The End of a Childhood, by Henry Handel Richardson


In after years, Tilly would volunteer in self-defence: “Upon my soul, I never MEANT to blurt it out like that. I was going to prepare ’em . . . break it gently, and so on. But when I saw those two chits standing there clutching that bit of rag — well, I don’t know, but if you ask me, I think it was this what got me. Anyhow, there it was: I started to cry, and it just jumped out. But I’ve often thought since, it was probably best so after all. They had to know. And the sooner the better. Besides, it’s not my way to go beating about the bush. — Never shall I forget though, how that child BLUSHED!”

For, as the hard, cruel words came flying at him, like so many stones, all the blood in his body seemed to rush to Cuffy’s face and stop there, scorching and burning. He forgot everything else — Luce, the flag, Mamma not coming — he’d only one thought: to get away from Aunt Tilly, somewhere where she . . . where nobody could look at him any more. And so he turned and ran, ran for his life, to the top of the garden, in behind the big cactuses, holding his fingers to his ears so that he shouldn’t hear if she went on talking, or if they shouted for him to come back. And sat there, his ears stopped up, his eyes shut, his face like as if somebody had smacked it hard all over.

Later on, when time brought wisdom, he saw that what had driven the blood to his head, his heels to flight, was shame: the shame that was always to overcome him in face of another’s shamelessness. But as a small boy, he just went on sitting there, conscious of nothing but his hot and angry cheeks. Nor, till he made sure nobody was being sent to fetch him, did his fingers relax their hold.

Nobody came: and gradually his face cooled off, his heart stopped thumping. Then he was able to think; and his thinking was: it can’t, it CAN’T be true! . . . somebody must be telling it wrong, or not know properly. Mamma would NEVER go away and die, and leave them like this. That was something that simply couldn’t happen. — And with the feeling that to hear more about it might somehow make things different he got up and went down the path

This was quiet as quiet, not a sound anywhere: and for a second the wild hope raced through him that the coach had come back, while his ears were stopped, and taken Aunt Tilly away again. (Oh, if only . . . if ONLY!) First the drawing-room . . . nobody there. In the dining-room there couldn’t be anybody either, it was so still: but he just went round the door to see — and oh, goodness gracious! behind it, on the sofa, sitting close together, were Aunt Tilly and Bowey: and what they looked like, he would never, never forget. They weren’t making not the very littlest sound, which was why he hadn’t known: they were too DEEP in crying for that, their faces all wrinkles, their eyes shut and gone in, their mouths stretched right across their cheeks, their heads nodding and nodding like china mandarins. — Once more he turned and fled

Back in the garden he stood about, not knowing what to do or where to go; and, in standing, picked the little new leaves and buds off the Japanese honeysuckle. Everything looked just like it always did and yet was somehow quite different. He felt as if he’d never really seen things before: the summer house, the gum-trees, the swing, the wood-stack, Bowey’s empty kerosene-tins. They all looked like strangers, the garden, too — oh, but what was he doing? The tree he was pulling the leaves off now was not the honeysuckle at all, but the elderberry, which he simply LOATHED, and never touched if he could help it, it had such a horrid smell. — This garden they were so fond of, where he and Luce had played and played.

Luce! Where was she? What had become of her? Rushing indoors again he looked everywhere, going into every room (only not the dining-room.) And at last, from a teeny-weeny noise, he found her: squeezed as far as she could go, right up by the wall, under Mamma’s bed. Alone, forgotten, she had crawled in there and hidden herself, safe from every one but Mamma. She wasn’t crying any more, but her face was fat with it, and she wouldn’t come out, he couldn’t make her. So he went in beside her, and said: “It’s all right, Luce, it’s all right, I’m here, I’ll take care of you.” And they just went on lying there together. Till all of a sudden, feeling how hard the bare boards were (which was all Mamma would ever allow under a bed) he remembered how he’d dreaded the thumping noise a wooden leg would make on the floors. And that was too much for him. Turning his head away, and hiding his face in his sleeve, he began to sob and cry, like a small little child. And went on for what seemed like hours, till he couldn’t cry any longer.

Blowing her nose — so loud that anybody out in the street could hear it — Aunt Tilly sent Bowey to find them and bring them to be told “all about it.” (The whites of her eyes were red and blotchy, her face shone like an onion.)

“Well now, you poor children, I suppose you’ll be wanting to know just what happened. Well, my dears, it was exactly as I said all along. This darned fool of a doctor here never found out the real trouble, which was a piece chipped off the bone, which caused all the mischief. And when we got to Melbourne it was too late, the doctors couldn’t save the leg; and when they went to cut it off, your poor Ma was too far gone to stand it, and just pegged out. After she went away from here she was light-headed most of the time, and didn’t know what she was talking about; but I knew how she worried about what was to become of you two if she had to go; and I gave her my solemn promise I’d look after you. And so I will . . . for her sake. For she was the best friend I ever ‘ave had, and the oldest, too. We’d known each other since she wasn’t much bigger than you — long before she ever met your Pa, that was. She used to live with me and my poor sister — Polly we called ‘er then; little nimble busy Polly.”

Hastily Cuffy averted his eyes: for, the way her face began to twitch, he thought she was going to cry again. (Besides, they knew all about when Mamma was Polly. She’d told it them heaps of times.)

However, Aunt Tilly just sniffed hard up her nose, and swallowed in her throat, and dabbed her eyes with a handkerchief, and went on: “Well, you’re not really big enough yet to understand all what that means; but anyhow, my dears, I saw to it that she got a nice grave — one out in the main avenue, easy to get at, not tucked away in a corner. And it’ll have a stone on it, too, with her name and age and a text, all proper and right, as soon as the earth sinks. And if you’re good and do as you’re bid, you shall go to Melbourne one day and see it, too. — But now I must get started to work. There’s so much to think about and see to that I don’t feel I know whether I’m standing on my head or my heels.”

Hand-in-hand Cuffy and Lucie went back to the garden, and sat down on the wood of the wood-stack. There they stayed: they didn’t know what to do with themselves, and the day seemed to have lasted years already. Very soon the rattle of the sewing machine came out to them; and this went on and on; for the first thing Aunt Tilly did was to sew mourning for them, out of some old black dresses of Mamma’s (the kind of stuff you didn’t ever make BOYS’ clothes of!) But SHE didn’t know that, or how to sew them, and the things she made were simply awful: Mamma would NEVER have let them go out such sights. Luce’s dress pinched her under the arms, and one leg of his knicker-bockers hung down longer than the other. But when he showed her it, she didn’t take any notice, and said a little thing like that didn’t matter. (NEVER would he be able to go to school in them!)

But it hurt even worse to see her opening Mamma’s cupboard and fetching out Mamma’s clothes and turning them over and cutting them up, just as if they belonged to her. In vain he protested: “When Papa died we only had bands on our sleeves. Mamma wouldn’t let us wear black.”

At these words, and at the tone they were said in, Aunt Tilly gave him a very queer look, and left off sewing Luce a petticoat.

“Now look here, my boy, just you listen to me. I’m not going to stand any nonsense. You’re older now by a year than you were when your poor Pa died, and I’ll see to it that you do what’s right by your Ma. She was the best woman that ever walked this earth, or ever will; she hadn’t her like — as you children ‘ll know some day to your cost. And when you do, you’d be scandalised to think you hadn’t paid proper respect to her memory. So now not another word! Black you’ll have, and black you’ll wear!”

The stuff scratched like ants walking over you. At night, when Aunt Tilly was asleep, Bowey sewed tape round inside the necks to keep it off you. (Bowey knew what funny skins you had.)

Next, Aunt Tilly went all through the house with her spectacles on, and a pencil and paper, examining the furniture.

“What’s she doing that for?”

“You’d better ask her yourself, my poor lamb,” said Bowey; and how she said it showed SHE didn’t like Aunt Tilly much either. — They were always “poor lambs” to Bowey now; she never scolded, and cried so that he didn’t often go near her, for fear he’d have to cry again, too. (Aunt Tilly didn’t know he ever had. And shouldn’t.)

Once more he plucked up his courage. “Why are you doing that?”— Even to his own ears his voice didn’t sound very polite.

“Why do you suppose?” said Aunt Tilly crossly; she was getting up all red and hot from looking under the sofa at its legs. “For my own amusement?”

“I don’t know,” said Cuffy simply and truthfully.

At this she whisked off her spectacles and made a face as if she was going to bite him. But then changed her mind, and said, just irritated-like: “Sakes alive, Cuffy! you’re not a baby any more, to be asking such silly questions. Why, you’ll soon be a man; and have got to learn and behave like one. Now just listen to me. It’s not a bit of good you carrying on. Your poor Ma’s gone; and all the weeping and wailing in the world won’t bring ‘er back. It’s the end of ‘er. But there’s you two children left to be seen after and provided for SOME ‘OW, and money’s what’s needed to do it with. The things ‘ave got to be sold, my dear — and for what they’ll bring. Your Ma doesn’t need them any more. She won’t miss them — where she’s gone.”

“But we can’t live without furniture!” Never had Tilly seen such wide, astonished eyes. — Oh, was there ever such a stupid child! You could wear your tongue out, explaining.

“Or do you mean we’re not going to live here any more?”

“Why, of COURSE not, you silly! How could you? Why, the new P.M. ‘ll be in before we can say Jack Robinson, and ‘ll need the place for his own furniture.”

“Where are we going?”— Cuffy’s mouth felt so dry it would hardly speak.

“Well, that’s just what’s not fixed yet. I’m waiting for your Uncle Jerry, to talk things over.”

But Uncle Jerry lived ever such a long way off; and it was two whole days before he got there. Awful days, that seemed as if they’d never end. He just MOONED about, kicking things with his feet, and feeling more mis’rable than he’d believed he ever could any more (after Mamma dying.) But he didn’t say a word to Luce: he was afraid of making her cry again. As it was, Aunt Tilly DESPISED Luce, thought she was an awful baby, always liking to be WITH somebody and never alone — she even tried to make her not sleep in Bowey’s bed. And when every night she found her in it just the same, she said she was a very naughty girl.

Then it was Cuffy’s turn to try and explain. Which was hard, because he didn’t have the right words.

“It’s not REALLY naughty, Aunt Tilly. Luce’s always been like that. She can’t help it.”

“Can’t help it? Never did I hear such nonsense! A great girl of eight! — Well, I know this, my boy, there’s precious little of your poor Ma in either of you. It’s your Pa you take after, both of you, more’s the pity. He was just such another. What SHE had to put up with, her life long, simply doesn’t bear telling.”

In these wretched days, funny things went on in his, Cuffy’s, mind. For one, he’d never known how much he’d hoped and BELIEVED everything could stay like it was, and they just go on living with Bowey and the furniture. He hadn’t WANTED to know different, that was it: he’d just been a stupid boy. He hadn’t known either till now how fond he was of the “things.” Even still he couldn’t imagine life without them. They’d always been there, and everywhere Mamma and they went, they’d gone too: the big green leather armchair, the leather sofa, Papa’s bookcase with the books in it, Mamma’s bed, and her brushes with the ivory backs that had turned all yellow. Oh, he simply couldn’t bear to think of anybody else using them, or sitting in them, or sleeping in them. Mightn’t Uncle Jerry, when he saw how much you liked them . . . and how MIS’RABLE it made you . . . mightn’t he perhaps say you might keep them, he’d let you?

But this fond hope was quickly routed. To begin with, Uncle Jerry was in a dreadful hurry. Aunt Fanny was ill, which was why he hadn’t gone to Melbourne to Mamma’s funeral; and now he’d only got a very few days’ leave, which mostly went in travelling. He told this directly he got there; so you couldn’t expect him to sit down and listen to YOU. After he’d kissed Luce and him, and said how most awfully sorry he was about Mamma, who’d always been his favourite sister, and who he’d never forget, he went into the dining-room with Aunt Tilly and shut the door, to talk business.

But no sooner they’d started to talk than they began to quarrel. Well, not exactly quarrel; but to talk VERY loud, and with a tremendous lot of arguing. He could hear them from the garden, going on and on, till at last he couldn’t stand it any longer, and went close up by the window (where the elderberry tree grew) to try and hear. And it was Mamma they were talking about, all Mamma’s business; and without ever asking him or Luce a thing. (Oh, WHY did he have to be so young? Why wasn’t he allowed to talk, too?)

Making himself small, he crushed up under the window-sill; and then he could hear every word. Aunt Tilly was only a poor woman (why, he’d thought she was EVER so rich!) and had a husband on her hands who’d never be good for anything again; but she was quite ready to do her share — though SOME might think she’d done it already, what with the illness, and the doctors’ fees, and the funeral, and paying for a first-class grave. Still; as she said. But fair was fair and right was right, and after all, in HER case, there wasn’t any blood-tie, nor any real claim on her: what she’d done she’d done solely out of friendship. — But Uncle Jerry, he was poor, too; he’d only got his salary from the Bank to live on, and that was no prince’s, but a damnably tight fit, with a wife to keep, and three children to educate; and though he wouldn’t go so far as to call Fanny extravagant, yet they needed every penny he had to get along; and if he now took on two fresh burdens, why, it simply couldn’t be done. Besides, there was Fanny to be considered, and it would come damnably hard on Fanny; for it would mean she had to deny herself every luxury — all those little comforts he was just beginning to be able to allow her.

But here the eavesdropper’s courage, smitten to the core, failed him altogether. And not caring whether they heard him or not, how loudly his boots scratched the flag-stones, he scrambled to his feet and ran away. Behind the cactuses, which was the most secret place he knew, he flung himself face downwards on the ground. His heart was full to bursting. Nobody . . . NOBODY wanted them, him or Luce, any more.

Thus it happened that, when the thunderbolt fell, he was as unprepared for it as Luce herself.

(“I leave it to you, Jerry, to tell ’em what we’ve fixed. I’ve had my fill of it. It’s been nothing but trying to din into them what’s GOT to be, ever since I’m here.”)

Uncle Jerry came out into the garden and called him, and talked a lot to him. Again about how sorry he was about Mamma, and how he’d never stop missing her, even though he hadn’t seen much of her lately, through living so far away. But a sister was a sister. And then, how she hadn’t left any money behind to keep them, and what a lot this was going to cost, and how times were so hard and money so scarce that he’d barely got enough to pay for Aunt Fanny and his own children. The extra expense would be a sad drain — though of course he’d do it, for Mamma’s sake. And ever so much more which wasn’t easy to understand.

Not till Uncle Jerry’d been talking for a long time did it get plain what he really meant. Which was that he and Luce were not to stay together ANY more. One of them was going to live with Aunt Tilly, and one with Aunt Fanny.

The blow was so unexpected, so crushing, that, even if he’d been able to THINK of anything to say, he couldn’t have said it. His throat sort of shut up. He just stood and stared at Uncle Jerry without really seeing him.

But the next minute things began buzzing round in his head like angry bees. Here were two more he’d never thought of. One was that, even though they weren’t able to stop with Bowey, they would not both be going to live with Aunt Tilly. Or not allowed to be together. (And of all the dreadful things that had happened, this last was the worst.) Hurriedly he tried to think some thoughts about Aunt Fanny. But he couldn’t . . . because he didn’t know her; he’d never even seen her! He only knew Mamma didn’t like her VERY much; Mamma always said Aunt Fanny was jealous of her for being Uncle Jerry’s favourite sister. And how she’d always been so expensive and extravagant, wanting the best of everything for herself and the children, and poor Uncle Jerry having to slave and slave, and never able to put by anything for a rainy day. But that was all, and he didn’t like it; and he simply couldn’t imagine . . . And suddenly, compared with this stranger, Aunt Tilly, in spite of her rude, rough way of talking, became something to hold on to, cling fast to — a very anchor of refuge — because she’d known Mamma so well, and all about Papa.

None the less, he just couldn’t bring it over his lips to beg: “Have us both, oh, have us both!” For Aunt Tilly didn’t want both of them; and it was such a new and dreadful feeling not to be wanted.

Instead, as the next best thing, he managed to say: “Oh, Aunt Tilly, please, PLEASE, let Luce stop with you! I’ll go to Aunt Fanny.”— His voice amazed him by coming out quite low and bass, as he said it.

And Aunt Tilly wasn’t at all unkind. She looked at him a minute, and then said: “Now, Cuffy, now, my dear, you MUST be reas’nable. You’re not old enough yet to understand, even if I told you all about it. But your uncle and me have gone into the whole thing and talked it out, and this is the only way to fix it.”

“But why?” (Some day he would have a real bass voice altogether.)

“Well, for one thing, because your Aunt Fanny’s only got little GIRLS, and won’t be bothered looking after a boy.”

“But why not? I’m . . . I’m all RIGHT,” he gave back desperately. “I wouldn’t be a scrap of trouble — I can wash and dress myself, and Luce can’t . . . not always. And I don’t mind playing with little girls — truly I don’t; I’ve always played with Luce.” And as Aunt Tilly still only went on shaking her head, he cast about, once more, for words to describe Luce’s funninesses. “You see, she doesn’t KNOW Aunt Fanny and these children. And she’s so dreadfully shy, and when she is, she gets so silly and frightened. — And . . . and then . . . I said I’d look after her.”

“Yes, I know you did. But in this world, my boy, it’s not always possible to stick to one’s promises. You’ll find that out as you go on. Things happen of ‘emselves and put a stopper on it. — Anyhow, there it is. Your Aunt Fanny’s mind’s made up, and nothing I can say will change it.”

And as Cuffy still stood fixing her, she added: “It’s no good looking at me like that. I’ve done all I can — with money so tight, and your Uncle a dead weight on my hands.”

“WHAT uncle?” (This was as rude as rude; for he knew quite well who she meant.)

“Why, your Uncle Purdy, of course. Lies there like a log, and ‘ll never do a stroke of work again.”

“He’s not my uncle!” But, in saying it, his voice broke, and that was the end of it.

Luce, oh, Luce! . . . his poor fat little cry-baby sister, who’d never once been away from Mamma (or him; or Bowey.) The agony of imagining what might happen to her was too much for him: he had to go and do hard, CRUEL things (to a bird, to the piano.) Never, never, he knew it now, had he been so fond of anybody as Luce. Even Mamma being dead didn’t seem to matter so much.

* * *

Uncle Jerry was starting home next morning; there was only to-day left to tell Luce and get her ready. — But when they did, it was the funniest thing: she didn’t cry at all, no, not one single drop. She just stood and gaped at them, with her mouth half open, looking more of a silly than ever. And she stopped like this — all day. Bowey said the shock had been too much for her, and she didn’t properly understand what was going on. And kept saying: “Cry, my poor lamb, cry, it’ll do you good.” Herself she cried like anything, while she was packing Luce’s things in one of Papa’s little old leather portmanteaux. But Luce didn’t seem to mind, and stood staring at her clothes as if she didn’t recognise them; till he couldn’t help it either, and went and hid, and howled and howled. But not even when he took her to the summer-house and said: “Never mind, Luce, just you wait. As soon as ever I’ve saved up enough money I’ll come and fetch you, and we’ll run away — somewhere where they’ll never find us again.” Even then she only said: “Will you, Cuffy?”— just as if she didn’t really care, and though he swore it on his “finger wet.”

Uncle Jerry had hired a buggy to drive over from the railway in, because the coach was so slow; and now he had to drive it back. Early next morning he went and fetched it; and Luce’s box, with a rope round it, because the lock wouldn’t hold, was tied on behind. Luce was just the same as yesterday, and let Bowey dress her without a word — Bowey said it was like dressing a doll, for she didn’t do a thing for herself, and held out her fingers to have her gloves put on as if she was a little baby. Then they kissed her good-bye and she was lifted up and put in. But Uncle Jerry remembered something he’d forgotten and got out again; and Luce sat up there by herself in the buggy, with a face like underdone pastry, all alone with the horse. She was most DREADFULLY afraid of horses; and it gave him a pain right through him only to look at her and think how afraid she was. Still, he went on doing it; but she never once looked at him, or turned her head, or called out good-bye . . . or anything. She just drove away.

Then his own turn came.

It was eleven o’clock — the time he used to get home from lessons. And Luce would be standing at the gate watching for him, in her dirty pinny; and Bowey’d scold because he dropped his satchel down anywhere; and Mamma be sitting in the office, wanting to hear how he’d “done.” Now, everybody was gone (Bowey, too) except him. And the rooms were quite empty: after the auction men had brought carts and taken away all the furniture. The house was the only thing left. — And suddenly it came over him with a rush that he simply couldn’t leave it like this. And though Aunt Tilly and the luggage was standing in the road, afraid of missing the coach (though it had been TOLD to fetch them!) he tore back up the garden and hurriedly felt through his pockets. What was the dearest thing he had? Why, his knife, of course; the new one with three blades Mamma had given him last birthday, which he’d been so proud of. Just for a second, it was so precious, he wavered; then, making a hole, he put it in, pressed it down as far as he could, and filled in the earth again . . . like a grave. It wouldn’t grow into anything; but it would always be there, something to remember — something to remember them by.

The coach! And Aunt Tilly shouting like mad where was he. Cleaning his hands on his seat, back he flew. — And now there was a most awful fuss till the bags and boxes were arranged, and counted, and they could climb in themselves. (Aunt Tilly was the dreadfullest old fidget he’d ever known, and kept on asking the driver if he was quite sure they’d catch the train, till he was ashamed of her.)

They were the only passengers; and as soon as they’d got through the township, she untied her bonnet-strings and put her feet up on the cushions and went to sleep. Though she groaned each time the coach gave a lurch or a bump. (In her sleep.) Very gingerly Cuffy opened the window, which she’d shut because of the dust, and stood at it, with his back to her, pretending to look out. He didn’t want her to see his face. For all of a sudden, as the last familiar landmarks went by, something funny happened to him. The dreadful, hot, ANGRY feeling he’d had in his inside ever since he’d heard Mamma was dead, and would never come back (it’d made him angry with everybody and everything, Mamma, too:) well, now, suddenly he didn’t seem to feel angry any more; and, as he realised it, the tears began to race down his cheeks, like mad, and without him being able to do a thing to stop them. And they went on running; and were so blazing hot that they burnt. He didn’t make the least little sound though. He’d rather have died than let Aunt Tilly know.

But after a time, as tears will, they ran dry; and then, very gradually, other and pleasanter thoughts insinuated themselves. The coach. He always had liked travelling in a coach — specially if there was heaps of room. And after the coach would come the train (a train-journey nobody could help enjoying!) and then another coach: it’d be far the longest journey he’d ever gone! And that wasn’t all. Aunt Tilly (oh gommy! she did look a sight when she went to sleep) had once said something about a pony . . . for him to ride to school on. Oh, perhaps, perhaps . . . even though he COULDN’T like her, he thought she was a silly, common old woman . . . oh, please, PLEASE, dear God, let there be a pony! And let me soon see Luce again, let her come and live with Aunt Tilly, too, and stop there, so as I can teach her how to ride. (As he prayed, he saw himself leading a pretty brown horse, with Luce sitting on it, and him telling her everything what she had to do. And she wasn’t a bit scared of it any more; because HE was there, and she knew he ——) Ho! but that was wattles: yes, there they came, a whole crowd of them, in full flower . . . he’d smelt them before he saw them! And shutting his eyes, the better to drink in the adored scent, he sniffed and sniffed, till the dust all but choked him, and his head went giddy.

And, from now on, his spirits continued steadily to rise, hope adding itself to hope, in fairy fashion. just as mile after mile combined to stretch the gulf, that would henceforth yawn, between what he had been, and what he was to be.

This web edition published by:

The University of Adelaide Library
University of Adelaide
South Australia 5005

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