The Way Home, by Henry Handel Richardson

Chapter II

Mrs. Marriner, the youngish widow whose acquaintance Mary had made while visiting on the Urquharts’ station, was a person of character. In the matter of dress, for example, she defied the prevailing fashion; wore her light brown hair swept straight back from her brow (which was classic), and, employing neither net nor comb, twisted it in a Grecian knot on the nape of her neck. She also eschewed crinoline, and wandered a tall, willowy form, the eyed of all beholders.

“Out and away too conspicuous!” was Mahony’s verdict. “The woman must WANT people to stare at her. Though I will say, Mary, it’s something of a treat to behold the natural female figure again, after the unnatural bulgings we’ve put up with. And a very fine figure, too!”

For this he had to admit: there was nothing unfeminine or forbidding about the lady. She was as handsome as she was striking. A full eye, a Grecian nose, a slim waist: such were her charms; to say nothing of a white, dimpled hand, and a well-turned ankle. And yet every one who knew her agreed that she captivated less by reason of her comeliness, than by the ease and elegance of her manner.

She was just as popular with her own as with the sterner sex. Which said a good deal; for, wherever she went, she was run after by “the gentlemen.” And small wonder, thought Mary. For Gracey was up in any subject, however dry; had brains really equal to “gentlemen’s conversation.”

Richard said: “It’s not the least piquant thing about her that after she has been holding forth, supremely well, on one of those learned themes ladies as a rule fight shy of, she will suddenly lapse into some delightful feminine inconsequence. That, my dear, gives us men back, for a finish, the sense of superiority we need.” But here you just had one of the satirical remarks Richard was so apt at making — especially in the early stages of an acquaintance. Afterwards he generally had to eat his words, or at least water them down.

Mrs. Marriner rented a villa within easy driving distance of “Ultima Thule.” This was in the early days of the nursery, while the twins were still babies in arms, and Mary went out but little. It fell to the newcomer to pick up the threads; and she did so with a will, calling frequently and entering wholeheartedly into Mary’s interests. She was devoted to children; and sometimes, as they sat on the verandah, Nannan would bring Cuffy out to them. And then it was a pretty sight to see the tall, handsome woman on her knees before the little child, rolling his woolly ball to him, or playing at peek-a-bo.

The merry voices lured even Mahony forth from his den. And having tossed his son in the air, he lingered for a word with his wife’s guest. This happened more than once; after which, as Mary had foreseen, his sarcasms died away. Mrs. Marriner had travelled widely, and owned a large collection of photographs of famous beauty-spots; and the first time Mahony went to her house was when he and Mary drove over one evening to view these through a stereoscope. Dotted about the rooms they found many another interesting memento of her travels. On the chimney-piece were candelabra of Dresden china. Coloured prints of Venice by night and the blue grotto of Capri adorned the walls. A statuette of Christ by a Danish sculptor stood on the lid of the piano. She had a very fair assortment of books — serious works, too: essays, poetry, history — both old and of the newest; and Mahony carried away with him a couple of volumes by a modern writer of verse named Browning.

In addition she was musical. Not in sister Lizzie’s superb, almost professional fashion; but singing in a clear, correct voice, and playing the pianoforte with neatness and skill. Her performance of Mendelssohn’s SONGS WITHOUT WORDS was most enjoyable. And now it was Mahony’s turn to suggest inviting her; after which he went back to sing duets, and listen to her execution of a sonata by Haydn. He relished, too, a conversation that for once rose above the affairs of the nursery.

For, the piano closed, the lady and he dropped into talk. And having skimmed the surface of various subjects on which they found themselves in marvellous accord, they came round to the one which still engrossed Mahony’s attention. Of spiritualism Mrs. Marriner was ignorant; she begged the doctor to enlighten her. And the rough sketch he gave her interested her so much that she expressed a strong wish to know more. He promised to bring her an armful of literature; and then, if her interest still held, to procure her the entree to a sitting at the house of that arch-spiritualist, Mrs. Phayre, where remarkable phenomena took place. Weird noises might be heard there at dead of night: furniture was moved by unseen hands from its place against the wall.

The next day he carried over the books; and Mrs. Marriner read them with what seemed to him a rare and unfeminine insight: that is to say, she was neither alarmed, nor derisive, nor stupidly obstinate: and, so far, except for members of the inner circle, he had known no woman whose state of mind towards the question was not one of these three. She also jumped at his offer of introducing her at a seance. Later on, learning that he was eager to find an unprofessional medium with whom he might experiment in private, and on whom no shadow of suspicion could be held to rest, she herself proposed sitting at a small table in her drawing-room. And after a few fruitless hours, during which he had every reason to admire her patience, they met with success: the table tilted under their hands and a pencil, delicately sustained by the lady’s fingers, wrote words that could be read. It was plain she was possessed of the power.

He went home to Mary in high feather.

“Now, perhaps, you’ll believe there’s something in it!”

“I never said there wasn’t SOMETHING. It’s only that . . .”

“You can hardly suspect your friend of being an impostor?”

“Good gracious no! The idea!”

And Mary meant it. Gracey was no more capable of downright fraud than she herself. And yet . . . yet . . . say what you liked, there was a part of you that simply would not accept the conclusions you were asked to draw. To think, because a table stood on two legs, or a pencil wrote: “I am here,” that dead people — people who lay mouldering in their graves! — were speaking to you . . . no, that she would never be able to believe, not if she lived to be Methusalah. Why, you might just be leaning a little too heavily on your side of the table without knowing it. Or your hand write things down in a kind of dream, and you imagine somebody or something else was doing it. And still be the most truthful person alive. Like Richard. Who again and again let himself be imposed on. — The truth was: if people wanted to believe such things, believe they would: the wish was father to the thought. Well, at least this new hobby of Richard’s had one advantage: it gave him something to do. Which was just what he needed. Instead of always sitting humped up over his books.

Under the stimulus he began to look more like his old self. He spruced up his dress; and the daily ride to Gracey’s gave him beneficial exercise. As time went on, their sittings proved so satisfactory that he began to think of publishing a small pamphlet, embodying the results. And though Mary would rather it had been on a less outlandish subject, she hailed the idea and encouraged it. For looking after Richard became, year by year, more like minding a fidgety child, who had always to be kept on the go. He had been such a worker in his day. And the old fear could still wake in her at times that, being without active employment, he might all of a sudden turn restless and declare himself tired of their lovely home.

But then came that afternoon when Lizzie let drop an item of news which successfully routed Mary’s peace of mind.

They did not see much of Lizzie nowadays; she and John were always in society; out night after night at concerts, dinners, balls. Or else entertaining lavishly in their own home. It was an open secret that the longed-for knighthood would very soon set the crown on John’s labours for the colony.

Stateliness in person, gauzes and laces floating from arms and shoulders, trinkets and chains a-jingle, Lizzie swept through the hall, a majestic figure indeed. No wonder John was still unable to refuse her anything.

Then, just about to step into her carriage, she paused. “Mary, dehling . . . I vow I all but forgot it! I have something to tell you, love, that I think will interest you. Mary! I met a gentleman on Friday who was once acquainted with our friend — the charmin’ Gracey. And WHAT do you think? My dear, she is not a widow at all.”

Mary was thunderstruck. “Not a widow? Lizzie! Then ——”

“My dehling, her husband is still alive. He left her, love — deserted her for another woman . . . the lowest of the low! At this very moment he lives with the creature . . . in his lawful wife’s stead.”

As always, Mary’s first impulse was to protect . . . defend. “Oh, poor Gracey! . . . how terrible for her!”

“Well, love . . . I thought you ought to know. Since dear Richard is so friendly there. And considering the ultra-strict views he holds.”

“Yes, of course. But, Lizzie, it’s not her fault, is it? SHE can’t help the man she married turning out a scoundrel.”

But though she spoke up thus, Mary was greatly perturbed and her mind became a sea of doubts where no doubts had been. She found herself looking at Gracey with other eyes. The fact was, a divorced or legally separated woman — even one who was just living apart from her husband — was by no means the same as a widow . . . and never could be. Gracey knew that well enough; else why, to a close friend like herself, had she made a mystery of her state? And though not a shadow of blame should rest on her (and Mary was sure it didn’t), it meant, none the less, that she had been through all sorts of unpleasant matrimonial experiences, which a properly married or widowed woman would know nothing about. Something of them might have remained clinging to her . . . the old saw about touching pitch would run in Mary’s head. It was dreadful. Such a dear, nice woman as Gracey. And yet . . . deep down in Mary’s heart there dwelt the obstinate conviction that once married was always married, and that as long as your husband lived you belonged at his side. Did you sit firm and hold fast to your rights as a wife, it seemed incredible that another woman could ever usurp your place. Had Gracey perhaps gone off in a tantrum, leaving the coast clear? Yes, doubts would up, and the result was, she found herself considering, with a more critical eye, the friendship that had sprung up between Richard and Grace over their table-tilting. Never before had she known Richard so absorbed by any one outside his home. Now suppose, just suppose Gracey, thanks to her wretched married life, had come to regard things — serious things, sacred things — more lightly than she ought? What if, because of her own unhappy past, she should not hold the marriage-tie to be binding? Why was she so attractive to gentlemen? Did they know or suspect anything? In reply to which there flashed through Mary’s mind a memory of her last visit to Yarangobilly: Willy Urquhart’s infatuation and the state poor Louisa had worked herself into. Of course there was really no comparison between the two cases — none whatever! Willy was a notorious flirt: Richard a gentleman. And poor Louisa’s morbid, distorted outlook would never be hers.

Richard . . . The question that teased Mary was, should she tell him what she had heard, or keep it to herself? In one way she agreed with Lizzie that he ought to know, he being so fastidious in his views. Besides, if he heard it from some other source, he might feel aggrieved that she had held back. On the other hand, his knowing would probably curtail, if not put a stop altogether to his and Gracey’s experiments: he wouldn’t want to give people food for talk. And that would be a pity. Would it be disloyal to say nothing? Disloyal to Gracey to tell what she so plainly wished to keep dark? But Richard came first. — And here again, unlike poor Louisa, Mary felt she could weigh the matter very calmly; for in her was a feeling nothing could shake: the happily married woman’s sense of possession. It was not only the fact of Richard being what he was. Their life together rested on the surest of foundations: the experiences of many, how many years; the trials and tribulations they had been through together; the joys they had shared; the laughs they had had over things and people; a complete knowledge of each other’s prejudices and antipathies — who else could unlock, with half a word, the rich storehouse of memories they had in common? Homelier things, too, there were in plenty, which bound no less closely: the airing and changing of your underlinen; how sweet or how strong you drank your coffee; how you liked your bed made; your hatred of the touch of steel on fruit; of a darn in a sock. — Deeper down though, pushed well below the topmost layer of her consciousness, just one unspoken fear DID lurk. If she told Richard what she had heard, and he did not take it in the spirit he had hitherto invariably shown towards irregularities of this kind, Mary knew she would feel both hurt and humiliated. Not for herself — but for him.

* * * * *

The sitting at an end, the table was put back in its place against the wall.

“You will smoke, doctor? Nay, please do . . . . I like it. Here are matches. — Down, Rover! Not yet, Fitz!” For at her movement a red setter had sprung up from a corner, and now stood, his front paws on her knee, ingratiatingly wagging his tail; while observing his comrade’s advance an immense black cat, which had been dozing in an arm-chair, rose and dropped a kind of bob-curtsey with its hind quarters. “Behold my two tyrants! They think it time for a run. — Oh, yes, Mr. Fitz comes too.”

“You are very fond of animals?”

“I should be lost without them. They are such dear companions, in their dumb way.” As she spoke Mrs. Marriner fondled a silky ear, letting it slip through a pretty, dimpled hand.

“Well do I know it. In my bachelor days, living in a bark-hut the whole of which would have gone into this room, I kept no less than three.” And casting the net of his memory Mahony told of his long-forgotten pets, and of their several untimely ends. —“After that I took no more.”

“You had not the heart?” Now could any but a genuine animal-lover have put this question?

“Not exactly. But as a hard-worked medico, with a growing practice . . . the burden of them, you see, would have fallen on my wife. And she does not much care for animals.”

“Dear Mary. And now, of course, she has her babies.”

“Yes, and all a mother’s fears for them, with regard to the four-footed race.”

“That is but natural. While they are so tiny.” In the kindly indulgence of her tone, the speaker seemed to take all mothers and their weaknesses under her wing. “And yet, doctor, if I had been blessed with little ones, I think I should have brought up babies, puppies and kittens EN MASSE . . . as one family party. Correct me though, if I speak foolishly. Perhaps, when children come, they are all in all.”

“It IS amazing how the little beggars twine themselves round one’s heart. Before my boy was born, my chief feeling was a sense of the coming responsibility. I can laugh at myself now. For my wife has shouldered everything of that sort . . . I leave the children entirely to her.”

“I think dear Mary quite the most capable person I know.”

What a handsome creature she was, to be sure, full-bosomed yet slender, her neat waist held by a silver girdle, her face alight with sympathy and understanding! Mahony answered heartily: “There have, indeed, been few situations in life Mary has not proved equal to.”

The words set a string of memories vibrating; and a silence fell. Unlike many of her sex, who would have babbled on, the lady just smiled and waited; and even her waiting was perfect in tact.

Mahony felt drawn to unbosom himself. “Talking of my children . . . it is sometimes a sorry thought to me that my acquaintance with them can only be a brief one. I mean, the probability is I shall see them but to the threshold of their adult life — no further. And would like so well to know what they make of it.”

His meaning was grasped . . . and with ease. “I understand that . . . especially in the case of such a gifted child as your sweet little Cuffy.”

“Yes, I do think the boy is quick beyond the common run.”

“Without doubt he is. Look at his musical ability.”

“Ah, there you mention the one bit of his education I take a hand in. For Mary has no ear for music. Nor even any particular liking for it.”

“And it is so important, is it not, that the ear should be well trained from the first? The spadework done before the child is even aware of it.” (Here spoke your true musician.) “But, doctor, if our findings are correct, you may still have the joy of watching over your little brood from the other side . . . N’EST-CE-PAS?”

“Ah! . . . if that might be. If one could be sure of that.” And on the instant Mahony mounted his hobby-horse and was carried away. “With this, my dear lady, you put your finger on what seems to me one of the vital points of the whole question. Have you ever reflected what a difference it would make, did we mortals SERIOUSLY believe in a life to come? . . . I don’t mean the Jewish-Byzantine state of petrified adoration that the churches offer us. . . . I mean a life such as we know it: a continuation of the best of this earthly existence — mental striving, spiritual aspiration, love for our neighbour. If we did so believe, our every perspective would alter. And the result be a marked increase in spirituality. For the orthodox Christian’s point of view is too often grossly materialistic — and superstitious. The tenacity with which he clings to a resurrection of the flesh — this poor cankered flesh! . . . after countless years deep in its grave — that grave on which he dwells with so morbid a pleasure. Or his childish fear of death — despite the glories that are promised him on the other side . . . do these not remind you of the sugar-candy with which an infant is bribed to take its pill? Against all this, set the belief that in dying we pass but from one room to another of the house of life — Christ’s ‘many mansions.’ The belief that an invisible world exists around us — the spirit counterpart of this we know. That those we have lost still live and love and await us . . . on the other side of a veil which already a few, of rarer perceptions than the rest, have pierced. — But forgive me! When once I get going on this subject I know no measure. And I confess . . . so few opportunities to talk of it arise. My wife has scant sympathy with the movement; sees, I fear, only its shady side.”

“Dearest Mary. She is so practically minded.”

“Yes. She is often genuinely uneasy at the hours I spend over my books; would rather have me up and doing — and though but riding for pleasure along the seashore. Books to her are only a means of killing time.”

Mrs. Marriner turned the full weight of a grave, sweet smile upon him. “While we book-lovers . . . well! as far as I am concerned, doctor, my life would be a blank indeed, without the company of the printed page.”

“And what of me? . . . whose dearest dream it was, while I slaved for a living, to be able to end my days in a library. I declare to you, it is still a disturbing thought that I shall die leaving so many books unread.”

“Let me comfort you. My dear father, who lived to a ripe old age, was given to complaining towards the end that he had ‘read all the books’— or at least all that were worth reading.”

“Of course; as one grows older; and harder to please. . . . Myself though, I seem still far from that. The lists I send my bookseller grow longer, not shorter. And it’s not the unread books only. While we’re on these ghost-thoughts — we all have them, I suppose — let me confess to another, and that is that I shall probably need to go, having seen all too few of the grandeurs and beauties of this world. Pass on to the next without knowing what the Alps or the Andes are like, or the torrents of the Rhine.”

“But doctor . . . what hinders you? I don’t mean the Andes,”— and Mahony was the recipient of a roguish smile. “But travel is so easy nowadays. One packs one’s trunks, books one’s berth — ET VOILA! What hinders you?”

Ah! what . . . what, indeed? Mahony hesitated for a moment before replying. “The truth is, the years we spent in England were thoroughly uncongenial . . . to us both. We were glad, on getting back to the colony, to settle down. And having once settled . . .”

Yes, that was it: of his own free will he had saddled himself with a big, expensive house, and all that belonged to its upkeep: men-servants and maid-servants, horses and carriages. Mary had taken root immediately; and now the children . . . their tender age. . . . But darker than all else loomed Mary’s attitude . . . or what might he expect this to be, if —“The truth is, my wife does not . . . I mean she has gone through so many upheavals already, on my account, that I should hardly feel justified . . . again . . . so soon . . . Still there’s no denying it: I do sometimes feel like an old hulk which lies stranded. But there! All my days I’ve been gnawed by the worm of change — change of any sort. As a struggling medico I longed for leisure and books. Pinned to the colony, I would be satisfied with nothing but the old country. Now that I have ample time, and more books than I can read, I could wish to be up and out seeing the world. And my dear wife naturally finds it difficult to keep pace with such a weathercock.”

“I think it is with you as the German poet sings: ‘There, where thou art not, there alone is bliss!’”

“Indeed and that hits my nail squarely on the head. For I can assure you it’s no mere spirit of discontent — as some suppose. It’s more a kind of . . . well, it’s like reaching out after — say, a dream one has had and half forgotten, and struggles to recapture. That’s baldly put. But perhaps you will understand.”

A lengthy silence followed. The clock ticked; the dog sighed gustily. Then, feeling the moment come, the lady rose and swept her skirts to the piano. “Let me play to you,” said she.

Mahony gratefully accepted.

Once the music had begun, however, he fell back on his own reflections; they were quickened rather than hampered by the delicate tinkling of the piano. He felt strangely elated: not a doubt of it, a good talk was one of the best of medicines, particularly for such a dry, bottled-up old fogy as he was on the verge of becoming. Of course, did you open your heart you must have, for listener, one who was in perfect tune with you; who could pick up your ideas as you dropped them; take your meaning at a word. And mortals of this type were all too rare; in respect of them, his life had been a sandy waste. Which had told heavily against him. Looking down the years he saw that, all through, his most crying need had been for spiritual companionship; for the balm of tastes akin to his own. It was a crippling reflection that never yet had he found the person to whom he could have blurted out his thoughts without fear of being misunderstood . . . or disapproved . . . or smiled at for an oddity. Here, having unexpectedly tapped a woman’s quick perception, a woman’s lively sympathy, he had a swift vision of what might have been — that misty picture that inhabits the background of most minds. To know his idiosyncrasies fondly accepted — his mental gropings accompanied, his roving spirit gauged and condoned . . . not as any fault of his own, but as an innate factor in his blood! Ah! but for that to come to pass, one would need to leave choosing one’s fellow-traveller on the long life-journey until one’s own mind and character had formed and ripened. How could one tell, in the twenties, what one would be on nearing the fifties? — in which direction one would have branched out, and set, and stiffened? At twenty all was glamour and romance; and it seemed then to matter little whether or no a heart was open to the sufferings of the brute creation; whether the written word outweighed the spoken; in how far the spiritual mysteries made appeal — questions which gradually, with time, came to seem more vital than all else. In youth one’s nature cried aloud for companionship . . . one’s blood ran hot . . . the mysteries played no part. And then the years passed and passed, and one drifted . . . drifted . . . slowly, but very surely . . . until . . . well, in many a case, he supposed the fact that you HAD drifted never came to your consciousness at all. But should anything happen to pull you up with a jerk, force you to cast the plummet; should you get an inkling of something rarer and finer: then, the early flames being sunk to a level glow, you stood confounded by your aloofness . . . by the distance you had travelled . . . the isolation of your state. But had he, in sooth, ever felt other than lonely, and alone? Mary was — had always been — dearest and best of wives . . . yet . . . yet . . . had they, between them, a single idea in common? . . . Did they share an interest, a liking, a point of view? — with the one exception of an innate sobriety and honesty of purpose. No, for more years than he cared to count, Mary had done little, as far as he was concerned, but sit in judgment: she silently censured, mentally condemned all those things in life which he held most worth while: his needs, his studies, his inclinations — down to his very dreams and hopes of a hereafter.

* * * * *

Lizzie said: “My dear, our lady friend is in hoops now, if you please! Nothing extreme, of course, considering from whom she takes her present cue. JUST the desired SOUPCON! — Mary, she went about as a Slim Jane only because the CAVALIER of the moment approved the simplicity of the human form divine. To-day she is a rapping and tapping medium — as we very well know. To-morrow, love, the wind will shift to another quarter, and we shall hear of the fair lady running to matins and communicating on an empty stomach. Or visiting in a prison cell got up as a nursing sister, A LA Elizabeth Fry.”

Hoops . . . nothing extreme . . . considering from whom she takes her present cue. At these words, and even while she was standing up for Gracey’s sincerity, there leapt to Mary’s mind, with a stab of real pain, Richard’s nervous hatred of the exaggerated — the bizarre. And whether it was hoops, or hooplessness.

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