The End of a Childhood, by Henry Handel Richardson


Cuffy would soon be nine now; and very proud he felt of it. Not quite so proud as if it was ten: ten was like a little platform, where you stood and looked at a row of steps going down to one (what were you before that?) and up to twenty. It was twenty he thought of when he said: “When I’m a man.” Twenty was awfully old; any time after that you might die. Oh well, he knew people did go on being older. Mamma and Bowey both had grey hairs on their heads, and’d been alive so many years they didn’t like to tell, but pretended they’d forgotten. But he didn’t think he would. Specially not since he’d heard the text: who the God loves dies young. For if you loved God, as you HAD to, and God loved you back, then . . .

Another proud thing was his satchel; that he carried his school-books in. This was a present from the same old Lady Devine who’d given them their piano, so that they could go on practising. Not EXACTLY a present; she’d sent the money for it; and he’d been allowed to go by himself and buy it, at the shop down the town where they sold pens and paper. It was brown, and had two straps with buckles on them. He always let Luce fasten one, to make up for having to stop alone while he went to lessons. She came across the road with him, and stood and waved; and when he’d run along the rightaway and climbed the embankment to the top road, she was still there. And her pinny was always dirty, from falling down, and her socks hung over her shoes. Every time Mamma saw her she said: “For goodness’ sake, child, pull up your socks!” (Yet wouldn’t let her wear garters, because of spoiling the shape of her legs.) And when he came home at eleven she was dirtier still. He tore down the hill and she tore to meet him, and he kept her on the other side of him because of the dam, which Mamma was afraid she’d fall into and be drowned.

But he liked going to lessons; Mr. Burroughs was so nice. (The Reverend John Noel Burroughs his whole name was.) Mamma was in a dreadful hurry for him to get there punctually at nine; but once he was on the top road and she couldn’t see him, he didn’t run any more. For mostly Mr. Burroughs wasn’t up yet; and he’d have time to spread out his books and maps and pencils on the table, and sometimes draw a whole ship, or a horse, before he came. And then he’d just have put on his overcoat on top of his pyjamas. And he’d laugh and say: “I SHALL have to pay another visit to the ant, shan’t I?” (which meant he was a sluggard.) But he was VERY nice. He never made you feel you were only a little boy. He’d come and put his arm round you and say: “Now then, old chap, let’s see what you’ve been up to!”— in your sums or parsing. And he didn’t say: “That’s wrong . . . or three mistakes,” but only, ever so polite: “I think it would look better this way, sonny!”— Really, sometimes in church on Sunday, when you saw him come up the aisle in his black gown with the white one over, and the blue silk thing hanging down his back, and his head bent and carrying his sermon, it made you feel quite shy, to think how DIFFERENT you knew him, sitting in his pyjamas with his arm round your neck.

Another nice thing about him was that he never laughed at you — no, not even when you “made your faces.” Mostly, he’d pretend not to notice. But if they were very bad he’d say: “Let’s take a breather, shall we?”— which was because the doctor had said you were to have lots and lots of play. And then they’d leave off doing lessons, and go out in the yard and play tipcat; or Mr. Burroughs would show him how to bowl. And when he got too hot he’d take off the overcoat and just be in his pyjamas.

Another time was when he’d asked that SILLY question about the book. Mr. Burroughs read books all through lessons, mostly with brown-paper covers on, to keep you from seeing what they were called; after one day he’d caught you trying to make the name out. Mamma said they were yellow-backs, and not proper books for little boys. But once there hadn’t been a cover on, and it was such a funny name that he simply HAD to ask — Mr. Burroughs never minded you asking questions, HE said they showed an intelligent mind. So he said: “But why is it spelt like that? In the Bible it’s always ‘goeth’ when it says: ‘He who goeth down to the sea to get on board a ship:’” (which wasn’t a text at all, he just made it up, because he liked ships so much, and now they lived so far away from the sea.) And first Mr. Burroughs didn’t know what he meant. But when he did, he didn’t laugh, but just said, well, it hadn’t got anything to do with “go,” but was the name of a man — one of the wisest men that ever lived — and was called “Gertie.” (But when he told them at home, feeling rather proud about it, THEY laughed like anything and wouldn’t believe him; for Mamma said no man had ever been called “Gertie,” that was a little girl’s name. And only after he’d found out that it was a “foreigner name,” then they had to. Privately, he thought it was too funny for words, and that he’d rather not be wise than have to have it for his.)

Then there was the time Mamma told on him; which he didn’t think she ought to have done. He had to learn Latin now: Mr. Burroughs said you couldn’t begin Latin too young. So he took MENSA; and when Mr. Burroughs was surprised how quick he knew it, Mamma said it was because he’d made a tune to it, and sang it while he learned it. And Mr. Burroughs didn’t even smile, but thought it was a “brilliant idea,” and said they’d go on having it to music. So then he had to sing it when he said it, and Mr. Burroughs liked the tune so much that he went and fetched Miss Burroughs in — he didn’t have a wife, only a sister — to hear it, too. And she clapped her hands and said it was wonderful; and then they talked together, and he heard them say something about a “natural moddleation to a dommy-something”— but it couldn’t have been DOMINUS, for he had another tune for that: DOMINUS sounded so STRICT. And Miss Burroughs said soon he’d have to learn the organ and play for them in church, and Mr. Burroughs said he’d have him in the choir, and then he’d teach him a plain song.

Miss Burroughs was a lovely lady. As tall as her brother, who was VERY high, with yellow hair, and the most beautiful teeth when she smiled, and a neck like a swan. Well, people called it that; but HE thought a swan had a neck like a snake, and hers was thick and round. She was so kind, too. He never had to take any lunch with him; every morning she gave him a slice of bread and jelly to finish up with; and in all his life he thought he’d never eaten anything so delicious. — Mamma only made jam, not jelly.

Yes, going to lessons was MOST int’resting: there was always something new that you didn’t know yet. How many masts a ship could have, f’r instance, and what ships were called because of them, and how they were rigged — Mr. Burroughs, he liked ships, too. And how to draw a circle so that it was eszackly round, with arms that went out from its middle, and what THEY were called. And all about the Greeks and Romans, and what funny people they were. The Greeks wore short dresses and bare legs — like Luce — and the Romans rode on elephants when they went to war. Goodness! THAT must have been exciting. Nowadays, if you wanted to see an elephant at all, you had to go to the circus.

A funny thing happened about these Romans; he thought of it directly he began to learn them; and it had to do with their noses. And that was because every one in Yerambah said about Mr. Burroughs that he had a Roman nose. This was so awfully interesting that it did something to him inside, and wouldn’t give him any peace till he’d shown he knew (even though it sounded a little rude), and asked: “What does it mean when you say a’Roman nose?’ When the Romans are all dead and gone?”

This time Mr. Burroughs did laugh — not to offend you, though, he just sort of looked mischievous and half-shut one eye. “It refers to the shape, my boy! If you want to see a good Roman nose, look at mine. And then go home and look in the glass, and you’ll see another!” Which made him turn all hot and funny-feeling; first to think HE had one (when he was just beginning to learn about the Romans) and then because he’d got something the same as Mr. Burroughs, who everybody said was so handsome. — And home he went to the glass in Mamma’s bedroom, and swung it low and examined himself. But his nose didn’t show properly against his face, and he couldn’t look sideways because Mamma hadn’t got a hand-glass any more. And while he was there, she came into the room and found him and said: “What on EARTH are you doing, Cuffy? — staring at yourself like that! Looking to see how ugly you are?”— But he didn’t tell her, for fear she’d tell again. He kept it as a secret with Mr. Burroughs.

He didn’t tell Luce either; for hers was little and fat; and she mightn’t have liked it — or like him having something Mr. Burroughs had, when she hadn’t. She didn’t enjoy him being away so long in the morning, and watched for him ever such a time, and was dreadfully glad to see him come back. But so was he. For though lessons were jolly, the rest of the day was jollier, when they had nothing to do but play. And play they did . . . oh, how they played! Mostly just him and Luce. They knew some other children in Yerambah, and sometimes went to parties; but their best games were alone, by their two selves. Luce was quite happy as long as every now and then she could go and look at Mamma; and she always played what he liked: it was him who said what the game should be. Mamma thought they were “the queerest children,” because they never wanted variety, but went on with one till they were finished with it. When it was cool it had been hopscotch, and they’d played till Luce’s legs almost broke in two, and their boot-soles had holes in them. In hot weather it was “knuckle-bones,” which they collected themselves, going down to the butcher to beg them. Then they sat all day long on the back verandah, at an old table Mamma made them out of a packing-case and some lids, and tossed the little bones up in the air, catching and scooping and driving them home, as pigs to market or horses to stall — till their own finger-bones were sore.

There was a swing in this garden; and it wasn’t like the swings other children had, but was hung between two tall telegraph-posts, so that you could go ever so high. And the most lovely thing about it was that it was DANGEROUS; for the seat was loose, not fastened on, but just with two notches in it to fit the rope. HE wasn’t a bit afraid of it coming off, and stood to swing, working himself up so far that he almost turned over, and Luce got frightened and fetched Mamma, and Mamma came and called out: “Stop it, Cuffy! Stop it at once!” Luce, she sat to swing, and felt seasick when she went the least little bit high. He’d never been seasick, not in his whole life, Mamma said so; but had always walked about a ship asking for his dinner.

Oh, yes, there were exciting things to do from the moment you waked, about six, and jumped out of the hot, crumply bed straight into the bath; which you could fill as full as you liked here, for there was plenty of water, even though it was red. And for breakfast, if you wanted to, you could take your bread and butter in your hand and eat it running round the garden, with peaches or figs or nectarines to it (when they were ripe); for there was lots and lots of fruit, and you were allowed it all — except almonds, which was because Mamma said Lallie had once died of eating them. There was a ‘normous long hose to water the garden with; and sometimes, when it was very hot, they would play it was a rainy day, and put on something very old, and umbrellas, and turn the hose over each other, to make them cool. Mamma didn’t like this very much; she was afraid people would look through the fence and see you and call you “those queer children” again, and whatever were you doing? Besides, it made the verandah in such a mess.

But mostly Mamma was VERY nice now, and never cross — or hardly ever: only if the Inspector was coming; or when she was bothered about her “statement”; or if you broke a plate; or climbed up on the roof and walked about on it, making a noise on the iron like thunder. Then she thought you might fall off and kill yourself.

And in the evening, when it was dark well, then he had a sort of secret with Mamma; one even Luce didn’t know (like his nose with Mr. Burroughs.) It was when Bowey was giving Luce her bath to go to bed. After the office was shut and the sun had gone down, Mamma used to bring the rocking-chair out on the front verandah, where she never went and they weren’t allowed to go in the daytime, because the office-window, where you asked for letters and stamps, opened off it. But at night it was quite private. And then, though he never, never did when it was light, he was much too big — well, then somehow, when nobody was looking, he’d find himself sitting on Mamma’s knee; even though his legs were so long now that they hung over it right down to the ground.

And there they’d sit, just Mamma and him, nobody else knowing about it; and it was most awfully comfortable, when you were tired, quite the most comfy place, with a kind of shelf for your head, and Mamma’s arms keeping you from falling off, and her chin against your hair. You just sat there and didn’t talk, not at all . . . you wouldn’t have liked to; it was too close for talking. Besides, there was nothing to say.

Really what you did was just to lie and stare at things. Sometimes the moon was up and sometimes it wasn’t. But you could always see the dam and the top road and the hill. This was the hill the sun went down behind every night; and when there were thunder-storms they came up behind it. Then, half the sky would still be all blue — or starry — and half one ‘normous black cloud that rushed along as if it had wings, and made Luce very afraid. Once, one of the little houses on top of the hill had been struck by lightning, and the fire-bell had rung after everybody had gone to bed, making such a terrific noise that everybody got up again; and the house had first been nothing but flames that stretched miles up into the sky, and then was burnt down. They went to see it next morning and it was just a black smoky mass, with nothing left: Mamma said that was the worst of wooden houses, they burnt like match boxes. But SHE believed the people in it had set fire to it themselves, to get money.

The time the comet came, too, it was over this hill. They were allowed to get up to see it. Bowey wakened them when it was ready, and put their ulsters on and brought them out; and they sat on the edge of the verandah and looked . . . so long that Luce nearly went to sleep again. But he didn’t; he stared and stared at it — tail and all — to make sure he’d never forget. But he wouldn’t forget the rest of the stars either; the whole sky was chock-full of them. That was because there was no moon, and because it was right in the middle of the night. (When the moon was round and big, like a bladder hanging up at the butcher’s, you couldn’t see the stars, it put them out.)

Sure as sure, though, just as he was lying thinking all this, thinking, too, what they’d play at to-morrow, and what he’d ask Mr. Burroughs at lessons, and how pretty Miss Burroughs was; then, Bowey would call out from the back verandah, where the bathroom was: “Your bath’s ready, Cuffy!”

But he didn’t move; and Mamma, she mostly made a kind of sigh and said: “Oh dear! there she goes again. I really must call her over the coals.”

And he, just to stay sitting: “But why should SHE say’Master Cuffy’ . . . if she doesn’t want to? Other children’s servants don’t.”

But Mamma knew why he did it, and only said: “Don’t ask silly questions. Off you go now! Or the water will be cold.” And she tipped down her lap till he had to stand on his feet.

But still he hung back. “Why does Bowey always have to give me my bath? Why can’t I do it myself? . . . why can’t I? I’m nearly nine now, and I learn Latin, and . . . and you could look at my ears after!”

Mamma laughed. “There would be a great deal more of you than your ears I’d have to look at. But you know quite well Bowey wouldn’t like it. She’s bath’d you both ever since she came. And it wouldn’t do to offend her.”

“Why not? We pay her money.”

“There are some things all the money in the world wouldn’t buy. And what Bowey did for me was one of them.”

Cuffy knew quite well what Mamma meant. But not for anything would he have shown it. Papa and his illness were fast getting to seem like a dream, a nasty dream — being chased by a black horse, or trying to run with your legs in water-that you put far away from you, and did your best never, never to remember.

Back he whisked to his original theme.

“Well, can I when I’m TRULY nine? Mamma! Say yes!”— and he pumped her arm up and down.

“Oh well, perhaps. We’ll see — now, DO you want Bowey to have to come and fetch you?”

Grudgingly Cuffy dragged his feet to the door. There, however, he stood to finger and break a morsel from the edge of a damaged brick; went back to the verandah’s edge to flip it into the roadway; then took aim with an imaginary ball down the length of the verandah (oh, WHY did children, no matter how tired, so hate to go to bed?) and only at a second, impatient shout from the bathroom disappeared into the house.

He left his mother deep in thought. What he said was true: very soon he would be a big boy, “little Cuffy” no more: the day of long legs and lankiness was at hand.

And together with an inevitable regret, at seeing the child she had fondled change and pass, came the baffling problem of his future. What should she do? How give him the education to which, as Richard’s son, he had a right? Opposed, too, no doubt, by relatives and friends, who would think her ambitions for him exaggerated, absurd, and only likely to unfit him for his after life. Yes, she would have to fight for him. — And as she sat there, looking out into the shadowy silence of the bush street, where a line of tall gum-trees stood, but never a street-lamp, and where no vehicle moved after dark, Mary’s face wore the dogged look with which she fronted and overcame obstacles; tempered by a touch of the selfless ecstasy which her children — or the thought of her children — alone had power to wake in her, who stood with her feet so firmly planted on this earth.

Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:59