Ultima Thule, by Henry Handel Richardson

Chapter IX

The facts of the case, brought to light by vigorous action on Mary’s part, were these. The boy had been removed to the Oakworth hospital, where he was to be examined. Only when this was done could the surgeon in charge say whether there was any possibility of correcting the malunion, by re-breaking and re-setting the limb; or whether the patient would have to remain in his present degree of shortness. He hoped to let them know in about three days’ time. It might, of course, be less.

“There’s nothing for it; we must have patience,” said Mary grimly and with determination, as she re-folded the telegram and laid it back on the table.

Patience? Yes, yes; that went without saying; and Mahony continued to feign busyness with pencil and paper till the door had shut behind her.

Alone, he fell limply back in his chair. So this was it . . . this was what it had come to! His fate had passed out of his own keeping. Another — a man his junior by several years — would sit in judgment on him, decide whether or no he was competent to continue practising the profession to which he had given up the best years of his life. In the course of the next three days. — Three days. What WERE three days? . . . in a lifetime of fifty years. A flea-bite; a single tick of time’s clock. An infinitesimal fragment chipped off time’s plenty, and for the most part squandered unthinkingly. In the ecstasy of happiness — or to the prisoner condemned to mount the scaffold — a breath, a flash of light, gone even as it came. — THREE DAYS! To one on the rack to learn whether or no he was to be found guilty of professional negligence, with its concomitants of a court of law, publicity, disgrace; to such a one, three days were as unthinkable as infinity: a chain of hours of torture, each a lifetime in itself.

For long he sat motionless, wooden as the furniture around him; sat and stared at the whitewashed walls till he felt that, if he did not get out from between them, they might end by closing in on him and crushing him. Pushing back his chair he rose and left the house, heading in the direction of the railway station: never again would he cross the Lagoon path to show his face in the township. From the station he struck off on a bush track. This was heavy with mud; for it had rained in torrents towards morning: the hammering of the downpour on the iron roof no doubt accounted for some of the sinister noises of which his dream had been full. Now, the day was fine: a cool breeze swung the drooping leaves; the cloudless sky had deepened to its rich winter blue. But to him the very freshness and beauty of the morning seemed a mockery, the blue sky cruel as a pall. For there was a blackness under his lids, which gave the lie to all he saw.

He trudged on, with the sole idea of somehow getting through the day . . . of killing time. And as he went he mused ironically, on the shifts mortals were put to, the ruses they employed, to rid themselves of this precious commodity, which alone stood between them and an open grave.

Then, abruptly, he stopped, and uttering an exclamation swung round and made for home. IT MIGHT, OF COURSE, BE LESS. Who knew, who knew? By this time it was just possible that another telegram had arrived, and that he was tormenting himself needlessly. Was he not omitting to allow for the fellow-feeling of a brother medico, who, suspecting something of what he was enduring, might hasten to put him out of suspense? (How his own heart would have bled for such a one!) And so he pushed forward, covering the way back in half the time, and only dropping his speed as he neared the gate. For the children sat at lessons in the dining-room, and three pairs of eyes looked up on his approach. At the front door he paused to dry his forehead, before stepping into the passage where the life-giving message might await him. But the tray on the hall-table was empty; empty, too, the table in the surgery. His heart, which had been palpitating wildly, sank to normal; and simultaneously an immense lassitude overcame him. But without a moment’s hesitation he turned on his heel and went out again . . . with stealthy, cat-like tread. The last thing he wanted to do was to attract Mary’s attention.

He retraced his steps. But now so tired was he that every hundred yards or so he found himself obliged to sit down, in order to get strength to proceed. But not for long: there was a demon in him that would not let him rest; which drove him up and on till, in the end, he was seized and spun by a fit of the old vertigo, and had to throw his arms round a tree-trunk to keep from falling. “Drunk again! . . . drunk again.”

He was done for . . . played out. Home he dragged once more, sitting by the wayside when the giddy fits took him, or holding fast to the palings of a fence. It was one o’clock and dinner-time when he reached the house. Well! in any case, he would not have dared to absent himself from the table. (Oh God, on such a day to have been free and unobserved!)

But he had over-rated his powers of endurance. The children’s prating, Mary’s worried glances in his direction, the clatter of the dishes, Zara’s megrims: all this, the ordinary humdrum of a meal, proved more than his sick nerves could bear. His usual weary boredom with the ritual of eating turned to loathing: of every word that was said, every movement of fork to mouth, of the very crockery on the table. Half-way through, he tossed his napkin from him, pushed his chair back, and broke from the room.

To go out again was beyond him. Entering the surgery, he took his courage in both hands; and, not with his nerves alone, but with every muscle at a strain, braced himself to meet the slow torture that awaited him, the refined torture of physical inaction; the trail of which may be as surely blood-streaked as that from an open wound. With his brain on fire, his body bound to the rack, he sat and watched the hands of the clock crawl from one to two, from two to three and three to four; and the ticking of the pendulum, and the beat of his own pulses, combined to form a rhythm — a conflicting rhythm — which well-nigh drove him crazy. As the afternoon advanced, however, there came moments when, with his head bedded on his arms, he lapsed into a kind of coma; never so deeply though, but what his mind leapt into awareness at the smallest sound without. And all through, whether he waked or slept, something in him, inarticulate as a banshee, never ceased to weep and lament . . . to wail without words, weep without tears.

Later on, a new torture threatened; and this was the coming blast of the mill-whistle. For a full hour beforehand he sat anticipating it: sat with fingers stiffly interlocked, temples a-hammer, waiting for the moment when it should set in. Nor was this all. As the minute-hand ticked the last hour away, stark terror seized him lest, when the screech began, he, too, should not be able to help shrieking; but should be forced to let out, along with it, in one harsh and piercing cry, the repressed, abominable agony of the afternoon. At two minutes to the hour he was on his feet, going round the table like a maddened animal, wringing his hands and moaning under his breath: it is too much . . . I am not strong enough . . . my God, I implore Thee, let this cup pass! And now, so sick and dazed with fear was he, that he could no longer distinguish between the murderous din that was about to break loose, and the catastrophe that had befallen his life. When, finally, the hour struck, the whistle discharged, and the air was all one brazen clamour, he broke down and wept, the tears dripping off his face. But no sound escaped him.

Supper time. — He wanted none; was not hungry; asked only to be left in peace. And since Mary, desperate, too, after her own fashion, could not make up her mind to this, but came again and yet again, bringing the lamp, bringing food to tempt him, he savagely turned the key in the lock.

Thereafter, all was still: the quiet of night descended on the house. Here, in this blissful silence, he took his decision. Numbed to the heart though he was — over the shrilling of the siren something in him had cracked, had broken — he knew what he had to do. Another day like this, and he would not be answerable for himself. There was an end to everything . . . and his end had come.

Mary, stealing back to remind him that it was close on midnight, found him stooped over a tableful of books and papers. “Don’t wait for me. I’m busy . . . shall be some time yet.”

Relieved beyond the telling to find his door no longer shut against her, and him thus normally employed, she put her arm round his shoulders and laid her head against his. “But not too late, Richard. You must be so tired.” Herself she felt sick and dizzy with anxiety, with fatigue. It was not only what had happened, but the way Richard was taking it . . . his secrecy . . . his morbid self-communing. God help him! . . . help them all.

Desperately Mahony fought down the impulse to throw off her hampering arm, to cry out, to her face, the truth: go away . . . go away! I have done with you! And no sooner had the bedroom door shut behind her than he brushed aside his brazen pretence at work — it would have deceived no one but Mary — and fell to making the few necessary preparations. Chief of these was the detaching of a couple of keys from his bunch of keys, and laying them in a conspicuous place. After which he sat and waited, for what he thought a reasonable time, cold as a stone with fear lest she, somehow sensing his intention, should come back to hinder him. But nothing happened; and cautiously unlatching the door, he listened out into the passage. Not a mouse stirred. Now was the time! Opening the French window he stepped on to the verandah. But it had begun to rain again; a soft, steady rain; and some obscure instinct drove him back to get his greatcoat. This hung in the passage; and had to be fetched in jerks — a series of jerks and pauses. But at last he had it, and could creep up the yard and out of the back gate.

His idea was, to get as far from the house as possible . . . perhaps even to follow the bush track he had been on that morning. (That morning only? It seemed more like a century ago.) But the night was pitch dark: more than once he caught his foot, tripped and stumbled. So, groping his way along outside the palings of the fence, and the fence of the mill yard, he skirted these, and doubled back on the Lagoon. To the right of the pond stood a clump of fir-trees, shading the ruins of what had once been an arbour. It was for these trees he made: an instinctive urge for shelter again carrying the day.

Arrived there, he flung himself at full length on the wet and slimy ground. (No need now, to take thought for tic or rheumatism, or the other bodily ills that had plagued him.) And for a time he did no more than lie and exult in the relief this knowledge brought him — this sense of freedom from all things human. FEAR NO MORE THE HEAT OF THE SUN, nor the strangle-coils in which money and money-making had wound him, nor Mary’s inroads on his life, nor the deadening responsibilities of fatherhood. Now, at long last, he was answerable to himself alone.

But gradually this feeling died away, and an extraordinary lucidity took its place. And in his new clearness of vision he saw that his bloodiest struggle that day had been, not with the thing itself, but with what hid it from him. Which was Time. He had set up Time as his bugbear, made of it an implacable foe, solely to hinder his mind from reaching out to what lay beyond. That, he could not face and live. He saw it now, and was dying of it: dying of a mortal wound to the most vital part of him — his pride . . . his black Irish pride. That he, who had held himself so fastidiously aloof from men, should be forced down into the market-place, there to suffer an intolerable notoriety; to know his name on people’s lips . . . see it dragged through the mud of the daily press . . . himself branded as a bungler, a botcher! God! no: the mere imagining of it nauseated him. Dead, infinitely better dead, and out of it all! Life and its savagery put off, like a garment that had served its turn. Then, let tongues wag as they might, he would not be there to hear. In comparison, his death by his own hand would make small stir. A day’s excitement, and he would pass for ever into limbo; take his place among those pale ghosts of whose earth-life every trace is lost. None would miss him, or mourn his passing — thanks to his own NOLI ME TANGERE attitude towards the rest of mankind. For there had been no real love in him: never a feeler thrown out to his fellow-men. Such sympathy as he felt, he had been too backward to show: had given of it only in thought, and from afar. Pride, again! — oh! rightly was a pride like his reckoned among the seven capital sins. For what WAS it, but an iron determination to live untouched and untrammelled . . . to preserve one’s liberty, of body and of mind, at the expense of all human sentiment. To be sufficient unto oneself, asking neither help nor regard, and spending none. A fierce, Lucifer-like inhibition. Yes, this . . . but more besides. Pride also meant the shuddering withdrawal of oneself, because of a rawness . . . a skinlessness . . . on which the touch of any rough hand could cause agony; even the chance contacts of everyday prove a source of exquisite discomfort.

Thus he dug into himself. To those, on the contrary, whose welfare had till now been his main solicitude, he gave not a thought. For this was HIS hour; the hour between himself and his God: the end of the old life, the dawn, so he surely believed, of the new. And now that release was in sight — port and haven made, after the desolate, windswept seas — he marvelled at himself for having held out so long. At the best of times small joy had been his: while for many a year never a blink of hope or gladness had come his way. Weary and unslept, he had risen, day after day, to take up the struggle; the sole object of which was the grinding for bread. The goal of a savage: to one of his turn of mind, degradation unspeakable. A battle, too, with never a respite — interminable as time itself. (Why, the most famous Agony known to history had lasted but for three hours, and a sure Paradise awaited the great Martyr.) Even the common soldier knew that the hotter the skirmish, the sooner it would be over, with, did he escape with his life, stripes and glory for a finish. Ah! but with this difference, that the soldier was under duress to fight to the end: for those who flung down their muskets and ran, crying, hold! enough! the world had coined an evil name. And at this thought, and without warning, such a red-hot doubt transfixed him, such a blazing host of doubts, that he fell to writhing, like one in the grip of insufferable physical anguish. These doubts brought confusion on every argument that he had used to bolster up his deed. What was he doing? . . . what was he about to do? He, a coward? . . . a deserter? . . . abandoning his post when the fire was hottest? — leaving others to bear the onus of his flight, his disgrace? . . . and those others the creatures he had loved best? Oh, where was here his pride!

Besides: no Lethe awaits me, but the judgment seat. How shall I face my Maker? — The phrasing was that of his day; the question at issue one with which men have tortured themselves since the world began. Have I the right to do this thing? Is my life my own to take? — And in the fierce conflict of which he now tossed the helpless prey, he dug his left hand into the earth until what it grasped was a compact mass of mud and gravel. (His right, containing the precious phial, was under him, held to his breast.) Only little by little, with pangs unspeakable, did the death-throes of his crucified pride cease, and he emerge from the struggle, spent and beaten, but seeing himself at last in his true colours. Too good . . . too proud to live? Then, let him also be too proud to die: in this ignominious fashion . . . this poltroon attempt to sneak out of life by a back door. Should it be said of him, who had watched by so many a deathbed, seen the humblest mortals rise superior to physical suffering, that, when his own turn came, he was too weak to endure? — solely because the torments he was called on to face were not of the body but the mind? Pain . . . anguish . . . of body or of mind . . . individual pain . . . the pangs of all humanity. Pain, a state of being so interwoven with existence that, without it, life was unthinkable. For, take suffering from life, and what remained? Surely, surely, what was so integral a part of creation could not spring from blind chance? . . . be wholly evil? . . . without value in the scheme of things? A test! — God’s acid test . . . failing to pass which, a man might not attain to his full stature. And if this were so, what was HE doing to brush the cup from his lips, to turn his back on the chance here offered him? But oh! abhorrent to him was the pious Christian’s self-abasement: the folded hands, the downcast eyes, the meek “God wills it!” that all too often cloaked a bitter and resentful spirit. Not thus, not thus! God would not be God, did He demand of men grovelling and humiliation. Not the denial of self was called for, but the affirmation: a proud joy (here, surely, was the bone for his own pride to gnaw at?) at being permitted to aid and abet in the great Work, at coupling, in full awareness, our will with His. So, then, let it be! And with a movement so precipitate that it seemed after all more than half involuntary, he lifted his hand and threw far from him the little bottle of chloroform, which he had clutched till his palm was cut and sore. It was gone: was lost, hopelessly lost, in rain and darkness. He might have groped till morning without finding it.

But such a thought did not cross his mind. For now a strange thing happened. In the moment of casting the poison from him, he became aware — but with a sense other than that of sight, for he was lying face downwards, with fast closed eyes, his forehead bedded on the sleeve of his greatcoat — became suddenly aware of the breaking over him of a great light: he was lying, he found in a pool of light; a radiance thick as milk, unearthly as moonlight. And this suffused him, penetrated him, lapped him round. He breathed it in, drew deep breaths of it; and, as he did so, the last vestiges of his old self seemed to fall away. All sense of injury, of mortification, of futile sacrifice was wiped out. In its place there ran through him the beatific certainty that his pain, his sufferings — and how infinitesimal these were, he now saw for the first time — had their niche in God’s Scheme (pain the bond that linked humanity: not in joy, in sorrow alone were we yoke-fellows)— that all creation, down to the frailest protoplasmic thread, was one with God; and he himself, and everything he had been and would ever be, as surely contained in God, as a drop of water in a wave, a note of music in a mighty cadence. More: he now yearned as avidly for this submergedness, this union of all things living, as he had hitherto shrunk from it. The mere thought of separation became intolerable to him: his soul, ascending, sang towards oneness as a lark sings its way upwards to the outer air. For, while the light lasted, he UNDERSTOOD: not through any feat of conscious perception, but as a state — a state of being — a white ecstasy, that left mere knowledge far behind. The import of existence, the mysteries hid from mortal eyes, the key to the Ultimate Plan: all now were his. And, rapt out of himself, serene beyond imagining, he touched the hem of peace at last . . . eternal peace . . . which passeth understanding.

Then, as suddenly as the light had broken over him, it was gone, and again night wrapped him heavily round; him, by reason of the miracle he had experienced, doubly dark, doubly destitute. (But I have KNOWN . . . NOTHING can take it from me!) And he had need of this solace to cling to, for his awakening found his brain of an icy clearness, in which no jot or tittle of what awaited him was veiled from him. As if to test him to the utmost, even the hideous spectre of his blackest nights took visible form, and persisted, till, for the first time, he dared to look it in the face. — And death seemed a trifle in comparison.

But he struggled no more. Caked in mud, soaked to the skin, he climbed to his feet and staggered home.

* * * * *

What a funny noise! . . . lots of noises . . . people all talking at once; and ever so loud. Cuffy sat up, rubbing his eyes, for there were lights in them. Stars . . . no, LANTERNS! Huh! CHINESE latterns? But it wasn’t Christmas! He jumped out of bed and ran to the door, opened it and looked out; and it was two strange men with lanterns walking up and down the passage and round the verandah. And Mamma was there as well, in her red dressing-gown with the black spots on it, and her hair done for going to bed, and she was crying, and Aunt Zara (oh! she DID look funny when she went to bed) was blowing her nose and talking to the men. And when she saw him, she was most awfully angry and said: “Go back to bed at once, you naughty boy!” And Mamma said: “Be good, Cuffy . . . for I can bear no more.” And so he only just peeped out, to see what it was. And it was Papa that was lost. PAPA . . . LOST? (How COULD grown-up people be lost?) in the middle of the night . . . it was dark as dark . . . and he might never come back. Oh no! it couldn’t be true. Only to think of it made him make such a funny noise in his throat that Luce woke up, and wanted to know, and cried and said: “Oh dear Papa, come back!” and was ever so frightened. And they both stopped out of bed and sat on the floor and listened. And the men with the lanterns — it was the sergeant and the constable — went away with them, and you could only hear Mamma and Aunt Zara talking and crying. And he waited till it seemed nearly all night, and his toes were so cold he didn’t feel them. Luce went to sleep again, but he couldn’t. And all the time his heart thumped like a drum.

Then he thought he saw a monkey in a wood, and was trying to catch it, when somebody shouted like anything; and first it was Maria on the verandah, and then Aunt Zara in the passage, and she called out: “It’s all right, Mary! They’ve got him . . . he’s coming!” And then Mamma came running out and cried again, and kept on saying: “I must be brave . . . I must be brave.” And then one’s heart almost jumped itself dead, for there was Papa, and he couldn’t walk, and the police were holding him up, and he had no hat on, and was wet, the water all running out of him, and so muddy, the mud sticking all over his greatcoat and in his face and hair — just like the picture of Tomfool in the “King of Lear.” And Mamma began to say dreadfully: “Oh, RICHARD! How COULD—” and then she stopped. For as soon as Papa saw her he pulled himself away and ran to her, and put his arms round her neck and said: “Oh, Mary, my Mary! . . . I couldn’t do it . . . . I couldn’t do it.” And then he nearly fell down, and they all ran to hold him up, and put him in the bedroom and shut the door. And he didn’t see him again, but he saw Maria and Aunt Zara carrying in the bath, and hot water and flannels. And Papa was found. He tried to tell Luce but she was too sleepy, and just said: “I fought he would.” But he was so cold he couldn’t go to sleep again. And then something in him got too big and he had to cry, because Papa was found. But — What did it mean he said he COULDN’T be lost? Why not?


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