Ultima Thule, by Henry Handel Richardson

Chapter IX

The postman handed in a letter with a mourning border fully an inch wide: there was barely room for name and address, which were squeezed in anyhow. It was from Mr. Henry; and opening it in some trepidation Mary read the sad news of Agnes’s death. Mr. Henry was kind enough to give her full particulars. Agnes had, it seemed, stood the voyage out well. But on landing at the Cape she had met with an accident; had caught her foot in a rope and fallen heavily; and the shock had brought on an apoplexy from which she never rallied. Mr. Henry wrote as one bereft of all he held dear; as the fond father whose pious duty it would henceforth be, to fill a mother’s place to his orphaned children. In reading the letter aloud, Mary swallowed hard; then veiled her discomfort with an apologetic: “Oh well, you know . . . poor man, . . . I daresay ——” by which she meant to imply that, with death’s entry on the scene, the realities were apt to get overlaid. Mr. Henry saw himself and his situation, not as they were, but as he would have wished them to be.

Richard, of course, sniffed at Ocock’s layman-ish account of his wife’s end. And he was right. For Tilly’s gloss on the affair ran: PURD HEARD FROM A MAN WHO WAS ON BOARD THE SAME SHIP. IT’S TRUE SHE DID TRIP OVER A ROPE AND COME A CROPPER (AND NOT THE FIRST TIME NEITHER, AS WE KNOW) AND THIS BROUGHT ON A VIOLENT ATTACK OF D.T.‘S WHICH CARRIED HER OFF: HENRY HASN’T LOOKED THE SAME MAN SINCE. HIS RELIEF IS IMMENSE— SIMPLY IMMENSE.

But Mary’s faithful stubborn heart rebelled. For Agnes’s own sake, her death was perhaps, pitifully enough, the best solution. But that, of all who had known her, none should mourn her passing; that even among her nearest it should stir only a sense of good riddance and relief: the tragedy of such a finish moved Mary to the depths. Tenderly she laid away the keepsake Mr. Henry sent her for remembrance: a large cameo-brooch, at the back of which, under glass, was twined a golden curl, cut from the head of the little child whose untimely end had cost Agnes her bitterest tears.

A day or two later there came into her possession a still more pathetic memento: a letter from the dead, which had to be opened and read though the hand that wrote it was lying cold at the bottom of a grave. It had been found by Mr. Henry amongst his wife’s belongings — found sealed and addressed but never posted — a blotted and scrawled production and more than a little confused, but full of love and kindness; though written with the firm conviction that they would never meet again. Poor thing, poor thing! And having read, Mary hid it away at the back of a drawer, where no eyes but her own would ever see it. She could not have borne Richard’s sarcastic comments on Agnes’s poor spelling and poorer penmanship.

But there was nothing new in this secretiveness: she was falling more and more into the way of keeping Richard in the dark. A smash of china by the clumsy servant; Miss Prestwick’s airs and insufficiencies; the exorbitant price of the children’s new boots; disturbing gossip retailed by the girl: of vexations such as these, which were her daily portion, he heard not a word. It left her, of course, much freer to deal with things. But it also spared him the exhaustion of many a towering rage (under the influence of which he was quite capable of writing to the bootmaker and calling him a thief); saved him, too, from going off into one of his fits of depression when he imagined the whole world in league against him. The real truth was, he hadn’t enough to occupy him; and not a soul to speak to . . . except his dreadful patients. Nor did he ever write or receive a letter. In coming here he seemed to have had but one desire: to forget and be forgotten.

She it was who sat up at night, spinning out the letters necessary to make people remember you. And it fell to her to write the note of welcome when Baron von Krause, the well-known botanist, proposed to break his journey from Sydney to Melbourne, solely to pay them a visit. — Though putting up a visitor nowadays meant considerable inconvenience: they had to turn out of their own room, she going in with the children, Richard making shift with the dining-room sofa. Still, in this case she thought the upset worth while: for Richard’s sake. He had been as friendly with the Baron as it was in his nature to be with anybody; and the latter had once spoken to her, in warm terms, of Richard’s intimate knowledge of the native flora, and lamented the fact that he should not have found time to systematise his studies.

The next morning, while Richard was out, she climbed the step-ladder and unearthed the glass cases that contained his collections of plants, minerals and butterflies: for the first time on moving into a new house, he had not set them up in his room. But she wasn’t going to let people think that, because he had come to live up-country, he was therefore running to seed. And having dusted and rubbed and polished, she ranged the cases along the walls of the passage and on the dining-room sideboard. To the delight of the children.

But she might have spared her pains. As far as Richard was concerned, the visit was a failure.

Baron von Krause arrived during the forenoon. Richard was on his rounds, and did not reach home till they were half through dinner. And then he tried to get out of coming to table! Going in search of him on his non-appearance, she found him sunk in his armchair, from which he vowed he was too tired to stir . . . let alone exert himself to entertain strangers.

“Strangers? There’s only him! And he’s just as nice as he always was. We’re getting on capitally. The children, too.”

The Baron was a short, sturdy little man, bronzed brown with the sun — beside him Richard, who never tanned, looked almost transparent — dark of hair and beard, and with a pair of kindly blue eyes that beamed at you from behind large gold spectacles. Veteran colonist though he was, he still spoke a jargon all his own, coupled with a thick, foreign accent. He also expressed himself with extreme deliberation, using odd, archaic words (“Like the Bible,” thought Cuffy); and, could he not at once find the word he sought, he paused in what he was saying and scoured his mind till he had captured it. This, added to the fact that he did things at table that were strictly forbidden them, made him an object of enormous interest to the children; and three pairs of eyes hung entranced on him as he ate and spoke, to the detriment of their owners’ own table-manners. In waiting, too, for him to be delivered of a word, three little faces went pink with a mixture of embarrassment and anticipation. In vain did Mary privately frown and shake her head. A knifeful of peas, “meLANcholy” for melancholy, and all three were agog again. It was a real drawback, at a time like this, to have such NOTICING children.

But with their father’s entry a change came over their behaviour. Cuffy kept his eyes fixed on his plate and minded what he was doing, and Lallie and Lucie faithfully followed suit. The fun was at an end. For it wasn’t at all the same when Papa forgot, in the middle of a sentence, what he was going to say (because Mamma interrupted him with a potato) and tried and tried his hardest to remember and couldn’t, and got very cross with himself. Mamma thought it was funny though, for she laughed and said she believed he’d forget his head if it weren’t screwed on; and then she told a story about Papa nearly going out without his collar, and how she had rushed after him and saved him . . . which made Papa cross with her as well.

It was too hot to go walking. And after dinner, Mahony having been called back to the surgery, the Baron strayed to the drawing-room, opened the piano, and put his hairy, knuckly hands on the keys. Mary thought this an excellent chance to slip away and “see to things”; but Richard, the patient gone, first set his door ajar, then came along the passage and sat down in an armchair by the drawing-room window. Cuffy, at ball on the verandah, also crept in and took up his position close to the piano, leaning against it and staring fixedly at the player — listening, that is to say, after the fashion of children, as much with the eyes as with the ears (as if only by keeping the maker of the sounds in view can they grasp the sounds themselves)— the while he continued mechanically to tip his ball from hand to hand.

The Baron was playing something hard and ugly . . . like five-finger exercises but with more notes, oh! LOTS of notes in it . . . and to and fro went the ball, to and fro. This lasted a long time, and the Baron was hot when he’d finished, and had to wipe his neck and clean his glasses. Then he did some more; and this time it was prettier, with a tune to it, and it danced in little squirts up the piano; and Cuffy was obliged to smile . . . he didn’t know why, his mouth just smiled by itself. He also left off fiddling with the ball. By now the Baron had become aware of his small listener. Musician-wise had noted, too, the child’s instinctive response to the tripping scherzo. Pausing, he peered at Cuffy through his large round spectacles; and before putting his fingers in place for the third piece, leant over and patted the boy’s cheek, murmuring as he did: “Let us see then . . . yes, let us see!” To Cuffy he said: “Hearken now, my little one . . . hearken well to this. Here I shall give you food for the heart as well as for the head.”— And then he began to play music that was quite, quite different to that before . . . and wasn’t LIKE music any more. It whispered in the bass, and while it whispered it growled; but the treble didn’t growl: it cried.

And now something funny happened to Cuffy. He began to feel as if he’d like to run away; he didn’t WANT to listen . . . and his heart started to beat fast. Like if he HAD run. The Baron ‘d said he was playing to it . . . perhaps that was why . . . for it seemed to be getting bigger . . . till it was almost too tight for his chest. Letting his ball fall, he pressed his fists close to where he thought his heart must be. Something hurt him in there . . . he didn’t LIKE this music, he wanted to call out to it to stop. But the piano didn’t care: it went on and on, and though it tried once to be different, it always came back and did the same thing over again . . . a dreadful thing . . . oh! something WOULD burst in him if it didn’t leave off . . . he felt all swollen . . . yes, he was going to burst . . . .

Then, without so much as taking his fingers off the keys, the Baron began to make a lot of little notes that sounded just like a wind, and throwing back his head and opening his mouth wide, he sang funny things . . . in ever such a funny voice.

UBER’M GARTEN DURCH DIE LUFTE HORT’ ICH WANDERVOGEL ZIEH’N, DAS BEDEUTET FRUHLINGSDUFTE, UNTEN FANGT’S SCHON AN ZU BLUH’N!

The relief, the ecstatic relief that surged through Cuffy at these lovely sounds, was too much for him. His eyes ran over and tears ran down his cheeks; nor could he help it, or stop them, when he found what they were doing.

Mamma — she had come back — made ever such big eyes at him.

“CUFFY! What on earth . . . Is THIS how you say thank-you for the pretty music?” (If only he was not going off before a visitor into one of his tantrums!)

“Nay, chide him not!” said the Baron, and smiled as he spoke: a very peculiar smile indeed, to Mary’s way of thinking. And then he took no more notice of her, but bent over Cuffy and asked, in quite a POLITE voice: “Will you that I play you again, my little one?”

“No . . . NO!” As rude as the Baron was polite, Cuffy gave a great gulp and bolted from the room to the bottom of the garden; where he hid among the raspberry-bushes. He didn’t know what the matter was; but he felt all sore; humiliated beyond the telling.

When he went back, aggressively sheepish and ashamed, Papa had gone. But Mamma and the Baron were talking, and he heard Mamma say: “ . . . without the least difficulty . . . ever since he was a tiny tot. — Oh, here we are, are we? — Now, Baron, he shall play to you.”

Something turned over in Cuffy at these words. “NO! I won’t!”

But Mamma threw him a look which he knew better than to disobey. Besides, she already had his music-book on the rack, the stool screwed up, and herself stood behind it to turn the pages. Ungraciously Cuffy climbed to the slippery leather top, from which his short legs dangled. Very well then if he must play, he must, he didn’t care; but he wouldn’t look at his notes, or listen to what he did. Instead, he’d count how many flies he could see in front of him, on the wall and the ceiling. One . . . two. . .

The piece — it dated from Mary’s own schooldays — at an end, his mother waited in vain for the customary panegyric.

But the Baron merely said: “H’m,” and again: “H’m!” Adding as a kind of afterthought: “Habile little fingers.”

When he turned to Cuffy, however, it was with quite a different voice. “Well, and how many were then the flies on the PLAFOND my little one?”

Colouring to his hair-roots (NOW he was going to catch it!) Cuffy just managed to stammer out: “Twelve blowflies and seventeen little flies.”

But the Baron only threw back his head and laughed, and laughed. “Ha-ha, ha-ha! Twelve big and seventeen little! That is good . . . that is very good!” To add mysteriously: “Surely this, too, is a sign . . . this capacity for to escape! — But now come hither, my son, and let us play the little game. The bad little boy who counts the flies, so long he plays the bad piece, shall stand so, with his face to the wall. I strike the notes — SO! — and he is telling me their names — if Mr. G or Mrs. A— yes? List now, if you can hear what is this.”

“Huh, that’s easy! That’s C.”

“And this fellow, so grey he?”

“A-E-B.” Cuffy liked this: it was fun.

“And now how many I strike? D, F . . . right! B, D sharp . . . good! And here this — an ugly one, this fellow! He agree not with his neighbour.”

“That’s two together . . . close, I mean. G and A.”

“ACH, HIMMEL!” cried the Baron. “The ear, it, too, is perfect.” And swiftly crossing the room, he took Cuffy’s face in his hands and turned it up. For a moment he stood looking down at it; and his brown, bearded face was very solemn. Then, stooping, he kissed the boy on the forehead. “May the good God bless you, my child, and prosper His most precious gift!”— And this, just when Cuffy (after the fly episode) had begun to think him rather a nice old man!

Then he was free to run away and play; which he did with all his might. But later in the afternoon when it was cool enough to go walking, it was Cuffy the Baron invited to accompany him. “Nay, we leave the little sisters at home with the good Mamma, and make the promenade alone, just we both!”

Cuffy remembered the flies, forgave the kiss, and off they set. They walked a long way into the bush, further than they were allowed to go with Miss Prestwick; and the Baron told him about the trees and poked among the scrub, and used a spyglass like Papa, and showed him things through it. It WAS fun.

Then they sat down on a log to rest. And while they were there, the Baron suddenly picked up his right hand and looked at it, as if it was funny, and turned it over to the back, and stretched out the fingers and felt the tips, and where the thumb joined on. And when he had done this he didn’t let it go, but kept hold of it; and putting his other hand on Cuffy’s shoulder said: “And now say, my little man, say me why you did weep when I have played?”

Cuffy, all boy again, blushed furiously. He didn’t like having his hand held either. So he only looked away, and kicked his heels against the tree so hard they hurt him. “I dunno.”

Mamma would have said: “Oh, yes, you do.” But the Baron wasn’t cross. He just gave the hand a little squeeze, and then he began to talk, and he talked and talked. It lasted so long that it was like being in church, and was very dull, all about things Cuffy didn’t know. So he hardly listened. He was chiefly intent on politely wriggling his hand free.

But the Baron looked so nice and kind, even when he’d done this, that he plucked up courage to ask something he wanted very much to know; once before when he had tried it everybody had laughed at him, and made fun.

“What does music SAY?”

But the Baron wasn’t like that. He looked as solemn as church again, and nodded his head. “Aha! It commences to stir itself . . . the inward apperception. The music, it says what is in the heart, my little one, to each interprets the OWN heart. That is, as you must comprehend, if the one who is making it is the GENIE, and has what in his own heart to say. That bad piece you have played me have said nothing — nothing at all . . . oh, how wise, how wise to count the little flies! But that what you have flowed tears for, my child, that were the sufferings of a so unhappy man — the fears that are coming by night to devour the peace — oh, I will not say them to one so tender! . . . but these, so great were they, so unhappy he, that at the last his brain has burst” (There! he KNEW he had been going to burst) “and he have become mad. But then, see, at once I have given you the consolation. I have sung you of the nightingale, and moonshine, and first love . . . all, all of which the youth is full. Our dear madman he has that made, too. His name was Schumann. Mark that, my little one . . . mark it well!”

“Shooh man. — What’s mad?”

“ACH! break not the little head over such as this. Have no care. The knowledge will soon enough come of pain and suffering.”

Cuffy’s legs were getting VERY tired with sitting still. Sliding down from the log, he jumped and danced, feeling now somehow all glad inside. “I will say music, too, when I am big.”

“JA JA! but so easy is it not to shake the music out of the sleeve. Man must study hard. It belongs a whole lifetime thereto . . . and much, much courage. But this I will tell you, my little ambitious one! Here is lying”— and the Baron waved his arm all round him —“a great, new music hid. He who makes it, he will put into it the thousand feelings awoken in him by this emptiness and space, this desolation; with always the serene blue heaven above, and these pale, sad, so grotesque trees that weep and rave. He puts the golden wattle in it when it blooms and reeks, and this melancholy bush, oh, so old, so old, and this silence as of death that nothing stirs. No birdleins will sing in his Musik. But will you be that one, my son, you must first have given up all else for it . . . all the joys and pleasures that make the life glad. These will be for the others not for you, my dear . . . you must only go wizout . . . renounce . . . look on. — But come, let us now home, and I will speak . . . yes, I shall speak of it to the good Mamma and Papa!”

“Preposterous, I call it!” said Mary warmly and threw the letter on the table. The Baron’s departure was three days old by now, and the letter she had just read was written in his hand. “Only a man could propose such a thing. Why don’t you say something, Richard? Surely you don’t . . .”

“No, I can see it’s out of the question.”

“I should think so! At HIS age! . . . why, he’s a mere baby. How the Baron could think for a moment we should let a tot like that leave home . . . to live among strangers — with these Hermanns or Germans or whatever he calls them — why, it’s almost too silly to discuss. As for his offer to defray all expenses out of his own pocket . . . no doubt he means it well . . . but it strikes me as very tactless. Does he think we can’t afford to pay for our own children?”

“I’ll warrant such an idea never entered his head. My dear, you don’t understand.”

“It’s you I don’t understand. As a rule you flare up at the mere mention of money. Yet you take this quite calmly.”

“Good Lord, Mary! the man means it for a compliment. He not only took a liking to the boy, but he’s a connoisseur in music, a thoroughly competent judge. Surely it ought to flatter you, my dear, to hear his high opinion of our child’s gift.”

“I don’t need an outsider to tell me that. If any one knows Cuffy is clever it’s me. I ought to: I’ve done everything for him.”

“This has nothing to do with cleverness.”

“Why not? What else is it?”

“It’s music, my dear!” cried Mahony, waxing impatient. “Music, and the musical faculty . . . ear, instinct, inborn receptivity.”

“WELL?”

“Good God, Mary! . . . it sometimes seems as if we spoke a different language. The fact of the matter is, you haven’t a note of music in you.”

Mary was deeply hurt. “I, who have taught the child everything he knows? He wouldn’t even be able to read his notes yet, if it had been left to you. Haven’t I stood over him, and drummed things into him, and kept him at the piano? And all the thanks I get for it is to hear that I’m not capable of judging . . . haven’t a note of music in me! The truth is, I’m good enough to work and slave to make ends meet. But when it comes to anything else, anything CLEVERER . . . then the first outsider knows better than I do. Thank God, I’ve still got my children. They at least look up to me. And that brings me back to where I started. I’ve got them, and I mean to keep them. Nothing shall part me from them. If Cuffy goes, I go too!”

On the verandah the three in question played a game of their own devising. They poked at each other round a corner of the house, with sticks for swords, advancing and retreating to the cry of “Shooh, man!” from the army of the twins, to which Cuffy made vigorous response: “Shooh, woman!”

And this phrase, which remained in use long after its origin was forgotten, was the sole trace left on Cuffy’s life by the Baron’s visit.

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