Ultima Thule, by Henry Handel Richardson

Part I

Chapter I

When for the third time, Richard Mahony set foot in Ausralia, it was to find that the fortune with which that country but some six years back had so airily invested him no longer existed. He was a ruined man; and at the age of forty-nine, with a wife and children dependent on him, must needs start life over again.

Twice in the past he had plucked up his roots from this soil, to which neither gratitude nor affection bound him. Now, fresh from foreign travel, from a wider knowledge of the beauties of the old world, he felt doubly alien; and, with his eyes still full of greenery and lushness, he could see less beauty than ever in its dun and and landscape. — It was left to a later generation to discover this: to those who, with their mother’s milk, drank in a love of sunlight and space; of inimitable blue distances and gentian-blue skies. To them, the country’s very shortcomings were, in time, to grow dear: the scanty, ragged foliage; the unearthly stillness of the bush; the long, red roads, running inflexible as ruled lines towards a steadily receding horizon . . . and engendering in him who travelled them a lifelong impatience with hedge-bound twists and turns. To their eyes, too, quickened by emotion, it was left to descry the colours in the apparent colourlessness: the upturned earth that showed red, white, puce, gamboge; the blue in the grey of the new leafage; the geranium red of young scrub; the purple-blue depths of the shadows. To know, too, in exile, a rank nostalgia for the scent of the aromatic foliage; for the honey fragrance of the wattle; the perfume that rises hot and heavy as steam from vast paddocks of sweet, flowering lucerne — even for the sting and tang of countless miles of bush ablaze.

Of ties such as these, which end by drawing a man home, Richard Mahony knew nothing. He returned to the colony at heart the stranger he had always been.

Landing in Melbourne one cold spring day in the early seventies, he tossed his belongings into a hansom, and without pausing to reflect drove straight to his old club at the top of Collins Street. But his stay there was short. For no sooner did he learn the full extent of his losses, than he was ripe to detect a marked reserve, not to say coolness, in the manner of his former friends and acquaintances. More than one, he fancied, deliberately shunned him. Bitterly he regretted his overhasty intrusion on this, the most exclusive club in the city; to which wealth alone was the passport. (He had forgotten, over his great wanderings, how small a world he had here come back to. Within the narrow clique of Melbourne society, anything that happened to one of its members was quickly known to all; and the news of his crash had plainly preceded him.) Well! if this was a foretaste of what he had to expect — snubs and slights from men who would once have been honoured by his notice — the sooner he got out of people’s way the better. And bundling his clothes back into his trunk, he drove off again, choosing, characteristically enough, not a quiet hotel in a good neighbourhood, but a second-class boarding-house on the farther side of the Victoria Parade. Here, there was no earthly chance of meeting any one he knew. Or, for that matter, of meeting any one at all! For these outlying streets, planned originally for a traffic without compare — the seething mob of men, horses, vehicles that had once flowed, like a living river, to the goldfields — now lay as bare as they had then been thronged. By day an occasional spindly buggy might amble along their vast width, or a solitary bullock-wagon take its tortoise way; but after dark, feebly lit by ill-trimmed lamps set at enormous distances one from another, they turned into mere desolate, wind-swept spaces. On which no creature moved but himself.

It was here that he took his decisions, laid his plans. His days resembled a blurred nightmare, in which he sped from one dingy office to the next, or sat through interviews with lawyers and bankers — humiliating interviews, in the course of which his unbusiness-like conduct, his want of NOUS in money matters was mercilessly dragged to light. But in the evening he was free: and then he would pace by the hour round these deserted streets, with the collar of his greatcoat turned up to his ears, his hands clasped at his back, his head bent against the icy south winds; or, caught by a stinging hail-shower, would seek shelter under the lee of an old, half dismantled “Horse, Cow and Pig-Market,” of which the wild wind rattled and shook the loose timbers as if to carry them sky-high.

Of the large fortune he had amassed — the fortune so happily invested, so carefully husbanded — he had been able to recover a bare three thousand pounds. The unprincipled scoundrel in whose charge he had left it — on Purdy’s equally unprincipled advice — had fleeced him of all else. On this pitiful sum, and a handful of second-rate shares which might bring him in the equivalent of what he had formerly spent in the year on books, or Mary on her servants and the running of the nurseries, he had now to start life anew: to provide a home, to feed, clothe, educate his children, pay his way. One thing was clear: he must set up his plate again with all dispatch; resume the profession he had once been so heartily glad to retire from. And his first bitterness and resentment over, he was only too thankful to have this to fall back on.

The moot question was, where to make the start; and in the course of the several anxious debates he had with himself on this subject, he became ever more relieved that Mary was not with him. Her absence gave him a freer hand. For, if he knew her, she would be all in favour of his settling up-country, dead against his trying to get a footing in Melbourne. Now he was as ready as any man could be, to atone to her for the straits to which he had brought her. But — he must be allowed to meet the emergency in his own way. It might not be the wisest or the best way; but it was the only one he felt equal to.

Bury himself alive up-country, he could and would not! . . . not if she talked till all was blue. He saw her points, of course: they were like herself . . . entirely practical. There were, she would argue, for every opening in Melbourne ten to be found in the bush, where doctors were scarce, and twice and three times the money to be made there. Living-expenses would be less, nor would he need to keep up any style. Which was true enough . . . as far as it went. What, womanlike, she would overlook, or treat as of slight importance, was the fact that he had also his professional pride to consider. He with his past to condemn himself to the backwoods! Frankly, he thought he would be doing not only himself, but his children after him, an injury, did he agree to anything of the kind. No! he was too good for the bush.

But the truth had still another facet. Constrained, at his age, to buckle to again, he could only, he believed, find the necessary courage under conditions that were not too direly repellent. And since, strive as he might, he could not break down Mary’s imagined disapproval, he threw himself headlong into the attempt to get things settled — irrevocably settled — before she arrived; took to scouring the city and its environs, tramping the inner and outer suburbs, walking the soles off his boots and himself to a shadow, to find a likely place. Ruefully he turned his back on the sea at St. Kilda and Elsternwick, the pleasant spot of earth in which he once believed he had found a resting place; gave the green gardens of Toorak a wide berth — no room there for an elderly interloper! — and, stifling his distaste, explored the outer darkness of Footscray, Essendon, Moonee Ponds. But it was always the same. If he found what he thought a suitable opening, there was certain not to be a house within coo-ee fit for them to live in.

What finally decided him on the pretty little suburb of Hawthorn — after he had thoroughly prowled and nosed round, to make sure he would have the field to himself — was not alone the good country air, but the fact that, at the junction of two main streets — or what would some day be main streets, the place being still in the making — he lit on a capital building lot, for sale dirt-cheap. For a doctor no finer position could be imagined — and in fancy he ran up the house that was to stand there. Of brick, two storeys high, towering above its neighbours, it would face both ways, be visible to all comers. The purchase of the land was easily effected — truth to tell, only too easily! He rather let himself be blarneyed into it. The house formed the stumbling-block. He sped from firm to firm; none would touch the job under a couple of thousand. In vain he tried to cut down his requirements. Less than two sitting-rooms they could not possibly do with, besides a surgery and a waiting-room. Four bedrooms, a dressing-room or two, a couple of bathrooms were equally necessary; while no house of this size but had verandah and balcony to keep the sun off, and to serve as an outdoor playroom for the children.

There was nothing for it, in the long run, but to put his pride in his pocket and take the advice given him on every hand: to build, as ninety-nine out of a hundred did here, through one of the numerous Building Societies that existed to aid those short of ready money. But it was a bitter pill for a man of his former wealth to swallow. Nor did it, on closer acquaintance, prove by any means the simple affair he had been led to believe. In the beginning, a thousand was the utmost he felt justified in laying down. But when he saw all that was involved he contrived, after much anxious deliberation, to stretch the thousand to twelve hundred, taking out a mortgage at ten per cent, with regular repayment of capital.

It was at this crisis that he felt most thankful Mary was not with him. HOW she would have got on his nerves! . . . with her doubts and hesitations, her aversion to taking risks, her fears lest he should land them all in Queer Street. Women paid dearly for their inexperience: when it came to a matter of business, even the most practical could not see beyond the tips of their noses. And, humiliating though the present step might be, there was absolutely no cause for alarm. These things were done — done on every hand — his eye had been opened to that, in his recent wanderings. By men, too, less favourably placed than he. But even suppose, for supposing’s sake, that he did not succeed to the top of his expectations — get, that was, the mortgage paid off within a reasonable time — where would be the hardship in treating the interest on the loan as a rental, in place of living rent-free? (And a very moderate rent, too, for a suitable house!) But Mary would never manage to forget the debt that lay behind. And it was here the temptation beset him to hold his tongue, to say nothing to her about the means he had been forced to employ. Let her believe he had built out of the resources left to him. For peace’ sake, in the first place; to avoid the bother of explanation and recrimination. (What a drag, too, to know that somebody was eternally on the QUI VIVE to see whether or no you were able to come up to the mark!) Yet again, by keeping his own counsel, he would spare her many an hour’s anxiety — a sheerly needless anxiety. For any doubts he might have had himself, at the start, vanished like fog before a lifting breeze as he watched the house go up. Daily his conviction strengthened that he had done the right thing.

It became a matter of vital importance to him that the walls should be standing and the roof on, before Mary saw it: Mary needed the evidence of her senses: could grasp only what she had before her eyes. Then, pleasure at getting so fine a house might help to reconcile her to his scheme . . . God alone knew what the poor soul would be expecting. And so, in the belief that his presence stimulated the workpeople, he spent many an hour in the months that followed watching brick laid to brick, and the hodmen lumber to and fro; or pottering about among clay and mortar heaps: an elderly gentleman in a long surtout, carrying gloves and a cane; with greyish hair and whiskers, and a thin, pointed face.

Again, he cooled his heels there because he had nothing better to do. Once bitten, twice shy, was his motto; and he continued rigidly to give friends and relatives the go-by: time enough to pick up the threads when he could step out once more in his true colours. Besides, the relatives were Mary’s; the friends as well. The consequence was, he now fell into a solitariness beyond compare: got the habit of solitude, and neither missed nor wanted the company of his fellows.

Since, however, every man who still stands upright needs some star to go by, he kept his eyes steadfastly fixed on the coming of wife and children. This was to be his panacea for every ill. And as the six months’ separation drew to an end, he could hardly contain himself for anxiety and impatience. Everything was ready for them: he had taken a comfortably furnished house in which to instal them till their own was built; had engaged a servant, moved in himself. Feverishly he scanned the shipping-lists. Other boats made port which had left England at the same time . . . and even later . . . despite gales, and calms, and contrary winds. But it was not till the middle of December that the good ship SOBRAON, ninety odd days out, was sighted off Cape Otway; and he could take train to Queenscliffe for a surprise meeting with his dear ones, and to sail with them up the Bay.

In his hand he carried a basket of strawberries — the first to come on the market.

Standing pointing out to the children familiar landmarks on the shores of their new-old home, Mary suddenly stopped in what she was saying and rubbed her eyes.

“Why! I do declare . . . if it’s not — Look, children, LOOK, there’s your Papa! He’s waving his handkerchief to you. Wave back! Nod your heads! Throw him a kiss!”

“Papa! . . . dere’s Papa!” the twins told each other, and obediently set to wagging like a pair of china mandarins; the while with their pudgy hands they wafted kisses in the direction of an approaching boat-load of men.

“Where’s he? I don’t see!” opposed Cuffy, in a spirit to which the oneness of his sisters — still more, of sisters and mother — often provoked him. But this time he had a grievance as well. Throughout the voyage there had been ever such lots of laughing and talking and guessing, about who would reckernise Papa first: and he, as the eldest, had felt quite safe. Now Mamma, who had joined in the game and guessed with them, had spoilt everything, not played fair.

But for once his mother did not heed his pouting. She was gazing with her heart in her eyes at the Health Officer’s boat, in which, by the side of the doctor coming to board the ship, sat Richard in a set of borrowed oilskins, ducking his head to avoid the spray, and waving and shouting like an excited schoolboy. In a very few minutes now the long, slow torture of the voyage would be over, and she would know the worst.

Here he came, scrambling up the ladder, leaping to the deck.

“Richard! . . . my dear! Is it really you? But OH, how thin you’ve got!”

“Yes, here I am, safe and sound! But you, wife . . . how are you? — AND the darlings? Come to Papa, who has missed you more than he can say! — Good day, good day, Eliza! I hope I see you well! — But HOW they’ve grown, Mary! Why, I hardly know them.”

The Dumplings, pink and drooping with shyness but docile as ever, dutifully held up their bud mouths to be kissed; then, smiling adorably, wriggled back to Mamma’s side, crook’d finger to lip. But Cuffy did not smile as his father swung him aloft, and went pale instead of pink. For, at sight of the person who came jumping over, he had been seized by one of his panicky fears. The Dumplings, of course, didn’t remember Papa, they couldn’t, they were only four; but he did . . . and somehow he remembered him DIFFRUNT. Could it be a mistake? Not that it wasn’t him . . . he didn’t mean that . . . he only meant . . . well, he wasn’t sure what he did mean. But when this new-old Papa asked: “And how’s my big boy?” a fresh spasm of distrust shot through him. Didn’t he know that everybody always said “small for his age”?

But, dumped down on the deck again, he was forgotten, while over his head the quick, clipped voice went on: “Perfectly well! . . . and with nothing in the world to complain of, now I’ve got you again. I thought you’d NEVER come. Yes, I’ve been through an infernally anxious time, but that’s over now, and things aren’t as bad as they might be. You’ve no need to worry. But let’s go below where we can talk in peace.” And with his arm round her shoulders he made to draw Mary with him . . . followed by the extreme silent wonder of three pairs of eyes, whose owners were not used any more to seeing Mamma taken away like this without asking. Or anybody’s arm put round her either. When she belonged to them.

But at the head of the companion-way Mahony paused and slapped his brow.

“Ha! . . . but wait a minute . . . . Papa was forgetting. See here!” and from a side pocket of the capacious oilskins he drew forth the basket of strawberries. These had suffered in transit, were bruised and crushed.

“What, strawberries? — already?” exclaimed Mary, and eyed the berries dubiously. They were but faintly tinged.

“The very first to be had, my dear! I spied them on my way to the train. — Come, children!”

But Mary barred the way . . . stretched out a preventing hand. “Not just now, Richard. Later on, perhaps . . . when they’ve had their dinners. Give them to me, dear.”

Jocularly he eluded her, holding the basket high, out of her reach. “No, this is MY treat! — Now who remembers the old game? ‘Open your mouths and shut your eyes and see what Jacko will send you!’”

The children closed in, the twins displaying rosy throats, their eyes faithfully glued to.

But Mary peremptorily interposed. “No, no, they mustn’t! I should have them ill. The things are not half ripe.”

“What? Not let them eat them? . . after the trouble I’ve been to, to buy them and lug them here? Not to speak of what I paid for them.”

“I’m sorry, Richard, but — ssh, dear! surely you must see . . .” Mary spoke in a low, persuasive voice, at the same time frowning and making other wifely signals to him to lower his. (And thus engrossed did not feel a pull at her sleeve, or hear Cuffy’s thin pipe: “I’LL eat them, Mamma. I’d LIKE to!” Now he knew it was Papa all right.) For several of their fellow passengers were watching and listening, and there stood Richard looking supremely foolish, holding aloft a single strawberry.

But he was too put out to care who saw or heard. “Well and good then, if they’re not fit to eat — not even AFTER dinner! — there’s only one thing to be done with them. Overboard they go!” And picking up the basket he tossed it and its contents into the sea. Before the children . . . Eliza . . . everybody.

With her arm through his, Mary got him below, to the privacy and seclusion of the cabin. The same old Richard! touchy and irascible . . . wounded by any trifle. But she knew how to manage him; and, by appealing to his common sense and good feelings, soon talked him round. Besides, on this particular day he was much too happy to see them all again, long to remain in dudgeon. Still, his first mood of pleasure and elation had fizzled out and was not to be recaptured. The result was, the account he finally gave her of the state of his finances, and their future prospects, was not the rose-coloured one he had intended and prepared. What she now got to hear bore more relation to sober fact.


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