Ultima Thule, by Henry Handel Richardson

Chapter II

Mary waited, as for the millennium, for the opening of the summer season. In the meantime Shortlands lay dead to the rest of the world: the little steamer neither brought nor took off passengers: the big ships all went by. But on every hand she heard it said: let the season once begin and there would be work for every one; the life of a year was crowded into three brief months. If only they could manage to hold out till then! For December was still two months off, and of private practice there was as good as none. The place was so healthy for one thing (oh, there must surely be something very wrong about a world in which you had to feel SORRY if people weren’t ill!) and the poorer classes all belonged to the clubs, which Richard hadn’t got. His dreams of keeping a horse and riding round the district, of opening consulting-rooms on the other side, had, as she had known they would, ended in smoke: the twice he had crossed the Bay he had not even covered his fare. She wondered, sometimes, if such sickness as there was did not still find its way to Dr. Barker, retired though the old man professed to be. It was certainly owing to him that nightwork had become extinct here. Through him refusing to leave his bed, the inhabitants had simply got out of the way of being taken ill at night.

And Richard did nothing to mend matters. On the contrary. At present, for instance, he was going about in such a simmer of indignation at what he called the trick that had been played on him — the misleading reports of the income to be made here — that he was apt to let it boil over on those who did approach him. Then, too, the dreadful habit he had fallen into, of talking to himself as he walked, put people off. (From something the servant-girl let drop, she could see that he was looked on as VERY odd.) But when she taxed him with it he flared up, and vowed he had never in his life been guilty of such a thing; which just shewed he didn’t know he was doing it. If he had, he would have been more careful; for he liked the place (hardly a day passed on which he did not sigh: “If I can ONLY make a living here!”) in spite of its deadness . . . and also of the cold, which found out his weak spots. And for once in their lives they were in agreement: she liked it, too. They were among people of their own class again by whom she had been received with open arms. Though, as she could see, this very friendliness might have its drawbacks. For Richard had been quite wrong (as usual): the members of this little clique did not let lodgings, most emphatically not; they drew, indeed, a sharp line between those who did and those who didn’t. Well! she would just have to see . . . when the time came. If the practice did NOT look up. — But oh! how she hoped and prayed it would: she could hardly trust herself to think what might happen if it did not.

One afternoon as they sat at tea — it was six o’clock on a blustery spring day — they heard the click of the gate, and looking out saw some one coming up the path: a short, stoutish man in a long-skirted greatcoat, who walked with a limp.

Mary rubbed her eyes. “Why . . . why, Richard!”

“What is it? . . . who is it?” cried Mahony, and made as if to fly: he was in one of those moods when the thought of facing a stranger filled him with alarm.

“Why . . . I . . .”

“He’s walking right in,” announced Cuffy.

“An’ wavin’ his hand, Mamma.”

Sure enough, the newcomer came up the verandah steps and unceremoniously tapped on the window-pane. “Hullo, good people all! . . . how are you?” And THEN, of course, he with his hat off, shewing a head innocent of hair, there was no mistaking him.

With one eye on Richard, who was still capable of trying to do a bolt, one on the contents of her larder-shelves, Mary exclaimed in surprise. “Well, of all the . . . Purdy! Where have you sprung from? Is Tilly with you?”

“TILLY? Mrs. P. Smith? God bless my soul, no! My dear, this wind ‘ud give ‘is Majesty the bellyache for a month; we’d hear tell of nothing else. Lord bless you, no! We never go out if it blows the least little tiddly-wink, or if there’s a cloud in the sky, or if old Sol’s rays are too strong for us. We’re a hothouse plant, WE are. What do you say to that, you brawny young nippers, you?”

It was the same old Purdy: words just babbled out of him. And having taken off his coat and chucked the children under the chin — after first pretending not to know them because of their enormous size, and then to shake in his shoes at such a pair of giants — he drew in his chair and fell to, with appetite, on the toothsome remains of a rabbit-pie and the home-baked jam tarts that Mary somehow conjured up to set before him. “These sea-voyages are the very devil for makin’ one peckish. I’ve a thirst on me, too . . . your largest cup, Polly, if you please, will just about suit my measure.”— As she listened to his endless flow, Mary suspected him of already having tried to quench this thirst on the way there.

In eating, he told of the business that had brought him to Shortlands; and at greater length than was either necessary or desirable; for there was a lot in it about “doing” a person, in revenge for having been “done” by him, and the children of course drank it all in. Mary did her best to edge the conversation round, knowing how strongly Richard disapproved of their being initiated, before their time, into the coarse and sordid things of life. But what followed was even worse. For now Purdy started indulging in personalities. “I say, you two, isn’t this just like old times . . . eh?” he said as he munched. “Just like old times . . . except of course that we’re all a good bit thicker in the tummy and thinner on the thatch than we were, ha, ha! . . . your humb. serv. in partic.! ALSO “— and he winked his right eye at the room at large —“excepting for the presence of the young couple I observe sitting opperSITE, who were NOT on the tappis, or included in the programme, in those far-off days — eh, Poll? Young people who insisted on putting in an appearance at a later date, unwanted young noosances that they were!” (At which Cuffy, flaming scarlet, looked anxiously at his mother for a denial: she had told him over and over again how enjoyed she and Papa had been to see him.) “Well, well! such little accidents will happen. But far from us was it to think of such . . . all those many . . . now HOW many years was it ago? Thirty — for a cert! Ah! no hidin’ your age from me, Mrs. Poll . . . after the manner of ladies when they come to the sere and yellow leaf. I’ve got you nailed, me dear!”

Colouring slightly (she thought talk of this kind in sorry taste before the children), Mary was just about to say she didn’t mind who knew how old she was, when Richard, who till now had sat like a death’s-head, brought his fist down on the table with a bang. “And I say, not a day over twenty-five!” He did make them jump.

Purdy, so jovial was he, persisted in taking this to refer, not to the date, but to her age, and bantered harder than ever, accusing Richard of trying to put his wife’s clock back. And what with Richard arguing at the top of his voice to set him right, and Purdy waggishly refusing to see what was meant, it looked for a moment as if it might come to an open quarrel between them.

“Richard! . . . hush, dear!” frowned Mary, and surreptitiously shook her head. “What can it matter? Oh, don’t be so silly!” For he was agitatedly declaring that he would fetch out his old case-books and prove the year, black on white. She turned to Purdy: “You’ve told me nothing at all yet about Tilly and the boy.”

But Purdy had plainly no wish to talk of wife or child, and refused to let himself be diverted from the course of reminiscence on which he had embarked. To oblige her, he dropped his mischievous baiting with a: “Well, well, then, so be it! I suppose I ‘m getting soft in the uppers,” but continued to draw on his memories of the old days, spinning yarns of things that had happened to him, and things she was quite sure hadn’t, egged on by the saucer eyes of the children. “Remember this, Poll? . . . remember that?” she vainly endeavouring to choke him off with a dry: “I’m afraid I don’t.” She sat on pins and needles. If only he wouldn’t work Richard up again. But it almost seemed as if this was his object; for he concluded his tale of the Stockade and his flight from Ballarat, with the words: “And so afeared for his own skin was our friend old Sawbones there, that he only ventured out of an evening, after dark; and so the wound got mucky and wouldn’t heal. And that’s the true story, you kids, of how I came to be the limping-Jesus I am and ever shall be, world without end, amen!”

Of all the wicked falsehoods! (Or had he REALLY gone about nursing this belief?) Such expressions, too! . . . before the children. Thank goodness, Richard hadn’t seemed to hear: otherwise she would have expected him to fly out of his chair. A stolen glance shewed him sitting, head on chest, making patterns on the tablecloth with the point of his knife. And having failed thus to draw him, if Purdy didn’t now dish up, with several unsavoury additions, the old, old story of the foolish bet taken between the two of them as young men, that Richard wouldn’t have the pluck to steal a kiss from her at first meeting; and how, in the darkness of the summer-house, he had mistaken one girl for the other and embraced Jinny instead. “Putting his arms round her middle — plump as a partridge she was too, by gum! — and giving ‘er a smack that could have been heard a mile off. Killing two birds with one stone I call it! . . . gettin’ the feel of a second gal under his hands, free, gratis and for nothing.”

At such indelicacy Mary held her breath. But what was this? Instead of the furious outburst for which she waited, she heard a . . . chuckle. Yes, Richard was laughing — his head still sunk, his eyes fixed on the tablecloth — laughing and nodding to himself at the memory Purdy had called up. And then — oh, no! it was incredible: to her horror, Richard himself added a detail, the grossness of which sent the blood to her cheeks.

What was more, he was going on. “Run away and play, children. At once! Do you hear?” For Cuffy was listening open-mouthed, and laughing, too, in an odd, excited way. She had them off their chairs and out of the room in a twinkling. Herself she stood for a moment in the passage, one hand pressed to her face. Oh! by fair means or foul —“You’re wanted, Richard! Yes, immediately!”— And after that it was not hard to get Purdy up from the table and sent about his business.

But as soon as the children were in bed she went into the surgery, and there, shutting fast the door, let out her smothered wrath, making a scene none the less heated because it had to be carried on under her breath. To her stupefaction Richard flatly denied the charge. What was she talking about? No such words had ever crossed HIS lips! “Before my children? Whose every hair is precious to me?” He was as perturbed as she, at the bare idea. Oh, what was to be done with a person whose memory was capable of playing him such tricks? In face of his indignation, his patent honesty, you couldn’t just rap out the word “liar!” and turn on your heel.

Yes, a disastrous visit from start to finish. The children alone got pleasure from it. Purdy took a great liking to them — he who hadn’t a word to say for his own child — and on the verandah next morning the trio were very merry together. Cuffy’s laugh rang out again and again.

For Cuffy thought Mr. Purdy a VERY nice man . . . even if his head WAS shiny like an egg, and he was nearly as fat as that ol’ Sankoh in the big book with the pictures. (Papa, he was like Donk Quick Shot, who tried to kill the windmills.) He had two beautiful big diamond rings on his fingers, and a watch that struck like a clock, and a whole bunch of things, little guns and swords and seals, hanging on his chain. He gave them each half-a-crown and said not to tell Mamma, and rode Luce to market on his foot, and sang them a lovely song that went:


Ever so much of it, all about these people, till she fell into the river and asked him to pull her out, and Johnny Sands would have, but:


He and Luce jumped about and sang it, too. Oh, wasn’t it nice when somebody was happy and jolly and funny? — instead of always being sorry, or cross. He thought he could NEARLY have asked Mr. Purdy what it meant when you said: the female nobleman obliges. It belonged to him, Papa had said it did; but he hadn’t ever dared ask anybody about it; people like Aunt Zara laughed so, when you didn’t understand. But he was going to . . . some day. ——

The climax came next morning when, the front door having closed behind the guest, the children came running out of the dining-room crying gleefully: “Look, Mamma! Look what he’s left on the table!” For an instant Richard stood and stared incredulously at the five-pound note Cuffy was holding aloft; the next, with a savage exclamation he had snatched it from the child’s hand, and was through the porch and down the path, shouting at the top of his voice: “Here you, sir, come back! How dare you! Come back, I say! Do you take my house for an hotel?”

But Purdy, already on the other side of the gate and limping off as hard as he could go, only made a half-turn, waved one arm in a gesture that might have meant anything, and was out of sight. Short of running down the street in pursuit, or of mixing one of the children up in it . . . Beside himself with rage, Richard threw the note to the ground and stamped on it, then plucking it up, tore it to bits.

Taking him by the arm, Mary got him indoors. But for long she could not calm him. (Oh, was there EVER such a tactless fool as Purdy? Or was this just another of those spikey thrusts at Richard which he seemed unable to resist?)

“Does he think because he’s gone up in the world and I’ve come down that it gives him the right to insult me in this way? — him, the common little ragamuffin I once picked out of the gutter? (Oh no, Richard!) To come here and offer me alms! . . . for that’s what it amounts to . . . pay his few shillingsworth of food with a present of pounds? Why, I would rather rot in my grave than be beholden to him!” (Oh, how Richard did at heart despise him!) “CHARITY! — from HIM to ME!”

“He shall never come again, dear.” (Though how were you to help it, if he just walked in?)

Behind the locked door (she seemed always to be locking doors now) she sat, wide-lapped in her full skirts; and, when Richard had railed himself tired, he knelt down before her and laid his face on her dress. Her hands went to and fro over the grey head, on which the hair was wearing so thin. What could she do for him? . . . what was to become of him? . . . when every small mischance so maddened, so exasperated him. That a stupid, boorish act like Purdy’s could so shatter his self-control! Her heart wept over him; this heart which, since the evening before, had lain under the shadow of a new fear; a fear so ominous that she still did not dare to put it into words; but against which, for her children’s sake, she might need to take up arms . . . to lock, so to speak, yet another door.

The upshot of the matter was that she had to replace the destroyed note by one from her jealously guarded store. This Richard haughtily sealed up and posted back, without a single covering word.

There was, however, one bright side to the affair. And again it was the children who benefited.

In running them out after breakfast to buy some lollipops, Purdy had got permission from the postmaster, an old friend of his, to take them up the lighthouse; and so the three of them went up and up and up a staircase that twisted like a corkscrew, hundreds of steps, till they came to where the great lamp was that shone at night; and then, tightly holding hands, they walked round the little narrow platform outside and looked down at the sea, all bubbly and frothy, and the white roofs of the houses. They found their own, and it didn’t look any bigger than a doll’s-house. Afterwards they were asked inside the post office — right inside! — and they peeped through the little window where the stamps were sold, and saw the holes where the letters were kept; and the two tel’graph machines that went click, click; and how tape ran away on wheels with little dots and dashes on it, that the postmaster said were words. And then he took them into his house behind to see his Mamma and his four grown-up sisters, who were ever so nice, and asked their names, and said Cuffy WAS a big boy for his age, and Luce was a cuddly darling; and they cut a cake specially for them, and showed them a ship their Papa had made all by himself, even the little wooden men that stood on the decks. They laughed and joked with Mr. Purdy, and they had the most lovely teeth, and sang songs for them till Cuffy was wild with delight.

Thus, through Purdy’s agency, a house was opened to the children the like of which they had never known: a home over which no shadow brooded; in which the key was set to laughter and high spirits, and the nonsensical gaiety that children love. Cuffy and Lucie, petted and made much of, completely lost their hearts to their new friends, and talked so much of them, teasing to be allowed to visit them, that Mary felt it incumbent on her to tie on her bonnet and pay a call in person. She came back entirely reassured. The daughters, one and all Australian-born, were charming and accomplished girls; while in old Mrs. Spence, the widow of an English university man who in the early days had turned from unprofitable gold-digging to Government service, she found one who, in kindliness and tolerance, in humour and common sense, reminded her vividly of her own mother, long since dead.

To the children this old lady early became “Granny”; and even Cuffy, who had begun to fight shy of his mother’s knee, was not above sitting on hers. A Granny was diffrunt . . . didn’t make you feel such a baby. And it was of her kind old face that he eventually succeeded in asking his famous question.

“Bless the child! . . . now what can he mean?” Then, noting the sensitive flush that mounted, Granny cried: “Pauline, come you here! — Pauline will know, my dear. She’s ever so much cleverer than a silly old woman like me.”

And pretty Pauline — they were all four so pretty and so nice that Cuffy couldn’t tell which he liked best — knelt down before him, he sitting on Granny’s lap, and, with her dress bunching out round her and her hands on his knees, explained, WITHOUT LAUGHING A BIT. NOBLESSE OBLIGE didn’t mean the obliging female nobleman at all: he had got it mixed up with poet and poetess. “What it says, Cuffy dear, is that people who are born to a high rank . . . like Kings and Queens . . . must always remember who they are and act accordingly. Little gentlemen must always behave LIKE gentlemen, and never do anything low or mean. Do you see?”

And Cuffy nodded . . . and nodded again. Yes, now he knew. And he never would! — But he knew something else, too. He loved Pauline more’n anybody in the world.


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