Ultima Thule, by Henry Handel Richardson

Chapter V

When Mary came out of the surgery and shut the door behind her, she leaned heavily up against it for a moment, pressing her hand to her throat; then, with short steps and the blank eyes of a sleepwalker, crossed the passage to the bedroom and sat stiffly down. She was still in bonnet and mantle, just as she had got out of the train: it had not occurred to her to remove them. And she was glad of the extra covering, for in spite of the heat of the day she felt very cold. Cold . . . and old. The scene she had just been through with Richard seemed, at a stroke, to have added years to her age. It had been a dreadful experience. With his arms on the table, his head on his arms, he had cried like a child, laying himself bare to her, too, with a child’s pitiful abandon. He told of his distraction at the abrupt stoppage of the practice; of his impression of being deliberately shunned; of his misery and loneliness, his haunting dread of illness — and, on top of this, blurted out pell-mell, as if he could keep nothing back, as if, indeed, he got a wild satisfaction out of making it, came the confession of his mad folly, the debt, the criminal debt in which he had entangled them, and under the shadow of which, all unknown to her, they had lived for the past year. Oh! well for him that he could not see her face as he spoke; or guess at the hideous pictures his words set circling in her brain; the waves of wrath and despair that ran through her. After her first spasmodic gasp of: “RICHARD! EIGHT hundred pounds!” the only outward sign of her inner commotion had been a sudden stiffening of her limbs, an involuntary withdrawal of the arm that had lain round his shoulders. Not for a moment could she afford to let her real feelings escape her: her single exclamation had led to a further bout of self-reproaches. Before everything, he had to be calmed, brought back to his senses, and an end put to this distressing scene. What would the children think, to hear their father behave like this? . . . his hysterical weeping . . . his loud, agitated tones. And so, without reflection, she snatched at any word of comfort that offered; repeated the old, threadbare phrases about things not being as black as he painted them; of everything seeming worse if you were alone; of how they would meet this new misfortune side by side and shoulder to shoulder — they still had each other, which was surely half the battle? With never a hint of censure; till she had him composed.

But as she sat in the bedroom, with arms and legs like stone, resentment and bitterness overwhelmed her . . . oh, a sheerly intolerable bitterness! Never! not to her dying day, would she forgive him the trick he had played on her. . . . the deceit he had practised. On her . . . his own wife. So THIS was why he had left Hawthorn! — why he had not been able to wait to let the practice grow — THIS the cause of his feverish alarm here, did a single patient drop off. Now she understood — and many another thing besides. Oh, what had he done . . . so recklessly done! . . . to her, to his children? For there had been no real need for this fresh load of misery: they could just as easily — more easily — have rented a house. His pride alone had barred the way. It wouldn’t have been good enough for him; nothing ever WAS good enough; he was always trying to outshine others. No matter how she might suffer over it, who feared debt more than anything in the world. But with him it had always been self first. Look at the home-coming he had prepared for her! He had hardly let her step inside before he had sprung his mine. Of course he had lost his head with excitement at their arrival . . . had hardly known what he was saying. Yes! but no doubt he had also thought to himself: at the pass to which things were come, the sooner his confession was made, the better for him. WHAT a home-coming!

Further than this, however, she did not get. For the children, still in their travelling clothes and hot, tired and hungry, were at the door, clamouring for attention. With fumbly hands she took off her bonnet, smoothed her hair, pinned on her cap, tied a little black satin apron round her waist; and went out to them with the pinched lips and haggard eyes it so nipped Cuffy’s heart to see.

Her pearl necklace would have to go: that was the first clear thought she struck from chaos. It was night now: the children had been fed and bathed and put to bed, the trunks unpacked, drawers and wardrobes straightened, the house — it was dirty and neglected — looked through, and Richard, pale as a ghost but still pitifully garrulous, coaxed to bed in his turn. She sat alone in the little dining-room, her own eyes feeling as if they would never again need sleep. Her necklace . . . even as the thought came to her she started up and, stealing on tiptoe into the bedroom, carried her dressing-case back with her . . . just to make sure: for an instant she had feared he might have been beforehand with her. But there the pearls lay, safe and sound. Well! as jewellery she would not regret them: she hadn’t worn them for years, and had never greatly cared for being bedizened and behung. Bought in those palmy days when money slid like sand through Richard’s fingers, they had cost him close on a hundred pounds. Surely she ought still to get enough for them — and for their companion brooches, rings, chains, ear-rings and bracelets — to make up the sums of money due for the coming months, which he admitted not having been able to get together. For consent to let the mortgage lapse she never would: not if she was forced to sell the clothes off her back, or to part, piece by piece, with the Paris ornaments, the table silver.. . Richard’s books. It would be sheer madness; after having paid out hundreds and hundreds of pounds. Besides, the knowledge that you had this house behind you made all the difference. If the worst came to the worst they could retire to Hawthorn, and she take in boarders. She didn’t care a rap what she did, so long as they contrived to pay their way.

How to dispose of the necklace was the puzzle. To whom could she turn? She ran over various people but dismissed them all. Even Tilly. When it came to making Richard’s straits public, she was hedged on every side. Ah! but now she had it: ZARA! If, as seemed probable, Zara came to take up her abode with them to teach the children, she would soon see for herself how matters stood. (And at least she was one’s own sister.) Zara . . . trailing her weeds — why yes, even these might be turned to account. Widows did not wear jewellery; and were often left poorly off. People would pity her, perhaps give more, because of it.

And so, having fetched pen, ink and paper, Mary drew the kerosene lamp closer and set to writing her letter.

It wasn’t easy; she made more than one start. Not even to Zara could she tell the unvarnished truth. She shrank, for instance, from admitting that only now had she herself learnt of Richard’s difficulties. Zara might think strange things . . . about him and her. So she put the step she was forced to take, down to the expenses of their seaside holiday. Adding, however, that jewellery was useless in a place like this where you had no chance of wearing it; and even something of a risk, owing to the house standing by itself and having so many doors.

The letter written she made a second stealthy journey, this time to the surgery, where she ferreted out Richard’s case-books. She had a lurking hope that, yet once more, he might have been guilty of his usual exaggeration. But half a glance at the blank pages taught her better. Things were even worse than he had admitted. What COULD have happened during her absence? What had he done, to make people turn against him? Practices didn’t die out like this in a single day — somehow or other he must have been to blame. Well! it would be her job, henceforth, to put things straight again: somehow or other to re-capture the patients. And if Richard really laid himself out to conciliate people — he COULD be so taking, if he chose — and not badger them . . . Let him only scrape together enough for them to live on, and she would do the rest: her thoughts leapt straightway to a score of petty economies. The expenses of food and clothing might be cut down all round; and they would certainly go on no more long and costly holidays: had she only known the true state of affairs before setting out this summer! But she had been so anxious about the children . . . oh! she was forgetting the children. And here, everything coming back to her with a rush, Mary felt her courage waver. Merciless to herself; with only a half-hearted pity for Richard, grown man that he was and the author of all the trouble; she was at once a craven and wrung with compassion where her children were concerned.

At the breakfast-table next morning she sat preoccupied; and directly the meal was over put the first of her schemes into action by sending for the defaulting Maria and soundly rating her. But she could get no sensible reason from the girl for running away — or none but the muttered remark that it had been “too queer” in the house with them all gone. After which, tying on her bonnet Mary set out for the township, a child on either hand. Lucie trotted docilely; but Cuffy was restive at being buttoned into his Sunday suit on a week-day, and dragged back and shuffled his feet in the dust till they were nearly smothered. Instead of trying to help Mamma by being an extra good boy!

“But I don’t FEEL good.”

Once out of sight of the house, Mary took two crepe bands from her pocket and slipped them over the children’s white sleeves. Richard’s ideas about mourning were bound to give . . . had perhaps already given offence. People of the class they were now dependent on thought so much of funerals and mourning. But he never stopped to consider the feelings of others. She remembered how he had horrified Miss Prestwick, with his heathenish ideas about the children’s prayers. All of a sudden one day he had declared they were getting too big to kneel down and pray “into the void,” or to “a glorified man”; and had had them taught a verse which said that loving all things big and little was the best kind of prayer and so on; making a regular to-do about it when he discovered that Miss Prestwick was still letting them say their “Gentle Jesus” on the sly.

Here she righted two hats and took Cuffy’s elastic out of his mouth; for they were entering the township; and for once the main street was not in its usual state of desertedness, when it seemed as if the inhabitants must all lie dead of the plague . . . or be gone EN MASSE to a fairing. The butcher’s cart drove briskly to and fro; a spring-cart had come in from the bush; buggies stood before the Bank. The police-sergeant touched his white helmet; horses were being backed between the shafts of the coach in front of the “Sun.” Everybody of course eyed her and the children very curiously, and even emerged from their shops to stare after them. It was the first time she had ever walked her own children out, and on top of that she had been absent for over two months. (Perhaps people imagined she had gone for good! Oh, could THAT possibly be a reason?) However she made the best of it: smiled, and nodded, and said good-day; and in spite of their inquisitive looks every one she met was very friendly. She went into the butcher’s to choose a joint, and took the opportunity of thanking the butcher for having served the doctor so well during her absence The man beamed: and showed the children a whole dead pig he had hanging in the shop. She gave an order to the grocer, who leaned over the counter with two bunches of raisins, remarking “A fine little pair of nippers you have there, Mrs. Mahony!” To the baker she praised his bread, comparing it favourably with what she had eaten in Melbourne; and the man’s wife pressed sweets on the children. At the draper’s, which she entered to buy some stuff for pinafores, the same fuss was made over them . . . till she bade them run outside and wait for her there. For the drapery woman began putting all sorts of questions about Lallie’s illness, and what they had done for her, and how they had treated it . . . odd and prying questions, and asked with a strange air. Still, there was kindness behind the curiosity. “We did all feel that sorry for YOU, Mrs. Mahony . . . losing such a fine sturdy little girl!” And blinking her eyes to keep the tears back, Mary began to think that Richard must have gone DELIBERATELY out of his way, to make enemies of these simple, well-meaning souls. Bravely she re-told the tale of her loss, being iron in her resolve to win people round; but she was thankful when the questionnaire ended and she was free to quit the shop. To see what the children were doing, too. She could hear Cuffy chattering away to somebody.

This proved to be the Reverend Mr. Thistlethwaite, who had engaged the pair in talk with the super-heartiness he reserved for what he called the “young or kitchen fry” of his parish. In his usual state of undress — collarless, with unbuttoned vest, his bare feet thrust in carpet slippers — he was so waggish that Mary could not help suspecting where his morning stroll had led him.

“Good morning, Madam, good morning to you! Back again, back again? AND the little Turks! Capital . . . quite capital!”

He slouched along beside them, his paunch, under its grease spots, a-shake with laughter at his own jokes. The children of course were all ears; and she would soon have slipped into anothershop and so have got rid of him — you never knew what he was going to say next — if a sudden bright idea had not flashed into her mind.

It came of Mr. Thistlethwaite mentioning that the Bishop was shortly expected to visit the district; and humorously bemoaning his own lot. For, should his Lordship decide to break his journey at Barambogie on his way home, he, Thistlethwaite, would be obliged to ask him to share his bachelor quarters. “Which are all very well for hens and self, Mrs. Mahony . . . hens and self! But for his Lordship? Oh dear, no!”

Privately Mary recognised the ruse. The piggery in which Thistlethwaite housed had stood him in good stead before now: never yet had the parsonage been in fit state to receive a brother cleric. But at the present crisis she jumped at the handle it offered her.

“But he must come to us!” cried she. “The doctor and I would be only too delighted. And for as long as he likes. Another thing: why not, while he IS here, persuade him to give us a short lecture or address? We might even get up a little concert to follow, and devote the money to the fencing fund.”— For the church still stood on open ground. In the course of the past year but a meagre couple of pounds had been raised towards enclosing it; and what had become of these, nobody knew.

And now Mary’s ideas came thick and fast; rising even to the supreme labour of a “Tea-meeting.” And while Thistlethwaite hummed aloud in ever greater good humour, mentally cracking his fingers to the tune of: “That’s the ticket . . . women for ever! The work for them, and the glory for us,” Mary was telling herself that to secure the Bishop as their guest would go far towards restoring Richard’s lost prestige. He would be reinstated as the leading person in the township; and the fact of his Lordship staying with them would bring people about the house again, who MIGHT turn to patients. At any rate Richard and he would be seen in the street together, and at concert or lecture it would naturally fall to Richard to take the chair.

Striking while the iron was hot, she offered her services to mend the altarcloth; to darn and “get up” a surplice; to over-sew the frayed edges of a cassock. She would also see, she promised, what could be done to hide a hole in the carpet before the lectern, in which the Bishop might catch his foot. For this purpose they entered the church. It was pleasantly cool there, after the blazing heat out of doors; and having made her inspection Mary was glad to rest for a moment. The children felt very proud at being allowed inside the church when it wasn’t Sunday; and Thistlethwaite actually let Cuffy mount the pulpit-steps and repeat: “We are but little children weak,” so that he could see what it felt like to preach a sermon. Cuffy spoke up well, and remembered his words, and Mr. Thistlethwaite said they’d see him in the cloth yet; but all the time he, Cuffy, wasn’t REALLY thinking what he was saying. For he spied a funny little cupboard under the ledge of the pulpit, and while he was doing his hymn he managed to finger it open, and inside he saw a glass and a water-jug and a medicine-bottle. And next Sunday he watched the water Mr. Thistlethwaite drank before he preached, and saw he put medicine in it first. But when he asked Mamma if he was ill, and if not, why he took it, she got cross and said he was a very silly little boy, and he was to be sure and not say things like that before people.

There was still Richard to talk over on getting home. And he was in a bad temper at their prolonged absence. “All this time in the township? What for? Buying your own eatables? What on EARTH will people think of you? — Not to speak of dragging the children after you like any nursemaid.”

“Oh, let me go my own way to work.”

To reconcile him to the Bishop’s visit was a tough job. Gloomily he admitted that it might serve a utilitarian end. But the upset . . . to think of the upset! “It means the sofa for me again. While old M., who’s as strong as a horse, snores on my pillow. The sofa’s like a board; I never sleep a wink on it; it sets every bone in my body aching.”

“But only for one night . . . or at most two. Surely you can endure a few aches for the good that may come of it? Oh, Richard, DON’T go about thinking what obstacles you can put in my way! I’m quite sure I can help you, if you’ll give me a free hand.”

And she was right . . . as usual. The mere rumour that so important a visitor was expected — and she took care it circulated freely — brought a trickle of people back to the house. By the end of the week, Richard had treated four patients.

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