Australia Felix/Part III/Chapter X

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John drove from Melbourne in a drag and four, accompanied by numerous friends and well-wishers. A mile or so out of Ballarat, he was met by a body of supporters headed by a brass band, and escorted in triumph to the George Hotel. Here, the horses having been led away, John at once took the field by mounting the box-seat of the coach and addressing the crowd of idlers that had gathered round to watch the arrival. He got an excellent hearing--so Jerry reported, who was an eye and ear-witness of the scene--and was afterwards borne shoulder-high into the hotel.

With Jerry at his heels, Mahony called at the hotel that evening. He found John entertaining a large impromptu party. The table of the public dining-room was disorderly with the remains of a liberal meal; napkins lay crushed and flung down among plates piled high with empty nutshells; the cloth was wine-stained, and bestrewn with ashes and breadcrumbs, the air heady with the fumes of tobacco. Those of the guests who still lingered at the table had pushed their chairs back or askew, and sat, some a-straddle, some even with their feet on the cloth. John was confabbing with half a dozen black-coats in a corner. Each held a wineglass in his hand from which he sipped, while John, legs apart, did all the talking, every now and then putting out his forefinger to prod one of his hearers on the middle button of the waistcoat. It was some time before he discovered the presence of his relatives; and Mahony had leisure to admire the fashion in which, this corner-talk over, John dispersed himself among the company; drinking with this one and that; glibly answering questions; patting a glum-faced brewer on the back; and simultaneously checking over, with an oily-haired agent, his committee-meetings for the following days. His customary arrogance and pompousness of manner were laid aside. For the nonce, he was a simple man among men.

Then espying them, he hurried over, and rubbing his hands with pleasure said warmly: "My dear Mahony, this is indeed kind! Jerry, my lad, how do, how do? Still growing, I see! We'll make a fine fellow of you yet.-- Well, doctor! . . . we've every reason, I think, to feel satisfied with the lie of the land."

But here he was snatched from them by an urgent request for a pronouncement--"A quite informal word, sir, if you'll be so good,"--on the vexed question of vote by ballot. And this being a pet theme of John's, and a principle he was ready to defend through thick and thin, he willingly complied.

Mahony had no further talk with him. The speech over--it was a concise and spirited utterance, and, if you were prepared to admit the efficacy of the ballot, convincing enough--Mahony quietly withdrew. He had to see a patient at eleven. Polly, too, would probably be lying awake for news of her brother.

As he threw back his braces and wound up his watch, he felt it incumbent on him to warn her not to pitch her hopes too high. "You mustn't expect, my dear, that your brother's arrival will mean much to us. He is now a public man, and will have little time for small people like ourselves. I'm bound to admit, Polly, I was very favourably impressed by the few words I heard him say," he added.

"Oh, Richard, I'm SO glad!" and Polly, who had been sitting on the edge of the bed, stood on tiptoe to give him a kiss.

As Mahony predicted, John's private feelings went down before the superior interests of his campaign. Three days passed before he found time to pay his sister a visit; and Polly, who had postponed a washing, baked her richest cakes and pastries, and clad Trotty in her Sunday best each day of the three: Polly was putting a good face on the matter, and consoling herself with Jerry's descriptions of John's triumphs. How she wished she could hear some of the speechifying! But Richard would never consent; and electioneering did certainly seem, from what Jerry said, a very rough-and-ready business--nothing for ladies. Hence her delight knew no bounds when John drove up unexpectedly late one afternoon, between a hard day's personal canvassing and another of the innumerable dinners he had to eat his way through. Tossing the reins to the gentleman who sat next him, he jumped out of the wagonette--it was hung with placards of "Vote for Turnham!"--and gave a loud rat-a-tat at the door.

Forgetting in her excitement that this was Ellen's job, Polly opened to him herself, and drew him in. "John! How pleased I am to see you!"

"My dear girl, how are you? God bless me, how you've altered! I should never have known you." He held her at arm's length, to consider her.

"But you haven't changed in the least, John. Except to grow younger.-- Richard, here's John at last!--and Trotty, John . . . here's Trotty!-- Take your thumb out of your mouth, naughty girl!--She's been watching for you all day, John, with her nose to the window." And Polly pushed forward the scarlet, shrinking child.

John's heartiness suffered a distinct check as his eyes lit on Trotty, who stood stiff as a bit of Dresden china in her bunchy starched petticoats. "Come here, Emma, and let me look at you." Taking the fat little chin between thumb and first finger, he turned the child's face up and kept it so, till the red button of a mouth trembled, and the great blue eyes all but ran over. "H'm! Yes . . . a notable resemblance to her mother. Ah, time passes, Polly my dear--time passes!" He sighed. --"I hope you mind your aunt, Emma, and are properly grateful to her?"

Abruptly quitting his hold, he swept the parlour with a glance. "A very snug little place you have here, upon my word!"

While Polly, with Trotty pattering after, bustled to the larder, Mahony congratulated his brother-in-law on the more favourable attitude towards his election policy which was becoming evident in the local press. John's persuasive tongue was clearly having its effect, and the hostility he had met with at the outset of his candidature was yielding to more friendly feelings on all sides. John was frankly gratified by the change, and did not hesitate to say so. When the wine arrived they drank to his success, and Polly's delicacies met with their due share of praise. Then, having wiped his mouth on a large silk handkerchief, John disclosed the business object of his call. He wanted specific information about the more influential of their friends and acquaintances; and here he drew a list of names from his pocket-book. Mahony, his chin propped on the flaxen head of the child, whom he nursed, soon fell out of the running for Polly proved far the cleverer at grasping the nature of the information John sought, and at retailing it. And John complimented her on her shrewdness, ticked off names, took notes on what she told him; and when he was not writing sat tapping his thick, carnation-red underlip, and nodding assent. It was arranged that Polly should drive out with him next day to Yarangobilly, by way of Dandaloo; while for the evening after they plotted a card-party, at which John might come to grips with Archdeacon Long. John expected to find the reverend gentleman a hard nut to crack, their views on the subject of a state aid to religion being diametrically opposed. Polly thought a substantial donation to the chancel-fund might smooth things over, while for John to display a personal interest in Mrs. Long's charities would help still more. Then there were the Ococks. The old man could be counted on, she believed; but John might have some difficulty with Mr. Henry--and here she initiated her brother into the domestic differences which had split up the Ocock family, and prevented Richard from approaching the lawyer. John, who was in his most democratic mood, was humorous at the expense of Henry, and declared the latter should rather wish his father joy of coming to such a fine, bouncing young wife in his old age. The best way of getting at Mr. Henry, Polly considered, would be for Mrs Glendinning to give a luncheon or a bushing-party, with the lawyer among the guests: "Then you and I, John, could drive out and join them--either by chance or invitation, as you think best." Polly was heart and soul in the affair.

But business over, she put several straight questions about the boy, little Johnny--Polly still blamed herself for having meekly submitted to the child's removal from her charge--and was not to be fobbed off with evasions. The unfavourable verdict she managed to worm out of John: "Incorrigible, my dear Polly--utterly incorrigible! His masters report him idle, disobedient, a bad influence on the other scholars," she met staunchly with: "Perhaps it has something to do with the school. Why not try another? Johnny had his good qualities; in many ways was quite a lovable child."

For the first time Mahony saw his wife and her eldest brother together and he could not but be struck by Polly's attitude. Greatly as she admired and reverenced John, there was not a particle of obsequiousness in her manner, nor any truckling to his point of view; and she plainly felt nothing of the peculiar sense of discomfort that invariably attacked him, in John's presence. Either she was not conscious of her brother's grossly patronising air, or, aware of it, did not resent it, John having always been so much her superior in age and position. Or was it indeed the truth that John did not try to patronise Polly? That his overbearing nature recognised in hers a certain springy resistance, which was not to be crushed? In other words, that, in a Turnham, Turnham blood met its match.

John re-took his seat in the front of the wagonette, Trotty was lifted up to see the rosettes and streamers adorning the horses, the gentlemen waved their hats, and off they went again at a fine pace, and with a whip-cracking that brought the neighbours to their windows.

Polly had pink cheeks with it all, and even sought to excuse the meagre interest John had shown in his daughter. "Trotty was only a baby in arms when he saw her last. Besides, I think she reminded him too much of her dear mother. For I'm sure, though he doesn't let it be seen, John still feels his loss."

"I wonder!" said Mahony slowly and with a strong downward inflection, as he turned indoors.

On the eve of the polling Polly had the honour of accompanying her brother to a performance at the Theatre Royal. A ticket came for Richard, too; but, as usual, he was at the last moment called out. So Purdy took her on his arm and escorted her--not exactly comfortably; for, said Polly, no one who had not tried it, knew how hard it was to walk arm-in-arm with a lame person, especially if you did not want to hurt his feelings--Purdy took her to the theatre, helped her to unmuffle and to change her boots, and bore her company till her brother arrived. They had seats in the centre of the front row of the dress circle; all eyes were turned on them as they entered; and Polly's appearance was the subject of audible and embarrassing comment.

In every interval John was up and away, to shake a hand here, pass the time of day there; and watching him with affectionate pride, Polly wondered how Richard could ever have termed him "high-handed and difficult." John had the knack, it seemed to her, of getting on with people of every class, and of always finding the right word to say. But as the evening advanced his seat remained empty even while the curtain was up, and she was glad when, between the fourth and fifth acts, her husband at last appeared.

On his way to her Mahony ran into his brother-in-law, and John buttonholed him to discuss with him the prospects of the morrow. As they talked, their eyes rested on Polly's glossy black chignon; on the nape of her white neck; on the beautiful, rounded young shoulders which, in obedience to the fashion, stood right out of her blue silk bodice. Mahony shifted his weight uneasily from one foot to the other. He could not imagine Polly enjoying her exposed position, and disapproved strongly of John having left her. But for all answer to the hint he threw out John said slowly, and with a somewhat unctuous relish: "My sister has turned into a remarkably handsome woman!"--words which sent the lightning-thought through Mahony that, had Polly remained the insignificant little slip of a thing of earlier days, she would not have been asked to fill the prominent place she did this evening.

John sent his adieux and excuses to Polly. He had done what was expected of him, in showing himself at a public entertainment, and a vast mass of correspondence lay unsorted on his desk. So Mahony moved forward alone.

"Oh, Richard, there you are! Oh dear, what you've missed! I never thought there could be such acting." And Polly turned her great dark eyes on her husband; they were moist from the noble sentiments of THE TRUE BRITON.

The day of the election broke, a gusty spring day cut up by stinging hail-showers, which beat like fusillades on the galvanised iron roofs. Between the showers, the sun shone in a gentian-blue sky, against which the little wooden houses showed up crassly white. Ballarat made holiday. Early as Mahony left home, he met a long line of conveyances heading townwards--spring carts, dogcarts, double and single buggies, in some of which, built to seat two only, five or six persons were huddled. These and similar vehicles drew up in rows outside the public-houses, where the lean, long-legged colonial horses stood jerking at their tethers; and they were still there, still jerking, when he passed again toward evening. On a huge poster the "Unicorn" offered to lunch free all those "thinking men" who registered their vote for "the one and only true democrat, the miners' friend and tyrants' foe, John Turnham."

In the hope of avoiding a crush Mahony drove straight to the polling-booth. But already all the loafers and roughs in the place seemed to be congregated round the entrance, after the polite custom of the country to chivy, or boo, or huzza those who went in. In waiting his turn, he had to listen to comments on his dress and person, to put up with vulgar allusions to blue pills and black draughts.

Just as he was getting back into his buggy John rode up, flanked by a bodyguard of friends; John was galloping from booth to booth, to verify progress and put the thumbscrew on wobblers. He beamed--as well he might. He was certain to be one of the two members elected, and quite likely to top the poll by a respectable majority.

For once Mahony did not grumble at his outlying patients; was only too thankful to turn his back on the town. It was pandemonium. Bands of music, one shriller and more discordant than the next, marched up and down the main streets--from the fifes and drums of the Fire Brigade, to the kerosene-tins and penny-whistles of mere determined noise-makers. Straggling processions, with banners that bore the distorted features of one or other of the candidates, made driving difficult; and, to add to the confusion, the schoolchildren were let loose, to overrun the place and fly advertisement balloons round every corner.--And so it went on till far into the night, the dark hours being varied by torchlight processions, fireworks, free fights and orgies of drunkenness.

The results of the polling were promised for two o'clock the following day.

When, something after this hour Mahony reached home, he found Polly and the gentle, ox-eyed Jinny Beamish, who was the present occupant of the spare room, pacing up and down before the house. According to Jerry news might be expected now at any minute. And when he had lunched and changed his coat, Mahony, bitten by the general excitement, made his way down to the junction of Sturt Street and the Flat.

A great crowd blocked the approaches to the hustings. Here were the four candidates, who, in attending the issue, strove to look decently unconcerned. John had struck a quasi-Napoleonic attitude: his right elbow propped in the cup of his left hand, he held his drooped chin between thumb and forefinger, leaving it to his glancing black eyes to reveal how entirely alive he was to the gravity of the moment. Standing on the fringe of the crowd, Mahony listened to the piebald jokes and rude wit with which the people beguiled the interim; and tried to endure with equanimity the jostling, the profane language and offensive odours, by which he was assailed. Half an hour elapsed before the returning officer climbed the ladder at the back of the platform, and came forward to announce the result of the voting: Mr. John Millibank Turnham topped the poll with a majority of four hundred and fifty-two. The crowd, which at sight of the clerk had abruptly ceased its fooling, drowned his further statements in a roar of mingled cheers and boos. The cheers had it; hats were tossed into the air, and loud cries for a speech arose. John's advance to grip the railing led to a fresh outburst, in which the weakening opposition was quashed by the singing of: "When Johnny comes marching home!" and "Cheer, boys, cheer, For home and mother country!"-- an incongruity of sentiment that made Mahony smile. And John, having repeatedly bowed his thanks from side to side, joined in and sang with the rest.

The opening of his speech was inaudible to Mahony. Just behind him stood one of his brother-in-law's most arrant opponents, a butcher by trade, and directly John began to hold forth this man produced a cornet-a-piston and started to blow it. In vain did Mahony expostulate: he seemed to have got into a very wasps'-nest of hostility; for the player's friends took up the cudgels and baited him in a language he would have been sorry to imitate, the butcher blaring away unmoved, with the fierce solemnity of face the cornet demands. Mahony lost his temper; his tormentors retaliated; and for a moment it looked as though there would be trouble. Then a number of John's supporters, enraged by the bellowing of the instrument, bore down and forcibly removed the musician and his clique, Mahony along with them.

Having indignantly explained, and shaken coat and collar to rights, he returned to his place on the edge of the crowd. The speaker's deep voice had gone steadily on during the disturbance. Indeed John might have been born to the hustings. Interruptions did not put him out; he was brilliant at repartee; and all the stock gestures of the public speaker came at his call: the pounding of the bowl of one hand with the closed fist of the other; the dramatic wave of the arm with which he plumbed the depths or invited defiance; the jaunty standing-at-ease, arms akimbo; the earnest bend from the waist when he took his hearers into his confidence. At this moment he was gripping the rail of the platform as though he intended to vault it, and asserting: "Our first cry, then, is for men to people the country; our next, for independence, to work out our own salvation. Yes, my friends, the glorious future of this young and prosperous colony, which was once and most auspiciously known as Australia Felix--blest, thrice-blest Australia!--rests with ourselves alone. We who inhabit here can best judge of her requirements, and we refuse to see her hampered in her progress by the shackles of an ancient tradition. What suits our hoary mother-country--God bless and keep her and keep us loyal to her!--is but dry husks for us. England knows nothing of our most pressing needs. I ask you to consider how, previous to 1855, that pretty pair of mandarins, Lord John Russell and Earl Grey, boggled and botched the crucial question of unlocking the lands even yet, gentlemen, the result of their muddling lies heavy on us. And the Land Question, though first in importance, is but one, as you know, of many"--and here John, playing on the tips of five wide-stretched fingers, counted them off. He wound up with a flaming plea for the creation and protection of purely national industries. "For what, I would ask you, is the true meaning of democracy in a country such as ours? What is, for us, the democratic principle? The answer, my friends, is conservatism; yes, I repeat it--conservatism!" . . . and thus to a final peroration.

In the braying and hurrahing that followed--the din was heightened by some worthy mounting a barrel to move that "this yere Johnny Turnham" was not a fit person to represent "the constitooency," by the barrel being dragged from under him, and the speaker rolled in the mud; while this went on Mahony stood silent, and he was still standing meditatively pulling his whiskers when a sudden call for a doctor reached his ear. He pushed his way to the front.

How the accident happened no one knew. John had descended from the platform to a verandah, where countless hands were stretched out to shake his. A pile of shutters was leaning against the wall, and in some unexplained fashion these had fallen, striking John a blow that knocked him down. When Mahony got to him he was on his feet again, wiping a drop of blood from his left temple. He looked pale, but pooh-poohed injury or the idea of interfering with his audience's design; and Mahony saw him shouldered and borne off.

That evening there was a lengthy banquet, in which all the notables of the place took part. Mahony's seat was some way off John's; he had to lean forward, did he wish to see his brother-in-law.

Towards eleven o'clock, just as he was wondering if he could slip out unobserved, a hand was laid on his arm. John stood behind him, white to the lips. "Can I have a word with you upstairs?"

Here he confessed to a knife-like pain in his left side; the brunt of the blow, it seemed, had met him slantways between rib and hip. A cursory examination made Mahony look grave.

"You must come back with me, John, and let me see to you properly."

Having expressed the chief guest's regrets to the company, he ordered a horse and trap, and helping John into it drove him home. And that night John lay in their bed, letting out the groans he had suppressed during the evening; while Polly snatched forty winks beside Jinny Beamish, and Mahony got what sleep he could on the parlour sofa.