Going at once to change her dress, Laura Trevelyan regretted all picnics. A strong day was bending the trees. The garden was a muddle of tossed green, at which she frowned, patting a sleeve, or smoothing hair. Most days she walked in the garden, amongst the camellia bushes, which were already quite advanced, and the many amorphous, dark bushes of all big hospitable gardens, and the scurfy native paperbarks. At one end of the garden were some bamboos, which a sea-captain had brought to Mr Bonner from India. Originally a few roots, the bamboos had grown into a thicket, which filled the surrounding air with overwhelming featheriness. Even on still evenings, a feathery colloquy of the bamboos was clearly audible, with sometimes a collision of the stiff masts, and human voices, those of passers-by who had climbed the wall, and lay there eating pigs' trotters, and making love. Once Laura had found a woman's bonnet at the foot of the bamboos. A tawdry thing. Once she had found Rose Portion. It is me, miss, said her servant's form; it was that airless in the house. Then Rose was pressing through the thicket of bamboos. On occasions the night would be full of voices, and unexplained lights. The moist earth was pressed at the roots of the bamboos. There were the lazy, confident voices of men, and the more breathless, women's ones. I have give you a fright, miss, Jack Slipper once said, and got up, from where he had been propped upon his elbow beside the darkness. He was smoking. Laura had felt quite choked.
Now this young woman was holding her hands to her head in the mirror. She was pale, but handsome, in moss green. If Laura had more colour, she would be a beauty, Aunt Emmy considered, and advised her niece to always drop her handkerchief before entering a room, so that the blood would rush to her cheeks as she stooped to pick it up.
'Laura!' called Belle. 'The carriage is here. Mamma is waiting. You know what Mrs Pringle is.'
Then Laura Trevelyan shook her shawl. She was really handsome in her way, and now flushed by some thought, or by the wind which was assaulting the trees of the garden with greater force. There were the needles from trees falling through the window upon the carpet. There was the dry sighing of the bamboos.
When the party had disposed itself in the carriage, and Mrs Bonner had felt for her lozenges and tried to remember whether she had closed the window on the landing, when they had gone a little way down the drive, as far as the elbow and bunya bunya, there, if you please, was the figure of that tiresome Mr Voss, walking up springily, carrying his hat, his head wet with perspiration.
Oh dear, everybody said, and even held hands.
But they pulled up. They had to.
'Good afternoon, Mr Voss,' said Mrs Bonner, putting out her head. 'This is a surprise. You are quite wicked, you know, with your surprises. When a little note. And Mr Bonner not here.'
Mr Voss was opening his mouth. His lips were pale from walking. His expression suggested that he had not yet returned from thought.
'But Mr Bonner,' he was forming words, 'is not at the store no more than here. He is gone away, they say. He is gone home.'
He resented bitterly the foreign language into which he had been thrown back thus precipitately.
'He is gone away, certainly,' said Mrs Bonner gaily, 'but is not gone home.'
Occasions could make her mischievous.
Belle giggled, and turned her face towards the hot upholstery of the dark carriage. They were beautifully protected in that padded box.
'I regret that they should have misinformed you so sadly,' Mrs Bonner pursued. 'Mr Bonner has gone to a picnic party at Point Piper with our friends the Pringles, where we will join him shortly.'
'It is not important,' Voss said.
He was glad, even. The niece sat in the carriage examining his face as if it had been wood.
She sat, and was examining the roots of his hair, the pores of his skin, but quite objectively, from beneath her leaden lids.
'How tiresome for you,' said Mrs Bonner.
'It is not, it is not of actual importance.'
Voss had put his hat back.
'Unless you get in. That is it,' Mrs Bonner said, who furiously loved her own solutions. 'You must get in with us. Then you can give Mr Bonner such information as you have. He would be provoked.'
So the step was let down.
Now it was Voss who was provoked, who had come that day, less for a purpose, than from a vague desire for his patron's company, but had not bargained for all these women.
He bumped his head.
Then he was swallowed by the close carriage with its scents and sounds of ladies. It was an obscure and wretched situation, in which his knees were pressed together to avoid skirts, but of which, soft suggestions were overflowing.
He found himself beside the pretty girl, Miss Belle, who had remained giggly, as she sat holding her hands in a ball. Opposite were the mother and her niece, rocking politely. Although he recognized the features of the niece, her name had escaped him. However, that was unimportant. As they rocked. In one place a stench of putrid sea-stuff came in at the window and filled the carriage. Miss Belle bit her lip, and turned her head, and blushed, while the two ladies seemed oblivious.
'Fancy,' said Mrs Bonner with sudden animation, 'a short time ago a gentleman and his wife, I forget the name, were driving in their brougham on the South Head Road, when some man, a kind of bushranger, I suppose one would call him, rode up to their vehicle, and appropriated every single valuable the unfortunate couple had upon them.'
Everybody listened to conversation as if it were not addressed to them personally. They rocked, and took it for granted that someone would assume responsibility. Mrs Bonner, at least, had done her duty. She looked out with that brightness of expression she had learnt to wear for drives in the days when they first owned a carriage. As for the bushrangers, she personally had never encountered such individuals, and could not believe in a future in which her agreeable life might be so rudely shaken. Bushrangers were but the material of narrative.
Presently they turned off along the sandy track that led down through Point Piper. The wheels of the carriage fell, as it were, from shelf to shelf of sandstone. Immediately the bones of the well-conducted passengers appeared to have melted, and the soft bodies were thrown against one another in ignominious confusion. In some circumstances this could have been comical, but something had made it serious. So the face of the grave young woman showed, and somehow impressed that gravity on the faces of the others. She withdrew her skirt ever so carefully from the rough black cloth that covered the German's protuberant knees.
Some of the Pringle children came bursting through the scrub to show the way, and ran alongside, laughing, and calling up at the windows of the newly arrived carriage, and even directing rather impudent glances at a stranger who might not have had the Bonners' full protection. The Pringles always arrived first at places. In spite of, or because of her fortune, for she was rich in her own right as well as through her husband, Mrs Pringle could have felt the need to mortify herself. She would march up and down with a watch in her hand, and shout at people quite coarsely, Mrs Bonner considered, shout at them desperately to assemble for departure, but it was all well intended. Irritation was a mark of her affection. She was most exacting of her husband, would raise her voice at him in company, and continually demand evidence of that superiority which he did not possess. These displays he met with a patient love, and had recently given her an eleventh child, which did mollify her for a little.
'Ah, there you are,' exclaimed Mrs Pringle, who with her assistants had been unpacking food behind the bushes in a circle of carriages and gigs.
The tone of her words expressed as much censure as politeness would allow. At her side, as almost always, was her eldest daughter, Una.
'Yes, my dear,' said Mrs Bonner, whom events had made mysteriously innocent. 'If we are late, it is due to some little domestic upheaval. I fear you may have been anxious for us.'
When the Bonners were descended, the girls kissed most affectionately, although Una Pringle had always been of the opinion that Laura was a stick, worse still, possessed of brains, and in consequence not to be trusted. In general, Una preferred the other sex, though she was far too nice a girl to admit it to a diary, let alone a friend. Now, using the glare as an excuse, she was pretending not to examine the gentleman, or man, who had accompanied the Bonners, and who, it seemed, was also the most terrible stick. True to her nature, Una Pringle immediately solved a simple mathematical problem involving two sticks.
Mrs Bonner saw that she could no longer defer the moment of explaining the presence of the German, so she said:
'This is Mr Voss, the explorer. Who is soon to leave for the bush.'
Formal in its inception, it sounded somehow funny at its end, for neither Mrs Bonner nor Mrs Pringle could be expected to take seriously a move so remotely connected with their own lives.
'The gentlemen are down there,' said Mrs Pringle, hoping to dispose of an embarrassment. 'They are discussing something. Mr Pitt has also come, and Woburn McAllister, and a nephew or two.'
Many children were running about, in clothes that caught on twigs. Brightly coloured laughter hung from the undergrowth.
Voss would have liked to retire into his own thoughts, and did to a certain extent. He looked rather furry in his self-absorption. The nap of his hat had been roughed up, and he was cheaply dressed, and angular, and black. Nobody would know what to do with him, unless he did himself.
So Mrs Pringle and Mrs Bonner looked hopefully in that direction in which the gentlemen were said to be.
'You girls go down with Mr Voss,' insisted Mrs Pringle, conscripting an impregnable army, 'while Mrs Bonner and I have a little chat.'
'Shall we?' asked Una, though there was no alternative.
They all walked decently off. Their long skirts made paths along the sand, dragged fallen twigs into upright positions, and swept ants for ever off their courses.
'Do you like picnics?' asked Una Pringle.
'Sometimes,' Belle replied. 'It depends.'
'Where is Lieutenant Radclyffe?' Una asked.
'It is his afternoon for duty,' answered Belle, importantly.
'Oh,' said Una.
She was a tall girl, who would be married off quite easily, though for no immediately obvious reason.
'Have you met Captain Norton of the Valiant?' Una asked.
'Not yet,' yawned Belle, who aspired to no further conquests.
Belle Bonner had adopted a flat, yet superior expression, because Una Pringle was one of those girls for whom she did not care, while forced by circumstance to know. Force of circumstance, indeed, had begun to inform the whole picnic. Till several children came, pulling, and jumping, shouting through shiny lips, inspiring Belle, whom they sensed to be an initiate, with a nostalgia for those games which she had scarcely left off playing. The boisterous wind soon flung her and several bouncing children amongst the fixed trees. Her blood was at the tips of her fingers. Her rather thick but healthy throat was distended. She herself was shouting.
'Such vitality Belle has,' sighed Una, who was left with that Laura and the foreigner.
'Do you run and jump, Mr Voss?' she inquired with an insipid malice.
'Please?' asked the German.
'I expect he does,' said Laura Trevelyan, 'if the occasion demands it. His own very private occasion. All kinds of invisible running and jumping. I do.'
Voss, who was brought back too abruptly to extract the full meaning from her words, was led to understand that this handsome girl was his ally. Though she did not look at him. But described some figure on the air with a muff of sealskin that she was carrying for the uncertain weather, and as a protection against more abstract dangers.
Trevelyan was her name, he remembered. Laura, the niece.
The gay day of wind and sharp sunlight had pierced the surface of her sombre green. It had begun to glow. She was for ever flickering, and escaping from a cage of black twigs, but unconscious of any transformation that might have taken place. This ignorance of her riches gave to her face a tenderness that it did not normally possess. Many tender waves did, besides, leap round the rocky promontory along which they were stumbling. There was now distinctly the sound of the sea. As they trod out from the trees and were blinded, Laura Trevelyan was smiling.
- Patrick White