Ultima Thule, by Henry Handel Richardson

Chapter VI

Their final destination was a place called Gymgurra in the Western District, some two hundred miles from Melbourne; to be reached either by a night’s sea voyage — round Cape Otway and along the wild coast — or by a combined train and coach journey. With the ordeal of “taking over charge” before her, Mary dared not risk the physical upset of a voyage. So at Colac she got out of the train and into the mail coach, to lumber, the night through, over the ruts and jolts of bush roads, Lucie a dead weight on her lap, Cuffy lying heavily up against her.

There were only the three of them; Richard had had to be left behind. It had torn her heart to part from him, to hand him over to strangers but not only Bowes-Smith, every one she consulted had advised against the fatigues of the journey for him in his present state. So she had yielded — and not for his sake alone. In the beginning she would need to give her whole mind to her new work. Richard would be better looked after where he was. Thanks to Bowes-Smith, she had managed to get him into a kind of private hospital, where he would live in comfort under a doctor’s eye.

At Toorak, the place was, standing in its own beautiful grounds: there were shrubberies and summer-houses, a croquet-lawn, a bowling-green, fruit and flower-gardens; the mere sight of which had a good effect on Richard. He brightened up, carried himself more erectly — even gave himself proprietary airs as they walked together through the gardens. None the less, when the time for parting came he wept bitterly, clinging like a child to her skirts. She had to romance about how soon she was coming back to fetch him: all the doctor thought it wise for him to be told, in the meanwhile, was that she was travelling on ahead to set the new house in order: he surely remembered how he hated the bother and confusion of moving? And by now he was too deeply sunk in himself to put awkward questions. Not once, since his attack, had he troubled his head about ways and means, or where to-morrow’s dinner was to come from. It was pitiable to see; and yet . . . she couldn’t find it in her heart to grudge him the peace and content this indifference brought him. The doctors called it euphoria.

The one thing he did ask, again like a timid child, was: “Mary, it’s not that place . . . that other place, Mary . . . the one with the whistle . . . and the . . . the . . . the canal, we’re going back to, is it?”

“No, no, dear, indeed it’s not! It’s somewhere quite new; where there’ll be all sorts of fresh things for you to see and do. And till then, Richard, think how comfortable you’re going to be here. Your own room, your own books; and this armchair by the window, so that you can sit and look out at the flowers, and watch the croquet, and see all that happens.”

But something else still wormed in him. “Who will — Mary, will you . . . will they let me . . . clean . . . clean collars, Mary . . . and those other things . . . hankchiefs?”

Here one had a glimpse of the old Richard, with his fastidious bodily habits. Mary got a frog in her throat over it. But she answered sturdily enough: “Of course, they will. As many as you like. And be sure, my darling, if there’s anything you don’t feel quite happy about, let me know, and I’ll have it put right at once.”

As indeed there should be no difficulty in doing, considering what she was paying. Though this, again thanks to Bowes-Smith — and the fact of Richard being a medical man — was only the half of what was charged an ordinary patient: five guineas a week instead of ten. Even so, it was a desperately heavy drain. She had put by as much as she dared towards it — seventy pounds — from the sale of the furniture, so in the meantime he was safe. When this was gone, she could but hope and pray he would be well enough to come home.

Out of what remained of the auction money, together with Richard’s deposit and her own small savings, she had at once paid off a quarter’s rent on each of the houses. Neither was yet due . . . and when Sir Jake heard what she had done, he rather called her over the coals for so unbusiness-like a proceeding. But he didn’t know — how could he? — the load it took from her mind to know these things settled. With her, in the coach, she carried three little packets of notes, two of which, screwed up in old pieces of newspaper and tied securely and privately to her body, were towards the next quarter again. The third lay in her sealskin handbag, and was for the expenses of the journey and the purchasing of a few sticks of furniture. It had been a sad blow to learn that the salary attached to the Gymgurra post office was only eighty pounds a year. Eighty pounds! Could she and the children possibly live on that? And what, when Richard came too? Of course there was always a chance the house at Shortlands might find a tenant — houses were so scarce there — even though the summer was by now half over. In which case she would be some pounds to the good. Jerry, too, in whose hands she had left the affair of the perished documents, did not despair of retrieving SOMETHING from the general ruin. But herself add a single penny to her income she could not; as a Government servant her hands were tied.

Over these reckonings the night wore away. (It would be money, always money now she supposed, to the bitter end.) Still, she did not fail to send a warm thought back to the dear friends who had stood by her in her trouble. The Devines had not only housed them all, but had called in their own medical man to Richard, had helped her to make arrangements at the hospital, to interview doctor and matron. Lady Devine, too — notwithstanding her corpulence — had promised to visit Richard weekly and report on his progress. Old Sir Jake, with her hand in both of his, had gone as near as he dared towards offering her a substantial loan. Mr. Henry had driven out to tell her that Mr. Vibert, the Deputy P.M.G., was in receipt of special instructions with regard to her case; while the postmaster at the nearest town of any size to Gymgurra had orders to give her what help she needed. More, said he, the house at Gymgurra had been enlarged by three rooms. Then dear old Tilly had travelled down from Ballarat to see her; Jerry come all the way from Wangaratta. Not to speak of many a kindness shewn her by less intimate acquaintances. — And yet, in spite of this, Mary felt that she was seeing more than one of them for the last time. Still was she Mrs. Townshend-Mahony, the one-time member of Melbourne society. From now on, as plain Mrs. Mahony, postmistress, she would sink below their ken: she read it in their eyes when she announced what she was going to do; announced it bluntly, even truculently; for she was determined not to sail under false colours.

It was the same with her relatives. Lizzie, for instance: Lizzie who still traded on past glories — and also, alas! went on hoarding up poor John’s children — was loud in praise of her courage and independence. But a blind man could have seen her relief when she learnt that these virtues were to be practised at a distance. Jerry, of course, like the sensible fellow he was, ranged himself on her side — if he did seem a trifle unsure of Fanny — but Zara made no bones of her horrification.

“Have you really thought SERIOUSLY, Mary, of what you are about to do? Of the publicity, the notoriety it will entail? For, no matter what has happened, you are still our poor, dear Richard’s wife. And my one fear is, the odium may redound on him.”

“Zara, I’ve thought till I could think no more. But it’s either this or the workhouse. People who are too good to know me any longer must please themselves. To tell the truth, I don’t very much care. But as for what I’m doing reflecting on RICHARD . . . no, that’s too absurd!”

It wasn’t really Richard, it was herself Zara was concerned for; and in how far having a postmistress for a sister would damage her prospects. Besides, never again, poor thing, would she be able to give Richard’s name as a reference. Ah, had Zara only been different! Then the two of them, sisters, and bound by one of nature’s closest ties, might have combined forces; Zara have managed the house? taught the children, even perhaps have augmented their slender joint incomes by opening a little school.

Thinking these things Mary found she must have dozed off; for when, feeling extremely cold, she opened her eyes again, it was broad daylight. Daylight: and all around her what seemed to her the flattest, barest, ugliest country she had ever had the misfortune to see. Not a tree, not a bit of scrub, hardly so much as a bush broke the monotony of these plains, these immeasurable, grassy plains: here, flat as pancake, there, rolling a little up and down, or rising to a few knobbly hillocks, but always bare as a shorn head — except for lumps of blackish rock that stuck up through the soil. You could see for miles on every side, to where the earth met the sky. Another ugly feature was the extreme darkness of the soil: the long, straight road they drove was as black as all the other roads she had known had been white or red. A cloudy sky, black roads, bare earth: to Mary, lover of towns, of her kind, of convivial intercourse, the scene struck home as the last word in loneliness and desolation.

Even the children felt it. “Why are there no trees?” demanded Cuffy aggressively, the crosspatch he always was after a broken night. “I don’t LIKE it without.”

And Lucie’s echoing pipe: “Why are there no trees, Mamma?”

And then the place itself.

“Is THIS it? Is this ALL?” more resentfully still. “Then I think it’s simply hidjus!”

“Oh, come! Don’t judge so hastily.”

But her own courage was at zero when, having clambered down from the coach with legs so stiff that they would hardly carry her, she stood, a child on either hand, and looked about her. — Gymgurra! Two wide, ludicrously wide cross-roads, at the corners of which clustered three or four shops, a Bank, an hotel, the post office, the lockup; one and all built of an iron-grey stone that was almost as dark as the earth itself. There were no footpaths, no gardens, no trees: indeed, as she soon learnt, in Gymgurra the saying ran that you must walk three miles to see a tree; which however was not quite literally true; for, on the skyline, adjoining a farm, there rose a solitary specimen . . . a unicum.

Their new home, the “Post and Telegraph Office,” with on its front the large round clock by which the township told the time, stood at one of the corners of the cross-roads. Facing it was a piece of waste ground used for the dumping of rubbish: thousands of tins lay scattered about, together with old boots, old pots, broken crockery: its next-door neighbour was the corrugated-iron lock-up. Until now, it had consisted only of an office and two small living-rooms. For her benefit a three-roomed weatherboard cottage had been tacked on behind. This poor little dingy exterior was bad enough; inside, it was even worse. The former postmaster had been a bachelor; and before she and the children could live in the rooms he had left, these would have to be cleaned from top to bottom, and the walls given a fresh coat of whitewash, to rid them of greasy smears and finger-marks, of the stains of flies and squashed spiders. In the wooden portion — two small bedrooms and a kitchen — all the workmen’s sawdust and shavings still lay about. From the back door three crude wooden steps led to a yard which, except for the water tank, held only rubbish: bottles galore, whole and broken; old boxes; boots and crockery again; with, she thought, every kerosene-tin that had been emptied since the house was first built. Never a spadeful of earth had been turned.

Thank God, she had not brought Richard with her. The mere sight of such a place might have done him harm. By the time he came, poverty-stricken though it was, she would engage to have it looking very different. And this thought gave her the necessary fillip. Mastering her dismay, throwing off her discouragement with bonnet and mantle, she pinned back her skirts and fell to work. With the help of an old, half-blind woman — women seemed very scarce here — she swept and scrubbed and polished, in an effort to make the little house clean and sweet; to free it of a dirty man’s traces. Then, perched on top of a step-ladder, with her own hands she whitewashed walls and ceilings. After this, taking coach to the neighbouring coast town, she bought the few simple articles of furniture they needed. — And, for all her preoccupation over trying to make one pound go as far as two, she could not help smiling at Cuffy’s dismay as he watched her purchase of a kitchen-table for use in the dining-room. “But we can’t eat our dinner off THAT, Mamma!” he nudged her, politely and under his breath lest the shopman should hear, but with his small face one wrinkle of perplexity.

And her whispered assurance that a cloth would hide the deal top didn’t help. Cuffy continued sore and ashamed. It wasn’t only this table. There was the dressing-table, too; and the washstand: they were both REALLY only empty packing-cases, stood on their sides and covered with pink s’lesha and book-muslin, to look nice. And for long he lived in dread of some inquisitive person lifting up cloth or curtain to peep underneath. It would be like seeing Mamma found out in a story. (If he were there, he would tell that one of the legs had come off the real things and they were away being mended. It didn’t matter about HIM. But to think of Mamma turning cheat gave him a funny stiff ache in his chest.)

He wasn’t, he knew, being very good just now; he didn’t seem able to help it. It was so dull here; there was nothing to do — not even a piano to play your pieces on. Out of chips and blocks of woods left by the builders he cut little boats, which he and Luce sailed in the wash-tubs by the back door . . . with matches for masts, and bits of paper for sails. But you couldn’t go on doing that always. And Luce soon got tired, and went to see that Mamma hadn’t run away. You weren’t allowed in the office, where there would have been the machine to look at, and letters in the pigeon-boxes (had somebody once kept pigeons in them?) and to see how stamps were sold. And the yard had palings round it so high that you couldn’t see over them, only peep through the cracks. You weren’t supposed to go out in the street. You did. But there wasn’t anything there either. The streets were all just bare.

This was the first time they hadn’t had a garden; and fiercely Cuffy hated the gaunt, untidy yard; the unfinished back to the house. There hadn’t been much at Shortlands either, only pear-trees and grass; but he liked grass; specially if it nearly covered you when you sat down in it. At Barambogie there had been flowers, and the verandah, and lots of paths . . . and heaps and heaps of trees and wattle to go out and walk in. He could remember it quite well. And in a kind of vague way he remembered other things, too. Somewhere there had been straight black trees like steeples, that swept their tops about when the wind blew; lawns with water spraying on them; hairy white strawberries that somebody made you open your mouth to have popped into. And, vague and faint as these memories were, as little to be caught and held as old dreams, they had left him a kind of heritage, in the shape of an insurmountable aversion to the crude makeshifts and rough slovenliness of colonial life. His little sister, on the other hand, carried with her, as the sole legacy of her few years, only a wild fear lest, one sure prop having given way, the other should now also fail her. Except at her mother’s side, little Lucie knew no rest. She had, as it were, eternally to stand guard over the parent who was left. And to her baby mind the one good thing about this poor, ugly place was that Mamma never went out. Not even to church: a state of things that threw Cuffy who, ever since he could toddle, had been walked to church on his mother’s hand, into fresh confusion. What would God think? It wouldn’t do for Him not to LIKE Mamma any more, now she was so poor. And He’d said as plain as plain, Remember the Sabbath Day to keep it holy. Oh dear! he was only a little boy and nobody took any notice of him; but what with boxes dressed up as tables, and a table that pretended to be mahogany, and now none of them going to church, he felt as if his world was turning upside down. And that it was one’s MAMMA who did it . . . who ought to know better; be perfect, without sin . . . .

Mary was unaware of these vicarious sufferings on her behalf: had neither time nor thought to spare for a child’s imaginary torments. She was never off her feet — from seven in the morning till long past midnight. For when the office closed, she had still the main part of her work to do: food to prepare for the next day; to wash and iron and sew: whatever happened, her children must be spotlessly turned out.

Very soon after arriving she had given the relieving officer his conge. The man’s manners were intolerable. It also came to her ears that he was going about the township saying: “By the Lord Harry, there’s a pair of eyes for you!” Which explained why he and the boy who was her sole assistant sat stolidly by, not budging to help, while she answered knocks at the little window: to dole out a single penny stamp, sell a postcard, repeat till she was tired: “Nothing to-day,” to inquiries for letters. She thought every man in the place must have come rapping at the wooden shutter . . . to take a look at her. Once alone with the lad, however, she had small difficulty in keeping him in his place. He was a heavy, lumpish youth; clerk, operator, telegraph messenger rolled in one. The trouble was, he was so often absent. For though no letters were carried out, yet, had a telegram to be delivered, what with the long distances to be covered on foot and the lad’s incurable propensity for gossip, she would find herself deserted for hours at a time on the run between “key” and window, getting her “statement” made up at any odd moment. Luckily enough, the money side of the business continued to come easy to her. Figures seemed just to fall into line and to add up of themselves.

Had there been the day’s work only to contend with, she would not have complained. It was the nights that wore her down. The nights were cruel. On every one of them without exception, between half-past one and a quarter to two, there came a knocking like thunder at the front door. This was the coach arriving with the night mail: she had to open up the office, drag a heavy mail-bag in, haul another out. Not until this was over could there be any question of sleep for her.

Almost at once it became a nervous obsession (she who had had such small patience with Richard’s night fancies!) that, did she even doze off, she might fail to hear the knocking — calculated though this was to wake the dead! — fail in her duty, lose her post, bring them all to ruin. Hence she made a point of sitting up till she could sit no longer, then of lying down fully dressed, watching the shadows thrown by the candle on walls and ceiling, listening to the children’s steady breathing, the wind that soughed round the corners of the house.

Then when the coach had rumbled off, the sound of wheels and hoofs died away, and she might have slept, she could not. The effort of rising, of pulling the bags about and exchanging words with the driver, had too effectually roused her. Also, the glimpse caught through the open door of the black darkness and loneliness without alarmed her each time afresh. For the country was anything but safe. The notorious Kellys had recently been at work in the district, and not so very far from Gymgurra either; the township still rang with tales of their exploits. And after the Bank, the post office was the likeliest place to be stuck up, if not THE likeliest; for the Bank Manager had a strong-room, and no doubt a revolver, too . . . besides being a man. While she was only a defenceless woman, with no companions but two small children. If the bushrangers should appear one night, and order her to “bail up” while they rifled the office, she would be utterly at their mercy.

The result of letting her mind dwell on such things was that she grew steadily more awake; and till dawn would lie listening to every sound. Never did the cheering fall of a human foot pass the house. Unlit, unpatrolled, the township slept the sleep of the dead. Only the dingoes snarled and howled; at first a long way off, and then, more shrilly, near at hand. Or the old volcano that stood in its lake some three miles away — it was said to be extinct, but really one didn’t know — would suddenly give vent to loud, unearthly rumblings; which sometimes became so violent that the jugs on the washstand danced and rattled. And then the children, who had learned to sleep through the bustle of the coach, would wake up, too, and be frightened; and she would have to light the candle again and talk to them, and give them drinks, and re-arrange their pillows.

“It’s all right, chicks. There’s nothing to be afraid of. Mamma’s here.”

This satisfied them: Mamma was there, hence all was well . . . as though she were a kind of demigod, who controlled even the eruptions of volcanoes! With Lucie cuddled tight in her arms, all the fragrance of the child’s warm body mounting to her, she lay and thought of her children with a pity that left mere love far behind. They trusted her so blindly; and she, what could she do for them? Except for this imagined security, she had nothing to give. And, should anything happen to her, while they were still too young to fend for themselves — no! that simply did not bear thinking of. She had seen too much of the fates of motherless children in this country. Bandied from one home to another, tossed from pillar to post . . . like so much unclaimed baggage. Rather than know hers exposed to such a destiny . . . yes, there came moments when she could understand and condone the madness of the mother who, about to be torn away, refused to leave her little ones behind. For, to these small creatures, bone of her bone and flesh of her flesh, links bound Mary that must, she felt, outlast life itself. Through them and her love for them, she caught her one real glimpse of immortality.

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