Victims of Circe by Mrs. Mannington Caffyn
ON landing at that lonely country station on the edge of a small
straggling village, that had an embryonic look about it as if it had
been prematurely born, and could never reach a full development, one
looked instinctively round after some nineteenth-century signs and
symptoms other than the railway line, and for the minute one's heart
sank with a rush. Somehow, Arcadia in the flesh, as it were, right
under one's nose, appeals but slightly to the modern mind, especially
if this should happen to be a feminine one, and young--more or less.
But the second glance round the corner dispelled at once all
illusions of a life fitted to the needs of a simple primitive folk
like the Arcadian. Fronting the station, a little to the right of it,
a bold-faced public-house flaunted out its sign in one's very face; a
red Presbyterian church, that had planted itself on a hillock above
the public--house, gazed down eternally on its hereditary foe out of
its two badly--glazed eyes through a greenish and sickly medium;
lower down the street was a mechanics' institute, one of the first
growths in any Australian township; then came the school, and beyond
it the English church, looking rather proud and high-stomachy,
perched up on a hill--for all it was out of plumb, liable to come
down at any minute, and with a cracked bell; but it had nevertheless
a smack of arrogant aristocracy about it, that caused it to stink in
the nostrils of the dissenting population.
Arcadia wasn't here, certainly, I thought, as I noted these
several outcomes of Christian culture,--the public-house, the
churches, and the schools,--and wondered, with tingling toes, if any
one would come to meet me, or if I must try my chance of a buggy at
I went back to the platform and took a glance at my luggage. I was
not altogether easy in my mind as to its safety. To the
well-constituted British mind Australia is invariably connected
either with sheep or convicts. If a rich Australian goes home and
dispenses his coin as befits him, we give him the benefit of the
doubt, and talk sheep; if he is not quite rich enough, or sticks to
his gettings, we make a wild effort to find out what his father or
his more remote ancestor was sent out for. Like many customs, this is
foolish, and without foundation in fact or in reason; the man is
probably as clean-bred as ourselves, or a deal cleaner; but one can't
outrage conventions, it is the correct thing to dig into the fellow's
past unless he does his duty by our present. As I was counting my
packages, I encountered the gaze of a large fat man in a greasy coat,
with big glazed--leather eyes; he looked rapacious, and had loose
lips. I always distrust that style of person. I involuntarily
clutched a Gladstone,--I knew it contained a very decent necklet of
sapphires, and I had just paid a heavy duty on it. Then I turned on
him the virtuous but forbidding glance of a British matron; it was
quite effective, he shuffled off with surprising speed. As it
happened, he was only a parson out on the prowl, picking up
gossip,--not an uncommon type in Australia. God help the Church!
I looked up and down the station, yawning, it was so dull and
ugly, when suddenly I caught sight of the back of a small woman,
right up at the other end of the platform. It was a curious and
notable back, with a lot in it,--a sort of back that holds one's
gaze, and makes one turn it over in one's mind. Presently it was
joined by another back, a big, broad man's back. The two fell to
talking with vigour, and the female back shrugged and swayed in a
distinctly seductive style. She wore a Redfern gown--I could swear to
the hang of that skirt. I was outrageous! My friends had said, 'Bring
any rags you have,' and I had taken them at their word. I was in
worse than rags--in things of two seasons ago; they were too bad for
the voyage, but I thought they would just do for the bush. To crown
all, I wore a pair or snow-shoes over my boots,--it was cold
travelling, and there were no foot-warmers to be got,--and my dress
It was most galling. There was this woman, with varnished boots
that absolutely blazed in the sun; and her hat was Parisian, if ever
back of hat was. 'I'll see the front of her,' I muttered, 'snow-shoes
I went hirpling up towards the pair with as haughty an air as I
could get up under the circumstances. Just as I had got near enough
to take in the length and breadth of the woman, she and her companion
swung round simultaneously, and we stood face to face.
If I had met her on the Boulevards--stepping out of Debenham &
Freebody's, or even in Fifth Avenue--I would have given her a full
look, and as I passed on I would have held up my head with an air,
and have given my fringe a twitch, she was as remarkable as that; and
no man living would have passed her without making a détour to
pass her again. But here, in the bush, where 'we went in our rags'
(God forgive those girls!), she was a startling revelation, and sent
of Satan to buffet the female flesh in undress--that is--
As for the man, he had a general all-right air; he was just a
clean, wholesome-looking young fellow, a gentleman every inch of him,
of a type that one is liable to drop on in any corner of the globe.
His look of extreme youth was perhaps his most prominent
But the woman! she looked artless and blooming, and her dimples
might have been filched from a baby; but somehow I saw, in her swift,
comprehensive, amused glance at me, that the girl in that young
person was dead, or perhaps had never lived.
She was fresh to look at--fresh and dainty and soft; but there was
a certain sweet mellowness in her glance,--of a sort that always
staggers another woman, and puts her at a disadvantage,--a certain
air of 'having gone the whole round of creation' and taken it all in,
moreover, that is peculiarly trying, especially when one has lived
and also 'experienced' in one's own humble line: under that glance I
might have been still looking out at life from over the nursery
This look, I found later, was not habitual to her; and why she let
our acquaintance begin by it, I never could find out. Some sudden
incontrollable freak of diablerie I believe it must have been. When
we had taken each other in, they went to the south of the platform, I
to the north. Suddenly the sound of swift-rolling wheels caught my
ear, and I looked over the fence eagerly. A big lumbering waggonette
was thundering up the hill behind two powerful horses. I could just
catch sight of two girls' heads crowed with brown deer-stalkers, and
a middle-aged bonnet. Before I was half down the platform, my
mother's old friend (whom I remembered quite well) and her two tall
daughters were welcoming me, and apologising all at once. Then their
eyes fell instinctively to criticising my turn-out, in an off--hand,
good-humoured way, however, that had no offence in it. Meanwhile the
dimpled young person was waiting a few yards off with well-bred ease
for her turn: and when I was sufficiently greeted the two girls went
to her; and somehow it hurt me to see Dimples bow and kiss those fair
young things, with that touch of lovely stateliness about them. I
wondered if she would kiss their mother, who I knew had always been
noted for her calm, serenely-contented dignity. She did it; she
grasped her hand with a little deferential, worshipful smile and bend
that must have been supremely flattering.
It told certainly. Mrs. Fleming invited her and the man straight
off to tea next day.
The drive to the house was pretty in a way, with the low blue
hills in the distance--and nearer, the dull green-covered hills,
curving half round the horizon in monotonous, short, humpy surges.
Queer hills they were under the glamour of the sunshine and the
shade, which gave them colour, and varied the monotony of their
broken, blunted curves; when the deep blue haze, that only an
Australian atmosphere seems able to produce in perfectness, was on
them, then those hills were lovely and bewildering, full of mystery
and delight. When the sun was off, and the haze in the valleys had
gone grey, then the same hills were hideous, and it brought cold
shivers down one's spine so much as to look at them, they were so
cold and dead and unfinished. The life of these hills always seemed
to come from the outside,--from the sun and the shade and the
air,--never to throb in their own hearts. That day they were fine,
however, and the fields, or paddocks, as they call them here, were
pretty; and so was the little chattering stream that broke babbling
over big stones, and went whirling on under a bridge that had had
time to grow a little lichen, more then can be said for most
Australian bridges. And the house, that was charming,--low and broad
and generous, set on a terrace-like hill, with great verandahs and
ample flower-beds and borders, and a wide stretched-out waste of
orchard and kitchen garden flanked with big petosperum hedges.
Everything looked abundant about that house, and big and
ungrudging, and that's a peculiarity of any amount of Australian
DIRECTLY I got inside my room I made for my dress--trunk, and
plunged down to the depths of it and brought out a tea-gown. It was
one of Worth's. When I was fairly in it, I felt for the first time,
since I stepped on to that solitary station, the divinity of my
femininity. I could hold up my head now, and face the world. I had in
a manner lost my reputation, all owing to a pair of snow-boots and a
dippy skirt, and I put myself on my mettle to win it back. We had a
merry tea that brilliant spring day. I had so much to tell; and old
Colonel Carew was just the man to tell anything to, with his fine,
clear-cut, hale old face, and his twinkling, observant glance, and
his big laugh, and bigger powers of catching a joke. I was just fresh
from England, and as arrogant and patronising as any of my kind. I
must have been vastly amusing to the family circle that first day
before I had found my bearings. Worth did me a good turn,
however,--only for him they would have despised me, as I
The next day Miss Dimples and the man arrived, and were presented
to me. They were step-brother and sister, I found. He was a Mr.
Pomfret; she, a Miss Ariell; and they certainly seemed wonderfully
attached to one another. The boy couldn't have been a day over
twenty-three; he had that slim, callow look so attractive to some
women of experience. I felt much drawn to him, and I had arrived at
that stage when a woman can afford to be kind to young men, with
anticipatory pity for what is before them in life. It comes after
living and suffering oneself,--when one feels secure of one's own
ground, and can be helpful. For all practical purposes, indeed, men
are no more than shadows to a woman in this phase of her life.
As for their admiration, that is quite another matter. That is a
woman's right,--one of the essences essential to her well-being and
development, and she has every right to receive as much as she can
hold of the thing. Indeed, to go so far as to compel its giving out;
it is hers by Divine right, and she is in duty bound to collect
So as Clive Pomfret's eyes appealed to me, and as I saw directly
he was as weak as a reed, I made up my mind to be his friend; and
indeed I had him deep down in a good hot discussion that had a slight
flavour of ethics in it--boys like that sort of thing--before he knew
what he was about, and we were already bons camarades, when suddenly
the step-sister swooped softly down and scattered us.
'Clive,' she said, with an artless glance out of her big blue
eyes,--were they blue, by the way, or grey, or green? I never found
out, no more did any one else,--'they want you for tennis, dear, and
I'll take care of Mrs. Vallings.'
We were on a garden-seat in the shadow of a Norfolk pine watching
the players, and she sat down beside me in Mr. Pomfret's place. I
looked pleased--I couldn't well look any other way--and prepared to
find out her age,--a much harder matter than I imagined, it altered
so. She was sometimes sixty and sometimes sixteen; she was never a
girl all the same,--there was an unsound look of age and experience
in that person that belied her soft girlish exterior, and baffled
She had an alluringly musical voice, and she spoke with much
It was a perfect day, cool and fresh and sparkling, with the
sunlight embracing and glorifying all things, even the ugly gums, and
yet with a touch of the frost in it that kept it clear and clean.
Down in the scattered orchard the almond trees were shedding their
vesture of pale pink, and the cherry plums were budding out in
dazzling white, and the wattle bloom shone like yellow gold through
the olive of the gums, lovely to look at, till the enraptured wretch
takes out his sketching-pad and colour-box, and dips about among his
yellows to catch their bloomy gold. Then he finds
them--well--diabolical!--it is a slight term to describe the artist's
sensations; but I have scruples, a woman is so handicapped in this
matter of adequate expression.
I felt rather bewildered that afternoon. The amazing amount of
sunshine had something to do with this, I fancy--it always does
stagger a newcomer. Of course one finds sunshine in other places,--in
Southern France, in parts of Spain, and in Italy,--but Australian
sunlight is quite original, and only flourishes in Australia. It is
young and rampant and bumptious, and it is rather cruel, with the
cruelty of young untried things. Then it is inexorable, and can
neither pity nor revere,--and the only time it knows tenderness is
when it hovers on the threshold of the horizon on its road back to
the old lands. Ah, but it is magnificent in the pride of its
One wonders sometimes if it will mellow and soften as time goes
on, and history is made in this wonderful boundless land; and hearts
break, and the wind catches the tune of human sobbing, and holds
The land is so young to civilisation yet, so young and debonair,
that the sun and the air, the winds and the waters, forget how old
and sad and terrible the world is.
Besides being bewildered, I was consumed with curiosity. This
person was intelligent; I would question her. All my talk with the
Carews was of the old world and old friends. I could get nothing in
at all of the new. It is curious how these Australians cling to the
'Tell me of those people,' I said. 'Who is that girl there playing
with your brother, and that young man? he doesn't look as if a young
country bred him; he looks as if he had just emerged from a
provincial town at home, and out of a narrow circle, and came home to
his tea always whether he would or not; he has a coerced air.'
'How funny you should guess!' She laughed gaily. I liked the
laugh, it really did ring true. 'That young man comes from a large
family who live near here, and they used to live in England near some
very microscopical, yet so very select little town. They number about
thirteen in all, and'--she cried, with a little dramatic
gesture--'never sinned, not one of them, properly, in all their
lives; they are super-excellent, so wonderful! They have been brought
up between two straight rigid lines, and they have never, not any of
them, gone outside of them for any purpose whatever. They read
nothing more modern than Thackeray in English and Racine in French;
and even in that their mother has scored out pages! They wouldn't
look at French modern paintings, and on principle the entire family
only lives to protest against modern morals. They always use the best
brand of words and thoughts, I even believe their dreams have an
ethical basis and a theological bias, and they are such a devoted
family; they have little family ways, and little family quotations,
and select high-class little jokes of a literary turn. Ah, they are
charming and so naîve! But you see they cannot naturally judge
by comparison, and they are just a little--ah, they are my dear
friends! I am a wretch, and should not say it--ah, but they
'Intolerable, I should say,' I remarked frankly.
Where did this young person get her little French turns and twists
and modes of speech from, I should like to know? Her shrugs were got
on French soil, I felt quite convinced.
'Ah, Mrs. Vallings, I would never have said that,' she cried, the
artlessness coming to the surface at a gush.
'She is afraid of herself,' I thought shrewdly. 'Highly as these
people entertain her, she daren't let it all out.'
'Of course you wouldn't,' I answered placidly. 'You are of the
neighbourhood; I am a stranger, and quite free to speak my mind. But
how, then, do these provincial people get on here--with those
delicious Carew girls, for instance?'
'Ah, you see, they are gentle-people, and up here the society is
'I see; they would have no show in Melbourne, just like England.
Is nothing different? I came expecting to find simplicity and the
free life of primitive times, and I find not a whit less convention
and complexity, only in rather a more miniature, and therefore,
perhaps, a more galling way than at home.'
'Yes, in some ways,' she cried, in an agitated way I couldn't
account for, giving her hands a sort of wring. I looked at her on
seeing this queer squeeze, and her eyes had tears in them, or at any
rate some form of moisture, however it was produced.
'Upon my word,' I muttered, and waited. I felt I was about to hear
something, so I waited in silence, and watched the Carews in their
flannel frocks and red sailor hats, as pretty and statelily chic a
pair as you would meet in a long day's march, and the immaculate
young man, and Mr. Pomfret, who was for the moment talking rather
absently to one of the Carew girls. He never looked quite at his
ease, and from time to time his eyes strayed towards our seat and
rested on Miss Ariell; she drew those glances, too, they didn't come
altogether of themselves. I found this out by noting the queer
incomprehensible way she looked at him sometimes for seconds at a
stretch, then her gaze caught his, and with a start always on his
'Remarkable,' I thought, 'between step-brother and sister.'
At last she broke the silence with a gentle soughing sort of sigh.
I wonder how she learnt the trick--it was most effective.
'Yes, there are conventions here. Think! The country has been
getting civilised now for more than a hundred years. Of course,
conventions have had time to find a firm foothold, and the soil suits
them, as you will soon know. Australian conventionalism, however,
differs from English. It is not so consistent; it is stiffer, to look
at, in some ways, and wants careful manipulation. But if one once
gets the knack of that, it is quite an elastic, compressible thing,
and gives to the touch like anything. One only needs courage to be
charming. We all know that, all over the world. But charm judiciously
applied can do anything in Australia. Ah, it is funny, this
Australian rule of conduct. Ah, very,' she repeated, with a soft
laugh that went well with the veiled mockery in her eyes. 'They think
it is unbending, so straight, that the English article is nothing to
it. But, dear Mrs. Vallings, it is really only rigid in spots, so to
speak; and in the country, when it is dull, and nothing "on," before
this wild, short, wonderful season of theirs gallops in, the
conventions grow quite complaisant, and will put up with quite
strange things,--so long, that is, as they are of foreign
manufacture, and bring a new sensation; no home-grown vagary is
tolerated. Now in England that never is. The duller the place and the
people, the straighter and stiffer the sense of "conduct" grows. It
spreads all over some people, I think, like a thin coat of enamel,
warranted to crack nowhere, and to be quite impervious to exceptions.
Do you not agree with me, Mrs. Vallings? You are not conventional,
neither am I.
But I looked quiet and dignified, and as correct as my nature
would allow. I made no reply. I had no notion of being claimed as a
kindred spirit by this piece of artless impudence.
'Ah, but the people here are so good--so good!' she cried,
completely altering her voice and manner, which with one dexterous
twist gave one a distinct impression of suppressed tears. 'They have
taken me into their circle,--and oh, so warmly, so full-heartedly!
Ah, they are good!' she murmured.
I wondered what she was driving at, but I gave her her head and
let her go her own gait; I was in no hurry. Her gestures and changes
of voice amused me and kept up my interest, they looked so natural;
and yet kept me wondering all the time how or where she collected and
assimilated them. They had never grown up with her, I was quite
'They are good, I am sure,' I said calmly; 'but it doesn't strike
me that the fact of their taking you up is any particular proof of
their goodness. Why shouldn't they?'
She threw up her little hands; they were pretty, plump little
hands, but cruel.
'Mrs. Vallings, I am an actress.'
I had recently gone through the actress craze, and had met them at
every decent house. I was certainly not crushed by the
'Ah, but I am not a great creature, with a world-known name. I am
only a poor little one, who hopes and waits--waits, perhaps, for
years' (the artless tap was quite turned on now)--'and then--I ran
away--engaged as I was, too. My people were old-fashioned; the stage
for them was the threshold of hell--and I was so young--so young--not
so much in years, perhaps,' she cried (I think she noticed an
uncontrollable flash of intelligence in my eyes), 'as in experience.
I was brought up with my sister in a Parisian convent school' ('Ah,'
thought I, 'that's where you learnt your little ways!') 'under such
strict supervision; and afterwards I lived for my dying sister, and
never went out. She died--and then--I could not live then. I must
have change and excitement--I could get neither in our narrow,
refined circle. I knew I could act. I felt it tingling in every vein'
(she threw out her arms with a dramatic fling)--'I had to go--I was a
wicked girl. Ah, I went to London--away from the man I loved. He was
a Captain Panton in the 7th Hussars' (she hid nothing, this young
person). 'Ah, look at his picture,' she continued, extricating it
from inside her dress.
He looked quite a decent creature, with nothing to distinguish him
from hundreds of his kind. I wondered with an inward grin if he were
a stage lover.
Fresh suspicions always kept cropping up in my mind as this woman
spoke; why, I couldn't tell. She looked and spoke (bar the theatrical
turn) and seemed straight, and yet I felt it borne in on me that she
was not. I felt she was laughing all the time in her sleeve at the
whole batch of us, myself, of course, included. I felt it quite
distinctly, and yet it amused me to laugh with her.
'Ah, Mrs. Vallings, he was noble and good; and oh, how he loved
'But you did not break with him, surely--you will marry him one
'Some day, perhaps. I have offered him his freedom, but he will
not take it from my hands; he is too good, too true. You see I must
not go home--I cannot stand the climate. My lungs are organically
wrong--yes; that is what the doctors say. There is a great big hole
just here,' she explained, planting her hand on a part of her form
that I always used to consider covered the heart; at least, I am
quite certain that was where the ambulance lecturer put it. However,
Miss Ariell seemed quite confident as to the site of the cavity, and
no doubt she knew best. 'No, I cannot live at home; and Everard, poor
fellow, he must stick to his regiment--he may not come into his
property for years. Ah, parting is sad, sad!' She stopped to sigh and
pose a little. 'And such a parting as ours! Who knows if ever we
shall meet again!'
'Oh, perhaps he'll come into the property sooner than you think,
and your lung will heal up, and you'll be quite happy again,' I said
cheerfully. 'Mean-while, you seem happy with your step-brother, who
is certainly most devoted to you.'
'Ah, Clive. Yes, we are devoted. My father married his mother, so
we are much of an age.' ('Good gracious!' I mentally ejaculated.) 'We
have been brought up together, and we are more to each other than
many a full brother and sister. When my health drove me off the
stage, he came to take care of me. We have bought a little house and
place, and live up there among the hills. You will come and see
us--lunch with us--with the girls on Monday?' she asked, in a
'Certainly; I should like to very much; but isn't it lonely? Don't
you both get very tired of it?'
What possible motive could induce this young woman to live up
among these hills and these dull woods with a step-brother, and no
possibility, so far as one could see, of doing a stroke of mischief?
As to the hole in her lung, her outward appearance quite belied the
possibility of anything of the kind.
With these thoughts besetting me, I looked at her. She was in the
very act of finishing a long and a most remarkable smile at the
eldest of the good young people with baggy-kneed trousers. Was I
dreaming or bewitched? I rubbed my eyes involuntarily, and looked
again; her expression was infantile, and the young man had his back
turned to us.
'Tired of it? No; we are such friends, Clive and I. We have such a
community of interests and hopes. Ah, he is a dear boy! We are never
idle, and we never have ennui.'
'What well-constituted minds you must have. I should die of it,' I
said dryly. 'I like my brothers very well. On the whole, I think we
are a fairly united family; but to put up with one from year's end to
year's end up there in those dismal hills--gur-r!--it would be the
death of me. You certainly are a devoted sister and brother.'
I finished laughing and looking at her. She got pink, and the
corner of her mouth gave one vicious droop, then it pulled itself
together and spoke gaily,--
'Yes; I suppose we are peculiarly devoted. Many things have
combined to draw us close. Some day I--I will tell you; I can't now,'
she said, with a small break in her voice. 'Ah, not here--in this
sunlight--before these girls, untouched by sorrow.'
I wondered if she acted as well on the stage as off. I found later
she didn't--not by a long chalk. She was a most painful stick as soon
as she touched the boards. Society drama was her mélier.
Just then Clive came up. I saw him throw one quick uneasy glance
on her, then he stretched himself down on the grass and began to
He was a nice fellow, and full of a soft, gentle sort of fun; and
without any doubt his eyes were entrancing, and they seemed strangely
occupied with his step-sister. I felt sorry to see it. I wondered
what his prospects were, and if he were worthy of one of those tall,
fresh Carews, with their frank, off-hand ways, and their curious
mixture of shrewdness and innocence. They had, both of those girls,
ten times the nous and grasp of that gentle mother of theirs; they
could get to the bottom of a thing in the most direct and rapid way,
while she never yet fathomed the ghost of a mystery without her
husband's direct interference. Then those two were strong--strong and
true. One of them might help this fellow--wanting in grit--to his
I was thinking vaguely on this subject--formulating a match in my
idle brain--in the way of women who have done with that sort of thing
for themselves. When I looked down on the boy, I caught his eyes
turned on his step-sister with the pleading of love in them; it was
love, honest man's love, sure enough, if ever I saw the thing, and I
may remark I know all about it quite well.
My match was nipped in the bud. I felt dazed. I went over to talk
to the young man at whom she had smiled that long queer smile. He was
standing watching her with a savage eye.
He was a good fellow when one dived down in him, but the surface
was aggressively self-righteous and seemingly moral. He was the sort
of young man of whom one felt instinctively that a downright good
slip would be the salvation. As I watched his savage glances that day
and her soft ones, and divers other signs and symptoms, I felt quite
a vicious sort of satisfaction, and almost felt as if she would do a
good work in taking the young man in hand. She certainly seemed
capable of being a liberal education to him or to any other man.
THE next week we spent playing tennis at each other's houses, and
drinking tea, and having little women's picnics--all the men but
Clive being about their various businesses.
We amused ourselves quite well, however. Miss Ariell was a
By this time I knew all that was to be known of her life, down to
the minutest particular. I had heard the tragedy from the first scene
to the last. It was a small domestic one, founded on a wicked
captain, and built up of a wonderful assortment of shattered hopes
and blighted hearts and rapid consumption,--the pretty variety with
pink spots and preternatural brilliancy of eye, which the young woman
and Clive stood by with heroic tenderness until the end.
It was quite a pleasure to think of the round, soft creature, with
those dimples, and a becoming shade of sadness in those baby eyes,
floating round in a white apron,--she made quite a telling point of
this in her narration,--and with a porcelain basin of broth in her
hand to nourish the dying sister, who by the way appeared to have had
a huge capacity for the liquid,--one was forced to wonder if so much
can have been very good for her;--but then, as we all know,
consumptive patients do have morbid appetites.
We learnt to know Captain Panton quite intimately in those days.
The mention of this gentleman, however, seemed rather to upset
Two or three times, about this time, I noticed the two Carews
coming back with flushed cheeks from conversation with Miss Ariell,
and somehow it struck me as strange; why, I couldn't have said, for
they were given to getting red--those two.
Miss Ariell certainly made good times for herself, and got a deal
more than her fair share of attention, especially from the old
colonel; indeed, she converted that fine old man into a species of
domestic slave, and I saw it with an inward snort. She would send him
on odd errands in an artless, deprecating way--for her slippers, or
her handkerchief, or any of the dainty trifles she never moved
without; and she always made him put on her spurs, or alter them
whether they needed alteration or not, when she rode.
One day I went into the dining-room softly and suddenly, meaning
no espionage, but my shoes were light, and I always do move
noiselessly,--thanks to my heredity, I couldn't clatter if I
tried,--and I found Miss Ariell with her little arched foot poised on
a stool, and Colonel Carew lacing her varnished boot.
Now this may have been infantine on the young person's part, but
on the old man's it was undignified. The woman in me rose in protest
against the situation.
I sat down placidly by the table and looked out of the window.
Nothing is so effective as quiet, silent, unobtrusive virtue, with
plenty of staying power in it. I had not sat for more than three
minutes, gazing out absently at the fading cherry blooms, before the
guilty wicked red of the aged sinner had risen to the colonel's brow,
and the twinkles had died in his kindly eyes. He doggedly finished up
the lacing to the top, not skipping a hole, and winding the lace
twice round the little ankle, and he chatted gaily all the time; and
if he hadn't, I should have despised him to my dying day.
But when his task was done he slipped out like a shot, and went
over to the garden to his wife, who was superintending the potting
out of some rare plants, and he pottered about after her all the rest
of that day.
As for Miss Ariell, she nodded her pretty laughing head at me with
the merriest air of insouciance, and hated me a good deal more than
That very evening, after I went to my room, I heard a rustling in
the passage, then a whispering, followed by a quick, soft knock on my
door. I opened it, and found the two girls waiting in pretty soft
white silk wrappers, and with their fair hair loose on their
shoulders, the wonderful gold tips of it gleaming and sparkling in
the soft light as if jewels had got entangled in the gold.
The girls snuggled down into two low basket-chairs, with big
leaf-green cushions, the loveliest background to those golden veils
of theirs, and seemed inclined to sleep.
The night was chilly, and a small bright fire burned on my big
hearth, and we all drew ourselves close to it.
I put away my book, and watched the girls and the fire
There was something very attractive in their quaint wise old ways
in conjunction with those fair young faces, and their sudden flashes
of dignity, and the queenly airs they could assume on occasions,
contrasting with their innocent girlish vanity and perennial pleasure
in dress. Then the amazing untidiness of their ways and their
reckless boyish habit of slang. Every turn and twist of them,
however, was natural and unpremeditated.
I wondered when the silence would be broken by something
We just mentioned the beauty of the night in a vague way, and with
a passing remark on the croaking of the frogs and the chirping of the
crickets; but as these sounds were always with them as soon as night
fell, they were scarcely of sufficient import to bring those girls
into my room at that time of night.
'Mrs. Vallings,' said Nancy at last, in her soft banana-fed voice,
with the soupçon of twang, 'what do you think of Miss
'Yes, that's just what we want to know!' put in Mab, sitting up
among her cushions, and twirling the golden tip of a great length of
'I think she's a very charming person, and one I never dreamed of
meeting in this part of the world.'
'I wish she had kept out of it--at least out of our corner of it,'
'So do I,' echoed the other.
I took a rapid glance at them.
'Why?--why?--I don't know exactly. Because she's not like other
girls, that's why, partly. It isn't that she's more original,' said
Nancy, in a quick way. 'She's not; but she's different.'
I looked at the girls. Nancy was sitting bent forward, watching
the flames. Mab had straightened herself, and her sunny head, turned
to red--gold in the fire-shine, was thrown back, and on both their
faces there was a look of haughty, hurt maidenhood.
'It's the stories,' they both broke out together,--'they somehow
make us feel uncomfortable.'
I am not in the very least a mawkish woman, but I went over then
and there and kissed those girls, one after the other, on their
white, pure foreheads.
'The wretch!' I said, in a voice of smothered rage.
'Did you tell your mother, Nancy?'
'I told her one, the other day, and she said she could see no harm
in it. She said she would ask father; and that she considered Miss
Ariell a sincerely religious girl, and incapable of any evil thought.
She feared Ouida had been corrupting my mind. I read Two Little
Wooden Shoes while I was staying at Aunt Grace's, and mother was
vexed. I didn't know, or I shouldn't.'
'Miss Ariell has got our mother and father too,' said Mab.
'Haven't you noticed her little worshipful ways, and how she gazes up
in my mother's face as if she was a Madonna or something, and runs to
get her things. And she hides things in her eyes from mother that she
shows us, I can tell you,' said the girl, nodding wisely; 'and then
she discourses by the hour of us--the most idiotic things you ever
imagined, she says. Oh, I heard her one day. Any one would have sworn
we were a brace of angels. Mother swallowed every word of it, though,
and Miss Ariell cried the whole time--she can cry like anything when
'And religion,' cried Nancy,--'she's wonderful on that; and mother
is so true and straight herself, she believes every mortal thing. We
don't, I can tell you. Oh, we know too much. As for my father, he's
bewitched; and the worst is, we don't quite know how she manages him.
She does, though, like anything. He fetches and carries for her as if
he was a boy; and yet one can't see how she gets him to do it. Catch
him flying round like that for us! I believe it's a little in the way
she drops her eyes and softens her voice whenever he's in her
neighbourhood. He told mother that she's a charming creature, and a
"most desirable person for us to form our manners on."'
'Ugh!' threw in Mab.
'The other day, when we abused her a little, mother said quite
severely, "Your father, my dears, knows the world, and he approves
her." Now--he may. But do you know, Mrs. Vallings, that Mab and I
think the world father knows was dead and buried long ago, and that
quite a new world has grown up since, and that he'd flounder about
rather if he happened to plunge into it now. I don't think father is
the man to fathom Miss Ariell,' she concluded solemnly.
'There's another thing I don't like about her,' began Mab
breathlessly, before I had time to put in a word, 'she can talk
religion to mother like a book, but she can be terribly blasphemous
to us directly mother's out of sight. Now, I don't like religion
thrust down one's throat, and I'm not fond of too much church,
neither is Nancy--it doesn't seem to agree with us in quantities; but
I do think a little light religion helps a girl,' she explained
quaintly, crossing her bare feet. 'It makes good seem better and evil
uglier, and helps her to keep her feet down on the earth, and walk
along it squarely and fairly the path she has to go, instead of
kicking over the traces and landing you in a hole,' she concluded,
'No, we don't like blasphemy,' chimed in Nancy. 'It's bad form in
a man, and--well--its downright disgusting in a woman.'
'I don't think,' I said, after a pause, 'that Miss Ariell will
tell you any more of these stories, or again blaspheme in your
presence. I'll go and have a talk with her'--I spoke cheerily and
lightly; feeling the evil would slip off from these clean souls, and
leave no trace, it seemed better to make no comment.
Both the girls suddenly blushed from their chins to where the soft
gold line touched the white of their brows.
'We thought that too,--we tried to stop her,--but she is so
persistent. We talk slang, you know--frightfully,' stammered Nancy,
'and--and we do queer things at times, and--and she said she was
certain we weren't half as simple as we posed for, and that we
knew--oh, lots of things.'
'Yes, that's what she said,' murmured Mab.
A sudden conviction came to me. 'I believe she thought it too, the
fool!' I muttered half-aloud. It is possible to misinterpret some
Australian girls--it has been done by wiser than Miss Ariell, and
will be again, till the land and the people in it mellow; but these
girls--a heart must be very foul or very false before it would do
them this wrong.
'Look,' I said, 'both of you, don't worry about Miss Ariell. She
is probably neither worse nor better than many other women. She is
only very silly, and lets herself think foolishness and speak it. She
hears things, and knows things, and instead of sifting out the evil
and sticking to the good, which is sure to be there too, mind
you--riddling the contents of her mind, as it were, from time to
time. (See what wonderfully good fires we get from riddled ashes. An
allusion an Australian girl can understand with good housewifery in
her blood. That's where you have the pull over English girls, my
dears.) Now, Miss Ariell stores up all this rubbish, and her fires
get clogged with the dust and the dirt of it till they can no longer
send up a pure, clear flame to heaven, and the smoke of them smirches
herself and others; but it makes her own throat smart worst of all,
for she can't get away from it. Children, you don't know how easily
that happens to women, or the infinite pity of it.'
Nancy caught my hand and held it against her smooth, shell-pink
cheek. 'I believe you know a million times more things than she does,
Mrs. Vallings. Your eyes look so deep and so full of things, often,
and your mouth--it looks strong, as if you had learnt a great deal,
and--as if it hurt you--hurt you--frightfully.'
'Yes, you do look like that sometimes, Nancy and I think,' said
Mab, in a soft, breathless sort of fright.
'My little girls, whenever it is the lot of a woman to "know
things," as you say, it--well--it hurts--it does hurt
Nancy's eyes filled with tears; but I didn't concern myself with
them, I was thinking of myself. I seemed to stand at the bar there,
before these two fresh young creatures, to whom the taste of the tree
of life was still a sweet mystery. I felt ashamed before these girls.
I--I forsooth--proud of my experience for all it hurt--proud of
it--oh, the petty pride--and of the cut of my gowns. I, who knew, and
had seen. I--careless in my speech, too--picking up as I went little
silly flippant phrases and terms of expression--nothing of harm in
them, but light--unfitting.
If you want to punish a woman of the world,--not an evil or a
befouled one, but just a woman bent on the vanities and trifles and
follies of a worldly life,--put her, just for a little half-hour in
the evening, when the heart is soft and the trappings stripped from
her soul, under the straight gaze of two sweet, pure, proud young
maidens, and you may be quite sure your punishment will follow.
Whether they understand the woman or whether they don't, that
doesn't matter a rap: she understands herself for the minute, that's
'You must go to bed, children,' I said. I fancy I spoke a little
faintly, from the girls' faces.
'Sit down,' said Nancy, 'you're so white.'
'We've tired you,' cried Mab; 'and, do you know, I can't feel a
bit sorry. I came in--Nancy did too--feeling--ugh!--dirty. Now I feel
quite white--minded again.'
'Your knowing things is such a comfortable sort of help,' added
Nancy. 'Good-night--O dear, I am sleepy! Mab, come on!'
Little fools! I wonder if they will ever know the intensity of
'comfortable help.' their last words brought me; how they helped me
to gather up the shreds of my self-respect and to huddle my nakedness
up in them. They may some day, and be grateful they spoke them, when
they are as old as I am, and 'know' and have 'been
THE next morning I made a solitary pilgrimage to Miss Ariell's
eyrie, and was struck by the way by many curious little arrangements
in her ménage, which the conclusion of this story will
We had an understanding. I used the gentlest and keenest and most
deadly of women's weapons, and I gained my point. In future the Carew
girls need fear neither stories not blasphemy.
We parted friends, however, and Clive walked to the foot of the
hill with me. What a well-bred, weak fellow he was. I would have
given anything if I could have carried him right away with me and
saved him,--from what I did not quite understand myself, and yet from
something that invariably brought creeps to my spine whenever I
thought of it. I know she told him just how far to go, and that he
daren't go a foot farther for the life of him. When he arrived at his
limit, he pulled up and muttered something like 'cow'--what that
animal could possibly want at this hour of day I couldn't conceive;
however, I accepted the excuse, and dismissed my poor escort with a
warm grasp of his long nerveless hand,--a feminine hand, that no
manual work could brown or make sinewy.
That afternoon we called on the Flemings. There was a queer little
commotion as we deposited our umbrellas and a fern basket in the
passage. When we got into the drawing-room, Mrs. Fleming had draped
an old white cashmere about her, and was posing in the prim old
lady-like way of a past age, and the girls were grouped round her,
with a book or work on each lap; and every one looked big with
colossal thought. One felt directly one was addressing no common
flesh and blood article, but the very best book persons; and after a
minute or two in that suggestive room, one began oneself to
experience a sensation of cramp and half-suffocation, as if one were
getting gradually pressed together and shut in between two cloth
I no longer marvelled at the young men, but I quailed as I thought
of the first outbreak of nature in the poor docked beings, and of its
crushing, upheaving results to themselves and to their saintly
relations. 'God help the whole lot together!' I mentally ejaculated,
making one gasping effort to shed my book state and get back my
comfortable carnal mind. It was in vain. I collapsed again directly,
and just listened machine-like to Mrs. Fleming, who poured out upon
me in a gentle stream a huge amount of information concerning books,
the domestic animals, and her two sons. The eldest of them,
Vandeleur,--'always a family name;' in point of family, as in all
other points, the Flemings excelled,--seems to have been strictly
virtuous, even in his long-clothes days; as far as one could judge,
he had never done any one wrongthing. And, upon my word, he must have
been a good fellow in spite of it all, for he supported, he and his
equally excellent brother between them, the mother and that tribe of
young women, and pandered extensively to each of their several
tastes,--and eleven individual tastes in one family comes expensive,
as any family-man will tell you.
Directly we got out of sight of the house, we all set with a
simultaneous sort of relieved chuckle to running, to get our limbs
free again. Then we sat down on a stump, and aired our random
thoughts with keen relish; it was so delicious to throw off the
mental and physical bandages, and to expand again and feel human. But
on these two wretched male creatures with all their natural young
instincts guarded and held in check and accounted as nought by a kind
of foolish ignorant women who knew not what they did, poor souls, it
was horrible to think of! Between our gay bursts of laughter I could
have gone the length of crying for those boys.
I didn't get over that visit till I had thrown myself in careless
abandonment on the big white bed in my room, and had drunk deep
draughts of the fragrant Indian tea the girls brought me.
The next day I had to go down to town, to stay for a few days with
some friends I had made on the voyage.
One evening we went to the theatre--to the beautiful Princess'.
The piece was a melodrama, with too much colour and light and cheap
sentiment. It didn't interest me, or perhaps I wasn't in the humour
to be interested--I was bored. It was my doom to be placed between
two as vapid young men as ever God put breath into. I tried to amuse
myself with the people, and spent some interested time looking round,
taking in the men and the girls and the dresses.
Taking them all round, the girls of Australia make a far finer
show to the eye of a stranger than the men; even in the matter of
head shape they can give them points and win. This may, of course, be
a merciful dispensation, the future of a nation resting so largely in
its women; but one feels sorry to see it all the same, and one
wonders where all the grit, and the courage, and the adventure, and
marvellous strength and patience and self-sacrifice of the
magnificent old pioneers of this nation have vanished to. They don't
reappear in the sons, seemingly. Could these qualities have worn
themselves threadbare, from the very force and strength and vigour of
them, in one generation--fail, as it were, through their own
greatness? It is to be hoped not. Perhaps these young limp men,
bumptious enough, too, with the twang rather spoiling the virility of
their voices, hold more of the quality of their ancestors than their
appearance would suggest; perhaps, after all, they can throw forward
quite their share of strength and grit and straightness into the
ages. They'll have enough to do, poor souls, with the climate, and
the evils bred of it all against them, and their pockets full of
We had good seats, right in front of the dress circle, and could
get a fair view of the whole house. In the box to my right I had
noticed for some time a lovely sea-green frock, and the tip of a
white shoulder that shrugged from time to time; and now and again I
caught sight of the side of a man's brown head stooping towards the
shoulder. When the curtain fell at the end of the first act, the
light fell full on to the box, and suddenly the head belonging to the
shoulder bent forward, and I saw Miss Ariell. I could not help it, I
craned my neck round, like any schoolgirl, to find out by what name
the dark head called itself,--it was shades too brown for Clive,--but
it had retreated into the gloom. I couldn't get a glimpse of it.
'Do you care to come out; it's melting hot? demanded one of my
young men affably. The other, hoarsely muttering 'cigars,' had fled
the instant the curtain began to fall, and was no doubt at that very
moment absorbing some liquid or another. It is amazing how much of
that sort of thing they can do in this fiery climate, and yet retain
whatever reason and liver Heaven has been pleased to bestow on
'No--yes,' I said, rather at random. It ended in my going, and
boring my young friend a good deal. I could only manage to give him
and his platitudes--which, to do him justice, he produced with
marvellous ease and much good nature--just an atom of ear, the
remainder, with all my eyes, had their work cut out for them in
listening and looking for Miss Ariell and the brown head. I found
them at last away in a corner, whispering. I could see the young
woman distinctly, but nothing of the man but a dress coat and the
flash of white linen.
'Do let us walk up and down,' I said, 'I am so tired of sitting.'
The poor young man reached out his arm obediently, and we took a turn
towards the brown head and the little black one which were close
together in the shade of the wall. Ah, but I saw the profile
plainly--unmistakeably! I took care to let no chance likeness mislead
me. It was--it was Vandeleur Fleming. 'Good gracious!' I ejaculated,
in a choked sort of way, I fancy, for my escort stopped and looked
concernedly at me.
'Can I get you an ice or anything,--'tis a hot night for the time
of year,--I'm sure you're thirsty?'
'No, I'm not,' I said, laughing; 'but I have no doubt you are.
Leave me with Mr. Chaloner, and go, get an ice or--something.'
I saw these two twice after that,--once at the theatre again, and
once having coffee at Gunsler's. What a changed creature Vandeleur
looked,--his own mother wouldn't have known him in his well--cut
clothes and his general man-of-the-world air,--he was no better to
look at than any ordinary decent everyday sinner. Seemingly the
liberal education had set in. Now, what in the world was I to do?
It was certainly not my province to drop down on the boy, and
bring him nolens volens home to his mother. As to attacking Miss
Ariell on the subject, she would have laughed in my face.
And yet--and yet, though in my heart of hearts I felt there was a
necessity for this experience, that from the queer conditions of his
life it must come, yet my heart bled for the boy. Bubbling over with
foolish, frank, fond delight, he looked like a baby out on the
spree,--and so inordinately vain of it too, and of himself. I would
have helped him, but I had to decide to let things go; he must 'fare
like his peers,' and find the level of his strength. His false armour
of sunny self-satisfied righteousness would soon enough prove its
impotence and display its flaws, and presently the scales would fall
from his eyes and he would see clear. As for his retribution, that
was assured when his mother would get to know--she would be sure to,
sooner or later, in this little place where nothing is hid. Then any
known plan of torment ever offered to the public must be a fool to
the torments this boy would endure. Heaven knows he would be thankful
enough at the end of it all to 'range' himself and to return to the
present paths of righteousness!
Ah, it was inevitable; but I felt sorry all the same, and
I went back on Saturday, and was tired, and hardly fresh enough
even to look at the evening paper.
There was no one in my compartment but a horrid old man in one
corner, who snored and snuffled and thrust out a hideous puce
under-lip in a rhythmic regular sort of way that struck one as
predictive of fits. I felt ready to choke him. People with such
habits should reserve their compartments.
The man attracted me all the same, and my eyes would turn and turn
again to that awful lip. I nearly prayed for some one to come in and
break the spell.
When we got to a small station about five miles from Melbourne, to
my delight and astonishment and surprise, who should throw open my
carriage door and jump in but Vandeleur Fleming!
He still wore the worldly air; but he blushed furiously as he took
my hand, and he seemed to find a difficulty in regaining his normal
Then he plunged boldly into politics. I never could quite get to
the bottom of Victorian politics. I hardly know, indeed, if they have
a bottom. But that day I listened to them quite placidly. They
relieved my young friend, and kept my eyes and thoughts off the
As we were within two stations of our destination, Vandeleur
pulled up suddenly, dropped politics as if they had stung him, and
looked at me with two shy pleading eyes.
'Mrs. Vallings,' he whispered, with a side-glance at the lip,
'might I ask you not to mention--ahem--to my mother or--my sister and
the--Carews that you saw us--Miss Ariell and myself--at the theatre?
My people, you see,' he explained, with blazing cheeks, 'are so
very--so--out of the world, as it were, so inexperienced, you see.
They might misunderstand--you know--naturally--you see--but they
might--might--in fact--blame--that charming girl. She, of course,
though just as good and as innocent'--
'Good gracious!' I thought, 'the boy is even a bigger goose than I
thought. What on earth is one to do? This alters matters.'
'But she has been differently brought up, and her stage life, you
know, has--has--so to speak--enfranchised her.'
That word seemed to relieve him,--it was more like the
family,--and he may have been feeling a little lost and aloof from
'You will comprehend me, I feel assured, Mrs. Vallings,' he went
on, with a much bolder front and no stuttering. 'You know--ahem--that
we MEN OF THE WORLD' (I gasped softly) 'do things every
day--that--women--ahem--women such as my dear mother and sisters
might misconstrue. Not--not that for a minute,' he resumed hurriedly,
the hot blood rushing up again and flooding his face, 'I mean to
imply that I would not as much as suffer one hair of Miss Ariell's
head--Mrs. Vallings,' he cried, his voice thick with confused
feeling,--'she's as safe in my hands--as--as she would be in yours,'
he burst out. Then he muttered something. I think it was, 'God be my
witness.' I wish the solemnity of the thing hadn't got so mixed up
with the intense funniness of it, the incongruity gave one a
hysterical sort of feel.
'My dear boy,' I cried, quite on the spur of the
moment,--Vandeleur Fleming was the last young man in the world one
would treat boyishly, for all his foolishness,--'it is certainly no
business of mine to acquaint your family or the Carews with any
affair of yours'--I paused and thought a minute, he was so young, so
self-assured, so superior, so supremely idiotic; he certainly was
years past his puppy days and his milk teeth, but Miss Ariell was the
last person in the world to train him to the new diet. She would give
him a moral dyspepsia that would last him his lifetime. All the
mother in me came to the rescue. I would make one effort; but it was
an ill thing to meddle in, and I always feel I did it badly. I began
'I am years older than you, Mr. Fleming. I have been about in the
world, girl and woman, this many a year. We women pick up a good deal
as we go, and we have what you great, strong, knowledgeable
creatureshavenot' (that fetched him), 'we have intuition or instinct,
and somehow I don't think Miss Ariell would ever quite suit you. To
begin with, she's older'--
'Only ten months,' he broke in. 'I'm twenty-three, and she's a
little over twenty-four.'
(She was thirty-five, if she was a day.)
'Indeed, that may be in years, but you see a woman's life makes
such a difference,--experiences with us go for more than years,--and
Miss Ariell has lived her life, I should think, more than most girls;
and, as you yourself said, her life has been so different from
'I said from that of my mother and of my sisters,' he remarked,
with extreme dignity, and with an expressive pull-up to his shirt
collar. 'The lives of young men, Mrs. Vallings, are, I take
it--ahem--pretty much the same all the world over. Melbourne, I
assure you, is behind no city of its size in the old world.'
'Oh, indeed, I never meant to imply it was,' I said humbly. 'I
only feared that perhaps a girl like Miss Ariell, so used to the
admiration of men, so used to constant excitement, might hardly be
the wife to make you happy. Pray excuse me, I know this interference
is an impertinence.'
'No,' he muttered; 'most kind, I am sure.'
'It is kindly meant, but it is an impertinence all the same, and
you think it is. But if an intuition once gets a good hold on a
woman, and if it tells her any one younger than herself is in danger,
there's no knowing the length she will go in obedience to this
obstinate instinct to save him--or try to.'
'Danger? What do you mean,' he demanded sternly, quite ignoring
the man with the lip, who was quite wide-awake, and taking us in at
'I am perfectly convinced of the purity and honesty of your
intentions,' I continued boldly enough, but I quaked inwardly, the
boy was so wofully in earnest, 'but I am not by any means so assured
of Miss Ariell. I fear she may lead you to do things you will regret
'Ah, Mrs. Vallings,' he said sorrowfully, 'how is it the very best
and noblest of your sex can so misunderstand their peers--their
peers?' he repeated emphatically. 'Miss Ariell is as good a girl as
ever drew breath. God bless her!'
I felt choky. I could have kissed the boy that minute; and then he
turned ridiculous all at once.
'And even if there were danger, as you say, even if your hints had
a germ of truth in them, and there were danger for me,' he raised his
voice and stiffened himself, 'Mrs. Vallings, put my knowledge of the
world aside, and even my common sense, do you think I have no
He raised himself proudly on his seat, crossed his hands on his
knees, and glared at me.
We were just steaming into our station, where our assembled
families and friends were standing in close converse, waiting to
receive us. As I was collecting my packages, Miss Ariell came up to
look for hers. She looked as artless as ever, and gave a start of
surprise at sight of me.
'Ah,' she cried, 'dear Mrs. Vallings, how did I miss seeing you? I
was in that horrid ladies' carriage, and nearly stifled. A great fat
wheezy baby had bronchitis, and we couldn't open an inch of window.
If I had only known--Mr. Vandeleur, were you there too?--Oh!'
Mr. Vandeleur got scarlet, and turned a suspicious glance on me;
but I couldn't wait to see it out, as the girls were calling, and the
horses becoming restive.
WE did nothing worth speaking of for the next few weeks. It was
the dull time, before the season when we were all to run down to
town, and we just lounged along life in easy, restful bliss. The only
thing that interested us very especially, was the growingly warm
friendship between the Flemings and Miss Ariell, and the wretchedly
dismal appearance of Vandeleur--which became visible to the naked eye
about ten days after my return from town, and increased daily. I
pondered on these things, and held my peace. There was one other
thing that astonished us, it was the strange and morbid desire for
solitude the step-brother suddenly evinced, and the bitter gruffness
of his manner, whenever he came across any of his kind: I would have
given a lot to help either of the two unhappy boys. I liked them both
in their different ways honestly and heartily, and I think they liked
me. Vandeleur's glare soon changed to a look of rather pathetic
trustful appeal that troubled my heart sorely, and made me curse my
impotence to help him. Things had gone too far now, no human
interference would alter matters one jot; he himself must pull
himself up, or else--(there is an awful deal of truth in it)--'Better
sin the whole sin, sure that God observes.'
Poor Vanny! I think even then he was losing his fresh first lovely
young faith in the woman, and for her sake in all women.
It was a stupid everyday little tragedy, with excruciatingly funny
points in it. And yet it brought a lump into my throat every time I
brooded over it, which it seems to me I did a good deal in those
days. The step-brother's condition troubled me nearly as much, and
had the additional discomposing quality of mystery. Why he should
lose flesh and forget his manners was a constant worrying puzzle to
me, and gave me many wakeful nights. Indeed, I always will think that
that horrid attack of neuralgia I had just then, was due solely to my
restless, driving anxiety to get to the bottom of this boy's state of
mind, which was enough to haunt any woman with a heart in her,--that
and those horrid dusky shadows under his melting innocent blue eyes,
and those queer, sudden, inexplicable sweeps of pain over that
debonair young face.
There was nothing the least ridiculous in this boy's pain; no
speck or tincture of sin in it either, as any fool could see,--which
made matters worse. I would have given my right hand--although I have
a remarkably good touch on several instruments; but, upon my word, I
would have given it, and willingly--to have saved the youth in that
boy's face; and yet one couldn't move fate for him by so much as a
Once I had brought myself to the point of deciding to beard Miss
Ariell in her own den, and to possess myself of the situation by
violence. I went so far as to put on my best hat and my smartest
jacket, and to sally forth in her direction; but when I got to the
bottom of the hill qualms came upon me, and I sat down to reflect.
Perhaps it was cowardly, perhaps it was wise, who knows? but I turned
back and took off my things again--and came down to tea. I felt it
borne in upon me with crushing conviction, that I should gain nothing
by the step, and that she would score off me finely. And so the river
flowed on towards the great sea, and I did not so much as try to stem
its current by one thrown pebble.
The girls and I and Mrs. Carew were sitting one day on the
verandah,--I think we were a little tired of one another that
afternoon. The girls had a giggling fit on, about a visitor in the
neighbourhood, a young fellow who struck me as being rather on the
road to hydrocephalic idiocy, from the shape of his head and other
symptoms. Perhaps, however, I was a little prejudiced, as I had heard
him a few evenings before confiding in a young freckled person, with
large saltcellars in her neck, 'That Mrs. Vallings wasn't half a bad
sort, hang it, but mossy, distinctly mossy.' Now, no woman of any
pretensions to attractiveness likes to hear such things said of her,
especially if she feels quite young still, and often looks it,
moreover. But from a girl's point of view, no doubt, he had some
attractions. He was great at tennis--had a fine moustache--a
beautiful clean pair of legs--and quite £15,000 a year in the
best station property.
Mrs. Carew was not interesting either; she was talking of her
youth in general, and the size of her waist in particular--it was
less than eighteen inches with no squeezing. I wonder how it is that
all exhumed waists are of that slender make--and all due to
The girls were still giggling; Mrs. Carew had left waists, and was
on the religion of her youth, which appears to have been of a still
better brand than the waists; and I--upon my word, I believe I was
yawning, and dying for tea,--when a door out of the drawing-room was
flung open in rather an agitated way, and the colonel appeared among
us, puffing and very red in the face. He 'hanged' and 'damned' a
chair or two, and at last settled down in a big basket one, with a
cushion a shade paler red than his face, and began to fan himself
with a big palm fan. I watched him, wondering what on earth made him
so piping hot, the day was as cool and fresh as a daisy. He stirred
about and creaked his chair in a queer uneasy way, and rubbed his
brow in a perturbed style, that made me suspect his heat was more of
the spirit than of the flesh. Then he once more 'damned' softly, and
'ahemed,' and looked at the girls in an unpleasant way.
'Isn't it tea-time, Henny?' he demanded at last, with a sternness
quite out of proportion to the occasion. That Indian cook is a
nuisance, and never boils the water. Can't you girls go and see about
it? Let's have a decent cup of tea for once.'
I laughed softly at the foolishness of men.
'Run away, children,' said Mrs. Carew placidly.
'Why didn't you send them away, Henny? The tea is always
excellent, I believe, Florence.'
He thought the girls wouldn't have a suspicion there was anything
at all in the wind but tea.
'Shall I go too?' I asked, standing up.
'No, no, my dear Florence; no reason at all you should. I am, I
must confess, rather upset. My dear,' he continued, turning to his
wife, 'did you ever suspect anything wrong with regard to Miss
'No, indeed, I did not. I like her and her step-brother
'I have just been speaking to young Swallow,--he's staying at the
Rockes,--and, upon my word, if all or even a part of what he says is
true, we've been let in. Let in--in a most disgraceful and
'Good gracious!' said Mrs. Carew, and her hands fell limply on her
The colonel lowered his voice, and looked round carefully. 'She's
married--married hard and fast--to a fellow, an actor fellow, called
Sprague; and he's found her out, by Jove, and intends to claim her. A
nice scandal for the girls!'
'But the step-brother?'
'My dear,' he replied, glancing at her with some natural scorn,
'he's no more her step-brother than I am.'
Mrs. Carew started and exclaimed. I did neither, I did not even
wonder; I felt as if I had known it quite well all along. And yet
just as surely as I knew and had known all along that the woman was
guilty, so surely was I convinced of the innocence of Clive Pomfret;
and yet I hadn't a vestige of fact to bring in proof of it, it was a
mere theory; nevertheless I would risk ridicule and air it, this
baseless theory of mine.
'I am certain, as certain as I sit here,' I said, with an air of
the surest reasonableness, 'that the boy Clive is as innocent as a
baby all through.'
'Good heavens, Florence!' they cried it out at me simultaneously,
and the colonel lifted himself on his chair with both hands and
surveyed me with strong dissatisfaction.
'Look here,' I said, with rather a feeble grin, 'how much will you
'My dear,' murmured Mrs. Carew.
'That "cup" has upset me,' I explained, laughing.
'Never mind, Florence,' said the colonel, sinking down again, and
looking less like a wild beast, 'I'll bet you anything you
like--though the boy may be weak--that he must have known the
position of affairs. It is ridiculous to suppose otherwise; and the
idea of a man, a gentleman of birth and breeding, bringing a person
of that character into my house--among my girls--why, it's
outrageous--it's damnable! Pray excuse me. It's too much for a
man,--one must swear.'
He jumped up and walked furiously to and fro in front of us,
stamping from time to time. It did look worse than bad, one couldn't
wonder at the old man's wrath, and yet I could have staked my life
the boy was as much entrapped as we were.
'They may have been married: how was he to know of the Sprague
creature?' I pleaded weakly.
'Married!--a likely story. Why didn't they say so if they were.
Step--brother and sister, indeed!'
'She may have had her full and sufficient reasons. That
arrangement was of her making, I know.'
'You have a huge opinion of your sex's rascality, it seems to
'Not at all; but I have the very smallest opinion of a man's sense
under certain conditions.'
'The fellow had plenty of brains. On everyday matters he was all
there; and he was a very fairly read fellow.'
'The very wisest of you creatures are just wax in the hands of a
woman with her head screwed on the right way, and with no conscience:
any man can be fooled, given certain circumstances.'
'Look here, my dear,' remarked Colonel Carew, with some asperity,
'generalities are the refuge of the reasonless: where are your
'I haven't the ghost of one. But do faces go for nothing?'
'Not a damn,' muttered the old man.
'Yes, but they do,' I persisted idiotically; 'and I put it to you,
as a Christian man, if it is in the remotest degree possible that a
boy with that face could bring a woman in Miss Ariell's supposed
relation to himself in among a lot of innocent ignorant girls. It is
beyond the bounds of possibility, I persist. Why, a man steeped to
the neck in vice wouldn't do it, not to say Clive Pomfret. He may
have lied and helped in a deception,--he must have,--but it isn't in
him to do that.'
'Whether it's in him or not, he did it, that's enough for me,'
snarled the colonel. 'Good God! to think of it,' he muttered,
drumming on his chair elbow; 'a nice story for the club. We've been
let in--let in in a most disgraceful and scandalous fashion! And to
think of me, a man of my age and experience of the world,' cried the
colonel,--his red turning to a dangerous purple,--'being let in by a
chit of a child and that woman, who really seemed quite straight. You
thought so, my dear,' he stammered, turning rather pathetically to
his wife. 'It's outrageous!'
'Here are the girls,' whispered Mrs. Carew. 'We will have tea now,
and we can talk it over to-night, dear,' she said kindly, looking up
at the outraged man of the world.
We did talk it over. The girls were bundled off to their rooms at
nine o'clock, to their infinite and most just disgust, bubbling over
with reasonable curiosity as they were. Then we set to and talked
till eleven, and to not the slightest purpose. During the talk I got
into trouble myself. I was simple enough to betray my slight previous
knowledge of affairs, and the conclusions I had arrived at; and the
colonel didn't like it--it hurt his sense of manly superiority. It
struck him that somehow I had scored off him.
'Most unwise of you, my dear, most injudicious. These matters
should never be dealt with by women, with their very beautiful and
natural ignorance of the world. You should have come to me at once,
and all this most deplorable scandal might have been averted.'
I wondered how, considering the circumstances; but I thought it
just as well to be silent. I saw a glint in Mrs. Carew's eye that
told me that her belief in her husband's immaculate world knowledge
had received a severe shock; and I knew he would hear all about it
before he got a wink of sleep that night, so I could afford to be
magnanimous with an easy mind. Once or twice, as we were talking, I
fancied I heard a light step on the verandah, but, as no one else
remarked it, concluded I must have been mistaken.
WHEN I had taken down my hair for the night, and changed my dress
for a loose white wrapper, I threw up my window and looked out, in a
way I have had ever since the days of my childhood. It was a perfect
night, cool and crisp and silent, with the moonlight pouring itself
down in great waves of silver whiteness over mountain and plain. The
moon does certainly know how to shine in these southern lands, and in
no other land than Australia does it so completely transform the
whole aspect of nature. Australia simply loses its individuality
under the moon's rays; it drops its raw crudity of youth, and grows
strong and great and grand with the strength and greatness and
grandeur of virility, not with the cock-sure bumptiousness of
As I stood looking out, slipping involuntarily back to wander
among the graves of old dead hopes and slain follies, that died hard
in those old days, when life was so full and death so bitter, I was
just preparing for myself a miserable and rather a mawkish
quart-d'heure, when again I heard a little rustle, and the furtive
tread of slippered feet, and I put my head out of the window to hear
My room was in a block of bed-rooms quite isolated from the house,
and it had a separate verandah of its own; but it never struck me to
be frightened. I think I was in too excited and absorbed a state
concerning man and selfish natures to take proper notice of outer
I listened again, in rather a half-hearted way, and the tread came
nearer, and I could distinguish a black-clothed figure advancing
swiftly and softly. When it saw me, it raised a white warning hand--a
woman's, from the size of it. I had no further time for speculation;
the walk changed to a quick noiseless run, and the figure stopped
before my window, threw down its cloak, and displayed to my
astonished sight Miss Ariell in full dinner dress. 'Let me into your
room, quick!' she whispered, with a soft chuckling laugh.
I moved aside mechanically, in a whirl of passive, silent,
indignant amazement. I could not have got out a word for the life of
me. When she got in, she pulled down the window and drew the blind,
then she ran to the door and noiselessly turned the key in it, then
she sat down in my most comfortable chair. I saw her pause to select
it--oh, the cool audacity of that person! And then she broke out in a
long bubble of laughter that shook her from head to heel with its low
soft intensity, and she looked at me out of those two untranslateable
eyes of hers. I no longer wondered at men, or blamed them for any
depth of foolishness. I believe I was in love with her myself that
minute, she looked so radiant and so lovely, and, in the dim
lamp-light, so young; and the little mocking devil in her laugh only
increased her charm a thousandfold.
'Ah, I know you know all about it,' she cried softly. 'That duffer
Clarence Swallow has it all over the place, just for mere spite. If
you knew the love--and the sort of love--he made to me; but there was
nothing either to like or to laugh at in the creature. I had to
squash him at once. Look here; I'm going away by the first train
to-morrow with my husband--yes, my husband. I'm married to him all
right, and he's not half a bad sort, but you see he's an actor, and
makes me work; and I can tell you an actor's life is a good sight
harder than a stone-breaker's or a daily governess's; and, besides,
the fellow's as jealous as a boy. I thought I'd take a holiday and
give him one. But he didn't like it in all its points. Poor fellow,
he makes his life a toil watching me! Isn't it idiotic? and such
woful waste of time, too; as if a woman won't go her own way in spite
of the watching of fifty men. Now this last affair was pure kindness
on my part. I met Clive Pomfret on the Tasmanian boat, and I simply
had to take care of the child. Mrs. Vallings, that boy's the greatest
fool, and the straightest, honestest fool, I ever met in my life.
Nothing would do him but to marry me!--marry me! Heavens!--and we
went on a honeymoon, all quite correct. But for reasons of my own--I
won't tell you them, they're too many and too complex--we were
step-brother and sister; and we came up here--here, into this little
hotbed of second-hand pigmy conventions--Oh; oh, oh!' she cried,
shaking and gurgling--'and you saw how I was treated. You were the
only mortal soul that suspected me, Mrs. Vallings. Why? do tell
I looked at her indignantly. She gave another little laugh, and
'It was the hugest joke. The boy's innocence--and the little
coterie here, and its enthusiastic reception of me, and that
wonderful Fleming family'--
'Yes, and poor Vandeleur,' I broke in angrily.
'Oh, that fool! I'm sorry for the other, very, though I assure you
I have done my duty by him, for I've been disillusioning him like
anything the last fortnight. But that Vanny--oh, that self-satisfied,
virtuous ninny!--I'm not a rap sorry for him. Bless you, it'll be the
making of him. I came here to--night partly about the creature. You
never asked me, by the way, why I came, although you looked daggers,
and bloody ones. Well, no matter, I suppose you can't, from your
different make, see the joke in it all. I do.'
'Joke!' I could hardly speak for choking disgust.
'Joke! yes. Ah, you don't know anything about the spirit of acting
on a person! I had quite a frenzy of it on me, playing half-a-dozen
games at the same time, and mystifying the most intensely respectable
and conventional audience in the whole length and breadth of the
continent. Joke! it was a dozen jokes, and good ones, rolled into
'Please continue,' I said, with much dignity. 'You informed me you
came on Mr. Vandeleur's account.'
She laughed, and glanced from head to foot of me. I would have
given a great deal to throw her out of the window. That was
impossible; besides, I wanted to hear if in any way I could help
either of these boys.
'How young you do look, to be sure,' she laughed insolently,--'in
some lights, that is.'
I tried to freeze her with a look; but where was the use? she
laughed again with her soft gurgling ripple.
'Oh, Van,' she went on lazily. 'Well, I had mapped out such a
lark. Van and I were to be married tomorrow at 11.30 A.M. He has the
licence this minute. I daresay it's under his pillow. O Lord!'--she
collapsed again into a noiseless fit of mirth. 'You appear to have
taken to him. He swears by you, anyway. You might meet him at the
11.30 A.M. train, and let him into the secret. My husband and I are
going by the mail to-morrow at 2 P.M.'
'Oh, he ran up to town by the evening train on business I invented
for him. When he comes back, I'll be on the high seas. You'll have
your hands full with those two boys, Mrs. Vallings. How providential
you should turn up just in the nick of time! Quite a direct
interposition, I should say!'
'Have you no compunction at all, Miss Ariell; are you altogether
She was perfectly silent for a few minutes; and gradually such a
change came over the face of the woman as I never in my wildest
imaginings could have thought possible. The mask of laughing,
sardonic, devilish mirth dropped from her, taking all the sparkle and
colour and light and youth with it, and a new face looked out at
me--a terrible face, old and grey and wicked and sad, with the
sadness of death and with the corruption of the grave on it. I
shuddered and covered my face.
'Ah, you may well hide your face,' she hissed out at me--her voice
had altered with her face. 'Do you know, woman, that I was once as
good and as ignorant--as ignorant, mark you--as those two
yellow-haired girls over there in the house? They're giggling there
this minute like two babies,--I heard them as I waited for you,--and
I was as innocent as these. Well, I came to grief, by no fault of
mine, through sheer idiocy, and then men took me for a shuttle-cock,
and played their fill with me; and now my time is come, and I am
having my revenge. That's the whole story.'
'Why do you choose boys to carry out your revenge on? That seems
to me a poor mean game.'
'On the principle of an eye for an eye, youth for youth. How old
was I when they began their game with me? But I assure you I have an
atom of heart still. It is wonderful, too, considering all things;
but I suppose a woman's heart is never killed outright, God help her!
I'm sorry for Clive; no one knows how good the fellow is, and will
be. Look after him. Send him home, Mrs. Vallings; the boy must have
home life and good women about him to keep him straight. Melbourne
will be the ruin of him. Send him home when he is fit to go. As for
Vanny, that's all calf-love. He'll be all right, bless you!'
She stood up and threw out her white rounded arms with a gesture
of utter weariness. I could have pitied her, but for her conduct
towards those girls.
'What devil made you tell those girls the things you did?' I
A flash of the old mocking malice crossed her face.
'What devil? The same old serpent, I suppose. There's been no
special devil created for me, that I'm aware of--more's the pity! You
think me a beast, of course,' she said suddenly--'all bad.'
'No, I don't,' I made impetuous answer. There was a worn, weary
look on her face, and her hands dropped listlessly,--somehow she
touched me; and good does get so intricately entangled in evil
sometimes. 'No; I think there's a little sound bit in your heart
still. Can't you give it a chance to spread?'
'No, I can't; it's too late, too late. Well, good-bye; we'll not
see one another again. You've depressed me. I couldn't laugh now as I
did when I came into the room, to save my life. Bah! the joke tastes
flat. But I'm really obliged to you for these two wet eyes. Look
after the boys, both of them. Good bye!'
She opened the window and crept softly out.
'God help you!' I cried, as she was stepping off the verandah.
'Won't you try?'
'Can't be done,' she called back, with her mocking laugh. 'Thanks
all the same.'
I saw her walk away under the brilliant moonlight into a dense
clump of wattle, then she had gone out of my sight for ever.
Next day I went to the railway station at Spencer Street and met
Vandeleur Fleming. I did my best for the boy, but it was a very poor
and inefficient best. His suffering was as real and intense as if he
had not had a ridiculous strain in him. As I foresaw, he found a very
complete retribution in the bosom of his righteous family.
As for Clive, I have never been able to think of that boy's
sorrow, much less speak of it. I have been the sole gainer in the
whole miscrable transaction, having come out of it the richer by two
steadfast friends, who have done much to bring back the old fresh
sweetness of life, and who make up to me for many past hopes and
banished illusions. I see in those fair girls what I might have been,
and pray God to keep them unspotted from the world.