As time passed, dear James became conscious of ambition and went for it, as Madam said in Paris slang, bald-headed. And indeed the silk hat was now making this more than a figure of speech. He became a Person in the district which was confusedly shaping out of this grey shining immensity of gum bush and loitering rivers and half-cleared flats already filling up with merino sheep. He wrote guarded letters to those newspapers which governors still suppressed whenever they wanted to; instigated and then adroitly withdrew from a political association snubbed by Governor Arthur (who insisted on treating the growing colony page 17purely as a penal settlement), and generally behaved like a promising politician. He was a member of the historic company formed by John Batman in 1835 to found what later became Victoria, on the great Australian mainland, and seized the occasion of a mishap of poor Louisa's to build a family vault at Trienna.
Madam had no more children and a Comyn vault was not then called for. But the Captain had no mind to be beaten by Jim Sorley, damme; and also a vault as an antechamber to the next world or an anti-climax to this was inevitable among the old colonial families who, with half the horizon to choose from, raised their tall houses from area to attic as was the English way and would not until a much later date stoop to veranda shelter from the dazzling broadsides of the sun.
If Madam found the focus of her own fierce ambition alter as time passed, it is certain at least that she did not quail. Hopes of the Captain had not outlived the honeymoon. He loved everybody, even those with whom he quarrelled. William declared himself as without humour while still being powdered on his mother's knee. Oliver promised dizzily, but that bright flame was too avid. It soon ate up everything about it, including Madam's pride, so that when James Sorley became a councillor in Hobart Town and Oliver elected to go with him as secretary she put up a very poor fight.
"He wants me because I am a gentleman and can steer him away from social faux pas" explained Oliver, with his charming ease. "And I want him to climb on, chère maman."
"You will not climb," said Madam, with dark decision. "You seek but a cloak to play beneath, toi."
Jenny, a pink bewilderment of frills, looked up from a bright lapful of Madam's ivory spools and gold thimbles. "Nursey makes me d'ess and und'ss beneath my nighty-gown now," she offered.
"The devil she does! Why, then, imp?"
This exquisite and detached uncle who never kissed and hugged her as Mab did had the value of remoteness, and Jenny warmed to the sensation, saying: "It is modest, sir. Mamma wears a chemise in her bath."page 18
"Is such virtue possible!" Oliver turned bluely dark and long-lashed eyes on Jenny. "And what does Papa wear?"
"That is enough," said Madam, sending Jenny away. She groaned slightly. "Some day I shall kill that stupid Susan."
Oliver applauded this. A dull thing, when you came to think of it, Susan's continued encouragement of new lives. Himself, he felt, would have adored restraint, ethics, little flowers in green fields if he ever had time to think about them. As it was, he never wrote love-letters. Considering his brother, who was probably at the moment hanging about the servants' huts beyond the wall, Oliver wondered if Mab would be equally cautious and thought it unlikely. Mab's trusting human soul was almost as unnatural as the Captain's.
Oliver lounged about the room, seeing himself very elegant in bottle-green, slim-waisted in oval mirrors with dim gold frames. All things in Madam's private rooms were delicious with a French and stately ancientry which perhaps he only of all her acquaintance was fitted to appreciate. But would Madam appreciate with him Mab's pursuit of little Lucy Durbin? He feared not, and presently lounged away into the warm gloaming, leaving the ghost of a kiss on Madam's hand with its lace kerchief between the pointed ringers. There was no woman in the colony carried the inevitable kerchief as Madam could.
A little precious and unreal, this atmosphere he shared with Madam, and outdoors the hearty smell of hayricks and stables revolted him. This bucolic air was Mab's breath, his father's, William's. As for Oliver, he would return to town, pitying Madam a little. But, if reports were true, she had had her day, and not to any do such days come twice.
Lounging over the terrace balustrade, he saw Mab come riding in from the village, radiant in high-collared mulberry coat, white tight breeches, and spurred half-Wellingtons, his dark, warm-coloured face glowing. There was no prettier fellow in the colony than Mab at nineteen, thought Oliver, who took an aesthetic pleasure in his family's good blood, while fully realizing the license such a possession generally brought with it. If Mab didn't go to the devil, if Jenny didn't become wanton, then he, Oliver, was no prophet. Occasionally he envied that flame of life in them page 19as it had been in Madam. For himself the desires of the flesh had so few attractions., so few compensations for the results of its reckless indulgence.
At the stables Mab flung his reins to a groom and walked with his impatient young-man step round to the servants' quarters, the scent of fresh earth sweet in his nostrils. There was an hour yet before Lucy Durbin put on her black-and-white and carried plates to the dinner-table, where through these last strange weeks he had felt the tremors shake his body at her approach, seen her little red thumb twitch on the edge of the dish as she offered him potatoes.
It was not the fashion of the colony to discipline its young men. Untaught, unchecked, hot with strong blood and freedom, they ranged where they would, and when at last brought to heel by marriage they made no worse husbands than most and rarely found their mistakes rising up to condemn them. Some abysmal innocence and sweetness in Mab had so far kept him honest. He still believed that there were things a Comyn could not do, still believed cheating at cards and the betrayal of servant girls sins of an equality. Swaggering a little, royally sure of himself, and more than a little flushed with wine, he went to sup kisses from Lucy's firm red cheeks and arms and, boy-like, thought himself a devil of a fellow.
The grey gum leaves hung glassy in moonlight, pungent with scent. Under them and among the dark sassafras clumps hid the little stone cottages of the Clent servants. They blinked bright eyes, beckoning. There were whispers and murmurs, the stealthy passing of dogs, of cats about their business. The tall brown rampart of Clent stood to the right behind its walls and the great iron gate locked at night against bush-rangers. Smell of bush smoke and cooking from the cottages was turning into grey smoke drifting, groping with seeking fingers. Mab went, unconsciously stealthy as the dogs, past the long stone hut where the ticket-of-leavers lived.
Through some strange element of courtesy, convicts were now called ticket-of-leavers; but Robert Snow, on a tree stump near the door, with fight from the slush-lamp flickering over his torn and naked back, was pure convict to-night. He cowered as Mab page 20went by. This young man's brother had sent him to the triangles and would again. By the law of the land he could demand investigation, but what of that? In revenge William would probably goad him into some deed that would send him back to Port Arthur, with all hell to go through again. Now, unless he called down the thunderbolts upon him, in five years he could be a free man. Silence, he thought. Eat the black bread, drink the blood. Wait.
Mab's glance slid over Snow, slid off again. He had sucked in such sights with milk from the breast and they did not move him. They belonged to the approved order of things—like old Braxey who milked the Clent cows and was now turning slowly round outside the hut, unwinding his sins for the day. Nightly he had done that ever since Mab could remember, and now his long grey hair and beard almost hid his sunken body. "Ha' maircy, my Lord God," he chanted. "Lord, ha' maircy onter me."
Men slouched in and out of the low door, unheeding Braxey, unheeding Snow. Four played with dirty cards on a tree stump. All touched their forelocks as Mab passed. He was the young lord going to his pleasure; and if they guessed what that was, their coarse grins did not widen until they saw his back.
Durbin's cottage had a neat paling fence. Foxgloves and canterbury-bells peered tall and pink above it. The scent of violets was too urgent, too sweet. Mab whistled a soft robin note; then another, and saw the light fade from Lucy's attic. He went on swiftly into the bush where sassafras, honeysuckle, and myrtle made strange warm darkness. Always the bush at night excited him, and to-night he had drunk more wine than usual among the young bloods at Trienna. He walked a little uncertainly, thinking of the talk down there in the gentlemen's private room at the King George, thinking of Lucy and these hot unusual quivers of his blood. Birds dipped through the scrub, seeking their mates. Somewhere a fox barked. A thin scream came from a distant wild cat. The winter chill was in the air, but the bush was avid with life for many a hundred miles of unbroken mystery and secret doings.
Uncertain and yet conscious of impelling danger, Mab waited on the edge of one mystery for Lucy. And when she came running, her black shawl like flapping wings about her, and he felt page 21his arms go round her firm young body, he was suddenly giddy, sick with desire.
"Lucy! Lucy!" he gasped, tightening his hold. But her lips were wet with salt tears when he sought them, and she was panting, grunting like a little angry pig. Dimly he felt his tremendous moment escaping him and struggled for it. "Lucy … kiss me. I … I …"
Lucy shook herself free, the tears drying on her hot cheeks. "Madam says as I'm to marry Tom Jerrold to wonst," she cried shrilly.
Mab stepped back, his eager hands falling away. Madam? So she knew? Was there anything she didn't know, couldn't find out? Already he felt that haughty power of hers shadowing over him, weakening him. "Why?" he faltered.
"She says I be goin' on sixteen an' by then she had one baby an' was thinkin' of another. An' I says as I dun't like babies. An' she says as I mun be learnin' to like 'em, for what else is there fur a gell? An' I dunno what else there is, nayther," cried Lucy, sobbing.
Mab drew a deep breath, the blood pounding in his ears. Confronted like this with Madam's Homeric facing of facts, he did not know any more than Lucy. For himself, he knew that Madam had not taken the matter in hand a moment too soon. But she had taken it. She had put out those tiny brown heavily ringed fingers of hers and neatly tipped over the crystal chalice of his boyish vision, leaving naked the ugly thing behind.
"Muster Mab," whimpered Lucy, nestling close.
"Yes?" He hesitated and then put his arm round her slackly.
"Don't let me marry Tom, wull 'ee?"
"I …" Where was the moment of high passion, of great emprise that should bear him and Lucy together to the skies? Instead he felt a sharp sick distaste of this vulgar intrigue, as though he saw it through Madam's eyes half amused above her fan. "I don't see what I can do, you know," he said awkwardly.