Oliver, with the seconds consulting, making plans, impressing a surgeon, felt monstrous pleased with himself as they all rode through the night by the sounding beaches to Brown's River. In case of necessity, it had been unanimously decided (half the card-room had come along as audience), the survivor could escape by some cargo-boat or whaler. They would see to that, they promised heartily. I'll see to it, promised Colonel Dethbridge, who had offered himself as Noll's second, riding with black cloak billowing in the sea wind, riding like the emissary of Death.page 206
Oliver played with the thought, sang in that sweet tenor which had moved men to tears (he'd seen them):
"But he who drinks just what he likes
And getteth half-seas over,
Will live until he dies, perhaps,
And then lie down in clover."
And then lie down … Here was the dark bush rising on the right, the dark sea moaning on the left. A.B. was the better shot and he'd do his damnedest, while Oliver must not shoot to kill. No, he thought, feeling affectionate, sentimental even, toward poor old A.B. whom nobody loved, he couldn't shoot to kill. And here, where the beach spread out, pale under the stars, where hills broke the wind and a river ran to lose itself (like a soul) in eternity, the seconds were pacing out the distance. One stood forth as though naked before men's critical eyes and knew oneself a god. Sucked up to a height where gods conspired, one realized man's capability for magnificent sacrifice, for a daring of the eternities which gods even might not compass. Egad! for all one's pandering and pilfering, one discovered oneself at heart to be a gentleman. A woman's name, an ancient name … they'd have cause for gratitude and never know it. This, one felt as the pistol came cold into one's palm, is what it means to be a gentleman…. How white A.B.'s shirt showed against the dark sea. One couldn't miss him. But one must….
This, thought Mab, awaiting Berry's challenge in the old Derwent Inn on Murray Street, was what it meant to shilly-shally, let a woman make a fool of you, show susceptibilities instead of certainties. If he'd called out Berry long ago … had it over and done … under the churchyard sod, one of 'em. How he and Julia had sung that! How that ribald fellow up at Bathurst had sung it! Oh, that we two were Maying … thoughts of lilac, loveliness, long green hills beneath the sunset, Julia's summery frills enveloping her in little rosy clouds. Oh, to have died then when all the world was May, thought Mab, sorrowing for glad youth withered down into this.
But he might die now, would die now; and here came the forerunner of promise up the stair, stumbling a bit; as though page 207weighted by his errand, opening the door, by Heaven, as though this were not the private apartment of a gentleman. Noll? "Noll," he said, surprised. Noll up at this seven of a winter's morning. Noll, a little jaded and muddy, but extremely jaunty. Mab stammered, "Noll, Berry hasn't sent …"
"Couldn't. He's in bed, with two surgeons extracting a ball from his shoulder and another bawl from his mouth. You understand, Mab," said Noll, tossing gloves and hat on the bed. "Dirty linen must be washed at home, so I've been seeing to ours. We fought about a horse. You could not have. People would have——"
"You've fought him! You——"
"Look here: if you don't consider you've done harm enough, go out and hang yourself, but kindly let this matter alone. Julia is with A.B. now, and if you have the sense of a louse you'll leave her there. Any one can make A.B. believe black's white, and she's busy at it. Where's the brandy? I'm cold."
"Leave her?" Mab felt his blood suddenly boiling. "Now? You've only made things a thousand times worse with your damned interference. It's too late——"
"It's never too late to end. Where's that brandy!"
"Curse you! You'd quip and pun at the Judgment Seat…. Let me by."
Mab ran out, with Noll calling after him, "God bless you, for I can't think of any one else who will." But he could not think of Noll. He went fast through the empty streets and up to the Berry mansion in Montpelier Crescent; and although Julia kept him waiting for an hour of agony, she came at last, her gold hair plainly banded, her eyes tired.
"My poor, poor darling!" he cried with his arms out.
"Why are you here?" asked Julia, standing inside the door. "Have you not already done me enough harm with your wicked selfishness?"
"Julia! I … why … I couldn't …"
"You will please go away," said Julia, holding her hands tight together. "And never never try to see me again. I suppose I must pay for the sins of us both. The woman always pays."
So, in a few minutes, she went up again, back to her husband; virtuous, head held high, never seeing Jenny running frightened page 208down the stair. Mab stood in the hall, blind as Samson shorn of his strength. Jenny ran to him, cried, "Darling!" took his hand. "Yes," said Mab, mechanically. He made a few steps. "Like Helen of Troy, there are many women not so fair as they are painted. Noll said that." Jenny was more frightened. She put soft lips to his brown hand. Then he started, muttered something, slapped his tall hat on the back of his head, and walked out, swaggering. She saw him go down the drive, still swaggering and defiant. Out through the gate, bankrupt of hope and love and honour … still swaggering, still defiant.
Panic seized her. Years spent—as young ladies should spend them—in fettering natural impulses were suddenly jettisoned. Almost physically she felt the relief of flying, mentally screaming challenge, in the face of everything; snatching hat and cloak and racing away after Mab, scattering shocks among those early afield as she ran on unchaperoned ways. Two labourers frowsy in fustian and dirty neckerchiefs stared after her. A pea-jacketed sailor, grinning from a black fringe of whisker, tried to stop her in the Salamanca Road. Del Sarte's Academy, where she had danced last night, presented a drab face across Macquarie Street, and she ran over dead flowers and cigar butts which a mumbling old woman scratched together. Here she was at the inn, demanding Mab as haughtily as though she'd come in a carriage with a posse of footmen.
"I am Miss Comyn. Show me up at once." Of course every one knew Miss Comyn, said the astonished waiter in green-baize apron. But Jenny was already beating on Mab's door, crying: "Let me in! Let me in!"
Mab opened the door. He looked dreadful, and suddenly she felt dreadful. As though she had insisted on seeing him in his bath or something. She said weakly, "I felt you wanted me."
"I never wanted you less. What is it? Why are you here?"
"You did. I felt you wanting me." Tears began to blind her. She blinked, saw the horse-pistol on the bed, pounced, and the bullet went up through the open window, grazing her forearm on the way. Now she could comfortably whimper a little while page 209Mab staunched and bound her, never looking up. At last she dared, wondering if he would understand: "It … it will heal, Uncle Mab."
"It may," he said, under his breath. "Where's your maid, Jenny?"
"I came alone."
"Through the streets!" He flushed, fastened her cloak with a strange softness, and walked back with her to Julia's gate. Then he said abruptly: "You're no coward, dear maid. Don't let them marry you to Paige unless you really wish it. Remember it's you marrying him, not them. These old folk … they think themselves so damned wise."