Chapter XXVIII

THERE come epochs in some lives to which the thoughts in all after-years return with infinite tenderness, and a vague wonder that, in an existence so beset with common pleasures and turmoils and disillusions, there should be this tranquil sanctuary by which always there seem to glide the sweet waters of Siloe that go with silence. Such a period for Stella were the weeks that followed. The spring was an unusually lovely one—calm, overflowing with sunshine, and yet cool. Our Australian woods do not greatly brighten or darken at the approach of any season. And the monotony of form and colour must often deepen the tendency of all well-known objects to fail in making us apprehend our surroundings with eyes quickened by imaginative insight. But here at Lullaboolagana there were groves and little woods of European trees, whose bare branches were starred with leaf-buds that swelled from day to day in the liberal sunlight

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and the kindly air, making the heart beat with involuntary gladness at their revelation of the dawn of returning youth. This miracle, perpetually renewed, of vegetable life so largely drawn from unseen material, has a subtle power to draw the mind into wondering conjecture as to presences, unknown as well as unseen, which may be all around and near us.

It seemed to Stella as if she fully felt for the first time the mystical significance of this ceaseless throb of returning vigour. And then the growing intimacy with a mind equipped by training and natural endowments, with a keen apprehension of the more novel forces that are moulding thought and life in the present day—equipped, too, with a calmer, more assured outlook on life than had yet dawned on her introspective, more apprehensive nature, seemed in a delightful way to realize that ideal of friendship she found so attractive. They had so much in common, and yet they were so wide apart. And this led them often far afield in talk which, though at first chiefly impersonal, yet led to a growing sympathy. This may be better realized by recording, though imperfectly, some of the talk that passed between them on successive occasions.

The second time they met at Lullaboolagana was on the wide western veranda closed with a thick screen of creepers, where Stella sat sewing beside her little invalid nephew.

‘I wish you had come in time to hear Aunt Stella's story of the little lost angel,’ said the boy.

‘Well, hadn't you better tell it to me, Liny?’ said Langdale coaxingly.

Lionel, nothing loath—he was one of the children who like to tell a story almost as much as to hear one—told in his own way the strange adventures of a little angel who, viewing the earth a long way off, fell in love with it and came to see it closer. He could fly down easily, but his wings were not strong enough to bear him back. There was a little cottage in the woods, in which a girl and her mother lived. The girl found the little angel, wet with the dew and blue with the cold, and brought him home. When his wings had dried, the mother plucked most of the feathers out to stuff a pillow with them. This grieved the angel so much that he wandered off to the woods, and sat in a very lonely place waiting for his wings to grow again.

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But the dragon-flies deafened him with their buzzing, the crows tried to peck his eyes out, and at last an emu put sand over him, so that he might be hatched like one of her own chicks.

‘That is all,’ said the boy. ‘Aunt Stella won't say whether the angel grew its wings or was choked. I think myself the sand would smother it—or make it blind. Poor dear little angel!’

‘I wonder why your aunt told you such a dofeful story as that?’ said Langdale, speaking to the boy, but looking at the culprit, who showed no signs of repentance.

‘Are you of the same persuasion as my sister Louise?’ said Stella. ‘When she tells the children stories they are lightened of all disasters—even “The Babes in the Wood” have a happy time in the end.’

‘Well, don't you think the chief justification of stories is that they are pleasanter than the worst that may happen?’

‘Do you really think so?’ said Stella, looking very sceptical.

‘Yes, I do. I have a grievance on this point. I am fond of novels—English and French—and always have been. Now, if you begin to read stories at eight, by the time you get to be thirty-one you are at the mercy of contemporaries for fiction. Oh, I assure you, some of my contemporaries who write novels would fare very badly if they fell into my hands. What doleful evenings they have given me, when the day's work was over, and I have sat down in solitude, proposing to forget problems and maladies and the imbecile people who so constantly beset us in life! But, no! the modern novelist, instead of taking the good the gods provide us in wholesome cheerful lives, shows invention in nothing but incredible disasters. If they give us anything new, it is in the way of fools and diseases and villains, and every conceivable shade of human meanness.’

‘While all the time you want a glorified Arcadia, where all the good people are happy and the wicked ones either overthrown or turned from the evil of their ways?’

‘Or why don't you say ignored? Think how intolerable human society would be if people were not agreed to ignore a great deal, and rightly so.’

‘I do wish you would give me some idea of what your favourite novels should be. At present—what between

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hiding away the misery of life and ignoring the evil of it—I can only think of fairy tales with the fairies left out.’

‘Well, you amuse me. Here are you, quite evidently blessed with a physique without flaw—with all your time to spend in the way that seems best to you—with money, position and friends, and a healthy capacity of enjoyment—and yet you affect to believe that books cannot be real unless they are waking nightmares of misadventure.’

‘But how could a tale be made that anyone would read out of good health and immunity from destitution? Not that I am one of those happy beings; for I am awfully poor,’ said Stella.

‘Are you really?’ said Langdale, looking curiously at the pale pink crêpe de chine which was one of Stella's favourite materials of wear.

‘Yes; I have only thirteen pounds a quarter for everything.’

‘What, for rent and food and the incidence of taxation? You must manage very well.’

‘Oh, you are laughing at me! Of course I mean for my clothing.’

‘And do you mean to say you are poor upon that?’

‘Yes; the worst of all poverty, debt. My note-book is full of entries, in my brother Tom's handwriting: “Lent this day to Stella, five pounds; to be paid again to me when she can. I say five pounds!” ’

‘That has a very business-like sound,’ said Langdale, smiling.

‘Oh yes; and after these notes I also write: “I owe unto Tom five pounds, lawful money of Australia, which I did borrow of him. Heaven grant he may get it back.” But this is a digression.’

‘Not at all, as far as I am concerned,’ answered Langdale, speaking quite gravely, but with a lurking smile in his eyes. ‘A young lady who has fifty-two pounds a year and sundry pound-notes for mere dresses and ribbons, and yet is desperately poor, is just fit to be a member of that growing fraternity of malcontents who are so ready to rail at Nature and Providence.’

‘Now you are quite mistaken,’ said Stella, with equal gravity. ‘It was only yesterday afternoon I saw a laughing-jackass swoop down and swallow a great blind-worm

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that Dunstan, our gardener, turned over, and yet I asked neither Providence nor Nature a single question. It was an ugly creature, and I was quite content it should be gobbled up out of sight.’

This delicate insinuation that, when we find little to complain of in life, it is because we ourselves are protected from the worst barbs of misfortune, was not lost on Langdale.

‘But then an angel is higher up in the scale—nearer to our own sacred caste of humanity,’ he said with a quiet smile; ‘and so you protest against accident to one of these by making a poignant little tale out of its disasters. How characteristic that is of so much of our modern literature, which piles up often the outward accidents of existence and all the time leaves out its very kernel.’

‘Tell me what you think is left out.’

‘Life itself. The strong warm instinct of clinging to the earth even when its harvests do not whiten fully to allay our hunger—the instinct that makes the man who has writhed in pain through the night carry food in trembling spoonfuls to his lips in the morning, while a glow of thankfulness rises in his heart because he yet lives to see the light of day—ah! it is a subtle ensnaring game, this life of ours. And to most—I am sure of it—the very fact of being alive is a good that outweighs the bitterest evils.’

‘And yet you have been so often in the presence of the terrors of life. In London there must be swarms of people about whom everyone must feel it would be better if they never saw the light. It seems to me that in hospitals and poor-houses a doctor must often feel that death rather than life would be the great boon.’

‘I am afraid you will think I am very callous,’ said Langdale with a smile; ‘but such a thought has very seldom forced itself on me; and when it has, I have rejected it as treasonable. I dare say you are right. Habit may engender a bias on the side of life apart from its conditions. Fortunately for us, we have only to take one part at a time in the stage of life.’

‘Yes, you are concerned with pulling a man through, not with the question whether it is worth while. Now, I am one of the lookers-on at the play. I do not hold a retaining fee on one side or the other, and so I perceive how unmoral this ardour for prolonging this existence really is.’

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Stella spoke with extreme gravity; but seeing that Langdale really thought she was in earnest, she could not refrain from laughter.

‘It is very charitable of you to assume that this ardour for keeping people in life counts for so much,’ he said, smiling. ‘But, joking aside,’ he added after a pause, ‘there is an absorbing interest often in watching how incredibly near a human being may draw to the unknown bourne, and yet struggle back to health once more. What is the subtlety of man compared to the subtlety of Nature? someone has said. And Nature is in nothing so subtle as the extraordinary rallies she makes on the side of life. And thus, in a great crisis, when one pang of remorse or a dark foreboding as to the future might turn the scales against recovery, the senses are wrapped in unconsciousness as impenetrable as that of early childhood.’

‘You make me feel that a struggle against death might be more entertaining to watch than the life that followed.’

‘But when you are a little older you will find that the great thing is the game itself,’ returned Langdale, with the frank, catching smile characteristic of him; ‘the endless interaction of motive and expectation, of work and play, of the wider outlook on human affairs, which is so distinctive of modern days, lend the world an interest that outbalances its dreariness.’

‘Yes; as long as we do not try to peer below the surface,’ returned Stella half smilingly.

‘And then,’ went on Langdale, ‘there is a strong element of opéra bouffe in the world, apart from moral or deeply serious considerations; so much interplay that lightens work.’

‘Even in the wards of a hospital?’

‘Yes. I had to laugh as I rode out yesterday, recalling a case that was admitted into our casual ward a week or two before I left hospital. It was a man who had been run over, and whose head was badly hurt. It appears he had been drinking for some time. He explained to me, as he was getting better, that he was a poet, whose ideas would flow only under alcoholic stimulant. This unfortunate accident made him lose the thread of a great epic, which would have made his fame. “Oh! what was it—what was it?” he would say, and then he would implore me to help him to recover his epic. It was a theme colossal in its

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grandeur, and yet full of pathos and interest. I suggested heaven and hell. “Ah! don't you see, that when people have ceased to hope for one or fear the other, such a theme is impossible. Besides,” he said, “the critics would at once say I was imitating Dante and Milton.” Then I said, “A great monarch—one dethroned,” etc. “A monarch!” he said, in a tone of disdain, “a creature that nowadays has either to ape the manners of the common herd, or keep himself locked up like a criminal!” “Woman?” then I said in despair. “Oh, woman—woman, who broke my head, and has stoned the prophets in every age— —” he replied, beginning to sob.’

They both laughed at this reminiscence. Then Mrs. Courtland and the governess joined them, and the conversation became general.