Chapter XXI

‘You and Ted must have had a very pleasant ride,’ said Laurette, a little maliciously, as they drove to the Anstey-Hobbs mansion.

‘Yes, the sea and the air were delightful,’ answered Stella calmly.

‘If you keep that charming colour, Mrs. A.-H. will fall in love with you on the spot. Since reading some book or other she is quite enthusiastic about healthy, well-developed

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girls—especially if they combine what she calls a rare organization with dabbling in the fine arts. You don't model in clay, or paint, or sing, do you?’

‘No; I'm like the cat with one trick; my one accomplishment is reading.’

‘Still, I fancy you'll take with my Melbourne friends. Why do you laugh?’

‘You made me think I must be cow-lymph or a new shade of ribbon. What do people have to do when they take?’

‘Oh, sit in a corner and try to be as good as little Jack Horner. Do you know, Stella, it strikes me that you are more spoilt than ever. I suppose it comes from your being the youngest, as Tom says.’

‘It is awfully good of you to make excuses for me,’ said Stella, with a heightened colour.

Mr. Anstey-Hobbs was popularly credited with being a millionaire. Certainly the surroundings and appointments of his town house gave colour to the belief, not to mention the number of idle servants who hung about the place. ‘Just like an English nobleman's house,’ as a governor from one of the adjacent colonies had said—a saying which some of Mrs. Anstey-Hobbs’ friends treasured up and repeated to select circles of their friends’ friends, basking in the reflected glory of a viceregal compliment respecting an abode in which they were so much at home. As for Mrs. Anstey-Hobbs herself, she never repeated anything that savoured of vainglory. Indeed, one would imagine at times that wealth was quite a mortification to her. She would take precautions to have scores upon scores of callers on her reception-days, and then take a bosom friend aside, who entirely believed in her and had an incontinent tongue, and say, ‘Ah, my dear, how are we to cultivate our minds as we should, when we are swallowed up in social maelstroms like this?’ And so, when she donned a specially magnificent visiting dress—one of Worth's highest flights—indicating yet chastening the possession of wealth, she would sit in a remote corner of her carriage, with a melancholy air, as if she were bowed down with the thought that all is vanity and vexation of spirit. And then, in talking to her friends at such times, the words ‘our terrible climate’ and the ‘severe limitations of colonial life’ were often on her lips.

‘It is sordid wealth without culture or the traditions of

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refinement that stifles our artists and poets,’ she would murmur, as if shoals of such gifted beings were annually offered up on the altar of Mammon—the fact being that Mrs. Anstey-Hobbs had a talent for assimilating ideas from the books and magazines she read in such numbers monthly, but had not an equal felicity in their application. The thought that wealth was detrimental to mental expansion was one which had from various sources become dear to her—so much so, that about this time Mrs. Anstey-Hobbs had made a determined effort to put down, as far as possible, the overwhelming power of money in Melbourne society. She had struggled to establish a salon—a weekly gathering to be open only to people of culture and esprit. Those who had neither, asserted that the line must certainly be drawn at Mr. Anstey-Hobbs, but habitués of the salon said it was drawn at those who were neither amusing nor had made any contribution to art or literature. But then a liberal interpretation had been put upon the latter term, for among the gifted beings at the first reunion was a wealthy young squatter, a neighbour of Ritchie's, who was by no means amusing, and had never been suspected of wandering on the slopes of Parnassus. On inquiry, however, it turned out that a year previously he had written a letter to the Melbourne Argus on ‘Fluke in the Liver of Sheep.’

The luncheon-party at which Stella made her début in Melbourne society, as Laurette grandiloquently phrased it, was made up of ten women in all, supplemented by two young men, who stole furtive glances at each other, and at first spoke chiefly in monosyllables. According to the hostess, one was a poet, the other a painter. Stella sat at Mrs. Anstey-Hobbs’ right hand, the painter at her left. Some funny talk went on about allegory.

‘Well, Mr. Vincent, I still think that your first idea of representing Australia as a wood-nymph, with an opossum-skin thrown carelessly over her shoulders, was exquisite,’ said Mrs. Anstey-Hobbs.

‘That may be, dear madame’—Stella found that this was the title by which young souls, touched with the sacred fire of genius, and therefore admitted to the salon, addressed the hostess—‘ that may be; but are our public educated up to the point of reading this allegory? I lay it down as one of the canons of art that a picture must tell its own tale.

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Now, the tale that would be conveyed by the figure in its first inception would be that it was not Australia, but a young black woman.’

‘But suppose you introduce a kangaroo on one side and an emu on the other?’

‘There would be two objections. The introduction of these typical animals would strengthen the aboriginal theory with one class, and afford an element of mockery to another.’

‘Of mockery? surely not! Abandoned as our so-called newspaper critics may be—and, alas! we have no higher standard for leading the masses to sweetness and light—they would never dare to sully with their profligate satire so pure and original a conception!’

‘You have hit the very point. That is exactly what they would do, madame. The figure of a young female inadequately clad, with a bewildered-looking kangaroo on one side and a nerveless emu on the other, suggests nothing so much as an exhibition trophy of colonial wine and olives. You know the banal and borné tone of newspaper judgment.’

‘Ah, you have so much penetration, such marvellous insight into the envious writhings of inferior natures!’ murmured Mrs. Anstey-Hobbs, gazing at her ‘painter’ with pensive admiration. ‘Indeed, I doubt whether the very strength of your analytical judgment does not stand in your way as a great creative artist.’

Mr. Vincent blushed with pleasure, but still maintained a gloomy frown, as became an artist who had to bear the burden of genius in a world beset with inappreciative masses and unilluminated critics.

‘And what form, then, have you decided on finally?’ said Mrs. Anstey-Hobbs after a pause. She had always a lady on the premises who took the more prosaic duties of a hostess, and so left her full scope in her efforts for developing the less material forces of colonial society.

‘Well, a figure more after the classical school, with silken drapery, gauzy and flowing. You wished to say something?’

‘Does it not strike you that it would be better—always, of course, with an eye to the untrained masses; and as I wish to make a gift of this allegorical figure to our picture-gallery, we must think of them—would it not be better to array the—the young woman in a product of colonial growth, or, rather, manufacture?’

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‘There you display the subtlety of the born critic as distinguished from those who exist merely because they get so much per column for squirting muddy water. But unfortunately our manufactures are still too crude—too entirely limited to the more fustain uses of life. Tweed and flannel could hardly be used to drape a lithe young female whose contour must show through.’

‘But we grow cotton in Queensland and the northern territory.’

‘Yes, and we can also grow silk; at least, silkworms and mulberries thrive with us.’

‘I am vanquished, Mr. Vincent. I have not another word to say. The silken drapery is perfectly legitimate.’

‘But still, as silk is not yet one of our established industries, we must enhance its effect by something characteristically colonial,’ said Mr. Vincent, with the dispassionate fairness of a mind too broad to be puffed up with a sense of its own critical acumen.

‘Quite true—quite true. The salt-bush is very typical. How would it do to have salt-bush for the background, with a couple of sheep nibbling at it? They might be rather lean, to typify that this bush has often kept our flocks from starving.’

‘If I were painting for such as you are, madame, my task would be an easy one—my labour of love, I should say; for on the day on which I cannot feel it is such, I never touch a brush. But to the ignorant on the one hand, and the malicious on the other—and in the colonies these are the two great classes for whom artists work—I say to these the sheep would be a stumbling-block. The one would think, and the other would say, without thinking, that the young woman was a shepherdess—“ a reminiscence of the worst rococo period of unreal landscapes!” That's what the critic with a little wit and no conscience would say. No—my own idea, after long, and I may say painful thought, is to paint the figure with a garland of colonial flowers, holding a basket of colonial fruit, with a colonial bird on her shoulder pecking at it.’

‘Oh, charming—charming! Really too exquisite, Mr. Vincent! Do tell me what flowers and what bird. The fruit—would you have grapes and oranges and peaches, and so on, or one kind?’

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‘I do not know about grapes. The colonial wine is really so very—— Well, I fear I am fastidious with wine.’ It may be mentioned, en parenthèse, that Mr. Vincent usually smoked a strong cigar over his wine, and smacked his lips ecstatically when he gulped British champagne made of unripe gooseberries.

‘Yes, and then one likes to encourage teetotal principles among the masses,’ answered Mrs. Anstey-Hobbs. ‘Perhaps we had better discard the grapes? And the flowers?’

‘Well, I don't know the names of any colonial flowers; but I must ruralize a little in the Botanical Gardens. I suppose they have native ones there?’

‘No doubt—no doubt! Oh, how very charming and natural it will all be—quite a bush idyll! Now about the bird—you see I am all impatience!’

‘Well, I thought, a native companion——’

Here, to save herself from absolute disgrace, Stella dropped her napkin, so as to have an excuse for stooping and hiding her face for a moment. The movement drew Mrs. Anstey-Hobbs’ attention to her right-hand neighbour. It may be imagined that Stella had listened with both ears to all that had passed. Her eyes were literally dancing with suppressed merriment, her cheeks glowing like a well-sunned peach. She was flanked on her left by an elderly woman, who was rather deaf, and who ate her way stolidly through every dish on the menu, so that the girl's attention had been undistracted.

Mrs. Anstey-Hobbs put up her pince-nez and looked at her admiringly. The lady had very good eyesight, without any defect of over long or short sight; but an English countess, who had visited Melbourne and stayed some days at Toorak House, had always put up her pince-nez when she wished to look attentively at anything, being so shortsighted that objects at a little distance were all blurred and indistinct to her unaided eyes. So, with the curious humility of a parvenu, Mrs. Anstey-Hobbs had ever since zealously imitated one afflicted with impaired vision.

‘My dear young lady, I fear you are not eating,’ she said.

On which Stella answered with wreathed smiles that she had been so very much interested in the conversation on painting, etc. Indeed, her face was so radiant with what

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her hostess mentally called naïve delight, that she instantly took a liking to the girl.

‘You are, perhaps, colonial-born?’

‘I am an Australian,’ answered Stella, who had to keep on smiling in what she felt was an imbecile way. The image of the allegorical figure of Australia, with a native companion perched on her shoulder, was really too killing.

‘You make a distinction, then, between colonial and Australian?’

Mrs. Anstey-Hobbs was the daughter of an English country attorney, and having in her provincial youth been familiarized with the term ‘colonial’ as somehow expressive of a state of things far below the status of the great British under-middle classes, she still clung to the term in her days of grandeur, fondly deeming that it somehow marked her as one whose bringing-up was more aristocratic than could fall to the lot of those who were born and bred in Australia.

‘Surely,’ answered Stella, ‘when there is so much difference.’

‘Now do tell me how. You see, I came to the colonies only when I married. I believe I was the first of our family to leave England.’ There was a vague flourishing emphasis on ‘our family,’ as though it represented great territorial magnates.

‘Well, a colony—does it not suggest a handful of men ploughing scraps of land in an insignificant little state or island, or, at any rate, the first scattered handful of pioneers who have an uncertain footing in an alien land? Australia is not a colony; it is a continent, a great country where generations have already lived and died—the birthplace of thousands upon thousands who love it more dearly than any other spot in the whole world.’ The light of patriotic love and pride shone in the girl's eyes, and her voice was musical with deep feeling.

‘Really, you know, I am very glad to have this explained to me,’ said Mrs. Anstey-Hobbs, with the indefinite awkwardness of one who has unawares awakened a chord in an unknown instrument.

‘I grant you, though,’ Stella went on in a lighter tone, half piqued at herself for betraying any emotion, ‘that we cannot dispense with the word “colonial.” ’ She was

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deeply tempted to add, ‘as long as we have people who hang idly about Australian cities, painting foolish pictures for money that should be better spent.’

‘Well, you heard what my friend Mr. Vincent said. Tell me, do you think a native companion——’

There was no help for it. Stella had to laugh.

‘Dear Mrs. Anstey-Hobbs, a native companion is much larger than the domestic goose, and is mounted on legs over two feet high, with a neck almost as long as its legs.’

‘Ah, I fear it would not do, then, to perch on the shoulder of an allegorical figure of Australia,’ said Mrs. Anstey-Hobbs, dropping her pince-nez, and turning to the artist, who was staring at Stella sombrely, as if he suspected her of inventing the dimensions of the unfortunate fowl.

‘Now tell me, Miss Courtland, are there any pretty bush-flowers that would do for a garland—any that may be considered nationally Australian, like the lily for France and the rose for England?’ continued this enthusiastic artpatron.

‘Oh yes; it is an embarrassment of choice. To go no further than the exquisite blossom of our tan wattles, the white scrub immortelles, the epacris, and the lovely myrtleblossoms of the eucalyptus, cream and pink. Have you ever seen the curve of a low hillside in the depths of our woods all one mass of epacris—white, and pale-pink, and scarlet?’

Mrs. Anstey-Hobbs murmured an apologetic negative, with an involuntary glance at the gorgeous orchids that adorned her table. It struck her, perhaps, as being a little out of place to speak with so much enthusiasm of things that grew in masses in the bush to one who could command such rare exotics.

‘The tan wattle is of rather a crude and violent tint,’ said Mr. Vincent in a tone of authority.

‘I can imagine that it would very easily become so on canvas,’ answered Stella with a sweet smile, which quite confirmed Mrs. Anstey-Hobbs in her first estimate of the young lady as being ‘delightfully naïve, you know.’ It is to be feared she would have changed her opinion if she had overheard Stella that night describe to Ted the accessories of an allegorical Australia, that had been evolved in her bearing by a ‘colonial’ painter and his patroness.