The End of a Childhood, by Henry Handel Richardson


She decided to make the journey to Melbourne. In this, she was encouraged by Mr. Burroughs, whom she went to church one Sunday specially to consult. — As a rule nowadays she was no church-goer. Her Sundays were spent in making up arrears of office-work, in overhauling the children’s clothing, in cooking and baking for the week to come. (“If God bothers his head about me at all, He’ll understand. “)— And after service Mr. Burroughs, still in cassock and surplice, his stole — he had taken it off while coming down the aisle — dangling from one hand, stood in the porch and chatted to her, nodding and smiling at his departing congregation, or taking aim with a stone at some inquisitive dog. (Really, delightful man though he was, he had very little dignity as a clergyman.)

He entirely agreed with her that the time was coming for Cuffy to leave home.

“The boy has ability — learns quickly, remembers well. What he needs, to make a man of him, is to be among boys of his own age.” And in relating the incident to his sister, he added: “Otherwise, he’ll turn into a regular oddity. He has all the makings of one in him. Mammy-fed — that’s what he is. Nothing but women round him, and only a girl to play with.”

So, at midwinter, Mary applied for and was granted “leave of absence;” and wrote announcing her arrival to some of her old friends. Just as she expected, she had heard no more of Henry Ocock. But the Devines were to be relied on; and, after Ocock, Sir Jake was the most influential person she knew. Through him she would obtain particulars of the Melbourne Grammar School, the terms, and rules of entry; and find out how the land lay with regard to a possible scholarship.

It was to Sir Jake, too, she supposed, that the hated appeal for a loan would eventually have to be made.

Next, she fell to furbishing up her clothes, turning, sponging, pressing; inking the seams of black gloves; persuading old bonnet-plumes back into curl with the aid of a silver fruit-knife; cutting out and stitching a couple of new frocks for Lucie. The child went with her, of course; there was never any question of leaving Lucie behind.

Cuffy would stop at home, with Bowey and the Relieving Officer, the latter by special request a woman, whom Bowey could put up and do for. Hence, another of Mary’s jobs before she set out was thoroughly to clean the house. For the older she grew, and the poorer, the more fanatically she clung to a spotless nicety — it was all that was left her — and no stranger on entering should ever be able to point to an “Irish curtain,” or a dusty corner; her carpets were hooked down, not nailed, and the beds could every one be washed under. And having dragged the dining-room furniture out into the middle of the floor, she was horrified at the state of the walls: bare, they showed brown and fly-stained, and bore numberless traces of greasy little fingers. She might just as well, while she was about it, give walls and ceiling a fresh coat of whitewash.

There was nothing unusual in this; she had always to be her own handyman nowadays; taking sewing machine and clocks to pieces, cleansing the parts and fiddling with them, till she got them fixed and going again. (And oddly enough, thus late in the day, she had discovered in herself an unsuspected interest in machines: they seemed to her to have more meaning in them, more SENSE, less room for vagaries, than most other things in life.) Once, to retrieve a dead mouse, she had been obliged to take the action of the piano apart. Whitewashing four walls and a ceiling was child’s play in comparison. So, tying up her head in a handkerchief, and binding an apron round her waist, she climbed with her bucket to the top of the tall wooden step-ladder. And soon the great flat brush was sucking and splashing, the thick, milky drops were flying.

At times like these the children were bidden to keep out of the way. Thus they were in the garden when the accident happened.

What caused it, she never knew. Perhaps, in trying to drive her brush into an awkward corner of the ceiling, she had leaned too far to one side; or the bucket, perched on top of the steps, might have threatened to tip over, and she have made too hasty a grab at it. However it was, she lost her balance, struggled desperately to regain it — the bare walls offered no hold — and came down with a crash, bucket and steps on top of her. The noise, and the scream that escaped her in spite of herself, reached Bowey, who was scrubbing the kitchen; and in the old woman came running, drying her hands on her apron, loud-voiced with alarm.

“Mrs. Mahony, Mrs. Mahony! Now what HAVE you done? Whatever have you done now!”

“HUSH, Bowey! — you’ll frighten the children. It’s all right, I’m not dead. Quick, help me up before they come. It’s my leg I think — oh! my leg.” And while Bowey pulled away steps and bucket, and lugged and tugged at her, Mary bit her lips, white with pain.

“Fetch me a drink of water, and then I’ll try — no, stop, I CAN straighten it, it’s not broken — thank God for that! Oh, Bowey, don’t be so silly.” For, in her relief, Bowey had flung her apron over her head and sat down to cry. “Help me to the bed. I’ll rest for a bit.”

There she remained, sick and giddy, the injured leg bound round with cold-water bandages. The children came running in, full of interest and excitement. THEY knew, from bitter experience, what it meant to hurt your legs, graze your knees bloody, and have to sit still with cloths tied round them. Now Mamma had done it; and it was rather fun to perch on the edge of the bed and talk to her while she drank her tea. Other days she never had time to talk.

Next morning, though she ached from top to toe, Mary managed to drag herself into the office, where she sat to work, her leg — by now it was discoloured, and acutely painful to the touch — stretched out before her on a stool. But in spite of all her care it grew worse instead of better; and by the end of the third day, being still unable to stand, she gave the journey to Melbourne up as lost. Here she would need to stay.

Having handed over charge to her deputy, who had now to lodge at the primitive hotel, she strove to resign herself to an inactivity that was new to her. Not that she was idle: she mended, darned, knitted, without stopping. Yet soon it began to seem to her, who had so seldom been off her feet, that all she really did was to lie there, hour after hour, day after day, listening to time tick past, waiting for an improvement that WOULD not come.

Every remedy she had ever heard of for the relief of a bruised bone, she tried: bathing, poulticing, fomenting: everything, except sending for the local doctor. She knew no good of him; and, anyhow, her belief in doctors was small; she having always been behind the scenes as it were in medicine. Or perhaps her long dependence on Richard, and Richard’s skill, had shaken her faith in anyone else. And when at length she yielded to Bowey’s entreaties and sent for Dr. Forrest, it was just as she expected. The most ordinary little up-country practitioner, he had nothing fresh to suggest; he merely confirmed her in her treatment, and bade her to go on with it. Time alone, said he, was needed for complete recovery.

While he was there, a strange thing happened. From so much thinking and worrying, her brain had grown very woolly; and, as she lay listening to him stumbling over his words, watching his fumbly hands, she had a kind of lapse of memory, in which he got all mixed up in her mind with some one else, a doctor just like him, who had sat beside her and asked her questions — oh, years and years ago, on Ballarat, when her first baby was born, and Richard had been too nervous to attend her himself. And this confusion spread and grew till the past seemed much more real than the present, and she was once again the frightened girl-wife, lying on her first sick bed. — Even after he had gone, she could not shake herself wholly free.

The children and their chatter roused her, and Bowey carrying in a tray. But at night there was nobody to call her back, and she would drift, and drift, till she was very far away. Otherwise, she had nothing to do but lie and count the throbs (in the darkness they thudded like little hammers), struggling to make herself believe they were getting easier; when all the time (and she knew it) they were growing steadily worse. Then, her courage failed her; and she, who had never been given to brooding, finding it simpler just to shoulder her burdens and plod on — she, too, now fell to questioning Providence, trying to dig out a meaning in, a reason for what had happened. “It all seems so STUPID. What’s the use of it? What good can it do anyone?” But more often she reproached herself: “Oh, WHY couldn’t I have left those walls alone! So dirty they were not.” And to these words, oddly enough, there would come an answer. Somebody or something, that was like, and yet not like herself; something that stood aloof, looking coldly on, would say: “YOU could never have done that. It isn’t in you.” To which she, her real self, gave back hotly: “I can’t bear DIRT . . . if that’s what you mean!” But as to this, the thing that was her, yet not her, refused to be drawn. The sole response, given in an icy tone, was: “No use talking now. It’s too late. As one’s made, one’s made”— which sounded like a knell. And WAS the finish; for to: “Oh, I know that, I know! But WHY was I made like it? Who’s responsible?” never a word came in reply.

Night after night she went through the same performance, to which the unbearable thought was added: “Oh, WHAT would become of THEM, if . . . if . . .” or “Shouldn’t I after all have thought twice, before . . .” Until one night she became conscious that she was talking aloud, getting audible answers. Then, panic seized her, lest she should be going out of her mind; and, having faced this new horror till day broke, she took a sudden decision, and sent a cry for help to the friend who had never yet failed her; whose great good sense would know what it was best to do.

And as fast as train and coach would carry her, Tilly came: a Tilly greatly altered since the death of her child; in many ways but a shadow of her former self; gaunt-looking and lean, where she had once been round and comfortable. But at sight of Mary’s predicament all her old energy revived. In two twos she had grasped and taken command of the situation.

More horrified than she dared to show by the appearance of the wound, which by now was dark, and very puffy, she would hear of nothing less than Melbourne, and a Melbourne doctor.

“What? Leave you here and let that ignorant brute lose your leg for you? Not me!”

Mary’s faint objections of the expense, of a “leave” that was all but up, passed unheeded. The wires were set in motion, the authorities informed, those good friends, the Devines, called on to do their share. After which, Tilly spent half one night at the sewing machine, manufacturing a loose dark garment, without fastenings, that could be slipped on over the patient’s head. Then, since a journey in a crowded coach was out of the question, she took a door off its hinges, placed a mattress on it, saw Mary laid on this improvised stretcher, and carried out to a cart with its flap down, for the long bush-drive to the nearest railway station.

A further protest of: “Oh, but I COULDN’T leave Lucie behind, Tilly — it’s quite impossible. The child has never been parted from me. She’d fret herself sick,” again received scant quarter.

“Then all I say is, LET her! Is THIS a time, I’d like to know, to pander to a spoilt child’s whims!”

And it was of no use trying to explain. All the explanations in the world would not have made Tilly understand.

Lying in the cart, Mary raised herself on her elbow for a last look at her two: they stood hand-in-hand, the long-legged, the small and fat, among the little crowd that had gathered to watch her departure. Excitement had for the moment even dried Lucie’s tears. It was not for her to set them re-flowing. So all she said, and in a matter-of-fact tone, was: “Now DO be good, chicks, and not give Bowey any trouble; she’ll have her hands full. And I shall soon be back. Till then, mind you look after Lucie, Cuffy — whatever you do, take care of her.”

Cuffy he just nodded. He thought she NEEDN’T have said that about being good, in front of everybody. Or about Luce either. For he always did — besides, she’d said it ever so often before. So he only nodded, and looked at the horse and the man who was driving it, instead of her. Anyhow, he didn’t care much to look at Mamma these days: her face was so red and hot-looking, not a bit like it ought to be. He didn’t like to see her dressed so funny either, lying out there in a cart for all these people to stare at. He wished she’d hurry up and go. — And soon she did; for Aunt Tilly was dreadfully afraid they’d miss the train — though what she said to the man was: “Now if you let your horse break into a trot I’ll brain you!” Then she climbed up and sat beside Mamma, with a bottle and a parasol; and the horse walked away with them through the township.

But all the same it was a very exciting going-away. And it was HIS door Mamma was lying on; because it was the smallest. Now, there was only a hole where the door had been. You could look through it at night to where Luce slept with Bowey. Mamma had said it was a good job he had holidays, because of Luce. But it didn’t really matter, for Luce never wanted to play now, only to stop with Bowey. As long as she could do that, she left off crying.

So he played alone. just at first Mamma’s going left a sort of hole in him (like the door.) But after that he thought he was really rather glad. For when she wasn’t there he didn’t need to think so much about her. She wasn’t NICE to think of, since she fell off the steps — not able to walk properly, and her face so red and swollen. He wanted her to look like she always had.

But even though he could manage to forget her face, he wasn’t really happy. Because of a secret he knew — one he never told anybody, not even Luce. As long as he was out in the garden it didn’t bother him much. But when he went to bed, before he was sleepy, then it was just like a lump in his chest. It was something he’d heard Aunt Tilly say to Bowey, when she didn’t know he was listening. How, if Mamma’s leg didn’t get better, she might have to have a wooden one. And that was SIMPLY DREADFUL. He’d once seen an old man with a wooden leg, strapped on where his own leg stopped — just a long thin stick, with a lump at his knee — and at the thought of Mamma having to go about as hideous as that, he could have cried. Of course, ladies had dresses which covered it up; but you couldn’t stop the noise it made on the floor, going clump, clump, clump; or the way the old man had to roll about when he walked — oh, no, no! he couldn’t BEAR to think of Mamma like that, truly he couldn’t. Why, the larrikins would shout after her in the road. And when he went to school (and she’d promised him faithfully he should) she might come and see him, and then the other boys would laugh and make fun of her behind her back, and he’d feel so ashamed he believed he’d die. Only to think about it made his sheet get twisted like a rope, and the blanket fall down to the floor. And Bowey heard him and came in and picked it up, and scolded him for not being asleep. (As if you could MAKE yourself go to sleep, if your eyes didn’t want to!)

In the daytime he played his hardest. But heaps of days went by, a whole week of them, and it began to be dreadfully dull, always playing alone. Bowey wouldn’t let him ask other children in: “I don’t know if your Ma would like it.” In despair he took to doing things he KNEW Mamma didn’t like: hanging over the garden-gate to see if somebody mightn’t go past; or swinging on it . . . till the cross-bar broke, and he had an awful time fixing it up so that Bowey shouldn’t know. After that he did another thing he wasn’t allowed to: opened the gate, and went into the street and swung on the chains that were put on posts along the footpath, to keep you from falling into the gutters (which were ever so deep) when it was dark or you were tipsy. But while he was there, some rude children came from the state school and asked if his mother knew he was out. And he felt himself go so red that he didn’t remember the proper answer, which was, yes, she’d given you sixpence to buy a monkey and were YOU for sale. Instead, he jumped up and ran back into the garden.

But then one day he had an idea — a perfectly scrumptious one, and Luce liked it too. They’d make a flag for when Mamma came home — people always had flags when anything specially nice happened. Bowey had given them their threepences for the week, Mamma’d told her to. He’d spent his; for always, as soon as he got it, he tore up to the little lolly-shop by the Chinese Camp, where you got a simply enormous lot of chocolate-pipes for threepence (because they were gone whitey); but Luce still had hers, and thought it was a LOVELY idea, and would give it. (Instead of putting it in her money-box.) So on Monday, when Bowey was busy washing and hadn’t time to see them, they ran down the street to the township, and bought a beautiful piece of turkey stuff, bright red, and ever so large; and he cut a stick for it, and they made holes in it and tied it on. so that it was a flag. Only it looked very bare, flags mostly had something painted on them; so they decided they’d WRITE something on theirs; and went indoors and picked some beads off one of Mamma’s cushions, and got a needle and cotton from Bowey’s work-box, and began to stitch “Mamma” in white beads on the red stuff. It was AWFULLY difficult; Luce was a perfect donkey, and couldn’t do anything, and his hands weren’t much good either. Most of the beads broke, when you tried to poke the needle through them; and when he went to fetch some more, all the others on the cushion began to run away and he couldn’t stop them. (He had to turn it with its face to the wall.)

It made him perspire all over to sew, it was such hard work. And the letters WOULDN’T go straight. It took ages; and he’d only just got MAM done when suddenly there was a telegram from Aunt Tilly saying they were coming back — the very next day! Then, he was far too excited to sew any more. He and Luce rushed about the garden shouting; and he made a song that went: Hurray, hurray, hurray, Mamma will be home to-day! (Which was NEARLY true.) But in the night he didn’t believe he hardly slept at all, because of that about the wooden leg, which wouldn’t go out of his head.

They started to watch for the coach long before it was time. They played at hearing it, and ran races down to the corner of the road to see. Bowey didn’t tell them they weren’t to, to-day.

And at last they DID truly hear it — the horses’ feet and the wheels rumbling — and he tore in and got the flag (they’d hidden it in the summer-house, so that Bowey shouldn’t know), and then they both stood and held it, as high as ever they could. (Only there was no wind to make it fly.)

And first they saw the red through the trees, and then the whole coach. And no wonder it was so long coming, the horses were only just LOLLOPING along; because it wasn’t the coach that carried the mails. And it came to where they were, and pulled up, and the driver twisted his reins round the brake, and climbed down and opened the door. And after he had fetched a carpet-bag, Aunt Tilly got out . . . backwards, her behind first. (By now his heart was thumping so loud he thought people would hear it, because in a minute now he’d know about the leg.) But then . . . why, what was this? Instead of Mamma getting out next, the coachman shut the door, and got back on his box, and untwisted the reins and shook them at the horses. Hi! What was he doing? Why was he taking Mamma away again? Cuffy’s eyes felt as if they were popping out of his head, and his mouth got so dry it stuck together. He just managed to make it say: “But where’s Mamma? Hasn’t she come?”— And all of a sudden, as he said this, his heart started to knock his chest so hard that what it had done before hadn’t been knocking at all.

And now Aunt Tilly turned round and was coming to them; and to Bowey, too; and first she looked most dreadfully, DREADFULLY angry, and then her face sort of shrivelled up, till she hadn’t any eyes left, and her mouth sort of went right inside her cheeks. And then she began to cry . . . cry like anything . . . and took out her handkerchief and tried to stop, and couldn’t, and was angrier still, and said, ever so fiercely: “No, she hasn’t. She couldn’t. Your Mamma will never come again. She’s dead.”

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