Chapter XXXII

THERE are probably few who have passed their first youth without indulging now and then in conjectures as to how many would really befriend them if they were completely stranded in life—say, without money or position, and under the shadow of some imputed crime. We begin the world as a rule with pathetic confidence in ourselves and others. Heaven is full of beneficence, earth crowded with friends. There is so much that we can do; there are so many whose eyes will brighten at the prizes we are to pluck by the way.

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And then our contests are to be won without stooping to the stratagems of canvassing; we are to head our polls without the indignity of hedging. Later on, there is still much to be done; but little quite so well worth dying for as our own hearts and the poets whispered in the early days. We begin to suspect, too, that Providence sends biscuits chiefly to those who have no teeth. Our dearest aims have a trick of eluding us, and leaving the tedious hours full of the memories of spent bubbles. The rude breath of experience—that figmentum malum in the life of man—has shrivelled so many tender illusions. Life is not so amusing. Some of its most comical jokes are elaborated at our own expense. This kind of payment impairs one's sense of humour. And those myriad orbs that were to sparkle at our feats? Alas! most of the eyes we now know are keen only to detect that the plumage of our prize-bird is gray rather than white. And so in our more egotistical moments —and these come to all—the question may arise, ‘If I were entirely defeated in this tiresome drama, which begins in youth, like the rising of a curtain on a fairy scene, and goes on like a scene in which there is nothing fairy-like, save gold, how many would really stand by me?’ If one were thus defeated, in fact as well as imagination, probably the very best thing that could befall one would be to find one's self in the Australian Bush not very far from a head-station.

So at least it proved in the case of the poor woman Stella Courtland had come upon. She was dangerously ill for several days.

During this time, Stella and Langdale saw each other daily, and drew very near to each other. The woman's first coherent inquiry was for ‘Jack,’ which turned out to be the cockatoo. Stella brought him into the bedroom the woman occupied. He erected his crest, and fluttered about, muttering imprecations of various kinds.

‘He knows me, sure enough,’ said his mistress in a gratified tone. ‘You can't think, ma'am, what a comfort it was to hear him when I was alone. He do swear badly, but it was like having a Christian body near one to hear him.… He never come back. I didn't expect he would, after hearing the shots; but, if I live long enough, Bill Taylor will swing for it.… The saddle—oh, the saddle, Miss Stella!—was it took care of?’ (She started up in bed

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in great excitement. Stella assured her it was all right in the harness-room.) ‘Oh, but I must get it—I must see it. I'll put somethin' round me, and go out to look at it.’

Stella thought this was but a freak of the fever that still lingered in her brain; and to keep the woman quiet, she sent Maisie for the saddle, which was old and worn and externally destitute of any points that would justify one in setting such high value on it. But appearances are proverbially deceitful.

The woman clutched it eagerly. She had never acquired any of those amenities that, even among the lower orders of women, help as a rule to keep social intercourse on a higher plane than the primeval scramble in which egotism was the sole standard of conduct. And yet she had many distinctly human qualities.

Maisie went out of the room, and resumed her sewing in the nursery, where the upper nurse sat with the six-months-old baby in her arms.

‘Is your young lady going out riding this morning?’ she asked.

‘Indeed, Jane, I cannot tell ye,’ answered Maisie with a toss of her head. ‘What Miss Stella's ma would say to her nursing an ill-mannered person like yon I don't know. Miss Stella should leave her till us, and then she'd be cured a little of whims and whams. There, she has that awfu’ swearin' cockie in the room, and now a dirty old saddle, and there comes the doctor. I wish he would cure her soon, and let her be packing with her duds and screws of horses.’

Servants who are accustomed to the refined courtesy of gentlewomen resent nothing more strongly than being spoken to roughly. This, indeed, is one of the causes which often creates a disastrous barrier between them and men in their own rank.

The sight which met Dr. Langdale on entering the sick-room that morning was a curious one. The large, dingy cockatoo stood on the toilet-table, close to the bed, muttering, ‘Hang him—hang him!’ in a rough, deep voice. The patient was sitting up in bed, an old saddle turned upside down before her, the lining ripped open, disclosing under-neath one side a deep layer of extremely soiled bank-notes, on the other nuggets of gold, ranging from the size of peas

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to pigeon-eggs, some embedded in quartz, others with the earth still clinging to them. Stella stood at the foot of the bed, looking on in silent wonder. Neither had heard the doctor's tap, and even when he opened the door, saying, ‘May I come in?’ the patient went on with a calculation which absorbed all her faculties.

‘Ten—twenty—forty — fifty—fifty-five; yes, that's the one-pounders—that is right. Then, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine, ten—tenners; and five twenties, and two fifties And the gold—’

‘I fear you do not approve of this proceeding, Dr. Langdale?’ said Stella as they shook hands.

‘If anyone is to be blamed it's me, sir,’ said the woman, who seemed to be thoroughly roused by the process of reckoning up the hoard before her.

The doctor tested her temperature, and found it rather high. ‘If you throw yourself back, you know—’ he began, in a grave voice.

‘Well, sir, I know it makes my head beat; but it would have been worse to keep on thinking p'r'aps it was lost. I don't rightly remember things for days before I got here. That's my marriage lines, ma'am,’ she said, holding out a very soiled slip of paper to Stella. ‘I don't know what makes you so good to me, such an object as I must have been when you saw me. You couldn't tell what sort I might be. And I'd like you to know I'm an honest woman. And if things go wrong——’

‘Oh, things will go all right, if you keep quiet,’ said Langdale. ‘You have an iron constitution.’

‘Thank you, sir; but I'd sooner tell the young lady and you how it was, in case; and then I know I'll feel more restful like. I've laid here many an hour turning things over when I wasn't able to wag my tongue. I don't know whether you've heard of Poor Man's Diggings ever. They don't make no flare, but from seventy to eighty men have been working there quietly for two years. Jack and me was there eighteen months—that's my husband. The men called the cockie after him, because he was a great swearer, and the bird was the dead spit of him in that way. Jack was a digger, and we had a little general store and a slygrog shanty. But he was fined so often, at last I said to him it would be cheaper to take out a license, and so he did.

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But he took to hard drinking and gambling, and six months ago we left, for we had enough money to go back to our friends in Sydney. We was both born there. There was no one to take the license off our hands, so Jack carried away all the grog that was left, and that was the ruin of him. When we came across any teamsters, he used to gamble for a couple of days at a time. I've seen him play at poker and lose two bottles of rum and a five-pound note and one of the horses all within an hour. And then he'd have to buy his horse back.

‘At last I took and planted the money and the gold you see here. It was once when he was drinking very bad, and gambling with a little man called One-leg Bill. He had followed us from the diggings—’t any rate, so I believe, though he pretended to come upon us quite by accident. But none is so surprised as them that gives their mind to it, and that was the way with One-leg, I'm pretty sure. Jack was that given to the gamble, when there was no one else he'd play with me. But then there wasn't enough “go” in it, for if he lost to me, he could take it from me. Well, One-leg had his horse and swag and kep us company for near a month, winning a good deal more money nor he lost. At last, when Jack wasn't by, I told him to clear, and I'd give him twenty pounds without no playing nor cheating. He was a unhonest vermin, if ever there lived any!

‘Well, he tuk the twenty pounds, but still he hung round, till one day we camped at a water-hole, and he said he was going to take a cut off for the nearest railway line to Melbourne in the morning. I dunno why, but I didn't b'lieve him. Certainly, he never told the truth, unless he had an accident in speaking like. But it wasn't that only. In the middle of the night I heard a noise, and I put my head out quiet-like, and there was One-leg sitting by the camp fire, polishing up his revolver. That gave me a turn, and I didn't sleep another wink. Of course, people has to keep their firearms in order travelling in the Bush, but still——

‘Well, in the morning Jack was very drowsy-like, and when he woke up he didn't seem inclined to make an early start. No more did One-leg. I gathered up the things and put-to the horses in the afternoon, and One-leg saddled

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hisen. Then, just as I thought we was going to start, they both set off for a little stroll. I knowed well that what Jack wanted was to gamble. He had took a Bible oath to me two days afore not to touch a card with One-leg again, and he was 'shamed to do it before me. Many's the time since I wished I'd let him alone; but I meaned it for good, though it come out very crooked. I made signs to Jack to come to me and ast him to take his rifle. But when a man has been drinking off and on so long, he don't have his wits about him much to speak of.

‘I watched 'em go out of sight in the woods, and all to once I began to cooey after Jack as loud as I could. But he never turned his head. One-leg turned round and waved his hand with a grin, and then hobbled on. He had a wooden leg and used a stick, and there was his lather bag with the revolver on his back. I waited and waited, but they didn't come back; and then about sunset I heard two shots—one after the other. I went cold all over, and, if you b'lieve me, I felt as if the blood was running out of my side, and a horrid, burning pain. I sot where I was in the waggon, not able to move; and then it went through me like sparks of fire: “One-leg ull come and put a bullet through me next, and then he'll have everything, and never a soul to peach on him.”

‘With that I tuk the reins and made a start, and then I thought, “If I leave his horse Sambo, he'll overtake me in no time.” So I put a piece of rope round his neck, and tied him to the waggon. He had got used to following like that when Jack and One-leg sot playing cards, and I druv. They was all pretty fresh, for there was good grass round the water-hole, and we had spelled for nearly two days. Everything was swimming before me, and somehow I tuk the wrong turn—came back istid of going towards New South Wales boundary. I thought of turning round, but there was One-leg coming out of the wood—alone, and yelling after me like mad. I just whipped up the horses as fast as they would go, and Sambo come on after the waggon fine. But the way that One-leg run and roared no one would b'lieve. It made me go cold all over to think Sambo might break the rope and fall into his hands. But he didn't, and he was soon out of sight. I travelled all night, and kep the horses up to it as fast as they would go, and

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took cross roads. Next day they was so knocked up I had to spell them.

‘But my sleep went off altogether. I was waiting always for One-leg to come and shoot me. I dunno how long it was—I dunno what country. I met people now and then— teamsters and hawkers mostly, and I passed the time of day, but I never ast one a question. I'd got to be suspicious of men—they seemed, all of 'em I knew, such a poor mean lot. Sometimes when I passed people I kept up a talk as if poor Jack was sitting inside. But at night that made me feel creepy. Jill began to be very raw and knocked up, so one day I put Sambo in, but 'twas as if the very mischief was in him. He broke the bridle all to pieces, and ran away with all of us till he couldn't move. Everything got worn out. When I put the other bridle on him that was broke too; till I had never a bit—leastways, I had the bits, but nothing rightly to fasten them too. Not that it mattered much, for they was now that tame—what with no grass, and very little water, and going on and on, not knowing where, but hoping always to come to a little township, but never one. I used to take a track this way and that—and I think many a time I turned my back straight on what would have took me to a township with womenfolk and children and police.

‘At last, when I was getting to know I'd got some sort of fever on me, I met a hawker, and I asked him the nearest way to a township, and he said to keep on and I'd come to Narryhoouta, or some such name. And I kep on, but I lost count of days, and I hadn't strength to take the horses out of the waggon, and I could see they wouldn't go much farther. I dozed away like, seeing all sorts of things, just like poor Jack when he had the horrors. Then it came like a dream that a young lady looked in at me, and spoke to me so gentle I couldn't hear what she said. And then I saw more ladies, but everyone was so kind it seemed all dreams. And then I woke up at nights, and I thought maybe 'tis true about heaven—but 'twas a deal more cheerfuller than I've ever heard tell about heaven; what with one soft light burning, and no crowd, and one kind woman to attend on me, and nothing to do, not even to sing, but just lie still in white soft things, and no awful creaking going on and on. And then in the daytime you come to me—often in white,

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ma'am. I just used to shut my eyes and keep still for fear it would all go different. And then there was you, sir, as kind as anyone, though a man.’

‘Yes; but I'll not be kind if you say any more to-day,’ said Dr. Langdale very gently.

‘Very well, sir—I'm quite content to lie still now. The money is all safe, and the young lady and you knows all. Yes, the saddle of course must go, but if the young lady would put the notes and gold away till I get about; and if I don't there's the address of my father and mother on the back of my marriage-lines.’

‘That was a curious little story — so characteristically Australian,’ said Langdale, after they had left the sick-room, leaving Mrs. Claude with the patient, and were strolling toward the orchard, close to which Stella had discovered a hymenosperum in bloom a few days previously.

‘Yes,’ she answered slowly, ‘it seems as if there were more heart-beats in situations that belong essentially to new countries. That reminds me of a little story I heard from a sick man before I left home.’

‘May I hear it, St. Charity?’

‘Yes—that is, if you are good, as the children say.’

‘How can I be otherwise when I am with you?’

‘A fine for saying that. Friends do not pay each other compliments.’

‘No; nor yet fine each other for telling the truth.’

‘Another fine. But seriously, you do not know how bad it is for me to be made vain.’

‘If you wish to malign yourself, St. Charity, you must get a more sympathetic audience.’

‘What has put you into this mood to-day?’ she said, laughing in his face.

‘To-day?’ he echoed, his eyes kindling. ‘Do you think a man can be privileged to be near you so often, to watch your gracious kindliness, your perfect courtesy, your varying moods, each one more charming than the last, without——’

He stopped abruptly—and then Stella, who had grown suddenly pale, replied in a voice that was a little tremulons:

‘Werthester Freund, I remit all those fines; for when you speak like that I feel as lowly as Dunstan's worm.’ At this they both laughed, for Stella had in due course related

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the worthy gardener's reflections and reminiscences on the day she had first dressed the wounds of the ‘caravan’ horses, as they were called. Their sores were now quite healed, and the poor animals were rapidly putting on flesh in the adjacent stock-paddock. Indeed, Sambo had been observed to kick up his heels on more than one occasion.

‘Hush,’ said Stella suddenly; ‘there are strange bird-notes,’ and sure enough there were plaintive long-drawn calls heard on the banks of the swallow-pool, in the Oolloolloo, near which the two were then standing. Stella stole on tiptoe nearer the bank, and Langdale followed her as noiselessly as he could. ‘Oo-da-warra, oo-da-warra,’ the groves resounded with these cries. They came from two bronze-winged pigeons on the brink of the pool. It would be difficult to name any other birds whose plumage forms a more perfect model of harmonious tints. The wings gleamed more lustrously than precious stones—dark, and pale-brown feathers, with iridescent gleams as of mother-of-pearl on the coverts; a deep, gleaming purplish tint on the breast, and the legs a perfect carmine. They drank repeatedly of the water, rested for a little, and flew on their way westward.

‘Charming woodland visitors—they drank of our swallow-pool, rested in the shade of our trees, and then flew away!’ said Stella wistfully. ‘Did you notice,’ she added, ‘what soft appealing eyes they had?’

The truth was that Langdale had watched her face rather than the bronze-winged pigeons.

‘Yes, they were lovely!’ he answered, jesuitical fashion— speaking of those he had seen, while his words conveyed another meaning.

‘So are all pigeons’ eyes!’ Stella went on, encouraged by her friend's evident enthusiasm; ‘very different from parrots, who have hard beady eyes—even the sweet little shell parrots, perfect sonnets as they are in emerald and pale jonquil.’

‘And parrots scream rather badly, too; don't they?’

‘Yes; but there are times when they warble most musically; not only the smaller kinds, like the shells, the porphyry-headed, and the little ones with deep-red faces, but also larger ones, like the rock-pebblers. We watched some of them in the orchard the other day, wandering on

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the ground, picking up seeds and things and making the gentlest cooing sounds imaginable. The male bird was a magnificent creature, in scarlet and dark green and yellow and lazuline blue.’

And while chatting after this fashion, they reached the hymenosperum, a beautiful tree of Eastern Australia, with glossy eucalyptus-like leaves and drooping clusters of long slender bell-blossoms, from eight to twelve in a bunch, ranging in colour from delicate cream to saffron, and fragrant as orange-flowers. Stella uttered an exclamation of surprise when she saw the tree arrayed in opening blooms.

‘There were so few out two or three days ago,’ she cried, ‘and now they are out in hundreds! But that is always the way in our spring. It is like what Pliny says of the oak-galls, that they break out altogether in one night about the beginning of June.’

‘But don't forget,’ said Langdale, smiling, ‘that Pliny the Elder gave good reason for being styled mendaciorum patrem. But this tree of yours is perfectly lovely. When your Australian trees do blossom, they do it in a wonderfully generous fashion—and how exquisitely scented!’

Then Stella drew his attention to a bee that was struggling hard to penetrate into the depths of one of the deep flower-bells. It was too slender for the industrious creature's body, or its thighs were too heavily laden with wax; for after writhing for some time, with a muffled half-angry hum, the bee drew out its head and shoulders. Instead, however, of going to any of the myriad flowers around, it still clung to the coveted blossom, and began to bite a hole at the base of the delicate waxen tube, so as to get at its honeyed treasures from the outside.

‘I must put that into my country journal,’ said Stella.

‘Do you put everything into your journal?’ asked Langdale.

He noticed a soft flush mantling in her cheeks as she answered:

‘Yes; spiders and bees, when I catch them “writing deep morals upon Nature's pages.” As a special favour you may come and see our pet spider web; it is in a hawthorn-bush, whose first spray budded yesterday, that is, on the third of September.’

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On their way to this treasure, Stella pointed out wide groups of her favourite spring-flowers, now in full beauty— here a clump of the Santa Maria narcissus, blue Apennine windflowers, and other wide white ones of the Japanese variety; everywhere golden daffodils and settlements of the velvet-soft many-coloured polyanthus.

‘How little notice you take of these brilliant bushes of flowers, St. Charity!’

‘Oh, the petunias and rhodanthes! Well, most of them are so hard and scentless. With a cunning pair of scissors, wire, and a few sheets of French-coloured paper, one might turn out basketfuls of these you would hardly know from the originals.’

‘Now, how can you urge that as an objection when you love the native “immortelle” so dearly?’

‘But don't you see the difference between flowers so much cared for and cultivated, and those that spring up in sandy deserts? Flowers in gardens are the Hebrews, with prophets and leaders and angelic visitations. But when Marcus Aurelius says, “If there are no gods it is ill to live; if there are gods, it is well to die”—that is an everlasting in the desert.’

‘I humbly crave pardon for my foolish objection. Yet I am glad I made it, for the sake of your answer.’

‘This is our spider-web!’ said Stella, pausing by the hawthorn-bush. ‘See what a delicate tracery of silk and light it is, with a cloud-like little woof in the centre. Now, is that to turn into the spiders of the future?’

‘Yes, I imagine so, when the time is fulfilled,’ said Langdale, looking at the web with grave attention. ‘Who bent this spray, and fastened it so as to protect the web?’

‘I did. You see, this tiny hammock—the most exquisite baby-cradle of nature—looked so forlornly exposed to all the caprices of fate: the wind, and insects, and fowls of the air.’

‘Yes; we all live at each other's cost, whether we dwell in palaces or the crevices of a tree's bark; but the spider has a sterner struggle than most: he hangs perpetually in suspense, unless St. Charity devises schemes to protect him. But why does she watch this little cocoon with so much interest?’

‘I have an incredible curiosity to see one or more infant

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spiders of unblemished life, “ere sin could blight or sorrow fade”—even before they have tasted the blood of a fly. It is a sorrowful thought that though I have seen so many thousand spiders, I have never seen an innocent one!’

He laughed, but all the time one who observed him closely might see that he was becoming more constrained and preoccupied, as if there were some struggle going on in his mind.

‘You have not told me that other little story yet. Suppose you tell it to me by the hymenosperum tree; and, by the way, you must say something distinctive about that graceful creature—something that will go with the image of it when it rises in my memory: tall and slender, arrayed in pale saffron, like an Eastern bride.’

‘I am sure I cannot think of anything more distinctive than that,’ laughed Stella. ‘I shall borrow a metaphor and give it to you. “As a saint is to ordinary good people, so is a hymenosperum to other flowering trees.” ’

‘Here is our tree,’ said Langdale, ‘with a little rural seat near. Now, please tell me your story.’

She told him Thomson's little narrative, not forgetting to give a rapid, brilliant little sketch of her old friend Mr. Ferrier—‘the best little man in the world; but he is like cheese o'er renneted; so much in earnest that he can enjoy hardly any of the play of life.’

‘I think we may put that down as a thirty-seventh tragic situation,’ said Langdale; ‘the poor man trying in his simple fashion to Christianize the savage mother of his child; and the two breaking into loud laughter at him in the night.’

He took out a little pocket diary as he spoke, and with it an unopened letter.

‘Oh, I had forgotten this,’ he said. ‘The English mail was delivered as I left the house this morning.’

‘Do you put aside letters without reading them?’ said Stella in surprise.

‘Well, not as a rule,’ he answered, smiling; ‘but there were family letters that kept me occupied till I got here; and then, you know, at Lull there are things so much more interesting than letters from one's lawyer.’

‘You may read it now—I will excuse you,’ said Stella, and she went to gather clusters of the fragrant hymenosperum

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blossoms, picking out those that had just opened, which were pale cream, and mixing with them a few of those that had been opened a few days, which had assumed a delicate saffron tint. Then the clear musical song of a superb warbler rose near, and she saw one on a laurustinus bush not far off—a little male bird, gorgeous in its spring attire of shining pale azure and dark blue, its little tail erect as that of a fantail pigeon.

Stella was away long enough to permit the perusal of many pages. But when she returned Langdale still stood engrossed with his letter. He looked hard at the girl as she drew near to him, and his face, usually so calm, betrayed curious signs of agitation.

‘You have had no ill news, I hope?’ said Stella softly.

‘Ill news?—no. St. Charity, is it true——But I have no right to force your confidence. Only there are affairs that hasten my departure for England—and there is something I want to know. Will you think my curiosity an abuse of our friendship?’

‘Oh no, I am sure I shall not,’ she answered promptly.

‘Then—are you engaged to be married?’

‘Certainly not. I was once, for a short time,’ she added, colouring deeply; ‘but it was a mistake.’

She saw his eyes suddenly grow radiant.

‘Then, sweet St. Charity, I am going to ask a great favour. May I write to you after I get to England?’

His face was very pale, and his voice shaken. No one who heard and saw him could deem that the permission he asked was concerned with the interchange of merely friendly sentiments. Least of all Stella, whose quick insight played round even indifferent matters with the fellowship of wide sympathy.

She struggled with some rising emotion. But her voice was clear and firm as she answered:

‘Yes—you may; and here is a little bouquet I have gathered for you.’

He took it and held it to his lips. And then for a little time, as they turned homeward, neither spoke. There are moments in life when speech is an impertinence—when words the most winged and penetrating are too leaden-soled for the thoughts that rise in endless succession—swift and golden as sun-rays glancing upon waves.

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‘I shall write to your mother and Hector, you know, at the same time,’ he said, as they drew near the house.

‘But the longest letter must be to me,’ she answered, trying to speak lightly; ‘and it must be very wise, and partly in German.’

‘When do you leave, St. Charity?’

‘On the fifteenth—eleven days from this. And you?’

‘I should like to leave the same day you do, only I must stay till Morrison gets his assistant. He is overdone and overworked. But he is advertising in the Melbourne and Adelaide papers. I shall be back in four months, I suppose, from the time I sail. Will you——’

He stopped abruptly. He was evidently struggling with conflicting currents of thought. Stella, who, in the tumult of her own emotion, was keenly conscious of the agitation that betrayed itself in Langdale's voice and manner, tried in vain to speak of some indifferent subject. But seeing Louise near at hand among the shrubs, her courage returned.