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  ― 150 ―

Dolly.

WHEN an English King knighted the Sir Loin of British Beef he was probably ignorant of the august precedent of a Roman ruler, who intended to raise a British oyster to consular rank, but, on reflection, decided that the honour was an inadequate one. To enjoy a plate of oysters is a proof of culture; to enjoy a barrel, a proof of complete culture. But of late there had been rumours of chemically-concocted imitations of the delightful bivalve. With the advent of the manufactured article, an awful thing of slimy loathsomeness, surely good taste would pass away, and there be left no desire to train the palate for the mermaid embrace of this delicate softness in armour. So I mused as, one by one, the Sydney Rocks were shrined in an appreciative grave.

“Good Lord! Dolly!”

The words shaped themselves in my throat, clattered up against the roof of my mouth, and almost found utterance. But the sight of what came after drove them back to the limbo of things unspoken. It was certainly Dolly; Dolly looking even more rounded and voluptuous than she had looked an odd dozen or so months before. But he that followed was as surely her husband, a husband still under the glamour of a honeymoon preserved by passion or art beyond its decent and proper limit of thirty days. And—Great Heavens! would the procession never end?—there came filing into the shop a third, a handmaiden of Venus Genetrix, bearing in her arms the baby of Dolly, and the evident pride of Dolly's husband. Confounded, I watched the entrance of the nurse-girl, half expecting, half fearing the doorway to be darkened by yet another.

“Will the line stretch out to the crack of doom?”

A dreadful vision of a matronly Dolly, followed by scores of maids, each burdened by an infant that wagged a tiny finger of


  ― 151 ―
reproach, oppressed me for a moment. Then I saw that the procession had ended. There was but one baby and one husband. Still, the idea of Dolly with a husband and a baby … and only eighteen months since. … It was surprising, even alarming.

The husband seemed swelling with fatuous pride, resembling fantastically the Sydney Rock on my plate, which puffingly pushed out its ample cream-coloured waist from a flat shell, as though the kindness of the Oyster Fates were favouring its destiny. He was fair and beefy; and the proprietary air with which he viewed his wife and his baby was as obvious as his necktie. That, a royal purple shot with brilliant green, wailed fearfully or shrieked exultantly as it caught the light obliquely or directly. Dolly came to me with outstretched hand and a smile which showed two rows of white, even teeth, specked in three places with gold. (The history of those specks I could have told with absolute devotion to detail. I cannot recall whether I still possess the invoice.) There was not a suggestion of diffidence in her face. Her eyes did not plead: they boldly commanded.

“This, Dick” (Of course, his name was Dick. Men who look like that always are “Dick”!) “is Mr. Brice, an old friend of mine. Mr. Brice—my husband, Mr. Moxman.”

I felt confused, ashamed, afraid to take the hand of the honest fellow in front of me. But Dolly was imperturbable. I had to accept the proffered hand and submit mine to its warm grasp; to refuse would have seemed strange, even suspicious to Mr. Moxman. Though, on reflection, I could no more think of suspicion as possible in his mind than I could imagine a pearl under the vest of the fine oyster, the last of its dozen, which still pushed out its stomach as a suggestion to mine,—losing, I thought, a little of the first sleek look of content as I continued to delay the devouring of it.

They stayed half-an-hour or so. Moxman told me, admiringly, how his wife doted on oysters—“not a common taste in women.” It seemed to him distinctly genteel. I was tempted to tell him in return how the oyster is the touchstone of character, by which the shop-girl and the theatre-girl are judged; a taste for the bivalve


  ― 152 ―
is significant of much. But why should I play the Serpent in a Fool's Paradise? The baby, of course, had to be admired, and its striking resemblance to Dadda noted. When the maid brought the little germ of a sinner up for admiration, Moxman suggested that perhaps “the girl” would like some prawns. Mrs. Moxman frowned the idea down.

At last they went, he gloating over his wife with greedy eyes, the nurse-maid following with the defiant humility of an Australian servant.

Now, at Deluigi's you get the finest oysters in all the city of Sydney; the only Tasmanian trumpeter that can make an Englishman forget the turbot; and schnapper of sentimental plumpness. But I was forced to resolve upon an abandonment of this home of salt delights. I could not risk meeting Dolly again. To sacrifice Deluigi's was to lose something of life. Yet, after all, one must sooner or later pay for one's pleasures. After eighteen months the price of that rosy fortnight at Lake Macquarie had to be paid.

Saddened by the thought of this sacrifice on the altar of a dead ecstasy, I thought bitterly of Dolly, her husband, and the baby, going home. I could see her as she swam proudly by his side, and hear her as she asked him if he had noticed how confused and red I had been. “Poor Mr. Brice! He was an old admirer of mine. For twelve months he teased me something dreadful to marry him. He is not a bad-looking fellow,—though, of course, nothing like you, Dick.” (This with an admiring look aloft). “He has, too, no end of money; but, you know, Dick” (with a squeeze of the arm which she held) “I always had an ideal, and until I met you—”

When they reached home, I could imagine the hot and flustered nursemaid asking to be allowed to go out that night, and being refused by the indignant little matron, who tells her how wrong it is for young women to go out unaccompanied, and hints darkly as to what may happen to girls guilty of such wrong.

A woman is never ashamed, but when necessary she can appear to be.

FRANK RENAR.

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