The Way Home, by Henry Handel Richardson

Chapter VI

Some six months later the Mahonys set out on their second voyage to England. They sailed by the clipper-ship ATRATA and travelled in style, accompanied by a maid to attend to Mary and both nurses. — And “Ultima Thule” passed into other hands.

It had proved easier to persuade Mary to the break than Mahony had dared to hope. John’s illness and death paved the way. For, by the time her long vigil at his bedside was over, and Lizzie seen safely through a difficult confinement, Mary’s own health was beginning to suffer. A series of obstinate coughs and colds plagued her; and a thorough change of air was advisable. A change of scene, too. Though Mary was not given to moping and, at the time, had thankfully accepted John’s release, yet when it came to taking up her ordinary life again the full sense of her loss came home to her. And not to her alone but to every one. John’s had been such a vigorous personality. Its withdrawal left a gap nothing could fill.

None the less, the sacrifice she was now called on to make was a bitter one, and cost her much heartburning: when she first grasped the KIND of change Richard was tentatively proposing, she burst into heated exclamation. What, break up their home again? . . . their lovely home? Leave all the things they had collected round them? Leave intimates and friends and their assured position? . . . to go off no one knew where . . . and where nobody knew them? Oh, he couldn’t mean it! — And what about the children? . . . still mere babies —“For though you talked till you were black in the face, Richard, you would never get me to leave them behind!”— and the drawbacks of ship-life for them at their tender age? . . . the upset in their habits . . . not to speak of having to watch them grow spoilt and fractious: winding up with her dread of the sea, his antipathy to England and English life.

But Mahony, though he spoke soothingly, stuck to his guns. It was only to be a visit this time, he urged. It could hardly hurt the house to be let for a year or so. A good tenant would take good care of it; and it would be there, just as it stood, for them to come back to. Then both nurses would go with them; and as for the darlings being too young for a voyage, that was the sheerest nonsense: on the contrary, it would do them a world of good; perhaps even turn Cuffy into a sturdy boy. The same could be said for her own ailments: there was nothing like the briny for laying coughs and colds; while the best cabin in the ship would go far towards lessening the horrors of sea-sickness. As for England, they would not know it for the same country, travelling as they did to-day. Plenty of money, introductions to good people, going everywhere, seeing everything; and ending up, if she felt disposed, with a jaunt to the Paris Exhibition and a tour of the Continent. “It isn’t every wife, my dear, has such an offer made her.”

But his words fell flat: Mary only shrugged her shoulders in reply. Tours and exhibitions meant nothing to her. She hadn’t the least desire to travel — or at any rate to go farther afield than Sydney or Tasmania. She had been so happy here . . . so perfectly happy! Why, oh why, could Richard not be content? And that he could forget so easily how he had hated England . . . and disliked the English . . . . well, no, she must be fair to him. As he said, life over there would be a very different thing now they had money. (Though all the money in the world wouldn’t stop it raining!) He might also be right about the voyage doing the chicks good; and it would certainly give them, tiny tots though they were, just that something which colonial-bred children lacked. But oh, her home! . . . her beautiful home. To have to hand it over to strangers, have strangers tramping on your best carpets, sleeping in your beds, using your egg-shell china — even the best of tenants would not care for the things as she did. She had asked nothing better than to spend the rest of her life at “Ultima Thule”; and here now came Richard, for whom even a few years of it had proved too many. Luxury and comfort, or poverty and hard work, it did not seem to matter which: the root of the evil lay in himself. On the other hand she mustn’t forget how splendidly he had behaved over John’s illness: never grumbling at her long absences, or at being left to the tender mercies of the servants. Many another husband might have said: let them hire some one to do their nursing, and not wear out my wife over it! But Richard wasn’t like that.

And her first heat cooled, wiser counsels prevailed; the end of which was a sturdy resolve to smother her own feelings and think only of him. Two considerations finally turned the scale. One was that when, with Lizzie’s convalescence, she was free to return home, she had a nasty shock at the state in which she found Richard. Without her to nag at him and rout him out, he had let himself go as never before: he had forgotten to change his under-clothing or have his hair cut; had neglected his meals, neglected the children — lost interest even in his beloved garden. And for all this they had to thank that horrid spiritualism! During the last few months it had come to be a perfect obsession with him; and from a tolerably clear-headed person he had turned into a bundle of credulous superstition. He actually sat for as long as an hour at a time, with a pencil in his hand, waiting for it to write by itself — write messages from the dead . . . and wasn’t he angry when she laughed at him!

This was one thing — the chance for him of a complete break with all such nonsense. Again, coming back to him as it were with fresh eyes, she saw that he was beginning to look very elderly. He seemed to be growing downwards, losing his height, through always sitting crouched over books; and the fair silky hair at his temples was quite silvery now, did you peer closely at it. It was hard to think of Richard as old . . . and him still well under fifty. Yet the coming on of age might account for much. Elderly people did settle into ruts; and, once fixed in them, were impossible to move. Perhaps his present morbid hankering after change was a kind of warning from something inside him to shake himself up and get out of his groove before it was too late. In which case it would be folly and worse than folly, on her part, to try to prevent him.

For his sake then and for his alone. When it came to a question of Richard’s welfare, all other considerations went by the board. One condition, though, she did stand out for, and that was, the house should not be let to any one, no matter whom, for longer than a year. By then, she was positive, Richard would have had his fill of travelling, with the varied discomforts it implied, and be thankful to get back to his own dear home.

Thus it came that “Ultima Thule” was put into an agent’s hands, and Mary fell to sorting and packing and making her preparations for the long sea voyage. Not the least of these was fitting the three children out anew from top to toe. Richard had forbidden them even an armband as mourning for their uncle — he was never done railing at Lizzie for having turned John’s three into little walking mountains of bombazine and crepe. So Mary was free to indulge her love for dainty stuffs and pretty colours. And, thought she, if ever children paid for dressing hers did. The Dumplings were by now lovely, fair-haired, blue-eyed three-year-olds, with serious red mouths and firm chubby legs. They prattled the livelong day; loved and were loved by every one. Cuffy, dark, slim, retiring, formed just the right contrast. People often stopped nurse to ask whose children they were. And on this, their first excursion into the big world, nobody should be able to say they were not the best-dressed, best-cared-for children on the ship!

Before, however, a suitable tenant for the house had been found — Richard turned up his nose at every one who had so far looked over it (when it came to the point he was the fastidious one of the two)— before anything had been fixed, a note came from Tilly saying she and Purdy had travelled down from Ballarat overnight, and were putting up at “Scott’s.” So after breakfast Mary on with her bonnet and drove to town.

She found Tilly in a fine sitting-room on the first floor of the hotel, looking very, very prosperous . . . all silk and bugles. Purdy was out, on the business that had brought him to town: “So we two have all the morning, love, to jaw in.” As she spoke, Tilly whipped off Mary’s bonnet and mantle and carried them to the bedroom, supplying Mary meanwhile with one of her own caps, lest any one should enter the room and find her with a bare pate. Then, a second chair having been drawn up for her to put her feet on, a table with cake and wine set at her elbow, they were free to fall to work. They had not met since Tilly’s wedding; and Mary had now to tell the whole sad story of John’s illness and death, starting from the night on which he had unexpectedly come to consult Richard, and not omitting his queer hallucination the day before he died (an incident she had so far religiously kept from Richard, as only too likely to encourage his present craze). Next they discussed Lizzie, her behaviour during John’s illness, her attitude to the children and the birth of her boy — a peevish, puny infant to whom, much against her inclination, she thinking the world of her own family and little of any other, she had been induced to give John’s name. And then John’s will, “John’s infamous will!” as Richard called it, by which Lizzie was left sole executrix, and trustee of Emmy and the little girls’ money (five thousand apiece), with free use of the interest so long as she provided a home for them under her roof. “Which, as you can see, Tilly, is about as foolish a condition as the poor fellow could well have made.”

Tilly nodded; but suppressed the: “Yes, but oh how like ’im!” that jumped to her lips, on the principle of not picking holes in the dead. “But what about if Madam marries again . . . eh, Mary? How then?”

Mary nodded ruefully. “Why, then it’s the usual thing: she’s cut off with a penny; most of her money goes to the boy; and Richard and Jerry become trustees in her stead.” But, extenuating where Tilly had suppressed, Mary added: “You must remember the will was drawn up directly after marriage, when John was still very much in love.”

“Lor’, Mary, WHAT a picnic!” said Tilly, and sagely wagged her head. “My dear, can’t you see ’em? Madam, gone sour as curds, clinging like grim death to ‘er posse of old maids! Poor old Jinn! Poor little kids! Caught like fishes in a net.”

“Yes, well, except that . . . as Richard says . . . it’s very unlikely . . .”

Their eyes met.

“Why, yes, I suppose it is,” said Tilly dryly.

Thence they passed to their own affairs; and Mary told of the fresh uprootal that was in store for her — and, over the telling, let out some of the exasperation that burned in her at the prospect. Tilly was the one person who would understand what it meant; to whom she could utter a word of complaint. To the world at large Richard and she must, and would, always present a united front.

Said she: “Oh, I DID think this time, Tilly, he would be content; when he’d got everything he could possibly wish for. It was a different matter him leaving Ballarat — and I couldn’t blame him myself for not wanting to settle permanently in England. But here . . . our nice house . . . his library . . . the garden . . . And the stupid part of it is I know he’ll regret it . . . tire of being on the move long before we can get back into the house. I’m making up my mind to THAT, before I start.”

“Poor old girl! You do have a tough time of it.”

“Besides, there are the chicks to think of now as well. Their father says the voyage will do them good, and he may be right. But the voyage isn’t everything. What about the change of climate for them while they’re so small? — going over into the cold as we shall do. Then, travelling isn’t the thing for little children — you know what an excitable child Cuffy is. — Besides, just think what it’s going to cost us, with three servants, renting a furnished house in London, making a tour of the Continent and all the rest of it. Richard has such grand notions nowadays. Economy’s a word that has ceased to exist for him. The money’s there and it’s to be spent, and that’s the end of it. But it does sometimes seem . . . I mean I can’t help feeling it would be better if I had some idea what we’ve got and how it goes.”

But having opened her heart thus, Mary came to a stop: there were things she drew the line at touching on, and though her hearer was only Tilly. You did not, even to your dearest friend, belabour the point that your husband was growing old and rusty, stiff in body and in mind. You locked the knowledge up, with a pang, inside your own heart. Again, Tilly had always made such game of spiritualism. Did she now hear that, from an interested inquirer, Richard had become an out-and-out adherent, accepting as gospel the rubbish its devotees talked, attending sittings which opened with prayers and hymns, just as if they were trying to take the place of going to church — why, at this, Tilly would certainly tap her forehead and make significant eyes, imagining goodness only knew what. So Mary kept a wifely silence.

Besides, it was Tilly’s turn now to talk. Tilly had brought a rare budget of gossip with her from the old home; and no one could give this in racier, more entertaining fashion than she. Mary listened and laughed, throwing in a reproving: “Now, REALLY, Tilly!” at some of the speaker’s most daring shots; growing grave-eyed were the tragedies alluded to that underlay many a prosperous exterior.

Not till all the old friends had been asked after, did she press nearer home. “And now, Tilly, how about yourself, my dear? Are you . . . has it . . . come! you know what I mean!”

Tilly laughed out loud. “Indeed and it has, old girl! — and no apologies needed. Yes, love, the very best of husbands. But I was right as rain, Mary, in what I said beforehand — no spendthrift as I’m alive! Why, ‘e even goes to the other extreme, love, and holds the purse-strings a bit tighter than yours truly ‘as been used to. Though it’s not for me to complain, my dear, considering ‘ow he handles money. I’m still a bit dazed by it myself. A born knack with the shekels, and that’s the truth! I declare to you, old Pa’s leavings have almost DOUBLED in these six months. Purd’s got a sort of second-sight, which tells ’im to the minute what o’clock it is. All that was wrong with him, Mary, was never having enough of the needful to show what ‘e was made of.”

“Well, I AM glad to hear that — I am indeed!”

She went home full of the news. “We were both wrong, you see.”

But it would not have been Richard if he hadn’t made ironical remarks. Wait till the bloom was off the grapes, said he, and then see how the land lay. For, if Purdy had started speculating already . . .

“Ah, but Tilly says he has a kind of sixth sense for the ups and downs of the market.”

“Many a wife thinks the same, till the crash comes. But you know MY opinion of the national vice.”

“Well, you’ll be able to judge for yourself. I’ve asked them to dinner this evening.”

“Oh, deuce take it! Have we really got to have them here?”

“Now, Richard . . . when Tilly’s in town for the first time since her wedding. Certainly we have. Besides, I know you’ll be interested to see what marriage has done for Purdy.”

“Oh Lord, Mary! Am I not at my time of life allowed to know what interests me and what doesn’t?”

“Well, I shan’t see Tilly again for ever so long. I do beg you to be nice to her, dear . . . to both of them,” said Mary.

And when the time came he was . . . of course he was: with the near prospect of escape from people, Richard invariably found it easy to be charming to them. Another thing, she had pandered to his weak side by preparing a very choice little dinner; and she wore one of his favourite dresses — a black velvet gown, with jet trimmings, cut square at the neck.

But without a doubt, the main reason for his amiability was the immense improvement that had taken place in Purdy: it was noticeable even as the latter entered the drawing-room. In appearance he would, it was true, never be very much, what with his limp, and so on; and his lack of distinction was doubly remarkable when Richard was present, who was so slender and aristocratic-looking. But his aggressiveness had gone; he was no longer up in arms against the world. Gone, too, was the dreadful boasting that had so set Richard against him; and he had quite given over telling tiresome stories . . . thanks, thought Mary, to having married one of the most sensible of women. At the single threatened lapse into his old tone, she distinctly felt Tilly seek and find his foot beneath the table.

“Didn’t I say she’d pull him into shape?” and: “Upon my word, wife, if ever there was an exploded notion, it is that the possession of this world’s goods makes for evil. Why, there was actually a trace of his old self about the fellow to-night.”

The ormolu clock on the drawing-room mantelpiece had just chimed eleven. Mary was giving her toes a final toast before retiring, Richard securing the hasps and bolts of shutters and French windows.

“Yes, indeed,” agreed Mary; but with an absent air. She was thinking of Tilly — dear old Tilly — in whom the change had been no less marked. Looking very buxom and rather handsome in magenta velvet, Tilly had sat smiling broadly, but with less to say for herself than ever in her life before. Instead of paying attention to Richard, as she ought to have done, she had all the time been listening to Purdy, drinking in his words, and signing to Mary to listen, too, by many a private tilt of the brows. So palpably eager was she for him to shine that she had been unable to resist breaking in with a: “Oh, come now, Purd, take a LEETLE bit of the credit to yourself! — it was his doing really, Mary, and no one else’s, though ‘e tries now to make out it was Blake’s.” And at Purdy’s: “Forgive my old woman’s dotage, you two . . . it’s still kissing-time with us, you know!”— at this Tilly had smirked and blushed like a sixteen-year-old.

Meanwhile Richard was saying from the hearthrug, where he stood nursing his coat-tails: “ . . . an interesting chat after you had left the room, my dear. I was hearing all about the Mitcham case from within — the big mining suit, you know, that has created such a scandal in Ballarat . . . you must remember old Grenville of Canterbury Station, his deafness and his expletives, and those enormous black cigars — he always had one stuck in the corner of his mouth when he drove his four-in-hand to town.”

“Of course I do. A very kind old gentleman I thought him.”

“Yes . . . he had rather a way with the ladies. — Well, as I was saying, this fellow Blake Purdy swears by was one of the partners in the company formed after old G. had sold his mine — at a dead loss, mind you, and on the express advice of his confidential manager, who, directly after, became a promoter of the new company. When the output suddenly redoubled and the shares began to soar, old Grenville, naturally enough, thought he had been done, and sued them for fraud. The jury could not agree. Now, there’s rumour of a settlement. If it takes place, it is calculated that the shares will rise in value by two to three hundred per cent. Purdy stands to make his fortune — thanks to having some one at his elbow who is in the swim.”

But Mary pursed her lips and looked dubious. “Well, I don’t know, Richard . . . I must say it sounds to me rather shady.”

“Hm . . . well, myself I prefer to keep clear of that sort of thing. All the same, Mary, I couldn’t help thinking what a terrible slowcoach old Simmonds is, compared with these modern brokers one hears of. One never gets any inside information from him — for the very good reason that he doesn’t know it himself.”

“But so honest and trustworthy!”

“Oh, yes, there’s that about it,” said Richard, a trifle morosely Mary thought.

“And what do you say to the house? Wasn’t it a funny thing Purdy tumbling across some one, like that?” she hastened to add, in an attempt to divert his mind from old Simmonds’s shortcomings.

“A stroke of luck of the first order!”

For amongst other news Purdy had had a titbit for them. Only that very day, it seemed, in the coffee-room of the hotel, he had run up against a squatter from Darumbooli who was on the look-out for a furnished house, standing in its own grounds and not too far from the sea, where he could settle wife and daughters while the latter attended a finishing school. Purdy had at once thought of “Ultima Thule” and extolled its beauties: its lawns and shrubberies and fruit gardens, its proximity to the sea. The squatter had pricked up his ears and, if they agreed, would come out to see it early next morning.

Whereupon the last trace of Mahony’s starchedness had melted, in a glow of gratitude and content.

“Upon my word, Mary, it sounds the very thing, at last!”

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