― 232 ―

Seen in the Biograph.

She did not expect to find it interesting! She had attended so many lectures, shows, entertainments got up for the delectation of the factory hands, and they had all amounted pretty much to the same thing—a hall crowded to suffocation, a vitiated atmosphere, “cat-calls,” and similar interruptions meant for wit from the lads, giggles and “Oh, mys!” from the girls—how weary she was of it all! Life in this crowded centre grew more and more uncongenial. Her soul was sickened by the dingy streets, the smoke-blackened walls, the heavy air, the ceaseless whirr of machinery, the all-pervading ugliness and gloom. She longed with a passionate longing for a breath of God's free air and a glimpse of mountain, wood, and plain, not only for herself—oh, no!—but also for all those languid, heavy-eyed operatives filling the gaunt walls of her father's factory. She did all that lay in her girlish power to alleviate their lot—taking soups and jellies to the sick and giving little pleasures to the young—but this was only a drop in the ocean of sordid, unlovely poverty. When she urged her father to give them a day in the country, a day when under the pure canopy of Heaven they could drink in the exquisite sights and sounds and scents of rural life, he shook his head sadly.

“Times are none too good, my dear Stella,” he answered, with a heavy sigh. “I have no money to spend on travel or philanthropy. You must wait.”

So the vision of purling streams and shady woods and flower-sprinkled hedgerows, and meadows where cows were standing ankle-deep in the sweet, green grass, faded away, and she was back in the present—in the smoke and din and gloom of the English manufacturing town where her lines were cast. Day by day she grew more dispirited, more dissatisfied, more conscious that she was out of her natural element. It was simply in obedience to her father's wish, and in order to “set an example,” that she came to the biograph entertainment, bringing thither a heart little attuned to enjoyment. But strange to say, in this very hall, where her nerves had so often been racked by displays of the vacant folly that too often passes current for recreation, the answer came to her vague longings. Views of great stretches of country, mighty flocks of sheep, quiet homesteads, cattle moving sedately towards the milking-shed, acres of golden wheat, great green patches of lucerne, fields of tall maize, orchards, glimpses of illimitable plains and trackless forests, and enchanting blue distances, passed before her charmed eyes and satisfied her heart. Last of all came the picture—was it of a Roman charloteer or of a Greek athlete? No. Only an Australian youth seated behind a plough! On came the powerful horses—on, on, on—moving as it seemed straight out of the picture

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towards the spectators—the forelegs planted firmly, the great breasts straining, testing to the umost the strength of the young arms holding the reins. The figures grew larger and larger as they moved towards the corner of the sheet—the ploughman's swaying figure revealing the curves of his lithe frame and the fine poise of head and neck on his stalwart shoulders, and then —the whole picture suddenly disappeared, and only a blank sheet remained.

“Isn't that better, now, than selling staylaces behind a counter?” the lecturer asked humorously, and the audience with one voice shouted back. “Yes.”

“It's better than standing day after day feeding a machine till you feel no better than a machine yourself,” remarked a man with a pale, reflued face, standing close to Stella. “Good Lord! How sick I am of it.”

Stella drew a deep breath. She could not analyse her impressions. The pictures seemed to have given her new life, new hope, new heart. The figure of the young ploughman was a revelation of virile power set in a grand framework of nature.

Henceforth the girl dreamed of those great stretches of country, those entrancing glimpses of primeval forests, those strange animals and stranger forms of vegetation which carry the mind back to geological periods before the history of man began. These Australian scenes took such a powerful hold on her imagination that, walking along the narrow streets of the dreary manufacturing town, she saw before her not a smoke-laden atmosphere and dirt-encrusted walls, but immense stretches of country swept by the pure air of heaven, great rivers acting as waterways and affording infinite possibilities to the skilled irrigationist, miles of virgin bush, wide, fertile plains, while above all towered the joyous figure of the stalwart young ploughman, the type of perfect manhood.

Changes came to Stella. The factory trembled on the brink of ruin, and before its credit could be re-established her father died suddenly. She was alone in the world—and poor. How was she to gain her living? Was she to become one of the factory “hands” whose hard lot she had so often bewailed? The thought was too terrible. She answered advertisements, put her name down on registers, wrote innumerable letters, trudged here and there during long, weary days, but all to no avail. Overcrowded England had no room for her. She had nothing special to offer, nothing to distinguish her from the throng of other girls eagerly looking out for positions as governesses and “mothers' helps,” so that she stood small chance of success. Then one morning, when hope was at its lowest ebb, when her stock of money was giving out, and starvation was staring her in the face, came a cablegram which changed the face of her life. It was dated from Beulah station, New South Wales—“Uncle Dick offers you a home. Come at once.”

Uncle Dick! She just knew of the existence of this kinsman with whom her father had quarrelled in youth—that was all. She was not even aware that he had made his home in Australia! Her heart leapt at the thought of leaving this sordid misery behind her and going to a land of sunshine and of boundless opportunities. Those who knew nothing of the fascination exercised upon her by the biograph views were amazed at the indifference with which she bade farewell to her old life.

  ― 234 ―

In spite of the beauty of the harbour, she experienced on landing in Sydney a sense of disappointment. Here were streets again, and crowded footways, and pallid, restless-looking people! But, when a long train journey and a drive across 40 miles of country brought her to Beulah station, she realised the fulfilment of her dream. Uncle Dick, the image of her father, only browner and healthier-looking, was standing at the gate, while a pleasant-faced, white-haired lady, whom Uncle Dick subsequently introduced as “Aunt Susie,” awaited her arrival on a verandah whose pillars were wreathed in banksia roses.

“May you find a happy home in Australia, my dear child,” said Uncle Dick, with moistened eyes, as he folded his brother's child in his arms.

“Oh, I know I shall be happy, Uncle. I love Australia already,” Stella answered, fervently. And that night as she looked out from her lattice window upon the curving outline of wood and plain, flanked by a bold mountain range, and illumined by the brilliant silvery light of the moon, she realised that her lines were cast in pleasant places. The one black drop in her cup of happiness was caused by the remembrance of the pallid anaemic girls she had left behind her in the old home.

“Can you ride, Stella?” asked Uncle Dick on the following morning.

“No, Uncle.”

“Well, you must learn, my dear. You will not be able to go anywhere if you can't get on a horse's back. Ask your aunt to lend you a shirt, and come out and help me to ‘round up’ the cattle.”

Stella fairly gasped. This had been one of the occupations portrayed by the biograph. And now she was going to take part herself in the fascinating exercise.

Soon, under Uncle Dick's able tuition, she became a good horsewoman, and she also learned to saddle her mare, and to harness her to a buggy. Aunt Susie taught her to make butter, to knead bread, to make jam, to roast, boil, and bake, and, although the work was new and hard, she grew daily rosier and brighter, and the old look of discontent faded from her face.

“Oh, why don't more people come on the land,” she exclaimed one day as she sat on the broad verandah by her Uncle's side watching the sun sink behind the ranges.

“It's a good deal the fault of the country people, Stella. They take no pains to make their homes attractive. They cut down every bit of timber, and the poor wife has no shade to sit under and do her sewing. They don't take the trouble to make a garden, and the children get ill for want of vegetables and fruit. I could show you a striking contrast within an easy ride. Two young men took up land about the same time. One has never taken the trouble to make his place attractive; the other has created a veritable garden of Eden—a paradise. I'll take you there to-morrow.”

“I think not, Dick,” Aunt Susie said, warningly. And Uncle Dick, shrugging his shoulders and exclaiming, “Oh, you women, you women!” went laughing away.

“Why did you say that, Aunt Susie?” demanded Stella, whose curiosity was roused. Why should she be forbidden a glimpse of Paradise?

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Aunt Susie fidgetted about a little before she gave her reply.

“You see, dear, to speak plainly, Mr. Gaunt is looked upon as the . . the . . eligible bachelor of the neighbourhood—and—I—thought it would look rather . . like . .”

“Like throwing me at his head,” laughed Stella. “So it would, Aunt Susie. I perceive that I can't have my glimpse of Paradise because Adam is in possession. Dear me, I wish he was 90—or married! I do so want to see his place!”

In the evening Stella wandered off by the side of the creek—a mass of shining water with grey gums standing in the middle of the stream—and then struck across the paddocks. She loved the great stretch of open country, and the sight of the sky dipping to meet the earth. The evening air, sweeping across the ranges, was cool and sweet. She stepped on to meet it—her glad face raised to the sky, and then—something gave her foot a horrible wrench. She had trodden on the side of a narrow fissure, and her ankle had given way. She stood still for a moment, and then tried to hobble on, but the pain was too great.

“I'll just sit down and take off my boot,” she said to herself. She did so and the pain was eased at once. But the foot had swelled a little, and how to get the boot on again was the problem. But this did not trouble her. It was so lovely to sit there in that great stillness, encompassed by sky and plain, and to revel in the sense of solitude. But she was not left to enjoy it for long. A black moving speck appeared on the horizon, which, taking shape as it grew nearer, revealed the silhouette of a horseman against a wide background of sky. Stella watched it with a strange fascination. The outline seemed familiar. Somewhere in the past she had seen the fine poise of that stag-like head, and the play of the arm, set in a framework of earth and sky. …

The rider made straight for her, sitting his horse with the ease that comes of perfect mastery.

“Is anything wrong?” he asked.

With the sound of his voice the illusion vanished. She had never heard those tones before.

“Oh, nothing much. I have only twisted my foot a little.”

“I'm glad it's only that. I feared it might be a snakebite.”

“I'm thankful it's not anything so horrible! I think I can walk now,” glancing down at her boot.

“No, you mustn't think of it. I'm going to put you on my horse and take you home.”

Before Stella had time to consider the proposal she found herself lifted from the ground by a pair of strong arms and deposited in the saddle. It was a despotic proceeding—but she was not displeased. To the end of time woman—whether belonging to the “old” or the “new” order—will love the sense of being mastered by man.

“What are you going to do?” she asked.

“Walk by your side and carry your boot. We shall reach Beulah in fifteen minutes, so the exertion won't kill me.”

“How do you know I am going to Beulah?”

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The man's lips parted in a smile that illuminated his grave face as a sudden ray of sunlight lights up a dark sky.

“Because I know every girl in the country-side, and you are not among: the number. So I infer that you must be Mr. Marsh's niece from England.”

“Yes; you are right.”

“And I am Ralph Gaunt. Now we are ‘introduced,’ as you say in England. I suppose you look down upon Australia and Australian ways.”

“No, I don't. I love Australia,” Stella said fervently. “I loved it before I came here, and I love it ever so much better now.”

Gaunt looked at her curiously. “Was this mere schoolgirlish ‘gush?’ ” he wondered. But she didn't look that sort.

“Why do you love it?” he asked.

“Oh, I love the feeling of space—of distance—of there being room for all. When I get on one of the great plains and think of all I have left behind me in England, the crowded cities, the cramped dwellings, the want of any elbowroom, the contrast almost makes me cry.” And then Stella, usually reticent with strangers, poured into her new friend's ear her experience of life in the dreary manufacturing town where her youth had been spent.

“I see you love the country,” Gaunt said, his face flushing with pleasure. “Most girls prefer the town. They love the shops, the gaslight, and glitter. They never think of the people there who lead starved, miserable lives to minister to their enjoyment. I tell you, I get more pleasure out of the sight of a field of wheat than anything the town can afford. There's something splendid in seeing the wild bush tamed and reduced to bondage by the power of man. A year ago a good part of this country was virgin bush, and already the whole face of the land has changed, and in a few years”—Gaunt drew a deep breath—“thousands of bushels of wheat will be poured into the markets to feed the hungry poor herded in the great cities of the old world. This is the thought that makes it a real inspiration to take up land.”

There was no time for any reply, for the horse had turned in at the gate, and Aunt Susie, scenting disaster, was running towards them. Stella was thankful that the little fuss created by her slight accident diverted the minds of her uncle and aunt from the strangeness of her meeting with the “eligible bachelor.”

The acquaintance thus made was not suffered to drop. Hardly a day passed that Gaunt on some pretext or another did not ride over to Beulah. Sometimes he brought a newspaper for Mr. Marsh, or a clutch of eggs for his wife, or a book or some natural specimen for the English niece.

“He's always been very friendly,” said Uncle Dick, “but”—digging his wife facetiously in the ribs—“I don't think he was quite so attentive before Stella came, do you?”

Meanwhile the girl herself walked about in a trance of silent happiness, which she did not attempt to analyse. Something very sweet and strong had come into her life, moving her inmost being with its strange power. The sunsets seemed fairer, the air purer, the blue distance more enchanting when Gaunt rode by her side. All that she had loved best in this great new country seemed to find its consummation in the personality of her friend. He loved

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nature as she did—its voice stirred his heart. The breath of the plains, the scent of the bush, the notes of the birds, spoke to his soul. Stella could read the rapture in his face when some great grey plain, flecked with dark blue shadows, was unfolded before his eyes; or when the solemn recesses of the bush closed upon them with a sense of mystery. But his poetic love of nature did not end in mere sentiment. He consecrated it to the service of man.

Stella went at last, under her uncle and aunt's wing, to visit Gaunt's homestead. She found it just the framework for such a character. Everything in the house was plain, strong, and serviceable. There was little attempt at ornamentation, although one or two good pictures adorned the walls, and a bookcase showed a choice selection of volumes. But outside were gardens, and shade walks, and pergolas covered with gorgeous creepers, and every part of the premises—stables, kitchen, garden, fowlyard, apiary—revealed that the owner was a lover of order.

“My word, what a contrast to Tom Rivers's place,” ejaculated Uncle Dick. “He's making money out of his farm, I allow, but how he can live in such a state of hugger-mugger passes my comprehension.”

“He ought to get a wife to keep him in order,” Aunt Susie said, laughing. But Gaunt answered, with great seriousness, “I should think a man would be ashamed to ask a woman to share such a comfortless home.”

As he spoke his eyes fell unconsciously on Stella. Aunt Susie nudged her husband, and the two moved discreetly away. There was silence for a little space, and then Gaunt asked quickly:

“Stella, do you like my Australian home?”

His face was white with suppressed emotion.

Stella realised this was the crisis of her fate.

“Yes,” she answered, simply.

“I made it all. It is the labour of my own hands. Some of my life has passed into it. I—love the place, but—something is wanting—a mistress. Stella, will you come?”

They had told each other all that was in their hearts, and still they sat on the garden bench conjugating over and over again the tenses of that wonderful verb, “to love,” which has entranced mankind since the beginnings of history. And then Gaunt bethought him of a little case which only that morning he had slipped into his pocket, containing a ring bequeathed by his mother to “My dear son's future wife,” As he drew it out a photograph fell to the ground.

“Ah, look at this, Stella. My mother always treasured it. It was taken when I was a student at the Agricultural College. Why, dearest, what is the matter—you look startled—almost wild. Is anything wrong?”

“Wrong—oh no!” cried Stella, with an excited sob. “It is only, oh! so wonderful—so beautiful. Oh! You were calling me then—calling me across the seas—before you ever saw me or knew my name! Here you are ploughing, just as I saw you in the biograph! Oh! How blind I was not to recognise you

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at once. Didn't I tell you there was something familiar—that when I saw you against the sky-line I felt I knew you. I felt that somewhere, somehow, our spirits had met before. Oh! what a happy, happy girl I am! Nature—this wild, beautiful nature—is mine, and love is mine, and now both seem rounded into one—into—”

“The personality of your husband,” Gaunt said. “We must keep that photograph, darling. It has given me my wife!”