Ultima Thule, by Henry Handel Richardson

Chapter VIII

Wept Mary, his Lordship’s visit having ended in strain and coolness: “How could you! . . . how COULD you? Knowing what he thinks — and him a guest in the house! And then to hold our poor little darling up to derision — for them to laugh and mock at — oh! it was cruel of you . . . cruel. I shall never forget it.”

“Pray would you have me refuse, when the opportunity offers, to bear witness to the faith that is in me? Who am I to shrink from gibes and sneers? Where would Christianity itself be to-day, had its early followers not braved scorn and contumely?”

“But WE’RE not early Christians! We’re just ordinary people. And I think it’s perfectly dreadful to hear you make such comparisons. Talk about blasphemy . . .”

“It’s always the same. Try to tell a man that he has a chance of immortality . . . that he is not to be snuffed out at death like a candle . . . and all that is brutal and ribald in him comes to the surface.”

“Leave it to the churches! . . . it’s the churches’ business. You only succeed in making an utter fool of yourself.”

Immortality . . . and a doll’s nose! Oh, to see a man of Richard’s intelligence sunk so low! For fear of what she might say next, Mary flung out of the room, leaving him still haranguing, and put the length of the passage between them. At the verandah door she stood staring with smouldering eyes into the garden. Telling herself that, one day, it would not be the room only she quitted, but the house as well. She saw a picture of herself, marching with defiant head down the path and out of the gate, a child on either hand. (Oh! the children went, too: she’d take good care of that.) Richard should be left to the tender mercies of Zara: Zara who, at first sound of a raised voice, vanished behind a locked door. That might bring him to his senses. For things could not go on as they were. Never a plan did she lay for his benefit but he somehow crossed and frustrated it. And as a result of her last effort, they were actually in a worse position than before. Not only was the practice as dead as a doornail again, but a new load of contempt rested on Richard’s shoulders.

The first hint that something more than his spiritistic rantings might be at work, in frightening people off, came from Maria. It was a couple of weeks later. Mary was in the kitchen making pastry, dabbing blobs of lard over a rolled-out sheet of paste, and tossing and twisting with a practised hand, when Maria, who stood slicing apples, having cast more than one furtive glance at her mistress, volunteered the remark: “Mrs. Mahony, you know that feller with the broke leg? Well, they do say his Pa’s bin and fetched another doctor, orl the way from Oakworth.”

“What boy? Young Nankivell? Nonsense! He’s out of splints by now.”

“Mike Murphy told the grocer so.”

“Now, Maria, you know I won’t listen to gossip. Make haste with the fruit for this pie.”

But it was not so easy to get the girl’s words out of her head. Could there possibly be any truth in them? And if so, did Richard know? He wouldn’t say a word to her, of course, unless his hand was forced.

At dinner she eyed him closely; but could detect no sign of a fresh discomfiture.

That afternoon, though, as she sat stitching at warm clothing — with the end of March the rains had set in, bringing cooler weather — as she sat, there came a knock at the front door, and Maria admitted what really seemed to be a patient again at last, a man asking imperiously for the doctor. He was shown into the surgery, and even above the whirring of her sewing-machine Mary could hear his voice — and Richard’s, too — raised as if in dispute, and growing more and more heated. She went into the passage and listened, holding her breath. Then — oh! what was that? . . . who? . . . WHAT? . . . A HORSE-WHIPPING? Without hesitation she turned the knob of the surgery door and walked in.

“What is it? What’s the matter?” With fearful eyes she looked from one to the other. In very fact the stranger, a great red-faced, burly fellow, held a riding-whip stretched between his hands.

And Richard was cowering in his chair, his grey head sunk between his shoulders. Richard . . . COWERING? In an instant she was beside him, her arm about his neck. “Don’t mind him! . . . don’t take any notice of what he says.”

Roughly Mahony shook himself free. “Go away . . . go out of the room, Mary. This is none of your business.”

“And have him speak to you like that? I’ll do nothing of the sort. Why don’t you turn him out?” And as Richard did not answer, and her blood was up, she rounded on the man with: “How dare you come here and insult the doctor in his own house? You great bully, you!”

“MARY! — for God’s sake! . . . don’t make more trouble for me than I’ve got already.”

“Now, now, madam, I’ll trouble you to have a care what you’re saying!” — and the network of veins on the speaker’s cheeks ran together in a purplish patch. “None of your lip for me, if you please! As for insults, me good lady, you’ll have something more to hear about the rights o’ that. You’ve got a boy of your own, haven’t you? What would you say, I’d like to know, if a bloody fraud calling himself a doctor had been and made a cripple of him for life?”

(THAT hit. Cuffy? . . . a cripple? Oh, Richard, Richard, what HAVE you done?)

“As fine a young chap as ever you see, tall and upstanding. And now ’tis said he’ll never walk straight again, but’ll have to hobble on crutches, with one leg four inches shorter than the other, for the rest of his days. — But I’ll settle you! I’ll cork your chances for you! I’ll put a stop to your going round maiming other people’s children. I’ll have the lor on you, that’s what I’ll do. I’ll take it into court, by Jesus I will!”

“You’ll ruin me.”

“I’ll never stop till I have . . . so help me, God! . . . as you’ve ruined me boy. You won’t get the chance to butcher no one else — you damned, drunken old swine, you!”

Richard sat motionless, head in hand, and the two fingers that supported his temple, and the skin on which they lay, looked as though drained of every drop of blood. But he said not a word — let even the last infamous accusation pass unchallenged. Not so Mary. With eyes so fierce that the man involuntarily recoiled before them, she advanced upon him. “How dare you? . . . how DARE you say a thing like that to my husband? You! . . . with a face which shows everybody what your habits are . . . to slander some one who’s never in his life been the worse for drink? Go away . . . we’ve had enough of you . . . go away, I say!”— and throwing open the door she drove him before her. — But on the garden path he turned and shook his fist at the house.

Richard had not stirred; nor did he look up at her entry. And to her flood of passionate and bewildered questions, he responded only by a toneless: “It’s no use, Mary; what he says may be true. A case of malunion. Such things do happen. And surgery has never been one of my strong points.” Try as she would, there was nothing more to be got out of him.

In despair she left him, and went to the bedroom. Her brain was spinning like a Catherine wheel. Yet something must be done. They could not — oh, they COULD not! — sit meekly there, waiting for this new and awful blow to fall. She must go out, track the man, follow him up; and snatching her bonnet from the drawer she tied it on — it had a red rose on a stalk, which nodded at her from the mirror. She would go on her knees to him not to take proceedings. He had a wife. SHE might understand . . . being a woman, be merciful. But . . . Cuffy . . . a cripple . . . would SHE have had mercy? What would HER feelings have been, had she had to see her own child go halt and lame? No, Richard was right, it was no good: there was nothing to be done. And tearing off her wraps she threw herself face downwards on the bed, and wept bitterly.

She did not hear the door open, or see the small face that peered in. And a single glimpse of the dark mass that was his mother, lying shaking and sobbing, was enough for Cuffy: he turned and fled. Frightened by the angry voices, the children had sought their usual refuge up by the henhouse. But it got night, and nobody came to call them or look for them, and nobody lit the lamps; and when they did come home the table wasn’t spread for supper. Cuffy set to hunting for Mamma. But after his discovery his one desire was not to see anything else. In the dark drawing-room, he hid behind an armchair. Oh, WHAT was the matter now? What HAD they done to her? It could only be Papa that hurt her so. WHY did he have to do it? Why couldn’t he be nice to her? Oh, If only Papa — yes, if . . . if only Papa WOULD go away, as he said, and leave them and Mamma together! Oh, pray God, let Papa go away! . . . and never, never come back.

But that night — after a sheerly destructive evening, in which Mary had never ceased to plead with, to throw herself on the mercy of, an invisible opponent: I give you my word for it, he wasn’t himself that day . . . what with the awful heat . . . and the length of the drive . . . and the horse wouldn’t go . . . he was so upset over it. And then the loss of our little girl . . . that was a blow he has never properly got over. For he’s not a young man any more. He’s not what he was . . . ANYONE will tell you that! But they’ll tell you, too, that he has never, never neglected a patient because of it. He’s the most conscientious of men . . . has always worked to the last ounce of his strength, put himself and the state of his own health last of all . . . I have known him tramp off of a morning when anybody with half an eye could see that he ought to be in bed. And so kindhearted! If a patient is poor, or has fallen on evil days, he will always treat him free of charge. Oh, surely people would need to have hearts of stone, to stand out against pleas such as these? — Or she lived through, to the last detail, the horrors of a lawsuit: other doctors giving evidence against Richard, hundreds of pounds having to be paid as damages, the final crash to ruin of his career. And when it came to the heritage of shame and disgrace that he would thus hand on to his children, her heart turned cold as ice against him. But that night every warring feeling merged and melted in a burning compassion for the old, unhappy man who lay at her side; lay alarmingly still, staring with glassy eyes at the moonlit window. Feeling for his hand she pressed it to her cheek. “Don’t break your heart over it, my darling. Trust me, I’ll win him round . . . SOMEHOW! And then we’ll go away — far away from here — and start all over again. No one need ever know.”

But she could not get at him, could not rouse him from the torpor in which this last, unmerited misfortune had sunk him. And there they lay, side by side, hand in hand, but far as the poles apart.

The court, airless and fetid, was crowded to the last place. With difficulty he squeezed into a seat on a hard, backless bench . . . though he was too old and stiff nowadays to sit for long without a support. The judge — why, what was this? He knew that face . . . had surely met him somewhere? . . . had dined with him perhaps, or tilted a table in his company — the judge held a large gold toothpick in his hand, and in the course of the proceedings must have picked in turn every tooth he had in his head. Foul teeth . . . a foul breath . . . out of such a mouth should judgment come? He felt in his pocket to see if, in a species of prevision, he had brought his forceps with him; and sharply withdrew his hand from a mess of melting jujubes. (The children of course . . . oh, devil take those children! They were always in his way.) Believing himself unseen, he stealthily deposited the sticky conglomerate on the floor. But his neighbour, a brawny digger, with sleeves rolled high above the elbow and arms behaired like an ape’s, espied him, and made as if to call the attention of the usher to his misdeed. To escape detection he rose and moved hurriedly to the other side of the court; where, oddly enough, there seemed after all to be plenty of room.

Here he was seated to much better advantage; and pulling himself together, prepared to follow the case. But . . . again he was baffled. Plaintiff’s counsel was on his feet; and once more the striking likeness of the fellow to somebody he had known distracted him. Hang it all! It began to look as if every one present was more or less familiar to him. Secretly he ran his eye over the assembly, and found that it was so . . . though he could not have put a name to a single manjack of them. However, since nobody seemed to recognise him, he cowered down and trusted to pass unobserved. But, from now on, he was aware of a sense of mystery and foreboding; the court and its occupants took on a sinister aspect. And even as he felt this, he heard two rascally-looking men behind him muttering together. “Are you all right?” said one. To which the other made half-audible reply: “We are, if that bloody fool, our client ——” Ha! there was shady work in hand; trouble brewing for somebody. But what was HE doing here? What had brought him to such a place?

Wild to solve the riddle, he made another desperate attempt to fix his thoughts. But these haunting resemblances had unnerved him; he could do nothing but worry the question where he had met plaintiff’s counsel. The name hung on the very tip of his tongue; yet would not out. A common, shoddy little man, prematurely bald, with a protruding paunch and a specious eye — he wouldn’t have trusted a fellow with an eye like that farther than he could see him. Most improperly dressed, too; wearing neither wig nor gown, but a suit of a loud, horsey check, the squares of which could have been counted from across a road.

This get-up it was, which first made it plain to him that the case under trial had some secret connection with himself. Somehow or other he was involved. But each time, just as he thought he was nearing a due, down would come a kind of fog and blot everything out.

Through it, he heard what sounded like a scuffle going on. It seemed that the plaintiff was drunk, not in a fit state to give evidence . . . though surely that was his voice protesting vehemently that he had never been the worse for drink in his life? The two cut-throats in the back seat muttered anew; others joined in; and soon the noise from these innumerable throats had risen to an ominous roar. He found himself shouting with the rest; though only later did he grasp what it was all about: they were calling for the defendant to enter the witness-box. Well, so much the better! Now at last, he would discover the hidden meaning.

The defendant proved to be an oldish man, with straggly grey hair and whiskers, and a round back: he clambered up the steps to the witness-box, which stood high, like a pulpit, with a palpable effort. This bent back was all that could be seen of him at first, and a very humble back it looked, threadbare and shiny, though brushed meticulously free of dust and dandruff. Surely to goodness, though, he needn’t have worn his oldest suit, the one with the frayed cuffs? . . . his second-best would have been more the thing . . . even though the coat did sag at the shoulders. Edging forward in his seat he craned his neck; then half rose, in his determination to see the fellow’s face — and, having caught a single glimpse of it, all but lost his balance and fell, with difficulty restraining a shriek that would have pealed like the whistle of a railway-engine through the court, and have given him away . . . beyond repair. For it was himself he saw, himself who stood there perched aloft before every eye, holding fast, with veined and wrinkled hands, to the ledge of the dock: himself who now suddenly turned and looked full at him, singling him out from all the rest. His flesh crawled, his hairs separated, while something cold and rapid as a ball of quicksilver ran from top to bottom of his spine. — Two of him? God in heaven! But this was madness. TWO of him? The thing was an infamy . . . devilish . . . not to be borne. WHICH WAS HE?

And yet, coeval with the horror of it, ran an obscene curiosity. So THIS was what he looked like! THIS was how he presented himself to his fellow-men. Smothering his first wild fear, he took in, coldly and cruelly, every detail of the perched-up figure, whose poverty-stricken yet sorrily dandified appearance had been the signal for a burst of ribald mirth. He could hear himself laughing at the top of his lungs; especially when, after a painful effort to read a written slip that had been handed to him, his double produced a pair of horn-rimmed spectacles, and shakily balanced them on the tip of his long thin nose. Ha, ha! This was good . . . was very good. Ha, ha! A regular owl! . . . exactly like an old owl. A zany. A figure of fun.

Then, abruptly, his laughter died in his throat. For hark! . . . what was this? . . . what the . . .! God above! he was pleading now — PLEADING? nay, grovelling! — begging abjectly for mercy. He whined “Me Lud, if the case goes against me I’m a ruined man. And he has got his knife in me, me Lud! . . . he’s made up his mind to ruin me. A hard man . . . a cruel man! . . . if ever there was one. Oh, spare me, me Lud! . . . have pity on my poor wife and my two little children!” The blood surged to his head, and roared in neck and temples till he thought they would burst. NEVER! . . . no, never in all his days had he sought either pity or mercy. And never, no matter what his plight, would he sink so low. The despicable sniveller! The unmanly craven! . . . he disowned him — loathed him — spat at him in spirit: his whole being swam in hatred. But even as, pale with fury, he joined in the hyaena-like howl against clemency that was raised, a small voice whispered in his ear that his time was running short. He must get out of this place . . . must escape . . . save himself . . . from the wrath to come. Be up and away, head high, leaving his ghost to wring its hands . . . and wail . . . and implore. Long since he had lifted his hat to his face, where he held it as if murmuring a prayer. But it was no longer the broad-brimmed wideawake he had brought with him into court; it had turned into a tall beaver belltopper, of a mode at least twenty years old, and too narrow to conceal his face. He tossed it from him as, frantic with the one desire, he pushed and struggled to get out, treading on people’s feet, crushing past their knees — oh! was there no end to their number, or to the rows of seats through which he had to fight his way? . . . his legs growing heavier and heavier, more incapable of motion. And then . . . just when he thought he was safe . . . he heard his own name spoken: heard it said aloud, not once but many times, and, damnation take it! by none other than old Muir the laryngologist, that pitiful old fossil, that infernal old busybody, dead long since, who it seemed had been in court throughout the proceedings and now recognised him, and stood pointing at him. Again a shout rose in unison, but this time it was his name they called, and therewith they were up and on his heels, and the hue and cry had begun in earnest. He fled down Little Bourke Street, and round and up Little Collins Street, running like a hare, but with steadily failing strength, drawing sobbing breaths that hurt like blows; but holding his left hand fast to his breast-pocket, where he had the knife concealed. His ears rang with that most terrifying of mortal sounds: the wolf-like howl of a mob that chases human game and sees its prey escaping it. For he was escaping; he would have got clean away if, of a sudden, Mary and the children had not stood before him. In a row . . . a third child, too. He out with his knife . . . NOW he knew what it was for! But a shrill scream stayed his hand . . . who screamed? who screamed? . . . and with such stridency. Mary . . . it could ONLY be Mary who would so deliberately foul his chances. For this one second’s delay was his undoing. Some one dashed up behind and got him by the shoulder, and was bearing his down, and shaking, shaking, shaking . . . while a fierce voice shrieked in his ear: “Richard! . . . oh, RICHARD, do wake up! You’ll terrify the children. Oh, what dreadful dream have you been having?”

And it was broad daylight, the mill-whistle in full blast, and he sitting up in bed shouting, and drenched in sweat. The night was over, a new day begun, in which had to be faced, not the lurid phantasmagoria of a dream-world that faded at a touch, but the stern, bare horrors of reality, from which there was no awakening.

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