The letters formed a goodly bundle; for Polly and he wrote regularly to each other, she once a week, he twice. His bore the Queen's head; hers, as befitted a needy little governess, were oftenest delivered by hand. Mahony untied the packet, drew a chance letter from it and mused as he read. Polly had still not ceded much of her early reserve—and it had taken him weeks to persuade her even to call him by his first name. She was, he thanked goodness, not of the kind who throw maidenly modesty to the winds, directly the binding word is spoken. He loved her all the better for her wariness of emotion; it tallied with a like streak in his own nature. And this, though at the moment he was going through a very debauch of frankness. To the little black-eyed girl who pored over his letters at "Beamish's Family Hotel," he unbosomed himself as never in his life before. He enlarged on his tastes and preferences, his likes and dislikes; he gave vent to his real feelings for the country of his exile, and his longings for "home"; told how he had come to the colony, in the first instance, with the fantastic notion of redeeming the fortunes of his family; described his collections of butterflies and plants to her, using their Latin names. And Polly drank in his words, and humbly agreed with all he wrote, or at least did not disagree; and, from this, as have done lovers from the beginning of time, he inferred a perfect harmony of mind. On one point only did he press her for a reply. Was she fond of books? If so, what evenings they would spend together, he reading aloud from some entertaining volume, she at her fancy work. And poetry? For himself he could truly say he did not care for poetry ... except on a Saturday night or a quiet Sunday morning; and that was, because he liked it too well to approach it with any but a tranquil mind.
I THINK IF I KNOW YOU ARIGHT, AS I BELIEVE I DO, MY POLLY, YOU TOO HAVE POETRY IN YOUR SOUL.
He smiled at her reply; then kissed it.
I CANNOT WRITE POETRY MYSELF, said Polly, BUT I AM VERY FOND OF IT AND SHALL INDEED LIKE VERY MUCH DEAR RICHARD TO LISTEN WHEN YOU READ.
But the winter ran away, one cold, wet week succeeding another, and still they were apart. Mahony urged and pleaded, but could not get Polly to name the wedding-day. He began to think pressure was being brought to bear on the girl from another side. Naturally the Beamishes were reluctant to let her go: who would be so useful to them as Polly?—who undertake, without scorn, the education of the whilom shepherd's daughters? Still, they knew they had to lose her, and he could not see that it made things any easier for them to put off the evil day. No, there was something else at the bottom of it; though he did not know what. Then one evening, pondering a letter of Polly's, he slapped his forehead and exclaimed aloud at his own stupidity. That night, into his reply he slipped four five-pound notes. JUST TO BUY YOURSELF ANY LITTLE THING YOU FANCY, DEAREST. IF I CHOSE A GIFT, I MIGHT SEND WHAT WOULD NOT BE ACCEPTABLE TO YOU. Yes, sure enough, that was it—little Polly had been in straits for money: the next news he heard was that she had bought and was stitching her wedding-gown. Taxed with her need, Polly guiltily admitted that her salary for the past three months was owing to her. But there had been great expenses in connection with the hotel; and Mr. B. had had an accident to his leg. From what she wrote, though, Mahony saw that it was not the first time such remissness had occurred; and he felt grimly indignant with her employers. Keeping open house, and hospitable to the point of vulgarity, they were, it was evident, pinchfists when it came to parting with their money. Still, in the case of a little woman who had served them so faithfully! In thought he set a thick black mark against their name, for their cavalier treatment of his Polly. And extended it to John Turnham as well. John had made no move to put hand to pocket; and Polly's niceness of feeling had stood in the way of her applying to him for aid. It made Mahony yearn to snatch the girl to him, then and there; to set her free of all contact with such coarse-grained, miserly brutes.
Old Ocock negotiated the hire of a neat spring cart for him, and a stout little cob; and at last the day had actually come, when he could set out to bring Polly home. By his side was Ned Turnham. Ned, still a lean-jowled wages-man at Rotten Gully, made no secret of his glee at getting carried down thus comfortably to Polly's nuptials. They drove the eternal forty odd miles to Geelong, each stick and stone of which was fast becoming known to Mahony; a journey that remained equally tiresome whether the red earth rose as a thick red dust, or whether as now it had turned to a mud like birdlime in which the wheels sank almost to the axles. Arrived at Geelong they put up at an hotel, where Purdy awaited them. Purdy had tramped down from Tarrangower, blanket on back, and stood in need of a new rig-out from head to foot. Otherwise his persistent ill-luck had left no mark on him.
The ceremony took place early the following morning, at the house of the Wesleyan minister, the Anglican parson having been called away. The Beamishes and Polly drove to town, a tight fit in a double buggy. On the back seat, Jinny clung to and half supported a huge clothes-basket, which contained the wedding-breakfast. Polly sat on her trunk by the splashboard; and Tilly, crowded out, rode in on one of the cart-horses, a coloured bed-quilt pinned round her waist to protect her skirts.
To Polly's disappointment neither her brother John nor his wife was present; a letter came at the eleventh hour to say that Mrs. Emma was unwell, and her husband did not care to leave her. Enclosed, however, were ten pounds for the purchase of a wedding-gift; and the pleasure Polly felt at being able to announce John's generosity helped to make up to her for his absence. The only other guest present was an elder sister, Miss Sarah Turnham, who, being out of a situation at the moment, had sailed down from Melbourne. This young lady, a sprightly brunette of some three or four and twenty, without the fine, regular features of Ned and Polly, but with tenfold their vivacity and experience, caused quite a sensation; and Tilly's audible raptures at beholding her Purdy again were of short duration; for Purdy had never met the equal of Miss Sarah, and could not take his eyes off her. He and she were the life of the party. The Beamishes were overawed by the visitor's town-bred airs and the genteel elegance of her dress; Polly was a mere crumpled rose-leaf of pink confusion; Mahony too preoccupied with ring and licence to take any but his formal share in the proceedings.
"Come and see you?" echoed Miss Sarah playfully: the knot was tied; the company had demolished the good things laid out by Mrs. Beamish in the private parlour of an hotel, and emptied a couple of bottles of champagne; and Polly had changed her muslin frock for a black silk travelling-gown. "Come and SEE you? Why, of course I will, little silly!"—and, with her pretty white hands, she patted the already perfect bow of Polly's bonnet-strings. Miss Sarah had no great opinion of the match her sister was making; but she had been agreeably surprised by Mahony's person and manners, and had said so, thus filling Polly's soul with bliss. "Provided, of course, little goosey, you have a SPARE ROOM to offer me.—For, I confess," she went on, turning to the rest of the party, "I confess I feel inordinately curious to see, with my own eyes, what these famous diggings are like. From all one hears, they must be MARVELLOUSLY entertaining.—Now, I presume that you, Mr. Smith, never touch at such RUDE, OUT-OF-THE-WORLD places in the course of YOUR travels?"
Purdy, who had discreetly concealed the fact that he was but a poverty-stricken digger himself, quibbled a light evasion, then changed the subject, and offered his escort to the steam-packet by which Miss Sarah was returning to Melbourne.
"And you, too, dear Tilly," urged little Polly, proceeding with her farewells. "For, mind, you promised. And I won't forget to ... you know what!"
Tilly, sobbing noisily, wept on Polly's neck that she wished she was dead or at the bottom of the sea; and Polly, torn between pride and pain at Purdy's delinquency, could only kiss her several times without speaking.
The farewells buzzed and flew.
"Good-bye to you, little lass ... beg pardon, Mrs. Dr. Mahony!"——
"Mind you write, Poll! I shall die to 'ear."——
"Ta-ta, little silly goosey, and AU REVOIR!"—"Mind he don't pitch you out of the cart, Polly!"—"Good-bye, Polly, my duck, and remember I'll come to you in a winkin', h'if and when ..." which speech on the part of Mrs. Beamish distressed Polly to the verge of tears.
But finally she was torn from their arms and hoisted into the cart; and Mahony, the reins in his hand, began to unstiffen from the wooden figure-head he had felt himself during the ceremony, and under the whirring tongues and whispered confidences of the women.
"And now, Polly, for home!" he said exultantly, when the largest pocket-handkerchief had shrunk to the size of a nit, and Polly had ceased to twist her neck for one last, last glimpse of her friends.
And then the bush, and the loneliness of the bush, closed round them.
It was the time of flowers—of fierce young growth after the fruitful winter rains. The short-lived grass, green now as that of an English meadow, was picked out into patterns by the scarlet of the Running Postman; purple sarsaparilla festooned the stems of the scrub; there were vast natural paddocks, here of yellow everlastings, there of heaths in full bloom. Compared with the dark, spindly foliage of the she-oaks, the ti-trees' waxy flowers stood out like orange-blossoms against firs. On damp or marshy ground wattles were aflame: great quivering masses of softest gold. Wherever these trees stood, the fragrance of their yellow puff-ball blossoms saturated the air; one knew, before one saw them, that they were coming, and long after they had been left behind one carried their honeyed sweetness with one; against them, no other scent could have made itself felt. And to Mahony these waves of perfume, into which they were continually running, came, in the course of the hours, to stand for a symbol of the golden future for which he and Polly were making; and whenever in after years he met with wattles in full bloom, he was carried back to the blue spring day of this wedding-journey, and jogged on once more, in the light cart, with his girl-wife at his side.
It was necessarily a silent drive. More rain had fallen during the night; even the best bits of the road were worked into deep, glutinous ruts, and the low-lying parts were under water. Mahony, but a fairish hand with the reins, was repeatedly obliged to leave the track and take to the bush, where he steered a way as best he could through trees, stumps, boulders and crab-holes. Sometimes he rose to his feet to encourage the horse; or he alighted and pulled it by the bridle; or put a shoulder to the wheel. But to-day no difficulties had power to daunt him; and the farther he advanced the lighter-hearted he grew: he went back to Ballarat feeling, for the first time, that he was actually going home.
And Polly? Sitting motionless at her husband's side, her hands folded on her black silk lap, Polly obediently turned her head this way and that, when Richard pointed out a landmark to her, or called her attention to the flowers. At first, things were new and arresting, but the novelty soon wore off; and as they went on and on, and still on, it began to seem to Polly, who had never been farther afield than a couple of miles north of the "Pivot City," as if they were driving away from all the rest of mankind, right into the very heart of nowhere. The road grew rougher, too—became scored with ridges and furrows which threw them violently from side to side. Unused to bush driving, Polly was sure at each fresh jolt that this time the cart MUST tip over; and yet she preferred the track and its dangers to Richard's adventurous attempts to carve a passage through the scrub. A little later a cold south wind sprang up, which struck through her thin silk mantle; she was very tired, having been on her feet since five o'clock that morning; and all the happy fuss and excitement of the wedding was behind her. Her heart sank. She loved Richard dearly; if he had asked her, she would have gone to the ends of the earth with him; but at this moment she felt both small and lonely, and she would have liked nothing better than Mrs. Beamish's big motherly bosom, on which to lay her head. And when, in passing a swamp, a well-known noise broke on her ear—that of hundreds of bell-frogs, which were like hundreds of hissing tea-kettles just about to boil—then such a rush of homesickness took her that she would have given all she had, to know she was going back, once more, to the familiar little whitewashed room she had shared with Tilly and Jinny.
The seat of the cart was slanting and slippery. Polly was continually sliding forward, now by inches, now with a great jerk. At last Mahony noticed it. "You are not sitting very comfortably, Polly, I fear?" he said.
Polly righted herself yet again, and reddened. "It's my ... my feet aren't long enough," she replied.
"Why, my poor little love!" cried Mahony, full of quick compunction. "Why didn't you say so?" And drawing rein and getting down, he stuffed some of Mrs. Beamish's bundles—fragments of the feast, which the good woman had sent with them—under his wife's feet; stuffed too many, so that Polly drove the rest of the way with her knees raised to a hump in front of her. All the afternoon they had been making for dim blue ranges. After leaving the flats near Geelong, the track went up and down. Grey-green forest surrounded them, out of which nobbly hills rose like islands from a sea of trees. As they approached the end of their journey, they overtook a large number of heavy vehicles labouring along through the mire. A coach with six horses dashed past them at full gallop, and left them rapidly behind. Did they have to skirt bull-punchers who were lashing or otherwise ill-treating their teams, Mahony urged on the horse and bade Polly shut her eyes.
Night had fallen and a drizzling rain get in, by the time they travelled the last couple of miles to Ballarat. This was the worst of all; and Polly held her breath while the horse picked its way among yawning pits, into which one false step would have plunged them. Her fears were not lessened by hearing that in several places the very road was undermined; and she was thankful when Richard—himself rendered uneasy by the precious cargo he bore—got out and walked at the horse's head. They drew up before a public-house. Cramped from sitting and numb with cold, Polly climbed stiffly down as bidden; and Mahony having unloaded the baggage, mounted to his seat again to drive the cart into the yard. This was a false move, as he was quick to see: he should not have left Polly standing alone. For the news of the arrival of "Doc." Mahony and his bride flew from mouth to mouth, and all the loafers who were in the bar turned out to stare and to quiz. Beside her tumulus of trunk, bag, bundle little Polly stood desolate, with drooping shoulders; and cursing his want of foresight, Mahony all but drove into the gatepost, which occasioned a loud guffaw. Nor had Long Jim turned up as ordered, to shoulder the heavy luggage. These blunders made Mahony very hot and curt. Having himself stowed the things inside the bar and borrowed a lantern, he drew his wife's arm through his, and hurried her away.
It was pitch-dark, and the ground was wet and squelchy. Their feet sank in the mud. Polly clung to Richard's arm, trembling at the rude voices, the laughter, the brawling, that issued from the grog-shops; at the continual apparition of rough, bearded men. One of these, who held a candle stuck in a bottle, was accosted by Richard and soundly rated. When they turned out of the street with its few dismal oil-lamps, their way led them among dirty tents and black pits, and they had to depend for light on the lantern they carried. They crossed a rickety little bridge over a flooded river; then climbed a slope, on which in her bunchy silk skirts Polly slipped and floundered, to stop before something that was half a tent and half a log-hut.—What! this the end of the long, long journey! This the house she had to live in?
Yes, Richard was speaking. "Welcome home, little wife! Not much of a place, you see, but the best I can give you."
"It's ... it's very nice, Richard," said Polly staunchly; but her lips trembled.
Warding off the attack of a big, fierce, dirty dog, which sprang at her, dragging its paws down her dress, Polly waited while her husband undid the door, then followed him through a chaos, which smelt as she had never believed any roofed-in place could smell, to a little room at the back.
Mahony lighted the lamp that stood ready on the table, and threw a satisfied glance round. His menfolk had done well: things were in apple-pie order. The fire crackled, the kettle was on the boil, the cloth spread. He turned to Polly to kiss her welcome, to relieve her of bonnet and mantle. But before he could do this there came a noise of rowdy voices, of shouting and parleying. Picking up the lantern, he ran out to see what the matter was.
Left alone Polly remained standing by the table, on which an array of tins was set—preserved salmon, sardines, condensed milk—their tops forced back to show their contents. Her heart was heavy as lead, and she felt a dull sense of injury as well. This hut her home!—to which she had so freely invited sister and friend! She would be ashamed for them ever to set eyes on it. Not in her worst dreams had she imagined it as mean and poor as this. But perhaps .... With the lamp in her hand, she tip-toed guiltily to a door in the wall: it opened into a tiny bedroom with a sloping roof. No, this was all, all there was of it: just these two miserable little poky rooms! She raised her head and looked round, and the tears welled up in spite of herself. The roof was so low that you could almost touch it; the window was no larger than a pocket-handkerchief; there were chinks between the slabs of the walls. And from one of these she now saw a spider crawl out, a huge black tarantula, with horrible hairy legs. Polly was afraid of spiders; and at this the tears began to overflow and to trickle down her cheeks. Holding her skirts to her—the new dress she had made with such pride, now damp, and crushed, and soiled—she sat down and put her feet, in their soaked, mud-caked, little prunella boots, on the rung of her chair, for fear of other monsters that might be crawling the floor.
And then, while she sat thus hunched together, the voices outside were suddenly drowned in a deafening noise—in a hideous, stupefying din, that nearly split one's eardrums: it sounded as though all the tins and cans in the town were being beaten and banged before the door. Polly forgot the tarantula, forgot her bitter disappointment with her new home. Her black eyes wide with fear, her heart thudding in her chest, she sprang to her feet and stood ready, if need be, to defend herself. Where, oh where was Richard?
It was the last straw. When, some five minutes later, Mahony came bustling in: he had soothed the "kettledrummers" and sent them off with a handsome gratuity, and he carried the trunk on his own shoulder, Long Jim following behind with bags and bundles: when he entered, he found little Polly sitting with her head huddled on her arms, crying as though her heart would break.
Over the fathomless grey seas that tossed between, dissevering the ancient and gigantic continent from the tiny motherland, unsettling rumours ran. After close on forty years' fat peace, England had armed for hostilities again, her fleet set sail for a foreign sea. Such was the news the sturdy clipper-ships brought out, in tantalising fragments; and those who, like Richard Mahony, were mere birds-of-passage in the colony, and had friends and relatives going to the front, caught hungrily at every detail. But to the majority of the colonists what England had done, or left undone, in preparation for war, was of small account. To them the vital question was: will the wily Russian Bear take its revenge by sending men-of-war to annihilate us and plunder the gold in our banks—us, months removed from English aid? And the opinion was openly expressed that in casting off her allegiance to Great Britain, and becoming a neutral state, lay young Australia's best hope of safety.
But, even while they made it, the proposers of this scheme were knee-deep in petty, local affairs again. All Europe was depressed under the cloud of war; but they went on belabouring hackneyed themes—the unlocking of the lands, iniquitous licence-fees, official corruption. Mahony could not stand it. His heart was in England, went up and down with England's hopes and fears. He smarted under the tales told of the inefficiency of the British troops and the paucity of their numbers; under the painful disclosures made by journalists, injudiciously allowed to travel to the seat of war; he questioned, like many another of his class in the old country, the wisdom of the Duke of Newcastle's orders to lay siege to the port of Sebastopol. And of an evening, when the store was closed, he sat over stale English newspapers and a map of the Crimea, and meticulously followed the movements of the Allies.
But in this retirement he was rudely disturbed, by feeling himself touched on a vulnerable spot—that of his pocket. Before the end of the year trade had come to a standstill, and the very town he lived in was under martial law.
On both Ballarat and the Bendigo the agitation for the repeal of the licence-tax had grown more and more vehement; and spring's arrival found the digging-community worked up to a white heat. The new Governor's tour of inspection, on which great hopes had been built, served only to aggravate the trouble. Misled by the golden treasures with which the diggers, anxious as children to please, dazzled his eyes, the Governor decided that the tax was not an outrageous one; and ordered licence-raids to be undertaken twice as often as before. This defeat of the diggers' hopes, together with the murder of a comrade and the acquittal of the murderer by a corrupt magistrate, goaded even the least sensitive spirits to rebellion: the guilty man's house was fired, the police were stoned, and then, for a month or more, deputations and petitions ran to and fro between Ballarat and Melbourne. In vain: the demands of the voteless diggers went unheard. The consequence was that one day at the beginning of summer all the troops that could be spared from the capital, along with several pieces of artillery, were raising the dust on the road to Ballarat.
On the last afternoon in November work was suspended throughout the diggings, and the more cautious among the shopkeepers began to think of closing their doors. In front of the "Diggers' Emporium," where the earth was baked as hard as a burnt crust, a little knot of people stood shading their eyes from the sun. Opposite, on Bakery Hill, a monster meeting had been held and the "Southern Cross" hoisted—a blue bunting that bore the silver stars of the constellation after which it was named. Having sworn allegiance to it with outstretched hands, the rebels were lining up to march off to drill.
Mahony watched the thin procession through narrowed lids. In theory he condemned equally the blind obstinacy of the authorities, who went on tightening the screw, and the foolhardiness of the men. But—well, he could not get his eye to shirk one of the screaming banners and placards: "Down with Despotism!" "Who so base as be a Slave!" by means of which the diggers sought to inflame popular indignation. "If only honest rebels could get on without melodramatic exaggeration! As it is, those good fellows yonder are rendering a just cause ridiculous."
Polly tightened her clasp of his arm. She had known no peace since the evening before, when a rough-looking man had come into the store and, with revolver at full cock, had commanded Hempel to hand over all the arms and ammunition it contained. Hempel, much to Richard's wrath, had meekly complied; but it might have been Richard himself; he would for certain have refused; and then.... Polly had hardly slept for thinking of it. She now listened in deferential silence to the men's talk; but when old Ocock—he never had a good word to say for the riotous diggers—took his pipe out of his mouth to remark: "A pack o' Tipperary boys spoilin' for a fight—that's what I say. An' yet, blow me if I wouldn't 'a bin glad if one o' my two 'ad 'ad spunk enough to join 'em,"—at this Polly could not refrain from saying pitifully: "Oh, Mr. Ocock, do you really MEAN that?" For both Purdy and brother Ned were in the rebel band, and Polly's heart was heavy because of them.
"Can't you see my brother anywhere?" she asked Hempel, who held an old spyglass to his eyes.
"No, ma'am, sorry to say I can't," replied Hempel. He would willingly have conjured up a dozen brothers to comfort Polly; but he could not swerve from the truth, even for her.
"Give me the glass," said Mahony, and swept the line.—"No, no sign of either of them. Perhaps they thought better of it after all.—Listen! now they're singing—can you hear them? The MARSEILLAISE as I'm alive. —Poor fools! Many of them are armed with nothing more deadly than picks and shovels."
"And pikes," corrected Hempel. "Several carry pikes, sir."
"Ay, that's so, they've bin 'ammerin' out bits of old iron all the mornin'," agreed Ocock. "It's said they 'aven't a quarter of a firearm apiece. And the drillin'! Lord love yer! 'Alf of 'em don't know their right 'and from their left. The troops 'ull make mincemeat of 'em, if they come to close quarters."
"Oh, I hope not!" said Polly. "Oh, I do hope they won't get hurt."
Patting her hand, Mahony advised his wife to go indoors and resume her household tasks. And since his lightest wish was a command, little Polly docilely withdrew her arm and returned to her dishwashing. But though she rubbed and scoured with her usual precision, her heart was not in her work. Both on this day and the next she seemed to exist solely in her two ears. The one strained to catch any scrap of news about "poor Ned"; the other listened, with an even sharper anxiety, to what went on in the store. Several further attempts were made to get arms and provisions from Richard; and each time an angry scene ensued. Close up beside the thin partition, her hands locked under her cooking-apron, Polly sat and trembled for her husband. He had already got himself talked about by refusing to back a Reform League; and now she heard him openly declare to some one that he disapproved of the terms of this League, from A to Z. Oh dear! If only he wouldn't. But she was careful not to add to his worries by speaking of her fears. As it was, he came to tea with a moody face.
The behaviour of the foraging parties growing more and more threatening, Mahony thought it prudent to follow the general example and put up his shutters. Wildly conflicting rumours were in the air. One report said a contingent of Creswick dare-devils had arrived to join forces with the insurgents; another that the Creswickers, disgusted at finding neither firearms nor quarters provided for them, had straightway turned and marched the twelve miles home again. For a time it was asserted that Lalor, the Irish leader, had been bought over by the government; then, just as definitely, that his influence alone held the rebel faction together. Towards evening Long Jim was dispatched to find out how matters really stood. He brought back word that the diggers had entrenched themselves on a piece of rising ground near the Eureka lead, behind a flimsy barricade of logs, slabs, ropes and overturned carts. The Camp, for its part, was screened by a breastwork of firewood, trusses of hay and bags of corn; while the mounted police stood or lay fully armed by their horses, which were saddled ready for action at a moment's notice.
Neither Ned nor Purdy put in an appearance, and the night passed without news of them. Just before dawn, however, Mahony was wakened by a tapping at the window. Thrusting out his head he recognised young Tommy Ocock, who had been sent by his father to tell "doctor" that the soldiers were astir. Lights could be seen moving about the Camp, a horse had neighed—father thought spies might have given them the hint that at least half the diggers from the Stockade had come down to Main Street last night, and got drunk, and never gone back. With a concerned glance at Polly Mahony struggled into his clothes. He must make another effort to reach the boys—especially Ned, for Polly's sake. When Ned had first announced his intention of siding with the insurgents, he had merely shrugged his shoulders, believing that the young vapourer would soon have had enough of it. Now he felt responsible to his wife for Ned's safety: Ned, whose chief reason for turning rebel, he suspected, was that a facetious trooper had once dubbed him "Eytalian organ-grinder," and asked him where he kept his monkey.
But Mahony's designs of a friendly interference came too late. The troops had got away, creeping stealthily through the morning dusk; and he was still panting up Specimen Hill when he heard the crack of a rifle. Confused shouts and cries followed. Then a bugle blared, and the next instant the rattle and bang of musketry split the air.
Together with a knot of others, who like himself had run forth half dressed, Mahony stopped and waited, in extreme anxiety; and, while he stood, the stars went out, one by one, as though a finger-tip touched them. The diggers' response to the volley of the attacking party was easily distinguished: it was a dropping fire, and sounded like a thin hail-shower after a peal of thunder. Within half an hour all was over: the barricade had fallen, to cheers and laughter from the military; the rebel flag was torn down; huts and tents inside the enclosure were going up in flames.
Towards six o'clock, just as the December sun, huge and fiery, thrust the edge of its globe above the horizon, a number of onlookers ran up the slope to all that was left of the ill-fated stockade. On the dust, bloodstains, now set hard as scabs, traced the route by which a wretched procession of prisoners had been marched to the Camp gaol. Behind the demolished barrier huts smouldered as heaps of blackened embers; and the ground was strewn with stark forms, which lay about—some twenty or thirty of them—in grotesque attitudes. Some sprawled with outstretched arms, their sightless eyes seeming to fix the pale azure of the sky; others were hunched and huddled in a last convulsion. And in the course of his fruitless search for friend and brother, an old instinct reasserted itself in Mahony: kneeling down he began swiftly and dexterously to examine the prostrate bodies. Two or three still heaved, the blood gurgling from throat and breast like water from the neck of a bottle. Here, one had a mouth plugged with shot, and a beard as stiff as though it were made of rope. Another that he turned over was a German he had once heard speak at a diggers' meeting—a windy braggart of a man, with a quaint impediment in his speech. Well, poor soul! he would never mouth invectives or tickle the ribs of an audience again. His body was a very colander of wounds. Some had not bled either. It looked as though the soldiers had viciously gone on prodding and stabbing the fallen.
Stripping a corpse of its shirt, he tore off a piece of stuff to make a bandage for a shattered leg. While he was binding the limb to a board, young Tom ran up to say that the military, returning with carts, were arresting every one they met in the vicinity. With others who had been covering up and carrying away their friends, Mahony hastened down the back of the hill towards the bush. Here was plain evidence of a stampede. More bloodstains pointed the track, and a number of odd and clumsy weapons had been dropped or thrown away by the diggers in their flight.
He went home with the relatively good tidings that neither Ned nor Purdy was to be found. Polly was up and dressed. She had also lighted the fire and set water on to boil, "just in case." "Was there ever such a sensible little woman?" said her husband with a kiss.
The day dragged by, flat and stale after the excitement of the morning. No one ventured far from cover; for the military remained under arms, and detachments of mounted troopers patrolled the streets. At the Camp the hundred odd prisoners were being sorted out, and the maimed and wounded doctored in the rude little temporary hospital. Down in Main Street the noise of hammering went on hour after hour. The dead could not be kept, in the summer heat, must be got underground before dark.
Mahony had just secured his premises for the night, when there came a rapping at the back door. In the yard stood a stranger who, when the dog Pompey had been chidden and soothed, made mysterious signs to Mahony and murmured a well-known name. Admitted to the sitting-room he fished a scrap of dirty paper from his boot. Mahony put the candle on the table and straightened out the missive. Sure enough, it was in Purdy's hand—though sadly scrawled.
HAVE BEEN HIT IN THE PIN. COME IF POSSIBLE AND BRING YOUR TOOLS. THE BEARER IS SQUARE.
Polly could hear the two of them talking in low, urgent tones. But her relief that the visitor brought no bad news of her brother was dashed when she learned that Richard had to ride out into the bush, to visit a sick man. However she buttoned her bodice, and with her hair hanging down her back went into the sitting-room to help her husband; for he was turning the place upside down. He had a pair of probe-scissors somewhere, he felt sure, if he could only lay hands on them. And while he ransacked drawers and cupboards for one or other of the few poor instruments left him, his thoughts went back, inopportunely enough, to the time when he had been surgeon's dresser in the Edinburgh Royal Infirmary. O TEMPORA, O MORES! He wondered what old Syme, that prince of surgeons, would say, could he see his whilom student raking out a probe from among the ladles and kitchen spoons, a roll of lint from behind the saucepans.
Bag in hand, he followed his guide to where the latter had left a horse in safe-keeping; and having lengthened the stirrups and received instructions about the road, he set off for the hut in the ranges which Purdy had contrived to reach. He had an awkward cross-country ride of some four miles before him; but this did not trouble him. The chance-touched spring had opened the gates to a flood of memories; and, as he jogged along, he re-lived in thought the happy days spent as a student under the shadow of Arthur's Seat, round the College, the Infirmary and old Surgeons' Square. Once more he sat in the theatre, the breathless spectator of famous surgical operations; or as house-surgeon to the Lying-in Hospital himself assisted in daring attempts to lessen suffering and save life. It was, of course, too late now to bemoan the fact that he had broken with his profession. Yet only that very day envy had beset him. The rest of the fraternity had run to and from the tents where the wounded were housed, while he, behung with his shopman's apron, pottered about among barrels and crates. No one thought of enlisting his services; another, not he, would set (or bungle) the fracture he had temporarily splinted.
The hut—it had four slab walls and an earthen floor—was in darkness on his arrival, for Purdy had not dared to make a light. He lay tossing restlessly on a dirty old straw palliasse, and was in great pain; but greeted his friend with a dash of the old brio.
Hanging his coat over the chinks in the door, and turning back his sleeves, Mahony took up the lantern and stooped to examine the injured leg. A bullet had struck the right ankle, causing an ugly wound. He washed it out, dressed and bandaged it. He also bathed the patient's sweat-soaked head and shoulders; then sat down to await the owner of the hut's return.
As soon as the latter appeared he took his leave, promising to ride out again the night after next. In spite of the circumstances under which they met, he and Purdy parted with a slight coolness. Mahony had loudly voiced his surprise at the nature of the wound caused by the bullet: it was incredible that any of the military could have borne a weapon of this calibre. Pressed, Purdy admitted that his hurt was a piece of gross ill-luck: he had been accidentally shot by a clumsy fool of a digger, from an ancient holster-pistol.
To Mahony this seemed to cap the climax; and he did not mask his sentiments. The pitiful little forcible-feeble rebellion, all along but a futile attempt to cast straws against the wind, was now completely over and done with, and would never be heard of again. Or such at least, he added, was the earnest hope of the law-abiding community. This irritated Purdy, who was spumy with the self-importance of one who has stood in the thick of the fray. He answered hotly, and ended by rapping out with a contemptuous click of the tongue: "Upon my word, Dick, you look at the whole thing like the tradesman you are!"
These words rankled in Mahony all the way home.—Trust Purdy for not, in anger, being able to resist giving him a flick on the raw. It made him feel thankful he was no longer so dependent on this friendship as of old. Since then he had tasted better things. Now, a woman's heart beat in sympathetic understanding; there met his, two lips which had never said an unkind word. He pushed on with a new zest, reaching home about dawn. And over his young wife's joy at his safe return, he forgot the shifting moods of his night-journey.
It had, however, this result. Next day Polly found him with his head in one of the great old shabby black books which, to her mind, spoilt the neat appearance of the bookshelves. He stood to read, the volume lying open before him on the top of the cold stove, and was so deeply engrossed that the store-bell rang twice without his hearing it. When, reminded that Hempel was absent, he whipped out to answer it, he carried the volume with him.
But his first treatment of Purdy's wound was also his last. Two nights later he found the hut deserted; and diligently as he prowled round it in the moonlight, he could discover no clue to the fate of its occupants. There was nothing to be done but to head his horse for home again. Polly was more fortunate. Within three days of the fight Ned turned up, sound as a bell. He was sporting a new hat, a flashy silk neckerchief and a silver watch and chain. At sight of these kickshaws a dismal suspicion entered Mahony's mind, and refused to be dislodged. But he did not breathe his doubts—for Polly's sake. Polly was rapturously content to see her brother again. She threw her arms round his neck, and listened, with her big, black, innocent eyes—except for their fleckless candour, the counterpart of Ned's own—to the tale of his miraculous escape, and of the rich gutter he had had the good luck to strike.
Meanwhile public feeling, exasperated beyond measure by the tragedy of that summer dawn, slowly subsided. Hesitation, timidity, and a very human waiting on success had held many diggers back from joining in the final coup; but the sympathy of the community was with the rebels, and at the funerals of the fallen, hundreds of mourners, in such black coats as they could muster, marched side by side to the wild little unfenced bush cemetery. When, too, the relief-party arrived from Melbourne and martial law was proclaimed, the residents handed over their firearms as ordered; but an attempt to swear in special constables failed, not a soul stepping forward in support of the government.
There was literally nothing doing during the month the military occupied Ballarat. Mahony seized the opportunity to give his back premises a coat of paint; he also began to catalogue his collection of Lepidoptera. Hence, as far as business was concerned, it was a timely moment for the arrival of a letter from Henry Ocock, to the effect that, "subject of course to any part-heard case," "our case" was first on the list for a date early in January.
None the less, the announcement threw Mahony into the fidgets. He had almost clean forgotten the plaguey affair: it had its roots in the dark days before his marriage. He wished now he had thought twice before letting himself be entangled in a lawsuit. Now, he had a wife dependent on him, and to lose the case, and be held responsible for costs, would cripple him. And such a verdict was not at all unlikely; for Purdy, his chief witness, could not be got at: the Lord alone knew where Purdy lay hid. He at once sat down and wrote the bad news to his solicitor.
At six o'clock in the morning some few days later, he took his seat in the coach for Melbourne. By his side sat Johnny Ocock, the elder of the two brothers. Johnny had by chance been within earshot during the negotiations with the rascally carrier, and on learning this, Henry had straightway subpoenaed him. Mahony was none too well pleased: the boy threatened to be a handful. His old father, on delivering him up at the coach-office, had drawn Mahony aside to whisper: "Don't let the young limb out o' yer sight, doc., or get nip or sip o' liquor. If 'e so much as wets 'is tongue, there's no 'olding 'im." Johnny was a lean, pimply-faced youth, with cold, flabby hands.
Little Polly had to stay behind. Mahony would have liked to give her the trip and show her the sights of the capital; but the law-courts were no place for a woman; neither could he leave her sitting alone in a hotel. And a tentative letter to her brother John had not called forth an invitation: Mrs. Emma was in delicate health at present, and had no mind for visitors. So he committed Polly to the care of Hempel and Long Jim, both of whom were her faithful henchmen. She herself, in proper wifely fashion, proposed to give her little house a good red-up in its master's absence.
Mahony and Johnny dismounted from the coach in the early afternoon, sore, stiff and hungry: they had broken their fast merely on half-a-dozen sandwiches, keeping their seats the while that the young toper might be spared the sight of intoxicating liquors. Now, stopping only to brush off the top layer of dust and snatch a bite of solid food, Mahony hastened away, his witness at heel, to Chancery Lane.
It was a relief to find that Ocock was not greatly put out at Purdy having failed them. "Leave it to us, sir. We'll make that all right." As on the previous visit he dry-washed his hands while he spoke, and his little eyes shot flashes from one to the other, like electric sparks. He proposed just to run through the morrow's evidence with "our young friend there"; and in the course of this rehearsal said more than once: "Good ... good! Why, sonny, you're quite smart." This when Johnny succeeded in grasping his drift. But at the least hint of unreadiness or hesitation, he tut-tutted and drew his brows together. And as it went on, it seemed to Mahony that Ocock was putting words into the boy's mouth; while Johnny, intimidated, said yes and amen to things he could not possibly know. Presently he interfered to this effect. Ocock brushed his remark aside. But after a second interruption from Mahony: "I think, sir, with your permission we will ask John not to depart from what he actually heard," the lawyer shuffled his papers into a heap and said that would do for to-day: they would meet at the court in the morning. Prior to shaking hands, however, he threw out a hint that he would like a word with his brother on family matters. And for half an hour Mahony paced the street below.
The remainder of the day was spent in keeping Johnny out of temptation's way, in trying to interest him in the life of the city, its monuments and curiosities. But the lad was too apathetic to look about him, and never opened his mouth. Once only in the course of the afternoon did he offer a kind of handle. In their peregrinations they passed a Book Arcade, where Mahony stopped to turn the leaves of a volume. Johnny also took up a book, and began to read.
"What is it?" asked Mahony. "Would you like to have it, my boy?"
Johnny stonily accepted the gift—it was a tale of Red Indians, the pages smudged with gaudy illustrations—and put it under his arm.
At the good supper that was set before him he picked with a meagre zest; then fell asleep. Mahony took the opportunity to write a line to Polly to tell of their safe arrival; and having sealed the letter, ran out to post it. He was not away for more than three minutes, but when he came back Johnny was gone. He hunted high and low for him, ransacked the place without success: the boy had spoken to no one, nor had he been seen to leave the coffee-room; and as the clock-hands were nearing twelve, Mahony was obliged to give up the search and go back to the hotel. It was impossible at that hour to let Ocock know of this fresh piece of ill-luck. Besides, there was just a chance the young scamp would turn up in the morning. Morning came, however, and no Johnny with it. Outwitted and chagrined, Mahony set off for the court alone.
Day had broken dim and misty, and by the time breakfast was over a north wind was raging—a furnace-like blast that bore off the sandy deserts of the interior. The sun was a yellow blotch in a copper sky; the thermometer had leapt to a hundred and ten in the shade. Blinding clouds of coarse, gritty dust swept house-high through the streets: half-suffocated, Mahony fought his way along, his veil lowered, his handkerchief at his mouth. Outside those public-houses that advertised ice, crowds stood waiting their turn of entry; while half-naked barmen, their linen trousers drenched with sweat, worked like niggers to mix drinks which should quench these bottomless thirsts. Mahony believed he was the only perfectly sober person in the lobby of the court. Even Ocock himself would seem to have been indulging.
This suspicion was confirmed by the lawyer's behaviour. No sooner did Ocock espy him than up he rushed, brandishing the note that had been got to him early that morning—and now his eyes looked like little dabs of pitch in his chalk-white face, and his manner, stripped of its veneer, let the real man show through.
"Curse it, sir, and what's the meaning of this, I'd like to know?" he cried, and struck at the sheet of notepaper with his free hand. "A pretty fix to put us in at the last minute, upon my word! It was your business, sir, to nurse your witness ... after all the trouble I'd been to with him! What the devil do you expect us to do now?"
Mahony's face paled under its top-dressing of dust and moisture. To Ocock's gross: "Well, it's your own look-out, confound you!—entirely your own look-out," he returned a cool: "Certainly," then moved to one side and took up his stand in a corner of the hall, out of the way of the jostle and bustle, the constant going and coming that gave the hinges of the door no rest.
When after a weary wait the time came to enter court, he continued to give Ocock, who had been deep in consultation with his clerk, a wide berth, and moved forward among a number of other people. A dark, ladder-like stair led to the upper storey. While he was mounting this, some words exchanged in a low tone behind him arrested his attention.
"Are you O.K., old man?"
"We are, if our client doesn't give us away. But he has to be handled like a hot—" Here the sentence snapped, for Mahony, bitten by a sudden doubt, faced sharply round. But it was a stranger who uncivilly accused him of treading on his toe.
The court—it was not much more than twenty feet square—was like an ill-smelling oven. Every chink and crack had been stopped against the searing wind; and the atmosphere was a brew of all the sour odours, the offensive breaths, given off by the two-score odd people crushed within its walls. In spite of precautions the dust had got in: it lay thick on sills, desks and papers, gritted between the teeth, made the throat raspy as a file.
Mahony had given up all hope of winning his case, and looked forward to the sorry pleasure of assisting at a miscarriage of justice. During the speech for the plaintiff, however, he began to see the matter in another light. Not so much thanks to the speaker, as in spite of him. Plaintiff's counsel was a common little fellow of ungainly appearance: a double toll of fat bulged over the neck of his gown, and his wig, hastily re-donned after a breathing-space, sat askew. Nor was he anything of an orator: he stumbled over his sentences, and once or twice lost his place altogether. To his dry presentment of the case nobody seemed to pay heed. The judge, tired of wiping his spectacles dry, leant back and closed his eyes. Mahony believed he slept, as did also some of the jurors, deaf to the Citation of Dawes V. Peck and Dunlop V. Lambert; to the assertion that the carrier was the agent, the goods were accepted, the property had "passed." This "passing" of the property was evidently a strong point; the plaintiff's name itself was not much oftener on the speaker's lips. "The absconding driver, me Lud, was a personal friend of the defendant's. Mr. Bolliver never knew him; hence could not engage him. Had this person not been thrust upon him, Mr. Bolliver would have employed the same carrier as on a previous occasion." And so on and on.
Mahony listened hand at ear, that organ not being keyed up to the mutterings and mumblings of justice. And for all the dullness of the subject-matter and counsel's lack of eloquence his interest did not flag. It was the first time he heard the case for the other side stated plainly; and he was dismayed to find how convincing it was. Put thus, it must surely gain over every honest, straight-thinking man. In comparison, the points Ocock was going to advance shrank to mere legal quibbles and hair-splitting evasions.
Then the plaintiff himself went into the witness-box—and Mahony's feelings became involved as well. This his adversary!—this poor old mangy greybeard, who stood blinking a pair of rheumy eyes and weakly smiling. One did not pit oneself against such human flotsam. Drunkard was stamped on every inch of the man, but this morning, in odd exception to the well-primed crew around him, he was sober—bewilderedly sober—and his shabby clothing was brushed, his frayed collar clean. Recognising the pitiful bid for sympathy, Mahony caught himself thinking: "Good Lord! I could have supplied him with a coat he'd have cut a better figure than that in."
Bolliver clutched the edge of the box with his two hands. His unusual condition was a hindrance rather than a help to him; without a peg or two his woolly thoughts were not to be disentangled. He stammered forth his evidence, halting either to piece together what he was going to say, or to recollect what he had just said—it was clear he went in mortal fear of contradicting himself. The scene was painful enough while he faced his own counsel, but, when counsel for the defence rose, a half-hour followed in which Mahony wished himself far from the court.
Bolliver could not come to the point. Counsel was merciless and coarsely jocose, and brought off several laughs. His victim wound his knotty hands in and out, and swallowed oftener than he had saliva for, in a forlorn endeavour to evade the pitfalls artfully dug for him. More than once he threw a covert glance, that was like an appeal for help, at all the indifferent faces. Mahony drooped his head, that their eyes should not meet.
In high feather at the effect he was producing, counsel inserted his left arm under his gown, and held the stuff out from his back with the tips of all five fingers.
"And now you'll p'raps have the goodness to tell us whether you've ever had occasion to send goods by a carrier before, in the course of your young life?"
"Yes." It was a humble monosyllable, returned without spirit.
"Then of course you've heard of this Murphy?"
"N ... no, I haven't," answered Bolliver, and let his vacillating eyes wander to the judge and back.
"You tell that to the marines!" And after half a dozen other tricky questions: "I put it to you, it's a well-known fact that he's been a carrier hereabouts for the last couple o' years or more?"
"I don't know—I sup ... sup-pose so." Bolliver's tongue grew heavy and tripped up his words.
"And yet you've the cheek, you old rogue you, to insinuate that this was a put-up job?"
"I ... I only say what I heard."
"I don't care a button what you heard or didn't hear. What I ask, my pretty, is do you yourself say so?"
"The ... the defendant recommended him."
"I put it to you, this man Murphy was one of the best known carriers in Melbourne, and THAT was why the defendant recommended him—are you out to deny it?"
"N ... n ... no."
"Then you can stand down!" and leaning over to Grindle, who was below him, counsel whispered with a pleased spread of the hand: "There you are! that's our case."
There was a painful moment just before Bolliver left the witness-box. As if become suddenly alive to the sorry figure he had cut, he turned to the judge with hands clasped, exclaimed: "My Lord, if the case goes against me, I'm done ... stony-broke! And the defendant's got a down on me, my Lord—'e's made up his mind to ruin me. Look at him a-setting there—a hard man, a mean man, if ever you saw one! What would the bit of money 'ave meant to 'im? But ..."
He was rudely silenced and hustled away, to a sharp rebuke from the judge, who woke up to give it. All eyes were turned on Mahony. Under the fire of observation—they were comparing him, he knew, with the poor old Jeremy Diddler yonder, to the latter's disadvantage—his spine stiffened and he held himself nervously erect. But, the quizzing at an end, he fumbled with his finger at his neck—his collar seemed to have grown too tight. While, without, the hot blast, dark with dust, flung itself against the corners of the house, and howled like a soul in pain.
Counsel for the defence made an excellent impression. "Naturally! I can afford to pay a better-class man," was Mahony's caustic note. He had fallen to scribbling on a sheet of paper, and was resigned to sitting through an adept presentment of Ocock's shifts and dodges. But the opening words made him prick up his ears.
"My Lord," said counsel, "I submit there is here no case to go to the jury. No written contract existed between the parties, to bring it within the Statute of Frauds. Therefore, the plaintiff must prove that the defendant accepted these goods. Now I submit to you, on the plaintiff's own admission, that the man Murphy was a common carrier. Your Lordship will know the cases of Hanson V. Armitage and various others, in which it has been established beyond doubt that a carrier is not an agent to accept goods."
The judge had revived, and while counsel called the quality of the undelivered goods in question, and laid stress on the fact of no money having passed, he turned the pages of a thick red book with a moistened thumb. Having found what he sought, he pushed up his spectacles, opened his mouth, and, his eyes bent meditatively on the speaker, picked a back tooth with the nail of his first finger.
"Therefore," concluded counsel, "I hold that there is no question of fact to go to the jury. I do not wish to occupy your Lordship's time any further upon this submission. I have my client here, and all his witnesses are in court whom I am prepared to call, should your Lordship decide against me on the present point. But I do submit that the plaintiff, on his own showing, has made out no case; and that under the circumstances, upon his own evidence, this action must fail."
At the reference to witnesses, Mahony dug his pencil into the paper till the point snapped. So this was their little game! And should the bluff not work ...? He sat rigid, staring at the chipped fragment of lead, and did not look up throughout the concluding scene of the farce.
It was over; the judge had decided in his favour. He jumped to his feet, and his coat-sleeve swept the dust off the entire length of the ledge in front of him. But before he reached the foot of the stairs Grindle came flying down, to say that Ocock wished to speak to him. Very good, replied Mahony, he would call at the office in the course of the afternoon. But the clerk left the courthouse at his side. And suddenly the thought flashed through Mahony's mind: "The fellow suspects me of trying to do a bolt—of wanting to make off without paying my bill!"
The leech-like fashion in which Grindle stuck to his heels was not to be misread. "This is what they call nursing, I suppose—he's nursing ME now!" said Mahony to himself. At the same time he reckoned up, with some anxiety, the money he had in his pocket. Should it prove insufficient, who knew what further affronts were in store for him.
But Ocock had recovered his oily sleekness.
"A close shave that, sir, a VE-RY close shave! With Warnock on the bench I thought we could manage to pull it off. Had it been Guppy now ... Still, all's well that ends well, as the poet says. And now for a trifling matter of business."
"How much do I owe you?"
The bill—it was already drawn up—for "solicitor's and client's costs" came to twenty odd pounds. Mahony paid it, and stalked out of the office.
But this was still not all. Once again Grindle ran after him, and pinned him to the floor.
"I say, Mr. Mahony, a rare joke—gad, it's enough to make you burst your sides! That old thingumbob, the plaintiff, ye know, now what'n earth d'you think 'e's been an' done? Gets outer court like one o'clock—'e'd a sorter rabbit-fancyin' business in 'is backyard. Well, 'ome 'e trots an' slits the guts of every blamed bunny, an' chucks the bloody corpses inter the street. Oh lor! What do you say to that, eh? Unfurnished in the upper storey, what? Heh, heh, heh!"
How truly "home" the poor little gimcrack shanty had become to him, Mahony grasped only when he once more crossed its threshold and Polly's arms lay round his neck.
His search for Johnny Ocock had detained him in Melbourne for over a week. Under the guidance of young Grindle he had scoured the city, not omitting even the dens of infamy in the Chinese quarter; and he did not know which to be more saddened by: the revolting sights he saw, or his guide's proud familiarity with every shade of vice. But nothing could be heard of the missing lad; and at the suggestion of Henry Ocock he put an advertisement in the ARGUS, offering a substantial reward for news of Johnny alive or dead.
While waiting to see what this would bring forth, he paid a visit to John Turnham. It had not been part of his scheme to trouble his new relatives on this occasion; he bore them a grudge for the way they had met Polly's overture. But he was at his wits' end how to kill time: chafing at the delay was his main employment, if he were not worrying over the thought of having to appear before old Ocock without his son. So, one midday he called at Turnham's place of business in Flinders Lane, and was affably received by John, who carried him off to lunch at the Melbourne Club. Turnham was a warm partisan of the diggers' cause. He had addressed a mass meeting held in Melbourne, soon after the fight on the Eureka; and he now roundly condemned the government's policy of repression.
"I am, as you are aware, my dear Mahony, no sentimentalist. But these rioters of yours seem to me the very type of man the country needs. Could we have a better bedrock on which to build than these fearless champions of liberty?"
He set an excellent meal before his brother-in-law, and himself ate and drank heartily, unfolding his very table-napkin with a kind of relish. In lunching, he inquired the object of Mahony's journey to town. At the mention of Henry Ocock's name he raised his eyebrows and pursed his lips.
"Ah, indeed! Then it is hardly necessary to ask the upshot."
He pooh-poohed Mahony's intention of staying till the defaulting witness was found; disapproved, too, the offer of a reward. "To be paid out of YOUR pocket, of course! No, my dear Mahony, set your mind at rest and return to your wife. Lads of that sort never come to grief—more's the pity! By the bye, how IS Polly, and how does she like life on the diggings?"
In this connection, Mahony tendered congratulations on the expected addition to Turnham's family. John embarked readily enough on the theme of his beautiful wife; but into his voice, as he talked, came a note of impatience or annoyance, which formed an odd contrast to his wonted self-possession. "Yes... her third, and for some reason which I cannot fathom, it threatens to prove the most trying of any." And here he went into medical detail on Mrs. Emma's state.
Mahony urged compliance with the whims of the mother-to-be, even should they seem extravagant. "Believe me, at a time like this such moods and caprices have their use. Nature very well knows what she is about."
"Nature? Bah! I am no great believer in nature," gave back John, and emptied his glass of madeira. "Nature exists to be coerced and improved."
They parted; and Mahony went back to twirl his thumbs in the hotel coffee-room. He could not persuade himself to take Turnham's advice and leave Johnny to his fate. And the delay was nearly over. At dawn next morning Johnny was found lying in a pitiable condition at the door of the hotel. It took Mahony the best part of the day to rouse him; to make him understand he was not to be horsewhipped; to purchase a fresh suit of clothing for him: to get him, in short, halfway ready to travel the following day—a blear-eyed, weak-witted craven, who fell into a cold sweat at every bump of the coach. Not till they reached the end of the awful journey—even a Chinaman rose to impudence about Johnny's nerves, his foul breath, his cracked lips—did Mahony learn how the wretched boy had come by the money for his debauch. At the public-house where the coach drew up, old Ocock stood grimly waiting, with a leather thong at his belt, and the news that his till had been broken open and robbed of its contents. With an involuntary recommendation to mercy, Mahony handed over the culprit and turned his steps home.
Polly stood on tip-toe to kiss him; Pompey barked till the roof rang, making leaps that fell wide of the mark; the cat hoisted its tail, and wound purring in and out between his legs. Tea was spread, on a clean cloth, with all sorts of good things to eat; an English mail had brought him a batch of letters and journals. Altogether it was a very happy home-coming.
When he had had a sponge-down and finished tea, over which he listened, with a zest that surprised him, to a hundred and one domestic details: afterwards he and Polly strolled arm-in-arm to the top of the little hill to which, before marriage, he used to carry her letters. Here they sat and talked till night fell; and, for the first time, Mahony tasted the dregless pleasure of coming back from the world outside with his toll of adventure, and being met by a woman's lively and disinterested sympathy. Agreeable incidents gained, those that were the reverse of pleasing lost their sting by being shared with Polly. Not that he told her everything; of the dark side of life he greatly preferred little Polly to remain ignorant. Still, as far as it went, it was a delightful experience. In return he confessed to her something of the uncertainty that had beset him, on hearing his opponent's counsel state the case for the other side. It was disquieting to think he might be suspected of advancing a claim that was not strictly just.
"Suspected? ... YOU? Oh, how could anybody be so silly!"
For all the fatigues of his day Mahony could not sleep. And after tossing and tumbling for some time, he rose, threw on his clothing and went out to smoke a pipe in front of the store. Various worries were pecking at him—the hint he had given Polly of their existence seemed to have let them fairly loose upon him. Of course he would be—he was—suspected of having connived at the imposture by which his suit was won—why else have put it in the hands of such a one as Ocock? John Turnham's soundless whistle of astonishment recurred to him, and flicked him. Imagine it! He, Richard Mahony, giving his sanction to these queasy tricks!
It was bad enough to know that Ocock at any rate had believed him not averse from winning by unjust means. Yet, on the whole, he thought this mortified him less than to feel that he had been written down a Simple Simon, whom it was easy to impose on. Ah well! At best he had been but a kind of guy, set up for them to let off their verbal fireworks round. Faith and that was all these lawyer-fellows wanted—the ghost of an excuse for parading their skill. Justice played a negligible role in this battle of wits; else not he but the plaintiff would have come out victorious. That wretched Bolliver! ... the memory of him wincing and flushing in the witness-box would haunt him for the rest of his days. He could see him, too, with equal clearness, broken-heartedly slitting the gizzards of his, pets. A poor old derelict—the amen to a life which, like most lives, had once been flush with promise. And it had been his Mahony's., honourable portion to give the last kick, the ultimate shove into perdition. Why, he would rather have lost the money ten times over!
To divert his mind, he began next morning to make an inventory of the goods in the store. It was high time, too: thanks to the recent disturbances he did not know where he stood. And while he was about it, he gave the place a general clean-up. A job of this kind was a powerful ally in keeping edged thoughts at bay. He and his men had their hands full for several days, Polly, who was not allowed to set foot in the store, peeping critically in at them to see how they progressed. And, after business hours, there was little Polly herself.
He loved to contemplate her.
Six months of married life had worked certain changes in his black-eyed slip of a girl; but something of the doe-like shyness that had caught his fancy still clung to her. With strangers she could even yet be touchingly bashful. Not long out of short frocks, she found it difficult to stand upon her dignity as Mrs. Dr. Mahony. Besides, it was second nature to Polly to efface herself, to steal mousily away. Unless, of course, some one needed help or was in distress, in which case she forgot to be shy. To her husband's habits and idiosyncrasies she had adapted herself implicitly—but this came easy; for she was sure everything Richard did was right, and that his way of looking at things was the one and only way. So there was no room for discord between them. By this time Polly could laugh over the dismay of her first homecoming: the pitch-dark night and unfamiliar road, the racket of the serenade, the apparition of the great spider: now, all this might have happened to somebody else, not Polly Mahony. Her dislike of things that creep and crawl was, it is true, inborn, and persisted; but nowadays if one of the many "triantelopes" that infested the roof showed its hairy legs, she had only to call Hempel, and out the latter would pop with a broomstick, to do away with the creature. If a scorpion or a centipede wriggled from under a log, the cry of "Tom!" would bring the idle lad next door double-quick over the fence. Polly had learnt not to summon her husband on these occasions; for Richard held to the maxim: "Live and let live." If at night a tarantula appeared on the bedroom-wall, he caught it in a covered glass and carried it outside: "Just to come in again," was her rueful reflection. But indeed Polly was surrounded by willing helpers. And small wonder, thought Mahony. Her young nerves were so sound that Hempel's dry cough never grated them: she doctored him and fussed over him, and was worried that she could not cure him. She met Long Jim's grumbles with a sunny face, and listened patiently to his forebodings that he would never see "home" or his old woman again. She even brought out a clumsy good-will in the young varmint Tom; nor did his old father's want of refinement repel her.
"But, Richard, he's such a kind old man," she met her husband's admission of this stumbling-block. "And it isn't his fault that he wasn't properly educated. He has had to work for his living ever since he was twelve years old."
And Mr. Ocock cried quits by remarking confidentially: "That little lady o' yours 'as got 'er 'eadpiece screwed on the right way. It beats me, doc., why you don't take 'er inter the store and learn 'er the bizness. No offence, I'm sure," he made haste to add, disconcerted by Mahony's cold stare.
Had anyone at this date tried to tell Polly she lived in a mean, rough home, he would have had a poor reception. Polly was long since certain that not a house on the diggings could compare with theirs. This was a trait Mahony loved in her—her sterling loyalty; a loyalty that embraced not only her dear ones themselves, but every stick and stone belonging to them. His discovery of it helped him to understand her allegiance to her own multicoloured family: in the beginning he had almost doubted its sincerity. Now, he knew her better. It was just as though a sixth sense had been implanted in Polly, enabling her to pierce straight through John's self-sufficiency or Ned's vapourings, to the real kernel of goodness that no doubt lay hid below. He himself could not get at it; but then his powers of divination were the exact opposite of Polly's. He was always struck by the weak or ridiculous side of a person, and had to dig laboriously down to the virtues. While his young wife, by a kind of genius, saw the good at a glance—and saw nothing else. And she did not stint with her gift, or hoard it up solely for use on her own kith and kin. Her splendid sympathy was the reverse of clannish; it was applied to every mortal who crossed her path.
Yes, for all her youth, Polly had quite a character of her own; and even thus early her husband sometimes ran up against a certain native sturdiness of opinion. But this did not displease him; on the contrary, he would have thanked you for a wife who was only an echo of himself. To take the case of the animals. He had a profound respect for those creatures to which speech has been denied; and he treated the four-footers that dwelt under his roof as his fellows, humanising them, reading his own thoughts into them, and showing more consideration for their feelings than if they had been able to speak up for themselves. Polly saw this in the light of an exquisite joke. She was always kind to Pompey and the stately Palmerston, and would as soon have forgotten to set Richard's dinner before him as to feed the pair; but they remained "the dog" and "the cat" to her, and, if they had enough to eat, and received neither kicks nor blows, she could not conceive of their souls asking more. It went beyond her to study the cat's dislike to being turned off its favourite chair, or to believe that the dog did not make dirty prints on her fresh scrubbed floor out of malice prepense; it was also incredible that he should have doggy fits of depression, in which up he must to stick a cold, slobbery snout into a warm human hand. And when Richard tried to conciliate Palmerston stalking sulky to the door, or to pet away the melancholy in the rejected Pompey's eyes, Polly had to lay down her sewing and laugh at her husband, so greatly did his behaviour amuse her.
Again, there was the question of literature. Books to Mahony were almost as necessary as bread; to his girl-wife, on the other hand, they seemed a somewhat needless luxury—less vital by far than the animals that walked the floor. She took great care of the precious volumes Richard had had carted up from Melbourne; but the cost of the transport was what impressed her most. It was not an overstatement, thought Mahony, to say that a stack of well-chopped, neatly piled wood meant more to Polly than all the books ever written. Not that she did not enjoy a good story: her work done, she liked few things better; and he often smiled at the ease with which she lived herself into the world of make-believe, knowing, of course, that it WAS make-believe and just a kind of humbug. But poetry, and the higher fiction! Little Polly's professed love for poetry had been merely a concession to the conventional idea of girlhood; or, at best, such a burning wish to be all her Richard desired, that, at the moment, she was convinced of the truth of what she said. But did he read to her from his favourite authors her attention WOULD wander, in spite of the efforts she made to pin it down.
'TIS THE SUNSET OF LIFE GIVES US MYSTICAL LORE,
AND COMING EVENTS CAST THEIR SHADOWS BEFORE,
and his pleasure in the swing of the couplet was such that he repeated it.
Polly wakened with a start. Her thoughts had been miles away—had been back at the "Family Hotel". There Purdy, after several adventures, his poor leg a mass of supuration, had at length betaken himself, to be looked after by his Tilly; and Polly's hopes were all alight again.
She blushed guiltily at the repetition, and asked her husband to say the lines once again. He did so.
"But they don't really, Richard, do they?" she said in an apologetic tone—she referred to the casting of shadows. "It would be so useful if they did—" and she drew a sigh at Purdy's dilatory treatment of the girl who loved him so well.
"Oh, you prosaic little woman!" cried Mahony, and laid down his book to kiss her. It was impossible to be vexed with Polly: she was so honest, so transparent. "Did you never hear of a certain something called poetic licence?"
No: Polly was more or less familiar with various other forms of licence, from the gold-diggers' that had caused all the fuss, down to the special licence by which she had been married; but this particular one had not come her way. And on Richard explaining to her the liberty poets allowed themselves, she shifted uncomfortably in her chair, and was sorry to think he approved. It seemed to her just a fine name for wanton exaggeration—if not something worse.
There were also those long evenings they spent over the first hundred pages of WAVERLEY. Mahony, eager for her to share his enthusiasm, comforted her each night anew that they would soon reach the story proper, and then, how interested she would be! But the opening chapters were a sandy desert of words, all about people duller than any Polly had known alive; and sometimes, before the book was brought out, she would heave a secret sigh—although, of course, she enjoyed sitting cosily together with Richard, watching him and listening to his voice. But they might have put their time to a pleasanter use: by talking of themselves, or their friends, or how further to improve their home, or what the store was doing.
Mahony saw her smiling to herself one evening; and after assuring himself that there was nothing on the page before him to call that pleased look to her young face, he laid the book down and offered her a penny for her thoughts. But Polly was loath to confess to wool-gathering.
"I haven't succeeded in interesting you, have I, Pollikins?"
She made haste to contradict him. Oh, it was very nice, and she loved to hear him read.
"Come, honestly now, little woman!"
She faced him squarely at that, though with pink cheeks. "Well, not much, Richard."
He took her on his knee. "And what were you smiling at?"
"Me? Oh, I was just thinking of something that happened yesterday"—and Polly sat up, agog to tell.
It appeared that the day before, while he was out, the digger's wife who did Polly's rough work for her had rushed in, crying that her youngest was choking. Bonnetless, Polly had flown across to the woman's hut. There she discovered the child, a fat youngster of a year or so, purple in the face, with a button wedged in its throat. Taking it by the heels she shook the child vigorously, upside-down; and, lo and behold! this had the opposite effect to what she intended. When they straightened the child out again the button was found to have passed the danger-point and gone down. Quickly resolved, Polly cut slice on slice of thin bread-and-butter, and with this she and Mrs. Hemmerde stuffed the willing babe till, full to bursting, it warded them off with its tiny hands.
Mahony laughed heartily at the tale, and applauded his wife's prompt measures. "Short of the forceps nothing could have been better!"
Yes, Polly had a dash of native shrewdness, which he prized. And a pair of clever hands that were never idle. He had given her leave to make any changes she chose in the house, and she was for ever stitching away at white muslin, or tacking it over pink calico. These affairs made their little home very spick and span, and kept Polly from feeling dull—if one could imagine Polly dull! With the cooking alone had there been a hitch in the beginning. Like a true expert Mrs. Beamish had not tolerated understudies: none but the lowliest jobs, such as raisin-stoning or potato-peeling, had fallen to the three girls' share: and in face of her first fowl Polly stood helpless and dismayed. But not for long. Sarah was applied to for the best cookery-book on sale in Melbourne, and when this arrived, Polly gave herself up to the study of it. She had many failures, both private and avowed. With the worst, she either retired behind the woodstack, or Tom disposed of them for her, or the dog ate them up. But she persevered: and soon Mahony could with truth declare that no one raised a better loaf or had a lighter hand at pastry than his wife.
Three knocks on the wooden partition was the signal which, if he were not serving a customer, summoned him to the kitchen.
"Oh, Richard, it's ripen beautifully!" And, red with heat and pride, Polly drew a great golden-crusted, blown-up sponge-cake along the oven shelf. Richard, who had a sweet tooth, pretended to be unable to curb his impatience.
"Wait! First I must see ..." and she plunged a knife into the cake's heart: it came out untarnished. "Yes, it's done to a turn."
There and then it was cut; for, said Mahony, that was the only way in which he could make sure of a piece. Afterwards chunks were dealt out to every one Polly knew—to Long Jim, Hempel, Tommy Ocock, the little Hemmerdes. Side by side on the kitchen-table, their feet dangling in the air, husband and wife sat boy-and-girl fashion and munched hot cake, till their appetites for dinner were wrecked.
But the rains that heralded winter—and they set in early that year—had not begun to fall when more serious matters claimed Mahony's attention.
It was an odd and inexplicable thing that business showed no sign of improving. Affairs on Ballarat had, for months past, run their usual prosperous course. The western township grew from day to day, and was straggling right out to the banks of the great swamp. On the Flat, the deep sinking that was at present the rule—some parties actually touched a depth of three hundred feet before bottoming—had brought a fresh host of fortune-hunters to the spot, and the results obtained bid fair to rival those of the first golden year. The diggers' grievances and their conflict with the government were now a turned page. At a state trial all prisoners had been acquitted, and a general amnesty declared for those rebels who were still at large. Unpopular ministers had resigned or died; a new constitution for the colony awaited the Royal assent; and pending this, two of the rebel-leaders, now prominent townsmen, were chosen to sit in the Legislative Council. The future could not have looked rosier. For others, that was. For him, Mahony, it held more than one element of uncertainty.
At no time had he come near making a fortune out of storekeeping. For one thing, he had been too squeamish. From the outset he had declined to soil his hands with surreptitious grog-selling; nor would he be a party to that evasion of the law which consisted in overcharging on other goods, and throwing in drinks free. Again, he would rather have been hamstrung than stoop to the tricks in vogue with regard to the weighing of gold-dust: the greased scales, the wet sponge, false beams, and so on. Accordingly, he had a clearer conscience than the majority and a lighter till. But even at the legitimate ABC of business he had proved a duffer. He had never, for instance, learned to be a really skilled hand at stocking a shop. Was an out-of-the-way article called for, ten to one he had run short of it; and the born shopman's knack of palming off or persuading to a makeshift was not his. Such goods as he had, he did not press on people; his attitude was always that of "take it or leave it"; and he sometimes surprised a ridiculous feeling of satisfaction when he chased a drunken and insolent customer off the premises, or secured an hour's leisure unbroken by the jangle of the store-bell.
Still, in spite of everything he had, till recently, done well enough. Money was loose, and the diggers, if given long credit when down on their luck, were in the main to be relied on to pay up when they struck the lead or tapped a pocket. He had had slack seasons before now, and things had always come right again. This made it hard for him to explain the present prolonged spell of dullness.
That there was something more than ordinarily wrong first dawned on him during the stock-taking in summer. Hempel and he were constantly coming upon goods that had been too long on hand, and were now fit only to be thrown away. Half-a-dozen boxes of currants showed a respectable growth of mould; a like fate had come upon some flitches of bacon; and not a bag of flour but had developed a species of minute maggot. Rats had got at his coils of rope, one of which, sold in all good faith, had gone near causing the death of the digger who used it. The remains of some smoked fish were brought back and flung at his head with a shower of curses, by a woman who had fallen ill through eating of it. And yet, in spite of the replenishing this involved, the order he sent to town that season was the smallest he had ever given. For the first time he could not fill a dray, but had to share one with a greenhorn, who, if you please, was setting up at his very door.
He and Hempel cracked their brains to account for the falling-off—or at least he did: afterwards he believed Hempel had suspected the truth and been too mealy-mouthed to speak out. It was Polly who innocently—for of course he did not draw her into confidence—Polly supplied the clue from a piece of gossip brought to the house by the woman Hemmerde. It appeared that, at the time of the rebellion, Mahony's open antagonism to the Reform League had given offence all round—to the extremists as well as to the more wary on whose behalf the League was drafted. They now got even with him by taking their custom elsewhere. He snorted with indignation on hearing of it; then laughed ironically. He was expected, was he, not only to bring his personal tastes and habits into line with those of the majority, but to deny his politics as well? And if he refused, they would make it hard for him to earn a decent living in their midst. Nothing seemed easier to these unprincipled democrats than for a man to cut his coat to suit his job. Why, he might just as well turn Whig and be done with it!
He sat over his account-books. The pages were black with bad debts for "tucker." Here however was no mystery. The owners of these names—Purdy was among them—had without doubt been implicated in the Eureka riot, and had made off and never returned. He struck a balance, and found to his consternation that, unless business took a turn for the better, he would not be able to hold out beyond the end of the year. Afterwards, he was blessed if he knew what was going to happen. The ingenious Hempel was full of ideas for tempting back fortune—opening a branch store on a new lead was one of them, or removing bodily to Main Street—but ready money was the SINE QUA NON of such schemes, and ready money he had not got. Since his marriage he had put by as good as nothing; and the enlarging and improving of his house, at that time, had made a big hole in his bachelor savings. He did not feel justified at the present pass in drawing on them anew. For one thing, before summer was out there would be, if all went well, another mouth to feed. And that meant a variety of seen and unforeseen expenses.
Such were the material anxieties he had to encounter in the course of that winter. Below the surface a subtler embarrassment worked to destroy his peace. In face of the shortage of money, he was obliged to thank his stars that he had not lost the miserable lawsuit of a few months back. Had that happened, he wouldn't at present have known where to turn. But this amounted to confessing his satisfaction at having pulled off his case, pulled it off anyhow, by no matter what crooked means. And as if this were not enough, the last words he had heard Purdy say came back to sting him anew. The boy had accused him of judging a fight for freedom from a tradesman's standpoint. Now it might be said of him that he was viewing justice from the same angle. He had scorned the idea of distorting his political opinions to fit the trade by which he gained his bread. But it was a far more serious thing if his principles, his character, his sense of equity were all to be undermined as well. If he stayed here, he would end by becoming as blunt to what was right and fair as the rest of them. As it was, he was no longer able to regard the two great landmarks of man's moral development—liberty and justice—from the point of view of an honest man and a gentleman.
His self-annoyance was so great that it galvanised him to action. There and then he made up his mind: as soon as the child that was coming to them was old enough to travel, he would sell out for what he could get, and go back to the old country. Once upon a time he had hoped, when he went, to take a good round sum with him towards a first-rate English practice. Now he saw that this scheme had been a kind of Jack-o'-lantern—a marsh-light after which he might have danced for years to come. As matters stood, he must needs be content if, the passage-moneys paid, he could scrape together enough to keep him afloat till he found a modest corner to slip into.
His first impulse was to say nothing of this to his wife in the meantime. Why unsettle her? But he had reckoned without the sudden upward leap his spirits made, once his decision was taken: the winter sky was blue as violets again above him; he turned out light-heartedly of a morning. It was impossible to hide the change in his mood from Polly—even if he had felt it fair to do so. Another thing: when he came to study Polly by the light of his new plan, he saw that his scruples about unsettling her were fanciful—wraiths of his own imagining. As a matter of fact, the sooner he broke the news to her the better. Little Polly was so thoroughly happy here that she would need time to accustom herself to the prospect of life elsewhere.
He went about it very cautiously though; and with no hint of the sour and sorry incidents that had driven him to the step. As was only natural, Polly was rather easily upset at present: the very evening before, he had had occasion to blame himself for his tactless behaviour.
In her first sick young fear Polly had impulsively written off to Mother Beamish, to claim the fulfilment of that good woman's promise to stand by her when her time came. One letter gave another; Mrs. Beamish not only announced that she would hold herself ready to support her "little duck" at a moment's notice, but filled sheets with sage advice and old wives' maxims; and the correspondence, which had languished, flared up anew. Now came an ill-scrawled, misspelt epistle from Tilly—doleful, too, for Purdy had once more quitted her without speaking the binding word—in which she told that Purdy's leg, though healed, was permanently shortened; the doctor in Geelong said he would never walk straight again.
Husband and wife sat and discussed the news, wondered how lameness would affect Purdy's future and what he was doing now, Tilly not having mentioned his whereabouts. "She has probably no more idea than we have," said Mahony.
"I'm afraid not," said Polly with a sigh. "Well, I hope he won't come back here, that's all"; and she considered the seam she was sewing, with an absent air.
"Why, love? Don't you like old Dickybird?" asked Mahony in no small surprise.
"Oh yes, quite well. But..."
"Is it because he still can't make up his mind to take your Tilly—eh?"
"That, too. But chiefly because of something he said."
"And what was that, my dear?"
"Oh, very silly," and Polly smiled.
"Out with it, madam! Or I shall suspect the young dog of having made advances to my wife."
"Richard, DEAR!" Little Polly thought he was in earnest, and grew exceedingly confused. "Oh no, nothing like that," she assured him, and with red cheeks rushed into an explanation. "He only said, in spite of you being such old friends he felt you didn't really care to have him here on Ballarat. After a time you always invented some excuse to get him away." But now that it was out, Polly felt the need of toning down the statement, and added: "I shouldn't wonder if he was silly enough to think you were envious of him, for having so many friends and being liked by all sorts of people."
"Envious of him? I? Who on earth has been putting such ideas into your head?" cried Mahony.
"It was 'mother' thought so—it was while I was still there," stammered Polly, still more fluttered by the fact of him fastening on just these words.
Mahony tried to quell his irritation by fidgeting round the room. "Surely, Polly, you might give up calling that woman 'mother,' now you belong to me—I thank you for the relationship!" he said testily. And having with much unnecessary ado knocked the ashes out of his pipe, he went on: "It's bad enough to say things of that kind; but to repeat them, love, is in even poorer taste."
"Yes, Richard," said Polly meekly.
But her amazed inner query was: "Not even to one's own husband?"
She hung her head, till the white thread of parting between the dark loops of her hair was almost perpendicular. She had spoken without thinking in the first place—had just blurted out a passing thought. But even when forced to explain, she had never dreamt of Richard taking offence. Rather she had imagined the two of them—two banded lovingly against one—making merry together over Purdy's nonsense. She had heard her husband laugh away much unkinder remarks than this. And perhaps if she had stopped there, and said no more, it might have been all right. By her stupid attempt to gloss things over, she had really managed to hurt him, and had made him think her gossipy into the bargain.
She went on with her sewing. But when Mahony came back from the brisk walk by means of which he got rid of his annoyance, he fancied, though Polly was as cheery as ever and had supper laid for him, that her eyelids were red.
This was why, the following evening, he promised himself to be discreet.
Winter had come in earnest; the night was wild and cold. Before the crackling stove the cat lay stretched at full length, while Pompey dozed fitfully, his nose between his paws. The red-cotton curtains that hung at the little window gave back the lamplight in a ruddy glow; the clock beat off the seconds evenly, except when drowned by the wind, which came in bouts, hurling itself against the corners of the house. And presently, laying down his book—Polly was too busy now to be read to—Mahony looked across at his wife. She was wrinkling her pretty brows over the manufacture of tiny clothes, a rather pale little woman still, none of the initial discomforts of her condition having been spared her. Feeling his eyes on her, she looked up and smiled: did ever anyone see such a ridiculous armhole? Three of one's fingers were enough to fill it—and she held the little shirt aloft for his inspection. Here was his chance: the child's coming offered the best of pretexts. Taking not only the midget garment but also the hand that held it, he told her of his resolve to go back to England and re-enter his profession.
"You know, love, I've always wished to get home again. And now there's an additional reason. I don't want my ... our children to grow up in a place like this. Without companions—or refining influences. Who knows how they would turn out?"
He said it, but in his heart he knew that his children would be safe enough. And Polly, listening to him, made the same reservation: yes, but OUR children....
"And so I propose, as soon as the youngster's old enough to travel, to haul down the flag for good and all, and book passages for the three of us in some smart clipper. We'll live in the country, love. Think of it, Polly! A little gabled, red-roofed house at the foot of some Sussex down, with fruit trees and a high hedge round it, and only the oast-houses peeping over. Doesn't it make your mouth water, my dear?"
He had risen in his eagerness, and stood with his back to the stove, his legs apart. And Polly nodded and smiled up at him—though, truth to tell, the picture he drew did not mean much to her: she had never been in Sussex, nor did she know what an oast-house was. A night such as this, with flying clouds and a shrill, piping wind, made her think of angry seas and a dark ship's cabin, in which she lay deathly sick. But it was not Polly's way to dwell on disagreeables: her mind glanced off to a pleasanter theme.
"Have you ever thought, Richard, how strange it will seem when there ARE three of us? You and I will never be quite alone together again. Oh, I do hope he will be a good baby and not cry much. It will worry you if he does—like Hempel's cough. And then you won't love him properly."
"I shall love it because it is yours, my darling. And the baby of such a dear little mother is sure to be good."
"Oh, babies will be babies, you know!" said Polly, with a new air of wisdom which sat delightfully on her.
Mahony pinched her cheek. "Mrs. Mahony, you're shirking my question. Tell me now, should you not be pleased to get back to England?"
"I'll go wherever you go, Richard," said Polly staunchly. "Always. And of course I should like to see mother—I mean my real mother—again. But then Ned's here ... and John, and Sarah. I should be very sorry to leave them. I don't think any of them will ever go home now."
"They may be here, but they don't trouble YOU often, my dear," said Mahony, with more than a hint of impatience. "Especially Ned the well-beloved, who lives not a mile from your door."
"I know he doesn't often come to see us, Richard. But he's only a boy; and has to work so hard. You see it's like this. If Ned should get into any trouble, I'm here to look after him; and I know that makes mother's mind easier—Ned was always her favourite."
"And an extraordinary thing, too! I believe it's the boy's good looks that blind you women to his faults."
"Oh no, indeed it isn't!" declared Polly warmly. "It's just because Ned's Ned. The dearest fellow, if you really know him."
"And so your heart's anchored here, little wife, and would remain here even if I carried your body off to England?"
"Oh no, Richard," said Polly again. "My heart would always be where you are. But I can't help wondering how Ned would get on alone. And Jerry will soon be here too, now, and he's younger still. And HOW I should like to see dear Tilly settled before I go!"
Judging that enough had been said for the time being, Mahony re-opened his book, leaving his wife to chew the cud of innocent matchmaking and sisterly cares.
In reality Polly's reflections were of quite another nature.
Her husband's abrupt resolve to leave the colony, disturbing though it was, did not take her altogether by surprise. She would have needed to be both deaf and blind not to notice that the store-bell rang much seldomer than it used to, and that Richard had more spare time on his hands. Yes, trade was dull, and that made him fidgety. Now she had always known that someday it would be her duty to follow Richard to England. But she had imagined that day to be very far off—when they were elderly people, and had saved up a good deal of money. To hear the date fixed for six months hence was something of a shock to her. And it was at this point that Polly had a sudden inspiration. As she listened to Richard talking of resuming his profession, the thought flashed through her mind: why not here? Why should he not start practice in Ballarat, instead of travelling all those thousands of miles to do it?