Chapter VI

SOME of the letters which Stella wrote to her brother will best convey the tenor of her life during the months that intervened before she left for Melbourne and Lullaboolagana. They were the last she wrote from the home of her infancy and girlhood—that serene and happy resting-place in the chequered journey of life. They show her on one side gay, playful, open to every impression, in love with life and beauty as ardently as a Greek, finding food for mirth at the core of much which outwardly wears a mask of solemn gravity. On the other side she exhibits a cold logical faculty for drawing pitiless inferences from the laws of nature, from those lives which had touched her own and had become bankrupt in all life's promises of joy. Prone also to that severe disenchanted estimate of human affairs,

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springing from the austere strand inevitably woven into minds that have at one time been nourished on the sustained enthusiasm of supernatural ideals—on the writings of saints and fathers whose keynote is the lofty renunciation of those who look on the world and its most coveted distinctions as the empty pageant of a passing show:

  ‘Fairacre, N. Adelaide, 15th January.

‘You ask me to be sure and write when the thought arises: “How I should like to tell Cuthbert about this!” “If I could only have a good long talk with him now!” But consider, my friend, what a cold little viper a pen is when you want really to talk face to face! When a word, a look, suggests thoughts that had else hardly struggled into existence! And then, apart from the chill which the frosty tip of a pen engenders in one's most communicative moods, has not ink an immemorial right to be dull? Still, I perceive a certain advantage in saying whatever I like, feeling sure that in a day and a half you will gravely read it all. Whereas in a tête-à-tête one is open to contradiction—to interruption—to be skipped like an elderly newspaper, yawned at like a tedious play. One is afraid to skip a letter too cavalierly. There might be something in it. For after all life has many surprises.

‘As women generally sit by the hearth all their lives, like a cat that has given up hunting, they should early learn how to purr and write letters. Do you know the tradition among some of our aboriginal tribes, that their Creator taught men how to spear kangaroos and women how to dig roots? Now that you are on the pacific war-path of a spearer of souls—what a vile simile! I am sorry, but that is the worst of primitive races—they seldom afford good metaphors. I imagine that I meant to say I must learn to dig with my pen—grow intimate with it, make it loyal to me, so as to keep at bay that estrangement which often creeps between people when they are apart. What a fierce jealousy stirs me at the thought that time and absence might dare to nip with lean fingers at our lifelong friendship!

‘Shall I divide my letters between daily events and the natural sprouts of my own understanding? Someone has said that matter of fact is the comfortable resource of dull

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people. But when you come to fold it up in pages, stamp it and send it five hundred miles or so, matter of fact should have its whiskers trimmed, and its obesity buttoned up in a slim jacket, like an organ-grinder's monkey. But if you do this when you are so good and calm that you have no history, what remains?

‘All this day the north-east wind has abused the privilege it has of being intolerable. How I envy people who, unless they go out on foot, hardly perceive that this bise of Australia is running riot! You know the habits of our climate at such times. The air dry and parching, with ever-recurring puffs and gusts, warm as if they had escaped from caldrons of red-hot sand, and that unceasing undertone, whether the wind blows high or low, as of things being swirled along the earth. It is the motion of countless little twigs, of skeleton leaves, of bits of bark, of old frayed nonentities, of desert grit borne along in a whirl of dead resurrection by a wind that surely has not its compeer on earth for dragging things from near and far that have been long spent and buried into the unmerciful light of day. You were spared another page or two regarding the hot wind by Kirsty, who came half an hour ago to the library-door, saying that poor old Honora wanted to see me.

‘ “She's the warse o' drink, and as hoarse as a corbie. There's nae use in helping her at a’. It's mony a day sinsyne that she began thae evil ways,” said Kirsty, with those severe lines round her mouth growing still severer. “Sall I say you're too busy, Miss Stella?” Needless to say I was not. Poor Honora! She was more sunburnt and draggled than ever, her clothes more weather-beaten, her hat more desperately broken. Altogether she looked one of the most forlorn targets of the darts of misfortune that could well be seen on the world's turbulent stage. Still, with it all she maintained that inflexible air of being only one more victim of the stratagems of fate.

‘Oh, she was well, all things considered! Many a poor thing with a bad husband and undutiful children would even now like to change places with her. But things had gone against her again. Work was not easy to get, and since she had set up housekeeping she had more worries. “Yis, Miss Stella, wid the foive shillins’ ye gave me whin I met ye three weeks ago, and I had neither bed nor sup, nor

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anny other av the luxuries av loife for two or three days. May the Blissid Virgin reward ye, and pray for ye, now and at the hour av your death. Ye see, it was loike this, me darlint.”—Honora always grows more affectionate when she is going to tell you a bit of her life.

‘ “I luked at the two half-crowns, and thought to meself, ‘There's a dale may be done wid so much capital. If 'twere one mane shillin’ it wouldn't help anybody to turn over a new leaf, so to speak.’ So I spint two an' a penny on a supply of groceries, and I bought a taypot and cup, and an old tayspoon in a second-hand shop, kep' by an honest, hardworking, straightforward, onfortinate woman as ever the sun shone on, Widdy Ryan, in Brown Street. I tould her how I was resolved, wid the help of God and a little capital, to be no longer a sthray vagabond, loike a cat left in an impty house. And she, poor crather, knowing what the hardships and mocks av this world are, let me have the few crockeries as chape as dirt. Thin I hired one room from an old comrade, Johanna O'Connor, a cook, who has come down from the north to take a spell for a few months. Indade, Miss Stella, I was as proud as an Impiror when I heard the chip crackling under the saucepan I got the loan av from Johanna, for 'twould have made too big a hole in me funds to buy a taykittle. And nixt day I just tuk it aisy, and wint for a walk in Loight Square, and who should I meet but two av the Sisthers av Saint Joseph, that used to give me a bed now and thin, but av late have been moighty cool. ‘Well, Honora,’ sez Sisther Lucy, ‘we haven't seen ye at chapel at all av late. Where do ye go?’ ‘Indade, sisthers,’ sez I, ‘I must go to thim as will help me. I've been thinking of giving up religion altogether and turning Proteshtant.’ ” Do you not find this interview worth all the “capital”?

‘Kirsty is quite scandalized at my liking for the poor old soul. I suppose it is a sad vulgar taste, but I love to listen to these details. I want to go and see them all: Widdy Ryan, with her secondhand shop, who knows what the mocks of this world are; Johanna, who is taking her ease in her own rinted cottage; and Honora boiling water for tea in a saucepan.

‘Dustiefoot is well, but, can you beliève it? not quite so young as he was. It seems that as soon as he is a year old

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a collie dog begins to fall into sombre reveries on the flight of Time, on free will, and the yoke of necessity. Or are there infinitely more important themes that occupy the thoughts of a creature who has the felicity to be born with four legs and an oblique tan spot above each eye? I whispered your name to him this moment, and he wagged his tail thirteen times. Have angels a more eloquent mode of expressing goodwill? Certainly man has not. Still, I am not sorry that in our arduous ascent in the scale of nature we lost our tails. Do you not know by instinct the people who would jocularly catch us by them, as a token of good fellowship? Notably those who pride themselves on being too sincere to take kindly to the conventionalities of life, and on being the artificers of their own manners. Now think over it, and see if Blank, and Dash, and Snap do not appear to you in a more lurid light than ever. Do you not find a fresh glow of dislike welling up as you reflect: “Yes, that is the stamp of man who would infallibly pull one's tail”?’