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Sisters

CHAPTER V.

Dinner was over. They had all gone up to the big drawing-room, which was the feature of the 'new part'—the third house of the series which now made one. The new part was incongruously solid and modern, with a storey (comprising the drawing-room and its staircase only) which overtopped the adjacent roofs. Below it was a corresponding dining-room, and both apartments were furnished richly in the fashion of the time—tons of solid mahogany in the latter, and a pasture of grass-green carpet and brocade upholsterings in the former, lit up with gilded wall-paper and curtain-cornices as by rays of a pale sun. Curly rosewood sofas and arm-chairs, and marbled and mirrored chiffonniers, and the like, were in such profusion upstairs as to do away with the air of bleakness common to a right-angled chamber of large size and middle-class arrangement. A fine grand piano stood open in a prominent place. Four large shaded lamps and four piano candles pleasantly irradiated the whole; while three French windows, opening on a balcony, still stood wide to the summer night.

By the great white marble mantelpiece, under the great gilt-framed pier-glass, filling the huge chair specially dedicated to his use, Father Pennycuick sat in comfortable gossip with his old friend, Thornycroft of Bundaboo. It irked him to separate himself from pipe and newspaper, baggy coat and slouchy slippers, and his corpulent frame objected to stairs; but when he had guests he considered it his duty to toil up after them, in patent shoes and dining costume, and sit amongst them until music or card games were on the way, when he would retire as unobtrusively as his size and heavy footstep permitted. It was the custom to pretend not to see or hear him go, and it would have annoyed him exceedingly had anyone bidden him good-night.

The pair talked shop, after the manner of old squatters when they sit apart; but the tall, spare, grey man with the thoughtful face—more like a soldier than a sheep-farmer—was not thinking much of his flocks and herds. His thoughts followed the direction of his quiet eyes, focussed upon an amber silk gown and its immediate surroundings. Mr Thornycroft was Deborah's godfather, and at forty-seven was to all the sisters quite an elderly man, a sort of bachelor uncle to the family, one with no concern in such youthful pastimes as love-making and marrying, except as a benevolent onlooker and present-giver; and so the veiled vigilance of his regard was not noticed, as it would not have been understood, by anybody.

But other eyes, similarly occupied, were plainer to read.

Jim Urquhart's, of course. Jim—as ineligible for the most coveted post in the Western District as he well could be, by reason of the family already depending upon him, together with the load of debt left along with it by his deceased father, a "pal" of Mr Pennycuick's in the gay and good old times—still contrived to bring himself within the radius of Deborah's observation whenever occasion served. And being there, although silent and keeping to the background, his gaze followed her as the gaze of an opossum follows a light on a dark night, with the same still absorption. Nothing but her returning gaze could divert it from its mark. It was so natural, so calmly customary, so unobtrusive, that nobody cared to attach importance to it.

He sat now, far back against the green brocade hangings of a corner window, where he could see the beloved profile in the middle of the room. His big, work-roughened hands clasped his big, bony knees, and his long, loose body hung forward out of the little chair that was never built for such as he; and he seemed given over to Rose Pennycuick's tale of the pony that had corns, and the cat that had been mangled in a cruel rabbit trap. He gave her wise counsel regarding the treatment of these poor things, his deep, drawling voice an unnoticed instrument in the orchestra of tongues; but his crude-featured, sunburnt face held itself steadily in the one direction. From the day that he came to manhood his soul had kept the same attitude towards the woman to whom the profile belonged. But he never alluded to the fact, save in this silent way.

Then there was the Reverend Bennet Goldsworthy, "Church of England minister", as his style and title ran. Privately, Mr Pennycuick did not like him; but for the sake of the priestly office, and as being a parishioner, he gave him the freedom of the house, and much besides. The parson's buggy never went empty away. Redford hams, vegetables, poultry, butter and eggs, etc., kept his larder supplied. His horse-feed was derived therefrom; also his horse; also his cow. When his cow began to fail, he promptly mentioned the fact—he was mentioning it now to Mary Pennycuick. "Yes," he was saying, A PROPOS of his motherless little girl—whom he often brought to Redford for change of air, leaving her to the care of the sisters until convenient to him to reclaim her—"yes, it will mean much to my child in after life to have had the refining influences of this house at the most impressionable age." Truth was, that Ruby was growing a little old for her Kindergarten, and he wanted Redford to offer her (gratis, of course) a share in Francie's governess. "I could not endure to see her grow up like the daughters of so many of my brother clergy, ignorant of the very rudiments of decent life"—meaning not decent life in the ordinary acceptation of the term, but the life that included evening dress and finger-glasses. "She has caught the colonial accent already at that horrid school. 'When is the new keeow coming?' says she. And, by the way, that reminds me—your good father promised me the cow a fortnight ago. The one we have gives us hardly enough milk for the table; we have had no butter from her for months."

"I am so sorry," grieved Mary, as if Redford had failed in its sacred duty of hospitality. "I will tell him about it. The men have all been so busy with the shearing."

She was also distressed that she could not definitely invite Ruby for the impending holidays. But Deb had issued her commands that Redford was not to be saddled with a nurseless child at Christmas, when everybody's hands would be full.

Mary was Ruby's willing foster-mother when Redford had her in charge; she was also the kindest hostess of them all to Ruby's father. To her was left the task of entertaining him, and she never neglected it. Naturally, he gave her no thanks. When he said that what Ruby needed was a mother's tender care, it was at Deborah he looked, who never turned a hair's-breadth in his direction at any time, except when good manners obliged her, and who was not tender to Ruby, whom she called "that brat", and had smartly spanked on several occasions.

A beautiful woman cannot help having objectionable lovers any more than a king can help a cat looking at him. This man—a most well-meaning, good-hearted, useful little underbred person, typical of so large a class in the Colonial Church—was Deb's pet aversion, and did not know it. He was not made to see his own deficiencies as she saw them. When first she flashed upon his dazzled vision, splendid in a scarlet dinner gown, and carrying her regal head as if the earth belonged to her, he really saw no reason why he, with his qualifications of comparative youth, good looks (his sort of good looks), and notorious pulpit eloquence, should not aspire to rush in where so many feared to tread. His rush had been checked at the outset, but he was still unaware of the nature of the barrier that Deb held rigid between them. He continued to gaze at her with his ardent little black eyes as if no barrier were there. And it was because he did so that Deb, who could not slap him for it, slapped Ruby sometimes, and called her a brat, and would not have her asked to Redford for the holidays; thereby giving occasion to envious Alice Urquhart for that warning to Guthrie Carey not to trust his baby to her.

There was still another lover present—the favoured lover. He sat with Alice near the piano where Francie and her governess were playing duets, listening without listening to his companion's jerky talk—those pathetic attempts to attract him which so many second-rate girls were not too proud to make obvious to his keen apprehension. Claud Dalzell's distinction was that he was the most polished young man of his social circle. He had had all the advantages that money could give and in addition, was naturally refined and handsome. To hear Claud Dalzell read poetry, or sing German folk-songs to his own graceful accompaniment, was to make a poet of the listener; to dance with him was pure enchantment (to another good dancer); he was the best horseman in the land; and if his present host could not appreciate his many charms—except perhaps the last named—others did. The whole race of girls, more or less, fell down and worshipped him.

He sat with Alice Urquhart because he could not sit with Deborah; or rather, because he would not condescend to share her with that "t'penny-ha'penny mate of a tramp cargo boat", as he styled Guthrie Carey, whom she had made happy at last. She had rescued him from her father's clutches; she had called him to a chair beside her, where there was no room for a third chair. Her glistening skirt flowed over his modest toes. Her firm, round arm, flung along the chair arm between them, made him feel like Peter Ibbotson before the Venus of Milo—it was so perfect a piece of human sculpture. She lay back, slowly fanning herself, and smiling, her eyes wandering all the time in Dalzell's neighbourhood, without actually touching him—a tall, deep-bosomed, dark-eyed, dignified as well as beautiful young woman, knowing herself to be such, and unspoiled by the knowledge. She wore her crown with the air of feeling herself entitled to it; but it was an unconscious air, without a trace of petty vanity behind it. Everything about her was large and generous and incorruptibly wholesome, even her undoubted high temper. And this was her charm to every man who knew her—not less than her lovely face.

Guthrie Carey—and who shall blame him?—basked in his good luck. But every now and then he looked up and met the glower of Claud Dalzell with a steely eye. These two men, each so fine of his kind, met with the sentiments of rival stags in the mating season; the impulse to fight 'on sight' and assure the non-survival of the unfittest came just as naturally to them as to the less civilised animals. Each recognised in the other not merely a personal rival, but an opposing type.

It amused Deborah, who grasped the situation as surely as they did, to note the bristling antipathy behind the careful politeness of their mutual regard. If it did not bristle under her immediate eye, it crawled.

"Look out for the articles of virtue," Claud had warned her earlier in the evening. "That big sailor of yours is rather like a bull in a china shop; he nearly had the carved table over just now. He doesn't know just how to judge distance in relation to his bulk. I'd like to know his fighting weight. When he plants his hoof you can feel the floor shake."

"He IS a fine figure of a man," Deb commented, with a smile.

"I can't," yawned Mr Dalzell casually, "stand a person who eats curry with a knife and fork."

"It was pretty tough, that curry. I expect he couldn't get it to pieces with a spoon."

"He did not try to."

"I never noticed. I shouldn't remember to notice a little trifle like that."

"My dear girl, it is the little trifle that marks the man."

"Oh!" said Deb. And then she sought Guthrie Carey, and brought him to sit beside her.

"That gentleman sings well," remarked Guthrie tepidly, at the conclusion of a finely rendered song. "I often wish I could do those ornamental things. Unfortunately, a man who has his work—if he sticks to it properly—gets no time to qualify. I'm afraid I shall never shine at drawing-room tricks."

"Tell me about your work," said clever Deb, smiling behind her waving fan.

At once she had him quite happy, talking about himself. No effort was necessary to draw him out; that she deigned to listen to him was enough. His struggles as boy—blue-nose boy; his tough battle for the first certificate; his complicated trials as second mate, holding theoretically an authority that was practically none; his rise to be qualified master and actual mate—no "t'penny-ha'penny" position in his eyes evidently; his anticipation of the "master extra" and the pass in steam, which might lead to anything—the whole tale was told her in terse, straightforward fashion, but with an art new to the modest sailor-man, who hated brag as much as cowardice. He bragged in self-defence, in challenge of the formidable equipment of his rival. And how interested she was! How well she understood his case—that it was better than the swellest training-ship to make your own way by your own exertions, and splendid to have done so much while still on the right side of thirty.

So much! He had done more than that—he had been a husband and father at twenty-one. But this, his most distinguished exploit, was not mentioned.





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