Chapter XXXV

IT was easy to keep on neutral ground when someone else was by, but next day, when Langdale called, all the rest of the family were at Broadmead, and Stella was alone on the western veranda with a large basket of flowers she was arranging in glasses and opal dishes containing clear fresh water from the creek.

‘Are you allowed to sit up in this defiant attitude and do things?’ Langdale asked, as he sat facing her.

‘Oh yes. Dr. Morrison says I am going on famously; and that if no one scolds me I may ride Norman—say next Monday.’

She held up a great cluster of half-opened white fairy-roses as she spoke, looking at them sideways in the clear emerald light that came in through the thick woof of greenery that enclosed the veranda.

‘I wonder if anyone ever really scolded you?’ he said, drawing nearer, so as to hand her the flowers she was arranging in the glasses with such cunning effect.

‘Yes, everybody in turn—except Dustiefoot. Do you know, he runs about as if nothing had happened to him, with merely the prettiest limp in the world.’

‘Are these white roses off the bush close to the myall acacia by the Oolloolloo?’ he asked, bending over to count the number clustered on one slender spray.

  ― 257 ―

‘Yes; it is only rose-trees close to flowing water that bear such roses. How I should like to paint them or embalm them in fitting verse!’

‘But they come back again next spring in all their old witchery. It is only human lives that can never be repeated—never be acted over but once.’

‘Unless they are like the tags of old rhymes and the rainclouds that fall and are evaporated and come back in a dragon-fly's wings, or a plant struggling for life on the edge of a desert.’

‘Wicked child! you are laughing at me to my face. But whether or not we come back like the roses, or the creatures you so much object to that have more legs than four, every day is as fresh and keenly interesting now as if it were created for us individually.’

She felt that they were getting on dangerous ground, and sought safety by retreating to a more impersonal region in the persiflage that came to her so readily.

‘And yet to superior beings on a better ordered planet, I suppose our lives would seem little better than blobs in a world heaped up with tumbled cobwebs.’

‘What is a blob?’

‘Do you go out into the woods in the early mornings?’

‘Often, since I have learned from you what an exquisite hour the dawn is in Australia.’

‘Then, have you not noticed transparent little webs pearled with dew hanging on bushes and tree-trunks?’

‘I have occasionally. Why don't you look at me to-day, St. Charity, when you speak to me?’

She attempted to do so in a laughing, careless way; but her glance fell under his, and her fingers trembled as she wreathed a long spray of native clematis with pale-green tendrils and delicate citron-coloured blossoms round the slender stem of a cloisonné vase.

‘Well, have you not noticed,’ she went on, making her work an excuse for not looking at him, ‘how, when something has brushed against these webs, the side touched has curled up in a little blister? That is a blob.’

‘Thank you. And do you really feel like one when you are arranging flowers like these?’

‘Oh, let us speak in a broad general sense,’ she said, laughing.

  ― 258 ―

But, curious to say, he disregarded the suggestion.

‘What do you call these white single roses?’

‘They are the Macartney. Are they not lovely, with their golden centres and wide cups with “leves well foure paire”?’

‘I shall always think of it as the Stella rose. It is so starry, and seems to look abroad with such fearless inquiry,’ he said slowly.

At the words a deep damask flush mounted into her cheeks and remained there. Her deep lustrous eyes were, in truth, shining like twin stars. The pale-blue tea-gown she wore, with a cluster of white fairy-roses at the throat, threw the pure tints of her face and the soft brilliancy of her eyes into clear relief.

‘You think they have an inquiring look? Yes, perhaps, something like the wide-opened eyes of calves, or the beaks of hungry sparrows.’

How angry she was at herself to find her face flushing more hotly, her fingers getting more tremulous, her heart beating more wildly!

‘Give me one of them, Stella.’

She held out one to him, and their hands met. He took the rose, but did not release her hand.

‘Were you quite unconscious when I reached you yesterday?’ he said in a low voice.

But she could not speak; her reply was a long, shuddering sigh.

‘You know my secret; and you are not angry, Stella?’

His voice was very agitated; and, as for her, she seemed to be enveloped in a throbbing haze through which she could not clearly see nor hear.

‘Tell me, my own, that you are not offended,’ he said, drawing nearer to her.

‘No, I am not offended,’ she said at last, her voice lower than a whisper.

‘And do you know—oh, you cannot know—how I love you, with my whole heart and soul, as a man can love but once in his life!’

A fantail began suddenly to sing near them as if its heart would break with joy—the selfsame bird that trilled its golden carol above the vine-arcade when he came back in the Pâquerette four months later on! What strange confusion of time!

  ― 259 ―

‘You must not say more till you return,’ she said, looking up at him, vainly trying to smile. The full knowledge that he loved her filled her with joy so keen that it bordered on pain.

‘But, Stella, I must say more. I must hear you tell me that you love me just a little; say it, Stella—say “Anselm, I love you a little!” ’

‘But—Anselm—that would not be true.’

‘Stella—my own sweet love—do not trifle with me.’

‘Yes, it would be untrue, for I love you’—there was a pause in which he could not breathe, till the words came with a great thrill of gladness—‘more than I can say.’

He knelt down by her side and folded her in his arms. Their lips met in a long, long kiss.

What a strange, memorable hour followed! It was almost unreal in its tumultuous happiness. It was to both the great sacrament of life—consecrating it; giving it fulness and meaning; seeming to lift it for evermore above the meanness of chance, and accident, and disaster; giving them a heavenly anchorage from all peril and storm.

‘And now you must say no more,’ said Stella at last, smiling through her happy tears; ‘and there is to be no solemn revelation to anyone. It is our secret till you write from England, as you purposed at first.’

‘Ah, but that was when I thought I was Stoic enough to keep to my purpose—now——!’

‘Now it must be the same, Anselm,’ she said quickly. ‘Oh, do you not understand how frightfully tiresome it would be to have anyone else talking over this precious secret before we have realized it ourselves? In four little months I shall have got used to the thought. The same reason exists now that existed yesterday—does it not?’

‘Yes, my own,’ he replied, a shadow falling on his face. ‘But now I think you ought to know all.’

‘No, Anselm, let it be as though you had said no more. We need make no promises. Let what was your wish in this be my law till you return. Let us be friends a little longer. Oh, it has been so dear and good a bond! Can any other be better?’

‘You little sceptic! You have sat too long in the scorner's chair. People have often told you their little

  ― 260 ―
stories, Stella. I also have one to tell you. But as you wish it, let it be when I return.’

‘Yes, sir—some evening when we begin to yawn at each other.’

‘Very well, madam—when we have worn every subject threadbare.’

‘And we have learned to say “Not at all, my dear,” with tightening lips.’

‘When the honeymoon is quite over.’

‘And the first quarrel an old, well-known story.’

‘And poor little Cupid has been sent to weed poppies.’

‘And you wonder why you used to call me St. Charity.’

‘And life has turned into a blob.’

‘Now we must lay down rules. You must not take my words without leave. You did not know that was in the English language till I used it. Say, “Dear Stella.” ’

‘Dearest beloved Stella!’

‘ “Please may I say ‘blob’?” ’

‘Oh, you artful, captivating rogue! Tell me, Stella, how do you manage to be such a wonderful darling?’

‘Just because I want you to be in love with me—oh! so much that you don't know whether you are on your heels or your head.’

‘And then?’

‘Oh, then you must keep an eye on Cupid at his weeding.’

‘Stella, my belovedest, don't encourage yourself to be cruel. It is a taste that grows on people, like eating opium and stealing umbrellas.’

‘That reminds me. Shouldn't I ask you how many of the commandments you have kept, if any?’

‘Certainly not. It is the most dangerous habit a woman can contract, that of asking questions, more especially when she is going to be married.’

‘Oh, how boldly and brazenly you pronounce the word! How glad I am that it cannot be for some time!’

‘Not so very long, thank God! Let me count on your fingers.’

‘Oh no—no, please,’ she said, suddenly drawing her hand away.

‘But why?’


  ― 261 ―

‘Ah! Have those beloved fingers of mine—yes, you are mine; you know you are!—have they been counted before?’

‘It is the most dangerous habit a man can contract, that of asking questions, more especially when he is going to be married.’

‘You have said it. Oh, you bold child, how brazenly you repeated the word! But, Stella——’

‘Well, once upon a time, as you know already, I did think of marrying; but I never loved before.’

‘And I, Stella, my darling——’

‘Ah, that is part of your story!—ah, of course I know! I have read so many plays, and then there is Tom and people. How many sonnets did you write to eyebrows before you were eighteen, let us say?’

‘Would you like me to count?’

‘No. After all, you couldn't tell what a darling I am if you had not found how foolish it was to love anyone else.’

‘Stella, will you be a good, loving child? Kiss me once of your own free will.’

‘Oh, Anselm—next time, perhaps——’

‘Will you really?—and after that?’

‘And after that—and on and on till—— Can it ever be a tale too often told?’

‘Never, never! But what has become of my rose? Give me another one. Let it be a “Stella” rose. What stupid people have the naming of flowers!’

‘Oh, yes! and of most things. If only lovers were among the convocations that decide saintship, how easily the ultimate distinction of the Church would be obtained!’

‘But the truest saints never get canonized, St. Stella— “ora pro nobis.” Why that stifled sigh, my little heretic?’

‘May I not sigh any more when I wish?’

‘Yes, while I am away. Oh, I think I must set off to-morrow!’

‘So that I may sigh?’

‘So that I may return quickly. Ah, Stella darling, I have been waiting for you so long; and now I have found you—I have found you, in spite of everything!’

They fell into the sweet, endless repetitions of lovers’ talk —grave and gay by turns. The sun was setting before Langdale could tear himself away. And then, before he rode off, Stella walked with him to the passion-flower

  ― 262 ―
bridge; and there they lingered till a great white star glowed in the rose twilight of the west, which spread far up, almost to the zenith of the sky. This great roseate wave of colour was a beautiful phenomenon of the season, and increased in brilliancy as the summer drew near.

‘Perhaps it is star-mist, out of which new worlds are to be fashioned,’ said Stella.

‘Are you sorry for them, Liebe?’

‘No; perhaps after long ages there will be people in them who love each other as we do—and that will make up for all.’

A proud smile stole over his face as he listened.

‘Are you mocking or in earnest, Herzblättchen?’

‘In deadly earnest. I foresee I shall be fearfully serious, Anselm.’

‘No, no; you must not be a whit different—that would be a schism I could not bear. Stella, may I give you an old keepsake?’

‘Do you love it very much?’

‘Yes; and I have worn it for twelve years.’

‘Then you may.’

He detached a small, old-fashioned gold ring from his watch-chain.

‘It is a motto ring that was left by an old relative to my favourite sister Margaret, who gave it to me before her death.’

‘Ah! she died?’

‘Yes, at eighteen. “A pard-like spirit, beautiful and swift.” Do you know, Liebe, you reminded me of her the first night we met—and oftentimes since.’

Stella took the ring and kissed it gently.

‘I shall wear it next my heart,’ she said. ‘There is a motto on the inside—“Amore.” ’

‘Yes. “Amore e 'l cor gentil sono una cosa”—“Love and a noble heart are one and the same.” It is out of the “Vita Nuova.” ’

‘Ah, the great master. From first to last he speaks more nobly of love than any other of the sons of light.’

‘Shall we read him together next spring, Liebe? You know we shall be old married people by that time. Are you cold, Stella? You seem to shiver.’

‘No; not cold. When you spoke of next spring, someone

  ― 263 ―
must have walked over the earth in which my grave is to be.’

‘Oh, Blättchen, what a weird idea! You should not speak of such a thing.’

‘Yes; we shall read Dante together. But won't that be reversing the usual order of married people—to be first in the Inferno, and then go on to Paradise?’

They laughed softly. They were so far removed from the sagging prose, the dulness, the satiety of the ‘usual order of things.’ The hour was one of the charmed soft-footed fairies which come once or twice in the years of man's earthly pilgrimage—bearing in both hands a cup filled to the brim with life's costliest wine. The soft rose-glow in the western heaven thrilled through the transparent atmosphere; the Oolloolloo babbled merrily on its way, its course as yet unstayed by the fiery ardours of the approaching summer. A solitary curlew called in the distance, but near at hand the liquid songs of the little reed-warblers fell thick and fast, like swift melodious raindrops. They turned at last towards the house with lingering footsteps.

‘How can we meet after this like mere friends, Liebe?’ said Langdale, as they paused at the end of the little passion-flower bridge. ‘It is very good and generous of you only to think of what I could have wished, but——’

‘I would like to see the sort of being that represents me in your imagination, Anselm. Oh, please don't make a Dalai-lama of me, for you will be most dreadfully disappointed by-and-bye. Remember that we propose to face the ordeal of matrimony——’

‘I wish to heaven the ordeal were to begin——’

‘You must not interrupt—I am going to make a confession.’

‘Well, your father confessor is waiting to hear it, and, if possible, to grant absolution.’

‘ “Father confessor!” Oh, Anselm, if you could see your own eyes just now you wouldn't call yourself such names. But don't try to look different. You are one of the few people who can be happy without looking foolish. I am quite in earnest. When people have the wrong sort of profile, they pay a very heavy penalty for being glad. You know when you cried out on first seeing me—I heard you. I was not insensible. I could have moved and opened

  ― 264 ―
my eyes—at least, I am sure I could—but I didn't even try.’

‘You cruel child! why didn't you?’

‘Because—because—I wanted to hear you say “My darling.” I was at once bold and hypocritical.’

‘This is too sweet a crime to be lightly forgiven,’ said Langdale gravely.

‘Oh, what infatuation! Well, don't you see it was like waylaying you—surprising you out of your declaration? I ought to be sorry, but I cannot, for we would have lost this day, and no other could be quite so perfect. Only let your reason hold good. After all, it concerns only us two really. And do you not know how I love to fold this secret in my heart from everyone in the world but you for a little time? I could not bear to have it profaned all at once. So many women chatter about such things in a common, callous way. There is Helen's elder sister—a perfect image of earth—who gossips away perpetually. Her favourite subject is engagements. You may smile, but I am quite serious. She asks questions until you feel that you are lying about in fragments; then she puts you together and begins afresh.’

‘Very well, sweet St. Charity, let it be your penance to have your own way in this.’

‘And now, while we walk back to the house, you can practise talking and looking like a mere friend.’

‘In that case, when I speak to you, you must look away.’

‘Look away! that is what people in love do in a comedy. Why, the very magpies would point us out as lovers.’

‘But what am I to do when you look at me with those eyes?’

‘That is not the way to practise. Devise anecdotes about the weather, and try to be reasonable once more, for you have suddenly forsworn the art.’

‘There is not the same call for it. You seem to have left off railing against nature and Providence, and the treacheries of life; remember what you said about the new world!’

Stella watched him ride away, turning at intervals to look at her till he was out of sight, and her eyes became suddenly dim with the thought—‘Only eight more days before we must part!’