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9. Chapter IX.

As might be expected in an arrangement that had so many elements of inequality and uncertainty, Miss Paget gradually found that the understanding which existed between herself and Victor Fitz-Gibbon was beset with uneasiness. Her father had a sort of constitutional aversion to young men, due, doubtless, to the long years in which he considered his talents had been wasted in abortive efforts to sharpen wits that, in most cases, it had pleased Providence to make very dull.

"My dear, don't you think that young man is rather more frivolous even than the average noteof his species?" he said one evening after Victor had gone away, having "dropped in" for an hour's chat by prearrangement with Helen.

Miss Paget flushed, and a hasty answer rose to her tongue, for even a dispassionate critic might consider the judgment unfair. Though it was true that Victor was not deeply learned in any sciences, yet he had a quick and active intelligence, was well-read for his years, and had an easy fluency of expression, which sometimes bordered on eloquence when his imagination was touched. On second thoughts Miss Paget smothered her resentment, and answered lightly:

"No, papa; I don't think so. I cannot even guess why you come to that conclusion."

"He smiles far too readily. What was there in the latest method of disintegrating nebulænote to amuse one?"

"I assure you, papa, he was not disrespectful to the nebulæ," answered Miss Paget, smiling as she recalled the little joke that had passed in an undertone between herself and Victor while her father read one of his "notes" on those glowing masses of incandescent hydrogen which look like mere stains of light in the sky. They ought not, perhaps, to have exchanged any words; but it is hard to be kept among the stupendous mysteries of the solar

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system while so many little earthly trifles have notean enchanting interest of their own.

The next time Victor paid an evening call he found Mrs. Tillotson in possession of Helen. The lady lived near enough to Lancaster House to indulge in those promiscuous and unceremonious calls which are the growth of a long-standing intimacy. If Mrs. Tillotson's favourite shares went up with a bound or had an alarming downward tendency, if she had an invitation to Government House and felt uncertain which would be the most appropriate dress, if a mutual friend was very ill, if her dressmaker had made an unconscionable overcharge–in a word, if there was any news or no news at all to talk over, Mrs. Tillotson, notewhen disengaged for the evening and knew that Miss Paget was at home, would drop in with her favourite maid, who had a long-standing friendship with the Paget servants; and mistress and maid would notehave a cosy chat that often lengthened into an hour or two.

On this occasion Mrs. Tillotson had come to consult her friend on an important point. Her only sister, married to a delicate clergyman, had thoughts of accompanying her husband on a trip to Italy. The congregation were going to pay his expenses; but as to notethat of his wife and two daughters, if they went, it could only be notewith the help of some of their wealthier relations.

"Now, my dear, do you think that my means would justify me in presenting them with a cheque for £500?" said Mrs. Tillotson solemnly.

As a matter of fact, her means would noteenable her to do so twice over without any sensible diminution of her daily comforts. But though Mrs. Tillotson was a woman of innumerable verbal enthusiasms, life was destitute of motives to make her part with money readily.

"I should like to do it for the sake of Blanche, my eldest niece. She has a real talent for drawing. My dear, you would be surprised to see some of her later work, so full of soul, and very little touched up by Mr. Trim. He is a most capable young man, and has a wonderful eye for genius, and such a sense of humour.

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Every pupil taught by anyone else amuses him so much. He puts them back invariably, but then he brings them on most rapidly again. He is delighted with Blanche's last design for a pair of bellows; and, of course, the Old Masters and so on would be of immense advantage to her. And, do you know, my dear, there's another thing––"

Mrs. Tillotson dropped her voice mysteriously, and drew her chair a little nearer to Miss Paget, who was listening with a small portion of her mind, while the rest was occupied with conjectures as to whether Victor would come soon, and, if so, whether Mrs. Tillotson would express her delight at his having a friend like Miss Paget, who was like a second mother to him!

"Of course, one doesn't like to be a matchmaker; but still, the other evening at Maria's,note when they were having a musical evening, I thought Victor Fitz-Gibbon was a good deal impressed by Blanche's singing. Of course, it is early yet to begin to think of his marrying."

"Oh, not at all, Mrs. Tillotson," answered Miss Paget, with a bright smile. The thought of the numerous young ladies with whom Victor would come into friendly contact did not invariably amuse her, but in this case she felt that she could afford to be generous. "You see, it is simply a question of means. Nearly all the Crown Princes of Europe marry at twenty-one or twenty-two."

"Well, my dear, he would be just twenty-two when they returned; for, if they all go, they won't leave till after Christmas. And, you know, a girl coming back after a year's absence––"

Mrs. Tillotson's confidences were interrupted by Victor's entrance. She gave a flurried, conscious glance at Helen, and then, with notea tact that was her prerogative, she exclaimed:

"Talk of an angel, and you'll hear the rustling of his wings!note Do you know, my dear Victor, Miss Paget was just saying that, as you have ample means, you would most likely marry, like the Crown Princes of Europe, at twenty-one or twenty-two."

"Really? Then I hope Miss Paget will be at my wedding if I am to be ranked with such fortunate individuals," said Victor lightly.

But Miss Paget, who was learning every nuance of his tones

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and expressions by heart, felt that there was an inflection of annoyance in his voice–felt sure, too, that Mrs. Tillotson's half-embarrassed, half-conscious manner would lead him to suppose that she had been taken into confidence as to their semi-engagement, though only on the previous day she had positively forbidden him to write to his mother on the matter. Some further speeches of Mrs. Tillotson's, marked by the same good sense, must have deepened this impression; for when Miss Paget next met Victor, his first words were:

"Well, Helen, after finding your "habitual Providence" knew all about our affairs, I thought I might tell the dear old mater, and I did."

"Oh, the dreadful old woman! And she would stay till after you had gone, so that I had no opportunity of explaining to you," said Miss Paget, choking a little as she spoke. She knew enough of Mrs. Fitz-Gibbon to feel very sure that her first and last impulse, on learning that her handsome boy, with his newly-acquired fortune, proposed to marry a woman so much older than himself, would be to throw cold water on the project as much as lay in her power. "Well, never mind, what must be must be," she added sombrely, finding some relief in that strain of fatalism which sooner or later invades the consciousness of all who try to plot and plan notefor any individuality beyond their own.

Victor had followed his first impulse in writing to his mother of the understanding between himself and noteher. If Mrs. Tillotson had not, in a manner, driven him to this action, someone else no doubt would have done so.

In the meantime Mrs. Tillotson began to appear in so drearily objectionable a light to Miss Paget, that she began to ask herself on what grounds their friendship was really founded. "An old friend of your dear mother's!" These were the words notewith which Mrs. Tillotson had embraced Miss Paget, but not until after she had come into notethe fortune of three thousand a year! An old friend of her mother? Yes; so was that Mrs. Selway, who had on Helen's eighteenth birthday volunteered to bring her outnote at a Government House ball in Sydney!

Oh, how well Miss Paget remembered every detail of that

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squalid "coming out," which was burnt into her memory as with branding-irons! They were in the notedepths of their poverty when the invitations came for this special ball to Professor and the Misses Paget. It was a more than ordinarily brilliant affair, because of the presence of some French royalties, and all Sydney was agog, as only a strictly democratic city seems to have the secret of being when such an affair is in the wind. Everyone was talking of it–those who had invitations and those who had none; the tradesmen who were busier because the great ball was coming off, and the tradesmen who had nothing to do with it.

"It is a pity we could not sell our invitations to notethose people who would give their eyes to go," said one of the elder Miss Pagets; "the price they would give would pay the noteservant's wages and buy us new dresses all round."

Then Mrs. Selway had dropped in–an old ancestral friend who somehow managed to live luxuriously on a narrow income. She also had an invitation, but no excuse for going, having just then no young relatives to chaperon.

"Couldn't Helen go?" she said. "It is her eighteenth birthday too. It would be like her coming out. Oh, poor dear! she ought to have a chance. I'll go with her myself rather than that she shouldn't have the pleasure."

After a little discussion it was decided that Helen should go. There was a gown belonging to her eldest step-sister which, with a little alteration, was found fit and proper for the occasion. It was a white Liberty silk, which, after being carefully ironed, took to itself a lustrenote mendacious enough to deceive all but the eyes of other women. At the last moment the fit was found a little defective, and pins were used in a great hurry. One of them jagged Helen's shoulder cruelly, but she endured it without wincing. The other part of the performance was noteinfinitely harder to bear. She had lain awake at nights sleepless with pleasurable excitement in anticipation of this joy. And it resolved itself into sitting out nearly the whole evening without notea partner–a pin lacerating her flesh! She longed to noteshrink away somewhere notein the darkness, but not until she had been twice in

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to supper would Mrs. Selway leave the brilliant scene. The new Governor spent more than his income in the discharge of his Viceregal duties, and the suppers at Government House were then very good.

"Just the sort of thing Mrs. Tillotson would do," reflected Miss Paget, as hazy plans floated into her mind for relaxing the intimacy between them, and her heart hardened with the half-vindictive feelings which reminiscences of the days of her penury always brought to her. But it is difficult to devise a working scheme for cutting an old friend who lives within sight of your chimneys. And, after all, Miss Paget could not long keep a sense of grievance at an acute pitch. Only of late it seemed as if one cause of noteuneasiness had hardly passed away before another arose.

It was in the nature of things that Victor's inheritance of a handsome competence should greatly enhance his social value, and that he should be much sought after for those amusements in which the distinctively youthful of both sexes play the most prominent part. Thus at balls and amateur theatricals, in which he so often took a leading rôle, Miss Paget, when present, was for the most part a mere spectator. When ladies at a comparatively early age begin to speak slightingly of the commoner forms of amusement, they are apt to be credited with a more enduring contempt of such pleasures than they really feel. Hostesses are usually mothers, and readily resign themselves to the belief that a young woman who is by way of being an heiress, and is still pretty and attractive, habitually despises dancing. An eligible bachelor, on the other hand, can never hope to escape their invitations unless he marries, or begins to attend week-night meetings of the Salvation Army.note

Victor began by being very much disappointed when he went to balls and parties and found Miss Paget so often missing.

"You ought to come, if only for my sake, you know, Helen," he said two weeks after they had landed from the Mogul. The words were sweet in her ears, and yet she tortured herself with the question, "How much does he really mind?" Victor had been at a large party at the house of a mutual friend on the previous evening, and had given a lively account of the affair.

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"And were your partners very pretty and amiable, and nicely dressed, Victor?" said Miss Paget, not making any direct reply to this assertion.

"Oh, they were very jolly, most of them," he answered. "But in the midst of it all I would think now and then, "If only Helen were here! She is most likely alone––" "

"Or asleep. Didn't you think that I might be asleep, and dreaming I was with you at Mrs. Purdie's ball?"

"Not at eleven o'clock."

"Which was the only time you remembered me?" said Miss Paget, laughing.

"No; the time I thought of you most. What were you doing then, Helen?"

"Let me see. Papa stayed a little later than usual in the library, so I had the tray taken in there with his whisky and Apollinaris,note and I heard how the great débâcles of the glacial epoch swept down the enormous débris of the moraines into the valleys,note whose banks had been already eroded. What could be more fascinating?"

"But, Helen, you must find it dull. I know it is awfully good of you to devote yourself to your father as you do, but, you see, you can't do it always; and couldn't one of the maids see to the tray if you were away?"

"But she wouldn't care to hear about the débâcles," replied Miss Paget, smiling.

Then she asked Victor how he was getting on with his uncle in the warehouse. The young man's face clouded a little, but he answered lightly:

"Oh, like a house on fire–that is, I'm the house, and uncle puts me out at least twenty times a day. Perhaps it's mostly my fault, but if it is, I had no idea I was such a cross-grained brute. I was copying out an indent the other day–but there, I won't inflict such stuff on you."

"But I'm interested, Victor."

"And, faith, I'll keep up your interest by not going too much into detail," he answered. "There is nothing more tiresome than relations who quarrel, except relations who admire each other. Uncle Stuart and I will never be tedious in the last way. Helen, I think I'll be off to the Bush for a few months, if any decent excuse offers itself. After all, we see very little of each other.

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What between your "habitual Providence" and–by Jove, that's her ring now!"

It was shortly after this conversation that Miss Paget, in the half-careless way in which a well-bred woman can put a request without making it, said to one and another of her party-giving friends:

"Do you know, I am suffering under a revival of folly. I got quite fond of dancing once more on the Mogul, but my friends keep on giving me credit for being quite beyond caring for the sound of dance-music."

Very soon Miss Paget had as many invitations to balls, dances, and even informal hops, as the youngest debutante could desire, but in a notevery short time she felt convinced that it would be notedoubtful policy for her to resume such gaieties seriously. She was constantly comparing herself with the youngest and lightest-hearted of the girls around her–constantly thinking how the record of her twenty-nine years, of her buried embittered youth, was noteall thrown into clearer noterelief when she stood near Victor, with his laughing eyes, and unlined face flushed with the bloom of early manhood.

"A dear old thing, isn't she? And fancy taking to balls and dances now, after despising them so long!" she overheard a girl say to Victor one evening, and she did not doubt that the words were meant for her ear, for Victor had been teasing her for more dances than she could give him; and the speaker was one of those young ladies who do not scruple at times to show a marked preference for the men they consider most eligible. "A dear old thing!" The words stung her, while she despised herself for heeding them. She noticed that for the rest of the evening Victor carefully avoided the girl guilty of the impertinence, and her heart throbbed with gratitude for his unflinching loyalty to her. But she knew well the more he exhibited any feeling beyond the courtesy of casual acquaintances, the more tongues there would be to wag in a chorus of wonder and scorn and incredulity.

They met next day at a garden-party, and Victor taxed her with keeping too much out of his way. Her father stood near, speaking of some new astronomical discovery. Miss Paget and

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Victor moved a little away.

"For my part, I shall never believe in astronomers," she said, "till one of them demonstrates how the earth came to be the parody of a forgotten planet."

"A parody?"

"Yes, where the connecting-link between people and their proper destiny is left out."

"Helen, how dare you be inventing melancholy on such a day as this? Look at those roses, and the sea beyond the trees, and the chickens of the Madonnanote singing little hymns all the time, and me by the side of you. What do you want that you have not got?" said Victor, turning on her with laughing reproach.

"Youth–youth–youth!" were the words that rose to her lips with a passionate longing to utter them; but instead she said, with a careless smile: "Oh, just a guarantee from fate that I shall always walk the stage bombarded with bouquets."

"To the sound of melodious orchestral music?"

"Yes, kept out of sight so that I may not be offended by the scraping of the fiddle-bows. Joking aside though, I do often think that life is more like the skeleton of a pantomime than a play, though your poets are so fond of comparing the world to a stage."

"My poets! aren't you falling in love with any of them on your own account, Helen?"

Miss Paget shook her head with a slight smile. Books had never been much to her. As for the poets, they seemed to her to be always attitudinizing–inventing words for imaginary noteraptures, and emotions that entered little into real life. They wrote endlessly about constancy, and yet they generally ended by making love to other men's wives, though they seldom indulged in the practice to their own. Nature, too, was little to her beyond a setting which, apart from cultivation, had either too many trees or too few–always some quality in excess that a little repelled her.