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The Square Ring:


WHEN Aggie had persuaded Chuck Maroney to marry her, she did up her hair. “I ain't takin' no risks,” she explained; and at the critical moment she said she was twenty-one in so artless a manner that even the shabby, red-nosed parson, who had been passed by thirty-two congregations to land at Smith's Matrimonial Agency, held for a moment the sincere thought that she looked very young. At the time for fitting on the ring Chuck indignantly scorned the aluminium circlet proffered by the Agency—“Weddings, with duly qualified clergyman and ring provided, 10s. 6d.”—as the advertisement ran. “Ef this here's gointer be done at all, it's gointer be done in style,” he said proudly; and he ostentatiously drew from his waistcoat-pocket another ring—gold this time, and of strength and weight sufficient to restrain a horse.

Chuck was impressive in his bearing as he carefully fitted the ring on the girl's finger; and it was with the manner of one treading on air that he asked the clergyman across the road after the ceremony, “ter join me and the missus in a long-'un.”

On the tram, going home, the bride proudly kept her fat brown fist clenched on her knee with the heavy gold band uppermost—shining out and proclaiming to all the world that she had fulfilled her destiny.

Chuck didn't trouble to go to Ginger Macauley's for a barrow of fruit that day. “We done our honeymoon six months ago,” said Aggie when he suggested the formality; but he maintained that something of the sort was necessary for the sake of appearances. So Mr. and Mrs. Maroney compromised on an afternoon's trip to

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Beaumaris—“the round trip 2s. 6d.” (as extensively advertised by the Victorian Railway Department) being seized upon as the most economical form of honeymoon extant.

The sands of Sandringham, the long, meandering avenue of dark green ti-trees enclosing the tram-line, the brown cliffs of Beaumaris themselves—looking like a bit of Sydney Harbour lifted up and set down in the midst of the wastes of Port Phillip bay—all seemed invested with beauty more intense than ever; and away between the brown and green tints of the land the sea lay beneath the sun smooth and pale-blue, with a bloom on it like a ripening plum. It was at Beaumaris that they had their wedding breakfast; and it was in the soft, mossy groves along the cliffs that they told their love over again and forgot that such a place as Little Bourke-street ever existed, or that the curse of working for a living had ever fallen on mankind.

Below on the sand they took off their boots and stockings and paddled like children, and with the combined influences of love and happiness and sea-air became so hysterically intoxicated that Aggie “chucked-off” in a particularly nasty way at the porter at Cheltenham, and a stand-up fight between him and Chuck was narrowly averted in consequence.

At the city, it was oysters and stout at Billy the Greek's, a fruit-supper next door, and a bottle of wine at Francesco's; and it was close on midnight when Chuck and Aggie turned from Little Bourke-street into Hogan's-place—the one spot in all Melbourne that resembles the “courts” so common in the big English towns. There was a crowd in front of Levy's door, and there were loud voices there, rising from the circle of black, flat figures that dodged around the lights in Levy's cart.

“Pull out, pull out!” whispered Aggie; “it's on'y the ole push. Slip in without 'em seein' yer.”

But the old push—always eager to impress on everybody that it “knew somethin' ”—stood to its self-given reputation in this instance; and the attempt of the newly-married couple to avoid the meeting was seen.

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“Wher' to, Chuck?” asked Arty Doolan; “there's a beer waiting for yer here, an' we was just goin' ter drink the health av you and the missus.”

The man paused, irresolute; but at that moment there peeped from behind the cart the sleek black head and piercing eyes of “the Zulu”—one of the girls at the Black Angel, and one whose company Chuck Maroney used much to affect before he met Aggie.

Aggie saw the dark, handsome face, and pressed her husband's elbow. “Come along,” she whispered. But the whisper reached the Zulu, and she stepped out. “Come along,” she laughed; “we're an hones' woman now, ain't we? Our old pals ain't clars enough for us. You poor silly little fool, you had to make Chuck Maroney marry you. He tried to make me marry him. Me!—me marry Chuck Maroney!” and in the dead silence of the square her pitiless laugh rang up hard from the stone pitchers. “Poor silly little fool! you an' yer fine husban'! Why, he was mine afore ever he was yours; an', marriage an' all, he's mine to-morrow if I say the word.”

A bottle flashed up, and the blood fled from Aggie's face, leaving it white and horrifying. “Knock off!” she yelled; “or I'll shot this in yer mouth.”

Chuck seized the weapon from his wife, and as the Zulu saw his hand close upon it she leaped forward, and her white fist swept grazingly across Aggie's face. Though ill-aimed, the blow was heavy, and Aggie staggered back to recover herself against the wall. There her face fell within the focus of Levy's lamp, and the change was plain. The jolly, reckless look she usually wore, the grey rage that the words of the Zulu had called up, had both disappeared. Instead was a calm, determined expression, almost masculine, and as she stepped out again, with the right arm square across her waist and her left elbow flapping at her side, the Zulu quailed. Aggie was no longer the easy-going little larrikiness of week-days; no longer the infuriated, insulted wife. She was a fighter pure and simple.

Unversed in the art of conflict, the barmaid ran wildly forward with her head down, spitting in her temper, and lashing out blindly

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with both hands. Aggie knew her opportunity. She stepped aside, swung the whole weight of her body into her left hand, and the Zulu rolled over on the stones. From chin to cheek ran a deep red line that grew deeper as they watched; and Aggie, laughing in her triumph, glanced from the face of her adversary to her left hand. Then raising it high above her head, she threw it suddenly downwards, and as the few red drops fell to the pitchers, she nestled to her husband's side, and, holding up her hand, smeared with blood across the four knuckles, said softly, “It was the ring that done it, Chuck; aincher glad yer married me now?