Australia Felix/Part III/Chapter I
The house stood not far from the Great Swamp. It was of weather-board, with a galvanised iron roof, and might have been built from a child's drawing of a house: a door in the centre, a little window on either side, a chimney at each end. Since the ground sloped downwards, the front part rested on piles some three feet high, and from the rutty clay-track that would one day be a street wooden steps led up to the door. Much as Mahony would have liked to face it with a verandah, he did not feel justified in spending more than he could help. And Polly not only agreed with him, but contrived to find an advantage in the plainer style of architecture. "Your plate will be better seen, Richard, right on the street, than hidden under a verandah." But then Polly was overflowing with content. Had not two of the rooms fireplaces? And was there not a wash-house, with a real copper in it, behind the detached kitchen? Not to speak of a spare room!--To the rear of the house a high paling-fence enclosed a good-sized yard. Mahony dreamed of a garden, Polly of keeping hens.
There were no two happier people on Ballarat that autumn than the Mahonys. To and fro they trudged down the hill, across the Flat, over the bridge and up the other side; first, through a Sahara of dust, then, when the rains began, ankle-deep in gluey red mud. And the building of the finest mansion never gave half so much satisfaction as did that of this flimsy little wooden house, with its thin lath-and-plaster walls. In fancy they had furnished it and lived in it, long before it was even roofed in. Mahony sat at work in his surgery--it measured ten by twelve --Polly at her Berlin-woolwork in the parlour opposite: "And a cage with a little parrot in it, hanging at the window."
The preliminaries to the change had gone smoothly enough--Mahony could not complain. Pleasant they had not been; but could the arranging and clinching of a complicated money-matter ever be pleasant? He had had to submit to hearing his private affairs gone into by a stranger; to make clear to strangers his capacity for earning a decent income.
With John's promissory letter in his pocket, he had betaken himself to Henry Ocock's office.
This, notwithstanding its excellent position on the brow of the western hill, could not deny its humble origin as a livery-barn. The entry was by a yard; and some of the former horse-boxes had been rudely knocked together to provide accommodation. Mahony sniffed stale dung.
In what had once been the harness-room, two young men sat at work.
"Why, Tom, my lad, you here?"
Tom Ocock raised his freckled face, from the chin of which sprouted some long fair hairs, and turned red.
"Yes, it's me. Do you want to see 'En--" at an open kick from his brother--"Mr. Ocock?"
"If you please."
Informed by Grindle that the "Captain" was at liberty, Mahony passed to an inner room where he was waved to a chair. In answer to his statement that he had called to see about raising some money, Ocock returned an: "Indeed? Money is tight, sir, very tight!" his face instantly taking on the blank-wall solemnity proper to dealings with this world's main asset.
Mahony did not at once hand over John's way-soothing letter. He thought he would first test the lawyer's attitude towards him in person--a species of self-torment men of his make are rarely able to withstand. He spoke of the decline of his business; of his idea of setting up as a doctor and building himself a house; and, as he talked, he read his answer pat and clear in the ferrety eyes before him. There was a bored tolerance of his wordiness, an utter lack of interest in the concerns of the petty tradesman.
"H'm." Ocock, lying back in his chair, was fitting five outstretched fingers to their fellows. "All very well, my good sir, but may I ask if you have anyone in view as a security?"
"I have. May I trouble you to glance through this?" and triumphantly Mahony brandished John's letter.
Ocock raised his brows. "What? Mr. John Turnham? Ah, very good . . . very good indeed!" The brazen-faced change in his manner would have made a cat laugh; he sat upright, was interested, courteous, alert. "Quite in order! And now, pray, how much do we need?"
Unadvised, he had not been able, said Mahony, to determine the sum. So Ocock took pencil and paper, and, prior to running off a reckoning, put him through a sharp interrogation. Under it Mahony felt as though his clothing was being stripped piece by piece off his back. At one moment he stood revealed as mean and stingy, at another as an unpractical spendthrift. More serious things came out besides. He began to see, under the limelight of the lawyer's inquiry, in what a muddle-headed fashion he had managed his business, and how unlikely it was he could ever have made a good thing of it. Still worse was his thoughtless folly in wedding and bringing home a young wife without, in this settlement where accident was rife, where fires were of nightly occurrence, insuring against either fire or death. Not that Ocock breathed a hint of censure: all was done with a twist of the eye, a purse of the lip; but it was enough for Mahony. He sat there, feeling like an eel in the skinning, and did not attempt to keep pace with the lawyer, who hunted figures into the centre of a woolly maze.
The upshot of these calculations was: he would need help to the tune of something over one thousand pounds. As matters stood at present on Ballarat, said Ocock, the plainest house he could build would cost him eight hundred; and another couple of hundred would go in furnishing; while a saddle-horse might be put down at fifty pounds. On Turnham's letter he, Ocock, would be prepared to borrow seven hundred for him-- and this could probably be obtained at ten per cent on a mortgage of the house; and a further four hundred, for which he would have to pay twelve or fifteen. Current expenses must be covered by the residue of this savings, and by what he was able to make. They would include the keep of the horse, and the interest on the borrowed money, which might be reckoned roughly at a hundred and twenty per annum. In addition, he would be well advised to insure his life for five to seven hundred pounds.
The question also came up whether the land he had selected for building on should be purchased or not. He was for doing so, for settling the whole business there and then. Ocock, however, took the opposite view. Considering, said he, that the site chosen was far from the centre of the town, Mahony might safely postpone buying in the meanwhile. There had been no government land-sales of late, and all main-road frontages had still to come under the hammer. As occupier, when the time arrived, he would have first chance at the upset price; though then, it was true, he would also be liable for improvements. The one thing he must beware of was of enclosing too small a block.
Mahony agreed--agreed to everything: the affair seemed to have passed out of his hands. A sense of dismay invaded him while he listened to the lawyer tick off the obligations and responsibilities he was letting himself in for. A thousand pounds! He to run into debt for such a sum, who had never owed a farthing to anyone! He fell to doubting whether, after all, he had made choice of the easier way, and lapsed into a gloomy silence.
Ocock on the other hand warmed to geniality.
"May I say, doctor, how wise I think your decision to come over to us?" --He spoke as if Ballarat East were in the heart of the Russian steppes. "And that reminds me. There's a friend of mine. . . . I may be able at once to put a patient in your way."
Mahony walked home in a mood of depression which it took all Polly's arts to dispel.
Under its influence he wrote an outspoken letter to Purdy--but with no very satisfactory result. It was like projecting a feeler for sympathy into the void, so long was it since they had met, and so widely had his friend's life branched from his.
Purdy's answer--it was headed "The Ovens"--did not arrive till several weeks later, and was mainly about himself.
IN A WAY I'M WITH YOU, OLD PILL-BOX, he wrote. YOU'LL CUT A JOLLY SIGHT BETTER FIGURE AS AN M.D. THEN EVER YOU'VE DONE BEHIND A COUNTER. BUT I DON'T KNOW THAT I'D CARE TO STAKE MY LAST DOLLAR ON YOU ALL THE SAME. WHAT DOES MRS. POLLY SAY?--AS FOR ME, OLD BOY, SINCE YOU'RE GOOD ENOUGH TO ASK, WHY THE LESS SAID THE BETTER. ONE OF THESE DAYS A POOR WORN OLD SHICER'LL COME CRAWLING ROUND TO YOUR BACK DOOR TO SEE IF YOU'VE ANY CAST-OFF DUDS YOU CAN SPARE HIM. SERIOUSLY, DICK, OLD MAN, I'M STONY-BROKE ONCE MORE AND THE LORD ONLY KNOWS HOW I'M GOING TO WIN THROUGH.
In the course of that winter, custom died a natural death; and one day, the few oddments that remained having been sold by auction, Mahony and his assistant nailed boards horizontally across the entrance to the store. The day of weighing out pepper and salt was over; never again would the tinny jangle of the accursed bell smite his ears. The next thing was that Hempel packed his chattels and departed for his new walk in life. Mahony was not sorry to see him go. Hempel's thoughts had soared far above the counter; he was arrived at the stage of: "I'm just as good as you!" which everyone here reached sooner or later.
"I shall always be pleased to hear how you are getting on."
Mahony spoke kindly, but in a tone which, as Polly who stood by, very well knew, people were apt to misunderstand.
"I should think so!" she chimed in. "I shall feel very hurt indeed, Hempel, if you don't come and see us."
With regard to Long Jim, she had a talk with her husband one night as they went to bed.
"There really won't be anything for him to do in the new house. No heavy crates or barrels to move about. And he doesn't know a thing about horses. Why not let him go home?--he does so want to. What would you say, dear, to giving him thirty pounds for his passage-money and a trifle in his pocket? It would make him very happy, and he'd be off your hands for good.--Of course, though, just as you think best."
"We shall need every penny we can scrape together, for ourselves, Polly. And yet, my dear, I believe you're right. In the new house, as you say, he'll be a mere encumbrance. As for me, I'd be only too thankful never to hear his cantankerous old pipe again. I don't know now what evil genius prompted me to take him in."
"Evil genius, indeed!" retorted Polly. "You did it because you're a dear, good, kind-hearted man."
"Think so, wifey? I'm inclined to put it down to sheer dislike of botheration--Irish inertia . . . the curse of our race."
"Yes, yes, I knoo you'd be wantin' to get rid o' me, now you're goin' up in the world," was Long Jim's answer when Polly broached her scheme for his benefit. "Well, no, I won't say anythin' against you, Mrs. Mahony; you've treated me square enough. But doc., 'e's always thought 'imself a sight above one, an' when 'e does, 'e lets you feel it."
This was more than Polly could brook. "And sighing and groaning as you have done to get home, Jim! You're a silly, ungrateful old man, even to hint at such a thing."
"Poor old fellow, he's grumbled so long now, that he's forgotten how to do anything else," she afterwards made allowance for him. And added, pierced by a sudden doubt: "I hope his wife will still be used to it, or . . . or else . . ."
And now the last day in the old house was come. The furniture, stacked in the yard, awaited the dray that was to transport it. Hardly worth carrying with one, thought Mahony, when he saw the few poor sticks exposed to the searching sunlight. Pipe in mouth he mooned about, feeling chiefly amazed that he could have put up, for so long, with the miserable little hut which his house, stripped of its trimmings, proved to be.
His reflections were cut short by old Ocock, who leaned over the fence to bid his neighbours good-bye.
"No disturbance! Come in, come in!" cried Mahony, with the rather spurious heartiness one is prone to throw into a final invitation. And Polly rose from her knees before a clothes-basket which she was filling with crockery, and bustled away to fetch the cake she had baked for such an occasion.
"I'll miss yer bright little face, that I will!" said Mr. Ocock, as he munched with the relish of a Jerry or a Ned. He held his slice of cake in the hollow of one great palm, conveying with extreme care the pieces he broke off to his mouth.
"You must come and see us, as soon as ever we're settled."
"Bless you! You'll soon find grander friends than an old chap like me."
"Mr. Ocock! And you with three sons in the law!"
"Besides, mark my words, it'll be your turn next to build," Mahony removed his pipe to throw in. "We'll have you over with us yet."
"And what a lovely surprise for Miss Amelia when she arrives, to find a bran'-new house awaiting her."
"Well, that's the end of this little roof-tree," said Mahony.--The loaded dray had driven off, the children and Ellen perched on top of the furniture, and he was giving a last look round. "We've spent some very happy days under it, eh, my dear?"
"Oh, very," said Polly, shaking out her skirts. "But we shall be just as happy in the new one."
"God grant we may! It's not too much to hope I've now seen all the downs of my life. I've managed to pack a good many into thirty short years.-- And that reminds me, Mrs. Townshend-Mahony, do you know you will have been married to me two whole years, come next Friday?"
"Why, so we shall!" cried Polly, and was transfixed in the act of tying her bonnet-strings. "How time does fly! It seems only the other day I saw this room for the first time. I peeped in, you know, while you were fetching the box. DO you remember how I cried, Richard? I was afraid of a spider or something." And the Polly of eighteen looked back, with a motherly amusement, at her sixteen-year-old eidolon. "But now, dear, if you're ready . . . or else the furniture will get there before we do. We'd better take the short cut across Soldiers' Hill. That's the cat in that basket, for you to carry, and here's your microscope. I've got the decanter and the best teapot. Shall we go?"