Australia Felix/Part III/Chapter III

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Australia Felix by Henry Handel Richardson
Part III, Chapter III

Polly had no such absorbing occupation to tide her over these empty days of waiting; and sometimes--especially late in the afternoon, when her household duties were done, the children safely at play--she found it beyond her power to stitch quietly at her embroidery. Letting the canvas fall to her knee, she would listen, listen, listen till the blood sang in her ears, for the footsteps and knocks at the door that never came. And did she draw back the window-curtain and look out, there was not a soul to be seen: not a trace of the string of prosperous, paying patients she had once imagined winding their way to the door.

And meanwhile Richard was shut up in his room, making those dreadful notes in the Bible which it pinched her heart even to think of. He really did not seem to care whether he had a practice or not. All the new instruments, got from Melbourne, lay unused in their casings; and the horse was eating its head off, at over a pound a week, in the livery-barn. Polly shrank from censuring her husband, even in thought; but as she took up her work again, and went on producing in wools a green basket of yellow fruit on a magenta ground, she could not help reflecting what she would have done at this pass, had she been a man. She would have announced the beginning of her practice in big letters in the STAR, and she would have gone down into the township and mixed with people and made herself known. With Richard, it was almost as if he felt averse from bringing himself into public notice.

Only another month now, and the second instalment of interest would fall due. Polly did not know exactly what the sum was; but she did know the date. The first time, they had had no difficulty in meeting the bill, owing to their economy in furnishing. But what about this one, and the next again? How were payments to be made, and kept up, if the patients would not come?

She wished with all her heart that she was ten years older. For what could a person who was only eighteen be supposed to understand of business? Richard's invariable answer, did she venture a word, was not to worry her little head about such things.

When, however, another week had dribbled away in the same fashion, Polly began to be afraid the date of payment had slipped his memory altogether. She would need to remind him of it, even at the risk of vexing him. And having cast about for a pretext to intrude, she decided to ask his advice on a matter that was giving her much uneasiness; though, had he been REALLY busy, she would have gone on keeping it to herself.

It related to little Johnny.

Johnny was a high-spirited, passionate child, who needed most careful handling. At first she had managed him well enough. But ever since his five months' boarding-out, he had fallen into deceitful ways; and the habit of falsehood was gaining on him. Bad by nature, Polly felt sure the child was not; but she could not keep him on the straight path now he had discovered that a lie might save him a punishment. He was not to be shamed out of telling it; and the only other cure Polly knew of was whipping. She whipped him; and provoked him to fury.

A new misdeed on his part gave her the handle she sought. Johnny had surreptitiously entered her pantry and stolen a plateful of cakes. Taxed with the theft he denied it; and cornered, laid, Adam-like, the blame on his companion, asserting that Trotty had persuaded him to take the goodies; though bewildered innocence was writ all over the baby's chubby face.

Mahony had the young sinner up before him. But he was able neither to touch the child's heart, nor to make him see the gravity of what he had done: never being allowed inside the surgery, John could now not take his eyes off the wonderful display of gold and purple and red moths, which were pinned, with outstretched wings, to a sheet of cork. He stood o-mouthed and absentminded, and only once shot a blue glance at his uncle to say: "But if dey're so baddy . . . den why did God MAKE lies an' de debble?"--which intelligent query hit the nail of one of Mahony's own misgivings on the head.

No real depravity, was his verdict. Still, too much of a handful, it was plain, for Polly's inexperience. "A problem for John himself to tackle, my dear. Why should we have to drill a non-existent morality into his progeny? Besides, I'm not going to have you blamed for bad results, later on." He would write to John there and then, and request that Johnny be removed from their charge.

Polly was not prepared for this summary solution of her dilemma, and began to regret having brought it up; though she could not but agree with Richard that it would never do for the younger child to be corrupted by a bad example. However she kept her wits about her. Did John take the boy away, said she, she was afraid she would have to ask for a larger housekeeping allowance. The withdrawal of the money for Johnny's board would make a difference to their income.

"Of course," returned Mahony easily, and was about to dismiss the subject.

But Polly stood her ground. "Talking of money, Richard, I don't know whether you remember . . . you've been so busy . . . that it's only about a fortnight now till the second lot of interest falls due."

"What!--a fortnight?" exclaimed her husband, and reached out for an almanack. "Good Lord, so it is! And nothing doing yet, Polly . . . absolutely nothing!"

"Well, dear, you can't expect to jump into a big practice all at once, can you? But you see, I think the trouble is, not nearly enough people know you've started." And a little imploringly, and very apologetically, Polly unfolded her artless schemes for self-advertisement.

"Wife, I've a grave suspicion!" said Mahony, and took her by the chin. "While I've sat here with my head in the clouds, you've been worrying over ways and means, and over having such an unpractical old dreamer for a husband. Now, child, that won't do. I didn't marry to have my girl puzzling her little brains where her next day's dinner was to come from. Away with you, to your stitching! Things will be all right, trust to me."

And Polly did trust him, and was so satisfied with what she had effected that, raising her face for a kiss, she retired with an easy mind to overhaul Johnny's little wardrobe.

But the door having clicked behind her, Mahony's air of forced assurance died away. For an instant he hesitated beside the table, on which a rampart of books lay open, then vigorously clapped each volume to and moved to the window, chewing at the ends of his beard. A timely interruption! What the dickens had he been about, to forget himself in this fool's paradise, when the crassest of material anxieties--that of pounds, shillings and pence--was crouched, wolf-like, at his door?

That night he wakened with a jerk from an uneasy sleep. Though at noon the day before, the thermometer had registered over a hundred in the shade, it was now bitterly cold, and these abrupt changes of temperature always whipped up his nerves. Even after he had piled his clothes and an opossum-rug on top of the blankets, he could not drop off again. He lay staring at the moonlit square of the window, and thinking the black thoughts of night.

What if he could not manage to work up a practice? . . . found it impossible to make a living? His plate had been on the door for close on two months now, and he had barely a five-pound note to show for it. What was to be done? Here Polly's words came back to him with new stress. "Not nearly enough people know you've started." That was it!--Polly had laid her finger on the hitch. The genteel manners of the old country did not answer here; instead of sitting twiddling his thumbs, waiting for patients to seek him out, he ought to have adopted the screaming methods of advertisement in vogue on Ballarat. To have had "Holloway's Pills sold here!" "Teeth extracted painlessly!" "Cures guaranteed!" painted man-high on his outside house-wall. To have gone up and down and round the township; to have been on the spot when accidents happened; to have hobnobbed with Tom, Dick and Harry in bars and saloons. And he saw a figure that looked like his the centre of a boisterous crowd; saw himself slapped on the back by dirty hands, shouting and shouted to drinks. He turned his pillow, to drive the image away. Whatever he had done or not done, the fact remained that a couple of weeks hence he had to make up the sum of over thirty pounds. And again he discerned a phantom self, this time a humble supplicant for an extension of term, brought up short against Ocock's stony visage, flouted by his cocksy clerk. Once more he turned his pillow. These quarterly payments, which dotted all his coming years, were like little rock-islands studding the surface of an ocean, and telling of the sunken continent below: this monstrous thousand odd pounds he had been fool enough to borrow. Never would he be able to pay off such a sum, never again be free from the incubus of debt. Meanwhile, not the ground he stood on, not the roof over his head could actually be called his own. He had also been too pushed for money, at the time, to take Ocock's advice and insure his life.

These thoughts spun themselves to a nightmare-web, in which he was the hapless fly. Putting a finger to his wrist, he found he had the pulse of a hundred that was not uncommon to him. He got out of bed, to dowse his head in a basin of water. Polly, only half awake, sat up and said: "What's the matter, dear? Are you ill?" In replying to her he disturbed the children, the door of whose room stood ajar; and by the time quiet was restored, further sleep was out of the question. He dressed and quitted the house.

Day was breaking; the moon, but an hour back a globe of polished silver, had now no light left in her, and stole, a misty ghost, across the dun-coloured sky. A bank of clouds that had had their night-camp on the summit of Mount Warrenheip was beginning to disperse; and the air had lost its edge. He walked out beyond the cemetary, then sat down on a tree-stump and looked back. The houses that nestled on the slope were growing momently whiter; but the Flat was still sunk in shadow and haze, making old Warrenheip, for all its half-dozen miles of distance, seem near enough to be touched by hand. But even in full daylight this woody peak had a way of tricking the eye. From the brow of the western hill, with the Flat out of sight below, it appeared to stand at the very foot of those streets that headed east--first of one, then of another, moving with you as you changed position, like the eyes of a portrait that follow you wherever you go.--And now the sky was streaked with crimson-madder; the last clouds scattered, drenched in orange and rose, and flames burned in the glass of every window-pane. Up came the tip of the sun's rim, grew to a fiery quarter, to a half; till, bounding free from the horizon, it began to mount and to lose its girth in the immensity of the sky.

The phantasms of the night yielded like the clouds to its power. He was still reasonably young, reasonably sound, and had the better part of a lifetime before him. Rising with a fresh alacrity, he whistled to his dog, and walked briskly home to bath and breakfast.

But that evening, at the heel of another empty day, his nervous restlessness took him anew. From her parlour Polly could hear the thud of his feet, going up and down, up and down his room. And it was she who was to blame for disturbing him!

"Yet what else could I do?"

And meditatively pricking her needle in and out of the window-curtain, Polly fell into a reverie over her husband and his ways. How strange Richard was . . . how difficult! First, to be able to forget all about how things stood with him, and then to be twice as upset as other people.

John demanded the immediate delivery of his young son, undertaking soon to knock all nasty tricks out of him. On the day fixed for Johnny's departure husband and wife were astir soon after dawn. Mahony was to have taken the child down to the coach-office. But Johnny had been awake since two o'clock with excitement, and was now so fractious that Polly tied on her bonnet and accompanied them. She knew Richard's hatred of a scene.

"You just walk on, dear, and get his seat," she said, while she dragged the cross, tired child on her hand to the public-house, where even at this hour a posse of idlers hung about.

And she did well to be there. Instantly on arriving Johnny set up a wail, because there was talk of putting him inside the vehicle; and this persisted until the coachman, a goat-bearded Yankee, came to the rescue and said he was darned if such a plucky young nipper shouldn't get his way: he'd have the child tied on beside him on the box-seat--be blowed if he wouldn't! But even this did not satisfy Johnny; and while Mahony went to procure a length of rope, he continued to prance round his aunt and to tug ceaselessly at her sleeve.

"Can I dwive, Aunt Polly, can I dwive? Ask him, can I dwive!" he roared, beating her skirts with his fists. He was only silenced by the driver threatening to throw him as a juicy morsel to the gang of bushrangers who, sure as blazes, would be waiting to stick the coach up directly it entered the bush.

Husband and wife lingered to watch the start, when the champing horses took a headlong plunge forward and, together with the coach, were swallowed up in a whirlwind of dust. A last glimpse discovered Johnny, pale and wide-eyed at the lurching speed, but sitting bravely erect.

"The spirit of your brother in that child, my dear!" said Mahony as they made to walk home.

"Poor little Johnny," and Polly wiped her eyes. "If only he was going back to a mother who loved him, and would understand."

"I'm sure no mother could have done more for him than you, love."

"Yes, but a real mother wouldn't need to give him up, however naughty he had been."

"I think the young varmint might have shown some regret at parting from you, after all this time," returned her husband, to whom it was offensive if even a child was lacking in good feeling. "He never turned his head. Well, I suppose it's a fact, as they say, that the natural child is the natural barbarian."

"Johnny never meant any harm. It was I who didn't know how to manage him," said Polly staunchly.--"Why, Richard, what IS the matter?" For letting her arm fall Mahony had dashed to the other side of the road.

"Good God, Polly, look at this!"

"This" was a printed notice, nailed to a shed, which announced that a sale of frontages in Mair and Webster Streets would shortly be held.

"But it's not our road. I don't understand."

"Good Lord, don't you see that if they're there already, they'll be out with us before we can say Jack Robinson? And then where shall I be?" gave back Mahony testily.

"Let us talk it over. But first come home and have breakfast. Then . . . yes, then, I think you should go down and see Mr. Henry, and hear what he says."

"You're right. I must see Ocock.--Confound the fellow! It's he who has let me in for this."

"And probably he'll know some way out. What else is a lawyer for, dear?"

"Quite true, my Polly. None the less, it looks as if I were in for a run of real bad luck, all along the line."