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Australia Felix/Part IV/Chapter XII

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House and practice sold for a good round sum; the brass plates were removed from gate and door, leaving dirty squares flanked by screw-holes; carpets came up and curtains down; and, like rats from a doomed ship, men and women servants fled to other situations. One fine day the auctioneer's bell was rung through the main streets of the town; and both on this and the next, when the red flag flew in front of the house, a troop of intending purchasers, together with an even larger number of the merely curious, streamed in at the gate and overran the premises. At noon the auctioneer mounted his perch, gathered the crowd round him, and soon had the sale in full swing, catching head-bobs, or wheedling and insisting with, when persuasion could do no more, his monotonous parrot-cry of: "Going. . . going . . . gone!"

It would have been in bad taste for either husband or wife to be visible while the auction was in progress; and, the night before, Mary and the child had moved to Tilly's, where they would stay for the rest of the time. But Mahony was still hard at work. The job of winding up and getting in the money owed him was no light one. For the report had somehow got abroad that he was retiring from practice because he had made his fortune; and only too many people took this as a tacit permission to leave their bills unpaid.

He had locked himself and his account-books into a small back room, where stood the few articles they had picked out to carry with them: Mary's sewing-table, his first gift to her after marriage; their modest stock of silver; his medical library. But he had been forced to lower the blind, to hinder impertinent noses flattening themselves against the window, and thus could scarcely see to put pen to paper; while the auctioneer's grating voice was a constant source of distraction--not to mention the rude comments made by the crowd on house and furniture, the ceaseless trying of the handle of the locked door.

When it came to the point, this tearing up of one's roots was a murderous business--nothing for a man of his temperament. Mary was a good deal better able to stand it than he. Violently as she had opposed the move in the beginning, she was now, dear soul, putting a cheery face on it. But then Mary belonged to that happy class of mortals who could set up their Lares and Penates inside any four walls. Whereas he was a very slave to associations. Did she regret parting with a pretty table and a comfortable chair, it was soley because of the prettiness and convenience: as long as she could replace them by other articles of the same kind, she was content. But to him each familiar object was bound by a thousand memories. And it was the loss of these which could never be replaced that cut him to the quick.

Meanwhile this was the kind of thing he had to listen to.

"'Ere now, ladies and gents, we 'ave a very fine pier glass--a very chaste and tasty pier glass indeed--a red addition to any lady's drawin'room.--Mrs. Rupp? Do I understand you aright, Mrs. Rupp? Mrs. Rupp offers twelve bob for this very 'andsome article. Twelve bob ... going twelve.... Fifteen? Thank you, Mrs. Bromby! Going fifteen . . . going--going--Eighteen? Right you are, my dear!" and so on.

It had a history had that pier glass; its purchase dated from a time in their lives when they had been forced to turn each shilling in the palm. Mary had espied it one day in Plaistows' Stores, and had set her heart on buying it. How she had schemed to scrape the money together!--saving so much on a new gown, so much on bonnet and mantle. He remembered, as if it were yesterday, the morning on which she had burst in, eyes and cheeks aglow, to tell him that she had managed it at last, and how they had gone off arm in arm to secure the prize. Yes, for all their poverty, those had been happy days. Little extravagances such as this, or the trifling gifts they had contrived to make each other had given far more pleasure than the costlier presents of later years.

"The next article I draw your attention to is a sofer," went on the voice, sounding suddenly closer; and with a great trampling and shuffling the crowd trooped after it to the adjoining room. "And a very easy and comfortable piece o' furniture it is, too. A bit shabby and worn 'ere and there, but not any the worse of that. You don't need to worry if the kids play puff-puffs on it; and it fits the shape o' the body all the better.--Any one like to try it? Jest the very thing for a tired gent 'ome from biz, or 'andy to pop your lady on when she faints-- as the best of ladies will! Any h'offers? Mr. de la Plastrier"--he said "Deelay plastreer"--"a guinea? Thank you, mister. One guinea! Going a guinea!--Now, COME on, ladies and gen'elmen! D'ye think I've got a notion to make you a present of it? What's that? Two-and-twenty? Gawd! Is this a tiddlin' match?"

How proud he had been of that sofa! In his first surgery he had had nowhere to lay an aching head. Well worn? Small wonder! He would like to know how many hundreds of times he had flung himself down on it, utterly played out. He had been used to lie there of an evening, too, when Mary came in to chat about household affairs, or report on her day's doings. And he remembered another time, when he had spent the last hours of a distracted night on it . . . and how, between sleeping and waking, he had strained his ears for footsteps that never came.

The sofa was knocked down to his butcher for a couple of pounds, and the crying--or decrying--of his bookcases began. He could stand no more of it. Sweeping his papers into a bag, he guiltily unlocked the door and stole out by way of kitchen and back gate.

But once outside he did not know where to go or what to do. Leaving the town behind him he made for the Lake, and roved aimlessly and disconsolately about, choosing sheltered paths and remote roads where he would be unlikely to run the gauntlet of acquaintances. For he shrank from recognition on this particular day, when all his domestic privacies were being bared to the public view. But altogether of late he had fought shy of meeting people. Their hard, matter-of-fact faces showed him only too plainly what they thought of him. At first he had been fool enough to scan them eagerly, in the hope of finding one saving touch of sympathy or comprehension. But he might as well have looked for grief in the eyes of an undertaker's mute. And so he had shrunk back into himself, wearing his stiffest air as a shield and leaving it to Mary to parry colonial inquisitiveness.

When he reckoned that he had allowed time enough for the disposal of the last pots and pans, he rose and made his way--well, the word "home" was by now become a mere figure of speech. He entered a scene of the wildest confusion. The actual sale was over, but the work of stripping the house only begun, and successful bidders were dragging off their spoils. His glass-fronted bookcase had been got as far as the surgery-door. There it had stuck fast; and an angry altercation was going on, how best to set it free. A woman passed him bearing Mary's girandoles; another had the dining-room clock under her arm; a third trailed a whatnot after her. To the palings of the fence several carts and buggies had been hitched, and the horses were eating down his neatly clipped hedge--it was all he could do not to rush out and call their owners to account. The level sunrays flooded the rooms, showing up hitherto unnoticed smudges and scratches on the wall-papers; showing the prints of hundreds of dusty feet on the carpetless floors. Voices echoed in hollow fashion through the naked rooms; men shouted and spat as they tugged heavy articles along the hall, or bumped them down the stairs. It was pandemonium. The death of a loved human being could not, he thought, have been more painful to witness. Thus a home went to pieces; thus was a page of one's life turned.--He hastened away to rejoin Mary.

There followed a week of Mrs. Tilly's somewhat stifling hospitality, when one was forced three times a day to over-eat oneself for fear of giving offence; followed formal presentations of silver and plate from Masonic Lodge and District Hospital, as well as a couple of public testimonials got up by his medical brethren. But at length all was over: the last visit had been paid and received, the last evening party in their honour sat through; and Mahony breathed again. He had felt stiff and unnatural under this overdose of demonstrativeness. Now--as always on sighting relief from a state of things that irked him--he underwent a sudden change, turned hearty and spontaneous, thus innocently succeeding in leaving a good impression behind him. He kept his temper, too, in all the fuss and ado of departure: the running to and fro after missing articles, the sitting on the lids of overflowing trunks, the strapping of carpet-bags, affixing of labels. Their luggage hoisted into a spring-cart, they themselves took their seats in the buggy and were driven to the railway station; and to himself Mahony murmured an all's-well--that-ends-well. On alighting, however, he found that his greatcoat had been forgotten. He had to re-seat himself in the buggy and gallop back to the house, arriving at the station only just in time to leap into the train.

"A close shave that!" he ejaculated as he sank on the cushions and wiped his face. "And in more senses than one, my dear. In tearing round a corner we nearly had a nasty spill. Had I pitched out and broken my neck, this hole would have got my bones after all.--Not that I was sorry to miss that cock-and-hen-show, Mary. It was really too much of a good thing altogether."

For a large and noisy crowd had gathered round the door of the carriage to wish the travellers god-speed, among them people to whom Mahony could not even put a name, whose very existence he had forgotten. And it had fairly snowed last gifts and keepsakes. Drying her eyes, Mary now set to collecting and arranging these. "Just fancy so many turning up, dear. The railway people must have wondered what was the matter.--Oh, by the way, did you notice--I don't think you did, you were in such a rush-- who I was speaking to as you ran up? It was Jim, Old Jim, but so changed I hardly knew him. As spruce as could be, in a black coat and a belltopper. He's married again, he told me, and has one of the best-paying hotels in Smythesdale. Yes, and he was at the sale, too--he came over specially for it--to buy the piano."

"He did, confound him!" cried Mahony hotly.

"Oh, you can't look at it that way, Richard. As long as he has the money to pay for it. Fancy, he told me had always admired the 'tune' of it so much, when I played and sang. My dear little piano!"

"You shall have another and a better one, I promise you, old girl-- don't fret. Well, that slice of our life's over and done with," he added, and laid his hand on hers. "But we'll hold together, won't we, wife, whatever happens?"

They had passed Black Hill and its multicoloured clay and gravel heaps, and the train was puffing uphill. The last scattered huts and weatherboards fell behind, the worked-out holes grew fewer, wooded rises appeared. Gradually, too, the white roads round Mount Buninyong came into view, and the trees became denser. And having climbed the shoulder, they began to fly smoothly and rapidly down the other side.

Mahony bent forward in his seat. "There goes the last of old Warrenheip. Thank the Lord, I shall never set eyes on it again. Upon my word, I believe I came to think that hill the most tiresome feature of the place. Whatever street one turned into, up it bobbed at the foot. Like a peep-show . . . or a bad dream . . . or a prison wall."

In Melbourne they were the guests of John--Mahony had reluctantly resigned himself to being beholden to Mary's relatives and Mary's friends to the end of the chapter. At best, living in other people's houses was for him more of a punishment than a pleasure; but for sheer discomfort this stay capped the climax. Under Zara's incompetent rule John's home had degenerated into a lawless and slovenly abode: the meals were unpalatable, the servants pert and lazy, while the children ran wild--you could hardly hear yourself speak for the racket. Whenever possible, Mahony fled the house. He lunched in town, looked up his handful of acquaintances, bought necessaries--and unnecessaries--for the voyage. He also hired a boat and had himself rowed out to the ship, where he clambered on board amid the mess of scouring and painting, and made himself known to the chief mate. Or he sat on the pier and gazed at the vessel lying straining at her anchor, while quick rain-squalls swept up and blotted out the Bay.

Of Mary he caught but passing glimpses; her family seemed determined to make unblushing use of her as long as she was within reach. A couple of days prior to their arrival, John and Zara had quarrelled violently; and for the dozenth time Zara had packed her trunks and departed for one of those miraculous situations, the doors of which always stood open to her.

John was for Mary going after her and forcing her to admit the error of her ways. Mary held it wiser to let well alone.

"DO be guided by me this time, John," she urged, when she had heard her brother out: "You and Zara will never hit it off, however often you try."

But the belief was ingrained in John that the most suitable head for his establishment was one of his own blood. He answered indignantly. "And why not pray, may I ask? Who IS to hit it off, as you put it, if not two of a family?"

"Oh, John. . . "--Mary felt quite apologetic for her brother. "Clever as Zara is, she's not at all fitted for a post of this kind. She's no hand with the servants, and children don't seem to take to her--young children, I mean."

"Not fitted? Bah!" said John. "Every woman is fitted by nature to rear children and manage a house."

"They should be, I know," yielded Mary in conciliatory fashion. "But with Zara it doesn't seem to be the case."

"Then she ought to be ashamed of herself, my dear Mary--ashamed of herself--and that's all about it!"

Zara wept into a dainty handkerchief and was delivered of a rigmarole of complaints against her brother, the servants, the children. According to her, the last were naturally perverse, and John indulged them so shockingly that she had been powerless to carry out reforms. Did she punish them, he cancelled the punishments; if she left their naughtiness unchecked, he accused her of indifference. Then her housekeeping had not suited him: he reproached her with extravagance, with mismanagement, even with lining her own purse. "While the truth is, John is mean as dirt! I had literally to drag each penny out of him."

"But what ever induced you to undertake it again, Zara?"

"Yes, what indeed!" echoed Zara bitterly. "However, once bitten, Mary, twice shy. NEVER again!"

But remembering the bites Zara had already received, Mary was silent.

Even Zara's amateurish hand thus finally withdrawn, it became Mary's task to find some worthy and capable person to act as mistress. Taking her obligations seriously, she devoted her last days in Australia to conning and penning advertisements, and interviewing applicants.

"Now no one too attractive, if you please, Mrs. Mahony!--if you don't want him to fall a victim," teased Richard. "Remember our good John's inflammability. He's a very Leyden jar again at present."

"No, indeed I don't," said Mary with emphasis. "But the children are the first consideration. Oh, dear! it does seem a shame that Tilly shouldn't have them to look after. And it would relieve John of so much responsibility. As it is, he's even asked me to make it plain to Tilly that he wishes Trotty to spend her holidays at school."

The forsaking of the poor little motherless flock cut Mary to the heart. Trotty had dung to her, inconsolable. "Oh, Auntie, TAKE me with you! Oh, what shall I do without you?"

"It's not possible, darling. Your papa would never agree. But I tell you what, Trotty: you must be a good girl and make haste and learn all you can. For soon, I'm sure, he'll want you to come and be his little housekeeper, and look after the other children."

Sounded on this subject, however, John said dryly: "Emma's influence would be undesirable for the little ones." His prejudice in favour of his second wife's children was an eternal riddle to his sister. He dandled even the youngest, whom he had not seen since its birth, with visible pleasure.

"It must be the black eyes," said Mary to herself; and shook her head at men's irrationality. For Jinny's offspring had none of the grace and beauty that marked the two elder children.

And now the last night had come; and they were gathered, a family party, round John's mahogany. The cloth had been removed; nuts and port were passing. As it was a unique occasion the ladies had been excused from withdrawing, and the gentlemen left their cigars unlighted. Mary's eyes roved fondly from one face to another. There was Tilly, come over from her hotel--("Nothing would induce me to spend a night under his roof, Mary")--Tilly sat hugging one of the children, who had run in for the almonds and raisins of dessert. "What a mother lost in her!" sighed Mary once more. There was Zara, so far reconciled to her brother as to consent to be present; but only speaking at him, not to him. And dear Jerry, eager and alert, taking so intelligent a share in what was said. Poor Ned alone was wanting, neither Richard nor John having offered to pay his fare to town. Young Johnny's seat was vacant, too, for the boy had vanished directly dinner was over.

In the harmony of the evening there was just one jarring note for Mary; and at moments she grew very thoughtful. For the first time Mrs. Kelly, the motherly widow on whom her choice had fallen, sat opposite John at the head of the table; and already Mary was the prey of a nagging doubt. For this person had doffed the neat mourning-garb she had worn when being engaged, and come forth in a cap trimmed with cherry coloured ribbons. Not only this, she smiled in sugary fashion and far too readily; while the extreme humility with which she deferred to John's opinion, and hung on his lips, made another bad impression on Mary. Nor was she alone in her observations. After a particularly glaring example of the widow's complaisance, Tilly looked across and shut one eye, in an unmistakable wink.

Meanwhile the men's talk had gradually petered out: there came long pauses in which they twiddled and twirled their wine-glasses, unable to think of anything to say. At heart, both John and Mahony hailed with a certain relief the coming break. "After all I dare say such a queer faddy fellow IS out of his element here. He'll go down better over there," was John's mental verdict. Mahony's, a characteristic: "Thank God, I shall not have to put up much longer with his confounded self-importance, or suffer under his matrimonial muddles!"

When at a question from Mary John began animatedly to discuss the tuition of the younger children, Mahony seized the chance to slip away. He would not be missed. He never was--here or anywhere.

On the verandah a dark form stirred and made a hasty movement. It was the boy Johnny--now grown tall as Mahony himself--and, to judge from the smell, what he tried to smuggle into his pocket was a briar.

"Oh well, yes, I'm smoking," he said sullenly, after a feeble attempt at evasion. "Go in and blab on me, if you feel you must, Uncle Richard."

"Nonsense. But telling fibs about a thing does no good."

"Oh yes, it does; it saves a hiding," retorted the boy. And added with a youthful vehemence: "I'm hanged if I let the governor take a stick to me nowadays! I'm turned sixteen; and if he dares to touch me--"

"Come, come. You know, you've been something of a disappointment to your father, Johnny--that's the root of the trouble."

"Glad if I have! He hates me anyway. He never cared for my mother's children," answered Johnny with a quaint dignity. "I think he couldn't have cared for her either."

"There you're wrong. He was devoted to her. Her death nearly broke his heart.--She was one of the most beautiful women I have ever seen, my boy."

"Was she?" said Johnny civilly, but with meagre interest. This long dead mother had bequeathed him not even a memory of herself--was as unreal to him as a dream at second hand. From the chilly contemplation of her he turned back impatiently to his own affairs, which were burning, insistent. And scenting a vague sympathy in this stranger uncle who, like himself, had drifted out from the intimacy of the candle-lit room, he made a clean breast of his troubles.

"I can't stand the life here, Uncle Richard, and I'm not going to--not if father cuts me off with a shilling! I mean to see the world. THIS isn't the world--this dead-and-alive old country! . . . though it's got to seem like it to the governor, he's been here so long. And HE cleared out from his before he was even as old as I am. Of course there isn't another blessed old Australia for me to decamp to; he might be a bit sweeter about it, if there was. But America's good enough for me, and I'm off there--yes, even if I have to work my passage out!"

Early next morning, fully equipped for their journey, the Mahonys stood on the William's Town pier, the centre of the usual crowd of relatives and friends. This had been further swelled by the advent of Mrs. Devine, who came panting up followed by her husband, and by Agnes Ocock and Amelia Grindle, who had contrived to reach Melbourne the previous evening. Even John's children were tacked on, clad in their Sunday best. Everybody talked at once and laughed or wept; while the children played hide-and-seek round the ladies' crinolines. Strange eyes were bent on their party, strange ears cocked in their direction; and yet once again Mahony's dislike to a commotion in public choked off his gratitude towards these good and kindly people. But his star was rising: tears and farewells and vows of constancy had to be cut short, a jaunt planned by the whole company to the ship itself abandoned; for a favourable wind had sprung up and the captain was impatient to weigh anchor. And so the very last kisses and handclasps exchanged, the travellers climbed down into a boat already deep in the water with other cuddy-passengers and their luggage, and were rowed out to where lay that good clipper-ship, the RED JACKET. Sitting side by side husband and wife watched, with feelings that had little in common, the receding quay, Mary fluttering her damp handkerchief till the separate figures had merged in one dark mass, and even Tilly, planted in front, her handkerchief tied flagwise to the top of Jerry's cane, could no longer be distinguished from the rest.

Mahony's foot met the ribbed teak of the deck with the liveliest satisfaction; his nostrils drank in the smell of tarred ropes and oiled brass. Having escorted Mary below, seen to the stowing away of their belongings and changed his town clothes for a set of comfortable baggy garments, he returned to the deck, where he passed the greater part of the day tirelessly pacing. They made good headway, and soon the ports and towns at the water's edge were become mere whitey smudges. The hills in the background lasted longer. But first the Macedon group faded from sight; then the Dandenong Ranges, grown bluer and bluer, were also lost in the sky. The vessel crept round the outside of the great Bay, to clear shoals and sandbanks, and, by afternoon, with the sails close rigged in the freshening wind, they were running parallel with the Cliff --"THE Cliff!" thought Mahony with a curl of the lip. And indeed there was no other; nothing but low scrub-grown sandhills which flattened out till they were almost level with the sea.

The passage through the Heads was at hand. Impulsively he went down to fetch Mary. Threading his way through the saloon, in the middle of which grew up one of the masts, he opened a door leading off it.

"Come on deck, my dear, and take your last look at the old place. It's not likely you'll ever see it again."

But Mary was already encoffined in her narrow berth.

"Don't ask me even to lift my head from the pillow, Richard. Besides, I've seen it so often before."

He lingered to make some arrangements for her comfort, fidgeted to know where she had put his books; then mounted a locker and craned his neck at the porthole. "Now for the Rip, wife! By God, Mary, I little thought this time last year, that I should be crossing it to-day."

But the cabin was too dark and small to hold him. Climbing the steep companion-way he went on deck again, and resumed his flittings to and fro. He was no more able to be still than was the good ship under him; he felt himself one with her, and gloried in her growing unrest. She was now come to the narrow channel between two converging headlands, where the waters of Hobson's Bay met those of the open sea. They boiled and churned, in an eternal commotion, over treacherous reefs which thrust far out below the surface and were betrayed by straight, white lines of foam. Once safely out, the vessel hove to to drop the pilot. Leaning over the gunwale Mahony watched a boat come alongside, the man of oilskins climb down the rope-ladder and row away.

Here, in the open, a heavy swell was running, but he kept his foot on the swaying boards long after the last of his fellow-passengers had vanished--a tall, thin figure, with an eager, pointed face, and hair just greying at the temples. Contrary to habit, he had a word for every one who passed, from mate to cabin-boy, and he drank a glass of wine with the Captain in his cabin. Their start had been auspicious, said the latter; seldom had he had such a fair wind to come out with.

Then the sun fell into the sea and it was night--a fine, starry night, clear with the hard, cold radiance of the south. Mahony looked up at the familiar constellations and thought of those others, long missed, that he was soon to see again.--Over! This page of his history was turned and done with; and he had every reason to feel thankful. For many and many a man, though escaping with his life, had left youth and health and hope on these difficult shores. He had got off scot-free. Still in his prime, his faculties green, his zest for living unimpaired, he was heading for the dear old mother country--for home. Alone and unaided he could never have accomplished it. Strength to will the enterprise, steadfastness in the face of obstacles had been lent him from above. And as he stood gazing down into the black and fathomless deep, which sent crafty, licking tongues up the vessel's side, he freely acknowledged his debt, gave honour where honour was due.--FROM THEE COMETH VICTORY, FROM THEE COMETH WISDOM, AND THINE IS THE GLORY AND I AM THY SERVANT.

The last spark of a coast-light went out. Buffeted by the rising wind, the good ship began to pitch and roll. Her canvas rattled, her joints creaked and groaned as, lunging forward, she cut her way through the troubled seas that break on the reef-bound coasts of this old, new world.