Ultima Thule, by Henry Handel Richardson

Chapter VII

But these were night thoughts. By day, when the children were their very human selves — high-spirited, quarrelsome, up to endless mischief — the question of Richard and Richard’s welfare again took first place in her mind.

The improvement she had so hoped for him, in his pleasant, care — free surroundings, did not come to pass. She saw this, not so much from what the doctors wrote — they were painfully guarded — as from his own letters to her. Week by week these grew more incoherent; not words only, whole sentences were now being left out. They were written, too, in a large, unformed, childish hand, which bore no likeness to his fine, small writing; were smudged, and ill-spelt. She felt them as shameful, and directly she had deciphered them hid them away: no eye but hers should see to what depths he had sunk.

And the doctors kept up their non-committal attitude to the end: the end, that was, of the three months for which she had their fees laid by. Then, they were forced to come out of their shell; and, to her letter saying that she could no longer afford to leave her husband in their charge and asking for a frank opinion on his case, they wrote her what she had feared and foreseen: there was no hope of recovery for Richard. His mental deterioration, since coming under their notice, had been marked; signs of arterial degeneration were now to be observed as well. Did she seriously contemplate removing him, they could only advise his further restraint in one of the public institutions. They trusted, however, that she would reconsider her decision to remove him. On all points it would be to the patient’s advantage.

In her distress, Mary crushed the letter to a ball in her hand. To re-read it, she had to stroke and smooth it flat again. For the step they were urging upon her meant the end of everything: meant certification; an asylum for the insane. (The children’s father a certified lunatic!) Yet, just because of the children . . . This was an objection the doctors had raised, in telling her that Richard might last for years — in his present state — when she first proposed keeping him with her. They would be doubly against it now. And for days she went irresolute, torn between pity for Richard and fear for her children. In the end it was once more Bowes-Smith who got the better of her. He pointed out how little, for all her devotion, she could do to ameliorate her husband’s lot, compared with the skilled nursing he would receive from properly trained attendants. Besides, Richard was, assured her, by now too far gone in inattention, really to miss her or to need her. There seemed nothing for it but gratefully to accept his offer, himself to take the affair in hand. Thanks to his influence, Richard had a chance of being lodged in one of the separate cottages at the asylum, apart from the crowd: he would be under a special warder, have a bedroom more or less to himself. And so, with a heavy heart Mary gave her consent; the various legal and medical formalities were set in motion; and, soon after, the news came that the change had been made and Richard installed in his new quarters. His books and clothing were being returned to her. (Prisoners — no, she meant patients — were not allowed any superfluous belongings. Nor, bitter thought! need she now rack her brains where the new suit was to come from, for which his late nurse had pressed, because of his growing habit of spilling his food. From now on, he would wear the garb of his kind.) But after this she heard no more: with the shutting of the gates behind him silence fell — a horrible, deathlike silence. Never again did one of his pitiful little letters reach her; and the authorities blankly ignored her requests for information. Finally, in response to a more vigorous demand than usual, she received a printed form stating that reports were issued quarterly, and hers would reach her in due course. Grimly she set her teeth and waited; meanwhile laying shilling to shilling for the journey to Melbourne which she could see lay before her. — But, when the time came, she had to part with a little brooch to which she had clung, because it had been one of Richard’s first gifts to her after marriage. Mr. Rucker, the clergyman, bought it of her for his wife.

Her story was, of course, common property in Gymgurra by now; and it was just an example of people’s kindness, when the very next day Mrs. Rucker brought the brooch back and, with her own hands, pinned it on again, saying things that made it impossible to take offence. Yes, Mary never ceased to marvel at the way in which friends sprang up round her in her need, and put themselves out to help her. These Ruckers, for instance — they had no family of their own — were constantly taking the children off her hands. Hence, when the week’s leave of absence for which she had applied was granted, she could part from Cuffy and Lucie with an easy mind.

And one cold spring night towards two o’clock, she put on her warmest travelling clothes and climbed into the coach for Colac. She had bespoken a seat . . . and a good job, too! For an election had taken place in the district, and the coach was crammed with men, some coming from the polling, others on their way to a cattle market. She sat, the night through, jammed in among them, her arms pinned to her sides, half suffocated with smoke, and deafened by their talk. Not till daybreak was she joined by one of her own sex. Then, on stopping at a wayside public-house, they found a thinly clad, elderly woman waiting for the coach, a little bundle in her hand. But there was not room for a mouse in among them, let alone an old woman: one rude voice after another bawled the information. At which the poor thing began to cry, and so heartbrokenly that Mary was touched. Elbowing her way to the window, she leaned out and questioned the woman. At what she heard, and at the continued crude joking of her fellow-travellers, she lost her temper, and rounding on them cried: “Do you mean to say there isn’t one of you who’s man enough to give up his seat?” And as, though the laughter ceased, none offered, she said hotly: “Very well then, if you won’t, I will! I’m on my way, too, to see a sick person, but I’ll take my chance of getting a lift later in the day. — I’m glad I’m not a man . . . that’s all!”

“Now then, missis, keep your hair on.” And a lanky young fellow, with hands like ploughshares and a face confusion-red at his own good deed, gawkily detached himself and stepped out. “Here y’are, ma, in you get! I’ll toddle along on Shanks’ p’s.”

The two women made the rest of the journey in company, Mary even treading underfoot the prejudice of a lifetime and going second-class in the train. (There was no Richard now, to cast up his eyes in horror.) The poor soul at her side told a sad story: one’s own troubles shrank as one heard it. She was bound for the Melbourne Hospital, where her son, her only child, lay dying: he had got “the water” on his chest, and the doctors had telegraphed she must come at once if she wanted to see him alive. Her husband had been killed at tree-felling only a few months back; and, her son gone, she would be alone in the world. Mary, feeling rich in comparison, shared with her her travelling-rug, her packet of sandwiches, her bottle of cold tea; and at Spencer Street station, having saved considerably on her fare, was able to put the poor mother in a wagonette and pay for her to be driven straight to the hospital. For she could see the bush-dweller’s alarm at the noise and bustle of the city.

On parting, the woman kissed her hand. “God bless you, ma’am . . . God bless and keep you, the kindest lady ever I met! — and may He restore your poor gentleman to his right mind! I shan’t never forget what you’ve done for me this day. And if ever there come a time when I c’ld do su’thing for you . . . but there! not likely — only Bowman’s my name — Mrs. Bowman, at Sayer’s Thack, near Mortlake.”

For Mary the Devines’ carriage and pair was in waiting. The old coachman smiled and touched his hat and said: “Very glad to see you again, ma’am!” tucked the black opossum-rug round her, and off they rolled, she lying back on the springy cushions. And all the time she was in Melbourne this conveyance stood freely at her disposal, Lady Devine being by now grown too comfortable even for “carriage exercise.” “By the time I’ve buttoned me boots, dearie, and put on me plumes, I’m dead beat. An’ there are the ‘orses eatin’ their ‘eads off in the stable. You can’t do Jake and me a greater kindness ‘n to use ’em.”

Without this mechanical aid: to expedite her hither and thither, to wait for her while she kept appointments, to carry her on anew, Mary could impossibly have got through what she did in the days that followed: looked back on, they resembled the whirligig horrors of a nightmare. She had come to Melbourne tired, sad, and anxious enough, in all conscience. But in the hard-faced, unscrupulous woman with which, at the end of the time, her glass presented her, she hardly recognised herself. Never in her life had she fought for anything as now for Richard’s freedom.

The morning after her arrival, she drove out to the asylum. The way led through lovely Toorak, with its green lawns and white houses, up Richmond Hill, and down into the unattractive purlieus of Collingwood. The carriage came to a standstill on a stretch of waste land, a kind of vast, unfenced paddock, where hobbled horses grazed. It could go no farther, for, between them and the complex of houses, cottages, huts which formed the asylum, flowed the unbridged river. Rain had fallen during the night, and the reddish, muddy stream, which here turned and twisted like a serpent, ran so high that the weeping willows (Richard’s favourite SALIX BABYLONICA) which lined the bank, dragged their branches deep in the flood. The houses, overhung by the ragged, melancholy gums, looked shabby and neglected; one and all in need of a coat of paint. Mary’s heart fell.

Seating herself in the ferry, she was conveyed across the water.

She had not announced her visit. Her intention was to see for herself how Richard was lodged and cared for, at those times when the place was closed to the public. Had the authorities known beforehand that she was coming, they might have dressed and dolled him up for her. (Yes! she was fast turning into a thoroughly suspicious and distrustful woman.) For passport, she had armed herself with a letter to the head doctor from Sir Jake Devine.

And well that she had. Great its virtue was not, but, without it, she would hardly have got over the threshold. And once inside the front door she had to fight her way forward, step by step: it needed all her native obstinacy, her newly acquired aggressiveness, not to allow herself to be bowed out by the several assistants and attendants who blocked her path. But having vowed to herself that she would see some one in authority, see him she did; though in the end they fobbed her off with a youngish fellow, to whom — he had cod’s eyes and a domineering manner — she took an instant and violent dislike.

By this time, too, her blood was up; and the incivility of her reception seemed the last straw. A good log-fire burnt in the fireplace — the rest of the building struck her as very damp and chill — a comfortable armchair was suitably placed, but he did not invite her to approach the fire or to take a seat. He stood while he spoke . . . and kept her standing. She had, he presumed, already been informed that this was not a visiting-day — and certainly not an hour for visitors. But as he understood that she had made a special journey from up-country, they had stretched a point. What did she want?

“To know how my husband is.”

His fish eyes bulged still more. Was that all? When the report would have been so shortly in her hands?

“I preferred to come myself. I wish to speak to my husband.”

“For that, ma’am, you will need to present yourself at the proper time.” (Then it was as she thought. They were NOT going to let her see Richard unprepared.)

As, however, she made no movement to withdraw, but stood her ground with, for all her shabby dress and black gloves showing white at the finger-tips, the air of a duchess, and an answer for everything (danged if he knew how to treat such a bold, bouncing woman!), he crossed the room, took a ledger from a rack, and asked in tones of exasperation: “Well, what in thunder is it then? . . . your husband’s name?”

“Quite so . . . exactly!” he cut her reply short. “If you think, madam, with the dozens of patients we have on our hands . . . it is possible to remember . . . the details and antecedents of each individual case. . .” As he spoke he was running a fat finger down column after column. “Ha! here we have it.” Transporting the book to the central table, he laid it flat and faced her over it. “Here it is; and I regret to inform you that the report we should presently have sent you would have been of a highly unsatisfactory nature.”

“Why? Is he so much worse?” With difficulty her dry lips framed the words.

“I refer not to his state of health — the disease is running a normal course — but to his conduct. Ever since being admitted to the asylum, your husband has proved to the last degree obstreperous and unruly.”

“Well, that I cannot understand!” gave back Mary hotly. “Where he was — before he came here — they had only good to say of him.”

“No doubt, no doubt! A patient worth his eight or ten guineas a week —”

“FIVE, if you please! He received special terms . . . as a medical man.”

“All of which is beside the point. The fact remains that, to us, he is a constant source of trouble. We have been obliged more than once to place him in solitary confinement. His behaviour is such as to corrupt the other patients.”



“Well, all I can say is . . . there must be something very wrong in the way he’s treated. He would never willingly give trouble. By nature he’s one of the gentlest and politest of men.”

“Perhaps you would like to hear his warder on the subject?” And going to the fireplace the young man rang a bell and instructed a servant: “Send 97B’s keeper here to me.”

(97B? . . . why B? . . . why not A? Mary’s mind seized on the trivial detail and held fast to it, so as not to have to face the . . . the degradation the numbering implied.)

The warder entered touching his forelock: a coarse, strongly built fellow, with a low forehead and the underjaw of a prize-fighter. Her heart seemed to shrivel at thought of Richard . . . Richard! . . . in the power of such a man.

She hung her head, holding tight as if for support to the clasp of her sealskin bag, while the warder told the tale of Richard’s misdeeds. 97B was, he declared, not only disobedient and disorderly; he was extremely abusive, dirty in his habits (here the catch of the handbag snapped and broke), would neither sleep himself at night nor let other people sleep; also he refused to wash himself, or to eat his food. “It’s always the same ol’ story. No sooner I bring him his grub than he up and pitches the dishes at me head.”

She thought she had the fellow there. “Do you mean to tell me he . . that you give him fresh crockery to break every day?”

“Crockery? Ho, no fear! The plates and cups is all of tin.”

At this Mary laughed, but very bitterly. “Ah! now I see. That explains it. For I know my husband. Never would you get him . . . nothing would induce him . . . to eat off tin.”

“Needs Sevres no doubt!”

“No! All he needs is to be treated like a gentleman . . . by gentlemen.”

But she had to keep a grip on her mind to hinder it from following the picture up: Richard, forced by this burly brute to grope on the floor for his spilt food, to scrape it together, and either eat it or have it thrust down his throat. So she shut her ears, made herself deaf to their further talk, stood as it were looking through the speakers and out beyond — at her ripening purpose.

But when at the end of the interview she made a last, passionate appeal to be allowed to see her husband, she was not too absorbed to catch the glance, alive with significance, that passed between the men. Sorry, said the keeper, but the patient was in bed resting after a very bad night: he couldn’t on any account have him woke up again. At which excuse, things (old things), that she had heard from Richard about the means used to quell and break the spirits of refractory lunatics, jumped into her mind. There was not only feeding by force, the straitjacket, the padded cell. There were drugs and injections, given to keep a patient quiet and ensure his warders their freedom: doses of castor oil so powerful that the unhappy wretch into whom they were poured was rendered bedridden, griped, thoroughly ill.

But she saw plainly, here was nothing to be done. Her fight to get him back would have to be carried on outside the walls of the asylum. Buttoning her gloves with shaky, fumbling fingers, she confronted her opponents in a last bout of defiance. “I find it hard to believe a word of what you’ve said. But I know this: my husband shall not stay here. I’ll take him home and look after him myself. He shall never leave my side again.”

They all but laughed in her face. The idea was a very woman’s! No alienist would ever be got to revoke this particular patient’s certificate . . . or advise his release. In his fits of mania 97B was dangerous, and not merely to those about him; he needed protection against himself, which could only be given him by men trained to the job. Impossible! . . . utterly impossible.

She left them at it, turned her back and marched out of the room and down the corridor, through innumerable doors, not one of which she could afterwards remember having opened or shut (they were as insubstantial as the people she met on her passage), made her way to the ferry and up the other side, where she was helped into the carriage. And even while she bowled forward again, she continued to sit rigid and insensible, her sole movement being to pull off her gloves they incommoded her — that she might lock her fingers . . . in an iron grip. The skin of her face felt stretched: like a mask that was too tight for it. But she shed not a tear, either here or when, having reached home, she paced the floor of the room and told her story. Something stronger than herself had control of her: she was all one purpose, one flame. Her old friend it was who wept. “Oh, just to THINK of ’im being come to this! . . . ’im, the ‘andsomest man I ever saw, and the best as well.”

But she, too, said: “Impossible! Oh no, my dear, it COULDN’T be done,” when she heard of Mary’s determination. “Your children — you ‘ave your children to consider.”

“Oh, I can take care of them. But should I ever again know a moment’s peace, if I left him in that awful place? Richard? . . . my poor old husband? As it is he’ll believe I’ve deserted him . . . forgotten him . . . left off caring. No: I mean to get him out, or die in the attempt.”

And when the old lady saw the blazing eyes, the dilated nostrils, the set jaw with which this was said, she bowed before the iron will made manifest, and went over heart and soul to Mary’s side. “Well, then, my love and my dearie, if nothing else will do — and, oh my dear, I feel in the bottom of my ’eart you’re right — then what I say is, we — Jake and me ‘ull do everything that lies in our power to ‘elp you. I’LL manage Jake; you go on to the rest. Get ‘old of ’em somehow, and give ’em no quarter . . . and though they talk till all’s blue about their laws and certificates. What’s laws for, I’d like to know, if not to be got round?”

But this was the sole word of encouragement Mary heard. The rest of the world combined to iterate and reiterate the doctor’s verdict of impossible, utterly impossible.

She battered at every likely door. All sense of pride having left her, any influential or well-known person who in former years had broken bread at her table, or whom she had casually met at another’s, she now waylaid or ran to earth. For along with her pride went also the retiring modesty, the shrinking from prominence, that had hall-marked her years of wifehood. She was no longer the “lady,” watchful of her steps. She was a tiger fighting for her young — did not Richard, in his present state, stand for the youngest and most helpless of her children? — and she now found to her astonishment that she was quite capable of standing up to men, of arguing with them, of talking them down, and, if necessary, of telling them what she thought of them.

The medical profession, of course, furnished her with her most implacable opponents. The doctors to whom she turned acted as if SHE were the crazed one; or else they smiled good-humouredly at her, as at a child . . . or a woman. But if she stood firm, refusing to be browbeaten or cajoled, they gave her short shrift. To remove an insane person with notedly violent periods — a perfectly proper subject for detention — from medical safekeeping, in order to place him in inexperienced lay-hands: such an act would be a criminal proceeding on the part of any medical man found to sanction it. Her ignorance of matters medical alone acquitted her. Nor could she get them to credit the ill-treatment to which Richard was being subjected. Again it was sheer ignorance on her part that made her take this view. The asylum authorities were doubtless fully justified in what they did: you could not REASON with the deranged. And so on . . . and on. How she came to hate and dread the words Certification, Lunacy Laws, Lunacy Authorities! Their very sound seemed to shut away for ever, from the rest of humanity, from every human feeling, those unfortunates who had fallen beneath the ban.

Giving the doctors up as a bad job, she turned her attention to other influential people she had known: members of parliament, bankers, the clergy. And here she was received with the utmost consideration, no one of these old friends and acquaintances reminding her, by so much as a look, that she was now but a poor up-country postmistress. All alike deplored Richard’s fate, and offered her their heartfelt sympathy; but from none of them could she wring a promise of help or interference. Their concern was entirely for her, her personal safety, and that of her children. While the Bishop and his brethren spoke in muted voices of God’s Will, this mysterious Will to which it was one’s duty to submit — till she could have flung her bag at their heads. A stone for bread, indeed, when her only cry was: “Give me back my husband!”

Sir Jake, who had been won over — though rather half-heartedly, and solely as a result of endless, nagging curtain-lectures — did what he could; but he no longer held office and his influence was slight. And the person on whom Mary had built most, the one member of the present ministry she knew intimately, Henry Ocock, was not to be got at. Though she called every day, and sometimes twice a day, at his chambers, it was always to learn that business still detained him in Ballarat.

She applied for a second week’s leave of absence — and got it. And when but forty-eight hours of this remained and she had still achieved as good as nothing, she sent Mr. Henry a page-long telegram, imploring him, in the name of their old friendship, to grant her an interview.

He travelled to Melbourne by the next train. She met him one cold, dusty autumn afternoon, in a private sitting-room at Scott’s Hotel.

He came towards her with outstretched hands, but was so shocked at her appearance that he would not let her say a word before she was thoroughly rested and refreshed. Then, the waiter having withdrawn, he drew up his chair and begged her to tell him what he could do for her.

To this old friend, whose mottled hair she had known when it was sleekest, jettiest raven, she now opened her heart; beginning from the time when, almost against her will and certainly against her better judgment, she had yielded to the specious assurances of Bowes-Smith and his kind, and had consented to Richard becoming the inmate of a public lunatic asylum. —“Never should I have let him get into their clutches!”— But so much had been made of the treatment, the individual nursing he would receive there, and the beneficial effect this would have on him, that she had sunk her scruples. Afterwards had come the stoppage of his letters, the dead silence of his imprisonment, and her growing doubts; followed by her journey to town, her tragic discovery of his true state, the insolence she had had to put up with from the young assistant —“Hardly more than a medical student!”— the beggar’s calvary she had since been through. Not a living soul, it seemed, was willing to break a lance for Richard: once certified, a man might just as well be under the soil. On all sides she had been bidden to go home and live in peace. Knowing what she knew? Would other women have done it? If so, they were made of different stuff from her. She would think herself a traitor, if she did not fight for Richard’s release as long as she had a breath left in her body.

Ocock let her talk: heard her out in a lawyer’s cogitative silence, the while thoughtfully pulling at and stroking his chin. Even after she had ceased speaking he sat meditative — and so used was Mary, by now, to being instantly downed and dismissed, that this very silence fed her hopes. Hence when at last he broke it, his words had the force of a blow. For all he did was to bring to her notice a point which he very much feared she had overlooked. And this was that she was no longer a private individual, but a public servant in Government employ. Difficulties would certainly be raised from this side, too, did she apply — as she was bound to do — for permission to receive a certified lunatic in her home. The Department would hold that the efficient discharge of her duties and the care, at the same time, of a sick man, would be irreconcilable . . . impossible.

At this repetition of the word that had dogged her every step, something tipped over in Mary. Passionately flinging up her head, she looked full and squarely at Ocock: pinned with her own what Richard had been used to call “those shifty little black boot-buttons of eyes!” And then, almost before she knew it, words began to pour from her lips, things she could not have believed herself capable of saying — to any one, let alone Henry Ocock, now so far above her. (In after years of a sleepless night she would suddenly feel her face begin to burn in the darkness, at the mere remembrance of them. Spiritual blackmail would have been Richard’s name for it.)

It was of herself and Richard that she had meant to speak; of the tie between them which no living creature had the right to break. But Ocock’s presence seemed to bring the whole past alive before her, and the past brought Agnes, and memories of Agnes —“The dearest, truest little soul that ever lived!”— and of the murk and misery in which the poor thing’s days had ended. And under the influence of this emotion everything came out. Not only, lost to shame, did she throw in her listener’s teeth all she had done for Agnes: the expense she had been put to when she could ill afford it; the pains she had been at to save Agnes from herself: she also stripped the veneer off his own conduct, laying bare his heartlessness, his egoism, his cruelty, yes, even brutality: how, in order to keep up his dignity, save his own face, he had wantonly sacrificed his wife, abandoning her when she most needed love, pity, companionship; shutting her up to drink herself to death — even barbarously shipping her off to die alone, among strangers, in a strange land. Not a shred of self-respect did she leave on him: he should see himself for once as others saw him: and she went on, pouring out scorn on his hypocrisy and pretence, till she had him standing there as morally naked as he had come physically naked into the world, and would one day go out of it. Before she finished the tears were streaming down her cheeks . . . for Agnes; her own troubles completely forgotten for the moment, over the other’s tragedy.

Her voice failing her, she came to a stop: just sat and stared before her, feeling, now the fit was over, cold and queer and shaky. But nothing would have made her take back a word of what she had said; not even though — as was only too likely — she had ruined her chances for good and all.

As, however, the silence that followed seemed to be going to last for ever, she plucked up courage to glance at Mr. Henry. And she had the surprise of her life. For he was sitting gazing at her with a look such as she had never seen on his face; a kindly, indulgent, almost FOND look; and — oh, was it possible? — with his eyes full of tears. More, those eyes were now as steady as her own: had quite ceased furtively to dart and run. And the crowning touch was put to this strange reception of her tirade, by his nodding head, slowly, several times in succession, and saying: “A staunch and loyal advocate indeed! My friend, a great fighter has been lost in you.”

Then he got up and went to the window, where he stood looking down into the street. Mary sat motionless, but odd thoughts and scraps of thoughts were whizzing round her brain. This then was how . . . stand up to him, BULLY him . . . if Agnes had only . . . but would never have had the spirit. And then his eyes . . . the shiftiness more than half fear . . . fear of discovery . . . and, once found out — But, oh! not praise for her eloquence. If she hadn’t touched him . . . or had touched him solely in this way . . . .

Coming back to her he took her hands. “What you are asking of me, Mrs. Mahony, means difficulties of which you, as a woman, do not realise the quarter . . . the half. I will make you no fixed promises; which I might be unable to keep. All I will say is, that for your sake — your sake alone! — I will see what can be done.”

And with this single, straw to cling to, Mary travelled home.


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