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Sisters

CHAPTER XI.

Captain Carey, while leaving it to be understood that he held himself engaged to Mary Pennycuick until further orders, realised the welcome fact that in the meantime he was honourably free; and he excused himself from staying to dinner. But scarcely had he driven off in his hired buggy than that of Mr Goldsworthy clattered into the stableyard. It was the good man's habit, when on his parochial visitations, to 'make' Redford at meal times, or at bed-time, whenever distances allowed; he called it, most appropriately, his second home, and walked into the house as if it really belonged to him two or three times a week.

The first person that he encountered on this occasion was Frances, who had waylaid Guthrie Carey on his departure, and whom he had left standing under the back porch, aglow with excitement. She was a picture in her pale blue frock—put on for his eyes—and with her mane of burnished gold falling about her sparkling blush-rose face; but the parson, accustomed to regard her as a child, was unaffected by the sight.

"Surely," he exclaimed, with agitation, "that was young Mr Carey that I passed at the gate just now? He had his hat pulled over his eyes, and did not stop to speak to me; but the figure—" "Was his," said Frances, bursting to be the first to say it. "Very much in the flesh still, isn't he? And oh, to think he's gone like this, just as we'd got him back—SO big and handsome, and such a DEAR brother-in-law as he would have made!"

She stamped her foot. "What do you think, Mr Goldsworthy?—he came for her today, just as he promised, and then she turned round and wouldn't have him! We thought he'd jilted her, and instead of that she's jilted him. Oh, I could smack her! To have such a chance—SHE!—and after all the fuss she made about him—and throw it away! But I think he'll come back before his ship sails—he said he would—and perhaps she'll be less of an idiot by then; she'd better, unless she wants to die an old maid. Oh, if it was ME—!"

Mr Goldsworthy penetrated to the morning-room, where something of the same tale was repeated to him. Yes, Guthrie Carey was alive and well, and had been up to see them. Yes, he had asked for Mary—now that he was a captain—but she had finally decided against marrying a sailor. Wisely, perhaps; at any rate, it was her business; the family did not wish to discuss the matter.

When Mr Goldsworthy found that Mary did not come to dinner, he drew some conclusions for himself. He told himself there was something "fishy" in the affair—something behind, that was purposely kept from him. But he was hungry, and the fragrant soup steamed under his nose and glittered in his spoon—it was so admirably clear. Just now the doings of the Redford cook were of more concern to him than Mary's doings.

But although he enjoyed the meal to which he had looked forward all day, he enjoyed it much less than usual. A more sensitive person in his place must have found it wretched. Deb was a chilling hostess. Her frigid dignity and forced politeness caused discomfort even to him, thereby lowering her status in his eyes, lessening the ardour of his admiration for her. Mr Pennycuick, such a stickler for hospitality, scarcely spoke a word to the guest. Rose was a nobody, but still might have done something in the way of entertainment; and she quite ignored him, looking down as if to hide eyes that had been crying. Frances was eager to engage in conversation, but was bidden roughly by her father to hold her tongue. The stately governess wore only more ostentatiously than usual the detached air that always marked her out of school; and it was left to poor Miss Keene, with her timid platitudes, to keep up an appearance of civility.

Mr Pennycuick vanished abruptly after dinner; it was presently rumoured that he was not well, and had gone to bed. Frances was taken away to prepare lessons. Rose and Deborah came and went. Coffee was served. The parson was again left to Miss Keene, who would not be pumped for confidences, further than to admit that Mary was keeping her room with a headache, in consequence of the agitating visit of Captain Carey, but laboriously talked parish to him, without appearing to know anything of the subject. So the poor man actually became so bored that he changed his mind about staying for the night. He remembered that there was a good moon, and that he had an early engagement next morning, and ordered his buggy soon after nine o'clock. Afterwards he believed that it was the direct voice of the Lord that had called him to take his journey home at that hour.

He drove alone, having a steady (Redford) mare, that stood quietly at gates and doors, and no groom—a luxury almost unknown amongst country parsons, who must all keep horses. The night was beautiful, still, cool and clear, the moon so full that he could see for miles. Because of this, he took his daylight short cuts across country, preferring grass when he could get it to the dusty summer road. And one of his short cuts led along the top of the embankment of the big dam.

He slackened speed at this spot, touched by the beauty of the scene, which could hardly have appealed in vain to any man who had just had a good dinner. How peacefully the still water lay under the shining moon—that moon which is capable of making, not soft young lovers only, but the toughest old stagers sentimental—nay, maudlin—at times; an intoxicant purged of the grossness of spirituous liquors, but acting on the brain in precisely the same way. Mr Goldsworthy, already uplifted by good Redford wine, felt the effect of the lovely night in dim poetic stirrings of his sordid little soul. He mused of God and heaven, and the other things that he made sermons out of, in a disinterested, unprofessional way, these being the lines along which his imagination worked. "Surely the Lord is in this place," was the unspoken thought, elevating and inspiring, with which he surveyed the placid lake and the dreaming hills; and "it is good for me to be here," he felt, even at the cost of a Redford bed and breakfast, and the choice vegetables that the gardener would have put into his buggy in the morning.

But what was this? A boat adrift! From out of the shadow of the white shed on the further shore a black spot moved—one of the boats that should have been locked up, since no one was allowed to use them without Mr Pennycuick's permission. It came into the open moonlight, into the middle of that silver mirror, and he saw that oars propelled it, and saw the figure of the person wielding them. Who had dared to take this liberty with sacred Redford property? he wondered, with the indignation of a co-proprietor; and he assumed a poacher after the fish that Mr Pennycuick had been trying with characteristic perseverance and unsuccess to naturalise in his dam. But looking harder, the clergyman saw the figure rise in the boat, and that it was a woman's. Almost at the same instant he saw that it had disappeared. Seizing whip and reins, he lashed his mare to a gallop along the embankment and down its steep side, where she nearly upset him, and round the lake shore—the buggy rocking like a cradle—to the point nearest to the boat, now visibly adrift and empty. He jumped to the ground, tore off his coat and vest (which had a valuable watch attached), flinging them and his hat, and presently his boots, into the buggy; and with a word of warning to the mare, he plunged into the water to the rescue of some poor fool whom as yet he had not identified.

He returned to shore with Mary Pennycuick in his arms. Spent and panting from his struggle, and awed by the tragical significance of the affair, his heart exulted at his deed. He thanked God that he had been in time—with a fervour proportionate to her rank and consequence—and anticipated the splendid reward awaiting him as the benefactor of the great family, entitled to their full confidence and eternal gratitude. But also he was filled with solicitude for the poor girl.

She was unconscious when he laid her down on the grass, but choked and moaned when he set to work to revive her, and realised that she was back in life and misery after he had succeeded in getting some whisky down her throat—contents of the flask he always carried, as a preventive of chills and remedy for undue fatigues, and from which he had first helped himself. They sat upon the ground side by side, his arm round her waist, her head—feeling only that it was cushioned somewhere—on his shoulder. The night was so warm and windless that their wet clothes were little discomfort to them, but he kept grasping and wringing handfuls with the hand at liberty, while he supported her with the other. The danger of damp "things" was more terrifying to him now than the danger of death had been a few minutes ago.

"There, there," he said soothingly, "you feel better now—don't you? Then I'll just put on my coat, if you don't mind. I'll wrap you up in the buggy rug—and we'll get back to Redford as soon as we can. And in the morning, dear, you'll wake up sorry for this—this madness, and you'll never do it again, will you?"

"Hysteria," he said to himself. "Her head turned by this love affair. He's treated her badly, whatever they may say, and it has unhinged her mind."

This thought disposed him to be gentle with her when she positively refused to be taken back to Redford.

"Leave me here," she implored him. "I cannot go home! I will not go home! My father told me he wished I was dead. Oh, I should have been dead now if you had left me alone, and then they would have been satisfied, and I should have been out of my misery, which is more than I can bear. Oh, Mr Goldsworthy, don't—don't!" "Mad as a hatter, poor thing," he thought, as he desisted from his effort to raise her. "Why, her father thinks the world of her!"

But something had to be done. It was unwise to use force in these cases—nor could he have brought himself to use it—and of course he could not leave her at the dam, or leave her at all, while she was in her present mood, and without other protection; at the same time, it was imperatively necessary that he should get out of his wet clothes—her also. He mentioned this latter fact, and it was touching to see her own careful housewifely instincts assert themselves through all her mental agony.

"Oh, you ARE wet," she mourned, feeling him—it did not matter about herself; "oh, I am so sorry! Do—do go home at once, and take them off, and have something hot before you go to bed."

"I will," he said, "if you will go with me." A moment's reflection showed him that this was the best course—to take her to his own house, and send a message to Mr Pennycuick that she was there, and safe.

The thought of the town frightened her. She dreaded to go anywhere out of the solitude of Nature in which she had tried to hide. But he assured her of privacy and protection, and she was spent and beaten, and she gave in. Like a child, she stood to be wrapped in the rug and lifted into the buggy, and they proceeded on their way to his home, where his old sister kept house for him and mothered his child, with the aid of one servant.

It was nearly midnight when they arrived, and the parsonage was dark. Miss Goldsworthy, not expecting him, was sitting up with a sick parishioner half a mile off; Ruby and the maid were fast asleep. When the latter was heard stirring in her room, her master called a few questions to her, and then bade her go back to bed.

"We don't want her poking round," he whispered to Mary, as (when together they had hurried the mare into her stall) he led the drooping girl to his study—and how grateful she was to him for this consideration! He closed the door behind them, and led her gently to his own arm-chair—she clung to the hand that was so kind to her in her need—bidding her keep the rug about her (so as not to wet the furniture); and he lit a kerosene stove that was one of his private luxuries, always available when the maid-of-all-work was not. He exhorted his charge to comfort herself by the poor blaze while he fetched such odds and ends of clothes as he could gather from his sister's room; and then he told her to change her wet garments for these dry ones while he performed the same operation for himself elsewhere. She obeyed him as meekly as a child, and was sitting huddled in Miss Goldsworthy's faded flannel dressing-gown when he returned, carrying a kettle and a tray.

"Now I will make you a nice hot cup of tea," said he cheerily, planting the kettle on a round hole at the top of the stove and the tray on his writing table. "You put your clothes in the passage? That's right. We'll dry them presently. Oh, yes"—starting to cut bread and butter—"you must have something to eat. You have had no dinner."

He forced her to eat, and to drink the hot tea, and she did feel the better for it. Over her cup she lifted swimming eyes to his face, whispering: "You are good to me!" And he remarked to himself that she was not mad, as he had thought.

When the meal was disposed of, he felt that the time for explanations and for considering how to deal with the extraordinary situation had come.

"Now, my dear," he began, taking on something of the parson air at last, "the first thing to be done is to inform your family of your whereabouts. I must go and find up somebody to take a message to them, to relieve their minds."

She roused from her semi-torpor to plead for a reprieve. Not yet—not yet! Whatever she had to face, let her rest for a little first. They had parted with her for the night; they would not go to her room, she knew—outcast as she now was from the sympathy of them all; they would not miss her before the morning. And, oh, she could not go home! She had disgraced her family—her own father had wished her dead. She was a wicked woman, not fit to live; but, if she must live, let it be anywhere—anywhere—rather than at Redford now!

At this repetition of her strange charge against a doting father, and the mention of disgrace, a distressing suspicion came into the parson's mind. He calculated the length of time between Guthrie Carey's visits; he looked at her searchingly. No, there was no evidence that she had done the special wrong. But that there was wrong of some sort somewhere was evident enough.

"I know your father's affection for you," he said seriously, "and I cannot believe that he would express himself as you say he did."

"I deserved it," she said. "I don't blame him—nobody could."

"There must indeed have been some grave reason—"

"There was—there was!"

"What was it?"

"Oh, don't ask me!" she wailed, covering her face. But, crossing over to her side, he took one of the shielding hands, and holding it tenderly, assured her that she must tell him. He was her pastor—he was her best friend; just now he was her champion, prepared to fight her battle, whatever it was. And to do this successfully it was necessary that he should know all. In the end she told him—not all, but the main facts. He thought it the silliest case of making a mountain of a molehill that he had ever heard of. He was convinced there was more in the background, to account for the violent emotions aroused—to account for a good girl leaving a good home in the middle of the night to drown herself. In his conjectures he made Guthrie Carey the villain of the piece—the young man who, after creating all the disturbance, had significantly cleared out. Sailors were an immoral lot—a sweetheart in every port, as the world knew. And this fellow—why, you had only to look at his big, brawny build (Mr Goldsworthy was a small man) to see that he had a brutal nature.

At any rate, the parson was satisfied that the heroine of the story remained a "pure" girl—foolish, but womanly, and very, very unfortunate. As she sat weeping by his side, dependent solely upon his protection, he stroked her hand and looked at it—so shapely and high-bred, the hand of a Pennycuick of the great house—a hand that would be full of gold some day; and his thoughts were busy.

The beautiful Deborah was gone, and could never have been for him; he had been an idiot to think it. She had no bent towards religion, was ruinously dressy and extravagant, unhousewifely as a woman could be; but Miss Pennycuick, great lady as she was, could cook and sew, was a master hand with servants and with children, and had never failed of interest in the church—nor in him. They had always been the best of friends, he and she; did it not seem that Providence had decreed they should be more? Why had he been sent to the dam in the nick of time, when he had intended to stay at Redford until morning? Why was she sitting here now, alone with him in his study, cut off from everybody else in the world? The hand of the Lord was in it. Looks were of small account when one considered her rank and the fortune she would inherit; but, of course, he did not admit to himself that he considered any one of these three things; nor that she was of age and her own mistress, although she had just forced the fact upon him when, promising him to make no further attempt upon her life, she announced an intention to find a situation somewhere in which she would be able to support herself apart from her family, and away from all who knew her. No, what he considered was the will of God and the dictates of his conscience. She had been given into his hands; he was bound to take care of her, and there was but one way to do it. It would be wrong and cruel to force her back to Redford. It was preposterous to think of making a governess or companion of her, a daughter of the proud Pennycuicks. She could not remain in his house as she was, without scandal, although he was a clergyman, with a sister housekeeper. Here they were now—past midnight, and practically without a soul in the house—and he so young still, and, if he might presume to say it, so attractive!

He put the case to her guardedly, gradually, plainly at last, and argued it for a full hour, while she drooped and wept, gazing at the smelly stove and shaking her head wearily. By the time dawn came, and she was quite worn out, he had won her consent to be his wife, which meant for her a footing somewhere, and at the same time a means to commit suicide without violating the law.

Miss Goldsworthy, who was but his humble slave, came home, put the forlorn girl to bed, and made a wedding breakfast for her while she was there; Mr Goldsworthy took the opportunity to fill up marriage papers in his study. Ruby was sent to school, as usual. Before her return therefrom, Mary Pennycuick had been led to the altar of the adjacent church, the white frock in which she had tried to drown herself dried and ironed to make her bridal robe. A neighbouring clergyman and crony of the bridegroom's performed the ceremony. Old Miss Goldsworthy, the chief witness, deposed, bewildered, wept bitterly. The bride was unmoved—until little Ruby, returning during the course of the ghastly wedding breakfast, was brought up, giggling and staring, to "kiss her new mamma", when the new mamma snatched the child to her breast, and went off into wild hysterics.

"There, there," said the new husband, pleased with the maternal gesture, but alarmed by her excitement, "you are overwrought. You have had no sleep. You must come and rest, my dear. Come and lie down. You can have Ruby with you, if you like—while I go and settle things at Redford. No, I won't be long; I'll just see your father, and be back by tea-time. Have the drawing-room opened, Charlotte"—it never was opened except for visitors—"and we will sit there this evening. And meanwhile, make her some tea or something, and see that she has all she wants. Come, my love—"

He led her to the door of a room, and she shrank back from it with a shriek.

"Well, well," he soothed her; "the spare room, if you like—"

"Oh, promise me—promise me—!"

"Yes, yes; just as you wish, darling. I would not hurry you."

She turned to Miss Goldsworthy and clung to her. "Save me! save me!" was what the desperate clutch meant, but what the paralysed tongue could not articulate.

She was in a high fever and delirious on her wedding night, and a week later at death's door. When she came out of her illness, reconciled to her family, meekly obedient to her husband, she was a wreck of herself—a prisoner for life, bound hand and foot, more pitiable than she would have been as a dead body fished out of the dam.

The tragic disproportion between crimes and punishments in this world!





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