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Sisters

CHAPTER XXVIII.

Down the middle of the big T-shaped wool-shed, in two rows of six pens each, with an aisle between them, the bleating sheep were massed. They had been driven into that aisle and thus distributed, as a crowd of soldiers might be packed into their pews at church, and twelve little gates had then been shut upon them. Each gate had a corresponding one at the opposite end of the pen, opening upon a broad lane of floor, and facing a doorway into outside pens and the sunny paddocks of the background. Between gate and door, on his own section of the boarded lane, a sweating, bare-armed man with shears performed prodigies of strength and skill. Every few minutes he snatched a heavy sheep from the pen beside him, flung it with a round turn into a sitting posture between his knees, and with the calm indifference to its violent objections of the spider to those of the fly that he makes into a parcel, sliced off its coat like a cook peeling a potato. The fleece gently fell upon the floor, as you may see an unnoticed shawl slip from an old lady's shoulders, and before it could realise what had happened, the poor naked animal found itself shot through the doorway, to stagger headlong down the sloping stage that was its returning path to freedom. Twelve of these stalwart and strenuous operators, lining the long walls at regular intervals, six a side, were at it with might and main (payment by results being the rule in this department of industry), and attendant boys strolled up and down, picking the fleeces from the floor and carrying them to the sorter's table. One was the tar-boy, whose business it was to dab a brushful of tar upon any scarlet patch appearing upon a white under-coat where the shears had clipped too close. The sorter or classer stood behind his long table, above and at right angles to the lines of sheep-pens and shearers. Near him on either hand were racks like narrow loose-boxes, built against the walls; behind him the hydraulic press cranked and creaked as its attendants fed and manipulated it, and the great bales, that others were sewing up, weighing, and branding, were mounting high in the transepts of the building—the two arms of the capital T. The air was thick with woolly particles and the smell of sheep; the floor was dark and slippery, and everything one touched humid with the impalpable grease of the silky fleeces circulating all about the shed. Strict, downright, dirty business was the order of the day.

The manager—Jim Urquhart, grey-bearded, in a battered felt hat and a slouchy old tweed suit—stood by the sorter's table, his wide-ranging, vigilant eye suddenly fixed upon it. As each fleece was brought up, shaken out, trimmed, tested with thumb and finger, rolled into a light bundle, inside out, and flung into one or another of the adjacent racks, he followed the process as if it were something new to him. The shade of difference in the texture of the staple of one fleece as compared with another appeared of more concern to him than the absolute difference, which seemed to shout for notice, between Deborah Dalzell and the other features of the scene.

A snowy, lacy petticoat all but swept the greasy floor. An equally spotless skirt, fresh from the laundry, gathered up in one strong pendant hand, gleamed like light against its background of greasy woodwork and greasy wool. The majestic figure of the lady of Redford advanced towards him. Her lord strolled behind her. Often—but not for many a long day—had the vision of her beautiful face come to Jim in this fashion, a radiance upon prosaic business that it was not allowed to interfere with; now, for the first time, his eye avoided, his heart shrank from recognising it.

Then he lifted his gaze at last, for she was close beside him. And what a ray of loving old-comradeship shone on him from those star-bright orbs of hers, undulled by the years that had lightly frosted her dark hair. She put out her hand, and held it out until he had apologised for his greasy paw, and given it to her warm grasp.

"Why haven't you been to see me—to see us?" she asked him, smiling. "Didn't you know we came home last night?"

"I thought you might be tired—or unpacking," Jim lamely excused himself. "But whenever it is convenient to you, Deb—Mrs Dalzell—I am always close by; I can come at any time."

He looked at her husband.

"Claud, you remember Jim?"

It was so many years since the men had met that the question was not uncalled for. They nodded to each other, across the enormous gulf that separated them, while Deb explained to her husband what an invaluable manager she had. Jim had grown homelier and shabbier with his advancing years; Claud more and more exquisitely finished, until he now stood, in his carefully-careless costume—his short, pointed beard the same tone of silver-grey as his flannel suit, his finely-chiselled features the hue of old ivory—a perfect model of patrician 'form'. Only there was plenty of vigour still manifest in the bushman's bony frame, while the man of the world wore a valetudinarian air, leaning on the arm of his regal, upright wife.

"Eh, isn't it like old times!" she mused aloud, as her eyes roamed about the shed, where every sweating worker was finding time to gaze at her. "I see some of the old faces—there's Harry Fox—and old David—and isn't that Keziah's grandson? I must go and speak to them."

She left her husband at the sorter's table, that he and Jim might get reacquainted—men never learned to know each other while women were in the way—and it seemed to them both a long time before she came back. Claud asked questions about the clip, and other matters of business; and he criticised the manager's management.

"Rather behind the times—isn't it?—for a place like Redford. I thought all the big stations sheared by machinery now."

"I've only been waiting for Miss—Mrs Dalzell's return to advise her to have the machines," said Jim, scrupulous to give Deb's husband all possible information.

"We must have them, of course. I believe in scientific methods."

Mr Dalzell did not ask Jim how his sisters were, and how his brothers were getting on—did not remember that he had any. And when Deb came back, to be gently but firmly ordered out of that dirty place by her new lord and master, the latter failed to take, although he did not fail to perceive, the hint of her eyes that Jim should be asked to dinner.

"No," said he, linking his arm in hers as they left the shed, "no outsiders, Debbie. I want you all to myself now."

And the words and tone were so sweet to her that she could not be sorry for the possible hurt to Jim's feelings. She was young again today, with her world-weary husband making love to her like this. That theory of their having come together merely to keep each other warm on the cold road to the grave was laughingly flung to the winds. She laid her strong right hand on his, limp upon her arm, and expanded her deep chest to the sunny morning air.

"Oh, Claud! Oh, isn't it wonderful, after all these years! You remember that night—that night in the garden? The seat is there still—we will go and sit on it tonight—"

"My dear, I dare not sit out after sunset, so subject as I am to bronchitis."

"No, no, of course not—I forgot your bronchitis. This is the time for you to be out—and this air will soon make another man of you, dear. Isn't it a heavenly climate? Isn't it divine, this sun? Look here, Claud, we've got some capital horses—or we had; I'll ask Jim. What do you say to a ride—a long, lovely bush ride, like the old rides we used to have together?"

Words cannot describe the pang that went through her when he shook his head indifferently, and said he was too old for such violent exercise now.

"Stuff!" she cried angrily.—

"Besides, I haven't been on a horse for so long that I shouldn't know how to sit him," he teased her lazily. "You wouldn't like to see me tumble off at your hall door, before the servants, would you?"

"Oh, Claud! And to think how you used to ride!"

But of course she knew this was a joke, and laughed it off.

"It's nothing but sheer indolence," said she, patting the hand on her arm—that shapely ivory hand, with its polished filbert nails—"and I see that my mission in life is to cure you of it. Come, we will make a start with a real country walk."

She began to drag him away from the bowered homestead, but he planted his feet, and took his hand from her arm.

"Not now, Debbie," he objected gently, but with that subtle note of mastership that had struck so sharply into Jim's sensitiveness; "it is mail-day, and the letters will be at the house by this time."

"What do letters matter to us?"

"That we can't tell until we see them."

They went in out of the sunshine to their arm-chairs in the shade. The English mail had arrived, and it was very interesting. Letters from lords and ladies, piles of papers of fashionable intelligence, voices from that world which one of the pair had already begun to hanker to be back in, although not yet distinctly conscious of it. The bride fetched her work-basket, and busied herself with a piece of useless embroidery, while the bridegroom read aloud to her passages from the epistles of his titled correspondents, and from the printed chronicles of their doings here and there. She had dreamed of his reading again the sort of things that he used to read, while she sewed and listened; but in the life that he had lived and grown to there had been no room for learning and the arts. He had dropped them, with his health and his horsemanship, long ago. The coroneted letters and the MORNING POST occupied them until luncheon.

At luncheon, as at every other meal—despite the new husband's expressed desire to have his wife to himself—his valet was present as butler, watching over the dyspeptic's diet, and seeing that the wine was right. Neither master nor man trusted anybody else to do this. It was a large crumple in Deb's rose-leaf, Manton's limpet-like attachment to Claud, who seemed unable to do anything without his servant's help, and the latter's cool relegation of herself to the second place in the MENAGE. It was all very well for HER to give her husband the premier place—she did it gladly—but for Manton to take possession of Redford as a mere appendage of his lord's was quite another matter. It was still the honeymoon, and he might do as he liked—or rather, as Claud liked; but it was not difficult to foresee the day when the valet who dictated to her cook would become too much for the proud spirit of the lady of the house, with whom it had ever been dangerous to make too free—or to foretell what would happen then.

Claud dozed through the afternoon—like most idle and luxurious men, he drank a great deal of wine, which made him sleepy—and Deb took the opportunity to go all through her house and put everything in order. They met again at tea, and had a stroll about the garden, arm-in-arm and happy. Dinner was a rather silent function. Deb wished for Jim, and regretted her easy abandonment of him; Claud never talked when he was eating—the business was too serious, and Manton was there. But while her husband smoked over his coffee, serene and charming, she sat alone with him, revelling in his wit and gaiety, telling herself that he was indeed the splendid fellow she had always thought him.

Then they went up to the big drawing-room—he was used to big rooms—and he flung himself at full length upon one of the downy couches, and she put silk pillows under his head.

While she was doing it, he pulled her down to him and kissed her.

"It's nice, isn't it?" he murmured in her ear.

For answer, she pressed her lips to his ivory brows and his dropped eyelids. Her big heart was too full for speech.

"Now I am going to play to you," she whispered, and went off to the old piano, that the tuner had prepared for this sacred purpose.

What years it was since she had cared to touch piano keys! And never since the love-time of her youth had she played as she did now—all the old things that he had ever cared for, with the old passion in them....

And while she played—he slumbered peacefully.




Jim, when his day of hard work was over, went back to his manager's house—all the home he knew—had a bath, put on clean clothes, ate perfunctorily of roast mutton, and bread and jam, and sat down with his pipe on the top step of his verandah, where he hugged his knees and watched the stars come out. He was a confirmed old bachelor now, "set", his sisters said, in his bachelor ways. None of them lived with him, to keep his house and cheer him up. It was too dull for them (with the mistress of Redford never there), and besides, he did not want cheering; for himself, he preferred dullness. An old working housekeeper "did" for him, cooking his simple meals—eggs and bacon alternating with chops for breakfast, and mutton and bread and jam for his tea-dinner, with a fowl for Sundays—keeping his few plain rooms clean and his socks mended. A hundred or two a year must have covered his household expenses; the hundreds remaining of his handsome income went to shore up the weak-kneed of his kindred, who had the habit of falling back on him when their funds ran out, or anything else went wrong with them.

He was a great reader. Books lined the walls of his otherwise meagrely furnished rooms—they represented the one personal extravagance that he indulged in—and newspapers and magazines came by every mail. In these and in his thoughts he lived, when not intent upon the affairs of the estate, which in the eyes of some appeared wholly to absorb him. Tonight his thoughts sufficed. The latest parcel from Mullens' lay untied, the new American periodicals with wrappers intact. Deb was home again—that was enough food for the mind at present.

But, oh, what a home-coming! His own and only "boss" no longer, as heretofore, but subject to a husband who clearly meant to be his master, and as clearly meant him to have no mistress any more. Neither in the way of business nor in the way of sentiment could she be again to him what she had been throughout his life—the altar of his sacrifice, the goddess of his simple worship, his guide, his goal. He must not hope, nor try, nor even long for her now. That one last comfort was taken from him.

Well!...

He walked about, while the fiercest paroxysm racked him. As some of us in our pain-torments rush to lotion or anodyne, he sought the soothing of the starry night, the cool darkness that had so often brought him peace. To get away from the faintly audible tinkling of the shearers' banjo and their songs, he strolled in the opposite direction, and that was towards the dark mass of the trees encircling her house—her home, in which he had no part. Mechanically he noted a garden gate open—she had left it so—open to the rabbits against which its section of the miles of wire-netting fencing the grounds had been so carefully provided, and he went forward to shut it. Being there, he had a distant view of the big drawing-room windows, thrown up and letting out wide streams of light across the lawn. And while he stood to gaze at them, picturing what within he could not see, he heard the piano—Debbie playing.

And so she had an appreciative audience, although she did not know it. Below her windows, out of the light, Jim—poor old Jim!—sat like a statue, his head thrown back, his eyes uplifted, tears running down his hairy, weather-beaten face. It was the most exquisitely miserable hour of his life—or so he thought. He did not know what a highly favoured mortal he really was, in that his beautiful love-story was never to be spoiled by a happy ending.


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