On August 3, 1846 (it is dated on the back), Robert Snow, convict servant in the employ of Captain Comyn, Clent Hall, in the county of Somerset, Van Diemen's Land, brought Madam Comyn the picture which he had painted.
"Place it there," commanded Madam, standing afar off in the sunny quiet of the flagged colonial hall. Convict servants, like spiders, droughts, unruly lovers, and other whimsies of le bon Dieu, were inevitable in this so savage life, and must be dealt with somehow. Madam, who had married the Captain at fourteen and followed the drum (and him) through the Napoleonic Wars, found few things incapable of being dealt with so long as one kept one's head. It is the first step which counts, she was already beginning to tell Jenny. And here was Jenny, prim and pretty as paints and Robert Snow could make her.
Madam, dipping her black ringlets this and that way, advancing her lorgnette, said negligently to the painter, "You may go."
He stayed. From a fond and smiling grandmother Madam became instantly the great lady, although standing only five foot one in her kid sandals. Convict servants when provoked had been known to behave as one could not have expected even them to do, but Madam was not to be cowed. She fixed Robert Snow with her bright, sharp stare, and then something in the young hungry eyes, the twitching lips moved her. Or it might merely have been because he was male.
"I am pleased," she said royally. "You shall paint Mr. Mabille to companion Miss Genevieve…. You may go."
His bow was a gentleman's, and that too was an impertinence in a servant. But Madam's eyes followed him out almost kindly and for the first time she wondered what sin had been Robert Snow's to bring him in a convict ship from England. But the colonies, said England—who always had her own ideas—must be page 8peopled, and if England chose to do it in this extraordinary fashion … well, it was no worse than other fashions which Madam had known.
In any case, convicts were better off than they had been twenty years back when the gentlemen, it was said, would tie them up by the thumbs and bet on their bodies in the hearty manner of gentlemen everywhere. As for the females of twenty years back, one did not inquire into the matter, although such knowledge as came one's way decidedly added a spice to the past. Convicts now had privileges: rights of appeal, one pair of trousers and other amenities. For example, this young man who had painted Jenny. The Police Register in Hobart Town had him as No. 17006, remain-servant to Captain Comyn, and had seemed glad to get rid of him, what with the swarms of convicts pouring in by every boat and the necessity of finding homes for them. But himself must know that it was an especial privilege to be consigned to Clent Hall, and worth many pairs of trousers.
There was another painter convict in the colony. One Wain-right who had poisoned his cousin because she had thick ankles. And this so pleased Madam that she had had him draw her portrait along with those of all the prettiest young ladies of Van Diemen's Land…. But I will tell James Sorley to let Snow paint Julia, she thought…. Madam did not need Julia, who had just returned from England to become the toast of Hobart Town, as a ladder into society, but she needed very much to make the ladies there jealous of her new discovery. Life at Clent was dull in these days.
Robert Snow went down between the box hedges feeling desolate. Jenny was only six and a bit, but she had been an exquisite thing to paint, a delicious thing to breathe the air with. For years he had been trying to become one of those stoical creatures who ignore yesterday and to-morrow, but there had been some quality in Jenny that constantly persisted in turning him into a man again. Every time she sat for him, with some woman of the household to keep watch on him, his lips had ached to kiss those delicate quicksilver limbs, his eyes had ached to close their tired lids in her shining hair. Now he would probably never speak to her again. Certainly never touch her.page 9
Near the stables which the Captain had built after the manner of an Italian casino, with cupolas and turrets, Snow met William who, besides being the eldest son of Captain and Madam Comyn, was Jenny's father and usually dangerous when one did not expect him to be. Because Snow was not thinking of it now—and showed it—William naturally became dangerous. Swinging his cane, a very devil of a fellow with his high-shouldered velvet-collared coat and light jutting eyebrows, he stopped Snow. "Didn't I tell you to paint that gate by the water-hole?"
"Madam wanted the portrait finished first."
It was suicide to miss the "sir," but with the heady glow of the creator still on him Robert Snow felt suicidal. William had created nothing, except Jenny, and even his egoism could scarcely deny Susan his wife some share in that. William's lips contracted.
"You have neglected my orders," he said; wrote something in his pocket-book, folded the leaf, and gave it to Snow. "Take that over to Major Sorley at once," he said. Snow did not need to read it. Such notes, although not so common as they used to be, were well known among convicts. It was a formula—Dear Sir: Please give bearer two dozen hard and return him. Faithfully yours,—and Snow had carried them to the current magistrate before now. At Clent he found some dour comfort in the knowledge of how William hated to send them. But because the Captain would not bestir himself and become a magistrate, there was no help for it. William had even gone so far as to rig up triangles behind the wool-shed, yet even that did not stimulate the Captain with his little trotting legs, his scandalous experiments in sheep-breeding, and his genial faculty for setting people by the ears without losing their affection.
Although she had married the Captain at fourteen, it was amazing how soon Madam came to understand him. And she understood William, dull, painstaking William who kept casual Clent together and was always stern in the wrong places. Oliver, her second son, she understood. Alas, poor Noll; so bored by the pleasures he chased with both arms out! How les bêtises disgusted his fastidious soul, and with what ardour he invited them! An enchanted child was Oliver, always picking up dust where he saw jewels.page 10
Mab, her youngest, she did not understand. Because she loved him, so exquisitely loved him, he would probably break her heart, conceded Madam. Meantime she would do what she could with Jenny, who came, very uncomfortable in stiff green tarlatan and white collar frill, to stand with Madam under the new portrait.
Jenny, rebellious and scratched, demanded straightway, "Why does people have to wear clothes, Grandmamma?"
"It is the fashion, petit chou."
"Wouldn't we if it wasn't?"
"When I am a big missy and dance at Government House and lead the fashion, I won't let any of us wear clothes."
"Mon Dieu!" said Madam, envious of a largeness of vision beyond her own. "May I be there to see! And your father," she added, reflectively.
Decidedly, she thought, Robert Snow had done well by Jenny. With the same puckish pointed chin the painted child looked down; the same brown eyes, large and long under thin arched brows, the same unruly rumble of chestnut curls. Just a hint of the fathomless wonder that is in all child faces the artist had caught, but his seared and sorrowful spirit could go no farther. That indefinable sweetness was the living Jenny's alone, and so was that gay spark of humour which in sorrow helps more than many prayers.
"Most truly, Susan, one would never take her to be the child of yourself and William!" cried Madam as Susan in broad hat and gloves came in from her walk round the garden. And although she refrained from adding verbal rejoicings, even Susan heard them in her voice and told William about it later in the new wing which the Captain had built when William married.
"I fear," lamented Susan, replacing her tight prune-colour evening silk with a roomy calico nightgown, "that Madam will teach Jenny vanity."
"My dear," said William, properly shocked, "I beg of you to remember that she is my mother."
"Yes, love," murmured Susan, instantly submissive. Like most wives of the 'forties, she knew her place and rarely let herself wonder why God had ordained it beside William. God, so far as page 11Susan understood from the extempore sermons which William sometimes preached on Sundays, ordained everything while leaving detail in the safe hands of his gentlemen friends.
William brushed his sandy hair delicately, wondering why on the edge of thirty he should be going bald, and added gloomily, "Nor is she likely to think of vanity, with the country in this unsettled state."
"No, love," murmured Susan, tying the plain nightcap over her curl-papers. What with bush-rangers, floods of convicts, experimenting governors, and maids promiscuously marrying, the country always was in an unsettled state and would have to remain so, since the Captain declared the London Colonial Office to be a Bedlam of wild asses and each succeeding governor a worse time-server and lick-pot.
It was over the governor that the Captain and Major Sorley had last quarrelled. Or perhaps it was merino rams…. Susan sighed, pulling apart the maroon curtains which hung stiff and heavy as leather from the six-foot tester of the bed. Within that stifling seclusion Humphrey had been born seven years before, Jenny six, and two others that had died. Susan hoped the next would be a girl…. And all a Merrick, she thought, with a sudden weak defiance of Fate and Madam as she heaved herself up the high wooden side and in among the billows of goose-down…. Humphrey is a Comyn and Jenny a du Nesle. Surely this one can be my own—if it lives.
"And besides," continued William, fitting the extinguisher precisely to the candle, "Jenny has always the corrective of your example so long as you do your duty by her."
"Yes, dear. I will teach her some more verses. Dr. Watts is so helpful."
Murmuring those most likely to chasten a small Jenny encouraged by Madam in peacocking, Susan fell uneasily asleep.