Chapter XLI

WHEN they reached Monico Lodge there was Cuthbert at the door, going away after having waited for some little time. He helped Stella to dismount, and the three went in together.

‘Congratulate me, my dear fellow,’ said Ted, the moment they went into the drawing-room. ‘Stella has promised this very afternoon to be my wife—and this time there is to be no drawing back.’

The brother stared at Ritchie in an incredulous way, and then at his sister.

She suddenly coloured deeply and said:

‘Yes, Cuthbert, you may congratulate us; but we are going away almost directly, so as to escape all that—and the wedding-gifts——’ She felt compelled to talk in a half-mocking tone, so as to save herself from the imbecility of tears. ‘Oh yes, the day after to-morrow, if you please. By the way, I must go and tell Larry—I believe she's in.’

‘Stella, darling, may God grant you every happiness!’ said her brother, kissing her first on one cheek and then on

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the other. He felt a pang of misgiving which he could not conquer, and his face and voice were exceedingly grave.

‘Now, Cuthbert, don't be so solemn—at any rate, until the ultimate disaster.’

‘But you do—you are attached to Ted—or you would never have given your consent?’

‘Oh, my dear, it is unsafe to generalize about our delightful sex. Don't you remember what St. Teresa said in one of her letters to a Carmelite Father: “Your Reverence made me smile by saying that you could tell her character so well. But we women are not so easily known.” ’

‘But there are some things, Stella, it would be safe to prognosticate of all good women.’

‘Oh yes; as, for example, they all have ten fingers, and have learned the Catechism and the Creed. But if it comes to asserting that they believe the one and remember all the rest—’

‘But what motive could or would be strong enough with you, darling, except love in some degree?’

‘Ah, of course—love. But a woman must not give her love till it is asked. Isn't that one of the demure, unwritten statutes? Well, I am so very proper that I am not going to give it even when asked—not until I am married. It is the process of evolution. In the meantime, Ted vows he has enough for two.’

‘Oh, Stella, you pain me! I cannot believe you would look and speak like this if your heart were really touched.’

‘Now, Cuth, you know very well if my heart were touched I would be dead. You see, it is a very hard-worked organ as it is. If it went through all the impossible gymnastics ascribed to it by lovers, the human race would have come to an end long ago. When one comes to think of it, perhaps that is the best thing that could happen.’

‘You are not well, dear. You flush up feverishly, and then you are pale, with dark rings about the eyes. You looked very different when you came from Lull. Dora and I both noticed it—and you were so dear and tender. We were so delighted. I came to tell you, Stella, that our wedding-day is fixed.’

‘Oh! is it to-morrow? Because, if so, Ted and I will be married to-day. Yes, I'm determined not to be like Cinderella, left with the cinders, when you go straight to

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heaven like Elijah in a fiery chariot. But then Elijah, poor man! had no Dora.’

‘Well, Stella, I should be very unhappy if the girl who promised to marry me could talk like you the day she was engaged. That reckless, mocking tone—no girl who was happy could use it.’

‘Unless it were an artifice to conceal her joy,’ said Stella, laughing. Then, in a graver tone: ‘You see, dear, it does not do to generalize too largely. On looking round among our married friends, does it not strike you that the majority never committed the indiscretion of falling in love at all, or if they did, that they have all they asked for, and nothing of what they hoped, poor wretches? I, for my part—’

Here Laurette entered, followed by Ted. She threw her arms round Stella with a little cry.

‘Don't, Laurette; this is what I am determined to avoid,’ said Stella, holding her at arms’ length. But Laurette was half intoxicated with joy. Not till that moment had she really believed that her schemes would be crowned with such complete success. She pecked once or twice at Stella's cheeks with her hard little lips, and then turned to Court-land, her face wreathed with smiles.

‘Isn't it too delightful, after all these years of waiting?’ she said to him, pressing his hand with a congratulatory fervour. Courtland, pale and erect, bowed, and murmured something in reply. Then he turned to Ritchie, and took his hand.

‘I congratulate you, Ted; you are a very lucky man! I pray God—’ There was a sharp break in his voice, and at the sound a cord seemed to tighten round Stella's heart. The old bond between them had been a very strong and tender one. Now that the half-petulant irritation of finding herself, as she thought, displaced in his affection, was lost in the storm that had swept away so many of the old landmarks, her heart went out to him more fully. Only she had to guard against any treacherous yearning for full sympathy and intimate communion. She must be inexorable against her weakness on every side. She was struggling against her whole nature as a strong athlete struggles for victory. That was what made Ritchie's society safer for her in this crisis than that of the old home circle. He was imperturbably good-natured; he had a strong fund

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of animal spirits, and his hand could never touch any of those inner cords which, if they vibrated at all, brought her in one swift moment face to face with black despair and gnawing jealousy. She conquered the climbing sorrow which her brother's emotion awakened; then going up to him, and putting her hands in his, she said softly:

‘Ah, you dear old boy, you have always been so good to me; Ted and I will pull all straight, do not fear. As for you, never forget, though, that you threw me over first.’

She raised the tips of her brother's fingers to her lips as she spoke, and he was instantly melted by her caressing tenderness. She was always confident of winning entire forgiveness for any outbreak of caprice or wilfulness the moment she made up her mind to be quite good. This confidence, modified by an air of imploring entreaty, had always been one of her irresistible moods.

‘Pull all straight?—I should think we would!’ said Ted proudly, possessing himself of Stella's left hand, while her brother held the right.

‘How long do you mean to keep up that wicked little story about my throwing you over?’ said Cuthbert, smiling fondly at her as he stroked her hair. ‘There never lived the human being who could make me do that. And, Stella, whatever comes or goes, if ever you are in trouble or perplexity, never forget that if need were I would lay down my life for you.’ He did not mean to say so much, but there was some undercurrent of feeling at work which he could hardly analyze. He only knew that from the first a strong misgiving beset him as to this marriage.

At Courtland's words a vague alarm rose in Laurette's breast. ‘How very absurd!’ she thought to herself angrily. ‘Women don't want their brothers after they are married—not in that way.’

She herself had only wanted her brother's money, and the means by which she had obtained some of it, and hoped for still more, rose before her, for the first time, in an almost lurid light. A sudden panic fastened on her lest there should be some loophole by which her machinations should be detected. But she had gone too thoroughly to work to be caught in the toils which wreck the half-hearted dissembler. It is not cunning, but simplicity, that must patch and tell a tale which often carries no conviction in a

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world where it is a common trade to make the thing which is seem as though it were not. Simplicity, poor unthrift, who makes no use of all the kingdoms of the world, and the glory thereof, but to tell the truth, is all too often shamed into hiding her pensive, virginal, unaffected brow before the bold, rouged, menacing front of her successful rival—Mendacity.

But Laurette betrayed none of the uneasiness which shot athwart her mind. Indeed, her anxieties at this time were so multiform that they might be said to swallow each other, so that, on the whole, she kept up as gay an appearance as though no cares oppressed her. Chief among them was her husband's intrigue with this ‘wretched little divorced actress.’ This had blossomed apace into a well-concocted scheme of indefinite migration on his part with her theatrical company. Laurette knew this definitely by means of examining the Honourable Talbot's pocket-book, when he slept not wisely but too well. And yet she felt that her only course was to make no sign; to feign complete ignorance, and take such action at the last moment, that is, the eleventh of October, as might be of vital service to her. Then that letter which she had got Mrs. Anson to write. It was only after fully convincing herself that Langdale's half-erased, mutilated narrative might not of itself serve her purpose, that Laurette had hit on the scheme of boldly supplementing it by a communication which would at once throw light on his supposed story, and his action in hastening away without seeing Stella. She judged unerringly, too, that the thought of his hastening back to a loving wife anxious for reconciliation would stab the girl's pride into more active resistance against grief than any other theory.

‘Stella has it in her to be jealous—one can see that by the way she took her brother's engagement,’ reasoned Laurette. ‘And if there is any occasion on which jealousy may grow into a monster, surely it is when the man who called you “sweet St. Charity,” and the innermost leaf of his heart, is supposed to be steaming away at the rate of seventeen knots an hour to the beautiful woman he married before he left school, so to speak. Not that I believe she is really dead—at any rate, if so, her conduct is very unlike that of other people, who could do nothing to oblige one in life so much as to leave it. …’

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Yes, all her calculations had been singularly favoured by Providence; but this speedy engagement was of that order of good luck which all but frightens one. It was almost sinister—like the appearance of a sociable vulture in the desert when drawing near a well that may prove empty. All that evening at Mrs. Joran's private theatricals the thought rose at intervals, What if Stella and Langdale met abroad? And yet, once the marriage had taken place, what would it avail? There was a dance after the acting was over. Everyone was enraptured with Talbot's masterly performance, and she replied to congratulations on this abominable accomplishment as cheerfully as though it were not drawing a husband and a father, as she styled him, even to herself, in her more melodramatic moments, into the Bohemian depths of a strolling-player's career. But she would save him despite himself—which was usually the way people were saved when once they gave themselves up to the enjoyment of being lost. And to secure that end what means were not legitimate? Yet she could not resist the inclination to reassure herself, by laughing inquiry of a distinguished judge, as to whether deception practised to bring marriage about could in any way invalidate it.

‘My dear Mrs. Tareling, what could have put such an uncanny idea into your head? What marriage would be safe if once the plea of deception were allowed to batter against the foundations of the holy institution of matrimony?’ said the judge, laughing. ‘Take the deceptions which Nature puts upon us, to begin with—’

‘Now, Sir Henry, you are laughing at me! No one ever knows where Nature begins or ends. I do not mean only with the complexions of my own dear sex.’ The judge laughed with real amusement at this sally: Laurette fully knew the value of talking in an amusing way when she had an aim to serve. ‘I mean real deception: abstracting letters, and having others written, and things like that, for which I have no doubt you could find awful names in some of your awful books.’

The judge fixed his gray, penetrating eyes on the softly pretty, exquisitely dressed young woman before him, vaguely wondering whose interest she had at heart in this inquiry. ‘These bright, pretty young women have often a wonderfully altruistic vein in their natures,’ he reflected.

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Then, in a very lucid unpedantic way, he pointed out that if people did things that had awful names in law-books, they might be brought to account; but people were not supposed to marry because other people abstracted letters or wrote sham ones. Marriage was a contract between this man and this woman for certain ends, clearly set forth in the Prayer-book and elsewhere and under certain conditions. If these conditions were observed, no alleged deception on the part of anyone else could, in the slightest, affect the contract.

‘Well, after all, how beautifully simple and reasonable that is!’ said Laurette, with a glow of enthusiasm.

Even the term ‘alleged deception’ carried with it a kind of balm. It made her reflect that not one scratch of her pen had been contained in the letters that had suddenly changed the whole complexion of Stella's life. She had erased, but she had not formed a single letter; and the little note Mrs. Anson had written at her dictation was like eternity, without beginning or end, without date or local habitation. After all, what a bulwark to society the law was! Her spirits rose, and she felt like an Eastern hero, as if she were destined to destroy Afrits.

A little afterwards, when in conversation with the Honourable Miss Brendover, this lady said something of having spent the last winter in Berlin, where the musical season had been very brilliant, it flashed through Laurette's mind like an inspiration that Berlin was the very city to which it would be safest for Ted and Stella to go in the first instance. England would not be safe for awhile. Langdale would most likely go on to Brussels before going there. Then he would get the newspaper announcing the marriage, which she would send him the very day after the event came off. Laurette had taken down the address he had inclosed for Stella, which was that of his lawyer in London. Well, after getting that newspaper, he would at once perceive there was nothing to be done but bear his fate. He would not be likely to return to Australia. He would, perhaps, drift about, travelling for awhile. Now, France and Italy were the happy hunting-grounds of all travellers; but Berlin—‘My dear Milly, I wish you would tell my sister-in-law-elect about the music in Berlin,’ said Laurette. ‘I fancy she thought of going to Germany.’

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‘Oh, and then they will meet Talbot's cousins there—the Avenells! So it will be quite nice and friendly for Mr. Ritchie in a foreign land. He does not know German, I think?’

Before the evening was over, Stella had a long chat with Miss Brendover, chiefly about the charms of winter in Berlin. At the same time Laurette duly impressed Ted with the wisdom of going there direct if Stella expressed any wish of the kind.

‘I don't care a copper where Stella wants to go,’ returned Ted. ‘Whatever she wants to do, she shall.’

The subject somehow came up again as they drove home.

‘I lost a waltz with you, Stella!’ said Ted ruefully. ‘What a lot you and that old cousin of Talbot's had to say to each other!’

‘Old?—she is charmingly young!’ returned Stella. ‘I know, because that waltz of Stranss's—by the way, never ask me to dance to it—is one I heard two hundred and fifty years ago. Oh, it was a strange, enchanted sort of country —full of fairy stories, and I believed them all.’

Her cheeks were deeply flushed, and her eyes were shining with a feverish light. Ted was always pleased when Stella was inspired with something of her old gaiety, and yet there was something in the sound of her voice that disturbed him.

‘Did you tell Miss Brendover about this country, then? and was that what kept you chatting so long?’

‘Oh no—bits of it came trilling back in the music; but between I listened to glowing accounts of wonderful Berlin concerts—eighty trained musicians playing an accompaniment like one man, etc.’

‘Shall we go to Berlin, Stella, and take Egypt and the other places on the way back?’

‘Happy thought!’ cried Stella lightly. ‘Charter a vessel direct, before ten to-morrow morning.’

‘No, but I am serious, Stella. The Hindoo Fawn sails on the sixteenth October.’

‘Cannot we get away before then?’ said Stella.

Ted's heart thumped wildly at the question.

‘There is a French vessel—’ he began slowly. But she held up her hands.

‘A French vessel—not for your life! There is some very good reason somewhere—in the Book of Proverbs.’

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‘There is an Orient steamer on the ninth of October; but—but will your mother consent to such haste?’

‘Ah, that is your concern, Ted. You must explain everything when you write. Mind, I take no responsibility beyond the usual fibs of the marriage ceremony.’

Laurette was leaning back in a corner of the carriage, with closed eyes, as if she heard nothing. No one could be more discreet and wary, and less observant, where observation would have been an element of danger. She roused up when they got home, and she sat rattling away to Stella and Ted about all sorts of indifferent things.

‘Did you see Mrs. Anstey-Hobbs’ new poet, Stella—the young man with the sombre expression and the long hair?’

‘Is that one of the signs of a poet—not to go to the barber?’ asked Ted.

‘Oh, besides that, you must write things—

‘ “What is life but a spectre of bale?
What is joy but a curse that is stale?”

That is one of the couplets Mrs. Anstey-Hobbs quotes in dusky corners with a tremolo in her voice. I wonder why that little Mrs. Lee-Towers makes a point of fastening on me on every available occasion of late?’

‘Don't you approve of her, Laurette?’ asked Stella, with a lurking smile.

‘Well, no. I think the way she flirts in public, using the last pattern of young man she approves of like a fan, to keep her husband out of sight, is a little too bare-faced. And then she seems to have them to suit her style of dress. When she is in pale heliotrope velvet, it is that large young idiot with a lisp and flaxen hair. But he seems to be playing truant lately. It must really be a trying moment, when the young man who seemed to have been sent by Heaven into the world to hold your bouquet sympathetically begins to get out of your way.’

‘What the deuce does her husband allow it for?—what is he like?’ said Ted, who was picking up leaves that had fallen from Stella's nosegay of blush roses, and wondering why Larry did not find it necessary to go to the nursery or somewhere. He had not been a moment alone with Stella since their engagement.

‘Oh, don't you know him by sight? He is rather a

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cadaverous-looking man, with six or seven mouse-coloured hairs on his chin. He looks as if he could ride in the air if he had the proper sort of broomstick. He never opens his lips, unless you make a mistake about figures. No, he isn't amusing; but nothing of that kind excuses a woman in such conduct. You may congratulate yourself, my dear Ted—’

Stella rose with a bored expression. ‘Good-night, mes amis,’ she said, kissing the tips of her gloved hand to both, and gliding out of the room before Ted could reach the door—a proceeding which need hardly be characterized as unsatisfactory to Ritchie.

‘By Jove! I shall never be sure of Stella till we're safely and substantially married,’ he said, looking after her with knitted brows.

‘True; therefore let it be on the sixth of October, and sail on the sixteenth,’ said Laurette decisively. ‘You will reach Berlin before the end of November. To be done in that time? Certainly—after a courtship of five years.’

‘It's more like ten,’ broke in Ted; ‘and we were engaged once before.’

‘Yes, allude to that. No one can be surprised at your determination to make sure of the young lady now.’

‘Allude to it? I don't know how to allude to things. I shall simply put it down in black and white. By the way, Larry, where is Tareling?’

Laurette murmured something in reply which was not audible; but as she offered no explanation, this did not much signify.

‘He did his part very well,’ said Ted, taking out his cigarcase preparatory to retiring. ‘But do you suppose anyone would ever carry on in that way in real life—hocussing people and stealing letters?’

‘Oh, people must put something into plays,’ said Laurette contemptuously. As a matter of fact, her own little performance in that line had been infinitely superior, and she may have felt something of the scorn of a finished artist for a pretentious amateur. What did not occur to her was the irony which underlay her discussion of such a theme.

She was preoccupied with thoughts of checkmating Talbot's secret plans, and withal profoundly grateful that she was freed from the haunting fear of being forced to

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retire to the wilds of the Australian Bush, instead of shining in her proper orbit. She remembered the learned judge's words with a fresh glow of gratitude, and recalled with solemn approval a maxim she had somewhere heard or read, that we can benefit others in no surer way than by making the best of our own lives. How true this was as applied to herself! The best use she could make of her life was certainly to maintain her position in Melbourne society until she might perhaps be called on to take her place among the titled aristocracy of England. And in her efforts to keep this position she was securing Ted's happiness, protecting Stella from the danger of entanglement with a married man, and, most important of all, in a way to thwart the wild folly of her husband and the father of her children. Being in a very wakeful, active-minded mood, she wrote several letters to members of the Courtland family. She begged pardon in a pretty, winning way for siding wholly with Stella and Ted in the arrangement of being married in time to leave by the sixteenth of October. This was partly because of business arrangements which compelled Ted to leave by that date, partly because, after all that had passed, prompt action was best. She was taking the liberty of seeing to Stella's trousseau so as to save time: not that it would be a very extensive affair; why should it? She had so many pretty dresses, and she was going to the great centres of fashion, etc., etc.