This was what she ruminated while she tucked and hemmed. She could imagine, of course, what his answer would be. He would say there were too many doctors on Ballarat already; not more than a dozen of them made satisfactory incomes. But this argument did not convince Polly. Richard wasn't, perhaps, a great success at storekeeping; but that was only because he was too good for it. As a doctor, he with his cleverness and gentlemanly manners would soon, she was certain, stand head and shoulders above the rest. And then there would be money galore. It was true he did not care for Ballarat—was down on both place and people. But this objection, too, Polly waived. It passed belief that anybody could really dislike this big, rich, bustling, go-ahead township, where such handsome buildings were springing up and every one was so friendly. In her heart she ascribed her husband's want of love for it to the "infra dig" position he occupied. If he mixed with his equals again and got rid of the feeling that he was looked down on, it would make all the difference in the world to him. He would then be out of reach of snubs and slights, and people would understand him better—not the residents on Ballarat alone, but also John, and Sarah, and the Beamishes, none of whom really appreciated Richard. In her mind's eye Polly had a vision of him going his rounds mounted on a chestnut horse, dressed in surtout and choker, and hand and glove with the bigwigs of society—the gentlemen at the Camp, the Police Magistrate and Archdeacon Long, the rich squatters who lived at the foot of Mount Buninyong. It brought the colour to her cheeks merely to think of it.
She did not, however, breathe a word of this to Richard. She was a shade wiser than the night before, when she had vexed him by blurting out her thoughts. And the present was not the right time to speak. In these days Richard was under the impression that she needed to be humoured. He might agree with her against his better judgment, or, worse still, pretend to agree. And Polly didn't want that. She wished fairly to persuade him that, by setting up here on the diggings where he was known and respected, he would get on quicker, and make more money, than if he buried himself in some poky English village where no one had ever heard of him.
Meanwhile the unconscious centre of her ambitions wore a perplexed frown. Mahony was much exercised just now over the question of medical attendance for Polly. The thought of coming into personal contact with a member of the fraternity was distasteful to him; none of them had an inkling who or what he was. And, though piqued by their unsuspectingness, he at the same time feared lest it should not be absolute, and he have the ill-luck to hit on a practitioner who had heard of his stray spurts of doctoring and written him down a charlatan and a quack. For this reason he would call in no one in the immediate neighbourhood—even the western township seemed too near. Ultimately, his choice fell on a man named Rogers who hailed from Mount Pleasant, the rise on the opposite side of the valley and some two miles off. It was true since he did not intend to disclose his own standing, the distance would make the fellow's fees mount up. But Rogers was at least properly qualified (half those claiming the title of physician were impudent impostors, who didn't know a diploma from the Ten Commandments), of the same ALMA MATER as himself—not a contemporary, though, he took good care of that!—and, if report spoke true, a skilful and careful obstetrician.
When, however, in response to a note carried by Long Jim Rogers drew rein in front of the store, Mahony was not greatly impressed by him. He proved to be a stout, reddish man, some ten years Mahony's senior, with a hasty-pudding face and an undecided manner. There he sat, his ten spread finger-tips meeting and gently tapping one another across his paunch, and nodding: "Just so, just so!" to all he heard. He had the trick of saying everything twice over. "Needs to clinch his own opinion!" was Mahony's swift diagnosis. Himself, he kept in the background. And was he forced to come forward his manner was both stiff and forbidding, so on tenterhooks was he lest the other should presume to treat him as anything but the storekeeper he gave himself out to be.
A day or so later who but the wife must arrive to visit Polly!—a piece of gratuitous friendliness that could well have been dispensed with; even though Mahony felt it keenly that, at this juncture, Polly should lack companions of her own sex. But Rogers had married beneath him, and the sight of the pursy upstart—there were people on the Flat who remembered her running barefoot and slatternly—sitting there, in satin and feathers, lording it over his own little Jenny Wren, was more than Mahony could tolerate. The distance was put forward as an excuse for Polly not returning the call, and Polly was docile as usual; though for her part she had thought her visitor quite a pleasant, kindly woman. But then Polly never knew when she was being patronised!
To wipe out any little trace of disappointment, her husband suggested that she should write and ask one of the Beamish girls to stay with her: it would keep her from feeling the days long.
But Polly only laughed. "Long?—when I have so much sewing to do?"
No, she did not want company. By now, indeed, she regretted having sent off that impulsive invitation to Mrs. Beamish for the end of the year. Puzzle as she would, she could not see how she was going to put "mother" comfortably up.
Meanwhile the rains were changing the familiar aspect of the place. Creeks—in summer dry gutters of baked clay—were now rich red rivers; and the yellow Yarrowee ran full to the brim, keeping those who lived hard by it in a twitter of anxiety. The steep slopes of Black Hill showed thinly green; the roads were ploughed troughs of sticky mire. Occasional night frosts whitened the ground, bringing cloudless days in their wake. Then down came the rain once more, and fell for a week on end. The diggers were washed out of their holes, the Flat became an untraversable bog. And now there were floods in earnest: the creeks turned to foaming torrents that swept away trees and the old roots of trees; and the dwellers on the river banks had to fly for their bare lives.
Over the top of book or newspaper Mahony watched his wife stitch, stitch, stitch, with a zeal that never flagged, at the dolly garments. Just as he could read his way, so Polly sewed hers, through the time of waiting. But whereas she, like a sensible little woman, pinned her thoughts fast to the matter in hand, he let his range freely over the future. Of the many good things this had in store for him, one in particular whetted his impatience. It took close on a twelvemonth out here to get hold of a new book. On Ballarat not even a stationer's existed; nor were there more than a couple of shops in Melbourne itself that could be relied on to carry out your order. You perforce fell behind in the race, remained ignorant of what was being said and done—in science, letters, religious controversy—in the great world overseas. To this day he didn't know whether Agassiz had or had not been appointed to the chair of Natural History in Edinburgh; or whether fresh heresies with regard to the creation of species had spoiled his chances; did not know whether Hugh Miller had actually gone crazy over the VESTIGES; or even if those arch-combatants, Syme and Simpson, had at length sheathed their swords. Now, however, God willing, he would before very long be back in the thick of it all, in intimate touch with the doings of the most wide-awake city in Europe; and new books and pamphlets would come into his possession as they dropped hot from the press.
And then one morning—it was spring now, and piping hot at noon—Long Jim brought home from the post-office a letter for Polly, addressed in her sister Sarah's sloping hand. Knowing the pleasure it would give her, Mahony carried it at once to his wife; and Polly laid aside broom and duster and sat down to read.
But he was hardly out of the room when a startled cry drew him back to her side. Polly had hidden her face, and was shaken by sobs As he could not get her to speak, Mahony picked up the letter from the floor and read it for himself.
Sarah wrote like one distracted.
OH, MY DEAR SISTER, HOW CAN I FIND WORDS TO TELL YOU OF THE TRULY "AWFUL" CALAMITY THAT HAS BEFALLEN OUR UNHAPPY BROTHER. Mahony skipped the phrases, and learnt that owing to a carriage accident Emma Turnham had been prematurely confined, and, the best medical aid notwithstanding—JOHN SPARED ABSOLUTELY "NO" EXPENSE—had died two days later. JOHN IS LIKE A MADMAN. DIRECTLY I HEARD THE "SHOCKING" NEWS, I AT ONCE THREW UP MY ENGAGEMENT—AT "SERIOUS" LOSS TO MYSELF, BUT THAT IS A MATTER OF SMALL CONSEQUENCE—AND CAME TO TAKE MY PLACE BESIDE OUR POOR DEAR BROTHER IN HIS GREAT TRIAL. BUT ALL MY EFFORTS TO BRING HIM TO A PROPER AND "CHRISTIAN" FRAME OF MIND HAVE BEEN FRUITLESS. I AM INDEED ALARMED TO BE ALONE WITH HIM, AND I TREMBLE FOR THE CHILDREN, FOR HE IS POSSESSED OF AN "INSANE" HATRED FOR THE SWEET LITTLE LOVES. HE HAS LOCKED HIMSELF IN HIS ROOM, WILL SEE "NO ONE" NOR TOUCH A "PARTICLE" OF NOURISHMENT. DO, MY DEAREST POLLY, COME AT ONCE ON RECEIPT OF THIS, AND HELP ME IN THE "TRULY AWFUL" TASK THAT HAS BEEN LAID UPON ME. AND PRAY FORGIVE ME FOR USING THIS PLAIN PAPER. I HAVE HAD LITERALLY NO TIME TO ORDER MOURNING "OF ANY KIND."
So that was Sarah! With a click of the tongue Mahony tossed the letter on the table, and made it clear to Polly that under no consideration would he allow her to attempt the journey to town. Her relatives seemed utterly to have forgotten her condition; if, indeed., they had ever grasped the fact that she was expecting a child.
But Polly did not heed him. "Oh, poor, poor Emma! Oh, poor dear John!" Her husband could only soothe her by promising to go to Sarah's assistance himself, the following day.
They had been entirely in the dark about things. For John Turnham thought proper to erect a jealous wall about his family life. What went on behind it was nobody's business but his own. You felt yourself—were meant to feel yourself—the alien, the outsider. And Mahony marvelled once more at the wealth of love and sympathy his little Polly had kept fresh for these two, who had wasted so few of their thoughts on her.
Polly dried her eyes; he packed his carpet-bag. He did this with a good deal of pother, pulling open the wrong drawers, tumbling up their contents and generally making havoc of his wife's arrangements. But the sight of his clumsiness acted as a kind of tonic on Polly: she liked to feel that he was dependent on her for his material comfort and well-being.
They spoke of John's brief married life.
"He loved her like a pagan, my dear," said Mahony. "And if what your sister Sarah writes is not exaggerated, he is bearing his punishment in a truly pagan way."
"But you won't say that to him, dear Richard ... will you? You'll be very gentle with him?" pleaded Polly anxiously.
"Indeed I shall, little woman. But one can't help thinking these things, all the same. You know it is written: 'Thou shalt have none other gods but Me.'"
"Yes, I know. But then this was JUST Emma ... and she was so pretty and so good"—and Polly cried anew.
Mahony rose before dawn to catch the coach. Together with a packet of sandwiches, Polly brought him a small black mantle.
"For Sarah, with my dear love. You see, Richard, I know she always wears coloured dresses. And she will feel so much happier if she has SOMETHING black to put on." Little Polly's voice was deep with persuasion. Richard was none too well pleased, she could see, at having to unlock his bag again; she feared too, that, after the letter of the day before, his opinion of Sarah had gone down to zero.
Mahony secured a corner seat; and so, though his knees interlocked with those of his VIS-A-VIS, only one of the eight inside passengers was jammed against him. The coach started; and the long, dull hours of the journey began to wear away. Nothing broke the monotony but speculations whether the driver—a noted tippler—would be drunk before Melbourne was reached and capsize them; and the drawling voice of a Yankee prospector, who told lying tales about his exploits in California in '48 until, having talked his hearers to sleep, he dropped off himself. Then, Mahony fell to reflecting on what lay before him. He didn't like the job. He was not one of your born good Samaritans: he relished intruding as little as being intruded on. Besides, morally to sustain, to forbear with, a fellow-creature in misfortune, seemed to him as difficult and thankless a task as any required of one. Infinite tact was essential, and a skin thick enough to stand snubs and rebuffs. But here he smiled. "Or my little wife's inability to recognise them!"
House and garden had lost their air of well-groomed smartness: the gate stood ajar, the gravel was unraked, the verandah-flooring black with footmarks. With all the blinds still down, the windows looked like so many dead eyes. Mahony's first knock brought no response; at his second, the door was opened by Sarah Turnham herself. But a very different Sarah this, from the elegant and sprightly young person who had graced his wedding. Her chignon was loose, her dress dishevelled. On recognising Mahony, she uttered a cry and fell on his neck—he had to disengage her arms by force and speak severely to her, declaring that he would go away again, if she carried out her intention of swooning.
At last he got her round so far that she could tell her tale, which she did with a hysterical overstatement. She had, it seemed, arrived there just before her sister-in-law died. John was quarrelling furiously with all three doctors, and, before the end, insulted the only one who was left in such a fashion that he, too, marched out of the house. They had to get the dead woman measured, coffined and taken away by stealth. Whereupon John had locked himself up in his room, and had not been seen since. He had a loaded revolver with him; through the closed door he had threatened to shoot both her and the children. The servants had deserted, panic-stricken at their master's behaviour, at the sudden collapse of the well-regulated household: the last, a nurse-girl sent out on an errand some hours previously, had not returned. Sarah was at her wits' end to know what to do with the children—he might hear them screaming at this moment.
Mahony, in no hesitancy now how to deal with the situation, laid his hat aside and drew off his gloves. "Prepare some food," he said briefly. "A glass of port and a sandwich or two, if you can manage nothing else—but meat of some kind."
But there was not a morsel of meat in the house.
"Then go to the butcher's and buy some."
Sarah gasped, and bridled. She had never in her life been inside a butcher's shop!
"Good God, woman, then the sooner you make the beginning the better!" cried Mahony. And as he strode down the passage to the door she indicated, he added: "Now control yourself, madam! And if you have not got what I want in a quarter of an hour's time, I'll walk out of the house and leave you to your own devices!" At which Sarah, cowed and shaken, began tremblingly to tie her bonnet-strings.
Mahony knocked three times at the door of John Turnham's room, each time more loudly. Then he took to battering with his fist on the panels, and cried: "It is I, John, your brother-in-law! Have the goodness to unlock this door at once!"
There was still an instant of suspense; then heavy footsteps crossed the floor and the door swung back. Mahony's eyes met a haggard white face set in a dusky background.
"You!" said John in a slow, dazed way, and blinked at the light. But in the next breath he burst out: "Where's that damned fool of a woman? Is she skulking behind you? I won't see her—won't have her near me!"
"If you mean your sister Sarah, she is not in the house at present," said Mahony; and stepping over the threshold he shut the door. The two men faced each other in the twilight.
"What do you want?" demanded John in a hoarse voice. "Have you, too, come to preach and sermonise? If so, you can go back where you came from! I'll have none of that cant here."
"No, no, I leave that to those whose business it is. I'm here as your doctor"; and Mahony drew up a blind and opened a window. Instantly the level sun-rays flooded the room; and the air that came in with them smacked of the sea. Just outside the window a quince-tree in full blossom reared extravagant masses of pink snow against the blue overhead; beyond it a covered walk of vines shone golden-green. There was not a cloud in the sky. To turn back to the musty room from all this lush and lovely life was like stepping down into a vault.
John had sunk into a seat before a secretaire, and shielded his eyes from the sun. A burnt-out candle stood at his elbow; and in a line before him were ranged such images as remained to him of his dead—a dozen or more daguerrotypes, of various sizes: Emma and he before marriage and after marriage; Emma with her first babe, at different stages of its growth; Emma with the two children; Emma in ball-attire; with a hat on; holding a book.
The sight gave the quietus to Mahony's scruples. Stooping, he laid his hand on John's shoulder. "My poor fellow," he said gently. "Your sister was not in a fit state to travel, so I have come in her place to tell you how deeply, how truly, we feel for you in your loss. I want to try, too, to help you to bear it. For it has to be borne, John."
At this the torrent burst. Leaping to his feet John began to fling wildly to and fro; and then, for a time, the noise of his lamentations filled the room. Mahony had assisted at scenes of this kind before, but never had he heard the like of the blasphemies that poured over John's lips. (Afterwards, when he had recovered his distance, he would refer to it as the occasion on which John took the Almighty to task, for having dared to interfere in his private life.)
At the moment he sat silent. "Better for him to get it out," he thought to himself, even while he winced at John's scurrility.
When, through sheer exhaustion, John came to a stop, Mahony cast about for words of consolation. All reference to the mystery of God's way was precluded; and he shrank from entering that sound plea for the working of Time, which drives a spike into the heart of the new-made mourner. He bethought himself of the children. "Remember, she did not leave you comfortless. You have your little ones. Think of them."
But this was a false move. Like a belated thunderclap after the storm is over, John broke out again, his haggard eyes aflame. "Curse the children!" he cried thickly. "Curse them, I say! If I had once caught sight of them since she ... she went, I should have wrung their necks. I never wanted children. They came between us. They took her from me. It was a child that killed her. Now, she is gone and they are left. Keep them out of my way, Mahony! Don't let them near me.—Oh, Emma... wife!" and here his shoulders heaved, under dry, harsh sobs.
Mahony felt his own eyes grow moist. "Listen to me, John. I promise you, you shall not see your children again until you wish to—till you're glad to recall them, as a living gift from her you have lost. I'll look after them for you."
"You will? ... God bless you, Mahony!"
Judging the moment ripe, Mahony rose and went out to fetch the tray on which Sarah had set the eatables. The meat was but a chop, charred on one side, raw on the other; but John did not notice its shortcomings. He fell on it like the starving man he was, and gulped down two or three glasses of port. The colour returned to his face, he was able to give an account of his wife's last hours. "And to talk is what he needs, even if he goes on till morning." Mahony was quick to see that there were things that rankled in John's memory, like festers in flesh. One was that, knowing the greys were tricky, he had not forbidden them to Emma long ago. But he had felt proud of her skill in handling the reins, of the attention she attracted. Far from thwarting her, he had actually urged her on. Her fall had been a light one, and at the outset no bad results were anticipated: a slight haemorrhage was soon got under control. A week later, however, it began anew, more violently, and then all remedies were in vain. As it became clear that the child was dead, the doctors had recourse to serious measures. But the bleeding went on. She complained of a roaring in her ears, her extremities grew cold, her pulse fluttered to nothing. She passed from syncope to coma, and from coma to death. John swore that two of the doctors had been the worse for drink; the third was one of those ignorant impostors with whom the place swarmed. And again he made himself reproaches.
"I ought to have gone to look for someone else. But she was dying ... I could not tear myself away.—Mahony, I can still see her. They had stretched her across the bed, so that her head hung over the side. Her hair swept the floor—one scoundrel trod on it ... trod on her hair! And I had to stand by and watch, while they butchered her—butchered my girl.—Oh, there are things, Mahony, one cannot dwell on and live!"
"You must not look at it like that. Yet, when I recall some of the cases I've seen contraction induced in ..."
"Ah yes, if you had been here ... my God, if only you had been here!"
But Mahony did not encourage this idea; it was his duty to unhitch John's thoughts from the past. He now suggested that, the children and Sarah safe in his keeping, John should shut up the house and go away. To his surprise John jumped at the proposal, was ready there and then to put it into effect. Yes, said he, he would start the very next morning, and with no more than a blanket on his back, would wander a hundred odd miles into the bush, sleeping out under the stars at night, and day by day increasing the distance between himself and the scene of his loss. And now up he sprang, in a sudden fury to be gone. Warning Sarah into the background, Mahony helped him get together a few necessaries, and then walked him to a hotel. Here he left him sleeping under the influence of a drug, and next day saw him off on his tramp northwards, over the Great Divide.
John's farewell words were: "Take the keys of the house with you, and don't give them up to me under a month, at least."
That day's coach was full; they had to wait for seats till the following afternoon. The delay was not unwelcome to Mahony; it gave Polly time to get the letter he had written her the night before. After leaving John, he set about raising money for the extra fares and other unforeseen expenses: at the eleventh hour, Sarah informed him that their young brother Jerry had landed in Melbourne during Emma's illness, and had been hastily boarded out. Knowing no one else in the city, Mahony was forced, much as it went against the grain, to turn to Henry Ocock for assistance. And he was effusively received—Ocock tried to press double the sum needed on him. Fortune was no doubt smiling on the lawyer. His offices had swelled to four rooms, with appropriate clerks in each. He still, however, nursed the scheme of transferring his business to Ballarat.
"As soon, that is, as I can hear of suitable premises. I understand there's only one locality to be considered, and that's the western township." On which Mahony, whose address was in the outer darkness, repeated his thanks and withdrew.
He found Jerry's lodging, paid the bill, and took the boy back to St. Kilda—a shy slip of a lad in his early teens, with the colouring and complexion that ran in the family. John's coachman, who had shown himself not indisposed—for a substantial sum, paid in advance—to keep watch over house and grounds, was installed in an outbuilding, and next day at noon, after personally aiding Sarah, who was all a-tremble at the prospect of the bush journey, to pack her own and the children's clothes, Mahony turned the key in the door of the darkened house. But a couple of weeks ago it had been a proud and happy home. Now it had no more virtue left in it than a crab's empty shell.
He had fumed on first learning of Jerry's superfluous presence; but before they had gone far he saw that he would have fared ill indeed, had Jerry not been there. Sarah, too agitated that morning to touch a bite of food, was seized, not an hour out, with sickness and fainting. There she sat, her eyes closed, her salts to her nose or feebly sipping brandy, unable to lift a finger to help with the children. The younger of the two slept most of the way hotly and heavily on Mahony's knee; but the boy, a regular pest, was never for a moment still. In vain did his youthful uncle pinch his leg each time he wriggled to the floor. It was not till a fierce-looking digger opposite took out a jack-knife and threatened to saw off both his feet if he stirred again, to cut out his tongue if he put another question that, scarlet with fear, little Johnny was tamed. Altogether it was a nightmare of a journey, and Mahony groaned with relief when, lamps having for some time twinkled past, the coach drew up, and Hempel and Long Jim stepped forward with their lanterns. Sarah could hardly stand. The children, wrathful at being wakened from their sleep, kicked and screamed.
For the first time in her young married life, Polly felt vexed with her husband.
"Oh, he shouldn't have done that... no, really he shouldn't!" she murmured; and the hand with the letter in it drooped to her lap.
She had been doing a little surreptitious baking in Richard's absence, and without a doubt was hot and tired. The tears rose to her eyes. Deserting her pastry-board she retreated behind the woodstack and sat down on the chopping-block; and then, for some minutes, the sky was blotted out. She felt quite unequal, in her present condition, to facing Sarah, who was so sensitive, so easily shocked; and she was deeply averse from her fine-lady sister discovering the straitness of Richard's means and home.
But it was hard for Polly to secure a moment's privacy.
"An' so this is w'ere you're 'idin', is it?" said Long Jim snappishly—he had been opening a keg of treacle and held a sticky plug in his hand. "An' me runnin' my pore ol' legs off arter you!" And Hempel met her on her entry with: "No further bad news, I 'ope and trust, ma'am?"—Hempel always retained his smooth servility of manner. "The shopman PAR EXCELLENCE, my dear!" Richard was used to say of him.
Polly reassured her attendants, blew her nose, re-read her letter; and other feelings came uppermost. She noticed how scribbly the writing was—Richard had evidently been hard pushed for time. There was an apologetic tone about it, too, which was unlike him. He was probably wondering what she would say; he might even be making himself reproaches. It was unkind of her to add to them. Let her think rather of the sad state poor John had been found in, and of his two motherless babes. As for Sarah, it would never have done to leave her out.
Wiping her eyes Polly untied her cooking-apron and set to reviewing her resources. Sarah would have to share her bed, Richard to sleep on the sofa. The children ... and here she knitted her brows. Then going into the yard, she called to Tom Ocock, who sat whittling a stick in front of his father's house; and Tom went down to Main Street for her, and bought a mattress which he carried home on his shoulder. This she spread on the bedroom floor, Mrs. Hemmerde having already given both rooms a sound scouring, just in case a flea or a spider should be lying perdu. After which Polly fell to baking again in good earnest; for the travellers would be famished by the time they arrived.
Towards ten o'clock Tom, who was on the look-out, shouted that the coach was in, and Polly, her table spread, a good fire going, stepped to the door, outwardly very brave, inwardly all a-flutter. Directly, however, she got sight of the forlorn party that toiled up the slope: Sarah clinging to Hempel's arm, Mahony bearing one heavy child, and—could she believe her eyes?—Jerry staggering under the other: her bashfulness was gone. She ran forward to prop poor Sarah on her free side, to guide her feet to the door; and it is doubtful whether little Polly had ever spent a more satisfying hour than that which followed.
Her husband, watching her in silent amaze, believed she thoroughly enjoyed the fuss and commotion.
There was Sarah, too sick to see anything but the bed, to undress, to make fomentations for, to coax to mouthfuls of tea and toast. There was Jerry to feed and send off, with the warmest of hugs, to share Tom Ocock's palliasse. There were the children ... well, Polly's first plan had been to put them straight to bed. But when she came to peel off their little trousers she changed her mind.
"I think, Mrs. Hemmerde, if you'll get me a tub of hot water, we'll just pop them into it; they'll sleep so much better," she said ... not quite truthfully. Her private reflection was: "I don't think Sarah can once have washed them properly, all that time."
The little girl let herself be bathed in her sleep; but young John stood and bawled, digging fat fists into slits of eyes, while Polly scrubbed at his massy knees, the dimpled ups and downs of which looked as if they had been worked in by hand. She had never seen her brother's children before and was as heartily lost in admiration of their plump, well-formed bodies, as her helper of the costliness of their outfit.
"Real Injun muslin, as I'm alive!" ejaculated the woman, on fishing out their night-clothes. "An' wid the sassiest lace for trimmin'!—Och, the poor little motherless angels!—Stan' quiet, you young divil you, an' lemme button you up!"
Clean as lily-bells, the pair were laid on the mattress-bed.
"At least they can't fall out," said Polly, surveying her work with a sigh of content.
Every one else having retired, she sat with Richard before the fire, waiting for his bath-water to reach the boil. He was anxious to know just how she had fared in his absence, she to hear the full story of his mission. He confessed to her that his offer to load himself up with the whole party had been made in a momentary burst of feeling. Afterwards he had repented his impulsiveness.
"On your account, love. Though when I see how well you've managed—you dear, clever little woman!"
And Polly consoled him, being now come honestly to the stage of: "But, Richard, what else could you do?"
"What, indeed! I knew Emma had no relatives in Melbourne, and who John's intimates might be I had no more idea than the man in the moon."
"John hasn't any friends. He never had."
"As for leaving the children in Sarah's charge, if you'll allow me to say so, my dear, I consider your sister Sarah the biggest goose of a female it has ever been my lot to run across."
"Ah, but you don't really know Sarah yet," said Polly, and smiled a little, through the tears that had ripen to her eyes at the tale of John's despair.
What Mahony did not mention to her was the necessity he had been under of borrowing money; though Polly was aware he had left home with but a modest sum in his purse. He wished to spare her feelings. Polly had a curious delicacy—he might almost call it a manly delicacy—with regard to money; and the fact that John had not offered to put hand to pocket; let alone liberally flung a blank cheque at his head, would, Mahony knew, touch his wife on a tender spot. Nor did Polly herself ask questions. Richard made no allusion to John having volunteered to bear expenses, so the latter had evidently not done so. What a pity! Richard was so particular himself, in matters of this kind, that he might write her brother down close and stingy. Of course John's distressed state of mind partly served to excuse him. But she could not imagine the calamity that would cause Richard to forget his obligations.
She slid her hand into her husband's and they sat for a while in silence. Then, half to herself, and out of a very different train of thought she said: "Just fancy them never crying once for their mother."
* * * * *
"Talking of friends," said Sarah, and fastidiously cleared her throat. "Talking of friends, I wonder now what has become of one of those young gentlemen I met at your wedding. He was ... let me see ... why, I declare if I haven't forgotten his name!"
"Oh, I know who you mean—besides there was only one, Sarah," Mahony heard his wife reply, and therewith fall into her sister's trap. "You mean Purdy—Purdy Smith—who was Richard's best man."
"Smith?" echoed Sarah. "La, Polly! Why don't he make it Smythe?"
It was a warm evening some three weeks later. The store was closed to customers; but Mahony had ensconced himself in a corner of it with a book: since the invasion, this was the one place in which he could make sure of finding quiet. The sisters sat on the log-bench before the house; and, without seeing them, Mahony knew to a nicety how they were employed. Polly darned stockings, for John's children; Sarah was tatting, with her little finger stuck out at right angles to the rest. Mahony could hardly think of this finger without irritation: it seemed to sum up Sarah's whole outlook on life.
Meanwhile Polly's fresh voice went on, relating Purdy's fortunes. "He took part, you know, in the dreadful affair on the Eureka last Christmas, when so many poor men were killed. We can speak of it, now they've all been pardoned; but then we had to be very careful. Well, he was shot in the ankle, and will always be lame from it."
"What!—go hobbling on one leg for the remainder of his days? Oh, my dear!" said Sarah, and laughed.
"Yes, because the wound wasn't properly attended to—he had to hide about in the bush, for ever so long. Later on he went to the Beamishes, to be nursed. But by that time his poor leg was in a very bad state. You know he is engaged—or very nearly so—to Tilly Beamish."
"What?" said Sarah once more. "That handsome young fellow engaged to one of those vulgar creatures?"
"Oh, Sarah ... not really vulgar. It isn't their fault they didn't have a better education. They lived right up-country, where there were no schools. Tilly never saw a town till she was sixteen; but she can sit any horse.—Yes, we hope very much Purdy will soon settle down and marry her—though he left the Hotel again without proposing." And Polly sighed.
"There he shows his good taste, my dear."
"Oh, I'm sure he's fond of Tilly. It's only that his life is so unsettled. He's been a barman at Euroa since then; and the last we heard of him, he was shearing somewhere on the Goulburn. He doesn't seem able to stick to anything."
"And a rolling stone gathers no moss!" gave back Sarah sententiously—and in fancy Mahony saw the cut-and-dried nod with which she accompanied the words.
Here Hempel passed through the store, clad in his Sunday best, his hair plastered flat with bear's-grease.
"Going out for a stroll?" asked his master.
"That was my h'intention, sir. I don't think you'll find I've left any of my dooties undone."
"Oh, go, by all means!" said Mahony curtly, nettled at having his harmless query misconstrued. It pointed a suspicion he had had, of late, that a change was coming over Hempel. The model employee was a shade less prompt than heretofore to fly at his word, and once or twice seemed actually to be studying his own convenience. Without knowing what the matter was, Mahony felt it politic not to be over-exacting—even mildly to conciliate his assistant. It would put him in an awkward fix, now that he was on the verge of winding up affairs, should Hempel take it in his head to leave him in the lurch.
The lean figure moved on and blocked the doorway. Now there was a sudden babble of cheepy voices, and simultaneously Sarah cried: "Where have you been, my little cherubs? Come to your aunt, and let her kiss you!"
But the children, who had frankly no great liking for Aunt Sarah, would, Mahony knew, turn a deaf ear to this display of opportunism and make a rush for his wife. Laying down his book he ran out. "Polly ... cautious!"
"It's all right, Richard, I'm being careful." Polly had let her mending fall, and with each hand held a flaxen-haired child at arm's length. "Johnny, dirty boy! what HAVE you been up to?"
"He played he was a digger and sat down in a pool—I couldn't get him to budge," answered Jerry, and drew his sleeve over his perspiring forehead.
"Oh fy, for shame!"
"Don' care!" said John, unabashed.
"Don' tare!" echoed his roly-poly sister, who existed but as his shadow.
"Don't-care was made to care, don't-care was hung!" quoted Aunt Sarah in her severest copybook tones.
Turning his head in his aunt's direction young John thrust forth a bright pink tongue. Little Emma was not behindhand.
Polly jumped up, dropping her work to the ground. "Johnny, I shall punish you if ever I see you do that again. Now, Ellen shall put you to bed instead of Auntie."—Ellen was Mrs. Hemmerde's eldest, and Polly's first regular maidservant.
"Don' care," repeated Johnny. "Ellen plays pillers."
"Edn pays pidders," said the echo.
Seizing two hot, pudgy hands Polly dragged the pair indoors—though they held back mainly on principle. They were not affectionate children; they were too strong of will and set of purpose for that; but if they had a fondness for anyone it was for their Aunt Polly: she was ruler over a drawerful of sugar-sticks, and though she scolded she never slapped.
While this was going on Hempel stood, the picture of indecision, and eased now one foot, now the other, as if his boots pinched him.
At length he blurted out: "I was wondering, ma'am—ahem! Miss Turnham—if, since it is an agreeable h'evening, you would care to take a walk to that 'ill I told you of?"
"Me take a walk? La, no! Whatever put such an idea as that into your head?" cried Sarah; and tatted and tatted, keeping time with a pretty little foot.
"I thought per'aps ..." said Hempel meekly.
"I didn't make your thoughts, Mr. Hempel," retorted Sarah, laying stress on the aspirate.
"Oh no, ma'am. I 'ope I didn't presume to suggest such a thing"; and with a hangdog air Hempel prepared to slink away.
"Well, well!" said Sarah double quick; and ceasing to jerk her crochet-needle in and out, she nimbly rolled up her ball of thread. "Since you're so insistent ... and since, mind you, there's no society worth calling such, on these diggings...." The truth was, Sarah saw that she was about to be left alone with Mahony—Jerry had sauntered off to meet Ned—and this TETE-A-TETE was by no means to her mind. She still bore her brother-in-law a grudge for his high-handed treatment of her at the time of John's bereavement. "As if I had been one of the domestics, my dear—a paid domestic! Ordered me off to the butcher's in language that fairly shocked me."
Mahony turned his back and strolled down to the river. He did not know which was more painful to witness: Hempel's unmanly cringing, or the air of fatuous satisfaction that succeeded it. When he returned, the pair was just setting out; he watched Sarah, on Hempel's arm, picking short steps in dainty latchet-shoes.
As soon as they were well away he called to Polly.
"The coast's clear. Come for a stroll."
Polly emerged, tying her bonnet-strings. "Why, where's Sarah? Oh ... I see. Oh, Richard, I hope she didn't put on that—"
"She did, my dear!" said Mahony grimly, and tucked his wife's hand under his arm.
"Oh, how I wish she wouldn't!" said Polly in a tone of concern. "She does get so stared at—especially of an evening, when there are so many rude men about. But I really don't think she minds. For she HAS a bonnet in her box all the time." Miss Sarah was giving Ballarat food for talk, by appearing on her promenades in a hat: a large, flat, mushroom hat.
"I trust my little woman will never put such a ridiculous object on her head!"
"No, never ... at least, not unless they become quite the fashion," answered Polly. "And I don't think they will. They look too odd."
"Another thing, love," continued Mahony, on whom a sudden light had dawned as he stood listening to Sarah's trumpery. "I fear your sister is trifling with the feelings of our worthy Hempel."
Polly, who had kept her own counsel on this matter, went crimson. "Oh, do you really think so, Richard?" she asked evasively. "I hope not. For of course nothing could come of it. Sarah has refused the most eligible offers."
"Ah, but there are none here to refuse. And if you don't mind my saying so, Poll, anything in trousers seems fish to her net!"
On one of their pacings they found Mr. Ocock come out to smoke an evening pipe. The old man had just returned from a flying visit to Melbourne. He looked glum and careworn, but livened up at the sight of Polly, and cracked one of the mouldy jokes he believed beneficial to a young woman in her condition. Still, the leading-note in his mood was melancholy; and this, although his dearest wish was on the point of being fulfilled.
"Yes, I've got the very crib for 'Enry at last, doc., Billy de la Poer's liv'ry-stable, top o' Lydiard Street. We sol' poor Billy up yesterday. The third smash in two days that makes. Lord! I dunno where it'll end."
"Things are going a bit quick over there. There's been too much building."
"They're at me to build, too—'Enry is. But I says no. This place is good enough for me. If 'e's goin' to be ashamed of 'ow 'is father lives, 'e'd better stop away. I'm an ol' man now, an' a poor one. What should I want with a fine noo 'ouse? An' 'oo should I build it for, even if I 'ad the tin? For them two good-for-nothin's in there? Not if I know it!"
"Mr. Ocock, you wouldn't believe how kind and clever Tom's been at helping with the children," said Polly warmly.
"Yes, an' at bottle-washin' and sweepin' and cookin' a pasty. But a female 'ud do it just as well," returned Tom's father with a snort of contempt.
"Poor old chap!" said Mahony, as they passed out of earshot. "So even the great Henry's arrival is not to be without its drop of gall."
"Surely he'll never be ashamed of his father?"
"Who knows! But it's plain he suspects the old boy has made his pile and intends him to fork out," said Mahony carelessly; and, with this, dismissed the subject. Now that his own days in the colony were numbered, he no longer felt constrained to pump up a spurious interest in local affairs. He consigned them wholesale to that limbo in which, for him, they had always belonged.
The two brothers came striding over the slope. Ned, clad in blue serge shirt and corduroys, laid an affectionate arm round Polly's shoulder, and tossed his hat into the air on hearing that the "Salamander," as he called Sarah, was not at home.
"For I've tons to tell you, Poll old girl. And when milady sits there turning up her nose at everything a chap says, somehow the spunk goes out of one."
Polly had baked a large cake for her darling, and served out generous slices. Then, drawing up a chair she sat down beside him, to drink in his news.
From his place at the farther end of the table Mahony studied the trio—these three young faces which were so much alike that they might have been different readings of one and the same face. Polly, by reason of her woman's lot, looked considerably the oldest. Still, the lamplight wiped out some of the shadows, and she was never more girlishly vivacious than with Ned, entering as she did with zest into his plans and ideas—more sister now than wife. And Ned showed at his best with Polly: he laid himself out to divert her; forgot to brag or to swear; and so natural did it seem for brother to open his heart to sister that even his egoistic chatter passed muster. As for young Jerry, who in a couple of days was to begin work in the same claim as Ned, he sat round-eyed, his thoughts writ large on his forehead. Mahony translated them thus: how in the world I could ever have sat prim and proper on the school-bench, when all this—change, adventure, romance—was awaiting me? Jerry was only, Mahony knew, to push a wheelbarrow from hole to water and back again for many a week to come; but for him it would certainly be a golden barrow, and laden with gold, so greatly had Ned's tales fired his imagination.
The onlooker felt odd man out, debarred as he was by his profounder experience from sharing in the young people's light-legged dreams. He took up his book. But his reading was cut into by Ned's sprightly account of the Magpie rush; by his description of an engine at work on the Eureka, and of the wooden airpipes that were being used to ventilate deep-sinkings. There was nothing Ned did not know, and could not make entertaining. One was forced, almost against one's will, to listen to him; and on this particular evening, when he was neither sponging, nor acting the Big Gun, Mahony toned down his first sweeping judgment of his young relative. Ned was all talk; and what impressed one so unfavourably—his grumbling, his extravagant boastfulness—was the mere thistledown of the moment, puffed off into space. It mattered little that he harped continually on "chucking up" his job. Two years had passed since he came to Ballarat, and he was still working for hire in somebody else's hole. He still groaned over the hardships of the life, and still toiled on—and all the rest was just the froth and braggadocio of aimless youth.
Not twenty-four hours later, Sarah had an accident to her MACHOIRE and returned post-haste to Melbourne.
"A most opportune breakage!" said Mahony, and laughed.
That day at the dinner-table he had given his sister-in-law a piece of his mind. Sarah had always resented the name bestowed on her by her parents, and was at present engaged in altering it, in giving it, so to speak, a foreign tang: henceforth she was to be not Sarah, but Sara (spoken Sahra). As often as Polly's tongue tripped over the unfamiliar syllable, Sara gently but firmly put her right; and Polly corrected herself, even begged pardon for her stupidity, till Mahony could bear it no longer. Throwing politeness to the winds, he twitted Sara with her finical affectations, her old-maidish ways, the morning sloth that expected Polly, in her delicate state of health, to carry a breakfast-tray to the bedside: cast up at her, in short, all that had made him champ and fret in silence. Sara might, after a fitting period of the huff, have overlooked the rest; but the "old-maidish" she could not forgive. And directly dinner was over, the mishap to her mouthpiece was made known.
Too much in awe of Mahony to stand up to him—for when he was angry, he was very angry—Sara retaliated by abusing him to Polly as she packed her trunk.
"Manners, indeed! To turn and insult a visitor at his own table! And who and what is he, I should like to know, to speak to me so? Nothing but a common storekeeper. My dear, you have my deepest sympathy. It's a DREADFUL life for you. Of course you keep everything as nice as possible, under the circumstances. But the surroundings, Polly! ... and the store ... and the want of society. I couldn't put up with it, not for a week!"
Polly, sitting on the side of the tester-bed and feeling very cast down at Sara's unfriendly departure, shed a few tears at this. For part of what her sister said was true: it had been wrong of Richard to be rude to Sara while the latter was a guest in his house. But she defended him warmly. "I couldn't be happier than I am; Richard's the best husband in the world. As for his being common, Sara, you know he comes of a much better family than we do."
"My dear, common is as common does; and a vulgar calling ends by vulgarising those who have the misfortune to pursue it. But there's another reason, Polly, why it is better for me to leave you. There are certain circumstances, my dear, in which, to put it mildly, it is AWKWARD for two people of OPPOSITE sexes to go on living under the same roof."
"Sarah!—I mean Sara—do you really mean to say Hempel has made you a proposal?" cried Polly, wide-eyed in her tears.
"I won't say, my dear, that he has so far forgotten himself as to actually offer marriage. But he has let me see only too plainly what his feelings are. Of course, I've kept him in his place—the preposterous creature! But all the same it's not COMME IL FAUT any longer for me to be here."
"Did she say where she was going, or what she intended to do?" Mahony inquired of his wife that night as she bound the strings of her nightcap.
No, she hadn't, Polly admitted, rather out of countenance. But then Sara was like that—very close about her own affairs. "I think she's perhaps gone back to her last situation. She had several letters while she was here, in that lady's hand. People are always glad to get her back. Not many finishing governesses can teach all she can"—and Polly checked off Sara's attainments on the fingers of both hands. "She won't go anywhere under two hundred a year."
"A most accomplished person, your sister!" said Mahony sleepily. "Still, it's very pleasant to be by ourselves again—eh, wife?"
An even more blessed peace shortly descended on the house; for the time was now come to get rid of the children as well. Since nothing had been heard of John, they were to be boarded out over Polly's illness. Through the butcher's lady, arrangements were made with a trooper's wife, who lived outside the racket and dust of the township, and had a whole posse of little ones of her own.—"Bless you! half-a-dozen more wouldn't make any difference to me. There's the paddock for 'em to run wild in." This was the best that could be done for the children. Polly packed their little kit, dealt out a parting bribe of barley-sugar, and saw them hoisted into the dray that would pass the door of their destination.
Once more husband and wife sat alone together, as in the days before John's domestic catastrophe. And now Mahony said tentatively: "Don't you think, love, we could manage to get on without that old Beamish woman? I'll guarantee to nurse you as well as any female alive."
The question did not come as a surprise to Polly; she had already put it to herself. After the affair with Sara she awaited her new visitor in fear and trembling. Sara had at least stood in awe of Richard and held her tongue before him; Mrs. Beamish prided herself on being afraid of nobody, and on always speaking her mind. And yet, even while agreeing that it would be well to put "mother" off, Polly drooped her wings. At a time like this a woman was a woman. It seemed as if even the best of husbands did not quite understand.
"Just give her the hint we don't want her," said Mahony airily.
But "mother" was not the person to take a hint, no matter how broad. It was necessary to be blunt to the point of rudeness; and Polly spent a difficult hour over the composition of her letter. She might have saved her pains. Mrs. Beamish replied that she knew her darling little Polly's unwillingness to give trouble; but it was not likely she would now go back on her word: she had been packed and ready to start for the past week. Polly handed the letter to her husband, and did not say what she thought she read out of it, namely that "mother," who so seldom could be spared from home, was looking forward with pleasure to her trip to Ballarat.
"I suppose it's a case of making the best of a bad job," sighed Mahony; and having one day drawn Mrs. Beamish, at melting point, from the inside of a crowded coach, he loaded Long Jim with her bags and bundles.
His aversion was not lightened by his subsequently coming on his wife in the act of unpacking a hamper, which contained half a ham, a stone jar of butter, some home-made loaves of bread, a bag of vegetables and a plum pudding. "Good God! does the woman think we can't give her enough to eat?" he asked testily. He had all the poor Irishman's distrust of a gift.
"She means it kindly, dear. She probably thought things were still scarce here; and she knew I wouldn't be able to do much cooking," pleaded Polly. And going out to the kitchen she untied the last parcel, in which was a big round cheese, by stealth.
She had pulled Mrs. Beamish over the threshold, had got her into the bedroom and shut the door, before any of the "ohs" and "ahs" she saw painted on the broad, rubicund face could be transformed into words. And hugs and kisses over, she bravely seized the bull by the horns and begged her guest not to criticise house or furnishings in front of Richard.
It took Mrs. Beamish a minute or two to grasp her meaning. Then, she said heartily: "There, there, my duck, don't you worry! I'll be as mum as mum." And in a whisper: "So, 'e's got a temper, Polly, 'as 'e? But this I will say: if I'd known this was all 'e 'ad to h'offer you, I'd 'a' said, stop w'ere you are, my lamb, in a comfortable, 'appy 'ome."
"Oh, I AM happy, mother dear, indeed I am!" cried Polly. "I've never regretted being married—never once!"
"There, there, now!"
"And it's only ... I mean ... this is the best we can afford in the meantime, and if I am satisfied ..." floundered Polly, dismayed to hear her words construed into blame of her husband. "It's only that it upsets Richard if people speak slightingly of our house, and that upsets me—and I musn't be worried just now, you know," she added with a somewhat shaky smile.
"Not a word will I say, ducky, make yer pore little mind easy about that. Though such a poky little 'en-coop of a place I never was in!"—and, while tying her cap-strings, Mrs. Beamish swept the little bedroom and its sloping roof with a withering glance. "I was 'orrified, girls, simply 'ORRIFIED!" she related the incident to her daughters. "An' I up an' told 'er so—just like me, you know. Not room enough to swing a cat in, and 'im sittin' at the 'ead of the table as 'igh an' mighty as a dook! You can thank yer stars, you two, 'e didn't take one o' you instead o' Polly." But this was chiefly by way of a consolation-prize for Tilly and Jinny.
"An' now, my dear, tell me EVERYTHING." With these words, Mrs. Beamish spread her skirts and settled down to a cosy chat on the subject of Polly's hopes.
But like the majority of her sex she was an adept at dividing her attention; and while making delicate inquiries of the young wife, she was also travelling her shrewd eye round the little bedchamber, spying out and appraising: not one of poor Polly's makeshifts escaped her. The result of her inspection was to cause her to feel justly indignant with Mahony. The idea! Him to rob them of Polly just to dump her down in a place like this! She would never be able to resist telling him what she thought of him.
Here, however, she reckoned without Polly. Polly was sharp enough to doubt "mother's" ability to hold her tongue; and saw to it that Richard and she were not left alone together. And of an evening when talk languished, she would beg her husband to read to them from the BALLARAT STAR, until, as often as not, Mrs. Beamish fell asleep. Frequently, too, she persuaded him to go out and take a hand in a newlyformed whist club, or discuss politics with a neighbour.
Mahony went willingly enough; his home was less home than ever since the big woman's intrusion. Even his food lost its savour. Mrs. Beamish had taken over the cooking, and she went about it with an air that implied he had not had a decent bite to eat since his marriage.
"There! what do you say to that now? That's something LIKE a pudding!" and a great plum-duff was planked triumphantly down in the middle of the dinner-table. "Lor, Polly! your bit of a kitchen ... in this weather ... I'm fair dished." And the good woman mopped her streaming face and could herself eat nothing.
Mahony much preferred his wife's cooking, which took account of his tastes—it was done, too, without any fuss—and he persisted in upholding Polly's skill, in face of Mrs. Beamish's good-natured disbelief. Polly, on edge, lest he should openly state his preference, nervously held out her plate.
"It's so good, mother, I must have a second helping," she declared; and then, without appetite in the cruel, midday heat, did not know what to do with the solid slab of pudding. Pompey and Palmerston got into the way of sitting very close to her chair.
She confided to Richard that Mrs. Beamish disapproved of his evening outings. "Many an 'usband takes to goin' out at such a time, my dear, an' never gets back the 'abit of stoppin' at 'ome. So just you be careful, ducky!" This was a standing joke between them. Mahony would wink at Polly when he put his hat on, and wear it rakishly askew.
However, he quite enjoyed a crack with the postmaster or the town-surveyor, at this juncture. Colonial politics were more interesting than usual. The new Constitution had been proclaimed, and a valiant effort was being made to form a Cabinet; to induce, that was, a sufficient number of well-to-do men to give up time to the service of their country. It looked as if the attempt were going to fail, just as on the goldfields the Local Courts, by which since the Stockade the diggers governed themselves, were failing, because none could afford to spend his days sitting in them.
Yet however high the discussion ran, he kept one ear turned towards his home. Here, things were at a standstill. Polly's time had come and gone—but there was no end set to their suspense. It was blazing hot now in the little log house; walls and roof were black with flies; mosquitoes made the nights hideous. Even Polly lost patience with herself when, morning after morning, she got up feeling as well as ever, and knowing that she had to steer through another difficult day.
It was not the suspense alone: the strain of keeping the peace was growing too much for her.
"Oh, DON'T quarrel with her, Richard, for my sake," she begged her husband one night. "She means so well. And she can't help being like she is—she has always been accustomed to order Mr. Beamish about. But I wish she had never, never come," sobbed poor Polly. And Mahony, in a sudden flash of enlightenment, put his arms round her, and made humble promises. Not another word should cross his lips! "Though I'd like nothing so well as to throw her out, and her bags and bundles after her. Come, laugh a little, my Polly. Think of the old lady flying down the slope, with her packages in a shower about her head!"
Rogers, M.D., looked in whenever he passed. At this stage he was of the jocular persuasion. "Still an unwelcome visitor, ma'am? No little tidbit of news for me to-day?" There he sat, twiddling his thumbs, reiterating his singsong: "Just so!" and looking wise as an owl. Mahony knew the air—had many a time seen it donned to cloak perplexity—and covert doubts of Rogers' ability began to assail him. But then he fell mentally foul of every one he came in touch with, at present: Ned, for the bare-faced fashion in which he left his cheerfulness on the door-mat; Mrs. Beamish for the eternal "Pore lamb!" with which she beplastered Polly, and the antiquated reckoning-table she embarrassed them by consulting.
However, this state of things could not last for ever, and at dawn, one hot January day, Polly was taken ill.
The early hours promised well. But the morning wore on, turned to midday, then to afternoon, and matters still hung fire. While towards six o'clock the patient dismayed them by sitting up in bed, saying she felt much better, and asking for a cup of tea. This drew: "Ah, my pore lamb, you've got to feel worse yet afore you're better!" from Mrs. Beamish.
It ended in Rogers taking up his quarters there, for the night.
Towards eleven o'clock Mahony and he sat, one on each side of the table, in the little sitting-room. The heat was insupportable and all three doors and the window were propped open, in the feeble hope of creating a draught. The lamp had attracted a swarm of flying things: giant moths beat their wings against the globe, or fell singed and sizzling down the chimney; winged-ants alighted with a click upon the table; blowflies and mosquitoes kept up a dizzy hum.
From time to time Mahony rose and stole into the bedroom, where Mrs. Beamish sat fanning the pests off Polly, who was in a feverish doze. Leaning over his wife he let his finger lie on her wrist; and, back again in the outer room, he bit nervously at his little-finger nail—an old trick of his when in a quandary. He had curtly refused a game of bezique; so Rogers had produced a pack of cards from his own pocket—soiled, frayed cards, which had likely done service on many a similar occasion—and was whiling the time away with solitaire. To sit there watching his slow manipulation of the cards, his patent intentness on the game; to listen any longer to the accursed din of the gnats and flies passed Mahony's powers of endurance. Abruptly shoving back his chair, he went out into the yard.
This was some twenty paces across—from the row of old kerosene-tins that constituted his flower-garden, past shed and woodstack to the post-and-rail fence. How often he walked it he did not know; but when he went indoors again, his boots were heavy with mud. For a brief summer storm had come up earlier in the evening. A dense black pall of cloud had swept like a heavy curtain over the stars, to the tune of flash and bang. Now, all was clear and calm again; the white star-dust of the Milky Way powdered the sky just overhead; and though the heat was still intense, the air had a fragrant smell of saturated dust and rain-soaked earth—he could hear streamlets of water trickling down the hillside to the river below.
Out there in the dark, several things became plain to him. He saw that he had not had any real confidence in Rogers from the start; while the effect of the evening spent at close quarters had been to sink his opinion to nothing. Rogers belonged to an old school; his method was to sit by and let nature take its course—perhaps just this slowness to move had won him a name for extreme care. His old fogyism showed up unmistakably in a short but heated argument they had had on the subject of chloroform. He cited such hoary objections to the use of the new anaesthetic in maternity cases as Mahony had never expected to hear again: the therapeutic value of pain; the moral danger the patient ran in yielding up her will ("What right have we to bid a fellow-creature sacrifice her consciousness?") and the impious folly of interfering with the action of a creative law. It had only remained for him to quote Genesis, and the talking serpent!
Had the case been in his own hands he would have intervened before now. Rogers, on the contrary, was still satisfied with the shape of affairs—or made pretence to be. For, watching lynx-eyed, Mahony fancied each time the fat man propelled his paunch out of the sickroom it was a shade less surely: there were nuances, too, in the way he pronounced his vapid: "As long as our strength is well maintained ... well maintained." Mahony doubted Polly's ability to bear much more; and he made bold to know his own wife's constitution best. Rogers was shilly-shallying: what if he delayed too long and Polly slipped through his hands? Lose Polly? Good God! the very thought turned him cold. And alive to his finger-tips with the superstition of his race, he impetuously offered up his fondest dream to those invisible powers that sat aloft, waiting to be appeased. If this was to be the price exacted of him—the price of his escape from exile—then... then ...
To come back to the present, however, he was in an awkward position: he was going to be forced to take Polly's case out of the hands of the man to whom he had entrusted it. Such a step ran counter to all the stiff rules of conduct, the punctilios of decorum, laid down by the most code-ridden profession in the world.
But a fresh visit to Polly, whose pulse had grown markedly softer, put an end to his scruples.
Stalking into the sitting-room he said without preamble: "In my opinion any further delay will mean a risk to my wife. I request you to operate immediately."
Rogers blinked up from his cards, surprise writ across his ruddy countenance. He pushed his spectacles to his forehead. "Eh? What? Well, well ... yes, the time is no doubt coming when we shall have to lend Mother Nature a hand."
"Coming? It's come ... and gone. Are you blind, man?"
Rogers had faced many an agitated husband in his day. "Now, now, Mr. Mahony," he said soothingly, and laid his last two cards in line. "You must allow me to be the judge of that. Besides," he added, as he took off his glasses to polish them on a red bandanna; "besides, I should have to ask you to go out and get some one to assist me."
"I shall assist you," returned Mahony.
Rogers smiled his broad, fat smile. "Easier said than done, my good sir! ... easier said than done."
Mahony considerately turned his back; and kept it turned. Emptying a pitcher of water into a basin he began to lather his hands. "I am a qualified medical man. Of the same university as yourself. I studied under Simpson." It cost him an effort to get the words out. But, by speaking, he felt that he did ample penance for the fit of tetchy pride which, in the first instance, had tied his tongue.
Rogers was dumbfounded.
"Well, upon my word!" he ejaculated, letting his hands with glasses and handkerchief fall to the table. "God bless my soul! why couldn't you say so before? And why the deuce didn't you yourself attend—"
"We can go into all that afterwards."
But Rogers was not one of those who could deal rapidly with the unexpected: he continued to vent his surprise, and to shoot distrustful glances at his companion. He was flurried, too, at being driven forward quicker than he had a mind to go, and said sulkily that Mahony must take full responsibility for what they were about to do. Mahony hardly heard him; he was looking at the instruments laid out on the table. His fingers itched to close round them.
"I'll prepare my wife," he said briskly. And going into the bedroom he bent over the pillow. It was damp with the sweat that had dripped from Polly's head when the pains were on her.
"'Ere, you girl, get in quick now with your bucket and cloth, and give that place a good clean-up afore that pore lamb opens 'er eyes again. I'm cooked—that's what I am!" and sitting heavily down on the kitchen-chair, Mrs. Beamish wiped her face towards the four points of the compass.
Piqued by an unholy curiosity young Ellen willingly obeyed. But a minute later she was back, having done no more than set her pail down inside the bedroom door. "Oh, sure, Mrs. Beamish, and I can't do't!" she cried shrilly. "It's jus' like Andy Soakes's shop ... when they've bin quarterin' a sheep."
"I'll QUARTER you, you lazy trollop, you!" cried Mrs. Beamish, rising to her aching legs again; and her day-old anxiety found vent in a hearty burst of temper. "I'll teach you!" pulling, as she spoke, the floorcloth out of the girl's hand. "Such airs and graces! Why, sooner or later, milady, you've got to go through it yourself."
"ME ...? Catch me!" said Ellen, with enormous emphasis. "D'yer mean to say that's 'ow ... 'ow the children always come?"
"Of course it is, you mincing Nanny-hen!—every blessed child that walks. And I just 'ope," said Mrs. Beamish, as she marched off herself with brush and scrubber: "I 'ope, now you know it, you'll 'ave a little more love and gratitoode for your own mother than ever you 'ad before."
"Oh lor!" said the girl. "Oh, lor!" And plumping down on the chopping-block she snatched her apron to her face and began to cry.
Two months passed before Mahony could help Polly and Mrs. Beamish into the coach bound for Geelong.
It had been touch and go with Polly; and for weeks her condition had kept him anxious. With the inset of the second month, however, she seemed fairly to turn the corner, and from then on made a steady recovery, thanks to her youth and an unimpaired vitality.
He had hurried the little cradle out of sight. But Polly was quick to miss it, and quite approved of its having been given to a needy expectant mother near by. Altogether she bore the thwarting of her hopes bravely.
"Poor little baby, I should have been very fond of it," was all she said, when she was well enough to fold and pack away the tiny garments at which she had stitched with such pleasure.
It was not to Mahony's mind that she returned with Mrs. Beamish—but what else could be done? After lying a prisoner through the hot summer, she was sadly in need of a change. And Mrs. Beamish promised her a diet of unlimited milk and eggs, as well as the do nothing life that befitted an invalid. Just before they left, a letter arrived from John demanding the keys of his house, and proposing that Polly should come to town to set it in order for him, and help him to engage a housekeeper. A niggardly—a truly "John-ish"—fashion of giving an invitation, thought Mahony, and was not for his wife accepting it. But Polly was so pleased at the prospect of seeing her brother that he ended by agreeing to her going on to Melbourne as soon as she had thoroughly recuperated.
Peace between him and Mrs. Beamish was dearly bought up to the last; they barely avoided a final explosion. At the beginning of her third month's absence from home the good woman grew very restive, and sighed aloud for the day on which she would be able to take her departure.
"I expec' my bein' away like this'll run clean into a fifty-poun' note," she said one evening. "When it comes to managin' an 'ouse, those two girls of mine 'aven't a h'ounce o' gumption between them."
It WAS tactless of her, even Polly felt that; though she could sympathise with the worry that prompted the words. As for Mahony, had he had the money to do it, he would have flung the sum named straight at her head.
"She must never come again," said Polly to herself, as she bent over the hair-chain she was making as a gift for John. "It is a pity, but it seems as if Richard can't get on with those sort of people."
In his relief at having his house to himself, Mahony accepted even Polly's absence with composure. To be perpetually in the company of other people irked him beyond belief. A certain amount of privacy was as vital to him as sleep.
Delighting in his new-found solitude, he put off from day to day the disagreeable job of winding up his affairs and discovering how much—or how little—ready money there would be to set sail with. Another thing, some books he had sent home for, a year or more ago, came to hand at this time, and gave him a fresh pretext for delay. There were eight or nine volumes to unpack and cut the pages of. He ran from one to another, sipping, devouring. Finally he cast anchor in a collected edition of his old chief's writings on obstetrics—slipped in, this, as a gift from the sender, a college chum—and over it, his feet on the table, his dead pipe in the corner of his mouth, Mahony sat for the better part of the night.
The effect of this master-mind on his was that of a spark on tinder. Under the flash, he cursed for the hundredth time the folly he had been guilty of in throwing up medicine. It was a vocation that had fitted him as coursing fits a hound, or house-wifery a woman. The only excuse he could find for his apostasy was that he had been caught in an epidemic of unrest, which had swept through the country, upsetting the balance of men's reason. He had since wondered if the Great Exhibition of '51 had not had something to do with it, by unduly whetting people's imaginations; so that but a single cry of "Gold!" was needed, to loose the spirit of vagrancy that lurks in every Briton's blood. His case had perhaps been peculiar in this: no one had come forward to warn or dissuade. His next relatives—mother and sisters—were, he thought, glad to know him well away. In their eyes he had lowered himself by taking up medicine; to them it was still of a piece with barber's pole and cupping-basin. Before his time no member of the family had entered any profession but the army. Oh, that infernal Irish pride! ... and Irish poverty. It had choke-damped his youth, blighted the prospects of his sisters. He could remember, as if it were yesterday, the jibes and fleers called forth by the suit of a wealthy Dublin brewer, who had been attracted—by sheer force of contrast, no doubt—to the elder of the two swan-necked, stiff-backed Miss Townshend-Mahonys, with their long, thin noses, and the ingrained lines that ran from the curled nostrils to the corners of their supercilious mouths, describing a sneer so deep that at a distance it was possible to mistake it for a smile. "Beer, my dear, indeed and there are worse things in the world than beer!" he heard his mother declare in her biting way. "By all means take him! You can wash yourself in it if water gets scarce, and I'll place my kitchen orders with you." Lucinda, who had perhaps sniffed timidly at release, burnt crimson: thank you! she would rather eat rat-bane.—He supposed they pinched and scraped along as of old—the question of money was never broached between him and them. Prior to his marriage he had sent them what he could; but that little was in itself an admission of failure. They made no inquiries about his mode of life, preferring it to remain in shadow; enough for them that he had not amassed a fortune. Had that come to pass, they might have pardoned the rude method of its making—in fancy he listened to the witty, cutting, self-derisive words, in which they would have alluded to his success.
Lying back in his chair he thought of them thus, without unkindliness, even with a dash of humour. That was possible, now that knocking about the world had rubbed off some of his own corners. In his young days, he, too, had been hot and bitter. What, however, to another might have formed the chief crux in their conduct—it was by squandering such money as there was, his own portion among it, on his scamp of an elder brother, that they had forced him into the calling they despised—this had not troubled him greatly. For medicine was the profession on which his choice would anyhow have fallen. And to-night the book that lay before him had infected him with the old enthusiasm. He re-lived those days when a skilfully handled case of PLACENTA PREVIA, or a successful delivery in the fourth position, had meant more to him than the Charge of the Light Brigade.
Fresh from this dip into the past, this foretaste of the future, he turned in good heart to business. An inventory had to be taken; damaged goods cleared out; a list of bad and less bad debts drawn up: he and Hempel were hard at work all next day. The result was worse even than he had expected. His outlay that summer—ever since the day on which he had set off to the aid of his bereaved relative—had been enormous. Trade had run dry, and throughout Polly's long illness he had dipped blindly into his savings. He could never have said no to Mrs. Beamish when she came to him for money—rather would he have pawned the coat off his back. And she, good woman, was unused to cheeseparing. His men's wages paid, berths booked, the numerous expenses bound up with a departure defrayed, he would have but a scanty sum in hand with which to start on the other side.
For himself he was not afraid; but he shrank from the thought of Polly undergoing privations. So far, they had enjoyed a kind of frugal comfort. But should he meet with obstacles at the outset: if patients were laggardly and the practice slow to move, or if he himself fell ill, they might have a spell of real poverty to face. And it was under the goad of this fear that he hit on a new scheme. Why not leave Polly behind for a time, until he had succeeded in making a home for her?—why not leave her under the wing of brother John? John stood urgently in need of a head for his establishment, and who so well suited for the post as Polly? Surely, if it were put before him, John must jump at the offer! Parting from Polly, and were it only for a little while, would be painful; but, did he go alone, he would be free to do his utmost—and with an easy mind, knowing that she lacked none of the creature-comforts. Yes, the more he considered the plan, the better he liked it. The one flaw in his satisfaction was the thought that if their child had lived, no such smooth and simple arrangement would have been possible. He could not have foisted a family on Turnham.
Now he waited with impatience for Polly to return—his reasonable little Polly! But he did not hurry her. Polly was enjoying her holiday. Having passed to Melbourne from Geelong she wrote:
JOHN IS SO VERY KIND. HE DOESN'T OF COURSE GO OUT YET HIMSELF, BUT I WAS PRESENT WITH SOME FRIENDS OF HIS AT A VERY ELEGANT SOIREE. JOHN GAVE ME A HEADDRESS COMPOSED OF BLACK PEARLS AND FROSTED LEAVES. HE MEANS TO GO IN FOR POLITIES AS SOON AS HIS YEAR OF MOURNING IS UP.
ENJOY YOURSELF, MY HEART, AND SET ALL THE SIGHTS YOU CAN.
While into more than one of his letters he slipped a banknote.
FOR YOU KNOW I LIKE YOU TO PAY YOUR OWN WAY AS FAR AS POSSIBLE.
And at length the day came when he could lift his wife out of the coach. She emerged powdered brown with dust and very tired, but radiantly happy: it was a great event in little Polly's life, this homecoming, and coming, too, strong and well. The house was a lively place that afternoon: Polly had so much to tell that she sat holding her bonnet for over an hour, quite unable to get as far as the bedroom; and even Long Jim's mouth went up at the corners instead of down; for Polly had contrived to bring back a little gift for every one. And in presenting these, she found out more of what people were thinking and feeling than her husband had done in all the eight weeks of her absence.
Mahony was loath to damp her pleasure straightway; he bided his time. He could not know that Polly also had been laying plans, and that she watched anxiously for the right moment to unfold them.
The morning after her return, she got a lift in the baker's cart and drove out to inspect John's children. What she saw and heard on this visit was disquieting. The children had run wild, were grown dirty, sly, untruthful. Especially the boy.—"A young Satan, and that's a fact, Mrs. Mahony! What he needs is a man's hand over him, and a good hidin' six days outer seven."
It was not alone little Johnny's misconduct, however, that made Polly break silence. An incident occurred that touched her still more nearly.
Husband and wife sat snug and quiet as in the early days of their marriage. Autumn had come round and a fire burnt in the stove, before which Pompey snorted in his dreams. But, for all the cosy tranquillity, Polly was not happy; and time and again she moistened and bit at the tip of her thread, before pointing it through her needle. For the book open before Richard, in which he was making notes as he read, was—the Bible. Bending over him to drop a kiss on the top of his head, Polly had been staggered by what she saw. Opposite the third verse of the first chapter of Genesis: "And God said, Let there be light: and there was light," he had written: "Three days before the sun!" Her heart seemed to shrivel, to grow small in her breast, at the thought of her husband being guilty of such impiety. Ceasing her pretence at sewing, she walked out of the house into the yard. Standing there under the stars she said aloud, as if some one, THE One, could hear her: "He doesn't mean to do wrong.... I KNOW he doesn't!" But when she re-entered the room he was still at it. His beautiful writing, reduced to its tiniest, wound round the narrow margins.
Deeply red, Polly took her courage in both hands, and struck a blow for the soul whose salvation was more to her than her own. "Richard, do you think that ... is ... is right?" she asked in a low voice.
Mahony raised his head. "Eh?—what, Pollykin?"
"I mean, do you think you ought ... that it is right to do what you are doing?"
The smile, half-tender, half-quizzical that she loved, broke over her husband's face. He held out his hand. "Is my little wife troubled?"
"Richard, I only mean..."
"Polly, my dear, don't worry your little head over what you don't understand. And have confidence in me. You know I wouldn't do anything I believed to be wrong?"
"Yes, indeed. And you are really far more religious than I am."
"One can be religious and yet not shut one's eyes to the truth. It's Saint Paul, you know, who says: we can do nothing against the Truth but for the Truth. And you may depend on it, Polly, the All-Wise would never have given us the brains He has, if He had not intended us to use them. Now I have long felt sure that the Bible is not wholly what it claims to be—direct inspiration."
"Oh, Richard!" said Polly, and threw an anxious glance over her shoulder. "If anyone should hear you!"
"We can't afford to let our lives be governed by what other people think, Polly. Nor will I give any man the right to decide for me what my share of the Truth shall be."
On seeing the Bible closed Polly breathed again, at the same time promising herself to take the traitorous volume into safe-keeping, that no third person's eye should rest on it. Perhaps, too, if it were put away Richard would forget to go on writing in it. He had probably begun in the first place only because he had nothing else to do. In the store he sat and smoked and twirled his thumbs—not half a dozen customers came in, in the course of the day. If he were once properly occupied again, with work that he liked, he would not be tempted to put his gifts to such a profane use. Thus she primed herself for speaking. For now was the time. Richard was declaring that trade had gone to the dogs, his takings dropped to a quarter of what they had formerly been. This headed just where she wished. But Polly would not have been Polly, had she not glanced aside for a moment, to cheer and console.
"It's the same everywhere, Richard. Everybody's complaining. And that reminds me, I forgot to tell you about the Beamishes. They're in great trouble. You see, a bog has formed in front of the Hotel, and the traffic goes round another way, so they've lost most of their custom. Mr. Beamish never opens his mouth at all now, and mother is fearfully worried. That's what was the matter when she was here—only she was too kind to say so."
"Indeed it is. But about us; I'm not surprised to hear trade is dull. Since I was over in the western township last, no less than six new General Stores have gone up—I scarcely knew the place. They've all got big plate-glass windows; and were crowded with people."
"Yes, there's a regular exodus up west. But that doesn't alter the fact, wife, that I've made a very poor job of storekeeping. I shall leave here with hardly a penny to my name."
"Yes, but then, Richard," said Polly, and bent over her strip of needlework, "you were never cut out to be a storekeeper, were you?"
"I was not. And I verily believe, if it hadn't been for that old sober-sides of a Hempel, I should have come a cropper long ago."
"Yes, and Hempel," said Polly softly; "Hempel's been wanting to leave for ever so long."
"The dickens he has!" cried Mahony in astonishment. "And me humming and hawing about giving him notice! What's the matter with him? What's he had to complain of?"
"Oh, nothing like that. He wants to enter the ministry. A helper's needed at the Baptist Chapel, and he means to apply for the post. You see, he's saved a good deal, and thinks he can study to be a minister at the same time."
"Study for his grave, the fool! So that's it, is it? Well, well! it saves trouble in the end. I don't need to bother my head now over what's to become of him ... him or anyone else. My chief desire is to say good-bye to this hole for ever. There's no sense, Polly, in my dawdling on. Indeed, I haven't the money to do it. So I've arranged, my dear, with our friend Ocock to come in and sell us off, as soon as you can get our personal belongings put together."
Here Polly raised her head as if to interrupt; but Mahony, full of what he had to say, ignored the movement, and went on speaking. He did not wish to cause his wife uneasiness, by dwelling on his difficulties; but some explanation was necessary to pave the way for his proposal that she should remain behind, when he left the colony. He spent all his eloquence in making this sound natural and attractive. But it was hard, when Polly's big, astonished eyes hung on his face. "Do you think, for my sake, you could be brave enough?" he wound up, rather unsurely. "It wouldn't be for long, love, I'm certain of that. Just let me set foot in England once more!"
"Why ... why, yes, dear Richard, I ... I think I could, if you really wished it," said Polly in a small voice. She tried to seem reasonable; though black night descended on her at the thought of parting, and though her woman's eyes saw a hundred objections to the plan, which his had overlooked. (For one thing, John had just installed Sara as housekeeper, and Sara would take it very unkindly to be shown the door.) "I THINK I could," she repeated. "But before you go on, dear, I should like to ask YOU something."
She laid down her needlework; her heart was going pit-a-pat. "Richard, did you ever... I mean have you never thought of ... of taking up your profession again—I mean here—starting practice here?—No, wait a minute! Let me finish. I ... I ... oh, Richard!" Unable to find words, Polly locked her fingers under the tablecloth and hoped she was not going to be so silly as to cry. Getting up, she knelt down before her husband, laying her hands on his knees. "Oh, Richard, I wish you would—HOW I wish you would!"
"Why, Polly!" said Mahony, surprised at her agitation. "Why, my dear, what's all this?—You want to know if I never thought of setting up in practice out here? Of course I did ... in the beginning. You don't think I'd have chosen to keep a store, if there'd been any other opening for me? But there wasn't, child. The place was overrun. Never a medico came out and found digging too much for him, but he fell back in despair on his profession. I didn't see my way to join their starvation band."
"Yes, THEN, Richard!—but now?" broke in Polly. "Now, it's quite, quite different. Look at the size Ballarat has grown—there are more than forty thousand people settled on it; Mr. Ocock told me so. And you know, dear, doctors have cleared out lately, not come fresh. There was that one, I forget his name, who drank himself to death; and the two, you remember, who were sold up just before Christmas." But this was an unfortunate line of argument to have hit on, and Polly blushed and stumbled.
Mahony laughed at her slip, and smoothed her hair. "Typical fates, love! They mustn't be mine. Besides, Polly, you're forgetting the main thing—how I hate the place, and how I've always longed to get away."
"No, I'm not. But please let me go on.—You know, Richard, every one believes some day Ballarat will be the chief city—bigger even than Geelong or Melbourne. And then to have a good practice here would mean ever such a lot of money. I'm not the only person who thinks so. There's Sara, and Mrs. Beamish—I know, of course, you don't care much what they say; but still—" Polly meant: still, you see, I have public opinion on my side. As, however, once more words failed her, she hastened to add: "John, too, is amazed to hear you think of going home to bury yourself in some little English village. He's sure there'd be a splendid opening for you here. John thinks very, very highly of you. He told me he believes you would have saved Emma's life, if you had been there."
"I'm much obliged to your brother for his confidence," said Mahony dryly; "but—"
"Wait a minute, Richard! You see, dear, I can't help feeling myself that you ought not to be too hasty in deciding. Of course, I know I'm young, and haven't had much experience, but ... You see, you're KNOWN here, Richard, and that's always something; in England you'd be a perfect stranger. And though you may say there are too many doctors on the Flat, still, if the place goes on growing as it is doing, there'll soon be room for more; and then, if it isn't you, it'll just be some one else. And that DOES seem a pity, when you are so clever—so much, much cleverer than other people! Yes, I know all about it; Mrs. Beamish told me it was you I owed my life to, not Dr. Rogers"—at which Mahony winced, indignant that anyone should have betrayed to Polly how near death she had been. "Oh, I DO want people to know you for what you really are!" said little Polly.
"Pussy, I believe she has ambitions for her husband," said Mahony to Palmerston.
"Of course I have. You say you hate Ballarat, and all that, but have you ever thought, Richard, what a difference it would make if you were in a better position? You think people look down on you, because you're in trade. But if you were a doctor, there'd be none of that. You'd call yourself by your full name again, and write it down on the visiting list at Government House, and be as good as anybody, and be asked into society, and keep a horse. You'd live in a bigger house, and have a room to yourself and time to read and write. I'm quite sure you'd make lots of money and soon be at the top of the tree. And after all, dear Richard, I don't want to go home. I would much rather stay here and look after Jerry, and dear Ned, and poor John's children," said Polly, falling back as a forlorn hope on her own preference.
"Why, what a piece of special pleading!" cried Mahony, and leaning forward, he kissed the young flushed face.
"Don't laugh at me. I'm in earnest."
"Why, no, child. But Polly, my dear, even if I were tempted for a moment to think seriously of what you say, where would the money come from? Fees are high, it's true, if the ball's once set a-rolling. But till then? With a jewel of a wife like mine, I'd be a scoundrel to take risks."
Polly had been waiting for this question. On hearing it, she sat back on her heels and drew a deep breath. The communication she had now to make him was the hub round which all turned. Should he refuse to consider it.... Plucking at the fringe of the tablecloth, she brought out, piecemeal, the news that John was willing to go surety for the money they would need to borrow for the start. Not only that: he offered them a handsome sum weekly to take entire charge of his children.—"Not here, in this little house—I know that wouldn't do," Polly hastened to throw in, forestalling the objection she read in Richard's eyes. Now did he not think he should weigh an offer of this kind very carefully? A name like John's was not to be despised; most people in their position would jump at it. "I understand something about it," said the little woman, and sagely nodded her head. "For when I was in Geelong, Mr. Beamish tried his hardest to raise some money and couldn't, his sureties weren't good enough." Mahony had not the heart to chide her for discussing his private affairs with her brother. Indeed, he rather admired the businesslike way she had gone about it. And he admitted this, by ceasing to banter and by calling her attention to the various hazards and inconveniences the step would entail.
Polly heard him out in silence. Enough for her, in the beginning, that he did not decline off-hand. They had a long talk, the end of which was that he promised to sleep over John's proposal, and delay fixing the date of the auction till the morning.
Having yielded this point Mahony kissed his wife and sent her to bed, himself going out with the dog for his usual stroll.
It was a fine night—moonless, but thick with stars. So much, at least, could be said in favour of the place: there was abundant sky-room; you got a clear half of the great vault at once. How he pitied, on such a night, the dwellers in old, congested cities, whose view of the starry field was limited to a narrow strip, cut through house-tops.
Yet he walked with a springless tread. The fact was, certain of his wife's words had struck home; and in the course of the past year he had learnt to put considerable faith in Polly's practical judgment. As he wound his way up the little hill to which he had often carried his perplexities, he let his pipe go out, and forgot to whistle Pompey off butcher's garbage.
Sitting down on a log he rested his chin in his hands. Below him twinkled the sparse lights of the Flat; shouts and singing rose from the circus.—And so John would have been willing to go surety for him! Let no one say the unexpected did not happen. All said and done, they were little more than strangers to each other, and John had no notion what his money-making capacities as a doctor might be. It was true, Polly had been too delicate to mention whether the affair had come about through her persuasions or on John's own initiative. John might have some ulterior motive up his sleeve. Perhaps he did not want to lose his sister ... or was scheming to bind a pair of desirables fast to this colony, the welfare of which he had so much at heart. Again, it might be that he wished to buy off the memory of that day on which he had stripped his soul naked. Simplest of all, why should he not be merely trying to pay back a debt? He, Mahony, might shrink from lying under an obligation to John, but, so far, the latter had not scrupled to accept favours from him. But that was always the way with your rich men; they were not troubled by paltry pride; for they knew it was possible to acquit themselves of their debts at a moment's notice, and with interest. This led him to reflect on the great help to him the loan of his wealthy relative's name would be: difficulties would melt before it. And surely no undue risk was involved in the use of it? Without boasting, he thought he was better equipped, both by aptitude and training, than the ruck of colonial practitioners. Did he enter the lists, he could hardly fail to succeed. And out here even a moderate success spelled a fortune. Gained double-quick, too. After which the lucky individual sold out and went home, to live in comfort. Yes, that was a point, and not to be overlooked. No definite surrender of one's hopes was called for; only a postponement. Ten years might do it—meaty years, of course, the best years of one's life—still .... It would mean very hard work; but had he not just been contemplating, with perfect equanimity, an even more arduous venture on the other side? What a capricious piece of mechanism was the human brain!
Another thought that occurred to him was that his services might prove more useful to this new country than to the old, where able men abounded. He recalled many good lives and promising cases he had here seen lost and bungled. To take the instance nearest home—Polly's confinement. Yes, to show his mettle to such as Rogers; to earn respect where he had lived as a mere null—the idea had an insidious fascination. And as Polly sagely remarked: if it were not he, it would be some one else; another would harvest the KUDOS that might have been his. For the rough-and-ready treatment—the blue pills and black draughts—that had satisfied the early diggers had fallen into disrepute; medical skill was beginning to be appreciated. If this went on, Ballarat would soon stand on a level with any city of its size at home. But even as it was, he had never been quite fair to it; he had seen it with a jaundiced eye. And again he believed Polly hit the nail on the head, when she asserted that the poor position he had occupied was responsible for much of his dislike.
But there was something else at work in him besides. Below the surface an admission awaited him, which he shrank from making. All these pros and cons, these quibbles and hair-splittings were but a misfit attempt to cloak the truth. He might gull himself with them for a time: in his heart he knew that he would yield—if yield he did—because he was by nature only too prone to follow the line of least resistance. What he had gone through to-night was no new experience. Often enough after fretting and fuming about a thing till it seemed as if nothing under the sun had ever mattered so much to him, it could happen that he suddenly threw up the sponge and bowed to circumstance. His vitality exhausted itself beforehand—in a passionate aversion, a torrent of words—and failed him at the critical moment. It was a weakness in his blood—in the blood of his race.—But in the present instance, he had an excuse for himself. He had not known—till Polly came out with her brother's offer—how he dreaded having to begin all over again in England, an utter stranger, without influence or recommendations, and with no money to speak of at his back.