On the high burning flats of Bendigo, Mab read with distress and shame what Jenny had to say about Robert Snow. The man belonged to the forgotten past when Mab had none of that pity for others which so often troubled him now. Since then he had been into the mud and out. He had made fortunes and lost them, and now he had little left but his strong body and a steadying sense at the bottom of his mind that, after all, the fight's the main thing.
Outside his hut he sat on an upturned powder-cask, generally used as a water-bucket, and smoked a pipe through, staring at the rickety tin buildings and wooden huts reeling grey in the heat. Men moved about them: scores of men and a few women, all living, hoping, suffering humans like himself. By the time the pipe was done, his thoughts, never very quick, had arranged themselves. He stood up.
"Nothing else for it," he said half aloud. "The poor devil was no worse than me. Not so bad. I must get him out of that."
He took the next boat from Melbourne, which landed him four days later at Hobarton. Every one now called it Hobarton, but Mab could not learn the trick of it any more than he ever learned the trick of subtlety. But even he saw his opportunity when he called on a distracted Mr. Paige and heard what Jenny had done.
"It is inexplicable," said Mr. Paige. "I went up to see her, but …"
Mab gathered that he had returned more distracted than when he went. He had a kind of unbuttoned look very pleasing to Mab, who loathed the fellow, and he was so oilily abject, like a dog hopefully sniffing round legs.
"Perhaps you might get her to explain, Comyn. She is fond of you."page 228
It did not need an Oliver to grasp this opportunity. Mab, although feeling somewhat dishonourable toward Jenny, at once offered Snow as a lever. "She was troubled about the fellow being there. I'm afraid there was some mistake. If you could have him released …"
"It shall be done." … Lord! thought Mab, the man really cares. He has changed all in a minute…. "I will leave for the peninsula to-morrow," said Mr. Paige, beginning to gather up razors and neckties.
Mab went to dine with the Sorleys and there heard more about Jenny, under the new petroleum table lamps which, Louisa complained, were worse than the marsh gas with which Hobarton was now beginning to light itself and which generally left dinner-tables in the dark somewhere between the fish and the savoury.
"My dear, we must lead," said James, balder and a little bent, but exuding wealth and importance. "As a Member of this First Parliament of Responsible Government …" he continued with plenty of capitals. But Mab had no wish to hear anything of the first parliament, which busied itself with quarrellings, with putting on duties and taking them off, and was just on the edge of finally extinguishing itself with a vote of "no confidence." He asked about Jenny.
"Oh, poor Jenny! William told Henry that she was still incarcerated," said Louisa. "I suppose she should be, for of course children should obey their parents." Thinking of Julia, she sighed. These immutable laws had a queer way of confounding their sponsors…. If only she had married Mab. I vow he is handsomer than ever, she thought. But never once had her innocent soul suspected Mab.
"To have sense," Madam had once told Oliver, "one must know the cabaret versions of the songs of the world. Louisa knows none that are not sung in drawing-rooms, nor does she know that there are other versions. James must be cleverer than I thought him."
"I am grieved that you will not see Julia, Mab," said Louisa. "She has gone to Sydney with Sir Almeric. He still has some weakness.'page 229
Even her generous mind could not quite forgive Noll for trying to make her child a widow. Yet in that case Mab could have married Julia. But she would have lost her title. Possibly Providence knew best after all.
To his almost shocked surprise Mab found that he could hear Julia's name without wincing; and this so heartened him that he rode north through a rosy dawn silvered with dew on the cobwebs, whistling with the magpies, throwing pennies to the tow-headed beggar-children who came swarming out of haystacks and other places of the night. All things healed if you gave 'em time, he thought. But, excepting, for Jenny, he was assuredly done with women.
After some weeks in her room Jenny was rather surprised to find her tremendous sense of relief still upholding her. That individual Me which she had first found in the kangaroo-clearing, and which Mr. Paige had almost obliterated, had returned with such glorious shouts of freedom that she often held high revels with it up there in the dark. Interviews with William or Susan only made it freer, and she was ashamed to remember afterward that it had made the long nose at Mr. Paige. Now that she was no longer afraid of him … Dieu! but he was funny! Yet she never went to Madam except reluctantly, for it is hard to fight those one loves even though at times one must love oneself better.
"For what, then, have I educated and considered you?" demanded Madam, stately in her high chair, and Jenny, a little white and shaky, answered:
"I cannot marry Mr. Paige. He is canaille."
"Gracious Heaven!" cried Madam, gripping her delicate hands until the rings and pointed nails hurt her. "Do you perhaps imagine that you know more of gentlemen than I?"
"Mr. Paige isn't a gentleman," persisted Jenny.
Because Madam knew that now, she was the more angry. Speech with le gros Paige left a sour taste au bouche. But he was a bon parti and she had chosen him. She cried: "Are you not my granddaughter? Do you not owe me obedience?"page 230
Jenny never could cry when tears might have been useful. She said helplessly: 'I am very sorry. I cannot marry that man."
"Eh bien." Madam reached for her embroidery frame. "I wash my hands of you. For many years I have depleted myself that you might have advantages. Wasted effort! You may go."
They were burning gorse and bracken on the low hills when Mab rode up to Clent and stopped to speak of Jenny to William, who stood watching him in the red glare with the columns of harsh-scented smoke eddying round him. He left William shocked and pulling at his sandy whiskers and went on to attack Madam, which was a harder job because they loved each other. But he did not mince words. "Marry Jenny as Julia was married," he said, "and you'll get a worse tragedy. Jenny was your blood and she'll go to the devil. And I'll help her."
"I marvel that you have the face to speak of Julia to me who knows what happened there," retorted Madam, very erect.
"Because you know, I am telling you that it will happen again. How would you like to be browbeaten yourself, maman? Gad! no one likes it, except such things as Susan, and they haven't the wit to know what they like."
"Jenny must marry."
"Multiply and replenish the earth, eh? Not with Paige."
"You have grown coarse, Mabille. You do not pleasure me."
"I am not here to pleasure you. My heavens!" he cried, switching about Madam's dignified furniture with his riding-whip. "Can't you see, you who have so much imagination? Can't you see how much farther she'll go, given her head, than if you couple her up with that dolt who'll never lift his nose from the manger except to nuzzle her?"
"A young girl cannot go far alone," said Madam, considering this.
"She'll have both of us behind her."
"And what can you do?"
"I'll show you, if you can persuade Bill to let Jenny out of that room. She won't be improved by losing all her colour and spirit."
"if I can persuade Guillaume? Is he, then, grand seigneur? If I pardon Jenny, I think we shall hear no more of Guillaume."page 231
"Touché," thought Mab content. He stooped to kiss her cheek, soft with the softness of age. "Egad, maman! Where would the Comyns stand now if you had been a man!"
At sixty Madam, who had begun life at fourteen, was no longer very young. She leaned her head against Mab's arm. "Life is too harsh. And you are harsh. But one lives down everything, including death. Our petite must marry, Mabille."
"Not unless she wants to."
"Mon Dieu, my son! Do we ever get what we want?" She looked up at him sadly. So much she had wanted for this big splendid child of hers, driven here and there by his passions. The cunning of love moved her. She drew his face down to hers. "Let us work for our little Jenny, Mab … together."
So, as a bone to placate dignity, it was settled that Jenny should go for a time to Lovely Corners, as a continued punishment. Susan, still upset about the trousseau and the fact that Jenny had four younger sisters and might have more (for you never could tell), reluctantly became William's mouthpiece again, requesting that the said punishment should not extend to bread and water nor solitary confinement. "Then where do the punishment come in?" demanded Mrs. Merrick, peering out of her black shawls. Susan looked round the fusty crowded room where her girlhood had so suffered, where Ellen's womanhood was so suffering, and said nothing. William had not told her the answer to that.
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.
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!
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.