The Way Home, by Henry Handel Richardson

Chapter VI

For the first time in his life Mahony found himself in possession of all the books he wanted: rare books hard to get; expensive books he had till now never felt justified in buying. And Mary, his social conscience, being absent, he fell into depths of abstraction from which there was nothing to rouse him.

His two old arch-enemies time and money — or rather the lack of them — had definitely ceased to plague him. His leisure was unbounded, the morrow well provided for, and the material comfort of his present surroundings such as he had hitherto known only in dreams. No domestic sounds rasped his ear, scattered his attention; his spacious study, book-lined from ceiling to floor, stood apart from the rest of the house, and was solidly built. Was cool and airy, too; even in the heat of midday he caught a whiff of the sea. The garden with its shrubberies and lawns of buffalo-grass, its spreading figtrees and dark firs, rested and refreshed the eye. His meals appeared on the table as by clockwork, served as he liked them, cooked to a turn. And so greatly did the hermit’s life he now led jump with his mood, that invitations to social functions grew fly-spotted on the chimney-shelf, or were swept up by the housemaid from the floor.

He first undertook to examine the great moderns: those world-famous scientists and their philosophic spokesmen who dominated the intellectual life of the day. So far he had read their works only in snatches, and at random. He now re-read them systematically; followed step by step the presentment of their monumental theories — the idea of evolution, the origin of species, the antiquity of man — as well as the constructive or subversive conclusions deduced therefrom.

Thus weeks passed. At the end of this time — Mary being still from home — he emerged heavy-eyed and a trifle dazed, from sittings protracted late into the night, and paused to take his bearings. And it was now, on looking back over what he had read, that he became aware of a feeling of dissatisfaction. Chiefly with regard to the mental attitude of the writers themselves. So sound were their arguments that they might well, he thought, have refrained from the pontifical airs they saw fit to adopt; having been a shade less intolerant of views and beliefs that did not dovetail with their own. Riding on the crest of the highest wave of materialism that had ever broken over the world, they themselves were satisfied that life and its properties could be explained, to the last iota, in terms of matter; and, dogmatically pronouncing their interpretation of the universe to be the only valid one, they laid a crushing veto on any suggestion of a possible spiritual agency. Here it was, he parted company with them. For the same thing had surely happened before, in the world’s history, bodies of learned men arising at various epochs in divers lands, and claiming to have solved the great riddle once and for all? Over and above this, did Huxley’s inflamed outbursts against the “cosmogony of the semi-barbarous Hebrew”; his sighs that the “myths of Paganism, dead as Osiris or Zeus,” had not been followed to their graves by the “coeval imaginations current among the rude inhabitants of Palestine”; his bald definition of science as “trained and organised common sense”— DID Huxley’s type of mind, or yet that of another well-known savant, who declared that one should decide beforehand what was possible and what not, incline you to trust these men’s verdict on the spiritual issues of human existence? In his own case, certainly not. He believed and would continue to believe it impossible wholly to account for life and its phenomena, in terms of physiology, chemistry and physics.

Another thing that baffled him was: why, having advanced to a certain point, should they suddenly stop short, with a kingly gesture of: “Thus far and no farther”? Devoting decades of laborious research to the ORIGIN of life on this globe, its age, its evolution, why should they leave untouched two questions of still more vital import: life’s ultimate goal, and the moral mysteries of the soul of man? Yes, the chief bone he had to pick with them was that they had no will to fathom such deeps; plumed themselves instead on cold-shouldering them; flaunted as their device: IGNORAMUS ET IGNORABIMUS. Arrogantly sure of themselves, carried away by a passion for facts, they covered with ridicule those — the seers, the poets, the childlike in heart — who, over and above the rational and knowable, caught glimpses of what was assumed to be unknowable; declaring, with a fierce and intolerant unimaginativeness, that the assertion which outstripped the evidence was not only a blunder, but a crime. Strange, indeed, was it to watch these masters toiling to interpret human life, yet denying it all hope of a further development, any issue but that of eternal nothingness. For his part, he could not see why the evolution-formula should be held utterly to rule out the transcendental-formula. But so it was; every line of their works confirmed it . . . confirmed, too, the reader’s opinion that, in their bigoted attitude of mind, they differed not so very markedly from those hard-and-fast champions of orthodoxy who, in the rising flood of enlightenment, remained perilously clinging to the vanishing rock of dogma and tradition. On the one hand, for all answer to the burning needs and questions of the hour, the tale of Creation as told in Genesis, the Thirty-nine Articles, the intolerable Athanasian Creed; on the other, as bitterly stubborn an agnosticism — each surely, in the same degree, stones for bread. One would have liked to call to them: Fear not to turn the light of research on the conception of that immortality which you affirm . . . which you deny.

Thus it came about that, little by little, Mahony found himself drifting away from the barren conclusions of science: just as in earlier years he had cast loose from a too rigid orthodoxy. Occult subjects had always had a strong fascination for him, and he now turned back to them; read ancient screeds on alchemy and astrology; the writings of Paracelsus and Apollonius of Tyana. Thence he dived into mysticism; studied the biographies of Saint Theresa, Joseph Glanvill, Giordano Bruno; and pondered anew the trance history of Swedenborg. Men and women like these, living their lives as a kind of experiment, and an arduous and painful experiment at that, were yet supported and uplifted by the consciousness of a mighty power outside, and at the same time within themselves: a bottomless well of spiritual strength. Out of this inspiration they taught confidently that all life emanated from God (no matter what form it assumed in its progress), to God would return, and in Him continue to exist. Yes, spirituality outstripped intellect; there were mysteries at once too deep and too simple for learned brains to fathom. Actually, the unlettered man who said: “God is, and I am of God!” came nearest to reading the riddle of the universe. How cold and comfortless, too, the tenet that this one brief span of being ended all. Without faith in a life to come, how endure, stoically, the ills that here confronted us? . . . the injustices of human existence, the evil men did, the cruelty of man to his brothers, of God to man? Postulate a Hereafter, and the hope arose that, some day, the ultimate meaning of all these apparent contradictions would be made plain: the endless groping, struggling, suffering prove but rungs in the ladder of humanity’s upward climb. Not for him the Byzantine Heaven of the churches, with its mental stagnation, its frozen immobility, wherein a jealous God, poorer in charity than the feeble creatures built in His image, spent Eternity damning those who had failed to propitiate Him. Nor yet the doctrine of the Fall of a perfect man from grace. Himself he held this present life to be but a portal, an antechamber, where dwelt an imperfect but wholly vital creation, which, growing more and more passionately aware with the passing of the ages of its self-contained divinity, would end by achieving, by being reabsorbed in, the absolute consciousness of the Eternal.

Yes, old faiths lay supine, stunned by the hammer blows of science; and science had nothing soul-satisfying to offer in their place. Surely now, if ever, the age was ripe for a new revelation: racked by doubts, or cut to the heart by atheistic denial, it cried aloud for a fresh proof of God’s existence, and of God’s concern with man. — Restlessly feeling his way, Mahony set himself to take the measure, where he had so far only dabbled in it, of the new movement spiritualism, which, from its rise in a tiny American hamlet, had run like a wildfire over Europe. If what its followers claimed for it was true — and among them were men of standing whose words could not be dismissed with a shrug — if the spirits of those who had crossed the bourne were really able . . . as in the days of Moses and the prophets . . . to return and speak with their loved ones — then it meant that a new crisis had arisen in man’s relation to the Unseen, with which both science and religion would eventually have to reckon. Unlike the majority, he was not put off by the commonplace means of communication employed — the rappings and the tappings, the laborious telling over of the alphabet — nor yet by the choice, as agents, or the illiterate and immature. He recalled the early history of Christianity: the Chaldean shepherds; the Judean carpenter’s shop; the unlettered fishermen; the sneers and gibes of Roman society. God’s ways had never been, never would be man’s ways. Why, even as it was, some found the practice of conventional Christianity none too easy, thanks to the frailty of the human channels through which the great message had to pass: the supercilious drawl of a ritualistic parson; one’s inability to admit that a bad priest might read a true Mass; the fact that the celebrant from whom you received the Eucharist was known to be, in his spare hours, drinker and gambler, or one of those who systematically hunted small animals to death. Measured by such stumbling-blocks as these, the spiritualists’ sincere faith and homely conduct of their seances did not need to shirk comparison. Indeed, there would sometimes seem to be more genuine piety at their meetings than at many an ordinary church service. But, however one looked at it, the question to be answered remained: was it possible to draw from this new movement proofs of the knowledge one’s soul craved — the continuity of existence; the nearness, the interwovenness, of the spiritual world to the material; the eternal and omnipotent presence of the Creator?

* * * * *

Mary wrote: WHAT IN ALL THE WORLD ARE YOU DOING WITH YOURSELF RICHARD? THE CARTERS QUITE EXPECTED YOU LAST WEDNESDAY, AND THE RENTOULS HAD A PLACE LAID AT DINNER FOR YOU ON FRIDAY EVENING. BOTH WRITE ME HOPING YOU WERE NOT KEPT AWAY BY ILLNESS. I THINK IT’S TIME I CAME HOME TO LOOK AFTER YOU.

To which Mahony replied: NONSENSE, MY DEAR, I AM GETTING ON CAPITALLY— SERVANTS MOST ATTENTIVE, AND COOK DISHING ME UP ALL MANNER OF GOOD THINGS. DO NOT HURRY BACK ON MY ACCOUNT.

Mary’s next letter bore the heading “Yarangobilly,” and ran:

YOU SEE WHERE I AM NOW. THE URQUHARTS INSISTED ON MY COMING OUT— AND TILLY WITH ME. THERE’S A LARGE PARTY HERE AS USUAL, AND PICNICS, DANCING, MUSIC AND SINGING GO ON ALL THE TIME. I WAS SORRY TO LEAVE BALLARAT, WHICH IS AS LOVELY AS EVER, AND EVERY ONE JUST AS KIND. WILLY IS JUST THE SAME; SO FULL OF LIFE AND FUN YOU REALLY CAN’T HELP LIKING HIM, HOWEVER MUCH YOU MAY DISAPPROVE. BOTH HE AND LOUISA SEEM PLEASED TO HAVE ME AND ARE FULL OF REGRETS THAT YOU ARE NOT WITH ME. I THINK IT IS A GREAT PITY YOU DIDN’T TAKE MY ADVICE AND COME TOO. EVER SO MANY PEOPLE HAVE INQUIRED AFTER YOU.

NOT I! was Richard’s response. THEY NEVER WANTED ME WHEN I WAS AMONG THEM; WHY ON EARTH SHOULD THEY MISS ME NOW? . . . WHEN THEY’VE HAD AMPLE TIME TO FORGET ALL ABOUT ME. IT’S ONLY YOUR OWN IMAGINATION.

And Mary: WHAT RUBBISH YOU DO TALK, DEAR! I BELIEVE YOU’RE GROWING ODD AND FANCIFUL THROUGH BEING SO MUCH ALONE. DO GO OUT MORE, AND NOT COOP YOURSELF UP SO. — WELL, WE’RE STILL HERE. LOUISA WON’T HEAR OF OUR LEAVING; IT’S QUITE A CHANGE FOR HER TO HAVE FRIENDS OF HER OWN IN THE HOUSE— THE OTHERS ARE MOSTLY WILLY’S. POOR LOUISA THROUGH NEVER GETTING AWAY— I MEAN WITH ALL THE BABIES, ETC. MAKES HARDLY ANY. SHE LOOKS FAR OLDER THAN HER AGE, AND “VERY” DOWDY. SHE NEEDS SOME ONE TO TAKE HER IN HAND AND FRESHEN HER UP. I’VE MADE HER PROMISE TO SPEND AT LEAST A MONTH WITH ME AFTER I GET BACK— THE LAST BABY’S WELL OVER A YEAR NOW, AND THERE ARE NO FRESH EXPECTATIONS IN THE MEANTIME, THANK GOODNESS . . . TWELVE ARE SURELY ENOUGH. I INTEND TO STITCH A ROSE IN HER BONNET, AND TEACH HER HOW TO DO HER HAIR. ALSO GET HER INTO ONE OF THE NEW BUSTLES— HER DRESSES ARE IN THE STYLE OF THE YEAR ONE. SHE WOULD STILL BE QUITE PRETTY IF NICELY DRESSED, AND I THINK THAT WOULD BE MUCH MORE EFFECTIVE THAN SITTING MOPING AND FRETTING, AND NOT CARING HOW SHE LOOKS. FRETTING ABOUT WILLY, I MEAN. I’M AFRAID HE’S INCURABLE. HE’S VERY MUCH EPRIS AGAIN AT PRESENT. THIS TIME IT’S A FASCINATING WIDOW WHO’S STOPPING HERE— A VERY CHARMING PERSON, AND INTERESTED UNFORTUNATELY IN EVERYTHING WILLY’S INTERESTED IN— HORSES, DOGS, RIDING, DRIVING, CATTLE AND SHEEP— TO CUT IT SHORT, ALL LOUISA ISN’T.

A week later. I HAD A LONG TALK WITH MRS. MARRINER— THAT’S THE WIDOW-LADY I MENTIONED IN MY LAST. SHE’S REALLY MUCH ATTACHED TO LOUISA, AND WOULD BE HER FRIEND IF ONLY LOUISA WOULD LET HER. (NOW I’M NOT IMAGINING THIS!) BUT L. IS SO JEALOUS THAT SHE CAN HARDLY BE CIVIL. THERE WAS QUITE A SCENE LAST NIGHT. IT ENDED BY POOR LOUISA GOING TO BED IN FLOODS OF TEARS. OF COURSE I CAN SEE IT FROM HER SIDE, TOO. IT MUST BE VERY HARD TO KNOW THAT ANOTHER WOMAN PLEASES YOUR HUSBAND BETTER THAN YOU DO. STILL, WILLY HAS HAD SO MANY FANCIES IN HIS DAY, I THINK LOUISA NEEDN’T TAKE THIS ONE TOO SERIOUSLY. GRACEY— MRS. MARRINER, THAT IS— WAS QUITE UPSET ABOUT IT HERSELF. SHE IS REALLY VERY CHARMING AND IT ISN’T EXACTLY HER FAULT: SHE CAN’T HELP PLEASING. AND SO SENSIBLE, TOO. WE HAD A TALK, SHE AND I, ABOUT POOR AGNES AND HER FAILING— SHE KNOWS ALL ABOUT IT— AND SHE QUITE AGREES WITH ME, IT’S REALLY SOME ONE’S DUTY TO TACKLE MR. HENRY.

And again: OH NO, RICHARD, YOU’VE GOT QUITE A FALSE IDEA OF HER. SHE’S ANYTHING BUT DESIGNING— NOT ONE OF THOSE WIDOWS WHO GO ABOUT SETTING THEIR CAPS AT MEN. BUT YOU’LL BE ABLE TO SEE FOR YOURSELF; FOR SHE TALKS OF TAKING A HOUSE AT BRIGHTON. AND I’M SURE YOU’LL LIKE HER, AND GET ON WELL WITH HER— SHE’S SO CLEVER. YOU SHOULD HAVE HEARD HER YESTERDAY EVENING DISCUSSING THE REFORM OF GAOLS AND PENITENTIARIES WITH A GENTLEMAN WHO’S STAYING HERE. WE OTHER LADIES FELT OUR NOSES QUITE PUT OUT OF JOINT.

Back in Ballarat, Mary wrote: WELL! I’VE DONE THE DEED, DEAR. I THOUGHT IT BEST NOT TO MENTION IT BEFOREHAND, FOR I KNEW YOU WOULD WRITE ABOUT MINDING ONE’S OWN BUSINESS, NOT INTERFERING BETWEEN HUSBAND AND WIFE, ETC. TILLY AND I CAME BACK TO “BEAMISH HOUSE” AT THE END OF THE WEEK, AND ON WEDNESDAY OFF I WENT AND PAID A VISIT TO MR. HENRY. HE COULDN’T HAVE RECEIVED ME MORE CIVILLY. HE TOLD HIS CLERK HE WOULD SEE NOBODY ELSE WHILE I WAS THERE, AND HAD WINE AND BISCUITS FETCHED— I CAN TELL YOU, PAID ME EVERY ATTENTION. HE ALSO ASKED MOST KINDLY AFTER YOU. — AS YOU MAY GUESS, I APPROACHED THE SUBJECT OF AGNES VERY GINGERLY. JUST HINTED I HAD SEEN HER AND HOW SORRY I WAS TO FIND HER IN SUCH A POOR STATE OF HEALTH. HE WAS RATHER RESERVED AT FIRST. BUT WHEN I GAVE HIM TO UNDERSTAND SHE HAD CONFIDED IN ME, AND HOW BROKEN-HEARTED SHE WAS AND WHAT REPROACHES SHE WAS MAKING HERSELF, AND WHEN I SYMPATHISED WITH HIM OVER THE LOSS OF SUCH A BEAUTIFUL CHILD . . . WHY, THEN HE QUITE THAWED AND CAME OUT OF HIS SHELL. INDEED ALL BUT BROKE DOWN. THINK OF THAT WITH MR. HENRY, WHO HAS ALWAYS BEEN SO COLD AND STERN! YOU’LL PERHAPS SAY IT IS CHIEFLY HIS PRIDE HE HAS BEEN HURT IN: BUT DON’T YOU THINK THAT’S HARD ENOUGH, FOR A MAN LIKE HIM? WELL, ONE THING LED TO ANOTHER, AND BEFORE LONG WE WERE TALKING QUITE FREELY ABOUT POOR LITTLE AGNES AND HER TERRIBLE WEAKNESS. HE ADMITTED HE WAS AT HIS WITS’ END TO KNOW WHAT TO DO WITH HER. HAD HAD SOME THOUGHTS OF PUTTING HER IN A HOME, UNDER A DOCTOR’S CARE: BUT SHRINKS FROM THE PUBLICITY AND DISGRACE. THEN HE FEARS HER BAD EXAMPLE ON THE CHILDREN— THE BOY GEORGY IS SEVEN NOW, AND SHARP AS A NEEDLE. ONE THING I MADE HIM PROMISE AND THAT WAS, TO LET AGNES LEAVE THAT DREADFUL HOUSE AND COME TO US FOR A BIT, WHERE SHE CAN HAVE THE CHILDREN WITH HER AGAIN. (I’LL TAKE GOOD CARE THEY DON’T DISTURB YOU, DEAR.) WHEN I CAME AWAY HE TOOK BOTH MY HANDS AND SHOOK THEM AND SAID: “GOD BLESS YOU, MY DEAR MRS. MAHONY! I SHALL NEVER FORGET YOUR GREAT KINDNESS IN THIS MATTER. NOR DO I KNOW ANOTHER SOUL— CERTAINLY NOT ONE OF YOUR SEX— TO WHOM I COULD HAVE SPOKEN AS I HAVE TO YOU.” THINK OF THAT FROM MR. HENRY! TILLY HASN’T GOT OVER IT YET. SHE SAYS IT COMES OF ME HAVING WORN MY BEST BONNET (THE GAY ONE WITH THE FLOWER IN, THAT YOU LIKE). BUT OF COURSE THAT’S ONLY HER NONSENSE. AND I DO FEEL SO GLAD I WENT AND DIDN’T LET MYSELF BE PERSUADED NOT TO.

I HOPE THE SILK VESTS ARE A GREAT SUCCESS, AND THAT YOU REMEMBER THE DAYS FOR CHANGING THEM.

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/r/richardson/henry_handel/r52wh/chapter14.html

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