Australia Felix/Part II/Chapter II

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But his first treatment of Purdy's wound was also his last. Two nights later he found the hut deserted; and diligently as he prowled round it in the moonlight, he could discover no clue to the fate of its occupants. There was nothing to be done but to head his horse for home again. Polly was more fortunate. Within three days of the fight Ned turned up, sound as a bell. He was sporting a new hat, a flashy silk neckerchief and a silver watch and chain. At sight of these kickshaws a dismal suspicion entered Mahony's mind, and refused to be dislodged. But he did not breathe his doubts--for Polly's sake. Polly was rapturously content to see her brother again. She threw her arms round his neck, and listened, with her big, black, innocent eyes--except for their fleckless candour, the counterpart of Ned's own--to the tale of his miraculous escape, and of the rich gutter he had had the good luck to strike.

Meanwhile public feeling, exasperated beyond measure by the tragedy of that summer dawn, slowly subsided. Hesitation, timidity, and a very human waiting on success had held many diggers back from joining in the final coup; but the sympathy of the community was with the rebels, and at the funerals of the fallen, hundreds of mourners, in such black coats as they could muster, marched side by side to the wild little unfenced bush cemetery. When, too, the relief-party arrived from Melbourne and martial law was proclaimed, the residents handed over their firearms as ordered; but an attempt to swear in special constables failed, not a soul stepping forward in support of the government.

There was literally nothing doing during the month the military occupied Ballarat. Mahony seized the opportunity to give his back premises a coat of paint; he also began to catalogue his collection of Lepidoptera. Hence, as far as business was concerned, it was a timely moment for the arrival of a letter from Henry Ocock, to the effect that, "subject of course to any part-heard case," "our case" was first on the list for a date early in January.

None the less, the announcement threw Mahony into the fidgets. He had almost clean forgotten the plaguey affair: it had its roots in the dark days before his marriage. He wished now he had thought twice before letting himself be entangled in a lawsuit. Now, he had a wife dependent on him, and to lose the case, and be held responsible for costs, would cripple him. And such a verdict was not at all unlikely; for Purdy, his chief witness, could not be got at: the Lord alone knew where Purdy lay hid. He at once sat down and wrote the bad news to his solicitor.

At six o'clock in the morning some few days later, he took his seat in the coach for Melbourne. By his side sat Johnny Ocock, the elder of the two brothers. Johnny had by chance been within earshot during the negotiations with the rascally carrier, and on learning this, Henry had straightway subpoenaed him. Mahony was none too well pleased: the boy threatened to be a handful. His old father, on delivering him up at the coach-office, had drawn Mahony aside to whisper: "Don't let the young limb out o' yer sight, doc., or get nip or sip o' liquor. If 'e so much as wets 'is tongue, there's no 'olding 'im." Johnny was a lean, pimply-faced youth, with cold, flabby hands.

Little Polly had to stay behind. Mahony would have liked to give her the trip and show her the sights of the capital; but the law-courts were no place for a woman; neither could he leave her sitting alone in a hotel. And a tentative letter to her brother John had not called forth an invitation: Mrs. Emma was in delicate health at present, and had no mind for visitors. So he committed Polly to the care of Hempel and Long Jim, both of whom were her faithful henchmen. She herself, in proper wifely fashion, proposed to give her little house a good red-up in its master's absence.

Mahony and Johnny dismounted from the coach in the early afternoon, sore, stiff and hungry: they had broken their fast merely on half-a-dozen sandwiches, keeping their seats the while that the young toper might be spared the sight of intoxicating liquors. Now, stopping only to brush off the top layer of dust and snatch a bite of solid food, Mahony hastened away, his witness at heel, to Chancery Lane.

It was a relief to find that Ocock was not greatly put out at Purdy having failed them. "Leave it to us, sir. We'll make that all right." As on the previous visit he dry-washed his hands while he spoke, and his little eyes shot flashes from one to the other, like electric sparks. He proposed just to run through the morrow's evidence with "our young friend there"; and in the course of this rehearsal said more than once: "Good . . . good! Why, sonny, you're quite smart." This when Johnny succeeded in grasping his drift. But at the least hint of unreadiness or hesitation, he tut-tutted and drew his brows together. And as it went on, it seemed to Mahony that Ocock was putting words into the boy's mouth; while Johnny, intimidated, said yes and amen to things he could not possibly know. Presently he interfered to this effect. Ocock brushed his remark aside. But after a second interruption from Mahony: "I think, sir, with your permission we will ask John not to depart from what he actually heard," the lawyer shuffled his papers into a heap and said that would do for to-day: they would meet at the court in the morning. Prior to shaking hands, however, he threw out a hint that he would like a word with his brother on family matters. And for half an hour Mahony paced the street below.

The remainder of the day was spent in keeping Johnny out of temptation's way, in trying to interest him in the life of the city, its monuments and curiosities. But the lad was too apathetic to look about him, and never opened his mouth. Once only in the course of the afternoon did he offer a kind of handle. In their peregrinations they passed a Book Arcade, where Mahony stopped to turn the leaves of a volume. Johnny also took up a book, and began to read.

"What is it?" asked Mahony. "Would you like to have it, my boy?"

Johnny stonily accepted the gift--it was a tale of Red Indians, the pages smudged with gaudy illustrations--and put it under his arm.

At the good supper that was set before him he picked with a meagre zest; then fell asleep. Mahony took the opportunity to write a line to Polly to tell of their safe arrival; and having sealed the letter, ran out to post it. He was not away for more than three minutes, but when he came back Johnny was gone. He hunted high and low for him, ransacked the place without success: the boy had spoken to no one, nor had he been seen to leave the coffee-room; and as the clock-hands were nearing twelve, Mahony was obliged to give up the search and go back to the hotel. It was impossible at that hour to let Ocock know of this fresh piece of ill-luck. Besides, there was just a chance the young scamp would turn up in the morning. Morning came, however, and no Johnny with it. Outwitted and chagrined, Mahony set off for the court alone.

Day had broken dim and misty, and by the time breakfast was over a north wind was raging--a furnace-like blast that bore off the sandy deserts of the interior. The sun was a yellow blotch in a copper sky; the thermometer had leapt to a hundred and ten in the shade. Blinding clouds of coarse, gritty dust swept house-high through the streets: half-suffocated, Mahony fought his way along, his veil lowered, his handkerchief at his mouth. Outside those public-houses that advertised ice, crowds stood waiting their turn of entry; while half-naked barmen, their linen trousers drenched with sweat, worked like niggers to mix drinks which should quench these bottomless thirsts. Mahony believed he was the only perfectly sober person in the lobby of the court. Even Ocock himself would seem to have been indulging.

This suspicion was confirmed by the lawyer's behaviour. No sooner did Ocock espy him than up he rushed, brandishing the note that had been got to him early that morning--and now his eyes looked like little dabs of pitch in his chalk-white face, and his manner, stripped of its veneer, let the real man show through.

"Curse it, sir, and what's the meaning of this, I'd like to know?" he cried, and struck at the sheet of notepaper with his free hand. "A pretty fix to put us in at the last minute, upon my word! It was your business, sir, to nurse your witness . . . after all the trouble I'd been to with him! What the devil do you expect us to do now?"

Mahony's face paled under its top-dressing of dust and moisture. To Ocock's gross: "Well, it's your own look-out, confound you!--entirely your own look-out," he returned a cool: "Certainly," then moved to one side and took up his stand in a corner of the hall, out of the way of the jostle and bustle, the constant going and coming that gave the hinges of the door no rest.

When after a weary wait the time came to enter court, he continued to give Ocock, who had been deep in consultation with his clerk, a wide berth, and moved forward among a number of other people. A dark, ladder-like stair led to the upper storey. While he was mounting this, some words exchanged in a low tone behind him arrested his attention.

"Are you O.K., old man?"

"We are, if our client doesn't give us away. But he has to be handled like a hot--" Here the sentence snapped, for Mahony, bitten by a sudden doubt, faced sharply round. But it was a stranger who uncivilly accused him of treading on his toe.

The court--it was not much more than twenty feet square--was like an ill-smelling oven. Every chink and crack had been stopped against the searing wind; and the atmosphere was a brew of all the sour odours, the offensive breaths, given off by the two-score odd people crushed within its walls. In spite of precautions the dust had got in: it lay thick on sills, desks and papers, gritted between the teeth, made the throat raspy as a file.

Mahony had given up all hope of winning his case, and looked forward to the sorry pleasure of assisting at a miscarriage of justice. During the speech for the plaintiff, however, he began to see the matter in another light. Not so much thanks to the speaker, as in spite of him. Plaintiff's counsel was a common little fellow of ungainly appearance: a double toll of fat bulged over the neck of his gown, and his wig, hastily re-donned after a breathing-space, sat askew. Nor was he anything of an orator: he stumbled over his sentences, and once or twice lost his place altogether. To his dry presentment of the case nobody seemed to pay heed. The judge, tired of wiping his spectacles dry, leant back and closed his eyes. Mahony believed he slept, as did also some of the jurors, deaf to the Citation of Dawes V. Peck and Dunlop V. Lambert; to the assertion that the carrier was the agent, the goods were accepted, the property had "passed." This "passing" of the property was evidently a strong point; the plaintiff's name itself was not much oftener on the speaker's lips. "The absconding driver, me Lud, was a personal friend of the defendant's. Mr. Bolliver never knew him; hence could not engage him. Had this person not been thrust upon him, Mr. Bolliver would have employed the same carrier as on a previous occasion." And so on and on.

Mahony listened hand at ear, that organ not being keyed up to the mutterings and mumblings of justice. And for all the dullness of the subject-matter and counsel's lack of eloquence his interest did not flag. It was the first time he heard the case for the other side stated plainly; and he was dismayed to find how convincing it was. Put thus, it must surely gain over every honest, straight-thinking man. In comparison, the points Ocock was going to advance shrank to mere legal quibbles and hair-splitting evasions.

Then the plaintiff himself went into the witness-box--and Mahony's feelings became involved as well. This his adversary!--this poor old mangy greybeard, who stood blinking a pair of rheumy eyes and weakly smiling. One did not pit oneself against such human flotsam. Drunkard was stamped on every inch of the man, but this morning, in odd exception to the well-primed crew around him, he was sober--bewilderedly sober-- and his shabby clothing was brushed, his frayed collar clean. Recognising the pitiful bid for sympathy, Mahony caught himself thinking: "Good Lord! I could have supplied him with a coat he'd have cut a better figure than that in."

Bolliver clutched the edge of the box with his two hands. His unusual condition was a hindrance rather than a help to him; without a peg or two his woolly thoughts were not to be disentangled. He stammered forth his evidence, halting either to piece together what he was going to say, or to recollect what he had just said--it was clear he went in mortal fear of contradicting himself. The scene was painful enough while he faced his own counsel, but, when counsel for the defence rose, a half-hour followed in which Mahony wished himself far from the court.

Bolliver could not come to the point. Counsel was merciless and coarsely jocose, and brought off several laughs. His victim wound his knotty hands in and out, and swallowed oftener than he had saliva for, in a forlorn endeavour to evade the pitfalls artfully dug for him. More than once he threw a covert glance, that was like an appeal for help, at all the indifferent faces. Mahony drooped his head, that their eyes should not meet.

In high feather at the effect he was producing, counsel inserted his left arm under his gown, and held the stuff out from his back with the tips of all five fingers.

"And now you'll p'raps have the goodness to tell us whether you've ever had occasion to send goods by a carrier before, in the course of your young life?"

"Yes." It was a humble monosyllable, returned without spirit.

"Then of course you've heard of this Murphy?"

"N . . . no, I haven't," answered Bolliver, and let his vacillating eyes wander to the judge and back.

"You tell that to the marines!" And after half a dozen other tricky questions: "I put it to you, it's a well-known fact that he's been a carrier hereabouts for the last couple o' years or more?"

"I don't know--I sup . . . sup-pose so." Bolliver's tongue grew heavy and tripped up his words.

"And yet you've the cheek, you old rogue you, to insinuate that this was a put-up job?"

"I . . . I only say what I heard."

"I don't care a button what you heard or didn't hear. What I ask, my pretty, is do you yourself say so?"

"The . . . the defendant recommended him."

"I put it to you, this man Murphy was one of the best known carriers in Melbourne, and THAT was why the defendant recommended him--are you out to deny it?"

"N . . . n . . . no."

"Then you can stand down!" and leaning over to Grindle, who was below him, counsel whispered with a pleased spread of the hand: "There you are! that's our case."

There was a painful moment just before Bolliver left the witness-box. As if become suddenly alive to the sorry figure he had cut, he turned to the judge with hands clasped, exclaimed: "My Lord, if the case goes against me, I'm done . . . stony-broke! And the defendant's got a down on me, my Lord--'e's made up his mind to ruin me. Look at him a-setting there--a hard man, a mean man, if ever you saw one! What would the bit of money 'ave meant to 'im? But . . ."

He was rudely silenced and hustled away, to a sharp rebuke from the judge, who woke up to give it. All eyes were turned on Mahony. Under the fire of observation--they were comparing him, he knew, with the poor old Jeremy Diddler yonder, to the latter's disadvantage--his spine stiffened and he held himself nervously erect. But, the quizzing at an end, he fumbled with his finger at his neck--his collar seemed to have grown too tight. While, without, the hot blast, dark with dust, flung itself against the corners of the house, and howled like a soul in pain.

Counsel for the defence made an excellent impression. "Naturally! I can afford to pay a better-class man," was Mahony's caustic note. He had fallen to scribbling on a sheet of paper, and was resigned to sitting through an adept presentment of Ocock's shifts and dodges. But the opening words made him prick up his ears.

"My Lord," said counsel, "I submit there is here no case to go to the jury. No written contract existed between the parties, to bring it within the Statute of Frauds. Therefore, the plaintiff must prove that the defendant accepted these goods. Now I submit to you, on the plaintiff's own admission, that the man Murphy was a common carrier. Your Lordship will know the cases of Hanson V. Armitage and various others, in which it has been established beyond doubt that a carrier is not an agent to accept goods."

The judge had revived, and while counsel called the quality of the undelivered goods in question, and laid stress on the fact of no money having passed, he turned the pages of a thick red book with a moistened thumb. Having found what he sought, he pushed up his spectacles, opened his mouth, and, his eyes bent meditatively on the speaker, picked a back tooth with the nail of his first finger.

"Therefore," concluded counsel, "I hold that there is no question of fact to go to the jury. I do not wish to occupy your Lordship's time any further upon this submission. I have my client here, and all his witnesses are in court whom I am prepared to call, should your Lordship decide against me on the present point. But I do submit that the plaintiff, on his own showing, has made out no case; and that under the circumstances, upon his own evidence, this action must fail."

At the reference to witnesses, Mahony dug his pencil into the paper till the point snapped. So this was their little game! And should the bluff not work . . .? He sat rigid, staring at the chipped fragment of lead, and did not look up throughout the concluding scene of the farce.

It was over; the judge had decided in his favour. He jumped to his feet, and his coat-sleeve swept the dust off the entire length of the ledge in front of him. But before he reached the foot of the stairs Grindle came flying down, to say that Ocock wished to speak to him. Very good, replied Mahony, he would call at the office in the course of the afternoon. But the clerk left the courthouse at his side. And suddenly the thought flashed through Mahony's mind: "The fellow suspects me of trying to do a bolt--of wanting to make off without paying my bill!"

The leech-like fashion in which Grindle stuck to his heels was not to be misread. "This is what they call nursing, I suppose--he's nursing ME now!" said Mahony to himself. At the same time he reckoned up, with some anxiety, the money he had in his pocket. Should it prove insufficient, who knew what further affronts were in store for him.

But Ocock had recovered his oily sleekness.

"A close shave that, sir, a VE-RY close shave! With Warnock on the bench I thought we could manage to pull it off. Had it been Guppy now . . . Still, all's well that ends well, as the poet says. And now for a trifling matter of business."

"How much do I owe you?"

The bill--it was already drawn up--for "solicitor's and client's costs" came to twenty odd pounds. Mahony paid it, and stalked out of the office.

But this was still not all. Once again Grindle ran after him, and pinned him to the floor.

"I say, Mr. Mahony, a rare joke--gad, it's enough to make you burst your sides! That old thingumbob, the plaintiff, ye know, now what'n earth d'you think 'e's been an' done? Gets outer court like one o'clock --'e'd a sorter rabbit-fancyin' business in 'is backyard. Well, 'ome 'e trots an' slits the guts of every blamed bunny, an' chucks the bloody corpses inter the street. Oh lor! What do you say to that, eh? Unfurnished in the upper storey, what? Heh, heh, heh!"