Australia Felix/Part IV/Chapter VII

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The hot airless night had become the hot airless day: in the garden the leaves on trees and shrubs drooped as under an invisible weight. All the stale smells of the day before persisted--that of the medicaments on the shelves, of the unwetted dust on the roads, the sickly odour of malt from a neighbouring brewery. The blowflies buzzed about the ceiling; on the table under the lamp a dozen or more moths lay singed and dead. Now it was nearing six o'clock; clad in his thinnest driving-coat, Mahony sat and watched the man who had come to fetch him beat his horse to a lather.

"Mercy! . . . have a little mercy on the poor brute," he said more than once.

He had stood out for some time against obeying the summons, which meant, at lowest, a ten-mile drive. Not if he were offered a hundred pounds down, was his first impetuous refusal; for he had not seen the inside of a bed that night. But at this he trapped an odd look in the other's eyes, and suddenly became aware that he was still dressed as for the ball. Besides, an equally impetuous answer was flung back at him: he promised no hundred pounds, said the man--hadn't got it to offer. He appealed solely to the doctor's humanity: it was a question of saving a life--that of his only son. So here they were.

"We doctors have no business with troubles of our own," thought Mahony, as he listened to the detailed account of an ugly accident. On the roof of a shed the boy had missed his footing, slipped and fallen some twenty feet, landing astride a piece of quartering. Picking himself up, he had managed to crawl home, and at first they thought he would be able to get through the night without medical aid. But towards two o'clock his sufferings had grown unbearable. God only knew if, by this time, he had not succumbed to them.

"My good man, one does not die of pain alone."

They followed a flat, treeless road, the grass on either side of which was burnt to hay. Buggy and harness--the latter eked out with bits of string and an old bootlace--were coated with the dust of months; and the gaunt, long-backed horse shuffled through a reddish flour, which accompanied them as a choking cloud. A swarm of small black flies kept pace with the vehicle, settling on nose, eyes, neck and hands of its occupants, crawling over the horse's belly and in and out of its nostrils. The animal made no effort to shake itself free, seemed indifferent to the pests: they were only to be disturbed by the hail of blows which the driver occasionally stood up to deliver. At such moments Mahony, too, started out of the light doze he was continually dropping into.

Arrived at their destination--a miserable wooden shanty on a sheep-run at the foot of the ranges--he found his patient tossing on a dirty bed, with a small pulse of 120, while the right thigh was darkly bruised and swollen. The symptoms pointed to serious internal injuries. He performed the necessary operation.

There was evidently no woman about the place; the coffee the father brought him was thick as mud. On leaving, he promised to return next day and to bring some one with him to attend to the lad.

For the home-journey, he got a mount on a young and fidgety mare, whom he suspected of not long having worn the saddle. In the beginning he had his hands full with her. Then, however, she ceased her antics and consented to advance at an easy trot.

HOW tired he felt! He would have liked to go to bed and sleep for a week on end. As it was, he could not reckon on even an hour's rest. By the time he reached home the usual string of patients would await him; and these disposed of, and a bite of breakfast snatched, out he must set anew on his morning round. He did not feel well either: the coffee seemed to have disagreed with him. He had a slight sense of nausea and was giddy; the road swam before his eyes. Possibly the weather had something to do with it; though a dull, sunless morning it was hot as he had never known it. He took out a stud, letting the ends of his collar fly.

Poor little Mary, he thought inconsequently: he had hurt and frightened her by his violence. He felt ashamed of himself now. By daylight he could see her point of view. Mary was so tactful and resourceful that she might safely be trusted to hush up the affair, to explain away the equivocal position in which she had been found. After all, both of them were known to be decent, God-fearing people. And one had only to look at Mary to see that here was no light woman. Nobody in his senses--not even Grindle--could think evil of that broad, transparent brow, of those straight, kind, merry eyes.

No, this morning his hurt was a purely personal one. That it should just be Purdy who did him this wrong! Purdy, playmate and henchman, ally in how many a boyish enterprise, in the hardships and adventures of later life. "Mine own familiar friend, in whom I trusted, which did eat of my bread!" Never had he turned a deaf ear to Purdy's needs; he had fed him and clothed him, caring for him as for a well-loved brother. Surely few things were harder to bear than a blow in the dark from one who stood thus deeply in your debt, on whose gratitude you would have staked your head. It was, of course, conceivable that he had been swept off his feet by Mary's vivid young beauty, by over-indulgence, by the glamour of the moment. But if a man could not restrain his impulses where the wife of his most intimate friend was concerned . . . Another thing: as long as Mary had remained an immature slip of a girl, Purdy had not given her a thought. When, however, under her husband's wing she had blossomed out into a lovely womanhood, of which any man might be proud, then she had found favour in his eyes. And the slight this put on Mary's sterling moral qualities, on all but her physical charms, left the worst taste of any in the mouth.

Then, not content with trying to steal her love, Purdy had also sought to poison her mind against him. How that rankled! For until now he had hugged the belief that Purdy's opinion of him was coloured by affection and respect, by the tradition of years. Whereas, from what Mary had let fall, he saw that the boy must have been sitting in judgment on him, regarding his peculiarities with an unloving eye, picking his motives to pieces: it was like seeing the child of your loins, of your hopes, your unsleeping care, turn and rend you with black ingratitude. Yes, everything went to prove Purdy's unworthiness. Only HE had not seen it, only he had been blind to the truth. And wrapped in this smug blindness he had given his false friend the run of his home, setting, after the custom of the country, no veto on his eternal presence. Disloyalty was certainly abetted by just the extravagant, exaggerated hospitality of colonial life. Never must the doors of your house be shut; all you had you were expected to share with any sundowner of fortune who chanced to stop at your gate.

The mare shied with a suddenness that almost unseated him: the next moment she had the bit between her teeth and was galloping down the road. Clomp-clomp-clomp went her hoofs on the baked clay; the dust smothered and stung, and he was holding for all he was worth to reins spanned stiff as iron. On they flew; his body hammered the saddle; his breath came sobbingly. But he kept his seat; and a couple of miles farther on he was down, soothing the wild-eyed, quivering, sweating beast, whose nostrils worked like a pair of bellows. There he stood, glancing now back along the road, now up at the sky. His hat had gone flying at the first unexpected plunge; he ought to return and look for it. But he shrank from the additional fatigue, the delay in reaching home this would mean. The sky was still overcast: he decided to risk it. Knotting his handkerchief he spread it cap-wise over his head and got back into the saddle.

Mine own familiar friend! And more than that: he could add to David's plaint and say, my only friend. In Purdy the one person he had been intimate with passed out of his life. There was nobody to take the vacant place. He had been far too busy of late years to form new friendships: what was left of him after the day's work was done was but a kind of shell: the work was the meaty contents. As you neared the forties, too, it grew ever harder to fit yourself to other people: your outlook had become too set, your ideas too unfluid. Hence you clung the faster to ties formed in the old, golden days, worn though these might be to the thinness of a hair. And then, there was one's wife, of course --one's dear, good wife. But just her very dearness and goodness served to hold possible intimates at arm's length. The knowledge that you had such a confidante, that all your thoughts were shared with her, struck disastrously at a free exchange of privacies. No, he was alone. He had not so much as a dog now, to follow at heel and look up at him with the melancholy eyes of its race. Old Pompey had come at poison, and Mary had not wished to have a strange dog in the new house. She did not care for animals, and the main charge of it would have fallen on her. He had no time--no time even for a dog!

Better it would assuredly be to have some one to fall back on: it was not good for a man to stand so alone. Did troubles come, they would strike doubly hard because of it; then was the time to rejoice in a warm, human handclasp. And moodily pondering the reasons for his solitariness, he was once more inclined to lay a share of the blame on the conditions of the life. The population of the place was still in a state of flux: he and a mere handful of others would soon, he believed, be the oldest residents in Ballarat. People came and went, tried their luck, failed, and flitted off again, much as in the early days. What was the use of troubling to become better acquainted with a person, when, just as you began really to know him, he was up and away? At home, in the old country, a man as often as not died in the place where he was born; and the slow, eventless years, spent shoulder to shoulder, automatically brought about a kind of intimacy. But this was only a surface reason: there was another that went deeper. He had no talent for friendship, and he knew it; indeed, he would even invert the thing, and say bluntly that his nature had a twist in it which directly hindered friendship; and this, though there came moments when he longed, as your popular mortal never did, for close companionship. Sometimes he felt like a hungry man looking on at a banquet, of which no one invited him to partake, because he had already given it to be understood that he would decline. But such lapses were few. On nine days out of ten, he did not feel the need of either making or receiving confidences; he shrank rather, with a peculiar shy dread, from personal unbosomings. Some imp housed in him--some wayward, wilful, mocking Irish devil--bidding him hold back, remain cool, dry-eyed, in face of others' joys and pains. Hence the break with Purdy was a real calamity. The associations of some five-and-twenty years were bound up in it; measured by it, one's marriage seemed a thing of yesterday. And even more than the friend, he would miss the friendship and all it stood for: this solid base of joint experience; this past of common memories into which one could dip as into a well; this handle of "Do you remember?" which opened the door to such a wealth of anecdote. From now on, the better part of his life would be a closed book to any but himself; there were allusions, jests without number, homely turns of speech, which not a soul but himself would understand. The thought of it made him feel old and empty; affected him like the news of a death.--But MUST it be? Was there no other way out? Slow to take hold, he was a hundred times slower to let go. Before now he had seen himself sticking by a person through misunderstandings, ingratitude, deception, to the blank wonder of the onlookers. Would he not be ready here, too, to forgive . . . to forget?

But he felt hot, hot to suffocation, and his heart was pounding in uncomfortable fashion. The idea of stripping and plunging into ice-cold water began to make a delicious appeal to him. Nothing surpassed such a plunge after a broken night. But of late he had had to be wary of indulging: a bath of this kind, taken when he was over-tired, was apt to set the accursed tic a-going; and then he could pace the floor in agony. And yet. . . Good God, how hot it was! His head ached distractedly; an iron band of pain seemed to encircle it. With a sudden start of alarm he noticed that he had ceased to perspire--now he came to think of it, not even the wild gallop had induced perspiration. Pulling up short, he fingered his pulse. It was abnormal, even for him . . . and feeble. Was it fancy, or did he really find a difficulty in breathing? He tore off his collar, threw open the neck of his shirt. He had a sensation as if all the blood in his body was flying to his head: his face must certainly be crimson. He put both hands to this top-heavy head, to support it; and in a blind fit of vertigo all but lost his balance in the saddle: the trees spun round, the distance went black. For a second still he kept upright; then he flopped to the ground, falling face downwards, his arms huddled under him.

The mare, all her spirit gone, stood lamb-like and waited. As he did not stir she turned and sniffed at him, curiously. Still he lay prone, and, having stretched her tired jaws, she raised her head and uttered a whinny--an almost human cry of distress. This, too, failing in its effect, she nosed the ground for a few yards, then set out at a gentle, mane-shaking trot for home.

* * * * *

Found, a dark conspicuous heap on the long bare road, and carted back to town by a passing bullock-waggon, Mahony lay, once the death-like coma had yielded, and tossed in fever and delirium. By piecing his broken utterances together Mary learned all she needed to know about the case he had gone out to attend, and his desperate ride home. But it was Purdy's name that was oftenest on his lips; it was Purdy he reviled and implored; and when he sprang up with the idea of calling his false friend to account, it was as much as she could do to restrain him.

She had the best of advice. Old Dr. Munce himself came two and three times a day. Mary had always thought him a dear old man; and she felt surer than ever of it when he stood patting her hand and bidding her keep a good heart; for they would certainly pull her husband through.

"There aren't so many of his kind here, Mrs. Mahony, that we can afford to lose him."

But altogether she had never known till now how many and how faithful their friends were. Hardly, for instance, had Richard been carried in, stiff as a log and grey as death, when good Mrs. Devine was fumbling with the latch of the gate, an old sunbonnet perched crooked on her head: she had run down just as she was, in the midst of shelling peas for dinner. She begged to be allowed to help with the nursing. But Mary felt bound to refuse. She knew how the thought of what he might have said in his delirium would worry Richard, when he recovered his senses: few men laid such weight as he on keeping their private thoughts private.

Not to be done, Mrs. Devine installed herself in the kitchen to superintend the cooking. Less for the patient, into whom at first only liquid nourishment could be injected, than: "To see as your own strength is kep' up, dearie." Tilly swooped down and bore off Trotty. Delicate fruits, new-laid eggs, jellies and wines came from Agnes Ocock; while Amelia Grindle, who had no such dainties to offer arrived every day at three o'clock, to mind the house while Mary slept. Archdeacon Long was also a frequent visitor, bringing not so much spiritual as physical aid; for, as the frenzy reached its height and Richard was maddened by the idea that a plot was brewing against his life, a pair of strong arms were needed to hold him down. Over and above this, letters of sympathy flowed in; grateful patients called to ask with tears in their eyes how the doctor did; virtual strangers stopped the servant in the street with the same query. Mary was sometimes quite overwhelmed by the kindness people showed her.

The days that preceded the crisis were days of keenest anxiety. But Mary never allowed her heart to fail her. For if, in the small things of life, she was given to building on a mortal's good sense, how much more could she rely at such a pass on the sense of the One above all others. What she said to herself as she moved tirelessly about the sick room, damping cloths, filling the ice-bag, infiltering drops of nourishment, was: "God is good!" and these words, far from breathing a pious resignation, voiced a confidence so bold that it bordered on irreverence. Their real meaning was: Richard has still ever so much work to do in the world, curing sick people and saving their lives. God must know this, and cannot now mean to be so foolish as to WASTE him, by letting him die.

And her reliance on the Almighty's far-sighted wisdom was justified. Richard weathered the crisis, slowly revived to life and health; and the day came when, laying a thin white hand on hers, he could whisper: "My poor little wife, what a fright I must have given you!" And added: "I think an illness of some kind was due--overdue--with me."

When he was well enough to bear the journey they left home for a watering-place on the Bay. There, on an open beach facing the Heads, Mahony lay with his hat pulled forward to shade his eyes, and with nothing to do but to scoop up handfuls of the fine coral sand and let it flow again, like liquid silk, through his fingers. From beneath the brim he watched the water churn and froth on the brown reefs; followed the sailing-ships which, beginning as mere dots on the horizon, swelled to stately white waterbirds, and shrivelled again to dots; drank in, with greedy nostrils, the mixed spice of warm sea, hot seaweed and aromatic tea-scrub.

And his strength came back as rapidly as usual. He soon felt well enough, leaning on Mary's arm, to stroll up and down the sandy roads of the township; to open book and newspaper; and finally to descend the cliffs for a dip in the transparent, turquoise sea. At the end of a month he was at home again, sunburnt and hearty, eager to pick up the threads he had let fall. And soon Mary was able to make the comfortable reflection that everything was going on just as before.

In this, however, she was wrong; never, in their united lives, would things be quite the same again. Outwardly, the changes might pass unnoticed--though even here, it was true, a certain name had now to be avoided, with which they had formerly made free. But this was not exactly hard to do, Purdy having promptly disappeared: they heard at second-hand that he had at last accepted promotion and gone to Melbourne. And since Mary had suffered no inconvenience from his thoughtless conduct, they tacitly agreed to let the matter rest. That was on the surface. Inwardly, the differences were more marked. Even in the mental attitude they adopted towards what had happened, husband and wife were thoroughly dissimilar. Mary did not refer to it because she thought it would be foolish to re-open so disagreeable a subject. In her own mind, however, she faced it frankly, dating back to it as the night when Purdy had been so odious and Richard so angry. Mahony, on the other hand, gave the affair a wide berth even in thought. For him it was a kind of Pandora's box, of which, having once caught a glimpse of the contents, he did not again dare to raise the lid. Things might escape from it that would alter his whole life. But he, too, dated from it in the sense of suddenly becoming aware, with a throb of regret, that he had left his youth behind him. And such phrases as: "When I was young," "In my younger days," now fell instinctively from his lips.

Nor was this all. Deep down in Mary's soul there slumbered a slight embarrassment; one she could not get the better of: it spread and grew. This was a faint, ever so faint a doubt of Richard's wisdom. Odd she had long known him to be, different in many small and some great ways from those they lived amongst; but hitherto this very oddness of his had seemed to her an outgrowth on the side of superiority--fairer judgment, higher motives. Just as she had always looked up to him as rectitude in person, so she had thought him the embodiment of a fine, though somewhat unworldly wisdom. Now her faith in his discernment was shaken. His treatment of her on the night of the ball had shocked, confused her. She was ready to make allowance for him: she had told her story clumsily, and had afterwards been both cross and obstinate; while part of his violence was certainly to be ascribed to his coming breakdown. But this did not cover everything; and the ungenerous spirit in which he had met her frankness, his doubt of her word, of her good faith--his utter unreasonableness in short--had left a cold patch of astonishment in her, which would not yield. She lit on it at unexpected moments. Meanwhile, she groped for an epithet that would fit his behaviour. Beginning with some rather vague and high-flown terms she gradually came down, until with the sense of having found the right thing at last, she fixed on the adjective "silly"--a word which, for the rest, was in common use with Mary, had she to describe anything that struck her as queer or extravagant. And sitting over her fancywork, into which, being what Richard called "safe as the grave," she sewed more thoughts than most women: sitting thus, she would say to herself with a half smile and an incredulous shake of the head: "SO silly!"

But hers was one of those inconvenient natures which trust blindly or not at all: once worked on by a doubt or a suspicion, they are never able to shake themselves free of it again. As time went on, she suffered strange uncertainties where some of Richard's decisions were concerned. In his good intentions she retained an implicit belief; but she was not always satisfied that he acted in the wisest way. Occasionally it struck her that he did not see as clearly as she did; at other times, that he let a passing whim run away with him and override his common sense. And, her eyes thus opened, it was not in Mary to stand dumbly by and watch him make what she held to be mistakes. Openly to interfere, however, would also have gone against the grain in her; she had bowed for too long to his greater age and experience. So, seeing no other way out, she fell back on indirect methods. To her regret. For, in watching other women "manage" their husbands, she had felt proud to think that nothing of this kind was necessary between Richard and her. Now she, too, began to lay little schemes by which, without his being aware of it, she might influence his judgment, divert or modify his plans.

Her enforced use of such tactics did not lessen the admiring affection she bore him: that was framed to withstand harder tests. Indeed, she was even aware of an added tenderness towards him, now she saw that it behoved her to have forethought for them both. But into the wife's love for her husband there crept something of a mother's love for her child; for a wayward and impulsive, yet gifted creature, whose welfare and happiness depended on her alone. And it is open to question whether the mother dormant in Mary did not fall with a kind of hungry joy on this late-found task. The work of her hands done, she had known empty hours. That was over now. With quickened faculties, all her senses on the alert, she watched, guided, hindered, foresaw.