Australia Felix/Part IV/Chapter X

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Australia Felix by Henry Handel Richardson
Part IV, Chapter X

Thus far, Ocock had nursed his mining investments for him with a fatherly care. He himself had been free as a bird from responsibility. Every now and again he would drop in at the office, just to make sure the lawyer was on the alert; and each time he came home cheerful with confidence. That was over now. As a first result of the breach, he missed--or so he believed--clearing four hundred pounds. Among the shares he held was one lot which till now had proved a sorry bargain. Soon after purchase something had gone wrong with the management of the claim; there had been a lawsuit, followed by calls unending and never a dividend. Now, when these shares unexpectedly swung up to a high level-- only to drop the week after to their standing figure--Ocock failed to sell out in the nick of time. Called to account, he replied that it was customary in these matters for his clients to advise him; thus deepening Mahony's sense of obligation. Stabbed in his touchiness, he wrote for all his scrip to be handed over to him; and thereafter loss and gain depended on himself alone. It certainly brought a new element of variety into his life. The mischief was, he could get to his study of the money-market only with a fagged brain. And the fear lest he should do something rash or let a lucky chance slip kept him on tenter-hooks.

It was about this time that Mary, seated one evening in face of her husband, found herself reflecting: "When one comes to think of it, how seldom Richard ever smiles nowadays."

For a wonder they were at a soiree together, at the house of one of Mahony's colleagues. The company consisted of the inner circle of friends and acquaintances: "Always the same people--the old job lot! One knows before they open their mouths what they'll say and how they'll say it," Richard had grumbled as he dressed. The Henry Ococks were not there though, it being common knowledge that the two men declined to meet; and a dash of fresh blood was present in the shape of a lady and gentleman just "out from home." Richard got into talk with this couple, and Mary, watching him fondly, could not but be struck by his animation. His eyes lit up, he laughed and chatted, made merry repartee: she was carried back to the time when she had known him first. In those days his natural gravity was often cut through by a mood of high spirits, of boyish jollity, which, if only by way of contrast, rendered him a delightful companion. She grew a little wistful, as she sat comparing present with past. And loath though she was to dig deep, for fear of stirring up uncomfortable things, she could not escape the discovery that, in spite of all his success--and his career there had surpassed their dearest hopes--in spite of the natural gifts fortune had showered on him, Richard was not what you would call a happy man. No, nor even moderately happy. Why this should be, it went beyond her to say. He had everything he could wish for: yes, everything, except perhaps a little more time to himself, and better health. He was not as strong as she would have liked to see him. Nothing radically wrong, of course, but enough to fidget him. Might not this . . . this--he himself called it "want of tone"--be a reason for the scant pleasure he got out of life? And: "I think I'll pop down and see Dr. Munce about him one morning, without a word to him," was how she eased her mind and wound up her reverie.

But daylight, and the most prosaic hours of the twenty-four, made the plan look absurd.

Once alive though to his condition, she felt deeply sorry for him in his patent inability ever to be content. It was a thousand pities. Things might have run so smoothly for him, he have got so much satisfaction out of them, if only he could have braced himself to regard life in cheerier fashion. But at this Mary stopped . . . and wondered . . . and wondered. Was that really true? Positively her experiences of late led her to believe that Richard would be less happy still if he had nothing to be unhappy about.--But dear me! this was getting out of her depth altogether. She shook her head and rebuked herself for growing fanciful.

All the same, her new glimpse of his inmost nature made her doubly tender of thwarting him; hence, she did not set her face as firmly as she might otherwise have done, against a wild plan he now formed of again altering, or indeed rebuilding the house; although she could scarcely think of it with patience. She liked her house so well as it stood; and it was amply big enough: there was only the pair of them. . . and John's child. It had the name, she knew, of being one of the most comfortable and best-kept in Ballarat. Brick for solidity, where wood prevailed, with a wide snowy verandah up the posts of which rare creepers ran, twining their tendrils one with another to form a screen against the sun. Now, what must Richard do but uproot the creepers and pull down the verandah, thus baring the walls to the fierce summer heat; plaster over the brick; and, more outlandish still, add a top storey. When she came back from Melbourne, where she had gone a-visiting to escape the upset--Richard, ordinarily so sensitive, had managed to endure it quite well, thus proving that he COULD put up with discomfort if he wanted to--when she saw it again, Mary hardly recognised her home. Personally she thought it ugly, for all its grandeur; changed wholly for the worse. Nor did time ever reconcile her to the upper storey. Domestic worries bred from it: the servant went off in a huff because of the stairs; they were at once obliged to double their staff. To cap it all, with its flat front unbroken by bay or porch, the house looked like no other in the town. Now, instead of passing admiring remarks, people stood stock-still before the gate to laugh at its droll appearance.

Yet, she would gladly have made the best of this, had Richard been the happier for it. He was not--or only for the briefest of intervals. Then his restlessness broke out afresh.

There came days when nothing suited him; not his fine consulting room, or the improved furnishings of the house, or even her cookery of which he had once been so fond. He grew dainty to a degree; she searched her cookery-book for piquant recipes. Next he fell to imagining it was unhealthy to sleep on feathers, and went to the expense of having a hard horsehair mattress made to fit the bed. Accustomed to the softest down, he naturally tossed and turned all night long, and rose in the morning declaring he felt as though he had been beaten with sticks. The mattress was stowed away in a lean-to behind the kitchen, and there it remained. It was not alone. Mary sometimes stood and considered, with a rueful eye, the many discarded objects that bore it company. Richard--oddly enough he was ever able to poke fun at himself--had christened this outhouse "the cemetery of dead fads." Here was a set of Indian clubs he had been going to harden his muscles with every morning, and had used for a week; together with an india-rubber gymnastic apparatus bought for the same purpose. Here stood a patent shower-bath, that was to have dashed energy over him after a bad night, and had only succeeded in giving him acute neuralgia; a standing-desk he had broken his back at for a couple of days; a homoeopathic medicine-chest and a phrenological head--both subjects he had meant to satisfy his curiosity by looking into, had time not failed him. Mary sighed, when she thought of the waste of good money these and similar articles stood for. (Some day he would just have them privately carted away to auction!) But if Richard set his heart on a thing he wanted it so badly, so much more than other people did, that he knew no peace till he had it.

Mahony read in his wife's eyes the disapproval she was too wise to utter. At any other time her silent criticism would have galled him; in this case, he took shelter behind it. Let her only go on setting him down for lax and spendthrift, incapable of knowing his own mind. He would be sorry, indeed, for her to guess how matters really stood with him. The truth was, he had fallen a prey to utter despondency, was become so spiritless that it puzzled even himself. He thought he could trace some of the mischief back to the professional knocks and jars Ocock's action had brought down on him: to hear one's opinion doubted, one's skill questioned, was the tyro's portion; he was too old to treat such insolence with the scorn it deserved. Of course he had lived the affair down; but the result of it would seem to be a bottomless ENNUI, a TEDIUM VITAE that had something pathological about it. Under its influence the homeliest trifles swelled to feats beyond his strength. There was, for instance, the putting on and off one's clothing: this infinite boredom of straps and buttons--and all for what? For a day that would be an exact copy of the one that had gone before, a night as unrefreshing as the last. Did any one suspect that there were moments when he quailed before this job, suspect that more than once he had even reckoned the number of times he would be called on to perform it, day in, day out, till that garment was put on him that came off no more; or that he could understand and feel sympathy with those faint souls--and there were such--who laid hands on themselves rather than go on doing it: did this get abroad, he would be considered ripe for Bedlam.

Physician, heal thyself! He swallowed doses of a tonic preparation, and put himself on a fatty diet.

Thereafter he tried to take a philosophic view of his case. He had now, he told himself, reached an age when such a state of mind gave cause neither for astonishment nor alarm. How often had it not fallen to him, in his role of medical adviser, to reassure a patient on this score. The arrival of middle age brought about a certain lowness of spirits in even the most robust: along with a more or less marked bodily languor went an uneasy sense of coming loss: the time was at hand to bid farewell to much that had hitherto made life agreeable; and for most this was a bitter pill. Meanwhile, one held a kind of mental stocktaking. As often as not by the light of a complete disillusionment. Of the many glorious things one had hoped to do--or to be--nothing was accomplished: the great realisation, in youth breathlessly chased but never grasped, was now seen to be a mist-wraith, which could wear a thousand forms, but invariably turned to air as one came up with it. In nine instances out of ten there was nothing to put in its place; and you began to ask yourself in a kind of horrific amaze: "Can this be all? . . . THIS? For this the pother of growth, the struggles, and the sufferings?" The soul's climacteric, if you would, from which a mortal came forth dulled to resignation; or greedy for the few physical pleasures left him; or prone to that tragic clinging to youth's skirts, which made the later years of many women and not a few men ridiculous. In each case the motive power was the same: the haunting fear that one had squeezed life dry; worse still, that it had not been worth the squeezing.

Thus his reason. But, like a tongue of flame, his instinct leapt up to give combat. By the gods, this cap did NOT fit him! Squeezed life try? . . . found it not worth while? Why, he had never got within measurable distance of what he called life, at all! There could be no question of him resigning himself: deep down in him, he knew, was an enormous residue of vitality, of untouched mental energy that only waited to be drawn on. It was like a buried treasure, jealously kept for the event of his one day catching up with life: not the bare scramble for a living that here went by that name, but Life with a capital L, the existence he had once confidently counted on as his--a tourney of spiritual adventuring, of intellectual excitement, in which the prize striven for was not money or anything to do with money. Far away, thousands of miles off, luckier men than he were in the thick of it. He, of his own free will, had cut himself adrift, and now it was too late.

But was it? Had the time irretrievably gone by? The ancient idea of escape, long dormant, suddenly reawoke in him with a new force. And, once stirring, it was not to be silenced, but went on sounding like a ground-tone through all he did. At first he shut his ears to it, to dally with side issues. For example, he worried the question why the breaking-point should only now have been reached and not six months, a year ago. It was quibbling to lay the whole blame on Ocock's shoulders. The real cause went deeper, was of older growth. And driving his mind back over the past, he believed he could pin his present loss of grip to that fatal day on which he learnt that his best friend had betrayed him. Things like that gave you a crack that would not mend. He had been rendered suspicious where he had once been credulous; prone to see evil where no evil was. For, deceived by Purdy, in whom could he trust? Of a surety not in the pushful set of jobbers and tricksters he was condemned to live amongst. No discoveries he might make about them would surprise him.--And once more the old impotent anger with himself broke forth, that he should ever have let himself take root in such detestable surroundings.

Why not shake the dust of the country off his feet?--From this direct attack he recoiled, casting up his hands as if against the evil eye. What next? But exclaim as he might, now that the idea had put on words, it was by no means so simple to fend it off as when it had been a mere vague humming at the back of his mind. It seized him; swept his brain bare of other thoughts. He began to look worn. And never more so than when he imagined himself taking the bull by the horns and asking Mary's approval of his wild-goose scheme. He could picture her face, when she heard that he planned throwing up his fine position and decamping on nothing a year. The vision was a cold douche to his folly. No, no! it would not do. You could not accustom a woman to ease and luxury and then, when you felt YOU had had enough and would welcome a return to Spartan simplicity, to an austere clarity of living, expect her to be prepared, at the word, to step back into poverty. One was bound . . . bound . . . and by just those silken threads which, in premarital days, had seemed sheerly desirable. He wondered now what it would be like to stand free as the wind, answerable only to himself. The bare thought of it filled him as with the rushing of wings.

Once he had been within an ace of cutting and running. That was in the early days, soon after his marriage. Trade had petered out; and there would have been as little to leave behind as to carry with him. But, even so, circumstances had proved too strong for him: what with Mary's persuasions and John's intermeddling, his scheme had come to nothing. And if, with so much in his favour, he had not managed to carry it out, how in all the world could he hope to now, when every thing conspired against him. It was, besides, excusable in youth to challenge fortune; a very different matter for one of his age.

Of his age! . . . the words gave him pause. By their light he saw why he had knuckled under so meekly, at the time of his first attempt. It was because then a few years one way or another did not signify; he had them to spare. Now, each individual year was precious to him; he parted with it lingeringly, unwillingly. Time had taken to flashing past, too; Christmas was hardly celebrated before it was again at the door. Another ten years or so and he would be an old man, and it would in very truth be too late. The tempter voice--in this case also the voice of reason-- said: now or never!

But when he came to look the facts in the face his heart failed him anew, so heavily did the arguments against his taking such a step--and, true to his race, it was these he began by marshalling--weigh down the scales. He should have done it, if done it was to be, five . . . three . . . even a couple of years ago. Each day that dawned added to the tangle, made the idea seem more preposterous. Local dignities had been showered on him: he sat on the Committees of the District Hospital and the Benevolent Asylum; was Honorary Medical Officer to this Society and that; a trustee of the church; one of the original founders of the Mechanics' Institute; vice-president of the Botanical Society; and so on, AD INFINITUM. His practice was second to none; his visiting-book rarely shewed a blank space; people drove in from miles round to consult him. In addition, he had an extremely popular wife, a good house and garden, horses and traps, and a sure yearly income of some twelve or thirteen hundred. Of what stuff was he made, that he could lightly contemplate turning his back on prizes such as these?

Even as he told them off, however, the old sense of hollowness was upon him again. His life there reminded him of a gaudy drop-scene, let down before an empty stage; a painted sham, with darkness and vacuity behind. At bottom, none of these distinctions and successes meant anything to him; not a scrap of mental pabulum could be got from them: rather would he have chosen to be poor and a nobody among people whose thoughts flew to meet his half-way. And there was also another side to it. Stingy though the years had been of intellectual grist, they had not scrupled to rob him of many an essential by which he set store. His old faculty-- for good or evil--of swift decision, for instance. It was lost to him now; as witness his present miserable vacillation. It had gone off arm-in-arm with his health; physically he was but a ghost of the man he had once been. But the bitterest grudge he bore the life was for the shipwreck it had made of his early ideals. He remembered the pure joy, the lofty sentiments with which he had returned to medicine. Bah!-- there had been no room for any sentimental nonsense of that kind here. He had long since ceased to follow his profession disinterestedly; the years had made a hack of him--a skilled hack, of course--but just a hack. He had had no time for study; all his strength had gone in keeping his income up to a certain figure; lest the wife should be less well dressed and equipped than her neighbours; or patients fight shy of him; or his confreres wag their tongues.--Oh! he had adapted himself supremely well to the standards of this Australia, so-called Felix. And he must not complain if, in so doing, he had been stripped, not only of his rosy dreams, but also of that spiritual force on which he could once have drawn at will. Like a fool he had believed it possible to serve mammon with impunity, and for as long as it suited him. He knew better now. At this moment he was undergoing the sensations of one who, having taken shelter in what he thinks a light and flimsy structure, finds that it is built of the solidest stone. Worse still: that he has been walled up inside.

And even suppose he COULD pull himself together for the effort required, how justify his action in the eyes of the world? His motives would be double-dutch to the hard-headed crew around him; nor would any go to the trouble of trying to understand. There was John. All John would see was an elderly and not over-robust man deliberately throwing away the fruits of year-long toil--and for what? For the privilege of, in some remote spot, as a stranger and unknown, having his way to make all over again; of being free to shoulder once more the risks and hazards the undertaking involved. And little though he cared for John or any one else's opinion, Mahony could not help feeling a trifle sore, in advance, at the ridicule of which he might be the object, at the zanyish figure he was going to be obliged to cut.

But a fig for what people thought of him! Once away from here he would, he thanked God, never see any of them again. No, it was Mary who was the real stumbling-block, the opponent he most feared. Had he been less attached to her, the thing would have been easier; as it was, he shrank from hurting her. And hurt and confuse her he must. He knew Mary as well --nay, better than he knew his own unreckonable self. For Mary was not a creature of moods, did not change her mental envelope a dozen times a day. And just his precise knowledge of her told him that he would never get her to see eye to eye with him. Her clear, serene outlook was attuned to the plain and the practical; she would discover a thousand drawbacks to his scheme, but nary a one of the incorporeal benefits he dreamed of reaping from it. There was his handling of money for one thing: she had come, he was aware, to regard him as incurably extravagant; and it would be no easy task to convince her that he could learn again to fit his expenses to a light purse. She had a woman's instinctive distrust, too, of leaving the beaten track. Another point made him still more dubious. Mary's whole heart and happiness were bound up in this place where she had spent the flower-years of her life: who knew if she would thrive as well on other soil? He found it intolerable to think that she might have to pay for his want of stability.--Yes, reduced to its essentials, it came to mean the pitting of one soul's welfare against that of another; was a toss-up between his happiness and hers. One of them would have to yield. Who would suffer more by doing so --he or she? He believed that a sacrifice on his part would make the wreck of his life complete. On hers--well, thanks to her doughty habit of finding good everywhere, there was a chance of her coming out unscathed.

Here was his case in a nutshell.

Still he did not tackle Mary. For sometimes, after all, a disturbed doubt crept upon him whether it would not be possible to go on as he was; instead of, as she would drastically word it, cutting his throat with his own hand. And to be perfectly honest, he believed it would. He could now afford to pay for help in his work; to buy what books he needed or fancied; to take holidays while putting in a LOCUM; even to keep on the LOCUM, at a good salary, while he journeyed overseas to visit the land of his birth. But at this another side of him--what he thought of as spirit, in contradistinction to soul--cried out in alarm, fearful lest it was again to be betrayed. Thus far, though by rights coequal in the house of the body, it had been rigidly kept down. Nevertheless it had persisted, like a bright cold little spark at dead of night: his restlessness, the spiritual malaise that encumbered him had been its mute form of protest. Did he go on turning a deaf ear to its warnings, he might do himself irreparable harm. For time was flying, the sum of his years mounting, shrinking that roomy future to which he had thus far always postponed what seemed too difficult for the moment. Now he saw that he dared delay no longer in setting free the imprisoned elements in him, was he ever to grow to that complete whole which each mortal aspires to be.--That a change of environment would work this miracle he did not doubt; a congenial environment was meat and drink to him, was light and air. Here in this country, he had remained as utterly alien as any Jew of old who wept by the rivers of Babylon. And like a half-remembered tune there came floating into his mind words he had lit on somewhere, or learnt on the school-bench--Horace, he thought, but, whatever their source, words that fitted his case to a nicety. COELUM, NON ANIMUM, MUTANT, QUI TRANS MARE CURRUNT. "Non animum"? Ah! could he but have foreseen this--foreknown it. If not before he set sail on what was to have been but a swift adventure, then at least on that fateful day long past when, foiled by Mary's pleadings and his own inertia, he had let himself be bound anew.

Thus the summer dragged by; a summer to try the toughest. Mahony thought he had never gone through its like for heat and discomfort. The drought would not break, and on the great squatting-stations round Ballarat and to the north, the sheep dropped like flies at an early frost. The forest reservoirs dried up, displaying the red mud of their bottoms, and a bath became a luxury--or a penance--the scanty water running thick and red. Then the bush caught fire and burnt for three days, painting the sky a rusty brown, and making the air hard to breathe. Of a morning his first act on going into his surgery was to pick up the thermometer that stood on the table. Sure as fate, though the clock had not long struck nine, the mercury marked something between a hundred and a hundred and five degrees. He let it fall with a nerveless gesture. Since his sunstroke he not only hated, he feared the sun. But out into it he must, to drive through dust-clouds so opaque that one could only draw rein till they subsided, meanwhile holloaing off collisions. Under the close leather hood he sat and stifled; or, removing his green goggles for the fiftieth time, climbed down to enter yet another baked wooden house, where he handled prostrate bodies rank with sweat, or prescribed for pallid or fever-speckled children. Then home, to toy with the food set before him, his mind already running on the discomforts of the afternoon.--Two bits of ill-luck came his way this summer. Old Ocock fell, in dismounting from a vehicle, and sustained a compound fracture of the femur. Owing to his advanced age there was for a time fear of malunion of the parts, and this kept Mahony on the rack. Secondly, a near neighbour, a common little fellow who kept a jeweller's shop in Bridge Street, actually took the plunge: sold off one fine day and sailed for home. And this seemed the unkindest cut of all.

But the accident that gave the death-blow to his scruples was another. On the advice of a wealthy publican he was treating, whose judgment he trusted, Mahony had invested--heavily for him, selling off other stock to do it--in a company known as the Hodderburn Estate. This was a government affair and ought to have been beyond reproach. One day, however, it was found that the official reports of the work done by the diamond drill-bore were cooked documents; and instantly every one connected with the mine--directors, managers, engineers--lay under the suspicion of fraudulent dealings. Shares had risen as high as ten pounds odd; but when the drive reached the bore and, in place of the deep gutter-ground the public had been led to expect, hard rock was found overhead, there was a panic; shares dropped to twenty-five shillings and did not rally. Mahony was a loser by six hundred pounds, and got, besides, a moral shaking from which he could not recover. He sat and bit his little-finger nail to the quick. Was he, he savagely asked himself, going to linger on until the little he had managed to save was snatched from him?

He dashed off a letter to John, asking his brother-in-law to recommend a reliable broker. And this done, he got up to look for Mary, determined to come to grips with her at last.