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page 355


Up in the great presses, cool and deep as sweet water, Jenny helped Mary to lay away the week's linen. She thought how cleansing to the mind were the rich heavy feel of linen and damask, the fragrance from the sheaves of dried lavender, the sun-bleached wealth of the tall shadowy shelves stocked with the names of the generations. Her maiden name, her married name would never lie on any such. Not the name of Jenny Comyn, who did not even own the clothes she stood in, as Mamma so often reminded her. Not for the first time she envied Golly and Chrissy, who earned real money and bought their own boots and acid drops.

"Jenny," said Mary, suddenly, behind her. "I'm going to run away."

Jenny came out of the press in a hurry. Jane Beverley had once run away with a young farmer and been brought back and married to an elderly officer. But Mary had no lover. Or … had she?

"Oh, Mary, I'm glad! But where to, dear? And who with?"

Mary explained that she was running to Miss Home in Launceston, where she had been at school for six months. Miss Home thought it a pity to waste Mary's genius for mathematics when she could get her for twenty pounds a year as pupil teacher. "And kept, Jenny. So I can do it easily on that."

"Can you?" Twenty pounds seemed a great sum, certainly. "And, oh, Mary, you'll be able to spend it all yourself! But … to run away."

"It's my only chance of leading my own life," said Mary, very big and burly and untidy. "And I am quite determined to do that."

How splendid of Mary! But how impossible. "Papa and Mamma will never allow it."

"They won't know. It is all settled, and I'm going into Trienna to catch the coach early to-morrow. One owes a certain amount to oneself, Jenny; you've always told me so."

There was no passion about level-headed Mary, and so it must have been fancy that Jenny heard the echoes of her own passionate youth rebelling against restrictions, wanting to rush off and be page 356a pirate, a smuggler. And heard, too, those long shadowy discourses of Miss Bean, who had told her that rebellion against authority was the sin against the Holy Ghost. Having tracked that elusive sin for some years the small Jenny had been thankful to run it to earth, thankful to kneel with Miss Bean and wallow in long ecstasies of prayer which had builded so well. Immolation; dedication; expiation; every kind but expectation did Miss Bean floor her with. No roses in Miss Bean's teaching. Only thorns.

Jenny, brought up in a straight-jacket of restriction, looked at Mary with respect. Of course one did owe a certain amount to oneself, but one never expected to pay it. Mary, apparently, did and would. Suddenly Jenny waved an embroidered napkin round her head. "Hurrah!" she cried.

But later, as she filled the tall flower-pots down in the hall with flaming tulips, triumph deflated. The gods, it seemed, were such inveterate jokers. Madam's hot posset would be less sweet on the old palate when she drank Mary's defiance in the cup; and since the Captain could not write to the papers about Mary, his mind wouldn't be able to get rid of her. Jenny could see the two old dears together, very much ashamed because a Comyn lady had made herself conspicuous. "This Miss Nightingale," Madam had said at the time of the Crimea, "is making herself very conspicuous. Mon Dieu! That a lady should let herself get into the papers!"

Well, at least Jenny had not made herself conspicuous. She had merely faded out, been forgotten. How forgotten she had not guessed until she went to the opening of the railway. Faithful Gamaliel and a few more had been glad to see her: but the rest had gone after newer loves, and Jenny Comyn in a turned poplin and last year's hat was not the same Jenny who had once ruffled it so gaily.

She looked at the grave baby Jenny on the wall, and felt many other Jennys come round her. A demure wicked-eyed Jenny, slipping long-faded leaves into old Josephus for a long-forgotten Adam to find. A shy and blushing Jenny shrinking as Mr. Paige mumbled her hand before the company. A careless Jenny who had danced away so many Old Years in the arms of lovers who page 357would have given her what she would never have now … when the dark candle-lit floor was polished by feet languorous in the waltz, gay in the gallop, daintily flirtatious in the Varsoviana. A Jenny bringing the stirrup-cup which Madam dispensed with such witty grace to the cloaked officers and other gentry riding home through the dark dangers of the bush. A Jenny who had once whispered with Brevis in the dim corner behind the grand-father's clock. She thought: You have taken so much from me, oh, my lover. Was I foolish, I wonder, not to let you take more?

As she stood among the glowing tulips, there came to her one of those strange familiar moments when barriers thinned; when behind the barriers she felt that mysterious life, caught that sharp fleeting certainty of the ultimate meaning of this strain and confusion called living. Very still, hardly breathing, she knew you must keep then, or you frightened it, the spirit thing, so that it eluded you and was gone. Very still … and it came, the spirit thing, so serenely vast and live and certain that you felt your own little spark leap up in recognizing joy. Lives … such formless brittle handfuls of nothing lives were; squeezed into such cranky, unmeaning shapes. Squeezed until the pith was out of them and the great Hand opened and dropped them again to earth. Squeezed … Yes, but the pith, the essential drop distilled when the great Hand squeezed! That remained. That was what lived behind the barrier.

For one of those rare tremendous moments which had stayed her all her life Jenny grasped those beckoning hands behind the thinned barriers; saw their lit eyes, their black-blown hair like comets; heard their glorious trumpets, their triumphing laughter.

Then the old brown hall was about her again, with stray gleams from the well-rubbed brasses, bosses of colour from the glowing tulips, letters on the pierced silver tray—but none from Brevis. Strange how hard it was now to recall his face. The dark, thin, in-folded face, rather haughty among strangers; the guarded-eyes; the grace; the narrowed lips. Oh, she could make an inventory of his features; but where was he, the beautiful passionate young Brevis who had eaten with her of sacred bread? Gone. Time had taken him. The noisy tide of life had carried him past page 358her door, blurred his eyes in the light of his midday sun, deafened his ears.

Jenny picked up the last of the tulip petals and took them away.