The straggled town of Launceston, almost as old but not so large as Hobart Town, was sunk in river fog when the four young men climbed through rough scrub and tall timber up the Cataract Hill. In the east the sky was flushing in delicate pinks and saffrons and a chill dawn wind blew down to the marshes below, sending the mist driving like thick giant figures, shredding it thin until little streets and houses blinked out in warm reds and faded blues. Deep down on Brevis's right the wild gorge of the cataract thundered with its dark waters, and he stopped more than once to listen while the others tramped on. It had a tremendous attraction for him, that sinister voice trumpeting defiance out of the shadows.
The sun was up when they came over the hill; warm on the grey rocks smooth with age, warm in the clear, calm water of the basins. Tea-tree was in flower here, long wreaths of starry-white blossom above them while they stripped. Parrots, robins, and song-sparrows were at their morning orisons; all the clean, sharp scents of the bush loosened in the growing warmth of the air. A virgin place, given over to the wild rocks and ancient timber and the passing of small bright birds.
Like school-boys they bathed, shouting, splashing the silver spray, then spread naked on the warm rocks to dry. Brevis, chin on hands, considered how much a man's naked body could tell of him. Gamaliel's curves were large and kindly as his tallow butts, very soft. Stocky Humphrey had the deep chest, broad shoulders page 271and hips of a man meant for domesticity and agriculture. But Mab Comyn's lean flanks and long muscular legs belonged to the rover, the rider born. Mab was dark as mahogany, with curious livid scars here and there. Brevis beside him felt too bright-white and slender in the waist, but was fortified by the strong hairs of his body, thicker even than Mab's upon the chest. Strange terrible things, these bodies of hot and aspiring dust; so soon destroyed, so beautiful, so potent with unconscious life to be.
Humphrey plaited grass, whistling plaintively "Annie Laurie"; but Gamaliel, on his broad back with wide-awake over his eyes, was talking to Mab of tallow. "Now the Maori wars are over, those big New Zealand sheep-stations will go ahead. Hides … and I'm confident we could build up a good market in tallow."
Tallow…. Good Lord! thought Brevis, watching a blue wren weave its turquoise skein of flight through the tea-tree…. Some day I shall be Crown Prosecutor for Australasia, if I live. And they are content with tallow!
"Are you coming to Clent for Charlotte's wedding, you fellows?" asked Humphrey, suddenly, and Mab sat up and began to laugh.
"Poor little Mark is trying so hard to do the right thing. He wrote Lottie a poem beginning: 'Hail to thee, blithe maiden. Bird thou never wert.' I don't think he got any farther."
"He didn't," said Brevis, who heard often from Jenny in these days. "Charlotte thought it very true, but rather obvious. She and Mark will get on splendidly."
He rose and began to dress, feeling suddenly very hot. He could not think of Jenny without a clamour of the blood; a kind of fierce humbleness. There was so much he ought to tell her and never would. Nor had he meant to tie himself before he was well established, considering all self-imposed chains suicide for a climbing man. But each trip to Clent left him less able to resist the attack of Jenny's bright spirit. He knew that he had won unasking what so many men had prayed for, and he knew that he would not have been human if that knowledge had not mixed a faint ichor of disdain with his pleasure and pride.
Mab, plunging into his clothes, was shouting in his rich tenor:page 272
"I would I were in Manchester,
A-sitting on the grass,
And by my side a bottle of wine,
And on my lap a lass."
If all accounts were true, Mab Comyn didn't have to go to Manchester for them. As for Brevis, he didn't want them at all. He knew that what he really wanted, what he meant to have, was the position of Crown Prosecutor for all Australasia.