Chapter I

ON landing at that lonely country station on the edge of a small straggling village, that had an embryonic look about it as if it had been prematurely born, and could never reach a full development, one looked instinctively round after some nineteenth-century signs and symptoms other than the railway line, and for the minute one's heart sank with a rush. Somehow, Arcadia in the flesh, as it were, right under one's nose, appeals but slightly to the modern mind, especially if this should happen to be a feminine one, and young—more or less. But the second glance round the corner dispelled at once all illusions of a life fitted to the needs of a simple primitive folk like the Arcadian. Fronting the station, a little to the right of it, a bold-faced public-house flaunted out its sign in one's very face; a red Presbyterian church, that

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had planted itself on a hillock above the public-house, gazed down eternally on its hereditary foe out of its two badly-glazed eyes through a greenish and sickly medium; lower down the street was a mechanics’ institute, one of the first growths in any Australian township; then came the school, and beyond it the English church, looking rather proud and high-stomachy, perched up on a hill—for all it was out of plumb, liable to come down at any minute, and with a cracked bell; but it had nevertheless a smack of arrogant aristocracy about it, that caused it to stink in the nostrils of the dissenting population.

Arcadia wasn't here, certainly, I thought, as I noted these several outcomes of Christian culture,—the public-house, the churches, and the schools,—and wondered, with tingling toes, if any one would come to meet me, or if I must try my chance of a buggy at the pub.

I went back to the platform and took a glance at my luggage. I was not altogether easy in my mind as to its safety. To the well-constituted British mind Australia is invariably connected either with sheep or convicts. If a rich Australian goes home and dispenses his coin as befits him, we give him the benefit of the doubt, and talk sheep; if he is not quite rich enough, or sticks to his gettings, we make a wild effort to find out what his father or his more remote ancestor was sent out for. Like many customs, this is foolish, and without foundation in fact or in reason; the man is probably as clean-bred as

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ourselves, or a deal cleaner; but one can't outrage conventions, it is the correct thing to dig into the fellow's past unless he does his duty by our present. As I was counting my packages, I encountered the gaze of a large fat man in a greasy coat, with big glazed-leather eyes; he looked rapacious, and had loose lips. I always distrust that style of person. I involuntarily clutched a Gladstone,—I knew it contained a very decent necklet of sapphires, and I had just paid a heavy duty on it. Then I turned on him the virtuous but forbidding glance of a British matron; it was quite effective, he shuffled off with surprising speed. As it happened, he was only a parson out on the prowl, picking up gossip,—not an uncommon type in Australia. God help the Church!

I looked up and down the station, yawning, it was so dull and ugly, when suddenly I caught sight of the back of a small woman, right up at the other end of the platform. It was a curious and notable back, with a lot in it,—a sort of back that holds one's gaze, and makes one turn it over in one's mind. Presently it was joined by another back, a big, broad man's back. The two fell to talking with vigour, and the female back shrugged and swayed in a distinctly seductive style. She wore a Redfern gown—I could swear to the hang of that skirt. I was outrageous! My friends had said, ‘Bring any rags you have,’ and I had taken them at their word. I was in worse than rags—in things of two seasons ago; they were too bad for the voyage, but I thought they would just do for

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the bush. To crown all, I wore a pair or snow-shoes over my boots,—it was cold travelling, and there were no foot-warmers to be got,—and my dress was short.

It was most galling. There was this woman, with varnished boots that absolutely blazed in the sun; and her hat was Parisian, if ever back of hat was. ‘I'll see the front of her,’ I muttered, ‘snow-shoes or not.’

I went hirpling up towards the pair with as haughty an air as I could get up under the circumstances. Just as I had got near enough to take in the length and breadth of the woman, she and her companion swung round simultaneously, and we stood face to face.

If I had met her on the Boulevards—stepping out of Debenham & Freebody's, or even in Fifth Avenue—I would have given her a full look, and as I passed on I would have held up my head with an air, and have given my fringe a twitch, she was as remarkable as that; and no man living would have passed her without making a détour to pass her again. But here, in the bush, where ‘we went in our rags’ (God forgive those girls!), she was a startling revelation, and sent of Satan to buffet the female flesh in undress—that is—

As for the man, he had a general all-right air; he was just a clean, wholesome-looking young fellow, a gentleman every inch of him, of a type that one is liable to drop on in any corner of the globe. His look of extreme youth was perhaps his most prominent characteristic.

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But the woman! she looked artless and blooming, and her dimples might have been filched from a baby; but somehow I saw, in her swift, comprehensive, amused glance at me, that the girl in that young person was dead, or perhaps had never lived.

She was fresh to look at—fresh and dainty and soft; but there was a certain sweet mellowness in her glance,—of a sort that always staggers another woman, and puts her at a disadvantage,—a certain air of ‘having gone the whole round of creation’ and taken it all in, moreover, that is peculiarly trying, especially when one has lived and also ‘experienced’ in one's own humble line: under that glance I might have been still looking out at life from over the nursery blinds.

This look, I found later, was not habitual to her; and why she let our acquaintance begin by it, I never could find out. Some sudden incontrollable freak of diablerie I believe it must have been. When we had taken each other in, they went to the south of the platform, I to the north. Suddenly the sound of swift-rolling wheels caught my ear, and I looked over the fence eagerly. A big lumbering waggonette was thundering up the hill behind two powerful horses. I could just catch sight of two girls’ heads crowed with brown deer-stalkers, and a middle-aged bonnet. Before I was half down the platform, my mother's old friend (whom I remembered quite well) and her two tall daughters were welcoming me, and apologising all at once. Then their eyes fell instinctively to criticising my turn-out, in an off-hand, good-humoured way, however,

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that had no offence in it. Meanwhile the dimpled young person was waiting a few yards off with well-bred ease for her turn: and when I was sufficiently greeted the two girls went to her; and somehow it hurt me to see Dimples bow and kiss those fair young things, with that touch of lovely stateliness about them. I wondered if she would kiss their mother, who I knew had always been noted for her calm, serenely-contented dignity. She did it; she grasped her hand with a little deferential, worshipful smile and bend that must have been supremely flattering.

It told certainly. Mrs. Fleming invited her and the man straight off to tea next day.

The drive to the house was pretty in a way, with the low blue hills in the distance—and nearer, the dull green-covered hills, curving half round the horizon in monotonous, short, humpy surges. Queer hills they were under the glamour of the sunshine and the shade, which gave them colour, and varied the monotony of their broken, blunted curves; when the deep blue haze, that only an Australian atmosphere seems able to produce in perfectness, was on them, then those hills were lovely and bewildering, full of mystery and delight. When the sun was off, and the haze in the valleys had gone grey, then the same hills were hideous, and it brought cold shivers down one's spine so much as to look at them, they were so cold and dead and unfinished. The life of these hills always seemed to come from the outside,—from the

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sun and the shade and the air,—never to throb in their own hearts. That day they were fine, however, and the fields, or paddocks, as they call them here, were pretty; and so was the little chattering stream that broke babbling over big stones, and went whirling on under a bridge that had had time to grow a little lichen, more then can be said for most Australian bridges. And the house, that was charming,—low and broad and generous, set on a terrace-like hill, with great verandahs and ample flower-beds and borders, and a wide stretched-out waste of orchard and kitchen garden flanked with big petosperum hedges.

Everything looked abundant about that house, and big and ungrudging, and that's a peculiarity of any amount of Australian country houses.