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15. Chapter XV.

Doris and Euphemia hastened to get out of their riding-habits and dress for breakfast. They were a little later than usual on account of their long ride, and they were consequently much surprised, when they went into the dining-room, to find that though breakfast was ready, and Shung-Loo in his accustomed place behind his young mistress's chair, neither Mr. notenor Mrs. Challoner had yet notemade their appearance. Presently Mrs. Challoner came in, looking very fagged and anxious. Her husband had hardly slept all night. Towards morning he had fallen into a troubled sleep, and now he had wakened up with a burning headache and slightly delirious. She had been anxiousnote regarding him notefor several days, noticing that an unusual languor hung about him, and that he neither ate nor slept well. But he had made light of all this, saying it was only a little overwork, and that working too much between meals did not now agree with him. He had refused to consult the doctor, partly because he was very busy disposing of his stock just then, and partly because something to be shaken up every two hoursnote had never done him any good when he was out of sorts.

The doctor was now sent for, and promptly confirmed Mrs. Challoner's fears. It was fever–most likely typhoid–and the patient was worse because he had not "caved in" as soon as he ought. He had, judging from symptoms, been working for a week with the fever hanging about him.

"Oh, my dear, I think I ought to send you to Adelaide, or perhaps back to Ouranie, till the worst is over," said Mrs. Challoner to Doris in the afternoon, when, her husband having fallen into a sleep, she came into the drawing-room, where the two girls were arranging how they could best help in the trouble that had fallen on the household.

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"Go away!–when you want all the help we can give you! Oh, Mrs. Lucy, how can you even think of it?" said Doris imploringly.

Then Mrs. Challoner, who was very notetired and very anxious, cried a little, and confessed it would be a great comfort, she knew, to have Doris in the house. On this Doris made her lie on the couch, and bathed her temples softly with eau-de-Cologne, and after a little Mrs. Challoner fell into a deep sleep, and Euphemia took her place in the sick-room. It was nearly sunset when Mrs. Challoner awoke, much refreshed.

"You always had wonderful little hands for soothing headaches away," she said to Doris, who now went on to tell her that she and Euphemia had been making certain plans. Doris was to take all household cares off Mrs. Challoner's hands, and Shung-Loo would help to nurse part of each night, and Euphemia part of each day. noteThen Shung would have nothing else to do, but have his whole time for Mrs. Challoner, and she was never to go too long without sleep and rest.

"Then, my dear, as I understand it, you are going to do all my work, and allow Shung to do nothing for you," said Mrs. Challoner, looking at the girl with dimmed eyes.

"Yes, I am going to be the housekeeper," answered Doris undauntedly; "go to sleep quite early, and get up early in the morning and waken Bridget, and see that she does things nicely, and always has hot water in the fountain.note Shung will cook all the things that you want in the sick-room, or go on messages. Oh, we have thought of everything."

Mrs. Challoner might exclaim against Doris taking her place so valiantly in the performance of unaccustomed responsibilities, yet it was an immense comfort in the face of a perhaps dangerous and tedious illness to have one at her right hand so able, willing, and resolute. Euphemia was willing and docile, but she lacked initiative. This Doris would supply, and the two, working harmoniously together, with Shung as ally and coadjutor, would form a strong stay. Only, as so often happens in drawing up domestic as well as political programmes, there was one element left out of the reckoning, which, on this first night, made itself strongly felt–the unforeseen. So far from

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going to sleep "quite early," it was nearly twelve o'clock before Doris closed her eyes that night.

It was a little after eight when Shung-Loo, who had gone to the doctor for medicine, returned with it in some excitement. The Colmar Arms was on fire, and nothing could be done to stop it. It was in one great blaze; they could see it from the top of the reef. Shung had heard that someone was burnt in one of the rooms, but there was so much hurry and confusion he did not know who it was, or whether it was true.

"Oh, I hope Mr. Fitz-Gibbon was not hurt there!" cried Euphemia. Doris turned very pale.

"I think he was going to play at the miners' concert this evening. But of course they would all turn out to try and stop the fire," she said, after a little pause.

They went with Shung noteto the top of the reef. It was a sultry, still night. The flames, which had now completely enveloped the house, cast a brilliant illumination around, and figures could be seen hurrying about, evidently concentrating all their attention on saving the places near the inn. Fortunately, it stood a little apart from the other dwellings, and there was no sign that any of them had so far caught fire. As the maid was out this evening, at a sister's on the mine, who was married to one of the miners, Doris and Euphemia did not stay long looking at the sight. Mrs. Challoner met them as they came in, and was alarmed at the pallor of Doris's face.

"The shock has been too much for you, Doris," she said, when Euphemia had breathlessly related the catastrophe at which they had been looking. "I must order my little housekeeper to bed in good time," added Mrs. Challoner, as she kissed both girls before returning to the sick-room for the night. Shortly afterwards Euphemia went to her own room, saying it seemed as if it were two days ago since they got up at daylight to go to Broombush Creek. She could hardly keep her eyes open. Doris stood looking after her with a feeling of blank amazement. It was Euphemia who had suggested that perhaps Mr. Fitz-Gibbon had been hurt, yet now she seemed to think no more about the matter, while she herself felt almost stunned with terror. The thought had fastened on her mind that Victor might have tried to save

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someone from the fire–that when it broke out he might have been in the house. A hundred conjectures kept passing through her mind, each more disquieting than the other, till her agitation grew so that she could hardly stand. She went to the southern veranda, from which she could see the red angry glare in the sky. Looking at this, her fears became insupportable. She went round to the back, to the little lean-to room that Shung-Loo occupied, to send him down to the township. He would find out if anyone had been hurt–if Mr. Fitz-Gibbon was safe. But as she reached the door the light that shone through the window was put out, which meant that Shung-Loo had gone to bed. As she stood debating with herself whether she should call him, she heard someone hurrying to the house. It was Bridget.

"Oh, Miss Doris, did ye hear about the fire, and Mr. Fitz-Gibbon and the landlord being burnt to death?" she cried, flourishing the rumours she had heard in their most gruesomely dramatic form.

She went on with great excitement, retailing all that she had heard, and various surmises on her own account, bewailing the mishap with facile sympathy, and that glow of half-gratified importance with which some people recount a tale of horror.

But Doris heard nothing beyond the first awful intelligence. She stood in the wan starlight as if turned to stone.

"It was just a mercy av the Lard that me brother-in-law wasn't there when the fire bruk out, for he's just the very wahn to get into throuble on the first opportunity. Well, it's after noine, Miss Doris; I musht be turning in, so as to be up broight and early, for there's always shlopsnote to be made ahl the toime whin there's illness in the house–and I'd like to see the funerals if I can be shpared. We seem to be getting a dale av throuble all noteat once. Good-night, Miss Doris; ye're enjoying the coolth av the air. If ye cast you're oi round as you go in, ye'll see the sign av the shmoking ruin in the sky."

And so, in entire unconsciousness of the crushing blow she had dealt the girl, who stood in speechless horror leaning heavily against a lounge beside her, the good Bridget bustled into the kitchen. In imagination, she was already putting a bit of crape on her Sunday hat, as a sign of her sympathy and sorrow for the

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father of a family, and perhaps that handsome young gentleman, so pleasant spoken, and generous in the matter of frequent tips. She was not quite sure he was a corpse yet, but, at any rate, he was badly burnt, and would most likely not get over the accident.

Groping her way into the house, Doris somehow reached the sitting-room. The door and windows were open, and the shaded candles were throwing a flood of soft light into the dusky stillness of the night. She tottered towards the couch under one of the windows, but before she reached it, it seemed to swim out of sight–a great blank and silence fell upon her.

After what seemed long hours, but was in reality only a few minutes, noteshenote found herself on the ground, her hands outspread on the couch, and her head resting on them. She tried to remember how she had come there, and looked round the room with startled eyes. Nothing was changed. There was the little flannel nightgown she had been sewing for one of the Connell children on the wicker gipsy table;note above her hung the picture of the beautiful old English home in which her mother was born; her mother's water-colours of Ouranie notewhere she had arrayed them on the opposite wall; near her, on the low bookcases, were the radiant flowers, but at the sight of these a terrible sorrow seized her. Moaning like a creature stabbed to the heart, she covered her face with her hands and began to tremble like an aspen leaf in the wind. "Burnt to death! burnt to death!" The words turned into scarlet letters around her. But as the horror and tearless anguish were again half lost in a creeping stupor, the sound of approaching footsteps reached her. There was a gentle knock at the open door.

"Is there anyone here?" said a well-known voice; and then there was a quick exclamation–a low cry of alarm.

For a moment Doris hardly dared to believe her ears, hardly dared to look, fearing she was betrayed by one of those happy dreams that notefled when one notewas fully awake. But this vision was too eager, too much alive, and too robust, to be lightly spirited away.

It was Victor–not indeed scathless, for one arm was in a sling, and one side of his face was darkly flushed, where it had been

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winnowed by the fiery breath of flame.

He stood for a moment transfixed with that low cry on his lips, and the look of sudden alarm that had come into his eyes on first catching sight of Doris, lying with her head against the couch, her face rigid and white as if in a swoon. The next moment he was by her side, helping her to rise.

"You have hurt yourself? you are ill, Doris?" he cried, looking at her, as she leant back on the couch, her face still deadly pale, and a strange, strained look in her eyes. "Perhaps it is you who are ill, not Mr. Challoner, as I heard in the office to-day. But where are the rest? Why are you all alone, looking so dreadfully pale?" he said, looking around, for it was not yet ten. And as his first affright passed away the wonder of it all grew upon him.

"No, I am not ill; I am better," answered Doris in a low, feeble voice.

It was all too sudden; the revulsion from the horror and anguish which had overwhelmed her was too great at first to permit her to feel or think. For a few moments she was only conscious that the terrible misery was unreal. Here was Victor, but with no vital hurt. The violence of the reaction shook her almost as much as the brutal tidings. But gradually a great and solemn gladness put new life into her failing pulses.

"You have come!" she said, looking up at him with the dawn of a smile as he stood before her, his face full of wondering anxiety.

The fact was so obvious that one might deem the words little to the purpose. But they were spoken with a thrill of gladness that woke a strange happiness in Victor's heart.

"You were not very badly hurt, after all?" she said, looking from his flushed cheek to his bandaged arm.

"Oh, very little–it is nothing! But, Doris, does Mrs. Challoner know that you have been noteill? You are trembling even now, and your hands are quite cold," he added, touching them as they lay folded over the end of the couch.

"No, no one knows . . . and I am nearly quite well."

"Had you fainted? Did anything alarm you?"

He was looking at her intently, and saw that at the question a faint wave of colour slowly overspread her face. Her eyes deepened with unshed tears, which gave a blurred, misty outline to

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all around her. She felt as if a great gulf of unknown emotion threatened to overpower her. She noteshrank,note she knew not why, from recalling the words that had overpowered her with such horror.

"I will tell Mrs. Challoner you are here. I know she would like to see you," she said, rising.

But her gait was a little unsteady. She leant on Victor's offered arm till she reached the door of the sick-room.

"Please don't frighten her about me. You see, I am well now," she said in an almost inaudible whisper as he turned back.

Two minutes later she re-entered the sitting-room with Mrs. Challoner.

"Oh, you were at the fire!–you have been hurt!" cried the latter, as soon as she caught sight of him.

And then the story of the fire was gone over as far as Victor knew it. He had gone with 'Zilla Jenkins to the Saturday concert.

"I got Roby to let me play my tune the first thing, as I wanted to come up at once to see if there was anything I could do for you here. I heard through the doctor that Mr. Challoner was down with the fever. Before I finished there was a great cry of fire, and we all rushed out pell-mell. It must have been going on for some time before it was noticed. West, it seems, had been drinking rather heavily; he was in bed most of the day, and his wife was in the bar––"

"Oh, poor thing! Was she hurt at all? Was anyone injured besides you?" asked Mrs. Challoner anxiously.

"Yes, the landlord. It must have been in his room the fire began. He was behind the bar in the wooden part of the house, which was as dry as chips. They noticed a strong smell of burning, but they thought it came from some rubbish-heaps the ostler set on fire towards sunset in the back-yard. When the flames broke out beyond the room where the fire began they could do nothing but run out for their lives––"

"Then didn't West give the alarm?"

"He never came out at all," answered Victor, in lowered tones, glancing anxiously towards Doris.

"He was burnt to death?" said Mrs. Challoner, in horror-stricken tones.

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"Yes; and the people who were in the bar had only just time to clear out. Some door or partition gave way, and the flames swept over it like an avalanche. The bar and all the back part of the house was one mass of flames when we reached the place from the school-room. Mrs. West was struggling to get away from some people to rush into the house for her little boy. They thought he was in the same room with his father. But, fortunately, I happened to know that he was in an end room of the stone part of the house. Dick and I were rather chummy, poor little chap! The house was all at sixes and sevens for a day or two back–the cook gone, a dazed housemaid in the kitchen, and Mrs. West having to see to the bar. This evening, while I was having tea about seven, Dick came in in his nightdress from a little room that opened out of the dining-room. He had been put to bed early, so as to be out of the way, but he said he wasn't "s'eepy," and so he had some tea with me, and then went back to bed. I got in through the dining-room window all right, but by the time I got back with Dick a spark through the open window had set the curtains on fire. I had to tear them down before I could get out with him––"

"Oh, Mr. Fitz-Gibbon, you saved the poor notechild's life at the risk of your own life!" said Mrs. Challoner, looking at the young man with beaming eyes.

"There was not much risk, really," answered Victor. "The great thing was that I knew where the poor little beggar slept. The smoke was getting rather bad in his room, but the dining-room was very little on fire when I went in."

"But your cheek is a little hurt, and your arm perhaps very much," said Doris, speaking for the first time, with an adorable little quiver in her voice and a dove-like, melting softness in her eyes.

"Well, and that was through stupidity," said Victor, who could hardly help laughing aloud for sheer light-heartedness. He would in truth have endured twenty times as much pain for the sake of hearing that faltering intonation. "As I pulled the curtains down, I let the burning edge of one brush my face and coat-sleeve. It must have been on fire for some little time before anyone noticed it, and then when I pulled it off my shirt-sleeve

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flared up. But Dr. Magann dressed the burn for me after I had taken Dick to the Olsens' place. That is where he and his mother have found shelter. Mrs. Olsen is Mrs. West's sister. . . . And I have had the offer of being boarded by the amiable noteScroogses," said Victor, with a smile.

Scroogsnote was a man who kept a large, rough boarding-house at Colmar. He had been twice fined within the last two months for sly grog-selling and for riotous goings on at his establishment.

"But you must not go there; the place is not fit for you. We can very well manage to board you here," said Mrs. Challoner.

It goes without saying that this arrangement had great charms for Victor, only he was loath to add to the cares of the household at this juncture. Finally, they compromised the matter by arranging that he should breakfast and dine in the evening at Stonehouse. He could easily manage about lunch in his office on week-days.

"But you must be careful–you should not irritate your arm. I must have a look at the burn to-morrow," said Mrs. Challoner, with motherly solicitude.

"Oh, it is nothing; it will be all right in a day or two. Fortunately, it's my left arm," answered Victor.

But though he made light of the part he had played in the catastrophe, no one else at Colmar–with perhaps one exception–was disposed to follow suit. The risk he had run and the hurt he had received were both much exaggerated. Bridget was not the only one who consigned him to an untimely grave. It was found to be a kind of artistic emotion to say that he had been burnt alive. The next day being Sunday, there was leisure to dwell on all the harrowing details, and there was a constant stream of noteinquiries at Stonehouse as to Victor's condition. The first to arrive was Mick, who would not be satisfied with Bridget's assurance that the "young gintleman was notelike a May daisy, and 'ating a hearty breakfast–glory be to God!" She had offered Victor her own congratulations on his safety with the eloquence of her race, maintaining a discreet silence as to her too ready belief in his mortality.

"If I might make so bould, I would like to shake hahnds wid

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you, Mr. Fitz-Gibbon," said Mick, when Victor came out to see him at the back-door.

"Why, Mick, one would think I had been singed all over like a plucked hen,note to hear you speak so solemnly!" said Victor, laughing, as he shook the little man's hand.

"Indade, sor, some av thim made me belave that a singed fowl was a fool tonote the shtate ye wor in. I was sound ashlape through it all in my little tint, and notewhen I got up and wint out, the first mahn I met was Ben Combrie, and the flare noteof the Colmar Arms in the sky like the day av judgmint. And two min roasted in the flames, says he–the landlord and the purser."

"But surely you know Ben Combrie's gift for saying the thing that is not,note Mick?"

"I do, sor–none betther–but ye cahnt thrust him even at the loying, for he sometimes tells the trut and shlips you up whin you laste noteixpicts it–and the half was thrue. Poor Wisht, his wife will mourn, though maybe widout reason, and we all sorrow for the good grog–'twas a sinful washte! And here's a tiligraph for ye, sor; I met the boy coming up, and I thought I might as well save him. It came notelast night in the middle of the combushtion. He mintioned notelikewise, sor, that the choild ye saved out av the flames was running about as hearty as a young wallaby this notemorning, though the poor mother is lying notespeechless crying on the poor omadhan that noteshpiltenote notehimsilf and the good grog intoirely. 'Tis loikely the funeral will be early to-morrow."