Ultima Thule, by Henry Handel Richardson

Chapter VII

“Cousin Emmy, tell about little Jacky.”

“Little Jacky what died.”

“No, DON’T! Tell what the gumtrees talk.”

Cuffy hated the tale of Baby Jacky’s illness and death; for Cousin Emmy always cried when she told it. And to see a grown-up person cry wasn’t proper.

The four of them were out for their morning walk, and sat resting on a fallen tree.

“Well, dears, poor little Jacky was so often ill that God thought he would be happier in heaven. His back teeth wouldn’t come through; and he was so feverish and restless that I had to carry him about most of the night. The last time I walked him up and down he put his little arms round my neck and said: ‘Ting, Memmy!’— he couldn’t say ‘sing’ or ‘Emmy’ properly, you know”— a detail which entranced the Dumplings, who had endless difficulties with their own speech. “And those were the very last words he said. In the middle of the night he took convulsions ——-”

“What ARE c’nvulshuns, Cousin Emmy?” The question came simultaneously, none of the three being minded, often as they had heard the story, to let the narrator skip this, the raciest bit of it.

“Why, poor darling, he shivered and shook, and squinted and rolled his eyes, and went blue in the face, and his body got stiff, and he turned up his eyes till you could only see the whites. And then he died, and we dressed him in his best nightgown, and he lay there looking like a big wax doll — with white flowers in his hands. And his little coffin was lined with white satin, and trimmed with the most BEAUTIFUL lace. . .” And here sure enough, at mention of her nursling’s last costly bed, Emmy began to cry. The three children, reddening, smiled funny little embarrassed smiles and averted their eyes; only occasionally taking a surreptitious peep to see what Cousin Emmy looked like when she did it.

With the heel of his boot Cuffy hammered the ground. He knew something else . . . about Cousin Emmy . . . something naughty. He’d heard Mamma and Papa talking; and it was about running away and Aunt Lizzie being most awfully furious. And then Cousin Emmy had come to stay with them. He was glad she had; he liked her. Her hair was yellow, like wattle; her mouth ever so red. And she told them stories. Mamma could only read stories. And never had time.

To-day, however, there would be no more. For round a bend of the bush track, by which they sat, came a figure which the children were growing used to see appearing on their walks. It was the Reverend Mr. Angus. He wore a long black coat that reached below his knees and a white tie. He had a red curly beard and pink cheeks. (Just like a lady, thought Cuffy.) At sight of the lovely girl in deep mourning, bathed in tears, these grew still pinker. Advancing at a jogtrot, their owner seated himself on the tree and took Emmy’s hand in his.

The children were now supposed to “run away and play.” The twins fell to building a little house, with pieces of bark and stones; but Cuffy determined to pick a BEEYUTIFUL nosegay, that Cousin Emmy would like ever so much, and say “How pretty!” to, and “How kind of you, Cuffy!” Mr. Angus had a face like a cow; and when he spoke he made hissing noises through his teeth. The first time he heard them, Cuffy hadn’t been able to tear his eyes away, and had stood stockstill in front of the minister till Cousin Emmy got quite cross. And Mr. Angus said, in HIS opinion, little people should not only be seen and not heard, but not even seen.

All right then! Whistling his loudest Cuffy sauntered off. He would be good, and not go near any of the old, open shafts; quite specially not the one where the old dead donkey had tumbled in and floated. You weren’t allowed to look down this hole, not even if somebody held your hand . . . like Mr. Angus did Cousin Emmy’s. (Why was he? She couldn’t fall off a LOG.) It had a nasty smell, too. Cousin Emmy said only to think of it made her sick. And Mamma said they were to hold their noses as they passed. Why was the donkey so nasty because it was dead? What did a dead donkey DO?

But first he would pick the flowers. It wouldn’t take long, there were such lots of them. Papa said we must thank the rains for the flowers; and it had rained every day for nearly a month. The Lagoon was quite full, and the tank, too; which made Mamma glad. — And now Cuffy darted about, tearing up bits of running postman, and pulling snatches of the purple sarsaparilla that climbed the bushes and young trees, till he had a tight, close bunch in his hot little hand. As he picked, he sniffed the air, which smelt lovely . . . like honey. . . . Cousin Emmy said it was the wattle coming out. To feel it better he shut his eyes, screwed them up to nothing, and kept them tight. And when he opened them again, everything looked NEW . . . as if he’d never seen it before . . . all the white trees, tall like poles, that went up and up to where, right at the top, among whiskery branches, were bits of blue that were the sky.

With the elastic of his big upturned sailor-hat between his teeth — partly to keep it on; partly because he loved chewing things: elastic, or string, or the fingers of kid gloves — Cuffy ran at top speed to the donkey-hole. But a couple of yards from the shaft his courage all but failed him. What was he going to see? And ooh! . . . it DID smell. Laying his flowers on the ground, he went down on his hands and knees and crawled forward till he could just peep over. And then, why, what a sell! It wasn’t a donkey at all — just water — and in it a great lump that stuck out like a ‘normous boiled pudding . . . oh, and a million, no, two million and a half blowflies walking on it, and a smell like — ooh, yes! just exactly like . . .

But before he could put a name to the odour, there was a great shouting and cooee-ing, and it was him they were calling . . . and calling. In his guilty fright Cuffy gave a jerk, and off went his hat with its pulped elastic — went down, down, down, while the blowflies came up. He just managed to wriggle a little way back, but was still on all fours (squashing the flowers) when they found him, Mr. Angus panting and puffing with tears on his forehead, Cousin Emmy pressing her hand to her chest and saying, oh dear oh dear! Then Mr. Angus took him by the shoulder and shook him. Little boys who ran away in the bush ALWAYS got lost, and never saw their Mammas and Papas again. They had nothing to eat and starved to death, and not till years afterwards were their skeletons found, Cuffy, who knew quite well where he was, and hadn’t meant to run away, thought him very silly . . . and rude.

It was the loss of the hat that was the tragedy. This made ever so many things go wrong, and ended with Cousin Emmy having to go back to live with Aunt Lizzie again, and them getting a real PAID governess to teach them.

Hatless, squeezed close up to Cousin Emmy to be under her parasol, Cuffy was hurried through the township. “Or people will think your Mamma is too poor to buy you a hat.”

The children’s hearts were heavy. It infected them with fear to see Cousin Emmy so afraid, and to hear her keep saying: “What WILL Aunt Mary say?”

Not only, it seemed, had the hat cost a lot of money — to get another like it Mamma would have to send all the way to Melbourne. But it also leaked out that not a word was to have been said about Mr. Angus meeting them, and sitting on the log and talking.

“Why not? Is it naughty?”

“Of COURSE not, Cuffy! How can you be so silly! But ——” But . . . well, Aunt Mary would certainly be dreadfully cross with her for not looking after him better. How COULD he be so dishonourable, the first moment she wasn’t watching, to go where he had been strictly forbidden to . . . such a DIRTY place! . . . and where he might have fallen head-foremost down the shaft and never been seen again.

Yes, it was a very crestfallen, guilt-laden little party that entered the house.

Mamma came out of the dining-room, a needle in one hand, a long thread of cotton in the other. And she saw at once what had happened, and said: “Where’s your hat? — LOST it? Your nice, new hat? How? Come in here to me.” The twins began to sniff, and then everything was up.

Yes, Mamma was very cross . . . and sorry, too; for poor Papa was working his hardest to keep them nice, and then a careless little boy just went and threw money into the street. But ever so much crosser when she heard where the hat had gone: she scolded and scolded. And then she put the question Cuffy dreaded most: “Pray, what were you doing there . . . by yourself?” In vain he shuffled and prevaricated, and told about the nosegay. Mamma just fixed her eyes on him, and it was no good; Mr. Angus had to come out. And now it was Cousin Emmy’s turn. She went scarlet, but she answered Mamma back quite a lot, and was angry, too; and only when Mamma said she wouldn’t have believed it of her, it was the behaviour of a common nursegirl, and she would have to speak to her uncle about her — at that Cousin Emmy burst out crying, and ran away and shut herself in her room.

Then Mamma went into the surgery to tell Papa. She shut the door, but you could hear their voices through it; and merely the sound of them, though he didn’t know what they were saying, threw Cuffy into a flutter. Retreating to the furthest corner of the verandah, he sat with his elbows on his knees, the palms of his hands pressed against his ears.

And while Emmy, face downwards on her pillow, wept: “I don’t care . . . let them fall down mines if they want to . . . he’s very nice . . . Aunt Mary isn’t fair!” Mary was saying: “I did think she could be trusted with the children — considering the care she took of Jacky.”

“Other people’s children, my dear — other people’s children! He might have been her own.”

Mary was horrified. “Whatever you do, don’t say a thing like that before Cuffy! It would mean the most awkward questions. And surely WE are not ‘other people?’ If Emmy can’t look after her own little cousins . . . . The child might have been killed, while she sat there flirting and amusing herself.”

“It’s not likely to happen again.”

“Oh, I don’t know. When I tackled her with it, she got on the high horse at once, and said it wasn’t a very great crime to have a little chat with somebody: life was so dull here, and so on.”

“Well, I’m sure that’s true enough.”

“WHAT a weak spot you have for the girl! But that’s not all. It didn’t take me long to discover she’d been trying to make the children deceive me. They were to have held their tongues about this Angus meeting them on their walks . . . . Cuffy went as near as he could to telling a fib over it. Now you must see I can’t have that sort of thing going on . . . the children taught fibbing and deceiving!”

“No, that certainly wouldn’t do.”

“Then, imagine a girl of Emmy’s birth and upbringing plotting to meet, on the sly, a man we don’t invite to the house! She’ll be the talk of the place. And what if she got herself into some entanglement or other while she’s under our care? John’s eldest daughter and an insignificant little dissenter, poor as a church mouse, and years older than she is! THINK what Lizzie would say!”

“My dear, Lizzie’s sentiments would be the same, and were it Croesus and Adonis rolled into one.”

“Well, yes, I suppose they would. — But Emmy is far too extravagant for a poor man’s wife. She changes her underclothing every day of the week. You should hear Maria grumble at the washing! Besides, she’s everlastingly titivating, dressing her hair or something. She does none of the jobs one expects from a nursery — governess. And if I venture to find fault . . . I don’t know, but she seems greatly changed. I think first her father’s death, and then Jacky’s have thoroughly spoiled her.”

“Well! to have the two mortals you’ve set your heart on snatched from you, one after the other, isn’t it enough to dash the stoutest? . . . . let alone an innocent young girl. Emmy has been through a great spiritual experience, and one result of it might very well be to mature her . . . turn her into a woman who feels her power. It will probably be the same wherever she goes, with a face like hers. In her father’s house, she would of course have met more eligible men than we, in our poor circumstances, can offer her. Still, my advice would be, such as they are, ask ’em to the house. Let everything be open and aboveboard.”

“What! invite that little Angus? Nonsense! It would only be encouraging him. Besides, it’s all very well for you to theorise; I have to look at it from the practical side. And it surely isn’t what one has a governess for? . . . to smooth the way for her flirtations. I may as well tell you everything. When she first came, I used to send her running up to the station — if I needed stamps, or small change, or things like that — Mr. Pendrell is always so obliging. But I had to stop it. She took to staying away an unconscionable time, and his wife must have got wind of it, she began to look so queerly at Emmy and to drop hints. Most uncomfortable. And then you’ve surely noticed how often old Thistlethwaite comes to see us now, compared with what he used to, and how he sits and stares at Emmy. He looks at her far too much, too, when he’s preaching, and I’ve heard him pay her the most outrageous compliments. A clergyman and a widower, and old enough to be her GRANDfather! But Emmy just drinks it in. Now, mind you, if there were any question of a decent match for her, I’d do what I could to help . . . for I don’t believe Lizzie will ever let her say how-do-you-do to an eligible. But I CANNOT have her getting into mischief here — why, even the baker tries to snatch a word with her when he delivers the bread! — and being branded as forward, and a common flirt. No, the truth is, she’s just too pretty to be of the least practical use.”

Mahony made no reply.

“Are you LISTENING, Richard? . . . to what I say?”

“Yes, I hear.”

“I thought you were asleep. Well, perhaps you’ll rouse yourself and tell me what I ought to do.”

“I suppose there’s nothing for it: Emmy must go.”

“And then?”


“I mean about the children. Who’s to give them their lessons and their music-lessons? . . . and take them out walking?”

“My dear, CAN you not teach them yourself for a bit?”

“No, Richard, I CANNOT! At the age they’re at now, they need one person’s undivided attention. They’ve simply GOT to have a governess.”

“Oh well! I suppose if you must you must . . . and that’s all about it.”

The implication in these words exasperated Mary.

“If I must? I’m not asking anything for myself! You’ve never heard me utter a word of complaint. But I can’t do more than I am doing. Any one but you would see it. But you’re as blind as a bat!”

“Not so blind as you think, my dear. One thing I see is that you never hesitate to load me up with a fresh expense.”

“No, that’s out-and-away unfair,” cried Mary, thoroughly roused. “I, who slave and toil . . . and when I’m not even convinced that it’s necessary, either. For you’re always saying you’re satisfied with the practice, that the fees come in well and so on; and yet to get anything out of you nowadays is like drawing blood from a stone. I don’t care a rap about myself; I’ll put up with whatever you like; but I can’t and won’t sit by and see my children degenerate. I think that would break my heart. I shall fight for them to my last breath.”

“Yes, for them. But for me, never a trace of understanding!”— And now the quarrel began in earnest.

Cuffy, sitting hunched up on the verandah, squeezed his ears until they sang.


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