked, Tilly accepted without further humming and hawing an invitation to drive out in the smart dog-cart Mr. Ocock had hired for the purpose; and Polly saw her off with many a small private sign of encouragement. All went well. A couple of hours later Tilly came flying in, caught Polly up in a bear’s hug, and danced her round the room. “My dear, wish me joy! — Oh, lor, Polly, I DO feel ‘appy!” She was wearing a large half-hoop of diamonds on her ring-finger: nothing would do “old O.” but that they should drive there and then to the finest jeweller’s in Sturt Street, where she had the pick of a trayful. And now Mr. Ocock, all a-smirk with sheepish pride, was fetched in to receive congratulations, and Polly produced refreshments; and healths were drunk. Afterwards the happy couple dallied in the passage and loitered on the doorstep, till evening was far advanced.
It was Polly who, in clearing away, was struck dumb by the thought: “But now whatever is to become of Miss Amelia?”
She wondered if this consideration troubled the old man. Trouble there was, of some sort: he called at the house three days running for a word with Richard. He wore a brand-new pair of shepherd’s-plaid trousers, a choker that his work-stained hands had soiled in tying, a black coat, a massive gold watch-chain. On the third visit he was lucky enough to catch Mahony, and the door of the surgery closed behind them.
Here Mr. Ocock sat on the extreme edge of a chair; alternately crushed his wide-awake flat between his palms and expanded it again, as though he were playing a concertina; and coughed out a wordy preamble. He assured Mahony, to begin with, how highly he esteemed him. It was because of this, because he knew doctor was as straight as a pound of candles, that he was going to ask his advice on an awkward matter — devilish awkward! — one nobody had any idea of either — except Henry. And Henry had kicked up such a deuce of a row at his wanting to marry again, that he was damned if he’d have anything more to do with him. Besides, the doctor knew what lawyers were — the whole breed of ’em! Sharp as needles — especially Henry — but with a sort of squint in their upper storey that made ’em see every mortal thing from the point of view of law. And that was no good to him. What he needed was a plain and honest, a . . . he hesitated for a word and repeated, “a Honest opinion;” for he only wanted to do the right thing, what was straight and above board. And at last out it came: did “doc.” think it would be acting on the square, and not taking a low-down advantage of a female, if he omitted to mention to “the future Mrs. O” that, up till six months back, he had been obliged to . . . well, he’d spit it out short and say, obliged to report himself to the authorities at fixed intervals? Women were such shy cattle, so damned odd! You never knew how they’d take a thing like this. One might raise Cain over it, another only laugh, another send him packing. He didn’t want to let a fine young woman like Matilda slip if he could help it, by dad he didn’t! But he felt he must either win her by fair dealing or not at all. And having got the load off his chest, the old colonist swallowed hard, and ran the back of his hand over his forehead.
He had kept his eyes glued to the table-leg in speaking, and so saw neither his hearer’s involuntary start at the damaging disclosure, nor the nervous tightening of the hand that lay along the arm of the chair. Mahony sat silent, balancing a paper-knife, and fighting down a feeling of extraordinary discomfort — his very finger-tips curled under the strain. It was of little use to remind himself that, ever since he had known him, Ocock had led a decent, God-fearing life, respected both in his business relations and by his brethren of the chapel. Nor could he spare more than a glance in passing for those odd traits in the old man’s character which were now explained: his itch for public approval; his unvarying harshness towards the pair of incorrigibles who weighed him down. At this moment he discounted even the integrity that had prompted the confession. His attitude of mind was one of: why the deuce couldn’t the old fool have held his tongue?
Oh, these unbidden, injudicious confidences! How they complicated life! And as a doctor he was pestered with only too many; he was continually being forced to see behind the scenes. Now, outsiders, too, must needs choose him for the storehouse of their privacies. Himself he never made a confidence; but it seemed as though just this buttoned-upness on his part loosened people’s tongues. Blind to the flags of warning he hoisted in looks and bearing, they innocently proceeded, as Ocock had done, to throw up insurmountable barriers. He could hear a new tone in his own voice when he replied, and was relieved to know the old man dull of perception. For now Ocock had finished speaking, and sat perspiring with anxiety to learn his fate. Mahony pulled himself together; he could, in good faith, tender the advice to let the dead past bury its dead. Whatever the original fault had been — no, no, please! . . . and he raised an arresting hand — it was, he felt sure, long since fully atoned. And Mr. Ocock had said a true word: women were strange creatures. The revelation of his secret might shipwreck his late-found happiness. It also, of course, might not — and personally Mahony did not believe it would; for Ocock’s buisness throve like the green bay-tree, and Miss Tilly had been promised a fine two-storeyed house, with bow-windows and a garden, and a carriage-drive up to the door. Again, the admission might be accepted in peace just now, and later on used as a weapon against him. In his, Mahony’s, eyes, by far the wisest course would be, to let the grass grow over the whole affair.
And here he rose, abruptly terminating the interview. “You and I, too, sir, if you please, will forget what has passed between us this morning, and never come back on it. How is Tom getting on in the drapery business? Does he like his billet?”
But none the less as he ushered his visitor out, he felt that there was a certain finality about the action. It was — as far as his private feelings were concerned — the old man’s moral exit from the scene.
On the doorstep Ocock hoped that nothing that had been said would reach “your dear little lady.” “To ‘Enry, too, doc., if you’ll be so good, mum’s the word! ‘Enry ‘ud never forgive me, nay, or you eether, if it got to ‘is ‘ears I’d bin an’ let the cat outer the bag. An’ ‘e’s got a bit of a down on you as it is, for it ‘avin’ bin your place I met the future Mrs. O. at.”
“My good man!” broke from Mahony — and in this address, which would previously never have crossed his lips, all his sensations of the past hour were summed up. “Has your son Henry the”— he checked himself; “does he suppose I— I or my wife — had anything to do with it?”
He turned back to the surgery hot with annoyance. This, too! Not enough that he must be put out of countenance by indiscreet babbling; he must also get drawn into family squabbles, even be held responsible for them: he who, brooking no interference in his own life, demanded only that those about him should be as intolerant as he.
It all came from Polly’s indiscriminate hospitality. His house was never his own. And now they had the prospect of John and his electoral campaign before them. And John’s chances of success, and John’s stump oratory, and the backstair-work other people were expected to do for him would form the main theme of conversation for many a day to come.
Mrs. Glendinning confirmed old Ocock’s words.
She came to talk over the engagement with Polly, and sitting in the parlour cried a little, and was sorry. But then “poor little Agnes” cried so easily nowadays. Richard said her nerves had been shattered by the terrible affair just before Christmas, when Mr. Glendinning had tried first to kill her, and then to cut his own throat.
Agnes said: “But I told Henry quite plainly, darling, that I would not cease my visits to you on that account. It is both wrong and foolish to think you or Dr. Mahony had anything to do with it — and after the doctor was so kind, too, so VERY kind, about getting poor Mr. Glendinning into the asylum. And so you see, dear, Henry and I have had quite a disagreement”; and Agnes cried again at the remembrance. “Of course, I can sympathise with his point of view. . . . Henry is so ambitious. All the same, dearest, it’s not quite so bad — is it? — as he makes out. Matilda is certainly not very COMME IL FAUT— you’ll forgive my saying so, love, won’t you? But I think she will suit Henry’s father in every way. No, the truth is, the old gentleman has made a great deal of money, and we naturally expected it to fall to Henry at his death; no one anticipated his marrying again. Not that Henry really needs the money; he is getting on so well; and I have. . . . I shall have plenty, too, by and by. But you know, love, what men are.”
“Dearest Agnes! . . . don’t fret about it. Mr. Henry thinks too much of you, I’m sure, to be vexed with you for long. And when he looks at it calmly, he’ll see how unfair it is to make us responsible. I’m like you, dear; I can’t consider it a misfortune. Tilly is not a lady; but she’s a dear, warm-hearted girl and will make the old man a good wife. I only hope though, Agnes, Mr. Henry won’t say anything to Richard. Richard is so touchy about things of that sort.”
The two women kissed, Polly with feelings of the tenderest affection: the fact that, on behalf of their friendship, Agnes had pitted her will against Mr. Henry’s, endeared her to Polly as nothing else could have done.
But when, vigilant as a mother-hen, she sought to prepare her husband for a possible unpleasantness, she found him already informed; and her well-meant words were like a match laid to his suppressed indignation.
“In all my born days I never heard such impudence!”
He turned embarrassingly cool to Tilly. And Tilly, innocent of offence and quite unskilled in deciphering subtleties, put this sudden change of front down to jealousy, because she was going to live in a grander house than he did. For the same reason he had begun to turn up his nose at “Old O.,” or she was very much mistaken; and in vain did Polly strive to convince her that she was in error. “I don’t know anyone Richard has a higher opinion of!”
But it was a very uncomfortable state of things; and when a message arrived over the electric telegraph announcing the dangerous illness of Mrs. Beamish, distressed though she was by the news, Polly could not help heaving a tiny sigh of relief. For Tilly was summoned back to Melbourne with all speed, if she wished to see her mother alive.
They mingled their tears, Polly on her knees at the packing, Tilly weeping whole-heartedly among the pillows of the bed.
“If it ‘ad only been pa now, I shouldn’t have felt it half so much,” and she blew her nose for the hundredth time. “Pa was always such a rum old stick. But poor ma . . . when I THINK how she’s toiled and moiled ‘er whole life long, to keep things going. She’s ‘ad all the pains and none of the pleasures; and now, just when I was hoping to be able to give ‘er a helping hand, THIS must happen.”
The one bright spot in Tilly’s grief was that the journey would be made in a private conveyance. Mr. Ocock had bought a smart gig and was driving her down himself; driving past the foundations of the new house, along the seventy odd miles of road, right up to the door of the mean lodging in a Collingwood back street, where the old Beamishes had hidden their heads. “If only she’s able to look out of the window and see me dash up in my own turn-out!” said Tilly.
Polly fitted out a substantial luncheon-basket, and was keenest sympathy to the last. But Mahony was a poor dissembler; and his sudden thaw, as he assisted in the farewell preparations, could, Polly feared, have been read aright by a child.
Tilly hugged Polly to her, and gave her kiss after kiss. “I shall NEVER forget ‘ow kind you’ve been, Poll, and all you’ve done for me. I’ve had my disappointments ’ere, as you know; but p’raps after all it’ll turn out to be for the best. One o’ the good sides to it anyhow is that you and me’ll be next-door neighbours, so to say, for the rest of our lives. And I’ll hope to see something of you, my dear, every blessed day. But you’ll not often catch me coming to this house, I can tell you that! For, if you won’t mind me saying so, Poll, I think you’ve got one of the queerest sticks for a husband that ever walked this earth. Blows hot one day and cold the next, for all the world like the wind in spring. And without caring twopence whose corns ‘e treads on.”— Which, thought Polly, was but a sorry return on Tilly’s part for Richard’s hospitality. After all, it was his house she had been a guest in.
Such were the wheels within wheels. And thus it came about that, when the question rose of paving the way for John Turnham’s candidature, Mahony drew the line at approaching Henry Ocock.
John drove from Melbourne in a drag and four, accompanied by numerous friends and well-wishers. A mile or so out of Ballarat, he was met by a body of supporters headed by a brass band, and escorted in triumph to the George Hotel. Here, the horses having been led away, John at once took the field by mounting the box-seat of the coach and addressing the crowd of idlers that had gathered round to watch the arrival. He got an excellent hearing — so Jerry reported, who was an eye and ear-witness of the scene — and was afterwards borne shoulder-high into the hotel.
With Jerry at his heels, Mahony called at the hotel that evening. He found John entertaining a large impromptu party. The table of the public dining-room was disorderly with the remains of a liberal meal; napkins lay crushed and flung down among plates piled high with empty nutshells; the cloth was wine-stained, and bestrewn with ashes and breadcrumbs, the air heady with the fumes of tobacco. Those of the guests who still lingered at the table had pushed their chairs back or askew, and sat, some a-straddle, some even with their feet on the cloth. John was confabbing with half a dozen black-coats in a corner. Each held a wineglass in his hand from which he sipped, while John, legs apart, did all the talking, every now and then putting out his forefinger to prod one of his hearers on the middle button of the waistcoat. It was some time before he discovered the presence of his relatives; and Mahony had leisure to admire the fashion in which, this corner-talk over, John dispersed himself among the company; drinking with this one and that; glibly answering questions; patting a glum-faced brewer on the back; and simultaneously checking over, with an oily-haired agent, his committee-meetings for the following days. His customary arrogance and pompousness of manner were laid aside. For the nonce, he was a simple man among men.
Then espying them, he hurried over, and rubbing his hands with pleasure said warmly: “My dear Mahony, this is indeed kind! Jerry, my lad, how do, how do? Still growing, I see! We’ll make a fine fellow of you yet. — Well, doctor! . . . we’ve every reason, I think, to feel satisfied with the lie of the land.”
But here he was snatched from them by an urgent request for a pronouncement —“A quite informal word, sir, if you’ll be so good,”— on the vexed question of vote by ballot. And this being a pet theme of John’s, and a principle he was ready to defend through thick and thin, he willingly complied.
Mahony had no further talk with him. The speech over — it was a concise and spirited utterance, and, if you were prepared to admit the efficacy of the ballot, convincing enough — Mahony quietly withdrew. He had to see a patient at eleven. Polly, too, would probably be lying awake for news of her brother.
As he threw back his braces and wound up his watch, he felt it incumbent on him to warn her not to pitch her hopes too high. “You mustn’t expect, my dear, that your brother’s arrival will mean much to us. He is now a public man, and will have little time for small people like ourselves. I’m bound to admit, Polly, I was very favourably impressed by the few words I heard him say,” he added.
“Oh, Richard, I’m SO glad!” and Polly, who had been sitting on the edge of the bed, stood on tiptoe to give him a kiss.
As Mahony predicted, John’s private feelings went down before the superior interests of his campaign. Three days passed before he found time to pay his sister a visit; and Polly, who had postponed a washing, baked her richest cakes and pastries, and clad Trotty in her Sunday best each day of the three: Polly was putting a good face on the matter, and consoling herself with Jerry’s descriptions of John’s triumphs. How she wished she could hear some of the speechifying! But Richard would never consent; and electioneering did certainly seem, from what Jerry said, a very rough-and-ready business — nothing for ladies. Hence her delight knew no bounds when John drove up unexpectedly late one afternoon, between a hard day’s personal canvassing and another of the innumerable dinners he had to eat his way through. Tossing the reins to the gentleman who sat next him, he jumped out of the wagonette — it was hung with placards of “Vote for Turnham!”— and gave a loud rat-a-tat at the door.
Forgetting in her excitement that this was Ellen’s job, Polly opened to him herself, and drew him in. “John! How pleased I am to see you!”
“My dear girl, how are you? God bless me, how you’ve altered! I should never have known you.” He held her at arm’s length, to consider her.
“But you haven’t changed in the least, John. Except to grow younger. — Richard, here’s John at last! — and Trotty, John . . . here’s Trotty! — Take your thumb out of your mouth, naughty girl! — She’s been watching for you all day, John, with her nose to the window.” And Polly pushed forward the scarlet, shrinking child.
John’s heartiness suffered a distinct check as his eyes lit on Trotty, who stood stiff as a bit of Dresden china in her bunchy starched petticoats. “Come here, Emma, and let me look at you.” Taking the fat little chin between thumb and first finger, he turned the child’s face up and kept it so, till the red button of a mouth trembled, and the great blue eyes all but ran over. “H’m! Yes . . . a notable resemblance to her mother. Ah, time passes, Polly my dear — time passes!” He sighed. —“I hope you mind your aunt, Emma, and are properly grateful to her?”
Abruptly quitting his hold, he swept the parlour with a glance. “A very snug little place you have here, upon my word!”
While Polly, with Trotty pattering after, bustled to the larder, Mahony congratulated his brother-in-law on the more favourable attitude towards his election policy which was becoming evident in the local press. John’s persuasive tongue was clearly having its effect, and the hostility he had met with at the outset of his candidature was yielding to more friendly feelings on all sides. John was frankly gratified by the change, and did not hesitate to say so. When the wine arrived they drank to his success, and Polly’s delicacies met with their due share of praise. Then, having wiped his mouth on a large silk handkerchief, John disclosed the business object of his call. He wanted specific information about the more influential of their friends and acquaintances; and here he drew a list of names from his pocket-book. Mahony, his chin propped on the flaxen head of the child, whom he nursed, soon fell out of the running for Polly proved far the cleverer at grasping the nature of the information John sought, and at retailing it. And John complimented her on her shrewdness, ticked off names, took notes on what she told him; and when he was not writing sat tapping his thick, carnation-red underlip, and nodding assent. It was arranged that Polly should drive out with him next day to Yarangobilly, by way of Dandaloo; while for the evening after they plotted a card-party, at which John might come to grips with Archdeacon Long. John expected to find the reverend gentleman a hard nut to crack, their views on the subject of a state aid to religion being diametrically opposed. Polly thought a substantial donation to the chancel-fund might smooth things over, while for John to display a personal interest in Mrs. Long’s charities would help still more. Then there were the Ococks. The old man could be counted on, she believed; but John might have some difficulty with Mr. Henry — and here she initiated her brother into the domestic differences which had split up the Ocock family, and prevented Richard from approaching the lawyer. John, who was in his most democratic mood, was humorous at the expense of Henry, and declared the latter should rather wish his father joy of coming to such a fine, bouncing young wife in his old age. The best way of getting at Mr. Henry, Polly considered, would be for Mrs Glendinning to give a luncheon or a bushing-party, with the lawyer among the guests: “Then you and I, John, could drive out and join them — either by chance or invitation, as you think best.” Polly was heart and soul in the affair.
But business over, she put several straight questions about the boy, little Johnny — Polly still blamed herself for having meekly submitted to the child’s removal from her charge — and was not to be fobbed off with evasions. The unfavourable verdict she managed to worm out of John: “Incorrigible, my dear Polly — utterly incorrigible! His masters report him idle, disobedient, a bad influence on the other scholars,” she met staunchly with: “Perhaps it has something to do with the school. Why not try another? Johnny had his good qualities; in many ways was quite a lovable child.”
For the first time Mahony saw his wife and her eldest brother together and he could not but be struck by Polly’s attitude. Greatly as she admired and reverenced John, there was not a particle of obsequiousness in her manner, nor any truckling to his point of view; and she plainly felt nothing of the peculiar sense of discomfort that invariably attacked him, in John’s presence. Either she was not conscious of her brother’s grossly patronising air, or, aware of it, did not resent it, John having always been so much her superior in age and position. Or was it indeed the truth that John did not try to patronise Polly? That his overbearing nature recognised in hers a certain springy resistance, which was not to be crushed? In other words, that, in a Turnham, Turnham blood met its match.
John re-took his seat in the front of the wagonette, Trotty was lifted up to see the rosettes and streamers adorning the horses, the gentlemen waved their hats, and off they went again at a fine pace, and with a whip-cracking that brought the neighbours to their windows.
Polly had pink cheeks with it all, and even sought to excuse the meagre interest John had shown in his daughter. “Trotty was only a baby in arms when he saw her last. Besides, I think she reminded him too much of her dear mother. For I’m sure, though he doesn’t let it be seen, John still feels his loss.”
“I wonder!” said Mahony slowly and with a strong downward inflection, as he turned indoors.
On the eve of the polling Polly had the honour of accompanying her brother to a performance at the Theatre Royal. A ticket came for Richard, too; but, as usual, he was at the last moment called out. So Purdy took her on his arm and escorted her — not exactly comfortably; for, said Polly, no one who had not tried it, knew how hard it was to walk arm-in-arm with a lame person, especially if you did not want to hurt his feelings — Purdy took her to the theatre, helped her to unmuffle and to change her boots, and bore her company till her brother arrived. They had seats in the centre of the front row of the dress circle; all eyes were turned on them as they entered; and Polly’s appearance was the subject of audible and embarrassing comment.
In every interval John was up and away, to shake a hand here, pass the time of day there; and watching him with affectionate pride, Polly wondered how Richard could ever have termed him “high-handed and difficult.” John had the knack, it seemed to her, of getting on with people of every class, and of always finding the right word to say. But as the evening advanced his seat remained empty even while the curtain was up, and she was glad when, between the fourth and fifth acts, her husband at last appeared.
On his way to her Mahony ran into his brother-in-law, and John buttonholed him to discuss with him the prospects of the morrow. As they talked, their eyes rested on Polly’s glossy black chignon; on the nape of her white neck; on the beautiful, rounded young shoulders which, in obedience to the fashion, stood right out of her blue silk bodice. Mahony shifted his weight uneasily from one foot to the other. He could not imagine Polly enjoying her exposed position, and disapproved strongly of John having left her. But for all answer to the hint he threw out John said slowly, and with a somewhat unctuous relish: “My sister has turned into a remarkably handsome woman!”— words which sent the lightning-thought through Mahony that, had Polly remained the insignificant little slip of a thing of earlier days, she would not have been asked to fill the prominent place she did this evening.
John sent his adieux and excuses to Polly. He had done what was expected of him, in showing himself at a public entertainment, and a vast mass of correspondence lay unsorted on his desk. So Mahony moved forward alone.
“Oh, Richard, there you are! Oh dear, what you’ve missed! I never thought there could be such acting.” And Polly turned her great dark eyes on her husband; they were moist from the noble sentiments of THE TRUE BRITON.
The day of the election broke, a gusty spring day cut up by stinging hail-showers, which beat like fusillades on the galvanised iron roofs. Between the showers, the sun shone in a gentian-blue sky, against which the little wooden houses showed up crassly white. Ballarat made holiday. Early as Mahony left home, he met a long line of conveyances heading townwards — spring carts, dogcarts, double and single buggies, in some of which, built to seat two only, five or six persons were huddled. These and similar vehicles drew up in rows outside the public-houses, where the lean, long-legged colonial horses stood jerking at their tethers; and they were still there, still jerking, when he passed again toward evening. On a huge poster the “Unicorn” offered to lunch free all those “thinking men” who registered their vote for “the one and only true democrat, the miners’ friend and tyrants’ foe, John Turnham.”
In the hope of avoiding a crush Mahony drove straight to the polling-booth. But already all the loafers and roughs in the place seemed to be congregated round the entrance, after the polite custom of the country to chivy, or boo, or huzza those who went in. In waiting his turn, he had to listen to comments on his dress and person, to put up with vulgar allusions to blue pills and black draughts.
Just as he was getting back into his buggy John rode up, flanked by a bodyguard of friends; John was galloping from booth to booth, to verify progress and put the thumbscrew on wobblers. He beamed — as well he might. He was certain to be one of the two members elected, and quite likely to top the poll by a respectable majority.
For once Mahony did not grumble at his outlying patients; was only too thankful to turn his back on the town. It was pandemonium. Bands of music, one shriller and more discordant than the next, marched up and down the main streets — from the fifes and drums of the Fire Brigade, to the kerosene-tins and penny-whistles of mere determined noise-makers. Straggling processions, with banners that bore the distorted features of one or other of the candidates, made driving difficult; and, to add to the confusion, the schoolchildren were let loose, to overrun the place and fly advertisement balloons round every corner. — And so it went on till far into the night, the dark hours being varied by torchlight processions, fireworks, free fights and orgies of drunkenness.
The results of the polling were promised for two o’clock the following day.
When, something after this hour Mahony reached home, he found Polly and the gentle, ox-eyed Jinny Beamish, who was the present occupant of the spare room, pacing up and down before the house. According to Jerry news might be expected now at any minute. And when he had lunched and changed his coat, Mahony, bitten by the general excitement, made his way down to the junction of Sturt Street and the Flat.
A great crowd blocked the approaches to the hustings. Here were the four candidates, who, in attending the issue, strove to look decently unconcerned. John had struck a quasi-Napoleonic attitude: his right elbow propped in the cup of his left hand, he held his drooped chin between thumb and forefinger, leaving it to his glancing black eyes to reveal how entirely alive he was to the gravity of the moment. Standing on the fringe of the crowd, Mahony listened to the piebald jokes and rude wit with which the people beguiled the interim; and tried to endure with equanimity the jostling, the profane language and offensive odours, by which he was assailed. Half an hour elapsed before the returning officer climbed the ladder at the back of the platform, and came forward to announce the result of the voting: Mr. John Millibank Turnham topped the poll with a majority of four hundred and fifty-two. The crowd, which at sight of the clerk had abruptly ceased its fooling, drowned his further statements in a roar of mingled cheers and boos. The cheers had it; hats were tossed into the air, and loud cries for a speech arose. John’s advance to grip the railing led to a fresh outburst, in which the weakening opposition was quashed by the singing of: “When Johnny comes marching home!” and “Cheer, boys, cheer, For home and mother country!”— an incongruity of sentiment that made Mahony smile. And John, having repeatedly bowed his thanks from side to side, joined in and sang with the rest.
The opening of his speech was inaudible to Mahony. Just behind him stood one of his brother-in-law’s most arrant opponents, a butcher by trade, and directly John began to hold forth this man produced a cornet-a-piston and started to blow it. In vain did Mahony expostulate: he seemed to have got into a very wasps’-nest of hostility; for the player’s friends took up the cudgels and baited him in a language he would have been sorry to imitate, the butcher blaring away unmoved, with the fierce solemnity of face the cornet demands. Mahony lost his temper; his tormentors retaliated; and for a moment it looked as though there would be trouble. Then a number of John’s supporters, enraged by the bellowing of the instrument, bore down and forcibly removed the musician and his clique, Mahony along with them.
Having indignantly explained, and shaken coat and collar to rights, he returned to his place on the edge of the crowd. The speaker’s deep voice had gone steadily on during the disturbance. Indeed John might have been born to the hustings. Interruptions did not put him out; he was brilliant at repartee; and all the stock gestures of the public speaker came at his call: the pounding of the bowl of one hand with the closed fist of the other; the dramatic wave of the arm with which he plumbed the depths or invited defiance; the jaunty standing-at-ease, arms akimbo; the earnest bend from the waist when he took his hearers into his confidence. At this moment he was gripping the rail of the platform as though he intended to vault it, and asserting: “Our first cry, then, is for men to people the country; our next, for independence, to work out our own salvation. Yes, my friends, the glorious future of this young and prosperous colony, which was once and most auspiciously known as Australia Felix — blest, thrice-blest Australia! — rests with ourselves alone. We who inhabit here can best judge of her requirements, and we refuse to see her hampered in her progress by the shackles of an ancient tradition. What suits our hoary mother-country — God bless and keep her and keep us loyal to her! — is but dry husks for us. England knows nothing of our most pressing needs. I ask you to consider how, previous to 1855, that pretty pair of mandarins, Lord John Russell and Earl Grey, boggled and botched the crucial question of unlocking the lands even yet, gentlemen, the result of their muddling lies heavy on us. And the Land Question, though first in importance, is but one, as you know, of many”— and here John, playing on the tips of five wide-stretched fingers, counted them off. He wound up with a flaming plea for the creation and protection of purely national industries. “For what, I would ask you, is the true meaning of democracy in a country such as ours? What is, for us, the democratic principle? The answer, my friends, is conservatism; yes, I repeat it — conservatism!” . . . and thus to a final peroration.
In the braying and hurrahing that followed — the din was heightened by some worthy mounting a barrel to move that “this yere Johnny Turnham” was not a fit person to represent “the constitooency,” by the barrel being dragged from under him, and the speaker rolled in the mud; while this went on Mahony stood silent, and he was still standing meditatively pulling his whiskers when a sudden call for a doctor reached his ear. He pushed his way to the front.
How the accident happened no one knew. John had descended from the platform to a verandah, where countless hands were stretched out to shake his. A pile of shutters was leaning against the wall, and in some unexplained fashion these had fallen, striking John a blow that knocked him down. When Mahony got to him he was on his feet again, wiping a drop of blood from his left temple. He looked pale, but pooh-poohed injury or the idea of interfering with his audience’s design; and Mahony saw him shouldered and borne off.
That evening there was a lengthy banquet, in which all the notables of the place took part. Mahony’s seat was some way off John’s; he had to lean forward, did he wish to see his brother-in-law.
Towards eleven o’clock, just as he was wondering if he could slip out unobserved, a hand was laid on his arm. John stood behind him, white to the lips. “Can I have a word with you upstairs?”
Here he confessed to a knife-like pain in his left side; the brunt of the blow, it seemed, had met him slantways between rib and hip. A cursory examination made Mahony look grave.
“You must come back with me, John, and let me see to you properly.”
Having expressed the chief guest’s regrets to the company, he ordered a horse and trap, and helping John into it drove him home. And that night John lay in their bed, letting out the groans he had suppressed during the evening; while Polly snatched forty winks beside Jinny Beamish, and Mahony got what sleep he could on the parlour sofa.
There for some weeks John was a prisoner, with a fractured rib encased in strips of plaster. “In your element again, old girl!” Mahony chaffed his wife, when he met her bearing invalid trays.
“Oh, it doesn’t all fall on me, Richard. Jinny’s a great help — sitting with John and keeping him company.”
Mahony could see it for himself. Oftenest when he entered the room it was Jinny’s black-robed figure — she was in mourning for her parents; for Mrs. Beamish had sunk under the twofold strain of failure and disgrace, and the day after her death it had been necessary to cut old Beamish down from a nail — oftenest it was Jinny he found sitting behind a curtain of the tester-bed, watching while John slept, ready to read to him or to listen to his talk when he awoke. This service set Polly free to devote herself to the extra cooking; and John was content. “A most modest and unassuming young woman,” ran his verdict on Jinny.
Polly reported it to her husband in high glee. “Who could ever have believed two sisters would turn out so differently? Tilly to get so . . . so . . . well, you know what I mean . . . and Jinny to improve as she has done. Have you noticed, Richard, she hardly ever — really quite seldom now — drops an h? It must all have been due to Tilly serving in that low bar.”
By the time John was so far recovered as to exchange bed for sofa, it had come to be exclusively Jinny who carried in to him the dainties Polly prepared — the wife as usual was content to do the dirty work! John declared Miss Jinny had the foot of a fay; also that his meals tasted best at her hands. Jinny even succeeded in making Trotty fond of her; and the love of the fat, shy child was not readily won. Entering the parlour one evening Mahony surprised quite a family scene: John, stretched on the sofa, was stringing cats’-cradles, Jinny sat beside him with Trotty on her knee.
On the whole, though, the child did not warm to her father.
“Aunty, kin dat man take me away f’om you?”
“That man? Why, Trotty darling, he’s your father!” said Polly, shocked.
“Kin ‘e take me away f’om you and Uncle Papa?”
“He could if he wanted to. But I’m sure he doesn’t,” answered her aunt, deftly turning a well-rolled sheet of pastry.
And righting her dolly, which she had been dragging upside down, Trotty let slip her fears with the sovereign ease of childhood.
From the kitchen Polly could hear the boom of John’s deep bass: it made nothing of the lath-and-plaster walls. Of course, shut up as he was, he had to talk to somebody, poor fellow; and Richard was too busy to spare him more than half an hour of an evening. Jinny was a good listener. Through the crack of the door, Polly could see her sitting humbly drinking in John’s words, and even looking rather pretty, in her fair, full womanliness.
“Oh, Polly!” she burst out one day, after being held thus spellbound. “Oh, my dear, what a splendid man your brother is! I feel sometimes I could sink through the floor with shame at my ignorance, when ‘e talks to me so.”
But as time went on Mahony noticed that his wife grew decidedly thoughtful; and if John continued to sing Jinny’s praises, he heard nothing more of it. He had an acute suspicion what troubled Polly; but did not try to force her confidence.
Then one afternoon, on his getting home, she came into the surgery looking very perturbed, and could hardly find words to break a certain piece of news to him. It appeared that not an hour previously, Jinny, flushed and tearful, had lain on her neck, confessing her feelings for John and hinting at the belief that they were returned.
“Well, I think you might have been prepared for something of this sort, Polly,” he said with a shrug, when he had heard her out. “Convalescence is notoriously dangerous for fanning the affections.”
“Oh, but I never DREAMT of such a thing, Richard! Jinny is a dear good girl and all that, but she is NOT John’s equal. And that he can even THINK of putting her in poor Emma’s place! — What shall I say to him?”
“Say nothing at all. Your brother John is not the man to put up with interference.”
“He longs so for a real home again, Polly darling,” said Jinny, wiping her eyes. “And HOW ‘appy it will make me to fulfil ‘is wish! Don’t let me feel unwelcome and an intruder, dear. I know I’m not nearly good enough for ’im, and ‘e could ‘ave had the choice of ever such handsome women. But ‘e ‘as promised to be patient with me, and to teach me everything I ought to know.”
Polly’s dismay at the turn of events yielded to a womanly sympathy with her friend. “It’s just like poor little Agnes and Mr. Henry over again,” was her private thought. For she could not picture John stooping to guide and instruct.
But she had been touched on a tender spot — that of ambitious pride for those related to her — and she made what Mahony called “a real Turnham attempt” to stand up to John. Against her husband’s express advice.
“For if your brother chooses to contract a mesalliance of this kind, it’s nobody’s business but his own. Upon my word though, Polly, if you don’t take care, this house will get a bad name over the matches that are made in it. You had better have your spare room boarded up, my dear.”
Mahony was feeling particularly rasped by John’s hoity-toity behaviour in this connection. Having been nursed back to health, John went about with his chin in the air, and hardly condescended to allude to his engagement — let alone talk it over with his relatives. So Mahony retired into himself — after all, the world of John’s mind was so dissimilar to his own that he did not even care to know what went on in it. “The fellow has been caught on the hop by a buxom form and a languishing eye,” was how he dismissed the matter in thought.
“I raise my wife to my own station, Mary. And you will greatly oblige me by showing Jane every possible attention,” was the only satisfaction Polly could get from John, made in his driest tone.
Before the engagement was a week old Tilly reappeared — she was to be married from their house on the hither side of Christmas. At first she was too full of herself and her own affairs to let either Polly or Jinny get a word in. Just to think of it! That old cabbage-grower, Devine, had gone and bought the block of land next the one Mr. O. was building on. She’d lay a bet he would put up a house the dead spit of theirs. Did ever anyone hear such cheek?
At the news that was broken to her, the first time she paused for breath, she let herself heavily down on a chair.
“Well, I’m blowed!” was all she could ejaculate. “Blowed! . . . that’s what I am.”
But afterwards, when Jinny had left the room, she gave free play to a very real envy and regret. “In all my life I never did! Jinn to be Mrs. John! . . . and, as like as not, the Honourable Mrs. John before she’s done. Oh, Polly, my dear, why EVER didn’t I wait!”
On being presented to John, however, she became more reconciled to her lot. “‘E’s got a temper, your brother has, or I’m very much mistaken. It won’t be all beer and skittles for ‘er ladyship. For Jinn hasn’t a scrap of spunk in ‘er, Polly. She got so mopey the last year or two, there was no doing anything with ‘er. Now it was just the other way round with me. No matter how black things looked, I always kept my pecker up. Poor ma used to say I grew more like her, every day.”
And at a still later date: “No, Polly, my dear, I wouldn’t change places with the future Mrs. T. after all, thank you — not for Joseph! I SAY! she’ll need to mind her p’s and q’s.” For Tilly had listened to John explaining to Jinny what he expected of her, what she might and might not do; and had watched Jinny sitting meekly by and saying yes to everything.
There was nothing in the way of the marriage; indeed, did it not take place immediately, Jinny would have to look about her for a situation of some kind; and, said John, that was nothing for HIS wife. His house stood empty; he was very much in love; and pressed for the naming of the day. So it was decided that Polly should accompany Jinny to lodgings in Melbourne, help her choose her trousseau and engage servants. Afterwards there would be a quiet wedding — by reason of Jinny’s mourning — at which Richard, if he could possibly contrive to leave his patients, would give the bride away. Polly was to remain in John’s house while the happy couple were on honeymoon, to look after the servants. This arrangement would also make the break less hard for the child. Trotty was still blissfully unconscious of what had befallen her. She had learnt to say “new mamma” parrot-wise, without understanding what the words meant. And meanwhile, the fact that she was to go with her aunt for a long, exciting coach-ride filled her childish cup with happiness. As Polly packed the little clothes, she thought of the night, six years before, when the fat, sleeping babe had been laid in her arms.
“Of course it’s only natural John should want his family round him again. But I SHALL miss the dear little soul,” she said to her husband who stood watching her.
“What you need is a little one of your own, wife.”
“Ah, don’t I wish I had!” said Polly, and drew a sigh. “That would make up for everything. Still if it can’t be, it can’t.”
A few days before the set time John received an urgent summons to Melbourne, and went on ahead, leaving Mahony suspecting him of a dodge to avoid travelling EN FAMILLE. In order that his bride-elect should not be put to inconvenience, John hired four seats for the three of them; but: “He might just as well have saved his money,” thought Polly, when she saw the coach. Despite their protests they were packed like herrings in a barrel — had hardly enough room to use their hands. Altogether it was a trying journey. Jinny, worked on by excitement and fatigue, took a fit of hysterics; Trotty, frightened by the many rough strangers, cried and had to be nursed; and the whole burden of the undertaking lay on Polly’s shoulders. She had felt rather timid about it, before starting; but was obliged to confess she got on better than she expected. A kind old man sitting opposite, for instance — a splitter he said he was — actually undid Jinny’s bonnet-strings, and fetched water for her at the first stoppage.
Polly had not been in Melbourne since the year after her marriage, and was looking forward intensely to the visit. She went laden with commissions; her lady-friends gave her a list as long as her arm. Richard, too, had entrusted her to get him second-hand editions of various medical works, as well as a new stethoscope. Thirdly, she had promised old Mr. Ocock to go to William’s Town to meet Miss Amelia, who even now was tossing somewhere on the Indian Ocean, and to escort the poor young lady up to Ballarat.
Having seen them start, Mahony went home to drink his coffee and read his paper in a quiet that was new to him. John’s departure had already eased the strain. Then Tilly had been boarded out at the Methodist minister’s. Now, with the exit of Polly and her charges, a great peace descended on the little house. The rooms lay white and still in the sun, and though all doors stood open, there was not a sound to be heard but the buzzing of the blowflies round the sweets of the flytraps. He was free to look as glum as he chose of a morning if he had neuralgia; or to be silent when worried over a troublesome case. No longer would Miss Tilly’s bulky presence and loud-voiced reiterations of her prospects grate his nerves; or John’s full-blooded absorption in himself, and poor foolish Jinny’s quavering doubts whether she would ever be able to live up to so magnificent a husband, offend his sense of decorum.
Another reason he was glad to see the last of them was that, in the long run, he had rebelled at the barefaced way they made use of Polly, and took advantage of her good nature. She had not only cooked for them and waited on them; he had even caught her stitching garments for the helpless Jinny. This was too much: such extreme obligingness on his wife’s part seemed to detract from her personal dignity. He could never though have got Polly to see it. Undignified to do a kindness? What a funny, selfish idea! The fact was, there was a certain streak in Polly’s nature that made her more akin to all these good people than to him — him with his unsociable leanings towards a hermit’s cell; his genuine need of an occasional hour’s privacy and silence, in which to think a few thoughts through to the end.
On coming in from his rounds he turned out an old linen jacket that belonged to his bachelor days, and raked up some books he had not opened for an almost equally long time. He also steered clear of friends and acquaintances, went nowhere, saw no one but his patients. And Ellen, to whose cookery Polly had left him with many misgivings, took things easy. “He’s so busy reading, he never knows what he puts in his mouth. I believe he’d eat his boot-soles, if I fried ’em up neat wid a bit of parsley,” she reported over the back fence on Doctor’s odd ways.
During the winter months the practice had as usual fallen off. By now it was generally beginning to look up again; but this year, for some reason, the slackness persisted. He saw how lean his purse was, whenever he had to take a banknote from it to enclose to Polly; there was literally nothing doing, no money coming in. Then, he would restlessly lay his book aside, and drawing a slip of paper to him set to reckoning and dividing. Not for the first time he found himself in the doctor’s awkward quandary: how to be decently and humanly glad of a rise in the health-rate.
He had often regretted having held to the half-hundred shares he had bought at Henry Ocock’s suggestion; had often spent in fancy the sum they would have brought in, had he sold when they touched their highest figure. Such a chance would hardly come his way again. After the one fictitious flare-up, “Porepunkahs” had fallen heavily — the first main prospect-drive, at a depth of three hundred and fifty feet, had failed to strike the gutter — and nowadays they were not even quoted. Thus had ended his single attempt to take a hand in the great game.
One morning he sat at breakfast, and thought over his weekly epistle to Polly. In general, this chronicled items of merely personal interest. The house had not yet been burnt down — her constant fear, when absent; another doctor had got the Asylum; he himself stood a chance of being elected to the Committee of the District Hospital. To-day, however, there was more to tell. The English mail had come in, and the table was strewn with foreign envelopes and journals. Besides the usual letters from relatives, one in a queer, illiterate hand had reached him, the address scrawled in purple ink on the cheapest note-paper. Opening it with some curiosity, Mahony found that it was from his former assistant, Long Jim.
The old man wrote in a dismal strain. Everything had gone against him. His wife had died, he was out of work and penniless, and racked with rheumatism — oh, it was “a crewl climat”! Did he stop in England, only “the house” remained to him; he’d end in a pauper’s grave. But he believed if he could get back to a scrap of warmth and the sun, he’d be good for some years yet. Now he’d always known Dr. Mahony for the kindest, most liberal of gentlemen; the happiest days of his life had been spent under him, on the Flat; and if he’d only give him a lift now, there was nothing he wouldn’t do to show his gratitude. Doctor knew a bit about him, too. Here, he couldn’t seem to get on with folk at all. They looked crooked at him, and just because he’d once been spunky enough to try his luck overseas. Mahony pshawed and smiled; then wondered what Polly would say to this letter. She it was who had been responsible for packing the old man off.
Unfolding the STAR, he ran his eye over its columns. He had garnered the chief local news and was skimming the mining intelligence, when he suddenly stopped short with an exclamation of surprise; and his grip on the paper tightened. There it stood, black on white. “Porepunkahs” had jumped to three pounds per share! What the dickens did that mean? He turned back to the front sheet, to find if any clue to the claim’s renewed activity had escaped him; but sought in vain. So bolting the rest of his breakfast, he hurried down to the town, to see if, on the spot, he could pick up information with regard to the mysterious rise.
The next few days kept him in a twitter of excitement. “Porepunkahs” went on advancing — not by leaps and bounds as before, but slowly and steadily — and threw off a dividend. He got into bed at night with a hot head, from wondering whether he ought to hold on or sell out; and inside a week he was off to consult the one person who was in a position to advise him. Henry Ocock’s greeting resembled an embrace —“It evidently means a fortune for him”— and all trifling personal differences were forgotten in the wider common bond. The lawyer virtually ordered Mahony to “sit in”, till he gave the word. By this time “Porepunkahs” had passed their previous limit, and even paid a bonus: it was now an open secret that a drive undertaken in an opposite direction to the first had proved successful; the lead was scored and seamed with gold. Ocock spoke of the stone, specimens of which he had held in his hand — declared he had never seen its equal.
But when the shares stood at fifty-three pounds each, Mahony could restrain himself no longer; and, in spite of Ocock’s belief that another ten days would see a COUP, he parted with forty-five of the half hundred he held. Leaving the odd money with the lawyer for re-investment, he walked out of the office the possessor of two thousand pounds.
It was only a very ordinary late spring day; the season brought its like by the score: a pale azure sky, against which the distant hills looked purple; above these a narrow belt of cloud, touched, in its curves, to the same hue. But to Mahony it seemed as if such a perfect day had never dawned since he first set foot in Australia. His back was eased of its burden; and, like Christian on having passed the wall known as Salvation, he could have wept tears of joy. After all these years of pinching and sparing he was out of poverty’s grip. The suddenness of the thing was what staggered him. He might have drudged till his hair was grey; it was unlikely he would ever, at one stroke, have come into possession of a sum like this. — And that whole day he went about feeling a little more than human, and seeing people, places, things, through a kind of beatific mist. Now, thank God, he could stand on his own legs again; could relieve John of his bond, pay off the mortgage on the house, insure his life before it was too late. And, everything done, he would still have over a thousand pounds to his credit. A thousand pounds! No longer need he thankfully accept any and every call; or reckon sourly that, if the leakage on the roof was to be mended, he must go without a new surtout. Best of all, he could now begin in earnest to save.
First, though, he allowed himself two very special pleasures. He sent Polly a message on the electric telegraph to say that he would come down himself to fetch her home. In secret he planned a little trip to Schnapper Point. At the time of John’s wedding he had been unable to get free; this would be the first holiday he and Polly had ever had together.
The second thing he did was: to indulge the love of giving that was innate in him; and of giving in a somewhat lordly way. He enjoyed the broad grin that illumined Ellen’s face at his unlooked-for generosity; Jerry’s red stammered thanks for the gift of the cob the boy had long coveted. It did him good to put two ten-pound notes in an envelope and inscribe Ned’s name on it; he had never yet been able to do anything for these poor lads. He also, without waiting to consult Polly — fearing, indeed, that she might advise against it — sent off the money to Long Jim for the outward voyage, and a few pounds over. For there were superstitious depths in him; and, at this turn in his fortunes, it would surely be of ill omen to refuse the first appeal for help that reached him.
Polly was so much a part of himself that he thought of her last of all. But then it was with moist eyes. She, who had never complained, should of a surety not come short! And he dropped asleep that night to the happy refrain: “Now she shall have her piano, God bless her! . . . the best that money can buy.”
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:59