Chapter XVII

IT was the first week in July before Stella left home for her visit to Melbourne and Lullaboolagana. This delay was occasioned by her mother's illness, which at first seemed trifling, but eventually developed into slow fever. At its worst—and the worst lasted four or five days—the gravest fears were entertained as to the issue. During this time Stella could not be prevailed upon to leave her mother day or night, except at very short intervals. She could sleep only by snatches, and affirmed that she was more rested in the sick-room than she could be elsewhere. Periodical sleeplessness was the only ailment from which she had suffered since her childhood, and at this anxious period her incapacity for sleep took a very pronounced form.

As soon as the invalid was fit to travel, it was arranged that she should accompany Mrs. Raymond, the widowed daughter, to her Coonjooree property—a small sheep-station

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in the Tatiara district, distant from Adelaide by rail half a day's journey and a quarter of a day's drive.

‘You look as much in want of rest as I do, my child,’ the mother said fondly, when the preliminary arrangements were made, and Stella sat, pencil in hand, jotting down memoranda of the things Maisie, who was to accompany her in the capacity of maid, should pack up for two or three months’ absence from home?

‘Do I look like an invalid, mother, really?’ she said with a bright smile. ‘Esther, why don't you ask me to your sanatorium for the sake of my health? It will sound so dignified.’

‘My dear, you know I would be only too happy; but Mrs. Tareling is in despair at your already missing the most brilliant part of the season.’

‘Yes; and to make up for missing more, I shall come to Coonjooree for a week. You were afraid to tempt me? Have you not yet learned that to be tempted and fall is our one form of wisdom in some things?’

‘Well, that is a delightful item added to our programme,’ said Mrs. Raymond. ‘The old place will be almost forsaken for two months.’

‘Yes, July and August. The memoirs of the Courtland family during this time, in the year of grace 188—, were strewn with events. Fairacre, the paternal home, inhabited only by Tom and Alice, in the guardianship of the Misses Kendall. Esther, I should like to be an invisible onlooker during this régime. Oh, can't you imagine how the two dear Quaker doves will spend their time in chivying after Allie with wraps when she goes out into the garden with Felix? And then there will be Tom and Fanny—of course they will be engaged before we come back.’

‘And you, my dear—what will have happened in your case?’ said the elder sister wistfully.

‘Oh, I shall be two or three months older!’ laughed Stella.

There was a difference between her and Mrs. Raymond of thirteen years, but there was a bond of sympathy between the two which was independent of all differences of age and experience.

Stella's week at Coonjooree lengthened into ten days.

‘Laurette will understand the fascination that the Mallee

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Scrub has for one,’ said Stella, laughing, as she recalled Mrs. Tareling's undisguised horror of Cannawijera, the station settled on her by her father, and distant from Coonjooree about fifteen miles.

And yet to many the Mallee Scrub, like all deserts, comes to have an inexplicable charm. To realize the change that may gradually be wrought on the mind in this respect, one should, perhaps, enter the Mallee country when the mask of night is falling on the land, and travel for hours under a moon struggling ineffectually for supremacy with driving clouds. In the uncertain light all that can then be seen is an endless succession of densely-scrubbed, low, undulating rises, or plains that stretch indefinitely on every side with clumps of scrub cypress rising here and there above the Mallee bushes. The traveller should further be a guest at one of those home-stations in which a stranger asks himself incredulously what he has ever done to deserve the unbounded hospitality and kindness showered on him. It should be winter-time—or what stands for winter in this dry waterless region. He should waken at sunrise, and gaze for the first time at the Mallee Scrub in the light of day through an eastern window. And there the scene that meets his eye, far and wide as he may have wandered, will be stored in the cells of memory for all time to come. The sight has in it something which compels him to dwell on it long and fixedly, and turn to it again and again, while a strange weight falls on the heart, and the mind for some time vainly seeks a clue to the mingled and contradictory feelings that are awakened.

There, as far as the eye can reach, lies tier beyond tier in endless succession, low chains of ranges, with dense gray-green bushes, tall brown clumps of grass-trees, with patches of white and yellow sand showing between. During winter in the early mornings the sky is often one unbroken mass of gray clouds. As the sullen red in the east that proclaims sunrise dies away, there is no tint or suggestion of colour anywhere visible in heaven or earth. All around, without break or alloy, are the uniform monotonous tones of sand and gray-green bushes; above is the more sombre gray of clouds, in which the eye vainly loses itself, seeking for a lighter tinge. They are so austere and thickly piled—those clouds that promise rain, but pass away oftentimes

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week after week without a shower. They hide the blue of heaven, and the sunshine, and rigidly shroud the horizons, as if to make the picture more ineffaceable—an arid, formless mass above a sombre, colourless desolation. It is as though one came upon the rigid skeleton of a spent world, or upon a living presentment of primeval chaos, when the earth was without form and void.

A bitter loneliness falls upon the spirit. All the well-loved sunny nooks of the earth seem so far away. Life seems so fleeting—happiness so unreal. The mind is thrown in on itself, and an immense ennui takes possession of the heart—clutches it, oppresses it, as though it were suddenly touched by a heavy hand. It is as though all that men most cling to in life passed away like mist before the sun, till nothing remained but this arid wilderness, without the song of bird, or sound of water, or gleam of flower, or even the overarching foliage of a tree. In these regions, severe and desolate as the Dead Sea wilderness, in which the Son of Man was assailed by the great enemy of souls, the petty distinctions for which men and women scramble and cheat and lie in everyday life shrink into trivial toys. These vast parched domains, lying in all their nakedness under a sunless sky, have nothing to befool the soul. They have a terrible sincerity in whose cold light not the picture which we so fondly weave of life, but life itself in all its pale disenchantment, makes a sudden seizure on the questioning spirit. In such an hour the multitudinous trifles that choke the soul like the white ashes of a burnt-out wood-fire are blown away as with the breath of a strong west wind winnowing the chaff from the grain. In face of so stern a solitude we cease to deceive ourselves.

The country is not wild. It is in appearance sterile to a degree; it is tame; it is dull; it is oftentimes solitary as a tomb. Few see it for the first time without experiencing a causeless melancholy—nay, often dark forebodings, as of some dread disaster slowly drawing nearer; and yet this wears away, and the country (how is one to account for it?) comes to have a fascination of its own. It is so silent, so severe, so implacable in its veracity. It has no arts with which to allure, no winning surprises, no breaks in its uniformity through the greater part of the year. And though at first this scenery agitates and weighs on those who lie

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open to the charms that usually draw us to nature, yet after the first shock is over this strange landscape bends the mind to itself, and gains a subtle hold on it—a hold based not so much on tenderness as confidence. It fulfils far more than it promises. Notwithstanding its parched and barren appearance, a little irrigation makes it blossom into wonderful fertility: and though no water is ever seen on its surface, it is believed by those who know the region best that great reservoirs extend far below these infinite leagues of sandy ground. The theory is so far borne out by the fact that, where artesian wells have been sunk in this district, water has been struck in overflowing abundance. Fruit-trees planted where water is available are in four and five years loaded with luscious fruit. Here, as in so many other directions, Nature waits to be governed by obedience to her conditions. Dig, and ye shall find; water, and ye shall reap. If the principle that anyone who makes wasteland productive became its owner were enforced, the Mallee Scrub, instead of being a barren waste, even in appearance, might soon become a great granary of fruit and corn. But even in its present state it has a brief hour of beauty. In the zenith of the Australian spring this scrub is in places sheeted in blossoms: brilliant little orchids; scarlet and yellow pea-like flowers; the pale lemon blossom of the native clematis; the small purple geraniums, with their poignant fragrance when crushed under foot—these, and many other wild blossoms as yet, alas! nameless to the laity, invest the country with a charm all the more deeply felt because of the contrast between these fleeting weeks and the sombre monotony which prevails during the rest of the year.

In July the country was at its dreariest, for the rains which fall, oftentimes with topical fury, are instantly absorbed by the sand, whose thirst is never satiated; and though there is then more herbage than through the drought of the summer, the uniformity of tints is seldom varied. The sombre olive of the Mallee shrubs; the sterner green of the dwarf honeysuckle, whose pointed leaves when ruffled by the wind show their silver under-lining, like pale buds that never blossom; the solemn deep-sea hue of the scrub cypress; the pallid sage-green of the salt-bush—all are minor tones in the same sad, monotonous, lacklustre hues;

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yet day by day, as Stella became more intimate with the Mallee Scrub, its nameless attractions grew on her. And one day, as she rambled miles away with the two elder children, she discovered a whole range-side of early epacris. The brief blossoming season of the region was yet two months off, yet here were acres of this radiant native heath, white, and scarlet, and tender pink. The feast this made for the eyes in the midst of the harsh setting all round made Stella feel as if for the first time she knew what the joy of colour meant. And then they were constantly coming upon stores of white immortelles—those snowy blossoms of the desert, so lightly rooted in the sand, it seems as though a passing breath would bear them afar. But no; though the sand-laden wind blows shrill and high, the everlasting-flowers of the wilderness remain in myriads of loosely-rooted clumps. The snowy coronals of silky petals round their deep-gold hearts, on brownish dry stalks, with a few slender leaflets sadly gray-green as the salt-bush itself, all give a tender charm to the flowers. They are scentless, and have none of the dewy bloom of ordinary blossoms; but, seeing that their faces are seldom wet with rain, and that the tips of their roots never touch water, the marvel is that their pensive radiance ever illuminates this parched-up land. Of all the flowers that grow, they are those that one may pluck with least compunction. Weave them into photograph-wreaths or thimble-baskets, and at the end of two years they are as white and silken as on the day they left their native scrub.