Chapter XXIV

STELLA had not been unfair in conjecturing that Laurette's absence from the drawing-room, after her brother came in, was not accidental. It had not, however, been her design to stay away so long, a circumstance which was in point of fact due to her having a bitter fit of crying. This was with her an extremely unusual circumstance, and was caused by no sentimental weakness. The laconic telegram she had received would not of itself have thrown much light on her emotion. It was dated from Sydney, and merely contained the words:

‘Cannot be back for some days to come.


That was all; but its bitterness, like that of many other events, lay in the context. There was no legitimate excuse for his sojourn in Sydney. Even business, elastic as it is in the hands of a wary and unfaithful husband, could not

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in any possible guise be held accountable for this move. In order to go to Sydney from Banjoleena, Tareling must have passed through Melbourne. Laurette had no need to waste time in asking herself why he had done so, like a fugitive. It was owing to the recent departure for Sydney of a wretched little opera singer who was Tareling's last infatuation. Laurette reviewed the situation in the light of past events.

Cheered by his success in Celestial Hills, she had, without a murmur, allowed him to retain possession of the nine hundred pounds that had been netted by the timely sale of her shares in that mine. Tareling had gone to Banjoleena with this money to his credit, confident of doubling or trebling the amount in a few days. Perhaps he had. But she knew that he would return from Sydney penniless, yet imperturbably unrepentant. It was one of Tareling's aristocratic characteristics, that he never attempted the rôle of the Prodigal Son. He was obliged to come home when the fun was over; but there any simulacrum of repentance began and ended. So it had been before, so it would be no doubt to the end. But just now, owing to a conjunction of untoward events, this spell of riotous living meant for Laurette—unless she could by some means or other raise the wind—the almost immediate giving up of the costly furnished house at Toorak, and retirement to the intolerable solitude of Cannawijera. And this to Laurette presented all the concentrated bitterness of a hopeless defeat in the hour of greatest triumph. She had married Talbot Tareling not for love, for even if she had been capable of it, he was the last one qualified to evoke any such passion when the two met; not for his good looks, for he had none; not for his morals, for if he ever possessed any, the world, the flesh, and the devil had wholly despoiled him long before he left his native shores. She had married him simply because he was the younger son of an English peer; relying on this circumstance, and her own tact and heiress-ship, to become one of the elect of Melbourne society. Yet, with all these advantages, the struggle had been very uphill. Her income, when the marriage took place, was over three thousand a year. The Hon. Talbot was supposed to have five hundred a year, but it was invariably in the hands of disreputable Hebrews twelve months in advance. The

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sinews of war were wholly inadequate to the sort of campaign that Laurette undertook. And then, even in a frankly democratic country, the cadet of a noble house, bankrupt in money and reputation, does not meet with unqualified social success. But Laurette was indefatigable, and year by year she made a little headway. Only year by year there was an accumulation of debt, and tradespeople made their terms harder, and her father and brother were more reluctant to supplement her income from Cannawijera by random cheques for a couple of hundred pounds.

But then came the brilliant windfall of the new Governor and his wife—high in rank, and nearly connected with her husband's family. This gave her at one stroke that right of tambour at Government House which had been her cherished dream from early girlhood. She planted her feet on the neck of recalcitrant tradesmen and spiteful foes of her own sex, in the inner cliques of that curiously disintegrated mass which calls itself ‘good society’ in the capitals of Australian colonies. Her hour of victory had come. The Governor's wife was not only closely related to Tareling's family, but an intimate friend of his mother's. Before leaving London she had pledged herself to do all she could for Talbot, vaguely imagining that, in a wealthy young country like Victoria, it would be easy to smuggle a relative into some cosy sinecure worth, well, say seven or eight hundred a year.

But a very brief sojourn in Australia reveals the fact that to appoint a man to a post worth even one hundred a year, apart from fitness for the work or claims on the country, would at once arouse a ferment of Parliamentary inquiry. Now the Hon. Talbot Tareling's fitness for any appointment was limited to a well-cultivated and hereditary incapacity for any form of steady employment. His claims on the country consisted in having spent all his own and a great deal of his wife's money in very equivocal ways. The profound etiquette and the glamour of monarchical institutions are needed to elevate such traits into an irresistible claim on the public finances.

But at least it was in Lady Weavelow's power to shower those delicate attentions on her cousin and his wife which, from a viceregal personage, are objects of keener ambition in Melbourne than money or appointments. In Laurette,

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Lady Weavelow was agreeably surprised to find a lady whose demeanour, dress, and general savoir faire would bring no discredit on her husband, even among the order to which he belonged. Stella had once spoken of the hard, crude touch of the social amateur in Laurette. But like all who do not possess the ultimate distinction of manners moulded by hereditary culture, or the spontaneous courtesy of an essentially kind heart, Laurette's behaviour was largely dependent on circumstances. With people like the Courtlands, whose unostentatious family pride made them indifferent to those forms of social distinctions which had the keenest fascination for Laurette, she was probably at her worst. Their simple mode of living, their ardour for books and ideas, their absence of chic measured by local standards; the humble nondescript sort of people, marked only by unselfish aims of life, that one constantly met at Fairacre—all gave her a certain sense of superiority to them, and yet a baffling sense that they would regard such an assumption as very amusing, and not to be taken seriously. She was at her best with those whose rank and position towered above her own. She was then on her guard against the robust vulgarity that formed the real substratum of her nature. She was quick and clever in her own way, and prided herself on knowledge of the world. In her case, as in that of all intrinsically shallow natures, such knowledge is largely, though unconsciously, founded on the dictum of the Scotchman: ‘There is no an honest man in the world; I ken it by mysel'.’

But probably the very narrowness of Laurette's aims made her feel all the more acutely the prospect of speedy social extinction. After she reached her own room, she reread the telegram with a sickening heart. She recalled her father's obstinate refusal at Christmas-time to advance a few hundred pounds till after shearing-time. Of course he knew that to ‘advance’ was merely a euphemism for giving. He told her that till the rabbits were exterminated on his runs he would neither give nor advance a single copper, and advised herself and her husband to live quietly on their Cannawijera property, instead of running head over ears into debt in Melbourne. To go to these desolate wilds from the very apex of her triumph—from the haunts and assemblies whose open-sesame had cost her so many toilsome

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years of guerilla warfare with millionaire women, whose dull resentment she had aroused with the unguarded malice of a sharp and vindictive tongue! In a week after her departure her place in society would know her no more. The world abounds with those who are terrified at nothing so much as being forgotten. If people are buried in the Mallee Scrub, society has no alternative but to forget them. The thought suffocated Laurette in advance. And then Talbot—she knew—he would not stay at Cannawijera more than a week at the outside.

To make life endurable to him in such a cul-de-sac, it would be necessary to erase twelve hours out of the twenty-four. Even in Melbourne he was often dull. Against dulness he had not one honest resource. Still less would this be the case when his wife was permanently at Cannawijera, and he was permanently a man about town. He had an incredible knack of obtaining credit. It must have been inherited with his blue blood. A man habituated to the brutal habit of paying for what he got could never attain such perfect mastery of the art. He was skilful too, or lucky rather, at games of chance. Yes, he would keep afloat for a few months. But after that? He would join some theatrical company, and leave the colonies. Laurette was sure of it. He was a good amateur actor: he had been trained by experts. There were rôles in many popular plays in which he could give well-salaried actors points, and yet come off winner, from the fact that in such rôles he had only to present his own character in the less habitual parts that were fitted for stage representation—that of a well-bred, cool, unscrupulous man of the world. It was his one chance of getting a livelihood. He had more than once spoken of taking it up, when the dark desolation of Cannawijera loomed in the foreground as the only refuge open to him apart from gaining an independent livelihood. ‘He will attach himself to Mademoiselle de Melier's company, and go to San Francisco,’ thought Laurette; and she turned cold and faint with the conviction the thought carried—all that she had lived for seemed to be crumbling around her.

She covered her face with her hands, and felt better after she was able to cry. She heard Stella leave the drawingroom, and she debated with herself whether she would go to her brother and throw herself at his feet and implore him

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to save her from the ignominious series of defeats, of social annihilation, which she saw in store for her. But the next moment she rejected the thought. If a couple of hundred pounds would do her any good Ted would give a cheque at once. But he was far more obdurate about larger sums than ever her father had been. He knew too well what Tareling's mode of life was. He himself had worked hard from the age of sixteen till his uncle's death left him sole master of Strathhaye, and he had an invincible objection to placing an unlimited supply of cash at the disposal of ‘an image of a man who never did a stroke of work in his life, for himself or anyone else.’

Laurette buried her face in her hands, and one design after another flashed hastily across her mind. To write and tell her father that some dire catastrophe impended, unless he could send her, say, a thousand pounds? No, she had done that more than once before. It was the story of the shepherd-boy and the wolf over again. Then slowly something like a feasible plan suggested itself. But she determined to ponder over it for a day or two. At the end of that time, however, events ranged themselves precisely in the direction she wished. Stella announced to her that Louise was not well, and asked her to hasten her visit as much as possible. ‘If you will let me leave by the early train to-morrow, Laurette, I shall write and let Mrs. Coram, and the others whose invitations I accepted, know that I have been called away, and then I can see you again on my way home if you wish.’

Stella spoke in an apologetic tone, feeling half guilty for beating so hasty a retreat. But the enforced companionship with Laurette began to be intolerable. Her sustained enthusiasm about trifles, the glow of inextinguishable interest with which she retailed Lady Weavelow's opinions and sayings and doings, the solemn reverence with which she went over the connections of Lord Harry, the aide-de-camp, and entered into endless details regarding those she held to be the great people of Melbourne, bored Stella to the last point of ennui. It was like being in the society of servants, but without the interest of the servants’ point of view at first hand. Then the whole atmosphere of Monico Lodge oppressed her so that she could not even read any book she cared for. The very walls and chairs seemed to whisper

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endless anecdotes full of foolish self-importance, and count over the provincial notabilities who paid them visits. ‘We never know,’ says Goethe somewhere, ‘how anthropomorphic we are.’ Probably those who do have a glimmering of it conceal the fact, because the habit of endowing lifeless objects with a personality of their own has, in the eyes of most practical people, something in it dangerously silly.

‘Well,’ said Laurette, a sudden light coming into her face, ‘I will let you off on condition you promise to stay two weeks with me when you return. There is an English man-of-war to be here early in September, and a French royalty incog.; so we shall have the place en fête again.’ But as Laurette spoke her heart sank as she thought: ‘I may then, perhaps, be entombed in the Mallee Scrub.’

Stella had spent the previous day with her brother by the seaside. Had she made any irrevocable decision? Perhaps she meant to write to Ted. Laurette had noticed the pearl horseshoe wrapped up on Stella's toilet-table, in an isolated fashion, as if she did not mean to include it in her belongings. Ted had gone to St. Kilda, and would not be back till the next afternoon. Stella's departure in his absence was so far fortunate—if no communication passed between them. Laurette was just then in a curiously strained and watchful mood. She was all eyes and ears.

She determined on a little conversation that might help to fetter Stella's action till they met again—a conversation that might also aid in the development of her little coup. It was not that facts were at all necessary to her when she found a little impromptu history helpful. But facts, even when twisted entirely from their true drift and context, are valuable as imparting a certain vraisemblance to supposed events. There are people who will report an entirely imaginary conversation, and find a kind of moral support in adding: ‘Yes; he sat in an armchair all the time, with his slippered feet on the fender.’ The ‘he’ in question may not have uttered a word of the many ascribed to him—but then he did sit in an armchair, and his feet were really on the fender. After all, human veracity has severe limitations. We cannot have everything limning the severe countenance of truth. Let us remember this when, in contemporary history, we have the conversation all askew, but

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the armchair, the slippered feet, and the fender true to the life.

‘Stella, may I speak to you a little about Ted?’ said Laurette, with an engaging air of timidity.

She was really very quick at times in diagnosing the frame of mind in which people happened to be, and she had a prevision that her subject just then must be cautiously broached. Stella had not gone out riding with Ted since the evening he had offended her, and he had admitted to Laurette before he went to Flemington that he had been a deuced jackass, but when she questioned him he had relapsed into dogged silence.

‘Why, Laurette, you speak as though Ted were at the other end of the world. What do you wish to say?’

‘Well, no doubt I am rather foolish to be so much concerned. You see, Stella, you have so many brothers, you do not know how a woman feels when she has only one. Poor dear Ted is so unhappy just now. He offended you. Well, I undertook to make his peace with you. He did not go into particulars; perhaps he begged for one of the many kisses you owe him. Dear me, what a freezing air! I wonder how many kisses your brother Tom snatched from me; and yet he never proposed to me even once. Certainly I never set up for a monument of icy hauteur. Still, I never forgot that I was Sir Edward Ritchie's daughter, any more than I am likely to forget that I am the wife of the Hon. Talbot Tareling.’

Laurette drew herself up to her full height, and Stella was too much amused to retain an air of offended majesty.

‘At the same time,’ said Laurette, astutely taking advantage of this to show a sudden change of front, ‘I don't think you need be afraid of Ted pestering you again. Now, my dear, let us have a proper talk over this. Sit down here; we may as well be comfortable, and not stand staring at each other like two strange cats on the roof. I believe there were tears in Ted's eyes when he took me into his confidence. “What do you think I'd better do, Larry?” said he. “Do?” said I. “Why, nothing.” “But I am afraid she's very angry,” said he. “She hasn't even ridden out with me since, and now she's away for the whole day. It feels as long as a month of Sundays. I shouldn't wonder if she sent me back that dashed horseshoe”—indeed, I am

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afraid he used a stronger word. Poor old Ted! you know he is a little rough sometimes. But how good and generous he is!—though I sometimes call him stingy in fun. There he was yesterday, trying to make me take a cheque for I don't know how much. But, of course, when a woman is married, there is a limit to what she can accept, even from a brother. Besides, I had a sort of feeling that it was more for your sake than my own—a sort of testimonial because I am nice enough for you to visit me.’

Laurette, when it suited her purpose, was a finished mistress of that adroit flattery which seems inseparable from radical insincerity of nature.

‘I must say that was very humble of you,’ said Stella, laughing outright.

It is foolish to flatter people with a strong sense of humour; even if they like it, they must see through it.

‘Well, but to return to this storm in a teacup. I couldn't help laughing about the horseshoe; and I said, “If Stella wants to get rid of that in a huff, why, I'll take charge of it.” ’

‘I wish you would, Laurette. I'll leave it in your hands,’ said Stella.

‘Oh, certainly,’ returned Laurette, with an indulgent smile; and she mentally ticked this off as one point gained. But she had not finished yet. ‘Then Ted said to me, “Now, Larry, tell me—do you think I'm any nearer the end of this long courtship, one way or the other? Is it more likely or unlikely that Stella will have me?” “Ted,” said I, “don't ask me what Stella will do or will not do. I've long ago felt about this affair as if I were looking at a play—one of the sort that nearly makes you fall in pieces with yawning, don't you know. It's so long, and people come on and off, and you sit through one act after another, thinking that surely something will happen soon; but it doesn't, and there you gape till the curtain is rung down, and you feel like a perfect fool.” At that Ted got rather angry, as if I were prophesying evil. Of course, I didn't mean to do that; so I simply said, “When a girl lets a man dangle after her for years—” ’

‘You had no right to say—’ said Stella, colouring hotly.

‘Well, please remember this was a confidential chat with my only brother. “When a girl lets a man dangle after her for years, and prevents him from thinking of anyone

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else, and in the end doesn't know whether she'll have him or leave him—why, then I think it is time for him to take his fortune into his own hands.” ’

‘Well, that, at least, was good advice,’ said Stella, ‘and I hope Ted will act on it.’

‘Will you believe it?’ said Laurette, laughing—‘he has solemnly made up his mind that unless you write to him about something, or give him some direct encouragement, he will from this time forth try to think of you only as a friend. I believe that is partly why he has gone to Flemington.’

‘I am glad that he is reasonable at last,’ answered Stella; but, notwithstanding the words, Laurette felt sure there was some pique in the flush that settled in the girl's cheeks.