The sheep were down from the hills for the lambing, and the bright spring days were brittle with young sounds and the sharp nights strange with the red eyes of moving lanterns about the shepherds' huts in the misty valleys. Mab stayed at home more, to help William ride the rounds, for Clent land sprawled far and angularly among the hills, and all the settlers along the rivers were too busy for play. In the hut under Phantom Hill, Robert Snow had two men to help him. He was clever with the yeaning page 35ewes, and his long firm fingers seemed to ease their pain as the other men could not do. He was on his knees holding a weak young lamb to the bursting udder for the first time when Mab rode in one midnight, and even to Mab's careless vision there was something lovely here.
The lantern, set on a tree stump, circled them in red light: the standing mother, moist-eyed, dark-eyed yet with fear and pain, her long mild face turned to the staggering creature which nuzzled her, upheld in the man's gentle hands; the quiet kind look on Snow's face; the hut behind, dim promise of home such as each man must hold in his heart or die. Mab felt the strong-beating life in him rejoice in these times when Nature with fierce lavishness created—created, out of nothingness, out of inexplicable urges, out of the intolerable patience of humankind. Her impulse is equally to destroy, but Mab forgot that, as Snow never did. It was so easy to forget things in this crowded life of riding, laughing, going here and there, drinking with friends round one jolly house fire and another. Except for an occasional stinging shame he had quite forgot Lucy, and this was the easier because Madam had skilfully removed her from Clent Hall, saying that she must learn cooking of her mother before she was wed.
So the gods made Mab's way smooth for him, recognizing a gentleman when they saw one, and now he sat his flighty young mare gracefully and looked down on the convict with the scarred back and the soiled hands.
"A fair lambing?" he said pleasantly.
"All one can expect, I suppose."
Mab bit his lips. The Captain's experiments in breeding were notorious, and William had insisted that those Lincoln rams were too old. But it was not for this fellow to criticize. "Where are the other men?" he asked sharply.
"Doing their work, as I am." Snow laid the satisfied lamb gently down, folding the long stiff legs under it; coaxed the mother down at its side and picked the lantern up. "I have three in the hut that must be fed now," he said, and went in, shutting the door.
Mab rode slowly away. The murmur of the sheep, the good smell of them and of the close-cropped grass rose about him in page 36the dark. Had it not been for that picture just now he would have given Snow something to think about for his insolence. But the sacredness of birth, of mystery had gathered round the fellow, somehow shielding him. Along all the shadowy places of the hushed hills mystery and birth were abroad to-night, for miles and miles and miles of this new land which was raw and savage yet. Everywhere new lives were coming with faint cries while the stark grey gum bush watched the pastoral, rebellious because its wild day was done. Everywhere men with fagged faces and guarded eyes were giving service to the imperious need, and for the first time it struck Mab as a strange jest that these helpers alone could never gain anything by their toil. What was there for them, he thought, but labour and an unhonoured grave at the end?
Across the river a lantern was moving on old Jasper Merrick's land. That would be Susan's brother Joe, and he would get no gain, either. Kept Joe tied up as tight as a convict, old Merrick did. Mab yawned and rode home to his easy bed.
Robert Snow finished his work in the hut and went out to stand in the door. Mab acted on him always like a poison, stirring up the devil until he feared what he might do. He too saw Joe's light across the river and thought how in the Merrick house lived the one woman who realized him as human. Ellen Merrick with her saucer eyes, her foolish mouth, repelled the artist in him while her very softness drew the man. She had looked at him. On rare occasions she had spoken. Once when he crossed the river on a message to her father she had brought him a glass of milk and their hands had touched. It was so long since he had touched a lady's hand—only the coarse flesh of the women who gathered at Henny's, that vile bush road-house where alone the ticket-of-leavers from the various big stations might go. "Making us worse brutes than we are," he muttered.
Sheep moved softly, cropping the spring grass. Under the coming dawn their wool showed spangled with bright dew. Dawn wind passed, full of the smell of earth, of water, of the gum leaves pungently keen. The fierce hungry look which thought of Ellen had brought to Snow's face faded. As he stood there, Nature found him and comforted, taking him for a short space page 37for her own. Weary beyond thought, he let her soothe him, leaned against the slab hut in an ecstasy of peace.