Twenty years back a Yorkshire man who had been a convict built a slab hut in the gum scrub and fed and rested the ponypost passing from Launceston to Hobart Town on the Main Road. Stages were uneven then and this one, midway between Clent and Bredon, grew popular; later the Captain and James Sorley took over the slab hut, which was becoming a nucleus for bushrangers, made a comfortable inn of it, and established a blacksmith's forge alongside. In the next year they cut more scrub, obtained permits from the Government, and put down a small mill plant to handle the vast reserves of black wattle bark on the hills. Labourers came then, and so Trienna was born, much as other townships were being born up and down the country.
But it suited the bush-rangers still, being just at the foot of wild country thick with bush and sodden with creek-filled gullies and ragged with naked rock. And Henny, that mysterious old witch who had come out in an early ship, had her road-house for ticket-of-leavers only two miles away. The road-house was supposed to be under close supervision from the military post in Trienna, but there were a hundred dark trails through the scrub to it where silent riders might pass. And a hundred dark caves in the hills behind where rum barrels could be hid along with such other things as guns, absconding convicts, goods stolen from the big houses, and even bushrangers themselves.
No gentleman sat at home in these days without his pistols to his hand, and none rode out unless they were loose in the holster. Comyn men, Sorley men, taking their families to church in Trienna on Sundays, looked first to their primings, and Mab rode on ahead of the Comyn coaches, to open the gates. A gang down from the Western Tiers or over from the coast generally liked to announce its coming by laying a murdered man where he could be easily found.page 50
But there were no dead men this Christmas morning, and barouches, gigs, and riding parties came up through the dust and the hot sun to the trampled grass round the bare wooden church where the townsfolk waited already for the bell to ring. It was a matter of pride for the township folk to be there to greet the quality coming in from the big stations with their house servants and "Government men" behind them. "Government men" was the new name this year for the ticket-of-leavers, and there was a scatter of them in Trienna too, working in the bark-mill. Mab and the Captain knew everybody by name; and maids bobbed shyly in a flutter of flowered calicoes and fluted bonnet frills, and men in thick tight cloth with monstrous collars and cuffs pulled forelocks sheepishly, with many grins. The Captain had a word and a coin for all; Susan inquired of the matrons after babies, and the Christmas spirit was well and jovially established before the blacksmith's son began to pull the bell.
The quality chattered and laughed in little knots and groups; their spread silks and lace bonnets gay as peacocks; their high bright stocks and strapped trousers and curly-brimmed beavers a dazzle to township eyes. Madam had a wicked little curtain to her new bonnet, and Ellen Merrick a striped silk and Mrs. Keyes, who had been up three nights with a sick maid, looked in dovegrey like the gentle saint she was. The Keyeses had come up from Tane Hall the night before to sleep at Clent. Baxters were there from Snake Hill, Corrigans and Boyles, Beverleys from Tingvalley, whose towers rose at the end of a grassy street near the mill, Maclures from New Barns, Ushers from Ancient Way. All stout men of substance in the country, but the Captain especially meant Keyes and Beverley when he wrote to the papers about "backbones of this new land of ours" and "the brightest intellects of our time."
Robert Keyes's keen intellect had been able to do nothing with the Colonial Office, all the same, and those who had not seen him since his return were asking in disappointment, "But couldn't you make them understand?"
"They do not wish to understand," said Roger Keyes. "Gentlemen, we must be prepared to go on as we are."page 51
"Damme!" burst out the Captain in his turkey-cock phase. "Gentlemen, we must be prepared for war!"
"How do you propose we should do that?" This was Baxter with his burly sneer; and Conrad Beverley, the fair-bearded Viking, said gravely: "Comyn is right. We must find a way to put an end to this injustice."
"Infernal injustice," amended the Captain, growing redder. "Are we, who have settled and developed the country at the risk of our lives and the lives of all who are dear to us, never to have any say in the government of it? Are we to submit forever to the foisting upon us of England's offscourings, to pay forever for their upkeep, to lie down to sleep each night in the knowledge that our roofs may be burned over our heads before the morning?"
The Captain enjoyed letting rhetoric run away with him, but the men nodded gravely. There was a good stiff element of truth in it.
"I lost six head of cattle and had a man peppered in the leg last week," said Corrigan. "The police say Collins's Gang is down from the hills again. Baxter had a mare stolen; didn't you, Baxter?"
"She was on the out-station flats," said Baxter. "They haven't been near my house yet." He looked across at his three daughters. "But one never knows," he added.
"None of us knows," said Roger Keyes, with his dark, delicate smile. "I am losing sheep. I suppose we all are, and with so many poor devils walking the roads we must expect it. They can't help themselves, when it just means a climb through a fence and a knife-slash. And they can always sell the skins."
"There were ten beggars at my door this Christmas morning," said Beverley. "Each of us here might wring ourselves dry for them, and it wouldn't do any good."
"We have given too much," cried the Captain, who emptied his pockets along the Road every time he went out, and always would. "Now we must make a stand. We have a precedent. America stood. She took steps to rule herself."
"Quite. We are hardly America's size…. Here are the Sorleys at last, and the bell has stopped ringing."page 52
As they crowded into the hot bleak building Mab saw only Julia, fresh and pink as a bunch of roses, with a white lace veil to her bonnet. But Madam saw a black young man who, Louisa was gasping in her ear, was heir to a baronetcy and had come up from Hobart Town on last night's coach. "To see Julia," whispered Louisa, who always drove her nails home. "Don't you think him very handsome?"
Madam sailed to her seat in the tall pew, knelt, and through white kid fingers had a good look at this Captain Berry. His trousers of large pale checks were so tight that he did not kneel. His gay double waistcoat with the glittering fob was finer than Oliver's, and he had a pair of magnificent black whiskers above his throttling neck-cloth. Now the rustling, the opening of prayer-books ceased. Captain Berry put the knob of a gold-headed cane in his mouth and stared out of solemn black eyes at the Captain who, with one arm not yet in his surplice, was crying, "Let us pray," while the clerk pushed him up into the pulpit.
"So that is what James would be at," thought Madam, piqued. James also intended to establish a family, did he? But, ma foi! With that so imbecile young dandy and snub-nosed Julia what a family it would be! Madam raised her voice defiantly in the first hymn. To the very end of the road Sorleys would be led by Comyns.
With Mab there were never any half-measures. Four years ago he had pinched Julia's trousered legs. Now, leading her to the barouche when service was over, he found himself all but dumb before this inscrutable mystery, this heavenly glory which was Julia.
"You'll come over early?" he stammered. "I'll come for you." Sorleys and Merricks, Beverleys and Keyes would take their Christmas dinner at Clent, but Mab could not wait until then. Five hours! A lifetime! An eternity!" You will come over earlier?" he implored.
Julia shook blond ringlets over her face. She managed her crinoline delicately, stepping in. "Sometimes," she murmured,page 53not looking round, "I take a book over to the old hut on a hot afternoon."
Mab flung himself on his chestnut mare and rode home across-country. Nothing but those flying leaps through the hot clear air could ease his charged heart. "Burn your incense," he murmured, trying to remember the only possible words to fit this tremendous moment, "burn your incense at that shrine." And so he came home, unaware that just then the shrine was making demure eyes at Captain Berry.
The two wattle-and-daub huts by the boundary fence where Comyns and Sorleys had first lived were frankly disreputable now, pagan temples where birds nested and little animals brought forth their young much as Madam and Louisa Sorley had done. And it was Julia who had been born there. And it was Mab. This appeared to Mab as the most extraordinary coincidence that had ever happened in the world. It held colossal imports, colossal significations. Under some bright heaven this thing had been planned by beneficent gods, the enchantment laid.
"We were meant for each other," he said, almost helplessly. "We must have been, even before we were born." Then he thought of the years he had wasted. Years when he and Henry had gone birds'-nesting, leaving Julia in a flat hat and frilled pantaloons to cry on the ground. He thought of a thousand uncouthnesses toward her, and, doubting if she could ever forgive, went on faster to find her.
Under the weeping-gums by Clent wool-sheds some station hands were sprawling, chewing the hot coarse tobacco they loved, making their endless rootless plans in their prison slang. A few would escape in the next months when nights were clear and warm, be betrayed by some mate for the two-pounds-sterling reward, be thrust back into some choked jail, and bartered out again on the same old round with a black mark against them and probably a worse master. Not worth it, Robert Snow was thinking, lying on his back with thin muscular legs drawn up and those dark brooding eyes Ellen admired staring half shut at motionless scimitar-shaped leaves against pale sky. He was thinking that, and yet he was thinking of Ellen. Once he put his hand in his shirt and brought out, damp from his body, what page 54under the circumstances was surely the strangest letter ever written even by an untaught and love-sick girl.
Mediaeval ideas about women died hard among the colonial gendemen, and Jasper Merrick differed from his neighbours only in that he had not educated his son either. But Robert Snow the convict, lying on his scarred back, winced at the lady's scrawl and her shocking spelling: "I do not think of you the way other people do," Ellen had written. "Do you remember wen I gave you the milke I am at Clent 4 days. I will sea you." It was unsigned, for she had had that much sense, but he had never doubted the origin of the missive, and since this morning he had worked out all its possibilities. Before he had left England he had not neglected opportunities with women. It was one of these which, with a young man's foolhardiness, he had let crash into the gay year of university life so deeply that his people, with that deep-rooted horror of shame which seemed indigenous to some old families, had thankfully helped England's laws to blot him out.
He had cursed God after that. And he had cursed man. But he had not died; not even in the Dumb Cell at Port Arthur, which took away so many men's wits forever. He had held on, even if for years he had not been able to do more. But gradually, with wrenches of agony, life had reasserted its power. Clean hard living and commerce with the patient animals and with nature on the hills had helped. His blood was running full tide again; there was a constant flutter in his spirit like a bird trying to be free, and the ugly underground knowledge filtering through his companions' rough talk kept it fed.
All over the country there was unrest, dissatisfaction, even fear, The settlers were rebelling against the system which, they said, was destroying them. Regiments were being withdrawn to help in New Zealand's wars against the Maoris. There were rumours that they soon would be withdrawn for India. The jails were swarming, and food short, and supervision slackening, and still the convicts poured in. Yet, with the freed men, they already outnumbered the settlers, and if many were just brute beasts without direction there were a few like himself, results of England's misbegotten political system and sharpened, not blunted, by it. And—he felt a queer hot pride in his English blood to think page 55of it—men and women still feasted, still laughed and bred up their families in the big houses, defiant of the ground shaking under their feet.
For months he had had a dream that worked like a powerful spell. If the convicts rose, not sporadically like bush-rangers, but in one great wave. If they rose altogether they could have the country in a week. And England … one never knew what England might do. Perhaps she would withdraw her troops and leave them to it, glad to pull such a thorn out of her flesh. It was possible. All things were possible. As he thought of Ellen's letter, new and staggering possibilities raised eager faces…. She would hide me, he thought. And then: She could get me money. That old hog must be rich…. And then he went on thinking, his denied unslaked body quivering at the thought. Her mouth would be soft… and her shoulders … and her breasts.
Mab forgot the men under the trees as soon as he passed them, walking fast on the well-trod track to Bredon. With the sun white-hot in a white sky the land seemed like a pale virgin not yet stirred into life. Tawny Clent was asleep on its green hill, sheep were asleep on the sparse yellow tussock lying for miles and miles under the scattered grey gum trees. In the distance the ranges floated like mirage. Even the native odours of hot trodden grass, of the gum trees, bush-burning, sheep, seemed vague, unreal. Mab walked through them with hushed steps. He had a sense of listening to something very far off. Laughter, mocking, glad, pitiful … he could not hear.
Sometimes when he had gone to those old huts at night he had felt a goatish jovial spirit in them, as though now they leaned together and talked in contented dualism of things that may not be thought alone. And sometimes he found magic there and stood awed while a veil twitched, the ineffable Beauty shadowed. And sometimes he just sat on one of the broken beds, and smoked, and smelt the possums scrambling on the roof, and threw gum-nuts at the rats.
He pushed open the sagging door of the Comyn hut and went in. There, in the shadowy warmth, sat Julia on the side of an old couch; her sandalled feet prim together, her blue eyes prim on her book. But she looked up when Mab came in, and page 56then she was prim no longer. With a scatter of books, scarfs, gloves, she ran laughing from him through the echoing house. Through empty rooms with dropping plaster and broken windows she went like a glowing lapwing, darting in and out of the light. And now she was silent, and that wordless pursuit quickened in Mab something which never quite died away.
He caught her in the attic with a scolding possum up in the rotting beams and sucked birds' eggs on the floor. He held her hands roughly, and suddenly did not know what to do with this lovely half-averted thing, her slim bosom heaving under the gold ringlets as she strained from him. He said, half bullying, half in prayer, that they had been playmates once. "You haven't forgotten, Julia? You couldn't forget. I … I've never forgotten."
"My goodness!" cried Julia, thinking how Mab was much handsomer than Captain Berry. "Is it a French verb the man would be at?"
"You're so wonderful," cried Mab, despairing. "I didn't know. I had forgotten."
"La! He's forgotten and he's never forgotten. What a weathercock," laughed Julia. Then, suddenly remembering that no young miss of the 'forties should make so free with a man: "Mab, you are behaving unpardonably. Let me go."
Mab was young at it yet. Younger by far than Julia, who was already the toast of Hobart Town at sixteen and therefore as far above him socially as the stars. He obeyed, which was perhaps more than she expected or desired. But it was to go down on his knee in an unspeakable trembling onset of adoration and joy. Silently, as though pledging himself to something, he lifted and kissed her hand.
The large drawing-room at Clent was Madam's salon, where she sometimes sat in the long twilights, dreaming of Paris, of Brussels, of the wonderful days when she was young, and steeling herself as though to some inescapable menace, against the native sounds of her new land: dogs barking behind the murmuring page 57sheep, wild duck crying down the river, the beat of loose bark on the gum-tree boles, men's rough voices down at the huts.
There was a rosewood grand piano in the salon; a pool of light on the polished floor where her tall harp stood; screens worked in fading silks; a vista of dim pictures; thin curtains stirring at the windows open to the floor. Fugitive scents haunted it—sandalwood, potpourri, violets—and here Madam entertained like the great lady she was, keeping all domestic matters for her own private rooms.
On Christmas night the most vital and pressing matter was the trousers of old Mr. Merrick. "But is it not, then, possible to persuade him into evening ones, my Susan?" asked Madam, sitting very upright while Celeste arranged the fragile lace over her still black curls. "Assuredly he has sat many a saddle and many a fence in those brown ones before he grew too old."
"I have tried," apologized an always hot and perspiring Susan. "You see," she stammered nervously before that small high-bred regard, "Papa believes in the equality of man, and this is one of his ways of showing it."
"Strange that the equality of man should so express itself in inequality of costume," said Madam, tartly. "That will do, Celeste. I am not a nun, that you wrap me up this way."
She had never felt less like a nun or more like vulgarly spanking old Mr. Merrick on those brown trousers. With a toss of her head, a swish of her skirts, she descended the stairs prepared to send the maids flying if the dining-room table was anything short of perfection. But the great length of it lay shimmering in its beauty: old silver and crystal and Sheffield plate; low broad bowls of roses crimson and pink; clusters of slim yellow candles of the best sperm bringing shining reflections from the cedar-panelled walls.
"Dieu!" lamented Madam. "Had we but a company to suit!"
At the head of the stretch of shining damask she worked hard to keep the men's talk off politics and sheep and cattle, the women's away from convict servants and ailing children. None such banalities at her table on a Christmas night. And Oliver in his young-buck elegance caught her mood. They bandied quips page 58and puns between them. By sheer force of will they struck sparks here and there down the long table of docile wives, preoccupied men. Julia, all a green mist with white shoulders, laughed until Mab wanted to pour sacrificial wine on himself, cut himself with sharp knives at her altar. Berry's round black eyes grew rounder as he silently absorbed turkey, crisp brown sausages, new potatoes and peas. James Sorley's neat grey side-whiskers became quite disordered. Mr. Keyes woke up and made some incisive retorts. Old Mr. Merrick gave up his attempted reminiscences about his prize boar, and the Captain kept old Jerrold circulating with the wine.
Madam's eyes shone. Her party was a success, after all. She threw Oliver a bouquet for his last story. "Noll, I suffer shame for you. You have no heart. Only a gizzard."
"Gad, ma'am," agreed Oliver, in his latest town drawl, "I've had plenty of cause to thank Heaven, and you, for that same."
"Ha, ha!" roared the Captain, proud of this wife of his who made all the other women look nothing. "Shall I call the young puppy out, my dear? … Jerrold! Wine to your mistress."
By now James Sorley's eyes were scarcely those of the astute councillor. He murmured at Madam's ear: "To call out the whole world … to die in your defence. What joy!"
"Live in it, mon ami," said Madam, with a melting glance. "Live in it as you always have done."
"H'm," said the councillor, blinking. He would have gone less far in life if he had been able to see farther. Madam was dangerous but delicious. Lord, Lord! he thought. If I could but have my time over again!
Oliver, bored with dragging these dull people up with him, leaned back in his chair and leisurely cast a bomb: "I hear that Collins's Gang were seen near Oatlands last night. They shot a tavern-keeper in the leg. But they are out of practice. They'll improve."
One or two of the younger women screamed, sensible of what was expected of them. Louisa Sorley said, sipping sherbet: "Well, what else can you expect on roots and turnips and bandicoots back in the ranges? When they get at some of your sheep, gentlemen, I suppose we must prepare for trouble."page 59
"But someone must prevent it," cried Henry Sorley's young wife, terrified for her babies. "The military … Captain Berry, what are the military for? And Police-constable Quane so brave and good-looking."
"Good looks won't keep off bush-rangers, ma'am," grunted old Merrick. And then Ellen delivered herself of an opinion for the first time in her life:
"There shouldn't be bush-rangers. There wouldn't be if you did not punish the convicts so. Oh, oh, oh!" wept Ellen, her big baby face screwing up. "Everyone is so cru-el."
"Jerrold! Wine to Miss Merrick…. My dear young lady, the cruelty is yours for depriving us of the smiles of your bright eyes." The Captain lifted a courtly glass and drank to Ellen, privately cursing the girl for a damned fool. A man who has had his best cattle driven by bush-rangers and twice defended his house against them might be allowed to differ with Ellen.
Madam could have scratched Oliver for designing to spoil her party. But bush-rangers were a subject on which everybody could talk—and did, over the blazing brandy fumes of the plumpudding; over the steaming mince pies, melting and golden; over the ruddy raspberry tarts, the tansy shortbreads, the queenpuddings frail with white of egg. There were strawberries in great silver dishes, and clotted cream in Doulton bowls, pale lakes of gooseberry-fool, yellow custard in fat cups of cut glass. Madeira and port took the place of sherry. The company grew mellow. Madam was happy again, and husbands looked at wives down the table-length and smiled. Danger might come with the morning, their eyes said, but we will take what the gods give to-night.
James Sorley was advancing by steady degrees to one of his more spectacular squabbles with the Captain, and dear Louisa made one of her usual efforts to be adroit: "He don't mean it all, Captain. Nowadays my poor Sorley has to be like Cæsar's wife—all things to all men."
"My dear," said the councillor, his sallow cheek reddening,"I think that quotation has gone farther than you intended."
"But not so far as the other lady went, apparently," remarked Oliver, and Berry, who had not spoken for three courses, burst into a loud guffaw.page 60
The Captain hastily ordered wine all round, but Madam had not done with James: "Can there be doubt in any minds, even the minds with which you are now accustomed to deal, that everything always does go farther than was intended?"
"H'm," said James, again distrustful. "If my old friend here had your perspicacity, my dear lady …"
"But no. To be a friend is to be blind. To become used to anything … as your wife is used to you."
"I never become used to him," cried Louisa, proudly glowing under her red turban. "Tome he is a perpetual feast of nectared sweets where no crude servant reigns."
"'Surfeit', my dear. Not 'servant'," said the councillor, testily. Louisa always made a fool of herself, and she was grown so monstrous fat.
The cloth was drawn and the children came in with the dessert, a round dozen of frilled daughters and awkward sons in nankeen trousers. Proud parents passed them round, and the girls bloomed, the boys squirmed. Jenny, like an anxious little dog, had attached herself to Brevis Keyes. He was three years her elder, but his dark, delicate face with the strange eyes so roused her pity that she wanted to love him with both arms, while kicking vigorously at freckled Adam Sorley who had torn the lace from her best pantalets. But Brevis avoided Jenny and retired to eat apples and nuts with the other boys in corners, while the girls sat on gentlemen's knees and pretended to like the walnuts dipped in wine for them.
To Jenny this was an occasion, and already she had Madam's nose for an occasion. Like an epicure she sipped from Mab's glass. Like an epicure she laid her chubby arms on the table.
"I like wood," she announced, clearly. "It's hot when you want it hot, like sitting on a fence in the sun, and cold when you want it cold, like the table."
"And therefore unlike your sex, my love," drawled Oliver, who by now was frankly bored with his company. "They are never what you want; nor where you want 'em, neither."
"Never mind. Uncle Noll," said Jenny, always anxious to console, "P'raps you wouldn't want them then."
She turned white at the shout of laughter, but faced it page 61valiantly although Mab could feel her heart leaping wildly under his hand.
"Brave girl," he murmured, rubbing his chin on her curls and almost forgetting Julia for the time.
"Little lady, I swear you'll be a toast yet," big Mr. Beverley cried. "Will you come and give me a kiss?"
Jenny, used to playing round his feet with a small Sigurd and a smaller Maria, found his huge beard seen on a level the most terrifying thing yet. But she tried to remember her manners.
"D-do all ladies have to kiss you when you go to their houses, sir?" she inquired, trembling. But that roar of laughter sent her to earth with her head in Mab's shoulder…. I do love you, Uncle Mab, she thought as he held her tight. Oh, I do love you!
"Damme, you deserved that, Beverley," said the Captain, delighted.
"Miss Jenny knows the value of her favours already, as is but natural with such an example," James Sorley said.
He bowed to Madam as she rose, and she laughed over her shoulder, well pleased with Jenny. The men took up their pistols and went out to the veranda, covering the stately parade of bright silks and floating streamers along the flags to the door of the salon. This was a nightly custom, with bush-rangers always possible beyond the frail edge of light, and Madam enjoyed it. She had not followed an army through the Peninsular Wars for nothing.
Billowing, glorying, she led the way, and Mab kissed Jenny as he put her down. "Presently," he whispered, "there will be games."
The men, drawing up to the table, were growing a little shy of James Sorley in these days. Vulgarly speaking, he knew that the governor could butter his bread more thickly than his friends could, and quite evidently the governor was willing to do it. Sorley had lately been made a member of the Legislative Council, and that didn't happen for nothing. Quiet Roger page 62Keyes looked at that narrow face and close mouth between the neat side-whiskers, and hoped that dear old Comyn would not be too incautious.
But never in his life had the Captain been anything else. Now he unbuttoned his waistcoat, loosed his stock. No drawing-room for him to-night, damme, whatever the young cubs might do.
"Pass the wine, Mab…. Gone, has he? Well then, pass the wine, Noll…. Wine to you, Joe. Damme, man, can't you mix your liquors yet? These young folk! … How you fellows can take a pipe when one can snuff good rappee …" He shook his head as the long churchwardens lit up about him. "Country's goin' to the dogs," he said.
Oliver had promised Madam to get them all away soon for the dancing and games, but he was somewhat uneasy. The Captain, a four-bottle man, only mellowed with liquor, but old Sorley hadn't the breeding and his long grey face like a horse's was showing a mental looseness already. He had edged up to Berry and was telling one of his endless stories of earlier days, blinking an eye round now and again to hold the others. Oliver heard:
"First Hobart Town Regatta six years ago…. Ladies' Purse presented by Lady Franklin … open to amateurs, y'know. I vow I shall never forget my pride as she put the trophy into my hands."
"Yes, yes," broke in the Captain, who had never believed that story. "D'you remember when the two whale-boats collided off Macquarie Point and the rascals went to fighting in the water? And all of us running up that marshy foreshore yellin', 'Go it, ye cripples!' fit to burst. Damme, those whalers could pull! I never saw a prettier set of oars than the Try Again …. You remember her, Keyes? … American whaler just back from the Japanese Banks. Got the cup——"
"The Sechem got the cup," cried Sorley. "Green, with white nose and——"
"Damme, sir! I should remember, seeing I dropped a pony on her. The cox was that monstrous proud of his tattooing that he took off his shirt before the race."
"It was the Sechem," said the councillor with a stubborn eye.
"Well, well, pass the wine. There'll be no regatta next year page 63unless things look up. I tell you, gentlemen, the country has never been in worse case than it is to-day…. You would have your eyes opened, Jim, if you went out and talked to the ordinary settlers about it. Yes, I vow you would." The Captain chuckled. "They are mostly old Peninsular men and you know how England's army learnt to swear in Belgium."
"Who says my eyes are not open?" demanded Sorley, sitting up.
Keyes and Beverley looked at each other. The Captain's championship generally did more harm than good. Everyone knew their troubles. Everyone knew how the governor interpreted Downing Street orders by imposing tax after tax and charging increasingly heavy license fees on all trades and callings. Everyone knew the confusion of the convict system, so that the settler might one day have thirty men on his pay-sheet and the next day only three. Everyone knew how men were taking to the bush daily and being screened by sympathizers up and down the land. And where was the sense in abusing the late governor, abusing Gladstone, who had recalled him, and abusing the new man appointed in his stead?
"What all the world wants is a little common sense," said Conrad Beverley.
"What the world wants is fair play, sir I" cried the Captain. His blue eyes blazed under his white brows. To this land of his adoption he was a passionate lover. "But damme! I suppose one doesn't expect fair play from a bloody civilian like Lord Stanley." Lord Stanley, from some safe corner of England, had sent an ultimatum that Van Diemen's Land, being primarily penal, was to remain so. It was this message which was stirring the country from end to end.
James Sorley, fingering his whiskers, said nothing. And they all remembered that he was not one of those councillors who had resigned when the governor lately forced measures through the Assembly in spite of them…. A lick-pot, I fear, thought Roger Keyes.
The Captain, who, like many more, wrote ferocious and quite futile letters to the Colonial Office, began again. Now, as a breeder, he ranged himself with the V.D.L. Syndicate which had page 64brought from England some of the earliest blood stock and gone magnificently to farming among the wild bush of the North-West. And with Mrs. Furlonge, that valiant Scotswoman who so intrepidly annexed a ship-load of Saxon merinos on their way to Sydney and so laid the foundation of the country's greatest asset.
"How, I ask you, is it possible for us to raise the flock standard with the country in this state? If the dealers that travel now between London and Hobart would bring out a bit of sense for the Governor instead of pedigree stock which we may have to put in the pot next year to feed our families on——"
The councillor, who had been drinking steadily, had gone through a period of slurred speech to a precision stiff as clicking wheels. Sitting very straight, he clicked into one of those diatribes which Oliver knew too well. Apparently he had been following his own line of thought, for it had nothing to do with the present question.
"No, sir. I shall never comprehend the objection of educated men such as yourself to convict importation. Granting that to visionless minds any restriction is abhorrent, any rebellion such as tore the Americas from us is welcome, I still cannot see, I really can not see how we could colonize without them. Putting aside England's necessity and the merciful opportunity given these poor creatures of retrieving their fortunes in a new and smiling land——"
"Merciful my eye!" shouted the Captain. "Have you ever been to Port Arthur?"
James turned stiffly. He repeated, "The merciful poppotunity," hesitated, picked up his thread, and continued: "Such as yourself … myself … Mr. Beverley brought out with us a handful of body-servants, and you still keep yours. I … ah——"
"You couldn't keep yours," said the Captain, like a naughty boy. Berry, who had been gradually sliding under the table, pulled himself up, beginning to stare with interest. Sorley, again side-tracked, again found his feet.
"I considered that in my position … ah … tenets implied by Her Gracious Majesty's scheme … I ask you … "He fumbled at his fob, where the faint chill of seal and trinkets gave him fresh impetus. "Who builds our roads, our bridges, our public institutions?" he began on a higher key. "Who are our page 65ploughmen, our stockmen, fencers, shepherds, harvesters? Who but those government men whom you affect, so unjustly, to despise?" He attempted to sit down; was somewhat embarrassed to find himself already sitting, and stared coldly round the table.
William, who was always dreading some reference to the mortgage, said suavely, "We acknowledge that, sir."
"Damme! Who said we didn't?" exploded the Captain. And old Mr. Merrick began in his slow wheezy tones:
"Ain't we always done our share by the ruffians? Ain't we had to feed and clothe them … regulation rations. And trousers. And shirts. Ain't we had to nurse those hairy sinners like we was an orphanage? Ain't we——"
"We don't have to do it under the new Probation System," said Roger Keyes, trying to pour oil.
"That Probation System stinks in the eyes of humanity," said the Captain. "Noll, pass the wine to Mr. Keyes."
"Ah, just so." James Sorley's eyes were glassy with displeasure. "I protest that the arrangement is inevitable, all the same. And what right have we to dictate to Mother England? Shall she not purge her shores?" It was a phrase with which Oliver was very familiar just now, with the Government trying to excuse itself. "Shall we not purge her shores?" he repeated, looking round with great dignity.
"If you ask me," said Oliver lightly, "a passion for colonization is the real motive, isn't it? The nature of the material don't appear to matter."
"Of course we must colonize," said Mr. Beverley, who spoke to the point on the rare occasions when he chose to speak, "but not with tainted blood. England will have to understand that. This new colony of Batman's across the strait has no criminals——"
"Because they have called it Melbourne after an English Prime Minister," burst in the Captain. "If we had chosen to toady in that way——"
"We had not the choice. Sydney is agitating for more free immigrants to be paid a decent wage for their labour. We must do the same. And we must realize that it is useless to be content merely page 66with agitation." Mr. Beverley felt the councillor's watchful eye on him, and ended suavely: "Those are the tactics of children, and these, I fear, are not the topics of Christmas. Forgive me, Comyn."
"I think," said Oliver, who had been waiting his chance, "that games are to be our present topic. Gentlemen, shall we join the ladies?"
Mab had already joined one of them. When he put up his pistol he stood still on the veranda in the quiet night that was busy as usual about its own affairs: drawing out sharp fragrance from flowering broom, geranium leaves, myrtle, touching with moonbeam dead-white trees on the near hill and the sundial between flower borders; pausing to listen to the bark of a possum up in the she-oaks, the crisp clatter of hoofs far off on the Main Road, and then waking the breeze over the river that rushed round the bend below, flaring a pale ripple.
In the salon Madam sang joyously to her harp:
"Ce petit homme tant joli;
Qui toujours cause et toujours rit,
Qui toujours baise sa mignonne,
Dieu gard' de mal ce petit homme."
Mab quailed, the shy and passionate adventurer in him suddenly sure that any easy laughing and kissing the girl was not for him. A man who dares love a goddess, he reflected, is punished aforehand. Down by the summer-house was now a gauzy fluttering, a white gleam which disappeared. Mab was parting the vines above the door before Julia had sat down on the bench as though quite sweetly unconscious that even her easy mother would cry out at behaviour so shocking in a young lady. At Mab's arrival her agitation was so exquisite that the poor fool had no words. She faltered: "It was so hot within…. I never dreamed … I must go."page 67
"Julia, I think God brought you here," said Mab then, annexing the Deity as firmly as he would have annexed anything else which might hold her there. "Oh, my darling, can't you give me one little moment …"