This was the Christmas of eighteen ninety, and the Queen whose virginity young officers of the regiments had once toasted in broken glass was now an old fat widow in a black bonnet. And most of the officers with their scarlet coats and little waists and their whiskers were dead. The Captain had died years before, having gone off in an apoplectic fit while writing to the papers because the railway from the North to the South was not to pass through Trienna. And old James Sorley was dead. But Madam was still alive, with Charlotte just about to celebrate her ninety-third birthday for her quite as every one expected Charlotte to do it.
Charlotte stood in the doorway, looking down the salon, her fat ruddy face critical, her big body in its bright purple satin and lace somewhat uncomfortable across the bust where dear Louisa Sorley's diamonds flashed, her vast hips very conscious of their lacings. "Il faut souffrir d'être belle," Jenny had told her when helping her into the dress; and although Charlotte was always a little doubtful of Jenny's compliments, she was conscious that to-night she was looking her very best. Even the weather helped: hot, genial Christmas weather, with no clouds up in the dazzling blue, and air too languid to stir the pollen out of the buttercups and off the fronds of the rich grasses. Birds, silent all day, were now singing across the lawns and the fragrant gardens out in the balmy evening, and through the open French windows a few moths came in to circle whitely about the lamps.
Jenny, rather like a little moth in her soft grey silk, was flitting about the lamps, turning them up or down, arranging the fringed shades. Charlotte looked at her affectionately, because she always felt that she had "rescued" Jenny. After that dreadful time in the 'seventies when the scandal about Jenny and Brevis Keyes came out and Mab wanted to take Jenny off to New page 376Zealand, Charlotte had sent for Oliver. The tribal instinct was always strong in Oliver, and it was he who had told Charlotte that there was only one thing more ill-bred than talking scandal and that was admitting that you had heard it.
"We Comyns must stand together," said Oliver, whose knowledge of the world even Charlotte respected, although Madam had never forgiven him for going to live with Richard. "Have her home, Lottie, and take her about with you everywhere. People will not dare insult her if she is under the protection of Mrs. Mark Sorley."
In his hot, rough way Mab had objected. "Jenny wants to go to New Zealand, and I'll take her," he said. But providentially—Charlotte always felt that Providence helped her—the Captain died just then, and Jenny came back to Madam, who was crying for her. Later on, Charlotte took her about, and people accepted her as much as Tasmania had accepted the Scotch thistle which caused so much agitation in the 'forties but which, when left alone, exterminated itself in time. By now Jenny had virtually exterminated herself, Charlotte felt; never blowing now into other folks' paddocks or turning up prickly leaves everywhere. And there was no doubt that Susan and William and Madam would have been a double handful for Charlotte without her.
"I do hope the beer won't be warm," she said anxiously to Jenny. "It was so good of Richard to send two barrels from his new breweries, and he was quite pleased to be asked, although Mark did object. But seeing that all this expense will come out of Mark's pocket—and it will be very heavy, what with getting four Fremps from Trienna to help wait, and all the things from town—well, it seemed only right …"
"To try and get something for nothing. Agreed, my Lottie. One so often has to pay for what one doesn't get at all."
"I never do that, I hope. But there is plenty of wine, and champagne for the toasts. I really do think there is enough of everything, though I haven't had one refusal, Jenny."
Charlotte felt she had indeed reason to be proud of that. Mab was coming from New Zealand and bringing Richard's youngest son with him. Her own married Patty had just arrived at Bredon with her children, having come all the way from North page 377Queensland. There would be Harry and his wife from Sydney; Harry's daughters from Melbourne; in fact the whole of the Comyn clan from all the ends of the New World would be gathered to-night at Clent for the first time.
What an opportunity, thought Charlotte, to bridge differences … some of these very acute … to inspect new relations and see which would be worth patronizing, which one could meet as equals, and which must be snubbed from the very beginning.
Jenny came up, dusting her finger-tips daintily with a lacy shred of handkerchief, and Charlotte wished for the hundredth time that, since her hair was quite white long before she was fifty, Jenny had not given up caps when the fashion went out. Charlotte never would. Otherwise Jenny looked very nice, and her cheeks were pink; but that might have been the roses. Jenny stood smiling at the roses. Young hands—Patty's, Letty's, Fanny's, lovely Nan's—had so wreathed and filled and enchanted the old salon with roses that the pinkness and whiteness swam in the dark shining floor as though it were still water, and the fresh fragrance of them was like kisses on the lips. Nan, who always did the right thing, had wound white moss-rose buds round the delicate Isabey miniature of Madam's mother, and deep rich-hearted crimson blooms on the gilt frame of Madam herself (all drooping curls and lap-dog) in her wedding-gown, just opposite the big chair where Madam would sit when she came down after dinner.
How Madam and Jenny were disliking all this fuss! And yet they had submitted, Madam floored by age, of course, and Jenny by … what? By Lottie's wealth and position, partly; for Lottie was a very big lady now that poor Henry Sorley had gone at last and Mark, the only son to follow the land, had inherited Bredon and entered Parliament where Lottie would some day procure him a twopenny title. But partly, too, by the half-humorous, half-sad knowledge that what to Lottie was a great occasion was to them so little a thing. Jenny had slept with Madam ever since the Captain died, and sometimes they turned and clutched each other in the night. But Jenny was not the Captain, and Madam was not Brevis, and the groping hands knew it and fell away again and the sleeping lids closed over little sighs.
"I hear wheels," said Charlotte, stepping with dignity into the page 378hall. But Jenny, suddenly finding that she had forgotten her belt, dashed off upstairs like a girl. Jenny would still dash about Clent like a girl, thought Charlotte, irritated. No repose. No sense of her years, in Jenny. Charlotte had told Papa and Mamma to be ready in the hall, but of course they were not, and it devolved on Charlotte to welcome the first guests, which she felt was, after all, Providence's recognition of what was only her right.
Oliver climbed stiffly out of Richard's fine brougham, followed by a swarm, and Charlotte modulated her greetings carefully:
"Pleased to see you, Uncle Noll…. Delighted, dear Richard … dearest Lavinia" (Lavinia's diamonds were better than the Sorley ones). "And the dear girls…. And this is Colin?" She dealt them into the house like playing-cards with all their unfamiliar faces uppermost. "Yes, Richard dear. Only Clent folk and their belongings."
Mab walked into the hall, followed by Brevis; and Charlotte's face amused Oliver more than anything had done for years, while Richard turned away to hide a grin and the young ones frankly gaped.
"Well," said Charlotte, recovering with an effort; "this is indeed a … an unexpected honour, Brevis."
By now Brevis was used to conferring honour on those he visited. He said easily: "Mab told me it was Madam Comyn's birthday, and as I was passing through I thought I would call in and pay my respects. So many years since I saw her." He glanced round. "The old place has not changed," he said, and went through with Richard and the other men to hang his coat in the old brown presses of the back passage.
Susan descended on Lavinia and the girls, and Charlotte clutched Oliver, gasping! "It will be in all the papers! What can I do? People will say … what won't they say! Only Uncle Mab would have done a thing like this."
Oliver agreed that only Mab would have done it, while certain that both men were unconscious of the bomb they had dropped. Brevis would not know and Mab would have forgotten that it was an affair so intimate to the family. He said dryly:
"Well, my dear, what can they say but that we are all recognizing that old story very handsomely at last?"page 379
"Oh, don't! Oh, this is terrible! The papers …" For the first time Charlotte wished that the doings of Mrs. Mark Sorley were not chronicled so frequently in the papers. But she had actually arranged for two reporters to be here to-night. "Oh I can't bear it, Uncle Noll!"
Oliver was alarmed. For the first time in her life Lottie was nearly in hysterics. "Nonsense," he said sharply. "Brevis is so famous now that his coming has put a cachet to the whole thing. And twenty years turns a scandal into a romance when one of the parties has had a career so naturally romantic as his."
But, because old age had made him cruel (and he had never been very kind), he hoped that he might see the meeting of Jenny and Brevis, and also Brevis's face when he found out the inner meaning of this occasion. Oliver would have liked to tell him; but Brevis Keyes, Judge of the Supreme Court of Tasmania and a very able man in private life, was not so easy to tell things to, and Oliver's wit was less nimble than it had been.
Other guests were coming in, and Charlotte plunged forward bravely. Richard and Lavinia were being very nice to Susan, who was kissing them violently with a wet face. Richard was sniffing approvingly around. The old smells, he said: polished wood; potpourri; lavender. Charlotte tripped over Lavinia's old-gold train, and greeted Sigurd and Fanny's lovely Nan (so like dead Fanny that it gave every one a shock) and Harry, and that rude husband of Phœbe's.
Here they all were, she thought, trying to steady herself. All her letters and plannings and thoughts turning into hot flesh and blood and shaking hands, kissing and slapping backs. Here they were; breaking up the silence of old brooding Clent like boys breaking a dim mirror; breaking the dark passages into ripples of red and cream-colour and blue, into laughing faces.
But behind all that she was thinking, How shall I explain to the papers about Brevis?
Jenny came down with Mab—who had not thought to mention Brevis—and met him just at the stair-foot. Oliver saw her go so white that he feared she would fall, and moved forward. But Jenny saw only Brevis, whom she had not seen for seven years and felt deep in her body that he was here to take her at last. It page 380must be so or he would never have come at such a time, she knew, feeling some wild thing which she had long thought tamed leap up and race shouting through her blood, deafening her ears, blinding her eyes.
"Charmed to see you looking so well, Miss Comyn," said Brevis. "I was just trying to remember how long since I was last here. The place has not changed." He smiled pleasantly at Jenny. No one could say the same of her. Time which had passed by so lightly had taken its full toll of her. A pity, but it always was so with women. It gave him an unpleasant shock to see that bronze hair so white, though; to see those big, almost hungry eyes…. Surely to goodness she has forgotten all that ages since he thought, annoyed…. Her own proper pride, if nothing else….
Jenny's voice had not changed. It was the same as when it had thrilled him long ago. "How long? Twenty years since you saw me and one since I saw you. That's about what we look like, isn't it? Except that the suggestion of age might embarrass you I would say that you had worn well."
He flushed a little. It sounded as though she knew how hard he was fighting old age. Perhaps she did. She had always had almost devilish intuition. He muttered something about seeing her again, and moved away.
"Good-bye, Brevis," said Jenny as though to herself, standing on the lower step. The brothers looked at each other and Oliver said:
"He don't know that it is a special occasion, Jenny. Mab brought him." Jenny turned her eyes slowly from Brevis's slim back disappearing into the crowd.
"Then Uncle Mab must have his dinner in the nursery, for this will upset the table," she said lightly, patting Mab's arm as she ran off.page 381