Australia Felix/Part IV/Chapter II
Mary sat with pencil and paper and wrinkled her brows. She was composing a list, and every now and then, after an inward calculation, she lowered the pencil to note such items as: three tipsy-cakes, four trifles, eight jam-sandwiches. John Turnham had run up from Melbourne to fetch home wife and child; and his relatives were giving a musical card-party in his honour. By the window Jinny sat on a low ottoman suckling her babe, and paying but scant heed to her sister-in-law's deliberations: to her it seemed a much more important matter that the milk should flow smoothly down the precious little throat, than that Mary's supper should be a complete success. With her free hand she imprisoned the two little feet, working one against the other in slow enjoyment; or followed the warm little limbs up inside the swaddling, after the fashion of nursing mothers.
The two women were in the spare bedroom, which was dusk and cool and dimity-white; and they exchanged remarks in a whisper; for the lids had come down more than once on the big black eyes, and now only lifted automatically from time to time, to send a last look of utter satiation at the mother-face. Mary always said: "She'll drop off sooner indoors, dear." But this was not the whole truth. Richard had hinted that he considered the seclusion of the house better suited to the business of nursing than the comparative publicity of the verandah; for Jinny was too absorbed in her task to take thought for the proprieties. Here now she sat--she had grown very big and full since her marriage in the generous, wide-lapped pose of some old Madonna.
Mary, thrown entirely on her own judgment, was just saying with decision: "Well, better to err on the right side and have too much than too little," and altering a four into a five, when steps came down the passage and John entered the room. Jinny made him a sign, and John, now Commissioner of Trade and Customs, advanced as lightly as could be expected of a heavy, well-grown man.
"Does she sleep?" he asked.
His eyes had flown to the child; only in the second place did they rest on his wife. At the sight of her free and easy bearing his face changed, and he said stiffly: "I think, Jane, a little less exposure of your person, my dear. . . ."
Flushing to her hair-roots, Jinny began as hastily as she dared to re-arrange her dress.
Mary broke a lance on her behalf. "We were quite alone, John," she reminded her brother. "Not expecting a visit from you." And added: "Richard says it is high time Baby was weaned. Jinny is feeling the strain."
"As long as this rash continues I shall not permit it," answered John, riding rough-shod over even Richard's opinion. ("I shouldn't agree to it either, John dear," murmured Jinny.) "And now, Mary, a word with you about the elder children. I understand that you are prepared to take Emma back--is that so?"
Yes, Mary was pleased to say Richard had consented to Trotty's return; but he would not hear of her undertaking Johnny. At eleven years of age the proper place for a boy, he said, was a Grammar School. With Trotty, of course, it was different. "I always found her easy to manage, and should be more than glad to have her"; and Mary meant what she said. Her heart ached for John's motherless children. Jinny's interest in them had lasted only so long as she had none of her own; and Mary, who being childless had kept a large heart for all little ones, marvelled at the firm determination to get rid of her stepchildren which her sister-in-law, otherwise so pliable, displayed.
Brother and sister talked things over, intuitively meeting half-way, understanding each other with a word, as only blood relations can. Jinny, the chief person concerned, sat meekly by, or chimed in merely to echo her husband's views.
"By the way, I ran into Richard on Specimen Hill," said John as he turned to leave the room. "And he asked me to let you know that he would not be home to lunch."
"There. . . if that isn't always the way!" exclaimed Mary. "As sure as I cook something he specially likes, he doesn't come in. Tilly sent me over the loveliest little sucking-pig this morning. Richard would have enjoyed it."
"You should be proud, my dear Mary, that his services are in such demand."
"I am, John--no one could be prouder. But all the same I wish he could manage to be a little more regular with his meals. It makes cooking so difficult. To-morrow, because I shan't have a minute to spare, he'll be home punctually, demanding something nice. But I warn you, to-morrow you'll all have to picnic!"
However, when the day came, she was better than her word, and looked to it that neither guests nor husband went short. Since a couple of tables on trestles took up the dining-room, John and Mahony lunched together in the surgery; while Jinny's meal was spread on a tray and sent to her in the bedroom. Mary herself had time only to snatch a bite standing. From early morning on, tied up in a voluminous apron, she was cooking in the kitchen, very hot and floury and preoccupied, drawing grating shelves out of the oven, greasing tins and patty-pans, dredging flour. The click-clack of egg-beating resounded continuously; and mountains of sponge-cakes of all shapes and sizes rose under her hands. This would be the largest, most ambitious party she had ever given--the guests expected numbered between twenty and thirty, and had, besides, carte blanche to bring with them anyone who happened to be staying with them-- and it would be a disgrace under which Mary, reared in Mrs. Beamish's school, could never again have held up her head, had a single article on her supper-table run short.
In all this she had only such help as her one maidservant could give her --John had expressly forbidden Jinny the kitchen. True, during the morning Miss Amelia Ocock, a gentle little elderly body with a harmless smile and a prominent jaw, who was now an inmate of her father's house, together with Zara, returned from England and a visitor at the Ocock's-- these two walked over to offer their aid in setting the tables. But Miss Amelia, fluttery and undecided as a bird, was far too timid to do herself justice; and Zara spent so long arranging the flowers in the central epergnes that before she had finished with one of them it was lunch time.
"I could have done it myself while she was cutting the stalks," Mary told her husband. "But Zara hasn't really been any good at flowers since her 'mixed bouquet' took first prize at the Flower Show. Of course, though, it looks lovely now it's done."
Purdy dropped in during the afternoon and was more useful; he sliced the crusts off loaf-high mounds of sandwiches, and tested the strength and flavour of the claret-cup. Mary could not make up her mind, when it came to the point, to follow Richard's advice and treat him coldly. She did, however, tell him that his help would be worth a great deal more to her if he talked less and did not always look for an answer to what he said. But Purdy was not to be quashed. He had taken it into his head that she was badly treated, in being left "to slave" alone, within the oven's radius; and he was very hard on Jinny, whom he had espied comfortably dandling her child on the front verandah. "I'd like to wring the bloomin' kid's neck!"
"Purdy, for shame!" cried Mary outraged. "It's easy to see you're still a bachelor. Just wait, sir, till you have children of your own!"
Under her guidance he bore stacks of plates across the yard to the dining-room--where the blinds were lowered to keep the room cool--and strewed these, and corresponding knives and forks, up and down the tables. He also carried over the heavy soup-tureen in which was the claret-cup. But he had a man's slippery fingers, and, between these and his limp, Mary trembled for the fate of her crockery. He made her laugh, too, and distracted her attention; and she was glad when it was time for him to return to barracks.
"Now come early to-night," she admonished him. "And mind you bring your music. Miss Amelia's been practising up that duet all the week. She'll be most disappointed if you don't ask her to sing with you."
On the threshold of the kitchen Purdy set his fingers to his nose in the probable direction of Miss Amelia; then performed some skittish female twists and turns about the yard. "So hoarse, love . . . a bad cold . . . not in voice!" Mary laughed afresh, and ordered him off.
But when he had gone she looked grave, and out of an oddly disquieting feeling said to herself: "I do hope he'll be on his best behaviour to-night, and not tread on Richard's toes."
As it was, she had to inform her husband of something that she knew would displease him. John had come back in the course of the afternoon and announced, without ceremony, that he had extended an invitation to the Devines for the evening.
"It's quite true what's being said, dear," Mary strove to soothe Richard, as she helped him make a hasty toilet in the bathroom. "Mr. Devine is going to stand for Parliament; and he has promised his support, if he gets in, to some measure John has at heart. John wants to have a long talk with him to-night."
But Richard was exceedingly put out. "Well, I hope, my dear, that as it's your brother who has taken such a liberty, YOU'LL explain the situation to your guests. I certainly shall not. But I do know there was no need to exclude Ned and Polly from such an omnium-gatherum as this party of yours will be."
Even while he spoke there came a rat-a-tat at the front door, and Mary had to hurry off. And now knock succeeded knock with the briefest of intervals, the noise carrying far in the quiet street. Mysteriously bunched-up figures, their heads veiled in the fleeciest of clouds, were piloted along the passage; and: "I HOPE we are not the first!" was murmured by each new-comer in turn. The gentlemen went to change their boots on the back verandah; the ladies to lay off their wraps in Mary's bedroom. And soon this room was filled to overflowing with the large soft abundance of crinoline; hoops swaying from this side to that, as the guests gave place to one another before the looking-glass, where bands of hair were smoothed and the catches of bracelets snapped. Music-cases lay strewn over the counterpane; the husbands who lined up in the passage, to wait for their wives, also bearing rolls of music. Mary, in black silk with a large cameo brooch at her throat, and only a delicate pink on her cheeks to tell of all her labours, moved helpfully to and fro, offering a shoe-horn, a hand-mirror, pins and hairpins. She was caught, as she passed Mrs. Henry Ocock, a modishly late arrival, by that lady's plump white hand, and a whispered request to be allowed to retain her mantle. "Henry was really against my coming, dearest. So anxious . . . so absurdly anxious!"
"And pray where's the Honourable Mrs. T. to-night?" inquired "old Mrs. Ocock," rustling up to them: Tilly was the biggest and most handsomely dressed woman in the room. "On her knees worshipping, I bet you, up to the last minute! Or else not allowed to show her nose till the Honourable John's got his studs in.--Now then, girls, how much longer are you going to stand preening and prinking?"
The "girls" were Zara, at this present a trifle PASSEE, and Miss Amelia, who was still further from her prime; and gathering the two into her train, as a hen does its chickens, Tilly swept them off to face the ordeal of the gentlemen and the drawing-room.
Mary and Agnes brought up the rear. Mr. Henry was on the watch, and directly his wife appeared wheeled forward the best armchair and placed her in it, with a footstool under her feet. Mary planted Jinny next her and left them to their talk of nurseries: for Richard's sake she wished to screen Agnes from the vulgarities of Mrs. Devine. Herself she saw with dismay, on entering, that Richard had already been pounced on by the husband: there he stood, listening to his ex-greengrocer's words-- they were interlarded with many an awkward and familiar gesture--on his face an expression his wife knew well, while one small, impatient hand tugged at his whiskers.
But "old Mrs. Ocock" came to his rescue, bearing down upon him with an outstretched hand, and a howdee-do that could be heard all over the room: Tilly had long forgotten that she had ever borne him a grudge; she it was who could now afford to patronise. "I hope I see you well, doctor?--Oh, not a bit of it. . . . I left him at 'ome. Mr. O. has something wrong, if you please, with his leg or his big toe--gout or rheumatiz or something of that sort--and 'e's been so crabby with it for the last day or so that to-night I said to 'im: 'No, my dear, you'll just take a glass of hot toddy, and go early and comfortable to your bed.' Musical parties aren't in his line anyhow."
A lively clatter of tongues filled the room, the space of which was taxed to its utmost: there were present, besides the friends and intimates of the house, several of Mahony's colleagues, a couple of Bank Managers, the Police Magistrate, the Postmaster, the Town Clerk, all with their ladies. Before long, however, ominous pauses began to break up the conversation, and Mary was accomplished hostess enough to know what these meant. At a sign from her, Jerry lighted the candles on the piano, and thereupon a fugue-like chorus went up: "Mrs. Mahony, won't you play something?--Oh, do!--Yes, please, do. . . . I should enjoy it so much."
Mary did not wait to be pressed; it was her business to set the ball rolling; and she stood up and went to the piano as unconcernedly as she would have gone to sweep a room or make a bed.
Placing a piece of music on the rack, she turned down the corners of the leaves. But here Archdeacon Long's handsome, weatherbeaten face looked over her shoulder. "I hope you're going to give us the cannons, Mrs. Mahony?" he said genially. And so Mary obliged him by laying aside the MORCEAU she had chosen, and setting up instead a "battle-piece," that was a general favourite.
"Aha! that's the ticket," said Henry Ocock, and rubbed his hands as Mary struck up, pianissimo, the march that told of the enemy's approach.
And: "Boompity-boomp-boomp-boomp!" Archdeacon Long could not refrain from underlining each fresh salvo of artillery; while: "That's a breach in their walls for 'em!" was Chinnery of the London Chartered's contribution to the stock of fun.
Mahony stood on the hearthrug and surveyed the assembly. His eyes fled Mrs. Devine, most unfortunately perched on an ottoman in the middle of the room, where she sat, purple, shiny and beaming, two hot, fat, red hands clasped over her stomach ("Like a heathen idol! Confound the woman! I shall have to go and do the polite to her"), and sought Mary at the piano, hanging with pleasure on the slim form in the rich silk dress. This caught numberless lights from the candles, as did also the wings of her glossy hair. He watched, with a kind of amused tenderness, how at each forte passage head and shoulders took their share of lending force to the tones. He never greatly enjoyed Mary's playing. She did well enough at it, God bless her!--it would not have been Mary if she hadn't--but he came of a musical family; his mother had sung Handel faultlessly in her day, besides having a mastery of several instruments: and he was apt to be critical. Mary's firm, capable hands looked out of place on a piano; seemed to stand in a sheerly business relation to the keys. Nor was it otherwise with her singing: she had a fair contralto, but her ear was at fault; and he sometimes found himself swallowing nervously when she attacked high notes.
"Oh, doctor! your wife DO play the pianner lovely," said Mrs. Devine, and her fat front rose and fell in an ecstatic sigh.
"Richard dear, will you come?" Mary laid her hands on his shoulder: their guests were clamouring for a DUO. Her touch was a caress: here he was, making himself as pleasant as he knew how, to this old woman. When it came to doing a kindness, you could rely on Richard; he was all bark and no bite.
Husband and wife blended their voices--Mary had been at considerable pains to get up her part--and then Richard went on to a solo. He had a clear, true tenor that was very agreeable to hear; and Mary felt quite proud of his attainments. Later in the evening he might be persuaded to give them a reading from Boz, or a recitation. At that kind of thing, he had not his equal.
But first there was a cry for his flute; and in vain did Mahony protest that weeks had elapsed since he last screwed the instrument together. He got no quarter, even from Mary--but then Mary was one of those inconvenient people to whom it mattered not a jot what a fool you made of yourself, as long as you did what was asked of you. And so, from memory and unaccompanied, he played them the old familiar air of THE MINSTREL BOY. The theme, in his rendering, was overlaid by florid variations and cumbered with senseless repetitions; but, none the less, the wild, wistful melody went home, touching even those who were not musical to thoughtfulness and retrospect. The most obstinate chatterers, whom neither sham battles nor Balfe and Blockley had silenced, held their tongues; and Mrs. Devine openly wiped her eyes.
O, THE MINSTREL BOY TO THE WARS HAS GONE! IN THE RANKS OF DEATH YOU'LL FIND HIM.
While it was proceeding, Mary found herself seated next John. John tapped his foot in time to the tune; and under cover of the applause at its close remarked abruptly: "You should fatten Richard up a bit, Mary. He could stand it."
From where they sat they had Richard in profile, and Mary studied her husband critically, her head a little on one side. "Yes, he IS rather thin. But I don't think he was ever meant to be fat."
"Ah well! we are none of us as young as we used to be," was John's tribute to the power of music. And throwing out his stomach, he leaned back in his chair and plugged the armholes of his vest with his thumbs.
And now, after due pressing on the part of host and hostess, the other members of the company advanced upon the piano, either singly or in couples, to bear a hand in the burden of entertainment. Their seeming reluctance had no basis in fact; for it was an unwritten law that every one who could must add his mite; and only those who literally had "not a note of music in them" were exempt. Tilly took a mischievous pleasure in announcing bluntly: "So sorry, my dear, not to be able to do you a tool-de-rool! But when the Honourable Mrs. T. and I were nippers we'd no time to loll round pianos, nor any pianos to loll round!"--this, just to see her brother-in-law's dark scowl; for no love--not even a liking--was lost between her and John. But with this handful of exceptions all nobly toed the line. Ladies with the tiniest reeds of voices, which shook like reeds, warbled of Last Roses and Prairie Flowers; others, with more force but due decorum, cried to Willie that they had Missed Him, or coyly confessed to the presence of Silver Threads Among the Gold; and Mrs. Chinnery, an old-young woman with a long, lean neck, which she twisted this way and that in the exertion of producing her notes, declared her love for an Old Armchair. The gentlemen, in baritones and profundos, told the amorous adventures of Ben Bolt; or desired to know what Home would be Without a Mother. Purdy spiced the hour with a comic song, and in the character of an outraged wife tickled the risibility of the ladies.
WELL, WELL, SIR, SO YOU'VE COME AT LAST! I THOUGHT YOU'D COME NO MORE. I'VE WAITED, WITH MY BONNET ON, FROM ONE TILL HALF-PAST FOUR!
Zara and Mrs. Long both produced HOME THEY BROUGHT HER WARRIOR DEAD! from their portfolios; so Zara good-naturedly gave way and struck up ROBERT, TOI QUE J'AIME! which she had added to her repertory while in England. No one could understand a word of what she sang; but the mere fitting of the foreign syllables to the appropriate notes was considered a feat in itself, and corroborative of the high gifts Zara possessed.
Strenuous efforts were needed to get Miss Amelia to her feet. She was dying, as Mary knew, to perform her duet with Purdy; but when the moment came she put forward so many reasons for not complying that most people retired in despair. It took Mary to persevere. And finally the little woman was persuaded to the piano, where, red with gratification, she sat down, spread her skirts and unclasped her bracelets.
"Poor little Amelia!" said Mary to herself, as she listened to a romantic ballad in which Purdy, in the character of a high-minded nobleman, sought the hand of a virtuous gipsy-maid. "And he doesn't give her a second thought. If one could just tell her not to be so silly!"
Not only had Purdy never once looked near Amelia--for the most part he had sat rather mum-chance, half-way in and out of a French window, even Zara's attempts to enliven him falling flat--but, during an extra loud performance, Tilly had confided to Mary the family's plans for their spinster relative. And: "The poor little woman!" thought Mary again as she listened. For, after having been tied for years to the sick bed of a querulous mother; after braving the long sea-voyage, which for such a timid soul was full of ambushes and terrors, Miss Amelia had reached her journey's end only to find both father and brother comfortably wived, and with no use for her. Neither of them wanted her. She had been given house-room first by her father, then by the Henrys, and once more had had to go back to the paternal roof.
"It was nothing for Mossieu Henry in the long run," was his stepmother's comment. But she laughed good-humouredly as she said it; for, his first wrath at her intrusion over, Henry had more or less become her friend; and now maintained that it was not a bad thing for his old father to have a sensible, managing woman behind him. Tilly had developed in many ways since her marriage; and Henry and she mutually respected each other's practical qualities.
The upshot of the affair was, she now told Mary, that Miss Amelia's male relatives had subscribed a dowry for her. "It was me that insisted Henry should pay his share--him getting all the money 'e did with Agnes." And Amelia was to be married off to--"Well, if you turn your head, my dear, you'll see who. Back there, helping to hold up the doorpost."
Under cover of Zara's roulades Mary cautiously looked round. It was Henry's partner--young Grindle, now on the threshold of the thirties. His side-whiskers a shade less flamboyant than of old, a heavy watch-chain draped across his front, Grindle stood and lounged with his hands in his pockets.
Mary made round eyes. "Oh, but Tilly!. . . isn't it very risky? He's so much younger than she is. Suppose she shouldn't be happy?"
"That'll be all right, Mary, trust me. Only give 'er a handle to 'er name, and Amelia 'ud be happy with any one. She hasn't THAT much backbone in 'er. Besides, my dear, you think, she's over forty! Let her take 'er chance and be thankful. It isn't every old maid 'ud get such an offer."
"And is . . . is HE agreeable?" asked Mary, still unconvinced.
Tilly half closed her right eye and protruded the tip of her tongue. "You could stake your last fiver on it, he is!"
But now that portion of the entertainment devoted to art was at an end, and the serious business of the evening began. Card-tables had been set out--for loo, as for less hazardous games. In principle, Mahony objected to the high play that was the order of the day; but if you invited people to your house you could not ask them to screw their points down from crowns to halfpence. They would have thanked you kindly and have stayed at home. Here, at the loo-table places were eagerly snapped up, Henry Ocock and his stepmother being among the first to secure seats: both were keen, hard players, who invariably re-lined their well-filled pockets.
It would not have been the thing for either Mahony or his wife to take a hand; several of the guests held aloof. John had buttonholed old Devine; Jinny and Agnes were still lost in domesticities. Dear little Agnes had grown so retiring of late, thought Mary; she quite avoided the society of gentlemen, in which she had formerly taken such pleasure. Richard and Archdeacon Long sat on the verandah, and in moving to and fro, Mary caught a fragment of their talk: they were at the debatable question of table-turning, and her mental comment was a motherly and amused: "That Richard, who is so clever, can interest himself in such nonsense!" Further on, Zara was giving Grindle an account of her voyage "home," and ticking off the reasons that had led to her return. She sat across a hammock, and daintily exposed a very neat ankle. "It was much too sleepy and dull for ME! No, I've QUITE decided to spend the rest of my days in the colony."
Mrs. Devine was still perched on her ottoman. She beamed at her hostess. "No, I dunno one card from another, dearie, and don' want to. Oh, my dear, what a LOVELY party it 'as been, and 'ow well you've carried it h'off!"
Mary nodded and smiled; but with an air of abstraction. The climax of her evening was fast approaching. Excusing herself, she slipped away and went to cast a last eye over her supper-tables, up and down which benches were ranged, borrowed from the Sunday School. To her surprise she found herself followed by Mrs. Devine.
"DO let me 'elp you, my dear, do, now! I feel that stiff and silly sittin' stuck up there with me 'ands before me. And jes' send that young feller about 'is business."
So Purdy and his offers of assistance were returned with thanks to the card-room, and Mrs. Devine pinned up her black silk front. But not till she had freely vented her astonishment at the profusion of Mary's good things. "'Ow DO you git 'em to rise so?--No, I never did! Fit for Buckin'am Palace and Queen Victoria! And all by your little self, too.-- My dear, I must give you a good 'UG!"
Hence, when at twelve o'clock the company began to stream in, they found Mrs. Devine installed behind the barricade of cups, saucers and glasses; and she it was who dispensed tea and coffee and ladled out the claret-cup; thus leaving Mary free to keep an argus eye on her visitors' plates. At his entry Richard had raised expostulating eyebrows; but his tongue of course was tied. And Mary made a lifelong friend.
And now for the best part of an hour Mary's sandwiches, sausage-rolls and meat-pies; her jam-rolls, pastries and lemon-sponges; her jellies, custards and creams; her blanc and jaunemanges and whipped syllabubs; her trifles, tipsy-cakes and charlotte-russes formed the theme of talk and objects of attention. And though the ladies picked with becoming daintiness, the gentlemen made up for their partners' deficiencies; and there was none present who did not, in the shape of a hearty and well-turned compliment, add yet another laurel to Mary's crown.