Australia Felix/Part II/Chapter VIII

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Two months passed before Mahony could help Polly and Mrs. Beamish into the coach bound for Geelong.

It had been touch and go with Polly; and for weeks her condition had kept him anxious. With the inset of the second month, however, she seemed fairly to turn the corner, and from then on made a steady recovery, thanks to her youth and an unimpaired vitality.

He had hurried the little cradle out of sight. But Polly was quick to miss it, and quite approved of its having been given to a needy expectant mother near by. Altogether she bore the thwarting of her hopes bravely.

"Poor little baby, I should have been very fond of it," was all she said, when she was well enough to fold and pack away the tiny garments at which she had stitched with such pleasure.

It was not to Mahony's mind that she returned with Mrs. Beamish--but what else could be done? After lying a prisoner through the hot summer, she was sadly in need of a change. And Mrs. Beamish promised her a diet of unlimited milk and eggs, as well as the do nothing life that befitted an invalid. Just before they left, a letter arrived from John demanding the keys of his house, and proposing that Polly should come to town to set it in order for him, and help him to engage a housekeeper. A niggardly--a truly "John-ish"--fashion of giving an invitation, thought Mahony, and was not for his wife accepting it. But Polly was so pleased at the prospect of seeing her brother that he ended by agreeing to her going on to Melbourne as soon as she had thoroughly recuperated.

Peace between him and Mrs. Beamish was dearly bought up to the last; they barely avoided a final explosion. At the beginning of her third month's absence from home the good woman grew very restive, and sighed aloud for the day on which she would be able to take her departure.

"I expec' my bein' away like this'll run clean into a fifty-poun' note," she said one evening. "When it comes to managin' an 'ouse, those two girls of mine 'aven't a h'ounce o' gumption between them."

It WAS tactless of her, even Polly felt that; though she could sympathise with the worry that prompted the words. As for Mahony, had he had the money to do it, he would have flung the sum named straight at her head.

"She must never come again," said Polly to herself, as she bent over the hair-chain she was making as a gift for John. "It is a pity, but it seems as if Richard can't get on with those sort of people."

In his relief at having his house to himself, Mahony accepted even Polly's absence with composure. To be perpetually in the company of other people irked him beyond belief. A certain amount of privacy was as vital to him as sleep.

Delighting in his new-found solitude, he put off from day to day the disagreeable job of winding up his affairs and discovering how much--or how little--ready money there would be to set sail with. Another thing, some books he had sent home for, a year or more ago, came to hand at this time, and gave him a fresh pretext for delay. There were eight or nine volumes to unpack and cut the pages of. He ran from one to another, sipping, devouring. Finally he cast anchor in a collected edition of his old chief's writings on obstetrics--slipped in, this, as a gift from the sender, a college chum--and over it, his feet on the table, his dead pipe in the corner of his mouth, Mahony sat for the better part of the night.

The effect of this master-mind on his was that of a spark on tinder. Under the flash, he cursed for the hundredth time the folly he had been guilty of in throwing up medicine. It was a vocation that had fitted him as coursing fits a hound, or house-wifery a woman. The only excuse he could find for his apostasy was that he had been caught in an epidemic of unrest, which had swept through the country, upsetting the balance of men's reason. He had since wondered if the Great Exhibition of '51 had not had something to do with it, by unduly whetting people's imaginations; so that but a single cry of "Gold!" was needed, to loose the spirit of vagrancy that lurks in every Briton's blood. His case had perhaps been peculiar in this: no one had come forward to warn or dissuade. His next relatives--mother and sisters--were, he thought, glad to know him well away. In their eyes he had lowered himself by taking up medicine; to them it was still of a piece with barber's pole and cupping-basin. Before his time no member of the family had entered any profession but the army. Oh, that infernal Irish pride! . . . and Irish poverty. It had choke-damped his youth, blighted the prospects of his sisters. He could remember, as if it were yesterday, the jibes and fleers called forth by the suit of a wealthy Dublin brewer, who had been attracted--by sheer force of contrast, no doubt--to the elder of the two swan-necked, stiff-backed Miss Townshend-Mahonys, with their long, thin noses, and the ingrained lines that ran from the curled nostrils to the corners of their supercilious mouths, describing a sneer so deep that at a distance it was possible to mistake it for a smile. "Beer, my dear, indeed and there are worse things in the world than beer!" he heard his mother declare in her biting way. "By all means take him! You can wash yourself in it if water gets scarce, and I'll place my kitchen orders with you." Lucinda, who had perhaps sniffed timidly at release, burnt crimson: thank you! she would rather eat rat-bane.--He supposed they pinched and scraped along as of old--the question of money was never broached between him and them. Prior to his marriage he had sent them what he could; but that little was in itself an admission of failure. They made no inquiries about his mode of life, preferring it to remain in shadow; enough for them that he had not amassed a fortune. Had that come to pass, they might have pardoned the rude method of its making--in fancy he listened to the witty, cutting, self-derisive words, in which they would have alluded to his success.

Lying back in his chair he thought of them thus, without unkindliness, even with a dash of humour. That was possible, now that knocking about the world had rubbed off some of his own corners. In his young days, he, too, had been hot and bitter. What, however, to another might have formed the chief crux in their conduct--it was by squandering such money as there was, his own portion among it, on his scamp of an elder brother, that they had forced him into the calling they despised--this had not troubled him greatly. For medicine was the profession on which his choice would anyhow have fallen. And to-night the book that lay before him had infected him with the old enthusiasm. He re-lived those days when a skilfully handled case of PLACENTA PREVIA, or a successful delivery in the fourth position, had meant more to him than the Charge of the Light Brigade.

Fresh from this dip into the past, this foretaste of the future, he turned in good heart to business. An inventory had to be taken; damaged goods cleared out; a list of bad and less bad debts drawn up: he and Hempel were hard at work all next day. The result was worse even than he had expected. His outlay that summer--ever since the day on which he had set off to the aid of his bereaved relative--had been enormous. Trade had run dry, and throughout Polly's long illness he had dipped blindly into his savings. He could never have said no to Mrs. Beamish when she came to him for money--rather would he have pawned the coat off his back. And she, good woman, was unused to cheeseparing. His men's wages paid, berths booked, the numerous expenses bound up with a departure defrayed, he would have but a scanty sum in hand with which to start on the other side.

For himself he was not afraid; but he shrank from the thought of Polly undergoing privations. So far, they had enjoyed a kind of frugal comfort. But should he meet with obstacles at the outset: if patients were laggardly and the practice slow to move, or if he himself fell ill, they might have a spell of real poverty to face. And it was under the goad of this fear that he hit on a new scheme. Why not leave Polly behind for a time, until he had succeeded in making a home for her?-- why not leave her under the wing of brother John? John stood urgently in need of a head for his establishment, and who so well suited for the post as Polly? Surely, if it were put before him, John must jump at the offer! Parting from Polly, and were it only for a little while, would be painful; but, did he go alone, he would be free to do his utmost--and with an easy mind, knowing that she lacked none of the creature-comforts. Yes, the more he considered the plan, the better he liked it. The one flaw in his satisfaction was the thought that if their child had lived, no such smooth and simple arrangement would have been possible. He could not have foisted a family on Turnham.

Now he waited with impatience for Polly to return--his reasonable little Polly! But he did not hurry her. Polly was enjoying her holiday. Having passed to Melbourne from Geelong she wrote:


Mahony replied:


While into more than one of his letters he slipped a banknote.


And at length the day came when he could lift his wife out of the coach. She emerged powdered brown with dust and very tired, but radiantly happy: it was a great event in little Polly's life, this homecoming, and coming, too, strong and well. The house was a lively place that afternoon: Polly had so much to tell that she sat holding her bonnet for over an hour, quite unable to get as far as the bedroom; and even Long Jim's mouth went up at the corners instead of down; for Polly had contrived to bring back a little gift for every one. And in presenting these, she found out more of what people were thinking and feeling than her husband had done in all the eight weeks of her absence.

Mahony was loath to damp her pleasure straightway; he bided his time. He could not know that Polly also had been laying plans, and that she watched anxiously for the right moment to unfold them.

The morning after her return, she got a lift in the baker's cart and drove out to inspect John's children. What she saw and heard on this visit was disquieting. The children had run wild, were grown dirty, sly, untruthful. Especially the boy.--"A young Satan, and that's a fact, Mrs. Mahony! What he needs is a man's hand over him, and a good hidin' six days outer seven."

It was not alone little Johnny's misconduct, however, that made Polly break silence. An incident occurred that touched her still more nearly.

Husband and wife sat snug and quiet as in the early days of their marriage. Autumn had come round and a fire burnt in the stove, before which Pompey snorted in his dreams. But, for all the cosy tranquillity, Polly was not happy; and time and again she moistened and bit at the tip of her thread, before pointing it through her needle. For the book open before Richard, in which he was making notes as he read, was--the Bible. Bending over him to drop a kiss on the top of his head, Polly had been staggered by what she saw. Opposite the third verse of the first chapter of Genesis: "And God said, Let there be light: and there was light," he had written: "Three days before the sun!" Her heart seemed to shrivel, to grow small in her breast, at the thought of her husband being guilty of such impiety. Ceasing her pretence at sewing, she walked out of the house into the yard. Standing there under the stars she said aloud, as if some one, THE One, could hear her: "He doesn't mean to do wrong. . . . I KNOW he doesn't!" But when she re-entered the room he was still at it. His beautiful writing, reduced to its tiniest, wound round the narrow margins.

Deeply red, Polly took her courage in both hands, and struck a blow for the soul whose salvation was more to her than her own. "Richard, do you think that . . . is . . . is right?" she asked in a low voice.

Mahony raised his head. "Eh?--what, Pollykin?"

"I mean, do you think you ought . . . that it is right to do what you are doing?"

The smile, half-tender, half-quizzical that she loved, broke over her husband's face. He held out his hand. "Is my little wife troubled?"

"Richard, I only mean. . ."

"Polly, my dear, don't worry your little head over what you don't understand. And have confidence in me. You know I wouldn't do anything I believed to be wrong?"

"Yes, indeed. And you are really far more religious than I am."

"One can be religious and yet not shut one's eyes to the truth. It's Saint Paul, you know, who says: we can do nothing against the Truth but for the Truth. And you may depend on it, Polly, the All-Wise would never have given us the brains He has, if He had not intended us to use them. Now I have long felt sure that the Bible is not wholly what it claims to be--direct inspiration."

"Oh, Richard!" said Polly, and threw an anxious glance over her shoulder. "If anyone should hear you!"

"We can't afford to let our lives be governed by what other people think, Polly. Nor will I give any man the right to decide for me what my share of the Truth shall be."

On seeing the Bible closed Polly breathed again, at the same time promising herself to take the traitorous volume into safe-keeping, that no third person's eye should rest on it. Perhaps, too, if it were put away Richard would forget to go on writing in it. He had probably begun in the first place only because he had nothing else to do. In the store he sat and smoked and twirled his thumbs--not half a dozen customers came in, in the course of the day. If he were once properly occupied again, with work that he liked, he would not be tempted to put his gifts to such a profane use. Thus she primed herself for speaking. For now was the time. Richard was declaring that trade had gone to the dogs, his takings dropped to a quarter of what they had formerly been. This headed just where she wished. But Polly would not have been Polly, had she not glanced aside for a moment, to cheer and console.

"It's the same everywhere, Richard. Everybody's complaining. And that reminds me, I forgot to tell you about the Beamishes. They're in great trouble. You see, a bog has formed in front of the Hotel, and the traffic goes round another way, so they've lost most of their custom. Mr. Beamish never opens his mouth at all now, and mother is fearfully worried. That's what was the matter when she was here--only she was too kind to say so."

"Hard lines!"

"Indeed it is. But about us; I'm not surprised to hear trade is dull. Since I was over in the western township last, no less than six new General Stores have gone up--I scarcely knew the place. They've all got big plate-glass windows; and were crowded with people."

"Yes, there's a regular exodus up west. But that doesn't alter the fact, wife, that I've made a very poor job of storekeeping. I shall leave here with hardly a penny to my name."

"Yes, but then, Richard," said Polly, and bent over her strip of needlework, "you were never cut out to be a storekeeper, were you?"

"I was not. And I verily believe, if it hadn't been for that old sober-sides of a Hempel, I should have come a cropper long ago."

"Yes, and Hempel," said Polly softly; "Hempel's been wanting to leave for ever so long."

"The dickens he has!" cried Mahony in astonishment. "And me humming and hawing about giving him notice! What's the matter with him? What's he had to complain of?"

"Oh, nothing like that. He wants to enter the ministry. A helper's needed at the Baptist Chapel, and he means to apply for the post. You see, he's saved a good deal, and thinks he can study to be a minister at the same time."

"Study for his grave, the fool! So that's it, is it? Well, well! it saves trouble in the end. I don't need to bother my head now over what's to become of him . . . him or anyone else. My chief desire is to say good-bye to this hole for ever. There's no sense, Polly, in my dawdling on. Indeed, I haven't the money to do it. So I've arranged, my dear, with our friend Ocock to come in and sell us off, as soon as you can get our personal belongings put together."

Here Polly raised her head as if to interrupt; but Mahony, full of what he had to say, ignored the movement, and went on speaking. He did not wish to cause his wife uneasiness, by dwelling on his difficulties; but some explanation was necessary to pave the way for his proposal that she should remain behind, when he left the colony. He spent all his eloquence in making this sound natural and attractive. But it was hard, when Polly's big, astonished eyes hung on his face. "Do you think, for my sake, you could be brave enough?" he wound up, rather unsurely. "It wouldn't be for long, love, I'm certain of that. Just let me set foot in England once more!"

"Why . . . why, yes, dear Richard, I . . . I think I could, if you really wished it," said Polly in a small voice. She tried to seem reasonable; though black night descended on her at the thought of parting, and though her woman's eyes saw a hundred objections to the plan, which his had overlooked. (For one thing, John had just installed Sara as housekeeper, and Sara would take it very unkindly to be shown the door.) "I THINK I could," she repeated. "But before you go on, dear, I should like to ask YOU something."

She laid down her needlework; her heart was going pit-a-pat. "Richard, did you ever.. . I mean have you never thought of. .. of taking up your profession again--I mean here--starting practice here?--No, wait a minute! Let me finish. I . . . I . . . oh, Richard!" Unable to find words, Polly locked her fingers under the tablecloth and hoped she was not going to be so silly as to cry. Getting up, she knelt down before her husband, laying her hands on his knees. "Oh, Richard, I wish you would--HOW I wish you would!"

"Why, Polly!" said Mahony, surprised at her agitation. "Why, my dear, what's all this?--You want to know if I never thought of setting up in practice out here? Of course I did . . . in the beginning. You don't think I'd have chosen to keep a store, if there'd been any other opening for me? But there wasn't, child. The place was overrun. Never a medico came out and found digging too much for him, but he fell back in despair on his profession. I didn't see my way to join their starvation band."

"Yes, THEN, Richard!--but now?" broke in Polly. "Now, it's quite, quite different. Look at the size Ballarat has grown--there are more than forty thousand people settled on it; Mr. Ocock told me so. And you know, dear, doctors have cleared out lately, not come fresh. There was that one, I forget his name, who drank himself to death; and the two, you remember, who were sold up just before Christmas." But this was an unfortunate line of argument to have hit on, and Polly blushed and stumbled.

Mahony laughed at her slip, and smoothed her hair. "Typical fates, love! They mustn't be mine. Besides, Polly, you're forgetting the main thing-- how I hate the place, and how I've always longed to get away."

"No, I'm not. But please let me go on.--You know, Richard, every one believes some day Ballarat will be the chief city--bigger even than Geelong or Melbourne. And then to have a good practice here would mean ever such a lot of money. I'm not the only person who thinks so. There's Sara, and Mrs. Beamish--I know, of course, you don't care much what they say; but still--" Polly meant: still, you see, I have public opinion on my side. As, however, once more words failed her, she hastened to add: "John, too, is amazed to hear you think of going home to bury yourself in some little English village. He's sure there'd be a splendid opening for you here. John thinks very, very highly of you. He told me he believes you would have saved Emma's life, if you had been there."

"I'm much obliged to your brother for his confidence," said Mahony dryly; "but--"

"Wait a minute, Richard! You see, dear, I can't help feeling myself that you ought not to be too hasty in deciding. Of course, I know I'm young, and haven't had much experience, but . . . You see, you're KNOWN here, Richard, and that's always something; in England you'd be a perfect stranger. And though you may say there are too many doctors on the Flat, still, if the place goes on growing as it is doing, there'll soon be room for more; and then, if it isn't you, it'll just be some one else. And that DOES seem a pity, when you are so clever--so much, much cleverer than other people! Yes, I know all about it; Mrs. Beamish told me it was you I owed my life to, not Dr. Rogers"--at which Mahony winced, indignant that anyone should have betrayed to Polly how near death she had been. "Oh, I DO want people to know you for what you really are!" said little Polly.

"Pussy, I believe she has ambitions for her husband," said Mahony to Palmerston.

"Of course I have. You say you hate Ballarat, and all that, but have you ever thought, Richard, what a difference it would make if you were in a better position? You think people look down on you, because you're in trade. But if you were a doctor, there'd be none of that. You'd call yourself by your full name again, and write it down on the visiting list at Government House, and be as good as anybody, and be asked into society, and keep a horse. You'd live in a bigger house, and have a room to yourself and time to read and write. I'm quite sure you'd make lots of money and soon be at the top of the tree. And after all, dear Richard, I don't want to go home. I would much rather stay here and look after Jerry, and dear Ned, and poor John's children," said Polly, falling back as a forlorn hope on her own preference.

"Why, what a piece of special pleading!" cried Mahony, and leaning forward, he kissed the young flushed face.

"Don't laugh at me. I'm in earnest."

"Why, no, child. But Polly, my dear, even if I were tempted for a moment to think seriously of what you say, where would the money come from? Fees are high, it's true, if the ball's once set a-rolling. But till then? With a jewel of a wife like mine, I'd be a scoundrel to take risks."

Polly had been waiting for this question. On hearing it, she sat back on her heels and drew a deep breath. The communication she had now to make him was the hub round which all turned. Should he refuse to consider it.... Plucking at the fringe of the tablecloth, she brought out, piecemeal, the news that John was willing to go surety for the money they would need to borrow for the start. Not only that: he offered them a handsome sum weekly to take entire charge of his children.--"Not here, in this little house--I know that wouldn't do," Polly hastened to throw in, forestalling the objection she read in Richard's eyes. Now did he not think he should weigh an offer of this kind very carefully? A name like John's was not to be despised; most people in their position would jump at it. "I understand something about it," said the little woman, and sagely nodded her head. "For when I was in Geelong, Mr. Beamish tried his hardest to raise some money and couldn't, his sureties weren't good enough." Mahony had not the heart to chide her for discussing his private affairs with her brother. Indeed, he rather admired the businesslike way she had gone about it. And he admitted this, by ceasing to banter and by calling her attention to the various hazards and inconveniences the step would entail.

Polly heard him out in silence. Enough for her, in the beginning, that he did not decline off-hand. They had a long talk, the end of which was that he promised to sleep over John's proposal, and delay fixing the date of the auction till the morning.

Having yielded this point Mahony kissed his wife and sent her to bed, himself going out with the dog for his usual stroll.

It was a fine night--moonless, but thick with stars. So much, at least, could be said in favour of the place: there was abundant sky-room; you got a clear half of the great vault at once. How he pitied, on such a night, the dwellers in old, congested cities, whose view of the starry field was limited to a narrow strip, cut through house-tops.

Yet he walked with a springless tread. The fact was, certain of his wife's words had struck home; and in the course of the past year he had learnt to put considerable faith in Polly's practical judgment. As he wound his way up the little hill to which he had often carried his perplexities, he let his pipe go out, and forgot to whistle Pompey off butcher's garbage.

Sitting down on a log he rested his chin in his hands. Below him twinkled the sparse lights of the Flat; shouts and singing rose from the circus.--And so John would have been willing to go surety for him! Let no one say the unexpected did not happen. All said and done, they were little more than strangers to each other, and John had no notion what his money-making capacities as a doctor might be. It was true, Polly had been too delicate to mention whether the affair had come about through her persuasions or on John's own initiative. John might have some ulterior motive up his sleeve. Perhaps he did not want to lose his sister . . . or was scheming to bind a pair of desirables fast to this colony, the welfare of which he had so much at heart. Again, it might be that he wished to buy off the memory of that day on which he had stripped his soul naked. Simplest of all, why should he not be merely trying to pay back a debt? He, Mahony, might shrink from lying under an obligation to John, but, so far, the latter had not scrupled to accept favours from him. But that was always the way with your rich men; they were not troubled by paltry pride; for they knew it was possible to acquit themselves of their debts at a moment's notice, and with interest. This led him to reflect on the great help to him the loan of his wealthy relative's name would be: difficulties would melt before it. And surely no undue risk was involved in the use of it? Without boasting, he thought he was better equipped, both by aptitude and training, than the ruck of colonial practitioners. Did he enter the lists, he could hardly fail to succeed. And out here even a moderate success spelled a fortune. Gained double-quick, too. After which the lucky individual sold out and went home, to live in comfort. Yes, that was a point, and not to be overlooked. No definite surrender of one's hopes was called for; only a postponement. Ten years might do it--meaty years, of course, the best years of one's life--still . . . . It would mean very hard work; but had he not just been contemplating, with perfect equanimity, an even more arduous venture on the other side? What a capricious piece of mechanism was the human brain!

Another thought that occurred to him was that his services might prove more useful to this new country than to the old, where able men abounded. He recalled many good lives and promising cases he had here seen lost and bungled. To take the instance nearest home--Polly's confinement. Yes, to show his mettle to such as Rogers; to earn respect where he had lived as a mere null--the idea had an insidious fascination. And as Polly sagely remarked: if it were not he, it would be some one else; another would harvest the KUDOS that might have been his. For the rough-and-ready treatment--the blue pills and black draughts--that had satisfied the early diggers had fallen into disrepute; medical skill was beginning to be appreciated. If this went on, Ballarat would soon stand on a level with any city of its size at home. But even as it was, he had never been quite fair to it; he had seen it with a jaundiced eye. And again he believed Polly hit the nail on the head, when she asserted that the poor position he had occupied was responsible for much of his dislike.

But there was something else at work in him besides. Below the surface an admission awaited him, which he shrank from making. All these pros and cons, these quibbles and hair-splittings were but a misfit attempt to cloak the truth. He might gull himself with them for a time: in his heart he knew that he would yield--if yield he did--because he was by nature only too prone to follow the line of least resistance. What he had gone through to-night was no new experience. Often enough after fretting and fuming about a thing till it seemed as if nothing under the sun had ever mattered so much to him, it could happen that he suddenly threw up the sponge and bowed to circumstance. His vitality exhausted itself beforehand--in a passionate aversion, a torrent of words--and failed him at the critical moment. It was a weakness in his blood--in the blood of his race.--But in the present instance, he had an excuse for himself. He had not known--till Polly came out with her brother's offer--how he dreaded having to begin all over again in England, an utter stranger, without influence or recommendations, and with no money to speak of at his back.

But now he owned up, and there was no more need of shift or subterfuge: now it was one rush and hurry to the end. He had capitulated; a thin-skinned aversion to confronting difficulties, when he saw the chance of avoiding them, had won the day. He intended--had perhaps the whole time intended--to take the hand held out to him. After all, why not? Anyone else, as Polly said, would have jumped at John's offer. He alone must argue himself blue in the face over it.

But as he sat and pondered the lengthy chain of circumstance--Polly's share in it, John's, his own, even the part played by incorporeal things --he brought up short against the word "decision". He might flatter himself by imagining he had been free to decide; in reality nothing was further from the truth. He had been subtly and slily guided to his goal --led blindfold along a road that not of his choosing. Everything and every one had combined to constrain him: his favours to John, the failure of his business, Polly's inclinations and persuasions, his own fastidious shrinkings. So that, in the end, all he had had to do was to brush aside a flimsy gossamer veil, which hung between him and his fate. Was it straining a point to see in the whole affair the workings of a Power outside himself--against himself, in so far as it took no count of his poor earth-blind vision?

Well, if this were so, better still: his ways were in God's hand. And after all, what did it matter where one strove to serve one's Maker-- east or west or south or north--and whether the stars overhead were grouped in this constellation or in that? Their light was a pledge that one would never be overlooked or forgotten, traced by the hand of Him who had promised to note even a sparrow's fall. And here he spoke aloud into the darkness the ancient and homely formula that is man's stand-by in face of the untried, the unknown.

"If God wills.... God knows best."