Brevis, coming in, suddenly remembered Ellen Merrick, who had earned his childish hate by kissing him once in the hall. It was many years since Ellen had eloped one night with one of her fantasies and been found dead next day on a tussocky hill. Then Joseph married the cook, who showed off Mrs. Merrick as a kind of heirloom to all her relations, and let her go on keeping the cash-box, and always called Joe "sir." But Mrs. Merrick—and to Brevis this somehow seemed quite shocking—had retained life and her faculties to the age of one hundred and three.
Then he forgot Ellen and ran his thin fingers through his iron-grey hair, with a long breath of content.
"It's good to be here again, Jenny," he said.
Young Adam, all ardencies and plans, Young Jenny with skin like white violets and one of those new close gowns which are page 405so divinely revealing, were at dinner, and for a while Brevis liked to look at them and hear them talk.
"Grandfather is to get a tide at the next Birthday Honours, but don't tell," piped up Young Jenny, indiscreet and exquisite as a moonbeam on a cloud. Brevis privately thought it very likely. Dick Comyn's beers had probably made more men drunk than any others in Australasia, and it was more than probable that he'd sent a barrel to the King.
"Well," said Mab, judicially. "I could have told you that ten years ago. For services rendered in the Boer War, you know. England's just getting out the awards."
"Impulsive lady, England," said Jenny, eating strawberries.
"That Boer War has had a most pernicious effect on the young men," said Brevis, twirling his wine-glass and watching his thin brown wrist beneath the white cuff. "They're swollen with conceit now; mistook physical travel for mental travel, of course, as half the world does, and now they won't setde down and farm the country."
"I wonder if a week here will be enough to get you well again," said Jenny, with exaggerated sympathy.
Brevis laughed. Jenny always would be provocative, and her eyes with their delicate sweep of dark brows were making a Gainsborough-Reynolds lady of her beneath the piled waves of white hair in the soft candle-light.
"You have not always been so tender with the young men," he told her.
"I am now. When they're in love, which is the normal state of young men, they always want to kiss me. I let them do it. My colour doesn't come off. Does it, Adam?"
"Confound you!" Brevis straightened up with a jerk. "You're dangerous! How did you guess that I was … admiring it?"
"Oh, la, la! I've had long enough in which to guess that you never fully trust anyone, haven't I?"
"Blame my profession. Not me."
The young things were staring at Aunt Jenny daring to chaff the "greatest man in Tasmania," and Brevis felt a little annoyed. He was certainly very tired. There had been some unusually heavy cases at the late Criminal Sessions, and his summing-up page 406(everyone said, and he knew it himself) had been masterly. Quite intoxicating still, it was, to touch the pulse of life with the finger-ends; to lay bare, delicately, firmly, a man's uttermost soul for all the world to see. Quite intoxicating to sit up before all men, august, irrevocable, like God.
But what a relief it was when the young people raced off somewhere, and he lay in a long chair on the veranda with cigars and coffee and knew that he need not speak another word unless he chose.
The deep stone veranda was still warm with the sunshine pouring into it all day, and against the house walls honeysuckle and yellow and white jasmine loosened their sweets into the dusk. Their thick stems belonged to the days before the stubborn English pioneers had submitted to climate and allowed verandas to spoil the dignity of their Georgian houses. Brevis said, musing: "How these old fellows hated evolution! Yet I suppose that without that stiff-necked defiance of surroundings England would never have colonized as she has."
"They drank life as if it were old port, every mouthful to be well savoured on the palate," said Jenny. "Now it is tossed down like a fizzy drink."
"No body to it," agreed Bevis. "The gods who brew it now are grown goatish and old. Even crime is not Homeric any more."
"I think life's pretty much of a hurdle-race still," said Mab, his Wellington nose shining faintly in the starlight.
"The whole of Australasia is a hurdle-race," said Brevis, crossly. "Not the smallest, most sporadic of townships but has its own course and its retained jockeys. Not like the old days of gentlemen riders." He looked down the garden path where bosses of white pinks gleamed dimly although roses and adjuratum had sunk into the dark, and remembered a steeplechase he had won at Trienna against Mab Comyn … how many years ago? Young Jenny, Young Adam laughing down in the leaky old Clent boat on the river, hurt him a little. He and Jenny, he felt, should have done so much with their own youth. He should have ignored Frasquita, or she should have ignored her conscience. To-night he felt quite inexplicably distressed that Jenny should have page 407refused to marry him when Susan died in 'ninety-nine, although he had really been neither distressed nor disappointed then.
The young ones had splashed off in the boat. Frogs began chanting down by the river. There was a soft stir in the trees. Across the moon drifted light fleeces faintly golden. The night smelled drowsy and strangely sweet, and Mab Comyn slept, his big knees drawn up, his white shirt-front hiding now quiescent depths. Brevis said suddenly. "Jenny, will you marry me now?"
In the next chair Jenny moved so he could see the pale pointed outline of her face. Her voice was mischievous, though tender: "My very learned and distinguished friend, how damned sorry you'd be to-morrow if I said I would! As I told you before, Brevis, you don't want me in that way now. It's too late to merge our individualities now. You climbed alone, and a man so famous as you is better alone. He has his clubs, his parties; he is rude to his valet, who understands his little ways as a woman couldn't. In the light that shines on him he has no fear of the tongues that would be set wagging again if you married Jenny Comyn at last. He can still dream of kisses that no lips could give him now."
"Yours might. But you will never give them."
In the back of his mind he knew, as he had known before, that she was right. But the springtime in the blood, Young Jenny, Young Adam had upset him, and he really was very tired. The cogs of the will are apt to slip a little then. To-night he wanted a woman's arms, a woman's kisses.
"Very well," said Jenny, sitting up. "We accept that, I will never give them. And now for once I have something of my own to say. If I gave you too much in those early days, if I cheapened myself a bit, I don't regret it. I wouldn't trade the memory of that love for all the tea in China. I am proud to have given you all the love I ever had for a man, Brevis. And if I lost your love, as I did, it was with my full consent. I would not try to hold you."
"You never really lost it, Jenny. Let us make the most of what is left."
"We are. It's the only way we can do it now." She laid her hand on his. "Let the young ones kiss and lie together and love. That's not for us, my dear. That's not for us any more. And I page 408really could not sink into being Brevis Keyes's wife after all the thrills I can still give successive generations who look on me as a mystery."
"Perhaps you're right," said Brevis, with a sigh. Jenny in her lightsome way seemed to have mastered that most difficult chapter which we all have to read in the world's books, supposing we live long enough. The lovely tragic flight of time past our clutching hands had not left her so disillusioned as Brevis. "I wish I could meet old age with your gay dignity, Jenny. I wonder how you'll meet death."
"Why, with cap cocked, I hope, and flower behind the ear, and swagger-stick under the arm. It will be such a lark, Brevis. I shall ride comets (I've always wanted to ride comets), and burst all the drifting light-balls into new worlds and wash my hands in the glory. I, Jenny Comyn, who has never yet even crossed Bass Strait!"
Jenny's mind, Brevis thought, recklessly tilting through space, somehow carried him limping with it. Behind Jenny's whirling words you saw (she made you) other stars, conceptions vast, heroic, serene. Good medicine, Jenny, for a man whom the doctors had lately warned: a heart … failing arteries … But not a word of that, for pity's sake, to Jenny putting Monsieur Death into his place, making of him a footstool to vault from into the skies.
"You do me good, Jenny," Brevis said, feeling almost with anguish how cruel it was for them both that all the flame, all the love and laughter which still was Jenny Comyn was to go down uninherited into the dust. Since, in spite of her, one could not believe in her fantasies. Jenny patted his arm. There was a brief silence, broken by the rapturous chanting of the frogs. Then happily, easily as always, they began to squabble about their opinions.
Jenny blamed the times only for the convicts. If Raleigh and Drake had lived in Victoria's instead of Elizabeth's reign, they would both have ended up in Port Arthur, she declared. "Other queens, other manners. Victoria loved her statesmen, but it was her adventurers for good old Bess."
"You needn't think I uphold officialdom," said Brevis; "especially of the mediocre man abruptly invested with power." page 409Brevis saw officialdom in those early days drunk on power and with no one to say "Don't" to it. "Once the mediocre man looks on himself as a symbol, he goes Druidic and starts sacrificing everything and everyone to the glorious dawn of what he thinks is his mind. That's what made the bush-rangers and, to a certain extent, the pioneers. Something in that breed which doomed them forever to hit officialdom on the nose."
"Bless them," said Jenny, who went all the way with the pioneers there.
"A fine instinct," said Brevis. "Where would all the young nations of the world have been without it? All built on rebellion of some kind, the young nations. When I have to pass sentence on one of those brown hard-eyed fellows, whose very vitality has made him a sinner, I think: Sir; it's your kind in the bulk that is going to keep the world living when all the old nations have gone to sleep over the fire…. It is, too."
"How you people talk!" said Mab, waking with a grunt. "Fellow can't get a wink of sleep."
"It's getting cold, anyway," said Jenny. "Let's all go to bed. Young Jenny went upstairs long ago."
She said good night to Brevis in the hall. Perfection of a courtly old gentleman, Brevis, with his little twisted moustache and white imperial giving his thin dark face a delicately foreign look. He had begun to grow them when the rest of the world went back to shaved faces, and that was so like Brevis, who never could bear to be just like others. He held Jenny's hand, which was an unusual ceremony, while Mab climbed the stairs.
"I'm no better than most men," he said, "but I'd like you to know that I have been faithful to you since I first loved you, Jenny."
"Well, I appreciate that, Brevis, though I dare say you missed a lot of fun by it…. Don't get up to breakfast. Golly will bring it in."
She went through to the salon to put all straight for the night. Faithful? Strange Brevis, who had never been faithful to any but his own fastidious temperamental self! Idealists, all men: believing that by striking attitudes and formulating oaths they can alter elementary forces. Women know better, thought Jenny, page 410pushing the furniture an inch this way and that, as a woman will with the things she loves. Women generally accept what is; and if they squabble, it is generally with one another and not with God. And if they laugh, it is generally not with one another but with God.
Madam's harp, the pictures, the old tambour frames and fauteuils seemed exhaling a faint sweet life; movement stood on the edge of expression, sound on the edge of all the silences. Surely they were all here, the dear ghosts, for so often she nearly saw them. Almost she heard Grandpa come down the stair and go into the dining-room for his after-dinner nip, or Humphrey whistling as he trod overhead, taking down riding-whips and spurs from the bedroom wall. And surely on some quiet nights it was Fanny scrambling with Pepper and the puppies along the upper corridor, or Grandma singing in her boudoir some gay little French song.
"Someday I'll be a ghost myself," she thought. "But I wonder who'll want to see me as I so often want to see Grandma."
Drawing the curtains, she looked over the balustrade and the paddocks, to the distant dark smudge where two old huts had stood until Mark cleaned that corner up and made it a fine shrubbery. Looking out, one wondered what the sheep thought, standing there in the long grass and the dew, with wet round bodies. They, too, would see the stars and the gleam of the hurrying river, and the dim mist of moths over the evening primroses, over the sweet clover. One wondered what they thought of it all, waiting to be dumb before the shearer Life, waiting to shut their round mild eyes before the slayer Death.
Jenny stayed there a long time before she, too, went up to bed.