The Passionate Puritan
One night the following week, as she was finishing her supper at the Mackenzie's, Jack dashed in without a word of apology.
"Miss Carey, please come with me at once," he called sharply, without further explanation, and leaving Tom Mackenzie to follow to find out what had happened, Sidney ran after him.
She had gone cold, thinking at once of an accident to Mrs. Jack. But he turned towards the mill.
"We've just fished Bessie Hardy out of the dam," he said as they ran. "She's alive, I'm afraid. Much better if she'd been dead, and now we have to try to save her."
"Oh, heavens!" she gasped.
The village had learned that week that Bill Hardy's eldest girl, who was fifteen, was going to have a child. The cook's wife, who had been the first to suspect it, had spread the news. Sidney heard it from Mrs. Mackenzie the same evening that Bob Lindsay told Jack.
When she had gone afterwards to sit with Sophie she found Jack there in a white rage. Hepage 222 had just come from breaking the news to Bill, who had had no suspicion of it. Mrs. Bill was still away. Nobody had heard of her since she had gone off in the spring.
"Hell!" Jack had growled. "I'll wring the neck of the man if I get hold of him. And I'll be sorry for him when Bill gets at him."
And he had gone to bed in no mood to sleep.
"Poor Jack," said Sophie. "He does have to do horrid things. He hated like anything to tell Bill, but he knew he would rather hear it from him than anyone else. He left him with poor Bessie trying to find out who the father is."
But poor Bessie, fearing for her lover, would not tell, and no one seemed to have a suspicion. For two days Jack and the men he trusted had tried to find out.
And now Bessie, a mild colourless girl, who had never shown a spark of initiative, astonished everybody by this act of desperation. She had chosen her time after the mill closed, when the village was at supper, and before the night watchman went on. She walked half way across the footbridge of the dam to where the water was deepest, and jumped in.
By chance Alec Graham had been working after time, and as he stood in his yard washing the worst grease off his hands before going inside he saw her. Calling to his wife to go topage 223 tell Jack Ridgefield he dashed for the dam. He was a good swimmer, and before Jack and Bob Lindsay got to the landing, where a boat was kept to aid men who fell off the logs, he had found Bessie, and was swimming with her towards the mill.
They spread her on the landing, and Alec began what he knew of restorative measures.
A group from the kitchen had gathered before Jack and "Sidney got there.
It fell back as they arrived, and she set to work.
"Has anyone been to tell Bill?" asked Jack at once.
Sidney gave him an eloquent glance as he turned to go himself. As she worked over Bessie's limp body, with help from Alec, she listened curiously to the remarks that were muttered round. There were curses for the absent Mrs. Bill, and for the man who had seduced poor Bessie, and much pity for her and Bill. But there were those who said that Bill's wrath had driven her to it.
Jack Ridgefield did not return for half an hour, and then he came alone. The crowd that had gathered would have been delighted to know what Bill said and how he looked, but they were doomed to everlasting ignorance on the subject.page 224
Nobody ever learned what had passed between the two men. It was known next day that Bill had gone off, presumably to get drunk. He was away a week.
"How is it?" asked Jack, leaning down over Sidney.
"She's alive. We'll get her round all right."
Although she was tired she refused to be relieved.
"We'll need a stretcher," she said. "Don't you think we'd better take her to my place? I can look after her better than, anyone else. It won't hurt me to sit up with her to-night."
"That's good of you. It would be the best arrangement," he answered.
And so Bessie was carried to Sidney's house and put into Sidney's bed.
But that was not the day's end of the little drama.
Jack had scarcely finished his belated supper before one of his trusted mill workers came to see him.
"I think I've a line on Bessie's man, boss," he said.
"Go ahead," said Jack, his face hardening.
"What! That kid I" He realized at once it was no case for the wringing of necks.
"I'm sure of it. He went white when he heardpage 225 she had jumped in the dam. I was watching him. He's been looking rummy for days. And now he's changing into his best clothes, and says he's going down to Whakapara for the evening. I wouldn't mind betting he's going to clear out."
"Go and stop him, by force if necessary. Tell him I want him. No, I guess I'll come with you. We'll go down past the school, in case he has started."
And, indeed, when they reached the tramway, Sandy Kinney was just emerging from the canyon of timber stacks.
"Why, Sandy, are you going to a party?" asked Jack lightly.
"I guess so," mumbled Sandy. But he could not look his boss in the eyes.
"Sandy," Jack put his hand firmly on his shoulder, "you're running away because you're afraid to meet Bessie Hardy."
The poor youth who had no power to deceive a man like Jack was caught.
Ridgefield nodded to his worker, who went off.
"Had Bessie told you about the baby?" he asked.
Sandy shook his head.
"She hadn't! But you'd heard?"
"Why didn't you go to see her at once?"
"I dunno."page 226
"I do. You were scared?" Sandy nodded.
"You're twenty-two years old, I believe?"
Sandy nodded again.
"Do you happen to know the law on the subject of getting girls under sixteen into trouble?"
Of course Sandy did not.
"Well, Sonny, what you've done is a crime under the law, and you will go to gaol unless you are willing to marry Bessie."
Sandy went white and shrivelled up.
"You needn't be scared, Sandy. I'll help you. You come along with me and talk it over."
Two hours later Jack stepped on to Sidney's verandah and spoke her name quietly. She was sitting with Mrs. Mackenzie beside Bessie, who had recovered consciousness, but was still too weak to talk.
"You have someone with you?" he asked, as she opened the door.
"Yes, Mrs. Mackenzie."
"Then you could come out for a bit. I want to talk to you."
"We have a wedding on our hands now, Miss Carey," he began, grimly. "I've found Bessie's lover—Sandy Kinney, you know, the lanky red boy who feeds the timber ends into the waste trucks. He's a bit soft."
"What! You would have them marry!"page 227
"Certainly. I've told Sandy it's that or gaol for him. A fine set of alternatives, eh? But he's willing enough now that I've got him used to the idea. And I've told him I will put up a shanty for them and raise his pay. Now I want you to talk to Bessie as soon as she is well enough, and advise the poor kid."
"Advise her!" interrupted Sidney. "My heavens! I'm so capable of advising her, aren't I?"
"Look here, Miss Carey, these poor kids don't know what they want. They will do anything they're told. She's probably willing enough to marry him anyway."
"But think of the responsibility of mating two such people! And she's only fifteen!"
"I know. And think of all the children they will have, which is much worse. But they're coming to it anyhow. Unmarried, Bessie will be seduced every year by somebody, now she has started, and Sandy will find somebody, if somebody doesn't find him. It's one set of legitimate idiots against two sets of illegitimate ones, to put it baldly. I really think we had better marry them, Miss Carey. And there is Bill, too, to be considered."
There was no refuting the grim logic of his argument.
"What a situation!" she said.page 228
"Common enough," he answered.
"But surely they ought to be considered. They ought to see each other and come to it themselves. I think it would be awful to make her marry him if she does not want to. She'd be better in a home for the rest of her life."
"She is not defective enough for that. Don't worry, Miss Carey. They will be as happy as most people."
And next morning, when she talked to Bessie, Sidney saw he was right. The poor child bright" ened at once when she was told that Sandy would marry her, and that she should have a home of her own. Sidney kept her for two days. Bessie was afraid of her father, but she went home when Jack told her he was away and that it would be all right when he came back.
He told everybody to look out for the return of Bill and to let him know at once about the marriage. He rightly guessed that it would make all right as far as he was concerned.
Jack set men to work at once on a three-roomed cottage. He engaged a Methodist minister. Sidney said they should be married in her house, and she and Mrs. Mackenzie made Bessie a blue silk wedding dress, and went to Whakapara on Saturday to get her a few clothes.
"The poor child shall have her little thrill out of it if we can manage it," said Sidney to Sophie.page 229
"It will probably be the last she will ever get."
They were married two weeks after the accident, Sidney, Jack and Bill being the only people present. Jack gave them money to go away for two weeks.
When the pair returned there was enough in their shanty to start them. Most of the village had found something that could be spared. On their arrival Jack and Sidney went together to welcome them, and he preached them a little sermon about trying to get on together, and told them if they were in any trouble to come to him. It was the kind of thing that suited their intelligence and their emotions, and in spite of what the cynics might say it did them good.
"Poor kids," he said to Sidney afterwards, "somebody will have to look after them all their days."
This event took Sidney's thoughts off herself, and helped to restore her balance. It did more for her than a year's moralizing would have done.
She talked a lot about it to Arthur, and was glad to find that he got all the light and shade in it as she had. He had wanted to go to the wedding, but she told him neither she nor Jack would pander to his vulgar curiosity. But she gave him a vivid description of it afterwards.
"I wish you could have seen Jack Ridgefield there," she said. "He was stunning. Indeed,page 230 he was through the whole business. He knows what to say to people. He's so simple and kind. And I used to think him hard."
"Look here, woman, you've done nothing but talk about Ridgefield lately. I'm going to be jealous now."
He pretended to be serious.
"Oh, don't be ridiculous, Arthur. Anybody would admire Jack Ridgefield."
He looked at her with a smile.
"My dear, you're half in love with Jack. He's the alternative to me. You'll always be liable to turn from my type to his type. If you don't know it now you will some day. You're complex enough to want us both. Sometimes I wonder if I'll be able to hold you."
"Why, Arthur!" She was astonished and disturbed by his insight.
"Don't let it worry you, child. We won't cross that bridge till we come to it."
But for days she thought over what he had said.
Then she received a note from Arthur telling her he was off to Auckland to meet a friend from England, and expected to be away at least two weeks. He hoped, when he returned, he said, to have definite news of the date of his marital freedom.