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

Chapter II. The Rescue. Christchurch and Dunedin

Chapter II. The Rescue. Christchurch and Dunedin.

It was a little after eleven o'clock when Hamilton was landed at the point nearest the farm. Making his way speedily to the homestead, he found there some sixty people severely testing the resources of the establishment; and was just in time to make one of a party of young fellows starting forth with tea, sugar, bread, kettles, and blankets, to the relief of the ladies who were still exposed on the shore at some distance. A young squatter from a neighbouring station offered himself as guide, and away they went, laboriously scrambling over the rough tracks along the top of the steep tussocky hills by which Tory Channel is on both sides bounded.

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Gower, in the haste of a new glad excitement, got somewhat ahead of his companions, until a halt was called by their guide, out of pity for two who had given in at last, after many mishaps and tumbles.

“It is rough walking, I grant you,” said the young squatter, sympathetically, “but we must be pretty near the end now, and the moon's due at midnight. It can't lack more than a quarter of an hour of that now, I reckon, so we'll have a short spell till she rises. Lucky the night's so warm and still. Look below at the water.”

It was worth looking at, motionless and intensely black, but everywhere closely flecked with star-gold; while the shrubs and the rocks along the shore took the weirdest shapes in the darkness two hundred feet below. The men stood watching in that dead silence—that is begotten of awe and admiration, until presently the reflected stars waxed fainter and fainter, and then suddenly all the eastern sky became flooded with silvery radiance, and the moon, fair and pale, but out of shape with age, shot into sight above a distant range. And at the same moment there rang through the still night in sweetest feminine chorous, the beautiful Christmas hymn:—

“Hark! the Herald Angels sing.”

“What's that?” exclaimed Carey, one of the relief party.

“Hush! it's the women,” whispered his friend Vere, “we've stumbled upon the camp unawares.”

They were indeed within two hundred yards of where the ladies had camped—after a fashion—near a patch of manuka scrub.

“It is the first hour of Christmas Day,” said Vere, as the sweet solemn music died away over the hills and sea. “And the women folk have remembered it. What a time it is since I heard that hymn before; and what a grand old hymn it is! It beats Milton's Ode to the Nativity hollow. Fancy the author of it being unknown!”

“Well, God knows him, Carey,” said Vere, feeling page 74 very reverent and somewhat sentimental, “and I suppose that Is the main thing, after all.”

“We'd better get on now,” said the young squatter, but they were scarce half the distance nearer, when they were again brought to a silent standstill. A round full contralto voice rang out on the air in these quaint verses:—

As Joseph was a walking
He heard an Angel sing;
“This night shall be the birthnight
Of Christ our Heavenly King,

“His birthplace shall be neither
In honsen nor in hall,
Nor in the place of Paradise,
But in the oxen's stall.

“He neither shall be rockèd
In silver nor in gold,
But in the wooden manger,
That lieth in the mould.”

As Joseph was a walking
Thus did the Angel sing;
And Mary's son at midnight
Was born to be our King.

Most readers will remember this strange musical old carol in Kingsley's “Westward Ho!”

“That's that Devonshire beauty,” cried Vere, enthusiastically, “she told me she could ‘sing to church’ as she called it. Bravo, Devon!” he shouted, as they broke suddenly in upon the petticoat convention near the manuka, and were welcomed with a joyful heartiness that can only be understood by those who have seen the feminine Briton kept many hours without her tea.

Gower Hamilton walked rapidly up to the slender black-robed figure, his searching eyes so quickly distinguished from the rest.

“Have you been very cold? Did you land safely? Have you had anything to eat?” were his breathless questions as he totally enveloped her in the big blanket he had brought from the farm.

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“Thanks,—I don't want to be smothered, I am not cold, and I don't care to be robed in a blanket, as if I were a lubra,” said Marion, laughingly, extricating herself from the woolly folds. “And now, please give an account of yourself Mr. Hamilton. You see I have found out your name. Where have you been all this while, and what doing? The other gentlemen found their way to us long ago, and then went to forage for us as if they did care whether we lived or died, which is more than some people seem to trouble themselves about.”

Then he set himself to explain about the luggage and Picton, and the steamer that would be sent to pick them up; and then he wished her a Merry Christmas, to which she responded with the same to him “and many of them.”

Then he laughed a happy laugh for mere gladness of seeing her again; and caught both her hands in his as if he had known her twenty-four years, instead of not much more than half as many hours.

“Strangers should not be so familiar,” said Marion, trying to draw herself away.

“Thanks for the rebuke, but it is a little out of place. We are not strangers.”

“Why, it is but a few hours since we first——”

“O yes, I know,—if you count by actual lapse of time. But that is not at all a wise or proper system of computation. There was once a little nigger who, being asked his age, made answer thus:—Countin' by what mudder says, I'se 'bout eleben, I guess; but count me by de fun I'se had, and golly! I'se mos' a hundred.' You see, we must reckon time by the fun we have.”

“And the being shipwrecked, and cast on a desolate island, come in the category, of course.”

“In this particular instance, yes,—decidedly. Now, do let me hold your little hands in mine until they get warm. They are like two small pieces of ice. Do, Marion!”

“No, you must not; and you ought not to call me by my Christian name.”

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“No? why not? you did not talk like this a few hours ago on the steamer.”

“I was frightened then.”

“I wish you were frightened now, and always——”

“O what a wicked wish!”

“So that I might hold you in my arms and say what I like without getting snubbed. Marion—no, it is no use your protesting—I shall never be able now to call you by any other name——”

“Though it would smell just as sweet,” said she, mischievously.

“Now, girls should never be impertinent,” said Gower, “it does not become them. What I was going to say is this,—we two——”

“See how industrious your friends have been,” interrupted Marion, true to herself as a woman in trying to escape hearing what she very truly wanted to hear. They have built the fires, and I do believe that furthest kettle from here is boiling. O! I should so like a cup of tea.”

“And you shall have one in less than a minute,” cried Gower, hastening off at once, his own heart beating at almost as furious a rate as hers, though not so nervously. They were just at an age, these two, when love can be sudden and yet most genuine; when prudence, and propriety, and etiquette all have to stand aside—at least for the man—and yet neither he nor she thinks worse of the other for what mature people would in him call “impudence,” in her “forwardness.”

The kettles all boiled with considerate celerity; tea—hot, strong, and fragrant—was passed round industriously, and so this impromptu midnight picnic went on pleasantly beneath the fair white Christmas moon. There was some atrocious flirting carried on, it must be owned, but as almost everybody present had some individual business of this kind to attend to, people had not time to notice each other much, and so there was never much said about it. Sundry love affairs that had been in bud an unconscionable time, took this opportunity of coining into the sudden full page 77 blossom of engagement, even to the naming of wedding days; and people who would probably never have seen anything interesting in each other during whole years of ordinary prosaic existence, under the influence of this adventure, with its spices of peril and leaven of romance, struck up ardent friendships, and made promises of constancy, and all the rest of it.

Despite losses of luggage and divers other inconveniences, there were very few who sorrowed inconsolably about this shipwreck; and there was not one who did not look round a little regretfully, when, about five o'clock in the morning, the boom of a gun that “set the wild echoes flying” told that Wellington had sent a steamer to the rescue.

By breakfast time they were all in Picton. Hamilton discovered the residence of Marion's friends, and thither conveyed and left her; first taking care to ascertain the probable time of her departure from there When, in two days she returned to Wellington, she was not at all suprised to find him on the pier—evidently waiting.

“So you did come,” was his greeting. “I was half afraid your friends would not give you up after all, and that I should be disappointed.”

“You don't mean to say you were expecting me!” she exclaimed, with a look of mendacious surprise.

“I was hoping for you,” said he, “and I didn't mean to go on to Dunedin till you came. You need some one to look after your luggage, you know; and two people who have been shipwrecked together—but there's the Dunedin steamer whistling. She'll be off directly now, so we'd better get aboard. I'll see you settled first, and then come back for your luggage. Leave everything to me.”

She did, for she was glad to be taken care of in this fashion. In all her lonely sea-sick voyaging from Melbourne she had had none to care for her. It had been a long trip, too —viâ Sydney for Auckland. She had taken this route instead of the short one, viâ Bluff to Dunedin, in order to contrive this special Picton page 78 visit for her dead mother's sake; and now all the wearisomeness and desolation seemed compensated.

“I feel brave and hopeful about the change in my life now,” said she to herself, watching with satisfaction Gower Hamilton busy with her trunks and odds and ends of belongings. “Even the memory of Aunt Marion's cold hard invitation to come and live with her doesn't seem to hurt me now.”

Next morning the steamer was at Port Lyttelton. Marion went into raptures about the uneven picturesque little town, the high, bald hills, with their tender lights and shadows, and the beautiful bay.

“If you like this you will love Dunedin,” said Gower; “but let us run up and see Christchurch. The steamer stops here till evening.”

Just in time to catch a train. In half-an-hour they were in the City of the Plains. They inspected; its shops and buildings; saw its promise of a cathedral (a promise now making rapid signs of fulfilment); noticed its queer shed of a post-office (a handsome substitute stands now in Cathedral Square); visited its highly creditable Museum and Botanical Gardens; and enjoyed an hour's pull on its one beautiful feature —the willow-fringed river Avon.

“Well, how do you like Christchurch?” enquired Hamilton when they were on their way back to the Port.

“As a city—not at all,” said Marion, decisively. “If it were not for the planted trees it would be unbearable. The style of architecture is abominable, and it is to be hoped there will be an improvement in it before the building of the cathedral is proceeded with. And what an extraordinary taste is displayed in the matter of house-colouring! One would think the people had chosen those dingy browns and drabs for the same reason that economical poor women choose dingy-coloured gowns—that they may not readily show the dirt, being the colour of dirt already.”

“What a severe young critic this is!” remarked Gower, addressing the roof of the railway carriage.

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“Well, I do so like what is pretty and bright. And just think what a place Christchurch would be without its trees and its river! And even now, just fancy having to walk all over a place in order to see it! I like to stand on a hill whence I can behold everything at once.”

“What insatiable greed! But if that's what you like, Dunedin will suit you ‘right down to the ground,’ as the Yankees say. You will be able to stand on your aunt's front door-step and inspect the unmade beds in your next-door lower-situated neighbour's attic story.”

Marion laughed. “I am glad to know Dunedin is not flat,” said she. “I detest level land, and I have a theory that there is a strong affinity between soul and scenery. People who live in level, monotonous country must in time, I think, get into a level, monotonous line of thought. There is nothing to widen or elevate the range, and the human mind has a general tendency to narrow and limit itself selfishly, so that it needs all it can get of outer influences to keep it above a prejudiced, illiberal level. It is good to get on the top of a mountain and look out, and out, till one forgets one's little woes and worries; and all the petty details of life dwindle into nothing in the contemplation of the vastness and grandeur of the world around and beyond us. People's surroundings must influence their characters, even if they are so busy with the labour of living that they have no time to pay heed.”

“Well, if you are going into metaphysics like this,” said Gower, “I must cry parley until I've read up on the subject. All the same, I agree with you in preferring hilly countries to flat ones. And, now I come to think of it, I shouldn't wonder a bit if the reason the inhabitants of Sodom and Gomorrah were such a bad lot was because they dwelt upon the plains.”

“That bit of Scripture history will be a splendid argument in favour of my theory,” laughed Marion.

“What a fine point I shall score in future when advancing it!”

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Another night's voyage and the steamer entered Otago Harbour. Marion, restless and anxious, was early astir, and Hamilton found her on deck loner before the breakfast hour.

“Well, what do you think of this?” he asked, as the morning sun, dispersing a soft grey mist, revealed one little inlet and promontory after another, and gilded the distant tops of the bold headlands of Port Chalmers.

“Don't speak to me,” said Marion, gazing upon all ecstatically; “let me feast my soul in peace. O, it is beyond all I ever imagined!”

Should there be any who think her rapturous admiration exaggerated, I would bid them remember that Marion Medway was comparatively untravelled, therefore unable to draw comparisons to any great extent. What she saw now came nearest to her idealistic sense of the beautiful of anything she had ever beheld, and her enjoyment was great accordingly. Mind, I am not seeking to excuse her admiration—that were to pay a poor compliment to scenery that must rank among the loveliest in the world. But it is as well to offer a word of apologetic explanation to the far-travelled ones who, having memory of forest marvels and Alpine splendours in other countries, may object to any fuss about the beauties of this.

It was almost noon when Gower Hamilton, packing his charge and her sundry properties into a cab at Dunedin, gave the driver her address, and bade her good-bye.

“Only for the present,” he added, retaining her hand a moment. “My sisters will look you up tomorrow, and we shall meet again very soon.”

The cab had a steep pull up the hill to Miss M'Kenzie's residence, a pretty cottage built in the T style, so popular in Dunedin. It was situate at the very summit of a steep incline from George street. A tidy little maid responded to Marion's knock.

“Is this Miss M'Kenzie's house?”

“Deed aye.”

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“Is Miss M'Kenzie within?”

“She is that. She disna gang oot muckle.”

“Will you tell her I wish to see her?”

“Aye. Come ben tae the parlour, mem.”

Marion complied. A moment later there entered to her a tall, slim lady—handsome, but severelooking.

“Aunt, I am Marion!”

“Sae I pairceeve,” said Miss M'Kenzie, coolly and deliberately. Marion's outstretched hand remained unnoticed. “There's nae mistaking Isabella's features, whilk ye hae inherited in a degree that's extraordinar' Ye're quite weel, I houp?”

“Quite, thank you,” replied Marion, choking back the sob in her throat. “I was not sanguine, God knows,” she said within herself, “but this is even worse than I expected.”

What made it sadder was that her aunt strongly resembled her dead mother, looking only harder and older and colder than she could ever have looked. It was, Marion thought, as if her mother had come back after a long absence—but come back without a soul.

“Does yon cab hau'd yere luggage, Marion?”

“Yes, aunt.”

“Then we'll e'en get it intil the hoose. It's ill wark keeping the mon waiting when he'll aiblins pit on an extra saxpence for ilka extra meenit.”

“I will settle with him,” said Marion, going hastily out for that purpose, and to gain mastery over herself.

“Hoo muckle did he chairge?” enquired her aunt upon her entrance.

“Three-and-sixpence.”

“Aye, rank doonricht robbery! A-weel, ye'd better come to yere room and tak' off yere things noo. It's nigh upo' my dinner hoor. I suppose ye can wait till then for refreshment?”

“Most certainly.”

“Varra weel. But dinna disarrange the antimacassars,” page 82 said Miss M'Kenzie, as Marion, in passing, accidentally swept one from a chair. “Of a' things, I maist abhor untidiness.”

“I will remember,” said Marion, and her tone brought all Miss M'Kenzie's attention to her face.

“Aye, aye,” said she, calmly, “I see features are no' the only thing ye've inherited frae my sister Isabella. She's apparently handed doon a spice o' her temper as weel.”

Marion turned on her savagely. “Do and say what you like about me, Aunt Marion,” she said, “but don't say one word against my mother, or I'll leave your house at once.”

“And maybe it's no' me would be the greatest sufferer by that proceeding.”

“I don't care who would be the sufferer!”

“Weel, nae mair dae I, ye ken. And noo, gin ye're owre yer raging, ye'll maybe condescend to follow me.”

Once in the room allotted to her, poor Marion gave her bursting heart full way. Here was a home coming!

“Better I had been really wrecked and drowned,” sobbed the girl. “How glad this woman would have been if I had! My mother's sister! I'll never believe it. There must have been a mistake somewhere. This unfeeling being and my gentle tender mother could never have been born of the same woman.”

Presently she was called to dinner, and with sudden resolution to make the best of things for the present, she followed the little maid to the dining-room. There sat Miss M'Kenzie, calm and statelly, bearing no trace of resentment in tone of voice or face as she invited her niece to partake of this or that—no sign of even recollection of the past brief storm.

“Have I been here a hundred years?” said Marion when, after a long, smooth afternoon and evening, she retired to bed. “I feel as if I had, and as if all my life till to-day were a dream. Or Is this the dream—from which I shall presently page 83 awaken to find myself back with my mother? O! mother! mother!”

Then tears, bitter and plentiful, and afterwars troubled slumber.