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page 284


Brevis had long since determined to go very far. And as Jenny's wisdom kept him clear of trammels—she never inquired if he was sure yet of his love—he was coming to find enormous pleasure in hers, which seemed to grow stronger, more buoyantly trustful with each one of those long letters, crossed and recrossed in their fine Italian hand after the barbarous fashion of the hour.

And he was finding enormous pleasure in his popularity. Men crossed the Launceston streets to pass with him the time of day. Ladies everywhere bowed out of their carriages. His mantelshelf was important with neat rows of invitation cards. He turned them over in one of his few idle moments, smoking his after-dinner pipe. Every one who mattered was there, and especially, he noted, the mothers of unwedded daughters. Never do to acknowledge himself bound while there was so much climbing to do—for Jenny's sake as well as his own.

He dropped into his leather chair, thinking of Jenny. For two months he had not seen her, and the desire for her was growing fast. He wanted her acutely; wanted her soft lips, her slim little body with its delicate bones like a bird's; wanted her hot undaunted pagan love, her gay flashing spirit. He moved restlessly, thinking of her. That which he had felt for Frasquita had been no more than the rough lust of adolescence. This, he felt, was completely different. He had a chivalrous tenderness for Jenny, a shame that he was not doing quite the right thing. But how alter it? He had known the terrible hampering of shackles once. He had known what possession of Frasquita had done to his ambition. It must not happen again. Self-control, aloofness, the skilful building up of the reputation for cool-blooded fastidiousness which, he found, attracted these hearty colonials more than anything … that was what he must concentrate on now.

By and by, with a place won for her and himself, he could rest a moment on his oars; take his love, his Jenny, and receive Susan's slobbering kisses, Madam's bitter congratulations; they'd never get on, he and Madam. Meanwhile, he would run down to Clent to-morrow and see Jenny.

He got out a sheaf of papers and settled to his desk. But page 285concentration would not come. His longing for Jenny had evoked her, a bright enchantment coming between him and this sordid squabble of dock-side lumpers which the firm had turned over to him. He read the evidence twice without realizing a word…. Jenny, the lovely loving thing, not so much surrendering as offering in her gallant courage. How utterly she trusted him, and how he loved her! How he forgot ambition, everything, when their lips met! And that was a danger.

He thrust the dock-siders away, turning to Thompson & Comyn's New Zealand correspondence. That could not wait, for Mab would be in directly to see about it. Some confusion about payments which must be straightened out before Mab left. Digging his fingers into the mass of his dark hair, he read: "As we have before pointed out regarding the present conditions existing in the Island of New Zealand …"

He had been right, he knew, to begin his career in Launceston. It was as different from the dogmatic military South as from the bucolic Midlands, this commercial North butting hard-headed against its difficulties, getting things done to the clang of hammers, the stink of hides and beer, the scream of the river steamers. When he left Tasmania, a few years before, it had been still rather nervously experimental, with small settlements along the coasts and outlying rivers, tentative agriculture on the higher lands, and a wild abandonment to quarrelling between governments and the gentry who (having been, as it were, there before any government) might be damned but would never be ruled. Still there had been a forgotten remnant of natives at Oyster Bay, many gay officers in military posts, many fine ship-building yards where some of the world's finest clippers took shape from some of the world's hardest timber. Now all these things were rapidly changing except the quarrels, which he hoped would provide legal bread-and-butter and presently champagne. Before very long, thought Brevis, raising his head as Mab came in, he would be setting up for himself with young Frank Shone as partner.

Mab, flinging off cloak and hat, had come to talk business. But over a preliminary pipe and glass before the fire Brevis saw so much of Jenny in his buoyant vitality that he had to speak of her. And from that, before he knew it, he had told so much that even page 286Mab guessed most of the rest. Mab was glad. Brevis, perched on a chair arm and swinging a leg in his anxiety, was enormously relieved that Mab was glad, for if there was one person who could influence Jenny it was Mab Comyn.

"That fellow Paige, you know … I could have wrung his neck," said Mab. "Jenny knew her own mind there. She always has, God bless her. She'll go far. You'll go far between you," he said, feeling that he hadn't the slightest notion what happened to folk who went far. But undoubtedly it must be the right thing to do.

"I'll be Crown Prosecutor of Australasia some day. And that is not talking through my hat. It's just what I mean to do."

"Then you'll do it," said Mab, with a sigh. "I never do what I mean to do. But if you're not all the good in the world to my Jenny, Brevis, I'll break your neck. What … what does my mother think of it?"

"She doesn't know. We think it much better for no one to know until my position is more assured. I shouldn't have told you, but …" He smiled, and Brevis had a singularly sweet smile. "I was thinking of her and it came out. You must keep our secret."

"Oh!" Mab was dampened. He had seen himself taking Jenny by the arm and marching her off to crow over Charlotte. "But … Oh, well; I suppose you know best between you." He thought humbly how seldom he knew best, while this young man whose clear-headed advice people were beginning to swear by … "Gamaliel wants to know what you advise about those Poverty Bay people, Brevis. He would rather not send cash."

"If you hope to gain financial standing and put your business through in a hurry, I'm afraid you'll have to. Even if he banked in Melbourne, which he refuses to do, there is no argument like gold among the individual farmers with whom you'll be dealing. Later, when you have established a connection …"

They settled that Mab ought to take as much gold as the firm could conveniently spare. "You can bank the surplus there until you need it," said Brevis. "But pay on the nail when you can. Get yourself known as Golden Comyn or something. Focus attention. Advertisement goes a long way in opening up new page 287fields, and New Zealand is still a practically undiscovered country. You'll have to keep your eyes open, of course. And look out for Snow's Gang before you leave the country."

"I have never believed that it was Snow. There's no proof," said Mab, with sudden stiffness.

"Well, one must call him something," said Brevis, lightly. He got up and shook a little incense into the burner before the gilt icon. It was his way to do extravagant things or austere things to rouse the interest of his many callers. Already he had proved for himself that advertisement goes a long way, but he was very sardonic with himself the while. He could trick outsiders. Some day he might have to trick Jenny. But never, he knew, would he be able to trick himself. Just now, lighting the incense, watching the grey smoke spiral delicately through the dark warmth of the room, he was trying to trick Mab Comyn, who, without any doubt at all, held some secret in connection with Snow. But Mab, who had smelt too many Chinese burning joss-sticks on the Australian gold-fields, was suddenly irritated at Brevis and went off in a hurry.

I shall go to Ellen Merrick, thought Brevis, when Mab was gone. Jenny writes that her delusions are increasing and no one takes any notice of her. They grew out of something, those delusions. And although nothing has been heard of Snow for months, I've a notion he won't let Mab Comyn leave the country unharmed. I may be on the wrong track altogether, but we'll see. He went to Lovely Corners before seeing Jenny. Snarling curs snapped at him in the mud round the dingy high-windowed place, and Joe was duller than ever. Some years back Joe had seen the first mechanical harvester at work in Bob Beverley's paddocks, and had gone home silent and stared at his own crude models in the stable loft.

"Mine'd not shake the grain about so. Mine's better," he mumbled. But he knew that no one else would ever see it or say it. The Parents' Assistant had done its work too well. Something had gone out of Joe with the years and the sight of that triumphant harvester. He let the dust lie on his models now.

It was never easy to detach Ellen from her mother's shawls and hot bricks for the feet; but Brevis found her in the kitchen-page 288garden at last, her skirts and wild hair blowing in the spring wind as she gathered sage and borage for Mrs. Merrick's herb tea. Ellen, grey sister of the dark night, was Tragedy in crinoline and a plaid shawl and most terribly ready to talk. No one talked to her, she complained, and yet she knew so many interesting things. Several gentlemen walked in cloaks on the opposite hill when the wind blew, and Mamma was really a cat, for Ellen had seen her claws sometimes when putting her to bed. "But don't tell, Brevis. Dear Mamma is so sensitive."

Some one whistled at her window every night. But when she climbed on a chair to look there were only the ring-tail 'possums swinging by their tails from the weeping-gum tree and beating their pink little paws on the pane. "And they are not paws, Brevis, but hands like my own little boy's. Did you know I had a baby? Mamma and Susan won't let me say it, but I should know, shouldn't I? Such a love of a boy, but I've lost him somehow. I seem to lose everything."

Her hare eyes were piteous in the clear spring day. Her pallid skin was sunken below the high cheek-bones. She had been such a sturdy, rosy girl once, but Brevis was too young and impatient to give her pity. He wanted to know of Snow, who, it seemed probable, was at the bottom of this. But Ellen screamed at his name; then giggled. "Oh, naughty! I swore to Mab his name should never pass my lips."

"It hasn't. I said it. Do you want me to tell Snow you lost him?"

"Hush!" She looked this way and that through the blowing shrubs, then leaned close. "I've told him," she whispered.

"But that was long ago."

"No, no. I told him again when Mamma had her last attack of bronchitis."

This was last week, as Brevis had already heard from Mrs. Merrick. "Ah, yes. He came to see Mab, didn't he?"

"Don't be sly! He came to see me, of course." She struck at him with the grey sticks of sage, giggling. "Why should he want Mab? He knows Mab is going to New Zealand next week."

I wonder how much he has learned from you, thought Brevis. So Snow was not far off? Probably preparing for another of his page 289campaigns wherein respectable citizens were forced to sit with a stick under their knees and hands tied over them, to watch their houses burn. It was a legend that there were caves in those rough scrub hills behind Henny's, although they had never been found. If Snow were there, then Henny was backing him … had been all the time. Yet neither bribes nor bullying had ever got anything out of her, which suggested that Snow—a good-looking devil as Brevis remembered him—made love to Henny, as he undoubtedly did to Ellen. No woman at any age is proof against that. He asked if Snow was not a great friend of Mab's. But now Ellen began to be troubled about her herbs and would not talk.

"I wish you would remember how much I have to do," she said busily.

So Brevis left her, thinking that there was probably enough here to explain Mab's sending Snow to Port Arthur. But why let the fellow out again? All the Comyns were quixotic, yet even Mab might guess that Snow would make him pay for those wasted years…. And pretty soon if I'm not mistaken, Brevis thought, turning toward Clent.