Chapter XX

THE Hon. Talbot Tareling was at this time absent at Banjoleena, a new gold-mine which had recently excited much attention. No form of work had ever attracted Mr. Tareling unless it was of a light, irregular nature, with a strong element of gambling. Hence, dabbling in mining shares was the one Australian industry he found tolerable. He made erratic excursions to mines from time to time, ostensibly for the purpose of getting the straight tip. This, as a rule, proved very disastrous; but lately Fortune had smiled on him. He long held shares in a mine which neither development nor sensational rumours could galvanize into popularity. By-and-by, however, there was an assay which yielded an enchanting result. Instantly a boom set in in favour of the Celestial Hill Mine. Its dingy branch office in a dingy back street in Melbourne was besieged by eager applicants for shares. Middle-aged women in rusty black; unsuccessful business men, who had long eschewed mining ventures, but had got tired of seeing idle, brainless clerks turning ten-pound notes into fifties; spinsters who had saved one or two hundred pounds by toilsome years of penurious saving; clergymen with families far in excess of their incomes; artisans who were weary of the faded simplicity of investments at seven and six percent—in a word, that numerous class with whom the longing to widen or enrich life takes the form of narrowing it—who are always preparing to live, but never begin—were especially to the fore in buying Celestial Hills.

It was so safe. It was no bogus concern. It had been worked for a long time, and now they had ‘struck oil.’ And here was the average: four and a half ounces to the

  ― 127 ―
ton; and everyone knew that half an ounce paid. Then scraps of paper would be produced, and rapid memoranda made, and eager faces flushed with excitement at the splendid percentage. It was while the results were at their best on paper that Mr. Tareling sold out nearly all the shares he held. A week afterwards they were not worth a withered fig.

Then ugly rumours began to circulate. When people are aching with the loss of money, slander seems to be a balm to the wounded spirit. The mine had been salted; a false balance-sheet had been drawn up; a clandestine lump of gold had been dropped into the smelting-pot. How was it, too, that the intimes of the directors had sold out rump and stump? Mr. Tareling was one of these; but, like Pilate, he washed his hands in public. He still had all the shares that he originally held; the fact being that the bulk had been bought with his wife's money and in her name. He was supported in his innocence by Ozias, the son of Lazarus, popularly surnamed Judas. This man wrote to the press bearing testimony to the childlike faith which the Hon. Talbot Tareling still put in the Celestial Hill gold-mine. On which some people arched their eyebrows, and prophesied that if this scion of an ancient family had recourse to many more testimonials of this kind, his business career in Melbourne would soon be blocked. Naturally all this duplicity rendered Mr. Tareling still more wary. He upheld the practice of finding out whether a mine really existed before investing in it. Such a plan, as some of the brokers remarked, would upset any system of mining that had yet been in vogue.

Laurette, in the meantime, found the present in many respects the most beatific season she had ever passed in Melbourne. Her growing intimacy with the viceregal family more than realized her most ardent expectations. She was fast rising to that social eminence in which her dresses, opinions, and parties would form topics of eager interest among women who a short time previously had barely acknowledged her as an equal. If it were not for increasing money difficulties, her enjoyment would have been almost without alloy. But Ted's presence gave her a feeling of security. She vaguely felt that in some way she would turn it to account.

  ― 128 ―

She went with him to the theatre on the evening that followed his arrival, and Stella anticipated the pleasure of a long tête-à-tête with Cuthbert, who arrived that afternoon from Tasmania. Alas! it was not an unmixed happiness. What her soul feared had come to pass.

After the first greetings and inquiries were over, Stella fixed her eyes on her brother's face in an inquiring way.

‘Cuthbert, you look very radiant. Has anything happened? But no—you came to me the first evening. I am still— Oh, heavens! you are colouring up to the roots of your hair!’

‘But, Stella dear, you misrepresent yourself. You know that you would be the first to congratulate me—to be glad with my gladness.’

‘Now you are breaking it to me gently—Nebuchadnezzar, King of the Jews! Yes, I can bear it all. Is it the Rev. S. Carter's daughter?’

‘You are a little witch! You pretended to tremble about these daughters before I ever thought anything about Dora, except what a charming girl she is.’

‘As if that were not the Alpha and Omega of the infatuation that precedes marriage.’

‘You little heretic! Oh, there is not much of a story, except that we are both perfectly happy. Dora went with her mother to Launcestor a week before I did. We met frequently. The day before we left we went mountaineering with a few others. It was all settled before we returned. Mrs. Carter charged me with her kind love, and wishes you to come and spend a day, or as long as Mrs. Tareling will spare you. Can you come to-morrow? Well, the day after. Dora and I will call before twelve, so that you may see a little of her before you meet the whole family.’

Stella fell in with this arrangement with rather a disconsolate little look.

‘And so you are “perfectly happy”? But don't smile too often, Cuth, or you will spoil the serious lines in your face I like so much. Let me look at you sideways. So that's the way one looks when one is first engaged. Ted is stouter than you are; I am afraid the joy of being accepted would quite ruin his profile.’

‘You will love Dora, Stella. You cannot imagine what a darling she is—already quite fond of you. I have often

  ― 129 ―
shown her your letters, and she is quite charmed with them, except—’

‘Ah, I was waiting for the cloven hoof “except.” ’

‘Well, dear, she is very devout, and has the beautiful untroubled faith of childhood. She is vexed to think that you should be so uncertain, so—’

‘So infidel—that's the ecclesiastical word.’

A look of pain came into the brother's face, and then, of course, Stella repented.

‘I am horribly jealous, I know that,’ she said. ‘Lay a charm over me, Cuthbert; sprinkle me with holy water; beat a brass pan to drive the evil spirits away—but don't be cross with me.’

‘Cross with you, Stella? Have I ever been that? Have I not loved you fondly ever since you were a dear, funny little baby, who would not let people lead you when you were a year old, but preferred all the bumps you got to being held by the hand?’

‘Yes, my ownest boy, you have always been to me like a guardian angel. Oh, far better. Yes, let me be unorthodox while Dora isn't here. After all, a guardian angel keeps at a discreet distance, but you—’

To the girl's own astonishment she burst into tears. Her brother, it must be confessed, was rather pleased. He always a little dreaded the vein of hardness—of diablerie—of which the ‘Satan letter’ was so signal an example, that would at times become apparent in Stella. It clung to his mind at times like a superstition that, in a mood of angry defiance, or disgust, or impatience of the sweet inevitable humdrum of life, she might take some course which would lead to bitter misery, or, at the least, cloud and hamper the better possibilities of her nature. She was human through and through, but a mocking, ironical tone came to her over-readily. She wept very rarely, and when tears did come they became her wonderfully, and made her for a time adorably gentle. But it seemed this was not one of these occasions.

‘Can you believe, my dear Stella, that my love for you will ever be less because of other ties? It seems to me rather that this new sweet love makes all other affection deeper and fuller.’

‘Yes, dear, I know,’ said Stella, smiling through her tears.

  ― 130 ―

‘It makes you feel like our Torrens after the winter rains.’

‘No, I won't accept that comparison. You must think of a prettier one. Do I not know how the Torrens gets in the drought of summer? Do you believe that the leanness of dry December will ever overtake my love for you?’

‘I know you will never be anything but what is dear and good. Still, it is quite evident to me that I must either get converted or married; and I fear of the two the latter is the more practicable. You see, dear,’ she said in answer to a half-reproving smile, ‘it is not to be endured that I should write or say anything which would vex Dora. So you and I can no longer be intimate friends. Oh, I know the atmosphere in which an average clergyman's daughter is brought up. There is a standard for everything—there are so many clauses of a creed, so many articles to be believed. Then all the evil and misery and astounding chaos of life is made out to be a jumble between God and the devil and man's free-will. Sometimes it is one, sometimes the other—but the reputed Creator of all must never be blamed. And in the face of everything there must be an amazing kind of optimism—a thing that leads a precarious kind of existence by brigandage on the understanding, by injecting minute doses of morphia into the pores of reason. Judge how many letters of mine could be anything but a snare and a grief to one who has been saturated with that way of thinking.’

‘My dear, you must not talk like that,’ he said, taking her slim, fair hands between his brown, vigorous ones. ‘If I did not know you so well I should be afraid you and Dora would not get on. But you rail against most people theoretically, and end by charming all—as you certainly will charm this dear new sister who is to be.’

‘You speak as though a sister were a kind of rare exotic to me, Cuthbert. Don't forget that I already have six. Yes, certainly I must always count myself, and this, with Hector and Claude's wives, makes up the unromantic halfdozen—then Dora seven. Did you know that the sacredness of the number seven was fast rooted in the pre-Semitic civilization of Babylon?’

‘I know that you are sometimes the most whimsical monkey under the sun, and that to this day I don't always know when you are in fun or in earnest.’

  ― 131 ―

‘I am in earnest now, Cuth. I wish you every joy and blessing. Yes; now I have got over the first shock. Tomorrow I shall be glad that you are happier; the day after that I shall begin to love Dora. God bless you, Cuthbert!’

She kissed her brother on the forehead, on each cheek, and on the lips—an old form of embrace which she had instituted in token of reconciliation after their rare quarrels in the old childish days.

‘I wonder,’ said her brother, after a pause, ‘when I shall have to congratulate you under the same happy circumstances?’

‘Now, if you like, dear, leaving out the happy,’ she said solemnly.

‘Is Ritchie in town?’

‘Yes; he came to-day, and to-morrow morning I go a-riding with him on the trimmest little colt in the world.’

This ride took the form of going to Brighton and a delightful gallop by the seaside, during which the colour leapt into Stella's cheeks with charming vividness, while her eyes seemed to imprison rays from the glancing sparkles of light on the softly-moving waves. Ted could scarcely take his eyes off her face. He longed to say a hundred things, but seeing that she was disinclined to talk, he also kept silent.

It was almost pathetic to notice how implicitly he responded to her moods as far as lay in his power. He did not understand her veiled irony, her bookish allusions, her sudden sparkling merriment at those ‘trifles light as air’ which touch the keen edges of a mind fully alive to the incongruities of life. But he understood when she wished to be silent or talk, when she wanted to hear about his horses, and when the wonderful bay colt, who promised to surpass all previous records, became intolerable to her.

Before turning homeward they paused at a little headland. The waves, crested with foam, broke against this in rollicking tumbled masses. There was a breeze fresh enough to ruffle the sea surface, so that the waves stretching out to the vast horizon curled here and there into foam, and broke on the shore with a long-drawn shuddering cadence, which was momentarily lost, and yet rose again, making itself distinct from the deeper symphony of the multitudinous waters far off. There were voices in the sea that morning which made

  ― 132 ―
Stella's heart beat as if she were listening to passionate music. Singly and near at hand the waves lisped and prattled; but altogether and far off, what solemn and terrible strength, what possibilities of sudden irretrievable shipwreck! Did they symbolize the Mount Tabors and Gehennas that darkly lurk within the human soul—its inappeasable longing for happiness—its certainty of storms and sorrows?

‘A few moments here are worth a month of stupid Melbourne drawing-rooms, incessantly mimicking other mimicries,’ said Stella, taking off her hat, so that the ozoneladen breeze might sweep away the tags and knots of tiresome thoughts that would thrust themselves between her and the sunshine.

‘How long are you going to stay with Laurette?’

‘Oh, I hardly know. You see, I must be several weeks at Lullaboolagana, and I want to get back to Adelaide before the spring is over.’

‘I hope to be in Adelaide, too, before the spring is over. Shall I come first to Fairacre?’

‘Oh yes! I am sure mother and all will be very glad to see you.’

‘Won't you?’

‘Yes—certainly; but as a friend, mind.’

‘Do you know I was quite cut up when I heard there was some talk last year of your leaving the old place.’

‘Were you really, Ted? Why?’

‘Well, you know, I spent many a happy holiday there. Cuth and I don't chum much now, somehow, but we were very good friends at St. Peter's, though he was always miles ahead of me…. Do you remember the day we walked up to the weir, and you crouched for half an hour behind a rock watching two mountain ducks or some other comical little brutes that paddled about in the water? … Do you remember showing me the head of a bull-dog ant through a microscope? By Jove! I can't imagine how they make a few glasses tell such thundering lies! … I believe I remember the first time I saw you—when you were four. Then you came with your mother to stay for a week when you were eight years old. You climbed up to the top of a she-oak tree with me, and told me you liked me ever so much better than Laurette.’

  ― 133 ―

‘Now then, Ted!’

‘Honour bright you did! You were the jolliest little trump of a girl I ever saw. You played leapfrog with me, and tore the lace of your pinafore. You didn't want anyone to see it, so I got a needle and thread and helped you to sew it. I ran the needle into my finger to the bone. I remember it well, because I went to St. Peter's the next Monday, and my thumb was swollen. I wrote so badly they put me into pothooks and hangers. We used to have Latin every day, and spelling once a week. I never took to Latin, and I hated spelling, and even if I liked it, five lines of dictation once in seven days wouldn't make a literary character of a chap. I'm rather weak in spelling to this day, as I dare say you notice when I propose to you from time to time. I always get my book-keeper to write my business letters.’

‘Yes. I suppose that's easier than to learn to spell?’

‘Oh, much! You see, it's in this with me like everything else. Once I make up my mind to a thing I can't alter it. And it seems I generally make up my mind wrong in the spelling line. But I say, Stella, do you remember that birthday I got a little sparrow without many feathers on it in your Moreton fig-tree? Oh, I can see you do. I asked you to give me a kiss for it, but you wouldn't. When will you?’

‘Have you bribed many girls since then to kiss you, Ted?’

A dull red mounted into Ritchie's face.

‘That isn't the question—stick to the point in hand, Stella, and tell me.’

‘Well, perhaps never. Indeed, most likely never.’

‘I don't believe that. Count it on your left hand as we used to do with the cherry-stones. Begin with the thumb, saying, “Shall I ever give Ted a kiss?—yes—no”: go on.’

‘Shall—I—ever—give—Ted—a—kiss? Yes—no—yes—no!’

‘No, no, no; that's not fair, Stella. You must stop with the little finger, and the dear little finger says yes. I shall get a diamond hoop for that little finger. Now, then, ask it when this is to come off: say spring—summer—autumn—winter. Spring, hurrah! exactly when I thought.’

‘This is a charming horse of yours, Ted.’

  ― 134 ―

‘Yes, I've had him trained on purpose for you. I thought he was about the style of horse you would like.’

‘Now I think of it, you always get into this sort of carnival when we come out riding. I don't think I shall come with you again.’

‘Don't say that, Stella. You must come for rides in the morning as long as you are in town; and when I go back to Strathhaye I shall almost believe you are coming. When shall I see you there, Stella?’

‘Ted, you are far from amusing when you keep on harping on the same string in this way. It is about time we turned back. We are going to lunch with some of Laurette's prize hens to-day. It would be rather nice to play the truant.’

‘Lord! Stella, don't tempt me in that way, or I shall really carry you off. Yes—no—yes. Don't you hear it in the horses’ hoofs? Spring—summer—autumn—winter. Spring: it's as plain as a pike staff. You never look half so jolly anywhere else as you do on horseback. We shall spend our honeymoon on horseback—part of it, at least. Oh, I can't help it, Stella! You get into my head when we come out riding. Say a sonnet to me, and it will take my spirits down. “Where is the ship to which you land must go?” ’

Of course Stella laughed at this unconscious travesty, and the absurd memories it revived; and Ritchie, seeing her laugh, was wise enough to say nothing more that would recall the dreadful threat that she would not ride out with him again. Before they parted she had promised him three pances at a ball to which they were going that night.