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Pageant

II

II

That evening Berry found out. Some busybody who had been with Mab at Ballarat and seen the name tattooed among the thick black hairs on his chest talked to Berry, and he burst into the room where Julia and Jenny were cloaking to go with Oliver to the Assembly and there made a scene. Julia sat whitely silent, and Oliver tried to soothe him, so sorry for the blundering, piteous fellow with his black stupid eyes that he quite forgot Jenny in the corner. A servant announced Mab, and Oliver shrugged, giving it up.

"Now we shall hear some peevish cries," he said, and sat on the table, looking at Mab over the rim of his crush-hat.

"An effective entrance, Mab," said Julia, speaking at last. But Mab's eyes, taking it all in, took in Jenny also. He caught her by the shoulders and ran her out into the hall.

"Go upstairs at once," he ordered, and went back, shutting the door. Jenny snatched at the knob, but she had not the courage to page 203turn it. She stood, cold and sick, hearing the loud voices, trying to make her brain understand what her ears had just heard. Behind the shut door some one fell heavily. Julia ran out, almost upsetting Jenny, and scudded up the stair, her gay fringed shawl flying behind her like wings. Inside the room Oliver was helping Berry off the floor. "Toutes mes congratulations, Mabille," he was saying over his shoulder. "The first Comyn to arrange an open scandal for us."

"Kick him out," blubbered Berry, mopping a bleeding nose.

Mab walked out into the hall; looked for his hat; couldn't find it. To Jenny there had never been anything so strange as Mab, with that awful face of tragedy, hunting for his hat. She brought it, trembling, but he did not seem to see it.

"Julia? Where is she?" he asked.

"Up in her room. I heard the door lock. She … she's quite safe, Uncle Mab, dear."

"Jenny!" he said with sudden realization. "You shouldn't be here."

Again he stood with that stunned bewildered look which frightened Jenny, and then Oliver came out, frightening Jenny still more. This was no debonair and smiling Uncle Noll, but some one with cold face and eyes, asking sharply, "Have you a ticket for the Assembly to-night, Mab?"

He asked twice before Mab said, like some suffering thing goaded into speech, "What the devil has that to do with it?"

"Your sense of drama is exquisite, my dear fellow," said Oliver, "but not, I regret to say, your sense of fitness. You're taking Jenny and Lady Berry to the Assembly in a few minutes and I will follow with A.B. as soon as I've cleaned him up. Gad! You are, then! D'you think the servants haven't got wind of this already? D'you think the whole colony won't be talking if we give 'em rope? Collect your wits!"

"I … see." Mab pushed his hair back from his strained face, and Jenny thought how huge and dark he looked beside the dapper Noll. "I see. Cushion it."

"If we can. Come, Jenny." Oliver led her up the stairs. "You must help Lady Berry to-night. Help us all, perhaps. Understand?"

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"Yes. I'll try, Uncle Noll."

"Good girl." He knocked on Julia's door. "Please open, Lady Berry. There's no time to lose."

Within a very few minutes the carriage was bowling swiftly between the privet borders and the drenched chrysanthemums, bowling swiftly down the hill, with the shipping-lights and a few oil-lamps along the water-front making smeary gleams upon the dark. Mab had gone on the box-seat beside the coachman, and Julia sat silent beside Jenny, who was at last beginning to take it in. Even Madam insisted that a young person should never allow herself to take in anything that was "unsuitable." But how, Jenny often wondered, did the young person know it was unsuitable until she had taken it in? This was one of the many questions which could not be asked. Jenny, confronted now with a round dozen of them, found her mother-wit supplying her with answers. Uncle Mab was only too truly like Lord Byron, and only too truly did she love him the better for it.

Doors let them in with a crash on a dazzle of bright lights, bright colours, bright sounds, feet going by with a swish on a polished floor, umpha-umpha-umpha of brass trumpets, banks of flowers releasing a warm fragrance, some one swaying a huge crinoline, waving a hand at Jenny as she floated. Julia, suddenly very animated, waltzed off with Colonel Dethbridge. Mab put an arm round Jenny and swung her down the floor.

A man, Jenny felt—having by now had so much experience of gentlemen—has none of the nuances of a woman. Uncle Mab's face was a scandal already, like a bronze image with haunted eyes. She cried: "Oh, how your tooth must be aching! Come down and have some coffee, and I'll tell every one you are demented with the toothache."

Oliver had never been more angry. Mab would ruin them all yet; for Paige, who was the most fastidious of men, might even repudiate Jenny; would loathe being mixed up in scandal of any kind. Duels, although not quite extinct, were now rare enough to cause every pistol-shot to ring throughout Australia, and Julia, always indiscreet, had already set tongues wagging…. Oh, tongues! thought Oliver.

Unless Berry, the half-savage, half-pitiful fellow who had been page 205his friend so long, could be otherwise arranged for? Oliver, never having done anything decent for the Comyn name, began to feel a sort of lust for protecting it, undoing in one shot all that smudged it, justifying to himself the taking of those bibelots from Madam. (Each bit of loot still gave him a reluctant queasiness. One could go to it with a better heart if one did something.) A shot? Oliver, master of strategy, soon had his mind made up, and jovial gentlemen in the card-room saw with amaze Noll Comyn and All Brandy gradually rising from discussion about All Brandy's new mare to insults. All Brandy it undoubtedly was who flung the dregs of his glass in Noll's face, but it was Noll who was on his feet, demanding satisfaction. Shocked in their gentlemenly instincts, they still were, they recognized, pleasantly excited in the wolfish strain that lies within us all. They had not had the bones of a duel to pick since dear Lord knew when, and both these chaps were excellent shots. Yet honestly they tried for peace. "He's been ill, Noll, and you provoked him, by Jove. He'll apologize. You'll apologize, won't you, A.B.?" "Apologize to hell!" said Berry. How ridiculously his soft halting voice combined with that straddling bloated fury. "I'll meet him at once…. O'Shane, you'll be my second? G-got 'nother appointment later on." Julia, he felt, Julia who had already cost him many pangs, could wait. This slur on the most valuable horse in his stable could not. "Where can we go?" he demanded, glaring around.