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Chapter LVI

THREE days later Langdale sailed for the East, in company with his sister.

‘It beats me hollow, Stella, to imagine why you didn't go with them,’ said Ritchie that evening, in a tone of wondering expostulation. Like all solidly practical people, he disliked treating fixed arrangements as airy outlines of things not to be done. And the thought weighed on him still more, that Stella would now be so much alone, while he and Farningham were ‘gallivanting about,’ as he phrased it, from one racecourse to another. The thought of those endless, horsey, excited crowds, began to weary him in advance. And then Stella's new plan of going so often to church, and so much among the poor, gave Ted a melancholy conviction that she must be ‘feeling very low.’ He had of late noticed that look again on Stella's face that his acquaintance on board the Hindoo Fawn had, in ignorance of their relationship, described as being that of a sleep-walker, or a person who had seen a ghost. Only along with this there was not that shrinking avoidance of his society which had so deeply wounded him for some time before her change of plans. She did not reply to his observation, but took up a letter that lay on a table near her, glanced over it, and then looked up at him, as if about to speak.

Stella had fully decided that Ritchie must ultimately know all. The past would be too full of ghostly memories, too deeply riddled with secret depths, to make their joint lives tolerable, if he were kept in ignorance of the events that had brought her to death's door, and had so much widened the distance between them during the past dark months. In the last heart-searching, self-reproachful days, she had seen how culpable she had been in the old days, in the careless, irresponsible way in which she had accepted Ted's homage for so many years. She realized that if her own happiness had been secured, as Langdale's wife, Ted's life would have been wrecked.

‘Even as it is——’ she thought, with a sinking heart. And yet the more she strove to see things clearly and dispassionately, the more convinced she was that his weakness

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in the past had nothing of that moral cretinism which makes the hope of a permanently restored power of will a fond delusion.

‘Who shall find a valiant woman? … The heart of her husband trusteth in her. … She will render him good, and not evil, all the days of her life.’ … Yes, this must be her aim; and as the days went on, and the passionate sorrow that had consumed her lost its poignancy, she would learn to acknowledge—nay, to feel—that even if she could, she would not have their marriage undone, at the cost of Ted's misery and probable degradation.

‘You married because Laurette behaved worse than a thief and a liar; and now, Stella, you are broken-hearted.’

She knew so well the direct, uncompromising terms into which Ted would put the situation.

‘No, Ted, I am not broken-hearted, and I would not if I could go back on our marriage.’ On the day that she could say this with truth she would tell him all. Such had been her resolve. But on the evening of this day, when life seemed to be merged into a listless mechanical round, when all the better possibilities of aspiration, and close sympathy, and personal joy seemed to have swept by like a vessel in mid-ocean, while she crouched like a forlorn castaway on a desolate island, watching the last sunrays fall on the gallant barque that would soon be lost to sight, she told herself that such a purpose was idle.

‘I can't flatter myself,’ went on Ted after a pause, ‘that it is on my account you gave Mrs. Farningham the slip almost at the last moment.’

He did not speak in an aggrieved tone, but rather with an accent of wistful inquiry, curiously at variance with his words. Stella had almost finished the letter she had taken up when Ted made this second observation. It was one that had reached her on the previous day, from Laurette in which she implored Stella that the ‘mishap’ about Dr. Langdale's letter might be kept from her brother's knowledge.

‘I can see,’ she went on, ‘by the way Ted writes, that as yet he knows nothing. Dear, dear Stella, this is very noble and generous of you. I dare say your dangerous illness made you see things differently. I have little doubt that you will prevent Dr. Langdale, with your usual clear

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discrimination, from covering himself with ridicule by any appeal to law. … After all, people do not marry because others write or suppress letters. Still, I candidly admit that my zeal on Ted's behalf—my fear, too, lest you should find yourself involved in one of those unhappy entanglements which wreck all a girl's future prospects—warped my judgment. It seems as if there were a vice de construction in our lives which makes affection, and not honour, the great motive of our actions.

‘We are soon to leave for England, and hope to meet you there. Dear Stella, let our reunion be that of those who are not only closely linked by a tender relationship, but also those who have been dear friends from childhood. … Might it not be possible for us to take a house together for the rest of the London season? We shall probably be there by the middle of June. Possibly the great mower Death may render it unnecessary for us to hire a house. The near prospect of rank and station in Britain—so crammed with cold decorum for the weaker sex, with unbounded opportunities of ruin for men, and with fog for all, if Australian travellers speak truly—makes my heart yearn more than ever for those I love.

‘Your little nephew and niece are clamouring round me. When I tell them I am writing to Aunt Stella, they clap their little hands, thinking you are coming; but I tell them you are far, far away, and that we must come to you and Uncle Ted. Dear Talbot is not very well of late—nothing to be at all anxious about. In fact, I think it is connected with his dining so frequently at the Club, with men who, now that he is on the eve of leaving Australia, are anxious to show their cordiality. However, his small ailments make him only more domesticated, and, I may say, affectionate. Perhaps that is why we women are accused of being so fond of nursing. “When pain and anguish wring the brow,” etc. No wonder we love dear Sir Walter. He understood us well, with all our foibles, which, in the end, seem only to endear us all the more to the best sort of men. By the way, Ted left his “Lady of the Lake” you gave him at Monico Lodge. Shall I bring it to you? But I forget, there will not be time for a reply. When I was at Cannawijera a month ago I thought of your enthusiasm for

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the Mallee Scrub. Seeing it for the last time seemed to help me to understand your feeling.’

‘I had better give Ted this letter to read, and then tell him all. What better opportunity can come? And as for waiting for an indefinite period——’ thought Stella wearily. She could speak now without tears or faltering. That strange feeling of unreality which often follows close on prolonged emotion had seized her. It seemed as though she could speak of herself as calmly as if she were a Japanese top-spinner, with whose performances she had nothing to do beyond an amazed looking on.

She glanced up, and found Ted's gaze fixed searchingly on her face. When their eyes met he flushed, and said hurriedly:

‘Forgive me, Stella. You look more dead than alive—and here am I slanging you like a great muff as I am.’

His quick penitence, when betrayed into any natural show of impatience at what must appear to him unreasonable caprice, touched her. And then that saving recognition of what was generous and manly in his nature, of what was faulty in her own, came to her aid. She would not tell him in this cold, abrupt fashion the story of a sister's sordid fraud—of a wife's meditated irretrievable alienation. The day must yet come when in the telling she could rob the tale of its keenest sting.

‘You are not slanging me at all, Ted,’ she said gently. ‘I dare say my conduct appears very silly——’

‘Not a bit of it,’ answered Ted stoutly. ‘And it isn't Mrs. Farningham I am thinking of so much as you. She has her brother. By Jove! that man has eyes like a hawk. Did you know that Dustiefoot—you needn't begin to wave your tail, you young Tory! I'm not speaking to you—has a scar on his left paw? When I went on board with the Farninghams the doctor came up to me much friendlier than ever before. I can't help thinking he had some sort of a scunner against me. I expect it was seeing me talking with those little French rips when you were lying at death's door, I may say, and his people so much interested in you they used to send him to inquire sometimes twice a day. I wonder, though, he didn't send a servant. He must have taken some interest on his own account. But he always

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seemed as if he would sooner keep out of my way. I expect he thought I was a regular up-and-down fast colonial. Shows how careful a family man ought to be. I'll give Dick a good jawing about it yet. The moment Langdale came up this young sea-calf made a tremendous fuss over him, and the doctor patted him and talked to him, and then asked him for his scarred paw. “He hasn't got a scar,” said I. “My wife is awfully fond of that scallawag. I believe he's always been more looked after than most babies.” “Yes, but you know accidents will happen to the best-beloved dogs,” said the doctor. “I believe Dustiefoot had an accident once;” and he held up his paw, and sure enough there is the mark of some hurt. And then he said——’

‘Oh, Ted, please talk of something else,’ said Stella, in a low voice, touched to the quick with this careless reminiscence which called up Langdale before her ‘with portraiture and colour so distinct’ that his presence seemed to haunt the room.

‘All right,’ answered Ted placidly. ‘I wonder, though, you didn't take a little more to Langdale. He's a good deal like some of those fellows in front of your poetry-books. I don't believe he's well. And I'm sure, Stella, you're not well. You make me think of a story about a girl you told me long ago out of the “Arabian Nights.” I don't remember her name—but as far as being jolly went, she hadn't a leg to stand on.’

‘Perhaps it was the orphan who was quite broken-hearted, having no one to befriend her but God,’ said Stella, with a faint smile.

‘Oh! but you've got far more to befriend you than that,’ returned Ted, with unconscious irreverence. ‘But I'll tell you what, Stella: I cannot allow you to be poking about so much among these East-End paupers. If you want to give them money and things, why don't you engage some competent person to do it? There must be no end of people in London who would be thankful to go up those filthy stairs for ten shillings a day or so.’

‘Do you think one can do everything by paying money, Ted?’

‘Well, if you ask me point-blank, I never thought so

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little of what money can do for you as at the present moment. Look here!’ As he spoke Ted drew a pocket-book out of his breast coat-pocket, and extracted from it a sheet of pale pink note-paper. ‘There's your I O U for five shillings you lost to me at euchre last December twelve-months. That night, after I got home, I said to Larry I would keep this bit of paper till everything I had was yours. And now it is; and yet what can I do for you? Instead of flying round with me on a drag with proper thoroughbred horses when you go to places, you pick out a hansom with the screwiest brute you can see, so that you may go slow and give the animal a spell. And as for jewels or dresses, why, you don't spend nearly your own money, and you've never touched any of your settlements.’

‘Well, now I am going to ask you for something, Ted. Is all you have really mine?’

‘Well, you just try!’

‘Give me two hundred acres of Strathhaye.’

‘But the whole eighty thousand is yours.’

‘Oh, that is too much. Give me two hundred acres to cut up into little farms——’

‘Good Lord!’ cried Ted, starting up with such a look of horror that Stella fairly smiled. ‘But you're only making game of me, Stella! You are not serious! and is it some of the paupers you want to put there?’ he cried, a new light breaking in on him.

‘Yes; some of the people who come up from the country hoping to get work.’

‘But to put them on Strathhaye, Stella? You'd hate the look of them in no time. Oh, I know the sort of farmers they make, with awful whales of horses it would turn a fellow sick to look at, and machinery lying about without even a shed to cover it! No, no, Stella! While you're feeling rather low and going to church so much, you fancy you would like to do this; but to fix them on your own estate instead of well-bred merinoes! You'd be disgusted with them in no time.’

‘Well, Ted, you are only judging me by my past character, I know.’

‘Now, Stella, don't begin to talk of yourself in such a fashion. Your character indeed!’

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‘Why, haven't I got any?’ said Stella, smiling once again.

‘Not in that way. You hear precious little about people's characters till they want to make themselves out better or worse than they are. When you want to speak against yourself you must find someone that knows a little less about you.’

‘Well, I did think that with such a large freehold estate——’ said Stella slowly.

‘Now, I'll tell you what I'll do,’ said Ted suddenly. ‘There's two hundred and fifty acres of good agricultural land to be in the market next January, at Caradoc, about fifteen miles away from Strathhaye. I'll buy it for you, every acre, and you can put the paupers there.’

‘Don't call them paupers, Ted. The Schulz family in Berlin, and others like them in London, self-respecting, thrifty people, but with such heavy odds against them that they must go to the wall in the Old World—these are the kind of families we should help.’

It was a long time since Ritchie had heard Stella speak with so much animation.

‘Well, you know you have a lot of money of your own to do what you like with,’ he began.

‘It will be an investment,’ answered Stella.

‘At first you'd better make up your mind to lose four per cent.,’ put in Ted.

‘No, I won't lose,’ she answered confidently. ‘You see, you don't know the people, Ted.’

‘That just reminds me of what you said once when you were telling me a yarn up in the Moreton Bay fig-tree at Fairacre. It's ages ago, when you were about thirteen——’

‘Oh, Ted!—so long ago as that?’

‘Well, it's eleven years ago. You used to sit in the fork of the tree with your back against the trunk, with a book; and I would tease you till you told me a story; and sometimes you would make it so creepy I was sorry I asked for it. This time—I remember it well, because it was a week before your father died,’ said Ted, lowering his voice —‘you looked down towards the sea, and you said there was a ship sailing, sailing away, and at last it came to the strangest country. The people had such small souls that at

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the Day of Judgment they couldn't be found. The Lord sent squads of angels to look for them, but not one could they fossick out. And there the skeletons had to sit each on its own grave, and the moonlight playing through their bones. That was the only light, and not a blade of grass or a drop of water!’

‘Oh, Ted!—are you sure I told you all that?’ said Stella incredulously.

‘Why, who else could ever think of such things?’ returned Ted with assured confidence. ‘There was never a sound to be heard but when a big willy-willy went rushing over the valleys—it was all valleys, full of graves, with skeletons sitting on them, waiting for the souls that couldn't be found. When the storms blew, the air was thick with bones, driven here and there, and at last left in heaps, to get together as well as they could. They used to be so tired and bruised for a long time, they could not move. But at last they began to put themselves together. And that was the only time they could speak. “You have taken part of my backbone,” one would say to the other; “This rib doesn't belong to me;” “I am all here but my left leg;” “Who has got my skull?” That last was too much for me. I said, if the skull was missing, the skeleton couldn't speak. But you said I knew nothing about the country. I had never been there. And not only so, but the bone of the little toe could speak far better than a skull. That put the “kybosh” on me completely.’

‘You have got a curious memory, Ted,’ said Stella, who had listened with languid wonder to this recital. ‘You never seem to remember much of books you read.’

‘No; but you tell me things out of them, and I'll remember fast enough. You'll have to come back to that, Stella—keep a school with only me. … Is that a letter from Larry?’

‘Yes; but I do not think I can let you read it,’ answered Stella, taking it up. She was thankful that she had resisted the impulse which had come over her in connection with it. ‘They will be in London next month—and, Ted, it may seem selfish to take you away from England when the racing season is at its height, but I want to get away before Larry comes.’

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‘I'll take you to-morrow wherever you wish to go, Stella,’ answered Ted. ‘All these months I've been perfectly sick of being able to do nothing for you. As for racing, I told you more than a year ago I was getting full up of it.’

A fortnight later they left for Switzerland, and sailed for Australia early in November.

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