Ultima Thule, by Henry Handel Richardson

Chapter III

Thus she bought peace. — But when the day came for putting up a guest in the house, for making use of the unused spare room, finesse did not avail; and a violent dispute broke out between them. To complicate matters, the guest in question was Richard’s old bugbear, Tilly.

Tilly, whose dearest wish had been fulfilled some six months back by the birth of a child, but who since then had remained strangely silent, now wrote, almost beside herself with grief and anxiety, that she was bringing her infant, which would not thrive, to town, to consult the doctors there. And Mary straightway forgot all her schemes and contrivances, forgot everything but a friend in need, and wrote off by return begging Tilly, with babe and nurse, to make their house her own.

Mahony was speechless when he heard of it. He just gave her one look, then stalked out of the room and shut himself up in the surgery, where he stayed for the rest of the evening. While Mary sat bent over her needlework, with determined lips and stubborn eyes.

Later on, in the bedroom, his wrath exploded in bitter abuse of Purdy, ending with: “No one belonging to that fellow shall ever darken MY doors again!”

At this she, too, flared up. “Oh . . . put all the blame for what happened on somebody else. It never occurs to you to blame yourself, and your own rashness and impatience. Who but you would ever have trusted a man like Wilding? — But Tilly being Purdy’s wife is nothing but an excuse. It’s not only her. You won’t let a soul inside the doors.”

“Why should my wishes alone be disregarded? The very children’s likes and dislikes are taken more account of. You consider every one . . . only not me!” “And you consider no one but yourself!”

“Well, this is my house, and I have the right to say who shall come into it.”

“It’s no more yours than mine. And Tilly’s my oldest friend, and I’m not going to desert her now she’s in trouble. I’ve asked her to come here, and come she shall!”

“Very well then, if she does, I go!”— And so on, and on.

In the adjoining dressing-room, the door of which stood ajar, Cuffy sat up in his crib and listened. The loud voices had wakened him and he couldn’t go to sleep again. He was frightened; his heart beat pit-a-pat, pit-a-pat. And when he heard somebody begin to cry, he just couldn’t help it, he had to cry, too. Till a door went and quick steps came running; and then there were Papa’s hands to hold to, and Papa’s arms round him; and quite a lot of Hambelin Town and Handover City to make him go to sleep.

The knot was cut by Tilly choosing, with many, many thanks, to stay at an hotel in town. There Mary sought her out one late autumn afternoon, when the white dust was swirling house-high through the white streets, and the south wind had come up so cold that she regretted not having worn her sealskin. Alighting from the train at Prince’s Bridge, she turned a deaf ear to the shouts of: “Keb, Keb!” and leaving the region of warehouses — poor John’s among them — made her way on foot up the rise to Collins Street. This was her invariable habit nowadays, if she hadn’t the children with her: was one of the numerous little economies she felt justified in practising . . . and holding her tongue about. Richard, of course, would have snorted with disapproval. HIS wife to be tramping the streets! But latterly she had found her tolerance of his grandee notions about what she might and might not do, wearing a little thin. In the present state of affairs they seemed, to say the least of it, out of place. She had legs of her own, and was every bit as well able to walk as he was. If people looked down on her for it . . . well, they would just have to, and that was all about it!

These brave thoughts notwithstanding, she could not but wish — as she sat waiting in a public coffee-room, the door of which opened and shut a dozen times to the minute, every one who entered fixing her with a hard and curious stare — wish that Tilly had picked on a quieter hotel, one more suitable to a lady travelling alone. She was glad when the waiter ushered her up the red-carpeted stairs to her friend’s private sitting-room.

Tilly was so changed that she hardly knew her. Last seen in the first flush of wifehood, high-bosomed, high-coloured, high-spirited, she seemed to have shrunk together, fallen in. Her pale face was puffy; her eyes deeply ringed.

“You poor thing! What you must have suffered!”

Mary said this more than once as she listened to Tilly’s tale. It was that of a child born strong and healthy —“As fine a boy as ever you saw, Mary!”— with whom all had gone well until, owing to an unfortunate accident, they had been forced to change the wet-nurse. Since then they had tried one nurse after another; had tried handfeeding, goat’s milk, patent mixtures; but to no purpose. The child had just wasted away. Till he was now little more than a skeleton. Nor had he ever sat up or taken notice. The whole day long he lay and wailed, till it nearly broke your heart to hear it.

“And me . . . who’d give my life’s blood to help ’im!”

“Have you seen MacMullen? What does he say?”

Tilly answered with a hopeless lift of her shoulders. “‘E calls it by a fine name, Mary — they all do. And ‘as given us a new food to try. But the long and short of it is, if the wasting isn’t stopped, Baby will die.” And, the ominous word spoken, Tilly’s composure gave way: the tears came with a gush and streamed down her cheeks, dropping even into her lap, before she managed to fish a handkerchief from her petticoat pocket.

“There, there, you old fool!” she rebuked herself. “Sorry, love. It comes of seeing your dear old face again. For weeping and wailing doesn’t help either, does it?”

“Poor old girl, it IS hard on you . . . and when you’ve so wanted children.”

“Yes, and’m never likely to ‘ave another. Other people can get ’em by the dozen — as ‘ealthy as can be.”

“Well, I shouldn’t give up hope of pulling him through — no matter what the doctors say. You know, Tilly . . . it may seem an odd thing to come from me . . . but I really haven’t VERY much faith in them. I mean — well, you know, they’re all right if you break your leg or have something definite the matter with you, like mumps or scarlet fever — or if you want a tumour cut out. But otherwise, well, they never seem to allow enough . . . I mean, for COMMON-SENSE things. Now what I think is, as the child has held out so long, there must be a kind of toughness in him. And there’s always just a chance you may still find the right thing.”

But when, leaning over the cot, she saw the tiny, wizened creature that lay among its lace and ribbons: (“Hardly bigger than a rabbit, Richard . . . with the face of an old, old man — no, more like a poor starved little monkey!”) when, too, the feather-weight burden was laid on her lap, proving hardly more substantial than a child’s doll: then, Mary’s own heart fell.

Sitting looking down at the little wrinkled face, her mother eyes full of pity, she asked: “What does Purdy say?”

“‘IM.?” Again Tilly raised her shoulders, but this time the gesture bespoke neither resignation nor despair. “Oh, Purd’s sorry, of course.”

“I should think so, indeed.”

“SORRY! Does being sorry HELP?” And now her words came flying, her aitches scattering to the winds. “The plain truth is, Mary, there’s not a man living who can go on ‘earing a child cry, cry, cry, day and night and night and day, and keep ‘is patience and ‘is temper. And Purd’s no different to the rest. When it gets too bad, ‘e just claps on ‘is ‘at and flies out of the ’ouse — to get away from it. Men are like that. Only the rosy side of things for them! And, Purd, ‘e must be free. The smallest jerk of the reins and it’s all up. As for a sick child . . . and even though it’s ‘is own — oh, I’ve learnt SOMETHING about men since I married ’im, Mary! Purd’s no good to lean on, not an ‘apporth o good. ‘E’s like an air-cushion — goes in where you lean and puffs out somewhere else. And ‘ow can ‘e ‘elp it? — when there isn’t anything BUT air in ’im. No, ‘e’s nothing in the world but fizzle and talk . . . a bag of chaff — an ‘ollow drum.”

Mary heard her sadly and in silence. This, too. Oh, the gilt was off poor Tilly’s gingerbread in earnest.

But, in listening, she had also cocked an attentive ear, and now she said: “Tilly, there’s something about that child’s cry . . . there’s a tone in it — a . . .”

“‘Ungry . . .!” said Tilly fiercely. “‘E’s starving — that’s what it is.”

“Of course, hungry, too. But I must say it sounds to me more ANGRY. And then look how he beats the air with his little fists. He’s not trying to suck them or even get them near his mouth. What I’m wondering is . . . Richard can’t, of course, touch the case, now it’s in MacMullen’s hands. But I’m going home to tell him all about it. He used to have great luck with children in the old days. There’s no saying. He MIGHT be able to suggest something. In the meantime, my dear, keep a good heart. Nothing is gained by despairing.”

“Bless you, Mary! If any one can put spunk into a mortal it’s you.”

“Starving?” said Mahony on hearing the tale. “I shouldn’t wonder if starving itself was not nearer the mark.”

“But Richard, such a YOUNG child . . . do you really think . . . Though — I must say when I heard that EXASPERATED sort of cry . . .”

“Exactly. Who’s to say where consciousness begins? . . . or ends. For all we know, the child in the womb may have its own dim sentience. Now I don’t need to give YOU my opinion of the wet-nurse system. None the less, if the case were mine, I should urge the mother to leave no stone unturned to find the person who first had it at the breast. A woman of her class will still be nursing.”

“Mary! I’ll give ‘er the ‘alf of what I ‘ave. I’ll make a spectacle of myself — go on me knees down Sturt Street if need be; but back she comes!” were Tilly’s parting words as she stepped into the train.

And sure enough, not a week later a letter arrived to say that, by dint of fierce appeals to her motherhood and unlimited promises (“What it’s going to cost me, Purd will NEVER know!”), the woman had been induced to return. A further week brought a second communication to the breakfast-table, scrawled in a shaky hand and scrappily put together, but containing the glad news that the child had actually gained a few ounces in weight, and, better still, had ceased its heartrending wail. Tilly’s joy and gratitude were of such a nature that Mary did not dare to deliver the message she sent Richard, as it stood. She just translated the gist of it into sober English.

And a good job, too, that she had watered it down. For Richard proved to be in one of his worst, early-morning moods; and was loud in scorn of even the little she passed on.

He ended by thoroughly vexing her. “Never did I know such a man! Things have come to such a pass that people can’t even feel grateful to you, without offending you. Your one desire is to hold them at arm’s length. You ought to have been born a mole.”

In speaking she had hastily reinserted Tilly’s letter in its envelope. A second letter was lying by her plate. This she read with wrinkled brows, an occasional surreptitious glance at Richard, and more than one smothered: “Tch!” She also hesitated for some time before deciding to hand it, past three pairs of inquisitive young eyes, over the table.

“Here! I wonder what you’ll say to this? It’s not my fault this time, remember.”

Mahony incuriously laid aside his newspaper, took the sheet, frowned at the writing, and tilted it to the correct angle for his eyes, which were “not what they used to be.”

The letter ran:







“In plain English, I presume, it’s to be your duty to keep her off the bottle.”

“RICHARD! . . . ssh! How CAN you?” expostulated Mary, with a warning headshake; which was justified by Cuffy at once chiming in: “Do ladies have bottles too, Mamma, as well as babies?” (Cuffy had been deeply interested in the sad story of Aunt Tilly’s little one and its struggle for life.) “Now, you chicks, Lallie untie Lucie’s bib and all three run out and play. — NOT before the children, Richard! That boy drinks in every word. You’ll have him repeating what you say in front of Agnes. For I suppose what Mr. Henry really means is that we are to invite her here?”

“The hint is as plain as the nose on your face.”

“Yes, I’m afraid it is,” and Mary sighed. “I wonder what we should do. I’m very fond of Agnes; but I’ve got the children to think of. I shouldn’t like THEM to get an inkling . . . On the other hand, we can’t afford to offend an influential person like Mr. Henry.”

“I know what I can’t afford — and that’s to have this house turned into a dumping-ground for all the halt and maimed of your acquaintance. The news of its size is rapidly spreading. And if people once get the idea they can use it as they used ‘Ultima Thule,’ God help us! There’ll be nothing for it but to move . . . into a four-roomed hut.”

“Oh, Richard, if you would only tell me how we really stand, instead of making such a mystery of it. For we can’t go on living without a soul ever entering our doors.”

“We may be glad if we manage to live at all.”

“There you go! One exaggeration after the other.”

“Well, well! I suppose if Ocock has set his mind on us dry-nursing his wife again, we’ve got to truckle to him. Only don’t ask me to meet HIM over the head of it. I’ve no intention of being patronised by men of his type, now that I’ve come down in the world.”

“PATRONISED? When I think how ready people were to take us up again when we first came out! But you can’t expect them to go on asking and inviting for ever, and always being snubbed by a refusal.”

Agnes. Sitting opposite her old friend in the wagonette that bore them from the station, watching the ugly tic that convulsed one side of her face, Mary thought sorrowfully of a day, many a year ago, when, standing at the door of her little house, she had seen approach a radiant vision in riding-habit, curls and feathers. What a lovely creature Agnes had been! . . . how full of kindliness and charm . . . and all to end in this: a poor little corpulent, shapeless, red-faced woman, close on fifty now, but with the timid uncertain bearing of a cowed child. Never should she have married Mr. Henry. With another man for a husband, everything might have turned out differently.

The first of a series of painful incidents occurred when, the cab having drawn up at the gate, the question of paying the driver’s fare arose. Formerly, the two of them would have had a playful quarrel over it, each disputing the privilege with the other. Now, Agnes only said: “If you will be so good, love? . . . my purse so hard to get at,” in a tone that made Mary open her eyes. It soon came out that she had been shipped to Melbourne literally without a penny in her pocket. Wherever they went, Mary had to be purse-bearer, Agnes following meekly and shamelessly at her heels. An intolerable position for any man to put his wife in! It was true she had CARTE BLANCHE at the big drapery stores; but all she bought — down to the last handkerchief — was entered on a bill for Mr. Henry’s scrutiny. Did she wish to make a present — and she was just as generous as of old — she had so to contrive it (and she certainly showed a lamentable want of dignity, the skill of a practised hand, in arranging matters with the shopman) that, for instance, one entry on the bill should be a handsome mantle, which she never bought. The result was a sweet little ivory-handled parasol for “darling Mary;” a box of magnificent toys and books for the children, of whom she made much.

From her own she was completely divorced, both boy and girl having been put to boarding-school at a tender age. But Agnes was fond of children; and, of a morning, while Mary was shaking up the beds or baking pastry, she would sit on the balcony watching the three at play; occasionally running her fingers through the twins’ fair curls, which were so like the goldilocks of the child she had lost.

She never referred to her own family; had evidently long ceased to have any motherly feelings for them. She just lived on dully and stupidly, without pride, without shame — so long, that was, as she was not startled or made afraid. The company of the children held no alarms for her; but early in the visit Mary found it necessary to warn Richard: “Now whatever you do, dear, don’t be short and snappy before her. It throws her into a perfect twitter.”

And Richard, who, for all his violence of expression, would not have harmed a fly, was thereafter gentleness itself in Mrs. Henry’s presence, attending to her wants at table, listening courteously to her few diffident opinions, till the little woman’s eyes filled with tears and she ceased to spill her tea or mess her front with her egg. “The doctor . . . so nice, love . . . so very, very kind!”

“She has evidently been bullied half out of her wits.”

Throughout the fortnight she stayed with them, Mary was the faithfullest of guardians, putting her own concerns entirely on one side to dog her friend’s footsteps. And yet, for all her vigilance, she could sometimes have sworn that Agnes’s breath was tainted; while on the only two occasions on which she let her out of her sight . . . well! what then happened made her look with more lenience on Mr. Henry’s precautions. Once, Lucie had a touch of croup in the night and could not be left, so that Agnes must needs go alone to her dressmaker; and once came an invitation to a luncheon-party in which Mary was not included. Each time a wagonette was provided for Mrs. Henry from door to door, and paid to wait and bring her home; while Richard even condescended to give the driver a gentle hint and a substantial tip. And yet, both times, when she returned and tried to get out of the cab . . . oh dear! there was nothing for it but to say in a loud voice, for the servants’ benefit: “I’m so sorry you don’t feel well, dear. Lean on me!” to get the door of the spare room shut on her and whip her into bed.

“Jus’ like a REAL baby!” thought Cuffy, who had not forgotten the remark about the bottle. Running into the spare room in search of his mother, he had found Aunt Agnes sitting on the side of the bed, with only her chemise on and a very red face, while Mamma, looking funny, rummaged in a trunk. Going to bed in the daytime? Why? Had she been naughty? And was Mamma cross with her, too? She was with him. She said: “Go away at once!” and “Naughty boy!” before he was hardly inside. But Aunt Agnes was funny altogether. Cook and Eliza thought so, too. They laughed and whispered things he didn’t ought to hear. But he did once. And that night at the supper-table curiosity got the better of him, and he asked out loud: “Where’s Auntie Agnes too tight, Mamma?”

“Too tight? Now whatever do you mean by that?”

Mary’s tone was jocosely belittling. But Cuffy was not deceived by it. Instinctively he recognised the fond pride that lurked beneath the depreciation — the amused interest in “what in all the world the child would say next.” He was also spurred on by the attention of the Dumplings, who, remembering sad affairs of too much cake and tight pinny-bands, sat eager and expectant, turning their eyes from Mamma to him and back again.

“Why, Eliza said . . . she said Auntie Agnes was tight — too tight.”

Above his head the eyes of husband and wife met; and Mahony threw out his hands as if to imply: “There you have it!”

But Mamma was DREFULLY angry. “How dare you repeat such a nasty, vulgar thing! I’m ASHAMED of you — you naughty boy!”

Besides really “wanting to know,” Cuffy had thought his question a funny one, which would call forth laughter and applause. He was dumbfounded, and went red to the roots of his hair. What had he said? Why was Mamma so cross? Why was it more wrong for Auntie Agnes to be tight than Lallie or Lucie? — And now he had made Mamma and Papa cross with each other again, too.

“It’s not REPEATING kitchen talk that matters, Mary; but that the child should be in the way of hearing it at all.”

“Pray, how can I help it? I do my best; but it’s quite impossible for me never to let the children out of my sight. I’ve told you over and over again they need a governess.”

As the time approached for Mr. Henry’s arrival, Agnes grew more and more ill at ease: her tic redoubled in violence; she could settle to nothing, and wandered aimlessly from room to room; while, on receipt of the letter fixing the day, she began openly to shake and tremble. “You won’t mention to Henry, Mary . . . I mean . . . oh, love, you understand?” and all Mary’s tactful assurances did not quieten her. Her fear of her husband was painful to see; almost equally painful her barefaced relief when, at the eleventh hour, important business cropped up which made it impossible for Mr. Henry to get away.

“Of course, if things have come to this pass between them, then it’s much better they should be separated for a while. But that he can let ANY business interfere with seeing her off on so long a journey — well, all I can say is . . .” said Mary; and left the rest of her wrath to the imagination.

“Tut, tut! . . . when he’s got some one here to do his dirty work for him. He probably never had any intention of coming.”

So the two women drove to Sandridge and boarded a sailing-vessel bound for the Cape. The best cabin amidships had been engaged for Agnes, and tastefully furnished. There were flowers in it, and several boxes of biscuits and oranges for the voyage. But Agnes did not so much as look round; she only cried and cried; and, when the time for parting came, threw her arms about Mary and clung to her as if she would never let go. It was, said Mary afterwards, just like seeing a doomed creature off for perdition.

“I don’t believe she’ll ever come back. Oh, it’s a burning shame! Why couldn’t he have put her in a Home?”

“My dear, that would publish his disgrace to the world. He has chosen the one polite and irreproachable way of getting rid of her . . . without a scandal.”

“You mean . . .? But surely she won’t be able to get it on board ship?”

“If you think that, Mary, you still know next to nothing of the tricks a tippler is up to!”— And how right he was, was shewn when the cook, in turning out the spare room, came upon a regular nest of bottles — empty medicine bottles, the dregs of which bespoke their contents — tucked away inside the first bend of the chimney.

Mary wrote to Mr. Henry informing him of Agnes’s departure, also that the visit had passed off WITHOUT CONTRETEMPS: and shortly after, she received the gift of a photograph-album, bound in vellum and stamped in gold with her initials. It was a handsome and costly present. But Mahony waxed bitterly sarcastic over the head of it.

“An album! . . . a photograph-album! . . . as sole return for the expense we’ve been put to — why, cab-hire alone must have run into pounds — over HIS wife, whom we did not invite and had no wish to see. Not to speak of the strain the visit has been on you, my dear.”

“But Richard, you wouldn’t have had him send us money? — ask for our BILL?” Mary spoke heatedly to hide her own feelings, which were much the same as his. Richard singled out cab-fares; but these were but one item of many. In the course of a long day’s shopping Agnes and she had needed lunch and refreshment — manlike he no doubt imagined them living on air! — and not infrequently Agnes had fancied some article in a shop where no account was run: none of which extras had been mentioned to him. The truth was, what with this, that and the other thing, Mary had been forced to make a sad hole in her savings.

“We certainly don’t need Ocock’s assistance in going down-hill,” was Richard’s parting shot.



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