― 463 ―

15. Chapter XV.

As Miss Paget drove back, she found herself from time to time blinded by tears, but when she reached the house the thought of her interview with Victor steadied her nerves.

She bathed her face and put on a warmer dress, and then went into the library. She stood as the housemaid turned up the gas, looking round the room with the half-belated air of one who is trying to realize the aspect of a partly forgotten scene. As the maid was leaving the room, Miss Paget asked her to see whether Mr. Fitz-Gibbon was in the drawing-room. She returned to say that only Mrs. Tillotson was there. She had been dozing, and woke up to ask if Miss Paget had returned.

"Tell her, Jane, that I will come into the drawing-room in ten minutes; and if Mr. Fitz-Gibbon is in his room, tell him I wish to see him in the library."

A few minutes later he came in. Miss Paget rose as he entered.

"I have some news for you, Victor."

"Some news? Letters? Anything about Doris? But no––"

"Yes, about Doris."

"Oh, Helen, is it from King George's Sound? But letters could not come yet."note

"No, it isn't letters. When you saw the names of the passengers that day––"

"Good God! Helen, how pale you are! Has anything happened to the ship? Tell me in one word."

"No, no. Doris was not on that ship at all."

"Not on that ship at all! Why then–she has not gone?"

"No, she is at Miss North's."

"At Lindaraxa? She is there this moment? Oh, I must go! I must go at once. Did you know before? Don't try to keep me back, Helen."

All inquiry and emotion were lost in the one noteoverflowing

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desire to see Doris.

"She has not been well. It is too late. She expects you in the morning," said Miss Paget, almost in a whisper. The fiery impatience, the rapture that transfigured the young man's face, were not so unbearable for her as the thought: "And it was for this I rent the child's heart–only yesterday!"

"Not well! But then I can see the light in her window. Helen, don't try to persuade me. I couldn't rest all night. I promise you I won't make myself ill. Ill! How could I be ill, and Doris still on this side of the world?"

"But let me tell you–there is something I want to explain," said Miss Paget. "You will perhaps think it strange, that it was only to-day I went to her to ask if she were Doris. She was introduced to me as Miss Lindsay."

"Introduced to you where?"

"At Mrs. Mason's . . . when we went there."

"And I was under the same roof! Oh, good heavens!"

"Yes, and yesterday––"

"It was Doris you went to see? And I waited outside, and she was in there all the time, and you did not know? Oh, Helen, I must go, if only to hang round the place for a few minutes. . . . I shall take a cab there and back."

It was impossible to detain him. It was eleven o'clock before he returned. He was pale and agitated, but he had seen the light in Doris's window, and he had talked for an hour with Mrs. Challoner. It had been a strange meeting, both thinking the other was in distant latitudes on the sea. Doris had told her nothing, so after all he must noteonly have dreamt that Doris had been beside him on the way to the hospital. It was strange, too, how the impression strengthened as he grew stronger. But all was now well. He repeated the words with a short impatient sigh. Then he told Helen how he had fallen into the error about the Challoners' departure. It was Challoner's brother Richard who had sailed with his two daughters. Mr. Robert Challoner was still too ill to travel. He was recruiting at the seaside, and Mrs. Challoner had left him only yesterday. Doris had not been well, but he would see her to-morrow–to-morrow morning at nine.

"At nine to-morrow morning," he repeated, walking up and

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down the room, too excited and preoccupied to rest. "Just think, Helen, if we had gone to the sea-side still in ignorance; and then four days later I should notebe on the water. It would notebe like that terrible little tragedy of "Evangeline."note I never could bear to read that poem."

"You were going–so soon?"

"Yes. I knew you would think it was dangerous, but you see how well I am. I did not wish you to be uneasy, but here is my ticket, which I bought yesterday." She looked at it with a strange expression in her eyes. "What do I not owe you, dear Helen? Think of it–to get to Mentone, and find Doris was in Adelaide when I left! . . . It would be too unbearable. . . . I often wonder how Longfellow could bear to write that poem. It was too cruel. To find each other at last when one was dying and both were getting old."

"But there are some cruel things in life, you know," said Miss Paget in a low, colourless voice.

"Ah, but, Helen, think of the beautiful, happy things, the idylls lovely and tender, as if they were let down to earth straight from the inner courts of heaven. . . . How strange you shouldn't have known at once it was Doris. There is no one else in the least like her. And you made friends with each other as soon as you met? Tell me, Helen, did you notereally think she was noteill to-day?"

"A little feverish, perhaps."

"Feverish! After I parted from Mrs. Challoner I had the strongest impulse to go back again, and implore her to tell me exactly what she thought. But––"

"If you don't take care, Victor, you will be ill yourself to-morrow––"

"And not be able to go in the morning? Oh, how absurd!" He broke into a low, glad laugh at the thought, and began to hum the words:

" "My dust would hear her and beat,
Had I lain for a century dead,
Would start and tremble under her feet
And blossom in purple and red." "note

  ― 466 ―

"You repeat the lines as if you believed them; to me there is something absolutely revolting in such hyperbole. "Had I lain for a century dead"–as if we did not all know what happened to us long before we were a century dead!"

Something cold and strained in her voice struck him. But he answered in a light tone:

"Well, but is this a time to talk of being dead noteafter a century or a thousand years? . . . Helen, I have so often thought I should like you and Doris to be friends. And now you are, without any help from me."

He would have talked to her of Doris all night. But as the clock chimed twelve he obeyed her injunctions to try and get to sleep. It was some time before his glad restlessness would allow him to close his eyes, but at last he fell into the deep dreamless slumber of happy exhaustion.

It was a strangely beautiful world into which he woke next morning. All the sudden harshness of the atmosphere had died away. The mellow warmth of summer, tempered by a cooling wind, lay over all the land. The delicate primrose of the dawn still lingered in the east. The softly-folded hills below this divine glow, their valleys and curves touched with the tremulous vapour of early morning, had something of a dream-like indistinctness. But the sleeping town in the foreground was sharply distinct in the clear air.

"She is there, and I shall see her in less than four hours," Victor said, looking across towards North Terrace from the brow of the little wooded knoll that rose to the south of the house.

The first sunrays were catching the wide expanse of the sea westward. Above it, as if in a faint reflection of the east, a wide band of pale rose-lilac encircled the horizon. As the sun rose higher, this space of exquisite colour was beaten into transparent flakes of gold, till they were lost in the blue air, like a legend of visionary beauty. All was surpassingly lovely. It seemed as if the magic of earth and air and sea was for the first time fully revealed to him. He looked on the most familiar scenes with the keen enjoyment with which one catches the first aspects of a new country before any of the old links of habit have dulled the incisiveness of outline. The tall snowy groups of Christmas

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lilies, the deeply accented forms of the Nipa palms round a fountain, the wide leaves and lotus buds of eastern liliesnote on the water's surface, the rose bushes loaded with cataracts of roses, the deep bruckmansia bells, the great beds of heliotrope, all poured their poignant exhalations on the air, till the colour, the fragrance, and the almost incredible thought of soon seeing Doris, overcame him with an intoxication of happiness that bordered upon pain.

But would the time never pass? At breakfast he heard Mrs. Tillotson as if from a great distance urging him to eat. He heard her bewailing the abandonment of the seaside plan. "For I am sure, Helen dear, you are not well. But if noteit is influenza you are getting, let me advise you beforehand not to take antipyrine."

Victor looked at Miss Paget, but he could hardly discern whether she was pale or flushed.

"You ought to walk among the trees and flowers, Helen, and hear the birds sing," he said to her, as they rose from the table.

"Their songs are for you, not me," she said, with her unconquerable little smile.

But the next moment she was in her own room, lying prone on her bed, beyond the relief of words or tears. It was not one emotion–it was all the long-hoarded bitterness of a lifetime that seemed to be distilled into a cup which she must drain to the very dregs. Her loveless childhood, her spoilt youth, the sordid shifts of poverty which had burnt themselves into her memory at the most susceptible period of life: day by day and hour by hour she lived them all over again in one of those swift moments of recollection, in which the past is seen and felt rather than recalled. Why had she been always the puppet of a destiny, relentless in denying her one complete and unmutilated joy–one day, nay, one whole hour of vivid happiness?

And now–now to crown all, what had come to her? Through the long years in which she had been starved of affection and the tender graces of life she had never lost sight of the wish to help others–to be to few or many a stay in the hour of need. She seemed to see a long defilenote of the old, the maimed, the morally paralyzed, to whom she had given alms.

But how poor and meagre and profitless it had all been! A few

  ― 468 ―
score of poor people were a little better housed, a little better fed, in cleaner apparel for a few days or weeks, than they would have been without her aid. But always she had asked herself in the end, what did it signify? Now, for the first time, she seemed to see clearly what had been at the root of her dissatisfaction. She had longed to give moral help–longed to stand between poor driven human creatures and the malice of their destiny–to shelter them from the storms that were driving them to shipwreck. And now? It was not only the cruel deception she had practised on the previous day. But at this moment, revolt and despair, and some dark tinge of hatred for those whose lives were crowned with a happiness denied to her, were surging up in her heart. What subtle thrill of hope had come to her when she observed yesterday the notegreater hold that the fever seemed to have taken on Doris?

"Oh, no, no! not that–not that!" she said to herself, half aloud, in a choked voice. Then she opened the drawer of her mirror, and took out the bottle of chloral, and held it in her hand as if weighing it.

A fever, a lingering tumour, the mistake of a railway pointsman, the bite of a dog, the most trivial accident, the most malignant disease, these might at any moment end existence. Then why not an overdose of chloral? It would be a far more kindly and judicious accident than those that nature so often and so ruthlessly employed. And there would be no scandal to lacerate the feelings of those who had never loved her.

"The deceased lady, who was widely known for her social gifts and noteher unfailing benevolence, had been suffering for some time from insomnia," etc., etc. She knew so well the decorous sort of newspaper paragraph in which the event would be recorded. "I am not sure, but I am afraid that she took a great deal of antipyrine after all," she imagined Mrs. Tillotson saying, with a lugubrious shake of the head. And as this crossed her mind she began to laugh. There was a tap at her door, and she put away the bottle of chloral before calling out "Come in." Mrs. Tillotson opened the door, saying:

"Victor is going to town, and do you know, dear, I'm not quite sure he should go alone. He seems to me a little light-headed–

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smiling and singing so much–quite different."

"Yes, but it is the sort of light-headedness that seldom lasts," returned Miss Paget, hardly defining to herself the special significance she attached to the words.

But when she met Victor in the hall, hat in hand, ready to set out to see his Doris, with all the radiance of youth and happiness unclouded by a single fear in his face, she was conscious for a moment of a strange pang of apprehension as to what might await him.

He proposed walking across the Park Lands. But now that the last moments of waiting had come, he could not bear the delay. It could not matter if he got to Lindaraxa a little earlier. He hailed the first cab he saw, and was at the gate in twelve minutes, having repeatedly urged the cabman to faster speed. A carriage was waiting near the gate, and half way between it and the house Victor met a rosy-visaged old gentleman, whom he would have passed with a bow, had he not been held fast by the arm.

"This is a nice thing, young gentleman, to try and pass me with a lift of the hat–the venerable doctor who ushered you into the world, how many years ago?"

"Not more than half a century, doctor," said Victor, half distracted by the delay. He speedily got away, after giving more or less incoherent answers as to his reported journey to England. The hall-door stood open, and before he could ring, Mrs. Challoner, who had seen him coming, came out noteto him.

"I know I am a little early; but perhaps Doris is ready to see me?" he said, his voice shaken by the passionate throbbing of his heart.

"Oh yes, she has been talking of you, Victor; come in here for a moment."

She showed him into the drawing-room, and hastily left the room. His overpowering happiness made him deaf and blind, or he would have seen that Mrs. Challoner's eyes were red and dim, and her voice unsteady. She had on the previous evening heard Victor's little story with the strongest interest and sympathy. She could not then bear to dash his joy by expressing any of the fears that oppressed her as to the unfavourable development of Doris's illness. But now concealment would be impossible. Doris was threatened with congestion of the lungs.note She had

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been delirious through the night, and the old medical friend whom Miss North had called in for consultation took a very gloomy view of the case. On going into the symptoms he declared that she had been taken about when she should be in bed, and that the insidious inroads the fever had made on her constitution were all against her rallying-power.

But Miss North still kept up her courage. She knew her old friend was of the rigidly old-fashioned order, who go in for the heroic remedies of bed and blisters on the shallowest pretext–one of the people, in short, to whom new ideas and theories figure hazily as a kind of moral lymph, to be used under quarantine regulationsnote for the gradual vaccination of respectable society; unfit for a family practitioner at first hand. Even at this moment, as Miss North came out of Doris's room, she was smiling half abstractedly at the neatness of this comparison. She resolved to note it down for future use. When she saw Mrs. Challoner with overflowing eyes, she lost her patience a little.

"Really, Mrs. Challoner, you and mother and Doctor Mellersh get upon one's nerves a little, with your long faces. . . . The child is looking quite radiant just now; who is this Victor she keeps on talking noteto now and then?"

"Oh, Miss North, I come to ask you to break the news to him. He is waiting to see Doris–looking so happy and confident–it breaks my heart."

"My dear lady, the human heart is in reality a tremendously strong muscle, though people speak so glibly of breaking it, like egg-shell china," said Miss North with kindly gravity. And then, always on the alert as she was to seize any new possibility, she explained that she should say nothing to Victor beyond telling him that Doris was rather feverish, and must not talk much. But he might sit in her room at intervals. . . . His happiness and confidence, and Doris's pleasure in seeing him, would all help to swell those odic forcesnote that are the real fund of life.

Surely no other ten minutes in the course of all the ages were so long as those that elapsed between noteVictor entering the house and his being taken by Miss North into Doris's room. He followed his guide closely, a blinding mist around him, the surging as of great billows in his ears.

  ― 471 ―

"Oh, Victor dear, I am so glad you have come. . . ."

The words came to him low and broken, and Doris held out both hands to him with a strangely beautiful smile. He knelt down by her side and covered them with kisses. Then the mist slowly cleared away. They were alone. Doris was beside him, softly calling him by name. But for a little time he could make no reply. And then, as he grew calmer, and held her hands and looked into her face, his joy, which was almost unbearable in its intensity, received the first little check. Doris was supported by pillows in a deep armchair, in one of the white cashmere robes in which he had so often seen her in the early mornings at Stonehouse. Her eyes were strangely brilliant, but her face was no longer flushed; and, oh, what was it–what was it that smote him, as if a hand fumbling awkwardly had suddenly touched his heart? A look of evanescence . . . a smile remote from all earthly interests. . . .

"Darling–you–have been ill. . . . You are–ill now," he said in a broken voice, with an odd pause between the words.

"But, Victor, don't be sorry. I cannot tell you how beautiful it is. Always at night, and sometimes in the day, I hear notemaman's voice as in the dear old times. And now you have come there is nothing more to wish for."

"Except that you should be well and strong, my own dear one. . . . Oh, Doris, how did you come to think that there should ever be room in my heart for anyone but you? Your letter–your dear little cruel letter . . . see, I have carried it next my heart . . . but now I want you to take it back–to tell me that you understand."

Poor child, she whose ways and thoughts and associations had been so far removed from those of ordinary life–how could she grasp those complex and conflicting interests? But as she looked notein Victor's face, as she listened to the sound of his voice, telling her with eager rapidity his reasons for wishing to start for town, and the mystery which still hung over those days during which he lay in helpless darkness, she knew that she had been in error in some of her thoughts.

"Did you not like my letter, then, Victor?" she said, taking it from him and turning it over.

"Yes, dearest, because, though you were under a strange

  ― 472 ―
delusion, you still somehow trusted me. . . . After all, I will not give up this letter till I have many more in its place. To-morrow, when you are better, you shall write at the end, "I know you love only me." "

"Would you like it better if I wrote that? Then let me write it now."

She took a pencil and traced the words at the bottom of the letter. Her small, quaintly-formal writing was a little uneven, but it sufficed. Before the time expired when Victor should leave, Doris had told him of the strange way in which she thought she saw him in the iron passage, and of her journey with him to Broombush Creek.

"It was so strange and lonely part of the way–oh, so dark and strange over that gray, gray Silent Sea! And then it was silent no longer . . . it was full of loud, shrill calls . . . the voices of the wind . . . calling, calling, as if they, too, were lonely and sorry, and they could find no home, and no answer."

"Oh, my Doris, and I was there, and could do nothing for you!"

"But don't be too sorry, Victor dear. . . . I hear it in your voice. . . . And you know after a little time it was all beautiful again. Mother came to me . . . mother, with her face as glad and beautiful as the day she went away."

Her breathing became a little hurried, and her cheeks flushed. She lay back silent for some little time. The high, clear, musical whistle of a blackbird came in through the half-open window. And then she spoke again, her voice a little huskier and more hurried.

"I am glad you are at Ouranie, Victor. . . . You see, it is full of flowers . . . if you open the window a little more. . . ."

The sunshine was now beyond the prescribed temperature of the room. He rose and opened the window wide, drawing back the curtains; and lo! there were the shrubs and blossoms he had so often seen in his fragmentary dream. The air was embalmed with orange-blossoms. Great rose-bushes were still heavy with blooms; the sprays of an Ophir rose-bush lay half across the path in torrents of flaming, wide-opened roses. The gladioli, white, scarlet, and crimson, stood in clustering masses waist-high; Banksia roses in pink and honey-pale masses were lying in swathes close to the window. One touch that now came back to

  ― 473 ―
him as notepart of his dream he missed–a magnolia tree with a few wide-opened chalices; but looking a little to the left of the orange-grove, he saw it–a few late blooms with their great petals still folded, like the wings of a dove that has come with a message from afar. Then, seeing that his dream was so literally reproduced, something of vague cold dread seized him.

It was not until notenext day, however, that he felt any real apprehension of the great calamity that was to fall on him. In the morning he was told that Doris was worse. During the afternoon he was allowed to see her for a short time. She was then half-unconscious, but on seeing him she smiled, and held out her hands. A little afterwards she seemed to be talking to her mother.

"Say it again, maman darling," she murmured; and then she repeated the words slowly, as if saying them after some one: " "Dors, dors, doux oiseau de la prairie. . . Dieu t'éveillera dans son bon temps!" "note

Victor endeavoured to control his grief, in order to save her pain. It was in the deepening twilight she last spoke to him. Consciousness had then partly returned, and she knew by the sound of his voice that the billows of grief were around him.

"Do not be so sorry, dear Victor," she said softly.

"Oh, Doris, Doris!" was all that he could say in reply.

"When maman was going away, she put her hands on my head, and said, "God bless and keep my darling." Let me say the same to you, Victor."

He knelt beside her, and she placed her hands on his head, and said in a tremulous voice:

"God bless and keep my darling!"

Before the sun had set on the next day she had awakened from the brief dream which comprised the span of her serene and guileless life.