Something of the ghoul which is in us all stirred Oliver on arriving at Port Arthur in the morning. Peace on earth. Good-will toward men. He wondered what it would be like here at Christmas. Mr. Paige on a black jetty was apologizing because the convict railway was not running now. They must row round to Opossum Bay, which was Port Arthur proper. Sunshine on sparkling water, green shining trees against blue sky did not present the right atmosphere, but Mr. Paige showed excitement. Jenny looked a little peaked this morning. Oliver hoped that page 213it was from sickness, wondering suddenly if it had been wise to bring such a sensitive child to this settlement of punishment and pain.
Mr. Paige, it appeared, had no such sickly doubts. He pressed Jenny's hand as he set her down on the red cushions of the boat. "More my Pretty Virginities than ever," he whispered. "Did you put on that pink bonnet for my sake?" He raised his voice. "Give way," he shouted, and as the four convicts bent to the oars: "And so you have come all this way for my sake also? Little love-bird who had to flutter to her mate."
Facing life and Mr. Paige for the first time unshielded by the women of one's own blood, one felt very much at a loss, perched up somehow on the arid alien edge of things to be shot at by a Mr. Paige with lavish compliments. Mr. Paige seemed suddenly to have become lavish in all directions. Undoubtedly Port Arthur or her advent had astonishingly stimulated Mr. Paige. One had never noticed before how big and white his teeth were, either!
Against the dazzling light the convicts rowed fast and sullenly, their shaven heads dropped under the black leather caps like bells. Their leather jackets were yellow and so were the trousers striped broadly with navy blue. One had a chain round his ankles, linked in the middle to a belt about his waist. It clanked with every pull and Jenny felt that Mr. Paige was somehow horrible, to force tragedy like this upon her. But Mr. Paige apparently did not think himself at all horrible. He sat very close, with smiles that smacked newly of freedom. He would have taken her hand before them all, but she snatched it hotly away. A very strange Mr. Paige this. Pas gentil at all.
There was a lovely island, floating bright green in the sun. Dead Island, said Mr. Paige, but Uncle Noll said Eden. And then Mr. Paige cried, "Exactly—now that Eve has come to her Adam," and preened himself on the apt delicacy of the jest, and handed her over to Mrs. Carr-Becket, for they had now come up past trees to a yellow beach with gardens and houses on the rise beyond and great tawny blocks of buildings near at hand.
Mrs. Carr-Becket (asking questions all the way) took her up the stone steps and past the O.C.'s pretty cottage and into the page 214very fine grounds of the commandant's house. Tall gates arched over with worked iron in which lantern-lamps were set clanged behind, shutting out—was it wicked to hope so?—Mr. Paige.
"Everywhere, my love," sighed Mrs. Carr-Becket, "am I haunted by these shocking yellow garments and broad arrows. House servants, gardeners …" They went up a double flight of stone steps from which one could see the blue bay between gum trees and into a hall overwhelmed by huge cupboards with military cloaks hanging. "The creatures depress me to the earth," said Mrs. Carr-Becket. "Intended by nature for a gay and elegant existence, I feel the cruelty of my fate. Constitutionally I am so much more sensitive than others. It is my misfortune."
Jenny remembered what Grandma had considered Mrs. Carr-Becket's misfortune. "To look like Lady Macbeth and talk like Mrs. Gummidge—ma foi! How unfortunate for her," Grandma said.
Mrs. Carr-Becket was being very chatty.
"I'm giving you a small dance to-night, my dear Miss Comyn, and to-morrow there will be quite a ball at the Lunatic Asylum. Such a perfect floor, and the harmless ones looking on. You'll love it. Fortunately, few people are so sensitive as I am. Sensitiveness has made life peculiarly difficult for me. This way, my love."
Jenny followed up flights of stairs and along passages where dim mural paintings showed ghostly figures, ghostly scenes. In a small fusty room Mrs. Carr-Becket sailed across to pull the blind up.
"This is a horrible life … but you'll enjoy it. Captain Paige talks of you continually. He will be up presently, but you must be patient. He has to attend a flogging first, I believe. Rest a little, pretty rover," said Mrs. Carr-Becket, with melancholy roguishness, and went out, shutting the door mysteriously.
Jenny flung off the voluminous purple cloak, the tight purple kid gloves, and the pink bonnet which Susan had insisted she must land in. She ran to the window and flung the sash up. Something seemed stifling her.
Beyond the window squatted many heavy blocks of brown free-stone buildings: barracks, guard-rooms, offices of the page 215commandant evidently, from the splendour of their open galleries, porticoes, and towers. A sentry walked on each of those thick-set battlemented towers, and Jenny began to quiver, to feel tears in her throat.