Australia Felix/Part IV/Chapter XI

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Australia Felix by Henry Handel Richardson
Part IV, Chapter XI

How to begin, how reduce to a few plain words his subtle tangle of thought and feeling, was the problem.

He did not find his wife on her usual seat in the arbour. In searching for her, upstairs and down, he came to a rapid decision. He would lay chief stress on his poor state of health.

"I feel I'm killing myself. I can't go on."

"But Richard dear!" ejaculated Mary, and paused in her sewing, her needle uplifted, a bead balanced on its tip. Richard had run her to earth in the spare bedroom, to which at this time she often repaired. For he objected to the piece of work she had on hand--that of covering yards of black cashmere with minute jet beads--vowing that she would ruin her eyesight over it. So, having set her heart on a fashionable polonaise, she was careful to keep out of his way.

"I'm not a young man any longer, wife. When one's past forty . . ."

"Poor mother used to say forty-five was a man's prime of life."

"Not for me. And not here in this God-forsaken hole!"

"Oh dear me! I do wonder why you have such a down on Ballarat. I'm sure there must be many worse places in the world to live in", and lowering her needle, Mary brought the bead to its appointed spot. "Of course you have a lot to do, I know, and being such a poor sleeper doesn't improve matters." But she was considering her pattern sideways as she spoke, thinking more of it than of what she said. Every one had to work hard out here; compared with some she could name, Richard's job of driving round in a springy buggy seemed ease itself. "Besides I told you at the time you were wrong not to take a holiday in winter, when you had the chance. You need a thorough change every year to set you up. You came back from the last as fresh as a daisy."

"The only change that will benefit me is one for good and all," said Mahony with extreme gloom. He had thrown up the bed-curtain and stretched himself on the bed, where he lay with his hands clasped under his neck.

Tutored by experience, Mary did not contradict him.

"And it's the kind I've finally made up my mind to take."

"Richard! How you do run on!" and Mary, still gently incredulous but a thought wider awake, let her work sink to her lap. "What is the use of talking like that?"

"Believe it or not, my dear, as you choose. You'll see--that's all."

At her further exclamations of doubt and amazement, Mahony's patience slipped its leash. "Surely to goodness my health comes first . . . before any confounded practice?"

"Ssh! Baby's asleep.--And don't get cross, Richard. You can hardly expect me not to be surprised when you spring a thing of this sort on me. You've never even dropped a hint of it before."

"Because I knew very well what it would be. You dead against it, of course!"

"Now I call that unjust. You've barely let me get a word in edgeways."

"Oh, I know by heart everything you're going to say. It's nonsense . . . folly . . . madness . . . and so on: all the phrases you women fish up from your vocabulary when you want to stave off a change--hinder any alteration of the STATUS QUO. But I'll tell you this, wife. You'll bury me here, if I don't get away soon. I'm not much more than skin and bone as it is. And I confess, if I've got to be buried I'd rather lie elsewhere--have good English earth atop of me."

Had Mary been a man, she might have retorted that this was a very woman's way of shifting ground. She bit her lip and did not answer immediately. Then: "You know I can't bear to hear you talk like that, even in fun. Besides, you always say much more than you mean, dear."

"Very well then, if you prefer it, wait and see! You'll be sorry some day."

"Do you mean to tell me, Richard, you're in earnest, when you talk of selling off your practice and going to England?"

"I can buy another there, can't I?"

With these words he leapt to his feet, afire with animation. And while Mary, now thoroughly uneasy, was folding up her work, he dilated upon the benefits that would accrue to them from the change. Good-bye to dust, and sun, and drought, to blistering hot winds and PAPIER MACHE walls! They would make their new home in some substantial old stone house that had weathered half a century or more, tangled over with creepers, folded away in its own privacy as only an English house could be. In the flower-garden roses would trail over arch and pergola; there would be a lawn with shaped yews on it; while in the orchard old apple-trees would flaunt their red abundance above grey, lichened walls.

("As if there weren't apples enough here!" thought Mary.)

He got a frog in his throat as he went on to paint in greater detail for her, who had left it so young, the intimate charm of the home country-- the rich, green, dimpled countryside. And not till now did he grasp how sorely he had missed it. "Oh, believe me, to talk of 'going home' is no mere figure of speech, Mary!" In fancy he trod winding lanes that ran between giant hedges: hedges in tender bud, with dew on them; or snowed over with white mayflowers; or behung with the fairy webs and gossamer of early autumn, thick as twine beneath their load of moisture. He followed white roads that were banked with primroses and ran headlong down to the sea; he climbed the shoulder of a down on a spring morning, when the air was alive with larks carolling. But chiefly it was the greenness that called to him--the greenness of the greenest country in the world. Viewed from this distance, the homeland looked to him like one vast meadow. Oh, to tread its grass again!--not what one knew as grass here, a poor annual, that lasted for a few brief weeks; but lush meadow-grass, a foot high; or shaven emerald lawns on which ancient trees spread their shade; or the rank growth in old orchards, starry with wild flowers, on which fruit-blossoms fluttered down. He longed, too, for the exquisite finishedness of the mother country, the soft tints of cloud-veiled northern skies. His eyes ached, his brows had grown wrinkled from gazing on iron roofs set against the hard blue overhead; on dirty weatherboards innocent of paint; on higgledy-piggledy backyards and ramshackle fences; on the straggling landscape with its untidy trees--all the unrelieved ugliness, in short, of the colonial scene.

He stopped only for want of breath. Mary was silent. He waited. Still she did not speak.

He fell to earth with a bump, and was angry. "Come . . . out with it! I suppose all this seems to you just the raving of a lunatic?"

"Oh, Richard, no. But a little . . . well, a little unpractical. I never heard before of any one throwing up a good income because he didn't like the scenery. It's a step that needs the greatest consideration."

"Good God! Do you think I haven't considered it?--and from every angle? There isn't an argument for or against, that I haven't gone over a thousand and one times."

"And with never a word to me, Richard?" Mary was hurt; and showed it. "It really is hardly fair. For this is my home as well as yours.--But now listen. You're tired out, run down with the heat and that last attack of dysentery. Take a good holiday--stay away for three months if you like. Sail over to Hobart Town, or up to Sydney, you who'er so fond of the water. And when you come back strong and well we'll talk about all this again. I'm sure by then you'll see things with other eyes."

"And who's to look after the practice, pray?"

"Why, a LOCUM TENENS, of course. Or engage an assistant."

"Aha! you'd agree to that now, would you? I remember how opposed you were once to the idea."

"Well, if I have to choose between it and you giving up altogether. . . Now, for your own sake, Richard, don't go and do anything rash. If once you sell off and leave Ballarat, you can never come back. And then, if you regret it, where will you be? That's why I say don't hurry to decide. Sleep over it. Or let us consult somebody--John perhaps--"

"No you don't, madam, no you don't!" cried Richard with a grim dash of humour. "You had me once . . . crippled me . . . handcuffed me--you and your John between you! It shan't happen again."

"I crippled you? I, Richard! Why, never in my life have I done anything but what I thought was for your good. I've always put you first." And Mary's eyes filled with tears.

"Yes, where it's a question of one's material welfare you haven't your equal--I admit that. But the other side of me needs coddling too--yes, and sympathy. But it can whistle for such a thing as far as you're concerned."

Mary sighed. "I think you don't realise, dear, how difficult it sometimes is to understand you . . . or to make out what you really do want," she said slowly.

Her tone struck at his heart. "Indeed and I do!" he cried contritely. "I'm a born old grumbler, mavourneen, I know--contrariness in person! But in this case . . . come, love, do try to grasp what I'm after; it means so much to me." And he held out his hand to her, to beseech her.

Unhesitatingly she laid hers in it. "I am trying, Richard, though you mayn't believe it. I always do. And even if I sometimes can't manage it --well, you know, dear, you generally get your own way in the end. Think of the house. I'm still not clear why you altered it. I liked it much better as it was. But I didn't make any fuss, did I?--though I should have, if I'd thought we were only to occupy it for a single year after. --Still, that was a trifle compared with what you want to do now. Though I lived to a hundred I should never be able to approve of this. And you don't know how hard it is to consent to a thing one disapproves of. You couldn't do it yourself. Oh, what WAS the use, Richard, of toiling as you have, if now, just when you can afford to charge higher fees and the practice is beginning to bring in money--"

Mahony let her hand drop, even giving it a slight push from him, and turned to pace the floor anew. "Oh, money, money, money! I'm sick of the very sound of the word. But you talk as if nothing else mattered. Can't you for once, wife, see through the letter of the thing to the spirit behind? I admit the practice HAS brought in a tidy income of late; but as for the rest of the splendours, they exist, my dear, only in your imagination. If you ask me, I say I lead a dog's life--why, even a navvy works only for a fixed number of hours per diem! My days have neither beginning nor end. Look at yesterday! Out in the blazing sun from morning till night--I didn't get back from the second round till nine. At ten a confinement that keeps me up till three. From three till dawn I toss and turn, far too weary to sleep. By the time six o'clock struck--you of course were slumbering sweetly--I was in hell with tic. At seven I could stand it no longer and got up for the chloroform bottle: an hour's rest at any price--else how face the crowd in the waiting-room? And you call that splendour?--luxurious ease? If so, my dear, words have not the same meaning any more for you and me."

Mary did not point out that she had said nothing of the kind, or that he had set up an extreme case as typical. She tightened her lips; her big eyes were very solemn.

"And it's not the work alone," Richard was declaring, "it's the place, wife--the people. I'm done with 'em, Mary--utterly done! Upon my word, if I thought I had to go on living among them even for another twelvemonth . . ."

"But PEOPLE are the same all the world over!" The protest broke from her in spite of herself.

"No, by God, they're not!" And here Richard launched out into a diatribe against his fellow-colonists: "This sordid riff-raff! These hard, mean, grasping money-grubbers!" that made Mary stand aghast. What could be the matter with him? What was he thinking of, he who was ordinarily so generous? Had he forgotten the many kindnesses shown him, the warm gratitude of his patients, people's sympathy, at the time of his illness? But he went on: "My demands are most modest. All I ask is to live among human beings with whom I have half an idea in common--men who sometimes raise their noses from the ground, instead of eternally scheming how to line their pockets, reckoning human progress solely in terms of l.s.d. No, I've sacrificed enough of my life to this country. I mean to have the rest for myself. And there's another thing, my dear-- another bad habit this precious place breeds in us. It begins by making us indifferent to those who belong to us but are out of our sight, and ends by cutting our closest ties. I don't mean by distance alone. I have an old mother still living, Mary, whose chief prayer is that she may see me once again before she dies. I was her last-born--the child her arms kept the shape of. What am I to her now? . . . what does she know of me, of the hard, tired, middle-aged man I have become? And you are in much the same box, my dear; unless you've forgotten by now that you ever had a mother."

Mary was scandalised. "Forget one's mother? . . . Richard! I think you're trying what dreadful things you can find to say . . . when I write home every three months!" And provoked by this fresh piece of unreason she opened fire in earnest, in defence of what she believed to be their true welfare. Richard listened to her without interrupting; even seemed to grant the truth of what she said. But none the less, even as she pleaded with him, a numbing sense of futility crept over her. She stuttered, halted, and finally fell silent. Her words were like so many lassos thrown after his vagrant soul; and this was out of reach. It had sniffed freedom--it WAS free; ran wild already on the boundless plains of liberty.

After he had gone from the room she sat with idle hands. She was all in a daze. Richard was about to commit an out-and-out folly, and she was powerless to hinder it. If only she had had some one she could have talked things over with, taken advice of! But no--it went against the grain in her to discuss her husband's actions with a third person. Purdy had been the sole exception, and Purdy had become impossible.

Looking back, she marvelled at her own dullness in not fore-seeing that something like this might happen. What more natural than that the multitude of little whims and fads Richard had indulged should culminate in a big whim of this kind? But the acknowledgment caused her fresh anxiety. She had watched him tire, like a fickle child, of first one thing, then another; was it likely that he would now suddenly prove more stable? She did not think so. For she attributed his present mood of pettish aversion wholly to the fact of his being run down in health. It was quite true: he had not been himself of late. But, here again, he was so fanciful that you never knew how literally to take his ailments: half the time she believed he just imagined their existence; and the long holiday she had urged on him would have been enough to sweep the cobwebs from his brain. Oh, if only he could have held on in patience! Four or five years hence, at most, he might have considered retiring from general practice. She almost wept as she remembered how they had once planned to live for that day. Now it was all to end in smoke.

Then her mind reverted to herself and to what the break would mean to her; and her little world rocked to its foundations. For no clear call went out to Mary from her native land. She docilely said "home" with the rest, and kept her family ties intact; but she had never expected to go back, except on a flying visit. She thought of England rather vaguely as a country where it was always raining, and where--according to John-- an assemblage of old fogies, known as the House of Commons, persistently intermeddled in the affairs of the colony. For more than half her life-- and the half that truly counted--Australia had been her home.

Her home! In fancy she made a round of the house, viewing each cosy room, lingering fondly over the contents of cupboards and presses, recollecting how she had added this piece of furniture for convenience' sake, that for ornament, till the whole was as perfect as she knew how to make it. Now, everything she loved and valued--the piano, the wax-candle chandelier, the gilt cornices, the dining-room horsehair-- would fall under the auctioneer's hammer, go to deck out the houses of other people. Richard said she could buy better and handsomer things in England; but Mary allowed herself no illusions on this score. Where was the money to come from? She had learnt by personal experience what slow work building up a practice was. It would be years and years before they could hope for another such home. And sore and sorry as SHE might feel at having to relinquish her pretty things, in Richard's case it would mean a good deal more than that. To him the loss of them would be a real misfortune, so used had he grown to luxury and comfort, so strongly did the need of it run in his blood.

Worse still was the prospect of parting from relatives and friends. The tears came at this, freely. John's children!--who would watch over them when she was gone? How could she, from so far away, keep the promise she had made to poor Jinny on her death-bed? She would have to give up the baby of which she had grown so fond--give it back into Zara's unmotherly hands. And never again of a Saturday would she fetch poor little long-legged Trotty from school. She must say good-bye to one and to all--to John, and Zara, and Jerry--and would know no more, at close quarters, how they fared. When Jerry married there would be no one to see to it that he chose the right girl. Then Ned and Polly--poor souls, poor souls! What with the rapid increase of their family and Ned's unsteadiness--he could not keep any job long because of it--they only just contrived to make ends meet. How they would do it when she was not there to lend a helping hand, she could not imagine. And outside her brothers and sisters there was good Mrs. Devine. Mary had engaged to guide her friend's tottery steps on the slippery path of Melbourne society, did Mr. Devine enter the ministry. And poor little Agnes with her terrible weakness. . . and Amelia and her sickly babes . . . and Tilly, dear, good, warm-hearted Tilly! Never again would the pair of them enjoy one of their jolly laughs; or cook for a picnic; or drive out to a mushroom hunt. No, the children would grow up anyhow; her brothers forget her in carving out their own lives; her friends find other friends.

For some time, however, she kept her own counsel. But when she had tried by hook and by crook to bring Richard to reason, and failed; when she saw that he was actually beginning, on the quiet, to make ready for departure, and that the day was coming on which every one would have to know: then she threw off her reserve. She was spending the afternoon with Tilly. They sat on the verandah together, John's child, black-eyed, fat, self-willed, playing, after the manner of two short years, at their feet. At the news that was broken to her Tilly began by laughing immoderately, believing that Mary was "taking a rise out of her." But having studied her friend's face she let her work fall, slowly opened mouth and eyes, and was at first unequal to uttering a word.

Thereafter she bombarded Mary with questions.

"Wants to leave Ballarat? To go home to England?" she echoed, with an emphasis such as Tilly alone could lay. "Well! of all the . . . What for? What on earth for? 'As somebody gone and left 'im a fortune? Or 'as 'e been appointed pillmonger-in-ordinary to the Queen 'erself? What is it, Mary? What's up?"

What indeed! This was the question Mary dreaded, and one that would leap to every tongue: why was he going? She sat on the horns of a dilemma. It was not in her to wound people's feelings by blurting out the truth-- this would also put Richard in a bad light--and, did she give no reason at all, many would think he had taken leave of his senses. Weakly, in a very un-Maryish fashion, she mumbled that his health was not what it should be, and he had got it into his head that for this the climate of the colony was to blame. Nothing would do him but to return to England.

"I never! No, never in my born days did I hear tell of such a thing!" and Tilly, exploding, brought her closed fist heavily down on her knee. "Mary! . . . for a mere maggot like that, to chuck up a practice such as 'e's got. Upon my word, my dear, it looks as if 'e was touched 'ere,"-- and she significantly tapped her forehead. "Ha! Now I understand. You know I've seen quite well, love, you've been looking a bit down in the mouth of late. And so 'as pa noticed it, too. After you'd gone the other day, 'e said to me: 'Looks reflexive-like does the little lady nowadays; as if she'd got something on 'er mind.' And I to him: 'Pooh! Isn't it enough that she's got to put up with the cranks and crotchets of one o' YOUR sect?'--Oh Mary, my dear, there's many a true word said in jest. Though little did I think what the crotchet would be." And slowly the rims of Tilly's eyes and the tip of her nose reddened and swelled.

"No, I can't picture it, Mary--what it'ull be like 'ere without you," she said; and pulling out her handkerchief blew snort after snort, which was Tilly's way nowadays of having a good cry. "There, there, Baby, Auntie's only got the sniffles.--For just think of it, Mary: except that first year or so after you were married, we've been together, you and me, pretty much ever since you came to us that time at the 'otel--a little black midget of a thing in short frocks. I can still remember 'ow Jinn and I laughed at the idea of you teaching us; and 'ow poor ma said to wait and make sure we weren't laughing on the wrong side of our mouths. And ma was right as usual. For if ever a clever little kid trod the earth, it was you."

Mary pooh-poohed the cleverness. "I knew very little more than you yourselves. No, it was you who were all so kind to me. I had been feeling so lonely--as if nobody wanted me--and I shall never forget how mother put her arms round me and cuddled me, and how safe and comfortable I felt. It was always just like home there to me."

"And why not, I'd like to know!--Look 'ere, Mary, I'm going to ask you something, plump and plain. 'Ave you really been happy in your marriage, my dear, or 'ave you not? You're such a loyal little soul, I know you'd never show it if you weren't; and sometimes I've 'ad my doubts about you, Mary. For you and the doctor are just as different as chalk and cheese."

"Of course I have--as happy as the day's long!" cried Mary, sensitive as ever to a reflection on her husband. "You mustn't think anything like that, Tilly. I couldn't imagine myself married to anyone but Richard."

"Then that only makes it harder for you now, poor thing, pulled two ways like, as you are," said Tilly, and trumpeted afresh. "All the same, there isn't anything I'd stick at, Mary, to keep you here. Don't be offended, my dear, but it doesn't matter half so much about the doctor going as you. There's none cleverer than 'im, of course, in 'is own line. But 'e's never fitted in properly here--I don't want to exactly say 'e thinks 'imself too good for us; but there is something, Mary love, and I'm not the only one who's felt it. I've known people go on like anything about 'im behind 'is back: nothing would induce them to have 'im and 'is haughty airs inside their doors again, etcetera."

Mary flushed. "Yes, I know, people do sometimes judge Richard very unkindly. For at heart he's the most modest of men. It's only his manner. And he can't help that, can he?"

"There are those who say a doctor ought to be able to, my dear.--But never mind him. Oh, it's you I feel for, Mary, being dragged off like this. Can't you DO anything, dear? Put your foot down?"

Mary shook her head. "It's no use. Richard is so . . . well, so queer in some ways, Tilly. Besides, you know, I don't think it would be right of me to really pit my will against his."

"Poor little you!--Oh! men are queer fish, Mary, aren't they? Not that I can complain; I drew a prize in the lucky-bag when I took that old Jawkins in there. But when I look round me, or think back, and see what we women put up with! There was poor old ma; she 'ad to be man for both. And Jinn, Mary, who didn't dare to call 'er soul 'er own. And milady Agnes is travelling the selfsame road--why, she 'as to cock 'er eye at Henry nowadays before she trusts 'erself to say whether it's beef or mutton she's eating! And now 'ere's you, love, carted off with never a with-your-leave or by-your-leave, just because the doctor's tired of it and thinks 'e'd like a change. There's no question of whether you're tired or not--oh, my, no!"

"But he has to earn the money, Tilly. It isn't quite fair to put it that way," protested her friend.

"Well! I don't know, Mary, I'm sure," and Tilly's plump person rose and sank in a prodigious sigh. "But if I was 'is wife 'e wouldn't get off so easy--I know that! It makes me just boil."

Mary answered with a rueful smile. She could never be angry with Richard in cold blood, or for long together.

As time went on, though, and the break-up of her home began--by the auctioneer's man appearing to paw over and appraise the furniture--a certain dull resentment did sometimes come uppermost. Under its sway she had forcibly to remind herself what a good husband Richard had always been; had to tell off his qualities one by one, instead of taking them as hitherto for granted. No, her quarrel, she began to see, was not so much with him as with the Powers above. Why should HER husband alone not be as robust and hardy as all the other husbands in the place? None of THEIR healths threatened to fail, nor did any of them find the conditions of the life intolerable. That was another shabby trick Fate had played Richard in not endowing him with worldly wisdom, and a healthy itch to succeed. Instead of that, he had been blessed with ideas and impulses that stood directly in his way.--And it was here that Mary bore more than one of her private ambitions for him to its grave. A new expression came into her eyes, too--an unsure, baffled look. Life was not, after all, going to be the simple, straightforward affair she had believed. Thus far, save for the one unhappy business with Purdy, wrongs and complications had passed her by. Now she saw that no more than anyone else could she hope to escape them.

Out of this frame of mind she wrote a long, confidential letter to John: John must not be left in ignorance of what hung over her; it was also a relief to unbosom herself to one of her own family. And John was good enough to travel up expressly to talk things over with her, and, as he put it, to "call Richard to order." Like every one else he showed the whites of his eyes at the latter's flimsy reasons for seeking a change. But when, in spite of her warning, he bearded his brother-in-law with a jocose and hearty: "Come, come, my dear Mahony! what's all this? You're actually thinking of giving us the slip?" Richard took his interference so badly, became so agitated over the head of the harmless question that John's airy remonstrance died in his throat.

"Mad as a March hare!" was his private verdict, as he shook down his ruffled plumes. To Mary he said ponderously: "Well, upon my soul, my dear girl, I don't know--I am frankly at a loss what to say. Measured by every practical standard, the step he contemplates is little short of suicidal. I fear he will live to regret it."

And Mary, who had not expected anything from John's intervention, and also knew the grounds for Richard's heat--Mary now resigned herself, with the best grace she could muster, to the inevitable.