The Way Home, by Henry Handel Richardson

Chapter III

The next-door house, the first in the row, stood at right angles to the rest, and faced two diverging streets of shops and stores. Further, the little leaden rain-shield over the front door was supported by a pair of pillars coloured to resemble marble, between which hung a red lamp. This lamp had burned there, night for night, for over half a Century: the stone of the doorstep was worn to a hollow by the countless feet that had rubbed and scraped and shuffled, under its ruby glow. For the house belonged to old Mr. Brocklebank the surgeon, who was one of the original landmarks of the neighbourhood. He had, in fact, lived there so long that none was old enough to remember his coming — with the possible exception, said Mother, of old Joe Dorgan, for sixty years past, ostler at the “Saddlers’ Arms.” Joe was now in his dotage, and his word did not count for much; but in earlier life he had been heard to tell of the slim and elegant figure young Brocklebank had once cut, in redingote, choker and flowered gilet; and of how people had thought twice before summoning him, owing to his extreme youth. This defect time had remedied; and so effectually that it soon passed belief to connect youth and slimness with the heavy and corpulent old man. When, for instance, mother came there as a bride, he had seemed to her already elderly; the kind of doctor a young wife could with propriety consult.

The practice had flourished till it was second to none; and he was reported, being a bachelor and very thrifty, not to say close-fisted, to have laid by the thousands which in this town were commonly associated only with leather or hose. But now he had all but reached the eighties; and despite one of those marvellous country-bred English constitutions — founded on ruddy steaks, and ale, and golden cheddars — the infirmities of age began to vex him. For some time past his patients had hesitated to call him out by night, or in bad weather, or for what he might consider too trifling a cause; though they remained his faithful adherents, preferring any day a bottle of Mr. B.‘s good physic to treatment by a more modish doctor. Recently, however, he had let two comparatively simple cases slip through his fingers; while the habit was growing on him of suddenly nodding off at a bedside; what time the patient had to lie still until the old gentleman came to himself again. A blend, too, of increasing deafness and obstinacy led him to shout people down. So that altogether something like a sigh of relief went up when one fine day a great-nephew appeared, and the rumour ran that Mr. B. was retiring: was being carried off to end his honourable and useful career under another’s tutelage; to be wheeled to the grave-brink in the humiliating bath-chair to which he had condemned many a sufferer. And house and practice were for sale.

Lisby came primed with the news — brought by the milkman on his early round — to the breakfast-table. And Mother, her first shock over and her eyes dried, fell into a reminiscent mood.

“Dear oh deary me! Old Mr. B. laid on the shelf! Why, it seems only like the other day I saw him for the first time . . . when Johnny was born. Yet it must be nigh on five-and-forty years; Johnny will be forty-five come March. In walks Mr. B. — I’d never needed a doctor till then — and says to me — me, poor young ignorant thing thankful to have escaped with my life — in he comes: ‘Here’s a fine fish we’ve landed to-day, madam! Here’s a new recruit for the Grenadier Guards! Twelve pounds if an ounce, and a leg like a three-year-old!’ I up on my elbow to see, and he quite gruffly: ‘Lie down you villainous young mother, you! Do you want to make an orphan of the brat?’ He had always to have his joke had Mr. B. and we were good friends from that day. One after another he brought the whole batch of you into the world. — Deary me, I shall miss him. Many and many’s the time he’s stepped over the railing with his weekly news-sheet: ‘Here’s a murder case to make you ladies’ blood run cold,’ he would say. Or: ‘Another great nugget found on the goldfields!’— for he knew the ties I had with the colony. And the last sound I used to hear at night was him knocking out his pipe on the chimney-piece. It was such a comfort to me — after your father went and the boys scattered — to know we’d a man so close. Especially in ‘59, when those dreadful burglaries took place.”

“Now, mother, give over trying to make yourself engaging,” was Lisby’s comment. “You know the truth is, no one troubled less about the burglars than you. Before my mother went to bed she would lay out all the silver and plate and her rings and brooches, in neat piles on the table, so as to save the robbers trouble should they come.”

“So as to save my own skin, you saucy girl! — Well, well! . . . what’s past is past. To be sure it wouldn’t have done for him to go on doctoring till he lost his memory, and perhaps mixed his drugs and poisoned us all.”

“It would not indeed. And for the rest, my dear mother, I tell you what: Mary and I will take up our abode next door and look after you,” said Mahony.

At the moment, the words passed as the jest they were meant for. But they sowed their seed. Mahony ate his toast and drained his cup with an absent air; and as soon as breakfast was over made Mary a private sign to follow him upstairs. There, while she sat on the edge of the bed, he fidgeted about the room, fingering objects and laying them down again in a manner that told of a strong inner excitement.

“I spoke without reflection but, upon my soul, it does look rather like the finger of Providence. An opening to crop up in this way at my very elbow! . . . one that’s not to be despised either, if report speaks true. Really, wife, I don’t know what to think. It has quite unsettled me. Here have I been expecting to have to travel the country, visiting this place and that, answering advertisements that lead to nothing, or myself advertising and receiving no replies — all so much nerve and shoe wear — and a dreary business at best. You see, my dear, what I need first of all is English experience. I mean”— he made an airy gesture —“I must be able to say, when I find the perfectly suitable position I’m looking for: ‘I’ve been practising in such and such a place for so and so many years, and have had a first-class connection there.’— You notice, I hope, I have no intention — should I take the chance offered me, that is, and pop in here — of the making it a permanency. It remains my ambition to live in the country. But if only half what they say of old Brocklebank’s affairs is to be believed, a few years here wouldn’t hurt me. There are POTS of money to be made in these manufacturing towns, once a practice is set going — and this has existed for over half a century. Besides, it might even improve under my hands . . . why not, indeed? Such a Methuselah must have been entirely out of date in medicine. I confess it isn’t exactly the spot I would have chosen, even to start in, were money and time no object. But considering, Mary, what our expenses have been . . . the lateness of the season, too! Why, it’s virtually winter already, and the worst possible time of year to travel about in.” And so on, with much more in the same strain, and a final bait of: “Another point we mustn’t lose sight of is that here, you, love, would have the company of your mother and sister. And I think I know what a pleasure that would be to you.”

“Why, yes, of course, as far as that’s concerned,” said Mary, who had not interrupted by a word.

“Well, and the rest?” he asked a trifle querulously. “Don’t I convince you?”

“Why, yes,” she said again, but slowly. “In one way. I agree it might be worth considering. But I wouldn’t be in TOO great a hurry, Richard. Look about you. See some other places first.”

“Yes, and while I hum and haw and think myself too good for it, some one else snaps it up. The profession is in very different case here, my dear, from what it was in the colonies. It’s overcrowded . . . worked to death. I can’t afford to be too particular. Must just find a modest corner, slip into it and be thankful. — And let me give you a piece of advice, Mary,” he went on more warmly, with the waxing impatience of a man who longs to see his own hesitation overthrown. “It’s no earthly use your comparing everything that turns up on this side of the globe, with Ballarat. A practice like that won’t come my way again; or at least not in the meantime. TRY, love, not to let yourself be influenced by the size of a house and the width of a street. I assure you once more, you have no conception what these provincial concerns are worth. If I step into old Brocklebank’s shoes, you may drive in your carriage yet, my dear!”

Mary had run through so many considerations in listening, that she had really listened more to herself than to him. Of course, much of what he said was sound. Did he settle here, it would save time and money — and one of her standing fears about the new venture had been that Richard would prove too hard to please. But for him now to rush to the other extreme! Nor was she one to stand out for showiness and style; or rather, she would not be, were Richard a different man. But he, with his pernickitiness! And it was all very well for him to say, don’t draw comparisons; how could one help it? To have flung up a brilliant practice, a big house and garden, a host of congenial friends . . . for this a pokey house in a small dull street, in a dull, ugly, dirty town. As for what SHE stood to gain by it, the living door by door with mother and sister, fond as she was of them she could see, even here, drawbacks that were invisible to his man’s eye.

However, since the one way to deal with Richard was to give him his head, and only by degrees deftly trickle in doubts and scruples, Mary smothered her own feelings for the time being. Perhaps he was right, said she: the place might do for a start; and she was certainly against him going travelling in winter with the objection he had to flannel. Mr. Brocklebank’s advisers might, of course, ask a stiff price for the goodwill of the practice; still, if he got on well for two or three years, that would soon be covered. Thus Mary, trusting to a certain blind common sense that DID exist in Richard for all his flightiness, if he was neither badgered nor opposed. (“Just the Irish way of getting at a thing backwards!” was how he himself described it.) One point though she insisted on; and that was, he should take an outside opinion on the practice before entering into negotiations.

Entirely pacified, Mahony kissed her and together they went downstairs. According to Mother, who had now to be drawn into confidence, the person to consult would be Bealby the chemist; he had dispensed for Mr. B. ever since the old man grew too comfortable to do it for himself. So Mahony on with his hat and off to Bealby’s shop, well content to leave Mary to damp the exasperating flutter into which the news had thrown her relatives. Well, no, he wouldn’t say that: in Mother even this was bearable. It was true, declaring you might knock her down with a feather, she had seated herself heavily in her chair by the fire, to think and talk over the plan in detail. But her cheery old mind saw only the bright side of it; while her kindly, humorous smile took the sting from fuss and curiosity. Lisby was harder to repress. She threw up her hands. “No! NEVER did I hear tell of such a thing, Polly — I would say Mary! Going off to buy a practice, my dear, for all the world as if it were a tooth-brush or a cravat!” Richard safely out of the house, Mary felt constrained to come to his defence.

“You must remember, Lisby, it doesn’t seem QUITE such an important affair to Richard as it does to you. With all his experience. Living in the colony, too, one learnt to make up one’s mind quickly. You had to. Think of shares, for instance. They might be all right when you went to bed, and by the morning have sunk below par; so that you had to decide there and then whether to sell out or risk holding on.” The mild amusement with which Richard’s behaviour provided Lisby was apt to jar on Mary.

From the chemist Mahony got all the information he wanted — and more. The object of his visit grasped, he was led into a dingy little parlour behind the shop, where, amid an overflow of jars and bottles and drawer-cases, Bealby carried on his ex-business life. And both doors noiselessly closed to ensure their privacy, the chemist — a rubicund, paunchy old man, with snow-white hair and whiskers — himself grew so private that he spoke only in a whisper, and accompanied his words with a forefinger laid flat along his nose. This mysterious air gave the impression that he was divulging dark secrets; though he had no secret to tell, nor would his hearer have thanked him for any. Plainly he was a rare old gossip, and as such made the most both of his subject and the occasion. Mahony could neither dam nor escape from his flow of talk. However, his account of the practice was so favourable that the rest had just to be swallowed — even disagreeable tittle-tattle about the old surgeon’s mode of life. At the plum kept to the last — Brocklebank, it appeared, had actually been called in professionally to the great house of the district, Castle Bellevue — Mahony could not repress a smile; Bealby alluding to it with a reverence that would have befitted a religious rite. Of more practical importance was the information that there were already two candidates for the practice in the field; but that to these, he, Mahony, would no doubt be preferred; for both were young men, just about to start. And: “We want no fledglings, no young sawbones in a position such as this, sir! Now with an elderly man like yourself. . .” Wincing, Mahony contrived soon after to let slip the fact that he was but a couple of years over forty.

“His eyes almost jumped out of his head when I said it, Mary. The fellow had evidently put me down for sixty or thereabouts,” he came back on the incident that night. “It made me feel I must be beginning to look a very old man.”

“Not old, Richard. Only rather delicate. And the people here are all so rosy and sturdy that they don’t understand any one being pale and thin.”

“Well, I’m positive he thought me a contemporary, if not just of old B.‘s, at least of his own.”

What he did not mention to Mary was the impression he saw he left Bealby under, that lack of success had been the reason of his quitting Australia. Were he only more skilled at blowing his own trumpet! Actually the old fool seemed to think he, Mahony, would be bettering himself by settling in Leicester!

“Well, sir, I can promise you, you will find an old-established, first-class practice, such as this, a very different thing from those you have been used to. England, doctor, old England! There’s no place like it.” At which Mahony, who had himself, aloud and in secret, rung changes on this theme, regarded the speaker — his paunch, due to insufficient exercise; his sheeplike, inexperienced old face; his dark little living-room, and darker still, mysterious, provincial manner — looked, and knew that he did not, in the very least, mean the same thing any more.

* * * * *

“Come, give over, Mary!” said Mother affectionately.

Mother sat by the fire in the twilight, her hands folded placidly in her lap. She was neither a sewer nor a knitter. If not nimbly trotting about the house, in aid of the rheumaticky old servant, she liked best to sit still and do nothing; which Richard said made her a most soothing companion. Her words were addressed to Mary, who was rattling a sewing-machine as if her life depended on it. They also referred to a remark passed in a pause of her handle-twirling. This had constituted a criticism of Richard — or as much of a criticism as Mary could rise to. Which, here, she felt quite safe in making, so surely did she know Richard nested in Mother’s heart.

That afternoon — it was December, and night now soon after three o’clock — he had — and not for the first time — stepped over the low railing that separated the garden-plots to say: “Come, Lisby, let us go a-gallivanting!” Nothing loath, Lisby, also not for the first time, laid aside her needle, tied on bonnet and tippet, and off they went arm-in-arm, to prowl round the lighted shops of the town.

Mary’s objection was: “But if he’s wanted, mother! I shouldn’t know where to send for him.”

“My dear, Eliza would find him for you in less than half an hour. — Besides, Mary, it’s very unlikely anyone would want him in such a hurry as all that.”

“Yes, I suppose so. It’s me that’s silly. But you see, in Ballarat he never dreamt of going out without leaving word just where he was to be found. Indeed, he seldom went out for pleasure at all. He was much too busy.”

Mother did not put the question that would have leapt, under similar conditions, to Lisby’s lips: “Then, why, in the name of fortune, did he leave it?” She only said: “You must have patience, my dear.”

“Oh, it’s not me — it’s him I’m afraid of. Patience is one of the things Richard hasn’t got.”

There was a brief silence. Then: “You have a very good husband, Mary. Value him, my dear, at his true worth. — Nay, child, let the lamp be. Can’t you sit idle for half an hour?”

She stirred the fire to a blaze which lit up their faces, and the many-folded drapery of their gowns.

“I know that, mother. But he doesn’t get easier to manage as he grows older. In some ways Richard is most difficult — very, very queer.”

“And pray, doesn’t the old tree get knobby and gnarled? . . . Take a hint from your mother, my dear — for though, Mary, you’ve been so long away from me, I know my own flesh and blood as no one else can. Be glad, child, not sorry, if Richard has his little faults and failings — even if you can’t understand ’em. They help to bind him. For his roots in this world don’t go deep, Mary. He doesn’t set proper store on the prizes other men hanker after — money and position and influence, and such like.” She paused again, to add: “It’s a real misfortune, my dear, you have no children.”

“Yes, and me so fond of them, too. But I’m not sure about Richard. He’s got used, now, to being without them, to having only himself to consider. I’m afraid he’d find them in the way.”

“And yet it was of Richard I was thinking,” said the old lady gently.

“You say he’s hard to manage, Mary,” she went on. “But la! child, what does that matter? He’s kind, generous, straight as a die — I’m sure I’m right in believing he’s never done a mean action in his life?”

“Never! It isn’t in him.”

“Well, then!” said Mother: and her cheerful old tone was like a verbal poke in the ribs. “He might be easier to manage, Mary — and thoughtless . . . or stingy . . . or attentive to other women. You little know what you’re spared, child, in not having that to endure. There are some poor wives would think you like the princess in the fairytale, who couldn’t sleep for the pea.” She fell into a reverie over this, sat looking into the heart of the fire. “Men? — ah, my dear! to me even the best of ’em seem only like so many children. We have to be mothers to ’em as well as wives, Mary; watch over them the same as over those we’ve borne; and feel thankful if their nature is sound, behind all the little surface tricks and naughtinesses. Men may err and stray, my dear, but they must always find us here to come back to, and find us forgiving and unchanged. — But tut, tut, what a sermon your old mother’s preaching you! As if you weren’t the happiest of wives,” and she laid her soft old hand on Mary’s. “I got led into it, I suppose, because of the strong tie between us: you’re more like me, Mary, than any of the rest. Another thing, too: I’m a very old woman, my dear, and shan’t live to see the end of the day’s business. So always remember, love, Mother’s advice to you was this: not to worry over small things — the big ones will need all your strength. And you can’t do Richard’s experiencing for him, Mary, however much you’d like to spare him the knocks and jars of it. — But I do declare, here they come. Now what will they say to finding us gossiping in the dark?”

The shoppers’ steps echoed down the quiet street — really sounding like one rather heavy footfall — and turned in at the gate. And then there were voices and laughter and the sound of rustling paper and snipped string in the little room, where Mary lit the lamp, and Lisby displayed her presents — sweetmeats, a piece of music she had coveted, a pair of puce-covered gloves, a new net for her chignon — while Mother tried to prevent the great round pork pie Mahony deposited on her lap, from sliding into the grate.

“You dear naughty spendthrift of a man! Why, the girl’s head will be turned.”

“Come, mother, let me give her a little pleasure.”

“You give yourself more, or I’m much mistaken.”

“Pooh! Such trifles! I shouldn’t otherwise know what to do with my small change,” retorted Mahony. And Mary laughed and said: “Wait, mother, till the practice really begins to move, and then you’ll see!”

This nudged Mahony’s memory. “Has any one been?”

“They hadn’t when I came over. And Mary Ann has not knocked at the wall. — Oh yes, the boy called with an account from Mr. Bealby.”

The news of the empty afternoon, together with Mary’s colonialism, grated on Mahony. “DO knight him, my dear, while you’re about it,” he said snappishly.

“Oh well, Bealby then. Though, I really can’t see what it matters. And out there, if I HADN’T said Mr. Chambers, Mr. Tangye, you would have been the one to suffer.”

“And I can assure you, my dears, Bealby won’t think any the worse of you for turning him into a gentleman,” soothed Mother.

“Oh! but Richard is very correct — aren’t you, dear?”

Here Lisby had also to put in her spoke.

“And Bellvy Castle, pray? — what of Bellvy Castle? Has still no groom come riding post-haste to summon you?”

Heartily tired of this jest, which he himself had innocently started, Mahony picked up a book and stuck his nose in it. “No, nor ever will.”

“Come, Lisby,” said Mother, “the kettle’s boiling its head off. — Richard, my dear, draw up your chair; you must be cold and famished. — Nay, Mary, I’ll not let you go home. We’re going to drink a cosy cup together. And afterwards Richard shall tell us more adventures of the early days. I’ve looked forward to it all the afternoon. It’s as good as any book.”

Mahony had more than once said to his wife: “Before I knew your mother, Mary, I used to think YOU the warmest-hearted creature under the sun. But now that I know her, love, and can draw comparisons, I declare you sometimes seem to me quite a hard and reasonable young woman.”

And then he would fall to musing on the subject of wisdom inborn and acquired. Here was this little old lady, who knew nothing of the world, had never, indeed, travelled fifty miles from her native place, and yet was richer in wisdom — intuitive wisdom, the wisdom of the heart — than any second mortal he had met. He could not picture to himself the situation, however tangled, that Mary’s mother would fail to see through, and, seeing, to judge soundly and with loving kindness. Yes, his acquaintance with and affection for her was the one thing that helped him over the blank disappointment of these early weeks.

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