Chapter III

ON the following Monday afternoon Laurette Tareling, or, to give her the designation which was dear to her as a title, the Hon. Mrs. Talbot Tareling, paid the call of which her brother had spoken on Sunday.

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She was of the medium height, though something in her face and figure gave the impression that she was small, being slight and fair with a faint colour deepened with a little rouge so skilfully that it was unsuspected by all save the most practised eyes. She had fair fluffy hair, lightened by gold dust, descending in a fringe of infantile curliness to within a short distance of her eyes, which were dark brown, rather small, but very bright and keen, and altogether somewhat like those of a parrot that is bent on finding out a great deal. An expression that was further carried out by the nose, which took the liberty of turning up a little, and a mouth which, though it smiled very often, had something rather hard and beakish in its formation. Yet, on the whole, Mrs. Tareling was considered pretty. She dressed extremely well, and was never seen beyond the domestic circle without an air of determined vivacity. She had the reputation of being one of the ‘smartest’ talkers in Melbourne society, and had a knack of telling a story against those to whom she owed any grudge, which at once made her popular, and created many enemies.

Mrs. Courtland and her two daughters were in the drawing-room when the visitor was shown in. Mrs. Tareling bestowed sharp little explosive kisses on each, ending with Stella, at whom she looked inquiringly, her head a little to one side.

‘Why, Stella, you have grown thinner,’ she said, half pensively. ‘My dear Mrs. Courtland, has Stella been ill?’

‘Oh no; Stella is never ill!’ answered the mother with a fond smile.

‘Well, just look at the two—who, to see them, would think Allie was older?’

‘Ah, Laurette, you are letting me down gently,’ said Stella, trying to keep back the mischievous smile that lurked round her lips. ‘What you mean is that I am “going off”—that my first youth is over.’

‘Oh, well! in a climate like ours we must make up our mind that we shed our first youth when we leave our teens—except fortunate people like Allie, who discover some elixir——’

‘Which they don't give even their sisters,’ laughed Stella. ‘Well, Larry, I promise you if ever I get the chance I shall have a sip—if only to save you pain.’

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‘Oh, as for that, who is such a wreck as I am myself for my age? I assure you the day before I left Melbourne I nearly wept at finding that I was suddenly an old hag. Oh, positively! In the morning I found two gray hairs in my comb. I always heard people speak of the first gray hair, but there were two, showing that somewhere my head was getting powdered with the frost of age. And that wasn't all. In the afternoon I stood in a cross light, opposite a mirror. I turned round with a start; who is that creature, thought I, with her cheeks so hollow and a faded colour, and lines deepening round her mouth? And then, to crown it all, Talbot came in that moment leading Gwendolen by the hand, looking atrociously tall for her four years——’

‘Is that your little daughter, Laurette?’ asked Mrs. Courtland, who was getting a little hard of hearing, and did not quite catch the drift of these remarks, which were delivered in a rapid, semi-staccato tone levelled especially at Stella.

‘Yes, dear Mrs. Courtland; and growing such a big girl, and so precocious. She wanted to know, the other day, whether her little brother Howard would not be Lord Lillimore when he grew up. And then she was sure, she said, that Uncle Ted would be Sir Edward Ritchie.’

‘My dear, you must not let her be too much with the servants. You should get a nice young lady as nursery-governess for her,’ said Mrs. Courtland, in a motherly way, never dreaming that this precocious tattle had been invented by Laurette on the spur of the moment.

‘Well, life is full of accidents; who knows but both these events may come off one day,’ said Alice solemnly, though there was a merry gleam in her eyes.

And then Mrs. Tareling went off on another tack.

‘You are always so beautifully quiet and sedate in Adelaide, it is really like coming to another world from Melbourne. And the season was so late with us this year. What with the Russian and German men-of-war and the visit of the Sultan of Morocco, it was a perfect whirlpool. I felt at last I would like to retire to the Grande Chartreuse.’

‘But I suppose you find the dear little farinaceous village almost as quiet. Hardly anything happens with us,’ said Alice. ‘People die occasionally, but only once, and very

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seldom. Yes, and holes come occasionally in the carpets—of the poorer classes, you know;’ and Alice glanced half ruefully at the Brussels pile which had been in the drawing-room for twenty years and began to show signs of wear in places.

‘Yes; and even your Governors last longer than they do elsewhere,’ answered Mrs. Tareling. ‘Now, with us in seven years we have had two; and next month Sir Marmaduke leaves; and who do you think is his successor? Why, Lord Weavelow, whose wife is Talbot's first cousin, and Lord Weavelow a connection of his sister-in-law, Lady Gertrude. It is rather trying to be so closely related to the new Governor in our circumstances.’

‘Oh, my dear, it is very likely they will be quite nice people. I dare say you will like them very well,’ said Mrs. Courtland soothingly, which amused her daughters not a little.

‘Mother never did, and never will, comprehend the little subtleties of a snob,’ as Alice said afterwards half despairingly.

‘Oh, I dare say we shall like them very much. But then we are so poverty-stricken; and the people who entertain most in Melbourne get more ostentatious every year—private theatres, and enormous ball-rooms, and French cooks who keep a tandem and a Cremona violin.’

‘Fancy all these complexities off the back of the idyllic sheep!’ said Stella, laughing. ‘Well, Laurette, if I were you, I would go in for a sweet and severe simplicity. It would really be more distingué.’

‘That is true. But nothing is so costly as the only form of simplicity open to you if you have the right of tambour at Government House,’ returned Mrs. Tareling, with the air of one who is laying down axioms for the guidance of society from Olympian social heights.

At this moment a little diversion was caused by the entrance of two elderly Quaker ladies, maiden sisters, in soft dove-coloured dresses and bonnets, and white fichus of Indian muslin. They were followed by afternoon tea, over which the older ladies fell into a group to themselves, talking softly over sick and afflicted people, and new candidates for admission to the Asylum for Incurables.

‘Still, I suppose you will hardly retire to the wilds of

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Kannawijera when your relatives begin to reign at Government House?’ said Alice, taking up the thread of conversation as she presided at the tea-tray.

‘No; not this coming season, at any rate. We had to give up our house at Yarra Yarra; they raised the rent so atrociously. But we have secured a smaller one at Toorak, with the principal rooms en suite; almost all the partitions in folding-doors, that can be pushed back in the most wonderful way. Just like one of those knives—at least, they look like knives, but when you open the handle it turns into corkscrews, and toothpicks, and glove-buttoners, besides several blades. Everyone says Melbourne will be awfully full by May; so we caught time by the forelock, and took this house from November. But we don't pay a penny more than if we waited later. It is to be a most brilliant season, everyone says. And now, Stella, I want to arrange about your long-promised visit.’

‘Oh, you are very kind,’ said Stella.

‘Don't say that: it's a bad omen. Always before when I asked you to come, you said, “You are very kind,” and didn't turn up. It's no use coming for a couple of weeks, like the girls who come from the wilds of the Bush for a birthday ball, and don't know a soul but a few lanky men in split gloves, who don't waltz, and huddle up together behind the doors.’

‘Ah, Laurette, you had better think twice before you are burdened through part of a brilliant season with a country cousin like me,’ said Stella, laughing merrily at the picture called up by Laurette.

‘I suppose it would be no use asking you to come as well, Allie, just for a couple of weeks?’ said Mrs. Tareling graciously.

Allie raised her hands in mock despair.

‘How can you ask? I am in training to keep a house on nine or ten pounds a week, and save out of that for a rainy day.’

‘Oh, how very romantic! But surely no rainier day can come than nine or ten pounds a week?’ said Mrs. Tareling, with well-simulated wonder.

‘You see, Larry, you who are poverty-stricken on over three thousand a year can hardly plumb the depths of real

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destitution,’ said Alice. ‘There is the poverty of hot joints and “frugal days of interlinear hash——” ’

‘Allie, whatever you do when you and Felix marry, do not have large joints,’ said Stella gravely. ‘I am confident that the happiness of the Australian household is more frequently wrecked by hash than any ethical point.’

‘Well, I am studying the question. Perhaps I may one day publish a shilling cookery-book for young couples who ought not to have married.’

‘Surely Felix's income must be considerable now. They say he is the best architect in the place,’ said Laurette somewhat abruptly.

This laughing raillery about poverty did not commend itself to her in the least. It is mortifying, when one wants to make a girl feel how comparatively humble her prospects are, to find her treating the subject in a serio-comic vein.

‘But then there are the younger children to provide for—quite dependent on Felix and Andrew,’ returned Alice.

‘Well, it's a pity you girls couldn't go in for a little division of poverty,’ replied Laurette. ‘Here is Stella's fiancé rolling in money.’

‘As it happens, that young woman hasn't got a fiancé,’ returned Stella quickly.

‘No? You and Ted keep on such good terms, I always forget the affair was broken off,’ said Laurette rather maliciously. ‘But now for your visit, Stella.’

‘I must talk it over with mother before making ultimate arrangements.’

‘But we all know beforehand what that means. Your mother says, “Yes, darling,” to all you propose. Pray, my dear, don't forget that I've known you from childhood. It was never a secret you were rather spoiled.’

Thus pressed, Stella said half hesitatingly:

‘Well, if you let me come to you on my way to Lullaboolagana, without pledging myself to the length of the visit. But do you know that Dustiefoot insists on coming wherever I go?’

‘Oh yes; and you always take Maisie when you pay a long visit—at least, someone said so the other day——’

‘Yes,’ put in Alice; ‘we spare Maisie to Stella because she could never bear to brush her dresses or sew on bits of braid. It is a case of atavism. She has reverted to the

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only duchess that was in our family—more than three centuries ago.’

‘That is curious,’ said Stella, maintaining the mock gravity with which her sister spoke; ‘for after twelve generations the proportion of blood of any one ancestor in only 1 in 2,048.’

‘At any rate, it is settled you are to come—Dustiefoot, Maisie, and all,’ said Laurette. ‘By the way, how did you enjoy the Emberly ball?’

‘Oh, immensely,’ answered Stella; and then a quick wave of colour suffused her face, mounting even to her forehead.

‘We enjoyed it “not wisely, but too well.” We fancy there has been no nice weather since that ball was over,’ said Alice, who sympathetically noted this uncompromising blush, and tried to attract Laurette's gleaming eyes from her sister's face.

But Laurette had in an eminent degree what Talleyrand considered the whole art of politics—that is, the art of seeing—at any rate, what was on the surface.

‘Oh, very much, did you? And you used to be so disdainful of dancing. But, to be sure, that was when you were much younger. And those alcoves one heard so much about—were they a great success? I declare, Stella, there must be something behind this. Do you know you are blushing most furiously?’

‘Oh, I always blush when I ask Alice for a second cup of tea,’ replied Stella, recovering her self-possession. ‘As for the alcoves—the half was not told you. There are eight windows in the ball-room, and round each window an alcove much larger than an ordinary bay-window, all lined with salmon-coloured satin with a seat running round each; up the front, on both sides, brackets with great vases full of ferns and roses, and lotos blooms and asphodel; overhead an electric light in an opal globe, exactly like a great piece of the full moon put into a crystal prison, only more lambent.’

‘And don't forget the cream lace curtains in front lined with salmon satin, Stella,’ said Alice, looking at her sister with a dancing light in her eyes. And then turning to Laurette: ‘The thing was to meet Prince Charming at the ball—dance and chat with him, and then sit out the rest of the evening in an alcove, behind the curtains and two chaperons,

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just fashioned by Providence so as to completely screen you from the other men to whom you might have promised dances.’

‘Indeed, and who—who was your chaperon?’ said Laurette, looking from one to the other of the sisters.

Stella had grown suddenly grave, though the remnants of her ‘furious’ blushing still lingered in her cheeks.

‘Oh, Mrs. Marwood and Tom and Felix and Andrew,’ answered Alice lightly.

‘And which of you retired into the alcove with the imprisoned moonlight and asphodel—and Prince Charming?’

‘How literal you are, my dear!’ said Alice, laughing. ‘But you see, after one's ideals of life have been exalted by such alcoves you must not expect Stella to fall quite prostrate before the grandeurs of Melbourne society.’

Laurette seemed only half satisfied with this explanation, but feeling that further investigation would be useless just then, she allowed the subject to drop.

‘I wonder what has given Laurette this ardent attack of friendship just now,’ said Stella, when the sisters were alone.

‘About insisting on your visit? Oh, she means to show you the kingdoms of the world and the glory thereof. And I expect it's not so much Laurette as Ted. It's a change of venue so as to get a different verdict. You have got into the habit of saying “no” at Fairacre, but in that “smaller house,” at Toorak, surrounded by magnates who have private theatres and French cooks—after all, Laurette is very amusing.’

‘Oh yes; for a day or two. But get a little below the surface, and she always has the hard, crude touch of the social amateur. And Allie—how could you be such a little jackdaw as to say that to her—about Prince Charming?’

‘Well, it was partly my instincts as an artist. I could not bear to hear you give the light, graphic touches of the setting and leave out the very core. Besides, even Laurette cannot unravel that little mystery. Do you know, Stella, it's the nearest thing to a romance that has happened for—twice one year. A great brilliant ball—a wonderful Austrian band—electric lights, flowers—an introduction without surnames—one dance—intellectual kinship—mysterious sympathy between two souls—a long talk behind ferns and

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chaperons in an alcove—duty thrown to the winds—till the fugitives are discovered by an irate ci-devant lover who is down for two waltzes—separation without even a lingering farewell—disappearance of the Prince before midnight—no name—no trace. Even the people who got him the invitation depart next day by the P. and O. steamer. Ah me! he was on his way to the Princess of China—or to awaken the sleeping beauty with a kiss. Would I were the sleeping beauty! He really had a distinguished air.’

‘I wish Felix would overhear you,’ said Stella, who listened to this little rhapsody with a half-tender smile.

‘Ah, my dear, when people are so desperately fond of each other as Felix and I, the shadow of romance never eclipses their gaiety. But the more I have thought over the episode, the more does it appear to me in the light of an allegory. You were from childhood the victim of the ideal. You always forsook your dolls when you perceived they were stuffed with sawdust. When you found the kitten of commerce mewed by means of a spring, you would have no more of it. And so in the central fact of a woman's life, as someone has called marriage. You ask for better bread than is made from wheat. Well, just for one evening you saw one cast in that higher mould, and then you were for ever secured from disillusion.’

‘Allie, you have got into one of your random fits. Remember, it is you who have been spending yourself on theories and imaginings concerning the unknown.’

‘Ah, my dear, it is what you do not say that I try to interpret. But take it, I say, as an allegory—not a real event; and then turn your mind to the sober realities of life. Now confess, if at the end of October you had not gone to a certain assembly, in November you would have fulfilled your engagement and gone to Laurette—seen the Melbourne Cup and made certain promises—renewed them, rather. Remember our conversation two days before the ball, when our dresses came home.’

‘I like your way of measuring life, Allie.’

‘By the dressmaker's thread? Well, it's much more cheerful than that of the Parcæ. But you do remember that conversation?

‘Yes, I think we came to the conclusion that some people married because they were in love; others because they

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thought they were; but the majority because they couldn't be.’

‘And that you belonged to the last named; but would very likely find the unholy estate of matrimony as brilliant an affair as most others.’

‘Well, for goodness’ sake don't let us go on quoting ourselves as if we were classics in Russia backs. I still hold to that. I begin to see that Ted is my fate. I shall have to succumb. On the whole, it will be less tiresome. And then I want to go to Rome and places.’

‘You might have gone with Claude and Helen.’

‘Well, it was heroic of them to offer to take me; but I think it would have been still more heroic of me to have gone. Oh, every reason—Can there be anything in life more unendurable than the confident air of prosperity which envelops your newly-married couple? The melting stolen glances, the becoming humility, the timid anxiety to please that in pre-nuptial days marked their demeanour, disappear as if some witch had exorcised them with black magic.’

‘Oh, let it be white magic, Stella, if only for my sake!’

‘Till at last we have that placid semi-unconsciousness of each other's presence which decks your full-blown married pair as a cankerworm adorns the rose.’

‘Oh, Stella, Stella! I believe you really were born with a mistrust of marriage,’ laughed the elder sister.

‘Yes; ever since I have been able to think or observe I have been convinced that marriage is the most foolish, faulty old institution going.’

Alice at this laughed louder than before; and then, still smiling, with the joyous, confident smile of a woman triumphantly in love, she said:

‘I wish, dear, you would throw out a few hints for the improvement of this heaven-forsaken arrangement.’

‘Well, you see, really to improve it would be to destroy it. To begin with, people see too much of each other, which seems to be destructive alike to passion and good manners. Oh yes; you are ready to mourir à rire at all this. Nevertheless, fate and the comedians are lying in wait for you.’

‘As for the comedians, I care nothing for them. Most of them were men who married dreadful creatures—as even

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Molière did. And fate—well, the most terrible sting it can have is that after living all our lives together, Felix and I may not die together.’

‘Like the babes in the wood, or Philemon and Baucis.’

‘Yes; or those dear old people one so often sees in common life, who survive each other only a few quiet uncomplaining weeks or months. But as for you, Stella—well, I suppose you would have your husband come with his hat in his hand, asking in an agitated voice when he might pay you a morning call?’

‘Yes; and then I would look at my ivory memory—the pretty one you gave me a year ago, with a tablet for each day in the week—and I would say, “To-morrow is Goethe's birthday, and I see only people who write sonnets in honour of that occasion. Ah, but yours, my friend, do not scan! No; nothing in prose, however felicitous, will pass muster.” ’

‘Well, the next day—wouldn't you let him come on the next day?’ pleaded Alice, a wicked light gleaming in her eyes.

‘No; the next day, “I have an appointment with a white fairy rose-bush. It has four hundred and fifty buds, and some of them have promised to open on that day. Well, yes; perhaps Wednesday. But, mind, you must be very amusing, and whatever you do, don't tell me old stories.” ’

And so, grave and gay by turns, they talked of love and marriage, as girls are wont to do in the sheltered sanctuary of the parental home, while life is a sort of isthmus between early youth and the deeper responsibilities of womanhood. Behind them lies childhood, full of sunshine and laughter, of bird calls and opening roses and passionate little griefs that passed into oblivion in the sleep that came with the glimmering twilight. Yes; looking backward there lie the fairest meadows, sunny nooks made cosier with the blue haze of smoke rising from familiar hearths; and always in the air the refrain of cradle songs, the sound of bells calling to prayer, the faces and voices that they first loved, that they must love to the end. They are still merely onlookers, seeing but selected replicas of the play of life, jealously guarded from the vulgar collisions of the crowd. But what is there on the farther side of the isthmus? It is far off, and the land is veiled in mist.

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But there are arenas there in which terrible things happen. There is reckless trampling as of wild beasts, and there are dark stains of bloodshed quickly sanded over. Often there come rumours of those overtaken with worse than the throes of dissolution. The shadow of the valley of life is much more intolerable oftentimes than that of death. There are whirlpools that suck in more than life.

And those who have been so delicately guarded: will their path trend towards sinister pitfalls? will they be overtaken by those catastrophes that mutilate human lives, smitten with those fiery darts that with a touch work moral paralysis? How will it be with them in the unborn years, far from the old sacred shelter of their early home? Will they moan for help in the darkness, with no ear to listen to their cry?

Ah, dear God! how strange and pitiful it all is—this incredible saga of human life, whose beginning we have lost, whose end we cannot tell; in which we lose one by one those who are our companions, and in the end lose ourselves; in which we are first robbed of all we love, and then of all we know.

The sisters had wandered from lighter topics, and were talking in hushed tones of their father's death, when Mr. Edward Ritchie was announced, and the young man entered with that air so characteristic of him, of being in and belonging wholly to a world without visions or anxious forecasts. His mere presence threw discredit on the sophistry of speculation. He was, to use an old figure of speech, for ever planting cabbages, and when one foot was on the ground the other was not far off. Nothing in books, or the destiny of the race, or the life of the soul, had ever moved him. But, then, he was never without a horse or two that had achieved something wonderful, or were just going to do so, or might do it if they chose. Without being exactly excited over this, he was so deeply interested, and so sure people wanted to know all about it, that he often, even in the breasts of those who cared little for equine performances, created a glow of enthusiasm, which banished every subject of a less abstract nature than an animal of good lineage, with four legs and a mane.

There was Spindrift, now, who could do anything he liked at home, and yet, put him on a race-course, you would

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swear he was dickey on every leg he had got, and had sprung a hock into the bargain. It was enough to make a fellow cat his hat, and the horse, too. And such a beautiful creature—almost perfect in all his points—perhaps the shoulders were not quite oblique enough. But the only thing by which you could guess there was a bad ‘nick’ in him was his eye. Never trust a horse unless his eye is bold and full, etc., etc.

Ted's ostensible mission, on this occasion, was to invite the Courtlands to a dinner-party at his father's house before Cuthbert left for Melbourne.

‘My mother and I put our heads together, and planned it after Larry came to see you to-day,’ he explained. ‘When Larry comes on a visit to the old house now, she wants to drive everyone tandem, full swing. But we just gave her the slip, and settled how many and all, and I wouldn't even wait till to-morrow morning—I shall be here at ten sharp to take you out riding, you know, Stella. I thought perhaps Cuth might have some parsonic concern on, if he didn't get early notice.’

‘But a dinner-party on the 26th December!’ said Stella, in a voice of consternation. ‘Everyone will be so frightfully used up with the tradespeople's Christmas cards, and the heat, and the Athanasian Creed the day before!’

But Ted overruled every objection. He had to return to Strathhaye soon after Christmas, and the 26th was the only day, and come they must.

Then the three went out into the garden to see the sun set across the sea, which was one of the traditions at Fairacre. All over the west the heavens seemed on fire, and underneath lay the sea, wide and silvery, and calm as a great inland lake. A white-sailed craft going southward stood out with startling distinctness.

‘Where lies the land to which yon ship must go?’ said Stella, watching its course with a far look in her eyes.

‘To Normanton, I expect, for potatoes,’ said Ted promptly.

And then when his companions laughed involuntarily at this explanation, he asked very placidly where the joke came in.

‘Well, Ted, you must know that a man called Wordsworth wroté sonnets, and that is a line out of one of them,’ said Alice.

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‘I'm blessed if ever I could make out why these old buffers of poets want to jaw so much about things. If he didn't know where the boat was going, why didn't he ask at a shipping office, instead of writing a sonnet?’

This reflection, delivered in a wondering, half-aggrieved tone, made Stella laugh more than before. Though Ted could not always very well divine the cause of her clear rippling laughter, no sound was pleasanter to his ears. The elder sister watched the two with an amused interest that was always renewed. It was apparent that the blunt, shrewd way in which the young man so forcibly used his limited outlook on life, formed a kind of attraction to the girl, who had that wide sympathetic range of view which a many-sided culture imparts; who was infected, too, by that dreamy, sceptical attitude of mind born of a nature innately introspective, and early inured to flights in mental dialectics.

‘I suppose I ought to go now,’ said Ted lingeringly.

‘No; stay to dinner and spend the evening with us,’ said Alice. ‘Oh, it doesn't matter about your clothes. Tom and Cuth seldom dress when we dine en famille in the summer-time.’

‘Will you play two-handed euchre with me for sixpenny points if I stay, Stella?’

‘Oh, I must play for love.’

Ted coloured with pleasure to the roots of his hair, and Stella hastened to explain.

‘You see, it is near the end of the quarter, and I have nothing in my purse but a doubtful threepenny-bit and a damaged stamp.’