The Way Home, by Henry Handel Richardson

Chapter IX

Tilly said:

“My dear! the minute I set eyes on ‘er, I knew she was a fraud. And I thinks to myself: ‘Just you wait, milady, till the lights go out, and I’ll cook your goose for you!’ Well, sure enough, there we all sat ‘and-in-hand in the dark, like a party of kids playing ‘unt-the-slipper. And by-and-by one and another squeals: ‘I’m touched!’ What do I do, Mary? Why, I gradually work the hand I’m ‘olding in me right, closer to me left, till I’d got THEM joined and me right ‘and free. (It’s as easy as Punch if you know ‘ow to do it.) And when the man next me — oh, ‘e WAS a solemn old josser! — when ‘e said in a voice that seemed to come from ‘is boots: ‘The spirits ‘ave deigned to touch me’— as if ‘e’d said: ‘God Almighty ‘as arrived and is present!’— I made one grab, and got ‘old of — now what do you think? I’m danged if it wasn’t ‘er false chignon I found in my hand. I thought she was going to give me the slip then, after all: she wriggled like an eel. But I held on like grim death and, luckily for me, she’d a few ‘airs left still clinging to her cranium. She squeals like a pig. ‘Up with the lights,’ says I; ‘ I’ve got ‘er!’ ‘Turn up the lights if you dare,’ cries she: ‘it’ll kill me.’ Over goes a chair in the scrimmage, and then they did turn ’em up, and there was she squirming on the floor, bald like an egg, with I don’t know how many false gloves and feathers and things pinned on to ‘er body!”

Tilly sat by the fire in Mary’s bedroom, her black silk skirts turned back from the blaze. She was in high feather, exhilarated by her own acumen as by the smartness with which she had conducted the exposure. Opposite her Mary, her head tied up in red flannel, crippled by the heavy cold and the face-ache that had confined her to the house, listened with a sinking heart. It was all very well for Tilly to preen herself on what she had done: Richard would see it in a very different light. He had gone straight to his study on entering; and hurrying out in her dressing-gown to learn what had brought the two of them home so early, Mary had caught a glimpse of his face. It was enough. When Richard looked like that, all was over. His hatred of a scene in public amounted to a mania.

It was most discouraging. For a fortnight past she had done everything a friend could do, to advance Tilly’s suit; plotting and planning, always with an anxious ear to the study-door, in a twitter lest Richard should suddenly come out and complain about the noise. For the happy couple, to whom she had given up the drawing-room, conversed in tones that were audible throughout the house: a louder courtship Mary had never heard; it seemed to consist chiefly of comic stories, divided one from the next by bursts of laughter. Personally she thought the signs and portents would not be really favourable till the pair grew quieter: every wooing SHE had assisted at had been punctuated by long, long silences, in which the listener puzzled his brains to imagine what the lovers could be doing. However, Tilly seemed satisfied. After an afternoon of this kind she went into the seventh heaven, and leaning on Mary’s neck shed tears of joy: it WAS a case of middle-aged lovesickness and no mistake! True, she also knew moments of uncertainty, when things seemed to hang fire, under the influence of which she would vehemently declare: “Upon my soul, Mary love, if HE doesn’t, I shall! I feel it in my bones.” A state of mind which alarmed Mary and made her exclaim: “Oh no, don’t, Tilly! — don’t do that. I’m sure you’d regret it. You know, later on he might cast it up at you.”

And now Tilly had probably spoilt everything, by her hasty, ill-considered action.

Fortunately for her she didn’t realise how deeply she had sinned; though even she could see that Richard was angry. “Of course, love, the doctor’s in a bit of a taking. I couldn’t get a word out of ’im all the way ‘ome. — Lor’, Mary, what geese men are, to be sure! . . . even the best of ’em. Not to speak of the cleverest. To see all those learned old mopokes sitting there to-night, solemn as hens on eggs . . . it was enough to make a cat laugh. But even if ‘e DOES bear me a bit of a grudge, it can’t be helped. I’m not a one, love, to sit by and see a cheat and keep my mouth shut. A fraud’s a fraud, and even if it’s the Queen ‘erself.”

“Of course it is. I feel just the same as you. It makes my blood boil to watch Richard, with all his brains, letting himself be duped by some dishonest creature who only wants to make money out of him. But . . . when he once gets an idea in his head . . . . And he’s not a bit GRATEFUL for having his eyes opened.”

Grateful, indeed! When, after an hour’s solitude which might really have been expected to cool him down, he came into the bedroom, his very first words were: “Either that woman leaves the house, or I go myself!”

For all Mary’s firm resolve to act as peacemaker, this was more than she could swallow. “Richard, don’t be so absurd! We can’t turn a visitor out. Decency forbids.”

“It’s MY house, and for me to say whom I’ll have in it.”

“Tilly’s MY friend, and I’m not going to have her insulted.” Mary’s tone was as dogged as his own.

“No! but she is at liberty to insult mine . . . and make me a laughing-stock into the bargain. Such a scandalous scene as to-night’s, it has never been my lot to witness.”

“However did it happen that you held a seance? The invitation only said cards and music. I’d have kept her at home if I’d guessed, knowing her opinion of that sort of thing.”

“I wish to God you had! You talk of decency? You need hardly worry, I think, in the case of a person who has so few decent feelings of her own. If you could have heard her! ‘I got ‘er! Up with the gas! I’m ‘olding ‘er — by ‘er false ‘air!’”— Mahony gave the imitation with extravagant emphasis. “I leave it to you to imagine the rest. That voice . . . the scattered aitches . . . the gauche and vulgar manner . . . the medium weeping and protesting . . . your friend parleying and exclaiming — at the top of her lungs, too — glorying in what she had done as if it was something to be proud of, and blind as a bat to the thunder-glances that were being thrown at her . . . no! I shall never forget it. She has rendered me impossible — in a house where till now I have been an honoured guest.”

The exaggeration of this statement nettled Mary. She clicked her tongue. “Oh, DON’T be so silly! Surely you can write and explain? Mrs. Phayre will understand . . . that you had nothing to do with it.”

“Who am I that I should have to explain and apologise? — and for the behaviour of a person she did us the courtesy to invite.”

“But considering the woman WAS a fraud? Tilly vows she had all sorts of contrivances pinned to her body.”

“There you go! Ready, as usual, to believe any one rather than me! She was no more a fraud than I am. She came to us well attested by circles of the highest standing. Yet in spite of this, an ignorant outsider, who is present at a sitting for the first time in her life, has the insolence to set herself up as a judge. — Mary! I’ve put up with the job lot you call your friends for more than a twelvemonth. But this is the last straw. Out she goes, and that’s the end of it!”

But this flicked Mary on the raw. “You seem to forget SOME of the job lot were my own relations.”

“Oh, now get touchy, do! You know very well what I mean. But enough’s enough. I can stand no more.”

“You talk as if you were the sole person to be considered. As usual, think of nobody but yourself.”

“Ha! I like that,” cried Mahony, exasperated. “I think I’m possessed of the patience of Job, if you ask me. For there’s never been a soul among them with whom I had two ideas in common.”

“No, you prefer these wretched mediums and the silly people who are taken in by them. I wish spiritualism had never been invented!”

“Don’t talk about what you don’t understand!”

“I DO. I know nearly every time we go out now, I have to sit by and watch you letting yourself be humbugged. And then I’m not to open my mouth, or say what I see, or have any opinion of my own.”

“No! I should leave that to the superior wits of your friend.”

“I think it’s abominable the way you sneer at Tilly! But if you do it just to get her out of the house, you’re on the wrong tack. She’s NOT going just now, and that’s all about it. Any one but you would understand what’s happening. But you’re so taken up with yourself that you never see a thing — not if it’s under your very nose!”

“Pray what do you mean by that? WHAT is happening?” Pierced by a sudden suspicion Mahony swung round and faced her. “Good Lord, Mary!” . . . his voice trailed off in a kind of incredulous disgust. “Good Lord! You don’t want to tell me you’re trying to bolster up a match between this woman and . . . and Purdy?”

Mary tightened her lips and did not reply.

Mahony’s irritation burst its bounds. “Well, upon my soul! . .. well, of all the monstrous pieces of folly!” After which he broke off, to throw in caustically: “Of course if it comes to that, I ‘ll allow they’re well matched . . . in manners and appearance. But the fellow’s an incorrigible waster. He’ll make ducks and drakes of old Ocock’s hard-earned pile. Besides, has he shown the least desire for matrimony? Are you not lending yourself to a vulgar intrigue on the woman’s part? If so, let me tell you that it’s beneath your dignity — your dignity as my wife — and I for one decline to permit anything so offensive to go on under my roof. Not to speak of having to see you bear the blame, should things go wrong.”

“No, really, Richard! this is too much,” cried Mary, and bounced up from her seat. “For GOODNESS sake, let me manage my own affairs! To hear you talk, any one would think I was still a child, to be told what I may and mayn’t do — instead of a middle-aged woman. I’m quite able to judge for myself; yes! and take the consequences, too. But you blow me up just as if I wasn’t a person for myself at all, but only your wife. Besides, I think you might show a LITTLE confidence in me. I shan’t disgrace you, even if I am fool enough to bring two people together again who were once so fond of each other. Which you seem to have quite forgotten. Though your own common sense might tell you. Tilly’s alone in the world, and has more money than she knows what to do with. And he has none. I think you can safely leave it to her to look after her own interests. She’s a good deal sharper than any of us, you included. And Purdy, too. You sneer at him for an ostler and a ne’er-do-well. He’s nothing of the sort. For six months now he’s worked hard as a traveller in jewellery.” (“Ha! . . . THAT explains the sham diamonds, the rings, the breastpins.”) “There you go! . . . sneering again. And here am I, struggling and striving to keep the peace between you, till I don’t know whether I’m standing on my head or my heels. And as far as you’re concerned, it’s not the least bit of good. I think you grow more selfish and perverse day by day. You ought to have lived on a desert island, all by yourself. Oh, I’m tired . . . sick and tired . . . of it and of everything!”— and having said her say, passionately and at top speed, Mary suddenly broke down and burst out crying.

Mahony’s anger was laid on the instant. “Why, my dear! . . . why, Mary . . . what’s all this about? Come, come, love!”— as her sobs increased in violence —“this will never do. There’s nothing to upset yourself over. The fact is, as you say, you’re tired out. We shall be having you ill in earnest if this goes on. And small wonder, I’m sure. I declare, as soon as you’re rid of your cold I shall shut this place up and take you away from everybody, on a trip to Sydney and the Blue Mountains.”

“I don’t want to go to Sydney. I only want to be left alone, and not have my friends insulted and turned out of the house.”

“Good God, wife! . . . surely you can give me credit for some small degree of tact? But now, enough. You lie still and go to sleep. Or as I say, we shall have you really ill.”

“Oh, leave me out of it, do. I shall be all right in the morning.”

But this was not the case. Mary coughed and tossed, and went from hot to cold and cold to hot, for the greater part of the night. In the morning her head felt a ton weight on the pillow. It was no good chafing; in bed she had to stay. Mahony and Tilly faced each other in glum silence across the length of the breakfast-table.

The next few days bringing no improvement, Tilly had the good sense to pack her trunks and return to Ballarat. And it was one crumb of comfort to Mary that, thanks to her indisposition, this departure was accomplished without further unpleasantness.

Leaning over the bed for a farewell embrace, Tilly answered her friend’s hoarse whisper with a shake of the head. “But don’t you bother, love. My dear, you’ll see what you do see! I’m no chicken, Mary, nor any mealy-mouthed schoolgirl to lose me chance for want of opening me mouth. But whatever happens, I’ll never forget how you tried to pull it off for me, old girl — never! . . . not so long as I live.”

And now, the nervous strain she had been under of lying listening for sounds of strife and warfare — this removed, Mary was left at peace in her dimity-white bed, and gave herself up to the luxury of feeling thoroughly out of sorts. Richard found plenty to say in admonition, as the days went by and she continued low and languid, unable to shake off what seemed but a heavy cold. He also laid down many a stringent rule to safeguard her, in future, from the effects of her inexhaustible hospitality.

Then, however, the words died on his lips.

* * * * *

When the truth dawned on them that Mary’s illness could be ascribed to a purely natural cause, and that, at long last, she was to bear a child, husband and wife faced the fact as diversely as they now faced all vital issues. In Mahony’s feelings, bewilderment and dismay had the upper hand. For though, at one time, Mary’s childlessness had been a real grief to him, so many years had passed since then that he had long ceased either to hope or to regret. And when you had bowed thus to the inevitable, and arranged your life accordingly, it was disquieting, to say the least of it, to see your careful structure turned upside down. Rudely disquieting.

And this sense of inexpediency persisted long after Mary was up and about again, her old blithe self, and the two of them had more or less familiarised themselves with the idea of the drastic change that lay in store for them. The truth was: he no longer wished for children. One needed to be younger than he, still in the early years of married life, to accept their coming unconcernedly. (Nor was he enough of a self-lover to crave to see himself re-duplicated, and thus assured of an earthly immortality.) He felt old; WAS old: too late, now, to conjure up any of the dreams that belonged by rights to the coming of a child. His chief sensation was one of fear: he shrank from the responsibility that was being thrust upon him. A new soul to guide, and shield, and make fit for life! . . . when he himself was so unsure. How establish the links that should bind it to the world around it? — as to the world unseen. How explain evil? . . . and sin? . . . the doctrine of reward and punishment? — and reconcile these with the idea of a tender, all-powerful Creator. For though one might indulge in theory and speculation for one’s own edification, one dare not risk them on a child. Another more selfish point of view was that he looked forward with real apprehension to the upheaval of his little world: the inroads on, the destruction of that peace and solitude with which he had fallen so deeply in love.

A bright side to the affair was that they were now, for the first time in their united lives, really able to afford the outlay involved. They could make comfortable, even extravagant preparation for the new arrival; and only too gladly did he bid Mary spend what she chose. For though his own pleasure in the prospect of fatherhood was severely tempered, it warmed his heart to see her joy. “Radiant” was the only word that described Mary. No irksome thoughts of responsibility bore her down. She would have laughed at the notion in regard to a child of her own. But then, there never was less of a doubter than Mary: no hypercritical brooding over man’s relation to God, or God’s to the world, had ever robbed her of an hour’s sleep. She accepted things as they were with a kind of simple, untroubled faith. Or was it perhaps just the reverse — the absence of any religious spirit? Sometimes he half believed it — believed there existed in Mary more than a dash of the pagan. Well, however that might be, the coming of a babe would set the crown on a life which, in spite of its happiness, had so far lacked the supreme gift. For women’s arms, like their bodies, were built to cradle and enfold the young of the race.

Mary wrinkled her brow over none but the most practical considerations. Enough to occupy her was the burning question which rooms to take for nurseries, in a house where all rooms had long ago had their use allotted them.

Mahony laughed at her worried air. “Why, build ’em, my dear, and as many as you choose! I’ll not grudge the expense, I promise you.”

But this was just one of Richard’s harebrained schemes. The house was amply big enough as it stood; and any additions would spoil its shape. Time enough, too, to think of extra accommodation when all was happily over. Thus Mary: deciding eventually that the guestrooms were those that must be sacrificed: they were large, cool, airy; and once the baby was there, she would have scant leisure for entertaining. At least, in the beginning. And with this resolution, which was at once put into effect, Mary’s overdone and tiresome hospitality found its natural end.

Next came the question of furnishing. And here Richard proved to have ultra-queer notions about what would be good for a child — his child — and what wouldn’t. The nurse was not even to share a room with it — and this, when most nurses slept with their charges in the same bed! Then he tabooed carpets as dust-traps, so that there was no question of just covering the floor with a good Brussels; and curtains must be of thinnest muslin — not rep. In the end Mary had the floors laid in polished wood, on which were spread loose strips of bamboo matting; and dark green sunblinds were affixed to the outsides of the windows. The walls were distempered a light blue. In place of the usual heavy mahogany the furniture was of a simple style, and painted white. The little crib — it had to be made to order, for Richard would have none of the prevalent rocking-cradles, which, he declared, had rocked many a babe into convulsions — was white as well. When all was finished the effect was quite fairylike, and so novel that tales of the nurseries got abroad, and visitors invariably asked before leaving if they might be allowed a peep at them. Meanwhile, Mahony did his share by hunting up pictures on which the infant eye might rest with pleasure. He also bought toys; and would arrive home with his pocket bulging. Mary bore with him as long as he confined his purchases to woolly balls and rag dolls. But when it came to his ordering in an expensive rocking-horse, she put her foot down.

“REALLY, Richard! Just suppose anything.. . I mean it will be more than time enough for things like these a year or two from now.”

“Oh, the doctor expects HIS kid to come into the world able to walk and talk . . . like a foal or a calf. Never will such a miracle have trod this old earth!”

And as Tilly — she had come down on her own initiative, solely to be near Mary over her confinement — as she drove back to the hotel at which she was putting up, she hummed the popular refrain:



For besides making a donkey of himself over his purchases, Mahony was haunted, now the end drew nigh, by a memory, by the fear of another disappointment. He hardly trusted Mary out of his sight; hardly let her put one foot before another — “As jumpy as a Persian cat! You’d never think ‘e’d ‘elped hundreds of brats into the world in ‘is day!”

Mary sat in a rocking-chair on the shady side of the verandah, and waved a palm-leaf fan to keep the flies off. More often she was surrounded by yards of muslin, real India muslin, which she fashioned into robes and petticoats, on which she frilled and tucked and embroidered, sewing every stitch by hand.

“A regular trousseau!” said Tilly; and enviously fingered the piles of gossamer garments.

On the ordeal that lay before her, Mary herself was not given to brooding: for one thing, she was much stronger than she had been as a girl. And the first discomforts of her state over, her health was well maintained. But when December, with its livid heat, had slipped into the greater heats of January and her time came, she gave birth as hardly as on that first occasion long years ago; all but paying with her own for the new life she was bringing into the world. Well-known specialists, hastily summoned, performed a critical operation, Mahony’s trust in his own skill deserting him as usual where Mary was in question. And though the operation was successful and the child born alive, days of acute anxiety followed before it was certain that Mary would pull through. Tilly and Mahony buried the hatchet in the long hours they spent together in that darkened bedchamber, where Mahony moved a pale, distraught shadow, and Tilly sat weeping silently, her handkerchief to her eyes. In the dining-room John and Jerry strayed aimlessly to and fro among the furniture; and outsiders like Mrs. Devine would drive up early, and remain sitting in their carriages to hear the latest bulletin. In the end Mary’s sound constitution triumphed, and she was gradually won back to life; but over a week passed before she even asked to see her child. Then, in sudden impatience, she tried to raise herself on her elbow — a movement that sent Tilly and the nurse flying to lay her flat again. Tilly it was who, going to the crib, carried to her on a pillow one of the tiniest babies ever seen: a waxen doll, with black hair an inch long, and the large black eyes of Mary’s own family.

It was a boy. At his baptism, where John, Jerry and Lizzie stood sponsors, he received the name of Cuthbert — in full was to be known as Cuthbert Hamilton Townshend-Mahony.

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