Equally hard was it to understand John not having learnt wisdom from his two previous failures to live with his sister. But, in seeking tactfully to revive his memory, she ran up against such an ingrained belief in the superiority of his own kith and kin that she was baffled, and could only fold her hands and hope for the best.
"Besides, Jane's children are infinitely more tractable than poor Emma's," was John's parting shot.—Strange, thought Mary, how attached John was to his second family.
He had still another request to make of her. The reports he received of the boy Johnny, now a pupil at the Geelong Grammar School, grew worse from term to term. It had become clear to him that he was unfortunate enough to possess an out-and-out dullard for a son. Regretfully giving up, therefore, the design he had cherished of educating Johnny for the law, he had resolved to waste no more good money on the boy, but to take him, once he was turned fifteen, into his own business. Young John, however, had proved refractory, expressing a violent antipathy to the idea of office-life. "It is here that I should be glad of another opinion—and I turn to you, Mary, my dear. Jane was of no use whatever in such matters, none whatever, being, and very properly so, entirely wrapped up in her own children." So Mary arranged to break her homeward journey at Geelong, for the purpose of seeing and summing up her nephew.
Johnny—he was Jack at school, but that, of course, his tomfools of relations couldn't be expected to remember—Johnny was waiting on the platform when the train steamed in. "Oh, what a bonny boy!" said Mary to herself. "All poor Emma's good looks."
Johnny had been kicking his heels disconsolately: another of these wretched old women coming down to jaw him! He wished every one of them at the bottom of the sea. However he pulled himself together and went forward to greet his aunt: he was not in the least bashful. And as they left the station he took stock of her, out of the tail of his eye. With a growing approval: this one at any rate he needn't feel ashamed of; and she was not so dreadfully old after all. Perhaps she mightn't turn out quite such a wet blanket as the rest; though, from experience, he couldn't connect any pleasure with relatives' visits: they were nasty pills that had to be swallowed. He feared and disliked his father; Aunt Zara had been sheerly ridiculous, with her frills and simpers—the boys had imitated her for weeks after—and once, most shameful of all, his stepmother had come down and publicly wept over him. His cheeks still burnt at the remembrance; and he had been glad to hear that she was dead: served her jolly well right! But this Aunt Mary seemed a horse of another colour; and he did not sneak her into town by a back way, as he had planned to do before seeing her.
Greatly as Mary might admire the tall fair lad by her side, she found herself at a loss how to deal with him, the mind of a schoolboy of thirteen being a closed book to her. Johnny looked demure and answered "Yes, Aunt Mary," to everything she said; but this was of small assistance in getting at the real boy inside.
Johnny had no intention, in the beginning, of taking her into his often-betrayed and badly bruised confidence. However a happy instinct led her to suggest a visit to a shop that sold brandy-snaps and gingerbeer; and this was too much for his strength of mind. Golly, didn't he have a tuck-in! And a whole pound of bull's-eyes to take back with him to school!
It was over the snaps, with an earth-brown moustache drawn round his fresh young mouth, the underlip of which swelled like a ripe cherry, that he blurted out: "I say, Aunt Mary, DON'T let the pater stick me in that beastly old office of his. I ... I want to go to sea."
"Oh, but Johnny! Your father would never consent to that, I'm sure."
"I don't see why not," returned the boy in an aggrieved voice. "I hate figures and father knows it. I tell you I mean to go to sea." And as he said it his lip shot out, and suddenly, for all his limpid blue eyes and flaxen hair, it was his father's face that confronted Mary.
"He wouldn't think it respectable enough, dear. He wants you to rise higher in the world, and to make money. You must remember who he is."
"Bosh!" said Johnny. "Look at Uncle Ned ... and Uncle Jerry ... and the governor himself. He didn't have to sit in a beastly old hole of an office when he was my age."
"That was quite different," said Mary weakly. "And as for your Uncle Jerry, Johnny—why, afterwards he was as glad as could be to get into an office at all."
"Well, I'd sooner be hanged!" retorted young John. But the next minute flinging away dull care, he inquired briskly: "Can you play tipcat, Aunt Mary?" And vanquished by her air of kindly interest, he gave her his supreme confidence. "I say, don't peach, will you, but I've got a white rat. I keep it in a locker under my bed."
A NICE FRANK HANDSOME BOY, wrote Mary. DON'T BE TOO HARD ON HIM, JOHN. HIS GREAT WISH IS TO TRAVEL AND SEE THE WORLD—OR AS HE PUTS IT, TO GO TO SEA. MIGHTN'T IT BE A GOOD THING TO HUMOUR HIM IN THIS? A TASTE OF THE HARDSHIPS OF LIFE WOULD SOON CURE HIM OF ANY SUCH FANCIES.
"Stuff and nonsense!" said John the father, and threw the letter from him. "I didn't send Mary there to let the young devil get round her like that." And thereupon he wrote to the Headmaster that the screw was to be applied to Johnny as never before. This was his last chance. If it failed, and his next report showed no improvement, he would be taken away without further ado and planked down under his father's nose. No son of his should go to sea, he was damned if they should! For, like many another who has yielded to the wandering passion in his youth, John had small mercy on it when it reared its head in his descendants.
Henry Ocock was pressing for a second opinion; his wife had been in poor health since the birth of her last child. Mahony drove to Plevna House one morning between nine and ten o'clock.
A thankless task lay before him. Mrs. Henry's case had been a fruitful source of worry to him; and he now saw nothing for it but a straight talk with Henry himself.
He drove past what had once been the Great Swamp. From a bed of cattle-ploughed mud interspersed with reedy water-holes; in summer a dry and dust-swept hollow: from this, the vast natural depression had been transformed into a graceful lake, some three hundred acres in extent. On its surface pleasure boats lay at their moorings by jetties and boatsheds; groups of stiff-necked swans sailed or ducked and straddled; while shady walks followed the banks, where the whiplike branches of the willows, showing shoots of tenderest green, trailed in the water or swayed like loose harp-strings to the breeze.
All the houses that had sprung up round Lake Wendouree had well-stocked spreading grounds; but Ocock's outdid the rest. The groom opening a pair of decorative iron gates which were the showpiece of the neighbourhood, Mahony turned in and drove past exotic firs, Moreton Bay fig-trees and araucarias; past cherished English hollies growing side by side with giant cacti. In one corner stood a rockery, where a fountain played and goldfish swam in a basin. The house itself, of brick and two-storeyed, with massive bay-windows, had an ornamental verandah on one side. The drawing-room was a medley of gilt and lustres, mirrors and glass shades; the finest objects from Dandaloo had been brought here, only to be outdone by Henry's own additions. Yes, Ocock lived in grand style nowadays, as befitted one of the most important men in the town. His old father once gone—and Mahony alone knew why the latter's existence acted as a drag—he would no doubt stand for Parliament.
Invited to walk into the breakfast-room, Mahony there found the family seated at table. It was a charming scene. Behind the urn Mrs. Henry, in be-ribboned cap and morning wrapper, dandled her infant; while Henry, in oriental gown and Turkish fez, had laid his newspaper by to ride his young son on his foot. Mahony refused tea or coffee; but could not avoid drawing up a chair, touching the peachy cheeks of the children held aloft for his inspection, and meeting a fire of playful sallies and kindly inquiries. As he did so, he was sensitively aware that it fell to him to break up the peace of this household. Only he knew the canker that had begun to eat at its roots.
The children borne off, Mrs. Henry interrogated her husband's pleasure with a pretty: "May I?" or "Should I?" lift of the brows; and gathering that he wished her to retire, laid her small, plump hand in Mahony's, sent a graceful message to "dearest Mary," and swept the folds of her gown from the room. Henry followed her with a well-pleased eye—his opinion was no secret that, in figure and bearing, his wife bore a marked resemblance to her Majesty the Queen—and admonished her not to fail to partake of some light refreshment during the morning, in the shape of a glass of sherry and a biscuit. "Unless, my love, you prefer me to order cook to whip you up an egg-nog.—Mrs. Ocock is, I regret to say, entirely without appetite again," he went on, as the door closed behind his wife. "What she eats is not enough to keep a sparrow going. You must prove your skill, doctor, and oblige us by prescribing a still more powerful tonic or appetiser. The last had no effect whatever." He spoke from the hearthrug, where he had gone to warm his skirts at the wood fire, audibly fingering the while a nest of sovereigns in a waistcoat pocket.
"I feared as much," said Mahony gravely; and therewith took the plunge.
When some twenty minutes later he emerged from the house, he was unaccompanied, and himself pulled the front door to behind him. He stood frowning heavily as he snapped the catches of his gloves, and fell foul of the groom over a buckle of the harness, in a fashion that left the man open-mouthed. "Blow me, if I don't believe he's got the sack!" thought the man in driving townwards.
The abrupt stoppage of Richard's visits to Plevna House staggered Mary. And since she could get nothing out of her husband, she tied on her bonnet and went off hotfoot to question her friend. But Mrs. Henry tearfully declared her ignorance she had listened in fear and trembling to the sound of the two angry voices—and Henry was adamant. They had already called in another doctor.
Mary came home greatly distressed, and, Richard still wearing his obstinate front, she ended by losing her temper. He knew well enough, said she, it was not her way to interfere or to be inquisitive about his patients; but this was different; this had to do with one of her dearest friends; she must know. In her ears rang Agnes's words: "Henry told me, love, he wouldn't insult me by repeating what your husband said of me. Oh, Mary, isn't it dreadful? And when I liked him so as a doctor!"—She now repeated them aloud.
This was too much for Mahony. He blazed up. "The confounded mischiefmonger—the backbiter! Well, if you will have it, wife, here you are ... here's the truth. What I said to Ocock was: I said, my good man, if you want your wife to get over her next confinement more quickly, keep the sherry-decanter out of her reach."
Mary gasped and sank on a chair, letting her arms flop to her side. "Richard!" she ejaculated. "Oh, Richard, you never did!"
"I did indeed, my dear.—Oh well, not in just those words, of course; we doctors must always wrap the truth up in silver paper.—And I should feel it my duty to do the same again to-morrow; though there are pleasanter things in life, Mary, I can assure you, than informing a low mongrel like Ocock that his wife is drinking on the sly. You can have no notion, my dear, of the compliments one calls down on one's head by so doing. The case is beyond my grasp, of course, and I am cloaking my own shortcomings by making scandalous insinuations against a delicate lady, who 'takes no more than her position entitles her to'—his very words, Mary!—'for the purpose of keeping up her strength.'" And Mahony laughed hotly.
"Yes, but was it—I mean... was it really necessary to say it?" stammered Mary still at sea. And as her husband only shrugged his shoulders: "Then I can't pretend to be surprised at what has happened, Richard. Mr. Henry will NEVER forgive you. He thinks so much of everything and every one belonging to him."
"Pray, can I help that? ... help his infernal pride? And, good God, Mary, can't you see that, far more terrible than my having had to tell him the truth, is the fact of there being such a truth to tell?"
"Oh yes, indeed I can," and the warm tears rushed to Mary's eyes. "Poor, poor little Agnes!—Richard, it comes of her having once been married to that dreadful man. And though she doesn't say so, yet I don't believe she's really happy in her second marriage either. There are so many things she's not allowed to do—and she's afraid of Mr. Henry, I know she is. You see he's displeased when she's dull or unwell; she must always be bright and look pretty; and I expect the truth is, since her illness she has taken to taking things, just to keep her spirits up." Here Mary saw a ray of light, and snatched at it. "But in that case mightn't the need for them pass, as she grows stronger?"
"I lay no claim to be a prophet, my dear."
"For it does seem strange that I never noticed anything," went on Mary, more to herself than to him. "I've seen Agnes at all hours of the day... when she wasn't in the least expecting visitors.—Yes, Richard, I do know people sometimes eat things to take the smell away. But the idea of Agnes doing anything so ... so low—oh, isn't it JUST possible there might be some mistake?"
"Oh, well, if you're going to imitate Ocock and try to teach me my business!" gave back Mahony with an angry gesture, and sitting down at the table, he pulled books and papers to him.
"As if such a thing would ever occur to me! It's only that ... that somehow my brain won't take it in. Agnes has always been such a dear good little soul, all kindness. She's never done anybody any harm or said a hard word about any one, all the years I've known her. I simply CAN'T believe it of her, and that's the truth. As for what people will say when it gets about that you've been shown the door in a house like Mr. Henry's—why, I'm afraid even to think of it!" and powerless any longer to keep back her tears, Mary hastened from the room.
But she also thought it wiser to get away before Richard had time to frame the request that she should break off all intercourse with Plevna House. This, she could never promise to do; and the result might be a quarrel. Whereas if she avoided giving her word, she would be free to slip out now and then to see poor Agnes, when Richard was on his rounds and Mr. Henry at business. But this was the only point clear to her. In standing up for her friend she had been perfectly sincere: to think ill of a person she cared for, cost Mary an inward struggle. Against this, however, she had an antipathy to set that was almost stronger than herself. Of all forms of vice, intemperance was the one she hated most. She lived in a country where it was, alas! only too common; but she had never learnt to tolerate it, or to look with a lenient eye on those who succumbed: and whether these were but slaves of the nipping habit; or the eternal dram-drinkers who felt fit for nothing if they had not a peg inside them; or those seasoned topers who drank their companions under the table without themselves turning a hair; or yet again those who, sober for three parts of the year, spent the fourth in secret debauches. Herself she had remained as rigidly abstemious as in the days of her girlhood. And she often mused, with a glow at her heart, on her great good fortune in having found in Richard one whose views on this subject were no less strict than her own. Hence her distress at his disclosure was caused not alone by the threatened loss of a friendship: she wept for the horror with which the knowledge filled her.
Little by little, though, her mind worked round to what was, after all, the chief consideration: Richard's action and its probable consequences. And here once more she was divided against herself. For a moment she had hoped her husband would own the chance of him being in error. But she soon saw that this would never do. A mistake on his part would be a blow to his reputation. Besides making enemies of people like the Henrys for nothing. If he had to lose them as patients, it might as well be for a good solid reason, she told herself with a dash of his own asperity. No, it was a case of either husband or friend. And though she pitied Agnes from the bottom of her heart, yet there were literally no lengths she would have shrunk from going to, to spare Richard pain or even anxiety. And this led her on to wonder whether, granted things were as he said, he had approached Mr. Henry in the most discreet way. Could he not have avoided a complete break? She sat and pondered this question till her head ached, finding herself up against the irreconcilability of the practical with the ideal which complicates a man's working life. What she belatedly tried to think out for her husband was some little common-sense stratagem by means of which he could have salved his conscience, without giving offence. He might have said that the drugs he was prescribing would be nullified by the use of wine or spirits; even better, have warned Agnes in private. Somehow, it might surely have been managed. Mr. Henry had no doubt been extremely rude and overbearing; but in earlier years Richard had known how to behave towards ill-breeding. She couldn't tell why, but he was finding it more and more difficult to get on with people nowadays. He certainly had a very great deal to do, and was often tired out. Again, he did not need to care so much as formerly whether he offended people or not—ordinary patients, that was; the Henrys, of course, were of the utmost consequence. Still, once on a time he had been noted for his tact; it was sad to see it leaving him in the lurch. Several times of late she had been forced to step in and smooth out awkwardnesses. But a week ago he had had poor little Amelia Grindle up in arms, by telling her that her sickly first-born would mentally never be quite like other children. To every one else this had been plain from the outset; but Amelia had suspected nothing, having, poor thing, no idea when a babe ought to begin to take notice or cut its teeth. Richard said it was better for her to face the truth betimes than to spend her life vainly hoping and fretting; indeed, it would not be right of him to allow it. Poor dear Richard! He set such store by truth and principle—and she, Mary, would not have had him otherwise. All the same, she thought that in both cases a small compromise would not have hurt him. But compromise he would not ... or could not. And as, recalled to reality by the sight of the week's washing, which strained, ballooned, collapsed, on its lines in the yard—Biddy was again letting the clothes get much too dry!—as Mary rose to her feet, she manfully squared her shoulders to meet the weight of the new burden that was being laid on them.
With regard to Mahony, it might be supposed that having faithfully done what he believed to be his duty, he would enjoy the fruits of a quiet mind. This was not so. Before many hours had passed he was wrestling with the incident anew; and a true son of that nation which, for all its level-headedness, spends its best strength in fighting shadows, he felt a great deal angrier in retrospect than he had done at the moment. It was not alone the fact of him having got his conge—no medico was safe from THAT punch below the belt. His bitterness was aimed at himself. Once more he had let himself be hoodwinked; had written down the smooth civility it pleased Ocock to adopt towards him to respect and esteem. Now that the veil was torn, he saw how poor the lawyer's opinion of him actually was. And always had been. For a memory was struggling to emerge in him, setting strings in vibration. And suddenly there rose before him a picture of Ocock that time had dimmed. He saw the latter standing in the dark, crowded lobby of the court-house, cursing at him for letting their witness escape. There it was! There, in these two scenes, far apart as they lay, you had the whole man. The unctuous blandness, the sleek courtesy was but a mask, which he wore for you just so long as you did not hinder him by getting in his way. That was the unpardonable sin. For Ocock was out to succeed—to succeed at any price and by any means. In tracing his course, no goal but this had ever stood before him. The obligations that bore on your ordinary mortal—a sense of honesty, of responsibility to one's fellows, the soft pull of domestic ties—did not trouble Ocock. He laughed them down, or wrung their necks like so many pullets. And should the poor little woman who bore his name become a drag on him, she would be tossed on to the rubbish-heap with the rest. In a way, so complete a freedom from altruistic motives had something grandiose about it. But those who ran up against it, and could not fight it with its own weapons, had not an earthly chance.
Thus Mahony sat in judgment, giving rein for once to his ingrained dislike for the man of whom he had now made an enemy. In whose debt, for the rest, he stood deep. And had done, ever since the day he had been fool enough, like the fly in the nursery rhyme, to seek out Ocock and his familiars in their grimy little "parlour" in Chancery Lane.
But his first heat spent he soon cooled down, and was able to laugh at the stagy explosiveness of his attitude. So much for the personal side of the matter. Looked at from a business angle it was more serious. The fact of him having been shown the door by a patient of Ocock's standing was bound, as Mary saw, to react unfavourably on the rest of the practice. The news would run like wildfire through the place; never were such hotbeds of gossip as these colonial towns. Besides, the colleague who had been called in to Mrs. Agnes in his stead, was none too well disposed towards him.
His fears were justified. It quickly got about that he had made a blunder: all Mrs. Henry needed, said the new-comer, was change of air and scene; and forthwith the lady was packed off on a trial trip to Sydney. Mahony held his head high, and refused to notice looks and hints. But he knew all about what went on behind his back: he was morbidly sensitive to atmosphere; could tell how a house was charged as soon as he crossed the threshold. People were saying: a mistake there, why not here, too? Slow recoveries asked themselves if a fresh treatment might not benefit them; lovers of blue pills hungered for more drastic remedies. The disaffection would blow over, of course; but it was painful while it lasted; and things were not bettered by one of his patients choosing just this inconvenient moment to die—an elderly man, down with the Russian influenza, who disobeyed orders, got up too early and was carried off by double pneumonia inside a week.—Worry over the mishap robbed his poor medical attendant of sleep for several nights on end.
Not that this was surprising; he found it much harder than of old to keep his mind from running on his patients outside working-hours. In his younger days he had laid down fixed rules on this score. Every brainworker, he held, must in his spare time be able to detach his thoughts from his chief business, pin them to something of quite another kind, no matter how trivial: keep fowls or root round gardens, play the flute or go in for carpentry. Now, he might have dug till his palms blistered, it would not help. Those he prescribed for teased him like a pack of spirit-presences, which clamour to be heard. And if a serious case took a turn for the worse, he would find himself rising in a sweat of uncertainty, and going lamp in hand into the surgery, to con over a prescription he had written during the day. And one knew where THAT kind of thing led!
Now, as if all this were not enough, there was added to it the old, evergreen botheration about money.
Thus far, Ocock had nursed his mining investments for him with a fatherly care. He himself had been free as a bird from responsibility. Every now and again he would drop in at the office, just to make sure the lawyer was on the alert; and each time he came home cheerful with confidence. That was over now. As a first result of the breach, he missed—or so he believed—clearing four hundred pounds. Among the shares he held was one lot which till now had proved a sorry bargain. Soon after purchase something had gone wrong with the management of the claim; there had been a lawsuit, followed by calls unending and never a dividend. Now, when these shares unexpectedly swung up to a high level—only to drop the week after to their standing figure—Ocock failed to sell out in the nick of time. Called to account, he replied that it was customary in these matters for his clients to advise him; thus deepening Mahony's sense of obligation. Stabbed in his touchiness, he wrote for all his scrip to be handed over to him; and thereafter loss and gain depended on himself alone. It certainly brought a new element of variety into his life. The mischief was, he could get to his study of the money-market only with a fagged brain. And the fear lest he should do something rash or let a lucky chance slip kept him on tenter-hooks.
It was about this time that Mary, seated one evening in face of her husband, found herself reflecting: "When one comes to think of it, how seldom Richard ever smiles nowadays."
For a wonder they were at a soiree together, at the house of one of Mahony's colleagues. The company consisted of the inner circle of friends and acquaintances: "Always the same people—the old job lot! One knows before they open their mouths what they'll say and how they'll say it," Richard had grumbled as he dressed. The Henry Ococks were not there though, it being common knowledge that the two men declined to meet; and a dash of fresh blood was present in the shape of a lady and gentleman just "out from home." Richard got into talk with this couple, and Mary, watching him fondly, could not but be struck by his animation. His eyes lit up, he laughed and chatted, made merry repartee: she was carried back to the time when she had known him first. In those days his natural gravity was often cut through by a mood of high spirits, of boyish jollity, which, if only by way of contrast, rendered him a delightful companion. She grew a little wistful, as she sat comparing present with past. And loath though she was to dig deep, for fear of stirring up uncomfortable things, she could not escape the discovery that, in spite of all his success—and his career there had surpassed their dearest hopes—in spite of the natural gifts fortune had showered on him, Richard was not what you would call a happy man. No, nor even moderately happy. Why this should be, it went beyond her to say. He had everything he could wish for: yes, everything, except perhaps a little more time to himself, and better health. He was not as strong as she would have liked to see him. Nothing radically wrong, of course, but enough to fidget him. Might not this ... this—he himself called it "want of tone"—be a reason for the scant pleasure he got out of life? And: "I think I'll pop down and see Dr. Munce about him one morning, without a word to him," was how she eased her mind and wound up her reverie.
But daylight, and the most prosaic hours of the twenty-four, made the plan look absurd.
Once alive though to his condition, she felt deeply sorry for him in his patent inability ever to be content. It was a thousand pities. Things might have run so smoothly for him, he have got so much satisfaction out of them, if only he could have braced himself to regard life in cheerier fashion. But at this Mary stopped ... and wondered ... and wondered. Was that really true? Positively her experiences of late led her to believe that Richard would be less happy still if he had nothing to be unhappy about.—But dear me! this was getting out of her depth altogether. She shook her head and rebuked herself for growing fanciful.
All the same, her new glimpse of his inmost nature made her doubly tender of thwarting him; hence, she did not set her face as firmly as she might otherwise have done, against a wild plan he now formed of again altering, or indeed rebuilding the house; although she could scarcely think of it with patience. She liked her house so well as it stood; and it was amply big enough: there was only the pair of them... and John's child. It had the name, she knew, of being one of the most comfortable and best-kept in Ballarat. Brick for solidity, where wood prevailed, with a wide snowy verandah up the posts of which rare creepers ran, twining their tendrils one with another to form a screen against the sun. Now, what must Richard do but uproot the creepers and pull down the verandah, thus baring the walls to the fierce summer heat; plaster over the brick; and, more outlandish still, add a top storey. When she came back from Melbourne, where she had gone a-visiting to escape the upset—Richard, ordinarily so sensitive, had managed to endure it quite well, thus proving that he COULD put up with discomfort if he wanted to—when she saw it again, Mary hardly recognised her home. Personally she thought it ugly, for all its grandeur; changed wholly for the worse. Nor did time ever reconcile her to the upper storey. Domestic worries bred from it: the servant went off in a huff because of the stairs; they were at once obliged to double their staff. To cap it all, with its flat front unbroken by bay or porch, the house looked like no other in the town. Now, instead of passing admiring remarks, people stood stock-still before the gate to laugh at its droll appearance.
Yet, she would gladly have made the best of this, had Richard been the happier for it. He was not—or only for the briefest of intervals. Then his restlessness broke out afresh.
There came days when nothing suited him; not his fine consulting room, or the improved furnishings of the house, or even her cookery of which he had once been so fond. He grew dainty to a degree; she searched her cookery-book for piquant recipes. Next he fell to imagining it was unhealthy to sleep on feathers, and went to the expense of having a hard horsehair mattress made to fit the bed. Accustomed to the softest down, he naturally tossed and turned all night long, and rose in the morning declaring he felt as though he had been beaten with sticks. The mattress was stowed away in a lean-to behind the kitchen, and there it remained. It was not alone. Mary sometimes stood and considered, with a rueful eye, the many discarded objects that bore it company. Richard—oddly enough he was ever able to poke fun at himself—had christened this outhouse "the cemetery of dead fads." Here was a set of Indian clubs he had been going to harden his muscles with every morning, and had used for a week; together with an india-rubber gymnastic apparatus bought for the same purpose. Here stood a patent shower-bath, that was to have dashed energy over him after a bad night, and had only succeeded in giving him acute neuralgia; a standing-desk he had broken his back at for a couple of days; a homoeopathic medicine-chest and a phrenological head—both subjects he had meant to satisfy his curiosity by looking into, had time not failed him. Mary sighed, when she thought of the waste of good money these and similar articles stood for. (Some day he would just have them privately carted away to auction!) But if Richard set his heart on a thing he wanted it so badly, so much more than other people did, that he knew no peace till he had it.
Mahony read in his wife's eyes the disapproval she was too wise to utter. At any other time her silent criticism would have galled him; in this case, he took shelter behind it. Let her only go on setting him down for lax and spendthrift, incapable of knowing his own mind. He would be sorry, indeed, for her to guess how matters really stood with him. The truth was, he had fallen a prey to utter despondency, was become so spiritless that it puzzled even himself. He thought he could trace some of the mischief back to the professional knocks and jars Ocock's action had brought down on him: to hear one's opinion doubted, one's skill questioned, was the tyro's portion; he was too old to treat such insolence with the scorn it deserved. Of course he had lived the affair down; but the result of it would seem to be a bottomless ENNUI, a TEDIUM VITAE that had something pathological about it. Under its influence the homeliest trifles swelled to feats beyond his strength. There was, for instance, the putting on and off one's clothing: this infinite boredom of straps and buttons—and all for what? For a day that would be an exact copy of the one that had gone before, a night as unrefreshing as the last. Did any one suspect that there were moments when he quailed before this job, suspect that more than once he had even reckoned the number of times he would be called on to perform it, day in, day out, till that garment was put on him that came off no more; or that he could understand and feel sympathy with those faint souls—and there were such—who laid hands on themselves rather than go on doing it: did this get abroad, he would be considered ripe for Bedlam.
Physician, heal thyself! He swallowed doses of a tonic preparation, and put himself on a fatty diet.
Thereafter he tried to take a philosophic view of his case. He had now, he told himself, reached an age when such a state of mind gave cause neither for astonishment nor alarm. How often had it not fallen to him, in his role of medical adviser, to reassure a patient on this score. The arrival of middle age brought about a certain lowness of spirits in even the most robust: along with a more or less marked bodily languor went an uneasy sense of coming loss: the time was at hand to bid farewell to much that had hitherto made life agreeable; and for most this was a bitter pill. Meanwhile, one held a kind of mental stocktaking. As often as not by the light of a complete disillusionment. Of the many glorious things one had hoped to do—or to be—nothing was accomplished: the great realisation, in youth breathlessly chased but never grasped, was now seen to be a mist-wraith, which could wear a thousand forms, but invariably turned to air as one came up with it. In nine instances out of ten there was nothing to put in its place; and you began to ask yourself in a kind of horrific amaze: "Can this be all? ... THIS? For this the pother of growth, the struggles, and the sufferings?" The soul's climacteric, if you would, from which a mortal came forth dulled to resignation; or greedy for the few physical pleasures left him; or prone to that tragic clinging to youth's skirts, which made the later years of many women and not a few men ridiculous. In each case the motive power was the same: the haunting fear that one had squeezed life dry; worse still, that it had not been worth the squeezing.
Thus his reason. But, like a tongue of flame, his instinct leapt up to give combat. By the gods, this cap did NOT fit him! Squeezed life try? ... found it not worth while? Why, he had never got within measurable distance of what he called life, at all! There could be no question of him resigning himself: deep down in him, he knew, was an enormous residue of vitality, of untouched mental energy that only waited to be drawn on. It was like a buried treasure, jealously kept for the event of his one day catching up with life: not the bare scramble for a living that here went by that name, but Life with a capital L, the existence he had once confidently counted on as his—a tourney of spiritual adventuring, of intellectual excitement, in which the prize striven for was not money or anything to do with money. Far away, thousands of miles off, luckier men than he were in the thick of it. He, of his own free will, had cut himself adrift, and now it was too late.
But was it? Had the time irretrievably gone by? The ancient idea of escape, long dormant, suddenly reawoke in him with a new force. And, once stirring, it was not to be silenced, but went on sounding like a ground-tone through all he did. At first he shut his ears to it, to dally with side issues. For example, he worried the question why the breaking-point should only now have been reached and not six months, a year ago. It was quibbling to lay the whole blame on Ocock's shoulders. The real cause went deeper, was of older growth. And driving his mind back over the past, he believed he could pin his present loss of grip to that fatal day on which he learnt that his best friend had betrayed him. Things like that gave you a crack that would not mend. He had been rendered suspicious where he had once been credulous; prone to see evil where no evil was. For, deceived by Purdy, in whom could he trust? Of a surety not in the pushful set of jobbers and tricksters he was condemned to live amongst. No discoveries he might make about them would surprise him.—And once more the old impotent anger with himself broke forth, that he should ever have let himself take root in such detestable surroundings.
Why not shake the dust of the country off his feet?—From this direct attack he recoiled, casting up his hands as if against the evil eye. What next? But exclaim as he might, now that the idea had put on words, it was by no means so simple to fend it off as when it had been a mere vague humming at the back of his mind. It seized him; swept his brain bare of other thoughts. He began to look worn. And never more so than when he imagined himself taking the bull by the horns and asking Mary's approval of his wild-goose scheme. He could picture her face, when she heard that he planned throwing up his fine position and decamping on nothing a year. The vision was a cold douche to his folly. No, no! it would not do. You could not accustom a woman to ease and luxury and then, when you felt YOU had had enough and would welcome a return to Spartan simplicity, to an austere clarity of living, expect her to be prepared, at the word, to step back into poverty. One was bound ... bound ... and by just those silken threads which, in premarital days, had seemed sheerly desirable. He wondered now what it would be like to stand free as the wind, answerable only to himself. The bare thought of it filled him as with the rushing of wings.
Once he had been within an ace of cutting and running. That was in the early days, soon after his marriage. Trade had petered out; and there would have been as little to leave behind as to carry with him. But, even so, circumstances had proved too strong for him: what with Mary's persuasions and John's intermeddling, his scheme had come to nothing. And if, with so much in his favour, he had not managed to carry it out, how in all the world could he hope to now, when every thing conspired against him. It was, besides, excusable in youth to challenge fortune; a very different matter for one of his age.
Of his age! ... the words gave him pause. By their light he saw why he had knuckled under so meekly, at the time of his first attempt. It was because then a few years one way or another did not signify; he had them to spare. Now, each individual year was precious to him; he parted with it lingeringly, unwillingly. Time had taken to flashing past, too; Christmas was hardly celebrated before it was again at the door. Another ten years or so and he would be an old man, and it would in very truth be too late. The tempter voice—in this case also the voice of reason—said: now or never!
But when he came to look the facts in the face his heart failed him anew, so heavily did the arguments against his taking such a step—and, true to his race, it was these he began by marshalling—weigh down the scales. He should have done it, if done it was to be, five ... three ... even a couple of years ago. Each day that dawned added to the tangle, made the idea seem more preposterous. Local dignities had been showered on him: he sat on the Committees of the District Hospital and the Benevolent Asylum; was Honorary Medical Officer to this Society and that; a trustee of the church; one of the original founders of the Mechanics' Institute; vice-president of the Botanical Society; and so on, AD INFINITUM. His practice was second to none; his visiting-book rarely shewed a blank space; people drove in from miles round to consult him. In addition, he had an extremely popular wife, a good house and garden, horses and traps, and a sure yearly income of some twelve or thirteen hundred. Of what stuff was he made, that he could lightly contemplate turning his back on prizes such as these?
Even as he told them off, however, the old sense of hollowness was upon him again. His life there reminded him of a gaudy drop-scene, let down before an empty stage; a painted sham, with darkness and vacuity behind. At bottom, none of these distinctions and successes meant anything to him; not a scrap of mental pabulum could be got from them: rather would he have chosen to be poor and a nobody among people whose thoughts flew to meet his half-way. And there was also another side to it. Stingy though the years had been of intellectual grist, they had not scrupled to rob him of many an essential by which he set store. His old faculty—for good or evil—of swift decision, for instance. It was lost to him now; as witness his present miserable vacillation. It had gone off arm-in-arm with his health; physically he was but a ghost of the man he had once been. But the bitterest grudge he bore the life was for the shipwreck it had made of his early ideals. He remembered the pure joy, the lofty sentiments with which he had returned to medicine. Bah!—there had been no room for any sentimental nonsense of that kind here. He had long since ceased to follow his profession disinterestedly; the years had made a hack of him—a skilled hack, of course—but just a hack. He had had no time for study; all his strength had gone in keeping his income up to a certain figure; lest the wife should be less well dressed and equipped than her neighbours; or patients fight shy of him; or his confreres wag their tongues.—Oh! he had adapted himself supremely well to the standards of this Australia, so-called Felix. And he must not complain if, in so doing, he had been stripped, not only of his rosy dreams, but also of that spiritual force on which he could once have drawn at will. Like a fool he had believed it possible to serve mammon with impunity, and for as long as it suited him. He knew better now. At this moment he was undergoing the sensations of one who, having taken shelter in what he thinks a light and flimsy structure, finds that it is built of the solidest stone. Worse still: that he has been walled up inside.
And even suppose he COULD pull himself together for the effort required, how justify his action in the eyes of the world? His motives would be double-dutch to the hard-headed crew around him; nor would any go to the trouble of trying to understand. There was John. All John would see was an elderly and not over-robust man deliberately throwing away the fruits of year-long toil—and for what? For the privilege of, in some remote spot, as a stranger and unknown, having his way to make all over again; of being free to shoulder once more the risks and hazards the undertaking involved. And little though he cared for John or any one else's opinion, Mahony could not help feeling a trifle sore, in advance, at the ridicule of which he might be the object, at the zanyish figure he was going to be obliged to cut.
But a fig for what people thought of him! Once away from here he would, he thanked God, never see any of them again. No, it was Mary who was the real stumbling-block, the opponent he most feared. Had he been less attached to her, the thing would have been easier; as it was, he shrank from hurting her. And hurt and confuse her he must. He knew Mary as well—nay, better than he knew his own unreckonable self. For Mary was not a creature of moods, did not change her mental envelope a dozen times a day. And just his precise knowledge of her told him that he would never get her to see eye to eye with him. Her clear, serene outlook was attuned to the plain and the practical; she would discover a thousand drawbacks to his scheme, but nary a one of the incorporeal benefits he dreamed of reaping from it. There was his handling of money for one thing: she had come, he was aware, to regard him as incurably extravagant; and it would be no easy task to convince her that he could learn again to fit his expenses to a light purse. She had a woman's instinctive distrust, too, of leaving the beaten track. Another point made him still more dubious. Mary's whole heart and happiness were bound up in this place where she had spent the flower-years of her life: who knew if she would thrive as well on other soil? He found it intolerable to think that she might have to pay for his want of stability.—Yes, reduced to its essentials, it came to mean the pitting of one soul's welfare against that of another; was a toss-up between his happiness and hers. One of them would have to yield. Who would suffer more by doing so—he or she? He believed that a sacrifice on his part would make the wreck of his life complete. On hers—well, thanks to her doughty habit of finding good everywhere, there was a chance of her coming out unscathed.
Here was his case in a nutshell.
Still he did not tackle Mary. For sometimes, after all, a disturbed doubt crept upon him whether it would not be possible to go on as he was; instead of, as she would drastically word it, cutting his throat with his own hand. And to be perfectly honest, he believed it would. He could now afford to pay for help in his work; to buy what books he needed or fancied; to take holidays while putting in a LOCUM; even to keep on the LOCUM, at a good salary, while he journeyed overseas to visit the land of his birth. But at this another side of him—what he thought of as spirit, in contradistinction to soul—cried out in alarm, fearful lest it was again to be betrayed. Thus far, though by rights coequal in the house of the body, it had been rigidly kept down. Nevertheless it had persisted, like a bright cold little spark at dead of night: his restlessness, the spiritual malaise that encumbered him had been its mute form of protest. Did he go on turning a deaf ear to its warnings, he might do himself irreparable harm. For time was flying, the sum of his years mounting, shrinking that roomy future to which he had thus far always postponed what seemed too difficult for the moment. Now he saw that he dared delay no longer in setting free the imprisoned elements in him, was he ever to grow to that complete whole which each mortal aspires to be.—That a change of environment would work this miracle he did not doubt; a congenial environment was meat and drink to him, was light and air. Here in this country, he had remained as utterly alien as any Jew of old who wept by the rivers of Babylon. And like a half-remembered tune there came floating into his mind words he had lit on somewhere, or learnt on the school-bench—Horace, he thought, but, whatever their source, words that fitted his case to a nicety. COELUM, NON ANIMUM, MUTANT, QUI TRANS MARE CURRUNT. "Non animum"? Ah! could he but have foreseen this—foreknown it. If not before he set sail on what was to have been but a swift adventure, then at least on that fateful day long past when, foiled by Mary's pleadings and his own inertia, he had let himself be bound anew.
Thus the summer dragged by; a summer to try the toughest. Mahony thought he had never gone through its like for heat and discomfort. The drought would not break, and on the great squatting-stations round Ballarat and to the north, the sheep dropped like flies at an early frost. The forest reservoirs dried up, displaying the red mud of their bottoms, and a bath became a luxury—or a penance—the scanty water running thick and red. Then the bush caught fire and burnt for three days, painting the sky a rusty brown, and making the air hard to breathe. Of a morning his first act on going into his surgery was to pick up the thermometer that stood on the table. Sure as fate, though the clock had not long struck nine, the mercury marked something between a hundred and a hundred and five degrees. He let it fall with a nerveless gesture. Since his sunstroke he not only hated, he feared the sun. But out into it he must, to drive through dust-clouds so opaque that one could only draw rein till they subsided, meanwhile holloaing off collisions. Under the close leather hood he sat and stifled; or, removing his green goggles for the fiftieth time, climbed down to enter yet another baked wooden house, where he handled prostrate bodies rank with sweat, or prescribed for pallid or fever-speckled children. Then home, to toy with the food set before him, his mind already running on the discomforts of the afternoon.—Two bits of ill-luck came his way this summer. Old Ocock fell, in dismounting from a vehicle, and sustained a compound fracture of the femur. Owing to his advanced age there was for a time fear of malunion of the parts, and this kept Mahony on the rack. Secondly, a near neighbour, a common little fellow who kept a jeweller's shop in Bridge Street, actually took the plunge: sold off one fine day and sailed for home. And this seemed the unkindest cut of all.
But the accident that gave the death-blow to his scruples was another. On the advice of a wealthy publican he was treating, whose judgment he trusted, Mahony had invested—heavily for him, selling off other stock to do it—in a company known as the Hodderburn Estate. This was a government affair and ought to have been beyond reproach. One day, however, it was found that the official reports of the work done by the diamond drill-bore were cooked documents; and instantly every one connected with the mine—directors, managers, engineers—lay under the suspicion of fraudulent dealings. Shares had risen as high as ten pounds odd; but when the drive reached the bore and, in place of the deep gutter-ground the public had been led to expect, hard rock was found overhead, there was a panic; shares dropped to twenty-five shillings and did not rally. Mahony was a loser by six hundred pounds, and got, besides, a moral shaking from which he could not recover. He sat and bit his little-finger nail to the quick. Was he, he savagely asked himself, going to linger on until the little he had managed to save was snatched from him?
He dashed off a letter to John, asking his brother-in-law to recommend a reliable broker. And this done, he got up to look for Mary, determined to come to grips with her at last.
How to begin, how reduce to a few plain words his subtle tangle of thought and feeling, was the problem.
He did not find his wife on her usual seat in the arbour. In searching for her, upstairs and down, he came to a rapid decision. He would lay chief stress on his poor state of health.
"I feel I'm killing myself. I can't go on."
"But Richard dear!" ejaculated Mary, and paused in her sewing, her needle uplifted, a bead balanced on its tip. Richard had run her to earth in the spare bedroom, to which at this time she often repaired. For he objected to the piece of work she had on hand—that of covering yards of black cashmere with minute jet beads—vowing that she would ruin her eyesight over it. So, having set her heart on a fashionable polonaise, she was careful to keep out of his way.
"I'm not a young man any longer, wife. When one's past forty ..."
"Poor mother used to say forty-five was a man's prime of life."
"Not for me. And not here in this God-forsaken hole!"
"Oh dear me! I do wonder why you have such a down on Ballarat. I'm sure there must be many worse places in the world to live in", and lowering her needle, Mary brought the bead to its appointed spot. "Of course you have a lot to do, I know, and being such a poor sleeper doesn't improve matters." But she was considering her pattern sideways as she spoke, thinking more of it than of what she said. Every one had to work hard out here; compared with some she could name, Richard's job of driving round in a springy buggy seemed ease itself. "Besides I told you at the time you were wrong not to take a holiday in winter, when you had the chance. You need a thorough change every year to set you up. You came back from the last as fresh as a daisy."
"The only change that will benefit me is one for good and all," said Mahony with extreme gloom. He had thrown up the bed-curtain and stretched himself on the bed, where he lay with his hands clasped under his neck.
Tutored by experience, Mary did not contradict him.
"And it's the kind I've finally made up my mind to take."
"Richard! How you do run on!" and Mary, still gently incredulous but a thought wider awake, let her work sink to her lap. "What is the use of talking like that?"
"Believe it or not, my dear, as you choose. You'll see—that's all."
At her further exclamations of doubt and amazement, Mahony's patience slipped its leash. "Surely to goodness my health comes first ... before any confounded practice?"
"Ssh! Baby's asleep.—And don't get cross, Richard. You can hardly expect me not to be surprised when you spring a thing of this sort on me. You've never even dropped a hint of it before."
"Because I knew very well what it would be. You dead against it, of course!"
"Now I call that unjust. You've barely let me get a word in edgeways."
"Oh, I know by heart everything you're going to say. It's nonsense ... folly ... madness ... and so on: all the phrases you women fish up from your vocabulary when you want to stave off a change—hinder any alteration of the STATUS QUO. But I'll tell you this, wife. You'll bury me here, if I don't get away soon. I'm not much more than skin and bone as it is. And I confess, if I've got to be buried I'd rather lie elsewhere—have good English earth atop of me."
Had Mary been a man, she might have retorted that this was a very woman's way of shifting ground. She bit her lip and did not answer immediately. Then: "You know I can't bear to hear you talk like that, even in fun. Besides, you always say much more than you mean, dear."
"Very well then, if you prefer it, wait and see! You'll be sorry some day."
"Do you mean to tell me, Richard, you're in earnest, when you talk of selling off your practice and going to England?"
"I can buy another there, can't I?"
With these words he leapt to his feet, afire with animation. And while Mary, now thoroughly uneasy, was folding up her work, he dilated upon the benefits that would accrue to them from the change. Good-bye to dust, and sun, and drought, to blistering hot winds and PAPIER MACHE walls! They would make their new home in some substantial old stone house that had weathered half a century or more, tangled over with creepers, folded away in its own privacy as only an English house could be. In the flower-garden roses would trail over arch and pergola; there would be a lawn with shaped yews on it; while in the orchard old apple-trees would flaunt their red abundance above grey, lichened walls.
("As if there weren't apples enough here!" thought Mary.)
He got a frog in his throat as he went on to paint in greater detail for her, who had left it so young, the intimate charm of the home country—the rich, green, dimpled countryside. And not till now did he grasp how sorely he had missed it. "Oh, believe me, to talk of 'going home' is no mere figure of speech, Mary!" In fancy he trod winding lanes that ran between giant hedges: hedges in tender bud, with dew on them; or snowed over with white mayflowers; or behung with the fairy webs and gossamer of early autumn, thick as twine beneath their load of moisture. He followed white roads that were banked with primroses and ran headlong down to the sea; he climbed the shoulder of a down on a spring morning, when the air was alive with larks carolling. But chiefly it was the greenness that called to him—the greenness of the greenest country in the world. Viewed from this distance, the homeland looked to him like one vast meadow. Oh, to tread its grass again!—not what one knew as grass here, a poor annual, that lasted for a few brief weeks; but lush meadow-grass, a foot high; or shaven emerald lawns on which ancient trees spread their shade; or the rank growth in old orchards, starry with wild flowers, on which fruit-blossoms fluttered down. He longed, too, for the exquisite finishedness of the mother country, the soft tints of cloud-veiled northern skies. His eyes ached, his brows had grown wrinkled from gazing on iron roofs set against the hard blue overhead; on dirty weatherboards innocent of paint; on higgledy-piggledy backyards and ramshackle fences; on the straggling landscape with its untidy trees—all the unrelieved ugliness, in short, of the colonial scene.
He stopped only for want of breath. Mary was silent. He waited. Still she did not speak.
He fell to earth with a bump, and was angry. "Come ... out with it! I suppose all this seems to you just the raving of a lunatic?"
"Oh, Richard, no. But a little ... well, a little unpractical. I never heard before of any one throwing up a good income because he didn't like the scenery. It's a step that needs the greatest consideration."
"Good God! Do you think I haven't considered it?—and from every angle? There isn't an argument for or against, that I haven't gone over a thousand and one times."
"And with never a word to me, Richard?" Mary was hurt; and showed it. "It really is hardly fair. For this is my home as well as yours.—But now listen. You're tired out, run down with the heat and that last attack of dysentery. Take a good holiday—stay away for three months if you like. Sail over to Hobart Town, or up to Sydney, you who'er so fond of the water. And when you come back strong and well we'll talk about all this again. I'm sure by then you'll see things with other eyes."
"And who's to look after the practice, pray?"
"Why, a LOCUM TENENS, of course. Or engage an assistant."
"Aha! you'd agree to that now, would you? I remember how opposed you were once to the idea."
"Well, if I have to choose between it and you giving up altogether... Now, for your own sake, Richard, don't go and do anything rash. If once you sell off and leave Ballarat, you can never come back. And then, if you regret it, where will you be? That's why I say don't hurry to decide. Sleep over it. Or let us consult somebody—John perhaps—"
"No you don't, madam, no you don't!" cried Richard with a grim dash of humour. "You had me once ... crippled me ... handcuffed me—you and your John between you! It shan't happen again."
"I crippled you? I, Richard! Why, never in my life have I done anything but what I thought was for your good. I've always put you first." And Mary's eyes filled with tears.
"Yes, where it's a question of one's material welfare you haven't your equal—I admit that. But the other side of me needs coddling too—yes, and sympathy. But it can whistle for such a thing as far as you're concerned."
Mary sighed. "I think you don't realise, dear, how difficult it sometimes is to understand you ... or to make out what you really do want," she said slowly.
Her tone struck at his heart. "Indeed and I do!" he cried contritely. "I'm a born old grumbler, mavourneen, I know—contrariness in person! But in this case ... come, love, do try to grasp what I'm after; it means so much to me." And he held out his hand to her, to beseech her.
Unhesitatingly she laid hers in it. "I am trying, Richard, though you mayn't believe it. I always do. And even if I sometimes can't manage it—well, you know, dear, you generally get your own way in the end. Think of the house. I'm still not clear why you altered it. I liked it much better as it was. But I didn't make any fuss, did I?—though I should have, if I'd thought we were only to occupy it for a single year after. —Still, that was a trifle compared with what you want to do now. Though I lived to a hundred I should never be able to approve of this. And you don't know how hard it is to consent to a thing one disapproves of. You couldn't do it yourself. Oh, what WAS the use, Richard, of toiling as you have, if now, just when you can afford to charge higher fees and the practice is beginning to bring in money—"
Mahony let her hand drop, even giving it a slight push from him, and turned to pace the floor anew. "Oh, money, money, money! I'm sick of the very sound of the word. But you talk as if nothing else mattered. Can't you for once, wife, see through the letter of the thing to the spirit behind? I admit the practice HAS brought in a tidy income of late; but as for the rest of the splendours, they exist, my dear, only in your imagination. If you ask me, I say I lead a dog's life—why, even a navvy works only for a fixed number of hours per diem! My days have neither beginning nor end. Look at yesterday! Out in the blazing sun from morning till night—I didn't get back from the second round till nine. At ten a confinement that keeps me up till three. From three till dawn I toss and turn, far too weary to sleep. By the time six o'clock struck—you of course were slumbering sweetly—I was in hell with tic. At seven I could stand it no longer and got up for the chloroform bottle: an hour's rest at any price—else how face the crowd in the waiting-room? And you call that splendour?—luxurious ease? If so, my dear, words have not the same meaning any more for you and me."
Mary did not point out that she had said nothing of the kind, or that he had set up an extreme case as typical. She tightened her lips; her big eyes were very solemn.
"And it's not the work alone," Richard was declaring, "it's the place, wife—the people. I'm done with 'em, Mary—utterly done! Upon my word, if I thought I had to go on living among them even for another twelvemonth ..."
"But PEOPLE are the same all the world over!" The protest broke from her in spite of herself.
"No, by God, they're not!" And here Richard launched out into a diatribe against his fellow-colonists: "This sordid riff-raff! These hard, mean, grasping money-grubbers!" that made Mary stand aghast. What could be the matter with him? What was he thinking of, he who was ordinarily so generous? Had he forgotten the many kindnesses shown him, the warm gratitude of his patients, people's sympathy, at the time of his illness? But he went on: "My demands are most modest. All I ask is to live among human beings with whom I have half an idea in common—men who sometimes raise their noses from the ground, instead of eternally scheming how to line their pockets, reckoning human progress solely in terms of l.s.d. No, I've sacrificed enough of my life to this country. I mean to have the rest for myself. And there's another thing, my dear—another bad habit this precious place breeds in us. It begins by making us indifferent to those who belong to us but are out of our sight, and ends by cutting our closest ties. I don't mean by distance alone. I have an old mother still living, Mary, whose chief prayer is that she may see me once again before she dies. I was her last-born—the child her arms kept the shape of. What am I to her now? ... what does she know of me, of the hard, tired, middle-aged man I have become? And you are in much the same box, my dear; unless you've forgotten by now that you ever had a mother."
Mary was scandalised. "Forget one's mother? ... Richard! I think you're trying what dreadful things you can find to say ... when I write home every three months!" And provoked by this fresh piece of unreason she opened fire in earnest, in defence of what she believed to be their true welfare. Richard listened to her without interrupting; even seemed to grant the truth of what she said. But none the less, even as she pleaded with him, a numbing sense of futility crept over her. She stuttered, halted, and finally fell silent. Her words were like so many lassos thrown after his vagrant soul; and this was out of reach. It had sniffed freedom—it WAS free; ran wild already on the boundless plains of liberty.
After he had gone from the room she sat with idle hands. She was all in a daze. Richard was about to commit an out-and-out folly, and she was powerless to hinder it. If only she had had some one she could have talked things over with, taken advice of! But no—it went against the grain in her to discuss her husband's actions with a third person. Purdy had been the sole exception, and Purdy had become impossible.
Looking back, she marvelled at her own dullness in not fore-seeing that something like this might happen. What more natural than that the multitude of little whims and fads Richard had indulged should culminate in a big whim of this kind? But the acknowledgment caused her fresh anxiety. She had watched him tire, like a fickle child, of first one thing, then another; was it likely that he would now suddenly prove more stable? She did not think so. For she attributed his present mood of pettish aversion wholly to the fact of his being run down in health. It was quite true: he had not been himself of late. But, here again, he was so fanciful that you never knew how literally to take his ailments: half the time she believed he just imagined their existence; and the long holiday she had urged on him would have been enough to sweep the cobwebs from his brain. Oh, if only he could have held on in patience! Four or five years hence, at most, he might have considered retiring from general practice. She almost wept as she remembered how they had once planned to live for that day. Now it was all to end in smoke.
Then her mind reverted to herself and to what the break would mean to her; and her little world rocked to its foundations. For no clear call went out to Mary from her native land. She docilely said "home" with the rest, and kept her family ties intact; but she had never expected to go back, except on a flying visit. She thought of England rather vaguely as a country where it was always raining, and where—according to John—an assemblage of old fogies, known as the House of Commons, persistently intermeddled in the affairs of the colony. For more than half her life—and the half that truly counted—Australia had been her home.
Her home! In fancy she made a round of the house, viewing each cosy room, lingering fondly over the contents of cupboards and presses, recollecting how she had added this piece of furniture for convenience' sake, that for ornament, till the whole was as perfect as she knew how to make it. Now, everything she loved and valued—the piano, the wax-candle chandelier, the gilt cornices, the dining-room horsehair—would fall under the auctioneer's hammer, go to deck out the houses of other people. Richard said she could buy better and handsomer things in England; but Mary allowed herself no illusions on this score. Where was the money to come from? She had learnt by personal experience what slow work building up a practice was. It would be years and years before they could hope for another such home. And sore and sorry as SHE might feel at having to relinquish her pretty things, in Richard's case it would mean a good deal more than that. To him the loss of them would be a real misfortune, so used had he grown to luxury and comfort, so strongly did the need of it run in his blood.
Worse still was the prospect of parting from relatives and friends. The tears came at this, freely. John's children!—who would watch over them when she was gone? How could she, from so far away, keep the promise she had made to poor Jinny on her death-bed? She would have to give up the baby of which she had grown so fond—give it back into Zara's unmotherly hands. And never again of a Saturday would she fetch poor little long-legged Trotty from school. She must say good-bye to one and to all—to John, and Zara, and Jerry—and would know no more, at close quarters, how they fared. When Jerry married there would be no one to see to it that he chose the right girl. Then Ned and Polly—poor souls, poor souls! What with the rapid increase of their family and Ned's unsteadiness—he could not keep any job long because of it—they only just contrived to make ends meet. How they would do it when she was not there to lend a helping hand, she could not imagine. And outside her brothers and sisters there was good Mrs. Devine. Mary had engaged to guide her friend's tottery steps on the slippery path of Melbourne society, did Mr. Devine enter the ministry. And poor little Agnes with her terrible weakness... and Amelia and her sickly babes ... and Tilly, dear, good, warm-hearted Tilly! Never again would the pair of them enjoy one of their jolly laughs; or cook for a picnic; or drive out to a mushroom hunt. No, the children would grow up anyhow; her brothers forget her in carving out their own lives; her friends find other friends.
For some time, however, she kept her own counsel. But when she had tried by hook and by crook to bring Richard to reason, and failed; when she saw that he was actually beginning, on the quiet, to make ready for departure, and that the day was coming on which every one would have to know: then she threw off her reserve. She was spending the afternoon with Tilly. They sat on the verandah together, John's child, black-eyed, fat, self-willed, playing, after the manner of two short years, at their feet. At the news that was broken to her Tilly began by laughing immoderately, believing that Mary was "taking a rise out of her." But having studied her friend's face she let her work fall, slowly opened mouth and eyes, and was at first unequal to uttering a word.
Thereafter she bombarded Mary with questions.
"Wants to leave Ballarat? To go home to England?" she echoed, with an emphasis such as Tilly alone could lay. "Well! of all the ... What for? What on earth for? 'As somebody gone and left 'im a fortune? Or 'as 'e been appointed pillmonger-in-ordinary to the Queen 'erself? What is it, Mary? What's up?"
What indeed! This was the question Mary dreaded, and one that would leap to every tongue: why was he going? She sat on the horns of a dilemma. It was not in her to wound people's feelings by blurting out the truth—this would also put Richard in a bad light—and, did she give no reason at all, many would think he had taken leave of his senses. Weakly, in a very un-Maryish fashion, she mumbled that his health was not what it should be, and he had got it into his head that for this the climate of the colony was to blame. Nothing would do him but to return to England.
"I never! No, never in my born days did I hear tell of such a thing!" and Tilly, exploding, brought her closed fist heavily down on her knee. "Mary! ... for a mere maggot like that, to chuck up a practice such as 'e's got. Upon my word, my dear, it looks as if 'e was touched 'ere,"—and she significantly tapped her forehead. "Ha! Now I understand. You know I've seen quite well, love, you've been looking a bit down in the mouth of late. And so 'as pa noticed it, too. After you'd gone the other day, 'e said to me: 'Looks reflexive-like does the little lady nowadays; as if she'd got something on 'er mind.' And I to him: 'Pooh! Isn't it enough that she's got to put up with the cranks and crotchets of one o' YOUR sect?'—Oh Mary, my dear, there's many a true word said in jest. Though little did I think what the crotchet would be." And slowly the rims of Tilly's eyes and the tip of her nose reddened and swelled.
"No, I can't picture it, Mary—what it'ull be like 'ere without you," she said; and pulling out her handkerchief blew snort after snort, which was Tilly's way nowadays of having a good cry. "There, there, Baby, Auntie's only got the sniffles.—For just think of it, Mary: except that first year or so after you were married, we've been together, you and me, pretty much ever since you came to us that time at the 'otel—a little black midget of a thing in short frocks. I can still remember 'ow Jinn and I laughed at the idea of you teaching us; and 'ow poor ma said to wait and make sure we weren't laughing on the wrong side of our mouths. And ma was right as usual. For if ever a clever little kid trod the earth, it was you."
Mary pooh-poohed the cleverness. "I knew very little more than you yourselves. No, it was you who were all so kind to me. I had been feeling so lonely—as if nobody wanted me—and I shall never forget how mother put her arms round me and cuddled me, and how safe and comfortable I felt. It was always just like home there to me."
"And why not, I'd like to know!—Look 'ere, Mary, I'm going to ask you something, plump and plain. 'Ave you really been happy in your marriage, my dear, or 'ave you not? You're such a loyal little soul, I know you'd never show it if you weren't; and sometimes I've 'ad my doubts about you, Mary. For you and the doctor are just as different as chalk and cheese."
"Of course I have—as happy as the day's long!" cried Mary, sensitive as ever to a reflection on her husband. "You mustn't think anything like that, Tilly. I couldn't imagine myself married to anyone but Richard."
"Then that only makes it harder for you now, poor thing, pulled two ways like, as you are," said Tilly, and trumpeted afresh. "All the same, there isn't anything I'd stick at, Mary, to keep you here. Don't be offended, my dear, but it doesn't matter half so much about the doctor going as you. There's none cleverer than 'im, of course, in 'is own line. But 'e's never fitted in properly here—I don't want to exactly say 'e thinks 'imself too good for us; but there is something, Mary love, and I'm not the only one who's felt it. I've known people go on like anything about 'im behind 'is back: nothing would induce them to have 'im and 'is haughty airs inside their doors again, etcetera."
Mary flushed. "Yes, I know, people do sometimes judge Richard very unkindly. For at heart he's the most modest of men. It's only his manner. And he can't help that, can he?"
"There are those who say a doctor ought to be able to, my dear.—But never mind him. Oh, it's you I feel for, Mary, being dragged off like this. Can't you DO anything, dear? Put your foot down?"
Mary shook her head. "It's no use. Richard is so ... well, so queer in some ways, Tilly. Besides, you know, I don't think it would be right of me to really pit my will against his."
"Poor little you!—Oh! men are queer fish, Mary, aren't they? Not that I can complain; I drew a prize in the lucky-bag when I took that old Jawkins in there. But when I look round me, or think back, and see what we women put up with! There was poor old ma; she 'ad to be man for both. And Jinn, Mary, who didn't dare to call 'er soul 'er own. And milady Agnes is travelling the selfsame road—why, she 'as to cock 'er eye at Henry nowadays before she trusts 'erself to say whether it's beef or mutton she's eating! And now 'ere's you, love, carted off with never a with-your-leave or by-your-leave, just because the doctor's tired of it and thinks 'e'd like a change. There's no question of whether you're tired or not—oh, my, no!"
"But he has to earn the money, Tilly. It isn't quite fair to put it that way," protested her friend.
"Well! I don't know, Mary, I'm sure," and Tilly's plump person rose and sank in a prodigious sigh. "But if I was 'is wife 'e wouldn't get off so easy—I know that! It makes me just boil."
Mary answered with a rueful smile. She could never be angry with Richard in cold blood, or for long together.
As time went on, though, and the break-up of her home began—by the auctioneer's man appearing to paw over and appraise the furniture—a certain dull resentment did sometimes come uppermost. Under its sway she had forcibly to remind herself what a good husband Richard had always been; had to tell off his qualities one by one, instead of taking them as hitherto for granted. No, her quarrel, she began to see, was not so much with him as with the Powers above. Why should HER husband alone not be as robust and hardy as all the other husbands in the place? None of THEIR healths threatened to fail, nor did any of them find the conditions of the life intolerable. That was another shabby trick Fate had played Richard in not endowing him with worldly wisdom, and a healthy itch to succeed. Instead of that, he had been blessed with ideas and impulses that stood directly in his way.—And it was here that Mary bore more than one of her private ambitions for him to its grave. A new expression came into her eyes, too—an unsure, baffled look. Life was not, after all, going to be the simple, straightforward affair she had believed. Thus far, save for the one unhappy business with Purdy, wrongs and complications had passed her by. Now she saw that no more than anyone else could she hope to escape them.
Out of this frame of mind she wrote a long, confidential letter to John: John must not be left in ignorance of what hung over her; it was also a relief to unbosom herself to one of her own family. And John was good enough to travel up expressly to talk things over with her, and, as he put it, to "call Richard to order." Like every one else he showed the whites of his eyes at the latter's flimsy reasons for seeking a change. But when, in spite of her warning, he bearded his brother-in-law with a jocose and hearty: "Come, come, my dear Mahony! what's all this? You're actually thinking of giving us the slip?" Richard took his interference so badly, became so agitated over the head of the harmless question that John's airy remonstrance died in his throat.
"Mad as a March hare!" was his private verdict, as he shook down his ruffled plumes. To Mary he said ponderously: "Well, upon my soul, my dear girl, I don't know—I am frankly at a loss what to say. Measured by every practical standard, the step he contemplates is little short of suicidal. I fear he will live to regret it."
And Mary, who had not expected anything from John's intervention, and also knew the grounds for Richard's heat—Mary now resigned herself, with the best grace she could muster, to the inevitable.
House and practice sold for a good round sum; the brass plates were removed from gate and door, leaving dirty squares flanked by screw-holes; carpets came up and curtains down; and, like rats from a doomed ship, men and women servants fled to other situations. One fine day the auctioneer's bell was rung through the main streets of the town; and both on this and the next, when the red flag flew in front of the house, a troop of intending purchasers, together with an even larger number of the merely curious, streamed in at the gate and overran the premises. At noon the auctioneer mounted his perch, gathered the crowd round him, and soon had the sale in full swing, catching head-bobs, or wheedling and insisting with, when persuasion could do no more, his monotonous parrot-cry of: "Going... going ... gone!"
It would have been in bad taste for either husband or wife to be visible while the auction was in progress; and, the night before, Mary and the child had moved to Tilly's, where they would stay for the rest of the time. But Mahony was still hard at work. The job of winding up and getting in the money owed him was no light one. For the report had somehow got abroad that he was retiring from practice because he had made his fortune; and only too many people took this as a tacit permission to leave their bills unpaid.
He had locked himself and his account-books into a small back room, where stood the few articles they had picked out to carry with them: Mary's sewing-table, his first gift to her after marriage; their modest stock of silver; his medical library. But he had been forced to lower the blind, to hinder impertinent noses flattening themselves against the window, and thus could scarcely see to put pen to paper; while the auctioneer's grating voice was a constant source of distraction—not to mention the rude comments made by the crowd on house and furniture, the ceaseless trying of the handle of the locked door.
When it came to the point, this tearing up of one's roots was a murderous business—nothing for a man of his temperament. Mary was a good deal better able to stand it than he. Violently as she had opposed the move in the beginning, she was now, dear soul, putting a cheery face on it. But then Mary belonged to that happy class of mortals who could set up their Lares and Penates inside any four walls. Whereas he was a very slave to associations. Did she regret parting with a pretty table and a comfortable chair, it was soley because of the prettiness and convenience: as long as she could replace them by other articles of the same kind, she was content. But to him each familiar object was bound by a thousand memories. And it was the loss of these which could never be replaced that cut him to the quick.
Meanwhile this was the kind of thing he had to listen to.
"'Ere now, ladies and gents, we 'ave a very fine pier glass—a very chaste and tasty pier glass indeed—a red addition to any lady's drawin'room.—Mrs. Rupp? Do I understand you aright, Mrs. Rupp? Mrs. Rupp offers twelve bob for this very 'andsome article. Twelve bob ... going twelve.... Fifteen? Thank you, Mrs. Bromby! Going fifteen ... going—going—Eighteen? Right you are, my dear!" and so on.
It had a history had that pier glass; its purchase dated from a time in their lives when they had been forced to turn each shilling in the palm. Mary had espied it one day in Plaistows' Stores, and had set her heart on buying it. How she had schemed to scrape the money together!—saving so much on a new gown, so much on bonnet and mantle. He remembered, as if it were yesterday, the morning on which she had burst in, eyes and cheeks aglow, to tell him that she had managed it at last, and how they had gone off arm in arm to secure the prize. Yes, for all their poverty, those had been happy days. Little extravagances such as this, or the trifling gifts they had contrived to make each other had given far more pleasure than the costlier presents of later years.
"The next article I draw your attention to is a sofer," went on the voice, sounding suddenly closer; and with a great trampling and shuffling the crowd trooped after it to the adjoining room. "And a very easy and comfortable piece o' furniture it is, too. A bit shabby and worn 'ere and there, but not any the worse of that. You don't need to worry if the kids play puff-puffs on it; and it fits the shape o' the body all the better.—Any one like to try it? Jest the very thing for a tired gent 'ome from biz, or 'andy to pop your lady on when she faints—as the best of ladies will! Any h'offers? Mr. de la Plastrier"—he said "Deelay plastreer"—"a guinea? Thank you, mister. One guinea! Going a guinea!—Now, COME on, ladies and gen'elmen! D'ye think I've got a notion to make you a present of it? What's that? Two-and-twenty? Gawd! Is this a tiddlin' match?"
How proud he had been of that sofa! In his first surgery he had had nowhere to lay an aching head. Well worn? Small wonder! He would like to know how many hundreds of times he had flung himself down on it, utterly played out. He had been used to lie there of an evening, too, when Mary came in to chat about household affairs, or report on her day's doings. And he remembered another time, when he had spent the last hours of a distracted night on it ... and how, between sleeping and waking, he had strained his ears for footsteps that never came.
The sofa was knocked down to his butcher for a couple of pounds, and the crying—or decrying—of his bookcases began. He could stand no more of it. Sweeping his papers into a bag, he guiltily unlocked the door and stole out by way of kitchen and back gate.
But once outside he did not know where to go or what to do. Leaving the town behind him he made for the Lake, and roved aimlessly and disconsolately about, choosing sheltered paths and remote roads where he would be unlikely to run the gauntlet of acquaintances. For he shrank from recognition on this particular day, when all his domestic privacies were being bared to the public view. But altogether of late he had fought shy of meeting people. Their hard, matter-of-fact faces showed him only too plainly what they thought of him. At first he had been fool enough to scan them eagerly, in the hope of finding one saving touch of sympathy or comprehension. But he might as well have looked for grief in the eyes of an undertaker's mute. And so he had shrunk back into himself, wearing his stiffest air as a shield and leaving it to Mary to parry colonial inquisitiveness.
When he reckoned that he had allowed time enough for the disposal of the last pots and pans, he rose and made his way—well, the word "home" was by now become a mere figure of speech. He entered a scene of the wildest confusion. The actual sale was over, but the work of stripping the house only begun, and successful bidders were dragging off their spoils. His glass-fronted bookcase had been got as far as the surgery-door. There it had stuck fast; and an angry altercation was going on, how best to set it free. A woman passed him bearing Mary's girandoles; another had the dining-room clock under her arm; a third trailed a whatnot after her. To the palings of the fence several carts and buggies had been hitched, and the horses were eating down his neatly clipped hedge—it was all he could do not to rush out and call their owners to account. The level sunrays flooded the rooms, showing up hitherto unnoticed smudges and scratches on the wall-papers; showing the prints of hundreds of dusty feet on the carpetless floors. Voices echoed in hollow fashion through the naked rooms; men shouted and spat as they tugged heavy articles along the hall, or bumped them down the stairs. It was pandemonium. The death of a loved human being could not, he thought, have been more painful to witness. Thus a home went to pieces; thus was a page of one's life turned.—He hastened away to rejoin Mary.
There followed a week of Mrs. Tilly's somewhat stifling hospitality, when one was forced three times a day to over-eat oneself for fear of giving offence; followed formal presentations of silver and plate from Masonic Lodge and District Hospital, as well as a couple of public testimonials got up by his medical brethren. But at length all was over: the last visit had been paid and received, the last evening party in their honour sat through; and Mahony breathed again. He had felt stiff and unnatural under this overdose of demonstrativeness. Now—as always on sighting relief from a state of things that irked him—he underwent a sudden change, turned hearty and spontaneous, thus innocently succeeding in leaving a good impression behind him. He kept his temper, too, in all the fuss and ado of departure: the running to and fro after missing articles, the sitting on the lids of overflowing trunks, the strapping of carpet-bags, affixing of labels. Their luggage hoisted into a spring-cart, they themselves took their seats in the buggy and were driven to the railway station; and to himself Mahony murmured an all's-well—that-ends-well. On alighting, however, he found that his greatcoat had been forgotten. He had to re-seat himself in the buggy and gallop back to the house, arriving at the station only just in time to leap into the train.
"A close shave that!" he ejaculated as he sank on the cushions and wiped his face. "And in more senses than one, my dear. In tearing round a corner we nearly had a nasty spill. Had I pitched out and broken my neck, this hole would have got my bones after all.—Not that I was sorry to miss that cock-and-hen-show, Mary. It was really too much of a good thing altogether."
For a large and noisy crowd had gathered round the door of the carriage to wish the travellers god-speed, among them people to whom Mahony could not even put a name, whose very existence he had forgotten. And it had fairly snowed last gifts and keepsakes. Drying her eyes, Mary now set to collecting and arranging these. "Just fancy so many turning up, dear. The railway people must have wondered what was the matter.—Oh, by the way, did you notice—I don't think you did, you were in such a rush—who I was speaking to as you ran up? It was Jim, Old Jim, but so changed I hardly knew him. As spruce as could be, in a black coat and a belltopper. He's married again, he told me, and has one of the best-paying hotels in Smythesdale. Yes, and he was at the sale, too—he came over specially for it—to buy the piano."
"He did, confound him!" cried Mahony hotly.
"Oh, you can't look at it that way, Richard. As long as he has the money to pay for it. Fancy, he told me had always admired the 'tune' of it so much, when I played and sang. My dear little piano!"
"You shall have another and a better one, I promise you, old girl—don't fret. Well, that slice of our life's over and done with," he added, and laid his hand on hers. "But we'll hold together, won't we, wife, whatever happens?"
They had passed Black Hill and its multicoloured clay and gravel heaps, and the train was puffing uphill. The last scattered huts and weatherboards fell behind, the worked-out holes grew fewer, wooded rises appeared. Gradually, too, the white roads round Mount Buninyong came into view, and the trees became denser. And having climbed the shoulder, they began to fly smoothly and rapidly down the other side.
Mahony bent forward in his seat. "There goes the last of old Warrenheip. Thank the Lord, I shall never set eyes on it again. Upon my word, I believe I came to think that hill the most tiresome feature of the place. Whatever street one turned into, up it bobbed at the foot. Like a peep-show ... or a bad dream ... or a prison wall."
In Melbourne they were the guests of John—Mahony had reluctantly resigned himself to being beholden to Mary's relatives and Mary's friends to the end of the chapter. At best, living in other people's houses was for him more of a punishment than a pleasure; but for sheer discomfort this stay capped the climax. Under Zara's incompetent rule John's home had degenerated into a lawless and slovenly abode: the meals were unpalatable, the servants pert and lazy, while the children ran wild—you could hardly hear yourself speak for the racket. Whenever possible, Mahony fled the house. He lunched in town, looked up his handful of acquaintances, bought necessaries—and unnecessaries—for the voyage. He also hired a boat and had himself rowed out to the ship, where he clambered on board amid the mess of scouring and painting, and made himself known to the chief mate. Or he sat on the pier and gazed at the vessel lying straining at her anchor, while quick rain-squalls swept up and blotted out the Bay.
Of Mary he caught but passing glimpses; her family seemed determined to make unblushing use of her as long as she was within reach. A couple of days prior to their arrival, John and Zara had quarrelled violently; and for the dozenth time Zara had packed her trunks and departed for one of those miraculous situations, the doors of which always stood open to her.
John was for Mary going after her and forcing her to admit the error of her ways. Mary held it wiser to let well alone.
"DO be guided by me this time, John," she urged, when she had heard her brother out: "You and Zara will never hit it off, however often you try."
But the belief was ingrained in John that the most suitable head for his establishment was one of his own blood. He answered indignantly. "And why not pray, may I ask? Who IS to hit it off, as you put it, if not two of a family?"
"Oh, John... "—Mary felt quite apologetic for her brother. "Clever as Zara is, she's not at all fitted for a post of this kind. She's no hand with the servants, and children don't seem to take to her—young children, I mean."
"Not fitted? Bah!" said John. "Every woman is fitted by nature to rear children and manage a house."
"They should be, I know," yielded Mary in conciliatory fashion. "But with Zara it doesn't seem to be the case."
"Then she ought to be ashamed of herself, my dear Mary—ashamed of herself—and that's all about it!"
Zara wept into a dainty handkerchief and was delivered of a rigmarole of complaints against her brother, the servants, the children. According to her, the last were naturally perverse, and John indulged them so shockingly that she had been powerless to carry out reforms. Did she punish them, he cancelled the punishments; if she left their naughtiness unchecked, he accused her of indifference. Then her housekeeping had not suited him: he reproached her with extravagance, with mismanagement, even with lining her own purse. "While the truth is, John is mean as dirt! I had literally to drag each penny out of him."
"But what ever induced you to undertake it again, Zara?"
"Yes, what indeed!" echoed Zara bitterly. "However, once bitten, Mary, twice shy. NEVER again!"
But remembering the bites Zara had already received, Mary was silent.
Even Zara's amateurish hand thus finally withdrawn, it became Mary's task to find some worthy and capable person to act as mistress. Taking her obligations seriously, she devoted her last days in Australia to conning and penning advertisements, and interviewing applicants.
"Now no one too attractive, if you please, Mrs. Mahony!—if you don't want him to fall a victim," teased Richard. "Remember our good John's inflammability. He's a very Leyden jar again at present."
"No, indeed I don't," said Mary with emphasis. "But the children are the first consideration. Oh, dear! it does seem a shame that Tilly shouldn't have them to look after. And it would relieve John of so much responsibility. As it is, he's even asked me to make it plain to Tilly that he wishes Trotty to spend her holidays at school."
The forsaking of the poor little motherless flock cut Mary to the heart. Trotty had dung to her, inconsolable. "Oh, Auntie, TAKE me with you! Oh, what shall I do without you?"
"It's not possible, darling. Your papa would never agree. But I tell you what, Trotty: you must be a good girl and make haste and learn all you can. For soon, I'm sure, he'll want you to come and be his little housekeeper, and look after the other children."
Sounded on this subject, however, John said dryly: "Emma's influence would be undesirable for the little ones." His prejudice in favour of his second wife's children was an eternal riddle to his sister. He dandled even the youngest, whom he had not seen since its birth, with visible pleasure.
"It must be the black eyes," said Mary to herself; and shook her head at men's irrationality. For Jinny's offspring had none of the grace and beauty that marked the two elder children.
And now the last night had come; and they were gathered, a family party, round John's mahogany. The cloth had been removed; nuts and port were passing. As it was a unique occasion the ladies had been excused from withdrawing, and the gentlemen left their cigars unlighted. Mary's eyes roved fondly from one face to another. There was Tilly, come over from her hotel—("Nothing would induce me to spend a night under his roof, Mary")—Tilly sat hugging one of the children, who had run in for the almonds and raisins of dessert. "What a mother lost in her!" sighed Mary once more. There was Zara, so far reconciled to her brother as to consent to be present; but only speaking at him, not to him. And dear Jerry, eager and alert, taking so intelligent a share in what was said. Poor Ned alone was wanting, neither Richard nor John having offered to pay his fare to town. Young Johnny's seat was vacant, too, for the boy had vanished directly dinner was over.
In the harmony of the evening there was just one jarring note for Mary; and at moments she grew very thoughtful. For the first time Mrs. Kelly, the motherly widow on whom her choice had fallen, sat opposite John at the head of the table; and already Mary was the prey of a nagging doubt. For this person had doffed the neat mourning-garb she had worn when being engaged, and come forth in a cap trimmed with cherry coloured ribbons. Not only this, she smiled in sugary fashion and far too readily; while the extreme humility with which she deferred to John's opinion, and hung on his lips, made another bad impression on Mary. Nor was she alone in her observations. After a particularly glaring example of the widow's complaisance, Tilly looked across and shut one eye, in an unmistakable wink.
Meanwhile the men's talk had gradually petered out: there came long pauses in which they twiddled and twirled their wine-glasses, unable to think of anything to say. At heart, both John and Mahony hailed with a certain relief the coming break. "After all I dare say such a queer faddy fellow IS out of his element here. He'll go down better over there," was John's mental verdict. Mahony's, a characteristic: "Thank God, I shall not have to put up much longer with his confounded self-importance, or suffer under his matrimonial muddles!"