Chapter XLVIII

RITCHIE left for England on the following day, and almost to her own surprise Stella found that his absence made a blank. She had not realized till he was gone how his unfailing thoughtfulness led him to anticipate every wish, how

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his unceasing attentions folded her round on every side. At any time he disliked fuss or demonstration, so much that he would sooner do deeds of kindness or generosity like a thief in the night, so as to avoid being thanked. But much more was this the case when Stella's large, melancholy eyes and long impassive reveries touched him daily with a fresh apprehension of the heinousness of his past conduct. She had been learning to love him, he thought to himself, when suddenly on that fatal night she saw him ‘sunk below the level of the brutes.’ The phrase had remained in his mind, and he pondered over it till its full meaning lay revealed.

The dog that sleeps at your door may be stabbed or poisoned, but no form of indulgence will steal his senses from him so that his master may be robbed or murdered without a bark to warn him of his danger. The horse in your stable does not over-drink himself so that he cannot serve you with his docility and speed. He understood what Stella meant when on the journey from Italy she said, in connection with some altercation that had taken place with officials regarding Dustiefoot: ‘It is a superstition with me not to say the lower animals. I never hear the phrase without thinking of myriads of human lives compared to which the existence of a toad is a high and holy thing.’ He thought over the matter till a curious impetus was given to his imagination. He imagined Stella in some extremity crying aloud to him for help on that night at Monico Lodge —calling him to her aid. No, he could not hear her, he could not be roused … he was beyond the reach of all human appeal.… Always when he came to that point he indulged in very strong language against himself, but his emotion did not end there. He became skilful in devising ways of serving Stella; and, withal, she knew of old how he hated to be thanked, and that was an added relief. The good people who do so much for us, and then wait hat in hand for a speech of grateful recognition, get hardly used in the end. We learn to avoid them in the day of calamity far more rigorously than those who wilfully throw half-bricks at us.

Ted would even have gone to all Wagner's operas with Stella, though ‘Lohengrin,’ to which he accompanied her on the first night they were in Berlin, seemed to him devised to keep people beyond hearing.

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‘Of course,’ he admitted, ‘you are glad when the soft parts come, but I would feel so much jollier not to hear any. And then, Stella, to tie a string to the leg of a pigeon and pretend it is the Holy Ghost.… Do you think your mother would like it?’

Stella smiled repeatedly at the inquiry. Ted's direct habit of putting things as they appeared to him into plain phrase never forsook him.

‘After all, I think I should enjoy these operas more with you, Ted,’ she said, as they were together the half-hour preceding his departure.

Ted flushed deeply, but did not trust himself to reply.

‘Whatever you do, Stella,’ he said, after a pause, ‘don't you go too much into the houses of sick people, to catch fever and things. That Mrs. Schulz you went to see today—is it anything catching?’

‘No, Ted; it is just poverty, and having her husband imprisoned for posting up announcements of a Socialistic meeting. Besides, I am not a favourite of the gods. I am one of the workaday masses who gather up all the arrows on their targets, and still live on. And then, you know, one can die only once.’

‘But, Moses, what a jolly difference it makes whether one dies before twenty-four or after eighty! Don't you go and slip me up with any sell of that kind, whatever you do. We are going to keep our golden wedding-day one of these years “across the blue Alsatian mountains.” Do you remember how Billy Stein used to sing that, making his voice shiver like a jelly?’

Yes, she missed him hourly, and in his absence she made faint efforts to look towards the future without quailing. It was true that even under happier circumstances there could be none of that delicate mental companionship which springs from the mutual insight of affinity, none of that spontaneous interchange of thought, of tender imaginative fancies which are the aerial rootlets of the mind, and make the perennial charm of close intimacy.… But life is, on the whole, a rough and ready arrangement, essentially founded on and reinforced by exterior realities, which make a wider claim on our nature than we are always willing to allow.

And after all the young human heart does not doat on

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being a ‘bleeding pageant.’ It is given, rather, to that homely habit known as ‘making the best of things,’ of finding warmth in the drift-wood fire after the great storms of life have wrecked the gallant barks that set out laden with the fond dreams of youth. With Stella it is certain that her profound capacity of suffering, and her deep tinge of constitutional melancholy, were closely related to that large generosity of nature which is rooted in the love of life. Her wide sympathies, vivid insight, and keen interest in the manifold aspects of the human comedy, could not long lie dormant, when the bitter languor which had for a time over-whelmed her began slowly to be dissipated. She made no rapid strides in recovery. Both sleep and appetite were errant and fitful. In the week that followed Ritchie's departure, it often occurred to her that there was wisdom in his advice that she should for a little time keep to her bed, in the hope of getting rid of that haunting, nameless malaise, which at her best seemed never far off.

Yet the worst seemed to be over. Those haunting, life-like visions of the night, in which she saw Langdale as vividly as in life, in which the sound of his voice and the touch of his hand thrilled her with overmastering reality, became gradually less frequent, less absorbing. And this on the whole reassured her. It enabled her to begin to look on the past as inevitable and irrevocable—something that had gone for ever from her—as far as that can be the case with any epoch which for good or evil has left the deepest imprint on the heart. But one vision, sleeping and waking, eluded all effort at dislodgment. Solemn, silent, unpeopled, in the delicate rose twilight—the boundary of earth and sky lost in limitless distance—overhead a few great white stars swimming into the tender amethyst of the sky. Two riding side by side, without a single circumscribing line to meet their eyes in the vast immensity that lay around them. It was a picture that night and day would rise up before her with incredible intensity of presence—blotting out for the moment all other sights. Gradually she came to regard it as one of those consecrated, ideal passages of life which, like the rapture evoked by high imaginative poetry, mercifully steeps the mind in forgetfulness of the bald, dreary stretches of existence that threaten at times to paralyze action and even thought itself.

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That happy girl, with low, fond laughter bubbling to her lips as lightly as carols float from the throat of a bird, was she not as remote from Stella's actual self as a scene in an old romance? Let them ride on in the wistful light that clothes the great Australian plain—those two whose happiness seemed so inviolable a possession. Let their hearts beat at the sound of each other's voice as to the cadence of subtle music. They have passed beyond the inexorable law of change. They belong to a realm invulnerable to the tooth of Time, where neither moth nor rust doth corrupt. Here, in the common life with which we have to do, love and sorrow alike are blunted by the deadening march of successive days. In place of vivid emotion there falls a coldness as on the altar of a buried temple. Oh, life, life! is this the kernel of thy happiness for so many souls—the anguished memories of hopes that fell like grass before the scythe of the mower?

Thus would the sorrowful girl commune with herself. And yet day by day the discipline of pain began to direct her thoughts into other channels. The interest which the first spectacle of life in Berlin had awakened grew deeper as she saw more of the struggle for existence around her, more especially among the very poor. She formed new acquaintances daily. Market-people, poor children, old men dragging burdens beyond their strength, old women sweeping up leaves on the paths of the Thiergarten, the halt and the maimed at street stalls with pitiful little objects of merchandise—they were all ready in their intervals of rest to respond with quick cordiality to her first timid overtures of acquaintanceship. The grief that nestled close at her own heart quickened her observation into an interpretative faculty. Her mind became sensitive to the myriad forms of unhappiness around her, as waters are to the movement of clouds.

She was, during these first days in Berlin, continually on the alert to observe, to sympathize and to help. And with this came something of that renovation of spirit which comes with work and interests that lead the mind away from its own sorrows and ailments.

Ted wrote frequently. His uncle had rallied a little, but the end could not be far off. It seemed he had various reasons for wishing his nephew's presence. ‘He is a great

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deal richer than we any of us knew, and he fancies he owes a good deal to the six thousand pounds I sent when my Uncle Christopher died and left me Strathhaye. You know the two quarrelled so out-and-out when they were young men that they never spoke or wrote to each other for thirty-two years. I did hear something about the reason, that both were in love with Aunt Polly. Lord, how stupid men would feel for quarrelling about a woman if they could see her thirty-two years afterwards!

‘The Avenells are here just now. I go a good deal with them to the theatres, etc.… I have been twice to see the Lillimores. They came to town lately, and are as kind as they can be. Lady Lillimore is very anxious to know you. Talbot, she says, has told her about you. She is one of the kindest old ladies—something like your mother. I suppose it's the old man Talbot took after. Not that a fellow need take after anyone but himself to turn out pretty crooked. But Tareling seems, at one time or other, to have got into every possible sort of scrape—except work. I suppose he'd think that the biggest misfortune of all. Certainly Larry got a pig in a poke when she married him. But I expect when she's ladyshipped all day long, and has a string of flunkeys to look on when she eats her dinner, she'll be quite pleased with herself. Why don't you write longer letters? I would like to get one every day. You make them just like talking. Hetty and Jemima send their love. They swallowed the yarn about your crying to come with me, and they think if I have to stay much longer you'll come after me. Will you ever want to, Stella? The thought of it makes me go queer all over. It's a week yesterday since I left—but it seems more like a month. The Agent-General is very kind. I met several Americans at his house the other evening. I tell you what, Stella—I feel quite green with jealousy when I meet Americans. We must have a country of our own, governed by ourselves, and not have the name of being ruled by fellows sent out of the heart of London, to do no good but set people by the ears with their twopenny-ha'penny Government House cliques. In England, unless people know something of racing, they have a notion that Australia is a poky island full of mosquitoes and a few niggers. “Our colonies,” they say, as if we were bad figs they bought at fourpence a box. I hope that shell-parrot gave me the

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straight-tip about living to be seventy-six, if only to live to see Australia a properly independent country.… I went to Westminster Abbey the other day, but it's so full of graven images I couldn't see a mortal thing.’

This letter reached Stella as she was about to set out to pay two visits. The first was to Mrs. Schulz, the next to Professor Kellwitz, the Berlin savant she had seen at Dr. Stein's early in the year. They met in the Thiergarten two days previously, much to the Professor's delight. He had just received a letter from his Adelaide friends in which mention was made of Stella's marriage. He had to admit a similar indiscretion on his own part. But his wife was just then in Dresden, having been summoned there on account of the dangerous illness of a married daughter. ‘Do not wait till she returns before coming in a neighbourly way to look over my books, and carry away any you want to read,’ urged the Professor. ‘Come on Wednesday, and I shall then be able to show you the last volume published on “Comparative Ethnology,” by an old University comrade of Dr. Stein's. This is the number of our house. Your pension is within ten minutes’ walk of it.’

This was Wednesday, and Stella accordingly made the visit. The Professor had been unexpectedly called out that afternoon, but left a message to say he hoped to be back before Mrs. Ritchie left. She was shown into the library and study, where, on the centre of the pedestal table, in its paper binding and uncut leaves, fresh from the printer's, lay the last profound contribution to ethnological science. The library was a large apartment overlooking the Thiergarten, and lined with books from floor to ceiling on all sides except one, which was covered with engravings and photographs, a large proportion being reproductions of the most ancient and primitive human dwellings of which any record or traces have been discovered. On top of the bookshelves were ranged busts of the immortals. There were tables piled high with books, others with magazines and pamphlets. And even the chairs were not in all cases kept free. But close to the centre pedestal table there was a deep, hospitable-looking couch, to which a long placid career had given a specially alluring aspect. Stella took possession of it, and looked round the room with that quick response to the more presence of books instinctive to those who love them.

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‘No doubt there are countless theories and systems reposing in some of these tomes to which time has brought utter ruin,’ she thought. ‘But all the great brain-nourishers are here—the men whose thoughts “wander through eternity,” and pierce windows in the souls of successive generations. How even to think of them seems to woo one into a sanctuary where the vehement emotions and storms of life are left behind like a conquered fortress invested with a force which keeps the old rebels in subjection!’

The air of the room, so suggestive of detachment from the ebb and flow of obdurate tides of passionate regret, of revolt and grief, of apathetic indifference, appealed to her, and seemed to carry a message of consolation, of peace. She tried to believe that the vulture-grip of passion had loosened its hold on her. After all, life was not a tale to be cast aside when it does not fulfil its early promises of enchantment—not a harp that is worthless because one string is silenced. The work of the world is carried on mostly by disillusioned men and women. Yes, and by those who throw the whole strength of their lives into action for the common weal. She took up the ethnological work and turned over its pages curiously. But when she tried to read the words swam before her, and her temples throbbed heavily. This was not a new experience, for so much of the invalid still clung to her that any prolonged exertion induced a creeping exhaustion which made thought and action alike difficult. She leant back on the wide yielding couch, saying to herself she would rest a little and then read. In a few moments she was fast asleep.