The Way Home, by Henry Handel Richardson

Chapter VII

That night he could not sleep. To begin with, he had been unused of late to an evening’s talk: bits and scraps of it went on buzzing round his brain, long after he lay abed. Then, something he had eaten had disagreed with him: Cook’s short-crust must have been too rich, or the pears over-ripe. He tossed and turned, to the disturbance of poor Mary; tried lying high, lying low, counting sheep and other silly tricks, all to no purpose: before an hour had passed, the black thoughts of the night — those sinister imaginings born of darkness and immobility — had him in their grip.

Their approach was stealthy. For he had gone to bed in high feather at the prospect of at last securing a tenant. Weeks had dragged by, and the house was still unlet. He fumed as often as he thought of it. To put a house like his on the market and get no offers for it! Sell? . . . yes; he could have sold three times over. But the idea of renting a place ready furnished seemed not to enter the colonial mind. Now, however, if Purdy was to be trusted. .. A rich squatter, too . . . willing no doubt to pay a good price for a good thing — though this condition was not, God be thanked, the SINE QUA NON it would once have been. Still, money was money; you could not have too much of it . . . especially here. Give a man means and you gave him friends and favours, and a rank second to none. To take a petty instance: what had money not done for the very person they had had before their eyes that evening? From the seedy little down-at-heel of a year back, Purdy had been metamorphosed into . . . well, at least rendered presentable enough to bid to your table. Money had restored his shrunken self-respect. It had also brought out in him talents which not his oldest friends had guessed at. That Purdy, of all people, should prove a dabster in the share-market! — exchange to such good purpose bar-parlour for “Corner.” No doubt the years he had spent hobnobbing with every variety of individual had sharpened his wits. You saw something of that in the shrewd choice he had made of a broker. For, three parts of the game, did you enter the big gamble, depended on having a wide-awake adviser at your elbow. And this man Blake, of whom they had heard so much that night, did actually seem to be one in a thousand.

One in a thousand . . . one in a thousand . . . a thousand . . . Mahony was on the point of dropping off, to the rhythm of these words, when a vague uneasiness began to stir in him; more exactly, when he became abruptly aware that, deep down in him, a nagging anxiety had for some time been at work. Coming to with a jerk, he sent his thoughts back over the evening. What was it? . . . what had happened to prick him, when all had seemed to go so smoothly? He groped and groped. Then . . . ha! . . . he had it. Simmonds. The name whizzed into his mind like a dart; like a dart stuck there, and was not to be plucked out. And no sooner had he found this clue than, with a rush, a swarm of vexatious thoughts and impressions was upon him. His apparent good spirits were all humbug; at heart he had been depressed by the tale of Purdy’s successes. They had made him feel a back number, an old fossil, who had to learn from some one he had always looked down on as his inferior, what was actually happening in the financial world. And for this he held Simmonds to blame. What was the use of a confidential agent who did not keep you up to the mark? — Not that he wanted to speculate; or at least not as the word was here understood. But he wished to feel that he COULD have done so, and with as much aplomb as anybody, did the fit take him. And brooding over the chances he had no doubt missed and even at this moment might be missing: at a picture of himself lying high and dry, while one and another — mere whipper-snappers like Purdy — floated easily out to fortune, an acute irritation mastered him.

He turned his pillow, and, even as he did so, told himself that the fault had been not Simmonds’s, but his own. Yes, the truth was, he had had no ambition. Otherwise, why have laid his affairs in the hands of such a humdrum? — and, what was worse, have left them there. Honest? — yes: but so was many a noodle honest: and in these new countries honesty alone, unbacked by any more worldly qualities, stood not an earthly chance. And again a vision danced before his closed lids. He saw the thousands he had failed to make — thousands that grew to hundreds of thousands as he watched — fluttering just beyond HIS grasp, though within easy reach of others. And now, to sting him, the earlier bitterness returned . . . in the form of a galling envy. To see Purdy, the foolish harum-scarum, the confessed failure, the mean little COMMIS VOYAGEUR— to see such a one about to pass, surpass him, in means and influence: this was surely one of the bitterest mouthfuls he had ever had to swallow.

And here, seizing its chance, a further fear insinuated itself. What if it should not end with this? Simmonds being what he was, might he not fail in other ways as well? — let what he already held slip through his fingers, and he, Mahony, wake one morning to find himself a poor man? A shiver ran down his spine at the thought, and he made a feverish movement: he would have liked to throw off the bedclothes, and go hotfoot to call Simmonds to account. Since he was condemned to lie like a log, his imagination did the work for him, running riot in a series of pictures . . . till cold drops stood out on his forehead.

Sitting up he fumbled for a handkerchief. The change of position brought him a moment’s calmness. Good Lord, what was he doing . . . working himself into such a state. It was like those bad old times when he had had to worry himself half to death about money . . . or the lack of it. He drank a glass of water, and rolled over on his other side.

Scarcely, however, had his head touched the pillow when he was off again, stabbed by yet another nightmare thought. What if it should be a case of fraud on Simmonds’s part? Might not the lethargy, the stolid honesty be but a pose? — the cloak to cover a rascally activity? Like the confidential agent whose double-dealing they had heard of that night, it would be child’s play for Simmonds, just because he appeared so straight and aboveboard, to fleece his clients — or at least such among them as gave him the open chances he, Mahony, had. Careless, distraught, interested in everything rather than in money, he had ambled along unthinking as a babe, leaving Simmonds to his own devices for months, nay, years, at a time. Now, he could not wait for daylight to get his affairs back into his own hands. If only he were not too late! — And thus on and on, ever deeper into the night, his suspicions growing steadily more sinister, till there was no crime of which he was not ready to suspect his man of business. A dozen times he had trapped him, unmasked him, brought him to justice, before he fell into a feverish doze, in which not Simmonds but himself was the fugitive, hunted by two monstrous shadow policemen who believed him criminal before the law. Waking with a terrific start he pulled himself together, only at once to sink back in dream. This time, he was being led by Purdy and some one strangely resembling that bottle-nosed Robinson who had played him a dirty trick over an English practice, to a cemetery, where stood a tombstone bearing Simmonds’s name. Why, good Lord! the fellow’s dead . . . dead? . . . and what of me? “Who’s got my money? Where is it? Where am I?” cried Mahony aloud — and woke at the sound of his own voice to see pale lines of light creeping in at the sides of the windows. His pulse was bounding, Mary sleepily murmuring: “Oh dear, oh dear, what IS the matter?”— Rising, he opened a window and stuck his hot head out in the morning air.

At breakfast-time he emerged pale and peevish, to a day that proved hardly less wearing than the night had been. One, too, that called for a clear brain and prompt decisions. For the owner of Darumbooli, Baillie by name, put in an appearance as arranged — an elderly Scot, tanned, sun-wrinkled, grey-whiskered, with a bluff yet urbane manner — a self-made man, it was plain, and wholly unlettered, but frank, generous, honourable: one of nature’s gentlemen, in short, and of a type Mahony invariably found it easy to do business with. Better still, he turned out to be one of your genuine garden-lovers: as the pair of them walked the grounds of “Ultima Thule,” none of the details and improvements Mahony felt proudest of but was observed and bespoken: the white-strawberry bed, the oleander grove, the fernery, the exquisitely smooth buffalo-grass lawns on which sprays were kept playing. A good garden was, it seemed, a desideratum with Baillie. And he fell in love with Mahony’s at first sight.

But . . . yes, yes! now came the fly in the ointment . . . he wished not to rent but to buy: had never, he averred, had any idea of renting a house: it was entirely “that fellow Smith’s mistake” (“all Purdy’s muddle!”). The schooling proved another bit of fiction. His daughters were past their school years; of an age to be launched in society. Darumbooli was up for sale — Baillie had already refused a bid of ninety thousand — and planned from now on to settle in Melbourne.

Having thus cleared the air and added that, only the day before, he had seen a house at Toorak which, though not a patch on this, would serve his purpose, he offered a sum for “Ultima Thule,” just as it stood, with all its contents, which sent Mahony’s eyebrows half-way up his forehead.

Mary was speechless when she heard the upshot of the interview; when, too, she saw that Richard’s mind — that mind which seemed unable to hold fast to any mortal thing for long together — was more than three parts made up to accept Baillie’s offer. And too discomfited to meet this Irish fluidity with her usual wily caution, she no sooner found her voice than she cried: “Oh, Richard, NO! — that we CAN’T do . . . we really can’t! Think of all the things we got specially out from home . . . the French tapestry . . . the carpets . . . and . . . and everything!”

Tch! now he had this to go through . . . on top of his bad night, and his own burning irresolution. His nerves felt like the frayed ends of a rope. But as usual opposition spurred him on.

“But, my dear, with such a sum at our disposal, we shall be able to furnish our NEXT house ten times as well. Look here, Mary, I tell you what we’ll do. We’ll bring every atom of stuff out with us, from London or Paris: the very newest of everything — there won’t be a house in the colony like it.”

“Oh, Richard! . . . oh, I DO think —” For an instant bitterness choked Mary. Then, she could not resist pricking him with a: “And have YOU decided to let all your books go, as well?”

“My books? Most certainly not! I made that clear on the spot. — But how absurd, Mary! What would a man whose whole life has been spent among sheep and cattle do with my volumes of physic and metaphysics?” But Mary put on her obstinate face. “Well, my things mean just as much to me as yours to you.”

“Now for goodness sake, my dear, be reasonable!” cried Richard, growing excessively heated. “I suppose even a squatter can use a chair or a sofa; needs a bed and a table; but what, I ask you, would he make of Lavater? . . . or the Church Fathers?”

“It’s always the same. I’m to give up everything, you nothing. — But if my wishes and feelings can be trampled on, don’t you care about the children? . . . I mean about them all having been born here?”

“Indeed and I do not! I would no more have them tie their feelings to the shell of a house than I’d have mourners hang round a grave.”

“Oh, there’s no talking to you nowadays, your head’s so full of windy stuff. But I tell you this, Richard, I refuse to have my children dragged from place to place . . . as I’ve been. It’s not as if it’s ever helped a bit either, our giving up home after home. You’re always wild, at the moment, to get away, but afterwards you’re no happier than you were before. And then, what makes me so angry, you let yourself be influenced by such silly, trivial things. I believe you’re ready to sell this house just because you LIKE the man who wants to buy it, or because he’s praised up the garden. But you’ll be sorry for it, I know you will, before three months are out. I haven’t lived with you all these years for nothing.”

“Oh well, my dear,” said Mahony darkly, “I’m an old man now, and you won’t be troubled with me much longer. When I’m gone you’ll be able to do just as you please.”

Mary’s black eyes flashed, and her lips opened to a sharp retort; then she snapped them to, and said nothing. For to this there could be no real reply; and Richard knew it.

The bargain struck — for struck of course it was, as she had seen from the first it would be: thereafter it only remained for Mary to apply her age-old remedy, and make the best of a very bad job. But the present was by so much the most unreasonable thing Richard had ever done, and she herself felt so sore and exasperated over it, that not for several days was she cool enough to discuss the matter with him. Then, however, each coming half-way to meet the other, they had a long talk, in the course of which Mahony sought to make amends by letting her into some of his money secrets, and she extracted a solemn promise that, except for a mere fringe — a couple of thousand, say, for travelling and other immediate expenses — the sum he was receiving (it ran to five figures) should be kept for the purpose of setting them up anew on their return to the colony. Mahony bade her make her mind easy. They ought to be able to live as comfortably on their dividends in England, as here; and the price paid for “Ultima Thule” should be faithfully laid by for the purpose of building, when they came back, the house that would form their permanent home. “For by then my travelling days will be over. We’ll plan it together, love, every inch of it; and it will be more our own than any house we’ve lived in.”

“Yes, I dare say.” But Mary’s tone lacked warmth, was rich in incredulity.

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