Ellen went back to her father's home, her unsought bosom heaving with sighs. She had hoped much from this her first visit to town, and perhaps she had hoped a little from Oliver. But the grim house over the river received her with its old darkness, its old stuffiness, and that night she climbed on a chair and looked from the window with desperate eyes. Jasper Merrick had purposely fashioned Lovely Corners like a fortress; purposely placed the windows so high that no self-respecting daughter of his could see the goings-on of those gay young sparks in their long-tailed scarlet coats at Trienna Barracks across the river. Ellen met stray ones at Clent; had even hinted to them of a system of signals. But the young sparks were obtuse, or the land was too full of pretty girls. Anyway, nothing came of it, and Ellen continued to tend her mother, who, considering her immortality assured by a life of making every one and everything uncomfortable, was setting about meeting her latter end in an enormous quantity of black shawls accompanied by four volumes of Robertson's Sermons.
But to-night the magpies crying to the moon, the hot smell of the teeming earth turned the mawkish sentiment in Ellen to a power so strong that it frightened her. She was too shaken by life to wait any longer. Since none of her own class came, she page 45would take Robert Snow. Somehow, somewhere she would take him.
In the morning Susan came, brought over the river by Mr. Merrick, who had had a good morning on the Bench in Trienna, sentencing five absconding convicts to fifty lashes apiece and a sixth to the treadmill. Susan sat with her mother, and talked of Ellen.
"It is my great comfort that you will always have her with you, darling Mother. She is not likely to marry."
"Why should she? She has me" said Mrs. Merrick, poking her sharp yellow nose out of her shawls. "I can't think what else she can want."
"No, no. I'm sure she doesn't," said Susan dutifully. "And so we shall see you all at Clent for Christmas as usual. That is nice."
"You'll see me unless I'm in my coffin. If I'm not it won't be the fault of my daughters, letting all the cold air in on me. Please don't slam the door, Ellen. I suppose your father will manage without me somehow, and Joe will marry the cook."
"Oh, Mother darling, how can you!" said Susan, getting up thankfully to go. Beyond the door she spoke to Ellen: "I am so glad your teeth are done. Now you won't have to go away again for a long time."
Ellen said nothing. She went back into the room with its heavy curtains like blank walls and sat down on a horsehair chair to read to her mother from Robertson's Sermons.
To the old colonials hospitality was more than an obligation. It was the air they breathed; but the Captain, always with a splendour of vision unshared by William, usually went one better than his neighbours. Two nights in each week the long table in the outer kitchen was heaped with hams, pies, bread, cakes, and wine, and the gate of the yard stood open to welcome travellers by the mail-coach passing up the Main Road, passing down. It was the excitement of Mab's boyhood to look from his window on the steaming horses, the descending passengers whose wrapped-up faces he would never see and to picture an escaped convict, a bushranger or two among them. Later he had an eye for a slim ankle, a small hand holding a cloak together, and loved page 46these flitting ghosts of which he would never know the names or shapes; those birds out of the night come to his father's table for an hour and gone again. Many of the rootless romances of youth Mab gave to those half-seen women.
Susan complained that the house at Clent was always knee-deep in people who came for a day and stayed six. At Christmastime it filled like a boiling cauldron to the top of its stout old walls, brimmed over and washed the sons of the house out to the attics above the store-rooms across the courtyards. Then all the best linen appeared, fragrant with lavender; the big silver trays came out of their baize covers, the loving-cups had a fresh polish, and the grooms an extra lick of pomatum to the hair. Then the house roared with laughter and calling and the clatter of children. Then barriers were down and carpets up in Madam's salon, and after hot turkey and blazing plum-pudding, with the thermometer standing at 100 Fahrenheit, elders played Puss in the Corner and Kiss in the Ring with infants and went gallantly at the round dances until midnight. "English tradition dies hard," said James Sorley. But the Captain always swore that it never died at all.
Until this year Mab had seen Christmas very much as Jenny and Humphrey did. He had exulted in the long hot days filled with shearing, dipping, the rounding-up of sheep on the scrub hills. He had dawdled happily in the store-rooms with their spicy smells while William and old Durbin portioned for the men the Christmas rations of plug-tobacco, a cask of beer, extra bags of sugar, currants, flour. The convict servants came in from the out-stations then; fished in the river through the long twilights, and played monotonous tunes on concertinas before going off to Henny's Road-house. Mab liked those tunes.
"They sunk her in the Lowlands, Lowlands.
They sunk her in the Lowlands, low."
And that other with its subdued mournful chorus:
"Goodbye to you, father. Goodbye to you, mother.
Goodbye to you, sister Mary Anne."
Full of wandering loneliness, those voices followed by the halting squeak of the concertina.
But the innocent interlude with Lucy had closed the period of Mab's boyhood. He was restless now; speculative, driven into strange moods which annoyed his elders and brought trouble on him. Then Julia came walking over the path from Bredon one golden morning and stepped with dainty feet straight out from among the scented haycocks into his heart. It was less a conquest than an annihilation. He ate, drank, breathed Julia. All the urgency of his growing need accepted the fact that the altar had been prepared and the goddess had come.
Julia, French-polished, English-finished, received her due serenely. In Hobart Town she had already "arrived" among the whiskered military at the barracks, the courtly visitors to her mamma's drawing-room. But Mab, allowed a license forbidden them, had proceeded to be dynamite; shocking her out of her smugness, shocking her into protesting love. On Christmas Eve he stood with her under the Bredon apple trees near the sycamore where the young owls sat, and experienced romance until his bones turned to water. Julia, in white muslin with a blue waist-ribbon and the apple-tree shadows falling on her fair shoulder, her arms. She was binding a wreath of the tight little yellow Banksia roses for her yellow head, and Mab snatched it from her and flung it on the ground.
"Look at me!" he cried imperiously.
But when she looked he was afraid of her beauty, and ran out of the orchard through the lush grass, and home past the crying lambs in the yards to Clent. There he leaned from his window with disordered hair and his ruffled shirt all crumpled, and cried, "Julia! Julia!" to the moon. He remembered with a sick shuddering that he had been used to pinch her legs before she went away, and prayed the gods not to smite him dead for the impiety. He slid down on his knees, hiding his eyes, remembering Julia's legs.
Later he looked again down on the courtyard. It was very pretty to-night, spangled with light like a fair. In the dairies under the pink may tree the maids ran about with kilted skirts and bobbing lanterns. The feathers of the great limp turkey Jerrold page 48was bringing were a sheaf of changing colour. Cook at the kitchen door was outlined in poppy-red, and the good odour of roasting meat, spices, and strawberry jam hung about her like incense. Everyone was laughing, talking. A stable-boy was whistling, clear and high:
"'Noël! Noël!' The Angels do sing."
Lucy ran across the yard. Her arms were heaped with native mistletoe, her neat ankles twinkled. Tom Jerrold went after her, his stolid face intent, his thick hands rapturously reaching They vanished under the lilac tree, and Mab heard a little squeak of laughter, of protest. Indifferently he drew his head in and closed the window.