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  ― 175 ―

(vii)

LADY HENRIETTA, sitting alone in her drawing-room in the evening, held a roundel of canvas on her lap at which she did not look. It was the rustic design upon which her fingers had first re-learned industry, Chloe with her flock. Of this last, two sheep remained to be clad in French knots, the grass of the hillock awaited its green, and Chloe's crook its ribbons. She had begun to take up this canvas daily, at the same hour, and to sit with it on her knee. She did not draw the needle through the squares, but threaded it carelessly with any coloured silk that came first to hand, and waited. The hope possessed her that by setting out the inessentials of past magic, she might somehow stir into life the heart of the spell. Her memory found record of an ancestress, Dame Agnes, the Irish witch that diddled a bishop, waiting at cross-roads to command spirits, a peacock's feather held in her left hand. With just such imperative patience Flusky's wife waited, tormented with echoes.

“I'm no more in love with you than with Britannia on the penny.”

The words would not take body, they remained echoes only. The voice that had spoken them was sounding—where?

She abandoned her passive conjuration, let the silks tumble, and began to walk the room haphazard. It was late afternoon, rainy, with a wind that made lugubrious music in he-oaks and pepper-trees. The


  ― 176 ―
fishermen's boats were drawn up; their nets lifted on poles resembled what she had read of the black tents of wandering Arabs, in Lady Hester Stanhope's life. “Lady Hattie Flusky in Australia Felix.” It was the echo again, recurring to plague her; though she could not recollect when the phrase had been uttered, she knew it for his. She looked away from the nets towards the patch of rocks against which Ketch and his company were used to sleep, under piled slabs of bark. The blacks had quitted the place in a body some days after Ketch, with the two young men, had set out northwards. They gave no warning of their movements, but came and went with the unanimity of a flock of cockatoos, according as rumours reached them of plentiful food, or girls ripe to be wives, among those whom they contemptuously called the myalls, wild fellows, living beyond the white man's pastures.

Lady Henrietta, looking now at the patch of rocks which was their habitual rallying-place, perceived a thin and very blue smoke beginning to drift out from it; smoke which towered, then mushroomed, dispersing over the bay. She put her hand with an unthinkingly dramatic gesture to her heart, and watched, quite still, that smoke which was the black man's roof-tree, his standard, and the symbol of his dominion over the beasts. She could see no figures moving, the wind blew away from her any sound of voices there might be.

She opened the window, then, as the air struck cold, ran back into the room to pick up a wallaby skin from


  ― 177 ―
the floor. This she held about her shoulders, and, careless for her hair, went down the steps into the rain.

She reached the bottom of the hill and went rapidly on towards the smoke, of which a sweet medicinal gust blew her way now and then, until she could hear voices on the wind.

Their confusion grew louder; as at a signal, stopped. The blacks had seen her.

They were accustomed to the white men's gins, riding through streets, flowers unknown blooming upon their heads, sometimes with gleaming windows fixed upon their faces, to each eye one. These gins when they set foot to ground walked out-toed; they held the arms of men as a precaution against being suddenly struck and carried off; they carried no burdens, and were greeted with bare heads in the sun. Priestesses all, therefore, feeding without labour, eternally dressed and painted for corroborree.

This lubra with the wallaby skin upon her shoulders, her head bare and the colour of that ochre used in hidden valleys to paint their sacred stones, was not of the everyday order of priestesses, they concluded. They looked at her, and as she with questioning glances caught their eyes, shyly turned from her. She began to speak, gesturing between the words:

“You know Ketch?” They looked vacant; she drew with a forefinger on her breast the shape of Ketch's half-moon of brass. They turned from one to the other, and a man said something rapidly. “Ketch, a chief,


  ― 178 ―
went away with two other men, white men——” She stooped to the fire, picked up a charred black twig and held it up, two of her own white fingers beside it. Her fingers began to walk in the air, and the twig kept them company. The people laughed at this pantomime, but showed no sign that they took its meaning. “To look for gold——” She tapped the ring on her marriage finger with the twig—“One was young with a round face. Where have they gone? Have you seen?” And she repeated the airy pilgrimage of the stick and the fingers. “Charles—Have you heard that name spoken?” She recollected the curious preference of men for surnames. “Adare, Adare, Thomson, do you know that? Ketch; you must know that. You must know something, wretched people!”

They laughed politely at the white lubra's earnestness, all part of the play which she was, for some reason unguessed by them, enacting for them in the rain. Then the oldest man, coming forward, touched the wallaby skin, saying the only words of English that had ever done him any good:

“You gib it?”

She spoke again, encouraged by this, and pulled the skin willingly from her shoulders. He took it with satisfaction as a gift, not understanding that she offered it in payment for information. It was soft, beautifully tanned; he bent it in his fingers, appreciating the absence of crackle, and looked with wonder at her urgent eyes still questioning him.




  ― 179 ―

“Well? Tell me. Adare. Ketch. Alive? Dead?”

At a loss for a gesture to express the difference, she dipped her twig at the fire till it lighted, and holding it up before her mouth repeated the word:

“Alive?”

They watched. She took a breath, blew. The flame vanished, and a brief trail of sparks fled from her hand. When the twig was black again, once more she held it up.

“Dead?”

They watched as before. They understood nothing, and the old man was walking away with his treasure, paying no further heed to her. She flung out her hands.

“People, have you seen nothing? These men, two white men—nothing? Ketch?”

They watched, interested, as she flung back her head, imploring their secret. They admired and valued her; they were glad to have had her declare these mysteries to them alone, no white person near. When she turned away at last they regretted her going, and called two or three civilities after her, but she paid no heed, scrambling over rocks made shiny by the skid of marsupials' feet.

When she came to the top of the path she stood, for the first time allowing herself to take the full weight of her misery. Exiled from both her worlds, murderer of a brother, bereft by the man she loved of the man who had restored her to some intelligence of life: was not this sorrow? At the word came the echo of a young voice, its natural lightness deliberately clouded, reading aloud:




  ― 180 ―
“Sweetest sorrow …
I thought to leave thee,
And deceive thee,
But now of all the world I love thee best.”

And that, she remembered, was a verse of the poet, the little apothecary, who had died at twenty-seven. She, at twenty-seven, had been seduced, had killed, had gone for ever from her home, but life held promise, and she would not willingly then have left it. Now only her flesh was reluctant.

She went up the steps, and lightly along the verandah to the dining-room, whose window stood open. Locked, the cupboard door? It should have been, for the women were thievish as monkeys, but as she put her hand to it she felt it obey her. Next moment she screamed.

The Maori head was there, leaning horribly upon the decanter labelled Brandy. She had laid her hand upon its sparse harsh hair, blond from the action of embalming spices. The decanter could not be moved without somehow touching this sentinel. She rubbed her hands upon the wet breast of her dress, but the sensation of touch had been shocked, she could not so easily rid herself of recollection. As she frantically sought to scour the sensation away, the door opened behind her.

“What's doing?” said her husband's voice.

He came towards her, saw the head still on guard, and looked at her long. She muttered that she was ill, felt faint— He nodded, carelessly lifted up the head by


  ― 181 ―
its hair, and poured out a little spirit, which he held to her.

“The other hand, the other hand!”

It was his right hand, with which he had lifted the head, that held the glass. He smiled slightly, and changed this to the left.

Even so, she could not bring herself to take the glass, not for horror of the head, but because for ten years and more she had never drunk spirits save alone. Even the cajolery of Adare had not been able to prevail over that habit. She said now, irrelevantly:

“This room is very dusty. I wish Milly were back. Why do you not bury that frightful thing?”

He did not answer; his silence made her aware of his reason, and she spoke it aloud.

“To frighten me. To stop me. Sam—oh, God, can you never take the direct way? Can you never speak and say, I will not have this or that? Forbid me, oblige me to do what you would have done. Don't go silently to make me afraid——”

Mournfully, seeking comfort, she looked in his face, and saw starting at the corner of each eye a tear. He said:

“I have to do the way I can.”

“Sam, come here to me.” He came, shambling, head down for shame of the tears. She caught him to her. “Sam, you know I am yours.”

He said, not putting his arms about her, standing like an animal, forehead dropped upon her shoulder:

“Once.”




  ― 182 ―

“Still.”

He shook his head, rolling it on the wet stuff of her dress. The movement might have been a negation, it might have been contrived to clear his eyes of tears.

“But that's not enough. There are twenty-four hours in a day.”

She stood away from him, hands on his shoulders.

“Will you tell me the truth? I know words trouble you, I'll ask only for a yes or no. We are near now; nearer than we have been for a very long time. Let us use the moment. Will you?” He nodded. “You were jealous of Charles.”

It was a statement, but he answered as though it had been a question, with the affirmative of his peasant blood.

“Ay.”

“Did you think I had been unfaithful?”

The man said, speaking painfully and very low:

“Not in your bed.”

“How then?”

He had not the phrase for that. She had to make what she could of a dozen words.

“Always talking—and you've kept off the stuff—got back your looks. The house, too—ordering the dinner.”

“Sam, was it you took a little paper from my work-box? A silly thing, with a list of duties written down?”

“What for did you want to keep it?” She accepted this at its true value: Duties Domestic, Duties Social, destroyed by jealousy, gone. “Him, ordering you about.”




  ― 183 ―

“It meant nothing.”

“I owed him for that.”

She understood that half-statement, too. Where Flusky owed, he paid. The wages of sin—but why should the wages of gaiety, folly, and youth be equalled with these?

“Charles has gone to his death.” She contemplated the fact; he did not deny it. “Through you, as my brother died through me. We struck both for the same reason, to possess each other wholly, to let nobody come between. Sam——” she held his left hand to her face—“we're so unhappy, we've brought so much unhappiness about. What good has it done to anyone, our having loved?”

He put both his arms round her at that and clasped with all his strength. The embrace begged her to unsay what she had said; to murmur, in the small voice that like her body was his only, a confession of faith in their need of each other. She could not; nor could he ask in words. He let her go, fetched a brief sigh, and went out of the room. She stood, fingers twisting together. The glass of brandy which she had refused stood on the table a foot away. She emptied it quickly; poured another from the decanter, now deprived of its warder, and drank that. Then, holding the decanter with a fold of her skirt clutched over it, she departed along the verandah, taking care to walk without noise, and looking sidelong to see that there was nobody about in the paths to observe her.

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