The Way Home, by Henry Handel Richardson

Chapter II

It was at another breakfast-table, something over a year previously, that Mary, having opened and read it, handed him a letter bearing the Leicester postmark. —“From my mother.”

This ran:


“A royal welcome indeed, Mary! . . . one may say our first genuine welcome to England,” declared Mahony; and threw, in thought, a caustic side-glance at the letters he had received from his own people since landing: Irish letters, charming in phrase and sentiment, but — to his own Irish eyes — only partially cloaking the writers’ anxiety lest, as a result of his long absence from the country, he should take Irish words at their face value, take what was but the warm idea of an invitation for the thing itself, and descend to quarter himself upon them. “Now what do you say, love? Shall we pack our traps and be off? Yes, yes, I suppose I shall have to gulp down another cup of these dregs . . . that masquerade as coffee.”

“Ssh, Richard! . . . not so loud.” Mary spoke huskily, being in the grip of a heavy cold and muffled to the chin. “I should like it, of course. But remember, in engaging these rooms you mentioned a month — if not six weeks.”

“I did, I know. But . . . . Well, my dear, to speak frankly the sooner I walk out of them for the last time the better I’ll be pleased. How the deuce that hotel we stopped at had the effrontery to recommend them staggers me!” And with aversion Mahony let his eye skim the inseparable accompaniments of a second class London lodging: the stained and frayed table linen, cracked, odd china, dingy hangings; the cheap, dusty coal, blind panes, smut-strewn sills. “Fitzroy Square indeed! By hanging out of the window till I all but over-reach myself, to catch a glimpse of a single sooty tree branch. And the price we’re asked to pay for the privilege! I assure you, Mary, though we had fork out rent for the full six weeks, we should save in the end by going. The three we’ve been here have made a sad hole in my pocket.”

“Yes. But of course we’ve done some rather extravagant things, dear. Cabs everywhere — because of your silly prejudice against me using the omnibus. Then that concert . . . the Nightingale, I forget her name . . . and the Italian Opera, and Adelina Patti. I said at the time you should have left me at home; you could have told me all about it afterwards. What with gloves and bouquet and head-dress, it must have cost close on five pounds.”

“And pray are we to be here at last, in the very heart of things, with twenty years’ rust — oh, well! very nearly twenty — to rub off, and yet go nowhere and hear nothing? No, wife, that’s not the money I begrudge. All the same, just let me tell you what our stay in London has run to — I totted it up at three A.M. when those accursed milk-wagons began to rattle by”— and here he did aloud for Mary’s benefit a rapid sum in mental arithmetic. “What do you say to that? — No, I know I haven’t,” he answered another objection on her part. “But on second thoughts, I’ve decided to postpone seeing over hospitals and medical schools till I’m settled in practice again, and have a fixed address on my pasteboards. I shall then get a good deal more deference shown me than I should at present, a mere nobody, sprung from the dickens knows where.”

He had lighted the after-breakfast pipe he could now allow himself, and pacing the room with his hands in his dressing-gown pockets went on: “This sense of insignificance regularly haunts me. I’m paying, I expect, for having lived so long in a place like Ballarat, where it was easy to imagine oneself a personage of importance. Here, all such vanity is soon crushed out of one. The truth of the matter is, London’s too big for me; I don’t feel equal to it — I believe one can lose the habit of great cities, just like any other. And sometimes, especially since you’ve been laid up, Mary — for which I hold myself mainly responsible, my dear, running you off your legs as I did at first . . .”

“Still we can say, Richard, can’t we, we’ve seen all there is to be seen?” threw in Mary with a kind of cheerful inattention. Risen meanwhile from the breakfast-table, she had opened the door of the chiffonier; and her thoughts were now divided between Richard’s words and the fresh depredations in her store of provisions that had taken place overnight.

Mahony snorted. “A fiftieth part of it would be nearer the mark! — Well, as I was saying . . . if you’ll do me the kindness to listen . . . this last week or so, since I’ve been mooning about by myself — Gad! to think how I once looked forward to treading these dingy old streets again — half silly with the noise of the traffic . . . upon my word, wife, that begins to get on my nerves, too: it goes on like a wave that never breaks; I find myself eternally waiting for a crash that doesn’t come. Well, as I say, when I push my way through all these hard, pale, dirty London faces — yes, my dear, even the best of ’em look as though they needed a thorough scrub with soap and water . . . as for me, if I wash my hands once, I wash ’em twenty times a day; I defy any one to keep clean in such an atmosphere. All strange faces, too; never one you recognise in the whole bunch; while out there, of course, the problem was, to meet a person you did NOT know. Well, there come times, if you’ll believe me, when I’ve caught myself feeling I’d hail with pleasure even a sight of old What-was-his-name? — you know, Mary, that vulgar old jackanapes on board who was for ever buttonholing me . . . my particular BETE NOIRE— yes, or even sundry other specimens of the OMNIUM GATHERUM we were blessed with.”

“Well, I never! And me who thought you were only too glad to ged rid of them.”

“Faith and wasn’t I? . . . at the time. Indeed, yes.” And Mahony smiled; for at Mary’s words a picture rose before him of his fellow-passengers as he had last seen them, standing huddled together like frightened sheep on the platform of the great railway terminus: an outlandish, countrified, colonial-looking set if ever there was one, with their over-bushy hair and whiskers, their overloud shepherds’-plaids and massy watch-chains, the ladies’ bonnets (yes, Mary’s too!) seeming somehow all wrong. Even the most cocksure of the party had been stunned into a momentary silence by the murk of fog and steam that filled the space under the lofty roofing; by the racket of whistling, snorting, blowing engines; the hoarse shouts of cabbies and porters. But the first shock over, spirits had risen in such crescendo that with a hasty: “Come, love, let US get out of this!” he had torn Mary from voluminous embraces, bundled her into a four-wheeler and bidden the driver whip up. A parting glance through the peep-hole showed the group still gesticulating, still vociferating, while crowns and half-crowns rained on grinning porters, who bandied jokes about the givers with expectant Jehus and a growing ring of onlookers. Their very luggage, rough, makeshift, colonial, formed a butt for ridicule.

Lost in such recollections — they included the whole dirty, cold, cheerless reality of arrival; included the first breath drawn of an air that smells and tastes like no other in the world; the drive in a musty old growler reeking of damp straw, and pulled by something “God might once have meant for a horse!” to an hotel, the address of which he had kept to himself: “Or we should have the whole lot of ’em trapesing after us!”— sunk in these memories, Mahony let a further remark of Mary’s pass unheeded. But when, with a raucous cry, a butcher’s boy stumped down the area steps, bearing in his wooden tray the very meat, red and raw, that was to be dished up on their table later on, he swung abruptly round, turning his back on a sight he could not learn to tolerate. “Was there EVER such a place for keeping the material needs of the body before one? . . . meat, milk, bread! . . . they’re at it all day long. My dear, I think I’ve heard you say your mother’s house is not cursed with a basement? Come, love, let us accept her invitation and go down into the country. The English country, Mary! Change of air will soon put you right again, and I could do, I assure you, with a few nights’ uninterrupted sleep. Besides, once I’m out of London, it will be easier to see how the land lies with regard to that country practice I’ve set my heart on.”

This last reason would, he knew, appeal to Mary, whose chief wish was to see him back at work. And sure enough she nodded and said, very well then, they would just arrange to go.

For her part Mary saw that Richard’s mind was as good as made up: to oppose him would only be to vex him. Of course, it went against the grain in her to be so fickle: to take lodgings for six weeks and abandon them at the end of three! (Vainly had she tried, at the time, to persuade Richard to a weekly arrangement. Richard had BOUGHT the smile on their landlady’s grim face; and she felt certain did not regret it.) But though she hadn’t shown it, she had been shocked to hear the sum total of their expenses since landing. Nor was there anything to keep them in London. They had fitted themselves out from top to toe, in order to lose what Richard persisted in calling “the diggers’ brand”; and, say what he might to the contrary, they had seen and heard enough of London to last them for the rest of their lives. Museums, picture galleries, famous buildings: all had been scampered through and they themselves worn out, before the first week was over: her ship-softened feet still burned at the remembrance. Yes, for herself, she would be well pleased to get away. Privately she thought London not a patch on Ballarat; thought it cold, comfortless, dreary; a bewildering labyrinth of dirty streets. And the longer she stayed there the more she regretted the bright, clean, sunny land of her adoption.

Thus it came about that before the third week was over, they were in the train bound for Leicester.

It was a wet day. Rain set in at dawn, and continued to fall hour after hour, in one of those steady, sullen, soulless downpours that mark the English autumn. Little could be seen by the two travellers who sat huddled chillily in wraps and rugs, the soles of their feet burning or freezing on tin foot-warmers — seen either of the cast-iron sky, over which drifted lower, looser bulges of cloud, or of the bare, flattish country through which the train ran. On the one side the glass of the narrow window was criss-crossed with rain stripes; on the other, the flying puffs of steam, unwinding from the engine like fleecy cardings, wearisomely interposed between their eyes and the landscape. Now and then Mahony, peering disconsolately, caught a glimpse of a low-lying meadow which, did a brook meander through it, was already half under water. Here and there on a rise he distinguished a melancholy spinney or copse: in its rainy darkness, trailed round by wreaths of mist, it looked as fantastic as a drawing by Dore. On every station at which they halted stood rows of squat, ruddy-faced figures, dripping water from garments and umbrellas, the rich mud of the countryside plastered over boots and leggings. They made Mahony think of cattle, did these sturdy, phlegmatic country-people — the soaked and stolid cattle that might be seen in white-painted pens beside the railway, or herded in trucks along the line. And both men and beasts alike seemed insensitive to the surrounding gloom.

On the platform at Leicester, reached towards five o’clock, so many muddied feet had passed and repassed that, even under cover, not a clean or a dry spot was left. And still the rain fell, hissing and spitting off the edges of the roof, lying as chocolate-coloured puddles between the rails. In the station-yard the wet cabs and omnibuses glistened in the dusk; and every hollow of their leather aprons held its pool of water. The drivers, climbing down from their boxes, shook themselves like dogs; the patient horses drooped their heads and stood weak-kneed, their coats dark and shiny with moisture.

“Good Lord! . . . what weather!” grumbled Mahony, and having got Mary into the little private omnibus that was to bear them to their destination, he watched a dripping, beery-faced coachman drag and bump their trunks on to the roof of the vehicle, and stack the inside full with carpet-bags and hand-portmanteaux. “Yet I suppose this is what we have got to expect for the rest of our days. — Keep your mouth well covered, my dear.”

Behind her mufflings Mary vented the opinion that they would have done better to time their landing in England for earlier in the year.

“Yes; one forgets out there what an unspeakable climate this is. The dickens! Look at the mould on the floor! I declare to you the very cushions are damp.” Having squeezed into the narrow space left vacant for him, Mahony vehemently shut the door against the intruding rain. And the top-heavy vehicle set to trundling over the slippery cobbles.

But the discomfort of the journey was forgotten on arrival.

The omnibus drew up in a side street before a little red-brick house — one of a terrace of six — standing the length of a broom-handle back from the road. A diminutive leaden portico overhung the door. Descending a step and going through a narrow passage, they entered what Mahony thought would be but a dingy sitting-room. But although small, and as yet unlit by candles, this room seemed all alive with brightness. A clear fire burned in a well-grate; a copper kettle on the hob shone like a great orange; the mahogany of the furniture, polished to looking-glass splendour, caught and gave back the flames, as did also, on the table spread for tea, a copper urn and the old dented, fish-back silver. On the walls twinkled the glass of the family portraits; even the horsehair had high lights on it. A couple of armchairs faced the blaze. And to this atmosphere of cosy comfort came in, chill and numb, two sun-spoiled colonials, who were as much out of place in the desolate, rain-swept night as would have been two lizards, but lately basking on a sun-baked wall.

“Come, this is really VERY jolly, Mary!”

Thus Mahony, toasting his coat-tails before the fire, while their hosts were absent on the last ceremonies connected with tea. And went on, warmed through now, both in mind and body: “I fear you’ve had a shocking old grizzler at your side of late, love. But I’ve felt like a fish out of water. Idleness doesn’t agree with me, Mary. I must get back to work, my dear. I want a house of my own again too. When I see a snug little place like this, after those unspeakable lodgings, why, upon my word it makes me feel inclined to jump at the first vacancy that offers.”

“Oh, that would never do,” said Mary with a smile. And their hands, which had met, fell apart at the sound of footsteps.

It was also a cheerful evening; one that opened with jest and laughter. For barely were they seated at the tea-table when sister Lisby, who towered head and shoulders above her stout little dot of a mother — Lisby shamelessly betrayed a secret, telling how, while the travellers were upstairs removing their wraps, mother had seized her and danced her round, exclaiming as she did: “Oh, my dear, aren’t we grand? . . . aren’t we grand? Which I may mention was not intended for you, Polly — I would say Mary. For I feel sure, if you could see inside my mother’s heart, you would find yourself there no more than fourteen — the age you were when last she saw you.”

They all laughed; and Mother covered her old confusion by picking up the sugar-tongs and dropping an extra lump into Mahony’s cup.

“Now give over, miss, will you?” she said affectionately. “Any one but such a pert young thing as you would make allowance for an old woman’s pleasure at getting a son again. Ready-made, too — without any bother. Eight of ’em, Richard my dear, have I brought into this world in my day — a baker’s dozen all told, boys and girls together — and not one is left to their poor old mother but this forward young party here. And she’d be off if she could.”

“My mother,” said Lisby — having filled and handed round the cups, she was now engaged in apportioning a pork pie, performing the task with a nicety that made Mahony think of Shylock and his bond: not a crumb was spilt or wasted —“My mother would have me sit all day at the parlour window, on the watch for some Prince Charming. To him she would gladly resign me. But because I wish to go out into the world and stand on my own feet . . .”

“Lisby! Not woman’s rights, I hope?” interposed Mary. And reassured: “Then, mother, I should let her try it. Especially now you’ve got me to look after you. Lisby, my dear, if you had been in the colony with us in the early days —” and here Mary dilated on some of the hard and incongruous jobs she had seen women put their hands to.

“Now, did you ever?” ejaculated Lisby — with force, but a divided mind. At present she was carving a cold chicken with the same precision as the pie. (Mahony laughed afterwards when, sunk deep in the feathers, he lay watching the gigantic shadows flung by a single candle on the white ceiling, and Mary braided her hair; laughed and said, Lisby’s carving made him think of a first-year medical performing on a frog.) “NEVER did I hear tell of such things! I declare, my dear, I am reminded of Miss Delauncey of Dupew. You will remember her, Polly — I would say Mary.” (“I think I do just remember the name,” from Mary.) “Well, my dear, what must she do but leave home — against her father’s will — to go and be a governess in Birmingham.” And now Lisby in her turn held forth on the surprising adventures of Miss Delauncey, who, finding herself in a post that did not suit her, was obliged to take another.

This kind of thing happened more than once during the meal: the ball of talk, glancing aside from the guests’ remoter experiences, was continually coming back to Lisby and the world she knew. Her old mother, it seemed to Mahony, was shyer, more retiring. But though she did not say much, it was she who peeped into cups to see if the bottoms were showing; who put titbits on Mary’s plate when Mary was not looking; pressed Mahony to a dish of cheesecakes with a smile that would have won any heart. He returned the smile, accepted the cakes, but otherwise, finding no point of contact, sat silent. Mary, with an eye to him through all Lisby’s chat, feared her relatives would think him stiff and dull.

But tea over, chairs drawn to the fire, feet planted on the fender, Mother turned her pretty old pink-and-white face framed in lisse cap and bands to Mahony, and seeing him still sit meditative, laid her plump little hand over his long thin one, which rested on the arm of his chair. And as he did not resist, she made it a prisoner, and carried it to her shiny old black silk lap. Sitting in this way, hand in hand with him, she began to put gentle questions about the lives and fates of those dearest to her: John, John’s two families of children, and his wives, neither of whom, not the lovely Emma, nor yet soft, brown-eyed Jinny — to whom, through her letters, she had grown deeply attached — could she now ever hope to know on earth. Next Zara, whom she called Sarah: “For the name I chose for her at her baptism I still think good enough for her,” with a stingless laugh at her eldest daughter’s elegancies. Steady Jerry, who would never set the Thames on fire. Ned, poor dear unfortunate Ned, who had been a source of anxiety to her since his birth —“Ah, but I was troubled when I carried him, Richard!”— from whom she had not heard directly for many a long day. Inquiring thus after her brood, and commenting on what she heard with a rare good sense, she gradually lured Mahony into a talking-fit that subdued even Lisby, and kept them all out of their beds till two o’clock in the morning. Once started, Richard proved regularly in the vein; and Mary no longer needed to fear lest he be thought dull or stand-off. Indeed, she found herself listening with interest. For he told things — gave reasons for throwing up his Ballarat practice, described sensations on the homeward voyage and in London — which were new even to her. At some of them she rather opened her eyes. She didn’t want to insinuate that Richard was inventing them on the spur of the moment; but she did think — and on similar occasions had thought before now — that certain ideas occurred to him only when he got fairly wound up: he was like a fisher who didn’t always know what he was going to catch. — Besides, there was this odd contradiction in Richard: he who was usually so reserved could, she had noticed, sometimes speak out more frankly, unbosom himself more easily, to people he was meeting for the first time, than to those he lived his life with. It was as if he said to himself, once didn’t count.

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