White Hood and Blue Cap: A Christmas Bough with Two Branches
It was a small hut wherein George and Jim resided, and scant of furniture—two rough “stretcher” bedsteads, heaped with blankets, a small, rude table, a few stools of home manufacture, and a couple of stout sea chests, nearly completing the inventory. If any one had looked into it on the evening wherewith my story opens, they would have seen Jim busy over a brisk log fire, busily engaged in cooking the savoury chops which formed the basis of their frugal supper, whilst George was busily adorning himself, as best he might under the circumstances, before a very small looking-glass suspended from the wall. Presently Jim transferred the contents of the pan to a plate, which he placed on the table—guiltless of cloth or covering—with a loaf of bread, some salt and a couple of plates, knives and forks, two tin pannikins, and a small tin boiler, called a “billy,” filled with steaming tea.
“Supper is ready, George, when you've done titivating yourself.” Thus announced Jim.
“What's the matter now, old man?” queried George. “You don't look happy, and you don't speak happy. Have Miss Mary's goats given you too much trouble?”
“No; and I ain't happy. I'm downright tired of this life, and I'll sell out if I can, and go away—somewhere.”
“But what for? What's wrong with you?”
“Everything is wrong, George. I'm wrong myself. I'm wrongly made, and wrongly put together, and—dash it! Never mind what. Come to supper.”
They sat down in silence, and in silence they page 13 commenced and continued to eat—George wondering why Jim was so unusually out of sorts, and Jim never once lifting his eyes to the other's face.
Whilst they were thus occupied, the door opened, and a shock-headed, bare-footed urchin came in. He held out to George a letter. “Here,” he said, that's for you.”
“Who is it from?” George asked.
“I warn't to say. She'll hide me if I do,” and before any further question could be asked he had disappeared in the outer darkness.
Then Jim looked up, eyeing the letter suspiciously as George opened it. Apparently its contents were of the briefest, for its recipient barely glanced at it—then threw it into the fire. As he did so, he caught his companion's anxious look. “You need not stare at me as if I had committed murder,” he said. “What on earth ails you to-night?”
“Who's it from?” asked Jim, sententiously.
“Well, if you particularly want to know, it's from Bess Humphreys. She wants me to go down to the Maori Hen to-night to see her, and I shan't. That's all.”
“Yes,” said Jim Trevanna, “she was speaking to me to-night about you. Take care, George—you'll have some trouble with that woman yet. She's jealous, George; and no wonder.”
“Let her be. I can't be bothered with her nonsense. Anyhow she won't see me to-night, for I promised Ned Austin to smoke a pipe with him, and there I'm going.”
“Jim got up from the table and paced to and fro for a few seconds. Then he stood before George, and said:—“Look here, mate: I never interfered with you yet, and I don't want to now; but I must. You are carrying on with two women; and I wouldn't mind if you carried on with twenty, so far as that's concerned. But that girl—Miss Mary, I mean—is far too good for any dash'd nonsense; and if you don't mean to do what's right by her, for God's sake leave her alone.”page 14
“What the deuce do you mean by lecturing me in this fashion,” angrily retorted George. “What business is it of yours? Hang me if I don't think you're in love yourself. Which is it, Jimmy? Mary Austin, or bonnie black Bess? Eh? Say it's Bess, old boy, and go up and act as my proxy to-night. 'Pon my soul, you're welcome.”
And the handsome fellow laughed gaily. The notion of Dusky Jim playing the lover seemed to him a most excellent conceit. But the laugh was not echoed by Jim, whose face assumed a gray ashen hue as he listened to the careless mocking words. He was silent for a brief space, but the twitching of his lips made it evident that he was undergoing a severe internal conflict.
“George,” he said, and he spoke slowly and deliberately in a semi-tone—his voice vibrating with suppressed emotion—“George Gifford, you and I have been mates for some years now; and you've been a pretty wildish chap; you know you have, though I have never had any words with you about it. But I can't stand by and let you ‘play the fool,’ as Bess Humphreys said, with that young girl. No; I can't, and I won't.”
“Oh ho!—Bonny Bess said that, did she? What the mischief have you and Bess to do with it? You, anyhow? Bess might have some right to talk; I admit that. But what right have you, I should like to know?”
“Right?”—and the word was almost a sob, “No; God help me, I have no right—no right. I don't think I've got any right to live. But I can't let it be. What is Ned Austin thinking of to encourage your coming to his place? He don't know you so well as I do, or I'm sure he wouldn't.”
“Hadn't you better go and tell him what a shocking example I am? Pshaw, Jim! let Ned alone to look after his sister. I never saw you in such a temper before, and I think I've had enough of it; so I'll just bid you good night—I'm off to Ned's; and if page 15 Miss Bessie comes here, why, you know, you can just entertain her for me. Ta-ta.”
And lighting his pipe he went jauntily away, leaving Jim alone with his thoughts and his fears.
That night George sat by the fireside in Austin's hut, cosily—chatting with Ned and smiling with Mary. She was fashioning another white hood; and from silently admiring the play of her deft fingers as she went on with her work, he took the hood out of her hand to examine it. As he did so, a slight sound caused him to turn and glance at the uncurtained window. What he beheld there paled his countenance, and caused him to drop the hood from his hands.
“Gracious God!” he exclaimed.
“What—what is it?” asked brother and sister in a breath.
“Nothing,” he answered.
“Nothing?” Yes, nothing. Only a woman's face peeping in upon them. A face distorted with rage—a face with bright piercing eyes, sparkling with passionate wrath. It gleamed upon him for a single second; a clenched hand was swiftly shaken with a menacing gesture, as he gazed. Then it vanished.
“I feared I had spoiled your hood, Miss Mary,” he said, by way of explanation.
“Why, you look as if you had seen a ghost,” cried Mary. “I declare you gave me quite a start,”
“Well, I thought some one was looking in”—it was Ned who spoke. “And this isn't the first time either. You must rig up a blind to the window, Polly.”
Whilst speaking, he rose and moved towards the door, as intending to open it and look forth. Just then, whether by accident or design, George upset the table, and thereby effectually hindered the execution of Ned's intention. First, there was the candle to pick up and re-light. Then there were the contents of Mary's work-basket to be gathered up. By the time these things were accomplished it was too late to look for the owner of the face. But George had recognised page 16 it as the face of a woman whom he had wronged, and had just cause to fear.
“What a clumsy fellow I am,” he said, outwardly bewailing the slight catastrophe, and inwardly congratulating himself on the result. Nobody contradicted him; but Mary said—apropos of nothing that had occurred, but following some train of thought—“Where is Jim? He never comes to see me now. Is he at the Maori Hen?
And George guiltily answered “Yes, perhaps he is.”
When, at last, he went away, said Mary to her brother—“Ned, why don't you ask Jim to come up sometimes? I can't think what he stays away for. He is always very kind to me, though he doesn't say much.”
Jim Trevanna, left by himself, sat for a while over the fire, smoking his pipe, and brooding over George's “carryings on,” as he phrased it. Then he extinguished the “brief candle,” and betook himself to his blankets and to sleep. But his slumbers were of short duration. Some one shook him roughly by the shoulder; and, starting up, he saw, by the light of the yet glowing embers, that the intruder was none other than Bess, of the Maori Hen.
“What do you want here, Bess, at this time of night?” he asked.
“Don't talk. Listen to me,” she said; and there was the same imperative ring in her voice that I have told you of. “He is down at Austin's again to-night. I know it. I saw him there just now, smiling at her. And I sent to him to come and see me to-night, and he wouldn't—the wretch. No, he wouldn't. Dost thou know that? He couldn't come to me, but he can go to she.”
“Well, well,” said Jim—he was worried sufficiently without this new infliction—“What have I got to do with it?”
“Thou, thou fool,” she answered with infinite scorn, “Nothing at all. I only want thee to give him page 17 a message. Tell him from me, I must see him tomorrow morning. I must and will see him to-morrow morning. Tell him that. Be sure thou do, Jim; and let him dare to stop away. That's all.”
And with a swirl and a rush she swept out of the hut, leaving Jim to get up and close the door after her.
“I wish I were out of this. Bless'd if I don't,” he soliloquised. “It's getting too hot for me. Lord! what can I do? I don't rightly know what them parsons mean by being ‘born again;’ but if I could be born better looking and more proper like, I wouldn't much mind trying it on for once. It couldn't be no worse than tooth-drawing anyhow.”
And, with these reflections, he buried his head in the blankets, and went to sleep again.