Madam, beginning to be very drowsy and remote, felt herself sitting as some old idol might sit, or His Holiness the Pope with his toe, while slim fragrant girl children kissed her nervously with soft red lips and tall men children brushed her cheek with adolescent moustaches. Le premier prends sa main blanche … She could remember all that gay song when she was in her boudoir. It was not fair that she should be dragged from the gracious presences surrounding her in her boudoir and submitted to pecks and breathings and grins and giggles: there was one girl giggling like a kitchen-maid. Why did not Lottie put her out? And what were all these new names tumbling from Lottie's mouth like pebbles? Maurice and Phyllis and Hilary; Evelyn, Leonard, and Flo; Sinclair, Rosamund …
"Is my Mabille your father?" she asked Rosamund. "Or Humphrey?"
Here Rosamund betrayed herself as the girl who giggled. Fi donc! Le fou rire…. It does not passion me, thought Madam, crying with sudden energy, "But which are Humphrey's sons?"
There was a laugh which grated unpleasantly on Madam's fastidious ear. Some one said, "Sh-h!" and some one else, "He should have brought his merino rams." Then the laugh sputtered and died again, and Madam found it all very strange and uncivil and far away, and whispered to Jenny bending over her, "Petite, I do want to see Humphrey's sons."page 385
"Never mind, darling," said Jenny. "They are going to drink your health now. Here is your fan."
A middle-aged Golly and Chrissy—butlers were now no more than a Clent tradition—pounded up over the sunken roses and falling petals, presenting to the chattering, laughing groups champagne in Madam's old French glasses with the square stems (helped out by Bredon's best crystal). Richard and Sigurd and Brevis made wonderful speeches: Charlotte told them afterward how wonderful they were and hoped they hadn't noticed that Madam was asleep all the time. Brevis watched Jenny while they drank Madam Comyn's health with honours—grey men and women, laughing girls with lovers at their shoulders—and envied her smile. Jenny must get a good deal of fun out of life yet. More than Brevis. But he had never got much; always working too hard.
Madam heard the cheers go up and saw the rose-leaves fluttering down on rounded arms, shining heads, and all about her the ghosts came out…. Eh, les revenants, she thought gladly. These, coquettish through their ringlets, courteous over their stocks, these were the quality she knew.
William was to have replied to this toast, and for the last month he had been replying assiduously, in the sheep-yards or wherever he happened to be, getting what Jenny had written for him more confused every time. But Madam, sitting upright with a sudden glow, scuttled William as she had done all her life. Never, William felt, had he had his chance. Even when he had wanted to read the lessons in Trienna church before the days of a clergyman … never a chance.
"Mesdames et Messieurs," said Madam, looking about with her dimmed yet still stately regard into the bright silence. She felt a little dazed and desolate. Le bonhomme was not here, nor dear Louisa, nor James. That was not Marion Boyd in the blue gown. No. She remembered. Lottie had said … These, God have mercy, were her own blood in a new vintage.
"Mesdames et Messieurs …"
Brevis fully savoured the drama of the moment. Madam's children, he'd dare swear, would be too nervous; and these young ones, to whom she was but a show, too amused. But how amazingly, triumphantly some women nurtured sex until the last! page 386She could stir men yet, this shrivelled weak old woman, just as Frasquita in her coarse great-bosomed way would stir men still. Just as Fanny's Nan (leaning forward in the yellow gown that made her like a primrose) stirred the pulse of every man she looked at. For men did not grow old, like most women, to that attraction which slew Actæon, which woke the Cæsars from their sleep. Primroses, daisies, eternal fields of asphodel… were men ever too old to stray plucking there, with eyes if not with hands?
Looking on Madam, on Fanny's Nan, Brevis never once thought of Jenny.
"For your graciousness in assembling to honour an old woman I thank you," Madam was saying in that tiny far-away voice that tinkled so clear. "And yet it is but your own house you honour, your own blood." She paused and Fanny's Nan looked at her, wondering. To Nan, late home from an education in England, here sat the last of those great souls the pioneers. Here the last of a dazzling epoch. Here race, undiluted as her posterity was diluting it (Nan loathed her Aunt Phœbe's sons). Here humour and dauntless courage; distinction which old age so often misses; womanhood. To the end, it seemed, Madam would carry the great tradition of her family. To-night she held in her hand this ill-assorted company of forty-odd people, just as (it was almost fable now) she had held the military society of Hobart Town when William the Fourth reigned.
"My day," said Madam, flagging a little, "is done. And the day of the Captain many of you will not remember. But it was a great day and I know it, I who tell you. In the bush were the bush-rangers, the tarantulas, the snakes, and many times in the houses also. We made our own wine, our own clothes, our own bread, our own laughter. How we laughed then! So this is what I would say to you, children," said Madam, rousing a little: "Laugh. At yourselves, should you find nothing more amusing, and truly I think there never is." She brooded while her sons looked at each other. Lord, lord! had she not vainly tried to teach them that two full generations before?
"Out of difficulties grow miracles," said Madam, drowsily. "How do I know, I? But certainly we found difficulties; and as for the miracles, they are for others to decide and perhaps to page 387perform. I do not know, I. The heritage for which the Captain so laboured is now yours, and I would say to you, descendants of Captain Comyn, do not betray it. There are some …" She faltered, and Charlotte quaked until her silk bodice creaked. Now we should have the bourgeoisie and the beer, and good-bye to Patty's chance of yachting with Richard. But Charlotte always forgot that Madam was a great lady.
"There are some here will bring glory to that heritage," said Madam, slowly. "I see it … and I thank you … on my husband's behalf and mine. We came a long way, children, and we learned much. And many were the mistakes we made … and he always would write to the papers. But the torch was lit… and life goes on … and nothing stands without … love … and courage…. Jenny, my dear, I am tired. Will you beg the company to excuse me if I retire? Perhaps Noll will sing. Young ladies are ravished when Noll sings."
They lifted her from her chair. With Mab's arm, William's arm, she passed out from among them. On the elders, on the laughing young ones had fallen a strange stillness as though more than a tired old woman passed.