The Way Home, by Henry Handel Richardson


When, having braved the bergs and cyclones of the desolate South Pacific, and rounded the Horn; having lain becalmed in the Doldrums, bartered Cross for Plough, and snatched a glimpse of the Western Isles: when the homeward-bound vessel is come level with Finisterre and begins to skirt the Bay, those aboard her get the impression of passing at one stroke into home waters. Gone alike are polar blasts and perfumed or desert-dry breezes; gone opalescent dawns, orange-green sunsets, and nights when the very moon shines warm, the black mass of ocean sluggish as pitch. The region the homing wanderer now enters is quick with associations. These tumbling crested marbled seas, now slate-grey, now of a cold ultramarine, seem but the offings of those that wash his native shores; and they are peopled for him by the saltwater ghosts of his ancestors, the great navigators, who traced this road through the high seas on their voyages of adventure and discovery. The fair winds that belly the sails, or the head winds that thwart the vessel’s progress, are the romping south-west gales adrip with moisture, or the bleak north-easters which scour his island home and make it one of the windy corners of the world. Not a breath of balmy softness remains. There is a rawness in the air, a keener, saltier tang; the sad-coloured sky broods low, or is swept by scud that flies before the wind; trailing mists blot out the horizon. And these and other indelible memories beginning to pull at his heartstrings, it is over with his long patience. After tranquilly enduring the passage of some fifteen thousand watery miles, he now falls to chafing, and to telling off the days that still divide him from port and home.

On an autumn morning in the late ‘sixties that smart clipper the RED JACKET, of some seven hundred tons burden, entered the English Channel, and having rolled about for a while, for want of a breeze to steady her, picked up a fine free following wind and forged ahead at a speed of eight and a half knots an hour.

At the eagerly awaited cry of “Land ho!” from the foretop, an excited bunch of cuddy-passengers and their ladies, all markedly colonial in dress and bearing, swarmed to the side of the vessel, and set to raking and probing the distance. Telescopes and spy-glasses travelled from hand to hand, arms were silhouetted, exclamations flew, the female gaze, adrift in space, was gallantly piloted to the sober level of the horizon. And even the most sceptical convinced that the dusky shadow on the water’s rim was, in truth, the goal of their journeying, three cheers were called for and given, the gentlemen swung their hats with an “England for ever!” the ladies blew kisses and fluttered their kerchiefs. But, their feelings eased, they soon had their fill of staring at what might equally well have been a cloud or a trail of smoke; and having settled the wagers laid on this moment, and betted anew on the day and hour of casting anchor, they accepted the invitation of a colonial Croesus, and went below to drink a glass to the Old Country.

Richard Mahony alone remained, though warmly bidden.

“The pleasure of your company, Mr. Mahony, sir!”

“Mayn’t we hope, doctor, for a few words befitting the occasion?”

He had on the whole been a fairly popular member of the ship’s party. This was thanks to the do-nothing life. Here, on board ship, he had actually known what it was to feel time hang heavy on his hands. In consequence, he had come out of his shell, turned sociable and hearty, taking an interest in his fellow-travellers, a lead in the diversions of the voyage. And the golden weeks of sunshine and sea air having made a new man of him — in looks he resembled a younger brother of the lean and haggard individual who had climbed the ship’s ladder — he was able for once harmlessly to enjoy the passing hour. Again, a genuine sea-lover, he had found not one of the ninety odd days spent afloat unbearable; and in refusing to be daunted — either by the poor, rough food, or the close quarters; or during a hurricane, when the very cabins were awash; or again in the tropics, when the ship lay motionless on a glassy sea, the cruel sun straight overhead — by making light of inconvenience and discomfort, he had helped others, too, to put a brave face on them. Nobody guessed how easy it came to him. His cheerfulness was counted to him for a virtue, and set him high in general favour; people fell into the way of running to him not only with their ailments but their troubles; looked to him to smooth out the frictions that were the crop of this overlong voyage. So unusual a state of things could not last. And, indeed, with the vessel’s first knot in northern waters, he had become sensitively aware of a cooling-off. Let but a foot meet the shore, and the whole ill-mixed company would scatter to the winds, never to reassemble. Well, he, for one, would not feel that his ties with the colony were broken beyond repair until this had happened, and he had seen the last of all these boisterous, kindly, vulgar people.

The liking was chiefly on their part. For though, since setting sail, he had been rid of the big-mouthed colonial boaster, and among runaways like himself, men who were almost as glad as he to turn their backs on Australia — but a single one of the thirty cabin-passengers contemplated returning — this was far from saying that he had found in them congenial spirits. They chafed him in ways they did not dream of. The Midases of the party — it was ruled sharply off into those who had amassed a fortune and those who patently had not; none went “home” but for one or other reason; he himself was the only half tint on the palette — these lucky specimens were for ever trumpeting the opinion that the colonies were a good enough place in which to fill your money-bags; but to empty them, you repaired to more civilised climes. And to hear his case — or at least what had once been his intention — put thus crudely made Mahony wince. The speakers reminded him of underbred guests, who start belittling their entertainment before they are fairly over their host’s door-sill. At the same time he had to laugh in his sleeve. For where, pray, could Monsieur le Boucher and Monsieur l’Epicier undo their purse-strings to better effect, find a society more exactly cut to their shape, than in the Antipodes, where no display was too showy, no banquet too sumptuous, no finery too loud; and where the man who could slap a well-filled pocket was anyone’s equal? — Even less to his taste was the group of lean kine. With nothing to show for themselves but broken health and shattered illusions, these men saw the land of their exile through the smoked glasses of hate, and had not a single good word to say for it. Which of course was nonsense.

And so it came about that Mary was sometimes agreeably surprised to hear Richard, if not exactly standing up for the colony, at least not helping to swell the choir of its detractors. This was unending, went round and round like a catch. People outdid one another in discovering fresh grounds for their aversion. Besides the common grievances — the droughts and floods, the dust winds and hot winds, the bare, ugly landscape, the seven plagues of winged and creeping things — many a small private grudge was owned to, and by the most unlikely lips. Here was a burly tanner who had missed the glimmer of twilight, been vexed at the sudden onrush of the dark. Another grumbler bemoaned the fact that, just when you looked for snow and holly-berries: “Hanged if there ain’t the pitches and appricoats ripe and ready to tumble into your mouth!”

“An onnatcheral country, and that’s the truth.”

“The wrong side of the world, say I— the under side.”

Quaint home-sicknesses cropped up, too. On board was a skinny little colonist from the Moreton Bay district, with, as the Irish wit of the company had it, “the face of his own granddad upon his shoulders”— who was, that is to say, more deeply wrinkled than the bewrinkled rest. Where this man came from, dirt was not: the little weatherboard houses were as clean when they dropped to pieces as when first run up. He it was who now confessed to an odd itch to see again the grime and squalor of London town: the shiny black mud that served as mortar to the paving-stones; the beds of slush into which, on a rainy day, the crossing-sweepers voluptuously plunged their brooms; the smoke-stained buildings; monuments tarred with the dirt of ages. He wanted to feel his cheek stung by the mixture of flying fodder and dry ordure that whirls the streets, does the east wind go; to sniff the heavy smell of soot and frost that greets the Londoner’s nose on a winter morning — even to choke and smother in a London fog.

No one smiled.

“Aye, it’s what one’s born to that tells; what one comes back to in the end,” nodded a pursy builder, whose gold watch-chain, hung with seals and coins, was draped across his waistcoat like a line of gala bunting. “I knew a man, gents — it’s a fact I’m tellin’ you! — who could ‘a bought out the up-country township he lived in twice and three times over; and yet I’m blessed if this old Johnny-bono didn’t as good as turn on the waterworks when he spoke o’ the pokey old cottage down Devon way, where he’d been young. Seemed as if all the good smells o’ the rest o’ the world couldn’t make up to him for a bit o’ peat burnin’ on a still winter’s evenin’; or new thatch smellin’ in the rains or the softish stink o’ the milch-cows’ dung in long wet meadow grass.”

That white raven, “the man who was going back,” held aloof from the sentimentalists. Was he however present at such a sitting, he kept silence, an ambiguous expression on his face. Once only, in a conversation engineered by Mahony out of curiosity, did he speak up. And then it was with a disagreeable overbearing. “I left England, sir, six years since, because man isn’t a sprite to live on air alone. My father went half-starved all his days — he was a farmhand, and reared a family o’ nine on eleven bob a week. He didn’t taste meat from one year’s end to another. Out yon “— and he pointed with his cutty-pipe over his shoulder —” I’ve ate meat three times a day. I’ve a snug little crib of me own and a few acres o’ land, and I’ve come home to fetch out me old mother and the young fry. They shall know what it is to eat their fill every day of the seven, and she’ll drive to chapel of a Sabbath in her own trap and a black silk gown. — Nay, be sure I haven’t loafed around, nor sat with me hands before me. There’s not much anyone can learn me in the way of work. But the old country wouldn’t either gimme anything to do, nor yet keep me free, gratis and for nothing.”— And so on, in a strain dear to the tongues of the lower orders.

These things flitted through Mahony’s mind as he stood, chin in hand, elbow on gunwale, gazing over the last stretch of dividing sea. Before him lay an aquarelle of softest colouring, all pale light and misty shadow; and these lyric tints, these shades and half shades, gripped his heart as the vivid hues of the south never had. Their very fleetingness charmed. But a little ago and the day had been blue and sunny, with just a spice of crispness in the air to remind one that it was autumn. A couple of white bales of cloud, motionless overhead, had flung gigantic purple shadows, which lay like painted maps of continents on the glittering sea. But, the breeze freshening, the clouds had been set in motion; and simultaneously the shadow-continents, losing their form, had begun to travel the surface of the water. A rain-shower was coming up from the west: it drew a curtain over the sky, and robbed the sea of its colour. Only in the east did a band of light persist, above which the fringes of the storm cloud hung, sending down straight black rays. And now the squall was upon them; wind and rain hunted each other over the waves; the deck slanted, masts and spars whistled, sails smacked and shrilled.

In the course of that day the vessel was taken in tow, and when, towards evening, the downpour ceased and Mahony again climbed the companion-way, a very different scene met his eye. They now drove through a leaden sea, which the rain had beaten flat, reduced to a kind of surly quiescence. Above them was an iron-grey sky, evenly spread and of a fair height, the lower clouds having withdrawn to the horizon where, in a long, cylinder-like roll, they hung poised on the water’s rim. But this cold and stony aspect of things was more than made up for. Flush with the ship, looking as though it had just risen from the waves, was land — was the English shore.

At sight of it Mahony had a shock of surprise — that thrilled surprise that England holds for those of her sons who journey back, no matter whence, across the bleak and windy desert of the seas. Quite so lovely as this, one had not dared to remember the homeland. There it lay, stretched like an emerald belt against its drab background, and was as grateful to sun-tired eyes as a draught of mountain water to a climber’s parched throat. Not a rood of this earth looked barren or unkempt: veritable lawns ran down to the brink of the cliffs; hedges ruled bosky lines about the meadows; the villages were bowers of trees — English trees. Even the rain had favoured him: his first glimpse of all this beauty was caught at its freshest, grass and foliage having emerged from the clouds as if new painted in greenness.

Another aspect of it struck Mary who mounted in his wake, gloved, shawled and hatted against the evening chills. With an exclamation of pleasure she cried: “Oh, Richard — how pretty! How . . . how tidy! It looks like . . . like”— she hesitated, searching her memory for the trimmest spot she knew; and ended —“doesn’t it? . . . just like the Melbourne Botanic Gardens.”

“It looks too good to be true, my dear.”

But he understood what she was trying to say. If the landscape before them was lovely as a garden, it had also something of a garden’s limitations. There was an air of arrangedness about it; it might have been laid out according to plan, and on pleasing, but rather finikin lines; it was all exquisite, but just a trifle overdressed. And as he followed up the train of thought started by Mary’s words, he was swept through by a sudden consciousness of England’s littleness, her tiny, tight compactness, the narrow compass that allowed of so intensive a cultivation. These fair fields in miniature! — after the wide acreage of the colonial paddock. These massy hedgerows cutting up the good pasture-land into chequerboard squares! — after the thready rail-and-post fences that offered no hindrance to the eye. These diminutive clusters of houses huddled wall to wall — compared with the sprawling townships set, regardless of ground-space, at the four corners of immense cross-roads. These narrow, winding lanes and highways that crawled their mile or so from one village to the near next — after the broad, red, rectilinear Australian roads, that dashed ahead, it might be for the length of a day’s journey, without encountering human habitation. These duly preserved morsels of woodland, as often as not guarded, they too, by a leafy wall where songsters trilled-compared with the immense and terrible bush, bare alike of bird and man: all these forcible contrasts worked in him as he stood gazing on the fair natural garden of southern England; and a sensation that was half wonder, half a kind of protective tenderness, called at the same time a smile to his lips and tears to his eyes. In face of this adorable littleness, this miniature perfection, his feelings were those of the nomad son who, weary of beating up and down the world, turns home at last to rest on the untravelled heart of his mother. Here the familiar atmosphere of his childhood laps him round; and he breathes it greedily — even while he marvels how time has stood still for the home-keepers, and asks himself if he can ever again be one of them. All the tempestuous years of his youth lie between. He has fought fire-spueing dragons, suffered shipwreck in Sargasso, bent the knee at strange shrines. And the sense of an older, tireder wisdom, which makes of him the ancient, of them the young and untried, completes the breach. How, knowing what he knows, can he placidly live through the home day, with its small, safe monotony? How give up for ever the excitement of great risks taken and met, on grander shores, under loftier skies?

But a truce to such vapourings! Did the man exist that had it in him to fret and go unhappy, feel pinioned, and a prisoner while, round the cliffs of England, now grey, now white, now red, danced and beckoned the English sea? For who, native to these coasts, would renounce, once having drawn on it, that heritage of vagrancy which has come down to him through the ages? Amphibian among the peoples, has he not learnt to adjust his balance to the sea’s tumblings, his sight to its vast spaces? — so that into the English eye has, with time, come a look of remoteness: the sailor-look, which, from much scouring of horizons, seems to focus on near objects only with an effort. — And musing thus, Mahony believed he knew why, for all its smallness, on this little speck of an island rising green and crumbly from the waves, there should have bred a mighty race. It was not in spite of its size, but because of it. Just because the span of the land was so narrow, those whose blood ran high could shove off on the unruly element from their very doorsteps, and whether these looked north or south, faced sunrise or sunset: the deep-sea fishers, the great traffickers, the navigators and explorers, the fighting men of the deep. And with them, so it pleased him to think, no matter for what point they headed, they bore tidings of the mother-country, and of her struggles towards a finer liberty, a nicer justice, that should make of her sons true freemen; for her a difficult task because she lay isolate, shut off by barriers of foam, a prey to hoary traditions, and with no land-frontier across which seditious influences might slip; and yet for her most needful, seeing that the hearts of her people were restless, indomitable — had in them something of the unruliness of her seas. And just as these rovers carried out news of England, so, homing again, either for a breathing-space in the great tourney, or, old and feeble, to lay their bones in English earth, they brought back their quota of things seen, heard, felt on their Odyssey; a fruity crop of experience; so that even the chimney-dwellers in England came by a certain bigness of vision: through the eyes of son or brother they explored outlandish parts, were present at exotic happenings. And now, his thoughts turning inward, he asked himself whether even he, Richard Mahony, in his small way, was not carrying on the great tradition. Having fared forth in his youth, endured in exile, then heard and obeyed the home-call, did not he, too, return the richer for a goodly store of spiritual experience — HIS treasure-trove of life-wisdom — which might serve to guide others on their road, or go before them as a warning? And the idea grew, under his pondering. He saw his race as the guardian of a vast reserve fund of spiritual force, to which all alike contributed —; as each was free at will or at need to draw on it — a hoard, not of the things themselves, but of their ghostly sublimates: the quintessence of all achievement, all endeavour; of failure, suffering, joy and pain. And, if this image held, it would throw light on the obscure purpose of such a seemingly aimless life as his had been; a life ragged with broken ends. Only in this way, he must believe, had it been possible to distil the precious drop of oil that was HIS ultimate essence. Not ours to judge of the means, or in what our puny service should consist: why to one should fall the bugles and the glory — the dying in splendour for a great cause, or the living illustriously to noble issues — to another, a life that was one long blind stumble, with, for finish, an inglorious end. Faith bid us believe that, in the sight of the great Foreordainer, all service was equal. But this we could not know. The veil — a web of steel despite its tenuity — was lowered, and would not rise on the mystery until that day dawned towards which all our days had headed, for which no man had ever waited in vain. And then, pinched of nostril and marble-cold, earth’s last little posy in our gripless hands, we should lie supine and — such was the irony of things — no longer greatly care to know.

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