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11. Chapter XI.

Some days later Victor received two letters that served to tranquillize the contending emotions and purposes that so often assailed him during the interval. The first was one from Miss Paget, telling him that her father had persuaded Professor Codrington to accompany him back to Adelaide on a long visit, that they might probably be leaving in less than a month from the date of writing, so that any future letters of his to Colombo would be peradventure ones.note If the Professor received certain tidings from England when they were due, they might be leaving a little earlier than four weeks. They were perhaps going to get out at Albany and take the train across to Perthnote for a short visit. There were friends of the Professor's there, and he had little difficulty in persuading her father to break the journey back. As for herself, she was at present a sort of classic chorus, whose remarks might be from time to time audible regarding events without in the least affecting their course.note Personally, she would much sooner have stayed longer at Colombo, with its Bengalis, Moslems, Punjabis, Ghoorkas,note etc., hustling each other in the streets; its swarms of bronze children in dingy sarees, of women clothed in slim cotton robes and a baby on the hip, to say nothing of the funny little boards of smeared sweetmeats under coarse mats, supported on four slender bamboo canes. . . . The bride, too, was far from having exhausted the resources of her trousseau. Only the other day the barometer fell a little, and she instantly went into feathers–plumes on her jacket and skirt, plumes on her head, and a long white feather boa. It was just as if an enchanter had been turning her into a bird, and the process was arrested half-way. She was full of those fols enfantillages note some brides were fond of indulging in. . . . Well, if no more letters reached her from Victor in Colombo, she would at least expect a few lines at Perth or Albany, addressed care of the P. and O. agent.

The other letter was from his mother, written after she had got his, telling of the attachment between himself and Helen, and

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the engagement imminent after the period of probation. Mrs. Fitz-Gibbon wrote with some emotion. She entirely refused to look on this affair in a serious light.

"Dear boy," she wrote, "what put it into your head that you were in love with a lady almost old enough to be your mother, and to propose before you attained your majority? When I read the cool, matter-of-fact announcement, and then thought of the lava-torrent of eloquence, into which you would have plunged as to the eyes, lips, etc., of the adored one, if your heart had been really touched–pardon me, dear, if I tell you that I could not help laughing. You rash, impulsive boy! Not that perhaps it is surprising you should have mutually whiled away some of the tedious days by a little love-making. . . . Apart from the question of age, Miss Paget has many attractions. She is intelligent and very nice-looking. But the discrepancy is too preposterous, and my own belief is that it was only to let you down gently that she suggested the compromise. She has too biting a sense of humour, not to appreciate the ludicrousness of the matter; for you are not only very young in years, but young for your age, as your father was before you. Please allow a little to my knowledge of two generations of Fitz-Gibbons."

It may be doubted whether this was altogether a judicious letter, or would have gone far to effect the object of the writer, had not a more potent cause been at work. Even though Victor would now be glad to believe, that Miss Paget had not seriously looked forward to their engagement, his mother's letter vexed and irritated him–till he came to the last page.

"But at any rate, my dear boy, you will come to bring me home, before you take any further steps in the matter. Now that we have not to study economy so painfully, there is no reason why we should not have our long-projected little tours together. I shall meet you on the Continent according to the line you prefer to come by."

When his office-work was over that day, Victor saddled his horse and rode out towards Broombush Creek. As he galloped across the plain, his hopes became boundless as the high, wide horizon round him. He would write a short letter to Helen at Colombo, and then a note to Perth, telling her he would meet her as soon as she landed. He would run down to town for the purpose. . . . After all, she had been wise enough to see from the

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first that there was an impossible element in his wooing. He went further, and began to feel sure that his mother's view of Miss Paget's action was the true one. . . . Well, she would always be his friend–she had often said so–irrespective of any closer bond; and she would love Doris. Who would not that once saw her?

Then, in fear and trembling, he suddenly asked himself whether it was possible that he could ever win so dazzling, so overwhelming, a gift as Doris's love. But as he recalled her growing gaiety and confiding air, the sweet little smile with which she now gave him her hand on meeting and parting, his hopes rose high. He was near her; he would see her day by day; he would go by the same ship that the Challoners chose for their voyage after Christmas. Yes, he was sure now all would be well. A great unreasoning wave of joy swept over him as he rode on, and he gave vent to his notefeelings by singing at the pitch of his voice:

"Hurrah, hurrah, let's sound the jubilee!
Hurrah, hurrah, the flag that sets us free!
Hurrah, hurrah––"note

He was arrested by the sound of a clear, mocking echo, as distinct as his own voice. It was from the low rock near the broken-down whim, to which he was quite close, though he had not noticed it, in his joyous self-absorption. Two men were half reclining on their swags at the foot of this rock, resting while they boiled a billy of water for tea. Victor slackened his pace. As he approached them, a dog rose up and began to bark joyously, struggling to get away; but one of the men held him back by a stout cord. It was Doris's Spot–the friendly young collie who notehad accepted everyone as a possible friend. The tramp made a feeble statement about being followed by the dog from somewhere near the Colmar, and refusing to turn back.

"That's a way dogs have when held by a ship's hawser," said Victor, laughing.

He went no further, but rode back at once, with Spot running ahead. When they came in sight of Stonehouse, notehe bombarded the place with his short, excited barks. Before Victor reached the

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front avenue there was Doris rejoicing over her vagrant, with Rex looking on, saying as eloquently as eyes and a tail can speak, "I told him he would get into a mess, going to speak to strange swagmen."

As Victor anticipated, Doris had been in great trouble at Spot's disappearance. They missed him shortly after mid-day, and waited for his return in vain. Then Doris and Euphemia had gone across to the mine to see if he had followed Mr. Fitz-Gibbon; but no trace of him was to be seen.

"Now here he is, all safe and sound, the naughty old darling!" and both girls embraced him and patted him, a proceeding which Spot enjoyed immensely.

"Do you know, after all, there is something of the good fairy about you," said Doris. "You get boxes of flowers for us, as if by making a sign over the Salt-bush, and now you rescued Spot when he was being stolen."

"Well, and do you know what this good fairy advises, so as to make Mr. Spot give up following chance swagmen?" said Victor. "Tie him up for a whole day, and give him a beating."

The bare suggestion won more caresses for Spot. Then Doris told Victor how, during their search, they had seen a dog that in the distance looked like hers disappearing into a tent. They went to the door to inquire.

"Only there was no real door," she said, "but just a sack hanging in the opening; and inside there was a poor woman looking dreadfully ill, with two children in bed, sick of a fever. Oh, such a miserable place!–the floor, bare earth, dirty and uneven–no chairs–not even a table; and the woman thinks it is the water out of the tank that makes them ill."

"Yes, I know they are rather bad, the sort of places some of the miners live in," assented Victor, but without much interest.

Doris, however, was not content with being merely sorry. She wanted to have something done. Hesitating a little, and looking down, while a deeper tinge of colour stole into her cheeks, she said she had some money to spend as she liked, and she wanted to do something for this family. Could Victor suggest some way of getting notethem a better place to live in? At Ouranie they had got a little wooden house from town, all ready to be put up at

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Peppermint Ranges for a school.

"Couldn't we do something like that for the Connels?"note asked Doris, looking at the mine-purser with her direct, serious gaze.

But was this a matter to be decided in half a minute of time, while one is holding one's horse by the bridle? No; it was a question to be talked over for an hour and a half, by the light of many candles, softened by pink shades, with an elderly couple playing their habitual elderly games of chess, with the breath of late violets and sheaves of white lilac pervading the room, and the cool evening wind stealing in through the open windows.

Victor found the advertisement of a firm of builders, in one of the weekly newspapers, illustrated by a seductive wood-cut, of a little three-roomed wooden building, with doors and windows all complete. Doris and Euphemia looked at this picture with rapt enthusiasm.

"I think it is better for the price than the building we got for the school-room," said Doris, with quite a business-like air. Then she took up a pencil and wrote some figures on a piece of paper. "I think I should like to order three of these houses. There are some others with children who are ill," she said, after a pause.

"But you mustn't begin to present people with houses as if they were Christmas cards," said Victor, smiling.

Euphemia was summoned into the kitchen in consultation over a cake that was being made. When she was gone, Doris, in reply to Victor's remonstrance, said very gravely:

"But I know mother would like me to help these poor people. I like to do things that seem to bring us nearer."

Victor felt something like a pang of jealousy at the thought that Doris's love for her mother was so deep that it might exclude the growth of a new affection. This was succeeded by the reflection that he might help his own cause with her, by co-operation in this matter. 'Zilla had a few days ago returned part of the loan he had made to him, at the same time expressing a wish that there were some place to which he could bring his wife at the mine. She was too delicate to live in a tent.

"You have put a plan in my mind," he said; "that is, if you order one of these wooden places, I'll order another for 'Zilla Jenkins. But, you know, I think we ought to charge a little rent. The miners here get good wages,note and can afford to pay a little for a place to live in."

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"But not when the children are ill," objected Doris.

The next day she went further, and told Victor the people who were getting money out of the mine, ought to provide houses for the miners. Altogether, he found this business of ordering two prosaic little wooden buildings, a wonderfully enchanting affair. Indeed, at this period he lived in a world of enchantment. There was a light in his eyes, and a glow on his face oftentimes, that might draw the eyes of the least-interested observer.

"Smiling at angelsnote again, Fitz-Gibbon?" said Vansittart, a few evenings after the weather-board cottages had been ordered. It was the fifth day after Trevaskis' return from town, and the three were sitting at tea in the dining-room of the Colmar Arms, when Vansittart abruptly broke the silence with this inquiry.

"What do you mean?" said Victor, turning to him, his unconscious look of beatitude replaced by one of wonder.

"Ten minutes ago I was talking to you most profoundly about the destinies of the human race. I said they were unable to achieve any real lasting good, and that the divinities who tried to help them had all ended with failure. There was the Indian god who tried to carry the world to salvation, and lost his hands and arms; another who developed a liver with a fowl snapping it out of him through ages; another who was put to death on a cross.note "Yes," said you softly, staring into your teacup with a little smile. After that your mine-manager spoke of the great dray-loads of machinery that are on the way from Nilpeena to Broombush Creek. On that, you looked out through the window, again smiling ineffably. Are you in love?"

Much, no doubt, may be forgiven to a very young man who is for the first time passionately in love; but when his state of exalted preoccupation was so crudely brought home to him, Victor felt that his behaviour had been very boyish and undignified, and in momentary confusion he seized the first explanation that offered itself to him.

"Don't you know," he said, "that when people smile into their teacups and at windows, it is money they are thinking about–gold heaped up in an old cave room? By the way, captain, I suppose I can go on now with that search?"

Trevaskis shot a quick look at Vansittart, and then at Victor, the blood surging violently into his face. He had been several hours for four nights running at work in the cave room, retorting

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and smelting the amalgam, and his first thought, when thus addressed, was that he had somehow been spied upon.

"It's better to settle mine-matters at the mine," he answered brusquely.

"Don't mind my presence in this matter, sir," said Vansittart, with icy politeness. "You see," he went on, fixing his eyes steadily on the manager's face, "it was I who first told Mr. Fitz-Gibbon that the cave room was well worth looking into. I wonder he has taken so long about the matter. For a young man who is so much wrapped up in money, he is singularly dilatory."

Trevaskis emitted an ejaculation that was between a snort and a grunt–one of those sounds of defiant indignation which notehas perhaps descended to us from the days preceding the evolution of speech, still retaining a primitive eloquence that defies translation into language. He felt certain for one brief moment that all was known, that these speeches were prearranged, and the prelude to openly denouncing him as a thief. But he recalled his terror on notethat first night, when he made sure that he was uncovering a mutilated corpse. "It may be another dead rat, after all," he said to himself. He drained a cup of tea, and then went to the sideboard to pour himself out another. His hand shook like a leaf, but with a strong effort of will he controlled himself.

"Did I tell you that Dr. Magann is coming to settle at the mine?" he said to Victor, resuming his place at the table. . . . "Oh yes–next week. There's not a soul left at The Ridges and Hooper's Luck except a few women and children and an old man or two. The rush to Broombush has thinned a lot of the townships between this and Adelaide; but as for The Ridges, it's simply cleaned out. It's lucky the old doctor is coming here; there's illness in three or four of the tents and huts."

In his determination to ignore the terror that had for a moment overtaken him, he talked notemuch more than was his wont. He even retailed some old mining stories, over which he and Victor laughed heartily. Altogether he was a much more genial being through the rest of the meal than he had ever been at that table before.

Vansittart sat listening and looking on in gloomy silence. A curious change had come over him since his illness. That

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pervasive ecstasy of the nerves, evoked by what he called his Australian "keef,"note had entirely forsaken him. It had no longer power to charm him into pleasing visions, or complacent monologues, alternated with drowsy, voluptuous reveries. When he spoke, it was in bitter discontent with the world and all that it contained. But for the most part he sat silent, with an expression of unmoved sombreness on his face. He fixed his attention on Trevaskis from the moment that the cave room was mentioned till he left the dining-room. Then, turning to Victor, who was lighting a cigarette preparatory to leaving, he said:

"What is that man up to? You noticed nothing unusual in his manner? Why, the moment you mentioned gold, the blood rushed to his face in a torrent. His eyes, too, are much worse again, and when he lifted his teacup, his hand trembled as if he were in a fit of D.T.note . . . Hasn't he made some excuse so as to prevent your going into the cave room?"

"It has not yet been convenient. I haven't been thinking much about it, to tell the truth."

"Well, I tell you he is up to his eyes thieving in that place."

It always gave Victor an uncomfortable feeling to hear a man impute a baseness to another. Perhaps he was as much in danger of being misled by his belief in people generally till they proved themselves unworthy of confidence, as Trevaskis was by his unfailing suspicions of all with whom he came in contact. This trait of his character had from the first forced itself on Victor, and he thought he now recognised the same tendency in Vansittart. It was this that induced him to reply:

"I have often heard of the melancholy of the Bush, and, do you know, Vansittart, I begin to think that it makes people take rather gloomy views of human nature."

"Yes, because you have plenty of time for reflection and concentrated observation–that is, if you have come to years of discretion. As for you, young man, if I am not mistaken, you live and move in an artificial paradise just at present. You have inhaled more keef than I have swallowed in all my life. Take care that your heaven does not come down with a run, like a broken drop-scene."note

He stared hard into the bright, handsome young face opposite to him. Its indomitable gladness seemed to wound him almost like an insult.

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"Well, as long as you suspect me only of being happy––"

"Yes; but don't forget that happiness in a world like this is the last refuge of an idiot!"note said Vansittart savagely.

On this Victor laughed outright, and rose to go. But something in the sombre eyes, the forlorn, stooping attitude, the uncared-for, lonely look of the man, suddenly touched him.

"I say, old man, I don't believe it's a good thing for you to be staying on here with nothing to do. Wouldn't you find it more amusing to wait for your friend in town?" he said, putting his hand on Vansittart's shoulder as he spoke.

"It wouldn't make any real difference to me," answered Vansittart, after a little pause. . . . "I came across an old black-fellow dying from a wound and from thirst once in the Bush. "Wirin-ap yarnt-il, wirin-ap yarnt-il!" he kept on saying a score of times to the minute, which means, "I am sick from a spear-wound."note That's about the size of it with me. My life has been a claim that didn't pan out well. I'm better waiting here than in town."

"Poor old chap! I wonder what came over him?" thought Victor, as he walked across to his office. "I might have offered to play a game or two of euchre with him. . . . But, then, there is this letter about the weather-board cottages which I want Doris to see."