The Way Home, by Henry Handel Richardson

Chapter IV

Emmy also served to fill a gap.

As always when forced to live at haphazard, without a fixed routine, Mahony was restless and ill at ease. He had not even a comfortable room to retire to: his present den was the dull little back parlour of a town house. Books, too, he came very short in; it did not seem worth while unpacking those he had brought out with him; and the newly ordered volumes could not be expected to arrive for months to come. Nor did he see much of Mary: what time she had to spare from her relatives was spent in endless discussions with decorators and upholsterers.

The company of his young niece was thus a real boon to him. Emmy had no obligations, was free to go with him when and where he chose. What was more, with neither the cares of a family nor of house-furnishing on her mind, her thoughts never strayed. And a sound friendship sprang up between the oddly matched pair. No longer afraid of her uncle, Emmy displayed a gentle, saucy, laughing humour. Mahony hired a little horse for her and they rode out together, she pinned up in Mary’s old habit; rode out early of a morning while other people were still fast asleep. Their destination was invariably the new house, to see what progress had been made since the day before: holding her habit high, Emmy would run from room to room, exclaiming. Thence they followed quiet, sandy tracks that led through stretches of heath and gorse to the sea. Or they strolled on foot, Emmy hanging on her uncle’s arm and chattering merrily: a simple-hearted, unaffected girl, as natural as she was pretty, which was saying a good deal, for she promised to be a regular beauty. “Strawberries and cream” was Mahony’s name for her. She had inherited her mother’s ripe-corn fairness and limpid, lash-swept eyes; but the wildrose complexion of the English-born woman had here been damped to palest cream, in which, as a striking contrast, stood out two lovely lips of a vivid carnation-red — a daring touch on the part of nature that already drew men’s eyes as she passed. In person, she was soft and round and womanly. But the broad little hands with their slyly bitten nails were still half a child’s. She was childishly unconscious too, of her attractions, innocent in the use to which she put them; and blushed helplessly did any one remark on her appearance — as the outspoken people who surrounded her were only too apt to do. Without being in the least clever, she had a bright open mind, and drank in with interest all Mahony could give her: tales of his travels or of the early days; descriptions of books and plays; little homilies on the wonders of nature. If he had a fault to find with her, it was that she seemed just as sweetly grateful for, say, “Auntie Julia’s” enjoinders how to hold her crotchet-needle, or hints on dress and deportment, as to him for his deeper lore. Yes, the child had an artless and inborn desire to please, and dissipated her favours in a manner that belonged very surely to her age . . . and her sex. For he might say “child,” but let him remember that his own little Polly-Mary had been but a couple of months older, when he ran her off from among her playmates and friends.

Altogether there was much about John’s daughter — no! not thus would he put it — about Mary’s niece, that reminded him of Mary herself, as a little mouse of a bride long years ago. And not the least striking point of resemblance was this whole-hearted surrender of attention. It would, of course, be unreasonable to expect the faculty to persist: life in its course brought, to even the fondest of wives, distractions, cares and interests of her own. But there was no denying it, this lack of preoccupation it was, this freedom — even emptiness if you would — of mind, into which oneself poured the contents, that rendered a very young woman so delightful a companion.

And when, at length, the move to the new house was made, and Mahony set about unpacking, arranging and cataloguing the books he had, and planning where those to come should be shelved, Emmy was still his right hand. Mary, busy with strange servants, with the stocking of kitchen and larder, could do no more than occasionally look in to see how the two of them were getting on, and keep them supplied with refreshment. Good-naturedly she yielded Emmy entirely to Richard, who now passed to overhauling his minerals, plants and butterflies, all of which had made the journey to England with him and back. And glass cases, stacks of blotting-paper and sheets of cork were set up afresh in this big, pleasant room, the windows of which looked down a vista cut through spreading oleanders to where, in the orchard, peach and almond-blossom vied in pinkness against a pale blue sky.

But it was not very long before Emmy was spirited away to grace her father’s table. Then, his own affairs in order, domestic appointments running smoothly, Mahony drove out with Mary in the neat brougham he had given her, to return some of the visits that had been paid them. Later on, too, he accompanied her to dinners, balls and soirees; or played the host at his own table, which Mary soon filled with guests.

The society in which they here found themselves had a variety and a breadth about it that put it on a very different footing from either the narrow Ballarat circle of earlier years, or the medieval provincialism into which they had stumbled overseas. And moments came when, squarely facing the facts, Mahony admitted to himself he might go farther and fare worse: in other words, that he could now never hope to know anything better. The most diverse tastes were catered for. There was the ultra-fashionable set that revolved round Government House and the vice-regal entertainments; that covered the lawns at Flemington and Caulfield; drove out in splendid four and six-in-hands to champagne picnics at Yan Yean; overflowed the dress circle at the Theatre Royal, where Bandmann was appearing in his famous roles; the ladies decked for all occasions — lawn, theatre, picnics, dusty streets alike — in the flimsiest and costliest of robes. At the head of this aristocracy of wealth stood those primitive settlers the great squatter-kings, owners of sheep-runs that counted up to a hundred thousand acres: men whose incomes were so vast that they hardly knew how to dispense them, there existing here no art treasures to empty the purse, nor any taste to buy them had they existed. Neither did travel tempt these old colonists, often of humble origin, whose prime had been spent buried in the bush; while it had not yet become the fashion to educate sons and daughters “at home.” Since, however, fortunes were still notoriously precarious — flood or fire could ruin a man overnight — and since, too, the sense of uncertainty that characterised the early days had bitten too deep ever to be got out of the blood, “spend while you may” remained the motto men lived by. And this led to a reckless extravagance that had not its equal. Women lavished money on dress, which grew to be a passion in this fair climate; on jewellery with which to behang their persons; on fantastic entertainments; men drank, betted, gambled; while horse-racing had already become, with both sexes, the obsession it was to remain. This stylish set — it also included fabulously lucky speculators, as well as the great wool-buyers — Mahony did not do much more than brush in passing. His sympathies inclined rather to that which revolved round the trusty prelate who, having guided the destinies of the Church through the ups and downs of its infancy, now formed a pivot for the intellectual interests of the day — albeit of a somewhat non-progressive, anti-modern kind. Still, the atmosphere that prevailed in the pleasant rooms at Bishopscourt was the nearest thing to be found to the urbane, unworldly air of English university or cathedral life. Next in order came the legal luminaries, Irishmen for the most part, with keen, ugly faces and scathingly witty tongues; men whose enormous experience made them the best of good company. And to this clique belonged also the distinguished surgeons and physicians of the eastern hill; the bankers, astutest of financiers; with, for spice, the swiftly changing politicians of the moment, here one day, gone the next, with nothing but their ideas or their energy to recommend them, and dragging with them wives married in their working days . . . well, the less said of the wives the better.

Such was the society in which Mahony was now called on to take his place. And the result was by so much the most vivid expression of his personality he had yet succeeded in giving, that it became THE one that imprinted itself on men’s minds, to the confusion of what had gone before and was to come after: became the reality from which his mortal shadow was thrown. —“Mahony?” would be the query in later years. “Mahony? Ah yes, of course, you mean Townshend-Mahony of ‘Ultima Thule,’” this being the name he had bestowed on his new house. — Mary regarded him fondly and with pride. Certain it was, no matter in what circle she moved, whose dinner-table he sat at, whose hearthrug he stood on, he was by far the most distinguished-looking man in the room. And not only this: a kind of mellowness now descended on him, a new tolerance with his fellowmen. The lines of work and worry disappeared; he filled out both in face and figure, and loved to tease Mary by declaring he was on the high road to growing fat. He brushed up his musical accomplishments, too; and his pleasant tenor, his skill as a flute-player, brought him into fresh demand. Miss Timms-Kelly, Judge Kelly’s daughter, who had quite the finest amateur voice in Melbourne, was heard to say she preferred Richard’s second in a duet to any other; and many an elaborate aria, full of shakes and trills, did she warble to his OBBLIGATO on the flute.

How happy all this made Mary, she could not have told. To know Richard even moderately contented would have satisfied her; to see him actually taking pleasure in life caused her Cup to run over. She had now not a care left, hardly a wish unfulfilled. And she showed it. The eclipse in health and good looks she had suffered by reason of her transplantation was past: never had she felt better than at present; while in appearance she bloomed anew — enjoyed a kind of Indian summer. At thirty-two, an age when, in the trying climate of the colony, a woman was, as often as not, hopelessly faded, Mary did not need to fear comparison with ladies ten years her junior. Her skin was still flawless, eye as brilliant, her hair as glossy as of old. In figure she inclined to the statuesque, without being either too tall or too full: arms and shoulders were unsurpassed in their rounded whiteness. A certain breadth of brow alone prevented her, at this stage of her life, from being classed among the acknowledged beauties of her sex: it lent her a thoughtful air, where she should have been merely pleasing. — But, after all, what did this matter? Her real beauty, as Richard often reflected, consisted in the warmth and loving-kindness that beamed from her eyes, illuminating a face which never a malicious thought had twisted or deformed. Her expression was, of course, no more one of utter unsuspicion — experience had seen to that — just as her mind was no longer afflicted with the adorable blindness that had been its leading trait in girlhood. Mary now knew very well that evil existed, and that mortals were prone to it. But she would not allow that it could be inborn; held fast to her unconquerable belief in the innate goodness of every living soul; and was never at a loss to exonerate the sinner. “No wonder he’s what he is, after the life he has been forced to lead. We mightn’t have turned out any better ourselves, with his temptations.” Or: “She has never had a chance, poor thing! Circumstances have always been against her.”

With her anxieties on Richard’s behalf, Mary’s ambitions for him — that he should climb the tree, make a name — also gradually sank to rest. Her mind was thus at liberty to follow its own bent. Fond though she was of her fellow-creatures, the formal round of social life had never made a very deep appeal to her: she liked to see people merry and enjoying themselves, but she herself needed something more active to engross her. Her house, well staffed, well run, claimed only a fraction of her attention. Hence she had plenty of time to devote herself to what Richard called her true mission in life: the care of others — especially of the poor and suffering, the unhappy and unsure. And many a heart was lightened by having Mary to lean on, her strong common sense for a guide. Her purse, too, was an unending solace. Even in the latter years in Ballarat, she had had to dispense her charities carefully, balancing one against another. Now her income was equal to all the calls made on it . . . and more . . . Richard generously bidding her add to her own pin-money anything left over from the handsome cheque he gave her for housekeeping expenses. And since he, mindful of his promise, never inquired what she did with it, she was at last free to give as royally as she chose . . . in any direction. But if he did not ask to see her pass-book, neither did she see his: he would not have her troubling her head, he said, about their general expenditure. At first she rather demurred at this: she would have liked to know how their outlay per month tallied with the sum at their disposal; and she missed the talks they had been used to have, about how best to portion out their income. But Richard said those days were over and done with: she would lose her way, he teased her, among sums of four figures — for, in a twinkling, his late-found affluence had thrown him back on the traditional idea that money affairs were the man’s province, not the woman’s. For her comfort, he stressed once more the fact that he did not intend to speculate; also that at long last, he would, despite the enormous premium, be able to insure his life. In the event of anything happening to him, she would be well provided for, and thus might spend what he gave her freely and without scruple. Yielding to these persuasions, Mary acquiesced in the new arrangement, and gradually slipped into the delightful habit of taking money for granted. After all, the confidence was mutual: he trusted her not to run up bills at milliner’s or jeweller’s; she, too, had to trust in her turn. She valued his faith in her, and was careful not to abuse it. Her own accounts were scrupulously kept: just as in the old days, she wrote down every shilling she spent, and knitted her brows over the halfpennies; with the result that she soon began to accumulate a tidy little nest-egg.

Her charities were her sole extravagance, her personal wants remaining few and simple. Besides, Richard was for ever making her presents. It could not be said of him that his tastes did not expand with his purse. He put his men-servants into livery, stocked his cellars, bought silver table-appliances and egg-shell china, had his crest stamped wherever it could find a place. And the things he bought for her were of the same costly nature. In addition to the carriage, which she had to admit was both useful and necessary, his gifts included jewellery (which she wore more to please him than because she had any real liking for it)— rings and chains, brooches and bracelets — all things HIS wife ought to have and never had had: curling ostrich feathers for hat and fan; gold-mounted mother-of-pearl opera-glasses; hand-painted fans; carved ivory card-cases; ivory-backed brushes and silver vinaigrettes: any fal-lal, in short, that struck his eye or caught his fancy.

There came a day on which he fairly outdid himself. Soon after inscribing their names in the visiting-book at Government House, they received invitations to a ball there, in honour of two men-of-war that were anchored in the Bay — a very select affair indeed: none of your promiscuous May Day crushes! As it would be their first appearance in style, Mahony — a trifle uncertain whether Mary would do the thing handsomely enough — insisted on fitting her out. The pale blue silk he chose for her gown was finest Lyons, the cost of which, without making, ran to thirty pounds: Mary had never seen a silk like it. It was got privatim through John, who had it direct from the French factory. John, too, was responsible for the crowning glory of Mary’s attire. For after Richard had added a high, pearl-studded Spanish comb for her hair, John one day showed him a wonderful shawl that had just come into the warehouse, suggesting it would look well on Mary. And for once Mahony found himself in agreement with his brother-in-law. Of softest cashmere, supple as silk — and even softer to the touch — the scarlet ground of the shawl was well-nigh hidden by a massive white Indian embroidery; so that the impression gained was one of sumptuous white silk, broken by flecks of red. It was peaked, burnous-like, to form a hood, and this and the corners were hung with heavy white silk tassels. So magnificent an affair was it that Mary had severe qualms about wearing it: in her heart she considered it far too showy and elaborate. But Richard had no doubt paid an enormous price for it, and would be hurt into the bargain if she said what she thought.

He himself was charmed with the effect, when she draped it over the sky-blue of the gown. “Upon my word, my dear, you’ll put every other woman in the shade!”

But even he was not prepared for the stir that ran through the ballroom on their arrival. In among the puces and magentas, the rose-budded pinks and forget-me-notted blues came Mary, trailing a bit of oriental splendour, and wearing it, as only she could, with a queenly yet unconscious air. Seated on a dais among the matrons — for nowadays she danced only an occasional “square,” leaving round dances to the young — Mary drew the fire of all eyes.

And it was not the opera-cloak alone.

“A skin like old Florentine ivory!” declared an Englishman fresh from “home.” The guest of the Governor, he was wandering through this colonial assembly much as a musical connoisseur might wander through a cattle-yard. Till Mary caught his eye . . . . And when she dropped the cloak, for the honour of a quadrille with his Excellency, this same visitor was heard to dilate on the tints cast by the blue on the ivory . . . to murmur of Goya . . . Velasquez.

Subsequently he was introduced, and sat by her side for the better part of an hour.

At two o’clock, when Mahony handed her to the carriage, it was with something of the lover-like elan that even the least fond husband feels on seeing his wife the centre of attraction.

“Now, madam! . . . wasn’t I right? Who was the success of the evening I should like to know?”

“Oh, Richard . . . Put up the window, dear, it’s cold. If there can be any talk of a success . . . then it’s the cloak you mean, not me.”

“It took you to carry it off, love. Not another woman in the room could have done it. Made it seem very well worth the price I had to pay for it.”

“Which reminds me, you haven’t yet told me what that was.”

“My business, sweetheart! Yours to play the belle and get compared to the old masters by admiring strangers.”

“REALLY, Richard!” Mary made the deprecating movement of the chin with which she was wont to rebuke extravagances. “Why, dear, he was so high-falutin I didn’t know half the time what he was talking about.” Then fearing she had been too severe, she added: “Of course I’m very glad you were pleased,”— and hoped that was the end of it. Compliments, even from one’s husband, were things to be evaded if possible. “Well, I must remember poor Jinny and not hoard it up for the moths to get at.” But there was more than a dash of doubt in Mary’s tone, and she sighed. Not merely for Jinny. She did not know when another opportunity so splendid as this evening’s would arise. For an ordinary one, such finery would certainly be out of place.

“Wear it or not as you please, love. It has served its end . . . stamped itself on a moment of time,” said Mahony; and fell therewith into a brown study.

But as he helped her from the carriage he stooped and kissed her . . . which Mary was very much afraid the coachman saw.

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