The Way Home, by Henry Handel Richardson

Part III

Chapter I

These unlooked-for children — the following year twin girls were born, thus rounding off a trio — came too late to form the bond between their parents they might once have done. For that, the attitudes adopted towards them by father and mother, themselves now branched so far apart, were too dissimilar. In Mahony’s case, once his children were there in the flesh before him, all his puny fears of personal upset and mental pother fell away. He had only to feel tiny soft fingers straying over his face, to become the tenderest of fathers, loving his babies wholeheartedly. Now he feared only for them, in their frailty and helplessness. Did he wake in the night and think he heard a cry, he was out of bed in an instant; and the nurse, entering from the next room to make sure of her charges, would find her master there before her — a tall, dressing-gowned figure, shading a candle with his hand. Often, too, when wakeful, he would rise and steal into the night-nursery to take a peep at his little ones, lying relaxed in sleep. Yes, he was passionately solicitous for them — and not for their bodily health alone. He would have wished to shield their little plastic minds from all impressions that might pain or harm; have had them look only at beautiful and pleasant things, hear soft voices and kind words; on no child of his might hand be laid in anger. The result was that the children, dimly conscious of his perpetual uneasiness, were rendered uneasy by it in their turn, and, for all the deep affection from which it sprang, never really warmed towards their father.

Instead, they sunned themselves in their mother’s love, which knew nothing of fears or apprehensions. Mary laughed at Richard’s exaggerated anxiety; though she rejoiced to see him so fond. A self-centred person like him might well have found children a nuisance and in the way.

To her they were all in all; and on them she lavished that great hoard of mother-love which, till now, she had spent on the world at large. Had they been born shortly after her marriage, she, who was then little more than a child herself, would have been a child along with them; and the four would have grown up together in a delightful intimacy. Of this there was now no question. Coming when they did, the children stood to her only for possessions — her most precious possessions — but still, something absolutely her own, to do with just as she thought good. Through them, too, she believed she would some day gratify those ambitions which, where Richard was concerned, had proved so stark a failure. He had had no desire to walk the high paths she had mapped out for him. Her children would — and should. In the meantime, however, ambition lay fallow in love; and it was to their mother the babies ran with their pains and pleasures, their discoveries and attainments. She alone gave them that sense of warmth and security in which very young things thrive.

Their devotion to her was the one feature the three had in common. The twins — they soon earned the nickname of “the Dumplings”— were mere rolypoly bundles of good nature and jollity, who rarely cried, and were as seldom ill as naughty. Mary boasted: the most docile children in the world. Passionately attached to each other said Mahony, it was as though a single soul had been divided between two bodies — they toddled through babyhood hand in hand; faithfully sharing all good things that came their way; sleeping in the same crib, face to face, each with an arm flung protectively about the other’s neck. To look at they were as like as two peas, blue-eyed, fair-haired, dimpled, lovely to handle in their baby plumpness, and the most satisfying of armfuls. Their development, too, kept equal pace they walked late, owing to the burden of their little rotundities and long remained content with inarticulate sounds for speech.

The boy was of quite another fibre: as hard to manage as they were easy; as quick as they were slow. Tilly early said of him: “Lor’, Mary! the doctor ‘imself in frocks and petticoats.” But this referred chiefly to little physical tricks and similarities: a certain faddiness about his food, his clothes, his belongings. A naughty child he was not — at first. He, too, began life as a placid infant, who slept well, did not cry, and accepted philosophically the bottle — substitute that was put to his lips. This meant that, in spite of his midget-size at birth, he was sound and healthy — in a fragile, wiry way. He continued small, but was neatly formed. To his mother’s colouring he added his father’s straight features; and even in babyhood had the latter’s trick of carrying his head well back, and a little to one side. He walked before he was a year old, talked soon after; and, to his parents’ pride, was able to pick out a given letter from a play-alphabet before he either walked or talked.

His precocity showed itself in other ways as well. For a year and a quarter he was King of the House, the pivot of his little world, sole occupant of his mother’s knee. Then came the sudden apparition of his sisters. In the beginning, Cuffy — thus he named himself — did not pay much heed to this pair of animated dolls, who moved their legs and arms when bathed, and rode out in a carriage beside his, but for the most part lay asleep and negligible. Only gradually did it dawn on him that his privileges were being invaded; that not only, indeed, was his reign as sole ruler at an end, but that the greater favours were falling to the newcomers’ share. And one day the full knowledge of what had happened burst through, with disastrous results, Cuffy being then something over two years old. Dressed for driving Mary entered the nursery; and Cuffy clamoured to be set upon her knee.

“Not now, darling, I’ve no time. You must wait till Mamma comes back.”

But the nurses appearing at this moment with the babies, all warm and fragrant from their afternoon nap, Mary was not able to resist holding out her arms for them. She even lingered, fondling them, after the carriage was announced.

Cuffy had docilely retreated to a corner, where he played with a stuff elephant. But on seeing this — seeing his mother, who had been too busy for him, petting the twins who had not even ASKED to be nursed — at this he planted himself before her and regarded her with his solemn black eyes. (“I do declare, Master Cuffy seems to look right through you and out behind, when he stares so,” was a saying of Nannan’s.)

Relinquishing her babies Mary stooped to him. “Say good-bye to Mamma.”

To her amazement, instead of putting up his face for a kiss, Cuffy darted at her what she described to Richard as “a dreadfully naughty look,” and going over to his rocking-horse, which, though he was not yet allowed to mount it, was his dearest treasure, started to beat it with both hands, and with such force that the patient effigy swung violently to and fro.

Shocked at this fit of temper, Nannan and Mary exclaimed in chorus: “Master Cuffy! Well, I never did! Such tantrums!”

“Cuffy! What ARE you doing? If you are so naughty, Mamma will never take you on her knee again.”

The child’s back being towards her, she did not see how at these words the little face flushed crimson, the eyes grew round with alarm. Cuffy at once left off hitting the horse; just stood stock-still, as if letting what his mother had said sink in. But he did not turn and come to her. Mary told Richard of the incident as she buttoned her gloves. And Richard had Cuffy brought to him. Laying aside his book he lifted the child to his knee.

“Papa is sorry to hear Cuffy has been naughty. Will Cuffy tell Papa why?”

Unwinkingly the great eyes regarded him. But there was no response.

“Fy, fy! To hit poor horsey . . . when it had done nothing to deserve it.”

“Cuffy’s ‘orsey — own norsey.”

“But, just because it is Cuffy’s — Cuffy’s very own — he must be kind . . . all the kinder . . . to it. Never wreak your temper or your vengeance, my little son, on a person or thing that is in your power. It’s ungenerous. And I want my Cuffy to grow up into a good, kind man. As careful of the feelings of others as he is of his own.”

Something in his father’s voice — grave, measured, tender — got at the baby, though the words went over his head. And then Mahony saw what he long remembered: a fight for self-control extraordinary in one so young. The black eyes filled; the little mouth twitched and trembled. But the child swallowed hard in an attempt to keep back his tears. And when at last they broke through, he turned and hid his face against his father’s coat. Not, Mahony felt sure, seeking there either comfort or sympathy. Merely that his distress might be unobserved. Taking in his own the two little hands, which were locked in each other, Mahony drew them apart. Both palms were red and sore-looking, and no doubt still tingled hotly. The child had hurt himself most of all.

But Cuffy’s tears soon dried. After a very few seconds he raised his face, and, this having been patted with his father’s handkerchief, slid to the floor and trotted back to the nursery. And then, said Nannan, what a to-do there was! Master Cuffy dragged his little chair up beside the horse, climbed on the chair and put his arms round the animal’s neck, talking to it for all the world as if it was a live creature and could talk back.

“Wos ‘oo ‘urt, dea’ ‘orsey? — poor ‘ickle ‘orsey! Cuffy didn’t mean to. Wot ‘oo say, ‘orsey? ‘Orsey ‘oves Cuffy double-much? Dea’ ‘orsey! Cuffy ‘oves ‘orsey, too — much more better zan Effalunt.”

And having deposited horsey’s rival upside-down in a dark cupboard, he begged a lump of sugar from Eliza the under-nurse, and rammed it in between the steed’s blood-red jaws; where it remained, until a trail of white ants was discovered making a straight line for it from the window.

To Mary, Mahony said: “If I were you, my dear, I should be careful to distribute my favours equally. Don’t let the little fellow feel that his nose has been put out of joint. He’s jealous — that’s all.”

“Jealous? Of his own sisters? Oh, Richard! . . . I don’t think that augurs very well for him. — And surely he can’t learn too soon that it’s for him to give way to them — as little girls?”

For almost the first time in his knowledge of her, Mahony seemed to sense a streak of hardness in Mary; for the first time she did not excuse a wrongdoer with a loving word. And this her own child!

“He’s but a baby himself. Don’t ask too much of him,” he soothed her. And added: “Of course, I only give you my idea. Do as you think best.” — For Mary had proved as capable as a mother as at everything else: she solved problems by sheer intuition, where he would have fretted and fumbled. Even the children’s early religious training had, when the time came, fallen to her. Here again she had no bothersome theories: just the simplest practice. The question whether Cuffy and his sisters should be taught to pray or not to pray, to invoke a personal or an impersonal Deity, never entered her head. As soon as they could lisp their first syllables, they knelt night and morning at her knee to repeat their “Gentle Jesus!” and “Jesus, tender Shepherd!” And as long as the great First Cause was set forth in this loving and protective guise, Mahony saw no reason to interfere. He contented himself with forbidding the name of God ever to be used as a threat, or in connection with punishment: the children were taught that the worst that could befall a sinner was a temporary withdrawal of God’s love. Nor would he have the THOU GOD SEEST ME! fallacy — this reduction of the Omnipotent and Eternal to the level of spyer and peeper — instilled into their young minds; while such a purely human invention as the Devil —“That scapegoat on which man piles the blame for the lapses in his own nature!”— was never to be so much as mentioned in the nursery.

These few simple rules laid down, he retired into the background. The comfortable knowledge that his children were in the best of hands left his mind free.

Until now it had been plain sailing. Now . . . well, Mary invariably dated the beginning of the real trouble with Cuffy from the day on which he flew into such a naughty passion with his horse. Exactly an easy child to manage he had never been; he was too fanciful for that. There was no need for Richard to fuss and fidget about keeping ugly things from him. Cuffy himself would have none of them. Before he was a twelve-month old, did he, in looking at his “Queen of Hearts” story-book, draw near the picture of the thieving knave, you saw his eyes getting bigger and bigger. And if he could not contrive, with his baby hands, to turn two pages at once — and nobody else might do it for him — he would avert his eyes altogether, or lay his palm flat over the wretch’s ugly face. The Dore illustrations to his big fairy-book had a kind of horrid fascination for him. There he would sit staring at these dense and gloomy forests, these ruined, web-hung castles surrounded by their stagnant moats — and then, when bedtime came, he turned frightened. It was of no use trying to shame him with: “A great boy like you! Why, the Dumplings aren’t a bit afraid.” Or cheerily assuring him: “There are no such things, darling, as witches and giants. They’re only made up to amuse little children.”

Cuffy knew better — when the lamp was out and Nannan had left the nursery. Then the picture he feared most: Hop-o’-my-Thumb, a creature in petticoats, no bigger than himself, leading a long string of brothers and sisters into a forest black as ink: this picture WOULD rise up before him. Not only so, but he himself must join the tail, fall in after Hop-o’ and follow into that dreadful wood, where the ogre lived. Since he could not resist its attraction, the book had to be locked away.

The eldest, and a boy, to be such a baby! Mary felt quite abashed for Cuffy, and lost no chance of poking fun at his fears. But it did not help; and eventually she saw that she must leave it to time to drive this nonsense out of him. There were other, more actively disturbing traits in his nature, on which time might have the opposite effect. For example, for such a little child he was far too close and reserved; he kept his thoughts and feelings buttoned up inside himself. He had a passionate temper —“Cuffy’s temper” it was called, as though of a special brand that belonged to him alone — but he did not often give it play. Was he hurt or offended or angry, he would retire to a corner, and stay there by himself. If he had to cry, he cried in a corner; he did not want to be petted or comforted; and he would also in nine cases out of ten not say — Richard declared would perhaps not be able to say — why he cried. Mary saw him growing up very unfrank and secretive; which, to her, spelt deceitful.

Again, it wormed in her that he was not a friendly or a trusting child — one of those who indiscriminately hold out their arms, or present a cheek. Cuffy would not go to strangers or always give his kiss when bidden. Nor was he generous; he did not willingly share his toys, or his picture-books, or his lollipops. The things that belonged to him belonged absolutely. Really, he seemed to look upon them as bits of himself, and hence not to be parted with. His favourite animals — horse and elephant — might be touched by no one. Was there a children’s party in the nursery special playthings had to be provided, or only those used that were the Dumplings’ property. To Mary, bound by but gossamer threads to all things material, her little son’s attitude was something of a mystery; and many a time did she strive with him over the head of it. His inability to share with others stood to her for sheer selfishness. She trembled, too, lest the Dumplings should learn to copy him in this, and cease to be the open-hearted, open-handed little mortals they were. For they looked up to Cuffy with adoring eyes — Cuffy who walked while they still drove; was present at dessert in the evening, while they were put to bed; wore knickerbockers instead of skirts. But, try as she might, by teaching and example, she could not influence the boy, let alone master him; while the usual nursery proceeding of making a child’s naughty fit end with an expression of contrition shattered on Cuffy’s obstinacy. If he did not feel sorry, he would not say he was; and in the battle royal that ensued he generally came off victor. The fact was, in the dark-eyed mite she had now to deal with, Mary ran up against more than a dash of her own resolute spirit; and naturally enough failed to recognise it.

“He’s got a shocking will of his own. And what troubles me, Richard, is, if he’s as set as all this when he’s not much more than a baby, whatever will he be when he grows up?”

“Set? Nonsense, my dear! The child’s got character. Give it scope to expand. Try to influence him and work on his good feelings instead of bullying him.”

“It’s all very well for you. You don’t have to deal with him a dozen times a day. I must say, I sometimes think you might help a little more than you do.” It was a sore point with Mary that Richard would not rise to his responsibilities as a father, but went on leading the life of a bookworm and a recluse. “Especially as the child takes more notice of you than of any one else.”

But Mahony was not to be bought. “My dear, you’ve the knack and I haven’t. Now don’t worry. As long as he’s honest and truthful, he’ll be all right.”

Honest? . . . truthful? That went without saying! It was only that Mary wanted her first-born to be so much more: sunny, lovable, transparent, brave — and a hundred other things besides. He was Nurse’s darling though. You had only, said Nannan, to beware of knocking up against any of his funny little fads, such as undressing him before people, or asking him to eat with any but his own silver fork and spoon.

“What Master Cuffy needs is just a bit of managing. I can twist him round my little finger.” But it did not tally with Mary’s ideas that a child of that age should have to be “managed” at all.

Turning from these traits in her son of which she could not approve, she dwelt with pleasure on his marked quickness and cleverness. Cuffy had sure fingers and a retentive memory. At an early age he could catch a ball and trundle a hoop; could say his prayers without prompting; learn nursery rhymes at a single hearing; could eat nicely, keep himself clean, button up those of his buttons which were within reach: in short do everything in this line that could be expected of so young a mortal.

And in addition he had one genuine talent. For some reason or other — “a throwback to his grandmother,” supposed Mahony — Cuffy had been dowered with a natural gift for music. He learnt tunes more easily than he learnt his letters; could hum “Rock of Ages” and “Sun of my Soul” before he uttered a word. His ear was extraordinarily good, his little voice sweet and true. And knowing that Mary’s intonation was but faulty, that of the nursery faultier still, Mahony here put in his single spoke in Cuffy’s education. He had the boy brought to his dressing-room of a morning; and there, while he dressed, Cuffy with his elephant would sit perched on a corner of the table, singing songs old and new. Together Mahony and his son practised “Oft in the Stilly Night” and “The Land o’ the Leal,” and with such success that, was there company to dinner, Cuffy in his best velvet tunic would be stood on a chair at dessert, to perform to the guests. And as he gave forth, in baby language, such ditties as:

A TEMPLE TO FRIENDSHIP, CRIED LAURA, ENCHANTED, I’LL BUILD IN MY GARDEN THE THOUGHT IS DIVINE!

The ladies uttered rapturous exclamations; while the gentlemen, mostly without a note of music in them, declared: “‘pon my word, very remarkable, very remarkable indeed!” and Aunt Lizzie, from whom cuffy had picked up this song by ear, hailed him as an infant prodigy, and painted for him a future that made Mary’s heart swell with pride.

Such were Mahony’s children.

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