AN AUSTRALIAN GIRL

“Charming, no doubt, her face is fair.
As dark as night, her curling hair,
Her eyes–two stars, her lips–a rose,
Whoever saw a prettier nose?
Charming indeed,–but Fate to vex,
Has given her faults like all her sex,
Believe me, she’s not worth regret,
She’ll break your heart, the vain coquette.”

What a number of charming old romances begin at an inn. Did not M. Gil
Blas commence his adventurous career by being swindled in one? and Don
Quixote, blinded by fanatic chivalry, mistake the inns for mediæval
castles? Tom Jones became involved in a network of intrigue at a
hostelry; the heroes of Dumas invariably meet their enemies of King
and Cardinal at the same place, while Boccaccio generally brings about
the complications of gallant and donzella at some gay Florentine
“osteria.” Without doubt all the elements of romance are to be found
at these resting places of man and beast; and the most incongruous
characters, the most dissimilar ranks of society’s adventurers,
gallants, priests, bona robas and virtuous ladies all pass and repass,
enter and exeunt, under the hospitable signs of inns.

Birds of passage rest momentarily at inns before continuing their
flight to the four quarters of the world, and during such rest meet
other birds of passage with sometimes curious results. Mr. A, a
gentleman of swallow-like tendencies, on his way to the warm south,
may linger for a night at an hotel where Miss B, due in some northern
latitude, is also resting, with the result that Mr. A will delay his
flight for an indefinite period; nay more, the juxtaposition of the
two may end in A and B both continuing their journey as man and wife,
which is the termination of all romance. Strange that a chance meeting
at a place of public resort should alter two lives, but then life is
made up of strange events, and a good many people date their happiness
or misery from an accidental meeting at an inn.

Gartney was letting his thoughts run on in this somewhat whimsical
vein, as he smoked an after dinner cigarette over his coffee on the
terrace at Villa Medici.

Before him, huge and indistinct, arose the grand façade of the hotel,
glimmering whitely in the moonlight, with its innumerable windows,
its broad arcade, and its myriad lamps shining brilliantly on
groups of gaily-dressed people who strolled to and fro amongst the
pink-blossomed oleanders, or sat chatting gaily round small
marble-topped tables, where white-cravated waiters, lithe and active,
attended to their wishes.

Beyond lay the lake, dark and solemn, under the shadow of the sombre
mountains, at whose base gleamed orange-coloured points of light,
telling of the presence of distant villages, while high above in the
cold, blue sky, glowed the yellow orb of the moon and the glimmering
stars. Through the leaves of sycamore, tamarisk, and magnolia sighed
the soft breath of the night-wind, filling the air with cool odours,
and the sound of music, rendered thin and fairy-like by distance,
floated across the still waters from some slow-moving boat.

An historic place this Villa Medici, with its palatial halls, its
innumerable chambers, and its stately flights of white-marble steps;
for it was here that the great Emperor intended to rest for a time in
his victorious career, an intention never carried out, although
everything was prepared for his reception, and the hotel guests now
dine in the small saloon hung round with yellow damask stamped with
the imperial ‘N’ and kingly crown.

Then again it was here that unhappy Caroline of Brunswick, who became
Queen of England in name only, kept her state as Princess of Wales,
and tried to find in the calm seclusion of Como that peace denied to
her in the land of her adoption. Ah, yes, the Villa Medici is
connected with the lives of some great personages, but now that they
all have vanished from the world’s stage, whereon they played some
curious parts, the Villa is turned into an hotel, and strangers from
far America, and still further Australia, reside in the many chambers,
and wander with delight through the enchanting gardens which Nature,
aided by art, has made a paradise of beauty.

“Poor Caroline,” murmured Gartney to himself, as he thought of all
this, “no one has a good word to say for her, and yet, I daresay, she
was a good deal better than the first gentleman in Europe. It was just
as well she died, for George would never have given her any rights as
queen-consort. No doubt she passed some of her happiest days here,
although she always hankered after the forbidden glories of Windsor
and Buckingham Palace.”

His meditations were interrupted at this point by a gay laugh, and on
looking up he saw Victoria Sheldon coming towards him escorted by the
Master of Otterburn, who was evidently telling her some funny story,
judging from the amusement his conversation seemed to afford her.

She was certainly a very pretty girl, one of those feminine beauties
who strike the beholder at first sight with a sense of indescribable
charm. A brilliantly tinted brunette, overflowing with exuberant
vitality, she had all the intense colouring and freshness of a
southern rose at that time when the cold rain draws its perfume
strongly forth in the chill morning air.

Her eyes, hair, eyebrows and long lashes were dark as night; red as
coral the lips, which when parted showed two rows of pearly teeth;
full and soft the round of the cheeks, and a peach-like skin with a
rosy glow of delicate colour under the velvety surface. She was the
modern realization of that vivacious Julia whom Herrick describes so
charmingly in his dainty poems. And as a matter of fact the skin of
this young girl had all the brilliant colouring of the south, no doubt
assimilated by her system under the sultry glow of Australian skies.
Having an excellent figure, dainty hands and feet, with a perfect
taste in dress, and boundless vivacity, there was no doubt that
Victoria Sheldon was a feminine personality eminently attractive to
the stronger sex.

As to her nature, it was quite in unison with her outward
appearance–bright, sparkling, vivacious, albeit somewhat shallow, yet
not without a certain veneer of surface knowledge. Eminently womanly,
capricious in the extreme, witty, amusing, tireless, she had one of
those attractive natures which charm everyone in a singularly magnetic
fashion. Some men, eccentric in their likings, admire those
semi-masculine women who have missions, support the rights of their
sex on lecture platforms, emulate masculine peculiarities to the best
of their abilities, and pass noisy lives in shrieking aimlessly
against the tyranny of mankind. Those men who approved of such
semi-masculine tendencies, certainly would not have admired the
womanly characteristics of Victoria, but the connoisseur of feminine
beauty, the judge of a brilliant personality, and the appreciator of a
witty nature, would each see in her the realisation of an extremely
difficult ideal.

The Master, young and rash, was just at that delightful age when every
woman appears a goddess to the uncultured fancy of youth; judge then
the effect produced upon his impressionable nature by this riant
vision of strongly vitalised beauty. He did not even make an attempt
at resistance in any way, but prone as god Dagon on the threshold of
his temple, he fell before the powerful divinity of this young girl,
and she produced on him the same effect as Phryne did on her judges
when she displayed the full splendour of her charms in the Areopagus
under the clear blue of Athenian skies. Mactab, severe, ascetic and
self-mortifying, opposed to every form of admiration of the flesh,
would have blushed for the grovelling idolatory of his quondam pupil;
but no doubt the sunny climate of Italy aided in a great measure this
worship of Venus, and Angus Macjean, Master of Otterburn, prostrated
himself in abject worship before this outward manifestation of carnal
beauty.

Eustace saw this, and was selfishly annoyed thereat, because he had
taken a fancy to Otterburn, and thought that he (Otterburn) should
agree with him (Eustace) in despising the sex feminine, which was
foolish in the extreme on the part of such an acute observer of human
nature; but then he was blinded by egotism, and that vice distorts
every vision. Still he could not deny that physically she was
wonderfully pretty, despite his feeling of animosity against her for
coming between himself and his friend. Therefore he admired her
greatly from an æsthetic point of view, while Victoria, with the keen
instinct of a woman, scented an enemy and neither admired nor liked
Eustace the cynic in the smallest degree.

“My dear Mr. Macjean,” she said in answer to the remonstrances of
Angus who wanted everyone to like his friend as much as he did
himself. “Your friend is a pessimist, and I don’t like that class of
people; they always take a delight in analysing one’s motives, which
is disagreeable–to the person concerned. A flower is charming, but
those who pull it to pieces in order to find out how it is made–are
not. I don’t like analysts–they destroy one’s illusions.”

This plain-spoken young lady’s chaperone was enjoying an after-dinner
nap; the Hon. Henry was talking Irish politics with an Irish M.P., who
did not believe in Home Rule out of contradiction to the rest of his
countrymen who did. So Victoria Sheldon, feeling in a most delightful
humour, was chatting gaily with Otterburn, when they thus chanced on
the melancholy Eustace, moralising on the mutability of human life.

“A penny for your thoughts, Mr. Gartney,” said Victoria, pausing
before him with a gay smile on her lips.

“They’re not worth it,” replied Eustace, looking approvingly at the
charming girl before him, in her dainty white dinner dress, with a
bunch of vividly scarlet geraniums at her breast. “I’ll sell them as
bankrupt stock.”

“Haw! haw! haw!” from the Master, who was in that pleasant frame of
mind when everything seems to scintillate with wit–but then it was
after dinner, and a pretty woman was at his elbow. Wine, wit, and
feminine influence, really the worst-tempered man would feel pleasant
with such a delightful trinity.

“My dear Master,” said Eustace reprovingly, “your mirth is
complimentary, but rather noisy–will you not be seated, Miss
Sheldon?”

“Thank you,” replied Victoria, sitting down in a chair under the
shadow of a myrtle tree, the light from a distant lamp striking full
on her piquant face. “I am rather tired.”

“Of walking, or the Master?” asked the cynic gruffly.

She flashed a brilliant glance on him out of the dusky shadow, and
spread her red feather fan with a grand wave of irresistible coquetry.

“Mr. Macjean,” she said lightly as he sank into a chair opposite to
her, and leaned his arms on the cold marble of the table, “What do you
think?”

“Eh,” observed the Master obtusely. “Oh, I think the same as you.”

“Then,” remarked Eustace, re-lighting his cigarette, “you cannot
object to that diplomatic reply. Do you mind my smoking?’

“Not in the least. I hope Mr. Macjean will follow your example.”

Mr. Macjean was only too happy to so far indulge himself. So the
gentlemen sat and smoked with great enjoyment, while the feminine
element of the party smiled serenely and impartially on both; smiles
quite wasted on the misogamistic Eustace, but then Victoria, with that
unerring instinct of coquetry implanted in every woman’s breast, took
a delight in behaving thus, simply because she saw Otterburn admired
her. He on his part naturally began to grow jealous, and being without
the self-control habitual to those who live long in society, would
doubtless have shown his irritation very plainly, only Eustace, taking
in at a glance the whole situation, and being by no means agreeable to
gratifying Victoria’s love of conquest, arrested the storm at once by
beginning to talk with judicious diplomacy of the first thing that
came into his mind.

“Tell me,” he said, addressing himself to the volatile Victoria, “Do
you not find our narrow English life somewhat irksome after the
freedom of Australia?”

“Not so much as you would think,” replied Miss Sheldon promptly, “for
after all there is a good deal of similarity between home and the
colonies.”

“You still call England ‘home,’ I observe,” said Eustace with a smile.

“We do, because most of the generation who emigrated are still alive,
but even now the term is dying out, and in another fifty years I don’t
suppose will be in use.”

“I should awfully like to go out to Australia,” observed Otterburn
languidly. “I’m sick of civilisation.”

“Oh don’t imagine you leave civilisation behind when you come out to
us,” retorted Victoria sharply, with rising colour, “that is a mistake
many English people make. They think Australia is like the backwoods
of America, but it’s nothing of the sort. Melbourne is just as
cultured and wealthy in its own way as London, with the additional
advantage of having a better climate and being smaller.”

“Do you think the latter quality an advantage then?” asked Gartney
with ironical gravity.

“I should just think so, rather,” said Miss Sheldon nodding her head
emphatically. “London is a delightful place, I grant, but it’s a
terrible nuisance visiting your friends and going out to amusements.”

“We have,” observed the Master in an authoritative guidebook tone,
“trains, tramways, carriages—-”

“So have we–but even with them it takes a long time to get about
London. We can get from one end of Melbourne to the other in a
reasonable time, but it’s like an African exploring expedition to
start round London.”

“London,” remarked Eustace in a judicious manner, “is not one but
several cities. There is the West End, which is devoted to wealth and
pleasure, the East End, famous for work and poverty. The City of
London proper, noted for its mercantile enterprise and its
stock-broking fraternity, and finally the huge shipping town which
forms the port of the Metropolis. Every person stays in the special
city with which his business is connected, therefore there is no
difficulty in getting about one’s own particular local town, which is
much smaller in the aggregate than Melbourne.”

“I understand all that perfectly,” replied Victoria, who had listened
attentively, “but suppose you chose to live on the outskirts of
London, so as to get a breath of country air. In that case if you want
to go to a theatre you have to travel for over an hour to get to one.”

“People who live as you say, are worshippers of Nature, and go to bed
with the sun–they don’t want the gas and glare of theatres.”

“Oh, anyone can argue that way,” said Victoria disdainfully, “so I
have nothing to say in reply. Let us talk of something else.”

“By all means–the weather.”

“And the crops. No! I am not an agriculturist.”

“Aunt Jelly,” suggested Angus wickedly.

Miss Sheldon turned towards him with a mirthful smile in her bright
eyes.

“What do you know of Aunt Jelly, Mr. Macjean?” she asked, putting her
fan up to her lips to hide a laugh.

“I know nothing; absolutely nothing,” he replied, with mock humility,
“beyond the fact that Gartney and Errington have both mentioned her as
an eccentric character, so I wish to know more about her.”

If he did, his curiosity was not destined to be gratified at that
moment, for, with the whimsical caprice of a woman, Victoria suddenly
began to talk on quite a different subject, suggested by the casual
mention of a name.

“Do you like Lady Errington?” she demanded, looking from one to the
other.

“She is a very charming woman,” said Eustace evasively. “She knows
you, I believe.”

“Slightly! I met her at Aunt Jelly’s, when she called one day.”

“And what is Aunt Jelly’s opinion?”

The girl laughed, and then, composing her features into a kind of
stern severity, spoke in a harsh, measured voice:

“Not what I approve of; limp! washed out, no backbone, but no doubt
she’ll make Guy a good wife. Not a hard thing for any woman to do
seeing he’s an idiot. So was his father before him, and he did not
take after his mother, thank God.”

“The voice is the voice of Miss Sheldon,” murmured Eustace, delicately
manipulating a cigarette, “but the sentiments are those of my beloved
aunt.”

“How mean you are,” said Victoria, rewarding Otterburn with a bright
look for having laughed at her mimicry. “I thought I did her voice to
perfection.’

“Nothing but a saw-mill could do that,” retorted the irreverent
Eustace. “So that is Aunt Jelly’s opinion. It isn’t flattering.”

“Neither is Aunt Jelly.”

“I’m dying to know Aunt Jelly,” declared Angus mirthfully, “she must
be as good as a play.”

“She is! tragedy.”

“No! No! Miss Sheldon, excuse me, comedy.”

“I should say burlesque, judging from your descriptions,” said the
Master, gaily. “How did you drop across her, Miss Sheldon?”

“I didn’t drop across her,” said Miss Sheldon, candidly, “she dropped
across me. My father left me to her guardianship, and I was duly
delivered in due course like a bale of goods.”

“Why isn’t Aunt Jelly fulfilling her guardianship by seeing you
through the temptations of the Continent?” asked Eustace, severely.

“Oh, she placed me under the wing of Mrs. Trubbles.”

“I’m glad she didn’t place you under the eye of Mrs. Trubbles,”
observed Otterburn, with the brutal candour of youth, “because both
her eyes are invariably closed.”

“What a shame–I wonder where she is?”

“Asleep! don’t disturb her,” said Gartney, as Miss Sheldon arose to
her feet. “Physicians all agree that sleep after dinner is most
beneficial to people of the Trubbles calibre.”

Victoria laughed at this remark, and as she showed a desire to stroll
about, the gentlemen left their chairs and escorted her through the
grounds, one on each side, the lady being thus happily placed between
the sex masculine.

A good many of the promenaders had retired for the night, evidently
worn out by the heat of the day; but some indefatigable pianist was
still hard at work in the music saloon, and the steady rhythmic beat
of the last new valse, “My heart is dead,” sounded tenderly through
the still night air, broken at intervals by the light laughter of
young girls, the deeper tones of men’s voices, and the melancholy
sound of the waters washing against the stone masonry of the terrace.
Beyond on the lake all was strange and mystical, filled with cold
lights and shadows, vague and dreary under the gloom of the distant
mountains; but here, by the garish lights of the hotel, the pulse of
life was beating strongly, and the indescribable tone of idle
frivolity seemed to clash with the silent solemnity of Nature.

Perhaps Eustace felt this incongruity as his eyes strayed towards the
steel-coloured waters, for after a time the shallow conversation of
Victoria jarred so painfully on his ears that with a hurried excuse he
left the young couple to their own companionship, and wandered away
alone into the fragrant darkness of the night.

“He’s awfully fond of his own company,” observed Victoria, indicating
the departing Eustace. “Such a queer taste. I hate being left to
myself.”

“So do I,” asserted Otterburn eagerly. “I always like to be with
someone—-”

“Of the opposite sex,” finished Miss Sheldon, laughing. “Well, yes I
women have always been my best friends.”

“You answer at random.”

“I dare say; one is incapable of concentrated thought on a perfect
night.”

“You are also growing poetical, then indeed it is time for a prosaic
individual like myself to retire.”

“No don’t go yet, you can’t sleep here if you go to bed early.”

“Oh, that is your experience,” said Miss Sheldon, as a bell from a
distant campanile, showing white and slender against the sky, sounded
the hour of nine o’clock. “Well, I’ll stay for a few minutes longer,
though I’m afraid Mrs. Trubbles will be dreadfully shocked.”

They leaned over the iron balustrade of the terrace, and watched in
charmed silence the dark waters rising and falling in the chill
moonlight. The valse still sounded silvery in the distance, with its
sad tone of regret and hopeless despair, and after a time Victoria
began to hum the melancholy refrain in a low voice:

“My heart is dead,
And pleasure hath fled,
But the rose you gave me blooms fresh and red.”

“What nonsense,” she said contemptuously, breaking off suddenly. “I
daresay the rose was quite withered, only his imagination saw it was
blooming.”

“Like his love for the girl.”

“A bad shot, Mr. Macjean. How could it be so? His heart was dead, his
pleasure fled, so under these discouraging circumstances the rose must
certainly have been dead also.”

“You said Gartney was cynical,” said Angus slowly, “what about
yourself?”

“What about myself,” she repeated with a sigh, turning round and
leaning lightly against the balustrade. “I’m sure I don’t know. I’ve
never thought about the subject. Very likely it’s not worth thinking
about.”

“Believe me,” began the young man earnestly, “you are—-”

“Everything that’s charming,” interrupted Victoria, crossing her
hands. “Do spare me any compliments, Mr. Macjean, I’m so tired of
them. I wonder if you men think we women believe all the lies you tell
us.”

“But they’re not lies.”

“Not, perhaps, for the moment, but afterwards.”

“Don’t trouble about afterwards, the present is good enough for us.”

He was getting on dangerous ground, for his voice was soft, and his
young eyes flashed brightly on her face, so as Victoria had only known
him twenty-four hours, even with her reckless daring of coquetry this
was going too far, and with the utmost dexterity she changed the
subject.

“By the way,” she said lightly, “do you know I’m a relation of yours?”

“Impossible.”

“Well, perhaps it is. Still you can judge for yourself. My mother’s
maiden name was Macjean.”

“The dev–ahem! I mean good gracious. You must certainly belong to
the family somehow or other. I dare say–yes–I am sure you must be my
cousin.”

“Such a strained relationship. In what degree?”

“Oh, never mind. Scotch clan relationships are so difficult to
unravel. Besides, we’re all brothers and sisters by the Adam and Eve
theory, according to Gartney. But fancy you being a Macjean. It gives
me a kind of claim on you.”

“As the head of the clan, I suppose. Never! I am a free-born
Australian, so hurrah for the Southern Cross and the eight hours
system of labour!”

“I haven’t the least idea of what you’re talking about?

“Very likely. Born amid the effete civilization of a worn-out land,
you have no knowledge of our glorious institutions, which render
Australia the Paradise of Demos.”

“Sounds like a Parliamentary speech.”

“It is a Parliamentary speech,” asserted Victoria, demurely, “an
effort of my father’s when he was elected for the Wooloomooloo
constituency.”

“I beg your pardon, would you mind spelling it?”

“No you would be none the wiser if I did.”

“As to my obeying you,” said Otterburn, reverting to the earlier part
of the conversation, “I think the opposite is more likely to happen.”

Dangerous ground again.

“Mr. Macjean,” said Victoria in a solemn tone, “the night is getting
on to morning, the tourists are getting off to bed. You are chattering
in a most nonsensical manner and I’m going to retire, so good-night.”

He did not make any effort to retain her, although he felt very much
inclined to do so, but then their friendship was still in its infancy
and the proprieties must be observed.

“Good-night, and happy dreams,” he replied, shaking the hand she held
out to him.

“Thank you, but I leave that to poets–and lovers,” she responded, and
thereupon vanished like a fairy vision of eternal youth.

And lovers.

“Now I wonder–oh, nonsense! What rubbish! I’ve only known her one
circle of the clock; Love isn’t Jonah’s gourd to spring up in a night.
Still–well she’s a most delightful girl and I–Confound the valse! I
do wish they’d stop playing at this hour. It isn’t respectable.
Awfully pretty!–and she’s a Macjean too–ah, if I–bother, it’s gone
out. I shan’t smoke any more. I wonder where Gartney is. Mooning about
by himself, I suppose. I’ll go and look him up. She’s got lovely eyes
and such pretty feet. Eh! oh, here’s Eustace–I say Gartney, I’m going
to bed. Come and have a hock and seltzer before ta-ta.”