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White Hood and Blue Cap: A Christmas Bough with Two Branches

Chapter III

page 18

Chapter III.

The morning dawned—bright, and calm, and cool. All nature was hushed in profound repose; and the intense silence which prevailed was only broken by the musical cadences of the river, rippling and seething in its rocky bed. As the sun's advance began to light up the rugged seenery, the gathering vapours rolled upwards, forming fleecy cloudlets along the face of the mountains, as they ascended to the lofty snowy peaks, which glistened in the warm light whilst yet their base was shrouded in deep shadows. And now from the chimneys of the little settlement there floated tiny wreaths of thin blue smoke, bearing witness that the dwellers therein were once more astir—that for them another day of toil had commenced. Presently, from behind a sky-kissing pinnacle up rose the orb of day, flooding the Terrace with sunshine; and then the miners began to issue from their huts, and to resume their accustomed labours.

“I think you had better see that girl at the Maori Hen,” said Jim Trevanna, as he stooped to light his pipe with a fire-stick from the hearth.

“Bother the girl at the Maori Hen,” was the testy reply, “I am getting sick and tired of her. She worries me.”

“Perhaps she has cause to, George,” said his mate, sententiously.

“What is it to you, if she has? I wish you would mind your own business and let mine alone. I can't think what has come to you; you seem quite changed of late.”

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“Perhaps I am changed. I don't feel quite right, I know. Look you here, George. I am sorry if I've said anything to anger you; but I am fearful of mischief, and I can't hold my peace. Take my advice, or leave it, as you please. I say again, you had better see Bess this morning. I am going to the claim.”

And, without further parley, he shouldered his pick, and departed.

“Hang it all!” ruminated George. “What a nuisance it is when a woman sticks like a burr, after a fellow has ceased to care for her. I'll go and see her, and just give her a piece of my mind. Why can't she let one alone?”

Why not, indeed? Why cannot a woman be content to sit down with her misery, with folded hands and in meek submissiveness, when a man has “ceased to care for her,” who once did care for her—overmuch? Have not the teachings of five thousand centuries taught her that, as the weaker vessel, it is her place to endure, and man's to enjoy? Such, at any rate, is the human code; the Divine code orders otherwise; but rarely is it heeded by the nobler animal.

Bess was waiting for him. Between the inn and the hut there was a huge pile of weather-worn, lichen-encrusted rocks, that had fallen from the mountains, or been transported thither by glaciers in the Titanic age, and which from a fancied resemblance of the upper stone to a Kilmarnock bonnet was popularly known as the “Scotchman.” Under the lee of these stood Bess, ready to intercept him. So still and motionless was she that she seemed a living statue, set in a framework of light and shade. Jim saw her as he passed, but said nought. He only whistled softly, and muttered under his breath, “George is going to have a bad time for certain.”

A few minutes later George came forth from the hut. As he approached, she came forward and confronted him, and the action brought her into the sunlight.

She was undeniably handsome—a large-limbed page 20 Helen, or a Cleopatra—tall of stature, with a finely-developed voluptuous form. Her luxuriant blue-black hair came low down on her forehead, so as to leave but scant space above the long, flexible eyebrows. Her eyes—large, black, and piercing—were now so full of fire withal, that the beholder quailed before their intense lustre; and her perfectly straight nose terminated in thin nostrils, which visibly quivered and dilated under the influence of great excitement. Her mouth was large but shapely, and remarkable by reason of the fixed compression of the full ripe lips; and her square-set lower jaw and somewhat massive neck, denoted great power and resolute will. Altogether, you would come to the conclusion that here was a woman of great vitality and much force of character—capable of being exercised for good or evil, as circumstances might surround and sway her.

Yes; George quailed as her big eyes flashed out upon him, and he turned his own away, guiltily. He had proposed to himself to “give her a piece of his mind,” as you know; and now, when he encountered the gaze of the woman he had injured, conscience made a coward of him. Nevertheless he tried to assume his wonted air of bravado—and failed in the attempt.

“Well, Bess, my bonnie lassie,” he said with a mocking smile, but without looking at her, “you told Jim you wanted to see me, and here I am. What is it about? I can't stay long, for I'm behind my time already.”

The woman perceptibly shivered; but not with cold.

“Yes, I did want to see thee,” she said, in a deep low voice, betraying suppressed emotion, and with something that was almost a sob catching her breath. “There was a time, and not so far back either, when I shouldn't have had to send for thee. Thou couldst come to me then without any sending; aye—and stop too as long as I'd let thee.”

“Well, well, Bess; never mind that now. That sort of thing can't last for ever, you know.”

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The heartless speech inflamed the woman to yet greater wrath.

“What!—Never mind it? “Tis well for thee, George, to say ‘never mind;’ but I must mind it—aye, and suffer for it, maybe. Thou'st told me many's the time how thou loved me, and I believed thee, to my cost. And now it ‘can't last,’ eh? But I tell thee, it shall last. Dost think I'll stand by and say nought, when I see thee leaving me for that pale-faced wench of Ned Austin's, thou'rt so sweet on?—Never, George; thee had better believe it.”

“Oh-ho! So you are jealous, are you? Well, you have no call to be, then. And if you are—suppose I am sweet on Mary Austin, or any other girl, I don't see what concern it is of yours. There's plenty other lads than I about, and I'm sure I shouldn't be jealous if you were sweet on some of them. Tell me what you want, and let me go to work.”

She came closer to him, and laying her hand upon his arm, compelled him to look at her.

“How dare thee say such a thing? As if I should be likely to care for any other lad but thyself. I'll tell thee what concern it is of mine. I want to know when thou dost mean to fetch the wedding-ring and make an honest woman of me.”

He tried to laugh it off, and turned as to go away, without replying. But she gripped him so firmly that he could not relieve himself without violence.

“I will know,” she insisted. “I will not be put off any longer. Not one foot shalt thou budge, my Handsome George, till I've got a solemn promise from thee. Not that thy promises are much worth, as I know, to my sorrow. Oh! George, George,” she cried with a sudden revulsion of feeling, “Don't leave me. I love thee so as I cannot give thee up. Only make me thy wife, and I'll love thee and be thy slave all lifelong. Tell me thou art only joking, and I'll forgive thee; but for God's sake don't leave me, or I shall die.

She clung to him with a tenacity begotten of love page 22 and despair. But as the woman melted, the man hardened. “Pooh! Bess, you are worth twenty dead women yet,” was his reply to her appeal. “And I can't make any promises about it. There's no need to hurry.”

“But there is, George,” she persisted. “There is indeed. Too much need, Heaven help me.—Listen—” and, throwing her arms around his neck, she whispered something—only a few words—but they visibly affected him.

“Is that true, Bess?” he asked. “On your soul, is it as you say?”

“Aye, indeed, it is true; upon my soul it is. Oh! George, pity on me. I have neither father nor brother to take my part, nor mother nor sister to comfort me. Only thee, George, that I trusted so; and if thou art false to me now, what can I do?”

She burst into a passion of tears, as she lavished caresses upon him; and the dormant sense of manhood faintly stirred in his breast. Before he left her, he had renewed his vows, and promised to marry her; nay, to make “assurance doubly sure,” he swore it. And still, with characteristic weakness, trifling with Time the Avenger, he sought to put off the marriageday. “I cannot manage it just now. There's a hut to build, and things to get, and I should like to have some more gold out of the claim first. But it shall be soon, Bessie; never fear.”

And the woman believed, and forgave him, because of her exceeding love.

* * * * * *

“Where's Handsome George this morning?” queried Austin, as Jim stepped into the claim.

“I don't know,” said Jim.

“Oh! come now; that cock won't fight. You never can tell a lie properly, you know; for your face always contradicts your tongue. You know well enough, and guess I do, too. He's up at the Maori Hen, spooning with Black Bess—that's his little game. She came peeping in at the window last night, looking for page 23 him, I reckon; and Master George capsized the table, to stop me from going out to see. He thought that I wasn't up to his dodge; but I was, though I didn't let on because of Mary.”

Now, Jim had no intention of divulging his fears and suspicions to Mary's brother; but the words dropped from him involuntarily—“Don't you think it would be as well, if you didn't have him to your place so often?”

Ned stopped work, and leaning on his long-handled shovel, regarded his mate with a puzzled expression of countenance. “Why, what for? I am not so mortal fond of Bess Humphreys as to turn him away that he may go courting her. Why, what—oh! Jerusalem!” he exclaimed, as another possible explanation of Jim's meaning occurred to him. “You don't think—no, you never can suppose—that he is after Mary? Man alive! she would'nt look at him, for all as handsome as he is. No, no. Handsome is as handsome does; and for me, I wouldn't allow it if she did. He's a deal too gay for my little girl.”

Jim, answered irrelevantly, “I'm going up the race to turn on the water.”

For many nights thereafter George Gifford was rarely a visitor at Austin's hut; and, somehow, Jim Trevanna dropped into his place. He was but poor company, as Ned remarked, his conversation being mostly of the monosyllabic order. He would sit quietly, smoking his pipe, and listening to Ned's performances on the violin, which he played with some skill and effect, and watching “Miss” Mary at work— and was seemingly happy in being permitted to do so. And sometimes he and Ned would have a game of draughts or backgammon. But much talking clearly was not his forte.

Said Mary, on one of these occasions, “Where's George?”

“I'm sure I don't know, Miss Mary.

“Is it true that he has taken up with that bold-looking woman at the Maori Hen,” continued Mary, page 24 with an almost imperceptible toss of her pretty head. You see, angels in petticoats are capable of being a trifle censorious at times.

The question was an awkward one for Jim. To be loyal to his friend, he must be false to himself, and untrue to the fair young girl beside him. So he fell back on his usual formula—“I don't know.

“No,” said Ned, “Jim never knows anything he don't want to. Reckon you needn't ask him, Polly.”

“Good old Jim;” said Mary, soothingly. “It is a shame to tease you.”

Jim looked up, and caught her soft, kind eyes gazing upon him so sweetly that he forthwith blushed: like a peony. He said he “thought it was about time to go.” Nevertheless he did not go for a full hour or more thereafter.

After a little while George began to visit more frequently at the Austins, and then the conversation flowed more freely and cheerfully. At such times, Jim always found or made some pretext for shortening his stay, despite all efforts to induce him to remain. In truth, the talk and the laughter vexed him—he would not, even to himself, confess wherefore. He knew that it was pleasant to gaze on Mary's face with silent admiration, and sweet to listen to her voice; and he knew also that he was pained when that face smiled upon another, and that voice vibrated in another's ear. But he entertained so modest an opinion of himself that he would as soon have thought of crying for the moon as of aspiring to the favour of the woman whom yet he loved, with a love the intensity of which he was unaware of, but which he hugged to his bosom with miserly avidity, and jealous secresy.

And Bessie!—Her troubles were thickening. George was again growing cold and indifferent. The momentary twinge of conscience which her passionate grief had evoked was fading away. Despite her prayers and remonstrances, the marriage-day had not been fixed; and, neglecting her, he now passed most of his evenings in the company of her unwitting rival.

Evidently a thunderstorm was brewing.