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The Counterfeit Seal: A Tale of Otago's First Settlers.

Chapter VIII. — Undermining

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Chapter VIII.

“Of all the vices to which human nature is subject, treachery is the most infamous and detestable, being compounded of fraud, cowardice, and revenge.”—L. M. Stretch70.

The dreary winter had mellowed into the vernal spring; the frost and snow had all gone, and the flowers in the gardens were blooming in all their lively hues, and casting forth on the softening winds the delicate perfumes which Nature awakens in its mysterious laboratory from the strange combinations that construct the annually new garment of the earth, regarding whose wondrous secrets man has been able only to gaze on the outside, and ask unanswered questions. The birds, dressed in their soft plumage, were admiring the bravery with which their neighbours were rehabilitated, and singing songs of love amid the groves and glens, rejoicing in the glory of the sky and the beauty of the earth.

Weeks had passed into months, and the months had followed one another from November to May, and while all Nature had won its gayest vestments and sang its sweetest melodies, fair, tall, slim, and erect Kirsty Knox had been without the element of happy joy, for still she had not heard one sentence regarding the friend who so long ago had passed from her sight to visit the unknown ends of the earth. She had grown less disconsolute: other wants had taken up a larger and more proportionate amount of her time and attention. Yet she desired to know the result of page 88 that expedition in which she had been, and still was, so deeply interested. She often wondered whether Eric had kept her seal, and whether she would soon receive a letter from him, neatly closed, and fastened with that secret mark, of which he so far knew only that it existed, but which she would at a glance detect.

The visits of David Moir had been more frequent lately. He had been very kind to all, but was gentle and specially attentive to Kirsty. He had never again spoken of the dangers of the sea, or of the risks of Colonial life, but confined himself to topics generally of a pleasant nature. His visits were appreciated, and looked for, and it was evident that to Kirsty his presence was not less pleasing than to the others.

On Sabbath afternoons he had walked home with them from church, but generally he found himself walking by the side of Kirsty, while the others fell a few paces to the rear.

Occasionally, when Kirsty had been recommended by her mother to walk in the “fresh air” for an hour or so on a warm afternoon, she found David Moir's company very acceptable, and indeed now she quite unconsciously felt a degree of comfort arise from an expected meeting with this substitute for an accepted lover, but never for a moment suspected this was the prelude to more serious sentiments.

David was not slow to notice what was working in his favour, nor negligent to improve his opportunity. With his rival far away, and unheard from, he had chances of working his scheme, and without making haste too fast he was doing his best to make his position sure. To do this he considered it wisest to render his presence as agreeable page 89 as possible, and his absence felt by the family, but more particularly by the young lady herself.

To make his scheme more effective, he took little presents to the younger sisters, gave a pocket-knife to her brother Andrew, a lad of fifteen, and one Saturday he sent a nice cake to the house for Mrs. Knox, and was there on Sabbath evening to help them to eat it. All had been recipients of some special token of his favour, except Kirsty. When he brought a bag of fruit or sweets he never gave her any, handing the little parcel to some of the rest.

Observing this, she said jocularly one day when he had put a bag of “peppermints” into her sister Susie's hand:

“Nothing ever comes my way. I wonder what I have done to be treated like a step-bairn71?” As she spoke her cheeks assumed a deeper hue than had mantled them for several months.

This was the state of mind he had wished to find, and he quickly seized hold of the advantage, saying:

“I am sorry to have seemed to neglect you, but, if I am forgiven, this is not the last time I may call, and I shall then endeavour to atone for my past faults.”

A few days subsequently Kirsty received a neatly addressed letter. It was lying on her table when she came in, placed there by Mrs. Knox, to whom it had been delivered. On the back it was sealed carefully with red sealing-wax, and every mark of the seal came out in clear lines. She was interested in the style of the impression, and admired the careful way it had been produced, so she looked closely into it. For a moment she looked more in thought than in examination, then she looked again. There it was! but the letter was not from across the seas. Still, page 90 it was sealed with her private mark. It was the seal she had given to her lover, and she tore open the envelope, only to be plunged deeper into perplexity.

“How can David Moir have got possession of that seal?” she said to herself. “It must be the same. How strange he should have it, and use it on the first letter he has written to me!”

It was merely an invitation from David, in the name of his father and mother, to Kirsty and her next eldest sister to be present at a gathering of friends to celebrate his twenty-first birthday.” She tore off the seal and placed it safely in the drawer of her workbox, and then took the note to her mother.

“How nice that will be! We must get your dresses sorted up. You must do your best to look braw and smart that night, Kirsty.”

“Could I not get a new dress? The one I have as best is not at all fresh now, mother, and everybody has seen me in it.”

“What do you think your father would say to that, lassie? Can you not manage to smarten it up with some new ribbons and a bit of lace?”

“If I am to look ‘braw and smart,’ something more than that must be done, for the old one is neither, and I would not feel that I was doing the respect due to the invitation unless I could appear in something nicer than a dress I have worn for more than a year.”

“Well we must just see what your father will say. If he will say ‘yes’ you may be sure I will be pleased.”

That evening after Mr Knox came home and was sitting comfortably by the fire reading a volume of the page 91 Waverly Novels72, as a recreation after the worry of a day in the Writers office, his wife, in a pleasant, coaxing way drew a chair close beside him, and laying her hand on his shoulder, said:

“How's the story getting on now, John? You keep it all to yourself, but I can see by the curves of your mouth and eyes when it's funny or when it's serious. Look here, just set down your story and read this,” putting the invitation into a hand he held out for it.

He read the letter, and said, “Of course they are going, are they not?”

“We are just waiting, John, for your consent.”

“I could not refuse consent to that, surely.”

“I thought you would be pleased. A night's enjoyment would be good for them both. And you see they would soon have been needing new dresses anyway, for the warm weather coming in; their old ones are not bad yet for ordinary occasions, but we must spruce them up a bit for this party.”

“Oh, yes, that's the point that my consent was waited for, was it? You women folk want new gowns for all special occasions; it's easy seen you have not the battle of earning the siller73 to buy them with.”

“But you see it will only be getting it the matter of a month earlier than if they had no special occasion for them, for they must have summer gowns, and it comes all to the same thing in the end.”

“Well, well, get them their dresses, and we'll have done with it.”

“Ah you dear old thing! I knew you would say yes, for you were always pleased to see them smart looking.”

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Then she left him to continue his story in peace, and went straight ben the house to tell the girls of her success, when without more than a monosyllabic exclamation the two rushed away with dangerous haste to see which should be the first to take him uncermoniously round the neck and express her exultation in kisses, and then to wind up exclamatorily with, “Oh, you dear, good, kind father!”

The spare moments of next week were spent almost wholly in making preparations for the coming event. All sorts of little things had to be done, and the house was as lively as if they were getting a wedding trousseau74 ready.

The dresses came home on Saturday afternoon, and were declared “just splendid.” Indeed Kirsty had never looked more fascinating. Had she been desirous of captivating a beau75 she could not have been got up with greater taste. Dress, bonnet, gloves, and boots all were in perfect harmony with the face and figure that displayed them, and as Kirsty viewed herself in the mirror she smiled a more conscious smile of self-satisfaction than had been visible upon her for many months.”

The new garments were carefully put away over Sabbath. On previous occasions their new clothes had always been worn first to church, but in this case there was to be an element of surprise; no eye outside was to fall upon them until they were uncovered at Mrs Moir's party on Monday night, where all the other girls would gaze with wonder, if not with envy and vexation, at being so outdone.

As they walked into the room when most of the company had assembled, for they came late on purpose, there was an instant silence, for although there was not one there who was a stranger to them, not more than two or three page 93 recognised them for a moment or two, then came the congratulations and expressions of surprise at not immediately recognising them, they both, especially Miss Knox, were looking so much improved since the coming in of spring.

The small share of feminine vanity resident in Kirsty's breast was that night fully gratified, for while some of the girls gave signs of annoyance, several of the lads were not reluctant to show their most appreciative attentions, and David had told her in a most graceful way how he admired her appearance, and his mother had expressed high praise of her beautiful and becoming toilet76.

On one occasion when she and David were by some apparently unpremeditated arrangement sitting next to each other, she said:

“What a neat little seal that is you use on your letters. I was quite interested in it.”

“I like neat things,” he replied.

“The formation of the moss rosebud I thought,” she continued, “was almost as perfect as it could be made in such a small device. I only remember having once seen one anything like it.”

“You have seen one like it, then?” he inquired, feeling that his scheme was working.

“Yes, I think so; at least it struck me as being like one I had seen before.”

“How long ago, may I ask?”

“Oh, not very long; within a year, I should say.”

“Perhaps they may be the same,” he ventured to suggest, watching her face while he spoke, and he observed a twitch in her eyes and lips, and a heightening in her colour, but both soon disappeared.

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“No, I don't think that is likely,” she answered.

“Of course I cannot say,” he said, smiling a sort of satirical smile. “It is only about four months since I bought it, and I was told another like it could not be got.”

“Then it must be a curiosity in its own way. What is it made of? may I be so bold as to ask?”

It was the very question he wished to fall from her lips.

“Certainly you may. It is made of a very pretty pebble with white streaks running through the dark. If you would like to see it I will bring it down some evening.”

“Oh, thank you? You need not do that; but your description is very like the one I saw, but never mind, it is nothing of any consequence.”

“Eric must have lost that seal,” she said to herself that night in the quiet of her own room. It must be the same, for no engraver would ever put that mark on it without instructions,” and she drew from her box the piece of paper with the wax impression of the seal, and she looked into it again.

“There can be no mistake about it. It can be no other. Then the pebble was just as David described it. It was very careless of Eric. I have not lost his locket. That is safe, and I have done faithfully what he asked me to do with it. Even at David's party to-night I have worn it. No one would steal it from him. If his love is no more trustworthy than his care, he may already have got his head full of a fever for someone else.”

Then she threw herself upon her bed, in no happy state of mind, and conjured up all sorts of foolish thoughts about Fric's unfaithfulness, until she began to believe that he had deserted her.

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“If you will accept a little trifle from a mere friend, Miss Knox,” said David Moir the next time they met after his party, “I would be pleased to give you that pebble seal you spoke to me about the other evening.”

“It is too kind of you to offer it, Mr Moir. It would be quite a shame to take it from you.”

“Not in the least, Miss Knox. I shall feel gratified as the friend of one far over the sea to have given you a little article that may be useful.”

“It was rude of me, Mr Moir, to speak about it, and now I am sorry I did so.”

“There is no reason for you saying that. I felt flattered that you had taken any notice of it, and I now hope you will give me a little pleasure by accepting what I offer, not for its value, but as a mark of sincere respect.”

“Then I can only take it and say ‘Thank you;’” and grasping the silk paper which she believed contained the identical “keepsake” she had given as a parting love-token to her lover, she placed it unopened in her hand-bag.

The manner in which she took and put away the parcel told David Moir how his action had affected her; and he imagined that by a continuation of his course for a while longer he would be safe in taking another step. At present, however, he must simulate his regard for the man he was seeking to injure.

“When you have looked at it, Miss Knox,” he said, “I shall be pleased to know your opinion as to whether you think it is the same one you saw once before. I have felt curious ever since you told me. There must have been something peculiar about it, and yet I have not been able page 96 to detect anything beyond the very neat style of the engraving.”

“Oh, yes,” she replied, “I had forgotten that I spoke of one it so much resembled; let me see.”

And she pulled it out of the bag again, and undid the paper covering. When it lay in her open palm she gave a little start, and something in her throat checked her voice; for the lines of the pebble could scarcely have borne a closer resemblance to the one she had handled so often before presenting it to him who had declared his imperishable love for her so frequently.

“It is indeed like it in every particular, so far as I can remember now, but then,” she continued, “pebbles may seem to be very much alike, and yet differ greatly when you place them together.”

“But then,” he said, “it was from some resemblance, or I should say some special or peculiar resemblance, of the impression made by it on the wax that your curiosity was aroused.”

“Yes, there was a mark which I noticed was common to both, but that may be an accidental coincidence.”

Then, as if to break off the subject, he remarked:

“No news yet from the Thomson's?”

“No, I have not heard of any ships having returned from there lately, I suppose there will be one soon.”

“About time now, I should think, to hear of them, but as bad news travels fast, we may suppose that if things were not well we should have heard.”

“Father was saying the other day that we might perhaps not hear for more than two months yet, or it might possibly be a year from the time they left until word came back.”

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“Well, in spite of the high regard I have for Eric Thomson, I can't understand how he can have made up his mind to be away so long and leave behind him one of the most fascinating young ladies of Edinburgh.”

“Now, Mr Moir, I am not going to allow you to talk like that,” she said, at the same time speaking in a voice that told her words were merely in play.

“I am not going to blame him, but I tell you if I were in his position I could hardly expect to stand well in her esteem after such a long desertion.”

“That is too bad, Mr. Moir; you don't think I could be so easily put out when I consented to what he has done?”

“I could never think anything but the most absolutely honourable of you. But were a young lady of your prepossessing appearance and your accomplishments left by me in the midst of so many eligible young men, with so few competitors of equal charms, I tell you I should feel that my conduct was not fair to either, and that if I lost cast in my lady's affections I had none but myself to blame for it.”

“Do you consider me so changeable, Mr. Moir, as to be influenced by such conditions? While your words are very complimentary the suggestion behind them seems to be open to another meaning.”

“Do not misunderstand me, Miss Knox. If I suggest anything I only hint at what is most natural, and in my own mind, certainly not unwise. Oh no, I do not, could not, possibly think you changeable. What I have seen of you is all to the contrary. But I cannot be blind to the fact that many another in your position—that is with such prospects, and I may say, strong inducements—would refuse to page 98 remain bound to an absentee lover. Your resolution and constancy are of course all the more honourable to you.”

After they had parted that evening Kirsty's mind was full of strange thoughts. It was quite evident Eric had parted in some way, accidental or wilful, with her keepsake. And as this thought grew upon her she once again, and yet again, examined what David Moir had given to her. “Yes,” she said at last, “this is the same seal!”

She sat for some time with her head resting between her hands, and as she did so she recalled the words with which she had given it to him.

“Hang it to your watch chain for me, and when you write to me seal your letters with it, so long as your love is as warm as it is to-night. When you cease to use it I will know the meaning.” And again:

“I expect you will never lose it unless your heart ceases to value it.”

“Within a few hours of this injunction he must have parted with it, for in less than 12 hours he had gone from Edinburgh,” she said half aloud.

Such thoughts continued to haunt her waking and sleeping throughout the night. She could not believe it possible, yet what more evidence could she have. If he had lost it, that was culpable negligence; if it had been stolen, that was weakness; but if he had given it away or sold it, that was gross treachery not to be pardoned.

Concurrent with these conclusions came rushing through her mind the complimentary remarks of David Moir. He must have meant something, and it was true that recently several fine young lads had lifted their hats to her as she passed them; and David himself, who would inherit page 99 his uncle's property in Glasgow, had been more than usually attentive. She had no occasion to wait for one who had so shamefully treated her. Still she could not rest in such a frame of mind. Eric had always been a manly fellow, a devoted lover, and perhaps, yes, perhaps, she should not be hasty. The remembrance of the hours spent in his company, the warmth of his words, and the gentleness of his manner, cooled her passion, and she resolved to preserve herself from any rash action in the meantime.

That morning, shortly after entering his office, Mr. Knox was touched gently on the shoulder by David Moir, who was holding a copy of the Scotsman in his hand.

“Have you read this paragraph?” he said, placing his finger on one of the columns of the paper.

“No, I have not seen the Scosman yet. What is there in it?”

“Just read it for yourself?” said David, as he pushed the paper into Mr Knox's hand.

“The ship Blue Jacket77, which arrived at Liverpool last Wednesday from Mauritius78 with a full cargo for this port, brings news that a box containing a passenger's luggage, and marked with the letters E.T. Ship Phi…………………g. Not wanted………………vge………………Gla……………Ne……………d, was cast ashore on the coast of that island shortly before her departure. The letters omitted had been worn off by the box rubbing against something: which might occur in the hold of the ship, and as nothing has been heard of the ship “Philip Laing,” which left Glasgow for New Zealand last November with a large number of passengers, and the letters on the box would correspond with the name, as well as the ports of departure and destination, page 100 it may be that some mishap has befallen her, but in the absence of further information nothing definite can be said about the matter. There was nothing in the box to indicate who it belonged to or where it came from.”

“That looks bad,” said Mr Knox.

“I was all along afraid of that voyage,” David replied.

“What a dreadful thing if all those poor people have gone to the bottom, and none left to tell the story.”

“Those who undertake such voyages should be prepared for such consequences,” returned David.

“Oh, but it is a sad thought when we take the whole circumstances into view.”

“What a blessing Miss Knox was not allowed to go,” said Moir, with emphasis.

“Yes, indeed,” answered her father; “but I hope that after all this is a false alarm. I can't believe it is true, somehow.”

“Well the probability seems very high,” retorted the youth, as if he were gratified rather than distressed.

“It will be time enough to give credit to the story when the certainty of the report comes,” rejoined Mr. Knox, handing back the newspaper.

It was, however, another lever by which Moir determined to raise his hopes and press his suit. If he could persuade Kirsty that “E.T.” stood for Eric Thomson, then he stood a good chance of occupying that young man's place in her affections as soon as the shock should be got over.

70 The beauties of history; or, pictures of virtue and vice, drawn from real life; designed for the instruction and entertainment of youth, L. M. Stretch.

71 A Scottish term for stepson or stepdaughter.

72 A series of historical novels, written by Sir Walter Scott between 1814 and 1932.

73 i.e. Silver

74 A bride's outfit of clothes, house-linen, etc.

75 A lover, or sweetheart.

76 Most probably referring to a shawl used to cover the head or shoulders.

77 A sailing ship which was diverted to the New Zealand trade in 1859; it was destroyed by a fire at the Falkland Islands in 1869.

78 An island country in the Indian Ocean, the Republic of Mauritius was officially under British sovereignty from 1814 until 1968.