Chapter XLVII

THEY reached Berlin early one November morning, three days after they landed in Italy. It was a cold bright day, with a thin insubstantial sort of sunshine and keen gusts of wind laden with the sallow spoils of autumn. Wherever there was a tree with leaves to shed, this wind searched them out, and wrenched them off the stalks, and swirled them away. The rusty red and pale amber of the oak leaves, the delicate wistful green and yellow of the birches, the deep orange of the mountain-ashes, the citron of the common kind, the crimson tufts of the sycamore trees, and the lemon-tinted leaves of the lindens—all were to be seen in the Thiergarten falling in soft perpetual showers. They fluttered in the air for a moment, and then swelled the banks of autumn foliage piled up against tree-trunks and benches and those quiet nooks in the depths of the wood which even the wind did not readily penetrate.

The pension of the Baroness von Eisengau, which had been recommended to the Ritchies by Miss Brendover, was close to the Thiergarten; and the large double windows of the suite of rooms which Ted engaged on the second étage overlooked the park. The novel sight of a whole wood being shorn of its leaves and left shivering nakedly under a pale cold sky caught Stella's eye at once. Here she took her first long walk since they had left Australian shores. It seemed as though her recovery had been largely dependent

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on the sea and its invigorating breezes. The day after leaving the Hindoo Fawn she felt the old listless languor and mental miasma stealthily creeping over her. Only those who have for a time been victimized by that fell tædium vitœ which, like a victorious army, beleaguers the very citadel of life, can realize the feeling of helpless subjection that fetters the mind under such assaults. But Stella had so far gained strength that she struggled against the feeling, and simulated an interest she did not feel in the variety and movement of travel.

On returning to the pension, Ritchie, who had been out with his groom to see about hiring horses from the Guldenstern Mews, awaited her with a telegram that had come from his uncle in London. Directly on landing at Brindisi, Ted, instead of writing a letter announcing his arrival and future address, had telegraphed the news—‘wiring,’ when practicable, being his favourite mode of correspondence. Now a message had come from the old man, saying he had not long to live, and requesting his nephew's presence as soon as possible.

‘I suppose I had better start soon. What do you think, Stella?’

‘Oh, go, by all means! The poor old man wants to see you. Has he any children?’

‘Two daughters—oldish, I think. I wonder if Hetty and Jemima are like Larry. They say cousins are often more alike than sisters, and, you see, my aunt is my mother's sister. She's a good deal older than my mother, and rather gone in the upper story. When she writes she always asks the same questions. The last letter I saw of hers, she asked if I was still in college. You see, the governor told her he had sent me there; and it wasn't the habit in the families in England to send the boys to college; so it stuck in the old lady's memory—“Is dear Ted in college still?” says she, with a heavy stroke under “college.” Why do some women always put strokes in their letters? I used to get letters once—’ Ted suddenly paused, as if struck with the thought that there are some pre-nuptial reminiscences better left in oblivion.

‘Well, go on, Ted,’ said Stella, with something of the old sense of fun struggling to the surface. ‘Was it the adjectives that were always underlined?’

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‘What are adjectives?’

‘Oh, the words that were put before your name, in the letters you used to get once!’

‘ “My dearly beloved Edward”—are they adjectives? Oh, the “beloved.” A serious affair? Well, I don't believe you care a snuff. Did you never feel a bit jealous of anyone, Stella, except that time when Cuth got engaged? Well, I don't half like going without you. The old aunt will believe I've left college at last, but she'll never believe I'm married when she doesn't see you. “And are you really married, dear?” she'll say every time I see her. And the cousins—I expect they're like Laurette.’

‘In what way?’

‘Well, like this—always harking back on any point you don't fully explain. “But why didn't Stella come?” That's the way Larry would keep nagging away, till you either made a clean breast of it, or, if that wasn't to be done, cleared out of her way. I'll tell them straight out from the beginning you cried your eyes out to come, but I wouldn't let you because of the fogs. Of course Laurette could well fancy a man and his wife might part soon after the honeymoon without tears—but elderly maiden ladies will find it hard to believe. By the way, Stella, how long is the honeymoon supposed to last? You're not an authority? Lord, I wish I were! Well, if they don't suck in the first yarn, I'll let them believe I wanted to have a bit of a shine all by myself. That'll make the old tabbies sit up—but, of course, being an Australian, they'll take in anything about me. So they may, when all is told. But isn't it rather queer, Stella, how a fellow would sooner any hanged yarn be taken in about him than the truth? It's not only with myself, but I've noticed it over and over again. I had a fellow book-keeping once who had been in quod for some months. It got to be known, and he pretended it was for putting a knife in a chap—whereas it was for prigging one.’

‘Yes; but the truth is generally even more damaging than the “hanged yarn,” you see. I suppose the book-keeper was one of the thirty-three per cent. of the educated who go under, and he would be sooner supposed to stab a man than steal from him.’

‘Yes, Stella, you're right. As long as people feel they could be different they're ashamed of themselves. But if

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they got to think they couldn't help it a little bit, and it was all because it was to be, somehow, why—— Look here, Stella, you've been awfully good, I know, over this confounded business; but I wish to God you had given me a rowing, or would speak to me now and then about it—as if you were afraid, don't you know, that I wouldn't keep straight. You are frightfully cut up in one way, and yet in another … sometimes it comes over me that you fret because you married me—not because I—I was such an awful idiot.’

Love, even when it has failed to be the saving influence of a man's life, has a curious power of purging the heavy eye. The aspect of the matter, put into such plain terms by Ritchie, was so near the truth that Stella was for a moment conscience-smitten.

‘What is the use of talking about it?’ she said, lying back in the wide, padded armchair with half-closed eyes.

‘I am a twenty-four-carat muff to bring it up, I know. But, Stella, when I look at you sometimes I feel as if I could not bear it. Always before this you walked as if you were treading on air—your eyes dancing. It didn't matter whether the sun were shining or not, it came in with you. And now you sit by the hour as if you saw nothing. You do not even read. I sometimes think if you would lie up properly till your illness is over it would be better—for you must have some sort of fever hanging about you. You eat next to nothing, and in the morning you look more tired than when you went to bed.’

‘Leave it to time, Ted,’ she said, gently stroking his brown, strong hand lightly with her slender fingers, which had now a transparent aspect. She wore no rings except her wedding-ring, and it hung so loose that once or twice it had dropped off.