On the day Fanny was married, in the salon at Clent, Jenny wore a saffron lutestring with frills—the frills were particularly irritating to Charlotte—and no cap. No cap on a woman of nearly thirty showed a wanton mind, and Charlotte wished she had thought to buy her one of those cheap lace things from Morten & Brown in Trienna. Jenny, who of course had no money and rarely got presents from Madam now, would have been so pleased.
Charlotte felt very majestic in her crimson satin with plenty of white lace. Very important, marshalling the guests, consoling Susan, who had been crying since dawn, lining Ellen, Jenny, and Maria up together on the left side of the great bell of white roses. "And the young ones and married relations over here. Brevis … oh, the bridesmaids will look after you…. Mary … Phœbe …" Because Jenny had let him slip through her fingers was no reason why Brevis should go out of the family. He was making a name, people said. It would be criminal not to do one's best for Mary or Phœbe.
"How extremely good of such a busy man to come all the way from Melbourne just for this, Brevis! Fanny is immensely flattered."
"A pleasure," murmured Brevis, looking from Jenny to Fanny's soft radiance and sheaf of Christmas lilies. It was six months since he had seen Jenny, and it gave him rather a shock to see her standing apart from all this young gay flutter of laughing girls and youths, with dowdy Maria beside her and wild-eyed mincing Ellen. She looked older, too. Graver, his poor Jenny, although the letters she wrote him were always gay, if less intimate than they once had been. It was something in those letters which had made him unable to resist the invitation, but already he was wishing that he had resisted. No use in opening the whole thing up now that he was beginning to get settled.page 345
Jenny, Brevis saw, was much busier than fussy Charlotte. She had not had time to speak to him yet. She played the wedding-march; led the singing of the hymn while Sigurd bent like an amorous cock of yellow hay over pretty Fanny; ran here and there with glasses and biscuits; brought the rice and rose petals for everybody to throw as bride and groom drove away in the new Sorley barouche which was so much smarter than Madam's. Brevis hated to see her there, waiting on them all like a servant while that egregious Charlotte made herself hostess. Yet that was what marriage meant to a woman. That was what Jenny had chosen to miss, for his sake. He went rather nervously to talk to Madam, all wrinkles and frosty laces in her high-backed chair.
"My compliments, Brevis. You have become celebrated, and so we shall not see much more of you."
Don't you wish it! he thought. "I have a long way to go yet, Madam Comyn," he said.
"Get a wife to help you, then,"
"That is the advice all women give to all men. From you I had expected something more characteristic, Madam."
Marry Jenny, damn you, Madam nearly shot at him. Dieu! that might rouse him. But even she dared not. She looked after him forlornly as he moved away, imperturbable, assured; a man hardly yet in his prime, with (they said) a great career before him. She called Susan. "Tell Jenny to sing, my dear. The company is growing dull. And ask James Sorley to come here." James could still amuse her, she felt, never knowing when he was made a fool of. But neither she nor anyone else could make a fool of Brevis.
Charlotte was feeling a little sentimental. Dear Fanny had now become Sigurd's spare rib, just as she was Mark's, and Madam was the Captain's, and Maria … That operation to be performed on Humphrey with regard to Maria was still postponed, seeing that Mrs. Beverley refused to die. Humphrey stood by Maria as usual, but they seldom talked now. Poor Maria had no ideas, and Humphrey worked like a labourer on Latterdale, and yet it never paid.
"How is the Scab Act affecting you, Humphrey?" Charlotte asked, and Humphrey's deep-set eyes lost their moodiness. He page 346would gladly have sacrificed half the sheep in the country so that the other half might be clean. "For if we spoil our world-market we may never get it again," he said. "Yet sheep-owners won't recognize a simple …"
Charlotte moved on, having made Maria a present of the Scab Act. But Maria did not use it. She sat silent, her eyes fixed on the bell of roses which had crowned Fanny's nuptials, and Charlotte felt annoyed with her, because, of course, self-sacrifice never got you anywhere, and Humphrey (who had always wanted a family) must resent her devotion to her mother. Yet, equally of course, Maria must do her duty. Finding psychology somewhat complicated, Charlotte stopped to speak to Brevis, wondering for the hundredth time what scandal about Jenny Brevis could have discovered. There must have been something to end that affair, and naturally Brevis must have a wife above reproach. Brevis, with his graceful detached air and clean-shaven face among all these whiskers and Dundrearies, was perhaps the only person who ever daunted Charlotte.
"Congratulations on your last case, Brevis. We read the papers with much interest. What a very great deal you know."
"And so much of it evil," said Brevis, silkily. "Naturally you gathered that at the same time."
"Really, Brevis …" Charlotte went red, trying to remember if his last case had been the adultery one and not the forgery, after all. She went away hurriedly. Being a hostess was very difficult; and there was Jenny at the harp, singing quite passionately. So very unladylike to be passionate, but one could never depend on Jenny.
Brevis, leaning against the wall, watched Jenny. She looked young again, her slender arms and body against the tall gilt harp, she sang:
"Ne'er tell me of beauties serenely adorning
The close of our day, the still eve of our night.
Give me back, give me back the wild freshness of morning,
For her smiles and her tears are worth evening's calm light."
There were more tears than smiles in that beautiful voice now. Brevis could not bear it. He went out and smoked a pipe page 347and looked at the apple tree beneath Jenny's window. When all of Clent was asleep he went out again and climbed it.
Many years later another Jenny Comyn found Jenny's old diary, and read the following, all blotted and scrawled in faded ink on the yellowing paper. It began boldly:
We are immortal. Before God and man I stand to it that we are immortal.
Then, much more shakily:
Brevis came to me—oh, how shall I write it? I would not speak to him in the day because I was grown too old. So he came to me in the night. He climbed the apple tree that once I climbed down when my pony was ill, and he was into the room and knelt by the bed with his arms round me before I was aware. O God, O God Who made woman and man! And he was whispering, whispering: Why couldn't we be happy in secret, we who could never marry and had loved so long, so long? "Jenny, Jenny, let us have what we can," he was whispering. And I, half awake and my mind running all on Fanny like a clove-pink for sweetness and youth, I cried, "Nothing can give me back the wild freshness of morning. Nothing in all this world, oh my love, my love! Then—I cannot write it—and you may say what you like about Brevis being cold, but, ma foi, he is hot as hell fire and for a space we were both near in it. Jenny, Jenny, are you the fool he said you were to throw away joy? God, dear God, how I stood against him I do not know. It was not me, for I did not want to—I who would have wed him with the other woman looking on and borne his children in the proud knowledge that ours was the true marriage. But Brevis and I are as God and the Law made us. He cannot defy the Law and I cannot defy God.
His hair was wet on his black head in the heat and his face like a strip of the pale moon, and at his voice my heart near fainted in me, And never did I remember that my bed-gown had not even a lace frill, but I hope he did not notice.
So in the end he went, saying that in a few years he would go to Italy and make all clear. In a few years Brevis will still be young, but the treasure of my youth all spent, for so it is with a woman.
So he went back to his room in the New Wing, and I lay in my bed. Wear your panache now before the world, for you have need of it, Jenny Comyn.
Under date of a few nights later comes the next entry:
My hand shakes and I shall write worser than ever. Yet I laugh too, and Gyp on the floor at my feet whines and wants to sleep. And page 348here sit I still between the dawn and candlelight, with the first birds calling through the mists in the bush by the river.
Some hours since, Grandma sent for me when Celeste had prepared her for bed. Never did I see any one who lost so little of dignity in a nightcap. One could not take liberties with her even in her bath. I was uneasy, for I knew she would speak of how Brevis left early the morning after the wedding, and of the good Gamaliel who with his broad hat and broad clothes looked like a full-spread sail in the hall, and of that old Sir Stuart Maclean who has had two wives and would take me as a third, which is much more than any old maid of thirty has a right to expect. Of this Grandmamma reminded me, "You should be grateful, Jenny," she said, "and I have told Sir Stuart that you will be honoured."
"You have taught me to honour grey hairs," said I. "But what when there are none? Though indeed I do not suppose he is much older than Grandpapa, and he still has a few teeth."
"Gamaliel, then," said Grandmamma. "He comes of a good old Quaker family, and Quakers have ever been among our best settlers."
"True," said I. "Nor does he smell so evilly of hides and tallow, when he is away in Launceston." Grandmamma looked hard at that.
"Brevis?" she said. And I knew she would get to him in time, yet like the fool I am I jumped, and she looked harder than ever. Then she melted suddenly. "Dans ton cœur fait-il beau temps, ma mie?" she asked, and her voice so tender that I all but gave in and told. So much she has done and suffered for me and I grieve her so. But how could I tell? She is old, and the old cannot keep secrets. Soon it would be abroad in the land that Brevis has a wife in Italy, and they would give him no less than a dozen children, I'll be bound, and where would his future be then. So I said that I did not care to marry. Grandmamma shook her head.
"Do you think I do not see how it is?" she asked. "Moi qui sais bien la vie? Vois-tu, ckerie. It is that surely Brevis was not good in his youth, as how could he be with those eyes and that temperament? And you have discovered and will not bend. You ask too much, my girl. Men are not saints. Marry him, my pigeon, and let me be glad at last."
What could I say but that I preferred to coiffer St. Catherine, and still Grandmamma kept looking at me with those black little eyes between the cap frills. She did not speak of all she has done for me. Nor could I speak lest I should cry and tell all. "Bien. Then so you shall," she said suddenly, and would make me reach her down a box from the escritoire. So she opened it and took out a lace cap which Charlotte had assuredly bought in Trienna by the look of it. The sort of cap trying to be jaunty that elderly women wear.
"Spinster!" she said, and set it on my head. And turned her face against the chair-wing with its chintz parrots and I knew that she wept. I ran out lest I should cry and tell all.
I ran to the nursery, empty now except that old Nurse (who was Uncle Mab's nurse near fifty years ago) nodded there over the fire. She looked up and saw and she stretched her arms. "Eh, honey dear," she said, and so I went to her arms and cried at last.
Love is a thorn, and yet I would not pluck it from my flesh. With-page 349out courage we are nothing. With courage we lack nothing. May I always have the courage to cherish this sweet thorn.
Pouf! I don't think much of Lottie's taste in caps. It is perhaps right to wear the things now. But Jenny Comyn is going to make her own.
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.
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.
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."