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Sisters

CHAPTER IV

Behold him at Redford, with his tea-cup in his hand. He was safe now from talk about the baby; but he was also cut off from the lovely Deborah, now wandering about her extensive grounds with another young man. Old Father Pennycuick had him fast. They sat together under a verandah of the great house.

"There were no pilots then," said the old man, puffing comfortably at his pipe—"there were no pilots then, and we had to feel our way along with the cast 'o the lead. We got ashore at Williamstown, on sailors' backs, and walked to Melbourne. Crossed the Yarra on a punt, not far from where Prince's Bridge now is—"

"Yes," said Guthrie Carey.

He seemed to be listening attentively, his strong, square face set like a mask; but his eyes roamed here and there.

"Bread two-and-six the small loaf," Mr Pennycuick dribbled into his dreaming ears. "Eggs sixpence apiece. Cheap enough, too, compared with the gold prices. But gold was not thought of for ten years after that. I tell you, sir, those were the times—before the gold brought all the riff-raff in."

The sailor murmured something to the effect that he supposed they were.

"We'd got our club, and a couple of branch banks, and a post-office, and Governor La Trobe, and Bishop Perry, and the nicest lot of fellows that ever came together to make a new country. We were as happy as kings. All young men. I was barely twenty-three when I took up Redford—named after our place at home. You know our place at home, of course?"

"I have seen it from the road," answered the guest, arrested in his mental wanderings by the mention of his own age.

"You must have seen it often, living so close."

"I never lived close myself; I am a Londoner."

"It's all the same—your people do. The Pennycuicks and the Careys have been neighbours for generations."

"I am only distantly related to that family."

"A Carey is a Carey," persisted the old man, who had determined to have it so from the first, and he would listen to no disclaimers.

He had already referred darkly to that Mary Carey of the hooked nose and pointed chin. His eldest daughter, he said, had been named after her. This eldest daughter, with her too-ruddy face, had shyly drawn near, and taken a chair at her father's elbow, where she sat very quietly, busily tatting. Plain though her face was, she had beautiful hands. Her play with thread and shuttle, just under Guthrie's eyes, held them watchful for a time—the time during which no sign of Deborah's white gown was to be perceived upon the landscape.

"My brother and I, we never hit it off, somehow. So when my father died I cleared. You don't remember his funeral, I suppose? No, no—that was before your time. They hung the church all over with black broadcloth of the best. That was the way in those days, and the cloth was the parson's perquisite. The funeral hangings used to keep him in coats and trousers. And they used to deal out long silk hat-scarves to all the mourners—silk that would stand alone, as they say—and the wives made mantles and aprons of them. They went down from mother to daughter, like the best china and family spoons. That's how women took care of their clothes when I was young. They didn't want new frocks and fallals every week, like some folks I could name." And he pinched his daughter's ear.

"Talk to Deb, father," said Mary. "I have not had a new frock for a great many weeks."

"Aye, Deb's the one! That girl's got to marry a millionaire, or I don't know where she'll be."

Almost Mrs Urquhart's words! And, like hers, they pricked sharply into the feelings of our young man. His eyes went a-roaming once more, to discover the white gown afar off, trailing unheeded along a dusty garden path. The old man saw it too, and his genial countenance clouded over.

"Well," he continued, after a thoughtful pause, "poor old Billy Dalzell and I, we emigrated together. He had a devil of a stepfather, and no home to speak of. We were mates at school, and we made up our minds to start out for ourselves. You remember the Dalzells of the Grange, of course?"

"I can't say that I do, sir."

"Well, they're gone now. Billy's father went the pace, and the mortgagees sold him up; and if his mother hadn't given him a bit when we started, Billy wouldn't have had a penny. She pawned all she could lay her hands on for him, we found out afterwards—Billy was cut up about that—and got ill-used by Heggarty for it when he found it out. She was a fool, that woman. Everybody could see what Heggarty was, except her. Old Dalzell was a gentleman, anyhow, with all his faults."

The white dress drew nearer, and its grey tweed companion. The host was once more wasting his story on deaf ears. "So we started off; and when we got here we went in together. He had enough to buy a mob of cattle and a dray and team, and so had I. We loaded up with all the necessaries, and hired three good men, and travelled till we found country. Took us about five months. At last we came here, and put our pegs in, and I started off to Melbourne for the license—ten pounds, and leave to renew at the end of the year—and here I've stuck ever since. Billy, he took up other land, and got married, and died, poor chap! And that's his boy over there," pointing with his pipe—"and he'll never be the man his father was, if he lives to a hundred."

The person referred to was he in the grey tweed, who sauntered with such assurance at white-robed Deborah's side. He was a tall, graceful and most distinguished-looking young fellow; but Guthrie Carey was prepared to believe heartily the statement that Dalzell junior would never be the man his father was.

"You shall see the identical hut," Mr Pennycuick kindly promised. "Down by the creek, where those big willows are—I planted them myself. Not good enough for a dog-kennel, my daughters say; but the best thing I can wish for them is that they may be as happy in their good houses as I was in that old shanty—aye, in spite of many a hard time I had there, with blacks and what not. We cut the stuff, Billy and I, and set the whole thing up; and all our furniture was our sleeping-bunks and a few stools and a table. We washed in a tin bowl on a block outside the door. Not so particular about tubbing and clean shirts in those days. Our windows were holes of a handy size for gun barrels, and the shutters we put up o' nights were squares of bark hung on to nails by strips of green hide. Many's the time I've woke to see one of 'em tilted up, and a pair of eyes looking in—sometimes friends, sometimes foes; we were ready for either. When Billy went, and I thought I'd get married too, then I built a better house—brick this time, and workmen from Melbourne to do it; that's it over there, now the kitchens and store-rooms—and imported furniture—er—I am not boring you, I hope?"

"Oh, dear, no! I am deeply interested."

"Well, Billy and I"—the tale seemed interminable—"Billy and I, we gave sixty pounds apiece for our stock horses, and the same for a ton of flour; and went right over Ballarat without knowing it. Camped there, sir, and didn't see the gold we must actually have crunched under our boot heels. And Billy had misfortunes, and died poor as a rat. It was in the family. Mrs D. was all right, though. She used to send a brother of hers to Melbourne market with her cattle, and cash being scarce, he would sometimes have to take land deeds for them, and she'd be wild with him for it. But what was the consequence? Those bits of paper that she thought so worthless that it's a wonder she took the trouble to save them, gave her city lots that turned out as good as gold mines. She sold too soon, or she'd have made millions—and died of a broken heart, they say, when she found out that mistake. Still, she left a lot more than it's good for a young fellow to start life with. That boy has been to Cambridge, and now he loafs about the club, pretends to be a judge of wine, gets every stitch of clothes from London—pah!" Mr Pennycuick spat neatly and with precision over the verandah floor into a flower-bed. "But these mother's darlings—you know them. If Mrs Dalzell could see him now, I daresay she'd be bursting with pride, for there's no denying that he's a smart-looking chap. But his father would be ashamed of him."

"Daddy dear!" Mary gently expostulated.

"So he would. An idle, finicking scamp, that'll never do an honest stroke of work as long as he lives. And I wish Deb wouldn't waste her time listening to his nonsense. Isn't it about time to be getting ready for dinner, Moll?"

Mary looked through a window at a clock indoors, and said it was. Guthrie hailed the news, and rose to his feet.

But not yet did he escape. His host, hoisting himself heavily out of his big cane chair, hollowed like a basin under his vast weight, extended a detaining hand.

"Come with me to my office a minute," he half whispered. "I'd like to show you something."

With apparent alertness, but sighing inwardly, Guthrie followed his host to the room in the old part of the house which he called his office. Mr Pennycuick carefully shut the door, opened a desk full of drawers and pigeon-holes, and brought forth a bit of cardboard with a shy air. He had never shown it to his family, and doubtless would not have shown it now if he had not been growing old and soft and sentimental. It was a prim and niggling little water-colour drawing of English Redford—a flat facade, with swallows as big as condors flying over the roofs, and dogs that could never have got through any doorway gambolling on the lawn in front. A tiny 'Mary Carey' in one corner was just, and only just, visible to the naked eye.

"This was done for me, when we were both young, by her—your aunt," said Mr Pennycuick, gloating upon his treasure over Guthrie's shoulder.

"Not my aunt," explained Guthrie. "I don't know what relation, but a long way farther off than that. I am only a very small Carey, you know, sir."

Mr Pennycuick testily intimated, as before, that to be a Carey at all was enough for him. It was his excuse for these confidences, of which he was half ashamed.

While Guthrie studied the poor picture, trying to look as interested as he was expected to be, his host turned and stared down into the drawer that had held it for so many years. Other things were there—the usual dead flowers, still holding together, still fusty to the nose; the usual yellowing ball glove, the usual dance and invitation cards, and faded letters, with their edges frayed; a book-marker with an embroidered 'Friendship', mixed up with forget-me-nots, in coloured silks upon perforated card, backed by a still gleaming red satin ribbon looped at one end and fringed out at the other; the book that it was tucked into ("The Language of Flowers"), a large valentine in a wrapper with many broken seals, some newspaper cuttings, half a sixpence, with a hole in it, and a daguerreotype in a leather case.

This last he took up, opened and gazed at steadily, until his companion was compelled to interrupt him with an inquiring eye. Then he passed it over, and Guthrie turned it this way and that, until he caught the outlines of a long aquiline face between bunched ringlets, and a long bodice with a deep point, which he understood to have belonged to his distant relative at some period before he was born.

"And this?" he murmured politely.

"Yes," said Mr Pennycuick; "that's her. And I've never shown it to a soul before—not even to my wife."

"A—a sweet expression. Fair, was she?"

"Fair as a lily, and as pure, and as beautiful. Gentle as a dove. With blue eyes."

Guthrie did not care for this type just now. He liked them dark and flashing and spirited, like Miss Deborah. But he murmured "Hm-m-m" sympathetically.

"The loveliest woman in England," the old man maundered on. "Surely you must have heard of her, in the family?"

Guthrie had not only heard of her, as we know, he had seen her; but he shook a denying head, and dropped another hint of his own position in the family—outside the royal enclosure, as it were.

"Well, now, I'll just tell you what happened," said Mr Pennycuick, turning to the open drawer again. "Strictly between ourselves, of course—and only because you are a Carey, you understand—somehow you bring it all back—"

He was fumbling with the big valentine, getting it out of its case.

"Yes?" Guthrie encouraged him, while inwardly chafing to be gone.

"You see this?" It was an exquisite structure of foamy paper lace, silver doves, gauzed-winged Cupids, transfixed hearts and wreaths of flowers, miraculously delicate. How it had kept its frail form intact for the many years of its age was a wonder to behold. "You see this?" said the old man. "Well, when I was a young fellow, the 14th of February was a time, I can tell you! You fellows nowadays, you don't know what fun is, nor how to go a-courting, nor anything.... I was at old Redford that year, and she was at Wellwood, and all through the sleet and snow I rode there after dark, tied my horse to a tree, crept up that nut-walk—you know it?—and round by the east terrace to the porch, and laid my valentine on the door-step, and clanged the bell, and hid behind the yew-fence till the man came out to get it. Then I went home. And last thing at night there was a clatter-clatter at the door at Redford, and I dashed out to catch whoever it was—her brother she sent—but wasn't quite smart enough. If only I'd seen him. I should have known—as I ought to have, without that; but I didn't. It never occurred to me that she'd send the answer so soon, and she had disguised her writing in the address, and there was another girl—name of Myrtle Vining—who used to have myrtle on her note-paper, and all over the place—and here these flowers looked to me as if they were meant for myrtle, and these two crossed arrows are like capital V—and how I came to be such an egregious dolt, Lord only knows! Well, I've paid for it—that I have—I've paid for it. Look here—don't touch! I'll show you what I found out when it was too late—after she'd played shy with me till I got angry and left her, and it was all over—my eyes aren't good enough to see it now, but I suppose it's there still—"

With infinite care and the small blade of his pocket-knife, he lifted the tiny tip of a tiny Cupid's wing. With bent head and puckered eyelids, Guthrie peered under, and read: "Yours, M. C.," written on a space of paper hardly larger than a pin's head.

"In my valentine that night," said Mr Pennycuick, "I'd asked her to have me. I didn't hide it up in this way; I knew, while I wondered that she took no notice, that she must have seen it. This was her answer. And I never got it, sir, till she was married to another man—and then by the merest accident. Then I couldn't even have the satisfaction of telling her that I'd got it, and how it was I hadn't got it before. Of course, I wasn't going to upset her after she was married to another man. I've had to let her think what she liked of me."

Guthrie was certainly interested now, but not as interested as he would have been the day before. The day before, this story would have moved him to pour out the tale of his own untimely and irreparable loss. He and old Mr Pennycuick would—metaphorically speaking—have mingled their tears together.

"You forget, off and on," said Mr Pennycuick, as he wrapped up his treasure with shaking hands and excessive care—"perhaps for years at a time, while you are at work and full of affairs; but it comes back—especially when you are old and lonely, and you think how different your life might have been. You don't know anything about these things yet. Perhaps, when you are an old man like me, you will."

Guthrie did know—no one better, he believed. But he did not say. Unknown to himself, he had reached that stage which Mr Pennycuick came to when he began courting Sally Dimsdale, who had made him such a good and faithful (and uninteresting) wife.

"It is better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all," says the old proverb. True enough. But one might write it this way, with even more truth: "It is better to love and lose than to love and gain." One means by love, romantic love, of course.





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