But now he owned up, and there was no more need of shift or subterfuge: now it was one rush and hurry to the end. He had capitulated; a thin-skinned aversion to confronting difficulties, when he saw the chance of avoiding them, had won the day. He intended—had perhaps the whole time intended—to take the hand held out to him. After all, why not? Anyone else, as Polly said, would have jumped at John's offer. He alone must argue himself blue in the face over it.
But as he sat and pondered the lengthy chain of circumstance—Polly's share in it, John's, his own, even the part played by incorporeal things—he brought up short against the word "decision". He might flatter himself by imagining he had been free to decide; in reality nothing was further from the truth. He had been subtly and slily guided to his goal—led blindfold along a road that not of his choosing. Everything and every one had combined to constrain him: his favours to John, the failure of his business, Polly's inclinations and persuasions, his own fastidious shrinkings. So that, in the end, all he had had to do was to brush aside a flimsy gossamer veil, which hung between him and his fate. Was it straining a point to see in the whole affair the workings of a Power outside himself—against himself, in so far as it took no count of his poor earth-blind vision?
Well, if this were so, better still: his ways were in God's hand. And after all, what did it matter where one strove to serve one's Maker—east or west or south or north—and whether the stars overhead were grouped in this constellation or in that? Their light was a pledge that one would never be overlooked or forgotten, traced by the hand of Him who had promised to note even a sparrow's fall. And here he spoke aloud into the darkness the ancient and homely formula that is man's stand-by in face of the untried, the unknown.
"If God wills.... God knows best."
The house stood not far from the Great Swamp. It was of weather-board, with a galvanised iron roof, and might have been built from a child's drawing of a house: a door in the centre, a little window on either side, a chimney at each end. Since the ground sloped downwards, the front part rested on piles some three feet high, and from the rutty clay-track that would one day be a street wooden steps led up to the door. Much as Mahony would have liked to face it with a verandah, he did not feel justified in spending more than he could help. And Polly not only agreed with him, but contrived to find an advantage in the plainer style of architecture. "Your plate will be better seen, Richard, right on the street, than hidden under a verandah." But then Polly was overflowing with content. Had not two of the rooms fireplaces? And was there not a wash-house, with a real copper in it, behind the detached kitchen? Not to speak of a spare room!—To the rear of the house a high paling-fence enclosed a good-sized yard. Mahony dreamed of a garden, Polly of keeping hens.
There were no two happier people on Ballarat that autumn than the Mahonys. To and fro they trudged down the hill, across the Flat, over the bridge and up the other side; first, through a Sahara of dust, then, when the rains began, ankle-deep in gluey red mud. And the building of the finest mansion never gave half so much satisfaction as did that of this flimsy little wooden house, with its thin lath-and-plaster walls. In fancy they had furnished it and lived in it, long before it was even roofed in. Mahony sat at work in his surgery—it measured ten by twelve—Polly at her Berlin-woolwork in the parlour opposite: "And a cage with a little parrot in it, hanging at the window."
The preliminaries to the change had gone smoothly enough—Mahony could not complain. Pleasant they had not been; but could the arranging and clinching of a complicated money-matter ever be pleasant? He had had to submit to hearing his private affairs gone into by a stranger; to make clear to strangers his capacity for earning a decent income.
With John's promissory letter in his pocket, he had betaken himself to Henry Ocock's office.
This, notwithstanding its excellent position on the brow of the western hill, could not deny its humble origin as a livery-barn. The entry was by a yard; and some of the former horse-boxes had been rudely knocked together to provide accommodation. Mahony sniffed stale dung.
In what had once been the harness-room, two young men sat at work.
"Why, Tom, my lad, you here?"
Tom Ocock raised his freckled face, from the chin of which sprouted some long fair hairs, and turned red.
"Yes, it's me. Do you want to see 'En—" at an open kick from his brother—"Mr. Ocock?"
"If you please."
Informed by Grindle that the "Captain" was at liberty, Mahony passed to an inner room where he was waved to a chair. In answer to his statement that he had called to see about raising some money, Ocock returned an: "Indeed? Money is tight, sir, very tight!" his face instantly taking on the blank-wall solemnity proper to dealings with this world's main asset.
Mahony did not at once hand over John's way-soothing letter. He thought he would first test the lawyer's attitude towards him in person—a species of self-torment men of his make are rarely able to withstand. He spoke of the decline of his business; of his idea of setting up as a doctor and building himself a house; and, as he talked, he read his answer pat and clear in the ferrety eyes before him. There was a bored tolerance of his wordiness, an utter lack of interest in the concerns of the petty tradesman.
"H'm." Ocock, lying back in his chair, was fitting five outstretched fingers to their fellows. "All very well, my good sir, but may I ask if you have anyone in view as a security?"
"I have. May I trouble you to glance through this?" and triumphantly Mahony brandished John's letter.
Ocock raised his brows. "What? Mr. John Turnham? Ah, very good ... very good indeed!" The brazen-faced change in his manner would have made a cat laugh; he sat upright, was interested, courteous, alert. "Quite in order! And now, pray, how much do we need?"
Unadvised, he had not been able, said Mahony, to determine the sum. So Ocock took pencil and paper, and, prior to running off a reckoning, put him through a sharp interrogation. Under it Mahony felt as though his clothing was being stripped piece by piece off his back. At one moment he stood revealed as mean and stingy, at another as an unpractical spendthrift. More serious things came out besides. He began to see, under the limelight of the lawyer's inquiry, in what a muddle-headed fashion he had managed his business, and how unlikely it was he could ever have made a good thing of it. Still worse was his thoughtless folly in wedding and bringing home a young wife without, in this settlement where accident was rife, where fires were of nightly occurrence, insuring against either fire or death. Not that Ocock breathed a hint of censure: all was done with a twist of the eye, a purse of the lip; but it was enough for Mahony. He sat there, feeling like an eel in the skinning, and did not attempt to keep pace with the lawyer, who hunted figures into the centre of a woolly maze.
The upshot of these calculations was: he would need help to the tune of something over one thousand pounds. As matters stood at present on Ballarat, said Ocock, the plainest house he could build would cost him eight hundred; and another couple of hundred would go in furnishing; while a saddle-horse might be put down at fifty pounds. On Turnham's letter he, Ocock, would be prepared to borrow seven hundred for him—and this could probably be obtained at ten per cent on a mortgage of the house; and a further four hundred, for which he would have to pay twelve or fifteen. Current expenses must be covered by the residue of this savings, and by what he was able to make. They would include the keep of the horse, and the interest on the borrowed money, which might be reckoned roughly at a hundred and twenty per annum. In addition, he would be well advised to insure his life for five to seven hundred pounds.
The question also came up whether the land he had selected for building on should be purchased or not. He was for doing so, for settling the whole business there and then. Ocock, however, took the opposite view. Considering, said he, that the site chosen was far from the centre of the town, Mahony might safely postpone buying in the meanwhile. There had been no government land-sales of late, and all main-road frontages had still to come under the hammer. As occupier, when the time arrived, he would have first chance at the upset price; though then, it was true, he would also be liable for improvements. The one thing he must beware of was of enclosing too small a block.
Mahony agreed—agreed to everything: the affair seemed to have passed out of his hands. A sense of dismay invaded him while he listened to the lawyer tick off the obligations and responsibilities he was letting himself in for. A thousand pounds! He to run into debt for such a sum, who had never owed a farthing to anyone! He fell to doubting whether, after all, he had made choice of the easier way, and lapsed into a gloomy silence.
Ocock on the other hand warmed to geniality.
"May I say, doctor, how wise I think your decision to come over to us?"—He spoke as if Ballarat East were in the heart of the Russian steppes. "And that reminds me. There's a friend of mine.... I may be able at once to put a patient in your way."
Mahony walked home in a mood of depression which it took all Polly's arts to dispel.
Under its influence he wrote an outspoken letter to Purdy—but with no very satisfactory result. It was like projecting a feeler for sympathy into the void, so long was it since they had met, and so widely had his friend's life branched from his.
Purdy's answer—it was headed "The Ovens"—did not arrive till several weeks later, and was mainly about himself.
IN A WAY I'M WITH YOU, OLD PILL-BOX, he wrote. YOU'LL CUT A JOLLY SIGHT BETTER FIGURE AS AN M.D. THEN EVER YOU'VE DONE BEHIND A COUNTER. BUT I DON'T KNOW THAT I'D CARE TO STAKE MY LAST DOLLAR ON YOU ALL THE SAME. WHAT DOES MRS. POLLY SAY?—AS FOR ME, OLD BOY, SINCE YOU'RE GOOD ENOUGH TO ASK, WHY THE LESS SAID THE BETTER. ONE OF THESE DAYS A POOR WORN OLD SHICER'LL COME CRAWLING ROUND TO YOUR BACK DOOR TO SEE IF YOU'VE ANY CAST-OFF DUDS YOU CAN SPARE HIM. SERIOUSLY, DICK, OLD MAN, I'M STONY-BROKE ONCE MORE AND THE LORD ONLY KNOWS HOW I'M GOING TO WIN THROUGH.
In the course of that winter, custom died a natural death; and one day, the few oddments that remained having been sold by auction, Mahony and his assistant nailed boards horizontally across the entrance to the store. The day of weighing out pepper and salt was over; never again would the tinny jangle of the accursed bell smite his ears. The next thing was that Hempel packed his chattels and departed for his new walk in life. Mahony was not sorry to see him go. Hempel's thoughts had soared far above the counter; he was arrived at the stage of: "I'm just as good as you!" which everyone here reached sooner or later.
"I shall always be pleased to hear how you are getting on."
Mahony spoke kindly, but in a tone which, as Polly who stood by, very well knew, people were apt to misunderstand.
"I should think so!" she chimed in. "I shall feel very hurt indeed, Hempel, if you don't come and see us."
With regard to Long Jim, she had a talk with her husband one night as they went to bed.
"There really won't be anything for him to do in the new house. No heavy crates or barrels to move about. And he doesn't know a thing about horses. Why not let him go home?—he does so want to. What would you say, dear, to giving him thirty pounds for his passage-money and a trifle in his pocket? It would make him very happy, and he'd be off your hands for good.—Of course, though, just as you think best."
"We shall need every penny we can scrape together, for ourselves, Polly. And yet, my dear, I believe you're right. In the new house, as you say, he'll be a mere encumbrance. As for me, I'd be only too thankful never to hear his cantankerous old pipe again. I don't know now what evil genius prompted me to take him in."
"Evil genius, indeed!" retorted Polly. "You did it because you're a dear, good, kind-hearted man."
"Think so, wifey? I'm inclined to put it down to sheer dislike of botheration—Irish inertia ... the curse of our race."
"Yes, yes, I knoo you'd be wantin' to get rid o' me, now you're goin' up in the world," was Long Jim's answer when Polly broached her scheme for his benefit. "Well, no, I won't say anythin' against you, Mrs. Mahony; you've treated me square enough. But doc., 'e's always thought 'imself a sight above one, an' when 'e does, 'e lets you feel it."
This was more than Polly could brook. "And sighing and groaning as you have done to get home, Jim! You're a silly, ungrateful old man, even to hint at such a thing."
"Poor old fellow, he's grumbled so long now, that he's forgotten how to do anything else," she afterwards made allowance for him. And added, pierced by a sudden doubt: "I hope his wife will still be used to it, or ... or else ..."
And now the last day in the old house was come. The furniture, stacked in the yard, awaited the dray that was to transport it. Hardly worth carrying with one, thought Mahony, when he saw the few poor sticks exposed to the searching sunlight. Pipe in mouth he mooned about, feeling chiefly amazed that he could have put up, for so long, with the miserable little hut which his house, stripped of its trimmings, proved to be.
His reflections were cut short by old Ocock, who leaned over the fence to bid his neighbours good-bye.
"No disturbance! Come in, come in!" cried Mahony, with the rather spurious heartiness one is prone to throw into a final invitation. And Polly rose from her knees before a clothes-basket which she was filling with crockery, and bustled away to fetch the cake she had baked for such an occasion.
"I'll miss yer bright little face, that I will!" said Mr. Ocock, as he munched with the relish of a Jerry or a Ned. He held his slice of cake in the hollow of one great palm, conveying with extreme care the pieces he broke off to his mouth.
"You must come and see us, as soon as ever we're settled."
"Bless you! You'll soon find grander friends than an old chap like me."
"Mr. Ocock! And you with three sons in the law!"
"Besides, mark my words, it'll be your turn next to build," Mahony removed his pipe to throw in. "We'll have you over with us yet."
"And what a lovely surprise for Miss Amelia when she arrives, to find a bran'-new house awaiting her."
"Well, that's the end of this little roof-tree," said Mahony.—The loaded dray had driven off, the children and Ellen perched on top of the furniture, and he was giving a last look round. "We've spent some very happy days under it, eh, my dear?"
"Oh, very," said Polly, shaking out her skirts. "But we shall be just as happy in the new one."
"God grant we may! It's not too much to hope I've now seen all the downs of my life. I've managed to pack a good many into thirty short years.— And that reminds me, Mrs. Townshend-Mahony, do you know you will have been married to me two whole years, come next Friday?"
"Why, so we shall!" cried Polly, and was transfixed in the act of tying her bonnet-strings. "How time does fly! It seems only the other day I saw this room for the first time. I peeped in, you know, while you were fetching the box. DO you remember how I cried, Richard? I was afraid of a spider or something." And the Polly of eighteen looked back, with a motherly amusement, at her sixteen-year-old eidolon. "But now, dear, if you're ready ... or else the furniture will get there before we do. We'd better take the short cut across Soldiers' Hill. That's the cat in that basket, for you to carry, and here's your microscope. I've got the decanter and the best teapot. Shall we go?"
And now for a month or more Mahony had been in possession of a room that was all his own. Did he retire into it and shut the door, he could make sure of not being disturbed. Polly herself tapped before entering; and he let her do so. Polly was dear; but dearer still was his long-coveted privacy.
He knew, too, that she was happily employed; the fitting-up and furnishing of the house was a job after her own heart. She had proved both skilful and economical at it: thanks to her, they had used a bare three-quarters of the sum allotted by Ocock for the purpose—and this was well; for any number of unforeseen expenses had cropped up at the last moment. Polly had a real knack for making things "do". Old empty boxes, for instance, underwent marvellous transformations at her hands—emerged, clad in chintz and muslin, as sofas and toilet-tables. She hung her curtains on strings, and herself sewed the seams of the parlour carpet, squatting Turk-fashion on the floor, and working away, with a great needle shaped like a scimitar, till the perspiration ran down her face. It was also she who, standing on the kitchen-table, put up the only two pictures they possessed, Ned and Jerry giving opinions on the straightness of her eye, from below: a fancy picture of the Battle of Waterloo in the parlour; a print of "Harvey Discovering the Circulation of the Blood" on the surgery wall.
From where he sat Mahony could hear the voices of the children—John's children—at play. They frolicked with Pompey in the yard. He could endure them, now that he was not for ever tumbling over them. Yes, one and all were comfortably established under the new roof—with the exception of poor Palmerston the cat. Palmerston had declined to recognise the change, and with the immoderate homing-instinct of his kind had returned night after night to his old haunts. For some time Mahony's regular evening walk was back to the store—a road he would otherwise not have taken; for it was odious to him to see Polly's neat little appointments going to rack and ruin, under the tenancy of a dirty Irish family. There he would find the animal sitting, in melancholy retrospect. Again and again he picked him up and carried him home; till that night when no puss came to his call, and Palmerston, the black and glossy, was seen no more: either he had fallen down a shaft, or been mangled by a dog, or stolen, cats still fetching a high price on Ballarat.
The window of Mahony's room faced a wide view: not a fence, hardly a bit of scrub or a tuft of grass-tree marked the bare expanse of uneven ground, now baked brown as a piecrust by the December sun. He looked across it to the cemetery. This was still wild and unfenced—just a patch of rising ground where it was permissible to bury the dead. Only the day before—the second anniversary of the Eureka Stockade—he had watched some two to three hundred men, with crepe on their hats and sleeves, a black-draped pole at their head, march there to do homage to their fallen comrades. The dust raised by the shuffling of these many feet had accompanied the procession like a moving cloud; had lingered in its rear like the smoke from a fire. Drays and lorries crawled for ever laboriously along it, seeming glued to the earth by the monstrous sticky heat of the veiled sun. Further back rose a number of bald hills—rounded, swelling hills, shaped like a woman's breasts. And behind all, pale china-blue against the tense white sky, was the embankment of the distant ranges. Except for these, an ugly, uninviting outlook, and one to which he seldom lifted his eyes.
His room pleased him better. Polly had stretched a bright green drugget on the floor; the table had a green cloth on it; the picture showed up well against the whitewashed wall. Behind him was a large deal cupboard, which held instruments and drugs. The bookshelves with their precious burden were within reach of his hand; on the top shelf he had stacked the boxes containing his botanical and other specimens.
The first week or so there was naturally little doing: a sprained wrist to bandage, a tooth to draw, a case of fly-blight. To keep himself from growing fidgety, he overhauled his minerals and butterflies, and renewed faded labels. This done, he went on to jot down some ideas he had, with regard to the presence of auriferous veins in quartz. It was now generally agreed that quartz was the matrix; but on the question of how the gold had found its way into the rock, opinions were sharply divided. The theory of igneous injection was advanced by some; others inclined to that of sublimation. Mahony leaned to a combination of the two processes, and spent several days getting his thoughts in order; while Polly, bursting with pride, went about on tiptoe audibly hushing the children: their uncle was writing for the newspapers.
Still no patients worth the name made their appearance. To fend off the black worry that might get the better of him did he sit idle, he next drew his Bible to him, and set about doing methodically what he had so far undertaken merely by fits and starts—deciding for himself to what degree the Scriptures were inspired. Polly was neither proud nor happy while this went on, and let the children romp unchecked. At present it was not so much the welfare of her husband's soul she feared for: God must surely know by this time what a good man Richard was; he had not his equal, she thought, for honesty and uprightness; he was kind to the poor and the sick, and hadn't missed a single Sunday at church, since their marriage. But all that would not help, if once he got the reputation of being an infidel. Then, nobody would want him as a doctor at all.
Casually begun, Mahony's studies soon absorbed him to the exclusion of everything else.
Brought up in the cast-iron mould of Irish Protestantism, to which, being of a sober and devout turn of mind, he had readily submitted, he had been tossed, as a youthful student, into the freebooting Edinburgh of the forties. Edinburgh was alive in those days to her very paving-stones; town and university combined to form a hotbed of intellectual unrest, a breeding-ground for disturbing possibilities. The "development theory" was in the air; and a book that appeared anonymously had boldly voiced, in popular fashion, Maillet's dream and the Lamarckian hypothesis of a Creation undertaken once and for all, in place of a continuous creative intenention. This book, opposing natural law to miracle, carried complete conviction to the young and eager. Audacious spirits even hazarded the conjecture that primitive life itself might have originated in a natural way: had not, but recently, an investigator who brought a powerful voltaic battery to bear on a saturated solution of silicate of potash, been startled to find, as the result of his experiment, numberless small mites of the species ACARUS HORRIDUS? Might not the marvel electricity or galvanism, in action on albumen, turn out to be the vitalising force? To the orthodox zoologist, phytologist and geologist, such a suggestion savoured of madness; they either took refuge in a contemptuous silence, or condescended only to reply: Had one visited the Garden of Eden during Creation, one would have found that, in the morning, man was not, while in the evening he was!—morning and evening bearing their newly established significance of geological epochs. The famous tracing of the Creator's footsteps, undertaken by a gifted compromiser, was felt by even the most bigoted to be a lame rejoinder. His ASTEROLEPSIS, the giant fossil-fish from the Old Red Sandstone, the antiquity of which should show that the origin of life was not to be found solely in "infusorial points," but that highly developed forms were among the earliest created—this single prop was admittedly not strong enough to carry the whole burden of proof. No, the immutability of species had been seriously impugned, and bold minds asked themselves why a single act of creation, at the outset, should not constitute as divine an origin of life as a continued series of "creative fiats."
Mahony was one of them. The "development theory" did not repel him. He could see no impiety in believing that life, once established on the earth, had been left to perfect itself. Or hold that this would represent the Divine Author of all things as, after one master-stroke, dreaming away eternal ages in apathy and indifference. Why should the perfect functioning of natural law not be as convincing an expression of God's presence as a series of cataclysmic acts of creation?
None the less it was a time of crisis, for him, as for so many. For, if this were so, if science spoke true that, the miracle of life set a-going, there had been no further intervention on the part of the Creator, then the very head-and-corner stone of the Christian faith, the Bible itself, was shaken. More, much more would have to go than the Mosaic cosmogony of the first chapter of Genesis. Just as the Elohistic account of creation had been stretched to fit the changed views of geologists, so the greater part of the scriptural narratives stood in need of a wider interpretation. The fable of the Eternal's personal mediation in the affairs of man must be accepted for what it was—a beautiful allegory, the fondly dreamed fulfilment of a world-old desire. And bringing thus a sharpened critical sense to bear on the Scriptures, Mahony embarked on his voyage of discovery. Before him, but more as a warning than a beacon, shone the example of a famous German savant, who, taking our Saviour's life as his theme, demolished the sacred idea of a Divine miracle, and retold the Gospel story from a rationalistic standpoint. A savagely unimaginative piece of work this, thought Mahony, and one that laid all too little weight on the deeps of poetry, the mysteries of symbols, and the power the human mind drew from these, to pierce to an ideal truth. His own modest efforts would be of quite another kind.
For he sought, not to deny God, but to discover Him anew, by freeing Him from the drift of error, superstition and dead-letterism which the centuries had accumulated about Him. Far was it from His servant's mind to wish to decry the authority of the Book of Books. This he believed to consist, in great part, of inspired utterances, and, for the rest, to be the wisest and ripest collection of moral precept and example that had come down to us from the ages. Without it, one would be rudderless indeed—a castaway in a cockleshell boat on a furious sea—and from one's lips would go up a cry like to that wrung from a famous infidel: "I am affrighted and confounded with the forlorn solitude in which I am placed by my philosophy ... begin to fancy myself in the most deplorable condition imaginable, environed by the deepest darkness."
No, Mahony was not one of those who held that the Christian faith, that fine flower of man's spiritual need, would suffer detriment by the discarding of a few fabulous tales; nor did he fear lest his own faith should become undermined by his studies. For he had that in him which told him that God was; and this instinctive certainty would persist, he believed, though he had ultimately to admit the whole fabric of Christianity to be based on the Arimathean's dream. It had already survived the rejection of externals: the surrender of forms, the assurance that ceremonials were not essential to salvation belonged to his early student-days. Now, he determined to send by the board the last hampering relics of bigotry and ritual. He could no longer concede the tenets of election and damnation. God was a God of mercy, not the blind, jealous Jahveh of the Jews, or the inhuman Sabbatarian of a narrow Protestantism. And He might be worshipped anywhere or anyhow: in any temple built to His name—in the wilderness under the open sky—in silent prayer, or according to any creed.
In all this critical readjustment, the thought he had to spare for his fellow-men was of small account: his fate was not bound to theirs by the altruism of a later generation. It was a time of intense individualism; and his efforts towards spiritual emancipation were made on his own behalf alone. The one link he had with his fellows—if link it could be termed—was his earnest wish to avoid giving offence: never would it have occurred to him to noise his heterodoxy abroad. Nor did he want to disturb other people's convictions. He respected those who could still draw support from the old faith, and, moreover, had not a particle of the proselytiser in him. He held that religion was either a matter of temperament, or of geographical distribution; felt tolerantly inclined towards the Jews, and the Chinese; and did not even smile at processions to the Joss-house, and the provisioning of those silent ones who needed food no more.
But just as little as he intermeddled with the convictions of others would he brook interference with his own. It was the concern of no third person what paths he followed in his journeyings after the truth—in his quest for a panacea for the ills and delusions of life. For, call it what he would—Biblical criticism, scientific inquiry—this was his aim first and last. He was trying to pierce the secret of existence—to rede the riddle that has never been solved.—What am I? Whence have I come? Whither am I going? What meaning has the pain I suffer, the evil that men do? Can evil be included in God's scheme?—And it was well, he told himself, as he pressed forward, that the flame in him burnt unwaveringly, which assured him of his kinship with the Eternal, of the kinship of all created things; so unsettling and perplexing were the conclusions at which he arrived.
Summoned to dinner, he sat at table with stupid hands and evasive eyes. Little Johnny, who was, as Polly put it, "as sharp as mustard," was prompt to note his uncle's vacancy.
"What you staring at, Nunkey?" he demanded, his mouth full of roly-pudding, which he was stuffing down with all possible dispatch.
"Hush, Johnny. Don't tease your uncle."
"What do you mean, my boy?"
"I mean ..." Young John squeezed his last mouthful over his windpipe and raised his plate. "I mean, you look just like you was seein' a emeny.—More puddin', Aunt Polly!"
"What does the child mean? An anemone?"
"NO!" said John with the immense contempt of five years. "I didn't say anner emeny." Here, he began to tuck in anew, aiding the slow work of his spoon with his more habile fingers. "A emeny's d emeny. Like on de pickshur in Aunt Polly's room. One ... one's de English, an' one's de emeny."
"It's the Battle of Waterloo," explained Polly. "He stands in front of it every day."
"Yes. An' when I'm a big man, I'm goin' to be a sojer, an' wear a red coat, an' make 'bung'!" and he shot an imaginary gun at his sister, who squealed and ducked her head.
"An ancient wish, my son," said Mahony, when Johnny had been reproved and Trotty comforted. "Tom-thumbs like you have voiced it since the world—or rather since war first began."
"Don't care. Nunkey, why is de English and why is de emeny?"
But Mahony shrank from the gush of whats and whys he would let loose on himself, did he attempt to answer this question. "Come, shall uncle make you some boats to sail in the wash-tub?"
"Wiv a mast an' sails an' everyfing?" cried John wildly; and throwing his spoon to the floor, he scrambled from his chair. "Oh yes, Nunkey—dear Nunkey!"
"Dea Unkey!" echoed the shadow.
"Oh, you cupboard lovers, you!" said Mahony as, order restored and sticky mouths wiped, two pudgy hands were thrust with a new kindness into his.
He led the way to the yard; and having whittled out for the children some chips left by the builders, he lighted his pipe and sat down in the shade of the house. Here, through a veiling of smoke, which hung motionless in the hot, still air, he watched the two eager little mortals before him add their quota to the miracle of life.
Polly had no such absorbing occupation to tide her over these empty days of waiting; and sometimes—especially late in the afternoon, when her household duties were done, the children safely at play—she found it beyond her power to stitch quietly at her embroidery. Letting the canvas fall to her knee, she would listen, listen, listen till the blood sang in her ears, for the footsteps and knocks at the door that never came. And did she draw back the window-curtain and look out, there was not a soul to be seen: not a trace of the string of prosperous, paying patients she had once imagined winding their way to the door.
And meanwhile Richard was shut up in his room, making those dreadful notes in the Bible which it pinched her heart even to think of. He really did not seem to care whether he had a practice or not. All the new instruments, got from Melbourne, lay unused in their casings; and the horse was eating its head off, at over a pound a week, in the livery-barn. Polly shrank from censuring her husband, even in thought; but as she took up her work again, and went on producing in wools a green basket of yellow fruit on a magenta ground, she could not help reflecting what she would have done at this pass, had she been a man. She would have announced the beginning of her practice in big letters in the STAR, and she would have gone down into the township and mixed with people and made herself known. With Richard, it was almost as if he felt averse from bringing himself into public notice.
Only another month now, and the second instalment of interest would fall due. Polly did not know exactly what the sum was; but she did know the date. The first time, they had had no difficulty in meeting the bill, owing to their economy in furnishing. But what about this one, and the next again? How were payments to be made, and kept up, if the patients would not come?
She wished with all her heart that she was ten years older. For what could a person who was only eighteen be supposed to understand of business? Richard's invariable answer, did she venture a word, was not to worry her little head about such things.
When, however, another week had dribbled away in the same fashion, Polly began to be afraid the date of payment had slipped his memory altogether. She would need to remind him of it, even at the risk of vexing him. And having cast about for a pretext to intrude, she decided to ask his advice on a matter that was giving her much uneasiness; though, had he been REALLY busy, she would have gone on keeping it to herself.
It related to little Johnny.
Johnny was a high-spirited, passionate child, who needed most careful handling. At first she had managed him well enough. But ever since his five months' boarding-out, he had fallen into deceitful ways; and the habit of falsehood was gaining on him. Bad by nature, Polly felt sure the child was not; but she could not keep him on the straight path now he had discovered that a lie might save him a punishment. He was not to be shamed out of telling it; and the only other cure Polly knew of was whipping. She whipped him; and provoked him to fury.
A new misdeed on his part gave her the handle she sought. Johnny had surreptitiously entered her pantry and stolen a plateful of cakes. Taxed with the theft he denied it; and cornered, laid, Adam-like, the blame on his companion, asserting that Trotty had persuaded him to take the goodies; though bewildered innocence was writ all over the baby's chubby face.
Mahony had the young sinner up before him. But he was able neither to touch the child's heart, nor to make him see the gravity of what he had done: never being allowed inside the surgery, John could now not take his eyes off the wonderful display of gold and purple and red moths, which were pinned, with outstretched wings, to a sheet of cork. He stood o-mouthed and absentminded, and only once shot a blue glance at his uncle to say: "But if dey're so baddy ... den why did God MAKE lies an' de debble?"—which intelligent query hit the nail of one of Mahony's own misgivings on the head.
No real depravity, was his verdict. Still, too much of a handful, it was plain, for Polly's inexperience. "A problem for John himself to tackle, my dear. Why should we have to drill a non-existent morality into his progeny? Besides, I'm not going to have you blamed for bad results, later on." He would write to John there and then, and request that Johnny be removed from their charge.
Polly was not prepared for this summary solution of her dilemma, and began to regret having brought it up; though she could not but agree with Richard that it would never do for the younger child to be corrupted by a bad example. However she kept her wits about her. Did John take the boy away, said she, she was afraid she would have to ask for a larger housekeeping allowance. The withdrawal of the money for Johnny's board would make a difference to their income.
"Of course," returned Mahony easily, and was about to dismiss the subject.
But Polly stood her ground. "Talking of money, Richard, I don't know whether you remember ... you've been so busy ... that it's only about a fortnight now till the second lot of interest falls due."
"What!—a fortnight?" exclaimed her husband, and reached out for an almanack. "Good Lord, so it is! And nothing doing yet, Polly ... absolutely nothing!"
"Well, dear, you can't expect to jump into a big practice all at once, can you? But you see, I think the trouble is, not nearly enough people know you've started." And a little imploringly, and very apologetically, Polly unfolded her artless schemes for self-advertisement.
"Wife, I've a grave suspicion!" said Mahony, and took her by the chin. "While I've sat here with my head in the clouds, you've been worrying over ways and means, and over having such an unpractical old dreamer for a husband. Now, child, that won't do. I didn't marry to have my girl puzzling her little brains where her next day's dinner was to come from. Away with you, to your stitching! Things will be all right, trust to me."
And Polly did trust him, and was so satisfied with what she had effected that, raising her face for a kiss, she retired with an easy mind to overhaul Johnny's little wardrobe.
But the door having clicked behind her, Mahony's air of forced assurance died away. For an instant he hesitated beside the table, on which a rampart of books lay open, then vigorously clapped each volume to and moved to the window, chewing at the ends of his beard. A timely interruption! What the dickens had he been about, to forget himself in this fool's paradise, when the crassest of material anxieties—that of pounds, shillings and pence—was crouched, wolf-like, at his door?
That night he wakened with a jerk from an uneasy sleep. Though at noon the day before, the thermometer had registered over a hundred in the shade, it was now bitterly cold, and these abrupt changes of temperature always whipped up his nerves. Even after he had piled his clothes and an opossum-rug on top of the blankets, he could not drop off again. He lay staring at the moonlit square of the window, and thinking the black thoughts of night.
What if he could not manage to work up a practice? ... found it impossible to make a living? His plate had been on the door for close on two months now, and he had barely a five-pound note to show for it. What was to be done? Here Polly's words came back to him with new stress. "Not nearly enough people know you've started." That was it!—Polly had laid her finger on the hitch. The genteel manners of the old country did not answer here; instead of sitting twiddling his thumbs, waiting for patients to seek him out, he ought to have adopted the screaming methods of advertisement in vogue on Ballarat. To have had "Holloway's Pills sold here!" "Teeth extracted painlessly!" "Cures guaranteed!" painted man-high on his outside house-wall. To have gone up and down and round the township; to have been on the spot when accidents happened; to have hobnobbed with Tom, Dick and Harry in bars and saloons. And he saw a figure that looked like his the centre of a boisterous crowd; saw himself slapped on the back by dirty hands, shouting and shouted to drinks. He turned his pillow, to drive the image away. Whatever he had done or not done, the fact remained that a couple of weeks hence he had to make up the sum of over thirty pounds. And again he discerned a phantom self, this time a humble supplicant for an extension of term, brought up short against Ocock's stony visage, flouted by his cocksy clerk. Once more he turned his pillow. These quarterly payments, which dotted all his coming years, were like little rock-islands studding the surface of an ocean, and telling of the sunken continent below: this monstrous thousand odd pounds he had been fool enough to borrow. Never would he be able to pay off such a sum, never again be free from the incubus of debt. Meanwhile, not the ground he stood on, not the roof over his head could actually be called his own. He had also been too pushed for money, at the time, to take Ocock's advice and insure his life.
These thoughts spun themselves to a nightmare-web, in which he was the hapless fly. Putting a finger to his wrist, he found he had the pulse of a hundred that was not uncommon to him. He got out of bed, to dowse his head in a basin of water. Polly, only half awake, sat up and said: "What's the matter, dear? Are you ill?" In replying to her he disturbed the children, the door of whose room stood ajar; and by the time quiet was restored, further sleep was out of the question. He dressed and quitted the house.
Day was breaking; the moon, but an hour back a globe of polished silver, had now no light left in her, and stole, a misty ghost, across the dun-coloured sky. A bank of clouds that had had their night-camp on the summit of Mount Warrenheip was beginning to disperse; and the air had lost its edge. He walked out beyond the cemetary, then sat down on a tree-stump and looked back. The houses that nestled on the slope were growing momently whiter; but the Flat was still sunk in shadow and haze, making old Warrenheip, for all its half-dozen miles of distance, seem near enough to be touched by hand. But even in full daylight this woody peak had a way of tricking the eye. From the brow of the western hill, with the Flat out of sight below, it appeared to stand at the very foot of those streets that headed east—first of one, then of another, moving with you as you changed position, like the eyes of a portrait that follow you wherever you go.—And now the sky was streaked with crimson-madder; the last clouds scattered, drenched in orange and rose, and flames burned in the glass of every window-pane. Up came the tip of the sun's rim, grew to a fiery quarter, to a half; till, bounding free from the horizon, it began to mount and to lose its girth in the immensity of the sky.
The phantasms of the night yielded like the clouds to its power. He was still reasonably young, reasonably sound, and had the better part of a lifetime before him. Rising with a fresh alacrity, he whistled to his dog, and walked briskly home to bath and breakfast.
But that evening, at the heel of another empty day, his nervous restlessness took him anew. From her parlour Polly could hear the thud of his feet, going up and down, up and down his room. And it was she who was to blame for disturbing him!
"Yet what else could I do?"
And meditatively pricking her needle in and out of the window-curtain, Polly fell into a reverie over her husband and his ways. How strange Richard was ... how difficult! First, to be able to forget all about how things stood with him, and then to be twice as upset as other people.
John demanded the immediate delivery of his young son, undertaking soon to knock all nasty tricks out of him. On the day fixed for Johnny's departure husband and wife were astir soon after dawn. Mahony was to have taken the child down to the coach-office. But Johnny had been awake since two o'clock with excitement, and was now so fractious that Polly tied on her bonnet and accompanied them. She knew Richard's hatred of a scene.
"You just walk on, dear, and get his seat," she said, while she dragged the cross, tired child on her hand to the public-house, where even at this hour a posse of idlers hung about.
And she did well to be there. Instantly on arriving Johnny set up a wail, because there was talk of putting him inside the vehicle; and this persisted until the coachman, a goat-bearded Yankee, came to the rescue and said he was darned if such a plucky young nipper shouldn't get his way: he'd have the child tied on beside him on the box-seat—be blowed if he wouldn't! But even this did not satisfy Johnny; and while Mahony went to procure a length of rope, he continued to prance round his aunt and to tug ceaselessly at her sleeve.
"Can I dwive, Aunt Polly, can I dwive? Ask him, can I dwive!" he roared, beating her skirts with his fists. He was only silenced by the driver threatening to throw him as a juicy morsel to the gang of bushrangers who, sure as blazes, would be waiting to stick the coach up directly it entered the bush.
Husband and wife lingered to watch the start, when the champing horses took a headlong plunge forward and, together with the coach, were swallowed up in a whirlwind of dust. A last glimpse discovered Johnny, pale and wide-eyed at the lurching speed, but sitting bravely erect.
"The spirit of your brother in that child, my dear!" said Mahony as they made to walk home.
"Poor little Johnny," and Polly wiped her eyes. "If only he was going back to a mother who loved him, and would understand."
"I'm sure no mother could have done more for him than you, love."
"Yes, but a real mother wouldn't need to give him up, however naughty he had been."
"I think the young varmint might have shown some regret at parting from you, after all this time," returned her husband, to whom it was offensive if even a child was lacking in good feeling. "He never turned his head. Well, I suppose it's a fact, as they say, that the natural child is the natural barbarian."
"Johnny never meant any harm. It was I who didn't know how to manage him," said Polly staunchly.—"Why, Richard, what IS the matter?" For letting her arm fall Mahony had dashed to the other side of the road.
"Good God, Polly, look at this!"
"This" was a printed notice, nailed to a shed, which announced that a sale of frontages in Mair and Webster Streets would shortly be held.
"But it's not our road. I don't understand."
"Good Lord, don't you see that if they're there already, they'll be out with us before we can say Jack Robinson? And then where shall I be?" gave back Mahony testily.
"Let us talk it over. But first come home and have breakfast. Then ... yes, then, I think you should go down and see Mr. Henry, and hear what he says."
"You're right. I must see Ocock.—Confound the fellow! It's he who has let me in for this."
"And probably he'll know some way out. What else is a lawyer for, dear?"
"Quite true, my Polly. None the less, it looks as if I were in for a run of real bad luck, all along the line."
One hot morning some few days later, Polly, with Trotty at her side, stood on the doorstep shading her eyes with her hand. She was on the look-out for her "vegetable man," who drove in daily from the Springs with his greenstuff. He was late as usual: if Richard would only let her deal with the cheaper, more punctual Ah Sing, who was at this moment coming up the track. But Devine was a reformed character: after, as a digger, having squandered a fortune in a week, he had given up the drink and, backed by a hard-working, sober wife, was now trying to earn a living at market-gardening. So he had to be encouraged.
The Chinaman jog-trotted towards them, his baskets a-sway, his mouth stretched to a friendly grin. "You no want cabbagee to-day? Me got velly good cabbagee," he said persuasively and lowered his pole.
"No thank you, John, not to-day. Me wait for white man."
"Me bling pleasant for lilly missee," said the Chow; and unknotting a dirty nosecloth, he drew from it an ancient lump of candied ginger. "Lilly missee eatee him ... oh, yum, yum! Velly good. My word!"
But Chinamen to Trotty were fearsome bogies, corresponding to the swart-faced, white-eyed chimney-sweeps of the English nursery. She hid behind her aunt, holding fast to the latter's skirts, and only stealing an occasional peep from one saucer-like blue eye.
"Thank you, John. Me takee chowchow for lilly missee," said Polly, who had experience in disposing of such savoury morsels.
"You no buy cabbagee to-day?" repeated Ah Sing, with the catlike persistence of his race. And as Polly, with equal firmness and good-humour, again shook her head, he shouldered his pole and departed at a half-run, crooning as he went.
Meanwhile at the bottom of the road another figure had come into view. It was not Devine in his spring-cart; it was some one on horseback, was a lady, in a holland habit. The horse, a piebald, advanced at a sober pace, and—"Why, good gracious! I believe she's coming here."
At the first of the three houses the rider had dismounted, and knocked at the door with the butt of her whip. After a word with the woman who opened, she threw her riding-skirt over one arm, put the other through the bridle, and was now making straight for them.
As she drew near she smiled, showing a row of white teeth. "Does Dr. Mahony live here?"
Misfortune of misfortunes!—Richard was out.
But almost instantly Polly grasped that this would tell in his favour. "He won't be long, I know."
"I wonder," said the lady, "if he would come out to my house when he gets back? I am Mrs Glendinning—of Dandaloo."
Polly flushed, with sheer satisfaction: Dandaloo was one of the largest stations in the neighbourhood of Ballarat. "Oh, I'm certain he will," she answered quickly.
"I am so glad you think so," said Mrs. Glendinning. "A mutual friend, Mr. Henry Ocock, tells me how clever he is."
Polly's brain leapt at the connection; on the occasion of Richard's last visit the lawyer had again repeated the promise to put a patient in his way. Ocock was one of those people, said Richard, who only remembered your existence when he saw you.—Oh, what a blessing in disguise had been that troublesome old land sale!
The lady had stooped to Trotty, whom she was trying to coax from her lurking-place. "What a darling! How I envy you!"
"Have you no children?" Polly asked shyly, when Trotty's relationship had been explained.
"Yes, a boy. But I should have liked a little girl of my own. Boys are so difficult," and she sighed.
The horse nuzzling for sugar roused Polly to a sense of her remissness. "Won't you come in and rest a little, after your ride?" she asked; and without hesitation Mrs. Glendinning said she would like to, very much indeed; and tying the hone to the fence, she followed Polly into the house.
The latter felt proud this morning of its apple-pie order. She drew up the best armchair, placed a footstool before it and herself carried in a tray with refreshments. Mrs. Glendinning had taken Trotty on her lap, and given the child her long gold chains to play with. Polly thought her the most charming creature in the world. She had a slender waist, and an abundant light brown chignon, and cheeks of a beautiful pink, in which two fascinating dimples came and went. The feather from her riding-hat lay on her neck. Her eyes were the colour of forget-me-nots, her mouth was red as any rose. She had, too, so sweet and natural a manner that Polly was soon chatting frankly about herself and her life, Mrs. Glendinning listening with her face pressed to the spun-glass of Trotty's hair.
When she rose, she clasped both Polly's hands in hers. "You dear little woman... may I kiss you? I am ever so much older than you."
"I am eighteen," said Polly.
"And I on the shady side of twenty-eight!"
They laughed and kissed. "I shall ask your husband to bring you out to see me. And take no refusal. AU REVOIR!" and riding off, she turned in the saddle and waved her hand.
For all her pleasurable excitement Polly did not let the grass grow under her feet. There being still no sign of Richard—he had gone to Soldiers' Hill to extract a rusty nail from a child's foot—Ellen was sent to summon him home; and when the girl returned with word that he was on the way, Polly dispatched her to the livery-barn, to order the horse to be got ready.
Richard took the news coolly. "Did she say what the matter was?"
No, she hadn't; and Polly had not liked to ask her; it could surely be nothing very serious, or she would have mentioned it.
"H'm. Then it's probably as I thought. Glendinning's failing is well known. Only the other day, I heard that more than one medical man had declined to have anything further to do with the case. It's a long way out, and fees are not always forthcoming. HE doesn't ask for a doctor, and, womanlike, she forgets to pay the bills. I suppose they think they'll try a greenhorn this time."
Pressed by Polly, who was curious to learn everything about her new friend, he answered: "I should be sorry to tell you, my dear, how many bottles of brandy it is Glendinning's boast he can empty in a week."
"Drink? Oh, Richard, how terrible! And that pretty, pretty woman!" cried Polly, and drove her thoughts backwards: she had seen no hint of tragedy in her caller's lovely face. However, she did not wait to ponder, but asked, a little anxiously: "But you'll go, dear, won't you?"
"Go? Of course I shall! Beggars can't be choosers." "Besides, you know, you MIGHT be able to do something where other people have failed."
Mahony rode out across the Flat. For a couple of miles his route was one with the Melbourne Road, on which plied the usual motley traffic. Then, branching off at right angles, it dived into the bush—in this case a scantly wooded, uneven plain, burnt tobacco-brown and hard as iron.
Here went no one but himself. He and the mare were the sole living creatures in what, for its stillness, might have been a painted landscape. Not a breath of air stirred the weeping grey-green foliage of the gums; nor was there any bird-life to rustle the leaves, or peck, or chirrup. Did he draw rein, the silence was so intense that he could almost hear it.
On striking the outlying boundary of Dandaloo, he dismounted to slip a rail. After that he was in and out of the saddle, his way leading through numerous gateless paddocks before it brought him up to the homestead.
This, a low white wooden building, overspread by a broad verandah—from a distance it looked like an elongated mushroom—stood on a hill. At the end, the road had run alongside a well-stocked fruit and flower-garden; but the hillside itself, except for a gravelled walk in front of the house, was uncultivated—was given over to dead thistles and brown weeds.
Fastening his bridle to a post, Mahony unstrapped his bag of necessaries and stepped on to the verandah. A row of French windows stood open; but flexible green sun-blinds hid the rooms from view. The front door was a French window, too, differing from the rest only in its size. There was neither bell nor knocker. While he was rapping with the knuckles on the panel, one of the blinds was pushed aside and Mrs. Glendinning came out.
She was still in hat and riding-habit; had herself, she said, reached home but half an hour ago. Summoning a station-hand to attend to the horse, she raised a blind and ushered Mahony into the dining-room, where she had been sitting at lunch, alone at the head of a large table. A Chinaman brought fresh plates, and Mahony was invited to draw up his chair. He had an appetite after his ride; the room was cool and dark; there were no flies.
Throughout the meal, the lady kept up a running fire of talk—the graceful chitchat that sits so well on pretty lips. She spoke of the coming Races; of the last Government House Ball; of the untimely death of Governor Hotham. To Mahony she instinctively turned a different side out, from that which had captured Polly. With all her well-bred ease, there was a womanly deference in her manner, a readiness to be swayed, to stand corrected. The riding-dress set off her figure; and her delicate features were perfectly chiselled. ("Though she'll be florid before she's forty.")
Some juicy nectarines finished, she pushed back her chair. "And now, doctor, will you come and see your patient?"
Mahony followed her down a broad, bare passage. A number of rooms opened off it, but instead of entering one of these she led him out to a back verandah. Here, before a small door, she listened with bent head, then turned the handle and went in.
The room was so dark that Mahony could see nothing. Gradually he made out a figure lying on a stretcher-bed. A watcher sat at the bedside. The atmosphere was more than close, smelt rank and sour. His first request was for light and air.
It was the wreck of a fine man that lay there, strapped over the chest, bound hand and foot to the framework of the bed. The forehead, on which the hair had receded to a few mean grey wisps, was high and domed, the features were straight with plenty of bone in them, the shoulders broad, the arms long. The skin of the face had gone a mahogany brown from exposure, and a score of deep wrinkles ran out fan-wise from the corners of the closed lids. Mahony untied the dirty towels that formed the bandages—they had cut ridges in the limbs they confined—and took one of the heavy wrists in his hand.
"How long has he lain like this?" he asked, as he returned the arm to its place.
"How long is it, Saunderson?" asked Mrs. Glendinning. She had sat down on a chair at the foot of the bed; her skirts overflowed the floor.
The watcher guessed it would be since about the same time yesterday.
"Was he unusually violent on this occasion?—for I presume such attacks are not uncommon with him," continued Mahony, who had meanwhile made a superficial examination of the sick man.
"I am sorry to say they are only too common, doctor," replied the lady.—"Was he worse than usual this time, Saunderson?" she turned again to the man; at which fresh proof of her want of knowledge Mahony mentally raised his eyebrows.
"To say trewth, I never see'd the boss so bad before," answered Saunderson solemnly, grating the palms of the big red hands that hung down between his knees. "And I've helped him through the jumps more'n once. It's my opinion it would ha' been a narrow squeak for him this time, if me and a mate hadn't nipped in and got these bracelets on him. There he was, ravin' and sweatin' and cursin' his head off, grey as death. Hell-gate, he called it, said he was devil's-porter at hell-gate, and kept hollerin' for napkins and his firesticks. Poor ol' boss! It WAS hell for him and no mistake!"
By dint of questioning Mahony elicited the fact that Glendinning had been unseated by a young horse, three days previously. At the time, no heed was paid to the trifling accident. Later on, however, complaining of feeling cold and unwell, he went to bed, and after lying wakeful for some hours was seized by the horrors of delirium.
Requesting the lady to leave them, Mahony made a more detailed examination. His suspicions were confirmed: there was internal trouble of old standing, rendered acute by the fall. Aided by Saunderson, he worked with restoratives for the best part of an hour. In the end he had the satisfaction of seeing the coma pass over into a natural repose.
"Well, he's through this time, but I won't answer for the next," he said, and looked about him for a basin in which to wash his hands. "Can't you manage to keep the drink from him?—or at least to limit him?"
"Nay, the Almighty Himself couldn't do that," gave back Saunderson, bringing forward soap and a tin dish.
"How does it come that he lies in a place like this?" asked Mahony, as he dried his hands on a corner of the least dirty towel, and glanced curiously round. The room—in size it did not greatly exceed that of a ship's-cabin—was in a state of squalid disorder. Besides a deal table and a couple of chairs, its main contents were rows and piles of old paper-covered magazines, the thick brown dust on which showed that they had not been moved for months—or even years. The whitewashed walls were smoke-tanned and dotted with millions of fly-specks; the dried corpses of squashed spiders formed large black patches; all four corners of the ceiling were festooned with cobwebs.
Saunderson shrugged his shoulders. "This was his den when he first was manager here, in old Morrison's time, and he's stuck to it ever since. He shuts himself up in here, and won't have a female cross the threshold—nor yet Madam G. herself."
Having given final instructions, Mahony went out to rejoin the lady.
"I will not conceal from you that your husband is in a very precarious condition."
"Do you mean, doctor, he won't live long?" She had evidently been lying down: one side of her face was flushed and marked. Crying, too, or he was much mistaken: her lids were red-rimmed, her shapely features swollen.
"Ah, you ask too much of me; I am only a woman; I have no influence over him," she said sadly, and shook her head.
"What is his age?"
"He is forty-seven."
Mahony had put him down for at least ten years older, and said so. But the lady was not listening: she fidgeted with her lace-edged handkerchief, looked uneasy, seemed to be in debate with herself. Finally she said aloud: "Yes, I will." And to him: "Doctor, would you come with me a moment?"
This time she conducted him to a well-appointed bedchamber, off which gave a smaller room, containing a little four-poster draped in dimity. With a vague gesture in the direction of the bed, she sank on a chair beside the door.
Drawing the curtains Mahony discovered a fair-haired boy of some eight or nine years old. He lay with his head far back, his mouth wide open—apparently fast asleep.
But the doctor's eye was quick to see that it was no natural sleep. "Good God! who is responsible for this?"
Mrs. Glendinning held her handkerchief to her face. "I have never told any one before," she wept. "The shame of it, doctor ... is more than I can bear."
"Who is the blackguard? Come, answer me, if you please!"
"Oh, doctor, don't scold me... I am so unhappy." The pretty face puckered and creased; the full bosom heaved. "He is all I have. And such a bright, clever little fellow! You will cure him for me, won't you?"
"How often has it happened?"
"I don't know ... about five or six times, I think ... perhaps more. There's a place not far from here where he can get it ... an old hut-cook my husband dismissed once, in a fit of temper—he has oh such a temper! Eddy saddles his pony and rides out there, if he's not watched; and then ... then, they bring him back ... like this."
"But who supplies him with money?"
"Money? Oh, but doctor, he can't be kept without pocket-money! He has always had as much as he wanted.—No, it is all my husband's doing,"—and now she broke out in one of those shameless confessions, from which the medical adviser is never safe. "He hates me; he is only happy if he can hurt me and humiliate me. I don't care what becomes of him. The sooner he dies the better!"
"Compose yourself, my dear lady. Later you may regret such hasty words.—And what has this to do with the child? Come, speak out. It will be a relief to you to tell me."
"You are so kind, doctor," she sobbed, and drank, with hysterical gurglings, the glass of water Mahony poured out for her. "Yes, I will tell you everything. It began years ago—when Eddy was only a tot in jumpers. It used to amuse my husband to see him toss off a glass of wine like a grown-up person; and it WAS comical, when he sipped it, and smacked his lips. But then he grew to like it, and to ask for it, and be cross when he was refused. And then... then he learnt how to get it for himself. And when his father saw I was upset about it, he egged him on—gave it to him on the sly.—Oh, he is a bad man, doctor, a BAD, cruel man! He says such wicked things, too. He doesn't believe in God, or that it is wrong to take one's own life, and he says he never wanted children. He jeers at me because I am fond of Eddy, and because I go to church when I can, and says ... oh, I know I am not clever, but I am not quite such a fool as he makes me out to be. He speaks to me as if I were the dirt under his feet. He can't bear the sight of me. I have heard him curse the day he first saw me. And so he's only too glad to be able to come between my boy and me ... in any way he can."
Mahony led the weeping woman back to the dining-room. There he sat long, patiently listening and advising; sat, till Mrs. Glendinning had dried her eyes and was her charming self once more.
The gist of what he said was, the boy must be removed from home at once, and placed in strict, yet kind hands.
Here, however, he ran up against a weak maternal obstinacy. "Oh, but I couldn't part from Eddy. He is all I have.... And so devoted to his mammy."
As Mahony insisted, she looked the picture of helplessness. "But I should have no idea how to set about it. And my husband would put every possible obstacle in the way."
"With your permission I will arrange the matter myself."
"Oh, how kind you are!" cried Mrs. Glendinning again. "But mind, doctor, it must be somewhere where Eddy will lack none of the comforts he is accustomed to, and where his poor mammy can see him whenever she wishes. Otherwise he will fret himself ill."
Mahony promised to do his best to satisfy her, and declining, very curtly, the wine she pressed on him, went out to mount his horse which had been brought round.
Following him on to the verandah, Mrs. Glendinning became once more the pretty woman frankly concerned for her appearance. "I don't know how I look, I'm sure," she said apologetically, and raised both hands to her hair. "Now I will go and rest for an hour. There is to be opossuming and a moonlight picnic to-night at Warraluen." Catching Mahony's eye fixed on her with a meaning emphasis, she changed colour. "I cannot sit at home and think, doctor. I MUST distract myself; or I should go mad."
When he was in the saddle she showed him her dimples again, and her small, even teeth. "I want you to bring your wife to see me next time you come," she sad, patting the horse's neck. "I took a great fancy to her—a sweet little woman!"
But Mahony, jogging downhill, said to himself he would think twice before introducing Polly there. His young wife's sunny, girlish outlook should not, with his consent, be clouded by a knowledge of the sordid things this material prosperity hid from view. A whited sepulchre seemed to him now the richly appointed house, the well-stocked gardens, the acres on acres of good pasture-land: a fair outside when, within, all was foul. He called to mind what he knew by hearsay of the owner. Glendinning was one of the pioneer squatters of the district, had held the run for close on fifteen years. Nowadays, when the land round was entirely taken up, and a place like Ballarat stood within stone's-throw, it was hard to imagine the awful solitude to which the early settlers had been condemned. Then, with his next neighbour miles and miles away, Melbourne, the nearest town, a couple of days' ride through trackless bush, a man was a veritable prisoner in this desert of paddocks, with not a soul to speak to but rough station-hands, and nothing to occupy his mind but the damage done by summer droughts and winter floods. No support or comradeship in the wife either—this poor pretty foolish little woman: "With the brains of a pigeon!" Glendinning had the name of being intelligent: was it, under these circumstances, matter for wonder that he should seek to drown doubts, memories, inevitable regrets; should be led on to the bitter discovery that forgetfulness alone rendered life endurable? Yes, there was something sinister in the dead stillness of the melancholy bush; in the harsh, merciless sunlight of the late afternoon.
A couple of miles out his horse cast a shoe, and it was evening before he reached home. Polly was watching for him on the doorstep, in a twitter lest some accident had happened or he had had a brush with bushrangers.
"It never rains but it pours, dear!" was her greeting: he had been twice sent for to the Flat, to attend a woman in labour.—And with barely time to wash the worst of the ride's dust off him, he had to pick up his bag and hurry away.
"A very striking-looking man! With perfect manners—and beautiful hands."
Her head bent over her sewing, Polly repeated these words to herself with a happy little smile. They had been told her, in confidence, by Mrs. Glendinning, and had been said by this lady's best friend, Mrs. Urquhart of Yarangobilly: on the occasion of Richard's second call at Dandaloo, he had been requested to ride to the neighbouring station to visit Mrs. Urquhart, who was in delicate health. And of course Polly had passed the flattering opinion on; for, though she was rather a good hand at keeping a secret—Richard declared he had never known a better—yet that secret did not exist—or up till now had not existed—which she could imagine herself keeping from him.
For the past few weeks these two ladies had vied with each other in singing Richard's praises, and in making much of Polly: the second time Mrs. Glendinning called she came in her buggy, and carried off Polly, and Trotty, too, to Yarangobilly, where there was a nestful of little ones for the child to play with. Another day a whole brakeful of lively people drove up to the door in the early morning, and insisted on Polly accompanying them, just as she was, to the Racecourse on the road to Creswick's Creek. And everybody was so kind to her that Polly heartily enjoyed herself, in spite of her plain print dress. She won a pair of gloves and a piece of music in a philippine with Mr Urquhart, a jolly, carroty-haired man, beside whom she sat on the box-seat coming home; and she was lucky enough to have half-a-crown on one of the winners. An impromptu dance was got up that evening by the merry party, in a hall in the township; and Polly had the honour of a turn with Mr. Henry Ocock, who was most affable. Richard also looked in for an hour towards the end, and valsed her and Mrs. Glendinning round.
Polly had quite lost her heart to her new friend. At the outset Richard had rather frowned on the intimacy—but then he was a person given to taking unaccountable antipathies. In this case, however, he had to yield; for not only did a deep personal liking spring up between the two women, but a wave of pity swept over Polly, blinding her to more subtle considerations. Before Mrs. Glendinning had been many times at the house, she had poured out all her troubles to Polly, impelled thereto by Polly's quick sympathy and warm young eyes. Richard had purposely given his wife few details of his visits to Dandaloo; but Mrs. Glendinning knew no such scruples, and cried her eyes out on Polly's shoulder.
What a dreadful man the husband must be! "For she really is the dearest little woman, Richard. And means so well with every one—I've never heard her say a sharp or unkind word.—Well, not very clever, perhaps. But everybody can't be clever, can they? And she's good—which is better. The only thing she seems a teeny-weeny bit foolish about is her boy. I'm afraid she'll never consent to part with him."—Polly said this to prepare her husband, who was in correspondence on the subject with Archdeacon Long and with John in Melbourne. Richard was putting himself to a great deal of trouble, and would naturally be vexed if nothing came of it.
Polly paid her first visit to Dandaloo with considerable trepidation. For Mrs. Urquhart, who herself was happily married—although, it was true, her merry, red-haired husband had the reputation of being a LITTLE too fond of the ladies, and though he certainly did not make such a paying concern of Yarangobilly as Mr. Glendinning of Dandaloo—Mrs. Urquhart had whispered to Polly as they sat chatting on the verandah: "Such a DREADFUL man, my dear! ... a perfect brute! Poor little Agnes. It is wonderful how she keeps her spirits up."
Polly, however, was in honour bound to admit that to her the owner of Dandaloo had appeared anything but the monster report made him out to be. He was perfectly sober the day she was there, and did not touch wine at luncheon; and afterwards he had been most kind, taking her with him on a quiet little broad-backed mare to an outlying part of the station, and giving her several hints how to improve her seat. He was certainly very haggard-looking, and deeply wrinkled, and at table his hand shook so that the water in his glass ran over. But all this only made Polly feel sorry for him, and long to help him.
"My dear, you ARE favoured! I never knew James make such an offer before," whispered Mrs. Glendinning, as she pinned her ample riding-skirt round her friend's slim hips.
The one thing about him that disturbed Polly was his manner towards his wife: he was savagely ironic with her, and trampled hobnailed on her timid opinions. But then Agnes didn't know how to treat him, Polly soon saw that: she was nervous and fluttery—evasive, too; and once during lunch even told a deliberate fib. Slight as was her acquaintance with him, Polly felt sure this want of courage must displease him; for there was something very simple and direct about his own way of speaking.
"My dear, why don't you stand up to him?" asked little Polly.
"Dearest, I dare not. If you knew him as I do, Polly.... He TERRIFIES me.—Oh, what a lucky little woman you are ... to have a husband like yours."
Polly had recalled these words that very morning as she stood to watch Richard ride away: never did he forget to kiss her good-bye, or to turn and wave to her at the foot of the road. Each time she admired afresh the figure he cut on horseback: he was so tall and slender, and sat so straight in his saddle. Now, too, he had yielded to her persuasions and shaved off his beard; and his moustache and side-whiskers were like his hair, of an extreme, silky blond. Ever since the day of their first meeting at Beamish's Family Hotel, Polly had thought her husband the handsomest man in the world. And the best, as well. He had his peculiarities, of course; but so had every husband; and it was part of a wife's duty to study them, to adapt herself to them, or to endeavour to tone them down. And now came these older, wiser ladies and confirmed her high opinion of him. Polly beamed with happiness at this juncture, and registered a silent vow always to be the best of wives.
Not like—but here she tripped and coloured, on the threshold of her thought. She had recently been the recipient of a very distressing confidence; one, too, which she was not at liberty to share, even with Richard. For, after the relief of a thorough-paced confession, Mrs. Glendinning had implored her not to breathe a word to him—"I could never look him in the face again, love!" Besides, the affair was of such a painful nature that Polly felt little desire to draw Richard into it; it was bad enough that she herself should know. The thing was this: once when Polly had stayed overnight at Dandaloo Agnes Glendinning in a sudden fit of misery had owned to her that she cared for another person more than for her own husband, and that her feelings were returned.
Shocked beyond measure, Polly tried to close her friend's lips. "I don't think you should mention any names, Agnes," she cried. "Afterwards, my dear, you might regret it."
But Mrs. Glendinning was hungry for the luxury of speech—not even to Louisa Urquhart had she broken silence, she wept; and that, for the sake of Louisa's children—and she persisted in laying her heart bare. And here certain vague suspicions that had crossed Polly's mind on the night of the impromptu ball—they were gone again, in an instant, quick as thistledown on the breeze—these suddenly returned, life-size and weighty; and the name that was spoken came as no surprise to her. Yes, it was Mr. Henry Ocock to whom poor Agnes was attached. There had been a mutual avowal of affection, sobbed the latter; they met as often as circumstances permitted. Polly was thunder-struck: knowing Agnes as she did, she herself could not believe any harm of her; but she shuddered at the thought of what other people—Richard, for instance—would say, did they get wind of it. She implored her friend to caution. She ought never, never to see Mr. Ocock. Why did she not go away to Melbourne for a time? And why had he come to Ballarat?
"To be near me, dearest, to help me if I should need him.—Oh, you can't think what a comfort it is, Polly, to feel that he IS here—so good, and strong, and clever!—Yes, I know what you mean ... but this is quite, quite different. Henry does not expect me to be clever, too—does not want me to be. He prefers me as I am. He dislikes clever women ... would never marry one. And we SHALL marry, darling, some day—when ..."
Henry Ocock! Polly tried to focus everything she knew of him, all her fleeting impressions, in one picture—and failed. He had made himself very agreeable, the single time she had met him; but.... There was Richard's opinion of him: Richard did not like him or trust him; he thought him unscrupulous in business, cold and self-seeking. Poor, poor little Agnes! That such a misfortune should befall just her! Stranger still that she, Polly, should be mixed up in it.
She had, of course, always known from books that such things did happen; but then they seemed quite different, and very far away. Her thoughts at this crisis were undeniably woolly; but the gist of them was, that life and books had nothing in common. For in stories the woman who forgot herself was always a bad woman; whereas not the harshest critic could call poor Agnes bad. Indeed, Polly felt that even if some one proved to her that her friend had actually done wrong, she would not on that account be able to stop caring for her, or feeling sorry for her. It was all very uncomfortable and confusing.
While these thoughts came and went, she half sat, half knelt, a pair of scissors in her hand. She was busy cutting out a dress, and no table being big enough for the purpose, had stretched the material on the parlour floor. This would be the first new dress she had had since her marriage; and it was high time, considering all the visiting and going about that fell to her lot just now. Sara had sent the pattern up from Melbourne, and John, hearing what was in the wind, had most kindly and generously made her a present of the silk. Polly hoped she would not bungle it in the cutting; but skirts were growing wider and wider, and John had not reckoned with quite the newest fashion.
Steps in the passage made her note subconsciously that Ned had arrived—Jerry had been in the house for the past three weeks, with a sprained wrist. And at this moment her younger brother himself entered the room, Trotty throned on his shoulder.
Picking his steps round the sea of stuff, Jerry sat down and lowered Trotty to his knee. "Ned's grizzling for tea."
Polly did not reply; she was laying an odd-shaped piece of paper now this way, now that.
For a while Jerry played with the child. Then he burst out: "I say, Poll!" And since Polly paid no heed to his apostrophe:
"Richard says I can get back to work to-morrow."
"That's a good thing," answered his sister with an air of abstraction: she had solved her puzzle to within half a yard.
Jerry cast a boyishly imploring glance at her back, and rubbed his chin with his hand. "Poll, old girl—I say, wouldn't you put in a word for me with Richard? I'm hanged if I want to go back to the claim. I'm sick to death of digging."
At this Polly did raise her head, to regard him with grave eyes. "What! tired of work already, Jerry? I don't know what Richard will say to that, I'm sure. You had better speak to him yourself."
Again Jerry rubbed his chin. "That's just it—what's so beastly hard. I know he'll say I ought to stick to it."
"So do I."
"Well, I'd rather groom the horse than that."
"But think how pleased you were at first!"
Jerry ruefully admitted it. "One expects to dig out gold like spuds; while the real thing's enough to give you the blight. As for stopping a wages-man all my life, I won't do it. I might just as well go home and work in a Lancashire pit."
"Oh, Ned! Ned walks about with his head in the clouds. He's always blowing of what he's GOING to do, and gets his steam off that way. I'm different."
But Jerry's words fell on deaf ears. A noise in the next room was engaging Polly's whole attention. She heard a burr of suppressed laughter, a scuffle and what sounded like a sharp slap. Jumping up she went to the door, and was just in time to see Ellen whisk out of the dining-room.
Ned sat in an armchair, with his feet on the chimney-piece. "I had the girl bring in a log, Poll," he said; and looked back and up at his sister with his cheery smile. Standing behind him, Polly laid her hand on his hair. "I'll go and see after the tea." Ned was so unconcerned that she hesitated to put a question.
In the kitchen she had no such tender scruples; nor was she imposed on by the exaggerated energy with which Ellen bustled about. "What was that noise I heard in the dining-room just now?" she demanded.
"Noise? I dunno," gave back the girl crossly without facing her.
"Nonsense, Ellen! Do you think I didn't hear?"
"Oh, get along with you! It was only one of Ned's jokes." And going on her knees, Ellen set to scrubbing the brick floor with a hiss and a scratch that rendered speech impossible. Polly took up the laden tea-tray and carried it into the dining-room. Richard had come home, and the four drew chairs to the table.
Mahony had a book with him; he propped it open against the butter-cooler, and snatched sentences as he ate. It fell to Ned to keep the ball rolling. Polly was distraite to the point of going wrong in her sugars; Jerry uneasy at the prospect of coming in conflict with his brother-in-law, whom he thought the world of.
Ned was as full of talk as an egg of meat. The theme he dwelt longest on was the new glory that lay in store for the Ballarat diggings. At present these were under a cloud. The alluvial was giving out, and the costs and difficulties of boring through the rock seemed insuperable. One might hear the opinion freely expressed that Ballarat's day as premier goldfield was done. Ned set up this belief merely for the pleasure of demolishing it. He had it at first hand that great companies were being formed to carry on operations. These would reckon their areas in acres instead of feet, would sink to a depth of a quarter of a mile or more, raise washdirt in hundreds of tons per day. One such company, indeed, had already sprung into existence, out on Golden Point; and now was the time to nip in. If he, Ned, had the brass, or knew anybody who'd lend it to him, he'd buy up all the shares he could get. Those who followed his lead would make their fortunes. "I say, Richard, it'ud be something for you."
His words evoked no response. Sorry though I shall be, thought Polly, dear Ned had better not come to the house so often in future. I wonder if I need tell Richard why. Jerry was on pins and needles, and even put Trotty ungently from him: Richard would be so disgusted by Ned's blatherskite that he would have no patience left to listen to him.
Mahony kept his nose to his book. As a matter of principle. He made a rule of believing, on an average, about the half of what Ned said. To appear to pay attention to him would spur him on to more flagrant over-statements.
"D'ye hear, Richard? Now's your chance," repeated Ned, not to be done. "A very different thing this, I can tell you, from running round dosing people for the collywobbles. I know men who are raising the splosh any way they can to get in."
"I dare say. There's never been any lack of gamblers on Ballarat," said Mahony dryly, and passed his cup to be refilled.
Pig-headed fool! was Ned's mental retort, as he sliced a chunk of rabbit-pie. "Well, I bet you'll feel sore some day you didn't take my advice," he said aloud.
"We shall see, my lad, we shall see!" replied Mahony. "In the meantime, let me inform you, I can make good use of every penny I have. So if you've come here thinking you can wheedle something out of me, you're mistaken." He could seldom resist tearing the veil from Ned's gross hints and impostures.
"Oh no, Richard dear!" interpolated Polly, in her role of keeper-of-the-peace.
Ned answered huffily: "'Pon my word, I never met such a fellow as you, for thinking the worst of people."
The thrust went home. Mahony clapped his book to. "You lay yourself open to it, sir! If I'm wrong, I beg your pardon. But for goodness' sake, Ned, put all these trashy ideas of making a fortune out of your mind. Digging is played out, I tell you. Decent people turned their backs on it long ago."
"That's what I think, too," threw in Jerry.
Mahony bit his lip. "Come, come, now, what do you know about it?"
Jerry flushed and floundered, till Polly came to his aid. "He's been wanting to speak to you, Richard. He hates the work as much as you did."
"Well, he has a tongue of his own.—Speak for yourself, my boy!"
Thus encouraged, Jerry made his appeal; and fearing lest Richard should throw him, half-heard, into the same category as Ned, he worded it very tersely. Mahony, who had never given much heed to Jerry—no one did—was pleased by his straightforward air. Still, he did not know what could be done for him, and said so.
Here Polly had an inspiration. "But I think I do. I remember Mr. Ocock saying to me the other day he must take another boy into the business, it was growing so—the fourth, this will make. I don't know if he's suited yet, but even if he is, he may have heard of something else.— Only you know, Jerry, you mustn't mind WHAT it is. After tea I'll put on my bonnet and go down to the Flat with you. And Ned shall come, too," she added, with a consoling glance at her elder brother: Ned had extended his huff to his second slice of pie, which lay untouched on his plate.
"Somebody has always got something up her sleeve," said Mahony affectionately, when Polly came to him in walking costume. "None the less, wife, I shouldn't be surprised if those brothers of yours gave us some trouble, before we're done with them."
In the weeks and months that followed, as he rode from one end of Ballarat to the other—from Yuille's Swamp in the west, as far east as the ranges and gullies of Little Bendigo—it gradually became plain to Mahony that Ned's frothy tales had some body in them after all. The character of the diggings was changing before his very eyes. Nowadays, except on an outlying muddy flat or in the hands of the retrograde Chinese, tubs, cradles, and windlasses were rarely to be met with. Engine-sheds and boiler-houses began to dot the ground; here and there a tall chimney belched smoke, beside a lofty poppet-head or an aerial trolley-line. The richest gutters were found to take their rise below the basaltic deposits; the difficulties and risks of rock-mining had now to be faced, and the capitalist, so long held at bay, at length made free of the field. Large sums of money were being subscribed; and, where these proved insufficient, the banks stepped into the breach with subsidies on mortgages. The population, in whose veins the gold-fever still burned, plunged by wholesale into the new hazard; and under the wooden verandahs of Bridge Street a motley crew of jobbers and brokers came into existence, who would demonstrate to you, a la Ned, how you might reap a fortune from a claim without putting in an hour's work on it—without even knowing where it was.
A temptation, indeed! ... but one that did not affect him. Mahony let the reins droop on his horse's neck, and the animal picked its way among the impedimenta of the bush road. It concerned only those who had money to spare. Months, too, must go by before, from even the most promising of these co-operative affairs, any return was to be expected. As for him, there still came days when he had not a five-pound note to his name. It had been a delusion to suppose that, in accepting John's offer, he was leaving money-troubles behind him. Despite Polly's thrift, their improved style of life cost more than he had reckoned; the patients, slow to come, were slower still to discharge their debts. Moreover, he had not guessed how heavily the quarterly payments of interest would weigh on him. With as good as no margin, with the fate of every shilling decided beforehand, the saving up of thirty odd pounds four times a year was a veritable achievement. He was always in a quake lest he should not be able to get it together. No one suspected what near shaves he had—not even Polly. The last time hardly bore thinking about. At the eleventh hour he had unexpectedly found himself several pounds short. He did not close an eye all night, and got up in the morning as though for his own execution. Then, fortune favoured him. A well-to-do butcher, his hearty: "What'll yours be?" at the nearest public-house waved aside, had settled his bill off-hand. Mahony could still feel the sudden lift of the black fog-cloud that had enveloped him—the sense of bodily exhaustion that had succeeded to the intolerable mental strain.
For the coming quarter-day he was better prepared—if, that was, nothing out of the way happened. Of late he had been haunted by the fear of illness. The long hours in the saddle did not suit him. He ought to have a buggy, and a second horse. But there could be no question of it in the meantime, or of a great deal else besides. He wanted to buy Polly a piano, for instance; all her friends had pianos; and she played and sang very prettily. She needed more dresses and bonnets, too, than he was able to allow her, as well as a change to the seaside in the summer heat. The first spare money he had should go towards one or the other. He loved to give Polly pleasure; never was such a contented little soul as she. And well for him that it was so. To have had a complaining, even an impatient wife at his side, just now, would have been unbearable. But Polly did not know what impatience meant; her sunny temper, her fixed resolve to make the best of everything was not to be shaken.