Chapter XIX

HER brother was absent in Tasmania when Stella arrived in Melbourne. For the first two days nothing more noteworthy than drives and calls and invitations to coming festivities marked the hours. The ‘smaller house’ which the Tarelings had taken was in Toorak, ‘one of our most fashionable suburbs, as I dare say even you may see,’ Laurette said, as they drove by spacious mansions and

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large, well-kept grounds. Monico Lodge was not distinguished by these advantages. It had that irritating pretentiousness about it which takes the form of several large reception-rooms and diminutive sleeping apartments. When Stella entered her room she looked round it with a feeling of comical dismay. It seemed as though the walls were not far enough apart to enable her to breathe freely. As for the dressing-room, in which Maisie slept, the wardrobe filled it up so completely that the poor maid seemed to have been smuggled into the closet for some nefarious purpose. There was a conservatory devoted entirely to exotics and gardeners’ plants, but there was no garden; and the ‘grounds,’ a most conventionally formed snippit of land, were chiefly adorned with trees which refused to grow, rooted in tubs that refused to be concealed.

But even more uncongenial than these surroundings was Laurette's constant society, with her unconcealed triumph at being in the thick of all that was most distinguished and fashionable in Melbourne, as she herself expressed it. When this triumph seemed on the point of being a little dimmed, she fell into transports of delight at the prospect of an indefinite stay in town.

‘If Talbot had not made this lucky hit in mining shares, I could only have been here for a couple of weeks,’ she said, ‘what with the low price of wool and papa's fearful losses with the rabbits. He has given us a great deal of money from time to time, but he has turned very rusty of late. As for Ted, you might as well ask a doornail for money. I hope he will marry some nice girl soon who will teach him to despise filthy lucre a little.’ This with a sidelong look at Stella, who laughed at this pious aspiration, but made no comment.

Everything jarred upon her so much that at first she could not even write a letter. The day after her arrival she sent a telegram to Coonjooree, proposing to write the next day. On the morrow she wrote a post-card. On the third day she scolded herself seriously, and sat down at her desk. She had only written the words, ‘My darling Mother,’ when she leant her head on her hand and went into a long reverie, during which a curiously wistful, softened expression came into her eyes. She was roused by a tap at the door.

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‘Are you here, Stella?’ It was Laurette, and she wore an impromptu air of surprise. ‘Guess who has come?’ she said, with an arch smile.

‘Oh, Cuthbert!’ exclaimed Stella, her face radiant, as she hastened to join him.

‘No; your brother cannot be here till the evening. It is Ted.’

Stella's face flushed, but it did not escape Laurette's keen gaze that with this deepening colour the sudden radiance of gladness died away.

‘He is so delighted to find that you are here. I hadn't time to say three words when he sent me off for you. I must interview the cook about luncheon. You will find Ted in the breakfast-room.’

There was something in Laurette's tone and manner which Stella greatly resented; but it was, on the whole, easier to ignore this than call it in question.

Edward Ritchie met her in the hall, and took both her hands in his with so eager and impassioned an air that Stella instinctively stepped back and drew her hands quickly away, saying lightly, to hide her confusion:

‘At last I shall know whether you have been in Egypt or Central Australia.’

‘You look thinner than you used to, Stella,’ said the young man, so absorbed in gazing at her that it seemed as though he heard nothing.

‘And you—you have grown stouter. Yes, really, Ted, you remind one of the beauties in the Arabian tales.’

‘Like the beauties! Oh, come now, Stella, draw it mild. What kind of beauties were they?’

‘Oh, they used to have adventures. Sometimes they were put in a box, the box in a chest with seven locks on it, and placed at the bottom of the sea, beneath the roaring waves. Sometimes they were put in baskets sewn up with red thread. But whatever happened to them, they always turned up all right again, with faces like the moon in the fourteenth night.’

‘So that's why you compared me to those beauties, Stella. Well, I couldn't believe you were paying me a compliment. But tell me now, are you glad to see me?’

‘Oh yes, of course. But why do you always alight like a bomb? Is the wind from the east?’

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‘Oh, bother the wind! Tell me all about yourself. Have you been well all the time? I don't believe you have. You used not to have circles under your eyes; and they look bigger.’

‘The better to see you with,’ answered Stella, smiling.

The most obvious quotation, however, was always thrown away on Ted.

‘But why are you not looking well?’ he persisted.

‘Well, you know, mother had a fever. But dancing is good for me; so I have come to stay with Laurette, that I may dance for weeks before going into the Bush.’

‘How often will you dance with me, Stella?’

‘Well, that depends; you used to waltz out of time. Have you had any practice during your travels?’

‘What travels? You seem to think I have been gallivanting about amusing myself, whereas—oh, Stella, I barely know how to hold myself with joy for seeing you again. And, do you know, you hardly shook hands with me!’

‘But if someone held your ten fingers in a vice, could you shake hands?’

‘Well, give me your hand again; I will not hold it hard. Or, I'll tell you what, you just hold my hand about as tight as you wish me to hold yours. You see, I'm perfectly reasonable.’

‘Thank you, Ted. The way I want you to hold my hand is not to touch it at present. We have a little Irishman who comes to work at Laracor, and I have learned to talk Irish, you see.’

Stella was sitting on a low chair near the fire. Ritchie stood over her, leaning against the mantelpiece. Carried away by a sudden impulse, he knelt down and held her hands to his lips. They were so hot that they seemed to scorch her fingers.

‘Oh, but really, Ted, it appears to me that you are too absurd!’ she said, the feeling of amusement with which this faithful squire usually inspired her struggling with a sense of growing discomfort.

‘Do you remember the last time I saw you?’ he asked, drawing a chair close beside her.

‘I cannot speak to you, Ted, without twisting my neck. Do, please, go a little further off.’

‘Oh, hang it all! Haven't I been far away long enough?’

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He tried to hold her hands in his. She slipped away and took a chair opposite to him.

‘Now we can talk comfortably,’ she said. ‘Tell me, have the rabbits eaten all your father's sheep, as Laurette says?’

‘Do you remember how long it is since we parted?’

‘We are just like two people in a burlesque,’ said Stella, smiling. ‘We fire off question after question without once answering each other.’

‘Well, why don't you answer me, and sit down nearer to me, and be a little jollier?’

‘But that is the point. I would not be at all jolly if I twisted my neck. Oh, I assure you it is much worse than spraining one's ankle.’

‘Do you remember the day we parted so many months ago?’ persisted Ritchie.

He was a man to whom rapid thought was impossible. But it was equally impossible to divert his mind from the point of view which was uppermost with him.

‘Oh, heavens! yes. I remember everything,’ cried Stella, with her low merry laugh—a laugh that always had a magical charm for her companion.

‘You remember everything,’ he repeated slowly. ‘I am glad of that, for you know very well—’

He stopped abruptly. His eyes had been fixed on Stella's face intently, and he noticed that it grew cold and a trifle hard. The change made his heart heavy with apprehension.

‘Yes; what do I know very well?’ she answered, taking up the ravelled thread with an impatient weariness.

She felt that this long serio-comic wooing must end once for all. Then, as she noticed the agitated, breathless way in which Ritchie looked at her, an acute apprehension of all that this long courtship meant to him suddenly smote her, and therewith a pang of remorse as she realized how far she had somehow travelled from the old tolerant half-responsive standpoint, when she had decided that if she married anyone without being in love it must be Ted.

He looked at her for some minutes without speaking, and Stella knew it was because he feared to put the old question into words. She was always ready to see how faulty she was—ready to blame herself where blame was due. She was all the more conscious of any blame that might attach

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to her in this long intermittent wooing, because by some process which she herself could not have explained, the moment they met it became clearer to her that those fugitive resolves that she harboured from time to time after they last parted, of accepting Ritchie as her lover—her future husband—were, in truth, impossible—or, at least, possible only at some indefinite period—not now.

‘Ted, I am very sorry,’ she said humbly, after a pause.

‘Sorry!’ he echoed. ‘Why are you sorry? I don't expect you to love me as I love you. It's not the way of girls—like you.’ Ted would sometimes make running comments on herself and things in general that amused Stella. Speculations, theories and musings on things in general were quite foreign to his nature, while they were part of her daily atmosphere. And yet she was vaguely conscious that, one-sided as his point of view might be, it rested on contact with more sides of life than were open to her ken. ‘If you'll—you'll only just put up with me at first, Stella, I'm willing to run the risk.’

‘Oh, it isn't your risk I think of so much,’ she answered, looking up into his face smilingly.

He was standing nearer to her again, leaning on the mantelpiece, pulling a large red rose asunder and letting the petals fall on her one by one.

‘By the way, I heard Konrad jarred his knee—how is he?’ she said, with rather a barefaced attempt at getting away from the subject.

‘All right again. But I haven't been thinking much of horses lately. I've had other fish to fry.’

‘What fish, Ted?’


‘Oh, Ted! To call me a fish, and speak of frying me, and pull that beautiful burning-red rose to pieces at the same time! Why, it had hardly opened, and roses just now are scarce.’

‘What would you like me to do?’

‘Why, let me see. I think, in this crisis of Australian history, every squatter should study how to exterminate rabbits and conserve water.’

‘Confound the rabbits and conserving water! Look here, Stella, you always twist me round your fingers in this way.’

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Stella held up her hands deprecatingly.

‘What makes you say such dreadful things about my poor fingers?’

‘Oh, you know very well what I mean. Time after time I've asked you to marry me, and said to myself, “Now I'll decide it one way or the other.” But you turn it into a sort of joke. “What has put this funny notion of marrying into your head, Ted?” you say; or you hold up your fingers before I've said a word, and laugh, saying: “Now, Ted, when you knit your brow in that way it always means something spoony.” ’

‘Oh, Ted! I never used that word—never!’ cried Stella, laughing despite her efforts to keep serious.

‘Well, it doesn't matter about one word. You know what I mean, don't you?’

‘Yes, I know what you mean—and I feel I have been very much to blame.’

‘No, you haven't,’ retorted Ritchie almost roughly. ‘You haven't been to blame; it's me who used to feel that I'd sooner be made a fool of by you than have any other girl throw herself at my head. I've drawn back as frightened as a wombat when you began to be serious. I wanted things to be the same, for fear I mightn't even come to see you from time to time. But everything must have an end. I'd like you to marry me on any terms—unless—you're not fond of anyone else?’

She did not reply at once, and the young man recalled—the hints that his sister had thrown out at Godolphin House.

‘Why don't you tell me?’ he cried in a husky voice.

‘No! But then I can imagine that I could love; and I think, before a woman risks marrying, she should. We have been friends so long, I will be quite frank with you. I have sometimes thought I could marry you since we last parted——’

‘Oh, Stella, Stella! God in heaven bless you for saying that,’ cried Ted breathlessly.

‘But then, Ted, I have oftener thought I could not. I think that we should be a little more alike. It is such a frightful long time——’

‘Not always. Some people die off before they're anytime married.’

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‘But it would be unwise to count on that form of happiness,’ answered Stella; and then she gave way to an uncontrollable burst of laughter.

‘And as for not being alike,’ said Ted, who always enjoyed the girl's merriment even when not a muscle of his own face moved, ‘why, there's not many fellows that would care to have their wives like themselves. And I would, perhaps, get a little bit like you after we married, Stella. We would have so much time together at Strathhaye—or we could travel, or whatever you liked.’

The door-handle was turned in an ostentatiously preliminary way, and then Laurette came in.

‘Would you mind keeping away for a little longer, Larry?’ said her brother; on which Laurette laughed in a knowing way, bowed, and disappeared.

‘Oh! how could you, Ted? Laurette will imagine all sorts of absurdities.’

‘She will imagine that we are getting engaged; and that's what's going to happen, Stella. You never could throw me off after all these years. You know that I love you with my whole heart and soul, don't you?’

‘I believe that you love me a great deal more than I deserve. But try and put yourself in my place; think how different the thought of marrying me would be if you did not love me.’

‘It's no use my trying to think that; I've loved you ever since I was that high,’ said Ted, holding his hand four feet from the ground.

‘Well, it goes to my heart to think of grieving you; but——’

‘Don't, Stella—don't say it. You can't know what a God-forsaken good-for-nothing I'd be if you took away all hope from me. Let's stay as we are and think over it—get used to the thought that you are to be my wife.’

‘Don't plead with me so much—it worries me. I feel as if I must give way; and that would be fatal. Do not interrupt me. You don't understand what a hatefully cold-hearted creature I feel when I get indifferent to people.’

‘But you are not indifferent to me—not quite?’

‘No, not now; but then I see so little of you!’

‘Well, I wouldn't be always at home; don't think it. I'm away from Strathhaye sometimes for weeks; and when

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I'm there, I'm out most of the day. Well, you can laugh as much as you like, though I'll be shot if I can make out often what amuses you so much!’

‘Well, you really are too original in some ways. You tell me that sometimes people die off early in married life, and that we would not see much of each other—all by way of encouragement.’

‘Yes, because I'm trying hard to follow your lead; though, by Jove! it would go very much against the grain with me either to die or be away from you after we are married.’

‘Heavens, you make my flesh creep when you talk as if it were an accomplished fact! There is one thing I want to say to you, Ted.’

‘One thing?—say a thousand! Say so many that you will never be done till we are both old and gray-headed.’

‘I must go away and write my letters if you are to be so foolish.’

‘No, no—no, Stella; I'll be dumb as a sonnet. Tell me the one thing.’

‘Those pearls that you left the day before you went away—’

‘What about them? Don't you care for them?’

‘They are very lovely; but wait a moment.’

Stella went to her room, and presently returned with the morocco case in her hand. On seeing this, Ritchie's face became very sombre.

‘It was very kind of you to think of my birthday; only mind you must forget so tiresome an anniversary after I'm twenty-five. But you know I cannot take such a costly gift from you.’

‘All I have is yours. Why shouldn't you take this? It's a horse-shoe, isn't it? You know that is for luck.’

He pressed the spring, and looked at the pearls.

‘No; they are too superb to be given or accepted in a careless way. You must take them back, please: I did not even show them to anyone.’

‘Take them back!’ repeated Ritchie, his face flushing with vexation. ‘What should I do with the damned thing?’

‘Is it right for you to say that before me?’

‘No; and I beg your pardon. But you should not vex me so much. You must keep them. Now, I've got to

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see my trainer at one o'clock, and after that to take a spin down to St. Kilda. But I want you to promise to come out for a ride with me to-morrow morning. I have the neatest, best-bred little colt for you that ever you saw. Now I can see you are trying to think of an excuse.’

‘Indeed I am not. I shall be delighted to ride. The air here stifles one. I am only thinking how I shall be dragged to give an account of all these friendly rides and talks the next time the spirit moves you to have a “square understanding.” ’

‘Well, you needn't think anything of the kind. You have sometimes thought you could marry me. Why, Stella, I could live on that for a year. The last thing I do at night is to look at your picture. When I look at it to-night, I shall hardly be able to believe you said that. Now put both your hands in mine—I won't hurt them—and say, “God bless you, Ted,” the same as you did in the Fairacre garden.’

She gave him her hands, and repeated the words with a little tremor in her voice, which thrilled him through and through with happiness. He held her hands very gently, and lifted them one after the other to his lips, and then he hurried away.

Stella threw herself into an arm-chair. For some moments she was buried in one of those profound meditations in which every faculty of her mind became absorbed in a tyrannous, compulsory looking-on at her own special span of the past as part of an unfathomable enigma. She was presently roused by Laurette's shrill voice.

So Ted had not even stayed to lunch? Oh, she made no complaint. She knew too well that at certain times in a man's life sisters, in common with all the rest of the world, must take a back seat—look on like people in the pit of a theatre, who see as through a glass darkly, and see little.

Laurette's eyes fell on the pearls, and she uttered a little cry of delight

‘What a splendid jewel! Why, this looks like business, Stella! It's better to be born lucky than rich, after all.’

Laurette surveyed herself in the mirror of the overmantel, and held the brooch under her chin admiringly. Then she fastened it in the lisse ruffling of Stella's dress. But Stella quickly unfastened it, put it into the case, and

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closed it with what Laurette mentally called ‘a vicious snap.’

‘It does not belong to me,’ she said coldly, in answer to Laurette's look of amazed inquiry. ‘It is meant for the young woman who has been born more lucky than rich,’ she added, with a mischievous smile.