In the morning Mary was gone, leaving a note with her address and the request that her packed box be sent after her; and when Clent gathered its scattered mind together again, the principal thought emerging was that Jenny must be to blame. Even Madam, who knew no more than Charlotte (sternly repressing Susan) chose to tell, agreed that it was like Jenny to advocate rebellion against authority. "Do as you like," said Madam, sitting very upright. "Celeste! Come and brush my hair this moment. I have un mat de tête." And the heartache too, she thought, but would not say so to Jenny when she came in to say good-bye.
Jenny, whose laughter had been what Charlotte called "ribald" when accused of corrupting Mary, was dismayed at the thought of Lovely Corners. There were no books, and books were the one thing that now bound her to Brevis. For a public man long and impassioned pleadings and speeches stuffed with rhetoric were the fashion; and although Mr. Gladstone with his collars and that Disraeli person with his greasy curls added self-advertisement, Brevis preferred to depend on his mind, aided by Jenny's. His rare letters were now full of such demands as "I think Addison speaks somewhere of economic principles as applied to prisons. Will you try if you can find it?" Or, "In one of Plutarch's earlier Moralia he lauds the subtlety of the power of moral virtue—'Mendemus, then, born by the city of——' Please quote me the full passage. I remember it as telling, and the public, expecially when one gets into the papers, gapes for quotation."
Brevis was very often in the papers now, and his court pleadings looked well there, although, he knew, nothing like so well as they sounded. It was a growing intoxication, this bending of men to his will and mood, especially at this time when a new civilization was making and all materials ready to his hand. They were such inspiring listeners, these tough red-shirted miners and page 359hard-mouthed business men whom one could hammer with facts, sting with irony, melt into tears with rhetoric. And if when he returned to his chambers he fell on his bed with exhaustion or cursed the gilded chrysanthemums which some admirer had bribed his landlady to put in his tall red vases of Venetian glass, there was no one to know, although sometimes he sat down and wrote it in a letter to Jenny. But as the legal atmosphere sank deeper into him he put fewer of his thoughts on paper. The cases he handled in court proved the danger of that.
Yet she was an excellent help, this Jenny who came in letters. But not, he felt now, not to be dreamed of otherwise. A successful young man—thirty-five is still young for a man although so ancient in a woman—with more smoking caps embroidered in forget-me-nots or holly berries than he can wear in a year, has no need of a wife. A household—good Lord! Sticky children, crying babies, a wife too busy to attend to his needs, a smoky fire, bills …
Thank Heaven, thought Bevis, putting the fire together neatly with the tongs where Mab would have used the toe of even such superlatively worked carpet-slippers as Brevis wore (he had forgotten who worked them), thank Heaven he had escaped all that. Thanks to Frasquita, who had helped him sow his wild oats and still stood behind him as a kind of ghostly protector. He never expected to hear of her now, but she was a shield. A shield from Jenny, who had never made him so much as a watch-chain, who would never allow the fire kindled for him to light another man's hearth. How he hated and worshipped her for that … and realized how emotional he still was, and how much his life took out of him; in a big speech in court, particularly. How he wanted a woman's arms round him when he came home after that! But not at other times. And especially not Jenny's. They would have claimed too much, of his heart as well as his body.
He did not write to her when he was recalled to Launceston, which had suddenly been thrown into frenzy by government demands for taxation on the projected Northern and Southern Railway. "What? Did we not foot the bill for our own Longford Line? Let the South look after itself," said the Northern citizens, and barricaded their doors and bought mastiffs and shot-guns for page 360the greeting of those who came to collect or distrain. Brevis arrived on a high windy day with yellow sand blowing and a scent of trampled geraniums in the gardens, to find magistrates refusing to prosecute, policemen to impound, or officials to do their duty in that state of oppression to which their oaths called them. Litigation, prosecutions, and arrests were sputtering up everywhere, and Brevis threw himself into the hurly-burly with enthusiasm.
"You old colonial gentry are making a fine hullabaloo, bless your hearts," he told Mab, whom a neighbour had inadvertently shot in the arm while being helped out of a back window, and Mab said bluntly:
"We're all willing to pay through the nose for the privilege of showing the Government what we think of it."
Brevis interviewed his friends through barred windows and arranged bail for Gamaliel Thompson, whose tenets would not allow him to fight any more than his convictions would allow him to pay. But Gamaliel, who had just received some news from a fellow-prisoner, was very chilly to him, and went off at once to seek Mab. Arrived in Mab's room, he thrust his broad hat back on his broad anxious forehead and plunged into the matter because he was too nervous to approach it skilfully: "Mab, will thee go down at once to Clent and ask Miss Jenny if she will marry me now?"
"Hang it, man! ask her yourself," said Mab, staring.
"Thee might have more influence … say what I cannot."
"I can tell her you're a darned good fellow, of course, but——"
"Oh," burst out Gamaliel, "man! Hasn't thee heard what they are saying about her and Brevis Keyes?"
That poison, slowly working up through the country, had assumed virulence in the still rather isolated north, which was now explaining in the light of it why Jenny had been abandoned by Mr. Paige. When Mab heard what Gamaliel could tell he would have taken the gun in the corner to his search for Brevis, but Gamalied still had the steadier head. "No, Mab. No. It would suggest that we believed … Possibly he is not to blame, although I do not understand why they never married."
"That?" said Mab, remembering. "Well, I know that."page 361
He went after Brevis with mixed feelings. He could not demand the obvious course, and what other was there, except that now Brevis must certainly make his marriage known? But Brevis, who could floor anyone with argument, must be approached cautiously, and Mab, who had never been cautious in his life, did not trust himself.
Brevis, he heard, had gone walking down on the flats by the river. He often did this after a hot hard day in the court or in running round the scattered town digging into small stray offices in search of information. It was wonderfully calm down here, thought Brevis, with the dark loom of the Cataract Gorge just touched along its fuzzy top by moonlight and the grey level of the river drawn out between the low bush hills by the tide of the distant sea. A wedge of black swan went over silently against the pale sky. One wild duck, astray from its nest, was quacking in the marshes. There were clumps of evening primroses, silky, gauzy like ladies' dresses, here and there on the sandy foreshore. The new buildings of Rowing Club, Archery Club, pretentious little piers, had faded into night.
Brevis walked slowly, feeling the needed rest to his nerves after the gunpowder and blood of the last few days. A queer lot, his fellow-men: parading the streets, tearing down fences, smashing windows; or padlocking themselves into their houses, where they let off pistols and crackers like defiant boys. Good citizens fighting steadfastly against their own ultimate interest because the notion of taxation seemed inherently abhorrent to the colonial-born. And this is the 'seventies, he thought. Lord! when are we going to become civilized!
He saw Mab Comyn striding over the sand, with moonlit water filling up the deep dents his hasty feet made and his retriever startling to an angry flutter the long-legged native hens pecking in the sedge, and thought with a sigh, Here comes one who will never be civilized…. He did not feel equal to great boisterous Mab to-night.
The native hens scuttled off like bobbing shadows, and trailing his shadow behind him Mab came up with the light white on his face, as though in a hurry to speak. But he did not speak. Straddled like Colossus against the pallid river he stood, dragging page 362at his moustache and staring at Brevis. Brevis waited, somewhat amused. Mab usually brought an explosive with him. Then Mab burst out:
"Brevis, did you know that Jenny is being cut everywhere? Do you know what people are saying? They are saying that you and our Jenny have loved too well."