― 52 ―

Chapter V

CUTHBERT COURTLAND left for Melbourne on the 28th of December. On the afternoon of the same day Edward Ritchie called at Fairacre to say good-bye.

He looked dejected and very much out of sorts; weary, with an unusual pallor on his face.

‘You really were ill, then, on the 26th?’ said Stella, noticing the change in his appearance.

‘Yes, of course. Did you think I would stay away for a trifle when you went to my father's? It was a horrid sell altogether. Two of the best horses behaved like shoetrunks.’

‘Why, I thought you were at Mr. Edwin Emberly's place near Reynella?’

‘Yes, and we had a private steeplechase—gentlemen riders—and the day was most abominable. Everything went wrong. If I had only stayed at home——’

‘You see, Ted, you cannot have your cake and eat it.’

‘Cake? it was a cake. You seem to have an idea I stayed away on pleasure.’

‘Well, you know, it was an atrocious day, with a fierce east gully wind. It's always a little cooler at Reynella.’

‘Not on the 26th, with an amateur steeplechase and only a mob of young bachelors together.’

‘But then, in the evening, instead of dressing for dinner, no doubt you lounged in pyjamas and smoked, and had “long drinks” out on the verandas. Whereas we fanned ourselves languidly through thirteen courses, and listened to the good old Bishop speaking on surpliced choirs and the ultimate cost of the cathedral. I certainly thought you had the best of it. But now I see you really were ill. Did you have a sunstroke, or did your horse roll over you—or what?’

‘Oh, it was just what!’ answered Ritchie grimly. ‘The fact is, I ‘—he was staring hard at the girl as he spoke, but something in her gay smiling unconsciousness arrested the words on his lips—‘I believe my heart has gone back on me rather badly. It keeps thumping about in the most confounded manner.’

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‘Your heart, Ted? Now do you know what side it is on?’ she asked laughingly.

‘Oh yes, Stella, it's all very well for you. You're on the right side of the hedge. You never had a day's illness in your life since you were a baby. I've had many an attack. And to have old Mac and his wife bringing you in beef-tea you can't drink, and lie awake half the night, and no one to talk to, or ride out with in the morning and have some fun—— You can't wonder I run off to Melbourne pretty often. What is there to keep me at home? Now, if you were there—but I'm not going to say any more just now. I am going on to Strathhaye, to see to a few things there; and then I'm going to have a complete change for some months. I've been feeling rather dicky off and on for some time. Oh yes, I look well enough generally; but you can't always go by that. I think I shall give up horse-racing—it keeps a fellow racketing about so.’

‘What! sell Konrad and Circe, and all the rest, and have no more “sweet little fillies” and year-old colts, that are so knowing and thoroughbred they take to racing almost without being told? What in the world would you talk about, Ted?’

‘Oh, I wouldn't sell them all. I'll always keep good horses. I can't stand any other kind; but not to go flying about from one race-meeting to the other. It begins to tell on a fellow after a few years. I think I'll try and read a little more. You remember the list of books I got you to give me once? Well, there's a big boxful at Strathhaye never opened. I'll take it with me. But I don't think I can ever make much out of sonnets, Stella.’

‘Why, have you actually been reading sonnets? Ah, poor Ted! you must have been feeling bad.’

‘Yes, I felt very low last night, after I got home; and I thought I would try to improve my mind, as Edwin Emberly calls it. I thought I would try to understand more about the things you care for. I have a Wordsworth that was given me for a prize at St. Peter's. Oh, it was for regular attendance. When a fellow was there for a couple of years, and they couldn't give him a prize for anything else, they gave him one for not playing the tally. As I was a boarder, I couldn't do that very well.’

‘And did you really get out your prize Wordsworth and read it?’

  ― 54 ―

‘Yes, I read some of the sonnets; but it was for all the world like a bullock trying to jump in hobbles. He makes a great clanking with the chains, and he heaves up his horns, but he doesn't get any further. And there's no story in the thing. At least, if there is, it's so thin I can never catch it. Now, when I was about ten, I remember, you read me “The Lady of the Lake” once, and, by Jove! it made my heart beat. It was one Saturday. I came from St. Peter's to stay till Monday. Cuth was always very kind to me, though he was at the head of his class and I was always at the bottom, and one below my age. You sat up in the branches of the Moreton Bay fig-tree, and I sat beside you and turned the leaves. Good Lord! I wish I was ten to-day, and you nine!’

‘Why?—that we might go and sit in the branches of the fig-tree? Perhaps it isn't too late even now——’

‘I hate those words “too late!” ’ said Ritchie, with unusual irritability.

He rose and strode about the room, and stared out through one of the windows overlooking the garden.

‘Really, Ted shows himself in quite a new aspect to-day. It is as though he had the first faint beginnings of a soul,’ thought Stella, looking at him with a new interest. ‘Why do you hate the words “too late,” Ted? Have you any association with them?’ she said, going up to him where he stood at the window.

‘Yes; we had a knock-about hand at Strathhaye once, and I can't forget the way he said the words over and over at the last. Well, he was hardly middle-aged, really; but the life he led made him seem so. He belonged to one of the old swell families in England, and got engaged, but had no money to marry on. So he sold out of a crack regiment and came to try his luck at the diggings. He was among the lucky ones—he and his mate, who had been a gamekeeper on his uncle's estate. They got one nugget worth four thousand pounds, and there was more to follow; and there, in the very middle of his luck, came a letter telling him his sweetheart was married to an old baboon with ever so many thousands a year. It put him off his chump entirely. He went completely to the bad. He was two years at Strathhaye. He would go off every now and then with a cheque, and come back blue with the horrors—even

  ― 55 ―
his coat and his blanket sold for a last nobbler or two. At last he stayed away for over a month, and came back one night more dead than alive. Why he didn't do away with himself, I can't make out. Sometimes, I believe, people get too miserable even to hang themselves. We had the doctor for him; but there was nothing he could do except give him some stuff that made it easier to die.’

‘Was there no one to look after him?’ asked Stella, her eyes large and dim with pity.

‘Oh yes; he was in the men's hut, and Mrs. Mackenzie used to go to him for a couple of hours every day. I used to go in, too, most days; but, by Jingo! I can't think of anything more awkward than to sit by a fellow like that when you know he's dying, and he knows that you know. You can't even say you hope he'll soon be better. You know nothing of where he's going; and it would hardly be decent to talk of horses and classifying wool to a man with the death-rattle in his throat, so to speak. I offered to read the Bible to him, but I was always coming across some queer yarn that made one feel anyhow. At last he gave me a little purple Book of Common Prayer to read; but there, what was the good of reading “The Publick Baptism of Infants,” or “The Churching of Women,” or “The Solemnization of Matrimony”——’

‘Oh, Ted! why didn't you read “The Psalms,” or “The Visitation of the Sick,” or a collect?’ said Stella, unable to refrain from a smile, though the picture called up by the young man's unstudied narrative touched her deeply.

‘Well, you see, you know the run of the Prayer-Book, but I don't; and I just used to start off where I opened it. Once I began with “The Burial of the Dead;” but I wasn't sorry, for it made poor old Travers laugh so. “Not yet, my boy—not yet!” he said. That was a few evenings before he died. And just two days before, a lawyer's letter came, telling him he was heir to his uncle's estate. The old man was dead, the eldest son had come to grief hunting buffaloes somewhere in North America, and the second had got killed in the Zulu War years before. So there was this estate, with thirteen or fourteen thousand a year, for Travers to step into, just as he got his last marching-orders—barely two days before he turned up his toes. I was sorry the letter came before he died. He was rather gone in his

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mind, what with sleeping-draughts and one thing and another. And after he read the letter everything about him passed out of his mind, and he thought he was a young fellow with the ball at his feet, and he and his Nellie were to be married. I sat by his bedside in the dusk, and he kept on saying, “I am so glad this has come before it was too late, Nell! It is sometimes awful. I knew of a fellow that went to the dogs away in Australia; but then the girl he loved threw him over. You would never do that, Nellie darling! Thank God, it's not too late—it's not too late!” By Jove! you know, it gave me a lump in the throat as big as a potato. Somehow it was worse than if he said it was too late; and he kept on hammering at the same thing, and thanking God she was so true to him, and marking down on a map where they were going for their wedding-trip. And then he would say, “Now, Nell, don't keep me waiting long at the church. I have been waiting such a long time; and sometimes I had the most awful dreams. But it's not too late!” he would begin again. I was glad when it was all over.’

‘Ah, what pitiful broken episodes many lives are!’ said Stella softly. ‘All that might have saved them is defeated—every touch leads to the catastrophe, and then silence and darkness—and the great play goes on just the same. And yet how good it is to be alive and see the sky and look at the roses!’

‘Will you give me a rose before I go, Stella?’

‘Yes—what kind would you like?’

‘One of those you're fondest of.’

‘Well, those I love the very best are the white fairy roses, and the cruel east wind on the 26th scorched the last of them, buds and all. But I can give you a Gloire de Dijon.’

‘And, Stella, would you mind giving me that book with the “Lady of the Lake” in, and——’

‘Oh, with great pleasure!’

‘And just write my name in it, Stella—and the date—and here's a little parcel. Don't open it till I'm gone. You know you said you liked opening parcels.’

‘But, Ted, I should see what it is before I take it.’

‘No, you can settle about that when I see you in Melbourne.’

  ― 57 ―

Stella took the little square parcel, and looked at it doubtfully. ‘It's not another Kooditcha shoe?’

They passed into the library, where Stella got the book, and wrote ‘E. Ritchie, 28th Dec.,’ on the fly-leaf. Then they stepped out into the garden, and got an unopened rose, fragrant and smiling red at the lips.

‘I am sorry your mother and Alice are out—say goodbye to them for me, Stella—next time I meet them I hope—well, we shall see.. … Now, Stella, give me your two hands, and say, “God bless you, Ted!” ’

She gave him her hands, and he looked into her face so long and steadfastly that she suddenly crimsoned under his gaze, and said with a little pout:

‘Ted, you mustn't be so solemn. One would think you were going to Central Australia, or whale-fishing to Greenland in very bad company.’

‘Say it, Stella.’

‘God bless you, Ted!’

He bent and kissed her hands, and then hurried away without once looking behind.

Stella stood where he left her, till she heard the sound of his horse's hoofs ringing on the roadway as he passed up Barton Terrace. And then traces of contending emotions swept over her face.

‘Poor old Ted! I believe he is in some trouble. What if his health is really affected? But I can't believe it. That is a way men have if the least thing is wrong—they take themselves as seriously as if they were stuffed llamas. Well, I'm almost sorry I wasn't more sympathetic. … only it is so dangerous.’ And the thought of Ted trying to read sonnets for her sake overcame her with amusement. Yet this was soon followed by a feeling akin to self-reproach. In the old days she had read to him—talked to him of what interested her most—but for the last two or three years, when they met, her chief feeling was a wondering amusement that one who had learned to read at all should so completely escape all tincture of books. She had got into the habit of listening to him—of apprehending his point of view—almost avoiding any direct personal talk that might influence him or modify his mental habits. But was he so entirely beyond any intellectual sympathy—so far removed from kinship with matters that lay beyond the common

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grooves of common life? Why had she relinquished those ardent dreams of being a power for good in the lives of those to whom she was dear?

Her face grew hot as she recalled the frivolous way in which she had met his half-expressed resolution of giving up horse-racing. And yet was there any other pursuit that seemed so completely to arrest the better development of a man's nature—to paralyze the worthier interests of life? The perpetual contact with the ignoble rabble, whose keenest interest was the excitement of betting, and winning money for which they had not worked—must not this render the mind more and more callous to all that was worth living for? And yet she had almost mocked his recoil from his past devotion to the racecourse.

Her action suddenly appeared to her in so odious a light that she longed to see Ted again for a few moments, to ask his pardon for her mocking indifference—to encourage him in his new-born resolve—to tell him that their native country was full of work which needed honest men and honest money. How many fields were white for the harvest—how many labourers were needed to dedicate their whole powers to the world's service!

‘Oh, I shall have to come back to being as much in earnest as ever,’ she thought, half smiling at her rising zeal; and then the thought of Ted blundering through ‘The Publick Baptism of Infants’ beside the poor dying man made her feel inclined to laugh and cry at the same moment.

The strange, bitter pathos of that human wreckage which drifts into so many currents of our Australian life fastened on her mind—men delicately nurtured in the old homes of the Old World, as well as the luxurious ones of the New, and in the end going completely under, in the rough, wild manner of the veriest waifs. This is misery of the kind which weaves the most tragic thread in the web of existence. The slow but inexorable deterioration of character makes oftentimes a strong seizure on the startled spirit.

‘Oh, it is all too cruel!’ said the girl to herself. And then a curious sense of undefined peril came over her—one of those quick unreasoning apprehensions, often strong enough to give a sense of physical pain, to which minds of over-reflective fibre are sometimes subject. It is as though chains of consciousness, apart from the centre of thought,

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were at work storing up half-understood impressions, piecing together disconnected events, casual words and signs that have floated through the brain without leaving traces strong enough for waking memory, till the total is summed up in an expression of imminent or latent danger which is suddenly flashed on the mind with bewildering vividness. And yet the process by which this is conveyed is sealed from knowledge. There is no orthodox channel of intercourse between these swift intuitions and the workaday brain immersed in the details of daily life.

‘Do you think it does a fellow any good to come a cropper in that way?’ was one of the reminiscences Stella found rising in her mind after the vague little shock of dread had left her.

She went back into the drawing-room, and there was the little square parcel still unopened. It was a brown morocco case which opened on pressing a spring and disclosed a magnificent pearl brooch in the form of a horse-shoe—row upon row of graduated pearls, with a very large one in the centre, and large ones round it; the next a little smaller, and so on to the last row, which were small exquisite pearshaped pearls. There was a little note in Ted's round, schoolboyish hand:


‘This is for your birthday in April. They are Shark Bay pearls, got by the boat I have an interest in. You used to take little presents from me before on your birthday. Once I brought you a little beggar of a sparrow, with only a few feathers, and tried to get a kiss for it, but you didn't see it. By Jove! you owe me an awful lot, you know. I hope you will like the pearls. I got the jeweller—should there be two l's or three in that word?—to make them up in a horse-shoe for good luck. Mind you, I know very well I'm not half good enough for you; but then neither would any other fellow be. I wish to-morrow was the day I was to see you in Melbourne. You must be a bit of a flirt, Stella. The governor is always quite gone on you afresh after he sees you. He likes a girl with plenty of go in her; and you always tell him some funny story over which he keeps on chuckling. If you're not in when I call to-morrow, I may tell you that I was awfully cut up I couldn't leave

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Heronshaw on the 26th, so as to dine at home. I'm getting full-up of races. I shan't go to one till I see you again. I am going quite into the Bush for a thorough change.

  ‘Good-bye, Stella,

  ‘Always yours,


Stella looked long at the pearls. They were so soft and lustrous, with that glowing moist look as if damp with the sea under whose myriad waves they took shape and grew within a creature that had the breath of life. Is it this that gives them the wistful tenderness which marks them from all other jewels? That, and perhaps the melancholy moanings of the sea in which they were cradled.

‘It is much too costly a gift—unless, indeed, this endless wooing is to have an unfortunate close,’ thought Stella with a smile. ‘Well, it should rob matrimony of some of its terror to marry the youth who at nine or ten tried to bribe one to kiss him with a half-fledged sparrowlet.’

From that day till she met him again she consciously from time to time faced the possibility of this ‘unfortunate close.’