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Sisters

CHAPTER XXVII.

Mary's house was a chill and meagre contrast to that of Rose, but there was nothing cold in Mary's welcome. To Deb's 'Darling! darling!' and smothering embrace of furs, the slim woman responded with a grip and pressure that represented all her strength. Deb, although not the eldest, was the mother of the family, as well as the second mother of Bob.

"Where is he?" were Mary's first words—and Deb smiled inwardly to see her as absurd in her mother's vanity and preoccupation as Rose herself. But this was a case of a widow's only son, and the visitor was thankful for such a beginning to the interview. "Where is he?" cried the anxious voice. "He was to have met you. And he never fails—this is not like him—"

"Oh," Deb struck in easily, "he was there all right, looking after his old aunt like a good boy. He wanted to bring me, but I told him he could be more useful looking after Rosalie and my things. I thought we'd rather be by ourselves, Molly—poor old girl! You know I never heard a word until he told me just now. Your letter did not reach me."

They kissed again, in the passage of the little house.

"You will send away the carriage, Debbie?" Mary urged, without visible emotion. "There are stables in the next street. You will take off your hat and stay with me a little?"

"Indeed I will, dearest, if you will have me. Are you alone?"

"Quite alone."

"Where's the old lady?"

"Oh, dead—dead long ago."

"And Ruby?"

Mary looked confused.

"Ruby? Ruby is—don't you know?—an actress in London. Doing very well, they tell me—"Miss Pearla Gold" in the profession."

"Gracious! Why, I've seen her! Burlesque. Tights. The minx! Well, she must be coining money, anyhow. I hope she doesn't forget to make some return for all the trouble she has been to you."

"She forgets everything," said the step-mother, "and we are thankful for it. Bob hates the thought; it is hard on him, who is so different. Don't allude to it before him, please; he feels it too keenly. Debbie, what did you think of my boy?" "Oh, splendid!" was the cordial response. "I could hardly believe my eyes."

"Is he not?" the fond mother urged. "And it is not only his appearance, Debbie—they say he is the cleverest lawyer in Melbourne. He is so learned, so acute! He has a practice already that many a barrister, well known and of twice his age, might envy."

The pale woman—for her bricky colour had faded out—thrilled and glowed.

"Yes, he told me," said Deb; "and it was good hearing indeed. But I always knew what he had in him.' To herself she said: 'Why, if he is so well off, does he let her live like this?"

Poverty—though decent poverty—proclaimed itself in every detail of the mean terrace-house, which stood in the most depressing street imaginable. It made the wealthy sister's heart ache.

"And how are you yourself, Debbie?" Mary remembered to ask, as she shut the door upon the departing carriage. "You look well. How is Francie? We want you to tell us all about her grand doings. Bob is greatly interested in his Italian aunt; he thinks he would like to take a vacation trip to see her some day. By the way, did he tell you that Rose has another? Isn't she a perfect little rabbit? And quite delighted, Keziah says."

As she talked in this detachment from her personal affairs, she led the way up bare stairs to her small bedroom. The resplendent woman behind her took note of the widow's excessive thinness, the greyness of her straight, tight hair, the rigid lines of a black stuff gown that had not a scrap of trimming on it—not even the lawn sleeve-bands widows use—and thought of Bennet Goldsworthy's old-time annoyance when his wife was proved to have fallen behind the mode. And as she expatiated upon the charms of Rose's eleventh baby, Deb's bright dark eyes roved about Mary's room, in which she recognised a few of the plainer furnishings of the nuptial chamber of the past.

But not a trace of the person who had been so much amongst them once. His boots on the floor, his clothes on the door-pegs, his razors and brushes on the toilet-table were gone; so were a basin and ewer from the double wash-stand; so was the wide bed. In place of the latter a small one—originally Bob's—had been set up, at the head of which lay one large pillow fairly glistening with the shine of its fresh, although darned, linen sheath. Carpet and curtains, essential to the departed housefather, had disappeared; the bare windows stood open to what fresh air there was; the floor, polished, and with one rug at the bedside, exhaled the sweet perfume of beeswax and turpentine. It was all so pathetic to the visitor, so eloquent of loss and change, that she exclaimed, catching her sister in her arms:

"Oh, you poor thing! You poor, poor thing!"

Mrs Goldsworthy returned the embrace tenderly, but not the emotional impulse.

"You are so dear and kind," she said, in a gentle, but quite steady voice. "I am so glad you came—so thankful to have you; but we won't talk about that, if you don't mind. I think it is best not to dwell on troubles, if you can help it. Tell me about yourself. I suppose you have had lunch? Well, then, we will have a nice cup of tea. Take off that heavy cloak—what lovely fur! And your hat too—what a smart affair! You always have such taste. No, I am not wearing crape; it is such rough, uncomfortable stuff, and so perishable; and the rule is not hard and fast nowadays, as it used to be. It would be stupid to make it so in a climate like this. Do you want a comb, dear? How brown your hair keeps still! Then let us go downstairs to the fire."

The fire was in a little bare parlour, as austerely appointed as the bedroom. A tea-table was drawn up to the hearth, the kettle placed on the coals. There seemed no servant on the premises, but the neatness upstairs was repeated below; everything was speckless, polished, smelling of its own purity. Well, it was a good thing poor Molly could interest herself in these matters, and her resolve not to brood over her troubles—if it was genuine, and not only a heroic pose—both noble and wise. So Deb reflected; and such was the calmness of the emotional atmosphere, the cheering effect of tea and rest and sisterly companionship, the discursiveness of the talk, that she soon found herself telling Mary the secret that she was so sure the widow would hear with special sympathy and understanding.

"It is awfully selfish," she began, "to bother you with my affairs at such a time as this, but you've got to know it some time. The fact is—some folks would say there's no fool like an old fool, and perhaps you'll agree with them; but no, I don't think you will—not you, for you know...the fact is—don't laugh—but I'm sure nobody can help it—I have been and gone and got married, Molly. There!"

And, after all, it seemed that she had not come to the right place for sympathy and understanding. Mary did not laugh, but she stared in a wooden manner that was even more hurtful to the feelings of the new wife.

"Well?" she cried brusquely, after a painful pause. "Is there any just cause or impediment that you know of? You look as if you thought I had no business to be happy like other people."

"Oh, if you are happy! But I am so surprised. Who is it?"

"Guess," said Deb.

"I could not. I haven't an idea. Some Englishman, of course."

Deb shook her head.

"European, then? Some prince or count, as big as Francie's, or bigger?"

Deb wrinkled a disdainful nose.

"It is no use, Moll; you would not come near it in fifty tries. I'll tell you—Claud Dalzell."

"What—the deadly enemy!" This time Mrs Goldsworthy did laugh. Deb joined in.

"Funny, isn't it? I feel"—sarcastically—"like going into fits myself when I think of it, it is so screamingly absurd. And how it happened I can't tell you, unless it is that we are fallen into our dotage. I suppose it must be that."

"You in your dotage!" Mary mocked, with an affectionate sincerity that was grateful to her sister's ear. "You are the youngest of us all, and always will be. Do you ever look at yourself in the glass? Upright as a dart, and your pretty wavy hair—so thick, and scarcely a grey thread in it! Of course, I don't know how it may be with him; I have not seen him for such ages—"

"Oh, he is a perfect badger for greyness—not that I ever saw a badger, by the way. And he walks with a stick, and has dreadful chronic things the matter with him, from eating and drinking too much all his life, and never taking enough exercise. Quite the old man, I should have called him a few months ago. But he is better now."

Mrs Goldsworthy gave a little shudder, and her unsympathetic gravity returned.

"I see," she sighed. "Your benevolent heart has run away with you, as usual. His infirmities appealed to your pity. You married him so that you might nurse and take care of him—"

"Not at all!" Deb broke in warmly. "And don't you talk about his infirmities in that free-and-easy way; he is no more infirm than you are. Did I say he was? That was my joke. He always was the handsomest man that I ever set eyes on, and he is the same still. No, my dear, I have not married him to take care of him, but so that he may take care of me. I'm lonely. I want somebody. I've come to the time of life when I am of no account to the young folks—not even to Bob, who would not give me a second thought if I was a poor woman. No, Molly dear, it is no use your pretending; you know it as well as I do. And quite natural too. It is the same with all of them. Nothing but money gives me importance in their eyes. And what's money? It won't keep you warm in the winter of your days—nothing will, except a companion that is in the same boat. That is what I want—it may be silly, but I do—somebody to go down into the valley of the shadow with me; and he feels the same.' Something in Mary's face as she stared into the fire, something in the atmosphere of the conversation, drove her into this line of self-defence. 'Oh, there is no love-making and young nonsense in our case—we are not quite such idiots as that comes to; it is just that we begin to feel the cold, as it were, and are going to camp together to keep each other warm. That's all."

Mary remained silent.

"Well, I must go," said Deb, jumping up, as if washing her hands of a disappointing job. "The carriage must be there, and Bob will be starving for his dinner. No use asking you to join us, I know. But you must come to Redford soon, Molly—or somewhere out of this—when you feel better and able. You shall have rooms entirely to yourself, and needn't see anybody. I will come tomorrow, and you must let me talk to you about it."

Mrs Goldsworthy was stooping to sweep a sprinkle of ashes out of the fender—she was like an old maid in her faddy tidiness—and when she turned, her face was working as if to repress tears. Deb caught her up, a moan bursting from her lips.

"Oh, what a brute I am! when you—poor, poor old girl!—have to finish it alone. But, darling, after all, you have had the good years—a child of your own—a home; we shall get only the dregs at the bottom of the cup. So it is not so very unfair, is it?" Then Mary's pent emotion issued in a laugh. With her face on her sister's shoulder, she tried herself to silence it.

"I can't help it," she apologised. "I would if I could. Debbie, don't go! Oh, my dear, don't think I envy you! Don't go yet! I want to tell you something. I may never have another chance." "Of course I won't go—I want to stay," said Deb at once.

And she stayed. The coachman was dismissed to get his meal, and instructed to telephone to Bob to do the same. The sisters had a little picnic dinner by themselves, washing up their plates and dishes in the neat kitchen, Deb insisting upon taking part in the performance, and sat long by the fireside afterwards. Fortunately, although the season was late spring, it was a cold day; for the clear red fire was the one bit of brightness to charm a visitor to that poor house. It crackled cosily, toasting their toes outstretched upon the fender-bar, melting their mood to such glowing confidences as they had not exchanged since Mary was in her teens. No lamps were lighted. The widow was frugal with gas when eyes were idle; her extravagant sister loved firelight to talk in.

But for a while it seemed that Mary had nothing particular to communicate. Deb did not like to put direct questions, but again and again led the conversation in the likely direction, to find Mary avoiding it like a shying horse. She would not talk of her husband, but interested herself for an hour in the subject of Guthrie Carey, Guthrie's wife, his child, his home, discussing the matter with a calmness that made Deb forget how delicate a one it was. Then Mary had a hundred questions to ask (probably on Bob's account) about the Countess, of whom she had known nothing of late years, while Deb had learned something from time to time, and could give an approximately true tale. Quite another hour was taken up with Francie's wrongs and wrong-doings, as to which Deb was more frank with this sister than she would have been with Rose.

"It is no use blinking the fact," she said straight out, "that Francie is no better than she should be. I can't understand it; no Pennycuick that ever I heard of took that line before. She has a dog's life with that ruffian, no doubt; and of course the poor child never had a chance to enjoy the right thing in the right way—though that was her own fault—"

"I don't think," Mary broke in, "that ANYTHING is ANYBODY'S fault."

"That's a most dangerous heathen doctrine, my dear, but I'll admit there's something in it. Poor Francie! she was born at a disadvantage, with that fascinating face of hers set on the foundation of so light a character. She was too pretty, to start with. The pretty people get so spoiled, so filled with their own conceit, that they grow up expecting a world made on purpose for them. They grab right and left, if the plums don't fall into their mouths directly they open them, because it gets to be a sort of matter of course that they should have everything, and do exactly as they like."

"And the plain ones—they are born at a worse disadvantage still."

"No, they are not. Look at Rose. Francie, with her gilded wretchedness, thinks Rosie's lot quite despicable; but I can tell you, Molly, she is the most utterly comfortable and contented little soul on the face of this earth. She would not change places with a queen." "But Rose is not plain. Rose is the happy medium. And THEY are the lucky ones—the inconspicuous people—the every-day sort—"

"What's luck?" Deb vaguely moralised. "I suppose we make our luck. It doesn't depend on our faces, but on ourselves."

"Ah, no!" Mrs Goldsworthy received the well-worn platitude with a laugh. "We don't make anything—we are made. It is just a dance of marionettes, Debbie. Poor puppets of flesh and blood, treated as if they were just wood and nails and glue! Who set us up to make a game of us like this? Who DOES pull the strings, Debbie? It is a mystery to me."

Then Deb waited for what was coming next.

"Possibly it will be cleared up some day," she murmured, putting out her strong, beautiful hand to touch her sister's knee. "Whether it is a fairy tale or not, one must cherish the hope—"

"Not I," Mary cut in swiftly—that same Mary who was once conspicuous in her family for pious orthodoxy. "No more experiments in human existence for me! A few years of peace and cleanness, as I am—as I now am—I hope for that, and for nothing more; I don't want anything more—I'd rather not. To be let alone for the rest of the time, and then to be done with it—that sums up all the hope I have, or need."

"Ah, my dear—"

"No, Debbie, don't look at me with those eyes—don't pity me in that tone of voice. I am only a heathen against my will—not so broken-hearted as not to care what happens to me, which I believe is what you think. I am not even sorry—I wish I was, but I can't be; in fact, I am so happy, really, that I am going about in a sort of dream, trying to realise it."

"HAPPY!"

"Perhaps 'happy' is not the word. I should say unmiserable. I am more unmiserable than I have ever been, I think, since I was born."

Deb's swift intelligence grasped the truth. "Ah, then she was not so insensate as we thought!"—but made allowance for what she diagnosed as a morbid condition of mental health.

"Are you happier than you were at Redford—young, and loved, and with everything nice about you—?"

"Yes. Because then, although, of course, I did have everything, I had no idea of the value of what I had. You can't be really happy unless you know that you are happy. I did not know it then, but now I do."

Deb's glance flashed round the poor room, and out of the window into the squalid street; she thought of Bob, who almost openly despised the mother who adored him; she calculated the loneliness, the poverty, the—to her—ugliness of the existence which Mary's "as I am" was intended to describe; and she groaned aloud.

"Oh, my dear, was it really so awful as that—that the mere relief from it can mean so much to you?"

"I am not going to complain," said Mary. "It was not awful by anybody's fault—certainly not by his. He did his best; he was really good to me. It could not have happened at all, except through his being good to me—doing what he did that night. I am not in the least bitter against him; he was as he was made just as I am. It had to be, I suppose. The maker of the puppets didn't care whether we belonged or not; the hand that pulled the strings, and tangled them, jerked us into the mire together anyhow—" "Oh, don't!" pleaded Deb. "Don't blaspheme like that! What is religion for if not to keep us from making blunders, and to help us to bear it when they are made—and to trust—to trust where we cannot see—"

Deb was unused to preaching, and broke down; but her eyes were sermons more impressive than any of the thousands that Mary had heard.

"Some day," said Mary, "when I get into a place where I cannot hear religion spoken of, nor see it practised, I may learn the value of it. I hope so. I have a chance of it now—the way is clear. I am through the wood at last."

Deb drew her filmy handkerchief across her eyes.

"Yes, I know." Mary smiled at her sister's grief. "But it is only for this once, Debbie dear. I did want to let you know—to have the delight of not being a liar and a shuffler for once. I shall not say such things again. I am not going to shock anybody else, for Bob's sake. Bob, of course, must be considered; after all, it was his father. None of us, even the freest, can be a free agent altogether; I understand that. I shall hold my tongue. The blessed thing is that that will be sufficient—a negative attitude, with the mouth shut; one is not driven any longer to positive deceit, without even being able to say that you can't help it. Oh, Debbie, you have been a free woman—why, why didn't you keep so?—but with all your freedom, and all your money, you don't know the meaning of such luxury as I live in now."

Deb gazed at her sister's rapt face, glowing in the firelight, and wondered if the brain behind it could be altogether sane.

"To call that HAPPINESS!" she ejaculated, with sad irony and scorn.

"If you must fix a name to it—yes," the widow considered thoughtfully.

"After all, 'unmiserable' does not go far enough. I AM happy. For, Debbie"—turning to look into the dark, troubled eyes—"I'm clean now—I never thought to be again—to know anything so exquisitely sweet, either in earth or heaven—I'm clean, body and soul, day and night, inside and outside, at last."

"Oh, POOR girl!" Deb moaned, with tears, when she realised what this meant.

"Rich," corrected Mary—"rich, dear, with just a roof and a crust of bread."

"Well," said Deb presently, "what about that roof and crust of bread? Since we are telling each other everything, tell me what your resources are. Don't say it is not my business; I know it isn't, but I shall be wretched if you don't let me make it mine a little. How much have you?"

"I don't know. I don't care. I haven't given money a thought. It doesn't matter."

"But it does matter. You can't even keep clean without a bathtub and a bit of soap. But what am I thinking of?—of course, you will settle all that with Bob."

The little word of three letters brought Mrs Goldsworthy down from her clouds at once.

"Oh, no!" she cried quickly, almost fearfully. "On no account would I interfere with his arrangements, his career. He would do everything that was right and dutiful, I am sure, but I would sooner starve than take charity from my own child. But there's no need to take it from anybody. I have all I want."

"How much?"

"I couldn't tell you to a pound or two, but enough for my small wants."

"They do seem small, indeed. Where are you going to live? Won't you come to me, Molly? Redford is big enough, and it's morally yours as much as mine. You should have your own rooms—all the privacy you like—"

"No, darling—thank you all the same. I have made my plans. I am going to have a little cottage somewhere in the country, where there is no dust, or smoke, or people—where I can walk on clean earth and grass, and smell only trees and rain and the growing things. Alone? Oh, yes! Of course, I shall see you sometimes—and my boy; but for a home—all the home I can want or wish for now—that is my dream."

"I don't think," said Deb, "that I ever heard human ambition—and happiness—expressed in such terms before." It was the final result of Mary's experiment in the business of a woman's life.

Deb drove back to her hotel, thoughtful and sad and tired. When Rosalie had left her for the night, she wrote to Claud by way of comforting herself. She told him what she had been doing—described her interviews with Rose and Mary respectively, and the impressions they had left on her.

"Of all the four of us," she concluded her letter, "I am the only one who has been fortunate in love. I found my mate in the beginning, before there was time to make mistakes—the right man, whom I could love in the right way—and we have been kept for each other through all these years, although for a long time we did not know it. And now we are together—or shall be in a few days—never to part again. It is the only love-story in the family—I don't except Rose's, because I don't call that a love-story—which has had a happy ending."





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