Chapter XXIII

NEXT morning the rain came down in torrents. It was out of the question to go out riding. Nor could Ted make an appointment for the afternoon, in case it cleared. Mrs. Anstey-Hobbs had formed one of those sudden attachments for Miss Courtland which characterized the Melbourne lady's social career. Already, in writing to Stella, she addressed her as an ‘ever dear,’ and this was the day on which the new ‘ever dear’ was to be at Toorak House at twelve o'clock, and spend a quiet evening with a few special friends.

‘That means the people who have souls and pens, Stella,’ said Laurette. ‘Mrs. Anstey-Hobbs always reads people's characters at a glance. She quite took you in the first day. You are so sweet and fresh and naïve—so open to new ideas. Fancy my listening to all this without betraying you!’

‘By Jove! you women are a rum lot,’ broke in Ted, who stood staring out through the window, beating a tattoo on his boot with a riding-whip.

‘Thank you, dear,’ said Laurette, with a pert little bow.

‘Yes; here's that Hobbs woman flying at Stella with both arms when they meet, and Stella going for all the day and most of the night with her; and then I'll swear she'll have some comic story when she comes back, like that one about the lean sheep and the Mallee and the native companion.’

Laurette looked thoroughly mystified. Though Stella dearly loved to tell a funny story, she was very careful not to make a confidante of one with so slippery a tongue as Laurette's. Ted perceived the situation, and his heart beat with joy. Stella was sitting on a low arm-chair near the fire, cutting the leaves of a magazine. Ted sat down on

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the fender-stool at her feet, and said in an undertone: ‘After all, what you told me in the top of the she-oak so many years ago is quite true.’

‘Oh, as for Mrs. Anstey-Hobbs, she gives herself away to everyone,’ said Laurette viciously. There had been an ardent friendship at one time between the two, which had long since been offered up as alms to oblivion, and Laurette suspected that Mrs. Anstey-Hobbs had confided some story to Stella under the bond of secrecy. ‘There was that absurd story about herself and the Russian commander last season. Oh, I mean when the Russian man-of-war was here. Of course, Mrs. Anstey-Hobbs gave a grand ball, and Joseph—that's her husband—rather forgot himself. She was so mortified, she began to speak to the commander in a bow-window, and a broken voice, of the withering bonds of the conjugal life, just merely to show off how sensitive and refined she was. She didn't mean a word of it, you know. The commander thought she was proposing to elope with him, and explained in fragmentary English that his official position would not permit any irregularity, but that he hoped to return before long.’

‘Really, Laurette, I don't think you should tell a story like that before me,’ said Ted, who was engaged in trying to purloin a bow of ribbon off Stella's shoe.

‘And then the way she dresses,’ said Laurette, who, like many others, found it difficult to curb her enthusiasm as soon as she had begun discussing an absent friend. ‘You noticed her the other evening at Government House, arrayed in an extraordinary pea-green, with yellow marabout feathers on the train? She reads the “Court Circular,” you know, and makes a point of dressing like a young princess—quite forgetting she is getting on in life, and never had a complexion.’

‘If you say much more, I shall stay to see you hugging and kissing her when she comes in,’ said Ted, slipping a knot of crimson satin ribbon into his vest pocket.

‘That reminds me; I must write a note or two before I go,’ said Stella.

One of these was to Louise, her brother Hector's wife, at Lullaboolagana.

‘You say you are not very well, and are longing to see me,’ she wrote. ‘Well, if you write in your answer “I

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want you at once,’ you will see me twenty-four hours after I get it. I feel an ungrateful wretch—for Laurette is all kindness in her way—but the Mallee Scrub spoils one for the kind of society in which money is the one great distinction, and where women have no time for anything but to be insignificant victims of those sinister successes of life which end in choking it with superfluities. As for Cuth—ah me!—one little dimple of Dora's pretty face is worth all I am or can be. Yes, this is partly jealousy—a mean sort of reptile which I used to think I was quite above. I suppose we are above most failings as long as there is no temptation.’

‘Well, Ted,’ said his sister, when the two were alone, ‘it seems to me that you and Stella are getting on.’

Laurette did not really think so; but money affairs were day by day assuming a sterner aspect, and she was anxious to make belief in the success of Ted's suit a ground for making ‘sacrifices’ on his behalf. Laurette's ideal of a sacrifice was making someone pay very heavily for an action that had cost her nothing.

‘Oh, do you think so?’ answered Ritchie. Then he walked up and down the room for a little. ‘Look here, Larry,’ he said suddenly, ‘do you think Stella has heard anything?’

Laurette was just then like a chiffonnier, who discards nothing that comes to hand till it is examined at leisure.

‘I do not know,’ she answered slowly; ‘what makes you ask?’

‘Well, at times she is so merry and full of fun; then she gets a silent fit; and though we are friendly, we never seem to get any further. The more I see of her the less I know what is going to happen.’

‘She doesn't know herself. Stella Courtland is one of those girls who seem to be wise and even strong-minded—but all the time she is torn in twenty directions. It runs all through her. At seventeen she wouldn't be confirmed, because she wanted to be a Catholic. She has never been confirmed to this day, and never turned Catholic. She stays away from Church far more than I do, and yet she'll read her Bible by the hour, as if it were a French novel. She scoffs at people thinking they can do any good to the poor, and still she has a trick of going to see them and listening to everything

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they choose to say far more patiently than she would to you or me. She has been absurdly fond of her brother Cuthbert all her life; and instead of being glad he has got engaged to a pretty well-connected girl, she mopes over it. I have no doubt she thinks in her heart that I am a very poor shallow creature; but at any rate I know what I want, and I generally succeed in getting it; and for once I change my mind, she changes hers fifty times. Let her go on a little longer, and if the whim should take her in the end that she doesn't care to marry you, I think I can bring her to her bearings. It used to be a great weakness with her, even as a girl, to believe she could do good. It's a sort of family superstition. She may not have it very strong now; but still enough to get at her through her conscience.’

‘Through her conscience!’ repeated Ritchie; as though in the case of a woman this were a theological abstraction, not to be lightly brought up in secular conversation.

‘Yes, precisely,’ returned Laurette, with a firm voice. Conscience was, on the whole, the mental faculty of which she knew least, and she felt therefore all the better qualified to reckon on its mystic influence with a character so unstable. ‘But after giving you so much encouragement, she'll never finally reject you.’

‘Well, as to the encouragement, Larry, it's more that I won't give in, you see—and take “no” for an answer.’

‘Then don't be impatient. The longer you are thrown together in this sort of way the better for you.’

When Stella came back from Mrs. Anstey-Hobbs’ that evening, she found Laurette looking very much discomposed over a telegram that awaited her return from a musical evening at Sir Thomas and Lady Danby's, who were next-door neighbours at Monico Lodge. She said nothing, however, as to the cause of her evident vexation, but chatted about the events of the day until Ted came in. He launched into details of a dinner that had been given at the Melbourne Club to Colonel Aldersley, prior to his departure for England.

‘There was little Jingo of Wyoming,’ he said, ‘laying it on as usual with a trowel: “The presence of men like Colonel Aldersley amongst us,” says he, “has more than social significance. It is the influence of such high-toned people that rivets the bonds that bind us to the mother-country,”

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and a lot more I can't remember. And there was the colonel trying to look as if he believed it, and the other fellows jogging each other, and little Eardley Everson—a brat of a boy of eighteen, who has lost over £20,000 to the colonel—pinching himself to see if he was awake.’

Stella was much diverted by this, but Laurette re-read her telegram with a care-laden face. Then she left the room, saying she would be back in a few minutes.

On this, Ted entered into more personal talk.

‘I say, Stella, what do you call that dress you have on—I mean, what stuff is it?’

‘Crêpe de Chine—pale pink, as you see!’

‘And that stuff peeping out round your shoulders?’

‘Cream-coloured crêpe lisse.’

‘Would you mind being married just in a dress like that?’

‘Why, Ted, that's like fishing for an invitation!’

‘Nothing of the sort. Who ever heard of a bridegroom asking to be invited to——Now, Stella, don't move; sit just as you are. And what are these roses in your hair and bosom?’

‘Scarlet fairy roses. Aren't they too dear and sweet? Mrs. Anstey-Hobbs still has heaps of them, though they were nearly over with us when I left home.’

‘Tell me about Mrs. Anstey-Hobbs before Larry comes back. I won't let the cat out of the bag on you this time!’

Stella was sitting on her favourite chair, near the fire. The flames leaped rosily, and cast rosy reflections on her face—stealing to it on each side of the Japanese screen, with its flock of wide-winged storks hovering above their slender bamboos. Ritchie had planted himself straight in front of her, sitting horseback fashion on a chair, his hands, which were crossed on the back of it, supporting his chin.

At this request Stella began to laugh, and her eyes sparkled with amusement. It was the expression that her companion best loved to see her wear. When she looked like that he always understood what she said.

‘Oh, the salon, Ted; it was really too funny. You must know that after dinner we assembled in what Mrs. Anstey-Hobbs calls her boudoir, but it is as large as any ordinary drawing-room. It is hung with panels of peach-coloured satin, very beautifully embroidered—some with Graces and Cupids tumbling over wreaths of roses. But the design I

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liked best was a great spray of double white cherry-blossoms, with a pair of sweet little gray love-birds billing in the midst—’

‘Yes, they're jolly little animals. I wish some people would take a little more after them.’

‘Now, if you interrupt I must remember how late it is. Perhaps I ought to tell you that this work was done by a Russian countess that Mrs. Anstey-Hobbs met abroad. She got into trouble with her husband, or the Government, or something. So one night, instead of returning home from a ball, she ran away to the Riviera, where she designed and worked lovely things for people who have two hundred thousand sheep in the woods of Australia. When you come to think of it, there is something that fascinates the mind in the idea of eloping with a crewel-needle from the reach of the police, or an objectionable husband.’

‘Nonsense, Stella; no woman worth her salt runs away from her husband like that,’ answered Ted promptly. He may have had reasons of his own for entertaining strict views on this point. ‘Besides, if you knew all, you may depend it was not with a crewel-needle she eloped.’

‘Well, at any rate it was with a crewel-needle she lived. And she was known as the Countess Olga. But where was I? Oh, the salon—well, you must figure to yourself that Mrs. Anstey-Hobbs was draped artistement in a wonderful Indian fabric, and that she lived in an enormous armchair covered with citron-coloured velvet. Beside her was a little octagon table carved out of Angola ivory; on it the daintiest little notebook in the world with jewelled clasps—a notebook in which to enter the bons mots of the evening.’

‘What are bons mots? Have I ever heard any?’

‘Oh, Ted, Ted—to think that I climbed trees with you in my infancy, and have seen you at intervals ever since, and that you should ask such a question! How shall I explain—it must be in the concrete. You remember the last time you were out riding you told me of an Oxford man who was a knock-about-hand at Strathhaye for some time, and how, speaking of the old Greeks once, he said their only idea of trade was piracy, and I answered it remained for modern times to combine the two? Well, that was something in the nature of a bon mot.’

‘Oh, you are always saying things of that kind. But why

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the dickens should the old frump want to put them in a notebook?’

‘Why, indeed,’ answered Stella, laughing heartily. ‘Well, you see, Ted, the prosperity of a salon depends on its bons mots—but I am obliged to confess I did not hear any. There were twenty of us, and the first part of the evening was monopolized by a Yankee newspaper-man, who sends columns of lies every week to a daily paper in New York. He stood with his back to the fire, and held forth through his nose for nearly an hour on the merits of cremation. He proved conclusively that a casket ten inches by eight would contain the calcined ashes of an adult. And then he asked the host in an audible aside for a “nip of dog's nose.” What in the world is that?’

It was now Ted's turn to laugh. ‘Why, it's a horrid mess made of gin and beer mixed.’

‘Then that accounts for Mrs. Anstey-Hobbs’ confusion. She told me beforehand that in striving to establish a salon d'esprit she was determined to keep the grosser pleasures of the palate in the background—to have nothing more material than macaroons and lemonade. I think Mr. Hobbs himself went to brew the unholy mixture. I am sure he would not dare to ask it from the butler, who is a magnificent creature, whose former life has been passed in the bosom of the British nobility. What can be keeping Laurette so long?’

‘Oh, I dare say the kiddies have got measles or something,’ answered Ted. ‘Go on, Stella, tell me some more. Were there many to dinner?’

‘Yes, about a dozen. These endless costly dinners are my horror. I like my food plain and unmixed, like a bird or a peasant. On one side of me there was a parched-up-looking woman, who seemed to be in a state of nervous tension about her spoons and forks. On the other a man hardly middle-aged, who gobbled away till the veins on his forehead stood out. Pastor Fiedler's nine little pigs used to dine much more peacefully, and then their grunts were so much more eloquent than anything he said.’

‘I've been to Toorak House a few times,’ said Ted, laughing. ‘It always seemed crammed up with things from everywhere.’

‘Oh yes; I should think that temples in the far East must have been rifled for screens, and rugs, and mantel-drapes.

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There are some things I have quite fallen in love with. One is a very old Egyptian drinking-cup—greenish-gray, in the shape of a lotus-leaf. Another is a slender Etrurian vase in jade…. But how late it is!’ she cried suddenly. ‘Laurette must be seeing the children through all the phases of a lingering malady. Good-night, Ted.’

‘Good-night.’ But he did not release her hand. ‘Oh, Stella, if you would let me take one kiss—just one. You did once before, you know, when we were engaged—that afternoon in the garden at Fairacre.’

She drew back, but he had taken both her hands, and held them firmly in his.

‘Let me go at once, Ted,’ she cried in quick anger and something of dismay.

‘Stella, when is this to come to an end? How long am I to wait and beg, and play the fool? Have pity on me. You do like me a little. That's all I want to begin with. You have thought that you might marry me; you must have thought that you would let me kiss you. There, don't look as if I frightened you. Try and make up your mind—’

‘I have made up my mind,’ she cried, sweeping past him, an indignant flush on her face.

It was nearly one o'clock in the morning, and she found Maisie fast asleep in the dressing-room, where she had been waiting her mistress's return. Stella made her go to bed at once, but she herself sat in a dressing-gown by her bedroom fire. She was angry; first at Ted and then herself. It was ridiculous of her to sit and talk with him so long. Laurette was a sneak, who had no doubt purposely stayed away. Even chaperons had not been invented without a cause. Probably the most jaded institutions of society were founded upon some battered relic of reason. But was it necessary to run full tilt against them before acknowledging this?

How absurd it was getting, this determined, endless wooing! What would be the end of it? Her anger died away as she tried to answer the question. She could not pretend to dislike Ted. She reflected on the endless variation of dulness that entered so largely into the lives of the bulk of women. After all, money was one of the greatest safeguards against that mildew of unexpectant monotony

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with which the years were so largely infected when once one began to find things out. She was really beginning to feel as if Ted had a right to her. Finally, she resolved that she would hasten her departure for Lullaboolagana, and there make a final, an irrevocable decision. Then she pictured herself writing to Ted; no, she would see him, it would be kinder; she would ask him to meet her in Melbourne on her way back. ‘Ted, this must come to an end. You must take my final answer; I cannot marry you.’ Would he call it ‘coming a cropper,’ and rend her with reproaches? And then a little panic seized her, that no reason she could urge would stand the tide of Ted's remonstrances. She did not acknowledge it to herself, and yet a vague consciousness underlay her musings, that the masterful way in which he had held her hands, and looked at her with ardent eyes, made some hitherto unknown chord of her nature vibrate in unison with his will. Perhaps it was a faint reminiscence in her blood of the remote ancestresses of pre-civilization, who were knocked on the head if they did not fall in with the marital arrangements made for them.