― 275 ―

13. Chapter XIII.

On his way back to the office, Victor saw 'Zilla Jenkins standing at the door of his new weather-board cottage, which had been put together during the past few days.

"Come and 'ave a look at the residence, sir. I'm that pleased I want to dance the letterpoochnote all over it!" he cried.

It was a snug little place, with well-fitting doors and windows. 'Zilla's broad, massive face shone with the pride of proprietorship, as he showed Victor over the three rooms.

"This 'ull be the kitchen. I'm putting up a dresser with a few boards. The missus would come next week, but I want her to wait till this illness is over at the mine. Some says as it's catchin'."

"But isn't this your time for being asleep, 'Zilla?" asked Victor, after he had admired the neatly-planed shelves and the superiorities of a dwelling that kept out dust and wind.

"Iss, sir; but a man don't want so much sleep when he 'ave a place like this to put in order. Snell's 'ouse 'ull soon be ready, too–and badly they need it. They say the youngest child is very notehill, and there's more notebeing took bad at the mine."

The Snells were the invalids for whom Doris had the cottage ordered. It was now being put together not far from 'Zilla's abode. It occurred to Victor that he would ask Doris and Euphemia to come and see how this new addition to the mine was progressing, as soon as his work was over for the afternoon. He had not been at his desk more than five minutes, when Mick came with a message that Trevaskis wished to see him in his office. The moment Victor entered, the manager turned on him, his face distorted with rage.

"I want to know," he said in a loud, insolent tone, "why you are conspiring to treat me with contempt?"

Victor, on hearing the tone in which he spoke, looked at Trevaskis in amazement.

  ― 276 ―

"Pardon me, but I don't understand your speech nor your manner," he answered.

"No; but perhaps you'll understand both before we part," said Trevaskis. He was not only in a great rage, but he was using purposely offensive language, with the hope that Fitz-Gibbon would, in a moment of anger, throw up his pursership, or commit some grave breach of discipline which would furnish a pretext for asking him to resign.

On hearing the last remark Victor's nostrils quivered, and a gleaming light came into his eyes.

"I decline to bandy personalities.note Will you kindly explain what you mean by saying I conspire to treat you with contempt?"

"I mean your conduct with that blackguard Vansittart; telling him tales about the mine–setting him on at me about that damned cave room, and then sitting grinning––"

"You are talking utter nonsense, and I think you must know it. I never told Vansittart anything about the mine; I never set him on to you. Why should I? Do you suppose, if I wanted to say anything to you, I wouldn't say it to your face?"

"It's conduct I won't put up with, turning me into ridicule. I've never suffered anyone to do so before, and, by God! I won't now," said Trevaskis, rising as he spoke.

"I think we had better finish this talk when you have recovered your memory," said Victor, beginning to be very angry in his turn.

"What do you mean by that–what about my memory?" cried Trevaskis, drawing his breath hard.

"You made a certain accusation–I denied it entirely; yet you still repeat your ungrounded noteassertion. You forget that you are talking to a gentleman. That is what I mean by saying your memory has failed you," answered Victor, looking steadily in Trevaskis' face.

"And you forget that you are talking to your superior officer," retorted Trevaskis, still using the tones of an angry man. But it was becoming clear to him that his shots had missed their mark, and that, in making charges based only on suspicion, he had placed himself in a false position.

"I think not," answered Victor. "I do not see that it is part of my

  ― 277 ―
official duty to listen to unwarranted accusations without denying them."

"Then do you say that nothing at all has passed between you and Vansittart about me and the mine?"

"Pardon me, but that isn't the question. You began by accusing me of conspiring to treat you with contempt. I do not hold myself responsible for what Vansittart may or may not say."

"Then I'll ask you one thing. Did you know nothing of the attack he was going to make on me to-day, by insinuating that I was getting gold in the underground room?"

"Certainly not."

"And yet you purposely changed your dinner-hour–and that scoundrel was with you in the office for some time this morning–as if you hadn't time enough to concoct your schemes––"

"You are using exceedingly offensive language, and you are again returning to the charge I have denied. I went to dinner later because Mr. Vansittart told me that this was the landlady's wish."

"He is a liar! If he attempts to insult me again as he did to-day, I'll break every bone in his body. I think, as you are so fond of his society, it might be as well to tell him that from me."

"Excuse me, but I shall do nothing of the sort. I suppose you are not afraid to deliver your own messages," returned Victor, laying a malicious emphasis on the word "afraid."

"Afraid–damn your eyes! I'll show you whether I'm afraid."

"Damn your eyes! show it as soon as you like."

The two were by this time equally infuriated, and stood glaring at each other with venomous eyes.

"I shall report you to the office. You think because your uncle is a director that you can play the master here."

"You must do as you think fit about reporting me," answered Victor; "but remember that this disagreement has nothing to do with my work as purser. It is altogether owing to insinuations thrown out by Vansittart regarding that cave room. As we are on the subject, I may tell you straight that, all things considered, I should think it more satisfactory for me to search that place, as you agreed I should some time ago."

"And I may tell you in return that, until the late manager's things are removed, I shall not have that place touched. I never

  ― 278 ―
thought much of the rumour from the first; but now that I know who's at the bottom of it, I wouldn't give a continental oathnote for the snivelling yarn."

"I don't quite agree with you there; for my own part, I should feel inclined to advise the company to have a thorough search made," said Victor. For the first time, the thought took hold of his mind that Vansittart's suspicions might not be unfounded, as he considered how very inadequate was the reason given for delay, more especially as Trevaskis had at first suggested that Dunning's effects should be removed into one of the store-rooms, and now assigned no reason why the plan should not be adopted.

"Well, if I believed as much in your friend Vansittart as you do, perhaps I should feel the same," returned Trevaskis, with a forced laugh. "But, you see, I don't–perhaps I know a little too much about him–and at any rate I'm not going to meddle with Dunning's things till his brother comes."

The mine engineer knocked at the door just then, and came in to consult the manager about part of the machinery which was not working well.

"I suppose I had better return to my office, then," said Victor, as he withdrew.

The manager followed him out.

"I was in a bad scot when you first came in, Fitz-Gibbon," he said, in a conciliatory tone. "But I see that I was too hasty. We'll just go on as we were, and think no more about the matter."

Victor did not respond very cordially. Once his wrath was aroused he was apt to be vindictive. "The impertinent under-bred cad' were the words with which he described Trevaskis, as he returned to his office. Then he sat down and wrote a note, in which he called on him for a written apology for the insinuations he had made–first as to his conduct, then as to his veracity. After he had relieved his feelings in this way he tore up the letter. He would not risk making a final breach between himself and Trevaskis.

"I should most likely have to go if I made this into a big row," he reflected, "and I don't want to do that till Doris leaves with the Challoners. It won't be so very long now. Still, I should like to take a rise out of this fellow for his insolence." As he thought over the matter, he hit on a diplomatic way of doing this.

  ― 279 ―

There was a letter from his uncle, chiefly on business details, which had been unanswered for more than a week. Victor wrote an exhaustive and concise reply to this, and towards the close said: "Things are going on prosperously at the mine. noteNow I have got well into the work, I find I have a notegood deal of spare time on my hands. I should like to spend some of it in that old underground place of which I told you. If the search turns out to be unremunerative, I should be willing to pay any extra labour I employ out of my own pocket. The only obstacle now is that some of the late manager's effects are stowed there, and Trevaskis has some scruples about interfering with them till Dunning's brother takes possession. But there is ample room in one of the unused offices, in which the articles in question could be kept under lock and key. An order from the office to shift them would relieve Mr. Trevaskis of any responsibility in the matter, and give me the chance I wish for, before my time at the mine is up. I shall be glad, therefore, if you give instructions to the secretary to this effect, without delay. I did not at first attach much importance to the matter, but a man who was employed here during Webster's tenure of office is certain that gold was concealed in the place in question, and some events which I would rather not commit to writing have of late made me incline to the same belief."

As Victor read this over before closing the letter, he felt satisfied that it would effect his object. If after the order came for removing Dunning's effects Trevaskis still invented objections, it would be pretty evident that he had some sinister motive, and that the sooner action was taken on behalf of the company the better. It was only when Victor was crossing the reef, on his way to Stonehouse, that all thoughts of the disagreeable scene between himself and Trevaskis were replaced by pleasanter musings. It was close on sunset, and he lingered on the crest of the reef as if lost in contemplation of the scene before him. It was now well on in November, and week by week the days were getting warmer, the sky paler and more cloudless, the Salt-bush more deeply coated with dust, the notespace between the bushes barer, and baked in places into a more vivid tinge of red. As the

  ― 280 ―
summer came notein, the noteprospect of later rains lessened. During the previous twelve months only eight inches had fallen in the district. The hot winds were frequent, fraying and mangling the gray-green salt-bush, till it looked in some places like neutral-tinted fodder trampled under foot. Tall clumps of overblown mallows were beaten to the ground in pallid masses of sere leaves; and in all the wide desolation of the vast plains no sign of life was to be seen, except the trailing clouds of dust that hung perpetually in these days above the road that led to the new diggings. It was a strange, weird scene, but it is questionable whether any of its features caught the young man's eyes.

He was looking through the avenue noteof trees that surrounded Stonehouse, when suddenly his face was lit with a warm glow.

"There she is! Oh, my beautiful darling!" he murmured, looking at her with all his soul in his eyes. Then he went a few paces to the left, so that he might see Doris better as she stood looking westward, across the gray, limitless plain, above which the sun, in going down, seemed to set the sky on flame. Doris had a letter in her hands and her dogs were close beside her, Spot evidently doing his best to decoy her into walking with him. But his mistress was more irresponsive than usual. Even at the distance which separated them, it seemed to Victor there was something pensive and fixed in her attitude. Would she look up with a happy smile when she saw him? Of late he had got into the habit of expecting this, and he was seldom disappointed. But was it the gladness of mere friendliness or––Victor did not finish the conjecture, for Spot had run to meet him at the gate, and now Doris saw him, and their eyes met.

"You were reading a letter. Don't let me disturb you," he said, making a movement to pass on, and then lingering to pat the dogs and ask Spot if he had been stolen again.

"Oh, it is only the one that I was going to send you."

"Then post it to me at once, please, or be the postmaster. I am come to see if there are any letters for me."

She gave him the open sheet, looking at him with a half-shy, half-amused smile.

"You know, when people are anxious about their letters, they always read them at the post-office," Victor said, as he began to

  ― 281 ―
read. There were a few preliminary formal phrases, and then the writer said:

"You must not expect a very interesting letter, for I feel too old now to make up fairy fables, and nothing happens here but people passing in crowds to search for gold, or crushing stone for it at the Colmar Mine, with machinery that goes on day and night. Nothing but this, and the rising and setting of the sun, moon and stars, the sky growing red and pale by turns. It is all so dreadfully bare–there are not even long shadows; and always the immense naked plains–the strange, silent sea, without waves or ships, with no sounds but the voices of the wind, when the hot wind blows all day, and cries all night. Does it take all the leaves, the buds, the waters, all the water-fowl and the honey-birds, and the beautiful blossoms, to make gold down deep in the earth, or lying in nuggets near the surface? For that is nearly all notethat is to be found here, and it cannot be worth so much as that. . . ."

"May I keep this letter for my own?" asked Victor, after reading it to the end.

"Oh yes; but do you care for it? Do you think if I wrote one like that to Raoul––"

"No; don't write noteit to anyone else. Let it be only for me," said Victor, with so vehement a note of entreaty in his voice that Doris looked up at him quickly, with a little expression of wonder in her eyes.

"I suppose you think I am very selfish," he said; "but sometimes–when I think of your going away––"

"Do you think of that, too? I do often–I am sometimes sorry. But as for letters, I used to think that I would never keep any."

"What made you think so?"

"Because they seem to make people sad afterwards. . . . Perhaps if one lives long enough, everything makes one sad."

"That is a dreadful little heretic of a thought."

"A heretic? That means one of the wrong faith?"

"Yes. The right faith for your thoughts is that everything is to love you and serve you and make you happy."

She smiled a little, and then said reflectively:

"I think my thoughts are seldom very sad now."

  ― 282 ―

She was little given to analyzing her own thoughts, but it was undoubtedly the case that of late something of her old spontaneous gaiety had returned.

During the week that followed, Victor obtained Mrs. Challoner's consent to take Doris and Euphemia out riding early in the morning. Challoner was much occupied in disposing of what was left to him of his sheep and cattle. He was engaged each day on some part of the run with men who came to buy or look at the stock. He might as well give them away as noteto take the prices offered, he said. He seemed depressed and out of sorts, and his wife longed for the day when he would finally leave the scene of so much financial disaster. In the meantime he was unable to take the girls out riding.

"Let me, Mrs. Challoner. I know every inch of the ground about here now. You can trust them to my care, can't you?" pleaded Victor. And when, to the unconcealed satisfaction of all three, the request was granted, Victor felt assured that the arrangement had come bodily out of the heart of the "Arabian Nights," or some equally enchanted region, in which the sun rose chiefly to compass adventures, untouched by the prose of the ordinary world.

Morning by morning he would awake with the dawn, get into a knock-about suit of clothes, and go into the stable to groom the horses with Shung-Loo's help. Then, by the time he had his bath and was dressed, the girls would be ready in their riding-habits, and Shung-Loo in his linen suit, impeccable as though no duties had ever been performed by him beyond treading on carpets, with a dainty Japanese traynote in his hands, would bring in cups of chocolate, and a plate of delicious little flaky cakes, of which the secret seemed destined to die with him. "Many a man has immortalized himself for less than making such cakes," Victor said more than once, and, finding that they had no distinctive names, he christened them "Shung-Loos."

"When I have a house of my own," he declared one morning, "there will always be a plate of Shung-Loos on the breakfast table."

"But Shung-Loo won't be there to make them," observed Euphemia practically.

  ― 283 ―

"Now, how are you so sure about that?" asked Victor, a dancing light in his eyes.

"Oh, because he'll always be with Doris, and she'll be away on the other side of the world."

"And do you suppose I'll be tied by one leg to the mine all my life, like one of those chuckiesnote of yours who refuse to lay two eggs a day?"

It must be observed en parenthèse that Euphemia, though not yet a "notable housewife,"note kept a keen look-out on the fowls, and when she suspected one of them notemaking a felonious nest for herself in a casual unknown salt-bush, she promptly tied the defaulter by the leg near a domestic nest, till her evil habits were abandoned and she had sorrowfully taken the truth to heart that the way of transgressors is hard.note

"No, of course you'll not always be at the mine; but won't your house be in Adelaide?" said Euphemia, generously ignoring the jibe regarding her chuckies.

"Oh, not necessarily. A little event will sometimes change the course of one's lifea book, or a sermon, or a couple of verses. With me it's the Shung-Loo cakes. I must fix my house near enough to borrow Shung. "V. Fitz-Gibbon presents his compliments to Miss Lindsay, and will she be kind enough to lend him her Celestial man-servant for an hour and a half?" That will be the sort of note I'll be noteafter writing day by day."

They all laughed over this, and the joke was often taken up afterwards.