Ultima Thule, by Henry Handel Richardson

Chapter V

His stertorous breathing could be heard through the house. Except for this, he might have been dead . . . behind the snow-white dimity and muslin hangings which she had put up in honour of those strangers who would now never cross the threshold. For Bowes-Smith, the well-known Melbourne physician whom she had called in on the advice of Dr. Barker — yes! with Richard lying senseless at her feet she had forgotten everything but his need, and had sent Bridget flying for the old man whom she had borne so bitter a grudge; and he had come at once, and been kindness itself. So active, too: it was hard to believe that he was between twenty and thirty years Richard’s senior — oh, how DID some people manage to live so long and be so healthy! But in spite of his consoling words, she could see that he took a very grave view of Richard’s case. And Bowes-Smith and he had had a sheerly endless consultation — from which, of course, they shut her out — after which the former had broken it to her that, even if he recovered from the present fit, Richard would remain more or less of a sick man for the rest of his life.

The utmost care was essential; an entire absence of excitement. “For I cannot conceal from you that such apoplectiform attacks, which — as in this case — differ little or not at all from true apoplexy, will be liable to recur.”

He stood on the dining-room hearthrug, tall, lugubrious, sandy-whiskered, holding his gold-rimmed pince-nez in his hand, and tapping the air with it while he cast about for words, which came laboriously. They had known him well in the old days, and she remembered this habit; it had always made him seem something of a bore. Now it maddened her. For she was keyed up to hear the truth, learn the worst; and to be obliged to sit there, listening to him stumbling and fumbling! He was so bland, too, so non-committal; how differently he would have talked to Richard had she lain ill. But she was only a woman; and, doctors being what they were . . . oh, she knew something about them from the inside. Usen’t Richard to say that it was etiquette in the profession to treat a patient’s relatives, and particularly his womenfolk, as so many cretins?

Ignoring her blunt question: “But if it isn’t true apoplexy, then what is it?” Bowes-Smith proceeded deliberately to catechise her.

“I don’t know, Mrs. Mahony, whether you are . . . h’m . . . whether it is . . . er . . . news to you that I saw your husband some two or three months back? He . . . er . . . consulted me, at the time, with regard to . . . h’m . . . to an attack . . . nay, to recurring attacks of vertigo. I found him then under no . . . h’m . . . no delusion as to his own state. He said nothing to you? Did not take you into his confidence?”

“No, nothing,” said Mary dully: and inconsequently remembered the letter she had had from Richard when she was trying to induce him to settle in Narrong. She hadn’t known then what to believe; more than half suspected him of writing as he did to further his own ends.

“And you have not noticed anything . . . h’m . . . out of the way? There has been no marked change in his habits? No . . . er . . . oddness, or eccentricity?” The questions lumbered along, she sitting the while fiercely knotting her fingers.

“Nothing,” she said again. Adding, though, in spite of herself: “But then he has always been so peculiar. If he did seem a little odder of late, I merely put it down to his growing old.”

“Quite so . . . er . . . most natural.” (She was keeping things back, of course; wives always did. He remembered her well: a handsome creature she had been when last he saw her. The eyes were still very striking.) “And now . . . er . . . with regard to the present attack. Are you aware of anything having happened to . . . er . . . cause him undue excitement . . . or agitation?”

“No,” said Mary staunchly. How could it matter now, what had brought the fit on? Wild horses would not have dragged from her any allusion to their bitter quarrel of the night before. That would have meant turning out, to this stranger, the dark side of their married life. However, she again glossed over the bluntness of her denial with: “But he was always one to work himself up over trifles.”

“Well, well! My colleague here . . . and if, at any time, you would care to see me again, I am entirely at your disposal.” (No need to trouble the poor creature with more, at present. Yes, truly, a magnificent pair of optics!) “Do not be . . . h’m . . . alarmed at any slight . . . er . . . stiffness or rigidity of the limbs that may ensue. That will pass.”

And I a doctor’s wife! thought Mary hotly. Aloud she said: “Oh, I’m not afraid — of paralysis or anything — as long as he is spared.” And while the two men confabbed anew, she went to the bedroom and stood looking down at Richard. Her own husband . . . and she could not even be told frankly what was the matter with him. For twenty-five years and more she had had him at her side, to give the truth if she asked for it. She had never known till now how much this meant to her.

Meanwhile she spilt no jot of her strength in brooding or repining: every act, every thought was concentrated on him alone. And not till the first signs of betterment appeared: when the dreadful snoring ceased and his temperature fell to normal; when his eyes began to follow her about the room; when he was able to move one hand to point to what he wanted: not till then did she sit down, cold and grim, to face the future.

“My God! what’s to become of us?”

A pitiful forty-odd pounds standing to his credit in a Melbourne Bank, and her own poor remnant of Tilly’s loan, was literally all they had in the world. In that last mad holocaust everything else had gone: deeds and mortgages, letters and securities, down to the last atom of scrip. He had piled and burnt till the dispatch-box was empty. (Who would now be able to prove what shares he had held? Or how much had been paid off on the mortgage?) The house at Barambogie was still on their hands; and almost the whole of their lease at Shortlands had still to run. How were these rents to be met? . . . and what would happen if they weren’t? She would need expert advice, probably have to employ a lawyer — a thought that made her shiver. For she had the natural woman’s fear of the law and its followers: thought of these only in terms of bills of costs . . . and sharp, dishonest practices.

But that must all come later. The burning question was, where to turn for ready money. The little she had would go nowhere: Richard’s illness . . . presents to the doctors, the servant’s wages — nor could they live on air. Boarders were out of the question now: for Richard’s sake. WHAT could she do? What did other women do who were left in her plight, with little children dependent on them? Driving her mind back, she saw that as a rule these “widows and things” were content to live at somebody else’s expense, to become the limpets known as “poor relations,” leaving the education of their children to a male relative. But she had not been Richard’s wife for nothing. At the mere thought of such a thing, her back stiffened. Never! Not as long as she had a leg to stand on . . . mere woman though she was.

IT’S NOT MONEY I WANT THIS TIME, TILLY, she wrote: and Tilly was but one of many who, the news of Richard’s breakdown having spread abroad as on an invisible telegraph, came forward with offers of help. IT’S WORK. I DON’T CARE WHAT; IF ONLY I CAN EARN ENOUGH TO KEEP US TOGETHER. But here even Tilly’s ingenuity failed her: women of Mary’s standing (let alone her advanced age, her inexperience) did not turn out of their sheltered homes and come to grips with the world. Impossible, utterly impossible, was to be read between the lines of her reply.

And, as day after day went by without enlightenment, it began to look as if Tilly was right. Beat her brains as she would, Mary would find no way out.

To old Mrs. Spence, who in this crisis had proved a friend indeed, she finally made a clean breast of her despair.

“There seems literally nothing a woman CAN do. Except teach — and I’m too old for that. Nor have I the brains. I was married so young. And had so little schooling myself. No, the plain truth is, I’m fit for nothing. Really there come moments when I can see us all ending in the Benevolent Asylum.”

It was here that Mrs. Spence, nodding her sage, white-capped head in sympathy, made the tentative suggestion: “I wonder, my dear . . . has it never occurred to you to try to enter Government service?”

Mary winced . . . she hoped not too perceptibly. “Oh, I’m afraid that again would need more brains than I’ve got.” It was well meant, of course, but . . . SO to cut oneself adrift!

Undaunted the old lady went on. “Plenty of women before you have done it. As a postmistress, you would have a house rent-free, with free lighting and firing, all sorts of perquisites, and a fixed salary. And I think, my dear, with the many friends you have at court, it would be easy for you to skip preliminaries. My son, I know, would be only too happy to help you in any way he could.”

“You’re very kind. But I feel sure I’m too old . . . and too stupid.”

But that night, as she tossed wakeful on the hard little bed she had set up beside Richard’s, her friend’s words came back to her, and rang in her ears till they had effectually chased away all chance of sleep: so spurred and pricked her, in fact, that she sat up in bed and, hunching her knees, propped her elbows on them and dug her clenched fists into her chin. A house rent-free.. . nothing to pay for light and firing . . . a fixed salary — she didn’t know how much, of course, but it would need to be enough to support a family on, so many postmasters being married men. It would also mean that she could keep Richard and the children with her; and the fear of having to part from them was the worst she knew. And then those rents, those dreadful rents, which hung round her neck like millstones . . . might she not perhaps . . . But, oh! the come-down . . . the indignity . . . the PUBLICITY of the thing — in this colony where she had been so well known. A postmistress . . . she, a postmistress! . . . forced to step out into the open, become a kind of public woman. To see her name — RICHARD’S name — in printed lists, in official communications. (She might even have to tell her age.) Men — strange men — would be over her, she their subordinate, answerable to them for what she did. Worse still, she herself would have men under her, young men of a class with which she had never come in contact. What would her friends and acquaintances say, to see her sink like this in the social scale? (At which her native plain-dealing jogged her elbow with the reflection that it would soon shew who were true friends, and who not.) Oh, it was easy to SAY you didn’t mind what you turned your hand to. But when it came to doing it! — And then, too, suppose she wasn’t equal to the work? As she had said, and truly, she had no faith in her own abilities. Directly it came to book or head-learning, she thought of herself as dull and slow. Though here, oddly enough, the thought perked up and declined to be quenched that, if Richard had only let her have a say, however small, in the management of his affairs, these might never have got into the muddle they had. Figures didn’t come hard to her.

Thus was she tossed and torn, between a womanly repugnance, her innate self-distrust, and her sound common sense. And she got up in the morning still having failed to reconcile the combatants. It was the sight of Richard that determined her. When she saw him sitting propped up among his pillows, his lower jaw on the shake; when she heard his pitiful attempts to say what he wanted — like a little child he was having to be taught the names of things all over again — when she looked at this wreck, every other consideration fell away. What did she matter? . . . what did anything or anybody matter? — if only she could restore to health and contrive to keep, in something of the comfort he had been used to, this poor old comrade of the years.

Henry Ocock held office in the present ministry; and it was to Mr. Henry she turned; for they had a common bond in the memory of poor Agnes. She wrote, without hedging, of Richard’s utter physical collapse; of the loss — through fire — of his papers and securities; the urgent necessity she was under of finding employment. It had been suggested to her that she might try to enter Government service. Would he, for the sake of their old friendship, do her the great kindness to use his influence, on her behalf, with the present Postmaster General? Mr. Spence, in charge of the local office, had offered her the preliminary training. Had this not been so . . . FOR I TELL YOU PLAINLY I COULD NEVER GO IN FOR AN EXAMINATION— TRY TO PASS THE CIVIL SERVICE OR ANYTHING OF THAT SORT. IT WOULD BE QUITE BEYOND ME.

Almost by return she held a page-long telegram in her hand, in which, making no attempt (as she had half feared he would) to press a loan on her, Mr. Henry said that he was only too happy to be able to help her. Her request came in the nick of time. An up-country vacancy was on the point of occurring. Did she think she could be ready, with Spence’s aid, to’ take over charge there, say, in six weeks’ time? If so, the P.M.G. would put in a relieving officer for that period. The rush and hurry of the thing cut the ground from under her feet. Hardly knowing whether she stood on her head or her heels, she straightway telegraphed acceptance. — And so the die was cast.

Henceforward she was a member of the working classes. To begin with, she spent every afternoon from two till six at the Shortlands’ post office, learning her job.

The calvary this was to her, none but she knew. She would never have believed she was so sensitive, so touchy. A host of prejudices (many of them no doubt imbibed from Richard) which she hadn’t even been aware of possessing, woke to life in her. The very fact of being tied down to leave home at a set hour, like any clerk or shopman, seemed to humiliate her, who had never come and gone but at her own sweet will. Then, every one in the township knew, of course, where she was bound for. People eyed her and whispered about her, and pointed her out to one another as she passed: in her full skirts flounced to the waist, her dolman of silk velvet, her feathered bonnet; yes, there she went, Mrs. Dr. Mahony off to learn to be a postmistress! The half-mile seemed unending; before she reached her destination her pale cheeks were dyed rose-pink.

In the office she stood, a middle-aged lady (close on two-and-forty years old) bonnetless and capless, amid a posse of young clerks: the telegraph operator, the messenger, the indoor clerk, the postman: to whom she was an object of unending curiosity. All of whom, too, could do in a twinkling the things that came so hard to her. And then their manners! They jostled her, failed to apologise, kept their hats on in her presence, lolled and lounged, bandied private jokes, laughed and talked openly in disregard of her, did Mr. Spence quit the office. Her courage might sometimes have failed her, had it not been that the money side of the business gave her so little trouble: she learnt in no time how to issue a money-order, to enter up a savings-book deposit, to handle postage stamps and registered letters; even to draw up the financial “statement” that was forwarded daily and monthly to Head Office. The telegraph it was that baffled her. Oh, this awful morse code! It was like going to school again to learn one’s alphabet. Her memory was weak and undeveloped: she floundered and was hopelessly at sea amid the array of dots and dashes that stood for letters. The little paper handbook containing the code grew as shabby and dog’s-eared as a child’s lesson-book. For she carried it with her everywhere she went, and slept with it under her pillow; of a night often starting up and striking a match to see if it was B that had three dots after its dash, or K more than one between its two. NEVER would she be able to “take by ear”! How she marvelled at these young clerks, who could jot down a whole telegram without so much as a glance at the tape. Whereas she had painfully to puzzle the message out, letter by letter. And the “sending” was harder still: with her lips pinched thin, her head thrown back, her black eyes fixed, in desperate concentration, on the empty air, laboriously she hammered out dash and dot, dot and dash.

All this, too, with one anxious ear turned towards home, where things grew worse instead of better. She had hoped that, once the physical efforts of the stroke had worn off, and Richard was able to walk and talk again, his mind, too, would clear. Now, she began to doubt whether he would ever again be quite himself. Days came when he sat and brooded from morning till night: sat with his head on one thin hand, staring before him with eyes so sorrowful that it hurt you to look at them . . . though what he was thinking or remembering, she could never get him to say. At other times he was unable to be still, or to stay in the same room for a minute on end; and then it took all her influence and persuasion to keep him indoors. The children, poor mites, in whose charge she was forced to leave him while she worked, could do nothing with him, and her first question of the forlorn little pair who ran to meet her, of an evening, was invariably: “Where’s Papa?” To which more often than not the answer came: “Gone out. He WOULD go, Mamma . . . we couldn’t stop him. He went to look for you.”

And then it was always: “Run, Cuffy, run quick! . . . and find him.”

Once Cuffy had said: “Oh, CAN’T Bridget go instead of me?” but Mamma had looked so funny at him that he’d never done it again. He went; his hands cold like frogs. For he was so ashamed. Papa would be standing on the green in front of the blacksmith’s, and the blacksmith had stopped work, and a whole lot of larrikins were there as well, and they were all listening to Papa . . . who was sort of play-acting to himself with his hands . . . and laughing at him and making fun. And Papa didn’t see them; but HE did. And then he wished Papa was dead, and that he didn’t ever need to come and fetch him again. But he took his hand and said, quite small: “Papa, come home! Mamma wants you.” And then he left off acting direckly, and was most awfly glad and said: “Where is she? Where IS Mamma?” and came away, holding on to his hand like a little girl, and nearly running to get there.

That was one thing he hated. The other was, every afternoon Mamma went out and left him and Luce quite alone . . . with Papa. (And you didn’t LIKE to be with Papa, since he couldn’t speak right: when you heard him say a spoon and he meant a chair, it made you feel sick inside, like when you saw a snake.) You were supposed to practise while Mamma was out, and you did; but your thoughts went on thinking and thinking; and it was always the same: suppose she NEVER came back? Luce cried all the time. And then Papa came and was almost crying, too, and said: “Oh, WHERE is Mamma? Will she never come home?” and he must go out and look for her. And it got tea-time, and nearly bedtime, and still she didn’t come; and every time you looked at the clock only five minutes had gone, and it seemed like an hour. And at last it got so bad you went and stood down at the gate, or a little way in the road, and waited for the first bit of her to come round the corner. And then, oh, how they ran! At least Luce did. He just whistled. For each time, once he saw Mamma safe again, he didn’t seem to care a bit any more.

The day she told them they’d got to go away and live where there wasn’t any sea, he’d been naughty. He’d cried and stamped and pushed people when they tried to comfort him. But it wasn’t a REAL “naught”: it was just something inside him and he couldn’t stop it happening. No more springboard, no more lovely blue water to jump down into, no more hot salty smells. In his prayers at night, and in secret prayers offered up in corners of the garden, he begged and prayed God to let them stop there, or at least to let there be another sea where they were going. But God just didn’t seem to hear.

They weren’t to take their toys with them either, their great big best toys. They had to be sold. Mamma was sorry; but they simply hadn’t got enough money for what it would cost to take the rocking-horse . . . or the doll’s-house . . . or Cuffy’s big grocer’s-shop . . . or Luce’s huge doll’s-p’rambulator. Each of them would have needed a packing-case to itself.

Both he and Luce prayed about this, kneeling down in the long thick grass that grew behind the closet, with their eyes tight shut and their hands put properly together; and he told Luce what to say. But it was no good. God wasn’t there.

Or if He was, He liked Luce best. For by-and-by she was allowed to take her doll with her, the big, baby one. Mamma said it was because she could carry it; but he b’lieved it was because Luce had cried so much. Of course you couldn’t carry Dobbin or the shop; but, my! it DID hurt to think of anybody else sitting on the saddle, or using the scales. He took a pencil and wrote “My horse” in big letters under Dobbin’s stomach, and cut a bunch of hairs out of his tail for a keepsake. And then, as God still didn’t do anything, he STOLE something; took away a little bag of sugar and a tiny wee tin of biscuits out of the shop, and hid them; and when he told Luce, she did, too, and took a little sofa from the doll’s-house drawing-room. But afterwards a man came with a pencil and book, and Mamma said he was going to write down the name of every single thing that was for sale, and then Luce got afraid, and told, and asked Mamma if she might keep it, and Mamma said no, it wouldn’t be honest; and so she put it back. But he didn’t; he stayed a thief; and said if Luce told on him, he’d put out both her doll’s eyes.

Mamma, she didn’t leave things behind . . . what SHE wanted. When Bridget fetched down from the top of the wardrobe those dirty old cork-boards with butterflies pinned to them — most of them had got their wings knocked off them now — and old glass boxes with bits of stone in them, and dead flowers, and asked Mamma what to do with all this rubbish, Mamma said, give them here, and how she wouldn’t part with them not for anything in the world. And he said, then he didn’t see why he couldn’t take his horse; and Mamma was cross, and said little boys didn’t know everything, but when he was as old as she was he’d understand. But he did now: it was because they were Papa’s. And when he said so, she sat back on her legs and went very red, and looked angry at him, and said: “What in the name of fortune is all this fuss for about that wretched animal? You know you hardly ever ride it now! It’s too small.”

“I don’t care . . . it’s mine!”

“Well, I think that’s a very selfish way of looking at it. — Besides where we’re going, if we arrive with big, expensive toys, people will think we’ve come there under false pretences.”

“And then?”

“Then we might be turned out.”

Cuffy paled. “Is that because it’s going to be a post office?”

“Yes. And now I hope you’ll leave off pestering.”

The day the oxshun was, millions of people walked about the house just as if it was theirs. He and Luce went to Granny’s; and Pauline took them for a bathe and let them stop in till his teeth trembled. But a few days after they had to get up again in the middle of the night, and a buggy came to the door and Mamma and Papa got in, and all their trunks and portmanteaux, and drove to the pier. A funny little steamer was there to take them to Melbourne, and it was pitch dark; they had to go on board with a lantern. And they sat in a teeny-weeny saloon that was the shape of a heart, with one lamp hanging in the middle; and it was so dark you could hardly see your faces. And there was nobody else. Luce went to sleep; and Mamma was sick; but in between, when she felt better, she tried to pull the rug up round Papa — it would slip off . . . she was always very kind to Papa now. But Papa was angry. He said: “I don’t LIKE this, Mary; it’s not what I’ve been accustomed to. There’s something hole-and-corner about it.” And she patted his hand: “But so nice and private, dear. We’ve got it all to ourselves.” But Papa went on talking about who he was, and the kind of ships he’d travelled in, till Mamma told him how cheap it was, and what a lot of money it was going to save her. And then he began to cry, and cried and cried — and the captain (Mamma said) came in and looked at him — till he went to sleep. But HE couldn’t sleep. He’d always thought, even if they had to go away, there would be the beautiful steamer to sail on, with a big deck, and lots of people, and the band playing. Now he knew, because of Papa they weren’t good enough for big steamers any more. And it seemed just hours he lay and watched the lamp swing, and listened to Mamma being sick, and the waves making a noise on the sides; and always more strange men — sailors and things — came in and pretended to be busy. But he believed just so they could take a good look at Papa, who was asleep now, with his head hanging down and his mouth wide open, making funny noises . . . not like a grown-up gentleman any more.


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