Chapter XL

RITCHIE arrived at Monico Lodge on the forenoon of the next day. Laurette met him in the hall, and drew him into the breakfast-room.

‘Yes, Stella is in; she is in the drawing-room,’ she said in answer to her brother's eager inquiries. ‘But, Ted, I am in despair. I absolutely do not know what to think. Heaven knows if ever a woman tried to serve a brother as I have.’

‘Well, what's in the wind now—anything fresh?’

‘Oh, goodness only knows! When she came, she was in almost wild spirits; one would say she counted the moments till you came. Now—’

‘Now she ain't so jolly! Well, that is Stella all over. What is there to wonder at in that? Hurry up, Larry, if you've got anything to say; I am famishing to see her.’

‘Only this, Ted. Feel your way cautiously; and whatever you do, don't breathe a word of anything I said to you before you went to Strathhaye.’

‘Of course not—I told you before I wouldn't,’ answered Ted impatiently; ‘but look here, Larry, you're a trump to take so much trouble on my account.’

‘Oh, if one could only be sure of her; but one day to be full of hope and all smooth sailing, and the next—’ Laurette gave a deep sigh, as if she were in the depths of

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perplexity. Then Ted made his escape into the drawing-room.

‘Well, Stella, are you still cross with me?’ he said gently, holding her hand.

‘No, I think not,’ she said with a wan smile, endeavouring to recollect the reason why she should cherish offence. Everything was so incredibly misty at times, so far away and indifferent. The days seemed to stretch on and on, like eternity. Three had not yet passed since the morning on which she opened that letter with its pitiless tidings. Yet the most remote epoch of her life seemed to be the days in which supreme happiness was neither a threat nor a vague possibility, but a secure possession. And now it was all over—all over, with nothing left but those recurring periods in which she was alive in every nerve to the horrible misery that had overtaken her—periods in which she seemed to see nothing but a ship that sailed on, night and day, bearing the only man she had ever loved, or could love, to his wife. The thought stung her so intolerably that she often rose up, seeking for relief in motion, as if a heavy physical load crushed her which she must endeavour to throw off.

Ritchie looked into her face with startled inquiry. What ailed her? Was it possible that the knowledge which Laurette said had partly come to the girl should give her so much pain? The thought touched him strongly. But he remembered Laurette's warning. He might interrupt her counsels and little incipient homilies roughly; but yet no one else could help him so much, nor tell so well what motives swayed Stella.

‘I don't believe Melbourne agrees with you one bit,’ he said, still holding her hand, which she left passively in his.

‘No, perhaps not; and yet I don't want to go back to Fairacre.’ They stood side by side in the bay-window, she looking out with heavy, tired eyes at the scrubby little trees and scantily-flowering rose-bushes that decorated the ‘grounds’ of Monico Lodge, but seeing nought of all that was around her.

‘Where would you like to go, Stella?’ said Ritchie slowly. His breath came fast, but some instinct warned him to keep down his rising joy.

‘Oh, I don't know! where I would not see these woods and skies eternally—away to the far ends of the world.’

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‘Stella, let me take you wherever you would like to go. It's all I've got to live or care for.’ He was looking eagerly into her face, and suddenly saw a gray paleness creeping over it. All became dim around her. She put her hands out like one groping in the dark. He passed his arm round her, and for a moment her head fell on his shoulder. Her face was like that of one dead, and its pallor terrified him. But she did not entirely lose consciousness.

‘How dark it has grown!’ she said in a faint whisper.

‘It will soon be light again, Stella,’ answered Ted, hardly knowing what he said. The profound sadness of her face, and her sudden, unaccountable weakness, smote him to the heart. ‘Stella, has anything happened that hurts you? Is there anything in the world I can do for you?’

His voice trembled, and he tried to draw her nearer to him. This roused her, and sighing heavily once or twice, she disengaged herself, and sat on the seat that ran round the window. Ritchie's presence had recalled, with a paroxysm of acute agony, all that lay between now and their last parting. Such moments of overpowering pain were succeeded by hours that were passed rather than felt. The intolerable edge of suffering was gradually dulled— became for the time blunted. Apathy put a foil on grief, and robbed memory of its piercing barbs. In the reaction, Ted's familiar voice and unswerving devotion soothed, nay, even reassured her. Her stern, proud self-control had not broken down before anyone till now. And with her self-possession came the thought that he had claims on her. She had once consented to be his wife. But her heart had rebelled against a marriage without the quickening pulse of love and tender mutual sympathy. Now she knew that these were forever sealed against her. The glow and romance of youth were over. She had loved and lost. But the years could not be thrown aside like a stupid story. She had dreamed a dream of life, and it was over, but existence still remained to be got through.

‘Stella, we have been friends since we were little children. You do care a little for me. Be my wife!’

She heard the voice so long familiar pleading with her brokenly, and it touched her in that strange hour as it had never touched her before. The thought welled up strongly in her heart: ‘This love is to him what mine was to me—

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the one great affection of his life. … In this was centred the keenest possibilities of his happiness.’ The very depth of her own suffering and infinite loneliness moved her to compassionate sympathy. She had almost forgotten him in the brief triumphant days of her joy. But no one had ever usurped her place with him. Could she now confer on him the boon that was so priceless in his estimation—for which he had so long pleaded? And for herself? … Would this not, after all, be the best solution of the cruel enigma into which existence had resolved itself? The old home life, full of leisure and calm and well-loved books—how could she take that up when her one fierce longing was to forget? It would be an endless stifling life in death, in which the weary days would stretch before her, to be filled only with bleeding recollections, with famished imaginings of what might have been. Her pursuits and meditations there would touch those treacherous springs which woke all the cells of memory, and flooded her being with unbearable agony, with the wild, baleful pangs of jealousy. Yes, jealousy unreasonable, uncontrollable.

It was the bitter humiliation of this that stung her beyond endurance. Sorrow in any other form she might have borne—but this scorched her, degraded her, bit into her like some virulent, immaterial poison which nourishes the blood in order that it may consume the soul. Jealous of a man's wife! These were the words that came to her perpetually, more venomous than the hiss of a serpent. A marriage in which some kind of friendship was possible—in which travel, movement, variety, were open to her—this was the least objectionable scheme that remained to her. Ted's allegiance was so unshaken—he exacted so little. He watched her face with keen emotion.

‘Stella, you are going to consent,’ he said, drawing near to her. But she drew back.

‘Don't, Ted. You must not be affectionate if you want me to marry you.’

Ted smiled under his moustache. Then a servant came to announce the arrival of his groom with the horses.

The day was perfect in its warm, serene loveliness. The sky was like a vast bed of blue hyacinths, bending above the earth with angelic benedictions. Already the sun-rays had something of the ardour of summer heat, but there was

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a cool southerly breeze, and a recent fall of rain had laid the dust.

The sight of the sea lying as calm as a great lake, its bosom glancing in silvery sheaves rather than waves, brought back to Stella, with irresistible vividness, the memorable ride over the wide Peeloo plain. A great wave of anguish swept over her afresh, in which it seemed as if she must call aloud to find some relief from the fierce torment. So great was the agony, that for a little time she could neither hear nor see. ‘Oh, my love, my love, have I indeed lost you?’ were the words that rose to her lips. For a moment a wild revolt rose within her against all the obstacles that could part them. On the wide horizon she seemed to see the faint film of smoke which a great steamer leaves as it speeds on its way to the old world. ‘All will yet be well.’ Did this hope animate his heart? Did he, perchance, count the hours till he saw her again—till those proofs were given him of faults imputed that were groundless—of years made dark with undeserved blame? Would a fresher, stronger bond rise up in place of the old unhappiness? Would he learn to love her—his wife? Ah, what a pitiful, humiliated creature had she become to harbour such thoughts! Hell seemed to yawn at her feet when she found her heart torn with savage jealousy as these thoughts rose in quick succession.

The riders had ridden fast, and Dustiefoot, who could not bear to lag far behind his mistress, panted and showed such signs of being overdone that they rode back slowly.

‘Will you take him with you on your travels, Stella?’ asked Ted, who watched with a feeling akin to envy the tenderness with which Stella regarded her dog.

‘On my travels? Oh yes, wherever I go. One should always have a dog to keep one in countenance.’

‘In countenance?’

‘Yes. Most human creatures remind one of the characters in an old morality. As—enter God's Visitation; enter Time, who maketh people weary and melancholy with a similitude of rust and dust.’

‘And what is an “old morality,” Stella?’

‘Well, Ted, you really must go to school.’ She laughed, and the sound was music in his ears, though it was a strange, mirthless little laugh.

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‘Yes, I should like that very much—if you keep school, and take just one scholar. Where would you begin with me, Stella? How many books have you read?’

‘Heaven only knows! Quite enough to convince me that I do not know anything.’

‘O Jupiter! is it worth while learning so much to know that? What is the good of reading so many dry old fogies of books?’

‘Well, sometimes it makes people better companions for themselves; but other times it makes them the worst of all company, I believe.’

‘I read very slowly. If it is a dull book like the Bible and poetry, I forget what one page is about before I get to the next. It would take me a thundering long time to read books, and if they don't teach me much in the end, and make me worse company for myself, why, we'll give books the go-by. What's the next on your list, Stella?’

‘I haven't got a list—and there isn't a next. Ted, you mustn't ask me questions. I do that to myself endlessly, and I hate them; there are no answers to most, and those that have answers are scorpions.’

‘What questions do you ask yourself? There, I've put my foot in it again! Well, look here, Stella, your school will be the jolliest affair going. You only teach reading, and that game isn't worth the candle. So there I'll be, bright and early, and nothing to learn but to stay with you. But I'll pick up a lot in that way. Why, some time ago I put the stuns on a fellow with just only remembering that the line, “Where is the land to which you ship must go?” is in one of Wordsworth's sonnets. Oh, he's just a racing fellow! he comes from one of the old swell families in England, but nothing like such a bad lot as Tareling. He's as straight as a die, and never borrows money, and he's quite gone on books, though he took his degree at Oxford. He and another fellow were talking about poetry in the smoking-room after dinner at the club the last time I was in town, and the other fellow asked Dacre, that's his name, where that line came from. I was reading the sporting part of the Australasian, but the words came on me like seeing you unexpectedly, and I looked up and said: “Why, that's from one of Wordsworth's sonnets.” By George! they were more astonished than if I had stood on my head. Yes,

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upon my soul, they both stared as if they had paid a bob to see me! “Why, Ritchie, do you actually read sonnets?” said Dacre. He has written a bookful himself. He is one of those fellows who think that all men write poetry when they are spoony. I could tell him better than that. Do you remember, Stella, one Sunday evening when I was staying from Saturday till Monday at Fairacre? Billy Stein and Herby Lindsay were there, too. Billy knew a fearful lot of German stuff that you were always fond of, and as for poetry, he could spout it by the hour. It was shortly before I left for Strathhaye—I suppose you were fifteen at the time—you used sometimes to get perfectly wild with making fun of one thing or another, and your eyes, and cheeks, and lips all used to make flashes. Oh, you may laugh! but I know what I mean. Your eyes are awfully heavy just now, Stella. Well, you put the four of us in a row—Cuthbert, and me, and the other two—and you wouldn't let us move till we each made some sort of verses. 'Pon my soul, I nearly squirmed my eyes out trying to think of words that sounded alike. When I did get any, the spelling was out, and there was that little beggar Billy making up something as long as my arm about a rose, and a maiden, and a nightingale. But I put the kybosh on him there, for I said there were no nightingales in Australia, and how did we know whether they sang as he said? And you took my side, but I think it was out of pure wickedness. Everyone got finished long before I did, and at the end I could only make up four lines. Oh, I remember them well enough:

‘ “A lamb's tail
Caught on a rail;
The mother humming,
The crow a-coming.” ’

Stella laughed again.

‘Why, Ted, you are one of the dumb poets? What in the world put that into your head?’

‘Oh, don't suppose I made up the adventure. I took it from life. I saw a little lunatic of a lamb caught by his hind end before he was tailed, and if I hadn't taken him to his mother, the old crow would have scooped his optics out in no time. You all objected to “humming.” I didn't want the darned sheep to hum; it was you that would

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have rhyme, and how could you make “bleating” into poetry there? I very nearly got into a scot with Stein, he kept on laughing so much. But then you walked with me up to the Spanish reeds, and showed me the nest of a superb warbler there—domed, I think you called it—and told me how you watched the old mater teaching the young 'uns to fly. And then I made up my mind to ask you if I might write to you. My heart beat so hard I thought it would crack, and you said quite carelessly: “Oh yes, Ted, why shouldn't you?” I couldn't have told why it gave me a lump in the throat the way you spoke. Then I thought, That little wretch Billy will want to write, too, and spin away about nightingales, and the Lord knows what! I never feel such a duffer as I do when I take a pen. I say, Stella, did you ever keep any of my letters?’

‘Oh yes, I think so.’

‘I expect you've got a nice pile of love-letters by this time? Now, tell me true—are there any of them you like better than mine?’

‘No; not one.’

The thought welled up bitterly of the letter she had opened with such insane joy three short days ago. And with this came recollections of the long faithful wooing of her companion—of the devotion she had taken as carelessly as an unset pebble; and yet, was there anything in the world more rare, more precious? These reminiscences of her untroubled girlhood touched a tender chord. She realized that a love which had its roots so far back in the past had a claim on her loyalty. At the worst, it was less humiliating to marry a man without loving him than to love one already married. Ted, watching her face closely, noted its wistful, softening expression.

‘Lookee here, Stella,’ he burst out suddenly. ‘I am going to run away with you. You will be cross at first, but you will get over it. You know you looked as if you could not speak with passion when I held you that night and asked that I might kiss you. But when we met, you never once thought of bringing it up against me; now did you?’


‘Oh, good Lord! Stella, why do you keep me on and on hoping, and nothing come of it? Put an end to it. You

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want to get away; you need a complete change; anyone can see that. You said in July you sometimes thought of marrying me. Yes—no—yes. There it is in the horses’ hoofs. Summer, autumn, winter, spring—spring. It is spring now. We won't have the smallest morsel of fuss. If we were married to-morrow, everyone would say: “Well, goodness knows, they've been long enough thinking over it.” Let's put an end to it, Stella. Hear the horses’ hoofs, every one of them saying “Yes, yes—yes!” Stella, will you marry me?’

There was a long pause. The sound of a railway whistle in the distance, of snowy-breasted sea-gulls calling as they skimmed the waves, the deep, solemn crescendo of the wide sea as it broke on the shining sand, the merry cries of children on the shore—these came borne to them on the balmy spring air. Memories that had a pang beyond the bitterness of death surged up in Stella's mind. To the smallest detail, the hour in which she had listened in speechless happiness to Anselm Langdale's avowal of love rose up before her. An hour so near in time—but in the sensations that turn hours into years remote as the first dawn of consciousness.

‘Answer me, Stella,’ said Ritchie, his voice now low and husky with contending emotion. ‘Don't you know what to say? It's very simple—say “Yes.” ’

Again there was a long pause.

‘Yes,’ she answered at last, and Ritchie turned quite pale through the ruddy bronze of his cheeks. For a moment he almost reeled in his saddle and doubted his senses.

‘Stella, do you mean it? You will be my wife?’

‘Yes,’ she said, again looking into his face. He was agitated almost to tears, while she was perfectly calm.

They rode on for a little time in silence. Something like rest stole over Stella. She felt that her course was now fixed, her decision unalterable—and there was relief in the thought. As for Ritchie, he almost feared to give complete credence to the belief that after all these years of unavailing hope—of waiting and rejection—he was in truth an accepted lover. And even he, ‘elementary human being’ though he might be in one of Stella's old phrases, yet experienced that quick revulsion which so often sets in, of dread because of other possibilities, now that this ardently longed-for

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happiness seemed within reach. But as the first tumult of thought subsided, his joy rose high.

‘Stella, you have said “No” so long; you must keep on telling me it's all right now,’ he said in unusually timid tones; ‘I can hardly believe in such luck for myself.’

‘Don't be too glad, Ted; if you are, you're sure to be disappointed.’

‘But if you were me, Stella, you couldn't help being too glad,’ returned Ted, with unconscious pathos.

Something in the words struck a chord in Stella's heart. She felt softened and remorseful. She determined that, as far as in her lay, she would quench the rising tide of hard, cold indifference, of scorn for her own life and action, which was the first result of her momentous decision. But when people feel one way and make resolutions in another direction, it is a toss-up with circumstance which will be victor in the first or subsequent encounters.