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Sisters

CHAPTER XVIII.

Rose had never been reckoned a person of importance by her family, but now that she was gone, there remained a terrible emptiness where she had been. She was one of those unselfish, good-natured members of households to whom falls the stocking-mending, the errand-going, the fetching and carrying, the filling of gaps generally; and at every turn Deb and Frances missed her unobtrusive ministrations, which they had accepted as as much matters of course as the attentions of the butcher and baker. It was presently perceived that Keziah missed her too—that Keziah, who had loyally opposed the plebeian marriage, was become a turncoat and renegade, blessing where she should have cursed, blaming where she should have praised—yes, blaming even Queen Deborah, who, needless to say, took her head off for it.

It had been Keziah's own choice to follow the sisters into exile, and to share the privations involved in their change of life. She had given up her Redford luxuries and importance to become a general servant, with only her kitchen to sit in, for their sakes; and she had cheerfully abided by her choice—until Rose went. Rose was the one who had understood the cost of the sacrifice, and who had lightened it by sympathetic companionship. They had cleaned rooms, and made cakes and puddings, and set hens, and stirred jam, and ironed frocks and laces together; they had spent hours in pleasant gossip over the many homely subjects that interested both; their relation had been more that of mother and daughter than of servant and mistress. Regarding her as virtually her child, Keziah had been quick to spring to the side of authority in the matter of the irregular love-affair; the natural parental impulse was to nip it in the bud. But "Providence" had decided the issue in this case. And a flirtatious girl was one thing, and a respectable married woman another. And Keziah was lonely, and felt neglected and "put upon" when nobody came to talk to her in her kitchen, or to help her with her cooking and ironing—and particularly after she had told Deb that it was a shame to bear malice to Miss Rose now, and Deb had commanded her to mind her own business.

She was suspected of treacherous visits to the house next door; she was known to have spent Sunday afternoons with Mrs Peter herself. The iniquity of these proceedings was in the secrecy she observed, or tried to observe, regarding them. It was she who knew, before anybody else, when a baby Breen was coming—and if a married woman was a personage to Keziah, an incipient mother was a being of the highest rank. She had forgiven Mary everything for the sake of her black-eyed boy; now she took the news that Rose was what she called "interesting" to Deb, and demanded that action should be taken upon it, with an air that was almost truculent. Deb, of course, did not believe in being spoken to, even by Keziah, in that way.

"Has the muffin boy been?" she inquired, with a steady look.

"It's too soon yet—and I can tell you, Miss Deb, that if it was you in her place, SHE wouldn't keep it up like this—and at such a time too."

"When the muffin boy comes, Keziah, please pay him the sixpence we owe him from last week. You will find the money on my writing-table."

"Well, I don't care—I call it a shame not to go to her—"

"Perhaps you would like to go to her yourself?" Deb swiftly changed her tone.

"I'd like nothing better," the old woman retorted, with spirit, "if you are agreeable."

"I am perfectly agreeable."

"Well, it was only the other day she said she'd give anything to have me, if it wasn't for taking me away from you."

"Oh, pray don't consider that. I can easily get somebody else," said Deb affably, though her surprise at the idea of Keziah wanting to leave her was only equalled by her dismay.

Keziah, also surprised to find herself of so much less consequence than she had supposed, said that, if that was the case, she'd go and see Miss Rose about it.

"You can go now," said Deb.

"Thank you, Miss Deb, I will," said Keziah, "as soon as I have cleared up. Would a month's notice suit you? I don't wish to put you about at all."

"A month will be ample," said Deb. "A week, if you like."

"I'll see what Miss Rose says," said Keziah.

Rose, after the interview, wrote affectionately to Deb, to say she would not dream of taking Keziah if Deb wanted her; Deb wrote affectionately to Rose, to say that she would be rather glad than otherwise to make the change, as the work was too much for such an old woman. So Keziah went over to the Breen camp, where she had comfort and companionship, and her own way in everything; and Deb began to experiment with the common or garden 'general' as purveyed by Melbourne registry offices.

She loathed these creatures, one and all. They were of a race unknown at Redford, and she was singularly unlucky in the specimens that fell to her; although some of them could have been made something of by a mistress who knew how to do it. It is only fair to state that they loathed her—for a finicking, unreasonable, stuck-up poor woman, who gave herself the airs of a wealthy lady. They came at the rate of two a month, and each one as she passed seemed to leave the little house meaner, dingier, more damaged than before. It was not living, it was "pigging", Frances said—and Deb agreed with her—although when Keziah ventured to call one day to inquire into the state of things, Deb calmly asserted that all was well.

In despair she tried a lady-help, in the person of Miss Keene, dying to return to her dear family (from relations who did not want her) on any terms.

"Whatever we ask her to do we must do ourselves," said Deb to grumbling Frances, who seemed never willing to do anything; "and of course we shall have to get a washwoman, and a charwoman to scrub; but it will be cheaper in the end. And oh, anything rather than sticky door-handles and greasy spoons, and those awful voices hailing one all over the house!"

But it was not cheaper, nor was the arrangement satisfactory in any way after the first fortnight. Miss Keene, spoiled at Redford as they had been, was as unfit for crude housework, and she aggravated her incompetence by weeping over it. She had not gathered from Deb's letters that the change in the family fortunes was as great as it now proved to be; and Deb had not anticipated the effect of adversity upon one so easily depressed. She had no 'heart', poor thing. She struggled and muddled, sighing for flowers for the vases while the beds were unmade; and when she saw a certain look on Deb's face, wept and mourned and gave up hope. So they "pigged" still, although they did not defile the furniture with unwashed hands, and the plate and crockery with greasy dish-cloths. With no knowledge of cookery, they lived too much on tinned provisions—a diet as wasteful as it was unwholesome—feeding their wash-and-scrub-women with the same; and their efforts to support the burden of their domestic responsibilities deprived them of outdoor exercise and mental rest and recreation—kept them at too close quarters with one another, each rubbing her quivering prickles upon the irritable skins of the other two. Frances bore the strain with least good-nature and self-control, and since she had to vent her ill-humour on someone, naturally made Miss Keene her victim when it was a choice between her and Deb. The poor lady grew more and more disappointed, discouraged and tearful. She became subject to indigestion, headaches, disordered nerves; finally fell ill and had to have the doctor. The doctor said she was completely run down, and that rest and change of air were indispensable. She went away to her relatives, weeping still, wrapped in Deb's cloak, and with all Deb's ready money in her pocket; and she did not come back.

Then Deb tried to carry on alone. Any sort of registry office drudge would have been welcome now, but had become an expense that she dared not continue. Moreover, the spectre of poverty, looming so distinct and unmistakable in the house, was a thing to hide, if possible, from anybody who could go outside and talk about it. The thing had become a living terror to herself—its claws Jew money-lenders, so velvety and innocent when her wilful ignorance made first acquaintance with them; but nobody—not even Mr Thornycroft, not even Jim, CERTAINLY not Rose—could be allowed to play Perseus to this proud Andromeda. Until she could free herself, they were not even to know that she was bound. Of course, she need not have been bound; it was her own fault. She should have managed better with the resources at her disposal than to bring herself to such a pass, and that so soon; either Mary or Rose would certainly have done so in her place. But Nature had not made her or Frances—whose rapacities had been one cause of the financial breakdown—for the role of domestic economists; they had been dowered with their lovely faces for other purposes.

That the fine plumage is for the sun was a fact well understood by Frances, at any rate. And she was wild at the wrongs wrought by sordid circumstances—her father's and sister's heedlessness—upon herself. She thought only of herself. Deb was getting old, and she deserved to suffer anyway; but what had Frances done to be deprived of her birth-right, of all her chances of success in life? Eighteen, and no coming out—beautiful, and nobody to see it—marriageable, and out of the track of all the eligible men, amongst whom she might have had her pick and choice. She had reason for her passionate rebelliousness against this state of things; for, while a pretty face is theoretically its own fortune anywhere, we all see for ourselves how many are passed over simply for want of an attractive setting. It was quite on the cards that she might share the fate of those beauties in humble life to whom romantic accidents do not occur, for all her golden hair and aristocratic profile, her figure of a sylph and complexion of a wild rose.

The fear of this future combined with the acute discomfort of the present to make her desperate. She cast about for a way of escape, a pathway to the sun. One only offered—the landlord.

He was an elderly landlord, who had lately buried a frumpy old wife, and he was as deeply tainted with trade as Peter Breen; but he had retired long since from personal connection with breweries and public-houses—and a brewer, in the social scale, was only just below a wholesale importer, if that—and he was manifestly rolling in money, after the manner of his kind. Half the streets around belonged to him, and his house towered up in the midst of his other houses, a great white block, with a pillared portico—a young palace by comparison. Above all, he had no known children.

From the first he had taken an interest in his pretty girl-tenants. He had liked to call in person to inquire if the cellar kept dry and the chimney had ceased smoking; and he had been most generous in offering improvements and repairs before they were even asked for. Deb had blighted these unbusiness-like overtures on her own account, and Frances herself had said the rudest things about them and him—but not lately. In the utter dullness and barrenness of her life, she had been glad to accept the civilities of anything in the shape of a man—to try her 'prentice hand on any material. All the armoury of the born beauty was hers, and she knew as well how to use each weapon effectively as a blind kitten knows how to suck milk. They were easily successful with the old fool, who is ever more of a fool than the young fool; and when she found that, she found something to entertain her. She not only received Mr Ewing when he called, but talked to him at the gate when he went past—and he went past several times a day. Now, when the situation at home had grown desperate, and she was looking all ways for means to save herself, his amusing infatuation became a matter for serious thought. COULD she? She was a hard case, but even she wavered. He was probably sixty, and she was eighteen. Oh, she couldn't! But when, after Miss Keene's departure, Deb told her they could no longer afford hired help, and that she (Frances) must give up her lazy ways and take her share of that intolerable housework, then Frances changed her mind. Beggars could not be choosers.

Deb felt like the camel under the last straw when the announcement of the proposed marriage was made to her. It was worse than Mary's—worse than Rose's—worse than any other misfortune that had befallen the family. She sat down and wept at the thought of what the Pennycuicks had come to. She rated Frances furiously; she reasoned with her; she pleaded with her; she tried to bribe her; but Frances was getting boxes of diamonds, and sets of furs and lace, and what not, and it was useless for Deb to attempt to outbid the giver of these things, or to part her sister from them. She loved the old man, Frances said—he certainly was a decently-mannered, good-natured, rather fine-looking, and most generous old man—and he was going to take her everywhere and give her a good time—and she would never have to go shabby again as long as she lived; and if Deb refused her a proper wedding, law or no law, she would run away with him, as Mary had run away with Bennet Goldsworthy, and Rose with Peter Breen.

Whether this dire threat prevailed, or the temptation of the money, or whether she could not any longer fight against fate, Deb gave in. After all, Frances was not to be judged as an ordinary girl—she was a hard-hearted, tough-fibred, prosaic little minx, for which reason Deb pitied the prospective husband more than she did her; and if she did not do this bad thing now, the chances were that she would do a worse thing later on. She was made to disport herself in the sunshine of the world; she was of the type of woman that must have men about her; she would get her "rights", as she called them, somehow, by fair means or foul. Deb was sufficiently a woman of the world herself to recognise this, and the uselessness of thinking she could alter it. Well, money is a consolatory thing—she knew its value now; and there was that additional comfort, which, of course, she did not own to—the thought of where Mr Ewing would be when Mrs Ewing was in her prime.

"You dear old thing!" the bride-elect patronised her elder sister. "James is so pleased to have your consent, and he says he won't ask you to give me my share of what father left us—it would be but a drop in the bucket anyway; you are to keep it all yourself."

Deb had had whole control of the fragments of his once large fortune left by Mr Pennycuick to his four daughters, on behalf of any of them unmarried or under age; but Mary and Rose—although Peter had also protested against it—had been paid the value of their shares (whence the Jew element in the present difficulties); and the unforeseen marriage of Frances at eighteen threatened total bankruptcy to the remaining sister. Yet Deb said, with fierce determination:

"Of course you will have what is your due, like the others."

"I'm sure he won't take it, Deb. He said he wouldn't."

"I don't care what he says. It concerns you and me—not him."

"I really should not miss it, dear. I am to have a thousand a year to draw against, for just nothing but my clothes and pocket-money."

"I am glad to hear it," said Deb. "You can give your own income to the poor."

"You really won't keep it?"

"Is it likely I would keep what doesn't belong to me?"

"Well, then," said Frances, her easy conscience satisfied, "we can put it into my trousseau. I MUST have a decent trousseau mustn't I?"

"Of course!"

Frances saw to it that she had a decent one. Now was the time, the only time, that she should want her money, and she did not spare it. She ordered right and left, and Deb seemed equally reckless. The bills were left for her to settle—of course made out in her name. Mr Ewing pressed for permission to pay them, and the cost of the wedding, and Miss Pennycuick could hardly forgive him the deadly insult. He also desired that she should occupy her villa rent-free, and she gave him notice on the spot.

"I shall not continue to keep house when I am alone," said she grandly. "I intend to travel for a time."

The wedding was quiet, but as "decent" as the trousseau. The other sisters were invited, and Bennet Goldsworthy—who delighted in the connection, and received a thumping fee—performed the ceremony. Deb gave the bride away, but was also treated as the bridesmaid, and had a diamond bracelet forced upon her. She sold it as soon as the donor's back was turned, together with every article of jewellery in her possession, every bit of silver plate, and all her furniture. The breakfast was very elegant, and served in a private room at one of the best hotels; the bride's handsome luggage had also been brought thither, and it was the meeting-place of the family which so seldom met. There, also, when she had parted from Frances, Deb parted from Mary, so silent and constrained, and from Rose, over-dressed, for her station, in her rich gown and Brussels lace (but nevertheless sniffed at and condescended to by her still more wealthy sister), and from the uncongenial brothers-in-law, to whom she was so discouragingly polite. Their expressed anxiety to befriend and to see more of her was gently but firmly ignored.

"I will write," she said. "I will see you again soon. I will let you know my plans. Good-bye!"

And they went. There were no friends to go, for she had insisted on inviting none—for fear of the lynx eyes and the destructive influence upon her plans of Mr Thornycroft and Jim. She gained the one end she had schemed for throughout—to get past the risks of the public marriage and back to her struggle in obscurity, unmolested, unpitied, unshamed. The Urquharts wrote, and Mr Thornycroft, when he sent his present; but she had "bluffed" them with her implied misrepresentations, and hurt their feelings by not wanting them at the wedding. Jim was easily snubbed; Mr Thornycroft—though he did not mention it—was ill at the time.

So she got rid of all possible hindrances, and then—professing to go travelling—went nobody knew where, and was virtually lost for years.

Frances drove away from the hotel in her smart carriage, with her smart luggage and smart maid, and her amorous old husband, and never thought or cared what was to become of her abandoned sister. She could only think of her own exciting affairs.

Partly they were unsatisfactory, no doubt. All her rights were not hers even now—no, not by a long way. But oh, how much better was this than the drab and shabby and barren existence for ever left behind! She was bound, indeed; yet she was free—freer than another might have been in her place, and far, far less bound. One must expect to pay some tax to Fortune for such extraordinary gifts, and Frances was not the one to pay it in heart's blood. She was philosophically prepared to pay it in her own coin, and be done with it, and then give herself to the enjoyment of the pleasures of her lot.

Her first enjoyment was in her beautiful going-away dress—grey cloth and chinchilla fur, with flushes of pink as delicate as the rose of her cheeks—and in her knowledge of the effect she made in that dream of a costume. There was no hiding her light under a bushel any more. The highway, and the middle of it, for her now—her proud husband strutting there beside her—and every passer-by turning to look at and to admire her. There was joy in the occupancy of the best suite of rooms in the best hotel at every place she stopped at during her gay and well-filled bridal holiday; joy in the dainty meals—so long unknown; in the obsequious servants, in the plentiful theatres, in the ever-ready carriage that took her to them, in the having one's hair done to perfection by an expert maid, in sweeping forth with one's silks and laces trailing, and one's diamonds on. These were the delights for which her little soul had so long yearned; she now pursued them greedily. She could not rest if she were not doing something to display herself and feed her craving for what is known as seeing the world. Her husband was almost as obsequious as the servants—doubtless because from the first she took the beauty's high hand with him, as well as the attitude of the superior, naturally assumed by youth towards age—and he enjoyed the sensation she made almost as much as she did. Visibly he swelled and preened himself when his venerable contemporaries cast the eye of surprise, not to say of envy, upon the conjunction of his complacent figure and that of the bride who might have been his grand-daughter; he toiled for that pleasure, and to make pleasure for her, as no old gentleman should toil; he gave her everything she asked for, including his own ease and consequence, his own vital health and strength.

But the honeymoon waned, and the novelty wore off, and prudence and old habits resumed their sway. He grew tired of incessant gadding about, alarmed at his symptoms of physical overstrain, weary for his arm-chair and his club, and his men friends and his masculine occupations. She, on the other hand, insatiable for admiration and excitement still, was weary of his constant company. It became the kill-joy of her festive days, growing from a necessary bore to an intolerable irritation as the dimensions of her little court of younger gallants enlarged about her. Therefore she had no objection to his halting on the toilsome path, so long as he allowed her to go on alone.

It was not a case of allowing, however. He might object, and did; but he was no match for her either in diplomacy or in fight, and her cajoleries were usually sufficient for her ends, without calling out the reserves behind them. In any contest between selfishness and unselfishness, the result is a foregone conclusion.

So she began to go about with miscellaneous escorts, to play the combined parts of frisky matron and society beauty—an intoxicating experience; while the supporter of that proud position played the humble role of chief comer-stone, unseen and unconsidered in the basement of the fabric. He attended to his investments and increasing infirmities, and made secret visits to a married daughter (wife of a big hotel-keeper), who hated her young step-mother, and whose existence Frances ignored.

One day, Guthrie Carey, after several voyages to other ports, appeared again in Melbourne. He had just landed, and was strolling along Collins Street, when he encountered a vision of loveliness that almost took away his breath.

"What! It is not Miss Frances, surely?"

"It is not," smiled she, all her beauty at its conscious best as she recognised his, which was that of a man of men, splendid in his strong prime. And she told him who she was, and a few other things, as they stood on the pavement—she so graceful in her mature self-possession, he staring at her, stupidly distraught, like a bewildered school-boy.

"I had no idea—" he mumbled.

"That I was married? Alas, yes!"—with a sad shake of the head. "We girls are fated, I think."

"Miss Deb?"

"Oh, not Deb; she has escaped so far."

"Is she well?"

"I have not seen her lately, but I am sure she is, she always is." "She is not in Melbourne?"

"No. I don't quite know where she is. She has got a wandering fit on. Come and have some lunch with me, and I'll tell you all the news."

They turned into a restaurant, and had a meal which took a long time to get through. In the middle of the afternoon they parted, on the understanding that he would dine with her later in her own house. At the end of the few days that were virtually filled with him, Mrs Ewing sat down in her fine boudoir to weep over her hard fate.

"Oh, why wasn't HE the one to have the money! Oh, why do we meet again, now that it is too late!"

At the end of a few more days she went to her old husband to ask him how he was. He said he was a bit troubled with his lumbago, but otherwise fairly well.

"What you want," said she, "is a sea-voyage."

He thought not. He had never found the sea suit him. And travelling was a great fatigue. And it was the wrong time of year for it, anyhow. They had a good home, and it was the best place.

But she knew better. She had made up her mind, and it was useless for him to rebel. The sea-voyage was decided on—not so much because it would benefit his health as because his young wife had not seen England and Europe, and was dying to do so.

Then they discussed routes.

"The thing to do," said Mrs Ewing, "is not to crowd up with that lot in the mail steamers, where you can't do as you like, or have any special attentions, but to go in a smaller vessel, where you would be of some importance, and have your liberty, and plenty of space, and no tiresome rules and restrictions—"

"My dear child, you don't know those second-rate lines. I do. I assure you you'd be very sorry for yourself if I let you travel by them. They are not YOUR style at all."

"Yes, I was talking to Captain Carey about it, and that was his advice, and HE knows. On his ship they have accommodation for about six passengers, and he suggested that, if we were quick about it, we might be able to secure the whole, so as to be exactly as if we were on a yacht of our own. They have a fair cook; but we could take any servants we liked, and make ourselves comfortable in our own way—nobody to interfere with us. He doesn't go through the hot canal. He will be back from Sydney in three weeks—just nice time to get ready in."

Of course, they went that way. And perhaps it is better to leave the rest of the story to the imagination of the reader, who, one hopes, for Guthrie Carey's sake, is a common-sense person, as well as a dispassionate student of human nature.





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