The End of a Childhood, by Henry Handel Richardson

I

Twelve months almost to a day after her husband’s death, Mary Mahony received a letter that greatly perturbed her.

It was handed to her straight from the sorting table. Recognising the writing, she put on her spectacles and unthinkingly slit it open. But she had not read far before her colour rose, and with a covert glance at her two subordinates — the telegraph operator, who sat lazily picking his nose, had a sly and roving eye — she hastily refolded it and thrust it in her pocket.

There it remained; and all day long she was conscious of it, as of something hot or heavy. Not until evening, when the office was closed and the children lay asleep, did she draw it forth again. Then, alone in her little parlour, she pulled the kerosene-lamp to her and prepared to face the contents.

It was from her old friend Henry Ocock, and ran:

Wendouree House, Ballarat.

My dear Mrs. Mahony,

My prolonged silence has not, I trust, led you to infer me grown in any way indifferent to your welfare. Far from it, you have, if I may say so, seldom been absent from my thoughts. But I have hesitated to intrude, without due cause, on a grief that I regarded as sacred. Now, however, when it may be assumed that Time, the great Healer, has assuaged the first bitterness of your irreparable loss, I venture to take up my pen on a subject of to me vital importance.

What I am going to say may, no doubt will surprise you. But the wish, the fond hope, I am about to express, is, believe me, no new one — I have cherished it longer than I should dare to tell you. Dear friend, I cannot but think you have always been aware how much I admired, how highly esteemed you — though doubtless still appraising you below your true worth. It would be impossible to minimise the heroism you have shown in battling with a concatenation of circumstances that would have crushed a lesser spirit. In my estimation, few women are worthy to be compared with you, and of this esteem and veneration I now offer you tangible proof, by asking you if you will do me the honour to become my wife.

I will not, in this connection — and I think you will understand me — make use of such terms as love and passion. We are neither of us in our first youth, and have each had our full share of Life’s Trials. But my appreciation of your many excellent qualities of mind and heart have only increased with the years; and should you, dear friend, consider that these sentiments suffice, that you could, without trepidation, lay your fate in my hands, I assure you you should never have reason to regret it. — There are, besides, others than ourselves to think of. My children sadly need a mother’s care, yours a father’s guiding hand.

Let me entreat you not to reply too hastily. Take your own time — as long as you will — to consider my proposal.

Until then, believe me, Truly and devotedly yours, Henry Ocock.

For a moment Mary continued to sit with this letter in her hand, staring a little stupidly over the top of it. Then she dropped it, even gave it a slight push away from her. In reading, she had grown more and more uncomfortable. Till she came to the bit about the children. At that, a kind of stiffening ran through her. What? HER children? — Richard’s children? — to need the guidance of . . . of Henry Ocock? “Well, upon my world!”

But, no, you couldn’t . . . she mustn’t . . . look at it that way.

Taking off her spectacles — they were the cheap, ugly, steel-rimmed kind — she settled herself squarely in her seat, mouth and chin gripped fast in the hollow of one hand: an attitude she often fell into when unpleasant things had to be faced — bills for the mending of the children’s boots, complaints from Head Office, the contrariness of columns of figures that would NOT tally.

Yes, unpleasant was the word: her first feeling was one of utter repugnance. The thought of marrying again had never occurred to her. She wasn’t that sort. And now came Henry Ocock. . . . SIR Henry Ocock . . . for the fraction of a second her mind lingered on the prefix. But in the next minute she heard Richard’s voice saying: “Confound his impudence!” and with so much of the familiar Irish over-emphasis that she simply had to smile. Oh! she could just imagine how angry Richard would be. HIS wife. . .. Henry Ocock!

This violent personal antipathy she had never shared. She had even been given to standing up for Mr. Henry, preferring as she did to think that there was SOME good in everybody. And if Richard could now come back and see what a friend Ocock had proved, he’d have to admit she was right. Though of course if, all the time, Mr. Henry — Sir Henry — had had THIS up his sleeve. . . . But there! why go poking and prying into people’s motives? (That was Richard again — not her.) Let her stick to facts. Where would she and the children be to-day, if Ocock had not come to their aid? Why, in the gutter . . . or the Benevolent Asylum. Certainly not together; and that would have hit her harder than anything. Then again her transfer, six months ago, from that dreadful Gyrngurra, to this more civilised place, with a forty-pound rise in salary, a decent BRICK house, and a large garden for the children to play in: all this she owed to Mr. Henry’s influence. (Of course, that he had feelings just like anyone else, SHE had known since the day when she saw him . . . made him . . . cry.)

No, the truth had to be faced: Richard was gone and she couldn’t go on for ever letting herself be swayed and prejudiced by what he had thought, by his likes and dislikes. Times changed, and you changed with them. Looked at in this light, Ocock’s letter was nobody’s business but her own. For who else knew the circumstances that had led up to it? (Certainly not Richard.) And so, compressing her lips, she began by admitting — a little doggedly — that, in spite of its stiffness and pomposity, its “estimations” and “venerations” where he might have said “like” and “respect,” (“concatenation” she’d never seen or heard of before)— in spite of everything, Ocock’s letter was a generous one. Considering the — well, she wouldn’t say “the snob he was”— but considering the enormous value he set on money and connections and social prestige; remembering, too, the nobody he had been to start with, and the way he had climbed (and over WHAT obstacles!) to the top of the tree; she thought it, now, more than generous of him, to put his pride in his pocket and stoop to a poor little up-country post-mistress. (And not at all patronisingly: his wordiness, his difficulty in coming to the point, struck her as rather pathetic.) Yet to say “stoop” wasn’t being quite honest either. For every one knew who SHE was . . . or had been. Richard’s name still counted for something. And if this affair had happened a few years earlier, she would have been the one to stoop, not he.

Even as it was, the favours wouldn’t be all on Ocock’s side. Nobody was more experienced than she in running a big establishment — the scale of living at “Ultima Thule” would have made Ocock himself open his eyes — how to keep it up to the nines, yet without undue extravagance. She would even undertake to manage him, too, if necessary; after Richard, no other man would prove difficult. And it would surely be worth a great deal to Mr. Henry, for once in his life to have some one to club with him and support him. His nearest relations — his damaging old father, his dissolute brothers, poor little Agnes with her fatal weakness — one and all, in their separate ways, had been weights to drag him down. With a different family at his back, he might have ended as Prime Minister. — She would even guarantee to get on with Agnes’s children; though these were now in their teens, of an age bitterly to resent the coming of a stepmother.

Yes! had that been all. In any of these ways she could have made herself useful . . . even indispensable. (Indeed, the idea of showing what she COULD do, in this line, made a kind of insidious appeal to her.) But it wasn’t all; and it wasn’t enough. He didn’t want a housekeeper or a business companion; he wanted a wife. And it was here her courage failed her. She had been so essentially, so emphatically, a one-man woman; never had her inclination strayed; having Richard, she had everything she needed. Of course, he had caught her VERY young, very innocent. Perhaps, had she been just a little older, with more knowledge of life . . . more NOUS . . . For really, by nature . . . yes . . . well . . . . “Well, you know what I mean,” said Mary to herself, a series of half-formed images, which she would have shrunk from completing, chasing one another across her mind. And at the thought of now having to begin all over again — at HER age — with a stranger; at the thought of once more yielding her freedom, (which she had learned to value) of an invaded privacy, the intimacies of the bedroom — no! it was not to be contemplated, not for an instant: it simply could not be done.

And there was another thing. If she married, she might still have children — HIS children. And this was surely the crucial test. For the unloved man’s embraces might be borne: they concerned yourself alone. But what must that mother feel, who had to see appearing in the children she loved — and that you could help caring for the little things you carried about with you for nine long months was unthinkable — uglinesses of face and character belonging to the father? Eyes set too close together, or shifty eyes, or thin, cruel lips. Foxy ways . . . unscrupulousness — double dealing. She could imagine nothing, nothing more horrible.

But here she broke off, with an impatient click of the tongue. For this string of faults and blemishes, whose were they but Henry Ocock’s as seen by Richard? Oh, it was hopeless, quite hopeless: Richard would have her under his thumb to the end; and even more than during his lifetime, when she could at least stand up to him and fight for her own opinions. Well, one thing she had to be thankful for: in HIS children there was nothing she need fear to see develop. No ugliness of face or disposition there! — And as she now sat and thought of them, and of what they meant to her, she saw that all this arguing and disputing, this palaver about what SHE could or could not put up with, was a mere foolish beating of the air. In matters that affected the children, she simply did not count. The sole query was, would they benefit? Did they stand to gain by her re-marrying?

She felt a sudden need of being near them, of having them before her eyes. Getting up she fetched a candlestick from the kitchen, lit the candle, and went into the bedroom. But, in passing the dressing-table, she caught a glimpse of her own shadowy figure; and yielding to an impulse she crossed to the glass, holding the light above her head.

There she stood and looked at herself: not as a mother, or a wage-earner, but a woman — and a woman somebody still thought worth marrying! On the wrong side of forty now, middle-aged, and for all the world to see — since she had never a moment left in which to care for her appearance. Her hair had worn best: it was still glossy and fairly thick, nor had the straight white centre parting spread. But it had gone very grey round the temples; and these, and her forehead, were furrowed with lines; while wrinkles fine as spiders’ webs teased her lids, and ran out, fan-shaped, from the corners of her eyes. The sharp steel of the glasses, too, had cut a permanent red line on the bridge of her nose. The big dark eyes, which had once been her chief feature, might still, if freed from the disfiguring spectacles, have passed muster; but that was all. Of the lower part of the face the less said the better: the nose was pinched, the mouth thin-lipped and elderly; and all sorts of odd twists and creases were forming on her once smooth cheeks and chin.

And yet . . . and yet . . . such a store of energy still existed in her, that, give her but half a chance to recuperate, a spell, say, of nights unbroken by the rat-tat-tat of the night-mail, and the consequent shivering of her sleep to atoms: give her these, and she believed she would rise a different woman. Then, too, there would be no more knitting and screwing up of the brows, or biting of the lips, or straining of the eyes, over infinitesimal dots and dashes, or dizzy rows of figures. No more denying herself in order that the children should not go short; or pinching and scraping in order to make a pittance of a hundred-and-twenty a year stretch to twice its size. No more twelve-hour days on her feet — these hot, tired, throbbing feet — or hands rough and red with rough work. No more quailing before her subordinates — never, never again, anything to do with young men of their class! — a telegraphist who subtly, a postman who openly flouted her authority, both knowing their jobs much better than she knew hers. Oh! what it would mean to be rid of them, to retire into private life again, did not bear thinking about. Seized by a sudden fear, she turned from the glass.

In the dimity-hung double bed that stood against the wall, little Lucie, her bed-fellow, slept the drunken sleep of childhood. Bending over her, she was lying face downwards, Mary turned her on one side, then, passing a finger under the fair thick mass of curls, lifted them, for coolness’ sake, and spread them out over the pillow. It was a very hot night; and on his little stretcher-bed in an adjoining cubbyhole, Cuffy lay drenched in perspiration. Here, his mother’s first act was to take a clean little nightshirt from a drawer, sit him up, slip off the wet one and pop the dry over his head, he opening his eyes for a second, unseeingly, making a kind of growly noise in his throat, and dropping back fast asleep, before she had finished with the buttons. And, as she did this, other nights rose before her, scores of them, on which she, or Nannan — even Richard himself — had made the change. The habit dated from Cuffy’s babyhood.

It was only a trifle, but it seemed to unlock the flood-gates; and sitting down beside him, her elbows on her knees, her chin in her hands, remembering and remembering, she put the question that mothers have asked themselves since the world began: who would do these things for my children if I were not there? — But no, that sounded too like being dead. What she meant was, if I were prevented, belonged to some one else who had first claim on me, or the right to object. Some one, too, who, from what she knew of him, might easily turn jealous of her children and the love she bore them. Who might not even like them. And indeed, he and Richard having had such different natures, could she reasonably EXPECT him to like Richard’s children? The probability was, he wouldn’t; and they would be pushed into the background, kept down: as mere stepchildren made to play second fiddle to his own.

But here, her mind taking a sudden leap, she came face to face with the bug-bear that stalked her wakeful nights — the problem of Cuffy’s education. For the present, he went every morning for a couple of hours’ lessons to Mr. Burroughs, the clergyman; and it was enough: Richard had always been against forcing him. But after this? — say, a couple of years hence? Oh, when she thought of all the plans and ambitions they had nursed for their first-born . . . now blown to the four winds. Yet, even still, there was something in her, something obstinate, irrational, which refused to believe that Cuffy would be done out of public school and university. And now, as always when she reached this point, she declared to herself: “Well! . . . if the worst comes to the worst!”— and with such emphasis that her lips moved to the unspoken words. What she meant was: though I have never for myself borrowed or owed a farthing, yet . . . when it’s a case of my children. . . . And then once more she went over in thought those it would be least galling to apply to for aid. Old Lady Devine, who was for ever making them presents; Tilly, childless now herself; and — yes, as long as he had been content to remain a friend, the list had also included Henry Ocock. Now, Ocock had put himself out of court. But, even if she married him, could she expect him to share her ambitions and aspirations for a child that was not his own? Or even understand them? He was none too fond of untying his purse-strings. In all probability he would want to put Cuffy into business, or thrust him, half-grown, half-educated, into a Bank.

And there were other things, too, that he might not, would not, understand.

The children had thriven in the past half-year; even Cuffy having at last begun to fill out and grow. This was partly due to them having a garden again to play in; they had always been used to gardens. But the chief reason, no good shirking it, was that an ugly shadow had been lifted from their lives. Children were not built to stand what hers had been through. And, her first grief over, she could not but feel glad for their sakes that Richard was gone. Whether she had really done right, in taking him away from the asylum, she sometimes wondered; when she saw how they had blossomed out since his death. And yet . . . and yet . . .

That they had not got off scot-free she realised when it was too late. For it was all very well to plume herself on them being their father’s children, in good looks and nice feelings. That wasn’t the whole truth. They had inherited other, less desirable traits as well: Richard’s ultra-sensitiveness, his finickiness (what they would and would not eat, what they chose or did not choose to wear) his Irish uppishness. In other words, they were both very highly strung; and, in consequence, the strain of his illness, and the unhappy years preceding it, had told on them more severely than if they had been ordinary children. Look at Lucie. In her seven short years Lucie had seen so many changes — the death of her little twin sister, the racketing from place to place, the collapse of one home after another, and, worse still, the collapse — of the father who should have been her mainstay — that she, too, had broken down, and was now little better than a bundle of nerves. Having lost so much, the child lived in a constant fear lest her last and dearest should also be snatched away. It was Mamma here, Mamma there; and on those rare evenings when she, Mary, stepped across the road for a chat with the Bank Manager’s wife, she knew that on her return, no matter at what hour, she would find the child sitting bolt upright in bed, with frightened eyes and perspiring hands, convinced that Mamma had gone away, or was dead, and would never come back. Neither scoldings nor pettings took any effect.

Cuffy, always excitable, had shortly after his father’s death developed a convulsive twitching and blinking of face and eyes that was distressing to see. The doctor said the habit was purely nervous, and would pass as he grew older. Meanwhile, there was nothing to be done; except sometimes hold up a glass to show him how ugly or how silly he looked. But did she think of him, of either of them, going among strangers thus handicapped, to be made fun of, or found fault with — perhaps even PUNISHED— for failings they had done nothing to deserve: at the mere thought of it, all her protective tenderness was up in arms. No; Richard’s children they were, for good or for ill; and Richard’s children they should remain. No one but the father they were so like would be capable of understanding them.

And here, as if to brace her in her decision, words she had once heard, and which her memory had as it were stored up for use in this crisis, came floating into her mind. “Henry Ocock is harsh with children . . . is harsh with children.”

That did it: now she knew where she stood. Well, he shouldn’t — she wouldn’t give him the chance to be — with hers. On no one but herself should their lives and happiness depend.

Picking up the candle, she went back into the sitting-room where the letter lay, just as she had left it, open on the table. Without giving it a second glance, she took out pen and paper, and sat down to frame her reply.

Oh yes, she knew quite well what she was doing when she wrote: DEEPLY AS I APPRECIATE YOUR KINDNESS, I CANNOT MARRY YOU. Besides condemning herself to poverty, she was cutting herself adrift from the friend who had most power to make things easier for her. (Stung in his vanity, Ocock would hardly be big-minded enough to go on pulling strings on her behalf.) She was also, in a sense, taking leave of her womanhood. Many a year must elapse before either of the children could come to her aid. By then she would be old in earnest, and long past desiring. But she did not waver. Once more it had been brought home to her where her heart really lay. And then, with the ink still wet on her name, she smiled to herself — a grim, amused little smile. In all this pro-ing and con-ing, this weighing of profit and loss, she had taken no count of the children’s own inclinations: Richard’s children, blessed (or cursed) with Richard’s faculty for pronounced likes and dislikes, with his mercilessly critical eyes. Now, it was with almost a feeling of compensation that she thought to herself: I wonder what THEY would have had to say of HIM . . . as a father!

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Last updated Thursday, March 6, 2014 at 15:33