Chapter IV

THE next morning I made a solitary pilgrimage to Miss Ariell's eyrie, and was struck by the way by many curious little arrangements in her ménage, which the conclusion of this story will sufficiently elucidate.

We had an understanding. I used the gentlest and keenest and most deadly of women's weapons, and I gained my point. In future the Carew girls need fear neither stories not blasphemy.

We parted friends, however, and Clive walked to the foot of the hill with me. What a well-bred, weak fellow he was. I would have given anything if I could

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have carried him right away with me and saved him,—from what I did not quite understand myself, and yet from something that invariably brought creeps to my spine whenever I thought of it. I know she told him just how far to go, and that he daren't go a foot farther for the life of him. When he arrived at his limit, he pulled up and muttered something like ‘cow’—what that animal could possibly want at this hour of day I couldn't conceive; however, I accepted the excuse, and dismissed my poor escort with a warm grasp of his long nerveless hand,—a feminine hand, that no manual work could brown or make sinewy.

That afternoon we called on the Flemings. There was a queer little commotion as we deposited our umbrellas and a fern basket in the passage. When we got into the drawing-room, Mrs. Fleming had draped an old white cashmere about her, and was posing in the prim old lady-like way of a past age, and the girls were grouped round her, with a book or work on each lap; and every one looked big with colossal thought. One felt directly one was addressing no common flesh and blood article, but the very best book persons; and after a minute or two in that suggestive room, one began oneself to experience a sensation of cramp and half-suffocation, as if one were getting gradually pressed together and shut in between two cloth covers.

I no longer marvelled at the young men, but I quailed as I thought of the first outbreak of nature

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in the poor docked beings, and of its crushing, upheaving results to themselves and to their saintly relations. ‘God help the whole lot together!’ I mentally ejaculated, making one gasping effort to shed my book state and get back my comfortable carnal mind. It was in vain. I collapsed again directly, and just listened machine-like to Mrs. Fleming, who poured out upon me in a gentle stream a huge amount of information concerning books, the domestic animals, and her two sons. The eldest of them, Vandeleur,—‘always a family name;’ in point of family, as in all other points, the Flemings excelled,—seems to have been strictly virtuous, even in his long-clothes days; as far as one could judge, he had never done any one wrongthing. And, upon my word, he must have been a good fellow in spite of it all, for he supported, he and his equally excellent brother between them, the mother and that tribe of young women, and pandered extensively to each of their several tastes,—and eleven individual tastes in one family comes expensive, as any family-man will tell you.

Directly we got out of sight of the house, we all set with a simultaneous sort of relieved chuckle to running, to get our limbs free again. Then we sat down on a stump, and aired our random thoughts with keen relish; it was so delicious to throw off the mental and physical bandages, and to expand again and feel human. But on these two wretched male creatures with all their natural young instincts guarded and held in check and accounted as nought by a kind of

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foolish ignorant women who knew not what they did, poor souls, it was horrible to think of! Between our gay bursts of laughter I could have gone the length of crying for those boys.

I didn't get over that visit till I had thrown myself in careless abandonment on the big white bed in my room, and had drunk deep draughts of the fragrant Indian tea the girls brought me.

The next day I had to go down to town, to stay for a few days with some friends I had made on the voyage.

One evening we went to the theatre—to the beautiful Princess'. The piece was a melodrama, with too much colour and light and cheap sentiment. It didn't interest me, or perhaps I wasn't in the humour to be interested—I was bored. It was my doom to be placed between two as vapid young men as ever God put breath into. I tried to amuse myself with the people, and spent some interested time looking round, taking in the men and the girls and the dresses.

Taking them all round, the girls of Australia make a far finer show to the eye of a stranger than the men; even in the matter of head shape they can give them points and win. This may, of course, be a merciful dispensation, the future of a nation resting so largely in its women; but one feels sorry to see it all the same, and one wonders where all the grit, and the courage, and the adventure, and marvellous strength and patience and self-sacrifice of the magnificent

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old pioneers of this nation have vanished to. They don't reappear in the sons, seemingly. Could these qualities have worn themselves threadbare, from the very force and strength and vigour of them, in one generation—fail, as it were, through their own greatness? It is to be hoped not. Perhaps these young limp men, bumptious enough, too, with the twang rather spoiling the virility of their voices, hold more of the quality of their ancestors than their appearance would suggest; perhaps, after all, they can throw forward quite their share of strength and grit and straightness into the ages. They'll have enough to do, poor souls, with the climate, and the evils bred of it all against them, and their pockets full of money.

We had good seats, right in front of the dress circle, and could get a fair view of the whole house. In the box to my right I had noticed for some time a lovely sea-green frock, and the tip of a white shoulder that shrugged from time to time; and now and again I caught sight of the side of a man's brown head stooping towards the shoulder. When the curtain fell at the end of the first act, the light fell full on to the box, and suddenly the head belonging to the shoulder bent forward, and I saw Miss Ariell. I could not help it, I craned my neck round, like any schoolgirl, to find out by what name the dark head called itself,—it was shades too brown for Clive,—but it had retreated into the gloom. I couldn't get a glimpse of it.

‘Do you care to come out; it's melting hot? demanded one of my young men affably. The other,

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hoarsely muttering ‘cigars,’ had fled the instant the curtain began to fall, and was no doubt at that very moment absorbing some liquid or another. It is amazing how much of that sort of thing they can do in this fiery climate, and yet retain whatever reason and liver Heaven has been pleased to bestow on them.

‘No—yes,’ I said, rather at random. It ended in my going, and boring my young friend a good deal. I could only manage to give him and his platitudes—which, to do him justice, he produced with marvellous ease and much good nature—just an atom of ear, the remainder, with all my eyes, had their work cut out for them in listening and looking for Miss Ariell and the brown head. I found them at last away in a corner, whispering. I could see the young woman distinctly, but nothing of the man but a dress coat and the flash of white linen.

‘Do let us walk up and down,’ I said, ‘I am so tired of sitting.’ The poor young man reached out his arm obediently, and we took a turn towards the brown head and the little black one which were close together in the shade of the wall. Ah, but I saw the profile plainly—unmistakeably! I took care to let no chance likeness mislead me. It was—it was Vandeleur Fleming. ‘Good gracious!’ I ejaculated, in a choked sort of way, I fancy, for my escort stopped and looked concernedly at me.

‘Can I get you an ice or anything,—’tis a hot night for the time of year,—I'm sure you're thirsty?’

‘No, I'm not,’ I said, laughing; ‘but I have no doubt

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you are. Leave me with Mr. Chaloner, and go, get an ice or—something.’

I saw these two twice after that,—once at the theatre again, and once having coffee at Gunsler's. What a changed creature Vandeleur looked,—his own mother wouldn't have known him in his well - cut clothes and his general man-of-the-world air,—he was no better to look at than any ordinary decent everyday sinner. Seemingly the liberal education had set in. Now, what in the world was I to do?

It was certainly not my province to drop down on the boy, and bring him nolens volens home to his mother. As to attacking Miss Ariell on the subject, she would have laughed in my face.

And yet—and yet, though in my heart of hearts I felt there was a necessity for this experience, that from the queer conditions of his life it must come, yet my heart bled for the boy. Bubbling over with foolish, frank, fond delight, he looked like a baby out on the spree,—and so inordinately vain of it too, and of himself. I would have helped him, but I had to decide to let things go; he must ‘fare like his peers,’ and find the level of his strength. His false armour of sunny self-satisfied righteousness would soon enough prove its impotence and display its flaws, and presently the scales would fall from his eyes and he would see clear. As for his retribution, that was assured when his mother would get to know—she would be sure to, sooner or later, in this little place where nothing is hid. Then any known plan of torment

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ever offered to the public must be a fool to the torments this boy would endure. Heaven knows he would be thankful enough at the end of it all to ‘range’ himself and to return to the present paths of righteousness!

Ah, it was inevitable; but I felt sorry all the same, and perplexed.

I went back on Saturday, and was tired, and hardly fresh enough even to look at the evening paper.

There was no one in my compartment but a horrid old man in one corner, who snored and snuffled and thrust out a hideous puce under-lip in a rhythmic regular sort of way that struck one as predictive of fits. I felt ready to choke him. People with such habits should reserve their compartments.

The man attracted me all the same, and my eyes would turn and turn again to that awful lip. I nearly prayed for some one to come in and break the spell.

When we got to a small station about five miles from Melbourne, to my delight and astonishment and surprise, who should throw open my carriage door and jump in but Vandeleur Fleming!

He still wore the worldly air; but he blushed furiously as he took my hand, and he seemed to find a difficulty in regaining his normal colour.

Then he plunged boldly into politics. I never could quite get to the bottom of Victorian politics. I hardly know, indeed, if they have a bottom. But that day I listened to them quite placidly. They relieved my young friend, and kept my eyes and thoughts off the lip.

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As we were within two stations of our destination, Vandeleur pulled up suddenly, dropped politics as if they had stung him, and looked at me with two shy pleading eyes.

‘Mrs. Vallings,’ he whispered, with a side-glance at the lip, ‘might I ask you not to mention—ahem—to my mother or—my sister and the—Carews that you saw us—Miss Ariell and myself—at the theatre? My people, you see,’ he explained, with blazing cheeks, ‘are so very—so—out of the world, as it were, so inexperienced, you see. They might misunderstand—you know—naturally—you see—but they might—might—in fact—blame—that charming girl. She, of course, though just as good and as innocent’—

‘Good gracious!’ I thought, ‘the boy is even a bigger goose than I thought. What on earth is one to do? This alters matters.’

‘But she has been differently brought up, and her stage life, you know, has—has—so to speak—enfranchised her.’

That word seemed to relieve him,—it was more like the family,—and he may have been feeling a little lost and aloof from it.

‘You will comprehend me, I feel assured, Mrs. Vallings,’ he went on, with a much bolder front and no stuttering. ‘You know—ahem—that we MEN OF THE WORLD’ (I gasped softly) ‘do things every day—that—women—ahem—women such as my dear mother and sisters might misconstrue. Not—not that for a minute,’ he resumed hurriedly, the hot

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blood rushing up again and flooding his face, ‘I mean to imply that I would not as much as suffer one hair of Miss Ariell's head—Mrs. Vallings,’ he cried, his voice thick with confused feeling,—‘she's as safe in my hands—as—as she would be in yours,’ he burst out. Then he muttered something. I think it was, ‘God be my witness.’ I wish the solemnity of the thing hadn't got so mixed up with the intense funniness of it, the incongruity gave one a hysterical sort of feel.

‘My dear boy,’ I cried, quite on the spur of the moment,—Vandeleur Fleming was the last young man in the world one would treat boyishly, for all his foolishness,—‘it is certainly no business of mine to acquaint your family or the Carews with any affair of yours’—I paused and thought a minute, he was so young, so self-assured, so superior, so supremely idiotic; he certainly was years past his puppy days and his milk teeth, but Miss Ariell was the last person in the world to train him to the new diet. She would give him a moral dyspepsia that would last him his lifetime. All the mother in me came to the rescue. I would make one effort; but it was an ill thing to meddle in, and I always feel I did it badly. I began lamely.

‘I am years older than you, Mr. Fleming. I have been about in the world, girl and woman, this many a year. We women pick up a good deal as we go, and we have what you great, strong, knowledgeable creatureshavenot’ (that fetched him), ‘we have intuition

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or instinct, and somehow I don't think Miss Ariell would ever quite suit you. To begin with, she's older’—

‘Only ten months,’ he broke in. ‘I'm twenty-three, and she's a little over twenty-four.’

(She was thirty-five, if she was a day.)

‘Indeed, that may be in years, but you see a woman's life makes such a difference,—experiences with us go for more than years,—and Miss Ariell has lived her life, I should think, more than most girls; and, as you yourself said, her life has been so different from yours.’

‘I said from that of my mother and of my sisters,’ he remarked, with extreme dignity, and with an expressive pull-up to his shirt collar. ‘The lives of young men, Mrs. Vallings, are, I take it—ahem—pretty much the same all the world over. Melbourne, I assure you, is behind no city of its size in the old world.’

‘Oh, indeed, I never meant to imply it was,’ I said humbly. ‘I only feared that perhaps a girl like Miss Ariell, so used to the admiration of men, so used to constant excitement, might hardly be the wife to make you happy. Pray excuse me, I know this interference is an impertinence.’

‘No,’ he muttered; ‘most kind, I am sure.’

‘It is kindly meant, but it is an impertinence all the same, and you think it is. But if an intuition once gets a good hold on a woman, and if it tells her any one younger than herself is in danger, there's no knowing the length she will go in obedience to this obstinate instinct to save him—or try to.’

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‘Danger? What do you mean,’ he demanded sternly, quite ignoring the man with the lip, who was quite wide-awake, and taking us in at his leisure.

‘I am perfectly convinced of the purity and honesty of your intentions,’ I continued boldly enough, but I quaked inwardly, the boy was so wofully in earnest, ‘but I am not by any means so assured of Miss Ariell. I fear she may lead you to do things you will regret later.’

‘Ah, Mrs. Vallings,’ he said sorrowfully, ‘how is it the very best and noblest of your sex can so misunderstand their peers—their peers?’ he repeated emphatically. ‘Miss Ariell is as good a girl as ever drew breath. God bless her!’

I felt choky. I could have kissed the boy that minute; and then he turned ridiculous all at once.

‘And even if there were danger, as you say, even if your hints had a germ of truth in them, and there were danger for me,’ he raised his voice and stiffened himself, ‘Mrs. Vallings, put my knowledge of the world aside, and even my common sense, do you think I have no religion?’

He raised himself proudly on his seat, crossed his hands on his knees, and glared at me.

We were just steaming into our station, where our assembled families and friends were standing in close converse, waiting to receive us. As I was collecting my packages, Miss Ariell came up to look for hers. She looked as artless as ever, and gave a start of surprise at sight of me.

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‘Ah,’ she cried, ‘dear Mrs. Vallings, how did I miss seeing you? I was in that horrid ladies’ carriage, and nearly stifled. A great fat wheezy baby had bronchitis, and we couldn't open an inch of window. If I had only known—Mr. Vandeleur, were you there too?—Oh!’

Mr. Vandeleur got scarlet, and turned a suspicious glance on me; but I couldn't wait to see it out, as the girls were calling, and the horses becoming restive.