The Way Home, by Henry Handel Richardson

Chapter V

Than queening it at balls, she felt more in her element seated in a rather dingily furnished drawing-room, holding poor Agnes Ocock’s hand. Although it had struck five and the worst heat of the day was over, Agnes was still in her bedgown — she had been lying down with the headache, she said — nor could Mary persuade her to exchange this for bonnet and shawl, and drive out with her in the brougham that stood at the door.

“Another time, dearest, if you do not mind. To-day I have no fancy for it.”

Mary was shocked by the change the past six months had worked in her friend; and disagreeably impressed by the common-featured house in which she found her: it had no garden, but stood right on the dusty St. Kilda Parade. Agnes was growing very stout; her fine skin looked as creased as her robe, her cheek was netted with veins, her hair thin, under a cap set awry. Mary knew the rumours that were current; and her heart swelled with pity.

“Just as you like, dear. And how are the children? Are they in? May I see them?”

“Oh, yes, the children. Why . . . the truth is, dearest Mary, I haven’t . . . they are not with me. Henry thought . . . he thought . . .”

Agnes’s voice broke, and after a painful struggle to compose herself she hid her face in her hands.

Leaning forward Mary laid an arm round her shoulders. “Dearest Agnes, won’t you tell me your trouble? Is it the little one you . . . you lost, you are fretting over?”

And now there was no sound in the room but that of crying — and such crying! It seemed difficult to connect these heavy nerve-racking sobs with the lovely, happy little Agnes of former days. Holding her close, Mary let her weep unstintedly.

“Oh, Mary, Mary! I am the most miserable creature alive.”

Yes, it was the loss of the child that was breaking her heart . . . or rather the way in which she had lost it.

“It was the finest baby you ever saw, Mary — neither of the others could compare with it. They were all very well; but this one. . . . His tiny limbs were so round and smooth — it was like kissing velvet. And dimples everywhere. And he was born with a head of golden hair. I never knew Henry so pleased. He said such a child did me credit . . . and this used rather to make me wonder, Mary; for Baby wasn’t a bit like Henry . . . or like the other two. He took after my family and had blue eyes. But do you know who he reminded me of most of all? It was of Eddie, Mary . . . and through Eddie of Mr. Glendinning. When Eddie was born he used to lie in my lap, just as soft and fair . . . and sometimes I think I forgot, and imagined this baby WAS Eddie over again . . . and that made me still fonder of him; for one’s first is one’s first, love, no matter how many come after. And then . . . then . . . He was five months old, and beginning to try to grasp things and take notice — oh, such a happy babe! And then one morning, I wasn’t feeling well, Mary — the doctor said the nursing of such a hearty child was a great strain on me; then a giddy fit took me — I had been giving him the breast and got up to lay him down — nurse wasn’t there. I must have been dizzy with sitting so long stooped over him — and he was heavy for his age. I got up and came over faint all of a sudden — the doctor says so . . . and I tottered, Mary, and Baby fell — fell out of my arms . . . on his little head — I heard the thud — yes, the thud . . . but not a cry or a sound . . . nothing . . . nothing . . . he never cried again.”

“Oh, my poor Agnes! Oh, you poor, poor thing!”

Mary was weeping, too; the tears ran down her cheeks. But she made no attempt to palliate or console; did not speak of an accident for which it was impossible to blame yourself; or of God’s will, mysterious, inscrutable: she just grieved, with an intensity of feeling that made her one with the bereft. Things of this kind went too deep for words; were hurts from which there could be no recovery. Time might grow its moss over them . . . hide them from mortal sight . . . that was all.

As she drove home she reflected, pitifully, how strange it was that so soft and harmless a creature as Agnes should thus be singled out for some of life’s hardest blows. Agnes had so surely been born for happiness — and to make others happy. Misfortunes such as these ought to be kept for people of stronger, harder natures and with broader backs; who could suffer and still carry their heads high. Agnes was merely crushed to earth by them . . . like a poor little trampled flower.

But before she reached the house, a fearful suspicion crossed her mind.

Tilly nodded confirmingly.

“The plain English of it is, she was squiffy.”

And went on: “It was hushed up, my dear, you bet! — kept dark as the grave . . . doctor changed, etc. etc. They actually ‘ad the face to put it down to the nurse’s carelessness: said nurse being packed off at once, HANDSOMELY REMUNERATED, mind you, to hold ‘er tongue. An’ a mercy the child died; the doctor seemed to think it might ‘ave been soft, ‘ad it lived — after such a knock on the pate — and can you see Henry dragging the village idiot at ‘is heels? NEVER was a man in such a fury, Mary. Ugh! that white face with those little pitch-black eyes rolling round in it — it gave me the fair shakes to look at ’im. ‘Pon my word I believe, if ‘e’d dared, ‘e’d ‘ave slaughtered Agnes there and then. His child, HIS son! — you know the tune of it. ‘E’ll never forgive ‘er, mark my words he won’t! . . . the disgrace and all that — for of course everybody knew all about it and a good deal more. She was odd enough beforehand, never going anywhere. Now she’s taking the sea-air at St. Kilda, and, if you ask me, she’ll go on taking it . . . till Doomsday.”

“The very way to drive her to despair!” cried Mary; and burned.

Tilly shrugged. “It’s six of one and ‘alf a dozen of the other to my mind. I’d almost rather be put away to rot like a poisoned rat in a hole, than live under the whip of Mossieu Henry’s tongue — not to mention ‘is eye!”

“Agnes shall not die like a rat in a hole if I can help it.”

“Ah, but you can’t, my dear! . . . don’t make any mistake about that. You might as well try to bend a bar of iron as ‘Enry. — And I must say, Mary, it does sometimes seem a good deal of fuss to make over one small kid. She can ‘ave more for the asking.”

“TILLY!” Mary looked up from her sewing — the two women sat on the verandah of Tilly’s house in Ballarat, where Mary was visiting — in reproof and surprise at a speech so unlike her friend. It was not the first either; Tilly often wore a mopy, world-weary air nowadays, which did not sit naturally on her. “Each child that lives is just itself,” added Mary. “That’s why one loves it so.”

“Oh, well, I s’pose so. And as you know, love, I’d ‘ave ‘ad a dozen if I could. It wouldn’t ‘ave been one too many to fill this ’ouse.”

Mary believed she read the answer to the riddle. “Look here, Tilly, you’re lonely . . . that’s what’s the matter with you.”

And Tilly nodded, dumpily — again unlike herself.

“Fact is, Mary, I want something to DO. As long as dear old Pa lived, and I ‘ad the boys to look after, it was all right — I never knew what it was to be dull. But now . . . P’r’aps if they’d let me keep Tom and Johnny . . . or if I could groom my own ‘orses or ride ’em at the stakes . . . No, no, of course, I know it wouldn’t do — or be COMMY FAUT. It’s only my gab.”

“I wonder, Tilly,” said Mary, “I wonder if . . . have you never thought, dear, at times like these that . . . that perhaps you might some day marry again?” She put the question very tentatively, knowing Tilly’s robust contempt for the other sex.

But Tilly answered pat: “Why, that’s just what I ‘ave, Mary.”

“Oh!” said Mary. And to cover up her amazement, added: “I think it would be the very best thing that could happen.”

There followed a pause of some length. Mary did not know what to make of it. Tilly was humming and hawing: she fidgeted, coloured, shifted her eyes.

“Yes, my dear,” she said at length, in answer to Mary’s invitation to speak out: “I HAVE something on my chest . . . something I want to say to you, Mary, and yet don’t quite know, ‘ow. Fact is, I want you to do me a good turn, my dear. No, now just you wait a jiff, till you ‘ear what it is. Tell you what, Mary, I’ve found meself regularly down in the mouth of late — off me grub — and that sort of thing. No, Pa’s death has nothing whatever to do with it. I was getting on famously — right as a trivet — till . . . well, till I went to town — yes, that time, you know, to meet you and the doctor.” And as Mary still sat blank and uncomprehending, she blurted out: “Oh, well . . . till I saw . . . oh, YOU know! — till I met a CERTAIN PERSON again.”

“A certain person? Do you . . . Tilly! Oh, Tilly, do you REALLY? Purdy?”

Tilly nodded, heavily, gloomily, without the ghost of a smile. “Yes, it’s a fact — and not one I’m proud of either, as you can guess. And yet again I ask meself why not? I need some one to look after, Mary . . . and that’s the truth. ‘E’S down on HIS luck, as always; can’t get the money to stick; and I’ve more than I know what to do with. And to see ’im there, lookin’ so poor and shabby, and yet keeping ‘is pecker up as ‘e did — why, I dunno, but it seemed some’ow to ‘urt me ‘ERE!”— and Tilly, her aitches scattering more wildly than usual under the stress of her emotion, laid her hands, one over the other, on her left breast.

“But Tilly ——”

“Oh! now don’t go and but me, Polly, like the dear good soul you are and always ‘ave been. If you mean, am I going to let ’im make ducks and drakes of poor old Pa’s money, I can truly say no — no fear! Not this child. But . . . well . . . look ’ere, Mary, I ‘aven’t spit out the whole truth yet. You’ll laugh at what I’m going to tell you, and well you may do; it sounds rum enough. But you know they do say old folks fall to playing again with toys, cuddling dolls and whittling chips. Well, a CERTAIN PERSON ‘ad a bit of hair, Poll, that used to curl behind ‘is ear — many and many’s the time in the old spoony days I’ve sat and twiddled it round me finger. Now, ‘is hair’s wearing thin on top, but the curl’s still there — and I . . . would you believe it? . . . yes, I’m blessed if my finger didn’t itch to be at it again. And what’s worse, HAS itched ever since. ‘Ere I go, properly in the dumps and the doldrums, and feeling as if nothing ‘ull ever matter much any more if I can’t. Oh, there’s no fool like an old fool, Mary love! . . . and nobody knows that better than the old fool ’im — herself.”

“Oh come, Tilly, you’re not quite so ancient as you try to make out! As to what you say . . . it’s been the living alone and all that, it’s come of.”

But though she spoke in a reassuring tone, Mary was none the less genuinely perturbed: her robust, sensible Tilly reduced to such a foolish state! Why, it was like seeing one’s dearest friend collapse under a sudden illness.

“P’r’aps. And p’r’aps not. But what I want you to do for me, old girl, is this. Ask me down to stop for a bit, and ask him to the house while I’m there. The rest I’ll manage for myself. Only you won’t let on to the doctor, will you, love, what I’ve told you? I don’t want the doctor to know. ‘E’d look down ‘is nose at me with that queer look of his — no, I couldn’t stand it, Poll! Henry, too — I shall keep ‘Enry in the dark till it’s too late. ‘E’d raise Cain. For, of course ‘e thinks what Pa left’s safe to come to his brats. While, if I fix things up as I want ’em”— she lowered her voice —“I may ‘ave kids of my own yet.”

“Indeed and I hope so . . . from the bottom of my heart.”

Tell Richard? No, indeed! As that same afternoon Mary drove in Tilly’s double buggy down the dusty slope of Sturt Street, and out over the Flat, she imagined to herself what Richard would say — and think — did she make him partner in Tilly’s confidences. What? . . . try to trap a man, and an old friend to boot, into a loveless marriage, merely because you want to twist a bit of hair round your finger? He would snort with disgust at such folly . . . besides thinking it indelicate into the bargain. As she was afraid she, Mary, did a little, too. The difference was: she saw, as he never would, that loneliness was at the bottom of it; loneliness, and the want of some one to care for, or, as Tilly put it, of something to do. It might also be that the old girlish inclination had never quite died out, but only slumbered through all these years. Not that that would count with Richard; indeed, it might count in just the opposite way. For he was more than straitlaced where things of this kind were in question; had a constitutional horror of them; and he would not consider it at all nice for the seeds of an old attachment to have stayed alive in you, while you were happily married to some one else. Another point: if Purdy yielded to the temptation and took Tilly and her money, Richard might always think less well of him for doing so; which would be a thousand pities, now a first move towards a reconciliation had been made. Whereas if the engagement seemed to come about of itself . . . . And in this respect there was really something to be said for it. Purdy once married and settled, the foolish barrier that had grown up between the two men would fall away, and they again become the friends they had been of old.

Reasoning thus, Mary arrived at a row of mean little weatherboard houses, in one of which Ned lived. She did not knock, but stepped across the verandah, turned the door-knob and went down the passage. It was a Monday, and washing day. The brick floor of the kitchen overflowed with water, in which the young fry played. Polly, turning from the tubs, ran her hands down her arms to sluice off the lather, before extending them, all moist and crinkled, in an embrace. By the copper sat Ned — poor Ned — convalescent from the attack of acute bronchitis which had brought Mary in hot haste to Ballarat a few weeks previously. Ned’s chest and shoulders were wrapped up in an old red flannel petticoat, pinned under the chin; his feet, well out of the damp’s way on an upturned sugar-box, were clad in down-at-heel felt slippers. His thick ringletty hair and curly beard hung long and unkempt above the scarlet drapery, forming a jet-black aureole from which his face, chastened to a new delicacy, looked out beautiful as a cameo.

Pouncing on Mary he talked volubly, in the hoarse whisper that was all the voice his illness had left him. It was the same old Ned, holding forth in the same old way: on the luck that had always been against him, the fair chance he had never yet had; man and theme lit up by the same unquenchable optimism. He had to-day a yarn to tell of the fortune he might have made, not three months back, had he only at the critical moment been able to lay hands on the needful: men had gone in and won who had not a quarter of his flair. How much of this was truth and how much imagination, Mary did not know or greatly care — unlike Polly who, rasped beyond measure, clicked an angry tongue and lashed out at Ned’s “atrocious lies.”

Striving to keep the peace by dropping in soothing words, Mary sat and pondered how best these poor souls could be helped. On the voyage out, she had seriously considered adopting one — perhaps even two — of the black-haired brood. But again Polly made short work of the suggestion. Not even to Mary whom she dearly loved, would she give up her children.

“They’re me own and I’ll stick to ’em, come what may! For they’re all I’ve got, dearie . . . all I’ll ever get from the whole galumphing galoot.” With which Mary was forced to agree; and though seven lived and a ninth was on the way.

Nor could Polly be induced to part from them even for the benefit of their education.

“Ta, love, you mean it kindly, but I’ll not have ’em brought up above their station. They’re a working-man’s kids, and such they’ll remain. Besides, you may be sure there’ll be SOME of Ned’s blowfly notions in some of their heads. And the State School’s the best place to knock such nonsense out of ’em.” Which, duly reported by Mary, Richard said was a gross example of parental selfishness. What right had a mother to stand in the way of her offspring? No child with any true affection would grow up to despise his parents. On the contrary, as he understood the sacrifice they had made for him, his love for them would deepen and increase. But this was just Richard’s high-flown way of looking at things.

No, what Ned and Polly wanted was money, and money alone. This piece of knowledge was accompanied, however, by so disagreeable a sensation that Mary was thankful Richard was not there to share it. Not only were they ready to take every shilling offered . . . poor things, no one could blame them for that, pinched and straitened as they were . . . it was their manner of accepting that wounded Mary. They pocketed what Richard sent them almost as a matter of course, frankly inspecting the amount, and sometimes even going so far as to wrinkle their noses over it. Which was really hardly fair; for Richard was very generous to them; considering they were no blood relations of his, and he felt they didn’t like him. Nor did they: there was no getting away from that; they showed it even to the extent of begrudging him his good luck . . . without which he would have been unable to do anything for them! Poor Ned’s eye was hot with envy whenever Richard’s rise in the world was mentioned. While Polly alluded to it with an open sneer.

“I say, INFRA DIG. isn’t it and no mistake, for a heavy swell like he is, to have such low-down connections . . . people who take in other people’s washing!”

Mary could not bring herself to sit in judgment on them: for all his tall talk, Ned had never harmed a fly; and Polly’s was just a generous nature warped and twisted by poverty and an imprudent marriage. All the same she took great pains not to let Richard know how the wind blew. Her letters to him, on Ned and Polly’s behalf, were full of the warm gratitude she herself would have felt had she stood in their shoes.

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