Australia Felix/Part III/Chapter V
"A very striking-looking man! With perfect manners--and beautiful hands."
Her head bent over her sewing, Polly repeated these words to herself with a happy little smile. They had been told her, in confidence, by Mrs. Glendinning, and had been said by this lady's best friend, Mrs. Urquhart of Yarangobilly: on the occasion of Richard's second call at Dandaloo, he had been requested to ride to the neighbouring station to visit Mrs. Urquhart, who was in delicate health. And of course Polly had passed the flattering opinion on; for, though she was rather a good hand at keeping a secret--Richard declared he had never known a better--yet that secret did not exist--or up till now had not existed--which she could imagine herself keeping from him.
For the past few weeks these two ladies had vied with each other in singing Richard's praises, and in making much of Polly: the second time Mrs. Glendinning called she came in her buggy, and carried off Polly, and Trotty, too, to Yarangobilly, where there was a nestful of little ones for the child to play with. Another day a whole brakeful of lively people drove up to the door in the early morning, and insisted on Polly accompanying them, just as she was, to the Racecourse on the road to Creswick's Creek. And everybody was so kind to her that Polly heartily enjoyed herself, in spite of her plain print dress. She won a pair of gloves and a piece of music in a philippine with Mr Urquhart, a jolly, carroty-haired man, beside whom she sat on the box-seat coming home; and she was lucky enough to have half-a-crown on one of the winners. An impromptu dance was got up that evening by the merry party, in a hall in the township; and Polly had the honour of a turn with Mr. Henry Ocock, who was most affable. Richard also looked in for an hour towards the end, and valsed her and Mrs. Glendinning round.
Polly had quite lost her heart to her new friend. At the outset Richard had rather frowned on the intimacy--but then he was a person given to taking unaccountable antipathies. In this case, however, he had to yield; for not only did a deep personal liking spring up between the two women, but a wave of pity swept over Polly, blinding her to more subtle considerations. Before Mrs. Glendinning had been many times at the house, she had poured out all her troubles to Polly, impelled thereto by Polly's quick sympathy and warm young eyes. Richard had purposely given his wife few details of his visits to Dandaloo; but Mrs. Glendinning knew no such scruples, and cried her eyes out on Polly's shoulder.
What a dreadful man the husband must be! "For she really is the dearest little woman, Richard. And means so well with every one--I've never heard her say a sharp or unkind word.--Well, not very clever, perhaps. But everybody can't be clever, can they? And she's good--which is better. The only thing she seems a teeny-weeny bit foolish about is her boy. I'm afraid she'll never consent to part with him."--Polly said this to prepare her husband, who was in correspondence on the subject with Archdeacon Long and with John in Melbourne. Richard was putting himself to a great deal of trouble, and would naturally be vexed if nothing came of it.
Polly paid her first visit to Dandaloo with considerable trepidation. For Mrs. Urquhart, who herself was happily married--although, it was true, her merry, red-haired husband had the reputation of being a LITTLE too fond of the ladies, and though he certainly did not make such a paying concern of Yarangobilly as Mr. Glendinning of Dandaloo--Mrs. Urquhart had whispered to Polly as they sat chatting on the verandah: "Such a DREADFUL man, my dear! . . . a perfect brute! Poor little Agnes. It is wonderful how she keeps her spirits up."
Polly, however, was in honour bound to admit that to her the owner of Dandaloo had appeared anything but the monster report made him out to be. He was perfectly sober the day she was there, and did not touch wine at luncheon; and afterwards he had been most kind, taking her with him on a quiet little broad-backed mare to an outlying part of the station, and giving her several hints how to improve her seat. He was certainly very haggard-looking, and deeply wrinkled, and at table his hand shook so that the water in his glass ran over. But all this only made Polly feel sorry for him, and long to help him.
"My dear, you ARE favoured! I never knew James make such an offer before," whispered Mrs. Glendinning, as she pinned her ample riding-skirt round her friend's slim hips.
The one thing about him that disturbed Polly was his manner towards his wife: he was savagely ironic with her, and trampled hobnailed on her timid opinions. But then Agnes didn't know how to treat him, Polly soon saw that: she was nervous and fluttery--evasive, too; and once during lunch even told a deliberate fib. Slight as was her acquaintance with him, Polly felt sure this want of courage must displease him; for there was something very simple and direct about his own way of speaking.
"My dear, why don't you stand up to him?" asked little Polly.
"Dearest, I dare not. If you knew him as I do, Polly. . . . He TERRIFIES me.--Oh, what a lucky little woman you are . . . to have a husband like yours."
Polly had recalled these words that very morning as she stood to watch Richard ride away: never did he forget to kiss her good-bye, or to turn and wave to her at the foot of the road. Each time she admired afresh the figure he cut on horseback: he was so tall and slender, and sat so straight in his saddle. Now, too, he had yielded to her persuasions and shaved off his beard; and his moustache and side-whiskers were like his hair, of an extreme, silky blond. Ever since the day of their first meeting at Beamish's Family Hotel, Polly had thought her husband the handsomest man in the world. And the best, as well. He had his peculiarities, of course; but so had every husband; and it was part of a wife's duty to study them, to adapt herself to them, or to endeavour to tone them down. And now came these older, wiser ladies and confirmed her high opinion of him. Polly beamed with happiness at this juncture, and registered a silent vow always to be the best of wives.
Not like--but here she tripped and coloured, on the threshold of her thought. She had recently been the recipient of a very distressing confidence; one, too, which she was not at liberty to share, even with Richard. For, after the relief of a thorough-paced confession, Mrs. Glendinning had implored her not to breathe a word to him--"I could never look him in the face again, love!" Besides, the affair was of such a painful nature that Polly felt little desire to draw Richard into it; it was bad enough that she herself should know. The thing was this: once when Polly had stayed overnight at Dandaloo Agnes Glendinning in a sudden fit of misery had owned to her that she cared for another person more than for her own husband, and that her feelings were returned.
Shocked beyond measure, Polly tried to close her friend's lips. "I don't think you should mention any names, Agnes," she cried. "Afterwards, my dear, you might regret it."
But Mrs. Glendinning was hungry for the luxury of speech--not even to Louisa Urquhart had she broken silence, she wept; and that, for the sake of Louisa's children--and she persisted in laying her heart bare. And here certain vague suspicions that had crossed Polly's mind on the night of the impromptu ball--they were gone again, in an instant, quick as thistledown on the breeze--these suddenly returned, life-size and weighty; and the name that was spoken came as no surprise to her. Yes, it was Mr. Henry Ocock to whom poor Agnes was attached. There had been a mutual avowal of affection, sobbed the latter; they met as often as circumstances permitted. Polly was thunder-struck: knowing Agnes as she did, she herself could not believe any harm of her; but she shuddered at the thought of what other people--Richard, for instance--would say, did they get wind of it. She implored her friend to caution. She ought never, never to see Mr. Ocock. Why did she not go away to Melbourne for a time? And why had he come to Ballarat?
"To be near me, dearest, to help me if I should need him.--Oh, you can't think what a comfort it is, Polly, to feel that he IS here--so good, and strong, and clever!--Yes, I know what you mean . . . but this is quite, quite different. Henry does not expect me to be clever, too-- does not want me to be. He prefers me as I am. He dislikes clever women .. . would never marry one. And we SHALL marry, darling, some day--when . . ."
Henry Ocock! Polly tried to focus everything she knew of him, all her fleeting impressions, in one picture--and failed. He had made himself very agreeable, the single time she had met him; but. . . . There was Richard's opinion of him: Richard did not like him or trust him; he thought him unscrupulous in business, cold and self-seeking. Poor, poor little Agnes! That such a misfortune should befall just her! Stranger still that she, Polly, should be mixed up in it.
She had, of course, always known from books that such things did happen; but then they seemed quite different, and very far away. Her thoughts at this crisis were undeniably woolly; but the gist of them was, that life and books had nothing in common. For in stories the woman who forgot herself was always a bad woman; whereas not the harshest critic could call poor Agnes bad. Indeed, Polly felt that even if some one proved to her that her friend had actually done wrong, she would not on that account be able to stop caring for her, or feeling sorry for her. It was all very uncomfortable and confusing.
While these thoughts came and went, she half sat, half knelt, a pair of scissors in her hand. She was busy cutting out a dress, and no table being big enough for the purpose, had stretched the material on the parlour floor. This would be the first new dress she had had since her marriage; and it was high time, considering all the visiting and going about that fell to her lot just now. Sara had sent the pattern up from Melbourne, and John, hearing what was in the wind, had most kindly and generously made her a present of the silk. Polly hoped she would not bungle it in the cutting; but skirts were growing wider and wider, and John had not reckoned with quite the newest fashion.
Steps in the passage made her note subconsciously that Ned had arrived-- Jerry had been in the house for the past three weeks, with a sprained wrist. And at this moment her younger brother himself entered the room, Trotty throned on his shoulder.
Picking his steps round the sea of stuff, Jerry sat down and lowered Trotty to his knee. "Ned's grizzling for tea."
Polly did not reply; she was laying an odd-shaped piece of paper now this way, now that.
For a while Jerry played with the child. Then he burst out: "I say, Poll!" And since Polly paid no heed to his apostrophe:
"Richard says I can get back to work to-morrow."
"That's a good thing," answered his sister with an air of abstraction: she had solved her puzzle to within half a yard.
Jerry cast a boyishly imploring glance at her back, and rubbed his chin with his hand. "Poll, old girl--I say, wouldn't you put in a word for me with Richard? I'm hanged if I want to go back to the claim. I'm sick to death of digging."
At this Polly did raise her head, to regard him with grave eyes. "What! tired of work already, Jerry? I don't know what Richard will say to that, I'm sure. You had better speak to him yourself."
Again Jerry rubbed his chin. "That's just it--what's so beastly hard. I know he'll say I ought to stick to it."
"So do I."
"Well, I'd rather groom the horse than that."
"But think how pleased you were at first!"
Jerry ruefully admitted it. "One expects to dig out gold like spuds; while the real thing's enough to give you the blight. As for stopping a wages-man all my life, I won't do it. I might just as well go home and work in a Lancashire pit."
"Oh, Ned! Ned walks about with his head in the clouds. He's always blowing of what he's GOING to do, and gets his steam off that way. I'm different."
But Jerry's words fell on deaf ears. A noise in the next room was engaging Polly's whole attention. She heard a burr of suppressed laughter, a scuffle and what sounded like a sharp slap. Jumping up she went to the door, and was just in time to see Ellen whisk out of the dining-room.
Ned sat in an armchair, with his feet on the chimney-piece. "I had the girl bring in a log, Poll," he said; and looked back and up at his sister with his cheery smile. Standing behind him, Polly laid her hand on his hair. "I'll go and see after the tea." Ned was so unconcerned that she hesitated to put a question.
In the kitchen she had no such tender scruples; nor was she imposed on by the exaggerated energy with which Ellen bustled about. "What was that noise I heard in the dining-room just now?" she demanded.
"Noise? I dunno," gave back the girl crossly without facing her.
"Nonsense, Ellen! Do you think I didn't hear?"
"Oh, get along with you! It was only one of Ned's jokes." And going on her knees, Ellen set to scrubbing the brick floor with a hiss and a scratch that rendered speech impossible. Polly took up the laden tea-tray and carried it into the dining-room. Richard had come home, and the four drew chairs to the table.
Mahony had a book with him; he propped it open against the butter-cooler, and snatched sentences as he ate. It fell to Ned to keep the ball rolling. Polly was distraite to the point of going wrong in her sugars; Jerry uneasy at the prospect of coming in conflict with his brother-in-law, whom he thought the world of.
Ned was as full of talk as an egg of meat. The theme he dwelt longest on was the new glory that lay in store for the Ballarat diggings. At present these were under a cloud. The alluvial was giving out, and the costs and difficulties of boring through the rock seemed insuperable. One might hear the opinion freely expressed that Ballarat's day as premier goldfield was done. Ned set up this belief merely for the pleasure of demolishing it. He had it at first hand that great companies were being formed to carry on operations. These would reckon their areas in acres instead of feet, would sink to a depth of a quarter of a mile or more, raise washdirt in hundreds of tons per day. One such company, indeed, had already sprung into existence, out on Golden Point; and now was the time to nip in. If he, Ned, had the brass, or knew anybody who'd lend it to him, he'd buy up all the shares he could get. Those who followed his lead would make their fortunes. "I say, Richard, it'ud be something for you."
His words evoked no response. Sorry though I shall be, thought Polly, dear Ned had better not come to the house so often in future. I wonder if I need tell Richard why. Jerry was on pins and needles, and even put Trotty ungently from him: Richard would be so disgusted by Ned's blatherskite that he would have no patience left to listen to him.
Mahony kept his nose to his book. As a matter of principle. He made a rule of believing, on an average, about the half of what Ned said. To appear to pay attention to him would spur him on to more flagrant over-statements.
"D'ye hear, Richard? Now's your chance," repeated Ned, not to be done. "A very different thing this, I can tell you, from running round dosing people for the collywobbles. I know men who are raising the splosh any way they can to get in."
"I dare say. There's never been any lack of gamblers on Ballarat," said Mahony dryly, and passed his cup to be refilled.
Pig-headed fool! was Ned's mental retort, as he sliced a chunk of rabbit-pie. "Well, I bet you'll feel sore some day you didn't take my advice," he said aloud.
"We shall see, my lad, we shall see!" replied Mahony. "In the meantime, let me inform you, I can make good use of every penny I have. So if you've come here thinking you can wheedle something out of me, you're mistaken." He could seldom resist tearing the veil from Ned's gross hints and impostures.
"Oh no, Richard dear!" interpolated Polly, in her role of keeper-of-the-peace.
Ned answered huffily: "'Pon my word, I never met such a fellow as you, for thinking the worst of people."
The thrust went home. Mahony clapped his book to. "You lay yourself open to it, sir! If I'm wrong, I beg your pardon. But for goodness' sake, Ned, put all these trashy ideas of making a fortune out of your mind. Digging is played out, I tell you. Decent people turned their backs on it long ago."
"That's what I think, too," threw in Jerry.
Mahony bit his lip. "Come, come, now, what do you know about it?"
Jerry flushed and floundered, till Polly came to his aid. "He's been wanting to speak to you, Richard. He hates the work as much as you did."
"Well, he has a tongue of his own.--Speak for yourself, my boy!"
Thus encouraged, Jerry made his appeal; and fearing lest Richard should throw him, half-heard, into the same category as Ned, he worded it very tersely. Mahony, who had never given much heed to Jerry--no one did-- was pleased by his straightforward air. Still, he did not know what could be done for him, and said so.
Here Polly had an inspiration. "But I think I do. I remember Mr. Ocock saying to me the other day he must take another boy into the business, it was growing so--the fourth, this will make. I don't know if he's suited yet, but even if he is, he may have heard of something else.-- Only you know, Jerry, you mustn't mind WHAT it is. After tea I'll put on my bonnet and go down to the Flat with you. And Ned shall come, too," she added, with a consoling glance at her elder brother: Ned had extended his huff to his second slice of pie, which lay untouched on his plate.
"Somebody has always got something up her sleeve," said Mahony affectionately, when Polly came to him in walking costume. "None the less, wife, I shouldn't be surprised if those brothers of yours gave us some trouble, before we're done with them."