Ultima Thule, by Henry Handel Richardson

Chapter IV

To-morrow was the Dumplings’ birthday, and they were having a big party. But it was his, Cuffy’s, party, too; for when he had first got six, they didn’t have a house yet, and there was no room for a party. It was really MOST his, ‘cos he was the oldest: his cake would be six storeys high, and have six lighted candles round it, and his chair be trimmed with most green leaves. Mamma said he might cut the cake his very own self, and make the pieces big or little just as he liked. She stopped in the kitchen all day, baking jam tarts and sausage-rolls, and men had taken the drawing-room carpet off and sprinkled the floor with white dust, so’s you could slide on it. All his cousins were coming, and Cousin Emmy, and lots and lots of other children. But it was not of these grandeurs Cuffy thought, as he sat on the edge of the verandah, and, for sheer agitation, rocked himself to and fro. The truth was, in spite of the glorious preparations he felt anything but happy. Guiltily and surreptitiously he had paid at least a dozen visits to the outhouse at the bottom of the yard, to steal a peep inside. First, Mamma had said “soon” for the pony, and then “someday,” and then his birthday: so to-morrow was his last hope. And this hope was growing littler and littler. If ONLY he hadn’t told! But he had, had whispered it in a secret to the Dumplings, and to that horrid tease, Cousin Josey, as well. And promised them rides, and let the twins draw lots who should be first; and they’d guessed and guessed what colour it would be; all in a whisper so’s Mamma shouldn’t hear.

“I fink it’ll be black,” said Lallie; and Lucie nodded: “Me, too! An’ wiv a white tail.”

“But I KNOW it’ll be brown!”

“He knows it’ll be bwown!” buzzed one Fatty to the other.

“Huh! I wouldn’t HAVE a pony with a white tail.”

But peep as he might, no little horse appeared in the shed; and Cuffy went about with a strange, empty, sinking feeling inside him — a sense of having been tricked. Nor did the several handsome presents he found beside his bed make up to him for this disappointment. He early kicked over a giraffe belonging to the giant Noah’s Ark and broke its neck; flew into a tantrum when rebuked; was obstreperous about being dressed, and snarly to his sisters; till Mary said, if he didn’t behave he’d go to bed instead. How he dreaded the display of the presents! Cousin Josey with her sneery laugh would be sure to blurt out in front of everybody: “He said he was going to get a pony! Ho! Where’s your pony now?” The Dumplings were easier to deal with. In answer to their round-eyed wonder he just said, in airy fashion: “He says he can’t come quite to-day. He didn’t get born yet.”

“Have you seed him?”

“Course I have!” Which left the twins more dazzled than would have done the animal’s arrival.

But it proved as lovely a party as they had ever had — lasted till past eleven, and the whole house, with the exception of the surgery, was turned upside down for it. Quite twenty children came, and nearly as many grown-ups. The drawing-room was stripped bare of its furniture but for a line of chairs placed round the walls. Verandah and balcony were hung with Chinese lanterns and dozens of coloured balloons. In the dining-room a long table, made up of several smaller tables put together, was laden with cakes and creams and jellies; and even the big people found the good things “simply delicious.” And though, of course, Mary could not attempt to compete with some of the lavish entertainments here given for children — the Archie Whites had actually had a champagne supper for their five-year-old, the Boppins had hired a CHEF from a caterer’s — yet she had spared no pains to make her children’s party unique in its way. And never for an instant did she allow the fun to flag. Even the quite little tots, who soon tired of games and dancing, were kept amused. For their benefit a padded see-saw had been set up on the verandah, as well as a safe nursery swing. On the stair-landings stood a bran pie and a lucky bag; while Emmy superintended the fishing for presents that went on, with rod and line, over the back of the drawing-room sofa.

In a pause between the games Mary walked through the drawing-room, her black silk skirts trailing after her, the hands of two of the smallest children in hers; one of them John’s baby-boy, a bandy-legged mite, still hardly able to toddle. Mary was enjoying herself almost as much as the children; her cheeks were rose-pink with satisfaction, her eyes a-sparkle. At this moment, however, her objective was Cuffy, who, his black eyes not a whit less glittery than her own, his topknot all askew — he was really getting too big for a topknot; but she found it hard to forgo the morning pleasure of winding the silky curl about her finger — Cuffy was utilising the pause to skate up and down the slippery floor. He was in wild spirits: Cousin Josey had contented herself with making a hidjus face at him and pinching him on the sly: the titbit of the evening, the cutting of the cake, was still to come; and he had played his piece —“Home Sweet Home” “with runs”— which had earned him the usual crop of praise and applause. Now there was no holding him.

“Cuffy! Cuffy DEAR, don’t romp like that! You MUST behave, and set a good example to your visitors. Listen! I think I heard Papa. Run and tell him to slip on another coat, and come in and see the fun.”

But Cuffy jerked his arm away: Mamma was not so easily forgiven. “Shan’t! . . . don’t want to!” and was off again like a flash.

“Tch! He’s so excited. — Emmy, you go to your uncle; you can usually get round him. He really ought to put in an appearance. It will do him good, too . . . and amuse him.”

Emmy hesitated. “Do you think so, Aunt Mary?”

“Why, of course.”

“I’ll take Baby, then. Perhaps Uncle will let me lay him down on his sofa. It’s time he had a nap; he screams so at night if he gets over-tired.”

“You’re wonderful with that child, Emmy,” said Mary, watching the girl cuddle her little stepbrother in her arms, where he curled up and shut his eyes, one little hand dangling limp and sleepy over her shoulder. “I’m sure Lizzie ought to be very grateful to you.”

“I don’t know what I’d do without him.”

Emmy tapped at the surgery door. “May I come in?”

The blind was down; she could just make her uncle out, sitting hunched and relaxed in his armchair. He gave a violent start at her entrance, exclaiming: “Yes, yes? What is it? — Oh, you, Emmy! Come in, my dear, come in. I think I must have dropped off.” And passing a fumbly hand over his forehead, he crossed to the window and drew up the blind.

What! with all that noise? thought Emmy wonderingly. Aloud she said: “May I stay here a little with Jacky? I want him to have a nap.”

“Surely.” And Mahony cleared the end of the sofa that she might find a place with her burden. “And how is the little man to-day?”

“Oh, doing finely! He has hardly been afraid of anything this afternoon.”

“We must examine him again,” said Mahony kindly, laying a finger on the child’s sweat-damp hair, and noting the nervous pucker of the little brows.

There was a pause, Emmy gazing at her nursling, Mahony at her. Then: “How vividly you do remind me of your mother, my dear! The first time I ever saw her — she could have been little older than you are now — she held you on her lap . . . just as you hold Jacky.”

“Did she?” Emmy played meditatively with a tassel on the child’s shoe. “People are always saying that . . . that I’m like her. And sometimes, Uncle, I think it would be nicer just to be like oneself. Instead of a kind of copy.”

To no one else would she have confided so heretical a sentiment. But Uncle Richard always understood.

And sure enough: “I can see your point, Emmy,” said he. “You think: to a new soul why not a brand-new covering? All the same, child, do not begrudge a poor wraith its sole chance of cheating oblivion.”

“I only mean —”

“I can assure you, you’ve nothing to fear from the comparison, nothing at all!” And Mahony patted his niece’s hand, looking fondly at her in her white, flounced tarlatan, a narrow blue ribbon round her narrow waist, a wreath of forget-me-nots in her ripe-corn hair. There was no danger to Emmy in letting her know what you thought of her, so free from vanity was she. Just a good, sweet, simple creature.

But here the girl bethought herself of her errand. “Oh yes, Aunt Mary sent me to tell you . . . I mean she thought, Uncle, you might like to come and see what fun the children are having.”

On the instant Mahony lost his warmth. “No, no. I’m not in the mood.”

“Uncle, the Murdochs and the Archie Whites are here . . . people who’d very much like to see you,” Emmy gently transposed Mary’s words.

“Entirely your aunt’s imagination, child! In reality she knows as well as I do that it’s not so. In the course of a fairly long life, my dear, I have always been able to count on the fingers of one hand, those people — my patients excepted, of course — who have cared a straw whether I was alive or dead. No, Emmy. The plain truth is: my fellow-men have little use for me — or I for them.”

“Oh, Uncle . . .” Emmy was confused, and showed it. Talk of this kind made her feel very shy. She could not think of anything to say in response: how to refute ideas which she was sure were not true. Positively sure. For they opened up abysses into which, young girl-like, she was afraid to peer. An awkward pause ensued before she asked timidly: “Do you feel very tired to-night?”

“To the depths of my soul, child!” Then, fearing lest he had startled her with his violence, he added: “I’ve had — and still have — great worries, my dear . . . business worries.”

“Is it the practice, Uncle? Doesn’t it do well?”

“That, too. But I have made a sad fool of myself, Emmy — a sad fool. And now here I sit, puzzling how to repair the mischief.”

Alone again, he let himself fall back into the limp attitude in which she had surprised him. It was well-being just to lie back, every muscle relaxed. He came home from tramping the streets dog-tired, and all of a sweat: as drained of strength as a squeezed lemon.

No one else appeared to disturb him. Emmy, bless her! had done her work well, and Mary might now reasonably be expected to leave him in peace. Let them jig and dance to the top of their bent, provided he was not asked to join in. He washed his hands of the whole affair. From the outset, the elaborate preparations for this party had put his back up. It was not that he wanted to act the wet-blanket on his children’s enjoyment. But the way Mary went about things stood in absolutely no relation to his shrunken income. She was striving to keep pace with people who could reckon theirs by the thousand. It was absurd. Of course she had grown so used, in the latter years, to spending royally, that it was hard for her now to trim her sails. Just, too, when the bairns were coming to an age to appreciate the good things of life. Again, his reason nudged him with the reminder that any ultra-extravagance on her part was due, in the first place, to her ignorance of his embarrassments. He had not enlightened her . . . he never would. He felt more and more incapable of standing up to her incredulous dismay. In cold blood, it seemed impossible to face her with the tidings: “The house we live in is not our own. I have run myself — run you and the children — into debt to the tune of hundreds of pounds!” At the mere thought of it he might have been a boy once more, standing before his mother and shaking in his shoes over the confession of some youthful peccadillo. A still further incentive to silence was the queer way his gall rose at the idea of interference. And it went beyond him to imagine Mary NOT interfering. If he knew her, she would at once want to take the reins: to manage him and his affairs as she managed house and children. And to what was left of his freedom he clung as if his life depended on it.

Excuse enough for meddling she would have; he had regularly played into her hands. Had he only never built this accursed house! It, and it alone, was the root of all the trouble. Had he contented himself with a modest weatherboard, they might still have been upsides with fate. Mary would not have been led to entertain beyond their means — for the very good reason that she would not have had room for it — and he have enjoyed the fruits of a quiet mind. Instead of which, for the pleasure of sitting twirling his thumbs in a house that was far too large for him, he had condemned himself to one of the subtlest forms of torture invented by man: that of being under constraint to get together, by given dates, fixed sums of money. The past three months had been a nightmare. Twenty times a day he had asked himself: shall I be able to do it? And when, by the skin of his teeth, he had contrived to foot his bill and breathe more freely, behold! the next term was at the door, and the struggle had all to begin anew. And so it would go on, month after month; round and round in the same vicious circle. Or with, for sole variety, a steadily growing embarrassment. As it was, he could see the day coming when he would be able to pay no more than the bare interest on the loan. And the humiliation this spelt for him only he knew. For, on taking up the mortgage, he had airily intimated that he intended, FOR A START, making quarterly repayments of fifty pounds: while later on . . . well, only God knew what hints he had dropped for later on: his mind had been in haste to forget them. Did he now fall into arrears, his ignominious financial situation would be known to every one, and he become a marked man.

Who could have thought this place would turn out so poorly? — become a jogtrot little suburban affair that just held together, and no more. Such an experience was something new to him, and intolerable. In the early days it was always he who had given up his practices, not they him. He had abandoned them, one after the other, no matter how well they were doing. Here, the pages of his case-book remained but scantly filled. A preternaturally healthy neighbourhood. Or was that just a polite fiction of his own making? More than once recently it had flashed through his mind that, since putting up his plate, he had treated none but the simplest cases. Only the A B C of doctoring had been required of him. The fact was, specialists were all too easy to get at. But no! that wouldn’t hold water either. Was it not rather he himself who, at first hint of a complication, was ready to refer a patient? . . . to shirk undue worry and responsibility? Yes, this was his own share in the failure; this, and the fact that his heart was not in the work. But indeed how should it be? When he recalled the relief with which, the moment he was able, he had forsaken medicine . . . where COULD the joy come in over taking it up again, an older, tireder man, and, as it were, at the point of the sword? And with the heart went the will, the inclination. Eaten up by money-troubles, he had but faint interest to spare for the physicking of petty ailments. Under the crushing dread lest he should find himself unable to pay his way, he had grown numb to all else. Numb . . . cold . . . indifferent.

What did NOT leave him cold but, on the contrary, whipped him to a fury of impatience and aversion, was the thought of going on as he was: of continuing to sit, day after day, as it were nailed to the spot, while his brain, the only live part of him, burnt itself out in maddening anxieties and regrets. Oh, fool that he had been! . . . fool and blind. To have known himself so ill! NEVER was he the man to have got himself into this pitiable tangle . . . with its continual menace of humiliation . . . disgrace. What madness had possessed him? Even in his youth, when life still seemed worth the pother, he had avoided debt like the plague. And to ask himself now, as an old man and one grown weary of effort, to stand the imposition of so intolerable a strain, was nothing short of suicidal. Another half-year like the last, and he would not be answerable for himself.

He began to toy with the idea of flight. And over the mere imagining of a possible escape from his torments, he seemed to wake to life again, to throw off the deadly lethargy that paralysed him. Change . . . movement . . . action: this it was he panted after! It was the sitting inactive, harried by murderous thoughts over which he had lost the mastery, that was killing him. If once he was rid of these, all might again be well. And now insidious fancies stole upon him: fancies which, disregarding such accidents of the day as money and the lack of money, went straight to the heart of his most urgent need. To go away — go far away — from everything and every one he had known; so that what happened should happen to him only — be nobody’s business but his own! Away from the crowd of familiar faces, these cunning, spying faces, WHICH KNEW ALL, and which Mary could yet not persuade herself to forbid the house. Somewhere where she would be out of reach of the temptations that here beset her, and he free to exist in the decent poverty that was now his true walk in life. Oh, for privacy! — privacy and seclusion . . . and freedom from tongues. To be once more a stranger among strangers, and never see a face he knew again!

He had not yet found courage, however, for the pitched battle he foresaw, when something happened that fairly took his breath away. As it were, overnight, he found himself the possessor of close on two hundred and fifty pounds. Among the scrip he still held were some shares called “Pitman’s,” which till now had been good for nothing but to make calls. Now they took a sudden upward bound, and, at a timely hint from a grateful patient who was in the swim, Mahony did a little shuffle — selling, buying and promptly re-selling — with this result. True, a second venture, unaided, robbed him of the odd fifty. None the less there he stood, with his next quarter’s payments in his hand. He felt more amazed than anything else by this windfall. It certainly did not set his mind at rest; it came too late for that. Try as he would, he could not now face the idea of remaining at Hawthorn. He had dwelt too much by this time on the thought of change; taken too fixed an aversion to this room where he had spent so many black hours; to the house, the practice, the neighbourhood. Something within him, which would not be silenced, never ceased to urge: free yourself . . . escape — while there is still time.

In these days Mary just sighed and went about her work. Richard had hardly a word even for the children: on entering the house he retired at once to the surgery and shut himself in. What he did there, goodness only knew. But it was not possible nowadays for her to sit and worry over him, or to take his moods as seriously as she would once have done. And any passing suspicion of something being more than ordinarily amiss was apt, even as it crossed her mind, to be overlaid by, say, the size of the baker’s bill, or the fact that Cuffy had again outgrown his boots. But she had also a further reason for turning a blind eye. Believing, as she truly did, that Richard’s moroseness sprang mainly from pique at having to take up work again, she was not going to risk making matters worse by talking about them. Richard was as suggestible as a child. A word from her might stir up some fresh grievance, the existence of which he had so far not imagined. — But when the crash came, it seemed as if a part of her had all along known and feared the worst.

None the less it was a shattering blow: one of those that left you feeling ten years older than the moment before. And in the scene that followed his blunt announcement and lasted far into the night, she strove with him as she had never yet striven, labouring to break down his determination, to bring him back to sanity. For more, much more than themselves and their own prosperity was now at stake. What happened to them happened equally to the three small creatures they had brought into the world.

“It’s the children, Richard! Now they’re there, you haven’t the RIGHT to throw up a fixed position, as the fancy takes you . . . as you used to do. It didn’t matter about me. But it’s different now — everything’s different. ONLY have patience! Oh! I can’t believe you really mean it. It seems incredible . . . impossible.”

Mahony was indignant. “And do you think no one considers the children but you? When their welfare is more to me than anything on earth?”

“But if that’s true, how can you even THINK of giving up this place? . . . the house — our comfortable home! You know quite well you’re not a young man any more. The openings would be so few. You’d never get a place to suit you better.”

“I tell you I CANNOT stop here!”

“But why? Give me a single convincing reason. — As to the idea of going up-country . . . that’s madness pure and simple. How often did you vow you’d never again take up a country practice, because of the distances . . . and the work? How will you be able to stand it now? . . . when you’re getting on for fifty. You say there’s nothing doing here; but, my opinion is, there’s just as much as you’re able for.”

This was so exactly Mahony’s own belief that he grew violently angry. “Good God, woman! is there no sympathy in you? . . . or only where your children are concerned? I tell you, if I stop here I shall end by going demented!”

“I never heard such talk. The practice may be slow to move — I think a town-practice always would be — but it’ll come right, I’m sure it will, if you’ll ONLY give it the chance.” Here, however, another thought struck her. “But what I don’t understand is, WHY we’re not able to get on. What becomes of the money you make? There must be something very wrong somewhere. Hand over the accounts to me; let me look into your books. With no rent to pay, and three or four hundred coming in . . . besides the dividends . . . oh, would any one else — any one but you — want to throw up a certainty and drag us off up-country, just when the children are getting big and need decent companions . . . and schooling — what about their education? — have you thought of that? . . . or thought of anything but your own likes and dislikes?” And as he maintained a stony silence, she broke out: “I think men are the most impossible creatures God ever made!” and pressing her face into the pillow burst into tears.

Mahony set his teeth. If she could not see for herself that it was a case, for once, of putting him and his needs first, then he could not help her. To confide in her still went beyond him. Mary had such a heavy hand. He could hope for no tenderness of approach; no instinctive understanding meeting him half-way. She would pounce on his most intimate thoughts and feelings, drag them out into daylight and anatomise them; would put into words those phantom fears, and insidious evasions, which he had so far managed to keep in the twilight where they belonged. He shuddered at the thought.

But Mary had not finished. Drying her eyes she returned to the charge. “You say this place is a failure. I deny it, and always shall. But if it hasn’t done as well as it might, there’s a reason for it. It’s because you haven’t the way with you any longer. You’ve lost your manner — the good, doctor’s manner you used to do so much with. You’re too short with people nowadays; and they resent it; and go to some one who’s pleasanter. I heard you just the other day with that lawyer’s wife who called . . . how you blew her up! SHE’LL never come again. — A morbid hypochondriac? I daresay. But in old days you’d never have told a patient to her face that she was either shamming or imagining.”

“I’m too old to cozen and pander.”

“Too old to care, you mean. — Oh, for God’s sake, think what you’re doing! Try to stop on here a little longer, and if it’s only for six months. Listen! I’ve got an idea.” She raised herself on her elbow. “Why shouldn’t we take in boarders? . . . just to tide us over till things get easier. This house is really much too big for us. One nursery would be enough for the children; and there’s the spare room, and the breakfast-room . . . . I could probably fill all three; and make enough that way to cover our living expenses.”

“BOARDERS? . . .YOU? Not while I’M above the sod!”

The children wilted . . . oh, it was a dreadful week! Papa never spoke, and slammed the doors and the gate whenever he went out. Mamma sat in the bedroom and cried, hastily blowing her nose and pretending she wasn’t, if you happened to look in. And Cook and Eliza made funny faces, and whispered behind their hands. Cuffy, mooning about the house pale and dejected, was — as usual when Mamma and Papa quarrelled — harassed by the feeling that somehow or other he was the guilty person. He tried cosseting Mamma, hanging round her: he tried talking big to the Dumplings of what he meant to do when he was a man; he even glanced at the idea of running away. But none of these things lightened the weight that lay on his chest. It felt just as it had done the night Luce had the croup and crowed like a cock.

And then one afternoon Mahony came home transfigured. His bang of the gate, his very step, as it crunched the gravel, told its own tale. He ran up the stairs two at a time, calling for Mary; and, the door of the bedroom shut on them, broke into excited talk. It appeared that in a chance meeting that day with a fellow-medico (“Pincock, that well-known Richmond man!”) he had heard of what seemed to him “an opening in a thousand,” a flourishing practice to be had for the asking, at a place called Barambogie in the Ovens District.

“A rising township, my dear, half mining, half agricultural, and where there has never been but one doctor. He’s an old friend of Pincock’s, and is giving up — after ten years in the place — for purely personal reasons . . . nothing to do with the practice. It arose through Pincock asking me if I knew of any one who would like to step into a really good thing. This Rummel wants to retire, but will wait on of course till he hears of a successor. Nor is he selling. Whoever goes there has only to walk in and settle down. Such a chance won’t come my way again. I should be mad to let it slip.”

This news rang the knell of any hopes Mary might still have nursed of bringing him to his senses. She eyed him sombrely as he stood before her, pale with excitement; and such a wave of bitterness ran through her that she quickly looked away again, unable to find any but bitter words to say. In this glance, however, she had for once really seen him — had not just looked, without seeing, after the habit of those who spend their lives together — and the result was the amazed reflection: “But he’s got the eyes of a child! . . . for all his wrinkles and grey hairs.”

Mahony did not notice her silence. He continued to dilate on what HE had said and the other had replied, till, in alarm, she burst out: “I hope to goodness you’ve not committed yourself in any way? . . . all in the dark as you are.”

“Come, come now, my dear!” he half cozened, half fell foul of her. “Give me credit for at least a ha’p’orth of sense. You surely don’t imagine I showed Pincock my cards? I flatter myself I was thoroughly off-hand with him . . . so much so, indeed, that before night he’ll no doubt have cracked the place up to half a dozen others. — Come, Mary, come! I’m not quite the fool you imagine. Nor do I mean to be unreasonable. But I confess my inclination is, just to slip off and see the place, and make a few confidential inquiries. There can surely be nothing against that — can there?”

There could not. Two days later, he took the early morning train to the north.

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