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Chapter XI.

AT last we emerged into the open, when to my inexpressible relief, for however pleasant the situation might have been it was nevertheless a delicate one, I beheld Will running towards us.

“What's up?” he panted, as he came tearing along. He was quite fifty yards when he shouted, so that by the time he reached us the Captain had, in answer to my eager request, somewhat grudgingly deposited me on the grass.

“Flossie has sprained her ankle, and I have had to carry her. I'm glad you've come, old man; you can lend me a hand.”

I could not help admiring his coolness. Glad Will had come, indeed, and only a couple of minutes before he told me he

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would the distance were ten times as great. But, of course, I wasn't going to say anything, and I'm sure old Will never suspected that, for the Captain, his arrival was decidedly inopportune.

“Are you in very great pain?” asked the dear old fellow—after he had been given a hasty account of the accident—his face betraying the utmost concern.

“Can't you see she is?” said Captain Langton, somewhat irritably. “Look at her poor face.”

“No, no; not in the least,” I answered hastily. “It smarts a little, that is all.”

“Poor old Flos,” said Will. “We must get you round to the hut, and treat you to a cold water bandage. By George, your ankle's swollen like a pudding.” And with that he took me up in his big arms and hurried away with me, Captain Langton following with a none too agreeable look on his face.

Upon arriving at the hut, which had once been the abode of a solitary

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shepherd, but which now had fallen into disuse and disrepair, a little stimulant was given me, a cold bandage applied to the swollen limb, and in a few minutes, save for the dull, throbbing pain, I felt another being. Maud was greatly distressed at the accident, and extremely solicitous for my welfare, so much so, in fact, that I immediately began to upbraid myself for ever thinking that she was more selfish than I, or nine-tenths of her fellows. I think, when all's said, that human nature is much the same in all of us. As we cry or laugh in unison, so do we think and feel. The common aim of all is the same—happiness; the common end the grave.

Presently Will entered the hut and bore me out on the grass, where, beneath the shade of a big tree, rugs and cushions had been piled up to make a comfortable couch. Here, also, the servant had spread a snow-white table-cloth, which was laden with countless

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delicacies; and though at times a grass-hopper did lurch into a jam tart, and the flies buzzed around us like a swarm of winged demons, we yet contrived, amid jest and laughter, to demolish a substantial meal. Had it not been for my unfortunate accident, I think I should have been supremely happy, for not alone was everybody in the highest spirits, which must have proved contagious, but I had experienced that day a new and wonderful sensation, which, though I knew not yet whether it was the harbinger of life or death, had filled me with a great joy. Life, it seemed, truly, and bright as though born in the sun-kingdoms. Yet there was a terror in it too, a sort of dark cloud which might bring the night and the rain, or which might but conceal the effulgence of some new sun. Captain Langton, as I have said before, had always been to me a source of extreme curiosity. The stories which wove their interest round his erring personality were legion, and if half of

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them were true he must have been almost past praying for. I used to wonder what he was like, and why he didn't marry, and—and many other foolish things; for, being gifted with a most surprising imagination, I not unusually constructed my air castles in the most fantastic styles of architecture. Strange castles they were, too, with fairy towers and grim dungeons, in the former or the latter of which I spent my idle days.

After luncheon Captain Langton brought out his cigar case, and he and Will began blowing great wreaths of smoke from their mouths, the man Flaskett, even, participating in the enjoyment of the fragrant weed, for to him his master had flung a cigar, telling him to be off and smoke it.

“He seems a rum sort of fellow,” said Will, as the man picked the cigar up, mumbled out some thanks, and rolled off. “Looks a regular convict.”

I couldn't help smiling in spite of my physical pain—the allusion was such a

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very unfortunate one. But that was just like old Will. He would blunder over a clump of thistles with his bare feet and discover after, by the pain he suffered, that he had been doing that which he should not have done. I saw a quick look pass between Maud and her brother; it was just a flicker of the eyelid, but it did not escape me.

“He was a queer sort of chap when I first picked him up,” said the Captain, with an amused smile; “but I am gradually breaking him in.”

“Breaking him in?” echoed Will.

“Well, taking some of the nonsense out of him; teaching the beggar to know his place; ridding him of the preposterous ideas he entertained as to the dignity of his status. As though a fellow like that could have any status.”

“Why not?” I asked, seeing that this was most probably the cause of Mr. Flaskett's dolefulness, and feeling a passing inclination to enter the lists in his favour. “Australia is a free country. He has a

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perfect right to be proud and independent.”

“But pride in his station is absurd.”

“I do not think that pride in any station is absurd.”

“But, my dear Miss Hastings, when you are nobody and give yourself airs, you become a laughing-stock.”

“Nobody,” I echoed, with a look of surprise. “How can a man be a nobody?”

“I see what it is,” he said with a laugh. “You are one of those dreadful socialistic—republican sort of people. Rights of man—not forgetting woman—equality, fraternity, and all that sort of thing. As though there ever were equality, or ever could be.”

“Not equality as you understand it, certainly not.”

“And pray how do I understand it?” he asked, with a quizzing smile.

“You'd better not press for an answer, old fellow,” said Will, grinning furiously. “She's pretty hot on politics, I can tell

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you, and rocks it in fairly warm when she's set going. You should hear her and Harold at it. They'll argue by the hour about the rights and wrongs of the world.”

“Which they intend to set going on a new and improved plan, I suppose?” said the Captain, with a mischievous smile.

“Now you're laughing at me, Captain Langton,” I replied; “and it's very unkind of you. Respect a wounded enemy.”

“Ah, yes! I'm afraid I'm a very unworthy foeman. Please forgive me, and let me hope that it is not yet too late to inquire how the ankle is progressing?”

I was pleased to say the ankle was progressing favourably. It was not to be a very serious sprain, I thought; and though I expected it would prevent me getting about as usual for a little time, I nevertheless proposed remounting my horse again when the time came for our setting out. To this, however, the Captain would not listen.

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“You must go in the buggy,” said he. “Flaskett shall ride my horse back and lead yours.”

“But what's to become of you?”

“I shall drive you back.”

“But,” said I, tantalizingly, “I cannot allow you to coop yourself up in a buggy, well knowing that you would be regretting the homeward gallop all the time.”

“But if I prefer playing the martyr?”

“Which I may be permitted to doubt. No, no, I assure you the servant will do most admirably.”

“Would you rather I didn't come?” he asked, in a low, reproachful voice. His eyes looking into mine, made my face burn.

“How can you say such a thing, Captain Langton?”

“Then I will come—if you have no objection?”

“Objection! I thought you would rather ride.”

“Did you?”

To this direct appeal I could not

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answer, for the earnest look in his face embarrassed me. The jest had grown serious all of a moment. He, however, considerately spared me a reply, for stepping over to where Will and Maud sat, he informed them of the arrangement he had just made, and then coo-eed loudly for the servant.

“Coo ee,” came back the answer from some bushes on our left, and a few minutes after Mr. Flaskett loomed in view. Then the three men bustled about the horses, while Maud put away the silver and folded the table-cloth, I looking lazily on, being forbidden to stir.

At length saddles and bridles were properly adjusted, the horse harnessed to the buggy, the remnants of the feast stored carefully away beneath the seat, and I lifted bodily into the trap. Then the Captain mounted to the seat beside me, and the next moment the little cavalcade clattered away.

I must confess to a keen enjoyment of that drive, in spite of the occasional sharp

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twinges which shot through my foot. My companion was solicitude itself, and it is surprising how extremely tender a man can be when he lays himself out to it. I was very foolish, I suppose, but I felt a sweet gratification in my helplessness which whispered that the misfortune had not been too dearly bought. There was no pain, only a numbed remembrance of a pain, conducive, like the opiate, to lethargy. It was a pleasure to shut one's eyes, and listen to that soft voice of his whispering kind words, and feel the warm sun, tempered by the soft breeze, permeating one's body, as it were, and filling with a dreamy langour every chamber of the brain. I do not profess to recollect half of what he said. I have a confused remembrance of many tender phrases, and of looks which meant more than he dared utter; but it was all sensuous, all balmy and blissful, and full of delightful dreams.

At the junction of the Wallan Road, where we turned off to Langton, we pulled

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up for a moment to say good-bye to Will, who was to leave us at this point and strike out for Granite Creek. He, dear old fellow, looked happier then than I had ever seen him look before, and as I glanced from Maud to him I thought an understanding seemed to exist between them. For his sake I hoped it might be so, for I knew that he had set his heart before her feet for her to cherish or spurn. It is a sad thing when a man or woman comes to this. When pride vanishes in the mistrack of passion, the genius of destruction may be said to smile. Out of the foolish day descends the desolate night, and though the bondage of love be sweet, sweeter than a Cæsar's might, more glorious than the triumphal march of an Alexander, may we not also liken it to the ignoble flight at Actium? Sweet is it to kiss the hem of her skirt, though the dust of the highways still clings to it; sweet is it to know that he is ours, body and soul, bound with invisible fetters heated in the furnace of the soul and shaped on the anvil of the heart;

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yet sweeter than all is it to feel that we are his, and that from him, as from the sun, we catch the glow and glory of our being.

I invariably got into this train of thought whenever Maud and Will presented themselves before my mental vision. It seems to me now that I might have been better employed in looking after my own affairs, but it is singular how dull our vision is when we look back into ourselves, and how particularly bright and powerful it is when we look into other people. Not alone do we put the right construction on their actions, but we likewise analyze their motives and build up their thoughts; in fact, I am not so sure we do not at times credit them with much of which they never dreamt. And how solicitous we are of our dear friend Ethel. We do hope she will not make a fool of herself over that conceited prig, Raffler, who only talks of the destructive fire of his eyes' artillery, and the number of silly female hearts he has broken in his day.

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How Ethel, in turn, pities us with all her heart as she thinks of the occasional visits of dear Mr. Jones, sighs as she contemplates the excesses of our folly, and daily prays that the friend of her youth may never know the meaning of that sad word—Regret. But I suppose this careful consideration of our neighbour's welfare arises entirely from our humane wish of well-doing, and I have no doubt that the species, as a rule, thoroughly appreciate the delicate attention.

It was with rather a doleful cast of countenance that poor Will tore himself away from our little party, but he was to ride over on the following morning to ascertain how the sprain progressed, and that, I think, was the only bubble of consolation in his cup of bitterness.

“You will take care of yourself, dear,” he said. “No standing, you know.”

“I will be as good as gold,” I answered merrily, for the foot seemed better already, and I was delighted at the thought of escaping a lengthened inconvenience.

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“You will watch her, old fellow,” said he, turning to Captain Langton. “Remember she's young and giddy, and—you understand?” he added with a smile.

“Perfectly. I'll set a guard over her, and if she attempts to move we'll tie her down.”

Will nodded acquiescence to this arrangement; then after a few hurried words of parting turned his horse's head in the direction of Wallan, and trotted off.

Upon our arrival at the station, Captain Langton would insist upon having me carried into the house, though I assured him that I was perfectly able to walk. To this, however, he would not listen, but sending the groom Flaskett for a chair, he helped that worthy to carry me to my room, where they left me to the tender mercies of one of the maidservants, who duly applied another bandage to the swollen limb and treated me according to the rules of the “Family Physician,” which rules I read aloud for her benefit as she worked.

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And then I think I must have fallen asleep, for when I awoke the sun had already set, and through my window I could see the Southern Cross lying low down in the sky. Feeling rather hot, for the night was somewhat oppressive, I was about to spring from my bed to hurry out on the verandah when I recollected that I had sprained my foot but a few hours previously, and that to stand on it might, at the present moment, cause it considerable injury; yet when I did sit up and let it dangle on the floor, it felt so much better that I determined to risk the consequences. Therefore, after bathing my face in cold water, I hobbled quietly towards the verandah and slipped into the long cane chair, which, on account of my having shown such a decided partiality for it, was always called mine. I had not, however, been ensconced among the cushions many minutes before I heard a well-known step coming up the gravel path; the perfume of a cigar—and I knew the perfume of those cigars well by

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this time—was next wafted in on the warm breeze through the trellis of roses, and then the dark outline of the wanderer appeared in view as he began to mount the steps of the verandah.

I lay watching him for several moments, my heart jumping as though it had serious designs of taking lodgment in my throat; for it is a perverse creature, this heart of ours, and has a will of its own which will not be gainsaid. But at length, by persistent coaxing—for it is only by coaxing that you can get the creature to do anything—I prevailed upon it to comport itself with becoming dignity, nor bring its unhappy mistress into ridicule.

The Captain, in the meantime, stood staring stolidly out across the great dark plains, over which the moon's shadows cut fantastic capers, and I could tell by the way he pulled at his cigar—whose glow shone out through the darkness like a fierce ignis fatuus—that he was thinking of other things than the mystical stillness

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which surrounded him. Presently he uttered an exclamation, half sigh and half of anger, and flung his cigar away down the gravelled path, where for a moment it spluttered like an exploding squib. Then he came towards me with hands outstretched, as though groping for the chair.

“If you wouldn't mind,” said I, with a little laugh, as he stumbled against my frail couch, making it quiver ominously.

“You!” he exclaimed. “By Jove, I didn't know you were there. How long have you been here?” This was asked rather earnestly, I thought.

“Only a few minutes.”

“I was under the impression you had gone to bed; and I should like to know how you dare come out without my permission?”

“Please, sir, the invalid is ever so much better, and she wanted a little fresh air.

“I am glad to hear that she is better,

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but I must give her a good scolding for being so mutinous.”

“Spare her this time.”

“Well, well,” he said, seizing a chair and seating himself beside me, “I suppose I must overlook this first act of insubordination, but if ever—oh, if ever—No,” he added in a solemn voice, “the consequences will be too terrible even to mention.”

“Then pray don't. You know you might terrify me and so throw me back a week or two. But where is Maud?”

“Writing letters, I think, or she was a while ago. Poor Maud, I'm afraid she finds the life here rather enervating. If it wasn't for this confounded funeral business, you know,” he went on, “we might have a jolly time.”

I did not say I thought they jogged along fairly well for a family in mourning, but such, nevertheless, was my impression. I merely replied that death was a solemn thing, and that out of respect for the departed the living

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must at least don the semblance of woe.

“Oh, I was very fond of the old man,” he said, “though he was a bit hard to get on with at times; and I'm sure that Maud was fond of him too, but she, poor girl, has not been accustomed to this sort of life, and I know it chafes her.”

“I daresay she does find it rather dull.”

“Dull isn't the word.”

“Ah,” thought I, “if I only had the chance of always being dull in the same way.” But I said aloud, “Of course I cannot understand it, never having been used to much; but it seems incredible that anyone should tire of this place in a few weeks.”

“Wouldn't you?” he said.

I thought his voice sounded full of suppressed impatience, but I answered with a laugh, “I do not think so.”

He was silent for several moments, during which I could see him tugging

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fiercely at his moustache; then he said, reverting to the old question, which he never seemed to get beyond, “And do you mean to say you never wish to go out into the world, to see the great things of the world? Surely, surely you could not be content to pass your life in this wretched, out-of-the-way hole?”

“I have tried to school myself to such a life,” I replied.

“But it is not possible that you should ever live it?”

“Who knows?”

“But you cannot seriously entertain the thought of such an existence?”

“I am afraid it is too serious a thought to be entertained lightly.”

“But you would like to go—you would like to see the world?”

His words came quickly, hotly from his lips, and I knew by the way he breathed, by the way his hand trembled as he rested it on the back of my chair, that he was thrilling with excitement.

“What a perfectly superfluous question,”

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I replied with a little excited laugh.

“Florence,” he said, slipping suddenly on his knees beside me and pressing my hand between his burning palms, “I want you to come away with me, dear, to leave this dreadful old life behind.”

“With you, you?” I gasped, his passionate voice thrilling me to the quick.

“Yes, dearest, with me, because—because I love you better than the whole world.”

But why should I go on? All I remember of those mad moments was his kneeling beside me, pouring a flood of passionate words into my ears, and kissing me like one half mad.