Australia Felix/Part II/Chapter V
And then one morning--it was spring now, and piping hot at noon--Long Jim brought home from the post-office a letter for Polly, addressed in her sister Sarah's sloping hand. Knowing the pleasure it would give her, Mahony carried it at once to his wife; and Polly laid aside broom and duster and sat down to read.
But he was hardly out of the room when a startled cry drew him back to her side. Polly had hidden her face, and was shaken by sobs As he could not get her to speak, Mahony picked up the letter from the floor and read it for himself.
Sarah wrote like one distracted.
OH, MY DEAR SISTER, HOW CAN I FIND WORDS TO TELL YOU OF THE TRULY "AWFUL" CALAMITY THAT HAS BEFALLEN OUR UNHAPPY BROTHER. Mahony skipped the phrases, and learnt that owing to a carriage accident Emma Turnham had been prematurely confined, and, the best medical aid notwithstanding --JOHN SPARED ABSOLUTELY "NO" EXPENSE--had died two days later. JOHN IS LIKE A MADMAN. DIRECTLY I HEARD THE "SHOCKING" NEWS, I AT ONCE THREW UP MY ENGAGEMENT--AT "SERIOUS" LOSS TO MYSELF, BUT THAT IS A MATTER OF SMALL CONSEQUENCE--AND CAME TO TAKE MY PLACE BESIDE OUR POOR DEAR BROTHER IN HIS GREAT TRIAL. BUT ALL MY EFFORTS TO BRING HIM TO A PROPER AND "CHRISTIAN" FRAME OF MIND HAVE BEEN FRUITLESS. I AM INDEED ALARMED TO BE ALONE WITH HIM, AND I TREMBLE FOR THE CHILDREN, FOR HE IS POSSESSED OF AN "INSANE" HATRED FOR THE SWEET LITTLE LOVES. HE HAS LOCKED HIMSELF IN HIS ROOM, WILL SEE "NO ONE" NOR TOUCH A "PARTICLE" OF NOURISHMENT. DO, MY DEAREST POLLY, COME AT ONCE ON RECEIPT OF THIS, AND HELP ME IN THE "TRULY AWFUL" TASK THAT HAS BEEN LAID UPON ME. AND PRAY FORGIVE ME FOR USING THIS PLAIN PAPER. I HAVE HAD LITERALLY NO TIME TO ORDER MOURNING "OF ANY KIND."
So that was Sarah! With a click of the tongue Mahony tossed the letter on the table, and made it clear to Polly that under no consideration would he allow her to attempt the journey to town. Her relatives seemed utterly to have forgotten her condition; if, indeed., they had ever grasped the fact that she was expecting a child.
But Polly did not heed him. "Oh, poor, poor Emma! Oh, poor dear John!" Her husband could only soothe her by promising to go to Sarah's assistance himself, the following day.
They had been entirely in the dark about things. For John Turnham thought proper to erect a jealous wall about his family life. What went on behind it was nobody's business but his own. You felt yourself--were meant to feel yourself--the alien, the outsider. And Mahony marvelled once more at the wealth of love and sympathy his little Polly had kept fresh for these two, who had wasted so few of their thoughts on her.
Polly dried her eyes; he packed his carpet-bag. He did this with a good deal of pother, pulling open the wrong drawers, tumbling up their contents and generally making havoc of his wife's arrangements. But the sight of his clumsiness acted as a kind of tonic on Polly: she liked to feel that he was dependent on her for his material comfort and well-being.
They spoke of John's brief married life.
"He loved her like a pagan, my dear," said Mahony. "And if what your sister Sarah writes is not exaggerated, he is bearing his punishment in a truly pagan way."
"But you won't say that to him, dear Richard . . . will you? You'll be very gentle with him?" pleaded Polly anxiously.
"Indeed I shall, little woman. But one can't help thinking these things, all the same. You know it is written: 'Thou shalt have none other gods but Me.'"
"Yes, I know. But then this was JUST Emma . . . and she was so pretty and so good"--and Polly cried anew.
Mahony rose before dawn to catch the coach. Together with a packet of sandwiches, Polly brought him a small black mantle.
"For Sarah, with my dear love. You see, Richard, I know she always wears coloured dresses. And she will feel so much happier if she has SOMETHING black to put on." Little Polly's voice was deep with persuasion. Richard was none too well pleased, she could see, at having to unlock his bag again; she feared too, that, after the letter of the day before, his opinion of Sarah had gone down to zero.
Mahony secured a corner seat; and so, though his knees interlocked with those of his VIS-A-VIS, only one of the eight inside passengers was jammed against him. The coach started; and the long, dull hours of the journey began to wear away. Nothing broke the monotony but speculations whether the driver--a noted tippler--would be drunk before Melbourne was reached and capsize them; and the drawling voice of a Yankee prospector, who told lying tales about his exploits in California in '48 until, having talked his hearers to sleep, he dropped off himself. Then, Mahony fell to reflecting on what lay before him. He didn't like the job. He was not one of your born good Samaritans: he relished intruding as little as being intruded on. Besides, morally to sustain, to forbear with, a fellow-creature in misfortune, seemed to him as difficult and thankless a task as any required of one. Infinite tact was essential, and a skin thick enough to stand snubs and rebuffs. But here he smiled. "Or my little wife's inability to recognise them!"
House and garden had lost their air of well-groomed smartness: the gate stood ajar, the gravel was unraked, the verandah-flooring black with footmarks. With all the blinds still down, the windows looked like so many dead eyes. Mahony's first knock brought no response; at his second, the door was opened by Sarah Turnham herself. But a very different Sarah this, from the elegant and sprightly young person who had graced his wedding. Her chignon was loose, her dress dishevelled. On recognising Mahony, she uttered a cry and fell on his neck--he had to disengage her arms by force and speak severely to her, declaring that he would go away again, if she carried out her intention of swooning.
At last he got her round so far that she could tell her tale, which she did with a hysterical overstatement. She had, it seemed, arrived there just before her sister-in-law died. John was quarrelling furiously with all three doctors, and, before the end, insulted the only one who was left in such a fashion that he, too, marched out of the house. They had to get the dead woman measured, coffined and taken away by stealth. Whereupon John had locked himself up in his room, and had not been seen since. He had a loaded revolver with him; through the closed door he had threatened to shoot both her and the children. The servants had deserted, panic-stricken at their master's behaviour, at the sudden collapse of the well-regulated household: the last, a nurse-girl sent out on an errand some hours previously, had not returned. Sarah was at her wits' end to know what to do with the children--he might hear them screaming at this moment.
Mahony, in no hesitancy now how to deal with the situation, laid his hat aside and drew off his gloves. "Prepare some food," he said briefly. "A glass of port and a sandwich or two, if you can manage nothing else-- but meat of some kind."
But there was not a morsel of meat in the house.
"Then go to the butcher's and buy some."
Sarah gasped, and bridled. She had never in her life been inside a butcher's shop!
"Good God, woman, then the sooner you make the beginning the better!" cried Mahony. And as he strode down the passage to the door she indicated, he added: "Now control yourself, madam! And if you have not got what I want in a quarter of an hour's time, I'll walk out of the house and leave you to your own devices!" At which Sarah, cowed and shaken, began tremblingly to tie her bonnet-strings.
Mahony knocked three times at the door of John Turnham's room, each time more loudly. Then he took to battering with his fist on the panels, and cried: "It is I, John, your brother-in-law! Have the goodness to unlock this door at once!"
There was still an instant of suspense; then heavy footsteps crossed the floor and the door swung back. Mahony's eyes met a haggard white face set in a dusky background.
"You!" said John in a slow, dazed way, and blinked at the light. But in the next breath he burst out: "Where's that damned fool of a woman? Is she skulking behind you? I won't see her--won't have her near me!"
"If you mean your sister Sarah, she is not in the house at present," said Mahony; and stepping over the threshold he shut the door. The two men faced each other in the twilight.
"What do you want?" demanded John in a hoarse voice. "Have you, too, come to preach and sermonise? If so, you can go back where you came from! I'll have none of that cant here."
"No, no, I leave that to those whose business it is. I'm here as your doctor"; and Mahony drew up a blind and opened a window. Instantly the level sun-rays flooded the room; and the air that came in with them smacked of the sea. Just outside the window a quince-tree in full blossom reared extravagant masses of pink snow against the blue overhead; beyond it a covered walk of vines shone golden-green. There was not a cloud in the sky. To turn back to the musty room from all this lush and lovely life was like stepping down into a vault.
John had sunk into a seat before a secretaire, and shielded his eyes from the sun. A burnt-out candle stood at his elbow; and in a line before him were ranged such images as remained to him of his dead--a dozen or more daguerrotypes, of various sizes: Emma and he before marriage and after marriage; Emma with her first babe, at different stages of its growth; Emma with the two children; Emma in ball-attire; with a hat on; holding a book.
The sight gave the quietus to Mahony's scruples. Stooping, he laid his hand on John's shoulder. "My poor fellow," he said gently. "Your sister was not in a fit state to travel, so I have come in her place to tell you how deeply, how truly, we feel for you in your loss. I want to try, too, to help you to bear it. For it has to be borne, John."
At this the torrent burst. Leaping to his feet John began to fling wildly to and fro; and then, for a time, the noise of his lamentations filled the room. Mahony had assisted at scenes of this kind before, but never had he heard the like of the blasphemies that poured over John's lips. (Afterwards, when he had recovered his distance, he would refer to it as the occasion on which John took the Almighty to task, for having dared to interfere in his private life.)
At the moment he sat silent. "Better for him to get it out," he thought to himself, even while he winced at John's scurrility.
When, through sheer exhaustion, John came to a stop, Mahony cast about for words of consolation. All reference to the mystery of God's way was precluded; and he shrank from entering that sound plea for the working of Time, which drives a spike into the heart of the new-made mourner. He bethought himself of the children. "Remember, she did not leave you comfortless. You have your little ones. Think of them."
But this was a false move. Like a belated thunderclap after the storm is over, John broke out again, his haggard eyes aflame. "Curse the children!" he cried thickly. "Curse them, I say! If I had once caught sight of them since she . . . she went, I should have wrung their necks. I never wanted children. They came between us. They took her from me. It was a child that killed her. Now, she is gone and they are left. Keep them out of my way, Mahony! Don't let them near me.--Oh, Emma. . . wife!" and here his shoulders heaved, under dry, harsh sobs.
Mahony felt his own eyes grow moist. "Listen to me, John. I promise you, you shall not see your children again until you wish to--till you're glad to recall them, as a living gift from her you have lost. I'll look after them for you."
"You will? . . . God bless you, Mahony!"
Judging the moment ripe, Mahony rose and went out to fetch the tray on which Sarah had set the eatables. The meat was but a chop, charred on one side, raw on the other; but John did not notice its shortcomings. He fell on it like the starving man he was, and gulped down two or three glasses of port. The colour returned to his face, he was able to give an account of his wife's last hours. "And to talk is what he needs, even if he goes on till morning." Mahony was quick to see that there were things that rankled in John's memory, like festers in flesh. One was that, knowing the greys were tricky, he had not forbidden them to Emma long ago. But he had felt proud of her skill in handling the reins, of the attention she attracted. Far from thwarting her, he had actually urged her on. Her fall had been a light one, and at the outset no bad results were anticipated: a slight haemorrhage was soon got under control. A week later, however, it began anew, more violently, and then all remedies were in vain. As it became clear that the child was dead, the doctors had recourse to serious measures. But the bleeding went on. She complained of a roaring in her ears, her extremities grew cold, her pulse fluttered to nothing. She passed from syncope to coma, and from coma to death. John swore that two of the doctors had been the worse for drink; the third was one of those ignorant impostors with whom the place swarmed. And again he made himself reproaches.
"I ought to have gone to look for someone else. But she was dying . . . I could not tear myself away.--Mahony, I can still see her. They had stretched her across the bed, so that her head hung over the side. Her hair swept the floor--one scoundrel trod on it . . . trod on her hair! And I had to stand by and watch, while they butchered her--butchered my girl.--Oh, there are things, Mahony, one cannot dwell on and live!"
"You must not look at it like that. Yet, when I recall some of the cases I've seen contraction induced in . . ."
"Ah yes, if you had been here . . . my God, if only you had been here!"
But Mahony did not encourage this idea; it was his duty to unhitch John's thoughts from the past. He now suggested that, the children and Sarah safe in his keeping, John should shut up the house and go away. To his surprise John jumped at the proposal, was ready there and then to put it into effect. Yes, said he, he would start the very next morning, and with no more than a blanket on his back, would wander a hundred odd miles into the bush, sleeping out under the stars at night, and day by day increasing the distance between himself and the scene of his loss. And now up he sprang, in a sudden fury to be gone. Warning Sarah into the background, Mahony helped him get together a few necessaries, and then walked him to a hotel. Here he left him sleeping under the influence of a drug, and next day saw him off on his tramp northwards, over the Great Divide.
John's farewell words were: "Take the keys of the house with you, and don't give them up to me under a month, at least."
That day's coach was full; they had to wait for seats till the following afternoon. The delay was not unwelcome to Mahony; it gave Polly time to get the letter he had written her the night before. After leaving John, he set about raising money for the extra fares and other unforeseen expenses: at the eleventh hour, Sarah informed him that their young brother Jerry had landed in Melbourne during Emma's illness, and had been hastily boarded out. Knowing no one else in the city, Mahony was forced, much as it went against the grain, to turn to Henry Ocock for assistance. And he was effusively received--Ocock tried to press double the sum needed on him. Fortune was no doubt smiling on the lawyer. His offices had swelled to four rooms, with appropriate clerks in each. He still, however, nursed the scheme of transferring his business to Ballarat.
"As soon, that is, as I can hear of suitable premises. I understand there's only one locality to be considered, and that's the western township." On which Mahony, whose address was in the outer darkness, repeated his thanks and withdrew.
He found Jerry's lodging, paid the bill, and took the boy back to St. Kilda--a shy slip of a lad in his early teens, with the colouring and complexion that ran in the family. John's coachman, who had shown himself not indisposed--for a substantial sum, paid in advance--to keep watch over house and grounds, was installed in an outbuilding, and next day at noon, after personally aiding Sarah, who was all a-tremble at the prospect of the bush journey, to pack her own and the children's clothes, Mahony turned the key in the door of the darkened house. But a couple of weeks ago it had been a proud and happy home. Now it had no more virtue left in it than a crab's empty shell.
He had fumed on first learning of Jerry's superfluous presence; but before they had gone far he saw that he would have fared ill indeed, had Jerry not been there. Sarah, too agitated that morning to touch a bite of food, was seized, not an hour out, with sickness and fainting. There she sat, her eyes closed, her salts to her nose or feebly sipping brandy, unable to lift a finger to help with the children. The younger of the two slept most of the way hotly and heavily on Mahony's knee; but the boy, a regular pest, was never for a moment still. In vain did his youthful uncle pinch his leg each time he wriggled to the floor. It was not till a fierce-looking digger opposite took out a jack-knife and threatened to saw off both his feet if he stirred again, to cut out his tongue if he put another question that, scarlet with fear, little Johnny was tamed. Altogether it was a nightmare of a journey, and Mahony groaned with relief when, lamps having for some time twinkled past, the coach drew up, and Hempel and Long Jim stepped forward with their lanterns. Sarah could hardly stand. The children, wrathful at being wakened from their sleep, kicked and screamed.