Ultima Thule, by Henry Handel Richardson

Chapter VI

It was nearing eleven, and a chilly, cloudy night, when the little party, flanked by Eliza, alighted on the platform at Barambogie where for nearly an hour Mahony had paced to and fro. They were the only passengers to leave the train; which straightway puffed off again; and since the man hired by Mahony to transport the baggage was late in arriving, there was nothing for it but to wait till he came. The stationmaster, having lingered for a time, turned out the solitary lamp and departed; and there they stood, a forlorn little group, round a tumulus of luggage. It was pitch dark; not a single homely light shone out, to tell of a human settlement; not the faintest sound broke the silence. To Mary it seemed as if they had been dumped down in the very heart of nowhere.

But now came the man wheeling a truck; and straightway a wordy dispute broke out between him and Richard, in which she had to act as peacemaker. Boxes and portmanteaux were loaded up; carpet-bags, baskets, bundles counted and arranged: all by the light of a lantern. Richard, agog with excitement, had to be kept from waking the twins, who had dropped asleep again on top of the trunks. And all the while an overtired and captious Cuffy plucked at her sleeve. “Is this the bush, Mamma? . . . is THIS the bush? WHERE? I don’t see it!”

The little procession started, headed by the man with truck and lantern, the Dumplings riding one in Richard’s arms, one in Eliza’s, she and Cuffy bringing up the rear. Leaving the station behind them, they walked on till they came to a broad road, flour-soft to the feet, Cuffy kicking and shuffling up the dust to the peevish whine of: “What SORT of a bush, Mamma?” and passed in single file down a long narrow right-of-way, between two paling fences.

On emerging, they faced something flat and black and mysterious. Mary started. “Whatever’s that?”

“The Lagoon, my dear, the Lagoon! The house fronts it, you know. Has the best outlook of any in the town.”

(For the children to fall into! . . . AND mosquitoes.)

Long after every one else was asleep Mary lay and listened . . . and listened. It was years since she had lived anywhere but in a town; and this house seemed so lonely, so open to intruders. The leaves rustling in the garden, each fresh flap of the venetians startled her afresh; and in spite of the long, tiring journey, and the arduous days that had preceded it, she could not compose herself to sleep. And when at last she did fall into an uneasy doze, she was jerked back to consciousness in what seemed the minute after, by a shrill and piercing scream — a kind of prolonged shriek, that rent and tore at the air.

“Richard! . . . oh, Richard, what in the world is that?”

“Don’t be alarmed, my dear. It’s only the mill whistle.”

“A mill? So close?”

“It’s all right, Mary; you’ll soon get used to it. Myself I hardly notice it now. And it doesn’t last long. There! you see, it has stopped already.”

His attempt to make light of the appalling din had something pathetic about it. Mary bit back her dismay.

And it was the same in the morning, when he led her round house and garden: he skimmed airily over the drawbacks — the distance of the kitchen from the house; the poor water-supply; the wretched little box of a surgery; the great heat of even this late autumn day — to belaud the house’s privacy, separated as it was from the rest of the township by the width of the Lagoon; the thickness of the brick walls; the shade and coolness ensured by an all-round verandah. And though daylight, and what it shewed up, only served to render Mary more and more dubious, she had not the heart on this first morning to damp him by saying what she really thought. Instead, her tour of inspection over, she buckled to her mammoth job of bringing comfort out of chaos: putting up beds and dressers; unpacking the crockery; cutting down curtains and carpets, and laying oilcloth; working dusty and dishevelled, by the light of a candle, till long past midnight for many a night. While Richard, his professional visits over, undertook to mind and amuse the children, who were sadly in her way, dashing about helter-skelter, pale with the excitement of the new.

For, oh what a lovely house this was! — Long before any one else was astir, Cuffy had pattered out barefoot to explore; and, all his life after, he loved an empty house for its sake. It had nothing but doors, which spelt freedom: even the windows were doors. There were no stairs. A passage went right down the middle, with a door at each end which always stood open, and three room-doors on each side. You could run out of any of the windows and tear round the verandah, to play Hide-and-Seek or Hi-spy-hi. And not even Eliza was there to say: “Don’t!” or “You mustn’t!” She was in the far-away kitchen, scrubbing or washing up. They had breakfast off a packing-case, which was great fun; and Papa was so nice, too. The very first morning he explained what the bush meant; and took them all out walking to find it; and then Cuffy learnt that it was not ONE bush he had come to see but lots of bushes; with trees so high that, even if you almost broke your neck bending back, you couldn’t see the end of them.

Dancing ahead of Papa, who held hands with the Dumplings, and sometimes walking backwards to hear better, Cuffy fired question after question. How did the bush get there? Why did nobody live in it? What were all the holes full of water? Why were they abandoned? Why did people dig for gold? How did they do it? Why was money? — a fusillade of questions, to which on this day he got full and patient answers. Papa gave them each a threepenny bit, too, to spend as they liked. The twins carried theirs squeezed tight to show Mamma; but he put his in his pocket.

On the way home they went along a street where there were lots of little shops. Men were leaning against the verandah posts, smoking and spitting; and other men came to the doors and stared. Papa was very polite to them, and said “Good morning!” to everybody with a little bow, and whether they did or not. And sometimes he said as well: “Yes, these are my youngsters! Don’t you think I’ve reason to be proud of them?” . . . and as often as this happened, Cuffy felt uncomfortable. For these weren’t the sort of men you stopped and talked to: you just said good morning and went home. Besides, they didn’t seem as if they WANTED to speak to you. They didn’t take their pipes out; and some of them looked as if they thought Papa was funny . . . or silly. Two winked at each other when they thought he wasn’t looking — made eyes like Cook and Eliza used to do.

Then at a hotel they met a fat, red-faced man — the landlord, Papa said — who seemed at first to be going to be nicer. When Papa pushed them forward and said: “My young fry arrived at last, you see!” he smiled back and said: “And a very jolly little set of nippers, too! Pleased to know you, missies! How do, sir, how do! Now what will yours be?”

“Cuthbert Hamilton Townshend-Mahony,” replied Cuffy, lightning-quick and politely. He was dumbfounded by the roar of laughter that went up at his words; not only the landlord laughed, but lots of larrikins, who stood round the bar. Even Papa laughed a little, in a funny, tight way.

Mamma didn’t though. Cuffy heard them talking, and she sounded cross. “Surely, Richard, you needn’t drag the children in as well?”

Papa was snappy. “I don’t think, Mary, you quite realise how necessary it is for me to leave no stone unturned.”

“I can’t help it. I’m not going to have my children mixed up in the affair.” When Mamma was cross she always said “MY children.”

Cuffy didn’t wait to hear more. He ran down the garden, where he mooned about till dinner-time. He wouldn’t ever — no, he wouldn’t! — go down the street where those horrid men were again. And if he saw them, he’d stamp his feet at them and call them nasty names. And he’d tell Papa not to — he wouldn’t let him; he’d hold on to his coat. For they didn’t like Papa either.

“Ooo . . . tum on! Us’ll dance, too,” cried the twins. And taking hands they hopped and capered about the drawing-room, their little starched white petticoats flaring as they swung. For Papa was dancing with Mamma. He had seized her by the waist and polked her up the passage, and now was whirling her round, she trying to get loose and crying: “Stop, Richard, stop! You’ll make me sick.” But Papa just laughed and twirled on, the Dumplings faithfully imitating him, till, crash, bang! a vase of Parian marble on the big centre table lost its balance, toppled over and was smashed to atoms.

“There! . . . that’s just what I expected. There’s no room here for such goings-on,” said Mary as she stooped to pick up the fragments.

It came of her having called Richard in to view the drawing-room, where for over a week she had stitched and hammered, or sat perched on the top rung of a step-ladder. Herself she was not displeased with her work; though she mourned the absence of the inlaid secretaire, the card-table, the ottoman. These things were still in the outhouse, in their travelling-cases; and there they would have to remain. The Collard and Collard took up nearly the whole of one wall; the round rosewood table devoured the floor-space; everything was much too large. And the best bits, the Parisian gilt-legged tables and gilt-framed mirrors, made absolutely no show, huddled together as they were.

But Richard went into ecstasies. “They’ll never have seen a room like it! — the people here. We’ll show them what’s what, wife, eh? . . . make ’em open their eyes. Mary! I prophesy you’ll have the whole township come trooping over the Lagoon to call. We shall need to charge ’em admission.”— and therewith he had seized and swung her round. So undignified . . . before Eliza. Besides egging the children on to do likewise.

But there was no damping Richard just now. Though a fortnight had passed, he was still in the simmer of excitement into which their coming had thrown him. While she stitched, even while she turned the handle of the sewing-machine, he would stand at her side and talk, and talk, in a voice that was either pitched just a shade too high, or was husky and tremulous. The separation had plainly been too much for him. His joy at getting them again was not to be kept within bounds.

“You’re absolutely all I’ve got, you know . . . you and the children.”

Which was quite literally true: so true that, at times, Mary would find herself haunted by the unpleasant vision of a funeral at which it was not possible to fill a single coach with mourners. Richard — to be followed to his grave by the doctor who had-attended him, the parson who was to bury him . . . and not a soul besides. Her heart contracted at the disgrace of the thing: the shame of letting the world know how little he had cared for anyone, or been cared for in return.

Impatiently she shook her head and turned to listen to voices in the passage. They were those of Richard and a patient; but chiefly Richard’s. For he had carried his talkative fit over to strangers as well . . . and Mary sometimes wondered what they thought of him: these small shopkeepers and farmers and vinegrowers and licensed publicans. Well, at any rate, they wouldn’t be able to bring the usual accusation against him, of stiff-necked reserve. The truth was, they just came in for their share of his all-pervading good humour. The children, too. Had he always made so much of the children, they would have felt more at home with him, and he have had less cause for jealous grumbles. He even unearthed his old flute, screwed the parts together, and to Cuffy’s enchantment played them his one-time show-piece, THE MINSTREL BOY. And it was the same with everything. He vowed the Barambogie bread to be the best, the butter the sweetest he had ever tasted: going so far as to compliment the astonished tradespeople on their achievements. And Mary, watching in silence, thought how pleasant all this was . . . and how unnatural . . . and waited for the moment to come when he would drop headlong from the skies.

In waiting, her head with its high Spanish comb bent low over her work, she gave the rein to various private worries of her own. For instance she saw quite clearly that Eliza’s stay with them would not be a long one. Forgetful of past favours, of the expense they had been at in bringing her there, Eliza was already darkly hinting her opinion of the place; of the detached kitchen; the dust, the solitude. Again, the want of a proper waiting-room for patients was proving a great trial. The dining-room seemed never their own. More serious was the risk the children thereby ran of catching some infectious illness. Then, she sometimes felt very uneasy about Richard. In spite of his exuberance, he looked anything but well. The bout of dysentery he had suffered from, on first arriving, had evidently been graver than he cared to admit. His colour was bad, his appetite poor; while as for sleep, if he managed four consecutive hours of a night he counted himself lucky. And even then it wasn’t a restful sleep; for he had got the absurd idea in his head that he might not hear the nightbell — in this tiny house! — and at the least sound was awake and sitting up. Again, almost every day brought a long trudge into the bush, from which he came home too tired to eat. And Mary’s old fear revived. Would he ever be able at his age to stand the wear and tear of the work? especially as the practice grew, and he became more widely known.

But, even as she asked herself the question, another doubt flew at her. Was there any real prospect of the practice growing, and him retrieving his shattered fortunes? Or had he, in burying himself in this wild bush, committed the crowning folly of his life? And, of the two, this fear ate the deeper. For she thought he MIGHT have so husbanded his strength as to carry on for a few years; but, the more she saw of place and people, the slenderer grew her belief that there was money to be made there. How anybody in his five senses could have professed to see in Barambogie what Richard did — oh! NO one but Richard could have so deceived himself. Of all the dead-and-alive holes she had ever been in, this was the deadest. Only two, trains a day called there, with eight hours between. The railway station was mostly closed and deserted, the stationmaster to be found playing euchre at the “Sun.” Quite a quarter of the shops in the main street were boarded up; the shafts round the township had all been worked out or abandoned. As for the tale of the big mine . . . well, she considered that had been just a bait with which to hook a simple fish. How she did wish she had somebody to talk to! Richard was no use at all . . . in his present mood. To the few feelers she threw out, he declared himself exaggeratedly well content. Though the number of patients was still not great, his calls into the bush were royally paid. It was five guineas here, ten there; as compared with the petty fees he had commanded at Hawthorn. “Surely, my dear, if money flows in at this rate, we can put up with a few slight drawbacks?”

Such as the flour mill, thought Mary grimly. This dreadful mill! Would any but a man so complacently have planked them down next door to it? It entirely spoilt the garden, with its noise and dust. Then, the mill-hands who passed to and fro, or sat outside the fence, were a very rough lot; and five times a day you had to stop in what you were saying and wait for the shriek of the steam-whistle to subside. Except for the railway station, their house and the mill stood alone on this side of the Lagoon, and were quite five minutes’ walk from the township. Richard hugged himself with his privacy, and it certainly was nicer to be away from shops and public-houses. But, for the practice, their seclusion was a real disadvantage. Rummel had lived in the main street; and his surgery had been as handy for people to drop into for, say, a cut finger or a black eye, as was now the chemist’s shop. Then, the Lagoon itself . . . this view of which Richard had made so much! After the rains, when there was some water in it, it might be all right; but just now it was more than three parts dry, and most unsightly. You saw the bare cracked earth of its bottom, not to speak of the rubbish, the old tins and boots and broken china, that had been thrown into it when full. And the mosquitoes! She had been obliged to put netting round all their beds; and what it would be like in summer passed imagining.

From such reflections, in the weeks and months that followed, she had nothing but work to distract her. The society airily promised her by Richard failed to materialise. She received just three callers. And only one of these — the Bank Manager’s wife, a young thing, newly wed — was worth considering. The stationmaster’s . . . the stationmaster himself was an educated man, with whom even Richard enjoyed a chat; but he had married beneath him . . . a dressmaker, if report spoke true. Mrs. Cameron, wife of the Clerk of the Court, had lived so long in Barambogie that she had gone queer from it. Nor was it feasible to ask the old couple over of an evening, for cards or music; for by then old Cameron was so fuddled that he couldn’t tell a knave from a king. The parson was also an odd fish, and a widower without family; the Presbyterian minister unmarried. The poor children had no playfellows, no companions. Oh, not for herself, but for those who were more to her than herself, Mary’s heart, was often very hot and sore.

Nevertheless she put her shoulder to the wheel with all her old spirit; rising betimes to bath and dress the children, cutting out and making their clothes, superintending the washing and ironing, cooking the meals; and, when Eliza passed and a young untrained servant took her place, doing the lion’s share towards keeping the house in the spotless state Richard loved and her own sense of nicety demanded. But the work told on her. And not alone because it was harder. In Hawthorn, she had laboured to some end; Richard had had to be re-established, connections formed, their own nice house tended. All of which had given her mind an upward lift. Here, where no future beckoned, it seemed just a matter of toiling for toil’s sake. The consequence was, she tired much more readily; her legs ached, her feet throbbed, and the crow’s-feet began to gather round her eyes. She was paying of course, she told herself, for those long years of luxury and idleness, in which Richard had been against her lifting a finger. And it was no easy thing to buckle to again, now that she was “getting on,” “going downhill”: Mary being come to within a twelve-month of her fortieth year.

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