Ultima Thule, by Henry Handel Richardson

Chapter VII

For some time after this, Cuffy fought shy of his father; and tried never, if he could help it, to be alone with him. It wasn’t only embarrassment at having been nursed and petted like a baby. The events of the drive had left a kind of fear behind them: a fear not of his father, but for him: he was afraid of having to see what Papa was feeling. If he was with him, he didn’t seem able not to. And he didn’t LIKE it. For he wanted so awf’ly much to be happy — in this house that he loved, with the verandah, and the garden, and the fowls, and the Lagoon — and when he saw Papa miserable, he couldn’t be. So he gave the end of the verandah on which the surgery opened a wide berth; avoiding the dining-room, too . . . when it wasn’t just meals. For there was no sofa in the surgery, and if Papa had a headache he sometimes went and lay down in the dining-room.

But he couldn’t ALWAYS manage it.

There was that day Mamma sent him in to fetch her scissors, and Papa was on the sofa with the blind down and his eyes shut, and his feet sticking over the end. Cuffy walked on the tips of his toes. But just when he thought he was safe, Papa was watching him. And put his hand out and said: “Come here to me, Cuffy. There’s something I wish to say to you.”

The words struck chill. With resistance in every limb, Cuffy obeyed.

“Pull up the hassock; sit down.” And there he was, alone in the dark with Papa, his heart going pit-a-pat.

Papa took his hand. And held on to it. “You’re getting a big boy now; you’ll soon be seven years old . . . when I was not much older than that, my dear, I was being thrashed because I could not turn French phrases into Latin.”

“What’s Latin?” (Oh, perhaps after all it was just going to be about when Papa was little.)

“Latin is one of the dead languages.”

“How can it . . . be dead? It isn’t a . . . a man.”

“Things perish, too, child. A language dies when it is no longer in common use; when it ceases to be a means of communication between living people.”

This was too much for Cuffy. He struggled with the idea for a moment, then gave it up, and asked: “Why did you have to? And why did your Mamma let you be thrashed?” (Lots and lots of questions. Papa always told.)

“Convention demanded it . . . convention and tradition . . . the slavish tradition of a country that has always rated the dead lion higher than the live dog. And thralls to this notion were those in whose hands at that time lay the training of the young. The torturing rather! A lifetime lies between, but I can still feel something of the misery, the hopelessness, the inability to understand what was required of you, the dread of what awaited you was your task ill done or left undone. A forlorn and frightened child . . . with no one to turn to, for help or advice. That most sensitive, most delicate of instruments — the mind of a little child! Small wonder that I vowed to myself, if ever I had children of my own . . . to let the young brain lie fallow . . . not so much as the alphabet . . . the A B C . . .” Thus, forgetful of his little hearer, Mahony rambled on. And Cuffy, listening to a lot more of such talk (nasty talk!) kept still as a broody hen, not shuffling his feet, or sniffling, or doing anything to interrupt, for fear of what might come next.

Then Papa stopped and was so quiet he thought he’d gone to sleep again. He hoped so. He’d stay there till he was QUITE sure. But through his trying too hard not to make a noise, a button squeaked, and Papa opened his eyes.

“But . . . this wasn’t what I brought you here to say.” He looked fondly at the child and stroked his rough, little-boy hand. “Listen, Cuffy. Papa hasn’t felt at all well lately, and is sometimes very troubled . . . about many things. And he wants you, my dear, to promise him that if anything should . . . I mean if I should”— he paused, seeking a euphemism —“if I should have to leave you, leave you all, then I want you to promise me that you will look after Mamma for me, take care of her in my place, and be a help to her in every way you can. Will you?”

Cuffy nodded: his throat felt much too tight to speak. Dropping his head he watched his toe draw something on the carpet. To hear Papa say things like this made him feel like he did when he had to take his clothes off.

“Your little sister too, of course, but Mamma most of all. She has had so much to bear . . . so much care and trouble. And I fear there’s more to come. Be good to her, Cuffy! — And one other thing. Whatever happens, my little son . . . and who knows what life may have in store for you . . . I want you never to forget that you are a gentleman — a gentleman first and foremost — no matter what you do or where you go, or who your companions may be. NOBLESSE OBLIGE. With that for your motto you cannot go far wrong.”

“What a lot of little hairs you’ve got on your hand, Papa!” Cuffy blurted this out, hardly knowing what he said. Nobody . . . not even Papa . . . had the right to speak such things to him. They HURT.

Free at last he ran to the garden, where he fell to playing his wildest, merriest games. And Mahony, lying listening to the childish rout, thought sadly to himself: “No use . . . too young.”

That Papa might be going away stayed Cuffy’s secret: he didn’t even tell Lucie. Or at least not till she got a secret, too. He saw at once there was something up; and it didn’t take him half a jiffy to worm it out of her. They sat on the other side of the fowl-house; but she whispered, all the same. “I fink Mamma’s going away.”

Cuffy, leaning over her with his arm round her neck, jerked upright, eyes and mouth wide open. WHAT? . . . Mamma, too? Oh, but that couldn’t be true . . . it couldn’t! He laughed out loud, and was very stout and bold in denial because of the fright it gave him. “Besides, if she did, she’d take us with her.”

But his little sister shook her head. “I heard her tell Papa yesterday, one of vese days she’d just pack her boxes an’ walk outer the house an’ leave bof him an’ the child’en. An’ then he could see how he liked it.” And the chubby face wrinkled piteously.

“Hush, Luce! they’ll hear you — don’t cry, there’s a good girl. I’ll look after YOU . . . always! An’ when I’m a big man I’ll . . . I’ll marry you. So there! Won’t that be nice?”

But Cuffy’s world tottered. Papa’s going would be bad enough . . . though . . . yes . . . HE’D take care of Mamma so well that she’d never be worried again. But that SHE should think of leaving them was not to be borne. Life without Mamma! The nearest he could get to it was when he had once had to stop alone at a big railway station to mind the luggage, while Mamma and Luce went to buy the tickets. It had taken so long, and there were so many people, and he was so sure the train would go without them . . . or else they might forget him, forget to come back . . . or get into a wrong train and he be left there . . . standing there for always. His heart had thumped and thumped . . . and he watched for them till his eyes got so big they almost fell out . . . and the porters were running and shouting . . . and the doors banging . . . oh dear, oh dear!

He knew what the row had been about — a picture Cousin Emmy had painted quite by herself, and sent as a present to Mamma. Mamma thought it was a lovely picture, and so did he: all sea and rocks, with little men in red caps sitting on them. But Papa said it was a horrible dorb, and he wouldn’t have it in HIS house. And Mamma said that was only because it was made by a relation of hers, and if it had been one of his, he would have liked it; and it was an oil painting, and oil paintings were ever so hard to do; and when she thought of the time it must have taken Emmy, and the work she had put into it . . . besides, she’d always believed he was fond of the girl. And Papa said, Good God, so he was, but what had that to do with “heart”? And Mamma said, well he might talk himself hoarse, but she meant to hang the picture in the drawing-room, and Papa said he forbade it . . . and then he’d run away so as not to hear any more, but Luce didn’t, and it was then she heard.

He hated Aunt Zara. Aunt Zara said, with them quarrelling as they did, the house wasn’t fit to live in. He went hot all over when she said this. And that night he got a big pin and stuck it in her bed with the point up, so it would run into her when she lay down. And it must have; because she showed it to Mamma next day and was SIMPLY FURIOUS. And he had to say yes he’d done it, and on purpose. But he wouldn’t say he was sorry, because he wasn’t; and he stopped naughty, and never did say it at all.

For then the Bishop came to stay, and every one was nice and smiley again.

The Bishop was the same genial, courtly gentleman as of old. Tactfulness itself, too: in the three days he was with them never, by word or by look, did he show himself aware of their changed circumstances. He admired house and garden, complimented Mary on her cooking, and made much of the children. Especially Lucie. “I shall steal this little maid before I’m finished, Mrs. Mahony. Pop her in my pocket and take her home as a present to my wife!” And the chicks were on their best behaviour — they had had it well dinned into them beforehand not to comment on the Bishop’s attire. But even if it had been left to his own discretion, Cuffy would in this case have held his tongue. For, truth to tell, he thought the Bishop’s costume just a LITTLE RUDE. To wear your legs as if you were still a little boy, and then . . . to have something hanging down in front. Mamma said it was an apron and all Bishops did — even a “sufferin’” Bishop like this one. But surely . . . surely . . . if you were a grown-up gentleman . . .

Zara, too, did her share. At table, what with looking after Maria and the dishes, keeping one eye on the children, the other on the Bishop’s plate, Mary’s own attention was fully occupied. Richard sat for the most part in the silence that was now his normal state; he was, besides, so out of things that he had little left to talk about. Hence it fell to Zara, who was a fluent conversationalist and very well read, to keep the ball rolling. The Bishop and she got on splendidly (Zara had by now, of course, returned to the true fold.) Afterwards, he was loud in her praises. “A very charming woman, your sister, Mrs. Mahony . . . very charming, indeed!” And falling, manlike, under the spell of the widow’s cap, he added: “How bravely she bears up, too. So sad, so VERY sad for her losing her dear husband as she did. Still! . . . God’s ways are not our ways. His Will, not ours, be done!”

At which Mary winced. For he had used the self-same words about their own great grief, had worn the same sympathetic face, dispensed a like warm pressure of the hand. And this rankled. It was true she did not parade her loss in yards of crepe. But that any one who troubled to think could compare the two cases! A little child, cut prematurely off, and Hempel, poor old Hempel, Zara’s PIS ALLER, who had had one foot in the grave when she married him, whom she had badgered and bullied to the end. But these pious phrases evidently formed the Bishop’s stock-in-trade, which he dealt out indiscriminately to whoever suffered loss or calamity. And now her mind jumped back to the afternoon of his arrival, when after tea Richard and he had withdrawn to the surgery. “A most delightful chat,” he subsequently described the hour spent in there; though she, listening at the door, knew that Richard had hardly opened his mouth. At the time, she had thought it most kind of the Bishop so to make the best of it. Now, however . . .

And when, later on, he returned from a visit to church and parsonage, and still professed himself well content, she began to see him with other eyes. It was not so much tact and civility on his part, as a set determination not to scratch below the surface. He didn’t want to spoil his own comfort by being forced to see things as they really were.

Of course this turn of mind made him the pleasantest of guests. (Fancy, though, having to live perpetually in such a simmer of satisfaction!) And even here his wilful blindness had its drawbacks. Had he been different, the kind of man to say: “Your husband is not looking very well,” or: “Does Dr. Mahony find the climate here try him?” or otherwise have given her an opening, she might have plucked up courage to confide in him, to unburden herself of some of her worries — oh! the relief it would have been to speak freely to a person of their own class. As it was, he no doubt firmly refused to let himself become aware of the slightest change for the worse in Richard.

Well, at least her main object was achieved: if wanted, the Bishop had to be sought and found at “Doctor’s.” She also so contrived it that Richard and he were daily seen hobnobbing in public. Each morning she started them off together for the township: the short, thickset, animated figure, the tall, lean, bent one.

And now the crown was to be set on her labours by a public entertainment. First, a concert of local talent; after which his Lordship had promised to give them a short address.

But at the very last minute, if Richard didn’t threaten to undo all her work! For, if he did not take the chair at this meeting, she would have laboured in vain. Just to think of seeing that fool Thistlethwaite in his place! Or old Cameron, who as likely as not would be half-seas over.

But Richard was as obstinate as a mule. “I CAN’T, Mary,” . . . very peevishly . . . “and what’s more, I won’t! To be stuck up there for all those yokels to gape at. For God’s sake, let me alone!”

She could cheerfully have boxed his ears. But she kept her temper. “All you’ve got to do, dear, is to sit there . . . at most to say half-a-dozen words to introduce his Lordship. You, who’re such a dab hand at that sort of thing!”— Until, by alternate wheedling and bullying, she had him worn down.

But when the evening came she almost doubted her own wisdom. By then he had worked himself up into a sheerly ridiculous state of agitation: you might have thought he had to appear before the Queen. His coat was too shabby, his collar was frayed; he couldn’t tie his cravat or get his studs in — she had everything to do for him. She heard him, too, when he thought no one was listening, feverishly rehearsing the reading which the Bishop, at a hint from her, had duly persuaded him into giving. No, she very much feared Richard’s day for this kind of thing was over.

The hall at the “Sun” was packed. From a long way round, from Brown’s Plains and the Springs, farmers and vinegrowers had driven in with their families: the street in front of the hotel was blocked with buggies, with wagonettes, spring-cars, shandrydans and drays. And the first part of the evening went off capitally. There was quite a fund of musical talent in the place: the native-born sons and daughters of tradesmen and publicans had many of them clear, sweet voices, and sang with ease. It was not till the turn came of the draperess, Miss Mundy, that the trouble began — they hadn’t ventured to leave her out, for she was one of the main props of the church and head teacher in the Sunday School. But she had no more voice than a peahen; and what there was of it was not in tune. Then, though elderly and very scraggy, she had dressed herself up to the nines. She sang COMIN’ THRO’ THE RYE with what she meant to be a Scotch accent . . . said jin for gin, boody for buddy . . . and smirked and sidled like a nancified young girl. To the huge delight of the audience, who had her out again and again, shouting “Brave-o!” and “Enkor!”

And the poor silly old thing drank it all in, bowed with her hand on her heart, kissed the tips of her gloves — especially in the direction of the Bishop — then fluttered the pages with her lavender kids and prepared to repeat the song. This was too much for Richard, who was as sensitive to seeing another person made a butt of, as to being himself held up to ridicule. From his seat in the front row he hissed, so loudly that everybody sitting round could hear: “Go back, you fool, go back! Can’t you see they’re laughing at you?”

It was done out of sheer tenderheartedness, but . . . For one thing, the Bishop had entered into the fun and applauded with the rest; so it was a sort of snub for him, too. As for Miss Mundy, though she shut her music-book and retired into the wings, she glared at Richard as if she could have eaten him; while the audience, defrauded of its amusement, turned nasty, and started to boo and groan. There was an awkward pause before the next item on the programme could be got going. And when Richard’s own turn came — he was reading selections from OUT OF THE HURLY-BURLY— people weren’t very well disposed towards him. Which he needed. For he was shockingly nervous; you could see the book shaking in his hands. Then, too, the light was poor, and though he rubbed and polished at his spectacles and held the pages up this way and that, he couldn’t see properly, and kept reading the wrong words and having to correct himself, or go h’m . . . h’m . . . while he tried to decipher what came next. And through his stumbling so, the jokes didn’t carry. Nobody laughed; even though he had picked out those excruciatingly funny bits about the patent combination step-ladder and table, that performed high jinks of itself in the attic at night; and the young man who stuck to the verandah steps when he went a-courting: things that usually made people hold their sides.

If only he would just say he couldn’t see, and apologise and leave off . . . or at least cut it short. But he was too proud for that; besides, he wouldn’t think it fair, to fail in his share of the entertainment. And so he laboured on, stuttering and stumbling, and succeeding only in making a donkey of himself. Suppressed giggles were audible behind Mary: yes, people were laughing now, but not at the funny stories. Of course at the finish, the audience didn’t dare not to clap; for the Bishop led the way; but the next minute everybody broke out into a hullabaloo of laughing and talking; in face of which the Bishop’s “Most humorous! Quite a treat!” sounded very thin.

The exertion had worn Richard out: you could see the perspiration trickling down his face. The result was, having immediately to get on his feet again to introduce the Bishop, he clean forgot what he had been going to say. Nothing came. There was another most embarrassing pause, in which her own throat went hot and dry, while he stood clearing his and looking helplessly round. But, once found, his words came with a rush — too much of a rush: they tumbled over one another and got all mixed up: he contradicted himself, couldn’t find an end to his sentences, said to-morrow when he meant to-day, and VISA VERSA; which made sad nonsense. The Bishop sat and picked his nose, or rather pinched the outside edge of one nostril between thumb and middle finger, looking, as far as a man of his nature could, decidedly uncomfortable. Behind her, a rude voice muttered something about somebody having had “one too many.”

And things went from bad to worse; for Richard continued to ramble on, long after the Bishop should have been speaking. There was no one at hand to nudge him, or frown a hint. His subject had of course something to do with it. For the Bishop had elected to speak on “Our glorious country: Australia,” and that was too much for Richard. How could he sing a TE DEUM to a land he so hated? The very effort to be fair made him unnecessarily wordy, for his real feelings kept cropping up and showing through. And then, unluckily, just when one thought he had finished, the words “glorious country” seized on his imagination; and now the fat was in the fire with a vengeance. For he went on to say that any country here, wonderful though it might be, was but the land of our temporary adoption; the true “glorious country” was the one for which we were bound hereafter: “That land of which our honoured guest is one of the keepers of the keys.” Until recently this Paradise had been regarded as immeasurably distant . . . beyond earthly contact. Now the barriers were breaking down. —“If you will bear with me a little, friends, I will tell you something of my own experiences, and of the proofs — the irrefragable proofs — which I myself have received, that those dear ones who have passed from mortal sight still live, and love us, and take an interest in our doings.”— And here if he didn’t give them . . . didn’t come out in front of all these scoffing people, with that foolish, ludicrous story of the doll . . . Lallie’s doll! Mary wished the floor would open and swallow her up.

The giggling and tittering grew in volume. (“Sit down, Richard, oh, sit down!” she willed him. “CAN’T you see they’re laughing at you?”) People could really hardly be blamed for thinking he had had a glass too much; he standing there staring, with visionary eyes, at the back of the hall. But by now he had worked himself into such a state of exaltation that he saw nothing . . . not even the Bishop’s face, which was a study, his Lordship belonging to those who held spiritualism to be of the devil.

“Where’s dolly?” “Want me mammy!” “Show us a nose!” began to be heard on all sides. The audience was getting out of hand. The Bishop could bear it no longer: rising from his seat he tapped Richard sharply on the arm. Richard gave a kind of gasp, put his hand to his forehead, and breaking off in the middle of a sentence sat heavily down.

Straightway the Bishop plunged into his prepared discourse; and in less than no time had his audience breathlessly engrossed, in the splendid tale of Australia’s progress.


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