Christmas at Clent was a great stimulation to Mr. Paige. There were no prayers in the morning, because presently there would be church. But there was an extraordinary amount of noise and laughter, of sunshine and gay summer dresses and sweet airs; of Madam and the Captain distributing presents in the hall to a neat curtsying line of servants; of children everywhere with shining faces and loaded arms. And to Jenny there seemed an extraordinary amount of Mr. Paige, sentimental in the epigrams of Meleager and Agathias, and unaccountably arch over telling her how Dr. Johnson "beat the world with pedagogic rods." And then there was something about the Duchess of Bedford, who, it appeared, having accomplished her world's work by the invention of afternoon tea, had lately gone to her reward.
"I observe that in the colony you still adhere to the earlier page 169wine and cakes," drawled Mr. Paige, archer than ever. "Strange. Strange. A great loss to the histrionic world, the duchess. Possibly as much so as the lamented Count d'Orsay, who invented my neck-cloth. A mystic, I grant you. A pure mystic."
Bewildered and yet flattered, Jenny escaped to the joviality of the kitchen, where the Bodges twins, Christmas Eve and Goldish-Bronze—freckled and wide-mouthed and wonderful in garments made from Madam's old boudoir curtains and trimmed from Susan's piece-bag—rushed about, helping cook. A Homeric place, the kitchen, where a flagged floor was already wearing into the ridges of age, a smoked ceiling with hams and herb bunches hanging like bats already taking on dark mystery. There was a great colonial oven with blazing fires above and below, a long dresser full of crockery and earthenware and copper, two longer tables scrubbed shining white with sand. Cook, whose son, Tom Jerrold, now ran his own race-horses in Melbourne, was a slow mountain of a woman in wide frilled cap and unthinkable spread of apron. She had the hand of a fairy with pasties and jellied brawns and chicken pies all golden with round of egg, and Jenny peeped at the covered mounds of tarts greedily.
"Cookie, I am so hungry. It's nearly an hour since breakfast."
"There's a-many young ladies," said Cook, profoundly, "as 'as lost the love of a young genelmun by comin' the 'ungry hover 'im. They're main sentimental, is young genelmun, an' passions to think of young ladies as hangels without stummicks. Don't you heat no dinner in the 'ouse to-night, Miss Genevieve, dear. Jest you slip hout to old Cookie when as you wants feedin'. It's wiser."
"But … but …" began Jenny, burning up with her blushes. And then some one knocked at the outer door, flinging a crooked shadow.
"Beggars," said Cook, wrestling with the boning of a turkey. "Feed 'em, Golly."
Beggars were plentiful as frogs in a bog, but none left Cent empty-handed. Jenny, glad to efface herself, cut great lumps of yellow cheese, helped Goldish-Bronze draw two loaves from the brick oven beside the chimney, filled a cider bottle with milk for the shaggy half-naked children. The crooked woman begged a page 170"nugget," which was old convict slang for tobacco long before convicts went to the Australian gold-fields and applied it there to the lumps of gold. Another woman came through the courtyard later, but she did not beg. She stood in the door with blue eyes grown dim with seeking and asked, "Has any one seed my man?"
Jenny knew her for the young woman who had once been at Lovely Corners and had chosen a convict's life in order to follow her husband. She cried pitifully, "Oh, haven't you found him yet?" And the woman went on in a monotonous patter:
"Has any one seed my man? Sam Hall, that's him. Five fut three and spits a lot when he's got a quid. Full-rigged ship on right arm, two ankers an' 'Mary' on chest. Mermaid on right leg. S'posed to have come out on the Thunderer twelve year agone. Any one seed my man?"
Cook came to the door, big and crimson. "Now, you be hoff. I knows all about you, an' no good neither. You never stays no-where, young 'ooman. You're a jade, that's what. Be hoff, now."
"I wants my——"
"Well, we ain't got 'im. Go hask at the perlice." She slammed the door. "Since she's time-expired she's a reg'lar noosance…. More wood, Chrissy."
Jenny stood still. The woman had worn men's boots padded with straw which stuck through the uppers. Her clothing was principally a coachman's long caped coat and a dirty neckerchief called a "susy." Her battered bonnet had often been slept in. The very dregs of womanhood and tragedy she was. Jenny thought of her going on forever: on bare dusty roads under the blinding sun; down steep hill tracks with gaunt bush ghostly each side; begging a drink of billy-tea at some splitter's lonely shanty; putting her piteous question where men gathered round the hitching-post outside some bush hotel. Because she could not find her man, old Mary could never stop going on. Because Aunt Ellen could not find a man, she might not leave that grim dark house at Lovely Corners. How terrible it was, Jenny thought, that a man should have to mean so much to a woman! It seemed that Mamma was right when she said girls were very foolish if they had the chance and didn't take one. Her mind flew to Mr. Paige and hurried away, alarmed. She ran down the back passage to page 171the pantries, where Susan and Charlotte, very important in big aprons, were getting out the custard glasses. Jenny, in blue frills with a white muslin collar, always felt very frivolous when she saw Charlotte.
"Oh, Mamma," she cried, "we really must help poor Mary. Couldn't we get the governor to have a description of her husband posted at all the police offices or something?"
"Ridiculous," said Susan. New ideas were abominable to her. You never knew where they would get you to. "Ridiculous! Jenny, don't go jumping about like that. You'll have the tray over."
"But Mamma, it's so terrible. Oh, people shouldn't be allowed to be so unhappy!"
"How you do grumble!" said Charlotte. "Always something."
"Yes." Susan remembered that Jenny was always fussing about something. Celeste with a cold or Golly with toothache or somebody's sick baby. "Yes, Jenny, dear Lottie is quite right. I can't see what you've got to grumble about. I'm sure you have everything you want."
"But Mamma! That's just it. I have, and so I can't bear to think——"
"It's not your duty to think." Susan knew herself on safe ground here, only having to repeat William. "Let your betters think, and do as you're told. That's all God asks of you, Jenny."
This was vieux jeu. William had first advanced this theory to an eight-year-old Jenny, who had found her heart hotly postulating that God must be a fool. True, she had been instantly seized with the conviction that she had sinned the Unforgivable Sin of which Grandma Merrick talked so much, and had run straight up to the attic where she considered three desperate methods of suicide among the tarantulas. But it had all come to nothing, as so many of her plans did, although for months she had walked beneath that shadow. Now, even more dreadful because more personal, she found herself shelving that suspicion, for one regarding her parents…. No, no, Jenny, she thought, you must not think that of Mamma.
"Grumbling! After that beadwork necklace I made you, too," page 172said Charlotte, virtuously. Jenny walked off. She wished she could think Lottie a fool, but she wasn't. She was exactly like a large pale glassy gooseberry, with prickles.