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Sisters
by Ada Cambridge
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SISTERS

by

Ada Cambridge

JTABLE 5 28 1

CHAPTER I.

Guthrie Carey began life young. He was not a week over twenty-one when, between two voyages, he married Lily Harrison, simply because she was a poor, pretty, homeless little girl, who had to earn her living as a nondescript lady-help in hard situations, and never had a holiday. He saw her in a Sandridge boarding-house, slaving beyond her powers, and made up his mind that she should rest. With sailor zeal and promptitude, he got the consent of her father, who was glad to be rid of her out of the way of a new wife; took the trembling, clinging child to the nearest parson, and made her a pensioner on his small wages in a tiny lodging of her own. They honeymooned for a fortnight, off and on, as his ship could spare him—the happiest pair of mortals in the wide world—and then parted in tears and anguish unspeakable for the best part of a twelvemonth.

He came back to find himself a father. Wonderful experience for twenty-one! Never was such a heavenly mystery of a child! Never such an angelic young mother!—eighteen, and with the bloom of that most beautifying convalescence like a halo about her. He was first mate now, with a master's certificate and a raised salary; it was time to make a home. So while she nursed the baby in Sandridge—with the aid of a devoted friend, the landlady's cousin—Guthrie Carey busied himself across the way at Williamstown, fixing up a modest house. He also had a devoted friend, in the person of a Customs officer, whose experienced wife took charge of the operations. Lily was to see nothing until all was ready for her. It was to be a "pleasant surprise".

The last touches had been given—tea put in the caddy, meat and butter in the safe, flowers in the vases. Mrs Hardacre, in her best gown, spread a festive supper-table, and Bill, her spouse, stood by with a Government launch to take the proud young husband to his wife, and to bring them back together.

Lily awaited him, trembling, tearful, wild with the joy of going home. Her step-mother had come to Sandridge to see her off, and had brought her a present of a macintosh, on the merits of which she dilated with fervour as she twirled it round and round.

"Buttons right down to the feet," she urged persuasively, "and cape hanging below the waist"—the second Mrs Harrison was a big woman. "You might go through a deluge in it. And so stylish, my dear! You can wear it when you go out in threatening weather of an afternoon, and be quite smart."

"Well, it's pretty threatening now," said Guthrie uneasily. "I don't know that it wouldn't be wiser—"

"Oh, no, no!" Lily implored. "No trains tonight! No way but this, Guthrie. I can't get wet—in this nice waterproof. I don't care how it blows—the more the better—with you with me."

"But baby?"

"We can keep him safe. He is going to be rolled in your 'possum rug. We can take him inside if it is cold. Oh, we MUST go by sea, Guthrie!"

"Call this sea?" he mocked.

It was sea to her, who had never been beyond the Heads. She expected to concentrate in the fifteen-minutes' trip across the bay the interest of years of travel on land. There was nothing like blue water to this sailor's wife, whose heart had been upon it for so many anxious months; the extravagance of her partiality was the joke of husband and friends against her.

"All right," said Guthrie; "come along, then!"

He was impatient to get her away from these people, and under his own roof.

The second-hand macintosh was again pressed upon her.

"Oh, thanks—thanks! But I think I won't put it on just yet, as it is not raining. My dress is warm."

Her dress was the wedding dress—chosen for use as well as beauty—a delicate pink stuff, with a watered sash to match, in which she looked like a school-girl on breaking-up day. She had a fancy to go to her home in state, and also to make an appearance that would do her husband credit before Mr and Mrs Hardacre.

"Here is your fascinator, my dear," said the motherly landlady, offering the wisely-selected substitute for Lily's hat. "Let me tie it on for you—there!"

The fascinator of white wool, made and adjusted properly, accounts for its name; and Guthrie was sure that he had never seen a lovelier picture than his darling's face in that soft frame. She was ready now—as ready as she meant to be until the Customs launch had seen her—and turned to pick up the large bundle that had the little baby in the middle of it.

"I'll carry him, Lily."

"No, no, Mr Carey, I'm going to carry him," said the landlady's cousin, a strapping young woman, whose arms were equal to the task—"as far as the boat, at any rate."

She did so, the elder ladies supporting her on either side. Guthrie and Lily led the procession, hand in hand.

Ah, how like another world it was, coming out upon that breezy platform from the gutter-smelling streets! And how royal a proceeding it seemed to Lily to be, the setting apart of a Government vessel solely and entirely to convey her to her new abode, as if she were a little queen going to her husband's kingdom. She could not help holding herself with dignity, if not with a trifle of vaingloriousness, as, between half-a-dozen eager hands and admiring eyes, she stepped down into it.

"Now, have you got everything?" the landlady called from the pier. "Oh, everything—everything in the world!" Guthrie shouted, in reply.

"Where's your waterproof, Lily?" screeched the step-mother. "Better put it on, my dear; and I'd advise you to sit under cover, both of you. You'll be drenched if you don't, in this wind. Why, Mr Hardacre, it's blowing a perfect gale!"

"A bit fresh, ma'am," Bill admitted; "just enough to keep us lively. All aboard, Mr Casey? Pass the word, sir, when you're ready."

"Ready!" called Guthrie. And then he said something to the men, Bill Hardacre and his mate Dugald Finlayson, about having everything on board—all his life and happiness, or something to that effect—at which they laughed and chaffed him as the launch backed from the pier, and started off in the tearing hurry characteristic of Customs boats.

Lily was in the cabin with the baby and the landlady's cousin, who had 'got round' Mr Hardacre to give her a return passage, after seeing the little family safe home. Husband and wife had frowned at the suggestion of having her with them on the launch, but when they had shut her in out of sight and hearing, and found themselves free to follow their own devices untrammelled by their child, they did not mind so much.

"Hadn't you better—?" Guthrie began, when his wife reappeared, clinging to the door-jamb; but she exclaimed again:

"No, no! Let me be outside with you!" She wanted to feel "at sea" with him, to bathe herself, under the shelter of his protection, in the magnificent, tempestuous, inspiring night. To her, cooped up all her life in streets and prosaic circumstances, there was something in the present situation too poetical for words. No bride who had married money, and was setting out by P. & O. upon her luxurious European tour, could have been more keenly sensible of the romance of foreign travel than she, crossing Hobson's Bay in a borrowed Customs launch; while the squally darkness surrounding and isolating her and her mate immeasurably enhanced the charm. "I want to see it—to feel it!" she pleaded. "The air is so clean and fresh! The sea is so grand tonight! How beautiful it smells! Guthrie, I must have been born for a sailor's wife—I love it so!"

"Of course you were," the sailor assented heartily. "No manner of doubt about that. Well, sit here, if you prefer it, sweetheart"—on the stern grating—"only mind you don't catch cold. And don't let us get that pretty frock spoiled before the Williamstown folks have seen it."

He steadied her while she stood to have the big macintosh drawn closely about her—the round cape, flapping far and wide in the rough wind, was like an unmanageable sail, he said—and when she was again seated, he tucked it about her knees and feet. Buttons being hard to find and fasten, he pulled the two fronts of the garment one over the other across her lap, and she sat upon the outer one. Then he readjusted the white fascinator, winding the fluffy ends round her neck, and finally encircling all with his stalwart arm. There she sat, resting against him, her left hand in his left hand, her contented eyes shining like stars in the dark. They were practically alone in space, their deck companions having thoughtfully turned their backs and made themselves as remote as possible.

A long sigh fluttered through Lily's parted lips from her surcharged heart. Guthrie heard it through all the clamour of the gale—for it really was a gale—and the noise of the screw and fiercely snorting funnel. He stopped his face to hers.

"Tired, pet?"

"No," she murmured, "oh, no!"

"What, then?"

"Only happy—PERFECTLY happy."

"Same here," he said, careless how he tempted Fate—"only more so."

Their lips met, and were holding that sweetest kiss of lovers that are man and wife, when a wave, driven by the wind, flung a shower of spray at them, giving each a playful slap of the face as a hint not to be too confident.

"Hadn't you better get inside?" he urged, as he wiped her cheek. "It'll be rougher still directly."

"Oh, no, it's splendid! The rougher the better. I'm so glad it's rough. I can't take any harm, so well wrapped up, and with you, my husband."

"Ah, Lil!" The hug he gave her in acknowledgment of the word made her gasp for breath. He was so carried away that he had to use both arms, whereby a lurch of the boat nearly unseated him. "Never," he declared, in an intense whisper—"never shall you come to harm, my precious one, while you've got me to protect you; I can promise you that."

"Dear," she returned, in the same kind of tone, "I know I never shall."

And she cuddled closer up to him, and he took a firmer grip of her. There was no rail for either to hold to, and drawing out from the shelter of the pier, and meeting the force of the southerly swell, the launch had begun to dance like a cork on boiling water.

"Why, there's quite a sea on," remarked Guthrie, with a laugh. "I hope it won't make you sea-sick."

"Sea-sick!" she echoed, with fine scorn. "I am a sailor's wife, sir."

"Bless your little heart, I've been sea-sick myself many a time, and for not much more than this, either. However, it'll soon be over. There's home waiting for us, Lil—"

"Where? Where?" she interrupted him, with a tender eagerness. The launch was tossed high in the air, and the lights of Williamstown stretched across the darkness in front of them like a band of jewels.

"Oh, you can't distinguish it," said Guthrie, "but it's there—it's one of those lights; Mrs Hardacre said she was going to keep the blind up and the gas flaring, so that we might see it as we came over."

"That's what I shall do when you come back next time," said the girl, with a voice like a dove cooing. "Make a beacon to guide you home."

"No fear that I shall mistake the course, little woman."

He had an irresistible impulse to hug her with both arms again, and they happened to be on the verge of the river current. Hardacre and Finlayson both shouted, "Look out, sir!" but he was not looking out—his sailor eyes were otherwise occupied, and so he did not perceive the enemy of love making the spring to seize him. Just as he was folding his mate to his breast, he heard the warning cry for'ard, and it was then too late to avert the catastrophe. In the same instant a sudden wave struck the launch, and nearly turned her over, and the young wife and husband, holding to nothing but one another, and simply sitting upon an unprotected plank, were tipped out as easily as balls from a capsized basket.

"Oh, this is too absurd!"

That was Guthrie's mental ejaculation in the astonishing first moment. A deep-sea sailor, who had come through what he had come through, to let himself be caught unawares by such a paltry mischance as this! Then, what an unspeakable ass to have been so careless—to have shown himself incapable of protecting his wife, after all his boasts! Would he ever hear the last of it as long as he lived? Poor little woman! How cold the water felt when he thought of her tender skin. And her pretty dress, that she had set such store by, in which she had intended to go to church with him on Sunday—utterly destroyed, of course! Well, he must make shift to afford her another and smarter one, and get it made quickly. She should have her pick and choice. As the following wave soused his uprising head, slapping him full in the face, so as to confuse and blind him for a second or two, the fear that she might get "a dose of it" before they could pull her out made him sharply anxious. If she got a bad cold, a shock to her nerves, perhaps a serious illness, he would never forgive himself. And what a sell that would be—what waste of this precious holiday, this second honeymoon, so much sweeter than the first—after the weary waiting for it!

He cleared his eyes, and had a momentary view of the surroundings before another wave rushed upon him. Waves they were, by George! He would not have believed it possible that such a sea would be running right up here, in this little duck-pond of a bay. It had seemed rough on the boat, but viewed from the surface, it might have been the middle of Atlantic wastes. They were in the river channel—worse luck!—and the south wind was dead on to it, bringing up the swell from outside; and the swell, that had set that way for days, was so heavy as to drive him back faster than his powerful limbs could propel him in the other direction. At first the launch seemed to want to dance over him, but when he rose on a swirl of water to take his bearings after the first bewilderment, she was a couple of lengths away, cutting the most extraordinary capers in her efforts to put about. Her own lights, and those of the beacons at the river mouth, showed him all her stern grating and bright deck fittings as she heeled over, hanging to the side of one of those ridiculous ocean rollers out of bounds; and he thought it no wonder that he—even he—had been tossed off under the circumstances. The crew, who were not sitting on a skimming dish, as it were, had their work cut out to hold on. As he looked, he measured his drift with serious disquietude, although the preposterous idea of anybody being drowned had not as yet occurred to him. Drowned HERE! A good joke, indeed! Why, they were within hail of Sandridge, and half-a-dozen ships—or they would have been, but for the noise of wind and water, which smothered lesser sounds; and the lights of Williamstown—amongst them that of the little home awaiting him—studded the shore on the other hand, near and clear, like the eyes of a host of watching friends. And in Hobson's Bay, which could hardly cover the body of a sunk yacht; and right up by the river, which had to be dredged all the time to keep it open!

But where was Lily? It scared him to find himself out of arm's reach of her, forced back by the swell, and not to see her immediately when he was able to look. He saw the launch—which of course was entirely occupied in her rescue—and saw two white buoys floating, and saw a line thrown, but nothing else, except the wild water that buffeted him, and the moonless night overhead. And he remembered that the river channel—indeed, Hobson's Bay in any part—was just as dangerous as mid-Atlantic to one who could not swim. The thought clutched him like a hand at his throat.

"Got her?" he yelled, in a fury of terror. "Got her? See her?"

He strained to make himself heard by the men on the launch in a way to burst his heart. They shouted something that he could not understand, and a line came whizzing past him. He caught it as it dropped, and soon lessened the distance between them. Then he perceived a long boat-hook stretching out into the darkness; it went up and down with the toss of the boat like the fishing-rod of an impatient school-boy, and a few yards beyond its reach, where it touched water, there was a dim smudge. He knew it for the full cape of Lily's macintosh, outspread upon the waves. They alternately rumpled and smoothed it, flapping it into all shapes as they tossed and toyed with it; but, by the mercy of Heaven, it had held her up. In the middle of the mass he could see her dear little head hanging forward and downward, just under the surface, out of which a larger or smaller speck of her white fascinator rose and gleamed as each roll swung her up into the light of the boat's lamp turned upon the spot. This told him that she was already helpless and unconscious, although ten seconds had not elapsed since she went over. God send that she had not struck anything—that her heart was not weak—that she was not subject to any of the mysterious consequences of shock peculiar to the more than ordinarily complex women! At any rate, she had not had time to drown. He had seen a man recovered after being under for forty minutes, and in less than one they would be taking her full speed to Williamstown, signalling for the doctor as they went. What would the fellows ashore make of the three whistles—three times there before they got across? They would know the launch that blew them, and her present errand, and think, perhaps, that the crew were on the spree. But no, they would have more sense than that; they would look at the wild night, and conclude that something had happened. So would the doctor, who would hear the summons from his bed. What would they all say to him, Guthrie Carey, with his good seaman's record behind him, when he brought his wife home in such a state of dilapidation? However, all's well that ends well. Let him only have her safely there, and he would not mind what anybody said; and he'd take precious good care not to run any risks with her again.

Water-logged as he was, and cramped in his overcoat, he made a violent bound towards the floating cape, lunged twice, caught it at the second try, and pulled it eagerly—alas! too eagerly. He felt the tug of Lily's weight only just long enough to be sure that she was there, and then—the fastenings gave way, and she slipped through! The empty garment swam up to him on the edge of a new wave, which clapped it over his face like a gigantic plaster.

Oh, this was dreadful! She would be rescued eventually, of course—amongst them they would not let her drown, not if skill and courage had any show at all—but the fact that she was in danger could no longer be ignored. She was a little delicate thing, already overcome, and precious time was wasting, when every second was of the most stupendous consequence. With a frenzied gesture, Guthrie shook off the cloak, spluttered, spat, and made a dive to intercept her as she went down, wondering as he did so whether breath and strength would hold out if he missed her and had to follow her to the bottom. The swing of the swell was awful, and the darkness of the blind night too cruel for words.

"If only I had this cursed coat off!" he dumbly sobbed. "If only I could get rid of these damned laced boots!" Bad words would have been forgivable even had he not been a sailor.

He missed her, groped desperately, to the verge of suffocation, and came up to cough, and groan, and pump breath enough to take him down again. It would have cost five minutes to get his clothes off, and there was not a single second to spare—now.

"See her?" he shrieked.

"Ne'er a sign," Bill Hardacre shouted. "But we'll catch her when she rises. Take a turn o' the line round you, sir, so's we can haul you in—"

But there was not even time for that in the frightful race of these vital moments. She was gone, and she must be found, and there was but her husband to look for her. The two other men were few enough for the safety of the launch as she was then situated; and besides, Hardacre could be more useful to Lily above water than below. The neighbouring ships lay undisturbed, putting off no boats to help. In all that band of lights ringing the black welter of the bay, like stars out of the Infinite, shining calmly upon an abandoned world, not one was moving.

Guthrie Carey gave a last look round, identified the window of what was to have been his home, where the fire was burning brightly, the little supper spread, good Mrs Hardacre watching for them at the door—heard the landlady's cousin wailing, "Lil! Lil!"—and again plunged under, arms wide and eyes staring, and heart bursting with despair. Everything in him seemed bursting—an agonising sensation—as his overstrained lungs collapsed, and the power of his strong limbs failed him; then everything seemed to break away and let in the floods of Lethe with a rush—confusion and forgetfulness and a whirl of dreams, settling to a strange peace, an irresistible sleep, as if he had swallowed a magic opiate. The sea took him, as a nurse takes a helpless child, and floated him up from the place where he had been savagely groping; something met him half-way, floating down upon him, and his arms went round it of their own accord. But they were powerless to clasp or hold it. It passed him, sinking gently, and lay where it sank, under all the turmoil, as still as the rocking tide would let it.

The launch sounded her steam whistle furiously. From both sides of the bay it was heard, screeching through the windy night like a fiend possessed, and men got up hastily to ask what was the matter. Another launch put out from Williamstown, and a police boat from Sandridge, and the anchored ships awoke and hailed them. Soon half-a-dozen boats were tossing about the spot; they tossed for two hours, and Bill Hardacre dived seven times with a rope round his waist, while the widowed young husband lay on the cabin floor between two doctors, the baby and the landlady's cousin keening over him.

"Well," said Dugald Finlayson, as at last they headed for Williamstown through the now lessening storm, with a bundle in tarpaulin beside them, "it do seem as if the Powers above take a pleasure in tripping us up when we least expect it."

"Aye," said Bill Hardacre, sitting crying in his wet clothes, "he said as we were starting he'd got all he wanted now. I thinks to myself at the time, thinks I, 'That's an unlucky thing to say.'" But who is to judge luck in this world? Poor little Lily Harrison was a helpless creature, and had almost 'nothing in her' except vanity.



CHAPTER II.

Sincerely he believed, when he was on his feet again, that his life was wrecked for ever. He did suffer from insomnia, even with his splendid sea-seasoned constitution, for months, which proved the poignant insistency of his grief, making thinking a disease instead of a healthy function. He performed his duties mechanically, rigidly, like an engine stoked from the outside. He no longer had pleasure or interest in them. The flavour was gone from life; it had become a necessary burden, to be borne as best he could. At one time he even questioned the right of the Moral Law to ask him to bear it, under the circumstances. He used to look at the blue water beneath him, and long to be beneath it, sharing the fate of his loved and lost. He did not want to live without her—he wanted to die. At twenty-one!

At twenty-three he was a man again, physically and mentally sound, doing all reverence to the memory of his dead wife—a flawless angel in the retrospect—while finding natural solace in the company of living women who were also young and fair. The living women were much in evidence from the first; nothing but the sea could keep them from trying to comfort him. A big fellow, with a square, hard face, and a fist to fell an ox—that was just the kind of man to call for coddling, apart from the fact that he was a widower—had been married for as long as five weeks altogether—with his heart in his wife's grave, and with that pathetic adjunct, a baby. When he would consent to recognise the world of affairs again, and the claims of youth and manhood against it, he found—but of course there is no need to specify all the things he found.

One was a batch of invitations awaiting each arrival of his ship in port—first two, then four, then half-a-dozen women's notes, begging him to come to as many hospitable houses for change and rest, and to "bring the baby". He could not bring the baby, for reasons which he did not honestly present, as a rule, but which he reluctantly disclosed to Alice Urquhart one night at Five Creeks. Alice had written one of the six notes (they were six because it was Christmas time), for she was the sister of Jim Urquhart, who was the friend of an ex-squatter down on his luck through droughts, and reduced to balancing ledgers in a Melbourne office, who was the friend of one of those doctors of Williamstown whose skill had brought Guthrie Carey to life after he had been drowned. Jim, having made the acquaintance of the latter, took his sister to inspect the ship, and to have tea in the mate's cabin; hence the return visit, which the captain, who loved his chief officer, stretched a point to sanction.

There were at Five Creeks station, besides Jim, a Mrs Urquhart and several children; but Alice, the eldest of the family, was the general manager of her household, ever struggling with her brother, who maintained it, to lift it and herself out of the ruts in which her father had left it stuck. She was close on thirty, sad to say, and there were three girls below her; and nothing happened from year to year, and she was weary of the monotony. "Do come and see us," she wrote to Guthrie Carey—one of the finest-looking men she had ever known, not excepting the splendid Claud Dalzell—"do come and see us, and bring the baby. Country air will do it good, and the house is full of nurses for it."

He went himself, out of friendship for Jim, and after dinner sat in the verandah with Alice, and explained why he had not brought the baby. Jim had then gone off to doctor a sick horse, and Mrs Urquhart was putting children to bed.

"I believe," Alice rallied him, "that you thought it INFRA DIG."

He protested earnestly that she was wrong. No, it was not that—not THAT.

Ignorant of the details of the tragedy of his life, she scented a mystery about the child. Was it, perhaps, not right in its head, she wondered—or afflicted with a hare lip?

"Son or daughter?" she ventured cautiously. "A boy," said Guthrie Carey, still with that unfatherly air of discontent. "Sometimes I wish it was a girl. She could look after me by-and-by; I could have her trained to be my housekeeper, and sew my buttons on—that sort of thing, you know."

"You would have to wait a long time," said Alice, turning admiring eyes upon his comely person, noting with regret that he could not be within several years of her own age. "It is quite a young infant, isn't it?"

"Yes; that is—let me see—fifteen months and a little over. Yes, it will be fifteen months on Thursday since he lost his mother." Time had done so much for him that he could now speak of her to a stranger. "And he was then only a few weeks old."

"Poor, poor little thing!" sighed Alice Urquhart.

It was, by the way, a particularly sympathetic night—soft, still, solitary, with a full moon. They both felt it. Besides, he had had an excellent dinner. Five Creeks was poor, but it lived well.

"Oh," laughed the guest, without merriment in his laugh, "you needn't waste pity on HIM, Miss Urquhart; he's all right. Rolls in fat—never ailed a thing in his life—might take the prize at a baby show. So they tell me. I have not seen him myself for a good while."

"What! Why, he's in Melbourne, isn't he?"

"Not far out."

"And you haven't been home to see him?"

"I haven't got a home. I gave it up when—you know. I knew I should never be there, and you can't leave a house and a young child to servants. The little time that I did try to carry on by myself, I made a dismal mess of it. The woman I trusted to'—he meant Mrs Hardacre—'started feeding it with thick arrowroot. She'd have killed it to a certainty."

"Indeed, yes. The idea! But it is incredible what some fools of women can do in the way of mismanaging a baby." The remark implied expert knowledge on the speaker's part.

"A mother of children herself, too," said Guthrie reflectively, "and looking it, if ever a woman did. While a girl, who'd never had any, took to the job like a duck to water—knew just what to do and how to do it. I will say that for her." "Instinct," Miss Urquhart remarked to the man in the moon, who seemed to survey the couple with his tongue in his cheek. "I'm sure, though I say it, that I could give many a mother points myself."

"I've no doubt you could. I heard somebody say, the other day, that mothers are born, not made. Very true, too. You see it in the little girls nursing their dolls. I don't think anything of a she-child that doesn't want a doll as soon as it can speak." "I always loved them," declared Alice casually.

He leaned forward to look at a spider's web that the silver light had just touched, making it shine out from its background of dark leaves and verandah post; and there was danger of rupture to the delicate thread of the topic that was weaving so charming a conversation. Wherefore the young lady hastened to inquire what had become of his little son.

"I suppose," she said, "he is with his mother's people?"

Slowly resuming his attitude of repose, the guest considered the question.

"No-o—not exactly. With a friend of his mother's, not her family. Unfortunately, she had no family to speak of—and mine is in England. Neither of us had a soul here who really belonged to us. That was just the difficulty."

"It must have been a great difficulty," murmured Alice, in a feeling tone.

"I believe you," assented Guthrie, with emphasis. "In fact, it put me into the most ridiculous hole, the most confounded fix—one that I can't for the life of me see my way out of; one that—However, I mustn't talk about it to you. It's not a thing that one ought to talk about to anybody."

And yet he yearned to talk about it, and now, and to this particularly sympathetic woman, who was not young and giddy, but, like himself, experienced in the troubles of life, such as weighed him down. There was "something about her" that irresistibly appealed to him, and he did not know what; but an author, who knows everything, knows exactly what it was. It was the moonlight night.

A few words from her, backed by the nameless influences of the hour, unloosed his tongue.

"You mustn't think me an unnatural parent," he said. "It's not that at all. I'm awfully fond of him. I've got his photograph in my pocket—I'll show it to you when we go in—the last one for the time being. I get a new one about every other mail, in all sorts of get-up, clothes and no clothes; but all as fat as butter, and grinning from ear to ear with the joy of life. You never saw such a fetching little cuss. I'd give anything to get hold of him—if I could."

"But surely—his own father—"

"No. It sounds absurd to you, naturally; but that's because you don't understand the situation."

"I can't conceive of any situation—"

"Of course not. It's a preposterous situation. And I just drifted into it—I don't know how. Oh, I do know—it was for the child's own sake; so that you really mustn't call me a heartless parent any more, Miss Urquhart. Nobody would do that who knew what I'd suffered for him." Mr Carey made a gesture, and sighed deeply. "Even in the beginning it would have been difficult to get out of it, having once got in," he continued, after a pause; "but it has been going on so long, getting worse and worse every day and every hour, till now I'm all tangled up like that moth in that spider's web"—pointing to a little insect tragedy going on beside them.

Miss Urquhart leaned forward, resting her arms on her knees, and spreading her hands in the enchanting moonlight, which made them look white as pearls—and made her rather worn face look as if finely carved in ivory. It was a graceful, thoughtful, confidential pose, and her eyes, uplifted, soft and kind, gleamed just under his eyes.

"I'm so sorry!" she murmured. "But if I don't know what the trouble is—oh, don't tell me if you'd rather not!—I can't help you, can I? And I do wish I could!"

"So do I. But I'm afraid nobody can help me. And yet, perhaps a fresh eye—a woman's clearer insight—" He paused irresolute, then succumbed to temptation. "Look here, Miss Urquhart, I'll just tell you how it is, if you'll promise not to speak of it again. You are no gossip, I know"—how did he know?—"and it will be such a blessed relief to tell somebody. And perhaps you could advise me, after all—"

"Let me try," she broke in encouragingly. For an instant her pearly hand touched his sleeve. "You may trust me," she said.

"I'm sure of it—I'm sure of it," he responded warmly. He drew his chair closer, took a moment to collect himself, and plunged headlong.

"You see, she was related to the people my poor wife lived with when we were first married, and she was a lot with her—it was lonesome for her, with me away at sea—and they got to be sort of chums. She was with us the night I lost my poor girl—I can't talk about that now, but some day I'll tell you—and I know she was awfully fond of her. That was just the difficulty."

"You are speaking," queried Alice gently, "of the person who has the baby?"

"Exactly. I see you begin to understand."

"I think so," said Alice, with a smile broad enough to be visible in moonlight. "But what was the difficulty?"

"Well, you know, being so really fond of her, and all that—wishing to do it for the sake of her dear friend—what could I say, especially as those women were killing the unfortunate brat between them? She was not so very young, and was evidently clever at managing—"

"Yes," interposed Alice, smiling still.

"And peculiarly situated for undertaking the job, having a good home, and only an old mother, who let her do what she liked. And awfully set on the baby from the first, and wanting an object in life, as she said. But chiefly it was for Lily's sake. To see Lily's child messed about by just anybody, and killed with arrowroot and stuff, was more than she could stand—to tell the truth, I couldn't stand it either—and she begged me to let her have it to look after, as there was no female friend or relative nearer to it than she was. What COULD I do? She lived in a nice, healthy spot, and there was the old mother with her experience, and I was obliged to go to sea; and—and—well, I just had to say "yes", and be thankful to say it. We got the—the doctor found a—we engaged the sort of nurse that does everything, you know—a fine, strapping young woman, in the pink of condition; and—and—well, there it was. And at the first blush the worst of the trouble seemed over, instead of just beginning. I gave up my house, and went off to sea, miserable enough, as you may suppose, but at least with an easy mind about the boy. As far as he was concerned—as far as my poor Lily was concerned, I felt I had acted for the best. Indeed, I don't for the life of me understand how any man could have acted otherwise, under the circumstances."

The listener, listening intently, here put a quiet question—"Did you pay her?"—which caused the narrator to wince like a galled horse.

"Ah, there you hit the weak spot, Miss Urquhart, right in the bull's-eye," he declared, sighing furiously. "If I could have paid her, of course there'd have been no difficulty at all. But she wouldn't be paid."

"You ought to have insisted on it," said Alice severely.

"I did insist. I insisted all I knew. But she said it was a labour of love for her friend, and seemed so hurt at the idea of money being brought into the question, that I was ashamed to press her beyond a certain point. She let me pay for the nurse's board, and that was all. The baby didn't eat anything, you see, and they were comfortably off, with lots of spare room in their house, and I just looked on it as a sort of temporary visit—until I came back—until I should be able to turn round a bit. But"—with another sigh—"he's there yet."

Miss Urquhart nodded, with an air of utter wisdom.

"Of course you went to see the child?"

"Three times—whenever I was in port. And found him always the same—so beautifully cared for that, upon my soul, I never saw a baby in my life so sweet and clean and wholesome-looking; jolly as a little sandboy all the time, too."

"That means that he had a perfect constitution—inherited from you evidently—and that you were fortunate in the nurse."

"Very fortunate. But it appeared that beyond—beyond running the commissariat department, so to speak, she did next to nothing for him. Miss—the lady I spoke of—did everything. Made herself a perfect slave to him."

"Bought his clothes?"

"Oh," groaned the wretched man, "I suppose so. What did I know about a baby's clothes? And she wouldn't answer my questions—said he was all right, and didn't want for anything, as I could see with my own eyes. I tried making presents—used to bring her curios and things—found out her birthday, and sent her a jewel—took every chance I could see to work off the obligation. But it was no use. She gave ME a birthday present after I'd given her one."

"Well, if moths will go into spiders' webs," laughed his companion, "they must take the consequences."

"Sometimes they get helped out," he replied. "Some beneficent, godlike being puts out an omnipotent finger—"

He looked at her, and she looked at him. At this moment they seemed to have known one another intimately for years. The moon again.

"Tell me everything," she said, "and I'll help you out."

So then he told her that he had not "this time" visited his son. He might have added that he had come to Five Creeks partly to avoid being visited by him. Cowardly and weak he frankly confessed himself. "But the thing was too confoundedly awkward—too embarrassing altogether."

"But she writes—she writes continually. Tells me what he weighs, and when he's got a fresh tooth, and how he crawls about the carpet and into her bed of a morning, and imitates the cat mewing, and drinks I don't know how many pints of new milk a day, and all that sort of thing. I believe the rascal has the appetite of a young tiger—and yet I can't pay for what he eats! The nurse was long ago dispensed with, so that I've not even her board to send a cheque for, that they might by chance make a trifle of profit out of. It seems too late now to simply take the child away, and there leave it. I haven't the shabby courage to do such a thing; and besides, he might come to any sort of grief, poor little chap, in that case. There's no doubt in the world that her taking of him and doing for him have been the salvation of his health, and perhaps his life. And I know, by what she tells me, that he regularly dotes on her—as so he ought—and would howl his very head off if I took him from her. What could I do with him if I did take him? I've no home, and nobody to look after it if I had; and hired servants are the deuce with a lone man at their mercy. It would be worse now than it was at first. And so'—with another heavy sigh—'you see the situation. I'm just swallowed up, body and bones, drowned fathoms deep in a sea of debt and obligation that I can never by any possibility struggle out of, except—"

"Except," continued Alice, with the candid air of a kind and sensible sister—"except by marrying her, you mean? Yes, I see the situation. I appreciate your point of view. I should understand it if it were not that she unquestionably laid the trap for you deliberately—just as that spider laid his for moths and flies. And marriage by capture has gone out."

"Oh, don't say that!" the man protested, in haste. "I would not for a moment accuse her of that. She was Lily's friend; it was for her—it was out of pure womanly compassion for the motherless child; at any rate, in the beginning. And even now I have no right whatever to suppose—"

"But you know it, all the same. Every word you have said to me tells me that you know it. You may as well be frank."

He squirmed a little in his chair, but confessed as required.

"Well—but it's a caddish thing to say—I think she does expect it. And hasn't she the right to expect it? However, that's neither here nor there. The point is that, in common honesty and manliness, I should repay her if I can; and there's no other way—at least, I can't see any other way. It is my fault, and not hers, that I don't take to the notion; for a better woman never walked, nor one that would make a better mother to the boy. But, somehow, you DO like to have your free choice, don't you?" He had come as far as this—that he could entertain the idea of choice, which meant a second choice.

"It would be utterly wrong, absolutely immoral, downright wicked, to forego it," Alice declaimed, with energy. "It would be nothing short of criminal, Mr Carey."

She argued the point with eloquence, even excitedly; and when she had brought him to reason—very willing to be brought—leaned back in her chair with a joyous air.

"Oh, we will arrange it!" she reassured him. "There are plenty of ways. I'll tell you"—bending forward again and gazing earnestly into eyes from which something that had been looking out of them seemed to have drawn back hastily—"you shall introduce me to her, and I will bring him away up here for a visit. He ought to be in the country in summer, and he will come with me, I know, and won't miss her after a couple of days. I can get you a nurse cheap from some of the selectors, and one more or less makes not the slightest difference in a house like this; and I will take care of him for you until you come back next voyage, or for just as long as you will trust him to me. So the difficulty will solve itself without any fuss. Do you see?"

Guthrie Carey felt unable to reply. He could only murmur again and again: "You are awfully good, Miss Urquhart. 'Pon my word, you are too good altogether." Later, he declared more firmly that he could not think of troubling her.

"Nonsense!" she returned lightly. "It is all settled."



CHAPTER III.

Decidedly he was a coward, with all his brawn and inches; for he dared not protest straight-forwardly that all was not settled. He certainly told himself that he did not know what to do, but he also told himself that he would be a fool to do practically the same thing that he had done before. He passed a sleepless night, poor fellow, cogitating the matter; and in the morning, when the moon was gone, saw clearly himself where the path of prudence lay. Still he lacked courage to make it clear to Miss Urquhart, even while he saw her laying out, with enthusiasm, that road of her own which his terrified imagination pictured her marching along presently, bearing the baby aloft in her arms, and dragging him on a dog-chain behind her. It was not until mid-day that he suddenly became a brave man—about five minutes after the arrival of Deborah Pennycuick.

She rode over from Redford, all by herself, as her frequent custom was, to see how Five Creeks was getting on, and to talk over plans for Christmas. She wore a brown holland habit over the most beautifully moulded form, and, entering the house, tossed aside a shady hat from the most beautiful face that ever delighted eyes of man and virile heart of three-and-twenty. It is in such plain terms that one must describe this noble creature; words in half-tones are unworthy of the theme. Being introduced by Alice Urquhart, Guthrie Carey, in a sense, expanded on the spot into a fresh stage, a larger scope of being, with his unleaping recognition of her inspiring greatness. It seemed to him that he had never looked upon a woman before. Lily, of course, had been an angel. "I thought I should just strike lunch," she said, as she came like a sunbeam into the dim, low-ceiled, threadbare, comfortable room where the meal was ready. "I'm as hungry as a hunter, Mrs Urquhart."

The homely old woman uttered a cry of joy, and spread her arms. The visitor, incarnate dignity, bent to the maternal caress with willing affection, yet with the tolerant air of good-nature that does not run to gush. The children gathered round her, and hung upon her, undeterred by the fact that she had no kisses or fondlings for them. Jim stood motionless, glowing at the back of his fixed eyes.

When the family had done greeting her, Guthrie was brought forward.

"This is Mr Carey, Deb, who—"

"Oh, yes, I know"—and the frank hand, large, strong and beautiful, like every bit of her, went out to him as if she had really known him—"it is on Mr Carey's account that I have come, to tell you that you must bring him over to Redford at once."

"We were going to," said Alice; for it was the natural thing to take every Five Creeks visitor to Redford as soon as possible. "I was writing to you only this morning."

"Well, we just wanted to make sure. My father—you will excuse him for not calling on you; he is not able to get about as he used, poor old man—hears that you belong to a family at home which was very intimate with his family when he was young. Do you come from Norfolk?"

"No," replied the sailor, still in his dream.

"Oh, dear, what a pity! He will be so disappointed. We have been hearing about the Careys of Wellwood all our lives—never were such people, apparently—and when he heard your name, and got the idea that you were of the clan, nothing would do but that you must be fetched at once, to talk to him about them. Aren't you even a second cousin, or something?"

"My grandfather was born at Wellwood—"

"Ah, that's right! That's all we want. That makes you a Carey of Wellwood, of course. I hope you know the place?" "I have seen it. But my grandfather was a younger son and a ne'er-do-weel; he was kicked out—he quite broke off—"

"Never mind. You needn't go into inconvenient particulars. Try and remember all you know that's nice about the Hall and the family. Did you ever hear of a Mary Carey? But no—she would be before your time, of course."

"There was an old Mary Carey; she married a Spencer. She was pointed out to me last time I was at home—the nut-cracker type, nose and chin together—"

"Goodness! Keep that dark too, for mercy's sake! She is his ideal woman. It is for her sake he wants you to talk Wellwood with. If you spoil his pleasure with that hint of nut-crackers, I'll never forgive you."

"I hope I know better," Guthrie smiled, coming to himself a little.

"I am sure you do," said she, and turned from him to take her chair at table.

"Then we'll bring him tomorrow," Alice said, seating herself.

"This afternoon," said the visitor commandingly.

Alice wanted another moonlight talk about the baby, and knew the small chance of getting it where Deborah Pennycuick was, and she raised obstacles, fighting for delay. Deborah calmly turned to Jim.

"Anything to hinder your coming this afternoon, Jim?"

"Nothing," said Mr Urquhart promptly.

The matter was evidently settled.

They sat down to lunch, and the talk was brisk. It was almost confined to the visitor and Alice, although the former carefully avoided the shutting out of the hostess from the conversation, in which she was incapable of taking a brilliant part. Jim, in the host's place, sat dumb and still, except for his alertness in anticipating his guest's little wants. Guthrie Carey, on her other hand, was equally silent. Neither of the two men heard what she talked about for listening to the mere notes of her charming voice.

After luncheon she put on her sensible straw hat.

"You must drive Mr Carey," she said to Jim. "I'll just ride ahead, and let them know you are coming."

"Let us all go together," said Alice. "I'll drive Mr Carey, and Jim can escort you."

But there was no gainsaying Deborah Pennycuick when she had expressed her views.

"You have to get ready," she pointed out, "and you'll do it quicker if I'm not here. Besides, I can't wait."

They all went out with her to the gate, where her superb, high-tempered horse pawed the gravel, and champed upon his bit. Jim sent her springing to the saddle from his horny palm like a bird let out of it, and they watched in silence while she crossed two paddocks, leaped two sets of slip-rails, and disappeared as a small dot of white handkerchief from the sun-suffused landscape.

"What riding!" Guthrie Carey ejaculated, under his breath.

"She's the best horsewoman in the country," Jim Urquhart commented slowly, after a still pause.

He was a slow—to some people a dull and heavy—man, who talked little, and less of Deborah Pennycuick than of any subject in the world—his world.

"And what a howling beauty!" the sailor added, in the same whisper of awe.

Again the bushman spoke, muttering deeply in his beard: "She is as good as she is beautiful."

Mrs Urquhart took her levelled hand from her eyes, and turned to contribute her testimony.

"There, Mr Carey, goes the flower of the Western District. You won't find her match amongst the best in England. I was with her mother when she was born—not a soul else—and put her into her first clothes, that I helped to make; and a bonny one she was, even then, with her black eyes, that stared up at me as much as to say: 'Who are you, I'd like to know?' Dear, it seems like yesterday, and it's nigh twenty years ago. All poor Sally Pennycuick's girls are good girls, and the youngest is going to be handsome too. Rose, the third, is not at all bad-looking; poor Mary—I don't know who she takes after. The father was the one with the good looks; but Sally was a fine woman too. Poor dear old Sally! I wish she was here to see that girl."

Mrs Urquhart and Mrs Pennycuick, plain, brave, working women of the rough old times, wives of high-born husbands, incapable of companioning them as they companioned each other, had been great friends. On them had devolved the drudgery of the pioneer home-making without its romance; they had had, year in, year out, the task of 'shepherding' two headstrong and unthrifty men, who neither owned their help nor thanked them for it—the inglorious life-work of so many obscure women—and had strengthened each other's hands and hearts that had had so little other support.

"Mrs. Pennycuick—she is not living, I presume?" Guthrie enticed the garrulous lady to proceed.

"Dear, no. She died when Francie was a baby," and Mrs Urquhart gave the details of her friend's last illness in full. "Deb was just a little trot of a thing—her father's idol; he wouldn't allow her mother to correct her the least bit, though she was a wilful puss, with a temper of her own; ruled the house, she did, just as she does now. If she hadn't had such a good heart, she'd have grown up unbearable. There never was a child in this world so spoiled. But spoiling's good for her, she says. It's to be hoped so, for spoiling she'll have to the end of the chapter. She's born to get the best of everything, is Debbie Pennycuick. Fortunately, her father's rich, though not so rich as he used to be; and when she leaves her beautiful home, it'll be to go to another as good, or better. She's got to marry well, that girl; she'd never get along as a poor woman, with her extravagant ways. It'd never do"—Mrs Urquhart's voice had, subtly changed, and something in it made the blood rise to the cheeks of the listeners "it'd never do to put her into an ordinary bush-house, where often she couldn't get servants for love or money, because of the dull life, and might have to cook for station hands herself, and even do the washing at a pinch—"

Jim wheeled round suddenly, and strode back to the house—the house, as he was quite aware, which his mother alluded to. She, agitated by the movement, and without completing her sentence, turned and trotted after him. Alice was left leaning over the gate, at Guthrie Carey's side.

"You will enjoy this visit," she remarked calmly, ignoring the little scene. "Redford is a beautiful place—quite one of the show-places of the district—and they do things very well there. Mary is ostensibly the housekeeper; she really does all the hard work, but it is Deb who makes the house what it is. After she came home from school she got her father to build the new part. Since then they have had much more company than they used to have. Mary, who had been out for some years, didn't care for gaieties. She is a dear girl—we are all awfully fond of her—but she has a most curious complexion—quite bright red, as if her skin had something the matter with it, although it hasn't. Of course, that goes against her."

"Miss Deborah's complexion is wonderful."

"Yes. But oh, Deb isn't to be compared with Mary in anything except looks. She is eaten up with vanity—one can't be surprised—and is very dictatorial and overbearing; you could see that at lunch. But Mary is so gentle, so unselfish—her father's right hand, and everybody's stand-by."

"I don't think Miss Deborah seemed—"

"Because you don't know her. I do. She simply loathes children, while Mary would mother all the orphan asylums in the world, if she could. I always tell her that her mission in life is to run a creche—or should be. Lawks! How she will envy me when I get that boy of yours to look after!"

Guthrie's feet seemed to take tight hold of the ground. "Really, Miss Urquhart—er—I can't thank you for your goodness in—in asking him up here—but I've been thinking—I've made up my mind that the best thing I can do is to take him home to my own people." The idea was an inspiration of the desperate moment. How to put it into practice he knew not, and she tried to show him that it was impracticable; but he stuck to it as to a life-buoy. He would write to his sister—all the 'people' he owned apparently—and find somebody who was going home; and "Isn't it time to be putting our things together? Miss Pennycuick told us we were to be there for tea at four o'clock, if possible."



CHAPTER IV

Behold him at Redford, with his tea-cup in his hand. He was safe now from talk about the baby; but he was also cut off from the lovely Deborah, now wandering about her extensive grounds with another young man. Old Father Pennycuick had him fast. They sat together under a verandah of the great house.

"There were no pilots then," said the old man, puffing comfortably at his pipe—"there were no pilots then, and we had to feel our way along with the cast 'o the lead. We got ashore at Williamstown, on sailors' backs, and walked to Melbourne. Crossed the Yarra on a punt, not far from where Prince's Bridge now is—"

"Yes," said Guthrie Carey.

He seemed to be listening attentively, his strong, square face set like a mask; but his eyes roamed here and there.

"Bread two-and-six the small loaf," Mr Pennycuick dribbled into his dreaming ears. "Eggs sixpence apiece. Cheap enough, too, compared with the gold prices. But gold was not thought of for ten years after that. I tell you, sir, those were the times—before the gold brought all the riff-raff in."

The sailor murmured something to the effect that he supposed they were.

"We'd got our club, and a couple of branch banks, and a post-office, and Governor La Trobe, and Bishop Perry, and the nicest lot of fellows that ever came together to make a new country. We were as happy as kings. All young men. I was barely twenty-three when I took up Redford—named after our place at home. You know our place at home, of course?"

"I have seen it from the road," answered the guest, arrested in his mental wanderings by the mention of his own age.

"You must have seen it often, living so close."

"I never lived close myself; I am a Londoner."

"It's all the same—your people do. The Pennycuicks and the Careys have been neighbours for generations."

"I am only distantly related to that family."

"A Carey is a Carey," persisted the old man, who had determined to have it so from the first, and he would listen to no disclaimers.

He had already referred darkly to that Mary Carey of the hooked nose and pointed chin. His eldest daughter, he said, had been named after her. This eldest daughter, with her too-ruddy face, had shyly drawn near, and taken a chair at her father's elbow, where she sat very quietly, busily tatting. Plain though her face was, she had beautiful hands. Her play with thread and shuttle, just under Guthrie's eyes, held them watchful for a time—the time during which no sign of Deborah's white gown was to be perceived upon the landscape.

"My brother and I, we never hit it off, somehow. So when my father died I cleared. You don't remember his funeral, I suppose? No, no—that was before your time. They hung the church all over with black broadcloth of the best. That was the way in those days, and the cloth was the parson's perquisite. The funeral hangings used to keep him in coats and trousers. And they used to deal out long silk hat-scarves to all the mourners—silk that would stand alone, as they say—and the wives made mantles and aprons of them. They went down from mother to daughter, like the best china and family spoons. That's how women took care of their clothes when I was young. They didn't want new frocks and fallals every week, like some folks I could name." And he pinched his daughter's ear.

"Talk to Deb, father," said Mary. "I have not had a new frock for a great many weeks."

"Aye, Deb's the one! That girl's got to marry a millionaire, or I don't know where she'll be."

Almost Mrs Urquhart's words! And, like hers, they pricked sharply into the feelings of our young man. His eyes went a-roaming once more, to discover the white gown afar off, trailing unheeded along a dusty garden path. The old man saw it too, and his genial countenance clouded over.

"Well," he continued, after a thoughtful pause, "poor old Billy Dalzell and I, we emigrated together. He had a devil of a stepfather, and no home to speak of. We were mates at school, and we made up our minds to start out for ourselves. You remember the Dalzells of the Grange, of course?"

"I can't say that I do, sir."

"Well, they're gone now. Billy's father went the pace, and the mortgagees sold him up; and if his mother hadn't given him a bit when we started, Billy wouldn't have had a penny. She pawned all she could lay her hands on for him, we found out afterwards—Billy was cut up about that—and got ill-used by Heggarty for it when he found it out. She was a fool, that woman. Everybody could see what Heggarty was, except her. Old Dalzell was a gentleman, anyhow, with all his faults."

The white dress drew nearer, and its grey tweed companion. The host was once more wasting his story on deaf ears. "So we started off; and when we got here we went in together. He had enough to buy a mob of cattle and a dray and team, and so had I. We loaded up with all the necessaries, and hired three good men, and travelled till we found country. Took us about five months. At last we came here, and put our pegs in, and I started off to Melbourne for the license—ten pounds, and leave to renew at the end of the year—and here I've stuck ever since. Billy, he took up other land, and got married, and died, poor chap! And that's his boy over there," pointing with his pipe—"and he'll never be the man his father was, if he lives to a hundred."

The person referred to was he in the grey tweed, who sauntered with such assurance at white-robed Deborah's side. He was a tall, graceful and most distinguished-looking young fellow; but Guthrie Carey was prepared to believe heartily the statement that Dalzell junior would never be the man his father was.

"You shall see the identical hut," Mr Pennycuick kindly promised. "Down by the creek, where those big willows are—I planted them myself. Not good enough for a dog-kennel, my daughters say; but the best thing I can wish for them is that they may be as happy in their good houses as I was in that old shanty—aye, in spite of many a hard time I had there, with blacks and what not. We cut the stuff, Billy and I, and set the whole thing up; and all our furniture was our sleeping-bunks and a few stools and a table. We washed in a tin bowl on a block outside the door. Not so particular about tubbing and clean shirts in those days. Our windows were holes of a handy size for gun barrels, and the shutters we put up o' nights were squares of bark hung on to nails by strips of green hide. Many's the time I've woke to see one of 'em tilted up, and a pair of eyes looking in—sometimes friends, sometimes foes; we were ready for either. When Billy went, and I thought I'd get married too, then I built a better house—brick this time, and workmen from Melbourne to do it; that's it over there, now the kitchens and store-rooms—and imported furniture—er—I am not boring you, I hope?"

"Oh, dear, no! I am deeply interested."

"Well, Billy and I"—the tale seemed interminable—"Billy and I, we gave sixty pounds apiece for our stock horses, and the same for a ton of flour; and went right over Ballarat without knowing it. Camped there, sir, and didn't see the gold we must actually have crunched under our boot heels. And Billy had misfortunes, and died poor as a rat. It was in the family. Mrs D. was all right, though. She used to send a brother of hers to Melbourne market with her cattle, and cash being scarce, he would sometimes have to take land deeds for them, and she'd be wild with him for it. But what was the consequence? Those bits of paper that she thought so worthless that it's a wonder she took the trouble to save them, gave her city lots that turned out as good as gold mines. She sold too soon, or she'd have made millions—and died of a broken heart, they say, when she found out that mistake. Still, she left a lot more than it's good for a young fellow to start life with. That boy has been to Cambridge, and now he loafs about the club, pretends to be a judge of wine, gets every stitch of clothes from London—pah!" Mr Pennycuick spat neatly and with precision over the verandah floor into a flower-bed. "But these mother's darlings—you know them. If Mrs Dalzell could see him now, I daresay she'd be bursting with pride, for there's no denying that he's a smart-looking chap. But his father would be ashamed of him."

"Daddy dear!" Mary gently expostulated.

"So he would. An idle, finicking scamp, that'll never do an honest stroke of work as long as he lives. And I wish Deb wouldn't waste her time listening to his nonsense. Isn't it about time to be getting ready for dinner, Moll?"

Mary looked through a window at a clock indoors, and said it was. Guthrie hailed the news, and rose to his feet.

But not yet did he escape. His host, hoisting himself heavily out of his big cane chair, hollowed like a basin under his vast weight, extended a detaining hand.

"Come with me to my office a minute," he half whispered. "I'd like to show you something."

With apparent alertness, but sighing inwardly, Guthrie followed his host to the room in the old part of the house which he called his office. Mr Pennycuick carefully shut the door, opened a desk full of drawers and pigeon-holes, and brought forth a bit of cardboard with a shy air. He had never shown it to his family, and doubtless would not have shown it now if he had not been growing old and soft and sentimental. It was a prim and niggling little water-colour drawing of English Redford—a flat facade, with swallows as big as condors flying over the roofs, and dogs that could never have got through any doorway gambolling on the lawn in front. A tiny 'Mary Carey' in one corner was just, and only just, visible to the naked eye.

"This was done for me, when we were both young, by her—your aunt," said Mr Pennycuick, gloating upon his treasure over Guthrie's shoulder.

"Not my aunt," explained Guthrie. "I don't know what relation, but a long way farther off than that. I am only a very small Carey, you know, sir."

Mr Pennycuick testily intimated, as before, that to be a Carey at all was enough for him. It was his excuse for these confidences, of which he was half ashamed.

While Guthrie studied the poor picture, trying to look as interested as he was expected to be, his host turned and stared down into the drawer that had held it for so many years. Other things were there—the usual dead flowers, still holding together, still fusty to the nose; the usual yellowing ball glove, the usual dance and invitation cards, and faded letters, with their edges frayed; a book-marker with an embroidered 'Friendship', mixed up with forget-me-nots, in coloured silks upon perforated card, backed by a still gleaming red satin ribbon looped at one end and fringed out at the other; the book that it was tucked into ("The Language of Flowers"), a large valentine in a wrapper with many broken seals, some newspaper cuttings, half a sixpence, with a hole in it, and a daguerreotype in a leather case.

This last he took up, opened and gazed at steadily, until his companion was compelled to interrupt him with an inquiring eye. Then he passed it over, and Guthrie turned it this way and that, until he caught the outlines of a long aquiline face between bunched ringlets, and a long bodice with a deep point, which he understood to have belonged to his distant relative at some period before he was born.

"And this?" he murmured politely.

"Yes," said Mr Pennycuick; "that's her. And I've never shown it to a soul before—not even to my wife."

"A—a sweet expression. Fair, was she?"

"Fair as a lily, and as pure, and as beautiful. Gentle as a dove. With blue eyes."

Guthrie did not care for this type just now. He liked them dark and flashing and spirited, like Miss Deborah. But he murmured "Hm-m-m" sympathetically.

"The loveliest woman in England," the old man maundered on. "Surely you must have heard of her, in the family?"

Guthrie had not only heard of her, as we know, he had seen her; but he shook a denying head, and dropped another hint of his own position in the family—outside the royal enclosure, as it were.

"Well, now, I'll just tell you what happened," said Mr Pennycuick, turning to the open drawer again. "Strictly between ourselves, of course—and only because you are a Carey, you understand—somehow you bring it all back—"

He was fumbling with the big valentine, getting it out of its case.

"Yes?" Guthrie encouraged him, while inwardly chafing to be gone.

"You see this?" It was an exquisite structure of foamy paper lace, silver doves, gauzed-winged Cupids, transfixed hearts and wreaths of flowers, miraculously delicate. How it had kept its frail form intact for the many years of its age was a wonder to behold. "You see this?" said the old man. "Well, when I was a young fellow, the 14th of February was a time, I can tell you! You fellows nowadays, you don't know what fun is, nor how to go a-courting, nor anything.... I was at old Redford that year, and she was at Wellwood, and all through the sleet and snow I rode there after dark, tied my horse to a tree, crept up that nut-walk—you know it?—and round by the east terrace to the porch, and laid my valentine on the door-step, and clanged the bell, and hid behind the yew-fence till the man came out to get it. Then I went home. And last thing at night there was a clatter-clatter at the door at Redford, and I dashed out to catch whoever it was—her brother she sent—but wasn't quite smart enough. If only I'd seen him. I should have known—as I ought to have, without that; but I didn't. It never occurred to me that she'd send the answer so soon, and she had disguised her writing in the address, and there was another girl—name of Myrtle Vining—who used to have myrtle on her note-paper, and all over the place—and here these flowers looked to me as if they were meant for myrtle, and these two crossed arrows are like capital V—and how I came to be such an egregious dolt, Lord only knows! Well, I've paid for it—that I have—I've paid for it. Look here—don't touch! I'll show you what I found out when it was too late—after she'd played shy with me till I got angry and left her, and it was all over—my eyes aren't good enough to see it now, but I suppose it's there still—"

With infinite care and the small blade of his pocket-knife, he lifted the tiny tip of a tiny Cupid's wing. With bent head and puckered eyelids, Guthrie peered under, and read: "Yours, M. C.," written on a space of paper hardly larger than a pin's head.

"In my valentine that night," said Mr Pennycuick, "I'd asked her to have me. I didn't hide it up in this way; I knew, while I wondered that she took no notice, that she must have seen it. This was her answer. And I never got it, sir, till she was married to another man—and then by the merest accident. Then I couldn't even have the satisfaction of telling her that I'd got it, and how it was I hadn't got it before. Of course, I wasn't going to upset her after she was married to another man. I've had to let her think what she liked of me."

Guthrie was certainly interested now, but not as interested as he would have been the day before. The day before, this story would have moved him to pour out the tale of his own untimely and irreparable loss. He and old Mr Pennycuick would—metaphorically speaking—have mingled their tears together.

"You forget, off and on," said Mr Pennycuick, as he wrapped up his treasure with shaking hands and excessive care—"perhaps for years at a time, while you are at work and full of affairs; but it comes back—especially when you are old and lonely, and you think how different your life might have been. You don't know anything about these things yet. Perhaps, when you are an old man like me, you will."

Guthrie did know—no one better, he believed. But he did not say. Unknown to himself, he had reached that stage which Mr Pennycuick came to when he began courting Sally Dimsdale, who had made him such a good and faithful (and uninteresting) wife.

"It is better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all," says the old proverb. True enough. But one might write it this way, with even more truth: "It is better to love and lose than to love and gain." One means by love, romantic love, of course.



CHAPTER V.

Dinner was over. They had all gone up to the big drawing-room, which was the feature of the 'new part'—the third house of the series which now made one. The new part was incongruously solid and modern, with a storey (comprising the drawing-room and its staircase only) which overtopped the adjacent roofs. Below it was a corresponding dining-room, and both apartments were furnished richly in the fashion of the time—tons of solid mahogany in the latter, and a pasture of grass-green carpet and brocade upholsterings in the former, lit up with gilded wall-paper and curtain-cornices as by rays of a pale sun. Curly rosewood sofas and arm-chairs, and marbled and mirrored chiffonniers, and the like, were in such profusion upstairs as to do away with the air of bleakness common to a right-angled chamber of large size and middle-class arrangement. A fine grand piano stood open in a prominent place. Four large shaded lamps and four piano candles pleasantly irradiated the whole; while three French windows, opening on a balcony, still stood wide to the summer night.

By the great white marble mantelpiece, under the great gilt-framed pier-glass, filling the huge chair specially dedicated to his use, Father Pennycuick sat in comfortable gossip with his old friend, Thornycroft of Bundaboo. It irked him to separate himself from pipe and newspaper, baggy coat and slouchy slippers, and his corpulent frame objected to stairs; but when he had guests he considered it his duty to toil up after them, in patent shoes and dining costume, and sit amongst them until music or card games were on the way, when he would retire as unobtrusively as his size and heavy footstep permitted. It was the custom to pretend not to see or hear him go, and it would have annoyed him exceedingly had anyone bidden him good-night.

The pair talked shop, after the manner of old squatters when they sit apart; but the tall, spare, grey man with the thoughtful face—more like a soldier than a sheep-farmer—was not thinking much of his flocks and herds. His thoughts followed the direction of his quiet eyes, focussed upon an amber silk gown and its immediate surroundings. Mr Thornycroft was Deborah's godfather, and at forty-seven was to all the sisters quite an elderly man, a sort of bachelor uncle to the family, one with no concern in such youthful pastimes as love-making and marrying, except as a benevolent onlooker and present-giver; and so the veiled vigilance of his regard was not noticed, as it would not have been understood, by anybody.

But other eyes, similarly occupied, were plainer to read.

Jim Urquhart's, of course. Jim—as ineligible for the most coveted post in the Western District as he well could be, by reason of the family already depending upon him, together with the load of debt left along with it by his deceased father, a "pal" of Mr Pennycuick's in the gay and good old times—still contrived to bring himself within the radius of Deborah's observation whenever occasion served. And being there, although silent and keeping to the background, his gaze followed her as the gaze of an opossum follows a light on a dark night, with the same still absorption. Nothing but her returning gaze could divert it from its mark. It was so natural, so calmly customary, so unobtrusive, that nobody cared to attach importance to it.

He sat now, far back against the green brocade hangings of a corner window, where he could see the beloved profile in the middle of the room. His big, work-roughened hands clasped his big, bony knees, and his long, loose body hung forward out of the little chair that was never built for such as he; and he seemed given over to Rose Pennycuick's tale of the pony that had corns, and the cat that had been mangled in a cruel rabbit trap. He gave her wise counsel regarding the treatment of these poor things, his deep, drawling voice an unnoticed instrument in the orchestra of tongues; but his crude-featured, sunburnt face held itself steadily in the one direction. From the day that he came to manhood his soul had kept the same attitude towards the woman to whom the profile belonged. But he never alluded to the fact, save in this silent way.

Then there was the Reverend Bennet Goldsworthy, "Church of England minister", as his style and title ran. Privately, Mr Pennycuick did not like him; but for the sake of the priestly office, and as being a parishioner, he gave him the freedom of the house, and much besides. The parson's buggy never went empty away. Redford hams, vegetables, poultry, butter and eggs, etc., kept his larder supplied. His horse-feed was derived therefrom; also his horse; also his cow. When his cow began to fail, he promptly mentioned the fact—he was mentioning it now to Mary Pennycuick. "Yes," he was saying, A PROPOS of his motherless little girl—whom he often brought to Redford for change of air, leaving her to the care of the sisters until convenient to him to reclaim her—"yes, it will mean much to my child in after life to have had the refining influences of this house at the most impressionable age." Truth was, that Ruby was growing a little old for her Kindergarten, and he wanted Redford to offer her (gratis, of course) a share in Francie's governess. "I could not endure to see her grow up like the daughters of so many of my brother clergy, ignorant of the very rudiments of decent life"—meaning not decent life in the ordinary acceptation of the term, but the life that included evening dress and finger-glasses. "She has caught the colonial accent already at that horrid school. 'When is the new keeow coming?' says she. And, by the way, that reminds me—your good father promised me the cow a fortnight ago. The one we have gives us hardly enough milk for the table; we have had no butter from her for months."

"I am so sorry," grieved Mary, as if Redford had failed in its sacred duty of hospitality. "I will tell him about it. The men have all been so busy with the shearing."

She was also distressed that she could not definitely invite Ruby for the impending holidays. But Deb had issued her commands that Redford was not to be saddled with a nurseless child at Christmas, when everybody's hands would be full.

Mary was Ruby's willing foster-mother when Redford had her in charge; she was also the kindest hostess of them all to Ruby's father. To her was left the task of entertaining him, and she never neglected it. Naturally, he gave her no thanks. When he said that what Ruby needed was a mother's tender care, it was at Deborah he looked, who never turned a hair's-breadth in his direction at any time, except when good manners obliged her, and who was not tender to Ruby, whom she called "that brat", and had smartly spanked on several occasions.

A beautiful woman cannot help having objectionable lovers any more than a king can help a cat looking at him. This man—a most well-meaning, good-hearted, useful little underbred person, typical of so large a class in the Colonial Church—was Deb's pet aversion, and did not know it. He was not made to see his own deficiencies as she saw them. When first she flashed upon his dazzled vision, splendid in a scarlet dinner gown, and carrying her regal head as if the earth belonged to her, he really saw no reason why he, with his qualifications of comparative youth, good looks (his sort of good looks), and notorious pulpit eloquence, should not aspire to rush in where so many feared to tread. His rush had been checked at the outset, but he was still unaware of the nature of the barrier that Deb held rigid between them. He continued to gaze at her with his ardent little black eyes as if no barrier were there. And it was because he did so that Deb, who could not slap him for it, slapped Ruby sometimes, and called her a brat, and would not have her asked to Redford for the holidays; thereby giving occasion to envious Alice Urquhart for that warning to Guthrie Carey not to trust his baby to her.

There was still another lover present—the favoured lover. He sat with Alice near the piano where Francie and her governess were playing duets, listening without listening to his companion's jerky talk—those pathetic attempts to attract him which so many second-rate girls were not too proud to make obvious to his keen apprehension. Claud Dalzell's distinction was that he was the most polished young man of his social circle. He had had all the advantages that money could give and in addition, was naturally refined and handsome. To hear Claud Dalzell read poetry, or sing German folk-songs to his own graceful accompaniment, was to make a poet of the listener; to dance with him was pure enchantment (to another good dancer); he was the best horseman in the land; and if his present host could not appreciate his many charms—except perhaps the last named—others did. The whole race of girls, more or less, fell down and worshipped him.

He sat with Alice Urquhart because he could not sit with Deborah; or rather, because he would not condescend to share her with that "t'penny-ha'penny mate of a tramp cargo boat", as he styled Guthrie Carey, whom she had made happy at last. She had rescued him from her father's clutches; she had called him to a chair beside her, where there was no room for a third chair. Her glistening skirt flowed over his modest toes. Her firm, round arm, flung along the chair arm between them, made him feel like Peter Ibbotson before the Venus of Milo—it was so perfect a piece of human sculpture. She lay back, slowly fanning herself, and smiling, her eyes wandering all the time in Dalzell's neighbourhood, without actually touching him—a tall, deep-bosomed, dark-eyed, dignified as well as beautiful young woman, knowing herself to be such, and unspoiled by the knowledge. She wore her crown with the air of feeling herself entitled to it; but it was an unconscious air, without a trace of petty vanity behind it. Everything about her was large and generous and incorruptibly wholesome, even her undoubted high temper. And this was her charm to every man who knew her—not less than her lovely face.

Guthrie Carey—and who shall blame him?—basked in his good luck. But every now and then he looked up and met the glower of Claud Dalzell with a steely eye. These two men, each so fine of his kind, met with the sentiments of rival stags in the mating season; the impulse to fight 'on sight' and assure the non-survival of the unfittest came just as naturally to them as to the less civilised animals. Each recognised in the other not merely a personal rival, but an opposing type.

It amused Deborah, who grasped the situation as surely as they did, to note the bristling antipathy behind the careful politeness of their mutual regard. If it did not bristle under her immediate eye, it crawled.

"Look out for the articles of virtue," Claud had warned her earlier in the evening. "That big sailor of yours is rather like a bull in a china shop; he nearly had the carved table over just now. He doesn't know just how to judge distance in relation to his bulk. I'd like to know his fighting weight. When he plants his hoof you can feel the floor shake."

"He IS a fine figure of a man," Deb commented, with a smile.

"I can't," yawned Mr Dalzell casually, "stand a person who eats curry with a knife and fork."

"It was pretty tough, that curry. I expect he couldn't get it to pieces with a spoon."

"He did not try to."

"I never noticed. I shouldn't remember to notice a little trifle like that."

"My dear girl, it is the little trifle that marks the man."

"Oh!" said Deb. And then she sought Guthrie Carey, and brought him to sit beside her.

"That gentleman sings well," remarked Guthrie tepidly, at the conclusion of a finely rendered song. "I often wish I could do those ornamental things. Unfortunately, a man who has his work—if he sticks to it properly—gets no time to qualify. I'm afraid I shall never shine at drawing-room tricks."

"Tell me about your work," said clever Deb, smiling behind her waving fan.

At once she had him quite happy, talking about himself. No effort was necessary to draw him out; that she deigned to listen to him was enough. His struggles as boy—blue-nose boy; his tough battle for the first certificate; his complicated trials as second mate, holding theoretically an authority that was practically none; his rise to be qualified master and actual mate—no "t'penny-ha'penny" position in his eyes evidently; his anticipation of the "master extra" and the pass in steam, which might lead to anything—the whole tale was told her in terse, straightforward fashion, but with an art new to the modest sailor-man, who hated brag as much as cowardice. He bragged in self-defence, in challenge of the formidable equipment of his rival. And how interested she was! How well she understood his case—that it was better than the swellest training-ship to make your own way by your own exertions, and splendid to have done so much while still on the right side of thirty.

So much! He had done more than that—he had been a husband and father at twenty-one. But this, his most distinguished exploit, was not mentioned.



CHAPTER VI.

He mentioned it next day, however. He had to; for after breakfast a letter, forwarded from Five Creeks, reached him from the baby's caretaker—the lady of whom he stood in such undignified dread. The sight of her handwriting paled his brown face and set his stout heart fluttering. What did she want of him? He kept the letter unopened for some time, because he was afraid to know, although convinced beforehand that he did know—that, of course, it was the visit he should have paid before coming up country. When at last he drew the sheet from its envelope, as if it had come from an infected house, and had not been fumigated, and cast a hurried glance over the contents, he found that the unexpected had happened once more—the wildly unexpected.

She was going to be married. He was a "general merchant" in prosperous business, and there was nothing to wait for—except Mr Carey's instructions as to what was to be done with the dear little boy. She would feel acutely the parting from him, after he had been from his birth like a child of her own, but Mr Carey would understand that she could not now continue her labour of love on his behalf—that she had others to consider. But she knew of a most excellent substitute—a dear friend of her own, who had long taken the deepest interest in darling Harry, and with whom she was sure he would be as safe and happy as with herself. She had expected to see Mr Carey when he arrived, to arrange matters; she hoped he would come as soon as possible.

In the bewilderment of his mingled elation and anxieties, the young father did not know what to do for the moment, while recognising the urgent need for action. He must go as soon as possible, of course; but he could not depart suddenly without a reason, and to give the reason would be to give himself away to Alice Urquhart. Besides, a day's outing had been planned on purpose for him; the possibilities in connection with it were enormous; and five days of his leave were unexpended still. He must think it over. He must have advice. So, as a first instalment of duty, he scrawled a recklessly affectionate letter, full of gratitude to her who had been his good genius and the guardian angel of his boy. He did not disguise his envy of the general merchant, whose vows of love could not have excelled in fervent expression the good wishes of the writer for the happiness of the betrothed pair. He hoped to have the pleasure of seeing his dear old friend on the following day, or the day after that at latest; and he promised himself the satisfaction of squandering his saved pay on such a wedding present as would at least cover the cost of the bread and milk the boy had devoured at her expense. Guthrie dropped his letter in the post-bag while they were calling to him that it was time to start. And he turned the key of silence upon his secret until he could pour it into the right ear.

It was a wonder he did not pour it into Mary's, for she drove him to Bundaboo, and nobody could have been more sympathetic than she. She was the virtual mother of the family, who loved children, and she was not—she could not be—a husband-hunter; a sensible man in domestic difficulties could not have sought a wiser confidante. Yet he resisted stubbornly all her gentle invitations to confide. In the first place, he did not want to go with her in the pony-carriage, while Deb and Dalzell rode. He did not like to see it taken for granted, as it seemed to be by all, that a sailor on horseback must necessarily make a fool of himself; the slight to his self-respect was enough to dull the edge of his joy in the general merchant's proceedings—for, as the reader will remember, he was still but three-and-twenty.

He had to weigh down the springs of a little basket thing no better than an invalid's wheel-chair, and see the young exquisite, whom he could have tossed over his shoulder with one hand, show off feats of fancy horsemanship to make Deb's dark eyes kindle. Mr Pennycuick had carelessly asked Billy's degenerate son to "school a bit" a creature which for weeks had not allowed a man upon his back, and had had no exercise beyond his voluntary scamperings about the paddock from which he had been brought, dancing with excitement and indignation. All the stablemen had been required to get his bridle and saddle on; he now wheeled round and round in the large space left for him, while Claud Dalzell, in his London riding clothes, and with his air of a reigning prince, warily turned with him. Guthrie Carey, in the waiting pony-carriage, had but one interest in the performance—his hopeful anticipation of a fatal, or at least a ridiculous, result.

But there was no fear of that, and evidently Deb knew it. Sitting her own dancing chestnut, how her beautiful eyes glowed! She gloried in the ring of breathless witnesses to the prowess of her knight. Many a time did she scoff and scowl at the dandyisms which she deemed effeminate; this was one of the moments which showed the man as she desired him. Through those fine fingers, with the polished filbert nails, the shortened reins were drawn and held as by clamps of steel; so was the wild-eyed head by the lock of mane in the same hand. When no one was looking—although every eye believed itself fixed upon him—his left foot found its stirrup, his right gave a hop, and like lightning he had sprung up and round, without touching the horse until fairly down in the saddle; so that the animal was robbed of his best chance of getting the rider off, which is at the moment before he is quite on. No other chance was offered to the baffled one, although he kicked like a demon for nearly ten minutes.

"I wish," Guthrie Carey ground through his strong teeth, "that the cranky beast would break his neck." It was not the beast's neck he meant.

But Deb called: "Bravo! Well done, indeed!" and when the battle was over called the victor to her with her lovely face of pride and joy. Right willingly he went, and they sailed away together like the wind, and were lost to view. Yes, this was Dalzell's hour. She knew nothing of the brave deeds of sailor-men—common and constant as eating and drinking, and performed to no audience and for no reward.

Alice Urquhart and Rose Pennycuick, also on horseback, followed the flying pair; then a buggy containing Jim and schoolgirl Francie (her governess gone home for holidays today), and a load of ironwork for a blacksmith on the route; last of all, Mary and the sailor, for all the world like the old father and mother of the party. Mr Pennycuick excused himself from excursions nowadays, and so did Miss Keene, the elderly and quite uninfluential duenna of the house, when one was needed (she "did the flowers" and knitted singlets for everybody).

The Shetlands pattered along at a great rate, but did not come up with the riders until they were nearly at Bundaboo. And all the way—a long way—Guthrie Carey had to make efforts not to bore his hostess. They talked about the clear air and the dun-coloured land—the richest sheep-country in the colony, but now without a blade of green upon it—and made comments upon three bullock drays piled with wool bales, and two camping sundowners, and one Chinaman hawker's cart, which they encountered on the way. And that was about all.

The home-coming was a different affair.

Tea had been served in Mr Thornycroft's cool drawing-room, hats and gloves had been collected, orders sent to the stables; and the young sailor, panting to emulate the prowess of his rival, and thereby compel Miss Deborah to respect him, was asking one and another what were the arrangements for the return journey.

"I," said Rose, who hugged a puppy in her arms—a puppy long possessed, but only now old enough to leave its mother—"I am going in the buggy with Jim."

"Wouldn't you rather go in the pony-carriage?" inquired Carey anxiously. "You could make a better lap on the lower seat. I could ride your horse home for you if they'll lend me a saddle; yours could be put in the buggy—"

Even as he spoke, Deb came round the corner from somewhere, with swift steps and a brilliant complexion, Dalzell hurrying after her.

"Mr Carey," she called, while the sailor was still yards away from her, "Molly and I are going to change skirts. I am tired with my ride this morning, and am going to drive home. Will you trust your neck to me?"

Would he not, indeed? He was but a pawn in the game, but what did that matter? Eighteen miles absolutely alone with her! And possibly half of them in the dark! No saddle horse in the world could have tempted him now. He could hardly speak his gratitude and joy.

"Delighted, Miss Deborah!—delighted!—delighted!"

But Dalzell, black as thunder, swung aside, muttering in his teeth.

"Oh, oh!" Francie's loud whisper followed. "DID you hear what he said? He said 'damn'. That's because—"

"You cut along," Jim's drawl broke in, "and get ready if you want to ride."

Mr Thornycroft tucked Deb into the pony-carriage with the solicitude of a mother fixing up a young baby going out with its nurse. He insisted that she should wear a shawl over her linen jacket, and brought forth an armful of softest WOOL, Indian wove.

"Where did you get this?" she asked, fondling it, for she loved fine fabrics.

"Never mind," said he. "Put it on."

"I am suspicious of these shawls and fallals that Bundaboo seems full of. Who is the hidden lady?"

He only smiled at her.

"Ah, godpapa, you spoil me!"

She drew the wrap about her, and he assisted to adjust it, with gentle skill. Then he turned abruptly to Carey, as to a groom.

"See that she doesn't throw that off. It will be chilly presently. No, she'd better drive—she knows the road. But take care of her. Good-night."

"Isn't he an old dear?" said Deb to Carey, as they drove off. "He has been a second father to me ever since I was a child."

She did not hurry the ponies, being anxious not to appear to be tearing after her offended swain.

"The evening is the pleasantest time to be out, this weather," she said, lolling back in her seat. "And I'm sure I don't want to look at dinner after such a lunch as I have eaten. I don't know how you feel."

"I feel the same," he assured her, with truth.

So, for her own purposes, she made their drive half as long again as it need have been. And was so friendly, so free, so intimate!—leading that poor innocent to the belief that his great rival was already virtually out of his way. He was an unsophisticated sailor-lad, who, with that rival's help, had reached a certain stage and crisis—another one—of his man's life; and—let us be honest in our diagnosis—the bubbles of Mr Thornycroft's fine champagne still ran in his blood and brightened his brain, lifting him above the prosaic ground-level where a craven timidity would have smothered him. Not touching the balance of his wits, be it understood; just heartening him—no more.

Twice and thrice she branched off from the road to show him something that could well have waited for another day. She was imprudent enough to introduce him to so sentimental a spot as the family cemetery—established at a time when there were only Dalzells and Pennycuicks to feed it. "Their shepherds were killed by the blacks," said Deb, as she pushed the ponies up to the wall, and he rose in the carriage to look over the top, "and they buried them here, marking the place with a pile of stones. There were other deaths, and they enclosed the piece of land. Then a brother of Mr Dalzell's, and a girl; and Mr Dalzell himself wished to be put here, beside his brother. Not his wife, she wouldn't; she lies in the Melbourne cemetery. Then some of our babies, then mother. She was the last. I don't suppose there will be any more now. The State will insist on taking charge of us."

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