Ultima Thule, by Henry Handel Richardson

Chapter III

“There you go . . . tripping again. You keep one in a perfect fidget,” sighed Mary.

“It’s these confounded shoes. They’re at least two sizes too big.”

“I told you so! But you were so set on having them easy.”

Entering the surgery Mahony kicked the inoffensive slippers from his feet, and drew on his boots. After which, having opened the door by a crack, to peer and listen, he stole into the passage to fetch hat and stick.

But Mary, in process of clearing the breakfast-table, caught him in the act. “What? . . . going out already? I declare your consulting hours become more of a farce every day. Well, at least take the children with you.”

“No, that I can’t. They’re such a drag.”

And therewith he whipped out of the house and down the path, not slackening his pace till he had turned a corner: Mary was quite capable of coming after him and hauling him back. And escape he must — from the prison cell that was his room; from the laming surveillance to which she subjected him. Only out of doors, with the wind sweeping through him, the wild expanse of sea tossing in the sunlight, could he for a little forget what threatened; forget her dogging and hounding; enjoy a fictitious peace . . . dream of safety . . . forget — forget.

He made for the Bluff where, for an hour or more, he wandered to and fro: from the old grey lighthouse and flagstaff at one end, to pier and township at the other. He carried his hat in his hand, and the sea wind played with his fine, longish hair till it stood up like a halo of feathers round his head. That no chance passer-by should use them as spy-holes, he kept his eyes glued to the ground; but at the same time he talked to himself without pause; no longer mumbling and muttering as of old, but in a clear voice for any to hear, and stressing his words with forcible gestures: throwing out an open palm; thumping a closed fist in the air; silencing an imaginary listener with a contemptuous outward fling of the hand.

He was obliged to be energetic, for it was Mary he argued with, Mary he laboured to convince; and this could only be done by means of a tub-thumper’s over-emphasis. Where he was in question. She believed others readily enough. But he never had her wholly with him; invariably she kept back some thought or feeling; was very woman in her want of straightness and simplicity. Even here, while shouting her down with: “I tell you once for all that it IS so!” he felt that he was not moving her. — But stay! What was it he sought to convince her of? Confound the thing! it had slipped the leash and was gone again: grope as he might, standing stockstill the while in the middle of the path and glaring seawards, he could not recapture it. Not that this was anything new. Nowadays his mind seemed a mere receptacle for disjointed thoughts, which sprang into it from nowhere, skimmed across it and vanished . . . like birds of the air. Birds. Of Paradise. Parrakeets . . . their sumptuous green and blue and rosy plumage. You caught one, clasped it round, and, even as you held it, felt its soft shape elude you, the slender tail-feathers glide past till but the empty hole of your curled hand remained. A wonderful flight of parrakeets he had once seen at . . . at . . . now WHAT was the name of that place? — a Y and a K, and a Y. Damnation take it! this, too, had flown; and though he scoured and searched, working letter by letter through the alphabet: first the initial consonants, then the companion vowels.. . fitting them together — mnemonics — artificial memory . . . failing powers . . . proper names went first — gone, gone! . . . everything was gone now, lost in a blistering haze.

Such a frenzied racking of his poor old brain invariably ended thus . . . with a mind empty as a drum. And though he crouched, balled like a spider, ready to pounce on the meagrest image that shewed, nothing came: the very tension he was at held thought at bay. His senses on the other hand were strung to a morbid pitch; and little by little a clammy fear stole over him lest he should never again know connected thought; be condemned eternally to exist in this state of vacuity. Or the terror would shift, and resolve itself into an anticipation of what would, what MUST happen, to end the strain. For there was nothing final about it: the blood roared in his ears, his pulses thudded like a ship’s engines, the while he waited: for a roar fit to burst his eardrums; for the sky to topple and fall upon his head, with a crash like that of splitting beams. Thunder — thunder breaking amid high mountains . . . echoing and reechoing . . . rolling to and fro. Or oneself, with closed eyes and a cavernous mouth, emitting a scream: a mad and horrid scream that had nothing human left in it, and the uttering of which would change the face of things for ever. This might escape him at any moment; here and now: wind and sea were powerless against it — he could feel it swelling . . . mounting in his throat. He fought it down: gritted his teeth, balled his fists, his breath escaping him in hoarse, short jerks. Help, help! . . . for God’s sake, help!

And help approached . . . in the shape of a middle-aged woman who came trapesing along, dragging a small child by the hand.

Swaying round his stick, which he dug into the gravel for a support, Mahony blocked her way, blurting out incoherencies; in a panic lest she should pass on, abandon him. “Good morn’g, my good woman . . . good morn’g. A pleasant morn’g. Cool breeze. A nice lil girl you have there. A fine child. Know what I’m saying, speak from exp’rience . . . a father myself. Yes, yes, two little girls . . . golden curls, healthy, happy. Like criteks . . . chirking. A boy, too. Porridge for rickets . . . you’ve let yours walk too soon. Nothing like porridge for forming bone. The Highlanders . . . main sustenance . . . magnif’cent men. — Eh? What? Well, good day . . . good day!”

For, having edged round and past him, the woman grabbed her child and made off. Not till she had put a safe distance between them did she stop to look round. “Well, I’m blowed! Of all the rum ol’ cusses!” There he went, without a hat, his hair standing up anyhow, and talking away nineteen to the dozen. The whole time he’d spoke to her, too, he’d never so much as took his eyes off the ground.

In his wake Mahony left a trail of such open mouths. Espying a man digging a garden, he crossed the road to him and leaned over the fence. A painter was at work on the beach, re-painting a boat: he headed for him, wading ankle-deep through the loose, heavy sand.

Of these, the former spoke up sturdily. “Can’t say as I understand what you’re drivin’ at, mister, with them sissyfass stones you tork of. But this I do know: any one who likes can have MY job! An’ to-day rather’n to-morrow.”

The painter knew the “ol’ doctor” by sight and stopped his work to listen, not impolitely, to certain amazing confidences that were made him. After which, watching the departing figure, he thrust his fingers under his cap and vigorously scratched his head. “Crikey! So THAT’S him, is it? Well, they do say . . . and dang me! I b’lieve they’re not far wrong.”

Dog-tired, footsore, Mahony limped home, his devils exorcised for the time being. At the gate a little figure was on the watch for him — his youngest, his lovely one, towards whom his heart never failed to warm: her little-girl eyes had nothing of the boy’s harassing stare. Holding her to him he walked up the path. Then: “Good God! but I said I had two. What . . . what came over me? The creature will think I was lying . . . boasting!” Where should he find her to put things right? . . . by explaining that one of the two no longer wore bodily form; but had been snatched from them amid pain and distress, the memories of which, thus rudely awakened, he now — in the twenty odd yards that divided gate from door — re-lived to their last detail, and so acutely that he groaned aloud.

Hot with the old pity, he laid a tender hand on Mary’s shoulder; and following her into the dining-room ate, meekly and submissively, what she set before him: without querulous carping, or fastidious demands for the best bits on the dish. And this chastened mood holding, he even offered in the course of the afternoon to walk the children out for her.

Bidden to dress himself, Cuffy obeyed with the worst possible grace. It was dull enough walking with Mamma, who couldn’t tell stories because she was always thinking things; but when it came to going out with Papa . . . well, Mamma never did it herself, and so she didn’t know what it was like. But he couldn’t ask to be let stop at home, because of Luce. He HAD to be there to pertect Luce, who was so little and so fat. Mamma was always saying take care of her.

Papa held their hands and they started quite nice; but soon he forgot about them, and walked so quick that they nearly had to run to keep up, and could look at each other across behind him. And they went round by the bay at the back, where the mussels were, and heaps of mud, and no waves at all. Luce got tired direckly. Her face hung down, very red. SOMEHOW he’d got to make Papa go slower.

“Tell us a story.”— He said it twice before Papa heard.

“A story? Child, I’ve no stories left in me.”

(“You ask him, Luce.”)

“Tell ‘bout when you was a little boy, Papa,” piped Lucie, and trotted a few steps to draw level.

“No, tell ‘bout when you first saw Mamma.” Luce, she loved to hear how Papa’s big sisters had smacked him and put him to bed without his supper; but he liked best the story of how Papa had seen nothing, only Mamma’s leg in a white stocking and a funny black boot, when he saw her first; and it was jumping out of a window. He’d jumped out, too, and chased her; but then he let her go and went away; but as soon as he got home he slapped his leg and called himself a donkey, and hired a horse and galloped ever and ever so many miles back again, to ask her if she’d like to marry him. And first she said she was too young, and then she did. He’d heard it a million times; but it was still exciting to listen to . . . how in a hurry Papa had been.

But to-day everything went wrong. Papa began all right; but so loud that everybody who was passing could hear. But then he got mixed, and left out the best part, and said the same thing over again. And then he couldn’t remember Aunt Tilly’s name, and didn’t listen when they told him, and got furious with himself. He said he’d be forgetting his own name next, and that would be the end of everything. And then he jumped on to the funny bit in the arbour that Mr. Purdy had teased him about, where he’d kissed somebody called Miss Jinny instead of Mamma . . . and this really truly WAS funny, because Mamma was so little and spindly and Miss Jinny was fat. But when he came to this he forgot to go on, and that he was telling them a story, and that they were there, and everything. He said: “My God! how could I have done such an idiotic thing? . . . have made such an unspeakable fool of myself. Took her in my arms and kissed her — the wrong girl . . . the wrong girl. I can hear them still — their ribald laughter, their jeers and guffaws . . . their rough horseplay. And how she shrank before them . . . my shy little Polly! . . . my little grey dove. I to make her the butt of their vulgar mirth!” And then he made a noise as if something hurt him, and talked about pain-spots one shouldn’t ever uncover, but shut up and hide from everybody. And then some more, in a dreadful hoarse voice, about a scream, and somebody who’d soon have to scream out loud if he didn’t keep a hold on himself.

Cuffy couldn’t bear it any longer; he pulled his hand away (Papa didn’t notice) and let Papa and Luce go on alone. He stayed behind and kicked the yellow road-flowers till all their heads fell off. But then Luce looked back, and he could see she was crying. So he had to gallop up and take her hand. And then he called out — he simply shouted: “Papa! Lucie’s tired. She wants to go home to Mamma.”

“Tired? . . . my poor little lamb! Such short leggykins! See . . . Papa will carry her.” And he tried to lift her up, and first he couldn’t, she was so heavy, and when he did, he only staggered a few steps and then put her down again. Luce had to walk home with their hands, and all the way back he made haste and asked questions hard, about the yellow flowers and why they grew on the road, and why the wind always sang in the treble and never in the bass, and always the same tune; till they got to the gate. But you didn’t tell how Papa had been . . . not a word! You were too ashamed.

Shame and fear.

If you were coming home from Granny’s, walking nicely, holding Luce’s hand and taking care of her, and if you met a lot of big, rough, rude boys and girls coming from the State School, what did you do? Once, you would have walked past them on the other side of the road, sticking your chin up, and not taking any notice. Now you still kept on the other side (if you didn’t run like mad as soon as you saw them), but you looked down instead of up, and your face got so red it hurt you.

For always now what these children shouted after you was: “Who’d have a cranky doctor for a father? . . . who’d have a cranky doctor for a father!” and they sang it like a song, over and over, till you had gone too far to hear. And you couldn’t run away; you WOULDN’T have! You squeezed Luce’s hand till you nearly squeezed it off, and whispered: “DON’T cry, Luce . . . don’t let them see you cry.” And Luce sniffed and sniffed, trying not to.

You didn’t tell this either; nor even speak to Luce about it. You just tried to pretend to yourself you didn’t know. Like once when Miss Prestwick was new and had taken them too long a walk at Barambogie, and Luce hadn’t liked to ask, and had had an accident: he’d been ever so partic’lar then not to look at her; he’d kept his head turned right round the other way. That was “being a gentleman.” But this about Papa . . . though you tried your hardest to be one here, too, you couldn’t help it; it was always there. Like as if you’d cut your finger and a little clock ticked inside. And being good didn’t help either; for it wasn’t your FAULT, you hadn’t DONE anything. And yet were ever so ashamed . . . about somebody . . . who wasn’t you . . . yet belonged to you. Somebody people thought silly and had to laugh at . . . for his funny walk . . . and the way he talked. — Oh, WHY had one’s Papa got to be like this? Other children’s Papas weren’t. They walked about . . . properly . . . and if they met you they said: “Hullo!” or “How do you do?”

Something else wormed in him. Once in Barambogie he had seen a dreadful-looking boy, with his mouth open and his tongue hanging out, and bulgy eyes like a fish. And when he’d asked Maria she said, oh, he was just cranky and an idjut. But Papa wasn’t like THAT! The thought that any one could think he was, was too awful to bear.

“What’s it really mean, Bridget, cranky?” he asked, out of this pain, of the small servant-girl.

And Bridget, who was little more than a child herself, first looked round to make sure that her mistress was not within hearing, then mysteriously put her mouth to his ear and whispered: “It means . . . WHAT YOUR PA IS.”

Granny, on whose knee he sat, held him from her for an instant, then snatched him close. “Why bother your little head with such things?”

“I just want to know.”

As usual Granny turned to Pauline for aid; and Pauline came over to them and asked “Who’s been saying things to you, my dear? Take no notice, Cuffy. Oh, well, it just means . . . different — yes, that’s what it means: different from other people.” But he saw her look at Granny and Granny at her; and his piece of cake was extra big that day, and had more currants in it than Luce’s.

But a “diffrunt doctor” didn’t mean anything at all.

But now you and Luce never stopped running all the way home, and you went a long way round, so as not to have to go down the street where the State School was. And when Papa took you for a walk, you CHOSE the hidjus way at the back. When all the time you might have gone on the real beach, by the real sea.

For what a lovely place this would have been, if it hadn’t been for Papa. There wasn’t any wattle here to shut your eyes and smell and smell at and you couldn’t smell the sun either, like in Barambogie. But the beach and the sea made up for everything. You could have played on the beach till you died. The sand was hot and yellow and so soft that it felt like a silk dress running through your fingers; and there were big shells with the noise of the sea in them, and little ones with edges like teeth; and brown and green and red and pink seaweed; and pools to paddle in; and caves to explore when the tide went out. And soon lots of little boys and girls — NICE ones — who you could have played with if you had been allowed, came to the seaside, too. But Mamma always said: keep to yourselves. Which meant there was only him and Luce. And then you learned to swim. The bathing-woman said you were a born fish; and you wished you were: then you could have stopped in the water for ever — and never have needed to go home again — or for walks with Papa.

Fear. All sorts of fears.

One was, when he lay in bed at night and listened to the wind, which never stopped crying. Mamma said it was because the room was at a corner of the house, and the corner caught the wind; but Bridget said it was dead people: the noise people made when they were dead. “But my little sister Lallie’s dead!” “Well, then, it’s her you hear.” (But Lallie had never cried like that.) But Bridget said it was the voice of her soul in torment, hot in hell; and though he KNEW this wasn’t true, because Lallie was in heaven, he couldn’t help thinking about it at night, when he was awake in the dark. Then it did sound like a voice — lots of voices — and as if they were crying and sobbing because they were being hurt. Other times it seemed as if the wind was screeching just at him, very angry, and getting angrier and angrier, till he had to sit up in bed and call out (not too loud because of Luce):“Oh! what’s the matter?” But it didn’t stop: it just went on. And even if you stuffed your fingers in both your ears, you couldn’t shut it out; it was too treble. Till you couldn’t stand it any longer, and jumped out of your own bed and went to Luce’s, and lifted the blankets and got in beside her — she was always fast asleep — and held on to her little fat back. And then you went to sleep, too.

But Mamma was cross in the morning when she came in and found you: she said it wasn’t nice to sleep two in one bed.

“But you and Papa do!”

“That’s quite different. A big double bed.”

“Couldn’t Luce and me have a double bed, too?”

“Certainly not,” said Mamma; and was ashamed of him for being afraid of the dark. Which he wasn’t.

Worse still were those nights when he had to lie and think about what was going to happen to them when all their money was done. Mamma didn’t know; she often said: “What is to become of us?” And it was Papa’s fault. They never ought to have come to live here; they ought to have gone to a place called Narrong, where there was plenty of money; but Papa wouldn’t; so now they hadn’t enough, and quite soon mightn’t have any at all. Perhaps not anything to eat either. His mind threw up a picture of Luce crying for bread, which so moved him that he had to hurry on. Maria’s mother had taken in washing. But you couldn’t think of Mamma doing that: standing at the tubs and mangling and ironing, and getting scolded if the buttons came off. No, he wouldn’t ever let her! He’d hold her hands, so that she couldn’t use the soap. Or else he’d pour the water out of the tubs.

But QUITE the most frightening thing was, when no more money was left, Mamma and Papa might have to go to prison. Once, when he was little, he’d heard them talking about somebody who couldn’t pay his debts, and so had cheated people and been put in gaol. And this dim memory returning now to torture him, he rolled and writhed, in one of childhood’s hellish agonies. WHAT would he and Luce do? How could they get up in the morning and have breakfast, and know what to put on, or what they were to practise, without Mamma and — no! JUST without Mamma. And though he might talk big and say he wouldn’t let her be a washerwoman, yet inside him he knew quite well he was only a little boy, and not a bit of use, REALLY. If the sergeant came and said she had to go to prison, nothing he could do would stop her. Oh, Mamma . . . Mamma! She alone, her dear, substantial presence, stood guard between him and his shadowy throng of fears. And now, when he and Lucie raced home hand in hand of an afternoon, their first joint impulse was to make sure of Mamma: to see that she was still there . . . hadn’t gone out, or . . . been taken away. Only close up to where she stood, radiating love and safety, a very pillar of strength, was it possible for their fragile minds to sustain, uninjured, the grim tragedy that overhung their home, darkening the air, blotting out the sun, shattering to ruin all accustomed things; in a fashion at once monstrous and incredible.

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