Madam, tired and more than a little bitter, brought Jenny home at last to a Clent acrid with smoke from the raging bush fires back in the ranges. All along the river men were out day and night, fighting the fires, and sometimes Charlotte and Jenny rode out to them with great billies of cold tea or oatmeal water fastened to the saddles. Charlotte now went daily to a Young Ladies'page 241
Seminary in Trienna, where she wrestled unemotionally with a little singing, drawing, deportment and literature, all merely as means to an end. Jenny knew that the end was to be Mark Sorley, a timid, delicate boy who would be easily handled, and—unlike Charlotte and Susan—she did not feel it indelicate to say so. Susan was outraged, but Charlotte said tolerantly that some of them would have to marry. Jenny felt that Charlotte was very tolerant toward life. When the youngest Fremp child was burned playing out on the hills, she did not blame it on the Deity as Susan did when she told Mrs. Fremp that it was God's will, nor did she cry against the instability of everything, like Jenny.
"If we cannot look after ourselves and our belongings, we must expect to suffer," said Charlotte, looking after herself as competently as anything.
They rode home through Trienna for the letters and there found Sigurd Beverley smoking in the sun on the edge of the great stone drinking-trough. Sigurd was being very Bohemian just now, with no collar and no hat. He had decided that only in this manner could a Bohemian express his soul, and had offended James Sorley five minutes before by saying that if ministers would give up wearing stocks the blood of humanity might flow more freely to their brains. It was the gathering of the ticket-of-leavers for their biannual report at Trienna Police Station which had moved Sigurd to that, and he sat with his face like the young Shelley and cried passionately to Jenny: "Scapegoats! Scapegoats of human incompetency. Look at 'em."
While her mare snorted into the water and then touched it with dainty lips Jenny looked under her wide hat at the crowd coming up through the dust and the heat. Brisk, well-clad storekeepers with wives in gay shawls and bonnets; labourers pitching down their scythes outside the door; small settlers riding straight with blackened faces and red-rimmed eyes from the fire-fighting; a school-teacher or two, and—sidling by with leering greedy eyes on the quality—those old and filthy ruffians who were never off the roads except when in jail. A handful or so there were of the feeble drained-out men and women born to be a charge on any country and making Jenny's heart ache with their bleared eyes and sweating weary faces. Charlotte said:page 242
"And after this year England isn't going to allow us even the six thousand pounds for all the jails and poorhouses and hospitals!"
Charlotte always knew facts and knew them quite exactly. She never had to end up with "and things," as Jenny so often did. Sigurd shifted his warming quarters on the stone and began to say that the twenty-five thousand pounds which England had paid until Cessation had been little enough for all the penal settlements and the military, and as for Parliament imagining that they could fill the treasury by more taxation …
Here Jenny ceased to listen. A woman limped up the stony street between the grassy edges. Her choice of stones seemed symbolical of her wild battered self, her mournful cry. She stopped by Jenny and repeated it: "Has any one seed my man? Sam Hall they calls him. Spits a lot——"
"Oh, poor Mary!" cried Jenny. "Oh, Sigurd, have you any money?"
Sigurd pulled out his purse as men all over the country pulled them out for old Mary. No roof could shelter her now, no kindness hold her. The spirit of unresting search, she passed up and down, crying for the man she had come across the world to find; a grey phantom homeless as the wind. An old hag with matted locks sticking through her faded head-shawl pressed up, whining: "Friend o' mine, her be. Corned out i' the same boat nigh thirty year back…. Penny, dear genelmun…. Jest a penny, sweet pretty young lady."
"Oh, let's get away from these creatures!" cried Charlotte, and set off home at a spanking trot. But the woman looked ill, and Jenny cried again, "Oh, Sigurd?"
Sigurd shook his head. As a man and a ratepayer he knew better. "You're never done with 'em," he said. So Jenny cantered off after Charlotte, wishing, like Humphrey, that she had some money.
Even sixpence a week would be something, she thought.
She could never get used to these derelicts any more than Madam could get used to what Mr. Disraeli called "a plebeian aristocracy blended with a patrician oligarchy," although this was settling down with a healthy growth in the colony since the gold-page 243rush. The Captain, rather at a loss for subjects since Cessation, began writing to the papers about it. Here was this shocking question of rural municipalities; he cried: "Damme, sir, d'you realize what that means? Any rude fellow with a few rods of land can get a score of like beggars to elect him for the municipal councils; and there is an end to the rights and privileges of the gentlemen of the district."
"It's evolution," said Henry Sorley, who was a little tired of the rights and privileges of the gentlemen of the district. They had so many, and all conflicting; which was possibly quite natural, seeing that the personal and individual element which had founded the colony was still very much alive in it, but rather troublesome to a practical citizen who was more concerned over gettings things done than over the procedure of doing them.
The Captain ignored evolution. Either you were a gentleman or you were not, and so, damme, where was the sense of talking, he said; clapped his panama on his white shock of hair, and went off in his gig to find some one else to talk to about it. But a little later had come the Indian Mutiny Fund, and in writing of that and collecting subscriptions he forgot the privileges of the gentlemen. When battle was in sight, said Madam, regretfully, the Captain was not a man but a regiment.
In his library, full of Bell's Lifes and all the English sporting papers, he wrote diligently in praise of the first submarine cable to Australia. But before his letter lauding the impetus to industry and the link with Old England was published the cable broke and continued to break until the colony understood that it had paid forty thousand pounds for a worthless article. Then, as a natural corollary, he sent in broadsides blaming the Government.
It was Mab who put him on to a new theme. Mab, who had been prospecting on the east coast, where at Fingal alluvial gold was already paying, rode in to Clent with a month's beard and a spirit at rest. The great silence and bitter testing of the bush, its deluges of rain, its blazing sun on naked tops, and its warm quiet nights full of strange scents and the calls of little animals had at last washed away that sense of bewilderment and distrust of humans which Julia had left him. He sat with feet stretched page 244comfortably, watching Jenny and Madam playing backgammon, and exulted in the civilized scent of the pinks in the garden border, the civilized sight of pretty women. The Captain snuffed enthusiastically.
"Soon our gold-fields will be rivalling Australia, beating 'em," he said.
Mab shook his head. "How can we get the stuff out, with no roads?"
"Roads? Roads? We'll soon have roads, damme. I'll write to the papers."
He did. But Mab was right. The highlands of this wild country, with its roaring torrents and monstrous vegetation, refused to harbour roads. Prospectors were starved out on the high bleak plateau of the Great Lake; lost heart in the southwest whereof they told tales of walking thirty feet up on the horizontal scrub like monkeys. And when they fell through—as they often did—it took all day to climb from the fetid depths again. So gold-mining could not help the country, and the Captain went back to his library and wrote, "We must rely upon the agriculturists, who are, as they always will be, the backbone of any country …"
Humphrey read the letter aloud to Mab, up on Latterdale.
"The dear old sport. Hopeful as ever," said Humphrey.
Mab lay smoking by the camp-fire, but now he turned on the gum leaves and looked at stocky Humphrey through the dusk. Humphrey's voice was less contemptuous than pitying…. These young fellows, thought Mab. Not half the hope in them that I had. And I have less than my father. Does civilization do this always to its children? he wondered, remembering dimly the blazing enthusiasms of the old colonial days.
"Agriculturists!" said Humphrey. "What can we do, with the New Zealand gold-fields taking our best labour, and America and Australia wanting no more of our cereals? Why, land values have so fallen that town properties are merely white elephants taxed by a greedy Government. What in hell can we agriculturists do?"
"Make new freedoms out of old abuses," said Mab, dryly, quoting from the Captain. "Drag experiment out of the muck of tradition and conquer the world with it. Gad! can't that old chap page 245beat the drum! I wish I had half his convictions…. Got your clear title to Latterdale yet, Humphrey?"
"We never will, any more than we could prove on a lot of Clent. They were damned casual in the old days. None of my generation could prove he'd been born, for there were no birth-certificates until ten years ago. These old conveyancing laws are the deuce and all. I've heard Brevis jawing about 'em——"
"Ah! Ever hear from Brevis?"
"Rarely. He was ill for a year in Italy … or said so. But tell that to the marines. Our Brevis was seeing life as he always said he would." Humphrey pushed a tame possum off his legs (everywhere animals came to Humphrey) and added: "I wish I could have Jen up here for a while. She's being smothered down in Clent, and I'm scared she'll marry just any one because she's so dead tired of always being expected to."
"She'll not do that," said Mab. All Jenny's secret delicacy had been shocked by Paige as his had been shocked by Julia. It would be long before either would trust love again. Mab doubted if he ever would until age deadened his fires and stiffened his thews; but he had made himself, on the way, heavens and hells to liven his chimney-corner. Jenny could not. The allowance for a woman was one hell only, which seemed meagre until one remembered that she usually had to stay in it all her life. "Poor dear maid," he muttered, staring down the hill where the dead ringed gum trees spread ghostly arms against the midnight sky.