Word came to town next morning that bush-rangers had been seen in the Midlands again. At this late day many would not believe, but the incoming coach brought details. Cattle had been driven and barns fired in several places. An empty house had been rifled of all its valuables, and a man coming home late down the Snakebanks road had seen riders pass with packhorses and heard speech that was unmistakably a gentleman's. Roger Keyes, who had come to town to meet Brevis, thought this "might be that Port Arthur fellow you got me to take on as shepherd, Mab. He disappeared a fortnight ago, and I can't trace him."
Brevis agreed. "Just what one would expect from a man with a grievance," he said, but Mab protested.
"Why, he'd be there now if I hadn't had him released!" he cried.
"Then look out he don't reserve a special bullet for you," said Brevis, dryly.page 262
What, he wondered, seeing Jenny and her family off by the stage with its four handsome horses and the red-coated coachman blowing his long horn, what personal interest had made careless Mab Comyn busy himself with an old P.A. lag? Some queer story there if one could get at it. He watched Mab riding alongside on an awkward young 'un as the coach disappeared in dust. But walking back to his lodgings he found himself thinking of Jenny.
Jenny was sitting very straight in her corner of the stage, looking out (she had secretly drawn her veil aside) on a world which had gained immeasurably in significance since she came to town. Rollicking calls of minahs through the clear crisp weather, tall wattle trees spraying their gold against blue sky, bright water running down between the lace of tree-ferns, sheep in tussock paddocks tawny with sun, violet loom of the distant ranges seen beyond the dark green of the nearer hills—all these vital pagan glorious things were recreated because Jenny the pagan had discovered the miracle of life.
Love. That is the miracle, thought Jenny, as proud as though a hundred men had not already told her so. That little blue wren on the weathered log fence was not hopping more gaily than her heart. "I shall often come to Clent. I shall often come to Clent." Brevis had said it.
Susan, who always felt sick in the stage, mourned that the bush-rangers would certainly come for their jewels when it got dark.
"Give the case to me," said Charlotte, and sat on it. "They will not get it from me," she said, looking almost matronly in her sherry-coloured silk with a magenta bonnet.
"Oh, dear! I do hate town," lamented Susan.
"I have told Mark I am not going to another ball before I'm married," said Charlotte. "It was nice of you to give me your spare partners, Jenny. Most of them were odious."
"Oh, Lottie darling! One was the governor's aide!"
"A vapid noodle, Mamma. I don't wonder Jenny wouldn't marry any of them. I wouldn't, myself."
"Dearest, you don't need to. Your hand is already bestowed," said Susan, piously. Then, in sudden alarm: "Mab! Mab!"page 263
She gesticulated a tightly gloved fat hand from the window. Mab rode near. Behind him poddy calves, very young and inquiring, stared through a barnyard fence with yellow hayricks beyond. Susan cried: "Mab, is the cart just behind? Is it safe? All Lottie's trousseau——"
"Ten paces behind," said Mab, who had not seen it for an hour. He trotted on past prosperous farmyard buildings, hissing geese round a pond, a field where men in smocks cut grain with sickles that dazzled in the sun. He put the young 'un to an awkward gallop on the grassy side of the road, popped him over a low rail into deep pasture where a young Hereford bull raised an annoyed head, and took him out over blossoming gorse at the paddock-end. Needed schooling, the colt did, but how good it was to feel the unaccustomed young mouth answer to his light touch on the rein, the unaccustomed young limbs gather for the leap. Yes, life was good, even sweet now that he could meet Julia without pain. No, not without pain. There was always the sense of something dead in him when he saw Julia now…. I may love again, he thought…. But I'll not be able to trust. She's put an end to that for me.
Arrived at Clent, Madam went to her bed and sent for Jenny, whose parting with Brevis, decorous although it was, had told her too much. Men said that Brevis would go far. Bien; let him do it. For her part, her mind, full of gay-coloured pasts and regimental pageantry, revolted against the dullness of "the "professions," and she had not carried off that unregretted and successful coup with old James in order to see Jenny marry an unfledged lawyer. If it came to more fights with la petite … Madam, defiantly conscious of her years, of the innate cruelty of life, girded her loins. Jenny should lead the colony yet; and be damned to her for a minx.
Jenny brought Madam a sweet negus of port and a biscuit, and made a soft radiance in the moonlit room where the light came through old-fashioned fan windows above the ordinary shuttered ones. Madam, who could calculate anything but money, knew well the insistence of inanimate things; the restlessness Jenny's ugly bedroom had unconsciously produced; the ravishment which the girl always felt in this dim sweet place, redolent page 264of pot-pourri and old silks and laces taken out of sandalwood. To-night Jenny would have liked to sit here thinking, and conscious of the faint celestial aroma from crystal bottles and silver pots and enamelled bright little patch-boxes; the faint celestial light from dim-gilt mirrors and the glasses on faded water-colours. A remote enchanted room where one might (very cautiously) take Love out of one's shielding bosom and hold it between the hands; turning it this and that way until it glowed to peacock brilliancy, and shone white as silver, and took the eternal fire of all the suns. Jenny, thinking this, smiled uncertainly at Grandmama whose eyes in the light from the one tall silver candlestick were so bright for all her age.
"Now," said Madam, who knew that atmosphere will break down barriers where words won't, "we will chat, my pigeon."
They talked. And said nothing. No barriers broke, wherefore Madam with the lucidity of her sex deduced that there were barriers. And she gave an angry admiration to this girl whom she had trained to so much more than the harp and petit point.
Peste! Madam must, then, use her wits with this child even as with Oliver. A little flattery; a little suggestion of secrecy, and there you were. When Jenny proffered ripe lips at last, Madam held her close, searching, almost tender.
"Tell me … you are happy?"
"And why not?" asked Jenny, laughing-sweet. "I've nearly everything."
"There's still something to look forward to, you see," cried Jenny. And kissed her again and ran out of the room, leaving Madam, a stately high-nosed little figure in cap and bed-gown, to settle back among the pillows in a grim silence.
Avoiding the salon where Charlotte would be gathered with the elders (already Charlotte behaved like an elder), Jenny flung a scarf about her shining shoulders and ran out into the night. For sheer joy in life she sang with little provocative steps and side-lookings:
"En passant par la Lorrainepage 265
Avec mes sabots,
Recontrai trois Captaines,
Avec mes sabots.
Le premier prends …"
Oh, la la! Who could make sounds on a still night like this, with the garden fragrant with bosses and banks and pools of pale bloom, the air heavy with Paradise? Jenny went up into the bush which still touched against the back of the stable-yard, and here she watched a bandicoot grubbing with slender pink paws and nose in the heaped leaves of centuries and thought back over all she knew of Brevis. It was not much. Oh, foolishness which had not known that the god would come in his shape! Brevis had good hands on a horse and took his wine well. And he and Sigurd had founded the League of Chivalry, although Sigurd believed that Brevis had forgotten it all long ago. "A cold fellow," Sigurd said. "Cold and chaste as ice."
Jenny, puzzled among her own ardencies, wondered if that were true. His last hand-clasp had not been cold. Nor his eyes. And as for chastity … Well, chastity appeared to mean never thinking the thought that every one thought sometimes; never doing the things that a certain proportion of earth's children insisted on doing. Oh, an unlovable lady, Chastity, knowing nothing of warm straining lips, the warm clasp of flesh to flesh!
Because Jenny did not know either, but knew in the bones of her that she was soon to know, she huddled down on her knees by the spring, seeing her pale face in the moonlit water. Her bare arms shimmered and she stooped her head and kissed them, softly, reverently kissed her young fragrant flesh like the pagan she was. Some day soon Brevis would kiss them. She closed her eyes and shuddered with the thrill running through her.
The air grew cooler. A hare loped out on the grass and stared with its soft prominent eyes, twitching its long ears. A night-bird called back in the bush. Jenny sprang up suddenly and fled back to the house, her hands squeezing her burning cheeks.
How gloriously, terribly easy it was to think unchastely!