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Sisters

CHAPTER VII.

There was a moon the next night also. It did not appreciably affect him this time—down in dirty Sandridge, hobnobbing with the baby's caretaker and the general merchant, who, shutting his shop at six, was free to make the sailor's acquaintance, and help him to spend a pleasant evening. But it turned Redford garden, with its fine old trees and lawns, into the usual bit of fairyland for those who strayed therein.

Redford was packed with Christmas guests. The waggonette that had taken Guthrie Carey to the train had returned full of them, and batches had been arriving at intervals through the day. At bed-time the sisters were sharing rooms; Rose had come to Deb's, Frances to Mary's; and the unmarried men were all at the bachelors' quarters.

It was a hot night, and Deb, under the circumstances, was disinclined for sleep. She paid visits to one guest chamber and another, for private gossips and good-nights; when she returned to her own, where placid Rose had long composed herself, she roamed the floor like a caged animal.

"It is no use my coming to bed yet," she addressed her sister. "I could not sleep. I should only kick about and disturb you. I'll sit down and read a bit."

She found a novel and an easy-chair, and made deliberate efforts to tranquillise herself. Soon Rose heard sighs and phews, and sudden rustlings and slappings, and then the bang of a book upon the floor.

"I can't read! and the light brings the mosquitoes. It's too hot in here. I'm going out to get cool, Rosie."

"A'right," mumbled drowsy Rose. And the light was extinguished, and the blind of the French window rattled up.

Deb flung both leaves wide—like all the Redford doors, they were never locked or barred—and drifting over the verandah, sat down on the edge of it, with her feet on the gravel. She had tossed off her pearl necklace and a breast-knot of wilted roses; otherwise, she sat in full evening dress, and the night air bathed her bare neck and arms. Also the mosquitoes found them—a delicious morsel!—so that she had to turn her lacy skirt up over her head to be quite comfortable. From under this hood the dark lamps of her eyes shone forth, gazing steadily into the dim world—into the bit of future that she thought she saw unveiled. The loom of the trees, the glimmer of flowering bushes, the open spaces of lawn and pallid pathways, the translucent blue-green sky, the rising moon—these things made the picture, but were to all intents invisible to the inward sight. She really saw nothing, until suddenly a pin-point spark appeared out of the shadows, moved along a hedge of laurels, and fixed itself in the neighbourhood of a distant garden-seat. Then at once she stiffened like a cat that has heard a mouse squeak or a bird's wing rustle; she was alert on the instant, concentrated upon the phenomenon. Instinct recognised the tip of a cigar which had the handsome face of Claud Dalzell behind it.

"What is he doing out of doors at this time of night?" she wondered; and the little star began to draw her like a magnet. The world becomes another world in these mystic hours; it has new rulers and new laws—or rather, it has none. The moon sways more than ocean tides. In broad day Deb would no more have stalked a man than she would a crocodile; in this soft, free, empty, irresponsible night the primal woman was out of her husk, one with the desert-prowling animal that calls through the moonlit silence for its mate. Twenty times had she snubbed an ardent lover at the behest of all sorts of reasons and so-called instincts cultivated for her guidance by generations of wise men, now, all in a moment, came this moon-born impulse to give herself to him unasked. She could not resist it.

Like Deb, Claud had not been inclined to sleep, and for much the same reason. The guest chamber usually allotted to him being needed for a lady, he had been sent to the bachelors' quarters—a barrack-like dormitory amongst the outbuildings, very useful for the accommodation of the occasional 'vet' or cattle-buyer, and to take the overflow of company on festive occasions. Jim Urquhart, when at Redford, always slept there; he preferred it, particularly when he had companions with whom to smoke and talk sheep, and perhaps play cards, at liberty; for the bachelors' quarters had its own wood-stack and supplies, and one could sit by a blazing hearth all night, if so disposed, without incommoding anybody.

Generally four bachelor beds were made up, and a screened end of the room stacked with the material for twice as many more. At Christmas all were in use, and lined the two long walls—which Dalzell called "herding", and disliked extremely, while recognising that it was a necessary arrangement to which it was his duty to conform.

The herd was undressing itself in a miscellaneous manner—yawning, chaffing, cutting stupid jokes, some of them at his expense; until the process was at an end, and he could reasonably assume the fellows to be asleep, he preferred the gardens to the bachelors' quarters.

And the free night enfolded him—the rising moon uplifted him—in the usual way, he being, like Deb, like Guthrie Carey, an instrument fitted to respond to their mute appeals. Perhaps even more finely fitted than Guthrie or Deb; for he had what are called "gifts" of intellect and imagination transcending theirs—faculties of mind which, lacking worthy use, bred in him a sort of chronic melancholy, the poetic discontent of the unappreciated and misunderstood—a mood to which moonlight ministers as wine to the drinking fever, at once an exquisite exasperation and a divine appeasement. He was a poet, a painter, a musician—possibly a soldier, or a king—possibly anything—spoiled, blighted by that misnamed good fortune which the lucky workers who had to work so naturally and stupidly envied him. The proper stimulus to the worthy development of the manhood latent in him had been taken from him at the start. And now he wandered amongst his dilettantisms, dissatisfied and ineffectual. He lived beneath himself in his common intercourse with others; he ate his heart when he was alone.

Unconsciously, by force of habit, he selected the most comfortable and cleanly of the garden-seats, and made sure that the best of cigars was drawing perfectly, before he gave himself to his meditations on this particular moonlight night. Then he began to think of Deb—in the same new way that Carey had begun to think of her after discovering a dangerous rival in the field. To Claud, Guthrie was dangerous in his rude bulk and strength, the knitted brute power that the sea and his hard life had given him; to Guthrie, Claud was dangerous in the highbred beauty and finish of his person, clothes and manners, and in the astounding "cleverness" that he displayed. Each man feared the force of those qualities which he lacked himself, and was secretly ashamed of lacking.

Claud Dalzell considered this matter of the rival—not a probable but a possible rival—seriously, for the first time. Hitherto he had had an easy mind in his relations with the beauty of the countryside. She was his for all he wanted of her. And feeling this, he had taken no steps to register his claim; he had not even yet proposed to her. Matrimony was not a fashionable institution—it was, indeed, a jest—in his set. A young man with a heap of money was not expected to tie himself down as if he were a poor clerk on a hundred a year. The conditions of club life, with as many domestic hearths to visit as he wished, and to stay away from when he chose, the luxury and freedom of pampered bachelorhood, had not only been deemed appropriate, but necessary to his peculiar needs and organisation. He had not considered himself a marrying man. But now the new idea came to him—to make his rights in Deb secure.

Certainly he could not contemplate the possibility of doing without her. He had loved her that much for years. Within the last day or two he had loved her twice that much. And now the moonlight showed him his love enthroned above all his lesser loves—a thing of heaven, where they were of the earth—consecrated a great passion, to lift him out of himself. He sat and smoked, spiritually bemused, his brain running like a fountain with melodies of music and poetry, notes and words that sang in his ears and murmured on his lips without his hearing them. So a distant curlew thrilled him to a more ecstatic melancholy with its call through the moon-transfigured world, and he did not notice it. All the influences of the gentle night contributed to his inspired mood, but Love was the first violin in that orchestra under Nature's conductorship—Nature, whose hour it was, walking, a god, in the Garden of Eden in the cool of the day.

And here came Deb, gliding towards him by a path that he could not see, holding her lace skirts tightly bunched in her nervous hands. Youth to youth, beauty to beauty, man to woman, woman to man, the magnet to the steel—they were just elements of the elements, for once in their lives.

"How fortunate that I put on black tonight," thought Deb, as she pursued her stealthy way at the back of bushes—"and something that does not rustle!"

"How beautiful she was tonight!" thought Claud. "How a dark dress throws up that superb neck of hers! I'll take her to Europe, and show her to the sculptors and painters; but where's the hand that could carve that shape, or the paint that could give her colour? I'll have a London season with her, and see her snuff out the milk-and-water debutantes. No milk-and-water about Deb—wine and fire!—and withal so proud and unapproachable. That hulking brute imagines—but he'll find his mistake if he attempts to cross the line. Beauty, passion, purity—what a blend! She's a woman alone—the blue rose of women—and she is mine." He murmured, to some cadence of a Schubert serenade: "My Deb! My love! My love! My queen!" and suddenly stopped short in his musings.

Her foot crunched the gravel behind him. Without turning his head, he sat alertly motionless for several minutes, listening, holding his breath. Then he dropped his cigar gently.

"Fine night, Deb," he remarked aloud.

There was no immediate answer, but presently a low chuckle from the laurel bushes.

"How did you know it was me?" she asked, imitating his casual tone.

"Couldn't explain, I'm sure. It was borne in on me, somehow."

"You did not see me."

"I don't want to see, in your case. I feel you."

There was another brief silence, and then she rustled off a step or two.

"Well, good-night! I just came out to look for a book I left here somewhere."

"What book?" "It doesn't matter. It is too late to read tonight, anyhow."

"It spoils books to leave them out all night. I will help you to find it." He got up, and pretended to look about. "It is not on this seat—"

"Perhaps Miss Keene has taken it in. She is always after me to pick up my litters. It won't rain, anyway, so it doesn't matter."

"No, it won't rain tonight. Awfully nice night, isn't it? I came over here to get a quiet smoke and let those fellows subside a bit. I could not stand their noise, and the place is stifling."

"I'm afraid so. I'm so sorry we have to put you there; but you know—"

"Oh, of course! I don't mind a bit. It is hot indoors, wherever you are. If it were not for the mosquitoes, it would be nice to sleep in hammocks under the trees this weather." "I have often thought so. I can't breathe shut up. Rose is in my room tonight, and she seems like a whole crowd. I had to come out to cool myself." "And to get your book. What book was it?" "The—er—Clough's poems." "How many copies have you?—because one of them has been in my pocket for two days."

"Well, I don't want it. Good-night!"

She put out her hand. He took it and held it. The moonlight now was very bright, but not bright enough to reveal his smile or her blush. However, neither could be hidden from the second sight of love. "Don't go yet, Debbie. I never get a word with you these days, you are so taken up with all sorts of people. And you haven't had time to get cool yet. I know you haven't—by the feel of your hand."

She tried to withdraw it, but did not try very hard.

"My dear boy," she trembled, "do you know what time it is? It must be simply ALL hours."

"What does that matter? We are not keeping anybody up." "And there's tomorrow to be considered. Christmas Eve is always such a busy, tiring—"

"Sufficient for the day. Let us take things as we can get them. Besides, you will sleep all the better for it. Five minutes more or less—"

He pulled gently but firmly at the imprisoned hand. "Well, just five minutes—although it's really—"

She was drawn down to the bench beside him, and the man in the moon, as he looked into their shining, happy eyes, seemed to wink knowingly.

"Oh, Debbie, isn't it a heavenly night? Oh, Debbie!" His arms went round her, and she simply melted into them. "Oh, my love!..."

Five minutes! It ran to an hour and a half before she scudded across the lawn to bed.

And it was Mary, the busy housekeeper, who, on her busiest day, drove to the station to meet Guthrie Carey and the baby, and the baby's cheap and temporary child-nurse.

Mary, though she was not Deb, was too sweet and good for words. She put the little hired girl on the front seat with the groom, and sat in the body of the waggonette to talk to Guthrie and to take care of his child. There was no awkward shyness on her part now, and no boredom on his. Little Harry fused them. She had remembered to bring fresh milk and rusks for a possibly hungry baby, and he sat on her lap as she fed him, and cooed to her when his mouth was not too full, and seemed to forget that any other foster-mother had ever existed. His father's relieved and astonished pleasure in the sight was only equalled by Mary's pleasure in seeing his pleasure. "Isn't he a jolly little cuss, Miss Pennycuick?" "He is a perfect darling," crooned Mary, kissing him.

And, in fact, Harry Carey was a fine, clean, wholesome child, as worthy of his old family as any born under the ancestral roof.

Mary shouldered him as if he belonged to her when they arrived at Redford, shortly before the dinner hour.

"Now, Mr Carey, you must go to the bachelors' quarters, I am sorry to say; but he will not miss you, since you have been away from him for so long. He knows me now," said Mary proudly, "and I will take charge of him. You may safely leave him to us now."

"Indeed, yes, I know that," said the thankful parent, and hastened to his new quarters to receive the greetings and chaffings of the young bachelors, and to dress himself for dinner, while Mary carried the baby into the house, calling on Keziah Moon to come to her, the inadequate nurse-girl trailing at her heels.

The house party gathered in the glazed corridor of the "middle part"—a long, narrow room, that had once been a verandah, and that led to the new big dining-room—to await the summons to the meal. Here Deb, beautiful in limp white silk that showed up the lovely carmine of her cheeks, came forward to welcome the returned guest with an eager warmth that sadly misled him. He sat down to his dinner a few minutes later with his head in a whirl and his appetite nowhere, as an effect of that cordial pressure of the hand, those tender eyes, and that deep-hued blush upon him.

Then, as he came to himself, there crept into his mind a sense that things had been happening while he was away. All the eyes around the table seemed continually to turn either towards Deb, who, still flushed, and bestowing absent-minded smiles upon anybody and anything, was certainly different from her usual stately self; or upon Claud Dalzell, who sat beside her, and seemed to have appropriated some of her lost dignity; or upon Mr Pennycuick, who fumbled oddly with carving knife and gravy spoon, and gave other evidences, Guthrie thought, of having been upset and shaken. The young man was still fumbling himself for light upon these mysteries, when they were dispelled by a shock that for the moment stunned him.

Mr Pennycuick called for a certain brand of wine long famous at his board. When it came, and the bottles were being sent round, he stood up, with a trembling goblet in his hand. The eyes round the table dropped—all but Guthrie's, which stared at the old man.

"There's no time like the present," began the host, "if a thing has to be done." He repeated this strange and embarrassing introductory remark, and then spent some time in clearing his throat and blowing his nose, and trying to wipe up the wine he was shaking over. When the fidgets had seized upon the whole company, he rushed his fence. "Ahem! I must ask you, my friends, to fill your glasses in honour of an event—an event—that has just transpired in our midst—that—that I am sure will interest you all—that—in short, my dear daughter Deborah—and the man of her choice—who knows, I hope, what a lucky dog he is—"

"He does!" Claud interjected; and there was eager dumb-show all round the table, everyone—again excepting Guthrie—leaning forward to cast wreathed smiles at the seated couple. "I have given my consent," said Mr Pennycuick—"I have given my consent. My daughter shall be happy in her own way—and I hope he'll see to it that she gets all she bargains for. He is the son of my oldest friend, a man that was better than a brother to me—the whitest, straightest—But there's no words to say what he was. Only, the son of such a man—anybody with Billy Dalzell's blood in him—ought to be—if he isn't—"

"He is!" sang Deb, in her rich, ringing voice. "Oh, please, don't say any more, father!"

"Well, my dear, I know I am no hand at speech-making, but I can wish you luck, both of you, and I do. And I want our friends here—old friends of the family—to do the same. Good wishes mayn't bring good fortune, but for all we know they may do something towards it; and anyway, she may as well have all her chances. Ladies and gentlemen, long life and happiness to Deborah Pennycuick and her husband that is to be!"

A general turmoil broke out, glass-clinkings, cheers, handshakings; kissings, with a sob or two from the overwrought. And Guthrie, with no heart upon his sleeve, bowed and drank with the rest. When the demonstration was over, and the company back in its chairs, Dalzell was left standing. His bride-elect sat beside him, her elbow on the table, her face shaded by her hand.

"On behalf of my dear wife that is to be," said Claud, with a quiet mastery of himself that was in striking contrast to the old man's agitation, "and as a grateful duty of my own, I beg to thank you all, and especially Mr Pennycuick, for this great kindness—for your generous sympathy with us in our present happiness. Mr Pennycuick seems to have a doubt—natural to anyone in the circumstances, but inevitable in a father—the father of such a daughter—as to my being qualified to appreciate the gift he has just bestowed upon me; I can assure him, and all of you, that I am overwhelmed with the sense of my good fortune, and of my unworthiness of it. I am unworthy—I admit it; but it shall be the business of my life to correct that fault—if it is a fault, and not merely a misfortune that I cannot help. To the best of my power I will prove—by deeds, not words—that I do know her value." Deb's hand under the table here stole towards his that hung at his side, and he stood holding it until he finished speaking. "Fortune has been kind in granting me the means to surround her with material comfort—to give so rare a jewel the setting appropriate to it; for the rest, I must trust to her generosity. I feel quite safe in trusting to it. We have known each other—I believe we have loved each other—from childhood; I hope Mr Pennycuick will take that as some guarantee that his little misgivings are unnecessary." The orator twisted his moustache, and glanced down at the bowed head beside him. "She seems to be a little taken aback by the suddenness of this public announcement, but I can say that it does not come a moment too soon for me. Mr Pennycuick has made me a proud man. I glory in my position as his daughter's affianced husband; I wish to parade it as openly as possible. However, to spare her, I will say no more just now. Ladies and gentlemen"—bowing to right and left—"I thank you again."

He sat down amid thunders of applause; and leaning back in his chair, he looked straight and full at Guthrie Carey. Guthrie Carey, erect, calm as a stone image, returned the look steadily. There was absolutely no expression in his eyes.





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