Ultima Thule, by Henry Handel Richardson

Part III

Chapter I

“Papa, papa — the flag! The flag’s just THIS minnit gone up.”

“The flag! Papa’s this minnit gone up.”

The children came rushing in with the news, Lucie in her zeal to echo Cuffy bringing out her words the wrong way round. But HOW funny! Papa was fast asleep in his chair, and at first when he waked up couldn’t tell where he was. He called out quite loud: “Where am I? Where the dickens am I?” and looked as if he didn’t know them. But as soon as he did, he ran to the window. “Quite right! Splendid! So it is. — Now who saw it first?”

“Lucie,” said Cuffy stoutly; for he had seen first ALL the times; Luce never would, not if she was old as old. And so Lucie received the hotly coveted penny, her little face, with the fatly hanging cheeks that made almost a square of it, pink with pleasure. But also with embarrassment. Would God be VERY angry with Cuffy for tellin’ what wasn’t true? (She thought God must look just like Papa when he was cross.)

Papa scuttled about. Shouting.

“Mary! Where are you? The flag’s gone up. Quick! My greatcoat. My scarf.”

“Yes, yes, I’m coming. — But . . . why . . . you haven’t even got your boots on! Whatever have you been doing since breakfast?”

“Surely to goodness, I can call a little time my own? . . . for reading and study?”

“Oh, all right. But fancy you having to go out again to-day. With such a sea running! And when you got so wet yesterday.”

“It’s those second-hand oilskins. I told you I ought to have new ones. — Now where are my papers? — Oh, these confounded laces! They WOULD choose just this moment to break. It’s no good; I can’t stoop, it sends the blood to my head.”

“Here . . . put up your foot!” And going on her knees, Mary laced his boots. TILL she got him off! The fuss — the commotion!

Standing in the doorway Cuffy drank it all in. This WAS an exciting place to live. To have to rush like mad as soon as ever a flag went up. If only someday Papa would take him with him. To go down to the beach with Papa, and row off from the jetty — Papa’s own jetty! — and sit in the boat beside him, and be rowed out by Papa’s own sailors, to the big ship that was waiting for him. Waiting just for Papa. When he was a big man he’d be a doctor, too, and have a jetty and a boat of his own, and be rowed out to steamers and ships, and climb on board, and say if they were allowed to go to Melbourne. — But how FUNNY Papa was, since being here. When his voice got loud it sounded like as if he was going to scream. And then . . . he’d said he was busy . . . when he was really asleep. He believed Papa was afraid . . . of Mamma. Knew she’d be cross with him for going to sleep again directly after breakfast. It made him want to say: Oh, DON’T be afraid, Papa, big men never do be . . . only little children like Lucie. (Specially not one’s Papa.)

Slamming the driving-gate behind him — with such force that it missed the latch, and swinging out went to and fro like a pendulum — Mahony stepped on to the wide, sandy road, over which the golden-flowered capeweed had spread till only a narrow track in the centre remained free. It was half a mile to the beach, and he covered the ground at a jog-trot; for his fear of being late was on a par with his fear that he might fail to see the signal: either through a temporary absence of mind, or from having dozed off (the sea air was having an unholy effect upon him) at the wrong moment. Hence his bribe to the children to be on the look-out. — Now on, past neat, one-storeyed weatherboards, past Bank and church and hotels he hurried, breathing heavily, and with a watchful eye to his feet. For his left leg was decidedly stiffish; and, to spare it, his pace had to be a long, springing step with the right, followed by a shorter one with the left: a gait that had already earned him the nickname in Shortlands of “Old Dot-and-go-one.”

Taking the Bluff, with its paths, seats and vivid grass-carpet, in his stride, he scrambled down the loose sand of the cliff, through the young scrub and the ragged, storm-bent ti-trees, which were just bursting into pearly blossom. And the result of this hurry-scurry was that he got to the beach too soon: his men had only just begun to open up the boat-shed. Fool that he was! But it was always the same . . . and would be to-morrow, and the day after that: when his fears seized him, he was powerless against them. Having irritably snapped his fingers and urged on the crew with an impatient: “Come, come, my good men, a little more haste, if you please!” he retired to the jetty, where he paced to and fro.

But at last the boat was launched, the sailors had grasped their oars: he, too, might descend the steps and take his seat. — And now he knew that all the press and fluster of the past half-hour had been directed towards this one, exquisite moment: in which they drew out to ride the waves. Of the few pleasures left him, it was by far the keenest: he relived it in fancy many a night when his head lay safe on the pillow. To-day was a day, too, after his own heart. A high sea ran, and the light boat dived, and soared, and fell again, dancing like a cockleshell. The surface of the water was whipt by a wind that blew the foam from the wave-crests in cloudlets of steam or smoke. The salt spray was everywhere: in your eyes, your mouth, your hair. Overhead, between great bales of snowy cloud, the sky was gentian-blue; blue were the hills behind the nestling white huts of the quarantine station on the other side of the Bay; indigo-blue the waters below. Intoxicated by all this light and colour, at being one again with his beloved element, he could have thrown back his head and shouted for joy; have sent out cries to match the lovely commotion of wind and sea. But there was no question of thus letting himself go: he had perforce to remain as dumb as the men who rowed him. Above all, to remember to keep his eyes lowered. For the one drawback to his pleasure was that he was not alone. He had a crew of six before him, six pairs of strange eyes to meet; and every time he half-closed his own and expanded his nostrils, the better to drink in the savour of the briny, or, at an unusually deep dip, let fly a gleeful exclamation, they fixed him stonily, one and all. There was no escaping them, pinned to his seat as he was: nor any room for his own eyes . . . nowhere to rest them . . . except on the bottom of the boat. Only so could he maintain his privacy. — Eyes . . . human eyes. Eyes . . . SPIES, ferreting out one’s thoughts . . . watchdogs on the qui vive for one’s smallest movement . . . spiders, sitting over their fly-victims, ready to pounce. Eyes. Slits into the soul; through which you peered, as in a twopenny peepshow, at clandestine and unedifying happenings. A mortal’s outside the NE PLUS ULTRA of dignity and suavity . . . and then the eyes, disproving all. Oh! it ought not to be possible, so to see into another’s depths; it was indecent, obscene: had he not more than once, in a woman’s comely countenance, met eyes that were hot, angry, malignant? . . . unconscious betrayers of an unregenerate soul. None should outrage him in like fashion: he knew the trick and guarded against it, by keeping his own bent rigidly on the boards at his feet . . . on the boot-soles of the men in front of him. But smiles and chuckles were not so easily subdued: they would out . . . and out they came.

As the boat drew nearer the vessel that lay to, awaiting them, a new anxiety got the upper hand. Wrinkling his brows, he strained to see what was in store for him. Ha! he might have known it: another of those infernal rope ladders to be scaled. He trembled in advance. For you needed the agility of an ape to swing yourself from the tossing boat to the bottom rung of the ladder; the strength of a navvy to maintain your hold, once you were there, before starting on the precarious job of hoisting yourself, rung by rung, up the ship’s steep side. And to-day, with this wild sea running, it was worse than ever — was all the men could do to bring the boat close enough, yet not too close, alongside, for him to get a grip on the rope. The seat he stood on was slippery, his oilskins encumbered him: he made one attempt after another. Each time, before he had succeeded in jerking himself across, the gulf opened anew. Finally, in most undignified fashion, he was laid hold of, and pushed and shoved from behind; and thereafter came a perilous moment when he hung over the trough of sea, not knowing whether his muscles would answer to the strain, or whether he would drop back into the water. Desperately he clung to the swaying rope; what seemed an eternity passed before he could even straighten himself, let alone climb out of reach of the waves. — Deuce take it! you needed to be at least twenty years younger for acrobatics of this kind.

Hanging over the side, the ship’s crew followed his doings with the engrossed and childish interest of men fresh from the high seas. As he came within reach, however, willing hands were thrust forth to help him. But he was shattered by his exertions, the deck was wet, and no sooner did he set foot on it than his legs shot from under him, and he fell heavily and awkwardly on his back. And this was too much for the onlookers, just suited their elephantine sense of humour, already tickled by his un-seamanlike performance on the ladder: one and all burst into a loud guffaw. Bruised and dazed he scrambled to his feet, and, hat and bag having been restored him, was piloted by a grinning seaman to the captain’s cabin.

There had been no single case of sickness on the outward voyage: the visit was a mere formality; and the whole affair could have been settled inside five minutes — had he not been forced to ask the captain’s leave to rest a little, in order to recover before undertaking the descent: his hips ached and stung, his hand shook so that he had difficulty in affixing his signature. He thought the captain, a shrewd-eyed, eagle-nosed Highlander, whose conversation consisted of a series of dry: “Aye, aye’s!” looked very oddly at him on his curt refusal of the proffered bottle. “Thank you, I never touch stimulants.”

As he hobbled home wet and chilled, his head aching from its contact with the deck, arm and shoulder rapidly stiffening: as he went, he had room in his mind for one thought only: I’ve taken on more than I can manage. I’m not fit for the job — or shan’t be . . . much longer. And then? . . . my God! . . . AND THEN? — But hush! Not a word to Mary.

Entering the dining-room he pettishly snatched off the dish-cover. “WHAT? . . . hash again? I declare of late we seem to live on nothing else!”

Mary sighed. “If I serve the meat cold, you grumble; if I make it up, you grumble, too. I can’t throw half a joint away. What am I to do?”

He suppressed the venomous: “Eat it yourself!” that rose to his lips. “I’ve surely a right to expect something fresh and appetising when I get back after a hard morning’s work? You know I loathe twice-cooked meat!”

“I thought you’d bring such an appetite home with you that you’d be equal to anything. Other times you do. But you don’t know your own mind from one day to the next.”

“If THAT’S all you have to say, I won’t eat anything!”— And despite her expostulations and entreaties: “Richard! come back, dear, don’t be so silly,” he banged out of the room.

Instantly Cuffy pushed his plate away. “I don’t like it either, Mamma.”

Glad of a scapegoat, Mary rounded on the child with a: “Will YOU kindly hold your tongue, sir?” letting out not only her irritation with Richard, but also the exhaustion of a morning’s governessing: a task for which she was wholly unfitted by nature. “You’ll not leave the table till you’ve eaten every scrap on your plate.”

And Cuffy, being really very hungry — he had only said like Papa to try and make Mamma think Papa wasn’t quite so bad — obeyed without a further word.

Afterwards, he had to go to the butcher’s with a basket to buy a chop — a big one and not too fat, Papa didn’t eat fat — and then, when the whole house smelt good with frying, to go in and say to Papa that dinner was ready.

But Papa was asleep and snoring; and he didn’t like to wake him. He fidgeted about and made a noise for a bit, and then went out and said so.

But Mamma sent him back: the chop was cooked and had to be eaten. So he put his hand on Papa’s arm and shook it. But Papa knocked it off, and jumped up calling out: “What is it? . . . what is it now?” And very angry: “CAN’T you let me be? — Oh, it’s you, my dear? — What? Not I! Tell your mother I want nothing.”

And then Mamma came marching in herself, and was furious. “And when I’ve sent out specially to get it! I never heard such nonsense. Going the whole day without food just to spite me!”

She was quite close up to Papa when she talked this; and they were both dreadfully angry; and then . . . then Cuffy disTINKLY saw Papa’s foot fly out and hit her . . . on her knee. And she said: “OOH!” and stooped down and put her hand to it, and looked at him, oh! so fierce . . . but she didn’t say any more, not a word (and he knew it was because he was there), but turned on her back and walked out of the room. And he felt frightened, and went away, too; but not before he’d seen Papa put his face in his hands, just as if he was going to cry.

They kept a goat now: it was chained up in the back yard to eat the grass and things, which would have smothered them if it hadn’t. Well, he went out to the goat — it was tied up and couldn’t run away — and kicked it. It maa-ed and tore round like mad: but he just didn’t care; he kicked again. Till Luce came out and saw him and made awful eyes, and said: “Oh, Cuffy! Oh, poor little Nanny! Oh, you bad, wicked boy! I’ll go wight in and tell Mamma what you’re doin’.”

But Mamma could not be got at. She was in the bedroom with the door locked; and she wouldn’t come out, though you called and called, and rattled the handle. (But she wasn’t dead, ‘cos you could hear them talkin’.)

With his arms round her, his face on her shoulder, Richard besought her: “Mary, Mary, what is it? What’s the matter with me? Why am I like this? — oh, why?”

“God knows! You seem not to have an atom of self-control left. When it comes to kicking me . . . and in front of the children . . .” Her heart full to bursting, Mary just stood and bore his weight, but neither raised her arms nor comforted him.

“I know, I know. But it isn’t only temper — God knows it isn’t! It’s like a whirlpool . . . a whirlwind . . . that rises in me. Forgive me, forgive me! I didn’t mean it. I had a nasty fall on the deck this morning. I think that knocked the wits out of me.”

“A fall? How? Were you hurt?” Mary asked quickly. At any hint of bodily injury, and was it but a bruise, she was all sympathy and protection.

Meekly now, but with only the ghost of an appetite, Mahony sat down to the congealed chop, which he sliced and swallowed half-chewed, while Mary moved about the room, her lids red-rimmed and swollen. And the children, having snatched one look at her, crept away with sinking hearts. Oh, Mamma dear, dear, don’t . . . DON’T be unhappy!

In telling of his fall and making it answerable for his subsequent behaviour, Mahony failed to mention one thing: the uneasiness his leg was causing him. Some perverse spirit compelled him to store this trouble up for his own tormenting — that night when he lay stiff as a corpse, so as not to deprive Mary of her well-earned rest. This numbness . . . this fatal numbness. . . . He tried to view himself in the light of a patient: groped, experimented, investigated. What! cutaneous anaesthesia as well? For he now found he could maltreat the limb as he would; there was little or no answering sensation. Positively he believed he could have run a pin into it. Sick with apprehension he put his hand down to try yet once more, by running his finger-nails into and along the flesh — and was aghast to hear a shrill scream from Mary. “RICHARD! What ARE you doing? Oh, how you have hurt me!”

He had drawn blood on her leg instead of on his own.


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