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Sisters

CHAPTER XX.

Jim Urquhart had been fighting bush fires for several days when the wind changed and carried them back over the burnt ground that extinguished them. When he rode home, dead beat, from helping a neighbour who had helped him, it was to meet the news that Mr Thornycroft was dead, and Mrs Urquhart gone to Redford to support Deborah Pennycuick.

Mr Thornycroft had been ailing with his asthma so long, and making so little fuss about it, that his friends had come to regard him as practically ailing nothing. The death that had slowly stalked him for years came upon them with the shock of the unexpected; so the newspapers said. Jim's heart smote him for that he had been so taken up with the fire epidemic as to have neglected for over a week to inquire after the old man; it smote him more when he heard that Deb had been at Redford through the ordeal, without "anyone" near her. He had known too well—had made it his business to know—that she had had a struggling life, heart-breaking to think of, for a long time, but under various pretexts she had kept "everybody" at arm's-length and further, refusing aid or pity; now there had come a chance to do something for her, and he had been out of the way. And duty still detained him, to arrange about destroyed fences and foodless stock—duty that had to be considered first, even before her. When at last he was free to put himself at her disposal, a dozen men had jumped his claim.

The manager of Redford met him when a few miles from the place. "You are behind the fair, Mr Urquhart," cried he, as they drew rein alongside; and his tone and his face were strangely cheerful, considering that his good employer of twenty years had been buried only yesterday—as usual, within a few hours of his death. "But I suppose you have heard the news. What—you haven't? Then I am the first to congratulate you," extending a cordial hand. "The will was read this morning, and you've got the biggest legacy—a cool five thousand, sir."

Five thousand! Jim, never on particularly intimate terms with the testator, had not thought of the will, and the idea that he might have an interest in it never crossed his mind. Five thousand! It is said of drowning people that they see the whole panorama of their lives in the last seconds of consciousness; in the instant's pause that followed the manager's announcement, Jim saw Five Creeks renovated and prosperous, and Deb's children running about the old rooms and paddocks, and calling him father—a home not quite unworthy of his goddess now, and one that loneliness and poverty would have taught her to appreciate. He stared at the burly manager like a man in a dream.

"I get a nice little windfall myself, which I never expected," the latter continued his tale. "The servants are well provided for, and there are odd sums for a lot of English relatives—I suppose they are—and a good bit for charities. But yours is the biggest individual legacy; and I'm glad of it, and I'm not surprised, because I've heard him many a time speak well of you for the way you worked to keep up your place and look after the family."

"But," said Jim, coming down from his clouds of glory, "I thought—I thought there'd be more than that." "Than what? You surely didn't expect—oh, I see!" The manager threw up his head and roared. "My good fellow, the estate altogether is worth a quarter of a million."

"Then who—?"

"Gets it? Miss Pennycuick. She's here now. And couldn't believe it when they told her—though, when you come to think of it, it was a natural thing for him to do, having been such friends with the old man, and she his god-daughter. A lucky young woman—my word!" Jim's swelled heart collapsed and sank like a burst balloon. His dream-house vanished in thin air, to be built no more.

"That settles it," he said to himself. According to his code of manly honour and self-respect, a man could not possibly, even with five thousand pounds in hand, ask a girl with a quarter of a million to marry him.

A little more conversation, if it can be called such, when one talked and the other did not even listen, and he parted with the garrulous manager and rode on to the house. Deb, wet-eyed, met him with a welcome that severely tried his Spartan fortitude, without in the least weakening his resolve. Although she did not know it, being still filled with grief for her lifelong friend, it was the power and command that he had endowed her with which gave that charming air of fearless and open affection to her manner.

"Oh, my dear, dear boy!" she addressed him, and all but kissed him before his mother's eyes. "I am so glad to have you here. Jim dear, Mrs Urquhart thinks you can be spared—will you stay here for a bit and help me to settle things? There is so much to do, and it is my duty to attend to everything myself. There are the lawyers and people, of course—everybody is so kind—but I want a man of my own beside me."

"Certainly, Deb," he replied, without wincing; "for as long as you want me—if I can run home every other day or so for a look round."

He stayed, in company with his mother, for a month; then, when he went to live at home again, he spent at least half his days at Redford, acting as Deb's 'own man' indoors and out—her real legal adviser, her real station manager, her confidential major-domo, the doer of all the 'dirty work' connected with the administration of her estate; and never—although she exposed him to almost every sort of temptation—never once stepped off the line that he had marked for himself.

Another person was not so scrupulous, though, to be sure, he was not so poor.

Claud Dalzell, drifting from one resort of the wealthy to another—deer-stalking in Scotland, salmon-fishing in Norway, shooting in the Rockies, hunting in the Shires, yachting everywhere, and everywhere adored of a crowd of women as idle as himself—was loafing at Monte Carlo when he heard of Mr Thornycroft's death and Deb's accession to his throne. Ennui and satiety possessed the popular young man at the moment—for he was made for better things, and his dissatisfied soul tormented him; and a vision of old-time Redford and the beautiful girl who was like wine and fire, a blend of passion and purity that now impressed him as unique, rose before his mental eyes with the effect of water-springs in a dry land. His thoughts went back to the days when they rode and made love together—the sunny days, before the clouds gathered. It was that past which glorified her all at once, not the present—not Mr Thornycroft's money—not the halo of elegance and consequence that again adorned her; he never suspected otherwise for a moment. And that was why he did not hesitate to book a passage to Australia that very day.

Deb was at Redford when he arrived. That she would never part with the place again, she had declared on the day that it came into her possession, and she was now establishing herself there, she said, for life. She had gone through the whole great rambling house, sorting and rearranging the furniture that was in it, adding the cream of the contents of the best shops in town. She made a clean sweep of the now 'awful' fittings of the big drawing-room, replacing them with parquet rugs and divans, and things of the softest, finest and most costly kind; she arranged the morning-room for herself afresh; also the glazed corridor, which became a beautiful art gallery and lounging-place; also the remainder of the long unused rooms. She called to her all the favourite old servants—except Keziah Moon, who was happy where she was—and old Miss Keene to play chaperon once more, with nothing to do but arrange flowers and doze at peace in the lap of luxury. Deb wanted Jim for her manager, at a ridiculous salary, but he would not take the post; he did, however, procure her an excellent substitute. She commissioned him to buy her riding-horses—he "knew what she liked"—regardless of expense; an English groom was given charge of them when they arrived. So easily did the magnificent woman slide back into her magnificent ways, for all her good taste and unpretentiousness.

When Claud Dalzell was driven in his hired buggy from the township to her door, his critical eye took in the many changes that the old homestead had undergone with high approval. Used as he was to far finer houses and the best of everything, he felt that here was as fair a camping-place as even he could desire. Redford, with a quarter of a million behind it, with this setting of sunshine and spaciousness (missed so much more than he had known till now), inclined—what a haven of rest and pleasure, after the crowded and fatiguing experiences of his later years!

He was shown upstairs to the big drawing-room. He hardly knew where he was, with the grass-green carpet and festooned window-draperies and gilding and plate-glass vanished, and these soft-coloured stuffs and subtle harmonies around him. He could recognise nothing but a few pictures and the old piano, the latter spread with a gem of Chinese embroidery, on which stood a gem of a Satsuma bowl filled with fine chrysanthemums. It was late in autumn now.

And while he wandered about, examining this and that with the pleasure of a satisfied connoisseur, Deb stood in the sitting-room downstairs, with clenched hands and teeth, staring at his card on a table before her.

"He has the cheek," she thought, afire with indignation—never so hot and bitter as when directed against one we love who has offended us—"he has the unspeakable effrontery to come and see me NOW, when he never came near me all those hard years—never cared how I muddled and struggled, nor whether I was alive or dead!"

But she must see him, of course. And she must maintain her proper dignity. No descending to vulgar reproaches—still less to weak condonation. She took a moment to calm herself, and walked forth to the interview. Many things upheld her, but the dead hand of Mr Thornycroft was her stoutest support.

She needed it when she reached the top of the stairs. Facing the drawing-room door, awaiting her, stood the figure that really seemed the one thing wanting to complete the beauty of the beautiful house. He had never in his younger days been so distinguished-looking as he was now. In any company, in any part of the world, he must have attracted notice, as a gentleman, in person and manners, of the very finest type. And how she did love that sort! How her lonely and hungry heart longed for him when she saw him—the only man she had ever deemed her natural mate—and at the same time how she hated him for the disappointment and the humiliation that he had brought her! Outraged self-respect, her robust will-power, and her quarter of a million sufficed to save her from a temptation she would not have fallen into for the world.

She swept forward to shake hands with him, with the grave affability of a great lady to a guest—any guest—and it was plain from the expression of his sensitive face that he was as keenly appreciative of her enhanced beauty and 'finish' as she of his. Black was not her colour—she was too dark—and she had discarded it for pale greys and whites, with touches of black about them; today a creamy woollen, thick and soft, and hanging about her like the drapery of a Greek statue, was an inspiration in becoming gowns. The maid who had dressed her hair was a mistress of the art. And Miss Pennycuick's step and poise—well, she WAS a great lady, and carried herself accordingly.

Her old lover was charmed. He held her hand—and would have held it thrice as long—and looked into her eyes, too overcome, it appeared, to speak.

"How do you do?" she said, evading his intense gaze. "What a man you are for dropping on one in this unexpected, sensational way! Why didn't you write and tell me you were around?"

She made a movement to withdraw her hand. He held it fast.

"Debbie," said he, in quite a tremulous voice—remarkable in one constitutionally so self-confident and self-possessed—"Debbie, you turned me out of your house when I came to see you last. I hope you have a different welcome for me this time?"

"To the best of my belief," she laughed, "you insisted upon going. I am sure you were asked to stay—to lunch, or whatever it was. By the way, have you lunched now?" She showed concern for her obligations as his hostess.

"Yes, thank you—at least, it doesn't matter."

He had to relinquish her hand, and when she immediately made towards the bell-button, he followed and arrested her.

"Let us have our talk first," he pleaded. "I don't want anything to eat until I know—until I feel that you don't grudge it."

"Oh, I don't grudge it," she took him literally. "Not one square meal, at any rate. The only thing I am obliged to grudge is house-room—for any length of time—to single gentlemen. But that is not a question of hospitality, as you know. Sit down, and tell me all the news."

He sat down; she also—about two yards off. Across the gulf of Persian rug he looked at her steadily.

"You are angry with me," he observed. "Why, Debbie? Is it still the old quarrel—after all these years?"

Then her face changed like a filled lamp when you put a match to it. She said, in a deep, breathless way:

"Do you know how many years it is?"

More in sorrow and surprise than in anger, he guessed her meaning after a moment's thought.

"Is that my fault? The number of years has been of your choosing," he pointed out forbearingly. "You sent me away, when I never wanted to go. You broke it off, altogether against my wish. You never relented—never made a sign. Even now I come back uninvited."

It was a clear case, and all he asked for was bare justice.

"Why didn't you come before—uninvited? Why didn't you come back to me when I was poor and lonely? Claud, I have been in every sort of trouble—my father is dead, I have lost all my sisters in one way and another, I have been living in cheap lodgings, doing without what I always thought were the necessaries of life, to keep Francie going and to get debts paid off—I have been ill, I have been unhappy, I have sometimes been penniless, and you have carefully passed by on the other side, like that man in the Bible, and left me to my fate."

He was genuinely shocked. He knew that she had been horribly down in the world, but not that she had suffered to this extent. Seeing her sitting there in her beautiful gown, in her beautiful room, without one trace of those sordid years about her, his heart ached to think of them.

"My darling, I never knew—" "Why not?" she said swiftly. "Because you never tried to know—never cared to know. But now that I can be a credit to you again—the moment you hear that I have had a great fortune left to me—now you come back."

"Do you mean to say," he demanded sternly, "that you think—you honestly think I have come back to you on account of your money?"

She returned his cold, searching gaze in kind.

"Honestly," she said, "I do think so. There is no way out of it."

He rose deliberately, bowed to her, and picked up his hat. He was not really mercenary—or, if he was, he did not know it—and he was as intensely proud as she was. He felt that he had received the deadliest insult ever dealt him in his life, and one that he could never forget or forgive.

Without another word, he turned to the door and walked out. She stood still and watched him go, a calm smile curving her lips, a very cyclone of passion tearing through her heart; and she scorned to recall him.





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