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Sisters

CHAPTER III.

Decidedly he was a coward, with all his brawn and inches; for he dared not protest straight-forwardly that all was not settled. He certainly told himself that he did not know what to do, but he also told himself that he would be a fool to do practically the same thing that he had done before. He passed a sleepless night, poor fellow, cogitating the matter; and in the morning, when the moon was gone, saw clearly himself where the path of prudence lay. Still he lacked courage to make it clear to Miss Urquhart, even while he saw her laying out, with enthusiasm, that road of her own which his terrified imagination pictured her marching along presently, bearing the baby aloft in her arms, and dragging him on a dog-chain behind her. It was not until mid-day that he suddenly became a brave man—about five minutes after the arrival of Deborah Pennycuick.

She rode over from Redford, all by herself, as her frequent custom was, to see how Five Creeks was getting on, and to talk over plans for Christmas. She wore a brown holland habit over the most beautifully moulded form, and, entering the house, tossed aside a shady hat from the most beautiful face that ever delighted eyes of man and virile heart of three-and-twenty. It is in such plain terms that one must describe this noble creature; words in half-tones are unworthy of the theme. Being introduced by Alice Urquhart, Guthrie Carey, in a sense, expanded on the spot into a fresh stage, a larger scope of being, with his unleaping recognition of her inspiring greatness. It seemed to him that he had never looked upon a woman before. Lily, of course, had been an angel. "I thought I should just strike lunch," she said, as she came like a sunbeam into the dim, low-ceiled, threadbare, comfortable room where the meal was ready. "I'm as hungry as a hunter, Mrs Urquhart."

The homely old woman uttered a cry of joy, and spread her arms. The visitor, incarnate dignity, bent to the maternal caress with willing affection, yet with the tolerant air of good-nature that does not run to gush. The children gathered round her, and hung upon her, undeterred by the fact that she had no kisses or fondlings for them. Jim stood motionless, glowing at the back of his fixed eyes.

When the family had done greeting her, Guthrie was brought forward.

"This is Mr Carey, Deb, who—"

"Oh, yes, I know"—and the frank hand, large, strong and beautiful, like every bit of her, went out to him as if she had really known him—"it is on Mr Carey's account that I have come, to tell you that you must bring him over to Redford at once."

"We were going to," said Alice; for it was the natural thing to take every Five Creeks visitor to Redford as soon as possible. "I was writing to you only this morning."

"Well, we just wanted to make sure. My father—you will excuse him for not calling on you; he is not able to get about as he used, poor old man—hears that you belong to a family at home which was very intimate with his family when he was young. Do you come from Norfolk?"

"No," replied the sailor, still in his dream.

"Oh, dear, what a pity! He will be so disappointed. We have been hearing about the Careys of Wellwood all our lives—never were such people, apparently—and when he heard your name, and got the idea that you were of the clan, nothing would do but that you must be fetched at once, to talk to him about them. Aren't you even a second cousin, or something?"

"My grandfather was born at Wellwood—"

"Ah, that's right! That's all we want. That makes you a Carey of Wellwood, of course. I hope you know the place?" "I have seen it. But my grandfather was a younger son and a ne'er-do-weel; he was kicked out—he quite broke off—"

"Never mind. You needn't go into inconvenient particulars. Try and remember all you know that's nice about the Hall and the family. Did you ever hear of a Mary Carey? But no—she would be before your time, of course."

"There was an old Mary Carey; she married a Spencer. She was pointed out to me last time I was at home—the nut-cracker type, nose and chin together—"

"Goodness! Keep that dark too, for mercy's sake! She is his ideal woman. It is for her sake he wants you to talk Wellwood with. If you spoil his pleasure with that hint of nut-crackers, I'll never forgive you."

"I hope I know better," Guthrie smiled, coming to himself a little.

"I am sure you do," said she, and turned from him to take her chair at table.

"Then we'll bring him tomorrow," Alice said, seating herself.

"This afternoon," said the visitor commandingly.

Alice wanted another moonlight talk about the baby, and knew the small chance of getting it where Deborah Pennycuick was, and she raised obstacles, fighting for delay. Deborah calmly turned to Jim.

"Anything to hinder your coming this afternoon, Jim?"

"Nothing," said Mr Urquhart promptly.

The matter was evidently settled.

They sat down to lunch, and the talk was brisk. It was almost confined to the visitor and Alice, although the former carefully avoided the shutting out of the hostess from the conversation, in which she was incapable of taking a brilliant part. Jim, in the host's place, sat dumb and still, except for his alertness in anticipating his guest's little wants. Guthrie Carey, on her other hand, was equally silent. Neither of the two men heard what she talked about for listening to the mere notes of her charming voice.

After luncheon she put on her sensible straw hat.

"You must drive Mr Carey," she said to Jim. "I'll just ride ahead, and let them know you are coming."

"Let us all go together," said Alice. "I'll drive Mr Carey, and Jim can escort you."

But there was no gainsaying Deborah Pennycuick when she had expressed her views.

"You have to get ready," she pointed out, "and you'll do it quicker if I'm not here. Besides, I can't wait."

They all went out with her to the gate, where her superb, high-tempered horse pawed the gravel, and champed upon his bit. Jim sent her springing to the saddle from his horny palm like a bird let out of it, and they watched in silence while she crossed two paddocks, leaped two sets of slip-rails, and disappeared as a small dot of white handkerchief from the sun-suffused landscape.

"What riding!" Guthrie Carey ejaculated, under his breath.

"She's the best horsewoman in the country," Jim Urquhart commented slowly, after a still pause.

He was a slow—to some people a dull and heavy—man, who talked little, and less of Deborah Pennycuick than of any subject in the world—his world.

"And what a howling beauty!" the sailor added, in the same whisper of awe.

Again the bushman spoke, muttering deeply in his beard: "She is as good as she is beautiful."

Mrs Urquhart took her levelled hand from her eyes, and turned to contribute her testimony.

"There, Mr Carey, goes the flower of the Western District. You won't find her match amongst the best in England. I was with her mother when she was born—not a soul else—and put her into her first clothes, that I helped to make; and a bonny one she was, even then, with her black eyes, that stared up at me as much as to say: 'Who are you, I'd like to know?' Dear, it seems like yesterday, and it's nigh twenty years ago. All poor Sally Pennycuick's girls are good girls, and the youngest is going to be handsome too. Rose, the third, is not at all bad-looking; poor Mary—I don't know who she takes after. The father was the one with the good looks; but Sally was a fine woman too. Poor dear old Sally! I wish she was here to see that girl."

Mrs Urquhart and Mrs Pennycuick, plain, brave, working women of the rough old times, wives of high-born husbands, incapable of companioning them as they companioned each other, had been great friends. On them had devolved the drudgery of the pioneer home-making without its romance; they had had, year in, year out, the task of 'shepherding' two headstrong and unthrifty men, who neither owned their help nor thanked them for it—the inglorious life-work of so many obscure women—and had strengthened each other's hands and hearts that had had so little other support.

"Mrs. Pennycuick—she is not living, I presume?" Guthrie enticed the garrulous lady to proceed.

"Dear, no. She died when Francie was a baby," and Mrs Urquhart gave the details of her friend's last illness in full. "Deb was just a little trot of a thing—her father's idol; he wouldn't allow her mother to correct her the least bit, though she was a wilful puss, with a temper of her own; ruled the house, she did, just as she does now. If she hadn't had such a good heart, she'd have grown up unbearable. There never was a child in this world so spoiled. But spoiling's good for her, she says. It's to be hoped so, for spoiling she'll have to the end of the chapter. She's born to get the best of everything, is Debbie Pennycuick. Fortunately, her father's rich, though not so rich as he used to be; and when she leaves her beautiful home, it'll be to go to another as good, or better. She's got to marry well, that girl; she'd never get along as a poor woman, with her extravagant ways. It'd never do"—Mrs Urquhart's voice had, subtly changed, and something in it made the blood rise to the cheeks of the listeners "it'd never do to put her into an ordinary bush-house, where often she couldn't get servants for love or money, because of the dull life, and might have to cook for station hands herself, and even do the washing at a pinch—"

Jim wheeled round suddenly, and strode back to the house—the house, as he was quite aware, which his mother alluded to. She, agitated by the movement, and without completing her sentence, turned and trotted after him. Alice was left leaning over the gate, at Guthrie Carey's side.

"You will enjoy this visit," she remarked calmly, ignoring the little scene. "Redford is a beautiful place—quite one of the show-places of the district—and they do things very well there. Mary is ostensibly the housekeeper; she really does all the hard work, but it is Deb who makes the house what it is. After she came home from school she got her father to build the new part. Since then they have had much more company than they used to have. Mary, who had been out for some years, didn't care for gaieties. She is a dear girl—we are all awfully fond of her—but she has a most curious complexion—quite bright red, as if her skin had something the matter with it, although it hasn't. Of course, that goes against her."

"Miss Deborah's complexion is wonderful."

"Yes. But oh, Deb isn't to be compared with Mary in anything except looks. She is eaten up with vanity—one can't be surprised—and is very dictatorial and overbearing; you could see that at lunch. But Mary is so gentle, so unselfish—her father's right hand, and everybody's stand-by."

"I don't think Miss Deborah seemed—"

"Because you don't know her. I do. She simply loathes children, while Mary would mother all the orphan asylums in the world, if she could. I always tell her that her mission in life is to run a creche—or should be. Lawks! How she will envy me when I get that boy of yours to look after!"

Guthrie's feet seemed to take tight hold of the ground. "Really, Miss Urquhart—er—I can't thank you for your goodness in—in asking him up here—but I've been thinking—I've made up my mind that the best thing I can do is to take him home to my own people." The idea was an inspiration of the desperate moment. How to put it into practice he knew not, and she tried to show him that it was impracticable; but he stuck to it as to a life-buoy. He would write to his sister—all the 'people' he owned apparently—and find somebody who was going home; and "Isn't it time to be putting our things together? Miss Pennycuick told us we were to be there for tea at four o'clock, if possible."





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