Chapter XXXIII

STELLA sat that night writing till late, and then for hours, by her open window, looking into the starry skies, an expression of peaceful happiness on her face, which for a time was unclouded by even a passing shadow. She had been sure for many days past that her ideal friendship was in peril. She knew that, time after time, words and questions had risen to Langdale's lips which he had kept back. She had seen that he strove with contending emotions, and once or twice she had lightly parried one of those leading questions which, if not turned aside, would have been as the letting in of waters. She found it so entirely exquisite, the bliss of loving and being loved, without the gadgrind of outside opinion, without the desperate seriousness of having to think of the future as a fixed, imponderable, menacing responsibility; nay, without any avowal spoken by the lips. And now the precious secret would be hers for four long months to come. There would be no interchange of vows, no assurances. They had met as friends, and as friends they would part. She laughed a low, glad laugh to herself,

  ― 237 ―
as she pictured Esther's face when she would tell her this. It would be quite true—till he returned.

Till he returned? How her heart beat at the thought. If he left in October, he might be back in March at the latest. The late roses would be still in bloom, and the chrysanthemums would be coming in. He loved her to wear great clusters of roses at the throat. What time of day would it be when he came to the dear old Fairacre home? She hoped it would be twilight—just before the lamps were lit. There would be great china bowlfuls of roses in the hall, and delicate pink and pale cream-coloured Japanese chrysanthemums. ‘I love the Japanese for making a festival in honour of this flower,’ she thought. And then she mused over far-away, strange countries. Would they see them all together? Oh! what leaps to make! and they had not yet been betrothed. Yes, in the twilight. There would be a golden glow lingering in the west, and far above that the inimitable rose-lilac colour which steals so often into the evening sky, when the wearying languor of the long summer is over. Rose-lilac? no, that was a burlesque of the real tint. There was in it the pink of wet sea-shells, and a faint tinge of a very pale lilac pansy, and over all a divine haze, as if a great white star had been melted in the air. What name was there for such a colour as that? None. What name was there for the flood of happiness that thrilled her through when their eyes and hands met at parting? Love! But all the dreadful, commonplace, earthly creatures who ever got engaged took that word in vain. Come back, ye wandering little imps of thoughts, and finish this twilight scene. Would she be in the garden when he came? Of course she would know about what time the vessel would reach Glenelg. It would be telegraphed first from King George's Sound, and in less than four days afterwards it would be sighted off Cape Borda. When Tom went to his office that morning, she would take him aside, and say: ‘Can you keep a secret? I don't suppose you can. You mustn't laugh, you mustn't cry; you must do the best you can.’

‘What is it, Baby? Have you given away your last half-crown to Honora, or some other old vagabond, and haven't got a pair of gloves to put on?’

‘No, Tom, it isn't that. But the——’ What would be

  ― 238 ―
the name of the ship? The Nepaul or the Lusitania? Some such name very likely. But she would give it one of her own—the Pâquerette. Where did that come from? Oh, from some lines her old French master had taught her, telling of a custom the village maidens had in France for testing how much they were beloved:

“ ‘La blanche et simple Paquerette,
Que ton cœur consult surtout
Dit: ton amant, tendre filette
J'aime, un peu, beaucoup, point du tout.” ’

Yes. ‘But the Pâquerette is coming in to-day, and I want to know the exact time she reaches Glenelg. Send me a telegram. Oh! put it in your official note-book, and, whatever you do, don't forget. Ah, you are very good; I know you never forget. But this is more important than the creation of the world, or the Christian era, or anything.’ She wouldn't go anywhere that day, and if any visitors came, she would retreat into the study—the dear old little library with the pale, sea-green cretonne curtains, with brown sedges and water-lilies all over them. She had bought them herself when the green damask ones had grown so very faded, and she had climbed up on the ladder to fasten them, and caught sight of a little row of books behind the old Divinity ones that were never disturbed, and the first one she took up was Candide. She read twenty pages of it standing on the ladder. Was there any domain of life so pungently vulgar as those twenty pages? Or were books like Candide hidden away behind tomes of Divinity because these last were so fanciful—women and children might read them—while the others were too true to be left within reach? Would she ever tell Anselm? Well, perhaps; if he persisted in calling her St. Charity. What beautiful intonations there were in his voice when he was talking very gravely, and how deep and steadfast his eyes were! Would he ever look angrily at her? Sometimes she had tried to provoke him, but the more she tried the more he was amused. But then, after years of married life, would not some taint of marital coldness creep into his manner? Heavens! what a bound to make—and they had not yet met!

She would retreat into the library if visitors came that day. But she would be unable to read. Nothing that ever

  ― 239 ―
was written could interest a girl who was waiting for the beloved of her heart—the only man she ever loved or ever could love. Oh, what a dreadful creature she had been to think of marrying when her heart had been as unmoved as the nether millstone. What could have possessed her on that steel gray day in June, when Ted pressed his suit so ardently, and laid his thirteen thousands a year at her feet, and told her he could never care for anyone but herself; and at last she gave a shuddering half-reluctant consent, and he trembled with happiness, and she allowed him to kiss her? Great heavens! how could she? She rose up, and laved her face in cold water as she thought of it.

She wished that no one had ever loved her; and yet how could she tell that she could not have loved anyone but Anselm if no one else had wooed her? But then she should not have found it so amusing. Yes, she knew well she had a thread of the coquette in her. She liked to know that people thought her charming and admired her. How unworldly she had been at one time! How incredible it seemed that her keenest ideal of joy had been to give herself wholly to God—to the lowliest services of life. What voices were these that came wandering back, austere with renunciations and sleepless vigils? Poor earthworm, yearning for security in the contentments of this fleeting show—a perpetual day-drudge to the delusion of perfect earthly happiness—consider how slight a breeze may scatter thy bliss —even as a gust of wind levels a small dust-heap! Hast thou forgotten what a thankless runaway slave is joy? She had read so many of the Saints and Fathers, she could have run on in homilies for hours. But, after all, there was something unreal in their depreciation of life—they spoke in the hieratic style, as Anselm had said. …. Would she get into the trick of quoting him eternally, as so many wives did? Wives! Do people ever know how bold girls can be in their imagination?

No, she could not read while she waited. She would sit in the chair in which her father always sat when he taught the three of them—Cuthbert, Alice, and herself. How kind and gentle he always was—how he taught them to love the best books, and make fast friends of them, and as far as in them lay to do good to all men. How brave and pure and just his life had been—how full of kindly deeds and thoughts;

  ― 240 ―
and yet to the last his mind retained that lambent play of humorous irony—that quick perception of what was droll or incongruous. She could see the quiet half-smile that played so habitually round his lips. Only two days before his death, she had read to him some scenes out of Cymbeline. …. That was a strange awakening before dawn, when, at the last, the end came so unexpectedly. The cocks were crowing when Kirsty called herself and Alice, and there was a strange grayness on his face when they entered the room.

How often since, when she woke at cock-crow, she had gone over the story of her father's life—thinking even of the day on which he first saw light—and then his brilliant student days, when he had won scholarly distinctions; and the long vacation, one summer, when he met his future bride in the old Surrey deanery where she was spending the summer. She was nearly twenty-one and he was twenty-four, and a year later they were married. And now it was all over; but surely—surely somewhere that spirit, so keen to feel and love up to the last, was enshrined in a fuller, larger life than that can ever be where the soul is clogged by a material companion. …. Could Anselm be now content to believe that we became a thread in the living garment of the Infinite only by being transmuted into lowlier forms? …. How quickly they had crept into each other's modes of thought and opinions and most cherished fancies! They never spoke to others of the things they discussed together. Would they ever listen to each other with a yawn, and even forget in time the anniversary of their wedding-day? What, married again—and they were not yet plighted lovers. …

Well, when the visitors were gone, she would go back into the drawing-room and watch the clock. The sun was setting, and the Pâquerette had come in at five. Would she stay in the garden till some one came and told her he had come? Yes, of course, Alice would know, and her mother; for Anselm was going to write to her from England. What would she wear? Pink crêpe de chine and cream-coloured chrysanthemums—no; cream-coloured cashmere and scarlet fairy roses. She would pluck them at sunset, so that they would be fresh and fragrant; and at that moment Alice would skim down the vine-arcade: ‘He is here, Stella; your friend has come!’ Her heart beat so loud and hard, that she placed her hand over it. She went

  ― 241 ―
up through the vine-arcade, that bent under its great clusters of grapes—a white-breasted fantail carolling overhead, mad with mirth, as though it had sipped some frantic liquor; and now she was in the hall, her hand was on the door. Stella!—Anselm!—and then she shrank from his encircling arms with the thought, ‘I am glad it will be yet four months before we meet as lovers!’ And then a quick, sudden fear awoke in her heart. ‘Oh, my love— my love, you have come back, all the way across the salt-dividing sea!’ and with that she burst into low sobs: ‘Oh, the way is so far—so far; and sometimes there are dreadful storms!’ she moaned. The adder that lies ever at the heart of passion had awakened, and stung her.

What light was this stealing into the room? She looked at the stars and found them pale and shrunken; there was no need to turn to the east for tidings of the dawn. Already the birds had learned the secret. A Boobook owl gave a loud sad koor-koo, as if the light had suddenly smitten it blind. A curlew called in the distance by the Oollo-olloo, and near at hand some magpies began their finished trills and flutings, but stopped short as they seemed on the point of breaking into the mellow ripeness of summer song.

There are some dawns that enfold the earth as with the unspeakable beauty of Holiness. This was one of them. There was none of the fiery splendour that so often heralds day in Australia—especially in the summer, when the whole east is often kindled into a throbbing ocean of almost intolerable beauty. But this divine hue was the selfsame ‘dolce color d'oriental zaffiro’ that blessed Dante's sight when he escaped from the murky atmosphere of hell. Morn, treading proudly on golden sandals, spread from horizon to horizon, till it seemed as if day were added to day, and the whole world overflowed with light. It was so keenly luminous that the trees on the Messmate ranges stood sharply outlined instead of being merged in a continuous mass of foliage. Then, gradually, a deep rose-tint stole into the east, as if halls were disclosed heaped up and running over with rose-leaves. Never does heaven draw so near earth, and the earth lie so open to heaven, as in those moments when we can first say it is morning.

Stella could not remain within doors. She threw a soft

  ― 242 ―
woollen shawl over her shoulders and went out among the shrubs and trees. There was a great bush of Rosamond's glory near the front of the house, and the heavy clusters of burning red roses that open their hearts so lavishly to the wind, keeping back no folded petal, drew her to them as with silken cords. The roses quivered fitfully in the breeze, scattering their petals on the ground, where they glowed like delicate leaflets of vivid flame. ‘Oh, what passionate prodigals you are to shed yourselves on the relentless earth in this fashion! Why do you not tarry a little longer, you generous spendthrifts?’ said Stella softly, looking at them with dimmed eyes. Why did the tears rise so quickly, when beforetime they came to her so tardily? Had the weak destiny of a woman at last overtaken her? The dawn had always before been so full of joy and promise—like a great exulting Te Deum, the triumph of light over darkness, the glad beginning of a new day. But now it was strangely solemn, charged with thoughts of those who had been and were no more, of quiet chambers in which women had watched their dying children, their husbands, their lovers. Oh, the sadness and the strange mystery of those never-ending changes that strike a chill to the heart in its gladdest hours of fruition! How many there were to whom the pale splendour of this dawn brought only the awakening consciousness of a life emptied of joy! How many idylls of youth and love would come to a tragic close before night fell once more upon land and sea! There were husband-men sowing grain which they would never reap, young mothers making garments for babes that would never see the light of day, men working and waiting for brides that would never be theirs, gallant ships sailing the main which would never reach their haven. Oh, why did these dismal thoughts rise in that hour full of the budding promise of the crowning happiness of life? And all the time every bird that had a note was pouring out melody ceaselessly, vehemently, as if it would sing its little heart into shreds. The sparrows were deafening each other with their breathless chatter — but high above this rose the clear sweet treble of the fantails. One might suppose that the swallows saw glancing water for the first time, so buoyantly did they skim its surface, singing snatches of madrigals the while that were composed long before the first cave-man scratched

  ― 243 ―
rude figures on stones. Among the bamboos the reed-warblers poured out with pauseless haste those melodious but capricious lays in which many stolen goods are brought to light. Now a stave from a warbling grass-parrot, then a careless parody of the swallow's tittering; anon the cadence of a shell-parrot's love-song—and in between liquid blithe little legends all their own.

‘They are perfect little rogues, these brown water songsters,’ thought Stella, with a smile. ‘They have as wide a range of musical sounds as Sir Thomas More's wife, who took lessons on the lute, the cithara, the viol, the monochord, and the flute, which she daily practised to her husband—poor man: and I cannot play a single instrument, though I love music so insanely. If Anselm is fond of musical evenings we must get a “merlodeon.” ’

At this thought she laughed outright. And then she went inside lest she might be seen in evening attire like a strayed reveller—for it was now close on sunrise, and smoke was ascending from the kitchen chimney, from the men's hut near the wool-shed, and Dunstan's cottage. She knew that sleep was impossible; but after bathing and putting on a crisp morning dress she felt quite refreshed.

But how endless the day seemed! At ten o'clock it was difficult to realize that so much of the day still lay before her. At that hour a note came from Langdale to Mrs. Courtland explaining that he would be unable to visit Mrs. Parr, the caravan woman, as the servants called her, on that day, as he was going to see some sick people at a distance for Dr. Morrison. There was a message to St. Charity, directing her to take the patient's temperature, and permit her to sit up for some hours if it was not over one hundred and one. Stella carried out these instructions, and wrote a note for the patient to a brother in Melbourne. Then Mrs. Morton and Julia came to ask all the Lull household to spend the day after the next at Broadmead, it being the fortieth anniversary of Mr. and Mrs. Morton's wedding-day. ‘I don't suppose Hector and Claude will come till the evening, but you three, and the older children, can come early in the day. It does seem like a tale that John and I should be married for forty years, and never a cross word in all that time, my dear,’ she said, turning to Stella.

‘Not one cross word, mamma? And Claude and I have

  ― 244 ―
not been married a year, and we have had lots of little rows. But then I think it's more interesting, for we are always better friends afterwards,’ said Mrs. Claude reflectively.

‘Well, my dear, people must have their own way, but I prefer always to give in,’ said Mrs. Morton. ‘And when I don't really give in, your papa has so got into the habit, he thinks I do. And now, my dear, tell me about your woman.’

On being thus appealed to, Stella told the curious little story she had heard the previous day.

‘Oh, my dear, if Miss Kibwell only heard that story, she would make something quite beautiful out of it,’ said Mrs. Morton enthusiastically. And then she went on to tell who Miss Kibwell was—a young English lady who wrote such beautiful stories for pious English magazines. ‘We met her at Basle, dear, where papa and I stayed for a month; and there was a French curé staying at the same hotel. He spoke English nicely, and when I pointed out to him the evils of idolatry, he listened to me most attentively. I gave him two tracts on Mariolatry, and he thanked me quite nicely and put them into his pocket. I prayed for him at sunset regularly, as I noticed that about that time he always read his poor Popish Breviary. And do you know, my dear, this young English lady made such a pretty story of this for Sunday in the Parlour. She showed how, when the curé was at his Popish prayers, some influence—occult, I think she called it—was at work with him, till at last the “Hail Mary!” stuck in his throat, and he could not get it out. She showed how my few words and the tracts worked on him so that at last he had to renounce his errors. And then, at the end, she made what she called a word-picture of him—married, and with three or four children—the whole family saying the Lord's Prayer at sunset on the very spot where the lady from Australia—that was me, my dear! —first met him. But the editor of Sunday in the Parlour changed this into the family going to church on Sunday morning, for he feared some of his readers might find a Popish taint in prayers at sunset. Oh, they are wonderfully careful in these pious magazines. Not a word of the worse things that really happen will they allow into their stories.’

Stella, to whom this little tale was chiefly related, listened with both ears. Nor did her interest relax when

  ― 245 ―
the good lady took up her parable about Dr. Langdale, whose speedy departure was a subject of thrilling interest. And to return again so soon. It must be some very important piece of business.

‘Had anyone died, or what had happened?’ said Julia, in the sharp way in which she invariably hankered after the concrete facts that underlay events.

‘He said it was some private family matter,’ returned Mrs. Courtland, ‘and that he expected to be back in Australia again in four months.’

‘Well, that was just what we heard from Mrs. Morrison as we came through Minjah Millowie,’ said Julia. ‘It seems funny, doesn't it, for one to go for such a short time?’

Very recently Miss Morton had written to Mrs. Tareling a letter, in which the words occurred: ‘You may depend the next news you hear will be that of the engagement of Stella and Dr. Langdale. Stella picked up a dying woman —at least, she turned out not to be dying—and Dr. L. is attending her; so they see more of each other than ever.’

Indeed, so great an impression had this made on Miss Morton's mind that, though Mr. Haydon had been the previous Sunday at Broadmead, she had not stirred beyond the veranda. Still, it was comforting to know that he had made one or two artless plans to lure her away beyond the family circle.

The afternoon turned out very cloudy and sultry. Tantaro, the native boy, had had an accident with Duke a few days previously in riding to one of the out-stations. In jumping a fence the horse had struck his near fore-leg and cut it so badly that he could not be ridden for some days. Louise had not ridden for many years, so there was not a great choice of ladies’ horses. There was Andy, voted an impossible little animal by Stella; and there was Norman, just then in a distant part of the run; and Orlando, whowas in the stock-paddock close to the house, but had an evil name.

‘He has splendid paces, and a head like an Arab,’ pleaded Stella.

‘Yes; but he has a concealed vice which is now an open secret,’ returned her brother Hector. ‘He shies at the most unexpected moments. Yes, you'll be on your guard

  ― 246 ―
if you see a lumbering bullock-dray, or a white log lying close to the road, or anything else that a nervous horse objects to. But how if he gives a sudden swerve when you are cantering along a tract as smooth and level as a bowling-green?’

‘In that case I should either stick in my saddle or have a fall; and that reminds me, I've never had as many falls as people say go to the making of a good rider. Hadn't I better improve the shining hour?’

‘You had—in keeping out of mischief. No, Baby, you must have no experimental bursters when you ride alone. You can have Andy to go anywhere with, and you can ride Orlando in the stock-paddock, then on Thursday you may have Norman.’

Stella rode Orlando once or twice round the stock-paddock, and highly approved of him. It is true he shied once or twice, but nothing to signify to anyone who knew how to sit in a saddle. On this dark, sultry afternoon she felt an uncontrollable longing to ride for miles in the open air. She was weary, but she could not sleep; restless and unable to work. She would ride to the Wicked Wood. It was only between seven and eight miles away, with a well-made road leading through it, little frequented by any save riders or the light vehicles of surrounding squatters, or people journeying between Minjah Millowie and Nareen. This wood had made a strange impression on Stella. It was only a few days previously that she had written of it to her sister Esther:

‘Are there such tracts of utter desolation in any other country? Acres upon acres, nay, in one direction, mile after mile, with each tree bleached and bare as the planks of a wrecked ship that has lain for centuries on the coast of an uninhabited island. They are tall, and gaunt, and white, standing close to each other, so that their limbs—their poor skeleton-intertwisted branches—touch each other overhead. They look as though they had been convulsed with throes of mortal agony, and were then suddenly petrified. They are like the numberless trunks and bones of dead things reared in air instead of being kindly hidden in the bosom of the great mother. Are the limbs of living trees twisted and twirled and twined and twinged in this way? Is it possible that bark and leaves and the breath of life have such magic

  ― 247 ―
that they do not let us catch one glimpse of the real anatomy of a tree until their masking raiment is entirely gone? Some of the great old trees in the Wicked Wood have, through all these years, kept their tiniest twigs in extraordinary completeness. Standing under them and looking upward, they look more like delicate carving in ivory, like marvellous etching in silky-gray and pure white against a deep blue background, rather than the corpse of what was once dense foliage. It seems as if no great storm could ever have swept through the wood since it became a burial-ground of trees, whose hold of life was so strong that even in death they stand upright. Else how is it that those delicate cobwebs of interlacing twigs, those fine slender branches, dry and brittle-looking as an old grass-tree, have not been strewn in crumbling fragments—in dust, I had almost said? Underfoot there is a little vegetation—a sad gray-green, with wide patches of yellow sand showing between. I thought the Mallee country round Coonjooree might be taken as a type of the most weird aspect of our scenery, but the Mallee sinks into tameness compared to the Wicked Wood. It seems to stretch out unseen arms and compel you to stand and look from tree to tree, and try to draw in the secret of its strange fascination. It is too terrible, one says; and then, because of this, one visits the place again and again. It nourishes the imagination. There are some spots in it of which I dream by night. In the daytime I try to think of stories into which they could come. But then their barrenness—their lean detachment from all the glad life of the world around, freezes the impish fancies that seek to give them a local habitation and a name. The Wicked Wood is a sort of belt half a mile wide as one passes through it from here to Nareen, but miles away on each side, to the right hand and to the left. A mile further on, within sight of Nareen, there is a wide stringy bark valley, in which a bush fire raged not very long ago. It must have leapt from tree to tree and up the trunks to the very tips of the branches, for all are blackened and charred, and many are dead. But most of them have put forth young twigs and leaves. Some among them are, indeed, a perfect idyll of spring—all a mass of tender young leaves, clad in pale green, the youngest and smallest of them tinged with a pure bronzy shade, fluttering above the

  ― 248 ―
charred branches and along the coal-black trunks as if planted by some fantastic gardener in hidden vases.’

Now that the thought, ‘The way is so long and the sea so treacherous,’ kept rising in her mind like the refrain of a ballad heard long ago, and chiming perpetually beyond her power to still it, these gaunt writhing trees seemed to draw her to them as by a spell. It lay in her nature to seek serenity in a scene that had not one of the charms which ordinarily woo the heart. The cultured beauty of the Home Field, with its wealth of leafing trees and budding roses and spring flowers, disquieted her.