From the top windows of Clent, across the brown paddocks of feeding sheep, the young English trees, one sometimes saw the glint of steel from chain-gangs working on the Main Road, from guns and swords of the guarding soldiers.
Then William was glad because at last they were mending that bad corner at Black Gully, and the maids would crane their necks and big bobbing caps and think how there v/as much waste man-flesh which could be better employed, and the Captain would ride off hurriedly into Trienna to buy twists of the strong black tobacco which he dropped secretly in the dust among the striving workers while talking in his loud and genial way with the guards.
Jenny watching the dance and flash, from the sunny nursery window with its flowered chintz curtains and lavender smell, saw troubadours and knights riding the world's edges, and sang to them cozening songs which grew in her mind like little half-open buds. Some day a real troubadour would come riding in light, like God, and she would love him with both arms and be cruel with her eyes like a lady in one of Grandmamma's songs. "I love you. You are the sun and moon," she crooned to the quickening flashes where some unseen prisoner was being goaded along. "I think you are pink and crimson and blue like a galah parrot," crooned Jenny, her peaked chin on her brown fists, her long eyes full of dream.
And then Susan came in with her sister Ellen, and Jenny stood up like a good little miss and smoothed her pinafore. But she thought them both very tiresome.
"Good morning, Jenny," said Mamma, kissing her with damp lips. "Say your new verse to Aunt Ellen."
Jenny put her hands behind her, trying to keep off the lilt of "Mary, Mary, quite contrary" which alone made the doggerel worth repeating, and said meekly:page 30
"Asleep I sin, awake I sin,
I sin wiv every breaf.
When Adam fell he went to hell
And damned us all to deaf."
"Now," said Mamma, "I want you to think of that every time you see your portrait down in the hall. Then you will remember that fine feathers don't make fine birds."
She smoothed her cap with heavy moist hands, cast an anxious look about the room, and then, having done her duty by one of her family, hastened off to hurry the maids over their bed-making. Without herself and William, she often felt, Clent would simply drop to pieces; for the Captain thought of nothing but politics and entertaining, and Madam, of course, was just a spoiled fine lady. Susan would have hated Madam if she had admired her a little less.
Ellen Merrick put her arm round Jenny standing at the window, and Jenny suffered it uncomfortably. She dimly felt that Aunt Ellen was somehow younger than she, for all her big body; and her own stories were much better than those Aunt Ellen told, with all the princesses called Ellen, so that Jenny could see nothing but a procession of big pink-and-white baby faces with small noses and foolish mouths and wanted to get back to her own brown thin-lipped one who sparkled like Grandmamma and loved with her arms while she was cruel with her eyes. Aunt Ellen's princesses could never do anything like that.
"I think your portrait very beautiful, Jenny," whispered Ellen. "Don't you think Robert Snow is a genius? I wish he would paint me." Then she suddenly giggled, hiding her face in Jenny's shoulder. "I beg of you never to suggest that to any one, Jenny. I should die of shame if you did."
The idea of her suggesting anything to any one made Jenny laugh. And then Ellen clutched her tightly, crying:
"Jenny, Jenny; this is a hard world for us women." And again, in a queer little whisper, "Don't you think Robert Snow has wonderful eyes?"
Jenny was too surprised to answer. Aunt Ellen spoke as though Robert Snow were really a person, whereas every one knew that he was a convict. "He's a convict," she reminded Aunt Ellen.page 31
"He is a tragedy," said Aunt Ellen, in her hoarse whisper. "If he were dressed like your Uncle Mab he might be a dethroned king. He has a wonderful face. All the tragedy of the world is in it."
Jenny was more and more surprised. It had never occurred to her even to think of Uncle Mab and Robert Snow at the same time, any more than she would have thought of a dog or a cat. "Convict servants aren't really people, are they?" she asked.
"My child, they are God's own people, but the world doesn't know it!" cried Aunt Ellen, coming suddenly out of her whisper with a loud bellow. Then she put her finger to her lip. "Don't tell any one I said that. It was quite shocking of me," and she tiptoed away, making the floor creak.
But she had taken all the riding knights with her and, much occupied and rather upset by this new side issue, Jenny went down to watch candle-making in the back kitchen. None of the house servants was a convict. Grandmamma wouldn't allow convicts within doors, and this in some way always made Jenny connect them with pigs and horses. Robert Snow had even had to paint Jenny on the veranda with Nurse or Aunt Ellen always on guard. Candle-making, thought Jenny, was very comfortable after Aunt Ellen. Scarlet flames licking under the great copper. Thick fat steam rising out of it in wreaths that might turn to a genie up in the dark rafters at any time. The wicks hanging in rows like pale thin bodies until they were lowered into the moulds and killed dead by the rush of boiling fat. The big caps of Cook and the maids moving in the steamy mist like mushrooms sprung up in an hour. The heavy meaty smell….
Humphrey looked in at the door with a wooden spear, and a bunch of bracken round his waist.
"Come and play blackfellows," he said. "There are fifty bushrangers behind the stables. All with prices on their heads. We'll spear 'em."
Jenny knew that bush-rangers always had prices on their heads, although Uncle Mab's explanation of how they kept them there was not very convincing. She asked, following Humphrey, "What's prices look like, Hump'ey?"
"Oh," said Humphrey, carelessly, "just like prices."page 32
Jenny sighed. So few questions ever had any real answers, it seemed.
Uncle Mab passed them, galloping down the avenue under the tall bare English trees. Uncle Mab always galloped and never opened gates. For much of the year he rode in all the gentlemen events at the various race-meetings up and down the country, and for the rest of the year he apparently thought he did. Jenny could understand that. Always she thought she did many more things than ever she did do. Insidiously the fifty bushrangers led them through the bush to the grassy clearing burned out by the blacks, long ages before, for kangaroo. This was now the ram-pasture and forbidden ground; but neither of the children dared remind the other of that and be jeered at, and so they played among the young wattles and grass-clumps until the sun was suddenly gone and all the dim bush full of ghosts and strange noises.
"Come home," said Humphrey, remembering with a quake of the heart that Collins's Gang was reported down from the Western Tiers. Jenny sat tight. For once Humphrey had given in first and she felt herself reinforced by seven cheerful devils.
"You're afraid," she taunted him.
"'Fraid yourself," said Humphrey, which was a poor answer. "I see a kangaroo," he cried untruthfully, and charged off in the direction of home. Left to herself, Jenny rapidly knew what the last man may feel. The world grew enormous, amorphous; a mad fatalistic concourse of writhing ghosts, witches, monkeys with unblinking eyes, bottle-brush honeysuckle men without heads, turning back the cuffs from their black withered hands that were last year's flowers and advancing with mincing feet to seize her. For the first time she faced life unprotected by adult petticoats. For the first time she was conscious of Powers beyond those which ruled in her nursery; Powers at once terrible and glorious, inviting.
She stood braced, ready to fly and shriek at a sound, and yet savouring a new taste that was intoxicating. For the first time in her small ego I am I sounded its profound trumpet. She could never again lose that. Even when the next moment a cow bellowed in the distance and she fled with the salt tears of terror running into her mouth she was conscious that she had found something, page 33that for a brief moment she, Jenny Comyn, had stood her ground alone against the world.
Nurse, airing red-flannel petticoats and white-cotton stockings before the nursery fire, opined that Jenny's disobedience was a case for William, who presently came with a long strap and a longer lecture. At once the two were involved in one of those cataclysmic interludes which so ironically belittle the human amenities. Jenny, required to Say you're sorry, laughed. She held a new and priceless treasure in her breast and William was not going to get at it. William, honestly shocked, applied himself with the energy of one who faithfully carries out a repellent duty, and kissed her solemnly when he left, never knowing that Jenny promptly rubbed his kiss off with the tail of her frock. He hoped, he told Susan as they dressed for dinner, he trusted that this deplorable seed of obstinacy might be eradicated by a firm hand aided with prayer. Susan also hoped it. It frightened her sometimes to see so much of Madam in Jenny.
Humphrey came creeping to the cot where Jenny lay supper-less, and called her a fool to tell. But his voice did not ring true, and when he added awkwardly in his slow stocky way, "I'm obliged to you for not telling on me, anyway," Jenny recognized her superiority. But she was sore, and not liking Humphrey much, somehow.
"See here," whispered Humphrey. "It's no use standing against Them, you know. They'll always keep on till you give in."
"I didn't give in."
"Didn't you? Didn't say you were sorry?"
The awe in his voice was balm beyond belief, but Jenny was still unrelenting. Humphrey shouldn't have left her to bear it alone. "No, I didn't. Now I'm going to sleep. Good night."
Later Susan's creaking silk—Jenny had learned that Mamma creaked and Grandma rustled—and a strong odour of orris-root invaded the dark. Jenny opened a cautious eye.
"You are a very wicked little girl," said Mamma, promptly. "You might have been killed out in the bush and then God would have punished you, instead of poor Papa having to do it. You shall have no supper, Jenny, and to-morrow you shall learn two hymns and stay indoors all day."page 34
"How would God have punished me?" asked Jenny, doubtfully considering future eventualities.
"Never mind. Much worse than this. Now, go to sleep."
Jenny lay quiet, wondering a little why such a sinner as herself should secretly feel so happy. She hugged her treasure, recognizing it in some dim way for a lamp to guide her path. And then came a real lamp, the imperial rustle of silks, the faint odour of sandalwood. But Jenny was wise this time. She did not move.
Madam set down the lamp and offered two scones on a honey-gold plate. "Voilà, ma mie. Why would you not be sorry to Papa, then?"
She smiled, black curls and eyes beautiful in the soft light. Jenny felt a rush of comfort far beyond that suggested by the scones.
"Oh, Gran'ma … I … I …" Helplessly she struggled to explain. "I was out there. And I was by myself … and I didn't know I could be by myself before. Not all only myself."
"'And I was King of Tartary. Me, myself alone,'" murmured Madam. She touched Jenny's cheek with a delicate finger. "An unforgettable moment? Chérie, if already you can experience that, there is much before you. Much," said Madam, slowly, "of glory and of pain."
She stooped, laying on Jenny's lips a strange, soft, lingering kiss that seemed somehow to come out of the past, regretfully, shyly, like the confession of a young girl. Then she floated away, globed dimly in light, seeming to Jenny's sleepy eyes to mount straight up into heaven.