While Charlotte was giving her children a Scripture lesson Jenny sat in the window-seat at Bredon Cottage, dividing her attention between a fat bumblebee in a pink foxglove and Cherlotte very impressive in a low chair with the four children round her on green plush footstools. Cherubs, explained Charlotte, were little dead children who had no bodies because they had no sins.
"Oh, I wouldn't like that!" cried Patty. (Jenny felt that Patty could usually be depended on, thank goodness.) "I like my body."
Comyn, twisting his legs, asked, "Is it our bodies that make sin?"
"Yes, my love." Charlotte was very decided, having been slightly disturbed by Patty. "We are all born in sin."
"Was I, Mamma?"
Susan, who, in the rocking-chair, was tucking little Letitia's petticoat, ceased rocking. Jenny, who was doing nothing on the window-seat, said, "Was he, Lottie?"
Charlotte went red, which she knew was unbecoming. Jenny really was getting more like Madam every day. And Charlotte tried hard to bring her children up properly, with Scriptural subjects and the royal family on every wall. The engraving opposite ("Victoria, the Royal Oak," with all her married children branching out from her in neat little medallions) Charlotte thought particularly pleasing and often saw herself descending through Tasmanian history something like that. But the present moment was awkward, with all those eyes fixed so eagerly on her, and when Julia was suddenly announced she rose in a hurry. She had rarely been so glad to see Julia.
"Put away your books, my loves, and go out quietly," she said as Julia got rid of her gloves and shawl and hat and put on a cap taken from a small basket. Jenny, although her hat was off, page 350never remembered to bring a cap-basket, but sat there with the sun in her hair until it absolutely dazzled. Charlotte felt with a sigh that there had always been something rather shameless about Jenny.
"Now," she said, bringing out a large basket of mending with the air of one producing a feast, "I want to tell you about Mary, Julia."
Susan sat up, and Jenny saw her pale eyes gleam. She was really licking her lips, for Mary's desire to leave home and become a teacher was filling the place that Jenny's misdemeanours used to fill.
"Oh, Julia," she cried, "Mary is distressing us so terribly."
"Of course we must not allow it," said Charlotte, stitching briskly. "There are certain conventions that really can't be broken. Unconventionality is almost a cardinal sin." (Susan tried to remember the others, and couldn't. But anyway, it was a comfort to have dear Lottie so sensible.) "We have to consider how such an unnatural step would reflect on others—on dear Sigurd's rich English relations, and on you, too, Julia. It would be very unpleasant for you to have a connection become a kind of servant."
"I am used to unpleasantness," said Julia, fanning herself languidly. But her blue eyes, which seemed to have become smaller since she had grown so fat, had a bright sharp look as though she had brought a dish to add to Charlotte's feast.
Jenny said from the window-seat: "How fortunate for Eve that she had no surplus daughters."
"What do you mean, Jenny?" cried Susan. "Of course she had no daughters or the Bible would have said so, though who Cain and Abel married—but they couldn't have married them, of course, and it is most unkind of you to call poor Mary a surplus."
"Now, Mamma, don't cry," said Charlotte. "Jenny didn't mean anything. She only meant …" She looked at Jenny crushing her pretty green muslin in a heap on the seat instead of sitting straight in a chair, and wavered.
"Yes, Lottie?" said Jenny. "Go on. It is so nice to be interpreted."
"I'm sure, Jenny, we only want to do what is best for Mary."page 351
"Why not let her do it for herself?"
"But Jenny!" This was so shocking that Charlotte stopped stitching to answer. "How could she possibly know what is best? If young people were allowed to act for themselves, where would be the use of all the knowledge of their elders?"
"Ah!" said Susan with a long breath of relief. That would settle Jenny.
But in the window Jenny sat up suddenly, saying: "Elders, then, should use their knowledge in order to frustrate the impulses of the young? Bon, my Lottie! Now we know where we are. Mamma, possibly, wanted to become a nun, but Grandma Merrick forced her to marry Papa. You would undoubtedly sooner have been a cook, and Julia——"
"Ha, ha!" laughed Julia, piercingly. "How droll you are, Jenny!"
"We were not talking about marriage," said Charlotte, repressively. "That is the natural destiny of every properly thinking young lady. Teaching is very different. It is almost vulgar."
"By a natural corollary, then, to be taught must also be vulgar," said Jenny, looking thoughtfully about Lottie's room. In what category, she wondered, could one class all this bedlam of shell-and-plush boxes, crewel-work brackets, fretwork photograph-stands and wool mats? Almost as interesting as Lottie, this room of hers.
"It is necessary to be taught. But not by Comyns," said Charlotte, sewing little gilt buttons down the front of a purple merino gown at a great rate. Susan echoed eagerly, "No. Never by Comyns," and Charlotte added: "I do feel most intensely that ladies were never meant to earn their living in any way. It is a sufficiently tragic matter when gentlemen have to."
"Oh, la, la!" cried Jenny, jumping up. She felt that the combination of Lottie and her room absolutely could not be endured another moment. "Let's get down to men and women and a few damns. That's more like human nature jusqu'a bout les ongles." Susan gave a little squeak like a mouse. Lottie stared with pale eyes, her thread held out ready to bite, and Jenny felt a prick of remorse. "I am sorry, Mamma," she said, and slipped away out through the window. Poor dears, how scared they always were page 352of fresh air let in on their mouldy old theories. And poor Mary!
"I have suffered enough!" cried Susan, tragically mopping her eyes. "What with Mab in hides, and Richard marrying into beer, with Madam forbidding his name to be mentioned. And Mary. And Jenny. I always feel that Jenny will disgrace us all yet."
Julia sat up with a sigh of relief. She had been afraid that they would never get to it.
"Poor Jenny," she began. "I suppose you noticed—didn't you?—at the opening of the Longford and Launceston railway last month?"
"Oh, what a charming time we had!" cried Susan. "With Governor du Cane and all the fashion there, and dear Fanny looking so handsome with her hair down in curls under one of those new pork-pie hats and that new-fashioned skirt. But I shall always feel uneasy at seeing a lady without crinoline, although she assured me she was wearing four woollen petticoats. Sigurd is giving her a trip to England, Julia; did you know? There is not anything he don't give her. And looking so extraordinary, too, in plaid knickerbockers and a small round hat … Shrop-shires or Derbys … I forget what they call them. Some place in England. Or was it Bucks, Lottie? I forget."
"They are the very pink of fashion. But Jenny, Mrs. Comyn. Did you notice that people were … avoiding her?"
"Were they?" cried Lottie. "Then it was because she would go in her old turned poplin. I offered her my new green broche that I spilled claret down the back of, but it didn't show in the least when one sat down. I said she could take some tucks in it, and she said she couldn't take tucks in her individuality. She really does say the strangest things."
"I am very much afraid that she has been doing the strangest things," said Julia, so impressively that Charlotte turned with a sudden stiffening up of her whole body. She had always been prepared to hear something dreadful about Jenny. Susan wailed:
"Of course she does! Did you see her sitting up in one of those little open carriages where everyone could see her and permitting herself to be dragged off by that dangerous steam-engine as though she were a man? Of course it was Mab's doing; but to go whizzing through the air at twelve or thirteen miles an hour page 353for a whole twenty miles is most unbecoming in a lady, and what she looked like when she arrived in Longford I can't think, although Mab said she had not looked so pretty in years. Jenny is a great grief to me, Julia."
"Now, dear Mamma, don't." Charlotte saw Susan's tears coming again as they so often did about this time if she had missed her afternoon nap. "She is a greater grief to Grandma, who don't let her forget it. But I think Julia has something special to tell us, haven't you, Julia?"
"Well, I felt that you ought to know. I can't bear repeating scandal, but when I consider it my duty …"
"Not too loud," said Charlotte, glancing over her shoulder and drawing her chair nearer. "Pull your chair up, Mamma…. Now, Julia? I have always feared …"
"Yes." Julia nodded, pressing her fan against her lips. "I know how observant you are. But staying at home to look after your children as you do, you haven't my opportunities. Wherever I go, Lottie, I hear people saying things about her and Brevis. You may have noticed that she don't get any invitations now?"
"What sort of things?"
"Hush, Mamma. Not so loud. You mean …" Charlotte prided herself on her plain speaking. She said, her eyes fixed on Julia's face: "Don't beat about the bush, please. Are they saying that she is Brevis's mistress?"
"Oh, Lottie! Oh, Lottie! How can you say it and live! Oh … my vinaigrette …"
"Are they?" demanded Lottie, holding the bottle to her parent's nostrils.
Julia gave a long sigh. "No use trying to hide anything from you, Lottie. You are far too clever. Mind you, I would never have said it; but since you knew it all the time and she has practically confessed to it, and … well, we all know there must be some particular reason for Brevis going off in such a hurry to live in Melbourne. He wanted to cut the connection, of course."
Julia was enjoying herself hugely, quite unconscious that this was the outcome of that long-past moment at Government House in Hobart Town when she had heard Jenny being proclaimed toast of the town in her stead; quite unconscious that it was she page 354herself who had set this devastating ball rolling. She honestly prayed for Jenny on Saturdays … or was it Mondays? Sometimes she mislaid her list…. and always insisted to everyone that poor Jenny had sinned through ignorance.
"If only she had married Valentine Paige!" she sighed. Once into the respectable cloak of matrimony, there was so much one could do, she reflected, although Mab had almost been foolish enough … she winced again at that long-past danger. If it hadn't been for Noll! But she had certainly repaid Noll for that, never even expecting to see her money again.
Charlotte was thinking hard. She was much more shocked than she liked to confess after Julia's compliments, and, while feeling that she must not appear surprised, was resolving on instant changes. It would never do to have Jenny contaminating darling little Patricia and Letitia, and with Patty nearly seven …
"Mamma, please stop crying. That won't help…. Thank you, Julia. It is much better we should realize that everyone knows it. We live so quietly now that we might never have heard, although when Sir Stuart married Clara Boyd, after coming to Clent so much, I was rather afraid … Oh, well; we must just bear it." Charlotte was surprised to find how easy it was to bear. "I think we might send her to Lovely Corners for a time. Grandma Merrick is really getting too much for Aunt Ellen since Grandpa died."
"Such a good mother I have been to my children!" sobbed Susan. "All the underclothing I made for Jenny's trousseau; and so very little of it would fit Lottie."
"Never mind, Mamma. You haven't had to buy her anything since. I am very annoyed with Brevis; but of course when a girl throws herself at a man's head … though I do rather wonder he never married her. He was so devoted at one time."
"He couldn't afford to marry then," said Julia, wisely. "And, of course, afterwards …"
They talked it over happily for an hour, and Julia went back through the shrubberies to Bredon feeling much more at ease. She would never, she felt, have mentioned the matter if Lottie hadn't begun it. And since Lottie had known all the time, it was well for her to realize that others knew, too.