Ultima Thule, by Henry Handel Richardson

Chapter IX

A week later Mary paid the warders off and dispatched them back to Melbourne. Not once had she needed them; there had been absolutely nothing for them to do — but hang about the hotel, eating and drinking at her expense. She went, besides, in mortal fear of Richard seeing them from the window, did they show themselves in the street, and of the shock this sight might be, undoing all the good she had done. So she handed out their return-fares and paid their bill, gladly . . . even though this came to a good deal more than she had expected, coarse brutes that they were! For their part, they could hardly believe their ears when they heard her report on Richard’s behaviour since getting home; and they remained pessimistic to the end. “Ah! you’ll have trouble with him yet, lady . . . for sure you will,” were their final words.

But she laughed in their faces. Richard was a lamb in her hands, a little child, whom she could twist round her finger. Just now he spent his time weeping from sheer happiness, as he strayed from room to room of the little house . . . so wretchedly poor and mean compared with any he had known. But he was blind to its shortcomings. “And all this belongs to the doctor? . . . it’s HIS house? . . . he’ll never have to go away from it again? And these cups and plates — do they belong to the doctor, too? . . . and may he drink out of them and eat off them? And is this the doctor’s own chair?” Again and again she had to assure him and re-assure him: he might sit where he pleased, do what he liked, use everything. With difficulty he took in his good fortune: at first, any unexpected knock at the door made him shake and try to hide.

Gradually, however — along with the marks and bruises that stained his poor old body — his alarms died out, and his eyes lost their hunted look. As long, that is to say, as Mary was with him, or he knew her close at hand: her presence alone spelt complete safety. It had been hard to make him understand that he was not to follow her into the office; he couldn’t grasp this, and would often be found prowling round the office door, muttering confusedly. Even after he had learnt his lesson, she — hammering away at the key, or sitting stooped over her desk — would sometimes see the door open by a crack, and Richard’s eyes and nose appear behind it . . . just to make sure. Then, if she nodded and smiled and said: “It’s all right, dear, I’m here!” he would go away content. His devotion to her, his submissive dependence on her, knew no bounds: a word of praise from her made him happy, a reproof bewildered him to tears. And was he really troublesome, she had only to warn him: “Richard, if you’re not good, I shan’t be able to keep you,” for him instantly to weep and promise betterment. No one, not even the children, might in his presence handle any object that he looked on as her peculiar property: the teapot, her scissors, her brush and comb. “Put that down . . . put it down at once! It belongs to Mrs. Mahony.”

Fortunately he took quite a fancy to Mrs. Bowman, and had no objection to being waited on by her — when the monthly “statement” occupied Mary, or a visit from the Inspector impended. But then Bowey was capital with him, hit just the right tone, and never tried to order him about. She was a good cook, too, and, since he was prescribed small quantities of nourishing food, she was for ever popping in from the kitchen with a: “Now, sir, I’ve got a nice little cup of soup here, made specially for you . . . something I KNOW you’ll enjoy!” And he would let her bind his table-napkin round his neck, and even, in default of Mary, feed him with a spoon, to avoid the pitiful dropping and spilling that otherwise went on. He invariably addressed her as “the Cook,” and spoke to her, and of her, as if she stood at the head of a large staff of servants. (Whose non-existence, oddly enough, he did not seem to remark.) For it was just as if a sponge had been passed over a large part of his brain, mercifully wiping out every memory of the terrible later years. He re-lived the period of his greatest prosperity; was once more, in imagination, either the well-to-do property-owner, or the distinguished physician. And since only those images persisted which had to do with one or other of these periods, his late-born children meant little to him: if he thought or spoke of them, it was as though they were still in their infancy. Sometimes, seeing them stand so tall and sturdy before him — a well — grown girl and boy of seven and eight — he grew quite confused. While, asked by Mary if he remembered his little lost daughter, he looked at her with stupid, darkened eyes, and could not think what she meant.

By seven of a morning, he was washed and dressed and fed. Eight o’clock, when the office opened, saw him comfortably settled in the rocking-chair. Here his day was spent. The chair stood by the window, which gave on the cross-roads and the main street; from it, he could see all that went on in the township. But his chief occupation was “reading.” For his sake Mary subscribed to a Melbourne newspaper — though this was a day and a half old before it reached them. But, for anything it mattered to him, it might have borne the date of a month back. As often as not, he read it upside down; his spectacles perched at an impossible angle on the extreme tip of his long, thin nose. In this position he loved to proclaim the news, to whoever had time to listen: Mary, slipping in and out; Mrs. Bowman, come to see that he wanted for nothing. And his information was invariably of some long past event: the death of Prince Albert, the siege of Sebastopol, the Indian Mutiny. And there good old Bowey would stand, her hands clasped under her apron, exclaiming: “What doings, sir, what awful doings you do tell of!”— for, to throw his hearer into a state of surprise, even of consternation, was one of the things that pleased him best.

Tired of reading, he would talk to himself by the hour together; his clear voice, with its light Irish slur, ringing through the house. And hampered no longer by those shackles of pride and reserve which had made him the most modest of men, his theme was now always, and blatantly, himself. This self — to whom, as to every one else, he referred only in the third person — was the pivot round which his thoughts revolved, he passionately asserting and reasserting its identity, in a singsong that was not unlike a chant. “Richard Townshend Mahony, F.R.C.S., M.D., Edinburgh, R. T. Mahony, M.D. and Accoucheur; Specialist for the Diseases of Women; Consulting Physician to the Ballarat Hospital!” and so on: only, the list having been sung through, untiringly to begin afresh.

In appearance, now that he was once more clean and well cared-for, he remained a striking-looking man, with his straight, delicate features, his cloven chin, the silver hair smoothed back from his high forehead; and often, on coming into the room and catching him seated and in profile — his gait, of course, was lamentable; he had never recovered the proper use of his legs — Mary had a passing, ghostlike glimpse of the man who had been. It was his eyes that gave him away. There had been a time when these blue-grey eyes had looked out on life with the expression of a wantonly hurt animal. Still later, a day when they had seldom lifted, but had brooded before them, turned inward on torments visible to them alone. Now they met yours again, but as it were shrilly and blindly, all the soul gone out of them; nor ever a trace remaining of their former puzzlement over life the destroyer. He was now the least troubled of men. Content and happiness had come to him at last, in full measure. No more doubts, or questionings, or wrestlings with the dark powers in himself: no anxiety over ways and means (Mary was there, Mary would provide); never a twinge of the old passionate ache for change and renewal . . . for flight from all familiar things. He desired to be nowhere but here: had, at long last, found rest and peace, within the four walls of a room measuring but a few feet square; that peace for which he had sought, desperately and vainly, throughout the whole of his conscious life; to which he would otherwise have attained only through death’s gates.

To see him thus was Mary’s reward: Mary, grown so thin that she could count her ribs; with black rings round her eyes, “salt-cellars” above and below her collar-bones; with enlarged, knobby knuckles, and feet that grew daily flatter. But she had no time to think of herself — to think at all, in fact — nor did she linger regretfully over what had been, or grieve in advance for what was bound to come. And Richard’s condition ceased to sadden her: valiantly she accepted the inevitable.

It was another matter with the children, who had in them a goodly share of Mahony’s own thin-skinnedness. Cuffy and Lucie never grew used or resigned to the state of things: their father’s imbecile presence lay a dead weight on their young lives. And violently conflicting feelings swung them to and fro. If, at dinner, Papa was scolded for spilling his food, or for gobbling — and he was most DREADF’LY greedy — Luce’s eyes would shut so tight that almost you couldn’t see she had any: while he, Cuffy, red as a turkey-cock, would start to eat just like Papa, from being made so sorry and uncomfortable to hear a big man scolded like a baby. They kept out of his way as much as possible, being also subtly hurt by his lack of recognition of them, when he knew Mamma so well: they were just as much belonging to him as Mamma! And, home from their morning lessons at the parsonage, they withdrew to the bottom of the yard, where Mamma couldn’t so easily find them. For she was always trying to make Papa notice them . . . when you knew quite well he didn’t care. It would be: “Show Papa your copybook . . . how nicely you can write now,” or: “Let him see your new boots.” At which something naughty would get up in Cuffy, and make him say nastily: “What for? . . . what’s the good? He doesn’t REALLY look!” But then Mamma would look so sorry that it hurt, and say: “Oh, you must be kind to him, Cuffy! And try not to let him feel it.”

A doctor drove over once a week from Burrabool to write medicines for Papa, and he said Papa ought to take exercise, and it would be a good thing for him to go a short walk . . . every single day. And of course he and Luce had to do this, to help Mamma. For half an hour. The thought of it spoiled the whole morning — like a whipping.

“Does it matter which way we go?”

Cuffy never failed to ask this, as a sop to his conscience. But really they always went the same road, the one that led straight out of the township. For, if you got past the lock-up, where the constable’s little girl might be swinging on the gate, you were quite certain not to meet anybody. To make sure she wasn’t, you first sent Luce out to look, then fetched Papa and hurried him by. After that, though, you had to walk as slow as slow, because he couldn’t hardly walk at all: his knees bent and stuck out at every step. You each held his hand, and went on, counting the minutes till it was time to turn back. And to find when this was, you had to get his watch out of his pocket yourself and look at it — which he didn’t like, for he thought you were going to take it away from him. But it was no use asking him the time, because he said such funny things. Like: “The time is out of joint,” or: “A time to be born and a time to die!”

But when you said it was far enough and they could go home, and turned him round, he was glad, too; and the whole way back he talked about nothing but his tea, and what there was going to be for it. And when Mamma came to the door she didn’t say what she would have said to THEM, that it was greedy and piggy to think about your meals so long beforehand. She just said: “Tea’s all ready, dear; and Bowey has made you some delicious scones.” He and Luce only had bread and butter, and didn’t want it. They liked best to go and play like mad, because the walk was done, and they didn’t have to do it again till next day.

But then came that awful afternoon when . . . ugh! he didn’t like even to THINK about it . . . ever afterwards.

They had gone out as usual and walked along the road, and nobody saw them. And he was just going to fetch Papa’s watch to look at the time . . . or had he TRIED to and it wouldn’t come, and he had pulled at it? He could never feel quite, quite sure: it remained a horrible doubt. And then, all of a sudden, quite suddenly Papa fell down. “His legs just seemed to shut up, Mamma, really, truly they did!” (when she accused them of having hurried him). They couldn’t stop him . . . . Luce nearly tumbled down, too . . . and Papa fell flat on his face and lay there; and it had rained, and the road was dirty, and he lay in it, so that his clothes and his face were full of mud. And he called out and so did Luce: “Get up, Papa, you’ll be all wet and dirty!” and again: “Mamma will be so cross if you don’t!” and despairingly: “Oh, dear Papa, DO get up and don’t just lie there!” And then he did try, but couldn’t seem to make his legs work properly, and went on lying with his face and hair in the dirt — quite flat. And they tugged and tugged at him, at his arms and his coat, but couldn’t move him, he was so big and heavy; and Luce began to cry; and he felt such a bone come in his own throat that he thought he’d have to cry, too. He began to be afraid the mud would choke Papa, and what would Mamma say then? And Papa kept on asking: “What is it? What’s the doctor doing?” And then he shouted out, like as if he was deaf: “You’ve fallen down, Papa — oh, DO get up! WHAT shall we do if you don’t!” And he said to Luce to run home and fetch Mamma, but she was frightened to; and she was frightened to stay there while he went; and so he felt his heart would burst, for they couldn’t leave Papa alone. But just then a man came driving in a spring-cart, and when he saw them he stopped and said: “Hullo, you kids, what’s up?” And “Whoa!” to his horse, and got out. And first he laughed a little, and winked at them, for he thought Papa was tipsy; but when they told him, and said it was their Papa who couldn’t walk any more because his legs were wrong, he stopped laughing and was kind. He took hold of Papa till he made him stand up, and then he let down the flap of the cart and helped him in, and lifted them up, too, and they drove home that way, their legs hanging out at the back. And when they got to the post office Mamma came running to the door, and had a most awful fright when she saw Papa so wet and dirty, with mud on his face and hair, and scratched with stones where they had pulled him; and she sort of screamed out: “Oh, WHAT’S the matter? What have you done to him?” (and they hadn’t done anything at all). But she was so sorry for Papa, and so busy washing him clean and telling him not to cry, that she didn’t have any time to think about them, or how upset they were. They went away and were together by themselves, at the bottom of the yard.

After this, though, they didn’t have to take Papa walking any more. He never went out. — But the memory of the accident persisted, and was entangled in their dreams for many a night to come. Especially Cuffy’s. Cuffy would start up, his nightclothes damp with sweat, from a dream that Papa had fallen dead in the road and that he had killed him. And, all his life long, the sight of a heavy body lying prostrate and unable to rise — a horse down in its traces, even a drunkard stretched oblivious by the roadside — had the power to throw him into the old childish panic, and make him want blindly to turn and run . . . and run . . . till he could run no more.


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