In the braying and hurrahing that followed—the din was heightened by some worthy mounting a barrel to move that "this yere Johnny Turnham" was not a fit person to represent "the constitooency," by the barrel being dragged from under him, and the speaker rolled in the mud; while this went on Mahony stood silent, and he was still standing meditatively pulling his whiskers when a sudden call for a doctor reached his ear. He pushed his way to the front.
How the accident happened no one knew. John had descended from the platform to a verandah, where countless hands were stretched out to shake his. A pile of shutters was leaning against the wall, and in some unexplained fashion these had fallen, striking John a blow that knocked him down. When Mahony got to him he was on his feet again, wiping a drop of blood from his left temple. He looked pale, but pooh-poohed injury or the idea of interfering with his audience's design; and Mahony saw him shouldered and borne off.
That evening there was a lengthy banquet, in which all the notables of the place took part. Mahony's seat was some way off John's; he had to lean forward, did he wish to see his brother-in-law.
Towards eleven o'clock, just as he was wondering if he could slip out unobserved, a hand was laid on his arm. John stood behind him, white to the lips. "Can I have a word with you upstairs?"
Here he confessed to a knife-like pain in his left side; the brunt of the blow, it seemed, had met him slantways between rib and hip. A cursory examination made Mahony look grave.
"You must come back with me, John, and let me see to you properly."
Having expressed the chief guest's regrets to the company, he ordered a horse and trap, and helping John into it drove him home. And that night John lay in their bed, letting out the groans he had suppressed during the evening; while Polly snatched forty winks beside Jinny Beamish, and Mahony got what sleep he could on the parlour sofa.
There for some weeks John was a prisoner, with a fractured rib encased in strips of plaster. "In your element again, old girl!" Mahony chaffed his wife, when he met her bearing invalid trays.
"Oh, it doesn't all fall on me, Richard. Jinny's a great help—sitting with John and keeping him company."
Mahony could see it for himself. Oftenest when he entered the room it was Jinny's black-robed figure—she was in mourning for her parents; for Mrs. Beamish had sunk under the twofold strain of failure and disgrace, and the day after her death it had been necessary to cut old Beamish down from a nail—oftenest it was Jinny he found sitting behind a curtain of the tester-bed, watching while John slept, ready to read to him or to listen to his talk when he awoke. This service set Polly free to devote herself to the extra cooking; and John was content. "A most modest and unassuming young woman," ran his verdict on Jinny.
Polly reported it to her husband in high glee. "Who could ever have believed two sisters would turn out so differently? Tilly to get so ... so ... well, you know what I mean ... and Jinny to improve as she has done. Have you noticed, Richard, she hardly ever—really quite seldom now—drops an h? It must all have been due to Tilly serving in that low bar."
By the time John was so far recovered as to exchange bed for sofa, it had come to be exclusively Jinny who carried in to him the dainties Polly prepared—the wife as usual was content to do the dirty work! John declared Miss Jinny had the foot of a fay; also that his meals tasted best at her hands. Jinny even succeeded in making Trotty fond of her; and the love of the fat, shy child was not readily won. Entering the parlour one evening Mahony surprised quite a family scene: John, stretched on the sofa, was stringing cats'-cradles, Jinny sat beside him with Trotty on her knee.
On the whole, though, the child did not warm to her father.
"Aunty, kin dat man take me away f'om you?"
"That man? Why, Trotty darling, he's your father!" said Polly, shocked.
"Kin 'e take me away f'om you and Uncle Papa?"
"He could if he wanted to. But I'm sure he doesn't," answered her aunt, deftly turning a well-rolled sheet of pastry.
And righting her dolly, which she had been dragging upside down, Trotty let slip her fears with the sovereign ease of childhood.
From the kitchen Polly could hear the boom of John's deep bass: it made nothing of the lath-and-plaster walls. Of course, shut up as he was, he had to talk to somebody, poor fellow; and Richard was too busy to spare him more than half an hour of an evening. Jinny was a good listener. Through the crack of the door, Polly could see her sitting humbly drinking in John's words, and even looking rather pretty, in her fair, full womanliness.
"Oh, Polly!" she burst out one day, after being held thus spellbound. "Oh, my dear, what a splendid man your brother is! I feel sometimes I could sink through the floor with shame at my ignorance, when 'e talks to me so."
But as time went on Mahony noticed that his wife grew decidedly thoughtful; and if John continued to sing Jinny's praises, he heard nothing more of it. He had an acute suspicion what troubled Polly; but did not try to force her confidence.
Then one afternoon, on his getting home, she came into the surgery looking very perturbed, and could hardly find words to break a certain piece of news to him. It appeared that not an hour previously, Jinny, flushed and tearful, had lain on her neck, confessing her feelings for John and hinting at the belief that they were returned.
"Well, I think you might have been prepared for something of this sort, Polly," he said with a shrug, when he had heard her out. "Convalescence is notoriously dangerous for fanning the affections."
"Oh, but I never DREAMT of such a thing, Richard! Jinny is a dear good girl and all that, but she is NOT John's equal. And that he can even THINK of putting her in poor Emma's place!—What shall I say to him?"
"Say nothing at all. Your brother John is not the man to put up with interference."
"He longs so for a real home again, Polly darling," said Jinny, wiping her eyes. "And HOW 'appy it will make me to fulfil 'is wish! Don't let me feel unwelcome and an intruder, dear. I know I'm not nearly good enough for 'im, and 'e could 'ave had the choice of ever such handsome women. But 'e 'as promised to be patient with me, and to teach me everything I ought to know."
Polly's dismay at the turn of events yielded to a womanly sympathy with her friend. "It's just like poor little Agnes and Mr. Henry over again," was her private thought. For she could not picture John stooping to guide and instruct.
But she had been touched on a tender spot—that of ambitious pride for those related to her—and she made what Mahony called "a real Turnham attempt" to stand up to John. Against her husband's express advice.
"For if your brother chooses to contract a mesalliance of this kind, it's nobody's business but his own. Upon my word though, Polly, if you don't take care, this house will get a bad name over the matches that are made in it. You had better have your spare room boarded up, my dear."
Mahony was feeling particularly rasped by John's hoity-toity behaviour in this connection. Having been nursed back to health, John went about with his chin in the air, and hardly condescended to allude to his engagement—let alone talk it over with his relatives. So Mahony retired into himself—after all, the world of John's mind was so dissimilar to his own that he did not even care to know what went on in it. "The fellow has been caught on the hop by a buxom form and a languishing eye," was how he dismissed the matter in thought.
"I raise my wife to my own station, Mary. And you will greatly oblige me by showing Jane every possible attention," was the only satisfaction Polly could get from John, made in his driest tone.
Before the engagement was a week old Tilly reappeared—she was to be married from their house on the hither side of Christmas. At first she was too full of herself and her own affairs to let either Polly or Jinny get a word in. Just to think of it! That old cabbage-grower, Devine, had gone and bought the block of land next the one Mr. O. was building on. She'd lay a bet he would put up a house the dead spit of theirs. Did ever anyone hear such cheek?
At the news that was broken to her, the first time she paused for breath, she let herself heavily down on a chair.
"Well, I'm blowed!" was all she could ejaculate. "Blowed!... that's what I am."
But afterwards, when Jinny had left the room, she gave free play to a very real envy and regret. "In all my life I never did! Jinn to be Mrs. John! ... and, as like as not, the Honourable Mrs. John before she's done. Oh, Polly, my dear, why EVER didn't I wait!"
On being presented to John, however, she became more reconciled to her lot. "'E's got a temper, your brother has, or I'm very much mistaken. It won't be all beer and skittles for 'er ladyship. For Jinn hasn't a scrap of spunk in 'er, Polly. She got so mopey the last year or two, there was no doing anything with 'er. Now it was just the other way round with me. No matter how black things looked, I always kept my pecker up. Poor ma used to say I grew more like her, every day."
And at a still later date: "No, Polly, my dear, I wouldn't change places with the future Mrs. T. after all, thank you—not for Joseph! I SAY! she'll need to mind her p's and q's." For Tilly had listened to John explaining to Jinny what he expected of her, what she might and might not do; and had watched Jinny sitting meekly by and saying yes to everything.
There was nothing in the way of the marriage; indeed, did it not take place immediately, Jinny would have to look about her for a situation of some kind; and, said John, that was nothing for HIS wife. His house stood empty; he was very much in love; and pressed for the naming of the day. So it was decided that Polly should accompany Jinny to lodgings in Melbourne, help her choose her trousseau and engage servants. Afterwards there would be a quiet wedding—by reason of Jinny's mourning—at which Richard, if he could possibly contrive to leave his patients, would give the bride away. Polly was to remain in John's house while the happy couple were on honeymoon, to look after the servants. This arrangement would also make the break less hard for the child. Trotty was still blissfully unconscious of what had befallen her. She had learnt to say "new mamma" parrot-wise, without understanding what the words meant. And meanwhile, the fact that she was to go with her aunt for a long, exciting coach-ride filled her childish cup with happiness. As Polly packed the little clothes, she thought of the night, six years before, when the fat, sleeping babe had been laid in her arms.
"Of course it's only natural John should want his family round him again. But I SHALL miss the dear little soul," she said to her husband who stood watching her.
"What you need is a little one of your own, wife."
"Ah, don't I wish I had!" said Polly, and drew a sigh. "That would make up for everything. Still if it can't be, it can't."
A few days before the set time John received an urgent summons to Melbourne, and went on ahead, leaving Mahony suspecting him of a dodge to avoid travelling EN FAMILLE. In order that his bride-elect should not be put to inconvenience, John hired four seats for the three of them; but: "He might just as well have saved his money," thought Polly, when she saw the coach. Despite their protests they were packed like herrings in a barrel—had hardly enough room to use their hands. Altogether it was a trying journey. Jinny, worked on by excitement and fatigue, took a fit of hysterics; Trotty, frightened by the many rough strangers, cried and had to be nursed; and the whole burden of the undertaking lay on Polly's shoulders. She had felt rather timid about it, before starting; but was obliged to confess she got on better than she expected. A kind old man sitting opposite, for instance—a splitter he said he was—actually undid Jinny's bonnet-strings, and fetched water for her at the first stoppage.
Polly had not been in Melbourne since the year after her marriage, and was looking forward intensely to the visit. She went laden with commissions; her lady-friends gave her a list as long as her arm. Richard, too, had entrusted her to get him second-hand editions of various medical works, as well as a new stethoscope. Thirdly, she had promised old Mr. Ocock to go to William's Town to meet Miss Amelia, who even now was tossing somewhere on the Indian Ocean, and to escort the poor young lady up to Ballarat.
Having seen them start, Mahony went home to drink his coffee and read his paper in a quiet that was new to him. John's departure had already eased the strain. Then Tilly had been boarded out at the Methodist minister's. Now, with the exit of Polly and her charges, a great peace descended on the little house. The rooms lay white and still in the sun, and though all doors stood open, there was not a sound to be heard but the buzzing of the blowflies round the sweets of the flytraps. He was free to look as glum as he chose of a morning if he had neuralgia; or to be silent when worried over a troublesome case. No longer would Miss Tilly's bulky presence and loud-voiced reiterations of her prospects grate his nerves; or John's full-blooded absorption in himself, and poor foolish Jinny's quavering doubts whether she would ever be able to live up to so magnificent a husband, offend his sense of decorum.
Another reason he was glad to see the last of them was that, in the long run, he had rebelled at the barefaced way they made use of Polly, and took advantage of her good nature. She had not only cooked for them and waited on them; he had even caught her stitching garments for the helpless Jinny. This was too much: such extreme obligingness on his wife's part seemed to detract from her personal dignity. He could never though have got Polly to see it. Undignified to do a kindness? What a funny, selfish idea! The fact was, there was a certain streak in Polly's nature that made her more akin to all these good people than to him—him with his unsociable leanings towards a hermit's cell; his genuine need of an occasional hour's privacy and silence, in which to think a few thoughts through to the end.
On coming in from his rounds he turned out an old linen jacket that belonged to his bachelor days, and raked up some books he had not opened for an almost equally long time. He also steered clear of friends and acquaintances, went nowhere, saw no one but his patients. And Ellen, to whose cookery Polly had left him with many misgivings, took things easy. "He's so busy reading, he never knows what he puts in his mouth. I believe he'd eat his boot-soles, if I fried 'em up neat wid a bit of parsley," she reported over the back fence on Doctor's odd ways.
During the winter months the practice had as usual fallen off. By now it was generally beginning to look up again; but this year, for some reason, the slackness persisted. He saw how lean his purse was, whenever he had to take a banknote from it to enclose to Polly; there was literally nothing doing, no money coming in. Then, he would restlessly lay his book aside, and drawing a slip of paper to him set to reckoning and dividing. Not for the first time he found himself in the doctor's awkward quandary: how to be decently and humanly glad of a rise in the health-rate.
He had often regretted having held to the half-hundred shares he had bought at Henry Ocock's suggestion; had often spent in fancy the sum they would have brought in, had he sold when they touched their highest figure. Such a chance would hardly come his way again. After the one fictitious flare-up, "Porepunkahs" had fallen heavily—the first main prospect-drive, at a depth of three hundred and fifty feet, had failed to strike the gutter—and nowadays they were not even quoted. Thus had ended his single attempt to take a hand in the great game.
One morning he sat at breakfast, and thought over his weekly epistle to Polly. In general, this chronicled items of merely personal interest. The house had not yet been burnt down—her constant fear, when absent; another doctor had got the Asylum; he himself stood a chance of being elected to the Committee of the District Hospital. To-day, however, there was more to tell. The English mail had come in, and the table was strewn with foreign envelopes and journals. Besides the usual letters from relatives, one in a queer, illiterate hand had reached him, the address scrawled in purple ink on the cheapest note-paper. Opening it with some curiosity, Mahony found that it was from his former assistant, Long Jim.
The old man wrote in a dismal strain. Everything had gone against him. His wife had died, he was out of work and penniless, and racked with rheumatism—oh, it was "a crewl climat"! Did he stop in England, only "the house" remained to him; he'd end in a pauper's grave. But he believed if he could get back to a scrap of warmth and the sun, he'd be good for some years yet. Now he'd always known Dr. Mahony for the kindest, most liberal of gentlemen; the happiest days of his life had been spent under him, on the Flat; and if he'd only give him a lift now, there was nothing he wouldn't do to show his gratitude. Doctor knew a bit about him, too. Here, he couldn't seem to get on with folk at all. They looked crooked at him, and just because he'd once been spunky enough to try his luck overseas. Mahony pshawed and smiled; then wondered what Polly would say to this letter. She it was who had been responsible for packing the old man off.
Unfolding the STAR, he ran his eye over its columns. He had garnered the chief local news and was skimming the mining intelligence, when he suddenly stopped short with an exclamation of surprise; and his grip on the paper tightened. There it stood, black on white. "Porepunkahs" had jumped to three pounds per share! What the dickens did that mean? He turned back to the front sheet, to find if any clue to the claim's renewed activity had escaped him; but sought in vain. So bolting the rest of his breakfast, he hurried down to the town, to see if, on the spot, he could pick up information with regard to the mysterious rise.
The next few days kept him in a twitter of excitement. "Porepunkahs" went on advancing—not by leaps and bounds as before, but slowly and steadily—and threw off a dividend. He got into bed at night with a hot head, from wondering whether he ought to hold on or sell out; and inside a week he was off to consult the one person who was in a position to advise him. Henry Ocock's greeting resembled an embrace—"It evidently means a fortune for him"—and all trifling personal differences were forgotten in the wider common bond. The lawyer virtually ordered Mahony to "sit in", till he gave the word. By this time "Porepunkahs" had passed their previous limit, and even paid a bonus: it was now an open secret that a drive undertaken in an opposite direction to the first had proved successful; the lead was scored and seamed with gold. Ocock spoke of the stone, specimens of which he had held in his hand—declared he had never seen its equal.
But when the shares stood at fifty-three pounds each, Mahony could restrain himself no longer; and, in spite of Ocock's belief that another ten days would see a COUP, he parted with forty-five of the half hundred he held. Leaving the odd money with the lawyer for re-investment, he walked out of the office the possessor of two thousand pounds.
It was only a very ordinary late spring day; the season brought its like by the score: a pale azure sky, against which the distant hills looked purple; above these a narrow belt of cloud, touched, in its curves, to the same hue. But to Mahony it seemed as if such a perfect day had never dawned since he first set foot in Australia. His back was eased of its burden; and, like Christian on having passed the wall known as Salvation, he could have wept tears of joy. After all these years of pinching and sparing he was out of poverty's grip. The suddenness of the thing was what staggered him. He might have drudged till his hair was grey; it was unlikely he would ever, at one stroke, have come into possession of a sum like this.—And that whole day he went about feeling a little more than human, and seeing people, places, things, through a kind of beatific mist. Now, thank God, he could stand on his own legs again; could relieve John of his bond, pay off the mortgage on the house, insure his life before it was too late. And, everything done, he would still have over a thousand pounds to his credit. A thousand pounds! No longer need he thankfully accept any and every call; or reckon sourly that, if the leakage on the roof was to be mended, he must go without a new surtout. Best of all, he could now begin in earnest to save.
First, though, he allowed himself two very special pleasures. He sent Polly a message on the electric telegraph to say that he would come down himself to fetch her home. In secret he planned a little trip to Schnapper Point. At the time of John's wedding he had been unable to get free; this would be the first holiday he and Polly had ever had together.
The second thing he did was: to indulge the love of giving that was innate in him; and of giving in a somewhat lordly way. He enjoyed the broad grin that illumined Ellen's face at his unlooked-for generosity; Jerry's red stammered thanks for the gift of the cob the boy had long coveted. It did him good to put two ten-pound notes in an envelope and inscribe Ned's name on it; he had never yet been able to do anything for these poor lads. He also, without waiting to consult Polly—fearing, indeed, that she might advise against it—sent off the money to Long Jim for the outward voyage, and a few pounds over. For there were superstitious depths in him; and, at this turn in his fortunes, it would surely be of ill omen to refuse the first appeal for help that reached him.
Polly was so much a part of himself that he thought of her last of all. But then it was with moist eyes. She, who had never complained, should of a surety not come short! And he dropped asleep that night to the happy refrain: "Now she shall have her piano, God bless her! ... the best that money can buy."
The new house stood in Webster Street. It was twice as large as the old one, had a garden back and front, a verandah round three sides. When Mahony bought it, and the piece of ground it stood on, it was an unpretentious weather-board in a rather dilapidated condition. The situation was good though—without being too far from his former address—and there was stabling for a pair of horses. And by the time he had finished with it, it was one of those characteristically Australian houses which, added to wherever feasible, without a thought for symmetry or design—a room built on here, a covered passage there, a bathroom thrown out in an unexpected corner, with odd steps up and down—have yet a spacious, straggling comfort all their own.
How glad he was to leave the tiny, sunbaked box that till now had been his home. It had had neither blind nor shutter; and, on his entering it of a summer midday, it had sometimes struck hotter than outside. The windows of his new room were fitted with green venetians; round the verandah-posts twined respectively a banksia and a Japanese honey-suckle, which further damped the glare; while on the patch of buffalo-grass in front stood a spreading fig-tree, that leafed well and threw a fine shade. He had also added a sofa to his equipment. Now, when he came in tired or with a headache, he could stretch himself at full length. He was lying on it at this moment.
Polly, too, had reason to feel satisfied with the change. A handsome little Broadwood, with a ruby-silk and carved-wood front, stood against the wall of her drawing-room; gilt cornices surmounted the windows; and from the centre of the ceiling hung a lustre-chandelier that was the envy of every one who saw it: Mrs. Henry Ocock's was not a patch on it, and yet had cost more. This time Mahony had virtually been able to give his wife a free hand in her furnishing. And in her new spare room she could put up no less than three guests!
Of course, these luxuries had not all rained on them at once. Several months passed before Polly, on the threshold of her parlour, could exclaim, with an artlessness that touched her husband deeply: "Never in my life did I think I should have such a beautiful room!" Still, as regarded money, the whole year had been a steady ascent. The nest-egg he had left with the lawyer had served its purpose of chaining that old hen, Fortune, to the spot. Ocock had invested and re-invested on his behalf—now it was twenty "Koh-i-noors," now thirty "Consolidated Beehives"—and Mahony was continually being agreeably surprised by the margins it threw off in its metamorphoses. That came of his having placed the matter in such competent hands. The lawyer had, for instance, got him finally out of "Porepunkahs" in the nick of time—the reef had not proved as open to the day as was expected—and pulled him off, in the process, another three hundred odd. Compared with Ocock's own takings, of course, his was a modest spoil; the lawyer had made a fortune, and was now one of the wealthiest men in Ballarat. He had built not only new and handsome offices on the crest of the hill, but also, prior to his marriage, a fine dwelling-house standing in extensive grounds on the farther side of Yuille's Swamp. Altogether it had been a year of great and sweeping changes. People had gone up, gone down—had changed places like children at a game of General Post. More than one of Mahony's acquaintances had burnt his fingers. On the other hand, old Devine, Polly's one-time market-gardener, had made his thousands. There was actually talk of his standing for Parliament, in which case his wife bid fair to be received at Government House. And the pair of them with hardly an "h" between them!
From the sofa where he lay, Mahony could hear the murmur of his wife's even voice. Polly sat the further end of the verandah talking to Jinny, who dandled her babe in a rocking-chair that made a light tip-tap as it went to and fro. Jinny said nothing: she was no doubt sunk in adoration of her—or rather John's—infant; and Mahony all but dozed off, under the full, round tones he knew so well.
In his case the saying had once more been verified: to him that hath shall be given. Whether it was due to the better position of the new house; or to the fact that easier circumstances gave people more leisure to think of their ailments; or merely that money attracted money: whatever the cause, his practice had of late made giant strides. He was in demand for consultations; sat on several committees; while a couple of lodges had come his way as good as unsought.
Against this he had one piece of ill-luck to set. At the close of the summer, when the hot winds were in blast, he had gone down under the worst attack of dysentery he had had since the early days. He really thought this time all was over with him. For six weeks, in spite of the tenderest nursing, he had lain prostrate, and as soon as he could bear the journey had to prescribe himself a change to the seaside. The bracing air of Queenscliff soon picked him up; he had, thank God, a marvellous faculty of recuperation: while others were still not done pitying him, he was himself again, and well enough to take the daily plunge in the Sea that was one of his dearest pleasures.—To feel the warm, stinging fluid lap him round, after all these drewthy years of dust and heat! He could not have enough of it, and stayed so long in the water that his wife, sitting at a decent distance from the Bathing Enclosure, grew anxious, and agitated her little white parasol.
"There's nothing to equal it, Mary, this side Heaven!" he declared as he rejoined her, his towel about his neck. "I wish I could persuade you to try a dip, my dear."
But Mary preferred to sit quietly on the beach. "The dressing and undressing is such a trouble," said she. As it was, one of her elastic-sides was full of sand.
Yes, Polly was Mary now, and had been, since the day Ned turned up again on Ballarat, accompanied by a wife and child. Mary was in Melbourne at the time, at John's nuptials; Mahony had opened the door himself to Ned's knock; and there, in a spring-cart, sat the frowsy, red-haired woman who was come to steal his wife's name from her. This invasion was the direct result of his impulsive generosity. Had he only kept his money in his pocket!
He had been forced to take the trio in and give them house-room. But he bore the storming of his hard-won privacy with a bad grace, and Mary had much to gloss over on her return.
She had been greatly distressed by her favourite brother's ill-considered marriage. For, if they had not held Jinny to be John's equal, what WAS to be said of Ned's choice? Mrs. Ned had lived among the mining population of Castlemaine, where her father kept a public-house; and, said Richard, her manners were accordingly: loud, slap-dash, familiar—before she had been twenty-four hours under his roof she was bluntly addressing him as "Mahony." There was also a peculiar streak of touchiness in her nature ("Goes with hair of that colour, my dear!") which rendered her extremely hard to deal with. She had, it seemed, opposed the idea of moving to Ballarat—that was all in her favour, said Mary—and came primed to detect a snub or a slight at every turn. This morbid suspiciousness it was that led Mary to yield her rights in the matter of the name: the confusion between them was never-ending; and, at the first hint that the change would come gracefully from her, Mrs. Ned had flown into a passion.
"It's all the same to me, Richard, what I'm called," Mary soothed him. "And don't you think Polly was beginning to sound RATHER childish, now I'm nearly twenty-four?"
But: "Oh, what COULD Ned have seen in her?" she sighed to herself dismayed. For Mrs. Ned was at least ten years older than her husband; and whatever affection might originally have existed between them was now a thing of the past She tyrannised mercilessly over him, nagging at him till Ned, who was nothing if not good-natured, turned sullen and left off tossing his child in the air.
"We must just make the best of it, Richard," said Mary. "After all, she's really fond of the baby. And when the second comes... you'll attend her yourself, won't you, dear? I think somehow her temper may improve when that's over."
For this was another thing: Mrs. Ned had arrived there in a condition that raised distressing doubts in Mary as to the dates of Ned's marriage and the birth of his first child. She did not breathe them to Richard; for it seemed to her only to make matters of this kind worse, openly to speak of them. She devoted herself to getting the little family under a roof of its own. Through Richard's influence Ned obtained a clerkship in a carrying-agency, which would just keep his head above water; and she found a tiny, three-roomed house that was near enough to let her be daily with her sister-in-law when the latter's time came. Meanwhile, she cut out and helped to sew a complete little outfit ("What she had before was no better than rags!"); and Mrs. Ned soon learned to know on whom she could lean and to whom she might turn, not only for practical aid, but also for a never failing sympathy in what she called her "troubles."
"I vow your Mary's the kindest-hearted little soul it's ever been me luck to run across," she averred one day to Mahony, who was visiting her professionally. "So common-sense, too—no nonsense about HER! I shouldn't have thought a gaby like Ned could have sported such trump of a sister."
"Another pensioner for your CARITAS, dear," said Mahony, in passing on the verdict. What he did not grieve his wife by repeating were certain bad reports of Ned lately brought him by Jerry. According to Jerry—and the boy's word was to be relied on—Ned had kept loose company in Castlemaine, and had acquired the habit of taking more than was good for him. Did he not speedily amend his ways, there would be small chance of him remaining in his present post.
Here, Mahony was effectually roused by a stir on the verandah. Jinny had entered the house to lay down her sleeping babe, and a third voice, Purdy's, became audible. The wife had evidently brought out a bottle of her famous home-brewed gingerbeer: he heard the cork pop, the drip of the overflow on the boards, the clink of the empty glass; and Purdy's warm words of appreciation.
Then there was silence. Rising from the sofa, Mahony inserted himself between blind and window, and peeped out.
His first thought was: what a picture! Mary wore a pale pink cotton gown which, over the light swellings of her crinoline, bulged and billowed round her, and generously swept the ground. Collar and cuffs of spotless lawn outlined neck and wrists. She bent low over her stitching, and the straight white parting of her hair intensified the ebony of the glossy bands. Her broad pure forehead had neither line nor stain. On the trellis behind her a vine hung laden with massy bunches of muscatelles.
Purdy sat on the edge of the verandah, with his back to Mahony. Between thumb and forefinger he idly swung a pair of scissors.
Urged by some occult sympathy, Mary at once glanced up and discovered her husband. Her face was lightly flushed from stooping—and the least touch of colour was enough to give its delicate ivory an appearance of vivid health. She had grown fuller of late—quite fat, said Richard, when he wished to tease her: a luxuriant young womanliness lay over and about her. Now, above the pale wild-rose of her cheeks her black eyes danced with a mischievous glee; for she believed her husband intended swinging his leg noiselessly over the sill and creeping up to startle Purdy—and this appealed to her sense of humour. But, as he remained standing at the window, she just smiled slyly, satisfied to be in communion with him over their unsuspecting friend's head.
Here, however, Purdy brought his eyes back from the garden, and she abruptly dropped hers to her needlework.
The scissors were shut with a snap, and thrown, rather than laid, to the other implements in the workbox. "One 'ud think you were paid to finish that wretched sewing in a fixed time, Polly," said Purdy cantankerously. "Haven't you got a word to say?"
"It's for the Dorcas Society. They're having a sale of work."
"Oh, damn Dorcases! You're always slaving for somebody. You'll ruin your eyes. I wonder Dick allows it. I shouldn't—I know that."
The peal of laughter that greeted these words came equally from husband and wife. Then: "What the dickens does it matter to you, sir, how much sewing my wife chooses to do?" cried Mahony, and, still laughing, stepped out of the window.
"Hello!—you there?" said Purdy and rose to his feet. "What a beastly fright to give one!" He looked red and sulky.
"I scored that time, my boy!" and linking his arm in Mary's, Mahony confronted his friend. "Afraid I'm neglecting my duties, are you? Letting this young woman spoil her eyes?—Turn 'em on him, my love, in all their splendour, that he may judge for himself."
"Nonsense, Richard," said Mary softly, but with an affectionate squeeze of his arm.
"Well, ta-ta, I'm off!" said Purdy. And as Mahony still continued to quiz him, he added in a downright surly tone: "Just the same old Dick as ever! Blinder than any bat to all that doesn't concern yourself! I'll eat my hat if it's ever entered your noddle that Polly's quite the prettiest woman on Ballarat."
"Don't listen to him, Richard, please!" and: "Don't let your head be turned by such fulsome flattery, my dear!" were wife and husband's simultaneous exclamations.
"I shouldn't think so," said Mary sturdily, and would have added more, but just at this minute Jinny came out of the house, with the peculiar noiseless tread she had acquired in moving round an infant's crib; and Purdy vanished.
Jinny gazed at her sister-in-law with such meaning—that Mary could not but respond.
"Did you get her safely laid down, dear?"
"Perfectly, Mary! Without even the quiver of an eyelash. You recollect, I told you yesterday when her little head touched the pillow, she opened her eyes and looked at me. To-day there was nothing of that sort. It was quite perfect"; and Jinny's voice thrilled at the remembrance: it was as if, in continuing to sleep during the transit, her—or rather John's—tiny daughter had proved herself a marvellous sagacity.
Mahony gave an impatient shrug in Jinny's direction. But he, too, had to stand fire: she had been waiting all day for a word with him. The babe, who was teething, was plagued by various disorders; and Jinny knew each fresh pin's-head of a spot that joined the rash.
Mahony made light of her fears; then turning to his wife asked her to hurry on the six-o'clock dinner: he had to see a patient between that meal and tea. Mary went to make arrangements—Richard always forgot to mention such things till the last moment—and also to please Jinny by paying a visit to the baby.
"The angels can't look very different when they sleep, I think," murmured its mother, hanging over the couch.
When Mary returned, she found her husband picking caterpillars off the vine: Long Jim, odd man now about house and garden, was not industrious enough to keep the pests under. In this brief spell of leisure—such moments grew ever rarer in Richard's life—husband and wife locked their arms and paced slowly up and down the verandah. It was late afternoon on a breathless, pale-skied February day; and the boards of the flooring gritted with sandy dust beneath their feet.
"He WAS grumpy this afternoon, wasn't he?" said Mary, without preamble. "But I've noticed once or twice lately that he can't take a joke any more. He's grown queer altogether. Do you know he's the only person who still persists in calling me by my old name? He was quite rude about it when I asked him why. Perhaps he's liverish, from the heat. It might be a good thing, dear, if you went round and overhauled him. Somehow, it seems unnatural for Purdy to be bad-tempered."
"It's true he may be a bit out of sorts. But I fear the evil's deeper-seated. It's my opinion the boy is tiring of regular work. Now that he hasn't even the excitement of the gold-escort to look forward to.... And he's been a rolling stone from the beginning, you know."
"If only he would marry and settle down! I do wish I could find a wife for him. The right woman could make anything of Purdy"; and yet once more Mary fruitlessly scanned, in thought, the lists of her acquaintance.
"What if it's a case of sour grapes, love? Since the prettiest woman on Ballarat is no longer free...."
"Oh, Richard, hush! Such foolish talk!"
"But is it? ... let me look at her. Well, if not the prettiest, at least a very pretty person indeed. It certainly becomes you to be stouter, wife."
But Mary had not an atom of vanity in her. "Speaking of prettiness reminds me of something that happened at the Races last week—I forgot to tell you, at the time. There were two gentlemen there from Melbourne; and as Agnes Ocock went past, one of them said out loud: 'Gad! That's a lovely woman.' Agnes heard it herself, and was most distressed. And the whole day, wherever she went, they kept their field-glasses on her. Mr. Henry was furious."
"If you'll allow me to say so, my dear, Mrs. Henry cannot hold a candle to some one I know—to my mind, at least."
"If I suit you, Richard, that's all I care about."
"Well, to come back to what we were saying. My advice is, give Master Purdy a taste of the cold shoulder the next time he comes hanging about the house. Let him see his ill-temper didn't pass unnoticed. There's no excuse for it. God bless me! doesn't he sleep the whole night through in his bed?"—and Mahony's tone took on an edge. The broken nights that were nowadays the rule with himself were the main drawbacks to his prosperity. He had never been a really good sleeper; and, in consequence, was one of those people who feel an intense need for sleep, and suffer under its curtailment. As things stood at present his rest was wholly at the mercy of the night-bell—a remorseless instrument, given chiefly to pealing just as he had managed to drop off. Its gentlest tinkle was enough to rouse him—long before it had succeeded in penetrating the ears of the groom, who was supposed to open. And when it remained silent for a night, some trifling noise in the road would simulate its jangle in his dreams. "It's a wonder I have any nerves left," he grumbled, as the hot, red dawns crept in at the sides of the bedroom-window. For the shortening of his sleep at one end did not mean that he could make it up at the other. All that summer he had fallen into the habit of waking at five o'clock, and not being able to doze off again. The narrowest bar of light on the ceiling, the earliest twitter of the sparrows was enough to strike him into full consciousness; and Mary was hard put to it to darken the room and ensure silence; and would be till the day came when he could knock off work and take a thorough holiday. This he promised himself to do, before he was very much older.
Mary sat with pencil and paper and wrinkled her brows. She was composing a list, and every now and then, after an inward calculation, she lowered the pencil to note such items as: three tipsy-cakes, four trifles, eight jam-sandwiches. John Turnham had run up from Melbourne to fetch home wife and child; and his relatives were giving a musical card-party in his honour. By the window Jinny sat on a low ottoman suckling her babe, and paying but scant heed to her sister-in-law's deliberations: to her it seemed a much more important matter that the milk should flow smoothly down the precious little throat, than that Mary's supper should be a complete success. With her free hand she imprisoned the two little feet, working one against the other in slow enjoyment; or followed the warm little limbs up inside the swaddling, after the fashion of nursing mothers.
The two women were in the spare bedroom, which was dusk and cool and dimity-white; and they exchanged remarks in a whisper; for the lids had come down more than once on the big black eyes, and now only lifted automatically from time to time, to send a last look of utter satiation at the mother-face. Mary always said: "She'll drop off sooner indoors, dear." But this was not the whole truth. Richard had hinted that he considered the seclusion of the house better suited to the business of nursing than the comparative publicity of the verandah; for Jinny was too absorbed in her task to take thought for the proprieties. Here now she sat—she had grown very big and full since her marriage in the generous, wide-lapped pose of some old Madonna.
Mary, thrown entirely on her own judgment, was just saying with decision: "Well, better to err on the right side and have too much than too little," and altering a four into a five, when steps came down the passage and John entered the room. Jinny made him a sign, and John, now Commissioner of Trade and Customs, advanced as lightly as could be expected of a heavy, well-grown man.
"Does she sleep?" he asked.
His eyes had flown to the child; only in the second place did they rest on his wife. At the sight of her free and easy bearing his face changed, and he said stiffly: "I think, Jane, a little less exposure of your person, my dear...."
Flushing to her hair-roots, Jinny began as hastily as she dared to re-arrange her dress.
Mary broke a lance on her behalf. "We were quite alone, John," she reminded her brother. "Not expecting a visit from you." And added: "Richard says it is high time Baby was weaned. Jinny is feeling the strain."
"As long as this rash continues I shall not permit it," answered John, riding rough-shod over even Richard's opinion. ("I shouldn't agree to it either, John dear," murmured Jinny.) "And now, Mary, a word with you about the elder children. I understand that you are prepared to take Emma back—is that so?"
Yes, Mary was pleased to say Richard had consented to Trotty's return; but he would not hear of her undertaking Johnny. At eleven years of age the proper place for a boy, he said, was a Grammar School. With Trotty, of course, it was different. "I always found her easy to manage, and should be more than glad to have her"; and Mary meant what she said. Her heart ached for John's motherless children. Jinny's interest in them had lasted only so long as she had none of her own; and Mary, who being childless had kept a large heart for all little ones, marvelled at the firm determination to get rid of her stepchildren which her sister-in-law, otherwise so pliable, displayed.
Brother and sister talked things over, intuitively meeting half-way, understanding each other with a word, as only blood relations can. Jinny, the chief person concerned, sat meekly by, or chimed in merely to echo her husband's views.
"By the way, I ran into Richard on Specimen Hill," said John as he turned to leave the room. "And he asked me to let you know that he would not be home to lunch."
"There... if that isn't always the way!" exclaimed Mary. "As sure as I cook something he specially likes, he doesn't come in. Tilly sent me over the loveliest little sucking-pig this morning. Richard would have enjoyed it."
"You should be proud, my dear Mary, that his services are in such demand."
"I am, John—no one could be prouder. But all the same I wish he could manage to be a little more regular with his meals. It makes cooking so difficult. To-morrow, because I shan't have a minute to spare, he'll be home punctually, demanding something nice. But I warn you, to-morrow you'll all have to picnic!"
However, when the day came, she was better than her word, and looked to it that neither guests nor husband went short. Since a couple of tables on trestles took up the dining-room, John and Mahony lunched together in the surgery; while Jinny's meal was spread on a tray and sent to her in the bedroom. Mary herself had time only to snatch a bite standing. From early morning on, tied up in a voluminous apron, she was cooking in the kitchen, very hot and floury and preoccupied, drawing grating shelves out of the oven, greasing tins and patty-pans, dredging flour. The click-clack of egg-beating resounded continuously; and mountains of sponge-cakes of all shapes and sizes rose under her hands. This would be the largest, most ambitious party she had ever given—the guests expected numbered between twenty and thirty, and had, besides, carte blanche to bring with them anyone who happened to be staying with them—and it would be a disgrace under which Mary, reared in Mrs. Beamish's school, could never again have held up her head, had a single article on her supper-table run short.
In all this she had only such help as her one maidservant could give her—John had expressly forbidden Jinny the kitchen. True, during the morning Miss Amelia Ocock, a gentle little elderly body with a harmless smile and a prominent jaw, who was now an inmate of her father's house, together with Zara, returned from England and a visitor at the Ocock's—these two walked over to offer their aid in setting the tables. But Miss Amelia, fluttery and undecided as a bird, was far too timid to do herself justice; and Zara spent so long arranging the flowers in the central epergnes that before she had finished with one of them it was lunch time.
"I could have done it myself while she was cutting the stalks," Mary told her husband. "But Zara hasn't really been any good at flowers since her 'mixed bouquet' took first prize at the Flower Show. Of course, though, it looks lovely now it's done."
Purdy dropped in during the afternoon and was more useful; he sliced the crusts off loaf-high mounds of sandwiches, and tested the strength and flavour of the claret-cup. Mary could not make up her mind, when it came to the point, to follow Richard's advice and treat him coldly. She did, however, tell him that his help would be worth a great deal more to her if he talked less and did not always look for an answer to what he said. But Purdy was not to be quashed. He had taken it into his head that she was badly treated, in being left "to slave" alone, within the oven's radius; and he was very hard on Jinny, whom he had espied comfortably dandling her child on the front verandah. "I'd like to wring the bloomin' kid's neck!"
"Purdy, for shame!" cried Mary outraged. "It's easy to see you're still a bachelor. Just wait, sir, till you have children of your own!"
Under her guidance he bore stacks of plates across the yard to the dining-room—where the blinds were lowered to keep the room cool—and strewed these, and corresponding knives and forks, up and down the tables. He also carried over the heavy soup-tureen in which was the claret-cup. But he had a man's slippery fingers, and, between these and his limp, Mary trembled for the fate of her crockery. He made her laugh, too, and distracted her attention; and she was glad when it was time for him to return to barracks.
"Now come early to-night," she admonished him. "And mind you bring your music. Miss Amelia's been practising up that duet all the week. She'll be most disappointed if you don't ask her to sing with you."
On the threshold of the kitchen Purdy set his fingers to his nose in the probable direction of Miss Amelia; then performed some skittish female twists and turns about the yard. "So hoarse, love ... a bad cold ... not in voice!" Mary laughed afresh, and ordered him off.
But when he had gone she looked grave, and out of an oddly disquieting feeling said to herself: "I do hope he'll be on his best behaviour to-night, and not tread on Richard's toes."
As it was, she had to inform her husband of something that she knew would displease him. John had come back in the course of the afternoon and announced, without ceremony, that he had extended an invitation to the Devines for the evening.
"It's quite true what's being said, dear," Mary strove to soothe Richard, as she helped him make a hasty toilet in the bathroom. "Mr. Devine is going to stand for Parliament; and he has promised his support, if he gets in, to some measure John has at heart. John wants to have a long talk with him to-night."
But Richard was exceedingly put out. "Well, I hope, my dear, that as it's your brother who has taken such a liberty, YOU'LL explain the situation to your guests. I certainly shall not. But I do know there was no need to exclude Ned and Polly from such an omnium-gatherum as this party of yours will be."
Even while he spoke there came a rat-a-tat at the front door, and Mary had to hurry off. And now knock succeeded knock with the briefest of intervals, the noise carrying far in the quiet street. Mysteriously bunched-up figures, their heads veiled in the fleeciest of clouds, were piloted along the passage; and: "I HOPE we are not the first!" was murmured by each new-comer in turn. The gentlemen went to change their boots on the back verandah; the ladies to lay off their wraps in Mary's bedroom. And soon this room was filled to overflowing with the large soft abundance of crinoline; hoops swaying from this side to that, as the guests gave place to one another before the looking-glass, where bands of hair were smoothed and the catches of bracelets snapped. Music-cases lay strewn over the counterpane; the husbands who lined up in the passage, to wait for their wives, also bearing rolls of music. Mary, in black silk with a large cameo brooch at her throat, and only a delicate pink on her cheeks to tell of all her labours, moved helpfully to and fro, offering a shoe-horn, a hand-mirror, pins and hairpins. She was caught, as she passed Mrs. Henry Ocock, a modishly late arrival, by that lady's plump white hand, and a whispered request to be allowed to retain her mantle. "Henry was really against my coming, dearest. So anxious ... so absurdly anxious!"
"And pray where's the Honourable Mrs. T. to-night?" inquired "old Mrs. Ocock," rustling up to them: Tilly was the biggest and most handsomely dressed woman in the room. "On her knees worshipping, I bet you, up to the last minute! Or else not allowed to show her nose till the Honourable John's got his studs in.—Now then, girls, how much longer are you going to stand preening and prinking?"
The "girls" were Zara, at this present a trifle PASSEE, and Miss Amelia, who was still further from her prime; and gathering the two into her train, as a hen does its chickens, Tilly swept them off to face the ordeal of the gentlemen and the drawing-room.
Mary and Agnes brought up the rear. Mr. Henry was on the watch, and directly his wife appeared wheeled forward the best armchair and placed her in it, with a footstool under her feet. Mary planted Jinny next her and left them to their talk of nurseries: for Richard's sake she wished to screen Agnes from the vulgarities of Mrs. Devine. Herself she saw with dismay, on entering, that Richard had already been pounced on by the husband: there he stood, listening to his ex-greengrocer's words—they were interlarded with many an awkward and familiar gesture—on his face an expression his wife knew well, while one small, impatient hand tugged at his whiskers.
But "old Mrs. Ocock" came to his rescue, bearing down upon him with an outstretched hand, and a howdee-do that could be heard all over the room: Tilly had long forgotten that she had ever borne him a grudge; she it was who could now afford to patronise. "I hope I see you well, doctor?—Oh, not a bit of it.... I left him at 'ome. Mr. O. has something wrong, if you please, with his leg or his big toe—gout or rheumatiz or something of that sort—and 'e's been so crabby with it for the last day or so that to-night I said to 'im: 'No, my dear, you'll just take a glass of hot toddy, and go early and comfortable to your bed.' Musical parties aren't in his line anyhow."
A lively clatter of tongues filled the room, the space of which was taxed to its utmost: there were present, besides the friends and intimates of the house, several of Mahony's colleagues, a couple of Bank Managers, the Police Magistrate, the Postmaster, the Town Clerk, all with their ladies. Before long, however, ominous pauses began to break up the conversation, and Mary was accomplished hostess enough to know what these meant. At a sign from her, Jerry lighted the candles on the piano, and thereupon a fugue-like chorus went up: "Mrs. Mahony, won't you play something?—Oh, do!—Yes, please, do.... I should enjoy it so much."
Mary did not wait to be pressed; it was her business to set the ball rolling; and she stood up and went to the piano as unconcernedly as she would have gone to sweep a room or make a bed.
Placing a piece of music on the rack, she turned down the corners of the leaves. But here Archdeacon Long's handsome, weatherbeaten face looked over her shoulder. "I hope you're going to give us the cannons, Mrs. Mahony?" he said genially. And so Mary obliged him by laying aside the MORCEAU she had chosen, and setting up instead a "battle-piece," that was a general favourite.
"Aha! that's the ticket," said Henry Ocock, and rubbed his hands as Mary struck up, pianissimo, the march that told of the enemy's approach.
And: "Boompity-boomp-boomp-boomp!" Archdeacon Long could not refrain from underlining each fresh salvo of artillery; while: "That's a breach in their walls for 'em!" was Chinnery of the London Chartered's contribution to the stock of fun.
Mahony stood on the hearthrug and surveyed the assembly. His eyes fled Mrs. Devine, most unfortunately perched on an ottoman in the middle of the room, where she sat, purple, shiny and beaming, two hot, fat, red hands clasped over her stomach ("Like a heathen idol! Confound the woman! I shall have to go and do the polite to her"), and sought Mary at the piano, hanging with pleasure on the slim form in the rich silk dress. This caught numberless lights from the candles, as did also the wings of her glossy hair. He watched, with a kind of amused tenderness, how at each forte passage head and shoulders took their share of lending force to the tones. He never greatly enjoyed Mary's playing. She did well enough at it, God bless her!—it would not have been Mary if she hadn't—but he came of a musical family; his mother had sung Handel faultlessly in her day, besides having a mastery of several instruments: and he was apt to be critical. Mary's firm, capable hands looked out of place on a piano; seemed to stand in a sheerly business relation to the keys. Nor was it otherwise with her singing: she had a fair contralto, but her ear was at fault; and he sometimes found himself swallowing nervously when she attacked high notes.
"Oh, doctor! your wife DO play the pianner lovely," said Mrs. Devine, and her fat front rose and fell in an ecstatic sigh.
"Richard dear, will you come?" Mary laid her hands on his shoulder: their guests were clamouring for a DUO. Her touch was a caress: here he was, making himself as pleasant as he knew how, to this old woman. When it came to doing a kindness, you could rely on Richard; he was all bark and no bite.
Husband and wife blended their voices—Mary had been at considerable pains to get up her part—and then Richard went on to a solo. He had a clear, true tenor that was very agreeable to hear; and Mary felt quite proud of his attainments. Later in the evening he might be persuaded to give them a reading from Boz, or a recitation. At that kind of thing, he had not his equal.
But first there was a cry for his flute; and in vain did Mahony protest that weeks had elapsed since he last screwed the instrument together. He got no quarter, even from Mary—but then Mary was one of those inconvenient people to whom it mattered not a jot what a fool you made of yourself, as long as you did what was asked of you. And so, from memory and unaccompanied, he played them the old familiar air of THE MINSTREL BOY. The theme, in his rendering, was overlaid by florid variations and cumbered with senseless repetitions; but, none the less, the wild, wistful melody went home, touching even those who were not musical to thoughtfulness and retrospect. The most obstinate chatterers, whom neither sham battles nor Balfe and Blockley had silenced, held their tongues; and Mrs. Devine openly wiped her eyes.
O, THE MINSTREL BOY TO THE WARS HAS GONE! IN THE RANKS OF DEATH YOU'LL FIND HIM.
While it was proceeding, Mary found herself seated next John. John tapped his foot in time to the tune; and under cover of the applause at its close remarked abruptly: "You should fatten Richard up a bit, Mary. He could stand it."
From where they sat they had Richard in profile, and Mary studied her husband critically, her head a little on one side. "Yes, he IS rather thin. But I don't think he was ever meant to be fat."
"Ah well! we are none of us as young as we used to be," was John's tribute to the power of music. And throwing out his stomach, he leaned back in his chair and plugged the armholes of his vest with his thumbs.
And now, after due pressing on the part of host and hostess, the other members of the company advanced upon the piano, either singly or in couples, to bear a hand in the burden of entertainment. Their seeming reluctance had no basis in fact; for it was an unwritten law that every one who could must add his mite; and only those who literally had "not a note of music in them" were exempt. Tilly took a mischievous pleasure in announcing bluntly: "So sorry, my dear, not to be able to do you a tool-de-rool! But when the Honourable Mrs. T. and I were nippers we'd no time to loll round pianos, nor any pianos to loll round!"—this, just to see her brother-in-law's dark scowl; for no love—not even a liking—was lost between her and John. But with this handful of exceptions all nobly toed the line. Ladies with the tiniest reeds of voices, which shook like reeds, warbled of Last Roses and Prairie Flowers; others, with more force but due decorum, cried to Willie that they had Missed Him, or coyly confessed to the presence of Silver Threads Among the Gold; and Mrs. Chinnery, an old-young woman with a long, lean neck, which she twisted this way and that in the exertion of producing her notes, declared her love for an Old Armchair. The gentlemen, in baritones and profundos, told the amorous adventures of Ben Bolt; or desired to know what Home would be Without a Mother. Purdy spiced the hour with a comic song, and in the character of an outraged wife tickled the risibility of the ladies.
WELL, WELL, SIR, SO YOU'VE COME AT LAST! I THOUGHT YOU'D COME NO MORE. I'VE WAITED, WITH MY BONNET ON, FROM ONE TILL HALF-PAST FOUR!
Zara and Mrs. Long both produced HOME THEY BROUGHT HER WARRIOR DEAD! from their portfolios; so Zara good-naturedly gave way and struck up ROBERT, TOI QUE J'AIME! which she had added to her repertory while in England. No one could understand a word of what she sang; but the mere fitting of the foreign syllables to the appropriate notes was considered a feat in itself, and corroborative of the high gifts Zara possessed.
Strenuous efforts were needed to get Miss Amelia to her feet. She was dying, as Mary knew, to perform her duet with Purdy; but when the moment came she put forward so many reasons for not complying that most people retired in despair. It took Mary to persevere. And finally the little woman was persuaded to the piano, where, red with gratification, she sat down, spread her skirts and unclasped her bracelets.
"Poor little Amelia!" said Mary to herself, as she listened to a romantic ballad in which Purdy, in the character of a high-minded nobleman, sought the hand of a virtuous gipsy-maid. "And he doesn't give her a second thought. If one could just tell her not to be so silly!"
Not only had Purdy never once looked near Amelia—for the most part he had sat rather mum-chance, half-way in and out of a French window, even Zara's attempts to enliven him falling flat—but, during an extra loud performance, Tilly had confided to Mary the family's plans for their spinster relative. And: "The poor little woman!" thought Mary again as she listened. For, after having been tied for years to the sick bed of a querulous mother; after braving the long sea-voyage, which for such a timid soul was full of ambushes and terrors, Miss Amelia had reached her journey's end only to find both father and brother comfortably wived, and with no use for her. Neither of them wanted her. She had been given house-room first by her father, then by the Henrys, and once more had had to go back to the paternal roof.
"It was nothing for Mossieu Henry in the long run," was his stepmother's comment. But she laughed good-humouredly as she said it; for, his first wrath at her intrusion over, Henry had more or less become her friend; and now maintained that it was not a bad thing for his old father to have a sensible, managing woman behind him. Tilly had developed in many ways since her marriage; and Henry and she mutually respected each other's practical qualities.
The upshot of the affair was, she now told Mary, that Miss Amelia's male relatives had subscribed a dowry for her. "It was me that insisted Henry should pay his share—him getting all the money 'e did with Agnes." And Amelia was to be married off to—"Well, if you turn your head, my dear, you'll see who. Back there, helping to hold up the doorpost."
Under cover of Zara's roulades Mary cautiously looked round. It was Henry's partner—young Grindle, now on the threshold of the thirties. His side-whiskers a shade less flamboyant than of old, a heavy watch-chain draped across his front, Grindle stood and lounged with his hands in his pockets.
Mary made round eyes. "Oh, but Tilly!... isn't it very risky? He's so much younger than she is. Suppose she shouldn't be happy?"
"That'll be all right, Mary, trust me. Only give 'er a handle to 'er name, and Amelia 'ud be happy with any one. She hasn't THAT much backbone in 'er. Besides, my dear, you think, she's over forty! Let her take 'er chance and be thankful. It isn't every old maid 'ud get such an offer."
"And is ... is HE agreeable?" asked Mary, still unconvinced.
Tilly half closed her right eye and protruded the tip of her tongue. "You could stake your last fiver on it, he is!"
But now that portion of the entertainment devoted to art was at an end, and the serious business of the evening began. Card-tables had been set out—for loo, as for less hazardous games. In principle, Mahony objected to the high play that was the order of the day; but if you invited people to your house you could not ask them to screw their points down from crowns to halfpence. They would have thanked you kindly and have stayed at home. Here, at the loo-table places were eagerly snapped up, Henry Ocock and his stepmother being among the first to secure seats: both were keen, hard players, who invariably re-lined their well-filled pockets.
It would not have been the thing for either Mahony or his wife to take a hand; several of the guests held aloof. John had buttonholed old Devine; Jinny and Agnes were still lost in domesticities. Dear little Agnes had grown so retiring of late, thought Mary; she quite avoided the society of gentlemen, in which she had formerly taken such pleasure. Richard and Archdeacon Long sat on the verandah, and in moving to and fro, Mary caught a fragment of their talk: they were at the debatable question of table-turning, and her mental comment was a motherly and amused: "That Richard, who is so clever, can interest himself in such nonsense!" Further on, Zara was giving Grindle an account of her voyage "home," and ticking off the reasons that had led to her return. She sat across a hammock, and daintily exposed a very neat ankle. "It was much too sleepy and dull for ME! No, I've QUITE decided to spend the rest of my days in the colony."
Mrs. Devine was still perched on her ottoman. She beamed at her hostess. "No, I dunno one card from another, dearie, and don' want to. Oh, my dear, what a LOVELY party it 'as been, and 'ow well you've carried it h'off!"
Mary nodded and smiled; but with an air of abstraction. The climax of her evening was fast approaching. Excusing herself, she slipped away and went to cast a last eye over her supper-tables, up and down which benches were ranged, borrowed from the Sunday School. To her surprise she found herself followed by Mrs. Devine.
"DO let me 'elp you, my dear, do, now! I feel that stiff and silly sittin' stuck up there with me 'ands before me. And jes' send that young feller about 'is business."
So Purdy and his offers of assistance were returned with thanks to the card-room, and Mrs. Devine pinned up her black silk front. But not till she had freely vented her astonishment at the profusion of Mary's good things. "'Ow DO you git 'em to rise so?—No, I never did! Fit for Buckin'am Palace and Queen Victoria! And all by your little self, too.—My dear, I must give you a good 'UG!"
Hence, when at twelve o'clock the company began to stream in, they found Mrs. Devine installed behind the barricade of cups, saucers and glasses; and she it was who dispensed tea and coffee and ladled out the claret-cup; thus leaving Mary free to keep an argus eye on her visitors' plates. At his entry Richard had raised expostulating eyebrows; but his tongue of course was tied. And Mary made a lifelong friend.
And now for the best part of an hour Mary's sandwiches, sausage-rolls and meat-pies; her jam-rolls, pastries and lemon-sponges; her jellies, custards and creams; her blanc and jaunemanges and whipped syllabubs; her trifles, tipsy-cakes and charlotte-russes formed the theme of talk and objects of attention. And though the ladies picked with becoming daintiness, the gentlemen made up for their partners' deficiencies; and there was none present who did not, in the shape of a hearty and well-turned compliment, add yet another laurel to Mary's crown.
It had struck two before the party began to break up. The first move made, however, the guests left in batches, escorting one another to their respective house-doors. The Henry Ococks' buggy had been in waiting for some time, and Mrs. Henry's pretty head was drooping with fatigue before Henry, who was in the vein, could tear himself from the card-table. Mahony went to the front gate with them; then strolled with the Longs to the corner of the road.
He was in no hurry to retrace his steps. The air was balmy, after that of the overcrowded rooms, and it was a fabulously beautiful night. The earth lay steeped in moonshine, as in the light of a silver sun. Trees and shrubs were patterned to their last leaf on the ground before them. What odd mental twist made mortals choose rather to huddle indoors, by puny candle-light, than to be abroad laving themselves in a splendour such as this?
Leaning his arms on the top rail of a fence, he looked across the slope at the Flat, now hushed and still as the encampment of a sleeping army. Beyond, the bush shimmered palely grey—in his younger years he had been used, on a night like this when the moon sailed full and free, to take his gun and go opossuming. Those two old woody gods, Warrenheip and Buninyong, stood out more imposingly than by day; but the ranges seemed to have retreated. The light lay upon them like a visible burden, flattening their contours, filling up clefts and fissures with a milky haze.
"Good evening, doctor!"
Spoken in his very ear, the words made him jump. He had been lost in contemplation; and the address had a ghostly suddenness. But it was no ghost that stood beside him—nor indeed was it a night for those presences to be abroad whose element is the dark.
Ill-pleased at the intrusion, he returned but a stiff nod: then, since he could not in decency greet and leave-take in a breath, feigned to go on for a minute with his study of the landscape. After which he said: "Well, I must be moving. Good night to you."
"So you're off your sleep, too, are you?" As often happens, the impulse to speak was a joint one. The words collided.
Instinctively Mahony shrank into himself; this familiar bracketing of his person with another's was distasteful to him. Besides, the man who had sprung up at his elbow bore a reputation that was none of the best. The owner of a small chemist's shop on the Flat, he contrived to give offence in sundry ways: he was irreligious—an infidel, his neighbours had it—and of a Sabbath would scour his premises or hoe potatoes rather than attend church or chapel. Though not a confirmed drunkard, he had been seen to stagger in the street, and be unable to answer when spoken to. Also, the woman with whom he lived was not generally believed to be his lawful wife. Hence the public fought shy of his nostrums; and it was a standing riddle how he managed to avoid putting up his shutters. More nefarious practices no doubt, said the relentless VOX POPULI.—Seen near at hand, he was a tall, haggard-looking fellow of some forty years of age, the muscles on his neck standing out like those of a skinny old horse.
Here, his gratuitous assumption of a common bond drew a cold: "Pray, what reason have you to think that?" from Mahony. And without waiting for a reply he again said good night and turned to go.
The man accepted the rebuff with a meekness that was painful to see. "Thought, comin' on you like this, you were a case like my own. No offence, I'm sure," he said humbly. It was evident he was well used to getting the cold shoulder. Mahony stayed his steps. "What's the matter with you?" he asked. "Aren't you well? There's a remedy to be found for most ills under the sun."
"Not for mine! The doctor isn't born or the drug discovered that could cure me."
The tone of bragging bitterness grated anew. Himself given to the vice of overstatement, Mahony had small mercy on it in others. "Tut, tut!" he deprecated.
There was a brief silence before the speaker went on more quietly: "You're a young man, doctor, I'm an old one." And he looked old as he spoke; Mahony saw that he had erred in putting him down as merely elderly. He was old and grey and down-at-heel—fifty, if a day—and his clothes hung loose on his bony frame. "You'll excuse me if I say I know better'n you. When a man's done, he's done. And that's me. Yes,"—he grew inflated again in reciting his woes—"I'm one o' your hopeless cases, just as surely as if I was being eaten up by a cancer or a consumption. To mend me, you doctors 'ud need to start me afresh—from the mother-egg."
"You exaggerate, I'm sure."
"It's that—knowin' one's played out, with by rights still a good third of one's life to run—that's what puts the sleep away. In the daylight it's none so hard to keep the black thoughts under; themselves they're not so daresome; and there's one's pipe, and the haver o' the young fry. But night's the time! Then they come tramplin' along, a whole army of 'em, carryin' banners with letters a dozen feet high, so's you shan't miss rememberin' what you'd give your soul to forget. And so it'll go on, et cetera and ad lib., till it pleases the old Joker who sits grinnin' up aloft to put His heel down—as you or me would squash a bull-ant or a scorpion."
"You speak bitterly, Mr. Tangye. Does a night like this not bring you calmer, clearer thoughts?" and Mahony waved his arm in a large, loose gesture at the sky.
His words passed unheeded. The man he addressed spun round and faced him, with a rusty laugh. "Hark at that!" he cried. "Just hark at it! Why, in all the years I've been in this God-forsaken place—long as I've been here—I've never yet heard my own name properly spoken. You're the first, doctor. You shall have the medal."
"But, man alive, you surely don't let that worry you? Why, I've the same thing to put up with every day of my life. I smile at it." And Mahony believed what he said, forgetting, in the antagonism such spleen roused in him, the annoyance the false stressing of his own name could sometimes cause him.
"So did I, once," said Tangye, and wagged his head. "But the day came when it seemed the last straw; a bit o' mean spite on the part o' this hell of a country itself."
"You dislike the colony, it appears, intensely?"
"You like it?" The counter question came tip for tap.
"I can be fair to it, I hope, and appreciate its good sides." As always, the mere hint of an injustice made Mahony passionately just.
"Came 'ere of your own free will, did you? Weren't crowded out at home? Or bamboozled by a pack o' lying tales?" Tangye's voice was husky with eagerness.
"That I won't say either. But it is entirely my own choice that I remain here."
"Well, I say to you, think twice of it! If you have the chance of gettin' away, take it. It's no place this, doctor, for the likes of you and me. Haven't you never turned and asked yourself what the devil you were doin' here? And that reminds me.... There was a line we used to have drummed into us at school—it's often come back to me since. COELUM, NON ANIMUM, MUTANT, QUI TRANS MARE CURRUNT. In our green days we gabbled that off by rote; then, it seemed just one more o' the eel-sleek phrases the classics are full of. Now, I take off my hat to the man who wrote it. He knew what he was talkin' about—by the Lord Harry, he did!"
The Latin had come out tentatively, with an odd, unused intonation. Mahony's retort: "How on earth do you know what suits me and what doesn't?" died on his lips. He was surprised into silence. There had been nothing in the other's speech to show that he was a man of any education—rather the reverse.
Meanwhile Tangye went on: "I grant you it's an antiquated point o' view; but doesn't that go to prove what I've been sayin'; that you and me are old-fashioned, too—out-o'-place here, out-o'-date? The modern sort, the sort that gets on in this country, is a prime hand at cuttin' his coat to suit his cloth; for all that the stop-at-homes, like the writer o' that line and other ancients, prate about the Ethiopian's hide or the leopard and his spots. They didn't buy their experience dear, like we did; didn't guess that if a man DON'T learn to fit himself in, when he gets set down in such a land as this, he's a goner; any more'n they knew that most o' those who hold out here—all of 'em at any rate who've climbed the ladder, nabbed the plunder—have found no more difficulty in changin' their spots than they have their trousers. Yes, doctor, there's only one breed that flourishes, and you don't need me to tell you which it is. Here they lie"—and he nodded to right and left of him—"dreamin' o' their money-bags, and their dividends, and their profits, and how they'll diddle and swindle one another afresh, soon as the sun gets up to-morrow. Harder 'n nails they are, and sharp as needles. You ask me why I do my walkin' out in the night-time? It's so's to avoid the sight o' their mean little eyes, and their greedy, graspin' faces."
Mahony's murmured disclaimer fell on deaf ears. Like one who had been bottled up for months, Tangye flowed on. "What a life! What a set! What a place to end one's days in! Remember, if you can, the yarns that were spun round it for our benefit, from twenty thousand safe miles away. It was the Land o' Promise and Plenty, topful o' gold, strewn over with nuggets that only waited for hands to pick 'em up.—Lies!—lies from beginnin' to end! I say to you this is the hardest and cruellest country ever created, and a man like me's no more good here than the muck—the parin's and stale fishguts and other leavin's—that knocks about a harbour and washes against the walls. I'll tell you the only use I'll have been here, doctor, when my end comes: I'll dung some bit o' land for 'em with my moulder and rot. That's all. They'd do better with my sort if they knocked us on the head betimes, and boiled us down for our fat and marrow."
Not much in that line to be got from YOUR carcase, my friend, thought Mahony, with an inward smile.
But Tangye had paused merely to draw breath. "What I say is, instead o' layin' snares for us, it ought to be forbid by law to give men o' my make ship room. At home in the old country we'd find our little nook, and jog along decently to the end of our days. But just the staid, respectable, orderly sort I belonged to's neither needed nor wanted here. I fall to thinkin' sometimes on the fates of the hundreds of honest, steady-goin' lads, who at one time or another have chucked up their jobs over there—for this. The drink no doubt's took most: they never knew before that one COULD sweat as you sweat here. And the rest? Well, just accident ... or the sun ... or dysentery... or the bloody toil that goes by the name o' work in these parts—you know the list, doctor, better'n me. They say the waste o' life in a new country can't be helped; doesn't matter; has to be. But that's cold comfort to the wasted. No! I say to you, there ought to be an Act of Parliament to prevent young fellows squanderin' themselves, throwin' away their lives as I did mine. For when we're young, we're not sane. Youth's a fever o' the brain. And I WAS young once, though you mightn't believe it; I had straight joints, and no pouch under my chin, and my full share o' windy hopes. Senseless truck these! To be spilled overboard bit by bit—like on a hundred-mile tramp a new-chum finishes by pitchin' from his swag all the needless rubbish he's started with. What's wanted to get on here's somethin' quite else. Horny palms and costive bowels; more'n a dash o' the sharper; and no sickly squeamishness about knockin' out other men and steppin' into their shoes. And I was only an ordinary young chap; not over-strong nor over-shrewd, but honest—honest, by God I was! That didn't count. It even stood in my way. For I was too good for this and too mealy-mouthed for that; and while I stuck, considerin' the fairness of a job, some one who didn't care a damn whether it was fair or not, walked in over my head and took it from me. There isn't anything I haven't tried my luck at, and with everything it's been the same. Nothin's prospered; the money wouldn't come—or stick if it did. And so here I am—all that's left of me. It isn't much; and by and by a few rank weeds 'ull spring from it, and old Joey there, who's paid to grub round the graves, old Joey 'ull curse and say: a weedy fellow that, a rotten, weedy blackguard; and spit on his hands and hoe, till the weeds lie bleedin' their juices—the last heirs of me ... the last issue of my loins!"
"Pray, does it never occur to you, you fool, that FLOWERS may spring from you?"
He had listened to Tangye's diatribe in a white heat of impatience. But when he spoke he struck an easy tone—nor was he in any hesitation how to reply: for that, he had played devil's advocate all too often with himself in private. An unlovely country, yes, as Englishmen understood beauty; and yet not without a charm of its own. An arduous life, certainly, and one full of pitfalls for the weak or the unwary; yet he believed it was no more impossible to win through here, and with clean hands, than anywhere else. To generalise as his companion had done was absurd. Preposterous, too, the notion that those of their fellow-townsmen who had carried off the prizes owed their success to some superiority in bodily strength ... or sharp dealing ... or thickness of skin. With Mr. Tangye's permission he would cite himself as an example. He was neither a very robust man, nor, he ventured to say, one of any marked ability in the other two directions. Yet he had managed to succeed without, in the process, sacrificing jot or tittle of his principles; and to-day he held a position that any member of his profession across the seas might envy him.
"Yes, but till you got there!" cried Tangye. "Hasn't every superfluous bit of you—every thought of interest that wasn't essential to the daily grind—been pared off?"
"If," said Mahony stiffening, "if what you mean by that is, have I allowed my mind to grow narrow and sluggish, I can honestly answer no."
In his heart he denied the charge even more warmly; for, as he spoke, he saw the great cork-slabs on which hundreds of moths and butterflies made dazzling spots of colour; saw the sheets of pink blotting-paper between which his collection of native plants lay pressed; the glass case filled with geological specimens; his Bible, the margins of which round Genesis were black with his handwriting; a pile of books on the new marvel Spiritualism; Colenso's PENTATEUCH; the big black volumes of the ARCANA COELESTIA; Locke on Miracles: he saw all these things and more. "No, I'm glad to say I have retained many interests outside my work."
Tangye had taken off his spectacles and was polishing them on a crumpled handkerchief. He seemed about to reply, even made a quick half-turn towards Mahony; then thought better of it, and went on rubbing. A smile played round his lips.
"And in conclusion let me say this," went on Mahony, not unnettled by his companion's expression. "It's sheer folly to talk about what life makes of us. Life is not an active force. It's we who make what we will, of life. And in order to shape it to the best of our powers, Mr. Tangye, to put our brief span to the best possible use, we must never lose faith in God or our fellow-men; never forget that, whatever happens, there is a sky, with stars in it, above us."
"Ah, there's a lot of bunkum talked about life," returned Tangye dryly, and settled his glasses on his nose. "And as man gets near the end of it, he sees just WHAT bunkum it is. Life's only got one meanin', doctor; seen plain, there's only one object in everything we do; and that's to keep a sound roof over our heads and a bite in our mouths—and in those of the helpless creatures who depend on us. The rest has no more sense or significance than a nigger's hammerin' on the tam-tam. The lucky one o' this world don't grasp it; but we others do; and after all p'raps, it's worth while havin' gone through it to have got at ONE bit of the truth, however, small. Good night."
He turned on his heel, and before his words were cold on the air had vanished, leaving Mahony blankly staring.
The moonshine still bathed the earth, gloriously untroubled by the bitterness of human words and thoughts. But the night seemed to have grown chilly; and Mahony gave an involuntary shiver. "Some one walking over my ... now what would that specimen have called it? Over the four by eight my remains will one day manure!"
"An odd, abusive, wrong-headed fellow," he mused, as he made his way home. "Who would ever have thought, though, that the queer little chemist had so much in him? A failure? ... yes, he was right there; and as unlovely as failures always are—at close quarters." But as he laid his hands on the gate, he jerked up his head and exclaimed half aloud: "God bless my soul! What he wanted was not argument or reason but a little human sympathy." As usual, however, the flash of intuition came too late. "For such a touchy nature I'm certainly extraordinarily obtuse where the feelings of others are concerned," he told himself as he hooked in the latch.
"Why, Richard, where HAVE you been?" came Mary's clear voice—muted so as not to disturb John and Jinny, who had retired to rest. Purdy and she sat waiting on the verandah. "Were you called out? We've had time to clear everything away. Here, dear, I saved you some sandwiches and a glass of claret. I'm sure you didn't get any supper yourself, with looking after other people."
Long after Mary had fallen asleep he lay wakeful. His foolish blunder in response to Tangye's appeal rankled in his mind. He could not get over his insensitiveness. How he had boasted of his prosperity, his moral nicety, his saving pursuits—he to boast!—when all that was asked of him was a kindly: "My poor fellow soul, you have indeed fought a hard fight; but there IS a God above us who will recompense you at His own time, take the word for it of one who has also been through the Slough of Despond." And then just these ... these hobbies of his, of which he had made so much. Now that he was alone with himself he saw them in a very different light. Lepidoptera collected years since were still unregistered, plants and stones unclassified; his poor efforts at elucidating the Bible waited to be brought into line with the Higher Criticism; Home's levitations and fire-tests called for investigation; while the leaves of some of the books he had cited had never even been cut. The mere thought of these things was provocative, rest-destroying. To induce drowsiness he went methodically through the list of his acquaintances, and sought to range them under one or other of Tangye's headings. And over this there came moments when he lapsed into depths ... fetched himself up again—but with an effort ... only to fall back....
But he seemed barely to have closed his eyes when the night-bell rang. In an instant he was on his feet in the middle of the room, applying force to his sleep-cogged wits.
He threw open the sash. "Who's there? What is it?"
Henry Ocock's groom. "I was to fetch you out to our place at once, governor."
"But—Is Mrs. Henry taken ill?"
"Not as I know of," said the man dryly. "But her and the boss had a bit of a tiff on the way home, and Madam's excited-like."
"And am I to pay for their tiffs?" muttered Mahony hotly.
"Hush, Richard! He'll hear you," warned Mary, and sat up.
"I shall decline to go. Henry's a regular old woman."
Mary shook her head. "You can't afford to offend the Henrys. And you know what he is so hasty. He'd call in some one else on the spot, and you'd never get back. If only you hadn't stayed out so long, dear, looking at the moon!"
"Good God! Mary, is one never to have a moment to oneself? Never a particle of pleasure or relaxation?"
"Why, Richard!" expostulated his wife, and even felt a trifle ashamed of his petulance. "What would you call to-night, I wonder? Wasn't the whole evening one of pleasure and relaxation?"
And Mahony, struggling into shirt and trousers, had to admit that he would be hard put to it to give it another name.
Hush, dolly! Mustn't cry, and make a noise. Uncle Richard's cross.
Trotty sat on a hassock and rocked a china babe, with all the appurtenant mother-fuss she had picked up from the tending of her tiny stepsister. The present Trotty was a demure little maid of some seven summers, who gave the impression of having been rather rudely elongated. Her flaxen hair was stiffly imprisoned behind a round black comb; and her big blue eyes alone remained to her from a lovely infancy. ("Poor Emma's eyes," said Mary.)
Imitative as a monkey she went on—with a child's perfect knowledge that it is all make-believe, yet with an entire credence in the power of make-believe: "Naughty child—WILL you be quiet? There! You've frown your counterpane off now. Wonder what next you'll do. I declare I'll slap you soon—you make me so cross."
Through the surgery-window the words floated out: "For goodness' sake, don't bother me now with such trifles, Mary! It's not the moment—with a whole string of people waiting in the other room."
"Well, if only you'll be satisfied with what I do, dear, and not blame me afterwards."
"Get Purdy to give you a hand with Ned's affair. He has time and to spare." And wetting his finger-tip Mahony nervously flipped over a dozen pages of the book that lay open before him.
"Well ... if you think I should," said Mary, with a spice of doubt.
"I do. And now go, wife, and remember to shut the door after you. Oh, and tell that woman in the kitchen to stop singing. Her false notes drive me crazy.—How many are there, this morning?"
"Eight—no, nine, if that's another," replied Mary, with an ear to the front door.
"Tch! I'll have to stop then," and Mahony clapped to the work he had been consulting. "Never a minute to keep abreast of the times." But: "That's a good, helpful wife," as Mary stooped to kiss him. "Do the best you can, mavourneen, and never mind me."
"Take me with you, Auntie!" Trotty sprang up from her stool, overturning babe and cradle.
"Not to-day, darling. Besides, why are you here? You know I've forbidden you to be on the front verandah when the patients come. Run away to the back, and play there."
Mary donned hat and shawl, opened her parasol and went out into the sun. With the years she had developed into rather a stately young woman: she held her head high and walked with a firm, free step.
Her first visit was to the stable to find Long Jim—or Old Jim as they now called him; for he was nearing the sixties. The notice to leave, which he had given the day before, was one of the "trifles" it fell to her to consider. Personally Mary thought his going would be no great loss: he knew nothing about a garden, yet resented instruction; and it had always been necessary to get outside help in for the horses. If he went they could engage some one who would combine the posts. But Richard had taken umbrage at the old man's tone; had even been nervously upset over it. It behoved her to find out what the matter was.
"I want a change," said Old Jim dourly in response to her inquiry; and went on polishing wheel-spokes, and making the wheel fly. "I've bin 'ere too long. An' now I've got a bit o' brass together, an' am thinkin' I'd like to be me own master for a spell."
"But at your age, Jim, is it wise?—to throw up a comfortable home, just because you've laid a little past?"
"It's enough to keep me. I turned over between four and five 'undred last week in 'Piecrusts.'"
"Oh!" said Mary, taken by surprise. "Then that—that's your only reason for wishing to leave?" And as he did not reply, but went on swishing: "Come, Jim, if you've anything on your mind, say it out. The doctor didn't like the way you spoke to him last night."
At this the old man straightened his back, took a straw from between his teeth, spat and said: "Well, if you must know, Mrs. Mahony, the doctor's not the boss it pleases me to be h'under any more—and that's the trewth. I'm tired of it—dog-tired. You can slave yer 'ead off for 'im, and 'e never notices a thing you do, h'or if 'e does, it's on'y to find fault. It h'ain't 'uman, I say, and I'll be danged if I stand it h'any longer."
But people who came to Mary with criticism of Richard got no mercy. "You're far too touchy, Jim. YOU know, if any one does, how rushed and busy the doctor is, and you ought to be the first to make allowance for him—after all he's done for you. You wouldn't be here now, if it hadn't been for him. And then to expect him to notice and praise you for every little job you do!"
But Jim was stubborn. 'E didn't want to deny anything. But 'e'd rather go. An' this day a week if it suited her.
"It's really dreadful how uppish the lower classes get as soon as they have a little money in their pocket," she said to herself, as she walked the shadeless, sandy road. But this thought was like a shadow cast by her husband's mind on hers, and was ousted by the more indigenous: "But after all who can blame him, poor old fellow, for wanting to take life easy if he has the chance." She even added: "He might have gone off, as most of them do, without a word."
Then her mind reverted to what he had said of Richard, and she pondered the antagonism that had shown through his words. It was not the first time she had run up against this spirit, but, as usual, she was at a loss to explain it. Why should people of Old Jim's class dislike Richard as they did?—find him so hard to get on with? He was invariably considerate of them, and treated them very generously with regard to money. And yet ... for some reason or other they felt injured by him; and thought and spoke of him with a kind of churlish resentment. She was not clever enough to find the key to the riddle—it was no such simple explanation as that he felt himself too good for them. That was not the case: he was proud, certainly, but she had never known any one who—under, it was true, a rather sarcastic manner—was more broadly tolerant of his fellow-men. And she wound up her soliloquy with the lame admission: "Yes, in spite of all his kindness, I suppose he IS queer ... decidedly queer," and then she heaved a sigh. What a pity it was! When you knew him to be, at heart, such a dear, good, well-meaning man.