Australia Felix/Part IV/Chapter VIII

From Wikisource
Jump to: navigation, search
Australia Felix by Henry Handel Richardson
Part IV, Chapter VIII

Old Ocock failed in health that winter. He was really old now, was two or three and sixty; and, with the oncoming of the rains and cold, gusty winds, various infirmities began to plague him.

"He's done himself rather too well since his marriage," said Mahony in private. "After being a worker for the greater part of his life, it would have been better for him to work on to the end."

Yes, that, Mary could understand and agree with. But Richard continued: "All it means, of course, is that the poor fellow is beginning to prepare for his last long journey. These aches and pains of his represent the packing and the strapping without which not even a short earthly journey can be undertaken. And his is into eternity."

Mary, making lace over a pillow, looked up at this, a trifle apprehensively. "What things you do say! If any one heard you, they'd think you weren't very. . . very religious." Her fear lest Richard's outspokenness should be mistaken for impiety never left her.

Tilly was plain and to the point. "Like a bear with a sore back that's what 'e is, since 'e can't get down among his blessed birds. He leads Tom the life of the condemned, over the feeding of those bantams. As if the boy could help 'em not laying when they ought!"

At thirty-six Tilly was the image of her mother. Entirely gone was the slight crust of acerbity that had threatened her in her maiden days, when, thanks to her misplaced affections, it had seemed for a time as if the purple prizes of life--love, offers of marriage, a home of her own --were going to pass her by. She was now a stout, high-coloured woman with a roar of a laugh, full, yet firm lips, and the whitest of teeth. Mary thought her decidedly toned down and improved since her marriage; but Mahony put it that the means Tilly now had at her disposal were such as to make people shut an eye to her want of refinement. However that might be, "old Mrs. Ocock" was welcomed everywhere--even by those on whom her bouncing manners grated. She was invariably clad in a thick and handsome black silk gown, over which she wore all the jewellery she could crowd on her person--huge cameo brooches, ear-drops, rings and bracelets, lockets and chains. Her name topped subscription-lists, and, having early weaned her old husband of his dissenting habits, she was a real prop to Archdeacon Long and his church, taking the chief and most expensive table at tea-meetings, the most thankless stall at bazaars. She kept open house, too, and gave delightful parties, where, while some sat at loo, others were free to turn the rooms upside-down for a dance, or to ransack wardrobes and presses for costumes for charades. She drove herself and her friends about in various vehicles, briskly and well, and indulged besides in many secret charities. Her husband thought no such woman had ever trodden the earth, and publicly blessed the day on which he first set eyes on her.

"After the dose I'd 'ad with me first, 'twas a bit of a risk, that I knew. And it put me off me sleep for a night or two before'and. But my Tilly's the queen o' women--I say the queen, sir! I've never 'ad a wrong word from 'er, an' when I go she gits every penny I've got. Why, I'm jiggered if she didn't stop at 'ome from the Races t'other day, an' all on my account!"

"Now then, pa, drop it. Or the doctor'll think you've been mixing your liquors. Give your old pin here and let me poultice it."

He had another sound reason for gratitude. Somewhere in the background of his house dwelt his two ne'er-do-well sons; Tilly had accepted their presence uncomplainingly. Indeed she sometimes stood up for Tom, against his father. "Now, pa, stop nagging at the boy, will you? You'll never get anything out of 'im that way. Tom's right enough if you know how to take him. He'll never set the Thames on fire, if that's what you mean. But I'm thankful, I can tell you, to have a handy chap like him at my back. If I 'ad to depend on your silly old paws, I'd never get anything done at all."

And so Tom, a flaxen-haired, sheepish-looking man of something over thirty, led a kind of go-as-you-please existence about the place, a jack-of-all-trades--in turn carpenter, whitewasher, paper-hanger--an expert fetcher and carrier, bullied by his father, sheltered under his stepmother's capacious wing. "It isn't his fault 'e's never come to anything. 'E hadn't half a chance. The truth is, Mary, for all they say to the opposite, men are harder than women--so unforgiving-like. Just because Tom made a slip once, they've never let 'im forget it, but tied it to 'is coat-tails for 'im to drag with 'im through life. Littleminded I call it.--Besides, if you ask me, my dear, it must have been a case of six of one and half a dozen of the other. Tom as sedoocer!--can you picture it, Mary? It's enough to make one split." And with a meaning glance at her friend, Tilly broke out in a contagious peal of laughter.

As for Johnny--well . . . and she shrugged her shoulders. "A bad egg's bad, Mary, and no amount o' cooking and doctoring 'll sweeten it. But he didn't make 'imself, did 'e?--and my opinion is, parents should look to themselves a bit more than they do."

As she spoke, she threw open the door of the little room where Johnny housed. It was an odd place. The walls were plastered over with newspaper-cuttings, with old prints from illustrated journals, with snippets torn off valentines and keepsakes. Stuck one on another, these formed a kind of loose wallpaper, which stirred in the draught. Tilly went on: "I see myself to it being kept cleanish; 'e hates the girl to come bothering round. Oh, just Johnny's rubbish!" For Mary had stooped curiously to the table which was littered with a queer collection of objects: matchboxes on wheels; empty reels of cotton threaded on strings; bits of wood shaped in rounds and squares; boxes made of paper; dried seaweed glued in patterns on strips of cardboard. "He's for ever pottering about with 'em. What amusement 'e gets out of it, only the Lord can tell."

She did not mention the fact, known to Mary, that when Johnny had a drinking-bout it was she who looked after him, got him comfortably to bed, and made shift to keep the noise from his father's ears. Yes, Tilly's charity seemed sheerly inexhaustible.

Again, there was the case of Jinny's children.

For in this particular winter Tilly had exchanged her black silk for a stuff gown, heavily trimmed with crepe. She was in mourning for poor Jinny, who had died not long after giving birth to a third daughter.

"Died OF the daughter, in more senses than one," was Tilly's verdict.

John had certainly been extremely put out at the advent of yet another girl; and the probability was that Jinny had taken his reproaches too much to heart. However it was, she could not rally; and one day Mary received a telegram saying that if she wished to see Jinny alive, she must come at once. No mention was made of Tilly, but Mary ran to her with the news, and Tilly declared her intention of going, too. "I suppose I may be allowed to say good-bye to my own sister, even though I'm not a Honourable?"

"Not that Jinn and I ever really drew together," she continued as the train bore them over the ranges. "She'd too much of poor pa in 'er. And I was all ma. Hard luck that it must just be her who managed to get such a domineering brute for a husband. You'll excuse me, Mary, won't you?-- a domineering brute!"

"And to think I once envied her the match!" she went on meditatively, removing her bonnet and substituting a kind of nightcap intended to keep her hair free from dust. "Lauks, Mary, it's a good thing fate doesn't always take us at our word. We don't know which side our bread's buttered on, and that's the truth. Why, my dear, I wouldn't exchange my old boy for all the Honourables in creation!"

They were in time to take leave of Jinny lying white as her pillows behind the red rep hangings of the bed. The bony parts of her face had sprung into prominence, her large soft eyes fallen in. John, stalking solemnly and noiselessly in a long black coat, himself led the two women to the bedroom, where he left them; they sat down one on each side of the great fourposter. Jinny hardly glanced at her sister: it was Mary she wanted, Mary's hand she fumbled for while she told her trouble. "It's the children, Mary," she whispered. "I can't die happy because of the children. John doesn't understand them." Jinny's whole existence was bound up in the three little ones she had brought into the world.

"Dearest Jinny, don't fret. I'll look after them for you, and take care of them," promised Mary wiping away her tears.

"I thought so," said the dying woman, relieved, but without gratitude: it seemed but natural to her, who was called upon to give up everything, that those remaining should make sacrifices. Her fingers plucked at the sheet. "John's been good to me," she went on, with closed eyes. "But. . . if it 'adn't been for the children . . . yes, the children.... I think I'd 'a' done better--" her speech lapsed oddly, after her years of patient practice--"to 'ave taken . . . to 'a' taken"--the name remained unspoken.

Tilly raised astonished eyebrows at Mary. "Wandering!" she telegraphed in lip-language, forming the word very largely and distinctly; for neither knew of Jinny having had any but her one glorious chance.

Tilly's big heart yearned over her sister's forlorn little ones; they could be heard bleating like lambs for the mother to whom till now they had never cried in vain. Her instant idea was to gather all three up in her arms and carry them off to her own roomy, childless home, where she would have given them a delightful, though not maybe a particularly discriminating upbringing. But the funeral over, the blinds raised, the two ladies and the elder babes clad in the stiff, expensive mourning that befitted the widower's social position, John put his foot down: and to Mary was extremely explicit: "Under no circumstances will I permit Matilda to have anything to do with the rearing of my children excellent creature though she be!"

On the other hand, he would not have been unwilling for Mary to mother them. This, of course, was out of the question: Richard had accustomed himself to Trotty, but would thank you, she knew, for any fresh encroachment on his privacy. Before leaving, however, she promised to sound him on the plan of placing Trotty as a weekly boarder at a Young Ladies' Seminary, and taking the infant in her place. For it came out that John intended to set Zara--Zara, but newly returned from a second voyage to England and still sipping like a bee at the sweets of various situations--at the head of his house once more. And Mary could not imagine Zara rearing a baby.

Equally hard was it to understand John not having learnt wisdom from his two previous failures to live with his sister. But, in seeking tactfully to revive his memory, she ran up against such an ingrained belief in the superiority of his own kith and kin that she was baffled, and could only fold her hands and hope for the best.

"Besides, Jane's children are infinitely more tractable than poor Emma's," was John's parting shot.--Strange, thought Mary, how attached John was to his second family.

He had still another request to make of her. The reports he received of the boy Johnny, now a pupil at the Geelong Grammar School, grew worse from term to term. It had become clear to him that he was unfortunate enough to possess an out-and-out dullard for a son. Regretfully giving up, therefore, the design he had cherished of educating Johnny for the law, he had resolved to waste no more good money on the boy, but to take him, once he was turned fifteen, into his own business. Young John, however, had proved refractory, expressing a violent antipathy to the idea of office-life. "It is here that I should be glad of another opinion--and I turn to you, Mary, my dear. Jane was of no use whatever in such matters, none whatever, being, and very properly so, entirely wrapped up in her own children." So Mary arranged to break her homeward journey at Geelong, for the purpose of seeing and summing up her nephew.

Johnny--he was Jack at school, but that, of course, his tomfools of relations couldn't be expected to remember--Johnny was waiting on the platform when the train steamed in. "Oh, what a bonny boy!" said Mary to herself. "All poor Emma's good looks."

Johnny had been kicking his heels disconsolately: another of these wretched old women coming down to jaw him! He wished every one of them at the bottom of the sea. However he pulled himself together and went forward to greet his aunt: he was not in the least bashful. And as they left the station he took stock of her, out of the tail of his eye. With a growing approval: this one at any rate he needn't feel ashamed of; and she was not so dreadfully old after all. Perhaps she mightn't turn out quite such a wet blanket as the rest; though, from experience, he couldn't connect any pleasure with relatives' visits: they were nasty pills that had to be swallowed. He feared and disliked his father; Aunt Zara had been sheerly ridiculous, with her frills and simpers--the boys had imitated her for weeks after--and once, most shameful of all, his stepmother had come down and publicly wept over him. His cheeks still burnt at the remembrance; and he had been glad to hear that she was dead: served her jolly well right! But this Aunt Mary seemed a horse of another colour; and he did not sneak her into town by a back way, as he had planned to do before seeing her.

Greatly as Mary might admire the tall fair lad by her side, she found herself at a loss how to deal with him, the mind of a schoolboy of thirteen being a closed book to her. Johnny looked demure and answered "Yes, Aunt Mary," to everything she said; but this was of small assistance in getting at the real boy inside.

Johnny had no intention, in the beginning, of taking her into his often-betrayed and badly bruised confidence. However a happy instinct led her to suggest a visit to a shop that sold brandy-snaps and gingerbeer; and this was too much for his strength of mind. Golly, didn't he have a tuck-in! And a whole pound of bull's-eyes to take back with him to school!

It was over the snaps, with an earth-brown moustache drawn round his fresh young mouth, the underlip of which swelled like a ripe cherry, that he blurted out: "I say, Aunt Mary, DON'T let the pater stick me in that beastly old office of his. I . . . I want to go to sea."

"Oh, but Johnny! Your father would never consent to that, I'm sure."

"I don't see why not," returned the boy in an aggrieved voice. "I hate figures and father knows it. I tell you I mean to go to sea." And as he said it his lip shot out, and suddenly, for all his limpid blue eyes and flaxen hair, it was his father's face that confronted Mary.

"He wouldn't think it respectable enough, dear. He wants you to rise higher in the world, and to make money. You must remember who he is."

"Bosh!" said Johnny. "Look at Uncle Ned . . . and Uncle Jerry . . . and the governor himself. He didn't have to sit in a beastly old hole of an office when he was my age."

"That was quite different," said Mary weakly. "And as for your Uncle Jerry, Johnny--why, afterwards he was as glad as could be to get into an office at all."

"Well, I'd sooner be hanged!" retorted young John. But the next minute flinging away dull care, he inquired briskly: "Can you play tipcat, Aunt Mary?" And vanquished by her air of kindly interest, he gave her his supreme confidence. "I say, don't peach, will you, but I've got a white rat. I keep it in a locker under my bed."

A NICE FRANK HANDSOME BOY, wrote Mary. DON'T BE TOO HARD ON HIM, JOHN. HIS GREAT WISH IS TO TRAVEL AND SEE THE WORLD--OR AS HE PUTS IT, TO GO TO SEA. MIGHTN'T IT BE A GOOD THING TO HUMOUR HIM IN THIS? A TASTE OF THE HARDSHIPS OF LIFE WOULD SOON CURE HIM OF ANY SUCH FANCIES.

"Stuff and nonsense!" said John the father, and threw the letter from him. "I didn't send Mary there to let the young devil get round her like that." And thereupon he wrote to the Headmaster that the screw was to be applied to Johnny as never before. This was his last chance. If it failed, and his next report showed no improvement, he would be taken away without further ado and planked down under his father's nose. No son of his should go to sea, he was damned if they should! For, like many another who has yielded to the wandering passion in his youth, John had small mercy on it when it reared its head in his descendants.