Chapter XXVI

THE home-station of Lullaboolagana was one of those delightful places which at once convey an assurance of welcome, comfort and repose. It was partly of wood, partly stone, with additions that formed an irregular chronology of the past. The snug-looking detached cottage, with a billiard-room and two or three bedrooms, marked the season in which the number of sheep shorn touched fifty thousand.

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The addition with the gable end dated the year in which the little Courtlands first had a governess, etc., etc. The house had deep verandas round three sides. The roof, washed snow-white, so as to lessen the force of the summer sun, gleamed with a seductive cheerfulness and air of salutation among the encircling foliage. Several outbuildings at varying distances made the home-station look at a little distance like a miniature village. The wool-shed and shearers’ house, with two or three huts, formed a second group of houses westward, beyond the confines of what was known as the Home Field. This consisted of over forty acres of land, which had been subjected to an artless form of landscape gardening by a relative of the Courtlands, who had left England under sentence of death from consumption, and had lived at Lullaboolagana for eighteen years, though it had been authoritatively predicted he could not survive the long sea-voyage. Here, then, he had employed his lease of semi-invalid life in testing the capabilities of Australian soil in growing trees and plants from widely-separated countries. Here, like Shenstone, though on a smaller scale, he planted groves and avenues and alleys, diversified his woods, pointed his walks, and entangled his shrubberies. The result was a charming semi-English milieu of the kind that the British race are so skilful in creating in the far regions of the earth, giving their dwelling-places under alien skies a touching resemblance to the old quiet homes in which their forefathers may have lived for many generations.

There were avenues on every side of the Home Field, composed chiefly of Italian pines, which in twenty years had attained a size almost incredible for that period. The Home Field was not closely planted. All over it there were wide open spaces between the groves and woodlets and groups of trees that embraced endless species, from the firs and pines of the north to the palms of the torrid zone, with a liberal proportion of Australian trees. Simplicity was certainly the governing taste, but combined with a blending of effects which, when perceived, added a new attraction. All round the house there were blossoming shrubs, rose-trees, and a great variety of flowers that kept up a procession of blooms year in, year out. The secret of perpetual spring in flowers is well-nigh sloved by gardeners in the more favoured portions of Australia. There were several

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gentle hillocks in the Home Field, which lent themselves to landscape effects in a very agreeable manner. But the most charming natural feature of all was the creek known by its native name, the Oolloolloo. It meandered through the whole length of the Home Field. The orchard, which was half hidden in a deep little valley, lay in two unequal portions, one on each side of the creek. Its course was still marked by the tall eucalyptus-trees, seldom absent from the banks of creeks. Indeed, these trees never attain their finest development except by running water; and yet they have to live through centuries in waterless wastes. Is there not here something of the same curious contradiction that we find between the complex social etiquette of the aborigines and their very primitive stage of savagedom? It is often forced upon the observer of nature in Australia that in the past she has been playing strange pranks; among other trifles, brewing pepper for her children instead of nourishing them with milk.

But the eucalypti were far from being the only trees that grew by the Oolloolloo. Side by side with these natives of the primeval woods were copses of alders, overgrown bushes of sweetbriar, bamboos springing up tall and slender, and falling wide apart, making pictures against denser foliage like Japanese screens; here and there a hazel with its ‘artless bower’; wide clumps of pampas grass, with their silky, flax-like blooms softly stirred by every breath of wind. Then one would come on a dense little grove of elms and native cherry-trees, mingled with scrub cypress—a combination which, of all others, makes the most alluring secular cloisters; a place in which to dream with open eyes; to catch phantasies by the wing; to read Shakespeare to one's self aloud; to muse, to brood, to meditate. Over all there was an enchanting air of leisure, of tranquil repose, which was heightened by the woods that lay on every side except to the south, where Minjah-Millowie, a township of seven or eight hundred inhabitants, extended in an irregular fashion within two miles of the Lullaboolagana home-station.

This was the direction the house fronted, and opposite to it there was a bridge across the Oolloolloo of solid masonry. It was the third that spanned the creek in the Home Field, but the only one that could be depended on when the winter rains where heavy, and the sluggish little creek, with its

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silent pools connected by a slender trickling thread of running water, was transformed into a rushing, turbid fury of a rivulet that filled the adjacent groves with its enchanting sound. The second bridge was an enormous gum-tree, which from time immemorial had lain across the creek as it fell, its great old withered branches extending over a hundred feet beyond the creek on the Home Field side of it. There were marks all along the upper side of this tree made by the stone axe of the aborigine, who had climbed it in quest of opossums, or to place his bark-enclosed dead among the boughs, or perhaps to scan the surrounding country for the little column of pale blue smoke that might proclaim the presence of a tribal foe not far off.

The third bridge, so called, was beneath a tall, slim white gum-tree, close to the orchard, and was a little rustic erection perched high up, completely covered on both sides with trailing creepers, conspicuous among them the wide-leaved passion-flower plant, now loaded with blossoms, scarlet and pale purple and white.

‘What a graceful creature it is, garlanded with leaves and flowers!’ said Stella, as she approached it with her sister-in-law the morning after her arrival. ‘It looks like the beginning of a poem, or some place that should come into a story. Has nothing ever happened there?’

‘Let me see. Hector and I often walk to and fro on it in the moonlight, when the nights are very warm.’

‘Ah, if you were only lovers—that had to part, you know, Louise—’

‘Thank goodness we are not!’ laughed Louise.

‘Not lovers? Oh, of course not—you are married people.’

‘Well, Baby, you are as wicked as ever. I do like to hear Hector call you Baby. You see, though you may be very grown-up, and serious at times, Hector best remembers you as the baby of the household, when he left home twenty-one years ago. What ancient folk we are getting, to be sure!’

They had by this time reached the passion-flower bridge, which was provided with seats on each side, and was, indeed, much resorted to as a sort of outside sitting-room. It was a point of vantage, and commanded a good view of the country round. Eastward there were low ranges. Between those and Lullaboolagana lay one of the tracts of

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dead trees that in Australian scenery make up so weird a picture of desolation. It was known as the Wicked Wood, from some unknown aboriginal tradition. Looking steadily northward, one became sensible of a break in the distant woods that betokened the beginning of a great plain, which stretched many scores of miles in that direction.

‘The Messmate Ranges, where I first saw a lyre-bird; the Wicked Wood, where only grass-trees and scorpions live; the Weeloo Plain, where a buggy seems to glide along like a boat—everything is just as it was over three years ago,’ said Stella, looking around with glad recognition.

Here the sisters-in-law indulged in one of those long wandering and delightful chats possible only to people who have had interests in common for many years. This lasted till a servant came to announce that Mrs. and Miss Morton had called.

‘My dear, how you have grown since I saw you!’ were Mrs. Morton's first words as she kissed Stella. ‘This is Julia; you did not see her when you were here—how many years since?’

‘Oh, a dreadful long time ago,’ said Stella; ‘but not long enough for me to have grown, Mrs. Morton.’

‘Oh, but positively you have, love,’ said Mrs. Morton, surveying the new arrival with fond eyes.

She was a fair, stout woman, long past middle life, but endowed with one of those exuberantly kind natures which seem to defy the worst inroads of age. She certainly never wore a face of joy merely because she had been glad of yore. The annals of daily life almost invariably supplied her with food for wreathed smiles. Not that she was callous to the accidents that marred other people's pleasures, though mishaps of all sorts had hitherto been unfamiliar to her personally. Only, though she knew well how to mourn with the unfortunate, she made an offering to oblivion of all that bordered on sorrow in an incredibly short time. Still, no one unconnected with a local catastrophe took it to heart so thoroughly for a day and a half as Mrs. Morton did. And on this very occasion she gave proof of this.

‘Oh, my dear, have you heard of the dreadful accident?’ she said to Louise after a few casual remarks had been interchanged.

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‘No—what accident?’ said Louise, a little startled by the concern depicted on Mrs. Morton's face as she spoke. It is curious how the people who feel the most acutely connect any show of deep concern with personal misadventure.

‘Well, it was at Dr. Morrison's yesterday evening. We called at one of the Minjah shops on our way, and heard all about it. A man came in from the Bush with a fearful gumboil. Dr. Morrison found the tooth would have to come out. He put the man under chloroform, and extracted the tooth most successfully—but the man never got over it. The chloroform killed him. Oh, my dear, wasn't it dreadful?’ and Mrs. Morton took out her handkerchief—not unncessarily, for the tears were trickling down her cheeks.

‘Oh, I am sorry—and poor dear Mrs. Morrison so easily upset, it would give her a dreadful shock,’ said Louise.

‘That is the best of using ether,’ returned Mrs. Morton tearfully. ‘If it hurts the patient it does not show till afterwards. But for a man to die under your hands—without getting away from you! Oh, it is so very shocking!’

‘But, after all, mamma,’ said her daughter, ‘he was quite a common man, and very fond of drink.’

‘Well, Julia, my dear, if you were his wife, or his mother, or his sister, that isn't the way you would speak,’ said Mrs. Morton, wiping her eyes. ‘It's of them I think.’

‘But he didn't have any, mamma. He was just a knock-about hand on the Tarra-tarra Station.’

‘Oh, my dear, not have a mother? how thoughtless you are. If Dr. Langdale had been there, I cannot help thinking he would have seen the man couldn't stand chloroform.’

‘But isn't Dr. Langdale there? He was here the day before yesterday, and didn't say a word of leaving for any length of time.’

‘He is at Nareen, staying with the Kenleighs. You know, they worship the ground he walks on since he performed that wonderfully successful operation on Mark.’

‘Do you think he'll really stay in Australia, Mrs. Courtland?’ said Miss Morton.

‘I do not know,’ answered that lady; ‘I am afraid not. You see, it was not to stay he came, but for a year's change and rest.’

‘But then he's always writing—he must be writing a

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book,’ said the young lady. ‘I asked Mrs. Morrison the other week whether he wasn't, but she only shook her head and smiled. I don't know why some people are so fond of making secrets of things. Either he is or he is not. Why shouldn't she say “Yes” or “No”?’

‘Perhaps she doesn't really know,’ answered Louise, smiling. She knew that anything in the nature of a secret was abhorrent to Miss Morton, who loved nothing so well as talking of other people's affairs, except talking of her own. She was a tall, good-looking young woman of twenty-five, with large brown eyes, a brilliant complexion, and that stamp of figure which milliners call ‘stylish.’

The visitors stayed for many hours in the friendly leisurely fashion of neighbours in the Bush, who are separated by fifteen miles of unpeopled woods. Miss Morton had three weeks previously returned from a visit to her brother, Mr. John Morton, coming back by way of Melbourne, where she had stayed a couple of days with Mrs. Tareling.

‘I would have seen you there,’ she said to Stella, ‘only you were so long in coming. Laurette thought you were going to give her up altogether. What a dear Laurette is, to be sure!’

To this Stella assented, in the facile way in which we all help to swell social fictions.

‘I do not feel as if I remembered much of my new sister-in-law. Is Helen like Julia at all?’ Stella asked a little hesitatingly, after the Mortons had gone.

‘Not much. Helen takes more after her father. Not but what Mrs. Morton is the dearest and kindest of women. You will like Helen, dear,’ said Louise, who was essentially one of the peacemakers of life, who not only prophesy smooth things, but help materially to bring them to pass.

‘And who is this Dr. Langdale you all conspire to—’

‘Now, Stella, I warn you to say nothing disparaging,’ said Louise, laughing. ‘Dr. Langdale is an immense favourite with us here. You are sure to see him as soon as he returns from Nareen. He strolls across from Dr. Morrison's house in Minjah Millowie most days in the afternoon, when his writing for the day is over. He does write, for Hector told me. You know how slowly Hector makes friends.’

‘Does he? You see, I really know very little of Hector and Claude.’

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‘I always forget that. Of course, you see them only at long intervals, and for a short time. Well, it's about five or six months since Dr. Langdale came. He had been in the other colonies some little time. He and Hector became great cronies almost at once. He is related to the Morrisons. We heard a good deal about him before he arrived. He has inherited a pretty good income, and does not need to work for his living. But he always had a great liking for the medical profession. He is much interested, too, in all sorts of social questions. He had an appointment in a large London hospital; in fact, he has never practised anywhere else. He previously held a merely honorary post there for two or three years. Then an uncle—a great physician in the West End—died, and his son wished Dr. Langdale to enter on a partnership with him. Before deciding on this, he came away for a year's rest and change.’

‘How old is he?’

‘About thirty-one, only, like most Englishmen, he looks younger, at least as compared with Australians. But he isn't all English; he is German on the mother's side.’

‘Indeed! What is he like?’

‘Now, Stella, you are interested. You do so love the Germans. I know you will like Dr. Langdale, if only for that reason.’

‘Yes; and because you are giving me such a vivid description of him,’ said Stella, laughing. The soft flush in her cheeks would have shown one who knew her that she was more interested than she chose to appear.

‘Well, I'll do my best, only the moment you see him you'll say—’

‘Oh, here you are, both gossiping away nineteen to the dozen! Well, Baby, are you tired from your journey yesterday? After all, you are really quite grown up.’

It was Hector Courtland who made this little speech, standing in the doorway of the drawing-room, where his wife and sister were seated, with Lionel, the eldest boy, just then an invalid, on a couch, buried in the enchanted pages of the ‘Arabian Nights.’ Courtland was a tall spare man, with that slight stoop which tall men, who are in the saddle often ten hours out of the twenty-four, are apt to acquire. He was bronzed with the sun and constant exposure to all sorts of weather. He was barely forty, but

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his dark-brown hair, beard, and moustache were plentifully sprinkled with gray. His face, when in repose, was grave almost to sadness, and he would often pass hours without uttering a word. These are some of the characteristics of a life passed in the Bush from early manhood. Courtland had been at Eton three years, when sudden and disastrous reverses, coupled with failing health, led his father to decide on leaving England for Australia. No one who knew Hector Courtland when he left Eton—a lad of seventeen—would have prognosticated that he would become grave, silent, and unmirthful long before he reached the uplands of middle age. But there are probably few natures which are not profoundly modified by a semi-Carthusian existence during the most susceptible years of life.

‘You look tired, Hector. Wouldn't you like a cup of tea?’ said his wife.

‘Yes, a quart potful. Some sheep got boxed up at the seven-mile hut, and we had a high old time of it drafting them. Well, Liny, what are you doing, young man?’

‘Reading about Sindbad the Sailor, father. Do you know that Aunt Stella can tell stories just like a book?’

‘No; I never heard her. What sort of stories?’

‘The one she told me this morning was about strange people who live always in the woods.’

‘What kind of people, my boy?’

‘Well, when they are in the sunshine they are all light. When they are in the moonshine, it goes through them, so you must step very gently, and follow them till they get into the shadow; and when they are in shadow, you cannot tell them from the darkness.’

‘Then it seems you do not see them at all?’

‘No, father, never; and all the time they are there doing the strangest things. They catch falling stones and toss them back into the sky, and there they give more light than ever, and don't fall down any more. They take old bits of dead bark and make them into butterfly wings, with gold and purple spots on them. When an old log is burnt up they make the little geraniums, that smell so sweet, out of the ashes. They never go to sleep, and they never stop working, and they are never tired and never seen, and they never let the tiniest scrap of anything go to waste.’

The father listened with smiling seriousness to these

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wonders of the wood. Later on he pleaded to be among the audience when Stella told twilight stories to the children, and he would listen with profound interest to the mystical events and subtle fancies that rose to ‘Baby's’ lips with tireless vivacity. She certainly had something of the improvisatrice in her, for never, except when she threw the reins on fancy's neck in speaking, did such winged words, luminous reaches of imagination, and quick touches of pathos come to her. Sometimes, when the grave elder brother listened, he would almost question whether this could be the merry little child with wide open eyes who had been the baby among them all when he left home. She had in a manner remained ‘Baby’ to him ever since.

There is something pathetic in the way that those who are most closely related may come to be entire strangers. When we are in daily communion we inevitably weave fancies one concerning the other, which stand to us in place of knowledge. But all the time—between not only dumb natures, but those most subtly gifted with utterance—there is that baffling, inexorable wall of division, that unfathomed abyss in which each human soul is shrouded from the cradle to the grave.