In 1826 (date and fact, with courtly additions somewhat like those then fashionable on tombstones, are engraved on two loving-cups presented by Sorleys to Comyns and Comyns to page 12 Sorleys) Captain Comyn and Major Sorley chartered a two-hundred-ton vessel—schooner-rigged, Captain Barnes master—and left England for Van Diemen's Land, where they arrived some ten months later. Depositing their ladies and all impedimenta, including a lately increased family, in Hobart Town (then little more than barracks, prisons, and whaling-station), they rode inland with a surveyor and a handful of convicts to select the fifteen hundred acres granted each of them by the Crown.
Madam danced a private pas sent when she saw them go. Ten months of James Sorley who, great moon-calf that he was, had fallen into an admiration of her which caused him anguish worse than colic, had been almost as hard to bear as ten months of the Captain's very appreciative constancy…. I could rid myself of them both in a duel any day, she thought, helping distressful Louisa Sorley administer dill-water to her latest addition. And yet it is said that men rule the world. My faith! it is well for the world that we women stay our hands! …
"Hold him up, Louisa. He is full of wind and strange mouthings, like all his sex."
"Oh, Genevieve," wept Louisa, sitting soft and broad on the hard edge of a stretcher, "what should we do if our dear ones were speared or shot or eaten by wild animals? We in a strange land——"
"Marry again," said Madam, promptly. "There are some fine eyes and whiskers at the barracks. Dame! how they would be grateful to blacks and bushrangers!"
"You jest at everything," cried Louisa. "When I think of my poor Sorley sitting a saddle for days on end … and he forgot to take the salve I had provided."
Madam kissed the dandling child for the first time. Her bright eyes twinkled. "May Providence see to it," she murmured.
With as little knowledge of land as possible to gentlemen who had been fighting in the wars almost ever since they were breeched, these two apparently did manage to attract a Providence which must have had little to do in a penal settlement. Like babes they were led to select excellent sheep country with good river-frontage and to get their titles clear. Then, it seems, Providence yawned and made off, leaving them, with a disregard page 13of future complications possible only in a race civilized out of its natural instincts, to choose their home blocks side by side and to erect their wattle-and-daub huts with only a split-rail fence between.
"How nice!" cried simple Louisa Sorley when at last she arrived there and saw gold wattle bloom reflected in the shining river and the English servants brought out with them already unloading about the long clean buildings of split shingles which would house them. Madam said nothing. But she took the Captain's heated eager face between her palms and kissed his nose, a little remorsefully, as one might with an honest dog.
Without dear simple Louisa Sorley, who never tried to grasp any but the most domestic principles, Madam could barely have borne those first five years when the Captain smelled forever of sheep or horses, and James Sorley went almost mad with jealousy because Madam dined with the governor in Hobart Town and danced in a barn with sprigs of the military. Indeed, some of the military were eternally dropping in on unspecified expeditions; and because women were rare in the colony—fortunately for men, women like Madam are rare anywhere—she could have gathered baskets of hearts as one gathers beans from a row.
"It is iniquitous!" cried Major Sorley, glaring over the split-rail fence one twilight.
Madam raised one of those little brown ringed hands which rarely carried anything heavier than a fan or a scent-bottle. "They must love someone, les pauvres. Why not me?"
"You are a married woman," said the Major, who even yarded sheep in a silk hat. He was that sort.
Madam nodded slowly. "Bien. So it appears. And you, mon ami, have at length discovered it?"
The Major went very red. During the first year in those huts he had entreated Madam to fly with him. During the second he had threatened to fly with her. During the third he had returned to his Louisa and produced a daughter who was even now sucking the finger of a somewhat older Mab Comyn at Lousia's feet.
"Madam," said he, with ponderous sarcasm, "you do not wish the fact to be discovered? You are right. I will not publish it."
With that he made her a bow stiff from the waist and went page 14off, leaving Madam rocking with laughter, like a Paris gamin, against the fence. What the devil could one do with a woman like that?
Madam, it seems, contrived to do little with herself through these years but laugh, sing to her harp, and float over the rough tussock grass in silken or muslin billows, protected from an almost tropical sun by absurd little parasols.
"But I leave labour to the servants, moi," she lightly told an exhausted Lousia Sorley up to her pale eyebrows in the rendering down of candle-fat. "Why not you also, chérie?"
"They do it so badly," protested this born housewife.
"I should do it worse. And for what else is that class created?"
She steadily advanced the belief that no lady could possibly know how to make a bed or sweep a room or wash a clout, and because she never made the mistake of trying she had the homage of her servants—even the French maid who dressed her daily and fluted her ruffles and screamed to God for help at sight of a tarantula. Madam kept a special stick for tarantulas, and on warm rainy evenings the hut would often echo to her piercing: "Celeste! But un monstre, par Dieu! Vite! Vite! At him, then!" And re-echo to Celeste's shrieks and prayers and stick-thumpings.
The Merricks ("Not of the Two Services, unfortunately, but estimable people, oh, quite," considered Major Sorley) settled just across the river in the same year; and Mrs. Merrick, who wore black-stuff gowns in the height of summer, in the belief that the more she suffered the more the Lord would love her ("And bien sur she has need to attract Him in some way," said Madam), gave it out that the Lord would one day chasten Madam's proud stomach. And when that day arrived with the marriage of young William Comyn to Susan Merrick, Madam remembered, and sang all the evening to her harp French songs which made even the seasoned Captain raise his eyebrows.
"My dear!" he protested.
But Madam said: "There are times, Guillaume, when I must be wicked. Go away if it embarrasses you."
But this was long after the early settlers had consolidated their domains according to the spacious colonial fashion. From the prisons in Hobart Town came endless gangs of convicts. (Two page 15shirts, two pairs of socks, one jacket, one pair of trousers, and sufficient food hired a man, said the regulations, for an indefinite period.) And then, quarried from the soft brown freestone of the hills, there arose throughout the colony those absurd and utterly splendid blocks of barns, stables, wool-sheds, dove-cotes, and what not which always like an army of courtiers preceded the house proper. John Hatherton of Weir had an attack of conscience (or penury) on the completion of his outbuildings. He refused to allow men to sweat unpaid for him further, and lived on in the old wattle-and-daub until the long arm of luck grew tired of him and bush-rangers burned him in his house one winter night.
Madam's generalship managed the erection of Clent Hall on a hillock a mile from the split-rail fence, and Major Sorley, possibly in dudgeon, retired behind a patch of heavy bush—honeysuckle, shining blackwood, and wattle—to build Bredon. The huts that had ushered in an epoch became homes for possum and bandicoot and the big owls which the Comyn boys and young Henry Sorley dragged blinking from the rafters. The split-rail fence dozed bleaching in the sun, forgetting the days when two gentlemen discussed across it such vital matters as the best colour to paint piggeries, the chances of silkworms brought from England awaiting in cocooned retirement the leafing of the new mulberry trees (which they never did), the value of windmills as against hydraulic rams, and a sight more, until they began to stride up and down the fence with raised voices, the Captain with a velvet cap over his ear and a dozen dogs at the heels of his gaiters and the Major erect and elegant in blue surtout and top-hat. By now it was time for Madam's English nurse to gather the three little Comyn boys under her apron and bawl in lusty Dorset:
"Pillowed in peace let the little heads lie,
And I will sing them lullaby,"
and for placid Mrs. Sorley to shut the windows and comfort Baby Julia.
It was over Baby Julia that the gulf between Major and Captain first opened, although the Captain never saw it until he fell into it. Incurably sentimental and innocent, he offered the page 16three-year old Mab as Julia's spouse before she was five hours old, thereby deeply shocking some oblique morals of the Major's. That a man whose wife had been adored by another man could suggest that his progeny and the other man's progeny … 'pon my soul, it was indecent; and if he, James Sorley, had really run away with Madam four years before it couldn't have happened and … well, put it how you like, it was all very confused and improper, and the Major would have none of it, by God!
He eluded the Captain for some weeks, with a skill which increasing practice as chairman of the Road Board was fostering, but kneeling stiffly by his bed one night he found the ritual of his devotion seriously interfered with. Little French sentences which had certainly no right in any devotions came tinkling about his ears; there was the ghost of a scent, a sweet palpitating stir …
He got hurriedly to his feet, unknowing that he cursed, until he saw his wife's mild eyes within her nightcap as she sat in bed.
"Did you hurt yourself, James? I thought you stumbled …"
"I … stumbled. But I shall not stumble again, Louisa."
Mrs. Sorley cuddled her soft bulk down among the softer pillows. James could be impressive even in his nightshirt. She was certain that if those who said he would go far toward ruling this country were to see him now, they would be impressed. Dear James!