Ultima Thule, by Henry Handel Richardson

Chapter VIII

The day began at six . . . with the pestilential screech of the mill-whistle. This also started the children off. Birdlike sounds began to issue from their room across the passage: there was no muting these shrill, sweet trebles. And soon Miss Prestwick’s thin voice made itself heard, capped by Mary’s magisterial tones, and the dashing and splashing of bath-water, and small feet scampering, and Maria thudding up and down, clattering her brooms.

There was no more chance of sleep. He, too, rose.

The water of the shower-bath was tepid and unrefreshing. It had also to be sparingly used. Then came breakfast — with mushy butter, the pat collapsing on its way from the cellar; with sticky flies crawling over everything, a soiled cloth, the children’s jabber, Miss Prestwick’s mincing airs, and Mary checking, apportioning, deciding. Mahony ate hastily, and, there being here no morning paper or early post to engage him, retired to the surgery. His cases written up, his visits for the day arranged, he sat and waited, and listened. This was the time when a walking-patient or two might call for treatment; and the footsteps of any one nearing the house could be heard a long way off, crunching the gravel of the path by the Lagoon, coming up the right-of-way. And as he sat, idly twirling his thumbs, it became a matter of interest to speculate whether approaching steps would halt at his door or move on towards the railway station. In waiting, he could hear Cuffy’s voice proclaiming loudly and unnaturally: JER SUISE URN PETTY GARSONG, DE BUN FIGOOR.

After a couple of false alarms there was a knock at the door; and Maria introduced a working-man with a foreign body in his eye. A grain of mortar extracted and the eye bathed, Mahony washed, stitched and bandaged a child’s gashed knee, and drew a tooth for a miner’s wife. Mary’s aid was needed here, to hold the woman’s hands. It was Mary, too, who applied restoratives and helped to clean up the patient. After which she brushed yesterday’s dust from his wide-awake, held a silk coat for him to slip his arms into and checked the contents of his bag.

He set off on his morning round, following the path that ran alongside the Lagoon. Here and there the shadow of a fir-tree fell across it, and, though the season was but late spring, the shade was welcome. Emerging from the Lagoon enclosure, he entered the single street that formed the township of Barambogie. This was empty but for a couple of buggies which stood outside a public-house, their hoods white with the dust of innumerable bush journeys.

But the sound of his foot on the pavement, his shadow on the glass of the shop-windows, made people dart to their doors to see who passed. Huh! it was only “the new doctor”; and out of HIM nothing was to be got . . . in the shape of a yarn, or a companionable drink.

One or two threw him a “Mornin’!” The rest contented themselves with a nod. But all alike regarded his raised hat and courteous “Good day to you!” “Good morning, sir!” with the colonial’s inborn contempt for form and ceremony. By the Lord Harry! slapdash was good enough for them.

On this particular day Mahony had three calls to make.

Arrived at the Anglican parsonage — a shabby brick cottage standing on a piece of ground that had never been fenced in — he took up the knocker, which, crudely repaired with a headless nail and a bit of twine, straightway came off in his hand. He rapped with his knuckles, and the Reverend Thistlethwaite, in nightshirt and trousers and with bare feet, appeared from his back premises, where he had been feeding fowls. Re-affixing the knocker with a skill born of long practice, he opened the door of the parlour, into which there was just room to squeeze. On the table, writing-materials elbowed the remains of a mutton-chop breakfast. Blowflies crawled over the fatted plates.

An unsightly carbuncle lanced and dressed, the reverend gentleman — he was a fleshy, red-faced man, of whom unkind rumour had it that there were times when his tongue tripped over his own name — laid himself out to detain his visitor. He was spoiling for a chat.

“Yes, yes, doctor, hard at work . . . hard at work!”— with an airy wave of the hand at pens, ink and paper. “Must always have something fresh, you know, of a Sunday morning, to tickle ’em up with. Even the minor prophets are racked, I can assure you, in the search for a rousing heading.”

Mahony replaced lancet and lint in silence. It was common knowledge that old Thistlethwaite had not written a fresh sermon for years; but had used his stale ones again and again, some even said reading them backwards, for the sake of variety. The implements littering the table were set permanently out on view.

Insensitive to Mahony’s attitude, he ran on. “Talking of rummy texts now . . . did y’ever hear the story of the three curates, out to impress the Bishop with their skill at squeezing juice from a dry orange, who, each in turn, in the different places he visited on three successive Sundays, held forth on the theme: ‘Now Peter’s wife’s mother lay sick of a fever’? You have? . . . capital, isn’t it? But I’ll warrant you don’t know the yarn of old Minchin and the cow. It was at Bootajup in the Western District, and his first up-country cure; and Minch, who was a townbird born and bred, was officiating for the first time at Harvest Festival. The farmers had given liberally, the church was full, Minch in the reading-desk with his back to a side door that had been left open for coolness. All went well till in the middle of the Psalms, when he saw the eyes of his congregation getting rounder and rounder. Old Minch, who was propriety in person, thought his collar had come undone, or that he’d shed a private button . . . ha, ha! Whereas, if you please, it was a cow which had strayed to the door, and was being agreeably attracted by the farm produce. Minch looked round just as the animal walked in, lost his head, dropped his book and bolted; taking the altar rails at a leap, with cassock and surplice bunched up round him. Ha, ha! Capital . . . capital! It was Minchin, too, who was once preaching from the text: ‘And God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes,’ when he found himself forced to sneeze some dozen times running. Ha, ha, ha! His own eyes poured tears — ran with water. Out it came: a-tischoo, a-tischoo! The congregation rocked with laughter. — What? . . . you must be toddling? Well, well! we know you doctors are busy men. Hot? — call this hot? I wonder what you’ll say to our summers! Well, good day, doctor, good day!”

“‘Except ye become as little children’ . . . ‘for of such is the kingdom of heaven.’ MY God! . . . then give me earth.”

Striking off on a bush track Mahony trudged along, leaving a low trail of dust in his wake. His goal was a poor outlying wooden shanty, to treat a washerwoman’s severely scalded leg and foot. The wound, some days old, was open, dirty, offensive; the woman, who sat propped up before her tubs, struggling to finish her week’s work, loud-mouthed with pain.

“She don’t half holler’n screech if oner the kids knocks up against it,” volunteered a foxy-looking girl who stood by, sucking her thumb, and watching, with an unholy interest, the sponging off of the foul rags, the laying bare of the raw flesh.

Mahony’s impatient “Why on earth didn’t you send for me sooner?” brought no coherent response; but his prescription of complete rest in a horizontal position effectually loosed the sufferer’s tongue. “Didn’t I know you’d be after orderin’ me some such foolery? Who’s to kape us? I’ve no man. I’m a poor lone widder . . .”

“Apply to your priest for aid.”

“The praste? A fat lot o’ good that ‘ud be — the great lazy louse! We cud all starve afore HE’D lift a finger.”

“Well, I’ve warned you, I can do no more.” And cutting further discussion short, Mahony put on his hat and walked out of the house.

As, however, the foxy child, thumb in mouth, lolloped after him, he took a sovereign from his pocket. “Here, my girl, here’s something to tide you over. Now see that your mother lies up. You’re old enough to lend a hand.”

But before he had gone a hundred yards he turned on his heel, recalling the low, cunning look that had leapt into the girl’s eyes at sight of the gold piece. “Fool that I am! . . . the mother will never see it.”

Caught in the act of secreting the coin in her stocking, the girl went livid with fury. “What d’you mean? D’you think I was goin’ to pinch it? Ma! . . . d’you hear, Ma? . . . what he says? Ma! he’s callin’ me a thief.”

“A thief, indeed! My child a thief? — And you, you pesky young devil, you hand that chip over or I’ll wring your neck!”

Thence to the shop of Ah Sing, the Chinese butcher, where a rachitic infant lay cramped with the colic. Mahony looked with pity on the little half-breed, slit of eye and yellow of skin, and was very short with the mother, a monstrously fat woman who stood, her arms a-kimbo, answering his questions with an air of sulky defiance. No she didn’t know, not she, what had caused the colic: she’d done ‘nothing. But here espying an empty tin dish that had been thrust under the bed, Mahony picked it up and sniffed it. “Ha! here we have it. What filthy messes has your husband been feeding the child on now? Haven’t I told you her stomach will not stand them?”

“Mrs. Ah Sing” bit back the abusive rejoinders that were given to escaping her at any reference to her child’s mixed origin: “Doctor’s” were Sing’s best customers. But the visit over, she flounced into the shop and, seizing a knife, let loose her spleen in hacking down some chops, while she vociferated for all to hear: “Filthy mess, indeed . . . I’ll mess him! Let him look to his own kids, say I! That boy brat of his is as white as a sheet and thin as a lizard. — Here, you Sing, weigh this and look sharp about it, you crawling slug, you!”

“Malia! me give lil baby powder — you no sendee more for doctorman, Malia!” said the soft-voiced, gentle Chinaman who owned her.

“Oh, hell take the kid! — and you along with it,” gave back Maria.

On the way home Mahony overtook his children and the governess, returning from their morning walk. The twins’ short fag legs were weary. Entrusting his bag to Cuffy, who forthwith became “the doctor,” bowing graciously to imaginary patients, and only waggling the bag just the least little bit to hear the things inside it rattle, their father took his little girls by the hand. Poor mites! They were losing their roses already. Somehow or other he must make it possible to send them away when the real hot weather came. This was no place for children in summer; he heard it on every side. And his, reared to sea-breezes, would find it doubly hard to acclimatise themselves. Stung by these reflections he unthinkingly quickened his pace, and strode ahead, a gaunt figure, dragging a small child at a trot on either hand. Miss Prestwick gave up the chase.

Dinner over, out he had to turn again. Back to the main street and the hotel, where a buggy should have been in waiting. It was not. He had to stand about in the sun while the vehicle was dragged out, the horse fetched, harnessed, and backed between the shafts. A strap broke in the buckling; the ostler, whistling between his teeth, leisurely repaired the damage with a bit of string.

Stiffly Mahony jerked himself up into the high vehicle and took the reins. He had a ten-mile drive before him, over the worst possible roads; it would be all he could do to reach home by dark. The horse, too, was unfresh. In vain he urged and cajoled; the animal’s pace remained a dilatory amble. And the heat seemed to accumulate under the close black hood, which weighed on his shoulders like a giant hat. Yet, if he alighted to slip a rail, it was so much hotter outside that he was glad to clamber back beneath its covering. Still he did not complain. These bush visits were what brought the shekels in: not the tinkering with rachitic infants or impecunious Irish, whom, as this morning, he sometimes paid for the privilege of attending. (Ha, ha! . . . capital! . . . as that fool Thistlethwaite would have said.) And to-day promised to be more than ordinarily remunerative; for he had another long drive before him that evening, in an opposite direction. He could count on clearing a ten-pound note.

But when, towards six o’clock, he reached home, the summons he was expecting had not come. There was time for a bath, a change, a rest; and still the trap that should have fetched him had not appeared. He began to grow fidgety. The case was one of diphtheria. On the previous day he had given relief by opening the windpipe; it was essential for him to know the result of the operation. What could the people be thinking of? Or had the child died in the meantime . . . the membrane spread downwards, causing obstruction below the tube? “Surely in common decency they would have let me know?”

He wandered from room to room, nervously snapping his fingers. Or sat down and beat a tattoo on chair-arm or table, only to spring up at an imaginary sound of wheels.

Mary dissuaded him from hiring a buggy and driving out to see what had happened. She also pooh-poohed his idea of an accident to the messenger. The father, a vinegrower, had several men and more than one horse and buggy at his disposal. The likelihood was, he would have come himself, had the child been worse. UNLESS, of course . . . well! it wasn’t death SHE thought of. But the township of Mittagunga was not much farther than Barambogie from the patient’s home; and there was another doctor at Mittagunga. She did not speak this thought aloud; but it haunted her; and, as the evening wore eventlessly away, the question escaped her in spite of herself: “Can you have offended them? . . . in any way?”

“OFFENDED them? I? — Well, if it’s offensive to leave one’s bed in the middle of the night for an eight-mile drive on these abominable roads, to perform a ticklish operation!” And very bitterly: “What extraordinary ideas you do have, Mary! What on earth do you mean now?”

But Mary, repenting her slip, was not prepared to stir up the heated discussion that would inevitably follow.

She went into the dining-room and sat down to her sewing; while he fell to pacing the verandah. But though she, too, never ceased to keep her ears pricked for the noise of wheels, no sound was to be heard but that of Richard’s feet tramping to and fro (“HOW tired he will be to-morrow!”) and the peevish whine of a little nightwind round the corners of the house. Sorry as she felt for him, she did not again try to reason with him or console him. For when in one of his really black moods, he seemed to retire where words could not get at him. And these moods were growing on him. Nowadays, any small mishap sufficed to throw him into a state of excitement, the aftermath of which was bottomless depression. How would it all end? — Letting her work fall, Mary put her chin in her hand, and sat staring into the flame of the kerosene lamp. But she did not see it. She seemed to be looking through the light at something that lay beyond . . . something on the farther side, not only of the flame, but of all she had hitherto known of life; to be looking, in visionary fashion, out towards those shadowy to-morrows, for the first of which Richard was so surely incapacitating himself . . . an endless line of days, that would come marching upon her, with never a break, never a respite, each fuller of anxiety than the one that went before.

Till, with a shiver, she resolutely shook herself free. “Tch! . . . it comes of listening to that silly, dismal wind.”

Yet when, on the clock striking eleven, she stepped out on the verandah, her first words were: “Oh, what a lovely night!”

For the little wind whistled and piped out of a clear sky; and the moon, at full, drenched the earth with its radiance. Before the house the Lagoon lay like a sheet of beaten silver. Trees and bushes, jet-black on one side, were white as if with hoar frost on the other. The distant hills ran together with the sky in a silver haze. All was peace . . . except for the thudding of Richard’s feet.

“My dear, I’m sure it’s no use waiting up any longer. They won’t come now. Do go to bed.”

“I’m too worried. I couldn’t sleep.”

“But at least it would rest you. As it is, you’re wearing yourself out.”

“Very easy for you to talk! But if anything should happen . . . the responsibility . . . my practice here — I can’t afford it, Mary, and that’s the truth . . . not yet.”

There was nothing to be done. With a sigh that was like a little prayer for patience, Mary turned away.

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