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8. Chapter VIII.

Kenneth's horses, which he had driven together for nearly five years, had gradually acquired the art of seeming to walk briskly, while in truth their pace was very slow. But on the way from the hut beyond the broken-down whim Doris took no note of this. For the first mile she sat as she had done in coming, on the front seat beside Kenneth, but watching Victor intently. She saw that when the waggon went over uneven ground the motion jolted him roughly. His head rolled from side to side, and he muttered uneasily. She could not bear that he should endure this discomfort.

"Kenneth, don't you think I had better sit so that I can support Mr. Fitz-Gibbon's head?" she said timidly, after the first mile had been got over.

"Yes, Miss Doris dear, it is very thoughtful of you. Then you know his name? To be sure, that good man–maybe I ought to have asked who he was–told me you had seen the sick man before. Perhaps you would wish to come all the way to the diggings, so that he should be better cared for?"

"Oh, yes, yes! Please don't go to the Half-way House at all, Kenneth, till we return," pleaded Doris.

"Just as you wish, Miss Doris. If Mrs. Challoner wakes before we get back, she'll know you're safe with me. I'm thinking, by the look of the sky, that there's a dust-storm coming on. But we're safe in the keeping of the Shepherd of Israel, who slumbers not nor sleeps."note

Kenneth took one of the movable seats of the notevan, and fixed it for Doris close beside the invalid. Then they went on their way once more. At sundown Kenneth halted to make some tea. Victor half woke up and drank a cupful. He looked at Kenneth as he supported his head and held the cup to his lips, and murmured some broken words. The next instant he was once


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more in a state of drowsy unconsciousness. A quarter of an hour later, when within a mile of the diggings, a dust-storm broke over them with terrific violence. The horses refused to face it. Kenneth stopped on the sheltered side of a clump of sandal-wood trees, and made the tilt of the waggon as fast as possible against the dust. But it came in driving showers through every chink and cranny. Doris, stooping over Victor, shielded his face with her dust-cloak. Now that the motion of the waggon had ceased, his sleep was less broken, his breathing more regular.

As Doris sat holding her cloak over him, his head resting against her knees, all the conflicting emotions which had taken possession of her, when the incredible assertion made by Trevaskis on the preceding day had been so strangely confirmed by Dan's words, died away. He was safe, and he would live, and reach "Helen" after he had been nursed back to health. As for herself, she was confused and very weary. Oh, if she could only go to her mother! The vital forces, which had been subtly undermined for some days back, flagged lower. She did not cling to the world or any of its bewildering, cruel stories. She could not understand them. She longed only for the profound love that had wrapped her round all her life, and never deceived or wounded her. She did not fear death. In her mind it was associated solely with the great peace that had reigned in that quiet room in her old home, full of roses and sunlight, in which but a few months ago her mother had awakened from the dream of lifenote with a look of rapturous serenity on her face.

The very memory of that dear countenance, stamped with a profound and unutterable peace, seemed to soothe every lingering regret. She could see the sky growing darker, even the sunset flush trembling into wanness, as the dust-storm raged with the fitful wails of a wind that rushes at its own wild caprice over boundless plains, without a solitary wall or hill, or even a line of trees, to impede its course. The grayness of the earth, in this region perpetually clad in dead colours, became even dimmer. The light waned in the sky, and the wind blew more furiously. To Doris it seemed as though all around were mounting billows, ready to float her to the verge of the unknown shore which at some unknown distance must bound this unmeasured sea, before so silent, but now full of commotion, of shrill, tumultuous voices. But gradually they died away; they swooned into the


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silence that sooner or later falls upon all the sounds and tumults of the world.

The sickle of a young moon hung low on the horizon, and stars trembled into sight;note the cries of a long line of water-fowl, flying from some drought-stricken district, sounded far and thin overhead; the rumble of the wheels, the beat of the horses' hoofs, the cries of the birds, the light of notethe moon and stars in the sky, the sudden arrest of the emotion that formed the dominant pulse of her young life, happy, tender memories of her mother–all were woven by the mysterious shuttle of sleep into a delicate tissue that bore the mask of reality.

The wind had changed. It was soft and low, breathing from the west, with long lines of dreams in its wake–dreams that were at first like vaguely luminous pictures. They seemed to fall from successive heights in slender streams of transparent foam, and then slowly invade the gray plains with silvery waves of light, lapping against the shore in numberless battalions that were perpetually renewed. . . . She was gliding over the yellow sands, and the light of the moon mingled with the glow of the dying sunlight; she could hear the beat of the waves, and the calls of the white seagulls wheeling above them. A boat drew near the shore, with milk-white sails, crowded with tall, strong angels, whose wings were folded on each side of them. She watched them idly sailing by, but as they passed she saw that at the further end her mother sat with outstretched arms. On that she called out; but the waves rose, and her voice was lost in their hissing . . .

Now it was night, and darkness was around her, the wind was rising into a storm; deep calling unto deep,note and she was alone. The darkness thickened round her, and she was alone in a strange, desolate country; but in a moment one came calling her by name and holding her by the hand. It was Victor, and as she clung to him the light came back once more; . . . but someone came between them and led him away, and she was alone. Then a strange terror fell on her–an inexpressible, unreasoning, creeping fear; a fear, not of death, nor of the ghastly legends that men tell each other with blanched faces of how the soul, ardent, conscious, full of love and hope and infinite tenderness, is plunged in a moment of time into eternal oblivion like the carcase


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of a stall-fed ox.note The horror that had fallen on her was a horror of life–a shrinking noteterror from the days full of gay sunshine, carrying away with them, like the petals of faded roses, all that the heart clings to, all that makes the world a place in which it is pleasant to dwell.

She was in the midst of the Silent Sea–gray, voiceless, sinister, for ever the same–and she was alone. In the sleep that had overtaken her, Doris knew for the first and last time what is symbolized by the word "despair." She looked with conscious eyes into those remorseless depths of being in which the bereavements of death are seen to be gentle and loving and merciful, as compared with the robberies of life. She could not cry; but it was as though tears of flame were slowly falling one by one on her heart, and consuming it within her. The whole world seemed full of mounds, overgrown with grass, beneath which human souls were dropping piecemeal into clods of dust; and all around her the dead sombre colours of the Silent Sea–the gray, vague formlessness, the darkness on which no shadows could be cast.note . . . How many, many hundred years had stealthily crept between her and the happy serenity of the days in which she had lived with her mother!

Her mother! The word was like a spell. As she breathed it, moving uneasily in her sleep, the terrors that had overpowered her fell away one by one. They were not true, they were part of a mocking nightmare; now she was noteawakening to the truth, and the truth was peace and blessedness, and light and healing. She heard a faint rustling, as of one drawing near her in flowing robes. Oh, joy unspeakable,note and consolation never more to be wrested from her! her mother had come to her! Her arms were round her, her lips pressed on her cheek.

"Oh, maman, maman! did you hear me–have you come for me?" she murmured in a happy whisper, and with that she looked up into her mother's face. It was as gentle, as beautiful, as full of love, as real to her, as it had ever been. She waited in breathless eagerness for her mother's answer. And her mother's answer was to take her in her arms once more, and kiss her on her brow; and then she awoke, her eyes wet with happy tears, her brow warm with her mother's kiss. "That was her answer–I am going to


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her," she said to herself half aloud.

Then she knew that she had been asleep, that their journey had come to an end, that Kenneth stood talking to someone in the doorway of the hospital in which Victor was to be nursed. The waggon stood quite close to the front of it; the tilt had been drawn aside, and the light was shining in, so that she could see Victor's face distinctly. As she looked at him he moved and murmured some words. She bent over him. "Helen, you understand, don't you?" he was saying, in a troubled tone. But the sound of another woman's name on his lips had now nothing of sorrow or fear for her. The bliss of her mother's summoning kiss wrapped noteround her like a garment which could be penetrated no more by the darts of any self-regardful sorrow.

"Dear Victor, good-bye! God make you well and happy!" she murmured softly, stooping over him, and noteslightly touching his brow with her lips. He moved at the touch; he seemed struggling to awake.

"Darling, darling!" he said, half raising one of his hands.

"He is dreaming of Helen," she thought.

In that instant Kenneth came with two men, one holding a light, the other to help him to take the patient inside. It was all the work of a few moments, and then they were on their way back to the Half-way House. When they reached it Mrs. Challoner was still asleep; only the landlord and one or two late travellers were astir. The landlord pressed them to stay for the night, as it was now ten o'clock.

"The young lady looks so very pale; I am afraid she is ill," he said.

But Kenneth, looking steadfastly at Doris, saw that her eyes were shining, as if her heart were full of happy thoughts.

"Miss Doris is often pale," he replied; and then he explained that he was pledged to set out on a long journey on the morrow, and that it would be better for Mrs. Challoner to travel in the cool of the night.

So Mrs. Challoner was awakened from her long sound sleep, and said she felt like a new creature.

Early next day Kenneth departed. Doris, who had slept very fitfully, was up to say good-bye to him. As he held her hands in


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his, they seemed to him very hot and dry.

" My dear Miss Doris, I hope the fever is not on you," he said, looking into her face anxiously. Surely it was very pallid, and the shadows under her eyes very deep. Yet when she looked up at him there was that calm, exalted gladness in those wonderfully radiant eyes which notestruck him on the previous night.

"I am well, thank you, Kenneth," she answered, smiling at her old friend. "Here is something I want you to keep always," she added, giving him a small sandal-wood box. It held a large gold locket, with a photograph of her mother on one side and of herself on the other.

Kenneth looked from one to the other. As he looked at Mrs. Lindsay, he said with the soft, pensive intonations which had always in them something of the solemnity of solitary musings:

"Dear heart, sweet gentle lady, of thee it might always be said, "God hath given His angels charge over thee, to keep thee in all thy ways."note Now thou art among the companies of the blessed, enjoying the sweetness of the contemplation of the Father for ever."

"Kenneth, if you heard that I had gone to her, you would not think it was anything to grieve for, would you?" asked Doris softly.

"No, dear child; you have ever had one of those sweet and well-disposed natures which need little chastening to make them fit for the companionship of the sinless ones. . . . But though your life may be long in the land,note something tells me we shall not meet again. To me the hour of my deliverance can never come amiss. Though we are drenched with matter, yet the better part of us faints oftentimes for converse with the spiritual world. If you return from over the sea and find that I am gone, you may know, dear Miss Doris, that what my soul longed for has come to pass."

During that and the following day the Challoner household were occupied with the manifold duties of their departure from the mine. Shung was, as usual, equal to two or three ordinary servants. But he kept a keen eye on his young mistress, and was more insistent than usual that she should spare herself all fatigue. One and another noticed her increasing silence, her lack of appetite, and an air of curious abstraction. It was a touch of the


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fever, they thought, and the doctor ratified the conclusion. It was a good thing they were going away, he said, for the change would most likely arrest the disease. At times she heard and saw nothing of what went on around her. A whole world lay between her and the accustomed familiar details of life. The wondering speculations, the absorbing thoughts, which had taken possession of her when her mother died, returned to her with overwhelming vividness. Only the sting of separation was wonderfully removed. The earth and all that it contained had come to wear to her the aspect of a scene in which she had no stake.

The world was enclosed in a pearly light, shot through with golden sunbeams, the morning they left Nilpeena by the early train. Near mid-day they passed the confines of the Salt-bush country. The wide shadowy woods and softly swelling rises that succeeded the boundless horizons and arid monotony of that region exhilarated the spirits like an escape from captivity. Later they passed through districts full of great fields of wheat ripe for harvest. Flocks of sheep stood under the shade of old spreading gum-trees, by permanent water-holes in the creeks; herds of cattle were feeding leisurely in well-grassed paddocks; enclosed hillsides were dotted with vineyards; the townships had their meanest habitations surrounded by fruit-trees, bending under loads of fruit.

Almost every notesurrounding scene on the way was intimately associated in Doris's mind with memories of her mother. They had made the journey so often together, that each little station at which they stopped, each township they passed, was perfectly familiar. To several dwellings, of which they caught merely brief glimpses in passing, Doris had given names, had even fitted them with stories to which her mother listened with smiling interest.

"The boy that went away from Pear-blossom Farm to get rubies as big as eggs has come back, maman, and they have built a new room for him–see it there, at the end of the house!" Doris would say eagerly, pointing out the new addition as they passed a house a little way off the railway line, surrounded by pear-trees, that in their season were clothed with a delicate splendour of blossom seldom equalled elsewhere. She had fallen asleep after


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looking out through the window all the morning, but as they passed this well-known spot she awoke from a quiet, happy dream, in which she heard her mother saying:

"We are too late for the blossoms this time, Doris; but see how the trees are bending under their young pears!"

She looked out at the window, and lo! there was Pear-blossom Farm with another new room to it–a large one with a bow-window.

"What has happened now, maman?" she said, smiling softly. And then she remembered that her mother was no longer beside her. But the thought had no sting in it, till she overheard some whispered words in the carriage.

A guard, who on this route had often seen Mrs. Lindsay and her daughter travelling together, came notein to check the tickets. He looked at the young lady, now in black, and without her mother, and said something in a low voice to noteChalloner. "Dead?" Doris heard him noterepeating the word in a low, startled voice, and divining who was meant, her heart rose in rebellion against the thought. The things that had been for a short time so close and dear to her–these were dead: they had fallen from her like the fruit-blossoms whose time is overpast. But her mother, whose welcoming, reassuring kiss had released her from all pangs of sorrow, when her hour of desolation had come in the very heart of the Silent Sea, ah, she had never died! she had but "awakened from the dream of life."

From the moment that Nature was once more around her in the dear familiar aspects of beauty and fertility, the old close bond between Doris and her mother was more strongly renewed: not so much through memory, as a constant pervasive sense of communion which made all other interests dim, even a little unreal, in comparison. Not that she was indifferent, least of all to memories of that brief space during which an emotion more absorbing than she had notefelt before had overcome her. It was impossible to forget that, but she looked on it as something irreparably past, while this quickening of the old life embraced almost the whole of her past, and would be linked with those coming experiences of which her chief forecasts came in dreams


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and long silent reveries.

"Does your head ache, dear? Are you very tired?" Mrs. Challoner asked repeatedly during the latter part of the journey, and to all inquiries Doris answered that she was very well.

They were met at the railway-station by those old friends of Mrs. Lindsay who had written to ask Doris to stay with them in the early days of her bereavement. She now gladly consented to visit them for a week or ten days, according to the date at which Mr. Challoner's health enabled them to leave the colony. Her first care the next day was to send Shung to post a short letter she had written to Victor the day before she left Stonehouse, intending to send it that same evening; but it had been somehow overlooked. As Kenneth had said nothing of the invalid he had taken to the private hospital, Doris also maintained silence on the point. She felt sure that Victor's presence in the district under such strange circumstances, after his supposed departure by ship from Port Pellew, would lead to much wonder, very likely to much blame; and blame for him she could not bear. She was notelittle given to analyzing her thoughts, but even in their unprobed recesses there was no shade of anger against Victor. Though she felt there was something strange, something she could not comprehend, in what had happened, yet she did not pass any judgment. "And what is life that we should moan? Why make we such ado?"note These words, marked by her mother's hand years before, now seemed to sum up all.

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