Chapter IV

GODOLPHIN HOUSE, the town residence of Sir Edward Ritchie, was a large pile of buildings near the foot of the hills, a few miles to the south-west of Adelaide. Everything was on a large scale—the house, the grounds, the conservatories, the trees, and even the views. The place had been well planned and built, from the neat little semi-Swiss lodge at the chief entrance, to the handsome gable-ended

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stables, with their luxurious appointments, at some distance to the rear of the house; and the house itself lacked no comfort or convenience of modern days, and, to a certain extent, had been even pleasant to the eye, till, in an evil hour, the emissary of a great ‘decorative’ firm had prevailed on Sir Edward to have the ‘mansion’ ‘done up’ from top to toe. This took the form of a carnival of unlimited expenditure, and that unhappy outburst of British Philistinism known as the æsthetic craze. There was one apartment, known as the peacock-room, which upset an old Bush comrade of Sir Edward's in a surprising way. The man was one to whom money had no value apart from the excitement of earning and losing it. His life was impartially spent in tents in the wilderness and costly hotels. He and Sir Edward had worked together as wood sawyers in a great gum-forest for over seven years. This long period of hard lucrative work had laid the foundation of the worthy knight's large fortune, while for the other man it started the habit of alternately drinking bad champagne, etc., at a guinea a bottle, out of a quart jug, and humping his swag to the last new rush. For it was always gold that attracted him, and that, with astonishing frequency, retrieved his fallen fortunes. But through all the reverses of the one, and the climbing grandeurs of the other, the friendship between the two men was unbroken.

It was when Godolphin House was at its most appalling stage of unmodified æstheticism—from sage-green portières to nymphs with exaggerated chins holding bronze lamps aloft—that the Bushman paid one of his periodical visits. Sir Edward took him all over the house, and finally the two sat down in the peacock-room. Here they dug their sawpits and felled mighty giants of the forest over again. But the more adventurous spirit had recently ‘knocked down’ a large nugget, and his nerves were not what they ought to be.

‘Ned, my boy, I can't stand these blazing eyes any longer. They get upon my liver somehow. I'll take a turn in the fresh air.’ With that he stepped on the terrace, but the next moment he rushed back white and breathless.

‘Look here, old man, I must hook it out of this. Why, you've hung the very birds with these damned staring

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eyes!’ He had come upon a row of peacocks sunning their gorgeous tails on the terrace on which he had taken refuge.

Even Ted used to grumble that it was all very well to lick the place into a cocked hat with screens, and fans, and dados, and soup-plates, but it was a jolly shame not to leave a den or two in which a fellow could live. Laurette adored all the transformations as long as they were ‘quite the thing’; but when the tide turned she wrought various changes from time to time during her visits to her parents, and in several rooms had quite wiped away the disgrace of conventional æstheticism. But the air of ‘no expenses spared,’ and of being en rapport with a rampant art-decorator, who has forsworn the old honest British hideousness for a sickly unreality, was apt to weigh heavy on the spirits. It was a house in which above all others to taste the wormwood of ennui to its last dregs; in which to be overcome by that lassitude of body, and bitter languor of mind, in which these symptoms may be successively noted.

You have a growing conviction that you can draw your breath but an hour longer without a change of environment.

You find yourself yawning irretrievably when you essay to add your mite to feeble anecdotes of the weather.

You find your face turning to stone when you strive with all the anguish of despair to call up a smile in response to a faded joke.

You reply with withering platitudes to every observation, and you find the kindliest attempt at pleasantry an unpardonable offence.

You sit on and on with the uncommunicating muteness of a fish, till you are overpowered by the thought that if you do not creep into the solitude of your own room you will be driven to commit some desperate deed, so that you may be imprisoned or sent to an asylum for the insane, or some equally genial retreat that will mercifully shield you from the joys of social intercourse.

But the culmination of all was the library. It was a marvel in its way. Horace Walpole somewhere speaks of one that contained only a broken chair, a chart, and a lame telescope. But this was an enchanting bower for the muses compared to a room full of lame and impotent compilations

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in ‘books’ clothing.’ Thinglets fit only to wrap candles in, or make winding-sheets in Lent for pilchards, or keep butter in the market-place from melting. There were rows upon rows of such stuff as the Rev. Ebenezer Slipslop on Corinthians; awful Encyclopedias and Treasuries of Knowledge, and biographies of self-made men who, to the prime sin of having existed at all, added the no less unpardonable one of swelling the dreariest form of fiction. So many and so many and such woe. In proportion to the keen pleasure we associate with real books is the gloom which the bare sight of such biblia-a-biblia can induce. The tradition ran that Sir Edward had ordered ‘a ton of books’ from a third-rate bookseller in distress, and that this enterprising tradesman had bought up and bound for the Godolphin House library an astounding collection of the young men's mutual improvement type of rubbish. There was probably not a fact in the known world of the callow sort one hears only to forget which did not repose on these shelves.

Even in venturing out in the grounds at Godolphin House, everything still breathed of money recklessly lavished by hirelings. One was constantly taken to gaze at some double or triple monstrosity, perpetrated by gardeners who were so highly paid that it would compromise them to let Nature have much of her own way.

When Ted returned to his father's house that night, he found Mrs. Tareling—Larry as he usually called her—in a bitterly discontented frame of mind.

‘Who do you think has come to stay for two weeks, Ted?’ she cried, the moment she caught sight of him.

‘Tareling?’ questioned Ted carelessly, taking possession of one armchair and resting his feet on another.

‘Oh, you know very well he wouldn't come to stay so long, especially at Christmas-time. It is Uncle John!’

‘Well, I'm glad the old chap came while I'm here. It's ages since I saw him. Did he bring aunt along with him?’

‘Upon my word, Ted, you are horribly provoking sometimes. You take it as coolly as if he were the most agreeable company in the world.’

‘Well, one's relations aren't often that; but still, there they are, you know, and there they were, before we showed our noses in the world. Has the old man gone to bed?’

‘Yes, long ago. That's his way. He'll go to bed when

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the hens do, that he may rise at daybreak, to go creaking all over the house and burst into guffaws of laughter at the decorations and things, and tell abominable stories before the servants.’

‘Now draw it mild, Larry. The old fellow can tell a shady yarn as well as most men of his age, especially if he's a bit sprung, but he doesn't before the servants, and I'm sure he wouldn't before you.’

‘Oh, I don't mean what you call “shady yarns.” It's much worse when he tells how he left London as a stowaway, with two and threepence in his pockets, and not a second shirt to his back.’

‘Yes he had. Don't you remember the little bundle done up in a red cotton handkerchief—a pair of go-ashore breeches and a Crimea shirt?’

‘Goodness knows, I ought to remember it all; I've heard it often enough.’

‘Well, it's natural when a man comes to be sixty-eight he should like to tell how he kicked up his heels at seventeen. If a horse has got much gumption, he doesn't care to race after he's two years old. But a man goes it as long as he can, and afterwards he likes to speak of the old days. And, by Jove! it's only what you might expect,’ added Ted reflectively. ‘I'd sooner be a stowaway, without even a bundle, to-morrow, than be close on seventy with a million of money.’

‘Ah, yes; but if you became a stowaway to-morrow, it would be a very different tale. You've been brought up with the command of money and servants, and never took your hat off to anyone save on equal terms. But when Uncle John tells his stories, you know, he used to stand in his smock frock, staring at the “gentry” as they drove by. And the way he eats his soup, and chuckles when the servants say “your ladyship” to mother!’

‘You see, Larry, he didn't have four daughters to sit upon his manners, and train him up the way he should go, like the governor,’ said Ted, smiling broadly, as certain reminiscences rose in his mind.

‘The worst of it is that Colonel and Mrs. Aldersley are coming here from Friday till Monday. Yes, they came over here from Melbourne three weeks ago. They've been at Government House for two weeks. Look here, Ted,

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couldn't you take the old man away somewhere during that time?’

‘Well I'm blowed! You have got a cheek, Larry,’ said Ted, sitting straight up at this proposition. ‘Smuggle the old bird away as if he were a convict, and all for what? An elderly frump of a woman, who says “Yes, to be sure,” eighty times a day, and a man who would rook a young cub that had hardly shed his milk teeth. Oh, I happen to know a good deal about Aldersley. I tell you what, in the matter of straightforward, fair play, the man isn't fit to brush Uncle John's shoes!’

‘He never wears shoes—it's always great creaking Wellington boots. And can't you see, Ted, that to have embezzled money years and years ago would be pardonable compared to taking an orange in your fist, and sucking it at dessert, as Uncle John does? But nothing is so bad as his stories; and it's no use interrupting him: he only gets red in the face and talks louder.’

‘Yes; as he did when he was telling once how he and father borrowed an old donkey to go and see the young squire's first meet; and there were you and Henrietta, pitching away about the Queen's drawing-room, at which our Lotty was presented. By Jove, it was as good as a play,’ and Ted laughed.

‘As good as a play!’ echoed Laurette, her face reddening with vexation. ‘Yes, I dare say it will be as good as a play for the Aldersleys. You may call Mrs. A. a frump and think she's slow, but let me tell you she is as sharp as a needle. She agrees with everything, so that people may give themselves away more completely. She keeps a diary, and writes pages upon pages in it every night. Two people that know her well have told me she means to publish a book on “Life at the Antipodes” when she gets back to England, and, of course, Uncle John would be regular nuts for her.’

‘But who the deuce cares what these tourist people say? They either put down stuff that everybody knows from the beginning of creation, or they tell crammers that suck in nobody but their own friends,’ said Ted, lighting a cigar, and resuming his semi-recumbent attitude.

‘And it isn't even as if one could make him out to be eccentric or an oddity,’ went on Laurette in a bitter tone.

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‘He won't change his boots in the house, but he'll put on a dress-suit and a white tie that goes slipping round his neck like a third-rate hotel waiter's. And it's ten to one if he doesn't blurt out how long his wife was in service with him before he married her.’

‘Well, you may put your money on it that all the world over people have got to be in service, or have enough money of their own to live on, or live on someone else,’ returned, Ted, with philosophic calm. ‘You're always kotooing at Government House here and in Melbourne—and aren't they all in service? Living on money they get out of the country, for looking on while other people manage affairs. It's a perfect chouse. When Aunt Sally was in service at Kataloonga she worked for all the money she earned, I bet.’

‘You talk as if you hadn't a scrap of proper pride about you. You take good care only to ask a lady to be your own wife,’ retorted Laurette rather vindictively.

‘It's not because she's a lady; it's just because she's Stella, and I've known her all my life, and every other girl seems common and flat beside her,’ answered Ted, holding his cigar in his hand as he spoke.

A half-resentful expression came into Laurette's keen dark eyes at this speech. But before she could make any rejoinder Ted laughed softly in that gratified way which is significant of pleasant recollections.

‘By Jove! I had a jolly evening! I never knew any girl that can make as much out of a little thing as Stella does sometimes. We played euchre together,’ he went on, in answer to Laurette's interrogative ‘Oh?’ ‘Stella at first wouldn't play for money, because she hasn't a sou, being near the end of the quarter. Think of that, you know’ and me with over a hundred and fifty thousand pounds in spanking investments, not to mention the yearly income of Strathhaye. I'd like to fill all her pockets with gold and diamonds, and I can't offer her even a shabby tenner. She had a great run of luck with the cards at the beginning—right bower and joker and a couple of high trump cards—time after time. At last she consented to play for money, and then—confound it!—the luck changed. I tried to pack the cards so that she might win. But she's got eyes like an eagle-hawk, and bowled me out at once. You should hear all the penances she set me. She lost five shillings

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and gave me an I.O.U.’ Ted took a note out of his pocketbook and gazed at it fondly. ‘I'll keep this till all I've got belongs to her.’

‘Well, I sometimes fancy that will never be the case, after all,’ returned Laurette, who, for various reasons, was in that ‘put out’ frame of mind in which one finds a gloomy satisfaction in dashing the hopes of another.

‘What do you mean by that?’ asked the young man quickly. ‘Hasn't she promised to come to see you in Melbourne?’

‘Yes; in a sort of a way. Instead of being grateful and pleased at the idea of seeing some good society, she said, “Well, if you let me come on my way to Lullaboolagana, without pledging myself beforehand as to the length of the visit,” ’ and Laurette mimicked Stella's tone as well as she could, grossly exaggerating her little drawl.

‘Excuse me for saying so, Larry, but if the Lord meant you to talk like Stella He'd have given you a prettier mouth,’ said Ted, with slow deliberation. ‘And as for good society—what have you better than she has been in all her life?’

‘Oh, yes; a narrow, Churchy little clique, mixed up with all sorts of outsiders. People here always rave about Mrs. Courtland being so sweet and unworldly. It's my belief she's full of old Highland pride at heart. They're on a sort of little suburban pinnacle, without the least idea of anything like real style or chic. And that Alice speaking of themselves as “the poorer classes.” If that's not the pride that apes humility I should like to know what is… I don't know why you've set your heart so on wooing that girl. Why, with your fortune you might easily marry a lord's daughter.’

‘But what the devil do I want with a lord's daughter?’ cried Ted, in an amazed voice. ‘The only one I ever knew had a scrag of a neck, and was as yellow as a buttercup.’

‘Oh, it's just like a man only to think of looks. I'd like to know who all Stella's partners were at the Emberly ball. I fancy there was something in the background. The moment I spoke of the affair she blushed up to the whites of her eyes——’

‘But Stella always does that. I never see her but she colours, off and on, twenty times an hour.’

‘Yes; she's one of those girls that always look more

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charming when an admirer is by, whether they care for him or not. She has that slow kind of half-smile and a droop in her eyes, as if to show her long lashes, and she sometimes says the most biting things with that gentle sort of drawl, and then she laughs right out when you least expect it. I never did like girls that find things so amusing which are serious to other people. They're always coquettes, more or less. Oh, you don't half understand Stella Courtland!’

‘Well, perhaps a fellow sees rather more than is good for him of the sort of women who are too easily understood. … At any rate, I understand this much about Stella. I'd sooner hear her laugh without quite understanding why she's amused than have any other woman in the world at my feet. And, by George! if she throws me over at the last—well, it's all U P with me. I know that. … They're coming to dinner on the 26th,’ he added, relighting his cigar, ‘and we're going out riding together most mornings till then.’

‘Well, Ted, you've always been very good to me when we've been in a financial fix,’ said Laurette, ‘and I'll do what I can for you. As I said before, I think part of a season in Melbourne among people who are really in the swim may open Stella's eyes a little. She'll find what it is to have a fashionable connection and good horses, and dresses from Worth, and the last touch in a Parisian bonnet. She'll see the crowds of girls nearly as well born as she is, and more fashionably dressed, and handsomer, whose mouths would water at the chance of an offer from you.’

‘Now, Larry, there you're out of it completely. The girls you call handsomer would have their numbers taken down the instant they stood in the same room with Stella. As for being more fashionably dressed—why, whatever she puts on is the best and most fashionable. And it's just the same with what she says. She may mock at me, or say things I don't quite catch, or laugh when I don't know the reason why; but whatever she does is just right—except refusing me—and, by the Lord, I sometimes think that just a proof she's really long-headed. And yet I believe I could make her as happy as any other fellow would.’

Ted had ceased smoking, and now stared before him with a look of care on his face which was very unusual.

‘Now, Ted, whatever you do, don't let your spirits go

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down,’ said Laurette. ‘Of course the life of a man is as different from that of a girl as chalk is from cheese. After all, the more high-falutin’ a girl is, the more she has to knuckle under to the inevitable. … I remember when I used to stay at Fairacre in the old days Stella was always reading some rubbishy old fathers, or tragedies, or wild German stories. Her father used to call her his little “improvisatrice,” and she would sometimes start off and tell stories that would make your backbone quiver. She always had too much imagination; and that's the one thing a woman can best do without. It makes her draw pictures of life each one more unlike reality than the other. But in the end she'll have to put up with things as they are, just like the rest of us. Women have dreams, only to give them up when they marry.’

When Laurette took to moralizing it was in the robust strain of one to whom delicacy of mind was not a lost, but an unknown attribute.

‘Well, Larry, if nothing comes of this visit to Melbourne—if before this time next year Stella is not my wife—why, I think I must give the affair up for good and all.’

‘Quite right, Ted. The end of everything ought to come before it's too late. Whatever lies in my power shall be done. I think Melbourne will open her eyes a little.’

‘And if you're in a fix for some tin, Larry, before the end of the season—why, just let me know,’ said Ted, who knew by experience that a season in Melbourne seldom passed in which a hundred pounds or two was not a welcome, if not an indispensable gift to Laurette, notwithstanding the station in the Mallee country, worth over three thousand a year, which her father settled on her when she married the Hon. Talbot Tareling five years previously.

A look of vivid interest suddenly came into Laurette's face. It was the being ‘in a fix’ for some time which had mainly inspired her present visit to her father.

‘Well, Ted——’ Laurette began, and suddenly paused. Various thoughts swept through her mind, and then what she had intended to say ended in the bald statement: ‘It is really very late.’ But at that moment certain seed had dropped into fertile ground—seed that was destined to bear fruit in the not distant future, which, to their bitter ruing, must be eaten by others rather than by herself.