Deb sat amid the ruins of her home. She occupied the lid of a deal packing-case that enclosed a few hundreds of books, and one that was half filled stood before her, with a scatter of odd volumes on the floor around. The floor, which was that of the once cosy morning-room, was carpetless; its usual furniture stood about higgledy-piggledy, all in the wrong places, naked and forlorn. Mr Thornycroft leaned against the flowerless mantel-shelf, and surveyed the scene, or rather, the central figure, black-gowned, holland-aproned, with sleeves turned back from her strong wrists, and a grey smudge on her beautiful nose.
"That cottage that you talk about," said he, "will not hold all those."
"Oh, books don't take any space," she replied brusquely. "They are no more than tapestry or frescoes. I shall have cases made to fit flat to the walls."
"That will cost money."
"One must have the bare necessaries of life. I presume I shall be able to afford that much. Pine boards will do. I can Aspinall them." "Aspinall is very nice, but sometimes it gets on the edges of your books and spoils them."
"No, it doesn't. I have an Aspinalled book-case in my room now, and not a mark ever came off it."
"Did you paint it?"
"Are you going to leave it there?"
"I must. It is a fixture."
"That's all right. I am glad you are going to leave something." "Something? I leave all."
"Except a library of books, and a collection of forty odd pictures, that you will have to hang over the books—"
"You would not have us part with family portraits?"
"And a grand piano, extra sized, calculated to fill a suburban villa drawing-room all by itself—"
"Pianos make nothing second-hand, and the girls must practise. Better keep a good instrument than sell it for fifty pounds and spend the money on a bad one."
"Certainly, if you can stow it. But with seven easy-chairs, and the biggest Chesterfield sofa extant, and a large writing-table—"
"I can have that in my room."
"Along with a six-foot dressing-table, and a nine-foot wardrobe, and I don't know how many chests of drawers—"
"The wardrobe will stand in a passage somewhere. We must have places to put our clothes."
"A house with passages of that capacity—"
"Well, never you mind. If I can't find room for my things, I can sell them in Melbourne as well as here."
"Having squandered a small fortune on the carriage down. Better leave them with me, Debbie, and let me send you what you want afterwards."
"Thank you. You would not have them to send afterwards."
"Oh, I think I would."
"No. I shall settle everything before I leave, and the sale will be held immediately. The furniture first, and then the place." Her mouth closed upon the words like a steel snap.
"Just as you please about that," he said quietly. "Any time will suit me."
"By public auction," she added, with a sharp glance at him—"to the highest bidder."
"Yes," was his laconic comment. "Me."
"Not necessarily," said she, roused by the small word that held such large meanings. "There are a few other rich persons in the western district, to whom Redford may appear desirable."
"There are," he agreed easily. "I know several. But I shall outbid them."
She was strongly agitated. "Oh, I hope they won't let you!"
"Why?" he asked.
At first she fenced with the question.
"Because you don't want it. You have more land already than one man ought to have." "I don't know about what I ought to have, but I know that if you persist in throwing Redford away, I shall take it." He smiled at her angry perturbation. "If I find I haven't enough money to outbid everybody—but I think I have—I can sell Bundaboo. If you won't have Redford, I will—yes, and every stick and stone that belongs to it."
"And have people talking and saying that you did it for something else, and not business reasons."
"People would be right, for once."
"But I won't have it!" cried Deb. "I won't stand being an object of your benevolence. You want to pay a lot more than the place is worth, so as to augment our income. You as good as own it—"
"I want to keep your home for you against you change your mind." "The last thing I shall do, I assure you—particularly after your saying that." Her nose, in spite of the smut on it, testified to her indignant dignity, up in the air, with its fine nostrils quivering. "Now, look here, godpapa—I will not have Redford put up to auction. I'll sell privately—and to somebody else."
"Oh, indeed! Not when I am executor?"
"Certainly not—except with the permission of your fellow-executor."
She fell to pleading.
"Oh, let me—do let me! You know what I want—to square up all the debts and have done with them. I can't sleep for thinking of what we owe you already. Do you know how much it is? Nearly forty thou—"
He checked her with an impatient wave of the hand.
"All the debts will be provided for, of course. The lawyers will adjust those matters."
"I don't trust you," she urged, looking at him less angrily, but still as puzzled and distressed. "I know you have designs to benefit me somehow—unfairly, and because it's me—and if you only knew how I HATED to be benefited—"
"I do—nobody better. That is why I am letting you do a lot of things that won't benefit you, but just the opposite—things you will repent of horribly by-and-by. Knowing your independent spirit, I do not offer my advice—"
"Not effectively. I do not force it upon you. I do not bring my undoubted powers to bear upon you for your good—"
"Because I know, of course, that you would rather suffer anything than be guided by me."
She softened instantly. "I am not such a fool, I hope. But—but you WILL bring friendship into business. You did things for my father that you know you would never have dreamt of doing for strangers—that you never ought to have done at all; and now you want to be twice as idiotically generous to us, because we are girls, and out of pity for us—to do us a kindness, as it is called—when, if you only knew—"
She had risen and drifted to him where he stood, and now laid a hand on his arm. He put a hand over it, and looked into her pleading eyes. He seemed not to have heard her last remark, to be far away in mind from the point of discussion, and his fixed and strange gaze perplexed and then embarrassed her. "How he feels our going!" she thought to herself, and turned her face from his, and tried to turn his apparently sad thoughts.
"If you would only let me sell Redford to somebody else, and have the lump money to pay all the debts in a plain way that I could understand, and take the remainder for ourselves, and know that we were straight and free, I would do anything you liked to ask me in return!"
He still kept silence, and that tight grasp upon her hand. So she looked at him again; and his far-away stare was bewildering.
"I wonder," said he slowly—"I wonder, if I were to take you at your word, whether you would stick to it?"
"Try me," said she.
"I will. Deborah Pennycuick, if I let you sell Redford, and pay all debts with your own hands, will you—I am your godfather, and something over fifty, and it is quite preposterous, of course, but still you said anything—will you be my wife?"
"Oh!" This was the unexpected happening, with a vengeance. Never had she imagined such a notion on the part of this staid and venerable person. She flushed hotly, and wrenched her imprisoned hand free. "I don't like stupid jokes," she muttered, overcome with confusion. "Do I give you the impression that I am joking?" he asked.
"If you are serious, that is worse," said she. "Then I know you are only trying another way of providing for me."
"You believe I have only just thought of it?"
"I have thought of it since you were fifteen, my dear. But never mind. We will call it a joke, if you think that the least of two evils. I see you do. The incident is closed. The bargain is off. And I can buy Redford when it is put up for sale. Goodbye, goddaughter. No, I can't stay to lunch today; I have some business to attend to. But of course I shall see you again before you go."
And when he did see her again, he gave not the smallest sign of what had happened, so that she almost grew to feel that she must have dreamt it.
That same afternoon, Jim Urquhart, who was always doing so, rode over to Redford to see if he could help her pack. He wondered at her abstracted manner, and her sudden change of mind concerning the piano and wardrobe and other things. Having laboriously packed books and pictures, she now proposed to unpack half of them. She wanted to see what room she would have in her cottage first. In fact, it seemed to him that she did not know what she wanted. She was evidently tired and overwrought. "Oh, Jim," she moaned, from amongst the dust and litter, "it is a wrench!"
"What do you suppose it is for us?" he returned gloomily. "Without you at Redford! I'm trying not to think of it."
"So am I. But it's no use—it has got to come."
"I suppose there is no way out?"
"None. That is all settled. I have told Mr Thornycroft, and he won't tease me any more."
"Do you think you will be happy down there, cooped up in streets?"
"I know I shall not. But the streets down there will be better than the streets of a bush township."
"Why streets at all? Why not stay about here somewhere, where you have us all near you?"
"Exiled from Redford? No, thank you. Besides, where could we stay? Detached cottages don't grow in these parts."
Then he blurted it out.
"I have never said anything, Deb. I knew I wasn't fit for you, and. I am not now. I've got to look after my dear old mother and the children, who haven't got anybody else, and I couldn't give you a home worthy of you—perhaps never, no matter how I worked and tried; but if love is any good, and the things that after all make homes—not money and fine furniture—" "Dear old boy, don't!" she pleaded, with twitching lips.
"I may as well, now I have begun," said he. "I don't suppose it is any use, but I'd just like you to know once—as far as my life is my own, it is yours any day you like. It has been since I was a boy, and it will be for a good while yet—I won't say for ever, because you can't tell what's going to happen; but I'm ready to bet my soul that it will be for ever. Now, do just what you feel inclined to, Debbie. I'm not going to press you—I know my place too well; but if you should think it a better plan to live with me, and have me work for you and take care of you the best I can, why, any heaven that's coming to us by-and-by simply won't be in it—not for me." He looked at her across the packing-case between them, and dropped his voice to add: "But you wouldn't, of course."
"I would, dear Jim!" she cried, with warm impulsiveness; "that is, I might. A good man like you is worth a worldful of money and furniture. I don't live for those things, as you seem to think; but—but you know how it is—I can't change about from one to another—"
He dropped the saddest "No" into the pregnant pause.
"No, Deb—no; I expected that. Staunch through everything—that's you all over. Well"—with a movement as if to pull himself together—"I'm staunch too. We're equals in that, anyhow, and don't you forget it. I'll not bother you any more—I never have bothered you, have I?—but I'm here when you want me, body and soul, at any hour of the day or night. You'll remember that?" stretching his horny hand across to her, and being in the same instant electrified by the touch of her lips upon it.
"Oh, I will! I will!"
The evening post brought a ship letter. Guthrie Carey was in port. He had been there long enough to hear the news that Deborah Pennycuick was penniless, and that Claud Dalzell had deserted her. So he had written to her at length—the longest letter of his life—ten pages.
She took it to her bedroom and sat down to read it, while at the same time she rested a little before dinner. She had frowned over the envelope; now she smiled over the first pages; she sighed over the middle ones; she even wept a little over the last. Then she wrote out an answer and sent it by a groom to the nearest telegraph office:
"Please do not come. Am writing."
Thus she cast aside in one day three good men and true, heart-bound to one who was not worthy to be ranked with any of them. But that is the way of love.