Ultima Thule, by Henry Handel Richardson

Chapter VIII

He had enjoined her to patience and patient she was — though week ran into week and month to month, in all of which time she knew nothing of what was happening behind the scenes, or what strings Ocock was pulling to upset the cumbrous machinery of medical law. She just dragged on from day to day, in ignorance and suspense. But her nerves often got the better of her, and then the children felt her heavy, hasty hand. While, in her official capacity, so set did she become on her “rights,” so unblushing in making her voice heard, that her name grew to be a by-word in the service. “That tartar at G.G.?” (which was the morse call for Gymgurra) was how she was familiarly spoken of.

In this dreary time, when her narrow walls oppressed her to breathlessness, but from which there was no possible escape for her, one piece of good fortune came her way. The house at Shortlands found a tenant; and so the money which she had laboriously scraped together for the following quarter’s rent would not be needed. Hence when at last the tide began to turn, with the substitution of “highly dangerous,” and “a most risky experiment,” for the maddening “impossible,” she actually had a small sum in hand with which to make her preparations. And she set about these forthwith; building on her recently acquired knowledge of men and their ways. She could look for no complete VOLTE FACE on their part. Only in this grudging, half-hearted fashion would their consent be given.

Help in the house she must have, was she to be free to devote what time she could spare from her office-work to Richard. Her first thought was naturally of her poor old ageing sister, and she wrote to Zara, offering her house-room in exchange for her services. But though in her last situation little more than a nursemaid, Zara declined the proposal as stiffly and uncompromisingly as if she were rolling in money: dubbing Mary mad as a March hare to think of removing “our poor dear Richard” from safe control; madder still to imagine that she, Zara, with her delicate nerves, would be able to live for a single day under the same roof as a lunatic. Emmy, unasked, wrote begging to be allowed to help care for “poor darling Uncle.” But quite apart from the mixed motives that underlay the offer, this was out of the question. You could not so take the bloom off a young girl’s life. There would be things to do for Richard — unfit things . . . And it was here that Mary bethought herself of the woman she had befriended on her journey to town, whose son had died soon after. So, in the same terms as to Zara, she wrote to “Mrs. Bowman at Sayer’s Thack”— though it did seem rather like posting a letter into the void. Almost by return, however, came an ill-spelt scrawl, joyfully accepting the job; and a little later Mrs. Bowman herself got out of the coach, with all her worldly goods tied up in one small cardboard-box, but carrying with her, as a gift, a stringy old hen (fit only for the soup-pot) and half a pound of dairy butter. And in this poor, lone soul, Mary found yet another of those devoted, leech-like friends, who had starred her path through life.

The final surrender came in the form of a lengthy screed from Mr. Henry, in which he informed her that, after surmounting difficulties and obstacles greater even than he had anticipated, he had at last succeeded in bringing the various authorities involved — medical, legal, postal — to agree to the plan of Dr. Mahony’s removal from control being given a provisional trial. That was to say, the patient would be accompanied to Gymgurra by two warders, who would remain while the experiment was made. In the event of it failing, they would immediately escort the patient back to the asylum. Followed, this, by four pages in which Mr. Henry begged her once more seriously to consider what she was doing. It was still not too late to draw back. Should she, however, decide to go forward, he trusted she would further show her friendship for him by regarding him as her banker, if the expenses of the undertaking proved too heavy for her purse. He would be only too happy to assist her. — Well, thank goodness, owing to her little windfall, she need be beholden to nobody; although, at this pass, she would not have hesitated to borrow freely. But, Bowey’s expenses settled, she had still enough in hand to cover the three fares up from town, and those of the warders back; as well as their board and lodging while in Gymgurra.

Only the day of arrival now remained to be fixed. But now, too, in the small hours when she lay waiting for the night mail, Mary was assailed by her first fears and apprehensions. It was not her ability to cope with, and control, and nurse Richard that she doubted. No, her fears concerned herself. Her own strength was already sorely taxed, she on the brink of those years when a woman most needed rest and care and a quiet life. Suppose SHE should fall ill? . . . need nursing herself? Or that she should die before him . . . be forced to leave him? . . . him and the children. This was the thought that haunted her nights; and though she drove it from her, fought it valiantly, it was often not to be got under till she had risen and paced the house.

When Cuffy heard that Papa was coming home, his black eyes opened till they seemed to fill his face.

“Do you mean he . . . he’s coming back here? NOW?”

“Yes. And you chicks must try your best to help me. I shall have more than ever to do.”

“But is he . . . isn’t he still . . .” It was no use; his mouth was full of tongue; the “mad” simply wouldn’t come out. To which half-asked question Mamma said firmly: “Run away and play.”

But they were moving his bed, and he saw them: saw, too, a new bed being carried into Mamma’s room. “What’s that for? And where’s my bed going?” And at the news that from now on he was to sleep in Bowey’s room, the dismay he had so far bitten back broke through. “Oh no, I CAN’T, Mamma! I won’t! . . . sleep in the same room as her.”

“And why not, indeed?”

“She’s . . . she’s a LADY.”

“Really, Cuffy! I do wonder where you get your ideas from. Pray, haven’t you been sleeping all this time with Lucie and me? Are we not ladies, too?”

No, of course not — they were only just their two selves. But as usual he didn’t try to explain. It was never a bit of good.

With Lucie, whose chubby face wore a harassed look, beside him, he sat on the back steps with his elbows on his knees, his chin hunched in his hands. The yard was mostly potatoes now — the floury sort that were so good to have for dinner, but left hardly any room to play. For you hadn’t got to tread on them. — Oh, WHY did Papa need to come back? They had been so happy without him . . . even though they had to keep a post office, and weren’t REAL ladies and gentlemen any more. But nobody had once laughed at them — at him and Luce — since they came here, and they had had nothing to be ashamed of. Now it was all going to begin over again. Oh, if only there had been anywhere to run to, he would have run away. But there wasn’t, only just long, straight roads.

Here Lucie put her mouth inside his ear and whispered guiltily “I don’t b’lieve you’re a bit glad!”

“Are YOU?”

Luce nodded hard. Mamma was glad, so she was too; or she’d thought she was till now. But Cuffy looked so funny that her little soul began to be torn afresh, between these two arbiters of her fate.

Cuffy wrinkled his lips up and his nose down. “You’re not TRUE! I don’t believe it.”

“I am!” But her face puckered.

“Well, I’m NOT . . . not a scrap! So there! And if you want to, you can go and tell.”

But she didn’t; she only cried. Cuffy was always making her cry. He couldn’t ever be nice and think the same as Mamma and her. He always had to be diffrunt.

It certainly WAS hard though, to keep on being sorry, when you saw how glad Mamma was. She smiled much more now, and sewed shirts, and got them ready for Papa; and she bought a new rocking-chair, specially for him to sit and rock in. And every day was most dreadfully anxious to know if there wasn’t a letter in the mail-bag, to say when he was coming. And then she told them about how unhappy Papa had been since he went away, and how he had to eat his dinner off tin plates; and how they must try with all their mights to make up to him for it. And then she went back and told them all over again about when they were quite little, and how fond Papa had been of them, and how he thought there were no children in the world like his; and how, now he was old and ill, and not himself, they must love him much more than ever before. It made you feel HORRID. But it didn’t help; you JUST COULDN’T be glad. It was like a stone you’d swallowed, which stuck in you, and wouldn’t go down.

And, at length, the suspense in which Mary lived was ended, by a letter definitely fixing a date for the arrival of Richard and his keepers. They would land at the neighbouring seaport, between eight and nine in the morning. It was on her advice, Richard being so excellent a sailor, that the sea route had been chosen for its greater privacy, few people, even at this time of year, choosing to undergo a buffeting round the wild coast. Now, all she had to do was to send word over the road to Mr. Cadwallader Evans of the Bank. Long since, this kind friend had placed his buggy and pair at her disposal for the occasion.

She rose at six when the morning came, and was busy brushing and shaking out her clothes: she had not been over the threshold since her return from Melbourne. Not wishing to disgrace Richard by too shabby an appearance, she put on her one remaining silk dress with its many flounces, her jet-trimmed mantle, her best bonnet . . . in which still nodded the red rose he had been used to fancy her in. But her hands were cold and stupid as she hooked and buttoned and tied strings; and, having climbed into the buggy and taken her seat, she sat with a throat too dry for speech.

And after one or two well-meant efforts at encouragement, the chatty little man who was her companion respected her mood. He considered her “a dam fine woman for her age,” and “a dam plucky one, too,” but held the errand they were out on for “a dam unpleasant job,” and one he had undertaken solely to please his wife, who thought the world of Mrs. Mahony. He didn’t dare even to hum or to whistle, and so, except for a passing flip or chirrup to the ponies, they drove mile after mile in silence, neither casting so much as a glance at the landscape, which both thought ugly and dull: once past the volcano — a knobbly bunch of island-hills set in the middle of a shallow, weed-grown lake — it consisted of unbroken grassy downs, which sloped to a sandy shore on which the surf broke and thundered.

The wide streets of the little port were deserted; but at the jetty quite a crowd had gathered. There stood passengers who had already been landed, several idle girls and women, a goodly sprinkling of larrikins. One and all had their eyes fixed on a small rowing-boat that was making for the shore from the steamer, which lay at anchor some way out.

Having dismounted and joined the throng, Mary asked of a young girl standing by: “What is it? What’s the matter?”

“Ooo . . . such fun!” said the girl, and tittered. “See that boat? There’s a madman in it. He’s being put off here. They’ve had to tie his arms up.”

“Don’t you think you should let me see to things? . . . and you wait in the buggy?” asked Mr. Evans in concern. But Mary shook her head.

As the boat drew near, riding the surf, they saw that it contained, besides the oarsmen, two burly men who sat stooped over something lying prostrate on the floor of the boat. Mary hung back, keeping on the outskirts of the crowd, the members of which now pushed and pressed forward. But though the boat was alongside, its oars shipped, nothing happened — or nothing but a series of cries and shouts and angry exclamations, several men’s voices going at once.

“They can’t make him get up, that’s what it is,” volunteered the girl, her pretty face distorted with excitement. “I bet they’ll have to tie his legs as well, and then just haul him out. What fun if he falls in the water!”

“I can’t bear this,” said Mary in an undertone; she believed she could hear, as well, the sound of cuffs and blows. “I must see what I can do.” And in spite of her companion’s demur, she stepped forward. Bravely tossing her head, she said to those around her: “Will you please let me pass? It’s my husband.”

They almost jumped aside to make way for her; open-mouthed, embarrassed, or flushed a dark red, like the pretty girl. Mary felt rather than saw the nudging elbows, the pointing and whispering, as, herself now the gazing-stock, she walked through the opening they left. Outwardly erect and composed, inwardly all a-quake, she advanced to the edge of the jetty and went down three shallow steps to the landing-place.

The rough voices ceased at her approach, and the warders desisted from their efforts to shift a heavy body that struggled desperately to oppose them.

“Please, stand back, and let me try.” As she spoke she caught a glimpse, at the bottom of the boat, of disordered clothing, dishevelled strands of white hair, a pair of roped hands working violently. Leaning as far over as she dared, she said in a low, but clear voice: “Richard dear, it’s me — Mary. Don’t you know me?”

On the instant the contortions ceased, and a kind of listening silence ensued. Then came a palpable attempt on the part of the prostrate form to raise itself; while a thin, cracked voice, which she would never have recognised as Richard’s, said in a tone of extreme bewilderment: “Why, it’s . . . it’s Mrs. Mahony!”

“Yes, it’s me; I’ve come to take you home. Get up, Richard — but at once, dear! . . . and don’t lie there like that. The buggy’s waiting.” Again he made, she saw, a genuine effort to obey; but once more fell back.

“Take that rope off his hands.” And disregarding a warder’s: “Well, at your own risk, lady!” she added: “And help him up.”

But this was easier said than done. No sooner did the men approach him than his struggles began anew. He would not be touched by them. It was left to Mr. Evans and one of the sailors, who had not made off like the rest, to untie his wrists; after which, seizing him under the armpits, they hoisted him on to the quay. (“Mrs. Mahony . . . why, it’s Mrs. Mahony!” piped the thin voice.)

“And now take my arm and come quietly . . . as quietly as you can. There are people watching. Show them how nicely you can walk.”

(“Mrs. Mahony. .. Mrs. Mahony.”)

With him a dead weight on her right arm, Mr. Evans at his other side pushing and supporting, they got his poor old shambling legs up the steps and through the crowd. He was so cold and stiff from exposure that it was all he could do to set one foot before the other. He had no boots on, no hat, no greatcoat. Of the carpet-slippers in which they had let him travel, one had been lost or had fallen off in the boat; his sock was full of holes. In his struggles the right-hand sleeve of his coat had been almost wrenched from its armhole, his dirty shirt was collarless, his grey hair, long uncut, hung down his neck.

And the fear he was in was pitiful to see: he turned his head continually from side to side, trying to look back. “Where are they? Oh, DON’T let them get the doctor! . . . don’t let them get him!”

“No, no, my darling! . . . don’t be afraid. You’re quite safe now . . . with me.” And as soon as he had been half shoved, half dragged into the buggy, she sent her companion to warn the warders to keep out of sight. If follow they must, it would have to be in a separate vehicle.

On the drive home she took Richard’s poor benumbed hands in hers and chafed them; she spread her skirts over his knees to keep the wind off, unhooked her mantle and bound it round his chest. His teeth chattered; his face was grey with cold. Then, opening the little bottle of wine and water and the packet of sandwiches which she had brought with her, she fed him, sip by sip and bit by bit, for he was ravenous with hunger and thirst. And though he quieted down somewhat, under the shelter of the hood, she did not cease to croon to him and comfort him. “It’s all right, my dear, quite all right now. Those horrid men are far away; you’ll never, never see them again. You’re with me, your own Mary, who will look after you and care for you.” Until, his hunger stilled, his worst fears allayed, exhausted, utterly weary, he put his head on her shoulder and, with her arm laid round him to lessen the jolts of the road, fell asleep, slumbering as peacefully as a child on its mother’s breast.

And so Richard Mahony came home.


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