Australia Felix/Part IV/Chapter V

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Australia Felix by Henry Handel Richardson
Part IV, Chapter V

Yes, those were palmy days; the rate at which the practice spread astonished even himself. No slack seasons for him now; winter saw him as busy as summer; and his chief ground for complaint was that he was unable to devote the meticulous attention he would have wished to each individual case. "It would need the strength of an elephant to do that." But it was impossible not to feel gratified by the many marks of confidence he received. And if his work had but left him some leisure for study and an occasional holiday, he would have been content. But in these years he was never able to get his neck out of the yoke; and Mary took her annual jaunts to Melbourne and sea-breezes alone.

In a long talk they had with each other, it was agreed that, except in an emergency, he was to be chary of entering into fresh engagements-- this referred in the first place to confinements, of which his book was always full; and secondly, to outlying bush-cases, the journey to and from which wasted many a precious hour. And where it would have been impolitic to refuse a new and influential patient, some one on his list --a doubtful payer or a valetudinarian--was gently to be let drop. And it was Mary who arranged who this should be. Some umbrage was bound to be given in the process; but with her help it was reduced to a minimum. For Mary knew by heart all the links and ramifications of the houses at which he visited; knew precisely who was related to whom, by blood or marriage or business; knew where offence might with safety be risked, and where it would do him harm. She had also a woman's tact in smoothing things over. A born doctor's wife, declared Mahony in grateful acknowledgment. For himself he could not keep such fiddling details in his head for two minutes on end.

But though he thus succeeded in setting bounds to his activity, he still had a great deal too much to do; and, in tired moments, or when tic plagued him, thought the sole way out of the impasse would be to associate some one with him as partner or assistant. And once he was within an ace of doing so, chance throwing what he considered a likely person across his path. In attending a coroner's inquest, he made the acquaintance of a member of the profession who was on his way from the Ovens district--a coach journey of well over two hundred miles--to a place called Walwala, a day's ride to the west of Ballarat. And since this was a pleasant-spoken man and intelligent--though with a somewhat down-at-heel look--besides being a stranger to the town, Mahony impulsively took him home to dinner. In the evening they sat and talked. The visitor, whose name was Wakefield, was considerably Mahony's senior. By his own account he had had but a rough time of it for the past couple of years. A good practice which he had worked up in the seaport of Warrnambool had come to an untimely end. He did not enter into the reasons for this. "I was unfortunate . . . had a piece of ill-luck," was how he referred to it. And knowing how fatally easy was a trip in diagnosis, a slip of the scalpel, Mahony tactfully helped him over the allusion. From Warrnambool Wakefield had gone to the extreme north of the colony; but the eighteen months spent there had nearly been his undoing. Money had not come in badly; but his wife and family had suffered from the great heat, and the scattered nature of the work had worn him to skin and bone. He was now casting about him for a more suitable place. He could not afford to buy a practice, must just creep in where he found a vacancy. And Walwala, where he understood there had never been a resident practitioner, seemed to offer an opening.

Mahony felt genuinely sorry for the man; and after he had gone sat and revolved the idea, in the event of Walwala proving unsuitable, of taking Wakefield on as his assistant. He went to bed full of the scheme and broached it to Mary before they slept. Mary made big eyes to herself as she listened. Like a wise wife, however, she did not press her own views that night, while the idea bubbled hot in him; for, at such times, when some new project seemed to promise the millennium, he stood opposition badly. But she lay awake telling off the reasons she would put before him in the morning; and in the dark allowed herself a tender, tickled little smile at his expense.

"What a man he is for loading himself up with the wrong sort of people!" she reflected. "And then afterwards, he gets tired of them, and impatient with them--as is only natural."

At breakfast she came back on the subject herself. In her opinion, he ought to think the matter over very carefully. Not another doctor on Ballarat had an assistant; and his patients would be sure to resent the novelty. Those who sent for Dr. Mahony would not thank you to be handed over to "goodness knows who."

"Besides, Richard, as things are now, the money wouldn't really be enough, would it? And just as we have begun to be a little easy ourselves--I'm afraid you'd miss many comforts you have got used to again, dear," she wound up, with a mental glance at the fine linen and smooth service Richard loved.

Yes, that was true, admitted Mahony with a sigh; and being this morning in a stale mood, he forthwith knocked flat the card-house it had amused him to build. Himself he had only half believed in it; or believed so long as he refrained from going into prosaic details. There was work for two and money for one--that was the crux of the matter. Successful as the practice was, it still did not throw off a thousand a year. Bad debts ran to a couple of hundred annually; and their improved style of living--the expenses of house and garden, of horses and vehicles, the men-servants, the open house they had to keep--swallowed every penny of the rest. Saving was actually harder than when his income had been but a third of what it was at present. New obligations beset him. For one thing, he had to keep pace with his colleagues; make a show of being just as well-to-do as they. Retrenching was out of the question. His patients would at once imagine that something was wrong--the practice on the downgrade, his skill deserting him--and take their ailments and their fees elsewhere. No, the more one had, the more one was forced to spend; and the few odd hundreds for which Henry Ocock could yearly be counted on came in very handy. As a rule he laid these by for Mary's benefit; for her visits to Melbourne, her bonnets and gowns. It also let her satisfy the needs of her generous little heart in matters of hospitality--well, it was perhaps not fair to lay the whole blame of their incessant and lavish entertaining at her door. He himself knew that it would not do for them to lag a foot behind other people.

Hence the day on which he would be free to dismiss the subject of money from his mind seemed as far off as ever. He might indulge wild schemes of taking assistant or partner; the plain truth was, he could not afford even the sum needed to settle in a LOCUM TENENS for three months, while he recuperated.--Another and equally valid reason was that the right man for a LOCUM was far to seek. As time went on, he found himself pushed more and more into a single branch of medicine--one, too, he had never meant to let grow over his head in this fashion. For it was common medical knowledge out here that, given the distances and the general lack of conveniences, thirty to forty maternity cases per year were as much as a practitioner could with comfort take in hand. HIS books for the past year stood at over a hundred! The nightwork this meant was unbearable, infants showing a perverse disinclination to enter the world except under cover of the dark.

His popularity--if such it could be called--with the other sex was something of a mystery to him. For he had not one manner for the bedside and another for daily life. He never sought to ingratiate himself with people, or to wheedle them; still less would he stoop to bully or intimidate; was always by preference the adviser rather than the dictator. And men did not greatly care for this arm's-length attitude; they wrote him down haughty and indifferent, and pinned their faith to a blunter, homelier manner. But with women it was otherwise; and these also appreciated the fact that, no matter what their rank in life, their age or their looks, he met them with the deference he believed due to their sex. Exceptions there were, of course. Affectation or insincerity angered him--with the "Zaras" of this world he had scant patience-- while among the women themselves, some few--Ned's wife, for example-- felt resentment at his very appearance, his gestures, his tricks of speech. But the majority were his staunch partisans; and it was becoming more and more the custom to engage Dr. Mahony months ahead, thus binding him fast. And though he would sometimes give Mary a fright by vowing that he was going to "throw up mid. and be done with it," yet her ambition--and what an ambitious wife she was, no one but himself knew-- that he should some day become one of the leading specialists on Ballarat, seemed not unlikely of fulfilment. If his health kept good. And . . . and if he could possibly hold out!

For there still came times when he believed that to turn his back for ever, on place and people, would make him the happiest of mortals. For a time this idea had left him in peace. Now it haunted him again. Perhaps, because he had at last grasped the unpalatable truth that it would never be his luck to save: if saving were the only key to freedom, he would still be there, still chained fast, and though he lived to be a hundred. Certain it was, he did not become a better colonist as the years went on. He had learnt to hate the famous climate--the dust and drought and brazen skies; the drenching rains and bottomless mud--to rebel against the interminable hours he was doomed to spend in his buggy. By nature he was a recluse--not an outdoor-man at all. He was tired, too, of the general rampage, the promiscuous connexions and slap-dash familiarity of colonial life; sick to death of the all-absorbing struggle to grow richer than his neighbours. He didn't give a straw for money in itself-- only for what it brought him. And what was the good of that, if he had no leisure to enjoy it? Or was it the truth that he feared being dragged into the vortex? . . . of learning to care, he, too, whether or no his name topped subscription-lists; whether his entertainments were the most sumptuous, his wife the best-dressed woman in her set? Perish the thought!

He did not disquiet Mary by speaking of these things. Still less did he try to explain to her another, more elusive side of the matter. It was this. Did he dig into himself, he saw that his uncongenial surroundings were not alone to blame for his restless state of mind. There was in him a gnawing desire for change as change; a distinct fear of being pinned for too long to the same spot; or, to put it another way, a conviction that to live on without change meant decay. For him, at least. Of course, it was absurd to yield to feelings of this kind; at his age, in his position, with a wife dependent on him. And so he fought them--even while he indulged them. For this was the year in which, casting the question of expense to the winds, he pulled down and rebuilt his house. It came over him one morning on waking that he could not go on in the old one for another day, so cramped was he, so tortured by its lath-and-plaster thinness. He had difficulty in winning Mary over; she was against the outlay, the trouble and confusion involved; and was only reconciled by the more solid comforts and greater conveniences offered her. For the new house was of brick, the first brick house to be built on Ballarat (and oh the joy! said Richard, of walls so thick that you could not hear through them), had an extra-wide verandah which might be curtained in for parties and dances, and a side-entrance for patients, such as Mary had often sighed for.

As a result of the new grandeur, more and more flocked to his door. The present promised to be a record year even in the annals of the Golden City. The completion of the railway-line to Melbourne was the outstanding event. Virtually halving the distance to the metropolis in count of time, it brought a host of fresh people capitalists, speculators, politicians--about the town, and money grew perceptibly easier. Letters came more quickly, too; Melbourne newspapers could be handled almost moist from the press. One no longer had the sense of lying shut off from the world, behind the wall of a tedious coach journey. And the merry Ballaratians, who had never feared or shrunk from the discomforts of this journey, now travelled constantly up and down: attending the Melbourne race-meetings; the Government House balls and lawn-parties; bringing back the gossip of Melbourne, together with its fashions in dress, music and social life.

Mary, in particular, profited by the change; for in one of those "general posts" so frequently played by the colonial cabinet, John Turnham had come out Minister of Railways; and she could have a "free pass" for the asking. John paid numerous visits to his constituency; but he was now such an important personage that his relatives hardly saw him. As likely as not he was the guest of the Henry Ococks in their new mansion, or of the mayor of the borough. In the past two years Mahony had only twice exchanged a word with his brother-in-law.

And then they met again.

In Melbourne, at six o'clock one January morning, the Honourable John, about to enter a saloon-compartment of the Ballarat train, paused, with one foot on the step, and disregarding the polite remarks of the station-master at his heels, screwed up his prominent black eyes against the sun. At the farther end of the train, a tall, thin, fair-whiskered man was peering disconsolately along a row of crowded carriages. "God bless me! isn't that . . . Why, so it is!" And leaving the official standing, John walked smartly down the platform.

"My dear Mahony!--this is indeed a surprise. I had no idea you were in town."

"Why not have let me know you proposed coming?" he inquired as they made their way, the train meanwhile held up on their account, towards John's spacious, reserved saloon.

("What he means is, why I didn't beg a pass of him.") And Mahony, who detested asking favours, laid exaggerated emphasis on his want of knowledge. He had not contemplated the journey till an hour beforehand. Then, the proposed delegate having been suddenly taken ill, he had been urgently requested to represent the Masonic Lodge to which he belonged, at the Installation of a new Grand Master.

"Ah, so you found it possible to get out of harness for once?" said John affably, as they took their seats.

"Yes, by a lucky chance I had no case on hand that could not do without me for twenty-four hours. And my engagement-book I can leave with perfect confidence to my wife."

"Mary is no doubt a very capable woman; I noticed that afresh, when last she was with us," returned John; and went on to tick off Mary's qualities like a connoisseur appraising the points of a horse. "A misfortune that she is not blessed with any family," he added.

Mahony stiffened; and responded dryly: "I'm not sure that I agree with you. With all her energy and spirit Mary is none too strong."

"Well, well! these things are in the hands of Providence; we must take what is sent us." And caressing his bare chin John gave a hearty yawn.

The words flicked Mahony's memory: John had had an addition to his family that winter, in the shape--to the disappointment of all concerned--of a second daughter. He offered belated congratulations. "A regular Turnham this time, according to Mary. But I am sorry to hear Jane has not recovered her strength."

"Oh, Jane is doing very well. But it has been a real disadvantage that she could not nurse. The infant is . . . well, ah . . . perfectly formed, of course, but small--small."

"You must send them both to Mary, to be looked after."

The talk then passed to John's son, now a schoolboy in Geelong; and John admitted that the reports he received of the lad continued as unsatisfactory as ever. "The young rascal has ability, they tell me, but no application." John propounded various theories to account for the boy having turned out poorly, chief among which was that he had been left too long in the hands of women. They had overindulged him. "Mary no more than the rest, my dear fellow," he hastened to smooth Mahony's rising plumes. "It began with his mother in the first place. Yes, poor Emma was weak with the boy--lamentably weak!"

Here, with a disconcerting abruptness, he drew to him a blue linen bag that lay on the seat, and loosening its string took out a sheaf of official papers, in which he was soon engrossed. He had had enough of Mahony's conversation in the meantime, or so it seemed; had thought of something better to do, and did it.

His brother-in-law eyed him as he read. "He's a bad colour. Been living too high, no doubt."

A couple of new books were on the seat by Mahony; but he did not open them. He had a tiring day behind him, and the briefest of nights. Besides attending the masonic ceremony, which had lasted into the small hours, he had undertaken to make various purchases, not the least difficult of which was the buying of a present for Mary--all the little fal-lals that went to finish a lady's ball-dress. Railway-travelling was, too, something of a novelty to him nowadays; and he sat idly watching the landscape unroll, and thinking of nothing in particular. The train was running through mile after mile of flat, treeless country, liberally sprinkled with trapstones and clumps of tussock grass, which at a distance could be mistaken for couched sheep. Here and there stood a solitary she-oak, most doleful of trees, its scraggy, pine-needle foliage bleached to grey. From the several little stations along the line: mere three-sided sheds, which bore a printed invitation to intending passengers to wave a flag or light a lamp, did they wish to board the train: from these shelters long, bare, red roads, straight as ruled lines, ran back into the heart of the burnt-up, faded country. Now and then a moving ruddy cloud on one of them told of some vehicle crawling its laborious way.

When John, his memoranda digested, looked up ready to resume their talk, he found that Mahony was fast asleep; and, since his first words, loudly uttered, did not rouse him, he took out his case, chose a cigar, beheaded it and puffed it alight.

While he smoked, he studied his insensible relative. Mahony was sitting uncomfortably hunched up; his head had fallen forward and to the side, his mouth was open, his gloved hands lay limp on his knee.

"H'm!" said John to himself as he gazed. And: "H'm," he repeated after an interval.--Then pulling down his waistcoat and generally giving himself a shake to rights, he reflected that, for his own two-and-forty years, he was a very well preserved man indeed.