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Sisters

CHAPTER XXV.

The shooting men were up first, to their early breakfast. It seemed to Deb a matter of course that Claud would be of this virile company; it was his saving grace as a man, when he was young, that he was a keen and accomplished sportsman. After an indifferent night, she rose lazily and late; found, as she expected, only a few more women in the breakfast-room, and ate her own meal alone at one of the little tables. The hostess drifted in amongst the last, and stopped a moment to shake hands and exchange a word.

"It seems a beautiful day," she said, "and we shall be making up a party by-and-by to go out and lunch with the guns. You will join us, of course?"

But Deb thought of Claud amongst the guns, and of the horrible risk of appearing to run after him; and she replied sweetly that, although she would have loved the outing, she was afraid she must stay at home, owing to important letters that had to be written for the afternoon post.

"All right," said the hostess, "I'll stay too—there are plenty without me—and we'll have a drive later on."

She passed to her breakfast-table, and Deb rose and went upstairs, to see what she could find to attend to in the way of pressing correspondence.

She had the status of a married lady in this great house, as everywhere; that is to say, a sitting-room of her own—a very cosy place between tea and the dressing-bell. Just now, however, Rosalie was busy in it. The maid offered to retire to the adjoining bed-chamber, but Deb said, "Oh, never mind; go on," and gathering her blotting-book and papers, went downstairs again to make herself comfortable in the library. She loved a good library to sit in, and generally found privacy therein at this time of day.

The library here was magnificent in stately comfort—books in thousands, busts, old masters, muffling Turkey carpets, a great, bright, still fire, and armchairs so big and soft that it was strange they could stand empty. She drew up one of them and sat awhile, toasting her feet and turning precious leaves—it was the interval covered by Claud's breakfast—and then set herself to the business she was supposed to be engaged in.

"Dear Francie,—I tried at half-a-dozen shops to match your Chinese satin, but nowhere could I get the exact shade. If you like I will try again when I go back to town, but if I were you I would not attempt to make it go with any modern stuff, which could not help looking crude beside it; I would have quite another material and colour. What do you stay to—"

She paused reflectively, the tip of her pen-handle between her teeth, her eyes fixed absently upon the green park beyond the open window, composing a gorgeous costume in her mind. Before she could even decide whether to advise a ball-dress with CREPE DE CHINE, or a tea-gown with Oriental cashmere, one of the noiseless library doors swung back, and a man came in. Without noticing her still figure, he strolled over to a certain shelf, opened a book that he wanted, and stood, with his back to her, turning over the leaves.

So he had not gone with the men. How horrid! And what a nuisance that he should find her here! Well, she was not going to put herself out for him. She lowered her pen softly, and began to scratch the paper, over which she bent absorbedly. He turned round. "Oh, I beg your pardon—"

"Oh, it's you, Claud! Good morning! Why, I thought you would be out with the guns this fine day."

"Fine day, do you call it? There's a wind like a knife. And you sit here with the window wide open—"

He marched towards it, and shut it with violence. It was a great glass door between stone mullions. Above it and two fellow-sheets of glittering transparency, three coats of many quarterings enriched the colour-scheme of the stately room. She watched him with the beginning of a smile upon her lips. The humour of the situation appealed to her.

"I like an open window," she remarked mildly. "If you remember, I always did."

He came towards her, looking at her gloomily, looking himself thin and grey and shivery—but always like a prince.

"You have more flesh to keep you warm than I have," said he, quite roughly.

"Thank you!" She bridled and flushed. Her massive figure, for a woman of her years, was perfect; but of course she was as sensitive as the well-proportioned female always is to the suspicion that she was too fat. "You have not lost the art of paying graceful compliments."

"I meant it for one," said he, replying to her scoffing tone. "You put me to shame, Deb, with your vigour and youthfulness. I know how old you are, and you don't look it by ten years. And you are a beauty still, let me tell you. It may not be a graceful compliment, but at least it is sincere. Even these girls here—"

"Nonsense about beauty—at my time of life," she broke in; but she smiled behind her frown, and forgave him his remark about her flesh. "You and I are too old to talk that sort of stuff now."

"Do you think I am so very old?" he asked her, standing before her writing-table, as if inviting a serious judgment.

She glanced quickly over him. His moustache was white, his ivory-tinted face scratched with fine lines about the eyes; he stooped at the shoulders, and his chest had hollowed in. Yet she could have returned his compliment and called him a beauty still. He was so to her. Every line and movement of his body had a distinction all his own, and "What a shame it is," she thought, "for that profile to crumble away before it has been carved in marble."

"We are in the same boat," she answered him. "There are not five years between us."

"Five years put us out of the same boat," he rejoined, "especially when they are virtually fifteen. Deb, I know you think me an old man—don't you?"

"What I think is that you are a sick man," she said kindly. "Are you, Claud? You used to be so strong, for all your slenderness. What is the matter with you?"

"Everything—nothing—only that I feel old—and that I haven't been used to feeling old—and that it's so—so loathsome—"

"I'm sure it is," she laughed, rallying him. "I can understand your being sick, if you have come to that. But why do you let yourself? Why do you think about it? Why do you own to it—in that abject way? I never do. I'm determined not to be an old woman—until I am obliged. And I don't paint, either," she added, "and my hair is my own."

He seemed to study her cheek and her hair. She coloured up, dipped her pen, and looked at her unfinished letter. He wandered off a step or two, and returned.

"Do you know this thing of Hamerton's?" he inquired, in a casual way, extending the volume he held.

She took it, laying down her pen. A considerable literary discussion ensued, during which he fetched more books from the shelves to show her. It began to appear that he meant to spend the whole morning with her, possibly taking it for granted that it was her desire to have him. That idea, if he entertained it, must be corrected at once. She resumed her pen with a business-like air.

"Deb," said he then, "do you mind if I read here for a little while? I won't disturb you. It's so nice and quiet—away from those chattering women—"

"Oh, certainly!" she politely acquiesced. "But don't you think they'll want you, with all the other men away? Now's your opportunity to be made much of."

"I don't care to be made much of just because I am the only man."

"Oh, but you would always be more than that, of course."

"I'm not more than an old fogey when the young fellows are around. They will take no notice of me at tea-time. Well, I'm getting used to it. I'm getting to know my place." "If that was your place, you would soon vacate it."

"How can I vacate it?"

"When people begin to take me for an old fogey, they'll not have the honour of my company in their houses."

"That's very well for you—wait till the time comes. And I suppose you like it, anyhow. You seem to enjoy all this"—waving a hand around—"as if you were a girl who had never seen anything. I'm sick and tired of the whole show."

"Then don't have any more to do with it. Go home."

"Home! What home have I?"

"A lovely flat in town, they tell me, where you give the best dinners, and ladies' theatre parties and things—" "Pshaw! I am hardly ever there. I hate the racket of London in the season—I'm not up to it nowadays—and you wouldn't have me stranded in Piccadilly at this time of year, I presume? I'm obliged to spend the winter down south—and by the same token I must soon be getting off, or these east winds and damp mists will play the deuce with my bronchitis—"

"Oh, it's bronchitis, is it? I knew it was something. I suppose you've been coddling yourself with hot rooms and all sorts of flannel things; that's the way people make themselves tender, and get chills and chest complaints, and get old before their time."

"The doctors insist on flannel—the natural wool—all of them."

"The greatest mistake in the world. I used to wear it because I thought the doctors ought to know, and I was always getting colds. Now I never let a bit of wool touch my skin—haven't for years and years—and never know what it means to have a cold."

"That is contrary to all the traditions," he remarked seriously, addressing her handsome back; for she was still supposed to be writing her letter. "I can't believe that it is due to not wearing flannel, Debbie. It's your splendid vitality—your being so different from other people—"

"Nothing of the sort! You try it. Not just now, of course, with winter beginning, but when warm weather comes again—"

And so on. The hostess broke in upon their TETE-A-TETE while they were still engrossed in this interesting topic. She was drawn into it, and made a disciple of by Deb, who attributed all her own blooming health and practical youthfulness to linen underclothing, combined with plenty of fresh air. And after all, since letter-writing was hopeless, she did go out to lunch with the guns. Claud remained alone and disconsolate by the library fire. She was due to leave the house next day, and left, although conscious of a strange hankering to stay; and during the interval gave Mr Dalzell no further opportunity to talk about his bronchitis—and other things. He was not aware that she was to go so soon until she was gone; and then he found himself with livelier feelings than had stirred his languid being for many a day. He was not only annoyed and disappointed at being deprived of the refreshment of her stimulating society; he was incensed with her mode of departure, which seemed to imply an intention to evade him.

"Does she still think that I am after her money?" he asked himself, with scorn of her mean suspiciousness. "Just because I was magnanimous enough to ignore the past!"

He went down south, to play a little at Monte Carlo and cruise a little in the Mediterranean—to kill time through the detestable winter, which made itself felt wherever he was; and she went to London to see about Francie's gown, and up north to bracing Scotland, and down to Wellwood for Christmas, and back to the racket of London in the spring; and neither of them had spent a lonelier time in all their lives. Quite a fresh and peculiar sense of homelessness and uncomforted old age took possession of them both.

All through the kaleidoscopic transformation-scenes of the "season", through which she moved magnificently, old-maidhood notwithstanding, she was unconsciously seeking him. It was her impression, from all she had heard of his tastes and ways, that he could not keep away from that common rendezvous of his class and kind. She did not find him, but all the same he was there. He returned from his winter haunts sooner than his wont, while still the April winds were full of menace for him, exposed himself to those winds seeking her, caught a chill, neglected it—a most unusual thing—and fell into an illness that confined him to his bed for many weeks.

It was not until June that Deb heard of it. He was truly so much of an old fogey now in the society of which he had once been such a distinguished ornament that his disappearance was long unnoticed. And when at last someone noticed it, in Deb's hearing, the light and callous way in which his trouble was referred to went to her heart—knowing all she knew. One of her generous impulses came to her on the spot, and an hour later she was at the door of his chambers, inquiring after him.

His man—a very jewel of a man—received her at the door, gravely, cautiously, keeping it half shut. He reported his master mending, but still weak, and not able to see anyone. Females of all kinds were sternly discouraged by this prudent person, from force of old habit.

"Oh, of course not," said Deb off-handedly. "Just give him my card, please, and say I'm very glad to hear he is not as ill as I feared."

On pain of dismissal from the best service he had ever known—and he had known it now for a long time—Manton had to find the lady's address. As soon as it was supplied to him, Claud sent for her to come and see him.

"Are we not old enough now to dispense with chaperons?" he wrote; and the sight of his hand-writing after all these long years moved her strangely. "If you think not, bring the deafest old post of your acquaintance. Only DO come. I haven't had anybody to speak to for a week."

"Of course we are old enough," commented Deb, as she read the words. "The idea of fussing about chaperons and that nonsense at our time of life!" And she proceeded to array herself in her most youthful summer dress, which was also the choicest of her stock, taking the utmost pains to match toque and gloves, while full of indignation against his friends for so shamefully neglecting him.

Boldly she ascended to his sitting-room in the wake of tight-lipped Manton, who presently brought tea, and at intervals tended the fire, apparently without once casting an eye upon her. Claud was up and dressed in her honour, while fit only for his bed. In the midst of the refined luxury that he had gathered about him, he looked but the ghost of a man, worn with his illness and the fatigue of preparing for her. It was one of those English summers that never answered to its name, and he sat in a sable-lined overcoat—considered more respectful than a dressing-gown—in a heat that almost choked her.

But with swelling heart she hurried to his side, and, after greetings, drew a chair close up to his, took the hand he silently extended, and held it in a long, warm, maternal clasp. Manton retired and shut the door. The invalid lay back on his cushions, and closed his eyes. The visitor, watching him, detected an oozing tear—the first she had ever seen there.

"How did it happen?" she crooned, and followed the question with many more of the same sort; to which he replied as to a mother or a nurse.

"It's this beastly climate," he complained. "It upsets me every time—though this is the worst bout I've had yet. I really can't stand it, Debbie. Even in June, when you'd think you were safe—just look at it!"

It was raining slightly as he spoke.

"Well, why do you try to stand it?" said she. "Why not come back to your own country? You'd be safe there, if anywhere." "I've been thinking of it," said he. "It has been in my mind all winter—the thought of that good, soaking sunshine that we used to have and think nothing of. The Riviera isn't a patch on it. Aye, I'd get warm there. But what a life—now. I am not like you—I've got nothing and nobody to go back to—I should be giving up everything—the little that I have left. And God knows life is empty enough as it is—"

"Well, I'm going," she broke in. "And am I nobody?"

He sprang up in his chair. "You—YOU going?"

"Time I did," she laughed. "I haven't set eyes on my property and my two sisters since goodness knows when." He held out his shaking hands. His face was working pitifully.

"Debbie, Debbie," he wailed, like a lost child, "will you take me? Will you have me?"

She caught him in her strong arms.

"Dearest, we will go together," she murmured. And he fell, sobbing, on her breast.

It was not in the least what she had meant to say or to do; but the appeal was irresistible. It was too terrible to see him—HIM, her young prince of such towering pride and beauty—brought down to this.

But she soon had him out of his slough of despond, and climbing the hills of hope again with something of his old gallant air. The rapidity of his convalescence was astonishing. By the end of July he was well enough to be married.





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