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

Chapter VII

page 47

Chapter VII.

George Gifford was buried in a little gully which had been extemporised as a cemetery; and all the population of the Terrance suspended work to attend the funeral. Bess was there, clad in the garments of woe; and the people were awed when she knelt by the side of the grave, and with streaming eyes, and hand upraised to Heaven, invoked the Divine vengeance “on they who had caused his death.” “Puir lassie!”—said a kind-hearted old Scotchman. “He was aye her lover, ye ken. It's no surprising she tak's it sae much to heart.”

She wore black from that day forth. In the brief words that escaped her lips, she betrayed intense hatred of Mary, and expressed measureless contempt for Jim. Any allusion to the subject she resented so fiercely, that the frequenters of the Maori Hen ceased to speak of it in her presence. Once when reference was casually made to Jim as the slayer of Handsome George, she retorted angrily:—“Thou knows nought about it. Jim Trevanna had no more to do with it than thyself. But he's a fool—that's what he is—a poor, stupid fool.”

So here were two women who protested that Jim was innocent. For Mary never lost an opportunity of declaring her disbelief of his guilt, at which wiseacres sneered and wondered. “What possessed those two girls,” they asked each other, “that they should stand up so stoutly in the fellow's defence, when the circumstances were so strong against him?—Besides, had he not confessed that he was guilty?—Pshaw! it was only just like women,” &c., &c.

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As for Mary, she seemed to have passed through a century of suffering—so pale was her face, so sad her eyes, so downcast and depressed her manner.

Thus matters went on, and Autumn faded into Winter, and King Frost chained up the birth-places of the streams, and the river dwindled in its bed, and the snow shrouded the lower hills, and at last carpeted the Terrace itself. Then an event occurred.

It was a frequent custom of Mary's to visit the Scotchman rock, which seemed to have a terrible fascination for her. One night, when Ned had gone down to the Maori Hen, leaving her alone, a morbid desire overcame her to look upon the scene of the tragedy I have narrated. So she donned her white hood,—for she had replaced the one which figured so conspicuously on that fatal ball-night and, by implication, at the trial, and went out. The full moon was shining brilliantly in an unclouded sky, with Venus in courtly attendance; and there was just such a sprinkling of snow, as sufficed to light up the surface of the earth without impeding the steps of the wayfarer. The wind moaned through the crannies and crevices of the rock, as through a gigantic Eolian harp, with a weird unearthly sound, keeping time with the murmurs of the river, hoarsely surging in its unceasing travail, and the plaintive cries of the night-bird, like to the wailings of lost spirits, added to the solemn influences of the hour.

Soothed yet subdued by the grave harmonies of Nature, Mary wandered on from the rock to the edge of the Terrace, where she stood, looking down on the shrunken stream, chafing and fretting amidst the rocks that obstructed its course a hundred feet below; and in the undisturbed stillness of the night, she reflected sadly upon the wretched events which had destroyed one life and wrecked another. So absorbed was she in her thoughts, that she failed to hear stealthy footsteps approaching, and was unaware of another's presence till a hand fell heavily on her shoulder. Whether startled by the shock she missed her footing, or whether she page 49 was pushed over, Mary never could tell, but the next instant she fell over the precipitous bank. In her descent she clutched a small shrub, and clung to it with the tenacious grasp of desperation. Then she looked upward to see whom her assailant might be; and her heart sank within her when she recognised the features of Bess Humphreys.

“For merey's sake help me to get up, Bess,” she cried. “What on earth made you frighten me like that?”

“Because I hate thee,” came the reply, in deep stern tones, hissed, rather than spoken, through the close-set teeth. “Because thou robbed me of the man I cared for, and who cared for me till thou came between us with thy white face and mincing ways. Thou'rt the cause of his death—not Jim Trevanna. He would have made me his lawful wife belike, only for thee, as he had a right to do, for I carry his child, who will never know his father. Now thee canst go to him, if thee likes, for thou shall drown in the river, and I'll stop to see thee.”

“Oh Bess! don't be so cruel,” the terrified girl appealed. “I never came between you and George. I never cared for him in that way. Do, Bess, help me up.”

“No; not if thon offered a thousand pounds I wouldn't. Thou'rt a false liar, and thou shall die for it. Didn't he snatch thy hood off my head yon night, and tell me as I weren't fit to wear it? I—that he had loved, and kissed, and had in his arms so often! Twere that made me shoot him. Aye!—I did shoot him; and I've as good as been in hell ever since. And yon poor fool is on Bell Hill for it; and thou'rt the cause of it all.”

“Oh! no, no, Bess; don't let me drown. I've never done you any harm, I swear it,” the girl appealed once more.

But appealed in vain. Bess stamped the ground with her foot as if impatient of the delay.—“Oh! I wish I could reach thee,” she cried. If I could I'd push. page 50 thee down, thou smirking devil. But I can't; so I'll just bide and watch thee till thou tumbles into the river. Lord! what a pretty corpse thou'lt make for a crowner's quest!”

And she shrieked exnltantly with diabolical mirth, as she stood, with clenched hand upraised, looking down upon her victim.

Poor Mary held on with all her strength to the frail branch, with her pale face upturned to the pitiless moon, and the yet more pitiless woman above her; and a great horror seized her as she listened to the angry roar of the boiling flood below, tossing its white foam aloft as if reaching for its prey. The muscular tension was too much for her. She felt her grasp relaxing and cried aloud for help; but human help there seemed none. Her head sank upon her shoulders, and the shadow of the Valley of Death fell upon her soul.—“Holy Virgin, have pity upon me!” she murmured in her exceeding anguish. Then she resigned herself to her fate.

Hark!—What was it she heard?—Tramp—tramp—tramp came the sound of many feet, hurrying over the frozen ground; and a welcome voice cried aloud—“Hell-cat!—what are you about?” Another moment and the figure of Bess Humphreys disappeared, and Mary's brother bent over the eliff.

“Good God!” he exclaimed, as he marked her position, about ten feet below the brink, “I can't reach her. Hold on, Mary dear, till I fetch something to pull you up with.”

“I can't,” she faintly sobbed. “I can't Ned. I must let go if you don't help me quick.”

A burly miner came to the resene. Unwinding the long plaid in which he had carefully enwrapt himself, he lowered it to the girl; saying in grave, quaint tones:—

“Tak' a guid grid of that, lassie, and hauld on tae the bit bush, till ye hae it weel in han’.”

And thus was Mary rescued.

There had been a triangular duel of observation page 51 that night. Bess had seen Mary go towards the Scotchman rock, and had followed her; and Ned, who was cognisant of the hostile feeling entertained by the former suspected that some mischief was afloat, when it was found that Bess had left the hotel. His thought was that she had gone to the hut for the purpose of annoying Mary; and he hurried homeward to protect his sister. But on his way thither he heard cries for help; and by the bright light of the moon he saw Bess, standing on the verge of the Terrace. The men who accompanied him happened to be passing at the time, and he called to them to “come on;” a call which they responded to, arriving just in time to save Mary from a painful and untimely death.

To say that Mary was subsequently ill is feebly to express the effect of the physical shock from which the poor girl suffered; and utterly fails to convey any idea of the mental pain she endured. Her constant thought was—“Jim is innocent. I always said he was, though he did plead ‘Guilty.’ That mad wench killed George Gifford. She owned to it, when she had me down the bank. Can nothing be done to get him out of goal?”

“That mad wench”—Bess Humphreys, to wit—was held in close custody till Sergeant Corcoran came again to the Terrace, his services being “requisitioned” to convey her to the nearest “lock-up;” whence she was speedily removed to the lunatic ward of the Hospital. For the joint medicos of the district agreed that she was suffering from “puerperal insanity, originating in physical causes,” as in fact she was. She became a mother; and then fever set in, and she rapidly sank and died. During the interval, and only two days before her death, conscience smote her, and she made a full confession of the crime she had perpetrated. The grave young magistrate attended, and carefully took down her dying deposition, which in effect was as follows:—

“She had obtained the pistol from George a few days before for the purpose of shooting a weka,* which page 52 infested the poultry-yard, and destroyed the eggs. On the night of the dance her anger was excited—to use her own phrase, she was ‘aggravated’—by the conspicious and persistent attentions which George lavished on Mary; and in her wrath, she fetched the pistol with a confused and incertain notion of punishing her supposed rival. When George left the room with Trevanna, as I have already narrated, she picked up the white hood which Mary had thrown on a bench, and putting it on, followed him. Then there ensued a quarrel, with much and violent recrimination on her part, and cool contemptuous language on his. At last he tore the hood from her head, declaring that such a woman was not worthy to wear any thing that belonged to Mary Austin; and, enraged at the taunt, she drew the pistol from her pocket, and shot him as he turned to quit her.”

Having thus made her peace with man, her spirit departed. Then when such memories were inutile and valueless, an astonishing number of persons suddenly remembered a surprising variety of circumstances, corroborative of Jim Trevanna's innocence. One man could recollect that he had seen Jim sitting on the boulder when the shot was fired. Another had noticed that Bess was out of the dance-room at the time; and yet another had seen her going forth with the white hood on her head. Also, the landlord of the Maori Hen could recollect that the pistol had been lying on a shelf in the bar for a week or so before the event happened. Strangely enough none of these circumstances had been thought of when the life and liberty of an innocent man were in jeopardy.

Bess Humphrey's deposition was transmitted to the Governor, together with a memorial praying for Jim's release; and both were in due course referred to the Judge who had tried the case. When that functionary received them he was greatly moved, and reverently quoted Seripture—“Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.”

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His recommendation opened wide the prison gates, and Jim received a “free pardon” for an offence he had never committed. The public regarded him almost as a hero. I think he was altogether one. His comely mind was more than an offset to his uncomely person. But he never esteemed himself for the self-sacrifice, which to his mind was only a simple thing—love being the guiding motive. Rather he felt abased by the reflection that he had suspected Mary of a criminal act. But she forgave him. His devotion to her—his willingness to suffer for her—sufficed to atone for the offence, and her love sustained no diminution in consequence.

He returned to the Terrace, and the miners gave a public dinner in his honour; and the local orator sat in “the chair,” and proposed his health in terms of glowing eulogy, to Jim's great discomfiture. And then he had to reply, and all he could say was—

“Mr. Chairman, and gents all, you're very kind; but I'm sure I don't know what I've done to deserve but. I—I feel—that is, I feel—I don't know—”

And then he broke down. Whereupon there was great cheering, and clapping of hands, and stamping of feet, and violent thumping of the long-suffering and much-enduring table.

* Weka is the native name of the Wood-hen, or, as it is sometimes called, the Maori-hen.