He still did not know what he could have done, said, as he sat later at the dinner-table and kept his eyes from Lucy's nose swollen red with crying, and from Madam's buoyant ease. Undoubtedly Madam saw all there was to see and probably more, but she would never speak of it. Let us bury this foolishness, mon chou, her manner seemed to say. It is but growing-pains. And half ashamed, half relieved, Mab knew that she was right, and, like the boy he was, ate little and drank much and did not talk at all.
The Captain, his table full of guests, could not keep off politics, No one could in these days. And what wonder, with this burden of increasing debt and decreasing revenue, with the governor imposing tax after tax by order of Downing Street—which knew nothing about colonial conditions—and the duties on everything going up from five to fifteen per cent? Madam would have been as irritable as her man if she had not formed the habit of leaving all annoyances to Susan.
"Damme, sir!" cried the Captain, rumpling up his shock of grey hair. "Even a blind man knows that a country can't progress without its own parliament. So long as we are governed from that cursed Downing Street, there is no hope for us."
Madam collected eyes and withdrew. For the next hour Susan and Mrs. Wytcherley would be painful and pertinacious at the piano while the men told, over their wine, stories which she would have relished. The unexplainable, the untidy ways of these English! They could not even colonize according to rule. Forty years back the French tri-couleur would have flown where Hobart Town stood now if the English had not suddenly flung on the shore a handful of convicts, settlers, what-nots grabbed out of Botany Bay, while the French were still systematically marking out the channel as they passed up it.
And what had the English done with the country since? Stuffed it with redcoats and yellow convict jackets. Bribed with convenable grants of land such of the gentlemen adventurers as were on their beam-ends at close of the wars (plenty of these, thought Madam, grimly) and then put—what was it?—spokes in page 23their carriages by causing the name of Van Diemen's Land to stink in the nose of the world. A dangerous jest if many like her Captain got together to throw her yoke off. When Mab became viceroy, governor … whatever title was in vogue later, he would show them. He was behaving well over this Lucy affair, and Tom Jerrold's cottage should be built immediately. Madam, having got the whole business out of Lucy in two minutes before dinner, felt her mind at rest, except for the horrible sounds of Susan and Mrs. Wytcherley at the piano.
She moved about, touching the flowers in their tall vases, glancing in the long mirrors, and hating the heavy velvet curtains veiling the shuttered windows. Bush-rangers made shutters needful, but many times Madam desired to fling them wide and scream into the night scented of box and trodden gum leaves and distant sheep-trampled grass: "Come then, devils! We have no fear of you."
She had fear, though. It was no more than a month since the Captain, riding over his land, had found a dead man laid at each of the five gates. Himself might be the next.
Well, it was all in the game. He had warned her before that queer, romantic hegira of the gentlemen adventurers began. And when had fear ever blocked adventure? How they had gone about it, were going about it still! Majors, admirals, captains of the line ordering their dessous of fine linen, their frogged coats, their dancing-pumps, their pistols packed into the great hide-bound chests that had seen service with their masters about the world. Their ladies with fair bosoms flushed above the straight gowns and kerchiefs to their eyes but courage in their hearts—how they, too, had gone about it! How they had clung, with the desperation known only in women, to their household gods: the Chippendales, the Louis Quinzes, the round gilt mirrors with the fat cupids, the samplers, faldstools, and tester beds, the brass preserving pans and crimping-irons. "Never shall I return," cried the Captain, maddened far beyond what was proper by the baggage.
One does not colonize without a heartbreak. The old world was forever gone, and the new stood stark about her; a queer sour devil of a world, where the brutish eyes of beaten men came and went in the deep bush, watching, watching, and gentlemen and page 24ladies, proud in silk and broadcloth, drove their four-in-hands, gave rollicking toasts, loved, bred up their children … and never forgot those watching eyes. Madam was concerned that William had sent the painter Snow for punishment. Such fine-drawn wires snap easily and then something is hurt in the recoil. She began suddenly to fear for Mab, for fear always is strongest, like some misbegotten goblin, where love is strongest, too. She beckoned him as he came in with the gentlemen, defiant and flushed.
"Will you perhaps take out some salve to the huts, Mabille? A man was beaten to-day."
Mab stared under his thick brows. Madam, provocative in ringlets and laces, was not given to troubling her head over trifles, and he could not know that, like other fond women, she was offering a sacrifice to those barren gods who so seldom hear.
"Snow, you mean? I saw him," he said. "He was all right."
He was sullen and shy of Madam; too sore even for courtesy. Madam rose. "Come," she said. "I will give you some."
Mab in his dark temper appeared to her more beautiful than the angels; and so, naturally, unless she interposed, the gods would wake and destroy.
Up in her room he took the little box from hands that it pleased his mood to see tremble. Sorry, was she, now that it was done? For weeks he had been living in some fantastic dream too delicate for passion. To-day some word down at the hotel, some quickening of his blood had awakened lust. Now all was dead and his mother had killed it, and he was like a tired man who has come to his house at the gloaming and found it desolate. Too young to forgive, he went down the stair in silence and down the long back passage and out into the square courtyard. In the shadows under the row of bells on the kitchen veranda one of the grooms was courting a house girl. He heard her shrill giggle and felt his face burn red. Two cats flickered across the yard under the cold moon, went up the big mulberry tree, and so to the roof of the New Wing, where a light burned in the children's nursery. A bat sheered past his cheek, followed by another. The foul smell of them was in his face as he walked sharply across to the tall gates and out into the dark.page 25
The bush, waiting, expectant, seemed to hold that giggle, that foul smell. Elemental presences, the lurking beginnings of things … Mab felt them stirring in him, and he set his knee to the door of the long hut when he came to it and drove it open imperiously.
The convict servants, squatting round a great fire of burning gum logs, sprang apart like wolves disturbed at a feast. Then they rose sullenly, standing dumb with their schooled faces, their haunted eyes. Mab suddenly felt a fool. He held the box out.
"Snow, Madam Comyn has kindly sent you this for your back."
Snow did not move. He was still shirtless and on his thin young body the ribs stood like a cage. The men, becoming more human in their surprise, looked with curious grins at the haughty youngster in the door with his ruffled shirt and shining pumps, looked at the half-naked man with his sweat-streaked face who stood half-crouched against the wall. There might have been five years between the ages of the two. There was all eternity between their souls.
"Take it, you!" commanded Mab, suddenly more brutal than he had meant to be. Snow shuffled forward and received the box silently. Then Mab's hot temper blazed. Already to-day he had borne enough. Too much. Too much, and he saw the tragedy of the hour not as Robert Snow's but as Mab Comyn's. He cried:
"Damn you, you cur! Can't you say 'Thank you'?"
"Thank you," said Robert Snow, and Mab knew suddenly that curses were childish beside the concentrated passion of that quiet voice. He turned and went out, banging the door. And behind him the coarse laughter of the men rose up in a wild yell to the heaven that had forsaken them.
Snow walked back to the fire, dropped the box into the flames, and with arms folded over his narrow chest watched it burn. He did not hate William as he hated Mab Comyn, and that was natural enough. Mab had all that had once been Snow's, even to his young lack of pity, his young and lovely dreams. Snow's youth, beating a broken wing, watched Mab's soar careless against the light. It was quite inevitable that he should hate Mab Comyn.
Over the fire the men were back at their whispering; their page 26faces half human now, furtive, eager…. It can be done, they whispered. Once we got in the bush … with guns …