The Way Home, by Henry Handel Richardson

Chapter VII

The end of September brought day after day of soft, steamy mists, which saturated everything with moisture, and by night fell as a fine rain that turned low-lying parts of the garden to a bog. Did you mount to the roads on the high level you were in the clouds themselves; they trailed past you like smoke. There was no horizon seaward. At a little distance from the shore the grey water became one with a bank of vapour; the yellow cliffs vanished; suns neither rose nor set.

It was exasperating weather. These eternal sea fogs, which never a puff of wind came to chase away, seemed literally to bury you alive. They brought out the sweat on the flagged floors and passages of the old, old house; a crop of mould sprang up in the corners of the dining-room; the bread mildewed in the bin. Did the back door stand open, frogs took advantage of it to hop in and secrete themselves; slugs squeezed through cracks and left their silvery trail over the carpets. Mary began to fear the house would prove but sorry winter quarters; and she had ample leisure to indulge such reflections, the bad weather confining her almost wholly within doors. Here was no kind friend with buggy or shandrydan to rout her out and take her driving; and ladies did not walk in Buddlecombe: the hilly roads were too steep, the flat roads too muddy. So, once more, she sat and sewed, faced by the prospect of a long, dull, lonely winter. Calls and invitations had rather dropped off, of late . . . as was not unnatural . . . and she would have been for seeing nothing peculiar in it, had she not connected it in some obscure way with Richard and the practice. This had also declined; was failing, it was plain, to live up to its early promise.

She was unaware that no sooner had the “Court” reopened for the winter than the tale — in a garbled version — of the innovations attempted by the “new doctor’s wife” had been carried to the ears of its mistress. And Mrs. Archibald Treherne pinched a pair of very thin lips and further arched already supercilious eyebrows. That was all; but it was enough. And, in consequence, from the choicest entertainments of the autumn the Mahonys found themselves conspicuously omitted.

Their only personal connection with the big house was due to an unhappy contretemps of the kind that was given to rankling for ever after in Mahony’s mind.

On learning of the family’s arrival, both he and Mary privately thought an exchange of courtesies would follow. Hence when one day a footman was found to have handed in cards during Mary’s absence — his mistress keeping her seat in her carriage at the foot of the hill — the visit did not take them by surprise. Within the week Mary drove out in a hired vehicle to return it.

A bare half-hour later she was home again, looking flushed and disturbed.

“Richard! . . . a most AWKWARD thing has happened. Those cards were not meant for us at all. It was the footman’s mistake. He ought to have left them at the next house down the road — that little thatched cottage at the corner. They were for a Mrs. Pigott, who’s staying there.”

“What? Well, upon my word!”

Leaning back in his chair Mahony stared at his wife, while he took in the significance of her words. “And does that mean to say the woman doesn’t intend to call on you . . . as well?”

“Evidently not.” Mary was crestfallen.

“WHAT? But will call on this Mrs. Pigott? — living in a farmer’s thatched cottage?” And Mary not replying, he burst out: “You will never, with my consent, set foot in that house again!”

“Indeed, I don’t want to,” said Mary, and sitting down untied her bonnet-strings and threw them over her shoulders. “I don’t know WHEN I’ve felt so uncomfortable. I was ushered into the drawing-room — it seemed crowded with people — and there she sat, holding our cards and looking from them to me and back again. I heard something about ‘the new doctor’s wife’ as I went in. Then she asked to what she owed my visit, said she hadn’t the pleasure and so on — all in front of these other people — the Brookes of ‘Shirley’ I think they were — that retired old General . . . you met him once, you know, and thought him very stuck-up. I had to explain how it had happened; I felt my face getting as red as fire. I didn’t know whether to walk out again or what, and she didn’t help me — didn’t get up, or shake hands, or anything. Fortunately a very nice person — a sort of companion, I think — asked me to rest a little after my drive, and I thought it would make things less awkward for everybody if I did so; so I just sat down for a minute and said a word or two, and then bowed and left. She came with me to the door — the companion, I mean.”

White with anger Mahony shuffled and re-shuffled the papers that lay before him on the writing-table. “We’ve never been treated like this in our lives before, Mary, and I for one won’t put up with it! Damn the woman and her insolence! Talk about breeding and blue blood — give me ordinary decent feelings and a little kindness, and you can keep the blood, thank you! I snap my fingers at it.” In imagination he saw his Mary, faced by a like predicament, doing her utmost to smooth over the embarrassment of the moment and set the unfortunate intruder at ease.

And time did not lessen his resentment. Rudeness to Mary — such a thing had never before come within the range of his experience — stung him, he found, almost more than rudeness to himself. But was the thrust not actually aimed at him . . . through her? What had the object of it been but to drive home to him the galling fact that, on this side of the world, the medical profession carried with it no standing whatever? In the colonies, along with the Parson and the Police Magistrate, he had helped to constitute the upper ten of a town. Here the doctor — and quite especially the country doctor — stood little higher in the social scale than did the vet. and the barber. Oh, those striped poles! Tradition died so hard in this slow-thinking, slow-moving country. Ingrained in people, not to be eradicated, was a memory of the day when the surgeon had been but the servant, the attendant lackey of the great house.

Grimly cogitating, he prepared in advance for further snubs and slights by going about with his chin in the air, looking to the last degree stiff and unapproachable. For, that Mary’s misadventure would remain a secret, he did not for a moment believe. There were all too many mouths in Buddlecombe agape for gossip — it would be threshed out over every tabby’s tea-table — and those already inclined to look down their noses at him and Mary would have a fresh excuse for so grimacing. Anything was possible in such a petty-minded, tittle-tattling place. Hence, it did not surprise him to hear that Robinson had been called to the “Court.” The trouble was, of course, that the townspeople and lesser folk were faithful in imitation of their betters; and soon it began to seem to him that he was not occasionally, but everlastingly getting out of Robinson’s way. And as he sat at home over the fire — Mary kept fires going to drive the damp out; though, in order to breathe, you had to leave the windows wide open to mist and fog — his thoughts were anything but cheerful. There was not work enough for two — or money either. As it was, he was having to depend more than he cared for on his Australian dividends.

It was at this juncture that the report reached his ears of illness at “Toplands,” where the younger son lay prostrate with gastric fever. But his services were not requisitioned.

Then came that morning when Mary, grave and worried, broke the news to him that Robinson’s gig had been seen at the gates of “Toplands”; the morning when, unable to hire a horse for his rounds, he was tormented, as he trudged the country lanes, by the idea that, like the last, this practice also was threatening to peter out.

Late that evening as he sat reading, there came a loud rat-tatting at the front door. The doctor in him pricked up his ears at the now unfamiliar sound: it was like an old-time call to action — in the land of cruel accident and sudden death. The visitor admitted, an excited voice was heard in the passage, and Mary’s in reply; after which Mary herself entered the surgery, shutting the door behind her and looking irresolute and uncomfortable. The elder of the two Challoner boys had, it seemed, come driving down post-haste from “Toplands.” His brother lay dying. Would Dr. Mahony come back with him — the dogcart was at the door — and meet Mr. Robinson?

“Meet ROBINSON? Not if I know it!”

“I told him I couldn’t be sure. But, Richard, there’s nobody else — unless he rides all the way to Brixeter. And there and back would take him at least four hours. His brother might be dead by then. Their mother is almost out of her mind, poor thing.”

“Poor thing, indeed! After the way she’s treated us. But you haven’t a scrap of pride in you.”

“Not when it’s a case of life or death I haven’t. Dear, don’t you think you could manage to overlook what’s happened? . . . not stand on etiquette? If the boy should die, you’d reproach yourself bitterly for not having gone.”

“You never will understand these things, Mary! — and though you live to be a hundred. Little did I dream,” he said with violence, as he slapped his book to and ungraciously rose to his feet, “when I settled here, that I should ever come down to playing second fiddle in this fashion.”

“It may be your chance to play first again — if you cure him.”

Mahony pshawed.

Off he drove though, as she had known all along he would; and did not get back till four in the morning. Then, half a glance was enough to show her that he was in a state of extreme nervous exasperation. So she asked only a single question: did the lad still live? But Richard could not contain himself; and as he moved about the bedroom, winding up his watch and letting his collar fly, he burst out: “Nothing on earth will induce me to stop in this place, Mary, to be insulted as I have been to-night! This is worse — a hundred times worse! — than the colony.”

From under her lashes Mary shot him a swift look he did not see: a look full of motherly tenderness — and yet triumphant. Aloud she merely said: “But think what a feather in your cap it will be, if the boy recovers, . . . the prestige you will gain.”

“Prestige? Pah! Robinson will say he did the curing, and I stepped in and took the credit. A fat lot of prestige to be got from that! Mary, there’s been a dead set made against me here — I’ve felt it now for some time, though why, I knew no more than Adam. To-night I believe I got a clue. It’s Australia if you please! — the fact of my having practised in Australia is against me.” And at Mary’s vigorously expressed disbelief: “Well! just listen to this, my dear, and judge for yourself. First of all, they prefer Robinson FUDDLED, to me sober. Yes, it’s the truth. When I get to ‘Toplands’ I find him tight — stupidly tight — standing by the bed staring like an owl. Quite devoid of shame he evidently is not though, for no sooner did he see me than off he bolted — leaving me as much in the dark as ever. I tried to get some information from the womenfolk about the earlier stages of the complaint; but not one was capable of giving a connected answer . . . . I’d sent the other young fellow off for leeches and the barber. Young Leonard lay convulsed and insensible. And yet, if you’ll believe me, Robinson had been telling them it was gastric, and plying him with brandy. Inflammation of the membranes of the brain, Mary! — and the fool killing him with stimulants. While I was making mustard poultices for his feet and legs, back comes Robinson and attempts to feel his pulse. I said: ‘Now look here, my good man, if you don’t give me some particulars of this case, I shall proceed to treat it without you.’ He answered not a word. Then I turned to her. ‘Now, madam,’ said I, ‘I’m not going to stand this. Either he or I must leave the room — or indeed the house — and, until you decide which, I go downstairs.’ She followed, all but clawing at my coat. He lurches after us, shouting abuse . . . for the whole house to hear. And what, pray, do you think he said? . . . amongst other scurrilous trash. ‘Very well, if you prefer the opinion of this old quack to mine, take it and abide by the consequences. Australia! We all knows what THAT means. Ask him what other trades he’s plied there. Make him turn out his credentials.’ It was as much as I could do to keep from knocking him down. Only the thought of the lad upstairs restrained me. SHE was very humble and apologetic, of course; besought me to take no notice; almost grovelled to me to save her son, etc. etc. I made short work of her, though.”

“Besides, you can surely afford to smile at such nonsense, Richard?” Mary strove to soothe him. “It would be beneath your dignity to notice it. Especially as he wasn’t himself.” Distressed though she felt at this return for Richard’s kindness, Mary was also unpleasantly worked on by his interlarded “My good man!” and the general hoity-toity air of his narration. What a peppery fellow he was! How could he ever expect to succeed and be popular? That kind of tone would not go down here.

“I make allowance for his condition . . . of course I do . . . but all the same it does not incline me, my dear . . . If such are the tales that are going the round about me, Mary — charlatan and quack, a colonial ne’er-do-well trading on a faked diploma and so on; if it’s a blot on my reputation to have lived and practised in the colonies, instead of mouldering my life away in this miserable village — then much is explained that has been dark to me. Anyhow, it came over me with a rush to-night: I go from here. They don’t want me; I’m not good enough for them — a man who has held a first-class practice in the second city of Victoria not good enough for the torpid livers of Buddlecombe! Very well, let them get some one else . . . I’m done with ’em. Really, Mary, I sometimes feel so sick and tired of the struggle that I fancy throwing up medicine altogether. What would you say, love, to taking a small cottage somewhere and living modestly on the little we have?”

Now what WOULD he say next? wondered Mary with an inward sigh. But the present was not the moment to combat such vagaries. Richard was sore and smarting; and in this mood he just tossed off suggestions without thinking; letting his anger out in them as the hole in the lid of a kettle lets out steam. So she only said: “Let us first see what happens here. Is there any chance of Lenny Challoner recovering?”

“Frankly, I don’t think there is. I give him till the coming midnight. He’ll probably die between then and dawn.”

But this prediction was not fulfilled. The boy weathered the night; and after sixty hours’ unconsciousness spoke to those about him, though with wandering wits.

Buddlecombe was all a-twitter and agog: the affair was discussed over counters by tradesmen and goodwives; at mahogany dinner-tables; in the oaken settles of inns. Every one knew to a T everything that had happened . . . and a good deal more: were for and against the two doctors in their feud. “’Tis a’anyway little better’n boo’tchers a hoald t’lot of un,” thus Raby, the town crier, summed up the matter to his cronies of the “Buddlecombe Arms.” “Bu’ut if us was ca’alves, ’tis the ha’and us knows as us ‘ud ra’ather die by.”

Yes, chiefly against him, felt Mahony: and it screwed him stiff as a rod. The majority sided with the townsman who had lived among them for years; who was rich enough to spend freely in their shops, subscribe heavily to their charities; besides being an expert in the right admixture of joviality and reserve necessary to make his failings go down.

Mary fought this idea with all her might. Richard was just reading his own feelings into other people, as usual. She herself clung to the belief that the sick boy would pull through, now he had held out so long. Which would be a veritable triumph for Richard. If only he did not spoil things by his uncompromising behaviour! For he was in a most relentless frame of mind. More than one of Robinson’s patients subsequently sent for him. But he, riding the high horse, declined to touch a single other of the enemy’s cases. They should apply for relief, said he, to Mr. Jakes of Brixeter.

Meanwhile, of course, he did not spare himself over the patient he had taken in hand. But eventually, in spite of his care, the boy died, killing Mary’s hopes, and enabling Robinson to go about cockahoop, boasting that wrong treatment had finished him off. It HAD been “gastric,” after all!

And now, as he stalked his way or drove his gig about the hilly roads and narrow streets, Mahony felt himself indeed a marked man.

“Till Christmas . . . not a day longer! I was never built for this.” And as he said it, his thoughts flew back to a time when the merest hint that his skill was doubted had shaken his roots to their depths. Here, where he had as yet hardly put out a sucker, the wrench was easier, and at the same time a hundredfold more destructive.

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