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.
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!
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.
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 …
William, being the only person who ever attempted to keep jovial, extravagant Clent together, sat late that night over his accounts. Very neatly and accurately his quill pen travelled the large blue sheets of paper, but its accuracy only made matters worse. Madam's expenses. The Captain's simply mad expenses. Advances to Oliver. Mab's allowances—for which he never dreamed of doing anything. Two new racehorses. A new lining of stamped maroon velvet for the barouche …
"Dear me," said William, who had stopped swearing when he became a lay reader, and thereby started Mab doing it. "Something must be done."
Once life had been so simple. Convicts laboured endlessly, while over the old mahogany gentlemen threw mains, drank old Burgundy, and generally conducted themselves like gentlemen. Then, by a cantrip of Lord Stanley whom nobody loved, the men were withdrawn in their thousands for public works and a great search went out by the disturbed gentlemen for free labour, which came high at a pound a week and "kept." "Especially kept," William was wont to say. "With sheep worth their weight in gold and labourers refusing kangaroo-steamer, even with onions." Better times had followed with the foundation of the new colony across Bass Strait. William could and did give you full statistics of prices when dealers swept the country for stock and goods to ship down the Tamar, and Clent had made four thousand pounds on potatoes alone in one year. But now the boot was on the other foot, with Port Phillip grown self-supporting, and Clent too large to be worked except at a loss.
And the country! Good—I mean, dear me! The country—God help her! Convicts from all the British Empire pouring in by the thousand in one damnable hotchpotch which under this more damnable Probation System bracketed the worst Newgate criminal with the starved boy who stole a hen's egg. What brain in Downing Street had conceived the notion of putting them all through page 27the same mill? First labour in the degrading road-gangs; then labour for contractors on a payment basis arranged with the Government; and then the third-class ticket which freed them to work where they chose. In elder days you could ride into town, pick an honest face straight from the ship, and ride back with the fellow. Now all were beaten into the same mask, and how then did you know what you got? Some ruffian, possibly, who would murder your children if they strayed for an hour in the bush.
Prisons at Oatlands, Jerusalem, and a dozen other places were simply bulging with convicts. William had seen 'em. Males and females armed with passes, tickets of leave, and conditional pardons to the tune of some ten thousand were set adrift on the road because there was nowhere to keep them. They were turning bush-ranger and driving the settlers' cattle; they were stealing when they couldn't get work, lusting, marrying … 'pon William's soul it was a scandal to see the Gazette crammed every week with "His Excellency is pleased to allow …" And where would we be when that lewd spawn grew up to choke our own children of the dragon's blood?
Many of the settlers were asking that now. But when two thousand specially brutalized convicts from Norfolk Island were recently shipped them, His Excellency had met the deputation of protests with shrugs.
"My dear sirs, what am I but England's servant?" he said.
So the bush and the barren hills and the dusty roads swarmed with the starving wretches, who begged and stole and sickened, and, when pursued by guns and threats, took to the bush and murdered. Emigrant free labour crossed the strait in a body to young and clean Port Phillip on Australia's mainland, for there they found no jailbird competition, no danger of being knocked on the head for taking the bread of labour from ravening mouths. So there was no more emigration. There were no more land sales, and this was the country's chief source of revenue. And the Home Government chose this moment to withdraw its parent grant toward the upkeep of the convict system, throwing the burden on the settlers, who, in spite of the heavy taxes, were already learning the meaning of a national debt.
Gentle women prayed over the family Bibles at this time, "God page 28forgive them, for they know not what they do." But their husbands, thinking England was meant, said, "Then we'll show them," and wrote off many fiery letters for the Downing Street clerks to pigeonhole.
Eleven sounded from the cuckoo-clock which the Captain had picked up in Bonn and Madam had banished as a gaucherie. William liked it. Firmly and without false modesty it did its duty, as he did. William really hoped that he could say "as he did." With precise movements and pursed lips he put up his books, his shadow high-shouldered and thin-legged on the wall. And then the old house came about him as it often would at this hour, reminding him of the mortgage. Many fine estates cleared with such eager hopes were mortgaged now, and Councillor Sorley held a mortgage on Clent, although William had almost gone on his knees to dissuade the Captain.
"Borrow from the banks. From the Jews. From any but a friend," said William. And the Captain, shocked almost beyond speech by this profession of faith, cried:
"Damme, sir! I'll go to old Jim to-morrow and be damned to you. Upstart puppy!"
He apologized later, being of those men who light-heartedly say through half their days what they retract during the other half. But old Jim took up the mortgage as he was taking up so many things now.
"He'll get on," thought William, starting down the dark passage with his tall silver candlestick. "He has the knack of it. But we …"