― 17 ―

2. Chapter II.

Mr. Paget did not long detain his daughter in the library. But when she was disengaged, instead of hastening to join her old friend, Miss Paget went back into the dining-room, and stood looking out on the lawn in front, with wide-open, unseeing eyes. Outwardly she was calm; but, in reality, she felt more deeply moved than she had ever been in the whole previous course of her life. Often notehad it seemed to her that, in leaving the most impressionable years behind her, without ever having experienced any absorbing affection, a premature atrophy of the heart had fallen on her. But now?

Her girlhood had not been a happy one. She was Mr. Paget's only daughter by a second wife. When he married the second time he was a Professor in the Sydney University, with three daughters of a party-going agenote by his first wife. The three young ladies bitterly resented the intrusion of a step-mother. They were eager for amusements, for elegant dresses, and for all the forms of social distinction which cannot be enjoyed without money. And the new wife had very little of her own, beyond expectations from a wealthy grandfather. But he belonged to the hardy old stock of pioneers who live for ever. The young step-mother did not, however, live long to be an encumbrance on the family resources. She died a few months after Helen's birth, entrusting the bright-eyed little baby to the special charge of her eldest notestep-daughter–then in her eighteenth year! Perhaps none of the step-sisters were purposely unkind. Yet Helen's first conscious reflections regarding herself were that she was somehow one of the failures of life, and that she had entered it without any reasonable pretext. And as she reached the dividing-line between girlhood and womanhood existence for a time became

  ― 18 ―
harder. The family for the first time fell into money straits. Mr. Paget quarrelled with the noteCouncil of the University of Sydney,note and in a sudden access of wounded vanity he resigned his post. For four years he maintained his family as best he could, by private tuition.

The change from an assured position worth over a thousand a year,note to that of an unsuccessful coach, earning a few precarious hundreds per annum, was a sufficiently bitter one. To make matters worse, the ex-Professor's elder daughters were still all unmarried. Without money and without prospects, without minds to cultivate or amiability to fall back on, with thwarted ambitions and with a well-developed taste for the good things of the world, this stagnant period of straitened means was marked by sordid discomfort, discontent, and bickerings. And this crisis embraced Helen's life from seventeen to twenty-one–the most keenly susceptible and receptive years of a girl's experience. To be shabbily dressed; to go to parties and sit notevery often without a partner, watching other girls dancing; to see happiness only in the eyes of others, when Nature's blossoming time has come, and the physique is most exquisitely alive to enjoyment–this was Helen's notelot.

Then the fortunes of the family changed with a rush. Mr. Paget was successful in his application for a professorship in the Adelaide University.note A few months after settling there, the eldest Miss Paget rapturously accepted an offer of marriage from a wealthy man well advanced in years. His hair was white, and his pedigree unknown.note He had acquired the art of writing late in life, but had never learned to spell. There were many who gladly testified that he had been coachman to one of the few people who kept a carriage thirty years before, that he had established a small secondhand shop in one of the streets before it was made.note Be these matters as they notemay, one thing quite certain now was that he had seven thousand a year, and a handsome residence near town, adorned with pictures which never failed to excite in him a certain respect for art. He could not get over the notefact some of the smallest of them were the costliest.

The other two sisters married in less than a year afterwards–

  ― 19 ―
one a broker, the other a lawyer: both rather elderly, and both in prosperous circumstances.note

Two noteyears after these marriages, Helen's great-grandfather died, at the ripe age of ninety-seven, and her share of his wealth was £3,000 a year. Oh, if it had only come to her earlier! This was the first and most vivid feeling which the news of her fortune awoke. How it would have redeemed her youth from those haunting, miserable memories, which no later gifts of fortune could ever efface!

It is to be feared that neither a course of poverty nor a sudden access of riches is a phase of experience likely to raise an observant human being's opinion of mankind. Miss Paget had been subjected to both ordeals, and it cannot be denied that her nature had suffered from each extreme. Perhaps, if her training had been more delicate and loving, or if her disposition had been less noteegoistic, her estimate of the meanness and vanity and unscrupulous self-seeking that underlie society would have been less unsparing–her mistrust of her fellow-creatures less profound. And even as it was, her first impulses, after coming into her inheritance, were unselfishly generous. She resolved always to be kind and helpful to others–to abjure self-seeking, to be readily touched to action and sympathy by the tragic element in other lives. It needed but little persuasion to make her father give up his professional work and devote himself to those leisurely pursuits which figured in his imagination as laborious study and research. Thus, at notetwenty-fournote years of age Miss Paget found herself with a great deal of money to spend, servants to rule, patronage of various kinds to bestow, and with a father, a pseudo-sensitive bookish man, to shield from too promiscuous contact with a society whose less unselected contingencies had, in his estimation, a vulgar trick of being either wearisome or futile–often both.

Miss Paget took up the rôle of mistress of a household maintained on an opulent scale of expenditure, with vague longings for remoteness from the commoner aims of life. Her position increased her sense of individual responsibility, but lessened her opportunities for cleaving to ideal values. How can one reconcile

  ― 20 ―
theories of self-sacrifice with the careful supervision of dinner-parties embracing a score of courses and costly delicacies out of season? As mistress of a household of which her father was the head, her most intimate relations were chiefly with elderly friends rather than young people of her own choosing. Of course, elderly people really govern the world; its surface belongs to them; they make its laws and preach its sermons; endow its charities and order its dinners. No doubt this is as it should be, seeing that calm notedays and the processes of digestion, and the question of a future life are naturally of more moment to them than to the young. It is the instinct of man as he loses the ardour of youth to guard himself against enthusiasms and surprises, to become more acquiescent and prudent; and yet somehow it may be questioned whether to live much with old people is a good moral tonic for the young. At any rate, in Miss Paget's case the plan did not on the whole turn out a success. She became too wise for her years, notea little too consciously superior.

She had not been long at the head of a large establishment when she was preternaturally alive to all the small deceits and compromises, deepening into cant and duplicity, that enter so largely into the intercourse of average society. She was shocked when she saw women, who had not a good word for each other apart, rush on meeting into one another's arms; indignant when she realized how noteentirely in her circle hospitality was based on the give and receive principle. She became noteTimonesque,note and recorded her impressions notemuch too incisively.

But she was early taken to task and admonished as to her duties and obligations.

"You know, Helen, a girl at the head of a house like yours and papa's has to be as careful as if she were a married woman," her elder sister said to her solemnly, after some too vivacious speech regarding the perfidy of mankind in general.

"But she need not tell quite so many fibs–having the future of no baby-girls to think of–and surely she need not be as credulous as a married woman," returned the younger sister, with a little temper.

None of her brothers-in-law seemed to her very admirable

  ― 21 ―
apart from their faculty for making money. Indeed, most of the husbands she observed with her relentlessly keen eyes, at this period, were to her as figures in a melodrama, devoid of the more delicate and interesting nuances of human beings.

Nor did the unattached men of her acquaintance appear much more attractive. She was perhaps too much engrossed with her own individuality to be able to get at the best side of others. She was certainly too apt to give expression to her scornful estimate of people in general to become very popular. Yet she enjoyed balls and pretty dresses and expensive forms of noteamusement. But the contrast between the homage she now received and the neglect that had been her portion when she was much younger and more eager for pleasure poisoned her noteenjoyment; but she attributed her dissatisfaction to more impersonal grounds. In the midst of noteentertainments she liked to fancy herself haunted with a sense of anxiety for the greater happiness and morality of the race, to believe that it was the negation of living selfishly in luxurious ease, in a world crowded with lives paralyzed by poverty, which cast a shadow on her noteenjoyment, and gradually the more abstract motives really moved her. noteThese were days in which her thoughts were permeated with a strong feeling of responsibility for the welfare of others; especially after reading some tale of everyday suffering in the newspapers, or a vehement Socialistic pamphlet,note her whole mind would be possessed with the spoiled conditions of society.

At such times, everything around her furnished examples of the reckless waste of those who enjoyed without working; of the cramped, colourless lives of those who worked without enjoying. But how to take away power from despots, and gold from capitalists, and sorrow from the lives of women and children? Or, without aspiring to anything great or vague or general, how to rob even one social form of enjoyment of the mortifications of neglect, the stings of disappointment, and the barbs of social inequality?

When overtaken with these moods of rebellion against the existing order of things, it seemed to Miss Paget as if there was

  ― 22 ―
no form of recreation or pleasure known to her in society which had not some subtle elements of inequality that poisoned for many all the springs of enjoyment.

At balls and dances she hated to see the way in which girls who had finer dresses or danced better than others, or who were prettier, or wealthier, or enjoyed more social consideration, took full advantage of their good fortune without considering the residuum, who looked on with mingled feelings of humiliation and anger and scorn. Ah, how well she knew the situation!

"If men ask each other to dinner, they are careful to provide the very best fare. But girls ask one another to parties often only to be humiliated," she would sometimes say on the very scene of action. At other times she would point her moral afterwards.

"Did you notice the Ryerston girls the other evening at their fashionable cousin's birthday ball? They sat in a row like plucked pullets nearly the whole evening without dancing or conversation. They came in from the country, and were introduced to no one. . . . I do believe girls are often meaner than men, if that is possible."

Such speeches as these–and Miss Paget made many of them during the first year or so that she most frequented Adelaide society–do not endear a girl to either sex; they seldom make her popular with those she attacks, never with those whose side she takes.

At first she had a certain pride in saying that she did not get on well with young people. She would often notesit half an evening without accepting any of the partners that came round her for dances. "There are always some wallflowers. I want to take my proper share of the system," she would say; and from that she gradually passed on to the neglect of dancing, and devoted a large share of her time and thoughts to works of charity and self-improvement.

She threw herself into movements for social regeneration with the ardour of a neophyte who regards every effort for the moral improvement of society as a sort of root that infallibly promotes the growth of wings. But gradually she found that the "mutable rank-scented many,"note who are chosen with such pathetic belief as the most fitting noteobjects for the adventures of philanthropists,

  ― 23 ―
were for the most part impervious to ideas, and capable of being converted many times with little improvement in their social condition, and no change of morals. Gradually she was overtaken by something of that lassitude of mind, that notesemi-indifference to wide questions, which often falls on women whose ambition and capacity of thought are in advance of their power of action.note The pathos and struggles of other lives touched her less keenly. She lost her faculty of quick, generous anger against injustice and wrong-doing. It was all very funny and mixed up, she said; but what was one to do?

In the meantime she developed into the most charming of hostesses. In other matters she still retained the strain of an ambiguous nature. She was moved by the same influences to conflicting issues, according to the mood of the moment; but in social matters she became impeccably consistent. She had unbounded toleration for all the little wiles and hypocrisies and acted falsehoods that used at first to fire her with scorn. From toleration she insensibly passed on to the same practices. Agreeable little falsehoods and polite impositions, simulated enthusiasms and make-believe friendships, entered into the daily current of her noteexistence, till at times she could hardly tell whether her sentiments were real or imaginary.

"Ah, but this is real–this is my life!" she cried in a low voice passionately, and the unbidden tears rose in her eyes. "But will it come to anything?" she asked herself with that mistrust of happiness which notecomes so readily to those notewhose early years are marked by privation and absence of affection. "And, after all," she said, "what right have I to look for a happy ending? Other people lie to me, and I lie to them; but at any rate I can be honest to myself. I know Victor would never have proposed a word of love if I had not led him on with all the arts at my command. And yet I know that in time he may love me well–and who is there on the whole earth that would be a more devoted wife to him than I? But, oh, the endless cackle of foolish women, who have nothing better to do than talking of their neighbours' affairs!"

Here Miss Paget recalled all Mrs. Tillotson's speeches; and at

  ― 24 ―
the recollection her heart hardened against her old friend, and she purposely delayed rejoining her for some minutes longer. When she at last returned to the drawing-room, Mrs. Tillotson wore a half-resentful, half-resigned air, something like a parrot in a cage, who does not like it, but has got used to it in the course of time. She was a lady of large means but uneasy investments. Since her widowhood her life had been one long panic as to the safety of good mines, modified by high dividends from risky ones. When she was alone there was generally a mine in the unknown regions of Australia round which her thoughts played with varying emotions. And failing this, there were her two sons-in-law–one of them unsound in finance, the other in his lungs. But on this occasion her usual subjects seemed to have failed her.

"It has just come into my head, Helen, that I interrupted you and Victor in some important business. You are both people of considerable means. You have learned to know each other well on the passage. You were, perhaps, buying or selling shares." Mrs. Tillotson spoke with a long pause between each sentence.

Miss Paget laughed, in spite of herself.

"My dear Mrs. Tillotson, I have not been talking to Mr. Fitz-Gibbon all this time. I have been in to my father, and––"

"Oh, is that it, dear?" said Mrs. Tillotson, her manner thawing at once. "Well, I should like to have talked a little more with Victor. It is odd, the sort of manner boys get when they come to be nineteen or so. They seem just as smiling and friendly as ever, but, somehow, they don't tell you things as they used to. Now, I did want to know exactly how much a year he'll have when he comes of age. The Masons say he'll have about £2,000 a year. The Sedleys notesay, No–about £1,500. Well, what a pity it seems that his uncle should have kept it from them all this time! Poor dear Mrs. Fitz-Gibbon! she was one of those women that like elegance, flowers, and china and old lace, and silver things with old monograms. But what a fight she has had with the world! And her brothers never forgave her marrying that wild, handsome young Irishman–though, indeed, others thought he was rather a catch for Mary Drummond, being a captain of the Life Guards, and the Governor's nephew and aide-de-camp,note and all."

  ― 25 ―

Mrs. Tillotson fairly talked herself out of breath. But Helen, instead of allowing her thoughts to play round far different subjects, which was her usual plan when her old friend took up one of her wordy monographs, drank in all she said with eager interest. She knew that Victor, after taking his B.Sc. degree at the Adelaide University, had gone abroad to study metallurgy at Freyberg, with a view to becoming an assayer,note and acquiring a good knowledge of general mining. His uncle, he told her, had been an enthusiast about gold-mining, which he regarded as the most important industry of Australia. It was the old gentleman's wish he should make a special study of this subject, but not until the week he started back to Australia, on receiving his uncle's hasty summons, having been away only five months in all, did Victor know he meant to make him his heir. Miss Paget feared that he had, perhaps, a large fortune left to him. It was with a thrill of pleasure she learned that his income was a good deal less than her own. "At least, people cannot say that it was his notemoney that allured me," she thought. And then she began, for the hundredth time within the hour, to plan what her answer should be on the morrow. "A mail-boatnote engagement!" How well she knew the shrugs and sneers and endless grimaces–each one an insinuation–with which the words would be spoken; carried from house to house–from one coterie to the other! No, she would not allow the engagement to be made known for some time to come.

"There is such a discrepancy in our years. . . . Let there be a time of probation," she would say to him; "say, four or six months–a probation of which no one but our two selves will know anything."

"My dear, I have been forgetting what made me come so early, so that I would be sure of seeing you," cried Mrs. Tillotson. "Do you remember anything of the Mrs. Lindsay who stayed at the Seatons' place three years ago?"

"I remember seeing her with a lovely young girl–her daughter, I think," answered Miss Paget slowly.

"You don't remember the name of her station,note or her postal address?"

"No, I haven't the least idea. There is nothing wrong, I hope."

  ― 26 ―

"No, but you know the Seatons went away in a great hurry, and I promised Mrs. Seaton faithfully to write to Mrs. Lindsay and explain to her–and now I've lost the address. Of course Mrs. Seaton will write as soon as she gets to England; but that will take so long."

"Does Mrs. Lindsay always live in the Bush?" asked Miss Paget, more for the sake of making conversation than because of any strong interest in the subject.

"Yes, my dear, and she must have plenty of money, too. But her husband had the oddest notions. He quite turned the cold shoulder to my poor Willy, because he helped to float a mine that had no gold. As if Willy had anything to do with it beyond putting it on the market, and leaving it to Providence and the other brokers! Perhaps he wished his widow to bury herself in the Bush; but her daughter must be growing up now. Why, she is sixteen past!"

"Sixteen past!" echoed Miss Paget with a curiously wistful intonation in her voice. She had not hitherto found girls of that age very interesting. She thought them for the most part vain, self-centred, and exacting. But just now she felt that she would give all she possessed for the power of putting back the dial-hand of time. . . . Oh, to be quite in the morning of life, and to walk in that enchanted garden of love's young dream,note which comes then or not at all! For with the clasp of her lover's hand warm on hers, and with the strong tumult of emotion which had suddenly made her pulses throb, had come the knowledge that love had come to her too late for that unreasoning, credulous, absorbed happiness which it brings to the young. Rather it brought to her anxieties, and doubts, and a horde of restless questions that she could neither answer nor gainsay. She had entered on a game in which the first stake she played was serenity of mind–nay, of conscience itself. Could any noteplay be worth playing at such a cost? Alas! she had no longer notethe power to abide by the cold dictates of reason. She realized with a sudden sense of suffocation that she had been caught in one of those currents which sweep lives on to full consummation or to disaster. . . . And yet–and yet–to disentangle herself from these hopes and fears, these swift, importunate emotions of a hitherto unknown

  ― 27 ―
passion. . . . At the thought a strange famine of the soulnote seized her, in which for the first time she recognised the pallid negation of her previous life. Its monotonous round of small formal duties, the dull interchange of visits with dull women, the surfeit of tiresome details without aim or compensation–all lay before her in the cold light of remorseless disenchantment. . . . Better the tumult of emotion, better suffering, better even irretrievable disaster, than to reach the limit of life without having really lived through all the years. . . . And, after all, why should she give way to fear? Was it not possible that Victor's affection would strengthen rather than wane as the days went on? From this out she must strive to cast fear from her. . . . Above all–above all–she must never let Victor guess the tempestuous unrest into which the bare thought of his defection threw her. . . .

"Now that I think of it, I do believe the Max-Gores would know Mrs. Lindsay's address. I think, my dear, I'll walk across there and see. . . ."

If Mrs. Tillotson had said anything else before she rose to go, it was to unheeding ears. How curious, when one comes to think of it, is this double drama which goes on notewherever two human beings are together! The one so carefully selected–usually commonplace, spoken and acted with robust obviousness. The other silent, inward, searching into the depths of notethe heart, seldom communicated even in part, never wholly revealed to any living soul.