Ultima Thule, by Henry Handel Richardson

Chapter IV

As if struck by a beneficent blindness, Mary, alone unseeing, alone unsuspecting, held to her way. And, in excuse of her wilful ignoring of many a half-thought and passing impression, her care to keep these from coming to consciousness, there was this to be said: she knew Richard so well. Who but she had endured, for the better part of a lifetime, his whimsies, his crotchets? When had she ever thought of him, or spoken of him, but as queer, freakish, eccentric? Hence, was it now to be wondered at that, as age crept on and added its quota, his peculiarities should wax rather than wane? The older, the odder seemed but natural to her, who had never looked for anything else.

Meanwhile October passed into November, November into December; and one day — overnight, as it seemed — the season was upon them. The houses on either side were full of new faces; there was hardly a spare seat in church on Sunday; you had to wait your turn for a cabin at the baths. And the deck of the little steamer, which came daily, was crowded with lively, white-clad people. Now was the time . . . if ever . . . for Richard’s fortunes to turn.

But the days dragged by in the old monotony; not a single new patient knocked at the door. Instead, by the end of the week Mary had definite information that old Barker was being called out again. Yes, people were actually preferring this antediluvian old man to Richard. And could one altogether blame them? Who would want to consult a doctor who went about talking to himself, and without a hat? . . . who omitted to brush his hair or brush the fluff off his coat-collar, and thought nothing of appearing in public with a two-days’ growth on his chin? She could imagine landladies and hotel-keepers advising their guests: “Oh, I shouldn’t have HIM, if I were you. Extremely queer! Goes nowhere.”

Boarders. It was boarders or nothing now . . . and not a moment to lose either, with a season that lasted for a bare three months. Like the majority of people in Shortlands, she would have to seize the chance and make money while she could, by throwing open her house to strangers. Grimly she tied on her bonnet and went down into the township, to hang out her name and her terms as a boarding-housekeeper; to face the curious looks, the whispers and raised eyebrows: what? . . . the grand Mrs. Mahony? . . . reduced to taking in lodgers? Not till she got home again did she know how high she had carried her head, how rigidly set her jaw, over the taking of this step which would once have seemed like the end of the world to her. But, true to herself, she refused to allow her strength to be sapped by vain regrets. Instead, she turned with stubborn energy to the re — arrangement of her house. If Richard and she moved into the children’s bedroom, and the children slept in a small inner room lit by a skylight, she would have two good-sized bedrooms to let, in which she could put up as many as four to five people. At two guineas a head this would bring in ten a week. Ten guineas a week for three months! . . . of which not a penny should pass out of her own hands.

On the day this happened — and in the swiftness and secrecy of her final decision there was something that resembled a dash of revenge — on this day, Richard was out as usual all the morning, strolling about on cliffs or beach. And though he came home to dinner, he was in one of his most vacant moods, when he just sat and ate — ravenously — noticing nothing of what went on around him. — But anyhow she would not at this eleventh hour have started to thresh the matter out with him. Better, first to get everything irrevocably fixed and settled.

Perhaps, though, she had a dim foreboding of what awaited her. For the next time he came back he was wider awake, and took in the situation at a glance. And then there was a scene the like of which she had never known. He behaved like a madman, stamping and shouting about the house, abusing her, and frightening the poor children out of their wits. In vain she followed him, reasoning, arguing, throwing his own words in his teeth: had the idea not been his, originally? Besides, what else was left for her to do, with no patients, no money coming in, and old Barker resuming practice? He would not listen. Frenzy seized him at the thought of his threatened privacy: strangers to occupy his bedroom, hang their hats in the passage, go in and out of his front door. Not as long as HE lived! “My mother . . . my sisters . . . the old home in Dublin — THEY would sooner have starved!” And as he spoke he sent hat and stick flying across the hall table, and the brass card-tray clattering to the floor. He kicked it to one side, and with an equally rough push past Mary, who had stooped to recover it, banged into the surgery and locked the door. And there he remained. She could neither get at him nor get a word out of him.

Late that night the children, their parents’ neighbours now, sat miserably huddled up together. Lucie had been fast asleep; but Cuffy had so far only managed to doze uneasily, in this funny room where the window was in the roof instead of the wall: he was quite sure something would look in at him through it, or else fall down on his head. Now they sat and clung to each other, listening . . . listening . . . their little hearts pounding in their chests. “Oh, DON’T, Papa! Oh, what’s he doing to her?” To which Cuffy gave back sturdily: “I don’t hear anything, Luce, truly I don’t!” “Oh, yes, you do! And now I’ll know she go away . . . Mamma will . . . and leave us.” “No, she won’t. She told me so yesterday — promised she wouldn’t ever!” Though his teeth were chattering with fear.

For Mary had at last reached what seemed the limits of human endurance. After pleading and imploring; after reasoning, as with a little child: after stabbing him with bitter words, and achieving nothing but to tear and wound her own heart, she gave it up, and, turning bodily from him, as she had already turned in mind and deed, she crushed her face into the pillow and gave way, weeping till she could weep no more; as she had not wept since the death of her child. But on this night no loving arms reached out to her, to soothe and console. Richard might have been made of stone: he lay stockstill, unmoved, staring with glassy eyes into the moonlight.

From sheer exhaustion she thought she must have sunk into a momentary unconsciousness; for, coming to with a start, she found the place beside her empty. Throwing back the sheet she jumped to the floor, her temples a-throb, and ran into the hall. There, among the lines and squares of greenish moonshine that filtered through the open doors of the rooms, stood Richard, a tall white figure, just as he had got out of bed. He was at the front door, fingering the lock, plainly on the point of leaving the house. Abominably frightened, but mindful of the sleeping children, she called to him under her breath: “RICHARD! What are you doing?”

He did not answer: she had to go up to him and shake his arm. “What’s the matter? Where are you going?”

“To find peace.”

So gaunt and old . . . the ribbed neck and stooping shoulders . . . the poor thin shanks: and once, he, too, had been young, and handsome, and upstanding. As always, did she compare present with past, an immense compassion swept through Mary, driving every smaller, meaner feeling before it. She put out her arms, put them round him, to hold, to protect. “Oh, but not like this . . . and at this hour. Wait till morning. Come back and try to sleep. Come, my dear, come!”

But he resisted her. Only by dint of half pushing, half pulling, did she manage to get him back to bed. He seemed dazed; as if he were moving in a dream. And though, during the hours that followed, she sometimes believed he slept, she herself did not dare to close her eyes, so great was the fright he had given her.

But Mahony slept as little as she did. With his back to her, withdrawn from any chance contact, he merely put into practice an art learned in scores of wakeful nights: that of lying taut as the dead, while the long hours ticked away. Let her think what she chose . . . think him asleep — OR dead . . . as long as she held her cruel tongue. His hatred of her passed imagining: his mind was a seething cauldron of hate and fury. Fury with himself. For he had been within an ace of deliverance, of getting through that door; beyond which lay everything his heart desired: space . . . freedom . . . peace. One and all drenched in the moon’s serene light. This light it was that drew him; affecting him as do certain scenes or people which, on seeing them for the first time, you feel you have known long since . . . in dreams, in a dream life. The sea, too, lay without. Seas . . . silvered masses . . . leaping and tumbling under a great round moon. And then, at the last moment, he had been baulked of his freedom by the knowledge that he was grown too tall for the doorway. To pass through it he would have needed to risk knocking his head against the doorpost, or to stoop; and to-night either alternative was beyond him. His poor head felt so queer . . . so queer. Top-heavy, yet weightless as a toy balloon. Already on first laying it down, he had had the old sensation of sinking through the pillow; of falling head-foremost into nothingness. Hence he dared not risk a blow; or the dizzy fit stooping would entail. And so he had been caught and dragged back; made a prisoner of . . . yet once more. But this time should be the last. Revenge! . . . revenge is sweet. Vengeance is mine, saith the Lord: I will repay. Fill the house with strangers, would she? — HIS house? Cut the ground from under his feet? — deprive him of his only haven? . . . why! even a rabbit had its burrow. To be without covert; to know no place to creep to for hiding, when the fit, the burning need of escape seized him? — And then his eyes. What in God’s name should he do with his eyes? Strangers at his table? On your p’s and q’s with strangers; aye, and on the watch, too, lest they should find you out. And for all this he had only Mary to thank — Mary, who might have been expected to show mercy. She? As well ask blood of a stone. — And now such a paroxysm of hatred shook him: the outcome, solidified, intensified, of thousands of conflicts; of the ceaseless clash and war of their opposing temperaments: that it was all he could do to master the itch his fingers felt to close round her throat. But he would be even with her yet! . . . somehow . . . somehow . . . though he did not yet know how. But . . . IT WOULD HAVE TO DO WITH MONEY! For it was money she was after: with her it had always been money, from first to last. What new tricks was she hatching this time? Was it going to COST money to take these lodgers in? Or was she doing it to MAKE money? He was so confused to-night; his poor brain seemed smothered in cobwebs. But it didn’t matter, either way would do. As long as he remembered that IT HAD TO DO WITH MONEY. And surely, surely, the long night would now soon end, and day break, and he be free to get up and set about what had to be done. (His home, his poor home, his sole refuge . . . eyes . . . greenish eyes in the moonlight, coming towards him, and, most horribly, without any accompanying face.) First, though, he would have to pull himself together to endure in silence, without an answering shriek, the blast of the mill-whistle — that thrice-accursed, infernal din! Not much more than an hour now, till it was due to sound.

At breakfast he sat silent, seemed lost in thought. And Mary, to whom the dark hours had brought no clearness — every way she turned seemed barred to her — watched him, the passion of pity that had been wakened by the sight of his poor old scraggy form at the door in the moonlight, trying to escape from her — from HER! — still hot in her.

But the meal over, he roused to a kind of life. Taking his little favourite on his knee, he caressed her. And then, of a sudden, he grew solicitous about the children: their morning walk, their daily dip in the sea. “Or”— to Lucie this, as he rocked her to and fro —“we shall not have them growing up tall and sturdy!” (If only he could hold on to the fact that IT HAD TO DO WITH MONEY.)

“Trust me to look after them,” said Mary shortly, at a third repetition. Her own thoughts ran: If I can’t talk to some one I shall go crazy. Something will have to be done. I know. There’s old Mrs. Spence. She is so wise.

Would he never be rid of them? It seemed this morning as if Mary deliberately invented jobs to detain them. He fell to pacing the dining-room, his arms a-swing . . . and each time he came to the window he lifted his eyes in alarm, lest the flag should have run up the flagstaff. A ship at this moment would ruin everything.

But . . . softly! Mary was growing suspicious. “Are you stopping at home then?”

“Yes, yes, I’m staying in. I’ll look after the house.” (Ha, ha!)

And at last gowns and towels, spades and buckets were collected, the children’s hats and her bonnet tied on, and off they went. It was a radiant summer morning, with a light breeze playing, but Mary saw nothing of it: her brain continued its feverish work, in the hope of finding some way out. Suppose I induced him to leave home for a time? — to go away for a holiday? . . . and so get the house to myself. Or even persuaded him to put up at an hotel. But before she had gone any distance, she became aware of such a strange inner excitement that it was only with difficulty she mastered an impulse to turn and go back to the house. Why had he been so anxious to get rid of them? Why this sudden odd concern for the children? — and here there leapt in her mind a story she had once read, or heard, of somebody who had sent his wife and his children out for a walk, and then deliberately hanged himself on a nail behind the scullery-door. But, this half-born apprehension spoken out, she fell righteously foul of herself: her reason, her common sense, that part of her which had waged a life-long war with the fantastic, the incorporeal, rose in arms. Such NONSENSE Really . . . if one once began to let oneself go. . . . (Besides, wasn’t Bridget constantly in and out of the scullery?) Imaginings like these came solely from want of sleep. How angry Richard would be, too, if she reappeared!

So she went on, as usual making Cuffy the scapegoat for her nervous perplexity. “Don’t eat your bathing-dress, you naughty boy! How often am I to tell you . . .”

“I’m NOT eating it! Only smelling.”— He did though, some times. (And his sponge, too.)

“Well, that’s not nice either.”

“It IS! It’s scrumptious,” cried Cuffy warmly. How did Mamma know? . . . she never bathed. The salty smell — and the taste — of damp blue serge when it was hot with the sun — ooh! too lovely for words. If he put it to his nose he could hardly keep his legs from running: it made him shiver all over, simply not able to WAIT, to be in the water. And directly they came to the Bluff he bolted: shot along the narrow wooden bridge that ran out from the beach, past the counter where gowns and towels were for hire, and into the Baths, where nothing but gowns and towels were hanging on the rails to dry, all one big salty smell. And you poked your nose into every empty cabin, to find a dry one; and then, hi! off with your clothes before Luce and Mamma got there, and into your gown, hot with the sun, and all prickly and tickly; and then you galloped round the platforms and out on the spring-board, which bounced you ever so high in the air, into water they said was fifteen feet deep, but you didn’t know, only if you jumped straight, and made yourself quite stiff, you went down and down, and took ever such a time to come up. Then you swam back to the steps — they were all slimy, and with seaweed washing round them, for they weren’t ever out of the water — and up and off the board again, again and again, till it was time to fetch Luce, who was afraid to jump springboard.

“If I’m not back in an hour make them come out,” Mary instructed the fat bathing-woman, who knew what young water-rats the chicks were, and could be trusted to use force if necessary. — And with this she turned to go.

But she had done no more than set foot on the wooden causeway, when she saw some one dash on to it from the other end, push rudely past a group of people, a servant it was . . . and it was BRIDGET, with her hair half down, in her dirty morning apron . . . and she came rushing up to her and seized her hand, and pulled her by it, and sobbed and cried, for every one to hear: “Oh, Mrs. Mahony, come home! . . . come home quick! The doctor’s bin and lighted a fire on the surgery table. He’s burning the house down!”

“Bridget!”

Her heart, which had begun to hammer at first sight of the girl, gave a gigantic bound, then seemed to stop beating: she had to lean against the wooden railing and press both hands to it, to get it to restart. But, even so, she heard her own voice saying: “Be quiet! Don’t make such a noise. There are people . . . I’m coming, I’m coming.”

Home! Uphill, through loose, clogging sand; a short cut over the grass of the gardens; along one reddish street and into another, and round into a third; hampered at every step by her long, heavy woman’s clothing; not daring to run, for fear of exciting comment, struggling even yet, for Richard’s sake, to keep up appearances; the perspiration glistening below her bonnet, her breath coming stormily; but with only one thought: that of being in time to save him. At her side Bridget, gasping out her story. If it hadn’t bin that he hadn’t had no matches, she’d never have known. But he’d had to come to the kitchen for some, and she’d seen at once there was something in the wind. He’d looked at her, oh, ever so queer! And first he’d tried to take ’em without her seeing him . . . and when she had, he’d laughed, and had went up the passage laughing away to himself. She’d gone after him on tiptoe to see what he was up to, and she’d peeped through the crack of the door, and he’d got that black tin box of his open, and was taking papers and tied-up things out of it, piling ’em on the table, and striking matches and setting fire to ’em. Holy Mother o’ God, HOW she’d run!

There was smoke in the passage. The surgery was full of it; full of bits of flying ash and burnt papers. Through this she saw Richard. He stood at the table, the deal top of which was scorched and blackened, his dispatch-box open and empty before him, his hands in a heap of ashes which he was strewing about the room. He laughed and shouted. She heard her own name.

“RICHARD! My God! What have you done?”

MARY? . . . Mary’s voice? Recoiling, he threw up his arms as if to ward off a blow, looking round at her with a face that was wry and contorted. At the sight of her standing in the doorway, he tried to shake his fist at her; but his arm crumpled up, refused to obey; tried to hurl a scurrilous word . . . to spit at her: in vain. What did happen was the thing against which, waking and sleeping, he had battled with every atom of his failing self-control: there escaped him, at long last, the scream, the insane scream, which signified the crossing of the rubicon. And, as it broke loose, ringing in his ears like the bestial cry of a wounded, maddened animal, everything turned black before his eyes. He lost his balance, staggered, caught at a chair and went down, with the chair on top of him, like an ox felled by a single blow of the pole-axe. And there he lay, in a confused and crumpled heap on the floor.

And Mary, whom no audible sound had reached, who had read into the outward fling of his arm towards her only an appeal for help, for support, was on her knees beside him, her bonnet awry, her dress in disarray, crushing the poor old head to her breast and crying: “Richard! My DARLING! What is it, oh, what is it?”

But to these words, with which she had so often sought enlightenment, sought understanding, there was now no reply.

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