The Way Home, by Henry Handel Richardson

Part I

Chapter I

The ancient little town of Buddlecombe, originally pressed down the mouth of a narrow valley to the sea, from which it is protected by rampart and breakwater, has, in the course of the centuries, scaled the nearer of the two hills that confine it. Nowadays its streets go everywhere up and down. A precipitous lane is climbed by the ridge-like steps of an Italian donkey-path; the old town gardens, massively walled, are built in tiers, so that the apple-trees on the higher levels scatter their blossoms on the gardens beneath. Coming from the upland, three driving-roads drop into the town at a bold gradient; and vehicles, whether they mount or descend, creep like snails. Halfway down the sheerest of the three, the quaint little old houses, that set in oddly enough just where the road is steepest, appear to cling shoulder to shoulder, each a storey or a half-storey lower than the last, their lines all out of drawing with age and the insecurity of their foothold; while those at the bottom of the hill, seen from this point but as a dimpling cluster of gables, dormers, chimneys, look, till you are virtually upon them, as if they were standing in the sea. The roofs of one and all are silvered with the mortar of innumerable repairs, some of their ancient tiles flying off afresh in every rowdy equinox.

The sea-front is crescent-shaped; and a high, wooded cliff, which leaves room for no more than a footpath between it and the surf-rolled shingle, cuts the town in two. The smaller half, grouped about the harbour, includes the old custom-house, a couple of ramshackle magazines and their yards, an ancient inn or two, all bustling places once on a time, when elephants’ teeth and gold dust were unshipped here, and the stuffs and linens of England arrived on pack-horses for transit to France; when, too, much lucrative wine and spirit-running went on with the French coast. Now, there is little doing, either here or in the tiny antiquated storehouses and weighing-sheds out on the famous old stone quay that crooks round the harbour. In these sheds children play or visitors shelter while peeping forth at the great waves which, in stormy weather, toss up over the breakwater; and the storehouses are closed and deserted. A claim to notice, though, they still have. More than one of them is tinted a delicate pink; and the rays of the setting summer sun, catching this, reflect it like a rose in the harbour; which sometimes, half full, lies a pool of melted turquoise; sometimes, during the spring-tides, when the moored boats ride level with the quay, has no more colour in it than an empty glass, or a pure sky before dawn.

To get the best view of the town you must row out beyond harbour and mole, or, better still, swim out, on one of those dead-calm days that every summer brings — days when the yellow cliffs across the bay send down perfect golden shadows in the blue mirror of the sea. Then, lying pillowed on this saltest, most buoyant water, glance back to where, grouped in that perfect symmetry that seems the lost secret of old town-builders, the little place on its gun-cliffs lies curved to the bay. Viewed thus, it looks like a handful of grey shells clustered on a silver shingle — pearl, not stone grey — for there is no dourness about Buddlecombe: light and graceful of aspect, it might have suffered bodily transport at the hands of some giant Ifrit, from the French coast over the way. Its silveriness is dashed only by the creeper on the square church-tower — perched, this, too, on the very cliff edge — a creeper which betimes in summer the salt air dyes a blood-red; and by an old jet-black house, tarred and pitched against the breakers which, in a south-west gale, beat to its topmost windows, and hurl roots and branches of seaweed up the slope of the main street.

Above the town the green hillsides are dotted with goodly residences, in which officers on half-pay, and Anglo-Indians in search of clemency, lie snug for the rest of their dormouse days. The houses are as secluded as a foliage of almost tropical luxuriance or walls well over man’s height, with great hedges atop of these, can make them; and the loveliness of their jealously hidden gardens is only to be guessed at from peeps through a door left ajar by a careless errand-boy; from the bold application of an eye to a keyhole; or, in midsummer, from the purple masses of buddleia and the wealth of climbing-roses — pink and crimson, yellow and white — that toss over the walls in a confusion of beauty.

In this pleasant spot Richard Mahony had made his home. Here, too, he had found the house of his dreams. It was built of stone — under a tangle of creeper — was very old, very solid: floors did not shake to your tread, and, shut within the four walls of a room, voices lost their carrying power. But its privacy was what he valued most. To the steep road on which it abutted the house turned a blank face — or blank but for entrance-door and one small window — while, in a line with it, up-hill and down, to conceal respectively flower and kitchen-gardens, ran two arms of massy wall. In addition to this, the front door was screened by a kind of sentry-box porch, open only on one side. In this porch was set a tiny glass oval; and here one could stand, secure from rough weather or the curiosity of an occasional passer-by, and watch for mounting postman or expected guest; just as no doubt fifty odd years before, through this very peep-hole, anxious eyes had strained for news-carrier or outrider bringing tidings of sailor son or soldier husband, absent on foreign service in the Great War.

On stepping over the threshold you found yourself at once on the upper floor; for so abruptly did the ground on the farther side fall away that the house was one storey to the road, two to the garden. The living-rooms were on the higher level, with a fine view over town and bay — all but one, a snug little oak-panelled parlour on the ground floor; and here it was that, one autumn morning between eight and nine o’clock, the Mahonys sat at breakfast. Although the air of the young day was mild in the extreme, a generous fire burned in the grate and roared up the chimney, entirely putting to shame, with its scarlet vigour, the wraith-like patch of sunshine that lay across the table.

Mary, seated behind the urn, looked very thoughtful; and this was the more marked because, in obedience to the prevailing fashion, she had swept the heavy bands of her hair off cheeks and forehead, and now wore it braided high in a crown. The change threw up the fine, frank lines of her head and brow; and atoned for the youthful softness it robbed her of, by adding to the dignity and character of her face.

More than once during the meal she had made as if to speak. But as certainly as she opened her lips, Richard, who was deep in The TIMES of the day before, would either absently hold out his cup to her; or attack the muffin-dish anew; or, in turning a richly crackling sheet of the paper, exclaim: “Ha! Here we have it! Mr. Disraeli threatens to resign. The poor Queen will be forced to send for that turncoat Gladstone.” And Mary did not wish to spoil his appetite or interrupt his reading.

But when he had pushed cup and saucer from him, wiped his moustache, and driven back his chair, fleetly to skim the less important columns, she felt justified in claiming his attention.

“Richard, dear — I want to tell you something. What we suspected is true. The Burroughs HAVE called in Mr. Robinson. Selina says his gig stood outside their house yesterday for quite a time.”

She paused, waiting for a rejoinder that did not come.

“And that’s not the most annoying thing, either. He has been sent for to ‘Toplands’ as well.”

After this she was no longer in doubt whether he heard her. For though he went on reading, his face changed in a way she well knew. To herself she called it “going wrong”—“his face went wrong” was how she put it — and in the year they had been in England, she had watched what was formerly a casual occurrence turn to almost a habit. Now Richard had always been a very transparent person, showing anger, pride, amusement, all too plainly. But this was something different. It was not so much an expression as a loss of expression; and it happened when anyone laid a chance finger on some sensitive spot he had believed securely hidden. Put thus out of countenance he wore an oddly defenceless, even a hapless air; and it distressed her to see him give himself away in front of strangers. Hence, she had a fresh reason for trying to be beforehand with news of a disagreeable nature. In the old days, she had wished to hinder him feeling hurt; now it was to hinder him showing that he was hurt — which, of the two, she believed he minded more.

In the present case his sole response was a curt: “Well! . . . fools will be fools,” as he turned a page of the paper. A moment later, however, he did what she expected: laid the TIMES down and stalked out of the room.

She threw a motherly glance after him, and sighed. Poor old Richard! She had been bound to tell him, of course; but by doing so she had furnished him with a worry for the whole day. It was clear he had set his heart on keeping “Toplands”; and now, after consulting him on and off for a couple of months, the silly people seemed to be going back to that red-nosed, ungentlemanly Mr. Robinson. She couldn’t understand it. Still, in Richard’s place, she would have taken it calmly. Ten to one turncoats like these would soon come running to him again. Time was needed for people here to find out how clever he was.

Having cleared the breakfast-table, she rang the bell for the servant to take away the tray. But neither her first ring nor a second was answered. For at this moment the girl, her skirts bunched high above a pair of neat prunellas, stood ruefully eyeing the condition of the lower lawn, wondering how she could make her master hear without soiling her boots or indecently raising her voice.

From the dining-room Mahony had stepped out into the garden. This was saturated with moisture. During the night a sea fog had crept up and enmuffled the land; and though by now a watery sun was dissipating the mists — they lingered only about remote objects, like torn handfuls of cotton wool — they had left everything drenched and sodden. As he crossed the grass of the upper lawn, the water came in over the tops of his carpet-slippers; bushes and shrubs against which he brushed delivered showers of drops; and gossamer-webs, spun by the thousand in lovely geometrics that hung whitey-grey and thick as twine, either shattered themselves on his shoulders, or laid themselves fillet-wise round his brow. At the foot of the garden he traversed a second lawn, in which his feet sank and stuck, and climbed three wooden steps set against a side wall. He had hammered these steps together himself, that he might have a view to seaward. A small cutting, in the end wall, as well as all the windows of the house, looked to the town and the row of yellow cliffs beyond. They dated from a time when a land view of any kind was preferred to that of the bare and open sea.

Here he now stood and stared at the palely glittering water. But he did not see it. His mind was busy with the uncomfortable impression left on it by Mary’s last statement. At a stroke this had laid waste the good spirits in which he had got up that morning; even if, for the moment, it had done no more than pull him up short, as one is pulled up by a knot in a needleful of pack-thread, or a dumb note on a keyboard. For the feeling roused in him was no such simple one as mere mortification at the rumoured loss of the big house known as “Toplands”; though the dear soul indoors put it down to this, and he should continue to let her think so. No; there was more behind. But only now, when alone with himself, did he mutter under his breath: “Good Lord! What if this place should prove to be Leicester over again!”

He got no further; for here was it that Selina’s prim voice broke on his ear. The girl had followed in his steps to say that Jopson, the liveryman, was at the back door and wished to speak to him. A patient also waited in the passage.

Jopson, who was a short man of enormous bulk, had been accommodated with a chair, after his drag uphill. He rose at Mahony’s approach, but continued to ease his weight against the doorpost.

“Sarry, surr, but I ca’an’t let ‘ee ‘ave the mare to-day. ‘Er’s arff ‘er feed. Sarry, surr. T’others is every one bespoke. No, surr, mine’s t’ only livery in the town. One o’ the inns MIGHT let ‘ee ‘ave a turn-out, of a sart; but I dunno as I’d advise ‘ee to go to they. They’s almighty partiklar, surr, ‘ow their ‘arses is drove. ‘Twouldn’t do to bring one o’ they whoam along, winded and h’all of a sweat.”

“You surely don’t mean to insinuate I’ve been overdriving the mare?”

“Well, surr, and since you mention it yourself, Allfred did say yesterday as ‘ow you took ‘er h’up ovurr Brandlebury ‘Ill faster than ‘er ‘dd anny mind to go. The ‘ills is steep ‘ereabouts, surr, and cruel ‘aard on the ‘arses. An’ ’tis naat the furst time neether. If you’ll excuse me sayin’ so, surr, them ‘oove seen it do tell as ‘ow you be rather a flash ‘and with the reins.”

“Well, upon my word, Jopson, this is something new! I drive for show? . . . I overwork a horse? Why, my man, where I come from, it used to be dinned into me on all sides that I was far too easy with them.”

“Ca’an’t say, surr, I’m sure.” Jopson was perfectly civil, but equally non-committal.

“But I can!” gave back Mahony, with warmth. “I had two of my own there, let me tell you, and no beasts were ever better treated or cared for. They certainly hadn’t to be walked up every slope for fear they’d lose their wind. They took their honest share of the day’s work. For where I come from . . .” At the repetition of the phrase he bit his lip.

“Aye, surr, ahl very well, I dessay, for such a place — Australy, as I unnerstand,” answered Jopson unmoved. “But ‘twouldn’t do ’ere, surr — in England. Thic’s a civilised country.” And so on to a somewhat acid wrangle, in which Mahony, galled by the doubt cast on his compassion for dumb brutes, was only restrained by the knowledge that, in this matter of conveyance, he was wholly in Jopson’s power.

“Really, my dear, if it weren’t that the fellow kept his hat in his hand and scattered his ‘sirs’ broadcast, it might just have been old Billy de la Poer himself I was talking to. DO you remember Billy? And how, in his palmy days, one had to wheedle a mount out of him, if he wasn’t in the vein to hire? The very same uppish independence! I don’t know, I’m sure, what this country’s coming to. Though I will say, with all his shortcomings Billy never had the impudence to tell me I couldn’t drive.”

The woman who was waiting for him brought a summons to one of the lonely little farms that dotted the inland hills.

“Three miles out and only shanks’ ponies to get me there just my luck! Imagine, Mary, a place with but a single horse for hire! To-night I must go thoroughly into the money question again. I shan’t be satisfied now, my dear, till I am independent of Jopson and his great fat pampered quadruped. Stable with him? Not I! Not if I have to build on here myself!”

His first visit led him down the main street of Buddlecombe.

It was between nine and ten o’clock, the hour of day at which the little town was liveliest. Shopkeepers had opened their shutters, saw-dusted and sprinkled their floors, picked over their goods, unlocked their tills and tied on clean white aprons. They might now be seen sunning themselves in their doorways, exchanging the time of day with their neighbours, or shooing off the dogs which, loosed from chain and kennel, frolicked, yapped and sprawled over the pavement. Mounted butcher-boys trotted smartly to and fro. A fisherman, urging a sluggish horse and laden cart uphill, cried mackerel at two a penny. And, from big houses and little, women were emerging, on foot or in donkey and pony-chaises, to do their marketing, chat with one another, glean the news that had accumulated overnight. For every one knew everybody else in Buddlecombe, and was almost more interested in his neighbour’s business than in his own. You could not, vowed Mahony, enter a shop for a penn’orth of tin-tacks — the selling of which was conducted as if you had all eternity to spare for it; what with the hunting up of a small enough bit of paper, the economical unravelling of a tangled length of twine — without learning that Mr. Jones’s brindled cow had calved at last, or that the carrier had delivered to Mr. Du Cane still another hogshead of brandy-wine. This, together with many a sly inquiry as to where you yourself might be bound for, or the trend of your own affairs. Alongside the rampart stood half a dozen ancient men of the sea, discussing, with vigour, God knew what. A bottle-nosed constable, stationed in the middle of the road to superintend a traffic that did not exist, gossiped with the best.

Down this street Mahony walked, in the surtout, light trousers and bell-topper which he still preferred to the careless attire of a country doctor. He was greeted with bows and bobs and touched forelocks. But the fact of his appearing on foot brought him many a quizzing glance; and there were also shoppers who came at a trot to the door to see and stare after him. Or perhaps, he thought with a grimace, the more than common interest he roused this morning was due to his ill-treatment of Jopson’s mare, the tale of which had no doubt already been buzzed abroad. He was really only now, after several months’ residence in Buddlecombe, beginning to understand the seven days’ wonder with which he must have provided the inhabitants by settling in their midst — he, who bore with him the exotic aroma of the Antipodes! At the time, being without experience of little English country places, he had failed to appreciate it.

His visits in the town paid, he chose to leave it by the sea-front and climb the steeper hill at the farther end, rather than retrace his steps and present himself anew to all these curious and faintly hostile eyes.

Thus began for him a day of fatigue and discomfort. The promise of the early morning was not fulfilled: the sun failed; down came the mist again; and the tops of the hills and the high roads that ran along them were lost in a bank of cloud. He was for ever opening and shutting his umbrella, as he passed from rain to fog and fog to rain. Not a breath of air stirred. His greatcoat hung a ton-weight on his shoulders.

He walked moodily. As a rule on his country rounds, he had the distraction of the reins: his eye, too, could range delightedly over the shifting views of lovely pastoral country, fringed by the belt of blue sea. To-day, even had the weather allowed of it, he could have seen nothing, on foot between giant hedgerows that walled in the narrow lanes leading from one cottage and one village to the next. Plodding along he first tried, without success, to visualise the pages of his passbook; then fell back on the deeper, subtler worry that was in him. This, sitting perched hobgoblinlike on his neck, pricked and nudged his memory, and would not let him rest. So that, on coming out of a house and starting his tramp anew, he would murmur to himself: “Where was I? . . . what was it? Oh, yes, I know: just suppose this should turn out to be Leicester over again!”

For the present was not his first bid for a practice in England. That had been made under very different circumstances.

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