The Way Home, by Henry Handel Richardson

Chapter X

Travelling from Dover to Calais and thence to Paris, the party set off on what, in thought, Mary ever after dubbed: “that mad race across Europe.”

For, the Channel behind them, Richard’s restlessness broke out in a new form: it seemed impossible for him to be content in any place they visited for more than a day or two on end. In vain did Mary protest: “But, Richard, we’re not seeing anything!” Within a few hours of his arrival in a town, he had had enough of it, sucked it dry; and was fidgeting to be off to the next on their line of route. Nor was this itch for movement all. The strange food did not suit him: he either liked it too well and ate too heartily of it, or turned from it altogether. Then the noisiness of foreign cities — the cobbled streets, the rattling of the loosely hung vehicles, the loud foreign voices, the singing, the tambourining — got on his nerves, and, together with the unshaded windows of hotel bedrooms, kept him awake half the night: him spoilt, for how many a year, by the perfectly darkened sashes, the ordered silence of his sleeping-room at “Ultima Thule.” And all the beauties in the world could not make up to Richard for lack of sleep. Or, to turn it round: rob him of his sleep, and you robbed him of all power to enjoy fine scenery or handsome monuments. And so they sometimes arrived at a place and left it again, without having really seen very much more of it than the four walls of a room.

Before they had got any distance, it became clear to Mary that Richard’s travelling-days were . . . well, one could hardly say over, when they had only just begun. The truth was, they had come too late. He was no longer able to enjoy them.

It was not the physical discomforts alone that defeated him. The fancies he went in for, as soon as he set foot on foreign soil, made his life a misery to him. In Paris, for instance, he was seized by a nervous fear of the street traffic; actually felt afraid he was going to be run over. If he had to cross one of the vast squares, over which vehicles dashed from all directions, he would stand and hesitate on the kerb, looking from side to side, unable to resolve to take the plunge; and wasn’t he angry with her, if she tried to make a dash for it! His own fears rendered him fussy about Cuffy and the maid’s safety, too. He wouldn’t hear of them going out alone; and insisted every morning on shepherding them to their walk in the Public Gardens. If he was prevented, they must drive there in a FIACRE. Which all helped to make the stay in Paris both troublesome and costly. Then there was that time in Strasbourg, when they set out to climb the tower of the cathedral. It was certainly a bad day to choose, for it had rained in the night and afterwards frozen over, and even the streets were slippery. But Richard was bent on seeing the Rhine, and the Vosges, and the Black Forest from the top of the steeple; so up they went. As far as the platform, it was plain sailing. But on the tower proper, when they were mounting the innumerable stone steps — all glassy with ice, and very tricky to keep a footing on — which led to the spire, he turned pale, and confessed to giddiness . . . it was true you looked through the wide-open stonework right down to the street below, where people crawled like ants. And after another bend in the stair, he clinging fast to the iron hand-rail, he had ignominiously to give in and descend again: backwards, too! “I felt I should either fall through one of the openings or throw myself out. Great heights are evidently not for me.”

And this was not wholly due to imagination. For, after going up the Leaning Tower of Pisa and taking a peep over the side, he felt so sick on reaching the ground that he had to go back to the hotel and lie down.

Again a beautiful city like Munich was ruined for him, by the all-pervading smell of malt from its many breweries. The whole time they were there he went about with his nose in the air, sniffing; and he never ceased to grumble. Next, as the Tyrolese mountains were so close, they took train and went in among them; but this didn’t suit him either. The nearness of these drear, dark masses wakened in him, he said, an overpowering sense of oppression; made him feel as if he MUST climb them; get to their summits in order to be able to breathe. One moment abjuring heights, another hankering after them! . . . who could keep pace with such inconsistencies?

Of course there were times when he smiled at himself; saw the humour of the situation; especially when he had just escaped from one of his bugbears. But then came the next (he was never prepared for them) and hit him equally hard. The thing he COULDN’T laugh at was his — their — “infernal ignorance of foreign lingos.” Not to be able to express himself properly, make himself fully understood, riled and fretted him; though less, perhaps, than did her loud and unabashed efforts to say what she wanted. And because he couldn’t argue, or expostulate, with porters, waiters, cabbies and the like, he constantly suspected these people of trying to do him. The queer thing was, he preferred being diddled, putting up with it in gloomy silence, to trying, in broken French, German or Italian, to call the cheats to account. Many an extra franc and taler and lira did this hypersensitiveness cost him. But his dread of being laughed at was stronger than himself.

Yes! there was always something. He never let himself have any real peace or enjoyment. Or so thought Mary at the time. It was not till afterwards, when he fell to re-living his travels in memory, that she learned how great was the pleasure he had got out of them. Inconveniences and annoyances were by then sunk below the horizon. Above, remained visions of white cities, and slender towers, and vine-clad hills; of olive groves bedded in violets; fine music heard in opera and oratorio; coffee-drinking in shady gardens on the banks of a lake; orchards of pink almond-blossom massed against the misty blue of far mountain valley.

Of all the towns they touched, even including Naples and Rome, Venice suited him best; and this, she firmly believed, because he went there with the idea that, having neither streets nor wheeled traffic, it must of necessity be a quiet and restful place. Herself she noticed nothing of this. Dozens of people walked the narrow alleys — you could really go everywhere on foot — and the cries of the gondoliers, the singing and mandoline-playing lasted far into the night. But Richard throve on it; though it was June now, and very hot, and alive with mosquitoes. He bathed daily on the Lido, and for the rest of the day kept cool in picture-galleries and churches, of which he never seemed to tire. Whereas she, after half an hour of screwing up her eyes and craning her neck at ceilings, had had more than enough.

They had been there for a whole fortnight, and there was still no talk of their moving on, when something happened which cut their stay through as with a knife. The smallest details of that July afternoon — it started with one of Cuffy’s outbreaks — were burnt into Mary’s brain.

Richard had gone after lunch to the British Consul’s, to fetch their Australian mail: Mary was anxiously waiting for news of the birth of Tilly’s child. She wrote at her own home budget while expecting his return, sitting in the cool hotel bedroom with Cuffy playing on the floor beside her. Deep in her letter, she did not notice that the child had strayed to the balcony. How long he had been there, still as a mouse, she did not know; but she was suddenly startled by hearing him give a shrill cry.

“Oh, no . . . NO!”

Laying down her pen, she stepped through the window. “What’s the matter with YOU?”

On the opposite side of the canal some men were engaged in drowning a puppy. They had tied a weight to the little animal’s neck before throwing it into the water, but this was not heavy enough to keep it down; and again and again, in a desperate struggle for breath, it fought its way to the surface, only to be hit at with sticks did it come within arm’s reach. Finally, amid the laughter of the crowd, the flat side of an oar caught it full on its little panting snout and terrified eyes. With a shriek that was almost human, it sank, not to rise again.

“Run inside, Cuffy. Don’t stay here watching those nasty cruel men,” said Mary, and took him by the arm. But Cuffy tore it away and remained standing with dilated eyes and open lips, breathing rapidly. The last blow struck, he burst into a passion of tears and, running to a corner of the room, threw himself face downwards on the floor.

There followed one of those dreadful exhibitions of rage or temper which Mary found it so hard to reconcile with her little son’s usual docility. Cuffy kicked and screamed and wouldn’t be touched, like the naughtiest of children; and at the same time was shaken from head to foot by sobs about which there was nothing childish.

She was still bending over him, still remonstrating, when the door opened and Richard came in. One glance at his face was enough to make her forget Cuffy and spring to her feet.

“Richard! Why, my dear . . . why, whatEVER is the matter?” For he had gone out, not an hour earlier, in the best of spirits; and here he came back white as a ghost, with dazed-looking eyes and shuffling feet. “Are you ill? Has the sun . . .?”

Midway in a sob Cuffy stopped to listen . . . held his breath.

Pouring himself out a glass of water and spilling it as he poured, Richard drank, in a series of gulps. Then, from a bundle of newspapers and letters he was carrying, he drew forth a folded sheet and handed it to Mary.

“Read this.”

In deep apprehension she took the paper. As she read she, too, went pale. It was a telegram from Jerry, forwarded by their London banker, and ran: RETURN IMMEDIATELY. MOST URGENT. WILDING ABSCONDED AMERICA.

Mary could not all at once take in the full sense of the words.

“But how . . . what does it mean, Richard? I don’t understand.”

“Mean? Ruin, I suppose. In all probability I am a ruined man.” And dropping heavily on a chair, Mahony buried his face in his hands.

Cuffy sat up, and peeped furtively at his father and mother, with round eyes.

“Ruin? But how? . . . why? Oh dear, CAN’T you speak? No, no, Richard! What are you thinking of? Remember the child.” From under his hands tears were dripping on the table. —“Go to Ann, Cuffy. She shall take you out or give you your tea. Run away, dear . . . quickly! — Now, Richard, pull yourself together. It’s no good breaking down. WHAT has happened? What do you intend to do?”

“Yes, what am I to do? Oh, help me, help me, Mary!”

“Of course, dear, of course I will.”

Stifling her own alarm, Mary sat down at his side and took his hand in hers. It was plain he had had a severe shock. He admitted as much himself: the thing had come so suddenly. He told how, out of the dazzling sunshine he had stepped into the cool office at the consulate, had passed the time of day with a clerk, had been chatting with the fellow when the telegram was handed him.

“This has just come for you, sir. I was about to send it on to your hotel.”

Yes, he had not even stopped talking as he tore it open. The next moment the room had started to swing round him; he had been obliged to take a seat, every one staring at him, eyeing him askance. How he managed to get out of the place and home, he didn’t know. His mind seemed to have escaped control: felt like a child’s puzzle that had been rudely jolted into hundreds of pieces, and had now all to be re-set. “Which I don’t feel equal to, Mary — and that’s the truth. Something seems to have broken inside me.”

Oh, how like a bad dream, the remainder of that day! For the practical side of the matter could not wait — not for a single hour. Richard half-way restored to composure, they had to set to work in cold blood to discuss the situation. It was clear to both that he must return to Melbourne with the least possible delay. Till then, he would not know how he stood. Things might not, urged Mary, be quite so black as they looked at first glance, Wilding’s absence yet prove capable of a rational explanation. But Richard, she could see, feared the worst . . . had no real hope of this. (And in her heart even she thought the tone of Jerry’s message belied it. Oh, where would they have been, had she not had that private confab with Jerry the night before sailing!) No, the conclusion Richard had jumped to at first reading, he still maintained: after the fashion of many a dishonest broker, Wilding had sold the scrip he held from his clients and bolted with the proceeds. Now, the only question was: what was left; what could be saved from the wreck. — A mail steamer was due to leave Venice some time during the week; and on this Richard must, if humanly possible, secure a berth. And the rest of the day passed in running from wharf to agent, from consul to banker. The money question had also to be gone into: what he still had in hand; how much remained on his letters of credit; what balance lay in the London bank. Then they had to think of the furniture, the curios and pictures they had bought on their travels, and sent back to England. The London house would have to be got rid of; the servants paid off, and so on. Before evening Mary’s brain was reeling with all the details it was necessary for her to take in. But this rush and flurry was exactly what Richard needed. And she kept him at it, kept him on the go till late at night, with the result that he went to bed dog-tired — too worn out to think.

But he had hardly dozed off, when they were roused by Cuffy starting up in his sleep, screaming: “No, no! . . . don’t hit him . . . oh, DOGGY!”

Hastily informed what had happened, Mahony struck a light and rose; and forgetting himself over a trouble even more pressing than his own, he lifted Cuffy out of bed and set him on his knee There he talked to him as, thought Mary, only Richard could talk. He went through the scene of the afternoon, made the child, amid tears and frantic sobs, live through it afresh; then fell to work to dispel the brooding horror that lay over it. Such things as this were often to be met with in life; Cuffy must be a brave little man and face them squarely. Somehow, they all fitted into a great scheme on God’s part, which our poor brains were too puny to understand. To be pitied was not only poor doggy, whose struggles had soon ceased, but also the men who could act so cruelly towards their little brother — no less a brother because he had not the gift of speech. Cuffy must try to feel sorry for them, too; they had probably never had any one to teach them the difference between right and wrong. And he must make up for their want of love, by being doubly kind himself to all dumb creatures. — And so on and on, in a quiet, soothing voice, till the child’s terror was allayed and he slept, his arms clasped like a vice round his father’s neck.

Forty-eight hours later Richard, with for luggage a single portmanteau, boarded the Overland Mail for Egypt — and thus ended a two days’ nightmare in which he had never ceased to torture himself with the bitterest reproaches. “It is all my fault . . . my own fault . . . I alone am to blame. If ONLY I had not been so headstrong . . . had listened to you!” The last glimpse Mary had of him showed him standing at the taffrail of the tender that carried passengers to the steamer; standing very erect, and even making a brave attempt to smile, as he waved his hat in farewell; for, when the time came, his chief thought was of her, and how he could ease the parting.

Till now Mary had kept up; had had, indeed, not a moment to think of herself, so busy had she been consoling, supporting, encouraging. But now that everything was over and she sat alone in the hotel bedroom, all she had gone through, all the conflicting emotions of these two past days — not the least of which were self-reproaches every whit as bitter as Richard’s own — took toll of her. Behind locked doors she broke down and wept bitterly.

The thought of her coming loneliness appalled her. For over twenty years she had never been absent from Richard for more than a few weeks at a time . . . had never been parted from him by more than a couple of hundred miles. Now, this violent abrupt separation, with all the seas between, made her feel as if she had been roughly torn in two. For months and months to come she would have no one to lean on, no one to consult — oh, WHAT if one of the children should fall ill and Richard not be there? She also shrank, with the timidity of unuse, from the prospect of having to emerge from her womanly seclusion and rub shoulders with the world. Her work had invariably been carried on in the background. When it came to a personal contact with business and business people, Richard had always been there, to step forward and bear the brunt. Now she, who had travelled but the briefest of distances unescorted, was called on to undertake by herself, not only the far journey across the Continent, but the infinitely more trying one of a two to three months’ sea-voyage round the Cape. And until she got on board! To be faced, before that, were railway officials, porters, house-agents, shipping companies, bankers; the drawing of cheques and the paying of bills; the dismissing of servants; the packing and transport of baggage and furniture, the embarking, the long, long voyage with but one nurse for the children, and nobody at all to look after her. But hardest of anything was the knowledge that she would have to remain in her present state of ignorance and uncertainty, knowing nothing of what had actually happened, or of how Richard was bearing up, and whether he was well or ill, until she herself landed in Melbourne more than six months hence.

But the barest hint of illness in connection with Richard was enough to make her mind swerve, with a sudden jerk, from herself and her own troubles, to him. Desperately as she would miss him, and need him, yet she had small doubt — something within told her so — that, when she stood face to face with things, she would contrive to get on somehow. But he! — how would he ever manage without her? . . . to nerve him and to soothe him, and to listen to his outpourings — away from her, he quite literally would not have a soul to speak to. She saw him on the outward voyage, eternally pacing the deck, a prey to blackest anxiety — and the last thought of self went under, in a fierce uprush of pity for him, so solitary, so self — centred, so self-tormented. Oh, that he might be spared the worst! He was old for his age; much too old to have to begin life afresh — life which, with every caprice satisfied, had yet become so hard for him: an hourly tussle with flimsy, immaterial phantoms, whose existence other people never so much as dreamed of. And to know him pinched for money again, going short, denying himself, fretting over the straits to which he had brought her and the children . . . no! Mary felt there was nothing, absolutely nothing she would not do, to help him, to spare him.

Well! . . . sitting crying wasn’t the way to begin. That was a fool’s job. She must just set her teeth and make the best of things — separation, uncertainty, responsibility — endeavouring, when it came to business, to stand her ground, even though she was but an inexperienced woman. And as a first step she got up, dried her eyes, and bathed her face. After which she had trunks and saratogas brought out, and fell to packing

But more and more, as the day wore on, did a single thought take possession of her — and, in this thought, Mary came as near as she ever would, to a conscious reflection on the aim and end of existence. It began with her suddenly becoming aware how she longed to hug her babies to her again, and how much she had missed them; a feeling until now resolutely repressed . . . for Richard’s sake. Now, as, in imagination, she gathered her little ones to her heart — and gathered Richard with them, he, too, just an adored and absent child — it came over her like a flash that, amid life’s ups and downs, to be able to keep one’s little flock about one, to know one’s dearest human relationships safe and unharmed, was, in good truth, all that signified. Compared with this, hardships and misfortune weighed no more than feathers in the balance.

“As long as we can be together . . . as long as I have him and my children . . . nothing really matters. I can bear anything . . . put up with anything . . . if only they are spared me!”

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