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10. Chapter X.

Victor, after bidding Trevaskis good-bye, as he climbed into the mail-coach that took him on the first stage of his journey to town, returned to the office and read over that thick letter from Miss Paget which had suddenly thrown a kind of gray light athwart certain rose-tinted illusions. It was a long, bright, pleasant letter, but perhaps, if it were received under the best auspices, there was too little in it that spoke to the heart. . . . Her father and Professor Codrington were just then ecstatically happy over the rubbings of antique stones from some antediluvian quarry in a remote part of Asia.note Among these rubbings they had discovered a new sort of metre!note Had she told Victor in her previous letter that among the residents of Colombo they had unexpectedly met a relative–a young clergyman newly wedded? A gentle little cherub of a man, with big blue eyes and a dimple or two, who apologized for the decrees of Providence in two short sermons each Sunday, and for the usages of Anglo-Colomban societynote during the rest of the week. His bride had an inexhaustible trousseau–a new dress for every emergency of life; and when there was no emergency at all she looked all the more like a lyric out of a Parisian fashion-book–a pretty lyric, too, only a little too much colour, especially in the matter of yellowish-green–a little too suggestive of a "resolute angel that delights in flame."note There was a long, vivid description of a journey to Kandy and back–of a reception and dinner at Government House, and various other social functions, at which the vanity of cliques and the pretensions of little-greatnote officialdom and its wives and daughters were noted with an unsparing pen. But there were no tender fancies, nor foolish little fondnesses, nor any lingering on those feelings that are the food of love. All these Miss Paget, of set purpose, denied to herself. Only near the close, as in her previous letter, were a few words which might be interpreted as a sign that she was not all the time in brilliant spirits. "It is all very lively and amusing; nevertheless,

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at times je m'ennuie horriblement; pensez donc un peu à moi."note

Victor felt as he had done on receiving Miss Paget's previous letters, that there was something lacking in them. But now he felt strongly that there was something lacking in his own heart yet more unmistakably. He contrasted the strong emotion with which he anticipated seeing Doris from time to time with the feeling that had suddenly surprised him on seeing Helen's letter, and the flimsy disguises with which he had, during the last few days, beguiled himself, were torn aside. He lingered over his evening meal at the Colmar Arms, though there was little in the way of food or company to attract him. Vansittart had for a day or two past kept entirely to his own room. "He wasn't ill, but queer like, and didn't care to eat, or see anyone," the landlady explained. There were several strangers at the table, men coming or going to the new diggings. Their only talk was of the finds there, or notethe companies to be started–of the diggers and various adventurers, whose numbers were swelling daily. Victor listened to them with a dull amazement at the avidity with which they harped on these details, long after every fibre of novelty had been threshed out of them. His little friend Dick, now happy in a toy stem-windernote of his own which Victor had bought for him from a travelling jeweller, came and sat by his side, and made conversation to the best of his ability.

It was all very dull, and there was nothing to tempt him to linger as he did, except to pass the time till it was half-past eight, when he was due at the little school-room of corrugated iron, where he played a solo on the violin, and stayed to play a second later on, at Roby Hoskings' pressing entreaty.

It was close on ten when he got to Stonehouse. The moment he opened the door of his room the sweet, penetrating breath of flowers saluted him. And lo! there on the toilet-table was a bunch of white and Parma violets in a little Sèvres bowl. He was still bending over them, all the torpor and dulness of the day replaced by an incredible thrill of happiness, when there was a tap at the door. It was Shung-Loo with a small tray, on which stood a cup of chocolate and some biscuits, and an invitation from Mrs. Challoner to breakfast on Sunday notemorningsnote at nine o'clock, which he accepted with thanks.

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"I could not do anything else," he reasoned. As if he wished to do anything else! As if he did not lie awake for hours half intoxicated with joy at the prospect of feasting his eyes on a certain face that now haunted him day and night with radiant, serious eyes! As if he did not rise with the first sunrays and wander round the house like an unquiet spirit, waiting to catch the first glimpse of Doris!

And at last he saw her coming out in a loose white morning robe, her hair in tumbled masses on her shoulders, damp from the shower-bath, as if they had caught dew-drops in their folds of tawny amber. She came to meet him as he approached her with a luminous sparkle in her face.

"You did not come last night, and we wanted so much to thank you," she said; and with that she gave him her hand.

And as he held it for a moment in his, timidly touching the firm, slender fingers for the first time, it seemed to him as if this quiet Sunday morning in the heart of the arid Salt-bush country would henceforth become the great date of his life. He could not have told what he said in reply, but it was doubtless something appropriate, for Doris went on with an enchanting look of gladness that seemed of right to belong to her, though it had of late been absent from her face:

"Such a great boxful of violets! You would hardly believe how many little dishes we filled with them. And it is late in the season for them. We had very few at Ouranie in November. Did you see the little bowlful we put in your room? . . . Oh, it is we who have to thank you more and more! I wonder if you know how much I love violets, and white ones especially?"

"I felt sure you did. Although I could not see any, it seemed as if you always had some."

The old look of deep, pathetic gravity came back to her eyes.

"Ah, that is because at Ouranie we made scent from them. They did not last long there, and we gathered them–mother and I–in great basinfuls, and got all the scent out of them by an old recipe. noteDo you like it? There is some on this handkerchief?"

She held it out to him, and he took the soft, daintily-laced bit of gossamer in his hand and held noteit for some time, feeling dreadfully loath to give it up.

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"It is sweeter than the violets themselves," he averred; and he turned the little handkerchief over with a lingering tenderness.

Did she guess that he coveted it? It would seem so, for after he restored it she went into her room–they were by this time on the veranda–and presently came back with a white Indian silk handkerchief, embroidered round the edge with those fanciful little Gooloo figures in palest dog-rose pink.

"I worked them a long notetime ago, and I have put some of our extract of violets on it for you. Will you please keep it, and this little bottleful?"

"I shall keep them as long as I live," he said, taking these little gifts from her with a stormy beating of the heart.

"But no; the handkerchief will wear out in a year or two, and you will use the scent in a few months," she said, looking at him with surprise at the extravagance of the metaphor he used.

"At any rate, you will allow that I may keep this pretty little cut-glass bottle for a long time," he said, half laughing, ready to treat his unguarded speech as a meaningless trope, though he felt in every fibre of his being it was but a cold statement of a bare fact.

Could it ever dawn on her how much they were to him, those simple little tokens of goodwill? What would she have thought if she could have seen him that evening in his own room, pressing her silk handkerchief to his lips over and over again? As he pictured to himself the wondering surprise in her sweet grave eyes, he coloured and smiled, and thrust the precious embroidered morsel of silk into an inner breast-pocket of his coat.

Mrs. Challoner's invitation to breakfast had been warmly extended to the rest of the day, and the hours had passed by with something of the unreality of a happy dream–with something, too, of that cold awakening to the complications of everyday life, that too often comes after moments of visionary bliss.

Near sunset they all walked a couple of miles across the western plain. Its most marked feature was the track that led through the frayed Salt-bush to Broombush Creek–a track now wide and trodden into a well-defined road by the ceaseless traffic of the crowds on foot, on horseback, and in vehicles, ceaselessly pushing on to seek their fortunes at the new diggings. A few stray passengers were in sight, and here and there in the distance were

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to be seen films of smoke floating up from brushwood fires, kindled by the travellers to boil their billies of tea. Challoner and his wife walked in advance, the three young people a little behind them.

"We must drive across to see the diggings," said Challoner, turning round, "one day before the rush is over. It will be something for you to remember, Miss Doris, when you get to the Old World."

It was then, from some further talk that passed, Victor learned for the first time how near this departure was. Directly after Christmas! Something seemed to obscure his sight for an instant. It seemed as though the vast melancholy plain, that made an interminable landscape wherever one looked, had suddenly engulfed his joy, his dawning expectations, his vague hopes. All his life he would recall with strange vividness the sensation that overcame him that moment, as if the vital forces of being were suddenly lowered, and the world had resolved itself into an illimitable ash-coloured wilderness, over which human lives passed like flying shadows, like the phantoms of a dream lost in infinite abysses of unremembering sleep. For a brief space an inexplicable melancholy fastened itself on him with a virulence which had hitherto been totally unknown to him. It was as if for one implacable moment he saw, as in a vision, the struggling, restless, tragic futility of human hopes, begotten in ignorance, snatched away in a passion of anguish, eternally lost in a little mound of dust. But such sombre reflections were foreign to his temperament, and the next moment he was almost ready to smile at them.

"You are going to relations, I suppose?" he said, after a little.

"Yes; distant relations on my father's side. But notebeside the relationship, Mme. de Serziac was my mother's dearest friend. Her children are my cousins."

After they returned to the house she showed him their photographs–the mother, the two daughters, and the son, taken at various ages. The last one of the latter represented a young man with a pointed moustache, and the immaculately-fitting uniform of a sous-lieutenantnote in the French Guards. It was on this photograph that Victor looked the longest.

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"He looks very different there, doesn't he?" said Doris reflectively, turning to this photo from the previous one, in which he had been taken with his sisters, looking rather an awkward youth with over-long limbs.

"Yes; you see, he is quite grown-up here, and a soldier. Of course you like the soldier one best?" replied Victor, looking at the young officer with a sombre brow. He hated himself for making the suggestion as soon as he had spoken the words. But Doris answered without the slightest hesitation.

"No, I don't think I do; for, you see, he seems more like a stranger, and I don't like to write to him as I used to do."

"Oh, do you, then, correspond with each other?"

"You see, it was like this," answered Doris, leaning her cheek on one hand and looking up at him. "We always wrote to each other two or three times a year when we were children–on birthdays and at Easter and Christmas time–sending cards and little gifts. Then for four or five years Raoul did not write at all. I suppose he was too busy, for he left St. Cyrnote and went into the army when he was only eighteen, and only sent messages and birthday remembrances in his sister's letters when he was at home. But after we sent them our photographs–these," turning the leaves of the album to the picture in which she was taken with her mother on her sixteenth birthday, "Raoul wrote a nice long letter to me, asking for a picture for himself, and begging that I would write just as I used to long ago. But I think it would be silly to write like that now."

"Yes, and Doris said the other day she would ask you about it, Mr. Fitz-Gibbon," said Euphemia, who was sitting near Doris with her accustomed gift of silence, but listening to all that passed with deep interest.

"Ask me?" repeated Victor. The gloom that had gathered on his face sensibly lightened.

"Yes; I thought you noteshould know what sort of notea letter a boy quite grown-up would really like to get," answered Doris, a little shyly.

"Oh, as for me, I notewould like to get any sort of letter that you wrote."

But this assurance, though spoken with that perfect veracity

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which seldom animates human intercourse, did not seem quite to satisfy Doris.

"Isn't that the sort of thing one says for the sake of politeness?" she said hesitatingly; and then, after a little pause, as if to soften the inquiry: "Of course you cannot tell how very stupid I am at writing letters. You see I know, because my cousins write such very clever letters–quite different from mine."

"I have been wondering what sort of letters you used to write," said Victor slowly, having with difficulty resisted the temptation of making various assertions during the pause that ensued.

"Well, mostly about the flowers–there were always flowers at Ouranie; and the birds, and the look of the sky notethe––"

"If you were writing to-night, what would you say about it?"

"About the sky, do you mean?"


She looked out through the open window and into the tranquil heavens, where the moon, almost at the full, was slowly mounting into sight. Her eyes grew large and humid as she slowly replied:

"I would say that the dark half of the moon was over, and that it was like a great silver basin heaped up with soft white lilies. And all the time, you see," she said, turning round and looking at him earnestly with her great candid eyes, "the moon is like notea cinder, as dry as ashes, full of dreadful scars and noteextinct volcanoes. I was so disappointed when mother told me about it when I learned a little about astronomy."

Victor looked into the pure sweet face upturned to his with a growing thrill of emotion. It was with difficulty he averted his eyes, and said with an affectation of carelessness:

"Well, if a good fairy came to me and gave me my choice of gifts, I know what I should choose."

"I should like to know."

"Letters like those you wrote from Ouranie."

"Really, do you mean noteit?"

"Really and truly."

"I wonder at that very much."

"Why do you?"

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"Because there are so many things more important than getting any letters. If you had your choice, would you not sooner be back with your mother?"

Victor turned quickly, and looked out at the window. He was forced to smile, and he feared that if Doris saw him, his levity would seem as strange to her as his choice of fortune.

"Well, there isn't much chance of fairies giving us the embarrassment of choosing," he said, evading a direct answer. "But some kinds of letters would rank very high with me. . . . I suppose you like getting your cousins'?"

"Oh yes, especially Eugenie's. She is just a few months older than I am, and she is going into society this season.note There has been so much for her to tell about, and she makes you feel as if you knew the people."

"Like that letter in which she told you about the Duchess, Doris," remarked Euphemia.

"For my part, I would much sooner hear about the silver basin heaped up with soft white lilies," said Victor.

"Then do you think I might write to Raoul as I used to?" asked Doris, a little anxiously.

Victor knitted his brows, and stroked his moustache with slow thoughtfulness.

"It is difficult to advise about another person, especially one you know nothing about. Of course I can answer for myself. I'll tell you what I think we might do–that is to make my opinion of any value––"

The young Machiavelli paused and looked as grave and reflective as if he were trying to decide a knotty question of statecraft.

"Yes, tell me," urged Doris with interest.

"You might fancy I was a long way off, and that you wanted to write to me and let me know what this place was like, and so on, like an exercise, you know, and then I might help you––"

"Oh yes, that would be nice; but what a shame to practise on you! Don't you mind?"

"Not in the least. I was going to say that I could help you noteto make it into an ordinary letter, like the prosy sensible things people generally write, and then you could send it to your cousin."

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"It is no use, I must write and tell the whole truth to Helen," Victor was saying to himself half an hour later in his own room. "It will be horrid, I know. . . . What in the name of heaven made me fancy I was in love! . . . Oh, what a beautiful darling she is! . . . And going away in six or seven weeks. . . . I shall take my passage by the same ship. I shall find it necessary. Will she ever care for me a little? But what a fearful donkey I was! . . . Fortunately Helen does not love me. . . . I am quite sure of that now."