Now that she could no longer entertain, Deb refused to be entertained, much to the discontent of Frances, who pined continually for a larger and brighter life, so that the invitations fell off to nothing before the excuse of the deep mourning was worn out. But when Mrs Urquhart, always maternally solicitous for her poor Sally's girls, wrote to beg them to spend Christmas at Five Creeks, Deb and Frances, who did not, for different reasons, wish to go themselves, agreed that it would be 'the very thing' for Rose to do so. She would be absolutely safe up there, and with her old social world about her, and old interests to occupy her mind, would recover that respect for herself which seemed to have been more or less impaired by association with suburban villadom. They hoped she would stay at Five Creeks a long, long time.
"And if only Jim would keep her altogether!" sighed Frances. "I would be content with Jim now."
"I wish to goodness he would!" said Deb, with fervour—not thinking particularly of her sister as she spoke.
The matter was put to Rose, and she consented to go. Five Creeks was better than Lorne, which had been spoken of, and the companionship of Alice than the shepherding sisters in the close limits of seaside lodgings; besides, Rose was a born bush girl.
She was tenderly escorted to Spencer Street, and put into the hands of Jim himself, in town on station business. Alice met them at the other end, and the two friends slept, or rather bunked, together—the house being full for the Christmas dance—and talked the night through. But not a word about Peter Breen passed Rose's lips, so full of words as they were.
Next day the trestle-tables and Chinese lanterns, the sandwiches and creams, and what not, occupied her every moment and thought until it was time to dress, when the interest of the ball itself became supreme.
"Well, there's one good thing," said Alice, as, hemmed into a corner of a small room crowded with girls, she laced Rose's bodice, "we shall not want for men. There'll be one to each girl, and three over. The Simpsons alone have promised to bring six."
The Simpsons were new people at Bundaboo, which Mr Thornycroft had let. He now lived at Redford—in a third part of the great house, the other two-thirds being closed. He was not coming to the ball, Alice said. "Getting too old for balls."
In their white frocks and flowers, the friends went to the drawing-room, and in the thick of the arrivals Jim brought up from the bachelors' quarters the six Bundaboo young men. Mrs Simpson introduced them to Mrs Urquhart and her bevy of assistant hostesses.
"Mr Leader—Mr Henry Leader—down from Queensland; Mr Parkinson—English—globe-trotter; my two sons, whom you know; my nephew, Mr Breen."
Thus do the sportive Fates love to make mock of the most carefully-laid family plans!
Rose and Peter faced each other, sharing one blush between them. Their natural pleasure and astonishment was only equalled by their mutual admiration.
"What a little love she is in that pretty gown," thought he, a connoisseur in gowns. And "Who would take him for a draper now?" thought she, noting the vigorous frame and the perfect correctness of its garb. As a matter of fact, no one did take him for a draper, and no one cared what he was, since he was Mrs Simpson's nephew and a man.
As soon as it was understood that a previous acquaintanceship existed between them, Rose was given Peter to take care of—to show round and introduce. They walked off, elated.
"Well, I never expected to see you here!" said she.
"Nor I you," said he. "I thought I was never going to see you any more."
"How is your mother? How is dear Bruce? Will anyone take him for walks while you are away? How terribly he will miss you!"
"Well, it is something to be missed, even by a dog."
"What a nice face your aunt has! Is she your father's—?"
"No, my mother's. They are very much alike. But—you don't know my mother—"
The blessed Urquhart children romped up to them at this opportune moment, thrusting forward their basket of programmes. Rose and Peter each took a card, and Peter proceeded to business.
"With pleasure," said Rose. And then: "Oh, if you like."—"Well, only one more round one."—"I belong to the house, and must distribute myself."—"No, no, that's enough; leave room for all the nice girls I am going to introduce you to—Miss Alice Urquhart—Mr Breen, dear—Mrs Simpson's nephew, and a friend of mine in town."
It slipped out unawares. Peter's air, as he scribbled "Miss Urquhart" on his card, was seraphic. Later, Alice snatched a chance to whisper to Rose: "What a good-looking fellow! Who is he?" And Rose hastened to explain that she knew him only very slightly.
They had their first waltz together, and he danced delightfully. This was a fresh agreeable surprise to Rose—as if drapers did not take dancing lessons and make use of them like other people; she was almost indiscreet in her eulogies on his performance. But there was not room for all, or half, or a quarter, to dance at once; and the crowded house was hot, and the night outside soft, dry, delicious; and the Five Creeks garden was simply made to be sat out in.
So presently Rose and Peter found themselves leaning over a gate at the end of a long, sequestered path.
"That," said Rose, nodding towards open paddock, "is the boys' cricket ground. They play matches in the holidays with the stations round. That fence leads to Alice's fowl-yards—"
"Yes," said Peter. "But now, look here, Miss Rose—tell me straight and true—am I to understand that my position in life makes me unfit to associate with you?"
"What nonsense!" she protested, scarlet in the darkness. "What utter stuff!"
"I am in retail trade," confessed Peter mournfully, "and lots of people think that awful. Why, even the bookmakers and Jew usurers look down on us! Not that I care a straw—"
"I should think not!"
"Except when it comes to your family—"
"What does it matter about my family—when I—"
"Ah, do you? Do you forgive me for being a shopkeeper?"
"As if I ever thought of it!" mocked Rose, which was disingenuous of her. "I don't mind what anybody is if he's nice himself."
"Do you think I'm nice?"
"I am not going to pander to such egregious vanity."
"Do you think I am a gentleman? Do I pass for one—say, in a house like this?"
"I am not going to answer any more of those horrid, indelicate, unnecessary questions."
"Ah, I see—you don't."
"I DO," she flamed out, indignant with him. "You KNOW I do! Would I—if I didn't—"
Her mouth was stopped. In the twinkling of an eye it happened, before either of them knew it. He was carried away, and she was overwhelmed. An earthquake could not have given them a greater shock.
"Forgive me," he muttered tremulously, when it was too late. "I know I oughtn't to have—but I couldn't help it! You are not angry? It was dashed impudence—but—oh, I say! we shall never get such a chance as this again—could you, do you think, put up with me? Could you—I have loved you ever since that dear morning that you came about Bruce—could you try to care for me a little bit? I'd give up the business, if you wished, and go into something else—" "If you mention that blessed business again," laughed Rose hysterically, "I won't speak to you any more."
"I won't—I won't!" he promised, a joyful ring in his young voice. "As long as you don't mind—and of course I wouldn't like to disappoint the old pater—and, thank God, there's plenty of money to make you comfortable wherever you like to live—Yes, yes, I know it's awful cheek—I've no business to count chickens like this; but here we are, face to face at last, no one to keep me from speaking to you—and oh, darling, it must be time for the next dance, and I'm engaged for it—"
"Then go—go," she urged. "The one after this is ours, and I will wait here for you till you come back. It is only Jim, and he doesn't matter. I must be alone to think—to make up my mind—"
"You ANGEL!" for he knew what that meant.
Off he went, wing-footed, to get through his duty dance as best he could. Rose stayed behind, dodging amongst the bushes to hide her white dress, deaf to Jim's strident calls. And then, presently, the lovers flitted out of the gate, across the boys' cricket ground, and down the bank of one of the five creeks, where Rose knew of a nice seat beyond the area of possible disturbance. As they sat down on it together, they leaned inwards, her head drooping to his shoulder, and his arm sliding round her waist in the most natural way in the world. Then silence, packed full. Beyond, in the moonlit waste, curlews wailing sweetly; behind, a piano barely audible from the humming house....
"What's the matter?" asked Alice Urquhart, when her bedfellow broke out crying suddenly, for no reason that appeared.
"Oh, I don't know," cackled Rose. "I am upset with all this—this—"
"What has upset you? Aha! I saw you and that good-looking young Mr Breen making off into the garden. You've been having a proposal, I suppose?"
"Yes," sobbed Rose, between two foolish laughs, and forthwith poured out the whole story to her bosom friend. She and Peter had decided not to disclose it to a soul until further consideration; but she was so full that a touch caused her to run over.
Miss Urquhart's feelings, when she realised the fact that one of the Pennycuicks was committed to marry a draper, expressed themselves at first in a rather chilling silence. But subsequently, having reviewed the situation from its several sides, and weighed the pros and cons, she decided to assist her friend to make the best of it, as against all potential enemies.
"Of course, they will be as mad as so many March hares," said Alice, referring to the other Pennycuicks. "But after all, when you come to think of it, what is there in a draper's shop any more than in a soft-goods warehouse?—and that's quite aristocratic, if it's big enough. Trade is trade, and why we should make chalk of one and cheese of another passes me. Oh, you've only got to be rich nowadays to be received anywhere. These Breens seem well off, and anyway, there are the Simpsons—they are all right. Solid comfort, my dear, is not to be despised, especially when a girl can't pick and choose, and may possibly never get another chance. He is awfully presentable, too, and most gentlemanly, I am sure. Oh, on the whole—if you ask me—I'd say, stick to him."
Alice's voice was sad, and she sighed inwardly.
"I'm going to stick to him," said Rose.
"Well, you may count on me. I'll get them all asked here for a picnic, and we'll go over to Bundaboo to invite them—tomorrow. Mrs Simpson said he was only with her for a few days."
"And if I were in your place, Rose, I'd marry him just as soon as he wanted me to. I'd walk out and get it done quietly, and tell them afterwards. It would save a lot of unpleasantness, and it wouldn't force the hostile clans to try and make one family when they never could."
"I don't see why they couldn't. Mrs Simpson is his mother's sister—"
"Oh, well, we shall see. I don't know about Deb and Mary, but France can be all sorts of a cat when the fit takes her; and as she is certain to oppose it to the bitter end, she will never have done irritating his people and setting everybody at loggerheads. However, never mind that now." She enveloped Rose in a comforting embrace. "We'll just enjoy ourselves while we can. And until we MUST start the fuss with the girls at home, we'll keep things dark, shall we? Just you and I and he. You can tell him, when you see him tomorrow, that I am his friend."
"I will—I will! And he will adore you for your goodness."
Alice, with still no lover of her own, was pleased with this prospect. And so Rose had a heavenly time for a week or two—Peter extending his visit to match hers—and went home, within a day of him, in good heart for the inevitable struggle.