― 399 ―

9. Chapter IX.

It was on the sixth day after her return from Colombo that Miss Paget heard the first rumour of Victor's abrupt departure for England or the Cape of Good Hope. There seemed to be a difference of opinion as to his destination even among those who knew the most, and in the end she found that no one knew very much except by implication. It was at a garden-party she heard the tidings–at the same house and near the self-same spot on which Victor three months before had charged her with inventing melancholy.

The entertainment was given in honour of a German nobleman who had travelled all over the Old World and the New, chiefly with the result of proving that cosmopolitan dining did not impair his digestion. The house was moderately old, as notewe reckon age in Australia, and the surroundings picturesque. The sea was quite near, and the grounds laid out in lawns, and numerous walks lined with Old-world trees mingled with those of native growth. There were winding lanes almost buried in shrubs and creepers, and the daintily-trimmed lawns were sprinkled with dwarf yellow honeysuckles, scented verbena, daphne bushes, and many others of the perfume-breathing kind. It was a warm day about the middle of December, and the sunshine seemed to extract their inmost essences from flowers and leaves, so that the air was loaded with perfume which, in places, might be too heavy, were it not for the fresh, keen savour of the sea-breezes.

Miss Paget, with her father and Professor Codrington, were among the last to arrive.

"It is all the fault of the Delphin Ordon,"note she said, excusing herself to the hostess smilingly. "Oh, don't ask me what it is! I only know it is shelves of old books, over which noteold learned gentlemen cannot keep the peace."

  ― 400 ―

"But Professor Codrington is not as old as your father, Helen," returned the hostess, with a meaning smile, which made Miss Paget feel sure that already the pundit's mild infatuation for herself was the subject of gossip; for it was a fact that his intimacy with Miss Paget opened the Professor's mind for the first time to the thought that to form the subject of equivocal odes in the dead languages was not woman's sole function.

There were over three hundred people present, not counting the large blonde Count who was the centre of attraction. Miss Paget, after chatting with a group of ladies near the hostess, passed on with her father and his friend, talking to scores of people, many of whom they saw for the first time since their return. There was a band playing, and on every side much talk and laughter. Miss Paget, in one of her most becoming gowns, and with a constant succession of smiles, did honour to the occasion. But anyone observing her closely would have noticed an expression of anxious scrutiny, of inquiring observation, in her face, as she looked round her from time to time.

Would Victor make his appearance perhaps to-day? If not, she would, at any rate, surely fall in with someone who could perhaps throw light on what was beginning to look like a mystery, and which, whether it was a mystery or not, filled her with insupportable apprehensions. Victor's telegram, saying that he would be in town on the evening of the day she landed, had awaited her on reaching home. It had been sent after his telegram to her at King George's Sound. She looked for him to come on Saturday evening, after the arrival of the late north train. But he neither came nor sent. On Sunday she made an excuse of not feeling well, and stayed at home from church, thinking he might turn up at any moment. Had something detained him at the mine? Or was he ill? Oryes, she had said to herself repeatedly during the past few weeks that a certain change had come over Victor's letters; and the thought was confirmed when she found that there was nothing beyond a telegram for her at the Sound. But then it was delightful that he should hurry down the very day she returned. And she resolved that she would show all the joy she felt. She would voluntarily shorten the time of probation, and their engagement would be announced forthwith–that is, if there was nothing wrong; and if there was–– She did not try to face the alternative. "I suppose I shall pull through somehow,"

  ― 401 ―
she thought, and the words fairly express the history of the succeeding days of strained suspense.

She had shoals of visitors, and a rush of all sorts of social engagements. On the Tuesday succeeding their return, her father spent hours with her arranging a list of the friends he wished to be asked to a succession of small dinner-parties, to meet Professor Codrington, before they went away to Port Callunga for their annual stay at the seaside. Though Mr. Paget thought that he was easily bored, his partiality for this form of entertainment in his own house, noteunder his daughter's careful supervision had, up to this, resisted the combined inroads of age, dulness and monotony.

There were the momentous questions as to the relations between certain people–as to the advisability of asking two men at once, otherwise suitable, but whose wives conspired in being so immovably stupid that no party of ten could survive such absolute dead-weights, etc., ad infinitum. Then there was the even more important task of deciding on soups and entrées and wines to suit the company. It seemed as if the discussion would never, never come to an end. Yet Miss Paget did not flinch, though each time the door-bell rang, or the sound of footsteps passed the half-open door of the morning-room, in which this domestic conclave was held, her heart was in her throat with the question, "Is it Victor?"

"My dear Helen, why do you persist in having the door open?" her father cried at last in a tone of irritation, seeing her eyes fastened on it when there was a subdued murmur of voices in the hall. "It is almost the sole point in which you seem to betray your Australian origin," pursued Mr. Paget, who felt that the subject was serious enough to call for a digression from the point on hand. "Professor Codrington said only the other day that in your society he quite lost sight of your not being English-born."

At another time Miss Paget would doubtless have indulged in some mental or audible remark as to the comic inability under which Professor Codrington, like the majority of the deeply respectable British middle classes, laboured, of being absolutely unable to imagine people are civilized in a country not even

  ― 402 ―
mentioned in their parents' geographies. But just then she merely said, with the greatest meekness:

"Did he, papa? I am glad; for I am sure it would worry him to have one different from the people he is used to. . . . But about the door. I would sooner have it a little ajar, if you do not mind much. I find it so close; I seem to need more air these last few days–as if I had a little touch of fever."

Mr. Paget involuntarily drew back.

"I hope to goodness, Helen, you are not going to fall ill with all these arrangements on hand. I wish you would let that maid who has been taken ill go to the hospital!"

"I assure you, papa, that has nothing to do with it. It is chiefly my throat; it sometimes ails a little like this in the early summer."

Her father resumed his suggestions and instructions, and Miss Paget did not allow her eyes to wander again towards the door. But when the conference was over she went out and took a cab off the nearest stand, and went into the General Post Office in the city, and sent a message to Victor at the Colmar: "Have you been unable to leave? Please send an immediate answer." That was all, notebeside her name and address. The reply came as they were leaving to go to the theatre. It was from the post and telegraph master at Colmar, with whom Victor had been on very friendly terms, and the answer was: "Mr. Fitz-Gibbon left here early on Friday morning."

"Is that from anyone unable to come to dinner to-morrow, Helen?" said her father, after they got into the carriage.

"Oh no, papa; it's a mere bagatelle–nothing so important as that," she managed to say with a smile, and all the time her heart was throbbing like the throat of a singing bird. Oh, how sick she was notegetting of this double life, and of everything around her: the great situations in dramas, which produce an immense effect, and the small situations in life, that make no outward change at all, and yet paralyze the very springs of action.

On the next day, Wednesday, they had their first dinner-party–seven of their most intimate neighbours. Mrs. Tillotson was not among the number. Her daughter Jane had influenza, and the good lady was waging an internecine strife with the nurse

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noteand doctor on the subject of antipyrine,note reading extracts to the patient out of the wrong magazines, and goading her son-in-law to desperation, by imploring him each morning at breakfast, and every evening at dinner, to have new and more enlightened advice as to the state of his lungs.

"Yes, my dear, Jane, I am glad to say, is a little better. What it has cost me to save her from being the victim of antipyrine I would not like to tell you! However, I have the consolation of having done my duty, and I am coming home to-morrow," she said to Helen, when they met at the garden-party on Thursday, where here and there, through the vistas of shadowy foliage, shimmering expanses of the Southern Ocean caught the eye.

It was on a slight rise at the end of an elm avenue, commanding one of these views, that Miss Paget first caught sight of Mrs. Tillotson, sitting with another noteold friend on a rustic bench under a big gum-tree.

"You must tell me all the news–you know how hungry one is for news after being away so long," said Miss Paget, who had been feverishly anxious to see Mrs. Tillotson, feeling sure she would be one of the first to hear if anything strange or unusual had happened to "Mrs. Fitz-Gibbon's boy." But she did not mention his name. She made Helen sit down beside her, and drenched her with showers of vapid twaddle, or what seemed so to her listener, who was indeed tired to death of perplexity and doubt and wonder. Once or twice she essayed to say in a careless tone, "I wonder whether Victor Fitz-Gibbon is still at the mine'; but after saying "I wonder" she gave the sentence a new turn, and the longer she delayed, the more impossible it became to utter the words without a violent effort or betraying too much emotion.

All through the previous evening she had felt that she might at any moment step out of the room from her smiling guests, into one adjacent, to meet the tragedy of her life. . . . "A tragedy only to myself, no matter what happens," she thought. To these people, to everyone else, it would be a story to smile and wink over. A woman of her years breaking her heart over a boy just out of his teens! She cherished no illusions–she did not spare herself–but this did not lessen the pangs she endured. She had

  ― 404 ―
come out to-day determined in some way to end the suspense–to ask anyone or everyone who would be likely to know.

"But at least he has not been killed or had a bad accident–there would be a paragraph in the papers," she said to herself, as the two old friends between whom she sat gossiped on, and she sat staring at some white-sailed boats on the blue waves at the end of the avenue, motionless, as if asleep, with the shadow looking exactly like the substance, even to the tear at the tip of one of the sails. She knew the scene was one over which some people would rave as being very beautiful, but there was not a fibre of her nature that vibrated to its charm. It gave her rather a feeling akin to repulsion, almost one of helpless terror, like the presence of a great, serene implacable force profoundly indifferent to the sorrows and destinies of human beings.

She saw her father and Professor Codrington walking towards a marquee, near which the band was playing. She thought of asking her two old friends to notecome in a devious direction towards the same centre, on the chance of meeting someone who would know something of Victor, of meeting himself, perhaps. At that moment some words spoken between two ladies, who had met just behind the rustic bench on which she sat, caught her ear.

"Gone away in a sailing-ship? Didn't he write to tell anyone?"

"No, not a word. In fact, none of us in town knew he had left the mine till father heard from the captain–you know they call the men who manage the mines captains.–Ah, how do you do, dear? Isn't it too lovely? The band, and the views, and the Count–such a droll creature! . . . I hear he speaks every known tongue."

"Ah, the version I heard is that he eats every known tongue, down to that of a jew-lizard,note and you know what used to be his waist is on my side of the story."

Miss Paget had risen on catching the first words about one who "had gone away in a sailing-ship." The speaker, as she had divined by the voice, was Miss Stuart Drummond,note talking to two or three other young ladies. The new-comer was Miss Mason, fiancée of Victor's elder brother.

  ― 405 ―

She caught sight of Miss Paget, and came forward to speak to her.

"Doesn't the sea look exquisite just from this point of view?" said Miss Paget, leading her a little away from the rest. She had not seen them, but a troop of sea-gulls opposite the avenue vista, circling widely over some booty of the waves, with outspread snowy pinions and faint, complaining calls, gave a special point to the scene. Miss Mason, feeling she was expected to admire it all, made some polite remarks and then spoke of Colombo. Miss Paget must have enjoyed it very much, and then the getting home was always so nice. Wasn't it notewhilst she was away that poor dear old Mrs. Ridley died so suddenly?

"Yes, and do you know since I came here I heard a curious little rumour––"

"Oh, about Victor Fitz-Gibbon? Isn't it the most curious affair? but it can only be some whim, you know. There is nothing whatever amiss to account for it, as is so often the case when people go off like that, without saying a word to anyone."

Miss Paget had rightly judged that Miss Mason would know all there was to tell. She went over in detail all that had been learned, and what Lance said and thought. Victor had written indefinitely of coming to town before Christmas.

"We thought when he came down that he would be sure not to go back again, for, after all, it was a little absurd, his going there at all. And now he won't be at our wedding."

"It is to be soon?"

"In three or four weeks," answered the girl with a notedimpling smile; "and Victor was to be notebest man.note Oh, I shall scold him! You know Lance is almost sure he must have written, and that the letters were somehow lost–perhaps entrusted to some "sundowner," like poor old Bertie Grayson's letters, when he wasn't heard of from that station beyond anywhere for months and months. As it is, no one had a letter from him but the manager of the mine."

The theory of lost letters was confirmed by Miss Paget's own experience, though she could not make use of the confirmation. But it did not seem to be much needed. None of his people were

  ― 406 ―
greatly disquieted, only amazed, and a little inclined to be vexed at him.

"If his mother were here, you know, she would be distracted; but we others take it calmly enough," Lance Fitz-Gibbon explained to Miss Paget a few minutes later. "But I don't suppose it would have happened if the mater were at home," he added; "indeed, I sometimes think perhaps it was on account of some letter from her he went. I found out that the English mail had been delivered the day before he left. Only why go by a tub of a sailing-vessel, and from Port Pellew? It seems as if the boy had determined on something, and wanted to avoid all the bother and fuss of talking it over with people."

"He wrote nothing to you in a letter, then, or anything of that sort?"

"Not a syllable. We didn't write to each other very often, you know. I had some idea of having an inquiry made, but uncle pooh-poohed the thought, as everything was so clear–his letter posted to the mine-manager, and his letters and cards left at the inn." It was more the anxious, questioning look in Miss Paget's face that made Fitz-Gibbon go over these details than any real anxiety in his own mind. She was at first too startled to adopt the explanation supported by everything except direct proof. Afterwards it amazed her that she should in so short a time adopt the suggestion that, strange as Victor's abrupt departure was, yet it afforded no reasonable ground for anxiety. Of her own special reasons for lying awake at night, and getting up restlessly before dawn kindled the sky, of growing pale and losing her appetite, she was, of course, mute as the dead.

On the second day after hearing the news Miss Paget horrified herself by going into a fit of violent hysterics for the first time in her life. The servants' wonder, her father's shocked amazement, and his insistence in sending for his doctor and explaining that his daughter had sobbed and cried at the pitch of her voice as she had never done in childhood–all were details full of such keen annoyance that for a short time she could think of nothing else. She took herself to task severely for succumbing too easily to those fears that had been in the background from the first. Henceforth, amid the conflict of her thoughts, she clung to the belief that Victor could not have gone as he did without some good reason altogether unconnected with her, and that no reason

  ― 407 ―
would have induced him to go without writing to her. His letter was lost, and until further tidings came she would not allow her fears and doubts to gain the upper hand.

She bent herself resolutely to a disposal of her days that would leave no idle moments. She gave more of her time to household duties, trying to win back some of the old girlish sense of elation in the perfect order and completeness of the household of which she was mistress; going oftener into the great bright airy kitchen, with its tiled walls and notefloors of spotless purity, its gleaming utensils of plated ware and copper and agate, and its wide range, so perfectly adjusted that it would almost cook of itself. She supervised some repairs to the servants' rooms, with their pretty outlooks, and flowers growing at the windows. She went now and then, as in olden times, for a chat with them in their sitting-room, into which she had conveyed so many artistic knick-knacks, till some of her older friends solemnly warned her against making her servants' lives so luxurious that they would be unfitted for their own sphere in life. Had she ever undertaken anything in which some danger was not found to lurk? But all other dangers, real or imaginary, sank into insignificance compared to this, of finding her whole life made waste and void, by centring all its vital interests on an unrequited attachment. It was with a sort of vague terror of this that she took up her old pursuits with increased zeal and method.

She went more frequently to charity meetings, visited the destitute asylumnote and the hospitals and the suffering poor with steadfast regularity. And then all during the first week after she learned the inexplicable tidings of Victor's departure there was the succession of dinner-parties, which claimed so much attention.

The stir in the household created by such parties, the sound of beating and pounding, the fragrant essences and condiments that impregnated the atmosphere, the savour of roasts and joints, of sauces and dainty soups, often affected her with a feeling that amounted to nausea. But she went through all the duties of a careful hostess with relentless exactitude. She tripped down the broad stairs, shimmering in delicate summery fabrics,

  ― 408 ―
to await her guests, and said the right things at the right moment as seriously as if the dearest aim of her being was compassed, when, on bidding her father goodnight, he said: "Well, Helen, I think our little party went off very well." And, as a matter of fact, she tried very hard to make herself realize that in the midst of so much that was maimed and spoiled in the world through sheer poverty, the rich, flexible, delicately adorned aspects of life had a distinct value of their own.

And thus somehow time wore on till nineteen days had passed from the one on which Miss Paget heard the news of Victor's departure. And now it was the second of January. She had for the first time evaded the annual sojourn with her father at Port Callunga–at least, for the first four weeks. It was possible for her to do this without incommoding him, because Professor Codrington bore him company, and the older and more experienced servants could be relied on to do everything for their material comfort. Their mental harmony must largely depend on their conclusions regarding the Cretic and tetrameter-iambic metres.note

Miss Paget felt that the seclusion of Port Callunga, with its beautiful monotony and the unbroken loneliness of seashore, would be more than she could bear, while she watched and waited for tidings, and counted the days till it would be possible to get a cablegram from Victor. The serious illness of one of the maids gave her sufficient excuse for staying at Lancaster House, and her father agreed to the arrangement with that docility which always characterized him when neither his pursuits nor notedinners were threatened by the vagaries of man or woman kind.

"But about Mrs. Tillotson, Helen?" he said, a few days before his departure. "I would not like to say anything unkind; but without you to listen to her fears about her investments and her sons-in-law––"

"Of course Mrs. Tillotson stays with me, papa. Why"–with a rising smile–"I am not quite sure that it would be proper for her to go with you and Professor Codrington and all those reckless metres."

Since she was left a widow six years previously, Mrs. Tillotson had spent part of most summers with the Pagets at the sea-side.

  ― 409 ―
But she, too, found reasons for being better contented to stay just then at Lancaster House, instead of going to Callunga. She had let her house furnished at an exorbitantly high rent to a newly-enriched Silver King,note and she wanted to keep an eye on the premises. Then Jane was really very delicate, though George would not or could not see it, nor take any steps to go away for part of the summer. But she, at least, had her eyes open, and would try to do her duty, and her duty was not to be beyond reach if Jane should want her. . . . As for Matilda, she was so taken up with embroidering altar-cloths, and so devoured with grief at the spread of "heresy," that a mere mother hardly counted in her life at all. . . . But George was more like a ghost than ever, and if he really became one, no doubt Jane would remember that her mother was still living. And then there were those Banjoewangienote shares. She had implored Richard to put the last money that fell in from mortgages into something that would be quite, quite safe, and now, after paying such high dividends, these shares were steadily going down. That was so often the way with mines after they had been worked for a little time.

Mrs. Tillotson's first care each morning was to glance over the share-lists in the daily papers, and her spirits would rise and fall with the Banjoewangies in a way that Miss Paget would no doubt have found trying if she had not been partly oblivious of the matter. As long as her companion put in a sympathetic monosyllable now and then, Mrs. Tillotson gently pottered on in the manner of an insensitive, self-involved, garrulous woman, who takes no impression from any personality foreign to her own. Each day furnished her with events, visits, and conversations that kept her in a gentle simmer of indolent activity.

On the date mentioned, the two sat on a veranda overlooking a shadowy part of the lawn, at two o'clock in the afternoon, when Lance Fitz-Gibbon came in through the side gate. On seeing him Miss Paget turned very pale.

"You will be surprised at my errand," he said, by way of preparing her, when she had stepped in with him to a morning room that opened on the veranda.

She murmured something by way of reply, and then he handed her a little note. The lines were wavering and uncertain, but not more so than her sight. When the letters ceased to dance before her eyes, she read these words:

  ― 410 ―

"Dear Helen,

"Can you come noteto me at once? The journey has knocked me up so much that Lance insists on my resting.



"He is at the house in which I lodge, less than half a mile away," Fitz-Gibbon said, meeting her eyes as she looked up in hopeless bewilderment, after slowly reading this note the second time through.

To get a hat and notea pair of gloves and a sunshade, to excuse her absence to Mrs. Tillotson for an hour or so, and to find herself walking rapidly beside Fitz-Gibbon to his lodgings in Jeffrey Street, was the work of a few minutes. On the way he told her all he knew. Four days ago a telegram came to him from the Broombush Creek private hospital from Victor, saying he was well enough to travel. He had started for the diggings at once, and returned by the first north train that day. Victor insisted on travelling straight through, and wished to drive to Lancaster House direct from the railway-station, which Fitz-Gibbon had prevented his doing by promising that he would at once bring Miss Paget to him.

They had reached the house before Miss Paget comprehended that the report of Victor's departure from Port Pellew was absolutely untrue–that he had been hurt, and lying in some place unknown to him for two weeks, according to the date of his admission to the hospital, whither he was taken by some person in a hawker's waggon. He had been unconscious for days in the hospital, and for days, when he tried to explain where he had been and how he had been hurt, his talk was taken to be the delirium of fever. Indeed, he was not free from fever now. It would be better to postpone talking of the mysterious events, as far as possible, till he was stronger. They had telegraphed to the mine-manager, and were going to put the matter in the hands of the police.

Miss Paget listened as if she were walking in a dream. But amidst all the confusion and inexplicable mystery, one thought rose up clear and beautiful as a star. His first anxiety was to see

  ― 411 ―
her. The weary, endless days of strained perplexity and harassing uncertainty had tried her more than she herself knew. Now it was as though a great load notewere suddenly taken off, but as if she were too weak and weary from the burden to feel greatly relieved. But soon she would be rested, and able to rejoice that her dismal apprehensions and mistrusts were over and past.

But even as she waited in the drawing-room, while Fitz-Gibbon went to tell Victor that she had come, a feeling of exquisite happiness stole over her.

"O, God, I thank Thee!–it is more happiness than I have dared to hope for!" were the words that rose in her heart. . . . The next moment she was following Fitz-Gibbon into the room in which Victor was resting.