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.
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.
When Madam in a brand-new brown-silk paletot went to Hobart Town for her Christmas shopping she called on the just-arrived governor's wife, marvelled what any man could have seen in her, and drove on among her maroon-velvet cushions to the Sorley house, where dear Lousia came running out with embracing arms and James Sorley followed, looking as self-conscious as a misbehaved dog. James was now Councillor Sorley, and standing so solid with the governor's party that any plain man—such as the country farmers—must both hate and fear him. But he was, unfortunately, never quite able to forget that he had once implored Madam to fly with him, and that naughty memory troubled his impeccable present. Councillor Sorley's narrow face was as bland now as neat little supporting side-whiskers could make it; but the moment he met Madam he realized that dear Louisa had grown fat, and Madam saw him do it. She regarded him gravely over her fan, for the day was hot.
"But how excellent that you should have the ear of this good governor, sir!" she said. "Together you will stamp out immorality all across this unhappy country."
"Eh? Oh, yes, certainly," assented James, nervously. Now that he had so much at stake he regarded Madam always as though she were about to throw a bomb. "Yes, there is much to be done for the country."
"Mr. Sorley does not approve of the movement to stop transportation. Do you, Mr. Sorley?" cried his wife.
"My love, we do not talk politics before such a fair visitor. And here is our Julia, returned but this week from England…. Come, my dear. Make your curtsy to one of the first ladies of the country, whom you, I trust, remember as Madam Comyn of Clent Hall."
James always would talk like a Sixth Reader, thought Madam; but she kissed young Julia warmly, for she ever loved pretty page 38things, and this thing was like a half-blown daffodil. "Bien. She should remember me…. It is not four years since I slapped both Mab and you for breaking my Doulton bowl."
"Oh, yes. And how is Mab?" said Julia, with a blush like dawn.
"Do you notice her English accent?" cried Louisa. "It is a little different from ours, I think. And she has finished her education now, Genevieve, and so she has got to come out and be married…. Haven't you, my love?"
Finished her education? thought Madam. Don't you believe it. With that face men have everything to teach her yet.
"We will have no talk of marriage, I beg," James said stiffly. "Noll goes home with you, I suppose, Madam? I should regret it but that we follow in a few days."
"And then you will all see Julia," cried the irrepressible Louisa. And although Julia very properly cast down her eyes and said, "Oh, Mamma!" like a pretty doll, she had a side glance for Oliver coming in which Madam appreciated…. Well, if he can get her, good luck to him, thought Madam. But our James will try for a title, if I know him.
Oliver, occupied with saddle-bags, pistols, tall glossy boots, and a tasselled cane or two, pulled from the breast of his buff riding-coat a small gold-chased English revolver, his latest toy. Drunk or sober, he was a fair shot, as a young man needed to be in these days of duels and bush-rangers, but he had not Mab's reckless genius with any weapon. James Sorley had ordered the revolver by Julia from England, and Oliver's pleasure and gratitude had that perfect touch which none other of Madam's family could reach. She savoured it luxuriously, just as she savoured the entrancing smell of town, the swagger of military officers in the crowded streets, the white shower of invitations which descended on her in the next few days.
"But how may I accept all!" she cried, clasping her eager hands at dear Louisa, immersed in good works. Louisa said ponderously:
"On Friday there is the guild meeting for the Girls' Home."
"That for your Girls' Home!" Madam flipped her fingers. "On Friday I drive with General Le Clerq to the rout at Brown's River."page 39
"How reckless you are, Jenny!" sighed Louisa.
"This cursed country has not yet made of me a cow or a sheep, thank God," said Madam, stoutly.
She said it again, but regretfully because the parting hurt, when a week later the Clent coach with its four well-matched bays dragged her off from her fleshpots; from the gentlemen bowing with gloved hands on hearts; from the blue harbour where the white ships commerced; full of good tarry smells and foreign shipping was Hobart Town Harbour in these rich days of gold and grain and wool and the American whaling fleet with its brown hard-eyed captains. Much of the wealth now pouring into Boston and Cape Cod came out of those smoking seas around Van Diemen's Land.
"Eh, the shops, the shops," she sighed, although the coach was full of cardboard boxes. But it was less of the shops she thought than of the pressed hands, the ardent glances and other trifles which she had collected along the way. Praise God she was not so old yet. Like a golden fan she spread her memories, furled them, smiled and looked across at Ellen Merrick, who had been down to the dentist and was glad of a lift home.
With that great bosom and those hips it was full time Ellen married, though Susan would never arrange it and the Merrick woman would naturally desire to keep her last daughter at home. Some amusement might be gained by thwarting the Merrick woman. Madam cast about in her mind among the young sons at the houses she knew. In later days she would do a like office for Jenny. And suddenly she knew that, all unknowing, it had been the urge to establish this seed of hers in high places that had driven her out across these endless wastes of wicked water, carried her through denials, desires, and privations, set her down in the wilderness as head of a name that already rang in the land. Her man with his fiery espousals of rights, his letters to the papers, had gone some of the way. Mab would go far. But little Jenny, with that flame which was Madam's bequest to her, would burn on the topmost beacon of this new land.
Men, left to themselves, went so far and no farther. It was the woman behind the man who lit the spark, the fire. Madam considered the mistresses of kings and regretted that such were page 40not convenable here. With herself as mistress of Louis Seize, she flattered herself, there would have been no revolution. One had but to keep one's finger on the public pulse.
And so the long litany of life would go on. The establishing of the name, the conquest of the land, the conception of the soul, the crucifixion of the individual will. This is the human instinct, even as the animal instinct is to sleep and eat and to beget and sleep again.
"I am the first note where Jenny will be the full chord and Jenny's children the diapason," thought Madam, sitting up straight and looking out on the Main Road made hard and smooth by the blood and labour of convicts, by the dragging feet of homeless families who passed up and down like blown leaves. The bush still came close to the road, with green bush parrots and bright galahs like strange flowers half hid in the greens. Here minahs swung in the gum trees, whistling. There a bandicoot, blinded by day, ran out with its slender snout and its fragile paws like a mouse. The dog of some bush-cutter leapt after it, and now came a frightened kangaroo, guarding the joey in her pouch and looking back with large, soft, lovely eyes.
The Main Road had been no more than a half-stumped bush track when Madam first passed up to it to her destiny. In a tapestry chair set on a feather bed with the whole lashed to the sides of a bullock-dray she had endured—ciel, but the endurance!—never lifting her feet in their green-morocco sandals from their silken cushions except at the halting-places. Celeste had held above her a green parasol with white ruchings, and James Sorley had ridden so near the wheel that his horse lost hair at the shoulder. And what had James lost while the Captain rebelled at having to use his own razors daily? "Among barbarians we set fashions, not follow them," she had said, ordering the hot water. But not even for bush-rangers would James appear before Madam unkempt. Ah, the wise James, now buttoning up his passions in a long black coat like a Nonconformist minister!
Over this bridged river the Comyn and Sorley cavalcade had once ferried on rafts, huddled together in a common misfortune, a common daring: with the white caps beneath the women's bonnets a grief to see and the smocked labourers handling their page 41muskets like pitchforks. But about the red camp-fires, through the dark nights terrible with curious odours and that awful silence of the bush, if they handled other matters who could blame them? Not Madam, who managed to marry off most of the maids and men before much harm was done.
Here they had come, the little handful of pioneers, as no pioneers had come in all the history of men. Not, like the Pilgrim Fathers, flung on a foreign shore with each acre to chop and wrest from the Indians and the wilderness, but as gentlemen with land already their own and a thousand convict slaves to run at their bidding. These settlers of the Two Services never needed to soil their hands, and they spent money like water, and always there was more, and almost the first houses they raised were mansions. To be sure, there were dangers when the blacks came down and the spears sang and camp-fires were hurriedly trodden out and the men stood round the women in the bullock-carts. There was danger yet from bush-rangers, who increased daily. But the greatest danger of all, agreed the gentlemen meeting in their clubs, was the Colonial Office in London, who insisted on running this least and farthest portion of England's empire like a county town with a smug mayor.
The Colonial Office, whether they pigeonholed the increasing tide of letters from colonists petitioning for their own government and forgot Van Diemen's Land unless a new convoy was sailing for the penal settlements, or whether they remembered too heartily, as when Mrs. Fry and other fools sent out the female sweepings of a dozen institutions to improve the morals of a land of males (and most of them had to go into the Girls' Home straight off the boat), was making a hopeless mess of it. Mr. Keyes, who had just returned from England to his run below Clent on the river, had gone to the Colonial Office and said so. And the Colonial Office had called them a hybrid. What the deuce can you do with a hybrid State governed politically out of London, theologically out of Calcutta, and practically out of the hotheads on the spot who are never content? asked the Colonial Office.
Then, for God's sake, give us our own government and stop transportation, said Mr. Keyes. The Colonial Office had put up page 42its eyeglass at that. My dear sir, you are a penal settlement. What on earth do you think we annexed that damn country for? asked the Colonial Office. So Mr. Keyes had gone away talking of how the United States had cast off England's hated yoke, for he was a scholar in his spare time. But that, thought Madam descending for the midday halt at a small stone inn with red geraniums and fan windows, had not in the least intimidated the Colonial Office, which continued to import governors who clapped on endless taxes and made ridiculous laws, and convicts who had to be kept according to England's standard and shot if they rebelled against it and took to the bush where they made life very uncomfortable for the settlers.
The Main Road was stark under the sun, brooding on its memories. Bullock-drays went lurching through before the century reached two figures. Broad blunt masses of red-and-white flesh and creaking wheels hauling straight up and down hills through ancient raffle of rotting timber and lushly choked creeks. Foul language on the startled air, it had known, and foul doings, for those early convict bullockies came out of foul ships with the women who had been their companions the whole long hideous voyage through. Half-naked wild-haired witches these, whose dreams within their ruined souls found vent in God alone (and the Road) knows what travesties of nature, of love.
They were long gone, those blind experiments of the earliest stage of all. And gone the woolly-haired blacks daubed with soot and grease and dragging extra spears between their supple big toes. The Government had put them all away on Flinders Island, where they died fast of homesickness for the Road and the bush which had already grown in on their camp-fires and forgotten them as everything is forgotten, so very soon.
Before the Road was surfaced King William's troops patrolled it; unhappy ramrods buttoned and burdened under a blazing sun; bright marks for black and bush-ranger; loosing their long Brown Besses helplessly into thick symmetrical native cherry and page 43impenetrable tea tree; lunging with heavy cutlasses at the bullets which spat out of the night. Butts of Empire, the Road took them to be, remembering many such.
Shakoed and stiffened and sweating soldiers had come again to guard the convicts who built the Road as it stood now. That was in the early 'thirties when they tore the bowels from the soil after the Roman manner, and laid stone and wood, mixing it with sweat and blood from the ready lash. Like beasts they dragged their hand-carts from the brownstone quarries. Like beasts they herded together of nights between tall sod walls. Of what they spoke then the Road remembered a little. And that was the kind of talk beasts would have.
Heavy balls rolled on the new face of the road, chained between the legs of the special-punishment men. The road would yet recognize the Cain's mark of that straddled gait on a ticket-of-leaver, although it might be twenty years since. There had been much colour on the Road then. Scarlet troops and raw blades of broads words controlling the gangs of "canaries," or yellow-clad life-sentence men; of "magpies," or the parti-coloured clothes of the lesser terms.
Now civilization was over all the land, although yet somewhat timid. The crowded stone gaols of Oatlands and other small towns stood on the sites of many a camp-fire, many a bloody battle. Across the relics of a thousand corroboree feasts settlers had ploughed; at first no more than a scrape of the rich soil, a harrowing with gum boughs to produce a crop, but now in an orderly way with shares and Percheron teams. Step by step this ancient unknown earth grudgingly acknowledged its new masters. Now a chaise cart emblazoned with the royal arms had followed the pony-post, and soon a mail-coach running from Hobart Town to Launceston in a swift twenty hours. Man, grasping by tooth and claw, was holding on.
Through the hot hours Ellen, avid for that love she could not find, fulfilled her need with thoughts of the convict Robert Snow. Madam, upright in her corner, kept off the threat of the interminable bush stretches as she had always done, and defied possibility with her plans for Jenny. And Oliver whistled and rode silently, thinking his thoughts that placed no great value on page 44anything. For he had tasted here and there, and now there was not much left but to marry well.
Beggars, scratching the vermin from their clothes, ran beside the great folk, sending prayers or searing curses after Oliver according as he chose idly to toss them a coin or not. A half-naked girl with wild eyes held to him the child in her breast. In some strange way her soiled and trampled maidenhood was so beautiful that he turned in the saddle to look back at her in the golden light. A Madonna who had drunk of the witches' brew.
Now he smelt the bush-burning on distant hills and heard the hunting owls calling their mates. And robins called, and frogs among the maidenhair down in the gullies. A good earth this, if England would leave it alone.
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.