Having selected a number of minor points that would tell in their favour, Ocock dilated upon the libellous aspersion that had been cast on Mahony's good faith. "My experience has invariably been this, Mr. Mahony: people who suggest that kind of thing, and accuse others of it, are those who are accustomed to make use of such means themselves. In this case, there may have been no goods at all—the thing may prove to have been a put-up job from beginning to end."
But his hearer's start of surprise was too marked to be overlooked. "Well, let us take the existence of the goods for granted. But might they not, being partly of a perishable nature, have gone bad or otherwise got spoiled on the road, and not have been in a fit condition for you to receive at your end?"
This was credible; Mahony nodded his assent. He also added, gratuitously, that he had before now been obliged to reclaim on casks of mouldy mess-pork. At which Ocock ceased coddling his chin to point a straight forefinger at him, with a triumphant: "You see!"—But Purdy who, sick and tired of the discussion, had withdrawn to the window to watch the rain zig-zag in runlets down the dusty panes, and hiss and spatter on the sill; Purdy puckered his lips to a sly and soundless whistle.
The interview at an end, Ocock mentioned, in his frigidly urbane way, that he had recently been informed there was an excellent opening for a firm of solicitors in Ballarat: could Mr. Mahony, as a resident, confirm the report? Mahony regretted his ignorance, but spoke in praise of the Golden City and its assured future.—"This would be most welcome news to your father, sir. I can picture his satisfaction on hearing it."
—"Golly, Dick, that's no mopoke!" was Purdy's comment as they emerged into the rain-swept street. "A crafty devil, if ever I see'd one."
"Henry Ocock seems to me to be a singularly able man," replied Mahony drily. To his thinking, Purdy had cut a poor figure during the visit: he had said no intelligent word, but had lounged lumpishly in his chair—the very picture of the country man come up to the metropolis—and, growing tired of this, had gone like a restless child to thrum his fingers on the panes.
"Oh, you bet! He'll slither you through."
"What? Do you insinuate there's any need for slithering ... as you call it?" cried Mahony.
"Why, Dick, old man.... And as long as he gets you through, what does it matter?"
"It matters to me, sir!"
The rain, a tropical deluge, was over by the time they reached the hollow. The sun shone again, hot and sticky, and people were venturing forth from their shelters to wade through beds of mud, or to cross, on planks, the deep, swift rivers formed by the open drains. There were several such cloud-bursts in the course of the afternoon; and each time the refuse of the city was whirled past on the flood, to be left as an edging to the footpaths when the water went down.
Mahony spent the rest of the day in getting together a fresh load of goods. For, whether he lost or won his suit, the store had to be restocked without delay.
That evening towards eight o'clock the two men turned out of the Lowther Arcade. The night was cold, dark and wet; and they had wound comforters round their bare throats. They were on their way to the Mechanics' Hall, to hear a lecture on Mesmerism. Mahony had looked forward to this all through the sorry job of choosing soaps and candles. The subject piqued his curiosity. It was the one drop of mental stimulant he could hope to extract from his visit. The theatre was out of the question: if none of the actors happened to be drunk, a fair proportion of the audience was sure to be.
Part of his pleasure this evening was due to Purdy having agreed to accompany him. It was always a matter of regret to Mahony that, outside the hobnob of daily life, he and his friend had so few interests in common; that Purdy should rest content with the coarse diversions of the ordinary digger.
Then, from the black shadows of the Arcade, a woman's form detached itself, and a hand was laid on Purdy's arm.
"Shout us a drink, old pal!"
Mahony made a quick, repellent movement of the shoulder. But Purdy, some vagrom fancy quickened in him, either by the voice, which was not unrefined, or by the stealthiness of the approach, Purdy turned to look.
"Come, come, my boy. We've no time to lose."
Without raising her pleasant voice, the woman levelled a volley of abuse at Mahony, then muttered a word in Purdy's ear.
"Just half a jiff, Dick," said Purdy. "Or go ahead.—I'll make up on you."
For a quarter of an hour Mahony aired his heels in front of a public-house. Then he gave it up, and went on his way. But his pleasure was damped: the inconsiderateness with which Purdy could shake him off, always had a disconcerting effect on him. To face the matter squarely: the friendship between them did not mean as much to Purdy as to him; the sudden impulse that had made the boy relinquish a promising clerkship to emigrate in his wake—into this he had read more than it would hold.— And, as he picked his muddy steps, Mahony agreed with himself that the net result, for him, of Purdy's coming to the colony, had been to saddle him with a new responsibility. It was his lot for ever to be helping the lad out of tight places. Sometimes it made him feel unnecessarily bearish. For Purdy had the knack, common to sunny, improvident natures, of taking everything that was done for him for granted. His want of delicacy in this respect was distressing. Yet, in spite of it all, it was hard to bear him a grudge for long together. A well-meaning young beggar if ever there was one! That very day how faithfully he had stuck at his side, assisting at dull discussions and duller purchasings, without once obtruding his own concerns.—And here Mahony remembered their talk on the ride to town. Purdy had expressed the wish to settle down and take a wife. A poor friend that would be who did not back him up in this intention.
As he sidled into one of the front benches of a half-empty hall—the mesmerist, a corpse-like man in black, already surveyed its thinness from the platform with an air of pained surprise—Mahony decided that Purdy should have his chance. The heavy rains of the day, and the consequent probable flooding of the Ponds and the Marsh, would serve as an excuse for a change of route. He would go and have a look at Purdy's sweetheart; would ride back to the diggings by way of Geelong.
In a whitewashed parlour of "Beamish's Family Hotel" some few miles north of Geelong, three young women, in voluminous skirts and with their hair looped low over their ears, sat at work. Books lay open on the table before two of them; the third was making a bookmark. Two were fair, plump, rosy, and well over twenty; the third, pale-skinned and dark, was still a very young girl. She it was who stitched magenta hieroglyphics on a strip of perforated cardboard.
"Do lemme see, Poll," said the eldest of the trio, and laid down her pen. "You 'AVE bin quick about it, my dear."
Polly, the brunette, freed her needle of silk and twirled the bookmark by its ribbon ends. Spinning, the mystic characters united to form the words: "Kiss me quick."
Her companions tittered. "If ma didn't know for certain 'twas meant for your brother John, she'd never 'ave let you make it," said the second blonde, whose name was Jinny.
"Girls, what a lark it 'ud be to send it up to Purdy Smith, by Ned!" said the first speaker.
Polly blushed. "Fy, Tilly! That wouldn't be ladylike."
Tilly's big bosom rose and fell in a sigh. "What's a lark never is."
Jinny giggled, agreeably scandalized: "What things you do say, Till! Don't let ma 'ear you, that's all."
"Ma be blowed!—'Ow does this look now, Polly?" And across the wax-cloth Tilly pushed a copybook, in which she had laboriously inscribed a prim maxim the requisite number of times.
Polly laid down her work and knitted her brows over the page.
"Well ... it's better than the last one, Tilly," she said gently, averse to hurting her pupil's feelings. "But still not quite good enough. The f's, look, should be more like this." And taking a steel pen she made several long-tailed f's, in a tiny, pointed hand.
Tilly yielded an ungrudging admiration. "'Ow well you do it, Poll! But I HATE writing. If only ma weren't so set on it!"
"You'll never be able to write yourself to a certain person, 'oos name I won't mention, if you don't 'urry up and learn," said Jinny, looking sage.
"What's the odds! We've always got Poll to write for us," gave back Tilly, and lazily stretched out a large, plump hand to recover the copybook. "A certain person'll never know—or not till it's too late."
"Here, Polly dear," said Jinny, and held out a book. "I know it now."
Again Polly put down her embroidery. She took the book. "Plough!" said she.
"Plough?" echoed Jinny vaguely, and turned a pair of soft, cow-like brown eyes on the blowflies sitting sticky and sleepy round the walls of the room. "Wait a jiff ... lemme think! Plough? Oh, yes, I know. P-l...."
"P-l-o" prompted Polly, the speller coming to a full stop.
"P-l-o-w!" shot out Jinny, in triumph.
"Not QUITE right," said Polly. "It's g-h, Jinny: p-l-o-u-g-h."
"Oh, that's what I meant. I knew it right enough."
"Well, now, trough!"
"Trough?" repeated Jinny, in the same slow, vacant way.
"Trough? Wait, lemme think a minute. T-r-o...."
Polly's lips all but formed the "u," to prevent the "f" she felt impending. "I'm afraid you'll have to take it again, Jinny dear," she said reluctantly, as nothing further was forthcoming.
"Oh, no, Poll. T-r-o-" began Jinny with fresh vigour. But before she could add a fourth to the three letters, a heavy foot pounded down the passage, and a stout woman, out of breath, her cap-bands flying, came bustling in and slammed the door.
"Girls, girls, now whatever d'ye think? 'Ere's Purdy Smith come ridin' inter the yard, an' another gent with 'im. Scuttle along now, an' put them books away!—Tilda, yer net's 'alf 'angin' off—you don't want yer sweet-'eart to see you all untidy like that, do you?—'Elp 'em, Polly my dear, and be quick about it!—H'out with yer sewin', chicks!"
Sprung up from their seats the three girls darted to and fro. The telltale spelling and copy-books were flung into the drawer of the chiffonier, and the key was turned on them. Polly, her immodest sampler safely hidden at the bottom of her workbox, was the most composed of the three; and while locks were smoothed and collars adjusted in the adjoining bedroom, she remained behind to look out thimbles, needles and strips of plain sewing, and to lay them naturally about the table.
The blonde sisters reappeared, all aglow with excitement. Tilly, in particular, was in a sad flutter.
"Girls, I simply CAN'T face 'im in 'ere!" she declared. "It was 'ere, in this very room, that 'e first—you know what!"
"Nor can I," cried Jinny, catching the fever.
"Feel my 'eart, 'ow it beats," said her sister, pressing her hands, one over the other, to her full left breast.
"Mine's every bit as bad," averred Jinny.
"I believe I shall 'ave the palpitations and faint away, if I stop 'ere."
Polly was genuinely concerned. "I'll run and call mother back."
"No, I tell you what: let's 'ide!" cried Tilly, recovering.
Jinny wavered. "But will they find us?"
"Duffer! Of course. Ma'll give 'em the 'int.—Come on!"
Suiting the action to the word, and imitated by her sister, she scrambled over the window sill to the verandah. Polly found herself alone. Her conscientious scrupling: "But mother may be cross!" had passed unheeded. Now, she, too, fell into a flurry. She could not remain there, by herself, to meet two young men, one of whom was a stranger: steps and voices were already audible at the end of the passage. And so, since there was nothing else for it, she clambered after her friends—though with difficulty; for she was not very tall.
This was why, when Mrs. Beamish flourished open the door, exclaiming in a hearty tone: "An' 'ere you'll find 'em, gents—sittin' at their needles, busy as bees!" the most conspicuous object in the room was a very neat leg, clad in a white stocking and black prunella boot, which was just being drawn up over the sill. It flashed from sight; and the patter of running feet beat the floor of the verandah.
"Ha, ha, too late! The birds have flown," laughed Purdy, and smacked his thigh.
"Well, I declare, an' so they 'ave—the NAUGHTY creatures!" exclaimed Mrs. Beamish in mock dismay. "But trust you, Mr. Smith, for sayin' the right thing. Jus' exackly like birds they are—so shy an' scared-like. But I'll give you the 'int, gents. They'll not be far away. Jus' you show 'em two can play at that game.—Mr. S., you know the h'arbour!"
"Should say I do! Many's the time I've anchored there," cried Purdy with a guffaw. "Come, Dick!" And crossing to the window he straddled over the frame, and disappeared.
Reluctantly Mahony followed him.
From the verandah they went down into the vegetable-garden, where the drab and tangled growths that had outlived the summer were beaten flat by the recent rains. At the foot of the garden, behind a clump of gooseberry-bushes, stood an arbour formed of a yellow buddleia. No trace of a petticoat was visible, so thick was the leafage; but a loud whispering and tittering betrayed the fugitives.
At the apparition of the young men, who stooped to the low entrance, there was a cascade of shrieks.
"Oh, lor, 'OW you frightened me! 'Owever did you know we were 'ere?"
"You wicked fellow! Get away, will you! I 'ate the very sight of you!"—this from Tilly, as Purdy, his hands on her hips, gave her a smacking kiss.
The other girls feared a like greeting; there were more squeaks and squeals, and some ineffectual dives for the doorway. Purdy spread out his arms. "Hi, look out, stop 'em, Dick! Now then, man, here's your chance!"
Mahony stood blinking; it was dusk inside, after the dazzle of the sun. At this reminder of the foolish bet he had taken, he hurriedly seized the young woman who was next him, and embraced her. It chanced to be Jinny. She screamed, and made a feint of feeling mortally outraged. Mahony had to dodge a box on the ears.
But Purdy burst into a horselaugh, and held his sides. Without knowing why, Tilly joined in, and Jinny, too, was infected. When Purdy could speak, he blurted out: "Dick, you fathead!—you jackass!—you've mugged the wrong one."
At this clownish mirth, Mahony felt the blood boil up over ears and temples. For an instant he stood irresolute. Did he admit the blunder, his victim would be hurt. Did he deny it, he would save his own face at the expense of the other young woman's feelings. So, though he could have throttled Purdy he put a bold front on the matter.
"CARPE DIEM is my motto, my boy! I intend to make both young ladies pay toll."
His words were the signal for a fresh scream and flutter: the third young person had escaped, and was flying down the path. This called for chase and capture. She was not very agile but she knew the ground, which, outside the garden, was rocky and uneven. For a time, she had Mahony at vantage; his heart was not in the game: in cutting undignified capers among the gooseberry-bushes he felt as foolish as a performing dog. Then, however, she caught her toe in her dress and stumbled. He could not disregard the opportunity; he advanced upon her.
But two beseeching hands fended him off. "No ... no. Please ... oh, PLEASE, don't!"
This was no catchpenny coquetry; it was a genuine dread of undue familiarity. A kindred trait in Mahony's own nature rose to meet it.
"Certainly not, if it is disagreeable to you. Shall we shake hands instead?"
Two of the blackest eyes he had ever seen were raised to his, and a flushed face dimpled. They shook hands, and he offered his arm.
Halfway to the arbour, they met the others coming to find them. The girls bore diminutive parasols; and Purdy, in rollicking spirits, Tilly on one arm, Jinny on the other, held Polly's above his head. On the appearance of the laggards, Jinny, who had put her own interpretation on the misplaced kiss, prepared to free her arm; but Purdy, winking at his friend, squeezed it to his side and held her prisoner.
Tilly buzzed a word in his ear.
"Yes, by thunder!" he ejaculated; and letting go of his companions, he spun round like a ballet-dancer. "Ladies! Let me introduce to you my friend, Dr. Richard Townshend-Mahony, F.R.C.S., M.D., Edinburgh, at present proprietor of the 'Diggers' Emporium,' Dead Dog Hill, Ballarat. —Dick, my hearty, Miss Tilly Beamish, world-famed for her sauce; Miss Jinny, renowned for her skill in casting the eyes of sheep; and, last but not least, pretty little Polly Perkins, alias Miss Polly Turnham, whose good deeds put those of Dorcas to the blush."
The Misses Beamish went into fits of laughter, and Tilly hit Purdy over the back with her parasol.
But the string of letters had puzzled them, roused their curiosity.
"What'n earth do they mean?—Gracious! So clever! It makes me feel quite queer."
"Y'ought to 'ave told us before 'and, Purd, so's we could 'ave studied up."
However, a walk to a cave was under discussion, and Purdy urged them on. "Phoebus is on the wane, girls. And it's going to be damn cold to-night."
Once more with the young person called Polly as companion, Mahony followed after. He walked in silence, listening to the rattle of the three in front. At best he was but a poor hand at the kind of repartee demanded of their swains by these young women; and to-day his slender talent failed him altogether, crushed by the general tone of vulgar levity. Looking over at the horizon, which swam in a kind of gold-dust haze below the sinking sun, he smiled thinly to himself at Purdy's ideas of wiving.
Reminded he was not alone by feeling the hand on his arm tremble, he glanced down at his companion; and his eye was arrested by a neatly parted head, of the glossiest black imaginable.
He pulled himself together. "Your cousins are excellent walkers."
"Oh, yes, very. But they are not my cousins."
Mahony pricked up his ears. "But you live here?"
"Yes. I help moth ... Mrs. Beamish in the house."
But as if, with this, she had said too much, she grew tongue-tied again; and there was nothing more to be made of her. Taking pity on her timidity, Mahony tried to put her at ease by talking about himself. He described his life on the diggings and the straits to which he was at times reduced: the buttons affixed to his clothing by means of gingerbeer-bottle wire; his periodic onslaughts on sock-darning; the celebrated pudding it had taken him over four hours to make. And Polly, listening to him, forgot her desire to run away. Instead, she could not help laughing at the tales of his masculine shiftlessness. But as soon as they came in view of the others, Tilly and Purdy sitting under one parasol on a rock by the cave, Jinny standing and looking out rather aggressively after the loiterers, she withdrew her arm.
"Moth ... Mrs. Beamish will need me to help her with tea. And ... and WOULD you please walk back with Jinny?"
Before he could reply, she had turned and was hurrying away.
They got home from the cave at sundown, he with the ripe Jinny hanging a dead weight on his arm, to find tea spread in the private parlour. The table was all but invisible under its load; and their hostess looked as though she had been parboiled on her own kitchen fire. She sat and fanned herself with a sheet of newspaper while, time and again, undaunted by refusals, she pressed the good things upon her guests. There were juicy beefsteaks piled high with rings of onion, and a barracoota, and a cold leg of mutton. There were apple-pies and jam-tarts, a dish of curds-and-whey and a jug of custard. Butter and bread were fresh and new; scones and cakes had just left the oven; and the great cups of tea were tempered by pure, thick cream.
To the two men who came from diggers' fare: cold chop for breakfast, cold chop for dinner and cold chop for tea: the meal was little short of a banquet; and few words were spoken in its course. But the moment arrived when they could eat no more, and when even Mrs. Beamish ceased to urge them. Pipes and pouches were produced; Polly and Jinny rose to collect the plates, Tilly and her beau to sit on the edge of the verandah: they could be seen in silhouette against the rising moon, Tilly's head drooping to Purdy's shoulder.
Mrs. Beamish looked from them to Mahony with a knowing smile, and whispered behind her hand: "I do wish those two 'ud 'urry up an' make up their minds, that I do! I'd like to see my Tilda settled. No offence meant to young Smith. 'E's the best o' good company. But sometimes ... well, I cud jus' knock their 'eads together when they sit so close, an' say: come, give over yer spoonin' an' get to business! Either you want one another or you don't.—I seen you watchin' our Polly, Mr. Mahony"—she made Mahony wince by stressing the second syllable of his name. "Bless you, no—no relation whatsoever. She just 'elps a bit in the 'ouse, an' is company for the girls. We tuck 'er in a year ago—'er own relations 'ad played 'er a dirty trick. Mustn't let 'er catch me sayin' so, though; she won't 'ear a word against 'em, and that's as it should be."
Looking round, and finding Polly absent from the room, she went on to tell Mahony how Polly's eldest brother, a ten years' resident in Melbourne, had sent to England for the girl on her leaving school, to come out and assist in keeping his house. And how an elder sister, who was governessing in Sydney, had chosen just this moment to throw up her post and return to quarter herself upon the brother.
"An' so when Polly gets 'ere—a little bit of a thing in short frocks, in charge of the capt'n—there was no room for 'er, an' she 'ad to look about 'er for somethin' else to do. We tuck 'er in, an', I will say, I've never regretted it. Indeed I don't know now, 'ow we ever got on without 'er.—Yes, it's you I'm talkin' about, miss, singin' yer praises, an' you needn't get as red as if you'd bin up to mischief! Pa'll say as much for you, too."
"That I will!" said Mr. Beamish, opening his mouth for the first time except to put food in it. "That I will," and he patted Polly's hand. "The man as gits Polly'll git a treasure."
Polly blushed, after the helpless, touching fashion of very young creatures: the blood stained her cheeks, mounted to her forehead, spread in a warm wave over neck and ears. To spare her, Mahony turned his head and looked out of the window. He would have liked to say: Run away, child, run away, and don't let them see your confusion. Polly, however, went conscientiously about her task, and only left the room when she had picked up her full complement of plates.—But she did not appear again that night.
Deserted even by Mrs. Beamish, the two men pushed back their chairs from the table and drew tranquilly at their pipes.
The innkeeper proved an odd, misty sort of fellow, exceedingly backward at declaring himself; it was as though each of his heavy words had to be fetched from a distance. "No doubt about it, it's the wife that wears the breeches," was Mahony's inward comment. And as one after another of his well-meant remarks fell flat: "Become almost a deaf-mute, it would seem, under the eternal female clacking."
But for each mortal there exists at least one theme to fire him. In the case of Beamish this turned out to be the Land Question. Before the gold discovery he had been a bush shepherd, he told Mahony, and, if he had called the tune, he would have lived and died one. But the wife had had ambitions, the children were growing up, and every one knew what it was when women got a maggot in their heads. There had been no peace for him till he had chucked his twelve-year-old job and joined the rush to Mount Alexander. But at heart he had remained a bushman; and he was now all on the side of the squatters in their tussle with the Crown. He knew a bit, he'd make bold to say, about the acreage needed in certain districts per head of sheep; he could tell a tale of the risks and mischances squatting involved: "If t'aint fire it's flood, an' if the water passes you by it's the scab or the rot." To his thinking, the government's attempt to restrict the areas of sheep-runs, and to give effect to the "fourteen-year-clause" which limited the tenure, were acts of folly. The gold supply would give out as suddenly as it had begun; but sheep would graze there till the crack of doom—the land was fit for nothing else.
Mahony thought this point of view lopsided. No new country could hope to develop and prosper without a steady influx of the right kind of population and this the colony would never have, so long as the authorities, by refusing to sell them land, made it impossible for immigrants to settle there. Why, America was but three thousand miles distant from the old country, compared with Australia's thirteen thousand, and in America land was to be had in plenty at five shillings per acre. As to Mr. Beamish's idea of the gold giving out, the geological formation of the goldfields rendered that improbable. He sympathised with the squatters, who naturally enough believed their rights to the land inalienable; but a government worthy of the name must legislate with an eye to the future, not for the present alone.
Their talk was broken by long gaps. In these, the resonant voice of Mrs. Beamish could be heard rebuking and directing her two handmaidens.
"Now then, Jinny, look alive, an' don't ack like a dyin' duck in a thunderstorm, or you'll never get back to do YOUR bit o' spoonin'!— Save them bones, Polly. Never waste an atom, my chuck—remember that, when you've got an 'ouse of your own! No, girls, I always says, through their stomachs, that's the shortcut to their 'earts. The rest's on'y fal-de-lal-ing."—On the verandah, in face of the vasty, star-spangled night, Tilly's head had found its resting-place, and an arm lay round her waist.
"I shall make 'im cut off 'is beard first thing," said Jinny that night: she was sitting half-undressed on the side of a big bed, which the three girls shared with one another.
"Um! just you wait and see if it's as easy as you think," retorted Tilly from her pillow. Again Purdy had let slip a golden chance to put the decisive question; and Tilly's temper was short in consequence.
"Mrs. Dr. Mahony ... though I do wonder 'ow 'e ever keeps people from saying Ma-HON-y," said Jinny dreamily. She, too, had spent some time in star-gazing, and believed she had ground for hope.
"Just listen to 'er, will you!" said Tilly angrily. "Upon my word, Jinny Beamish, if one didn't know you 'ad the 'abit of marrying yourself off to every fresh cove you meet, one 'ud say you was downright bold!"
"YOU needn't talk! Every one can see you're as mad as can be because you can't bring your old dot-and-go-one to the scratch."
"Oh, hush, Jinny" said Polly, grieved at this thrust into Tilly's open wound.
"Well, it's true.—Oh, look 'ere now, there's not a drop o' water in this blessed jug again. 'Oo's week is it to fill it? Tilly B., it's yours!"
"Serves you right. You can fetch it yourself."
"Think I see myself!"
Polly intervened. "I'll go for it, Jinny."
"What a little duck you are, Poll! But you shan't go alone. I'll carry the candle."
Tying on a petticoat over her bedgown, Polly took the ewer, and with Jinny as torch-bearer set forth. There was still some noise in the public part of the house, beside the bar; but the passage was bare and quiet. The girls crept mousily past the room occupied by the two young men, and after several false alarms and suppressed chirps reached the back door, and filled the jug at the tap of the galvanised-iron tank.
The return journey was not so successful. Just as they got level with the visitors' room, they heard feet crossing the floor. Polly started; the water splashed over the neck of the jug, and fell with a loud plop. At this Jinny lost her head and ran off with the candle. Polly, in a panic of fright, dived into the pantry with her burden, and crouched down behind a tub of fermenting gingerbeer.—And sure enough, a minute after, the door of the room opposite was flung open and a pair of jackboots landed in the passage.
Nor was this the worst: the door was not shut again but remained ajar. Through the chink, Polly, shrunk to her smallest—what if one of them should feel hungry, and come into the pantry and discover her?—Polly heard Purdy say with appalling loudness: "Oh, go on, old man-don't jaw so!" He then seemed to plunge his head in the basin, for it was with a choke and a splutter that he next inquired: "And what did you think of the little 'un? Wasn't I right?"
There was the chink of coins handled, and the other voice answered: "Here's what I think. Take your money, my boy, and be done with it!"
"Dick!—Great Snakes! Why, damn it all, man, you don't mean to tell me...."
"And understand, sir, in future, that I do not make bets where a lady is concerned."
"Oh, I know—only on the Tilly-Jinny-sort. And yet good Lord, Dick!"—the rest was drowned in a bawl of laughter.
Under cover of it Polly took to her heels and fled, regardless of the open door, or the padding of her bare feet on the boards.
Without replying to the astonished Jinny's query in respect of the water, she climbed over Tilly to her place beside the wall, and shutting her eyes very tight, drew the sheet over her face: it felt as though it would never be cool again.—Hence, Jinny, agreeably wakeful, was forced to keep her thoughts to herself; for if you lie between two people, one of whom is in a bad temper, and the other fast asleep, you might just as well be alone in bed.
Next morning Polly alleged a headache and did not appear at breakfast. Only Jinny and Tilly stood on the verandah of romantic memories, and ruefully waved their handkerchiefs, keeping it up till even the forms of horses were blurred in the distance.
His tent-home had never seemed so comfortless. He ended his solitary ride late at night and wet to the skin; his horse had cast a shoe far from any smithy. Long Jim alone came to the door to greet him. The shopman, on whose doltish honesty Mahony would have staked his head, had profited by his absence to empty the cash-box and go off on the spree.— Even one of the cats had met its fate in an old shaft, where its corpse still swam.
The following day, as a result of exposure and hard riding, Mahony was attacked by dysentery; and before he had recovered, the goods arrived from Melbourne. They had to be unloaded, at some distance from the store, conveyed there, got under cover, checked off and arranged. This was carried out in sheets of cold rain, which soaked the canvas walls and made it doubly hard to get about the clay tracks that served as streets. As if this were not enough, the river in front of the house rose—rose, and in two twos was over its banks—and he and Long Jim spent a night in their clothes, helping neighbours less fortunately placed to move their belongings into safety.
The lion's share of this work fell on him. Long Jim still carried his arm in a sling, and was good for nothing but to guard the store and summon Mahony on the appearance of customers. Since his accident, too, the fellow had suffered from frequent fits of colic or cramp, and was for ever slipping off to the township to find the spirits in which his employer refused to deal. For the unloading and warehousing of the goods, it was true, old Ocock had loaned his sons; but the strict watch Mahony felt bound to keep over this pretty pair far outweighed what their help was worth to him.
Now it was Sunday evening, and for the first time for more than a week he could call his soul his own again. He stood at the door and watched those of his neighbours who were not Roman Catholics making for church and chapel, to which half a dozen tinkly bells invited them. The weather had finally cleared up, and a goodly number of people waded past him through the mire. Among them, in seemly Sabbath dress, went Ocock, with his two black sheep at heel. The old man was a rigid Methodist, and at a recent prayer-meeting had been moved to bear public witness to his salvation. This was no doubt one reason why the young scapegrace Tom's almost simultaneous misconduct had been so bitter a pill for him to swallow: while, through God's mercy, he was become an exemplar to the weaker brethren, a son of his made his name to stink in the nostrils of the reputable community. Mahony liked to believe that there was good in everybody, and thought the intolerant harshness which the boy was subjected would defeat its end. Yet it was open to question if clemency would have answered better. "Bad eggs, the brace of them!" had been his own verdict, after a week's trial of the lads. One would not, the other apparently could not work. Johnny, the elder, was dull and liverish from intemperance; and the round-faced adolescent, the news of whose fatherhood had raced the wind, was so sheep-faced, so craven, in the presence of his elders, that he could not say bo to a battledore. There was something unnatural about this fierce timidity—and the doctor in Mahony caught a quick glimpse of the probable reverse of the picture.
But it was cold, in face of all this rain-soaked clay; cold blue-grey clouds drove across a washed-out sky; and he still felt unwell. Returning to his living-room where a small American stove was burning, he prepared for a quiet evening. In a corner by the fire stood an old packing-case. He lifted the lid and thrust his hand in: it was here he kept his books. He needed no light to see by; he knew each volume by the feel. And after fumbling for a little among the tumbled contents, he drew forth a work on natural science and sat down to read. But he did not get far; his brain was tired, intractable. Lighting his pipe, he tilted back his chair, laid the VESTIGES face downwards, and put his feet on the table.
How differently bashfulness impressed one in the case of the weaker sex! There, it was altogether pleasing. Young Ocock's gaucherie had recalled the little maid Polly's ingenuous confusion, at finding herself the subject of conversation. He had not once consciously thought of Polly since his return. Now, when he did so, he found to his surprise that she had made herself quite a warm little nest in his memory. Looked back on, she stood out in high relief against her somewhat graceless surroundings. Small doubt she was both maidenly and refined. He also remembered with a sensible pleasure her brisk service, her consideration for others. What a boon it would have been, during the past week, to have a busy, willing little woman at work, with him and for him, behind the screen! As it was, for want of a helping hand the place was like a pigsty. He had had neither time nor energy to clean up. The marks of hobnailed boots patterned the floor; loose mud, and crumbs from meals, had been swept into corners or under the stretcher-bed; while commodities that had overflowed the shop added to the disorder. Good Lord, no! ... no place this for a woman.
He rose and moved restlessly about, turning things over with his foot: these old papers should be burnt, and that heap of straw-packing; those empty sardine and coffee-tins be thrown into the refuse-pit. Scrubbed and clean, it was by no means an uncomfortable room; and the stove drew well. He was proud of his stove; many houses had not even a chimney. He stood and stared at it; but his thoughts were elsewhere: he found himself trying to call to mind Polly's face. Except for a pair of big black eyes—magnificent eyes they seemed to him in retrospect—he had carried away with him nothing of her outward appearance. Yes, stay!—her hair: her hair was so glossy that, when the sun caught it, high lights came out on it—so much he remembered. From this he fell to wondering whether her brain kept pace with her nimble hands and ways. Was she stupid or clever? He could not tolerate stupidity. And Polly had given him no chance to judge her; had hardly opened her lips before him. What a timid little thing she was to be sure! He should have made it his business to draw her out, by being kind and encouraging. Instead of which he had acted towards her, he felt convinced, like an ill-mannered boor.
He did not know how it was, but he couldn't detach his thoughts from Polly this evening: to their accompaniment he paced up and down. All of a sudden he stood still, and gave a short, hearty laugh. He had just seen, in a kind of phantom picture, the feet of the sisters Beamish as they sat on the verandah edge: both young women wore flat sandal-shoes. And so that neatest of neat ankles had been little Polly's property! For his life he loved a well-turned ankle in a woman.
A minute later he sat down at the table again. An idea had occurred to him: he would write Polly a letter—a letter that called for acknowledgment—and form an opinion of the girl from her reply. Taking a sheet of thin blue paper and a magnum bonum pen he wrote:
DEAR MISS TURNHAM,
I WONDER IF I MIGHT ASK YOU TO DO ME A FAVOUR? ON GETTING BACK TO BALLARAT, I FIND THAT THE RAIN HAS SPOILT MY STORE FLAG. WOULD YOU BE SO KIND AS TO MAKE ME A NEW ONE? I HAVE NO LADY FRIENDS HERE TO APPLY TO FOR HELP, AND I AM SURE YOU ARE CLEVER WITH YOUR NEEDLE. IF YOU CONSENT, I WILL SEND YOU THE OLD FLAG AS A PATTERN, AND STUFF FOR THE NEW ONE. MY KIND REGARDS TO ALL AT THE HOTEL.
P.S. I HAVE NOT FORGOTTEN OUR PLEASANT WALK TO THE CAVE.
He went out to the post with it himself. In one hand he carried the letter, in the other the candle-end stuck in a bottle that was known as a "Ballarat-lantern" for it was a pitchdark night.
Trade was slack; in consequence he found the four days that had to pass before he could hope for an answer exceptionally long. After their lapse, he twice spent an hour at the Post Office, in a fruitless attempt to get near the little window. On returning from the second of these absences, he found the letter waiting for him; it had been delivered by hand.
So far good: Polly had risen to his fly! He broke the seal.
I shall be happy to help you with your new flag if I am able. Will you kindly send the old one and the stuff down by my brother, who is coming to see me on Saturday. He is working at Rotten Gully, and his name is Ned. I do not know if I sew well enough to please you, but I will do my best.
Mahony read, smiled and laid the letter down—only to pick it up again. It pleased him, did this prim little note: there was just the right shade of formal reserve about it. Then he began to study particulars: grammar and spelling were correct; the penmanship was in the Italian style, minute, yet flowing, the letters dowered with generous loops and tails. But surely he had seen this writing before? By Jupiter, yes! This was the hand of the letter Purdy had shown him on the road to Melbourne. The little puss! So she not only wrote her own letters, but those of her friends as well. In that case she was certainly not stupid for she was much the youngest of the three.
To-day was Thursday. Summoning Long Jim from his seat behind the counter, Mahony dispatched him to Rotten Gully, with an injunction not to show himself till he had found a digger of the name of Turnham. And having watched Jim set out, at a snail's pace and murmuring to himself, Mahony went into the store, and measured and cut off material for the new flag, from two different coloured rolls of stuff.
It was ten o'clock that night before Polly's brother presented himself. Mahony met him at the door and drew him in: the stove crackled, the room was swept and garnished—he flattered himself that the report on his habitat would be a favourable one. Ned's appearance gave him a pleasant shock: it was just as if Polly herself, translated into male terms, stood before him. No need, now, to cudgel his brains for her image! In looking at Ned, he looked again at Polly. The wide-awake off, the same fine, soft, black hair came to light—here, worn rather long and curly—the same glittering black eyes, ivory-white skin, short, straight nose; and, as he gazed, an offshoot of Mahony's consciousness wondered from what quarter this middle-class English family fetched its dark, un-English strain.
In the beginning he exerted himself to set the lad at ease. He soon saw, however, that he might spare his pains. Though clearly not much more than eighteen years old, Ned Turnharn had the aplomb and assurance of double that age. Lolling back in the single armchair the room boasted, he more than once stretched out his hand and helped himself from the sherry bottle Mahony had placed on the table. And the disparity in their ages notwithstanding, there was no trace of deference in his manner. Or the sole hint of it was: he sometimes smothered a profane word, or apologised, with a winning smile, for an oath that had slipped out unawares. Mahony could not accustom him self to the foul language that formed the diggers' idiom. Here, in the case of Polly's brother, he sought to overlook the offence, or to lay the blame for it on other shoulders: at his age, and alone, the boy should never have been plunged into this Gehenna.
Ned talked mainly of himself and his doings. But other facts also transpired, of greater interest to his hearer. Thus Mahony learned that, out of a family of nine, four had found their way to the colony, and a fifth was soon to follow—a mere child this, on the under side of fifteen. He gathered, too, that the eldest brother, John by name, was regarded as a kind of Napoleon by the younger fry. At thirty, this John was a partner in the largest wholesale dry-goods' warehouse in Melbourne. He had also married money, and intended in due course to stand for the Legislative Council. Behind Ned's windy bragging Mahony thought he discerned tokens of a fond, brotherly pride. If this were so, the affair had its pathetic side; for, from what the boy said, it was evident that the successful man of business held his relatives at arm's length. And as Ned talked on, Mahony conceived John to himself as a kind of electro-magnet, which, once it had drawn these lesser creatures after it, switched off the current and left them to their own devices. Ned, young as he was, had tried his hand at many trades. At present he was working as a hired digger; but this, only till he could strike a softer job. Digging was not for him, thank you; what you earned at it hardly repaid you for the sweat you dripped. His every second word, indeed, was of how he could amass most money with the minimum of bodily exertion.
This calculating, unyouthful outlook was repugnant to Mahony, and for all his goodwill, the longer he listened to Ned, the cooler he felt himself grow. Another disagreeable impression was left by the grudging, if-nothing-better-turns-up fashion, in which Ned accepted an impulsive offer on his part to take him into the store. It was made on the spur of the moment, and Mahony had qualms about it while his words were still warm on the air, realizing that the overture was aimed, not at Ned in person, but at Ned as Polly's brother. But his intuition did not reconcile him to Ned's luke-warmness; he would have preferred a straight refusal. The best trait he could discover in the lad was his affection for his sister. This seemed genuine: he was going to see her again—getting a lift halfway, tramping the other twenty odd miles—at the end of the week. Perhaps though, in the case of such a young opportunist, the thought of Mrs. Beamish's lavish board played no small part; for Ned had a rather lean, underfed look. But this only occurred to Mahony afterwards. Then, his chief vexation was with himself: it would have been kinder to set a dish of solid food before the boy, in place of the naked sherry-bottle. But as usual, his hospitable leanings came too late.
One thing more. As he lighted Ned and his bundle of stuff through the shop, he was impelled to slip a coin into the boy's hand, with a murmured apology for the trouble he had put him to. And a something, the merest nuance in Ned's manner of receiving and pocketing the money, flashed the uncomfortable suspicion through the giver's mind that it had been looked for, expected. And this was the most unpleasant touch of all.
But, bless his soul! did not most large families include at least one poorish specimen?—he had got thus far, by the time he came to wind up his watch for the night. And next day he felt sure he had judged Ned over-harshly. His first impressions of people—he had had occasion to deplore the fact before now—were apt to be either dead white or black as ink; the web of his mind took on no half tints. The boy had not betrayed any actual vices; and time might be trusted to knock the bluster out of him. With this reflection Mahony dismissed Ned from his mind. He had more important things to think of, chief among which was his own state with regard to Ned's sister. And during the fortnight that followed he went about making believe to weigh this matter, to view it from every coign; for it did not suit him, even in secret, to confess to the vehemence with which, when he much desired a thing, his temperament knocked flat the hurdles of reason. The truth was, his mind was made up—and had been, all along. At the earliest possible opportunity, he was going to ask Polly to be his wife.
Doubts beset him of course. How could he suppose that a girl who knew nothing of him, who had barely seen him, would either want or consent to marry him? And even if—for "if's" were cheap—she did say yes, would it be fair of him to take her out of a comfortable home, away from friends—such as they were!—of her own sex, to land her in these crude surroundings, where he did not know a decent woman to bear her company? Yet there was something to be said for him, too. He was very lonely. Now that Purdy had gone he was reduced, for society, to the Long Jims and Ococks of the place. What would he not give, once more to have a refined companion at his side? Certainly marriage might postpone the day on which he hoped to shake the dust of Australia off his feet. Life A DEUX would mean a larger outlay; saving not prove so easy. Still it could be done; and he would gladly submit to the delay if, by doing so, he could get Polly. Besides, if this new happiness came to him, it would help him to see the years he had spent in the colony in a truer and juster light. And then, when the hour of departure did strike, what a joy to have a wife to carry with one—a Polly to rescue, to restore to civilisation!
He had to remind himself more than once, during this fortnight, that she would be able to devote only a fraction of her day to flagmaking. But he was at the end of his tether by the time a parcel and a letter were left for him at the store—again by hand: little Polly had plainly no sixpences to spare. The needlework as perfect, of course; he hardly glanced at it, even when he had opened and read the letter. This was of the same decorous nature as the first. Polly returned a piece of stuff that had remained over. He had really sent material enough for two flags, she wrote; but she had not wished to keep him waiting so long. And then, in a postscript:
MR. SMITH WAS HERE LAST SUNDAY. I AM TO SAY MRS. BEAMISH WOULD BE VERY PLEASED IF YOU ALSO WOULD CALL AGAIN TO SEE US.
He ran the flag up to the top of his forty-foot staff and wrote:—
WHAT I WANT TO KNOW, MISS POLLY, IS, WOULD YOU BE GLAD TO SEE ME?
But Polly was not to be drawn.
WE SHOULD ALL BE VERY PLEASED.
Some days previously Mahony had addressed a question to, Henry Ocock. With this third letter from Polly, he held the lawyer's answer in his hand. It was unsatisfactory.
YOURSELF ATS. BOLLIVER. WE THINK THAT ACTION WILL BE SET DOWN FOR TRIAL IN ABOUT SIX WEEKS' TIME. IN THESE CIRCUMSTANCES WE DO NOT THINK ANY USEFUL PURPOSE WILL BE SERVED BY YOU CALLING TO SEE US UNTIL THIS IS DONE. WE SHOULD BE GLAD IF YOU WOULD CALL AFTER THE ACTION IS ENTERED.
Six weeks' time? The man might as well have said a year. And meanwhile Purdy was stealing a march on him, was paying clandestine visits to Geelong. Was it conceivable that anyone in his five senses could prefer Tilly to Polly? It was not. In the clutch of a sudden fear Mahony went to Bath's and ordered a horse for the following morning.
This time he left his store in charge of a young consumptive, whose plight had touched his heart: the poor fellow was stranded on Ballarat without a farthing, having proved, like many another of his physique, quite unfit for work on the diggings. A strict Baptist this Hempel, and one who believed hell-fire would be his portion if he so much as guessed at the "plant" of his employer's cash-box. He also pledged his word to bear and forbear with Long Jim. The latter saw himself superseded with an extreme bad grace, and was in no hurry to find a new job.
Mahony's nag was in good condition, and he covered the distance in a trifle over six hours.
He had evidently hit on the family washing-day. The big boiler in the yard belched clouds of steam; the female inmates of the Hotel were gathered in the out-house: he saw them through the door as he rode in at the gate. All three girls stood before tubs, their sleeves rolled up, their arms in the lather. At his apparition there was a characteristic chorus of cheeps and shrills and the door was banged to. Mrs. Beamish alone came out to greet him. She was moist and blown, and smelt of soap.
Not in a mood to mince matters, he announced straightway the object of his visit. He was prepared for some expression of surprise on the part of the good woman; but the blend of sheep-faced amazement and uncivil incredulity to which she subjected him made him hot and angry; and he vouchsafed no further word of explanation.
Mrs. Beamish presently so far recovered as to be able to finish wiping the suds from her fat red arms.
Thereafter, she gave way to a very feminine weakness.
"Well, and now I come to think of it, I'm blessed if I didn't suspeck somethin' of it, right from the first! Why, didn't I say to Beamish, with me own lips, 'ow you couldn't 'ardly take your eyes off 'er? Well, well, I'm sure I wish you every 'appiness—though 'ow we're h'ever goin' to get on without Polly, I reelly don't know. Don't I wish it 'ad bin one o' my two as 'ad tuck your fancy—that's all! Between you an' me, I don't believe a blessed thing's goin' to come of all young Smith's danglin' round. An' Polly's still a bit young—only just turned sixteen. Not as she's any the worse o' that though; you'll get 'er h'all the easier into your ways. An' now I mus' look smart, an' get you a bite o' somethin' after your ride."
In vain did Mahony assure her that he had lunched on the road. He did not know Mrs. Beamish. He was forced not only to sit down to the meal she spread, but also, under her argus eye, to eat of it.
When after a considerable delay Polly at length appeared, she had removed all traces of the tub. The hand was cold that he took in his, as he asked her if she would walk with him to the cave.
This time, she trembled openly. Like a lamb led to the slaughter, he thought, looking down at her with tender eyes. Small doubt that vulgar creature within-doors had betrayed him to Polly, and exaggerated the ordeal that lay before her. When once she was his wife he would not consent to her remaining intimate with people of the Beamishes' kidney: what a joy to get her out of their clutches! Nor should she spoil her pretty shape by stooping over a wash-tub.
In his annoyance he forgot to moderate his pace. Polly had to trip many small steps to keep up with him. When they reached the entrance to the cave, she was flushed and out of breath.
Mahony stood and looked down at her. How young she was ... how young and innocent! Every feature of her dear little face still waited, as it were, for the strokes of time's chisel. It should be the care of his life that none but the happiest lines were graved upon its precious surface.
"Polly," he said, fresh from his scrutiny. "Polly, I'm not going to beat about the bush with you. I think you know I came here to-day only to see you."
Polly's head drooped further forward; now, the rim of her bonnet hid her face.
"You aren't afraid of me, are you, Polly?"
Oh, no, she was not afraid.
"Nor have you forgotten me?"
Polly choked a little, in her attempt to answer. She could not tell him that she had carried his letters about with her by day, and slept with them under her pillow; that she knew every word in them by heart, and had copied and practised the bold flourish of the Dickens-like signature; that she had never let his name cross her lips; that she thought him the kindest, handsomest, cleverest man in the world, and would willingly have humbled herself to the dust before him: all this boiled and bubbled in her, as she brought forth her poor little "no."
"Indeed, I hope not," went on Mahony. "Because, Polly, I've come to ask you if you will be my wife."
Rocks, trees, hills, suddenly grown tipsy, went see-sawing round Polly, when she heard these words said. She shut her eyes, and hid her face in her hands. Such happiness seemed improbable—was not to be grasped. "Me? ... your wife?" she stammered through her fingers.
"Yes, Polly. Do you think you could learn to care for me a little, my dear? No, don't be in a hurry to answer. Take your own time."
But she needed none. With what she felt to be a most unmaidenly eagerness, yet could not subdue, she blurted out: "I know I could. I ... I do."
"Thank God!" said Mahony. "Thank God for that!"
He let his arms fall to his sides; he found he had been holding them stiffly out from him. He sat down. "And now take away your hands, Polly, and let me see your face. Don't be ashamed of showing me what you feel. This is a sacred moment for us. We are promising to take each other, you know, for richer for poorer, for better for worse—as the good old words have it. And I must warn you, my dear, you are not marrying a rich man. I live in a poor, rough place, and have only a poor home to offer you. Oh, I have had many scruples about asking you to leave your friends to come and share it with me, Polly my love!"
"I'm not afraid. I am strong. I can work."
"And I shall take every care of you. Please God, you will never regret your choice."
They were within sight of the house where they sat; and Mahony imagined rude, curious eyes. So he did not kiss her. Instead, he drew her arm though his, and together they paced up and down the path they had come by, while he laid his plans before her, and confessed to the dreams he had dreamt of their wedded life. It was a radiant afternoon in the distance the sea lay deep blue, with turquoise shallows; a great white bird of a ship, her canvas spread to the breeze, was making for ... why, to-day he did not care whether for port or for "home"; the sun went down in a blaze behind a bank of emerald green. And little Polly agreed with everything he said—was all one lovely glow of acquiescence. He thought no happier mortal than himself trod the earth.
Mahony remained at the Hotel till the following afternoon, then walked to Geelong and took the steam-packet to Melbourne. The object of his journey was to ask Mr. John Turnham's formal sanction to his marriage. Polly accompanied him a little way on his walk. And whenever he looked back he saw her standing fluttering her handkerchief—a small, solitary figure on the bare, red road.
He parted from her with a sense of leaving his most precious possession behind, so close had words made the tie. On the other hand, he was not sorry to be out of range for a while of the Beamish family's banter. This had set in, the evening before, as soon as he and Polly returned to the house—pacing the deck of the little steamer, he writhed anew at the remembrance. Jokes at their expense had been cracked all through supper: his want of appetite, for instance, was the subject of a dozen crude insinuations; and this, though everyone present knew that he had eaten a hearty meal not two hours previously; had been kept up till he grew stony and savage, and Polly, trying hard not to mind but red to the rims of her ears, slipped out of the room. Supper over, Mrs. Bearnish announced in a loud voice that the verandah was at the disposal of the "turtle-doves." She no doubt expected them to bill and coo in public, as Purdy and Matilda had done. On edge at the thought, he drew Polly into the comparative seclusion of the garden. Here they strolled up and down, their promenade bounded at the lower end by the dense-leaved arbour under which they had first met. In its screening shadow he took the kiss he had then been generous enough to forgo.
"I think I loved you, Polly, directly I saw you."
In the distance a clump of hills rose steep and bare from the waste land by the sea's edge—he could see them at this moment as he leant over the taffrail: with the sun going down behind them they were the colour of smoked glass. Last night they had been white with moonlight, which lay spilled out upon them like milk. Strange old hills! Standing there unchanged, unshaken, from time immemorial, they made the troth that had been plighted under their shield seem pitifully frail. And yet.... The vows which Polly and he had found so new, so wonderful; were not these, in truth, as ancient as the hills themselves, and as undying? Countless generations of human lovers had uttered them. The lovers passed, but the pledges remained: had put on immortality.
In the course of their talk it leaked out that Polly would not feel comfortable till her choice was ratified by brother John.
"I'm sure you will like John; he is so clever."
"I shall like everyone belonging to you, my Polly!"
As she lost her shyness Mahony made the discovery that she laughed easily, and was fond of a jest. Thus, when he admitted to her that he found it difficult to distinguish one fair, plump, sister Beamish from the other; that they seemed to him as much alike as two firm, pink-ribbed mushrooms, the little woman was hugely tickled by his his masculine want of perception. "Why, Jinny has brown eyes and Tilly blue!"
What he did not know, and what Polly did not confess to him, was that much of her merriment arose from sheer lightness of heart.—She, silly goose that she was! who had once believed Jinny to be the picked object of his attentions.
But she grew serious again: could he tell her, please, why Mr. Smith wrote so seldom to Tilly? Poor Tilly was unhappy at his long silences—fretted over them in bed at night.
Mahony made excuses for Purdy, urging his unsettled mode of life. But it pleased him to see that Polly took sides with her friend, and loyally espoused her cause.
No, there had not been a single jarring note in all their intercourse; each moment had made the dear girl dearer to him. Now, worse luck, forty odd miles were between them again.
It had been agreed that he should call at her brother's private house, towards five o'clock in the afternoon. He had thus to kill time for the better part of the next day. His first visit was to a jeweller's in Great Collins Street. Here, he pushed aside a tray of showy diamonds—a successful digger was covering the fat, red hands of his bride with them—and chose a slender, discreetly chased setting, containing three small stones. No matter what household duties fell to Polly's share, this little ring would not be out of place on her finger.
From there he went to the last address Purdy had given him; only to find that the boy had again disappeared. Before parting from Purdy, the time before, he had lent him half the purchase-money for a horse and dray, thus enabling him to carry out an old scheme of plying for hire at the city wharf. According to the landlord of the "Hotel Vendome," to whom Mahony was referred for fuller information, Purdy had soon tired of this job, and selling dray and beast for what he could get had gone off on a new rush to "Simson's Diggings" or the "White Hills." Small wonder Miss Tilly was left languishing for news of him.
Pricked by the nervous disquietude of those who have to do with the law, Mahony next repaired to his solicitor's office. But Henry Ocock was closeted with a more important client. This, Grindle the clerk, whom he met on the stairs, informed him, with an evident relish, and with some hidden, hinted meaning in the corners of his shifty little eyes. It was lost on Mahony, who was not the man to accept hints from a stranger.
The hour was on lunch-time; Grindle proposed that they should go together to a legal chop-house, which offered prime value for your money, and where, over the meal, he would give Mahony the latest news of his suit. At a loss how to get through the day, the latter followed him—he was resolved, too, to practise economy from now on. But when he sat down to a dirty cloth and fly-spotted cruet he regretted his compliance. Besides, the news Grindle was able to give him amounted to nothing; the case had not budged since last he heard of it. Worse still was the clerk's behaviour. For after lauding the cheapness of the establishment, Grindle disputed the price of each item on the "meenew," and, when he came to pay his bill, chuckled over having been able to diddle the waiter of a penny.
He was plainly one of those who feel the constant need of an audience. And since there was no office-boy present, for him to dazzle with his wit, he applied himself to demonstrating to his table-companion what a sad, sad dog he was.
"Women are the deuce, sir," he asserted, lying back in his chair and sending two trails of smoke from his nostrils. "The very deuce! You should hear my governor on the subject! He'd tickle your ears for you. Look here, I'll give you the tip: this move, you know, to Ballarat, that he's drivin' at: what'ull you bet me there isn't a woman in the case? Fact! 'Pon my word there is. And a devilish fine woman, too!" He shut one eye and laid a finger along his nose. "You won't blow the gab?—that's why you couldn't have your parleyvoo this morning. When milady comes to town H. O.'s NON EST as long as she's here. And she with a hubby of her own, too! What 'ud our old pa say to that, eh?"
Mahony, who could draw in his feelers no further than he had done, touched the limit of his patience. "My connexion with Mr. Ocock is a purely business one. I have no intention of trespassing on his private affairs, or of having them thrust upon me. Carver, my bill!"
Bowing distantly he stalked out of the eating-house and back to the "Criterion," where he dined. "So much for a maiden attempt at economy!"
Towards five o'clock he took his seat in an omnibus that plied between the city and the seaside suburb of St. Kilda, three miles off. A cool breeze went; the hoofs of the horses beat a rataplan on the hard surface; the great road, broad enough to make three of, was alive with smart gigs and trotters.
St. Kilda was a group of white houses facing the Bay. Most were o' weatherboard with brick chimneys; but there were also a few of a more solid construction. Mahony's goal was one of these: a low, stone villa surrounded by verandahs, in the midst of tasteful grounds. The drive up to the door led through a shrubbery, artfully contrived of the native ti-tree; behind the house stretched kitchen and fruit-gardens. Many rare plants grew in the beds. There was a hedge of geraniums close on fifteen feet high.
His knock was answered by a groom, who made a saucy face: Mr. Turnham and his lady were attending the Governor's ball this evening and did not receive. Mahony insisted on the delivery of his visiting-card. And since the servant still blocked the entrance he added: "Inform your master, my man, that I am the bearer of a message from his sister, Miss Mary Turnham."
The man shut him out, left him standing on the verandah. After a lengthy absence, he returned, and with a "Well, come along in then!" opened the door of a parlour. This was a large room, well furnished in horsehair and rep. Wax-lights stood on the mantelpiece before a gilt-framed pierglass; coloured prints hung on the walls.
While Mahony was admiring the genteel comfort to which he had long been a stranger, John Turnham entered the room. He had a quiet tread, but took determined strides at the floor. In his hand he held Mahony's card, and he looked from Mahony to it and back again.
"To what do I owe the pleasure, Mr.... er ... Mahony?" he asked, refreshing his memory with a glance at the pasteboard. He spoke in the brusque tone of one accustomed to run through many applicants in the course of an hour. "I understand that you make use of my sister Mary's name." And, as Mahony did not instantly respond, he snapped out: "My time is short, sir!"
A tinge of colour mounted to Mahony's cheeks. He answered with equal stiffness: "That is so. I come from Mr. William Beamish's 'Family Hotel,' and am commissioned to bring you your sister's warm love and regards."
John Turnham bowed; and waited.
"I have also to acquaint you with the fact," continued Mahony, gathering hauteur as he went, "that the day before yesterday I proposed marriage to your sister, and that she did me the honour of accepting me."
"Ah, indeed!" said John Turnham, with a kind of ironic snort. "And may I ask on what ground you—"
"On the ground, sir, that I have a sincere affection for Miss Turnham, and believe it lies in my power to make her happy."
"Of that, kindly allow me to judge. My sister is a mere child—too young to know her own mind. Be seated."
To a constraining, restraining vision of little Polly, Mahony obeyed, stifling the near retort that she was not too young to earn her living among strangers. The two men faced each other on opposite sides of the table. John Turnham had the same dark eyes and hair, the same short, straight nose as his brother and sister, but not their exotic pallor. His skin was bronzed; and his large, scarlet mouth supplied a vivid dash of colour. He wore bushy side-whiskers.
"And now, Mr. Mahony, I will ask you a blunt question. I receive letters regularly from my sister, but I cannot recall her ever having mentioned your name. Who and what are you?"
"Who am I?" flared up Mahony. "A gentleman like yourself, sir!—though a poor one. As for Miss Turnham not mentioning me in her letters, that is easily explained. I only had the pleasure of making her acquaintance five or six weeks ago."
"You are candid," said Polly's brother, and smiled without unclosing his lips. "But your reply to my question tells me nothing. May I ask what ... er ... under what ... er ... circumstances you came out to the colony, in the first instance?"
"No, sir, you may not!" cried Mahony, and flung up from his seat; he scented a deadly insult in the question.
"Come, come, Mr. Mahony," said Turnham in a more conciliatory tone. "Nothing is gained by being techy. And my inquiry is not unreasonable. You are an entire stranger to me; my sister has known you but for a few weeks, and is a young and inexperienced girl into the bargain. You tell me you are a gentleman. Sir! I had as lief you said you were a blacksmith. In this grand country of ours, where progress is the watchword, effete standards and dogging traditions must go by the board. Grit is of more use to us than gentility. Each single bricklayer who unships serves the colony better than a score of gentlemen."
"In that I am absolutely not at one with you, Mr. Turnham," said Mahony coldly. He had sat down again, feeling rather ashamed of his violence. "Without a leaven of refinement, the very raw material of which the existing population is composed—"
But Turnham interrupted him. "Give 'em time, sir, give 'em time. God bless my soul! Rome wasn't built in a day. But to resume. I have repeatedly had occasion to remark in what small stead the training that fits a man for a career in the old country stands him here. And that is why I am dissatisfied with your reply. Show me your muscles, sir, give me a clean bill of health, tell me if you have learnt a trade and can pay your way. See, I will be frank with you. The position I occupy to-day I owe entirely to my own efforts. I landed in the colony ten years ago, when this marvellous city of ours was little more than a village settlement. I had but five pounds in my pocket. To-day I am a partner in my firm, and intend, if all goes well, to enter parliament. Hence I think I may, without presumption, judge what makes for success here, and of the type of man to attain it. Work, hard work, is the key to all doors. So convinced am I of this, that I have insisted on the younger members of my family learning betimes to put their shoulders to the wheel. Now, Mr. Mahony, I have been open with you. Be equally frank with me. You are an Irishman?"
Candour invariably disarmed Mahony—even lay a little heavy on him, with the weight of an obligation. He retaliated with a light touch of self-depreciation. "An Irishman, sir, in a country where the Irish have fallen, and not without reason, into general disrepute."
Over a biscuit and a glass of sherry he gave a rough outline of the circumstances that had led to his leaving England, two years previously, and of his dismayed arrival in what he called "the cesspool of 1852".
"Thanks to the rose-water romance of the English press, many a young man of my day was enticed away from a modest competency, to seek his fortune here, where it was pretended that nuggets could be gathered like cabbages—I myself threw up a tidy little country practice.... I might mention that medicine was my profession. It would have given me intense satisfaction, Mr. Turnham, to see one of those glib journalists in my shoes, or the shoes of some of my messmates on the OCEAN QUEEN. There were men aboard that ship, sir, who were reduced to beggary before they could even set foot on the road to the north. Granted it is the duty of the press to encourage emigration—"
"Let the press be, Mahony," said Turnham: he had sat back, crossed his legs, and put his thumbs in his armholes. "Let it be. What we need here is colonists—small matter how we get 'em."
Having had his say, Mahony scamped the recital of his own sufferings: the discomforts of the month he had been forced to spend in Melbourne getting his slender outfit together; the miseries of the tramp to Ballarat on delicate unused feet, among the riff-raff of nations, under a wan December sky, against which the trunks of the gum-trees rose whiter still, and out of which blazed a copper sun with a misty rim. He scamped, too, his six-months' attempt at digging—he had been no more fit for the work than a child. Worn to skin and bone, his small remaining strength sucked out by dysentery, he had in the end bartered his last pinch of gold-dust for a barrow-load of useful odds and ends; and this had formed the nucleus of his store. Here, fortune had smiled on him; his flag hardly set a-flying custom had poured in, business gone up by leaps and bounds—"Although I have never sold so much as a pint of spirits, sir!" His profits for the past six months equalled a clear three hundred, and he had most of this to the good. With a wife to keep, expenses would naturally be heavier; but he should continue to lay by every spare penny, with a view to getting back to England.
"You have not the intention, then, of remaining permanently in the colony?"
"Not the least in the world."
"H'm," said John: he was standing on the hearthrug now, his legs apart. "That, of course, puts a different complexion on the matter. Still, I may say I am entirely reassured by what you have told me—entirely so. Indeed, you must allow me to congratulate you on the good sense you displayed in striking while the iron was hot. Many a one of your medical brethren, sir, would have thought it beneath his dignity to turn shopkeeper. And now, Mr. Mahony, I will wish you good day; we shall doubtless meet again before very long. Nay, one moment! There are cases, you will admit, in which a female opinion is not without value. Besides, I should be pleased for you to see my wife."
He crossed the hall, tapped at a door and cried: "Emma, my love, will you give us the pleasure of your company?"
In response to this a lady entered, whom Mahony thought one of the most beautiful women he had ever seen. She carried a yearling infant in her arms, and with one hand pressed its pale flaxen poll against the rich, ripe corn of her own hair, as if to dare comparison. Her cheeks were of a delicate rose pink.
"My love," said Turnham—and one felt that the word was no mere flower of speech. "My love, here is someone who wishes to marry our Polly."
"To marry our Polly?" echoed the lady, and smiled a faint, amused smile—it was as though she said: to marry this infant that I bear on my arm. "But Polly is only a little girl!"
"My very words, dearest. And too young to know her own mind."
"But you will decide for her, John."
John hung over his beautiful wife, wheeled up an easy chair, arranged her in it, placed a footstool. "Pray, pray, do not overfatigue yourself, Emma! That child is too heavy for you," he objected, as the babe made strenuous efforts to kick itself to its feet. "You know I do not approve of you carrying it yourself."
"Nurse is drinking tea."
"But why do I keep a houseful of domestics if one of the others cannot occasionally take her place?"
He made an impetuous step towards the bell. Before he could reach it there came a thumping at the door, and a fluty voice cried: "Lemme in, puppa, lemme in!"
Turnham threw the door open, and admitted a sturdy two-year-old, whom he led forward by the hand. "My son," he said, not without pride. Mahony would have coaxed the child to him; but it ran to its mother, hid its face in her lap.
Forgetting the bell John struck an attitude. "What a picture!" he exclaimed. "What a picture! My love, I positively must carry out my intention of having you painted in oils, with the children round you.— Mr. Mahony, sir, have you ever seen anything to equal it?"
Though his mental attitude might have been expressed by a note of exclamation, set ironically, Mahony felt constrained to second Turnham's enthusiasm. And it was indeed a lovely picture: the gracious, golden-haired woman, whose figure had the amplitude, her gestures the almost sensual languor of the young nursing mother; the two children fawning at her knee, both ash-blond, with vivid scarlet lips.—"It helps one," thought Mahony, "to understand the mother-worship of primitive peoples."
The nursemaid summoned and the children borne off, Mrs. Emma exchanged a few amiable words with the visitor, then obeyed with an equally good grace her husband's command to rest for an hour, before dressing for the ball.
Having escorted her to another room, Turnham came back rubbing his hands. "I am pleased to be able to tell you, Mr. Mahony, that your suit has my wife's approval. You are highly favoured! Emma is not free with her liking." Then, in a sudden burst of effusion: "I could have wished you the pleasure, sir, of seeing my wife in evening attire. She will make a furore again; no other woman can hold a candle to her in a ballroom. To-night is the first time since the birth of our second child that she will grace a public entertainment with her presence; and unfortunately her appearance will be a brief one, for the infant is not yet wholly weaned." He shut the door and lowered his voice. "You have had some experience of doctoring, you say; I should like a word with you in your medical capacity. The thing is this. My wife has persisted, contrary to my wishes, in suckling both children herself."
"Quite right, too," said Mahony. "In a climate like this their natural food is invaluable to babes."
"Exactly, quite so," said Turnham, with a hint of impatience. "And in the case of the first child, I made due allowance: a young mother... the novelty of the thing... you understand. But with regard to the second, I must confess I—How long, sir, in your opinion, can a mother continue to nurse her babe without injury to herself? It is surely harmful if unduly protracted? I have observed dark lines about my wife's eyes, and she is losing her fine complexion.—Then you confirm my fears. I shall assert my authority without delay, and insist on separation from the child.—Ah! women are strange beings, Mr. Mahony, strange beings, as you are on the high road to discovering for yourself."
Mahony returned to town on foot, the omnibus having ceased to run. As he walked—at a quick pace, and keeping a sharp look-out; for the road was notoriously unsafe after dark—he revolved his impressions of the interview. He was glad it was over, and, for Polly's sake, that it had passed off satisfactorily. It had made a poor enough start: at one moment he had been within an ace of picking up his hat and stalking out. But he found it difficult at the present happy crisis to bear a grudge—even if it had not been a proved idiosyncrasy of his, always to let a successful finish erase a bad beginning. None the less, he would not have belonged to the nation he did, had he not indulged in a caustic chuckle and a pair of good-humoured pishes and pshaws, at Turnham's expense. "Like a showman in front of his booth!"
Then he thought again of the domestic scene he had been privileged to witness, and grew grave. The beautiful young woman and her children might have served as model for a Holy Family—some old painter's dream of a sweet benign Madonna; the trampling babe as the infant Christ; the upturned face of the little John adoring. No place this for the scoffer. Apart from the mere pleasure of the eye, there was ample justification for Turnham's transports. Were they not in the presence of one of life's sublimest mysteries—that of motherhood? Not alone the lovely Emma: no; every woman who endured the rigours of childbirth, to bring forth an immortal soul, was a holy figure.
And now for him, too, as he had been reminded, this wonder was to be worked. Little Polly as the mother of his children—what visions the words conjured up! But he was glad Polly was just Polly, and not the peerless creature he had seen. John Turnham's fears would never be his—this jealous care of a transient bodily beauty. Polly was neither too rare nor too fair for her woman's lot; and, please God, the day would come when he would see her with a whole cluster of little ones round her—little dark-eyed replicas of herself. She, bless her, should dandle and cosset them to her heart's content. Her joy in them would also be his.
He sawed, planed, hammered; curly shavings dropped and there was a pleasant smell of sawdust. Much had to be done to make the place fit to receive Polly. A second outhouse was necessary, to hold the surplus goods and do duty as a sleeping-room for Long Jim and Hempel: the lean-to the pair had occupied till now was being converted into a kitchen. At great cost and trouble, Mahony had some trees felled and brought in from Warrenheip. With them he put up a rude fence round his backyard, interlacing the lopped boughs from post to post, so that they formed a thick and leafy screen. He also filled in the disused shaft that had served as a rubbish-hole, and chose another, farther off, which would be less malodorous in the summer heat. Finally, a substantial load of firewood carted in, and two snakes that had made the journey in hollow logs dispatched, Long Jim was set down to chop and split the wood into a neat pile. Polly would need but to walk to and from the woodstack for her firing.
Indoors he made equal revolution. That her ears should not be polluted by the language of the customers, he ran up a partition between living-room and store, thus cutting off the slab-walled portion of the house, with its roof of stringy-bark, from the log-and-canvas front. He also stopped with putty the worst gaps between the slabs. At Ocock's Auction Rooms he bought a horsehair sofa to match his armchair, a strip of carpet, a bed, a washhand-stand and a looking-glass, and tacked up a calico curtain before the window. His books, fetched out of the wooden case, were arranged on a brand-new set of shelves; and, when all was done and he stood back to admire his work, it was borne in on him afresh with how few creature-comforts he had hitherto existed. Plain to see now, why he had preferred to sit out-of-doors rather than within! Now, no one on the Flat had a trimmer little place than he.
In his labours he had the help of a friendly digger—a carpenter by trade—who one evening, pipe in mouth, had stood to watch his amateurish efforts with the jack-plane. Otherwise, the Lord alone knew how the house would ever have been made shipshape. Long Jim was equal to none but the simplest jobs; and Hempel, the assistant, had his hands full with the store. Well, it was a blessing at this juncture that business could be left to him. Hempel was as straight as a die; was a real treasure—or would have been, were it not for his eternal little bark of a cough. This was proof against all remedies, and the heck-heck of it at night was quite enough to spoil a light sleeper's rest. In building the new shed, Mahony had been careful to choose a corner far from the house.
Marriages were still uncommon enough on Ballarat to make him an object of considerable curiosity. People took to dropping in of an evening—old Ocock; the postmaster; a fellow storekeeper, ex-steward to the Duke of Newcastle—to comment on his alterations and improvements. And over a pipe and a glass of sherry, he had to put up with a good deal of banter about his approaching "change of state."
Still, it was kindly meant. "We'll 'ave to git up a bit o' company o' nights for yer lady when she comes," said old Ocock, and spat under the table.
Purdy wrote from Tarrangower, where he had drifted:
HOORAY, OLD DICK, GOLLY FOR YOU! OLD MAN DIDN'T I KICK UP A BOBBERY WHEN I HEARD THE NEWS. NEVER WAS SO WELL PLEASED IN MY LIFE. THAT'S ALL YOU NEEDED, DICK—NOW YOU'LL TURN INTO A FIRST-RATE COLONIAL. HOW ABOUT THAT FIVER NOW I'D LIKE TO KNOW. YOU CAN TELL POLLY FROM ME I SHALL PAY IT BACK WITH INTEREST ON THE FATAL DAY. OF COURSE I'LL COME AND SEE YOU SPLICED, TOGS OR NO TOGS—TO TELL THE TRUTH MY KICKSIES ARE ON THEIR VERY LAST LEGS—AND THERE'S NOTHING DOING HERE—ALL THE LOOSE STUFF'S BEEN TURNED OVER. THERE'S OCEANS OF QUARTZ, OF COURSE, AND THEY'RE TRYING TO POUND IT UP IN DOLLIES, BUT YOU COULD PUT ME TO BED WITH A PICK-AXE AND A SHOVEL BEFORE I'D GO IN FOR SUCH TOMFOOLERY AS THAT.— DAMN IT ALL, DICK, TO THINK OF YOU BEING COTCHED AT LAST. I CAN'T GET OVER IT, AND IT'S A BIT OF A RISK, TOO, BY DAD IT IS, FOR A GIRL OF THAT AGE IS A DARK HORSE IF EVER THERE WAS ONE.
Mahony's answer to this was a couple of pound-notes: SO THAT MY BEST MAN SHALL NOT DISGRACE ME! His heart went out to the writer. Dear old Dickybird! pleased as Punch at the turn of events, yet quaking for fear of imaginary risks. With all Purdy's respect for his friend's opinions, he had yet an odd distrust of that friend's ability to look after himself. And now he was presuming to doubt Polly, too. Like his imperence! What the dickens did HE know of Polly? Keenly relishing the sense of his own intimate knowledge, Mahony touched the breast-pocket in which Polly's letters lay—he often carried them out with him to a little hill, on which a single old blue-gum had been left standing; its scraggy top-knot of leaves drooped and swayed in the wind, like the few long straggling hairs on an old man's head.