Ultima Thule, by Henry Handel Richardson

Chapter VI

They were at breakfast when the summons came — breakfast, the hardest meal of any to get through without friction. Richard invariably ate at top speed and with his eyes glued to his plate; in order, he said, not to be obliged to see Zara’s dusty crepe and bombazine, the mere sight of which on these hot mornings took away his appetite. But he also hoped by example to incite Zara to haste: now she was there, the meals dragged out to twice their usual length. For Zara had a patent habit of masticating each mouthful so-and-so many times before swallowing; and the children forgot to eat, in counting their aunt’s bites. With their ears cocked for the click at the finish. Mamma said it was her teeth that did it, and it was rude to listen. Aunt Zara called her teeth her MASHWAR. Why did she, and why did they click? But it was no good asking HER. She never told you anything . . . except lessons.

Yes, Mary had got her way, and for a couple of weeks now, Zara had been installed as governess. As a teacher she had not her equal. She also made a very good impression in the township, looking so much the lady, speaking with such precision and all that. But — well, it was a good job nothing had been said to Richard of her exaggerated offer to wash dishes and scrub floors. How he would have crowed! Apart from this, she had landed them in a real quandary by arriving with every stick of furniture she possessed: her bed, her mahogany chest of drawers, a night-commode. In the tiny bedroom which was all they had to offer her, there was hardly room to stand; while still unpacked portmanteaux and gladstone-bags lined the passage, Zara having turned nasty at a hint of the outhouse. And directly lessons were over, she shut herself up among her things with a bottle of French polish.

Of course, poor soul, they were all that was left her of her own home: you couldn’t wonder at her liking to keep them nice. And the main thing was, the children were making headway. Reward enough for her, Mary, to hear them gabbling their French of a morning, or learning their steps to Zara’s: “One, two, CHASSEZ, one!” Such considerations didn’t weigh with Richard though. Just as of old, everything Zara said or did exasperated him. He was furious with her, too, for grumbling at the size of her room. — But there! It wasn’t only Zara who grated on his nerves. It was everybody and everything.

On this particular day all her tact would be needed. For the message Maria had looked in during breakfast to deliver was a summons to Brown’s Plains; and if there was one thing he disliked more than another, it was the bush journeys he was being called on to face anew. “What! . . . again? Good God!” he looked up from his gobbling to ejaculate. Which expression made Zara pinch her lips and raise her eyebrows; besides being so bad for the children to hear. She, Mary, found his foot under the table and pressed it but that irritated him, too, and he was nasty enough to say: “What are you kicking me for?” Breakfast over, she sent Maria to the “Sun” to bespeak a buggy; looked out his driving things, put likely requisites in his bag — as usual the people hadn’t said what the matter was — and, her own work in the house done, changed her dress and tied on a shady hat. Now that Zara was there to mind the children, she frequently made a point of accompanying Richard on these drives.

The buggy came round: it was another of her innovations to have it brought right to the door; he had nothing to do but to step in. But at the gate they found Cuffy, who began teasing to be allowed to go, too. He had no one to play with; Lucie was asleep and Maria was busy, and Aunt Zara shut up in her room; and he was SO tired of reading. Thus he pouted, putting on his special unhappy baby face; and as often as he did this it got at something in his mother, which made her weak towards her first-born. So she said, oh, very well then, if he wanted to so much, he might; and sent him in to wash his hands and fetch his hat. Richard, of course, let loose a fresh string of grumbles: it would be hot enough with just the pair of them, without having the child thrown in. But Mary, too, was cross and tired, and said she wasn’t going to give way over every trifle; and so Cuffy, who had shrunk back at the sharp words, was hoisted up and off they set. — And soon the three of them, a tight fit in the high, two-wheeled, hooded vehicle, had left the township behind them, and were out on bush tracks where the buggy rocked and pitched like a ship on the broken waters of a rough sea.

Cuffy had never before been so far afield, and his spirits were irrepressible. He twisted this way and that, jerked his legs and bored with his elbows, flinging round to ask question after question. It fell to Mary to supply the answers; and she had scant patience with the curiosity of children, who hardly listened to what you told them in their eagerness to ask anew. But her “I wonder!” “How do I know?” and “Don’t bother me!” failed to damp Cuffy, who kept up his flow till he startled her by exclaiming with a vigorous sigh: “Ugh! I DO feel so hot and funny.” His small face was flushed and distressed.

“That’s what comes of so much talking,” said Mary, and without more ado whisked off his sailor-hat, with its cribbing chin-elastic, undid his shoes, slid his feet out of his socks.

Thus much Cuffy permitted. But when it came to taking off his tunic, leaving him to sit exposed in his little vest, he fought her unbuttoning hands.

“DON’T, Mamma — I won’t!”

“But there’s nobody to see! And it wouldn’t matter if they did — you’re only a little boy. No, you WOULD come. Now you must do as I tell you.”

And when she knew quite well how he felt! Why, not even Lucie was allowed to see him undressed. Since they had slept in the same room she had always to go to bed first, and turn her face to the wall, and shut her eyes tight, while he flew out of his clothes and into his nightshirt. To have to sit in broad daylight with naked arms, and his neck, too, and his braces showing! All his pleasure in the drive was spoiled. At each turn in the road he was on thorns lest somebody should be there who’d see him. Oh, WHY must Mamma be like this? Why didn’t she take her own clothes off? His belonged to him. (He HATED Mamma.)

Nursing this small agony, he could think of nothing else. And now there was silence in the buggy, which lurched and jolted, Richard taking as good as no pains to avoid the foot-deep, cast-iron ruts, the lumpy rocks and stones. Over they went sideways, then up in the air and down again with a bump. “Oh, gently, dear! DO be careful.” He wasn’t the driver for this kind of thing. She never felt really safe with him. — And here there came to her mind a memory of the very first time they had driven together: on their wedding journey from Geelong to Ballarat. How nervous she had been that day . . . how home-sick and lonely, too! . . . beside some one who was little more than a stranger to her, behind a strange horse on an unknown road, bound for a place of which she knew nothing. Ah well, it was perhaps a wise arrangement on the part of Providence that you DIDN’T know what lay ahead . . . or you might never set out at all. Could SHE have foreseen all that marriage was to mean: how Richard would change and the dance he would lead her; all the nagging worry and the bitter suffering; then, yes then, poor young inexperienced thing that she was, full of romantic ideas, and expecting only happiness as her lot, she might have been excused for shrinking back in dismay. — Her chief objection nowadays to driving was the waste of time. To make up for having to sit there with her hands before her, she let her mind run free, and was deep in her usual reckonings — reducing grocer’s and butcher’s bills, making over her old dresses for the children — when a violent heave of the buggy all but threw her from her seat: she had just time to fling a protective arm round Cuffy, to save the child from pitching clean over the dashboard. Without warning, Richard had leant forward and dealt the horse a vicious cut on the neck. The beast, which had been ambling drearily, started, stumbled, and would have gone down, had he not tugged and sawed it by the mouth. For a few seconds they flew ahead, rocking and swaying, she holding to the child with one hand, to the rail with the other. —“Do you want to break our necks?”

Mahony made no reply.

Gradually the rough canter ceased, and the horse fell back on its former jog-trot. It was a very poor specimen, old and lean; and the likelihood was, had been in harness most of the morning.

Again they crawled forward. The midday heat blazed; the red dust enveloped them, dimming their eyes, furring their tongues; there was not an inch of shade anywhere. Except under the close black hood, where they sat as if glued together.

Then came another savage lash from Richard, another leap on the part of the horse, more snatching at any hold she could find, the buggy toppling this way and that. Cuffy was frightened and clung to her dress, while she, outraged and alarmed, made indignant protest.

“Are you crazy? If you do that again, I shall get out.”

For all answer Richard said savagely: “Oh, hold your tongue, woman!” Before the child, too!

But her hurt and anger alike passed unheeded. Mahony saw nothing — nothing but the tremulous heat-lines, which caused the whole landscape to quiver and swim before him. His head ached to bursting: it might have had a band of iron round it, the screws in which were tightened, with an agonising twist, at each lurch of the vehicle, at Cuffy’s shrill pipe, Mary’s loud, exasperated tones. Inside this circlet of pain his head felt swollen and top-heavy, an unnatural weight on his shoulders: the exact reverse of an unpleasant experience he had had the night before. Then, as he went to lay it on the pillow it had seemed to lose its solidity, and, grown light as a puff-ball, had gone clean through pillow, bolster, mattress, drawing his shoulders after it, down and down, head-foremost, till he felt as if he were dropping like a stone through space. With the bed-curtain fast in one hand, a bed-post in the other, he had managed to hold on while the vertigo lasted, his teeth clenched to hinder himself from crying out and alarming Mary. But the fear of a recurrence had kept him awake half the night, and to-day he felt very poorly, and disinclined for any exertion. He would certainly have jibbed at driving out all this distance, had it not been for Mary and her hectoring ways. He was unable to face the fuss and bother in which a refusal would involve him.

If only they could reach their destination! They seemed to have been on the road for hours. But — with the horse that had been fobbed off on him . . . old, spiritless, and stubborn as a mule. . . . And there he had to sit, hunched up, crushed in, with no room to stir . . . with hardly room to breathe. One of Mary’s utterly mistaken ideas of kindness, to dog his steps as she did. To tack the child on, too . . . . Because SHE liked company . . . . But his needs had never been hers. Solitude . . . solitude was all he asked . . . to be left alone the greatest favour anyone could now do him. Seclusion had become as essential as air or water to the act of living. His brain refused its work were others present Which reminded him, there was something he had been going to think over on this very drive: something vital, important. But though he ransacked his mind from end to end, it remained blank. Or mere disconnected thoughts and scraps of thought flitted across it, none of which led anywhere. Enraged at his powerlessness he let the horse taste the whip; but the relief the quickened speed afforded him was over almost as soon as begun, and once more they ambled at a funeral pace. Damnation take the brute! Was he, because of it, to sit for ever on this hard, narrow seat, chasing incoherencies round an empty brain? . . . to drive for all eternity along these intolerable roads? . . . through this accursed bush, where the very trees grimaced at you in distorted attitudes, like stage ranters declaiming an exaggerated passion — or pointed at you with the obscene gestures of the insane . . . obscene, because so wholly without significance. — And again he snatched up the whip.

But the prolonged inaction was doing its work: a sense of unreality began to invade him, his surroundings to take on the blurred edges of a dream: one of those nightmare-dreams in which the dreamer knows that he is bound to reach a certain place in a given time, yet whose legs are weighed down by invisible weights . . . or which feel as if they are being dragged through water, tons of impeding water . . . or yet again the legs of elephantiasis . . . swollen, monstrous, heavy as lead: all this, while time, the precious time that remains BEFORE the event, is flying. Yes, somewhere . . . far away, out in the world . . . life and time were rushing by: he could hear the rhythm of their passing in the beat of his blood. He alone lay stranded — incapable of movement. And, as always at the thought of his lost freedom madness seized him: dead to everything but his own need, he rose in his seat and began to rain down blows on the horse: to beat it mercilessly, hitting out where ever the lash found place — on head, neck, ears, the forelegs, the quivering undersides. In vain the wretched creature struggled to break free, to evade the cut of the thong: it backed, tried to rear, dragged itself from side to side, ducked its defenceless head, the white foam flying. But for it, too, strapped down, buckled in, there was no chance of escape. And the blows fell . . . and fell.

“RICHARD! Oh, DON’T! — don’t beat the poor thing like that! How can you? What are you doing?” For, cruellest of all, he was holding the animal in to belabour it, refusing to let it carry out its pitiful attempts to obey the lash. “You who pretend to be so fond of animals!” There was no anger now in Mary’s voice: only entreaty, and a deep compassion. — And in the mad race that followed, when they tore along, in and out of ruts, on the track and off, skimming trees and bushes, always on the edge of capsizing, blind with dust: now, frightened though she was, she just set her teeth and held fast and said never a word . . . though she saw it was all Richard could do to keep control: his lean wrists spanned like iron.

Brought up at length alongside a rail-and-post fence, the horse stood shaking and sweating, its red nostrils working like bellows, the marks of the lash on its lathered hide. And Richard was trembling too. His hand shook so that he could hardly replace the whip in its socket.

With an unspoken “Thank God!” Mary slid to the ground, dragging Cuffy after her. Her legs felt as if they were made of pulp.

“I think this must be the place . . . . I think I see a house . . . . No, no, you stop here. I’ll go on and find out.” (Impossible for him to face strangers in the state he was in.) “Hush, Cuffy! It’s all right now.” Saying this she made to draw the child under a bush; he was lying sobbing just as she had dropped him.

But Cuffy pushed her away. “Leave me alone!” He only wanted to stop where he was. And cry. He felt so DREADfully miserable. For the poor horse . . . it couldn’t cry for itself . . . only run and run — and it hadn’t DONE anything . . . ‘cept be very old and tired . . . prayeth best who loveth best . . . oh! everything was turned all black inside him. But for Papa, too, because . . . he didn’t know why . . . only . . . when Mamma had gone and Papa thought nobody would see him, he went up to the horse’s neck and stroked it. And that made him cry more still.

But when he came and sat down by him and said “Cuffy,” and put out his arms, then he went straight into them, and Papa held him tight, so that he could feel the hard sticking-out bone that was his shoulder. And they just sat and never spoke a word, till they heard Mamma coming back; and then Papa let him go, and he jumped up and pretended to be looking at something on the ground.

Marry carried a dipper of water.

“Yes, this is it right enough. There’s been an accident — the son — they’re afraid he’s broken his leg. Oh, WHY can’t people send clearer messages! Can you rig up some splints? A man’s bringing a bucket for the horse. Come, let me dust you down. No, I’ll wait here I’d rather.”

Richard went off bag in hand: she watched him displacing and replacing slip-rails, walking stiffly over the rough ground. Just before he vanished he turned and waved, and she waved back. But this last duty performed, she sat heavily down, and dropped her head in her hands. And there she sat, forgetful of where she was, of Cuffy, the heat, the return journey that had to be faced: just sat, limp and spent, thinking things from which she would once have shrunk in horror.

All the way home Cuffy carried in his pocket half one of the nicest sugar-biscuits the people had sent him out by Papa. It was a present for the horse. But when the moment came to give it, his courage failed. Everybody else had forgotten: the horse, too: it was in a great hurry to get back to its stable. He didn’t like to be the only one to remember, to make it look as if he was still sorry. So, having feebly fingered the biscuit — the sugary top had melted and stuck to his pocket — he ate it up himself.

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