Chapter XXV

WHEN Ritchie returned, and found that during his absence Stella had taken her departure for Lullaboolagana, his chagrin was extreme.

‘She asked me to say good-bye to you for herself and Dustiefoot, and gave her kind regards to Shah,’ said Laurette, as she sat skimming a budget of letters and notes that had just been delivered.

Ted felt like one who has suddenly been dragged out of the sunlight, and has had the key turned on him in a cheerless dungeon.

‘She is to finish her visit in September,’ said Laurette, when she found that Ted made no response.

He stared at the Age for some time in gloomy silence, glancing from one column to another as if he were reading, but not seeing a line.

‘Well, I don't suppose it's to make much difference to me whether she comes here or anywhere else,’ he answered.

Laurette made no reply.

‘Was that all Stella said?’ asked Ritchie after a pause; ‘just to say good-bye? Was she at all put out that Louise wanted her at once, or was the thing a plant, do you think—just an excuse to be off?’

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‘Ted, don't ask so many questions, or I shall betray confidence,’ said Laurette.

‘Betray confidence? Bosh!’ retorted Ritchie in a disdainful tone. ‘You can't run with the hare and hunt with the hounds. At Christmas-time you thought you were going to do great shakes by getting Stella here, and showing her what a dash you cut; and now she's gone off in less than two weeks without even saying good-bye to me. And then there's something that you know in confidence. I should think I am the proper person to be taken into confidence, if there's anything to confide.’

‘You asked if Stella only said good-bye,’ said Laurette, in an impressive tone. ‘Well, we had a long, private talk.’

Ted leant forward, no longer pretending to read the newspaper.

‘Yes; and what was the talk about?’

‘Before telling you that, I must get your promise that you will not let Stella know I told you.’

‘I'm not such a confounded blab as to carry yarns between people.’

‘Then tell me, has Stella, since she came here, said anything that led you to think she had been debating in her own mind whether or not she would accept you?’

‘Yes; she told me that since I last saw her she had sometimes thought she would come to the scratch.’

‘Ah! Well, after all, you understood her better than I do. They say that women have so much penetration; but I think some men have. You asked me one day if I thought Stella had heard anything.’


‘She has.’

‘Ah, I suppose Cuth, the parson, has fossicked?’

‘I don't think so. I believe it is a slight rumour, but enough to disquiet her—to make her uncertain.’

‘I shall write and make a clean breast of it; tell her all.’

‘Not for your life. At least, not if you don't mean to lose her.’

‘Lose her? I haven't got her, and not likely to now!’

‘Ah, there you are mistaken. Stella loves you, Ted,’ and Laurette, without a quiver of her eyelid, gazed into the young man's face. He flushed deeply, and walked about the room with signs of evident emotion.

  ― 168 ―

‘If I could believe that—’ he said, and stopped.

‘You may believe it,’ she said, in a tone of quiet confidence which thrilled him with joy.

‘And in spite of—what she has heard?’

‘Yes; and when she returns here in September—well, I can only judge by what she said, and by what she did not say, which is often quite as important, and by what I observed—I believe you will get a speedy answer. But, whatever you do, don't write to her till you do see her, for she would instantly think I told you all that passed between us, and I have not done that, and don't mean to.’

‘Well, Larry, this is very good news you have given me,’ said Ted, and he was so much moved that his voice trembled.

Some visitors were announced, and Ted took himself off, and went for a long spin on Shah, trying to realize that his tedious years of waiting were after all to be crowned with the one great joy that had so long seemed a vision beyond his reach.

The next little scene in Laurette's coup took place three days later, in the evening. Ted was to return to Strathhaye on the following day. A servant brought in some letters on a salver. Among them was one which Laurette had posted to herself, containing a long letter that Tareling had written to her a year or two previously. Latterly he never wrote long letters, even on business. Laurette crushed the envelope into her pocket, and began to read this letter with an air of absorbed attention. Presently she gave a little sharp cry.

‘What's the row?’ said Ted, looking up. ‘A letter from Tareling?’ he said, glancing at the sheet, which Laurette re-perused with a most dejected countenance. But she said nothing. She read one or two more notes; one of them a delightfully intimate one from the Hon. Miss Brendover, Lady Weavelow's sister, asking Laurette and Miss Courtland to spend an afternoon at Government House in an informal way two days hence.

‘Tell me, Ted,’ said Laurette suddenly, ‘how much is father really affected by the rabbits?’

‘How much? Well, there, you ask a question that neither he nor I can answer at present. Within the last twelve months he has spent £9,000 on sending the bunnies

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to kingdom-come; and how much he'll spend during the current twelve months, the Lord only knows!’

‘But I thought this rabbit extermination was partly at the expense of Government?’

‘Exactly; and that's why the vermin have been increasing head over heels. Why, the governor himself has had forty-three rabbits trapped, with the scalp taken off, and let run again that they may go on breeding. You see, these scoundrels in Government pay mean to make a permanent job of it. They get so much for every scalp, so, instead of killing the little brutes, they sometimes carefully take the skin off the top of the head, and in the course of a few months there are thousands more bred by the animals they have been paid for killing. When the governor saw what was going on he jacked up at once—gave the Government notice he would see to doing away with the rabbits on his own account. So there he is paying at the rate of £30 a day, and putting up a rabbit-proof fence between his land and the land in Government possession.’

‘But, then, of course, father has been saving a lot of money all these years. It doesn't take more than eight or nine thousand a year to keep Godolphin House going.’

‘Yes, he has unfortunately put four or five hundred thousand pounds into good investments in South Australia,’ said Ted grimly. ‘He had £150,000 in Commercial Bank Shares, which at the present moment may be had wall-high for an old song; he has £100,000 in the Town and Country Bank, which is more shaky than a poplar leaf; he has a pot of money in tram lines that will yet be sold for old iron; and he has heaps of tin in houses that cost him a handsome sum every quarter for broken windows, and advertisements for tenants that don't turn up. Perhaps you thought the governor cut up rather rough when he had to shell-out a thousand pounds over that shady concern of Tareling's six months ago; but, by Jove! if you knew how much money the old man has dropped lately in one way or another—’

‘Well, I suppose we'll have to take up our abode permanently at Cannawijera,’ said Laurette in a resigned tone.

‘Yes. It licks me why you don't make more of a home of that place,’ said the unsuspecting Ted—‘make a garden—you've only got to irrigate, you know: it's ridiculous to pay a manager on a little station like that—and make the

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place trim and comfortable. In fact, Stella told me she liked Coonjooree so much the last time she was there, she means to go again before long. Jove, I hope I may be there if she does!’

‘Well, you see, I am not one of the gifted souls that love a worm-eaten old poet so much better than my fellow-creatures,’ said Laurette a little viciously, and the next moment regretted giving any indication of the loathing that the place excited in her mind; but she had the faculty of saying sharp things, and found it hard to resist the temptation. ‘But now that nothing else is left to us,’ she said with a pensive resignation—‘well, I dare say we shall make the best of it. Perhaps, if you come to see us next month, Ted, you will find Talbot planting a grass-tree against the wash-house wall.’

‘You must bet him it won't grow, Larry, or he'll never finish the job,’ said Ted, laughing. ‘You mean next year, though; not next month?’

By way of answer Laurette unfolded her husband's letter, and read aloud:

‘ “It is only fair to let you know at as early a date as possible that I have lost every stiver of the money I brought with me, and am probably liable for as much more. This comes of trying to earn money by downright honest work—” ’

‘Baccarat!’ interjected Ted; but Laurette did not heed this.

‘ “If I had been content, as so many are, to take the words of thieving brokers, instead of coming here to see for myself, we would probably have trebled our little haul from the Celestial Hills. But it's no use crying over spilt milk. And I am determined that neither you nor I will ask a loan or an advance from your father or—” ’

Laurette stopped short.

‘That close-fisted hunks of a brother of yours, that's about it, isn't it?’ said Ted, without a soupçon of malice. ‘Don't mind me, Larry; Tareling and I understand each other. Well, what then?’

‘ “But we must at once leave Melbourne. So please put the house immediately in Sibworth's hands, and make all your preparations for leaving on or before the 24th of this month.” ’

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Ted gave a low whistle, and Laurette folded up the letter with an inimitable air of resignation.

‘But if you go, then, what of Stella's visit?’ said Ted, with folds in his brow.

‘Stella's visit?’ repeated Laurette absently. ‘Oh, to be sure! To tell you the truth, my dear Ted, I am too much taken aback by the position to think much of anything beyond the domestic horizon. It is so sudden—yes, and unexpected—for if Talbot had had a little luck we should have paid off nearly all our little arrears; and then, of course, there would be the shearing in October.’

Laurette avoided allusion to the fact that this had been long ago discounted and the advance used up, and creditors appeased only with fictitious promises of payment after the shearing already disposed of.

‘Of course you will see Stella at her own home, though I think there is something in the wind about her going abroad with Mrs. Raymond. It is to her I trace the rumour that has set Stella— But there, I must not mix up things and other people's secrets!’

‘Larry, you mustn't leave—you mustn't give up Monico Lodge till after September.’

‘Ah, my dear boy, I would be only too happy, but it's beyond my power. It did flash across my mind that I would write and ask father; but now that you've explained about the rabbits and things— —’

‘But there are no rabbits at Strathhaye!’

Laurette looked wonderingly at her brother, and then a sudden light seemed to dawn on her.

‘Oh, Ted, don't tempt me. I'll be honest. It isn't what would keep Monico Lodge going; but being so nearly connected with the Weavelows, we are in the swim of everything. I wouldn't undertake to stay for the rest of the season—not unless Talbot's aunt was kind enough to die, and he got the few thousand pounds for which he is down in her will. But she was always a cantankerous old cat. I dare say she'll live for fifteen years to come. And lately she has taken quite a passion for the Burmese. She helped to send two missionaries among the Chins there, but they were eaten or something. I don't know whether they do eat them in Burmah; but at any rate she's going to send more. How old ladies of the aristocracy of England should

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send missionaries anywhere while the young men of their own class are what they are—and the old ones, too, for the matter of that!—but I dare say they know how hopeless it would be; whereas people that you never see, you can believe all sorts of romantic things about them, their conversions and things; and then, I suppose, wild creatures, who haven't got a stick of furniture or a shirt to their backs, can afford to be really Christianized.’

Laurette had taken up a seam from a work-basket near, and was sewing away most industriously, while she rambled on in this artless fashion. Ted rose abruptly, and, without saying a word, went to his own room. He returned presently, and Laurette noticed, with a beating heart, that he had a cheque-book in his hand.

He sat down at a davenport in the corner of the room, and wrote for a few minutes rapidly, blotted the cheque, and stood near his sister.

‘Don't talk in that cold-blooded way about the old woman, Larry. I think you may always reckon that the Australian side of your clan will do more for you than the “English-nobility” side. Keep this as much as you can in your own hands; and, if you want it, you can have as much again at the end of September.’

With that, Ted put down the cheque before Laurette, and hastened to leave the room. It was for fifteen hundred pounds. It seemed to Ted that Larry didn't look at the amount at all, when she rose with a little exclamation of joy, intercepted him, and threw her arms round him.

‘There, Larry, don't slobber! I think you ought to say your prayers for that old woman. It sticks in my gizzard entirely to hear people talk in that way of old people—grudging them their bit of tucker and their own fireside. Why, even the niggers never knocked the old ones on the head unless there was a big famine.’

With this little homily, Ted went out; and Laurette, hardly able to believe her senses, stared at the cheque with beaming eyes. She had hardly dared to hope for such complete success.

‘As much again at the end of September!’ But of course that was spoken in the elation of believing his suit was to prosper. Like a wary general, Laurette began to sum up the situation. She was secure against detection as to those

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excursions of the imagination she had dealt in till her brother and Stella met; and as far as Ted was concerned, probably altogether secure; for if that idiotic girl finally rejected him, that was the ultimate misfortune to him, and everything else would sink into insignificance. Stella would be the first to let the cat out of the bag; for if she were still obdurate, the first thing she would say, no doubt, would be: ‘Now, Ted, I thought you had made up your mind that we were just to be friends. That is not the sort of thing friends say.’ She mimicked her half aloud, and for the first time felt her smouldering dislike to the girl warm up to something like hatred. She was almost sure Stella would cheat her out of the other fifteen hundred pounds. Well, but it was good of Ted—at least good, considering he had never given her more than three or four hundred pounds at a time before. But, after all, a young man with about fifteen thousand a year: ‘If we only had a run like Strathhaye instead of that desolate hole! Oh, thank God, we can stay in Melbourne after all!’

It may seem curious that one should thank God for the result of so much devious by-play and deception. But when we consider how a strong nation will attack a weaker one for no better motive than greed or ambition or the lust of tyranny, and then go to church en masse to chant the praises of the Almighty because tens of thousands of human beings have been slaughtered and tens of thousands of homes have been desolated and impoverished, the wonder of the solitary case diminishes. It is not safe to assume that the individual conscience is invariably less frayed than that of the collective nation.