Chapter XLIII

IT was the evening before Stella's wedding-day. She had returned, in company with her brother Cuthbert and his fiancée, and their presence and the interest of their new relationship shielded her from undivided attention. A few

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days afterwards came Mrs. Wallerton, with her children. Everyone knows how a family reunion serves to minimize the concentration of attention on any one grown-up individual of the circle. It is a small republic, in which, after the manner of limited monarchies, those who reign do not rule. Claude Hector, aged eight months, being the youngest member, and till then a complete stranger to his older relatives, was a great centre of attraction.

Then Dora, with her pretty, affectionate little ways, drew great attention. If anyone sang or played, Dora always begged for one more song or a little more music. If one spoke a little hoarsely, she never forgot to inquire next morning, with the deepest concern, after the afflicted throat. She was always gliding about, to put a footstool under someone's feet or to recover a straying newspaper or a dropped needle. Then, when anyone spoke, she always listened with the most reverential attention. When Cuthbert spoke, she would often murmur one of his sentences over to herself, as if better to impress it on her memory. She was, in fact, what is known in England as a very sweet girl. In Australia, unfortunately, the species is so rare that no specific name has had to be invented. Dora was to stay at Fairacre for a month after the wedding, and Felix Harrison could not refrain from saying to Allie that the change from Stella to Dora was rather soothing.

‘But, indeed, her approaching marriage seems already to have improved her,’ the young man said meditatively. He had many good qualities, and withal a liberal estimate of his own abilities. This had long been a subject of serio-comic treatment with Stella.

‘I hope Stella won't alter much,’ returned Alice, who was embroidering a chair-back for her own future home. ‘I began to think she never would accept Ted—’

‘I think she is a very lucky girl, if you ask me. Ritchie simply worships the ground she treads on. And she must be fond of him, though she so long kept up that indifferent way. Why, these last few days at home she spends most of the time with him on horseback.’

Now the last few days had passed, and to-morrow was the wedding-day. Stella sat in the little library on a footstool at her mother's feet. Both windows were open; through one Banksia roses were drooping in heavy cream-coloured

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clusters; through the other a microphylla rosebush peeped, with its thick foliage of small green leaves, long-spiked buds unclosing, and roses fully blown with deep-pink hearts, and outer petals deadly pale. The sun was setting in golden splendour, and all the atmosphere was warm and rosy; the lovely Adelaide Hills had caught the glow all along their crests with magical effect. The pigeons were flying to their cotes in scores, and the soft beating of their wings in the garden clove the air like silken banners.

‘There is one thing that troubles me a little, darling,’ the mother said, in her tender voice, with its soft Celtic intonations; ‘I thought on your wedding-day you would communicate. It would be possible to do that with our old friend the Archdeacon, though you have not been confirmed. I should like you to enter on your new life by drawing near the visible Church.’

‘Mother, I cannot,’ answered the girl, with averted face, as she held her mother's hand in both hers.

‘Well, my child, you are in God's hands. I do not fear but you will yet find Him who is the soul's most precious possession. In our span of life the rose is ever neighbour with the thorn—the web woven with threads not all of our choosing. And yet God grants us to reap our hundredfold even in this life. In marriage itself, when two hearts and souls cleave together, what deep and sacred happiness has He not granted to us!’

A burning flame of colour rose and spread over the girl's face. How unjustifiable did her marriage appear to her in the white light of her mother's life—one consecrated throughout with fidelity to the higher ideals that sway human conduct.

But she sternly kept the feeling in check. She reflected that for the majority of human beings the best possibilities of life never blossom into fruit. Her marriage had no element of ideal perfection; it belonged merely to the common ruck of such arrangements. And, on the whole, it was the best scheme of existence open to both. ‘Ted loves me,’ she thought; ‘and if I can never love him in the same way, I can at least tolerate him, and be faithful to him even in thought. It was never possible for the women of our race to be otherwise. … And then I am safe from

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the slow canker of disillusionment. Perhaps, in the years to come, I may find it possible to think of—of the spring days at Lullaboolagana as a beautiful dream happily secured from the corrosion of actual life.’

There was a burning flush on her cheeks and a hard brilliancy in her eyes, as she raised her head and put her arms round her mother's neck.

‘My darling, wherever you may be, morning and night join your thoughts with mine in prayer,’ said her mother. ‘And when moments of perplexity come to you, never forget the words, “In your patience ye shall win your souls.” ’

‘In your patience’—the words haunted her strangely in the silent watches of the night. Patience, the great keynote of Nature: of God, so far as we can apprehend Him; of man, so far as he can rise to accomplish aught that is to nourish or deliver his kind. That old Gospel of the discipline of sorrow and pain, how fiercely she had come to spurn it, to turn from it as the rock on which human lives were ineffectually offered up! A very Moloch that demanded all, and gave in return a grave and pale glimmering of a future life so far removed from earth and sense that its possession was a very doubtful gain. And yet—and yet—patience and sorrow, what nobility has man attained without these? what steadfast purpose has he achieved? Would the years here have been in truth so unbearable as she had pictured, surrounded with all the precious charities of serene home-life? At last, in utter impatience, she turned from all these doubts and questions as mere rags of rhetoric that hid from her the true bearings of what her life would become.

‘It is because I am going to leave it all that there seems to be healing in the thought of resignation, and leisured quiet, and daily communion with Nature and great thoughts. There would be no end to these eventless days, and the prospect stretching out before me would have frozen me into one of those whimlings to whom nothing is so real as the wan promises of joy that fade into nothing. It has always made me incredibly dreary when I have seen people stranded in some little inlet of existence; growing gray and faded in trying to persuade themselves that life is not without savour because once on a time they were going to be happy—they were going to hear music, but the harmony

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never began. With Ted I shall at least keep hold on some of the realities of life.’

She even laughed a little as she recalled the way in which Ted had attempted to reconcile her to the prospect of being so much in his society—reasoning on the subject in his eminently practical, direct way as they rode that morning beyond Coromandel Valley. She had lingered, looking at the views so familiar and well-loved from childhood. Wide fertile valleys irradiated with running water, dotted with prosperous homesteads, folded in by vines, and olives, and fig-trees, surrounded by fertile fields and orchards; sloping hillsides clothed with slender white-stemmed gum-trees; gullies masked with the unbroken shadow of tall, slim stringy bark trees, growing so thick together that one could scarcely walk between them. And then those first glimpses of the silver line of the sea on their return, sparkling in the distance through the quiet shadowy woods like the beginning of a fresh mysterious world. How often had the sight thrilled her with thoughts of the great old classic countries, famous in song and story, which lay far beyond those countless leagues of dividing water—countries whose history and stores of man's highest achievements make so strong a claim on spirits touched to sympathy with the wider issues of human life. All was now within her reach; but as she looked her farewells at these primeval woods, at the calm, beautiful, uncommemorated scenes of her native land, a great pain had fastened upon her heart—a pain, dull, deep, and insatiable, that made her pulses beat slowly, mechanically, as if it were sapping her life-blood.

‘Don't look like that, Stella,’ Ted had said, after a long silence. ‘You will see these places all again as often as you like. We can spend part of each summer among the hills. Did you know my father is going to settle Wattle Cottage on you—that pretty little house on one of the spurs of Mount Lofty?’

‘Oh, mercy, Ted! is there no end to the possessions that are to be heaped on me? And then I must not even take the liberty of looking a little sad, because I am a glorified edition of Curly-locks!’

‘Who was Curly-locks? But don't tell me if it's one of those wretched little yarns you make up, with some sort of a ghost in them.’

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‘No—there is never a ghost, or a banshee, or a lost soul in Curly-locks. It is quite after your own heart:

‘ “Curly-looks, Curly-locks, wilt thou be mine?
Thou shalt not wash dishes, nor yet feed the swine;
But sit on a cushion and sew a fine seam,
And feed upon strawberries, sugar and cream.” ’

‘But the girl after my heart is fonder of a saddle than a cushion. I was reading a novel the other night, Stella, and there was something in it about a strong bond of sympathy between the young man and woman who did most of the spooning. I'm not sure I know exactly what the fellow meant, but don't you think it's a bond of sympathy between us two that we are both so fond of horses?’

Stella recalled all this, and some more seriously personal talk that followed. After all, she reflected, there could be no one else in the whole world she would marry without being in love with him, except Ted. In the midst of these thoughts she fell fast asleep. Alas! the mysterious phantasies of dreamland were not so reasonable and reassuring as her last waking thoughts. She dreamt one of those life-like, vivid, consecutive dreams with which she had become increasingly familiar of late. She was at Lullaboolagana, out in the Home Field, walking with Anselm Langdale. ‘My beloved, there is no one between us—no one,’ he was saying. ‘To-morrow is our wedding-day. Come and get a wreath of the hymenosperum. That is what I want you to wear instead of orange-blossom.’

They went down beyond the Oolloolloo close to the orchard, and, lo! there was the hymenosperum sheeted with blossoms, and all around the air was rent with songs of birds, and the whole world was glad and surpassingly lovely—even like the holy city, the new Jerusalem, which John saw coming down from God out of heaven, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. How wide and full was the tide of joy that welled up in her heart! How starry and fragrant were the flowers they plucked together for her bridal wreath! The sun was warm in their faces, but they could not have too much of these slender, pale cream blossoms. She heard herself laughing happily; and then Anselm held her face to his, and kissed her repeatedly.

‘My darling, I am so glad to hear you laugh so on your wedding morning.’

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It was her mother who was kissing her softly.

‘Oh, it is quite true, then; it is my wedding-day!’ said the girl, starting up, her face dyed with happy blushes.

And then her mother kissed her once again, and gently left her, thanking God that her fears had been misplaced. For on the previous evening some curious misgiving had crept into her mind. But now she knew that all was well.

Ritchie had called a little after sunrise with a magnificent bridal bouquet, composed entirely of white fairy rosebuds shaded with maidenhair fern. The mother had taken it softly into her daughter's room. The windows looking eastward were wide open, and the blinds up, according to Stella's invariable custom. The sunrays were falling on her face, which was flushed and radiant like a child's. The mother's heart leaped with grateful joy; and when she heard Stella, still slumbering, break into a ripple of silvery laughter, she could not resist stooping to kiss her awake.

‘Thank God my child is so happy!’ she murmured gently, as she closed the door behind her.