Australia Felix/Part II/Chapter VI
For the first time in her young married life, Polly felt vexed with her husband.
"Oh, he shouldn't have done that. . . no. really he shouldn't!" she murmured; and the hand with the letter in it drooped to her lap.
She had been doing a little surreptitious baking in Richard's absence, and without a doubt was hot and tired. The tears rose to her eyes. Deserting her pastry-board she retreated behind the woodstack and sat down on the chopping-block; and then, for some minutes, the sky was blotted out. She felt quite unequal, in her present condition, to facing Sarah, who was so sensitive, so easily shocked; and she was deeply averse from her fine-lady sister discovering the straitness of Richard's means and home.
But it was hard for Polly to secure a moment's privacy.
"An' so this is w'ere you're 'idin', is it?" said Long Jim snappishly-- he had been opening a keg of treacle and held a sticky plug in his hand. "An' me runnin' my pore ol' legs off arter you!" And Hempel met her on her entry with: "No further bad news, I 'ope and trust, ma'am?"--Hempel always retained his smooth servility of manner. "The shopman PAR EXCELLENCE, my dear!" Richard was used to say of him.
Polly reassured her attendants, blew her nose, re-read her letter; and other feelings came uppermost. She noticed how scribbly the writing was --Richard had evidently been hard pushed for time. There was an apologetic tone about it, too, which was unlike him. He was probably wondering what she would say; he might even be making himself reproaches. It was unkind of her to add to them. Let her think rather of the sad state poor John had been found in, and of his two motherless babes. As for Sarah, it would never have done to leave her out.
Wiping her eyes Polly untied her cooking-apron and set to reviewing her resources. Sarah would have to share her bed, Richard to sleep on the sofa. The children . . . and here she knitted her brows. Then going into the yard, she called to Tom Ocock, who sat whittling a stick in front of his father's house; and Tom went down to Main Street for her, and bought a mattress which he carried home on his shoulder. This she spread on the bedroom floor, Mrs. Hemmerde having already given both rooms a sound scouring, just in case a flea or a spider should be lying perdu. After which Polly fell to baking again in good earnest; for the travellers would be famished by the time they arrived.
Towards ten o'clock Tom, who was on the look-out, shouted that the coach was in, and Polly, her table spread, a good fire going, stepped to the door, outwardly very brave, inwardly all a-flutter. Directly, however, she got sight of the forlorn party that toiled up the slope: Sarah clinging to Hempel's arm, Mahony bearing one heavy child, and--could she believe her eyes?--Jerry staggering under the other: her bashfulness was gone. She ran forward to prop poor Sarah on her free side, to guide her feet to the door; and it is doubtful whether little Polly had ever spent a more satisfying hour than that which followed.
Her husband, watching her in silent amaze, believed she thoroughly enjoyed the fuss and commotion.
There was Sarah, too sick to see anything but the bed, to undress, to make fomentations for, to coax to mouthfuls of tea and toast. There was Jerry to feed and send off, with the warmest of hugs, to share Tom Ocock's palliasse. There were the children . . . well, Polly's first plan had been to put them straight to bed. But when she came to peel off their little trousers she changed her mind.
"I think, Mrs. Hemmerde, if you'll get me a tub of hot water, we'll just pop them into it; they'll sleep so much better," she said . . . not quite truthfully. Her private reflection was: "I don't think Sarah can once have washed them properly, all that time."
The little girl let herself be bathed in her sleep; but young John stood and bawled, digging fat fists into slits of eyes, while Polly scrubbed at his massy knees, the dimpled ups and downs of which looked as if they had been worked in by hand. She had never seen her brother's children before and was as heartily lost in admiration of their plump, well-formed bodies, as her helper of the costliness of their outfit.
"Real Injun muslin, as I'm alive!" ejaculated the woman, on fishing out their night-clothes. "An' wid the sassiest lace for trimmin'!--Och, the poor little motherless angels!--Stan' quiet, you young divil you, an' lemme button you up!"
Clean as lily-bells, the pair were laid on the mattress-bed.
"At least they can't fall out," said Polly, surveying her work with a sigh of content.
Every one else having retired, she sat with Richard before the fire, waiting for his bath-water to reach the boil. He was anxious to know just how she had fared in his absence, she to hear the full story of his mission. He confessed to her that his offer to load himself up with the whole party had been made in a momentary burst of feeling. Afterwards he had repented his impulsiveness.
"On your account, love. Though when I see how well you've managed--you dear, clever little woman!"
And Polly consoled him, being now come honestly to the stage of: "But, Richard, what else could you do?"
"What, indeed! I knew Emma had no relatives in Melbourne, and who John's intimates might be I had no more idea than the man in the moon."
"John hasn't any friends. He never had."
"As for leaving the children in Sarah's charge, if you'll allow me to say so, my dear, I consider your sister Sarah the biggest goose of a female it has ever been my lot to run across."
"Ah, but you don't really know Sarah yet," said Polly, and smiled a little, through the tears that had ripen to her eyes at the tale of John's despair.
What Mahony did not mention to her was the necessity he had been under of borrowing money; though Polly was aware he had left home with but a modest sum in his purse. He wished to spare her feelings. Polly had a curious delicacy--he might almost call it a manly delicacy--with regard to money; and the fact that John had not offered to put hand to pocket; let alone liberally flung a blank cheque at his head, would, Mahony knew, touch his wife on a tender spot. Nor did Polly herself ask questions. Richard made no allusion to John having volunteered to bear expenses, so the latter had evidently not done so. What a pity! Richard was so particular himself, in matters of this kind, that he might write her brother down close and stingy. Of course John's distressed state of mind partly served to excuse him. But she could not imagine the calamity that would cause Richard to forget his obligations.
She slid her hand into her husband's and they sat for a while in silence. Then, half to herself, and out of a very different train of thought she said: "Just fancy them never crying once for their mother."
- * * * *
"Talking of friends," said Sarah, and fastidiously cleared her throat. "Talking of friends, I wonder now what has become of one of those young gentlemen I met at your wedding. He was . . . let me see . . . why, I declare if I haven't forgotten his name!"
"Oh, I know who you mean--besides there was only one, Sarah," Mahony heard his wife reply, and therewith fall into her sister's trap. "You mean Purdy--Purdy Smith--who was Richard's best man."
"Smith?" echoed Sarah. "La, Polly! Why don't he make it Smythe?"
It was a warm evening some three weeks later. The store was closed to customers; but Mahony had ensconced himself in a corner of it with a book: since the invasion, this was the one place in which he could make sure of finding quiet. The sisters sat on the log-bench before the house; and, without seeing them, Mahony knew to a nicety how they were employed. Polly darned stockings, for John's children; Sarah was tatting, with her little finger stuck out at right angles to the rest. Mahony could hardly think of this finger without irritation: it seemed to sum up Sarah's whole outlook on life.
Meanwhile Polly's fresh voice went on, relating Purdy's fortunes. "He took part, you know, in the dreadful affair on the Eureka last Christmas, when so many poor men were killed. We can speak of it, now they've all been pardoned; but then we had to be very careful. Well, he was shot in the ankle, and will always be lame from it."
"What!--go hobbling on one leg for the remainder of his days? Oh, my dear!" said Sarah, and laughed.
"Yes, because the wound wasn't properly attended to--he had to hide about in the bush, for ever so long. Later on he went to the Beamishes, to be nursed. But by that time his poor leg was in a very bad state. You know he is engaged--or very nearly so--to Tilly Beamish."
"What?" said Sarah once more. "That handsome young fellow engaged to one of those vulgar creatures?"
"Oh, Sarah . . . not really vulgar. It isn't their fault they didn't have a better education. They lived right up-country, where there were no schools. Tilly never saw a town till she was sixteen; but she can sit any horse.--Yes, we hope very much Purdy will soon settle down and marry her--though he left the Hotel again without proposing." And Polly sighed.
"There he shows his good taste, my dear."
"Oh, I'm sure he's fond of Tilly. It's only that his life is so unsettled. He's been a barman at Euroa since then; and the last we heard of him, he was shearing somewhere on the Goulburn. He doesn't seem able to stick to anything."
"And a rolling stone gathers no moss!" gave back Sarah sententiously-- and in fancy Mahony saw the cut-and-dried nod with which she accompanied the words.
Here Hempel passed through the store, clad in his Sunday best, his hair plastered flat with bear's-grease.
"Going out for a stroll?" asked his master.
"That was my h'intention, sir. I don't think you'll find I've left any of my dooties undone."
"Oh, go, by all means!" said Mahony curtly, nettled at having his harmless query misconstrued. It pointed a suspicion he had had, of late, that a change was coming over Hempel. The model employee was a shade less prompt than heretofore to fly at his word, and once or twice seemed actually to be studying his own convenience. Without knowing what the matter was, Mahony felt it politic not to be over-exacting--even mildly to conciliate his assistant. It would put him in an awkward fix, now that he was on the verge of winding up affairs, should Hempel take it in his head to leave him in the lurch.
The lean figure moved on and blocked the doorway. Now there was a sudden babble of cheepy voices, and simultaneously Sarah cried: "Where have you been, my little cherubs? Come to your aunt, and let her kiss you!"
But the children, who had frankly no great liking for Aunt Sarah, would, Mahony knew, turn a deaf ear to this display of opportunism and make a rush for his wife. Laying down his book he ran out. "Polly . . . cautious!"
"It's all right, Richard, I'm being careful." Polly had let her mending fall, and with each hand held a flaxen-haired child at arm's length. "Johnny, dirty boy! what HAVE you been up to?"
"He played he was a digger and sat down in a pool--I couldn't get him to budge," answered Jerry, and drew his sleeve over his perspiring forehead.
"Oh fy, for shame!"
"Don' care!" said John, unabashed.
"Don' tare!" echoed his roly-poly sister, who existed but as his shadow.
"Don't-care was made to care, don't-care was hung!" quoted Aunt Sarah in her severest copybook tones.
Turning his head in his aunt's direction young John thrust forth a bright pink tongue. Little Emma was not behindhand.
Polly jumped up, dropping her work to the ground. "Johnny, I shall punish you if ever I see you do that again. Now, Ellen shall put you to bed instead of Auntie."--Ellen was Mrs. Hemmerde's eldest, and Polly's first regular maidservant.
"Don' care," repeated Johnny. "Ellen plays pillers."
"Edn pays pidders," said the echo.
Seizing two hot, pudgy hands Polly dragged the pair indoors--though they held back mainly on principle. They were not affectionate children; they were too strong of will and set of purpose for that; but if they had a fondness for anyone it was for their Aunt Polly: she was ruler over a drawerful of sugar-sticks, and though she scolded she never slapped.
While this was going on Hempel stood, the picture of indecision, and eased now one foot, now the other, as if his boots pinched him.
At length he blurted out: "I was wondering, ma'am--ahem! Miss Turnham-- if, since it is an agreeable h'evening, you would care to take a walk to that 'ill I told you of?"
"Me take a walk? La, no! Whatever put such an idea as that into your head?" cried Sarah; and tatted and tatted, keeping time with a pretty little foot.
"I thought per'aps . . ." said Hempel meekly.
"I didn't make your thoughts, Mr. Hempel," retorted Sarah, laying stress on the aspirate.
"Oh no, ma'am. I 'ope I didn't presume to suggest such a thing"; and with a hangdog air Hempel prepared to slink away.
"Well, well!" said Sarah double quick; and ceasing to jerk her crochet-needle in and out, she nimbly rolled up her ball of thread. "Since you're so insistent . . . and since, mind you, there's no society worth calling such, on these diggings. . . ." The truth was, Sarah saw that she was about to be left alone with Mahony--Jerry had sauntered off to meet Ned--and this TETE-A-TETE was by no means to her mind. She still bore her brother-in-law a grudge for his high-handed treatment of her at the time of John's bereavement. "As if I had been one of the domestics, my dear--a paid domestic! Ordered me off to the butcher's in language that fairly shocked me."
Mahony turned his back and strolled down to the river. He did not know which was more painful to witness: Hempel's unmanly cringing, or the air of fatuous satisfaction that succeeded it. When he returned, the pair was just setting out; he watched Sarah, on Hempel's arm, picking short steps in dainty latchet-shoes.
As soon as they were well away he called to Polly.
"The coast's clear. Come for a stroll."
Polly emerged, tying her bonnet-strings. "Why, where's Sarah? Oh . . . I see. Oh, Richard, I hope she didn't put on that--"
"She did, my dear!" said Mahony grimly, and tucked his wife's hand under his arm.
"Oh, how I wish she wouldn't!" said Polly in a tone of concern. "She does get so stared at--especially of an evening, when there are so many rude men about. But I really don't think she minds. For she HAS a bonnet in her box all the time." Miss Sarah was giving Ballarat food for talk, by appearing on her promenades in a hat: a large, flat, mushroom hat.
"I trust my little woman will never put such a ridiculous object on her head!"
"No, never . . . at least, not unless they become quite the fashion," answered Polly. "And I don't think they will. They look too odd."
"Another thing, love," continued Mahony, on whom a sudden light had dawned as he stood listening to Sarah's trumpery. "I fear your sister is trifling with the feelings of our worthy Hempel."
Polly, who had kept her own counsel on this matter, went crimson. "Oh, do you really think so, Richard?" she asked evasively. "I hope not. For of course nothing could come of it. Sarah has refused the most eligible offers."
"Ah, but there are none here to refuse. And if you don't mind my saying so, Poll, anything in trousers seems fish to her net!"
On one of their pacings they found Mr. Ocock come out to smoke an evening pipe. The old man had just returned from a flying visit to Melbourne. He looked glum and careworn, but livened up at the sight of Polly, and cracked one of the mouldy jokes he believed beneficial to a young woman in her condition. Still, the leading-note in his mood was melancholy; and this, although his dearest wish was on the point of being fulfilled.
"Yes, I've got the very crib for 'Enry at last, doc., Billy de la Poer's liv'ry-stable, top o' Lydiard Street. We sol' poor Billy up yesterday. The third smash in two days that makes. Lord! I dunno where it'll end."
"Things are going a bit quick over there. There's been too much building."
"They're at me to build, too--'Enry is. But I says no. This place is good enough for me. If 'e's goin' to be ashamed of 'ow 'is father lives, 'e'd better stop away. I'm an ol' man now, an' a poor one. What should I want with a fine noo 'ouse? An' 'oo should I build it for, even if I 'ad the tin? For them two good-for-nothin's in there? Not if I know it!"
"Mr. Ocock, you wouldn't believe how kind and clever Tom's been at helping with the children," said Polly warmly.
"Yes, an' at bottle-washin' and sweepin' and cookin' a pasty. But a female 'ud do it just as well," returned Tom's father with a snort of contempt.
"Poor old chap!" said Mahony, as they passed out of earshot. "So even the great Henry's arrival is not to be without its drop of gall."
"Surely he'll never be ashamed of his father?"
"Who knows! But it's plain he suspects the old boy has made his pile and intends him to fork out," said Mahony carelessly; and, with this, dismissed the subject. Now that his own days in the colony were numbered, he no longer felt constrained to pump up a spurious interest in local affairs. He consigned them wholesale to that limbo in which, for him, they had always belonged.
The two brothers came striding over the slope. Ned, clad in blue serge shirt and corduroys, laid an affectionate arm round Polly's shoulder, and tossed his hat into the air on hearing that the "Salamander," as he called Sarah, was not at home.
"For I've tons to tell you, Poll old girl. And when milady sits there turning up her nose at everything a chap says, somehow the spunk goes out of one."
Polly had baked a large cake for her darling, and served out generous slices. Then, drawing up a chair she sat down beside him, to drink in his news.
From his place at the farther end of the table Mahony studied the trio-- these three young faces which were so much alike that they might have been different readings of one and the same face. Polly, by reason of her woman's lot, looked considerably the oldest. Still, the lamplight wiped out some of the shadows, and she was never more girlishly vivacious than with Ned, entering as she did with zest into his plans and ideas--more sister now than wife. And Ned showed at his best with Polly: he laid himself out to divert her; forgot to brag or to swear; and so natural did it seem for brother to open his heart to sister that even his egoistic chatter passed muster. As for young Jerry, who in a couple of days was to begin work in the same claim as Ned, he sat round-eyed, his thoughts writ large on his forehead. Mahony translated them thus: how in the world I could ever have sat prim and proper on the school-bench, when all this--change, adventure, romance--was awaiting me? Jerry was only, Mahony knew, to push a wheelbarrow from hole to water and back again for many a week to come; but for him it would certainly be a golden barrow, and laden with gold, so greatly had Ned's tales fired his imagination.
The onlooker felt odd man out, debarred as he was by his profounder experience from sharing in the young people's light-legged dreams. He took up his book. But his reading was cut into by Ned's sprightly account of the Magpie rush; by his description of an engine at work on the Eureka, and of the wooden airpipes that were being used to ventilate deep-sinkings. There was nothing Ned did not know, and could not make entertaining. One was forced, almost against one's will, to listen to him; and on this particular evening, when he was neither sponging, nor acting the Big Gun, Mahony toned down his first sweeping judgment of his young relative. Ned was all talk; and what impressed one so unfavourably --his grumbling, his extravagant boastfulness--was the mere thistledown of the moment, puffed off into space. It mattered little that he harped continually on "chucking up" his job. Two years had passed since he came to Ballarat, and he was still working for hire in somebody else's hole. He still groaned over the hardships of the life, and still toiled on-- and all the rest was just the froth and braggadocio of aimless youth.