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Chapter XXII

STELLA was still sitting over a late breakfast with Laurette when her brother called with his fiancée, having driven Dora from her father's house in the family pony-chaise. He watched the first greetings between the girls with keen pleasure. Dora was very pretty; fair and mignonne, with pale-gold hair in crisp wavelets, a pure English complexion, and large blue eyes that had something of the expression of a child's who has suddenly been told a pleasant piece of news.

‘Oh! you are a sweet little darling. No wonder Cuthbert has thrown me over for you,’ said Stella, looking at her critically.

‘But Cuthbert has not thrown you over, dear Stella; he has given you one more sister to love.’

‘Do they teach each other what to say already?’ thought Stella. They babbled away pleasantly for some little time, going over those reminiscences and simple personalities in which old ladies and newly-engaged lovers so readily indulge. Presently Laurette joined them, and the talk became more general. The plan was that Stella should spend the day and stay the night at the Carters’. Cuthbert was preparing to go, having parochial work, when Ted rode up to Monico Lodge, followed by a groom leading Shah, for Stella to ride.

The discovery seemed to have something of the nature of a sensation to Dora when, after she and Ted were introduced, he said: ‘Why, Stella, I thought I would find you ready. Shah is in fine form for you to-day.’

‘You have appointed to go out riding?’ Cuthbert said a little coldly to his sister.

‘You see I had no idea that you children would be so good and kind as to come so early. I am sorry, Ted, but I am afraid I cannot ride this morning.’

Ted's brow darkened visibly. ‘But that's nonsense, Stella,’ he said impatiently. ‘If you haven't finished your jabber, I can wait.’

Cuthbert's face became more and more impassive. Dora looked from Cuthbert to Stella in a mystified way, and then Laurette came to the rescue, proposing that she should drive back with Dora. She wanted to see dear Mrs. Carter

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so much. They could take Stella's dress-basket and maid, and then Ted would take Stella direct to the parsonage.

‘That's the very ticket,’ said Ted. ‘Go on, Stella; see if you can't get ready in five minutes,’ and he pulled his watch out, and Stella, without further ado, hastened to obey.

Incredible as it was to Cuthbert, this rather illiterate and overbearing young man seemed destined to triumph in his suit. His heart sank strangely at the thought. He left for town before Stella reappeared, and when they met again at the parsonage in the evening, he knew by the wistful droop of his sister's mouth that she had somehow felt bored to death. Bored in this exquisitely refined Christian home, and yet tolerant of Ritchie as a lover!

Poor Stella! She had indeed passed through some evil hours that day. In the first place, the seaside and Shah, the blue serenity of the day, the great, measureless crescendo of the waves, and Ted's touching goodness in entirely keeping off forbidden ground, had beguiled her into prolonging her ride beyond what she intended. The moment she entered the house, she became aware that lunch had been kept back on her account. There are some households in which unpunctuality is made into one of the seven deadly sins, and it seemed this was one of them. There were three daughters older than Dora, and it transpired that the day was pigeonholed for all, with set duties for each hour, so that when thirty minutes were lost in waiting for a guest who was inexcusably late, the rest of the day threatened to resolve itself into a scramble to make up for lost time and wasted opportunities. The Rev. S. Carter and the two eldest daughters had to excuse themselves and hurry away before the meal was over, in order to catch a certain train to one of the suburbs, where a sale of gifts in aid of a church school had to be opened. Directly after their departure, a friend called by appointment to accompany the third daughter on a periodical visit to an orphanage. And thus silence prevailed for a little, which Stella endeavoured to break by saying: ‘I feel most awfully guilty, you know; but the sea was too divine. And the sky—have you noticed, Dora, how widely vaulted it is to-day?’

‘Oh yes; very pretty!’ answered Dora, with a faint smile, and Stella resolved, for the hundredth time since she

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left home, that she would not try to drag the things that captivated her so insanely into conversation. It was like offering people coin for which they had no change.

‘Cuthbert did not mention you were engaged,’ said Mrs. Carter, when they had settled themselves in the drawingroom, each with some form of needlework.

‘Oh, but I am not!’ answered Stella. And then mother and daughter exchanged a quick look, and Dora, colouring very prettily, said:

‘I thought, dear, by—by Mr. Ritchie calling you Stella, and your going out riding——’

It certainly behoved Stella to explain the long-dated friendship, or at any rate acquaintanceship, which had established both customs. But she was little in the habit of apologizing for herself, and, partly through indifference, partly out of perversity, she allowed the subject to drop. Not so Mrs. Carter, however, who found a roundabout way of approaching the subject again. Mrs. Tareling was Mr. Ritchie's sister then. What a very brilliant marriage she had made. Stella opened her eyes wide in surprise. Of course, the younger son of a British peer was considered so in the colonies, Mrs. Carter presumed. ‘No doubt you knew her before she married?’ Ah, yes; they knew each other since they were children. And Mr. Ritchie, the young man, was one of those who had so many sheep and cattle and things. Stella believed he had over fifteen thousand a year. On hearing this, Mrs. Carter sat more upright, and regarded Stella with new and respectful interest. And then the lady slid into a long and tedious account of her own family. It was rather involved, or else Stella's attention wandered, for at the close she was not certain whether it was Mrs. Carter herself or her mother or her grandmother who had been governess to an English princess of the Royal family. It was clear, however, that they belonged to a good family; that they had been much reduced; that those who had married had espoused rising clergymen. One sister was married to a bishop. ‘Poor woman!’ thought Stella. Mrs. Carter seemed to pause as if for some expression of awe or admiration. When she found this was not forthcoming, she went on to explain how wide was the gulf fixed between a colonial and an English bishop. The Carters were only temporarily in Melbourne, and proposed

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to return to England at no distant date. There was money in Mr. Carter's family: one of his nieces was married to the first cousin of a great duke. Stella lost herself in calculating what share of lustre this connection with the British aristocracy shed on her brother. When she emerged from this depth, Mrs. Carter was dilating on the pang it would cost them to part with dear Dora. But Cuthbert was all they could have wished: they had every confidence in him, etc. It seemed to Stella that the good lady was applying the phrases of a governess's testimonial to her brother. Yes, decidedly it must have been Mrs. Carter herself who had held brevet rank as a governess. She placed so tiresome and so didactic an emphasis on the less alluring aspects of life, coupled with an implication of having been, since early childhood, engaged in laying the moral groundwork of society. Then, in the midst of this gentle, consequential, self-complacent purring, she suddenly asked Stella whether young ladies in the colonies—those who had been born in them, and had never lived elsewhere—took more after the American stamp than the English?

The question somewhat revived Stella's drooping spirits. It opened the door for a frankly mischievous sketch of her own existence at Fairacre. The sick-visiting, the calls, the church-going, the walks with the children, the rides with her brother, etc., but not the remotest allusion to what she knew had been chiefly in Mrs. Carter's mind: not a whisper of Platonic friendship or suitors. One might imagine, from Stella's easy rapid sketch, that a ‘colonial’-born girl was like the angels in heaven, and never even remotely glanced at the question of marrying.

By-and-by there were visitors and afternoon tea-parties, but both of a very mild, not to say tepid, character. Dull people do not understand the grateful fillip that the beverage, when quite fresh and fragrant, gives to the spirits and imagination. Nor did matters improve much when the rest of the family returned. When they were all together, the atmosphere was pervaded with snatches of ruined lives—parlour extracts from the careers of reprobates of both sexes. Something had always happened which was too ‘shocking’ to be gone into. Either a mangle or a daughter seemed to have disappeared clandestinely from most of the poor houses they had recently visited.

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Stella listened in vain for some touch of fun or genuine pathos—something that these poor people had said which would throw an illuminating ray on what they really thought or endured. But no; if anything was repeated that had been said by the fatherless, or the widow, or the backslider, it had a chilling echo to her of conventional make-believe—of the kind of pulpit-slang the needy catch up so readily, with alms given on condition that they repent. Or it was still more like what one of the middle classes might have said after being led astray and made decorously repentant by the pangs of hunger.

There are multitudes who all their lives visit the poor without ever catching a true lineament of their minds. Such people are often suffused with an hysterical kind of earnestness which makes them utterly impervious to any true apprehension of what is going on in the minds of others. Or they are swaddled in a complacent egoism which makes them quite invulnerable to any true appreciation of the bearings of life. They are capable only of one standpoint, and this one is all distorted and awry.

‘You do not look very much entertained, Stella,’ said her brother when he found an opportunity, shortly before he left, of speaking to her alone.

‘No? It must be the ravages of a troubled conscience you notice. Shah was too dear this morning. I kept the whole household waiting for me, and then—you must notice that the eldest Miss Carter sings methodically out of tune? Or don't people mind such trifles when they are in love?’

Cuthbert flushed hotly. He was indeed very much ‘in love,’ and this, coupled with the conviction that his sister had decided to accept Ritchie's devotion, made him impatient—for a moment angry even. Like other angry people, he took up the first weapon that came to hand.

‘Perhaps the charms of Ritchie's society make you impatient of ordinary intercourse,’ he said almost sternly.

Stella looked at him with startled, dilating eyes. It was almost the first time in her life that Cuthbert had spoken and looked at her unkindly. She felt it like a stab, but she strove to conceal all appearance of being hurt.

‘I dare say,’ she answered, smiling. ‘You see, we Australians understand one another. We have a wicked love of enjoyment, of horses, and sunshine, and the seashore.

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Did you hear that Ted has a new bay colt, which has twice covered a mile in an incredibly short time?’

‘No; I have never been much interested in the performances of horses, as you know.’

‘Well, it has an amusing side. Ted is always pursued by a trainer, or a jockey, or a man in a funny necktie, who is dying to buy the little brown filly out of Lady Glendora, by Victor, you know.’

‘I never believed till now that you would end by accepting him. Stella, it seems to me little short of an infatuation.’

‘But do you know, my dear, that there are women who marry even bishops?’

Was it perversity, or the outcome of some nascent feeling of a deeper nature than even she herself was aware of, which led the young woman to answer her brother's remonstrances with so much reserve that a sudden change in her real attitude towards Ted would not have seemed inconsistent? Perhaps there was something of both motives. Nevertheless, the chief one which made these long morning rides so precious to her was a passionate love of being in the open air, of riding, of getting away from people who were, more or less, tiresome—she herself, at times, most of all. On horseback, more completely than anywhere else, she threw every haunting shape of troubled thought to the winds. Life then became a glorious ecstasy—a glad, bounding motion in which simply to be was enough, without any foolish looking before and after.

That night, before she fell asleep, Stella recalled her brother's face and words in the brief conversation that had passed, and she felt her heart failing her in a curious way. ‘It is true,’ she thought; ‘the chief attachment of my life is crumbling away. As long as I was first with Cuthbert, he did not see what a faulty, foolish, inconsistent creature I am. Dora's placid little perfections show me up in a lurid light. After this he cannot see me without criticising me—without wondering how, at one time, I seemed to him so dear and lovable. And I—I shall always be conscious of it, and always say horrid things. Oh, it is no use my drawing out a little set of rules, resolving to be more gentle, and sweet, and patient. The things I say, for which I afterwards hate myself, come to me with handles. “Is this a

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dagger that I see before me?” No, it is a stupid little bodkin, that generally contrives to scratch me. I seem to have got to that stage of life in which I must take myself for better or worse, as people do in marriage—meaning mostly for worse. Perhaps, when the glow of courtship and the honeymoon are over, Cuthbert may cease to criticise me—but that is too far away to be consoling. I have the unfortunate Australian temperament. I want the share that falleth to my lot now. And then there will be not only Dora, whose eyes get rounder at everything I say, but there will be an elder sister eternally singing out of tune—practising a little song with a moral in its tail, to sing at a servantmaids’ friendly association. Poor things! it is no wonder they disappear like the mangles that are bought with subscriptions. After all, Shah and Ted are less objectionable than many things in life.’

She mocked herself, as she habitually did when she was bent on keeping sterner, more serious thoughts at a distance. Yet before she fell asleep her pillow was wet with tears. In the days that followed the brother and sister gradually drifted apart. He was constantly with the Carters and their friends during his hours of relaxation from parochial work. Stella, swayed by a variety of motives, conceived almost a horror of the Carter household. She even repented of having called Dora ‘a little darling’ at their first interview. She described her to Ted as opening her eyes wide like an automatic doll.

‘You don't like having your nose put out of joint, I can see that,’ answered Ted, with an amused chuckle.

Stella made a slight grimace at him, and gave Shah his head. As they were trotting up the Toorak road, Ted spoke again:

‘You see, Stella, that's one strong point about me. I'll never throw you over for anybody.’

‘Oh, for the matter of that, Cuth hasn't; only he's got engaged to the wrong sort of family. When you get engaged, Ted, please see that the lady you love has not three unmarried sisters—the eldest desperately unmusical, but bent on singing.’

‘Well, you see, the lady I love has only one unmarried sister. But, of course, you had that in your mind when you spoke,’ said Ted, smiling to himself under his moustache.

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Stella laughed merrily at the imputation.

‘Now confess,’ said Ted, as they slackened their horses’ pace and dropped into a walk, ‘you would be horribly cross if I came to-morrow morning and said I had got engaged, and instead of begging you to ride Shah, took out the other young woman.’