Australia Felix/Part IV/Chapter IV

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Australia Felix by Henry Handel Richardson
Part IV, Chapter IV

Hush, dolly! Mustn't cry, and make a noise. Uncle Richard's cross.

Trotty sat on a hassock and rocked a china babe, with all the appurtenant mother-fuss she had picked up from the tending of her tiny stepsister. The present Trotty was a demure little maid of some seven summers, who gave the impression of having been rather rudely elongated. Her flaxen hair was stiffly imprisoned behind a round black comb; and her big blue eyes alone remained to her from a lovely infancy. ("Poor Emma's eyes," said Mary.)

Imitative as a monkey she went on--with a child's perfect knowledge that it is all make-believe, yet with an entire credence in the power of make-believe: "Naughty child--WILL you be quiet? There! You've frown your counterpane off now. Wonder what next you'll do. I declare I'll slap you soon--you make me so cross."

Through the surgery-window the words floated out: "For goodness' sake, don't bother me now with such trifles, Mary! It's not the moment--with a whole string of people waiting in the other room."

"Well, if only you'll be satisfied with what I do, dear, and not blame me afterwards."

"Get Purdy to give you a hand with Ned's affair. He has time and to spare." And wetting his finger-tip Mahony nervously flipped over a dozen pages of the book that lay open before him.

"Well . . . if you think I should," said Mary, with a spice of doubt.

"I do. And now go, wife, and remember to shut the door after you. Oh, and tell that woman in the kitchen to stop singing. Her false notes drive me crazy.--How many are there, this morning?"

"Eight--no, nine, if that's another," replied Mary, with an ear to the front door.

"Tch! I'll have to stop then," and Mahony clapped to the work he had been consulting. "Never a minute to keep abreast of the times." But: "That's a good, helpful wife," as Mary stooped to kiss him. "Do the best you can, mavourneen, and never mind me."

"Take me with you, Auntie!" Trotty sprang up from her stool, overturning babe and cradle.

"Not to-day, darling. Besides, why are you here? You know I've forbidden you to be on the front verandah when the patients come. Run away to the back, and play there."

Mary donned hat and shawl, opened her parasol and went out into the sun. With the years she had developed into rather a stately young woman: she held her head high and walked with a firm, free step.

Her first visit was to the stable to find Long Jim--or Old Jim as they now called him; for he was nearing the sixties. The notice to leave, which he had given the day before, was one of the "trifles" it fell to her to consider. Personally Mary thought his going would be no great loss: he knew nothing about a garden, yet resented instruction; and it had always been necessary to get outside help in for the horses. If he went they could engage some one who would combine the posts. But Richard had taken umbrage at the old man's tone; had even been nervously upset over it. It behoved her to find out what the matter was.

"I want a change," said Old Jim dourly in response to her inquiry; and went on polishing wheel-spokes, and making the wheel fly. "I've bin 'ere too long. An' now I've got a bit o' brass together, an' am thinkin' I'd like to be me own master for a spell."

"But at your age, Jim, is it wise?--to throw up a comfortable home, just because you've laid a little past?"

"It's enough to keep me. I turned over between four and five 'undred last week in 'Piecrusts.'"

"Oh!" said Mary, taken by surprise. "Then that--that's your only reason for wishing to leave?" And as he did not reply, but went on swishing: "Come, Jim, if you've anything on your mind, say it out. The doctor didn't like the way you spoke to him last night."

At this the old man straightened his back, took a straw from between his teeth, spat and said: "Well, if you must know, Mrs. Mahony, the doctor's not the boss it pleases me to be h'under any more--and that's the trewth. I'm tired of it--dog-tired. You can slave yer 'ead off for 'im, and 'e never notices a thing you do, h'or if 'e does, it's on'y to find fault. It h'ain't 'uman, I say, and I'll be danged if I stand it h'any longer."

But people who came to Mary with criticism of Richard got no mercy. "You're far too touchy, Jim. YOU know, if any one does, how rushed and busy the doctor is, and you ought to be the first to make allowance for him--after all he's done for you. You wouldn't be here now, if it hadn't been for him. And then to expect him to notice and praise you for every little job you do!"

But Jim was stubborn. 'E didn't want to deny anything. But 'e'd rather go. An' this day a week if it suited her.

" It's really dreadful how uppish the lower classes get as soon as they have a little money in their pocket," she said to herself, as she walked the shadeless, sandy road. But this thought was like a shadow cast by her husband's mind on hers, and was ousted by the more indigenous: "But after all who can blame him, poor old fellow, for wanting to take life easy if he has the chance." She even added: "He might have gone off, as most of them do, without a word."

Then her mind reverted to what he had said of Richard, and she pondered the antagonism that had shown through his words. It was not the first time she had run up against this spirit, but, as usual, she was at a loss to explain it. Why should people of Old Jim's class dislike Richard as they did?--find him so hard to get on with? He was invariably considerate of them, and treated them very generously with regard to money. And yet . . . for some reason or other they felt injured by him; and thought and spoke of him with a kind of churlish resentment. She was not clever enough to find the key to the riddle--it was no such simple explanation as that he felt himself too good for them. That was not the case: he was proud, certainly, but she had never known any one who-- under, it was true, a rather sarcastic manner--was more broadly tolerant of his fellow-men. And she wound up her soliloquy with the lame admission: "Yes, in spite of all his kindness, I suppose he IS queer . . . decidedly queer," and then she heaved a sigh. What a pity it was! When you knew him to be, at heart, such a dear, good, well-meaning man.

A short walk brought her to the four-roomed cottage where Ned lived with wife and children. Or had lived, till lately. He had been missing from his home now for over a week. On the last occasion of his being in Melbourne with the carrying-van, he had decamped, leaving the boy who was with him to make the return journey alone. Since then, nothing could be heard of him; and his billet in the Agency had been snapped up.

"Or so they say!" said his wife, with an angry sniff. "I don't believe a word of it, Mary. Since the railway's come, biz has gone to the dogs; and they're only too glad to get the chance of sacking another man."

Polly looked untidier than ever; she wore a slatternly wrapper, and her hair was thrust unbrushed into its net. But she suffered, no doubt, in her own way; she was red-eyed, and very hasty-handed with her nestful of babes. Sitting in the cheerless parlour, Ned's dark-eyed eldest on her knee, Mary strove to soothe and encourage. But: it has never been much of a home for the poor boy was her private opinion; and she pressed her cheek affectionately against the little black curly head that was a replica of Ned's own.

"What's goin' to become of us all, the Lord only knows," said Polly, after having had the good cry the sympathetic presence of her sister-in-law justified. "I'm not a brown cent troubled about Ned--only boiling with 'im. 'E's off on the booze, sure enough--and 'e'll turn up again, safe and sound, like loose fish always do. Wait till I catch 'im though! He'll get it hot."

"We never ought to have come here," she went on drying her eyes. "Drat the place and all that's in it, that's what I say! He did better'n this in Castlemaine; and I'd pa behind me there. But once Richard had sent 'im that twenty quid, he'd no rest till he got away. And I thought, when he was so set on it, may be it'd have a good effect on 'im, to be near you both. But that was just another shoot into the brown. You've been A1, Mary; you've done your level best. But Richard's never treated Ned fair. I don't want to take Ned's part; he's nothing in the world but a pretty-faced noodle. But Richard's treated 'im as if he was the dirt under 'is feet. And Ned's felt it. Oh, I know whose doing it was, we were never asked up to the house when you'd company. It wasn't YOURS, my dear! But we can't all have hyphens to our names, and go driving round with kid gloves on our hands and our noses in the air."

Mary felt quite depressed by this fresh attack on her husband. Reminding herself, however, that Polly was excited and over-wrought, she did not speak out the defence that leapt to her tongue. She said staunchly: "As you put it, Polly, it does seem as if we haven't acted rightly towards Ned. But it wasn't Richard's doing alone. I've been just as much to blame as he has."

She sat on, petting the fractious children and giving kindly assurances: as long as she and Richard had anything themselves, Ned's wife and Ned's children should not want: and as she spoke, she slipped a substantial proof of her words into Polly's unproud hand. Besides, she believed there was every chance now of Ned soon being restored to them; and she told how they were going, that very morning, to invoke Mr. Smith's aid. Mr. Smith was in the Police, as Polly knew, and had influential friends among the Force in Melbourne. By to-morrow there might be good news to bring her.

Almost an hour had passed when she rose to leave. Mrs. Ned was so grateful for the visit and the help that, out in the narrow little passage, she threw her arms round Mary's neck and drew her to her bosom. Holding her thus, after several hearty kisses, she said in a mysterious whisper, with her lips close to Mary's ear: "Mary, love, may I say something to you?" and the permission granted, went on: "That is, give you a bit of a hint, dearie?"

"Why, of course you may, Polly."

"Sure you won't feel hurt, dear?"

"Quite sure. What is it?" and Mary disengaged herself, that she might look the speaker in the face.

"Well, it's just this--you mentioned the name yourself, or I wouldn't have dared. It's young Mr. Smith, Mary. My dear, in future don't you have 'im quite so much about the house as you do at present. It ain't the thing. People WILL talk, you know, if you give 'em a handle."("Oh, but Polly!" in a blank voice from Mary.) "Now, now, I'm not blaming you --not the least tiddly-wink. But there's no harm in being careful, is there, love, if you don't want your name in people's mouths? I'm that fond of you, Mary--you don't mind me speaking, dearie?"

"No, Polly, I don't. But it's the greatest nonsense--I never heard such a thing!" said Mary hotly. "Why, Purdy is Richard's oldest friend. They were schoolboys together."

"May be they were. But I hear 'e's mostly up at your place when Richard's out. And you're a young and pretty woman, my dear; it's Richard who ought to think of it, and he so much older than you. Well, just take the hint, love. It comes best, don't it, from one of the family?"

But Mary left the house in a sad flurry; and even forgot for a street length to open her parasol.

Her first impulse was to go straight to Richard. But she had not covered half a dozen yards before she saw that this would never do. At the best of times Richard abominated gossip; and the fact of it having, in the present case, dared to fasten its fangs in some one belonging to him would make him doubly wroth. He might even try to find out who had started the talk; and get himself into hot water over it. Or he might want to lay all the blame on his own shoulders--make himself the reproaches Ned's Polly had not spared him. Worse still, he would perhaps accuse Purdy of inconsiderateness towards her, and fly into a rage with him; and then the two of them would quarrel, which would be a thousand pities. For though he often railed at Purdy, yet that was only Richard's way: he was genuinely fond of him, and unbent to him as to nobody else.

But these were just so many pretexts put forward to herself by Mary for keeping silence; the real reason lay deeper. Eight years of married life had left her, where certain subjects were concerned, with all the modesty of her girlhood intact. There were things, indelicate things, which COULD not be spoken out, even between husband and wife. For her to have to step before Richard and say: some one else feels for me in the same way as you, my husband, do, would make her ever after unable frankly to meet his eyes. Besides giving the vague, cobwebby stuff a body it did not deserve.

But yet again this was not the whole truth: she had another, more uncomfortable side of it to face; and the flies buzzed unheeded round her head. The astonishment she had shown at her sister-in-law's warning had not been altogether sincere. Far down in her heart Mary found a faint, faint trace of complicity. For months past--she could admit it now--she had not felt easy about Purdy. Something disagreeable, disturbing, had crept into their relations. The jolly, brotherly manner she liked so well had deserted him; besides short-tempered he had grown deadly serious, and not the stupidest woman could fail altogether to see what the matter was. But she had wilfully bandaged her eyes. And if, now and then, some word or look had pierced her guard and disquieted her in spite of herself, she had left it at an incredulous: "Oh, but then. . . But even if. . . In that case. . . ." She now saw her fervent hope had been that the affair would blow over without coming to anything; prove to be just another passing fancy on the part of the unstable Purdy. How many had she not assisted at! This very summer, for instance, a charming young lady from Sydney had stayed with the Urquharts; and, as long as her visit lasted, they had seen little or nothing of Purdy. Whenever he got off duty he was at Yarangobilly. As it happened, however, Mr. Urquhart himself had been so assiduous in taking his guest about that Purdy had had small chance of making an impression. And, in looking back on the incident, what now rose most clearly before Mary's mind was the way in which Mrs. Urquhart--poor thing, she was never able to go anywhere with her husband: either she had a child in arms or another coming; the row of toddlers mounted up in steps--the way in which she had said, with her pathetic smile: "Ah, my dear! Willie needs some one gayer and stronger than I am, for company." Mary's heart had been full of pity at the time, for her friend's lot; and it swelled again now at the remembrance.

But oh dear! this was straying from the point. Impatiently she jerked her thoughts back to herself and her own dilemma. What ought she to do? She was not a person who could sit still with folded hands and await events. How would it be if she spoke to Purdy herself? . . . talked seriously to him about his work? . . . tried to persuade him to leave Ballarat. Did he mean to hang on here for ever, she would say--never intend to seek promotion? But then again, the mere questioning would cause a certain awkwardness. While, at the slightest trip or blunder on her part, what was unsaid might suddenly find itself said; and the whole thing cease to be the vague, cloudy affair it was at present. And though she would actually rather this happened with regard to Purdy than Richard, yet . . . yet. . . .

Worried and perplexed, unable to see before her the straight plain path she loved, Mary once more sighed from the bottom of her heart.

"Oh if ONLY men wouldn't be so foolish!"

Left to himself Mahony put away his books, washed his hands and summoned one by one to his presence the people who waited in the adjoining room. He drew a tooth, dressed a wounded wrist, prescribed for divers internal disorders--all told, a baker's dozen of odd jobs.

When the last patient had gone he propped open the door, wiped his forehead and read the thermometer that hung on the wall: it marked 102 degrees. Dejectedly he drove, in fancy, along the glaring, treeless roads, inches deep in cinnamon-coloured dust. How one learnt to hate the sun out here. What wouldn't he give for a cool, grey-green Irish day, with a wet wind blowing in from the sea?--a day such as he had heedlessly squandered hundreds of, in his youth. Now it made his mouth water only to think of them.

It still wanted ten minutes to ten o'clock and the buggy had not yet come round. He would lie down and have five minutes' rest before starting: he had been up most of the night, and on getting home had been kept awake by neuralgia.

When an hour later Mary reached home, she was amazed to find groom and buggy still drawn up in front of the house.

"Why, Molyneux, what's the matter? Where's the doctor?"

"I'm sure I don't know, Mrs. Mahony. I've hollered to Biddy half a dozen times, but she doesn't take any notice. And the mare's that restless. . . . There, there, steady old girl, steady now! It's these damn flies."

Mary hurried indoors. "Why, Biddy. . . ."

"Sure and it's yourself," said the big Irishwoman who now filled the kitchen-billet. "Faith and though you scold me, Mrs. Mahony, I couldn't bring it over me heart to wake him. The pore man's sleeping like a saint."

"Biddy, you ought to know better!" cried Mary peeling off her gloves.

"It's pale as the dead he is."

"Rubbish. It's only the reflection of the green blind. RICHARD! Do you know what the time is?"

But the first syllable of his name was enough. "Good Lord, Mary, I must have dropped off. What the dickens. . . . Come, help me, wife. Why on earth didn't those fools wake me?"

Mary held his driving-coat, fetched hat and gloves, while he flung the necessaries into his bag. "Have you much to do this morning? Oh, that post-mortem's at twelve, isn't it?"

"Yes; and a consultation with Munce at eleven--I'll just manage it and no more," muttered Mahony with an eye on his watch. "I can't let the mare take it easy this morning. Yes, a full day. And Henry Ocock's fidgeting for a second opinion; thinks his wife's not making enough progress. Well, ta-ta, sweetheart! Don't expect me back to lunch." And taking a short cut across the lawn, he jumped into the buggy and off they flew.

Mary's thoughts were all for him in this moment. "How proud we ought to feel!" she said to herself. "That makes the second time in a week old Munce has sent for him. But how like Henry Ocock," she went on with puckered brow. "It's quite insulting--after the trouble Richard has put himself to. If Agnes's case puzzles him, I should like to know who will understand it better. I think I'll go and see her myself this afternoon. It can't be HER wish to call in a stranger."

Not till some time after did she remember her own private embarrassment. And, by then, the incident had taken its proper place in her mind--had sunk to the level of insignificance to which it belonged.

"Such a piece of nonsense!" was her final verdict. "As if I could worry Richard with it, when he has so many really important things to occupy him."