Chapter XLVI

THE Hindoo Fawn steamed away at the appointed hour with a large number of passengers, among them rather more than the average mixture of classes who make up the miscellaneous crowds that are constantly to be found going to and fro on the mail-boats between Australia and the old world. They were all there, from the publican who had made a large fortune in a shanty at a new gold-mine, to the

  ― 378 ―
Governor whose term of office had expired, and who discussed European politics with an air of lofty reserve, as if sources of information lay in the hollow of his hand denied to such everyday avenues as newspapers. ‘Ah, yes, yes; that is the popular rumour,’ he would murmur, with an indulgent smile, as though he had a special Asmodeus in his pay in each European Court. His ‘lady,’ too, was usually surrounded by a small coterie, who hung on her words with that pathetic docility which oftentimes marks the Australienne who has much money and little culture, and who in provincial simplicity regards a Governor's wife as being necessarily an oracle of fashion and the higher social ethics. But there were many on board the Hindoo Fawn who did not join in this form of fetich-worship. Conspicuous among these was Mrs. Anstey Hobbs, who formed what might be termed a counter-circle, and numbered among her adherents many of the ‘Melbourne people,’ and a young man who was supposed to be engaged on a weighty work on Australia. As he had passed four months in the island-continent, had lived only in the cities and among the wealthy grocer order, his qualifications for the task may be imagined. But, then, what he lacked in experience he made up in theories. Even if he had been deficient in these, his friend, Mrs. Anstey-Hobbs, would have jogged his imagination.

The omnipotence of money in our young Republics, that is the bane of our social life, Mr. FitzAlan,’ she would say sententiously; on which Mr. FitzAlan would whip out his note-book and enter the observation with a glow of thankfulness at being able to gather knowledge at so sure and trustworthy a source. ‘Look at those exuberant young women sweeping the deck in cream-coloured plush and lace tea-gowns. Their mother laid the foundation of the family's immense wealth by washing in the early days of the Ballarat diggings, and then the father kept a sly grog-shop. Now their lives are as much divorced from labour as Solomon's lilies.’

In her desire to be epigrammatic, Mrs. Anstey Hobbs occasionally perpetrated a derangement of associations, of which this may be taken as a favourable specimen.

‘They keep betting-books, they talk slang, they wear pearls and diamonds at breakfast, and their reading is

  ― 379 ―
confined to a few trashy novels and sporting news; their sole idea of conversation is horsy chaff, and their favourite avocation is a pronounced flirtation. Ah, Mr. FitzAlan, it is a cruel fate to find one's self bracketed with such people. Yes, people like you may discriminate.’

‘Well, you have helped me to a much clearer understanding of these young ladies. I fear when my work come out you will find it enriched with many of your observations, Mrs. Anstey-Hobbs. They are so true to the life, so apt, so full of individuality. And that young lady who keeps so much aloof, who has constantly a book in her hands, and seldom speaks except to her husband or dog, or her maid, and has formed no friendship except with a sick ape?’

‘Oh, Mrs. Ted Ritchie! Well, now, there is a study for you. A few months ago that languid, supercilious, indifferent young person, who preserves such a haughty silence most of the day, was introduced for the first time to what might be termed society. She was delightfully naïve and fresh, interested in everyone and everything—really, one might also say intelligent—her whole face constantly sparkling with enjoyment. She had, too, a very fair idea of talking, perhaps a little too ingénue in her delight in entering fashionable society, too ready with a smile when there was no call for it, but on the whole so vivacious and ingenuous that it was quite a pleasure to meet her.’

‘You amaze me! What can have wrought so marvellous a change?’

‘Money. Fifteen thousand a year is the secret of it all. Mark her cold listlessness, the droop in her mouth, the disengaged air. She is practising the rôle of the woman of society to perfection. Oh yes, her sister-in-law may be Countess of Lillimore any day. The two influences combined—wealth and an aristocratic connection—have been too much for her. Just notice, the maid brings her a couple of books, her husband shifts the sunshade, his valet, or groom rather, leads up her dog, and then, for the first time, our fine lady permits herself a feeble smile. One might imagine it was a marriage à la mode, instead of which the young man was the only one she ever cared for, and she had set her heart for years on marrying him. She has accomplished her object—she is wealthy—behold the result!

  ― 380 ―
Now, judge whether I over-estimate the exaggerated part that money plays with us.’

Mr. FitzAlan was deeply impressed by all this, and more than ever conscious of his great good-fortune in securing so skilful a coadjutor as Mrs. Anstey-Hobbs in imparting a lively local colour to his Australian impressions. He made what he would have called a ‘study’ of Mrs. Ritchie. After sketching the exuberant young women whose toilettes on board ship were of so telling a nature, whose fortunes were laid in so dramatic a form, he took up his parable regarding another phase of Australian womanhood—the young lady who belongs socially to a higher grade, but who has lived in straitened circumstances till a lucky marriage has landed her in affluence and wealth. Here the young man warmed to his work, and with those side-lights and cumulative details, which are so much more effective in the tourist's hands than any shred of the truth would be, beset as it is with thorny points which do not adapt themselves harmoniously to neatly packed little theories, he went on to probe and ‘accentuate,’ as he would term it, the difference of types.

The young persons whose wealth made them so frankly jubilant in its enjoyment had, after all, been born in the lap of luxury. With all their loud, costly, inappropriate costumes, their silken trains dusting the decks of mail-steamers, yet their faith in the almighty dollar as the governing factor of life was not so sublimely immovable as that of the more cultured young lady who had been poor and was suddenly rich—suddenly in touch, through her husband's family, with the proud exclusive aristocracy of England! Then came a fetching picture of the milieu of this young lady in her father's house, where she had unwillingly drudged with the maid-of-all-work, and spent a large portion of her leisure in making up cheap dresses that were as faithful a reproduction of the last fashion-plates as circumstances would permit. There was even a light and rapid inventory of the furniture—the varnished side board, with its plated ware, the imitation Brussels carpet, the oleographs, the large supply of the novel of a second-rate order which formed the chief reading of the young lady, whose heart would beat with yearning envy at the facile victories of heiresses—those fortunate beings who command

  ― 381 ―
the last triumphs of the milliner's confections, and the man-dressmaker's knowing art—whose coiffure is built up by the cunning fingers of a trained maid. For, under an artless and vivacious appearance, an inflexible purpose lodged itself in this young woman's breast. She would, if possible, be rich! She would cast aside the sordid trappings that bound her, and soar into the empyrean of those whose lives were beautified with wealth! She would become one of the elect who neither toil nor spin. And all at once this was accomplished. Now mark the outcome. So possessed is this young person with her incredible change of fortune, that her whole nature is transformed. She is penetrated to her finger-tips with a keen appreciation of her good-fortune, and yet she hides her glowing satisfaction under an air of profound indifference, etc., etc.

So enamoured did the young man become of the sketch thus done from life—piping hot, as it were, from the inner reality of things—that he was never weary of adding new touches. Mrs. Anstey-Hobbs was delighted. The artist in her, as she would have termed it, expanded in considering this masterly exposition of character. He discovered that his ‘study’ absented herself from the Sunday services held on deck, sitting apart in the society of her dog and the sick ape. It was then he wrote: ‘Nor is this assumption of haughty coldness, of languid scorn, confined to the ordinary intercourse of life. In her determination to be quite above the average herd—to be abreast with the latest development of advanced thought so called—she despises even those outward observances of religion that have consoled humanity through countless æons of time.’ After admiring this phrase hugely for some days, the thought occurred to him that the Church of England Prayer-book was after all dated, and he accordingly made an alteration. This Mrs. Anstey-Hobbs called being rigorously critical.

‘Each shade, every nuance in her nature is subtly touched,’ she murmured, adjusting her pince-nez to take a better look at the subject who afforded these masterly discoveries.

‘And you tell me that in the weeks immediately preceding her marriage the future Lord Lillimore was struck with the Parisian frivolity she displayed?’ said the budding author, cogitating how he might turn the circumstance into

  ― 382 ―
a phrase that would swell the general effect. But enough of this young man. He was by no means the funniest example of those Australian tourists whose modes of authorship mark them as chosen morsels for the comic muse.

Needless to say that Stella was throughout entirely oblivious of the speculations to which her altered demeanour gave rise. The change, indeed, was sufficiently startling to attract the attention of one who had known her in the recent past. And we must all have perceived from time to time how a theory protects the average mind from any perception of the truth—the very sun-motes arrange themselves to make the illusion more credible.

It often happens that the sins into which people are betrayed against themselves take long, long years to find out. The seeds have surely been sown, but may it not be that they have died? The sheaves of so many autumns have been garnered, and yet the tares have not destroyed the harvest. May it not be a part of the old superstition of sibyl and prophet that our deeds still travel with us— their noiseless footfalls ever keeping pace with ours till the moment comes when their shadowy hands hold us faster than adamantine chains? Do not believe it. The root of bitterness is there, and unless we are so forgotten of God that others, rather than ourselves, must suffer for our wrong-doing, the pulse of life beats in the long-buried germ when we least look for its resurrection. But there are retributions which are as the shadow of offences, and follow hard on them like hounds that nothing diverts from their quarry. Of this kind was the bitter humiliation which fell on Stella so swiftly after her unhappy marriage. Yet the depths of listless impassiveness that closed round her at this time were not more the result of that dismal experience than the reaction after those days of strange self-abandonment when the whole forces of her mind had been directed to the effacing all memory of what had been the crowning joy of her life. The inward fever that had preyed on her during the previous weeks now had unrestrained course. One of those dark periods of despair and misanthropical weariness to which the speculative, brooding order of mind is peculiarly liable when fretted and overworn enfolded her for a time like a palpable darkness. That eager unwearied curiosity as to the play and meaning of life which had given

  ― 383 ―
her nature so delicately sensitive a texture, so responsive a chord of sympathy, had completely deserted her.

She had been betrayed, and the throes of awakening, of cold, hard disenchantment and disillusion, stifled all spiritual life. At times an intolerable yearning came over her for the sound of a voice, the sight of a face, which could not now be recalled by her without a haunting sense of guilt. And, then, how often it rose up before her: that picture cruelly limned on her brain of Ritchie's face—vacant, senseless, dead!

By the end of the voyage, which lasted nearly five weeks, Stella had recovered something of her old elasticity. Probably the wilful misanthropy which led her to avoid, as far as possible, all intimacy with her fellow-passengers, had co-operated with the health-giving breezes of the sea in restoring her exhausted forces, and expelling the fever that burned in her veins. A recurring weight on her temples, a heavy throbbing that would come back at intervals with no assignable cause, remained. But otherwise her bodily health was restored. The old trick of laughter came back to her with something of the old interest in the endless combinations of the great human comedy. But, unfortunately, the healing process had affected her mind much less than her body. She was harder, less unselfish, less inclined to scan her own action in the misfortune of her marriage with self-accusing justice.

She had been betrayed into marrying a sot. She put it into merciless words with a dull, smouldering resentment, which was directed more against the infinite treachery that life, as a whole, so often practises, than against any individual. Laurette, she knew, had played the traitor. But without any clue to the baseness of her motive, the action, as that of a sister who believed the meanness might work out her brother's redemption, appealed to Stella as one of those vicarious transgressions which, rightly or wrongly, mankind has consented to regard with more leniency than the falseness prompted by purely egoistic aims.

Ted, paradoxical as it may seem, she scarcely blamed at all. He himself had resented her acceptance of his conduct as being beyond his control more keenly than any reproaches. Yet this was the point of view which came back to her with irresistible conviction. Needless to say, it rendered any

  ― 384 ―
vivid feeling of indignation impossible. Heredity and circumstance, the two arch-conspirators of necessity—who could resist their action when the moral nature is unfortified by any culture of the soul? And even making allowance for all the complex influences that can be brought to bear on conduct, could any human being's action be shaped by himself apart from external forces?’

One disastrous result of the knowledge that had so abruptly broken on Stella in Ritchie's fatal weakness was that she no longer tried to banish Anselm Langdale from her thoughts. He now appeared to her as the mainstay of her better life; she clung to his image as a devotee turns to a relic in the hour of need. As the lassitude of melancholy and fever lessened, the passion which for a time had been kept in abeyance returned, and took possession of her as before. His face and the tones of his voice haunted her night and day; she lived all the hours of their intercourse over again, till at times the longing only to look at him, even from afar, burned in her heart like a slow consuming flame. Alas! this is not the way one thinks of the dead.

It was her dream to sit looking across the sea at dawn, in the starlight and the white moonlight, till the softly-moving waves were transformed into the great inland plain of her native country. The tall kangaroo grass as it bent in soft ripples, the gray-green earth, the distant lines of weeping myall fringing a watercourse, the vague, wide horizons, the moaning sough of the wind as it rose in sighing gusts, sweeping over unpeopled wastes, the muffled beat of the horses’ hoofs on the dense herbage, Langdale riding close beside her, his head bent to catch her words—each sight and sound came back to her one by one. In some strange way such visions consoled her. They became the kernel of her inward life. ‘I shall never see him again; but he is my friend—my companion. Nothing can take that from me’—so she reasoned.

Outwardly the old footing between herself and Ritchie had been resumed. Stella's whole nature and training made it impossible for her to forego the bienséances of life in her intercourse with anyone. Unfailing courtesy and kindliness had been the prevailing notes in her old home. She could repel with signal success attempts at intimacies which did not recommend themselves to her as tolerable.

  ― 385 ―

But she could not come in daily contact with one without exercising something of that charm and urbanity of manner which are the birthright of a cultivated, well-descended nature.

As for poor Ted, who, in his dumb way, clung to the pathetic theory that he was responsible for his actions, he endured agonies of contrition when he thought over his unpardonable offence. For some time he did so constantly, cursing himself vehemently the while, to have conquered his deadly enemy for so long, and at the last to fall egregiously when it most behoved him to be a man. Of all the ways that had ever been invented of being a complete idiot— But it is impossible in these pages to follow the terms that the young man applied to himself. Still, mentally, one gets used to everything, even to having behaved worse than the most pitiable jackass of the most varied adjectival quality; and remorse per se was wholly foreign to him. An immovable belief grew on him that never again would he permit himself to be delivered over to the wiles of the devil in such a fashion. He had a small calendar note-book full of racing memoranda, but none of these were of moment to him compared to the little crosses in red pencil with which he marked the flights of the days and weeks. And already Stella belonged to him after a fashion. He watched over her during the weeks of her lethargic prostration with touching devotion. It was only when he found that his constant presence worried her that he absented himself.

There were several other young Australian squatters on board, and though most of them drank a good deal—while the mere sight and smell of stimulants at this time made him shudder—yet he was a good deal in their society. He smoked with them, and lost and won money at various games of chance, and they daily discussed horses and wool and pastoral leases, and all the topics that were of mutual interest. Horses especially never seemed to pall on these young men. The annals of the Melbourne Cup, of the Derby and the Grand Prix, of jockey clubs and the careers of jockeys, were at their finger-ends in an astounding way.The blind devotion of a certain order of minds of the English race to the achievements of young horses is surely, in its way, one of the most curious phenomena of the day.

  ― 386 ―
Nowhere, probably, does the craze reach a fuller development than in Australia, where the climate, the universal love for outdoor amusement, the wide-spread tendency to gamble, and the paramount importance of the horse as a mode of locomotion, are all factors that intensify the interest taken in racing.

One of these young men, Aubrey Holland, was a Melbourne acquaintance of Ted's, and he introduced him to Stella. Finding he had travelled a good deal in early youth, she one day endeavoured to glean what aspect of the great centres of art and civilization had most impressed him. Venice? Oh, that was a rum place—a fellow hired a boat to go about instead of a cab. Had he been in Rome? No—o, he didn't think so; but stop—wasn't that the place where they raced a mob of horses bare-backed through one of the streets? Oh yes, he and his father had been there for three weeks.

Ted's artistic education was a trifle more advanced; for after a pause he asked if that wasn't the old village where they dug up little images with the arms chipped off.

Later, when the two were alone, Ted, seeing Stella smile, asked what the joke was.

‘How did you know they dug up little images in Rome?’ she said by way of answer.

‘Oh, don't you remember that little Cupid you told me about that was in Mrs. Anstey-Hobbs’ place? You don't seem to cotton much to her now, Stella. I believe you like this little beggar of an ape and Dustiefoot better than anyone on board.’

‘Yes; we understand each other.’

‘Because none of you talk?’

‘That is one reason. Then Dustiefoot has a soul, but does not quite know it. Jacob hasn't got to a soul yet, and I had one, but lost it, so that makes a sort of a bond between us.’

‘Then it seems I am the only one of the four of us that has a soul? I can't think how Jacob will live after he parts from you. Shall I try to buy him?’

‘Oh, we cannot set up a menagerie.’

‘No; as it is, there's you and me—’

Stella began to laugh, but though Ted was delighted at the sound, he had not a notion what amused her, so he went

  ― 387 ―
on with his calculation: ‘And Dustiefoot, and Maisie, and Ben, and all the luggage.’

The stars were coming out one by one in the ashy-blue sky. The Southern Cross had now disappeared, for they were sailing through the Mediterranean, within a day's journey of Brindisi. But there were new constellations to look for as they began to gleam softly in the depths of the sky. The glow of the electric light suddenly encircled them. Ritchie took out his calendar and counted up his red crosses. Stella was gazing through drooping lashes over the calm gray-blue sea. But instead of the soft swell of the waves against the ship, she heard the muffled hoof-beats of horses falling on the thick sward of the wide Peeloo Plain.