Mrs. Merrick's command, so folded and wafered and stamped in purple wax sealed with a thimble as to send Susan into a panic, had been received at Clent. Since Jenny was going to school next week, she must first say good-bye to her maternal grandmother, whom she was not likely to meet again this side Eternity. Nor t'other side, neither, unless Jenny became a better miss than ever she had been yet.
"Effectivement!" cried Madam, flipping her fingers. "It is well that the boat is broken or I would have taken Jenny myself, and then we might have heard something."
But the boat was broken, and so Mab took Jenny by the bridge ten miles off at Sassafras Ponds; driving in the tall gig with the page 113hood and buttoned apron, through Trienna, where the skittish young tandem nearly bolted at Jauncer the bellman in his long red coat, and Maria waved from Tingvalley balcony as they spun by on the Main Road.
Jenny was so silent that Mab kept looking at her. Such a slim, fresh, self-contained small thing was Jenny, with her pointed chin and big eyes tied into the great grey beaver bonnet, and her straight delicate little body in its broad green tippet rising above the shiny black of the apron. Her hands, in white cotton gloves three sizes too large, clutched and unclutched as her thoughts eddied on bright wings. Sometimes she sang scraps of songs, simple as daisies. Sometimes she laughed the low husky laughter which was later to trouble men. She was so very special, so very much Jenny, and for the first time Mab realized that with a kind of fear. Jenny was a darling, and life had such a monstrous horrid way of doing unkind things to darlings.
"Jenny!" he said. But when she looked up, wondering, he had nothing to add except, "I love you," which was what other men would tell her one day and no sort of warning at all.
"And I love you," said Jenny, always warmly responsive, and went back to her little songs.
Nature still held her own, the mysterious lady, in this bushland where fat iguanas with moveless eyes basked by the tracks and the green-and-gold beetles ladies sewed on their gauzy scarfs made love in the tall bronze bracken, myriads of them dazzling the eyes. There were rough descents heady with the sharp bush tang where bright mountain parrots sheered over in noisy flocks, and unsteady bridges of round gum poles where the ponies passed snorting above deep ragged gullies and streams dank with fern. And now they climbed out of the sudden chill through heavy timber of celery-top pine and thin-leaved peppermint to meet again the sunshine and the acrid odour of a late bush-burn on the opposite hill.
Bush-burns were too potent for Mab. They made him giddy with aching for Julia, now at Port Arthur with her husband. He thought with passion: It is all wrong … wrong. "What are we going to do? What are we going to do?
"There's a porcupine," said Jenny, pointing. "We saw one that page 114night in the creek, Uncle Mab. It was squatted down with its little head moving, and it let me stroke it. I nearly stroked a blue wren, too, and I said that when robins and blue wrens died I thought they turned into red geraniums and blue salvias. Kay believed, but Adam didn't."
"Did you believe?" asked Mab, marvelling at this small Jenny, hungry, bedless, and in danger, holding her man-court like that.
"Well," said Jenny, musing, "it's so easy to believe what you want to believe, isn't it?"
"Too easy," said the man who was trying not to believe that love has the right to wreck homes when it sounds its clarion for two hearts.
On a long stretch of fallen timber black cockatoos were at work, shredding out the bark to a tawny tangle in search of the fat grubs. They cursed, disturbed at their feast, and rose with slow dark flappings like witches. Lovely Corners, when Mab drew up at it, might have been the home of witches, with its tall barren walls and its vegetable garden right up to the bleak black face of the door. To Jasper Merrick the graces of life were so many snares of the devil; and so, Mab thought, he must approve of Ellen welcoming them in with her nervous angularities like a great grasshopper loaded with chains.
He escaped Ellen until evening, when he went out to smoke a pipe in the stables. Joe had gone after the cows—old Merrick imposed indignities on his family through some obscure instinct of defeated pride in himself—and Mab was wondering why Lovely Corners kept such crocks when good horses were being bred all over the country, when Ellen came to the bin for poultry-corn. She dropped the crib instantly, crying: "Mab, I've been looking for you. You must help me. Some one has got to help me."
She looked a distraught creature in the warm ammonia-scented twilight. Her big arms waved grotesquely above the clumsy distension of her skirt. Her large face was thinner and its bright red colour gone, and between the pale rolled wedges of hair her pale eyes were frightened. "Mab, you must help me. I don't know what to do."
So here was another who didn't know, but surely not from the same cause. Hysteria was present in Ellen, and after a full page 115day at Lovely Corners Mab found that natural enough. In this house the worst of early Victorian methods and furnishings had impaled themselves upon the worst of colonial; and in the midst of its dreary routine, tightly protected by red flock wall-papers, red rep curtains, and green baize doors from any contact with life, sat that terrible old woman, Mrs. Merrick, using her daughter as her footstool.
"I'm sorry," said Mab, sympathetic but uneasy. "I … I don't understand … What do you want of me, Ellen?"
"There's a gentleman," said Ellen, swooping closer like a great pallid owl." We desire to marry … but the circumstances … If Papa should ever discover …"
"By Jove," said Mab, enormously relieved. "Is that it? Why, my dear girl, marry him. Your father can't do anything. You're of age."
"Life is cruel." Intensest emotion could not make Ellen anything but absurd. "And the world says odious things. I could endure that … I'd rejoice to endure it. But possibly it would kill Mamma. She is so sensitive. I mean, if she ever found out. At present she is hearing Jenny her catechism, but she expects me to be always at her side. She says it is my duty."
It was the slogan of the period. Even Madam's independence of thought recognized the sacred immolation of the unmarried daughter. Mab found himself beginning to hedge. "Of course, if your mother——"
"She may never discover it," said Ellen. "I would continue to live at home."
A secret marriage, thought Mab. Something wrong here. He said, "You had better tell me all about it, Ellen."
"How can I tell you all?" Ellen sank in a swirl on the cornbin. "We have belonged to each other for years."
"You have … Do I understand …" Apparently he was meant to understand. "Good God!" said Mab, walking away a few paces and coming back. In the brown shadows that immobile figure had the strange dignity of some primitive sculpture. "You had better tell me all about it," he said, again.
"I promised to wed him," said Ellen in a hurry, "but now I fear. I thought you might help me to keep it secret, Mab. You page 116are so experienced in worldly matters. If ever it was known, my reputation would be destroyed."
It seemed that this was already done. It seemed that Ellen was straining at gnats after swallowing camels.
"What's it all about? Who is this fellow?" asked Mab, struggling to understand.
"You know him. He is very nice. Mab, I adore him and he is as genteel as yourself. His eyes …"
"Good Lord! Who is he?"
"He works at Clent. He painted Jenny. It is Robert Snow."
"Snow?" Mab stared. He could not at once remember the name. "Snow? You don't mean one of our convict servants?"
"He will be time-expired next year, and then he might get a little school with a house and a garden. Marrows and cucumbers——"
Mab took her by the arms and shook her. "Listen to me. Do you mean that you have been letting the convict Snow make free with you?"
"He is as much a gentleman as you are!" cried Ellen, weakly blazing.
"I … about t-two years."
"Two years?" Mab felt his brain reeling. "And now you want to marry him?"
"I l-love him."
Mab dropped her arms and turned away. This incredible thing was true, and might have gone on being true if Ellen in her incurable foolishness had not let it out. He walked up and down on the stone setts, trying to get his thoughts in focus. Like a son of America's old Southern families, he had been born to be served by a race set apart for the serving, and the fact that this race was white and could in time regain something of the ordinary status of white men did not matter to him. They were criminals or they would not be here. They stunk of jails, and they had been flogged. "Good God!" he cried. "The fellow has been flogged!"
"I shall never forgive William for that," said Ellen, out of the shadows.
Mab rubbed his hands over his face as though trying to rub page 117off some leprous clinging thing. The whole of him was revolted beyond understanding or pity. He thought: We must get him sent back to Port Arthur…. He said, realizing the feebleness of words, "You have disgraced yourself."
But this did not have the conventional meaning that Ellen attached to it. She began to weep noisily. "I know. But we couldn't help it. You can't when … when … and he was so unhappy. Like a dethroned king…. It was all my fault. I vow it was, Mab. You know how the prison system sucks independence of thoughts and words and even looks out of a man. I have made him a man again, with hopes and ideals and human interests. He has told me so."
"You make me sick," said Mab, and indeed he felt so. "You can't marry him, of course. Put that out of your mind. We must cushion him. It will have to be hushed up."
"No, no, no!" Ellen ran at him, pouring out staccato phrases probably learned from the fellow himself. "Mab, think of all he has suffered. That awful ship … Port Arthur … road-gangs … violent translation to station life, all so new, so difficult. His atrophied will struggling to readjust itself …" Mab had read something like that last in The Trienna Clarion before Denison suppressed it. "Oh, Mab, Mab! have brotherly love! Have understanding!"
"He's a convict. That's understanding enough for me. You must have been mad, Ellen." He was frankly at a loss, staring at her. "How you … how any lady could do such a thing … egad! I can't understand you."
"I love him," blubbered Ellen. "If you ever loved Julia——"
In this connection it was a profanity he could not bear. "Keep her name off your lips, Madam! "he said fiercely, and marched out with his pulses singing. Behind him Ellen wailed for a minute, and then remembered her duties and went to feed the fowls.
Across the misty yards scented with hay and cow breath Mab found Joe, who was turning the cows out of the bails. Joe was the man of the family. He would have to manage Ellen, since old Merrick would simply kill her … and perchance that would be the best thing, too.page 118
He walked down the dewy yards with Joe, behind the slow, heavy cows with their swinging udders; and perhaps because of the pain and shock in him he felt how very beautiful the world was to-night. Peaceful, dreaming, with a clear star in the green west, a dim ripple down on the river, birds calling in sweet detached notes across the open fields. He told Joe somehow, his heart still burning with that mention of Julia, and Joe leaned on the slip-rails and looked at him, his huge red hands and wrists hanging loose from his tight short sleeves. Joe had the unsure ways of a boy who has been browbeaten all his life and the strange eyes of the dreamer. Up in the stable loft were some of the little machines he had dreamed into life, but no one would ever know of them. He too was trying to understand. Ellen? To his crushed manhood it seemed impossible that Ellen should have so far escaped as to have dared to live. He felt an obscure envy, an admiration, a quiver in his dulled limbs. "Ellen?" he said stupidly.
"Gad! I was never so shocked in my life," said Mab, beginning to recover a little. "You'll have to talk to her, Joe … see that she doesn't meet him again until I can arrange something. I don't quite know what can be done, yet."
He still did not know when they had gone into the house again. Joe had shown no more initiative than could be expected and Mab thought: Noll. I'll have to take it to Noll. I'll go down to town to-morrow night…. Then he thought that possibly he might see Julia, and felt his heart faint in him and almost forgot Ellen.
It might seem that the very atmosphere of Lovely Corners clamoured against Ellen, for there the quarters of the convict servants had iron gates, and along the passages ever and again were iron doors. A stealthy sense of watching, of guarding against a hidden evil was in the air there, as Mab had found it in other homes that were convict-worked…. Here is this unholy thing in our midst, those houses seemed to say. We bear it because we must, but we never forget.
Mab ate kangaroo-steamer and bread-and-cheese at six o'clock because the Merricks bragged about being such plain folk. The sullen girl changing the plates was Number Something, but he page 119happened to have heard her history. When her husband was transported she had stolen an egg in order to follow him. "And so she shall," said the judge, in a glow of feeling. "Let them begin again in a new land. This is the very apotheosis of colonization."
But she had never found her man in the new land, and the authorities, although sympathetic, could not help her. Probably he was dead, or his number had gone astray somewhere. The woman might come across him some day, they said.
To Mab this was a terrible evening. Old Merrick snored chokily in his high wing-chair. Joe sat in a corner, brooding, staring at Ellen as though he had never seen her before. Sometimes a flicker crossed his heavy face as though he saw some strange light never seen before, either. Ellen was very vivacious over the photograph albums which she had set out on the round table where a glass Cupid stood on a woollen crocheted mat, upholding a tight bunch of purplish dahlias. With frenzied nervousness she was trying to establish some secret contact with Mab, but he held aloof. This room always afflicted Madam's son with a very anguish of depression. For years he had known all the bright oleographs on the wall—to which had lately been added a silver-print of Bishop Nixon "because everybody had one"—just as he knew the green rep chairs, the raw bookshelves on the wall, the heavy puce "drape" on the mantelpiece with its glaring blue china vases.
He wondered how Jenny bore it, sitting docilely in the little worsted-work chair which had been her mother's, her alert delicate face bent over the Good Words Mrs. Merrick was showing her. Ellen giggled. "This is Mamma when she was young. Can you conceive of Mamma as young, Mabille?"
"No levity, Miss!" snapped old Merrick, waking with a choke. "Those new Californian gold-fields are going to be useful to us, Mab. They'll take some of our produce."
"I wish they'd take me," said Joe, suddenly, his dull face lit with a moment's vision.
"You young men," said his father, turning heavily in his chair, "you're never satisfied. Ain't there enough for you to do here, eh?"page 120
The light left Joe's face. Again he looked at Ellen with that slow wonder and fell to knotting string with those thick clever fingers that so ached to clutch at life and were afraid.
"This is a picture of the Prophet Elijah which always gave your dear mother much pleasure, Jenny," said Airs. Merrick.
Ellen turned the pages of the album noisily, murmuring to Mab, "Come out in the passage presently." But Mab answered as low, "Not now. I'll be back in a few days."