The Way Home, by Henry Handel Richardson

Chapter III

While Richard haunted his new property and egged on the workmen, or sat drawing up a list of books for dispatch to an Edinburgh bookseller, Mary devoted herself to unravelling the knots and tangles into which the several members of her family had tied themselves. And after for two years having had to deal exclusively with a difficult, faddy person like Richard, she found this a comparatively simple job. Those to whose aid she now came saw things from the same angle as herself, and they spoke a common language.

Zara had first innings. Seated in the drawing-room of the Carlton house, Zara poured out her woes, with much drying of eyes and the old, old recriminations against John. Never, she wept, had she met any one so hard, so self-centred. He was also too stingy to lift a finger to help you; and, in her opinion, richly deserved the misfortunes that had befallen him — Emma’s untimely death, and the loss of Jinny; the disgrace of Johnny’s flight and Trotty’s misdemeanours. Who could wonder at it, if he treated wives and children as he was now treating her?

“But, Zara . . .”

Oh, John had the influence, could do it EASILY if he chose. But for that, he was too down on the match. As if his own second marriage had been anything to boast of! Pray, who was Jinny? A publican’s daughter . . . and, if the truth were told, common as dirt. But ——

“I’m still utterly in the dark, Zara. Who is it John objects to . . . that you want to marry?”

“Not I want to marry, if you please, Mary!” Zara’s tone was acid as a lemon. “It’s QUITE the other way about. If it only rested with me . . .”

“Yes, but WHO?”

“Haven’t you wits enough to guess, my dear? Who is it that has followed me and pestered — yes, PESTERED! — me with his attentions, ever since my first visit to Ballarat?”

Ballarat? Her first visit? “Zara! You surely don’t mean . . .”

“My dear, I have not a heart of STONE— like SOME people I could mention! I can stand out no longer against his prayers and persuasions. Year after year, year after year — not MANY women, Mary, can boast of having inspired such devotion. He worships the very ground I tread — and has done ever since those early days . . . though I was then little more than a child. Of course, I am aware he is not my equal . . .”

“Oh, good gracious, what does that matter if you really care for him? I’ve no patience with nonsense of that kind.”

Mary spoke with a robust heartiness; but her thoughts were elsewhere, and travelled swiftly. In the two years that had elapsed since last she saw her, Zara had crossed a subtle boundary, and, from being a youngish person who looked a trifle worn and tired, had turned into an elderly person who looked young for her age: which made all the difference in the world. For, alas! Zara’s features were not of that well-boned type, whose cameo outlines show up even better in the middle years than under the plump padding of youth. Short, irregular, piquant, they had depended on freshness and round contours for their charm. Now that the dimples had run to lines, the cheeks hollowed, the skin sagged, Zara wore the pathetic aspect of a faded child. When she drooped her fine eyes, it was really sad, to one who loved her, to see how haggard and old she looked. Poor Zara! All her choice offers and good chances come to nothing. She had dangled them too long; been over fastidious; and now it was too late. Mary could read this out of what she said: this and more. Even the posts open to her as finishing-governess were not, it appeared, what they had once been. Younger women, competent to teach the new — fangled “callisthenics,” and dull, dry pieces by “Mosar” instead of the tuneful MORCEAUX in which Zara excelled, were now getting the plums. It did seem a shame, considering Zara’s talents, and her long experience but so it was. Perhaps she had grown a trifle “scratchy” with the years. Her elegant sprightliness was certainly deserting her, giving place to a kind of fixed pettishness. And so, having turned the matter over, Mary soothed her by promising to do all she could to further the marriage. She would beard John in his den, and urge him to use his influence — according to Zara he was on friendly terms with a prominent member of the Baptist Union — to procure for her intended, who was still but an unsalaried “helper,” the pastorate that would enable them to wed.

“Meanwhile, you must bring Hemp . . . Mr. Hempel to see us.”

As visiting John at the Melbourne Club was out of the question, Mary took the only slightly less bold step of calling at the great warehouse in Flinders Lane. And having climbed a dark, steep stair to the first storey, and passed through various rooms where clerks, perched on high stools, stole curious glances at the apparition of a silk-and-velvet-clad lady whispered to be the senior partner’s sister: this ordeal behind her, she arrived, a trifle pink and confused, at the door of John’s sanctum.

John himself emerged to meet her.

“Yes, John, quite alone . . . . I hope you won’t mind. But I wanted very much to see you.” And having regained breath and composure, Mary lost no time in going straight to the core of Zara’s business.

John listened, with a patience he would have shown no one else, his dark eyes, so like Mary’s own, yet so much older in worldly wisdom, turned intently on her. —“Objections to her marrying? My dear girl, as far as I personally am concerned, my sister Zara may wed a navvy if she chooses — always provided he has the means to support her, once the knot is tied. But this Methody-fellow now . . . have you seen him? No? Then pray do so, without delay. After which, let me hear if you are still of the same mind.”

“Your sister Zara,” he went on, “admits to having laid by, in the course of her governessing, some five hundred pounds: knowing her as we do, seven or eight hundred would, I make no doubt, be nearer the mark. This sum, well invested, will ensure her yearly some eighty or ninety pounds — not a princely income, I dare say, but sufficient for the requirements of an unmarried female. Should she, however, fritter away her savings on this what’s-his-name, it would, in the event of his decease, fall to her relatives to support her. Which I for one am not disposed to do.”

Mary had refrained from interrupting. Now, nothing daunted, she insisted on John viewing the case from Zara’s standpoint: the very natural desire of an ageing woman for a home and a husband; the dreaded stigma of old-maidism; the weariness and monotony of going on teaching other people’s children year after year; the mortification of seeing younger women chosen over your head, and your salary steadily decreasing as you grew older. And finally, by dint of what she afterwards described to Richard as “this, that, and the other thing,” she got John so far as to promise that if, after seeing the bridegroom-elect, she still thought the marriage should go forward, he would do what lay in his power to procure for Hempel the pastorate in the little up-country township of Wangawatha, on which Zara had set her heart.

This accomplished, Mary drew on her gloves, which she had removed for the sherry and biscuits brought forth by John from a cupboard, with a “Both dry unfortunately, my dear girl, since I am not often honoured by visits from the sweet-toothed sex.”

“And does business flourish, John?”

“It does, Mary. Yes, on that score I have nothing to complain of — nothing whatever. As you will have observed, we have recently made considerable additions to the premises, and young MacDermott has been definitely taken into partnership. Still, as far as I myself am concerned, I confess there come moments when in spite of everything I look round me and ask: CUI BONO? For whom do I build? . . . since there is no one to step into my shoes when I am gone.”

John and CUI BONO! . . . John to talk of being “gone”! Mary’s eyes widened and darkened. But she did not let the opportunity slip. “Look here, John, what I have always been meaning to say: I firmly intend to try and find out what has become of Johnny — and if possible get him home again. It seems dreadful to me that a boy of that age, and one I was so fond of, too, should just disappear and perhaps never be heard of again. I feel convinced there was nothing radically wrong; and can’t help thinking he’d be ready to come back after this taste of hardship, and settle down, and make you proud of him.”

Was it fancy, or did a new expression flit over John’s face at her words? — a kind of hope look out of his eyes? If so, it was gone again at once, drowned in the harsh expression he seemed to reserve for poor Emma’s children. “Nay, I have washed my hands of him, Mary. He has publicly disgraced me. And from all I hear, I fear his sister is about to follow the example he has set her.”

At this Mary laughed outright. “Really, John! I’m surprised at you: letting yourself be imposed on by the tales of some prim old school-marm. You wait; I mean to have Trotty down to stay with me; and then I’ll very soon find out the truth about her. Besides, you know you CAN’T wash your hands of your children like this; it’s unnatural. I wish to goodness I could see you comfortably settled in your own house once more, with them all about you. This is very well, but it ISN’T home.”— And Mary’s glance swept the leaded windows, the cobwebbed corners, the white dust on books and papers, the dimness of the office furniture; to end with John himself. To her eye he had a rather uncared-for appearance nowadays; looked unbrushed, much less spruce than of old.

“Well, well!” John, his elbows on the arms of his chair, lightly met his ten fingers and tipped them, to a shrug of the shoulders. “Ah! had it pleased the Almighty to make women other than they are — yourself excepted, my dear Mary, always excepted. But that reminds me. I have been intending for some time past to ask you to drive out and go over the house, and report to me on its condition. The last person I placed in charge proved as untrustworthy as the rest.”

Stowing away the key in her petticoat pocket, Mary gladly undertook the commission. And as she jogged homewards in a wagonette, she felt well satisfied with what she had achieved; and not on Zara’s score alone. “Poor old John! He doesn’t KNOW how lonely and uncomfortable he is. Or how, in his heart of hearts, he’s fretting for that boy.”

Meanwhile, after considerable shilly-shallying, Zara had introduced Hempel afresh, in what proved an exceedingly painful visit.

“I declare,” said Mary afterwards, “every time I spoke, I seemed to put my foot in it.”

To begin with, it was plain at once what John had meant by his: wait till you have seen him! Hempel was now but the shadow of his former self, shrunken, emaciated, with over-bright eyes, and a dry cough that took him in paroxysms, at the end of which he withdrew a spotted handkerchief from his lips.

Zara looked so annoyed when this happened that Mary tried to seem unobservant. But after one particularly violent explosion, the words: “Oh, what do you do for it?” escaped her in spite of herself.

“It’s NOTHING in the world but dust,” cut in Zara smartly. “I vow Carlton to be the dustiest suburb in all Melbourne. How you came to select it amazes me — positively it does!”

“I look upon it as a righteous affliction, ma’am,” said Hempel loudly and slowly, and as though Zara had not spoken. “Such things are sent to try us. ‘Oom the Lord loveth ‘e chasteneth.”

“Besides he is perfectly well able to control it if he chooses.”— Zara was so caustic that Mary hurriedly made a diversion by inviting her upstairs. And curiosity to hear a detailed account of the interview with John got the better of Zara’s patent reluctance to leave the two men alone together.

“He looks dreadfully delicate, Zara,” said Mary dubiously, when the bedroom door had shut behind them.

“My dear Mary, a change of climate is ALL that is necessary. We have taken the very BEST medical advice. I truly hope Richard will not go putting any far-fetched notions into his head.” And overriding Mary’s delicate inquiries with a dramatic: “The happiness of my life is at stake!” Zara declined a chair, swept her crinoline about the room, and having greedily extracted the gist of John’s promises, knew no peace till they returned to the parlour.

Hempel — he now wore a short, woolly beard round face and throat — had certainly improved in his way of speaking. Still he did have lapses; and these Zara accentuated and underlined in distressing fashion. Throughout the visit she sat bolt upright on the extreme edge of her chair, almost prompting the words into Hempel’s mouth; while, at every misplaced or unaccomplished “h,” she half-closed her eyes and drew in her breath with a semi-audible groan, as if the aspirate were a missile that had struck her. Hempel alone remained undisturbed by her behaviour. Richard, Mary knew, would be fuming inwardly at such tactlessness; and her own discomfiture was so acute that she trebled the warmth of her manner towards the unfortunate man.

“And what are we to call you?” she asked, as Zara rose to go. “Mister sounds too stiff altogether for a relation.”

Instantly she saw that, with this well-meant question, she had made another mistake. Zara turned a dark red, and flashing a warning glance at Hempel began a hurried babble of adieux. But Hempel was either too dense or too obstinate to see.

“My name, ma’am, is Ebenezer.” (“Edgar, Mary, Edgar is what I call him!”) “Yes, Miss Turn’am ’ere”— and so saying, Hempel signified Zara, without looking at her, by an odd little outward jerk of the elbow and a smile that struck even Mary as malicious —“Miss Turn’am don’t cotton to it, and wants to persuade me to fancy names. But I say the one as my parents chose for me in the name of the Lord is good enough for me. So I’ll be obleeged by Ebenezer, if you please.”

“It’s in the Bible, too, isn’t it?” threw in Mary, feeling, if she did not see, the silent laughter with which Richard was shaking. And to herself she thought: “Oh dear, won’t he catch it when he gets outside!”

“Ha ha! Serves her right . . . serves her very well right. Mrs. Ebenezer! Why, of course, it comes back to me now.” (“I felt sure it was Edward — or I shouldn’t have asked,” said Mary ruefully. “And now I shan’t know what to call him.”) “But I can tell you this, my dear: Zara is about to commit a monstrous folly. The fellow is far gone in phthisis. If she wants a job as sick-nurse, she’ll get it — and upon my word, Mary, I don’t know that she won’t be better employed in seeing the poor chap decently and comfortably into his coffin, than in grafting her insincerities and affectations on the young. A more lukewarm bridegroom, though, it has seldom been my lot to meet.”

“How hard on her you are! Yes, both you and John. Every woman NATURALLY wants a husband . . . and a good thing, too, or where would the world be? Besides if she doesn’t marry, you men are the first to twit her with being an old maid. But if she shows any inclination for it, it’s considered matter for a joke . . . or not quite nice.”

“Hear, hear! Why, love, at this rate we shall soon have you clad in bloomers and spouting on a platform for women’s rights.”

“Richard! Don’t speak to me of such horrors. But we’re talking about Zara. I must say, after seeing Hempel I agree with John, it’s a ridiculous match. He really doesn’t seem to care THAT much for her . . .”

“Which is but natural. At his stage of the disease a man is entirely occupied with his own health . . . and his God.”

“And I thought Zara most cutting with him. No, I’m afraid she’s taking him just to be married.”

But, even as she said it, Mary had a glimpse into depths that were closed to her menkind. Just to be married! It meant that solace of the woman who was getting on in years — the plain gold band on the ring finger. It meant no longer being shut out from the great Society of Matrons; no longer needing to look the other way were certain subjects alluded to; or pretending not to notice the nods and winks, the silently mouthed words that went on behind your back. It was all very well when you were young; when your very youth and innocence made up for it: as you grew older, it turned to a downright mortification — like that of going in to dinner after the bride of eighteen.

“Besides we CAN’T dictate to Zara as if she were still a child. She has a right to buy her own experience . . . even if it’s only with a poor creature like Hempel.”

Another unspoken thought that lurked comfortably at the back of Mary’s mind was of the more than liberal pin-money Richard was now giving her. He had said expressly, too, she need render no account of how she spent it. Thus, should the worst happen, she would be able to see to it that neither he nor John had to put hand to pocket.

A last attempt to bring Zara to reason, however, she made. And having only succeeded in fanning the flames — sister-wise, Zara took interference less well from her than from any one — Mary tilted her chin, and sighing: “Well, we must just make the best of it!” forthwith requested John to do his share.

One thing, though, she did not yield in: she went off by herself to town and bought the stuff for Zara’s wedding-dress. For Zara, she could see, was meditating satin and orange-blossoms; and against this all Mary’s common sense rose in arms. “For a place like Wangawatha! And with not even a Bishop to entertain . . . . I mean, Hempel being a Baptist.” So she chose Madras muslin — finest Madras, which cost a good deal more than satin — and a neat bonnet trimmed with lilac.

“For these you can wear to chur — to chapel, Zara, you know, when the hot weather comes.” But Zara was so angry that she forgot to thank Mary for the gift, and tried the texture of the muslin between thumb and finger as if it were a bit of print.

And so a quiet wedding was celebrated at the Carlton house, a ceremony in which the only hitch was a somewhat lengthy pause for the bridegroom to recover his breath after a fit of coughing; a glass of champagne was drunk to the health of the newly wedded; and off they went in a shower of rice which Mary took care was thick enough to satisfy even Zara. Nor was a satin slipper forgotten for the back of the carriage-and-pair, all flowers and favours, which Mahony had provided to drive the happy couple to the steamboat on which they would sail to Sorrento.

The very last thing, upstairs in the bedroom, Mary pressed a small wad of notes into Zara’s hand. “A bit of my wedding present to you, dear Zara. Now don’t stint on your honeymoon. Put up at the best hotel and enjoy yourselves. Remember, one is only married once.”

“MERCI, MA BONNE MARIE, MERCI!” said Zara: in the course of the past hour she had gradually taken on the allures of an elder married woman towards her junior. “But I should have done so in any case.”

* * * * *

The rice swept up, the hundred and one boxes of wedding cake dispatched which should intimate to even the least of Zara’s acquaintances that she had quitted the single state, Mary turned to her next job, and drove one morning to St. Kilda to inspect John’s house. She went by herself, for she thought John would thank you to have other eyes than hers quizzing his neglected home. And she was glad indeed no one else was present when, the coachman having unlocked the front door and drawn up the blinds for her, she was free to wander through the deserted rooms. The house had stood empty almost as long as she had been absent from the colony; and, in such a climate as this, two years spelt ruin. No window or door had fitted tightly enough, when hot winds and their accompanying dust-storms swept the town. The dust crunched gritty underfoot; lay in a white layer over all tables and polished surfaces; made it impossible to look out of the windows. The cobwebs that hung from the corners of the ceilings, and festooned the lustred chandeliers, were thick as string with it. You could hardly see yourself in the mirrors for fly-specks, or see the wax flowers under their shades. Everywhere, in hundreds, flies and blowflies lay dead. Moths had ravaged each single woollen article she laid hands on. The beautiful Brussels carpets were eaten into holes, as were also curtains and bed-hangings, table-covers and the backs of wool-worked chairs. It was truly a scene of desolation.

In John’s bedroom she chanced to open a leaf of the great triple-fronted mahogany wardrobe, to look if any clothes had been left hanging to share in the general dilapidation; and there, the first thing she lighted on was a shawl of “poor Jinny’s”— or what had once been a shawl, for it was now riddled like a colander, and all but fell to pieces as she touched it. For a moment Mary stood lost to her surroundings. What memories that shawl called up! Of softest white cashmere, with a handsome floral border, it had been John’s present to Jinny on the birth of their first child: “And if the next’s a boy, Jane, I promise you one of richest India silk, my love!” But, even so, this gift had filled Jinny’s cup to the brim. Mary could only remember it tied up with ribbons in tissue paper, and smelling of camphor to knock you down — Jinny had hardly dared to wear it for fear the dust should discolour it, or the sun fade the bordering. There had been quite a quarrel one day, when John and she were staying with them in Ballarat, because Jinny had visited the Ococks in her second-best. “Far from me be it, Mary, to inculcate an extravagant spirit in Jane, or encourage her to run up bills at the milliner’s. But she is now my wife, and it is her duty to dress accordingly,” had been John’s way of putting it. Well, poor Jinny, she might just as well have worn her finery and worn it out . . . as only have had it on her back some dozen times in all. She was gone where no shawls were needed.

“It’s really a lesson not to hoard one’s clothes, but to use and enjoy them while you can. Not to get anything too grand, either, which makes it seem a pity to wear.”

“John ought to have given all such things away,” she aid to herself a few minutes later. For a nudge of memory had drawn her to a lumber-room, where four zinc-and-wood saratogas were lined up in a row. These held all that remained to mortal eyes of “poor Emma.” For Jinny had once soon after marriage confessed to a wild fit of jealousy, in which she had packed away every scrap of her predecessor’s belongings. — Fifteen years dead! The things were now, no doubt, mere rags and tatters, for the box-lid was not made that could keep out the moth. Some day she, Mary, must make it her business to run through them, to see if no little enduring thing was left that could be handed on to Trotty, as a memento of her long-dead mother.

“Regular Bluebeard’s chambers,” was Richard’s comment, when she told him of her discoveries.

But Mary had on her thinking-cap, and sat wondering how she could best reduce John’s affairs to order. The house must be opened up without loss of time, scrubbers and cleaners turned in, painters and paperhangers and then . . .

A few days later she came home radiant.

“I’ve got the very PERSON for John!” and undoing her bonnet-strings, she threw them back with an air of triumph. It was a hot November afternoon.

“What! . . . yet again?” and having kissed her, Mahony laid his book face downwards and prepared to listen. “Tell me all about it.”

“Quite one of the most sensible women I’ve ever met.”

“Then, my dear, you do NOT mean pretty Fanny!”

For Mary had been out spending a couple of days with the young pair at Heidelberg, to pay her overdue respects to the cottage of which she had heard so much.

“It really is a dear little place. And kept in apple-pie order.”

She had soon discovered, though, that the prevailing neatness and nicety were not the result of any brilliant housewifely qualities in the little bride. The good genius proved to be an aunt — “Auntie Julia”— who had had charge of the motherless girl since birth.

“One of those neat, brisk little women, Richard, who do everything well they put their hands to. Her hair’s grey, but she is not really old. What struck me first was when she said: ‘Now please don’t imagine I’m a fixture here, Mrs. Mahony. I just came to help my little Fan over her first troubles in setting up house. I don’t hold with old aunts — or mothers either — quartering themselves upon the newly wed. Young people should be left to their own devices. No, poor old Auntie Julia’s job is done; she’s permanently out of work.’”

It was here Mary thought she saw a light in John’s darkness. Taking the bull by the horns, she there and then told Miss Julia the story of her brother’s two marriages, and of his vain attempts to live in peace and harmony with Zara.

“Poor fellow, poor fellow! Dear Mrs. Mahony, I agree with you: relatives are not the easiest people in the world to get on with. They are either so much alike that each knows all the time just what the other is thinking — and that is fatal; for, if you won’t mind my saying so, the private thoughts we indulge in, even of our nearest, are not of a fit kind to be made public.” (“But with such a merry twinkle in her eye, Richard, that it took away anything that might have sounded sharp or biting.”) “Or else brothers and sisters are so different that they might have been born on different planets.”

Mary next enumerated the long line of housekeepers who had wandered in their day through John’s establishment. “In at one door, and out at the next!”

“Aha! You needn’t tell me where the shoe pinched there. I see, I see. Each of ’em in turn thought she was THE one chosen by fate to fill your poor sister-in-law’s place. May I speak frankly? If I take the post, you may make your mind perfectly easy on that score. I’m not of the marrying sort. Some men are born to be bachelors; some women, bless ’em, what’s known as old maids. I can assure you, my dear Mrs. Mahony, I am happiest in the single life. Nor have I missed a family of my own, for my little Fan here has been as much mine as though I had borne her.” Here, however, seeing Mary’s rather dubious air, she laid a hand on her arm and added reassuringly: “But don’t be afraid, my dear. I do not noise these views abroad. They’re just between you, me and the tea-caddy.”

“It was really said very nicely, Richard — not at all indelicately.”

“All the same, I should give her a hint that such radical ideas would be fatal to her prospects with his lordship,” said Mahony, who had recently smarted anew under his brother-in-law’s heavy-handed patronage.

“She won’t talk like that to a MAN. And I feel sure I’m right; she’s the very person.”

And so she was. No sooner had John, on Mary’s recommendation, made definite arrangements with Miss Julia than tangles seemed to straighten of themselves. Hers was a master mind. In less than no time the house was cleaned, renovated, repaired; efficient servants were engaged; John was transferred from his uncomfortable Club quarters to a comfortable domesticity. And Miss Julia proved herself of an exquisite tact in running the establishment, in meeting John’s wishes, in agreeing with him without yielding a jot of her own convictions. And thereafter John —“He couldn’t, of course, let the credit for the changed state of affairs go out of the family!”— John went about singing Mary’s praises, and congratulating himself on being the possessor of so capable a sister.

Next, Jinny’s three mites were brought home from boarding school; and together Mary and Miss Julia stripped them of their “uniforms,” undid their meagre little rats’-tails, and freed their little bodies from the stiff corsets in which even the infant Josephine was encased. Three pleasant-faced, merry-eyed little girls emerged, who soon learned to laugh and play again, and filled the dead house with the life it needed. They adored Auntie Julia: and were adored by their father as of old.

There remained only Trotty — or Emmy, as she was now called. Mary had confabbed with Miss Julia, and they had shaken their heads in unison over John’s extraordinary attitude towards his first family. But, on meeting the girl, Miss Julia struck her palms together and cried: “What! stand out against THAT? . . . my dear, have NO fear! Just let your brother grow used to seeing such a daughter opposite him at breakfast, and he’ll soon miss her if she chances to be absent. EXACTLY what he needs to preside over his dinner-table. It shall be my task to train her for the post.”

In the meantime, however, Mary kept Emmy at her own side, in order to renew acquaintance with one she had known so well as a child.

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