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Sisters

CHAPTER X.

How she got into the room—the isolated big drawing-room, which somebody else, who was aware of his arrival, had directed that he was to be shown into—Mary knew not; but she was there. He stood perfectly still, massive and inflexible, to receive her. Without approaching him—or he her—to shake hands, without looking at his face or anywhere near it, she perceived the adamantine set of lips, the cold gaze, more withering than fire, which informed her that he knew all; and she sank crouching into a chair, and hid her face. But her back was against the wall now. The coward stage was past. In the most desperately false position that a girl could occupy, she made no further attempt to run away from the truth, perhaps because she saw that it was useless. When he began, very politely, but with no beating about the bush, to say: "I daresay you are surprised to see me, Miss Pennycuick, but I was told—and since I came up here I have been told again by several different persons—something that I want you to help me to understand," she jerked herself upright, and stopped him with a swift gesture and the cry of: "I know! I know what you have been told; and I have nothing to say. I cannot contradict it."

She was a piteous object, in her shaking anguish; but he looked at her, of course, without a scrap of pity.

"Do you think you really know?" he questioned her, with cold gravity. "Perhaps I have been given an exaggerated version. I was in hopes that it was altogether an invention of Miss Francie's—I know of old that she is prone to make reckless statements—"

"Ah-h—Francie!"

"She was kind enough to write me a long letter, to congratulate me on my promotion. She told me all the family news. And she said—she asked me—but really I haven't the cheek to repeat her words—"

His cold face had become hot, and his manner agitated.

"Go on," said she, calming under the perception that the worst had come utterly to the worst.

"Well, if you will forgive me—she asked me, in effect, when I was coming to marry you, and why I had kept the engagement a secret so long." He paused, one dark red blush, to note the effect of so brutal a stroke.

She said, meeting his eyes for the first time:

"And you believed it at once—of ME?"

"No, Miss Pennycuick. I laughed. I said to myself: 'Here is another of Miss Francie's mare's nests.' But when I read on—she told me so many things—they were incredible, but still I felt I had to sift the matter; and since I came up today, other people—I've been to Five Creeks and had a talk with Jim Urquhart—now I don't know what to think; at least, there is but one thing that I can think."

The chair she had taken had a high back, and against this she laid her head, as if too weary to support it. Lack of sleep and appetite had paled her florid colour to a sickly hue, and she looked wan and languid as a dying woman. But still he did not pity her, as he must have done had her face been half as beautiful as Deb's or Francie's.

"Miss Pennycuick," he continued, as she kept silence, "I want to get the hang of this thing. Will you tell me straight—yes or no—have you been giving it out that I left Redford two years ago engaged to you?"

Her first impulse was to cry out: "Oh, no, no! Not quite so bad as that!" But on second thoughts she said:

"Yes—practically."

Sudden rage seemed to seize him. He sat up, he crossed his knees, he uncrossed them, he twisted this way and that, he muttered "Good God!" as if the pious ejaculation had referred to the Other Person, and his stare at her was cruel.

"But—but—I have been racking my brains to remember anything—surely I never gave you—I am perfectly convinced, I have the best reason for being absolutely certain, that I could not have given you—"

"Never!" she broke in. "Of course not. It was all my own invention."

"You admit it? Thank you. You formally relieve me of the imputation I have so long lain under without knowing it, of having run away from my duty?"

She said lifelessly: "We thought you were dead."

"Hah! I see. You thought it didn't matter what you said of a dead man? But dead men's characters should be all the more sacred because they cannot defend them. I should be sorry indeed to leave behind me such a reputation as I seem to have hereabouts—though, indeed, a man is very helpless in these cases. He is at a hopeless disadvantage when a woman is his traducer. I can see that Jim Urquhart will never be a friend of mine again, whatever happens."

"He shall know the truth. Everybody shall know the truth," said Mary.

"How can everybody know the truth? Only by my own affidavit, and that would not be believed. Besides, it is not for me to deny—at the cost of branding a lady a liar."

It was the straight word, regardless of manners, with this sea-bred man.

"You need not. I know how to do it so that people will believe. I am going to write a letter to the newspaper—a plain statement, that will fully exonerate you."

He nearly jumped out of his chair with the fright she gave him.

"You will do nothing so ridiculous!" he exclaimed angrily.

"It is the only way," said she—"the only way to make sure."

"If you do," he menaced her, "I shall simply write another for the next issue to flatly contradict you."

"Then you would be a liar."

"That doesn't matter in the least. I must be a man first. I am not going to let you ruin yourself."

"Ah, that is done already! Nothing can make it worse—for me."

He looked at her, taking in the words, in some sort understanding them. She lifted her eyes to look at him, and what he saw behind the look went to his kindly heart. He "felt" for her for the first time.

"May I go now?" she whispered.

His answer was to move to a seat beside her.

"I wish you would tell me," he said, in more humane tones, "how you came to do it. I would like to understand, and I can't, for the life of me. You must have had some reason. DID I do anything, unknowing—"

She shook her head hopelessly.

"No. You were only kind and good, as you would have been to anyone."

"Kind and good? Rubbish! It was you—all of you—who were kind and good. Oh, I don't forget what you did for me, and never shall. I feel"—it was the very feeling that had so oppressed him in the case of the lady at Sandridge—"under a load of obligation to you that I can never hope to discharge. But still—but still—though I trust I showed some of the gratitude I felt—I cannot remember how I came to give you the idea—I must have done something, I suppose; one is a blundering fool without knowing it—"

"No," she protested—"no, no! It was my own idea entirely."

"But I can't reconcile that with your character, Miss Pennycuick."

"Nor can I," she laughed bitterly.

"There's a mystery somewhere. Did anybody tell you anything? Did Miss Frances put constructions on innocent appearances? Did—"

"No," Mary resolutely stopped him. "It is good of you to try to make excuses, but there is no excuse for me—none. Francie only said what she knew. I let them believe you were my lover; I am twenty-seven—I never had one—and—and—oh, I thought that, at least, you might be mine when you were dead! I did not mean to be a liar, as you called me—yes, that is the right word—"

"Forgive me for using it," he muttered. "You do not realise at first that you are lying, when you only act lies and don't speak them. And I DID think that perhaps, that possibly—of course, I was ridiculously wrong—it was atrocious, unforgivable—I don't ask you to forgive me—I don't want you to—but those dear days when our little boy—oh, you know!—and when you kissed me that night beside his grave—"

"WHAT!" A lightning change came over the young man, as if the word had been an electric current suddenly shot into him. "KISSED YOU?"

"It was nothing; you did not know you did it—"

"But here—hold on—this is serious. DID I kiss YOU? You are sure you are not dreaming?"

"I would not be very likely to dream that," she said, with a strange smile. "But of course it was only—at such a time—as you would have kissed your sister—anybody. Your very forgetting it shows that."

But a dim memory was awakening in him, frightfully perturbing to his mind.

"I KISSED you!" he repeated, and slowly realised that he had been that consummate ass. The poor baby's dead hand had retained its old power to entrap a simpleton unawares.

Well, simpleton or not, Guthrie Carey was Guthrie Carey—sailor-bred, accustomed to meet vital emergencies with boldness and promptness; accustomed also to take his own views of what was a man's part at such times. While she implored him to say no more about that kiss, crying shame upon herself for mentioning it, he sat in silence, thinking hard. As soon as she had done, he spoke:

"Miss Pennycuick, I now understand everything. You are completely justified. It is I who have been to blame." And he then, in precise language, such as no real lover could have used, but still as prettily as was possible under the circumstances, requested the honour of her hand in marriage.

To his astonishment, she laughed. It was a wild-sounding cackle, and quickly turned into a wail.

"Ah-h! Ah-h-h!" She faced him again, head up and hands down. "That, Mr Carey, is the one way out of it that is utterly, absolutely, eternally impossible."

"Why?" he demanded, with his man's dull incomprehension, and went on to demonstrate that there was no other. "I do not wish," he lied chivalrously, "to take any other. I—I—believe me, I am not ungrateful for your—for your thinking a great deal more of me than I deserve. I will try to show myself worthy—"

A magnanimous arm attempted to encircle her. She backed from it, and rose hurriedly from her chair, with what he would have imagined a gesture of repulsion if he had not known her, from her own showing, so over-eager for his embraces. He rose too.

"Do not!" she cried breathlessly, passionately. "As if I could dream—What can you think of me, to imagine that I would for a moment—"

She broke from him and ran towards the door, sobbing, with her handkerchief to her eyes. In three strides he was there before her, cutting off her retreat; so she swung back into the room, cast herself on the floor beside a sofa, and throwing up her arms, plunged her head down between them into the depths of a large cushion, which smothered cries that would otherwise have been shrieks. She abandoned all effort to control herself, except the effort to hide, which was futile.

Guthrie Carey's first feeling was of alarm, lest anyone should hear and come in to see what was the matter; he felt like wanting to guard the door. But in a minute or two his soft heart was so worked upon by the spectacle before him that he could think of nothing else. However little he might want to marry Mary Pennycuick, he was not going to be answerable for this sort of thing; so he marched resolutely to the sofa, and stooped to lift the convulsed creature bodily into his arms.

He might as well have tried to grasp a sleeping porcupine.

"How dare you?" she cried shrilly, whirling to her feet, dilating like a hooded snake before his astonished eyes. "How dare you touch me?" He was too cowed to answer, and she stood a moment, all fire and fury, glaring at him, her tear-ravaged face distorted, her hands clenched; then she whirled out of the room, and this time he made no effort to stop her.

He dropped back on the sofa, and said to himself helplessly:

"Well, I'm blowed!"

There was stillness for some time. This part of the house seemed quite empty, save for one buzzing fly, which he or Mary had let in. The little housekeeper was very particular about flies in summer, every window and chimney-opening being wire-netted, every door labelled with a printed request to the user to shut it; and his dazed mind occupied itself with the idea of how this insect would have distressed her if she had not had so much else to think of. He had an impulse to hunt it, for her sake, through the green-shadowed space in which it careered in long tacks with such energy and noise; but, standing up, he was seized with a stronger impulse to leave the house forthwith, and everything in it. He wanted liberty to consider his position and further proceedings before he faced the family.

As he approached the door, it was opened from without. Deb stood on the threshold, pale, proud, with tight lips and sombre eyes. She bowed to him as only she could bow to a person she was offended with.

"Would you kindly see my father in his office, Mr Carey?" she inquired, with stony formality. "He wishes to speak to you."

"Certainly, Miss Deborah," he replied, not daring to preface the words with even a "How-do-you-do". "I want to see him—I want to see him particularly."

Deb swept round to lead the way downstairs.

An embarrassing march it was, tandem fashion, through the long passages of the rambling house. While trying to arrange his thoughts for the coming interview, Captain Carey studied her imperious back and shoulders, the haughty poise of her head; and though he was not the one that had behaved badly, he had never felt so small. At the door of the morning-room she dismissed him with a jerk of the hand. "You know your way," said she, and vanished.

"She is more beautiful than ever," was his poignant thought, as he walked away from her, and from all the glorious life that she suggested—to such a dull and common doom.

Mr Pennycuick, at first, was a terrible figure, struggling between his father-fury and his old-gentleman instincts of courtesy to a guest.

"Sir," said he, "I am sorry that I have to speak to you under my own roof; in another place I could better have expressed what I have to say—"

But before he could get to the gist of the matter, Mary intervened.

"Miss Keene has some refreshment for Mr Carey in the dining-room," she said. "And, father, I want, if you please, to have a word with you first." She had recovered self-possession, and wore a rigid, determined air, contrasting with the sailor's bewilderment, which was so great that he found himself driven from the office before he had made up his mind whether he ought to go or stay.

He sat down to his unnecessary meal, and tried to eat, while an embarrassed maiden lady talked platitudes to him. Didn't he find it very dusty in town? Miss Keene, knitting feverishly, was anxious to be informed. And didn't he think the country looked well for the time of year?

He was relieved from this tedium by another summons to the office. Fortified with a glass of good wine, he returned to the encounter, inwardly calling upon his gods to direct him how to meet it. He found poor old Father Pennycuick aged ten years in the hour since he had seen him last. But he still stood in massive dignity, a true son of his old race.

"Well, Mr Carey," said he, "I have had a great many troubles of late, sir, but never one like this. I thought that losing money—the fruits of a lifetime of hard work—was a thing to fret over; and then, again, I've thought that money's no consequence so long as you've got your children alive and well—that THAT was everything. I know better now. I know there's things may happen to a man worse than death—worse than losing everything belonging to him, no matter what it is. When that child was a little thing, she had an illness, and the doctors gave her up. Two nights her mother and I sat up watching her, expecting every breath to be the last, and broken-hearted was no word for what we felt. I cried like a calf, and I prayed—I never prayed like it before or since—and fools we are to ask the Almighty for we don't know what! Now I wish He had taken her. And I've told her so."

"Then you have been very cruel, Mr Pennycuick," Guthrie Carey replied sharply—"and as unjust as cruel. She has done nothing—"

"I know what she's done," the stern parent interposed. "I wouldn't have believed it if anybody else had told me; but I have her own word for it. And if she has been a liar once, I still know when to believe her."

"If you will be so good as to tell me what she has said, then I will make MY statement."

The old man put up his hand.

"Don't perjure yourself," said he, grimly smiling. "It is very kind of you to try to let us down easily, but you can spare your breath. Excuses only make it worse. There's nothing to be said for her, and you'll really oblige me by not going into details. I only sent for you to make such amends as I can—to apologise most humbly—to express my sorrow—my shame—my unspeakable humiliation—that a child of mine—a Pennycuick—a girl I thought was nothing if not maidenly and self-respecting, and the very soul of honour and straightness and proper pride—"

"You speak as if she was not all that now—"

"NOW!—and done a low, contemptible thing like that! Oh, I don't understand it—I can't; it's too monstrous—except that I have her word for it. She says she did it, and so there it is. And, sir, I beg your pardon on behalf of the house that she has disgraced—the house that reared her and thought her so different—"

He gulped, coughed, and gave Guthrie a chance to put in a word.

"Mr Pennycuick, the simple fact is that I made love to your daughter—"

"Made her an offer of marriage?" snarled the other, wheeling round.

"I kissed her—"

Mr Pennycuick snapped his thumb and finger derisively.

"THAT kind of kiss!—as good as asked for."

"It was not as good as asked for. Your daughter is not that kind of woman."

"I thought not, but she says she is."

"Pay no heed to what she says. Her morbid conscientiousness runs away with her. I tell you the plain truth, as man to man, without any hysterics—I kissed her of my own free will—your daughter, sir. And I am here now to stand by my act. If she will forgive my—my tardiness—as you know, I was in no position then to aspire to marriage with a lady of this family; I am not now, but I am better off than I was—will you give your consent to our engagement?"

"No!" roared Mr Pennycuick, looking as if threatened with an apoplectic fit. "I'll see her engaged to the devil first!"

Like Mary, he seemed to take the generous offer as a personal insult. Guthrie Carey, conscious of doing the duty of a gentleman at enormous cost, could not understand why.





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