Australia Felix/Part I/Chapter VII
His tent-home had never seemed so comfortless. He ended his solitary ride late at night and wet to the skin; his horse had cast a shoe far from any smithy. Long Jim alone came to the door to greet him. The shopman, on whose doltish honesty Mahony would have staked his head, had profited by his absence to empty the cash-box and go off on the spree.-- Even one of the cats had met its fate in an old shaft, where its corpse still swam.
The following day, as a result of exposure and hard riding, Mahony was attacked by dysentery; and before he had recovered, the goods arrived from Melbourne. They had to be unloaded, at some distance from the store, conveyed there, got under cover, checked off and arranged. This was carried out in sheets of cold rain, which soaked the canvas walls and made it doubly hard to get about the clay tracks that served as streets. As if this were not enough, the river in front of the house rose--rose, and in two twos was over its banks--and he and Long Jim spent a night in their clothes, helping neighbours less fortunately placed to move their belongings into safety.
The lion's share of this work fell on him. Long Jim still carried his arm in a sling, and was good for nothing but to guard the store and summon Mahony on the appearance of customers. Since his accident, too, the fellow had suffered from frequent fits of colic or cramp, and was for ever slipping off to the township to find the spirits in which his employer refused to deal. For the unloading and warehousing of the goods, it was true, old Ocock had loaned his sons; but the strict watch Mahony felt bound to keep over this pretty pair far outweighed what their help was worth to him.
Now it was Sunday evening, and for the first time for more than a week he could call his soul his own again. He stood at the door and watched those of his neighbours who were not Roman Catholics making for church and chapel, to which half a dozen tinkly bells invited them. The weather had finally cleared up, and a goodly number of people waded past him through the mire. Among them, in seemly Sabbath dress, went Ocock, with his two black sheep at heel. The old man was a rigid Methodist, and at a recent prayer-meeting had been moved to bear public witness to his salvation. This was no doubt one reason why the young scapegrace Tom's almost simultaneous misconduct had been so bitter a pill for him to swallow: while, through God's mercy, he was become an exemplar to the weaker brethren, a son of his made his name to stink in the nostrils of the reputable community. Mahony liked to believe that there was good in everybody, and thought the intolerant harshness which the boy was subjected would defeat its end. Yet it was open to question if clemency would have answered better. "Bad eggs, the brace of them!" had been his own verdict, after a week's trial of the lads. One would not, the other apparently could not work. Johnny, the elder, was dull and liverish from intemperance; and the round-faced adolescent, the news of whose fatherhood had raced the wind, was so sheep-faced, so craven, in the presence of his elders, that he could not say bo to a battledore. There was something unnatural about this fierce timidity--and the doctor in Mahony caught a quick glimpse of the probable reverse of the picture.
But it was cold, in face of all this rain-soaked clay; cold blue-grey clouds drove across a washed-out sky; and he still felt unwell. Returning to his living-room where a small American stove was burning, he prepared for a quiet evening. In a corner by the fire stood an old packing-case. He lifted the lid and thrust his hand in: it was here he kept his books. He needed no light to see by; he knew each volume by the feel. And after fumbling for a little among the tumbled contents, he drew forth a work on natural science and sat down to read. But he did not get far; his brain was tired, intractable. Lighting his pipe, he tilted back his chair, laid the VESTIGES face downwards, and put his feet on the table.
How differently bashfulness impressed one in the case of the weaker sex! There, it was altogether pleasing. Young Ocock's gaucherie had recalled the little maid Polly's ingenuous confusion, at finding herself the subject of conversation. He had not once consciously thought of Polly since his return. Now, when he did so, he found to his surprise that she had made herself quite a warm little nest in his memory. Looked back on, she stood out in high relief against her somewhat graceless surroundings. Small doubt she was both maidenly and refined. He also remembered with a sensible pleasure her brisk service, her consideration for others. What a boon it would have been, during the past week, to have a busy, willing little woman at work, with him and for him, behind the screen! As it was, for want of a helping hand the place was like a pigsty. He had had neither time nor energy to clean up. The marks of hobnailed boots patterned the floor; loose mud, and crumbs from meals, had been swept into corners or under the stretcher-bed; while commodities that had overflowed the shop added to the disorder. Good Lord, no! . . . no place this for a woman.
He rose and moved restlessly about, turning things over with his foot: these old papers should be burnt, and that heap of straw-packing; those empty sardine and coffee-tins be thrown into the refuse-pit. Scrubbed and clean, it was by no means an uncomfortable room; and the stove drew well. He was proud of his stove; many houses had not even a chimney. He stood and stared at it; but his thoughts were elsewhere: he found himself trying to call to mind Polly's face. Except for a pair of big black eyes--magnificent eyes they seemed to him in retrospect--he had carried away with him nothing of her outward appearance. Yes, stay!-- her hair: her hair was so glossy that, when the sun caught it, high lights came out on it--so much he remembered. From this he fell to wondering whether her brain kept pace with her nimble hands and ways. Was she stupid or clever? He could not tolerate stupidity. And Polly had given him no chance to judge her; had hardly opened her lips before him. What a timid little thing she was to be sure! He should have made it his business to draw her out, by being kind and encouraging. Instead of which he had acted towards her, he felt convinced, like an ill-mannered boor.
He did not know how it was, but he couldn't detach his thoughts from Polly this evening: to their accompaniment he paced up and down. All of a sudden he stood still, and gave a short, hearty laugh. He had just seen, in a kind of phantom picture, the feet of the sisters Beamish as they sat on the verandah edge: both young women wore flat sandal-shoes. And so that neatest of neat ankles had been little Polly's property! For his life he loved a well-turned ankle in a woman.
A minute later he sat down at the table again. An idea had occurred to him: he would write Polly a letter--a letter that called for acknowledgment--and form an opinion of the girl from her reply. Taking a sheet of thin blue paper and a magnum bonum pen he wrote:
DEAR MISS TURNHAM,
I WONDER IF I MIGHT ASK YOU TO DO ME A FAVOUR? ON GETTING BACK TO BALLARAT, I FIND THAT THE RAIN HAS SPOILT MY STORE FLAG. WOULD YOU BE SO KIND AS TO MAKE ME A NEW ONE? I HAVE NO LADY FRIENDS HERE TO APPLY TO FOR HELP, AND I AM SURE YOU ARE CLEVER WITH YOUR NEEDLE. IF YOU CONSENT, I WILL SEND YOU THE OLD FLAG AS A PATTERN, AND STUFF FOR THE NEW ONE. MY KIND REGARDS TO ALL AT THE HOTEL.
P.S. I HAVE NOT FORGOTTEN OUR PLEASANT WALK TO THE CAVE.
He went out to the post with it himself. In one hand he carried the letter, in the other the candle-end stuck in a bottle that was known as a "Ballarat-lantern" for it was a pitchdark night.
Trade was slack; in consequence he found the four days that had to pass before he could hope for an answer exceptionally long. After their lapse, he twice spent an hour at the Post Office, in a fruitless attempt to get near the little window. On returning from the second of these absences, he found the letter waiting for him; it had been delivered by hand.
So far good: Polly had risen to his fly! He broke the seal.
I shall be happy to help you with your new flag if I am able. Will you kindly send the old one and the stuff down by my brother, who is coming to see me on Saturday. He is working at Rotten Gully, and his name is Ned. I do not know if I sew well enough to please you, but I will do my best.
Mahony read, smiled and laid the letter down--only to pick it up again. It pleased him, did this prim little note: there was just the right shade of formal reserve about it. Then he began to study particulars: grammar and spelling were correct; the penmanship was in the Italian style, minute, yet flowing, the letters dowered with generous loops and tails. But surely he had seen this writing before? By Jupiter, yes! This was the hand of the letter Purdy had shown him on the road to Melbourne. The little puss! So she not only wrote her own letters, but those of her friends as well. In that case she was certainly not stupid for she was much the youngest of the three.
To-day was Thursday. Summoning Long Jim from his seat behind the counter, Mahony dispatched him to Rotten Gully, with an injunction not to show himself till he had found a digger of the name of Turnham. And having watched Jim set out, at a snail's pace and murmuring to himself, Mahony went into the store, and measured and cut off material for the new flag, from two different coloured rolls of stuff.
It was ten o'clock that night before Polly's brother presented himself. Mahony met him at the door and drew him in: the stove crackled, the room was swept and garnished--he flattered himself that the report on his habitat would be a favourable one. Ned's appearance gave him a pleasant shock: it was just as if Polly herself, translated into male terms, stood before him. No need, now, to cudgel his brains for her image! In looking at Ned, he looked again at Polly. The wide-awake off, the same fine, soft, black hair came to light--here, worn rather long and curly --the same glittering black eyes, ivory-white skin, short, straight nose; and, as he gazed, an offshoot of Mahony's consciousness wondered from what quarter this middle-class English family fetched its dark, un-English strain.
In the beginning he exerted himself to set the lad at ease. He soon saw, however, that he might spare his pains. Though clearly not much more than eighteen years old, Ned Turnharn had the aplomb and assurance of double that age. Lolling back in the single armchair the room boasted, he more than once stretched out his hand and helped himself from the sherry bottle Mahony had placed on the table. And the disparity in their ages notwithstanding, there was no trace of deference in his manner. Or the sole hint of it was: he sometimes smothered a profane word, or apologised, with a winning smile, for an oath that had slipped out unawares. Mahony could not accustom him self to the foul language that formed the diggers' idiom. Here, in the case of Polly's brother, he sought to overlook the offence, or to lay the blame for it on other shoulders: at his age, and alone, the boy should never have been plunged into this Gehenna.
Ned talked mainly of himself and his doings. But other facts also transpired, of greater interest to his hearer. Thus Mahony learned that, out of a family of nine, four had found their way to the colony, and a fifth was soon to follow--a mere child this, on the under side of fifteen. He gathered, too, that the eldest brother, John by name, was regarded as a kind of Napoleon by the younger fry. At thirty, this John was a partner in the largest wholesale dry-goods' warehouse in Melbourne. He had also married money, and intended in due course to stand for the Legislative Council. Behind Ned's windy bragging Mahony thought he discerned tokens of a fond, brotherly pride. If this were so, the affair had its pathetic side; for, from what the boy said, it was evident that the successful man of business held his relatives at arm's length. And as Ned talked on, Mahony conceived John to himself as a kind of electro-magnet, which, once it had drawn these lesser creatures after it, switched off the current and left them to their own devices. Ned, young as he was, had tried his hand at many trades. At present he was working as a hired digger; but this, only till he could strike a softer job. Digging was not for him, thank you; what you earned at it hardly repaid you for the sweat you dripped. His every second word, indeed, was of how he could amass most money with the minimum of bodily exertion.
This calculating, unyouthful outlook was repugnant to Mahony, and for all his goodwill, the longer he listened to Ned, the cooler he felt himself grow. Another disagreeable impression was left by the grudging, if-nothing-better-turns-up fashion, in which Ned accepted an impulsive offer on his part to take him into the store. It was made on the spur of the moment, and Mahony had qualms about it while his words were still warm on the air, realizing that the overture was aimed, not at Ned in person, but at Ned as Polly's brother. But his intuition did not reconcile him to Ned's luke-warmness; he would have preferred a straight refusal. The best trait he could discover in the lad was his affection for his sister. This seemed genuine: he was going to see her again-- getting a lift halfway, tramping the other twenty odd miles--at the end of the week. Perhaps though, in the case of such a young opportunist, the thought of Mrs. Beamish's lavish board played no small part; for Ned had a rather lean, underfed look. But this only occurred to Mahony afterwards. Then, his chief vexation was with himself: it would have been kinder to set a dish of solid food before the boy, in place of the naked sherry-bottle. But as usual, his hospitable leanings came too late.
One thing more. As he lighted Ned and his bundle of stuff through the shop, he was impelled to slip a coin into the boy's hand, with a murmured apology for the trouble he had put him to. And a something, the merest nuance in Ned's manner of receiving and pocketing the money, flashed the uncomfortable suspicion through the giver's mind that it had been looked for, expected. And this was the most unpleasant touch of all.
But, bless his soul! did not most large families include at least one poorish specimen?--he had got thus far, by the time he came to wind up his watch for the night. And next day he felt sure he had judged Ned over-harshly. His first impressions of people--he had had occasion to deplore the fact before now--were apt to be either dead white or black as ink; the web of his mind took on no half tints. The boy had not betrayed any actual vices; and time might be trusted to knock the bluster out of him. With this reflection Mahony dismissed Ned from his mind. He had more important things to think of, chief among which was his own state with regard to Ned's sister. And during the fortnight that followed he went about making believe to weigh this matter, to view it from every coign; for it did not suit him, even in secret, to confess to the vehemence with which, when he much desired a thing, his temperament knocked flat the hurdles of reason. The truth was, his mind was made up --and had been, all along. At the earliest possible opportunity, he was going to ask Polly to be his wife.
Doubts beset him of course. How could he suppose that a girl who knew nothing of him, who had barely seen him, would either want or consent to marry him? And even if--for "if's" were cheap--she did say yes, would it be fair of him to take her out of a comfortable home, away from friends--such as they were!--of her own sex, to land her in these crude surroundings, where he did not know a decent woman to bear her company? Yet there was something to be said for him, too. He was very lonely. Now that Purdy had gone he was reduced, for society, to the Long Jims and Ococks of the place. What would he not give, once more to have a refined companion at his side? Certainly marriage might postpone the day on which he hoped to shake the dust of Australia off his feet. Life A DEUX would mean a larger outlay; saving not prove so easy. Still it could be done; and he would gladly submit to the delay if, by doing so, he could get Polly. Besides, if this new happiness came to him, it would help him to see the years he had spent in the colony in a truer and juster light. And then, when the hour of departure did strike, what a joy to have a wife to carry with one--a Polly to rescue, to restore to civilisation!
He had to remind himself more than once, during this fortnight, that she would be able to devote only a fraction of her day to flagmaking. But he was at the end of his tether by the time a parcel and a letter were left for him at the store--again by hand: little Polly had plainly no sixpences to spare. The needlework as perfect, of course; he hardly glanced at it, even when he had opened and read the letter. This was of the same decorous nature as the first. Polly returned a piece of stuff that had remained over. He had really sent material enough for two flags, she wrote; but she had not wished to keep him waiting so long. And then, in a postscript:
MR. SMITH WAS HERE LAST SUNDAY. I AM TO SAY MRS. BEAMISH WOULD BE VERY PLEASED IF YOU ALSO WOULD CALL AGAIN TO SEE US.
He ran the flag up to the top of his forty-foot staff and wrote:--
WHAT I WANT TO KNOW, MISS POLLY, IS, WOULD YOU BE GLAD TO SEE ME?
But Polly was not to be drawn.
WE SHOULD ALL BE VERY PLEASED.
Some days previously Mahony had addressed a question to, Henry Ocock. With this third letter from Polly, he held the lawyer's answer in his hand. It was unsatisfactory.
YOURSELF ATS. BOLLIVER. WE THINK THAT ACTION WILL BE SET DOWN FOR TRIAL IN ABOUT SIX WEEKS' TIME. IN THESE CIRCUMSTANCES WE DO NOT THINK ANY USEFUL PURPOSE WILL BE SERVED BY YOU CALLING TO SEE US UNTIL THIS IS DONE. WE SHOULD BE GLAD IF YOU WOULD CALL AFTER THE ACTION IS ENTERED.
Six weeks' time? The man might as well have said a year. And meanwhile Purdy was stealing a march on him, was paying clandestine visits to Geelong. Was it conceivable that anyone in his five senses could prefer Tilly to Polly? It was not. In the clutch of a sudden fear Mahony went to Bath's and ordered a horse for the following morning.
This time he left his store in charge of a young consumptive, whose plight had touched his heart: the poor fellow was stranded on Ballarat without a farthing, having proved, like many another of his physique, quite unfit for work on the diggings. A strict Baptist this Hempel, and one who believed hell-fire would be his portion if he so much as guessed at the "plant" of his employer's cash-box. He also pledged his word to bear and forbear with Long Jim. The latter saw himself superseded with an extreme bad grace, and was in no hurry to find a new job.
Mahony's nag was in good condition, and he covered the distance in a trifle over six hours.
He had evidently hit on the family washing-day. The big boiler in the yard belched clouds of steam; the female inmates of the Hotel were gathered in the out-house: he saw them through the door as he rode in at the gate. All three girls stood before tubs, their sleeves rolled up, their arms in the lather. At his apparition there was a characteristic chorus of cheeps and shrills and the door was banged to. Mrs. Beamish alone came out to greet him. She was moist and blown, and smelt of soap.
Not in a mood to mince matters, he announced straightway the object of his visit. He was prepared for some expression of surprise on the part of the good woman; but the blend of sheep-faced amazement and uncivil incredulity to which she subjected him made him hot and angry; and he vouchsafed no further word of explanation.
Mrs. Beamish presently so far recovered as to be able to finish wiping the suds from her fat red arms.
Thereafter, she gave way to a very feminine weakness.
"Well, and now I come to think of it, I'm blessed if I didn't suspeck somethin' of it, right from the first! Why, didn't I say to Beamish, with me own lips, 'ow you couldn't 'ardly take your eyes off 'er? Well, well, I'm sure I wish you every 'appiness--though 'ow we're h'ever goin' to get on without Polly, I reelly don't know. Don't I wish it 'ad bin one o' my two as 'ad tuck your fancy--that's all! Between you an' me, I don't believe a blessed thing's goin' to come of all young Smith's danglin' round. An' Polly's still a bit young--only just turned sixteen. Not as she's any the worse o' that though; you'll get 'er h'all the easier into your ways. An' now I mus' look smart, an' get you a bite o' somethin' after your ride."
In vain did Mahony assure her that he had lunched on the road. He did not know Mrs. Beamish. He was forced not only to sit down to the meal she spread, but also, under her argus eye, to eat of it.
When after a considerable delay Polly at length appeared, she had removed all traces of the tub. The hand was cold that he took in his, as he asked her if she would walk with him to the cave.
This time, she trembled openly. Like a lamb led to the slaughter, he thought, looking down at her with tender eyes. Small doubt that vulgar creature within-doors had betrayed him to Polly, and exaggerated the ordeal that lay before her. When once she was his wife he would not consent to her remaining intimate with people of the Beamishes' kidney: what a joy to get her out of their clutches! Nor should she spoil her pretty shape by stooping over a wash-tub.
In his annoyance he forgot to moderate his pace. Polly had to trip many small steps to keep up with him. When they reached the entrance to the cave, she was flushed and out of breath.
Mahony stood and looked down at her. How young she was . . . how young and innocent! Every feature of her dear little face still waited, as it were, for the strokes of time's chisel. It should be the care of his life that none but the happiest lines were graved upon its precious surface.
"Polly," he said, fresh from his scrutiny. "Polly, I'm not going to beat about the bush with you. I think you know I came here to-day only to see you."
Polly's head drooped further forward; now, the rim of her bonnet hid her face.
"You aren't afraid of me, are you, Polly?"
Oh, no, she was not afraid.
"Nor have you forgotten me?"
Polly choked a little, in her attempt to answer. She could not tell him that she had carried his letters about with her by day, and slept with them under her pillow; that she knew every word in them by heart, and had copied and practised the bold flourish of the Dickens-like signature; that she had never let his name cross her lips; that she thought him the kindest, handsomest, cleverest man in the world, and would willingly have humbled herself to the dust before him: all this boiled and bubbled in her, as she brought forth her poor little "no."
"Indeed, I hope not," went on Mahony. "Because, Polly, I've come to ask you if you will be my wife."
Rocks, trees, hills, suddenly grown tipsy, went see-sawing round Polly, when she heard these words said. She shut her eyes, and hid her face in her hands. Such happiness seemed improbable--was not to be grasped. "Me ? . . . your wife?" she stammered through her fingers.
"Yes, Polly. Do you think you could learn to care for me a little, my dear? No, don't be in a hurry to answer. Take your own time."
But she needed none. With what she felt to be a most unmaidenly eagerness, yet could not subdue, she blurted out: "I know I could. I ... I do."
"Thank God!" said Mahony. "Thank God for that!"
He let his arms fall to his sides; he found he had been holding them stiffly out from him. He sat down. "And now take away your hands, Polly, and let me see your face. Don't be ashamed of showing me what you feel. This is a sacred moment for us. We are promising to take each other, you know, for richer for poorer, for better for worse--as the good old words have it. And I must warn you, my dear, you are not marrying a rich man. I live in a poor, rough place, and have only a poor home to offer you. Oh, I have had many scruples about asking you to leave your friends to come and share it with me, Polly my love!"
"I'm not afraid. I am strong. I can work."
"And I shall take every care of you. Please God, you will never regret your choice."
They were within sight of the house where they sat; and Mahony imagined rude, curious eyes. So he did not kiss her. Instead, he drew her arm though his, and together they paced up and down the path they had come by, while he laid his plans before her, and confessed to the dreams he had dreamt of their wedded life. It was a radiant afternoon in the distance the sea lay deep blue, with turquoise shallows; a great white bird of a ship, her canvas spread to the breeze, was making for . . . why, to-day he did not care whether for port or for "home"; the sun went down in a blaze behind a bank of emerald green. And little Polly agreed with everything he said--was all one lovely glow of acquiescence. He thought no happier mortal than himself trod the earth.