Well, comforts galore should be hers some day, he hoped. The practice was shaping satisfactorily. His attendance at Dandaloo had proved a key to many doors: folk of the Glendinnings' and Urquharts' standing could make a reputation or mar it as they chose. It had got abroad, he knew, that at whatever hour of the day or night he was sent for, he could be relied on to be sober; and that unfortunately was not always the case with some of his colleagues. In addition his fellow-practitioners showed signs of waking up to his existence. He had been called in lately to a couple of consultations; and the doyen of the profession on Ballarat, old Munce himself, had praised his handling of a difficult case of version.
The distances to be covered—that was what made the work stiff. And he could not afford to neglect a single summons, no matter where it led him. Still, he would not have grumbled, had only the money not been so hard to get in. But the fifty thousand odd souls on Ballarat formed, even yet, anything but a stable population: a patient you attended one day might be gone the next, and gone where no bill could reach him. Or he had been sold off at public auction; or his wooden shanty had gone up in a flare—hardly a night passed without a fire somewhere. In these and like accidents the unfortunate doctor might whistle for his fee. It seldom happened nowadays that he was paid in cash. Money was growing as scarce here as anywhere else. Sometimes, it was true, he might have pocketed his fee on the spot, had he cared to ask for it. But the presenting of his palm professionally was a gesture that was denied him. And this stand-offishness drove from people's minds the thought that he might be in actual need of money. Afterwards he sat at home and racked his brains how to pay butcher and grocer. Others of the fraternity were by no means so nice. He knew of some who would not stir a yard unless their fee was planked down before them—old stagers these, who at one time had been badly bitten and were now grown cynically distrustful. Or tired. And indeed who could blame a man for hesitating of a pitch-dark night in the winter rains, or on a blazing summer day, whether or no he should set out on a twenty-mile ride for which he might never see the ghost of a remuneration?
Reflecting thus, Mahony caught at a couple of hard, spicy, grey-green leaves, to chew as he went: the gums, on which the old bark hung in ribbons, were in flower by now, and bore feathery yellow blossoms side by side with nutty capsules. His horse had been ambling forward unpressed. Now it laid its ears flat, and a minute later its master's slower senses caught the clop-clop of a second set of hoofs, the noise of wheels. Mahony had reached a place where two roads joined, and saw a covered buggy approaching. He drew rein and waited.
The occupant of the vehicle had wound the reins round the empty lamp-bracket, and left it to the sagacity of his horse to keep the familiar track, while he dozed, head on breast, in the corner. The animal halted of itself on coming up with its fellow, and Archdeacon Long opened his eyes.
"Ah, good-day to you, doctor!—Yes, as you see, enjoying a little nap. I was out early."
He got down from the buggy and, with bent knees and his hands in his pockets, stretched the creased cloth of his trousers, where this had cut into his flesh. He was a big, brawny, handsome man, with a massive nose, a cloven chin, and the most companionable smile in the world. As he stood, he touched here a strap, there a buckle on the harness of his chestnut—a well-known trotter, with which he often made a match—and affectionately clapped the neck of Mahony's bay. He could not keep his hands off a horse. By choice he was his own stableman, and in earlier life had been a dare-devil rider. Now, increasing weight led him to prefer buggy to saddle; but his recklessness had not diminished. With the reins in his left hand, he would run his light, two-wheeled trap up any wooded, boulder-strewn hill and down the other side, just as in his harum-scarum days he had set it at felled trees, and, if rumour spoke true, wire-fences.
Mahony admired the splendid vitality of the man, as well as the indestructible optimism that bore him triumphantly through all the hardships of a colonial ministry. No sick bed was too remote for Long, no sinner sunk too low to be helped to his feet. The leprous Chinaman doomed to an unending isolation, the drunken Paddy, the degraded white woman—each came in for a share of his benevolence. He spent the greater part of his life visiting the outcasts and outposts, beating up the unbaptised, the unconfirmed, the unwed. But his church did not suffer. He had always some fresh scheme for this on hand: either he was getting up a tea-meeting to raise money for an organ; or a series of penny-readings towards funds for a chancel; or he was training with his choir for a sacred concert. There was a boyish streak in him, too. He would enter into the joys of the annual Sunday-school picnic with a zest equal to the children's own, leading the way, in shirt-sleeves, at leap-frog and obstacle-race. In doctrine he struck a happy mean between low-church practices and ritualism, preaching short, spirited sermons to which even languid Christians could listen without tedium; and on a week-day evening he would take a hand at a rubber of whist or ecarte—and not for love—or play a sound game of chess. A man, too, who, refusing to be bound by the letter of the Thirty-nine Articles, extended his charity even to persons of the Popish faith. In short, he was one of the few to whom Mahony could speak of his own haphazard efforts at criticising the Pentateuch.
The Archdeacon was wont to respond with his genial smile: "Ah, it's all very well for you, doctor!—you're a free lance. I am constrained by my cloth.—And frankly, for the rest of us, that kind of thing's too—well, too disturbing. Especially when we have nothing better to put in its place."
Doctor and parson—the latter, considerably over six feet, made Mahony, who was tall enough, look short and doubly slender—walked side by side for nearly a mile, flitting from topic to topic: the rivalry that prevailed between Ballarats East and West; the seditious uprising in India, where both had relatives; the recent rains, the prospects for grazing. The last theme brought them round to Dandaloo and its unhappy owner. The Archdeacon expressed the outsider's surprise at the strength of Glendinning's constitution, and the lively popular sympathy that was felt for his wife.
"One's heart aches for the poor little lady, struggling to bear up as though nothing were the matter. Between ourselves, doctor"—and Mr. Long took off his straw hat to let the air play round his head—"between ourselves, it's a thousand pities he doesn't just pop off the hooks in one of his bouts. Or that some of you medical gentlemen don't use your knowledge to help things on."
He let out his great hearty laugh as he spoke, and his companion's involuntary stiffening went unnoticed. But on Mahony voicing his attitude with: "And his immortal soul, sir? Isn't it the church's duty to hope for a miracle? ... just as it is ours to keep the vital spark going," he made haste to take the edge off his words. "Now, now, doctor, only my fun! Our duty is, I trust, plain to us both."
It was even easier to soothe than to ruffle Mahony. "Remember me very kindly to Mrs. Long, will you?" he said as the Archdeacon prepared to climb into his buggy. "But tell her, too, I owe her a grudge just now. My wife's so lost in flannel and brown holland that I can't get a word out of her."
"And mine doesn't know where she'd be, with this bazaar, if it weren't for Mrs. Mahony." Long was husband to a dot of a woman who, having borne him half a dozen children of his own feature and build, now worked as parish clerk and district visitor rolled in one; driving about in sunbonnet and gardening-gloves behind a pair of cream ponies—tiny, sharp-featured, resolute; with little of her husband's large tolerance, but an energy that outdid his own, and made her an object of both fear and respect. "And that reminds me: over at the cross-roads by Spring Hill, I met your young brother-in-law. And he told me, if I ran across you to ask you to hurry home. Your wife has some surprise or other in store for you. No, nothing unpleasant! Rather the reverse, I believe. But I wasn't to say more. Well, good-day, doctor, good-day to you!"
Mahony smiled, nodded and went on his way. Polly's surprises were usually simple and transparent things: some one would have made them a present of a sucking-pig or a bush-turkey, and Polly, knowing his relish for a savoury morsel, did not wish it to be overdone: she had sent similar chance calls out after him before now.
When, having seen his horse rubbed down, he reached home, he found her on the doorstep watching for him. She was flushed, and her eyes had those peculiar high-lights in them which led him jokingly to exhort her to caution: "Lest the sparks should set the house on fire!"
"Well, what is it, Pussy?" he inquired as he laid his bag down and hung up his wide-awake. "What's my little surprise-monger got up her sleeve to-day? Good Lord, Polly, I'm tired!"
Polly was smiling roguishly. "Aren't you going into the surgery, Richard?" she asked, seeing him heading for the dining-room.
"Aha! So that's it," said he, and obediently turned the handle. Polly had on occasion taken advantage of his absence to introduce some new comfort or decoration in his room.
The blind had been let down. He was still blinking in the half-dark when a figure sprang out from behind the door, barging heavily against him, and a loud voice shouted: "Boh, you old beef-brains! Boh to a goose!"
Displeased at such horseplay, Mahony stepped sharply back—his first thought was of Ned having unexpectedly returned from Mount Ararat. Then recognising the voice, he exclaimed incredulously: "YOU, Dickybird? You!"
"Dick, old man.... I say, Dick! Yes, it's me right enough, and not my ghost. The old bad egg come back to roost!"
The blind was raised; and the friends, who had last met in the dingy bush hut on the night of the Stockade, stood face to face. And now ensued a babel of greeting, a quick fire of question and answer, the two voices going in and out and round each other, singly and together, like the voices in a duet. Tears rose to Polly's eyes as she listened; it made her heart glow to see Richard so glad. But when, forgetting her presence, Purdy cried: "And I must confess, Dick.... I took a kiss from Mrs. Polly. Gad, old man, how she's come on!" Polly hastily retired to the kitchen.
At table the same high spirits prevailed: it did not often happen that Richard was brought out of his shell like this, thought Polly gratefully, and heaped her visitor's plate to the brim. His first hunger stilled, Purdy fell to giving a slapdash account of his experiences. He kept to no orderly sequence, but threw them out just as they occurred to him: a rub with bushrangers in the Black Forest, his adventures as a long-distance drover in the Mildura, the trials of a week he had spent in a boiling-down establishment on the Murray: "Where the stink wa so foul, you two, that I vomited like a dog every day!" Under the force of this Odyssey husband and wife gradually dropped into silence, which they broke only by single words of astonishment and sympathy; while the child Trotty spooned in her pudding without seeing it, her round, solemn eyes fixed unblinkingly on this new uncle, who was like a wonderful story-book come alive.
In Mahony's feelings for Purdy at this moment, there was none of the old intolerant superiority. He had been dependent for so long on a mere surface acquaintance with his fellows, that he now felt to the full how precious the tie was that bound him to Purdy. Here came one for whom he was not alone the reserved, struggling practitioner, the rather moody man advancing to middle-age; but also the Dick of his boyhood and early youth.
He had often imagined the satisfaction it would be to confide his troubles to Purdy. Compared, however, with the hardships the latter had undergone, these seemed of small importance; and dinner passed without any allusion to his own affairs. And now the chances of his speaking out were slight; he could have been entirely frank only under the first stimulus of meeting.
Even when they rose from the table Purdy continued to hold the stage. For he had turned up with hardly a shirt to his back, and had to be rigged out afresh from Mahony's wardrobe. It was decided that he should remain their guest in the meantime; also that Mahony should call on his behalf on the Commissioner of Police, and put in a good word for him. For Purdy had come back with the idea of seeking a job in the Ballarat Mounted Force.
When Mahony could no longer put off starting on his afternoon round, Purdy went with him to the livery-barn, limping briskly at his side. On the way, he exclaimed aloud at the marvellous changes that had taken place since he was last in the township. There were half a dozen gas-lamps in Sturt Street by this time, the gas being distilled from a mixture of oil and gum-leaves.
"One wouldn't credit it if one didn't see it with one's own peepers!" he cried, repeatedly bringing up short before the plate-glass windows of the shops, the many handsome, verandahed hotels, the granite front of Christ Church. "And from what I hear, Dick, now companies have jumped the claims and are deep-sinking in earnest, fortunes'll be made like one o'clock."
But on getting home again, he sat down in front of Polly and said, with a businesslike air: "And now tell me all about old Dick! You know, Poll, he's such an odd fish; if he himself doesn't offer to uncork, somehow one can't just pump him. And I want to know everything that concerns him—from A to Z."
Polly could not hold out against this affectionate curiosity. Entrenching her needle in its stuff, she put her work away and complied. And soon to her own satisfaction. For the first time in her married life she was led to discuss her husband's ways and actions with another; and, to her amazement, she found that it was easier to talk to Purdy about Richard than to Richard himself. Purdy and she saw things in the same light; no rigmarole of explanation was necessary. Now with Richard, it was not so. In conversation with him, one constantly felt that he was not speaking out, or, to put it more plainly, that he was going on meanwhile with his own, very different thoughts. And behind what he did say, there was sure to lurk some imaginary scruple, some rather far-fetched delicacy of feeling which it was hard to get at, and harder still to understand.
Summer had come round again, and the motionless white heat of December lay heavy on the place. The low little houses seemed to cower beneath it; and the smoke from their chimneys drew black, perpendicular lines on the pale sky. If it was a misery at this season to traverse the blazing, dusty roads, it was almost worse to be within doors, where the thin wooden walls were powerless to keep out the heat, and flies and mosquitoes raged in chorus. Nevertheless, determined Christmas preparations went on in dozens of tiny, zinc-roofed kitchens, the temperature of which was not much below that of the ovens themselves; and kindly, well-to-do people like Mrs. Glendinning and Mrs. Urquhart drove in in hooded buggies, with green fly-veils dangling from their broad-brimmed hats, and dropped a goose here, a turkey there, on their less prosperous friends. They robbed their gardens, too, of the summer's last flowers, arum-lilies and brilliant geraniums, to decorate the Archdeacon's church for the festival; and many ladies spent the whole day beforehand making wreaths and crosses, and festoons to encircle the lamps.
No one was busier than Polly. She wanted to give Purdy, who had been on short commons for so long, a special Christmas treat. She had willing helpers in him and Jerry: the two of them chopped and stoned and stirred, while she, seated on the block of the woodstack, her head tied up in an old pillow-case, plucked and singed the goose that had fallen to her share. Towards four o'clock on Christmas Day they drew their chairs to the table, and with loosened collars set about enjoying the good things. Or pretending to enjoy them. This was Mahony's case; for the day was no holiday for him, and his head ached from the sun. At tea-time Hempel arrived to pay a call, looking very spruce in a long black coat and white tie; and close on his heels followed old Mr. Ocock. The latter, having deposited his hat under his seat and tapped several pockets, produced a letter, which he unfolded and handed to Polly with a broad grin. It was from his daughter, and contained the news of his wife's death. "Died o' the grumbles, I lay you! An' the first good turn she ever done me." The main point was that Miss Amelia, now at liberty, was already taking advice about the safest line of clipper-ships, and asking for a reply BY RETURN to a number of extraordinary questions. Could one depend on hearing God's Word preached of a Sunday? Was it customary for FEMALES to go armed as well as men? Were the blacks CONVERTED, and what amount of clothing did they wear?
"Thinks she's comin' to the back o' beyond, does Mely!" chuckled the old man, and slapped his thigh at the sudden idea that occurred to him of "takin' a rise out of 'er." "Won't she stare when she gits 'ere, that's all!"
"Well, now you'll simply HAVE to build," said Polly, after threatening to write privately to Miss Amelia, to reassure her. Why not move over west, and take up a piece of ground in the same road as themselves? But from this he excused himself, with a laugh and a spit, on the score that no land-sales had yet been held in their neighbourhood: when he DID turn out of his present four walls, which had always been plenty good enough for him, he wanted a place he could "fit up tidy"; which it 'ud stick in his throat to do so, if he thought it might any day be sold over his head. Mahony winced at this. Then laughed, with an exaggerated carelessness. If, in a country like this, you waited for all to be fixed and sure, you would wait till Domesday. None the less, the thrust rankled. It was a fact that he himself had not spent a sou on his premises since they finished building. The thought at the back of HIS mind, too, was, why waste his hard-earned income on improvements that might benefit only the next-comer? The yard they sat in, for instance! Polly had her hens and a ramshackle hen-house; but not a spadeful of earth had been turned towards the wished-for garden. It was just the ordinary colonial backyard, fenced round with rude palings which did not match, and were mended here and there with bits of hoop-iron; its ground space littered with a medley of articles for which there was no room elsewhere: boards left lying by the builders, empty kerosene-tins, a couple of tubs, a ragged cane-chair, some old cases. Wash-lines, on which at the moment a row of stockings hung, stretched permanently from corner to corner; and the whole was dominated by the big round galvanised-iron tank.
On Boxing Day Purdy got the loan of a lorry and drove a large party, including several children, comfortably placed on straw, hassocks and low chairs, to the Races a few miles out. Half Ballarat was making in the same direction; and whoever owned a horse that was sound in the wind and anything of a stepper had entered it for some item on the programme. The Grand Stand, a bark shed open to the air on three sides, was resorted to only in the case of a sudden downpour; the occupants of the dust-laden buggies, wagonettes, brakes, carts and drays preferred to follow events standing on their seats, and on the boards that served them as seats. After the meeting, those who belonged to the Urquhart-Glendinning set went on to Yarangobilly, and danced till long pastmidnight on the broad verandah. It was nearly three o'clock before Purdy brought his load safely home. Under the round white moon, the lorry was strewn with the forms of sleeping children.
Early next morning while Polly, still only half awake, was pouring out coffee and giving Richard who, poor fellow, could not afford to leave his patients, an account of their doings—with certain omissions, of course: she did not mention the glaring indiscretion Agnes Glendinning had been guilty of, in disappearing with Mr. Henry Ocock into a dark shrubbery—while Polly talked, the postman handed in two letters, which were of a nature to put balls and races clean out of her head. The first was in Mrs. Beamish's ill-formed hand, and told a sorrowful tale. Custom had entirely gone: a new hotel had been erected on the new road; Beamish was forced to declare himself a bankrupt; and in a few days the Family Hotel, with all its contents, would be put up at public auction. What was to become of them, God alone knew. She supposed she would end her days in taking in washing, and the girls must go out as servants. But she was sure Polly, now so up in the world, with a husband doing so well, would not forget the old friends who had once been so kind to her—with much more in the same strain, which Polly skipped, in reading the letter aloud. The long and short of it was: would Polly ask her husband to lend them a couple of hundred pounds to make a fresh start with, or failing that to put his name to a bill for the same amount?
"Of course she hasn't an idea we were obliged to borrow money ourselves," said Polly in response to Mahony's ironic laugh. "I couldn't tell them that."
"No ... nor that it's a perpetual struggle to keep the wolf from the door," answered her husband, battering in the top of an egg with the back of his spoon.
"Oh, Richard dear, things aren't quite so bad as that," said Polly cheerfully. Then she heaved a sigh. "I know, of course, we can't afford to help them; but I DO feel so sorry for them"—she herself would have given the dress off her back. "And I think, dear, if you didn't mind VERY much, we might ask one of the girls up to stay with us ... till the worst is over."
"Yes, I suppose that wouldn't be impossible," said Mahony. "If you've set your heart on it, my Polly. If, too, you can persuade Master Purdy to forgo the comfort of your good feather-bed. And I'll see if I can wring out a fiver for you to enclose in your letter."
Polly jumped up and kissed him. "Purdy is going anyhow. He said only last night he must look for lodgings near the Police Station." Here a thought struck her; she coloured and smiled. "I'll ask Tilly first," said she.
Mahony laughed and shook his finger at her. "The best laid plans o' mice and men! And what's one to say to a match-maker who is still growing out of her clothes?"
At this Polly clapped a hand over his mouth, for fear Ellen should hear him. It was a sore point with her that she had more than once of late had to lengthen her dresses.
As soon as she was alone she sat down to compose a reply to Mrs. Beamish. It was no easy job: she was obliged to say that Richard felt unable to come to their aid; and, at the same time, to avoid touching on his private affairs; had to disappoint as kindly as she could; to be truthful, yet tactful. Polly wrote, and re-wrote: the business cost her the forenoon.
She could not even press Tilly to pack her box and come at once; for her second letter that morning had been from Sara, who wrote that, having decided to shake the dust of the colony off her feet, she wished to pay them a flying visit before sailing, "POUR FAIRE MES ADIEUX." She signed herself "Your affectionate sister Zara," and on her arrival explained that, tired of continually instructing people in the pronunciation of her name, she had decided to alter the spelling and be done with it. Moreover, a little bird had whispered in her ear that, under its new form, it fitted her rather "FRENCH" air and looks a thousand times better than before.
Descending from the coach, Zara eyed Polly up and down and vowed she would never have known her; and, on the way home, Polly more than once felt her sister's gaze fixed critically on her. For her part, she was able to assure Zara that she saw no change whatever in her, since her last visit—even since the date of the wedding. And this pleased Zara mightily; for as she admitted, in removing hat and mantle, and passing the damped corner of a towel over her face, she dreaded the ageing effects of the climate on her fine complexion. Close as ever about her own concerns, she gave no reason for her abrupt determination to leave the country; but from subsequent talk Polly gathered that, for one thing, Zara had found her position at the head of John's establishment—"Undertaken in the first place, my dear, at immense personal sacrifice!"—no sinecure. John had proved a regular martinet; he had countermanded her orders, interfered about the household bills—had even accused her of lining her own pocket. As for little Johnny—the bait originally thrown out to induce her to accept the post—he had long since been sent to boarding-school. "A thoroughly bad, unprincipled boy!" was Zara's verdict. And when Polly, big with pity, expostulated: "But Zara, he is only six years old!" her sister retorted with a: "My dear, I know the world, and you don't," to which Polly could think of no reply.
Zara had announced herself for a bare fortnight's stay; but the man who carried her trunk groaned and sweated under it, and was so insolent about the size of the coin she dropped in his palm that Polly followed him by stealth into the passage, to make it up to a crown. As usual Zara was attired in the height of fashion. She brought a set of "the hoops" with her—the first to be seen on Ballarat—and once more Polly was torn between an honest admiration of her sister's daring, and an equally honest embarrassment at the notice she attracted. Zara swam and glided about the streets, to the hilarious amazement of the population; floated feather-light, billowing here, depressing there, with all the waywardness of a child's balloon; supported—or so it seemed—by two of the tiniest feet ever bestowed on mortal woman. Aha! but that was one of the chief merits of "the hoops," declared Zara; that, and the possibility of getting still more stuff into your skirts without materially increasing their weight. There was something in that, conceded Polly, who often felt hers drag heavy. Besides, as she reminded Richard that night, when he lay alternately chuckling and snorting at woman's folly, custom was everything. Once they had smiled at Zara appearing in a hat: "And now we're all wearing them."
Another practical consideration that occurred to her she expressed with some diffidence. "But Zara, don't you ... I mean ... aren't they very draughty?"
Zara had to repeat her shocked but emphatic denial in the presence of Mrs. Glendinning and Mrs. Urquhart, both ladies having a mind to bring their wardrobes up to date. They agreed that there was much to be said in favour of the appliance, over and above its novelty. Especially would it be welcome at those times when... But here the speakers dropped into woman's mysterious code of nods and signs; while Zara, turning modestly away, pretended to count the stitches in a crochet-antimacassar.
Yes, nowadays, as Mrs. Dr. Mahony, Polly was able to introduce her sister to a society worthy of Zara's gifts; and Zara enjoyed herself so well that, had her berth not been booked, she might have contemplated extending her visit. She overflowed with gracious commendation. The house—though, of course, compared with John's splendour, a trifle plain and poky—was a decided advance on the store; Polly herself much improved: "You DO look robust, my dear!" And—though Zara held her peace about this—the fact of Mahony's being from home each day, for hours at a stretch, lent an additional prop to her satisfaction. Under these conditions it was possible to keep on good terms with her brother-in-law.
Zara's natty appearance and sprightly ways made her a favourite with every one especially the gentlemen. The episcopal bazaar came off at this time; and Zara had the brilliant idea of a bran-pie. This was the success of the entertainment. From behind the refreshment-stall where, with Mrs. Long, she was pouring out cups of tea and serving cheesecakes and sausage-rolls by the hundred, Polly looked proudly across the beflagged hall, to the merry group of which her sister was the centre. Zara was holding her own, even with Mr. Henry Ocock; and Mr. Urquhart had constituted himself her right hand.
"Your sister is no doubt a most fascinating woman," said Mrs. Urquhart from the seat with which she had been accommodated; and heaved a gentle sigh. "How odd that she should never have married!"
"I'm afraid Zara's too particular," said Polly. "It's not for want of being asked."
Her eyes met Purdy's as she spoke—Purdy had come up laden with empty cups, a pair of infants' boots dangling round his neck—and they exchanged smiles; for Zara's latest AFFAIRE DU COEUR was a source of great amusement to them.
Polly had assisted at the first meeting between her sister and Purdy with very mixed feelings. On that occasion Purdy happened to be in plain clothes, and Zara pronounced him charming. The next day, however, he dropped in clad in the double-breasted blue jacket, the high boots and green-veiled cabbage-tree he wore when on duty; and thereupon Zara's opinion of him sank to null, and was not to be raised even by him presenting himself in full dress: white-braided trousers, red faced shell jacket, pill-box cap, cartouche box and cavalry sword. "La, Polly! Nothing but a common policeman!" In vain did Polly explain the difference between a member of the ordinary force and a mounted trooper of the gold-escort; in vain lay stress on Richard's pleasure at seeing Purdy buckle to steady work, no matter what. Zara's thoughts had taken wing for a land where such anomalies were not; where you were not asked to drink tea with the well-meaning constable who led you across a crowded thoroughfare or turned on his bull's eye for you in a fog, preparatory to calling up a hackney-cab.
But the chilly condescension with which, from now on, Zara treated him did not seem to trouble Purdy. When he ran in for five minutes of a morning, he eschewed the front entrance and took up his perch on the kitchen-table. From here, while Polly cooked and he nibbled half-baked pastry, the two of them followed the progress of events in the parlour.
Zara's arrival on Ballarat had been the cue for Hempel's reappearance, and now hardly a day went by on which the lay-helper did not neglect his chapel work, in order to pay what Zara called his "DEVOIRS." Slight were his pretexts for coming: a rare bit of dried seaweed for bookmark; a religious journal with a turned-down page; a nosegay. And though Zara would not nowadays go the length of walking out with a dissenter—she preferred on her airings to occupy the box-seat of Mr. Urquhart's four-in-hand—she had no objection to Hempel keeping her company during the empty hours of the forenoon when Polly was lost in domestic cares. She accepted his offerings, mimicked his faulty speech, and was continually hauling him up the precipice of self-distrust, only to let him slip back as soon as he reached the top.
One day Purdy entered the kitchen doubled up with laughter. In passing the front of the house he had thrown a look in at the parlour-window; and the sight of the prim and proper Hempel on his knees on the woolly hearthrug so tickled his sense of humour that, having spluttered out the news, back he went to the passage, where he crouched down before the parlour-door and glued his eye to the keyhole.
"Oh, Purdy, no! What if the door should suddenly fly open?"
But there was something in Purdy's pranks that a laughter-lover like Polly could never for long withstand. Here, now, in feigning to imitate the unfortunate Hempel, he was sheerly irresistible. He clapped his hands to his heart, showed the whites of his eyes, wept, gesticulated and tore his hair; and Polly, after trying in vain to keep a straight face, sat down and went off into a fit of stifled mirth—and when Polly did give way, she was apt to set every one round her laughing, too. Ellen's shoulders shook; she held a fist to her mouth. Even little Trotty shrilled out her tinny treble, without knowing in the least what the joke was.
When the merriment was at its height, the front door opened and in walked Mahony. An instant's blank amazement, and he had grasped the whole situation—Richard was always so fearfully quick at understanding, thought Polly ruefully. Then, though Purdy jumped to his feet and the laughter died out as if by command, he drew his brows together, and without saying a word, stalked into the surgery and shut the door.
Like a schoolboy who has been caned, Purdy dug his knuckles into his eyes and rubbed his hindquarters—to the fresh delight of Trotty and the girl.
"Well, so long, Polly! I'd better be making tracks. The old man's on the warpath." And in an undertone: "Same old grouser! Never COULD take a joke."
"He's tired. I'll make it all right," gave Polly back.
—"It was only his fun, Richard," she pleaded, as she held out a linen jacket for her husband to slip his arms into.
"Fun of a kind I won't permit in my house. What an example to set the child! What's more, I shall let Hempel know that he is being made a butt of. And speak my mind to your sister about her heartless behaviour."
"Oh, don't do that, Richard. I promise it shan't happen again. It was very stupid of us, I know. But Purdy didn't really mean it unkindly; and he IS so comical when he starts to imitate people." And Polly was all but off again, at the remembrance.
But Mahony, stooping to decipher the names Ellen had written on the slate, did not unbend. It was not merely the vulgar joke that had offended him. No, what really rankled was the sudden chill his unlooked-for entrance had cast over the group; they had scattered and gone scurrying about their business, like a pack of naughty children who had been up to mischief behind their master's back. He was the schoolmaster—the spoilsport. They were all afraid of him. Even Polly.
But here came Polly herself to say: "Dinner, dear," in her kindest tone. She also put her arm round his neck and hugged him. "Not cross any more, Richard? I know we behaved disgracefully." Her touch put the crown on her words. Mahony drew her to him and kissed her.
But the true origin of the unpleasantness, Zara, who in her ghoulish delight at seeing Hempel grovel before her—thus Mahony worded it—behaved more kittenishly than ever at table: Zara Mahony could not so easily forgive; and for the remainder of her stay his manner to her was so forbidding that she, too, froze; and to Polly's regret the old bad relation between them came up anew.
But Zara was enjoying herself too well to cut her visit short on Mahony's account. "Besides, poor thing," thought Polly, "she has really nowhere to go." What she did do was to carry her head very high in her brother-in-law's presence; to speak at him rather than to him; and in private to insist to Polly on her powers of discernment. "You may say what you like, my dear—I can see you have a VERY GREAT DEAL to put up with!"
At last, however, the day of her departure broke, and she went off amid a babble of farewells, of requests for remembrance, a fluttering of pocket-handkerchiefs, the like of which Polly had never known; and to himself Mahony breathed the hope that they had seen the last of Zara, her fripperies and affectations. "Your sister will certainly fit better into the conditions of English life."
Polly cried at the parting, which might be final; then blew her nose and dried her eyes; for she had a busy day before her. Tilly Beamish had been waiting with ill-concealed impatience for Zara to vacate the spare room, and was to arrive that night.
Mahony was not at home to welcome the new-comer, nor could he be present at high tea. When he returned, towards nine o'clock, he found Polly with a very red face, and so full of fussy cares for her guest's comfort—her natural kindliness distorted to caricature—that she had not a word for him. One look at Miss Tilly explained everything, and his respects duly paid he retired to the surgery, to indulge a smile at Polly's expense. Here Polly soon joined him, Tilly, fatigued by her journey and by her bounteous meal, having betaken herself early to bed.
"Ha, ha!" laughed Mahony, not without a certain mischievous satisfaction at his young wife's discomfiture. "And with the prospect of a second edition to follow!"
But Polly would not capitulate right off. "I don't think it's very kind of you to talk like that, Richard," she said warmly. "People can't help their looks." She moved about the room putting things straight, and avoiding his eye. "As long as they mean well and are good.... But I think you would rather no one ever came to stay with us, at all."
Fixing her with meaning insistence and still smiling, Mahony opened his arms. The next moment Polly was on his knee, her face hidden in his shoulder. There she shed a few tears. "Oh, isn't she dreadful? I don't know WHAT I shall do with her. She's been serving behind the bar, Richard, for more than a year. And she's come expecting to be taken everywhere and to have any amount of gaiety."
At coach-time she had dragged a reluctant Purdy to the office. But as soon as he caught sight of Tilly: "On the box, Richard, beside the driver, with her hair all towsy-wowsy in the wind—he just said: 'Oh, lor, Polly!' and disappeared, and that was the last I saw of him. I don't know how I should have got on if it hadn't been for old Mr. Ocock, who was down meeting a parcel. He was most kind; he helped us home with her carpet-bag, and saw after her trunk. And, oh dear, what do you think? When he was going away he said to me in the passage—so loud I'm sure Tilly must have heard him—he said: 'Well! that's something like a figure of a female this time, Mrs. Doc. As fine a young woman as ever I see!'"
And Polly hid her face again; and husband and wife laughed in concert.
That night a great storm rose. Mahony, sitting reading after everyone else had retired, saw it coming, and lamp in hand went round the house to secure hasps and catches; then stood at the window to watch the storm's approach. In one half of the sky the stars were still peacefully alight; the other was hidden by a dense cloud, which came racing along like a giant bat with outspread wings, devouring the stars in its flight. The storm broke; there was a sudden shrill screeching, a grinding, piping, whistling, and the wind hurled itself against the house as if to level it with the ground; failing in this, it banged and battered, making windows and doors shake like loose teeth in their sockets. Then it swept by to wreak its fury elsewhere, and there was a grateful lull out of which burst a peal of thunder. And now peal followed peal, and the face of the sky, with its masses of swirling, frothy cloud, resembled an angry sea. The lightning ripped it in fierce zigzags, darting out hundreds of spectral fangs. It was a magnificent sight.
Polly came running to see where he was, the child cried, Miss Tilly opened her door by a hand's-breadth, and thrust a red, puffy face, framed in curl-twists, through the crack. Nobody thought of sleep while the commotion lasted, for fear of fire: once alight, these exposed little wooden houses blazed up like heaps of shavings. The clock-hands pointed to one before the storm showed signs of abating. Now, the rain was pouring down, making an ear-splitting din on the iron roof and leaping from every gutter and spout. It had turned very cold. Mahony shivered as he got into bed.
He seemed hardly to have closed an eye when he was wakened by a loud knocking; at the same time the wire of the night-bell was almost wrenched in two. He sat up and looked at his watch. It wanted a few minutes to three; the rain was still falling in torrents, the wind sighed and moaned. Wild horses should not drag him out on such a night! Thrusting his arms into the sleeves of his dressing-gown, he threw up the parlour window. "Who's there?" The hiss of the rain cut his words through.
A figure on the doorstep turned at the sound. "Is this a doctor's? I wuz sent here. Doctor! for God's sake ..."
"What is it? Stop a minute! I'll open the door."
He did so, letting in a blast of wind and a rush of rain that flooded the oilcloth. The intruder, off whom the water streamed, had to shout to make himself audible.
"It's me—Mat Doyle's me name! It's me wife, doctor; she's dying. I've bin all night on the road. Ah, for the love of—"
"Where is it?" Mahony put his hand to the side of his mouth, to keep his words from flying adrift in the wind.
"Paddy's Rest. You're the third I've bin to. Not one of the dirty dogs'ull stir a leg! Me girl may die like a rabbit for all they care."— The man's voice broke, as he halloed particulars.
"Paddy's Rest? On a night like this? Why, the creek will be out."
"Doctor! you're from th' ould country, I can hear it in your lip. Haven't you a wife, too, doctor? Then show a bit o' mercy to mine!"
"Tut, tut, man, none of that!" said Mahony curtly. "You should have bespoken me at the proper time to attend your wife.—Besides, there'll be no getting along the road to-night."
The other caught the note of yielding. "Sure an' you'd go out, doctor dear, without thinkin', to save your dog if he was drownin'. I've got me buggy down there; I'll take you safe. And you shan't regret it; I'll make it worth your while, by the Lord Harry I will!"
"Pshaw!"—Mahony opened the door of the surgery and struck a match. It was a rough grizzled fellow—a "cocky," on his own showing—who presented himself in the lamplight. His wife had fallen ill that afternoon. At first everything seemed to be going well; then she was seized with fits, had one fit after another, and all but bit her tongue in two. There was nobody with her but a young girl he had fetched from a mile away. He had meant, when her time came, to bring her to the District Hospital. But they had been taken unawares. While he waited he sat with his elbows on his knees, his face between his clenched fists.
In dressing, Mahony reassured Polly, and instructed her what to say to people who came inquiring after him; it was unlikely he would be back before afternoon. Most of the patients could wait till then. The one exception, a case of typhoid in its second week, a young Scotch surgeon, Brace, whom he had obliged in a similar emergency, would no doubt see for him—she should send Ellen down with a note. And having poured Doyle out a nobbler and put a flask in his own pocket, Mahony reopened the front door to the howl of the wind.
The lantern his guide carried shed only a tiny circlet of light on the blackness; and the two men picked their steps gingerly along the flooded road. The rain ran in jets off the brim of Mahony's hat, and down the back of his neck.
Having climbed into the buggy they advanced at a funeral pace, leaving it to the sagacity of the horse to keep the track. At the creek, sure enough, the water was out, the bridge gone. To reach the next bridge, five miles off, a crazy cross-country drive would have been necessary; and Mahony was for giving up the job. But Doyle would not acknowledge defeat. He unharnessed the horse, set Mahony on its back, and himself holding to its tail, forced the beast, by dint of kicking and lashing, into the water; and not only got them safely across, but up the steep sticky clay of the opposite bank. It was six o'clock and a cloudless morning when, numb with cold, his clothing clinging to him like wet seaweed, Mahony entered the wooden hut where the real work he had come out to do began.
Later in the day, clad in an odd collection of baggy garments, he sat and warmed himself in the sun, which was fast drawing up in the form of a blankety mist the moisture from the ground. He had successfully performed, under the worst possible conditions, a ticklish operation; and was now so tired that, with his chin on his chest, he fell fast asleep.
Doyle wakened him by announcing the arrival of the buggy. The good man, who had more than one nobbler during the morning could not hold his tongue, but made still another wordy attempt to express his gratitude. "Whither me girl lives or dies, it'll not be Mat Doyle who forgits what you did for him this night, doctor! An' if iver you want a bit o' work done, or some one to do your lyin' awake at night for you, just you gimme the tip. I don't mind tellin' you now, I'd me shootin'-iron here"—he touched his right hip—"an' if you'd refused—you was the third, mind you,—I'd have drilled you where you stood, God damn me if I wouldn't!"
Mahony eyed the speaker with derision. "Much good that would have done your wife, you fathead! Well, well, we'll say nothing to MINE, if you please, about anything of that sort."
"No, may all the saints bless 'er and give 'er health! An' as I say, doctor...." In speaking he had drawn a roll of bank-notes from his pocket, and now he tried to stuff them between Mahony's fingers.
"What's this? My good man, keep your money till it's asked for!" and Mahony unclasped his hands, so that the notes fluttered to the ground.
"Then there let 'em lay!"
But when, in clothes dried stiff as cardboard, Mahony was rolling townwards—his coachman, a lad of some ten or twelve who handled the reins to the manner born—as they went he chanced to feel in his coat pocket, and there found five ten-pound notes rolled up in a neat bundle.
The main part of the road was dry and hard again; but all dips and holes were wells of liquid mud, which bespattered the two of them from top to toe as the buggy bumped carelessly in and out. Mahony diverted himself by thinking of what he could give Polly with this sum. It would serve to buy that pair of gilt cornices or the heavy gilt-framed pierglass on which she had set her heart. He could see her, pink with pleasure, expostulating: "Richard! What WICKED extravagance!" and hear himself reply: "And pray may my wife not have as pretty a parlour as her neighbours?" He even cast a thought, in passing, on the pianoforte with which Polly longed to crown the furnishings of her room—though, of course, at least treble this amount would be needed to cover its cost.— But a fig for such nonsense! He knew but one legitimate use to make of the unexpected little windfall, and that was, to put it by for a rainy day. "At my age, in my position, I OUGHT to have fifty pounds in the bank!"—times without number he had said this to himself, with a growing impatience. But he had not yet managed to save a halfpenny. Thrive as the practice might, the expenses of living held even pace with it. And now, having got its cue, his brain started off again on the old treadmill, reckoning, totting up, finding totals, or more often failing to find them, till his head was as hot as his feet were cold. To-day he could not think clearly at all.
Nor the next day either. By the time he reached home he was conscious of feeling very ill: he had lancinating pains in his limbs, a chill down his spine, an outrageous temperature. To set out again on a round of visits was impossible. He had just to tumble into bed.
He got between the sheets with that sense of utter well-being, of almost sensual satisfaction, which only one who is shivering with fever knows. And at first very small things were enough to fill him with content: the smoothness of the pillow's sleek linen; the shadowy light of the room after long days spent in the dusty glare outside; the possibility of resting, the knowledge that it was his duty to rest; Polly's soft, firm hands, which were always of the right temperature—warm in the cold stage, cool when the fever scorched him, and neither hot nor cold when the dripping sweats came on. But as the fever declined, these slight pleasures lost their hold. Then he was ridden to death by black thoughts. Not only was day being added to day, he meanwhile not turning over a penny; but ideas which he knew to be preposterous insinuated themselves in his brain. Thus, for hours on end he writhed under the belief that his present illness was due solely to the proximity of the Great Swamp, and lay and cursed his folly in having chosen just this neighbourhood to build in. Again, there was the case of typhoid he had been anxious about, prior to his own breakdown: under his LOCUM, peritonitis had set in and carried off the patient. At the time he had accepted the news from Polly's lips with indifference—too ill to care. But a little later the knowledge of what it meant broke over him, and he suffered the tortures of the damned. Not Brace; he alone would be held responsible for the death; and perhaps not altogether unjustly. Lying there, a prey to morbid apprehensions, he rebuilt the case in memory, struggling to recall each slight variation in temperature, each swift change for better or worse; but as fast as he captured one such detail, his drowsy brain let the last but one go, and he had to beat it up anew. During the night he grew confident that the relatives of the dead woman intended to take action against him, for negligence or improper attendance.
An attempt to speak of these devilish imaginings to wife and friend was a failure. He undertook it in a fit of desperation, when it seemed as if only a strong and well grounded opposition would save his reason. But this was just what he could not get. Purdy, whom he tried first, held the crude notion that a sick person should never be gainsaid; and soothingly sympathised and agreed, till Mahony could have cried aloud at such blundering stupidity. Polly did better; she contradicted him. But not in the right way. She certainly pooh-poohed his idea of the nearness of Yuille's Swamp making the house unhealthy; but she did not argue the matter, step by step, and CONVINCE him that he was wrong. She just laughed at him as at a foolish child, and kissed him, and tucked him in anew. And when it came to the typhoid's fatal issue, she had not the knowledge needed to combat him with any chance of success. She heard him anxiously out, and allowed herself to be made quite nervous over a possible fault on his part, so jealous was she for his growing reputation.
So that in the end it was he who had to comfort her.
"Don't take any notice of what I say to-day, wife. It's this blessed fever.... I'm light-headed, I think."
But he could hear her uneasily consulting with Purdy in the passage.
It was not till his pulse beat normally again that he could smile at his exaggerated fears. Now, too, reviving health brought back a wholesome interest in everyday affairs. He listened with amusement to Polly's account of the shifts Purdy was reduced to, to enter the house unseen by Miss Tilly. On his faithful daily call, the young man would creep round by the back door, and Tilly was growing more and more irate at her inability to waylay him. Yes, Polly was rather redly forced to admit, she HAD abetted him in his evasions. ("You know, Poll, I might just as well tie myself up to old Mother B. herself and be done with it!") Out of sheer pique Tilly had twice now accepted old Mr. Ocock's invitation to drive with him. Once, she had returned with a huge bag of lollies; and once, with a face like a turkey-cock. Polly couldn't help thinking ... no, really, Richard, she could not! ... that perhaps something might COME of it. He should not laugh; just wait and see.
Many inquiries had been made after him. People had missed their doctor, it seemed, and wanted him back. It was a real red-letter day when he could snap to the catches of his gloves again, and mount the step of a buggy.
He had instructed Purdy to arrange for the hire of this vehicle, saddle-work being out of the question for him in the meantime. And on his first long journey—it led him past Doyle's hut, now, he was sorry to see, in the hands of strangers; for the wife, on the way to making a fair recovery, had got up too soon, overtaxed her strength and died, and the broken-hearted husband was gone off no one knew where—on this drive, as mile after mile slid from under the wheels, Mahony felt how grateful was the screen of a hood between him and the sun.
While he was laid up, the eternal question of how to live on his income had left him, relatively speaking, in peace. He had of late adopted the habit of doing his scraping and saving at the outset of each quarter, so as to get the money due to Ocock put by betimes. His illness had naturally made a hole in this; and now the living from hand to mouth must begin anew.
With what remained of Doyle's money he proposed to settle his account at the livery-stable. Then the unexpected happened. His reappearance—he looked very thin and washed-out—evidently jogged a couple of sleepy memories. Simultaneously two big bills were paid, one of which he had entirely given up. In consequence, he again found himself fifty pounds to the good. And driving to Ocock's office, on term day, he resolved to go on afterwards to the Bank of Australasia and there deposit this sum.
Grindle, set off by a pair of flaming "sideboards," himself ushered Mahony into the sanctum, and the affair was disposed of in a trice. Ocock was one of the busiest of men nowadays—he no longer needed to invent sham clients and fictitious interviews—and he utilised the few odd minutes it took to procure a signature, jot down a note, open a drawer, unlock a tin box to remark abstractedly on the weather and put a polite inquiry: "And your good lady? In the best of health, I trust?"
On emerging from the inner room, Mahony saw that the places formerly filled by Tom and Johnny were occupied by strangers; and he was wondering whether it would be indiscreet to ask what had become of the brothers, when Ocock cut across his intention. "By the way, Jenkins, has that memorandum I spoke of been drawn up?" he turned to a clerk.
With a sheet of foolscap in his hand, he invited Mahony with a beck of the chin to re-enter his room. "Half a moment! Now, doctor, if you happen to have a little money lying idle, I can put you on to a good thing—a very good thing indeed. I don't know, I'm sure, whether you keep an eye on the fluctuations of the share-market. If so, you'll no doubt have noticed the ... let me say the extreme instability of 'Porepunkahs.' After making an excellent start, they have dropped till they are now to be had at one-twentieth of their original value."
He did not take much interest in mining matters was Mahony's reply. However he knew something of the claim in question, if only because several of his acquaintances had abandoned their shares, in disgust at the repeated calls and the lack of dividends.
"Exactly. Well now, doctor, I'm in a position to inform you that 'Porepunkahs' will very shortly be prime favourites on the market, selling at many times their original figure—their ORIGINAL figure, sir! No one with a few hundreds to spare could find a better investment. Now is the time to buy."
A few hundreds! ... what does he take me for? thought Mahony; and declined the transaction off-hand. It was very good of Mr. Ocock to think of him; but he preferred to keep clear of that kind of thing.
"Quite so, quite so!" returned Ocock suavely, and dry-washed his hands with the smile Mahony had never learnt to fathom. "Just as you please, of course.—I'll only ask you, doctor, to treat the matter as strictly confidential."
"I suppose he says the same to everyone he tells," was Mahony's comment as he flicked up his horse; and he wondered what the extent might be of the lawyer's personal interest in the "Porepunkah Company." Probably the number of shareholders was not large enough to rake up the capital.
Still, the incident gave him food for thought, and only after closing time did he remember his intention of driving home by way of the Bank.
Later in the day he came back on the incident, and pondered his abrupt refusal of Ocock's offer. There was nothing unusual in this: he never took advice well; and, was it forced upon him, nine times out of ten a certain inborn contrariness drove him to do just the opposite. Besides, he had not yet learned to look with lenience on the rage for speculation that had seized the people of Ballarat; and he held that it would be culpable for a man of his slender means to risk money in the great game.—But was there any hint of risk in the present instance? To judge from Ocock's manner, the investment was as safe as a house, and lucrative to a degree that made one's head swim. "Many times their original figure!" An Arabian-nights fashion of growing rich, and no mistake! Very different from the laborious grind of HIS days, in which he had always to reckon with the chance of not being paid at all. That very afternoon had brought him a fresh example of this. He was returning from the Old Magpie Lead, where he had been called to a case of scarlet fever, and saw himself covering the same road daily for some time to come. But he had learned to adjudge his patients in a winking; and these, he could swear to it, would prove to be non-payers; of a kind even to cut and run, once the child was out of danger. Was he really justified, cramped for money as he was, in rejecting the straight tip Ocock had given him? And he debated this moot point—argued his need against his principles—the whole way home.
As soon as he had changed and seen his suspect clothing hung out to air, he went impetuously back to Ocock's office. He had altered his mind. A small gift from a grateful patient: yes, fifty, please; they might bring him luck.—And he saw his name written down as the owner of half a hundred shares.
After this, he took a new interest in the mining sheet of the STAR; turned to it, indeed, first of all. For a week, a fortnight, "Porepunkahs" remained stationary; then they made a call, and, if he did not wish to forfeit, he had to pay out as many shillings as he held shares. A day or two later they sank a trifle, and Mahony's hopes with them. There even came a day when they were not mentioned; and he gave up his money for lost. But of a sudden they woke to life again, took an upward bound, and within a month were quoted at five pounds—on rumour alone. "Very sensitive indeed," said the STAR. Purdy, his only confidant, went about swearing at himself for having let the few he owned lapse; and Mahony itched to sell. He could now have banked two hundred and fifty pounds.
But Ocock laughed him out of countenance—even went so far as to pat him on the shoulder. On no account was he to think of selling. "Sit tight, doctor ... sit tight! Till I say the word."
And Mahony reluctantly obeyed.
In the course of the following winter John Turnham came to stand as one of two candidates for the newly proclaimed electoral district of Ballarat West.
The first news his relatives had of his intention was gleaned from the daily paper. Mahony lit on the paragraph by chance one morning; said: "Hullo! Here's something that will interest you, my dear," and read it aloud.
Polly laid down her knife and fork, pushed her plate from her, and went pink with pleasure and surprise. "Richard! You don't mean it!" she exclaimed, and got up to look over his shoulder. Yes, there it was—John's name in all the glory of print. "Mr. John Millibank Turnham, one of the foremost citizens and most highly respected denizens of our marvellous metropolis, and a staunch supporter of democratic rights and the interests of our people." Polly drew a deep breath. "Do you know, Richard, I shouldn't wonder if he came to live on Ballarat—I mean if he gets in.—Does Trotty hear? This is Trotty's papa they're writing about in the papers.—Of course we must ask him to stay with us." For this happened during an interregnum, when the spare room was temporarily out of use.
"Of course we must do nothing of the kind. Your brother will need the best rooms Bath's can give him; and when he's not actually on the hustings, he'll be hobnobbing in the bar, standing as many drinks as there are throats in the crowd," gave back Mahony, who had the lowest possible opinion of colonial politics.
"Well, at least I can write and tell him how delighted we are," said Polly, not to be done.
"Find out first, my dear, if there's any truth in the report. I can hardly think John would have left us in the dark to this extent."
But John corroborated the news; and, in the letter Polly read out a week later, announced the opening of his campaign for the coming month.
I SHALL FEEL MUCH OBLIGED TO YOUR HUSBAND IF HE WILL MEANWHILE EXERT HIS INFLUENCE ON MY BEHALF. HE IS NO DOUBT ACQUAINTED PROFESSIONALLY WITH MANY OF THE LEADING SQUATTERS ROUND BALLARAT, WHOM HE CAN INDUCE TO SUPPORT MY CANDIDATURE.
"Umph!" said Mahony grumpily, and went on scooping out his egg. "We're good enough to tout for him."
"Ssh!" warned Polly, with a glance at Trotty. "Think what it means to him, Richard, and to us, too. It will do your practice ever so much good if he gets in—to be the brother-in-law of the member! We must help all we can, dear."
She was going driving to Yarangobilly that day with Archdeacon Long to see a new arrival Richard had recently brought into the world; and now she laid plans to kill two birds with one stone, entering into the scheme with a gusto that astonished Mahony. "Upon my word, wife, I believe you're glad to have something to do."
"Will my own papa gimme a dolly? ... like Uncle Papa?" here piped Trotty.
"Perhaps. But you will have to be a VERY good girl, and not talk with your mouth full or dirty your pinnies. Oh, here's a postscript!" Polly had returned to the sheet, and was gloating over it. "John writes:
"ESPECIALLY MUST HE ENDEAVOUR TO WIN LAWYER OCOCK OVER TO MY SIDE. I LAY GREAT WEIGHT ON O.'S SUPPORT.
"Oh, Richard, now ISN'T that unfortunate? I do hope it won't make any difference to John's chances."
Polly's dismay had good grounds. A marked coolness had sprung up between her husband and the lawyer; and on no account, she knew, would Richard consent to approach Mr. Henry. Some very hot remarks made by the latter had been passed on to her by Mrs. Glendinning. She had not dared to tell Richard the worst.
The coolness dated from an afternoon when Tilly Beamish had burst into the house in a state of rampant excitement. "Oh, Polly! oh, I say! my dear, whatever do you think? That old cove—old O.—'as actually had the cheek to make me a proposal."
"Tilly!" gasped Polly, and flushed to the roots of her hair. "Oh, my dear, I AM pleased!" For Polly's conscience was still somewhat tender about the aid she had lent Purdy in his evasions. The two women kissed, and Tilly cried a little. "It's certainly her first offer," thought Mrs. Polly. Aloud, she asked hesitatingly: "And do you ... shall you ... I mean, are you going to accept him, Tilly?"
But this was just where Tilly could not make up her mind: should she take him, or should she not? For two whole days she sat about debating the question; and Polly listened to her with all the sympathy and interest so momentous a step deserved.
"If you feel you could really learn to care for him, dear. Of course it WOULD be nice for you to have a house of your own. And how happy it would make poor mother to see you settled!"
Tilly tore the last veil from her feelings, uttered gross confidences. Polly knew well enough where her real inclination lay. "I've hoped against hope, Poll, that a CERTAIN PERSON would come to the scratch at last." Yes, it was true enough, he had nothing to offer her; but she wasn't the sort to have stuck at that. "I'd have worked my hands to the bone for 'im, Poll, if 'e'd ONLY said the word." The one drawback to marriage with "you know 'oo" would have been his infirmity. "Some'ow, Polly, I can't picture myself dragging a husband with a gammy leg at my heels." From this, Tilly's mind glanced back to the suitor who had honourably declared himself. Of course "old O." hadn't a great deal of the gentleman about him; and their ages were unsuitable. "'E owns to fifty-eight, and as you know, Poll, I'm only just turned twenty-five," at which Polly drooped her head a little lower over the handkerchief she was hemming, to avoid meeting her friend's eye. Poor dear Tilly! she would never see thirty again; and she need hardly have troubled, thought Polly, to be insincere with her. But in the same breath she took back the reproach. A woman herself, she understood something of the fear, and shame, and heartburning that had gone to the making of the lie. Perhaps, too, it was a gentle hint from Tilly what age she now wished to be considered. And so Polly agreed, and said tenderly: yes, certainly, the difference was very marked. Meanwhile Tilly flowed on. These were the two chief objections. On the other hand, the old boy was ludicrously smitten; and she thought one might trust her, Tilly B., to soon knock him into shape. It would also, no doubt, be possible to squeeze a few pounds out of him towards assisting "pa and ma" in their present struggle. Again, as a married woman she would have a chance of helping Jinny to find a husband: "Though Jinn's gone off so, Polly, I bet you'd hardly know her if you met 'er in the street." To end all, a bird in hand, etc.; and besides, what prospects had she, if she remained a spinster?
So, when she was asked, Tilly accepted without further humming and hawing an invitation to drive out in the smart dog-cart Mr. Ocock had hired for the purpose; and Polly saw her off with many a small private sign of encouragement. All went well. A couple of hours later Tilly came flying in, caught Polly up in a bear's hug, and danced her round the room. "My dear, wish me joy!—Oh, lor, Polly, I DO feel 'appy!" She was wearing a large half-hoop of diamonds on her ring-finger: nothing would do "old O." but that they should drive there and then to the finest jeweller's in Sturt Street, where she had the pick of a trayful. And now Mr. Ocock, all a-smirk with sheepish pride, was fetched in to receive congratulations, and Polly produced refreshments; and healths were drunk. Afterwards the happy couple dallied in the passage and loitered on the doorstep, till evening was far advanced.
It was Polly who, in clearing away, was struck dumb by the thought: "But now whatever is to become of Miss Amelia?"
She wondered if this consideration troubled the old man. Trouble there was, of some sort: he called at the house three days running for a word with Richard. He wore a brand-new pair of shepherd's-plaid trousers, a choker that his work-stained hands had soiled in tying, a black coat, a massive gold watch-chain. On the third visit he was lucky enough to catch Mahony, and the door of the surgery closed behind them.
Here Mr. Ocock sat on the extreme edge of a chair; alternately crushed his wide-awake flat between his palms and expanded it again, as though he were playing a concertina; and coughed out a wordy preamble. He assured Mahony, to begin with, how highly he esteemed him. It was because of this, because he knew doctor was as straight as a pound of candles, that he was going to ask his advice on an awkward matter—devilish awkward!—one nobody had any idea of either—except Henry. And Henry had kicked up such a deuce of a row at his wanting to marry again, that he was damned if he'd have anything more to do with him. Besides, the doctor knew what lawyers were—the whole breed of 'em! Sharp as needles—especially Henry—but with a sort of squint in their upper storey that made 'em see every mortal thing from the point of view of law. And that was no good to him. What he needed was a plain and honest, a ... he hesitated for a word and repeated, "a Honest opinion;" for he only wanted to do the right thing, what was straight and above board. And at last out it came: did "doc." think it would be acting on the square, and not taking a low-down advantage of a female, if he omitted to mention to "the future Mrs. O" that, up till six months back, he had been obliged to ... well, he'd spit it out short and say, obliged to report himself to the authorities at fixed intervals? Women were such shy cattle, so damned odd! You never knew how they'd take a thing like this. One might raise Cain over it, another only laugh, another send him packing. He didn't want to let a fine young woman like Matilda slip if he could help it, by dad he didn't! But he felt he must either win her by fair dealing or not at all. And having got the load off his chest, the old colonist swallowed hard, and ran the back of his hand over his forehead.
He had kept his eyes glued to the table-leg in speaking, and so saw neither his hearer's involuntary start at the damaging disclosure, nor the nervous tightening of the hand that lay along the arm of the chair. Mahony sat silent, balancing a paper-knife, and fighting down a feeling of extraordinary discomfort—his very finger-tips curled under the strain. It was of little use to remind himself that, ever since he had known him, Ocock had led a decent, God-fearing life, respected both in his business relations and by his brethren of the chapel. Nor could he spare more than a glance in passing for those odd traits in the old man's character which were now explained: his itch for public approval; his unvarying harshness towards the pair of incorrigibles who weighed him down. At this moment he discounted even the integrity that had prompted the confession. His attitude of mind was one of: why the deuce couldn't the old fool have held his tongue?
Oh, these unbidden, injudicious confidences! How they complicated life! And as a doctor he was pestered with only too many; he was continually being forced to see behind the scenes. Now, outsiders, too, must needs choose him for the storehouse of their privacies. Himself he never made a confidence; but it seemed as though just this buttoned-upness on his part loosened people's tongues. Blind to the flags of warning he hoisted in looks and bearing, they innocently proceeded, as Ocock had done, to throw up insurmountable barriers. He could hear a new tone in his own voice when he replied, and was relieved to know the old man dull of perception. For now Ocock had finished speaking, and sat perspiring with anxiety to learn his fate. Mahony pulled himself together; he could, in good faith, tender the advice to let the dead past bury its dead. Whatever the original fault had been—no, no, please! ... and he raised an arresting hand—it was, he felt sure, long since fully atoned. And Mr. Ocock had said a true word: women were strange creatures. The revelation of his secret might shipwreck his late-found happiness. It also, of course, might not—and personally Mahony did not believe it would; for Ocock's buisness throve like the green bay-tree, and Miss Tilly had been promised a fine two-storeyed house, with bow-windows and a garden, and a carriage-drive up to the door. Again, the admission might be accepted in peace just now, and later on used as a weapon against him. In his, Mahony's, eyes, by far the wisest course would be, to let the grass grow over the whole affair.
And here he rose, abruptly terminating the interview. "You and I, too, sir, if you please, will forget what has passed between us this morning, and never come back on it. How is Tom getting on in the drapery business? Does he like his billet?"
But none the less as he ushered his visitor out, he felt that there was a certain finality about the action. It was—as far as his private feelings were concerned—the old man's moral exit from the scene.
On the doorstep Ocock hoped that nothing that had been said would reach "your dear little lady." "To 'Enry, too, doc., if you'll be so good, mum's the word! 'Enry 'ud never forgive me, nay, or you eether, if it got to 'is 'ears I'd bin an' let the cat outer the bag. An' 'e's got a bit of a down on you as it is, for it 'avin' bin your place I met the future Mrs. O. at."
"My good man!" broke from Mahony—and in this address, which would previously never have crossed his lips, all his sensations of the past hour were summed up. "Has your son Henry the"—he checked himself; "does he suppose I—I or my wife—had anything to do with it?"
He turned back to the surgery hot with annoyance. This, too! Not enough that he must be put out of countenance by indiscreet babbling; he must also get drawn into family squabbles, even be held responsible for them: he who, brooking no interference in his own life, demanded only that those about him should be as intolerant as he.
It all came from Polly's indiscriminate hospitality. His house was never his own. And now they had the prospect of John and his electoral campaign before them. And John's chances of success, and John's stump oratory, and the backstair-work other people were expected to do for him would form the main theme of conversation for many a day to come.
Mrs. Glendinning confirmed old Ocock's words.
She came to talk over the engagement with Polly, and sitting in the parlour cried a little, and was sorry. But then "poor little Agnes" cried so easily nowadays. Richard said her nerves had been shattered by the terrible affair just before Christmas, when Mr. Glendinning had tried first to kill her, and then to cut his own throat.
Agnes said: "But I told Henry quite plainly, darling, that I would not cease my visits to you on that account. It is both wrong and foolish to think you or Dr. Mahony had anything to do with it—and after the doctor was so kind, too, so VERY kind, about getting poor Mr. Glendinning into the asylum. And so you see, dear, Henry and I have had quite a disagreement"; and Agnes cried again at the remembrance. "Of course, I can sympathise with his point of view.... Henry is so ambitious. All the same, dearest, it's not quite so bad—is it?—as he makes out. Matilda is certainly not very COMME IL FAUT—you'll forgive my saying so, love, won't you? But I think she will suit Henry's father in every way. No, the truth is, the old gentleman has made a great deal of money, and we naturally expected it to fall to Henry at his death; no one anticipated his marrying again. Not that Henry really needs the money; he is getting on so well; and I have.... I shall have plenty, too, by and by. But you know, love, what men are."
"Dearest Agnes! ... don't fret about it. Mr. Henry thinks too much of you, I'm sure, to be vexed with you for long. And when he looks at it calmly, he'll see how unfair it is to make us responsible. I'm like you, dear; I can't consider it a misfortune. Tilly is not a lady; but she's a dear, warm-hearted girl and will make the old man a good wife. I only hope though, Agnes, Mr. Henry won't say anything to Richard. Richard is so touchy about things of that sort."
The two women kissed, Polly with feelings of the tenderest affection: the fact that, on behalf of their friendship, Agnes had pitted her will against Mr. Henry's, endeared her to Polly as nothing else could have done.
But when, vigilant as a mother-hen, she sought to prepare her husband for a possible unpleasantness, she found him already informed; and her well-meant words were like a match laid to his suppressed indignation.
"In all my born days I never heard such impudence!"
He turned embarrassingly cool to Tilly. And Tilly, innocent of offence and quite unskilled in deciphering subtleties, put this sudden change of front down to jealousy, because she was going to live in a grander house than he did. For the same reason he had begun to turn up his nose at "Old O.," or she was very much mistaken; and in vain did Polly strive to convince her that she was in error. "I don't know anyone Richard has a higher opinion of!"
But it was a very uncomfortable state of things; and when a message arrived over the electric telegraph announcing the dangerous illness of Mrs. Beamish, distressed though she was by the news, Polly could not help heaving a tiny sigh of relief. For Tilly was summoned back to Melbourne with all speed, if she wished to see her mother alive.
They mingled their tears, Polly on her knees at the packing, Tilly weeping whole-heartedly among the pillows of the bed.
"If it 'ad only been pa now, I shouldn't have felt it half so much," and she blew her nose for the hundredth time. "Pa was always such a rum old stick. But poor ma ... when I THINK how she's toiled and moiled 'er whole life long, to keep things going. She's 'ad all the pains and none of the pleasures; and now, just when I was hoping to be able to give 'er a helping hand, THIS must happen."
The one bright spot in Tilly's grief was that the journey would be made in a private conveyance. Mr. Ocock had bought a smart gig and was driving her down himself; driving past the foundations of the new house, along the seventy odd miles of road, right up to the door of the mean lodging in a Collingwood back street, where the old Beamishes had hidden their heads. "If only she's able to look out of the window and see me dash up in my own turn-out!" said Tilly.
Polly fitted out a substantial luncheon-basket, and was keenest sympathy to the last. But Mahony was a poor dissembler; and his sudden thaw, as he assisted in the farewell preparations, could, Polly feared, have been read aright by a child.
Tilly hugged Polly to her, and gave her kiss after kiss. "I shall NEVER forget 'ow kind you've been, Poll, and all you've done for me. I've had my disappointments 'ere, as you know; but p'raps after all it'll turn out to be for the best. One o' the good sides to it anyhow is that you and me'll be next-door neighbours, so to say, for the rest of our lives. And I'll hope to see something of you, my dear, every blessed day. But you'll not often catch me coming to this house, I can tell you that! For, if you won't mind me saying so, Poll, I think you've got one of the queerest sticks for a husband that ever walked this earth. Blows hot one day and cold the next, for all the world like the wind in spring. And without caring twopence whose corns 'e treads on."—Which, thought Polly, was but a sorry return on Tilly's part for Richard's hospitality. After all, it was his house she had been a guest in.
Such were the wheels within wheels. And thus it came about that, when the question rose of paving the way for John Turnham's candidature, Mahony drew the line at approaching Henry Ocock.
John drove from Melbourne in a drag and four, accompanied by numerous friends and well-wishers. A mile or so out of Ballarat, he was met by a body of supporters headed by a brass band, and escorted in triumph to the George Hotel. Here, the horses having been led away, John at once took the field by mounting the box-seat of the coach and addressing the crowd of idlers that had gathered round to watch the arrival. He got an excellent hearing—so Jerry reported, who was an eye and ear-witness of the scene—and was afterwards borne shoulder-high into the hotel.
With Jerry at his heels, Mahony called at the hotel that evening. He found John entertaining a large impromptu party. The table of the public dining-room was disorderly with the remains of a liberal meal; napkins lay crushed and flung down among plates piled high with empty nutshells; the cloth was wine-stained, and bestrewn with ashes and breadcrumbs, the air heady with the fumes of tobacco. Those of the guests who still lingered at the table had pushed their chairs back or askew, and sat, some a-straddle, some even with their feet on the cloth. John was confabbing with half a dozen black-coats in a corner. Each held a wineglass in his hand from which he sipped, while John, legs apart, did all the talking, every now and then putting out his forefinger to prod one of his hearers on the middle button of the waistcoat. It was some time before he discovered the presence of his relatives; and Mahony had leisure to admire the fashion in which, this corner-talk over, John dispersed himself among the company; drinking with this one and that; glibly answering questions; patting a glum-faced brewer on the back; and simultaneously checking over, with an oily-haired agent, his committee-meetings for the following days. His customary arrogance and pompousness of manner were laid aside. For the nonce, he was a simple man among men.
Then espying them, he hurried over, and rubbing his hands with pleasure said warmly: "My dear Mahony, this is indeed kind! Jerry, my lad, how do, how do? Still growing, I see! We'll make a fine fellow of you yet.— Well, doctor! ... we've every reason, I think, to feel satisfied with the lie of the land."
But here he was snatched from them by an urgent request for a pronouncement—"A quite informal word, sir, if you'll be so good,"—on the vexed question of vote by ballot. And this being a pet theme of John's, and a principle he was ready to defend through thick and thin, he willingly complied.
Mahony had no further talk with him. The speech over—it was a concise and spirited utterance, and, if you were prepared to admit the efficacy of the ballot, convincing enough—Mahony quietly withdrew. He had to see a patient at eleven. Polly, too, would probably be lying awake for news of her brother.
As he threw back his braces and wound up his watch, he felt it incumbent on him to warn her not to pitch her hopes too high. "You mustn't expect, my dear, that your brother's arrival will mean much to us. He is now a public man, and will have little time for small people like ourselves. I'm bound to admit, Polly, I was very favourably impressed by the few words I heard him say," he added.
"Oh, Richard, I'm SO glad!" and Polly, who had been sitting on the edge of the bed, stood on tiptoe to give him a kiss.
As Mahony predicted, John's private feelings went down before the superior interests of his campaign. Three days passed before he found time to pay his sister a visit; and Polly, who had postponed a washing, baked her richest cakes and pastries, and clad Trotty in her Sunday best each day of the three: Polly was putting a good face on the matter, and consoling herself with Jerry's descriptions of John's triumphs. How she wished she could hear some of the speechifying! But Richard would never consent; and electioneering did certainly seem, from what Jerry said, a very rough-and-ready business—nothing for ladies. Hence her delight knew no bounds when John drove up unexpectedly late one afternoon, between a hard day's personal canvassing and another of the innumerable dinners he had to eat his way through. Tossing the reins to the gentleman who sat next him, he jumped out of the wagonette—it was hung with placards of "Vote for Turnham!"—and gave a loud rat-a-tat at the door.
Forgetting in her excitement that this was Ellen's job, Polly opened to him herself, and drew him in. "John! How pleased I am to see you!"
"My dear girl, how are you? God bless me, how you've altered! I should never have known you." He held her at arm's length, to consider her.
"But you haven't changed in the least, John. Except to grow younger.— Richard, here's John at last!—and Trotty, John ... here's Trotty!— Take your thumb out of your mouth, naughty girl!—She's been watching for you all day, John, with her nose to the window." And Polly pushed forward the scarlet, shrinking child.
John's heartiness suffered a distinct check as his eyes lit on Trotty, who stood stiff as a bit of Dresden china in her bunchy starched petticoats. "Come here, Emma, and let me look at you." Taking the fat little chin between thumb and first finger, he turned the child's face up and kept it so, till the red button of a mouth trembled, and the great blue eyes all but ran over. "H'm! Yes ... a notable resemblance to her mother. Ah, time passes, Polly my dear—time passes!" He sighed. —"I hope you mind your aunt, Emma, and are properly grateful to her?"
Abruptly quitting his hold, he swept the parlour with a glance. "A very snug little place you have here, upon my word!"
While Polly, with Trotty pattering after, bustled to the larder, Mahony congratulated his brother-in-law on the more favourable attitude towards his election policy which was becoming evident in the local press. John's persuasive tongue was clearly having its effect, and the hostility he had met with at the outset of his candidature was yielding to more friendly feelings on all sides. John was frankly gratified by the change, and did not hesitate to say so. When the wine arrived they drank to his success, and Polly's delicacies met with their due share of praise. Then, having wiped his mouth on a large silk handkerchief, John disclosed the business object of his call. He wanted specific information about the more influential of their friends and acquaintances; and here he drew a list of names from his pocket-book. Mahony, his chin propped on the flaxen head of the child, whom he nursed, soon fell out of the running for Polly proved far the cleverer at grasping the nature of the information John sought, and at retailing it. And John complimented her on her shrewdness, ticked off names, took notes on what she told him; and when he was not writing sat tapping his thick, carnation-red underlip, and nodding assent. It was arranged that Polly should drive out with him next day to Yarangobilly, by way of Dandaloo; while for the evening after they plotted a card-party, at which John might come to grips with Archdeacon Long. John expected to find the reverend gentleman a hard nut to crack, their views on the subject of a state aid to religion being diametrically opposed. Polly thought a substantial donation to the chancel-fund might smooth things over, while for John to display a personal interest in Mrs. Long's charities would help still more. Then there were the Ococks. The old man could be counted on, she believed; but John might have some difficulty with Mr. Henry—and here she initiated her brother into the domestic differences which had split up the Ocock family, and prevented Richard from approaching the lawyer. John, who was in his most democratic mood, was humorous at the expense of Henry, and declared the latter should rather wish his father joy of coming to such a fine, bouncing young wife in his old age. The best way of getting at Mr. Henry, Polly considered, would be for Mrs Glendinning to give a luncheon or a bushing-party, with the lawyer among the guests: "Then you and I, John, could drive out and join them—either by chance or invitation, as you think best." Polly was heart and soul in the affair.
But business over, she put several straight questions about the boy, little Johnny—Polly still blamed herself for having meekly submitted to the child's removal from her charge—and was not to be fobbed off with evasions. The unfavourable verdict she managed to worm out of John: "Incorrigible, my dear Polly—utterly incorrigible! His masters report him idle, disobedient, a bad influence on the other scholars," she met staunchly with: "Perhaps it has something to do with the school. Why not try another? Johnny had his good qualities; in many ways was quite a lovable child."
For the first time Mahony saw his wife and her eldest brother together and he could not but be struck by Polly's attitude. Greatly as she admired and reverenced John, there was not a particle of obsequiousness in her manner, nor any truckling to his point of view; and she plainly felt nothing of the peculiar sense of discomfort that invariably attacked him, in John's presence. Either she was not conscious of her brother's grossly patronising air, or, aware of it, did not resent it, John having always been so much her superior in age and position. Or was it indeed the truth that John did not try to patronise Polly? That his overbearing nature recognised in hers a certain springy resistance, which was not to be crushed? In other words, that, in a Turnham, Turnham blood met its match.
John re-took his seat in the front of the wagonette, Trotty was lifted up to see the rosettes and streamers adorning the horses, the gentlemen waved their hats, and off they went again at a fine pace, and with a whip-cracking that brought the neighbours to their windows.
Polly had pink cheeks with it all, and even sought to excuse the meagre interest John had shown in his daughter. "Trotty was only a baby in arms when he saw her last. Besides, I think she reminded him too much of her dear mother. For I'm sure, though he doesn't let it be seen, John still feels his loss."
"I wonder!" said Mahony slowly and with a strong downward inflection, as he turned indoors.
On the eve of the polling Polly had the honour of accompanying her brother to a performance at the Theatre Royal. A ticket came for Richard, too; but, as usual, he was at the last moment called out. So Purdy took her on his arm and escorted her—not exactly comfortably; for, said Polly, no one who had not tried it, knew how hard it was to walk arm-in-arm with a lame person, especially if you did not want to hurt his feelings—Purdy took her to the theatre, helped her to unmuffle and to change her boots, and bore her company till her brother arrived. They had seats in the centre of the front row of the dress circle; all eyes were turned on them as they entered; and Polly's appearance was the subject of audible and embarrassing comment.
In every interval John was up and away, to shake a hand here, pass the time of day there; and watching him with affectionate pride, Polly wondered how Richard could ever have termed him "high-handed and difficult." John had the knack, it seemed to her, of getting on with people of every class, and of always finding the right word to say. But as the evening advanced his seat remained empty even while the curtain was up, and she was glad when, between the fourth and fifth acts, her husband at last appeared.
On his way to her Mahony ran into his brother-in-law, and John buttonholed him to discuss with him the prospects of the morrow. As they talked, their eyes rested on Polly's glossy black chignon; on the nape of her white neck; on the beautiful, rounded young shoulders which, in obedience to the fashion, stood right out of her blue silk bodice. Mahony shifted his weight uneasily from one foot to the other. He could not imagine Polly enjoying her exposed position, and disapproved strongly of John having left her. But for all answer to the hint he threw out John said slowly, and with a somewhat unctuous relish: "My sister has turned into a remarkably handsome woman!"—words which sent the lightning-thought through Mahony that, had Polly remained the insignificant little slip of a thing of earlier days, she would not have been asked to fill the prominent place she did this evening.
John sent his adieux and excuses to Polly. He had done what was expected of him, in showing himself at a public entertainment, and a vast mass of correspondence lay unsorted on his desk. So Mahony moved forward alone.
"Oh, Richard, there you are! Oh dear, what you've missed! I never thought there could be such acting." And Polly turned her great dark eyes on her husband; they were moist from the noble sentiments of THE TRUE BRITON.
The day of the election broke, a gusty spring day cut up by stinging hail-showers, which beat like fusillades on the galvanised iron roofs. Between the showers, the sun shone in a gentian-blue sky, against which the little wooden houses showed up crassly white. Ballarat made holiday. Early as Mahony left home, he met a long line of conveyances heading townwards—spring carts, dogcarts, double and single buggies, in some of which, built to seat two only, five or six persons were huddled. These and similar vehicles drew up in rows outside the public-houses, where the lean, long-legged colonial horses stood jerking at their tethers; and they were still there, still jerking, when he passed again toward evening. On a huge poster the "Unicorn" offered to lunch free all those "thinking men" who registered their vote for "the one and only true democrat, the miners' friend and tyrants' foe, John Turnham."
In the hope of avoiding a crush Mahony drove straight to the polling-booth. But already all the loafers and roughs in the place seemed to be congregated round the entrance, after the polite custom of the country to chivy, or boo, or huzza those who went in. In waiting his turn, he had to listen to comments on his dress and person, to put up with vulgar allusions to blue pills and black draughts.
Just as he was getting back into his buggy John rode up, flanked by a bodyguard of friends; John was galloping from booth to booth, to verify progress and put the thumbscrew on wobblers. He beamed—as well he might. He was certain to be one of the two members elected, and quite likely to top the poll by a respectable majority.
For once Mahony did not grumble at his outlying patients; was only too thankful to turn his back on the town. It was pandemonium. Bands of music, one shriller and more discordant than the next, marched up and down the main streets—from the fifes and drums of the Fire Brigade, to the kerosene-tins and penny-whistles of mere determined noise-makers. Straggling processions, with banners that bore the distorted features of one or other of the candidates, made driving difficult; and, to add to the confusion, the schoolchildren were let loose, to overrun the place and fly advertisement balloons round every corner.—And so it went on till far into the night, the dark hours being varied by torchlight processions, fireworks, free fights and orgies of drunkenness.
The results of the polling were promised for two o'clock the following day.
When, something after this hour Mahony reached home, he found Polly and the gentle, ox-eyed Jinny Beamish, who was the present occupant of the spare room, pacing up and down before the house. According to Jerry news might be expected now at any minute. And when he had lunched and changed his coat, Mahony, bitten by the general excitement, made his way down to the junction of Sturt Street and the Flat.
A great crowd blocked the approaches to the hustings. Here were the four candidates, who, in attending the issue, strove to look decently unconcerned. John had struck a quasi-Napoleonic attitude: his right elbow propped in the cup of his left hand, he held his drooped chin between thumb and forefinger, leaving it to his glancing black eyes to reveal how entirely alive he was to the gravity of the moment. Standing on the fringe of the crowd, Mahony listened to the piebald jokes and rude wit with which the people beguiled the interim; and tried to endure with equanimity the jostling, the profane language and offensive odours, by which he was assailed. Half an hour elapsed before the returning officer climbed the ladder at the back of the platform, and came forward to announce the result of the voting: Mr. John Millibank Turnham topped the poll with a majority of four hundred and fifty-two. The crowd, which at sight of the clerk had abruptly ceased its fooling, drowned his further statements in a roar of mingled cheers and boos. The cheers had it; hats were tossed into the air, and loud cries for a speech arose. John's advance to grip the railing led to a fresh outburst, in which the weakening opposition was quashed by the singing of: "When Johnny comes marching home!" and "Cheer, boys, cheer, For home and mother country!"—an incongruity of sentiment that made Mahony smile. And John, having repeatedly bowed his thanks from side to side, joined in and sang with the rest.
The opening of his speech was inaudible to Mahony. Just behind him stood one of his brother-in-law's most arrant opponents, a butcher by trade, and directly John began to hold forth this man produced a cornet-a-piston and started to blow it. In vain did Mahony expostulate: he seemed to have got into a very wasps'-nest of hostility; for the player's friends took up the cudgels and baited him in a language he would have been sorry to imitate, the butcher blaring away unmoved, with the fierce solemnity of face the cornet demands. Mahony lost his temper; his tormentors retaliated; and for a moment it looked as though there would be trouble. Then a number of John's supporters, enraged by the bellowing of the instrument, bore down and forcibly removed the musician and his clique, Mahony along with them.
Having indignantly explained, and shaken coat and collar to rights, he returned to his place on the edge of the crowd. The speaker's deep voice had gone steadily on during the disturbance. Indeed John might have been born to the hustings. Interruptions did not put him out; he was brilliant at repartee; and all the stock gestures of the public speaker came at his call: the pounding of the bowl of one hand with the closed fist of the other; the dramatic wave of the arm with which he plumbed the depths or invited defiance; the jaunty standing-at-ease, arms akimbo; the earnest bend from the waist when he took his hearers into his confidence. At this moment he was gripping the rail of the platform as though he intended to vault it, and asserting: "Our first cry, then, is for men to people the country; our next, for independence, to work out our own salvation. Yes, my friends, the glorious future of this young and prosperous colony, which was once and most auspiciously known as Australia Felix—blest, thrice-blest Australia!—rests with ourselves alone. We who inhabit here can best judge of her requirements, and we refuse to see her hampered in her progress by the shackles of an ancient tradition. What suits our hoary mother-country—God bless and keep her and keep us loyal to her!—is but dry husks for us. England knows nothing of our most pressing needs. I ask you to consider how, previous to 1855, that pretty pair of mandarins, Lord John Russell and Earl Grey, boggled and botched the crucial question of unlocking the lands even yet, gentlemen, the result of their muddling lies heavy on us. And the Land Question, though first in importance, is but one, as you know, of many"—and here John, playing on the tips of five wide-stretched fingers, counted them off. He wound up with a flaming plea for the creation and protection of purely national industries. "For what, I would ask you, is the true meaning of democracy in a country such as ours? What is, for us, the democratic principle? The answer, my friends, is conservatism; yes, I repeat it—conservatism!" ... and thus to a final peroration.