Each morning Jenny helped Ellen make Grandpa and Grandma Merrick's bed, feeling very thankful that Ellen was so strong. Between them they turned the heavy palliasse and lifted upon it the lamb's-wool mattress before untying the strings so that page 237they could plunge in their hands and tease away knots formed during the night. Between them they hoisted the horsehair mattress atop and the feather bed—with some struggling—atop of that. When coverings were added and the puce moreen curtains spread out on the pillows the erection was almost as tall as Jenny, and Ellen said anxiously:
"It is such an effort for Mamma to get into it. I always fear that she might strain herself." But when Jenny suggested a stool such as other ladies used, Ellen shook her head. "Mamma considers stools popish. She is such a strict Unitarian. Of course, Papa …" She stopped, feeling it indelicate even to wonder how Papa got into bed, he being so very stout and nightshirts so very short. "Well, it is as the Lord wills," she said.
Jenny found her more than usually awkward and nervous the morning after Mab left. She all but dropped the plaster statuette of Diana (swathed about the middle with drab poplin) on returning it to its bracket after dusting; she mixed Daniel's Animated Nature with the twelve volumes of The Parents' Assistant on which the Merricks had brought up their family, and she seemed to be always listening. Once she cried, "Is that the Clent boat on the river?" and climbed on a chair to look out on the bright day. Her face was queer when she got down. Gaunter, and yet relieved. She giggled weakly.
"I haven't been at the cherry-brandy, I assure you," she said.
Jenny, climbing to the hay-loft later after apples, found Joe there among his "models" and so embarrassed, with the pathetic shyness of an inventor of great dreams, that he could scarcely show them to Jenny.
They were nothin' … well, that thing … he believed that some day folk would reap by machinery and he worked it out. He bruk the blades out of a penknife; if Jenny pulled it along they went round. Trembling before ignorant Jenny, Joseph dragged the clumsy contrivance through shavings that spun away as the blades whirred. It cut standing stuff, said Joseph. Once he'd tried it by moonlight on the lawn…. But how much more interesting than any machinery he was, with the strange fire in his eyes, the strange tenderness in his great hands.
"Oh, Uncle Joe," she cried, excited, delighted, "I never knew page 238you were so clever! You must show it to some one who'll make a big one. You must!"
"Yus an' git laughed at forever," said Uncle Joe. He stood like an overgrown child abashed among his toys. His prominent teeth showed in a mirthless grin (poor Uncle Joe, even plainer than Aunt Ellen); his eyes in their freckled sunk sockets had exchanged their fire for fright. "If ever you tell, Gen'vieve, I … I dunno know what I'll do."
Joseph, Oliver had declared, never did know, any more than Ellen, any more than Susan. The Parents' Assistant, Oliver said, explained that.
"If you'd let Uncle Mab see——" Jenny advanced timidly.
"Him!" squeaked Joseph. "Him!" He felt quite faint to think of dashing, flashing Mab Comyn poking his models about with a hunting-crop, offering to bet which would rouse the most laughter among experts. "I don't want no one to see 'em. Nor to hear of 'em. You go on down, Gen'vieve, an' don't catch your crin'lin on the spikes."
Jenny went soberly, wondering why he was ashamed, why one could never ask him or any one else questions about the things that really mattered; nor could you possibly be answered if you did. Marriage, like death, was the only stamp which franked you into knowledge … and not so very far in then. Most things were acts of Providence, Papa said: or acts of the devil, said Grandma Merrick, who evidently had an intimate acquaintance with the devil. It was rather pushing and bourgeois, Jenny had gathered, to face facts unless one simply had to, and one gained direction for daily life by opening the Bible with shut eyes and dabbing the finger on a verse. Aunt Ellen and Mamma always did it and had taught Charlotte and Jenny, until Jenny felt it must be blasphemous to laugh so much over the advice one got (such as taking seven husbands and … well, other things).
Why, she wondered, was it pious to read in the Bible what one certainly would never be permitted to read elsewhere? To the pure all things are pure, said the Rev. Mr. Fennel, who prepared her for confirmation in white alpaca and a book-muslin cap that covered her hair. Then why mustn't one talk of them? It was all as puzzling as the wonder what Mamma got, for instance, out of:page 239
"They did work wilily, and went and made as if they had been ambassadors," which was dangerous teaching for Mamma. Or of Job scraping himself with potsherds.
Jenny—drawing breath after all this merry and confused tossing on the foam of adulation, the light of lovers' eyes—began, as she patted up golden butter within the fragrant dairy or sat quiet in the flock-papered dark rooms while Mrs. Merrick slept, to sort out her sensations with increasing skill. Something surely must be wrong in a world where men went into the glorious bush merely to burn and destroy; where Uncle Joe was ashamed of creation and so many proud of destruction; where obedience to parents was more important than obedience to your conscience, which, you were told, came from God; where men (made in God's image) wore balls and chains day and night. "We cannot run the risk of rebellion," said Mrs. Carr-Becket about that.
So many people, it appeared, guarded against that risk by converting themselves into leg-chains which never came off. The Merrick grannies never came off. Ellen and Joseph wore them as constantly as Maria was wearing Mrs. Beverley, as Jenny would have had to wear Mr. Paige. Here, from sheer light-heartedness at release, she had to go out and jump from haystacks, her crinoline making a buoyant balloon on the ambient air so full of cock-crowing and other spiky and lively sounds; or ride the boughs of the black wattle, being a centaur (annotated by Mr. Paige, centaurs became as dull as donkeys, but Jenny had retrieved the splendid creatures), springing through the woods of Caledon with hoofs that struck the leafy earth but now and again. And then (after all, she had been well brought up) one remembered one's sins and one's age—past eighteen—and ran in to sit with The Book of Martyrs open on her knees.
Then thoughts went round again. Chains, it seemed, were the only modest wear for women. They must have visible appendages. Convicts might get rid of theirs and set semaphores on Mount Lupus and Mount Stewart flashing and troops with long ball-loaded Brown Besses marching out among the bloodhounds: they might stay free and become bush-rangers with friends all over the country. But a woman socially escaping her trammels would not page 240have the same luck. She would have no friends in any country. Strange and terrible, this, but it explained the case of Mab and Julia as nothing else could do. Julia would have had to choose her man against the world, and she dared not. Would any woman dare? Wandering through the dim garden under the lilacs, hearing the sleepy sounds of birds in the bushes, the soft distant rush of the river, Jenny thought: Would I?
A faint wind came with the tang of the bush hills. It seemed to blow across her soul; dark yet poignant. She stood still, her face raised like a pale flower in the green twilight among the trees, as though waiting for an answer. A white moth brushed her cheek, the wind passed on, leaving her heart beating. But it had held no message. She went in, disconsolate…. Perhaps, she thought, I shall never love well enough to know.
In the next week Mr. Paige plighted his troth—he called it that to Oliver, who was very delicately understanding—to Lydia Quorn, and after that not even William could miss the humour of continuing to "incarcerate Jenny." She wrote to Mab, who had gone with his horses to the Launceston Races:
Grandma is taking me on a round of visits. Dio mio! her handling of the gentlemen is the liberalest of educations. And there are cricket and archery matches, kangaroo-hunting and again bouquets, balls, and beaux. I have never had so many proposals in a week before, but Grandma says: "This cannot go on, Jenny. At twenty a girl is on the shelf among last year's bonnets." And the gentlemen tell me my eyes are continually asking something, and that is the truest word they say. How should they know, poor innocents, that I am asking them all to have the kindness to capture the heart of Jenny Comyn and so tumble me into the matrimonial morass with them. Alack! I'm afraid that not even one of 'em will!