The Way Home, by Henry Handel Richardson

Chapter III

These rather waspish comments — Lizzie never seemed able to resist having a thrust at Gracey — were made in the drawing-room at “Ultima Thule,” where the two wives sat waiting for their husbands to rejoin them. John and Lizzie were dining there at John’s express request: the groom had ridden over after lunch with a line from John, asking if he and Lizzie might take pot-luck with them that evening. Richard said: “Wonders will never cease,” and a refusal was not to be thought of; but Cook had been very put out by the shortness of the notice; so much so that Mary had driven to town to fetch delicacies; thinking as she went, how in the old days SHE would have run up a dinner for four, and one well worth eating, too, in less than an hour. Her hands did sometimes itch to show such a fair-weather worker as Cook what could be done.

By now the evening was more than half gone, and still the gentlemen lingered; though Lizzie had sung all Richard’s favourite songs and pieces, some of them more than once. To pass the time, she had also sung to Cuffy; for — as had happened ere this when she was dining there — Nannan had knocked to say Master Cuffy could not be got to sleep, for thinking his Auntie might sing to him. Cuffy as audience was better than none, so Lizzie begged for the child to be brought in; and thereupon Cuffy appeared on Nannan’s arm in his little red flannel nightgown, his feet swathed in a crib — blanket, his eyes alight with expectation. Seated on his mother’s knee he drank in: “There was a Friar of Orders Grey,” and the sad ditty of “Barbara Allan,” himself rendering “Sun of my Soul” before, soundly kissed and cosseted by his aunt, who had a great liking for the little man, he was carried back to bed.

Towards ten o’clock, Lizzie could no longer conceal her yawns. Mary and she had talked themselves out: and where she had first surreptitiously peeped, she now openly drew her watch from her belt. This, John’s latest present to her, was a magnificent affair, crusted back and front with diamonds, while tiny brilliants sprinkled the long gold chain on which it hung. Unlike most women, Lizzie could wear any quantity of jewellery without looking overloaded. At the present moment a little heap of rings and bracelets lay on the lid of the piano; for, in despair, she had re-seated herself at the keys and begun anew to sing.

At the best of times Mary found it hard to fix her mind on music for five minutes together; and on this evening she had had more than enough of it, and could now let her thoughts stray in comfort. She wondered what could be keeping the two men . . . it was certainly rather impolite of Richard . . . wondered if Nannan had at last got Cuffy to sleep. The dinner had been very nice; Cook needn’t have made so much fuss beforehand. But there! When they undertook anything of this kind, it usually went off well. The house, of course, had something to do with it. This room, for instance, how well it lighted up! Richard declared he much preferred it to John’s, and Mary’s eyes wandered lovingly round walls and furniture, lingering on the great gilt-edged mirror, which reached to the ceiling; the lovely girandoles, a present from Richard; the lustred chandelier; the glass-shaded ormolu clock. The carpet, too, was of a most uncommon lemon colour; the suite, in a brocade to match, had a pattern of French lilies on it. She loved every inch of the place. WHAT a happy ending to all their ups and downs! . . . to be settled at last in such a home. Did she look back on the “Black Hole,” or the snails and damp of Buddlecombe, she felt she did not always fully appreciate her present good fortune.

But Lizzie here striking up a tune Mary knew, her thoughts came back with a jerk. She eyed the singer in listening, and: “Handsomer than ever” was her mental comment; although by now Lizzie was embarked on that adventure which, more than any other, steals from a woman’s good looks. What with her full, exquisitely sloping shoulders — they stood out of the low-cut bertha as out of a cup — her dimpled arms and hands, the fingers elegantly curled on the notes of the piano; her rich red lips, opening to show the almond-white teeth; her massive throat, swelling and beating as she sang . . . yes, Lizzie had indeed thriven on matrimony. It was otherwise with John. One had grown gradually used, as time passed, to the loss of that air of radiant health, of masterful assertion, which had formerly distinguished him. But since his marriage he had turned almost into an old man. Thin as a lath, he walked with a slight stoop, and hair and beard were grey. His face seemed to have grown longer, too, more cadaverous; his eye had an absent, inturned expression. At dinner he had been very silent. He had just sat there listening to Lizzie, hanging on her lips — really, if he went on like this when the two of them were at a stranger’s house, it would not be quite the thing.

Afterwards, in the drawing-room, Lizzie had made open complaint of his inertia; discussing him in that barefaced way of hers which plumed itself on calling a spade a spade.

“Yes, he is growing stodgy, dehling — stodgy and slow! I said to him the other day, I said: ‘John, love! this will NEVER do. WHERE is the man I married?’ Will you believe it, Mary, he actually wished to stop at home from Government House Ball last night? While this evening, if you please, he throws up an important dinner-party at Sir Joshua Dent’s, to come here. Not but what it has been a CHARMIN’ evening, dehling. But a man in John’s position has not the right to pick and choose.”

“Are you sure he is quite well, Lizzie? He looks very thin to me.”

“Oh, dear, yes! Perfectly well. John was never made to be fat.”

The laggards at length appearing, Lizzie crashed out a chord and rose from the piano-stool to hail and reproach them. “A pretty pair to be sure,” cried she playfully yet not without malice, the while she slid on rings and clicked the catches of bracelets; a pretty pair of husbands to prefer the society of their pipes to that of their wives! She had been so looking forward to a duo with Richard. It was evident she had reckoned without her host! Richard made one lame attempt to fall in with her tone, John none at all. He seemed only in haste to go; asked for the carriage to be brought round at once; himself rang the bell and gave the order.

Lizzie might be too full of her own grievances to notice how the wind blew; but Mary had eyes in her head. She saw that something was seriously amiss the moment the two men entered the room. Richard looked pale and distracted — and as for John! Whatever could be the matter? Had they quarrelled? . . . had a scene?

Then, in coming along the passage from the bedroom, with Lizzie enshawled at her side, she caught a murmured word of Richard’s that was evidently meant only for John’s ear. And when she had seen her guests off she did not re-enter the house, but stood on the verandah, anxiously awaiting Richard who had gone to open the gate.

At the crunch of his feet on the gravel, she moved forward, exclaiming impetuously before she was level with him: “What’s the matter? What was wrong with John to-night?”

“Matter? What on earth do you mean?” He stooped to pick up something; was exaggeratedly casual and indifferent.

“Now, dear, you needn’t put on that tone to me. I saw directly you came into the room . . . have you and he fallen out?”

“Good God, no! What have you got in your head now?”

“Well, then what is it? You can’t deceive me, Richard . . . you don’t look like that for nothing.”

“Who wants to deceive you, I’d like to know?” He was very short and gruff.

“Is John ill?”

“My dear Mary, don’t try and PUMP me, if you please! You know my aversion to that kind of thing.”

“Richard, I heard with my own ears what you said to him in the hall . . . about a possible loophole. What did you mean? Oh, DON’T be so obstinate! — Very well, then! I shall go over and see John myself, the first thing in the morning.”

“Indeed and you’ll do nothing of the sort.”

“He’s my brother. I’ve a right to know what’s happened.”

“A confidence is a confidence; and I’m hanged if I’ll be hectored into betraying it.”

“Anyone would think I was asking out of mere curiosity,” cried Mary; and tears of vexation rose to her eyes. “I know — I have the feeling — there’s something wrong. And you go on talking about confidences . . . and your own pride in not betraying them . . . when John looked to me as if he’d got his death sentence.”

Richard’s start did not escape her. He retorted, though less surely: “But it is at his own urgent request, Mary, that I hold my tongue!”

“Then he DID come to consult you about his health? Oh, Richard, please! . . . don’t keep me in suspense. What is it?”

“My dear, if you had gone through what I did to-night! I suppose I may as well out with it; for as usual with your wild shot you have hit the bull’s-eye. The fact of the matter is, what I had to tell John did amount to a sentence of death.”

“Then . . . then it is . . .”

“The worst. I examined him. A growth in the liver. No, too late now, for anything of that kind. My private opinion is he hasn’t more than six months to live.”

“RICHARD! . . . though I think I’ve been afraid of something like this . . . it’s just as if, inside me, I had felt what was coming.”

“And I suspected it. But you know, Mary, what John is . . . so unapproachable. I must say this though: I was moved this evening to a profound admiration for him. He took the verdict like a man . . . without flinching.”

“Yes, yes. But what does that matter now? The thing is, you’ve let him go home alone — with this on his mind — and only Lizzie beside him . . . who cares for no one but herself.” Mary had not known she thought this of Lizzie; it just popped out.

“A great spider! . . . that’s what the woman is, if you want my opinion,” cried Mahony angrily. “But what could I do? — Besides, at heart, I’m one with him. There are crises in a man’s life that are best fought through alone.”

“Not while I’m here. Where I’m going? Why, to him, of course!”

“At this hour of night? Indeed I advise you very strongly, Mary, to do nothing of the kind. Not only will he resent — and rightly too — my having broken my word, but he won’t thank you either for intruding. — And he’ll have gone to bed. How can you knock him up? What excuse have you?”

Mary reached for a wrap and threw it over her shoulders. “John won’t be in bed. And I’ll make it all right about you; don’t be afraid. — No, no, I’ll just walk over. As for intruding . . . I’ve always understood John better than any of you. Besides, I don’t see how people can care whether they do or not at a time like this.”

“Well, at least put on a pair of sound walking-boots and take a shawl. Of course I am. If you must go, I go with you.”

Stepping out of the gate they plodded through the sand of the road that led past now a large garden, now a wild, open space covered with gorse and heath. Masses of firs stood out black and forbidding. In the distance could be heard the faint lapping of the sea.

They walked in silence. Once only did Mary exclaim aloud, out of the many conflicting thoughts that were going round in her head: “Lizzie, of course, must know nothing. The last thing John will want is for her to be worried or upset.”

And Mahony: “It will not be long now before she and every one else has to know.”

“ When I think . . . how . . . how proud she has been of it all — I mean John’s position . . . and their entertainments . . . and his future — how she has looked forward to the title coming . . . Oh dear, oh dear! If only Jinny were beside him now . . . or poor dear Emma.”

On reaching the house they unlatched the gate with care, and crept like a pair of conspirators over the grass, to avoid the noise their steps would have made on the gravel. The venetian blinds were down, but bars of light filtered through them in Lizzie’s bedroom on the one side, and in John’s sanctum on the other. Mary tiptoed round the verandah, and tapped on her brother’s window-pane.

“It is I, John. . . . Mary.”

There was a moment’s pause, then the French window was noiselessly opened, and she disappeared inside the room.

On the front verandah a rocking-chair had been left standing. Mahony sat down in it and waited . . . and waited. Time passed; an hour . . . two hours . . . and still Mary did not return. Lizzie’s light had long ago gone out; not a sound came from the house; nor did any living thing move in garden or road. So absolute was the stillness that, more than once as he sat, he heard a petal drop from a camellia in the central bed. John had a fine show of these stiff, scentless flowers. They stood out, white and waxen, against the dark polish of their leaves.

It was spring, and a night warm enough to release the scents of freesia and boronia; though as usual the pittosporums outdid all else. There was no moon; but the stars made up for that; the sky was powdered white with them — was one vast field of glittering silver. Leaning back in his chair Mahony lay looking up at them and thinking the old, well-worn thoughts that besiege a mortal at sight of the Creator’s prodigality. Pigmy man’s insignificance in face of these millions of worlds; the preposterousness of the claim that his tiny existence can engage the personal notice of Him who has strewn the Milky Way; and yet the bitter reality of his small, mad miseries, the bottomless depths of his mental anguish: pain, as the profoundest of life’s truths, the link by which man is bound up with the Eternal . . . pain that bites so much deeper than pleasure, outlasting pleasure’s froth and foam as granite outlasts thistledown.

And now John’s link was being forged . . . his turn had come to taste pain’s bitterness — John who, all his days, had looked haughtily down on weakness and decay, as touching others, not himself. The material things of this world had been his pride and his concern. His soul, that poor soul which Mary, once more the comforter, was standing by in its black hour, had gone needy and untended. Now he was being called on to leave everything he prized: marriage and happiness, wealth, a proud standing, ambition crowned. Never, in his forward march, had John looked deeper; though in his own way he had walked according to his lights: a man of enterprise and energy, upright in business, grappling with the hardships of a new country, a pathfinder for those who would come after. — Yet for all this, a strangely unsympathetic nature! It was not alone the absence of the spiritual in him. It was the cold, proud, narrow fashion in which he had lived enclosed in his earthy shell, keeping the door rigidly shut on intruders. No one had really known John — known what manner of man housed within. Perhaps he had acted thus out of fear; had been afraid of the strange fears that might be found in him. Afraid of his fellows discovering that he was hollow, a sham and a pretence, where they had imagined wonderful strength and lovely virtues.

Well! . . . be that as it might. The time was past for probing and conjecturing. John’s hour had struck; and the phantom which had thus far borne his name, striding confident and alert through the world of men, would soon be blotted out. However one looked at it, it was a melancholy business. The swiftness of the blow made one realise, anew, on the edge of what an abyss one walked. Life was like a procession that trooped along this perilous margin, brimful of hope and vigour, gay, superbly unthinking; and then of a sudden there was a gap in the ranks, and one of the train had vanished, had pitched head-foremost into the depths, to be seen no more — by mortal eyes at least. Such a disaster must surely say — to those who had pinned their hearts to this world, with no more than a conventional faith in one to come (which amounted to little or none)— must surely seem to say: take all you can get while there is still time! A little while and it may be too late. Even in himself, who had won through to the belief that life was a kind of semi-sleep, death the great awakening, it called up the old nervous fear of being snatched away before he was ready to go. One lived on . . . HE lived on . . . inactive as a vegetable . . . and at any moment the blow might fall, and his chance be gone for ever — of doing what he had meant to do, of seeing what he had meant to see. And now, sitting there under the multitudinous stars, Mahony let the smothered ache for movement, the acute longing for change of scene that was smouldering in him, come to full consciousness. Yes, there was no denying it: the old restlessness was strong on him again; he was tired of everything he knew — tired of putting on his clothes in the morning and taking them off at night; tired of nursery talk and the well-known noises about the house, and the faces he saw every day. Tired of his books, too, and of his own familiar company. He wanted fresh scenes and people; wanted to open his eyes on new surroundings; be on the move again — feel a deck under his feet, and the rigours of a good head wind — all this, while health and a semblance of youth were left him. Another few years and he would be past enjoying it. Now was the time to make the break . . . cut his bonds . . . front Mary’s grief and displeasure.

Mary. At her name the inner stiffening, the resistance, with which his mind had approached her, yielded; and in its place came a warm uprush of feeling. Her behaviour this very night — how surely and fearlessly she had come to the stricken man’s aid, without a single hampering thought of self! There was nobody like Mary in a crisis: happy the mortal who, when his end came, had her great heart to lean on. That was worth all else. For of what use, in one’s last hour, would be the mental affinity, the ties of intellect he had lately so pitied himself for having missed? One would see these things then for the earth-trimmings they were. A child faced with the horrors of the dark does not ask for his fears to be shared, or to have their origin explained to him. He cries for warm, enfolding arms with which to keep his terrors at bay; or which, if met these must be, alone can help him through the ordeal. Man on his death-bed was little more than such a child; and it was for the mother-arms he craved, to which he clung in passing, until, again like a child, he had dropped to sleep. Hope, faith and love, these three . . . yes, but needed was a love like Mary’s, compounded of utter selflessness, and patience, and infinite forbearance — a love which it was impossible to sin against or overthrow . . . which had more than a touch of the divine in it; was a dim image of that infinite tenderness God Himself might be assumed to bear towards the helpless beings He had created. Measured by it, all other human experience rang hollow.

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