The Way Home, by Henry Handel Richardson

Chapter II

Mahony’s first lightning plan of putting up his plate at the top of Collins Street, among the bigwigs of the profession, was not carried out. For when, the day after landing, he went to interview Simmonds, his man of business, he found his affairs in even more brilliant condition than Simmonds’ letter — written a fortnight back to await the ship’s arrival — had led him to believe. That had put the sum lying to his credit at between ten and eleven thousand pounds. By now, however — a second company in which he was interested choosing the self-same moment to look up — combined dividends were flowing in at the rate of twelve to fifteen hundred pounds a month. And this, despite the enormous outlay incurred by the Australia Felix Company in sinking a fourth shaft, lighting the mine throughout with gas, erecting the heaviest plant yet seen on the goldfields.

In the conveyance that left Collins Street at midday for South Yarra, Mahony sat feeling mildly stunned by the extent of his good fortune, as by Simmonds’ confident prediction of still grander things to come; sat with far-away eyes, absently noting the velvety black shadows that accompanied vehicles and pedestrians up and down the glaring whiteness of the great street. He had already drawn attention to himself by smiling broadly at thought of the news he was taking home to Mary. Now, as a fresh idea struck him, he uttered a smothered exclamation and tried to slap his knee a gesture that entangled him with a stout party whose crinoline overflowed him, and gave a pimply faced youth sitting opposite a chance to exercise his wit.

“Fy, matey, fy! What ‘ud our missis say?”

The vehicle — a kind of roofless omnibus — started with a lunge that sent the two rows of passengers toppling like ninepins one against another. Mahony alone raised his voice in apology: he had lain on the shoulder of the fat woman. The man on her farther side angrily bade her take her danged feathers out of his eye. The greater number recovered their balance by thrusting forth an elbow and lodging it firmly in a neighbour’s rib.

Even in his present holiday mood this promiscuity was too much for Mahony. He regretted not having accepted Devine’s offer of a buggy; and half-way to his destination dismounted, and covered the rest of the distance on foot.

This was better. In the outlying district where he found himself, no traffic moved. Roads and paths were sandy and grass-edged. The scattered houses lay far back in their gardens, screened by rows of Scotch firs. He met no one, could think in peace; and over a knotty point he stopped short and dug with his stick in the sand.

The brilliant idea that had flashed through his mind in the omnibus was: why go back into harness at all? Retire! . . retire and live on his dividends . . . here was the solution. From now on be free to devote himself to the things that really mattered, in which he had hitherto had no share.

He threshed the scheme out as he went, and was plain-spoken with himself. I am now a middle-aged man: forty-three and a quarter to be exact in point of time, but a good ten years older with regard to bodily health . . . and disillusionment: considerably more than halfway, that is, on my journey to the green sod. And what have I so far had of life? It has been but one long grind: firstly to keep my head above water, and then, to live up to my neighbours; while every attempt to free myself has failed, the last great wild-goose chase most completely of any. Yes, the real trouble has always been want of money — of money and time — or of money enough to have time. Now that the one has fallen to me, should I not be a fool beyond compare if I failed to master the other? Think of all the wonders of this world I shall die without knowing — the books I shall not have read, the scientific discoveries, the intellectual achievements I shall never have heard of. Oh! the joy of devoting one’s remaining years to a congenial occupation. One cannot love one’s work, the handle one grinds by — the notion that such a thing is possible belongs to a man’s green and salad days. Though perhaps if one climbed to the top of the tree. . . . . But for the majority of us, the fact that we labour to earn our bread by a certain handiwork wears all liking for it threadbare. It becomes a habit — like the meals one eats . . . the clothes one puts on of a morning. — Ambitions to be sacrificed? But are there? I had them once; in plenty. Where are they now? Blown into thin air — spent like smoke. The fag of living was too much for them. And so, in following my bent, I should sacrifice nothing — or nothing but the possibility of fresh humiliations . . . and much unnecessary pother . . . an infinitude of business . . . .

Thus he reasoned, thus justified himself to himself, arriving at the house with his arguments marshalled ready to be laid before Mary. The walk, however, had taken longer than he expected; the afternoon was now far advanced and he footsore and hungry. But though he could hear the servants chattering in the kitchen, none came to offer him so much as a cup of tea. They would of course suppose him to have lunched; or else Madam D. had the keys of the larder in her petticoat pocket. The big house yawned inhospitably still and empty — but for a common-looking child in copper-toed boots and oilcloth apron, which he unexpectedly ran across: it fled from him like a startled cat. Mary was out driving with her hostess and did not get back till close on dinner-time. There was another party that night; they sat down fifteen to table and went to bed only in the small hours. He could do no more than skim the cream off his interview for her benefit, before retiring.

His chance came next morning.

Ten o’clock had struck, but Mary was still in bedgown and slippers, her hair tied in its nightly bunch of half a dozen little plaits on the crown of her head. This state of undress did not, however, imply that she had newly risen — as a matter of fact she had been up and doing for a couple of hours. But it was one of the rules of this extraordinary house that visitors did not breakfast till after ten; the longer after, the better, but at any moment PAST the hour, provided that the servants did not know beforehand what it would be: they must be kept up to the mark, hover perpetually alert for the ringing of the dining-room bell: and many and scathing were Richard’s comments on the practice of using your guests as the stick with which to belabour your slaves. Mrs. Devine herself, clad in a voluminous paisley gown, her nightcap bound under her chin, was early astir: she gave her husband, who rose at dawn to work among his flowers — as he had once worked among his market produce — breakfast at eight, before he left for town. But if you belonged to the elite, were truly BON TON, you did not descend till the morning was half over, and even then must appear “stifling elegant yawns, which show the effort it has been to tear your high-born limbs from the feathers!”— so ran another of Richard’s glosses. The first morning he and Mary had blundered in this respect; on the second they were wiser; and now loitered chilly and hungry above-stairs. Chafing at the absurdity and fretting for his breakfast, Mahony grumbled: “Was there ever such a fudge? As if the woman didn’t know I used to have to be up at daybreak, if necessary . . . was in my consulting-room hours before this.”

Mary, who had been writing letters and sewing, began to dress her hair. “Do try not to fuss so, dear. After all, it’s only a little thing. It pleases her to imagine she’s up in the ways of good society. Besides, every house has its peculiarities.”

“Then give me my own, thank you. But what absurd nonsense you do talk, Mary! I’m sure, when you had ’em, you never tyrannised over guests in this stark fashion. You were their drudge, my dear; danced to their tune. But I believe you’d sacrifice the last scrap of your personal comfort to pander to the foibles of other people.”

“Nonsense!” said Mary stoutly. “But we can’t possibly let her see we don’t like it.”

She had unbound her hair: freed from its plaits, it hung all crinks and angles. Now she set, with long, smooth sweeps, to brushing it to its customary high gloss.

Mahony pulled a chair to the window, threw up the sash and leant his elbow on the sill. The morning was warm and balmy, after a bitterly cold night. By midday the sun would have gained almost summer strength, gradually to fade through the autumn of the afternoon till, with darkness, you were back in a wintry spring. The orange-blossom scent of the pittosperums, now everywhere in flower, filled the air. Sunning himself thus, he fell to informing Mary yet once again what he had made up his mind to; spoke shortly and impatiently and with decision. For this time at least he knew that his planning involved his wife in no hardships: he was not asking her to shoulder fresh burdens.

Practised hand though she was at concealing surprise, and rightly attributing Richard’s snappishness to the want of a good hot cup of coffee, Mary could not help echoing his words, her hairbrush suspended in the air. “Give up practice altogether?” And, at his emphatic affirmation: “But, Richard, you’d soon get tired of having nothing to do.”

“Nothing to do indeed! I, who all my life have longed for a little leisure to follow my own pursuits! Haven’t I told you, Mary, again and again, that if I were to read from sunrise to sundown, for the rest of my days, I shouldn’t get through a quarter of the books that are waiting for me?”

“Oh, dear, don’t talk such rubbish. As if you could spend all the rest of your life reading! Why, I’ve often heard you say, after sitting with your head in a book for even a few hours running, that it felt like a boiled turnip.”

“But, good God! . . . I shall have a garden, I suppose? . . . and a decent horse to ride?”

“Now, Richard, it’s no use mincing words: you do tire easily of things — much more easily than other people. And I’m sure you’d tire of idleness as well. After working as you have.”

“Oh, go on acting the brake on the coach. I suppose that, too, is a mission in life.”

“How you do snap one up! There’s this about it, of course, you COULD go back into practice at any time if you wanted to.” (“Thank you, never again for me!”) “You only say that now, Richard. In a couple of years you may have completely changed your mind. No, it’s not a bit of good getting angry. I think it’s a step that requires most careful consideration. Besides you promised, remember, not so VERY long ago, to be guided next time by what I thought.”

“So I did. But here the case is different — entirely different. Not twopenceworth of risk is entailed. I have no intention of speculating further, as you ought to know — if you know anything at all about me — and, well invested, this money that has fallen to us is enough to keep us in comfort to our lives’ end.”

But Mary refused to be rushed into a decision.

The long, elaborate breakfast over: they had to eat their way through chops and steaks, eggs and rissoles, barracouta and garfish, fruit, hot rolls, preserves, tea and coffee: breakfast coped with, Mary waited, dressed for driving, for the carriage to come round, and for her hostess to cease goading on her several maidservants and tracking down their misdeeds. Propping her chin in her hand and poking with the tip of her parasol at one of the fruit-and-flower baskets enworked in the maroon ground of the Brussels carpet, Mary wrestled with the problem of their future. Richard’s present project called for a readjustment of all her private plans for his benefit. These had never wavered; remained those she had hatched on the morrow of the Buddlecombe fiasco; and throughout the voyage she had listened in silence to his fluid plannings and imaginings what he was going to do next — had just listened and let him talk. Ballarat had seen his beginnings; seen his rise to one of its most popular medical men: it should also, she was resolved, learn to know him as the moneyed consultant who could afford to see as few patients as he wished. It was ridiculous for him to think of starting all over again in a strange place, when there, in Ballarat, was his old reputation waiting for him. What was the point of success either, if it did not come to you among the friends of your less palmy days?

But his intention to retire into private life cut clean through these aspirations. And yet, for the first time, Mary hesitated. The difference was, what he now proposed made a subtle appeal to her. For, to be nothing, to have neither trade nor profession, to fold one’s hands and live on one’s income — that was the NE PLUS ULTRA of colonial society, the ideal tirelessly to be striven after. Work brought neither honour nor glory where all too many had been manual labourers, the work itself of a low or disreputable kind. And the contingency of Richard ending as the private gentleman, the leisured man of means, had never been wholly absent from Mary’s mind — or wouldn’t have been, had he not so quixotically cut his career in half.

There was another point, too: was anybody better fitted than he to live as the gentleman? Where so many floundered like fish out of water, he would be entirely in his element. If ONLY she could have felt surer of him! But thanks to Buddlecombe she knew that, no matter how fixed he seemed, at the first trifling unpleasantness — a hint, for example, that medically he was on the shelf — he would be up and off to prove the contrary; perhaps again, as on the last occasion, not even condescending to tell her where the trouble lay. Oh dear! it WOULD be nice to have a husband who saw things sensibly and practically — as one did oneself. How the two of them could then have put their heads together. Instead of her always having to make allowance for unreckonable impulses.

One comfort: there was no more talk on his part of going “home” with his fortune. The old foolish idea that he would be happier in England had been knocked on the head. At considerable expense, and much worry and trouble, poor old Richard! Still, if he WOULD buy his experience in this costly fashion. . . . Here, however, her musings were cut short by the entrance of Mrs. Devine in shawl and bonnet, and struggling to button a magenta kid glove across a palm not built for such a covering: it bulged through the opening, creased and rolled with fat. The good lady was keyed up to a high pitch with domestic disasters — a chipped wineglass, a scrap of flue found under a bed —“Liars and deceivers every one, dearie!” But the great red face beamed with goodwill. No malice was in it; only the delights of the chase; so that the onlooker was reluctantly driven to conclude that Mrs. Devine heartily enjoyed her slave-driving.

And her private doubts and scruples notwithstanding, Mary could not but feel pleased and proud, for Richard’s sake, at the stir caused by the announcement that he had no further need to practise medicine. Congratulations showered on him. Himself, he laughed, in his new, happy fashion. “I declare, so much fuss they make, I might have discovered the North Pole.” And having got him safely away from the tyrannic rules Mrs. Devine considered essential to his comfort — or the comfort of his blue blood — and settled in a furnished house near the Carlton Gardens, Mary prepared to guide him gently and imperceptibly along the road she thought it for his good he should go. In doing this, however, she found herself up against a stone wall, in the shape of a hitherto unsuspected trait in Richard: a violent aversion from returning on his traces. When it dawned on him that she was still hankering after Ballarat, he lost his temper, and vowed with the utmost vehemence that WHEN he was done with a place he WAS done, and wild horses shouldn’t drag him back to it.

“Good God, Mary! one’s dead self would confront one at every turn. Here one did this, there that. You don’t stock-take, my dear, when you’re going on living in a place; but a break — and even a brief one — forces you to it . . . in murderous fashion. I should thank you for the constant reminder how life is flying, and how little one has made of it, and what a fool one was in the past, and yet how full of hopes and aspirations.”— With cobwebby stuff such as this, there was no coming to grips.

No, it was to be Melbourne this time. What was more, he had resolved to build his own house. He was sick to death of suiting his needs to those of other people.

BUILD? . . . well yes, there was something to be said for it: Mary hastily swallowed her dismay, seeing his feathers rise in earnest. Build? . . . before he knew anything about a locality? Why, a neighbour’s fowls only needed to cackle or crow too early of a morning, railway-whistles or church-bells sound too plainly, and all his peace and pleasure would be gone. She was not going to risk any such contingency as that, thank you! And having wormed the information out of him that he leaned to the district lying between St. Kilda and Brighton, she took John into confidence, and John and she laid their heads together to circumvent his harebrained scheme. A string or two was pulled; and one day, while Richard and she were driving round looking for a site, they happened, as if by chance, on the very house to suit them. One, too, that was not yet in the public market. As John had foreseen, Richard lost his heart to it on the spot, and before the week was out had become its owner. — Well! buying offhand was bad enough; but a good deal less risky than building.

Houses in Melbourne were of two types: either spacious, white, two-storeyed buildings almost as broad as they were long, with balcony and verandah to the front, and needing but to stand in a sandy compound to advertise their origin; or low, sprawly villas a single storey high, Covering much ground space, and wearing their circlet of verandah like a shady hat. Mahony’s purchase was of this latter kind.

Built some ten years previously, by a wealthy squatter who was now about to become a permanent absentee, it stood within half an hour’s walk of the Brighton beach, on a quiet, sandy road the edges of which were fringed with grass and capeweed. The grounds, running to between four and five acres, were well stocked and fully grown; and included kitchen and flower-gardens, a couple of croquet lawns and a fair-sized orchard. From the gates, no glimpse of the house could be caught, so thick were the protecting shrubberies, so closely set the Scotch firs. These grounds turned the scales for Mahony. To get a garden — and such a garden! — ready-made, instead of having to wait for it to grow. In the house itself the only alteration he planned was a large study to be thrown out on the orchard side. Otherwise it suited them to a nicety.

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