The Way Home, by Henry Handel Richardson

Chapter VIII

And now for Simmonds.

As he made ready to go to town Mahony recalled, with a smile, his grotesque imaginings of two nights back. What a little hell the mind could create for a man’s undoing! But none the less, though he now ridiculed them, his nightmares had left a kind of tingling disquietude in their train. He felt he would do well to have a straight talk with Simmonds, go carefully through his share-list, and arrange in detail for the conduct of his affairs during his absence.

He went off jauntily enough. “Don’t expect me till about six.”

But not a couple of hours later, as Mary was on her knees before a drawer of the great wardrobe she was beginning to dismantle, she heard his foot on the verandah, and the next moment his voice, sharp, querulent, distracted, cried: “Mary! Mary, where are you?”

“Yes, dear? I’m coming. Why, Richard, whatever is wrong now?” For with a despairing gesture Mahony had tossed his hat on the hall-table, and himself dropped heavily on a chair.

“You may well ask. Here’s a pretty kettle of fish! It’s all over now with our getting away.”

“What do you mean? But not here. The servants . . . Come into the bedroom. Well, you do look hot and tired.”

She brought him a glass of water, and while he sat and sipped this, she listened to his story; listened, and put two and two together. Arrived at his agent’s office in Great Bourke Street, he had found to his surprise and annoyance that Simmonds was absent from business. Worse still, had been, for over two months. He was ill, bedridden — yes, seriously ill. “Confound the fellow! I believe he means to die, just to inconvenience me. Mary! my dream the other night . . . it flashed across me as I walked home. Depend upon it, one doesn’t dream that kind of thing for nothing.” Richard’s tone was full of gloomiest foreboding.

“What nonsense, dear! How can you be so silly!”

In place of Simmonds he had been met by a . . . well, by a sort of clerk, who was in charge — at least he presumed so: he had never set eyes on the fellow before, and never meant to again, if he could help it! “To find a par to his behaviour, Mary, you would need to go back to the early days, when every scoundrelly Tom, Dick and Harry thought himself your equal.”

“What did he say?”

Say? Well, first, it was plain to Mary, he had not known from Adam who Richard was. Without getting up from his chair, not troubling to take his head out of a newspaper, he had asked the intruder’s pleasure in the free-and-easy colonial fashion which, long as he had lived there, Richard had never learned to swallow. Besides, not to be recognised in a place he honoured with his patronage was in itself a source of offence. Haughtily presenting his card (which, she could see, had lamentably failed to produce an effect), he demanded to speak to Simmonds, with whom he had important business.

“Pray, what answer do you think I got? In a voice, my dear, the twang of which you could have cut with a knife, I was informed: ‘Well, in that case, doc., I guess you’ll have to keep it snug — locked up in your own bosom, so to say! For the boss lies sick abed, and all the business in the world wouldn’t get him up from it.’ Whereupon I clapped on my hat and walked out of the place! In which, as long as Simmonds is away, I shall not set foot again. But now, as you can see, we’re in a pretty fix. All our plans knocked on the head! The house sold, the agreement signed — or as good as signed . . . it’s utterly impossible to draw back. Why the deuce was I in such a hurry? We shall have to go into apartments, Mary — take the children into common lodgings. Good God! Such a thing is not to be contemplated for a moment.”

Mary let him talk; listened to this and much more before she threw in a mild: “We’ll take a furnished house. There’d be nothing common about that. — All the same, I don’t believe Simmonds, who has always been so straight, would put any one in to look after things who wasn’t honest, too — in spite of uncouth behaviour. And you can’t refuse to deal with a person just because he has no manners . . . and doesn’t know how to address you.”

“My dear Mary, it has been a one-man show all these years; and the probability is, when the old fellow broke down he had no one to turn to. But I can assure you, if I left my investments in such hands I shouldn’t know a moment’s peace all the time I was away. Besides, if he does die, the whole concern will probably go smash.”

Oh, the fuss and the flutter! As if it wasn’t bad enough to have your house sold over your head, without this fresh commotion on top of it. There must surely be something very slipshod and muddle-headed about the way Richard managed his affairs. She didn’t say so, but, had she been in his shoes, she would have known long ago of Simmonds’s illness. As it was, this clerk might have been cheating the clients right and left. But anything to do with money (except, of course, the spending of it!) had of late years become anathema to Richard.

Now he went about with a hand pressed to an aching head; and after putting up with this for some days and herself feeling wholly at a loss, Mary made a private journey to town to visit Tilly. She would see what that practical, sagacious woman thought of the situation. Tilly, of course, at once laid her finger on the weak spot by asking bluntly: “But whyever doesn’t the doctor take advice of some of ‘is friends? — the big-bow-wow ones, I mean. They’d be able to tell ’im, right enough.”

“Why, the fact is, Richard hasn’t got . . . I mean his friends are not business men, any more than he is. If only John were alive! He’d have been the one.”

“Well, look here, Poll, I can ask Purd about it if you like. He may know, and if e doesn’t, ‘e can easily find out — I mean whether old S. is really going to hop the twig or what. Purd has strings ‘e can pull.”

Mary went home intending to keep silence about her intermeddling — at any rate till she saw what came of it. But Richard was regularly in the doldrums: he had to be comforted somehow. At first, as she had expected, he was furious; and abused her like a pickpocket for discussing his private affairs with an outsider. “You KNOW how I hate publicity! As for telling them in that quarter . . . why, I might as well go out and shout them from the housetop.”

“Richard . . . you can’t afford . . . if you re really set on getting away . . . to mind now who knows and who doesn’t.”

But on this point, as always, they joined issue. He accused her of lacking personal dignity; she said that his ridiculous secrecy over money matters would end by leading people to believe there was something fishy about them.

“Let them! What does it matter to me what they think?”

“Why, I don’t know anyone who’d resent it MORE— so proud and touchy as you are! And since home truths were the order of the day,” she added: “You know, dear, its just this: you’ve only yourself to thank for the fix you’re in. You’ve cut yourself off from every one, and now, when you need help, you haven’t a soul to turn to. And because I have, and make use of them, then your pride’s hurt.”

Which was the very truth. He had let slip friends and acquaintances who at this juncture might have been useful to him; but . . . could one nurse people, the inner impulse to friendship failing, solely from motives of opportunism? The idea revolted him. True, also, was what she said about the damage to his pride. Not, however, because they were HER friends as she supposed, but because they were the friends they were. Again, he shrank in advance from the silly figure he was going to cut, did the story get about town how he had sold his house and packed his portmanteaux, while, all unknown to him, the chief spoke in his wheel had collapsed. What a fool he would look! Though the fact was, Simmonds had handled his affairs without supervision for so long, that he had come to look on the fellow as a kind of fixture in his life.

And, in spite of everything, his determination to get away did not weaken. In mind, he had already started — was out on the high seas. Impossible now to call his thoughts home. And the feeling that such a course might be expected of him — that Mary would expect it — only served to throw him into a frenzy of impatience; make him more blackly intolerant of each fresh obstacle that blocked his path.

Then Tilly appeared: he saw her from the window, all furbelows and flounces, and wearing an air at once important and mysterious. She and Mary retired to the drawing-room; and there he could hear them jabbering, discussing HIM and his concerns, as he sat pretending to read. This went on and on — would they never end? Even when plainer tones, and the opening and shutting of doors seemed to herald Tilly’s departure, all that followed was a sheerly endless conversation on the step of the verandah. By the time Mary came in to him, he was nervily a-shake. And her news was as bad as it could be. Old Simmonds was doomed; was in the last stages of Bright’s disease; his place of business would know him no more. Most of his clients had already transferred to other agents; and Purdy’s advice to Richard was, to lose no time in following their example.

“Huh! All very well . . . very easily said! But to whom am I to turn, I’d like to know? . . . when there isn’t one honest broker in a thousand. Swindlers — damned swindlers! — that’s what they are, every man-jack of ’em. And here am I, just going out of the colony, and with all this fresh money to invest.”

Said Mary: “I’ve been thinking” (which, of course, meant tittle-tattling with Tilly), “why not write to Mr. Henry and consult him? He’s such a good business man, and knows so many people. He might be able to recommend some one to you.” But with this suggestion she only added fuel to the inordinate, unreasonable grudge which Richard still bore every one connected with the old life. “Nothing would induce me! . . . to eat humble pie before that crew!”

“Well then, DO let us postpone our journey . . . if only for six months.”

He was equally stubborn. “Sooner than that — if it comes to that! — I’ll sell right out and take every penny I possess to the other side. And never set foot in the colony again.”

“Now, for goodness sake, Richard! . . .” cried Mary; then bit her lip. He was quite capable of carrying out his threat, did she make the least show of opposition.

However, on this occasion his rashness took another form. After spending the whole of the next day in town, where he had gone to visit his banker, to settle with his wine merchant, arrange for the storing of his books and so on, he came home to dinner looking a different man. On her, who had gone about all day with a crease between her brows, not knowing whether to pack for a voyage or for the removal to another house, he burst in, and catching her by the waist kissed her and swung her round. “Here’s your bear come home. But cheer up, Mary, cheer up, my love, and make your mind easy! All will yet be well.”

“What? Do you mean to say you’ve actually ——?”

“Yes, thank the Lord, I have!”

Over the dinner-table he gave her particulars. At the end of a bothersome, wasted morning he had dropped into “Scott’s,” and there, in the coffee-room, had tumbled across Purdy. (“What! — PURDY?” was Mary’s amazed inner comment, she being as usual hard at work drawing inferences.) Purdy had met him in friendliest fashion: “I’ve come to the conclusion, my dear, I’ve sometimes been rather hard on the boy of late.” They had lunched together, over a chop and a bottle of claret had got talking, and had sat for the better part of an hour. Naturally the subject of Simmonds’s collapse had come up, and the fix it had put him into. Purdy —”‘Pon my word, Mary, I saw to-day he’s got his head screwed on the right way!”— had given him various useful tips how to deal with the modern broker, which an innocent old sheep like himself would never have dreamt of. And then just at the end, as they were making a move, Purdy had scratched his head and believed he knew some one who might ——

“NOT Blake?”

“Blake? Absurd! Good Lord, no! . . . Blake needs watching.” (Richard knew all about it to-night.) No, no: this was no flashy dare-devil, but a steady-going, cautious sort of fellow, who could be trusted to “look after your interests during your absence, and transmit THE interest . . . ha, ha! — Oh, and I must tell you this, Mary. When he said — Purdy, I mean —‘I believe I know some one who’d suit you, Dick,’ where do you suppose my thoughts flew? They went back, love, to a day more years ago than I care to count, when he used the self-same words. We were riding to Geelong together, he and I, two carefree young men — heigh-ho! — and not many hours after, I had the honour of meeting a certain young lady . . . Well, wife, if this introduction turns out but half as well as that, I shall have no cause to complain. Anyway, I took it as a good omen. We hadn’t time then to go further into the matter; but I am to meet him again to-morrow and hear all details.”

He rattled on in the highest spirits, seeing everything fixed and settled; and Mary had not the heart to damp him by putting inconvenient, practical questions. And having said his say and refilled her glass and his own, he sent for the children — they had been hushed back into the nursery for the past three days, while Papa had a headache. Now, setting his girlies on his knees, with Cuffy standing before him, he told the trio of the big ship that was coming to take them away, and on which they were to live — for weeks, and weeks, and weeks to come.

The Dumplings’ eyes grew round. “An’ s’all us ‘ave bekspup on ze big s’ip?” asked Lallie, the elder of the twins.

“Bekspup on ze big s’ip?” echoed her sister.

“Breakfast AND dinner, AND tea, and go to sleep in little beds like boxes built on to the wall, and look out of little windows just big enough for your little heads, and see nothing, wherever you look, but the great, wide sea.”

“Ooo! Bekfast, AN’ dinner, AN’ tea!”— Cuffy had to cut a few capers about the room to let off steam, before he could listen to more.

Mary took no part in the merry chatter. And when Nannan had fetched the children, she abruptly came back to the subject of her thoughts. “Of course you’ll see this person Purdy speaks of, see what you think of him yourself, before actually deciding on anything?”

“Of COURSE, my dear, of course!”

“It seems rather . . . I mean, it seems strange Purdy didn’t . . . . And as he is doing the recommending, I can’t very well ask Tilly’s opinion.”

“And who wants you to? I’ll be very much obliged if you DON’T interfere! Surely, Mary, I can be trusted to attend to some of my own business? I’m not quite on the shelf yet, I hope?”

“Oh, come, Richard. After all . . . I mean it’s not so very long ago and nothing would have induced you to take Purdy’s advice.”

“And pray who was it brought home glowing tales of how splendidly he had got on, thanks to his acuteness and financial genius, etc., etc., etc.?”

“Yes, I know. But still . . .”

“But as soon as I come into it, or because I come into it, you lose every atom of faith. I wonder if all wives are as distrustful of their husbands’ capabilities. A bad look-out for them if they are.”

Mary did not deny the charge. Doubtful she was, and doubtful she remained: an attitude of mind that severely tried Mahony’s temper, he having more than one private scruple of his own.

For his second meeting with Purdy, in which he had planned to be very cautious and to throw out wily feelers, was a failure. On getting to the hotel he found that Purdy could spare him but a few moments, himself having an urgent appointment to keep. They did not sit down, and their talk was scampered through at lightning speed. However, Purdy supplied him with a list of people for whom this man Wilding had acted — well-known names they were too! — and himself undertook to put in a word on Mahony’s behalf. In the meantime it would be as well for him to write and summon Wilding to town. — Write? Yes; for now it turned out that Wilding’s business was carried on, not in Melbourne but in Ballarat. Purdy vowed he had mentioned this fact the day before; but if so, Mahony had failed to hear him. Not that it mattered much, seeing that he himself was about to leave Melbourne. It might even, he agreed, the majority of his investments being in Ballarat mines, prove a benefit to have an agent who was on the spot.

Still, the conversation left him visibly less jubilant. While from the interview he had some days later with Wilding himself, he returned tired and headachy — always a bad sign where Richard was concerned. He met Mary with a: “Well, my dear, all our troubles are now over!”— which was true in so far as the business side of the affair had gone off smoothly. The transfer had been effected, power of attorney given, new investments arranged for, his existing share-list overhauled and revised. But . . . well, he had not been very favourably impressed by the man himself. He could find no likeness in him to the portrait drawn by Purdy — and probably amplified by his own mind, which looked for a second Simmonds — of a staid and dignified man of affairs. No, Wilding was again one of your rough diamonds: over-familiar, slangy, a back-slapper, and, like every one else here, in a tearing hurry: he hardly bothered to listen to what you said, knew everything you were going to say beforehand, and better than you. His appearance, too, was against him — at least to one who set store by the fleshly screen. Wilding had a small, oblique eye; fat, pursed lips; fat, grubby fingers on which flashy rings twinkled; a diamond pin that took your breath away. Also, from an injudicious word he let drop, the idea leapt at Mahony . . . well, it might be pure fancy on his part . . . or owing to these unlovely looks . . . besides it was only a fleeting impression . . . vaguely troubling. But come! it would not do to let a personal antipathy to the man’s appearance prejudice you against him . . . as Mary was never tired of preaching. What though Wilding was no beauty? Whose hands here WERE impeccably clean? Was this not just the type of your modern broker, as compared with one of the old school? The main thing, the only thing that really mattered was that he should prove alert and up-to-date. And in this respect his credentials were of the first water. What was more, it leaked out, in something he said, that Purdy had already been in correspondence with him over the affair. Might one not safely assume a hint on Purdy’s part that he himself meant to keep an eye on things, during his friend’s absence from the colony?

And now, at last, nothing stood in the way of their departure; and preparations were rushed forward that they might sail by the vessel of their choice. Mahony superintended the sorting and packing of his books, and saw them carted to a depository; then rearranged the furniture and bought fresh pieces to fill the bare walls where the bookcases had stood. Next he conveyed the luggage — it filled a lorry — to the wharf, saw it aboard and stowed away between hold and cabins. Of these, they had three of the largest amidships; and the best warehouse in Melbourne had carpeted, furnished, curtained them. No need, this time, for Mary to toil and slave. Like a queen she had only to step aboard and take possession.

They spent the last couple of days at an hotel. And one morning, having received word overnight that the ATRATA was ready to sail, they packed into two landaus and were driven to William’s Town. There they found a pretty crowd assembled. Everybody they knew, or had ever met, had turned out to see them off, headed by dear old Sir Jake and Lady Devine, the Bishop and Mrs. Moreton, Baron von Krause the famous botanist, old Judge Barmore and many another, not to speak of Mary’s intimate personal friends, Richard’s spiritualist circle, relatives and members of the family. For a full half-hour they were hard at it, shaking hands and exchanging greetings and farewells. Richard, in his new travelling rig, spruce from top to toe, was urbanity itself: as indeed how should he fail to be when, within cooee, rode the good ship that was to carry him off? There was also a generous sprinkling of children present, the colonial youngster never being denied the chance of an outing. And to Cuffy, standing stiff and important in red gloves and a tasselled sash, came Cousin Josephine to hiss in his ear: “Ooo . . . aren’t I glad I’M not going? Our servant, Mawy Ann, says you’ll pwobably ALL go to the bottom of the sea!” and then to laugh maliciously at Cuffy’s chalk-white face.

Rowed on board, they found the cabins hardly big enough to house the masses of flowers that had been deposited in them — great stately bouquets in lace or silver holders; lavish sprays; purple and white arrangements shaped like anchors and inscribed “For remembrance.” And beside the flowers were piled cases of fruit and delicacies, as well as other more endurable keepsakes: scent, and fans, and cushions, and books. Nor were the children forgotten. Over-excited, the despair of their nurses, Cuffy and his sisters rushed to and fro, their arms full of wonderful new toys.

Said Mary in tears: “I think they’re the dearest, kindest people in all the world.”

The last to leave the ship were Jerry, Tilly and Emmy. Emmy, looking lovely as ever in her deep, becoming mourning, broke down over the parting and cried bitterly. Mary — and Richard too — would have liked to take the girl with them; both as a companion for Mary, and in order that foreign travel might give a fitting polish to John’s eldest daughter. But Lizzie vehemently opposed the plan. Nor was Emmy’s own heart in it. For, since John’s death, she had taken upon herself the entire charge of her little brother, heaping on his infant head all the love that had once been her father’s. Hence she could not tear herself away.

Jerry, a bank manager now, the father of a family, and hailing from the township of Bummaroo, had stayed the night with them at their hotel; and, John being no more, Mary had seized this chance of unburdening herself to her staid, younger brother, of some of the doubts that haunted her with regard to Richard’s present flighty management of his affairs. Bummaroo was not very far from Ballarat; and Jerry promised indirectly to find out and keep her informed of what was going on. “Don’t worry, old girl. I can easily run over from time to time and see how the land lies.”

Tilly sat on the edge of a bunk and was very down in the mouth. “Upon my word, Poll, I seem to feel it more this time than last — which is just what a silly old Noah’s Ark like me WOULD do, considering it was for always then, and here you’ll be back before the kids ‘ave cut their second teeth.”

But the last bell went; the ship was cleared, the ladder hauled up; and all the din and bustle of weighing anchor began. The wind being favourable, the Captain undertook to reach the “Heads” before night; and he was as good as his word. They made a record voyage down the Bay; and, catching the tide before it turned, headed straight for the Bight. Mahony, in his old sea-mood of rare expansiveness, went below to announce their whereabouts. But by now, thanks to a freshening wind and the criss-cross motion of the ship, all was confusion in the cabins. The Dumplings, very sick, were being hurriedly undressed; Mary and the nurses staggered about, their hands to their dizzy heads. Cuffy alone was unconcerned: his father found him playing in the saloon, twirling to and fro on one of the revolving chairs. Here was a chip of the old block! Wrapping the child in a rug he bore him aloft, to watch the passage through the “Rip.”

Perched on a capstan, Cuffy followed the proceedings with a lively interest, and to a running fire of questions. Why was the sea so white and bubbly? Where was it running away to? What were reefs? Why were light-houses? Why was a pilot? HOW did he know? Why did he have such a big boat all to himself? Why didn’t he have a staircase? Did he have his own skin on under the oil? When was the sea SHUT? . . . and many another. But gradually the little voice ceased its piping and a silence fell — unnoticed by Mahony, who himself was carried away once more by a splendid inner exultation, at dancing in the open, leaving land behind. He stood lost in his own feelings, till suddenly he felt the little body his arm enclosed give a great shiver.

He looked down. “What is it, dear? Are you cold?”

But Cuffy just nestled closer into the crook of his father’s arm and did not reply. He had no words at his disposal to tell what he felt at sight of nightfall on these wild, grey, desolate seas. Nor did he dare to resolve the more actual fear of Cousin Josey’s implanting, and put the question that burned on his lips: “How far is it to the bottom?” . . . For perhaps Papa did not know that was where they were all sure to go.

“Come, it’s long past bedtime.”— And lifting the child from his perch, Mahony carried him below.

In the gloom of the cabin the hanging-lamp swayed from side to side, with a slow, rhythmical movement; timbers creaked and groaned; from the pantries came the noise of shifting, slithering china — sounds that were as music in Mahony’s cars, telling as they did of a voyage begun.

Mary turned a feeble head.

“ Where HAVE you been? The child will be perished. Well, you’ll have to see to him yourself now. We’re all much too ill.”

And thereafter, between convulsive fits of retching, she heard from the cabin opposite, where Mahony was undoing little buttons and untying tapes, the voices of father and son raised in unison:

ROCKED IN THE CRADLE OF THE DEEP, I LAY ME DOWN . . . IN PEACE TO SLEEP.

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/r/richardson/henry_handel/r52wh/chapter25.html

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