By little acts women express the religion of their souls, Jenny thought, trying to understand why the doctor's wife wore rings outside her gloves, why one officer's young wife let the convicts working about the house nurse the baby, why Mrs. Carr-Becket pervaded the profuse hospitality of the settlement like the taste of onions. With Jenny she attended dinners, dances, picnics, drives by the sea with great flights of mutton-birds darkening the air and the guard-dogs howling back on the Eaglehawk Neck. With Jenny she received bouquets from the officers, vegetables sent in from the Government Farm, compliments; it rejoiced Jenny to see how neatly Mrs. Carr-Becket fielded the compliments. She tried to receive Mr. Paige when he came after Jenny among the arches of multiflora roses at the Comptroller-general's residence; but Fate and Mr. Paige were too strong for her there.
Jenny felt this place grow more terrible daily. It stood up against her like some dark door to which she could not find the key. She went to church, rustling among other rich silks and wide crinolines into the tall plush-covered pews. But God wasn't there. Only Mr. Paige, smiling at her elbow, telling her how this very beautiful edifice had been designed and built by some convict architect whose name was already forgotten. "These people are no longer individuals," he said, standing with her to watch the page 219mass of yellow-clad men surge up beside the penitentiary against the shining sea, step briskly off in squads, and come marching up the shady avenue of English trees to mark time by the wall until the quality had passed into the church.
One, two. One, two. They came and stopped. Jenny, looking with a sort of shame on the hard, secretive faces, had a sudden shock of memory. There was a face she knew. A dark, gaunt, terribly alive face with a familiar sardonic twist to the mouth. His eyes met hers, dropped. They told nothing, but it was a face she knew. A face … a voice … her mind searched … "Head not quite so high, please, little lady …" Now she remembered. Now she knew. The ticket-of-leaver who had painted her many years before had said that. Robert Snow! And here was Robert Snow who had disappeared when she was a child, and here he had probably been ever since.
"Come, my charmer," said Mr. Paige, his hand under her arm. "We must go in."
Snow watched them pass. He had been looking out for Jenny and she had not changed so much. Still a clean spirit brimming with generosity and fun, although shadowed now by that slimy toad. How did she come to take him, he wondered, tramping in with the rest to stand, a stout mass of subdued yellows guarded by warders. He watched Jenny sharing with Paige her prayer-book as she was shortly to share so many things, and the numb bitterness which had frozen him so long stirred for a moment into pity. Then the first hymn was given out, and the men about him began to sing with an immense volume of sound. That was the way information passed between them, some singing it low while those next the warders followed the hymn. Around him they sang:
"Hark! Did you hear Bunt cry? Wake, brethren, wake.
He shouted too soon, say I. Wake, brethren, wake.
Jake lost three quids that night …
We are the children of light,
Because Bunt got in a fright. Wake, brethren, wake."
Jenny, the bright thing, and Mab Comyn. Snow had forgotten much, but he never forgot his hope that he might live long page 220enough to be revenged on Mab Comyn. That was his peak of Darien, standing before him night and day, although as yet he could not see horizon. Above the regulation blue-and-white neckerchief his strong hollow-cheeked face grew more rigid with thought, with desire. If he could get in touch with Jenny. Slip her a note. Her youth was radiant yet with pity and tenderness. She might get him freed, although his two attempts at escape would go hard against him.
"Pass it along, mate," said the man at his elbow, and he sang:
"Call to each waiting band, Wake, brethren, wake.
That's the pretty girl Cap has … command. Wake, brethren, wake.
Ain't she a beauty? … wait,
He'll marry her soon … Master's gate,
Lord! I wouldn't like her fate. Wake, brethren, wake."
Jenny was impatient to speak to Oliver of Robert Snow, but she felt instinctively that it was better to keep the matter from Mr. Paige.
"You'll do something, won't you, Uncle Noll? He was such a nice civil fellow and he looks so different from the rest."
Oliver was much annoyed. Of course the Ellen affair was cushioned and ended, but the fellow would have been better dead.
"I can't interfere, Jenny," he said. "Pas si bête. You may be sure they have him here for a good reason."
"Then I shall ask Uncle Mab," said Jenny, ready to cry.
"Oh, certainly. Ask him by all means," agreed Oliver, smiling. Between these two Comyns, Snow would be safe enough till the end of his days. Jenny wrote a hot letter to Mab that very night. "If you could see him among all these dreadful faces, dear," she wrote, "you, too, would think of a martyr given to the wild beasts."
Snow could not get word through to Jenny. She did not see him again, although from his labours on the swampy foreshore where land was being reclaimed for pasture he sometimes saw her with Paige and Noll Comyn going about the cook-houses page 221and laundries, the vegetable gardens and workshops belonging to the prison. Paige, as every old lag knew, luxuriated in the place, was continually urging improvements, thought himself a second O'Hara Booth, and had got himself well hated with his chilly eyes, his hectoring ways. Jenny was growing alarmed at her own rebellion at Mr. Paige's hectoring ways…. Some day, she thought, I shan't be able to bear him another minute, and what's going to happen then?
She was in the workshops that morning, hearing Mr. Paige bullying an overseer at the end of the building while she turned over the various things that the convicts made. Here was a little desk delicately inlaid with twenty-two kinds of native wood. "It's lovely," she told the very ancient man who had made it, and suddenly he thrust it into her hands.
"Kape it, miss. It's pra-aper gude for a pra-aper wench. I ha' scombled ower it seven years. No crinkum-crankum work in it. Kape it."
"Oh, no! I couldn't …"
"I rightly want ye tu." He came close, his old eyelids and wrinkled chin quivering. For the moment he was entirely human. He whispered in his harsh croak: "My darter wur a pra-aper wench tu. I dunno what happened her. I misdoubt she's dead this twinty year, but I been ma-akin' out I wur workin' this for her weddin'. Will ye ta-ak it, miss, please?"
"Yes. I will." Jenny put her hands on his old scarred ones over the box. "I will keep it forever and value it——"
"Here! Stand back, fellow!" Mr. Paige tapped the man smartly with his cane; took Jenny by the elbow and drew her out into the sun. "Really, my angel," he said firmly. "You must not."
"But he gave me this dear little desk," said Jenny, afraid she was going to cry.
"Gave! My love, they make these things for sale. I shall get a warder to value it and send round some tea and tobacco if you desire to keep it. Your payment," he said, assured that he was behaving very handsomely, because Jenny really should have known better, "was so infinitely lavish as to be entirely beyond his comprehension."page 222
Feeling that far too many things were beyond Mr. Paige's comprehension, Jenny made a valiant attempt to explain. "You don't understand. If you had seen his eyes——"
"Seen his eyes! I really must beg of you, my love, not to sentimentalize over these creatures. See my eyes if you must look into those of some man."
He said it. Incredibly he said it, seeming to think it a graceful jest, a skilful re-creation of the bond between them. It was just then that Jenny knew that what she had feared had come. She simply could not bear Mr. Paige another minute. Picking up her crinoline, she ran from him like a hare, down the red dusty road to Oliver leaning over the low stone wall to watch the men at work on the foreshore. Plenty of 'em, he thought, he who never yet had had plenty of anything. But soon, at Twickenham Park——
"Uncle Noll," said Jenny at his elbow, Jenny with eyes like blazing suns and the manner of Madam herself, "please take me back to the house. I am not going to marry Mr. Paige."
She spoke as though she had walked off in the midst of the ceremony, and before Oliver gathered his wits Mr. Paige arrived, outraged and breathless and trying to hide both under a dire facetiousness. In fact, Oliver realized, Mr. Paige thinking himself at his very best and being at his very worst.
"A … a slight lover's quarrel," he panted at Oliver. "Such things will occur, although I haven't a notion …" He seemed quite bewildered. "Kindly leave her to me, Comyn." He wagged his head at Jenny. "Saucy puss," he said forgivingly.
Jenny was still looking at Oliver; still—devil take her!—with Madam's commanding air. She said very quietly: "Uncle Noll, please explain to Mr. Paige that I cannot marry him. I … I should never have said I would. I … I always felt …" Here she nearly became the frightened girl, but recovered with an effort that Noll could appreciate. "I have changed my mind. I am sorry," she said, courteously turning to Mr. Paige.
"'Pon my soul!" said Paige, roughly. His grey eyes had a sudden cold spark. The points of his little moustache seemed to lift into lances. "Will you kindly leave her to me, Comyn?"
"Afraid I can't do that," said Oliver, much alarmed and page 223mentally cursing them both. "Apparently the lady don't wish it. You had better come back to the house, Jenny." He looked at the man with a blandness which he was far from feeling. "She's temperamental, like all the Comyns, my dear chap. Give her time and it will come right."
"It never will," said Jenny, positively. "I've tried. Now I know."
"Come, come, we can't have a scene out here. Come, Jenny," said Noll, conscious that, to do her justice, the naughty little baggage was behaving with more dignity than this fool cutting at the hedge-rows with his cane, trampling the dust with his polished boots, protesting that Oliver had no right to interfere. Oliver tucked Jenny's arm into his at that, explaining that he stood in place of Jenny's father. "A sort of comic relief," he explained, walking Jenny off. "Give us time, sir. Give us time. Don't rush your fences. Life in this place is enough to upset older brains than hers."
He took her through the commandant's gay garden into the arbour above the sea and sat her down. She was all of a shake, the monkey, and his own voice was not too steady as he asked, "Now, my dear, what's all this about?"
"If I have to marry him," said Jenny, shuddering, "I'll kill myself."
"Good God!" said Oliver, thoroughly startled. "What has he done?"
Jenny stared, unable to explain how she had somehow suddenly seen a ghostly door swing wide, suddenly heard ghostly warnings that rang away down the grey centuries behind. Those ghosts of dead women reminding her of her womanhood; summoning her with vague crying—how could one understand?—with the slow insistent tread of passionless feet that had grown so tired, being set on the wrong road. But Uncle Noll was waiting.
"It's just … I can't do it. I feel it in my soul."
"Come, come," said Oliver, who never had any patience with souls. How could one go about it? he thought, too angry to be other than choice in his methods. "All this, I suppose, is quite natural in young ladies before marriage, especially in an environ page 224ment such as this; I understand, my dear, and I shall make Paige understand."
"The only thing to make him understand [Gad! how lovely it was, that mournful voice!] is that I … I loathe him."
"Come, come." Oliver sat beside her, patted her hand. These Comyns, he felt, exasperated because he was so much one of them that he could not let this small pitiful thing of his own blood be bullied by any Mr. Paige rampant between the hedgerows. Yet although he had lifted Mab out of the pernicious mess he had got himself into, he was damned if he was going to lift Jenny. For Jenny, Paige had sent in his resignation, made excellent settlements (the settlements had warmed Oliver's heart; he would always be able to borrow a fiver from Jenny), received congratulations and a few precipitate presents. It would be a shockin' breach of confidence to let the fellow down. No Comyn could do it. Besides, women must not be permitted to upset a gentleman's life against his will. That was allowing them too much rope altogether. Paige and Port Arthur combined might be—he quite admitted it—too strong a flavour, too earthy on the palate. But Jenny mustn't wreck her chances; nor Oliver's.
Evidently she had nothing tangible against Mr. Paige except the mood of the moment. Paige looked the popular notion of a nice man, even to the touch of priggishness which all young ladies liked. Didn't they worship curates? But Jenny sat desolate with her peaked chin on her hands and wished that Uncle Mab were there…. Thank Heaven he isn't, Oliver thought. He's done harm enough. But he had to put a kind hand on that quivering shoulder, give comfort. "You poor little bit of nothing, don't get in such a taking. No one is going to hurt or bully you, Jenny. You must trust me there. But, my dear child, you cannot repudiate …" No. Better leave that. Better get her home and let Madam and Bill handle it. And they were due to go to-morrow, anyway, thank the Lord. Home was the proper place for hysterical young women, he told Mr. Paige who (Jenny having gone indoors) now approached brandishing—there was no other word for it—his trouble. "It is the atmosphere which has upset her. I'll take her home, and if you come up in a week or two——"page 225
"But I must speak to her now. Now!" cried Mr. Paige, dusty to the eyebrows with much tramping about the roads. "I am convinced that I could persuade her——"
"My dear man," drawled Oliver, feeling at the moment much the same, "you'd only persuade her into the harbour."
Paige clutched his sleek hair with both hands. With his grey eyes starting and his hair on end, his usually immaculate person seemed as though it had just weathered an earthquake.
"I am distracted!" he cried. "I adore her. Why should this blow fall upon me?"
"I'll do what I can," promised Oliver, but he had not very much confidence. He knew Comyns.