Ultima Thule, by Henry Handel Richardson

Chapter II

A neighbour’s cocks and hens wakened him before daybreak. The insensate creatures crew and cackled, cackled and crew; and, did they pause for breath, the sparrows took up the tale. He could not sleep again. Lying stiff as a log so as not to disturb Mary, he hailed each fresh streak of light that crept in at the sides of the blinds or over the tops of the valances; while any bagatelle was welcome that served to divert his thoughts and to bridge the gap till rising-time. The great mahogany wardrobe, for instance. This began as an integral part of the darkness, gradually to emerge, a shade heavier than the surrounding gloom, as a ponderous mass; only little by little, line by line, assuming its true shape. Faithfully the toilet-glass gave back each change in the room’s visibility. Later on there were bars to count, formed by unevenness in the slats of the venetians, and falling golden on the whitewashed walls.

Yes, whitewash was, so far, the only covering the walls knew. The papering of them had had to be indefinitely postponed. And gaunt indeed was the effect of their cold whiteness on eyes used to rich, dark hangings. This was one reason why he preferred the penance of immobility, to getting up and prowling about downstairs. Never did the house look more cheerless than on an early morning, before the blinds were raised, the rooms in order. One realised then, only too plainly, what a bare barn it was; and how the task of rendering it cosy and homelike had baffled even Mary. He would not forget her consternation on first seeing it; her cry of: “But Richard! . . . how shall we EVER fill it?” Himself he stood by dumbfounded, as he watched her busy with tape and measure: truly, he had never thought of this. She had toiled, dear soul, for weeks on end, stitching at curtains and draperies to try to clothe the nakedness — in vain. If they had not had his books to fall back on, the place would have been uninhabitable. But he had emptied the whole of his library into it, with the result that books were everywhere: on the stair-landings, in the bedrooms; wherever they could with decency stop a gap. Another incongruity was the collection of curios and bric-a-brac garnered on their travels. This included some rare and costly objects, which looked odd, to say the least of it, in a room where there were hardly chairs enough to go round. For he had had everything to buy, down to the last kitchen fork and spoon. And by the time he had paid for a sideboard that did not make too sorry a show in the big dining-room; a dinner-table that had some relation to the floor-space; a piano, a desk for his surgery and so on, he was bled dry. Nor did he see the smallest prospect, in the meantime, of finishing the job. They had just to live on in this half-baked condition, which blazoned the fact that funds had given out; that he had put up a house it was beyond his means to furnish. How he writhed when strangers ran an appraising glance over it!

No: unrested, and without so much as a cup of tea in him, he could not bring himself to descend and contemplate the evidences of his folly. Instead, the daylight by now being come, he lay and totted up pound to pound until, for sheer weariness, he was ready to drop asleep again. But eight o’clock had struck, there could be no lapsing back into unconsciousness. He rose and went down to breakfast.

They had the children with them at table now. And good as the little things were by nature, yet they rose from ten hours’ sound sleep lively as the sparrows: their tongues wagged without a stop. And though he came down with the best intentions, he soon found his nerves jarred. Altering the position of his newspaper for the tenth time, he was pettishly moved to complain: “Impossible! HOW can I read in such a racket?”

“Oh, come, you can’t expect children to sit and never say a word.”

But she hushed them, with frowns and headshakes, to a bout of whispering, or the loud, hissing noise children make in its stead; under fire of which it was still harder to fix his thoughts.

Retired to the surgery he was no better off; for now the thrumming of five-finger exercises began to issue from the drawing-room, where the children were having their music-lessons. This was unavoidable. With the arrival of the patients all noise had to cease; later on, Mary was too busy with domestic duties to sit by the piano; and that the youngsters must learn music went without saying. But the walls of the house had proved mere lath-and-plaster; and the tinkle of the piano, the sound of childish voices and Mary’s deeper tones, raised in one-two-threes and one-two-three-fours, so distracted him that it took him all his time to turn up and make notes on his cases for the day. By rights, this should have been his hour for reading, for refreshing his memory of things medical. But not only silence failed him; equally essential was a quiet mind; and as long as his affairs remained in their present uncertain state, that, too, was beyond his reach. Before he got to the foot of a page, he would find himself adding up columns of figures.

The truth was, his brain had reverted to its ancient and familiar employment with a kind of malicious glee. He was powerless to control it. Cark and care bestrode him; rode him to death; and yet got him nowhere; for all the calculations in the world would not change hard facts. Reckon as he might, he could not make his dividends for the past six months amount to more than a hundred and fifty pounds: a hundred and fifty! Nor was this wretched sum a certainty. It came from shares that were to the last degree unstable — in old days he had never given them a thought. And against this stood the sum of eight hundred pounds. Oh! he had grossly over-estimated his faculty for self-deception. Now that he was in the thick of things, it went beyond him to get this debt out of his mind. Suppose anything should happen to him before he had paid it off? What a legacy to leave Mary! Out and away his sorest regret was that, in the good old days now gone for ever, he had failed to insure his life. Thanks to his habitual dilatoriness he had put it off from year to year, always nursing the intention, shirking the effort. Now, the premium demanded would be sheerly unpayable.

At present everything depended on how the practice panned out. The practice . . . Truth to tell, after close on a six months’ trial, he did not himself know what to make of it. Had he been less pressed for time and money, he might have described it as not unpromising. As matters stood, he could only say that what there WAS of it was good: the patients of a superior class, and so on. But from the first it had been slow to move — there seemed no sickness about — the fees slower still to come in. If, by the end of the year, things did not look up, he would have to write down his settling there as a bad job. It was an acute disappointment that he had only managed to secure two paltry lodges. Every general practitioner knew what THAT meant. He had built on lodge-work: not only for the income it assured, but also to give a fillip to the private practice. Again, not expecting what work there was to be so scattered, he had omitted to budget for horse hire, or the hire of a buggy. This made a real hole in his takings. He walked wherever he could; but calls came from places as far afield as Kew and Camberwell, which were not to be reached on foot. Besides, the last thing in the world he could afford to do was to knock himself up. Even as it was, he got back from his morning round tired out; and after lunch would find himself dozing in his chair. Of an evening, he was glad to turn in soon after ten o’clock; the one bright side to the general slackness being the absence of night-work. Of course, such early hours meant giving the go-by to all social pleasures. But truly he was in no trim for company, either at home or abroad. How he was beginning to rue the day when he had burdened himself with a house of this size, merely that he might continue to make a show among his fellow-men. When the plain truth was, he would not turn a hair if he never saw one of them again.

Yes, his present feeling of unsociableness went deeper than mere fatigue: it was a kind of deliberate turning-in on himself. Mary no doubt hit the mark, when she blamed the months of morbid solitude to which he had condemned himself on reaching Melbourne. He had, declared she, never been the same man since.

“I ought to have known better than to let you come out alone.”

She spoke heartily; but doubts beset her. It was one thing to put your finger on the root of an ill; another to cure it. Yet a failure to do so might cost them dear. Here was Richard with his way and his name to make, a practice to build up, connections to form; and, instead of taking every hand that offered, he kept up his “Ultima Thule” habits of refusing invitations, shirking introductions; and declined into this “let me alone and don’t bother me” state, than which, for a doctor, she could imagine none more fatal.

Of course, having to start work again at his age was no light matter, and he undoubtedly felt the strain; found it hard also, after all the go-as-you-please latter years, to nail himself down to fixed hours and live by the clock. He complained, too, that his memory wasn’t what it used to be. Names, now. If he didn’t write down a name the moment he heard it, it was bound to escape him; and then he could waste the better part of a morning in struggling to recapture it.

“You’re out of the way of it, dear, that’s all,” she resolutely strove to cheer him, as she brushed his hat and hunted for his gloves. “Now have you your case-book? And is everything in your bag?” More than once he had been obliged to tramp the whole way home again, for a forgotten article.

The reminder annoyed him. “Yes, yes, of course. But my thermometer . . . now where the dickens have I put that?” And testily he tapped pocket after pocket.

“Here . . . you’ve left it lying. Oh, by the way, Richard, I wonder if you’d mind leaving an order at the butcher’s as you go past?”

But at this he flared up. “Now, Mary, IS it fair to bother me with that kind of thing, when I’ve so much else to think of?”

“Well, it’s only . . . the shop’s so far off, and I can’t spare cook. You’ve just to hand in a note as you pass the door.”

“Yes, yes. A thousand and one reasons!”

“Oh well, never mind. Eliza and the children must go that way for their walk — though it does take them down among the shops.”

“And why not? Are the children everlastingly to be spared at my expense?”

He went off, banging the gate behind him. The latch did not hold; Mary stepped out to secure it. And the sight of him trudging down the road brought back her chief grievance against him. This was his obstinate refusal to keep a horse and trap. It stood to reason: if he would only consent to drive on his rounds, instead of walking, he would save himself much of the fatigue he now endured; and she be spared his perpetual grumbles. Besides, it was not the thing for a man of his age and appearance to be seen tramping the streets, bag in hand. But she might as well have talked to a post. The only answer she got was that he couldn’t afford it. Now this was surely imagination. She flattered herself she knew something about a practice, and could tell pretty well what the present one was likely to throw off . . . if properly nursed. To the approximate three hundred a year which Richard admitted to drawing from his dividends, it should add another three; and on six, with her careful management, they could very well pull through to begin with. It left no margin for extravagances, of course; but the husbanding of Richard’s strength could hardly be put down under that head. Since, however, he continued obdurate, she went her own way to work; with the result that, out of the money he allowed her to keep house on, she contrived at the end of three months to hand him back a tidy sum.

“Now if you don’t feel you want to BUY a horse and buggy, you can at least give a three months’ order at the livery-stable.”

But not a bit of it! More, he was even angry. “Tch! DO, for goodness’ sake, leave me to manage my own affairs! I don’t want a horse and trap, I tell you. I prefer to go on as I am.” And, with that, her economics just passed into and were swallowed up in the general fund. She wouldn’t do it again.


This was Cuffy, who had followed her out and climbed the gate at her side. He spoke in a coaxy voice; for as likely as not Mamma would say: “Run away, darling, and don’t bother me. I’ve no time.” But Cuffy badly wanted to know something. And, since Nannan left, there had never been any one he could ask his questions of: Mamma was always busy, Papa not at home.

“Mamma! Why does Papa poke his head out so when he walks?”

“That’s stooping. People do it as they grow older.” Even the child, it seemed, could see how tiresome Richard found walking.

“What’s it mean growing old — really, truly?”

“Why, losing your hair and your teeth, and not being able to get about as well as you used to.”

“Does it hurt?”

“Of course not, little silly!”

“Does Papa lose his teeth? Does Eliza? And why has he always got a bag in his hand now?”

“WHAT an inquisitive little boy! He carries things in it to make people well with.”

“Why does he want to make them well?”

“To get money to buy you little folks pretty clothes and good things to eat. But come . . . jump down! And run and tell Eliza to get you ready for your walk.”

“I don’t LIKE going walks with Eliza,” said Cuffy and, one hand in his mother’s, reluctantly dragged and shuffled a foot in the gravel. “Oh, I do wis’ I had my little pony again.”

“So do I, my darling,” said Mary heartily, and squeezed his hand. “I’m afraid you’ll be forgetting how to ride. I must talk to Papa. Then perhaps Santa Claus . . . or on your birthday . . .”

“Ooh! Really, truly, Mamma?”

“We’ll see.”— At which Cuffy hopped from side to side up the length of the path.

And Mary meant what she said. It was unthinkable that HER children should come short in any of the advantages other children enjoyed. And not to be able to ride, and ride well, too, in a country like this, might prove a real drawback to them in after life. Now she had pinched and screwed for Richard’s sake, to no purpose whatever. The next lump sum she managed to get together should go to buying a pony.

But this was not all. Besides riding, the children ought to be having dancing-lessons. She did so want her chicks to move prettily and gracefully; to know what to do with their hands and feet; to be able to enter a room without awkwardness; and they were just at their most impressionable age: what they now took in they would never forget, what they missed, never make good. But she could hope for no help from Richard; manlike, he expected graces and accomplishments to spring up of themselves, like wild flowers from the soil. Everything depended on her. And she did not spare herself. Thanks to her skill with her needle, they were still, did they go to a party, the best-dressed children in the room; and the best-mannered, too, Nannan’s strict upbringing still bearing fruit. None of her three ever grabbed, or gobbled, or drank with a full mouth; nor were they either lumpishly shy or over-forward, like the general ruck of colonial children.

But they were getting big; there would soon be more serious things to think of than manners and accomplishments. If only Richard did not prove too unreasonable! So far, except for music-lessons, they had had no teaching at all, one of his odd ideas being that a child’s brain should lie fallow till it was seven or eight years old. This meant that she had sometimes to suffer the mortification of seeing children younger than Cuffy and his sisters able to answer quite nicely at spelling and geography, while hers stood mutely by. In the Dumplings’ case it did not greatly matter: they were still just Dumplings in every sense of the word; fat and merry play-babies. But Cuffy was sharp for his age; he could read his own books, and knew long pieces of poetry by heart. It seemed little short of absurd to hold such a child back; and, after she had once or twice seen him put publicly to shame, Mary took, of a morning, when she was working up a flake-crust or footing her treadle-machine, to setting him a copy to write, or giving him simple lessons in spelling and sums. (Which little incursions into knowledge were best, it was understood, not mentioned to Papa.)

Her thoughts were all for her children. Herself she needed little; and was really managing without difficulty to cut her coat to suit her cloth. In the matter of dress, for instance, she still had the rich furs, the sumptuous silks and satins she had brought with her from home — made over, these things would last her for years — had all her ivory and mother-o’-pearl ornaments and trifles. True, she walked where she had driven, hired less expensive servants, rose betimes of a morning, but who shall say whether these changes were wholly drawbacks in Mary’s eyes, or whether the return to a more active mode of life did not, in great measure, outweigh them? It certainly gave her a feeling of satisfaction to which she had long been a stranger, to know that not a particle of waste was going on in her kitchen; that she was once more absolute monarch in her own domain. Minor pleasures consisted in seeing how far she could economise the ingredients of pudding or cake and yet turn it out light and toothsome. Had Richard wished to entertain, she would have guaranteed to hold the floor with anyone, at half the cost.

But there was no question of this. They lived like a pair of hermit crabs; and, in spite of the size of the house, might just as well have been buried in the bush. For, having talked herself hoarse in pointing out the harm such a mode of life would do the practice, she had given way and made the best of things; as long, that was, as Richard’s dislike of company had only to do with the forming of new acquaintances. When he began his old grumbles at the presence of her intimate friends and relatives, it was more than she could stand. In the heated argument that followed her perplexed: “Not ask Lizzie? Put off the Devines?” she discovered, to her amazement, that it was not alone his morbid craving for solitude that actuated him: the house, if you please, formed the stumbling-block! Because this was still unpapered and rather scantily furnished, he had got it into his head that it was not fit to ask people to; that he would be looked down on, because of it. Now did ANYONE ever hear such nonsense? Why, half the houses in Melbourne were just as bare, and nobody thought the worse of them. People surely came to see you, not your furniture! But he had evidently chafed so long in silence over what he called the “poverty-stricken aspect of the place,” that there was now no talking him out of the notion. So Mary shrugged and sighed; and, silently in her turn, took the sole way left her, which was an underground way; so contriving matters that her friends came to the house only when Richard was out of it . . . a little shift it was again wiser not to mention to Papa. She also grew adept at getting rid of people to the moment. By the time the gate clicked at Richard’s return, all traces of the visit had been cleared away.


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