The Way Home, by Henry Handel Richardson

Chapter IX

The house they took for the winter was in Kensington Gore, and the children walked every day with their nurses in Kensington Gardens. When first they arrived, the great trees, with branches that grew almost low enough to be pulled (if you jumped), were thick with leaves, and shady like houses. Then the leaves tumbled off and lay on the ground, and, when Nannan didn’t see you, you shuffled your feet through them, kicking up a dust and making a noise like crackly paper. Afterwards, men brought brooms and swept the leaves into heaps and burned them in little bonfires; and then what fun it was to run like blind men, with eyes tight shut, through the clouds of smoke. You trundled your hoop up and down these paths, but didn’t go far away, because you couldn’t see where they ended for mist; and Nannan said you might get lost, or fall into a round pond. And one day a strange, thick, yellow mist came down, and hid even the path you were walking on, and made your throat tickle and your eyes sting; and Nannan and Eliza, talking about pea-soup, rushed for home, feeling frightened, big as they were, and having to be helped across the road by a policeman, who made light with what Eliza said was a “bull’s-eye.”

After this, Cuffy got a cough and had to take tablespoonfuls of cod-liver oil, and to stay indoors while the Dumplings walked. It was dull work. The nursery was so high up that you couldn’t see anybody but trees from the windows, which were barred; and you were not allowed to look out at all, if they were open. Nannan said looking over made her poor old head dizzy; and she lived in fear of seeing one of them “land on the pavement.” So Cuffy hammered with his knuckles on the panes, making tunes for himself, or beat them out on his drum or xylophone, till Nannan, sewing by the fire, said her poor old head was like to split.

Cuffy gave her his gravest attention. “Are you so VERY old, Nannan?”

“Why, no, not so very,” said Nannan with a queer laugh: she was buxom, and in her prime.

“How old?”

“As old as my tongue and a little older than my teeth,” was the cryptic reply, which, far from ending the conversation, led on through a tangle of question and answer — why tongues grew before teeth, what made teeth, where they came from — to the eternal wonder: “Was I born, too?” and “How?”

“A caution, that child, if ever there was one!” said Nannan, in relating this “poser” and how she had queered it —“Only NAUGHTY little boys ask things like that, Master Cuffy!”— to Eliza and Ann over tea. This was drunk in a kind of cubby-hole off the night nursery, the three colonials having failed to fraternise with the posse of English servants who had been taken over with the house: a set of prim, starched pokers these, ran the verdict; and deceitful, too, with their “sirs” and “madams” to your face, and all the sneery backbiting that went on below-stairs.

In regard to Cuffy, however, Nannan’s opinion was general: an awkward child to deal with. You never knew what fresh fad was going to get the whiphand of him. For instance his first fear, of Cousin Josey’s suggesting that they would all be drowned, which had preyed on him during the voyage: this allayed, he was haunted by the dread of being lost, or at least overlooked — like a bag or an umbrella — in this great, strange, bewildering place. Even at the pantomime at Drury Lane, he suffered torments lest, when it was over, Nannan and Eliza should suddenly forget that he and the Dumplings were there and go home without them; and from the close of the first scene on, he inquired regularly every few minutes throughout the afternoon: “Is this the end?” till Nannan’s patience gave way, and she roundly declared that never would she bring him to a theatre again. It was the same at Madame Tussaud’s — the same, plus an antipathy that amounted to a horror of all these waxen people with their fixed, glassy eyes; and a fantastic fear that he might be mistaken for one of them and locked in among them, did he not keep perpetually on the move. His hot little hand tugged mercilessly at Eliza’s baggy glove. Yes! more bother than half a dozen children put together. Just a walking bundle, said Nannan, of whims and crotchets.

Chief of these, and most tiresome of all, was the idea that he could not — or must not — sleep of a night, as long as his father and mother were out. Did they attend an evening party, he tossed restless till their return. And if in spite of himself he dozed off, it was only to start up with the cry: “Is my Papa and Mamma come home yet?” Nannan was at her wits’ end what to do with him; and more than once boldly transgressed her instructions about absolute truth in the nursery. For it was not as if Master Cuffy really wanted his parents, or even wanted to see them. No sooner did he know they were back, under the same roof with him again, than he turned over and slept like a top.

The mischief was: they were out almost every night. For, in violent contrast to the hermit’s life he had been leading, Mahony was now never happy unless he was on the go. An itch for distraction plagued him; books and solitude had lost their charm; and an evening spent in his own society, in this large, dark, heavily furnished house, sent his spirits down to zero. They had brought many an excellent letter of introduction with them; a carriage-and-pair stood at their disposal; and so, except for an occasional party of their own, they went out night after night, to dinners, balls and card-parties; to soirees, conversaziones and lectures; to concerts and plays. They heard Tietjens sing, and Nilsson, and Ilma di Murska; Adelina Patti with Nicolini; and a host of lesser stars. Richard said they must make the most of their time; since it was unlikely they would ever be on this side of the world again. To which, however, Mary now secretly demurred: or not till the children are grown up. For, though foreign travel meant little to her, she was already determined that her children should not miss it — it, or anything else in life that was worth having.

In the beginning, she was heartily glad of the change in Richard’s habits, and followed him without a grumble wherever he wished: he wouldn’t budge a step without her. But, as week after week went by, she did occasionally long for an hour to herself; to prowl round the shops; see something of the children; write her letters in peace. As things stood, it was a ceaseless rush from one entertainment to another, not to mention all the dressing and re-dressing this implied. Done, too, with Richard standing irritable and impatient in the hall, watch in hand, calling: “Now DO come along, Mary! — can’t you hear, my dear? We shall certainly be late.”

She comforted herself with the thought that it was not for long: they had taken the house only for a twelvemonth; and there was talk, as soon as the weather improved, of a trip to Ireland to see Richard’s sisters, and to the Midlands to visit Lisby, now Headmistress of a Young Ladies’ Seminary. So, in the meantime, Mary went without her tea to sit through interminable political debates; or struggled to keep her eyes open at meetings of learned societies, where old greybeards droned on by the hour, without you being able to hear the half of what they said. “I suppose it does SOMEBODY some good!” thought she. Richard, for instance, who had read so many clever books and enjoyed teasing his brains. Herself, she felt a very fish out of water.

Nowhere more so than at the spiritualist seances, which, for peace’ sake — and also because everybody was doing it — she now regularly attended. London was permeated with spiritualism; you hardly met a person who was not a convert to the craze. The famous medium Home had already retired, on his marriage, into private life, much to Richard’s disappointment, but he had left scores of imitators behind, who were only too well versed in his tricks and stratagems. The miracles you could see performed! Through the ceiling came apports of fresh flowers with the dew on them, or roots with the soil still clinging; great dinner-tables rose from the floor; lights flitted; apparitions appeared, spoke to you, took you by the hand. But nothing that happened could shake Mary’s convinced unbelief. She was of those who maintained that so-called “levitation” was achieved by standing on your toes; the “fire-test” by your having previously applied chemicals to the palm of your hand; while the spirits that walked about were just so much drapery on a broomstick. And it invariably riled her anew, to see Richard sitting solemnly accepting all this nonsense as if it heralded a new revelation. Of course, many clever men besides him were the dupes of their own imagination. Learning and common sense did not seem to go together. SHE preferred, thank you, to trust the evidence of her own eyes and ears.

However, she kept these thoughts to herself, patiently doing all that was required of her in the way of linking hands in dark rooms, hymn-singing and the rest, with only an occasional silent chuckle at the antics of the believers. But then came an evening when circumstances forced her hand. Well, yes . . . that was partly true. They were at a sitting with a medium of whom she had long had her doubts; and, on this night, the evidence for fraud seemed to her so glaring that she determined to put it to the test. For once, Richard was not beside her. Instead, on her right, she had a lady who fell into raptures at each fresh proof of the “dear spirits’” presence. Stealthily bringing her two hands together (as Tilly had long ago instructed her), Mary freed one from this person’s hold; and, when “spirit-touches” were again proclaimed by her neighbour (they never visited HER!) she made a grab, and just as she expected, found the medium easily recognisable by her bulk — crouched on her knees inside the circle, with a long feather whisk in her hand. In the dark, and in utter silence, a struggle went on between them, she holding fast, the medium wriggling this way and that, and ultimately, by lying almost flat on the floor, contriving to wrench herself free. Not a word did Mary say. But at the end, when the lights were turned up, it was announced that the “spirits” complained of an unsympathetic presence in the circle; and after some hocus-pocus with slate-writing, etc., she, Mary, was designated and asked to withdraw.

Richard, pale and extremely haughty, made the best of the situation in face of all these strangers, none of whom but eyed Mary as if she were a moral pariah. Inwardly he was raging; and he freely vented his anger in the carriage going home.

“There you have it! Your mulish obstinacy . . . your intolerable lack of imagination . . . your narrow, preconceived notions of what can and cannot happen!” Till Mary, too, lost her temper, and blurted out the plain facts of the case. “I knew her by her figure. What’s more, I distinctly felt the big wart she has on the side of her chin.”

But with this, it seemed, she merely displayed her ignorance. For the spirit body, in manifestation, was but the ethereal shadow cast by the physical, and its perfect duplicate. Richard also went on to crush her with St. Paul’s “terrestrial and celestial”; harangued her on the astounding knowledge of the occult possessed by the early Christians. It was no good talking. Everything she said could be turned against her.

As she brushed her hair for the night, however, she could not resist remarking, in a final tone: “Well! all I know is, if these really ARE spirits who come back, it doesn’t make me think much of heaven. That the dead can still take an interest in such silly, footling things!”

“Quite so, my dear. You keep your traditional fancy picture of semi-birds and harps and crowns. It best suits a mind like yours to make its heaven as remote and unreal as possible. For the truth is, you no more believe in it than you do in the tale of Cinderella.”

“REALLY, Richard! . . . what next, I wonder? — Though I must say, I don’t think there’s much to choose between harps and things, and playing concertinas and tilting tables. One’s as stupid as the other.”

“Well, how else . . . can you perhaps suggest a better way for a discarnate being to make its presence known? Every beginning is crude — and always has been. Though, for that matter, what is the Morse alphabet they use on the electric telegraph, but a series of transmitted raps?”

“Oh, I’m not clever enough to argue about these things. But I know this: if I go to heaven, I hope at least to find there’ll be something something really useful — TO DO.”

But when the light was out and they lay composing themselves for sleep, she heard Richard mutter to himself: “There may be . . . there probably IS . . . fraud. And why not? . . . do not rogues ofttimes preach the gospel? But that there’s truth in it — a truth greater than any yet dreamed of — on that I would stake my soul. Ours the spadework . . . God alone knows what the end will be.”

The result of this affair was that Mary no longer frequented seances. On such nights Richard went out alone, and she sat comfortably by the fire, her feet on the fender, her needlework or the children at hand.

But not for long. As suddenly as Richard had thrown himself into the whirl, so suddenly he tired of it, and at the first hint of spring — it was early February; birds had begun to twitter in the parks, the spikes of the golden crocus to push up through the grass, and Richard petulantly to discard his greatcoat — on one of these palely sunny days he came home restless to the finger-tips, and before the evening ended was proposing to start, then and there, for the Continent. Why should they not shut up the house, send the children to the seaside, and jaunt off by themselves, hampered only by the lightest of luggage, and moving from place to place as their fancy led them?

Why not? There was, nowadays, no practical reason why he should scruple to satisfy any and every whim. And so his roughly sketched plan was carried out. With the sole difference that they took Cuffy with them. For, as soon as Nannan heard what was in the wind, she marched downstairs and said bluntly, she did not choose to shoulder the entire charge of Master Cuffy. The child was anyhow but poorly, what with the colds and things he had had since getting here; a walking mass of the fidgets besides; and if now his papa and mamma were going away as well, she guaranteed he’d worry himself, and everybody else, into a nervous fever. Mahony cut short the argument that followed by saying curtly: “We’ll take the youngster with us,” and pooh-poohed Mary’s notion that travelling would be bad for the child. Much less harmful, said he, than staying behind and fretting his heart out. Besides, Ann would be there. Ann could look after him.

And so it came about that Cuffy journeyed in foreign parts, bearing with him, snail-like, all that stood to him for home.

Of these early travels, the most vivid memory he retained was, oddly enough, the trifling one of being wrapped in an opossum-rug and carried in some one’s arms from a train to a ship, and back to a train. But in those buried depths of his mind to which he had normally no access, a whole galaxy of pictures lay stored; and, throughout his life, was the hidden spring that released them touched, one and another would abruptly flash into consciousness. As a small boy they put him in many an awkward fix; for he could never prove what he said, or even make it sound probable; and, at school, among companions whose horizon was bounded north, south, east and west by the bush, they harvested him a lively crop of ridicule and opprobrium. (“A tarnation liar . . . that young Cuffs MAHONY!”) But there WERE houses built in water — somehow he knew it — and bridges with shops on them. Boats with hoods, too, and men who stood up in them to row with a single oar. There WAS a statue so big that you could climb into its nose and sit there, and look out of its eyes: rivers, not red and muddy but apple green; a tower that leaned right over to one side; long-legged birds that built their nests on chimney-tops. — But then again, on the heel of such bold assertions, a sudden doubt would invade the speaker; a doubt whether he had not, after all, only DREAMT these things. With no one to whom he could turn for confirmation, with every object that related to them lost or destroyed, Cuffy, throughout his later boyhood, swung like a pendulum between fact and dream, and was sadly torn in consequence.

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