Half the township turned out to the aid of Clent and they did not come too soon. Heaped straw was blazing against the north wall. Ladders at the windows told of hand-to-hand fights inside. Constable Quane and young Lieutenant Anderson led their men up, tumbled inside, and nearly killed Joe Merrick in the darkness. page 76With one man left behind, Collins's Gang got away, taking every horse in the stables with them. But Mab's racer, Vanity, came home next day, wild-eyed and sweating and scored with long lash-cuttings.
In the kitchens, grooms and maids were found trussed and gagged, and Cook's very wedding-ring and gold chain had been raped from her plump indignant body.
"But, damme, that's all the loot the rascals got!" exulted the Captain, industriously getting in the way of the doctor who was extracting a ball from James Sorley's leg.
Julia, smuggled into the house about this time, ran straight to her room, where poor weary Louisa found her later, very properly and conveniently in hysterics; for if young ladies of the 'forties had few rights, they had many refuges denied to those of later years.
"You shouldn't have hid in the linen-cupboard," said Louisa. "I am sure it must have been worse there, and now your father has been shot. Drink this up, dear, and do stop kicking."
It was grey morning now, and Mab followed his mother to her room and shut the door. The story he had given below had contented the Captain, but Madam must have the truth. "I was out with Julia," he said at once.
Madam had dropped into her high-backed chair. Now she gave a little shiver and her hands moved together in her lap. "I guessed it. And what then?"
"She is mine. I shall marry her."
Madam looked at him. "I know what men mean by that. What do you mean?"
"I mean," cried Mab, glowing, "that she is the most perfect and most pure of all God's angels——"
"Bah!" said Madam, sitting up. "You are only a boy, after all." Some obscure feeling of disappointment edged her tongue. "What do you think Mr. Sorley will have to say to you?"
"He must give her to me. We love each other."
"Is that all?"
"What more can there be?" asked Mab, innocently.
"Bien!" Madam shrugged. "If you don't know yet, you will some day." She put out her little heavily ringed hand and page 77drew him close. "Mab, mon petit garcon, there can no more come of this. James Sorley will not give the toast of Hobart Town to such as you. He means her for that oaf Berry, who is to have a title some fine day."
"But she loves me. Mother, you don't understand. We love each other. We are pledged."
"Do you mean to tell Mr. Sorley about to-night?"
"But of course! It was only to-night that we discovered …"
"Then tell him soon," said Madam, leaning back and closing her eyes. "They have taken him to Bredon, where he will be in bed with his side-whiskers and the faithful Louisa. Tell him soon, mon brave, before he has a leg to stand upon while he kicks you."
Mab walked over to Bredon in the afternoon. To his shocked disgust he had slept until midday, like any man not consumed with passion, and already old battered Clent was putting itself in order, with Durbin and William taking down the splintered shutters, and a boy out on the drive picking up the spent cartridgecases and sweeping away the bundles of charred straw where the children were playing.
The day was reckless with sun, sweet winds, and birds singing. There were grasshoppers in the paddock grass and white butterflies drunken over the tall purple flags by the river. Ugly things of the night were forgotten, as ugly things should be. With the dance of yellow wattle bloom against blue sky Mab's heart went up. He dreamed, walking the well-trodden way. Titles, position, wealth … all that he did not have … the magnet of his desire drew to him and they surrendered. Having Julia, all the lesser things would come, must come.
His setter, ranging after rabbits in the patch of bush by the boundary fence, lay down on the broad Bredon veranda with the dogs already stretched in the sun, and Mab went into the familar sprawling house with its bastard architecture, which James Sorley called pure Tuscan, feeling an enormous friendliness to every one.
Martha Sorley, her baby on her arm, met him with surprised eyes in her tired face. "Are you not after the bush-rangers like the others, Mab? Henry went off at dawn with most of the men. He was to meet Mr. Corrigan."page 78
Mab had forgotten the bush-rangers. He said, stammering: "I came to see Mr. Sorley. Can I see him now?"
"Oh! Is it a message? I'll inquire."
In the cool hall with the long rooms opening out of it Mab stood, laying stick and hat on the carved table. All his palpitating young body called for Julia, but she did not come Only Martha, leading him into the brown library where the councillor lay like an old grey fox in a brown-leather chair, his raised leg covered with a red-and-green shawl. Louisa Sorley, whose crisp white cap with tartan ribbons could not disguise what last night had done to her plump comeliness, kissed him on both cheeks.
"You look as fresh as hollyhocks, Mab. How is Madam? And poor Susan? A few more nights like that and I assure you I would begin to lose my nerve. And Julia in the linen-cupboard all the time, and bullets in Mr. Sorley's leg, and my knitting-needles gone …"
Mab seized his chance with the clumsiness of preoccupation: "Julia was not in the linen-cupboard. She was with me."
"My dear boy! What are you saying! You were outside, and a mercy you were——"
"Let me speak, Louisa." The councillor lifted himself in his chair. "What is this, Mab? What do you say about Julia?"
Mab told in a dozen words. "She hasn't caught cold?" he asked anxiously. "I did all I could, Mr. Sorley."
"Wait." The councillor was sitting up straight now. His whiskers seemed to bristle. Mab was dimly aware that he had become portentous. "Wait, I beg. You are speaking of Julia? Do I understand you to state that you and my daughter were out together all night?"
"Not all night, sir. It couldn't have been much past one o'clock——"
"Am I to understand that you and my daughter were out together, alone, until one o'clock at night?"
"Yes. But we love each other," cried Mab in a burst of feeling.
"Oh, dear!" said Louisa, and sat suddenly on a faldstool.
Her husband glanced at her. "My love," he said, "please leave us."page 79
"Oh, dear!" said poor Louisa again. She rose, hesitating.
"Mrs. Sorley," cried Mab, "tell him how much we love each other. She must have told you. Tell him how I worship … adore her."
"My love …" said the councillor, inexorably.
"Yes, dear, yes, I'm going…. Julia has told me nothing, Mab. She had hysterics, and then she had sal volatile, and then she had a bath——"
For once the councillor had ceased to remind himself that he was a gentleman. "Go, will you? Damn you!" he shouted, and Louisa bustled out in startled disarray. But she closed the door gently. James disliked noise unless he made it himself.
"And now," he said thinly, "let us get to the bottom of this."
Mab saw with surprise that the man's narrow forehead and long upper lip were wet. He began eagerly to explain that there could be no bottom to the bottomless, the overwhelming love …
The councillor set that aside with a jerk of his lean neck. His hard eyes probed. He chose his words deliberately: "I ask you what I am to understand by all this. What have you done to my daughter? Have you ruined her?"
Mab stared blankly. The colour burned up in his face and his eyes filled with a rush of hot tears. A sudden lump came in his throat as though this inconceivable, this impossible accusation were concrete and stuck there. "You … you old hog!" he cried, half-sobbing.
James Sorley relaxed. He would not have been where he was if he had not been able to recognize sincerity when he saw it. "You have both been extremely foolish," he said more mildly. "But so long as no one knows of this escapade, there is not much harm done. I suppose no one knows? Others might not be so ready to believe …"
"Others would never suggest such a … a …" Mab's voice broke on a sob. Like the high gods, he had built a magic palace for his lady, and this man had defiled it.
"You are a man, I suppose," said James Sorley, with compressed lips. "I have had some experience of young men. Have you spoken of this matter?"page 80
"No." To Mab's sensitiveness it was as though the man had asked, "Have you walked naked through Trienna?" "How could I until I had told you, had your consent——"
"That you will never have," said James Sorley, with such deadly quiet that it seemed to kill all the words he spoke after. He had spoken a number, Mab knew later, refusing all the prayers that Mab had poured out; refusing to listen; refusing to let him see Julia.
"Just for a minute. My God! You can't deny her to me just for a minute."
But, it seemed, James Sorley could and did. Mab went away empty; staggering and hatless in the hot sun. By the open door of the hut by the fence he hesitated; went in blindly and flung himself on the bed where Madam had borne him, where Julia had sat. What he did there he never remembered, but it was dark when he came back to Clent.
Oliver met him in the door, having just seen the great winered Sorley coach, swinging opulently on its leathers, pass down the Main Road on the first stage of its journey back to town. The councillor had asked for no pledges, being, like all men, incapable of judging others by different standards than his own. He had merely removed his lame leg, the round-eyed Berry nodding sleepily in the saddle, and Julia weeping on her mother's shoulder, from agitations…. Next week, thought Oliver, a little sorry, for when he had presented Berry for James's inspection he had not thought of Mab … next week a fashionable engagement will be announced in all the papers.
Now he said lightly: "Our Susan is modest and considerate as ever. She postponed the adding of another female to a population desperately in need of them until this fracas was over." Under Mab's black stare he elucidated further: "Susan's baby has arrived. You are an aunt this time."
"Oh," said Mab heavily, and slouched on into the house. Oliver stared after him with lips pursed to a delicate whistle…. I thought so. Yes, decidedly we shall hear of a fashionable engagement within the week, he mused.