Australia Felix/Part III/Chapter VII
Summer had come round again, and the motionless white heat of December lay heavy on the place. The low little houses seemed to cower beneath it; and the smoke from their chimneys drew black, perpendicular lines on the pale sky. If it was a misery at this season to traverse the blazing, dusty roads, it was almost worse to be within doors, where the thin wooden walls were powerless to keep out the heat, and flies and mosquitoes raged in chorus. Nevertheless, determined Christmas preparations went on in dozens of tiny, zinc-roofed kitchens, the temperature of which was not much below that of the ovens themselves; and kindly, well-to-do people like Mrs. Glendinning and Mrs. Urquhart drove in in hooded buggies, with green fly-veils dangling from their broad-brimmed hats, and dropped a goose here, a turkey there, on their less prosperous friends. They robbed their gardens, too, of the summer's last flowers, arum-lilies and brilliant geraniums, to decorate the Archdeacon's church for the festival; and many ladies spent the whole day beforehand making wreaths and crosses, and festoons to encircle the lamps.
No one was busier than Polly. She wanted to give Purdy, who had been on short commons for so long, a special Christmas treat. She had willing helpers in him and Jerry: the two of them chopped and stoned and stirred, while she, seated on the block of the woodstack, her head tied up in an old pillow-case, plucked and singed the goose that had fallen to her share. Towards four o'clock on Christmas Day they drew their chairs to the table, and with loosened collars set about enjoying the good things. Or pretending to enjoy them. This was Mahony's case; for the day was no holiday for him, and his head ached from the sun. At tea-time Hempel arrived to pay a call, looking very spruce in a long black coat and white tie; and close on his heels followed old Mr. Ocock. The latter, having deposited his hat under his seat and tapped several pockets, produced a letter, which he unfolded and handed to Polly with a broad grin. It was from his daughter, and contained the news of his wife's death. "Died o' the grumbles, I lay you! An' the first good turn she ever done me." The main point was that Miss Amelia, now at liberty, was already taking advice about the safest line of clipper-ships, and asking for a reply BY RETURN to a number of extraordinary questions. Could one depend on hearing God's Word preached of a Sunday? Was it customary for FEMALES to go armed as well as men? Were the blacks CONVERTED, and what amount of clothing did they wear?
"Thinks she's comin' to the back o' beyond, does Mely!" chuckled the old man, and slapped his thigh at the sudden idea that occurred to him of "takin' a rise out of 'er." "Won't she stare when she gits 'ere, that's all!"
"Well, now you'll simply HAVE to build," said Polly, after threatening to write privately to Miss Amelia, to reassure her. Why not move over west, and take up a piece of ground in the same road as themselves? But from this he excused himself, with a laugh and a spit, on the score that no land-sales had yet been held in their neighbourhood: when he DID turn out of his present four walls, which had always been plenty good enough for him, he wanted a place he could "fit up tidy"; which it 'ud stick in his throat to do so, if he thought it might any day be sold over his head. Mahony winced at this. Then laughed, with an exaggerated carelessness. If, in a country like this, you waited for all to be fixed and sure, you would wait till Domesday. None the less, the thrust rankled. It was a fact that he himself had not spent a sou on his premises since they finished building. The thought at the back of HIS mind, too, was, why waste his hard-earned income on improvements that might benefit only the next-comer? The yard they sat in, for instance! Polly had her hens and a ramshackle hen-house; but not a spadeful of earth had been turned towards the wished-for garden. It was just the ordinary colonial backyard, fenced round with rude palings which did not match, and were mended here and there with bits of hoop-iron; its ground space littered with a medley of articles for which there was no room elsewhere: boards left lying by the builders, empty kerosene-tins, a couple of tubs, a ragged cane-chair, some old cases. Wash-lines, on which at the moment a row of stockings hung, stretched permanently from corner to corner; and the whole was dominated by the big round galvanised-iron tank.
On Boxing Day Purdy got the loan of a lorry and drove a large party, including several children, comfortably placed on straw, hassocks and low chairs, to the Races a few miles out. Half Ballarat was making in the same direction; and whoever owned a horse that was sound in the wind and anything of a stepper had entered it for some item on the programme. The Grand Stand, a bark shed open to the air on three sides, was resorted to only in the case of a sudden downpour; the occupants of the dust-laden buggies, wagonettes, brakes, carts and drays preferred to follow events standing on their seats, and on the boards that served them as seats. After the meeting, those who belonged to the Urquhart-Glendinning set went on to Yarangobilly, and danced till long pastmidnight on the broad verandah. It was nearly three o'clock before Purdy brought his load safely home. Under the round white moon, the lorry was strewn with the forms of sleeping children.
Early next morning while Polly, still only half awake, was pouring out coffee and giving Richard who, poor fellow, could not afford to leave his patients, an account of their doings--with certain omissions, of course: she did not mention the glaring indiscretion Agnes Glendinning had been guilty of, in disappearing with Mr. Henry Ocock into a dark shrubbery--while Polly talked, the postman handed in two letters, which were of a nature to put balls and races clean out of her head. The first was in Mrs. Beamish's ill-formed hand, and told a sorrowful tale. Custom had entirely gone: a new hotel had been erected on the new road; Beamish was forced to declare himself a bankrupt; and in a few days the Family Hotel, with all its contents, would be put up at public auction. What was to become of them, God alone knew. She supposed she would end her days in taking in washing, and the girls must go out as servants. But she was sure Polly, now so up in the world, with a husband doing so well, would not forget the old friends who had once been so kind to her --with much more in the same strain, which Polly skipped, in reading the letter aloud. The long and short of it was: would Polly ask her husband to lend them a couple of hundred pounds to make a fresh start with, or failing that to put his name to a bill for the same amount?
"Of course she hasn't an idea we were obliged to borrow money ourselves," said Polly in response to Mahony's ironic laugh. "I couldn't tell them that."
"No . . . nor that it's a perpetual struggle to keep the wolf from the door," answered her husband, battering in the top of an egg with the back of his spoon.
"Oh, Richard dear, things aren't quite so bad as that," said Polly cheerfully. Then she heaved a sigh. "I know, of course, we can't afford to help them; but I DO feel so sorry for them"--she herself would have given the dress off her back. "And I think, dear, if you didn't mind VERY much, we might ask one of the girls up to stay with us . . . till the worst is over."
"Yes, I suppose that wouldn't be impossible," said Mahony. "If you've set your heart on it, my Polly. If, too, you can persuade Master Purdy to forgo the comfort of your good feather-bed. And I'll see if I can wring out a fiver for you to enclose in your letter."
Polly jumped up and kissed him. "Purdy is going anyhow. He said only last night he must look for lodgings near the Police Station." Here a thought struck her; she coloured and smiled. "I'll ask Tilly first," said she.
Mahony laughed and shook his finger at her. "The best laid plans o' mice and men! And what's one to say to a match-maker who is still growing out of her clothes?"
At this Polly clapped a hand over his mouth, for fear Ellen should hear him. It was a sore point with her that she had more than once of late had to lengthen her dresses.
As soon as she was alone she sat down to compose a reply to Mrs. Beamish. It was no easy job: she was obliged to say that Richard felt unable to come to their aid; and, at the same time, to avoid touching on his private affairs; had to disappoint as kindly as she could; to be truthful, yet tactful. Polly wrote, and re-wrote: the business cost her the forenoon.
She could not even press Tilly to pack her box and come at once; for her second letter that morning had been from Sara, who wrote that, having decided to shake the dust of the colony off her feet, she wished to pay them a flying visit before sailing, "POUR FAIRE MES ADIEUX." She signed herself "Your affectionate sister Zara," and on her arrival explained that, tired of continually instructing people in the pronunciation of her name, she had decided to alter the spelling and be done with it. Moreover, a little bird had whispered in her ear that, under its new form, it fitted her rather "FRENCH" air and looks a thousand times better than before.
Descending from the coach, Zara eyed Polly up and down and vowed she would never have known her; and, on the way home, Polly more than once felt her sister's gaze fixed critically on her. For her part, she was able to assure Zara that she saw no change whatever in her, since her last visit--even since the date of the wedding. And this pleased Zara mightily; for as she admitted, in removing hat and mantle, and passing the damped corner of a towel over her face, she dreaded the ageing effects of the climate on her fine complexion. Close as ever about her own concerns, she gave no reason for her abrupt determination to leave the country; but from subsequent talk Polly gathered that, for one thing, Zara had found her position at the head of John's establishment-- "Undertaken in the first place, my dear, at immense personal sacrifice!" --no sinecure. John had proved a regular martinet; he had countermanded her orders, interfered about the household bills--had even accused her of lining her own pocket. As for little Johnny--the bait originally thrown out to induce her to accept the post--he had long since been sent to boarding-school. "A thoroughly bad, unprincipled boy!" was Zara's verdict. And when Polly, big with pity, expostulated: "But Zara, he is only six years old!" her sister retorted with a: "My dear, I know the world, and you don't," to which Polly could think of no reply.
Zara had announced herself for a bare fortnight's stay; but the man who carried her trunk groaned and sweated under it, and was so insolent about the size of the coin she dropped in his palm that Polly followed him by stealth into the passage, to make it up to a crown. As usual Zara was attired in the height of fashion. She brought a set of "the hoops" with her--the first to be seen on Ballarat--and once more Polly was torn between an honest admiration of her sister's daring, and an equally honest embarrassment at the notice she attracted. Zara swam and glided about the streets, to the hilarious amazement of the population; floated feather-light, billowing here, depressing there, with all the waywardness of a child's balloon; supported--or so it seemed--by two of the tiniest feet ever bestowed on mortal woman. Aha! but that was one of the chief merits of "the hoops," declared Zara; that, and the possibility of getting still more stuff into your skirts without materially increasing their weight. There was something in that, conceded Polly, who often felt hers drag heavy. Besides, as she reminded Richard that night, when he lay alternately chuckling and snorting at woman's folly, custom was everything. Once they had smiled at Zara appearing in a hat: "And now we're all wearing them."
Another practical consideration that occurred to her she expressed with some diffidence. "But Zara, don't you . . . I mean . . . aren't they very draughty?"
Zara had to repeat her shocked but emphatic denial in the presence of Mrs. Glendinning and Mrs. Urquhart, both ladies having a mind to bring their wardrobes up to date. They agreed that there was much to be said in favour of the appliance, over and above its novelty. Especially would it be welcome at those times when. . . But here the speakers dropped into woman's mysterious code of nods and signs; while Zara, turning modestly away, pretended to count the stitches in a crochet-antimacassar.
Yes, nowadays, as Mrs. Dr. Mahony, Polly was able to introduce her sister to a society worthy of Zara's gifts; and Zara enjoyed herself so well that, had her berth not been booked, she might have contemplated extending her visit. She overflowed with gracious commendation. The house--though, of course, compared with John's splendour, a trifle plain and poky--was a decided advance on the store; Polly herself much improved: "You DO look robust, my dear!" And--though Zara held her peace about this--the fact of Mahony's being from home each day, for hours at a stretch, lent an additional prop to her satisfaction. Under these conditions it was possible to keep on good terms with her brother-in-law.
Zara's natty appearance and sprightly ways made her a favourite with every one especially the gentlemen. The episcopal bazaar came off at this time; and Zara had the brilliant idea of a bran-pie. This was the success of the entertainment. From behind the refreshment-stall where, with Mrs. Long, she was pouring out cups of tea and serving cheesecakes and sausage-rolls by the hundred, Polly looked proudly across the beflagged hall, to the merry group of which her sister was the centre. Zara was holding her own, even with Mr. Henry Ocock; and Mr. Urquhart had constituted himself her right hand.
"Your sister is no doubt a most fascinating woman," said Mrs. Urquhart from the seat with which she had been accommodated; and heaved a gentle sigh. "How odd that she should never have married!"
"I'm afraid Zara's too particular," said Polly. "It's not for want of being asked."
Her eyes met Purdy's as she spoke--Purdy had come up laden with empty cups, a pair of infants' boots dangling round his neck--and they exchanged smiles; for Zara's latest AFFAIRE DU COEUR was a source of great amusement to them.
Polly had assisted at the first meeting between her sister and Purdy with very mixed feelings. On that occasion Purdy happened to be in plain clothes, and Zara pronounced him charming. The next day, however, he dropped in clad in the double-breasted blue jacket, the high boots and green-veiled cabbage-tree he wore when on duty; and thereupon Zara's opinion of him sank to null, and was not to be raised even by him presenting himself in full dress: white-braided trousers, red faced shell jacket, pill-box cap, cartouche box and cavalry sword. "La, Polly! Nothing but a common policeman!" In vain did Polly explain the difference between a member of the ordinary force and a mounted trooper of the gold-escort; in vain lay stress on Richard's pleasure at seeing Purdy buckle to steady work, no matter what. Zara's thoughts had taken wing for a land where such anomalies were not; where you were not asked to drink tea with the well-meaning constable who led you across a crowded thoroughfare or turned on his bull's eye for you in a fog, preparatory to calling up a hackney-cab.
But the chilly condescension with which, from now on, Zara treated him did not seem to trouble Purdy. When he ran in for five minutes of a morning, he eschewed the front entrance and took up his perch on the kitchen-table. From here, while Polly cooked and he nibbled half-baked pastry, the two of them followed the progress of events in the parlour.
Zara's arrival on Ballarat had been the cue for Hempel's reappearance, and now hardly a day went by on which the lay-helper did not neglect his chapel work, in order to pay what Zara called his "DEVOIRS." Slight were his pretexts for coming: a rare bit of dried seaweed for bookmark; a religious journal with a turned-down page; a nosegay. And though Zara would not nowadays go the length of walking out with a dissenter--she preferred on her airings to occupy the box-seat of Mr. Urquhart's four-in-hand--she had no objection to Hempel keeping her company during the empty hours of the forenoon when Polly was lost in domestic cares. She accepted his offerings, mimicked his faulty speech, and was continually hauling him up the precipice of self-distrust, only to let him slip back as soon as he reached the top.
One day Purdy entered the kitchen doubled up with laughter. In passing the front of the house he had thrown a look in at the parlour-window; and the sight of the prim and proper Hempel on his knees on the woolly hearthrug so tickled his sense of humour that, having spluttered out the news, back he went to the passage, where he crouched down before the parlour-door and glued his eye to the keyhole.
"Oh, Purdy, no! What if the door should suddenly fly open?"
But there was something in Purdy's pranks that a laughter-lover like Polly could never for long withstand. Here, now, in feigning to imitate the unfortunate Hempel, he was sheerly irresistible. He clapped his hands to his heart, showed the whites of his eyes, wept, gesticulated and tore his hair; and Polly, after trying in vain to keep a straight face, sat down and went off into a fit of stifled mirth--and when Polly did give way, she was apt to set every one round her laughing, too. Ellen's shoulders shook; she held a fist to her mouth. Even little Trotty shrilled out her tinny treble, without knowing in the least what the joke was.
When the merriment was at its height, the front door opened and in walked Mahony. An instant's blank amazement, and he had grasped the whole situation--Richard was always so fearfully quick at understanding, thought Polly ruefully. Then, though Purdy jumped to his feet and the laughter died out as if by command, he drew his brows together, and without saying a word, stalked into the surgery and shut the door.
Like a schoolboy who has been caned, Purdy dug his knuckles into his eyes and rubbed his hindquarters--to the fresh delight of Trotty and the girl.
"Well, so long, Polly! I'd better be making tracks. The old man's on the warpath." And in an undertone: "Same old grouser! Never COULD take a joke."
"He's tired. I'll make it all right," gave Polly back.
--"It was only his fun, Richard," she pleaded, as she held out a linen jacket for her husband to slip his arms into.
"Fun of a kind I won't permit in my house. What an example to set the child! What's more, I shall let Hempel know that he is being made a butt of. And speak my mind to your sister about her heartless behaviour."
"Oh, don't do that, Richard. I promise it shan't happen again. It was very stupid of us, I know. But Purdy didn't really mean it unkindly; and he IS so comical when he starts to imitate people." And Polly was all but off again, at the remembrance.
But Mahony, stooping to decipher the names Ellen had written on the slate, did not unbend. It was not merely the vulgar joke that had offended him. No, what really rankled was the sudden chill his unlooked-for entrance had cast over the group; they had scattered and gone scurrying about their business, like a pack of naughty children who had been up to mischief behind their master's back. He was the schoolmaster --the spoilsport. They were all afraid of him. Even Polly.
But here came Polly herself to say: "Dinner, dear," in her kindest tone. She also put her arm round his neck and hugged him. "Not cross any more, Richard? I know we behaved disgracefully." Her touch put the crown on her words. Mahony drew her to him and kissed her.
But the true origin of the unpleasantness, Zara, who in her ghoulish delight at seeing Hempel grovel before her--thus Mahony worded it-- behaved more kittenishly than ever at table: Zara Mahony could not so easily forgive; and for the remainder of her stay his manner to her was so forbidding that she, too, froze; and to Polly's regret the old bad relation between them came up anew.
But Zara was enjoying herself too well to cut her visit short on Mahony's account. "Besides, poor thing," thought Polly, "she has really nowhere to go." What she did do was to carry her head very high in her brother-in-law's presence; to speak at him rather than to him; and in private to insist to Polly on her powers of discernment. "You may say what you like, my dear--I can see you have a VERY GREAT DEAL to put up with!"
At last, however, the day of her departure broke, and she went off amid a babble of farewells, of requests for remembrance, a fluttering of pocket-handkerchiefs, the like of which Polly had never known; and to himself Mahony breathed the hope that they had seen the last of Zara, her fripperies and affectations. "Your sister will certainly fit better into the conditions of English life."
Polly cried at the parting, which might be final; then blew her nose and dried her eyes; for she had a busy day before her. Tilly Beamish had been waiting with ill-concealed impatience for Zara to vacate the spare room, and was to arrive that night.
Mahony was not at home to welcome the new-comer, nor could he be present at high tea. When he returned, towards nine o'clock, he found Polly with a very red face, and so full of fussy cares for her guest's comfort-- her natural kindliness distorted to caricature--that she had not a word for him. One look at Miss Tilly explained everything, and his respects duly paid he retired to the surgery, to indulge a smile at Polly's expense. Here Polly soon joined him, Tilly, fatigued by her journey and by her bounteous meal, having betaken herself early to bed.
"Ha, ha!" laughed Mahony, not without a certain mischievous satisfaction at his young wife's discomfiture. "And with the prospect of a second edition to follow!"
But Polly would not capitulate right off. "I don't think it's very kind of you to talk like that, Richard," she said warmly. "People can't help their looks." She moved about the room putting things straight, and avoiding his eye. "As long as they mean well and are good. . . . But I think you would rather no one ever came to stay with us, at all."
Fixing her with meaning insistence and still smiling, Mahony opened his arms. The next moment Polly was on his knee, her face hidden in his shoulder. There she shed a few tears. "Oh, isn't she dreadful? I don't know WHAT I shall do with her. She's been serving behind the bar, Richard, for more than a year. And she's come expecting to be taken everywhere and to have any amount of gaiety."
At coach-time she had dragged a reluctant Purdy to the office. But as soon as he caught sight of Tilly: "On the box, Richard, beside the driver, with her hair all towsy-wowsy in the wind--he just said: 'Oh, lor, Polly!' and disappeared, and that was the last I saw of him. I don't know how I should have got on if it hadn't been for old Mr. Ocock, who was down meeting a parcel. He was most kind; he helped us home with her carpet-bag, and saw after her trunk. And, oh dear, what do you think? When he was going away he said to me in the passage--so loud I'm sure Tilly must have heard him--he said: 'Well! that's something like a figure of a female this time, Mrs. Doc. As fine a young woman as ever I see!'"
And Polly hid her face again; and husband and wife laughed in concert.