Chapter II

DIRECTLY I got inside my room I made for my dress - trunk, and plunged down to the depths of it and brought out a tea-gown. It was one of Worth's. When I was fairly in it, I felt for the first time, since I stepped on to that solitary station, the divinity of my femininity. I could hold up my head now, and face the world. I had in a manner lost my reputation, all owing to a pair of snow-boots and a dippy skirt, and I put myself on my mettle to win it back. We had a merry tea that brilliant

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spring day. I had so much to tell; and old Colonel Carew was just the man to tell anything to, with his fine, clear-cut, hale old face, and his twinkling, observant glance, and his big laugh, and bigger powers of catching a joke. I was just fresh from England, and as arrogant and patronising as any of my kind. I must have been vastly amusing to the family circle that first day before I had found my bearings. Worth did me a good turn, however,—only for him they would have despised me, as I deserved.

The next day Miss Dimples and the man arrived, and were presented to me. They were step-brother and sister, I found. He was a Mr. Pomfret; she, a Miss Ariell; and they certainly seemed wonderfully attached to one another. The boy couldn't have been a day over twenty-three; he had that slim, callow look so attractive to some women of experience. I felt much drawn to him, and I had arrived at that stage when a woman can afford to be kind to young men, with anticipatory pity for what is before them in life. It comes after living and suffering oneself,—when one feels secure of one's own ground, and can be helpful. For all practical purposes, indeed, men are no more than shadows to a woman in this phase of her life.

As for their admiration, that is quite another matter. That is a woman's right,—one of the essences essential to her well-being and development, and she has every right to receive as much as she can hold of the thing. Indeed, to go so far as to compel its giving

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out; it is hers by Divine right, and she is in duty bound to collect it.

So as Clive Pomfret's eyes appealed to me, and as I saw directly he was as weak as a reed, I made up my mind to be his friend; and indeed I had him deep down in a good hot discussion that had a slight flavour of ethics in it—boys like that sort of thing—before he knew what he was about, and we were already bons camarades, when suddenly the step-sister swooped softly down and scattered us.

‘Clive,’ she said, with an artless glance out of her big blue eyes,—were they blue, by the way, or grey, or green? I never found out, no more did any one else,—‘they want you for tennis, dear, and I'll take care of Mrs. Vallings.’

We were on a garden-seat in the shadow of a Norfolk pine watching the players, and she sat down beside me in Mr. Pomfret's place. I looked pleased—I couldn't well look any other way—and prepared to find out her age,—a much harder matter than I imagined, it altered so. She was sometimes sixty and sometimes sixteen; she was never a girl all the same,—there was an unsound look of age and experience in that person that belied her soft girlish exterior, and baffled me.

She had an alluringly musical voice, and she spoke with much gesture.

It was a perfect day, cool and fresh and sparkling, with the sunlight embracing and glorifying all things, even the ugly gums, and yet with a touch of the frost

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in it that kept it clear and clean. Down in the scattered orchard the almond trees were shedding their vesture of pale pink, and the cherry plums were budding out in dazzling white, and the wattle bloom shone like yellow gold through the olive of the gums, lovely to look at, till the enraptured wretch takes out his sketching-pad and colour-box, and dips about among his yellows to catch their bloomy gold. Then he finds them—well—diabolical!—it is a slight term to describe the artist's sensations; but I have scruples, a woman is so handicapped in this matter of adequate expression.

I felt rather bewildered that afternoon. The amazing amount of sunshine had something to do with this, I fancy—it always does stagger a newcomer. Of course one finds sunshine in other places,—in Southern France, in parts of Spain, and in Italy,—but Australian sunlight is quite original, and only flourishes in Australia. It is young and rampant and bumptious, and it is rather cruel, with the cruelty of young untried things. Then it is inexorable, and can neither pity nor revere,—and the only time it knows tenderness is when it hovers on the threshold of the horizon on its road back to the old lands. Ah, but it is magnificent in the pride of its youth!

One wonders sometimes if it will mellow and soften as time goes on, and history is made in this wonderful boundless land; and hearts break, and the wind catches the tune of human sobbing, and holds it.

The land is so young to civilisation yet, so young

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and debonair, that the sun and the air, the winds and the waters, forget how old and sad and terrible the world is.

Besides being bewildered, I was consumed with curiosity. This person was intelligent; I would question her. All my talk with the Carews was of the old world and old friends. I could get nothing in at all of the new. It is curious how these Australians cling to the mother-land.

‘Tell me of those people,’ I said. ‘Who is that girl there playing with your brother, and that young man? he doesn't look as if a young country bred him; he looks as if he had just emerged from a provincial town at home, and out of a narrow circle, and came home to his tea always whether he would or not; he has a coerced air.’

‘How funny you should guess!’ She laughed gaily. I liked the laugh, it really did ring true. ‘That young man comes from a large family who live near here, and they used to live in England near some very microscopical, yet so very select little town. They number about thirteen in all, and’—she cried, with a little dramatic gesture—‘never sinned, not one of them, properly, in all their lives; they are super-excellent, so wonderful! They have been brought up between two straight rigid lines, and they have never, not any of them, gone outside of them for any purpose whatever. They read nothing more modern than Thackeray in English and Racine in French; and even in that their mother has scored out pages!

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They wouldn't look at French modern paintings, and on principle the entire family only lives to protest against modern morals. They always use the best brand of words and thoughts, I even believe their dreams have an ethical basis and a theological bias, and they are such a devoted family; they have little family ways, and little family quotations, and select high-class little jokes of a literary turn. Ah, they are charming and so naîve! But you see they cannot naturally judge by comparison, and they are just a little—ah, they are my dear friends! I am a wretch, and should not say it—ah, but they are'—

‘Intolerable, I should say,’ I remarked frankly.

Where did this young person get her little French turns and twists and modes of speech from, I should like to know? Her shrugs were got on French soil, I felt quite convinced.

‘Ah, Mrs. Vallings, I would never have said that,’ she cried, the artlessness coming to the surface at a gush.

‘She is afraid of herself,’ I thought shrewdly. ‘Highly as these people entertain her, she daren't let it all out.’

‘Of course you wouldn't,’ I answered placidly. ‘You are of the neighbourhood; I am a stranger, and quite free to speak my mind. But how, then, do these provincial people get on here—with those delicious Carew girls, for instance?’

‘Ah, you see, they are gentle-people, and up here the society is limited.’

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‘I see; they would have no show in Melbourne, just like England. Is nothing different? I came expecting to find simplicity and the free life of primitive times, and I find not a whit less convention and complexity, only in rather a more miniature, and therefore, perhaps, a more galling way than at home.’

‘Yes, in some ways,’ she cried, in an agitated way I couldn't account for, giving her hands a sort of wring. I looked at her on seeing this queer squeeze, and her eyes had tears in them, or at any rate some form of moisture, however it was produced.

‘Upon my word,’ I muttered, and waited. I felt I was about to hear something, so I waited in silence, and watched the Carews in their flannel frocks and red sailor hats, as pretty and statelily chic a pair as you would meet in a long day's march, and the immaculate young man, and Mr. Pomfret, who was for the moment talking rather absently to one of the Carew girls. He never looked quite at his ease, and from time to time his eyes strayed towards our seat and rested on Miss Ariell; she drew those glances, too, they didn't come altogether of themselves. I found this out by noting the queer incomprehensible way she looked at him sometimes for seconds at a stretch, then her gaze caught his, and with a start always on his side.

‘Remarkable,’ I thought, ‘between step-brother and sister.’

At last she broke the silence with a gentle soughing

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sort of sigh. I wonder how she learnt the trick—it was most effective.

‘Yes, there are conventions here. Think! The country has been getting civilised now for more than a hundred years. Of course, conventions have had time to find a firm foothold, and the soil suits them, as you will soon know. Australian conventionalism, however, differs from English. It is not so consistent; it is stiffer, to look at, in some ways, and wants careful manipulation. But if one once gets the knack of that, it is quite an elastic, compressible thing, and gives to the touch like anything. One only needs courage to be charming. We all know that, all over the world. But charm judiciously applied can do anything in Australia. Ah, it is funny, this Australian rule of conduct. Ah, very,’ she repeated, with a soft laugh that went well with the veiled mockery in her eyes. ‘They think it is unbending, so straight, that the English article is nothing to it. But, dear Mrs. Vallings, it is really only rigid in spots, so to speak; and in the country, when it is dull, and nothing “on,” before this wild, short, wonderful season of theirs gallops in, the conventions grow quite complaisant, and will put up with quite strange things,—so long, that is, as they are of foreign manufacture, and bring a new sensation; no home-grown vagary is tolerated. Now in England that never is. The duller the place and the people, the straighter and stiffer the sense of “conduct” grows. It spreads all over some people, I think, like a thin coat

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of enamel, warranted to crack nowhere, and to be quite impervious to exceptions. Do you not agree with me, Mrs. Vallings? You are not conventional, neither am I.

But I looked quiet and dignified, and as correct as my nature would allow. I made no reply. I had no notion of being claimed as a kindred spirit by this piece of artless impudence.

‘Ah, but the people here are so good—so good!’ she cried, completely altering her voice and manner, which with one dexterous twist gave one a distinct impression of suppressed tears. ‘They have taken me into their circle,—and oh, so warmly, so full-heartedly! Ah, they are good!’ she murmured.

I wondered what she was driving at, but I gave her her head and let her go her own gait; I was in no hurry. Her gestures and changes of voice amused me and kept up my interest, they looked so natural; and yet kept me wondering all the time how or where she collected and assimilated them. They had never grown up with her, I was quite confident.

‘They are good, I am sure,’ I said calmly; ‘but it doesn't strike me that the fact of their taking you up is any particular proof of their goodness. Why shouldn't they?’

She threw up her little hands; they were pretty, plump little hands, but cruel.

‘Mrs. Vallings, I am an actress.’


I had recently gone through the actress craze, and

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had met them at every decent house. I was certainly not crushed by the information.

‘Ah, but I am not a great creature, with a world-known name. I am only a poor little one, who hopes and waits—waits, perhaps, for years’ (the artless tap was quite turned on now)—‘and then—I ran away—engaged as I was, too. My people were old-fashioned; the stage for them was the threshold of hell—and I was so young—so young—not so much in years, perhaps,’ she cried (I think she noticed an uncontrollable flash of intelligence in my eyes), ‘as in experience. I was brought up with my sister in a Parisian convent school’ (‘Ah,’ thought I, ‘that's where you learnt your little ways!’) ‘under such strict supervision; and afterwards I lived for my dying sister, and never went out. She died—and then—I could not live then. I must have change and excitement—I could get neither in our narrow, refined circle. I knew I could act. I felt it tingling in every vein’ (she threw out her arms with a dramatic fling)—'I had to go—I was a wicked girl. Ah, I went to London—away from the man I loved. He was a Captain Panton in the 7th Hussars’ (she hid nothing, this young person). ‘Ah, look at his picture,’ she continued, extricating it from inside her dress.

He looked quite a decent creature, with nothing to distinguish him from hundreds of his kind. I wondered with an inward grin if he were a stage lover.

Fresh suspicions always kept cropping up in my

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mind as this woman spoke; why, I couldn't tell. She looked and spoke (bar the theatrical turn) and seemed straight, and yet I felt it borne in on me that she was not. I felt she was laughing all the time in her sleeve at the whole batch of us, myself, of course, included. I felt it quite distinctly, and yet it amused me to laugh with her.

‘Ah, Mrs. Vallings, he was noble and good; and oh, how he loved me!’

‘But you did not break with him, surely—you will marry him one day?’

‘Some day, perhaps. I have offered him his freedom, but he will not take it from my hands; he is too good, too true. You see I must not go home—I cannot stand the climate. My lungs are organically wrong—yes; that is what the doctors say. There is a great big hole just here,’ she explained, planting her hand on a part of her form that I always used to consider covered the heart; at least, I am quite certain that was where the ambulance lecturer put it. However, Miss Ariell seemed quite confident as to the site of the cavity, and no doubt she knew best. ‘No, I cannot live at home; and Everard, poor fellow, he must stick to his regiment—he may not come into his property for years. Ah, parting is sad, sad!’ She stopped to sigh and pose a little. ‘And such a parting as ours! Who knows if ever we shall meet again!’

‘Oh, perhaps he'll come into the property sooner than you think, and your lung will heal up, and you'll

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be quite happy again,’ I said cheerfully. ‘Mean-while, you seem happy with your step-brother, who is certainly most devoted to you.’

‘Ah, Clive. Yes, we are devoted. My father married his mother, so we are much of an age.’ (‘Good gracious!’ I mentally ejaculated.) ‘We have been brought up together, and we are more to each other than many a full brother and sister. When my health drove me off the stage, he came to take care of me. We have bought a little house and place, and live up there among the hills. You will come and see us—lunch with us—with the girls on Monday?’ she asked, in a pleading way.

‘Certainly; I should like to very much; but isn't it lonely? Don't you both get very tired of it?’

What possible motive could induce this young woman to live up among these hills and these dull woods with a step-brother, and no possibility, so far as one could see, of doing a stroke of mischief? As to the hole in her lung, her outward appearance quite belied the possibility of anything of the kind.

With these thoughts besetting me, I looked at her. She was in the very act of finishing a long and a most remarkable smile at the eldest of the good young people with baggy-kneed trousers. Was I dreaming or bewitched? I rubbed my eyes involuntarily, and looked again; her expression was infantile, and the young man had his back turned to us.

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‘Tired of it? No; we are such friends, Clive and I. We have such a community of interests and hopes. Ah, he is a dear boy! We are never idle, and we never have ennui.’

‘What well-constituted minds you must have. I should die of it,’ I said dryly. ‘I like my brothers very well. On the whole, I think we are a fairly united family; but to put up with one from year's end to year's end up there in those dismal hills—gur-r!—it would be the death of me. You certainly are a devoted sister and brother.’

I finished laughing and looking at her. She got pink, and the corner of her mouth gave one vicious droop, then it pulled itself together and spoke gaily,—

‘Yes; I suppose we are peculiarly devoted. Many things have combined to draw us close. Some day I—I will tell you; I can't now,’ she said, with a small break in her voice. ‘Ah, not here—in this sunlight—before these girls, untouched by sorrow.’

I wondered if she acted as well on the stage as off. I found later she didn't—not by a long chalk. She was a most painful stick as soon as she touched the boards. Society drama was her mélier.

Just then Clive came up. I saw him throw one quick uneasy glance on her, then he stretched himself down on the grass and began to talk.

He was a nice fellow, and full of a soft, gentle sort of fun; and without any doubt his eyes were entrancing, and they seemed strangely occupied with his

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step-sister. I felt sorry to see it. I wondered what his prospects were, and if he were worthy of one of those tall, fresh Carews, with their frank, off-hand ways, and their curious mixture of shrewdness and innocence. They had, both of those girls, ten times the nous and grasp of that gentle mother of theirs; they could get to the bottom of a thing in the most direct and rapid way, while she never yet fathomed the ghost of a mystery without her husband's direct interference. Then those two were strong—strong and true. One of them might help this fellow—wanting in grit—to his manhood.

I was thinking vaguely on this subject—formulating a match in my idle brain—in the way of women who have done with that sort of thing for themselves. When I looked down on the boy, I caught his eyes turned on his step-sister with the pleading of love in them; it was love, honest man's love, sure enough, if ever I saw the thing, and I may remark I know all about it quite well.

My match was nipped in the bud. I felt dazed. I went over to talk to the young man at whom she had smiled that long queer smile. He was standing watching her with a savage eye.

He was a good fellow when one dived down in him, but the surface was aggressively self-righteous and seemingly moral. He was the sort of young man of whom one felt instinctively that a downright good slip would be the salvation. As I watched his savage glances that day and her soft ones, and divers other

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signs and symptoms, I felt quite a vicious sort of satisfaction, and almost felt as if she would do a good work in taking the young man in hand. She certainly seemed capable of being a liberal education to him or to any other man.