Ultima Thule, by Henry Handel Richardson

Chapter III

Under the heat-veiled January skies Mahony saw his worst fears realised. His few remaining patients dropped off, no others appeared to take their place; and, with this, the practice in Barambogie virtually came to an end.

There he sat, with his head between his hands, cudgelling his brains. For it staggered credulity that every form of sickness, that the break-neck casualties inseparable from bush life, should one and all fade out in so preposterous a fashion. In the unhealthy season, too, compared with the winter months in which he had settled there. What were the people up to? What cabal had they formed against him? That some shady trick was being played him, he did not for a moment doubt. Suspiciously he eyed Mrs. Beetling when she came to her job of a morning. SHE knew what was going on, or he was much mistaken: she looked very queerly at him, and often gave him the impression of scuttling hurriedly away. But he had never been any hand at pumping people of her class: it took Mary to do that. And so he contented himself, did he chance upon the woman, with fixing her in silence; and otherwise treating her with the contempt she deserved. He had more important things to occupy him. These first days of blank, unbroken idleness were spent in fuming about the house like a caged animal: up the passage, out on the verandah, round this and back to the passage. Again and again he believed he heard the front gate click, and ran to seat himself in the surgery. But it was always a false alarm. And after a few seconds’ prickling suspense, in which every nerve in his body wore ears, he would bound up from his seat, hardly master of himself for exasperation. These infamous people! Why, oh why had he ever set foot among them? . . . ever trodden the dust of this accursed place! A man of his skill, his experience, wilfully to put himself at the mercy of a pack of bush-dwellers . . . Chinese coolies . . . wretched half-castes! — And, striding ever more gauntly and intolerantly, he drove his thoughts back and salved his bleeding pride with memories of the past. He saw himself in his heyday, on Ballarat, famed alike for his diagnoses and sureness of hand; saw himself called in to perform the most delicate operations; robbed of his sleep by night, on the go the livelong day, until at last, incapable of meeting the claims made on him, there had been nothing left for him to do but to fly the place. And spurred by the exhilaration of these memories, he quickened his steps till the sweat poured off him.

But he was not to be done. He’d shew these numskulls whom they had to deal with . . . make them bite the dust. Ha! he had it: that case of empyema and subsequent operation for PARACENTESIS THORACIS, which he had before now contemplated writing up for the AUSTRALIAN MEDICAL JOURNAL. Now was the time: he would set to work straightway, dash the article off, post it before the sun went down that night. It would appear in the March issue of the journal; and these fools would then learn, to their eternal confusion, that they had among them one whose opinions were of weight in the selectest medical circles. With unsteady hands he turned out a drawer containing old notes and papers, and having found what he wanted, spread them on the table before him. But, with his pen inked and poised ready to begin, he hesitated. In searching, he had recalled another, rarer case: one of a hydatid cyst in the subcutaneous tissue of the thigh. This would be more telling; and going on his knees before a wooden chest, in which he stored old memoranda, he rummaged anew. Again, however, after a lengthy hunt, he found himself wavering. His notes were not as full as he had believed: there would be finicking details to verify, books to consult which he could no longer get at. So this scheme, too, had to be let drop. Ah! but now he had really hit it. What about that old bone of contention among the medical profession, homoeopathy? Once on a time he had meant to bring out a pamphlet on the subject, and, if he remembered rightly, had made voluminous notes for it. Could he find these, he would be spared all brain-fag. And again he made his knees sore and his head dizzy over a mass of dusty, yellowing papers. After which, re-seating himself with an air of triumph, he ruled a line in red ink on a sheet of foolscap, and wrote above it, in his fine, flowing hand: Why I do not practise Homoeopathy.


But having got thus far he came to a standstill, re-dipped a pen that was already loaded, bit the end of it, wrinkled his brows. What next? . . . what did he want to say? . . . how to end the sentence? And when he did manage to catch a glimpse of his thought, he could not find words in which to clothe it . . . the right words. They would not come at his beck; or phrases either. He floundered, tried one, then another; nothing suited him; and he grew more and more impatient: apparently, even with his notes before him, it was going to be beyond him to make a decent job of the thing. He had been silent too long. Nor could he, he now found, work up the heat, the orthodox heat with which he had once burnt: the points he had formerly made against this quack and his system now seemed flat or exaggerated. So indifferent had he grown with the years that his present attitude of mind was almost one of: let those who choose adopt Hahnemann’s methods, those who will, be allopaths. And, as he sat there struggling to bring his thoughts to heel, to re-kindle the old fire, the tardy impulse to express himself died out. He threw his pen from him. CUI BONO? Fool, fool! to think of blistering his brains for the benefit of these savages among whom his present lot was cast. What would they understand of it, many of whom were forced to set crosses where their names should have stood? And when he was so tired, too, so dog-tired physically, with his feverish runnings to and fro, and exhausted mentally with fretting and fuming. Much too tired (and too rusty) to embark on a piece of work that demanded utmost care and discrimination . . . let alone cope with the labour of writing it down. Suddenly, quite suddenly, the idea of exertion, of any effort whatever, was become odious to him . . . odious and unthinkable. He put his arms on the table and hid his face in them; and, lying there, knew that his chief desire was fulfilled: to sit with his eyes screened, darkness round him, and to think and feel just as little as he saw. But, a bundle of papers incommoding him, he raised his hand, and with a last flash of the old heat crumpled notes and jottings to balls and tossed them to the floor. There they lay till, next morning, Mrs. Beetling swept them up and threw them on the kitchen fire.

And now silence fell anew — a silence the more marked for the stormy trampling that had preceded it. Said Mrs. Beetling to her crony, the ostler’s wife: “I do declare, ‘e’s that mousy quiet, you never c’d tell there was a livin’ creatur’ in the ’ouse — not no more’n a triantelope nor a centipede!” No longer had she to spend time dodging her master: shrinking behind open doors to avoid crossing his path, waiting her opportunity to reach bedroom or dining-room unobserved. He never left the surgery; and she could work with a good grace, scrubbing floors that were not trodden on, cooking food the lion’s share of which it fell to her to eat.

Meanwhile a burning February ran its course. To step off the verandah now was like stepping into a furnace. The sky was white with heat: across its vast pale expanse moved a small, copper-coloured sun. Or the hot winds streaked it with livid trails of wind-smitten cloud. The very air was white with dust. While, did a windstorm rise, the dust-clouds were so dense that everything — trees, Lagoon, township, the very garden itself — was blotted out. Dust carpeted the boards of the verandah, drove into the passage, invaded the rooms. But never a drop of rain fell. And then the fires started: in all the country round, the bush was ablaze: the sky hung dark as with an overhead fog; the rank tang of burning wood smarted the lungs.

In the little oven of a house the green blinds were lowered from early morning on. Behind them, in a bemusing twilight, behind the high paling-fence that defended house from road, Mahony sat isolate — sat shunned and forgotten. And as day added itself to day the very sound of his own voice grew strange to him, there being no need for him ever to unclose his lips. Even his old trick of muttering died out — went the way of his pacing and haranguing. For something in him had yielded, had broken, carrying with it, in its fall, the black pride, the bitter resentment, the aggressive attitude of mind which had hitherto sustained him. And this wholesale collapse of what he had believed to be his ruling traits made him feel oddly humble . . . and humiliated . . . almost as if he had shrivelled in stature. Hence he never went out. For the single road led through the street of malicious eyes: and now nothing would have prevailed on him to expose himself to their fire. More and more the four walls of his room began to seem to him haven and refuge. And gradually he grew as fearful of the sound of footsteps approaching the door as he had formerly been eager for them. For they might mean a summons to quit his lair.

But no steps came.

Had he had but a dog to lay its moist and kindly muzzle on his knee, or a cat to arch its back under his hand, the keenest edge might have been taken off his loneliness. But for more years than he could count, he had been obliged to deny himself the company of those dumb friends who might now have sought, in semi-human fashion, to relieve the inhuman silence that had settled round him. Nothing broke this — or only what was worse than the silence itself: the awful mill-whistle, which, five times a day, marked the passage of the empty hours with its nerve-shattering shriek. He learnt to hate this noise as if it had been a live and malignant thing; yet was constrained to wait for it, to listen to it — even to count the seconds that still divided him from its blast. His books lay unopened, withdrawn into their primary state of so much dead paper. And it was not books alone that lost their meaning and grew to seem useless, and a burden. He could forget to wind up his watch, to pare his nails; he ceased to care whether or no his socks were worn into holes. The one task to which he still whipped himself was the writing of the few lines necessary to keep Mary from fretting. (To prepare her, too. ABSOLUTELY NOTHING DOING . . . INCREDIBLE . . . HEARTBREAKING.) Otherwise he would sit, for an hour at a time, staring at some object on the table before him, till it, the table, the room itself, swam in a grey mist. Or he followed, with all the fixity of inattention, the movements of a fly . . . or the dance of dust motes laddering a beam.

But this inertia, this seemingly aimless drifting, was yet not wholly irrational. It formed a kind of attempt, a threefold attempt, on the part of his inmost self, to recover from . . . to nerve himself anew for . . . to avoid rousing a whit sooner than need be . . . the black terrors that stalked those hours when he had not even the light of day to distract him.

* * * * *

To wake in the night, and to know that, on this side of your waking, lies no ray of light or hope . . . only darkness and fear. To wake in the night: be wide awake in an instant with all your faculties on edge: to wake, and be under compulsion to set in, night for night, at the same point, knowing, from grim experience, that the demons awaiting you have each to be grappled with in turn, no single one of them left unthrown, before you can win through to the peace that is utter exhaustion.

Sometimes he managed to get a couple of hours’ rest beforehand. At others, he would start up from a profound sleep believing the night far advanced; only to find that a bare ten or fifteen minutes had elapsed since he closed his eyes. But, however long or short the period of oblivion, what followed was always the same; and after a very few nights he learnt wisdom, and gave up struggling to escape the unescapable. Rising on his pillow he drew a long breath, clenched his fists, and thrust off.

The order in which his thoughts swept at him was always the same. The future . . . what of the future? With the practice gone, with nothing saved on which to start afresh, with but the slenderest of sums in hand for living expenses and the everlasting drain of the mortgage, he could see no way out of his present impasse but through the bankruptcy court. And in this country even an unmerited insolvency, one brought about by genuine misfortunes, spelt disgrace, spelt ruin. And not for oneself alone. To what was he condemning Mary . . . and the children? . . . his tenderly reared children. Poverty . . . charity . . . the rough and ready scramble of colonial life. Oh, a man should indeed take thought and consider, before he gave such hostages to fortune! — And here, as he tossed restlessly from side to side, there came into his mind words he had read somewhere or heard some one say, about life and its ultimate meaning. Stripped of its claptrap, of the roses and false sentiment in which we loved to drape it, it had actually no object but this: to keep a roof over the heads and food in the mouths of the helpless beings who depend on us. — Burns, too . . . Bobbie Burns. — Oh, God! . . . there it was again. This accursed diminutive! Night for night he vowed he would not use it, and night for night his tongue slipped and it was out before he could help himself. Had he then no longer the power to decide what he would or would not say? Preposterous! . . . preposterous and infuriating! For the whole thing — both the slip and his exasperation — was but a ruse on the part of his mind, to switch him off the main issue. And to know this, and yet be constrained, night after night, to the mechanical repetition of so utter a futility . . . his cold rage was such that several minutes had invariably to pass before he was calm enough to go on.

A way out! . . . there MUST be a way out. Hoisting himself on the pillow, till he all but sat erect, and boring into the dark with eyes hot in their sockets, he fell feverishly to telling over his affairs; though by now this, too, had become a sheerly automatic proceeding: his lips singsonging figures and sets of figures, while his brain roved elsewhere. What he could NOT avoid was the recital of them: it formed another of the obstacles he was compelled nightly to clamber over, on the road to sleep. Bills and bad debts, shares and dividends and calls, payments on the mortgage, redemption of the capital: these things danced a witches’ sabbath in his head. To them must now be added the rent of the house they lived in. He had reckoned on covering this with the rental from the house at Hawthorn. But they had had no luck with tenants: were already at their second; and the house was said to be falling into bad repair. In the Bank in Barambogie there stood to his credit, stood between him and beggary, the sum of not quite one hundred pounds. When this was done, God help them!

WHY had he ever left Melbourne What evil spirit had entered into him and driven him forth? What WAS that in him over which he had no power, which proved incapable of adhesion to any soil or fixed abode? For he might arm himself, each time anew, with another motive for plucking up his roots: it remained mere ratiocination, a sop flung to his reason, and in no wise got at the heart of the matter. Wherein lay the fault, the defect that had made of him throughout his life a hunted man? . . . harried from place to place, from country to country. Other men set up a goal, achieved it, and remained content. He had always been in flight. — But from what? Who were his pursuers? From what shadows did he run? — And in these endless nights, when he lay and searched his heart as never before, he thought he read the answer to the riddle. Himself he was the hunter and the hunted: the merciless in pursuit and the panting prey. Within him, it would seem, lodged fears . . . strange fears. And at a given moment one of these, hitherto dormant and unsuspected, would suddenly begin to brew, and go on growing till he was all one senseless panic, blind flight the only catholicon. No matter what form it took — whether a morbid anxiety about his health, or alarm at the swiftness with which his little day was passing — its aim was always the same: to beat him up and on. And never yet had he succeeded in defying it. With the result that, well on in years and loaded with responsibilities, he stood face to face with ruin. Having dragged with him those who were dearer to him than his own life. — But stay! Was that true? . . . and not just one of those sleek phrases that dripped so smoothly off the tongue. WERE they dearer? In this moment of greater clarity he could no longer affirm it. He believed that the instinct of self-preservation had, in his case, always been the primary one. And digging deeper still, he got, he thought, a further insight into his motives. If this were so, then what he fled must needs be the reverse of the security he ran to seek: in other words, annihilation. The plain truth was: the life-instinct had been too strong for him. Rather than face death and the death-fear, in an attempt to flee the unfleeable he had thrown every other consideration to the winds, and ridden tantivy into the unknown.

But now all chance of flight was over. He sat here as fast a prisoner as though chained to a stake — an old and weary man, with his fiftieth birthday behind him. — OLD, did he say? By God! not as a man’s years were reckoned elsewhere. In this accursed country alone. Only here were those who touched middle age regarded as decrepit, and cumberers of the soil. Wisdom and experience availed a man nothing, where only brawn had value. As for the three-score years and ten — But no! . . . no use, no use! . . . words would not help him. Not thus could it be shirked. He had to fight through, to the last spasm, the paroxysm of terror which at this point shook him like a palsy, at the knowledge that he would never again get free; that he was caught, trapped, pinned down . . . to be torn asunder, devoured alive. His pulses raced, his breath came hard, the sweat that streamed off him ran cold. Night after night he had the same thing to undergo; and from bitter experience he knew that the fit would gradually exhaust itself, leaving him spent, inert. — But this was all. With this, his compliance ceased, and there came a block. For, below the surface here, under a lid which he never lifted, which nothing would have induced him to raise by a hair’s-breadth, lurked a darker fear than any, one he could not face and live; even though, with a part of his mind, a watchful part, a part that it was impossible to deceive, he KNEW what it was.

Swerving violently, he laid the onus of his terror on a side issue: the confession that stood before him, the confession to Mary of his ruinous debt. As he pictured this, and as the borrowed emotion swelled it out, it turned to something horrible . . . monstrous . . . the performance of which surpassed his strength. How could he ever break the news to her, all unsuspecting, who shrank from debt as other women from fire or flood? What would she say? . . . hurl what bitter words at him, in her first wrath and distress? She being what she was, he believed the knowledge would well-nigh break her heart . . . as it almost broke his, to think of the anguish he must inflict on her. — And once again the years fell away, and he was a little velvet-suited lad, paling and quivering under the lash of a caustic Irish tongue. But there also came times when some such vividly recalled emotion proved the way out. Then, one or other episode from the forty-year-old past would rise before him, with so amazing a reality that he re-lived it to its flimsiest details, hearing the ominous tick of the clock on the chimney-piece, smelling the scent of lavender that went out from his mother’s garments. At others, the past failing in its grip, there was nothing for it but to fight to a finish. And so he would lie, and writhe, and moan, and beat the pillow with his hands, while tears that felt thick as blood scalded his cheeks.

But gradually, very gradually this last convulsion spent itself: and, as at the approach of soft music from a distance, he was aware of the coming end . . . of the peace advancing, at which all the labour of the night had been directed. Peace at last! . . . for his raw nerves, his lacerated brain. And along with it a delicious drowsiness, which stole over him from his finger-tips, and up from his feet, relaxing knotted muscles, loosening his hands, which now lay limp and free. He sank into it, letting himself go . . . as into a pond full of feathers . . . which enveloped him, closed downily about him . . . he sinking deeper . . . ever deeper . . .

Until, angry and menacing, shattering the heavenly inertia, a scream. — Who screamed? A child? What was it? Who was hurt? — Oh God! the shock of it, the ice-cold shock! He fell back on the pillow, his heart thudding like a tom-tom. Would he NEVER grow used to it? . . . this awful waking! . . . and though he endured it day after day. For . . . as always . . . the sun was up, the hour six of a red-hot morning, and the mill-whistle flayed the silence. In all he had slept for not quite three-quarters of an hour.

Thereafter he lay and stared into the dusty light as he had stared into the darkness. Needle-like pulses beat behind his lids; the muscles round eyes and mouth were a-twitch with fatigue. From the sight of food he turned with a sick man’s disrelish. Swallowing a cup of milkless tea, he crossed to the surgery and shut himself in. But on this particular day his habit of drowsing through the empty hours was rudely broken through. Towards midday he was disturbed by the door opening. It was Mrs. Beetling who, without so much as a knock, put her head in to say that the stationmaster had hurt his foot and wanted doctor to come and bandage it.

The stationmaster? — He had been far away, on high cliffs that sloped to the sea, gathering “horsetails” . . . and for still an instant his brain loitered over the Latin equivalent. Then he was on his feet, instinctively fingering the place where his collar should have been. But neither coat nor collar . . . and: “My boots, my good woman, my boots!” The dickens! Was that he who was shouting? Tut, tut! He must pull himself together, not let these spying eyes note his fluster. But there was another reason for the deliberateness with which he sought the bedroom. His knees felt weak, and he could hardly see for the tears that would keep gathering. Over three weeks now close on a month — since any one had sent for him. ALL were not dead against him then! Oh, a good fellow, this Pendrell! . . . a good fellow! . . . a man after his own heart, and a gentleman. — And throwing open drawers and cupboards, he made many an unnecessary movement, and movements that went wide of their mark.

In putting arnica and lint in his bag he became aware that his hands were violently a-shake. This wouldn’t do. Impossible to appear before a patient in such a state. He clenched his fists and stiffened his arms; but the tremor was stronger than his will, and persisted. As a last resource he turned to the sideboard, poured some sherry into a tumbler, and gulped it down.

Quitting the house by the back door, he went past the kitchen, the woodstack, the rubbish-heap, a pile of emptied kerosene-tins, the pigsties (with never a pig in them), the fowls sitting moping in the shrinking shade. His eyes ran water anew at the brassy glare; and phew! . . . the heat. In his haste he had forgotten to put a handful of vine-leaves in the crown of his wideawake. The sun bore down on him with an almost physical weight: he might have had a loaded sack lying across neck and shoulders. And as soon as he let the hasp of the gate fall, he was in the dust of the road; and then his feet were weighted as well.

But his thoughts galloped. Oh, that this summons might be the start of a new era for him! . . . the awful stagnation of the past month prove to have been but a temporary lull, a black patch, such as any practice was liable to; the plot he had believed hatched against him prove to have existed only in his own imagination; and everything be as before . . . he still able to make a living, pay his way. —“Mercy! . . . dear God, a little mercy!”— But if that were so, then he, too, would need to do his share. Yes, he would make a point from now on of meeting the people here on their own level. He would ask after their doings . . . their wives and children . . . gossip with them of the weather and the vines . . . hobnob — no, drink with them he could and would not! But he knew another way of getting at them. And that was through their pockets. Fees! Quite likely he had set his too high. He would now come down a peg . . . halve his charges. They’d see then that it was to their advantage to call him in, rather than send elsewhere for a stranger. It might also be policy on his part — in the meantime at any rate — to treat trivial injuries and ailments free of charge. (Once the practice was set going again, he’d make them pay through the nose for all the worry and trouble they’d caused him.) If ONLY he could get the name of being freehanded . . . easygoing — could ingratiate himself . . . become popular.

So rapt was he that though, at the level crossing, his feet paused of themselves, he could not immediately think why he had stopped, and gazed absently round. Ha! the trains, of course. But there WERE no trains at this hour of day: the station was shut up, deserted. A pretty fool he would look was he seen standing there talking to himself. He must hurry in, too, out of the sun. The heat was beginning to induce giddiness; the crown of his head felt curiously contracted. But he had still some distance to go. He spurred himself on, more quickly than before; his feet keeping time with his wingy thoughts.

Mary was hard put to it not to alarm the children. Every few minutes her anxiety got the better of her, and dropping her work she would post herself at a corner of the verandah, where she could see down the road. She had been on the watch ever since the postman handed in Richard’s letter that morning, for the telegram that was to follow. Her first impulse had been to start for home without delay; and, despite Tilly’s reasonings and persuasions, she had begun to sort out the children’s clothes. Then she wavered. It would be madness to go back before the heat broke. And, if the practice was as dead as Richard averred, there was no saying when the poor mites would get another change of air.


But to this a postscript had been added, in a hand it was hard to recognise as Richard’s: OH MARY WIFE COME HOME, COME HOME! — BEFORE I GO QUITE MAD.

Down by the water’s edge Cuffy played angrily. He didn’t know what he loved best: the seaweed, or the shells, or the little cave, or the big pool on the reef, or the little pool, or bathing and lying on the sand, or the smell of the ti-trees. And now — oh, WHY had Papa got to go and get ill, and spoil everything? HE’D seen Mamma beginning to pack their things, and it had made him feel all hot inside. Why must just HIS clothes be packed? He might get ill, too. Perhaps he would, if he drank some sea. Aunt Tilly said it made you mad. (Like Shooh man.) All right then, he would get mad . . . and they could see how they liked it! And so saying he scooped up a palmful of water and put it to his mouth. It ran away so fast that there was hardly any left; but it was enough: ugh! wasn’t it nasty? He spat it out again, making a ‘normous noise so that everybody should hear. But they didn’t take a bit of notice. Then a better idea struck him. He’d give Mamma the very nicest things he had: the two great big shells he had found all by himself, which he kept hidden in a cave so that Luce shouldn’t even touch them unless he said so. He’d give them to Mamma, and she’d like them so much that she’d never want to go home — oh well! not for a long, long time. Off he raced, shuffling his bare feet through the hot, dry, shifty sand.

But it was no good: she didn’t care. Though he made her shut her eyes tight and promise not to look, while he opened her hand and squeezed the shells into it and shut it again, like you did with big surprises. She just said: “What’s this? Your pretty shells? My dear, what should I do with them? No, no! . . . you keep them for yourself,”— and all the while she wasn’t REALLY thinking what she said. And he couldn’t even tell her why, for now Aunt Tilly shouted that the telegram-boy was coming at last; and Mamma just pushed the shells back and ran out into the road, and tore open the telegram like anything, and smiled and waved it at Aunt Tilly, and they both laughed and talked and wiped their eyes. But then everything was all right again; for it was from Papa, and he had telegrammed: AM BETTER, DO NOT HURRY HOME.


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