― 22 ―

Chapter II

THE brother and sister returned to the arcade. Cuthbert was the first to speak.

‘Stella, there is a question I want to ask, and I'm almost afraid to put it.’

The girl looked up quickly, and then a smile slowly crept over her face.

‘Dear darling boy, don't be afraid to ask me questions—as if they were lighted matches that might fall into gunpowder.’

‘Has anything special passed between you and Ritchie?’


‘Have you accepted him?’


‘Then why do you go out riding with him on Tuesday?’

‘Because I haven't accepted him.’

‘Stella dear, don't trifle about this. Is it fair to him?’

‘I think it's not only fair, but generous. He asks me to marry him. I cannot make up my mind to do so at present. In the meantime, I bind up his wounded spirit with the balm of friendship.’

‘Yes, that's it. You refuse him time after time——’

‘Not invariably. Do not blame me too severely. You see, I have tried all the recognised modes of treating a lover. I have refused him and accepted him, and sometimes done neither. When he has asked me for a stone I give him bread—the nourishment of occasional social intercourse instead of the terrible disillusion of marriage.’

‘All this may be very well from a comedy point of view. But remember, it is not for the amusement of a passing hour that a man persist in asking a woman to be his wife year after year.’

‘No. But still, dear, remember how much more amusing it is than if she had married him the first time of asking.’

‘But now let me ask you seriously, what is to be the end of it all? I cannot understand you in the least, Stella, in this matter. To begin with, it is a mystery to me that you should find pleasure in Ted's society, and yet I believe you do.’

‘Ah, Cuth, you haven't heard Ted give an account of the

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Bible Patriarchs’—and the girl burst into a peal of laughter so infectiously merry that her brother was forced to smile. ‘As for asking what is to be the end of it all, why, that is a question we keep on asking as long as people live, and, most of all, when they die.’

‘Yet people must decide something in a rough and ready fashion. You have allowed yourself to drift into a very undesirable position. You refuse to marry Ritchie—and there I, at least, feel you are right. But I think you are wrong to go out riding with him, for it gives him hope that in the end you may change your mind.’

‘And so I may. If I could only be sure that he would be always as amusing as he was to-day——’

‘Well, I suppose sex must count for something when a certain friendship has subsisted since childhood between a young man and woman. I must say that to me the chief quality of Ritchie's conversation is a careless—well, perhaps graphic—commonness of speech.’

‘There is more than that. There is a direct appeal to life as it presents itself to him; and when we have all tacitly agreed to blink so much, the trait has a certain fascination—at least to me.’

‘I could understand that so much better if Ted's point of view were not essentially that of the average sensual man. Pardon me, dear, if I say anything that vexes you.’

‘You must not forget that I have never been in love with Ted.’

‘Well, that troubles me sometimes more than if you were.’

‘Isn't that just slightly contradictory?’

‘Perhaps it may be; but what I mean is, that if you could really be in love with him, and married him, you might transform him. But if you marry him without being in love—well, I fear that one or both may fall over a precipice.’

‘Why, Cuthbert, you must have been reading tragedy lately.’

‘What makes you think so?’

‘Because it is only tragedy which is so merciful in finishing us up in a speedy, impressive manner when things go wrong, till at last the ghosts have to come on the stage to explain how people fell over a precipice.’

  ― 24 ―

‘Every word you say there makes me feel afresh how disastrous it would be for you to risk a marriage de convenance, or marriage with anyone to whom you could not look up in some measure, with whom you would not have that deeper mental bond without which marriage, in some cases, is not justifiable.’

‘Well, it seems to me that marriage of all subjects is the one that most eludes dogmatizing about to any successful issue.’

‘I admit that; but the more difficult a position is, the more one must avoid an obvious danger.’

‘ “To save the soul,” says one of the old Spanish saints, “it is necessary to have as little intercourse with people as possible.’ ”

‘Please don't say that in order to be happy in marriage the same axiom applies; for you are quite capable of proving it,’ said the young man laughingly.

‘Did you ever notice a funny old book in tarnished gold that was given to Grandmother Loudon on her weddingday, called “Letters to a Granddaughter”?’

‘Yes; I never read it, but I always understood it was published for private circulation only by an ancestress of our own.’

‘Oh, very likely. It is full of the acute platitudes I find crowding to my pen when I try to write, so I suppose it is an hereditary strain. Well, the thinglet is divided into “School Life,” “Coming Out,” “Betrothal,” “Marriage,” “Maternity.” Each section except marriage has about a hundred pages devoted to it. But under marriage there are only five or six pages, beginning: “It must be evident to my dear intelligent young female friends that this is a subject on which every woman who enters the holy estate must be left to make her own special reflections. They cannot be anticipated.” ’

‘Really, Stella,’ said her brother, laughing, ‘you never seem to look into an old, unknown book without finding a joke in it.’

‘Do you call that a joke? You wouldn't if you had turned the grandmother's letters over as I did, when I was seriously trying to make up my mind about entering the holy estate. But the old woman was right to a certain extent; for there you have to do with all the uncertainty

  ― 25 ―
of untried depths in two natures, brought into a previously unknown relationship. Who can tell how the venture is to turn out?’

‘Therefore, I say, let there be the sympathy of two responsive natures or the differences that arise from two minds consciously alive.’

‘Yes; and after building on all these hopeful auguries, you find the result a failure more elaborate than the ordinary type.’

‘I cannot quite make out why you are so radically sceptical on the subject of marriage. I am sure a great many of those we know most intimately have made harmonious unions. Ah! I can see by your face you are thinking of poor dear Esther. Certainly, that marriage turned out a failure, though at first it promised to be an exceptionally happy one. But, at any rate, the more mistrustful you are the more careful you should be not to run risks. Even when people start with a good stock of affection, what terrible ruin often overtakes them! There was your poor friend Cicely——’

‘It is curious to have the poor woman quoted from two such opposite points of view in one afternoon. Well, at this moment she is living in a four-roomed weather-board cottage in a township in New South Wales, where her husband plays the harmonium in a little Baptist Chapel on Sundays. I do not say that there is not an element of terrible ruin in this, but not in the sense you mean.’

‘Her husband?’

‘Yes; as soon as she was divorced they were married. I found out where they are living, and sent some help at a time when she badly needed it. We have corresponded from time to time since then.’

‘Does mother know this, Stella?’

‘Well, no. There are some things one's mother should be spared. The first letter I had was too pitiful.’

‘Of course, I know you used to be very fond of each other, but——’

‘The friendships of women should always have a limit. I admit it is very dangerous to find out how things have really happened. You then find there are cases in which, if you knew all, you would connive at “terrible ruin” rather than avert it.’

  ― 26 ―

‘But, Stella, we must not let our sympathy with people blind us. There are some actions that cut away the roots of friendship. I would rather you had found a way of helping the poor woman without corresponding.’

‘I wrote to her regularly after I knew she was living with a horrible man, who used to lock himself up and drink till he was in delirium tremens—one who was a dipsomaniac before she married him, and yet managed to conceal it from her till after they were married. I know she is living a purer life now than she could then. The only child that was born to her was paralytic and imbecile. Fortunately it died. What sort of a crime would it have been against herself, and still more against society, if she had gone on adding to the probable criminals of the world—to its certain weaklings?’

‘I know how frightfully hard life may become; but at the worst, no matter how we may be sinned against, we may at least refrain from joining the ranks of those who have wronged us.’

‘Meaning the criminals?’


‘Do you consider suicide a crime?’

‘Need you ask, dear?’

‘Because there were two courses open to Cicely—to kill herself, or go away with the man who had for over two years protected her at intervals from the maniacal conduct of her husband.’

‘Who was this man?’

‘An overseer on their station—a gentleman by birth. I suppose every country evolves its own special tragedies. You see, Mowbray's run is four hundred miles north. When he came to town now and then before he was married, he managed to keep sober. At any rate, Cicely, during the five months’ engagement, never heard a breath or had the least suspicion; and if her aunt did, she took good care not to mention it.’

‘Surely she would never be guilty of such atrocity!’

‘Oh, but she would. After the death of the child Cicely told her all, and implored her to let her stay in town. No; a woman's proper place was with her husband. That's the sort of venomous old lynx she is—always comfortable and decorous, and going about with a bottomless pouch of

  ― 27 ―
gossip. If ever she comes to a steep place she throws herself upon tradition and conventional morality to save herself from the least collision with virtue.’

‘Stella, dear, that is very severe,’ said Cuthbert, fondly stroking his sister's glowing cheek. There was summer lightning in her eyes. Her voice, when she was moved, had a resistant silvery tone, whereas when she was indifferent or merely amused, she drawled a little.

‘You wouldn't say so, Cuth, if you knew the old dame. But she was the only relative Cicely has in Australia; so there was nothing for her but to go back. Two months after she did so I heard she ran away with Stoneleigh.’

‘I remember how dreadfully cut up you were.’

‘Yes, we are often sorriest for people when the worst is over. Now, Cuth, don't sermonise; I see it is in your eyes. Just look how the hills are catching the sunset glow.’

‘Is it so late? Let me help you up on your beloved gum-tree stump to see the sun set.’

The ivy-covered gum-tree stump, thirty-five feet in circumference, relic of an old monarch of the primæval woods, was close to the northern boundary wall of the garden. This point of vantage commanded varied and lovely views. Beyond North Adelaide and its sub-adjacent villaships, looking to the east and south-east, one saw St. Peter's, College Town, Norwood, and Kensington lying in graduated perspective, and beyond these pretty prosperous suburbs full of charming houses and rose-filled gardens, stretched the Adelaide hills. Their bases and quiet darkling gullies were now in clear blue and pale purple shadows, their summits beautifully flushed with the gold and crimson splendour of a brilliant sunset. Northward the wide fertile Gawler Plain stretched beyond sight, thickly sprinkled with tree-encompassed homesteads, and great corn-fields, now ripely yellowing for the harvest. Westward lay Hindmarsh and Bowden, the manufacturing suburbs of the city, Torrenside in the foreground, with some delightfully old-fashioned, many-windowed houses, their cream-coloured walls gleaming through fig-trees and vine-trellised verandas. Beyond these might be discerned Port Adelaide, with its forests of ship-masts lying along the wharves, and beyond all, the ocean flushed to the verge of the wide horizon with the

  ― 28 ―
setting sun. For a moment it rested like a quivering ball of flame on the level waters, and then dropped out of sight, leaving a fiery glow wide and high in the sky, passing towards the zenith into the most delicate tones of pink. The same tints were reflected on the hilltops for some time, as vividly as though they were mirrors throwing back a not distant picture.

The two gazed on these lovely scenes with crowding associations that stretched back to the first twilight of childish memories, and lingered in the garden till the sound of the dinner-bell summoned them into the house.

Fairacre both within and without bore the traces of easy affluence. The house was a large one-story building, substantially built of stone, with a deep veranda, furnished with Venetian shutters, running all round it. The principal rooms were large and lofty, and opened by wide doors, half glass, upon the garden, which from one season to another was never seen without the radiance of many flowers. The sparkling old silver, and the delicately fine table-linen, were family heirlooms, as were also several rare works of art, and a large proportion of the rosewood furniture. Mrs. Courtland was now close on sixty-five years of age, invariably attired in widow's weeds since her husband's death years previously. She was descended from an old Highland family, and in face and bearing she bore the unmistakable stamp of high-bred refinement. Her features had never been strictly beautiful, but her countenance must always have been marked by the calm gentleness, the sweet, kindly serenity which imparted to it so much charm and distinction. It must even in youth have been distinguished by that guileless sincerity which formed an index to a mind curiously free from any taint of worldliness or self-seeking.

The Courtland family numbered eight in all, though there were at this period but four of them under the paternal roof. The eldest daughter, Barbara, was married to the Rev. Joseph Wallerton, an Episcopalian clergyman settled in Sydney; the second daughter, Esther, Mrs. Raymond, was a widow of over two years' standing. Her husband had been a wealthy squatter in the south-eastern district of the colony, where Mrs. Raymond and her four children chiefly resided. There were two unmarried daughters still at home—Stella and Alice, eighteen months her senior, but looking

  ― 29 ―
incredibly young for her age, being petite and rosy-cheeked, with overflowing spirits—circumstances which were, perhaps, providential, as she had recently entered on an engagement that threatened to be rather indefinite. Tom, the other son who was at home, was a lawyer in good practice, and three years older than the young clergyman. The other two brothers, Hector and Claude, the eldest and second eldest respectively, had been for over twenty-one years engaged in squatting pursuits with almost unbroken success in the adjacent colony of Victoria. Ten years previously a wealthy cousin of Mrs. Courtland's in the Indian Civil Service had left her a legacy of thirteen thousand pounds. This had been invested in Lullaboolagana, the Victorian station, which not only ensured the increasing prosperity of the two squatters, but added handsomely to the general income of the old home.

The visitors at Fairacre on this Sunday afternoon were Mrs. Harrison, a daughter and two sons. It was to Felix, the younger of these, and an architect by calling, that Alice was engaged. The elder brother, Andrew, was a journalist. The support of the rest of the family depended largely on the two young men, as the father, a clergyman and an old college friend of the late Mr. Courtland's, had died a few years previously, leaving his widow with but a small annuity and younger children to be educated. The elder daughter, Fanny, was now eighteen, and there were growing symptoms of an attachment between herself and Tom—a circumstance which drew the remark from Stella that it seemed as though some families had hereditary tendency to catch infantile maladies from each other. It was when she made observations of this kind that Tom used to wonder why the youngest of an otherwise well-conducted family should be hopelessly spoiled.