― 99 ―

10. Chapter X.

A few days after the garden-party Miss Paget wrote a note to Victor telling him that she had finally decided not to go out in the noteevenings henceforth except when her father went also. "I have just sent an excuse to the Masons," she wrote, "and it has occurred to me that you might wonder I did not turn up. I have, however, made an arrangement by which I think we can always be sure of seeing each other, at least, on Saturday noteevening. I have engaged Mrs. Tillotson to lunch and spend the whole noteof the afternoon of that day with me each week."

For a short time Miss Paget felt sure she had done wisely in returning to her normal mode of life.

"It is very good of you to give up so much, Helen, without even a murmur," Victor said admiringly.

"Poor papa, it is too bad to make a cat's-pawnote of him like this! He hardly knows whether I am in the house or out of it after dinner noteif we are alone, unless he has mislaid a dictionary," thought Miss Paget. But though she did not enjoy the deceit, her eyes brightened with pleasure at Victor's quick appreciation of her supposed unselfishness.

"Fortunately, papa is fond of the theatre, and we are to have some good opera comiquenote soon," she said. "Oh, the joy of looking at pink-silk bodices instead of watching old gentlemen dining; of seeing prettily-painted creatures giving joyful hops instead of retailing washed-out moralities!"

Victor came much oftener than the appointed Saturday evenings. Miss Paget's vivacious talk, her enthusiasm as to all he did or said, proved a centre for his thoughts. Events acquired an added interest for him from the charm of reviewing them with her. She was never difficult or exacting with him. She was notemuch above the average run of girls he met, in intelligence, tact, and

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insight; there was a subtle flattery in the thought that she so highly prized his companionship. Her influence over him was so largely of the moral kind, that it was in reality increased by the thought of her renouncing the more seductive dissipations of society, so that her duties might be more loyally fulfilled in the quiet seclusion of home.

But gradually the underlying strain of falseness in their relationship weighed on Miss Paget's mind. She was conscious that she measured her words, modified her judgments, exaggerated her likes and dislikes–in a word, that she assiduously toned her mind to suit his. She knew that a part of her character was entirely shielded from his observation, that his estimate of her was in many respects falsely favourable, and that she could not trust his love to let him see her as she really was.

"You are always so cheerful, Helen," he would say. "I think it must be the people who are constantly going to parties who get so awfully stale and dull."

"Ah, you think I don't depend on outside things for amusement; but I do."

"As, for example?"

"The solemn old dinner-parties, two hours long; the musical assemblies, where the youngest performer is a cracked piano that came to South Australia with the first pioneers––"

"And don't forget the scientific conversaziones, where the aboriginal skulls are handed round,"note said Victor, entering into the humour of the thing.

"Yes; and the skeletons of rare beetles, which take away one's breath with love and admiration."

They both laughed, and then Victor said, half ruefully:

"Just the very things to which people never think of asking me."

"No, my dear boy, you would be quite an anachronism there. People would begin to ask how you came to wander so far out of your own century."

When Helen spoke like this, Victor felt how transparently sincere she was; how little she shrank from dwelling to him on their disparity of years, which other girls would have done their best to ignore.

But while outwardly, and always in Victor's society, Miss Paget had more rippling spirits, and seemed younger than was her wont of old, she secretly often fell into a nervous, morbid,

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anxious habit of mind, in which she seemed constantly to be waiting for news of disaster. If she was longer than usual in seeing Victor, if business or social engagements obliged him to hurry away after coming, if he appeared to be more thoughtful or in higher spirits than usual–all formed a subject for surmises, for doubts, for sickening apprehensions. How could she tell when the hour might come in which the invincible fascination of youth–the dewy April charm of a girl of sixteen or seventeen–might lead him to perceive that his Mogul proposal was a boyish freak cunningly encouraged? She knew that to see him, to be near him, to find his eye resting on her, to feel the pressure of his hand, the touch of his lips, made the blood in her veins course with strange, sharp tremors as if of imprisoned flame. It was like a revelation of what life really meant.

Yet all the time she noteknew also that his feeling for her was essentially different. She made no illusions for herself on this point. Her great and only hope was that, as time went on, his frank, affectionate nature would gradually root itself in his attachment to her till it became a bond strong enough to weather all the storms and chances of life. But to have time granted to one–is not that the supreme gift invariably denied, the supreme denial that turns a possible victory into the most disastrous of failures?

In the midst of Miss Paget's ceaseless turmoil of hopes and apprehensions, a day came on which she seemed to find all her fears verified.

"By the way, have you heard, Helen, that Florrynote Mason and Victor Fitz-Gibbon are evidently falling in love with each other?" said Mrs. Tillotson, looking up from a hideous Afghan blanket she was tricottingnote for some bazaar.

Miss Paget could never recollect what reply she made, but doubtless it was found satisfactory by her good old ancestral friend, who never went about without a packet of leaflet tractsnote and a large pouch of gossip, more or less inchoate.

She rambled on with divers other morsels of intelligence till her carriage–which had been resumed once more owing to a brilliant rise in silver sharesnote–called to take her to some charity meeting in the city.

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Miss Paget sat for some time overcome with a confused agitation, hardly knowing what thoughts passed through her mind, the first coherent one of which she was conscious being: "It is only what I have been expecting . . . and after a little I shall feel, perhaps, that noteis a relief."

In the meantime she was stricken with a sensation of notea dull, physical prostration. She went to the window and involuntarily pushed it open, feeling that the atmosphere had suddenly grown very heavy. There were swallows wheeling over the fountain opposite, darting down to the water's surface, and then taking short flights into the air, their clear twittering notes filling the whole atmosphere. An Ophir rosebush near at hand drooped under a cataract of burning budsnote and early opening petals. In the near distance the city lay fringed all round with the wide shadowy park-lands.note To the east the hills, in softly curved folds, rose in the blue air, their slopes sprinkled with houses gleaming whitely in the midst of wide vineyards, orchards, and gardens, all bathed in the warm, still sunshine of a cloudless September day.

"It is all very peaceful and beautiful. How much there is in the world one might care for!" Miss Paget said to herself, as she looked at the scene. Then she sighed, a short, half-sobbing sigh. "Am I going to cry?" she said half aloud, as if there were someone near whose presence would save her from such imbecility.

At that moment a messenger came from her father, and she hastened into the library.

"Helen, do you know anything of the second volume of my new Greek Anthology?note Then where can it be? I want to look it up. I am not sure, but I strongly suspect that my old friend Codrington has treated an amphimacer as a dactyl.note It is hard not to be able to consult anyone on a point like this. Can anyone tell me why a man like Asterisk is called a professor of dead languages?"

"Unless it is, papa, that he sometimes wears a hood, and has, perhaps, cut open a toad,"note answered Miss Paget, a suggestion which pleased her father.

After sundry tomes and magazines had been turned over, the missing volume was discovered. While searching for it, Miss Paget suddenly thought that, of all the people she knew, no one

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retailed more baseless tales than Mrs. Tillotson. She would not believe this. And yet again, as she mused over the past two weeks, a hundred confirmatory proofs rose up. How very often of late had Victor been at the Masons' house–how often had he spoken of the family! Miss Paget, hardly knowing what she did, seized a pen, and for the first time in her life gave expression to the tremulous, all-absorbing emotion with which this love had flooded her life. Swift as the swiftest sea-swallows thoughts came to her. . . . Never, never before had the flower of vivid, adequate expression come so fully within her range. When she finished, she resolved to deny herself to Victor till he wrote to say this letter had reached him. She sealed and addressed it, then stared at it for a few moments and tore it into tiny fragments. No, never would she so humiliate herself for the sake of any human being, or any possible happiness!

At half-past eight there was a ring at the hall-door. Miss Paget felt as if her heart were beating in her ears when she saw Victor entering. Had he come to tell her?

"Helen, you are not well," he said, holding her hand as he looked into her face. He was in evening dress, and looked so young and light-hearted, notestrong and well, it seemed as though his mere presence should give the lie to fear and gnawing care. noteBut it did not.

"Oh, it is only my throat that is a little queer," answered Miss Paget.

At the moment it was true, for she felt a dry, convulsive motion in it, and her voice sounded a little hoarse. Victor was all concern.

"Very likely you have been reading aloud to your father half the day?" he said a little reproachfully.

It darted through her mind like a sting that the picture limned of her in the young man's mind was much more beautiful than the reality. For a moment she felt as if she must tell him all–her corroding fears, her miserable little subterfuges. But she managed to keep herself in hand.

"I have read very little to-day," she answered; "nothing, I believe, but an awfully stupid little story in a book I happened to pick up."

"May I hear what it was?"

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"A mere nothing about an old French duke who had been very much in love, and then got very much out of it, and told the lady so, giving her at the same time very good advice."

"He must have been a magnanimous child of nature," said Victor, laughing. "What could he find to say?"

"Oh, he said, "We loved each other once, but now it is quite over. Believe me, constancy is a very tiresome and a very doubtful virtue. It is much better to forget things when they are once done with. This is a very pretty little dognote of yours. Who gave it to you?" "

"Oh, he was jealous of her! Mind, you are never to take a little dog from anybody but me, Helen," said Victor.

How buoyantly he laughed! After all, there could not be a shadow of truth in the Tillotson story. He would not meet her eyes with such frank good-will if there were. He was on his way to a musical evening at a house not far off. He meant to come earlier, so as to be able to stay longer; but he had been kept at the office, going over miles of figures with his uncle. When leaving, he expressed a hope that he should see her at a private dramatic entertainment at the house of the Masons. She had accepted tentatively for herself and her father. But she did not know till the curtain rose who the dramatis personæ were.

It is well established that no drama can have the distinction of being performed by amateurs unless it has a rejected and successful lover. It seemed equally established just then with some of the people who went in for such entertainments in Adelaide that their success hung on securing Victor for the rôle of the triumphant lover.

"Nature moulded him for that part," was the verdict of a young married lady, who seemed to cherish a conviction that nature had, with equal benevolence, designed herself for the part of the young woman who is agreeably harassed by rival suitors. But on the present occasion this rôle was sustained by Miss Florry Mason, whose name had been coupled with Victor's by noteMiss Paget's friend on the previous day. . . . Yes, she was very young, and often very pretty, with that sparkling, irregular kind of prettiness that is far more dangerous than beauty of a more refined and classic type.

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The play began with an amusing scene of a misunderstanding and a gradual reconciliation between the young lady and Victor. They both acted with great verve and an absence of the stiffness that so often renders amateur actors so pathetic a failure.

"What a charming pair of lovers they make!" was whispered on all sides.

Mrs. Tillotson, nodding and smiling, made her way to Miss Paget between the acts.

"You see, my dear, it is as I told you," she whispered.

In the enthusiasm of watching a love affair in its nascent stages, the good lady had quite forgotten her vague hopes regarding the niece whose designs for bellows were to be so much elevated by a study of the Old Masters.

Miss Paget gave an answering smile, and said they were just the right age to play at being lovers without notebeing ridiculous. To others who hinted and speculated in the same vein she made replies equally nimble and indifferent.

She found it an interminable evening. Now and then she had a little sensation of giddiness, as if she were clambering over places with insufficient foothold. But she chatted and smiled, and looked grave and arch, amused and sympathetic, quite at the right moments till the close. . . . She recalled posters she had seen on an old carved gateway at Cairo, announcing the arrival of some jugglers in big scarlet words that were specially eloquent as to the "excentricités aériennes par la jolie et l'inénarrable equilibriste Mlle. Cardinale."note She felt as if she were a second Mlle. Cardinale, but, fortunately, without any audience beyond herself.

She told her father he looked fatigued. He admitted feeling so, and their carriage was ordered early. Victor overtook them in the hall.

"You are going, Helen, and I have not even spoken to you," he said in an undertone after he had shaken hands with her father.

"Oh yes," she answered, smiling, but there was no mirth in her eyes. "All notethese pretty speeches you made as the Romeo of the play–I took them all to myself. Was I very silly?"

Despite her smile and the studied carelessness of her words, there was a strained, hard ring in her voice, and Victor regarded

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her with a half-puzzled, notehalf-inquiring look.

"Will you be at home to-morrow evening?" he said, as he followed her to the carriage. "Then may I come for an hour or so? Thank you so very much!"

When he came, the first thing he spoke of was a letter which had reached the office that morning–the unexpected resignation of the pursernote at the mine in which he was now largely interested. Mr. Stuart Drummond was chairman of directors, and one of his clerks acted as town secretary.

"So here's a chance for me to go into the Bush, Helen. Shall I go to the Colmar Mine?" he said, half jestingly.

Her heart leapt with a quick sense of deliverance at the thought. . . . Oh, if Victor were only safe in the social isolation of such a place for the next two or three months!

"The Colmar Mine! Where is that?" she asked, to gain time while she debated with herself what would be the best grounds on which to urge his departure.

They looked up a map of South Australia, and he showed her whereabouts in the midst of the Salt-bush country the Colmar reef stretched for miles from east to west. They both looked at it, neither of them speaking for a little.

The evening was warm, and the doors and windows were wide open. In the distance rose the shrill whistle of notea railway train; nearer at hand the rumble of tram-cars and the roll of carriages. And in between these common sounds of a city stole at intervals the long-drawn, plaintive calls of a curlew from the midst of a bosky dell of weeping-willows on the banks of the Torrens.

"Wouldn't it be dreadfully dull for you if you went there?" asked Miss Paget slowly.

"If I were it would be a new sensation; and you know you told me once on the Mogul that was one of the elements of happiness," he answered, smiling.

"Did I? I knew nothing about it then," replied Miss Paget half bitterly, as she realized how the new sensations of the past few weeks had robbed her of all peace of mind. "And you would have to rough it a good deal," she added, after a pause.

"Not very much. It would be a half-and-half sort of arrangement, without the joys of society or the bliss of lawlessness.

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That's one reason why I didn't take so very kindly to the thought of going–that and Uncle Stuart's anxiety that I should take the billetnote for a couple of months. Now you see, Helen, what a cantankerous Irishman I am."

"And the parties and amateur theatricals, don't they count, too?"

"Ah, yes. By Jove, if I go, Miss Mason will have me drawn and quartered! We were to give three representations of the "Old Story"note in the next two weeks in aid of some charities."

Miss Paget would not trust herself to discuss Miss Mason's view of the case.

"You would sooner go notetravelling about in the woods?" she said slowly.

"Oh yes. The travelling and camping out and cooking are noteall so jolly! Did you ever eat potatoes roasted in their jackets in hot ashes?"

"No, never."

"Then, Helen, you don't know how really heavenly-minded a potato can be. And the teals cooked between red-hot stones in a hole in the ground, and the waking up at night with the stars shining through the gum-tree overhead, making their nightly procession across the sky, and all sorts of mysterious sounds in the woods! That curlew–do you hear her?–brings it all back to me–the vacations we used to spend hunting on the Murray."

As Victor listened to the soft wailing notes a strange and sudden sense of disappointment fell on him. Fortune had smiled on him far beyond his expectations in those boyish school-days not long gone by, and he was an affianced lover, for so in honour he considered himself. But what was it that had escaped him? what inexplicable charm had eluded him? A lover!–and accepted! The bare thought used to agitate him with shudders of vague delicious expectations, and now it was all so calm, so matter-of-fact. Was it the sobering influence of property and of being nearly come of age?

Unconsciously he was overtaken by one of those brief, wistful reveries that come alike to age and early youth. Age, with its fatigue and ennui, its weariness of disillusion and wasted effort, its growing indigence of feeling and of the springs of action, takes

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refuge in memories of that vanished springtide when none of the daughters of music were laid low.note Youth, with its keen, unworn senses, with its capacities of sensation deeper than the source of tears and laughter, vibrating to the verge of pain to all the mysterious calls of life, finds in such reveries a foretaste of the thrilling adventures, prophesied by the fulness of life that throbs in its veins and fancies.

Miss Paget saw the look of dreamy absorption in Victor's face, and the words "evidently falling in love" came back to her like a ghostly warning.

"One sees that you have made sonnets of it all before now, Victor," said Miss Paget, uneasy at this lapse of sequence in their talk.

He did not repel the insinuation. Indeed, it was over some of his boyish verses that their comradeship on the Mogul had first taken a tenderer and more confidential tinge.

"I think one gets rather sick of so much town," he said, with a short, half-checked sigh.

"Well, if my wishes have weight with you, I say go to the Colmar Mine."

Victor looked a little taken aback at the calm seriousness of Miss Paget's manner. She went on in the same earnest tone:

"I have been thinking for the last week or two that our months of waiting would be a more real probation if you went quite away."

"You would really like me to go, Helen? Then that decides the matter."

Victor closed the atlas, and stood up; strode to the open window, and then back to Miss Paget's side. The prospect of plunging into a new mode of existence had in it some undefined element of relief.

"I'll take a hammer or two and go prospecting till I discover a new gold-mine. I'll load you with barbaric crowns of unalloyed metal when I return, Helen," he said, with boyish glee. "The greatest drawback is that Uncle Stuart will be pleased at my going. I wonder what the mater will say?"

As for Miss Paget, she was so deeply moved that she could not at first trust herself to speak. She was overcome with a feeling of relief and thankfulness at this unlooked-for solution of the miserable and humiliating state of anxiety and unrest into which

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she had fallen. She despised herself for it, and fought against it all the time, but unavailingly. She had told herself that she should in reality covet every opportunity of putting Victor to the test of changing. But though she still retained the power of seeing things as they were, she had lost that of being dispassionate, or acting sincerely. She had gone on her way so placidly–with so cool and conscious a self-possession–all these years. The nearest approach to love-making in her life hitherto had been a few sober proposals of marriage from middle-aged men. They made her smile–the idea of people at their time of life risking their peaceful solitude by imitating the squires of notetroubadour songs. But no, they had no thought of emotion; it was rather the prudent union of two sufficient incomes that had fired the imagination of her elderly swains. . . . And now in the midst of her assured tranquillity she had been suddenly snared. It seemed as if her limits in the range of other emotions, and those biting memories of an unhappy, loveless girlhood, all combined to make her cling to this one passionate affection with a vehemence which held her will and judgment in subjection.

Her voice was a little shaken, but noteMiss Paget smiled as she said:

"But though your uncle may be pleased, some others will be sorry. Remember, Miss Mason––"

"Oh yes! Can you keep a secret, Helen? That young lady is to be my sister-in-law. Lance has proposed, and is accepted. They are waiting for her father's consent. Lance doesn't expect the paternal blessing till he gets a rise notein his salary."

"Oh, really!"

noteThat was all Miss Paget's response to the news which scattered her worst fears to the wind. But she did not regret having helped Victor to decide on going to the mine. Still less so, when, notetwo days before he left town, her father suddenly resolved to go to Colombo to meet an old friend there, who had been ordered by his doctor to leave England for a warmer climate.

"Perhaps we may bring Professor Codrington back with us, Helen," said her father.

And when Miss Paget made some rather irrelevant reply, he

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said, in a somewhat severe tone:

"My dear, I presume you are aware that he is the greatest living authority on classic metres?"

This information Miss Paget duly communicated to Victor when he came to say good-bye.

"Well, don't you let him present you with a little dog, else I'll be making speeches to you on the wisdom of forgetting things," said Victor gaily.

Then he kissed her and went away. When she was alone Miss Paget crouched down as if strength had suddenly departed from her.

"But I will retain the command of myself," she murmured brokenly.

And she registered a great vow that, come what might, she would not, till the period of probation was over, betray the strength of the passion that had mastered her nature.