― 453 ―

14. Chapter XIV.

Yet, notwithstanding the arguments and considerations with which she fortified herself, Miss Paget did not sleep much that night. Every now and then Doris's face would rise up before her, irradiated with a strange, spiritual light, the radiant eyes fixed lovingly on her face. She rose before it was dawn; then after sunrise she fell into a short, troubled sleep. From this she awoke with an insupportable sense of wrong-doing. She seemed to herself to have, by some strange impulse, contradicted all the traditions of her past life. And why? Why, indeed! No human being could be really worth that fatal moment in which passion, like a volcanic eruption, sweeps before it all the tenderer growth of which the soul is capable.

She bathed and dressed hastily, putting on a clinging robe of pale violet Cashmere, giving no thought to the make or hue of the robe she wore. In reality, she could have chosen no tint more calculated to throw her pale cheeks and anxious, unquiet eyes into strong relief. The day was unbearably close, with that dull, suffocating kind of sultriness which comes in an Australian summer as the climax of a stretch of burning days and hot nights. She wandered out on the lawn. A quarter of an hour before the breakfast-gong sounded she was joined by Victor.

"Oh, Helen, you must be ill!" he said, in a tone of alarm. "Why not notecome to the seaside this afternoon?" he went on. "The heat is intolerable; at least, notefor those who are ill. You see, I am all but off the sick list. Let me take care of you now, Helen, and be obedient as I have been to you."

"What is your prescription?" she said, with a faint smile.

"First, that you are not to be worried in the slightest degree for anything or anybody. I'll take Mrs. Tillotson off your hands, and we'll set off for Port Callunga after breakfast."

She longed infinitely to adopt this plan, but she could not. As

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she noted the marked improvement in Victor's appearance, her hopes revived.

"I cannot very well go this afternoon. I met a very charming young girl at the Masons' yesterday–one who is staying at Lindaraxa, and I promised noteI would call and see her. Wouldn't you like to see the house once more you so often dreamt about?"

"Oh, don't speak about dreams! Last night, for the first time since I was knocked on the head, I slept without seeing demons and monsters. But, if you'll allow me, I'll drive with you to town. I have some matters of business to attend to before we go to the seaside. I have your gracious permission, have I not?" he added smilingly, as Helen received his communication with doubtful looks.

"Yes, if you don't attempt to walk much. Drop me at Lindaraxa and then go on in the carriage, and call for me when you are ready."

Miss Paget reached the house a little after four. Miss North was out, and Doris was just then asleep. Mrs. North, a kindly, mouse-like little woman, who was in a chronic state of half-panic as to the results of her daughter's brilliancy, confided her fears to Miss Paget in a rather mixed fashion. She felt sure Miss Lindsay was slightly worse, though she did not say so, and Rachel was always so hopeful as long as people kept out of bed. If only she would send for a doctor.

"But your daughter is a doctor herself," interposed Miss Paget.

"Oh yes, my dear. But she has so many ideas, and that is always rather risky. Now, the first day I saw Miss Lindsay, when the dear child reached town–I can't think of her as anything but a child; I was staying with her mother at Ouranie when she was born. We came out on the same ship from England, and my husband died on the voyage. Everyone said Australia would be so good for his lungs, and no doubt it would, only he never reached the country. And as for the Lindsays, they were like a providence to us, only more so in a way, for Providence doesn't seem to mind much at times about us. Well, as I was saying, the dear child is asleep just now. Rachel has a great idea–you had better keep moving about and be chatty if you are ill, because, as I think she says, of the force of the will, and all that; but if you are

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getting thinner all the time––"

"Then, do you think Miss Lindsay is worse?"

"I hardly know what to think, dear. If only Rachel would come back. . . . She seems to be praying so much to-day, and that is always sad, as it were, for a young person."

"Does your daughter go to church to pray then?"

"Oh, my dear, Rachel never prays; she has got far beyond that. . . . She is quite up to the cleverest doctors in many things," answered Mrs. North, evidently quite scandalized at the inference which her own words had naturally conveyed. "I mean Miss Lindsay. I have sent a messenger for Mrs. Challoner. . . . I hope Rachel won't think it foolish of me . . . but I feel very nervous."

"But when I saw her yesterday––"

"Yes, just so, my dear. It was when they came in yesterday I thought Doris notelooking more unusual than notebefore, so to speak. But Rachel would have it her plan was answering beautifully–I mean, keeping her about and seeing people, and all that, instead of laying up and having things made for her. "Mother, the greatest happiness of your life is having slops made for people," Rachel says to me sometimes, laughing, and perhaps it is true in a way."

At the end of half an hour Mrs. North went to see whether Doris was awake and prepared to see her visitor. Ten minutes later Miss Paget was ushered into her room.

"I am so glad you have come," she said, rising and holding Miss Paget's hands in her own.

Almost at the same moment they both noticed one pacing up and down in the garden opposite the window. It was Victor, who, having transacted his business in town, had called in returning for Miss Paget as had been arranged. Instead of waiting in the carriage, he had, after a few minutes, wandered into the garden. He had that afternoon secured his passage by the Bendigo. The near prospect of setting sail made him restless, and the mere act of walking with the tide of returning vigour in his veins was a luxury. He was engrossed with thoughts of his journey, and did not once notice that the path which he was pacing traversed that portion of Lindaraxa which he had so often seen in his dreams.

But Miss Paget recollected this well, and she turned to Doris

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with a question on her lips. The girl, with her face transfigured, her hands clasped, had sunk on a low chair near the half-open window. She was partly hidden by the curtains. At last she met Miss Paget's fixed look with a little smile.

"He is waiting for you, is he not?" she asked, her lips trembling a little.

"Yes," answered Miss Paget, in a very low voice.

There was silence for a few moments, during which the trilling of a canary in the little conservatory adjacent to the room seemed to rise and swell into strange volumes of sound. The extreme pallor of the young girl's face, the look of deep, wistful pain in her eyes, the tightening clasp of her hands, all were apparent to Miss Paget.

"Dear, dear Victor! God bless you, and take care of you for ever," murmured Doris in a low voice. Her lashes were wet as she looked up, but her smile had something of its old radiance. "I think I understand why he does not wish to see me again," she said slowly.

"But he does–he does!" It seemed to Miss Paget as if she had surely uttered the words aloud. But her lips had hardly moved. She no longer asked herself what she should do. She stood like a spectator watching a drama whose issue is still quite uncertain.

"But would you like to see him?" she forced herself to say after a long pause.

Victor was slowly passing the window, going towards the gate. Doris looked at him fixedly till he was out of sight. Then, turning to Miss Paget, she said slowly:

"Do you know if he got a letter I wrote to him after––"

"Yes, yes. It reached him shortly before he left the hospital. I think he was glad to get it," added Miss Paget.

"Then I think I would sooner do as he thinks best," answered Doris.

"Ah, then you do not wish to see him? I am afraid I may be fatiguing you."

"Oh no, you are not, indeed. You are very good to come–and will you come again, perhaps?"

"Yes, to-morrow morning. In the afternoon we are going to the sea-side."

"And do you think it would be wrong––"

She did not finish the question. Victor was strolling back. He

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was repeating some lines half aloud, a glad smile on his face.

Miss Paget, white to the lips, stood regarding Doris as she sat bending forward, her hands rigidly clasped, her whole soul in her eyes. Victor repassed the window, and after that Doris turned to Miss Paget.

"I am glad to see him . . . but I think it would notebe perhaps . . . not quite right. I think he knows best."

The moral torpor which had fallen on Miss Paget seemed to affect her also physically. It was with difficulty she spoke or moved. Suddenly this inertness left her. She was roused by an insane fear lest Miss North should return and ask Victor to come noteinto the house. She now hastily notebid Doris good-bye, and exchanged a few words with Mrs. North as she left the house. She had of set purpose spoken that morning of her visit to Lindaraxa, and suggested that Victor should accompany her. The impulse was similar to that which leads some people to decide upon a certain course of action by tossing a coin. . . . Victor had come to the house, and Doris had seen him, but had refrained from making any effort to speak to him. It seemed as if fate had willed that they should not meet. Doris would soon sail away, and live among new scenes and companions. She would forget with all the happy elasticity of youth. Even now she could not be said to be unhappy. And as for Victor, was it not after all quite apparent that fever and not an absorbing passion had been at work with him? The stronger he grew the less he seemed to be haunted by melancholy regrets.

During the drive home, which Miss Paget lengthened by going round by way of the Botanic Park, both were apparently in high spirits. Victor was anxious to impress Miss Paget with the belief that he was nearly if not quite recovered, so that when, on getting to Callunga, he showed her his ticket as a passenger by the Bendigo, she should not be anxious on his account. She on her part was striving with all her might to drive away all thoughts and recollections of Doris; and at first her mind was obedient to her wishes.

All through dinner she laughed and talked incessantly, although the atmosphere was heavier than ever, and even ice seemed to acquire something of a sultry taste. But dinner was

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barely over when she found herself struggling with a notehorrible, an all but irresistible, inclination to sob aloud. She made her escape on some pretext from the drawing-room, where Mrs. Tillotson and Victor were engaged in some languid game with lettered bits of pasteboard. The twilight was closing in, and the hot north-east wind was higher than ever. Some change was approaching; the sky was covered with heavy clouds; in the west a long lurid line of sweltering crimson hung low in the horizon. Miss Paget wandered out among the trees for a few minutes. Then, going into her own room, she threw herself down on the bed and broke into hard, dry sobs, that convulsed her frame without bringing her any sense of relief.

"Oh, how could I–how could I?" she moaned to herself, in a hoarse, broken voice. The look on Doris's face, the pleading wistfulness of her eyes, were before her vividly, sweeping away the laboured impositions with which she strove to appease her wounded conscience.

There was a flash of lightning, followed by a long roll of thunder. A thunderstorm of great violence raged for more than a quarter of an hour. She stood looking out all the time, a feverish colour mounting into her cheeks, her temples throbbing vehemently. During that interval her resolution was taken. She would not go to the seaside to-morrow, and after she had seen Doris once more she would tell Victor, and then let things take their course. After all, if life became unbearable, there were a hundred paths that led out of it.note With the thought a strange calm fell on her. She did not again return to the drawing-room; she sent an excuse by a servant to Mrs. Tillotson and Victor. The thunderstorm had given her a nervous headache, and she thought she would be better if she slept; but she did not sleep. She sat down and wrote a short note, and sent one of the servants across to the family chemist for a bottle of chloral.note A good deal of this medicine had been used in the case of the maid who had been ill, but always under the doctor's prescription. The chemist, however, sent the required amount on reading Miss Paget's note, merely taking the precaution of writing a memorandum to ask that the phial should not be entrusted to the charge of the servants.

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"It is evident," thought Miss Paget on reading this, "that one of the chief advantages of belonging to the classesnote is that one may get a dose of poison at will." "Poison!" She repeated the word, and turned the bottle over curiously. Often during the days in which she had waited in suspense as to Victor's movements, the thought had come to her how little necessary she was to anyone's happiness. To-night she sat going over the thought of her own death step by step.

She saw the scene of her funeral: the hideous black-plumed carriages going slowly to the graveyard, then returning at a cheerful trot; the mourners talking to each other complacently, with the relief of a disagreeable duty over. Her father would be so much put out by the interruption to the usual routine of his days, that he would dine that evening with one of his married daughters, without being sure beforehand that he should not be offended by the sight and smell of mock-turtle soup. They would all put black on, and utter her name with a becoming sigh for a few weeks, and then they would begin to reckon what extra luxuries they could indulge in, with the addition her money would make to their incomes. Ah, how odious, malicious, and brutal, human life was at bottom!note Even the greatest catastrophe that overtook human beings was but the counterpart of the ruin that sometimes comes to an ant-heap. . . . When a dray-wheel passes over it, the ants who have not been crushed rush about distractedly; but in a short time they are thieving the grubs of other insects, and carrying the booty down into their holes as usual.

And Victor–how would her death affect him? Oh, he would be happy, as long as Doris was spared to him! Miss Paget had been too willing to blind herself to the truth, but now she swept aside the meshes of imposition which her own hopes, and the words spoken by Trevaskis and Doris, had woven. It was only a misunderstanding–a deception practised perhaps by Trevaskis himself on Doris, that had led her to the conclusion as to Victor's love for "Helen." Yes, Doris had heard him repeat that name during his unconsciousness. But this was only owing to the anxiety which possessed him to come and tell her that he no longer loved her, or rather, that he perceived he had never done so. . . . She knew so well. . . . Had she not every right to know?

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What happiness had all the years of her life hitherto brought to her, that she should expect bliss in any form now–now that she was no longer young, and had never been beautiful? Why did she expect more success? Love and devotion, like every other good, were purchased. Yes, purchased by some definite charm.

Miss Paget slept till long after sunrise. A cold, raw wind had succeeded the excessive heat of the past few days. Mrs. Tillotson was loud in her exclamations as to Miss Paget's ailing looks.

"My dear, you are certainly getting the influenza!" she cried.

Helen caught at the idea. The complaint was just then spreading in the province. She lay on a couch most of the day. She tried to make herself believe that the impulse which had carried her away on the previous evening was spent; but all the time she was conscious of a deep under-current, whose swell would bear her she knew not whither.

"There is no question of our going to the seaside by starlight this evening, Helen," said Victor, coming into the drawing-room within an hour of sunset. Up to that time Miss Paget had remained in her own room.

"No. I fear I am going to be ill," she answered slowly; "but before I am laid up––"

noteThe housemaid brought in two notes on a little silver tray. Neither was of much importance, but as she glanced over one of them Miss Paget decided on her line of action. Half an hour later she was at Lindaraxa, and in Doris's room. Mrs. Challoner was with her, and Shung-Loo came noiselessly into the room to draw the curtains and light the candles. Mrs. Challoner looked extremely anxious. On coming into Doris's room early that morning she had found her very lightly clad, sleeping by the open window, with the cold west wind blowing over her. The change from the late sultry weather had been more than usually severe, and though Doris complained of no pain, her voice was seriously affected. Miss North was apprehensive that she had caught cold, and had, before going out on her professional round, regulated the temperature of the room, and left Mrs. Challoner in charge.

But Doris, though conscious now and then of a heavy sensation in her head and chest, had been wrapped round with such happy dreams that her thoughts were constantly wandering

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from things around her. All day, at intervals, she had spoken to Mrs. Lucy and Shung-Loo as if they were back at Ouranie again and her mother quite near her. Now Mrs. Challoner awaited Miss North's return with some anxiety.

"I will leave you two alone for a short time," she said, divining by Miss Paget's manner that she wished for this.

"I am afraid, dear, you are not well," said Miss Paget, holding the girl's hands in her own. The feverish brilliancy of Doris's eyes and the flush in her cheeks filled her with strangely conflicting emotions. She had come fully determined to tell how she had deceived both Doris and Victor. But she hesitated. "Your name is Doris, is it not?" she said. And then in rapid confused phrases she told how she had been under some strange mistake. . . . And now she was quite sure Victor wished to see her–did not know that Doris was really here.

"Didn't he know yesterday?" asked Doris, her lips trembling a little.

"No; and I want you to do me a favour, a great favour."

"Oh yes, only tell me. You are so good and kind. I shall be happy to do something for you."

At these words Miss Paget lost all self-control. Deadly pale, with the tears streaming down her face, her hands tightly clenched, she knelt at Doris's feet.

"Oh, Doris, Doris, let me tell you," she cried in a choking voice. "I deceived you yesterday, and hid the truth from Victor, and now I cannot bear that he should know. But I must tell you."

She told her tale, with bent head, not sparing herself, but she said something of that hunger for love, that void in the life of the affections which from her earliest recollections had been with her like a chronic heartache.

"If only my mother had lived even for a few years, so that I might remember her arms around me, her lips pressed upon mine, I think all might have been different," she said at the close.

And then she found Doris's arms around her neck, and the girl's flower-soft face wet with tears pressed against her cheek.

"Dear, dear Helen, how terrible never to know your mother! No one else can ever make up for that. But, dearie, do not be miserable any longer. In the end all will be well. Tell Victor I should like to see him once. He need not know any more than you wish to tell him."

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The tender sensibilities and delicate imaginative perceptions which formed so strong a feature of Doris's nature seemed at this juncture to enable her to divine what she could not clearly understand.