Until he got to Bathurst among all these tents, all these bearded men damning the proprieties, gambling, stealing, loving, he did not, he felt, recover his sense of proportion. Love was ecstasy, heaven. But this was a man's game. Even those women with their bold eyes and flaunting shawls walking the streets of the canvas town knew it was a man's game. His body had never ached so much in all his life, and his hands were raw with the blasted pick. But he was getting gold. Gold for Julia.
Soon he found the gambler in him working up, working out like a nail in a shoe. It was a psychological necessity, a letting off of steam after these drugged months, but he did not know that. He only knew that everywhere he gambled with his luck and wealth flooded into his hands. He bought horses, houses, shares in everything; sold them and bought again. He was mad with the game. Monstrous joke, this, sitting cold at a table and making a fortune in a night. Better fun than grubbin' in the clay. Another drink an' he'd go over and clean up the boys on Lone Water, be damned if he didn't. There, who wanted shares in Rosalie? He'd sell at a hundred per cent profit? Done. As a dream … as a dream does flatter. In sleep a king … and waking too, by Heaven! And waking, too.
Oliver, with a few driblets of gold, was back at Clent before they knew. In a tent on the high cold plateau of Ballarat he had pneumonia and was cupped within an inch of his life.
"A devil of a business," he could assure Julia. "A man really needs the physique of a bull—or of Mab. I vow that Mab is mad. Luck follows a madman ever." Julia trembled, asked why (since he was now rich) Mab did not return. Didn't she know that no gambler ever had enough!Never could return until he had lost all he'd made? There were endless stories about Mab page 137already, but Oliver protested he would not tell them to a lady. Mab (naturally, since he was a Comyn) was not vulgar with his wealth. He did not light pipes with five-pound notes, nor eat them between bread-slices as the canaille did. Oliver had seen them munching away. And Mab did not buy for scullery-maids costly Paris dresses, nor deck some gold-field wench in raw nuggets and then want to marry her, as Bob Beverley would have done but that Mab prevented him. Oliver was there at the time. "Have your fun, my dear fellow," he had told Bob. "All you can, for this won't last. But God forbid that you should marry it," Mab had said. "Anything you like, except that." Oh, 'pon honour, Mab was growing shrewd. All this racketing around with men …
At last Mab was sated; sane again. He was rich, and he came back for Julia like a king returning to his kingdom. He felt just like that, interviewing his bankers in Launceston, leaving the coach at Trienna, and walking over the paddocks to Clent. The sharp clean wine of autumn was in the still air. Grass was crisp underfoot, and beyond the naked hawthorn fence he heard sheep nibbling the turnips, coughing their short grating coughs. Love of these well-established things of home came over him with a rush of passion and tenderness. He was tender still when he came into Madam's boudoir and stooped to kiss her.
With the appreciation of an epicure Madam felt the new atmosphere he brought. He filled the little place up with more than his size, his radiant good looks. It was the complete masculinity of him that so pleased her. She moved her little hands as though bathing them in its essence. Surely, surely he had now gone beyond pretty, uncertain Julia, who had returned to Berry when he became Sir Almeric and took a town house and yet, people said, still squabbled with him helplessly. How much did Mab know of this Julia? "You have come to stay with us, mon cher?" she asked wistfully.
"Later. I'm riding on to town to-night if Bill can lend me a horse."
So it was still Julia. Madam said: "But there are many horses. Have you not sent us much money?"page 138
"That was to pay off Sorley's mortgage." He frowned. That mortgage had always galled him. "Hasn't it been done?"
"Oh, I think your father would not occupy himself with that. He has built a river-wall where the paddocks used to flood, Mab. You must see it."
"I'll give him a cheque for the mortgage." Mab stood up. His brown hands with the hair on backs and wrists had never been still. Madam recognized the power of that other woman who was pulling him.
"You have been away a year, Mabille. There are great changes."
"Not in the things that really matter," he said, and went out with his big laugh and his big swinging shoulders.
Along the Main Road were many little farms where had been bush-land, for under this new shower of gold the colony was burgeoning like a spring pasture. Women in checked aprons were feeding pigs, scattering grain to noisy poultry. Old men with smocks and shaven lips above the chin-whiskers raked manure out of the stone barns. He saw few young men, but they would come. They would come, when their gold-lust was slaked, for the buxom girls pressing against the post-and-rails to stare after him with hands shading their eyes in the bright sun. They would come even as he was come for Julia.
Hobart Town had grown. On the hill were a number of new "gentlemen's residences," and Mab rode up the stiff driveway of Berry's new house with his own backbone stiffening. Julia should not be here. She belonged to him just as he belonged to her. Not once through this hot and stormy year had he forgotten that he belonged to Julia…. Ours is the real marriage. It began before we were born, he thought. She should not be here.
In Berry's large chill drawing-room where the footman left him while he went to seek Julia, Mab found himself growing hot. All the signs of domesticity were about him. Photographs of Berry, of Julia, of the boy. A tangle of embroidery silks in a plush-lined work-basket…. I should never have gone away, he thought. But what else could I do? I had no money…. And then there was a small sound and he turned to find her page 139standing behind him. He put out his hands with a cry, but she shrank back. In her eyes, blue and shining as her gown, was an expression he did not know. Her golden hair was rolled back from the delicate blue-veined temples, giving her an older look. She had her knuckle pressed to her full red lips as though to stop its trembling.
"Why did you come like this, Mab? You should have sent me word."
"I came as soon as I could," he said blankly. "What's the matter? Is Berry …?"
She made a gesture with her hand under its hanging sleeve of lace. "Please sit down. You overwhelm me. You've grown so … large."
He sat where she indicated, at a little distance from her. Bewildered, he kept thinking: I've startled her. What a goat I am. And how lovely she is! How lovely!…"I must seem rough to you," he said humbly. "I've been so much with men, over there."
"Yes. I know."
He saw her trying to control herself and waited, gripping his hands together between his knees. A blank chill was creeping across his confidence, but he thought: Give her time. I must give her time.
His stillness, the overpowering uncouth masculinity of him invading the barriers she was trying to raise made him terrible to Julia. She had loved him. At Bredon she had exulted when he came on her like an avalanche and bore her away. He had filled her up with his own immensities of love, of assurance, and it was not until he had withdrawn them and gone over the strait that she discovered how little had been of her own making. That which she had done, that which Mab had made the most natural and holy of fulfilments now seemed to her unnatural, a horror from which she woke in the night crying with fear…. The scandal! The scandal! I must have been mad, she thought.
Then came the town life again, with its conventions and pleasures; with Berry's accession and the thrill of ascribing her visiting-cards "Lady Berry." She was young enough and, being James Sorley's daughter, snob enough to relish going into page 140dinner before the elder ladies—who would draw their skirts aside from her if they knew.
"Oh, Mab! We must have been mad," she said at last.
"If love can make one mad I suppose we were. And now, now, my own beloved, we can be mad forever. I've come for you, Julia. I'll see Berry and send him a challenge to-day." He began to glow. He would not kill Berry, any more than he would let Berry kill him. He would just make the matter clear as between gentlemen, and then he would take her away, across the strait. And after the divorce … He felt a sudden sharp stab of remorse. "I hadn't thought … My darling, I'm afraid we'll have some unpleasantness to go through. I didn't think of that. But——"
"Mab, Mab, you must understand I We can't go through it."
"Dearest, listen. Of course I shall always love you, and I'm breaking my heart. But it's ended. You must see that."
"How 'ended'? "He came over, stooping to lean a hand on her chair. "How 'ended'? What do you mean? I look on you as my wife. I look on myself as your husband. All the time I've been away I've never forgot that. You wouldn't let me write to you, and it wasn't necessary. We belong to each other. How ended?"
She felt his personality swamping her again and began to sob in sheer terror lest he should take her in spite of her. And he did take her. He put his arms round her and lifted her up, and she cried: "Oh, Mab, go away! Oh, don't break my heart!"
Unused to subtleties, he brushed them aside as he brushed the lace sleeve with which she tried to hide her face: "I don't understand. Won't it break your heart if I go? If you loved me it should. Or perhaps you don't love me? Is that what you mean? Good God!" he cried, sharply. "Can't you speak?"
She wept on his shoulder. It was all so hard. Of course she loved him. But her duty. Her little boy. Her duty. And her father. Scandal would ruin them all. Mab must wait. She must wait. She was used to sacrifice. "Mab, Mab, you must help me to be brave!" She was weeping for her lost springtime, her young page 141lover, her position, her title, a thousand things. Like a woman, she wanted them all. "Oh, Mab! Help me!" she cried, so very sorry for herself.
In the end he agreed to wait, hearing the words as though they did not come from his own mouth. He looked round dazedly on the pretty prim chintzes and water-colours of Julia's room. What was he to do now? Where go? He said, unconscious of heroics in his suffering: "I feel myself as much your husband as though we'd been married in church, Julia. Berry is only a … a something that should never have come into our lives. There will be no other woman for me while you live, because I count on us belonging to each other. And I'll come back again. I'll keep on coming back."
"Oh, yes, yes! Come back. Oh, poor Mab, why should we be so unhappy …"
She let him take one kiss which she returned so passionately that he could scarcely go. But he went, a defeated warrior with drooping plumes. Surely enough, life was hard for women, the female sex being so at the mercy of the world's tongue. He must remember that, be chivalrous. He felt his muscles twitching as though they longed to grip something, shake it, throttle it…. Think I'd best get across the strait again, he thought, walking fast down between the stiff rhododendrons.