Ultima Thule, by Henry Handel Richardson

Part II

Chapter I

To come back to the empty house, having watched the train carry them off (“Kiss papa good bye! . . . good bye . . . good bye, my darlings! Come back with rosy cheeks. — Try to forget, Mary . . . my poor old wife!”): to come back to the empty house was like facing death anew. All the doors, three on each side of the central passage, stood open, showing unnatural-looking rooms. Mary had done her best to leave things tidy, but she had not been able to avoid the last disorder inevitable on a journey. Odd sheets of newspaper lay about, and lengths of twine; the floors were unswept, the beds unmade; one of the children had dropped a glove . . . Mahony stooped to it . . . Cuffy’s, for a wager, seeing that the middle finger was chewed to pulp. And as he stood holding it, it seemed as if from out these yawning doors, these dismal rooms, one or other of his little ones must surely dart and run to him, with a cry of “Papa . .. Papa!” But not a sound broke the silence, no shadow smudged the whitewash of the walls.

The first shock over, however, the litter cleared up, the rooms dressed, he almost relished the hush and peace to which the going of wife and children had left him. For one thing, he could rest on the knowledge that he had done for them all that was humanly possible. In return, he would, for several weeks to come, be spared the mute reproach of two wan little faces, and a mother’s haggard eyes. Nor need he crack his brains for a time over the problem of an education for the children in this wilderness, or be chafed by Mary’s silent but pregnant glosses on the practice. In a word he was FREE . . . free to exist unobserving and unobserved.

But his satisfaction was short-lived: by the end of the second day the deathlike stillness had begun to wear him down. Maria was shut off in the detached kitchen; and on getting home of a late afternoon he knew that, but for the final mill-screech, and the distant rumble of the ten-o’clock train, no mortal sound would reach his ears the long night through. The silence gathered, descended and settled upon him, like a fog or a cloud. There was something ominous about it, and instead of reading he found himself listening . . . listening. Only very gradually did the thought break through that he had something to listen for. Dark having fallen, might not a tiny ghost, a little spirit that had not yet found rest afar from those it loved, flit from room to room in search of them? What more likely indeed? He strained his ears. But only his pulses buzzed there. On the other hand, about eleven o’clock one night, on coming out of the surgery to cross to the bedroom, he could have sworn to catching a glimpse of a little shape . . . vague, misty of outline, gone even as he saw it, and yet unmistakable . . . vanishing in the doorway of the children’s room. His heart gave a great leap of joy and recognition. Swiftly following, he called a name; but on the empty air: the room had no occupant. For two nights after he kept watch, to waylay the apparition should it come; but, shy of human eyes, it did not show itself again. Not to be baulked, he tried a fresh means: taking a sheet of paper he let his hand lie lightly along the pencil. And, lo and behold! at the second trial the pencil began to move, seemed to strive to form words; while by the fourth evening words were coming through. HER MAMMA . . . HER LUCE . . . WANTS HER MAMMA.

The kitchen clock had stopped: Maria, half undressed, stealing tiptoe into the house to see the time, a tin lamp with a reflector in her hand, was pulled up short, half-way down the passage, by the sound of voices. Hello! who was Doctor talking to? A patient at this hour? But nobody had knocked at the door. And what . . . oh, crikey! whatever was he saying? The girl’s eyes and mouth opened, and her cheeks went pale, as the sense of what she heard broke on her. Pressing herself against the wall, she threw a terrified glance over her shoulder into the inky shadows cast by the lamp. ——

“Ma! I was fair skeered out of me senses. To hear ’im sitting there a-talkin’ to that pore little kid, what’s been dead and buried this month and more! An’ him calling her by her name, and saying her Ma would soon be back, and then she wouldn’t need to feel lonely any more — why, I tell yer, even this mornin’ in broad daylight I found meself lookin’ behind me the whole time. — Go back? Stop another night there? Not me! I couldn’t, Ma. I’m SKEERED.”

“You great ninny, you! What could ‘urt yer, I’d like to know? . . . as long as you say yer prayers reg’lar and tells the troof. Ghosts, indeed! I’ll ghost you!”— But Maria, more imaginatively fibred, was not to be won over.

Mahony listened to the excuses put forward by her mother on his reaching home that evening: listened with the kindly courtesy he kept for those beneath him who met him civilly and with respect. Maria’s plea of loneliness was duly weighed. “Though I must say I think she has hardly given the new conditions a fair trial. However, she has always been a good girl, and the plan you propose, Mrs. Beetling, will no doubt answer very well during my wife’s absence.”

It not only answered: it was an improvement. Breakfast was perhaps served a little later than usual, and the cooking proved rather coarser than Maria’s, who was Mary-trained. But it was all to the good that, supper over, Mrs. Beetling put on her bonnet and went home, leaving the place clear. His beloved little ghost was then free to flit as it would, without fear of surprise or disturbance. He continually felt its presence — though it did not again materialise — and message after message continued to come through. Written always by a third person, in an unfamiliar hand . . . as was only to be expected, considering that the twins still struggled with pothooks and hangers . . . they yet gave abundant proof of their authorship.

Such a proof, for instance, as the night when he found that his script ran: HER BABY . . . NOSE . . . KITCHEN FIRE.

For a long time he could make nothing of this, though he twisted it this way and that. Then, however, it flashed upon him that the twins had nursed large waxen dolls clad as infants; and straightway he rose to look for the one that had been Lallie’s. After a lengthy search by the light of a single candle, in the course of which he ransacked various drawers and boxes, he found the object in question . . . tenderly wrapped and hidden away in Mary’s wardrobe. He drew it forth in its white trappings and, upon his soul, when he held it up to the candle to examine it, he found that one side of the effigy’s nose had run together in a kind of blob . . . MELTED . . . no doubt through having been left lying in the sun, or — yes, OR held too close to a fire! Of a certainty he had known nothing of this: never a word had been said, in HIS hearing, of the accident to so expensive a plaything. At the time of purchase he had been wroth with Mary over the needless outlay. Now . . . now . . . oh! there’s a divinity that shapes our ends . . . now it served him as an irrefragable proof.

In his jubilation he added a red-hot postscript to his daily letter. I HAVE GREAT— GREAT AND JOYFUL— NEWS FOR YOU, MY DARLING. BUT I SHALL KEEP IT TILL YOU COME BACK. IT WILL BE SOMETHING FOR YOU TO LOOK FORWARD TO, ON YOUR RETURN TO THIS DREADFUL PLACE.

To which Mary replied: YOU MAKE ME VERY CURIOUS, RICHARD. CAN NORTH LONG TUNNELS HAVE STRUCK THE REEF AT LAST?

And he: SOMETHING FAR, FAR NEARER OUR HEARTS, MY DEAR, THAN MONEY AND SHARES. I REFER TO NEWS COMPARED WITH WHICH EVERYTHING EARTHLY FADES INTO INSIGNIFICANCE.

Alas! he roused no answering enthusiasm. NOW, RICHARD, DON’T DELUDE YOURSELF . . . OR LET YOURSELF BE DELUDED. OF COURSE YOU KNEW ABOUT THAT DOLL’S NOSE. LALLIE CRIED AND WAS SO UPSET. I’M SURE WHAT’S HAPPENING IS ALL YOUR OWN IMAGINATION. I DO THINK ONE CAN GROSSLY DECEIVE ONESELF— ESPECIALLY NOW YOU’RE QUITE ALONE. BUT OH DON’T TRIFLE WITH OUR GREAT SORROW. I COULDN’T BEAR IT. IT’S STILL TOO NEAR AND TOO BITTER.

Of his little ghostly visitant he asked that night: HOW SHALL WE EVER PROVE, LOVE, TO DEAR MAMMA THAT YOU ARE REALLY AND TRULY HER LOST DARLING?

To which came the oddly disconcerting, matter-of-fact reply: USELESS. OTHER THINGS TO DO. COME NATURAL TO SOME. NOT TO HER. But Mahony could not find it in his heart to let the matter rest there. So fond a mother, and to be unwilling . . . not to dare to TRUST herself . . . to believe!

And believe what, too? Why, merely that their little one, in place of becoming a kind of frozen image of the child they had known, and inhabiting remote, fantastic realms to which they might some day laboriously attain: that she was still with them, close to them, loving and clinging, and as sportive as in her brief earthly span. It was no doubt this homely, UNDIGNIFIED aspect of the life-to-come that formed the stumbling-block: for people like Mary, death was inconceivable apart from awfulness and majesty: in this guise alone had it been rung and sung into them. For him, the very lack of dignity was the immense, consoling gain. Firmly convinced of the persistence of human individuality subsequent to the great change, he had now been graciously permitted to see how thin were the walls between the two worlds, how interpenetrable the states. And he rose of a morning, and lay down at night, his heart warm with gratitude to the Giver of knowledge.

But a little child-ghost, no longer encased in the lovely rounded body that had enhanced its baby prattle and, as it were, decked it out: a little ghost had, after all, not very much to say. A proof of identity given, assurances exchanged that it still loved and was loved, and the talk trickled naturally to an end. You could not put your arms round it, and hold it to you in a wordless content. Also, as time passed and Lallie grew easier in her new state, it was not to be denied that she turned a trifle freakish. She would not always come when called, and, pressed as to where she lingered, averred through her mentor that she was “fossicking.” An attempt to get at the meaning of this involved Mahony in a long, rambling conversation with the elder ghost, that was dreary in the extreme. For it hinged mainly on herself and her own affairs. And, grateful though he was to her for her goodness to his child, he took no interest in her personally; and anything in the nature of a discussion proved disastrous. For she had been but a seamstress in her day, and a seamstress she remained; having, it would seem, gained nothing through her translation, either in knowledge or spirituality.

He flagged. To grip him, an occupation needed to be meaty — to give him something with which to tease his brains. And his present one, supplying none, began little by little to pall, leaving him to the melancholy reflection that, for all their aliveness, our lost ones were truly lost to us, because no longer entangled in the web called living. Impossible for those who had passed on to continue to grieve for a broken doll; to lay weight on the worldly triumphs and failures that meant so much to us; to concern themselves with the changing seasons, the rising up and lying down, the palaver, pother and ado that made up daily life. Though the roads to be followed started from a single point, they swiftly branched off at right angles, never to touch again while we inhabited our earthly shell . . . and in this connection, he fell to thinking of people long dead, and of how out of place, how IN THE WAY they would be, did they now come back to earth. We mortals were, for worse or better, ever on the move. Impossible for us to return to the stage at which THEY had known us.

And so it came about that one evening when, with many a silent groan, he had for close on half an hour transcribed the seamstress’s platitudes (if it was himself who wrote, as Mary averred, then God help him! . . . he was in, beyond question, for cerebral softening) with never a word or a sign from Lallie: on this evening he abruptly threw the pencil from him, pushed back his chair and strode out on the verandah. He needed air, fresh air; was ravenous for it . . . to feel his starved lungs fill and expand. But the December night was hotter even than the day had been; and what passed for air was stale and heavy with sunbaked dust. The effort of inhaling it, the repugnance this smell roused in him brought him to. Like a man waking from a trance, he looked round him with dazed eyes, and ran a confused hand over his forehead. And in this moment the dreams and shadows of the past two weeks scattered, and he faced reality: it was near midnight, and he stood alone on the ramshackle verandah, with its three broken steps leading down to the path; with the drooping, dust-laden shrubs of the garden before him; the bed of dust that formed the road beyond. He had come to earth again — and with a bump.

A boundless depression seized him: a sheerly intolerable flatness, after the mood of joyous elation that had gone before. He felt as though he had been sucked dry: what remained of him was but an empty shell. Empty as the house which, but for a single lamp, lay dark and tenantless, and silent as the grave. Since the first night of Mary’s departure, he had not visualised it thus. Now he was dismayed by it — and by his own solitude. To rehearse the bare facts: wife and children were a hundred and fifty miles away; his other little child lay under the earth; even the servant had deserted: with the result that there was now not a living creature anywhere within hail. This miserable Lagoon, this shrunken pool of stagnant water, effectually cut him off from human company. If anything should happen to him, if he should be taken ill, or break a limb, he might lie where he fell till morning, his calls for help unheard. And the thought of this utter isolation, once admitted, swelled to alarming proportions. His brain raced madly — glancing at fire . . . murder . . . sudden death. Why, not a soul here would be able even to summon Mary back to him . . . no one so much as knew her address. Till he could bear it no longer: jumping out of bed, he ran to the surgery and wrote her whereabouts in large letters on a sheet of paper, which he pinned up in a conspicuous place.

The first faint streaks of daylight, bringing relief on this score, delivered him up to a new — and anything but chimerical — anxiety. What was happening . . . what in the name of fortune was happening to the practice? Regarding for the first time the day and the day’s business other than as something to be hurried through, that he might escape to his communion with the unseen, he was horrified to see how little was doing, how scanty the total of patients for the past fortnight. And here Mary was writing that she would shortly need more money.

Nobody at all put in an appearance that morning — though he sat out his consulting-hour to the bitter end. By this time he had succeeded in convincing himself that the newcomer, Mrs. Beetling, was to blame for the falling-off. Untrained to the job, she had very probably omitted to note, on the slate provided for the purpose, the names of those who called while he was absent. Either she had trusted to her memory and forgotten; or had been out when she ought to have kept the house; or had failed to hear the bell. The dickens! What would people think of him, for neglecting them like this?

By brooding over it, he worked himself into a state of nervous agitation; and directly half-past ten struck pushed back his chair and stalked out, to take the culprit to task.

Mrs. Beetling was scrubbing the verandah, her sleeves rolled up above her elbows, arms and hands newborn-looking from hot water and soda. At Mahony’s approach, she sat back on her heels to let him by; then, seeing that he intended to speak to her, scrambled to her feet and dried her hands on her apron.

“I wish to have a word with you, Mrs. Beetling.”

“Yes, sir?”

She was civil enough, he would say that for her. In looking up at him, too, she smiled with a will: a pleasant-faced woman, and ruddy of cheek . . . another anomaly in this pale country.

But he fronted her squarely for the first time: at their former interview he had been concerned only to cut her wordiness short. And this broad smile of hers advertised the fact that she had gums bare almost as a babe’s; was toothless, save for a few black and rotten stumps in the lower jaw.

Now Mahony was what Mary called a “fad of the first water” with regard to the care of the mouth. He never tired of fulminating against the colonial habit of suffering the untold agonies of toothache, letting the teeth rot in the head rather than have them medically attended. And the sight here presented to him so exasperated him that he clean forgot what he had come out to say, his irritation hurling itself red-hot against this fresh object of offence.

As though he had a meek and timid patient before him, he now said sternly: “Open your mouth . . . wide!”

“SIR!” Mrs. Beetling’s smile faded in amazement. Instinctively pinching her lips, she blinked at Mahony, turned red, and fell to twiddling with a corner of her apron. (So far she had turned a deaf ear to the tales that were going the round about “the ol’ doctor.” Now . . . she wondered.)

“Your mouth . . . open your mouth!” repeated Mahony, with the same unnecessary harshness. Then, becoming vaguely aware of the confusion he was causing, he trimmed his sails. “My good woman . . . I have only this moment noticed the disgraceful state of your teeth. Why, you have not a sound one left in your head! What have you been about? . . . never to consult a dentist?”

“Dentist, sir? Not me! Not if I was paid for it! No one’ll ever get me to any dentist.”

“Tut, tut, you fool!” He snapped his fingers; and went on snapping them, to express what he thought of her. And Mrs. Beetling, growing steadily sulkier and more aggrieved, was now forced to stand and listen to a fierce tirade on the horrors of a foul mouth and foul breath, on the harm done to the digestive system, the ills awaiting her in later life. Red as a peony she stood, her apron still twisting in her fingers, her lips glued tight; once only venturing a protest. “I never bin ill in me life!” and still more glumly: “I suppose me teeth’s me own. I kin do what I like with ’em.” To and fro paced Mahony, his hands clasped behind his back, his face aflame; thus ridding himself, on his bewildered hearer, of his own distractedness, the over-stimulation of his nerves; and ending up by vowing that, if she had a grain of sense in her, she would come to the surgery and let him draw from her mouth such ruins as remained. At which Mrs. Beetling, reading this as a threat, went purplish, and backed away in real alarm. — Not till he was some distance off on his morning round, did it occur to him that he had forgotten his original reason in seeking her out. Never a word had he said of her carelessness in writing up the patients! The result was another wild bout of irritation — this time with himself — and he had to resist an impulse to turn on his heel. What the deuce would he do next? What tricks might his failing memory not play him?

On her side also, Mrs. Beetling yielded to second thoughts. Her first inclination had been to empty her bucket on the garden-bed, let down her skirts, tie on her bonnet and bang the gate behind her. But she bit it back. The place was a good one: it ‘ud be lunatic not to keep it warm for Maria. No sooner, though, did she see Mahony safely away, than she let her indignation fly, and at the top of her voice. “Well, I’m blowed . . . blowed, that’s what I am! Wants to pull out all me teef, does he? . . . the BUTCHER! Blackguardin’ me like that. Of all the lousy ol’ ranters . . .”

“Eh, ma?” said a floury young mill-hand, and leant in passing over the garden gate. “What’s up with you? Bin seein’ one of the spooks?”

“You git along with you, Tom Dorrigan. And take yer arms off that gate.”

“They do say Maria seed one widout a head and all. Holy Mother o’ God protect us!”— and the lad crossed himself fearfully as he went.

While Mrs. Beetling, still blown with spite and anger, gathered her skirt in both hands, and charging at a brood of Brahmapootras that had invaded the garden to scratch up a bed, scuttled them back into the yard.

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