The Way Home, by Henry Handel Richardson

Chapter VI

Entering the house late one summer afternoon, his pockets bulged with scraps of weed and wild-flower — the country people still gaped at sight of their doctor descended from his trap, a round glass in one eye, poking and prying in the hedgerows — Mahony was turning these specimens out on the hall table when Mary called to him from the dining-room. “Richard! A great surprise!”

He went downstairs to her, pulling off his gloves. “What? . . . the mail in already? I calculated it wasn’t due for another week at least.”

“And such a big one!”

Mary sat in an armchair, her lap full of envelopes, a closely written sheet of foreign note in her hand. Mahony picked up the several letters bearing his name, and ran his eye over the superscriptions. Their English post-bag was a lean one; but the arrival of the Australian mail more than atoned for it; and the deciphering of the crossed and recrossed pages, the discussing of news from the old home occupied the pair of them for days. Among his pile Mahony found a letter from Chinnery of the London Chartered, another from Archdeacon Long, a third from an old fellow-practitioner; while a bulky envelope promised a full business statement from the agent whom he had left in charge of his affairs. Taking off his greatcoat he sat down to read at his ease.

First, though, he had to hear from Mary the gist of those she had fleetly skimmed, prior to going back and reading them over again, word by word, with a brooding seriousness.

“Just fancy, John writes he’s been forced to shut up his house and go and live at the Melbourne Club. WHAT a state of things! That lovely house left to go to rack and ruin. It seems the last housekeeper turned out worst of all. She didn’t set her cap at him, like Mrs. Perry, but he discovered that she was carrying on improperly with men. To think of a woman like that looking after poor Jinny’s children! Now John has put all three to boarding-school. And Josey still the merest baby. How he expects them to thrive, I don’t know — with never a proper home, or a mother’s care. Then, here’s Trotty . . . or Emma as he will persist in calling her . . . accused of being idle and flighty. Trotty flighty! If ever there was a dear, good-hearted little soul . . . easy to manage and open as the day. But John still seems to have his old down on Emma’s children. And that brings me to some bad news. Johnny has run away. Listen to this. AND NOW I PASS TO THE DOINGS OF MY SON AND HEIR. AFTER KEEPING THE BOY TO HIS DESK UNDER MY OWN EYE FOR THE PAST TWELVE MONTHS, AND ENDEAVOURING BY PRECEPT AND SEVERITY TO MAKE AN HONEST MAN OF HIM— IN VAIN, MARY, FOR NEVER A MOMENT’S GRATIFICATION OR SATISFACTION HAVE I HAD FROM HIM; NEVER A THANK-YOU HAS HE GIVEN ME FOR ALL THE MONEY SPENT ON HIM— HE WAS LAZY, DECEPTIVE, AND FREQUENTED LOOSE COMPANY . . . Richard! At seventeen! . . . NEGLECTED HIS DUTIES, TOOK MORE WINE THAN WAS GOOD FOR HIM, PLAYED CARDS FOR MONEY, AND IN THE END WENT SO FAR AS TO ABSTRACT HIS LOSSES FROM MY PRIVATE DRAWER. — Isn’t it dreadful? — WHEN I TAXED HIM WITH IT, AND THREATENED HIM WITH EXPOSURE, HE AS GOOD AS WHISTLED IN MY FACE; THEN ACTUALLY HAD THE AUDACITY TO ASSERT HE OWED ME NO GRATITUDE, SINCE I HAD NEVER DONE ANYTHING FOR HIM; AND THE NEXT MORNING HE WAS MISSING— HIS BED HAD NOT BEEN SLEPT IN. WHEN AFTER THE LAPSE OF SEVERAL WEEKS I CONTRIVED TO TRACK HIM, I LEARNED, TO MY SHAME AND DISGRACE, THAT HE HAD SHIPPED BEFORE THE MAST TO THAT ELDORADO OF THIEVES AND SCOUNDRELS, AMERICA. NOW HE MAY SHIFT FOR HIMSELF; I WASH MY HANDS OF HIM. I HAVE CUT HIM OUT OF MY WILL AND SHALL DO THE SAME BY EMMA, UNLESS SHE MENDS HER WAYS. YOU WILL SCARCELY CREDIT IT, MY DEAR MARY, BUT HER SCHOOLMISTRESS WRITES ME THAT THE GIRL— NOT YET FIFTEEN YEARS OF AGE, MARK YOU! — HAS HAD TO BE ‘PUBLICLY REBUKED’ FOR COQUETTING WITH MEMBERS OF THE OTHER SEX IN A PLACE OF WORSHIP. — Oh, stuff and nonsense, John! Never will I believe such a thing of Trotty. I know the child a great deal better than you. If I were only there, to find out what it all means He winds up with the usual: THANK GOD, JANE’S CHILDREN ARE OF ANOTHER DISPOSITION. I AM CONFIDENT I SHALL NEVER BE DISGRACED BY THEM. No, my dear John, they haven’t the spirit. But . . . well, I never did!” and Mary let her hand fall flop on the table. “Just listen to this! A postscript — I didn’t see it before. He says: YOUR SISTER ZARA SEEMS ABOUT TO MAKE A FOOL OF THE FIRST WATER OF HERSELF. SHE IS, I HEAR— FOR I HAVE SEEN NOTHING OF HER, I AM THANKFUL TO SAY— CONTEMPLATING MATRIMONY. — Richard! And he doesn’t even say who to. Isn’t that like a man? Can it . . . could it be . . . But there! I believe I saw a letter from Zara herself.”

Dropping John’s, Mary picked on one of the envelopes in her lap, slit it open and began to fly the lines. “Mm . . . a tirade against John, of course . . . how those two do bicker! They seem to get worse as they grow older. Now where can it be? Mm . . . NO ONE CAN PUT UP WITH HIM ANY LONGER . . . HAS HAD TO CLOSE HIS HOUSE, THUS PROVING——”

“Hullo, my dear, here’s news!” cried Mahony and slapped his thigh. He had waited patiently for John’s Jeremiad to end. In Zara’s pursuit of matrimony he took no interest whatever. “Well, upon my word! . . . who would have dreamt of this? Those AUSTRALIA FELIXES . . . you remember, Mary, I bought them rather as a pig in a poke; and they’ve done nothing but make calls ever since. Now here they are declaring a three-pound dividend. My highest expectations did not exceed thirty shillings and even that would have been handsome. Think what it will be when they get in ten more stamps. Fifty pounds a month, for certain! My dear! we shall end by being moneyed people after all.”

“Indeed I hope so,” said Mary; and resumed her search for Zara’s plum. “It looks as if she’s not going to mention it. This is all about her pupils. They dote on her as usual, and she drives out every day in the carriage. Zara is certainly lucky in her employers. — Oh, here it is — tucked away in a postscript. OTHER AND FAIRER PROSPECTS BECKON, MY DEAR MARY, THAN THOSE OF ETERNALLY IMPROVING THE MINDS OF OTHER PEOPLE’S CHILDREN. AT PRESENT I CAN SAY NO MORE. BUT YOUR CLEVERNESS WILL NO DOUBT ENABLE YOU TO DIVINE WHAT I LEAVE UNSAID. And that’s all. Now I suppose I must wait another three months to hear who it is and how it happened. Oh dear, how OUT of everything we do seem here!”

“They’ve got the money for the chancel at last,” threw in Mahony. “I must write and congratulate Long. Splendid work! They’ve had the laying ceremony, too, and hope twelve months hence that the Bishop will be up consecrating. The last Fancy Bazaar did the job. Here’s a message to you. Mrs. Long’s warm love, and she missed your help sadly at the refreshment-stall. — What? Well, I’m hanged! Old Higgins in my place as Trustee. Ha, ha! Listen to this. AND NOW AN ITEM, DOCTOR, AFTER YOUR OWN HEART. WE RECENTLY HAD WITH US A DISCIPLE AND FOLLOWER OF SPURGEON— ONE OF THE FAITHFUL WHO SECEDED WITH THE GREAT MAN FROM THE EVANGELICAL ALLIANCE. HE PREACHED A FIRST TIME IN THE BAPTIST CHAPEL, BUT THIS PROVED TOO SMALL TO HOLD A QUARTER OF THOSE WHO WISHED TO HEAR HIM. AND SO THE SECOND TIME, ON A SUNDAY EVENING, HE APPEARED ON THE PLATFORM OF THE NEW ALFRED HALL. THIS WAS PACKED TO THE DOORS. THE CONSEQUENCE WAS I PREACHED TO EMPTY BENCHES. WELL! BELIEVING THAT THE WORD OF GOD REMAINS THE WORD OF GOD, NO MATTER UNDER WHAT GUISE IT IS PRESENTED, I CUT MY DISCOURSE SHORT, DOFFED MY CASSOCK AND WENT HOME TO BED. THE WORTHY FELLOW CALLED ON ME NEXT DAY; WISHED TO EXCHANGE BIBLES— HIS, I AM TOLD, DEEPLY UNDER-SCORED— BUT I DID NOT FEEL JUSTIFIED IN GOING SO FAR AS THAT.”

“Oh, Polly’s lost her baby, poor thing!” cried Mary, whom the doings of Spurgeon’s follower interested but mildly. “I do feel sorry for her. Not but what she takes it very sensibly. And if you think . . . six children and that teeny-weeny house. Still, it’s rather sad. She says: OF COURSE NOBODY MISSES IT OR CARED ANYTHING ABOUT IT BUT ME. BUT IT WAS RATHER A NICE LITTLE KID MARY, AND WELL FORMED. I HAD IT AT THE BREAST FOR A DAY, AND FELT ITS LITTLE FINGERS, AND IT HAD BLUE EYES. Now fancy that! — and the rest of them so dark. Polly would think it belonged all the more to her, because of it. She says Ned’s keeping a little steadier — that will be good news for Mother. He’s clerk in a coal merchant’s office now, and brings home his wages pretty regularly. Poor old Ned!” and Mary sighed.

But a message in Mr. Chinnery’s made her smile. TELL MRS. MAHONY HOW MUCH SHE IS MISSED IN SOCIETY HERE. THOSE PLEASANT EVENINGS WE USED TO SPEND AT YOUR HOUSE, DOCTOR, AND HER FAMOUS SUPPERS ARE STILL TALKED OF, AND WILL LONG BE REMEMBERED. “There, my dear! that’s a feather in your cap, and should console you for recent happenings.”

With this Mahony’s budget was exhausted, and he rose to go to the surgery, where he proposed to make a few calculations in connection with his little windfall. But Mary held him back for yet a moment.

“I declare marrying’s in the air. Now here’s Jerry gone and got engaged. Who to? He writes: THE PRETTIEST GIRL IN ALL THE WORLD AND THE BEST AS WELL. Let us only hope that’s true. Dear old Jerry! He deserves a good wife, if ever anyone did. But, oh dear me! she’s only sixteen — barely a year older than Trotty. That’s too young.”

“Is it indeed? I know somebody who was once of a different opinion.”

“But I was old for my age. Dear Jerry! He’s so sensible in other things. If only he has not let his feelings run away with him here!”

“Poor old Mary wife! If only you were there to look after them all, eh? Better as it is, love. You’d have the burden of Atlas on your shoulders again.”

“What atlas?” asked Mary absently, having passed to her next correspondent.

But the letter she spent longest over was the one she kept till the last — till Richard had retired to his room. For only to Tilly did she write nowadays with anything approaching frankness; and in this reply, oddly written, indifferently spelt, there might be private references to things she had said, besides the plain truth about all and any it touched on. Afterwards Richard would get, in her own words, all he needed to hear.

BEAMISH HOUSE, LAKE WENDOUREE, BALLARAT.

MY DARLING MARY — YOURS OF 19TH WAS A RARE OLD TREAT. JOB BROUGHT IT WHEN I WASN’T AT HOME— I’D DRIVEN OUT TO HAVE A LOOK AT THE MARE ZOE, WHO’S IN FOAL AND AT GRASS IN A PADDOCK OF WILLY URQUHART’S. DIDN’T I POUNCE ON IT WHEN I FOUND IT. I READ IT THROUGH TWICE WITHOUT STOPPING, MY DEAR. AND DIDN’T KNOW WHETHER TO BE GLAD OR SORRY WHEN I’D DONE. YOU WRITE CHEERY ENOUGH, MARY, BUT IT DOESN’T SEEM TO ME YOU CAN BE REALLY HAPPY IN A PLACE LIKE YOU SAY LEICESTER IS— ALL DAMP AND DREARY, AND NO GARDEN OR SPACE, AND SO LITTLE COMPANY. I’M GLAD IT ISN’T ME— THAT’S ALL. AUSTRALY FOR EVER, FOR THIS CHICKEN. YOUR DESCRIPTION OF THE RAINY SEASON MAKES ME GET COLD SHIVERS DOWN MY SPINE. GIVE ME THE SUN, THANK YOU, AND HORSES AND A GARDEN, AND EVERYTHING JUST AS JOLLY AS CAN BE. FINE FEATHERS AND BLUE BLOOD AREN’T IN MY LINE ANYHOW.

NOW FOR MY BUDGET. I’M STILL THE GAY OLD WIDDER I WAS WHEN YOU HEARD LAST, AND HAVEN’T FELT TEMPTED TO CHANGE MY STATE. TO TELL THE TRUTH, MARY, THOUGH I GAD ABOUT AS USUAL AND DON’T SIT AT HOME AND PULL A LONG FACE, I STILL MISS DEAR OLD PA. IT WAS SO HOMEY TO HEAR HIM SAY: “NOW THEN, WHAT’S MY GIRL BEEN UP TO TO-DAY?” WHENEVER I CAME IN, AND THE JOY OF MY LIFE TO HELP HIM SET HIS WILL AGAINST MONSEER H.‘S. WELL, HE CAN’T SAY HE’S FORGOTTEN. I’VE PUT HIM UP THE GRANDEST MONUMENT IN ALL THE NEW CEMETERY. PA IN A SORT OF NIGHTSHIRT, MARY, WITH WINGS ATTACHED, FLYING OFF, AND A FEMALE FIGURE ALL BOWED UP AND WEEPING ON THE GROUND. THIS IS ALL RIGHT FOR ME, BUT SOMETIMES I THINK PA WOULD RATHER HAVE BEEN TOOK JUST SITTING ON A LOG AND SMOKING HIS PIPE. BUT HENRY AND THE MAN AS DONE IT WOULDN’T HEAR OF SUCH A THING, SAID IT WOULDN’T BE IDEEL.

THE CHIEF NEWS OF THIS ESTABLISHMENT IS THAT TOM AND JOHNNY HAS MOVED OUT. I WAS FOR KEEPING THEM ON— WE’RE NONE OF US CHICKENS ANY MORE— BUT HENRY PECKED AND NAGGED AT ME ABOUT PROPRIETY, TILL I GAVE IN FOR SHEER PEACE SAKE. THEY’RE BOARDED OUT, POOR BOYS, AND TOM COMES OVER EVERY MORNING TO SEE AFTER THE FOWLS. ONE OF THESE DAYS I SHALL HAVE TO PUT MY FOOT DOWN AND SQUASH HENRY— I SEE THAT. FOR IT WAS THE SAME WITH THE WEEDS. PA USED TO SAY: “WEAR NO WEEPERS FOR ME, TILDA!”— MEANING VEILS AND HANGERS AND ALL THAT—“YOU’VE NOTHING TO GRIEVE FOR, OLD GIRL.” AND I TO COMFORT HIM: “RIGHT YOU ARE, OLD JO! IF MY MEMORY LASTS SO LONG, THAT IS, FOR YOU’LL BEAT METHUSELAH YET!” BUT WHEN HENRY HEARD OF IT, HE ALL BUT STOOD ON HIS HEAD— MY DEAR, HE HAS AGNES GOING ROUND WITH A FLOUNCE OF CREPE A YARD WIDE ON HER SKIRTS. AND INDEED, MARY, I DON’T THINK I COULD HAVE FACED WALKING UP THE AISLE OF A SUNDAY WITHOUT A BLACK BONNET AND ALL COMPLETE; THOUGH BETWEEN OURSELVES IT MAKES ME FEEL A PROPER CROW. DON’T TELL, BUT WHEN I DRIVE OUT INTO THE BUSH I STUFF A SHADY OLD HAT IN A BASKET UNDER THE SEAT, AND AS SOON AS I GET FAR ENOUGH, I OFF WITH THE BONNET AND ON WITH THE HAT. THE WEEPERS DO DRAW THE FLIES SO. AYE, AND FLIES OF ANOTHER COLOUR TOO, MARY, IF YOU’LL BELIEVE ME. BUT THEY COME TO THE WRONG SHOP HERE; NONE OF YOUR LONG-NOSED FORTUNE-SNUFFLERS FOR ME. AND THAT REMINDS ME— WHAT DO YOU THINK HENRY’S LATEST IS? SAYS I OUGHT TO HAVE SOME ONE TO LIVE WITH ME— THAT IT ISN’T COMMY FAUT FOR AN ATTRACTIVE YOUNG WIDDER-WOMAN TO LIVE ALL ALONE! HA HA! DO YOU SEE ANY GREEN IN THIS CHILD’S EYE? I THINK I CAN BE TRUSTED, DON’T YOU, MARY, TO LOOK AFTER MYSELF. BUT I ENJOY KEEPING MOSSIEU HENRY ON THE QUAKE. WHAT HE’S AFRAID OF IS THAT ALL I GOT FROM POOR OLD PA WON’T FALL TO HIS AND AGNES’S KIDS WHEN I HOP THE TWIG. TALKING OF AGNES, I DON’T SEE MILADI ONCE IN A BLUE MOON NOWADAYS. I HEAR SHE’S “NOT AT ALL WELL.” IT’S MY PRIVATE BELIEF SOMETHING’S WRONG THERE, MARY. THEY’VE CHANGED DOCTORS THREE TIMES, TELL YOUR HUSBAND, SINCE HE LEFT. LOUISE URQUHART’S PRESENTED HER HUSBAND WITH THE ELEVENTH. HOW SHE KEEPS IT UP SO REGULAR BEATS ME. BUT THERE’S RUCTIONS IN THAT FAMILY AT PRESENT. WILLY’S BEEN UNUSUAL GAY. THIS TIME IT WAS A GOVERNESS, A REAL YOUNG SPARK THEY HAD UP TO YARANGOBILLY TO TEACH THE KIDS. SHE GOT BUNDLED OUT DOUBLE-QUICK AT THE END, AND WILLY’S LOOKED MEEK AS A SUCKING-LAMB EVER SINCE. I DROP IN TO SEE NED’S POLLY NOW AND AGAIN— YOU’VE HEARD I SUPPOSE SHE LOST HER LAST. AND A GOOD THING TOO. SHE’S GOT MORE THAN SHE CAN MANAGE AS IT IS. I HEARD FROM HER, YOUNG JERRY’S THE NEWEST CANDIDATE FOR THE HOLY ESTATE. THEY DO SAY THE BRIDE ELECT STILL PLAYS WITH DOLLS. LOR, MARY! WHAT WILL THESE INFANTS BE UP TO NEXT? ANOTHER PIECE OF NEWS IS THAT THAT OBSTINATE OLD BRUTE IN MELBOURNE HAS GONE AND PUT ALL POOR FINN’S BLESSED LITTLE NIPPERS TO BOARDING-SCHOOL. THAT DOES HIT ME HARD, MARY. BUT I GET EVEN WITH HIM IN ANOTHER WAY, MY DEAR. I’VE WON OVER THE OLD VINAIGRETTE HERE— SHE NEEDED NEW GLOBES, ETC. FOR HER SCHOOLHOUSE— AND WE HAVE A KIND OF AGREEMENT, ALL UNBEKNOWNST TO THE HONOURABLE, THAT THE KID TROTTY CAN COME HOME WITH ME OF A SATURDAY AFTERNOON INSTEAD OF SPENDING THE DAY ON THE BACKBOARD. SHE’S A NICE LITTLE KID, FULL OF LIFE, THOUGH YOUNG ENOUGH FOR HER AGE, AND I TRY TO GIVE HER A GOOD TIME. BUT WHAT SHE LIKES BEST IS TO MAKE BUTTER, SO I PIN AN APRON ON HER AND TURN HER INTO THE DAIRY WITH MARTHA, AMONG THE MILK-PANS AND CHURNS. BUT LET ME TELL YOU THIS, MY DEAR. THE HONOURABLE JOHN NEEDN’T INDULGE ANY FOOL IDEAS ABOUT ECONOMISING IN HOUSEKEEPERS WHEN HER SCHOOLING’S OVER— AS OLD PRUNES AND PRISMS TELLS ME. SOME ONE A GREAT DEAL YOUNGER AND HANDSOMER THAN HIM WILL WHIP HER OFF. SHE’S MUCH TOO PRETTY FOR THE SINGLE LIFE.

I THINK THAT’S ALL MY NEWS. WE HAD GREAT CHURCH FESTIFICATIONS LATELY AND LOOK FORWARD TO MORE WHEN THE CHANCEL’S BUILT. I SAY, THE DOCTOR HAD SOME “AUSTRALIA FELIXES,” HADN’T HE? I HEAR THEY’VE STRUCK THE REEF. BUT THIS IS A FEARFUL LONG SCRAWL, AND YET NOT HALF SO COMFORTABLE AS EVEN A QUARTER OF AN HOUR’S GOOD YARN WOULD BE. WHEN SHALL WE HAVE THAT AGAIN, MARY DARLING? I DON’T LOSE HOPES FOR SOMEDAY. AND AS YOU KNOW I’VE SWORN NEVER TO CROSS THE WATER, IT MUST MEAN THE OTHER WAY ABOUT. YES, I STILL BELIEVE I SHALL SEE YOU BACK AGAIN: AND WHEN YOU DO COME, YOU’LL FIND YOU ARE NOT FORGOTTEN BY YOUR DEVOTED OLD CRONY— TILLY.

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