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Sisters

CHAPTER XII.

Mrs Goldsworthy was reconciled to her relations through her illness—the greatest peacemaker in families, save death; and for her sake they made a show of tolerating her husband, after they had given him some bad hours behind her back. But the whole affair was like a blight on Redford, which was never the same place again. Mr Pennycuick had a slight "stroke" on hearing all the bad news at once. It was light enough to be passed over and hushed up, but his vigour and faculties declined from that hour with a rapidity that could be marked from day to day. "A changed man," observed his neighbours, one to another. At the same time, they hinted that other things were not as they used to be—that the old man had had losses—that Redford was heavily burdened—that the proud Pennycuicks, already humbled, were likely to experience a further fall. Certainly, the governess was dispensed with, and the dashing four-in-hand withdrawn from the local racecourses and agricultural show-grounds, of which it had long been the constant and conspicuous ornament, to be sold at public auction, without reason given. The great, hospitable house got a character for dullness for the first time in its history. No lights or laughter flowed from the windows of the big drawing-room of an evening; the lawns lay dark and still, while downstairs a rubber of whist or a hand at cribbage with Jim Urquhart or Mr Thornycroft represented what was left of the gaieties of the past. These men—these old fogies, as fretful Frances styled them both—were not of those who shunned Redford because it had grown dull; on the contrary, they now—according to Frances again—virtually lived there. And it was the absent pleasure-seekers, her true kindred, for whom her soul longed.

He who most openly resented the change, having (next to Mary) been most instrumental in causing it, was Deborah's lover, Claud Dalzell.

He had been none too gracious a lover—although graceful enough, when all was well—seeing that he had continued his bachelor life, with all its social obligations, after as before his engagement, and had allowed this to run to nearly two years, without coming to any effective understanding about the wedding-day; but when, in the thick of her troubles, he descended upon Redford merely to denounce the Goldsworthy marriage as a personal affront, and, as it were, to tax her with it, then her loving indulgence did not suffice to excuse him.

As usual, he went to his room first, to wash and change. He hated to pass the door of a sitting-room with the dust of travel on him; he could not shake hands with equanimity until he had restored his person and toilet to their normal perfection, which meant more or less the restoring of his nerves and temper to repose. So he appeared on this occasion, fresh and finished to the last degree, the finest gentleman in the world—the very light of Deb's eyes, and the satisfaction of her own fastidious taste—walking in to her where she awaited him, in the morning-room, herself 'groomed' to match, with as much care as she had taken when she had no more serious matter to think of than how to dress to please him.

He met her, apparently, as usual. She, turning to him as to a rock in a weary land, flung herself into his arms with more than her usual self-abandonment.

"Oh, darling!" she breathed, in that delicious voice of hers, "it is good to see you. I have wanted you so badly."

"I am sorry I did not come before," he replied, kissing her gravely. "Somebody has been wanted to deal with that extraordinary girl."

"Ah, poor girl! Do you know she is very ill with brain fever? Keziah has gone to nurse her. It must have been that coming on. She was out of her mind."

"I should think so—and everybody else too, apparently. What were you all about, Debbie, not to see this Goldsworthy affair going on under your noses?"

"It hasn't been going on. It has been Guthrie Carey—until now."

"I am told"—it was Frances who had told him in the passage just now—"that she refused Carey only the day before."

"She did."

"In order to make a runaway match with this parson fellow. The facts speak for themselves."

"Ah!" sighed Deb, turning to the tea-table, "I expect we don't know all the facts."

She meant that he did not know them. He only knew what Frances knew, and providentially they had been able to keep the episode of the dam out of the published story. That was the secret of Mary herself, her husband, her father, and this one sister; and they kept it close, even from Claud Dalzell. "I will tell him some day when we are married," Deb had promised herself; but as things fell out, she never did tell him. And it was on account of her brother-in-law's part in the suppressed event that she now forbore to call him behind his back what she had not hesitated to call him before his face—that is, failed to show that she fully shared her lover's indignation at the MESALLIANCE, and the scandalous way that it had been brought about.

"But, good heavens!"—Claud took his cup perfunctorily from her hand, and at once set it down—"are more facts necessary? She has made a clandestine marriage with a man whose bishop will turn him out of the church, I hope. They were right, I suppose, in concluding that no one here would consent to it; and what conceivable circumstances could excuse such an act?"

"Illness," said Deb. "Madness."

"Nonsense! There's too much method in it. It is obviously but the climax of a long intrigue—a course of duplicity that I could never have believed possible in a girl like Mary, although I have always thought HIM cad enough for anything."

"Have your tea," said Deb, a trifle off-hand; "it will be cold."

And she sat down with her own cup, and began to sip it with a leisurely air.

"A clandestine marriage," remarked Claud, ignoring her advice, "logically implies a clandestine engagement. Carey was but a red herring across the trail. And you ought to have known it, Deb."

"Well, I didn't," said she shortly.

He took a turn up and down the room, trying to preserve his wonted well-bred calm. But he was intensely irritated by her attitude.

"I cannot understand you," he complained, with a hard edge to his voice. "I should have thought that you—YOU of all people—would have been wild—as wild as I am."

She exasperated him with a little laugh and a truly cutting sarcasm. "It is bad form to SHOW that you are wild, you know, even if you feel so."

"I am just wondering whether you feel so. You are not used to hiding your feelings—at any rate, from me. I expected to find you out of your mind almost."

"What's the use? If I raved till doomsday I couldn't alter anything. The mischief is done. It is no use crying over spilt milk, my dear."

"You look as if you did not want to cry." "Do I?"

"As if it did not much matter to you whether it was spilt or not." "It doesn't matter to me, compared with what it matters to her." "Well, it matters to ME," Claud Dalzell announced, in a high tone, the crust of his fine manners giving to the pressure of the volcano within. "I can't stand the connection, if you can. Carey was bad enough, but he had some claim beside his coat to rank as a gentleman. This crawling ass, who would lick your boots for sixpence, to have him patting me on the back and calling himself my brother—Good God! it's too sickening."

"Not YOUR brother," Deb gently corrected him.

"He is mine if he is yours." "Oh, not necessarily!"

"Deb," said Claud, with an air of desperation, planting himself before her, "what are you going to do?"

She looked up at him with narrowing eyes and stiffening lips.

"What IS there to do?" she returned. "Are you going to put up with this—this outrage—to condone everything—to tolerate that fellow at Redford, taking the position of a son of the house, or are you going to show them both that they have forfeited their right ever to set foot upon the place again?"

"My sister too, you mean?"

"Certainly—if you can still bring yourself to call her your sister. She belongs to him now, not to us. She has voluntarily cut herself off from her world. Let her go. Deb, if you love me—"

He paused, and Deb smiled into his handsome but disgusted face.

"Ah, is that to be a test of love?" she asked. "I understand. I am to choose between you. Well"—she rose, towering, drawing the big diamond from her engagement finger—"I am going to her now. I ought to have been there hours ago, but waited back to receive you. Good-bye! And pray, don't come again to this contaminated house. We have too horribly gone down in the world. I know it, and I would not have you compromised on any account. We Pennycuicks, we don't abandon our belongings, especially when they may be dying; we sink or swim together." She held the jewel out to him.

"What rot!" he blurted vulgarly, flushing with anger that was not unmixed with shame. "Why will you wilfully misunderstand me? Put it on, Deb—put it on, and don't be so childish."

"I will not put it on," said she, "until you apologise for the things you have been saying to me, and the manner of your saying them."

"My dear child, I do apologise humbly, if I have said what I shouldn't. Perhaps I have; but I thought we were past the need for reserves and for weighing words, you and I. And really, Debbie, you know—"

"Hush!" She stopped him from further arguing; but she did not stop him from taking her hand and cramming the diamond back into its old place. "I must go. Father cannot—he is ill himself; and Miss Keene is too frightfully modest to nurse him alone, so that I must send Keziah back, and stay—"

"Can't Miss Keene go and send her back, and stay?"

"Oh, she would be no use in such an illness as Mary's. And I must see for myself how things are—whether they are taking proper care of the poor, unfortunate child—"

"Is she so very ill? I did not know that."

There was commiseration in his tone, but in his heart he hoped that the deservedly sick woman would crown her escapades by dying as quickly as possible. Then, perhaps, he could forgive her.

Deb gave him sundry confidences. On his appearing to take them in a proper spirit, she gave him some more tea. And so they lapsed into their normal relations. When she again urged the need for her to be getting off on her errand of mercy, he magnanimously offered to drive her. She accepted with a full heart, and her arms about his neck. While she was getting ready, he repacked his portmanteau, and ordered it to be put into the buggy.

"It's no use my going back," he said to her, when they were on the road, "with you away, and your father too ill to see me. I'll put up at the hotel tonight, and go on to town in the morning. You can send for me there whenever you want me, you know."

"Just as you like, dear," said Deb quietly; and for the rest of their journey they talked commonplaces.

When they reached the parsonage gate, from which the maid-of-all-work and a group of street gossips scattered in panic at their approach, the lovers shook hands perfunctorily.

"Goodbye, then, for a little while," said Claud. "You don't want me to come in, do you?"

"Certainly not," said she coldly.

"You know that it is totally against my judgment—and my wishes—that you go in yourself, Deb?"

"Yes. But one's own judgment must be one's guide."

Thus they parted, each with a grievance against the other—a root of bitterness to be nourished by much thinking about it, and by the circumstance that poor Mary neither died nor was repudiated. Claud drove on to the hotel, to be further disgusted with his accommodation and his dinner; Deb walked into the house which hitherto she had visited in a spirit of kindly condescension, to be revolted by the new aspect which her changed relations with it now gave to its every feature. Ruby, neglected, with a jam-smeared face—the flustered maid, tousled, grubby, her frock gaping—the horrible hall, with its imitation-marble paper and staring linoleum—the prim, trivial, unaired, unused drawing-room, with its pathetic attempts at elegance—Deb inwardly curled up at the sight of these things as things now belonging to the family. When the master of the house came hurrying in to her, rusty, unshaven, abject, she would have changed places with a Christian of old Rome facing a lion of the amphitheatre.

"Oh, this is good of you! This is kind indeed!" Mr Goldsworthy greeted her, and threatened in his grateful emotion to fall at her feet. "I did not dare to hope—"

But Deb shudderingly swept him aside, with his gratitude and his excuses and his timid justifications. He could stand up before his other critics—he had a clear conscience, he said; but before her he knew himself for what he was. He followed her like a dog to Mary's room, obeyed her directions like a slave, wept when she consented to "say no more", and stooped to beg from him a solemn vow and promise that he would be good to his wife. This was after the doctors had refused to permit his wife's removal to Redford to be nursed, and after Redford had practically been in command of his establishment for seven weeks.

Christmas is the time for reconciliations, and by Christmas Mary was convalescent—pale as she had never been since childhood, and wearing a little cap over her shaved head; very humble and gentle, and strangely docile in her attitude towards her captor, who now gave himself all the airs of a husband of his class. He was the benevolent despot of his women-kind—the god of the machine; she was as properly submissive as if born in the ranks. Negatively so, that is to say; positively, her manifestations of duty to him took the form of services and endearments bestowed upon his child and sister. Her first occupation after she could use her hands was to improve Ruby's wardrobe—the little girl, now her own, appealed to her motherly heart, a saving interest in her wrecked life. The poor old ex-housekeeper was the other prop to which she clung for a footing in the new and alien world which was now all her home. When Miss Goldsworthy proposed to go out into a situation, not to "be in the way of" the new wife, and when her brother would have approved the plan as only right and proper (and as facilitating his schemes for the raising of the "tone" of his establishment to Redford level), Mary protested vehemently and with tears, the only occasion of her showing a Pennycuick spirit since renouncing the Pennycuick name. The old maid, for her part, was enthusiastically devoted to the new sister-in-law, whom it was her joy to pet and coddle. "I can be of use to her," she tremblingly commended herself to her brother. "I can take the drudgery of the housework off her, and save her in the parish." "Well, perhaps so," said Mr Goldsworthy. And, sincerely desiring to endear himself to his aristocratic wife, he consented to her wish.

The whole Goldsworthy family was transferred to Redford, while, on the pretext of disinfecting it, the parsonage was painted and papered what Deb called "decently", and its more offensive furniture replaced. Mary was provided with a trousseau and many useful wedding presents, a cheque from her father for 500 pounds amongst them. They did not forgive her, but they pretended excellently that they did. Without any pretence at all, they tried to make the best of a bad job. To this end, they gathered their friends together as usual at Christmas. Mr Thornycroft and the Urquharts needed no pressing; they came to see Mary the day she returned home, and showed her the old affection without asking questions. Mr Thornycroft's wedding presents to her were magnificent—a complete service of silver plate and house linen of the finest. Deb wrote to Claud: "I suppose we shall see you, as usual?"—for he had always spent Christmas at Redford unless away on the other side of the world. He wrote back: "I think not, this time." He was the only defaulter.

"He will never have a chance to refuse again," said Deb fiercely, as she tore up his note.

His absence was too marked not to provoke frequent comment, and whenever it was alluded to in her hearing, her spine stiffened and her head went up. It was quite evident to her family that the rift in the lute was serious, and strange to say, it was her father, who might have been expected to hail the signs, who was most concerned to see them. He expostulated with her when she spoke bitterly of Billy's son, as once he had been so ready to do himself.

"Well, my dear," said he, "I can understand it, if you can't. I wouldn't come myself, if I was in his place, to mix-up with the sort of thing we've got to mix up with."

"If I can mix up with it—!" quoth proud Deborah.

"Yes, yes—I know; but you must consider the silly way that he's been reared. I don't like his taking upon himself to criticise what we choose to do; but no doubt Goldsworthy IS a pretty big pill to swallow—to a chap like him, always so faddy about breeding and manners, and that sort of thing."

"If he is too faddy for the society that I can put up with, though it be that of chimney-sweeps," said Deb, "he is too faddy for me, father."

"Now, my dear, don't talk so," the old man pleaded with her, quite agitated by her mood. "We all have our little weaknesses—we have to make allowances for temperament and for bringing up. Don't let a trifle like this estrange you two—don't, Debbie, for my sake. Let me go down to my grave feeling that one of you, at least, is safe and happy, and well provided for."

"Decidedly," thought Deborah, "father is not the same man that he was before his illness."

She understood the cause of his change of views on her engagement better a few weeks later.

He had parted with his eldest daughter then, and the emotion of the event had fatally affected him. Owing to some obscure working of the "influence" which her social position had brought to her husband, the latter had been promoted to the charge of a Melbourne parish. The affair was arranged while they were still at Redford, and just on the completion of the improvements to the local parsonage. In spite of all they had done to make this first home fit for her, family and friends were unanimous in hailing her removal to another and more distant one—out of the buzz of the gossip of her native neighbourhood—as the best thing that could have happened. But when it came to the point of sending her forth to battle with her fate alone for the rest of her life, the wrench was dreadful. She was the bravest of them all under the ordeal. The shattered father, whose right hand she had been for so many happy years, and whose heart was broken with the weight of his responsibility for her misfortunes, was completely overwhelmed. She had not been gone twelve hours when Deb found him in his office chair, unable to rise from it, or to answer her questions. And he never spoke again. He made signs that he wanted Claud sent for, and when the young man quickly came, looked significant things at him and Deb, as they stood by his bedside hand in hand. Then he lapsed into stupor and died, without waiting for a third stroke.

Through all the shock and sorrow of the time, Claud was Deborah's mainstay and consolation. He took the role of nearest male relative, the right to which was undisputed by Mr Goldsworthy, preoccupied with the important interests of his new parish; also by Mr Thornycroft and Jim Urquhart, who, of course, "stood by" to serve her as far as she would allow them. It was Claud who gave the orders for the funeral, and superintended the ceremonies, and acted as chief mourner; it was Claud to whom the household looked for direction, as if acknowledging him to be the new master; it was on Claud's breast that Deb wept—who so rarely wept—and his word that she obeyed, as if he were already her husband; and in all that he did for her, and in all that he did not do, he showed the grace, the tact, the tenderness, the thoughtfulness of her ideal lover and gentleman.

But there came a day when he fell again below the indispensable standard—when the rift in the lute, that had seemed closed, gaped suddenly, and this time beyond repair. It was when, after close investigation of the deceased man's affairs, and some heated interviews with one of the executors (Deb being the other), Claud discovered that the Pennycuick wealth was non-existent—that Redford was mortgaged to the hilt, and that if the estate was realised and cleared, as Deb desired it should be, nothing would be left for her and her sisters—that is to say, a paltry three or four hundred a year amongst them, less than Deb could spend comfortably on her clothes alone.

He was too upset by the discovery, and a bad quarter of an hour that Mr Thornycroft had subsequently given him, to preserve that calm demeanour which was his study and his pride. He came in to Deb where she sat alone, and expressed his feelings as the ordinary man is wont to do to the woman who loves and belongs to him.

"What could your father have been dreaming of," he rudely interrogated her, "to let the place go to pieces like this? Drifting behind year after year, and doing nothing to stop it—not cutting down one of the living expenses—not giving us the least hint of how things really were—"

"He gave several hints," said Deb, in that voice which always grew so portentously quiet when his was raised, "if we had had the sense to take them. I have been putting two and two together for some time, so that I am not altogether taken by surprise."

"Why didn't you tell me?"

"Because you were not here, for one thing. Because it was father's private business, for another."

"He seems not to have made it his business to take any care of his children's interests," said Claud bitterly. "Bringing you up as he has done, with the right to expect that you were to be properly provided for, and then leaving you literally paupers—"

"Not LITERALLY paupers," corrected Deb gently. "We shall be quite independent still. And if you want to insult my father now that he is dead—the best of fathers, if he did have misfortunes in business and make mistakes—do it somewhere else, not in this room." "You have no right to take that tone with me, Deb." "No?" She raised sarcastic eyebrows, under which her deep eyes gleamed. "Well, I suppose I haven't—now. I forgot my new place. I am very sorry, Claud"—rising, and making a gesture with her hands that he had seen before—"very sorry indeed, that I did not know I was going to be a poor woman and a nobody when you did me the honour to select me to be your wife. Now that you have shown me that I am disqualified for the position—" she held out the big diamond, with a cold smile. "That's vulgar, Deb," he loftily admonished her, fending off her hand. "You know I am not actuated by those low motives. DON'T let us have this cheap melodrama, for pity's sake! Put it on."

But no more would she put it on. He had revealed his disappointment that she was not something more than herself—that beautiful and adorable self that she quite knew the worth of—and he had permitted himself to take liberties of speech with her that she instinctively felt to be provoked by the circumstance that she was no longer rich and powerful.

Deb's love was great, but her pride was greater.





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