Ultima Thule, by Henry Handel Richardson

Chapter X

The almond-trees that grew in a clump at the bottom of the garden had shed their pink blossom and begun to form fruit. At first, did you slily bite one of the funny long green things in two, you came to a messy jelly . . . bah! it WAS nasty . . . you spat it out again as quick as you could. But a little later, though you could still get your teeth through the green shell, which was hairy on your tongue and sourer than ever, you found a delicious white slippery kernel inside. Cuffy made this discovery one afternoon when Mamma had gone to the Bank to tea, and Miss Prestwick was busy writing letters. He ate freely of the delicacy; and his twin shadows demanded to eat, too. Their milk teeth being waggly, he bit the green casing through for them; and they fished out the kernels for themselves.

That night, there were loud cries for Mamma. Hurrying to them, candle in hand, Mary found the children pale and distressed, their little bodies cramped with grinding, colicky pains. Green almonds? —“Oh, you naughty, NAUGHTY children! Haven’t I told you never to touch them? Where was Miss Prestwick? — There! I’ve always said it: she isn’t FIT to have charge of them. I shall pack her off in the morning.”

Followed a time of much pain and discomfort for the almond-eaters; of worry and trouble for Mary, who for several nights was up and down. All three paid dearly for their indulgence; but recovery was not in order of merit. Cuffy, who had enjoyed the lion’s share, was the first to improve: remarkable, agreed Richard, the power of recuperation possessed by this thin, pale child. The twins, for all their sturdiness, were harder to bring round.

But at last they, too, were on their feet again, looking very white and pulled down, it was true; still, there they were, able to trot about; and their father celebrated the occasion by taking the trio for a walk by the Lagoon. The world was a new place to the little prisoners. They paused at every step to wonder and exclaim.

What happened no one knew. At the time it seemed to Mary that, for a first walk, Richard was keeping them out too long. However she said nothing; for they came back in good spirits, ate their supper of bread and milk with appetite, and went cheerily to bed.

Then, shortly after midnight, Lallie roused the house with shrill cries. Running to her, Mary found the child doubled up with pain and wet with perspiration. By morning she was as ill as before. There was nothing for it but to buckle down to a fresh bout of nursing.

Of the two lovely little blue-eyed, fair-haired girls, who were the joy of their parents’ lives as Cuffy was the pride: of these, Mahony’s early whimsy that a single soul had been parcelled out between two bodies still held good. Not an act in their six short years but had, till now, been a joint one. Hand in hand, cheek to cheek, they faced their tiny experiences, turning to each other to share a titbit, a secret, a smile. But if, in such oneness, there could be talk of a leader, then it was Lallie who led. A quarter of an hour older, a fraction of an inch taller, half a pound heavier, she had always been a thought bolder than her sister, a hint quicker to take the proffered lollipop, to speak out her baby thoughts. Just as Cuffy was their common model, so Lucie patterned herself on Lallie; and, without Lallie, was only half herself; even a temporary separation proving as rude a wrench as though they had been born with a fleshly bond. — And it was a real trial, in the days that followed, to hear the bereft Lucie’s plaintive wail: “Where’s Lallie? I want Lallie . . . I want Lallie.” “Surely, Cuffy, you can manage to keep her amused? Play with her, dear. Let her do just as she likes,” said Mary — with a contorted face, in the act of wringing a flannel binder out of all but boiling water.

She spoke briskly; was cheerful, and of good heart. For, in the beginning, no suspicion of anything being seriously amiss crossed her mind. It was just a relapse, and as such needed carefullest nursing and attention. In the course of the fifth day, however, one or two little things that happened stirred a vague uneasiness in her. Or rather she saw afterwards that this had been so: at the moment she had let the uncomfortable impressions escape her with all speed. It struck her that the child’s progress was very slow. Also she noticed that Richard tried another remedy. However, this change seemed to the good; towards evening Lallie fell into a refreshing sleep. But when next morning after a broken night she drew up the blind, something in the child’s aspect brought back, with a rush and intensified, her hazy disquiets of the previous day. Lallie was oddly dull. She would not open her eyes properly or answer when spoken to; and she turned her face from the cooling drink that was held to her lips.

“She doesn’t seem so well this morning.”

Mary’s voice was steady as she uttered these words — this commonplace of the sickroom. But even as she spoke, she became aware of the cold fear that was laying itself round her heart. It seemed to sink, to grow strangely leaden, as she watched Richard make the necessary examination . . . ever so gently . . . she had never really known how tender his hands were, till she saw them used on the shrinking body of his own child. —“Papa’s darling . . . Papa’s good little girl.”— But the sheet drawn up again he avoided meeting her eyes. As if that would help him! She who could read his face as if it were a book . . . how did he hope to deceive HER? — and where one of her own babies was concerned.

“Richard, what is it? Do you . . .”

“Now, my dear, don’t get alarmed. There’s bound to be a certain amount of prostration . . . till the dysentery is checked. I shall try ipecac.”

But neither ipecacuanha nor yet a compound mixture — administered in the small doses suited to so young a patient — had any effect. The inflammation persisted, racking the child with pain, steadily draining her of strength. It was a poor limp little sweat-drenched body, with loosely bobbing head, that Mary, had she to lift it, held in her arms. Throughout this day too, the sixth, she was forced to listen, sitting helplessly by, to a sound that was half a wail and half a moan of utter lassitude. And towards evening a more distressing symptom set in, in the shape of a convulsive retching. On her knees beside the bed, her right arm beneath Lallie’s shoulders, Mary suffered, in her own vitals, the struggle that contorted the little body prior to the fit of sickness. Hers, too, the heartrending task of trying to still the child’s terror — the frightened eyes, the arms imploringly outheld, the cries of “Mamma, Mamma!” to the person who had never yet failed to help — as the spasms began anew.

“It’s ALL right, my darling, my precious! Mamma’s here — here, close beside you. There, there! It’ll soon be better now.”— And so it went on for the greater part of the night.

In the intervals between the attacks when the exhausted child dozed heavily, Mary, not venturing to move from her knees, laid her face down on the bed, and wrestled with the One she held responsible. “Oh, God, be merciful! She’s such a little child, God! . . . to have to suffer so. Oh, spare her! . . . spare my baby.”

By morning light she was horrified to find that the little tongue had turned brown. The shock of this discovery was so great that it drove over her lips a thought that had come to her in the night . . . had haunted her . . . only to be thrust back into the limbo where it belonged. What if Richard . . . if perhaps some new remedy had been invented since last he was in practice, which he didn’t know of? — he had been out of the way of things so long.

Now, a wild fear for her child’s life drowned all lesser considerations. “What . . . what about getting a second opinion?”

Mahony looked sadly at her and laid his hand on her shoulder. “Mary . . . dear wife —” he began; then broke off: too well he knew the agonies of self-reproach that might await her. “Yes, you’re right. I tell you what I’ll do. I’ll run up to the station and get Pendrell to telegraph to Oakworth. There’s a man there . . . I happen to know his name.”

Never a moment’s hesitation over the expense it would put him to: never a sign of hurt at the doubt cast on his own skill. From where she sat, Mary watched him go: he took a short-cut up the back yard, past kitchen and henhouse. Oh! but he had no hat on . . . had gone out without one . . . had FORGOTTEN to put his hat on — he who was so afraid of the sun! As she grasped what the omission meant, at the lightning-flash it gave her into his own state of mind, she clenched her hands till her nails cut her palms.

At earliest the doctor could not arrive before five o’clock. All through the long hours of that long, hot day, she sat and waited for his coming: pinning her faith to it — as one who is whirling down a precipitous slope snatches at any frail root or blade of grass that offers to his hand. Something — some miracle would . . . MUST . . . happen — to save her child. She was quite alone. Richard had to attend his patients, and in the afternoon to drive into the bush: other people could not be put off, or neglected, because his own child lay ill. The wife of the Bank Manager, hearing of their trouble, came and took away the other children. And there Mary sat, heedless of food or rest, conscious only of the little tortured body on the bed before her; sat and fanned off the flies, and pulled up or turned down the sheet, according as fever or the rigors shook the child, noting each creeping change for the worse, snatching at fantastic changes for the better. Her lips were thin and dogged in her haggard face; her eyes burned like coals: it was as if, within her, she was engaged in concentrating a store of strength, with which to invest her child. — But on going out to the kitchen to prepare fresh rice-water, she became aware that, for all the broiling heat of the day, her hands were numb with cold.

Richard came rushing home to meet the train. To warn, too, the stranger to caution. “Not a word, I beg of you, before my wife. She is breaking her heart over it.”

But one glimpse of the man who entered the room at Richard’s side brought Mary’s last hope crashing about her ears; and in this moment she faced the fact that Lallie must die. The newcomer was just an ordinary country doctor — well she knew the type! — rough, burly, uncouth. Into the ordered stillness of the sickroom he brought the first disturbance. He tripped over the mat, his boots creaked, his hands were clumsy — or seemed so, compared with Richard’s. Oh! the madness of calling in a man like this, when she had Richard at her side. Fool, fool that she was! Now, her only desire was to be rid of him again. She turned away, unable to look on while he handled Lallie, disarranged — hurt — her, in pulling back the sheet and exposing the distended drum-like little body. (“Um . . . just so.”) His manner to Richard, too, was galling; his tone one of patronage. He no doubt regarded him as some old hack who had doddered his life away up-country, and could now not treat even a case of dysentery without the aid of a younger man. And for this, which was all her doing, Richard would have to sit with him and listen to him till the down train went at ten. It was too much for Mary. The tears that had obstinately refused to flow for the greater grief rose to her eyes, and were so hot and angry that they scorched the back of her lids.

That night, in the stillness that followed his departure, the last torment was inflicted on the dying child in the shape of a monstrous hiccough. It started from far, far down, shot out with the violence of an explosion, and seemed as if it would tear the little body in two. Under this new blow Mary’s courage all but failed her. In vain did Mahony, his arm round her bent shoulders, try to soothe her. “My darling, it sounds worse than it is. We feel it more than she does . . . now.” Each time it burst forth an irrepressible shudder ran through Mary, as if it were she herself who was being racked. And on this night her passionate prayer ran: “Take her, God! . . . take her if You must. I give her back to You. But oh! let it be soon . . . stop her suffering . . . give her peace.” And as hour after hour dragged by without respite, she rounded on Him and fiercely upbraided Him. “It is cruel of You . . . cruel! No earthly father would torture a child as You are doing. . . . You, all-powerful, and called Love!”

But little by little, so stealthily that its coming was imperceptible, the ultimate peace fell: by daybreak there was nothing more to hope or fear. Throughout the long day that followed — it seemed made of years, yet passed like an hour — Lallie lay in coma, drawing breaths that were part snores, part heavy sighs. Time and place ceased to exist for Mary, as she sat and watched her child die. Through noon and afternoon and on into the dark, she tirelessly wiped the damp brow and matted curls, fanned off the greedy flies, one little inert hand held firmly in her own: perhaps somehow, on this, her darling’s last, fearsome journey, the single journey in her short life that she had taken unattended, something would tell her that her mother was with her, her mother’s love keeping and holding her. On this day Richard did not leave the house. And their kind friend again fetched away the other children.

The OTHER children? . . . what need now of this word! Henceforth, there would always and for ever be only two. Never again, if not by accident, would the proud words, “My three,” cross her lips. There she sat, committing to oblivion her mother-store of fond and foolish dreams, the lovely fabric of hopes and plans that she had woven about this little dear one’s life; sat bidding farewell to many a tiny endearing feature of which none but she knew: in the spun-glass hair the one rebellious curl that would not twist with the rest; secret dimples kneaded in the baby body; the tiny birthmark below the right shoulder; the chubby, dimpled hands — Richard’s hands in miniature — all now destined to be shut away and hidden from sight. Oh, of what was use to create so fair a thing, merely to destroy it! (They say He knows all, but never, never can He have known what it means to be a mother.)

Midnight had struck before Mahony could half lead, half carry her from the room. Her long agony of suspense over, she collapsed, broke utterly down, in a way that alarmed him. He ran for restoratives; bathed her forehead; himself undressed her and got her to bed. Only then came the saving tears, setting free the desperate and conflicting emotions, till now so rigorously held in check, in a storm of grief of which he had never known the like. There was something primitive about it, savage even. For in it Mary wept the passion of her life — her children. And over the sacrifice she was now called on to make, her heart bled, as raw, as lacerated, as once her body had lain in giving them birth.

For long Mahony made no attempt to soothe or restrain. Well for her that she could weep! A nature like Mary’s would not be chastened by suffering: never would she know resignation; or forgive the injury that had been done her. This physical outlet was her sole means of relief.

But the moment came when he put out his hand and sought hers. “Wife . . . my own dearest! . . . it is not for ever. You . . . we . . . shall see our child again.”

But Mary would have none of it. Vehemently she tore her hand away. “Oh, what does that help? . . . help ME! I want her now . . . and here. I want to hold her in my arms . . . and feel her . . . and hear her speak. She will never speak to me again. Oh, my baby, my baby! . . . and I loved you so.”

“She knew it well. She still does.”

“How do YOU know? . . . how do you KNOW? Those are only words. They may do for you. . . . But I was her mother. She was mine; my very own. And do you think she wanted to die . . . and leave me? They tore her away — and tortured her — and frightened her. They may be frightening her still . . . such a little child, alone and frightened . . . and me not able to get to her! — Oh, WHY should this just happen to us? Other people’s children grow up . . . grow old. And we are so few . . . why, WHY had it to be?”

MEA CULPA, MEA MAXIMA CULPA! “If only I had never brought you to this accursed place!”

There was an instant’s pause, a momentary cessation of her laboured breathing, as the bed shook under the shudders that stand to a man for sobs, before she flung round and drew him to her.

“Mary, Mary! . . . I meant it for the best.”

“I know you did, I know. I WON’T have you blame yourself. It might have happened anywhere.” (Oh, my baby, my baby!)

Now they clung to each other, all the petty differences they laboured under obliterated by their common grief. Till suddenly a sound fell on their ears, driving them apart to listen: it was little Lucie, waking from sleep in an empty bed and crying with fear. Rising, her father carried her over and laid her down in his own warm place; and Mary, recalled from her profitless weeping by a need greater than her own, held out her arms and gathered the child in. “It’s all right, my darling. Mamma’s here.”

This, the ultimate remedy. Half an hour later when he crept back to look, mother and child slept, tear-stained cheek to cheek.

His hand in his father’s, Cuffy was led into the little room where Lallie lay. —“I want them to have no morbid fear of death.”

On waking that morning — after a rather jolly day spent at the Bank . . . or what would have been jolly, if Lucie hadn’t been such a cry-baby . . . where he had been allowed to try to lift a bar of gold and to step inside the great safe: on waking, Cuffy heard the amazing news that Lallie had gone away: God had taken her to live with Him. His eyes all but dropped out of his head, a dozen questions jumped to his tongue; but he did not ask one of them; for Mamma never stopped crying, and Papa looked as he did when you didn’t talk to him, but got away and tried not to remember. So Cuffy sat on the edge of the verandah and felt most awfully surprised. What had happened was too strange, too far removed from the range of his experience, too “interesting,” to let any other feeling come up in him. He wondered and wondered . . . why God had done it . . . and why He had just wanted Lallie. Now he himself . . . well, Luce HAD got so whiny!

But the darkened room and a sheet over the whole bed did something funny to him . . . inside. And, as his father turned the slats of the venetian so that a pale daylight filtered in, Cuffy asked — in a voice he meant to make whispery and small, but which came out hoarse like a crow: “What’s she covered up like that for?”

For answer Mahony drew back the double layer of mosquito netting, and displayed the little sister’s face. “Don’t be afraid, Cuffy. She’s only asleep.” And indeed it might well have been so. Here were no rigidly trussed limbs, no stiffly folded arms: the heave of the breath alone was missing. Lallie lay with one little hand under her cheek, her curls tumbling naturally over her shoulder. The other hand held a nosegay, a bit of gaudy red geranium tied up with one of its own leaves — the single poor flower Mahony had found still a-bloom in the garden.

“Kiss her Cuffy.”

Cuffy obeyed — and got a shock. “Why’s she so cold?”

“Because her spirit is flown. This dear little body, that we have known and loved, was only the house of the spirit; and now is empty and must fade. But though we shall not see her, our Lallie will go on living and growing . . . in a grace and beauty such as earth cannot show.” And more to himself than to the boy beside him Mahony murmured:

NOT AS A CHILD SHALL WE AGAIN BEHOLD HER, FOR WHEN, WITH RAPTURES WILD, IN OUR EMBRACES WE AGAIN ENFOLD HER, SHE WILL NOT BE A CHILD, BUT A FAIR MAIDEN IN HER FATHER’S MANSIONS . . .

“Will she . . . do you mean . . . be grown up?” And Cuffy fixed wide, affrighted eyes on his father. For in listening to these words, he had a sudden vision of a Lallie who looked just like Miss Prestwick or Cousin Emmy, with a little small waist, and bulgings, and tight, high, buttoned boots. And against this picture especially the boots — something in him rose and screamed with repugnance. He wanted Lallie’s fat little legs in socks and strapped shoes, as he had always known them. He WOULD not have her different!

“Oh, no, no . . . NO!” And with this, his habitual defence against the things he was unwilling to face, Cuffy tore his hand away and escaped to his sanctuary at the bottom of the garden.

Here for the first time a sense of loss came over him. (It was the boots had done it.) What, never see Lallie any more? . . . as his little fat sister? It couldn’t be true . . . it couldn’t! “I don’t believe it . . . I DON’T believe it!” (Hadn’t they told him that very morning that God had taken her away, when all the time she was in there lying on the bed?) And this attitude of doubt persisted; even though, when he got back the next afternoon from a long walk with Maria, God had kept His word and she was gone. But many and many a day passed before Cuffy gave up expecting her to re-appear. Did he go into an empty room, or turn a corner of the verandah, it seemed to him that he MUST find Lallie there: suddenly she would have come back, and everything be as it was before. For since, by their father’s care, all the sinister ceremonials and paraphernalia of death were kept from them, he was free to go on regarding it solely in the light of an abrupt disappearance . . . and if you could be spirited away in this fashion, who was to say if you mightn’t just as easily pop up again? Also by Mahony’s wish, neither he nor Lucie ever set foot in the outlying bush cemetery, where in due time a little cross informed the curious that the small mound before them hid the mortal remains of Alicia Mary Townshend-Mahony, aged five and a half years. Providing people, at the same time, with a puzzle to scratch their heads over. For, in place of the usual reference to lambs and tender shepherds, they found themselves confronted by the words: DANS L’ESPOIR. And what the meaning of this heathenish term might be, none in Barambogie knew, but all were suspicious of.

* * * * *

“We’ve simply GOT to afford it,” was Mary’s grim reply. — There she stood, her gaunt eyes fixed on Richard, the embodiment of a mother-creature at bay to protect her young.

Christmas had come and gone, and the fierce northern summer was upon them in earnest. Creeks and water-holes were dry now, rivers shrunk to a trickling thread; while that was brown straw which had once been grass. And Mary, worn down by heat and mental suffering, was fretting her heart out over her remaining baby, little Lucie, now but the ghost of her former self. Coming on top of Lucie’s own illness, her twin-sister’s death had struck her a blow from which she did not seem able to recover. And to see the child droop and fade before her very eyes rendered Mary desperate. This was why, to Richard’s procrastinating and undecided: “I must see if I can afford it,” she had flung out her challenge: “We’ve GOT to!”

“I suppose you’re right.”

“I know I am!”

Many and heartfelt had been the expressions of sympathy from those friends and acquaintances who had read the brief notice on the front page of the ARGUS. Outsiders, too, people Mary had almost forgotten, showed that they still remembered her, by condoling with her in her loss. But it was left to dear old Tilly to translate sentiment into practical aid.

HOW I FEEL FOR YOU, MY DARLING, WORDS WOULDN’T TELL. IT’S THE CRUELLEST THING EVER HAPPENED. BUT OH, THE BLESSING, MARY, THAT YOU’VE STILL GOT YOUR OTHER TWO. YOU MUST JUST REMEMBER HOW MUCH THEY NEED YOU, LOVE, WHILE THEY’RE SO SMALL, AND HOW MUCH YOU ARE TO THEM. — AND NOW HARK TO ME, MY DEAR. I’D BEEN PLANNING BEFORE THIS TO TAKE A SHANTY AT LORNE FOR THE HOT WEATHER; AND WHAT I WANT IS FOR YOU TO COME AND SHARE IT WITH ME— SHARE EXPENSES, IF YOU LIKE, ME KNOWING WHAT YOU ARE. BUT GET THE CHICKS AWAY FROM THAT WICKED HEAT YOU MUST. — BESIDES, HELPING TO LOOK AFTER BABY’LL BE THE BEST OF MEDICINES FOR THAT POOR FORLORN LITTLE MITE, WHO IT MAKES MY HEART ACHE EVEN TO THINK OF.

Too great were the odds — in this case the welfare, perhaps the very life, of his remaining children — against him. Mahony bowed his head. And when Mary had gone he unlocked a private drawer of his table, and drew out a box in which lay several rolls of notes, carefully checked and numbered. Once more he counted them through. For weeks, nay, for months he had been laboriously adding pound to pound. In all there were close on forty of them. He had fully intended to make it fifty by New Year. Now there was no help: it would have to go. First, the doctor’s fare from Oakworth; then the costs of the funeral . . . with a five-pound note to the parson. What was left after these things were paid must be sacrificed to Mary and the children. They would need every penny of it . . . and more besides.

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