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Sisters

CHAPTER VIII.

Carey junior joined the Christmas party after breakfast, and was handed round. Mary introduced him. He was spick-and-span, with shining cheeks and a damp and glossy top-knot, and his blue eyes stared at the strange crowd stolidly for several minutes before he suddenly crumpled up his face and uttered a howl of terror.

"What is it?" queried Dalzell, with raised brows, pretending that he had never seen such a thing before.

"It's a baby," Frances explained, dancing round it. "Baby! Baby!"—shaking the new rattle that was one of its Christmas gifts—"look at me, baby! It is Mr Carey's baby. Oh, come and speak to him, Mr Carey! He is frightened of so many strangers."

The stalwart father in the background glowered upon the son disgracing him. Red as beetroot, embarrassed and annoyed, he strode forward. The yelling infant cast one glance at him, and yelled louder than before. "I shouldn't have let him come," the sailor growled. He had got up from the wrong side of the bed that morning, and was in the mood to regret everything, even that he had been born. "I don't know what possessed me to let you be bothered with the brat. I'll ring for his nurse."

This was unanimously objected to. The ladies gathered round, with honeyed words and tinkling baubles to pacify the little guest. Deborah snatched him from her sister's arms, and ran with him into the garden, where she tossed him, still writhing and wailing, up and down, and dipped his face into flowers, and played other pranks calculated to enchant the average baby. This baby turned on her for her pains, and having slapped her cheeks, grabbed her beautiful hair and tore it down about her ears. The next instant he felt the weight of the hand from which his own had derived its strength.

"You brute!" cried Deb, shielding the offending little arm from a second blow. "A great big man like you, to strike a tender mite like this!"

"'Tender' is hardly the word," the irate parent sneered. "And mite as he is, he is not to do things of that sort." Guthrie glared at her sacred locks, dishevelled. "I'm awfully sorry. He shan't do it again. I'll take him away tomorrow."

"You will do nothing of the sort," flashed Deb. "You are not fit to have the care of him. He shall stay here, where he will be treated as a baby ought to be—not smacked and knocked about for nothing at all."

"I admire his pluck," quoth Dalzell, sauntering up.

"So do I," said Deb; but she handed her sobbing burden to Mary. "Here, take him, Moll, while I put my hair up. POOR little fellow!"

She need not have been so severe. She might have known that it was because the cheeks and hair were hers that the baby had been punished for his assault on them. She could have seen that she was wringing the culprit's heart. Perhaps she did, and had no room in her own to care. She stood on the sunny garden path and lifted her hands to her head—a lovely pose.

"Here, let me," said Claud Dalzell.

She let him—which was cruellest of all. Guthrie turned his murderous eyes from the group and sauntered away, out of the garden, out of their sight, unrecalled, apparently unnoticed. Mary carried the crying child into the house.

Then for an hour the silly fellow walked alone in the most solitary places that he could find, revelling in the thought that it was Christmas Day, and he singled out by Fate to have no share in its happy circumstances: no home, no friends, no love, like other men—nothing to make life worth living, save only the baby son that he had ill-used. Apart from the sting of Deb's comment on it, he repented him of that blow. A great big man like him, to strike a tender mite like this—a motherless babe, his precious Lily's bequest to him—aye, indeed! It was the act of a brute, whatever the provocation. The mite was a waif too, alone in the world when his father was at sea, pathetically helpless, with no defence against blows and unkindness. The reflection brought dimness to the man's hard blue eyes, and turned his steps houseward.

He arrived to find a large four-horsed brake at the door. The body was filling with other persons—the sailor knew not, cared not whom. He looked up at the radiant figure in front. She looked down on him with heart-melting kindness, as if nothing had happened.

"Why, Mr Carey, aren't you coming to church?" she called to him. "Not—not today, I think," he answered, without premeditation.

"Christmas Day," she hinted invitingly. "You don't always get the chance, you know."

"I know. But—thanks—I'd rather not," he bluntly persisted, hating himself for the churlish response, and all the time wanting to go—certain to have gone if he had given himself time to think. Soldiers and sailors, with their habit of unquestioning obedience to authority, are almost always "good" churchmen, and, as she had pointed out, this offer of Christian privileges did not come to him every year. He had not anticipated it on this occasion, knowing Redford to be situated at least ten miles from a church.

"Oh, well," said Deborah, scenting spite, "I daresay it IS more comfortable in the cool house."

And then she left him, in the position of a self-indulgent idler, preferring comfort to duty, a foil to his more conscientious rival. When the dust of the departure had cleared away, he sat on, not in the cool house, but on the hot verandah, nursing his griefs in solitude. He seemed the only person left behind, or else he seemed forgotten, as a guest of no account. "What a Christmas Day!" was again his thought, while he dragged before his mind's eye old pictures of his English home, his dead mother, Santa Claus stockings, and all sorts of pathetic things. He resolved to quit Redford on the morrow, and spend the last hours of his leave in establishing his son elsewhere.

Then Mary Pennycuick came out to him, with that son in her arms. Her face was redeemed from its plainness by the tender motherliness and the no less tender friendliness of its expression; that of little Harry was cherubic. The heart of the lonely man warmed to both.

"He has come to tell daddy that he is a good boy now," explained Mary proudly. Guthrie ejaculated "Sonny boy!" and held out his arms. The baby, bearing no malice, tumbled into them, and was at once occupied with his father's watch-chain. The three subsided upon two cane chairs, looking, as Mary keenly comprehended, like a self-contained family.

"You have stayed at home because of him!" the man complained fretfully.

But the girl hastened to perjure herself with the assertion that she had done nothing of the kind. She then persuaded him to the half-belief that his child was not only no nuisance to the house, but its positive delight; and she earnestly talked him out of his cruel resolve to return it to bad air and all sorts of domestic risks. "How can he be any burden on us?" she pleaded. "We need never see him unless we like—only, of course, we shall like. It is entirely an arrangement between you and Mrs Kelsey. Unless," she bethought herself—"unless you'd like to consider an idea of Alice Urquhart's—"

"Oh, no!" he broke in. "I'd rather Mrs Kelsey—a proper business agreement—if I could feel absolutely certain—"

"Well, you can," said Mary. "The beginning and end of all the trouble to us is our answering for Mrs Kelsey. She was once our nurse, and we know her ways; for the rest, she is as independent of us as that lady in Sandridge."

"In that case—of course, I've very little time, and really I don't know where to turn—perhaps until after this voyage—"

"Yes. Then, if you are dissatisfied, you can make a change." She assumed the matter settled, and began to go into details. "Deb saw Mrs Kelsey while you were away; she's willing enough. She says ten shillings a week would cover everything. The drainage is all right. Kelsey will see that he has one cow's milk. They'll feed him well, but they won't give him rich things; she's the most careful woman. He'll be out in the air, getting strong, all the time. He'll want hardly any clothes in the country. Deb says he'd be better without shoes and socks."

"I hope he'll be kept out of Miss Deborah's way, after that exhibition—"

"Nonsense! She was too rough and ready with him. And she didn't mind a bit—of course not. She says she likes boys to be boys. He is a thorough boy," Mary proudly declared, bending to kiss a chubby knee.

Harry acknowledged the caress with a thumping smack of her bowed head.

"Gently—gently!" warned the father amiably.

"Now, what do you say to our walking over to interview Mrs Kelsey?" Mary pushed her advantage home. "I daresay she will be busy, but she'd give us a few minutes. It would be a satisfaction to her to speak to you herself, and here is a good opportunity. They won't be home much before two."

Guthrie fetched his straw hat. Mary retied the baby's flapping head-gear, and they set forth.

"Let me have him," she begged, mother-like.

"No. He is too heavy for you."

The father carried the child, who loved the feel of the strong arms, in which he jumped up and down, continuing to make play with his sturdy little fists. Instead of striking back, Guthrie answered the baby assaults with wild-beast roars and gestures that sent the little man into fits of delight. Mary laughed in chorus, keeping touch with the happy creature over the towering shoulder reared between them. It was more than ever like a little self-contained family, taking its Sunday stroll.

Mrs Kelsey had her Christmas dinner in hand, but came to them in her big white apron and sleeves rolled to her dimpled elbows, smiling, business-like, charming in her plain, reposeful, straightforward attitude towards the visitors and their mission. No sooner had he beheld her orderly and cheerful house, looked into her kind eyes, and heard her sincere speech, than the young father was satisfied that he had found a good place for his little son. The child seemed to know it too, for when the strange woman drew him to her broad lap—calmly, as if used to doing it—he surrendered himself without a protest. When presently she gave him a drink of milk and a biscuit to munch, he regaled himself peaceably, with the air of feeling quite at home. When he had finished his lunch he played with a collie puppy.

"I'll do my best for him, sir, and I'll not let these young ladies spoil him if I can help it," said Mrs Kelsey, with a smile at Mary Pennycuick.

Terms had been arranged, and everything settled.

"I hope you will be able to keep him from being any bother to them," said Guthrie earnestly.

"Bother!" crowed Mary, whose intention was to visit the child daily. "We'll see to that, Mr Carey—never fear."

Mrs Kelsey suggested beginning her duties, with the aid of the little nurse, at once; but Mary would not hear of parting the boy from his father while they could be together. So he was carried back to Redford, to be the plaything of the housekeeper's room for the rest of the day.

"MY baby," Mary began to call him. She had to preside at the great dinner, but was not visible to her family for hours before and after.

It was a better Christmas to Guthrie Carey in the end than in the beginning. Deb came back from church chastened in spirit, to make up to him for her unkindness, on the score of which her warm heart had reproached her. She made him play billiards with her after tea, while Claud was resting after his labours; she chaffed him deliciously on his errors in the game. She forgot to ask after his baby; but she asked whether it would not be possible to get his leave extended. When he said "No"—he had had more than his share already—she commended him for his sense of duty, and in her seriousness was more enchanting than in her fun.

"But I do wish we could have kept you longer," she flattered him, in her sweet way. "However, we shall have a hostage for your return."

Several new people came to dinner, including Mr Goldsworthy and Ruby—the latter sent at once, by Deb's command, to keep little Carey company. Spacious Redford was taxed to the utmost to accommodate its guests, and never was better Christmas cheer provided in the old hall of English Redford than its son in exile dispensed under his Australian roof. When every leaf was put into the dining-table, it was so long that Mary at one end was beyond speaking distance of her father at the other, and those at the sides could scarce use their elbows as they ate. The banquet was prodigious, with speeches to wind up with (Mr Goldsworthy, in his oration, disgusted Deb by referring to the host as "princely", and to the ladies of the house as his "bevy of beautiful daughters"); and if the truth must be told, the crowning ceremony of the loving cup was a bit superfluous. It found the host already fuddled beyond a doubt, and several of the guests under suspicion of being so. But in the opinion of all, Redford had celebrated Christmas in an unsurpassably proper manner.

Two mornings later, a waggonette was packed with luggage and four passengers—Mary Pennycuick, Guthrie Carey, the baby and the baby's little nurse. They proceeded in a body to the overseer's house, where the load was halved. Mary, the baby, and one box were left with Mrs Kelsey (reinforced by the collie puppy and a plate of sugared strawberries); the sailor and the nursemaid, after a few poignant moments, went on to a distant railway station.

"Have an easy mind," said Mary, outside the parlour door. "He will be well off with her, and we shall all be looking after him."

"How can I thank you?" said the parting guest, barely able to articulate. He wrung her hand, and looked at her kind, red face with feelings unspeakable. "God bless you! God reward you for your goodness to the little chap and me."

He was including all the family in his benediction, and it was the father in him that was so touched and overcome. None the less, she accepted the tribute for her own, and to her poverty-stricken womanhood it was wealth indeed.

She stood in the porch to watch the wheels of his departing chariot flash through the sun and dust. She stared long at the vacant point of disappearance, like one entranced. When she came to herself, she ran into the house and fell upon little Harry.

"My baby," she crooned passionately, "MY baby!"

Carey Junior responded with his ready fist, pushing her from him. He was feeding the puppy with a strawberry, and she put her head in the way.

"Fie! You mustn't do that," said Mrs Kelsey, mindful of her responsibilities. "That's rude."

"Oh, let him," pleaded the girl, infatuated with that look of his father in his face; and she dropped on her knees before him and kissed a dangling foot, with which he kicked her mouth. "Let him do what he likes, so long as he's happy."

"Not at all," her old nurse reproved her. "I promised Mr Carey that he should not be spoiled."

He was not spoiled. The admirable foster-mother, brooking no interference with her system, improved him into a well-behaved child, as well as the healthiest and most beautiful in all that countryside. It was a standing grievance at Redford that she would not allow him to be always on show there, subject to Mary's indulgence, and Deb's caprices, and the temptations of the housekeeper's store-room. Only Mr Kelsey, who was his idol, was permitted to withdraw him from Mrs Kelsey's eye. The man used to take the child, with a toy whip in his little hand, on the saddle before him, and let him think he was guiding the steady horse and doing all the business of the station as well. The overseer confessed, in bad weather, when he had to ride alone, that he was lost without his little mate. "Hardly weaned," he used to brag, "and knows every beast on the place as well as I do myself." This was gross exaggeration, yet was the infant Harry a conspicuously forward child, with the "makings of a man" in him visible to all. His hearty whoas and gee-ups carried as far as the overseer's gruff voice; and the picture of the jolly boy, with his rosy, joyous face, and his fair curls blowing in the wind, was one to kindle the admiration of all who saw it. The phrase continually on the lips of his adopted family and connections was: 'Won't his father be surprised when he sees him!' They enjoyed in anticipation the grateful praises that would be heaped upon them then.

But Guthrie Carey never saw his son again.

The baby went a-visiting with his foster-parents to the local township, and it was supposed caught the infection of typhoid there from some unknown source. Having caught it, the robust little body, unused to any ailment, was wrecked at once, where a frail child might easily have weathered the storm. No little prince of blood royal could have been better nursed and more strenuously fought for; but three days after he had visibly sickened he was dead. And then the wail went up, "Oh! what will his father say?"

When Guthrie came, prepared by letters from fellow-mourners as bereaved as himself, it was but from one day to the next—only to "hear the particulars" and to see the little grave. Deborah was away from home, but in any case Mary would have been the one to perform the sad duties of the occasion; they were hers by right. She took him to the family cemetery on the only evening of his stay, and, herself speechless and weeping, showed him the whole place renovated and made beautiful for the sake of the latest comer. No weeds, no dead rose-bushes, no vampire ivy now; but an orderly garden, new planted and watered, and in the midst a small mound heaped with fresh-cut flowers. She had visited the child daily while he lived at Mrs Kelsey's; now she almost daily visited his grave.

They dropped on their knees beside it, close as bride and bridegroom on altar steps, as father and mother at the firstborn's cradle. The dusk was melting into moonlight; they could not see each other's faces. When his big frame heaved with heavy sobs, she laid a timid hand—her beautiful hand—on his shoulder; and when he felt that sympathetic woman's touch, he turned suddenly and kissed her. Afterwards he did not remember that he had done it.

She seemed to cling to him when, next morning, the time came for him to go.

"You will come again?" she implored him, in a trembling whisper. "You will come here when you return next time?"

"Oh, surely," he replied, whispering too, and to the full as deeply moved. But when he got away it was to other lands that he turned his eyes, in the search for new interests to occupy his lonely life. With Lily and the baby dead, and Deborah Pennycuick given to another man, Australia had no more hold on him. His first letter to Redford notified that he had changed into another line, and that the name of his new ship was the DOVEDALE. She traded to the West Indies.

He forgot to write again when, not very long afterwards, he went back to his old line, at the invitation of the Company, as captain of the ship on which he had served as mate.





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