Australia Felix/Part I/Chapter VI

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Australia Felix by Henry Handel Richardson
Part I, Chapter VI

In a whitewashed parlour of "Beamish's Family Hotel" some few miles north of Geelong, three young women, in voluminous skirts and with their hair looped low over their ears, sat at work. Books lay open on the table before two of them; the third was making a bookmark. Two were fair, plump, rosy, and well over twenty; the third, pale-skinned and dark, was still a very young girl. She it was who stitched magenta hieroglyphics on a strip of perforated cardboard.

"Do lemme see, Poll," said the eldest of the trio, and laid down her pen. "You 'AVE bin quick about it, my dear."

Polly, the brunette, freed her needle of silk and twirled the bookmark by its ribbon ends. Spinning, the mystic characters united to form the words: "Kiss me quick."

Her companions tittered. "If ma didn't know for certain 'twas meant for your brother John, she'd never 'ave let you make it," said the second blonde, whose name was Jinny.

"Girls, what a lark it 'ud be to send it up to Purdy Smith, by Ned!" said the first speaker.

Polly blushed. "Fy, Tilly! That wouldn't be ladylike."

Tilly's big bosom rose and fell in a sigh. "What's a lark never is."

Jinny giggled, agreeably scandalized: "What things you do say. Till! Don't let ma 'ear you, that's all."

"Ma be blowed!--'Ow does this look now, Polly?" And across the wax-cloth Tilly pushed a copybook, in which she had laboriously inscribed a prim maxim the requisite number of times.

Polly laid down her work and knitted her brows over the page.

"Well . . . it's better than the last one, Tilly," she said gently, averse to hurting her pupil's feelings. "But still not quite good enough. The f's, look, should be more like this." And taking a steel pen she made several long-tailed f's, in a tiny, pointed hand.

Tilly yielded an ungrudging admiration. "'Ow well you do it, Poll! But I HATE writing. If only ma weren't so set on it!"

"You'll never be able to write yourself to a certain person, 'oos name I won't mention, if you don't 'urry up and learn," said Jinny, looking sage.

"What's the odds! We've always got Poll to write for us," gave back Tilly, and lazily stretched out a large, plump hand to recover the copybook. "A certain person'll never know--or not till it's too late."

"Here, Polly dear," said Jinny, and held out a book. "I know it now."

Again Polly put down her embroidery. She took the book. "Plough!" said she.

"Plough?" echoed Jinny vaguely, and turned a pair of soft, cow-like brown eyes on the blowflies sitting sticky and sleepy round the walls of the room. "Wait a jiff . . . lemme think! Plough? Oh, yes, I know. P-l . . . ."

"P-l-o" prompted Polly, the speller coming to a full stop.

" P-l-o-w!" shot out Jinny, in triumph.

"Not QUITE right," said Polly. "It's g-h, Jinny: p-l-o-u-g-h."

"Oh, that's what I meant. I knew it right enough."

"Well, now, trough!"

"Trough?" repeated Jinny, in the same slow, vacant way.

"Trough? Wait, lemme think a minute. T-r-o. . . ."

Polly's lips all but formed the "u," to prevent the "f" she felt impending. "I'm afraid you'll have to take it again, Jinny dear," she said reluctantly, as nothing further was forthcoming.

"Oh, no, Poll. T-r-o-" began Jinny with fresh vigour. But before she could add a fourth to the three letters, a heavy foot pounded down the passage, and a stout woman, out of breath, her cap-bands flying, came bustling in and slammed the door.

"Girls, girls, now whatever d'ye think? 'Ere's Purdy Smith come ridin' inter the yard, an' another gent with 'im. Scuttle along now, an' put them books away!--Tilda, yer net's 'alf 'angin' off--you don't want yer sweet-'eart to see you all untidy like that, do you?--'Elp 'em, Polly my dear, and be quick about it!--H'out with yer sewin', chicks!"

Sprung up from their seats the three girls darted to and fro. The telltale spelling and copy-books were flung into the drawer of the chiffonier, and the key was turned on them. Polly, her immodest sampler safely hidden at the bottom of her workbox, was the most composed of the three; and while locks were smoothed and collars adjusted in the adjoining bedroom, she remained behind to look out thimbles, needles and strips of plain sewing, and to lay them naturally about the table.

The blonde sisters reappeared, all aglow with excitement. Tilly, in particular, was in a sad flutter.

"Girls, I simply CAN'T face 'im in 'ere!" she declared. "It was 'ere, in this very room, that 'e first--you know what!"

"Nor can I," cried Jinny, catching the fever.

"Feel my 'eart, 'ow it beats," said her sister, pressing her hands, one over the other, to her full left breast.

"Mine's every bit as bad," averred Jinny.

"I believe I shall 'ave the palpitations and faint away, if I stop 'ere."

Polly was genuinely concerned. "I'll run and call mother back."

"No, I tell you what: let's 'ide!" cried Tilly, recovering.

Jinny wavered. "But will they find us?"

"Duffer! Of course. Ma'll give 'em the 'int.--Come on!"

Suiting the action to the word, and imitated by her sister, she scrambled over the window sill to the verandah. Polly found herself alone. Her conscientious scrupling: "But mother may be cross!" had passed unheeded. Now, she, too, fell into a flurry. She could not remain there, by herself, to meet two young men, one of whom was a stranger: steps and voices were already audible at the end of the passage. And so, since there was nothing else for it, she clambered after her friends-- though with difficulty; for she was not very tall.

This was why, when Mrs. Beamish flourished open the door, exclaiming in a hearty tone: "An' 'ere you'll find 'em, gents--sittin' at their needles, busy as bees!" the most conspicuous object in the room was a very neat leg, clad in a white stocking and black prunella boot, which was just being drawn up over the sill. It flashed from sight; and the patter of running feet beat the floor of the verandah.

"Ha, ha, too late! The birds have flown," laughed Purdy, and smacked his thigh.

"Well, I declare, an' so they 'ave--the NAUGHTY creatures!" exclaimed Mrs. Beamish in mock dismay. "But trust you, Mr. Smith, for sayin' the right thing. Jus' exackly like birds they are--so shy an' scared-like. But I'll give you the 'int, gents. They'll not be far away. Jus' you show 'em two can play at that game.--Mr. S., you know the h'arbour!"

"Should say I do! Many's the time I've anchored there," cried Purdy with a guffaw. "Come, Dick!" And crossing to the window he straddled over the frame, and disappeared.

Reluctantly Mahony followed him.

From the verandah they went down into the vegetable-garden, where the drab and tangled growths that had outlived the summer were beaten flat by the recent rains. At the foot of the garden, behind a clump of gooseberry-bushes, stood an arbour formed of a yellow buddleia. No trace of a petticoat was visible, so thick was the leafage; but a loud whispering and tittering betrayed the fugitives.

At the apparition of the young men, who stooped to the low entrance, there was a cascade of shrieks.

"Oh, lor, 'OW you frightened me! 'Owever did you know we were 'ere?"

"You wicked fellow! Get away, will you! I 'ate the very sight of you!"-- this from Tilly, as Purdy, his hands on her hips, gave her a smacking kiss.

The other girls feared a like greeting; there were more squeaks and squeals, and some ineffectual dives for the doorway. Purdy spread out his arms. "Hi, look out, stop 'em, Dick! Now then, man, here's your chance!"

Mahony stood blinking; it was dusk inside, after the dazzle of the sun. At this reminder of the foolish bet he had taken, he hurriedly seized the young woman who was next him, and embraced her. It chanced to be Jinny. She screamed, and made a feint of feeling mortally outraged. Mahony had to dodge a box on the ears.

But Purdy burst into a horselaugh, and held his sides. Without knowing why, Tilly joined in, and Jinny, too, was infected. When Purdy could speak, he blurted out: "Dick, you fathead!--you jackass!--you've mugged the wrong one."

At this clownish mirth, Mahony felt the blood boil up over ears and temples. For an instant he stood irresolute. Did he admit the blunder, his victim would be hurt. Did he deny it, he would save his own face at the expense of the other young woman's feelings. So, though he could have throttled Purdy he put a bold front on the matter.

"CARPE DIEM is my motto, my boy! I intend to make both young ladies pay toll."

His words were the signal for a fresh scream and flutter: the third young person had escaped, and was flying down the path. This called for chase and capture. She was not very agile but she knew the ground, which, outside the garden, was rocky and uneven. For a time, she had Mahony at vantage; his heart was not in the game: in cutting undignified capers among the gooseberry-bushes he felt as foolish as a performing dog. Then, however, she caught her toe in her dress and stumbled. He could not disregard the opportunity; he advanced upon her.

But two beseeching hands fended him off. "No . . . no. Please . . . oh, PLEASE, don't!"

This was no catchpenny coquetry; it was a genuine dread of undue familiarity. A kindred trait in Mahony's own nature rose to meet it.

"Certainly not, if it is disagreeable to you. Shall we shake hands instead?"

Two of the blackest eyes he had ever seen were raised to his, and a flushed face dimpled. They shook hands, and he offered his arm.

Halfway to the arbour, they met the others coming to find them. The girls bore diminutive parasols; and Purdy, in rollicking spirits, Tilly on one arm, Jinny on the other, held Polly's above his head. On the appearance of the laggards, Jinny, who had put her own interpretation on the misplaced kiss, prepared to free her arm; but Purdy, winking at his friend, squeezed it to his side and held her prisoner.

Tilly buzzed a word in his ear.

"Yes, by thunder!" he ejaculated; and letting go of his companions, he spun round like a ballet-dancer. "Ladies! Let me introduce to you my friend, Dr. Richard Townshend-Mahony, F.R.C.S., M.D., Edinburgh, at present proprietor of the 'Diggers' Emporium,' Dead Dog Hill, Ballarat. --Dick, my hearty, Miss Tilly Beamish, world-famed for her sauce; Miss Jinny, renowned for her skill in casting the eyes of sheep; and, last but not least, pretty little Polly Perkins, alias Miss Polly Turnham, whose good deeds put those of Dorcas to the blush."

The Misses Beamish went into fits of laughter, and Tilly hit Purdy over the back with her parasol.

But the string of letters had puzzled them, roused their curiosity.

" What'n earth do they mean?--Gracious! So clever! It makes me feel quite queer."

"Y'ought to 'ave told us before 'and, Purd, so's we could 'ave studied up."

However, a walk to a cave was under discussion, and Purdy urged them on. "Phoebus is on the wane, girls. And it's going to be damn cold to-night."

Once more with the young person called Polly as companion, Mahony followed after. He walked in silence, listening to the rattle of the three in front. At best he was but a poor hand at the kind of repartee demanded of their swains by these young women; and to-day his slender talent failed him altogether, crushed by the general tone of vulgar levity. Looking over at the horizon, which swam in a kind of gold-dust haze below the sinking sun, he smiled thinly to himself at Purdy's ideas of wiving.

Reminded he was not alone by feeling the hand on his arm tremble, he glanced down at his companion; and his eye was arrested by a neatly parted head, of the glossiest black imaginable.

He pulled himself together. "Your cousins are excellent walkers."

"Oh, yes, very. But they are not my cousins."

Mahony pricked up his ears. "But you live here?"

"Yes. I help moth . . . Mrs. Beamish in the house."

But as if, with this, she had said too much, she grew tongue-tied again; and there was nothing more to be made of her. Taking pity on her timidity, Mahony tried to put her at ease by talking about himself. He described his life on the diggings and the straits to which he was at times reduced: the buttons affixed to his clothing by means of gingerbeer-bottle wire; his periodic onslaughts on sock-darning; the celebrated pudding it had taken him over four hours to make. And Polly, listening to him, forgot her desire to run away. Instead, she could not help laughing at the tales of his masculine shiftlessness. But as soon as they came in view of the others, Tilly and Purdy sitting under one parasol on a rock by the cave, Jinny standing and looking out rather aggressively after the loiterers, she withdrew her arm.

"Moth . . . Mrs. Beamish will need me to help her with tea. And . . . and WOULD you please walk back with Jinny?"

Before he could reply, she had turned and was hurrying away.

They got home from the cave at sundown, he with the ripe Jinny hanging a dead weight on his arm, to find tea spread in the private parlour. The table was all but invisible under its load; and their hostess looked as though she had been parboiled on her own kitchen fire. She sat and fanned herself with a sheet of newspaper while, time and again, undaunted by refusals, she pressed the good things upon her guests. There were juicy beefsteaks piled high with rings of onion, and a barracoota, and a cold leg of mutton. There were apple-pies and jam-tarts, a dish of curds-and-whey and a jug of custard. Butter and bread were fresh and new; scones and cakes had just left the oven; and the great cups of tea were tempered by pure, thick cream.

To the two men who came from diggers' fare: cold chop for breakfast, cold chop for dinner and cold chop for tea: the meal was little short of a banquet; and few words were spoken in its course. But the moment arrived when they could eat no more, and when even Mrs. Beamish ceased to urge them. Pipes and pouches were produced; Polly and Jinny rose to collect the plates, Tilly and her beau to sit on the edge of the verandah: they could be seen in silhouette against the rising moon, Tilly's head drooping to Purdy's shoulder.

Mrs. Beamish looked from them to Mahony with a knowing smile, and whispered behind her hand: "I do wish those two 'ud 'urry up an' make up their minds, that I do! I'd like to see my Tilda settled. No offence meant to young Smith. 'E's the best o' good company. But sometimes . . . well, I cud jus' knock their 'eads together when they sit so close, an' say: come, give over yer spoonin' an' get to business! Either you want one another or you don't.--I seen you watchin' our Polly, Mr. Mahony" --she made Mahony wince by stressing the second syllable of his name. "Bless you, no--no relation whatsoever. She just 'elps a bit in the 'ouse, an' is company for the girls. We tuck 'er in a year ago--'er own relations 'ad played 'er a dirty trick. Mustn't let 'er catch me sayin' so, though; she won't 'ear a word against 'em, and that's as it should be."

Looking round, and finding Polly absent from the room, she went on to tell Mahony how Polly's eldest brother, a ten years' resident in Melbourne, had sent to England for the girl on her leaving school, to come out and assist in keeping his house. And how an elder sister, who was governessing in Sydney, had chosen just this moment to throw up her post and return to quarter herself upon the brother.

"An' so when Polly gets 'ere--a little bit of a thing in short frocks, in charge of the capt'n--there was no room for 'er, an' she 'ad to look about 'er for somethin' else to do. We tuck 'er in, an', I will say, I've never regretted it. Indeed I don't know now, 'ow we ever got on without 'er.--Yes, it's you I'm talkin' about, miss, singin' yer praises, an' you needn't get as red as if you'd bin up to mischief! Pa'll say as much for you, too."

"That I will!" said Mr. Beamish, opening his mouth for the first time except to put food in it. "That I will," and he patted Polly's hand." The man as gits Polly'll git a treasure."

Polly blushed, after the helpless, touching fashion of very young creatures: the blood stained her cheeks, mounted to her forehead, spread in a warm wave over neck and ears. To spare her, Mahony turned his head and looked out of the window. He would have liked to say: Run away, child, run away, and don't let them see your confusion. Polly, however, went conscientiously about her task, and only left the room when she had picked up her full complement of plates.--But she did not appear again that night.

Deserted even by Mrs. Beamish, the two men pushed back their chairs from the table and drew tranquilly at their pipes.

The innkeeper proved an odd, misty sort of fellow, exceedingly backward at declaring himself; it was as though each of his heavy words had to be fetched from a distance. "No doubt about it, it's the wife that wears the breeches," was Mahony's inward comment. And as one after another of his well-meant remarks fell flat: "Become almost a deaf-mute, it would seem, under the eternal female clacking."

But for each mortal there exists at least one theme to fire him. In the case of Beamish this turned out to be the Land Question. Before the gold discovery he had been a bush shepherd, he told Mahony, and, if he had called the tune, he would have lived and died one. But the wife had had ambitions, the children were growing up, and every one knew what it was when women got a maggot in their heads. There had been no peace for him till he had chucked his twelve-year-old job and joined the rush to Mount Alexander. But at heart he had remained a bushman; and he was now all on the side of the squatters in their tussle with the Crown. He knew a bit, he'd make bold to say, about the acreage needed in certain districts per head of sheep; he could tell a tale of the risks and mischances squatting involved: "If t'aint fire it's flood, an' if the water passes you by it's the scab or the rot." To his thinking, the government's attempt to restrict the areas of sheep-runs, and to give effect to the "fourteen-year-clause" which limited the tenure, were acts of folly. The gold supply would give out as suddenly as it had begun; but sheep would graze there till the crack of doom--the land was fit for nothing else.

Mahony thought this point of view lopsided. No new country could hope to develop and prosper without a steady influx of the right kind of population and this the colony would never have, so long as the authorities, by refusing to sell them land, made it impossible for immigrants to settle there. Why, America was but three thousand miles distant from the old country, compared with Australia's thirteen thousand, and in America land was to be had in plenty at five shillings per acre. As to Mr. Beamish's idea of the gold giving out, the geological formation of the goldfields rendered that improbable. He sympathised with the squatters, who naturally enough believed their rights to the land inalienable; but a government worthy of the name must legislate with an eye to the future, not for the present alone.

Their talk was broken by long gaps. In these, the resonant voice of Mrs. Beamish could be heard rebuking and directing her two handmaidens.

"Now then, Jinny, look alive, an' don't ack like a dyin' duck in a thunderstorm, or you'll never get back to do YOUR bit o' spoonin'!-- Save them bones, Polly. Never waste an atom, my chuck--remember that, when you've got an 'ouse of your own! No, girls, I always says, through their stomachs, that's the shortcut to their 'earts. The rest's on'y fal-de-lal-ing."--On the verandah, in face of the vasty, star-spangled night, Tilly's head had found its resting-place, and an arm lay round her waist.

"I shall make 'im cut off 'is beard first thing," said Jinny that night: she was sitting half-undressed on the side of a big bed, which the three girls shared with one another.

"Um! just you wait and see if it's as easy as you think," retorted Tilly from her pillow. Again Purdy had let slip a golden chance to put the decisive question; and Tilly's temper was short in consequence.

"Mrs. Dr. Mahony . . . though I do wonder 'ow 'e ever keeps people from saying Ma-HON-y," said Jinny dreamily. She, too, had spent some time in star-gazing, and believed she had ground for hope.

"Just listen to 'er, will you!" said Tilly angrily." Upon my word, Jinny Beamish, if one didn't know you 'ad the 'abit of marrying yourself off to every fresh cove you meet, one 'ud say you was downright bold!"

"YOU needn't talk! Every one can see you're as mad as can be because you can't bring your old dot-and-go-one to the scratch."

"Oh, hush, Jinny" said Polly, grieved at this thrust into Tilly's open wound.

"Well, it's true.--Oh, look 'ere now, there's not a drop o' water in this blessed jug again. 'Oo's week is it to fill it? Tilly B., it's yours!"

"Serves you right. You can fetch it yourself."

"Think I see myself!"

Polly intervened. "I'll go for it, Jinny."

"What a little duck you are, Poll! But you shan't go alone. I'll carry the candle."

Tying on a petticoat over her bedgown, Polly took the ewer, and with Jinny as torch-bearer set forth. There was still some noise in the public part of the house, beside the bar; but the passage was bare and quiet. The girls crept mousily past the room occupied by the two young men, and after several false alarms and suppressed chirps reached the back door, and filled the jug at the tap of the galvanised-iron tank.

The return journey was not so successful. Just as they got level with the visitors' room, they heard feet crossing the floor. Polly started; the water splashed over the neck of the jug, and fell with a loud plop. At this Jinny lost her head and ran off with the candle. Polly, in a panic of fright, dived into the pantry with her burden, and crouched down behind a tub of fermenting gingerbeer.--And sure enough, a minute after, the door of the room opposite was flung open and a pair of jackboots landed in the passage.

Nor was this the worst: the door was not shut again but remained ajar. Through the chink, Polly, shrunk to her smallest--what if one of them should feel hungry, and come into the pantry and discover her?--Polly heard Purdy say with appalling loudness: "Oh, go on, old man-don't jaw so!" He then seemed to plunge his head in the basin, for it was with a choke and a splutter that he next inquired: "And what did you think of the little 'un? Wasn't I right?"

There was the chink of coins handled, and the other voice answered: "Here's what I think. Take your money, my boy, and be done with it!"

"Dick!--Great Snakes! Why, damn it all, man, you don't mean to tell me. . . ."

"And understand, sir, in future, that I do not make bets where a lady is concerned."

"Oh, I know--only on the Tilly-Jinny-sort. And yet good Lord, Dick!"-- the rest was drowned in a bawl of laughter.

Under cover of it Polly took to her heels and fled, regardless of the open door, or the padding of her bare feet on the boards.

Without replying to the astonished Jinny's query in respect of the water, she climbed over Tilly to her place beside the wall, and shutting her eyes very tight, drew the sheet over her face: it felt as though it would never be cool again.--Hence, Jinny, agreeably wakeful, was forced to keep her thoughts to herself; for if you lie between two people, one of whom is in a bad temper, and the other fast asleep, you might just as well be alone in bed.

Next morning Polly alleged a headache and did not appear at breakfast. Only Jinny and Tilly stood on the verandah of romantic memories, and ruefully waved their handkerchiefs, keeping it up till even the forms of horses were blurred in the distance.