Even when a country declares itself on the verge of ruin, even when a young man calls moon and stars to witness that his heart is broken, things somehow continue to happen in steady revolution of days and months, and climaxes refuse to occur.
The Captain suffered a slight stroke on hearing of Governor Denison's advice to England that the colony was in favour of extended Transportation—with qualifications. ("That miscreant Jim Sorley is at the bottom of this.") Susan added Fanny to the Clent nursery and prepared to add others. Humphrey went to the Hutchens School, where he wore long trousers and short tight jackets and caps with a loose peak that sometimes slid over the ear; and Miss Bean still moved like a boneless ghost about passages, instructing Jenny in religion and producing marvellous pictures by moving white paper above the smoke of a tallow dip. The pictures, said Miss Bean, who in later days would have been called psychic, had to make themselves. "You and I, Jenny, are only used."
"Do you think we might get a picture of God or even Satan some day?" asked Jenny, glowing. But Miss Dean didn't like being asked for opinions, rarely having any, and went on striking those thick yellow-headed matches which each settler made in his own house and which took so long to light that they were called wait-awhiles.
Collins's Gang retreated with a few rear actions to the ranges, whence some of the weaker spirits presently crept down and gave themselves up. But Collins and Wingy hung on, as Robert Snow was hanging on, although he had not got as much from Ellen as he hoped. Ellen, submerged as she was in sentiment, had still some morals. She would not bring Snow into that grim fortress of Lovely Corners where Jasper Merrick kept his gold. "Never trusted banks," he would grunt. "But there's no bushranger in the world can get into my house." She would not steal page 99for him, herself. "How gladly and thankfully would I help you all!" she cried. "And the money belongs to all you who have worked without pay for so long. But I owe a duty to dear Papa, my Snow. I am his daughter."
Ellen talked always like the Keepsake and Ladies' Journal which were her only reading. Her diction gave her in the man's eyes an unreal delicate charm, and he still loved her with almost a fierce gratitude. This foolish creature could put out her hand and lift him momentarily into heaven. And standing so, her broad face upturned in the moonlight, he could see her as wife, as mother, as some soft peaceful thing like a good bed for a man to come home to of nights. But between that dream and the reality stood, as he knew well enough, every free settler in the country…. If William Comyn knew, he thought, kissing her … If young Mab knew … And he kissed her again.
His other dream obsessed his days and nights. The country, with all the gentlemen at loggerheads over Transportation and the Governor juggling with them both, was ripe for counter-revolution. He believed that with money he could do it. A sudden uprising: turn on the prison-guards everywhere; combine; march on Hobart Town and startle the Governor into compromise…. We don't want much, he thought. We only want to live and work like men instead of animals. God! That's all we want; and it could be done.
He believed that it could be done. With money. But how to get money from Ellen, who owed her first duty to dear Papa? … If I were her husband she'd owe it me, he thought…. And then he thought it again. Why not? Plenty of unfrocked priests along the Main Road, and Henny and her women would tire the bride. The ugliness of his thinking shamed him, and his cruelty to her shamed him. But he had given her the love and life she craved, and what consideration did he owe to any of her class?
"Ellen, will you marry me? Could you bring yourself to it?"
She wound her arms round him in sudden ecstasy. "Oh, my Snow! I have been praying for this moment. But a lady cannot suggest the most secret of her heart's desires," she said.
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.
Julia had one wild interview with Mab, and then she left Bredon. There could be no half-measures between them now, but Mab did not follow her to town. He startled William by working early and late at Clent, sweating to exorcise the devil who seemed to grow with keeping, while Madam watched and thought: James Sorley would have destroyed me. Is it for his daughter to destroy my son?
Jenny was at this time going through a period of religious fervour conducted by Miss Bean; for her elders, being quite assured that the plastic mind is incapable of taking impressions until it ceases to become very plastic, took little interest in her, page 107and Miss Bean, unwholesome, sentimental, neither fish nor fowl in that great house, did her earnest best to make Jenny a prude. It was she led the prayers for "your poor Uncle Mab" every night; and Jenny followed rapturously, although she didn't understand what it was all about and could get little from Miss Bean but upturned eyes and groans. But it was Jenny's own idea to advance her new and glorious belief to Mab one noonday when he was fitting a new handle into a pitchfork.
"Uncle Mab, don't you think if you prayed more you'd be happier? Prayer is the heart's proper food, and you do often look so hungry."
Mab dropped his screwdriver and stared at her in the light from the dusty window as though he had not seen her for a long while. Indeed, at this time no one was seeing the real Jenny. She had shot up out of her round babyhood, although small and vivid still. But her innocent face was almost smug with her unnatural desire to better the world.
"Miss Bean told me to tell you this hymn, Uncle Mab. She says it helps her when she finds the world very evil."
In the shadowy workshop she looked a nymph, an elf. Her voice, though schooled to a nasal reverence, still had the quality of light. She intoned solemnly:
"Sleeping on the brink of sin,
Tophet gaped to take us in.
Mercy to our rescue flew,
Broke the snare and brought us through.
"Here as in a lion's den
Undevoured we still remain.
Pass secure the wat'ry flood
Leaning on the arm of God."
Jenny, always the mime, clasped her hands exactly as Miss Bean did. "How beautiful, dear Uncle Mab, to think we may remain undevoured——"
"You unspeakable little prig!" said Mab, finding his voice at last. "Get out of this!"
Then he went after her with long strides as she fled in a shock of tears, caught her by the high wall where the lilacs grew, and page 108found their bloom all mixed with her wet cheeks as he kissed her. "It's not you I'm angry with, dear maid. It's the teaching. Kiss me, darling."
Jenny kissed him freely. She could never be hard with those she loved. But she ran back to Miss Bean and they prayed together: the ardent glowing Jenny, expecting the concrete descent of fruition from those tall blue-and-white heavens, and the nursery-governess, pallid as a celery stick and weakly in love with Mab, who would not have recognized her if he had seen her detached from her surroundings.
With a desire to detach her from them as speedily as possible, Mab went that evening to Madam's room, where she sat writing at her escritoire with the Sèvres-china inlay. She smiled a little sadly, flicking a paper toward him with the feather of her pen. "All that … c'est de la peau, settlement. She has but now come to an age when that woman can harm her. And so … read, then."
Mab became assured in very small letters that Miss Martin's Establishment for Young Ladies in Hobart Town supplied in addition to Board and Tuition (fifty guineas) and numerous Extras at varied prices a coach in the backyard where the said Young Ladies might learn to ascend and descend gracefully en crinoline, and also a warming-pan warranted to heat beds every night.
"Undoubtedly the extras make an expense," explained Madam trying hard to be businesslike and succeeding about as well as Jenny herself. "It may not be necessary for her to have them all. I will teach her French and the harp in the holidays. And if William finds himself unable to afford quelque chose, I go to arrange it. I would strip this." She made a large gesture and in the candle-light she and her room seemed all rare dim jewels together: "I would strip myself so that la petite should advance. She must carry the torch, our little Jenny, since my sons find it too heavy."
Mab, not looking at her, muttered rebelliously, "You do expect so much from everyone, you know, maman."
"Eh, bien," said Madam, dauntlessly. "I shall continue to expect." She took up her pen. "And who knows but that my page 109expectations may at length bring something to pass? But you, mon cher … at present you are no more than un mouton qui reve."
If she had allowed it, life would have been triste for Madam just now. But assuredly the gods must be with her, and if one believes in them as little as might be, that was not their affair. Let them do their part as she would do hers, thought Madam, who was always ready for a bargain. If the gods don't bargain … my faith, but they don't understand the joys of life!
The Captain would not bargain with anyone. He fought Transportation with a luxury of words such as might have imprisoned him if they had got into print. He annexed his favourite Punch's particular patter of the 'forties and quoted it up and down the country until everyone sang it. Riding stockmen in red shirts and hats of kangaroo-skin, beggars crouched from the rain in some hollow tree, jovial sheep-owners driving to a township for the markets … they were all at it.
"Wheel about and turn about,
And do jes' so.
Ebery time I turn about
I jump Jim Crow."
"And that, gentlemen," the Captain would shout continually from platforms, "that, per omnium diabolorum potentiam, is the policy of England and her colonial minions on the subject of Transportation."
He called the amazing decisions and indecisions of Government on an amazingly difficult problem "the Jim Crow somersault," and he never found anything laughable in it. Meanwhile Earl Grey, meeting the heads of the Van Diemen's Land churches in London, approached this problem from the moral side and announced that Transportation must cease. Then the colony, after rebelliously suffering differential duties which struck a shrewd blow at home exports, and resisting the dog tax with open warfare, began to tuck in its shirt and offer thanksgivings at the very hour page 110when someone else approached Earl Grey from the social side and roused him to an ultimatum that Transportation must continue. In the middle of the impasse which arose, Denison and his councillors, after plumping freely for Transportation, discovered that the entire loss of emigration with its consequent paralysis of industries would harm the country more deeply than could be covered by English grants for convict establishment, and said so.
And after that, Councillors Sorley and others in their progress down Macquarie Street to the Legislative Chambers were likely to be accompanied by small dirty boys somersaulting to the tune of:
"Wheel about and turn about."
James Sorley traced the beginning of all this to the Captain, and did not forget it when the time came. But at present he was too busy over the next election of councillors (there being as yet no parliament) and was perhaps a little nervous when he carried the war to the Captain's own stronghold of Trienna. Conrad Beverley of Tingvalley drove his yellow four-in-hand at a gallop down the grassy Main Street, yellow streamers and rosettes flying everywhere and all Tingvalley's towers gone mad with yellow flags. But Councillor Sorley in a sober coach of rifle-green, with a green coachman handling the high-stepping bays as one, snatched the victory from the great Viking somehow, although the deciding handful of votes was spiritedly contested with showers of dead cats, rotten eggs, and vegetables, and the two pairs of stocks by the police station were filled for days after.
It was all open voting then, with the hustings very merry; and Jenny, seeing from Tingvalley balconies her first free fight, almost fell through the railings in her joy. Down among the wagoners with their long whips, harvesters with new straw bands (they called them bo-yangs) below the knee, hairy shepherds hauling on their dogs, the Captain had climbed on an empty whisky-case to carry on his war to the last minute.
"Oh, la, la! Mon vieux," murmured Madam, tenderly page 111mocking. The Captain's rosy face between white top-hat and gill-collar was turning purple. One plump hand was tacked beneath his cutaway coat at his plump waist and the other clenched to hammer his periods home.
"And again I ask of you," he shouted, "will you return to office the vacillating tool of a nincompoop ministry which is forever landing the settler in deeper morasses, until he has not a leg to stand on unless he gets it into the pocket of officialdom——"
Here he was struck in the waistcoat with an egg which, oratorically considered, might have been the message of a friend; and Mab and William got away through the crowd, still protesting and very lively. On the balcony Mrs. Beverley, all importance and indecision, distributed handkerchief-wavings, finger-kissings, and frowns, while the young ladies palpitated and wished that Mab would come and tell them how the day was going. But Mab, thought Madam with a small sigh, the Mab of to-day with his haunted eyes and his manner of going through life like one who follows a quest he can see no end to, this Mab was not to be halted by a Beverley. Another spell was on him. And as to the business he and Julia had with each other, Madam could only feel that if le bon Dieu knew of it he was not quite the gentleman she had always believed him to be.
Down in the street Mab and William got the Captain into the Gentleman's Arms, where he jovially drank confusion to his enemies. But all the truculency went out of him when election results were posted, and he turned with great solemnity to his sons. "Hell's let loose. Hell's let loose, and may the Lord have mercy on our souls. Boys, come home and have another drink."
"In fact, he persists in seeing the worst of it," complained William to Susan, who said, "Yes, dear," and continued putting tucks in a new frock for little Charlotte. She would not have considered herself a good mother if she had not tucked the feminine part of her family as far up and as far down as she could, and in the holidays she regarded Humphrey's short long trousers regretfully. A few tucks to be let down at need …
Henry Sorley, refusing to break a friendship begun in petticoats, rode over to Clent with a flag of truce, but the Captain page 112would not see him. "All tarred with the same brush," he said, and William went out anxiously to Henry. Henry tried to smooth it over.
"My father is doing as he thinks right, William. His party will continue representation to the Queen and the English Parliament. It will continue to advance the proviso that, under certain circumstances, the colony might do better with Cessation. Bishop Nixon—an exceedingly sound man, although I believe he has not yet been granted his mandate—will make representations——"
"We have had our fill of representations, Henry. We want results."
"We shall have them, I do not doubt. It is only necessary to hold on. Ah …" He retreated shyly under the many capes of his overcoat; got out: "I am well aware that many of the landowners … We are such old friends, Bill … A little temporary accommodation, perhaps …"
William had just sold to old Merrick the Hereford bull which he had hoped to keep for breeding, and the money had gone for the Sorley mortgage. He feared that Henry knew, and became agitated in the blue twilight. "Not at all … Everything in excellent condition. I take it very kind of you, Henry. But … not at all."
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."