The Way Home, by Henry Handel Richardson

Chapter VIII

It was a promise of long standing that, once fairly settled in her new house, Mary should invite to stay with her those of her friends to whom she lay under an obligation. She had plenty of room for them, plenty of time; all that remained to do was to fix the order of their coming.

First, though, she charged herself with Emmy and the children: to get them out of the workpeople’s way, and after the wedding — it was celebrated at All Saints, Brighton, and proved a very swell affair indeed, John’s four daughters following the bride up the aisle — to leave Miss Julia free to give the final touches to the house. Emmy cried bitterly when the day came to return to it: all Mary’s reasoning and persuading had not succeeded in plucking from the girl’s heart the sting this third marriage of her father’s had implanted there. A great hope had been dashed in Emmy; and she went back hot with resentment against the intruder. The young ones were easier to manage. The excitement of the wedding, new frocks, new dolls, helped them over the break. For them, too, this would not be so complete. Miss Julia proposed to open a select school for the daughters of gentlemen, at which the three little girls were to be day-pupils.

Not a word had passed between Mary and Miss Julia in criticism of John’s marriage. Their eyes just met for a moment in a look of complete understanding (“Oh, these men . . . these men!”). Then with a nod and a sigh they set resolutely to making the best of things — a task, said Mahony, in which the wife had at last found her peer.

John’s affairs having thus once more slipped from her grasp, Mary devoted herself to the long line of visitors who now crossed the threshold of “Ultima Thule.”

Louisa Urquhart headed the list. Louisa arrived one afternoon at Spencer Street railway station, and was drawn from the train, her bonnet askew, her cheeks scarlet with excitement at having undertaken without escort the four-hour journey from Ballarat. And after Louisa, who far outstayed her welcome, came Agnes Ocock and her children and her children’s nurses; came Zara and her husband, in search of expert medical advice; Jerry and his Fanny, the latter in a delicate state of health; a couple of Ned’s progeny; Amelia Grindle and a sickly babe; came Mrs. Tilly: not to speak of other, less intimate acquaintances.

Mahony groaned. It was all very well for Mary to say that, if he wished to be alone, he had only to go into his study and shut the door. He could and did retire there. But, like other doors, this, too, had a handle; and since Mary could never get it into her head that to be busy among your books was to be seriously busy, the petty interruptions he suffered were endless. Take, for example, the case of Louisa Urquhart. This was by no means exhausted with the stitching of a rose in a drab bonnet. Louisa had lived so long in semi-invalid retirement that she was little better than a cretin with regard to the small, practical affairs of life. She did not know how to stamp a letter or tie up a newspaper for the post; could not buy a pair of gloves or cross a crowded street without assistance. They had to accompany her everywhere. She also lived in a perpetual nervous flutter lest some accident should happen at Yarangobilly while she was absent: the house catch fire, or one of the children take a fit. “That Willy will not do a bolt with a less dismal party than she, it would be rash indeed to assume! Of all the woebegone wet-blankets . . .” Mahony was disgruntled: it spoilt his appetite for breakfast to listen to Louisa’s whining, did she learn by the morning post that one of her infants had the stomach-ache; or to look on at the heroic efforts made by Mary to disperse the gloom. (The wife’s tender patience with the noodles she gathered round her invariably staggered him afresh.) Then parties must needs be given in Louisa’s honour — and the honour of those who came after; the hours for meals disarranged, put backwards or forwards to suit the home habits of the particular guest.

Even more disturbing was the visit of Mrs. Henry which followed. Here, he could not but share Mary’s apprehensions lest something untoward should happen which might give servants or acquaintances an inkling of how matters stood. As for poor Mary, she grew quite pale and peaked with the strain; hardly dared let Agnes out of her sight. At dinner-parties — and the best people had to be asked to meet the wife of so important a personage as Mr. Henry — her eye followed the decanters their rounds with an anxiety painful to see. (Between-times, she kept the chiffonier strictly locked.) During this visit, too, the servants made difficulties by refusing to wait on the strange nursemaids, who gave themselves airs; while, to cap all, a pair of the rowdiest and worst-behaved children ever born romped in the passage, or trampled the flower-beds in the garden. No walls were thick enough to keep out their noise; any more than the fact of being in a stranger’s house could improve their manners. The walls were also powerless against Zara’s high-pitched, querulous voice, or the good Ebenezer’s fits of coughing, which shook the unfortunate man till his very bones seemed to rattle. Later on, for variety, they had the shrill screaming of Amelia Grindle’s sick babe (with Mary up and down at night, preparing bottles); had Ned’s children to be tamed and taught to blow their noses; pretty Fanny tumbling into faints half a dozen times a day. Of course, there was no earthly reason why all these good people should not make his home theirs — oh dear no! If Jerry got a fortnight’s holiday, what more natural than that he should choose to spend it in his sister’s comfortable, well-appointed house, rather than in his own poky weatherboard? If Mrs. Devine wanted to take sea-air (“And, really, Richard, one HAS to remember how extraordinarily kind she was to us on landing”), the least one could do was to beg her to exchange Toorak for Brighton-on-Beach. Only the fact of John’s house being but a paltry half-hour’s walk distant, and the ozone both families breathed of the same brand, saved them from having John and Lizzie quartered on them as well.

Yes, Mary’s hospitality was rampageous — no other word would describe it. He had given her CARTE BLANCHE and he kept to his bond; but as time went on his groans increased in volume, he was sarcastic at the expense of “Mrs. Mahony’s Benevolent Asylum,” and openly counted the days till he should have his house to himself again. A quiet evening was a thing of the past; he was naturally expected to escort the ladies to their various entertainments. Besides, he was “only reading.” What selfishness to shut yourself up with a book, when a visitor’s amusement was in question! For, as usual, Mary’s solicitude was all for others. Much less consideration was shown him personally than in the old Ballarat days. Then, he had been the breadwinner, the wage-earner, and any disturbance of his life’s routine meant a corresponding disturbance in their income. Here, with money flowing in without effort, and abundantly — as it continued to do-there was no such practical reason to respect his privacy. And so it was: “Richard, will you answer these cards for me?” “See to the decanting of the port?” “Leave an order at the fruiterer’s?” “Book seats for EAST LYNNE, or MARITANA?”

In this hugger-mugger fashion week after week, month after month ran away. Then, however, things seemed to be tailing off, and he was just congratulating himself that he had bowed the last guest out, when Tilly arrived, and back they fell into the old atmosphere of fuss and flutter. Tilly had originally stood high on Mary’s list. Then, for some reason which was not made clear to him, her visit had been postponed; and he had comfortably forgotten all about it.

Once she was there, though, it was impossible to forget Tilly, even for an hour. Her buxom, bouncing presence filled the house. There was no escape from her strident voice, her empty, noisy laugh. The very silk of her gowns seemed to rustle more loudly than other women’s; and she had a foot like a grenadier. The truth was, his old aversion to Tilly, and the type she represented, broke out anew directly she crossed his door-sill. And three times a day he was forced to sit next her at meals, attend to her wants, and listen, as civilly as he might, to her crude comments on people and things.

In vain did Mary harp on Tilly’s sterling qualities. Before a week was out, Mahony swore he would prefer fewer virtues and more tact. Goodness of heart could be rated too highly. Why should not quick-wittedness, and sensitiveness to your neighbour’s tender places, also be counted to your credit? Why must it always be the blunt-tongued, the hob-nailed of approach, who got all the praise?

It was at the dinner-table where, in the course of talk, the burning question of spirits and spirit-phenomena had come up; and Mary — Mary, not he: it would never have occurred to him to dilate on the theme before such as Tilly! — had told of the raps and movements of furniture that were taking place at the house of a Mrs. Phayre, a prominent member of Melbourne society. Now Tilly knew very well he did NOT belong to those who dismissed such happenings with a smile and a shrug. Yet the mere mention of them was enough to send her off into an unmannerly guffaw.

“Ha, ha! . . . ha, ha, ha! To see your furniture jumping about the room! I’D pretty soon nab the slavey — you take my word for it, Mary, it’s the slavey — who played such tricks on me. I’D bundle ‘er off with a flea in ‘er ear.”

A glance at Richard showed him black as thunder. Mary adroitly changed the subject. But afterwards she came back on it.

“It’s all very well, Richard, but you can’t expect a common-sense person like Tilly NOT to be amused by that sort of thing.”

“And pray do you mean to imply that every one who does not mock and jeer is devoid of sense?”

“Of course not. Besides, I didn’t say sense; I said common sense.”

“Well, since you yourself bring in the ‘common,’ I’ll quote you the dictum of a famous man. ‘Commonplace minds usually condemn everything that is beyond the scope of their understanding.’”

“How sweeping! And so conceited. But Tilly is NOT commonplace. In many ways, she’s just as capable as her mother was. But I don’t think we ought to be discussing her. While she’s our visitor.”

“Good God! Is one to go blind and dumb because a fool is under one’s roof?”

“Well, really! I do wonder what you’ll say next.” Mary was hurt and showed it.

But Mahony did not try to conciliate her. He had a further ground for annoyance. Ever since Tilly had come to the house, that side of Mary’s nature had prevailed with which he was least in sympathy. Never had she seemed so deadly practical, and lacking in humour; so instinctively antagonistic to the imaginative and speculative sides of life. Her attitude, for example, to the subject under discussion. At bottom, this was no whit different from Tilly’s. “THAT sort of thing,” said as Mary said it, put her opinion of the new movement in a nutshell.

Out of this irritation he now demanded: “Tell me: are we never in this world to have our house to ourselves again?”

“But, Richard, Tilly HAD to come! . . . after the time I stayed with her. And now she’s here — even though you despise her so — we’ve got to do all we can to make her visit a success. I should hate her to think we didn’t consider her good enough to introduce to our friends.”

“Among whom she fits about as well as a porpoise in a basin of goldfish.”

“As if a porpoise could get inside a basin! How wildly you do talk! Besides you don’t mean it. For if ever there was a person particular about paying debts, it’s you.”

Late one afternoon he came in from the garden, where he had been superintending the laying out of a new shrubbery. Only the day before he had found, to his dismay, that a gap in the screening hedge of lauristinus and pittosporums allowed of errand-boys and nursemaids spying on a privacy he had believed absolute. The thought was unbearable. But the change had cost him a fierce tussle with his pig-headed Scot of a gardener, who held there were already too many shrubs about the place. Now he felt hot and tired.

As he crossed the verandah Mary came rustling out of the dining-room. She looked mysterious, but also, if he knew his Mary, a trifle uncomfortable. “Richard! I’ve got a surprise for you. I want you in the drawing-room.”

“Well, I suppose it will keep till I’ve washed the dust off.” The drawing-room spelt visitors; and he had looked forward to pipe and book.

In course of making a hasty toilet, however, he pricked up his ears. Down the passage came the tones of a voice that seemed strangely familiar. And, sure enough, when he entered the room he found what he expected: the visitor Tilly was entertaining with such noisy gusto was no other than Purdy.

Purdy sat on the circular yellow-silk ottoman, in the easiest of attitudes. With one leg stuck straight out before him, he hugged the other to him by the knee, rocking his body backwards and forwards as he told what was evidently a capital story — to judge by his own roars of laughter and Tilly’s purple face and moist eyes, at which she made feeble dabs with her pocket-handkerchief.

The shock of the encounter drove the semblance of a hearty greeting out of Mahony. But with this he had exhausted himself; Purdy and he could find no points of contact; and after a few halting remarks and awkward pauses, Purdy faced round to Tilly again and took up the broken thread of his yarn. And from now on, both there and at the high tea to which Mary presently led them, Mahony sat silent and constrained. For one thing, he disdained competition with Tilly in her open touting for Purdy’s notice. Again, as he looked and listened, he understood Mary’s discomfort and embarrassment. On the occasion of last seeing Purdy, they had both been giddy with excitement. Now the scales fell from his eyes. This, his former intimate and friend? This common, shoddy little man, already pot-bellied and bald? — whose language was that of the tap-room and the stable; who sat there bragging of the shady knowledge he had harvested in dark corners, blowing to impress the women; one of life’s failures and aware of it, and, just for this reason, cocksure, bitter, intolerant — a self-lover to the Nth degree. In the extravagant fables they were asked to swallow, he, Purdy, had seen the best of everything, the worst of everything, had always been in the thick of a fray and in at the finish.

Well! one person present seemed to enjoy the tasteless performance, and that was Tilly, who hung on his lips. She even urged him to repeat some of his tallest stories, for the benefit of Mary who had been out of the room.

“Oh, love, you MUST ‘ear that yarn of the splitter and the goanna. I’ve laughed to burst my sides. Go on, Purd, tell it again. It was a regular corker.” And, belonging to the class of those who pre-indulge, Tilly hee-hawed at full lung-strength. in anticipation of the coming joke. After which Mahony had to listen for the second time to some witless anecdote, the real point of which was to show Purdy in his role of top dog.

Was it possible that he had ever enjoyed, or even put up with this kind of thing? Had Purdy always been a vainglorious braggart, or had the boasting habit grown on him as he went downhill? Of course he himself had not become more tolerant as the years went by; and he could afford to yield to his antipathies, now that no business reasons made civility incumbent. But there was more in it than this. In earlier days a dash of the old boyish affection had persisted, to blind him to Purdy’s failings; just as the memory of their boyhood’s standing — he the senior, Purdy the junior — had caused Purdy to look up to him and defer to his opinion. Now, nothing of this remained. On either side. Long-suffering, deference, affection had alike been flung on time’s scrap-heap — at least, during the two distasteful hours spent in Purdy’s company, not even the ghosts of such feelings stirred. Then what had brought him back? Mere tuft-hunting? Where, too, in the name of Christendom had Mary fished him up, who would have been so much better left in obscurity? Had she really fancied she would give him, Mahony, a pleasure thereby? POOR MARY!

But the thin smile of amusement that curled his lips at the thought faded, when he heard her pressing Purdy to come again. And the first time he got her alone — it was not till bedtime — he took her soundly to task.

“Your surprise this afternoon was a surprise indeed — in more ways than one. But what possessed you, Mary, to ask him to repeat the visit? My dear, you must surely see for yourself we cannot have the eyesore he has become, about this house?”

Mary paused in the act of slipping the rings off her fingers and on the branches of her ring-tree, and looked surprised. “WHAT, Richard? Your OLDEST friend?” But Mahony, versed in every lightest expression that flitted across the candid face before him, felt the emphasis to be overdone. Like himself it was plain Mary had suffered something of a shock.

So he swallowed a caustic rejoinder, and said dryly: “I know your intentions were of the best. But . . . well, frankly, my dear, I think it’s bad enough if you fill the house with YOUR old friends.”

He was right. Her discomfiture showed in the way she now flared up. “Fill the house? . . . with only one person here at a time, and never more than two? But — since you put it that way, Richard — I think it’s rather a good thing I do. If we are ever to see anyone at all!”

“Give me books and I don’t want people.”

“Oh, I’ve no patience with such a selfish standpoint. Whatever would be the good of all this — I mean the nice house, and our not needing to worry about expense — if we didn’t ask other people to share it with us?”

“Pray, have I hindered you from doing so?”

“Well, not exactly. But why start to grumble now, when it’s a question of your best friend?”

At the repetition his patience failed him. “Best friend! Oldest friend! Good heavens, Mary! do think what you are saying. How can one continue to be friends with a person one never sees or hears of? Surely the word implies somebody with whom one has at least HALF an idea in common? People don’t stand still in this world. They’re always growing and changing — up or down or off at a tangent. PANTA REI is the eternal truth: SEMPER IDEM the lie we long to see confirmed. And to hug a sentimental memory of what a mortal once was to you, and go on trying to bolster up an intimacy on the strength of it — why, that’s to drag a dead carcase behind you, which impedes your own progress. — No, the real friend is one you pick up at certain points in your life, whose way runs along with yours — for a time. A time only. A milestone on your passage — no more. Few or none march together the whole way.”

“Milestones? Why not tombstones while you’re about it?” cried Mary hotly, repudiating a theory that seemed to her wholly perverse “Of course, you’re able to use words I don’t understand; but I say, once a friend, always a friend. I know I’D be sorry to forget anyone I had ever liked — even if I didn’t find much to talk to them about. But you must always have your own ideas. I declare you’re going on now about people just as you do about places, about not wanting to see them again once you’ve left.”

“Yes, places and people — one as the other. Let me face forward — not back. But to return to the matter in hand: I don’t mind telling you I’d gladly PAY our visitor of this afternoon to stop away . . . and drink his tea elsewhere.”

“I never heard such a thing!” Then, however, another thought struck her. “You’re not letting that silly old affair in Ballarat still prejudice you against him?”

Mahony laughed out loud. “Good Lord, no! The grass has been green over that for what seems like half a century.”

“Then it’s because he drank his tea out of his saucer — and things like that.”

“Tch!” On the verge of letting his temper get away with him, Mahony pulled up. “Well, my dear . . . well, perhaps you’re not altogether wrong. I’ll put it even more plainly though. Mary, it’s because he spoke and looked like what I veritably believe him to be: an ostler in some stable. Horsey checks, dirty nails, sham brilliants; and a mind and tongue to match. No, I stick to what I’ve said: I’d offer him a ten-pound note to stop away.”

“I never knew anyone so hard on people as you.”

“Come, DO I need to mix with ostlers at my time of life? . . . and in my present position. It’s not my fault that I’ve gone up in the world and he down.”

“No, but all the more reason not to turn your back on somebody who hasn’t had your luck.”

“I deny that I’m a snob. I’d invite my butcher or my baker to the house any day, so long as he had decent manners and took an interest in what interests me.”

“My dear Richard, you only say that because you know you’ll never have to! And if you did, you wouldn’t like them a bit better than you do Purdy. But I’m sure I sometimes don’t know what’s coming over you. You used to be such a stickler for remembering old friends and old kindnesses, and hadn’t bad enough to say about people who didn’t. I believe it was the going home that changed you. Yet when you were in England, how you railed at people there for letting themselves be influenced by a person’s outside — how he ate peas, or drank his soup, and things like that.”

“England had nothing whatever to do with it. But it was a very different thing in Ballarat, Mary, where my practice brought me up against all sorts of people to whom I was forced to be civil. Now, there’s no such obligation. And so I decline, once and for all, to exhibit the specimen we saw to-day to our social circle. If you’re absolutely bent on befriending him — and I know doing good is, to you, the temptation strong drink is to others — although in my opinion, my dear, you’ll end by OVERdoing it: you’ve not looked yourself for weeks past. If you must have Purdy here, kindly let it be when no one else is present, and if possible when I, too, am out of the way. What you’re to say about me? Anything you like. He won’t miss me so long as your friend Tilly is at hand to drink in his words. You certainly hit the bull’s-eye this time, my dear, in providing her with entertainment. Purdy’s egregious lying was pabulum after her own heart.”

With which Richard slung a towel round his neck and retired to the bathroom, leaving Mary to the reflection that, if ever there was a person who knew how to complicate the doing of a simple kindness, it was Richard. Here he went, detesting Tilly with all his old fervour and dead set from the start against Purdy and his coming to the house. (It was true Purdy had got rather loud and bumptious; but a sensible woman like Tilly might be trusted soon to knock the nonsense out of him.) Meanwhile she, Mary, had somehow to propitiate all three; and in particular to hinder Richard from showing what he felt. For if the match came off, Purdy would become a rich and important personage to whom every door would open. And then Richard, too, would come round — would have to. If, that was, she could meanwhile contrive to keep him from making lifelong enemies of the happy pair.

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