Chapter XVIII

IT was to these placid pursuits that Stella devoted herself on the afternoon preceding her departure for Melbourne. During the past few days she had experienced a curious shrinking from the visit. To read and sew and meditate, to listen to her mother's gentle voice, to wage mimic warfares with her sister over their best beloved authors, to ramble with the children, looking for new flowers and strange birds, seemed just then the plan of life best worth having.

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These tranquil days succeeding hours of acute anxiety soothed her into a mood in which the prospect of change and the clamour of strange voices repelled her. She knew so well how she would weary of herself in the society of women whose highest ideal of life was to stifle it with futile details. And then the inevitable meeting with Ted disturbed her in anticipation. In the solitude of the Mallee Scrub those vagrant glimpses of a future wholly pledged to him came to wear the air of a grotesque dream. But she told herself that the strong temptation which assailed her to break faith with Laurette was only another example of her instability. And now Maisie was engaged in labelling the luggage for their early departure in the morning, and Stella sat with her sister in the western veranda busily weaving the immortelles she had gathered with the children that morning.

‘I solemnly entrust these four photograph-wreaths to your charge, Esther,’ she said, as she gave the finishing touches to one. ‘All my life I have seen these little wreaths round pictures, but never have I had any for myself till now.’

‘And whose will your pretty wreaths honour?’ asked the elder sister.

‘One for father and mother—that last one taken of them together—one for you, one for Cuthbert, and one left over.’

‘Ah! perhaps for a “nearer one still, and a dearer”?’

‘Yes; if he has to sail the salt dividing seas, and go to strange countries, and kill lions like enclosed birds, etc.’

‘But why these hard conditions?’

‘Oh, just the power of association. Don't you know the way girls have of hanging a man in a cosy nook in their own rooms—a bearded, sun-burnt being, who is away exploring, or in the Northern Territory, or pearling, or gold-digging, or taking stock across an unknown tract of the Continent? There the pictures are so safe and snug, with white everlasting flowers round them, while the men themselves—goodness only knows what they are doing, or what is happening to them in the wilds.’

Stella wreathed a few more immortelles into places less thickly covered, and then held the wreath at a little distance to judge it more critically.

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‘Yes, that will do; it is worthy to surround the picture even of the unknown one,’ she said, with a dawning smile.

‘Stella, will you think me inquisitive? Tell me all there is to tell about your unknown partner at the Emberly ball. I have heard broken hints and laughing allusions from Alice,’ said Esther, regarding her sister narrowly.

‘It is only Alice's idea of a joke,’ said Stella, but she coloured slowly. ‘There is not much to tell, but I will tell you. Shortly after the ball began Mrs. Leslie came up to me just after a dance, saying, “There is a friend of my husband's, a stranger here, who wishes to be introduced.” Some woman seized upon her at the moment to ask a score of questions about the Leslies’ departure for Europe. They were going, you know, the very next day. Then Mrs. Leslie tore herself away and led the stranger to me, and all I heard was, “Miss Stella,” and I think, perhaps, “Doctor——”; but I am not sure, and I rather hoped I did not hear aright.’

‘But why?’

‘Well, it is very stupid; but this stranger had what you might call a distinguished air, with a noble brow, and a look as of one dissociated from the vulgar tide of life.’

‘But surely a doctor may be and look every inch a gentleman?’

‘He may; but then, as a rule, he is not—with us, at any rate. He is the highly-respectable bourgeois, who has taken to expensive habits of living before he can quite afford it. And so he must have a great deal of “tact,” and cultivate a trick of looking wise, and of listening reverently to the twaddle of a rich hypochondriac; and, in short, of all the professions, the medical is the one that most easily degenerates into a trade.’

‘I think, my dear, you are prejudiced. What about your beloved Dr. Stein?’

‘But then, you see, he is a German. Oh, you may laugh; but culture lies at the root of all the professions in Germany far more than in England. As I know neither country, except from an Australian standpoint, I feel qualified to pronounce judgment. But seriously, now—isn't your average doctor exactly like your average pianiste, profoundly out of touch with most of the wider issues of thought or research?’

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‘But, you see, the profession is a very arduous one. To be a successful doctor a man must be a specialist to a great extent.’

‘To be a successful doctor a man, as a rule, gets into the narrowest of grooves; and the more money he makes the more furniture and gew-gaws he heaps about him, instead of limiting his practice and dusting his mind a little more. I don't know whether it is matrimony that destroys the profession, as it ruins the influence of the Protestant clergy.’

‘Stella—Stella! you are incorrigible about marriage,’ said Esther, laughing. ‘The worst of it is you partly mean all you say. But we are not getting on very fast. Let us conclude that the stranger was not a doctor, though, after all, if he resembled his friend Dr. Leslie——’

‘Yes; he also is one of the exceptions. But, then, the stranger had the look of one so much—how shall I say it?—devoted to ideas, and not jostled up with the meannesses of ordinary life. And then his mind had an alert literary kind of side to it. You might very well retort on me by asking how I should judge of all this; but, you know, one gets so awfully and wonderfully weary of the commercial stamp of mind and face, one quickly recognises the difference.’

‘You must have had a good deal of talk with him.’

‘Yes; we wasted no time, not even in dancing. He danced only square dances, and after going through a quadrille we sat out a waltz, which stretched into nearly two more dances. Yes; it sounds rather serious, but so much depends on the way things happen—and you must know we were not on a staircase, nor the recesses of a conservatory, nor on a veranda lit only by moonlight—we were in one of those alcoves that Allie and I have raved about ever since; and in front there was dear, amiable Mrs. Marwood and a large elderly lady from the country, who seemed to have daughters married in every known quarter of the globe. There the two good old dames sat chatting away like two fountains, and there were we two others getting more and more charmed with each other in the irresponsible way of people who meet once—at least, I hope he was charmed with me; I can answer for myself.’

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‘Oh no! I dare say he was dreadfully bored,’ said Esther, smiling. ‘And, then, was there not a wonderful Tasmanian fern that partly screened you from the partners you cheated?’

‘Yes; a tall, graceful creature, with hundreds of yellowish-green and dusky-brown fronds drooping one over the other, and baby ones curled up tight, fold within fold, looking as though they had taken a vow never to emerge from their infant dreams of the woodland dell where they first saw the light.’

‘I should very much like to know what you two others talked of, but perhaps it was too much à cœur ouvert et à langue délice to be confided to a mere elder sister?’

‘Oh, nonsense! But what remains of the talk that has delighted us most? One may as well try to recall a walk on the seashore on a summer night. There was the moonlight and the “sparkle of the glancing stars,” and there were the waves breaking on the beach, and others coming after them endlessly; but how much can we convey of the scene to another?’

‘A good deal,’ smiled Esther. ‘Do I not remember how your first exercises in composition were writing conversations down verbatim? The pieces of moonlight globed in crystal, as I have heard Allie call the electric light in the alcoves, the flowers, and the crush of people, and the wonderful Austrian band—all that would make talk after a first dance, but not for so very long.’

‘Well, after our quadrille my partner said he was only in Adelaide two days. He had just landed, and was on his way to some of the other colonies, though he had fallen into such a piece of luck. I thought it was a very fleeting form of fortune, and said:

‘Das Glück ist eine leichte Dirne
Und bleibt nicht lang am selber Ort.’

A pleased look came into his face. His mother was a German, though brought up in England, and the language was his second mother-tongue. I read Heine, then? Oh yes; and nearly all the German writers; and I had translated Goethe. His face fell comically. I know he was astounded at such conceit, and—you know what a delightful sensation it is to see a little downright fun looming on

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the horizon—so I said with unmoved seriousness, “I know Kant, too, very well; and it is a great consolation, for when the hairdresser comes to dress my hair for a ball I pass the time by remembering bits out of the ‘Kritik of Pure Reason.’ ” ’

‘Oh, Stella! what put such a comical thought into your head? Of course, he found you out then?’

‘Yes; and we both laughed heartily; and that, you know, is like eating salt together—it is a sort of mental latchkey. When Tom came to claim his dance after my partner and I had sat out a waltz we were both in Rome. I told Tom I would let him off his duty dance, and so we still talked on. An unfortunate man slipped and fell with his partner in front of our alcove. “Surely that is one of the thirty-six tragic situations of life,” said my partner. I said there must be a great many more then thirty-six, and we began to count; but we fell out at once. He declared existence would be honeycombed with tragedy if my contentions as to tragic situations were allowed. We grew serious and laughed the next moment, and flouted each other's arguments. “But I will tell you one of the thirty-six,” he said: “to dance and talk, and then to part.” I was just on the point of saying, “Especially if you do not know your partner's name,” when, to my horror, there was Mr. Andrew Harrison, and the polka-mazurka, for which he was down on my programme, almost over.’

‘I suppose you did not say you would let him off his duty dance? And did you and your unknown partner meet no more?’

‘No; we smiled and bowed and parted, and I saw him no more. And the Leslies sailed next morning; and, of course, the Emberlys could tell nothing of any special stranger, there were so many whose names and faces were equally unknown to them. Now are you satisfied?’

‘It is like the beginning of a story—an overture that should be followed by a concert. I wonder——’

Esther paused abruptly, scanning her sister's face with an inquiring look.

‘You must not get on the wrong track, Esther,’ said Stella, who was now weaving a little thimble-basket out of some everlastings that were left. ‘Tom and Allie could not get over my sitting out nearly three dances with anyone.

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I never did such a thing before; but the attraction was unexpectedly meeting someone who seemed to have all the makings of a friend in him.’

‘A friend, my dear? Like Willie Stein and Mr. Harrison, I suppose?’

‘How horrid you can be, Esther! It is the very fact that most men have so few strings to their nature that makes one so soon understand the sort of people that are different. I have for a long time thought that one of the greatest pleasures of life would be a real, great, lasting friendship. It takes so much to form a true one. There is, as a wise man says, in human nature generally more of the fool than of the wise. Yet the part of us which is not a fool responds so gladly to the sane, enlightened strain of another mind. But it must be different from one's own. That is why the best friendships require the difference of sex.’

‘How very sage and calm that sounds,’ said Esther, with an amused expression. ‘But, after all, what shoals there are! Most men and women are either married or expect to be.’

‘And yet my pair of friends must be single or widowed. They must have an interest—and a deep one—in books, but still deeper in life itself, so that they are like the spectators of a play in which nothing can happen that has not some significance. Only life being so much greater, so much wider, and more complex than any picture of it can possibly be, it always strikes people—men and women especially—from opposite points of view.’

‘You are quite convinced that your ideal friendship must be based not only on difference of sex, but dissimilarity of view? Well, you may be right, but how long would it last between two disengaged people? How many weeks would pass before that strong interest in books, and in the general play of human affairs, would be centralized?’

‘Oh, Esther, you are too tiresome. Of course, that is the rock on which the ordinary friendship of an ordinary man and woman strikes—and it is odious—it is worse than disillusionment.’

‘My dear, you have gone through the process more than once,’ said Esther, a smile hovering round her lips.

‘Yes; and the soft, silly look that comes into a man's eyes—the way in which he is perpetually on the look-out

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for some point of personal vantage—for the opportunity of paying some inane compliment—of course all that is the very antipodes of true unbiased intercourse. Flattery is the lethal spot of friendship. It is the cryptogram for betrayal.’

‘And yet I suppose friendship, like love, must be nourished by admiration to some extent.’

‘Yes; but then love, or at all events, the thinglet that usually goes by that name, is always seeking its own ends, whereas friendship—well, it is a root of that divine severe force which constantly calls upon us to be true to our best capabilities. “No receipt openeth the heart, but a true friend to whom you may impart griefs, joys, fears, hopes, suspicions, counsels, and whatsoever lieth upon the heart to oppress it, in a kind of civil shrift or confession.” And again, “The best preservative to keep the mind in health is the faithful admonition of a friend.” You know who says this?’

‘Yes; but how rare such intercourse is between man and woman.’

‘So it is, and that makes it all the more precious.’

‘Well, if ever you form such a friendship, Stella, you must tell me; and do not conceal the end,’ said Esther with a smile.

By this time the sun had set, and a light mist hung over the sombre ranges that stretched westward, giving them a mysteriously limitless aspect, as though they extended beyond the confines of the world. This impression was deepened by low masses of clouds driven before a rising wind. The outlines were so uncertain and broken, and the prospect so wide and lonesome and silent, that the whole formed a picture which for weird austerity could hardly be surpassed.

‘I'll tell you what, you must live at Coonjooree, and ask me to stay with you, Esther,’ said Stella. ‘I am only just beginning to find out all the allurements of the place. Last night I watched the moon setting, and the look of the desert in the pale lessening light was indescribably solemn. The place seems to have been created to make up striking pictures that somehow make one in love with desolation.’

‘And to carry a sheep to three acres—don't forget the sheep, Stella. Would you really come and stay here with

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me? But I confess I would be afraid of so much solitude. One must be either older or younger than I am for that. I think we had better set off on our travels, you and I and the children, and their governess—’

‘Do you not find it chilly out there, my dears? There is such a charming fire of Mallee roots here,’ said Mrs. Courtland, opening the window under which her daughters were sitting in the veranda.

The twilight was deepening, and the clouds were gathering more impenetrably. But within the quiet, warm little drawing-room, fragrant with the breath of violets, it was that charmed hour when the hearth ‘smiles to itself and gilds the roof with mirth,’ and it would be ‘a sin to light the lamps as yet.’ Some old writers speak of a substance called Babylonian naphtha, which is so inflammable that it kindles into flame if it is placed near fire without touching it. Old dry Mallee roots when split up have something of that quality. They are strangely twisted and gnarled, as if the waterless wastes in which they grew had thwarted and stunted them till they are fit emblems of a defeated existence. But when they break into flame, it is as though they pass into a brief life of ecstatic joy. No other wood makes so vivid and pure a fire. The flames are a delicate clear jonquil. The roots on the least touch flash into ardent, lustrous arrows of light, whose glow seems to warm the mind as well as the body.

The mother and her daughters sat round this glancing, softly brilliant fire, and talked of the past and future, of things that had been and that were to be, in the calm unapprehensive way which gradually returns even to those who have sustained many of the storms and shocks of life.