The Way Home, by Henry Handel Richardson

Chapter VIII

But before Christmas came, Mary’s hope that things would somehow right themselves burned up anew — if hope that could be called which ran so counter to her own inclinations, and to the possible issue she now thought she descried.

With the onset of November it was the turn of “Buddlecombe Hall” to reopen. And now a wave of new life seemed to run through the sluggish little town. The Saxeby-Corbetts, returning, as it were took possession of the place; and they had this advantage over the Trehernes — a childless couple — that they counted a baker’s dozen in family all told. Their arrival was after the fashion of crowned heads. First came dragloads of servants, male and female, and of varying ages — from the silver-headed butler down to young scullery and laundry-maids — after which the windows of the great house were flung up, the chimneys belched smoke, hammerings and beatings resounded; while various elderly women in the town tied on rusty black and went off to give obsequious aid. Footmen in livery lounged about the inns; grooms rode swathed horses out to exercise. The tradespeople wellnigh lost their wits with excitement. One heard of nothing, now, on entering a shop, but “the family,” its needs and preferences.

“I’ve never seen anything to equal it!” cried Mahony exasperated. “The way these poor creatures burn to prostrate themselves.”

The list of young people would not be full till the holidays began; but donkey and pony-carts were met with containing the smaller children, their attendant governesses and nursemaids. The squire himself, a ruddy-faced man in early middle age, mounted on a fine chestnut, might be observed confabbing with the farmers; and lastly came his lady, driving herself in a low chaise: a bony-jawed, high-nosed woman, whose skin told of careless exposure to all weathers. Dressed anyhow, too, said Mary, who had once seen her in the town with an old garden-hat perched on her head, a red flannel spencer thrown over her bodice.

And now, at the sound of wheels, grocer and butcher would prick up their ears and pop from their respective doors, merely on the off chance of pulling their forelocks, and (as likely as not) receiving in return a snub from the lady of the “Hall.” For in spite of what Mahony called their “piteous desire” to please, she was never satisfied, and hurled at their heads, in vigorous language, her frank opinion of their wares.

“Now, Johnson, this will not do! That last meat you supplied to the servants hall was tough as my boot. If the next is no better, I shall come and superintend the slaughtering myself. It’s my belief, my man, you don’t know a heifer from a leather-gutted milch-cow!”

And Johnson, doubled in two with relish of her “ladyship’s” joke, could be heard right down the street vowing there should be no further ground for complaint; though a visit from her “ladyship” to his humble establishment would at any time be reckoned as an honour — and so on.

To mark his disapproval of this fawning, and for fear any hint of patronage or condescension might come his way, Mahony had all his armour on, all his spines out, when he was unexpectedly summoned to the “Hall” to attend one of the children, sick of a feverish cold. Mary saw him go, with many misgivings; but it actually seemed as if, for once, his lordly manner went down. By his own account he successfully faced the imperious dame: “Who, if you please, was for herself pronouncing on the ailment — it turns out to be chicken-pox — and had nurses and maids dancing like puppets to a string. I soon let her see that kind of thing wouldn’t do with me, Mary. And she took the hint fast enough, changed her tone, and behaved like any other decently bred woman. — I had certainly rather though,” he added, “have her for a friend than an enemy.”

Oh, if this could only be, thought Mary. It might alter everything. And it was here, with him daily at the “Hall,” where the nursery in a body succumbed to the pox, that her confidence bloomed anew. For in a way Richard even became a kind of protege of its mistress: she would keep him, after his professional visit was paid, to chat about the colonies and hear his impressions of England. Even Mary herself received a call, and though it was one of a somewhat quizzing inspection and Madam was “not at home” when she returned it, yet Richard was pleased, which was the main thing. He himself was twice bidden to dinner — a little informal dinner, at which only another man or two was present; a state of things that seemed to mark as true the report that the dame had small liking for the company of her own sex.

Yes, Richard’s fortunes seemed at last to have taken a definite turn for the better, when of a sudden the blow fell which put an end to hopes and fears alike. What was behind it Mary did not know, and never learned. But one morning at breakfast he blurted out in summary fashion that he had resolved, overnight, to shake the dust of Buddlecombe off his feet. And before she had recovered from the shock of this announcement, the house was up for sale, and she hard at work sorting and packing. Coming as it did on top of her renewed confidence, the decision hit Mary hard. It also gave a further push to her tottering faith in Richard’s judgment. Of course, it was clear something unpleasant had happened at the last dinner-party. But she could get nothing out of Richard — absolutely nothing — except that he was done “for all eternity” with place and people. In vain she reasoned, argued, pleaded . . . and even lost her temper. He remained obstinately silent, leaving her to her own conjectures — which led nowhere. Leicester? . . . well, compared with this, his bolting from Leicester had been as easy to understand as A B C— an ugly town with no practice worth speaking of, and the little there was, of the wrong kind. But here where she had thought his first irate “Till Christmas!” was gradually being overlaid; here she could only put his abrupt determination down to one of his most freakish and wayward impulses.

Mahony saw her trouble; saw, too, how rudely her trust in him was shaken. But he did not enlighten her — he would rather have cut his tongue out. For what had happened concerned Mary first of all; and though there was a chance she might have taken it less tragically than he — in real “Mary-ish” fashion — yet he felt as averse to bringing the words over his lips as to letting her see how deeply it had mortified him.

Another informal invitation to dine at the “Hall” had reached him — at least, he took it to be such, since Mary was not included. At the entrance to the great house, however — six o’clock of a frosty December evening — he ran into old Barker, a retired Anglo-Indian, just dismounting from his hired fly; and to his amazement saw that, this time, Barker had his ladies with him. Becoming involved in their entrance, he was waiting with the Colonel for wife and daughters to rejoin them, when the old valetudinarian found that he had left his jujubes in the pocket of his greatcoat. Standing thus alone, close to the half-open drawing-room door, Mahony suddenly heard his own name spoken and in the harsh, grating voice of their hostess. —“Yes, from the colonies. I can tell you I WAS put out, when I came back and found what had happened. I wrote off at once to that sheep, young Philips, and gave him a sound rating for letting himself be frightened away, after the trouble I had been to, to get him here.” At this a gentler voice murmured a query; to which the answer rang shrill and dear: “Oh, well, HE is quite presentable!”

This it was that stuck in Mahony’s throat. And on getting home shortly after midnight he did not go down the passage to the bedroom, but turned into the surgery, which faced the hall-door. No sound came from Mary; she was evidently asleep.

He did not strike a match: feeling his way to the window, he raised the blind and leaned his forehead on the glass. The sea lay still and black as ink, under a starlit sky — as starlight went here. Presently the moon, now entered on her last quarter, would come up from behind the diffs and throw a lurid light — lurid, because the light of decay — over the cold sea and sleeping town, picking out the line of silvery shingle that edged the beach, and making the odd old curved breakwater look as though it were built of marble.

He had been at white heat all the evening. Again and again amid the desultory talk, both at the dinner-table and afterwards in the drawing-room, the rasping voice had rung in his ears: “HE is quite presentable!”— while he could imagine, though he had not seen, the impudent shrug that accompanied the stressing of the pronoun. Thus wantonly did mortals glance at, sum up and dismiss one another. The jar to his pride was a rude one. For, ingrained in him, and not to be eradicated was the conviction that he was gentleman first, doctor second: slights might be aimed at his profession, but not at him in person. — And yet, in comparison, the patronising “presentable” affixed to himself left him cold. It was the sneer at Mary that stung him to the quick. That was something he would never be able either to forget or forgive. Did he contemplate this great heart, full to the brim of charity, of human kindness; this mine of generous impulse; this swift begetter of excuse and explanation for everything in others that was not as fair and honest as in himself; did he consider that, to assist in their need any of these purblind souls who sat so lightly in judgment on her, she would have stripped the clothing from her back: then he burned with a wrath too deep for words. He did not know one of them worthy to tie up her shoe-lace. And yet, such a worm for truth existed in him, so plaguy an instinct to get to the root of a matter, that even as he burned, he found himself looking Mary up and down, viewing her from every angle, and with a purely objective eye. He saw her at home, in church, in the company of others; saw her gestures, her movements, her smile; heard her laughter, the tones of her voice and her way of speaking: all these, for the first time, as things for themselves, detached from the true, sound core of her. And as he did so, he was forced to own that, in a way, these people were justified of their criticism: she WAS different. But not as they meant it. Her manner had a naturalness, her gestures a spontaneity, which formed only too happy a contrast to their ruled and measured restraint. Indeed as he studied her, it began to seem to him that into all Mary did or said there had crept something large and free — a dash of the spaciousness belonging to the country that had become her true home. She needed elbow-room. Her voice was deeper, fuller, more resonant than theirs; she fixed a straight, simple gaze on people and things; walked with a freer step, was franker in her speech, readier with her tongue; she stood up to members of the other sex as women emphatically did NOT do here, an they did not belong to the class of “Madam of the Hall.” No connection between Mary and the pursed-up mouth, the downcast, unroving, unintelligent eye, the hands primly folded at the waist, the short, sedate steps, of the professing English lady. For that, the net of her experience had been too widely cast. She had rubbed shoulders with all sorts; had been unable to afford the “lady’s” privilege of shutting an eye to evil or wrong-doing and pretending it did not exist. And if, in the process, she had come to be a shade too downright in her opinions, too blunt for the make-believe of antique conventions . . . well, he thought he might safely leave it to Him who had broken bread with publicans and sinners, to adjudge which was the worthier attitude of the two.

Thus he reasoned; but ever and again his mind veered back to the personal thrust. Mary vulgar!.. . Mary, of whom he had felt so fondly proud, having grown to middle age hearing on all sides that she had not her equal in those attributes that make a woman blessed. “Out there” he had seen her courted, made much of; none had approached her in popularity. And from this happy state he had torn her away . . . for what? For the privilege of being looked down on as not quite a lady . . . had uprooted her from the country she loved best and fitted best into, to make her a stranger on the face of the earth. So much for Mary. But did he himself feel any more at home here than she? Not a bit of it! Nor had he been a jot apter at adjusting himself. They stood out, the pair of them, like over-large figures on a miniature background. The truth was they had lost the knack of running in a groove: life, in its passage, had hammered them out into citizens of the world. So that, by now, an indelible stamp was on them. And, with this as their dower, cured for ever of an excessive insularity, they had come back to find an England that had not budged by an inch; where people’s outlook, habits, opinions were just what they had always been — inelastic, uninspired. Worse, these islanders seemed to preen themselves on their very rigidity, their narrow-mindedness, their ignorance of any life or country but their own; waving aside with an elegant flutter of the hand, everything of which they themselves had no cognisance. And into this closed circle he and Mary — especially Mary — had come blundering, trampling on prejudice, surrounded by an aura of adventure . . . and unsuccessful adventure at that! Was it indeed any wonder they found themselves outside the pale?

Well, this ended it. He could not picture himself going on living there with a nervous eye eternally cocked at Mary to see how she was comporting herself, or how what she did struck the wretched group of snobs he had been fool enough to dump her down amongst; the while he winced at idiosyncrasies he yet grudged to admit. No, the wider the distance he could put between himself and Buddlecombe the better he would be pleased. But where to go? . . . what next? Back to some sordid manufacturing town, with its black mud and slippery cobble-stones, to act as medical adviser to a handful of grooms and servant girls? Or to another village to see exclusive country-folk turn up their noses at your wife, and watch the practice in which you had invested your hard-earned hundreds melting away, filched by one whose chief merit was never having been out of England? Not if he knew it! — There now remained only London to consider — Mary would no doubt harp anew on the openings to be found there. But at the mere thought of London he shrank into himself, as he had shrunk under his first physical impression of it. What he had then suspected he now felt sure of. Great cities were not for him: he was too old to stand the strain of their wear and tear. And therewith the list of possibilities on this side of the globe was exhausted. Would he had stayed on the other! CIVIS BRITANNICUS SUM— that knowledge should have been enough for him. Instead of which, burning to prove his citizenship, he had chased back, with, in his heart, the pent-up feelings of his long, long absence. He laughed did he now recall the exultation with which he had descried the outlines of the English coast. “Out there,” he had seen this old country through the rose-red spectacles of youthful memory. Now he knew that the thrill he had experienced on again beholding it — his pleasure in its radiant greenness — was the sum total of the satisfaction he would ever get from it. No sooner ashore — and not even Mary had fathomed his passionate desire to stand well here — than he had felt himself outsider and alien. England had no welcome for her homing sons, or any need of them: their places were long since filled.

But stay! let him be frank with himself. Had he liked the motherland any better than it liked him? He had not. Indeed his feelings were a great deal more active than any want of liking. He hated it — yes! hate was not too strong a word — and had done, from the first moment of landing. His attempt at transplanting himself had been a sad and sorry failure. Returning full of honours and repute, he found that the mere fact of his having lived and practised in Australia cast a slur on his good name. Again, he had come back on what he believed to be but the threshold of middle age — and without being greatly troubled by it; for, “out there,” men of his own years had kept pace, gone along with him — and everywhere had been made to feel himself well over his prime, if not indeed — thanks to Australian pallor and wrinkles — an old man: one of those broken-down adventurers who limp home, at long last, to eke out the remainder of a wasted life.

But what next? — what in all the world next? To this question he could find no answer. Nor was he helped by staring at the sea, or the golden, lemon-shaped moon that now came up on its back from behind the dark mass of the cliffs. The purchase of a third practice was beyond him: if he went from here he went empty-handed. Possibly he might get for the house what he had given for it — though he had discovered that it was both damp and in need of repair — but this sum would not suffice to set him up anew. No, the outlook was darker than, a moment before, the night had been; no moon rose for him. And he lay long wakeful, grappling in a cold sweat with the many small practical details of the break — details which it is so easy to overlook in the taking of sweeping decisions, yet which afterwards rise up like mountains — and following the square of silver that flooded in through the uncurtained window, and slowly moved across the bed on its passage from wall to wall. With the glimmer of the material dawn, however — red behind those cliffs that had delivered up the moon, great Jupiter hanging like a globe of silver above them — there came to him, too, the dawning of a possible solution. But at the first hint of it he flung restlessly over on his side, unable to bear its weight. A bolder hand than his was needed, to sweep away the cobwebs of prejudice and nervous aversion in which he had spun himself. It took Mary to do it; and she did; though not till she had talked herself hoarse in an attempt to make him see reason, begging him to hold the field and show fight; till her head swam with listening to his monotonous: “What now? Where can I go?” Then, abruptly determined, she cut the knot by facing him and answering squarely: “Why, home again!”— words which first made Mahony wince, then snort with contempt. But he had no other suggestion to offer — or none but the fatuous one Mary had already smiled at, that, he having given up practice, they should retire to some tiny cottage, do without domestic help, see no company, and live on the slender sum that came to them from Australia. “I think we could be very happy and content, love, living so — just you and I.” If a soul can be said to laugh, then, in spite of her trouble, Mary’s soul rocked with laughter at this fresh sample of Richard’s fantasy. Oh, was there ever such an unpractical old dreamer? . . . such an inability to see things as they were. No doubt he pictured a show cottage, wreathed in roses and honeysuckle, where they would pass idyllic days. The slow death-in-life of such an existence, the reaction of his haughty pride against the social position — or want of position — that would be forced upon them, was hidden from him. Perhaps mercifully hidden . . . and Mary sighed.

But she did not falter . . . either at his first disdainful sniff, or, later on, when his eyes came stealing back to hers; came tamed, all the scorn gone out of them. “Only do not call it home,” was his unspoken request. Short of a miracle that name would never, he believed, cross his lips again. No place could now be “home” to him as long as he lived. He was once more an outcast and a wanderer; must go back in humiliation to the land that had eaten up his prime, and there make the best of the years that were left him.

As time wore on, however, and their preparations for departure advanced; as, too, the prospect of a change of scene hoisted its pirate flag again, this sense of bitterness subsided; the acute ache turned to a dull pain that was almost a relief. And worked on by this, as by the joy which, for all her anxieties, Mary could not quite conceal, the relief also imperceptibly changed its character, and grew to be a warm spot in his heart.

And one evening, when the supper dishes had been pushed aside to make room for Mary’s desk — she was methodically noting the contents of a tin trunk — Mahony in watching her and thinking how the frequent coughs and colds she had suffered from, since landing in England, had thinned her down, spoke his thought aloud. “Well, love, whatever happens, you at least will grow fat and well again, and be the healthy woman you always were.”

“Now don’t start to worry about me. I’m all right,” said Mary. “It takes time to get used to a strange climate.” She entered a few more items in her clean, pointed writing, then laid her pen down and put her chin on her hand. “The thing I like to think of, Richard, is how soon I shall be seeing them all again — Ned and Jerry and Tilly, and the dear children. I can hardly believe it. I HAVE missed them so.”

“Poor little wife! And shall I tell you what I dwell most on? ‘Pon my soul, Mary, it’s of getting my teeth into a really sweet apple again — instead of a specimen that’s red on one side only. I believe England will stick in my mind, for the rest of my days, as the land where the fruit doesn’t ripen.”

“And yet costs so much to buy.”

“And if I know you, my dear, it’s the Abernethy biscuit and thin lemon-water you won’t forget. Well, well, madam! you’ll soon be able to pamper your guests once more to your heart’s content.”

“Perhaps. But I shall at least see who it is Jerry thinks of marrying.”

“See? . . . yes. But don’t hug the belief you’ll be able to influence him in his choice.”

“I may not want to. And then there’s Johnny to try and find out about, poor boy, and to keep Zara from making a goose of herself. Oh! now that we’re going home, I feel how dreadfully cut off from them all I have been here.”

“And they’ll every one hail you joyfully, my dear, rest assured of that! . . . be literally foaming with impatience to make use of you again. I should only like to know how they’ve got on without you.” Mahony had risen from his chair and was standing on the hearthrug with his back to the fire. Having meditatively warmed his coat-tails for a moment he added: “There’s another thing, Polly, I don’t mind telling you I look forward to, and that is seeing a real sunrise and sunset again. On this side of the world . . . well, as often as not the sun seems just to slip in or out of a bank of clouds. There’s none of that sense of a coming miracle . . . that uplifting effect of space . . . or splendour of colouring. Why, I’ve still in my memory evenings when half the field of the sky was one pink flush — with a silver star twinkling through — or a stretch of unreal green deepening into yellow — or mauve . . . And the idea has come to me that it must have been from glories of this kind that the old Greek scribe drew his picture of the New Jerusalem. . . . Yes, I must say, things here — colouring, landscape, horizon — have all seemed very dull and cramped . . . like the souls of the people themselves.”

Again he fell into thought. Then warmed by these confidences, went further. “Mary, love, let me confess it: I realise what a sad fool I’ve made of myself over this whole business. My ever leaving Ballarat was a fatal mistake. If I’d only had the sense to take your advice! I was run down — at the end of my tether — from years of overwork. A twelve-month out of harness would have set me right again: a voyage to this side; fresh surroundings and associations — and no need to stint with the money either, for we should now have been going back to our old ample income. Instead of having to face another start on as good as nothing . . . eat humble pie before them all, too. For they will certainly grasp what has happened. — No, I can see it now; I was too old for such a drastic break. One’s habits stiffen with one’s joints. You’ve noticed I’ve been hurt by people here implying I’m out-of-date, old-fashioned — good enough for the colonies but not for the home-country — but, upon my word, Mary, I don’t know if there isn’t some truth in it. I stopped too long in the one place, my dear; with the result that I ought to have stopped there altogether. — Well, well! . . . there’s only this about it: fiasco though it has proved, it has not hit me as hard as it might have done, considering the exaggerated expectations I came home with. Which in itself is enough to show me age is rendering me indifferent. Actually, my dear, I believe much of the sting is taken from what has happened by the sight of your satisfaction at returning. Never should I have brought you here — never! I thought to find myself among a different set of people altogether. In memory, I confused good breeding with tact and kindliness. Whereas, now, if it comes to a choice between blue blood and inborn goodness of heart, then what I say is: give me nature’s gentlefolk all the time. There’s as little likeness between them as between this eternal clammy drizzle and some of those cloudless winter days we knew on the Flat.”

“Richard! Don’t forget how you hated the climate there. And how poorly the sun made you feel.”

“Nor do I. And in spite of the mizzle, and damp, and want of sun, I’ve thriven in this country. But one can’t live on climate alone. And when I let my mind dwell on the way I— we — have been treated here; the stodgy lack of goodwill . . . animosity even . . . the backbiting and gossip, I tell you this, love: there’s but one person I shall regret when I leave; one only of whom I shall carry away a warm remembrance; and that’s, as you know, your dear old mother. But can you guess why? Upon my word, I believe it’s because there’s something in her warm-heartedness and generosity, her overflowing hospitality, that reminds me of the people we lived among so long.”

“Well! it’s late . . . we must to bed,” he went on, after a silence which Mary did not break, there seeming really nothing left for her to say. “I’ve no plans, my dear, nor have I at present the spirit to make any. It seems best at this moment to leave the future in the laps of the gods. I know this much though: I’m cured of castle-building for ever.”

Mary nodded and acquiesced; or at least again said nothing; and she kept to this attitude in the weeks that followed, when, as was only natural, Richard’s mind, far too active and uneasy to rest, began to play round the plans he MIGHT have made, had he not forsworn the habit. These included settling somewhere by the sea; either near Melbourne or at one of the watering-places on the Bay — Dromana or Schnapper Point. Mary let him talk. She herself was persuaded that the only rational thing for him to do was to return to Ballarat. It was of no use his riding the high horse: feelings of pique and pride must yield to practical considerations. He was known from one end of Ballarat to the other; and the broken threads could there be picked up more swiftly and with greater ease than anywhere else. It would, of course, no longer be a case of Webster Street — unless the doctor to whom he had sold the practice had failed, or proved otherwise unsatisfactory. But Richard would find room somewhere; even if it had to be on the Redan, or at Sebastopol, or out at Buninyong. And though he could now never hope to occupy the position he had wilfully abandoned — oh, the unspeakable folly of man! — never hope to give up general practice for that of consultant or specialist, yet with care something might still be saved from the wreck of the past. And nursing these schemes, Mary set her lips and frowned with determination. Never again in the years to come, should he be able to say he repented not having taken her advice. This time she would set her will through, cost what it might.

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