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Sisters

CHAPTER XV.

Bruce went unchained, within limits, and had a run nearly every day. Workmen came to put a railing and gate to the back verandah of his establishment, and Mrs Breen kept a fidgety watch upon his movements; but evidently the only son's will ruled, and he was more than faithful to his compact with Rose. She was able to see this from her commanding window, and to hear it from Bruce's mouth; and day by day her heart warmed towards Bruce's master. Many were the friendly smiles and salutes that passed between the attic window and the Breen back-yard, all unknown to Rose's sisters.

They were walking with her one Saturday afternoon, when they met Mr Peter and the collie. Pepper ran forward to greet Bruce, and they sniffed at each other's noses and wagged their respective tails in a friendly way. Deb was remarking to Rose that their pity for the Breens' dog had been quite misplaced, when a bow from her sister and a lift of the hat by the young man caused her to stop short and raise her fine brows inquiringly.

"Rose!"

"I—I spoke to him one day," explained Rose, pink as her pinkest namesake. "About Bruce."

"Who's Bruce?"

"That's Bruce—his dog."

Frances came running up. "Rose," said she indignantly, "did you bow to that man?"

"He is our neighbour next door," mumbled Rose.

"I know that. So is the wood-carter. But is that a reason why you should bow to him? Do you know who those people are?"

"They are perfectly respectable people, I believe," said Rose, growing restive.

"DRAPERS," said Frances witheringly.

"I shouldn't care if they were chimney-sweeps. They have a beautiful dog, and young Mr Breen is very kind to him, and I—I thanked him for it." "Oh, Deb!"

"Was that necessary, my dear?"

"Perhaps not. But I did."

"Well, be careful, Rosie. We are not at Redford now, you know. Girls living alone and going about in public places—"

"And that sort of person," Frances broke in crossly, "always takes advantage of a little notice. Why, he looked at you as if you were friends and equals, Rose!"

Rose turned to retort again, but feeling the weight of opinion against her, forbore. And she was glad she had never mentioned the circumstances under which she had made poor Peter Breen's acquaintance.

On a later afternoon she was in the attic room, sewing at a frock for Robbie Goldsworthy—Robert Pennycuick, after the grandfather who had been expected to leave much money—while Deb and Frances entertained visitors downstairs. Old Keziah had brought her tea and cakes, and she had had a pleasant time with her work and her thoughts, and her view of Bruce and his premises, when suddenly Frances flounced in.

"Now, madam!" exclaimed the irate young lady, "we have to thank you for this. What did I say? Give these people an inch and they will take an ell—a mile indeed, if they can get it."

"What people?" inquired Rose faintly.

"Those Breen people—those DRAPERS. They have had the cheek to come and call on us—to call and leave their cards, 'First and third Wednesday', as if they expected us to call back again!"

"Who came?"

"Mrs and Miss—with half the shop upon their backs. Debbie"—Deb was coming in behind her—"you are NOT going to return the call of those people, I TRUST?"

"Oh, I don't know," smiled Deb easily. "It would please them, and it wouldn't hurt us. There would be no need, of course, to return a second one."

"I should think it would NOT hurt us," Rose spoke up, "to behave like decent people. I never heard that it was considered high breeding and fine manners to snub your inferiors—if they are your inferiors." "You have to snub them," said Frances, "if they don't know manners themselves."

"A very GENTLE snub," said Deb. "We are not going to be rude to the poor things. We will call once—that is, I will—in a few months' time. After all, it was hardly their fault."

"No; it is Rose's fault. Please, Rose, in future be so good as to consider your family a little, as well as your neighbours' dogs."

Rose's only reply was to start the sewing-machine and drive it vehemently. But her heart burned within her. Evidently Peter's mother and sister had been insulted in her house, after he had been so good to her.

He did not appear in the yard that evening, and next day when he did, his face was turned from her all the time. The day after that, she rattled the window and encouraged Pepper to bark to draw the young man's attention, having ready for him a smile that should counteract Francie's frowns, if smiles could do it; but again he took no notice. Then she was sure that his feelings had been hurt. Mrs and Miss Breen had returned to report a cool reception of the overtures that had been made almost certainly at his instigation—had probably reproached him for exposing them to the insolence of stuck-up snobs. Oh, it was horrid! And doubtless he thought her as bad as the rest. She had not gone downstairs to see his mother and sister, and how was he to know she had been ignorant that they were there? And still he took Bruce out for walks, before breakfast and after business in the afternoons, when he might have been playing tennis and enjoying himself.

She bore with this state of things for some time, then suddenly determined to end it. "Where there's a will there's a way." One of Deb's petticoats showed signs of fraying, and, Deb-like, she must have fresh lace for it immediately. Rose offered to go to town to fetch it, taking with her the money for her purchase.

Never before had she been to "Breen's." Second-rate, if not third or fourth, was its class amongst Melbourne shops, and the Pennycuicks had always been accustomed to the best. But when she turned in at the somewhat narrow and encumbered doorway, she was pleasantly surprised to note how far the shop ran back, and how well-stocked and busy and solidly prosperous it seemed.

He was there—not, to her great relief, behind the counter, but in a sort of raised office place at the farther end—attending to the books apparently, while keeping an eye upon other matters. Hardly had she set foot upon the carpeted aisle when his head popped up from behind his desk, and she saw herself recognised. As it was her object to be recognised, and to speak to him, she passed the lace department, the ribbons, the silks, the dress stuffs, until she reached the Manchester department, where they sold towels and table-cloths, and beautiful satin eider-downs in all the colours of the rainbow. Here she halted and asked sweetly for torchon lace.

All the way had Peter watched her, but with his head down, as if wishing to hide from her. "He fancies I shall be ashamed of him because he keeps a shop," thought she; and that was exactly what he did fancy, knowing the world and its funny little inconsistent social ways. So, when informed that she had left the lace counter far behind her, and while turning to retrace her steps, she frankly sought his eye, and catching it, bowed and smiled with all the friendliness that could be expressed in such fashion.

That smile drew Peter out. But still he came with a bashful and hesitating air, as if uncertain of his reception; so that she had to meet him half-way, with bold hand extended.

"How do you do, Mr Breen? How is Bruce? But I see how well he is, and happy—thanks to you. I am so sorry I did not have the pleasure of seeing your mother and sister when they were so kind as to call the other day; but I did not know they were in the house till they were gone."

He glowed with joy. He clasped her hand with a vigour that made it tingle for a minute afterwards.

"I was sorry too," he said. "My old mater is a good soul. I think you and she—I wanted her to see you. Another time, perhaps—"

"Oh, I hope so! We are such near neighbours." She was ready to say anything that would make him feel he was not being treated as a shopman. "And did you have your day's shooting? Were you successful?" "Well," with modest pride, "I came upon snipe unexpectedly, and brought home a couple of brace. If I had thought you would condescend to accept them, Miss Pennycuick—if I had dared—"

"Oh, thank you very much, but I could not have let you rob your mother—"

Conscious of heightened colour, and several pairs of watching eyes, Rose hastily put out her hand. Peter took it respectfully, slightly abashed.

"Can I—is there anything—anything I can do for you?"

"Yes, please," she said, struggling to remember what it was. "Some—er—lace—torchon—for my sister; that is what I came for."

"This way," said Peter gently; and they walked down the long, narrow shop together, closely scrutinised by the young women behind the counters. Two or three of these, with ingratiating smirks, converged upon the spot where their young chief halted and called aloud for torchon lace. The favoured one brought forth the stock, unexpectedly large and valuable, and the girl was soon able to make her choice. She wanted one dozen yards, and there was a piece of fourteen that Peter styled a "remnant" for her benefit. If he could have presented it to her free of cost, he would have loved to do so; as it was, she made an excellent bargain.

"I only hope they won't ask me where I got it," she said to herself on the way home. Happily, they did not. The usual Buckley was taken for granted, and Deb slashed up the lace without noticing that she had fourteen yards for twelve.

But Rose was a poor schemer, and it was inevitable that she should soon be found out.

The sisters were gathered about their window table in the attic room on the following afternoon. Keziah had brought their tea, and amid the litter of their needlework they drank it leisurely, enjoying a spell of rest. Both casements stood wide. Deb, at one end, gazed wistfully at the Malvern Hills; Frances, at the other, looked down on objects nearer home. Rose had purposely drawn her chair back farther into the room. A joyous bark arose.

"There's your young man, Rose," said Frances flippantly. "Really, the dandy has surpassed himself. Knickerbockers and a Norfolk jacket, if you please! Why, actually a horse! He is going out to ride. This it is to be a counter-jumper in these levelling times!"

"He is not a counter-jumper," said reckless Rose.

"How do you know?" returned Frances swiftly.

"Proprietors don't wait behind the counter."

"That is where he has had to learn his business, of course," said Deb. "But there is nothing disgraceful in counters. Don't be snobbish, Francie. Every trade—profession too, for that matter—has to have a counter of some sort."

"Of course it has," said Rose, heartened.

"Oh, but to see a man—a miserable apology for a man—measuring out calicoes and ribbons, and tapes and buttons, and stays and garters, and all sorts of things that a man has no right to touch—pugh!"

"Only women sell the stays and garters," corrected Rose vehemently. "And at least young Mr Breen is not a miserable apology for a man. He is as much a real man as anybody else—goes out shooting—plays tennis—"

Again Francie's cat's-paw pounced on her. "How do you know?"

"Why—why—you can see he is one of that sort," squirmed poor Rose.

"Oh!" said Frances significantly, with a firm stare at her sister's scarlet face. "Deb, there is more in this than meets the eye—even than meets the eye."

"I don't care what you say," struck Rose blindly.

"Don't tease her," Deb interposed. "And don't be putting preposterous ideas into the child's head."

"Please, Deb, I am not a child."

"No, my dear, you are not; and therefore you know, as well as we do, that young Mr Breen is nothing to us."

"Did I say he was anything? It is Francie that makes horrid, vulgar insinuations."

"But how do you know that he shoots and plays tennis?" persisted Frances, with a darkling smile.

"Because he told me so—there!"

In five minutes the inquisitor had drawn forth the whole innocent tale. She fell back in her chair, while Deb seemed to congeal slowly.

"Oh," moaned Frances, "no wonder they thought they could come and call and make friends with us! And no wonder," she added, more viciously, "that there he stands leering up at this window, when his horse has been ready this half hour."

"Is he doing that?" asked Deb quickly.

"Look at him!"

Deb rose and looked; then, with a firm hand, closed the two little windows and drew down the blinds. With a sob of rage, Rose jumped from her basket-chair, almost flung her cup and saucer upon the tea-tray, and rushed out of the room.

Thereupon the little family resolved itself into a strong government and one rebel.

"When I DO want to marry a shopkeeper," said weeping Rose to her sisters, "then it will be time enough to make yourselves ridiculous."

But they thought not. "No use," said they, "to shut the stable door after the steed is stolen." Danger, or the beginning of danger, had distinctly declared itself, and it was their part to guard the threatened point. So they took steps to guard it. The name of Breen was not mentioned, but its flavour lurked in every mouthful of conversation, like the taste of garlic that has been rubbed round the salad bowl in the salad that has not touched it; it filled the domestic atmosphere with a subtle acrimoniousness unknown to it before. And Rose was watched—not openly, but systematically enough for her to know it—never allowed to go out alone, or to sit in the attic after a certain hour; driven into brooding loneliness and disaffection—in other words, towards her fellow-victim instead of from him.





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