The Way Home, by Henry Handel Richardson

Chapter IV

Mamma and Papa were going away; Master Cuffy would need to be a VERY good boy and do everything he was told; so that Mamma would be pleased with him when she came back. Thus Nannan, while Eliza and she gave the three children their morning bath; and four blue and two black eyes were turned on her in curiosity and wonderment. Cuffy, extending his arm to have the raindrops rubbed off it, echoed her words: “Mamma and Papa goin’ away!” It sounded exciting.

After breakfast he broke the news to Effalunt, who, though now in his old age, hairless, and a leg short, was still one of the best beloveds; for Cuffy had a faithful heart.

Going away? What would it be like? Hi-spy-hi in the garden? . . . or a pitchnick? . . . or Mamma putting on a pretty dress wif beads round her neck?

He played at it during the morning: he got under an opossum-rug and was a bear to the Dumplings, and go’ed away. Later on, he was allowed to crawl inside a leather trunk that stood in Mamma’s bedroom, and have the lid NEARLY shut over him.

The carriage came round after lunch; the trunk was hoisted to the roof; Mamma and Papa had their bonnets on.

There stood Nannan, a Dumpling’s hand in each of hers. The babies, though o-eyed, were serene; but Cuffy by now was not so sure. He had watched Mamma’s dresses being put into the trunk and Eliza sitting on it, to make it shut; and the thing that worried him was, how Mamma could get up in the morning if her clothes were locked inside the big box. He began to feel uncomfortable. And so, now the moment had come, he was busy being a horse, capering up and down the verandah, stamping, tossing his head.

The Dumplings obediently put up their faces and offered their bud-mouths. Cuffy had to be called to order.

Said Mary: “Why, darling, aren’t you coming to kiss Mamma and Papa good-bye? Or be a little sorry they’re going?”

Sorry? Why? He hadn’t been naughty! Perfunctorily Cuffy did what was required of him, but his heart went on being a horse.

It was not till night that the trouble broke. Then, as often as Nannan entered the nursery, he was sitting bolt upright and wide-eyed in his crib, his little face looking each time wanner and whiter as he piped: “Is Cuffy’s Mamma and Papa tum ‘ome yet, Nannan?”

“There you have it!” said Nurse to Eliza. “This is what happens when gentlemen get to interfering in things they don’t understand. If the doctor ‘ud just ‘ave let me say they were gone to a party, there’d ‘ave been none of this. Master Cuffy knows well enough what a party is, and though it ‘ad lasted for weeks it wouldn’t ‘ave made any difference to him, bless ‘is little heart! It’s the things they DON’T understand that worries children. This fad now that they must ‘ave nothing but the truth told ’em. Lord bless you! If we did that, there soon wouldn’t be any more children left . . . nothing but little old men and women.”

And to mark her disapproval of Mahony’s methods, Nannan kept the forbidden lamp alight, and sat by the cribside with Cuffy’s hand in hers till he fell asleep.

* * * * *

Meanwhile Mary and Richard had taken the afternoon train to Ballarat. For the date set for Tilly’s marriage had come right in the middle of the trouble about John.

Seated in a saloon carriage Mary undid her bonnet-strings and put her feet up on the cushions. Off at last! And opposite her sat Richard — a morose and unamiable Richard, it was true, who made it abundantly plain that he was being dragged to Ballarat against his will. Still, there he was, and that was the main thing. Up to the last minute she hadn’t felt sure of him.

She had early determined that it was his duty to be present at Tilly’s wedding, and had spared no pains to win him over. Hadn’t it to a certain extent been his fault that Tilly’s plans had failed, the time she stayed with them before Cuffy was born? If he had not been so down on her, the plot she was hatching might then and there have come to a head. As it was, one thing after another had happened to delay the issue. Misunderstanding Tilly’s abrupt departure, Purdy had disappeared up-country again, on his commercial rounds. Then, still up-country somewhere, he had been in a frightful buggy-accident, pitching out head-foremost, and all but breaking his neck. For months nothing could be heard of him, he lying at death’s door with concussion and broken bones, in a little bush hospital. When Tilly did finally contrive to run him to earth, he was literally at his last farthing, and a sick and broken man. Tilly had behaved like her own splendid self: waiving any false pride, she had journeyed straight to see him; and at their very first meeting they had arrived at an understanding (Mary could make a shrewd guess how) and were now to be man and wife. An even more urgent reason why Richard should appear at the wedding was, it would greatly improve Purdy’s social standing, if it became known that Dr. Mahony had travelled all the way from Melbourne to be present. And Purdy, poor fellow, could well do with such a lift. Even she, Mary, who had known him in so many a tight fit, had felt shocked at his condition after his last adventure.

Thus she reflected as she watched the landscape slip past: yellowish-grey flats, or stone-strewn paddocks tufted with clumps of brown grass, all of which she had seen too often before to pay much heed to them. Still she never wanted to read in a train. So unlike Richard, whose idea of a journey was to bury himself in a book from start to finish. At the present moment he was deep in a pamphlet entitled: “The Unity, Duality or Trinity of the Godhead?”— Tch, what questions he did vex his head with! . . . he must always be trying to settle the universe. If only he would sometimes give his poor brains a rest.

He was looking pale and washed out, too, not by any means his best . . . for meeting all the old friends. But what could you expect if he WOULD spend his life cooped up indoors? — never leaving the house except to attend long, hot seances; or sittings with Gracey. And these had rather fallen off of late. Mary didn’t know why, and he said nothing; but Lizzie as usual was prolific in hints. Poor old Richard! She did hope things would go smoothly for him during the next three days. She would feel relieved when they were over.

But no sooner did they reach Ballarat than the trouble began. On the platform stood Tilly, wreathed in smiles, open-armed in welcome, but gone, alas, was the decent and becoming black to which, as “old Mrs. Ocock,” she had been faithful for so long. In its stead . . . well, there was no mincing the fact: she looked fit for PUNCH! Her dress, of a loud, bottle-green satin, was in the very latest mode, worn entirely without crinoline, so that her full form was outlined in unspeakable fashion; her big capable hands were squeezed into lemon-coloured kid gloves, tight to bursting, and on her head perched a monstrous white hat, turned up at the side and richly feathered.

“Oh dear, oh dear!”

For Mary knew very well that neither the genuine sincerity of Tilly’s greeting, nor her multitudinous arrangements for their comfort, would suffice to blot from Richard’s mind the figure she cut this day.

Climbing to the driver’s seat of an open buggy, all her feathers afloat, Tilly trotted a pair of cream ponies in great style up Sturt Street. Of course everybody in Ballarat knew her, so it didn’t matter for herself what she looked like. It was Richard who was to be pitied.

The next thing to provoke him was the arbitrary way in which she disposed of his personal liberty. She had it all fixed and settled that, directly supper was over, he should go back to town, to “Moberley’s Hotel,” and there spend the evening with the bridegroom-elect.

“She wants them to be seen in public together,” thought Mary as she helped Richard on with his overcoat and muffled him up in a comforter; for the air on this tableland struck cold, after Melbourne’s sea-level. “And for that, of course, there’s no better place than Moberley’s Coffee Room.”— Aloud she said reprovingly: “Ssh! She’ll hear you. You know, dear, you needn’t stop long.” But Richard, chilly and tired from the railway journey, looked as though he could cheerfully have consigned Tilly and her nuptials to Hades.

“And now you and I can ‘ave a real cosy evening, love, while the lords of creation smoke and jaw about early days,” said dear blind old Tilly. Or perhaps she was not quite so blind as she seemed; and just wanted to be rid of Richard and the atmosphere of glacial politeness that went out from him. Anyhow off he set, with a very bad grace, and the two women retired to Tilly’s bedroom. Here a great log fire burned on the whitewashed hearth; and Tilly kept the poker in her hand with which to thump the logs, did the blaze threaten to fail. This dyed the dimity-hangings of the fourposter; made ruddy pools in the great mahogany wardrobe.

Said Tilly: “Well, here we are again, Poll, you and me, like so often before . . . and the day after to-morrow’s me wedding-day. ‘Pon my word it’s hard to believe; and yet . . . I don’t know, dearie, but somehow it seems no time since us three bits of girls used to sit over the fire and gas about all the grand things that was going to happen to us. That’s ages back, and yet, except that we’re grown a bit hulkier you and me, it might be only yesterday. I don’t feel a day older and that’s the truth; which is odd when you come to think of it . . . with pa and ma and Jinn and poor old Pa all gone, these ever so many years! I say, DO you remember, Poll, how Purd used to ride down from Melbourne? And how, when ‘e’d gone, I ‘d count the days off on me fingers till ‘e’d come again?”

“I think you’re a very lucky woman, Tilly, to get your heart’s wish like this. I do hope it will bring you every happiness.”

“I think it will, Poll. I’m not going into it with my eyes shut, or any of the flighty notions one has as a young girl — heaven on earth and bunkum of that sort. But now, listen to me, dearie, there’s things I want to say to you. First of all, Mary, I’ve fixed, once we’re spliced, for Tom and Johnny to come back to this house — which they never ought to ‘ave left. I won’t say it ‘asn’t taken a bit of managing. But my mind was quite made up. It’s gone to my heart, all these years, to see how badly those poor lads were cared for. Enough to make poor old Pa turn in ‘is grave.”

But Mary had raised her eyebrows. For all its kindness, she thought the plan a most unwise one. Just suppose Purdy should turn nasty! In subtle connection the question sprang to her lips: “What about the money side of it — settlements, and all that?”

Tilly nodded. “Ah! I can see what you’re thinking, love — writing me down a lovesick old fool who’s going to let Pa’s good money be made ducks and drakes of. It’s true, most of what I’ve got WILL pass to Purd, to do as ‘e likes with. But somehow I don’t believe ‘e’ll be a waster. A man who’s gone short as long as him . . . However, just in case, Poll”— here Tilly sank her voice to a mysterious hiss —“the fact is, love, I’ve got a reserve fund of my own, a nest-egg so to speak, which I don’t mean to let on one word about . . . no, not to anybody. Except you. I’ve laid something by, my dear, in the last few years, made a bit at the races; sold out of BLAZING DIAMONDS in the nick of time; and the long and the short of it is, Mary, I’ve between seven and eight thousand by me at this very minute. What’s more, I intend to keep it; just let it lie, have it to draw on, in case of trouble. One never knows. I’ve got a small tin box, my dear, and out in the dairy, going down the ladder into the cellar, a flag’s come loose, which just leaves room for it. There’s no chance there of fire, or thieves either — no one but myself even sets foot in the place. And if anything happens to me, it’s there you’ll find it. The boys are to have it, if I go first. For as you can see, love, with no blood-tie between them and me, there wouldn’t be much call on Purd, would there, to support ’em after my death?”

Indeed that was true; nor could Purdy be blamed, if he failed to recognise the obligation. It said a good deal for him that he was willing to accept, as inmates of his house, these two middle-aged men, one of whom was a confirmed drunkard with lucid intervals, the other little more than an overgrown child. As for Tilly’s plan of keeping a large sum of money on the premises, risky though it seemed, Mary faltered in her criticism of it. For she knew too well the advantage of a private purse into which you could dip at will. Instead of having to run to your husband with all the little extra expenses that WOULD crop up, spare as you might. These were never kindly greeted. Richard, too, had been the most generous of husbands, and she a fairly good manager. Tilly on the other hand was lavish and lordly with money, Purdy still a dark horse in respect of it.

Another thing, as long as Purdy and Mr. Henry knew nothing, Tilly could neither be wheedled out of her savings nor bullied into reinvesting them.

When at the end of an hour the two women kissed good-night, Tilly uttered her usual request: “Now mind, not a word to the doctor!”

Oh dear no! (HOW Richard would have jeered!) Besides, when he got home some half-hour later, he was so full of a new grudge against Tilly that every word had to be weighed, for fear of fanning the flames. It seemed that on reaching Moberley’s, he had found Purdy the centre of a rowdy party, whose noise and laughter could be heard even before he entered the hotel. More: his appearance was totally unexpected. Purdy looked as if he couldn’t believe his eyes; ejaculated: “What, Dick? You here already?” and then turned back to his companions — the motley collection of commercial travellers and bar-haunters he had gathered round him. Ten minutes of this were enough for Mahony; he slipped unobserved from the room. Recognising, however, that the appointment had been a ruse on Tilly’s part to get rid of him, he did not come back to the house, but took a long walk round the lake in the dark. There, at least, he could be sure of not meeting any one he knew.

He seemed to have this idea of dodging familiar faces on the brain. Did ever any one hear the like? . . . on his return, for the first time, to the place where he had spent a third of his life . . . where he had been so well known and sought after. But really JUST how odd Richard had become, Mary did not grasp till now. And before the following day was out, she was heartily sorry she had not left him at home. One of his worst bad nights did not help to mend matters. He vowed he had not missed the striking of a single hour; but had tossed and turned on a too hard bed, in a too light room, listening to the strange noises of a strange house, and wakened for good and all long before dawn, by the crowing of “a thousand infernal roosters.” Before any one else stirred he was up and out, on a long tramp bushwards.

There was nothing to be done with him. Summoned to the drawing-room to greet Amelia Grindle and Agnes Ocock, who drove over immediately after breakfast “for a glimpse of our darling Mary,” he was so stiff and found so little to say that poor Amelia, timid and fluttery as ever, hardly dared to raise her eyes from her boots. Thereafter Mary left him in peace on the back verandah, and sought to waylay Tilly, whose main idea of hospitality — poor old Tilly! — was continually to be bothering him with something to eat.

The person who did not look near was Purdy; and this was an additional source of offence. The least he could have done, said Richard, was to ride out and make up for his offensive behaviour of the night before. Didn’t the fellow grasp that he, Mahony, had come to Ballarat solely with the object of doing him a good turn? Privately Mary thought it very unlikely that Purdy, or Tilly either, saw Richard’s presence in this light. Aloud she observed that he must know it would not be considered proper for the bridegroom to hang about the house, the day before the wedding. But Richard said: propriety be hanged!

He also flouted her suggestion that he should himself pay some visits — look up the Archdeacon, or Chinnery of the National, or those colleagues on hospital or asylum with whom he had once been intimate.

“Not I! If they want to see me, let THEM make the overture.”

“Don’t be silly. Of course they’d like to see you again.”

“I know better.”

“Then why, if you’re so sure of it, feel hurt because they don’t come? For that’s what you are,” said Mary bluntly. She wore a large cooking-apron over her silk gown, and looked tired but content. She had helped to set the wedding-breakfast on long trestle-tables running the length of the hall; had helped to pack and strap the bride’s trunks for the journey to Sydney; had baked some of her famous cakes, and laid the foundation for the more elaborate cream dishes that were to be whipped up the first thing next morning.

She went on: “Personally, I don’t see how you can expect people to run after you, when you’ve never troubled to keep up with them . . . written a line or sent a message.” And just because she herself thought SOME of Richard’s old friends might have done him the compliment of calling, Mary spoke very warmly. Adding: “Well, at least you’ll take a stroll round the old place now you’re here, and see how it’s grown.”

“Indeed and I’ll do nothing of the sort! . . . now don’t start badgering me, Mary. Why on earth should I go to the trouble of soldering old links, for the sake of a single day? I’ll never be here again.”

“Tch, tch!” said Mary. “With you it’s always yourself . . . nothing but I, I, I!”

“Well, upon my word! . . . I like that. After me dragging all this way . . . not to speak of being perched up to-morrow before a churchful of people, for them to stare at!”

At this Mary laughed aloud. “Oh, Richard! As if they would ever think of looking at anybody but the bride! . . . or bridegroom.”

But Richard, it seemed, suffered from an intense nervous conviction that he would be a target for all eyes.

* * * * *

Something before three o’clock the following afternoon, Mary stood on the front verandah, which was white and scrunchy with flowers and rice, and watched him, carpet-bag in hand, make a dash for gate, trap, and the train that was to carry him back to town. Indoors the guests still lingered: you could hear a buzz of talk, the clink of glasses, the rustle of silk; and she herself was not leaving till next day, having promised Tilly first to see the house restored to order. But nothing would persuade Richard to stop a moment longer than was necessary. He fled.

Tossing hat and bag on the cushions of the railway carriage, Mahony fell into a seat and wiped his forehead. Doors slammed; a bell rang; they were off. Well, THAT was over, thank God! . . . and never, no, never! would he let himself be trapped into this kind of thing again. To begin with, he had been inveigled here on false pretences. It no doubt buttered Tilly’s vanity to see his name topping the list of her wedding-guests. But as far as all else was concerned, he might have stayed comfortably at home. Purdy had not cared a threepenny-bit one way or the other. As for it ever dawning on the fellow that he was being given a leg-up — a social safe-conduct, so to speak — all such rubbish originated in Mary’s confounded habit of reading her own ideas into other people. At his expense.

But while he could dismiss Tilly and her folly with a smile, Purdy’s bovine indifference roused a cold resentment in him. Consciously he had washed his hands of the connection long since. And yet it seemed as if a part of him still looked for gratitude — or at least a show of gratitude — did he exert himself on Purdy’s behalf. Which was absurd. — And anyhow Purdy had never been famous for delicacy of feeling — a graceless, thankless beggar from the start. In his heyday, a certain debonair blitheness had cloaked his shortcomings. Now, time having robbed him of every charm, he stood revealed in all his crudity: obese, loose-mouthed, with an eye grown shifty from overreaching his fellow-men: HOW he plumed himself on his skill as a Jeremy Diddler! Oh, this insufferable exaggeration! — this eternal bragging . . . even while they were waiting in church for the arrival of the bride, he had been unable to refrain. Mary said: “Do have patience. Mark my words, Tilly will knock him into shape.” But Mahony doubted it. Once a boaster, always a boaster! — besides, the fair fat Tilly was too far gone in love to wish to chip and change her chosen. Her face had been oily with bliss as she stood with her groom before the altar, he in a check the squares of which could have been counted from across the road, draped in a watch-chain on which he might have hanged himself; she, puce-clad, in a magenta bonnet topped with roses the size of peonies, which sat crooked over one ear. (Mary, cool and pale in silver grey, looked as though sprung from a different branch of the human race.)

What a farce the whole thing had been! . . . from beginning to end. The congratulations he had had to smirk a response to on “his friend’s” marriage, “his friend’s” good fortune. Then old Long’s flowery periods, which would have well befitted a dewy damsel of eighteen, but bordered on the ludicrous when applied to Tilly, who would never see forty again, and had been through all this before. Henry Ocock “giving away” his mature stepmother and her money-bags, his father’s money-bags, those bags that should by rights have descended to HIS son: in spite of his sleek suavity, it was not hard to imagine the wrath that burned behind Henry’s chalky face and boot-button eyes. He was ageing, was Henry; white hairs showed in his jetty beard and the creasing of his lids made him look foxier than ever. But so it was with all of them. Those he had left young were now middle-aged the middle-aged had grown old. Like Henry’s, their faces had not improved in the process. Time seemed to show up the vacancy that had once been overlaid by rounded cheeks and a smooth forehead. Or else the ugly traits in a nature, ousting the good, had been bitten in as by an etcher’s acid. He wondered what secrets his own phiz held, for those who had eyes to see. The failures and defeats his prime had been spent in enduring — had each left its special mark, in the shape of hollow, or droop, or wrinkle? Oh, his return to this hated place called up bitter memories from their graves: raised one obscene ghost after another, for his haunting. Here, he was to have garnered the miraculous fortune that would lift him for ever out of the mud of poverty; here had dreamt the marriage that was to be like no other on earth; here turned back, with a big heart, to the profession that should ensure him ease and renown — even the cutting himself loose, when everything else had miscarried, was to have heralded the millennium. — No! one’s past simply did not bear thinking about. Looking back was wormwood and a wound. It meant remembering all the chances you had not taken; the gaudy soap-bubble schemes that had puffed out at a breath; meant an inward writhing at the toll of the years flown by, empty of achievement — at the way in which you had let him get the better of you. Time, which led down and down, with a descent ever steeper and more rapid, till it landed you . . . in who knew what Avernus? — Nervously Mahony unclasped his bag and rummaged a book from its depths. To lose himself in another’s thoughts was the one anodyne left him.

The train was racing now. They had passed Navigator, white and sweet with lucerne; and the discomforts and absurdities of the past forty-eight hours were well behind him.

* * * * *

Cuffy, playing that evening on the front verandah, was surprised by the sudden advent of his father, who caught him up, tossed and soundly kissed him with a: “And how is my little man? How is my darling?” But at three years old even a short absence digs a breach. Cuffy had had time to grow shy. He coloured, hung his head, looked sideways along the floor; and as soon as he was released pattered off to Nannan and the nursery.

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