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  ― 412 ―

10. Chapter X.

He was in a dressing-gown in a half-sitting position on a couch, awaiting her with a look of such eager expectancy on his face that Miss Paget's first feeling was one of quick joy.

"Helen, where is she?" were his first words.

"Who, dear Victor?"

"Doris."

"Doris?"

"Yes."

"I–I––"

"Oh, Helen, notedon't say you do not know!"

"But what can I say?"

"You know nothing of her; you have not seen her?"

"I never knew anyone of that name."

"And I made so sure–oh, so sure––"

He pressed his hands against his temples, and lay back with half-closed eyes, with an expression of intense chagrin.

"What did you make sure of, Victor?"

"That you had seen her, and then that Doris had written–that you knew where she was."

"You have been very ill, dear."

"Ill? I have been in hell–down low in the innermost circle!"note

"And you are far from well yet, Victor."

"Just five days ago, after what seemed long years of darkness and ceaseless struggle, I woke up. Everything was unreal. Then I got her letter. Oh, Helen, think of it! My poor darling believes that I do not love her as she thought."

Miss Paget's hands were so tightly clenched that her nails made livid dents in the delicate flesh.

"But who, then, could have told Doris? Who else knew but our two selves?"

"noteKnew what, Victor? I am afraid your head is––"




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"Yes, it is whirling in chaos. But I have one thing to steady me–one thing to hold by. It is not all black confusion. Only the thought that she may be sailing away. . . . Oh, it is too intolerable!"

Victor turned away with a movement of extreme impatience, and lay back looking weak and spent. His face was white and thin, his eyes looking unnaturally large and hollow. Miss Paget noticed that they glittered with excitement when he spoke, and that, until overcome with exhaustion, there was a vehemence of emotion in his face and voice she had never seen in them before. This, coupled with his strange conduct and inexplicable speech, gave her a quick thrill of fear. Was it the delirium of fever or of a more fixed and dangerous aberration?

"Dear Victor, what is it that distresses you? Is it any news of your mother, or––"

"No, no, no! It is Doris–my Doris! She has gone away. I must find her. She must know the truth . . . and perhaps she is sailing away to the other side of the world!"

No; never before had Miss Paget seen him touched with this absorbing intensity. But here a sudden chill fell on her–a doubt that his notewords did not spring from imaginary events or a disordered brain.

"Doris! My Doris!" What could these words signify? The first dread that Victor's mind was temporarily unhinged gave place to the dread that it was not. Yet she tried to hope against hope–to lead him from the feverish thoughts that had taken hold of him. She spoke in the soothing tones in which one seeks to notesoothe an irritable child:

"All these days we have been thinking of you as on your way to England; but now you are safe here."

"Good Heavens! what fantastical notions you have all got hold of!" he cried, notepassing his hands once more against his temples. "I made so sure you would know something about Doris. Not that you would have made her believe I did not love her. You would have understood it all. The last time I saw her was a few hours before I was made insensible. . . . I was coming to you, Helen, to tell you all."




  ― 414 ―

Miss Paget drew her breath in suddenly. For a little notetime it seemed as if she were spending her last breath in holding herself above notethe billows breaking stormily noteover her head.

Yet only a very short pause elapsed before she said in a calm, even voice:

"What were you coming to tell me, Victor?"

Again there was silence in the room for a short time. Victor had turned notehis head aside, and Miss Paget saw that his eye-lashes were wet.

In that moment, had it been in her power, she would have restored to him without a moment's hesitation the lost love who had so entirely effaced her own claim that he seemed to have forgotten its existence. But as the first tumult of bitter disappointment subsided, the past returned to him in clearer proportions.

"You were wiser than I was, Helen, when I thought I loved you well enough to ask you to be my wife."

"Tell me about it now, Victor . . . all you were coming to tell me when these strange things happened," she said, stroking his thin, hot fingers with her cool, firm hand.

And by degrees she heard the story–the old simple, ever new and imperishable idyll of two young human hearts who found in each other the happiness and completion of their being.

"No one knew but our two selves. . . . I did not mean to speak till I had told you. . . . I would have come at once to you . . . only you were away. . . . But I was glad to remember that from the first you thought my affection was a boyish folly. . . ."

"Yes, I thought it was not likely to last," she said with her invincible little smile–a smile which mentally she considered equalled Mdlle. Cardinale's most signal feat of balancing in the air.

"I am glad now that you did not really love me in that way."

"Now, how clever it was of you to find that out," she said, shifting one of the cushions to make his head more comfortable.

"I don't think I did quite find it out, Helen, till I was really in love myself," he answered slowly. He raised one of her hands to his lips, and added: "I knew you would understand how it all


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happened."

The words hurt her horribly. But beyond speaking in a very low voice, she betrayed no emotion as she replied:

"Yes, I think I quite understand, Victor."

The longer she was with him, the more she realized that his hurt, and the bitter disappointment which had come to him with the recovery of full consciousness, had for the time entirely changed him, making him self-engrossed, impatient, and profoundly melancholy. It was an effort of memory to recall his face as she had last seen it, beaming with health and boyish gaiety, with every thought tuned by that love of the bright side of life which seemed doubly his by temperament as well as youth.

But there was no effort of memory required to make her realize that nothing–nothing made any difference to the place he held in her heart. "Oh, thank Heaven, no one knows–no one ever will know!" she said to herself, bending her head as it all rose before her, bringing a hot sudden flame into her face. The steadfast, unalterable vehemence of her feelings, notwithstanding that the fears which had from the first beset her were now certainties, was the last drop in her cup of bitterness. . . . She recalled stories that had come to her knowledge, of women who had clung to men even when they had outraged every instinct of humanity. Love, which, according to the poets, should exalt and transfigure human beings, did it not in reality as often humiliate and disgrace them, and render them recklessly egoistic? But she had always known the poets were dealers in pretty fables and baseless lies.

"At least there are some depths of humiliation I shall be spared," she thought bitterly, as she glanced at Victor's face. Sombre and changed it might be, but it would never bear traces of cruelty and deceit and shameless self-indulgence.

During the short silence in which these reflections passed through Miss Paget's mind, Victor had drawn a little letter from an inner pocket in his dressing-gown.

"It is noteall so awfully mixed up, Helen," he said, his voice weak from mental and physical weariness. "You may be wondering why I made so sure you would know something about Doris. . . . Well, I will give you her precious little letter to read. I got it


  ― 416 ―
the last thing as I was leaving the hospital. The doctor had it for a day or two, I think. He said I had been drugged after being hurt, and must be kept perfectly calm. At first he would do nothing I told him, only try to keep me quiet. It was only when a telegram came from Lance, in answer to one I bribed the wardsman to send, that the doctor believed a word of what I said . . . "Delirium–all delirium," he kept on muttering, till one day I flung my boot at him; and after that he said it was a case of acute madness."

"Poor dear Victor! Then noteI may look at this letter?"

"Yes; please read it to me slowly aloud, Helen."

Miss Paget took the note and read:

" "My dear Victor,

" "To-morrow we are leaving––" "

"You see, Helen, notethere is nothing to show whether it was the mine or Adelaide. I sent a telegram to Trevaskis on the journey down, and instead of giving me a date, he merely telegraphed that the Challoners had left some days ago to take ship for England."

"Then we can look up the shipping intelligence,note and find out from that–or some of the agents," said Miss Paget.

"Oh yes, yes! this very day. I knew you would help me. I seem to have lost all power of thought."

Miss Paget resumed.

" "And I want to say good-bye, and to thank you for all your kindness: I will never forget it." "

Victor gave a great sigh that was almost a groan, and made an effort to get up.

"What now, Victor?" said Miss Paget, who was holding the letter on her lap, so that the tremulousness of her hand should not be noticed–an unnecessary precaution.

"What now?" he repeated. "I want to go away. I want to find out where Doris is, and, if she has sailed, to take the next ship. Why, there may be one starting now! My kindness to her. . . . Good God! as if I would not lay down my life to save her a pang! . . . And all this time she thinks. . . . Helen, why don't you go on? But I know I interrupted you. I won't say another word till you finish."




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To lessen the temptations of breaking this promise, Miss Paget read to the end rapidly, not pausing if any word or sentence drew an impatient sigh or a low exclamation from her listener:

" "I think, dear Victor, I must have made a mistake as to some things you said–I mean, in the way you love me. I do not blame you, for I am sure there is some explanation I cannot guess, and I am afraid you were unhappy when you went away so that we shouldn't know where you were. Perhaps that is why you fell ill, and had to be nursed near the broken-down whim.

" "Mother and I lived so much alone, and were so very, very dear to each other. But even with maman there were a great many things she did not explain to me. . . . Once when we were returning from town we travelled with Koroona–the girl I told you noteabout–mother was so angel-kind to everyone, yet she would never take me to see Koroona at Noomoolloo, and Koroona was never at our place till she came flying out of the woods that terrible evening. . . . Often, too, when mother was talking to Mrs. Murray or Mrs. Challoner, or even some of the poor splitters' wives, she would speak in a low voice and look at me; or other times I would come in from the garden, and they would speak of something else. One day, not very long before we parted, I asked mother why there were so many things she did not explain to me, and she said I was not old enough yet to understand. . . . And this is another of these many things. . . . But you must soon get well, and notecome to Helen and be happy." "

Miss Paget drew a deep breath at the mention of her own name. Victor's face was very pale and set, but he offered no interruption.

" "I think I shall write one letter to you from France, to know how you are. This is a real letter–not like the little make-believe one when you let me practise so that I might write to Raoul. . . . But that would be quite different, for I know you and love you so much better. I hope you will not think I am vexed or unhappy. I will tell you a secret: darling maman now seems quite near me all the time, as if she had in some way come in place of what made me so happy without her. . . . I am glad you got so many beautiful flowers for me, for flowers will always speak to me of you, and remind me of the great pleasure they gave to the


  ― 418 ―
sick children. Poor little dears! they were starved for beautiful things, and there is nothing in all the world more beautiful than flowers, except the swallows flying. . . . I am glad you are now in a place where you will be nursed well from the fever. I pray for you every day.

" "I am, dear Victor,

" "Your faithful friend,

" "Doris." "

" "noteCome to Helen and be happy!" When I read that I made sure that in some way you had met Doris here," said Victor, speaking in a dull tone. "No one else, except, perhaps, Mrs. Tillotson, knows."

"She does not know–no one knows from me," replied Miss Paget, who, in the midst of a whirl of confused thoughts, discerned one thing clearly: this letter, in its girlish simplicity and uncomplaining renunciation, in some way inspired her with new hopes and confidence. Only, if she had really gone, would Victor at once follow, or would he wait till the delirium of fever left him sane and collected? She insisted noteupon his taking a little wine before he tried to give her some idea of all that remained with him of the past strange days.

He drank almost a wineglassful, and as soon as he was strengthened by its reviving influence he became more excitable and unreasonable. Why was he being kept like this, inactive? Why was not Lance doing something? The first thing that should be done was to arrest Trevaskis.

"On what grounds?" asked Miss Paget.

"Not on grounds–on suspicion. Oh no, nothing could or would be done unless he were allowed to act, and he was tied–fastened down as of old. . . ." This was the light in which his feebleness appeared to him. He had in the journey spent more than his reserve of strength, and his brain was cruelly clouded by the long days in which, after his violent hurt, he had been kept insensible by doses of laudanum.

Miss Paget made him lie down again on the sofa. She bathed his head, and rubbed his temples softly with the palms of her hands. She allowed him to talk, for she felt noteit would be worse


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than useless to try to impose silence while he was in such strange perplexity. He told her that his brother as yet knew nothing of Doris; he could not bear beginning to explain. Everything he said aroused only wonder and doubt. And then he told her how he had been falling asleep on the bunk in his office, when he heard someone unlocking the iron safe, and he sprang up to catch the thief. The keys had been left with him, and it was only Trevaskis who knew of them. . . . He was seized and struck on the head. After that, all he could remember was a cavernous place with dim lights coming and going, borne by men–one with his face almost covered with long gray hair, the other shorter in stature–and when he was alone a feeble light burning in a distant corner. They were gentle in attending to him, but one seldom spoke, and his own eyes seemed always heavy and dull with sleep. . . . Such memories could hardly hold a clue. They bore too much the impress of those fragmentary visions of fever which, once finding lodgment in the brain, perpetually recur.

And then the journey to the hospital! That, too, was like a dream fitfully remembered. He was borne out of the darkness; the notelights of the stars and the fresh wind were round him, and he thought Helen came to him. He even remembered calling on her by name to tell her. The horrible shadowy figures were gone, and later he felt sure that Doris was there. He could remember her bending over him, or near him. He seemed to have wakened up from time to time. He thought at first it was heaven, and then he knew it was much better, for they were both alive and on the earth.

Then he woke up in the hospital, and no one even knew who had brought him there. At least, they did not know his name. An old hawker, the wardsman said, who had brought people to the other hospital from Colmar. But he had not been brought from the mine. He had been brought from someone working a claim. She had seen in Doris's letter that he had been near a place they both knew.

"But, after all, everything is well, Victor," said Miss Paget gently, gratefully noticing that the look of anguished perplexity was gradually leaving his face. "Even if Doris has gone away, she is with her friends. She will be taken care of, and you will in a


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short time be strong and well again."

She soothed him and talked to him till he dropped into a sound sleep. She heard footsteps coming to the door, and softly opened it in time to prevent anyone from knocking. It was Victor's brother, followed by the landlady with a tray, on which stood a little basin full of beef-tea. "Half a pound of gravy beef, quickly boiled in a common saucepan,"note thought Miss Paget, giving the preparation a brief glance. She whispered that the patient had fallen asleep, and had better not be disturbed. Then she went into another sitting-room to speak to Victor's brother.

"You have succeeded in quieting him, Miss Paget," he said, looking at her with a little smile. Then he showed her a telegram which he had a few moments before received from Trevaskis, announcing that he would be in town by the late train to-morrow.

"Poor old Victor has some dark thoughts about this man," said Lance. "But of course it is part of the fever. The doctor at the Broombush hospital said he was no more fit to travel than he was to fly. However, short of tying him, he could not be kept. But now, Miss Paget, do you think you could prevail on him to have a doctor and a nurse?"

"A doctor and nurse here? I am afraid the bare idea would irritate him. He is so anxious to go about."

"But now that he has seen you? Don't think noteI am trying to force your confidence. But I thought, before Victor went to the wilds, that he had lost his heart to you. And certainly his intense anxiety only to come to you at once confirmed the impression. . . . I know that you would be likely to hesitate. No, don't tell me a word more than you wish."

"You are right in supposing that there has been a little more than mere friendship between me and your brother. But–now––"

"Then I will just say only one thing, Helen. Excuse the liberty, but I have known your name a long time, and like the sound of it much."

Miss Paget, who was extremely pale, responded by a friendly little nod and smile. Despite her agitation, her eyes were shining with some emotion akin to happiness.




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"There would not, I am certain, be the same risk in Victor's case that there would be with some young men. He is the soul of fidelity. I won't say any more–perhaps I should not say so much."

"Thank you. We will put that aspect of the question quite aside just now. Victor needs nursing and society. We have so much room, and quiet, and everything that is necessary, at noteLancaster. And I have just been considering that at my time of life, with Mrs. Tillotson in the background––"

Her voice failed her a little, but she kept up her smile bravely.

"Oh, that would indeed be good for the poor fellow! He is in such a state of intense irritation. I think strangers about him would make him wild, and, then, people would come who should not see him–like Uncle Stuart."

"Oh, is he to be contraband?"note

"Well, yes, as long as he comes looking so black, and saying he must have an explanation from Victor of all this sham mystery. Trevaskis, the manager, he said, is furious."

"Furious! I think I should like to see him when he comes," said Miss Paget thoughtfully.

"Well, I told uncle he could not possibly see Victor to-day. He'll very likely call the day after to-morrow with the manager, and you must just use your own discretion. I thankfully accept your offer–at any rate, for some days."

After talking over various details as to Victor's removal, his brother went back to Lancaster House, to order the carriage to come for Miss Paget and her charge at five o'clock.

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