Chapter XLV

STELLA could never recall how the rest of the night passed. She had vague recollections of sitting as if turned to stone, of hearing voices, of speaking herself now and then, of pacing at intervals up and down the room like some

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creature of the woods that had been suddenly trapped. But look what way she would, Ted's vacant face met her eyes. She could hardly be said to suffer acutely. She was rather in a waking trance, in which the events of the past month rose up before her like a curious panorama, of which she was merely a spectator. Once or twice she found herself planning a secret journey — slipping away into unknown haunts of the desert where she might escape from these endless stratagems that fate was practising upon her. But no coherent plan underlay these vague flights. They belonged rather to those imaginative variations which we sometimes make in a story that is distasteful.

At daybreak Ritchie showed signs of returning consciousness. Not till then could Stella be prevailed on to leave the room. Laurette pleaded with her to lie down and rest, but in vain.

‘No one knows of this but ourselves,’ she said. ‘When we got home from the theatre we found Ted rather confused. He had taken a little raw brandy to steady his nerves, and that, of course, was a fatal mistake. It was an unseasonably hot day, and no doubt he had taken some “long drinks” previously.’

Stella looked at her strangely, but said not a word in reply. She bathed and changed her dress, and went out into the little garden at Monico Lodge and looked at the sun rising with eyes that saw nothing. Her emotion and resolutions of the previous day rose up before her in so mocking and sardonic a light.

After a little time she was joined by John Morton. He, too, had slept but little.

‘Stella, will you let me speak to you as if you were a sister?’ he said, taking her hand in his. ‘You must not think that this is habitual with Ted. It is only a couple of years since he began to forget himself now and then—when he is mixed up with these fast turf people. I asked him a few weeks before he was married whether you knew of this —tendency. He said Laurette told him you had heard something. This is the first time such a thing has happened since he was in the Retreat.’

‘The Retreat? What Retreat?

‘You remember, when Ted was at home about Christmas-time, you went to a dinner-party at his father's house?’

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‘Ah, I remember!’ cried Stella, and all the details of that event, and Ted's altered demeanour when he came to bid her farewell, rushed back on her mind.

‘Yes; he told me all about it. There is a private Retreat in the western district of Victoria, and Ted, in his disgust at finding that even the prospect of meeting you did not serve to keep him straight, went there for nearly six months. It is only when he is with others—never when he is alone —and a little tells on him. I am certain he will keep straight after this. I know it must vex you terribly; but, Stella, you must not be too angry. Ted sent me to ask you to see him. He is more unhappy than words can tell.’

Stella went slowly into the house. Laurette met her in the hall, and led her into the breakfast-room, where Ted stood pallid and miserable, leaning against the mantelpiece. Laurette would have left them, but Stella called her back. There was something so cold and unmoved in her face and voice that Ted's heart sank, if possible, more than before; but his range of expression was limited.

‘I know I have been a thundering jackass, Stella,’ he said in a husky voice. ‘I don't know how to ask you to forgive me.’

‘Do you suppose I do not?’ she said in a level voice.

‘Don't say you forgive me when you look like that, Stella,’ said Ted. ‘I know you have a right to be angry.’

‘But I am not, any more than if you had small-pox or typhoid—only if it were a merely physical malady you would soon recover. But what hope is there for a vice that wrecks the will so completely—a vice that overcomes a man till he lies sunk below the level of the brutes?’

The words were harsh, yet what added curiously to their force was the quiet, passionless tone in which they were uttered, and the involuntary shudder which shook Stella from head to foot as she spoke.

Ritchie flushed crimson, and for a little he did not speak.

‘Do you mean,’ he said at last very slowly, ‘that I am not to be blamed for this? Because, if you do, you are very much mistaken. I am to blame most damnably, and I have been worse than an idiot; and I say this—if it ever happens again——’

‘Why did you say I knew something of this?’ said Stella,

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suddenly turning to Laurette without making any reply to her husband's affirmations.

‘Well, I made sure you did by your manner, and that long talk we had before you went to Lull,’ said Laurette composedly, meeting her brother's doubting scrutiny without flinching.

Stella put up her hands to her temples, struggling to recollect what the long talk was. And then Laurette, marshalling her forces, went on with calm incisiveness:

‘You have seen very little of the world yet, Stella. You have been dreaming over romances, and poetry, and foolish scientific books, and they make you feel as if you knew a great deal. You have several brothers, and are intimate with a good many of their friends. You never saw any of them the worse for drink, so you conclude they never in their lives fell fast asleep with their riding-boots on. That is a little discovery which is generally reserved for the sacred privacy of married life. Take my word for it, there are very few families without one or more in the same boat with Ted. Only, unfortunately, many have no power of pulling themselves up as he has. Now, Stella, let me advise you to rest for some hours. You know this is your last day before sailing——’

Stella, who stood gazing out of the window most of the time while Laurette spoke, upon this turned, and looking at Ted without any trace of emotion in her voice, said slowly:

‘It is impossible that I should live with you as your wife. Nothing can alter my determination in that;’ and before Ted could say anything in reply she left the room.

He stood for a minute or two as if stunned, and then walked in an aimless way to the window, without saying a word. But after a little he was seized with a fit of dizziness, and sank half fainting on a chair that stood near. Laurette insisted upon his going to bed, and installed herself as his nurse.

This proved to be an eventful day in Laurette's life. The English mail, which arrived that morning by the express train from Adelaide, brought, among other letters, one from his father to Tareling, with the announcement that his eldest brother Cecil had suddenly been stricken down with a stroke of paralysis, and that the physicians held out no hope of his ultimate recovery, though there was no immediate

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prospect of death. Lord Harewood had been ten years married, and his family consisted of two daughters, the youngest seven years of age. The Earl of Lillimore was seventy-six, and frail for his years, and Talbot was the second son.

In the first moments after receiving this intelligence, Laurette was conscious only of a great and solemn thankfulness. Only for her undaunted efforts, Talbot, who might after this at any moment be called in the kind ordinance of Providence to take his place among the peers of Great Britain, would now be ploughing the main in the society of a disreputable actress! The next moment she was more than ever alive to the necessity of taking instant action, lest Stella should, in her unreasonable caprice, decide not to go abroad. In another fortnight at the most there would be a letter from Langdale, posted at Mauritius. If Stella remained in Australia, Laurette could do nothing to prevent her receiving this or any subsequent letter. Whereas, in her absence, she—Laurette—would speedily write a note to Mrs. Courtland, asking that any letters which came from abroad might be forwarded to her—Laurette—in obedience to Stella's wish. She knew the scrupulous way in which the Courtlands would fall in with an arrangement of this kind, without comment or inquiry.

Something would no doubt turn up some day which would make Stella think that there had been some ‘extraordinary misunderstandings’—but then at that time Laurette might be safely established among the hereditary aristocracy of Europe! her husband an earl—her little son a lord! At the thought Laurette could not forbear going into the nursery and clasping the future Lord Harewood fondly to her bosom. … Yes, there were occasions in life on which one must act for the present, and not for eternity, or even the remote future. Who was it that advised people to take short views in life? The counsel was sagacious enough for Solomon himself; for, after all, no people were more egregiously sacrificed at times than those who trusted nothing to the chapter of accidents.

Laurette stole softly into the darkened room in which Ted lay. He looked up eagerly, thinking it might be Stella. At sight of Laurette he closed his eyes in dejected weariness.

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‘Ted, you must arrange that your voyage is not postponed,’ she said, sitting by his bedside.

‘I don't see the good of arranging anything, if Stella sticks to what she says, and I believe she will.’

‘Fiddlesticks! No doubt she will for a time, but she has a strong sense of humour, and she will soon perceive what a ridiculous attitude she takes up. But, at the same time, it becomes you to make concessions, and I will be your envoy.’

‘What do you mean by concessions?’

‘Give in to her whim till you can get her to relent. She cannot cease to be Mrs. Edward Ritchie because sometimes you are not as steady as you should be; but if she is wilful, there may be no end of scandal and annoyance and trouble that will only widen the breach. Ask her to start to-morrow with you as arranged, on her own conditions; or I will speak for you, and then bring her in here to clinch the arrangement.’

Laurette found Stella in her own room. She was still curiously unmoved. Laurette told a melting tale of Ted's utter unhappiness and remorse. No, Stella was not angry nor unforgiving; but she could not alter her decision. Did she, then, propose to separate from Ted? She did not know, it was all so dark and horrible. She could not see her way. She must send for Cuthbert; perhaps he would help her to think what was right. She knew there was one crime she must not commit. The story of her friend Cicely's life rose up before her, and she, for the first time since this disastrous revelation burst on her, shed a few scalding, humiliated tears.

‘What crime do you mean?’ said Laurette in a whisper.

‘The crime of adding to the morally-paralyzed lives in the world,’ said Stella, in a dry, stern voice.

‘What a dreadful idea to take up!’ said Laurette indignantly. ‘Why, Talbot drinks three times as hard as Ted ever did, and I am sure neither Gwendolen nor Howard is ever likely to be paralyzed. And there's my father—he has drunk pretty heavily at times for the last twenty-six years, and who is more respected than he is—Speaker of the House for so long, and knighted, and all the rest of it?’

Though Laurette was oblivious of that elementary canon of heredity that the further back a quality has been fixed

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the more likely it is to reappear, her sharp eyes saw that her illustration conveyed no comfort.

‘Of course,’ she said, going on in an altered tone, ‘if you want to send Ted completely to the dogs, you will turn your back on him now. You ought, by rights, to have married him four years ago——’

‘I ought to have been told of Ted's vice—and you seem to have prevented his telling me the truth,’ said Stella, in a low, hard voice.

‘Well, I may have been to blame. You do not know what it is to have an only brother. You may be thankful you were never tempted in the same way. Not many of us fall into temptations that do not beset us. If there were a sort of Greek chorus going on always to warn women off all the possible shoals of matrimony, the world would soon come to a nice pass. You all blame me. It is quite plain that in this matter I am the earthenware pot going down the stream with copper kettles. But if it was all to come over again I couldn't act differently. Here was Ted hanging after you ever since he was a little shrimp in his first knickerbockers; never thought of any other girl in his life —at least, not to marry her. Uncle was a pig-headed old man, who insisted on Ted leaving college when he was sixteen, because he said a squatter would never want more than to write and see that a book-keeper could add up properly. And then, before he was twenty, Ted is left his own master, with thirteen thousand a year; and since that he has raised the annual income of the station to fifteen thousand. It's ridiculous to speak as if he were a slave to drink, or anything like it. It's only when he goes with that Eversley and Wilmot lot—and now he's got you he'll see precious little of them.’

Laurette spoke in a clear, emphatic voice, and she could see that some of her arguments went home, though Stella made no response. The thought of her sending for Cuthbert had terror in it, if only for the reason that such a course would prevent the pair from leaving by the Hindoo Fawn; and if any delay arose, with so many awkward contingencies in the background, no one could tell what might happen.

‘Come, Stella, you must forgive Ted. Oh, I know—but what's the good of that sort of forgiveness: “I don't want

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you to be hanged or quartered—but good-bye”? That won't do, my dear. I am a wife and mother, and my experience of life is much more matured than yours. Take my word for it, forgiveness is the quality that best suits us women—even when we are most sinned against. It does not become us to be too logical, or look too far ahead. It was not for nothing that God made our brains smaller than those of men. Where would I be to-day, and my two little ones, if I had not swallowed a great deal more than ever you will have to overlook?’

‘Laurette, I have no doubt you mean very well,’ said Stella wearily. ‘I do not want to make a public scandal, but——’

‘Sail to-morrow as was arranged, Stella, and make your own conditions, till you are satisfied that the episode of yesterday was an accident which won't happen again. Now, be reasonable, and tell me what other plan could Cuthbert, or even an angel from heaven, suggest better than this? What sacredness would the marriage service have if men and women tried to throw the contract over at the first shock? Come on, Stella, and speak to Ted.’

When Stella went into her husband's room, the sight of his haggard face, with its broken, appealing look, smote on her heart.

‘Stella, forgive me,’ he said, speaking very low, lest he should betray emotion.

‘I do,’ she said, with bent head. ‘I do forgive you, Ted.’

‘And, Stella, don't say you don't blame me any more than if I had small-pox. I would sooner, somehow, you thought I was as black as the devil himself, than believe I couldn't help being such an infernal idiot.’

‘But, Ted, you know how, less than a year ago, when you were to meet me at your father's, the same thing happened, and now—do I not know that you would not willingly give me pain, that——’

‘Thank you for saying that, Stella. May I hold your hand? I know all that—and yet this time it's partly, I know, because I got into my head you knew, and didn't mind so very much. Larry made some mistake, and she thought you knew. And then, you know, I wanted to tell you when I said I wasn't what I ought to be—and you said

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rather queer things. Of course it was because you didn't really know. I never was so ashamed of myself in my life before, and I'll do whatever you want me to.’

‘Oh, Ted, it is all too miserable; it seems as if the things that are worst in life pursued us and hounded us down so that we cannot escape them—so that we cannot help ourselves.’

A scalding tear rolled down Stella's cheek and fell on Ted's hand. Then, so extreme was his misery and remorse, for the first time in his life he moaned aloud.

The thought crossed Stella's mind that she would tell him all she meant to say on the previous night. But the sight of his motionless form and ghastly vacant face, as he lay submerged far below the unconsciousness of brute life, rose before her with cruel vividness. And then she knew that she dared not breathe a word to him of her irremediable bereavement. It would be sacrilege — stealing the oil for common purposes from the lamp that burned in commemoration of her dead.

But a hard unsympathetic antagonism was impossible to her. She was too keenly alive to the tragic element in human affairs—to the multiform aspects in which circumstance, destiny, chance, heredity—call it what we may—so often wove the pattern of our lives with cynical disregard of the designs that make for their salvation and happiness.

As Ted looked at her with dim, appealing eyes, she was sorry for him beyond the reach of words. Yet she was inflexiole in the resolve that till the memory of the past had grown more dim, and till the ascendancy of his fatal weakness was disproved, their lives must virtually be lived apart.

‘But we can help ourselves—we can yet make it all right, Stella,’ he said in answer to her words. ‘Only let me be near you—let me be with you—let me look at you day by day—let me do things for you! … It was on the twenty-sixth of last December that I forgot myself before. If on this day twelve months I can tell you honestly that during all that time I have not made such a horrible blunder, will you believe that I can help making a fool of myself, and live with me as my wife? Will you, Stella?’

She made answer that she would, and then he clasped both her hands in a fervent grasp.

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‘We will travel during that year, Stella,’ he went on; and Laurette re-entered the room as he spoke. ‘We will sail to-morrow, as we meant to.’

Laurette's face was a little flushed. Her heart rose with a bound.

‘You have given your promise, Ted, and I am sure you will keep to it. I will read a verse or two to make you remember it better.’

Laurette, who had the dramatic faculty in some respects to a remarkable degree, caught up a New Testament that lay on the toilet-table, knelt down by the bedside, and, opening the book at random, read the first verses on which her eyes fell:

‘ “And the lord commended the unjust steward, foras-much as he had done wisely; for the children of this world are wiser in their generation than the children of light. And I say to you, Make unto you friends of the mammon of iniquity, that when you shall fail they may receive you into everlasting dwellings.” ’

Laurette rose from her knees and put away the Testament, feeling for her own part deeply encouraged and reassured. She had heard something of the practice of reading a verse or verses where the Bible happened to open, and her present experience gave her the belief that there was something in it. As far as she had known anything of the sect of the children of light, they were often, in practical matters, conies of the rocks; and she was well content to be of those who made friends of the mammon of iniquity, which seemed to be a sort of Biblical nickname for worldly prudence.

As for Stella, the feeling overcame her more strongly than ever that she was looking on at dioramic views in a troubled dream, or that she was a supernumerary in a serio-comic opera in which people spoke prose instead of intoning doggerel rhymes. Moral and physical exhaustion was creeping over her, for the time sealing up the sources of emotion. Yet she found herself half smiling as Laurette rose from her knees.

‘Stella, promise me that you will rest,’ whispered Ted, looking at her worn white face with keen self-reproach. Then he raised her hand to his lips, murmuring his promises anew before Stella left the room. ‘What the devil made

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you read the Scriptures in broad daylight on a Thursday, Larry?’ he said when they were alone.

‘That's just like you, Ted; you have no imagination,’ retorted Laurette. ‘You know how they read the Bible at Fairacre night and day; Stella would feel your promise was more solemn—though, of course, in a case of this kind, all is fair in love and war.’

‘Don't you believe I am going to funk my promise to Stella,’ returned Ted doggedly.

Then Laurette sat by his bedside, and told the wonderful news, which had by this time mounted to her head. A great success is never so intoxicating as when it fairly dawns on the horizon while consummation is yet delayed; for even to the earthliest nature fruition seldom fails to bring its leaden-faced twin-brother satiety.

‘Well, Larry, you've kept Tareling in hand better than people expected,’ said Ted. ‘Those who knew him best said he would never stay in Australia more than a couple of years.’

This little speech opened Laurette's heart.

‘My dear boy, no one knows what a struggle I've had to keep Talbot in the narrow path of duty,’ she said solemnly. ‘Quite recently he was on the point of going off with a wretched little divorced actress who danced and sang, as people used to say, like an angel—as if angels ever made such wicked eyes at the fathers of families!—when she sang,

‘ “Viene, ben mio, fra questi piante ascose,
Ti vo’ la fronte incoronar di rose,’

with such brazen archness. I have often thought, and I am sure of it, that in decent theatres, which, after all, owe much of their support to families, effrontery of that kind should be put down with a strong hand. But, however, there Talbot used to sit beside me, gloating on the little Jezebel—his jewel-gifts shining in her impudent little head —at the very time I shouldn't have known where to turn for a crust, if it hadn't been for the generosity of my good dear old Ted here. You needn't turn rusty, Ted. You have too much of the John Bull in you in that respect, always trying to hide your generosity under a rough outside. But I must finish about the actress. Yes, I knew everything was arranged; and the precious pair were to

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be off to California in a few days. Of course I would not enter upon such particulars to anyone but my own brother; not but what it was one of the stories probably that men grinned over in the Club. Well, what did I do? Flew into a rage, and prepared to run away home on my own account, or melted perpetually into tears? Nothing of the kind. If I had packed up and gone off to Godolphin House, who would have been relieved and delighted? Why, Talbot, of course. And if, on the other hand, I had wept and implored, he wouldn't have come near the place at all. As it was, I never lost his confidence. I was gay and smiling, though my heart might have been in ruins. Suspecting nothing, never dreaming I had an inkling of what was going on, Talbot was so much off his guard that I gleaned all necessary information. I knew the boat, and the hour it was to sail. That morning I had a private interview with our largest creditor, a man to whom we owed five hundred pounds; and I said to him, “If you want to make sure of twenty shillings in the pound of this debt, just see that the Honourable Talbot Tareling doesn't leave by the Don Carlos at noon to-day, under the name ‘Signor Foscari’ ”—and he didn't,’ said Laurette, nodding triumphantly at her brother, who by this time was listening with a look of interest.

‘You are more of a nut than I ever thought you were, Laurette!’ he said with a grim smile.

‘Nut or not, I know what I am about. And I would like to know where Talbot would be this day, when there is but a step or two between his being a peer of England and an hereditary legislator of Great Britain, if I didn't possess the necessary tact? Talk of the Prodigal Son! Talbot looked like one that evening, when he came home—only, I suppose, much older. I think a man must have very little idea of fun when he has such an escapade after he has lost all the hair off the top of his head, and his moustache is grizzled. I had got a special friend to get Talbot out of the hands of the creditor at once, and pay the five hundred pounds down. I had the amount by me, you know, out of the money you gave me. Talbot thought I knew nothing of the affair, for he intercepted the letter he had left at the Club to be posted to me the day after he sailed—telling me he would probably be away a couple of years, as he really

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could not stand Melbourne society any longer. He kindly advised me to economize in his absence at Cannawijera. Oh, I knew what was in it; I saw a draft of the letter in his pocket-book a few days before then. Yes, and he paid this friend three hundred pounds of the debt, which was of course promptly handed to me. I had no scruple in keeping it, for it was part of six hundred pounds I lent him early in October. Yes; all this happened two days before you were married. And there was I, that evening, prattling away about the babies as innocently as Howard boy himself, and the next Government House dinner-party, a specially cosy little affair, for which an invitation had come two or three days before. How a man could give himself up to a Bohemian career with such an invitation staring him in the face I cannot tell. I don't mention myself or the dear children, because it would seem that these are the items which some men part from most easily at times; more especially when they have been importuned for many weeks to hasten away to have their brows coroneted with roses, such as they were. Of course this news will, in a manner, help to steady Talbot. You see his father is seventy-six, and very tottery.’

‘But don't reckon upon the old chap giving up the ghost immediately, Laurette,’ said her brother, half smiling.

‘God forbid!’ answered Laurette devoutly.

It was one of the edifying features of her character, in an emergency, that piety of the kind which preachers call ‘a bulwark of the State’ was always at her command. Then, emboldened by Ted's remorseful mood, and by the thought that at any moment the summons might come which would call Talbot and herself to take their place among the English nobility, Laurette made a full confession to Ted of all their financial difficulties. It would take an additional two thousand pounds to quite clear their liabilities. In any case they would be leaving for England in about nine months. They ought to have a thousand or two in hand for emergencies. The Lillimore estates were in such a state of impoverishment, with so many charges on them, etc. The upshot of these confidences was, that Ted arranged to leave four thousand pounds to Laurette's credit—‘for, after all, you've’ proved yourself a true friend

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to me, Larry; and though I've put my foot in it so confoundedly, to begin with——’

‘Oh, my dear boy, as for that, it will soon blow over. A woman may have principles and theories, but life is so arranged that she soon sees how ridiculous it is to try and act on them. And nothing in this world, nor that which is to come, will, as a rule, enable her to face a ridiculous position for a whole year.’

Thus Laurette, like an artist who knows how and when to strike the desired key-note, went on her way conquering and to conquer. Stella's involved passionate nature, her lack of patience and fidelity to her better self, Ted's fall and remorse, Tareling's chronic servitude to common vice, all under Laurette's cunning fingers were touched into fairy music, which led her to that career of assured triumph she had long felt herself born to achieve. Nor did she fail to acknowledge her obligations to a higher power. An unwavering determination to make the best of life might compass much, but when dealings with such capricious and obstinate material as a girl like Stella are brought to a successful issue, one is bound to recognise the aid of that strain of divinity in mundane matters which ‘shapes our ends, rough-hew them as we will.’ This strain of divinity was at times rather obscured in the arrangements of a world in which ready money was an extremely precarious possession with many who might be termed born leaders of society. But who could fail to recognise the finger of an overruling Providence in the series of events that had brought Laurette to her present position?