The first letter signed "Deborah Dalzell" was addressed, strange to say, to Guthrie Carey—not to the commander of the SS APHRODITE, via his shipping office, but to Guthrie Carey, Esq., Wellwood Hall, Norfolk.
For a great change had taken place in the circumstances of her old friend.
One day, a few years earlier, he had been called from the sea—somewhere off the coast of South America—to take his place as a land-owner and land-dweller amongst the great squires of England; quite the very last thing he could have anticipated in his wildest dreams. Three sons of the reigning Carey had been capsized in a gale while out yachting. The reigning Carey, on hearing of the catastrophe, had been seized with a fit that proved fatal in a few hours. His eldest son's wife, as an effect of the same shock, had given birth to a still-born male infant—the sole grandson. One brother had died childless; another leaving daughters only; the third, Guthrie's father, was also dead. Thus the unexpected happened, as it has a way of doing in this world, and the t'penny-ha'penny mate of old Redford days had become the head of a county family.
His experiences had trained him for the change. He took it soberly, without losing his head. A bristling array of blood-enemies were gradually transformed into a circle of respectful friends; some of them assisted him to settle himself in his unfamiliar seat, to teach him the duties of his high station. He was teachable, but independent, not shutting his eyes and opening his mouth to swallow all the old-world creeds they chose to put into it, but studying every branch of the science of landlordism in the light of his own intelligence and beliefs. When he had fairly mastered the situation, he married one of his cousins.
He was in his robust middle-age, which comes so much later to men than to women, she was well on in her thirties—a comely, sensible, well-bred young lady, and a most excellent coadjutor to a squire new to the business. An eminently wise selection, said his brother squires, when the engagement was announced. The wedding was a great family function and county event. It meant that the Careys, instead of being split up and scattered to the winds, remained together, united in amity; it meant that the dignity of the old house was to be kept up. When, a year later, Wellwood rang bells and lit bonfires in honour of a son and heir, nothing seemed wanting to confirm the general impression that our Guthrie was not only a wise but a singularly fortunate man.
It was an impression that Guthrie shared. From the point of view that he had now reached in life, he believed himself favoured beyond the common lot. He loved Wellwood, full of the memorials of his ancient race; he enjoyed his settled and comfortable place therein, after the homeless roving of so many years—the feel of solid land under his feet and under his life, for which every sailor pines, despite whatever spell the sea may lay on him. He was proud of his perfect-mannered wife, who was also his good friend and confidante; he was egregiously proud of his handsome boy. And the day of the young romance—of the great passion—of those sordid "little fires" which beckon to men whose nature craves for warmth and whose "yule is cold"—that day was past. "Love is one thing and marriage another," he had once said, without really meaning it; but he had spoken truer than he knew. Moreover, the shocking statement was not nearly so awful as it seemed. The very conditions of married life are fatal to love, as love is understood by the yet unmarried lovers—insanely sanguine, of human necessity—asking the impossible, and no blame to them, because they are made so; but no matter. That thing which comes afterwards, to the right-minded and well-intentioned, and which they don't think worth calling love—that sober, faithful, forbearing friendship, that mutual need which endures all the time, and is ever more deeply satisfied and satisfying instead of less—is no bad substitute.
Yet how the world of imagination dominates the world of fact! How much fairer the unseen than the seen! How much more precious the good we have not than the good we have! In his private desk in his private study, Guthrie kept—just as old Mr Pennycuick had kept his valentine—a faded, spotted, ochre-tinted photograph of poor little Lily in the saucer bonnet with lace "brides" to it that she was married in; and when Wellwood was humming with shooting parties and the like, and its lady doing the honours of the house with all the forethought and devotion that she could bring to the task, the stout squire would be sitting in his sanctum under lock and key, gazing at that sweet girl-face which had the luck to be dead and gone. Lily in the retrospect was the faultless woman—the ideal wife and love's young dream in one. "I have had my day," was the thought of his heart, as he looked across the gulf of strenuous, chequered, disappointing years to that idyll of the far past which her pictured form brought back to him. "Whatever is lacking now, I HAVE known the fullness of love and bliss—that there is such a thing as a perfect union between man and woman, rare as it may be." It will be remembered that he was married to her, actually, for a period not exceeding five weeks in all.
And Deborah Pennycuick, who would have made such a magnificent lady of Wellwood—who was, in fact, asked to take the post before it was offered to the cousin—she came to spend Christmas under his roof while still a spinster, on the tacit understanding that neither was a subject for "nonsense" any more. Deb and Mrs Carey were close friends. Deb was the godmother of the heir. The homelikeness of Wellwood was intensified by her intercourse, while there, with English Redford and the descendants of that brother with whom old Mr Pennycuick had been unable to hit it off—humdrum persons, whose attraction for her lay in their name and blood, and the fact that they could show her the arms and portraits of her ancestors and the wainscotted room in which her father was born. It was to Wellwood that she went to be married. From the old home of the Careys she was driven to the old church of the Pennycuicks, full of mouldering monuments to a nearly vanished race; it was buried in its rural solitude, far from railways and gossip-mongers and newspaper reporters, and the wedding was as quiet as quiet could be. Guthrie was acting brother, and gave her away. He never, of course, disclosed the secret that was his and Francie's, honest brother as he longed to be; but perhaps, even had she known it, and her own austere chastity notwithstanding, she might have been broad-minded enough to judge him kindlier than is the wont of the sex which does not know all, and have still held him worthy to be to her the friend he was. As she knew him, she loved him sister-like, and turned to him naturally when she needed a brother's services. And so it was to him that she wrote first, at the end of the short wedding-day journey—just to tell him that she and her bridegroom had arrived safely, and that Claud was standing the fatigue much better than they could have hoped.
She did not write to Frances until she had her husband on the high seas. She did not write at all to Mary or Rose, not wishing them to know of her marriage until she could personally 'break it' to them. It was not difficult to ensure this, since for many a year they had all been so separated by their respective circumstances that they were no longer sisters in the old Redford sense. The business of each was her own, and not supposed to interest the rest. Only such domestic events as were of serious moment were formally reported amongst them, and were never deemed serious enough to use the cable for.
The pair came home very quietly. Sydney was the port of arrival, and here Deb divined on the part of her husband a desire to be left in peace—to recruit after laborious travelling in the care of his devoted and accomplished man—while she went forward to "get the fuss over". Those sisters were the shadows upon his now sunny path, although he did not say so; he wanted to get to Redford without having to kiss them and talk to their offensive men-folk on the way. So Deb proposed to do what she felt he wished, and paid no heed to the dutiful objections which he could not make to sound genuine in her ears. She telegraphed instructions to Bob Goldsworthy to engage rooms for her and to meet her, signing the message "Aunt Deborah"—her only herald.
Bob was duly at Spencer Street—elegant in curled moustaches and a frock-coat—become a swell young barrister since she had seen him last. He was sure of the impression he would create upon his discriminating aunt, and had no notion that her first flashing glance at him was accompanied by a flashing thought of how her adopted son would too surely be ranked by her more discriminating husband with the "bounders" of his implacable disdain. On the platform—while explaining that he knew it was not the proper thing to do in a public place—he embraced the majestic figure in the splendid sable cloak. Deb said, "Bother the proper thing!" and kissed him readily—charily, however, because conscious of teeth that were not Pennycuick teeth, and perversely objecting to the faultless costume. But, looking at the frock-coat, she perceived mourning-band upon the sleeve. Another encircled his glittering tall hat.
"Not—oh, Bob!—not your mother?" she gasped.
He shook his head, and asked a question about her luggage.
"Aunt Rose—your uncle—?"
"Oh, Aunt Deb—don't! She is my aunt, I know, but he—" Bob spread deprecating hands. "They are both well, I believe. I think I heard that the fiftieth baby arrived last week. Is that your maid in the brown—"
"Oh, but, Bob—tell me—they haven't lost any of those nice children, I do trust!"
"I should hardly have been in mourning on their account. No—fat and tough as little pigs, by the look of them. It is my father, Aunt Deb. I thought you knew." "What!" She stopped on their way towards Rosalie and the luggage van. "You don't say—"
"Yes—a couple of months ago. The mater wrote to you."
"I have been wandering from place to place—the letter never reached me."
"Pneumonia, supervening upon influenza—that is what the doctors called it; but it was really a complication of disorders, some of them of long standing. Between you and me, Aunt Deb, he took a great deal more than was good for him latterly, and that told upon him. His blood was bad. You know he was always a self-indulgent man."
Deb nodded, forgetting that it was a son who spoke. She was saying to herself, "Bennet Goldsworthy, whom we made sure would live for ever! Bennet Goldsworthy, of all people! What a relief that will be to Claud!" And then she thought of her widowed sister, with a rush of pity and compunction. He was her husband, after all.
Bob's light attention to the subject was already gone. He was staring at one of the great trunks covered with foreign labels. Rosalie was telling him how many more Mrs Dalzell had.
"Oh, yes," said Deb, confused and crimson, "I forgot to mention—I suppose you don't know—that I am married. To an old friend of our family—your mother will know him well. By the way, Bob, I must go and see her at once. We'll have some lunch first; I must wash and change my clothes. Then will you stay at the hotel and settle Rosalie, and see to things? No, I would rather go alone. Stay in town and dine with me—and don't look so shocked, my good boy, as if I'd cut you off with a shilling. My marriage will make no difference to you." "Aunt Deb!"—with dignified reproach. "As if I thought of that."
But somehow she felt sure he did think of it.
They had luncheon together at the hotel, and sat awhile to digest it and to talk things over. While they sipped coffee, he told her how he had furnished his bachelor rooms—the artistic woodwork, the curios, the colours, how he had hunted for the right shade of red, what he had given for a particular rug which alone would blend and harmonise. She was brightly interested in these things, and promised to go and see them. She was to go to lunch next day—he thought he could safely undertake not to poison her with bad cooking or unsound wine. He lived in chambers in Parliament Place. This engagement booked, she asked him for his mother's address.
Mary lived in a small street in Richmond.
"Such a slum!" said Bob disgustedly. "But she would do it, in spite of all that I could say. And rushed there, too, when he had hardly been dead a week. It was not decent, as I told her, to be advertising the sale two days after the funeral. But she is a peculiar woman."
"She is a Pennycuick," said Mrs Dalzell reprovingly. "She would not care to go on living in a house that she had ceased to have the right to live in. I should not myself."
"But she might have gone to another place."
"You must insist on her going to another."
"I am afraid my influence is not enough to persuade her."
"My dear boy, I am convinced that if you asked her to walk into a burning fiery furnace, she would do it to please you, without a moment's hesitation."
"She is that way in some things, poor dear; but in others—I may talk till I have no voice left, and she won't listen. And she was set on this scheme. She has a mania for—for that sort of thing. One would never believe that she was your sister. She would hate to live like other people. She simply loves to be a nobody. I can't understand it. You try your influence with her, will you?"
"Well, order a carriage for me, and I will put on my things."
He pressed her to allow him to escort her, which was obviously the proper thing. When she refused again, and went off, like any nobody, alone, he returned to his chambers, leaving Rosalie to the unimportant persons whose business it was to look after her.
Mrs Breen's house was in East Melbourne, and Deb directed the coachman to drive there first. She remembered the fiftieth baby that was but a few days old.
"I must see how the poor child is doing," Deb said—not alluding to the baby.
And soon she saw again the exquisitely-kept garden—large for that locality—and the spacious white house almost glittering in the sun. She had sniffed at the bourgeois villa—she thought it bourgeois still—but who could help admiring those windowpanes like diamonds, and that grass like velvet, and that air of perfect well-being which pervaded every inch of the place? As the carriage entered the fine, wrought-iron gates, a flock of little Breens, attached to a perambulator, two nurses and five dogs, were coming out of it; and she stopped to accost and kiss them. Each child was as fresh as a daisy, its hair like floss silk with careful brushing, its petticoats as dainty as its frock, its socks and boots immaculate. There was Nannie, her godchild, shot up slim and tall from the dumpling baby that her aunt remembered, showing plainly the milky-fair, sunny-faced, wholesome woman that she was presently to become. Deb gazed at her with aches of regret—she had thought them for ever stifled in Claud's all-sufficing companionship—for her own lost motherhood, and of lesser but still poignant regret that she had not been allowed to adopt Nannie in Bob Goldsworthy's place. The joy of dressing and taking out a daughter of that stamp—of having her at home with one, to make the tea, and to chat with, and to lean on! Old Keziah came to the door—Keziah sleek and placid, like the family she served—delighted to welcome the distinguished traveller, but still more delighted to brag about the last Breen baby.
"A lovely boy, without spot or blemish," said Keziah, three times over. "And that makes eleven, and not one too many. And Miss Rose doing fine, thank you. I'll go and prepare her for the surprise, so it don't upset her."
Constance, quite a grown young lady, met her aunt on the stairs; Kathleen and Lucy rose from the piano in the drawing-room, where they had been entertaining their mother at a safe distance with their latest-learned "pieces"; they too had to be greeted and kissed—and sweeter flesh to kiss no lips could ask for. "My husband may be a draper," Rose had often said, "but I'll trouble you to show me a duke with a handsomer family."
Mentally, Deb compared the cool, flower-petal cheeks of her Breen nieces with her Goldsworthy nephew's mouth, covering those unpleasant teeth. It would have been fairer to compare him with her Breen nephews, but there the contrast would have been nearly as great. John, at business with his father, and Pennycuick, learning station management with the Simpsons at Bundaboo, had the fresh and cleanly appearance of all Rose's children; in physical matters they were as clean as they looked. Bob did not look unclean, but with all his excessive smartness, he looked unfresh. That look, and the thing it meant, were his father's legacy to him.
At last Deb reached her sister's room. It was another addition to the ever-growing house, and marked, like each former one, the ever-growing prosperity of the shop supporting it. The fastidious travelled eye appraised the rich rugs and hangings, the massive "suite", the delicately-furnished bed, and took in the general air of warm luxury and unstinted comfort, even before it fell upon Rose herself—Rose, fat and fair, and the picture of content, sitting in the softest of arm-chairs, and the smartest of gowns and slippers, by the brightest of wood fires, with a tableful of new novels and magazines on one side of her, and a frilly cradle on the other.
"My husband may be a draper," she had remarked at various times, "but he does give me a good home."
Deb, so long homeless amid her wealth, conceded at this moment, without a grudge, that Rose's humble little arrow of ambition had fairly hit the mark.
They embraced with all the warmth of the old Redford days. A few hasty questions and answers were exchanged, and their heads met over the cradle.
"You poor child!" Deb exclaimed, as a matter of form. "Haven't you done with this kind of thing yet?"
"Oh," said Rose, "I should feel lost without one now. And we wanted another boy—we have only three, you know. Isn't he a darling?"
Number eleven, fast asleep, was fished from his downy bed and laid in his aunt's arms, eagerly extended for him. His clothes might have been woven by fairies, and he smelt like a violet bed in spring.
Strange thrills—sharper than those that Nannie had set going—shook Deb's big heart as she cuddled and kissed him.
"The older I get," she confessed, "the greater fool I am about a baby. And you do have such nice babies, Rose."
"Yes," simpered Rose. "They ARE nicer than most, certainly—I'm sure I don't know why." Her eyes gloated on the white bundle; she fidgeted to get it back. "Ah, Debbie, I wish—I wish you knew—"
"I know you do, my dear," laughed Deb, a little queerly, and she returned the baby in order to hunt for her handkerchief. "And if you must know the truth, so do I. It's tantalising to see you with more than your share, while I have none—and never shall have, worse luck! Well"—blowing her nose cheerfully—"it's no use crying over spilt milk, is it? And I tipped the can over myself, so I can't complain. How's Peter?"
Rose told her how Peter was—"so dear, so good"—and then had so much to say about the children, one by one, through all the eleven of them, that it was quite in a hurry at last that Deb disclosed her secret. And Rose not only sustained no shock—which would have been bad for her—but could see nothing in the marriage worth fussing about, except the fact that it came too late for a family. Such a sordidly domestic person was she! She mourned and condoled over this spilt milk—so sure that poor Deb was but hungrily lapping up drops with the dust of the floor—that Deb grew almost angry. She took back her own words, and said she was glad there were no children to come between her and her husband, who needed only each other. She implied that this union had a higher significance than could be grasped by a mere suckler of fools (nice fools, no doubt) and chronicler of small beer (however good the brew). She believed it, too. Love—great, solemn, immortal Love, passionate and suffering—was a thing unknown to comfortable, commonplace Rose, as doubtless to Peter also. They were dear, good people, and fortunate in their ignorance and in what it spared them; but it was annoying when ignorance assumed superior knowledge, and wanted to teach its grandmother to suck eggs. Was it come to this—that marriage and a family were synonymous terms? No, indeed, nor ever would, while intelligent men and women walked the earth. Deb reserved the more sacred confidences for Mary's ear. Mary had loved—strangely indeed, but tragically, with pain and loss, the dignified concomitants of the divine state. Mary would understand.