The Way Home, by Henry Handel Richardson

Chapter V

The practice bore out its reputation. The huckster, the publican and the ostler were in the minority here; Mahony’s visiting-list was studded with good names. This change for the better, together with the pride he took in his pretty house and garden, sent his spirits up sky-high. And, as was natural, he read his own satisfaction into others. “If I’m not much mistaken, Mary, people here are well pleased to have a medical man of a reasonable age in their midst again.” It fell to Mary to keep him gently damped; to prevent him skipping off the earth altogether, in his new-found lightness of heart.

At first, though, even she had to admit there was nothing to complain of.

For if Mahony here felt himself restored to his own level professionally, on the social side — which was important, too — things also promised to run smoothly. Of course, English people were notoriously slow to take you to their hearts; and, even after they had found out all about you, would still go walking round you looking you up and down. Once, however, these sticklers were sure with whom they had to deal, they made rich amends. And so Mary had numerous callers of the right kind; and invitations followed the calls. The vicar’s wife took her up — a due appearance at church having been made, and a pew hired — and she joined a circle that sat twice a week to sew for the heathen. Further, she was asked to help in visiting and distributing tracts among the lower orders; in getting up a Penny Reading to raise funds for the promulgation of the Gospel; to take a table at the annual Sunday School Feast: was, in short, made free of all the artless diversions of the parish.

In addition to this, the month was April; and the thousand and one beauties of an exceptionally fine spring unrolled before their eyes. Declared Mahony: to be present at this budding and bursting, this sprouting and flowering, more than made up for the disappointments he had suffered since landing in England. What a feast of tender green, of changing colours, was here spread for eyes sore with the harshness and aridity of the Australian landscape, the eternal grey-green of its skimpy foliage! When he first arrived, every sheltered slope and sunny bank was yellow with primroses; the lesser celandine bedecked the meadow-grass, violets were mauve and purple in the hedgerows; and no sooner did these show signs of fading than the ground became blue with myriads of bells, which, taken in the mass, looked like patches of sky dropped to earth. And the blue in its turn yielded to the ruby-pink of the red campion. Against a background of starry blackthorn blazed the golden gorse. The cliffs were covered with the comical little striped brown pokers of the horsetails, which soon branched out into bristly brooms; and piercing the rust-red carpet of last year’s growth, up sprang the straight nimble spears of the bracken. In the high hedges the ruddy cane of the willows was smothered by the succulent green tips of hawthorn and bramble; and on the rolling countryside that belle of trees, the larch, stood out among the copperish buds of the beeches and the first tightly folded leaves of the chestnuts, with a pale green feathery loveliness all its own.

But with the onset of summer, when gardeners were busy netting strawberry-beds and currant-bushes against the greedy thrush; and the blackbird, his wooing done, was omitting the topnotes at the end of his call: by this time, in spite of Mahony’s liking for the moderate but sympathetic practice, sly doubts had begun to invade him whether things were really at bottom as satisfactory as they seemed, or whether both in his professional and their twofold social life, there was not a fly in the ointment. In his own case, the suspicion soon deepened to a certainty. — Robinson was that fly.

Of the person who bore his name he had naturally heard nothing at the time of buying. Only by degrees did Robinson come within his ken. A surgeon some years his junior, the fellow had originally, it now turned out, held the whole practice of the place for miles round in his hands. Then, three years previously, he had married a rich widow — report credited her with eight to ten thousand a year — bought a fine property and retired. Since then — again according to rumour — he had spent more time than was fitting in the company of the bottle. However that might be, his former wide professional connection, his wife’s money and social standing, combined to make him PERSONA GRATA in all the best houses; while among the townspeople and villagers, slow of wit and opposed to change as only English country-people could be, the memory, or rather the habit of him, had persisted, to the tribulation no doubt of his successors. For there came moments when Mahony mistrusted the throat-weakness alleged by young Philips; or at least wondered whether this was his sole reason for quitting so promising a place after a bare year’s trial. And who had preceded Philips? At first what he, Mahony, had to meet was no more than a casual mention of Robinson’s name. “Mr. Robinson said this, or would have done that”; and, at the outset, he had been simple enough to believe it a slip of the tongue for Philips. He soon learned better. A question put, a scrap of gossip retailed by Mary, taught him that Robinson was still a power in the place. For yet a while, however, he ascribed what was going on to hard-dying custom, which might be overcome. The first time he scented actual danger was when one of two spinsters he was attending complained of her sister’s slow progress, and said she would ask Mr. Robinson to look in, he understanding their constitutions better than any one else.

“If you do that, my good woman, you see no more of me!” was Mahony’s quick retort. And so he lost a patient.

Thereafter on his rounds he himself began to catch glimpses of the bottle-nosed surgeon — sitting perched in a high gig beside a groom in livery; altogether a very smart turn-out — and this went on until it positively looked as if the fellow intended taking up practice again . . . filching it back from under his very nose. A pretty thing that would be to happen, now he had staked his all on it! A shabby trick and no mistake! — one, too, that ran counter to every known rule of medical etiquette.

The mischief was — with a brain like his — let the door open to one such suspicion, and straightway a dozen others seized the chance of inserting themselves. He next fell to questioning the apparent ease with which Mary and he had entered the polite society of the town. For, the longer he lived there, the more plainly he saw just what a wasps’ nest of caste and prejudice they had fallen into. Social life in Buddlecombe was the most complicated affair under the sun: was divided into innumerable grades; made up of a series of cliques, rising one above the other and fitting as exactly as a set of Japanese boxes. No such simple matter, and that was a fact, for a pair of newcomers to find themselves to rights in it. But they in their ignorance had pranced boldly in, where those who knew better, walked warily and with discretion. The vicar’s wife had taken Mary up: yes; but by now Mahony had come to see that she would be equally attentive to any one who might prove useful in helping to run the parish, or in slaving for foreign missions. And he began to doubt whether, often as Mary went to the vicarage, she was invited to the really select parties there given. She had never, for instance, met the Blakeneys of “The Towers,” people he knew to be hand-in-glove with the vicaress. Mary either did not notice or, noticing, heed such trivial details she just laughed and said: “Rubbish!” or “You ARE fanciful, Richard!”— but he most emphatically did, and thanked you for being put off with the second best. And besides her insensitiveness to slights, she was hopelessly obtuse when it came to observing the invisible but cast-iron barriers with which the various cliques hedged themselves round, to keep those a step lower in the scale from coming too near.

“Not shake hands with that nice old Mr. Dandy just because he was once in trade? I never heard such a thing!” In Ballarat Mary had been used to feel flattered did her grocer — rich, influential, a trustee of the church, a member of the Horticultural Society — emerge from behind the counter specially to chat with her. “I think we should just make a beginning.”

“Indeed and you’ll put your foot in it with a vengeance, my dear, if you try anything of that kind here . . . when I’m still struggling to get a stand.”

“Oh well, of course, if you look at it that way. . . . But all the same . . . when I think . . .” Her sentence tailed off into a speaking silence.

He understood. “TEMPI PASSATI, love! Nowadays, we must do as Rome does. — Recollect, too, my dear, these things may seem trifling enough to you . . . and me . . . who have knocked about the world; but to people here they’re the very A B C of good breeding — have been sucked in with their mother’s milk. We mustn’t let ourselves appear ignoramuses of the first water.”

“But I’ve GOT to be friendly with your patients, Richard, whoever they are.”

“True. But even you must draw the line somewhere, you know.”

“I’m afraid I don’t; I’m not clever enough. It doesn’t seem human either. For we’re all the same flesh and blood.”

Yes, for the countless niceties and distinctions of social etiquette, Mary had, as she confessed, little aptitude. It sometimes seemed that, if a mistake was possible, she made it.

The two chief houses in Buddlecombe, the “Hall” and the “Court,” were closed when the Mahonys settled there, the families being respectively abroad and in residence in London. During their absence the temporary leader, who gave the sign and set the key, and to whom the vicar deferred with his treacliest smile, was the owner of “Toplands.” This was a Mrs. Challoner, a widow with two sons, and a person of great wealth and importance —“Toplands” was really the biggest and most up-to-date place in the neighbourhood, both Hall and Court being cramped by comparison and mouldy with age. But let the Trehernes or the Saxeby-Corbetts show so much as the tips of their noses, and this lady subsided with extraordinary swiftness, collapsed like a jack-in-the-box; for, though her husband’s antecedents were irreproachable, there was, on her own side, some shadowy connection with “malt” which could never be forgotten or forgiven her; or at least “only by the grace of God . . . or of the Saxeby-Corbetts.”

Mrs. Challoner was a member of the vicarage sewing-circle; and here she met Mary, to whom she seemed to take a liking; for she called, asked her to “Toplands,” and, as a special mark of favour, drove her out in her carriage; Mahony being simultaneously summoned to attend the younger of the two sons, a delicate lad of seventeen. Thus, when, in Mary’s opinion, the time had come to return the various invitations they had received, by herself sending out cards for a party, she felt justified in including Mrs. Challoner. And, sure enough, had in reply a graceful note of acceptance. So far good. But now it was that Mary let her hospitable impulses outride her discretion. At the vicarage she had made a further acquaintance, in the shape of a Mrs. Johnston-Perkes, a very charming lady who had been settled in Buddlecombe not much longer than they themselves. And having it from this person’s own lips that she came of a good Oxfordshire family, besides meeting her where she did — Mrs. Dandy, for example, was not made free of the sewing-club — how was Mary to guess that the Johnston-Perkes were not “in the swim”? Nor could Richard have helped her. For the dark fact, unknown to either, was that in his day the husband’s father had had some Connection with a publishing firm; and though Mr. Perkes himself had never soiled his hands thus, yet the business stigma — pray, did not the issuing of books imply the abhorred counter? — clung to him and his lady-wife and tracked them from place to place. What followed proved — according to Mahony — that, though good enough for God and His works — witness the lady’s presence at the vicarage! — the Johnston-Perkes were not by any means good enough for the upper crust of Buddlecombe; and the consequence was, Mary’s party was a failure. There was no open contretemps; Mrs. Challoner and her satellites behaved with perfect civility. But it was impossible, to Mahony’s mind, to misread the crippling surprise writ big on these people’s faces; and the atmosphere of the drawing-room remained icy — would not thaw.

Another thing that sent people’s eyebrows up was the supper to which Mary sat them down as the clock struck ten. At this date she had not been long enough in Buddlecombe to know it for an unalterable rule that, unless the invitation was to dinner, a heavy, stodgy dinner of one solid course after another, from which, if you happened to be a peckish eater, you rose feeling as though you could never look on food again; except in this case, the refreshment offered was of the lightest and most genteel: a biscuit; a jug of barley-water for the gouty, or lemon-water for the young — at most, a glass of inferior sherry, cellars not being tapped to any extent on such occasions. But Mary had gone at her supper in good old style, giving of her best. And Mahony was so used to leaving such matters entirely to her that it had never entered his head to inferfere. Not until the party was squeezed into the little dining-room, round a lengthened dinner-table on which jellies twinkled, cold fowls lay trussed, sandwiches were piled loaf-high — not till then and till he saw the amazed glances flying between the ladies, did he grasp how wrong Mary had gone. A laden supper-table was an innovation: and who were these newcomers, hailing from God knew where, to attempt to improve on the customs of Buddlecombe? It was also a trap for the gouty — and all were gouty more or less. Thirdly, such profusion constituted a cutting criticism on the meagre refreshments that were here the rule. He grew stiff with embarrassment; felt, if possible, even more uncomfortable than did poor Mary, at the refusals and head-shakings that went down one side of the table and up the other. For none broke more than the customary Abernethy, or crumpled a sandwich. Liver-wings and slices of breast, ham patties and sausage-rolls made the round, in vain. Mrs. Challoner gave the cue; and even the vicar, a hearty eater, followed her lead, the only person to indulge being the worthy gentleman who had caused half the trouble — and HIM Mahony caught being kicked by his wife under the table.

He felt so sore on Mary’s behalf that, by the time he had escorted the last guest through the sentry-box porch, he was fairly boiling over. Flinging downstairs to the dining-room, where he found his wife disconsolately regarding her table — it looked almost as neat as when she first arranged it — he flashed out: “Well, you’ve done it now! What in heaven’s name possessed you to sit people down to a spread like this?”

Mary had begun to collect her tartlets — dozens of them — on one large dish, and was too preoccupied to lend him more than half an ear. To herself she said: “What SHALL I do with them?”

“Do? Bury ’em, my dear, in a corner of the garden — hide ’em away out of sight! I wish you could get the memory out of people’s minds as easily. OUR supper-party will be the talk of Buddlecombe for many a day to come!”

“Just because I tried to make it as nice as I knew how? I think you judge every one by yourself, Richard. Because you didn’t enjoy it . . .”

“Then why was nothing touched?”

“Perhaps they didn’t feel hungry. I oughtn’t to have had it till an hour later.”

“Nothing of the sort! Though you had given it to ’em at five in the morning, they would still have walked home on empty stomachs. This kind of thing isn’t done here, and the sooner you get that into your head the better!”

“Never will I descend to their starvation-diet!” cried Mary warmly.

“Another thing: what in heaven’s name induced you to mix those Perkeses up with Mrs. Challoner and her set? That was FAUX PAS of the first water.”

“I do declare I never seem to do anything right! But you said nothing: you didn’t know. For if it comes to that, Richard, you make mistakes, too.”

“Indeed and I should like to know how?”— Mahony was huffed in a second.

“I didn’t mean to say anything about it. But it appears the vicar took it very badly, the other Sunday, that you went to hear that London preacher at the Methodist Chapel. I overheard something that was said at the last sewing-party — about your perhaps being really a dissenter.”

“Well, of all the . . . objects to my going to hear a well-known preacher, just because he belongs to another sect? Preposterous!”

“Yes, if it’s anything to do with yourself, it’s preposterous. But when it’s me, it’s mistakes, and FAUX PAS, and all the rest of it. Sometimes I really feel quite confused. To remember I mustn’t shake hands here or even bow there. That in some quarters I must only say ‘Good afternoon,’ and not ‘How do you do?’— and then the other way round as well. That nice Mrs. Perkes is not the thing and ought to be cold-shouldered; and when I have company I’m not to give them anything to eat. Oh, Richard, it all seems to me such FUDGE! How grown-up people can spend their lives being so silly, I don’t know. Out THERE, you had to forget what a person’s outside was like — I mean his table-manners and whether he could say his aitches — as long as he got on and was capable . . . or rich. But here it’s always: ‘WHO is he? How far back can he trace his pedigree?’— and nothing else seems to matter a bit. I do believe you might be friends with a swindler or a thief, as long as his family-tree was all right. And the disgrace trade seems to be! Why, looked at this way there wasn’t any one in Ballarat who was fit to know. Just think of Tilly and old Mr. Ocock. Here they would be put down as the vulgarest of the vulgar. One certainly wouldn’t be able even to BOW to them! And then remember all they were to us, and how fond I was of Tilly, and what a splendid character she had. No, this kind of thing goes against the grain in me. I’m afraid the truth is, I like them vulgar best. And I’m too old, now, to change.”

“You too old!” cried Mahony, amazed to hear this, his own dirge, on his wife’s lips. “Why, Mary love,”— and from where he sat he held out his hand to her across the table, over the creams and jellies standing like flowers in their cups. “You but a couple of months over thirty, and far and away the best-looking woman in the place! Candidly, my dear, never did I set eyes on such a pack of scarecrows — from the vicaress with her wolf’s teeth, up the scale and down.”

“You don’t feel very happy or at home here, love — I see that,” he went on. “And I sometimes doubt, my dear, whether I did right to uproot you from your adopted country.”

“I certainly liked being there better than here. Still I’m quite ready, as you know, to put up with things. Only you mustn’t scold me, Richard, when I make mistakes I do my best, dear, but . . .”

“We’ll lay our heads together, love, and so avoid them. And as a beginning, Mary, we’ll stifle the natural feelings of friendliness and goodwill we have always had for our fellow-mortals — no matter what their rank in life. We’ll forget that we’re all, as you say, the sons of Adam, and are placed on this earth-ball but for a very brief period, in which it would certainly be to our advantage to love our neighbours as ourselves. And we’ll learn to be narrow, and bigoted, and snobbish, and mean with our grub . . . eh, Mary? Joking apart, my dear, you see how it is. We’ve either got to adapt ourselves to the petty outlook of those about us, or be regarded as a pair of boors who’ve brought home with them the manners and habits of the backwoods. And that means turning out again, love. For I won’t stay here to be looked down on . . . when I feel every whit as good as anybody else.”

“Now when you talk like that, Richard . . . You know I’m willing to put up with any mortal thing, as long as I can feel sure you’re happy and contented. But when I think, dear, of the down YOU used to have on narrowness and snobbishness . . . And this is even worse.”

“All the same, I felt I could stand no more of the rough diamonds we had to hobnob with out there.”

“Still, some were diamonds, weren’t they?”

“What we need, you and I, Mary, is a society that would take the best from both sides. The warm-heartedness of our colonial friends, their generosity and hospitality; while we could do without the promiscuity, the worship of money, the general loudness and want of refinement. — You wonder if I shall be happy here? I like the place, love; it’s an ideal spot. I like this solid old house, too: and so far the climate has suited me. I seem to be getting on fairly well with the people; and though the practice is still nothing extraordinary, it has possibilities.”

“Yes; but. . .”

“But? Well, I undoubtedly miss the income I used to have; there’s little money to be made — compared with Ballarat, it’s the merest niggling. And besides that, there was a certain breadth of view — that we’d got used to, you and I. Here, things sometimes seem atrociously cramped and small. But we must remember good exists everywhere and in every one, wife, if we only take the trouble to look for it. And since the fates have pitched us here, here we must stay and work our vein until we’ve laid the gold bare. We’ve got each other, love, and that’s the chief thing.”

“Of course it is.”

And now they were up and doing, he helping her to stow away her feast that it should not meet Selina’s eye in the morning. And over this there was a good deal of merriment: they had to eat up some of the more perishable things themselves, which they did to a confession from Mary that she really had not meant to make QUITE so much, but had been lured on from one thing to another, by the thought of how nice it would look on the table. They packed away a decent amount in the larder, for appearance sake; the rest in a cupboard in the surgery.

But afterwards, Mary as she took down her hair, Mahony as he went round the house locking up, each dedicated the matter a further and private refection. She said to herself, astonished: “I do believe Richard is turning radical,” and then went on to muse, a little wryly, that the “fates” to which he so jauntily referred were, after all, but another name for his own caprices. He, on the other hand, after justifying an omission to himself with: “No use worrying the poor little soul about that dam fool Robinson!” sent her a thought so warm that it resembled a caress. For at heart his whole sympathy was with Mary and Mary’s ineradicable generosity. Alone, and his irritation cooled, he ranged himself staunchly on her side, against the stiff, uncharitable little world into which they were fallen.

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