Australia Felix/Part I/Chapter VIII

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Australia Felix by Henry Handel Richardson
Part I, Chapter VIII

Mahony remained at the Hotel till the following afternoon, then walked to Geelong and took the steam-packet to Melbourne. The object of his journey was to ask Mr. John Turnham's formal sanction to his marriage. Polly accompanied him a little way on his walk. And whenever he looked back he saw her standing fluttering her handkerchief--a small, solitary figure on the bare, red road.

He parted from her with a sense of leaving his most precious possession behind, so close had words made the tie. On the other hand, he was not sorry to be out of range for a while of the Beamish family's banter. This had set in, the evening before, as soon as he and Polly returned to the house--pacing the deck of the little steamer, he writhed anew at the remembrance. Jokes at their expense had been cracked all through supper: his want of appetite, for instance, was the subject of a dozen crude insinuations; and this, though everyone present knew that he had eaten a hearty meal not two hours previously; had been kept up till he grew stony and savage, and Polly, trying hard not to mind but red to the rims of her ears, slipped out of the room. Supper over, Mrs. Bearnish announced in a loud voice that the verandah was at the disposal of the "turtle-doves." She no doubt expected them to bill and coo in public, as Purdy and Matilda had done. On edge at the thought, he drew Polly into the comparative seclusion of the garden. Here they strolled up and down, their promenade bounded at the lower end by the dense-leaved arbour under which they had first met. In its screening shadow he took the kiss he had then been generous enough to forgo.

"I think I loved you, Polly, directly I saw you."

In the distance a clump of hills rose steep and bare from the waste land by the sea's edge--he could see them at this moment as he leant over the taffrail: with the sun going down behind them they were the colour of smoked glass. Last night they had been white with moonlight, which lay spilled out upon them like milk. Strange old hills! Standing there unchanged, unshaken, from time immemorial, they made the troth that had been plighted under their shield seem pitifully frail. And yet. . . . The vows which Polly and he had found so new, so wonderful; were not these, in truth, as ancient as the hills themselves, and as undying? Countless generations of human lovers had uttered them. The lovers passed, but the pledges remained: had put on immortality.

In the course of their talk it leaked out that Polly would not feel comfortable till her choice was ratified by brother John.

"I'm sure you will like John; he is so clever."

"I shall like everyone belonging to you, my Polly!"

As she lost her shyness Mahony made the discovery that she laughed easily, and was fond of a jest. Thus, when he admitted to her that he found it difficult to distinguish one fair, plump, sister Beamish from the other; that they seemed to him as much alike as two firm, pink-ribbed mushrooms, the little woman was hugely tickled by his his masculine want of perception. "Why, Jinny has brown eyes and Tilly blue!"

What he did not know, and what Polly did not confess to him, was that much of her merriment arose from sheer lightness of heart.--She, silly goose that she was! who had once believed Jinny to be the picked object of his attentions.

But she grew serious again: could he tell her, please, why Mr. Smith wrote so seldom to Tilly? Poor Tilly was unhappy at his long silences-- fretted over them in bed at night.

Mahony made excuses for Purdy, urging his unsettled mode of life. But it pleased him to see that Polly took sides with her friend, and loyally espoused her cause.

No, there had not been a single jarring note in all their intercourse; each moment had made the dear girl dearer to him. Now, worse luck, forty odd miles were between them again.

It had been agreed that he should call at her brother's private house, towards five o'clock in the afternoon. He had thus to kill time for the better part of the next day. His first visit was to a jeweller's in Great Collins Street. Here, he pushed aside a tray of showy diamonds--a successful digger was covering the fat, red hands of his bride with them --and chose a slender, discreetly chased setting, containing three small stones. No matter what household duties fell to Polly's share, this little ring would not be out of place on her finger.

From there he went to the last address Purdy had given him; only to find that the boy had again disappeared. Before parting from Purdy, the time before, he had lent him half the purchase-money for a horse and dray, thus enabling him to carry out an old scheme of plying for hire at the city wharf. According to the landlord of the "Hotel Vendome," to whom Mahony was referred for fuller information, Purdy had soon tired of this job, and selling dray and beast for what he could get had gone off on a new rush to "Simson's Diggings" or the "White Hills." Small wonder Miss Tilly was left languishing for news of him.

Pricked by the nervous disquietude of those who have to do with the law, Mahony next repaired to his solicitor's office. But Henry Ocock was closeted with a more important client. This, Grindle the clerk, whom he met on the stairs, informed him, with an evident relish, and with some hidden, hinted meaning in the corners of his shifty little eyes. It was lost on Mahony, who was not the man to accept hints from a stranger.

The hour was on lunch-time; Grindle proposed that they should go together to a legal chop-house, which offered prime value for your money, and where, over the meal, he would give Mahony the latest news of his suit. At a loss how to get through the day, the latter followed him --he was resolved, too, to practise economy from now on. But when he sat down to a dirty cloth and fly-spotted cruet he regretted his compliance. Besides, the news Grindle was able to give him amounted to nothing; the case had not budged since last he heard of it. Worse still was the clerk's behaviour. For after lauding the cheapness of the establishment, Grindle disputed the price of each item on the "meenew," and, when he came to pay his bill, chuckled over having been able to diddle the waiter of a penny.

He was plainly one of those who feel the constant need of an audience. And since there was no office-boy present, for him to dazzle with his wit, he applied himself to demonstrating to his table-companion what a sad, sad dog he was.

"Women are the deuce, sir," he asserted, lying back in his chair and sending two trails of smoke from his nostrils. "The very deuce! You should hear my governor on the subject! He'd tickle your ears for you. Look here, I'll give you the tip: this move, you know, to Ballarat, that he's drivin' at: what'ull you bet me there isn't a woman in the case? Fact! 'Pon my word there is. And a devilish fine woman, too!" He shut one eye and laid a finger along his nose. "You won't blow the gab?-- that's why you couldn't have your parleyvoo this morning. When milady comes to town H. O.'s NON EST as long as she's here. And she with a hubby of her own, too! What 'ud our old pa say to that, eh?"

Mahony, who could draw in his feelers no further than he had done, touched the limit of his patience. "My connexion with Mr. Ocock is a purely business one. I have no intention of trespassing on his private affairs, or of having them thrust upon me. Carver, my bill!"

Bowing distantly he stalked out of the eating-house and back to the "Criterion," where he dined. "So much for a maiden attempt at economy!"

Towards five o'clock he took his seat in an omnibus that plied between the city and the seaside suburb of St. Kilda, three miles off. A cool breeze went; the hoofs of the horses beat a rataplan on the hard surface; the great road, broad enough to make three of, was alive with smart gigs and trotters.

St. Kilda was a group of white houses facing the Bay. Most were o' weatherboard with brick chimneys; but there were also a few of a more solid construction. Mahony's goal was one of these: a low, stone villa surrounded by verandahs, in the midst of tasteful grounds. The drive up to the door led through a shrubbery, artfully contrived of the native ti-tree; behind the house stretched kitchen and fruit-gardens. Many rare plants grew in the beds. There was a hedge of geraniums close on fifteen feet high.

His knock was answered by a groom, who made a saucy face: Mr. Turnham and his lady were attending the Governor's ball this evening and did not receive. Mahony insisted on the delivery of his visiting-card. And since the servant still blocked the entrance he added: "Inform your master, my man, that I am the bearer of a message from his sister, Miss Mary Turnham."

The man shut him out, left him standing on the verandah. After a lengthy absence, he returned, and with a "Well, come along in then!" opened the door of a parlour. This was a large room, well furnished in horsehair and rep. Wax-lights stood on the mantelpiece before a gilt-framed pierglass; coloured prints hung on the walls.

While Mahony was admiring the genteel comfort to which he had long been a stranger, John Turnham entered the room. He had a quiet tread, but took determined strides at the floor. In his hand he held Mahony's card, and he looked from Mahony to it and back again.

"To what do I owe the pleasure, Mr. . . . er . . . Mahony?" he asked, refreshing his memory with a glance at the pasteboard. He spoke in the brusque tone of one accustomed to run through many applicants in the course of an hour. "I understand that you make use of my sister Mary's name." And, as Mahony did not instantly respond, he snapped out: "My time is short, sir!"

A tinge of colour mounted to Mahony's cheeks. He answered with equal stiffness: "That is so. I come from Mr. William Beamish's 'Family Hotel,' and am commissioned to bring you your sister's warm love and regards."

John Turnham bowed; and waited.

"I have also to acquaint you with the fact," continued Mahony, gathering hauteur as he went, "that the day before yesterday I proposed marriage to your sister, and that she did me the honour of accepting me."

"Ah, indeed!" said John Turnham, with a kind of ironic snort. "And may I ask on what ground you--"

"On the ground, sir, that I have a sincere affection for Miss Turnham, and believe it lies in my power to make her happy."

"Of that, kindly allow me to judge. My sister is a mere child--too young to know her own mind. Be seated."

To a constraining, restraining vision of little Polly, Mahony obeyed, stifling the near retort that she was not too young to earn her living among strangers. The two men faced each other on opposite sides of the table. John Turnham had the same dark eyes and hair, the same short, straight nose as his brother and sister, but not their exotic pallor. His skin was bronzed; and his large, scarlet mouth supplied a vivid dash of colour. He wore bushy side-whiskers.

"And now, Mr. Mahony, I will ask you a blunt question. I receive letters regularly from my sister, but I cannot recall her ever having mentioned your name. Who and what are you?"

"Who am I?" flared up Mahony. "A gentleman like yourself, sir!--though a poor one. As for Miss Turnham not mentioning me in her letters, that is easily explained. I only had the pleasure of making her acquaintance five or six weeks ago."

"You are candid," said Polly's brother, and smiled without unclosing his lips. "But your reply to my question tells me nothing. May I ask what . . . er . . . under what . . . er . . . circumstances you came out to the colony, in the first instance?"

"No, sir, you may not!" cried Mahony, and flung up from his seat; he scented a deadly insult in the question.

"Come, come, Mr. Mahony," said Turnham in a more conciliatory tone. "Nothing is gained by being techy. And my inquiry is not unreasonable. You are an entire stranger to me; my sister has known you but for a few weeks, and is a young and inexperienced girl into the bargain. You tell me you are a gentleman. Sir! I had as lief you said you were a blacksmith. In this grand country of ours, where progress is the watchword, effete standards and dogging traditions must go by the board. Grit is of more use to us than gentility. Each single bricklayer who unships serves the colony better than a score of gentlemen."

"In that I am absolutely not at one with you, Mr. Turnham," said Mahony coldly. He had sat down again, feeling rather ashamed of his violence. "Without a leaven of refinement, the very raw material of which the existing population is composed--"

But Turnham interrupted him. "Give 'em time, sir, give 'em time. God bless my soul! Rome wasn't built in a day. But to resume. I have repeatedly had occasion to remark in what small stead the training that fits a man for a career in the old country stands him here. And that is why I am dissatisfied with your reply. Show me your muscles, sir, give me a clean bill of health, tell me if you have learnt a trade and can pay your way. See, I will be frank with you. The position I occupy to-day I owe entirely to my own efforts. I landed in the colony ten years ago, when this marvellous city of ours was little more than a village settlement. I had but five pounds in my pocket. To-day I am a partner in my firm, and intend, if all goes well, to enter parliament. Hence I think I may, without presumption, judge what makes for success here, and of the type of man to attain it. Work, hard work, is the key to all doors. So convinced am I of this, that I have insisted on the younger members of my family learning betimes to put their shoulders to the wheel. Now, Mr. Mahony, I have been open with you. Be equally frank with me. You are an Irishman?"

Candour invariably disarmed Mahony--even lay a little heavy on him, with the weight of an obligation. He retaliated with a light touch of self-depreciation. "An Irishman, sir, in a country where the Irish have fallen, and not without reason, into general disrepute."

Over a biscuit and a glass of sherry he gave a rough outline of the circumstances that had led to his leaving England, two years previously, and of his dismayed arrival in what he called "the cesspool of 1852".

"Thanks to the rose-water romance of the English press, many a young man of my day was enticed away from a modest competency, to seek his fortune here, where it was pretended that nuggets could be gathered like cabbages--I myself threw up a tidy little country practice. . . . I might mention that medicine was my profession. It would have given me intense satisfaction, Mr. Turnham, to see one of those glib journalists in my shoes, or the shoes of some of my messmates on the OCEAN QUEEN. There were men aboard that ship, sir, who were reduced to beggary before they could even set foot on the road to the north. Granted it is the duty of the press to encourage emigration--"

"Let the press be, Mahony," said Turnham: he had sat back, crossed his legs, and put his thumbs in his armholes. "Let it be. What we need here is colonists--small matter how we get 'em."

Having had his say, Mahony scamped the recital of his own sufferings: the discomforts of the month he had been forced to spend in Melbourne getting his slender outfit together; the miseries of the tramp to Ballarat on delicate unused feet, among the riff-raff of nations, under a wan December sky, against which the trunks of the gum-trees rose whiter still, and out of which blazed a copper sun with a misty rim. He scamped, too, his six-months' attempt at digging--he had been no more fit for the work than a child. Worn to skin and bone, his small remaining strength sucked out by dysentery, he had in the end bartered his last pinch of gold-dust for a barrow-load of useful odds and ends; and this had formed the nucleus of his store. Here, fortune had smiled on him; his flag hardly set a-flying custom had poured in, business gone up by leaps and bounds--"Although I have never sold so much as a pint of spirits, sir!" His profits for the past six months equalled a clear three hundred, and he had most of this to the good. With a wife to keep, expenses would naturally be heavier; but he should continue to lay by every spare penny, with a view to getting back to England.

"You have not the intention, then, of remaining permanently in the colony?"

"Not the least in the world."

"H'm," said John: he was standing on the hearthrug now, his legs apart. "That, of course, puts a different complexion on the matter. Still, I may say I am entirely reassured by what you have told me--entirely so. Indeed, you must allow me to congratulate you on the good sense you displayed in striking while the iron was hot. Many a one of your medical brethren, sir, would have thought it beneath his dignity to turn shopkeeper. And now, Mr. Mahony, I will wish you good day; we shall doubtless meet again before very long. Nay, one moment! There are cases, you will admit, in which a female opinion is not without value. Besides, I should be pleased for you to see my wife."

He crossed the hall, tapped at a door and cried: "Emma, my love, will you give us the pleasure of your company?"

In response to this a lady entered, whom Mahony thought one of the most beautiful women he had ever seen. She carried a yearling infant in her arms, and with one hand pressed its pale flaxen poll against the rich, ripe corn of her own hair, as if to dare comparison. Her cheeks were of a delicate rose pink.

"My love," said Turnham--and one felt that the word was no mere flower of speech. "My love, here is someone who wishes to marry our Polly."

"To marry our Polly?" echoed the lady, and smiled a faint, amused smile --it was as though she said: to marry this infant that I bear on my arm. "But Polly is only a little girl!"

"My very words, dearest. And too young to know her own mind."

"But you will decide for her, John."

John hung over his beautiful wife, wheeled up an easy chair, arranged her in it, placed a footstool. "Pray, pray, do not overfatigue yourself, Emma! That child is too heavy for you," he objected, as the babe made strenuous efforts to kick itself to its feet. "You know I do not approve of you carrying it yourself."

"Nurse is drinking tea."

"But why do I keep a houseful of domestics if one of the others cannot occasionally take her place?"

He made an impetuous step towards the bell. Before he could reach it there came a thumping at the door, and a fluty voice cried: "Lemme in, puppa, lemme in!"

Turnham threw the door open, and admitted a sturdy two-year-old, whom he led forward by the hand. "My son," he said, not without pride. Mahony would have coaxed the child to him; but it ran to its mother, hid its face in her lap.

Forgetting the bell John struck an attitude. "What a picture!" he exclaimed. "What a picture! My love, I positively must carry out my intention of having you painted in oils, with the children round you.-- Mr. Mahony, sir, have you ever seen anything to equal it?"

Though his mental attitude might have been expressed by a note of exclamation, set ironically, Mahony felt constrained to second Turnham's enthusiasm. And it was indeed a lovely picture: the gracious, golden-haired woman, whose figure had the amplitude, her gestures the almost sensual languor of the young nursing mother; the two children fawning at her knee, both ash-blond, with vivid scarlet lips.--"It helps one," thought Mahony, "to understand the mother-worship of primitive peoples."

The nursemaid summoned and the children borne off, Mrs. Emma exchanged a few amiable words with the visitor, then obeyed with an equally good grace her husband's command to rest for an hour, before dressing for the ball.

Having escorted her to another room, Turnham came back rubbing his hands. "I am pleased to be able to tell you, Mr. Mahony, that your suit has my wife's approval. You are highly favoured! Emma is not free with her liking." Then, in a sudden burst of effusion: "I could have wished you the pleasure, sir, of seeing my wife in evening attire. She will make a furore again; no other woman can hold a candle to her in a ballroom. To-night is the first time since the birth of our second child that she will grace a public entertainment with her presence; and unfortunately her appearance will be a brief one, for the infant is not yet wholly weaned." He shut the door and lowered his voice. "You have had some experience of doctoring, you say; I should like a word with you in your medical capacity. The thing is this. My wife has persisted, contrary to my wishes, in suckling both children herself."

"Quite right, too," said Mahony. "In a climate like this their natural food is invaluable to babes."

"Exactly, quite so," said Turnham, with a hint of impatience. "And in the case of the first child, I made due allowance: a young mother. . . the novelty of the thing. . . you understand. But with regard to the second, I must confess I--How long, sir, in your opinion, can a mother continue to nurse her babe without injury to herself? It is surely harmful if unduly protracted? I have observed dark lines about my wife's eyes, and she is losing her fine complexion.--Then you confirm my fears. I shall assert my authority without delay, and insist on separation from the child.--Ah! women are strange beings, Mr. Mahony, strange beings, as you are on the high road to discovering for yourself."

Mahony returned to town on foot, the omnibus having ceased to run. As he walked--at a quick pace, and keeping a sharp look-out; for the road was notoriously unsafe after dark--he revolved his impressions of the interview. He was glad it was over, and, for Polly's sake, that it had passed off satisfactorily. It had made a poor enough start: at one moment he had been within an ace of picking up his hat and stalking out. But he found it difficult at the present happy crisis to bear a grudge-- even if it had not been a proved idiosyncrasy of his, always to let a successful finish erase a bad beginning. None the less, he would not have belonged to the nation he did, had he not indulged in a caustic chuckle and a pair of good-humoured pishes and pshaws, at Turnham's expense. "Like a showman in front of his booth!"

Then he thought again of the domestic scene he had been privileged to witness, and grew grave. The beautiful young woman and her children might have served as model for a Holy Family--some old painter's dream of a sweet benign Madonna; the trampling babe as the infant Christ; the upturned face of the little John adoring. No place this for the scoffer. Apart from the mere pleasure of the eye, there was ample justification for Turnham's transports. Were they not in the presence of one of life's sublimest mysteries--that of motherhood? Not alone the lovely Emma: no; every woman who endured the rigours of childbirth, to bring forth an immortal soul, was a holy figure.

And now for him, too, as he had been reminded, this wonder was to be worked. Little Polly as the mother of his children--what visions the words conjured up! But he was glad Polly was just Polly, and not the peerless creature he had seen. John Turnham's fears would never be his-- this jealous care of a transient bodily beauty. Polly was neither too rare nor too fair for her woman's lot; and, please God, the day would come when he would see her with a whole cluster of little ones round her --little dark-eyed replicas of herself. She, bless her, should dandle and cosset them to her heart's content. Her joy in them would also be his.