Chapter XXX

THERE are many days of an Australian spring on which to remain within doors is an impossible heresy. This Sunday was one of them. The two who afforded Miss Julia Morton so irritating a theme for conjecture and comment were wandering in the Home Field in common with the rest of the Lullaboolagana household. Dr. Langdale had a little old-fashioned-looking book in his hand, and was engaged in the congenial task of supporting a theory Stella had started some days previously. She had found Virgil's ‘Eclogues’ full of notes in her deceased kinsman's handwriting, and it suddenly occurred to her that the Home Field was full of hints from those stately pastoral poems.

‘Suppose we trace the resemblances one day?’ said Langdale.

‘May I say it?’ asked Stella, smiling.

‘You will say it, whether you may or not, when you look so mischievous, St. Charity.’

‘Well, don't you think it is the German in you who suggests that heartless form of crushing my poor little fancy?’

‘Now, as a penalty for that speech, I shall pelt you with proofs,’ said Langdale, laughing.

And now he was going to make good the threat, armed with the little book in tarnished gold that bore traces of having been a treasured companion.

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‘I am waiting to be pelted,’ said Stella.

‘Well, there is Amaryllis, to begin with; swift as a fawn, lithe as a young pine, flitting by, pretending she does not hear the lay that Tityrus pipes on his lute—’

‘But where is she?’

‘Oh, a commentator is always allowed to see a little more than his readers or hearers. I see her. And then there is the spreading beech under which the swain reclines. Look, there are three beeches hard by—all spreading as far as their age permits. Could the beech-tree under which Tityrus reclines do more?’

‘Oh, I see that in the matter of proving a theory you were born to destroy Afreets,’ said Stella, her face sparkling with fun at the extreme gravity which her companion had assumed.

‘But there is much more to follow. A little further on Melibœus says— May one read a little Latin to you without scandal?’

‘Surely that is an anachronism! What else would he read?’ said Stella, pretending to misunderstand.

They both laughed at this; and then Stella said: ‘Yes, one may.’

‘Then, “Hic inter densas corylos.” The Oolloolloo is haunted with dense hazel-bushes. Tityrus, in his reply, says that Rome lifts up her head among other cities as high as cypress among bending osiers. I am not sure about more than one patch of osiers, but cypresses you have in abundance.’

‘Yes, and of all the trees that grow, none look lovelier in the rose twilight of sunset. See those clumps of them between the house and the orchard, mingled with tamarisk-trees. At mid-day the cypress looks dark and stern compared with the silky tamarisk locks. But when the sunlight is dying, the cypress seems to disentangle its feathery foliage, till it looks like an airy vision of a tree rather than one that has roots underground.’

When Stella spoke of trees, or animals, or flowers, one could see that they were like living humanized creatures to her.

‘Now, I have often wondered why I like cypress-trees better at sunset. Tell me some more about trees.’

‘Oh, you haven't finished your proofs yet.’

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‘Well, Melibœus speaks further of pine-trees, fountains, and vineyards. Pines you have in hundreds; you have two fountains, and over an acre of vines.’

‘Really, the resemblance becomes quite startling!’ laughed Stella.

‘Yes; and then there is mention of willow-bloom on which the bees feast. Then you have flocks of pigeons, and elms and turtle-doves without number. In view of this, you must perceive that the lines concerning the hoarse note of the wood-pigeon, the turtle-dove's complaint, and the towering elm serve—first, either as a prophecy regarding Lull, or second, that the place has been moulded upon these lines. I incline to the latter view. The emphasis is my own.’

‘But seriously, it is an interesting coincidence that all the natural objects named in the “Eclogues” seem to abound in the Home Field.’

‘As you are convinced, even beforehand, my labours are at an end,’ said Langdale, closing the book. ‘Now tell me, have you any funny little stories of Mick or Dunstan?’

‘Oh, Mick was better than a comedy yesterday. He hardly opened his mouth without making a bull. He told me about one of his girls who is at service and very much overworked. The mistress, it seems, gives music-lessons. “But she's no great hand at the music,” said Mick, lowering his voice mysteriously; “indade, Miss Stella, they say she niver saw a pianny till she came to Minjah four years ago, and thin 'twas an harmonium.” ’

‘Well done, Mick!’ said Langdale, laughing.

‘Then I asked after the eldest boy, who has got a situation lately in a little store. He doesn't get on with the mother—no one can long—so last week he went to board at an aunt's. Poor Mick was much scandalized. “ ‘Why, Patrick,’ says I to him, ‘what do people's children do who have no parents but lodge wid their father's sister? And thin the house is near the swampy end of the town, and people die there that niver died anywhere else.’ ” Well, you may laugh, but there is sound sense under it all. I shall miss Mick's little anecdotes sadly when I go away.’

‘When you go!’ repeated Langdale, and his face fell visibly. On meeting his eyes a deeper tinge stole into the girl's cheeks. Then he added in a lighter tone: ‘There are days in August when people who speak of going away

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should be fined, or at any rate set to counting the vine-buds and gadding tendrils.’

‘And yet how very human it is to go away, even as human as it is to come. You see, I am catching a little of your reasonableness,’ said Stella.

‘That may be; but on a day like this, when the veriest little locust chirps in the sun as “though he never should be old,” I maintain it is little short of felony to speak of the accidents that mar life. … You see, I am catching a little of your unreason,’ he added.

They had crossed the stone bridge, and stood on a hillock clothed with elms, she-oaks, and scrub cypresses, where the breath of hidden violets came and went on the air like tremulous music. From this slight eminence they had a far-reaching view of the country round—the Messmate Ranges, with their dim gullies; the Wicked Wood, spectral in its bareness; the break in the far distance, where one became sensible of the Peeloo Plain; the flat, well-wooded country, and the contour of ridgy hills that stretched beyond Minjah Millowie. On every side lay the still wide woods, motionless as a great picture framed between heaven and earth, all clothed with the overflowing sunshine as with a garment.

And yet these two, as they stood there and looked afar and listened to the songs of birds and all the woodland sounds which filled the air—what influence was it that stirred both so deeply in the midst of this peaceful idyllic scene? Who can tell what vague outward gropings of the spirit make the heart turn on itself in some rare soft-footed hour as with a quickened sense of the sweet calm of the present, a shrinking fear of the uncertain days to come which may be clouded with futile agony, drenched with the storm-spray of life's keenest sorrows? For some moments neither spoke.

‘You will never know how good it is of me not to talk like your friend Ivan Michalowicz just now,’ said Stella, breaking the silence. ‘I could believe the air is full of unseen presences—’

‘That is a plagiarism from Mick. Go on—and unheard wails,’ Langdale said, laughing.

‘Yes; and souls that can find no home. But I forbear.’

‘Well, I must admit that on a perfect day like this—and

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the only fault it has is that it keeps time to a clock—a kind of sadness creeps over me. It is the penalty for looking before and after.’

‘Yes; neither a cat nor a marigold uses the sunlight as an invocation to call ghosts into a circle.’

‘Ghosts? You know nothing of them!’

‘At this very moment the air is drenched with ghosts. Ghosts of days to come—lean and gray, when youth is left far behind—when those that look out at the window are darkened, and the daughters of music are laid low.’

‘It is good of you not to speak like Ivan,’ said Langdale gravely. ‘He said once that the great melancholy steppes of his native land had got into his disposition. I think the vast solitudes of your Australia have got into yours.’

‘But do you never think how dreadful it is to grow old? And it goes on all the time. Why, since we have been here, if your eyes were keen enough, you would see wrinkles deepening on my face.’

‘Thank Heaven my eyes are not so precocious!’

‘Ah, now you have betrayed yourself. You are not so hopelessly reasonable after all. I may yet hear you rail at life in good set terms.’

‘But don't you think it is time enough to speak of wrinkles when they come?’

‘Ah, but they have come. I discovered a little sly wretch of a crow's-foot at the corner of my eye the other day. Look there when I stand sideways in the light,’ and Stella stood so that her crow's-foot might be more clearly seen.

Langdale could not resist laughing. ‘My eyesight is not sharp enough, or else your crow's-foot does not exist,’ he said.

‘Spoken like a courtier. But it would be more friendly to see it, and then to say something out of Seneca to comfort me. When will your profession make some real advance?’

‘And invent an elixir for renewing youth—or perhaps you are thinking more of the happy despatch of superfluous beings?’

‘But as it is, you are chiefly concerned with screening fools from their folly—’

‘And thwarting the beneficent severity of Nature? Yes, it is painfully humdrum. Have you ever thought what

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calling in life might put one in the way of doing least mischief?’

‘Well, good dressmaking, for my own sex. Do you remember what Frenchman said that women take the outward polish of civilization more quickly than men, but that inwardly they remain more truly savage?’

‘Ah, that is the sort of paradox which even a luminous-minded Frenchman cannot resist. It is so glaringly untrue —there must be something in it—so it is wrapped up in a neat little epigram. But about the dressmaking?’

‘Well, I think a woman who makes dresses that fit perfectly, adds more to the practical Christianity of the world than most people are aware of. If you could peep into the mind of a woman when a costly dress comes home that makes her waist what it shouldn't be, you would believe the Frenchman a little more. She may have sat at the feet of sages and be in touch with much of the wisest and the best, but in that moment she has taken a great leap back to the anthropoidal era.’

‘But when her waist is what—no, I am afraid—but when the dressmaker has done her work nobly?’

‘Why, then a sort of flow of philanthropy suffuses one's whole being. Yes, to make a dress well—without a pinch or a wrinkle in it—that is one of the least mischievous things a woman can do. As for your sex—Well, what do you say to a shoemaker—one who does not cripple the foot, and makes good shoes with honest workmanship? With such shoes, one feels impelled to walk more; and to walk more is to be in the open air; and to be in the open air is to be—dare I say happy?’

‘Oh, why not! “On the whole, stick close to words.” ’

‘Where is that?’

‘ “On the whole, stick close to words, then shall you go through the sure portal into the temple of certainty.” That is Mephistopheles speaking to the student. Don't you think it is time you spoke German to me?’

‘Yes, I have two anecdotes to tell you in German. But for the summit of well-being in the open air, don't you think we are more indebted to the horse than the shoemaker? You see where the Messmate Ranges fall off into flat country? That is the beginning of one of our unoccupied spaces; and the scenery—but perhaps you know it?’

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‘No, I don't think I do.’

‘Claude and I rode there the other morning early. I had Duke, a delightful horse who skims the ground like a bird.’

‘How far did you go then?’

‘Thirteen miles. We reached No Man's Land, which stretches away close up to the New South Wales boundary. Nothing but sand and slender stringy bark trees, that grow so thick the sun can hardly pass between them. It was a most glorious ride, in the keen morning air loaded with the fragrance of gum-leaves.’

‘I wonder if you would let me come with you some morning?’

‘Oh, we shall be delighted; but then it is in the mornings you write your novel. Tell me how are your people going on? Do the wrong ones still make love to each other?’

Stella went on to sketch imaginary plots, ending in the most fabulous forms of happiness and good-luck, and introducing such extraordinary dialogues that, by the time the sound of a gong summoned them to afternoon tea on the western veranda, the two were laughing continuously, like a pair of school-children.