Chapter XXXIV

STELLA resolved that she would merely reach the Wicked Wood and then return — keeping unsleeping guard on Orlando all the time. Not even the sight of two yellow-rumped geobasileus birds, twittering on a dwarf honey-suckle near the road, made her forget to be cautious, though their notes were symptomatic of housekeeping, and one of their curious double nests was a thing she much longed to see. Orlando seemed to enjoy the spin as much as his rider—and that was saying much. Those who love riding find a fascination in the exercise it would be difficult to define. Care, or the shadow of trouble, has in it something unreal, while the free-bounding motion of a horse seems to add a new strength and buoyancy to one's flagging vitality. The air is lighter, the horizon widens, heaven is nearer, and the songs of birds come in ecstatic rain while mile after mile of forest, or wood, or plain is rapidly passed.

Within a mile of the Wicked Wood Dustiefoot lagged behind and barked in a way that told his mistress he was out of breath. She slackened speed, and then for the first time noticed the strange change that had come over the sky. Up from the north a long wide column of clouds, low and black, was rushing with incredible velocity. The wind, too, had shifted, and suddenly lost its warmth, and seemed to be gathering strange voices from the wilderness. It was evident that a storm was brewing. It was in this moment of surprised inattention that her brother's mistrust of

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Orlando's open vice was justified. Without any ostensible reason he suddenly bounded from one side of the road to the other, and Stella, who sat at ease, her eyes fixed on the quickly gathering clouds, found herself in the twinkling of an eye low in the dust, with one shoulder feeling very numbed, and a general sense of dislocation weighing heavily upon her. ‘I have had an experimental burster after all,’ was the first thought; and then she attempted to rise, but she could only limp very slowly and painfully. Orlando cantered out of sight, the loose reins and flying stirrup, and all that marks the demoralizing contrast between a horse. ridden and guided and one who is a lawless runaway, prompting him to flee from the scene of his escapade. Dustiefoot looked after the defaulter lost in amazement, which presently gave place to an indignant bark. Then he came and fawned on his mistress, and held her riding-whip in his mouth till she took it from him.

There are few occasions in which the pangs of conscience make themselves felt more acutely than after being rolled in the dust by a horse that one has been warned not to take beyond the stock-paddock. As far as she could ascertain, Stella had no limbs broken, but both the right shoulder and arm felt extremely stiff and sore, and there was some twist in her right foot which made it impossible for her to walk even a mile, much less seven or eight. The only alternative was to sit by the roadside till some one passed who could take her home. And then arose the very unwelcome and disturbing thought that tramps and vagabond sundowners were just as likely to pass as friendly squatters in buggies, or a resident from Nareen or Warracootie eager to show a kindness to anyone belonging to Lull. There was a large fallen gum tree on one side of the road at about thirty or forty yards away from it. With considerable pain Stella dragged herself to this, and sat so as to be as much as possible protected from the storm, which would evidently soon break in its wrath.

Even as she reached this place of refuge, there was that curious lull which foretold a fierce outbreak. All heaven was now clothed with a shroud of storm-black clouds. The wind, which had quickly risen and broken into keen shrill voices, seemed for a moment suspended. The birds had betaken themselves to the covert of the trees, and were as

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silent as though night had fallen. Then, with a sudden obscurity of darkness, there was a great sound as of many rushing waters—a far-off gathering murmur, that had at first something plaintive, almost musical, as of many harpers harping on their harps. But this was soon drowned in a hoarse, ever-rising roar. Gust after gust of terrific violence, each one higher than the other, swept over the woods, till all the air was darkened and thick with dust, with branches torn from the trees, with fragments of blackened grass trees, with withered boughs that had been long dead of old. The spirits of the tempest were all abroad —a thousand jarring voices seemed let loose at once, rising in wails, and shrieks, and fiery confused sounds, as of battle and lamentation. Then a great flame of lightning swept the horizon, and peal after peal of thunder broke and resounded as though the earth were undermined with Cyclopean chambers, through which the deafening crashes hurtled and reverberated endlessly. Quivering, wide-drawn flames swept constantly across the face of the sky, as if the darkened heavens were being searched with flaring torches.

Dustiefoot cowered close to his mistress, and both were fortunately sheltered from the brunt of the storm by the closely interwoven branches under which they had taken shelter. Every now and then sticks and broken limbs, and all the débris that floats at large when the wind is blowing with hurricane violence over great tracts of thickly wooded country, fell around them. Now and then a branch was broken off overhead, and lifted high up as though it were a feather-weight. At each peal of thunder the dog gave a low growl, the hair round his neck bristling on end. Stella called him by name from time to time, but a trumpet-blast would have been lost in that terrific din as completely as a whisper. The touch of her hand on his head, however, seemed to reassure him. It was certain that the almost human intelligence of the dog's eyes, as he alternately fixed them wistfully on her face and looked abroad wrathfully when he gave a low growl, as if warning the elements not to go too far, gave Stella a sense of companionship, even of amusement. But the air seemed loaded with sulphureous vapours that gradually made her head feel at once giddy and very heavy. Once or twice she caught herself opening

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her eyes with the sudden start of one who has dozed. At such times Dustiefoot seemed more than ever on the alert with a brisk, protecting air. It was when the fury of the storm was spent that the thick end of a bough, which had been denuded in its flittings of all the lighter branches, crashed through the thinned-out boughs overhead, grazing Stella on the temple and falling heavily end-ways on poor Dustiefoot's left paw. He gave one low, yelping bark, but did not whine or moan once, though the jagged end of the storm's missile had cut and bruised him badly. The sight of the blood dripping from the wounded paw made Stella turn faint and cold. She could not spare her handkerchief in all that blinding dust, but she had a fine white silk one round her throat, and tearing this in two, she bound one half of it round the maimed limb. Dustiefoot lay close by her, his head in her lap, and more than ever, as the storm subsided, Stella felt that she could not keep her eyes open. She felt sure, however, that Dustiefoot would not let any vehicle or horseman pass by without giving timely notice. Already he had started up barking clamorously, but the passer-by each time was a stray bullock, which hurried into a thicker part of the woods as if fearful that the worst was yet to come.

Once or twice Stella aroused herself with thinking of the consternation her absence, through such a storm and on a horse of Orlando's character, would cause at Lullaboolagana. Well, at the worst they would send out in search of her when the evening drew near. And Dunstan had seen her take the road that led to Nareen. The atmosphere and the shock of the fall, and perhaps, too, the little blow on her temple and the previous night's vigils, all combined to bring on a queer feeling of stupor. She was not asleep nor insensible, and yet she felt as if even to move were a trouble. She felt a slow trickling on her temple, and thought it must be rain. A few large heat-drops had fallen as the storm abated, but nothing more. It was a little rivulet of blood which trickled from the left temple, where it was grazed by the tree-branch. She rested her head against a large, smooth bough behind her, and sat with closed eyes, deathly pale.

It seemed to her that hours passed as she sat in this way —never wholly unconscious, yet overcome with an irresistible

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languor. In reality only half an hour had passed, till one drove up rapidly in a buggy, with Orlando led captive behind it. It was Dr. Langdale on his way from Nareen. He had been caught in the storm, but was fortunately in the stringy bark wood where the trees were covered with vigorous young foliage. In the Wicked Wood the ground was simply littered with dead wood, which the violence of the storm had strewn broadcast like chaff. Half-way he saw Orlando, which he failed to recognise as one of the Lullaboolagana horses, but he knew the side-saddle daintily embroidered with scarlet. A horrible fear shot through his heart, but he strove to believe that it was misplaced. He could never quite recall how he got through the Wicked Wood. He kept glancing from side to side at the great withered trunks and limbs that the storm had felled, his mind filled with a sickening apprehension of what the next turning might have in store.

He breathed more freely when the Wicked Wood was left behind. A few minutes afterwards he recognised Dustiefoot's barking. Then, in one awful moment, he saw his worst forebodings beggared by the ghastly reality—Stella white and death-like, her face stained with blood. ‘My God! my God!’ he cried, with the intolerable agony of a strong man suddenly smitten beyond endurance. Stella heard the words distinctly, and recognised the voice. She had a struggling consciousness that if she willed it she could open her eyes and speak, but a kind of hunger fastened on her to hear what further he would say on perceiving her thus apparently insensible. She did not know how cruelly like death she looked—her face ghastly white, stained with dust and blood. In a moment he was by her side, kneeling by her, his breath coming in quick gasps. ‘Oh! my darling, my darling—my darling!’ he cried, his voice failing him with mortal fear. And then quick compunction seized on Stella, and she sighed softly. So extreme was his agitation, that for a moment he could hardly believe she was not mortally hurt. But he found that her heart beat with energy, he saw her eyelids quivering, and a faint tinge of colour stealing into her cheeks. She recovered consciousness slowly, so that he might not know she had heard those impassioned words which held the sweetest music that had ever fallen on her ears, also

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that he might not know the perfidy of which she had been guilty.

‘You are badly hurt, I fear,’ he said, as she at last looked up. His voice still thrilled with the sharp emotions which had rent him, but he had regained his self-possession.

‘Dustiefoot is worse than I am,’ she answered. She felt so absurdly happy that it was a surprise to her to find her voice so thin and faint.

Langdale went to his trap and produced one of those cases which are sometimes called the ‘Bushman's Christian Companion.’

When it is remembered that such a case should contain a flask of the best brandy, with a neat silver top that can be used as a cup, also a flask of water and a pound or so of biscuits, the term will not seem out of place, especially if it is further remembered that those who make journeys in the Bush may often go scores of miles without seeing a human habitation of any kind. But perhaps the term is never so beautifully appropriate as when, as in the present instance, it is incumbent on the possessor of such a case, in the interests alike of science and humanity, to play the Good Samaritan.

‘Now, one, two, three—and you are to drink this, every sup.’

‘Do you really carry medicine about with you?’ said Stella, with a little pout, as she sniffed the mixture.

‘No questions, if you please. Remember, people who are picked up wounded and insensible are “cases.” ’

‘Ah, that isn't so very inhuman!’ she said, after gulping down the dose. ‘It takes the breath away, but then it seems to bring back one's soul.’

‘I am sorry to say that the noble art of healing does not invent such remedies. We cannot say, like the Bishop of Noyou, that this recipe came out of our own heads.’

‘And who was the Bishop of Noyou?’

‘A worthy ecclesiastic who used to say at the close of his sermons, “My brethren, I took none of these truths which I have just uttered from the Scriptures or from the Fathers —all came out of the head of your bishop.” That was not a pharmacopœian drug you swallowed; it was brandy and water.’

‘Dr. Johnson's beverage for heroes! Well, I felt heroic

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impulses the moment I drank it—no less than a resolve to mount Orlando. ‘Oh, you unfaithful creature!’ she said, looking reproachfully at the horse.

‘Nonsense, you must submit to be driven home in my buggy, and I really must wash that wound on your temple.’

‘A wound!’ cried Stella, with incredulous amazement.

‘Yes; was it the blow of a stray branch that threw you off the horse, or was it the fall that made you insensible?’

‘Oh, I was not——’ she stopped abruptly.

‘Oh no, you were not insensible, I suppose, and you have not been hurt, and Orlando did not run away. In the meantime, this looks very much like blood.’ He had wetted a handkerchief, and with the delicate touch of a trained hand washed away the clotted blood. Then he perceived that the wound was very slight, being, in fact, a mere scratch.

He assisted her to rise, and as she was determined to ride home, she repressed all sighs of pain. But he noticed her sudden paleness and the contraction of her lips.

‘You are hurt. Pray let me drive you home.’

‘Oh no, please. Claude will never let me forget it if I am ignominiously wheeled home.’ And then it all came out —how she had persisted in leaving the stock-paddock on a horse notoriously unsafe, except, perhaps, for a buck-jumper.

‘Well, do you know, Miss Stella Courtland, I begin to think you are rather a handful.’

‘Yes, and I begin to see that you are rather tyrannical. Will you send Dr. Morrison to see how many of my bones are broken?’

‘Yes, I shall send him; but I think it is a duty to warn him of the sort of patient he is likely to have. Poor old boy! your paw is really rather badly hurt. Would you like a biscuit, old fellow?’

Dustiefoot ate several. Then the ‘Christian Companion’ was put back in the buggy, Orlando's reins were mended with a piece of twine, and Stella rode him back, while Dustiefoot sat by Langdale's side in the buggy looking quite like an invalid. How incredibly happy they were as they went back through the woods, exchanging a few words now and then, laughing at the veriest trifles, watching Orlando's ears to see if he meant to shy once more, counting the notes of the birds that had found their voices once more now that the storm was over!

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They parted at the avenue gate of the Home Field. ‘I shall send Dr. Morrison at once. I know he is at home, because I took his distant patients for him to-day. To-morrow I shall probably call in to see how Mrs. Parr and— Dustiefoot are going on.’

‘Happy dog!’ said Stella, with a mischievous laugh.

‘Is it only a day since we sat by the hymenosperum tree?’ she thought as she rode up the avenue. All her incipient fears and forebodings had vanished. The four months would speed away almost too swiftly—before she could fully realize this vast happiness which had come to her. There was some duty he had to fulfil before he asked her to be his wife. She accepted the fact without even speculating over it, so complete and whole-hearted was her confidence.

‘I could not love thee, dear, so much,
Loved I not honour more,’

were the words that rose to her lips as she thought of the firm self-repression which had so speedily succeeded his agitation. Not for worlds would she have missed hearing those passionate words of endearment, and yet she resolved to be very guarded during the days that lay between their separation — to help him in every way to keep to a purpose which would not have been formed without good reason.

It was near sunset next day when he called. Mrs. Parr was making rapid strides towards recovery. Dustiefoot was as well as could be expected. Stella was with her sister-in-law, Louise, in the drawing-room, her injured arm in a sling, the youngest Courtland on a big white bearskin at her feet, the ‘Arabian Nights’ on a little table near her.

‘Behold how tragedies are made when common chances happen to wilful girls!’ said Langdale, laughing, as he sat near her. ‘What have you been doing in Arabia?’

‘Oh, I drank coffee with the three ladies of Bagdad, and then I met Aladdin, the son of Shamseddin, on his way to that city. You know he left Cairo with fifty mules laden with merchandise?’

‘Was he overtaken with a storm, and——’

‘ “Did he have an experimental burster?” Pray do not spare me, or let me for a moment forget that I was thrown in the dust like a foolish sack of potatoes.’

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‘Indeed, Baby dear, it might have been very serious,’ said Louise, laughing.

‘I assure you it looked serious enough when I saw her,’ said Langdale gravely. ‘And as it is, your arm is a good deal hurt,’ he added in a lighter tone, turning to Stella.

‘Yes; and I swallowed some dust.’

‘And a tree hit you on the head and wounded your dog.’

‘And before I entered the house yesterday the whole family met me in a procession—like one of those sculptures they dig up in Nineveh, you know—all asking what could possibly have induced me to ride Orlando.’

‘Yes; and to-day I have come with my pockets full of mulberry-twigs to whip you till you repent or die.’