White Hood and Blue Cap: A Christmas Bough with Two Branches
Chapter III New Year and New Friends
Chapter III New Year and New Friends.
Early next day came Hamilton's three sisters—Millicent, Grace, and Alice—and their cousin, Miss Nellie Dale, a young lady of the period, strongly addicted to slang.
“Gower has been telling us about the wreck,” said Millicent to Marion, when they had made acquaintance, “and raving so about his ‘fellow sufferer,’ as he calls you, that we could not wait any longer to know you. I hope you are not offended at our coming so soon.”
“No, indeed,” said Marion, earnestly, “I am very, very glad.”
“But our main reason for coming,” said Nellie Dale, “was really to get you to come to our jolly party to-night.”
Marion looked round enquiringly.
“To-night being the last of the old year,” said Millicent, in explanation, “we are going to have our usual sitting-up party to welcome the New Year in.”
“And it's such awfully splendid fun,” chimed in Nellie Dale. “You'll come, won't you?”
“I should dearly like to,” said Marion, hesitatingly, “but—I only arrived yesterday, you know, and my aunt might not like——”
“Dinna conseeder me, I beg,” said Miss M'Kcuzie sharply, “I've spent Hogmanay my lane this mony a year noo, and I'm no sure that I care to spend it ony ither gait.”page 84
“But why not join us this once, Miss M'Kenzie,” said Millicent, anxious to make things pleasant. “Mamma often says that we see far too little of you, considering we are such close neighbours. Pray come.”
“My days are gane by for sic gay doings, Miss Hamilton,” replied the elderly lady, smiling grimly. “I'm muckle obleeged all the same, but your pairty would be nane the merrier for an auld ghoulsome woman like me glowerin' owre it.”
“O, Miss M'Kenzie! how can you? Come, now; be persuaded.”
“Na, na; ye maun excuse me.”
“But you will let your niece come?”
“Sairtinly, gin it please her.”
“Then I will, gladly,” said Marion, eagerly, “What time shall I come? and where is your house?”
“Well, we are a little lower in the world than you,” laughed Millicent. “I hope you won't consider that you lose caste by descending to us. Look here—out of the window. You see that shingled roof with the ugly chimney-pots? That's our place; not far off, is it? But lest you tumble down the steep in getting to us, Nellie here shall run up for you at five o'clock. The real fun does not set in till ten, or later; but we always go into town after tea to look at the shop windows decked out for the season.”
When they were gone, Marion, cheered, yet apprehensive, looked earnestly at her aunt.
“I hope you won't mind my leaving you alone, Aunt Marion,” she said, her impulsive heart reproaching her for leaving the old lady in loneliness while she went forth to enjoyment.
“I'm no that accustomed to society that I'm likely to pine after yours,” was the uncivil reply, “but maybe you'll explain, Miss Marion Medway, hoo ye got sae easily acquaint wi' thae young ladies' brither. I'my young days, folk didna rin intil ane anither's arms at first sicht.”
“Aunt, I told you all about it in my letter from Picton. Mr. Hamilton it was who saved me from the page 85 wreck. I daresay I might have been drowned for aught any one else would have cared. At any rate, my luggage would certainly have gone down to the bottom but for him.”
“Weel, a' that's richt eneuch, but there's ane thing ye'll please be mindfu' o'; I'm no gaun tae hae my peace disturbed and my expenses increased by ony tea drinking veesitors; and gin ye gang oot tea drinking, yere freens will e'en expec' tae be askit back.”
“Don't alarm yourself!” flashed Marion, hot and red—yesterday's annoyance had been almost forgotten, now it all came back—“I'm not likely to ask anyone else to come where I myself am so unwelcome. And pray do not dread any extra expense on my account; there are twenty pounds,” casting a small leathern purse of sovereigns on the table, “it is all I have left of the proceeds of the sale of my mother's furniture in Melbourne—not much—but enough perhaps to pay for my lodgings with you until I can obtain some employment.”
“Yes, you cannot suppose I intend to stay longer than I can help, where I am so evidently a trouble and an intruder. I shall lose no time in finding something to do by which I can earn my own living.”
“Deed ye'll dae naething o' the kind. I'll no be disgraced wi' a niece o' mine ganging oot tae sairvice; sae make yersel' easy. Marion, what gars ye flee oot at me sae?”
“What makes you treat me so unfeelingly—so abominably?” said the girl angrily.
“I'm no conscious o' having dune sae.”
“But you have. I have not been in your house more than twenty-four hours and you have already insulted me twice:—First, through my mother, whom I cannot think of as your sister,—and now by warning me not to add to your expenses. Believe me I will not!”
Here, to her neice's great astonishment, Miss M'Kenzie began to cry. There was one hysterical sob, page 86 and then two big slow tears that seemed to force their way with difficulty out of the faded eyes, and down the wrinkled cheeks. In a moment there was an utter revulsion of feeling in Marion.
“O aunt, I am so sorry,” she began, full of remorseful penitence. “It has all been my fault. Don't cry—please don't.
“I dinna ken what ye expectit o' me,” said Miss M'Kenzie, whimpering. “It's no an easy thing tae gie up ane's auld ways tae pleasure young fowk, and in my ain young days it wasna lookit for. Gin ony body had to give in it wasna the auld people. I'm no a fussing fashing woman, sae aiblins I havena made sae muckle o' yer coming here as ye wantit; but—but Isabella's child maun be some dear tae me, and it's gey hard tae be flown oot at this gait.”
“O aunt, forgive me.” But warding off her niece's advances, Miss M'Kenzie quitted the room in reproachful dignity, drying her eyes as she went.
At five o'clock exactly, Miss Nellie Dale put in an appearance.
“I am quite ready,” said Marion, fastening the last button of her glove, “I won't keep you waiting a second, Miss Dale.”
“Call me Nellie, or we shan't be friends,” cried that young lady. “I awfully hate to be called Miss, and for that reason I intend to be called Mrs. as soon as ever I can. I shall call you Marion whether you like it or not. You see I know your pretty name already. Why, you've been crying!”
“O no,” said Marion, averting her head. They were now on their way down the hill.
“Yes, you have. You shouldn't tell tarradiddles; it's wicked. Come now, let me look at you, and own up.”
“O it is nothing—really.”
“I know better. And it's that old frump of an aunt that's done it.”
“O hush! you shouldn't speak like that.”
“What has she been doing to you?”page 87
“Nothing. It's only that she and I are a little strange to each other's ways, and—and—”
“There! there!” cried Nellie, soothingly, throwing both arm round Marion as they stood together near a stunted fern tree. “Don't cry, there's a pet It mustn't cry its pretty eyes up, because Somebody will be sure to notice. Do you know I ought to hate you as the —— ahem!—hates holy water, instead of loving you like this. You've stolen one of the best strings of my matrimonial bow. I may as well tell you I'm a husband-hunter. It's no secret; everybody knows it You see it's dire necessity. My dad has got eight of us to dispose of;—I'm the best looking of the crowd, so you may guess what an ugly lot the rest are. We cannot dig—to beg we are ashamed,—as the man in the Bible says; and nothing but getting married will save us from one or other of the above-mentioned unpleasantnesses. I've been doing my level best to start a wedding panic in the family for years, but the men are shy, dear, too awfully shy. Now, one of my chances was cousin Gower. And I came down this Christmas for the express purpose of making one final attempt to run him in. And, lo! a stranger has coolly jumped my diggings, and Nellie Dale will have to strike out for a new location.”
“But really I——” began Marion.
“O don't apologise!” interrupted Nellie, with a comical air of resignation to fate. “It is an accident I know, and I always make a liberal allowance for accidents in my speculations. Lucky for me that I do. Come along; here's the house. We'll go right up to Milly's den at once; all the girls are in there, I'll bet.”
They were; and Marion found herself suddenly the centre of a group that seemed chiefly made up of bare white shoulders, arms, and feet, and clouds of dishevelled hair. The girls were having a romp, and their whirlwind fun was irresistible. In a very little while our heroine had forgotten her woes, and was laughing and tumbling with the merriest. A sudden ringing cry of “tea!” caused a regular stampede; a tempestuous page 88 scrubbing of faces and brushing of hair; a confused donning of shoes and stockings, dresses and ribbons; and then a small feminine army trooped downstairs radiantly, and swarmed into the dining-room.
“See that sandy-bearded man over there?” said Nelly Dale, with a most unmaidenly wink at Marion, as the two entered the room together. “Don't get so red in the face, dear, he's coming this way. O, what a splendid spread Aunt Hamilton has made this time!” eyeing the luxury-loaded table admiringly. “If there's one thing more than another calculated to make a party sing Hallelujah, it's a spread like that.”
Gower reached them now, and welcomed Marion more with eyes and hands than with words. Then he introduced her to his father and mother, and such friends as could be conveniently got at in the crowded apartment.
As Millicent Hamilton had said, the real fun did not commence till about ten o'clock. Then, the diningroom being cleared for action, dancing set in, and continued until the hands of the big clock on the chimneypiece pointed a quarter to twelve. At this moment Mr Hamilton clapped his hands, and music, laughter, and flying feet were suddenly stilled. An intense hush prevailed till the clock sounded the first stroke of twelve, and then Gower's father sent up a brief, hearty prayer. “Health, happiness, and the help of God be with us all through this New Year of our pilgrimage!” Everybody said “Amen!” and then there was a general rush for the front door, which, being opened, revealed a handsome infant nigh two yards long, whose bearded face smiled out absurdly from the frills of a huge cap, and whose swaddling-clothes fitted most grotesquely. It was the baby New Year, personated according to custom by one of the guests. He was borne in bodily by his friends, and put through such a course of coddling and nursing as was nearly the death of him. He bore it all with creditable patience, until they strove to administer a dose of Gregory's mixture; then he hit out with super-infantine vigour, page 89 and doubled up three of his nurses, who declared that as far as they were concerned the ceremony was at an end. A little later the merry party dispersed.
“O, how happy I have been!” said Marion, on her way home under strong escort.
“Yes, and there's more to come,” cried Nellie Dale. “Did you tell her about the pic-nic, Gower?”
“Of course I did, and of course she's coming,” was the reply.
“If my aunt——” began Marion, faintly.
“Your aunt be bothered!” snapped Nelly the Irreverent. “If she makes any fuss I'll argue with her. I've a very good mind to serenade her to-night. I can sing basso, and she'll think it's Gower smitten with her.”
“You'll have the police down on you if you venture on any larrikin tricks here, my lady,” said Gower.
“Not possible to-night, dear coz.,” she answered, confidently. “All the police are tight, and singing Auld Lang Syne by this. Hear them?”
Some one was singing it, evidently, for the night-air rang with it, and tin-kettle accompaniments.
“At nine o'clock, Marion,” said Nellie, when they were parting,” I will call for you. Mind you are ready, for the waggonettes will be waiting.”
Miss M'Kenzie was rather amiable in the morning, so Marion set off feeling specially cheerful. The picnic was to be at the Water-fall, and waggonettes conveyed the whole party to the foot of the ravine that leads to it. There they left the vehicles waiting, and climbed the hill to the Fall, leaving the more picturesque creek route for the return journey. Every foot of the way was a joy and a delight to Marion, and when a sudden turn and downward slope of the track brought her to the opening of the grotto palace—with its tender-tinted upholstery of ferns and foliage—where Prince Cascade dwells in cool and silvery solitude, her admiration knew no limit. To describe Nichol's Creek water-fall to people who know it would be supererogatory; to people who don't know it, page 90 any attempt at description on my part would fail utterly to convey any idea of its exquisite though somewhat miniature beauty. So I will e'en let the lovely thing alone, and get on with my people. Some gathered rare specimens of ferns and lichens; others wandered off in groups and couples, gossiping or lovemaking. Some climbed and romped over the hugewet boulders in the ravine. Presently there was tea. The gentlemen, however, required something stronger to support their sinking frames, which was only what was to be expected after they had carried the kettles and provisions all the way from the waggonettes, and otherwise worn themselves out by building bowers and kindling fires. When the sun began to wester, and chilly little breezes came creeping through the grotto, the company agreed that it was time to go home, and began their pleasant but difficult descent of the ravine.
It was when they were in that weird spot where the gloomy weeping rocks stretch up steep and dark till they meet in dense green foliage overhead, and the echoes of the murmuring stream resolve into strange sounds like voices, that Marion and Gower found themselves alone together. He was helping her over the rough places, and one big slippery boulder standing right in the way necessitated that he should carry her a little space.
“Put your arms round my neck,” he said. “Clasp me,—hold me close, Marion—my Marion.”
“You are carrying me too far,” she cried; “put me down now, please.”
“No, not yet; I love to carry you.”
“O, please, put me down. What if the others should see?”
“They are too far ahead. Besides, I shouldn't care if they did. I will not put you down till I have told you something and asked you a question.”
“Then be quick, for I hear goblins talking in the water, and I am getting frightened.”
“Never mind the goblins. If you were a naiad—Undine herself—and all your sprite-friends were crying page 91 for you, I would not let you go—I will never let you go—for I love you.”
She quivered in his arms, and fought a little to get free, but he was too powerful for her; his heart beat so that she could hear each throb; his face was close to hers; his eyes looking into hers; his lips so near her own that what could they do but meet? and so she trembled and flushed, happy and helpless, and rested there with him a little.
“My pretty one! my sweetheart! my own!”
Nothing strikingly novel in all this, you know. All you young folks—and old folks too, for that matter—know something about this kind of experience, I doubt not.
“When will you marry me, Marion? “When shall we be married?”
This precipitous question roused and startled her.
“O, pray, put me down now; do!”
“Not till you answer.”
“But I will not answer.”
“But you must.”
“But I will not—at least, not here. O, do let me go.”
She escaped and fled, stumbling and tripping over the rocks until she overtook the advance party; and no further opportunity had he with her till late that night, when he was taking her home from his father's house.
“Now, Marion, tell me.”
“When we are to be married?”
“O, how can I?”
“Then I will tell you. This day three months, when I come down for the Easter holidays.”
“O, no,—impossible! Why, I have only known you a week!”
“And you can't love me well enough in so short a a time?”
“I—I—did not say that.”
“And you didn't mean it?”page 92
“Then God bless you for that, darling, at any rate. And now, why won't you say yes to the wedding?”
“I couldn't, Gower. It would not be fair. You have known me such a little while, you—
“It doesn't take a man twenty years to know his mind about the woman he would like to marry.”
“No, but this is only a week. Your mind might change.”
“Won't you take the chance of that, Marion?”
“Yes; but in such a way that the change may come not too late.”
“If you cared for me half as I care for you, such a thought as change would never enter your head. Look here,” grasping her wrist with sudden violence, “Is there not someone else that you really do care for—that you want to put me off for? Someone in Victoria?”
“How can you think so?” she burst forth passionately, and then she began to cry.
“O Marion, my pet, forgive me!”
“If there were anyone else, should I not have told you?”
“Well, you ought.”
“And would! Why should I deceive you?”
“Then why are you so cold and prudent; as if you had had forty years' experience of the vanities and illusions of life?”
“I am twenty-one almost,” (this with much dignity) “and if a woman ever has any sense she ought to have it at that age. And I feel that it would be wrong to marry you when you scarce know me. After a while you may see peculiarities in me; defects in my disposition that will turn you against me.”
“What an idea! If it comes to finding out faults and failings, it strikes me it would be you who would soonest repent the bargain. You've no idea of the defects in my character.”
“Then how unfair to propose to tie me up before I have a chance to find them out,” said Marion, feebly trying to jest.page 93
There was considerable further argument between the twain; but the girl was firm, though her heart fought her lover's battle as strongly as he himself fought it. And at last they parted with not even a definite engagement, Marion insisting that he should preserve all his freedom until he knew better whether he was really ready to give it up.
“I shall never know better,” he said finally, “but perhaps it will be best as you say. It is certainly very sensible of you to keep your own awhile, and not bind yourself to a fellow you have such a shaky opinion of.”
“Ah, don't! You know it is not that. I can never be more bound to you than I am now—by my love for you, Gower.”
That contented him somewhat, you may imagine; and two people had happy dreams that night.
“What a wonder you are!” exclaimed Nellie Dale to Marion when, after much skilful and vigorous pumping, she had discovered everything from Gower. “It seemes to me clear flying in the face of Providence, letting him go back to Wellington free for any other girl to pick up. You'll be wiser when you're a year or two older, my child; and I only hope you may not then have need of your wisdom. What if he falls in love with someone else?”
“Why then we shall both have cause to rejoice in my present folly,” said Marion. “Fancy how horrible it would be if such a falling in love came too late!”