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The University of Adelaide Library
University of Adelaide
South Australia 5005
Twelve months almost to a day after her husband’s death, Mary Mahony received a letter that greatly perturbed her.
It was handed to her straight from the sorting table. Recognising the writing, she put on her spectacles and unthinkingly slit it open. But she had not read far before her colour rose, and with a covert glance at her two subordinates — the telegraph operator, who sat lazily picking his nose, had a sly and roving eye — she hastily refolded it and thrust it in her pocket.
There it remained; and all day long she was conscious of it, as of something hot or heavy. Not until evening, when the office was closed and the children lay asleep, did she draw it forth again. Then, alone in her little parlour, she pulled the kerosene-lamp to her and prepared to face the contents.
It was from her old friend Henry Ocock, and ran:
Wendouree House, Ballarat.
My dear Mrs. Mahony,
My prolonged silence has not, I trust, led you to infer me grown in any way indifferent to your welfare. Far from it, you have, if I may say so, seldom been absent from my thoughts. But I have hesitated to intrude, without due cause, on a grief that I regarded as sacred. Now, however, when it may be assumed that Time, the great Healer, has assuaged the first bitterness of your irreparable loss, I venture to take up my pen on a subject of to me vital importance.
What I am going to say may, no doubt will surprise you. But the wish, the fond hope, I am about to express, is, believe me, no new one — I have cherished it longer than I should dare to tell you. Dear friend, I cannot but think you have always been aware how much I admired, how highly esteemed you — though doubtless still appraising you below your true worth. It would be impossible to minimise the heroism you have shown in battling with a concatenation of circumstances that would have crushed a lesser spirit. In my estimation, few women are worthy to be compared with you, and of this esteem and veneration I now offer you tangible proof, by asking you if you will do me the honour to become my wife.
I will not, in this connection — and I think you will understand me — make use of such terms as love and passion. We are neither of us in our first youth, and have each had our full share of Life’s Trials. But my appreciation of your many excellent qualities of mind and heart have only increased with the years; and should you, dear friend, consider that these sentiments suffice, that you could, without trepidation, lay your fate in my hands, I assure you you should never have reason to regret it. — There are, besides, others than ourselves to think of. My children sadly need a mother’s care, yours a father’s guiding hand.
Let me entreat you not to reply too hastily. Take your own time — as long as you will — to consider my proposal.
Until then, believe me, Truly and devotedly yours, Henry Ocock.
For a moment Mary continued to sit with this letter in her hand, staring a little stupidly over the top of it. Then she dropped it, even gave it a slight push away from her. In reading, she had grown more and more uncomfortable. Till she came to the bit about the children. At that, a kind of stiffening ran through her. What? HER children? — Richard’s children? — to need the guidance of . . . of Henry Ocock? “Well, upon my world!”
But, no, you couldn’t . . . she mustn’t . . . look at it that way.
Taking off her spectacles — they were the cheap, ugly, steel-rimmed kind — she settled herself squarely in her seat, mouth and chin gripped fast in the hollow of one hand: an attitude she often fell into when unpleasant things had to be faced — bills for the mending of the children’s boots, complaints from Head Office, the contrariness of columns of figures that would NOT tally.
Yes, unpleasant was the word: her first feeling was one of utter repugnance. The thought of marrying again had never occurred to her. She wasn’t that sort. And now came Henry Ocock. . . . SIR Henry Ocock . . . for the fraction of a second her mind lingered on the prefix. But in the next minute she heard Richard’s voice saying: “Confound his impudence!” and with so much of the familiar Irish over-emphasis that she simply had to smile. Oh! she could just imagine how angry Richard would be. HIS wife. . .. Henry Ocock!
This violent personal antipathy she had never shared. She had even been given to standing up for Mr. Henry, preferring as she did to think that there was SOME good in everybody. And if Richard could now come back and see what a friend Ocock had proved, he’d have to admit she was right. Though of course if, all the time, Mr. Henry — Sir Henry — had had THIS up his sleeve. . . . But there! why go poking and prying into people’s motives? (That was Richard again — not her.) Let her stick to facts. Where would she and the children be to-day, if Ocock had not come to their aid? Why, in the gutter . . . or the Benevolent Asylum. Certainly not together; and that would have hit her harder than anything. Then again her transfer, six months ago, from that dreadful Gyrngurra, to this more civilised place, with a forty-pound rise in salary, a decent BRICK house, and a large garden for the children to play in: all this she owed to Mr. Henry’s influence. (Of course, that he had feelings just like anyone else, SHE had known since the day when she saw him . . . made him . . . cry.)
No, the truth had to be faced: Richard was gone and she couldn’t go on for ever letting herself be swayed and prejudiced by what he had thought, by his likes and dislikes. Times changed, and you changed with them. Looked at in this light, Ocock’s letter was nobody’s business but her own. For who else knew the circumstances that had led up to it? (Certainly not Richard.) And so, compressing her lips, she began by admitting — a little doggedly — that, in spite of its stiffness and pomposity, its “estimations” and “venerations” where he might have said “like” and “respect,” (“concatenation” she’d never seen or heard of before)— in spite of everything, Ocock’s letter was a generous one. Considering the — well, she wouldn’t say “the snob he was”— but considering the enormous value he set on money and connections and social prestige; remembering, too, the nobody he had been to start with, and the way he had climbed (and over WHAT obstacles!) to the top of the tree; she thought it, now, more than generous of him, to put his pride in his pocket and stoop to a poor little up-country post-mistress. (And not at all patronisingly: his wordiness, his difficulty in coming to the point, struck her as rather pathetic.) Yet to say “stoop” wasn’t being quite honest either. For every one knew who SHE was . . . or had been. Richard’s name still counted for something. And if this affair had happened a few years earlier, she would have been the one to stoop, not he.
Even as it was, the favours wouldn’t be all on Ocock’s side. Nobody was more experienced than she in running a big establishment — the scale of living at “Ultima Thule” would have made Ocock himself open his eyes — how to keep it up to the nines, yet without undue extravagance. She would even undertake to manage him, too, if necessary; after Richard, no other man would prove difficult. And it would surely be worth a great deal to Mr. Henry, for once in his life to have some one to club with him and support him. His nearest relations — his damaging old father, his dissolute brothers, poor little Agnes with her fatal weakness — one and all, in their separate ways, had been weights to drag him down. With a different family at his back, he might have ended as Prime Minister. — She would even guarantee to get on with Agnes’s children; though these were now in their teens, of an age bitterly to resent the coming of a stepmother.
Yes! had that been all. In any of these ways she could have made herself useful . . . even indispensable. (Indeed, the idea of showing what she COULD do, in this line, made a kind of insidious appeal to her.) But it wasn’t all; and it wasn’t enough. He didn’t want a housekeeper or a business companion; he wanted a wife. And it was here her courage failed her. She had been so essentially, so emphatically, a one-man woman; never had her inclination strayed; having Richard, she had everything she needed. Of course, he had caught her VERY young, very innocent. Perhaps, had she been just a little older, with more knowledge of life . . . more NOUS . . . For really, by nature . . . yes . . . well . . . . “Well, you know what I mean,” said Mary to herself, a series of half-formed images, which she would have shrunk from completing, chasing one another across her mind. And at the thought of now having to begin all over again — at HER age — with a stranger; at the thought of once more yielding her freedom, (which she had learned to value) of an invaded privacy, the intimacies of the bedroom — no! it was not to be contemplated, not for an instant: it simply could not be done.
And there was another thing. If she married, she might still have children — HIS children. And this was surely the crucial test. For the unloved man’s embraces might be borne: they concerned yourself alone. But what must that mother feel, who had to see appearing in the children she loved — and that you could help caring for the little things you carried about with you for nine long months was unthinkable — uglinesses of face and character belonging to the father? Eyes set too close together, or shifty eyes, or thin, cruel lips. Foxy ways . . . unscrupulousness — double dealing. She could imagine nothing, nothing more horrible.
But here she broke off, with an impatient click of the tongue. For this string of faults and blemishes, whose were they but Henry Ocock’s as seen by Richard? Oh, it was hopeless, quite hopeless: Richard would have her under his thumb to the end; and even more than during his lifetime, when she could at least stand up to him and fight for her own opinions. Well, one thing she had to be thankful for: in HIS children there was nothing she need fear to see develop. No ugliness of face or disposition there! — And as she now sat and thought of them, and of what they meant to her, she saw that all this arguing and disputing, this palaver about what SHE could or could not put up with, was a mere foolish beating of the air. In matters that affected the children, she simply did not count. The sole query was, would they benefit? Did they stand to gain by her re-marrying?
She felt a sudden need of being near them, of having them before her eyes. Getting up she fetched a candlestick from the kitchen, lit the candle, and went into the bedroom. But, in passing the dressing-table, she caught a glimpse of her own shadowy figure; and yielding to an impulse she crossed to the glass, holding the light above her head.
There she stood and looked at herself: not as a mother, or a wage-earner, but a woman — and a woman somebody still thought worth marrying! On the wrong side of forty now, middle-aged, and for all the world to see — since she had never a moment left in which to care for her appearance. Her hair had worn best: it was still glossy and fairly thick, nor had the straight white centre parting spread. But it had gone very grey round the temples; and these, and her forehead, were furrowed with lines; while wrinkles fine as spiders’ webs teased her lids, and ran out, fan-shaped, from the corners of her eyes. The sharp steel of the glasses, too, had cut a permanent red line on the bridge of her nose. The big dark eyes, which had once been her chief feature, might still, if freed from the disfiguring spectacles, have passed muster; but that was all. Of the lower part of the face the less said the better: the nose was pinched, the mouth thin-lipped and elderly; and all sorts of odd twists and creases were forming on her once smooth cheeks and chin.
And yet . . . and yet . . . such a store of energy still existed in her, that, give her but half a chance to recuperate, a spell, say, of nights unbroken by the rat-tat-tat of the night-mail, and the consequent shivering of her sleep to atoms: give her these, and she believed she would rise a different woman. Then, too, there would be no more knitting and screwing up of the brows, or biting of the lips, or straining of the eyes, over infinitesimal dots and dashes, or dizzy rows of figures. No more denying herself in order that the children should not go short; or pinching and scraping in order to make a pittance of a hundred-and-twenty a year stretch to twice its size. No more twelve-hour days on her feet — these hot, tired, throbbing feet — or hands rough and red with rough work. No more quailing before her subordinates — never, never again, anything to do with young men of their class! — a telegraphist who subtly, a postman who openly flouted her authority, both knowing their jobs much better than she knew hers. Oh! what it would mean to be rid of them, to retire into private life again, did not bear thinking about. Seized by a sudden fear, she turned from the glass.
In the dimity-hung double bed that stood against the wall, little Lucie, her bed-fellow, slept the drunken sleep of childhood. Bending over her, she was lying face downwards, Mary turned her on one side, then, passing a finger under the fair thick mass of curls, lifted them, for coolness’ sake, and spread them out over the pillow. It was a very hot night; and on his little stretcher-bed in an adjoining cubbyhole, Cuffy lay drenched in perspiration. Here, his mother’s first act was to take a clean little nightshirt from a drawer, sit him up, slip off the wet one and pop the dry over his head, he opening his eyes for a second, unseeingly, making a kind of growly noise in his throat, and dropping back fast asleep, before she had finished with the buttons. And, as she did this, other nights rose before her, scores of them, on which she, or Nannan — even Richard himself — had made the change. The habit dated from Cuffy’s babyhood.
It was only a trifle, but it seemed to unlock the flood-gates; and sitting down beside him, her elbows on her knees, her chin in her hands, remembering and remembering, she put the question that mothers have asked themselves since the world began: who would do these things for my children if I were not there? — But no, that sounded too like being dead. What she meant was, if I were prevented, belonged to some one else who had first claim on me, or the right to object. Some one, too, who, from what she knew of him, might easily turn jealous of her children and the love she bore them. Who might not even like them. And indeed, he and Richard having had such different natures, could she reasonably EXPECT him to like Richard’s children? The probability was, he wouldn’t; and they would be pushed into the background, kept down: as mere stepchildren made to play second fiddle to his own.
But here, her mind taking a sudden leap, she came face to face with the bug-bear that stalked her wakeful nights — the problem of Cuffy’s education. For the present, he went every morning for a couple of hours’ lessons to Mr. Burroughs, the clergyman; and it was enough: Richard had always been against forcing him. But after this? — say, a couple of years hence? Oh, when she thought of all the plans and ambitions they had nursed for their first-born . . . now blown to the four winds. Yet, even still, there was something in her, something obstinate, irrational, which refused to believe that Cuffy would be done out of public school and university. And now, as always when she reached this point, she declared to herself: “Well! . . . if the worst comes to the worst!”— and with such emphasis that her lips moved to the unspoken words. What she meant was: though I have never for myself borrowed or owed a farthing, yet . . . when it’s a case of my children. . . . And then once more she went over in thought those it would be least galling to apply to for aid. Old Lady Devine, who was for ever making them presents; Tilly, childless now herself; and — yes, as long as he had been content to remain a friend, the list had also included Henry Ocock. Now, Ocock had put himself out of court. But, even if she married him, could she expect him to share her ambitions and aspirations for a child that was not his own? Or even understand them? He was none too fond of untying his purse-strings. In all probability he would want to put Cuffy into business, or thrust him, half-grown, half-educated, into a Bank.
And there were other things, too, that he might not, would not, understand.
The children had thriven in the past half-year; even Cuffy having at last begun to fill out and grow. This was partly due to them having a garden again to play in; they had always been used to gardens. But the chief reason, no good shirking it, was that an ugly shadow had been lifted from their lives. Children were not built to stand what hers had been through. And, her first grief over, she could not but feel glad for their sakes that Richard was gone. Whether she had really done right, in taking him away from the asylum, she sometimes wondered; when she saw how they had blossomed out since his death. And yet . . . and yet . . .
That they had not got off scot-free she realised when it was too late. For it was all very well to plume herself on them being their father’s children, in good looks and nice feelings. That wasn’t the whole truth. They had inherited other, less desirable traits as well: Richard’s ultra-sensitiveness, his finickiness (what they would and would not eat, what they chose or did not choose to wear) his Irish uppishness. In other words, they were both very highly strung; and, in consequence, the strain of his illness, and the unhappy years preceding it, had told on them more severely than if they had been ordinary children. Look at Lucie. In her seven short years Lucie had seen so many changes — the death of her little twin sister, the racketing from place to place, the collapse of one home after another, and, worse still, the collapse — of the father who should have been her mainstay — that she, too, had broken down, and was now little better than a bundle of nerves. Having lost so much, the child lived in a constant fear lest her last and dearest should also be snatched away. It was Mamma here, Mamma there; and on those rare evenings when she, Mary, stepped across the road for a chat with the Bank Manager’s wife, she knew that on her return, no matter at what hour, she would find the child sitting bolt upright in bed, with frightened eyes and perspiring hands, convinced that Mamma had gone away, or was dead, and would never come back. Neither scoldings nor pettings took any effect.
Cuffy, always excitable, had shortly after his father’s death developed a convulsive twitching and blinking of face and eyes that was distressing to see. The doctor said the habit was purely nervous, and would pass as he grew older. Meanwhile, there was nothing to be done; except sometimes hold up a glass to show him how ugly or how silly he looked. But did she think of him, of either of them, going among strangers thus handicapped, to be made fun of, or found fault with — perhaps even PUNISHED— for failings they had done nothing to deserve: at the mere thought of it, all her protective tenderness was up in arms. No; Richard’s children they were, for good or for ill; and Richard’s children they should remain. No one but the father they were so like would be capable of understanding them.
And here, as if to brace her in her decision, words she had once heard, and which her memory had as it were stored up for use in this crisis, came floating into her mind. “Henry Ocock is harsh with children . . . is harsh with children.”
That did it: now she knew where she stood. Well, he shouldn’t — she wouldn’t give him the chance to be — with hers. On no one but herself should their lives and happiness depend.
Picking up the candle, she went back into the sitting-room where the letter lay, just as she had left it, open on the table. Without giving it a second glance, she took out pen and paper, and sat down to frame her reply.
Oh yes, she knew quite well what she was doing when she wrote: DEEPLY AS I APPRECIATE YOUR KINDNESS, I CANNOT MARRY YOU. Besides condemning herself to poverty, she was cutting herself adrift from the friend who had most power to make things easier for her. (Stung in his vanity, Ocock would hardly be big-minded enough to go on pulling strings on her behalf.) She was also, in a sense, taking leave of her womanhood. Many a year must elapse before either of the children could come to her aid. By then she would be old in earnest, and long past desiring. But she did not waver. Once more it had been brought home to her where her heart really lay. And then, with the ink still wet on her name, she smiled to herself — a grim, amused little smile. In all this pro-ing and con-ing, this weighing of profit and loss, she had taken no count of the children’s own inclinations: Richard’s children, blessed (or cursed) with Richard’s faculty for pronounced likes and dislikes, with his mercilessly critical eyes. Now, it was with almost a feeling of compensation that she thought to herself: I wonder what THEY would have had to say of HIM . . . as a father!
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.
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.”
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.
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University of Adelaide
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