A short walk brought her to the four-roomed cottage where Ned lived with wife and children. Or had lived, till lately. He had been missing from his home now for over a week. On the last occasion of his being in Melbourne with the carrying-van, he had decamped, leaving the boy who was with him to make the return journey alone. Since then, nothing could be heard of him; and his billet in the Agency had been snapped up.
"Or so they say!" said his wife, with an angry sniff. "I don't believe a word of it, Mary. Since the railway's come, biz has gone to the dogs; and they're only too glad to get the chance of sacking another man."
Polly looked untidier than ever; she wore a slatternly wrapper, and her hair was thrust unbrushed into its net. But she suffered, no doubt, in her own way; she was red-eyed, and very hasty-handed with her nestful of babes. Sitting in the cheerless parlour, Ned's dark-eyed eldest on her knee, Mary strove to soothe and encourage. But: it has never been much of a home for the poor boy was her private opinion; and she pressed her cheek affectionately against the little black curly head that was a replica of Ned's own.
"What's goin' to become of us all, the Lord only knows," said Polly, after having had the good cry the sympathetic presence of her sister-in-law justified. "I'm not a brown cent troubled about Ned—only boiling with 'im. 'E's off on the booze, sure enough—and 'e'll turn up again, safe and sound, like loose fish always do. Wait till I catch 'im though! He'll get it hot."
"We never ought to have come here," she went on drying her eyes. "Drat the place and all that's in it, that's what I say! He did better'n this in Castlemaine; and I'd pa behind me there. But once Richard had sent 'im that twenty quid, he'd no rest till he got away. And I thought, when he was so set on it, may be it'd have a good effect on 'im, to be near you both. But that was just another shoot into the brown. You've been A1, Mary; you've done your level best. But Richard's never treated Ned fair. I don't want to take Ned's part; he's nothing in the world but a pretty-faced noodle. But Richard's treated 'im as if he was the dirt under 'is feet. And Ned's felt it. Oh, I know whose doing it was, we were never asked up to the house when you'd company. It wasn't YOURS, my dear! But we can't all have hyphens to our names, and go driving round with kid gloves on our hands and our noses in the air."
Mary felt quite depressed by this fresh attack on her husband. Reminding herself, however, that Polly was excited and over-wrought, she did not speak out the defence that leapt to her tongue. She said staunchly: "As you put it, Polly, it does seem as if we haven't acted rightly towards Ned. But it wasn't Richard's doing alone. I've been just as much to blame as he has."
She sat on, petting the fractious children and giving kindly assurances: as long as she and Richard had anything themselves, Ned's wife and Ned's children should not want: and as she spoke, she slipped a substantial proof of her words into Polly's unproud hand. Besides, she believed there was every chance now of Ned soon being restored to them; and she told how they were going, that very morning, to invoke Mr. Smith's aid. Mr. Smith was in the Police, as Polly knew, and had influential friends among the Force in Melbourne. By to-morrow there might be good news to bring her.
Almost an hour had passed when she rose to leave. Mrs. Ned was so grateful for the visit and the help that, out in the narrow little passage, she threw her arms round Mary's neck and drew her to her bosom. Holding her thus, after several hearty kisses, she said in a mysterious whisper, with her lips close to Mary's ear: "Mary, love, may I say something to you?" and the permission granted, went on: "That is, give you a bit of a hint, dearie?"
"Why, of course you may, Polly."
"Sure you won't feel hurt, dear?"
"Quite sure. What is it?" and Mary disengaged herself, that she might look the speaker in the face.
"Well, it's just this—you mentioned the name yourself, or I wouldn't have dared. It's young Mr. Smith, Mary. My dear, in future don't you have 'im quite so much about the house as you do at present. It ain't the thing. People WILL talk, you know, if you give 'em a handle." ("Oh, but Polly!" in a blank voice from Mary.) "Now, now, I'm not blaming you—not the least tiddly-wink. But there's no harm in being careful, is there, love, if you don't want your name in people's mouths? I'm that fond of you, Mary—you don't mind me speaking, dearie?"
"No, Polly, I don't. But it's the greatest nonsense—I never heard such a thing!" said Mary hotly. "Why, Purdy is Richard's oldest friend. They were schoolboys together."
"May be they were. But I hear 'e's mostly up at your place when Richard's out. And you're a young and pretty woman, my dear; it's Richard who ought to think of it, and he so much older than you. Well, just take the hint, love. It comes best, don't it, from one of the family?"
But Mary left the house in a sad flurry; and even forgot for a street length to open her parasol.
Her first impulse was to go straight to Richard. But she had not covered half a dozen yards before she saw that this would never do. At the best of times Richard abominated gossip; and the fact of it having, in the present case, dared to fasten its fangs in some one belonging to him would make him doubly wroth. He might even try to find out who had started the talk; and get himself into hot water over it. Or he might want to lay all the blame on his own shoulders—make himself the reproaches Ned's Polly had not spared him. Worse still, he would perhaps accuse Purdy of inconsiderateness towards her, and fly into a rage with him; and then the two of them would quarrel, which would be a thousand pities. For though he often railed at Purdy, yet that was only Richard's way: he was genuinely fond of him, and unbent to him as to nobody else.
But these were just so many pretexts put forward to herself by Mary for keeping silence; the real reason lay deeper. Eight years of married life had left her, where certain subjects were concerned, with all the modesty of her girlhood intact. There were things, indelicate things, which COULD not be spoken out, even between husband and wife. For her to have to step before Richard and say: some one else feels for me in the same way as you, my husband, do, would make her ever after unable frankly to meet his eyes. Besides giving the vague, cobwebby stuff a body it did not deserve.
But yet again this was not the whole truth: she had another, more uncomfortable side of it to face; and the flies buzzed unheeded round her head. The astonishment she had shown at her sister-in-law's warning had not been altogether sincere. Far down in her heart Mary found a faint, faint trace of complicity. For months past—she could admit it now—she had not felt easy about Purdy. Something disagreeable, disturbing, had crept into their relations. The jolly, brotherly manner she liked so well had deserted him; besides short-tempered he had grown deadly serious, and not the stupidest woman could fail altogether to see what the matter was. But she had wilfully bandaged her eyes. And if, now and then, some word or look had pierced her guard and disquieted her in spite of herself, she had left it at an incredulous: "Oh, but then... But even if... In that case...." She now saw her fervent hope had been that the affair would blow over without coming to anything; prove to be just another passing fancy on the part of the unstable Purdy. How many had she not assisted at! This very summer, for instance, a charming young lady from Sydney had stayed with the Urquharts; and, as long as her visit lasted, they had seen little or nothing of Purdy. Whenever he got off duty he was at Yarangobilly. As it happened, however, Mr. Urquhart himself had been so assiduous in taking his guest about that Purdy had had small chance of making an impression. And, in looking back on the incident, what now rose most clearly before Mary's mind was the way in which Mrs. Urquhart—poor thing, she was never able to go anywhere with her husband: either she had a child in arms or another coming; the row of toddlers mounted up in steps—the way in which she had said, with her pathetic smile: "Ah, my dear! Willie needs some one gayer and stronger than I am, for company." Mary's heart had been full of pity at the time, for her friend's lot; and it swelled again now at the remembrance.
But oh dear! this was straying from the point. Impatiently she jerked her thoughts back to herself and her own dilemma. What ought she to do? She was not a person who could sit still with folded hands and await events. How would it be if she spoke to Purdy herself? ... talked seriously to him about his work? ... tried to persuade him to leave Ballarat. Did he mean to hang on here for ever, she would say—never intend to seek promotion? But then again, the mere questioning would cause a certain awkwardness. While, at the slightest trip or blunder on her part, what was unsaid might suddenly find itself said; and the whole thing cease to be the vague, cloudy affair it was at present. And though she would actually rather this happened with regard to Purdy than Richard, yet ... yet....
Worried and perplexed, unable to see before her the straight plain path she loved, Mary once more sighed from the bottom of her heart.
"Oh if ONLY men wouldn't be so foolish!"
Left to himself Mahony put away his books, washed his hands and summoned one by one to his presence the people who waited in the adjoining room. He drew a tooth, dressed a wounded wrist, prescribed for divers internal disorders—all told, a baker's dozen of odd jobs.
When the last patient had gone he propped open the door, wiped his forehead and read the thermometer that hung on the wall: it marked 102 degrees. Dejectedly he drove, in fancy, along the glaring, treeless roads, inches deep in cinnamon-coloured dust. How one learnt to hate the sun out here. What wouldn't he give for a cool, grey-green Irish day, with a wet wind blowing in from the sea?—a day such as he had heedlessly squandered hundreds of, in his youth. Now it made his mouth water only to think of them.
It still wanted ten minutes to ten o'clock and the buggy had not yet come round. He would lie down and have five minutes' rest before starting: he had been up most of the night, and on getting home had been kept awake by neuralgia.
When an hour later Mary reached home, she was amazed to find groom and buggy still drawn up in front of the house.
"Why, Molyneux, what's the matter? Where's the doctor?"
"I'm sure I don't know, Mrs. Mahony. I've hollered to Biddy half a dozen times, but she doesn't take any notice. And the mare's that restless.... There, there, steady old girl, steady now! It's these damn flies."
Mary hurried indoors. "Why, Biddy...."
"Sure and it's yourself," said the big Irishwoman who now filled the kitchen-billet. "Faith and though you scold me, Mrs. Mahony, I couldn't bring it over me heart to wake him. The pore man's sleeping like a saint."
"Biddy, you ought to know better!" cried Mary peeling off her gloves.
"It's pale as the dead he is."
"Rubbish. It's only the reflection of the green blind. RICHARD! Do you know what the time is?"
But the first syllable of his name was enough. "Good Lord, Mary, I must have dropped off. What the dickens.... Come, help me, wife. Why on earth didn't those fools wake me?"
Mary held his driving-coat, fetched hat and gloves, while he flung the necessaries into his bag. "Have you much to do this morning? Oh, that post-mortem's at twelve, isn't it?"
"Yes; and a consultation with Munce at eleven—I'll just manage it and no more," muttered Mahony with an eye on his watch. "I can't let the mare take it easy this morning. Yes, a full day. And Henry Ocock's fidgeting for a second opinion; thinks his wife's not making enough progress. Well, ta-ta, sweetheart! Don't expect me back to lunch." And taking a short cut across the lawn, he jumped into the buggy and off they flew.
Mary's thoughts were all for him in this moment. "How proud we ought to feel!" she said to herself. "That makes the second time in a week old Munce has sent for him. But how like Henry Ocock," she went on with puckered brow. "It's quite insulting—after the trouble Richard has put himself to. If Agnes's case puzzles him, I should like to know who will understand it better. I think I'll go and see her myself this afternoon. It can't be HER wish to call in a stranger."
Not till some time after did she remember her own private embarrassment. And, by then, the incident had taken its proper place in her mind—had sunk to the level of insignificance to which it belonged.
"Such a piece of nonsense!" was her final verdict. "As if I could worry Richard with it, when he has so many really important things to occupy him."
Yes, those were palmy days; the rate at which the practice spread astonished even himself. No slack seasons for him now; winter saw him as busy as summer; and his chief ground for complaint was that he was unable to devote the meticulous attention he would have wished to each individual case. "It would need the strength of an elephant to do that." But it was impossible not to feel gratified by the many marks of confidence he received. And if his work had but left him some leisure for study and an occasional holiday, he would have been content. But in these years he was never able to get his neck out of the yoke; and Mary took her annual jaunts to Melbourne and sea-breezes alone.
In a long talk they had with each other, it was agreed that, except in an emergency, he was to be chary of entering into fresh engagements—this referred in the first place to confinements, of which his book was always full; and secondly, to outlying bush-cases, the journey to and from which wasted many a precious hour. And where it would have been impolitic to refuse a new and influential patient, some one on his list—a doubtful payer or a valetudinarian—was gently to be let drop. And it was Mary who arranged who this should be. Some umbrage was bound to be given in the process; but with her help it was reduced to a minimum. For Mary knew by heart all the links and ramifications of the houses at which he visited; knew precisely who was related to whom, by blood or marriage or business; knew where offence might with safety be risked, and where it would do him harm. She had also a woman's tact in smoothing things over. A born doctor's wife, declared Mahony in grateful acknowledgment. For himself he could not keep such fiddling details in his head for two minutes on end.
But though he thus succeeded in setting bounds to his activity, he still had a great deal too much to do; and, in tired moments, or when tic plagued him, thought the sole way out of the impasse would be to associate some one with him as partner or assistant. And once he was within an ace of doing so, chance throwing what he considered a likely person across his path. In attending a coroner's inquest, he made the acquaintance of a member of the profession who was on his way from the Ovens district—a coach journey of well over two hundred miles—to a place called Walwala, a day's ride to the west of Ballarat. And since this was a pleasant-spoken man and intelligent—though with a somewhat down-at-heel look—besides being a stranger to the town, Mahony impulsively took him home to dinner. In the evening they sat and talked. The visitor, whose name was Wakefield, was considerably Mahony's senior. By his own account he had had but a rough time of it for the past couple of years. A good practice which he had worked up in the seaport of Warrnambool had come to an untimely end. He did not enter into the reasons for this. "I was unfortunate ... had a piece of ill-luck," was how he referred to it. And knowing how fatally easy was a trip in diagnosis, a slip of the scalpel, Mahony tactfully helped him over the allusion. From Warrnambool Wakefield had gone to the extreme north of the colony; but the eighteen months spent there had nearly been his undoing. Money had not come in badly; but his wife and family had suffered from the great heat, and the scattered nature of the work had worn him to skin and bone. He was now casting about him for a more suitable place. He could not afford to buy a practice, must just creep in where he found a vacancy. And Walwala, where he understood there had never been a resident practitioner, seemed to offer an opening.
Mahony felt genuinely sorry for the man; and after he had gone sat and revolved the idea, in the event of Walwala proving unsuitable, of taking Wakefield on as his assistant. He went to bed full of the scheme and broached it to Mary before they slept. Mary made big eyes to herself as she listened. Like a wise wife, however, she did not press her own views that night, while the idea bubbled hot in him; for, at such times, when some new project seemed to promise the millennium, he stood opposition badly. But she lay awake telling off the reasons she would put before him in the morning; and in the dark allowed herself a tender, tickled little smile at his expense.
"What a man he is for loading himself up with the wrong sort of people!" she reflected. "And then afterwards, he gets tired of them, and impatient with them—as is only natural."
At breakfast she came back on the subject herself. In her opinion, he ought to think the matter over very carefully. Not another doctor on Ballarat had an assistant; and his patients would be sure to resent the novelty. Those who sent for Dr. Mahony would not thank you to be handed over to "goodness knows who."
"Besides, Richard, as things are now, the money wouldn't really be enough, would it? And just as we have begun to be a little easy ourselves—I'm afraid you'd miss many comforts you have got used to again, dear," she wound up, with a mental glance at the fine linen and smooth service Richard loved.
Yes, that was true, admitted Mahony with a sigh; and being this morning in a stale mood, he forthwith knocked flat the card-house it had amused him to build. Himself he had only half believed in it; or believed so long as he refrained from going into prosaic details. There was work for two and money for one—that was the crux of the matter. Successful as the practice was, it still did not throw off a thousand a year. Bad debts ran to a couple of hundred annually; and their improved style of living—the expenses of house and garden, of horses and vehicles, the men-servants, the open house they had to keep—swallowed every penny of the rest. Saving was actually harder than when his income had been but a third of what it was at present. New obligations beset him. For one thing, he had to keep pace with his colleagues; make a show of being just as well-to-do as they. Retrenching was out of the question. His patients would at once imagine that something was wrong—the practice on the downgrade, his skill deserting him—and take their ailments and their fees elsewhere. No, the more one had, the more one was forced to spend; and the few odd hundreds for which Henry Ocock could yearly be counted on came in very handy. As a rule he laid these by for Mary's benefit; for her visits to Melbourne, her bonnets and gowns. It also let her satisfy the needs of her generous little heart in matters of hospitality—well, it was perhaps not fair to lay the whole blame of their incessant and lavish entertaining at her door. He himself knew that it would not do for them to lag a foot behind other people.
Hence the day on which he would be free to dismiss the subject of money from his mind seemed as far off as ever. He might indulge wild schemes of taking assistant or partner; the plain truth was, he could not afford even the sum needed to settle in a LOCUM TENENS for three months, while he recuperated.—Another and equally valid reason was that the right man for a LOCUM was far to seek. As time went on, he found himself pushed more and more into a single branch of medicine—one, too, he had never meant to let grow over his head in this fashion. For it was common medical knowledge out here that, given the distances and the general lack of conveniences, thirty to forty maternity cases per year were as much as a practitioner could with comfort take in hand. HIS books for the past year stood at over a hundred! The nightwork this meant was unbearable, infants showing a perverse disinclination to enter the world except under cover of the dark.
His popularity—if such it could be called—with the other sex was something of a mystery to him. For he had not one manner for the bedside and another for daily life. He never sought to ingratiate himself with people, or to wheedle them; still less would he stoop to bully or intimidate; was always by preference the adviser rather than the dictator. And men did not greatly care for this arm's-length attitude; they wrote him down haughty and indifferent, and pinned their faith to a blunter, homelier manner. But with women it was otherwise; and these also appreciated the fact that, no matter what their rank in life, their age or their looks, he met them with the deference he believed due to their sex. Exceptions there were, of course. Affectation or insincerity angered him—with the "Zaras" of this world he had scant patience—while among the women themselves, some few—Ned's wife, for example—felt resentment at his very appearance, his gestures, his tricks of speech. But the majority were his staunch partisans; and it was becoming more and more the custom to engage Dr. Mahony months ahead, thus binding him fast. And though he would sometimes give Mary a fright by vowing that he was going to "throw up mid. and be done with it," yet her ambition—and what an ambitious wife she was, no one but himself knew—that he should some day become one of the leading specialists on Ballarat, seemed not unlikely of fulfilment. If his health kept good. And ... and if he could possibly hold out!
For there still came times when he believed that to turn his back for ever, on place and people, would make him the happiest of mortals. For a time this idea had left him in peace. Now it haunted him again. Perhaps, because he had at last grasped the unpalatable truth that it would never be his luck to save: if saving were the only key to freedom, he would still be there, still chained fast, and though he lived to be a hundred. Certain it was, he did not become a better colonist as the years went on. He had learnt to hate the famous climate—the dust and drought and brazen skies; the drenching rains and bottomless mud—to rebel against the interminable hours he was doomed to spend in his buggy. By nature he was a recluse—not an outdoor-man at all. He was tired, too, of the general rampage, the promiscuous connexions and slap-dash familiarity of colonial life; sick to death of the all-absorbing struggle to grow richer than his neighbours. He didn't give a straw for money in itself—only for what it brought him. And what was the good of that, if he had no leisure to enjoy it? Or was it the truth that he feared being dragged into the vortex? ... of learning to care, he, too, whether or no his name topped subscription-lists; whether his entertainments were the most sumptuous, his wife the best-dressed woman in her set? Perish the thought!
He did not disquiet Mary by speaking of these things. Still less did he try to explain to her another, more elusive side of the matter. It was this. Did he dig into himself, he saw that his uncongenial surroundings were not alone to blame for his restless state of mind. There was in him a gnawing desire for change as change; a distinct fear of being pinned for too long to the same spot; or, to put it another way, a conviction that to live on without change meant decay. For him, at least. Of course, it was absurd to yield to feelings of this kind; at his age, in his position, with a wife dependent on him. And so he fought them—even while he indulged them. For this was the year in which, casting the question of expense to the winds, he pulled down and rebuilt his house. It came over him one morning on waking that he could not go on in the old one for another day, so cramped was he, so tortured by its lath-and-plaster thinness. He had difficulty in winning Mary over; she was against the outlay, the trouble and confusion involved; and was only reconciled by the more solid comforts and greater conveniences offered her. For the new house was of brick, the first brick house to be built on Ballarat (and oh the joy! said Richard, of walls so thick that you could not hear through them), had an extra-wide verandah which might be curtained in for parties and dances, and a side-entrance for patients, such as Mary had often sighed for.
As a result of the new grandeur, more and more flocked to his door. The present promised to be a record year even in the annals of the Golden City. The completion of the railway-line to Melbourne was the outstanding event. Virtually halving the distance to the metropolis in count of time, it brought a host of fresh people capitalists, speculators, politicians—about the town, and money grew perceptibly easier. Letters came more quickly, too; Melbourne newspapers could be handled almost moist from the press. One no longer had the sense of lying shut off from the world, behind the wall of a tedious coach journey. And the merry Ballaratians, who had never feared or shrunk from the discomforts of this journey, now travelled constantly up and down: attending the Melbourne race-meetings; the Government House balls and lawn-parties; bringing back the gossip of Melbourne, together with its fashions in dress, music and social life.
Mary, in particular, profited by the change; for in one of those "general posts" so frequently played by the colonial cabinet, John Turnham had come out Minister of Railways; and she could have a "free pass" for the asking. John paid numerous visits to his constituency; but he was now such an important personage that his relatives hardly saw him. As likely as not he was the guest of the Henry Ococks in their new mansion, or of the mayor of the borough. In the past two years Mahony had only twice exchanged a word with his brother-in-law.
And then they met again.
In Melbourne, at six o'clock one January morning, the Honourable John, about to enter a saloon-compartment of the Ballarat train, paused, with one foot on the step, and disregarding the polite remarks of the station-master at his heels, screwed up his prominent black eyes against the sun. At the farther end of the train, a tall, thin, fair-whiskered man was peering disconsolately along a row of crowded carriages. "God bless me! isn't that ... Why, so it is!" And leaving the official standing, John walked smartly down the platform.
"My dear Mahony!—this is indeed a surprise. I had no idea you were in town."
"Why not have let me know you proposed coming?" he inquired as they made their way, the train meanwhile held up on their account, towards John's spacious, reserved saloon.
("What he means is, why I didn't beg a pass of him.") And Mahony, who detested asking favours, laid exaggerated emphasis on his want of knowledge. He had not contemplated the journey till an hour beforehand. Then, the proposed delegate having been suddenly taken ill, he had been urgently requested to represent the Masonic Lodge to which he belonged, at the Installation of a new Grand Master.
"Ah, so you found it possible to get out of harness for once?" said John affably, as they took their seats.
"Yes, by a lucky chance I had no case on hand that could not do without me for twenty-four hours. And my engagement-book I can leave with perfect confidence to my wife."
"Mary is no doubt a very capable woman; I noticed that afresh, when last she was with us," returned John; and went on to tick off Mary's qualities like a connoisseur appraising the points of a horse. "A misfortune that she is not blessed with any family," he added.
Mahony stiffened; and responded dryly: "I'm not sure that I agree with you. With all her energy and spirit Mary is none too strong."
"Well, well! these things are in the hands of Providence; we must take what is sent us." And caressing his bare chin John gave a hearty yawn.
The words flicked Mahony's memory: John had had an addition to his family that winter, in the shape—to the disappointment of all concerned—of a second daughter. He offered belated congratulations. "A regular Turnham this time, according to Mary. But I am sorry to hear Jane has not recovered her strength."
"Oh, Jane is doing very well. But it has been a real disadvantage that she could not nurse. The infant is ... well, ah ... perfectly formed, of course, but small—small."
"You must send them both to Mary, to be looked after."
The talk then passed to John's son, now a schoolboy in Geelong; and John admitted that the reports he received of the lad continued as unsatisfactory as ever. "The young rascal has ability, they tell me, but no application." John propounded various theories to account for the boy having turned out poorly, chief among which was that he had been left too long in the hands of women. They had overindulged him. "Mary no more than the rest, my dear fellow," he hastened to smooth Mahony's rising plumes. "It began with his mother in the first place. Yes, poor Emma was weak with the boy—lamentably weak!"
Here, with a disconcerting abruptness, he drew to him a blue linen bag that lay on the seat, and loosening its string took out a sheaf of official papers, in which he was soon engrossed. He had had enough of Mahony's conversation in the meantime, or so it seemed; had thought of something better to do, and did it.
His brother-in-law eyed him as he read. "He's a bad colour. Been living too high, no doubt."
A couple of new books were on the seat by Mahony; but he did not open them. He had a tiring day behind him, and the briefest of nights. Besides attending the masonic ceremony, which had lasted into the small hours, he had undertaken to make various purchases, not the least difficult of which was the buying of a present for Mary—all the little fal-lals that went to finish a lady's ball-dress. Railway-travelling was, too, something of a novelty to him nowadays; and he sat idly watching the landscape unroll, and thinking of nothing in particular. The train was running through mile after mile of flat, treeless country, liberally sprinkled with trapstones and clumps of tussock grass, which at a distance could be mistaken for couched sheep. Here and there stood a solitary she-oak, most doleful of trees, its scraggy, pine-needle foliage bleached to grey. From the several little stations along the line: mere three-sided sheds, which bore a printed invitation to intending passengers to wave a flag or light a lamp, did they wish to board the train: from these shelters long, bare, red roads, straight as ruled lines, ran back into the heart of the burnt-up, faded country. Now and then a moving ruddy cloud on one of them told of some vehicle crawling its laborious way.
When John, his memoranda digested, looked up ready to resume their talk, he found that Mahony was fast asleep; and, since his first words, loudly uttered, did not rouse him, he took out his case, chose a cigar, beheaded it and puffed it alight.
While he smoked, he studied his insensible relative. Mahony was sitting uncomfortably hunched up; his head had fallen forward and to the side, his mouth was open, his gloved hands lay limp on his knee.
"H'm!" said John to himself as he gazed. And: "H'm," he repeated after an interval.—Then pulling down his waistcoat and generally giving himself a shake to rights, he reflected that, for his own two-and-forty years, he was a very well preserved man indeed.
"Oh, Richard!... and my dress is blue," said Mary distractedly, and sitting back on her heels let her arms fall to her sides. She was on her knees, and before her lay a cardboard box from which she had withdrawn a pink fan, pink satin boots with stockings to match, and a pink head-dress.
"Well, why the dickens didn't you say so?" burst out the giver.
"I did, dear. As plainly as I could speak."
"Never heard a word!"
"Because you weren't listening. I told you so at the time. Now what am I to do?" and, in her worry over the contretemps, Mary quite forgot to thank her husband for the trouble he had been to on her behalf.
"Get another gown to go with them."
"Oh, Richard... how like a man! After all the time and money this one has cost me. No, I couldn't do that. Besides, Agnes Ocock is wearing pink and wouldn't like it." And with a forehead full of wrinkles she slowly began to replace the articles in their sheaths. "Of course they're very nice," she added, as her fingers touched the delicate textures.
"They would need to be, considering what I paid for them. I wish now I'd kept my money in my pocket."
"Well, your mistake is hardly my fault, is it, dear?" But Richard had gone off in a mood midway between self-annoyance and the huff.
Mary's first thought was to send the articles to Jinny with a request to exchange them for their counterparts in the proper colour. Then she dismissed the idea. Blind slave to her nursery that Jinny was, she would hardly be likely to give the matter her personal supervision: the box would just be returned to the shop, and the transfer left to the shop-people's discretion. They might even want to charge more. No, another plan now occurred to Mary. Agnes Ocock might not yet have secured the various small extras to go with her ball-dress; and, if not, how nice it would be to make her a present of these. They were finer, in better taste, than anything to be had on Ballarat; and she had long owed Agnes some return for her many kindnesses. Herself she would just make do with the simpler things she could buy in town. And so, without saying anything to Richard, who would probably have objected that Henry Ocock was well able to afford to pay for his own wife's finery, Mary tied up the box and drove to Plevna House, on the outer edge of Yuille's Swamp.
"Oh, no, I could never have got myself such beautiful things as these, Mary," and Mrs. Henry let her hands play lovingly with the silk stockings, her pretty face a-glow with pleasure. "Henry has no understanding, dear, for the etceteras of a costume. He thinks, if he pays for a dress or a mantle, that that is enough; and when the LITTLE bills come in, he grumbles at what he calls my extravagance. I sometimes wish, Mary, I had kept back just a teeny-weeny bit of my own money. Henry would never have missed it, and I should have been able to settle a small bill for myself now and then. But you know how it is at first, love. Our one idea is to hand over all we possess to our lord and master." She tried on the satin boots; they were a little long, but she would stuff the toes with wadding. "If I am REALLY not robbing you, Mary?"
Mary reassured her, and thereupon a visit was paid to the nursery, where Mr. Henry's son and heir lay sprawling in his cradle. Afterwards they sat and chatted on the verandah, while a basket was being filled with peaches for Mary to take home.
Not even the kindly drapery of a morning-wrapper could conceal the fact that Agnes was growing stout—quite losing her fine figure. That came of her having given up riding-exercise. And all to please Mr. Henry. He did not ride himself, and felt nervous or perhaps a little jealous when his wife was on horseback.
She was still very pretty of course—though by daylight the fine bloom of her cheeks began to break up into a network of tiny veins—and her fair, smooth brow bore no trace of the tragedy she has gone through. The double tragedy; for, soon after the master of Dandaloo's death in a Melbourne lunatic asylum, the little son of the house had died, not yet fourteen years of age, in an Inebriate's Home. Far was it from Mary to wish her friend to brood or repine; but to have ceased to remember as utterly as Agnes had done had something callous about it; and, in her own heart, Mary devoted a fresh regret to the memory of the poor little stepchild of fate.
The ball for which all these silken niceties were destined had been organised to raise funds for a public monument to the two explorers, Burke and Wills, and was to be one of the grandest ever given in Ballarat. His Excellency the Governor would, it was hoped, be present in person; the ladies had taken extraordinary pains with their toilettes, and there had been the usual grumblings at expense on the part of the husbands—though not a man but wished and privately expected HIS wife "to take the shine out of all the rest."
Mary had besought Richard to keep that evening free—it was her lot always to go out to entertainments under some one else's wing—and he had promised to do his utmost. But, a burnt child in this respect, Mary said she would believe it when she saw it; and the trend of events justified her scepticism. The night arrived; she was on the point of adjusting her wreath of forget-me-nots before her candle-lit mirror, when the dreaded summons came. Mahony had to change and hurry off, without a moment's delay.
"Send for Purdy. He'll see you across," he said as he banged the front door.
But Mary despatched the gardener at a run with a note to Tilly Ocock, who, she knew, would make room for her in her double-seated buggy.
Grindle got out, and Mary, her bunchy skirts held to her, took his place at the back beside Mrs. Amelia. Tilly sat next the driver, and talked to them over her shoulder—a great big jolly rattle of a woman, who ruled her surroundings autocratically.
"Lor, no—we left 'im counting eggs," she answered an inquiry on Mary's part. "Pa's got a brood of Cochin Chinas that's the pride and glory of 'is heart. And 'e's built 'imself the neatest little place for 'em you could meet on a summer's day: you MUST come over and admire it, my dear—that'll please 'im, no end. It was a condition I made for 'is going on keeping fowls. They were a perfect nuisance, all over the garden and round the kitchen and the back, till it wasn't safe to put your foot down anywhere—fowls ARE such messy things! At last I up and said I wouldn't have it any longer. So then 'e and Tom set to work and built themselves a fowl-house and a run. And there they spend their days thinking out improvements."
Here Tilly gave the driver a cautionary dig with her elbow; as she did this, an under-pocket chinked ominously. "Look out now, Davy, what you're doing with us!—Yes, that's splosh, Mary. I always bring a bag of change with me, my dear, so that those who lose shan't have an excuse for not paying up." Tilly was going to pass her evening, as usual, at the card-table. "Well, I hope you two'll enjoy yourselves. Remember now, Mrs. Grindle, if you please, that you're a married woman and must behave yourself, and not go in for any high jinks," she teased her prim little stepdaughter, as they dismounted from the conveyance and stood straightening their petticoats at the entrance to the hall.
"You know, Matilda, I do not intend to dance to-night," said Mrs Amelia in her sedate fashion: it was as if she sampled each word before parting with it.
"Oh, I know, bless you! and know why, too. If only it's not another false alarm! Poor old pa' so like to have a grandchild 'e was allowed to carry round. 'E mustn'n go near Henry's, of course, for fear the kid 'ud swallow one of 'is dropped aitches and choke over it." And Tilly threw back her head and laughed. "But you must hurry up, Mely, you know, if you want to oblige 'im."
"Really, Tilly!" expostulated Mary. ("She sometimes DOES go too far," she thought to herself. "The poor little woman!") "Let us two keep together," she said as she took Amelia's arm. "I don't intend to dance much either, as my husband isn't here."
But once inside the gaily decorated hall, she found it impossible to keep her word. Even on her way to a seat beside Agnes Ocock she was repeatedly stopped, and, when she sat down, up came first one, then another, to "request the pleasure." She could not go on refusing everybody: if she did, it would look as if she deliberately set out to be peculiar—a horrible thought to Mary. Besides, many of those who made their bow were important, influential gentlemen; for Richard's sake she must treat them politely.
For his sake, again, she felt pleased; rightly or wrongly she put the many attentions shown her down to the fact of her being his wife. So she turned and offered apologies to Agnes and Amelia, feeling at the same time thankful that Richard had not Mr. Henry's jealous disposition. There sat Agnes, looking as pretty as a picture, and was afraid to dance with any one but her own husband. And he preferred to play at cards!
"I think, dear, you might have ventured to accept the Archdeacon for a quadrille," she whispered behind her fan, as Agnes regretfully declined Mr. Long.
But Agnes shook her head. "It's better not, Mary. It saves trouble afterwards. Henry DOESN'T care to see it." Perhaps Agnes herself, once a passionate dancer, was growing a little too comfortable, thought Mary, as her own programme wandered from hand to hand.
Among the last to arrive was Purdy, red with haste, and making a great thump with his lame leg as he crossed the floor.
"I'm beastly late, Polly. What have you got left for me?"
"Why, really nothing, Purdy. I thought you weren't coming. But you may put your name down here if you like," and Mary handed him her programme with her thumb on an empty space: she generally made a point of sitting out a dance with Purdy that he might not feel neglected; and of late she had been especially careful not to let him notice any difference in her treatment of him. But when he gave back the card she found that he had scribbled his initials in all three blank lines. "Oh, you mustn't do that. I'm saving those for Richard."
"Our dance, I believe, Mrs. Mahony?" said a deep voice as the band struck up "The Rat Quadrilles." And, swaying this way and that in her flounced blue tarletan, Mary rose, put her hand within the proffered crook, and went off with the Police Magistrate, an elderly greybeard; went to walk or be teetotumed through the figures of the dance, with the supremely sane unconcern that she displayed towards all the arts.
"What odd behaviour!" murmured Mrs. Henry, following Purdy's retreating form with her eyes. "He took no notice of us whatever. And did you see, Amelia, how he stood and stared after Mary? Quite rudely, I thought."
Here Mrs. Grindle was forced to express an opinion of her own—always a trial for the nervous little woman. "I think it's because dear Mary looks so charming to-night, Agnes," she ventured in her mouselike way. Then moved up to make room for Archdeacon Long, who laid himself out to entertain the ladies.
* * * * *
It was after midnight when Mahony reached home. He would rather have gone to bed, but having promised Mary to put in an appearance, he changed and walked down to the town.
The ball was at its height. He skirted the rotating couples, seeking Mary. Friends hailed him.
"Ah, well done, doctor!"
"Still in time for a spin, sir."
"Have you seen my wife?"
"Indeed and I have. Mrs. Mahony's the belle o' the ball."
"Pleased to hear it. Where is she now?"
"Look here, Mahony, we've had a reg'lar dispute," cried Willie Urquhart pressing up; he was flushed and decidedly garrulous. "Almost came to blows we did, over whose was the finest pair o' shoulders—your wife's or Henry O.'s. I plumped for Mrs. M., and I b'lieve she topped the poll. By Jove! that blue gown makes 'em look just like ... what shall I say? ... like marble."
"Does fortune smile?" asked Mahony of Henry Ocock as he passed the card-players: he had cut Urquhart short with a nod. "So his Excellency didn't turn up, after all?"
"Sent a telegraphic communication at the last moment. No, I haven't seen her. But stay, there's Matilda wanting to speak to you, I believe."
Tilly was making all manner of signs to attract his attention.
"Good evening, doctor. Yes, I've a message. You'll find 'er in the cloakroom. She's been in there for the last half-'our or so. I think she's got the headache or something of that sort, and is waiting for you to take 'er home."
"Oh, thank goodness, there you are, Richard!" cried Mary as he opened the door of the cloakroom; and she rose from the bench on which she had been sitting with her shawl wrapped round her. "I thought you'd never come." She was pale, and looked distressed.
"Why, what's wrong, my dear? ... feeling faint?" asked Mahony incredulously. "If so, you had better wait for the buggy. It won't be long now; you ordered it for two o'clock."
"No, no, I'm not ill, I'd rather walk," said Mary breathlessly. "Only please let us get away. And without making a fuss."
"But what's the matter?"
"I'll tell you as we go. No, these boots won't hurt. And I can walk in them quite well. Fetch your own things, Richard." Her one wish was to get her husband out of the building.
They stepped into the street; it was a hot night and very dark. In her thin satin dancing-boots, Mary leaned heavily on Richard's arm, as they turned off the street-pavements into the unpaved roads.
Mahony let the lights of the main street go past; then said: "And now, Madam Wife, you'll perhaps be good enough to enlighten me as to what all this means?"
"Yes, dear, I will," answered Mary obediently. But her voice trembled; and Mahony was sharp of hearing.
"Why, Polly sweetheart ... surely nothing serious?"
"Yes, it is. I've had a very unpleasant experience this evening, Richard—very unpleasant indeed. I hardly know how to tell you. I feel so upset."
"Come—out with it!"
In a low voice, with downcast eyes, Mary told her story. All had gone well till about twelve o'clock: she had danced with this partner and that, and thoroughly enjoyed herself. Then came Purdy's turn. She was with Mrs. Long when he claimed her, and she at once suggested that they should sit out the dance on one of the settees placed round the hall, where they could amuse themselves by watching the dancers. But Purdy took no notice—"He was strange in his manner from the very beginning"—and led her into one of the little rooms that opened off the main body of the hall.
"And I didn't like to object. We were conspicuous enough as it was, his foot made such a bumping noise; it was worse than ever to-night, I thought."
For the same reason, though she had felt uncomfortable at being hidden away in there, she had not cared to refuse to stay: it seemed to make too much of the thing. Besides, she hoped some other couple would join them. But
"But, Mary...!" broke from Mahony; he was blank and bewildered.
Purdy, however, had got up after a moment or two and shut the door. And then—"Oh, it's no use, Richard, I can't tell you!" said poor Mary. "I don't know how to get the words over my lips. I think I've never felt so ashamed in all my life." And, worn out by the worry and excitement she had gone through, and afraid, in advance, of what she had still to face, Mary began to cry.
Mahony stood still; let her arm drop. "Do you mean me to understand," he demanded, as if unable to believe his ears: "to understand that Purdy... dared to... that he dared to behave to you in any but a—" And since Mary was using her pocket-handkerchief and could not reply: "Good God! Has the fellow taken leave of his senses? Is he mad? Was he drunk? Answer me! What does it all mean?" And Mary still continuing silent, he threw off the hand she had replaced on his arm. "Then you must walk home alone. I'm going back to get at the truth of this."
But Mary clung to him. "No, no, you must hear the whole story first." Anything rather than let him return to the hall. Yes, at first she thought he really had gone mad. "I can't tell you what I felt, Richard ... knowing it was Purdy—just Purdy. To see him like that—looking so horrible—and to have to listen to the dreadful things he said! Yes, I'm sure he had had too too much to drink. His breath smelt so." She had tried to pull away her hands; but he had held her, had put his arms round her.
At the anger she felt racing through her husband she tightened her grip, stringing meanwhile phrase to phrase with the sole idea of getting him safely indoors. Not till they were shut in the bedroom did she give the most humiliating detail of any: how, while she was still struggling to free herself from Purdy's embrace, the door had opened and Mr. Grindle looked in. "He drew back at once, of course. But it was awful, Richard! I turned cold. It seemed to give me more strength, though. I pulled myself away and got out of the room, I don't know how. My wreath was falling off. My dress was crumpled. Nothing would have made me go back to the ballroom. I couldn't have faced Amelia's husband—I think I shall never be able to face him again," and Mary's tears flowed anew.
Richard was stamping about the room, aimlessly moving things from their places. "God Almighty! he shall answer to me for this. I'll go back and take a horsewhip with me."
"For my sake, don't have a scene with him. It would only make matters worse," she pleaded.
But Richard strode up and down, treading heedlessly on the flouncings of her dress. "What?—and let him believe such behaviour can go unpunished? That whenever it pleases him, he can insult my wife—insult my wife? Make her the talk of the place? Brand her before the whole town as a light woman?"
"Oh, not the whole town, Richard. I shall have to explain to Amelia... and Tilly ... and Agnes—that's all," sobbed Mary in parenthesis.
"Yes, and I ask if it's a dignified or decent thing for you to have to do?—to go running round assuring your friends of your virtue!" cried Richard furiously. "Let me tell you this, my dear: at whatever door you knock, you'll be met by disbelief. Fate played you a shabby trick when it allowed just that low cad to put his head in. What do you think would be left of any woman's reputation after Grindle Esquire had pawed it over? No, Mary, you've been rendered impossible; and you'll be made to feel it for the rest of your days. People will point to you as the wife who takes advantage of her husband's absence to throw herself into another man's arms; and to me as the convenient husband who provides the opportunity"—and Mahony groaned. In an impetuous flight of fancy he saw his good name smirched, his practice laid waste.
Mary lifted her head at this, and wiped her eyes. "Oh, you always paint everything so black. People know me—know I would never, never do such a thing."
"Unfortunately we live among human beings, my dear, not in a community of saints! But what does a good woman know of how a slander of this kind clings?"
"But if I have a perfectly clear conscience?" Mary's tone was incredulous, even a trifle aggrieved.
"It spells ruin all the same in a hole like this, if it once gets about."
"But it shan't. I'll put my pride in my pocket and go to Amelia the first thing in the morning. I'll make it right somehow.—But I must say, Richard, in the whole affair I don't think you feel a bit sorry for me. Or at least only for me as your wife. The horridest part of what happened was mine, not yours—and I think you might show a little sympathy."
"I'm too furious to feel sorry," replied Richard with gaunt truthfulness, still marching up and down.
"Well, I do," said Mary with a spice of defiance. "In spite of everything, I feel sorry that any one could so far forget himself as Purdy did to-night."
"You'll be telling me next you have warmer feelings still for him!" burst out Mahony. "Sorry for the crazy lunatic who, after all these years, after all I've done for him and the trust I've put in him, suddenly falls to making love to the woman who bears my name? Why, a madhouse is the only place he's fit for."
"There you're unjust. And wrong, too. It ... it wasn't as sudden as you think. Purdy has been queer in his behaviour for quite a long time now."
"What in Heaven's name do you mean by that?"
"I mean what I say," said Mary staunchly, though she turned a still deeper red. "Oh, you might just as well be angry with yourself for being so blind and stupid."
"Do you mean to tell me you were aware of something?" Mahony stopped short in his perambulations and fixed her, open-mouthed.
"I couldn't help it.—Not that there was much to know, Richard. And I thought of coming to you about it—indeed I did. I tried to, more than once. But you were always so busy; I hadn't the heart to worry you. For I knew very well how upset you would be."
"So it comes to this, does it?" said Mahony with biting emphasis. "My wife consents to another man paying her illicit attentions behind her husband's back!"
"Oh, no, no, no! But I knew how fond you were of Purdy. And I always hoped it would blow over without ... without coming to anything."
"God forgive me!" cried Mahony passionately. "It takes a woman's brain to house such a preposterous idea."
"Oh, I'm not quite the fool you make me out to be, Richard. I've got some sense in me. But it's always the same. I think of you, and you think of no one but yourself. I only wanted to spare you. And this is the thanks I get for it." And sitting down on the side of the bed she wept bitterly.
"Will you assure me, madam, that till to-night nothing I could have objected to has ever passed between you?"
"No, Richard, I won't! I won't tell you anything else. You get so angry you don't know what you're saying. And if you can't trust me better than that—Purdy said to-night you didn't understand me... and never had."
"Oh, he did, did he? There we have it! Now I'll know every word the scoundrel has ever said to you—and if I have to drag it from you by force."
But Mary set her lips, with an obstinacy that was something quite new in her. It first amazed Mahony, then made him doubly angry. One word gave another; for the first time in their married lives they quarrelled—quarrelled hotly. And, as always at such times, many a covert criticism a secret disapproval which neither had ever meant to breathe to the other, slipped out and added fuel to the fire. It was appalling to both to find on how many points they stood at variance.
Some half hour later, leaving Mary still on the edge of the bed, still crying, Mahony stalked grimly into the surgery and taking pen and paper scrawled, without even sitting down to do it:
YOU DAMNED SCOUNDREL! IF EVER YOU SHOW YOUR FACE HERE AGAIN, I'LL THRASH YOU TO WITHIN AN INCH OF YOUR LIFE.
Then he stepped on to the verandah and crossed the lawn, carrying the letter in his hand.
But already his mood was on the turn: it seemed as if, in the physical effort of putting the words to paper, his rage had spent itself. He was conscious now of a certain limpness, both of mind and body; his fit of passion over, he felt dulled, almost indifferent to what had happened. Now, too, another feeling was taking possession of him, opening up vistas of a desert emptiness that he hardly dared to face.
But stay! ... was that not a movement in the patch of blackness under the fig-tree? Had not something stirred there? He stopped, and strained his eyes. No, it was only a bough that swayed in the night air. He went out of the garden to the corner of the road and came back empty handed. But at the same spot he hesitated, and peered. "Who's there?" he asked sharply. And again: "Is there any one there?" But the silence remained unbroken; and once more he saw that the shifting of a branch had misled him.
Mary was moving about the bedroom. He ought to go to her and ask pardon for his violence. But he was not yet come to a stage when he felt equal to a reconciliation; he would rest for a while, let his troubled balance right itself. And so he lay down on the surgery sofa, and drew a rug over him.
He closed his eyes, but could not sleep. His thoughts raced and flew; his brain hunted clues and connections. He found himself trying to piece things together; to fit them in, to recollect. And every now and then some sound outside would make him start up and listen ... and listen. Was that not a footstep? ... the step of one who might come feeling his way... dim-eyed with regret? There were such things in life as momentary lapses, as ungovernable impulses—as fiery contrition ... the anguish of remorse. And yet, once more, he sat up and listened till his ears rang.
Then, not the ghostly footsteps of a delusive hope, but a hard, human crunching that made the boards of the verandah shake. Tossing off the opossum-rug, which had grown unbearably heavy, he sprang to his feet; was wide awake and at the window, staring sleep-charged into the dawn, before a human hand had found the night-bell and a distracted voice cried:
"Does a doctor live here? A doctor, I say ...?"
The hot airless night had become the hot airless day: in the garden the leaves on trees and shrubs drooped as under an invisible weight. All the stale smells of the day before persisted—that of the medicaments on the shelves, of the unwetted dust on the roads, the sickly odour of malt from a neighbouring brewery. The blowflies buzzed about the ceiling; on the table under the lamp a dozen or more moths lay singed and dead. Now it was nearing six o'clock; clad in his thinnest driving-coat, Mahony sat and watched the man who had come to fetch him beat his horse to a lather.
"Mercy! ... have a little mercy on the poor brute," he said more than once.
He had stood out for some time against obeying the summons, which meant, at lowest, a ten-mile drive. Not if he were offered a hundred pounds down, was his first impetuous refusal; for he had not seen the inside of a bed that night. But at this he trapped an odd look in the other's eyes, and suddenly became aware that he was still dressed as for the ball. Besides, an equally impetuous answer was flung back at him: he promised no hundred pounds, said the man—hadn't got it to offer. He appealed solely to the doctor's humanity: it was a question of saving a life—that of his only son. So here they were.
"We doctors have no business with troubles of our own," thought Mahony, as he listened to the detailed account of an ugly accident. On the roof of a shed the boy had missed his footing, slipped and fallen some twenty feet, landing astride a piece of quartering. Picking himself up, he had managed to crawl home, and at first they thought he would be able to get through the night without medical aid. But towards two o'clock his sufferings had grown unbearable. God only knew if, by this time, he had not succumbed to them.
"My good man, one does not die of pain alone."
They followed a flat, treeless road, the grass on either side of which was burnt to hay. Buggy and harness—the latter eked out with bits of string and an old bootlace—were coated with the dust of months; and the gaunt, long-backed horse shuffled through a reddish flour, which accompanied them as a choking cloud. A swarm of small black flies kept pace with the vehicle, settling on nose, eyes, neck and hands of its occupants, crawling over the horse's belly and in and out of its nostrils. The animal made no effort to shake itself free, seemed indifferent to the pests: they were only to be disturbed by the hail of blows which the driver occasionally stood up to deliver. At such moments Mahony, too, started out of the light doze he was continually dropping into.
Arrived at their destination—a miserable wooden shanty on a sheep-run at the foot of the ranges—he found his patient tossing on a dirty bed, with a small pulse of 120, while the right thigh was darkly bruised and swollen. The symptoms pointed to serious internal injuries. He performed the necessary operation.
There was evidently no woman about the place; the coffee the father brought him was thick as mud. On leaving, he promised to return next day and to bring some one with him to attend to the lad.
For the home-journey, he got a mount on a young and fidgety mare, whom he suspected of not long having worn the saddle. In the beginning he had his hands full with her. Then, however, she ceased her antics and consented to advance at an easy trot.
HOW tired he felt! He would have liked to go to bed and sleep for a week on end. As it was, he could not reckon on even an hour's rest. By the time he reached home the usual string of patients would await him; and these disposed of, and a bite of breakfast snatched, out he must set anew on his morning round. He did not feel well either: the coffee seemed to have disagreed with him. He had a slight sense of nausea and was giddy; the road swam before his eyes. Possibly the weather had something to do with it; though a dull, sunless morning it was hot as he had never known it. He took out a stud, letting the ends of his collar fly.
Poor little Mary, he thought inconsequently: he had hurt and frightened her by his violence. He felt ashamed of himself now. By daylight he could see her point of view. Mary was so tactful and resourceful that she might safely be trusted to hush up the affair, to explain away the equivocal position in which she had been found. After all, both of them were known to be decent, God-fearing people. And one had only to look at Mary to see that here was no light woman. Nobody in his senses—not even Grindle—could think evil of that broad, transparent brow, of those straight, kind, merry eyes.
No, this morning his hurt was a purely personal one. That it should just be Purdy who did him this wrong! Purdy, playmate and henchman, ally in how many a boyish enterprise, in the hardships and adventures of later life. "Mine own familiar friend, in whom I trusted, which did eat of my bread!" Never had he turned a deaf ear to Purdy's needs; he had fed him and clothed him, caring for him as for a well-loved brother. Surely few things were harder to bear than a blow in the dark from one who stood thus deeply in your debt, on whose gratitude you would have staked your head. It was, of course, conceivable that he had been swept off his feet by Mary's vivid young beauty, by over-indulgence, by the glamour of the moment. But if a man could not restrain his impulses where the wife of his most intimate friend was concerned ... Another thing: as long as Mary had remained an immature slip of a girl, Purdy had not given her a thought. When, however, under her husband's wing she had blossomed out into a lovely womanhood, of which any man might be proud, then she had found favour in his eyes. And the slight this put on Mary's sterling moral qualities, on all but her physical charms, left the worst taste of any in the mouth.
Then, not content with trying to steal her love, Purdy had also sought to poison her mind against him. How that rankled! For until now he had hugged the belief that Purdy's opinion of him was coloured by affection and respect, by the tradition of years. Whereas, from what Mary had let fall, he saw that the boy must have been sitting in judgment on him, regarding his peculiarities with an unloving eye, picking his motives to pieces: it was like seeing the child of your loins, of your hopes, your unsleeping care, turn and rend you with black ingratitude. Yes, everything went to prove Purdy's unworthiness. Only HE had not seen it, only he had been blind to the truth. And wrapped in this smug blindness he had given his false friend the run of his home, setting, after the custom of the country, no veto on his eternal presence. Disloyalty was certainly abetted by just the extravagant, exaggerated hospitality of colonial life. Never must the doors of your house be shut; all you had you were expected to share with any sundowner of fortune who chanced to stop at your gate.
The mare shied with a suddenness that almost unseated him: the next moment she had the bit between her teeth and was galloping down the road. Clomp-clomp-clomp went her hoofs on the baked clay; the dust smothered and stung, and he was holding for all he was worth to reins spanned stiff as iron. On they flew; his body hammered the saddle; his breath came sobbingly. But he kept his seat; and a couple of miles farther on he was down, soothing the wild-eyed, quivering, sweating beast, whose nostrils worked like a pair of bellows. There he stood, glancing now back along the road, now up at the sky. His hat had gone flying at the first unexpected plunge; he ought to return and look for it. But he shrank from the additional fatigue, the delay in reaching home this would mean. The sky was still overcast: he decided to risk it. Knotting his handkerchief he spread it cap-wise over his head and got back into the saddle.
Mine own familiar friend! And more than that: he could add to David's plaint and say, my only friend. In Purdy the one person he had been intimate with passed out of his life. There was nobody to take the vacant place. He had been far too busy of late years to form new friendships: what was left of him after the day's work was done was but a kind of shell: the work was the meaty contents. As you neared the forties, too, it grew ever harder to fit yourself to other people: your outlook had become too set, your ideas too unfluid. Hence you clung the faster to ties formed in the old, golden days, worn though these might be to the thinness of a hair. And then, there was one's wife, of course—one's dear, good wife. But just her very dearness and goodness served to hold possible intimates at arm's length. The knowledge that you had such a confidante, that all your thoughts were shared with her, struck disastrously at a free exchange of privacies. No, he was alone. He had not so much as a dog now, to follow at heel and look up at him with the melancholy eyes of its race. Old Pompey had come at poison, and Mary had not wished to have a strange dog in the new house. She did not care for animals, and the main charge of it would have fallen on her. He had no time—no time even for a dog!
Better it would assuredly be to have some one to fall back on: it was not good for a man to stand so alone. Did troubles come, they would strike doubly hard because of it; then was the time to rejoice in a warm, human handclasp. And moodily pondering the reasons for his solitariness, he was once more inclined to lay a share of the blame on the conditions of the life. The population of the place was still in a state of flux: he and a mere handful of others would soon, he believed, be the oldest residents in Ballarat. People came and went, tried their luck, failed, and flitted off again, much as in the early days. What was the use of troubling to become better acquainted with a person, when, just as you began really to know him, he was up and away? At home, in the old country, a man as often as not died in the place where he was born; and the slow, eventless years, spent shoulder to shoulder, automatically brought about a kind of intimacy. But this was only a surface reason: there was another that went deeper. He had no talent for friendship, and he knew it; indeed, he would even invert the thing, and say bluntly that his nature had a twist in it which directly hindered friendship; and this, though there came moments when he longed, as your popular mortal never did, for close companionship. Sometimes he felt like a hungry man looking on at a banquet, of which no one invited him to partake, because he had already given it to be understood that he would decline. But such lapses were few. On nine days out of ten, he did not feel the need of either making or receiving confidences; he shrank rather, with a peculiar shy dread, from personal unbosomings. Some imp housed in him—some wayward, wilful, mocking Irish devil—bidding him hold back, remain cool, dry-eyed, in face of others' joys and pains. Hence the break with Purdy was a real calamity. The associations of some five-and-twenty years were bound up in it; measured by it, one's marriage seemed a thing of yesterday. And even more than the friend, he would miss the friendship and all it stood for: this solid base of joint experience; this past of common memories into which one could dip as into a well; this handle of "Do you remember?" which opened the door to such a wealth of anecdote. From now on, the better part of his life would be a closed book to any but himself; there were allusions, jests without number, homely turns of speech, which not a soul but himself would understand. The thought of it made him feel old and empty; affected him like the news of a death.—But MUST it be? Was there no other way out? Slow to take hold, he was a hundred times slower to let go. Before now he had seen himself sticking by a person through misunderstandings, ingratitude, deception, to the blank wonder of the onlookers. Would he not be ready here, too, to forgive ... to forget?
But he felt hot, hot to suffocation, and his heart was pounding in uncomfortable fashion. The idea of stripping and plunging into ice-cold water began to make a delicious appeal to him. Nothing surpassed such a plunge after a broken night. But of late he had had to be wary of indulging: a bath of this kind, taken when he was over-tired, was apt to set the accursed tic a-going; and then he could pace the floor in agony. And yet... Good God, how hot it was! His head ached distractedly; an iron band of pain seemed to encircle it. With a sudden start of alarm he noticed that he had ceased to perspire—now he came to think of it, not even the wild gallop had induced perspiration. Pulling up short, he fingered his pulse. It was abnormal, even for him ... and feeble. Was it fancy, or did he really find a difficulty in breathing? He tore off his collar, threw open the neck of his shirt. He had a sensation as if all the blood in his body was flying to his head: his face must certainly be crimson. He put both hands to this top-heavy head, to support it; and in a blind fit of vertigo all but lost his balance in the saddle: the trees spun round, the distance went black. For a second still he kept upright; then he flopped to the ground, falling face downwards, his arms huddled under him.
The mare, all her spirit gone, stood lamb-like and waited. As he did not stir she turned and sniffed at him, curiously. Still he lay prone, and, having stretched her tired jaws, she raised her head and uttered a whinny—an almost human cry of distress. This, too, failing in its effect, she nosed the ground for a few yards, then set out at a gentle, mane-shaking trot for home.
* * * * *
Found, a dark conspicuous heap on the long bare road, and carted back to town by a passing bullock-waggon, Mahony lay, once the death-like coma had yielded, and tossed in fever and delirium. By piecing his broken utterances together Mary learned all she needed to know about the case he had gone out to attend, and his desperate ride home. But it was Purdy's name that was oftenest on his lips; it was Purdy he reviled and implored; and when he sprang up with the idea of calling his false friend to account, it was as much as she could do to restrain him.
She had the best of advice. Old Dr. Munce himself came two and three times a day. Mary had always thought him a dear old man; and she felt surer than ever of it when he stood patting her hand and bidding her keep a good heart; for they would certainly pull her husband through.
"There aren't so many of his kind here, Mrs. Mahony, that we can afford to lose him."
But altogether she had never known till now how many and how faithful their friends were. Hardly, for instance, had Richard been carried in, stiff as a log and grey as death, when good Mrs. Devine was fumbling with the latch of the gate, an old sunbonnet perched crooked on her head: she had run down just as she was, in the midst of shelling peas for dinner. She begged to be allowed to help with the nursing. But Mary felt bound to refuse. She knew how the thought of what he might have said in his delirium would worry Richard, when he recovered his senses: few men laid such weight as he on keeping their private thoughts private.
Not to be done, Mrs. Devine installed herself in the kitchen to superintend the cooking. Less for the patient, into whom at first only liquid nourishment could be injected, than: "To see as your own strength is kep' up, dearie." Tilly swooped down and bore off Trotty. Delicate fruits, new-laid eggs, jellies and wines came from Agnes Ocock; while Amelia Grindle, who had no such dainties to offer arrived every day at three o'clock, to mind the house while Mary slept. Archdeacon Long was also a frequent visitor, bringing not so much spiritual as physical aid; for, as the frenzy reached its height and Richard was maddened by the idea that a plot was brewing against his life, a pair of strong arms were needed to hold him down. Over and above this, letters of sympathy flowed in; grateful patients called to ask with tears in their eyes how the doctor did; virtual strangers stopped the servant in the street with the same query. Mary was sometimes quite overwhelmed by the kindness people showed her.
The days that preceded the crisis were days of keenest anxiety. But Mary never allowed her heart to fail her. For if, in the small things of life, she was given to building on a mortal's good sense, how much more could she rely at such a pass on the sense of the One above all others. What she said to herself as she moved tirelessly about the sick room, damping cloths, filling the ice-bag, infiltering drops of nourishment, was: "God is good!" and these words, far from breathing a pious resignation, voiced a confidence so bold that it bordered on irreverence. Their real meaning was: Richard has still ever so much work to do in the world, curing sick people and saving their lives. God must know this, and cannot now mean to be so foolish as to WASTE him, by letting him die.
And her reliance on the Almighty's far-sighted wisdom was justified. Richard weathered the crisis, slowly revived to life and health; and the day came when, laying a thin white hand on hers, he could whisper: "My poor little wife, what a fright I must have given you!" And added: "I think an illness of some kind was due—overdue—with me."
When he was well enough to bear the journey they left home for a watering-place on the Bay. There, on an open beach facing the Heads, Mahony lay with his hat pulled forward to shade his eyes, and with nothing to do but to scoop up handfuls of the fine coral sand and let it flow again, like liquid silk, through his fingers. From beneath the brim he watched the water churn and froth on the brown reefs; followed the sailing-ships which, beginning as mere dots on the horizon, swelled to stately white waterbirds, and shrivelled again to dots; drank in, with greedy nostrils, the mixed spice of warm sea, hot seaweed and aromatic tea-scrub.
And his strength came back as rapidly as usual. He soon felt well enough, leaning on Mary's arm, to stroll up and down the sandy roads of the township; to open book and newspaper; and finally to descend the cliffs for a dip in the transparent, turquoise sea. At the end of a month he was at home again, sunburnt and hearty, eager to pick up the threads he had let fall. And soon Mary was able to make the comfortable reflection that everything was going on just as before.
In this, however, she was wrong; never, in their united lives, would things be quite the same again. Outwardly, the changes might pass unnoticed—though even here, it was true, a certain name had now to be avoided, with which they had formerly made free. But this was not exactly hard to do, Purdy having promptly disappeared: they heard at second-hand that he had at last accepted promotion and gone to Melbourne. And since Mary had suffered no inconvenience from his thoughtless conduct, they tacitly agreed to let the matter rest. That was on the surface. Inwardly, the differences were more marked. Even in the mental attitude they adopted towards what had happened, husband and wife were thoroughly dissimilar. Mary did not refer to it because she thought it would be foolish to re-open so disagreeable a subject. In her own mind, however, she faced it frankly, dating back to it as the night when Purdy had been so odious and Richard so angry. Mahony, on the other hand, gave the affair a wide berth even in thought. For him it was a kind of Pandora's box, of which, having once caught a glimpse of the contents, he did not again dare to raise the lid. Things might escape from it that would alter his whole life. But he, too, dated from it in the sense of suddenly becoming aware, with a throb of regret, that he had left his youth behind him. And such phrases as: "When I was young," "In my younger days," now fell instinctively from his lips.
Nor was this all. Deep down in Mary's soul there slumbered a slight embarrassment; one she could not get the better of: it spread and grew. This was a faint, ever so faint a doubt of Richard's wisdom. Odd she had long known him to be, different in many small and some great ways from those they lived amongst; but hitherto this very oddness of his had seemed to her an outgrowth on the side of superiority—fairer judgment, higher motives. Just as she had always looked up to him as rectitude in person, so she had thought him the embodiment of a fine, though somewhat unworldly wisdom. Now her faith in his discernment was shaken. His treatment of her on the night of the ball had shocked, confused her. She was ready to make allowance for him: she had told her story clumsily, and had afterwards been both cross and obstinate; while part of his violence was certainly to be ascribed to his coming breakdown. But this did not cover everything; and the ungenerous spirit in which he had met her frankness, his doubt of her word, of her good faith—his utter unreasonableness in short—had left a cold patch of astonishment in her, which would not yield. She lit on it at unexpected moments. Meanwhile, she groped for an epithet that would fit his behaviour. Beginning with some rather vague and high-flown terms she gradually came down, until with the sense of having found the right thing at last, she fixed on the adjective "silly"—a word which, for the rest, was in common use with Mary, had she to describe anything that struck her as queer or extravagant. And sitting over her fancywork, into which, being what Richard called "safe as the grave," she sewed more thoughts than most women: sitting thus, she would say to herself with a half smile and an incredulous shake of the head: "SO silly!"
But hers was one of those inconvenient natures which trust blindly or not at all: once worked on by a doubt or a suspicion, they are never able to shake themselves free of it again. As time went on, she suffered strange uncertainties where some of Richard's decisions were concerned. In his good intentions she retained an implicit belief; but she was not always satisfied that he acted in the wisest way. Occasionally it struck her that he did not see as clearly as she did; at other times, that he let a passing whim run away with him and override his common sense. And, her eyes thus opened, it was not in Mary to stand dumbly by and watch him make what she held to be mistakes. Openly to interfere, however, would also have gone against the grain in her; she had bowed for too long to his greater age and experience. So, seeing no other way out, she fell back on indirect methods. To her regret. For, in watching other women "manage" their husbands, she had felt proud to think that nothing of this kind was necessary between Richard and her. Now she, too, began to lay little schemes by which, without his being aware of it, she might influence his judgment, divert or modify his plans.
Her enforced use of such tactics did not lessen the admiring affection she bore him: that was framed to withstand harder tests. Indeed, she was even aware of an added tenderness towards him, now she saw that it behoved her to have forethought for them both. But into the wife's love for her husband there crept something of a mother's love for her child; for a wayward and impulsive, yet gifted creature, whose welfare and happiness depended on her alone. And it is open to question whether the mother dormant in Mary did not fall with a kind of hungry joy on this late-found task. The work of her hands done, she had known empty hours. That was over now. With quickened faculties, all her senses on the alert, she watched, guided, hindered, foresaw.
Old Ocock failed in health that winter. He was really old now, was two or three and sixty; and, with the oncoming of the rains and cold, gusty winds, various infirmities began to plague him.
"He's done himself rather too well since his marriage," said Mahony in private. "After being a worker for the greater part of his life, it would have been better for him to work on to the end."
Yes, that, Mary could understand and agree with. But Richard continued: "All it means, of course, is that the poor fellow is beginning to prepare for his last long journey. These aches and pains of his represent the packing and the strapping without which not even a short earthly journey can be undertaken. And his is into eternity."
Mary, making lace over a pillow, looked up at this, a trifle apprehensively. "What things you do say! If any one heard you, they'd think you weren't very... very religious." Her fear lest Richard's outspokenness should be mistaken for impiety never left her.
Tilly was plain and to the point. "Like a bear with a sore back that's what 'e is, since 'e can't get down among his blessed birds. He leads Tom the life of the condemned, over the feeding of those bantams. As if the boy could help 'em not laying when they ought!"
At thirty-six Tilly was the image of her mother. Entirely gone was the slight crust of acerbity that had threatened her in her maiden days, when, thanks to her misplaced affections, it had seemed for a time as if the purple prizes of life—love, offers of marriage, a home of her own—were going to pass her by. She was now a stout, high-coloured woman with a roar of a laugh, full, yet firm lips, and the whitest of teeth. Mary thought her decidedly toned down and improved since her marriage; but Mahony put it that the means Tilly now had at her disposal were such as to make people shut an eye to her want of refinement. However that might be, "old Mrs. Ocock" was welcomed everywhere—even by those on whom her bouncing manners grated. She was invariably clad in a thick and handsome black silk gown, over which she wore all the jewellery she could crowd on her person—huge cameo brooches, ear-drops, rings and bracelets, lockets and chains. Her name topped subscription-lists, and, having early weaned her old husband of his dissenting habits, she was a real prop to Archdeacon Long and his church, taking the chief and most expensive table at tea-meetings, the most thankless stall at bazaars. She kept open house, too, and gave delightful parties, where, while some sat at loo, others were free to turn the rooms upside-down for a dance, or to ransack wardrobes and presses for costumes for charades. She drove herself and her friends about in various vehicles, briskly and well, and indulged besides in many secret charities. Her husband thought no such woman had ever trodden the earth, and publicly blessed the day on which he first set eyes on her.
"After the dose I'd 'ad with me first, 'twas a bit of a risk, that I knew. And it put me off me sleep for a night or two before'and. But my Tilly's the queen o' women—I say the queen, sir! I've never 'ad a wrong word from 'er, an' when I go she gits every penny I've got. Why, I'm jiggered if she didn't stop at 'ome from the Races t'other day, an' all on my account!"
"Now then, pa, drop it. Or the doctor'll think you've been mixing your liquors. Give your old pin here and let me poultice it."
He had another sound reason for gratitude. Somewhere in the background of his house dwelt his two ne'er-do-well sons; Tilly had accepted their presence uncomplainingly. Indeed she sometimes stood up for Tom, against his father. "Now, pa, stop nagging at the boy, will you? You'll never get anything out of 'im that way. Tom's right enough if you know how to take him. He'll never set the Thames on fire, if that's what you mean. But I'm thankful, I can tell you, to have a handy chap like him at my back. If I 'ad to depend on your silly old paws, I'd never get anything done at all."
And so Tom, a flaxen-haired, sheepish-looking man of something over thirty, led a kind of go-as-you-please existence about the place, a jack-of-all-trades—in turn carpenter, whitewasher, paper-hanger—an expert fetcher and carrier, bullied by his father, sheltered under his stepmother's capacious wing. "It isn't his fault 'e's never come to anything. 'E hadn't half a chance. The truth is, Mary, for all they say to the opposite, men are harder than women—so unforgiving-like. Just because Tom made a slip once, they've never let 'im forget it, but tied it to 'is coat-tails for 'im to drag with 'im through life. Littleminded I call it.—Besides, if you ask me, my dear, it must have been a case of six of one and half a dozen of the other. Tom as sedoocer!—can you picture it, Mary? It's enough to make one split." And with a meaning glance at her friend, Tilly broke out in a contagious peal of laughter.
As for Johnny—well ... and she shrugged her shoulders. "A bad egg's bad, Mary, and no amount o' cooking and doctoring 'll sweeten it. But he didn't make 'imself, did 'e?—and my opinion is, parents should look to themselves a bit more than they do."
As she spoke, she threw open the door of the little room where Johnny housed. It was an odd place. The walls were plastered over with newspaper-cuttings, with old prints from illustrated journals, with snippets torn off valentines and keepsakes. Stuck one on another, these formed a kind of loose wallpaper, which stirred in the draught. Tilly went on: "I see myself to it being kept cleanish; 'e hates the girl to come bothering round. Oh, just Johnny's rubbish!" For Mary had stooped curiously to the table which was littered with a queer collection of objects: matchboxes on wheels; empty reels of cotton threaded on strings; bits of wood shaped in rounds and squares; boxes made of paper; dried seaweed glued in patterns on strips of cardboard. "He's for ever pottering about with 'em. What amusement 'e gets out of it, only the Lord can tell."
She did not mention the fact, known to Mary, that when Johnny had a drinking-bout it was she who looked after him, got him comfortably to bed, and made shift to keep the noise from his father's ears. Yes, Tilly's charity seemed sheerly inexhaustible.
Again, there was the case of Jinny's children.
For in this particular winter Tilly had exchanged her black silk for a stuff gown, heavily trimmed with crepe. She was in mourning for poor Jinny, who had died not long after giving birth to a third daughter.
"Died OF the daughter, in more senses than one," was Tilly's verdict.
John had certainly been extremely put out at the advent of yet another girl; and the probability was that Jinny had taken his reproaches too much to heart. However it was, she could not rally; and one day Mary received a telegram saying that if she wished to see Jinny alive, she must come at once. No mention was made of Tilly, but Mary ran to her with the news, and Tilly declared her intention of going, too. "I suppose I may be allowed to say good-bye to my own sister, even though I'm not a Honourable?"
"Not that Jinn and I ever really drew together," she continued as the train bore them over the ranges. "She'd too much of poor pa in 'er. And I was all ma. Hard luck that it must just be her who managed to get such a domineering brute for a husband. You'll excuse me, Mary, won't you?—a domineering brute!"
"And to think I once envied her the match!" she went on meditatively, removing her bonnet and substituting a kind of nightcap intended to keep her hair free from dust. "Lauks, Mary, it's a good thing fate doesn't always take us at our word. We don't know which side our bread's buttered on, and that's the truth. Why, my dear, I wouldn't exchange my old boy for all the Honourables in creation!"
They were in time to take leave of Jinny lying white as her pillows behind the red rep hangings of the bed. The bony parts of her face had sprung into prominence, her large soft eyes fallen in. John, stalking solemnly and noiselessly in a long black coat, himself led the two women to the bedroom, where he left them; they sat down one on each side of the great fourposter. Jinny hardly glanced at her sister: it was Mary she wanted, Mary's hand she fumbled for while she told her trouble. "It's the children, Mary," she whispered. "I can't die happy because of the children. John doesn't understand them." Jinny's whole existence was bound up in the three little ones she had brought into the world.
"Dearest Jinny, don't fret. I'll look after them for you, and take care of them," promised Mary wiping away her tears.
"I thought so," said the dying woman, relieved, but without gratitude: it seemed but natural to her, who was called upon to give up everything, that those remaining should make sacrifices. Her fingers plucked at the sheet. "John's been good to me," she went on, with closed eyes. "But... if it 'adn't been for the children ... yes, the children.... I think I'd 'a' done better—" her speech lapsed oddly, after her years of patient practice—"to 'ave taken ... to 'a' taken"—the name remained unspoken.
Tilly raised astonished eyebrows at Mary. "Wandering!" she telegraphed in lip-language, forming the word very largely and distinctly; for neither knew of Jinny having had any but her one glorious chance.
Tilly's big heart yearned over her sister's forlorn little ones; they could be heard bleating like lambs for the mother to whom till now they had never cried in vain. Her instant idea was to gather all three up in her arms and carry them off to her own roomy, childless home, where she would have given them a delightful, though not maybe a particularly discriminating upbringing. But the funeral over, the blinds raised, the two ladies and the elder babes clad in the stiff, expensive mourning that befitted the widower's social position, John put his foot down: and to Mary was extremely explicit: "Under no circumstances will I permit Matilda to have anything to do with the rearing of my children excellent creature though she be!"
On the other hand, he would not have been unwilling for Mary to mother them. This, of course, was out of the question: Richard had accustomed himself to Trotty, but would thank you, she knew, for any fresh encroachment on his privacy. Before leaving, however, she promised to sound him on the plan of placing Trotty as a weekly boarder at a Young Ladies' Seminary, and taking the infant in her place. For it came out that John intended to set Zara—Zara, but newly returned from a second voyage to England and still sipping like a bee at the sweets of various situations—at the head of his house once more. And Mary could not imagine Zara rearing a baby.