Chapter XXVII

IT might seem at first sight that station life in Australia must be a very slow and dull kind of existence. As a rule, the centres of civilization are far off, the nearest neighbours many miles away; and the ordinary modes of amusement, balls, parties, opera, and theatre-going, etc., are unknown. To many, no doubt, a life so cut off from external excitement would seem a very maimed and incomplete affair. But, on the other hand, it must be remembered that all the most healthful forms of recreation, as opposed to pleasure-seeking, are opened to squatting life. There are books and magazines to read, buggies to drive in, horses to ride, visits to be received and paid, and all the engrossing interests of family life for the women-folk. For the men there is the ceaseless round of duties, which are on the whole not more monotonous than the calling of average professional men,

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and less arduous, after the early struggles are over, than most other forms of work. And, then, who has lived for years encircled by great woods without finding that these unpeopled spaces exercise a fascination, all their own, over the mind? The tranquil gullies, in which the slender, stringy bark-trees grow so thick that every sun-ray is intercepted; the scrubby ranges, which the radiant epacris sometimes turn into a mass of colour; the swamps, with their wide, gray-green fringe of reeds and rushes and flocks of water-fowl, that come to them in straggling lines from far districts that have become waterless; the treeless plains, that stretch like a mimic ocean to the verge of the far horizon; the swelling hills, that break the monotony of well-timbered, undulating country; the sombre vegetation, the gleam of brilliant desert flowers, the calls and songs of birds, all have a charm of their own, and rise up in the memory of the Australian exile with an allurement which he never finds in the crowded cities—nay, not even in the scenery of the Old World.

Stella took very kindly to station life. She found it delightful to be so closely neighboured by the great unmeasured woods of her native land. She even regretted that the township of Minjah Millowie was so near. The views she liked best were those that swept the woods to the north and west, where one might travel on and on for days without striking any signs of human habitation. Next day she was on the passion-flower bridge, alternately absorbed in Keats and in looking across the Home Field and the stirless masses of foliage beyond, when she heard approaching footsteps. She turned, to find herself face to face with her unknown partner at the Emberly ball.

‘Miss Stella! Is it possible?’ he said in a delighted tone.

They shook hands cordially.

‘I believe I know your name now,’ said Stella laughingly.

‘Oh! it is Langdale. Did you not know that night?’

‘No; but since I came here things I have heard of you made me believe that Dr. Langdale and you were one and the same.’

He laughed with beaming eyes at this division of his individuality.

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‘Well, I knew you were Miss Stella; and now, I suppose, I may add to that, Courtland? This is another stroke of good luck—not so fleeting, I hope, as the first. By the way, should I not ask whether you have got over the fatigues of the ball?’

‘Oh yes! This is the day after.’

‘Only, I suppose, you would say it was one of the thirty-six tragic situations of life that one can never really make believe?’

‘You still remember our little debate?’

‘Surely. Tell me, do you still think of the “Kritik of Pure Reason” when the hair-dresser comes before you are going to a ball?’

She laughed merrily, and then said seriously:

‘Do you know, I haven't been to any ball half so nice since.’

‘And I haven't been to any at all. But they are not much in my line. I wonder if that exquisite Tasmanian tree-fern is still flourishing?’

‘No; it died next morning of pure chagrin.’

‘I am sorry to hear that. But why?’

‘Because someone near it began an anecdote about Heine, and then went away without telling it. If there is anything in the world a Tasmanian tree-fern cannot brook it is an interrupted anecdote.’

‘Well, I felt it a great misfortune that your partners discovered you; but I didn't know the tree-fern sympathized with me. Shall I tell you that little story?’

‘Please. I have often since tried to imagine what it was.’

‘It was told to my mother by an old lady who knew Heine. She visited him one dull day in November, a little over two years before his death. She found him spent with pain, that had defied his sleeping potion all through the night. But he was propped up on his mattress-grave, writing on a tablet. He said it was a poem, which, like life, had turned into a bad joke on his hands—too long for wit, and too pathetic for the publishers. It was the story of a peasant-boy from the Thuringian woods, who had climbed mountain-peaks for edelweiss, gathered violets before sunrise, who, with tears in their eyes, told him why their petals were the same in number as the eggs

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of the swallows, and other weighty secrets; a boy who made love to the stars at night, and watched a maiden spinning till he believed that he was a poet. He came to Paris—the beautiful heathen Circe, who slays her lovers by thousands with the simples she culls with a brazen sickle by moonlight. But her simples had no power over the peasant-boy. He played woodland melodies on his oaten pipe early and late, but no one heeded him. Then he fell ill, and longed even to death for a sight of his native woods, but most of all for one of the white violets that Gretchen used to wear at her throat. Then the evil spirit came to him one midnight, and offered him a white violet for one of two trifles—a song or his soul. The boy had no longer the power to make a song in the cruel city that had broken his heart, so he gave his soul. He held the flower against his lips, but when the dawn crept into his garret he saw that the violet was a purple one, bleached with brimstone. Then without a word he turned his face to the wall and died. They say he looked so young and beautiful that Beelzebub himself shed tears. “I do not believe this part of the story, however,” said Heine, “for in that case he would give up pinching my nerves with red-hot pincers in the night when Mathilde is asleep, and there is no one to drive him away.” Of course, much is always lost when a thing of that kind is repeated from one to the other; but that is the little anecdote as my mother told it me, as nearly as I can recollect.’

‘Well, I think it has Heine's cachet on it. Poor Heine, it seems like a peep into his room where he lay so cruelly long!’

‘Yes, it was a bitter period—those lingering years—when, as he said in one of his letters, he was no life-enjoying, somewhat comely Greek any more, who would laugh merrily at morose Nazarenes; but only a poor Jew, sick to death; a wasted picture of sorrow; an unhappy man.’

‘What a crown of thorns life has for the most part offered to the goldenest-mouthed singers.’

‘That is true; but we must not forget that they themselves plaited the thorns too often, just as we other ordinary mortals do.’

‘Ah, but they suffer more; they have less “certainty of

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waking bliss.” Genius has never been truly acclimatized in the world. The Philistines always long to put out the eyes of poets, and make them grind corn at Gaza.’

There was a touch of scorn in Stella's voice and a light in her eyes which were not lost on her companion, who, indeed, found an evident pleasure in looking at her, as well as hearing her speak.

‘But you must not forget that poets are by nature very vocal, and able to record their joys and woes with cunning effect. Now take the dumb, patient way in which the poor—women among them, especially—suffer. It is nothing uncommon to find a woman has been enduring acute pain at intervals for years, and all the time going about her work as if nothing were the matter, and saying very little about it. That, to my mind, is true heroism. If a poet could ever suffer in the same way, for a month, say—ye gods! what despairing odes—what declamatory appeals to an unrighteous Heaven!’

‘You talk almost like a heretic.’

‘Perhaps I say what appears to me true; that is often the worst sort of heresy.’

‘But surely not if your truth is really true,’ said Stella, with an arch smile.

‘Ah, that is a burning question,’ returned Langdale, with an answering smile. ‘But without going into the more serious aspect of affairs—though we should not choose to be in error—yet are there not many things in which illusions help people more than the truth? Isn't that perhaps one reason why things, as they are, remain for the most part so carefully masked?’

‘I must think over that before I commit myself. But about the poets; isn't it their vocation to see the “passionate expression” not only in the face of all science, but to put into words what others dumbly endure? When Shelley says:

‘ “I could lie down like a tired child
And weep away this life of care,
Which I have borne and still must bear.”

he was speaking not only for himself, but for multitudes who have had the same feeling, but lacked all gift of expression.’

‘That just points what I wanted to say. A feeling of

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that kind is, after all, fleeting; it takes up but a small part of a working day, and a working day is, on the whole, a hopeful one. Only the things that make it so would not produce a lyrical cry.’

‘That sounds so reasonable; it is more provoking than a downright attack.’

‘No; but really it is so. Think what it takes of endeavour, of effort, to make up one day of this world's life. Most of this may be called downright drudgery. Things that have to be done over and over again, in almost exactly the same way, simply because people need three meals a day. And yet the work done has its own interest to each healthy individual.’

‘What, to the women who make buttonholes all their lives, and make dolls’ arms for a shilling the hundred dozen; to the men who break stones for the road, and work in gangs in factories and mines underground?’

‘Do not forget,’ said Langdale with a smile, ‘that you are thinking of these monotonous employments with a highly sensitized imagination. And even when the work is in far more imaginative grooves—when it brings the mind into touch with things that do not pass away with the using—how much more effective for poetry is the reaction, the mistrust, the vague disappointment, than the moderate satisfaction at moderate success—the feeling of expectation and looking on, and waiting for what is to follow, which, after all, give their zest to the average days of existence?’

‘Well, are we to come back to the old idea of banishing poesy because it is misleading?’

‘By no means. Only I think we do not enough realize its tendency to heighten what is sad in life—often, I think, to exaggerate it. It isn't the people who have most to do with life that write criticisms on it. And in all criticisms there is a heightening and a deepening. It is the craft of the ready writer.’

‘You make me think of an expression people often use when anything dreadful happens—“It is like a dream.” And yet the worst things always happen when we are wide awake. Still, I feel the force of what you say about the poor. I have often been struck with the uncomplaining, almost stoical, way in which they take misfortune.’

‘Yes, one cannot help being struck with it. “It does

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feel rather bad,” they will say, when “intolerable agony” would be our only adequate expression for what they are enduring. And how simply often they face death. “I wouldn't mind going, if it weren't for the children,” I have heard poor, long-suffering women say over and over again. What a sinewy, insinuating expression for passing away from all that we know. There is no art of the rhetorician here—of the shoemaker who can make a great shoe for a little foot.’

The two had left the passion-flower bridge by this time, and were slowly sauntering through the Home Field towards the house. It was the afternoon of one of those perfect Australian days in which the sky is widely vaulted in a dome of crystalline clearness; the horizons so indefinitely enlarged that the limiting-lines are beyond sight; the world overflowing with sunshine, as though day had been added to day; while a cool westerly breeze was blowing, that stirred the boughs into jocund sprightliness, and revealed in the searching light how large the buds were growing on the limes and birches, and all the old-world trees that lose their foliage in winter.

‘You almost tempt me to think that it is more poetical to be “to dumb forgetfulness a prey” than to interpret nature and our own hearts to us,’ said Stella. ‘But still, I suppose you do love the poets a little?’

‘Fortunately I have got a voucher with me,’ he returned laughingly, and pulled a small brown volume of Molière out of his pocket.

‘Ah! that is one of the beloved among the classics. One reads him each time as if afresh—for the first time.’

‘Yes. As I walked from Minjah Millowie I laughed over Harpagon's instructions to his servants to conceal the defects of their liveries as if I had never read them before. Is there anyone else who has the secret of touching the springs of laughter so irresistibly? And it isn't so much with broad effects, or even the finer point of wit, but the perpetual play of the human comedy—the ironical surprises life has in store for us.’

‘You make me long to steal the volume from you. I don't think I have read “L'Avare” for years.’

‘Suppose we exchange? I know Keats very imperfectly. This is just the atmosphere in which to read him. Now,

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that is a sort of pledge of friendship,’ he said, as they exchanged books.

‘Yes,’ so it is, answered Stella heartily.

‘Do you know, I often wondered if we should meet again,’ he went on. ‘I quite made up my mind that we might be friends if we did, if you will forgive such boldness.’

‘So did I,’ returned Stella frankly; and she recalled her conversation with her sister at Coonjooree.

‘Thank you very much,’ he returned, with a simple cordiality which was a marked trait in his manner. ‘I foresee that we shall quarrel occasionally,’ he continued gaily, a little afterwards.

‘Yes; there is an exasperating reasonableness about you,’ she said, with a soberness only belied by the dancing light in her eyes, ‘and that must breed mischief sometimes. I suppose it comes of your belonging to two old civilizations firmly rooted in the past.’

He maintained his gravity till her eyes betrayed her, and then they laughed together.

‘You have a way of taking temporary rises out of me which you must expect to hear of again,’ he said; and this threat made food for more laughter.

And then at that moment Louise, accompanied by two or three little ones, came in sight among the trees.

‘What will my sister-in-law think?’ said Stella, with an amused smile. ‘She does not know we are old friends.’

What Louise thought as she approached the two was that they looked extremely companionable. Stella was attired in a close-fitting cream-coloured cashmere, with a cluster of passion-flowers at her throat, and a broad straw hat looped up at one side with the same flowers. A smile hovered about her lips, and as she talked her long thick lashes and dark slender eyebrows heightened the radiance of her eyes and cheeks.

Her companion was little over a head taller, with a muscular, well-formed figure. His eyes were dark gray, his head and brow strikingly noble—an air well maintained by the rest of the face, more especially the finely-moulded chin and mouth, whose short upper lip was defined rather than hidden by a silky black moustache. His hair was of the same colour; his skin a clear olive tint.

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‘I do not think I need offer to introduce you to one another,’ said Louise, smiling.

‘Well, no. We have just been finishing a talk we began the day after I landed in Australia,’ said Langdale. And then Louise was speedily told all there was to tell.

‘You were sitting on the passion-flower bridge, then, when you met Dr. Langdale?’ said Louise afterwards, when the two were alone. ‘Well, something has happened there at last. For don't you think, under the circumstances, it was almost an event?’

‘Oh yes, it was an event; for we are going to be friends.’

Louise might smile covertly, and feel as sceptical as people usually are regarding friendship pure and simple between an attractive young woman and a man barely eight years her senior. But Stella, who was weary of being made love to, found this prospect of friendship very alluring; and from the first moment she met him something which she could feel, though not define, made her feel sure that Langdale was a man capable of being an intimate friend without degenerating into a lover.