The Way Home, by Henry Handel Richardson

Part II

Chapter I

The good ship FLORABELLA, eighty-four days out from Liverpool, made the Australian coast early one spring morning; and therewith the faint, new, spicy smell of land wafted across the water.

Coming up from below to catch a whiff of it, her passengers blinked dazzled eyes at the gaudy brilliancy of light and colouring. Here were no frail tints and misty trimmings; everything stood out hard, clear, emphatic. The water was a crude sapphire; the surf that frothed on the reefs white as milk. As for the sky, Mahony declared it made him think of a Reckitt’s bluebag; while a single strip of pearly cloud to the east looked fixed, immovable — solid as those clouds on which, in old paintings, cherubs perch or lean.

Outside the “Rip” the vessel hove to, to take up the pilot; and every neck was craned to watch his arrival; for with him would come letters and news — the first to reach the travellers since their departure from England. Hungrily was the unsealing of the mail-bag awaited.

Mary’s lap would hardly hold the envelopes that bore her name. They were carried to her by the grizzled old Captain himself, who dealt them out, one by one, cracking a joke to each. Mary laughed; but at the same time felt a touch of embarrassment. For her to receive so large a share of the good things — under the very noses, too, of those unfortunates who got none — seemed not in the best of taste. So, the tale told, she retired with her budget to the cabin; and Mahony, having seen her below, went back to read his own correspondence on deck.

But she had done no more than finish John’s note of welcome and break the seal of Tilly’s, when a foot came bounding through the saloon, off which the cabin opened, and there was Richard again — Richard with rumpled hair, eyes alight, red of face, looking for all the world like a rowdy schoolboy. Seizing her by the hands he pulled her to her feet, and would have twirled her round. But Mary, her letters strewing the floor, protested — stood firm.

“What IS the matter?”

“Mary! Wife! Here’s news for us! . . . here’s news. A letter from —— “ and he flourished a sheet of paper at her. “I give you three guesses, love. But nonsense! — you couldn’t . . . not if you guessed till Doomsday. No more pinching and scraping for us, Mary! No more underpaid drudgery for me! My fortune’s made. I am a rich man . . . at last!”

“Richard dear! What is it now?”

Mary spoke in the lightly damping tone which Mahony was wont to grumble she reserved for him alone. But to-day it passed unnoticed.

“Here you are, madam — read for yourself!” and he pushed a crumpled letter into her hand. “It’s those AUSTRALIA FELIXES we have to thank for it. What a glorious piece of luck, Mary, that I should have stuck to them and gone on paying their wretched calls, when every one else let them lapse in despair. John will be green with envy. And this is only the beginning, my dear. There’s no telling what they’ll do when they get the new plant in — old Simmonds says so himself, and he’s not given to superlatives as you know. — Yes, it’s good-bye to poverty!”— and forgetting in his excitement where he was, Mahony flung round to pace the floor. Baulked by the narrow wall of the cabin, he had just to turn to the right-about. “It means I can now pick and choose, Mary — put up my plate in Collins Street East — hold my head as high as the best.”

“Oh, dear, how glad I am! . . . for your sake.” The tears sprang to Mary’s eyes; she had openly to wipe them away. “But it’s so sudden. I can hardly believe it. Are you sure it’s REALLY true?” And now she stroked the page smooth, to read for herself.

“You for my sake . . . I for yours! What haven’t you had to put up with, my poor love, through being tied to a rolling old stone like me? But now, I promise you, everything will be different. There’s nothing you shall not have, my Mary — nothing will be too good for you. You shall ride in your own carriage — keep half a dozen servants. And when once you are free of worries and troubles you’ll grow fat and rosy again, and all these little lines on your forehead will disappear.”

“And perhaps you won’t dislike the colony so much . . . and the people . . . if you can feel independent of them,” said Mary hopefully. Could he have promised her from this day forth a tranquil and contented mind, it would have been the best gift of any.

When he had danced out — danced was the word that occurred to her to describe the new spring in his step, which seemed intolerant of the floor — had gone to consult the steward about the purchase of a special brand of champagne, which that worthy was understood to hold in store for an occasion such as this: when Mary sat down to collect her wits, she indulged in a private reflection which neither then nor later did she share with Richard. It ran: “Oh, how thankful I am we didn’t get the letter till we were safely away from that . . . from England. Or he might have taken it into his head to stop there.”

Mahony felt the need of being alone, and sought out a quiet spot to windward where he was likely to be undisturbed. But news of the turn of his fortunes had run like wildfire through the ship, started by the steward, to whom in the first flush he had garrulously communicated it. And now came one after another of his fellow-passengers to wring his hand and wish him joy. It was well meant; he could not but answer in kind. But then they, too, had changed. From mere nondescripts and undesirables they were metamorphosed into kindly, hearty folk, generous enough, it seemed, to feel almost as elated at a fellow-mortal’s good luck as if it were their own. His hedge of spines went down: he turned frank, affable, easy of approach; though any remaining standoffishness was like to have been forgiven him, who at a stroke had become one of the wealthiest men on board.

He could see these simple souls thought he took his windfall very coolly. Well! . . . in a way he did. Just for the moment he had been carried off his feet — as indeed who could fail to be, when by a single lucky chance, one spin of fate’s wheel, all that had become his which half a lifetime’s toil had failed to give him? Yet ingrained in him was so lively a relish, so poignant a need for money and the ease of mind money would bring, that the stilling of the want had something almost natural about it — resembled the payment of an overdue debt. Yes, affluence would fit him like a second skin. The beggardom of early days, the push and scramble for an income of later life — these had been the travesty.

Next came a sense of relief — relief unspeakable. Alone by now in his windy corner, he could afford to let his eyes grow moist; and the finger he passed round inside his collar trembled. From what a nightmare of black care, a horde of petty anxieties, did the miracle of this day not set him free! To take but a single instance: the prospect of having to explain away his undignified return to the colony had cost him many a night’s sleep. Now he was the master of circumstance, not its playball. And into the delights of this sensation he plunged as into a magic water; laved in it, swam, went under; and emerged a new man. The crust of indifference, the insidious tiredness, the ennui that comes of knowing the end of a thing before you have well begun it, and knowing it not worth while: all such marks of advancing age fell away. Youthfully he squared his shoulders; he was ready to live again, and with zest. And under the influence of this revival there stirred in him, for the first time, a more gracious feeling for the land towards which he was heading. What he had undergone there in his day, none but himself knew; but, if his sufferings had been great, great, too, was the atonement now made him. Indeed the bigness of the reward had in it something of the country’s own immensity — its far-flung horizons.

“And perhaps, after all . . . who knows, who knows! . . . I myself . . . the worm that was in me . . . that ceaseless hankering for — why, happiness, of course . . . the goal of man’s every venture . . . the belief in one’s RIGHT to it . . . the fixed idea that it must be waiting for one somewhere . . . remains but to go in search of it. So, it is not conceivable . . . thus made wiser . . . all fear for the future stilled, too — HOW fear lames and deadens! — independent, now . . . beholden to nobody”— such were some of the loose tags of thought that drifted through his brain.

Till one or other touched a secret spring, and straightway he was launched again on those dreams and schemes with which he believed his last unhappy experience had for ever put him out of conceit. Oh, the house he would build! . . . the grounds he would lay out . . . the books he would buy . . . and buy . . . till he had a substantial library of his own. All the rare and pretty things that should be Mary’s. The gifts they would make her dear old mother. The competency that should rescue his own people from their obscure indigence. The deserving strugglers to whom he would lend a hand. Even individuals he disliked or was fretted by — Zara, Ned, Ned’s encumbrances — sipped from his overflow. Indeed he actually caught himself thinking of people — poor devils, mostly — who had done him a bad turn, and of how he could now requite them.

Over these imaginings the hours flew by — hours not divided off each from the next, but fusing to form one single golden day: of a kind that does not come twice in a lifetime. Meanwhile the vessel was well advanced up the great Bay, and familiar landmarks began to rise into view. He had sometimes wondered, on the voyage out, what his feelings would be, when he saw these familiar places again and knew that the pincer of the “Heads” had snapped behind him. Now, he contemplated them with a vacant eye; did not take up the thread of a personal relationship. Or once only: at sight of a bare old clump of hills behind Geelong. Then he impulsively went below to fetch Mary — Mary was packing the cabin furniture, sewing up mattresses in the floor-carpeting, the mirror in the blankets — and she, good-naturedly rising from her knees, for to-day she had not the heart to refuse him anything, tied on her bonnet and accompanied him on deck. There, standing arm-in-arm, they thought and spoke of a certain unforgettable evening, now years deep in the past.

“What greenhorns we were then, love, to be sure! So mercifully ignorant of all the ups and downs in store for us.”— But his tone was light, even merry; for to-day the ups had it.

“Yet you seemed to me very old and wise, Richard. I suppose it came of you wearing that horrid beard.”

“And what a little sprite you were! — so shy and elusive. There was no catching you . . . or getting a word in edgeways — thanks to that poor old chattering Mother B and her two bumpkins.”

“Whom you couldn’t tell apart . . . how that did make me laugh!” said Mary To add with a sigh: “Poor Jinny! Little did we think she would have to go so much sooner than the rest.”

“My dear, a good half of that party is dust by now.”

But no melancholy tinged the reflection. In his present mood, Mahony accepted life, and the doom life implied, with cheerfullest composure.

* * * * *

Hardly a letter received by Mary that morning but had besought them to regard the writer’s house as their own: they had only to make their choice. “Yes, and give umbrage to all the rest. Nonsense, Mary! We’ll just slip off quietly to a hotel. We don’t need to consider the expense now, and shall be much freer and more comfortable than if we tied ourselves down to stay with people.”

But Mahony’s plan miscarried.

What a home-coming that was! No sooner had the ship cast anchor than rowing-boats began to push off from the pier; while one that had been lying on its oars made for them with all speed. Mary, standing hatted and shawled for landing, looked, looked again, rubbed her eyes and exclaimed: “Why, I do declare if it isn’t Tilly! Oh, RICHARD, what a difference the weeds make!” And sure enough a few minutes later Tilly’s head came bobbing up over the side, and the two women lay in each other’s arms half laughing, half crying, drawing back, first one, then the other, the better to fix her friend. Certainly Tilly had never shown to more advantage. In old days her hats had been flagrant, her silks over-sumptuous, her jewellery too loud. Now, the neat widow’s bonnet with its white frill and black hangings formed a becoming frame for her yellow-brown hair, tanned skin and strong white teeth; the chains, lockets and brooches of twenty-two-carat Ballarat gold had given way to decorous jet; the soft black stuff of the dress moulded and threw up every good point in the rich, full-bosomed figure. Silently Mary noted and rejoiced. But Tilly, one glance snatched, blurted out: “Well, I must say England ‘asn’t done much for you, my dear! In all my days, Mary, never did I see you look so peaked and pasty. Seasickness? Not it! It’s that HORRIBLE climate you’ve ‘ad to put up with. I declare your very letters — with their rain, rain, and fog, fog — used to gimme the blue devils. Well! you’ve come back ’ere to the finest climate in the world. We’ll ‘ave you up to the mark again in a brace o’ shakes.”

Further she did not get, for here now was John arriving — a somewhat greyer and leaner John than they had left, but advancing upon one, thought Mahony, with the same old air of: I am here; all is well. Having cordially embraced his sister, John wrung his brother-in — law’s hand: “It would be false to pretend surprise, my dear Mahony, at your decision to return to us.” On his heels came none other than Jerry and his wife: a fair, fragile slip of a girl this — Australian-born and showing it, in a skin pale as a white flower. Mary put her arms round the child — she was scarcely more — and kissed her warmly; while in one breath the little wife, who was all a-flutter and a-tremble, confided to her how very, very much afraid she had felt of this meeting, knowing Mary to be dear “Harry’s” favourite sister; and how she hoped dear Mary, please, wouldn’t mind her calling him Harry, but she had once had a dog named Jerry, a white dog with a black patch over one eye; and it seemed so droll, didn’t it? to call your husband by the same name as a dog, especially such a funny-looking dog; although if dear Mary wished it very, very much . . . all this gabbled off like a lesson got by heart. Mary promptly reassured her: it was her good right to call her husband by whatever name she chose, so long as he did not mind; and that — with a loving glance at Jerry — she would guarantee he didn’t. Then she turned to her brother. The same steady old sober-sides; but now grown quite the man: broad of shoulder, richly whiskered, and, as could be seen at a glance, the most devoted of husbands. Did his young wife speak to some one, he tried to overhear what she was saying; watched the effect of her words on the other; smiled in advance at her little jokes, to incite the listener to smile, too — for all the world after the fashion of a fond mother playing off her child. And when, sprite-like, the girl ran to the other side of the ship, he took the opportunity before following her to squeeze his sister’s hand and murmur: “WHAT do you say to my little Fanny, Mary? Isn’t she perfect?”

“Dear, dear Jerry! If she’s only half as good as she’s pretty . . . and I can see she is,” said Mary returning the squeeze.

Meanwhile quite a crowd had collected on the wharf, to which the party was rowed in a boat so laden that, at moments, the ladies instinctively held their breaths to lighten the load, and the little bride shrank into the crook of her husband’s arm. Here stood Zara fluttering a morsel of cambric: she had feared an attack of MAL DE MER, she whispered, did she embark on so choppy a sea. (“We could hardly, I think, love, expect Zara to consider us worth the half-guinea the boatmen were charging!” was Mahony’s postprandial comment.) Here were Agnes Ocock and Amelia Grindle with sundry of their children, and the old Devines, and Trotty, advanced to a hair-net, and John’s three youngest in charge of their schoolmistress; besides many a lesser friend and acquaintance who had made light of the journey to the port. Hand after hand was thrust forth with: “I trust I see you in prime health, ma’am?” “Dear, dearest Mary! HOW we have missed you!” or: “Thought you’d never hold it out over there, sir.” “Delighted, doctor, I’m sure, to welcome you back to our little potato-patch!” And those who could not get near enough for more, along with a sprinkling of curious strangers, enjoyed just forming the fringe of the crowd. It was a pleasant break in the monotony of colonial life to catch a glimpse of arrivals from overseas; to note the latest fashion in hair and dress; to hear news and pick up gossip.

Mary had just stooped to the youngest of the children, marvelling at its growth, when her ear caught an oddly familiar sound, an uneven, thumping footfall, and turning quickly, whom in all the world should she see but Purdy, out of breath and red in the face, but otherwise looking just the same as of old, or at least “not very different”— a phrase with which Mary had already covered a marked change in more than one present: John’s singular spareness of rib, Zara’s greying front, Agnes’s florid cheeks, the wizened-apple aspect of Amelia Grindle. In Purdy’s case it cloaked a shining-through of the cranium, did he bare his head; more than a hint of coming stoutness; a cheap and flashy style of dress. First, though, she shot a lightning glance at Richard: how would he take this sudden apparition? The look reassured her: he was to-day uplifted above all ordinary prejudice. There was just an instant’s hesitation, and then he himself stepped forward, both hands outheld, one to grasp Purdy’s right, the other to clap on his shoulder; while his: “Dickybird, my boy! How are you? . . how are you?” came simultaneously with Purdy’s: “Dick, old man, I heard your tub was in. I thought I’d just trot along and give you a pawshake.”— And thus the old bond was cemented anew.

Thought Mary: was there any end to the good things with which this day was full?

Drawn to the group, Purdy came in for his share of the welcome. For he had not been back to Ballarat since his abrupt departure some years previously; and his former friends and acquaintances hailed him with the lively interest and curiosity peculiar to people who see but few fresh faces, and never forget an old one.

He shook hands all round. When it came to Tilly: “I need hardly introduce you two, I think!” said Mary slyly.

Tilly burst into a roar. “I should say not, indeed! Why, my dear, I can remember ’im when ‘e was only SO ‘igh,”— and she measured a foot from the ground.

Purdy capped her fiction. “Is that all? Why, you lisped your first prayer at my knee.”

But the children grew peevish; it was time to make a move. At the first breathing of the word hotel, however, such a chorus of dissent broke out that Mahony’s plan had there and then to be let drop. Not a guest-chamber, it seemed, but had been swept and dressed for them — John’s excepted, John still leading a bachelor life at the Melbourne Club. Even Jerry and his bride had made ready their tiny weatherboard; and here Jerry put his lips to Mary’s ear to say how inconsolable little Fanny would be if they went elsewhere: she had sat stitching till past midnight at wonderful bows for bed and window-hangings — a performance which, in the young husband’s eyes, far outweighed the fact of their living miles out, at Heidelberg, to which place a coach ran but at ten of a morning; so that the present night would have to be spent in Melbourne, under the bride’s father’s roof. Had Mary been free to please herself, she would have waived all other considerations rather than disappoint the youthful pair. But Richard! She could hear his amused and sarcastic ha-ha, at the idea of “camping out” with utter strangers for the pleasure of next morning being “carted off” to Heidelberg. Meanwhile, on her other side Fanny was whispering: just fancy, Harry hadn’t been able to tell her what dear Mary’s complexion was, whether blonde or brunette. She had chosen pink for her bows, because pink suited most people, and she had clapped her hands on finding she was right; but she thought she would have sunk through the floor, had she hit on blue. And when Mary laughingly declared that blue was one of her favourite colours, and that even in yellow or green the trimmings would have been equally appreciated, little Fanny bit her lip and looked as if she were going to cry. — All this in a rapid aside.

The Devines won the day — after a heated discussion in which everybody spoke at once. These good people had actually a carriage-and-pair in waiting, that the travellers might be spared the brief railway journey from port to town; as well as a spring-cart for the baggage. There was no standing out against Mrs. Devine’s persuasions, seconded as they were by the M.L.C. himself, who from a modest place in the background threw in, whenever he got the chance: “My ’ouse is entirely at your disposal, sir. We beg you and your good lady will do us the honour.”

“Indeed and I’ll NOT TAKE NO!” declared his wife; and, under a pair of nodding, hearse-like plumes, her fat, rosy face beamed on those about her, after the manner of a big red sun. “’Tis a great hempty barn, that’s what it is, and I’ve looked to this day to fill it. Why, dearie, so’s not to ‘ear quite so much of me own footsteps, I’ve been and taken in one o’ Jake’s sister’s ‘usband’s sister’s children.”

Thus the Mahonys found themselves rolling townwards in the Devines’ well-hung landau, on their knees a picnic-basket containing port wine and sandwiches with which to refresh and sustain the inner man.

Mahony fell silent as the wheels revolved; a smile played round his lips. He was laughing at himself for having imagined that it would be necessary to explain away his reappearance in these people’s midst. One and all had followed John’s lead in finding his return to Australia — Australia FACILE PRINCEPS! — the most natural thing in the world.

At South Yarra they became the occupants of the largest guest-chamber in a brand-new mansion, which counted every comfort and luxury the upholsterers had known how to cram into it, and now only needed really to be lived in. Its stiff formality reminded Mary, the homemaker, of the specimen rooms set out in a great furniture warehouse; rooms in which no living creature has yet left a trace. Her fingers itched to break up the prim rows of chairs ranged against the walls; lightly to disarrange albums; to leave on antimacassars the impress of a head.

Mrs. Devine having finally satisfied herself that they had everything they had everything they required —; down to a plump and well-studded pincushion on which the pins wrote “Welcome!”— for: “I’ve no faith in them giddy girls, dearie,”— husband and wife were at last alone together.

“Whew!” breathed Mahony, and sinking into an armchair he fanned himself with his handkerchief. “Well! I sincerely hope you’re satisfied, Mary. Royalty itself could not ask for a warmer welcome than you have had, my dear.” But he smiled again as he spoke; and the usual edge to his words was wanting.

“You, too,” said Mary, who was fighting the lock of a carpetbag. Then she laughed. “As if royalty ever got hugged, and kissed, and slapped on the back! But indeed, Richard, I shall never, never forget the kindness that’s been shown us. And what a lovely house this is! I mean, could be made.”

“My dear, you shall have as good — and better. Rather much oilcloth here for my taste. The grounds, too, struck me as stiffish, what I saw of them.” Rising to take another look through a raised slat of the venetian, he turned and beckoned his wife. “What do you say to this, Mary?” Peeping over his shoulder she saw their host, in comfortable corduroys, without his coat, his shirt-sleeves rolled up above his elbows, trundling a loaded wheelbarrow. Said Mahony: “Seems to have turned into a very decent sort of fellow indeed, does our good Cincinnatus.”

“Who? . . . Mr. Devine? Yes, hasn’t he? I thought it most tactful of him to be quiet in the carriage, when he saw you didn’t want to talk.”

Below, on a dinner-table built to accommodate a score, a veritable banquet had been spread. They sat down to it at six o’clock, a large family party. For on the wharf Mrs. Devine, as winner, had scattered her invitations broadcast, even insisting on Tilly exchanging her hotel for the second-best spare room. Zara was there, together with Jerry and his wife, and John, and Trotty, who hung on one of Aunt Mary’s arms as did pretty Fanny on the other; and the health of the home-comers and the happy change in Mahony’s fortunes were drunk to in bumpers of champagne. By every one but the master of the house; before whose plate stood a jug of barley-water. In the intervals of signalling to the servants where to put the dishes, and whose glass or plate stood empty, Mrs. Devine, purply moist with gratification and excitement, drew Mahony’s attention to this jug with a nudge and a wink.

“Your doin’, doctor . . . all thanks to you. Jake took the pledge that time you know of, and never ‘as ‘e broke it since, no matter where ‘e is or in ‘oos company.” She actually laid her pudgy hand on Mahony’s and gave it a warm squeeze.

“Very creditable . . . very creditable indeed,” murmured Mahony, stiff with embarrassment lest his host should overhear what was being said.

But Mrs. Devine had already telegraphed to her husband down the length of the table; and the good man smiled and nodded, and sipped his barley-water in Mahony’s direction.

The ladies withdrawing and Jerry sidling out soon after, the three men pulled their chairs closer; and now colonial affairs took the place of family gossip and perfunctory inquiries about “home.” As fellow-members of the Legislative Council, John and Devine had become fast friends. It was also in the wind, it seemed, that Devine might be called on to form a ministry. Puzzled by the many changes, the new men and new names that had come up during his absence, Mahony acted chiefly the listener; but the interested listener, for it was gratifying to find himself once more at the fountain-head. His companions’ talk, ranging over a great variety of topics, harked back yet and again to the great natural catastrophe in the face of which legislation was powerless — the unprecedented drought which, already in its fourth year, was ruining the squatters, compelling them to part with thousands on thousands of dying sheep, for the price of the skins alone.

In listening Mahony eyed the two men up and down. His bearded host looked sound as a bell. But it was otherwise with John —“He’s a shocking bad colour,”— and knowing his brother-in-law to be of temperate habits, he resolved to have a word with him in private.

It grew late: for over an hour John’s horses had pawed the gravel of the drive. Finally Mahony excused himself on grounds of fatigue and ran upstairs. But he might have saved his haste. For Mary had taken her hairbrush and gone to Tilly’s room. There, a fresh log having been thrown on the whitewashed hearth, the two women sat and talked far into the night.

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