The Way Home, by Henry Handel Richardson

Chapter VII

“My papeh dotes on music. Positively, I have known my papeh to say he would rather go without his port at dinner than his music after dinner. My papeh has heard all the most famous singers. In his opinion, no one could compare with Malibran.” Thus Miss Timms-Kelly; and at his cue the chubby, white-haired old Judge, surreptitiously snatching forty winks in a dark corner of the drawing-room, would start, open his eyes, and, like a well-trained parrot, echo his daughter’s words.

“Malibran? . . . ah, now there was a voice for you! — Pasta could not hold a candle to her. As a young man I never missed an opera when she sang. Great nights, great nights! The King’s Theatre packed to suffocation. All of us young music-lovers burning with enthusiasm . . . our palms tingling from applause.” Here however, at some private sign, the speaker abruptly switched off his reminiscences, which threatened to carry him away, and got to the matter in hand. —“My dear, give us, if you please, CASTA DIVA. Though I say so myself, there is something in my daughter’s rendering of that divine air that recalls Malibran in her prime.”

A musical party at the Timms-Kellys’ tempted even Mahony forth. On such evenings, in company with other devotees, he would wander up Richmond Hill and through the wooden gates of Vaucluse, where a knot of houses stood sequestered in a grove. The French windows of the Timms-Kellys’ drawing-room were invariably set wide open; and guests climbing the hill could hear, while still some way off, the great voice peal out — like a siren-song that urged and cajoled.

Miss Timms-Kelly herself bore the brunt of the entertainment; occasionally mingling in a duo with some manly second, or with the strains of Mahony’s flute; but chiefly in solo. For the thin little tones of the other ladies, their tinkly performances of “Maiden’s Prayers” and “Warblings at Eve,” or the rollicking strains of a sea ballad (which was mostly what the gentlemen were good for) stood none of them an earthly chance against a voice like hers. It was a contralto, with, in its middle and lower registers, tones of a strange, dark intensity which made of it a real VOIX SOMBRE; yet of such exceptional compass that it was also equal to OR SAI CHI L’ONORE and NON MI DIR, BELL’ IDOL MIO. Mahony used to say there was something in its lower notes that got at you, “like fingers feeling round your heart.” Ladies, while admitting its volume and beauty, were apt to be rendered rather uncomfortable by it; and under its influence would fall to fidgeting in their seats.

In person Miss Timms-Kelly matched her voice: though not over tall she was generously proportioned, with a superb bust and exquisitely sloping shoulders. Along with this handsome figure went piquantly small hands and feet — she boasted a number three shoe — white teeth, full lips, a fresh complexion. But her chief charm lay in her animation of manner: she was alive with verve and gesture; her every second word seemed spoken in italics. Amazing, thought and said all, that one so fascinating should have reached the brink of the thirties without marrying; society had known her now for twelve years, and during this time the marvellous voice had rung out night for night, her old father faithfully drawing attention to its merits, the while he grew ever whiter and sleepier in his corner of the drawing-room.

But the little court that surrounded Miss Timms-Kelly consisted chiefly of married men and bachelors well past marrying age: greybeards who, in listening to the strains of NORMA or SEMIRAMIDE, re-lived their youth. Eligible men fought a little shy of the lady and after a couple of visits to the house were apt to return no more. Happily, Miss Timms-Kelly did not take this greatly to heart. Indeed she even confessed to a relief at their truancy. “All my life, love, I have preferred the company of ELDERLY gentlemen. They make one feel so SAFE.”

In process of dressing for such an evening, Mary remarked: “Of course, it’s very nice of Lizzie to say that . . . and most sensible. But all the same it IS odd — I mean the fact of her never having married. Not only because of her voice — one doesn’t just marry a voice. But she really is a dear, warm-hearted creature. And so generous.” At which Mahony stopped shaving his chin to throw in: “That’s precisely it. Your marriageable man instinctively fears not being able to live up to the fair singer’s generosity.”

“REALLY, Richard! . . . it takes you to say queer things. Now I believe it comes of Lizzie never having had a mother to go about with. She’s been obliged to put herself too much forward.”

But for all his two-edged comments, let Miss Timms-Kelly but open her mouth to sing, and Mahony was hopelessly her slave. His natural instinct for music had outlived even the long years of starvation in this country, where neither taste nor performance was worth a straw. Under the present stimulus, his dormant feelings awoke to new life: when the great voice rang forth he would sit rapt . . . absorbed. And where others, but faintly responsive to the influence, listened with only half an ear, the while they followed their own trains of thought, musing, gently titillated: “How fine the moon to-night!” or “I shall certainly succeed, if I carry through that deal,” or “Perhaps after all Julia will hear my suit,” he surrendered thought for emotion, and climbed the ladder of sound to a world built wholly of sound, where he moved light-footedly and at ease.

“Upon my soul, I would walk ten miles to hear her rendering of an aria by Mozart or Verdi!”

This was all very well in its way — its musical way. But now something happened which brought him with a bump to earth. And, ever after, he twitted and blamed himself with having been the innocent cause of a most unnecessary complication.

Towards the close of her stay in Ballarat, Mary had a second meeting — a chance one, this time — with Mr. Henry Ocock. And Ocock, in his new role of friend and adviser, let fall a hint with regard to a certain mining company in which he believed Mahony held shares. This was not the case; but Mary rather thought John did, begged Richard to find out, and if so, to let him know what was being said. As Mr. Henry’s information had been SUB ROSA, Mahony thought it wise to pass it on by word of mouth, and wrote John saying he would drop in for a moment the following evening, on his way to Richmond: he was bound with his flute for Vaucluse. In the morning, however, John’s groom brought a note asking him to take pot-luck with the family at six o’clock. Such things were possible in John’s house nowadays, under the fairy rule of Miss Julia. And so he found himself that night at John’s dinner-table.

As usual at this stage, when he had not seen his brother-in-law for a time, Mahony’s chief sensation on meeting John was one of discomfort. Without doubt, some great change was at work in John. Lean as a herring, yellow as a Chinaman, he had been for months past. But the change in his manner was even more striking. Gone was much of the high-handedness, the pompous arrogance it had once been so hard to stomach; gone the opulent wordiness of his pronunciamentos. He was now in point of becoming a morose and taciturn sort of fellow; prone, too, to fits of blankness in which, staring straight before him, he seemed to forget your very presence. So much at least was plain: John was not taking the universe by any means so much for granted, as of old.

Money troubles? . . . such was the first thought that leapt to Mahony’s mind. Then he laughed at himself. John’s business flourished like the green baytree: you never heard of it but it was putting forth a fresh shoot in a fresh direction. No lack of money there! — the notion was just a telling example of how one instinctively tried to read into another, what had been one’s own chief bogey. Besides, the warning passed on by Mary left John cold: he waved it aside with a gesture that said: a few thousands more or less signified nothing to him. Could the wife’s idea that he was fretting over the loss of his boy be the right one? Again, no: that was just a woman’s interpretation: HE jumped to money, she to the emotional, the personal. Then after all it must be John’s health that was causing him anxiety. But a tactful question on this score called forth so curt a negative that he could not press it.

Not till the nuts and port were on the table did John shake off his abstraction. Then his trio of little girls ran into the room — with the playful antics of so many tame white mice — ran in and rubbed their sleek little comb-ringed heads against their father’s, and climbed over him with their thin little white-stockinged legs. And John became solely the fond parent, gathering his children to him, taking the youngest on his knee and holding her to his watered-silk waistcoat, letting them play with the long gold chain from which depended his PINCE-NEZ, count his studs with their little fingers, disarrange the ends of his tie. At the lower end of the table Emmy, who had presided over the meal a radiant vision in white muslin and blue ribbons, flushed, drooped her head, and looked as though she were going to cry. For though the lovely girl had throughout dinner hung distractingly on her father’s lips, he had never so much as glanced in her direction.

In watching her, Mahony fell into a reverie, so vividly did she remind him of her dead mother, and the one — the only — time he had seen John’s first wife. It was here, in this very room, that the gracious Emma, the picture of all that was comely, had dandled her babes. One of the two, like herself, had vanished from mortal eyes. The other, a full-grown woman in her turn, was now ripe for her fate.

When Emmy shepherded the little girls to their nursery, he turned to John. “Upon my soul, it makes a man realise his age, to see the young ones come on as they do.”

Something in this reflection seemed to flick John. His response was more in his old style. “You say so? For my part I cannot admit to feeling a day older than I did ten years back. I am not aware of any decrease of vigour. I still rise at six, take a cold shower-bath, and attend to business for a couple of hours before breakfast. I have needed neither to diet myself for a gouty constitution, nor to coddle myself in flannel. Age? Bah! At forty-six a man is in the prime of his life!”

After this one outburst, however, he relapsed into his former moody silence; and they sat smoking, with scant speech, till Mahony rose to leave. Then it turned out that John had forgotten the existence of a previous engagement on Mahony’s side, and now made a lame attempt to overthrow it. (“Looks as if he didn’t want to be left to his own thoughts!”) This being impossible, Mahony suggested that John should accompany him, and undertook to guarantee him a hearty welcome: it would be well worth his while to hear Miss Timms-Kelly sing. At first John pooh-poohed the suggestion; musical evenings were not in his line; and though he had knocked up against old Timms-Kelly at the Club, he had never met the daughter. However, in the end he allowed himself to be persuaded; and off they went, in company.

“And that, my dear, was how it came about in the first place. I dragged him with me, like the fool I was. And, once there, the game was up. From the moment John entered the drawing-room, your friend Lizzie made what I can only describe as a dead set at him. She never took her eyes off him. She talked to him, she talked at him; she sang for him, asked his opinion of her selections; and there sat John, who doesn’t know doh from re, or a major key from a minor, tapping his foot to the tune and looking as if he had been a judge of music all his life. On two occasions afterwards, I found him there. Mind you, only two. Then came that unfortunate evening at ERNANI. It’s no use asking ME, Mary, how the muddle occurred. I can’t tell you; I had nothing to do with it. All I know is, after the opera Mrs. Vance had to be escorted back to North Melbourne; and this job naturally fell to me, John not being the man to shoulder unpleasant duties if he can, with propriety, put them off on some one else. Well, we hired a wagonette and drove away — in a violent thunder-shower — leaving the other three outside the theatre. But it appears that somehow or other, what with the rain and the crush, the two of them lost sight of the old man. According to John’s account they stood waiting for him to turn up till Miss Lizzie’s teeth were chattering with cold. There seemed nothing for it but for him to call a cab and drive her home. He did so, and the next morning I’m hanged if he doesn’t get a furious letter from the father, accusing them of having slipped off alone on purpose. John heads straight for Vaucluse to apologise; and when he gets there the old man hammers the table, declares his daughter has been compromised, and ends by demanding to know John’s intentions. Now I ask you, what could John — what could any man with the feelings of a gentleman — do, but offer the only reparation in his power and at once propose for her hand? Therewith, of course the old boy cools down . . . becomes amiability itself. I don’t know, my dear, whether John was really guilty of an indiscretion — that’s his affair. But if you want my candid opinion, I think the whole thing was a put-up job. Your friend Lizzie is a veritable Leyden jar.”

Mary, whom the news of John’s engagement had brought flying home from Ballarat, here uttered a disclaimer. “Tch! There you go, Richard . . . jumping to conclusions . . . as usual. Still, I must say . . . I’m confident, as far as John was concerned, he had no idea of marrying again. I really don’t know what to think.”

“Ah! but such a dear, kind, generous creature . . .”

“Why, so she is. But . . .”

“But it’s another story, eh, when John the Great comes in question?”

“Don’t be sarcastic! You know quite well I’m very fond of Lizzie. But poor John was so comfortably settled — I mean with Miss Julia to look after him. It seemed as if he was going to have peace at last. And then, think of the upset again for those poor dear children.”

“Indeed and I do. Though, on the other hand . . . stepmother to two families . . . I shouldn’t care, love, to take on the job. But there’s another thing, Mary. Your brother is decidedly queer just now — I mean in his manner . . . and appearance. He looks a tired man. My own opinion is, he’s seen the best of his health. Of course, he’s lived a strenuous life — like all the rest of us — and isn’t as young as he was. But that’s not enough . . . doesn’t account for everything. And makes what has happened very disturbing. If only I’d let well alone that evening . . . he’d probably never have set eyes on the woman. It is certainly a lesson to mind one’s own business — even when it’s a question of doing a kindness . . . or what one thinks a kindness.”——

“My dehling Mary! So we are to be sisters, love — actually sisters! I cannot say how overjoyed I am. Never have I had such a surprise, dehling, as when my papeh informed me your brother had declared himself. I said: ‘Papeh, are you SURE you are not mistaken?’ For never had I imagined, love, that such a clever and accomplished man as your brother would select ME, from all the ladies of his acquaintance. My heart still flutters when I think of it. I walk on air. — Yes, dehling! Though how I shall ever manage to leave my dear papeh, I do not know.”

“Dear Lizzie! I, too, am very glad. — But what about the children? Have you thought if it will suit you to be a stepmother? Emmy is a grown girl now — turned seventeen.”

“Mary! The dehlings! The poor neglected lambs! Why, I yearn, dearest, simply yearn to show them a mother’s love.”

But on Emmy being presented, Lizzie’s fervour suffered a visible abatement. Even to Mary’s eye. And an embrace given and received, her stepmother-to-be looked the girl up and down, with a coolness which not even her extreme warmth of manner could conceal.

“My dehling! Why, Mary, love, I had no idea — positively I had not . . . I declare it will be like having a younger sister. — My dehling girl! And I will show you how to dress your hair, love — two puffs, one on each side of the parting — it will be a GREAT improvement to your appearance. That will please papeh, won’t it? His dear PET, I feel sure. Who will be able to tell me ALL his little ways.”

Emmy wept.

“I HATE the way she does her hair, Aunt Mary. I wouldn’t wear mine like that — not for anything! And I’m NOT going to show her how papa likes things done. — Oh, couldn’t I come and live with you and Uncle Richard? I shall never be happy here, any more. Why does papa want to get married? Auntie Julia always promised me I should keep house for him, and he would learn to like me in time. And now . . . now. . .”

It was not for a daughter to sit in judgment on her father, and Mary gently rebuked Emmy, even while she reflected that the girl had really a great deal of John’s own spirit in her. Lizzie would not find her new position a bed of roses. For neither did the little ones take to her. They clung to Auntie Julia’s hands and skirts — although, to these children who were without personal beauty, their future mother was still more gracious than to Emmy. At first, that was. Afterwards, remarked Mahony who was present at the introduction: afterwards when she saw that they were not to be cozened into friendliness, she made him think of a pretended animal lover, who, on a dog failing to respond to his advances, looks as though he will presently kick it on the sly. But then Richard had flown to the other extreme, and become both prejudiced and unfair, not being able to get over the march that had been stolen on him.

But to such a bagatelle as the likes or dislikes of a parcel of children Miss Timms-Kelly paid small heed. She had other and more important fish to fry. The engagement was to be as brief as propriety admitted; and she was hard put to it to get her trousseau bought, furniture chosen, the affairs of her maidenhood set in order. Through the apartments of her new home she swept like a whirlwind . . . like a whirlwind, too, overthrowing and destroying. Painters and paperhangers were already hard at work. For much company would be seen there after the wedding, great receptions held: as the Honourable Mrs. Turnham she would move not only in musical circles, but in the wider world of politics. John’s prospects were of the best: it was an open secret that, for his services in the Devine ministry, he would probably receive a knighthood. And small wonder, thought Mary, that Lizzie found the house shabby and antiquated. Nothing had been done to it since the day on which John, in his first ardour, had dressed it for his first bride.

Now, drastic changes were in progress. The old mahogany four-poster with its red rep curtains —“Jinny’s bed,” as it persisted in Mary’s mind — was to be replaced by one of the new French testers, with canopy and curtains at the head only. (A rather risky innovation at John’s age!) Oval plate-glass mirrors in gilt frames, with bunches of candelabra attached, were hung round the drawing-room walls: a splendid Collard and Collard ousted the old piano; bouquets of wax flowers and fruit under glass shades topped the whatnots; horsehair gave way to leather. And the nursery, which stood next John’s own bedroom, was requisitioned by Lizzie as a boudoir, the children being relegated to the back of the house.

And John? — To the four eyes that watched him, with curiosity and a motherly anxiety, John’s attitude came as a surprise and a relief. He was regularly caught up in the whirl; and, for once leaving both business and politics in the lurch, danced attendance on his affianced from morning till night. Though he still had a haggard air, and certainly nowadays looked what he was, an elderly man, yet a wave of new life ran through him. In his attire he grew almost as dapper as of old. It seemed as if he was determined to carry the affair off with a high hand. He spared no expense, baulked at no alteration; and the ring that sparkled on Lizzie’s plump finger was, even in this land of showy jewellery, so costly and magnificent as to draw all eyes. Nor would he have been human, had he not at heart felt proud of the fine figure cut by his bride-elect. He WAS proud, and showed it. More: when he returned from his wedding-trip to Sydney and the Blue Mountains, every one could see that he was very much in love.

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