Every one, Jenny had read, carries with him a certain moral atmosphere, but had there ever been any one more moral than Mr. Paige? She felt not, somehow, driving to the Trienna New Year's Races with Grandma and Mamma and her first grown-up parasol with an ivory handle and pink silk fringes. It seemed to her that Grandpa oughtn't to take him there in the gig where he would see (Jenny felt) sights that would distress him. For herself there was a rough roistering exhilaration about it all that made her want to swagger about, chewing straws with the smocked farmers, tilt her hat, and cry, "Make yer bets, genmen," like Warrego Jack, smack her leg with a riding-whip (standing straddled to discuss a horse's points) like Uncle Mab, like Adam and Brevis and all the other lucky ones who knew what being a man meant. Mr. Paige, she suspected, had other views.
Oh, a joy, a good rich joy this, like hot roast beef and Yorkshire pudding! Even through the carriage window she saw the red bullock-drays come lurching up, come creaking with solid wheels as they had creaked out of the bush hills before the magpies began whistling or mist was gone from the gullies. And the frowsy eager women in them, the shirted men with wide straw hats, the brown, untidy children. And here, if she leaned forward, were bushmen in furry hats of kangaroo-skin; harvesters, their trousers tied with string at the knees; the young Fremps perspiring in heavy broadcloth; old beggars in tatters, a faded scarlet coat with the regiment buttons gone. And women: how happy they looked, the women wandering about instead of sitting prim by Grandma in a carriage!
A very representative meeting, men thought, with plenty of four-in-hands, tandems, singles, and riding-horses. Plenty of the fine upstanding country racers in the long sheds under the gum trees. Plenty of food and drink: chicken and sherry for the quality; slabs of bread and pale cheese for the labourers, and page 173black bottles filled at the three Trienna taverns. There was no gate yet, no restrictions, Oliver explained to Mr. Paige. The grand stand was a hill-slope cleared of timber. On that course marked only with little red flags some of the keenest horsemen in the world would presently ride their well-bred hunters and racers over those big fences, for the love of it, winning from one another the handsome prizes they had put up. And because most women rode like Amazons, Oliver explained to a Mr. Paige keeping well away from the horses' heels, the fair were less inclined to scream when a man went down than to blame him for poor horsemanship.
That big black hunter of Adam Sorley's, said Oliver, was bred by Cox of Melbourne, and Kay had a mare out of Beltane by Lamplighter, one of the colony's greatest sires. The Sorleys could pay what they chose for their horse-flesh, said Oliver, dryly, helping Mab to strip Vanity. The old satin-skinned beauty with her wise lean head and her fired hocks was being asked to do far too much in these days. But Mab said he must make money somehow and there was never any to spare at Clent. Mab, Oliver guessed, would never beg earrings from Madam, any more than he would resign his mad dream of Julia Berry. "I resign," Oliver thought he could hear him saying, stepping out with his fierce eyes, his young mouth like Tannhäuser from the Courts of Love. But he wouldn't. They were tenacious, the Comyns. More fools they.
Kay and Adam were noisy in the saddling paddock among the other young bucks. Already in the hot sun they had been drinking. Oliver moved Mr. Paige softly among the gentry with puggarees to their white top-hats, with field-glasses and loose pale trousers; among the little cockatoo-farmers who, probably, were once indentured to the big settlers; among the sons of these—the colonial-born, with their leaner, harder look, more brown than red, more long-limbed than stocky. The bare hill blossomed now with glinting silks and nodding plumes and the blowing fringes of gay parasols, and just as Henry Sorley rode down to start the first race on his old white cob Mr. Paige suggested that they should go up and see the ladies.
"Oh, certainly, if you like," said Oliver, inwardly cursing.page 174
Julia called Mab up, to wish him luck. She was wearing his colours, and he frowned a little. "I wish you'd be more careful," he said, and then she was angry, as she so often was now. Never any tears now.
"I give what I can, but it seems I can't please you," she said, walking off with a shrug.
What she could? Was a crimson parasol with a black tassel all she could give after these wasted years? Mab wondered, flying the first low hurdle and steadying away for the brook. Beside him Bob Beverley, two years his junior and already the jovial father of a family, was bringing up brown Werribee, and ahead was Brevis Keyes, slim and elastic as a faun. The man of substance and the youngster. And himself, Mab Comyn, in between; still nothing; still getting nowhere.
Over, by Jove, and a near shave, too. Adam was pounding up behind…. Over again, with a stagger from good old Vanity and Brevis dropping back against his knee. A stone wall now … a brush-and-rail with the sun right in the eyes and a regular rattle of striking hoofs. Lord, but Adam was hitting up the pace! At the ditch he and Kay took charge and some one went down. These boys … racing already. Foam from a reefing bit flew back in his face, and Vanity was fencing like the dainty veteran she was, and good old Bob somersaulted into the water-jump.
Mab saluted with his whip and he swept over. If only one could ride forever! Ride away from troubles and hopes! Here came Brevis like a slung stone, by George! Brevis had it! Brevis! Vanity was done, and Mab wouldn't gruel the old darling. Just another chance chucked into limbo after so many others. But the boys were flogging up the straight: these slick and clever children of the dragon's blood springing up everywhere. But Brevis had it! Brevis …
Faces with open mouths reeled past. And the tall box where Conrad Beverley in a white panama with a puggaree stood shining like the sun in judgment, and the little red flags. But Brevis had it, and Vanity was lame and Julia up on the hill in Madam's coach. You ask me if I am going to the masquerade. I am at it, said some one once. Mab felt just like that, walking off to rub Vanity down and rug her.