It is the habit of warm and overwrought natures to oscillate violently for a time and then come more or less to a standstill. Mab presently discovered that by trumpeting his griefs to an amused world he was falling in his own estimation—he never cared enough about the opinions of others—and went back to work with William.
There was good medicine in galloping after cattle on the ranges, with the brown bracken crackling like a fire underfoot and the long rocky gullies echoing like thunder to the whipcracks. Good medicine in sweating from dawn till dark at crutching and drafting in the sheep-yards. A sick mare absorbed him for three days, for he had a genius with horses, and he brought in two young ones to school for the winter steeplechases. The Captain, playing backgammon with William or reading aloud from the yellow-back paper volumes of Mr. Dickens in the evenings, was more than usually quiet, and Madam sang often to her harp the little rakish French songs that would make Mab go over and laugh with her comradely, and kiss her still smooth forehead between the ringlets. He played with Jenny sometimes and with his dogs often, and was generally experiencing one of those grateful stretches of serenity which are inevitable after great stress, when Julia Berry came back to Bredon with her baby for the hot weather.
Julia had left him a distracted boy. She found him a personable man and, having by now her own notion of the equality of the sexes, went at once to subjugating him again. Mab, a little bitter, stood off with a doubtful eye, and Julia sent a pretty pink note, asking him over to Bredon.
"To-morrow we are making a picnic for all the children," she wrote. "Bring Jenny, please, Mab. I am afraid Charlotte is too young, but I am taking Almeric. Come and help him to see the bush and hills for the first time."
Reading, Mab hesitated. Then dropped the note at Madam's elbow and went on plaiting a stock-whip lash. The thin wellsoaked strips of silk twitched in his long pliant hands. Madam page 101said crisply: "Eh, bien! This Julia! And are you still a fool there, my son?"
"I don't know," muttered Mab. He was wishing he did.
"Mon fils," said Madam, suddenly tender, "do not mistake me. I am no nun. There were the wars, and I learned what men are like. And there has been this colonial life, and I have learned what women are like. There are few of us keep Lent but with our eyes on the feast to follow."
"There's no feast for me. That's done," said Mab, suddenly very young and bitter.
"With Julia I doubt if there will be Lent, either. I have heard that she must have a man at her heels. But, mon Dieu, you are not to be that man!" cried Madam, sitting up. "You know my wish for you, Mabille. I have some influence and I can procure more. I would see you, my son, bring up our name to power in this new land. Your father could not and Noll will not. You could, Mab … if you would." She stretched her hand to him, and her bright bird-eyes dimmed. "You will not waste yourself again, my son?"
Mab took the end of the lash in his strong white teeth and began to plait. He was thinking: I don't know…. He was thinking that he had not known how the whole of him would tingle again at the thought of Julia. Madam watched him, and then he got up and kissed her and went out. Vaguely that shadowy experience out of the past which men call instinct was telling him that the choice would not lie with him, and perhaps not with Julia.
Possibly the picnic day was the hottest of a hot summer. Julia, in white and looking frail still, sat under a great green umbrella in the bullock-dray with her baby in a basket at her feet. She looked as remote there in the green shadow as a mermaid; as lovely and as cool. Martha Sorley was on straw in the dray-bottom, tatting lace. Her capable hands were never idle, but Julia's small gloved ones lay in her lap. Mab walked with the bullocky as the four red-and-white bullocks heaved up the rough hillside, crushing the scented heather; and the children hummed about like bees, darting on the honeysuckle blooms, the long white tea-tree flower wreaths, and bringing armfuls of ferns and clematis to the dray.page 102
"Snakes, children. Do look out for snakes," said Martha, tatting. But Julia did not speak at all. Sometimes she sang small soft catches to her child. Mab, tramping in the shimmering heat, thought of the journey to Jerusalem and did not feel profane. When they stopped on lush grass where tall fern trees stood by a creek he reached his hands to help her out. But she put her baby into them, still silent, and stood there, looking down. For perhaps half a minute they looked at each other while Martha bustled about and the children splashed and shouted and the man unyoked the bullocks. They did not hear all that. They were momentarily in supreme oblivion of everything but themselves.
Then Mab turned away and laid the baby in the basket, and Julia came fluttering down and laughed a great deal and chattered. But both knew what had been done, and Mab went about building the fire, with a strange numb sensation that neither his hands, feet, nor anything else were fully under control.
Up the slope behind, the bullocks were hobbled and stood chewing their cud and flicking off the flies with their long tails. The driver got out bread, cheese, and a clasp-knife and flung himself on his stomach on the warm heather. The children, leaping and shouting like fauns, brought water in a dripping billy. Martha did everything at the right moment and Julia nothing. Mab, keeping on the lee side of the flames, adjusted the billy on the stick tripod and dropped in the little muslin bags of tea. The fire was pale in the strong light and the billy shone like silver. There were bannocks and scones and chicken sandwiches and several kinds of cakes.
"I think," said Julia, sipping delicately from a pannikin, "that billy tea is the nicest in the world."
"I must say," said Martha, brushing off ants, "that I prefer a table. Put the lid on that tin, Mab, or they'll have it all."
Mab obeyed lazily. He was drugged yet. What one preferred or did not prefer could not matter. The thing happened, and there you were.
Jenny, always the vagrant, went tree-climbing with the two elder Sorleys. Little Maria Beverley, always in trouble with her long pantalets which fastened above the knee and again at the ankle, went to sleep with her head in Martha's lap, and presently page 103Mab and Julia were walking by the brown creek under the cool shade of the bush. The bush smelt harsh and clean and hot; full of strong aromatic savours that quickened the blood while clouding the brain. Julia's hand hung by her side. Mab took it, and they went on together into the shadows.
There was a new acrid tang in the air presently, and Mab's bushman senses recognized it before his brain did. Now in the far distance Martha was shrieking: "Fire! Fire!" and that unlocked them from their spell as though she touched a spring.
Julia picked up her skirts and fled over the slippery gum leaves and the close green moss. "My baby! My baby!" she gasped, and Mab, running with long strides ahead, felt his heart in his throat, his stomach weak with fear. A bush fire in dry weather may run fifty miles before the wind turns it to run as far in another direction, licking up flocks, homesteads, and grass-land as it goes. The roar of this one met them before they saw the red flare through the scrub…. My fault, thought Mab, helplessly…. I must have left some ashes burning.
It was little Mark Sorley who had blown on the camp-fire and carried a smouldering twig into the bracken. He was howling now, his head in his mother's skirts where she stood holding Maria. And all about her the bracken spouted and popped like small guns, sassafras curled and burst into blaze, long tongues of flame raced up the tall gum trees and tossed out their dry leaves in red banners. Fire began to run both ways, and Martha cried: "Adam! Kay! Jenny! Oh … where are the children?"
On the slope the bullocks suddenly stampeded, clashing their yoked heads together, stumbling in the hobbles. Their driver ran after them and a thick down-rush of smoke hid them all. But far off those by the creek heard the frenzied bellowing.
Julia snatched her wailing baby from the basket as Mab got an arm round her and ran her into the creek. "Keep on wading till it deepens and then crouch down. Pull your skirts over your head," he said and went back to Martha. She would have dashed into the flames, calling on her children, and he had to struggle with her, for she was a big woman and half mad. "Think of Mark," he said sternly. "Do you want to lose him, too?" But he was thinking of Julia half seen through the smoke, on her knees page 104in the water, her drenched skirts over her yellow head. Taking up Mark, he plunged into the creek; and Martha, her eyebrows scorched off, her face blackened, tottered after with little Maria. "Adam! Kay!" she repeated, in her anguish forgetting Jenny. And Mab could only think of Julia, wet and soft and strangely brave in his arms as he helped her forward over the stony bottom.
The fire was in the tops like a scarlet sky. The tall trees, welcoming it with whistles and shrill screamings, flung it on, and it leapt through the tinder-dryness too fast to notice the scrub below. Then lit branches came spiraling down; a small tree crashed, blazing; the long leaves of tree-ferns stood outlined in flames and then collapsed in a glow of clear heat; jets of flame hissed out of tall trunks burning downward. Distance came suddenly where had been bush; a quivering transparent distance of purest red.
Mab got them all round the elbow of the creek, which was here surprisingly deep. Something blocking it below, thank God, he thought, as they huddled down, keeping wet the coats and shawls over their heads. Martha had stopped crying on her children. She stared with eyes as blank as those of the bush animals now crowding about them. A kangaroo squatted at her elbow, its delicate paws lifted as though it prayed, unknowing that its joey was drowning in the pouch. A flock of galahs came shrieking by, falling in glowing bunches of burned feathers on the the water. White cockatoos with their sulphur crests up fought the flames with beak and claw and were borne away on the fiery torrent. A platypus paddled by, raised its strange head with duck bill and black bright eyes at the strangers and dived noiselessly under the bank. A little native bear asleep in a tree crotch, fell into the hot ash, crying like a child.
But now that mad dragon of a fire had galloped by, and although its tail of sparks blazed still and the breath of its mouth was hot like hell, the worst was over for the present. Mab, who until now had thought only of Julia, thought: If the fire turns at the paddocks below, Clent and Bredon may escape yet. But there'll be a big loss of sheep and cattle in the hills.
Then his eyes went back to Julia, meeting hers as though this page 105torment shared had somehow welded them into one. He stooped his head with its smoke-blackened skin and seared features and their lips met. To both of them it was the first real kiss they had ever given; for not until now had they been quite man and woman. Youth left them. Mab knew later, with that kiss.
Round the corner of smouldering chaos they found the dam which had deepened the creek and saved them. Burnt mountains of flesh and scorched hair that had been the hobbled bullocks that had fallen and drowned and burned as they lay. But the bullocky no one ever saw again.
The fire had turned at the paddocks and gone beaconing with wild witches' arms along the range. The paddocks were stubble; but Martha and Julia passed them in silence with their shoes burned off their feet by the hot ash. Fainting and megrims were the fashion when all went well, but no pioneer woman gave way in times of stress.
Settlers all along the river were already busy: ploughing wide headlands across their land to protect their homes; rounding up sheep and cattle, organizing their neighbours to fight the fire. But when Mab, riding like a demon, went round collecting a search party, all the best horses and bushmen turned out with that intense generosity of pity which belongs only to those who understand.
"If they had the sense … and the time … to get to the creek, they may be all right," said Mab, unwashed and haggard, with his clothes half gone to tinder on his tired body. "Of course all the undergrowth will be burning yet."
Last year, when hunting a man, he had found the tiny burned bones of a long-lost child among new-sprung grass in a hollow. Riding out now with the search party, he thought of little Jenny's bones, her delicate air so like Madam's, all the compact sweetness of her…. My little dear maid, he thought and found his lip tremble…. Yet I couldn't have left Julia, he thought fiercely…. Julia, brave and wan in the creek among the dead birds, with that red blossom of hell flowering above her … his heart contracted. Never, it seemed, could he leave Julia again.
It was Robert Snow who found the children at the next midday. His "Coo-ee," had brought a feeble answer; but they were page 106very proud and lively by the creek, where, it appeared, Adam had caught a little fish.
"And we cooked it in the ash, but it was not very nice," cried Jenny as Robert Snow suddenly snatched her up and hugged her. Warmly she flung her arms round his neck and kissed back, and then was seized by all the apprehensions inevitable to her training. Did anybody ever kiss ticket-of-leavers? It seemed a shocking ungenteel thing to do; but possibly verbal thanks were just as unpermissible, and how should a very hungry and tired and dirty little girl express herself? She threw herself on her own private standards as she was to do so often through her life and kissed him again. "I'll ask Grandpapa to give you your freedom," she said.
At Clent, Madam had gone to her own rooms and locked the door, although Celeste beat on it hopefully at every meal-hour. She sat by the window, watching the men under William ploughing great swaths in the grazing land to protect wool-sheds, barns and stables, and cutting away the patches of sheltering scrub which might carry the fire to the individual trees where the sheep found shade from the sun. All through the night she sat there; and although the fire did not come down but burned itself out in the wet gullies higher up the ranges, Jenny did not come either. And when she came it was Madam who looked by far the more exhausted of the two.