Ultima Thule, by Henry Handel Richardson

Chapter II

His way led him through the main street. The morning was drawing towards noon, and the overheated air, grown visible, quivered and flimmered in wavy lines. He wore nankeen trousers, which looked a world too wide for him, and flapped to and fro on his bony shanks. His coat, of tussore, was creased and unfresh, there being no Mary at hand daily to iron it out. On his head he had a sun-hat hung with puggaree and fly-veil: he also carried a sun-umbrella, green-lined; while a pair of dark goggles dimmed for him the intolerable whiteness of sky, road, iron roofs. Thus he went: an odd figure, a very figure of fun, in the eyes of the little township. And yet for all his oddity wearing an air . . . an air of hauteur, of touch-me-not aloofness . . . which set him still further apart. The small shopkeepers and publicans who made up the bulk of the population had never known his like; and were given vigorously to slapping their legs and exclaiming: “By the Lord Harry! . . . goes about with his head as high as if he owned the place.”

On this day though he passed unnoticed. In the broad, sun-stricken street, none moved but himself. The heat, however, was not the sole reason for its emptiness. He who ran might read that the place was thinning out. With the abandonment of the project to reorganise the great mine — the fairy-tale of which had helped to settle HIM there — all hope of a fresh spurt of life for Barambogie was at an end. The new Bank that was to have been opened to receive the gold, the crew of miners and engineers who should have worked the reefs, had already faded into the LIMBUS FATUORUM where, for aught he knew, they had always belonged. What trade there was, languished: he counted no less than four little shops in a row which had recently been boarded up.

Pluff went his feet in the smothery dust of the bush road — his black boots might have been made of white leather — the flies buzzed in chorus round his head. Of the two visits he had to pay, one was a couple of miles off. Two miles there and two back . . . on a morning when even the little walk along the Lagoon had fagged him. Oh! he OUGHT to have a buggy. A country practice without a horse and trap behind it was like trying to exist without bread . . . or water. — And now again, as if on this particular day there was to be no rest or peace for him, a single thought, flashing into his brain, took entire possession of it and whizzed madly round. He plodded along, bent of back, loose of knee, murmuring distractedly: “A buggy . . . yes, God knows, I ought to have a buggy.” But the prospect of ever again owning one seemed remote; at present it was as much as he could do to afford the occasional hire of a conveyance. What must the townspeople think, to see him eternally on the tramp? For nobody walked here. A buggy stood at every door . . . but his. They would soon be beginning to suspect that something was wrong with him; and from that to believing him unable to pay his way was but a step. In fancy he saw himself refused credit, required to hand over cash for what he purchased . . . he, Richard Mahony! . . . till, in foretasting the shame of it, he groaned aloud.

And the case he had come all this way to attend would not profit him. His patient was a poor woman, lying very sick and quite alone in a bark hut, her menfolk having betaken themselves to work. He did what he could for her; left her more comfortable than he found her: he also promised medicines by the first cart that went by her door. But he knew the class: there was no money in it; his bill would have to be sent in time after time. And the older he grew, the more it went against the grain to badger patients for his fees. If they were too mean, or too dishonest, to pay for his services, he was too proud to dun them. And thus bad debts accumulated.

On the road home, the great heat and his own depression overcame him. Choosing a shady spot he lowered himself to the burnt grass for a rest; or what might have been a rest, had not the sound of wheels almost immediately made him scramble to his feet again: it would never do for him to be caught sitting by the roadside. In his haste, he somehow pressed the catch of his bag, which forthwith opened and spilled its contents on the ground. He was on his knees, fumbling to replace these, when the trap hove in sight.

It was a single buggy, in which three people, a young man and two young women, sat squeezed together on a seat built for two. None the less, the man jerked his horse to a stand, and with true colonial neighbourliness called across: “Like a lift?”— to receive, too late to stop him, a violent dig in the ribs from his wife’s elbow.

“Thank you, thank you, my good man! But you are full already.” Provoked at being caught in his undignified position, Mahony answered in a tone short to ungraciousness.

“Devil a bit! Bess ’ere can sit by the splashboard.”

“NO, sir! I should not dream of inconveniencing the lady on my account.”

“O.K.!” said the man. “Ta-ta, then!” and drove on.

“The LADY! Did you hear ’im? Oh, Jimminy Gig! . . . ain’t he a cure?” cried Bess, and bellowed out a laugh that echoed back to where Mahony stood.

“Bill, you great GOFF, didn’t you feel me poke you? Don’t you know ‘OO that was? We don’t want him up here along of us . . . not for Joe!”

Bill spat. “Garn! It’s a goodish step for th’ ol’ cove, and a regular roaster into the bargain.”

“Garn yerself, y’ol’ mopoke! — I say! what was ‘e doin’ there’s what I’d like to know. Did you see him, kneelin’ with all them things spread out around him? Up to some shady trick or other I’ll be bound.”

Bess nodded darkly. “Nobody ‘ull go near the house any more after dark. Maria Beetling sor a black figger in the passage one night, with horns and all, and heard ’im talkin’ to it. She tore home screamin’ like mad for her ma.”

“Ah, git along with yer bunkum! You wimmin’s mouths is allers full o’ some trash or other. I never HEARD such talk,”— and Bill ejected a fresh stream of juice over the side.

His wife made a noise of contempt. “It’s gospel truth. I heard ol’ Warnock the other day talkin’ to Mrs. Ah Sing. An’ they both said it was a crying shame to have a doctor here who went in for magic and such-like. Nor’s that all. A fat lot o’ good his doctoring kin be. To go and let his own kid die. If he couldn’t cure IT, what kin WE hope for, ‘oo he hates like poison?”

“They do say he BOILED her,” said Bess mysteriously. “Made her sit in water that was too hot for her, till her skin all peeled off and she was red and raw. She screeched like blue murder: Maria heard her. They had to rush out and send for another doctor from Oakworth. But it was too late. He couldn’t save her. — An’ then just look at his pore wife. So pale an’ woebegone! Shaking in her shoes, I guess, what he’ll be doing to her next.”

“He ought to be had up for it. Instead of being let streel round with his highty-tighty airs.”

“No, gorblimey, you two! . . . of all the silly, clatterin’ hens!” and leaning forward Bill sliced his horse a sharp cut on the belly. In the cloud of dust that rose as the buggy lurched forward, they vanished from sight.

“Ha! didn’t I know it? their butt — their laughing-stock,” chafed Mahony in answer to the girl’s guffaw; and his hands trembled so that he could hardly pick up his scattered belongings. In his agitation he forgot the rest he had intended to allow himself, and plodded on anew, the sweat trickling in runnels down his back, mouth and nostrils caked dry. Meanwhile venting his choler by exclaiming aloud, in the brooding silence of the bush: “What next? . . . what next, I wonder! Why, the likelihood is, they’ll boggle at my diagnoses . . . doubt my ability to dose ’em for the d.t.‘s or the colic.” And this idea, being a new one, started a new train of thought, his hungry brain pouncing avidly upon it. Thereafter he tortured himself by tracking it down to its last and direst issues; and thus engrossed was callous even to his passage along the main street, for which, after what had just happened, he felt a shrinking distaste, picturing eyes in every window, sneers behind every door.

Safe again within the four walls of his room, he tossed hat and bag from him and sank into the armchair, where he lay supine, his taut muscles relaxed, his tired eyes closed to remembrance. And in a very few minutes he was fast asleep: a deep, sound sleep, such as night and darkness rarely brought him. Dinner-time came and went; but he slept on; for Mrs. Beetling, still nursing her injuries, did not as usual put her head in at the door to say that dinner was ready; she just planked the dishes down on the dining-room table and left them there. And soon the pair of chops, which dish she served up to him day after day, lay hard and sodden in their own fat.

Hunched in his chair, his head on his chest, his mouth open, Mahony drew breaths that were more than half snores. His carefully brushed hair had fallen into disarray, the lines on his forehead deepened to grooves; on his slender hands, one of which hung between his knees, the other over an arm of the chair, the veins stood out blue and bold.

No sound broke the stillness but that of the clock striking the hours and half-hours. Only very gradually did the sleeper come up from those unfathomed depths, of which the waking brain keeps no memory, to where, on the fringe of his consciousness, a disturbing dream awaited him. It had to do with a buggy, a giant buggy, full of people; and, inverting the real event of the day on which it was modelled, he now longed with all his heart to be among them. For it seemed to him that, if he could succeed in getting into this buggy, he would hear somthing — some message or tidings — which it was important for him to know. But though he tried and tried again, he could not manage to swing himself up; either his foot missed the step, or the people, who sat laughing and grimacing at him, pushed him off. Finally he fell and lay in the dust, which, filling eyes, nose, mouth, blinded and asphyxiated him. He was still on his back, struggling for air, when he heard a voice buzzing in his ear: “You’re wanted! It’s a patient come. Wake up, wake up!”— and there was Mrs. Beetling leaning over him and shaking him by the arm, while a man stood in the doorway and gaped.

He was out of his chair and on his feet in a twinkling; but he could not as easily collect his wits, which were still dreambound. His hands, too, felt numb, and as if they did not belong to him. It took him the space of several breaths to grasp that his caller, a farmer, was there to fetch him to attend his wife, and had a trap waiting at the gate. He thought the man looked at him very queerly. It was the fault of his old poor head, which was unequal to the strain of so sudden a waking. Proffering an excuse, he left the room to plunge it in water. As he did this it occurred to him that he had had no dinner. But he was wholly without appetite; and one glance at the fatty mess on the table was enough. Gulping down a cup of tea, he ate a couple of biscuits, and then shouldering his dustcoat, declared himself ready. It was a covered buggy: he leant far back beneath the hood as they drove. This time, people should NOT have the malicious pleasure of eyeing him.

* * * * *

I SEND YOU WHAT I CAN, MY DEAR, BUT I ADVISE YOU TO SPIN IT OUT AND BE CAREFUL OF IT, MARY, FOR IT IS IMPOSSIBLE TO SAY WHEN MORE WILL BE FORTHCOMING. THINGS ARE VERY, VERY SLACK HERE. THERE IS NO SICKNESS AND NO MONEY. I COULD NEVER HAVE BELIEVED A PRACTICE WOULD COLLAPSE LIKE THIS, FROM OVER SEVENTY POUNDS A MONTH TO AS GOOD AS NOTHING. IN THIS PAST WEEK I HAVE ONLY HAD FOUR PATIENTS . . . AND THEY ALL POORISH PEOPLE. I FEEL TERRIBLY WORRIED, AND SIT HERE CUDGELLING MY BRAINS WHAT IT WILL BE BEST TO DO. THE TRUTH IS THIS PLACE IS FAST DYING OUT— EVERY ONE BEGINS TO SEE NOW THAT IT HAS HAD ITS DAY AND WILL NEVER RECOVER. TWO OF THE TRADES-PEOPLE HAVE BECOME INSOLVENT SINCE YOU LEFT, AND OTHERS TOTTER ON THE BRINK.

THE HEAT IS UNBELIEVABLE. THE DROUGHT CONTINUES . . . NO SIGN YET OF IT BREAKING, AND THE THERMOMETER ETERNALLY UP BETWEEN 90 AND 100. (AND EVEN SO, NO SICKNESS.) I AM GETTING VERY ANXIOUS, TOO, ABOUT THE WATER IN THE TANK, WHICH IS LOW AND DIRTY. IF RAIN DOES NOT SOON COME, WE SHALL BE IN A PRETTY PLIGHT.

I SLEEP WRETCHEDLY; AND TIME HANGS VERY HEAVY. THE PEACHES ARE RIPENING, GRAPES TWOPENCE A POUND; BUT BUTTER IS HARD TO GET, AND UNLESS IT RAINS THERE WILL SOON BE NONE TO BE HAD.

I DO NOT SEE THAT WE CAN INCUR THE EXPENSE OF ANOTHER GOVERNESS. THE CHILDREN WILL EITHER HAVE TO ATTEND THE STATE SCHOOL, OR YOU MUST TEACH THEM YOURSELF.

I DO NOT LIKE YOUR LINED PAPER. I DETEST COMMON NOTEPAPER. GO TO BRADLEY’S WHEN YOU ARE IN TOWN, AND ORDER SOME GOOD CREAM-LAID. THEY HAVE THE DIE FOR THE CREST THERE.

“Oh dear, oh dear, he’s at it again!” sighed Mary; and let the letter fall to her knee.

“Whatever is it now?” asked Tilly.

In the shadow cast by the palings that separated a little weatherboard house from the great golden-sanded beach, the two women, in large, shady hats, sat and watched their children play. Lucie, at her mother’s side, was contentedly sorting a heap of “grannies and cowries”; but Cuffy had deserted to the water’s edge directly he spied the servant-girl bringing out the letter. He HATED these letters from Papa; they always made Mamma cross . . . or sorry . . . which spoilt the day. And it WAS so lovely here! He wished the postman would never, never come.

“Oh, the usual Jeremiad,” said Mary; and dropped her voice to keep the child from hearing. “No sickness, weather awful, the water getting low, people going bankrupt — a regular rigmarole of grumbles and complaints.”

“Determined to spoil your holiday for you, my dear, or so it looks to me.”

“I agree, it’s a DREADFUL place; never should we have gone there. But he would have it, and now he’s got to make the best of it. Why, the move cost us over a hundred. Besides, it would be just the same anywhere else.”

“Well, look here, Mary, my advice is — now Lucie, be a good child and run away and play with your brother, instead of sitting there drinking everything in. Feeling as you do about it my dear you must just be firm and stick to your guns. You’ve given in to ’im your whole life long, and a fat lot of thanks you’ve ever ‘ad for it. It’s made me BOIL to see you so meek . . . though one never dared say much, you always standing up for him, loyal as loyal could be. But time’s getting on, Mary; you aren’t as young as you were; and you’ve got others now to think of besides ’im. I just shouldn’t stand any more of ‘is nonsense.”

“Yes, I daresay it WAS bad for him, always having his own way. But now he’s got to learn that the children come first. They have all their lives before them, and I won’t sit by and see him beggar them. He says we can’t afford another governess; that they must either go to the State School — my children, Tilly! — or I teach them myself. When my hands are so full already that I could do with a day twice as long. And then he’s so unreasonable. Finds fault with my notepaper, and says I am to go to Bradley’s and order some expensive cream-laid. Now I ask you!”

“Unreasonable?” flamed Tilly, and blew a gust from mouth and nose. “There’s some people, Mary, ‘ud call it by another name, my dear!”

Mary sighed anew, and nodded. “I’m convinced from past experience that this idea of the practice failing is just his own imagination. He’s lonely, and hasn’t any one to talk to, and so he sits and broods. But it keeps me on the fidget; for it’s almost always been something imaginary that’s turned him against a place and made him want to leave it. And if he once gets an idea in his head, I might as well talk to the wind. Indeed, what I say only makes matters worse. Perhaps some one else might manage him better. Really I can’t help wondering sometimes, Tilly, if I’ve been the right wife for him, after all. No one could have been fonder of him. But there’s always something in him that I can’t get at; and when things go badly, and we argue and argue . . . why, then the thought will keep cropping up that perhaps some one else . . . somebody cleverer than I am . . . Do you remember Gracey Marriner, who he was so friendly with over that table-rapping business? She was so quick at seeing what he meant . . . and why he did things . . . and they found so much to talk about, and they read the same books and played the piano together. Well, I’ve sometimes felt that perhaps she . . .” But here the tears that had gathered in Mary’s eyes threatened to run over, and she had to grope for her handkerchief.

“HER! Lor, Mary! . . . he’d have tired of ‘er and her la-di-da airs inside three months,” ejaculated Tilly, and fiercely blew her own nose in sympathy. “If ever there’s been a good wife, my dear, it’s you. But a fig for all the soft sawder that’s talked about marriage! The long and the short of it is, marriage is sent to TRY us women, and for nothin’ on earth besides.”

The children reacted in distinctive fashion to the sight of their mother crying. Little Lucie, who had heard, if not grasped, all that passed, hung her head like a dog scolded for some fault it does not understand. Cuffy, casting furtive backward glances, angrily stamped his feet so that the water splashed high over his rolled-up knickerbockers. This not availing, he turned and deliberately waded out to sea.

Ah! then Mamma HAD to stop crying and to notice him. “Cuffy! Come back!”

“WHAT a naughty boy!” sermonised Aunt Tilly. “When his poor mother is so worried, too.”

“Yes, my great fear is, Richard’s heading for another move. Really, after a letter like this I feel I ought just to pack up and go home.”

“What? After you come down ’ere looking like a ghost, and as thin as thin? . . . I won’t HEAR of it, Mary.”

“You see, last time he took me completely by surprise. I’m resolved THAT shan’t happen again.”

“Hush! hark! . . . was that Baby?” And Tilly bent an ardent ear towards the verandah, where her infant lay sleeping in a hammock.

“I heard nothing. — There’s another reason, too, why I want to stay there, wretched place though it is. It’s the . . . I don’t feel I CAN go off and leave the . . . the little grave, with nobody to care for it. It’s all I’ve got left of her.”

“The blessed little angel!”

“Later on . . . it may be different. But to go away now would tear me in two. Though it may and probably will mean row after row.”

“Yes, till he wears you down. That’s always been ‘is way. — Ah! but that IS Baby sure enough.” And climbing to her feet, Tilly propelled her matronly form up the sandy path.

She returned in triumph bearing the child, which but half awake whined peevishly, ramming two puny fists into sleep-charged eyes; on her face the gloating, doting expression with which she was wont to follow its every movement. For her love, waxing fat on care and anxiety, had swelled to a consuming passion, the like of which had never before touched her easy-going life.

Mary rose and shook the sand from her skirts. “I must see what I can find to say to him, to cheer him up and keep him quiet.”

“And our good little Lucie here, and Cuffy, too, shall mind darling Baby for Auntie, whilst she makes his pap.”

But the children hung back. Minding Baby meant one long fight to hinder him from putting things — everything: sand, shells, your hand, your spade — in his mouth, and kicking and screaming if you said no; and Aunt Tilly rushing out crying: “What are they DOING to my precious?”— Lucie had already a firm handful of her mother’s dress in her grasp.

“Now, Mary! you can’t possibly write with that child hanging round you.”

“Oh, she won’t bother . . . she never does,” said Mary, who could not find it in her heart to drive her ewe-lamb from her.

“Oh, well then!” said Tilly, with a loveless glance at the retreating Cuffy. “Muvver’s jewel must just tum WIF ‘er, and see its doody-doody dinner cooked.”— And smothering the little sallow face, the overlarge head in kisses, she, too, sought the house.

(“Really Tilly is RATHER absurd about that baby!”)

(“How Mary DOES spoil those children!”)

With which private criticism, each of the other, Tilly fell to stirring a hasty-pudding, and Mary sat her down before pen and paper. And thus ended what, little as they knew it, was to be the last of their many confidential talks on the subject of Richard, his frowardness and crabbedness, his innate inability to fit himself to life. From now on, Mary’s lips were in loyalty sealed.

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/r/richardson/henry_handel/r52ut/chapter12.html

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