The Way Home, by Henry Handel Richardson

Chapter IV

The surgery was a small, darkish room on the ground floor, a step or two below street level; and the window behind which Mahony spent the greater part of his first English winter was screened from the curiosity of passers-by, by an attorney’s brown gauze shade. Across this blind he saw people move like shadows; or like bodies immersed in water, only the tops of whose crowns shewed above the surface. There went the hooded tray and crooked arm of the tinkling muffin-man; and the wares of the buy-a-brooms. There, also, to the deep notes of his bigger bell and his insistent: “To all whom it may concern!” passed the shiny black hat of the town crier. Regularly, too, at dusk, through fog or silvery rain, the lamp-lighter’s ladder and torch rose into Mahony’s field of vision, flicking alive the little gas flame that set his own brass plates a-glitter.

About this surgery hung a disagreeable, penetrating smell — a kind of blend of the countless drugs that had been housed and mixed there for over half a century — and, air as you might, it was not to be got rid of. It gave even Mary, who was not sensitive to smells, the headache. Otherwise, during Richard’s absences she might have used this room, which held a comfortable armchair. As it was, she found herself fairly crowded out. The passage was so narrow that two people were a tight fit in it; and, were more than two in waiting, they had to be furnished with seats in the little parlour to the back, pokier, this, than even the surgery, and very dark — Richard called it the “Black Hole”— giving as it did on a walled-in yard no bigger than a roofless prison cell. Altogether, the accommodation was so cramped that it was like living in a mouse-trap. Still, it would have been folly in the beginning to separate house from practice, when the two had hung together for so long. Time enough later on to make changes. Mary’s own idea was to turn the first-floor bedroom into a drawing-room. Richard talked of moving; of knocking two houses into one; even of building for himself. In the meantime he had taken the house on a short lease, preferring to pay a higher rent for a few years than to bind himself for the mystic seven. And so it was mainly in the bedroom that Mary spent her first winter; sewing, sheerly to kill time, garments she did not need, or which she might just as well have “given out.” Sitting bent over her needle in the half daylight, she could sometimes almost have smiled did she think of the sacrifices they had made — all for this. But for the most part she felt troubled and anxious. Richard had tied himself down for three years; but not a month had passed before her constant, nagging worry was: how long will he hold out?

Mahony, too, was offended by the atmosphere of his room: though not so much by the drugs, to which his nose was seasoned, as by the all-pervading reek of stale tobacco. This hung about and persisted — though a carpenter speedily prised open the hermetically sealed window — and only became bearable when a good fire burned and the room was thoroughly warm. Cooled off, it had a cold, flat, stagnant smell that turned you sick. His old forerunner must have kept his pipe going like a furnace; have wadded it, too, with the rankest of weeds. Even had the practice been shaping satisfactorily this smell might have ended by driving him from the room; which would also have meant from the house. As things stood, however, it was not worth his while to think of moving. Before a month was up he suspected what two months showed, and three made plain as the nose on his face: the whole affair had been of the nature of a gross take-in.

There he sat, with the last numbers of the medical journals, new books on medicine before him, and was too unsettled to read, or, if he did, to make sense of what he read. The mischief was not only that the practice didn’t move properly: what came was of entirely the wrong sort. He had not had half a dozen calls to good houses since starting. The patients who had thus far consulted him were the servant-girls and petty tradesmen of the neighbourhood.

In fits of exasperation, he knew what it was to feel convinced that the entries in the books laid before him at purchase, the rosy tales of Brocklebank’s receipts, had been invented for his decoying. If not, what in the name of fortune had become of the practice? In calmer moments, he absolved those about him from the charge of wilful fraud: they had acted according to their lights — that was all. That their way of looking at things was not his, was constantly being brought home to him anew. And how, indeed, could he expect them, who had passed their whole lives fixed as vegetables on the selfsame spot, to know his touchstone for a practice? For example, the visit, famous in local history, paid by old Brocklebank to Bellevue Castle. On closer scrutiny this dwindled into the bandaging of a turned ankle, an ankle belonging to one of the under-servants who had slipped on a greasy cobble while at market. Never had old B. set foot in the Castle: or, at most — little more than a servant himself — had entered it but by the back door. Chagrin was not the only feeling this incident roused in Mahony: he found insufferable the obsequious attitude of mind it spoke to in those concerned. Long residence in a land where every honest man was the equal of his neighbour had unfitted him for the genuflexions of the English middle-classes before the footstools of the great. But he had given up trying to make himself or his views intelligible. For all that those about him understood, he might as well have been speaking Chinese; while any reference to the position and income he had turned his back on, called to their eyes a look of doubt, and even disbelief. They considered him a supremely lucky man to have stepped into old Brocklebank’s shoes; and at his door alone would the blame be laid, if he failed to succeed.

And failing he was! So far, he had booked the magnificent sum of slightly over a couple of pounds weekly. Two pounds! It reminded him of his first struggle-and-starve campaign on taking up practice after his marriage. Only under one condition could he have faced the present situation with equanimity; and that, paradoxically enough, was, if he had not seen the colour of the money, and it had stood on account to some of the big houses round about. As it was, it dribbled in, a few shillings here, a few there; which meant that his spending had also to be done in driblets — a habit it was easier to lose than to recapture. Yes! if the handful of shares he had left invested in the colony were not bringing in what they did, he and Mary would at this moment have been reduced to living on their capital.

Talking of Mary: her position here was another bite he could not swallow. It had really not been fair of him to foist this kind of thing on Mary. To begin with, the house — possibly the neighbourhood, too, dark, crowded, airless did not suit her. She looked pale and thin, and had never quite lost the cough she had arrived with. How could she, indeed, when she sat for hours at a stretch stooped over her needle? She had no society worth the name — never a drive, a party, a bazaar. Her sole diversion was tending her mother; undertaking the countless odd jobs the old lady and her rheumaticky maidservant had need of. In one way, of course, this was right and proper; and he did not begrudge her to the mother from whom she had so long been parted. His grudge was aimed at another quarter. Soon after Christmas Lisby had made good her escape, and was now established as resident mistress at a Young Ladies’ Seminary, near Leeds. Which wormed, in spite of himself.

No complaint crossed Mary’s lips; she sacrificed herself as cheerfully as usual. None the less, he owed one of his chief worries during these weeks to Mary. For he could FEEL that she did not expect him to hold fast, and lived in suspense lest he should throw up the sponge. The consciousness of this galled him — got on his nerves. Yet never had he felt so averse from breaking silence. It was not only self-annoyance at the foolishness he had been guilty of; or anticipation of a resigned, I-told-you-so attitude on Mary’s part — she HAD told him so, of course; but it wouldn’t be Mary if, when the crisis came, she twitted him with it. No, what tied his tongue was his own disinclination to face the future.

The result was that Mary, too, grew fidgety: it was so unlike Richard to bottle himself up in this fashion. She began to be afraid he was afraid of her and of what she might say. So, one evening, as they sat together over book and needle, she herself broke the ice by asking him point-blank whether he regretted having settled in Leicester. “For I can see the practice is not doing much in the meantime. Still . . . if you otherwise like the place . . .”

At her first word the torrent burst.

“LIKE it? I wish to God I’d never set foot in its hideous red-brick streets! As for the practice not doing much — my dear, it has melted into thin air, and that’s all there is to say about it. The great majority of that old horse-doctor’s patients have given me the go-by — what on earth has become of the wealthy shoemakers, etc., whose names stood on his books, Heaven alone knows! It can’t be that they disapprove of my treatment, for they’ve never even tried it. Upon my word, Mary, I sometimes think the whole thing was a fake and a swindle. But I can tell you this: if I stop here, I’m on the high road to becoming a sixpenny doctor for the masses. And I will confess to feeling myself a little too good for that.”

“I should think so! It’s really most unfortunate, Richard. But what’s to be done?”

“The only course I can see, is to get out of it. I’ve made a big mistake, my dear, and the shortest and cheapest way in the end will be to admit it and tot up the balance. I could curse myself now, for not having taken your advice. Over hasty as always! The only excuse for me is, I honestly believed there was money to be made here. And was in a panic at the rate our funds were running away.”

“Well, it’s no use crying over spilt milk. But since you own you did rush rather blindly into this, be warned and don’t, for goodness sake, do the same thing in getting out of it. Give it a year’s trial.”

But the bare idea turned him cold. Now, too, that he had had his say, he felt doubly resolute. Aloud, he declared that another three months spent in these dark quarters, among this stickiest provinciality, in the mud, wind and rain of this dirty, wet, dismal town, would drive him crazy. “The very smell of the place does for me. Leather and corn and horses — horses and leather and corn! A population of ostlers and grooms and commercial gentlemen, and cattle-dealers and bull-necked farmers. No, thank you, my dear, no more of it for me! Naturally I shall sell at a loss; but the sooner the better, Mary, before the practice falls to pieces altogether.” And from this decision he was not to be moved.

The question of what next brought them to another deadlock. Mary had got it into her head that, if he went from here, it should only be to London — and was dumbfounded by the moody silence into which he fell at London’s very name. —“It’s society you’ve missed, Richard. Even had you got on well, you couldn’t have put up with the lack of that. But if you persist in sticking to your original plan and going to live in some miserable little village, it will be worse than ever. You used to say you felt cut off in Ballarat. But since we’ve . . .”

“And you? . . . what about you, pray?”

“Oh, for me it’s been different”— dear Mary! —“living next door to my mother and all that.”

“Well, I can tell you this, wife. I’ve grown more attached to your mother, her kind heart and sound sense, than I was to any one in all Australia. And certainly more than I am to my own.”

“Surely it’s time you proved that? What must they be thinking of you?” (“They? Oh? they’ll understand. You forget they’re Irish, too, love.”) “Well, Richard, my advice is . . . if you’re quite determined to move from here . . . go and pay some visits and travel about a bit, as you ought to have done at first.”

Than this, no suggestion could have jumped better with Mahony’s mood: his cramped soul longed to stretch its wings. Spring was at the door, too: that English spring the marvels of which he had seen so often in imagination — and in imagination continued to catch his only glimpse of them, shut up between brick walls as he was. At Mary’s words he had a sudden vision of all the loveliness — green downs rolling to the sea, orchards in blossom, dewy old bird-haunted gardens — that he had missed, in flinging himself hugger-mugger on the business of money-making in this sordid town. And so, overthrowing in his haste his original plan of waiting till he was in more prosperous circumstances to present himself, he packed his carpet-bag and went off to visit his relatives and renew his acquaintance with his ALMA MATER, putting the practice up for sale, and leaving a LOCUM to hold together what remained of it. According to the innate perversity of things, he had no sooner done this than it showed signs of betterment. His substitute was called in to one of the hosier kings, bespoken by the wife of a wealthy tanner. Mere chance, of course, but it did look as though fate had a special down on him.

* * * * *

The nominal goal of his journey was Dublin; and after that Edinburgh. But when he looked back on the weeks that followed, he saw them solely in the light of a journey into the past. And now, too, he grasped why he had so long postponed embarking on it. He was, he discovered, one of those who have a nervous aversion from returning on their traces.

Alighting from his car at a corner of the square, he stood, bag in hand, and gazed at his old home. It was very early on a gusty, grey, spring morning; and he himself was cold and unslept. Already, too, the spiritual depression that is Ireland’s first gift to her homing sons was invading him: looking about him he saw only stagnation and decay. Here now he stood, a worn and elderly wayfarer, over whose head thirty odd years had passed since, as a boy, he light-heartedly trod this pavement. Thirty years! Yet it might have been yesterday. For nothing was changed — or nothing but himself. And, as he moved towards the house, he had — in self-defence as it were — a moment of vision, in which the long trail of his life swept past the eye of his mind: his rich, motley life, with all its blanks and prizes, its joys, pains and compensations, let alone the multitude of other lives with which it had made contact. And to think there had been moments when he counted it a failure!

In the bulging glass flower-case outside the ground-floor window, a familiar collection of ferns and green things pursued their morbid growth. Down in the area stood the empty saucer, placed there full, of a night, for any thirsty beast that passed. Here was the well-known dent in the brass knocker; the ugly crack in the stone coping. As of old, the balcony showed green and mildewed with the water that leaked from a pair of flower-tubs; just as he remembered it, the white carriage step was split asunder — a trap for delicate feet. With this difference, that the mould was thicker, the split wider, the cracks more pronounced.

It was the same with his relatives; they, too, had made giant strides along the road of decay: throats had sagged, eyes grown smaller, knuckles bonier. Of the three, the older generation had worn best. His mother carried herself erectly, was slender — slender to emaciation — and, an inveterate enemy of crinoline, wore clinging, trailing black garments of a style all her own, she and his sisters moving like lank, heavily draped maypoles, where other women bulged and billowed and swam. (“Good Lord, what frights!” was his verdict on this deviation from the norm.) With their ivory faces, long, finely pointed noses, straight Irish eyebrows and pretty, insincere Irish mouths, the three of them looked like replicas of the one cameo (as did also he, could he but have seen himself); and since, in age, there was less than a score of years between the trio, the relationship might have been that of sisters rather than mother and daughters.

Thus dispassionately, and Irishly, he viewed them. As they him. “My beloved son, colony life is disastrous. It ruins the soul . . . as it ruins the body.”— From the way they looked at him, as this was said, he saw that they found him unnaturally withered — old for his age. Still, his greying temples and wrinkled brows touched them little. compared with the burning question whether he had come home in time to save this soul of his alive. For they were even more deeply rapt than of old in the mysteries and ecstasies of religion. On its conduct they lavished their remaining vitality; while the mother faith, which flourished so abundantly around them, supplied them with an outlet for the bitter hatred which life’s hardships had engendered in them. Popery was an invention of the Arch-Fiend; its priests were the “men of sin.” — To Mahony, who had learnt to regard all sects and denominations as branches of the one great tree, such an attitude was intolerable.

He stayed with them but for three days; longer he could not have borne the lifeless atmosphere of his old home. But . . . seventeen years, and for three days! There was, however, another reason. Their poverty was such that it wrung his heart to have to watch their shifts and makeshifts. In this big house not a single servant moved; his sisters’ thin, elderly hands were hard and seamy with work. The two women rose at daybreak to clean the steps and polish the knocker. Themselves they washed and ironed the finely darned damask; kept bright the massive bits of silver, than which there was little else on the oval surface of a dinner-table built to seat a score of people. They did their scanty shopping in distant neighbourhoods where they were not known, creeping out with their baskets early in the morning, while others of their class were still between the sheets. No! the food they set before him stuck in his throat; it was so much taken from them, who looked so bloodless. Yet, though he grudged himself each mouthful, he did not dare either to refuse what was offered him, or to add to it by a gift of money or eatables — anything that might have shown them he saw how matters stood. Banknotes slipped, unmentioned, into a letter from far Australia had been a different thing. These could be politely ignored — as indeed they had always remained unacknowledged. He imagined the fine gesture with which his mother let them flutter through her fingers, in saying airily to Sophy and Lucinda: “Some nonsense of poor Richard’s!” He ventured no more than to buy her a bouquet of cut flowers and a vellum-bound book of devotions. Even hothouse grapes might have exuded a utilitarian flavour. But all he felt went into his gift; and he knew just the nerve in the proud old heart that would be satisfied by it. For though he did not warm to them, yet like spoke to like, blood to blood, directly they met again. He could read their private thoughts, their secret feelings. At a glance he saw through the inventions and excuses, the tricks and stratagems with which they bolstered up their lives; while yet retaining their dignity as great ladies. Again, the flashes of mordant humour, which not your godliest Irishman can ever wholly subdue; or the sudden, caustic, thumb-nail sketch of friend or foe: these were so familiar to him as to seem his own: while the practical Irish habit of stripping things of false sentiment was homely and refreshing. Thus, with regard to Mary’s childlessness, his mother queried briskly: “Has fretted for lack of a family? Nonsense! In such a climate she was much better without.” Again: “Her relatives will miss you. No doubt they placed great faith in your skill. Besides, your visits cost them nothing.” Or her description of a neighbour’s state as: “A demi-fortune — cab and one horse!”

Many were the inquiries made after Mary, the regrets expressed at her absence; but he in his heart (as probably they in theirs) felt relieved that she had not accompanied him. For Mary would certainly have put her foot in it. There would have been no keeping out of her face the pity she burned with; she would have made presents where presents were an injury; have torn down veils that were sacred, even between the women themselves; would, in short, have come hopelessly to grief amid the shoals and quicksands through which it was necessary to steer a course. Whereas to him the task was second nature. He took leave of them without regret. Once away, however, he was conscious of a feeling of something like guilt towards them. For he understood now, only too plainly, what the withdrawal of the ninety to a hundred pounds yearly, which in his later, palmy days he had been able to allow them-what the abrupt stoppage of this sum must have meant to them. It had no doubt made all the difference between comparative ease and their present dire poverty. Yet never by so much as a word had they hinted at this. There was surely something great about them, too — for all their oddity.

* * * * *

Did this experience give him the sensation of a dream in which he, who was alive, went down among those who had ceased to live, his return to Edinburgh and its well-known scenes had exactly the opposite effect: made HIM feel like a shade permitted to revisit the haunts of men. For here was life in all its pristine vigour, life bubbling hot from the source — and aeons divided him from it. Here he found again his own youth — eager, restless, passionate-though encased now in other forms. Other keen young spirits swept from hospital to theatre, and from theatre to lecture-room, as he once had done; and were filled to the brim, they, too, with high purpose and ambition. Never before had it been made so clear to him of what small worth was the individual: of what little account the human moulds in which this life-energy was cast. Momentous alone was the presence of the great Breath: the eternal motor impulse. Each young soul had its hour, followed a starry trail, dreamed a kingship; then passed — vanishing in the ranks of the mediocre, the disillusioned, the conquered — to make room for the new company of aspirants thronging on behind. Many of these lads would, no doubt, in looking back, find as little in their lives to feel proud of as he found in his: nothing accomplished of all they now so surely anticipated. And one or other of them might also, when his time came, hover as an elderly ghost, eyed with a flagrant curiosity by this insolently young throng — how contemptuously would not he himself in old days have stared at the apparition! — hover round the precincts, the real old middle-aged hack, returned for a glimpse at the scenes of his youth. — Such were his feelings, the experience being one that drove his years home to him with a cruel stab.

The result was, he fell into an elegiac mood; and not having Mary at his elbow to nudge his attention to realities, he let day after day slip by without calling on, or otherwise making himself known to distinguished members of the profession. He shirked the necessary explanations. The one attempt he did make turned out poorly. Spelt, too, a good dose of patronage for this untrumpeted doctor from the backwoods.

To Mary he wrote: “I do not see much advancement in physick.” But this was in self-excuse. Of a truth new ideas were in the air. The shining lights of his own day, now but a pair of crabbed old invalids, waited each for his mortal release. The man of the hour — or so rumour had it — was a young surgeon in Glasgow; which “Godforsaken” city British and foreign physicians were actually travelling to and settling in, to see demonstrated a new means for hindering germ-putrefaction. At first he himself inclined to side with his old chief, who turned a cold shoulder on young Lister and his experimenting. But after reading up the subject in the Medical Library he changed his mind. Pasteur’s theory of the existence of certain spores in the atmosphere might not yet be proved to every one’s satisfaction; but the examples published by this Dr. Lister, illustrating the successful employment of the new method, could not but make a deep impression. In the end, he would for two pins have taken rail himself to Glasgow, where in even the most insanitary hospital wards pyaemia, erysipelas and hospital gangrene had been well nigh stamped out.

It was while he still lingered, ruminating these things, that he saw advertised for sale a practice on the south coast of England, in a locality which was described as lovely, sheltered, salubrious. Something in the wording of the paragraph took his fancy and he wrote for particulars. The reply was so favourable that, instead of either travelling to Glasgow or going back to Leicester, he set out by way of Bristol for the south. To see the place was straightway to lose his heart to it; here, for once was a dream come true. The advertiser turned out to be as young as Brocklebank had been old — a practitioner of but a year’s standing. But to the hardy old surgeon as a reed to an oak. For even the soft air of this sheltered nook had not been mild enough for a congenital throat-weakness; and the young man was hieing him to the Cape, where he proposed to settle. Such was his eagerness to be gone that he came a considerable way to meet Mahony in the matter of price. — And now letters passed and telegrams flew between husband and wife; till, even the electric wire proving too circumstantial for Richard’s impatience, Mary was bidden to pack her bag and join him there. She came, and was herself charmed with the spot — as, indeed, how could she help being, cried Richard, who was as elated as a child. You might search England through, and not find its equal.

The chief difficulty was to get a house. Young Philips, as a bachelor, had lived in furnished apartments; which of course was impossible for them. But it was literally a case of Hobson’s choice. For most people owned their houses — had been born and would die in them like their fathers before them — and in all the place only two were vacant. One was of a type that disfigures many a seaside town: a high, gloomy house — in a terrace of three — standing right on the pavement of a side street. With no garden of its own, it was darkened by the foliage of the big trees in the gardens opposite. Still worse, it turned its back on the sea. A lawyer had lived there; the ground-floor windows bore the hated shades. His widow, planning to move from the neighbourhood, was willing to let the house on lease. But Mahony took a furious dislike to it; and even Mary thought it dull, and rather large for the two of them. The second, much smaller and older — some hundred and fifty years, said report — was, on the other hand, bright and cheerful, and had a charming old-world garden and a magnificent view across the Bay. But it was for sale. Nor was the position it occupied so suitable as that of the lawyer’s: it stood above the town, half-way up a steep hill. Still, distances were surely negligible, argued Mahony, in so small a place; and whoever really needed a doctor would summon him, whether it meant fifty yards further or no.

None the less the decision cost him his sleep of a night. Mary was all in favour of the one to be rented: his inclinations leaned to the other. He walked past this a dozen times a day, and went over it so often that the agent suggested him keeping the keys until he had made up his mind. It was ridiculous, he told himself, to think of buying a house before he had sampled the practice; yet seldom had he been so torn. And once again Mary, pitying his distraction, came to the rescue and said, well, after all, perhaps he should just buy and be done with it. For she saw what would happen if he didn’t: he would never cease to bemoan his loss, and to find fault with the house he was in. Better for his peace of mind that he should take the monetary risk — and though this meant using up the last remainder of their available ready money. But there was also another unspoken thought at the back of Mary’s mind. The knowledge that he had thus involved himself might help him to sit firm, if — and with a person like Richard the contingency HAD to be allowed for — if he afterwards tired of the place.

So he bought; and not for a second had he regretted it — any more than he regretted having pitched his tent in this loveliest of spots. On the contrary he counted himself a remarkably lucky man.

* * * * *

And thus to Buddlecombe.

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