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Chapter XXXVII

LAURETTE had never been more airily cheerful and full of gossip than she was on the day after Stella's arrival.

‘We have all the morning to gossip in. I asked Mrs. Carter and Dora to afternoon tea, so there is no chance of their dropping in at some unearthly hour. To-morrow evening we are going to rehearsals of private theatricals at the Jorans’. By the way, they have returned from England since you were here. They are among our crême de la crême in Melbourne. What confers the distinction?. Well, at present, the very inner circle is rather High-Church, and of course has the right of tambour at Government House, and one must be very wealthy or’—Laurette made a slight pause, so as to make the point with emphasis—’ one must be connected with the British aristocracy, or with the viceregal family.’

‘When the two are combined, one must hold every blessing that this life affords in the hollow of one's hand,’ said Stella with a becoming gravity.

‘Yes, my dear, unless one has to retreat to the depths of the Mallee Scrub, as I must shortly do. But I shall devote myself to the education of the children. But about the Jorans. Thomas Joran has had what you might call a romantic career. The very earliest glimpse of him in colonial history: he hawked elderly cabbages in the streets of Melbourne—at least, they would have been streets if they had been made. Well, I don't mean that any decaying vegetable is romantic; but then compare the status of a man employed in that way and one who entertains a Duke and goes to Court. But it was rather a sell about the Duke. You see, the Jorans entertained him sumptuously. Some people say that, in all, they spent four thousand pounds on him in less than a week. What it must have cost them in special trains alone! I myself have sometimes seen Joran haggard with anxiety, hunting up railway officials, while Mrs. Joran stood sentinel lest a common populace should even peep in at the blue satin lining, or the butler, who was in a separate compartment, in charge of the ice and champagne. Naturally a man could not have

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all this gold and incense lavished on him without making some return. So when the Duke left our shores, he cordially invited the Jorans to visit Rookcourt when they were next in England, thinking he was safe because they had only just returned.

‘But “the dear Duke” had scarcely sailed, when weighty reasons compelled the Jorans to do likewise. In fact, Mrs. Joran, in a burst of confidence, confided to me that it would be unpardonable not to respond to the Duke's pressing invitation. But sad to say, the only recognition his Grace accorded them was that a younger son asked Mr. Joran to lunch with him at a Radical Club. You may talk of the aboriginal myths, but I think they are very paltry compared to spending five or six thousand pounds, and getting in return a five-shilling lunch! It could not have cost more, for out of compliment to his guest, Lord Augustus had colonial claret, the kind we can buy in Melbourne at fifteen shillings a gallon. Oh, I assure you, it was quite five or six thousand pounds the Jorans spent, between the voyages and a mansion in Park Lane for three months, and servants that made them believe the nobility never ate beefsteak that cost less than two-and-sixpence a pound. Still this last visit to England was not altogether without consolation. The British Government was about that time bent on what is called “knitting the bands of the empire closer.” So people from the remotest isles and colonies were patronized and invited in troops, like tenants on rent-day, to various very funny entertainments. The Jorans went with a crowd of others, to lunch or breakfast or something at Windsor Castle. The greatest mar-joy in the arrangement was that an over-worried Court official was heard to exclaim in despair, “Good Lord! I thought this was the day for the negroes!” Mrs. Joran never mentions the Windsor visit to me now; she did so once or twice to begin with, but I invariably said, “Well, it must have been comical to see all those darkies from Benares and Ceylon and the Malay Peninsula. And, by the way, were there any of the Chins from Burmah who hang missionaries to make the rice grow? I take an interest in them, because the Dowager Countess of Essington—Talbot's aunt, you know—spends a small fortune on the dreadful creatures—— But no, I am mixing things up like the poor gold-rod-in-waiting, or whoever it was. …

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Haven't you heard the story, dear Mrs. Joran?” Naturally she doesn't give one the chance to trot this out too often.’

‘Well, I suppose Mrs. Joran does not sheathe her claws when she gets a chance to tell you amusing anecdotes,’ said Stella, who sat listening to this sprightly malice with a good deal of amusement. ‘I have always heard that kindness and a wish to please are at the root of true breeding— so you seem to have the article here to perfection.’

‘Oh, that's all very well, when one is in the country,’ returned Laurette. ‘Why, when I am at Cannawijera, and the squatters’ wives around ask me my opinion of their bonnets, I assure them they are perfectly chic—awful things, you know, with black cotton lace, and the wings of those demi-monde African parrots, that tear your eyes out with their staring yellow and green. Oh, Talbot is well, thanks. He has gone into some sort of partnership with a man who buys land at a shilling a yard, and sells it at £10 a foot. Mining is so frightfully risky—perhaps land is, too; but you can cut up land, it seems, into minute globules, and yet build houses on it. I don't understand exactly how it is done, and yet I have seen it in a way, just as I have seen conjurers’ tricks. You give one of these men your handkerchief and he gets eggs out of it—though you know there were none when you gave it to him.

‘Driving about in the suburbs, I have often seen vacant pieces of land for awhile. By-and-by there are great placards as big as a house put up on lofty poles: “This valuable piece of land, situated in the very best suburb of the metropolis of the Southern Hemisphere, is to be sold at a ridiculously low price,” and so on. That is what they write on these enormous placards. And though there is nothing to be seen near them, except, perhaps, a few dirty children and rusty kerosene tins, when you see such an announcement in big letters for a few weeks you somehow begin to believe it.

‘Then there are columns in the newspapers about the rising suburb—the suburb which is coveted by the élite of Australia; the suburb where the irritating hum of the sanguinary mosquito is never heard. Then you get a fat letter containing an elegant circular, with daisies and butterflies round the border, and a map of the place—all showing that in some way every blessing this earth affords

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is grouped round the rising suburb. If you read the advertisement and the circular, and have a five-pound note to spare, and never go near the land, you're sure in the end to buy an allotment. You see, you need pay only a few pounds to begin with. But then you pay a few shillings a week as well, for the rest of your life, or till you throw it up—I mean the land, not your life, though some unfortunate people have done both. But if you do that you lose all you have paid. So altogether it comes to a lot of money—only I am afraid the “boom,” as they call it, is going off, for at a sale last week, only the auctioneer, and the boy that rang the bell, and Talbot, turned up. But now tell me about Lull and Minjah-Millowie, and all your people there; and the Mortons, don't they live not far off? And who is this Dr. Langdale all the good people rave about?’

Only once before had Laurette seen the colour flash into Stella's face in such endless wavelets. To hide her confusion she broke into a laughing account of some of Mrs. Morton's funny little stories. But without this Laurette had concluded that all Julia's surmises were well founded. The girl looked so radiantly, so insultingly happy. She fell into such dreamy little reveries—her lips softly parted, her eyes shining with a gentler irradiation than of old. And then she studiously avoided Langdale's name. Heartless coquette that she was, after encouraging Ted's addresses for years, she was now prepared to throw him over at a moment's notice to satisfy an absurd whim of being in love. As if there were no such thing as duty in the world! Nothing was more characteristic of Laurette than the way in which she always fell back on the moral foundations of life as the true mainspring of her actions when she found herself in what she called a ‘fix.’ She ignored everything that it suited her to forget, and when meditating some paltry little scheme that had every element of meanness and treachery on a small scale, a virtuous glow stole over her as if she were reinforced by the law and the prophets, and obedience to the Ten Commandments was what she lived for. But here she seemed to have entered a cul-de-sac in which there was no move in her power that could further her purposes.

‘There is nothing so easy to make as a tradition,’ one of our best-loved novelists once wrote; and many lesser people

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find it also very easy upon occasion. There was no tradition, oral or written, that Laurette was not prepared to invent. But to what avail? Ted would come, and the first few words between him and Stella might serve to explode all Laurette's painstaking efforts to keep the girl in the strait and narrow path of duty. A point had come in which invention without deeds was valueless—but what could she do? Nothing except wait the course of events with a heart prepared for any little justifiable artifice that would keep her brother's life from being wrecked by the selfish perversity of a heedless girl—one bent only on her own scheme of happiness, regardless of the sacred claims of the past! She was undoubtedly in love with this man—was she engaged to him? A hundred times the question rose to Laurette's lips. A feverish sort of hopelessness grew on her as she marked those little signs that in themselves are so slight, and which yet, linked together, furnish so strong a chain of evidence.

Many things had conspired to tax Laurette's nerves lately, and she found this additional suspense intolerable. But the instinct of secrecy, of concealment, which comes to be a second nature with those in whom a life of small intrigue has grown and waxed strong, restrained her. Nothing could, after all, be gained by asking this question. She would wait and watch.

Stella escaped early into her own room that night, and wrote for a long time, a happy light on her face, and warm blushes often mantling in her cheeks, which would have told their own tale to an onlooker. This was what she wrote:


‘I was half glad and half sorry that we did not meet in the morning. Our homeward ride was so altogether precious—so far removed from the ordinary grooves of life —it was better to part in the starlight and see each other no more. I almost wish we should not meet again till you return from England. And yet, of course, it is only my pen that says this. Yes, I soon went to my room; I sat without a lamp looking out into the beautiful night, with its soft, deep glow and ethereal starlight, and I made a picture of it all in my mind, which I will keep forever and forever. Oh,

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I am so very sure that nothing we can see in any other world in any other life can be dearer or more alluring than that ride together over the great plain, stretching indefinitely on every side as if it passed beyond the confines of the world. The shadowy clumps of trees, the dark lines that marked the watercourses, the tall kangaroo grass undulating gently like stormless billows, the cries of water-fowl far overhead, the muffled hoof-beats of our horses, the boundless expanse, the solitude, above all, the pale, wistful light, making visible the faint lilac of the sky, the uncertain gray-green of the earth—I held them all, making a picture of them that should not pass away. I looked at them long and steadfastly till the secret of their changeless uniformity, their unbroken peace, their sweet serenity, penetrated my heart. Do you remember the fragrance of the wild geraniums that our horses crushed under their hoofs in one place? It comes floating in with the moonbeams at this moment. But to be the elixir of life it must be accompanied with the sound of a voice—the voice which in all God's wide universe—— But is this what one writes to a “friend”? And what is the use of trying to make a pen say all that rises in the heart?

‘Oh, you little cold, good creature! I say to it; you are sometimes wonderfully cunning. You have a tongue of your own that often dives down after thoughts, and brings them out triumphantly, after a fashion that sets stammering speech at defiance. But where are your eyes, that brighten with happy smiles, and grow dim with excess of joy? And where are your cheeks to glow and turn cold in a breath? And, above all, where are your hands that with a touch, a little timid good-night clasp, make the tongue feel like a clown who has nothing to say but the worn-out tags of songs long known by heart? All these gifts come to you only in the hands of a master from whom you learn the strange magic of playing on the hearts of men from generation to generation, like a clarion heard at dawn. …

‘But I have no power to teach you how to tell the thoughts that rise in my hearts in these days—the wonderful long, swift days in which so many thousand strange, sweet, shuddering thoughts storm and foam, and then flow in strong deep tranquillity, like an impetuous mountain brook that grows ever wider, till it becomes a river and

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loses itself in the sea. But help me, little pen, to tell a few of these myriad fleeting thoughts that will not let sleep come beyond the threshold. Is it true, then, that this dear friend and I belong to each other for time and eternity? That neither life nor death, nor principalities nor powers, can ever mar the perfectness of our love? Is this true? Yes— yes—yes. Yesterday is irrevocably ours, and to-day belongs to us, and to-morrow dawns that we may still know how perfect life may be. Henceforth our lives are double—one within the other, in heart and spirit—never to live apart, even though seas may roll between and continents divide us.

‘And can it be that from year to year the heavens will be so high and golden, the earth so wide and loving, that the heart will thrill with a power of loving which lifts the soul as on eagle pinions, till life and death are but twin brothers, equally welcome so that we are undivided?

‘Ah! what a strange thought, almost to wish for death now! Yes, would it not be good to escape a possibility of the cruel ironies that Nature keeps so often in store for the children of men? Can any mortal measure the power which time has to bring in its train change and weariness? What if the day should come when this love, so strong and ardent now, should become one more of the beautiful illusions of life, a deserted pavilion flecked through and through with the mildew of indifference? Has my heart been too readily given? Is it not written in song and story that men prize most what is won with difficulty? But as for me, the first time we spoke to each other, did not my heart stir tumultuously? Could I not have opened my eyes if I had willed that day when the storm had raged so fiercely—was it not because I hungered to hear him speak his love? … Well, be it so. I am glad that I know the truth—that it will be with me through these long months of separation, like a nest of singing birds whose wings grow strong for flight, and who yet, like doves that fly afar in the day-time, always return to their dove-cotes before night falls. … Tell me of the gentle, tender thoughts which cast out every lurking shadow of fear; of the new ties that may arise to knit us ever closer, heart to heart, in the higher duties of life, till we

“ ‘Learn by a mortal yearning to ascend,
Seeking a higher object,’

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till in imagination I draw near to the dim bourne without any heart-quaking. Yes, even Death must doff his terrors when we know that the infinitely beloved of our soul must pass through the shadow of the dark valley. Ah! gentle, kindly Death, grant us that last favour of life—not to be long apart after the last farewells are spoken. After all, it is the might of love that takes the victory from Death and robs the grave of its terror. We learn to know too well that not a clod can ever touch the outer bark of the spirit's life. Abide with me, thoughts of pensive gentleness, that fill the mind with calm till all forecasting doubts and fears are swallowed in the azure of peace, like clouds that wander on the wide horizon till they are spun into the flawless dome of heaven. …

‘After all, little pen, there is a touch of the laity about you, so that the heart cannot take you into its full confidence. But do not stand in the outer court of the Gentiles —the dear friend for whom you are writing loves our babbling. What other small broods of fancies do you hear chirping out their slender roundelays? No, let us not speak of our happiness. It is foolish to cut snippets out of so endless a theme. What was that little whisper of fear or regret?—no, nothing so resolute as these feelings, but a vagrant little misgiving, that trips so swiftly before one looks it in the face. One cannot say whether it is a scout, or a forerunner, or an idle little gad-about, who has nothing to do but snatch an ear of corn, melting melodious airs to the most wayward woodland fancies. Are you not afraid to marry when you are so desperately in love? Ah, wicked little rover! I have caught you merrily whistling your treasons. Now I have put the tip of my pen through your errant fancy, and transfixed it for my friend. I should not wonder if he would beat you as blue as a violet when he catches you. But what treacherous little arrow have you let fly? Let me get at the core of this half-jocund lay which leaves a sting behind. Youth, love and marriage, are these the three fearful felicities of a woman's life, and is the most fearful of these marriage? And love, the most exquisite vision which life holds, is it in imminent peril when it is imprisoned in the service of every-day life? …

‘Lovely as one of the muses, and crowned with the first violets of spring, this vision loved to wander solitary on

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mountain peaks, when they were first lightly touched with the vermilion of brightening day. It came and went at will—this radiant dream, casting a glamour over the world, like the reflection of a damask rose falling athwart the half-opened chalice of a white magnolia. Dreams shun the glare of day; but one morning the voice of him to whom this vision of right belonged called to it to come from its lonely haunts, and abide by the altar which he had dedicated to it in a secure dwelling-place—alas! is it too secure, too untroubled? Who could believe that a little air of revelry, whistled on an oaten pipe by the most insouciant of wandering minstrels, should awaken such qualms? Go on, little pen—an altar fitted to guard the fairest dreams. Even Love's purple wings and golden arrows are touched to finer issues when they are consecrated with life-long vows. Yes, like other monarchs, he comes to his kingdom by making covenants; and yet, and yet, we cannot give up the dream for the reality without heart-quaking and doubt, and something of poignant regret. Flashes of thought come like cloven tongues of fire, in whose light the soul waxes faint and timorous and cries in anguish. Is it, then, true that love's inmost life is rooted in the senses, are its keenest aspirations to be tamed like caged birds, to be merged in the commonness of every day content? Yet, for all possible fears and doubts and questions there is an answer: Perfect love casteth out fear. Love, the crowning felicity of life, that light of the world which shines more unquenchably than the stars of heaven. It is strong, not only to bear sorrow and anguish, but also to meet the common needs and common joys of daily life, buoyant enough to sustain the secure happiness of wedded as well as the despair of parted lovers.

‘Dear friend, does this appear to you as the cloven foot of those heretical images of marriage which haunt me so often? But who can go through life with open eyes and not perceive that the average run of married people seem to have but entered on business contracts, in which anything like the ardour of love is absent as conspicuously as in any huckster's bargain? Do you remember my telling you one day that I could not be so very sorry for Romeo and Juliet? You asked me why, and a coach-whip bird flew snapping by, and I followed it to make sure whether it had a white spot above

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each eye. And then, though you may not think it, ever belovedest friend, I often hesitated to say things because of your calm, clear reasonableness. But now there is no coach-whip bird, and you are three hundred miles away. Therefore do I thank the gods that here and there we have the immortal story of lovers who died before their hearts and lives were touched with the corrosion of life's invading commonness. Why should we regret those who knew how to die so well for dear love's sake? So many and so many live to bear false witness to it—to sit under a ragged banner and eat garlic, nor ask to be stayed with flagons and comforted with wine. But then, again, there are the fortunate few. I must stop. I should have written to my mother this evening, but I wrote to you instead, though I parted from you only the day before yesterday. Oh, Anselm Langdale, do you not call this the utmost peak to which ingratitude can climb? A mother's love; whose is like it?— giving so much, asking so little! Do not pretend that you ask little. History, poetry, the drama, your eyes, all betray you. But this first tender love that enfolded us from the dawn of life, that bore with all our waywardness, that watched over us in illness, that was with us like the benediction of God when we first folded our hands in prayer. And then, like long-legged, every-day chickens, we leave the loving mother to scratch up the dust for ourselves, without the shadow of an excuse that she pecks us away in favour of a younger brood. Don't I know? Have I not watched my old hen, Augusta, rearing brood after brood? And now I watch myself looking forward to the return of the Pâquerette with hardly a pang. Hardly a pang? You hypocrite— with a heart that keeps time to dance-music all day long; yes, and beats wide awake at night to keep up the revel. Think of it—coldly to leave the sweet mother when the night is drawing on apace, when all the vivid personal gladness of being alive is over, to wander to the far ends of the earth, perhaps to meet never, again. Oh, infinite pathos and mystery of our being! Life, hast thou never a draught of joy to offer that is sparkling throughout? I am ashamed I did not write to my mother instead of writing to you; and yet, no, because to-morrow is Friday, and I would not write my first letter to you on that day for the world, it would be a bad omen. Why do you smile so? I could prove to you

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that from the first dawn of history until now, omens have played a strange part in the life of man. Think how ominous of their future career it was that all the Ten Commandments were broken even before they were given to mankind! I spare you the rest. This in itself is an army set in array.

‘Tell me if that poor splitter, who was so badly hurt, is better? Has he anyone to look after him? Did you stay long? Did you see a lyre bird standing on a little hillock showing off its tail-feathers like a peacock? Did you see someone peeping from behind a window-blind after you at daybreak yesterday morning when you rode away? And now not another word. I am going to get you that keep-sake I promised you on the veranda of Peeloo station. Always your friend — likewise your sweet St. Charity, and,


When Stella finished, she rose and unfastened the coils of her hair, which fell below her waist like a mantle of dead-leaf gold. She cut a thick full-length lock, soft and silky, with a ripple in it as if it had fallen out of curl. She folded it up in silver tissue-paper, which had been wrapped round a small vial of attar of roses. Then she enclosed it in the closely-written sheets, sealed and addressed the letter, and put it on the hall-table in the receptacle for letters to be posted at ten.