Mr. Paige, very haughty in his own eyes and very peevish in the eyes of others, returned to Hobart Town and Oliver's consolations. He had now no heart for Port Arthur, which offered quite the wrong kind of stimulus, and had obtained a temporary post on the government staff.
"He don't look like a man about to marry," simpered Lydia Quorn to Oliver. "Has that naughty Jenny turned him down? What a creature of whims she is! And la! How he admires you, Mr. Oliver!"
Detecting a certain quality in her tone, Oliver began to page 232reconsider. Wooden-pated blockheads like Paige could be easily caught in the rebound. Down Jenny, up Lydia. Le roi est mort … It seemed possible. Very possible. Lydia's mother (interested in all good works except the advancement of her daughter) was worse than useless to a young female. Lydia, one believed, would be grateful if Oliver helped her to Mr. Paige on his silver platter, and after marriage not quite so grateful. But by then Oliver would be consolidated. Quite another pair of shoes, this. But he believed he could make them fit.
"My dear artful creature," he said lightly, "is there anything I can tell you that you do not already know?"
And they laughed together. Lydia was of those who would sooner be called artful than good, and Oliver had no objection to helping her cook her goose. And the sooner the better, lest Mr. Paige take fright at the country's condition and flee over the seas again.
Yet the country (which half the population believed to be ruined and the other half hoped was prosperous) was in some way getting things done at a great rate. Launceston completed a scheme which gave her almost the best water-supply in the world, with a million gallons and more always on tap. Hobart Town, with many throes and ministries, turned herself into a city under full civic rights, banished the old jail, with its sombre memories, from the town centre to Campbell Street and began to tidy up. Once the Empire drab, Tasmania was fast becoming quite the lady, with her fine schools, public offices, bridges, roads and what not. She had slips where some of the fastest vessels afloat were being built; wattle bark such as the rest of the world could not produce, and wool of which even England spoke with a surprised respect. Her natural beauties were far above and beyond all these; but in the 'fifties Nature was put in her place and kept there, like unruly daughters.
"Time we had Jenny back. I miss her, my love," the Captain said daily, until James Sorley, waiting for re-election, returned to Bredon and delivered himself at a public meeting on the subject of increased taxation. Then the Captain, always ready for battle with his old friend, sprang at him like valiant Jack at the Giant. James knew himself in these days as a giant, and page 233wore a faintly superior acid manner which enraged the Captain surprisingly.
"James is getting what Cook calls up-nosey," the Captain told Madam, as he sat one evening netting curtains. "By the way, tell her that there will be an old couple at the back door presently. They can sleep in one of the sheds. And now we'll have some of Mr. Pickwick. Mab …"
But Mab had had an urgent letter from Mr. Paige and gone by stage to Hobart Town where he met a just-released Robert Snow and was much the more embarrassed of the two. Snow, a freed man with no assets except two half-crowns in his pocket and the Lord knew what liabilities in his soul, stood with his lean sardonic smile in the little hotel room. He did not speak. His dark eyes were narrowed. His thin nose seemed too long in his hollow cheeks. Mab said in a hurry: "Glad to see you. My niece, you know. She saw … must have been a mistake somewhere. Never expected …"
"Quite. So I have you to thank for my release, too?"
Mab didn't like the "too." A queer bleak look the poor devil had, though. No wonder. "I can get you work if you want it."
"That's inevitable, isn't it?"
"Er … I suppose so. Mr. Keyes of Tane Hall wants a shepherd. I'll recommend you."
"As a shepherd?"
In the clothes he had just bought himself Snow looked dreadfully like a gentleman in spite of his broken hands. He had never been soft. Always … uncomfortable. Now he was something more. Ten years at Port Arthur were bound to make him something more, since they had not smashed him. Impulsively Mab blurted out: "Were you ever in the Dumb Cell?"
"Twice. And you?"
"I? Oh … I looked into it once."
"Ah! An amateur."
He was devastating, but Mab had to go farther, although no one who saw poor old Ellen at thirty-eight … "You understand that I am helping you only on condition that there … there is no … no more …"
"No more promiscuity. I understand."page 234
"Gad!" thought Mab, going away after making an appointment for Snow to meet Roger Keyes that evening at the Albion. "He's inhuman. I half wish …"But, after all, it had been inevitable, just as Snow said.
"But the fellow is inhuman," he insisted to Jenny the next time he went over to Lovely Corners. And Humphrey, who had come down from Latterdale where he studied history in his log hut after a twelve-hour day at logging and stumping, remarked that all men had had an inhuman streak ever since Hannibal crossed the Alps and Cæsar went to Britain.
"You can't stand, loneliness without you have a bit of the animal, or death without you have a bit of the god," said Humphrey. "Trouble with too many of us colonists is that we haven't had to stand either. An aristocracy of blood and bluster; too many of us."
Again Mab felt at a loss. These youngsters! "Too many new ideas," he said.
"Not enough of those," retorted Humphrey, rocking his stocky body as he and Jenny sat on the grass under the apple trees. Always got back to the earth when they could, those two. "Why, Uncle Mab, you must realize how these stiff-necked old colonial notions are blocking everything. Take pasture, now. Because people started on the rich alluvial land along the rivers, they will apply the same processes to hill country. Take Latterdale. I'd never set a share in those sweet tough native grasses on the slopes, but Father will plough them and sow with English seed. Then the first heavy rains and where are you? Nothing left but the bones of the hills."
"The English were always conservative, Humphrey. That's what has put us where we are."
"But where are we, us young uns?" said Humphrey, thinking of Maria whom he meant to marry when his father gave up buying him clothes and his mother stopped weighing out his weekly rations with those of the other men. "Oh, Lord! I would like to earn some money!" he said.
Jenny shook the apple petals out of her ringlets and swept them together in the pale muslin of her lap. If only this fragile pink-and-white was money for Humphrey, who would never page 235drink of the wine that makes men mad on holy dreams but who did so want to make roads and prosperous farms.
"But I couldn't marry Mr. Paige," she said, pursuing her thought.
"That scab! You never did better work than when you made him cut his lucky, Jen. He's not the cheese."
"He has got the man Snow's freedom for you, though, Jenny," said Mab. "What are you going to say to him for that?"
"Tell him that I never appreciated the meaning of the word until now." Jenny looked at Mab, widening her eyes. "I feel more wicked and more happy than I've ever felt, Uncle Mab. I know I shouldn't——"
"Possibly you'll feel wickeder and happier yet," said Humphrey, getting up. "'Specially if you go on burning the tracts Aunt Ellen gives you."
"I burned Snatched from the Pit and Little Adolphus, but I kept Buttons for the Breeches of Salvation for you."
She fled away laughing among the blossoming apple trees, with Humphrey making clumsy grabs at her as he followed, and Mab went soberly to look for Ellen. La petite was so very much less subdued than he had expected to find her; and although she was delicious this way, he much feared that it was dangerous. Very dangerous, every one knew, for a girl to think for herself, and Jenny, apparently, was so thinking. He heard her distant laugh among the trees; chequered light and shade mysteriously hid her, but still her vividness remained…. Something that could not come to heel in Jenny … elves, fauns, all the wild, gay, mischievous things. Disturbed in his mind, Mab had a sense of relief as he stepped into the high-windowed back room where Ellen was always cleaning the black clothes of her parents, who were dirty feeders. Ellen must be told about Snow, but there was no fear of further outbreaks here. The chains of custom were set too deep in her flesh.
It was difficult to tell things to Ellen, because she never helped interpretation. Just stood with her bony faded face, her hare eyes, her pale half-open mouth, and waited.
"It's about Snow. He is out again after ten years in Port Arthur," said Mab bluntly.page 236
Something flickered up in the hare eyes, flushed the faded cheeks. The essential Ellen whom Mab in the name of all the proprieties had helped to kill. But before he could feel pity or compunction it was gone and Ellen crying confusedly about the disgrace … the disgrace. Undoubtedly she had regained her sense of proportion!
"I had thought him dead. Oh, if he were dead!" She waved her arms uncouthly, upsetting a bowl of soapy water across Mr. Merrick's waistcoat. "Mab, what shall I do? He will come for me. Oh, I could not bear it! Tell him he mustn't come."
She prepared for hysterics. Mab, remembered that cold face, said: "He won't come. He understands."
"But he adores me. Is he handsome still? I always thought … a martyr's face. Is he like a martyr still, Mab?"
"A martyr? I don't know." Mab thought of the thin acid smile, the stillness that was round the fellow like a shroud—or a protection. "No, I shouldn't say so." A martyr loved his kind, didn't he? "I thought it best to tell you, Ellen, in case you heard it elsewhere. But you can put him out of your mind, for you'll never see him again."
"And no one will ever know?" Ellen began to weep, smearing her face with the soapy, dirty water. "Ten years at Port Arthur! Mab, I should die of shame if people ever found out."
Mab went out abruptly, leaving her among the fusty smells of damp broadcloth and bombazine. So that was what it all amounted to. Julia used to talk of dying of shame if people knew. People! Meant more to women than anything else, did they? He tried to understand. People's tongues could kill a woman more effectually than a bullet, and—poor devils—they knew it. How would that bright daring spirit of Jenny's fare if ever it brought itself within the range of people? He felt a moment's sickness at the thought.