Chapter XLIV

SUMMER threatened to set in early this season. On the fourteenth of October, two days before the Ritchies were to sail, a high easterly hot wind was blowing, and there was something of tropical ardour in the sun. It was exhaustingly unseasonable weather. At Monico Lodge the Venetian blinds of the veranda were closely drawn, and there was that hushed, darkened aspect throughout the house which almost cheats us into believing that without the sky is gray and cool.

‘I do envy you, Stella—going straight into the middle of a northern winter,’ said Laurette, fanning herself slowly with a wide fan of gray curled ostrich-feathers. She sat opposite to her sister-in-law in the drawing-room, and as she noticed the sharpened outline of her face, and the hectic flush that burned steadily in her cheeks, she was devoutly thankful that the newly-married pair would soon be afloat.

‘She is quite capable of having a downright fever,’ thought Laurette, ‘but the sea-breezes will prevent all that.’

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It was indeed curious to notice how the few weeks that had elapsed since Stella left Lullaboolagana had subtly changed the character and expression of her face. The cold look which sometimes marked it before when in repose had hardened into an air of listless hauteur. When she smiled, her eyes, instead of sparkling and gleaming with soft radiance, remained brilliantly hard and unmoved. We are at times almost appalled by the scornful disdain imprinted on women's countenances. Do not let us judge them harshly. Tolerance is not the prerogative of the weaker sex, but often their most savage bigotry of blame is directed against the rôle into which they have been cheated by circumstance and their own fatal impatience of suffering. It is not shallow and wilful disesteem of others that makes the hardest lines in their faces, when the tie which is the fount of all human tenderness proves to them an intolerable bond.

‘If the summer is to go on from now till March, we certainly must take a little cottage at St. Kilda or Brighton,’ Laurette went on, raising her voice a little, doubting whether Stella heard the first remark. Before she could make any response to this the door was hastily opened and Ted came in.

‘Isn't Stella here?’ he cried—not seeing her at first in the shadowy corner in which she sat with an open book, whose leaves she did not turn. ‘Oh, there you are, Curly-locks! Why the deuce do you make the house like a cave, Larry?’ he cried, turning to his sister.

‘I'll go and amend my ways this instant,’ said Laurette, gliding out of the room.

‘You mustn't make the room any lighter,’ said Stella in a languid voice.

‘Why, I thought you were so fond of light and heat. I've often found you in blazing December weather out in the Fairacre garden sitting in the shade without even a hat on. But I'm only too glad, Curly-locks, to hear you wish for anything; besides, I'm going away for the rest of the day, if you can spare me.’

‘Oh yes. Where are you going?’

‘To Randwick with two or three other fellows. And do you know, Stella, I'm going to sell Konrad and four or five more colts. I expect John Morton will be here before I get

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back. Now, before I go would you mind telling me your new name? No larks, Stella. Say your proper go-ashore, newspaper name.’

‘Ted, don't be tiresome; and try not to look so complacently, abominably glad. It makes my eyes ache. Most people never look so silly as when they are pleased.’

Ted laughed in an exultant way.

‘By George! I hope I'll always look silly in that way. Do you know, Stella, you haven't asked me to do a single thing for you since we were married yesterday.’

‘Yesterday! Three hundred and fifty-six years ago! What frightful lies people tell about life being so short.”

‘Well, now that I think of it, it is a week and a day. But in sober earnest, Stella, do tell me one little morsel I can do for you. I'm aching all over to do something you would like. Now, didn't I tell you that was for good-luck?’ he said, touching the pearl-brooch at her throat.

‘Send me back, with Dustiefoot and Maisie, to Strathhaye till you return.’

‘And me go to foreign countries without you? I meant something that I could do, Stella. But of course you are joking—you sly little Curly-locks! Do you know what you said in your sleep last night?’

Ted's face was wreathed with smiles; but though the flush on her cheeks did not die away, a certain pallor deepened about Stella's mouth and eyes.

‘Did I speak in my sleep? I don't think I used to. What a dangerous accomplishment to evolve!’

‘Dangerous? I think it is very jolly, when you are so proud, turning your cheek to me when I want to kiss you. But, you see, I don't mind when you give yourself away in your dreams, calling me by such fond names!’

‘You are making that up as you go along, Ted,’ she said, with lowered eyes.

‘Upon my soul, I am not. You moaned a little. I thought you were having a bad dream, and I stroked your cheek; and then you sighed and said—I heard it quite distinctly—“Dear little leaf of my heart!” Now, you know, you never said anything half as pretty as that to me awake. There, don't go so scarlet! I won't bring it up against you, if you put your two arms around me and say,

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“I want you not to stay too long away, Ted,” and open that little parcel when you are tired of reading.’

Reading! What book has ever been written that can enchain the mind when the heart is throbbing with feverish despair—when the face is blistered with a sense of scorching shame? Yes, she had put up her hands and whispered the words after him in the quiet darkened room; and even in the act it rose up before her like one of the scenes in the ‘Inferno’ which stamp themselves on the mind of those who are intimate with Dante's ‘Divine’ poem, like lurid pictures that have been absolutely witnessed. She seemed to see herself among those who smote ‘their hands despairingly above their heads, borne along in ceaseless tumult in the atmosphere eternally darkened as with sand driven by the whirlwind. A sudden catch came in her breath. She unfastened a slender ribbon that was fastened low on her neck, and drew out the ring that she had daily worn against her heart since the evening she had parted from Langdale. She kissed it as a mother kisses the face of her dead child! ‘No, no, no!—I must not wear it,’ she moaned; ‘I must drive all this away from me. Sleeping and waking I become more enslaved with these memories. I thought to drive them from me by brute strength—to put a barrier between them and my heart; and in place of that they overwhelm me in my sleep—they come back as to a chamber swept and garnished. And now I learn to juggle and deceive. O God, God!—save me from the leprosy of falsehood to which I have been betrayed!’

Yes, it was true. She had fought down soul and instinct and memory with ruthless violence; but Nature is not to be lightly trifled with. She has strange Nemesis powers which find their own modes of reprisal. What the girl in her ignorance had dreamt would turn her love and fierce jealousy into a forsworn, perjured and impossible passion had but opened its floodgates. The moment sleep came to her the uncontrolled visions of unconsciousness, the mysterious play of the brain which lies awake and remembers, and keeps time to the beating of the heart, and calls up all the masking simulacrum of life apart from our volition, practised the cruellest treacheries upon her. Forces which had hitherto lain dormant in her nature pulsed into being only to reinforce her forbidden love.

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The thought of Ted's untroubled confidence smote on her conscience with intolerable pain. She saw, as with a lightning-flash of insight, all the falsity and degradation of her position. She would tell him all—she must; he was good and generous to her, he would have patience with her, he would give her time to live down the past.… This double, treacherous existence was impossible. It would be terrible to speak to him of Langdale—but she would make him understand. He had implored her to let him do something for her, and he would not go back from this wish when he knew all. She would make her confession, and appeal to him.… Something of relief came gradually with the thought. The adamant reserve with which she had guarded this terrible crisis of her life had been part of her crushing burden. Yes, Ted would forgive her; and when the keenness of anguish and memory had passed away, she would be a true and loyal wife to him. She might still prove in a faltering, imperfect way, that love and a noble life are one. … There was a white gauze scarf looped and interwoven in front of the pale cashmere morning dress she wore. She detached this scarf, and taking the ring with the narrow white ribbon to which it was fastened, she enveloped it, fold upon fold. ‘I will not look at it again for long years.’ A sudden thought came to her that she would think of Langdale as dead—dead and taken from her for evermore. ‘Oh, my love! my love! my love!’ she cried, putting down her head, and suddenly her tears fell like summer rain.

She was weeping for the dead. Yes, he was really dead to her—the lover from whom she had parted on that serene night when heaven was flooded as with the twilight of dawn, and the soft mystic glow crept in through the interlaced foliage which hung round the veranda of that quiet house near the borders of the Peeloo Plain. Never again would they stand hand-in-hand looking with radiant faces to the years that were to be all their own. It was a crime to love him; but she might weep for him. She would tame this wild passion which came stealthily back in the visions of the night, when reason was drugged with the poppies of sleep, and conscience had relaxed its vigilance. Day by day she would think of silent graves, and of departed ones who return no more. Her whole frame was convulsed with a storm of sobs. She gave herself up to her long pent-up

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grief, till its very intensity brought some ray of consolation. She had been so hard, and bitter, and scornful—but she must weep for her dead; she must try and creep back to God, whom she had disbelieved and forgotten. He had wounded her so incurably; it must be that He knew of her poor, maimed, anguish-stricken existence. … Let the bells toll, and dust be given back to dust, and let her bow her head and her heart in submissive prayer. Even if God does not care for us, we must still stumble back to Him when the billows of dark despair dash against the frail skiff in which we are launched on the wild, uncertain sea of life. She had joined the sorrow-smitten throng—the great army of earth's bereaved ones. The inextinguishable craving of the heart for communion in prayer overcame her. Crouching low, with folded hands and tear-stained face, the words rose to her lips, joining her petitions with those others, beaten and chastised as she was:

‘Our Father who art in heaven, forgive the days of utter rebellion and agony and despair. Forgive the storms of unlighted darkness that toss our souls; those for whom we poor stricken ones mourn are in Thy keeping—safe from the world's slow stain, from the infirmities of old age, from the bitterness of disillusion, from the subtle decay of enthusiasm for all that is good and great. They have reached a continuing city; they are bathed in the light of everlasting life. The currents of time and change, the distraction and vainglory and delusion of the world—these touch them no more forever.

‘Our Father, we would that Thy will were ours. … We would fain lift up our eyes to Thee, but they are blinded with tears. Yet let us come to Thee, Infinite Source of all good, though our only offering is that of a bruised and broken and sinful heart. The pangs of loneliness and isolation; the rapturous dream of happiness changed into a sword within the bosom; the desolation of days emptied of joy—these are the poor oblations that we bring. Yet may they become to us an inspiration and a stay. When the cruel waves of anguish overcome us; when despair, like an angry sea, threatens to engulf us; when the heavens are dark and starless; when the earth seems empty of all that makes it endurable; when it seems given over to the hopeless mediocrity of natures mildewed with commonness in aim,

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intention, and achievement; when our days stretch before us blank and purposeless, spent and disconnected, unmeaning and futile as grains of quicksand that a great storm has borne far inland; when hope is dead and faith far off, and fears troop round us like a horde of plotting rebels, saying: There is no God—no soul—no immortality; when the mind is flooded with unbearable recollections of lost joy; when we are listless and indifferent, and overcome with fruitless grief—then, O Kindly Light! let thoughts of Thee and of the great souls whom Thou hast vivified enlarge our natures and illuminate our minds.’

Her sobs died into silence, the bitterness of her grief was spent. The door was opened, but she could only half raise her head, and Tareling, who caught one swift glimpse of her—her face pallid, grief-stricken, and tear-stained—as she crouched in silence like some dumb creature mortally wounded, retreated noiselessly with a startled, almost horrified look. He was in search of Laurette, to make some arrangements for the evening, before he went to his office. He met her in the hall.

‘What is the matter with Stella?’ he asked quickly, looking at his wife with an indefinable suspicion in his eyes.

‘The matter with Stella?’ she echoed, with a little, quick throb of terror, which she kept well in hand, however. ‘Nothing that I know of—except that she has too many diamond sprays and necklaces and precious stones, and a husband who adores her.’

‘Well, I don't know, but I wouldn't mind laying a thousand to one that there was some sort of deception at the root of this marriage. It's not a month since she came here from Lullaboolagana looking like a rose in June.’

‘In December you mean, dear. Our roses are very shabby in June; and I am sure Stella will never be in that condition. Oh, about the theatre. You had better book three seats in the dress-circle for us two and John Morton. Stella won't come, and of course Ted will not either. Have you been speaking to her—just now, I mean?’

‘No; I should say she is hardly fit to speak to anyone— excess of joy in the possession of Ted and so many diamonds, I suppose.’

Laurette felt anxious, but she avoided the drawing-room

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for another hour. When she went in she found Stella looking very pale and exhausted, but composed. She had raised one of the blinds, and sat embroidering near the bay-window. There was something in the expression of her face that touched Laurette with a sudden, sharp thrill of compassion. It was no longer hard and listless; all the cold scorn had gone out of it; and in place of these there was an indescribable wistful sadness—her eyelids were dark and slightly swollen, and when she looked up one saw that her beautiful radiant eyes had grown heavy and dim. But the only moral and politic course when a bride looks like this is to say nothing.

‘Oh, what have we here?’ said Laurette, in a half-playful way, holding up the little parcel Ted had left. ‘Now, if you are not dying to see this, I am; and may I, therefore, open it for you?’ she continued. Stella at once assented. It was a case containing an exquisitely-wrought bracelet, set with extraordinarily large opals—one that Stella happened to notice in a jeweller's window when she accompanied Ted into Collins Street after reaching Melbourne on the previous afternoon.

‘They are really too lovely,’ said Laurette, holding them up so that they caught the light and threw it back in a sheaf of quivering rainbow-rays, but with an eerie flame not to be found in a rainbow.

‘I shall be afraid to admire anything after this, except the sun and trees,’ said Stella, with a tremulous little smile. ‘It is so kind of Ted!’—there was a little quiver in her voice, and Laurette suddenly rose and kissed her sister-in-law.

‘You are not well, Stella; the weather is so atrocious; do lie down and let me bathe your head.’

But Stella, thanking her, declared there was not much amiss. She would have been glad to lie down, but she felt a stupor of moral and physical exhaustion creeping over her, and feared to give way to it—feared that the purpose she had formed of making a full confession to her husband might slip from her when he returned if she did not resist this benumbing lassitude.

In the afternoon there were callers, and Stella went to her own room to write letters home. The effort seemed to use up all her energies. But she dressed and sat at dinner

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with the rest, though eating was a mere farce with her. She talked for some little time with Mr. Morton—a tall, burly man, with dark curly hair and a sun-bronzed face, but with a voice and manners as gentle as a woman's. She wondered a little that Ted did not come; but when Laurette wished to stay at home with her, and forego the theatre, Stella insisted on being left alone.

‘It will not be long before Ted comes,’ she said. ‘I will rest till then.’

Laurette made her lie down on the sofa in the drawing-room before she went away. But soon after being left alone Stella went into the breakfast-room, which was beyond the dining-room, and communicated with it by folding doors.

Here she was in darkness, except for the light that came in from the dining-room. The gas seemed to beat upon her tired eyes with such wearying brilliance she found the change to the unlighted room very grateful. She opened the window of this little room, and lay opposite to it on the couch, looking out at the starlit sky. At every sound she heard her heart seemed to beat in her ears. The moment Ted came in she must tell him—she must not give herself time to reflect and draw back. She knew it would hurt him, as well as herself, horribly; and yet she had confidence in him that he would not be harsh or ungenerous. He would help her—he would understand. Already, with all her agitation, she felt something of the relief of being freed from the concealment which his own loyalty made all the more intolerable.

Gradually her thoughts became confused—the light of the stars was dimmed with the pale glory of a young moon; the wind, which had been high all day, still rose into fitful gusts, swaying the scanty branches of a Judas-tree that grew near the window hither and thither. She was out in the Fairacre garden—and yet she was looking into Laurette's house, and she saw a form she knew well approaching it. She heard him asking for her, and then gradually all floated from her view. Then there came a troubled dream in which she heard heavy, uncertain footsteps—they sounded near her, and yet they were not mixed up with any story. She was conscious of the thought that these stumbling sounds were real, not part of a dream—and yet she did not wake up.

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She had no conception how long she had slept when she became conscious of a low murmur of voices. No, it was not a dream. The moonlight had faded, for the moon was setting. She rose slowly—her temples were throbbing. One leaf of the double folding-doors between the little apartment and the dining-room was half ajar. The murmur of voices resolved itself into words. It was Laurette who spoke.

‘Stella is in her own room; she must not know.’

‘What has happened?’ cried Stella, gliding quickly into the dining-room.

Laurette, in a dark-crimson low-necked silk, as she had returned from the theatre, was standing by the table in the centre of the room. Tareling and Morton were near her, but Ted was not there. The quick look of consternation on all three faces as she entered gave Stella a sickening sensation of fear.

Then, before any could speak, she saw why they looked so strangely. One lay on the couch at the further end of the room breathing heavily, but pale and still. It was Ted; and with a low cry Stella knelt down by him.

‘Oh, Ted, Ted, you are hurt!—you do not hear me!’ She held his hands—they were cold, and his eyes were not quite closed; but there was no sign of awakening. ‘My God, what has happened? He is unconscious!’ she cried.

The men looked at her in a strange way, but did not answer.

‘No, dear, he is not badly hurt,’ said Laurette. She was very white, and her hands trembled as she tried to raise Stella.

‘How has he been hurt? You must tell me!’ she cried, turning to Tareling and Morton.

Laurette made despairing gestures to them as she stood behind Stella that they should leave the room. But they were so confused that they did not perceive this, or, if they did, failed to understand the drift of Laurette's motions.

‘It is not dangerous, Stella,’ said Tareling in a low voice, taking her hand in both his.

‘Did the doctor say so?’ cried Stella. ‘Has he gone away? I must see him for myself. Has he been long unconscious?’

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‘No—not very,’ said Laurette.

‘But what did the doctor say? What caused this?’

‘Stella, it is not dangerous. You may believe Talbot— he knows,’ said Laurette desperately. If only these stupid men were out of the way, she felt sure she could invent an illness, or at any rate make up a fictitious account of the doctor's opinion.

‘Not dangerous!—to lie like this!’ She knelt down again, and held Ted's hands, and whispered his name softly two or three times; but there was not a tremor of consciousness.

The perspiration stood on John Morton's forehead in great drops.

‘My dear young lady——’ he said, placing his hand kindly on Stella's shoulder. But then utterance failed him.

‘Ah, you are deceiving me, you are—I can see it—you look at each other so strangely! Talbot,’ she said, going up to her brother-in-law, ‘you must tell me the whole truth. It is no use keeping it from me. Tell me what the doctor said?’

‘The doctor——’ began Tareling. ‘The fact is, Stella, we—there is—in an attack like this—well, medical attendance is not usual; we—most men know what ought to be done; it is—er—a form of exhaustion.’

A conviction had seized Stella that Ted must have been dangerously hurt, and that all these blundering equivocations were well-merited efforts to break the news gently to her.

‘Do you mean that you have not called in a doctor at all?’ she said, looking from Morton to Tareling, and back again at Morton.

He, poor man! could do nothing but wipe his face, and crush his handkerchief into a minute compass.

‘Stella dear, you may believe Talbot,’ said Laurette once more. ‘Everything has been done that is necessary. Ted will be all right when he wakes up a few hours later.’

‘Wakes up?’ repeated Stella, looking at the group around her with a sharp thrill of ill-defined terror. She saw that Morton was somehow the one most keenly affected. Laurette tried to cajole her. Talbot was infinitely gentle in his manner, yet confused as she had never seen him before;

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but John Morton's face was a picture of distress and yearning pity.

Going up to him, Stella laid her hand on his arm, and said in a firm voice:

‘Mr. Morton, I insist upon knowing the truth. There is something you keep back from me. Tell me in one word, is Ted badly hurt? if not, what ails him? You know; I am sure you do.’

‘He is not badly hurt; in one way, this is not serious.’

‘In one way,’ she gasped, with parching lips—‘in what way is such protracted unconsciousness not serious?’

Morton had for some years worked a pearling boat off the unknown northern coasts of Western Australia, and had been a spectator and an actor in many wild scenes; but never had he known so acutely miserable a quarter of an hour as the present.

‘Well,’ he said slowly, thus driven to bay, ‘perhaps it is serious in every way, only not as you think. You know the day has been very warm.’

‘And the sun,’ put in Laurette, ‘often affects people without a regular sunstroke.’

But Stella did not even notice her. A glimmering suspicion had dawned on her. Talbot glided out of the room.

‘Tell me the truth,’ said Stella in a husky voice, still keeping her hand on Morton's arm.

‘I thought you knew something of this weakness of Ted's; that he sometimes—not often—forgets himself; takes a little more stimulant than is good for him.’

A low moaning cry escaped from Stella; and she trembled convulsively as if in an ague-fit. They tried to draw her away, but she would not go. She stood as if spell-bound, white and horror-stricken, looking at Ted's insensible form and ghastly unmeaning face.