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

Chapter IV. Shadows

Chapter IV. Shadows.

Christmas Eve again. And Marion stood at a window, looking out over the scene beneath and before her with melancholy eyes that saw nothing. Yonder rolled old ocean, bluer than the sky it reflected, white-tipped here and there with the feathery crests of page 94 waves, petulantly foaming near the obstinate rocky islet that lay in by the beach and was indifferent alike to storms and smiles. And yonder stood the fair, high hills of the Peninsula, tinted and beautified by the warm, bright sunlight. Westward lay the pietty villa-built townships of Melrose, Nevada, and Roslyn, rendered picturesque by frequent patches of dark green foliage; and nearer, and all around, fair Dunedin city itself, with its manifold slender spires and myriad bright-looking buildings; Knox Kirk here, and First Church over yonder, suggestive, in their graceful, delicate architecture, of fairy work rather than the labour of man. Right below where Marion stood beamed Pelichet Bay, smooth and azure, with one tiny, white-sailed craft skimming its surface like a bird. North-east was Manuka Hill, clothed in dense luxuriance of bush; and a little beyond, lo! God's acre, with its narrow green mounds and pale stone records. Further east the picturesque, diminutive township of Opoho; below that, pretty North-east Valley. Nearer, ran the Water of Leith musically over its pebbly bed, much hidden by bridges and tall buildings till it won away down by the Botanical Gardens. Quite close stood forest-clad Pine Hill, and from there the eye glanced instinctively over to Flagstaff, a group of mountains about whose bleak and unresponsive peaks amorous white clouds continually creep and cling and nestle in misty adoration.

Over all this loveliness Marion Medway's beauty-loving eyes wandered without heed. Because that her heart was heavy, and life had begun to seem made up of heartaches and disappointments. She was still with her aunt, having for her aunt's sake abandoned that first angry scheme of independence. And the two lived peaceably together—that is, they did not quarrel—but the girl had long since given up hope of winning the woman's love. She had tried very hard for it in the first months of their existence together, and had failed. Not that Miss M'Kenzie was really a cruel woman; but a long life of loneliness had dried up the page 95 fountains of her affection, and warped her sympathies. Years wrought a process of acidification in her, as time does in beer. Her stream of life had run narrowly between two walls of selfishness until now it had lost power to widen or alter its course; had shunned the sunshine of human love so long that it had forgotten how to sparkle and reflect the beams. So Marion, finding all her advances ignored or repelled, all her little attentions misinterpreted and turned against her, at last gave up and contented herself with duty. And duty—given or received—to Marion, who needed love as flowers need the sun, was like bread and water diet to a man who values life only for its cakes and ale.

Death had been near her again this year, and had taken away two friends, Gower Hamilton's father and mother. For these two pilgrims the last mile of life's journey had been suddenly shortened, and a broad, white stone in the cemetery yonder covered them both. They could not endure to be separated—they who had travelled hand in hand these thirty years and more—so when the one was called, the other gat quickly ready and hastened after. Strangers abode in the house with the shingled roof and the ugly chimneypots, for now the old folks were gone, the Hamilton girls were dispersed among friends, and Marion, looking down at it, was smitten with a keen and bitter sense of loss and desolation. But presently her attention was drawn from the house to a plump, black-robed feminine figure that laboriously made its way up the steep zig-zag path from the street below.

“It is Nellie!” she cried, with a glad throb, as she flew to the door and opened it. “O, Nellie, how glad I am to see you!”

“Then let me sit down, for I'm nearly dead,” replied that young lady, gaspingly. “It's no use—if I continue to make flesh as I have been doing this past year, I shall have to give up all matrimonial schemes and activity, and settle down to get sufficiently fat to start myself as a show. The Fat Lady of the Southern Hemisphere—girth, so-and-so; weight, so much; you page 96 know the style of thing. Declare I've eaten chalk and slate pencils enough to make my interior like a quarry; I've drunk vinegar enough to sour my very soul; and all to what purpose? The only thing I can think of that would be likely to bring me down is a life with your aunt; and of course she wouldn't have me at any price. By-the-bye, is she in?”

“No; some friends came this morning and carried her off to Caversham.”

“What a blessing! Ask Janet to make me a cup of tea—will you—like a dear good soul? And now, what news? When is Gower coming down?”

“Not at all. I had a letter from him this morning, in which he says he is going to spend his holidays with some bachelor friends, visiting the Hot Lakes and Sulphur Springs in the North Island.”

“Then I sincerely hope they'll all tumble in and get boiled! I do. Gower is a brute.”

“Why?” said Marion, up in arms at once for her lover, though of all her sad thoughts to-day, this had been the saddest, that Gower's promised Christmas visit, to which she had looked forward with intensest longing, was not to be.

“Why, because he ought to have come down here as he promised. Thanks, Janet,—this is refreshing! Tea is thinning in its effects, it is said, so thank heaven I am not debarred from my one consolation in life. But it's all your fault Marion.”

“What is? that tea is thinning?”

“No; you know what I mean. Why didn't you marry him when he first wanted you to?”

“You know well enough why.”

“Absurd seruples about the short acquaintance. Then why didn't you the last time he was down?”

“Nellie, how could I?”

“O you mean the funerals! Well, the wedding could have been as quiet as you liked.”

“Nellie, you have no feeling, or you couldn't talk like that. How could we have had any happiness when his father and mother were scarce buried?”

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“Well, I know Gower didn't view it in that light, and men are generally the best judges in these matters.”

“I couldn't marry him so soon after the deaths.”

“So you let him go off in a temper. And he's never written to you the same since, has he? Come now, own the truth.”

“What do you know about my letters, Nellie Dale?”

“My dear, do you think I'm a fool? Why, you're as easy to read as a book, and I've seen your spirits go down and down every week. Do you think I didn't guess the reason? However, I don't back Gower up in this last brutality. He ought to be ashamed, but men never are. Is that waggonette coming up here, I say?”

“Where? what waggonette?”

“It is, I declare! And ‘Blue Cap’ the squatter is in it, I'll stake my existence. I'm off!”

“O no, why should you go, Nellie?”

“Because no one shall accuse me of not leaving a man a fair field, you know. Now, Marion, is your chance of paying Gower out.”

“Nellie!”

“A man with unlimited money, and a man you can do exactly as you like with. Why, all the town is talking of the way he neglects his station for you.”

“Well, I don't want him to.”

“Of course not. People never do appreciate the good things thrown in their way.”

“Is a deformed man a good thing?”

“A deformed man! Why his face is beautiful, and his hands and feet are lovely.”

“Pity you can't marry him yourself, since you are so enthusiastic about him.”

“Ah! a pity indeed! But there's no such luck for poor me. If he were only a little taller, and had straight shoulders, he would be perfection. The trap has stopped. It is he, Marion. I'll stop if you'll do one thing.”

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“What is it?”

“Help me to find out what it is he hides under his blue cap.”

“How can I? he never takes it off.”

“No; but once I knew a man who wore a wig; and I wasn't certain that it was a wig, and I wanted to know, so I took occasion one night to brush it hard with my sleeve, and off it came.”

“Well?”

“Well, can't we accidentally knock off the blue cap?”

“Certainly not. I wouldn't be guilty of such a thing. Besides, I don't care in the least to know what is under it.”

“In that case, no more do I. Good-bye, dear. I daresay it's only baldness, but the man with the wig had a sore place on his cranium.”

Miss Nellie popped out by the back door just as Marion's visitor, or visitors rather, entered at the front.

A young man with a mournful face, and great dark eyes that were wistfully meditative, like the eyes of many dumb animals. In stature he was unnaturally short, yet his figure was shapely, save that one shoulder rose a little higher than the other. His hands and feet were as Nellie Dale had said, beautiful. On his head, and set somewhat far back, so that all the white handsome forehead was visible, he wore a cap of blue velvet; that rich dark blue, called by those skilled in judgment of colours—royal. It was a quaintly-shaped cap: square, but worn diamond wise; that is, with one point projecting a little in front, another at the back, and the other two standing off widely above the ears. What could be seen of the wearer's hair was dark brown, curly, and glossy. With this man was an elderly lady, his mother, who thus addressed Marion after the exchange of ordinary greetings: “My son would have me come to-day, Miss Medway, to ask you to go with us to the waterfall to-morrow.”

“But I cannot, Mrs. Scariff,” she replied in a voice grown suddenly sharp with the pain of memory. “I page 99 have only been once to the Waterfall, and I do not wish to go again.” Her heart added a sentence “unless I go with Gower.”

“But it is very lovely, I've heard.”

“Very lovely,” said Marion. “See, here is a picture of it.”

Marion was an artist, but cela va sans dire. One so keenly appreciative of Nature's beauties must needs be that. Yet everyone possessing an artistic soul does not get the great advantage of cultivation that she had had; that skilful cultivation that empowered her to perpetrate in true colours everything that she loved and admired.

“Very beautiful indeed,” said Mrs. Scariff. “Yet, if all I hear about the difficulty of access be true, why—I think, Linfield, I would sooner see it in this lovely picture, than trouble to climb to it.”

“My dear mother, I would not drag you to it for the world against your will.”

“Nay, I'm willing enough, if you wish it, and Miss Medway will go.”

“But I cannot go, Mrs Scariff.” And the tone was sufficiently decisive to prevent further persuasion.

“In that case we will be content with the picture, my mother.”

“Play us something, Mr Scariff,” said Marion; and he obeyed, making Miss M'Kenzie's old piano the interpreter of the strangest, sweetest music.

“I always feel better after hearing you play,” she said again, when he paused a while; and his face flushed with sudden, passionate gladness at her words.

“If you heard him upon his own organ up at Blue Cap,” said Mrs Scariff, proudly, “you would be entranced.”

“Hush, mother!” said he, with a smile. “You should always wait till a man's back is turned before you praise him.”

“On the contrary, Linfield, that is always understood to be the best time for back-biting,” replied Mrs. Scariff.

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They were not brilliant conversationalists, these two. What Mrs Scariff said was uttered in a stiff, old-fashioned style, and her son was constrained and shy in manner, so that, except in the matter of music, Marion was never greatly entertained by their visits. She was very glad this day when they took their departure, and left her free to do a thing she was bent on doing, yet, woman-like, repented as soon as done. This was no other than inditing a short, hot, reproachful letter to Gower Hamilton. She did make an attempt to recall Janet after she had despatched her to the nearest letter-box, but too late—the girl was out of sight and hearing. Now there was nothing to do but wait for the reply—which never came. And the why and wherefore were thus: The letter did not reach Gower Hamilton until his return from his holiday trip. When he received it, and read it, his temper grew as hot as that displayed in the letter—perhaps hotter, because he knew he was in fault, and that knowledge always increases a man's resentment against the one who points it out to him. So he wrote half-a-dozen furious letters, tore them up under a sudden sense of the meanness and injustice of them, and decided to let the matter rest a few days. At the end of that time he had softened, and so went to work with his pen again. He did not want to be harsh, and he did not want to be self-condemnatory; and the end of it was, he made a little bon-fire on his office-hearth with these the results of his second efforts. Then came a new influx of legal business (Gower was a lawyer), and many worries as a consequence; and so from day to day he put off writing, until at last he resolved not to write at all, but to seize the first few days he could call his own and run down to Dunedin. And he would have no more nonsense then, he told himself; married she would have to be, and she should come back to Wellington with him. And he studied the newspaper columns of “For Sale,” and “To Let,” and never passed an upholsterer's window without looking in.

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That the delay of a few weeks could possibly make any difference he never dreamed. That the days of his silence would be counted and bemoaned in secret by the desolate heart-wounded girl never occurred to him. That all his cool, brief epistles of late months had cut her to the quick with their suggestion of his becoming weary of her never entered his mind. Above all, this last broken promise of his, touching the Christmas visit—he held it lightly on his conscience, as men do hold such things, and had never a thought that to her it was like a bitter farewell blow. So with a fine feeling of contented proprietorship, he laid out his plans and passed his time pleasantly.

In the beginning of March, just as he was contemplating a holiday, there came to him from Christ-church a new client—a widow, young and pretty, who besought him with touching earnestness to attend to her case personally. Now, being engaged to, and anxious about, one pretty woman does not preclude the possibility of a man's being interested in another. Indeed, instances have been not unfrequently known where even the possession of a wife and large family did not hinder a man from a remarkable deal of such outside interest.

Then Gower was not altogether proof against the subtle flattery conveyed in this sign of the spread of his professional reputation. If people would come all the way from Christchurch to secure him!—well, he returned with the widow, and won her case with honours. And during this time Marion Medway got a letter from Nellie Dale, who was on a visit to friends in Christchurch:—

My Dear Marion,—

“What I have to tell you will vex you awfully, but yet it is best you should know. That precious cousin of mine is engaged to a widow. I don't know this from himself; in fact, he is so much taken up with her—and so ashamed of himself besides, I suppose—that I haven't been able to get hold of him alone.” (The fact was, Gower had carefully avoided page 102 his cousin, knowing her tendency to interference, and not wishing to give her the first chance of explaining things to his sweetheart.) “But there's no doubt of its truth, dear; nor that the widow is a clever, unscrupulous woman of very queer repute, though she is pretty, and that's a fact. Gower has been scudding about Christchurch with her in a way that would be perfectly shameless if they were not engaged, and last night they had a private box at the theatre. It is said she went up to Wellington after him, and there is no doubt they've been carrying on together for some time. Dear Marion, I am so sorry, because I know how you will feel; but cheer up, there are as good fish in the sea, you know. It is very hard, this sort of thing, and after I've once told Gower my mind, I'll never speak to him again—just to show him how I take it.

With love, dear Marion, yours,


Nellie.”

“Gower! O, my love, my love! how can I bear it?” moaned Marion, when she read this. Then she thrust it hurriedly into the fire, as the little maid announced Mr Scariff. When, an hour later, Mr Scariff returned to his hotel, his mother knew before he spoke what had happened to him.

“It is done, then,” she said, with a sigh, half of relief, half of apprehension.

“Yes, it is done,” he answered, taking both her hands in his. “She is mine, mother! she is mine!”

“Did she say anything about anyone else that she had ever cared for, Linfield?”

“No. Why?

“Because I heard accidentally to-day that she had been engaged to someone.”

“Then it's a lie!” said he, savagely. “Show me who said it, and I'll rend their tongues out.”

“Linfield! for Heaven's sake—”

“There, mother, forgive me; but you shouldn't have told me. Don't be frightened. I'm quiet again now. What do I care what they say? She is mine page 103 now. She cares for none but me. She loves me. My queen loves me!”

“When is it to be, Linfield?”

“Soon. O, very soon. She herself said there was no need for delay. Is not that sufficient proof that she loves me?”

“Surely, surely, Linfield, My son,”—this with exceeding timidity—“my son, did you take off your cap?”

“No; I dared not.”

“Hadn't it been better to tell her, think you?”

“No, no; not yet. Let her get used to the rest first—to my dwarfish figure and my crooked shoulder.”

“But you will tell her—show her before the marriage?”

“I may. I don't know yet. If I find she loves me very dearly, I will. If she is shy, I will not. Mother, I couldn't give her up now. When it is over—the marriage—she will be mine beyond repentance. I think I dare not tell her till then.”

With a sudden bound he mounted a chair and stood before the mantel-piece mirror. Then he took off the Blue Cap. And then was revealed on either side of his head a horn, and between the two a tuft of red brown hair—coarse hair like that which grows on a bull.

“God help me!” cried Mrs. Scariff, covering her eyes with her hands.

“What, after all these years, mother! How then would she bear it if the sight of it so horrifies you? Mother, mother, why didn't you smother me in my cradle?”

“Because you were all I had, Linfield, and I loved you. And I covered it up, my son, and tried to think it was not there.”

“So have I covered it up and tried to think it is not there. And so I will now. Stop crying, mother, so little would send me mad to-night. Afterwards, when she is my very own, there will be no more of the bull-rages, and we will all forget the horns. And the page 104 blue cap becomes me, you know; and I will take care never to make her ashamed by letting anyone see what is beneath. Fancy all these years that have passed without anyone knowing, save you and Hannah! But I wish—even now I wish the old wish, O mother, that the bull that killed my father under your very eyes six months before my birth—had killed you too!”

“Linfield, cease!” cried the mother, ghastly pale, and trembling with the old horror that was ever fresh to her. “My son, have mercy!”

But the wedding went off without the blue cap ever being lifted; and when Gower Hamilton came at last to put his pretty three-months' design into execution, it was only to find that his bride was lost to him that very day, and to realise for the first time how dearly he loved her.