Ultima Thule, by Henry Handel Richardson

Chapter X

Thus the shadows deepened. For still some time Mahony contrived to cover, unaided, the few yards that separated bedroom from sitting-room. Then he took to shouldering his way along the walls, supporting himself by the furniture. And soon, even this mode of progression proving beyond him, he needed the firm prop of an arm on either side, was he to reach his seat by the window. Finally his chair was brought to the bedside, and, with him in it, was pushed and pulled by the two women to the adjoining room.

He never set foot to the ground again; was very prisoner to this chair. Nor could he stoop, or bend his body sideways; and did he now drop his spectacles, or let his paper flutter to the floor, the house resounded with cries of “Mrs. Mahony, Mrs. Mahony!” or “the Cook, the Cook!” Dead from the waist down, he sat wooden and rigid; and the light of the poor clouded brain that topped this moribund trunk grew daily feebler. His newspaper ceased to interest him; he no longer hymned his own praises: he just sat and stared before him, in mournful vacancy.

Oh, what a work it was to die! — to shake off a body that had no more worth left in it than a snake’s cast skin, Mary could imagine him saying of himself. — Not so she. She clung jealously to each day on which she still had him with her; plodding to and fro on hot, swollen feet; gladly performing the last, sordid duties of the sick-room.

Then, gangrene setting in, he became bedridden; and she and Bowey united their strength to turn him from side to side, or to raise him the few necessary inches on his pillow. He was grown quite silent now, and indifferent to every one; the sight of food alone called up a flicker of interest in his dull eyes. But the day came when even to swallow soft jellies and custards was beyond him, and a few teaspoonfuls of liquid formed his sole nourishment. And at length his throat refusing even this office, there was nothing to be done but to sit and watch him die.

For three days he lay in coma. On the third, the doctor gave it as his opinion that he would not outlive the night.

Beside the low, trestle-bed in which, for greater convenience, they had laid him, and on which his motionless body formed a long, straight hummock under the blankets, Mary sat and looked her last on the familiar face, now so soon to be hidden from her . . . it might be for ever. For who knew, who could REALLY know, if they would meet again? In health, in the bustle of living, it was easy to believe in heaven and a life to come. But when the blow fell, and those you loved passed into the great Silence, where you could not get at them, or they at you, then doubts, aching doubts took possession of one. She had sunk under them when her child died; she knew them now, still more fiercely. Death might quite well be the end of everything; just so many bones rotting in a grave. — And even if it was not, if there WAS more to come, how could it ever be quite the same again? — the same Richard to look at, and with all his weaknesses, who had belonged to her for nearly thirty years. She didn’t believe it. If heaven existed, and was what people said it was, then it would certainly turn him into something different: a stranger . . . an angel! — and what had she to do with angels? She wanted the man himself, the dear warm incompetent human creature at whose side she had been through so much. Who had so tried, so harassed her, made her suffer so. — Oh, as if that mattered now! What WAS life, but care and suffering? — for every one alike. His had never been much else. Even though his troubles were mostly of his own making. For he had always asked more of life than it could give: and if, for once, he got what he wanted, he had not known how to sit fast and hold it: so the end was the poor old wreck on the bed before her. Now, death was best. Death alone could wipe out the shame and disgrace that had befallen him — the shame of failure, the degradation of his illness. Best for the children, too; his passing would lift a shadow from their lives . . . they were so young still, they would soon forget. Yes, best for every one . . . only not for her. With Richard, the most vital part of herself — a part compounded of shared experience, and mutual endeavour, and the common memories of a lifetime — would go down into the grave. — Burying her face in her hands, Mary wept.

By day, for the children’s, for her work’s sake, she was forced to bear up. Now there was nobody to see or hear her. The office was closed, the children slept: old Bowey dozed over the lamp in the kitchen. She could weep, without fear of surprise, alone with him who had passed beyond the sound of human grief; in this little back room where, by the light of a single candle, monstrous shadows splashed walls and ceiling: shadows that stirred, and seemed to have a life of their own; for it was winter now, and the wild Australian wind shrilled round the house, and found its way in through the loosely fitting sashes.

How long she sat thus she did not know: she had lost count of time. But, of a sudden, something . . . a something felt not heard, and felt only by a quickening of her pulses . . . made her catch her breath, pause in her crying, strain her ears, look up. And as she did so her heart gave a great bound, then seemed to leave off beating. HE HAD COME BACK. His lids were raised, his eyes half open. And in the breathless silence that followed, when each tick of the little clock on the chest of drawers was separately audible, she saw his lips, too, move. He was trying to speak. She bent over him, hardly daring to breathe, and caught, or thought she caught the words: “Not grieve . . . for me. I’m going . . . into Eternity.”

Whether they were actually meant for her, or whether a mere instinctive response to the sound of her weeping, she could not tell. But dropping on her knees by the bedside, she took his half-cold hand in her warm, live one, and kissed and fondled it. And his lids, which had fallen to again, made one last supreme effort to rise, and this time there was no mistaking the whisper that came over his lips.

“Dear wife!”

He was gone again, even as he said it, but it was enough . . . more than enough! Laying her head down beside his, she pressed her face against the linen of the pillow, paying back to this inanimate object the burning thankfulness with which she no longer dared to trouble him. Eternity was something vast, cold, impersonal. But this little phrase, from the long past days of love and comradeship, these homely, familiar words, fell like balsam on her heart. All his love for her, his gratitude to her, was in them: they were her reward, and a full and ample one, for a lifetime of unwearied sacrifice.

Dear wife! . . . dear wife.

He died at dawn, his faint breaths fluttering to rest.

* * * * *

Close on two days had to elapse before relative or friend could get to her side: by the time Jerry and Tilly reached Gymgurra, she herself had made all arrangements for the last rites, and Richard was washed and dressed and in his coffin, which stood on a pair of trestles just outside the kitchen door, the doorways of the rooms having proved too narrow to admit it. There he lay, with a large bunch of white violets in his folded hands, looking very calm and peaceful, but also inexpressibly remote — from them all, from everything. Never again would the clatter of crockery or the odours of cooking flay his nerves.

The children, feeling oddly shy, sought their usual refuge; and when strange men came with the coffin, and there was a great walking about and tramping, they were told to keep out of the way. But afterwards Mamma called them in, and took their hands and took them to see Papa, who was all put in his coffin now, with a bunch of flowers in front of him and his head on a most BEAUTIFUL satin pillow trimmed with lace. And Mamma kissed him and stroked his hair, and said how young and handsome he looked, with the wrinkles gone away from his face; but Cuffy only thought he looked most frightfully asleep.

Luce had to have her hand held every time she went by; but he didn’t; he didn’t care. And all the time Papa had lain in bed and was so ill, he hadn’t either. Even when he heard he was dead, and saw him with a sheet pulled over his face, it didn’t seem to make any difference. Or wouldn’t have, if other people hadn’t been so sorry for him. To see them sorry gradually made him sorry, too. For himself. And that night, when a great fat moon was on the sky, he went away and stood and looked up at it, and then something that was just like a line of poetry came into his head, and he said it over and over, and it went: “Now the moon looked down on a fatherless child!”

Next day though, when Papa was put in and you couldn’t help seeing him every time you went along the passage, it was different. And when Mamma got a large pocket-handkerchief and spread it over his face and hands (when you were dead you couldn’t shooh the flies away, and they liked to walk on you), then he suddenly felt he wanted to see Papa again, most awfully much. So when nobody was about, he went and pulled the handkerchief off, and had a good long look at him: much longer than when he was alive; for then Papa wouldn’t have liked it; besides him being too shy. Now he could stare and stare; and he did; till he saw a secret: Papa had a little black mole at the side of his nose, which he had never seen before. This, and what Bowey said: that they would soon come now and screw the lid down (just as he was, with the little mole, and his eyelashes, and everything), gave him a very queer feeling inside, and made his knees seem as if they weren’t going to hold him up much longer. He had to look away . . . quickly . . . look at the violets, which had been sent as a present: Papa was holding them just as if he was still alive. And when he saw them, he suddenly felt he would like to give him something, too. But only potatoes grew in the yard. Potatoes had quite pretty little flowers when they did have, white and purple, only they weren’t come yet. But that afternoon, when he was at the parsonage with a note and was coming away again, he STOLE a flower (a LOVELY little “polyanthers”), his heart beating nearly to choke him from having to step on the flower bed, which was all raked in lines, and in case he should be seen from the window. It got rather crushed being in his pocket, but it was very pretty, red and yellow, with bevelledy edges, and soft like velvet. And when Mamma was in the office and Bowey washing sheets, he went on tiptoe to Papa to put his flower in. He meant to hide it under the violets, where nobody but him would know; but doing this his hand touched Papa’s — and that was the end of everything. The mere feel of it, colder — much, much colder — than a glass, or a plate, or a frog’s back, filled him with horror . . . he nearly screamed out loud . . . and just dropped the flower anywhere and the handkerchief all rumpled up, and ran for his life. And tore and tore, out of the house and down the yard . . . to the only quite private place he knew . . . where no one but him ever went: the space between the closet and the fence, so narrow that you had to squeeze in sideways. And he was only just in time. Before he quite got there he’d begun to cry — as he’d never cried before. It came jumping out of him, in great big sobs. — He was GLAD Papa was dead — yes, ever so glad! — he told himself so, over and over. He’d never, never, never need to take him for walks again. And nobody would ever laugh, or point their fingers at them, or make fun of them, any more. For if you were once dead you stopped dead — he knew that now. Not like when Lallie died, and he had gone on waiting for her to come back. Papa would never come back . . . or walk about . . . or speak to them again. He was going down into the ground, just like he was, with the shiny pillow, and the violets, and . . . and everything. — Oh, no, NO! he couldn’t bear it . . . he couldn’t — even to think of it nearly killed him. And he stamped his feet and stamped them, in a frenzy of rebellious rage. Oh, he WOULD be good, and not care about anything, if only — if only . . . he’d take him for walks — anywhere! — yes, he would! — if only . . . Oh, Papa! . . . dear, darling Papa! . . . come back, come back!

Afterwards, he had to go out of the gate and hang about the road, till his eyes got un-red again: not for anything would he have let Mamma or Luce or Bowey know he had had to cry. — And it made him feel hot and prickly all over, when he went indoors, to see that somebody (Mamma most likely) had found the little tumbled polyanthers and picked it up and put it right in the middle of the bunch of violets. THAT hurt more than anything.

At the last moment, the doctor who was to have attended the funeral telegraphed that he was unavoidably detained. This left an empty place in the single mourning coach; and Tilly, scandalised as she was by the paucity of mourners, straightway fell to work to drape a streamer round Cuffy’s sailor-hat and sew a band on his left sleeve — she had arrived laden with gifts of crepe and other black stuffs. Open-mouthed, aghast, Cuffy heard his doom. But, though quaking inwardly, he clenched his teeth and said not a word: just stood and let her sew him. Because of Mamma.

It was Mary, suddenly grown aware of his silent agony, who came out of her own grief to say: “No, Tilly, let the child be! . . . I won’t have him forced. Richard would have been the last to wish it.”

But scarcely had Cuffy breathed again, when he was plunged into a fresh confusion. Men came to shut down the coffin; and then, while Mamma was waying good-bye to Papa, she suddenly burst out crying — oh, simply DREADFULLY! He felt himself blush over his whole body, to hear her — HIS Mamma! — going on like this in front of these strange people, so fierce and don’t-carish, and with her face all red and wrinkled up like a baby’s. But she didn’t seem to mind, and didn’t take a bit of notice when he poked her with his elbow and said: “Oh, hush, Mamma! They’ll hear you.” Or of Uncle Jerry either, who put his hand on her shoulder and said: “It’s all for the best, old girl — believe me, it is!” Aunt Tilly blew her nose so loud it hurt your ears, and winked and blinked with her eyes; but what SHE said was: “Remember, love, you’re not left quite alone; you’ve got your children. THEY’LL be your comfort. From now on they’ll put aside their naughty ways and be as good as gold — I know they will.” (Huh!)

The hearse stood at the door, its double row of fantastic plumes, more brown than sable from long usage and the strong sunlight, nodding in the breeze. Brownish, too, were the antique, funereal draperies that hung almost to the ground from the backs of two lean horses. The blinds in the neighbouring houses went down with a rush; and the narrow box, containing all that remained of the medley of hopes and fears, joys and sorrows and untold struggles, that had been Richard Mahony, was shouldered and carried out. The mourners — Jerry, the parson, the Bank manager — took their seats in the carriage, and the little procession got under way.

Rounding the corner and passing in turn the fire-bell, the Rechabites’ Hall and the flour-mill, hearse and coach, resembling two black smudges on empty space, set to crawling up the slope that led out of the township. From the top of this rise the road could be seen for miles, running without curve or turn through the grassy plains. About midway, in a slight dip, was visible the little fenced-in square of the cemetery, its sprinkling of white headstones forming a landmark in the bare, undulating country.

Amid these wavy downs Mahony was laid to rest. — It would have been after his own heart that his last bed was within sound of what he had perhaps loved best on earth — the open sea. A quarter of a mile off, behind a sandy ridge, the surf, driving in from the Bight, breaks and booms eternally on the barren shore. Thence, too, come the fierce winds, which, in stormy weather, hurl themselves over the land, where not a tree, not a bush, nor even a fence stands to break their force. Or to limit the outlook. On all sides the eye can range, unhindered, to where the vast earth meets the infinitely vaster sky. And, under blazing summer suns, or when a full moon floods the night, no shadow falls on the sun-baked or moon-blanched plains, but those cast by the few little stones set up in human remembrance.

All that was mortal of Richard Mahony has long since crumbled to dust. For a time, fond hands tended his grave, on which in due course a small cross rose, bearing his name, and marking the days and years of his earthly pilgrimage. But, those who had known and loved him passing, scattering, forgetting, rude weeds choked the flowers, the cross toppled over, fell to pieces and was removed, the ivy that entwined it uprooted. And, thereafter, his resting-place was indistinguishable from the common ground. The rich and kindly earth of his adopted country absorbed his perishable body, as the country itself had never contrived to make its own, his wayward, vagrant spirit.

This web edition published by:

The University of Adelaide Library
University of Adelaide
South Australia 5005


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