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Sisters

CHAPTER IX.

"'Dovedale'—DOVEDALE—hullo!" Mr Pennycuick broke the silence of his newspaper reading. "Why, isn't that—Well, upon my soul! it does seem as if some folks were born unlucky. Here's that poor young fellow—first he loses a charming wife, before he's been married any time, and then the finest child going, and now here he's gone himself, before his prime, with no end of a career before him—"

"Who?" cried Deb from the tea-table, where she was helping herself to a hot cake.

"Young Carey—our Carey; oh, it's him all right, worse luck! His ship's been wrecked, and only two A.B.s saved to tell the tale. Look here."

He passed the newspaper, pressed under his broad thumb.

Deb stood to read the indicated item, while her father watched her face. Neither of them noticed Mary's peculiar appearance, nor marked her departure from the room.

"We must inquire about this," said Deb earnestly. "We must get the names of those on board. He may have been on leave." She was a prompt person, and as she spoke looked at the clock—a little after four—and laid the paper down. "I'll drive you to the station, daddy, and we'll telegraph to the shipping people and his doctor friend. We'll get authentic information somehow, if we have to cable home for it."

They were off in a quarter of an hour, having sent a message to Mary by Miss Keene to explain their errand. They dined in the township while waiting for replies, and came home late at night, heavy-hearted, with the melancholy news confirmed. Since it happened to be the transition moment, when Mr Carey had ceased to be a mate, and was only a prospective commander, the authorities in Melbourne, consulting latest advices, had no doubt of his having been on the DOVEDALE to the last. Those of them who presently found themselves mistaken did not take the trouble to say so. They left it to time and the newspapers.

But meanwhile Mary Pennycuick sadly complicated the case. When Deb and her father returned from their expedition, it was to hear from Frances an excited story of how the elder sister had hidden behind locked doors, and not only refused dinner but denied speech to all comers.

"We know she's there, because she said 'Go away' to Miss Keene when she knocked first; but since then she hasn't said a word—not for hours and hours. I've been listening at her door since Miss Madden let me out of school. I shouldn't be surprised," said Frances, who had a fine imagination, "if she's committed suicide. Poor Mr Carey was her lover, you know."

"Pooh!" said Deb.

SHE knew whose lover poor Mr Carey had been. But she ran to Mary's room in some concern. She tried the handle of the door, and then rapped sharply.

"Molly, open this door!" she commanded.

And there was a rustle inside, a shuffling step, and the lock clicked. She marched in, to see Mary fling herself back on the bed from which she had risen, with a protesting wail:

"Oh, why can't you all let me alone?"

"Why, what's the matter?" Deb climbed on the bed, and tried to lift the half-buried head to her breast—a signal for the pent-up grief to burst forth. "Molly, sweetheart, what's all this about?"

"Oh, my love! my love!" keened Mary wildly. "Oh, Deb! oh, Deb! He was my all, and he's dead, and I can't bear it—I can't! I can't!"

Deb pursed her lips, and the colour rose in her clear cheek. She saw the situation, so pathetic and so ignominious! SHE could not understand a woman falling in love with, and then breaking her heart for, a man who had never cared for her. But then Deb's face was not heavy and bricky, with prominent cheek-bones, and a forehead four inches high.

"My precious," she crooned, as tenderly as if she understood it all, and as if her immense pity was not mixed with contempt—"don't, don't! It doesn't matter about me, but don't let the others think—It would be too undignified, darling—a casual acquaintance—though a dear, good boy as ever lived—"

"There was nobody like him, Deb, and he was my all—"

"No, no, Mary—"

"You don't know, Debbie—oh, nobody knows!" And wrapping her head in her arms again, Mary abandoned herself to her despair.

Deb got off the bed, lit dressing-table candles, and poured water and eau de Cologne into a wash-basin. She returned with a fragrant sponge, with which she stroked what she could reach of her sister's face.

"Come now," said she briskly, "you must have a little pride, dear. You mustn't give way like this—for a man who did not—and you know he did not—"

Mary broke in with sudden passion, lifting her distorted countenance to the cruel light.

"He did!" she affirmed. "You have no business to sneer and say he didn't—he DID!"

It was not for nothing that the heart-hungry girl had brooded for months over a few acts and words, magnifying them through the spectacles that Nature and her needs had provided. Deb put her pitying arms round her sister's shoulders.

"But, my dear, I know—we all know—"

"How could you know when you were not at home? Nobody knows—nobody but him and me." Feeling Deb's continued scepticism in the silence of her caresses, Mary burst out recklessly: "Would he have KISSED me if he had not?"

Deb's arm was withdrawn. She twisted half round to look in Mary's face. Mary covered it with her pretty hands, weeping bitterly.

"Is that—did he do that?" asked Deb, in a low tone.

"That night—that last night—oh, I ought not to have spoken of it!—when we were at our little grave. It was that precious child that drew us together. You think he had gone away and forgotten, but I know he had not; he would have come back—he promised to. He gave me his dear photograph. I have not shown it to anybody, but here it is—"

And still sobbing, and with tears running down her cheeks, she reached to a drawer by the bedside, and dragged out this further testimony to her claim—it was wrapped in layers of tissue-paper, like her father's valentine—and displayed it with a touching pride. Before handing it to Deb, she gazed at it with grotesquely distorted face, kissed it, pressed it to her bosom, kissed it again, and moaned over it, rocking to and fro; then, when she had pushed it from her, flung herself into her former attitude of complete abandonment to grief.

Very calmly Deb carried the picture to the dressing-table, and held it behind a candle. There he was, big, strong, healthy, manly, with that clear brow, that square chin, that steady, good mouth; and he looked her straight in the eyes. Was it possible that a countenance could so deceive? No more tears from Deb for his untimely fate. Had it been his face in the flesh, it could not possibly have gazed in that undaunted way at hers; her expression would have withered him.

She returned to the morning-room—drawing-room also when no guests were in the house—to report to her father.

"Mary has gone to bed," she said quietly. "She is very much upset by this business. It appears there was something between her and Mr Carey. She expected him to come back for her—"

"What! MARY?" cried Rose, waiting with Frances to say goodnight.

"There!" triumphed Frances, "what did I say?"

"MARY!" their father echoed Rose's surprised tone. "The dickens! You don't say so. Poor little soul! Poor little girlie! Well, I never thought of that. Did you, Deb?"

"Never, father. Not for a moment."

"I suppose it was the child. It must have been the child." Mr Pennycuick was deeply concerned. "I wonder why he never said anything," he addressed Deb, when Rose and Frances had been sent to bed. "Eh, Deb? Seems strange, don't it? We had so much talk together. Quite like a sort of son, he was. Aye, I could have made a son of that fellow. Poor lad!—poor lad! Suppose he thought it wasn't the straight thing to bind a girl of ours till he was in a better position—it'd be just like him. Well—but Mary, of all people!" (This was the puzzle to all.) "It must have been the baby. She certainly did dote on that child, and 'love me, love my dog'—eh? But to think of her keeping it so close all that time! Afraid I'd make a fuss, I suppose. You could have told her, Deb, that I don't stand in my children's way for the sake of my own feelings; and a Carey of Wellwood isn't for us to sniff at either, if he is poor. A Carey has been good enough for a Pennycuick before today. God! I wish I'd known. I might have got him something better to do, and saved them both from this. Poor old girl! Is she very bad, Debbie? Shall I go and talk to her a bit?"

"I wouldn't tonight, father, if I were you," replied Deb, with a weary air. "She is quieter now, and I have given her something to send her to sleep. I will keep my door open, and go and look at her through the night. I think she will be better tomorrow."

On the morrow Mary was at least more self-controlled. She came amongst her family with the look of one who had passed through an illness, and shrinking from the first words and glances. But they all gathered her to their hearts, and murmured loving sympathy in her ears, and tenderly fussed over her and waited upon her. Her father took her to his sanctum, and showed her his old daguerreotype and valentine, and told her they should be hers at his death. Miss Keene excited as an old maid is over anybody's love affair, wanted to take over the house-keeping as well as the doing of the flowers, in order to leave the mourner free to enjoy the full luxury of her state. The governess, assumed to be above love affairs, was very strict with Frances, holding her to tasks set on purpose to prevent her from teasing her eldest sister. But Frances had informed the servants overnight that Mr Carey was drowned, and that he had been Miss Pennycuick's affianced husband all the time, unbeknown to anybody. And the tale was already spreading far and wide—to the Urquharts at Five Creeks, to Mr Thornycroft at Bundaboo, to Mr Goldsworthy and his parishioners, to the editor of the local paper—so that soon the family friends were arriving, to press Mary's hand and condole with her—to show her how she had risen in the world, as a woman in the eyes of all.

"No, no," she protested, when the affianced husband was too literally taken for granted; "it was not a formal engagement. It was only"—defending herself against the puzzled stare and lifted eyebrow—"only that we understood each other. He was coming back, if he had lived."

The wish was father to the thought. Good, honest girl as she was, she had persuaded herself to this—that he would have come back if he had lived, and that then the omitted formalities called for by that graveside kiss would certainly have been observed. It seems incredible, but rampant sex does stranger things every day of the week. There is, at any rate, nothing extraordinary in the way she clung to the sweet dignity that a similar belief on the part of others brought to her—the poor, plain girl, who had always been "out of it".

The long-hidden photograph was now put into a costly frame, and set up in her room for anybody to see. Frances would often sneak in with a visitor, to show the manner of man who would have married Molly; there were even times when Mary herself was the exhibitor. At other times she might have been found kneeling before it as at a shrine, and weeping her eyes out. And she put off her colours and ornaments, and wore black, and nobody made any objection. The hero of romance was given to her unquestioningly, and with him a respect and consideration such as she had never known before. Lovers talked to her of their love affairs, feeling that she was now one of them. Her father maundered to her for hours at a stretch of the old Mary Carey, at last secure of sympathy and a perfect listener. Deb was reserved and silent, but otherwise as devoted as the rest.

And then came the inevitable discovery that Guthrie Carey was not dead, after all. It was made at Five Creeks, while Frances was on a holiday visit to her friend, Belle Urquhart. At Redford, nobody thought of reading the shipping columns in the newspaper—their interest was supposed to be gone for ever; but Jim Urquhart glanced at them daily, looking for the arrival of a friend from overseas. And one day he saw a ship's name that was familiar to him, and bracketed with it the name of G. Carey as its commander. The coincidence was startling. He pointed it out to a man staying in the house—a stranger to the Redford family and to the district.

"There was a mate named Carey on this ship a while ago. He changed into that unfortunate DOVEDALE that was wrecked, and was lost with her. Odd that the captain of his old vessel should have the same name—same initial too. Our friend was Guthrie—"

"Guthrie Carey? Oh, I know Guthrie Carey. Met him in London last year, just after the DOVEDALE wreck. He told me of his narrow escape—was really going with her on her last voyage, and only prevented at the last moment by the offer of this captaincy from his former owners. It's the same man. Do you know him?"

They all told how much they knew him; and there was great commotion at Five Creeks. Jim was for driving hot-foot to Redford to warn Mr Pennycuick against disseminating the newspaper through the house too rashly. Alice and her mother each volunteered to go with him, so as to "break it" with feminine skilfulness to Mary, whose reason might be destroyed by too sudden a gorge of joy, like the stomach of a starved man by clumsy feeding. But while they anxiously discussed what ought to be done, Frances was doing. The enterprising young lady slipped away, and with Belle's help caught and saddled her pony, and was off to Redford as if wolves were at her heels. No war correspondent on active service ever did a smarter trick to get ahead of other papers.

She burst into the family circle violently.

"Mary—Mary! Deb! Rose! father! Mr Carey is alive! He wasn't drowned! He wasn't on the DOVEDALE—he was just going; but they wanted him back, and they made him a captain, and he's here now. His ship came in last night, and there it is in the paper, and his name; and Mr Mills at Five Creeks saw him himself after the Dovedale was wrecked, and he knows him well, and he's in Melbourne now, and I expect he'll be here directly—perhaps he's coming up now, this very minute—"

She was checked by angry exclamations from all persons addressed, except Mary. She, at the moment bending over a table, cutting out needle-work, straightened herself, and stood stockstill and staring, while first her bricky face went dark purple all over, and then seemed drained in three seconds of every drop of blood. She heard the words: 'Mr Carey is alive,' and instantly believed them; at the same moment her dream-palace vanished, and she saw the bare ground of her love affair exactly as it was—as Guthrie himself would see it—and just how she had deceived herself and others. Her healthy heart and nervous system could not support her under the impact of such a shock. She reeled as she stood, spun half round, and fell backwards into Deborah's arms.

"You little FOOL!" Deb rated the dismayed child, "to blurt it out like that. Never mind, father, it's all right. She has fainted, but she'll soon come round. Go and get a smelling-bottle, somebody. Tell Keziah to bring a little brandy—don't speak to anybody else. Where's today's ARGUS?"

While Rose was flying for restoratives, and Frances speeding through the house with her great news, Deb and her father exchanged significant glances over Mary's prostrate form.

"It is more than a year," said Deb, "and he has not even written to her."

"I'll write to him," said Mr Pennycuick, grinding his teeth—"I'll write to him!" It was the tone in which he might have said, "I'll wring his neck for him!"

But when Mary came round and perceived his mood and intentions, she implored him not to write—went on her knees, and almost shrieked in her frantic fear of his doing so.

"Oh, father, don't—DON'T! If he does not remember—if he does not want to come—you would not drag him by force? And he never bound himself—he never really asked me; very likely he did not mean anything, after all."

"Not mean anything!" shouted the indignant father. "He can kiss a girl—a daughter of mine—and not mean anything! I'll make him tell me whether he dared not to mean anything—"

"No, father," commanded Deb. "You must not write to him. It is not for a Pennycuick to fling herself at any man's head. Let him alone; we don't want him. Treat him—as I hope Molly is going to do—with the contempt that he deserves."

Mr Pennycuick stormed and muttered, but obeyed; and for two days Captain Carey was left to the anathemas of Redford and the countryside as a heartless jilt, to Mary's extreme anguish. She tried to water down the concoction that she stood answerable for, to take blame off him and put it on herself; but she dared not go far enough to convince anybody that she was not sacrificing herself to shield him.

It was a horrible position for a delicate-minded and even high-minded girl, and the misery of it was aggravated by the constant effort to efface its signs and evidences. She was left with no outlook in life but to get through twenty, thirty, forty years somehow, and come to a little peace at last, when everything would be forgotten; and her one forlorn hope was that Guthrie would not discover her crime—would keep up the neglect with which he had treated his old friends, and not come near them.

He might have done this—for the fact was that he now had a dawning "affair" in another quarter—had not Frances intervened. To her, inaction at such a crisis was intolerable, and since nobody else would do it, she wrote to Guthrie Carey herself. She wrote, she said, to welcome him back to life and to Australia, and to congratulate him on being a captain; incidentally she mentioned other matters, and asked innocent-seeming questions which she was well aware could only be answered in person.

Frances, since his first acquaintance with her, had shot up into a slim, tall girl, exquisite in colouring and the daintiness of her figure and face. Although unlike Deb in every way, people were beginning to compare them as rival beauties—Frances' private opinion being that there was no comparison. She had nearly done with governesses, short frocks and pigtails, and was ardently anticipating the power and glory coming to her when she should be a full-grown woman.

Two days after the clandestine postage of her letter to Captain Carey, a new housemaid brought Mary his visiting-card on a silver tray. Mary knew, before looking at it—having heard nothing of the letter, and no sound of his arrival in his hired buggy—what name it bore. Her forlorn hope had been too forlorn to stand for anything but despair. She had expected the catastrophe from the first.





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