Australia Felix/Part IV/Chapter I

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The new house stood in Webster Street. It was twice as large as the old one, had a garden back and front, a verandah round three sides. When Mahony bought it, and the piece of ground it stood on, it was an unpretentious weather-board in a rather dilapidated condition. The situation was good though--without being too far from his former address--and there was stabling for a pair of horses. And by the time he had finished with it, it was one of those characteristically Australian houses which, added to wherever feasible, without a thought for symmetry or design--a room built on here, a covered passage there, a bathroom thrown out in an unexpected corner, with odd steps up and down--have yet a spacious, straggling comfort all their own.

How glad he was to leave the tiny, sunbaked box that till now had been his home. It had had neither blind nor shutter; and, on his entering it of a summer midday, it had sometimes struck hotter than outside. The windows of his new room were fitted with green venetians; round the verandah-posts twined respectively a banksia and a Japanese honey-suckle, which further damped the glare; while on the patch of buffalo-grass in front stood a spreading fig-tree, that leafed well and threw a fine shade. He had also added a sofa to his equipment. Now, when he came in tired or with a headache, he could stretch himself at full length. He was lying on it at this moment.

Polly, too, had reason to feel satisfied with the change. A handsome little Broadwood, with a ruby-silk and carved-wood front, stood against the wall of her drawing-room; gilt cornices surmounted the windows; and from the centre of the ceiling hung a lustre-chandelier that was the envy of every one who saw it: Mrs. Henry Ocock's was not a patch on it, and yet had cost more. This time Mahony had virtually been able to give his wife a free hand in her furnishing. And in her new spare room she could put up no less than three guests!

Of course, these luxuries had not all rained on them at once. Several months passed before Polly, on the threshold of her parlour, could exclaim, with an artlessness that touched her husband deeply: "Never in my life did I think I should have such a beautiful room!" Still, as regarded money, the whole year had been a steady ascent. The nest-egg he had left with the lawyer had served its purpose of chaining that old hen, Fortune, to the spot. Ocock had invested and re-invested on his behalf--now it was twenty "Koh-i-noors," now thirty "Consolidated Beehives"--and Mahony was continually being agreeably surprised by the margins it threw off in its metamorphoses. That came of his having placed the matter in such competent hands. The lawyer had, for instance, got him finally out of "Porepunkahs" in the nick of time--the reef had not proved as open to the day as was expected--and pulled him off, in the process, another three hundred odd. Compared with Ocock's own takings, of course, his was a modest spoil; the lawyer had made a fortune, and was now one of the wealthiest men in Ballarat. He had built not only new and handsome offices on the crest of the hill, but also, prior to his marriage, a fine dwelling-house standing in extensive grounds on the farther side of Yuille's Swamp. Altogether it had been a year of great and sweeping changes. People had gone up, gone down--had changed places like children at a game of General Post. More than one of Mahony's acquaintances had burnt his fingers. On the other hand, old Devine, Polly's one-time market-gardener, had made his thousands. There was actually talk of his standing for Parliament, in which case his wife bid fair to be received at Government House. And the pair of them with hardly an "h" between them!

From the sofa where he lay, Mahony could hear the murmur of his wife's even voice. Polly sat the further end of the verandah talking to Jinny, who dandled her babe in a rocking-chair that made a light tip-tap as it went to and fro. Jinny said nothing: she was no doubt sunk in adoration of her--or rather John's--infant; and Mahony all but dozed off, under the full, round tones he knew so well.

In his case the saying had once more been verified: to him that hath shall be given. Whether it was due to the better position of the new house; or to the fact that easier circumstances gave people more leisure to think of their ailments; or merely that money attracted money: whatever the cause, his practice had of late made giant strides. He was in demand for consultations; sat on several committees; while a couple of lodges had come his way as good as unsought.

Against this he had one piece of ill-luck to set. At the close of the summer, when the hot winds were in blast, he had gone down under the worst attack of dysentery he had had since the early days. He really thought this time all was over with him. For six weeks, in spite of the tenderest nursing, he had lain prostrate, and as soon as he could bear the journey had to prescribe himself a change to the seaside. The bracing air of Queenscliff soon picked him up; he had, thank God, a marvellous faculty of recuperation: while others were still not done pitying him, he was himself again, and well enough to take the daily plunge in the Sea that was one of his dearest pleasures.--To feel the warm, stinging fluid lap him round, after all these drewthy years of dust and heat! He could not have enough of it, and stayed so long in the water that his wife, sitting at a decent distance from the Bathing Enclosure, grew anxious, and agitated her little white parasol.

"There's nothing to equal it, Mary, this side Heaven!" he declared as he rejoined her, his towel about his neck. "I wish I could persuade you to try a dip, my dear."

But Mary preferred to sit quietly on the beach. "The dressing and undressing is such a trouble," said she. As it was, one of her elastic-sides was full of sand.

Yes, Polly was Mary now, and had been, since the day Ned turned up again on Ballarat, accompanied by a wife and child. Mary was in Melbourne at the time, at John's nuptials; Mahony had opened the door himself to Ned's knock; and there, in a spring-cart, sat the frowsy, red-haired woman who was come to steal his wife's name from her. This invasion was the direct result of his impulsive generosity. Had he only kept his money in his pocket!

He had been forced to take the trio in and give them house-room. But he bore the storming of his hard-won privacy with a bad grace, and Mary had much to gloss over on her return.

She had been greatly distressed by her favourite brother's ill-considered marriage. For, if they had not held Jinny to be John's equal, what WAS to be said of Ned's choice? Mrs. Ned had lived among the mining population of Castlemaine, where her father kept a public-house; and, said Richard, her manners were accordingly: loud, slap-dash, familiar-- before she had been twenty-four hours under his roof she was bluntly addressing him as "Mahony." There was also a peculiar streak of touchiness in her nature ("Goes with hair of that colour, my dear!") which rendered her extremely hard to deal with. She had, it seemed, opposed the idea of moving to Ballarat--that was all in her favour, said Mary--and came primed to detect a snub or a slight at every turn. This morbid suspiciousness it was that led Mary to yield her rights in the matter of the name: the confusion between them was never-ending; and, at the first hint that the change would come gracefully from her, Mrs. Ned had flown into a passion.

"It's all the same to me, Richard, what I'm called," Mary soothed him. "And don't you think Polly was beginning to sound RATHER childish, now I'm nearly twenty-four?"

But: "Oh, what COULD Ned have seen in her?" she sighed to herself dismayed. For Mrs. Ned was at least ten years older than her husband; and whatever affection might originally have existed between them was now a thing of the past She tyrannised mercilessly over him, nagging at him till Ned, who was nothing if not good-natured, turned sullen and left off tossing his child in the air.

"We must just make the best of it, Richard," said Mary. "After all, she's really fond of the baby. And when the second comes. . . you'll attend her yourself, won't you, dear? I think somehow her temper may improve when that's over."

For this was another thing: Mrs. Ned had arrived there in a condition that raised distressing doubts in Mary as to the dates of Ned's marriage and the birth of his first child. She did not breathe them to Richard; for it seemed to her only to make matters of this kind worse, openly to speak of them. She devoted herself to getting the little family under a roof of its own. Through Richard's influence Ned obtained a clerkship in a carrying-agency, which would just keep his head above water; and she found a tiny, three-roomed house that was near enough to let her be daily with her sister-in-law when the latter's time came. Meanwhile, she cut out and helped to sew a complete little outfit ("What she had before was no better than rags!"); and Mrs. Ned soon learned to know on whom she could lean and to whom she might turn, not only for practical aid, but also for a never failing sympathy in what she called her "troubles."

"I vow your Mary's the kindest-hearted little soul it's ever been me luck to run across," she averred one day to Mahony, who was visiting her professionally. "So common-sense, too--no nonsense about HER! I shouldn't have thought a gaby like Ned could have sported such trump of a sister."

"Another pensioner for your CARITAS, dear," said Mahony, in passing on the verdict. What he did not grieve his wife by repeating were certain bad reports of Ned lately brought him by Jerry. According to Jerry--and the boy's word was to be relied on--Ned had kept loose company in Castlemaine, and had acquired the habit of taking more than was good for him. Did he not speedily amend his ways, there would be small chance of him remaining in his present post.

Here, Mahony was effectually roused by a stir on the verandah. Jinny had entered the house to lay down her sleeping babe, and a third voice, Purdy's, became audible. The wife had evidently brought out a bottle of her famous home-brewed gingerbeer: he heard the cork pop, the drip of the overflow on the boards, the clink of the empty glass; and Purdy's warm words of appreciation.

Then there was silence. Rising from the sofa, Mahony inserted himself between blind and window, and peeped out.

His first thought was: what a picture! Mary wore a pale pink cotton gown which, over the light swellings of her crinoline, bulged and billowed round her, and generously swept the ground. Collar and cuffs of spotless lawn outlined neck and wrists. She bent low over her stitching, and the straight white parting of her hair intensified the ebony of the glossy bands. Her broad pure forehead had neither line nor stain. On the trellis behind her a vine hung laden with massy bunches of muscatelles.

Purdy sat on the edge of the verandah, with his back to Mahony. Between thumb and forefinger he idly swung a pair of scissors.

Urged by some occult sympathy, Mary at once glanced up and discovered her husband. Her face was lightly flushed from stooping--and the least touch of colour was enough to give its delicate ivory an appearance of vivid health. She had grown fuller of late--quite fat, said Richard, when he wished to tease her: a luxuriant young womanliness lay over and about her. Now, above the pale wild-rose of her cheeks her black eyes danced with a mischievous glee; for she believed her husband intended swinging his leg noiselessly over the sill and creeping up to startle Purdy--and this appealed to her sense of humour. But, as he remained standing at the window, she just smiled slyly, satisfied to be in communion with him over their unsuspecting friend's head.

Here, however, Purdy brought his eyes back from the garden, and she abruptly dropped hers to her needlework.

The scissors were shut with a snap, and thrown, rather than laid, to the other implements in the workbox. "One 'ud think you were paid to finish that wretched sewing in a fixed time, Polly," said Purdy cantankerously. "Haven't you got a word to say?"

"It's for the Dorcas Society. They're having a sale of work."

"Oh, damn Dorcases! You're always slaving for somebody. You'll ruin your eyes. I wonder Dick allows it. I shouldn't--I know that."

The peal of laughter that greeted these words came equally from husband and wife. Then: "What the dickens does it matter to you, sir, how much sewing my wife chooses to do?" cried Mahony, and, still laughing, stepped out of the window.

"Hello!--you there?" said Purdy and rose to his feet. "What a beastly fright to give one!" He looked red and sulky.

"I scored that time, my boy!" and linking his arm in Mary's, Mahony confronted his friend. "Afraid I'm neglecting my duties, are you? Letting this young woman spoil her eyes?--Turn 'em on him, my love, in all their splendour, that he may judge for himself."

"Nonsense, Richard," said Mary softly, but with an affectionate squeeze of his arm.

"Well, ta-ta, I'm off!" said Purdy. And as Mahony still continued to quiz him, he added in a downright surly tone: "Just the same old Dick as ever! Blinder than any bat to all that doesn't concern yourself! I'll eat my hat if it's ever entered your noddle that Polly's quite the prettiest woman on Ballarat."

"Don't listen to him, Richard, please!" and: "Don't let your head be turned by such fulsome flattery, my dear!" were wife and husband's simultaneous exclamations.

"I shouldn't think so," said Mary sturdily, and would have added more, but just at this minute Jinny came out of the house, with the peculiar noiseless tread she had acquired in moving round an infant's crib; and Purdy vanished.

Jinny gazed at her sister-in-law with such meaning--that Mary could not but respond.

"Did you get her safely laid down, dear?"

"Perfectly, Mary! Without even the quiver of an eyelash. You recollect, I told you yesterday when her little head touched the pillow, she opened her eyes and looked at me. To-day there was nothing of that sort. It was quite perfect"; and Jinny's voice thrilled at the remembrance: it was as if, in continuing to sleep during the transit, her--or rather John's-- tiny daughter had proved herself a marvellous sagacity.

Mahony gave an impatient shrug in Jinny's direction. But he, too, had to stand fire: she had been waiting all day for a word with him. The babe, who was teething, was plagued by various disorders; and Jinny knew each fresh pin's-head of a spot that joined the rash.

Mahony made light of her fears; then turning to his wife asked her to hurry on the six-o'clock dinner: he had to see a patient between that meal and tea. Mary went to make arrangements--Richard always forgot to mention such things till the last moment--and also to please Jinny by paying a visit to the baby.

"The angels can't look very different when they sleep, I think," murmured its mother, hanging over the couch.

When Mary returned, she found her husband picking caterpillars off the vine: Long Jim, odd man now about house and garden, was not industrious enough to keep the pests under. In this brief spell of leisure--such moments grew ever rarer in Richard's life--husband and wife locked their arms and paced slowly up and down the verandah. It was late afternoon on a breathless, pale-skied February day; and the boards of the flooring gritted with sandy dust beneath their feet.

"He WAS grumpy this afternoon, wasn't he?" said Mary, without preamble. "But I've noticed once or twice lately that he can't take a joke any more. He's grown queer altogether. Do you know he's the only person who still persists in calling me by my old name? He was quite rude about it when I asked him why. Perhaps he's liverish, from the heat. It might be a good thing, dear, if you went round and overhauled him. Somehow, it seems unnatural for Purdy to be bad-tempered."

"It's true he may be a bit out of sorts. But I fear the evil's deeper-seated. It's my opinion the boy is tiring of regular work. Now that he hasn't even the excitement of the gold-escort to look forward to. . . . And he's been a rolling stone from the beginning, you know."

"If only he would marry and settle down! I do wish I could find a wife for him. The right woman could make anything of Purdy"; and yet once more Mary fruitlessly scanned, in thought, the lists of her acquaintance.

"What if it's a case of sour grapes, love? Since the prettiest woman on Ballarat is no longer free. . . ."

"Oh, Richard, hush! Such foolish talk!"

"But is it? . . . let me look at her. Well, if not the prettiest, at least a very pretty person indeed. It certainly becomes you to be stouter, wife."

But Mary had not an atom of vanity in her. "Speaking of prettiness reminds me of something that happened at the Races last week--I forgot to tell you, at the time. There were two gentlemen there from Melbourne; and as Agnes Ocock went past, one of them said out loud: 'Gad! That's a lovely woman.' Agnes heard it herself, and was most distressed. And the whole day, wherever she went, they kept their field-glasses on her. Mr. Henry was furious."

"If you'll allow me to say so, my dear, Mrs. Henry cannot hold a candle to some one I know--to my mind, at least."

"If I suit you, Richard, that's all I care about."

"Well, to come back to what we were saying. My advice is, give Master Purdy a taste of the cold shoulder the next time he comes hanging about the house. Let him see his ill-temper didn't pass unnoticed. There's no excuse for it. God bless me! doesn't he sleep the whole night through in his bed?"--and Mahony's tone took on an edge. The broken nights that were nowadays the rule with himself were the main drawbacks to his prosperity. He had never been a really good sleeper; and, in consequence, was one of those people who feel an intense need for sleep, and suffer under its curtailment. As things stood at present his rest was wholly at the mercy of the night-bell--a remorseless instrument, given chiefly to pealing just as he had managed to drop off. Its gentlest tinkle was enough to rouse him--long before it had succeeded in penetrating the ears of the groom, who was supposed to open. And when it remained silent for a night, some trifling noise in the road would simulate its jangle in his dreams. "It's a wonder I have any nerves left," he grumbled, as the hot, red dawns crept in at the sides of the bedroom-window. For the shortening of his sleep at one end did not mean that he could make it up at the other. All that summer he had fallen into the habit of waking at five o'clock, and not being able to doze off again. The narrowest bar of light on the ceiling, the earliest twitter of the sparrows was enough to strike him into full consciousness; and Mary was hard put to it to darken the room and ensure silence; and would be till the day came when he could knock off work and take a thorough holiday. This he promised himself to do, before he was very much older.