Australia Felix/Part I/Chapter IV
The two young men took to the road betimes: it still wanted some minutes to six on the new clock in the tower of Bath's Hotel, when they threw their legs over their saddles and rode down the steep slope by the Camp Reserve. The hoofs of the horses pounded the plank bridge that spanned the Yarrowee, and striking loose stones, and smacking and sucking in the mud, made a rude clatter in the Sunday quiet.
Having followed for a few hundred yards the wide, rut-riddled thoroughfare of Main Street, the riders branched off to cross rising ground. They proceeded in single file and at a footpace, for the highway had been honeycombed and rendered unsafe; it also ascended steadily. Just before they entered the bush, which was alive with the rich, strong whistling of magpies, Purdy halted to look back and wave his hat in farewell. Mahony also half-turned in the saddle. There it lay--the scattered, yet congested, unlovely wood and canvas settlement that was Ballarat. At this distance, and from this height, it resembled nothing so much as a collection of child's bricks, tossed out at random over the ground, the low, square huts and cabins that composed it being all of a shape and size. Some threads of smoke began to mount towards the immense pale dome of the sky. The sun was catching here the panes of a window, there the tin that encased a primitive chimney.
They rode on, leaving the warmth of the early sun-rays for the cold blue shadows of the bush. Neither broke the silence. Mahony's day had not come to an end with the finding of Purdy. Barely stretched on his palliasse he had been routed out to attend to Long Jim, who had missed his footing and pitched into a shaft. The poor old tipsy idiot hauled up --luckily for him it was a dry, shallow hole--there was a broken collar-bone to set. Mahony had installed him in his own bed, and had spent the remainder of the night dozing in a chair.
So now he was heavy-eyed, uncommunicative. As they climbed the shoulder and came to the rich, black soil that surrounded the ancient cone of Warrenheip, he mused on his personal relation to the place he had just left. And not for the first time he asked himself: what am I doing here? When he was absent from Ballarat, and could dispassionately consider the life he led there, he was so struck by the incongruity of the thing that, like the beldame in the nursery-tale, he could have pinched himself to see whether he waked or slept. Had anyone told him, three years previously, that the day was coming when he would weigh out soap and sugar, and hand them over a counter in exchange for money, he would have held the prophet ripe for Bedlam. Yet here he was, a full-blown tradesman, and as greedy of gain as any tallow-chandler. Extraordinary, aye, and distressing, too, the ease with which the human organism adapted itself; it was just a case of the green caterpillar on the green leaf. Well, he could console himself with the knowledge that his apparent submission was only an affair of the surface. He had struck no roots; and it would mean as little to his half-dozen acquaintances on Ballarat when he silently vanished from their midst, as it would to him if he never saw one of them again. Or the country either--and he let his eye roam unlovingly over the wild, sad-coloured landscape, with its skimpy, sad-coloured trees.
Meanwhile they were advancing: their nags' hoofs, beating in unison, devoured mile after mile of the road. It was a typical colonial road; it went up hill and down dale, turned aside for no obstacles. At one time it ran down a gully that was almost a ravine, to mount straight up the opposite side among boulders that reached to the belly-bands. At others, it led through a reedy swamp, or a stony watercourse; or it became a bog; or dived through a creek. Where the ground was flat and treeless, it was a rutty, well-worn track between two seas of pale, scant grass.
More than once, complaining of a mouth like sawdust, Purdy alighted and limped across the verandah of a house-of-accommodation; but they did not actually draw rein till, towards midday, they reached a knot of weatherboard verandahed stores, smithies and public-houses, arranged at the four Corners of two cross-roads. Here they made a substantial luncheon; and the odour of fried onions carried far and wide. Mahony paid his three shillings for a bottle of ale; but Purdy washed down the steak with cup after cup of richly sugared tea.
In the early afternoon they set off again, revived and refreshed. Purdy caught at a bunch of aromatic leaves and burst into a song; and Mahony. . . . Good God! With a cloudless sky overhead, a decent bit of horseflesh between his knees, and the prospect of a three days' holiday from storekeeping, his name would not have been what it was if he had for long remained captious, downhearted. Insufficient sleep, and an empty stomach--nothing on earth besides! A fig for his black thoughts! The fact of his being obliged to spend a few years in the colony would, in the end, profit him, by widening his experience of the world and his fellow-men. It was possible to lead a sober, Godfearing life, no matter in what rude corner of the globe you were pitchforked.--And in this mood he was even willing to grant the landscape a certain charm. Since leaving Ballan the road had dipped up and down a succession of swelling rises, grass-grown and untimbered. From the top of these ridges the view was a far one: you looked straight across undulating waves of country and intervening forest-land, to where, on the horizon, a long, low sprawling range of hills lay blue--cobalt-blue, and painted in with a sure brush--against the porcelain-blue of the sky. What did the washed-out tints of the foliage matter, when, wherever you turned, you could count on getting these marvellous soft distances, on always finding a range of blue-veiled hills, lovely and intangible as a dream?
There was not much traffic to the diggings on a Sunday. And having come to a level bit of ground, the riders followed a joint impulse and broke into a canter. As they began to climb again they fell naturally into one of those familiar talks, full of allusion and reminiscence, that are only possible between two of a sex who have lived through part of their green days together.
It began by Purdy referring to the satisfactory fashion in which he had disposed of his tools, his stretcher-bed, and other effects: he was not travelling to Melbourne empty-handed.
Mahony rallied him. "You were always a good one at striking a bargain, my boy! What about: 'Four mivvies for an alley!'--eh, Dickybird?"
This related to their earliest meeting, and was a standing joke between them. Mahony could recall the incident as clearly as though it had happened yesterday: how the sturdy little apple-cheeked English boy, with the comical English accent, had suddenly bobbed up at his side on the way home from school, and in that laughable sing-song of his, without modulation or emphasis, had offered to "swop" him, as above.
Purdy laughed and paid him back in kind. "Yes, and the funk you were in for fear Spiny Tatlow 'ud see us, and peach to the rest!"
"Yes. What young idiots boys are!"
In thought he added: "And what snobs!" For the breach of convention--he was an upper-form boy at the time--had not been his sole reason for wishing to shake off his junior. Behind him, Mahony, when he reached home, closed the door of one of the largest houses in the most exclusive square in Dublin. Whereas Purdy lived in a small, common house in a side street. Visits there had to be paid surreptitiously.
All the same these were frequent--and for the best of reasons. Mahony could still see Purdy's plump, red-cheeked English mother, who was as jolly and happy as her boy, hugging the loaf to her bosom while she cut round after round of bread and butter and jam, for two cormorant throats. And the elder boy, long-limbed and lank, all wrist and ankle, had invariably been the hungrier of the two; for, on the glossy damask of the big house, often not enough food was set to satisfy the growing appetites of himself and his sisters.--"Dickybird, can't you see us, with our backs to the wall, in that little yard of yours, trying who could take the biggest bite?--or going round the outside: 'Crust first, and though you burst, By the bones of Davy Jones!' till only a little island of jam was left?"
Purdy laughed heartily at these and other incidents fished up by his friend from the well of the years; but he did not take part in the sport himself. He had not Mahony's gift for recalling detail: to him past was past. He only became alive and eager when the talk turned, as it soon did, on his immediate prospects.
This time, to his astonishment, Mahony had had no trouble in persuading Purdy to quit the diggings. In addition, here was the boy now declaring openly that what he needed, and must have, was a fixed and steadily paying job. With this decision Mahony was in warm agreement, and promised all the help that lay in his power.
But Purdy was not done; he hummed and hawed and fidgeted; he took off his hat and looked inside it; he wiped his forehead and the nape of his neck.
Mahony knew the symptoms. "Come, Dickybird. Spit it out, my boy!"
"Yes . . . er. . . . Well, the fact is, Dick, I begin to think it's time I settled down."
Mahony gave a whistle. "Whew! A lady in the case?"
"That's the chat. Just oblige yours truly by takin' a squint at this, will you?"
He handed his friend a squarely-folded sheet of thinnest blue paper, with a large purple stamp in one corner, and a red seal on the back. Opening it Mahony discovered three crossed pages, written in a delicately pointed, minute, Italian hand.
He read the letter to the end, deliberately, and with a growing sense of relief: composition, expression and penmanship, all met with his approval. "This is the writing of a person of some refinement, my son."
"Well, er . . . yes," said Purdy. He seemed about to add a further word, then swallowed it, and went on: "Though, somehow or other, Till's different to herself, on paper. But she's the best of girls, Dick. Not one o' your ethereal, die-away, bread-and-butter misses. There's something OF Till there is, and she's always on for a lark. I never met such girls for larks as her and 'er sister. The very last time I was there, they took and hung up . . . me and some other fellers had been stoppin' up a bit late the night before, and kickin' up a bit of a shindy, and what did those girls do? They got the barman to come into my room while I was asleep, and hang a bucket o' water to one of the beams over the bed. Then I'm blamed if they didn't tie a string from it to my big toe! I gives a kick, down comes the bucket and half drowns me.-- Gosh, how those girls did laugh!"
"H'm!" said Mahony dubiously; while Purdy in his turn chewed the cud of a pleasant memory.--"Well, I for my part should be glad to see you married and settled, with a good wife always beside you."
"That's just the rub," said Purdy, and vigorously scratched his head.
"Till's a first-class girl as a sweetheart and all that; but when I come to think of puttin' my head in the noose, from now till doomsday--why then, somehow, I can't bring myself to pop the question."
"There's going to be no trifling with the girl's feelings, I hope, sir?"
"Bosh! But I say, Dick, I wish you'd turn your peepers on 'er and tell me what you make of 'er. She's AI 'erself, but she's got a mother. . . . By Job, Dick, if I thought Tilly 'ud ever get like that . . . and they're exactly the same build, too."
It would certainly be well for him to inspect Purdy's flame, thought Mahony. Especially since the anecdote told did not bear out the good impression left by the letter--went far, indeed, to efface it. Still, he was loath to extend his absence by spending a night at Geelong, where, a, it came out, the lady lived; and he replied evasively that it must depend on the speed with which he could put through his business in Melbourne.
Purdy was silent for a time. Then, with a side-glance at his companion, he volunteered: "I say, Dick, I know some one who'd suit you."
"The deuce you do!" said Mahony, and burst out laughing. "Miss Tilly's sister, no doubt?"
"No, no--not her. Jinn's all right, but she's not your sort. But they've got a girl living with 'em--a sort o' poor relation, or something--and she's a horse of quite another colour.--I say, old man, serious now, have you never thought o' gettin' spliced?"
Again Mahony laughed. At his companion's words there descended to him, once more, from some shadowy distance, some pure height, the rose-tinted vision of the wife-to-be which haunts every man's youth. And, in ludicrous juxtaposition, he saw the women, the only women he had encountered since coming to the colony: the hardworking, careworn wives of diggers; the harridans, sluts and prostitutes who made up the balance.
He declined to be drawn. "Is it old Moll Flannigan or one of her darlints you'd be wishing me luck to, ye spalpeen?"
"Man, don't I say I've FOUND the wife for you?" Purdy was not jesting, and did not join in the fresh salvo of laughter with which Mahony greeted his words. "Oh, blow it, Dick, you're too fastidious--too damned particular! Say what you like, there's good in all of 'em--even in old Mother Flannigan 'erself--and 'specially when she's got a drop inside 'er. Fuddle old Moll a bit, and she'd give you the very shift off her back.--Don't I thank the Lord, that's all, I'm not built like you! Why, the woman isn't born I can't get on with. All's fish that comes to my net.--Oh, to be young, Dick, and to love the girls! To see their little waists, and their shoulders, and the dimples in their cheeks! See 'em put up their hands to their bonnets, and how their little feet peep out when the wind blows their petticoats against their legs!" and Purdy rose in his stirrups and stretched himself, in an excess of wellbeing.
"You young reprobate!"
"Bah!--you! You've got water in your veins."
"Nothing of the sort! Set me among decent women and there's no company I enjoy more," declared Mahony.
"Fish-blood, fish-blood!--Dick, it's my belief you were born old."
Mahony was still young enough to be nettled by doubts cast on his vitality. Purdy laughed in his sleeve. Aloud he said: "Well, look here, old man, I'll lay you a wager. I bet you you're not game, when you see that tulip I've been tellin' you about, to take her in your arms and kiss her. A fiver on it!"
"Done!" cried Mahony. "And I'll have it in one note, if you please!"
"Bravo!" cried Purdy. "Bravo, Dick!" And having gained his end, and being on a good piece of road between post-and-rail fences, he set spurs to his horse and cantered off, singing as he went:
SHE WHEELS A WHEELBARROW, THROUGH STREETS WIDE AND NARROW, CRYING COCKLES, AND MUSSELS, ALIVE, ALIVE-OH!
But the sun was growing large in the western sky; on the ground to the left, their failing shadows slanted out lengthwise; those cast by the horses' bodies were mounted on high spindle-legs. The two men ceased their trifling, and nudged by the fall of day began to ride at a more business-like pace, pushing forward through the deep basin of Bacchus's marsh, and on for miles over wide, treeless plains, to where the road was joined by the main highway from the north, coming down from Mount Alexander and the Bendigo. Another hour, and from a gentle eminence the buildings of Melbourne were visible, the mastheads of the many vessels riding at anchor in Hobson's Bay. Here, too, the briny scent of the sea, carrying up over grassy flats, met their nostrils, and set Mahony hungrily sniffing. The brief twilight came and went, and it was already night when they urged their weary beasts over the Moonee ponds, a winding chain of brackish waterholes. The horses shambled along the broad, hilly tracks of North Melbourne; warily picked their steps through the city itself. Dingy oil-lamps, set here and there at the corners of roads so broad that you could hardly see across them, shed but a meagre light, and the further the riders advanced, the more difficult became their passage: the streets, in process of laying, were heaped with stones and intersected by trenches. Finally, dismounting, they thrust their arms through their bridles, and laboriously covered the last half-mile of the journey on foot. Having lodged the horses at a livery-stable, they repaired to a hotel in Little Collins Street. Here Purdy knew the proprietor, and they were fortunate enough to secure a small room for the use of themselves alone.