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Sisters

CHAPTER II.

Sincerely he believed, when he was on his feet again, that his life was wrecked for ever. He did suffer from insomnia, even with his splendid sea-seasoned constitution, for months, which proved the poignant insistency of his grief, making thinking a disease instead of a healthy function. He performed his duties mechanically, rigidly, like an engine stoked from the outside. He no longer had pleasure or interest in them. The flavour was gone from life; it had become a necessary burden, to be borne as best he could. At one time he even questioned the right of the Moral Law to ask him to bear it, under the circumstances. He used to look at the blue water beneath him, and long to be beneath it, sharing the fate of his loved and lost. He did not want to live without her—he wanted to die. At twenty-one!

At twenty-three he was a man again, physically and mentally sound, doing all reverence to the memory of his dead wife—a flawless angel in the retrospect—while finding natural solace in the company of living women who were also young and fair. The living women were much in evidence from the first; nothing but the sea could keep them from trying to comfort him. A big fellow, with a square, hard face, and a fist to fell an ox—that was just the kind of man to call for coddling, apart from the fact that he was a widower—had been married for as long as five weeks altogether—with his heart in his wife's grave, and with that pathetic adjunct, a baby. When he would consent to recognise the world of affairs again, and the claims of youth and manhood against it, he found—but of course there is no need to specify all the things he found.

One was a batch of invitations awaiting each arrival of his ship in port—first two, then four, then half-a-dozen women's notes, begging him to come to as many hospitable houses for change and rest, and to "bring the baby". He could not bring the baby, for reasons which he did not honestly present, as a rule, but which he reluctantly disclosed to Alice Urquhart one night at Five Creeks. Alice had written one of the six notes (they were six because it was Christmas time), for she was the sister of Jim Urquhart, who was the friend of an ex-squatter down on his luck through droughts, and reduced to balancing ledgers in a Melbourne office, who was the friend of one of those doctors of Williamstown whose skill had brought Guthrie Carey to life after he had been drowned. Jim, having made the acquaintance of the latter, took his sister to inspect the ship, and to have tea in the mate's cabin; hence the return visit, which the captain, who loved his chief officer, stretched a point to sanction.

There were at Five Creeks station, besides Jim, a Mrs Urquhart and several children; but Alice, the eldest of the family, was the general manager of her household, ever struggling with her brother, who maintained it, to lift it and herself out of the ruts in which her father had left it stuck. She was close on thirty, sad to say, and there were three girls below her; and nothing happened from year to year, and she was weary of the monotony. "Do come and see us," she wrote to Guthrie Carey—one of the finest-looking men she had ever known, not excepting the splendid Claud Dalzell—"do come and see us, and bring the baby. Country air will do it good, and the house is full of nurses for it."

He went himself, out of friendship for Jim, and after dinner sat in the verandah with Alice, and explained why he had not brought the baby. Jim had then gone off to doctor a sick horse, and Mrs Urquhart was putting children to bed.

"I believe," Alice rallied him, "that you thought it INFRA DIG."

He protested earnestly that she was wrong. No, it was not that—not THAT.

Ignorant of the details of the tragedy of his life, she scented a mystery about the child. Was it, perhaps, not right in its head, she wondered—or afflicted with a hare lip?

"Son or daughter?" she ventured cautiously. "A boy," said Guthrie Carey, still with that unfatherly air of discontent. "Sometimes I wish it was a girl. She could look after me by-and-by; I could have her trained to be my housekeeper, and sew my buttons on—that sort of thing, you know."

"You would have to wait a long time," said Alice, turning admiring eyes upon his comely person, noting with regret that he could not be within several years of her own age. "It is quite a young infant, isn't it?"

"Yes; that is—let me see—fifteen months and a little over. Yes, it will be fifteen months on Thursday since he lost his mother." Time had done so much for him that he could now speak of her to a stranger. "And he was then only a few weeks old."

"Poor, poor little thing!" sighed Alice Urquhart.

It was, by the way, a particularly sympathetic night—soft, still, solitary, with a full moon. They both felt it. Besides, he had had an excellent dinner. Five Creeks was poor, but it lived well.

"Oh," laughed the guest, without merriment in his laugh, "you needn't waste pity on HIM, Miss Urquhart; he's all right. Rolls in fat—never ailed a thing in his life—might take the prize at a baby show. So they tell me. I have not seen him myself for a good while."

"What! Why, he's in Melbourne, isn't he?"

"Not far out."

"And you haven't been home to see him?"

"I haven't got a home. I gave it up when—you know. I knew I should never be there, and you can't leave a house and a young child to servants. The little time that I did try to carry on by myself, I made a dismal mess of it. The woman I trusted to'—he meant Mrs Hardacre—'started feeding it with thick arrowroot. She'd have killed it to a certainty."

"Indeed, yes. The idea! But it is incredible what some fools of women can do in the way of mismanaging a baby." The remark implied expert knowledge on the speaker's part.

"A mother of children herself, too," said Guthrie reflectively, "and looking it, if ever a woman did. While a girl, who'd never had any, took to the job like a duck to water—knew just what to do and how to do it. I will say that for her." "Instinct," Miss Urquhart remarked to the man in the moon, who seemed to survey the couple with his tongue in his cheek. "I'm sure, though I say it, that I could give many a mother points myself."

"I've no doubt you could. I heard somebody say, the other day, that mothers are born, not made. Very true, too. You see it in the little girls nursing their dolls. I don't think anything of a she-child that doesn't want a doll as soon as it can speak." "I always loved them," declared Alice casually.

He leaned forward to look at a spider's web that the silver light had just touched, making it shine out from its background of dark leaves and verandah post; and there was danger of rupture to the delicate thread of the topic that was weaving so charming a conversation. Wherefore the young lady hastened to inquire what had become of his little son.

"I suppose," she said, "he is with his mother's people?"

Slowly resuming his attitude of repose, the guest considered the question.

"No-o—not exactly. With a friend of his mother's, not her family. Unfortunately, she had no family to speak of—and mine is in England. Neither of us had a soul here who really belonged to us. That was just the difficulty."

"It must have been a great difficulty," murmured Alice, in a feeling tone.

"I believe you," assented Guthrie, with emphasis. "In fact, it put me into the most ridiculous hole, the most confounded fix—one that I can't for the life of me see my way out of; one that—However, I mustn't talk about it to you. It's not a thing that one ought to talk about to anybody."

And yet he yearned to talk about it, and now, and to this particularly sympathetic woman, who was not young and giddy, but, like himself, experienced in the troubles of life, such as weighed him down. There was "something about her" that irresistibly appealed to him, and he did not know what; but an author, who knows everything, knows exactly what it was. It was the moonlight night.

A few words from her, backed by the nameless influences of the hour, unloosed his tongue.

"You mustn't think me an unnatural parent," he said. "It's not that at all. I'm awfully fond of him. I've got his photograph in my pocket—I'll show it to you when we go in—the last one for the time being. I get a new one about every other mail, in all sorts of get-up, clothes and no clothes; but all as fat as butter, and grinning from ear to ear with the joy of life. You never saw such a fetching little cuss. I'd give anything to get hold of him—if I could."

"But surely—his own father—"

"No. It sounds absurd to you, naturally; but that's because you don't understand the situation."

"I can't conceive of any situation—"

"Of course not. It's a preposterous situation. And I just drifted into it—I don't know how. Oh, I do know—it was for the child's own sake; so that you really mustn't call me a heartless parent any more, Miss Urquhart. Nobody would do that who knew what I'd suffered for him." Mr Carey made a gesture, and sighed deeply. "Even in the beginning it would have been difficult to get out of it, having once got in," he continued, after a pause; "but it has been going on so long, getting worse and worse every day and every hour, till now I'm all tangled up like that moth in that spider's web"—pointing to a little insect tragedy going on beside them.

Miss Urquhart leaned forward, resting her arms on her knees, and spreading her hands in the enchanting moonlight, which made them look white as pearls—and made her rather worn face look as if finely carved in ivory. It was a graceful, thoughtful, confidential pose, and her eyes, uplifted, soft and kind, gleamed just under his eyes.

"I'm so sorry!" she murmured. "But if I don't know what the trouble is—oh, don't tell me if you'd rather not!—I can't help you, can I? And I do wish I could!"

"So do I. But I'm afraid nobody can help me. And yet, perhaps a fresh eye—a woman's clearer insight—" He paused irresolute, then succumbed to temptation. "Look here, Miss Urquhart, I'll just tell you how it is, if you'll promise not to speak of it again. You are no gossip, I know"—how did he know?—"and it will be such a blessed relief to tell somebody. And perhaps you could advise me, after all—"

"Let me try," she broke in encouragingly. For an instant her pearly hand touched his sleeve. "You may trust me," she said.

"I'm sure of it—I'm sure of it," he responded warmly. He drew his chair closer, took a moment to collect himself, and plunged headlong.

"You see, she was related to the people my poor wife lived with when we were first married, and she was a lot with her—it was lonesome for her, with me away at sea—and they got to be sort of chums. She was with us the night I lost my poor girl—I can't talk about that now, but some day I'll tell you—and I know she was awfully fond of her. That was just the difficulty."

"You are speaking," queried Alice gently, "of the person who has the baby?"

"Exactly. I see you begin to understand."

"I think so," said Alice, with a smile broad enough to be visible in moonlight. "But what was the difficulty?"

"Well, you know, being so really fond of her, and all that—wishing to do it for the sake of her dear friend—what could I say, especially as those women were killing the unfortunate brat between them? She was not so very young, and was evidently clever at managing—"

"Yes," interposed Alice, smiling still.

"And peculiarly situated for undertaking the job, having a good home, and only an old mother, who let her do what she liked. And awfully set on the baby from the first, and wanting an object in life, as she said. But chiefly it was for Lily's sake. To see Lily's child messed about by just anybody, and killed with arrowroot and stuff, was more than she could stand—to tell the truth, I couldn't stand it either—and she begged me to let her have it to look after, as there was no female friend or relative nearer to it than she was. What COULD I do? She lived in a nice, healthy spot, and there was the old mother with her experience, and I was obliged to go to sea; and—and—well, I just had to say "yes", and be thankful to say it. We got the—the doctor found a—we engaged the sort of nurse that does everything, you know—a fine, strapping young woman, in the pink of condition; and—and—well, there it was. And at the first blush the worst of the trouble seemed over, instead of just beginning. I gave up my house, and went off to sea, miserable enough, as you may suppose, but at least with an easy mind about the boy. As far as he was concerned—as far as my poor Lily was concerned, I felt I had acted for the best. Indeed, I don't for the life of me understand how any man could have acted otherwise, under the circumstances."

The listener, listening intently, here put a quiet question—"Did you pay her?"—which caused the narrator to wince like a galled horse.

"Ah, there you hit the weak spot, Miss Urquhart, right in the bull's-eye," he declared, sighing furiously. "If I could have paid her, of course there'd have been no difficulty at all. But she wouldn't be paid."

"You ought to have insisted on it," said Alice severely.

"I did insist. I insisted all I knew. But she said it was a labour of love for her friend, and seemed so hurt at the idea of money being brought into the question, that I was ashamed to press her beyond a certain point. She let me pay for the nurse's board, and that was all. The baby didn't eat anything, you see, and they were comfortably off, with lots of spare room in their house, and I just looked on it as a sort of temporary visit—until I came back—until I should be able to turn round a bit. But"—with another sigh—"he's there yet."

Miss Urquhart nodded, with an air of utter wisdom.

"Of course you went to see the child?"

"Three times—whenever I was in port. And found him always the same—so beautifully cared for that, upon my soul, I never saw a baby in my life so sweet and clean and wholesome-looking; jolly as a little sandboy all the time, too."

"That means that he had a perfect constitution—inherited from you evidently—and that you were fortunate in the nurse."

"Very fortunate. But it appeared that beyond—beyond running the commissariat department, so to speak, she did next to nothing for him. Miss—the lady I spoke of—did everything. Made herself a perfect slave to him."

"Bought his clothes?"

"Oh," groaned the wretched man, "I suppose so. What did I know about a baby's clothes? And she wouldn't answer my questions—said he was all right, and didn't want for anything, as I could see with my own eyes. I tried making presents—used to bring her curios and things—found out her birthday, and sent her a jewel—took every chance I could see to work off the obligation. But it was no use. She gave ME a birthday present after I'd given her one."

"Well, if moths will go into spiders' webs," laughed his companion, "they must take the consequences."

"Sometimes they get helped out," he replied. "Some beneficent, godlike being puts out an omnipotent finger—"

He looked at her, and she looked at him. At this moment they seemed to have known one another intimately for years. The moon again.

"Tell me everything," she said, "and I'll help you out."

So then he told her that he had not "this time" visited his son. He might have added that he had come to Five Creeks partly to avoid being visited by him. Cowardly and weak he frankly confessed himself. "But the thing was too confoundedly awkward—too embarrassing altogether."

"But she writes—she writes continually. Tells me what he weighs, and when he's got a fresh tooth, and how he crawls about the carpet and into her bed of a morning, and imitates the cat mewing, and drinks I don't know how many pints of new milk a day, and all that sort of thing. I believe the rascal has the appetite of a young tiger—and yet I can't pay for what he eats! The nurse was long ago dispensed with, so that I've not even her board to send a cheque for, that they might by chance make a trifle of profit out of. It seems too late now to simply take the child away, and there leave it. I haven't the shabby courage to do such a thing; and besides, he might come to any sort of grief, poor little chap, in that case. There's no doubt in the world that her taking of him and doing for him have been the salvation of his health, and perhaps his life. And I know, by what she tells me, that he regularly dotes on her—as so he ought—and would howl his very head off if I took him from her. What could I do with him if I did take him? I've no home, and nobody to look after it if I had; and hired servants are the deuce with a lone man at their mercy. It would be worse now than it was at first. And so'—with another heavy sigh—'you see the situation. I'm just swallowed up, body and bones, drowned fathoms deep in a sea of debt and obligation that I can never by any possibility struggle out of, except—"

"Except," continued Alice, with the candid air of a kind and sensible sister—"except by marrying her, you mean? Yes, I see the situation. I appreciate your point of view. I should understand it if it were not that she unquestionably laid the trap for you deliberately—just as that spider laid his for moths and flies. And marriage by capture has gone out."

"Oh, don't say that!" the man protested, in haste. "I would not for a moment accuse her of that. She was Lily's friend; it was for her—it was out of pure womanly compassion for the motherless child; at any rate, in the beginning. And even now I have no right whatever to suppose—"

"But you know it, all the same. Every word you have said to me tells me that you know it. You may as well be frank."

He squirmed a little in his chair, but confessed as required.

"Well—but it's a caddish thing to say—I think she does expect it. And hasn't she the right to expect it? However, that's neither here nor there. The point is that, in common honesty and manliness, I should repay her if I can; and there's no other way—at least, I can't see any other way. It is my fault, and not hers, that I don't take to the notion; for a better woman never walked, nor one that would make a better mother to the boy. But, somehow, you DO like to have your free choice, don't you?" He had come as far as this—that he could entertain the idea of choice, which meant a second choice.

"It would be utterly wrong, absolutely immoral, downright wicked, to forego it," Alice declaimed, with energy. "It would be nothing short of criminal, Mr Carey."

She argued the point with eloquence, even excitedly; and when she had brought him to reason—very willing to be brought—leaned back in her chair with a joyous air.

"Oh, we will arrange it!" she reassured him. "There are plenty of ways. I'll tell you"—bending forward again and gazing earnestly into eyes from which something that had been looking out of them seemed to have drawn back hastily—"you shall introduce me to her, and I will bring him away up here for a visit. He ought to be in the country in summer, and he will come with me, I know, and won't miss her after a couple of days. I can get you a nurse cheap from some of the selectors, and one more or less makes not the slightest difference in a house like this; and I will take care of him for you until you come back next voyage, or for just as long as you will trust him to me. So the difficulty will solve itself without any fuss. Do you see?"

Guthrie Carey felt unable to reply. He could only murmur again and again: "You are awfully good, Miss Urquhart. 'Pon my word, you are too good altogether." Later, he declared more firmly that he could not think of troubling her.

"Nonsense!" she returned lightly. "It is all settled."





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