He dropped the saddest “No” into the pregnant pause.
“No, Deb—no; I expected that. Staunch through everything— that’s you all over. Well”—with a movement as if to pull himself together—“I’m staunch too. We’re equals in that, anyhow, and don’t you forget it. I’ll not bother you any more—I never have bothered you, have I?—but I’m here when you want me, body and soul, at any hour of the day or night. You’ll remember that?” stretching his horny hand across to her, and being in the same instant electrified by the touch of her lips upon it.
“Oh, I will! I will!”
The evening post brought a ship letter. Guthrie Carey was in port. He had been there long enough to hear the news that Deborah Pennycuick was penniless, and that Claud Dalzell had deserted her. So he had written to her at length—the longest letter of his life—ten pages.
She took it to her bedroom and sat down to read it, while at the same time she rested a little before dinner. She had frowned over the envelope; now she smiled over the first pages; she sighed over the middle ones; she even wept a little over the last. Then she wrote out an answer and sent it by a groom to the nearest telegraph office:
“Please do not come. Am writing.”
Thus she cast aside in one day three good men and true, heart-bound to one who was not worthy to be ranked with any of them. But that is the way of love.
There was an attic at the top of a dark flight of stairs in the suburban villa that was now the sisters’ home. It contained a fireplace and a long dormer window—three square casements in a row, of which the outer pair opened like doors—facing the morning sun and a country landscape. The previous tenants had used it for a box and lumber room, and left it cobwebbed, filthy and asphyxiating. Deb ordered a charwoman to clean it, and a man to distemper the grubby plaster and stain the floor, and then laid down rugs, and assembled tables and books, and basket-chairs, and girls’ odds and ends; whereby it was transformed into a cosy boudoir and their favourite room. Hither came Mary when she could escape from that treadmill of which she never spoke, bringing her black-eyed boy to astonish his aunts with his cleverness, and astonishing them herself with the heretical notions which an intimate association with orthodoxy seemed to have implanted in her. But Bennet was not admitted, nor any other outsider.
The little bricked hearth, when reminiscent wood fires burned on it, was a pleasant gathering-place in cold weather; but it was the window in the projecting gable towards which the sisters most commonly converged. It was about eight feet long by two feet high, and close up under it, nearly flush with its sill, stood a substantial six-foot-by-four table, the chairs at either end comfortably filling the rest of the alcove. They could sit here to write or sew, or drink afternoon tea, and look out upon as pleasant a rural landscape—the Malvern Hills—as any suburban villa could command. It was that view, indeed, which had decided Deb to take the house.