― 422 ―

11. Chapter XI.

Victor awoke calmer and more collected, but with a more settled purpose of losing no time in finding out whether the Challoners had already sailed, and, if not, whether they were in Adelaide.

"The first thing to do is to get a file of the daily papers–here is to-day's," said Miss Paget. "I'll see if the landlady can help us."

Lance had gone to telephone to his bank, and the landlady went vaguely searching in various rooms till she had newspapers for six consecutive days. But when Miss Paget returned with these, there was no longer any need to consult them. Victor sat with that day's paper in his hand, with a stunned look on his face.

"They are gone–they are gone," he said, speaking like one hypnotized, and then in silence he pointed to the passenger-list of a French mail-boat that had sailed on the previous day: "Mr. and Mrs. R. Challoner and two Misses Challoner." "Doris is put down as their daughter, and they are gone," he repeated in the same tones. "Oh, to think that I am only a day too late–one miserable little day–and all the days that I was lying tied and in darkness!"

The very cruelty of the blow seemed to take away all power of further emotion. Doris was gone–across the great salt dividing ocean–believing that he did not love her with all his heart and soul, and yet speaking no word of blame, acquitting him from all faults. There was nothing now to be done but suffer and wait till he was a little stronger.

"She is with her friends, you know, Victor. She is safe. It is not as if any harm would come to her," said Miss Paget, more dismayed by his calm and settled misery than she had been by his irritable impatience.

"Yes, she is with her friends," he answered slowly; "but I am not with her. And we were to have made this voyage together–with the great sea around us, full of motion and lustre. So unlike that other gray inland one she called always the Silent Sea!"

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"The one thing that you must now set your heart on is to get well. You can then make plans and carry them out. I am going to take care of you."

"To take care of me?" he repeated, as if the thought were too novel to be grasped all at once.

"Yes, to see that you have proper nourishment at proper times, that you rest when you ought, that you do not attempt things beyond your strength."

"But then you'll have some doctor hanging round, who will try to give me remedies for everything except what ails me," said Victor moodily.

But Miss Paget undertook to obviate all and every disagreeable contingency. Lance returned and put upnote some of Victor's clothes which he had not taken with him to the mine. Then he supported Victor to the carriage, which was waiting at the door.

"You are walking more firmly and looking better already," he said, taking the silence which had fallen on his young brother as a sign of the contentment of a heart more at rest.

"I am going to take him for a drive," said Miss Paget, after giving her directions to the coachman, and arranging some cushions round Victor in the deep soft-seated carriage.

The day had been very warm, but a slight rapid shower had lightened the atmosphere. They drove in a westerly direction through quiet wide streets, where each house was fronted with flower-gardens still full of roses, great masses of petunias, and beds of heliotrope, bleached ashy pale by long days of summer. The slopes of the Adelaide hills, shadowy with vines and olives, noteand tall pomegranate-trees and groves of oranges and lemons, were lying in the warm sunshine, with white houses gleaming through the foliage like quiet, soft scenes in pictures, each with some individual feature of its own as the point of view was changed.

They passed through Walkerville, where so many of the houses are enclosed in roomy gardens, noteand crossing by the Company's Bridge, they drove into the Botanic Park, skirting the Torrens bank, with its sloping terraces planted with fast-growing trees and drooping willows along the water's edge. Then they passed through the length of the exquisite avenue of

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plane-trees,note one long unbroken arch of pure emerald flame. Victor, whose eyes had grown accustomed to the naked monotony of the great Salt-bush plains, found his spirits gradually reviving under the influence of these benign and tranquil aspects of Nature, breathing only of well-being and man's enjoyment of her gifts. The calls and laughter of children at play, the rumble of trams and vehicles in the distance, the roll of carriages near at hand, the clear, melodious whistle of the blackbirds who are here acclimatized,note the rapid cries of shell parrots rifling the honey blossoms of the gum-trees, were all blended into a harmonious symphony of friendly, familiar life, carrying an assurance to the young man's heart that all must yet be well, though fate had of late dealt him so heavy a blow. The constant feeling of heavy apprehension that had been created by the narcotics with which his system had been poisoned grew lighter in the serene sunshine among these reassuring sights and sounds.

The two were silent for the most part, and Miss Paget, glancing at Victor's face from time to time, saw something of their light coming back to his eyes. The thought arose, what happiness to be once more beside him, if only this girl had not crossed his path! And then she reflected how every joy that came in her way was marred by some gray spectre of what had been or might come to pass, and with that came the resolution that she would postpone her life no longer–that she would be glad in the light of the sun,note and take with a grateful heart the gifts that came in her way. Yesterday her life was bitter with forebodings and uncertainty; she did not know whether Victor were dead or alive, or in what latitude he might be of the great, treacherous sea. To-day he was safe beside her; she would rest in that, be glad in it, let to-morrow bring what it might. She leant back with half-closed eyes, and when Victor, stooping a little forward, leant against her arm, the touch mounted to her head like wine.

He, looking at her for the first time without being engrossed with his own emotions, noticed that she was unusually pale. She had, perhaps, been suffering since they parted. It was not her way to say much of herself. She looked up and found his eyes fixed on her, full of their old kindness; her heart began to beat wildly.

"Are you well, Helen? I have been so full of my own troubles, you have hardly told me anything about yourself," he said.

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"Oh, you see, father and I belong to the happy people who have no history,"note she answered lightly.

And then she went over in detail the record of their days since her last letter had reached him; that is, she told him everything, except those moments of poignant feeling which sum up more of actual life than months of outward events–except those wakeful nights in which the years that might await her, empty and shorn of all the happiness she coveted, swept by in a ghostly procession. But who, to hear her laugh and talk, dwelling on every ludicrous little episode, would have guessed aught of this? Not Victor, certainly, who felt something of his accustomed buoyancy of spirits returning as he listened, and even laughed from time to time.

As they ascended the rise on which Lancaster House is situated, they caught glimpses of the sea, its silver radiance softened by a pale-blue haze penetrated with sunshine. Did it look like this to Doris at that moment? Was she perhaps talking to Mrs. Lucy, and recalling some mysterious legend of China, or of the time when beasts spoke and Queen Bertha span?note

"Oh, God bless her! God bless my little darling, and take care of her for ever and ever!" Victor's heart swelled and his eyes grew dim. What a wonderful thing was this new emotion that had taken such tyrannous possession of him–a companion before whose magic that of genii or fairy was a mere creature of weight or pence!note A glimpse of the sea, the folded slope of a hill, the chance trill of a bird's song–all had now a thrill and a meaning that far transcended their mere external beauty.

This came home to him still more forcibly next morning. During the night he slept well; before waking he dreamt of Doris most vividly. She seemed to be quite near him–so near that if he had stretched out his hand he could have touched her. But he was so enraptured by the smile with which she looked at him that he stood motionless, feasting his eyes on her face; so that when he woke his whole frame was suffused with that vague, delicious sense of well-being which comes with happiness–that supreme contentment in the present moment, without remembering the past or questioning the future.

The impression remained with him so strongly that he escaped soon after breakfast to muse over his thoughts alone. He walked

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very slowly at first, going up the little rise that to the west of the house commanded a view of the sea. He seemed to draw nearer to Doris as he looked. How she would love this sight of the great waters, as they lay limpid and shimmering in the distance, enveloped in magical light, with faint shadows flitting now and then across the quivering blueness, pale and visionary as a world apart, which might somehow vanish from sight at any moment! It was like waking to life anew to look on the familiar sights of earth, while his nature was so profoundly stirred that it seemed as if he were endowed with new senses of perception. There was more colour in the sky, more melody in the songs of notebirds, more oxygen in the air, deeper and more tender associations bound him to the world, this beautiful morning, while every breath he drew gave him an added sense of vigour. And the stronger he felt, the clearer grew the light, as of a perfected memory, in which he recalled Doris sitting near him, in that strange night journey across the Silent Sea. He was buried in these recollections, when he saw Miss Paget approaching him.

"You are looking dreadfully independent this morning," she said, taking his arm.

"Yes, Helen; I think to be near you makes me better," he answered, suddenly touched with the thought of her unvarying goodness to him.

She thrilled all over at this speech. What if, after all, Doris were separated from him beyond recall? Thoughts arose which she dared not dwell noteon; hopes leapt to life she would not consciously entertain.

She had come to tell him that his cousin, Miss Drummond, and his brother's fiancée, Miss Mason, had called. Was he well enough to see them? If not, she would make noteexcuses; they would understand. But he almost laughed at the thought of not being strong enough to stand a little talk. Why, he was almost well enough to start for Jupiter–on foot, if need be.

He might pride himself on feeling so strong and well, but one at least of the young ladies had as much as she could do to keep her tears back at sight of him. This was his future sister-in-law, Florry Mason. She was at all times an affectionate, tender-hearted girl, and just then she was in that slightly exaltée,note

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easily-touched mood which many girls experience on the eve of marriage, and Victor had been always a great favourite with her. To see him so changed, with all the bloom gone out of his face, and his hands so white and bony! She tried hard to keep her voice steady and her eyes bright, but Victor noticed a huskiness in her utterance. Was she well, and wasn't it about time she took fright and put off the wedding?

This was notein allusion to an old joke. Florry had confided to him, when they were acting together, that she liked getting engaged immensely; but she was sure when the time came she would take fright, and put off the wedding.

His gaiety helped to restore her. She had so much to tell him. The wedding was to be in nine days, and to-morrow there was to be a wedding-dress bee at their house. Did he know what that was? All her dearest friends assembled to help to make her dress. Well, she had nine very intimate friends altogether, and besides these there would be one who was a great friend of her mother's–Miss North–who was quite a clever doctor. And wouldn't Victor come out with Miss Paget to-morrow? Lance would turn up to keep him in countenance.

"To sew a bit of your wedding-dress? I haven't got a thimble," answered Victor. But this was too shabby an excuse, and before she went away Miss Mason had Victor's promise that he would come out to Broadmead,note her mother was so very anxious to see him. "And oh, you poor dear, dear Victor, to think you have been so dreadfully hurt and ill, and we none of us knew it!"

She cried a little, after all, but noteafter she felt so much better, and Victor, declaring that she had taken fright after all, shifted his chair so that no one saw her but himself. And then she went to Mrs. Tillotson, to include her in the invitation to the wedding-bee, and Miss Drummond had a little talk with Victor.

Her father wished to know whether he would be well enough to see him to-morrow morning, and the man from the mine–captain, didn't they call him?

"Yes, certainly, I want to see that man–Trevaskis, I mean," he answered in an altered voice, while a curious change came over him. A shiver passed through his frame, as if touched by a slight current of electricity. Suspicion, repulsion, and a longing for

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revenge, sentiments hitherto so foreign to his nature, brought a sombre shadow on his face. Miss Paget noticed the alteration, but she was not prepared for the hard, cold, steady look of hatred that settled in Victor's eyes as soon as he saw Trevaskis on the following forenoon. Mr. Drummond had first entered the morning-room in which his nephew sat writing. The elder man murmured something about an extraordinary affair, and an investigation, and wishing for light on the matter. Victor, without making any reply to these feebly-jointed statements, asked where Trevaskis was.

At this moment Miss Paget entered, followed by the manager. He was very well tailored, and had improved immensely in appearance since Victor last saw him.

"Well, Mr. Fitz-Gibbon, this is a strange meeting!" he began, with a little more effusion than was usual with him.

Victor ignored the manager's extended hand, and looked at him fixedly with a malignant expression that gave Miss Paget an unpleasant little shock of surprise.

"A strange meeting! I wonder whether it is the strangest we have had?" he said, not speaking till she had left the room.

A curious scene followed. Trevaskis let himself go, partly because his fear and confusion were so great that he felt his safety lay in an assumption of violent anger. He called on Mr. Drummond, as chairman of the directors of the Colmar Mine, to witness the studied insult conveyed by the young man's manner and words. . . . He suspected that there was something fishy behind this suspicious sort of disappearance; but to begin to make insinuations against him–against him of all men–as if he could have a single reason under God's sky to wish Mr. Fitz-Gibbon any harm! At this point he choked a little, and his voice broke with emotion.

"Have you taken leave of your senses altogether, Victor?" said his uncle, turning on him with austere indignation.

Victor, from the first moment that consciousness returned, had felt a strong suspicion that the attack on him in his office, and his subsequent disappearance, were in some way due to Trevaskis. The moment they met this suspicion turned into a conviction, and yet seemed more incredible than before. In spite of himself, he found Trevaskis' resolute and intrepid attitude throwing ridicule on his belief.

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"You can surely bring forward some grounds for such a serious charge against a man," said Trevaskis in a calmer voice. "Only mind you," he added after a little pause, "I can see well enough that you are not yet yourself. I know what it is to have the mind full of cranky ideas left by a sharp stroke of fever, and there's no doubt that there has been some foul play somewhere, which will soon very likely be traced up by the police. At any rate, they shall have all the help that I can afford them. But I should like to know what you can recollect of the place you were in."

"I woke up from time to time in some dark underground place," returned Victor slowly, his eyes fixed on Trevaskis' face.

"Underground? Have you any proof, or is your recollection quite clear on the point?"

"I cannot say that anything is clear," answered Victor sombrely. At this admission the manager looked at the chairman of directors with a significant little nod.

"Do you recollect seeing anyone attending you or speaking to you?" said Mr. Drummond.

"Yes, very well. There were two men, one of them I should imagine about Mr. Trevaskis' height and build, but with gray hair, a long gray beard, and sun-glasses. As far as I can remember, he never spoke. The other was a shorter man, and, if my memory does not deceive me, he resembled the other. Latterly I seldom saw the taller man."

Victor looked hard at Trevaskis as he spoke, but the manager's expression of eager interest was perfectly exempt from any touch of consciousness.

"Two men, and in an underground place," he repeated thoughtfully. As he spoke he took a note-book out of his breast-pocket, and wrote one or two short entries. Victor watched him with a baffled, lowering expression.

"You telegraphed to me about Challoner," said Trevaskis, as he closed his note-book.

"I know! I know! They sailed the day before yesterday," said Victor, turning away with a motion of passionate impatience. Could this really be the scoundrel who had spoilt some of the most glorious days of a lifetime? he asked himself, with an excess of impotent rage, as he thought of Doris sailing leagues and leagues further away from this, hour on hour, believing that he did not love her–that he had deceived her. The belief could

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hardly be laid to Trevaskis' account. This mystery within mystery made his brain reel with the old chaotic bewilderment which used to overtake him when he was drugged in his unknown hiding-place.

He felt so weak and shaken that he pushed open the window and leant noteout for a little fresh air. On hearing notethis statement as to Challoner's departure, a look of pleased surprise came into Trevaskis' face.

"Oh, you knew about the Challoners?" he said, and then, finding that Victor made no notefurther remark, he turned to Mr. Drummond, saying: "It seems Mr. Fitz-Gibbon has nothing more to say to us."

On this Mr. Drummond cleared his throat.

"I need hardly tell you, Victor, that this affair has caused me great annoyance, and I must ask you for your own sake never to breathe to anyone a word of the most unjust, and I may say extraordinary, suspicions you first seemed to harbour. I cannot help thinking that your mind is still very unsettled."

Victor looked at his uncle without replying. "I wonder if he was very much discomposed by my disappearance?" was the thought that passed through his mind. As a matter of fact, the old gentleman had saved himself from insolvency by appropriating to his own use most of the ready money that was to come to Victor on his twenty-first birthday.note But the young man was still oblivious of this, and his first feeling after his uncle parted from him was one of self-reproach. "It is horrible to get a blow on the head and be drugged for a hundred years; it fills one with suspicions," he said to himself wearily. But it was not only the physical blow. It was one of those wounds of destiny that distil a subtle clairvoyance of evil into the moral nature. It was not only that the early swell of quick emotion unspoiled by any after-thoughts had deserted him, but already his confiding disposition was touched by invincible mistrust. This is a common element in the story of human lives. Youth under the action of time is like a palimpsest exposed to a biting acid, that brings strange legends to light.note

"I have persuaded your uncle and Mr. Trevaskis to stay to luncheon, Victor. Will you join us?" said Miss Paget, coming in

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so softly that Victor did not hear her till she stood notebehind him.

"No, Helen, unless you promise to poison them both," he answered, half laughing. But in reality he looked so pale and exhausted after notehis interview, that Miss Paget, in her capacity of nurse, decided he must have no more fatigue just then. He was too evidently overwrought in mind and body.

After luncheon was over Miss Paget sat talking to Trevaskis at an open French window.

"You don't know what it is to see all these beautiful trees and flowers after being in a place like Colmar," he said, his eyes riveted on a tall hibiscus shrub, all aflame with wide-cupped flowers, of a delicate, bright pink hue, drooping one over the other in innumerable shoals.

"Would you like to look at our roses? We have still a great many left," she said; and, taking a sunshade from a table in the veranda in passing, she walked beside him, pointing out those of the rosebushes whose buds and blooms were still untouched by the heat of summer. Standing near some tea-roses in the shadow of a tall, slender gum-tree, whose pale-pink myrtle blossoms were in possession of some pugnacious pairs of black and yellow honey-eaters, Miss Paget said suddenly: "There is something I want to ask you, Mr. Trevaskis. Do you know why Mr. Fitz-Gibbon is so anxious about the movements of the Challoners?"

At this unexpected and direct question Trevaskis' face flushed deeply. From the moment he entered the house his mind had been actively occupied with what he knew of the relations between Miss Paget and Victor. His noteobservation, sharpened by what he had learned through having overlooked the contents of his desk, as well as the half-written letter, was keen to detect signs and glances which would otherwise have held no meaning for him. He had seen Miss Paget's eyes full of tell-tale tenderness as they rested on Victor's pale and agitated face. She loved him. Did she know that there was someone who had supplanted her? He judged that she did from the nature of her inquiry. And he knew that the tale which would best serve his purpose would be the one she would most joyfully, most readily believe. These considerations passed through his mind in a flash. There was a

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scarcely perceptible pause between the question and his answer.

"Yes, Miss Paget, I do; and I wish, for Mr. Fitz-Gibbon's own sake, that he would get rid of the ideas this fever seems to have put into his head."

"The fever?" stammered Miss Paget.

"Yes, the fever," returned Trevaskis, in a slow, emphatic voice. "noteI'm not going to say what I think of this mystery of his being thrown down and hurt. I know he was far from well at the time. People have done strange things before now, that they knew nothing about afterwards."

"You–you don't think that–that Mr. Fitz-Gibbon had an accident out alone when he was in a feverish state?"

"It is what I do think, Miss Paget; and I think, too, he must have wandered and fallen in with some prospectors who thought they would make a good thing of keeping him till they would somehow make money out of him. People who, perhaps, got some chum of theirs on his way to England to drop Mr. Fitz-Gibbon's card at the inn at Port Pellew, and an envelope addressed to me that was in his pocket, so that a hue-and-cry wouldn't be raised after him. . . They must have got funkynote over keeping him, and then one night took him to the hospital. . . . However, it will be the business of the police to find out all about that if they can. . . . But what I wanted to say about this young lady–child she was, more than anything else–is, that it would be a thousand pities if Mr. Fitz-Gibbon were to risk his health, or even to lose his time. . . . It is no use my telling him this. . . . The first question he would put to me would be: "How do you know this young lady does not care for me?" And in honour"–Trevaskis italicized the words with magnificent effect–"I could not tell him. It would be a breach of confidence, and I may say it was something of the nature of an accident that I came to know it. . . . But I think those who have any influence over him should prevent his going on any journeys till he is quite well . . . and when he is quite well it's very likely he won't want to go."

"You think, then, that it was the fever––"

"Yes, and I think the fever is still on him. . . . I think there was very little–very little indeed–between himself and the young lady at all. . . . They just met now and then at Mrs. Challoner's,

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and–well, I can't go into all the reasons that make me think it, but it's my belief that it was mostly the fever put this into his head. . . . Why, I've known men to take an idea into their heads like that, and not get rid of it for months–for months, I say–and yet 'twas nothing but the fever."

"Nothing but the fever!" Oh, what a melody the words were in her ears, and how many little incidents took to themselves breath, and wings,note and bore living testimony to the truth of this! If only Victor could be wooed back to perfect health, to wholeness of mind and body, before he took any rash step! "Nothing but the fever." The words penetrated her soul with a rapture that had in it something of exquisite pain. Happiness! She had hardly known it till this moment. But she refrained from thanking God, as she had fervently done when she first went to see Victor. The practice seemed to have in it something dangerous for her.

She wandered round in the shady avenues for half an hour after the visitors had gone, too agitated, and too much engrossed in notethought that left no room for others, to be able to meet Mrs. Tillotson's endless prattling. When she went in she found that Victor had fallen asleep, looking so pale and spent that she half relinquished the thought of going to the Masons'.

But this brought Mrs. Tillotson's sky down with a run.note

"Oh, my dear, not go to the notewedding-dress bee? I haven't heard of such an arrangement before, but I am sure it must be quite exquisite. And an afternoon tea of that number–not more than fifteen or twenty altogether–is always so very, very enjoyable. It will do Victor good–the drive there, and the young people. My dear, you and I are very quiet, you know–and his sister-in-law to be, and all; it's like going to his own family."

Victor, having noteawakened, joined the two, and Mrs. Tillotson instantly appealed to him.

Did he really think it would be too much for him? He begged leave to be left at home. Then Miss Paget suggested a compromise. They would go early. Victor would see his friends before the other guests had come, and then she would drive him back, leaving Mrs. Tillotson at Broadmead if she wished. The carriage

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would return for her later. Mrs. Tillotson was not quite happy. It was so entirely an affair of the young people. If Helen and Victor came away–well, they would see.

What happened was that, when they got to Broadmead, Victor was so pale and dejected, and, in short, looked so much the invalid, that Mrs. Mason insisted upon his lying down in a cool, quiet room, where no sounds reached him but the faint tinkling of a fountain close to the window, and the cries of honey-birds rifling the pale honey-coloured blossoms of a tall young white gum hard by. She further insisted upon his taking some nourishment and drinking some dry champagne, and promising to go to sleep. In a little time she came tip-toe into the room, and found that he had kept his promise. And then nothing remained to be done but to see that the horses were taken out of Miss Paget's carriage, and that she resigned all thought of going away till the cool of the evening.