"Gentlemen," said the Captain, "I give you 'Dear Women'."
They were all on their feet now, and as sober as could be expected. Oliver, very tired of being watch-dog, was eager to page 70hand them over to the ladies, who would have to make what they could of Berry's blank black stare and Joe Merrick's dropping underlip and old Sorley's ramrod rigidity. And they'd do it, these excellent, adaptable Dear Women he thought, with a thread of wonder running through the sneer.
That toast was never drunk. From the rear of the house came a sharp angry banging of muskets, shouting, one frightened squeal from a woman. In some houses that would have been enough to send the men pelting down to the kitchens while the bush-rangers got in through the front and held them up from the rear. But in these who had been raided before, instinct worked quicker than thought. Beverley and Keyes slammed and fastened shutters, William bolted the front door, and Madam had her brood out of the salon and down the back passage into the hall before the red wine had stopped running over the table-edge.
"Pillows!" cried Susan, stumbling up the stairs. "Feather beds. Cushions. Annie … Nurse … Celeste!"
In a few moments, finding their feint had failed, the bushrangers would begin shooting all round the house, and barricades could not be set up too fast while the Captain was dealing out muskets from the gun-room and Oliver guarding the big iron door to the kitchen veranda. Cook, the maids and men out in the kitchen, must submit to force. But they would not be hurt if they kept their wits. It was Clent these ruffians were after: its silver, the gold in the Captain's safe, the jewels.
Gad! If I could get off for the police! thought Oliver. They mean business.
The Captain came plunging up, his shock of white hair defiant. "We'll make a siege of it, anyway, damme! Mab … where's Mab?"
But no one had seen Mab, and all but Louisa Sorley had forgotten Julia. She ran crying through the upper rooms, where Martha Sorley was wrapping up her babies in some wild sense of protection and Celeste bringing Mrs. Merrick round with burnt feathers. Most of the lights were put out for precaution, and Clent seemed like some dark ship labouring uncertainly in black uncharted seas.
But there was no panic. These pioneers had faced too much page 71for that. The psychology of courage ran through the house like a flame, and the children were hopping everywhere, laughing, clapping their soft little hands. The women went with strained faces, silent, blocking up windows that were not being fired from, biting back cries when a bullet got past their defences and cracked into the opposite wall. Collins and Wingy, mad at this resistance when they had expected an easy descent on drunken men, would do their most devilish. Burn the house down, perhaps. Murder the women rushing out in the flames. Already their hatchets were splintering shutters here and there, and when the defenders rushed up they were met with a volley.
"Should have iron grilles like me," grunted old Merrick. "Wood no damned use…. Ellen, tell your mother to stop that damned screaming."
"Oh, dear Papa, she won't stop!" cried Ellen running. "Oh, dear Mamma, do stop, please."
Long afterward Jenny remembered that poignant night, when she and Brevis sat on the stairs in the strange unfamiliarity of the banging dark. Their little ghost-like bodies in the gloom were held together by his arm about her neck and together they snuffed up the choking smell of burned powder, the greasy smell of blown-out candles, the hot smell of blood where Susan was binding William's bleeding neck with a table napkin. "Keep calm, my dear," he was repeating urgently. "Remember your condition. I beg of you to keep calm."
"I like these smells," confided Brevis. "It makes me feel … I don't know … different, somehow."
Jenny, too, felt different. But it was the red flashes springing out of the dark that excited her, the sudden visions out of nothingness, exposing souls, not faces. Captain Berry's black round eyes with a new evil light behind them; Oliver's pretty features twisted in a mirthless grin; Conrad Beverley wildly glad as a berserker; William passing a nervous tongue over dry lips; Madam alert and angry as a bird; Susan with the sweat pouring down her pale face where the gauze turban hung draggled. Like that their elders came out of secrecy for a moment, unconsciously making a gift of their souls to one another, and faded again.
The house was too big to be defended by such a handful. The page 72salon shutters had been wrenched from their hinges and the bush-rangers were in, beating on the door barricading them from the passage. They were along the veranda, shooting under the heavy hall door. They were in through a pantry window, where old Jerrold and Oliver drove them out after much determined fighting among the glass and china.
Oliver came to have an arm bound up. "I think we settled one. But they have the advantage. We're shooting into the wide. And they outnumber us, I think."
"Where in God's name is Mab?" cried Captain, reloading his musket from the powder-flagon Nurse brought.
"Gad!" said Oliver, suddenly remembering. "I fancy he went to the stables. Why, ten to one he'll have the police here in a minute."
"If they have not already killed him," thought Madam. But she would not kill the gleam of hope around her by saying it.
"Damme, that will be it!" said the Captain banging away. "What? What do you say, Keyes?"
From the stair window, where his pistol was preventing the bush-rangers from setting up a stable ladder, Roger Keyes called down: "They want us to throw out the silver and the ladies' jewels or they'll fire the house. They are bringing straw from the ricks."
Madam came to the stair-foot with a candle in her hand. Under the frosty lace on her head her eyes gleamed. "Madam Comyn's compliments and they can have the jewels when they come for them," she cried, and laughed.
Mrs. Merrick, like a yellow-beaked hen in black feathers, scuffled down the stairs. "Give up your jewels, woman!" she shrieked. "We shall be burned like rats. Would you burn me … murder me?"
"Avec beaucoup de plaisir," said Madam, politely, and young Martha Sorley with a baby on each arm, said, quavering:
"I don't think I'm a coward … but with the babies … oh, couldn't we give up the jewels and send them away?"
"My child, do you think they'd go? Do you not think it would be oil on fire to show the white feather? Besides, Mab …" she brought it out roundly as though she believed it, did not see page 73him lying dead among the trodden hollyhocks, "Mab will have the military here directly."
The Captain said in her ear: "Get the women and children into the study, Jenny. It's the best protected. Lock the door. We may not be able to keep them out much longer."
Madam shut her eyes. The horror that walks by night invaded her soul. When blackfellow spears flew around the bullockdrays, when Day's Gang had attacked the boundary-fence hut and Garney come down on Clents, she had stayed by her man. Now she must leave him.
"Soit," she said, and drove her flock in like chickens.
Mrs. Merrick, half blinded by the brown-silk turban that had slipped over her eyes, carrying the front of stiff brown curls with it, slapped at both her dutiful daughters who supported her with pillows, and cried: "I vow I'll never come to this vile place again. Something always happens. Last year Susan left the warming-pan in my bed."
Louisa Sorley, spent with looking for Julia, said hopefully: "She may have hid in the linen-cupboards…. Adam, come here and let me wipe your nose."
In a corner of the study the maids huddled together, whimpering. Their mothers were out in the cottages, their fathers and lovers perhaps tied up in the kitchens or dead among the bullets. Madam sat still, head on hand, listening to the ebb and rise of the fight. So, it was said, Mrs. Hatherton of Mains had sat one night last year while bush-rangers killed her husband.
Conrad Beverley, half stripped and blackened by gunpowder, was in the scullery, stamping out burning straw thrown in through the broken windows, while Oliver, at the stair-opening, tried to pick off the flitting figures among the sunflowers and great dahlias down below. A loud crashing at the salon door brought the Captain with Joe Merrick and Keyes; and he actually had his hands on Collins, with that famished wolf face near his own and bullets flying all round, before something cracked him over the head and Keyes pulled him back.
That breach was patched up somehow, with a sofa pulled out of a side room, but it would not hold. And the fight was too hot to last much longer. Roger Keyes, his consciousness sharpened by page 74strain as often happens to finer natures, saw more in this than a mere battle of man against man. Indestructible forces were at work here: the basic need of the crushed and half-paralyzed ego to regain its human power; the subconscious savagery of the brute whom man has made bestial and Nature has prompted with her heroic forces.
"It's not Collins's Gang we are fighting," he thought. "It is the system. It is what began with the beginnings of tyranny and was carried on through Egypt and Rome right up to the Spanish Inquisition and the Fleet and Marshalsea and the floating hells of the Thames hulks. It is what we did at Port Arthur and Fort Macquarie, and what men always will do to their feebler brothers. We are fighting that elemental something in humanity which makes of the purely personal equation a thing of mere shreds and patches."
"Hear 'em howling out there, the dogs," said the Captain, rubbing a torn sleeve across his wet forehead. "I think Sorley's hit, but it was too dark to make sure. Damme, it's about time Mab did something!"