Ultima Thule, by Henry Handel Richardson

Chapter X

On one of the numerous packing-cases that strewed the rooms — now just so much soiled whitewash and bare boards — Mary sat and waited for the dray that was to transport boxes and baggage to the railway station. Her heart was heavy: no matter how unhappy you had been in it, the dismantling of a home was a sorry business, and one to which she never grew accustomed. Besides, this time when they left, one of them had to stay behind. As long as they lived here, her child had not seemed wholly gone; so full was the house of memories of her. To the next, to any other house they occupied, little Lallie would be a stranger.

Except for this, she was as thankful as Richard to turn her back on Barambogie — and he had fled like a hunted man, before he was really fit to travel. For the first time in their lives, the decision to leave a place had come from her; she had made up her mind to it while he was still too ill to care what happened. By the next morning the tale of his doings was all over the town: he would never have been able to hold up his head there again. For it wasn’t as if he had made a GENUINE attempt . . . at . . . well, yes, at suicide. To the people here, his going out to take his life and coming back without even having TRIED to, would have something comic about it . . . something contemptible. They would laugh in their sleeves; put it down to want of pluck. When what it really proved — fiercely she reassured herself — was his fondness for her, for his children. When the moment came he couldn’t find it in his heart to deal them such a blow.

But for several days she did no more than vehemently assert to herself: we go! . . . and if I have to beg the money to make it possible. Richard paid dearly for those hours of exposure: he lay in a high fever, moaning with pain and muttering light-headedly. As soon, however, as his temperature fell and his cough grew easier, she made arrangements for a sale by auction, and had a board with “To let!” on it erected in the front garden.

Then, his keys lying temptingly at her disposal, she seized this unique opportunity and, shutting herself up in the surgery, went for and by herself into his money-affairs; about which it was becoming more and more a point of honour with him to keep her in the dark. There, toilfully, she grappled with the jargon of the law: premiums, transfers, conveyances, mortgagor and mortgagee (oh, WHICH was which?), the foreclosing of a mortgage, rights of redemption. Grappled, too, with the secrets of his pass-book. And it was these twin columns which gave her the knock-out blow. As far as ready money went, they were living quite literally from hand to mouth — from the receipt of one pound to the next. In comparison, the deciphering of his case and visiting-books was child’s play. And here, taking the bull by the horns, she again acted on her own initiative. Risking his anger, she sent out yet once more the several unpaid bills she came across, accompanying them by a more drastic demand for settlement than he would ever have stooped to.

For the first time, she faced the possibility that they might have to let the mortgage lapse. Already she had suspected Richard of leaning towards this, the easier solution. But so far she had pitted her will against his. And, even yet, something stubborn rose in her and rebelled at the idea. As long as the few shares he held continued to throw off dividends, at least the interest on the loan could be met. While the rent coming in from the house at Hawthorn (instead of being a source of income!) would have to cover the rent of the house they could no longer live in, but had still to pay for. Oh! it sounded like a bad dream — or a jingle of the House-that-jack-built order.

None the less, she did not waver in her resolution: somehow to cut Richard free from a place that had so nearly been his undoing. And, hedge and shrink as she might, fiercely as her native independence, her womanish principles — simple, but still the principles of a lifetime —— kicked against it, she had gradually to become reconciled to the prospect of loading them up with a fresh burden of debt. The matter boiled down to this: was any sacrifice too great to make for Richard? Wasn’t she really, at heart, one of those women she sometimes read of in the newspapers, who, rather than see their children starve, STOLE the bread with which to feed them?

Yet still she hesitated. Until one night, turning his poor old face to her Richard said: “It’s the sea I need, Mary. If I could just get to the sea, I should grow strong and well again. — But there! . . . what’s the use of talking? As the tree falls, so it must lie!” On this night casting her scruples to the winds, Mary sat down to pen the hated appeal.

FOR RICHARD’S SAKE, TILLY, AND ONLY BECAUSE I’M DESPERATE ABOUT HIM, I ‘M REDUCED TO ASKING YOU IF YOU COULD POSSIBLY SEE YOUR WAY TO LEND ME A HUNDRED AND FIFTY POUNDS. I SAY “LEND” AND I MEAN IT, THOUGH GOODNESS KNOWS WHEN I SHALL BE ABLE TO REPAY YOU. BUT RICHARD HAS BEEN SO ILL, THE PRACTICE HAS ENTIRELY FAILED, AND IF I CAN’T GET HIM AWAY FROM HERE I DON’T KNOW WHAT WILL HAPPEN.

Tilly’s answer, received by return, ran: OH, MARY LOVE, I FEEL THAT SORRY FOR YOU I CAN’T SAY. BUT THANKS BE I CAN “DO” MY DEAR, AND I NEEDN’T TELL YOU THE MONEY IS YOURS FOR THE ASKING. AS FOR “LENDING”— WHY, IF IT MAKES YOUR POOR MIND EASIER PUT IT THAT WAY BUT IT WON’T WORRY ME IF I NEVER SEE THE COLOUR OF THE OOF AGAIN, REMEMBER THAT. ALL I HOPE IS, YOU’LL MAKE TRACKS LIKE ONE O’CLOCK FROM THAT AWFUL PLACE, AND THAT THE DOCTOR’LL SOON BE ON HIS LEGS AGAIN. — BUT MARY! AREN’T I GLAD I KEPT THAT NEST-EGG AS YOU KNOW OF! YOU WERE A BIT DOUBTFUL AT THE TIME, LOVE, IF YOU REMEMBER. BUT IF I HADN’T, WHERE SHOULD I BE TO-DAY? SOMETHING MUST HAVE WARNED ME, I THINK: SIT UP, YOU LOVESICK OLD FOOL YOU, AND TAKE THOUGHT FOR THE TIME WHEN IT’LL BE ALL CALLS AND NO DIVIDENDS. WHICH, MARY, IS NOW. THE PLAIN TRUTH BEING, HIS LORDSHIP KEEPS ME THAT TIGHT THAT IF I DIDN’T HAVE WHAT I DO, I MIGHT BE SITTING IN PENTRIDGE. AND HE, THE GREAT LOON, IMAGINES I COME OUT ON WHAT HE GIVES ME! — OH, MEN ARE FOOLS, MY DEAR, I’LL SAY IT AND SING IT TO MY DYING DAY— AND IF IT’S NOT A FOOL, THEN YOU CAN TAKE IT FROM ME IT’S A KNAVE. THERE OUGHT TO BE A BOARD UP WARNING US SILLY WOMEN OFF. — EXCEPT THAT I’VE GOT MY BLESSED BABE. WHICH MAKES UP FOR A LOT. BUT OH! IF ONE COULD JUST GET CHILDREN FOR THE WISHING, OR PICK ‘EM LIKE FRUIT FROM THE TREES, WITHOUT A THIRD PERSON HAVING TO BE MIXED UP IN IT. (I DO THINK THE LORD MIGHT HAVE MANAGED THINGS BETTER.) AND I WON’T DENY, MARY, THE THOUGHT HAS COME TO ME NOW AND THEN JUST TO TAKE BABY AND MY BIT OF SPLOSH, AND VAMOOSE TO SOMEWHERE WHERE A PAIR OF TROUSERS’LL NEVER DARKEN MY SIGHT AGAIN.

And now, for several mornings running, the postman handed in a couple of newspapers, the inner sheets of which contained the separate halves of a twenty-pound note: this being Tilly’s idea of the safest and quickest means of forwarding money.

“Just something I’d managed to lay past for a rainy day,” Mary lied boldly, on handing Richard his fare to town and ten pounds over for expenses. And pride, scruples, humiliation, all faded into thin air before the relief, the burning gratitude, her gift let loose in him. “Wife! you don’t . . . you CAN’T know what this means to me!” And then he broke down and cried, clinging like a child to her hand.

Restored to composure, he burst into a diatribe against the place, the people. What it had done to him, what they had made of him . . . him, whose only crime was that of being a gentleman. “Because I wouldn’t drink with them, descend to their level. Oh, these wretched publicans! . . . these mill-hands, and Chinese half-castes . . . these filthy Irish labourers! Mary, I would have done better to go to my grave, than ever to have come among them. And then the climate . . . and this water-hole they call a Lagoon . . . and the mill-whistle — that accursed whistle! It alone would have ended by driving me mad. But let me once shake the dust of the place off my feet, and Richard will be himself again. A kingdom for a horse? Mine — no kingdom, but a cesspool — for the sea! The sea! . . . elixir of life . . . to me and my kind. Positively, I begin to believe I’m one of those who should never live out of earshot of its waves.”

This new elation held up to the very end (when the thought of being recognised or addressed by any of those he was fleeing from threw him into a veritable fever). In such a mood he was unassailable: insensitive alike to pain or pleasure. Hence, the report that finally reached them from the Oakworth hospital didn’t touch him as it ought to have done . . . considering that the affair had all but killed him. He really took it very queerly. The surgeon wrote that the operation had been successful; there was now every hope that, the overlapping corrected, perfect union would be obtained; which, as the lad’s father also professed himself satisfied, would no doubt lift a weight from Dr. Mahony’s mind. But Richard only waxed bitterly sarcastic. “Coming to their senses at last, are they? . . . now it’s too late. Beginning to see how a gentleman ought to be treated?” Which somehow wasn’t like him . . . to harp on the “gentleman.”

He even came back on it, in a letter describing an acquaintance he had made (Richard and chance acquaintances!) in sailing down the Bay to Shortlands Bluff. This was a fellow medico: LIKE MYSELF A GENTLEMAN WHO HAS HAD MISFORTUNES, AND IS NOW OBLIGED TO RESUME PRACTICE. STILL MORE DISCONCERTING WAS IT TO READ: I TOLD HIM ABOUT BARAMBOGIE AND MENTIONED THE HOUSE BEING TO LET AND THE SALE OF THE FURNITURE, AND SAID THERE WAS A PRACTICE READY TO HAND. RATHER QUIET JUST NOW, BUT CERTAIN TO IMPROVE. IF HE TOOK IT, ALL I SHOULD ASK WOULD BE A CHEQUE FOR FIFTY POUNDS AT THE END OF THE YEAR. I PUT OUR LEAVING DOWN ENTIRELY TO THE CLIMATE. SHOULD HE WRITE TO YOU, BE SURE AND DO NOT PUT HIM OFF. At which Mary winced. — And yet . . . Another man might get on quite well here; some one who understood better how to deal with the people. So she answered guardedly; being loath to vex him and spoil his holiday, which really seemed to be doing him good. He boasted of sound nights and improved appetite: AS USUAL THE SEA MAKES ME RAVENOUS. And so it went on, until the time came when it was no longer possible to shirk the question: what next? Then, at once, they were at loggerheads again.

In passing through Melbourne, Mahony had seen an advertisement calling for tenders for a practice at a place named Narrong; and with her approval had written for particulars. To Mary this opening seemed just the thing. More than three times the size of Barambogie, Narrong stood in a rich, squatting district, not very far north of Ballarat. The practice included several clubs; the climate was temperate: if Richard could but get a footing there — the clubs alone represented a tidy income — the future might really begin to look more hopeful.

And at first he was all in favour of it. Then, overnight as it were, he changed his mind, and, without deigning to give her a single reason, wrote that he had abandoned the idea of applying. It was the sea that had done it; she could have sworn it was: this sea she so feared and hated! Besides, the usual thing was happening: no sooner did Richard get away from her than he allowed himself to be influenced by every fresh person he met. And taking advantage of his credulity, people were now, for some obscure purpose of their own, making him believe he could earn three or four hundred a year at Shortlands’ Bluff . . . though it was common knowledge that such seaside places lay dead and deserted for nine months out of the twelve. Besides, there was a doctor at Shortlands already; though now close on seventy, and unwilling to turn out at night.

The one valuable piece of information he gave her was that the billet of Acting Health Officer, with a yearly retaining-fee and an additional couple of guineas for each boarding, was vacant. All else, she felt sure, was mere windy talk. Thus, people were advising him, if he settled there, not only to keep a horse and ride round the outlying districts, but also to cross twice or thrice weekly to the opposite side of the Bay, and open consulting-rooms at some of the smaller places. WITH MY LOVE OF SAILING THIS WOULD BE NO TOIL TO ME . . . SHEERLY A PLEASURE. It was true, old Barker intended to hang on to the two clubs in the meanwhile; but by Christmas he might hope to have these in his own hands. He had found the very house for them — a great piece of good luck this, for private houses were few. She would do well, though, to part with some of the heavier furniture; for the rooms were smaller than those they were leaving. Also to try to find a purchaser for the “Collard and Collard”— since coming here he had learned that an “Aucher Freres” was better suited to withstand the sea air. The climate, of course, was superb — though very cold in winter — the bathing excellent: IN SUMMER I SHALL GO INTO THE SEA EVERY DAY. Best of all they were within easy reach of Melbourne . . . and that meant civilisation once more. I FEEL VERY HAPPY AND HOPEFUL, MY DEAREST. QUITE SURE MY LUCK IS ABOUT TO TURN.

Angry and embittered, Mary made short work of his fallacies. And now high words passed between them: she believing their very existence to be at stake; he fighting, but with considerable shuffling and hedging (or so it seemed to her), to defend his present scheme. And neither would give way.

Till one morning she held the following letter in her hand.

I SEE IT’S NO USE MY BEATING ABOUT THE BUSH ANY LONGER— YOU FORCE ME, WRITING AS YOU DO, TO TELL YOU WHAT I DID NOT MEAN TO WORRY YOU WITH. THE TRUTH IS, I HAVE NOT BEEN AT ALL WELL AGAIN. MY OLD ENEMY, FOR ONE THING— REQUIRING THE MOST CAREFUL DIETING— THE OLD HEADACHES AND FITS OF VERTIGO. I HAVE ALSO FALLEN BACK ON VERY POOR NIGHTS; NO SLEEP TILL FOUR OR FIVE . . . FOR WHICH HOWEVER I MUST SAY YOUR LETTERS ARE PARTLY RESPONSIBLE. FEELING VERY LOW THE OTHER DAY, I WENT TO GEELONG AND SAW BOWES-SMITH WHO VISITS THERE; AND IT WAS HIS OPINION THAT I SHOULD BE TOTALLY UNFIT TO COPE WITH THE WORK AT NARRONG. WHICH BUT CONFIRMS MY OWN. OF COURSE, AS YOU ARE SO SET ON IT, I MIGHT TRY IT FOR THREE MONTHS— ALONE. BUT I CANNOT DO IMPOSSIBILITIES, AND IF EEL MORE AND MORE THAT I AM AN OLD AND BROKEN MAN. (ANOTHER THING, I SHOULD AGAIN HAVE NO ONE TO CONSULT WITH— AND . . . AS YOU OUGHT TO KNOW BY NOW . . . I AM NOT WELL UP IN SURGERY.) MY POOR HEAD HAS NEVER RECOVERED THE SHOCK IT GOT LAST SUMMER . . . WHEN YOU WERE AWAY. NO DOUBT I HAD A KIND OF FIT. AND THOUGH I HAVE SAID NOTHING ABOUT IT, I HAVE BEEN SENSIBLE OF SOME UNPLEASANT SYMPTOMS OF A RETURN OF THIS, ON MORE THAN ONE OCCASION SINCE. MY AFFECTION, WHICH WAS APHASIA, MAY COME ON AGAIN AT ANY TIME. IT MAY ALSO END IN . . . WELL, IN MY BECOMING A HELPLESS BURDEN . . . TO YOU AND EVERY ONE. NOTHING CAN BE DONE; THERE IS NO TREATMENT FOR IT BUT A TOTAL ABSENCE OF WORRY AND EXCITEMENT. SO IF YOU REGRET NARRONG, YOU MUST FORGIVE ME; IT WAS DONE FOR YOUR SAKE.

ONE OTHER THING. EVERY ONE HERE TAKES BOARDERS DURING THE SEASON: THERE IS NO DISGRACE ATTACHED TO IT. YOU COULD PROBABLY FILL THE HOUSE . . . AND IN THAT WAY I SHOULD NOT FEEL THAT I WAS LEAVING YOU ENTIRELY UNPROVIDED FOR. THERE IS NO DUST OR DIRT HERE EITHER: WHEREAS AT NARRONG I SHOULD NEED TO KEEP TWO HORSES AND A MAN AND BUGGY.

SEND ME SOME WARMER UNDERCLOTHING, THE CONTINUAL BLOW OF THE EQUINOCTIAL GALES.

THERE IS SURE TO BE PLENTY OF SICKNESS WHEN THE VISITORS COME. SHORTLANDS WILL LEAD TO STRENGTH, NARRONG TO THE BENEVOLENT ASYLUM.

YOUR LOVING HUSBAND,

R.T.M.

P.S. I AM SO WORRIED I HARDLY KNOW WHAT I AM WRITING FOR GOD’S SAKE CHEER UP.

At which Mary threw the letter on the table and laughed aloud. Hear how ill I am, but be sure not to take it to heart! Oh! it wasn’t fair of him . . . it wasn’t fair. He had her down and beaten, and he knew it: to such a letter there could be but one reply. Picking it up she re-read it, and for a moment alarm riddled her. Then with a jerk she pulled herself together. How often Richard had . . . yes! over and over again. Besides, you could just as easily deceive yourself with bad dreams as with rosy ones. HOW MUCH OF WHAT HE WROTE WAS TRUE? His health had certainly suffered; but that was all due to this place. He’d said so himself. Let him once get away from here . . . . Places. And if she now insisted on his going to Narrong, even on his definitely applying for the practice, there would be more swords held over her head, more insidious hints and threats. He complained of not being able to find his words: well, would any one think that surprising, did they know the life he had led here? . . . how he never went out, never spoke to a soul, but sat, for days on end, gloomily sunk in himself.

His airy suggestion that she should open the house to boarders stung and aggrieved her . . . coming from him. The idea was her own: she had mooted it long ago. THEN, it had outraged his feelings. “Not as long as I live!” Which attitude, bereft of common sense though it was, had yet something very soothing in it. Now, without a word of excuse, he climbed down from his perch and thrust the scheme upon her . . . as his own! Blown into thin air was his pride, his thoughts for her standing, his care for the children’s future. Her heart felt dark and heavy. Of course if the worst SHOULD come to the worst . . . but then she would be doing it for THEM, not for him . . . or rather, not just in order that he might somehow get his own way. Oh, he had cried wolf too often. And a desperate bitterness; the sensation of being “had”; of him baulking at no means to achieve his end, was upon her again, clouding her judgment. She simply did not know what to think.

And this attitude of doubt accompanied her through all the dreary weeks of uprootal; down to the day when the bellman went up and down the main street crying the sale; when the auction-flag flew from the roof; and rough, curious, unfriendly people swarmed the house, to walk off with her cherished belongings. And as she worked, watched, brooded, a phrase from Tilly’s letter kept ringing and buzzing through her head. SOMETIMES THE THOUGHT HAS COME TO ME, JUST TO TAKE BABY AND MY BIT OF SPLOSH AND GO OFF SOMEWHERE WHERE . . .

For nothing in the world would she have her children defrauded of their piano. Every toy they possessed, too, went with them; she saw to that. (HE never thought of parting with his books!) While the Paris ornaments were her share of the spoils. (But anyhow it would have been casting pearls before swine, to offer them for sale here). — As, one by one, she took apart the gilt-legged tables, the gilt candelabra, to lay the pieces between soft layers of clothing, memories of the time when they were bought came crowding in on her. She saw the Paris shops again, the salesman bowing and smirking, the monkey-like little courier who had acted as interpreter. But most vividly of all she saw Richard himself. The very clothes he had worn were plain to her: there he stood, erect and handsome, a fine and dignified figure. And then, in pitiful contrast, a vision of him as, a few weeks back, he had slunk up to the railway station: a shamed and humiliated old man. Dear God! . . . these passionate angers he roused in her, the unspeakable irritations she was capable of feeling with him, were things of the surface only. Dig deeper, and nothing mattered . . . BUT him. Aye, dig only deep enough, and her heart was raw with pity for him. Let what might, happen to her; let the children go short, run wild; let him drag them at his heels the whole world over: she would submit to everything, endure everything, if she could only see him — Richard, her own dear husband — hold up his head once more, carry himself with the old confidence, fear to meet no one’s eye, knowing that he had never yet wilfully done any man hurt or wrong.

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