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

Chapter V. Correspondence and Conversation

Chapter V. Correspondence and Conversation.

“Blue Cap,
“October 16th, 18—.

“My Dear Aunt,—

“You do not say in your last letter whether you intend coming up here or not. I wish you would, though there is very little to offer in the way of temptation. Blue Cap is always the same, and it is not a pleasant sameness. If you will not come here, suppose you invite me to come to you for a little time? Would not you like to see me? I am a great deal altered, and am far from well lately. The weather has been so cold. I am pining for a breath of Dunedin page 105 air,—for a sight of Dunedin loveliness from your pretty bow-window. Dear Auntie, write soon and say when I may come.

Your affectionate niece,
“Marion.
Miss M'Kenzie,
“London street, Dunedin.”

“Dunedin,
“October 16th, 18—.

“My Dear Niece,—

“The tenor of the letter I have just received from you leads me to infer—as I have suspected for some time—that you are repenting your ill-judged and indecently hasty marriage. Also, that you are speering for an invitation to my house without the knowledge or consent of your husband. Please to understand me then, clearly and once for all, that the fault of your reckless step is entirely your own, and you must bide the consequences; and that under no circumstances will I lend myself to deceit or double dealing. If you desire a change, make your husband aware of your wish; if you weary of his home, tell him so; do not send your complaints abroad. Doubtless if you, in a proper spirit of subjection and respect, ask Mr Scariff to take you to Dunedin for the sake of your health, he will not refuse; and in that case you will go to an hotel, which will be better than my dwelling, where accommodation is so limited. And concluding this letter, I would like to say that, now I have settled again into my old groove of solitude, I feel as if visitors would only unpleasantly disturb me. I am too old a woman now to bide being fashed. Trusting your health will soon improve, I remain

Your affectionate Aunt,

M. M'Kenzie,
“Mrs M. Scariff,
“Blue Cap Station, Otago.”

“No chance for me there, then,” said Marion, in soliloquy, when she had read this. “How the pride page 106 must be taken out of me when I could deliberately beg for an invitation that I might have known would be refused, and refused with insult! Well, my dear Aunt, you shall have no further opportunity of drawing inferences as to my condition of mind, I'll take good care. Now, I will write to Nellie Dale.”

“Blue Cap,
“October 20th, 18—.

“My Dear Nellie,—

“You complain of the brevity of my letters, and of my reticence in respect to my home and my life in it. The brevity, dear, is the result of having nothing of interest to tell. The other complaint I will at once put an end to by describing Blue Cap in full, and the method of existence—my existence, here. You know the geography of the place, I think. If you do not, let me tell you that we are situate about eight miles from Clinton, the nearest town, and six from Popotunoa Gorge, which is on the Invercargill road. To the Gorge I have been twice,—to Clinton not at all since the evening I passed through it as a bride. Mr Scariff goes nowhere where there are people, and as I know no one in all this region, I stay at home. The Blue Cap homestead is located on the slope of a hill. The interior is both comfortable and tasteful. Mr Scariff superintended all the upholstering and furnishing, I believe, and he certainly has a keen eye for the beautiful and harmonious. You would, I know be well pleased with the room I am writing in now—a room that has been re-arranged by Mr Scariff for my own special use since our marriage. Well, so much for the inside; but outside,—oh, what unutterable dreariness! Once in Victoria my mamma and I, going a long journey, had to cross a vast plain, and I recollect being so wrought upon by its monotony that I cried and said if I were compelled to live where I could see nothing else I should soon go mad. Would you believe that now I should consider a plain absolute paradise by comparison with the view that meets my daily page 107 vision here? I stand at the drawing-room windows and look westward upon hills, barren, tussocky hills; eastward, from the kitchen—again hills, barren, tussocky hills; southward, from my own rooms—the same; while north, rises the hill, barren and tussocky like its brethren, on the side of which the house is built. And oh! the sense of confinement, of limit, of imprisonment, that seems to tighten and oppress one's very breathing! Sometimes at first, impelled by a vague idea of escape from the awful feeling of being walled in, I used to go out and climb the bald slopes; but only to find the same beyond. Hill after hill, “in unlimited series,” the only changing feature in the scene being a whitey-brown creeping mass here and there, afar off, that I knew to be a flock of sheep. A mass now square, now circular, anon triangular; now dense, then scattered, according as the browsing animals follow their inclinations. Sometimes I have seen a herd of cattle—a delightful change—their variegated hides giving a tinge of colour in happy contrast with the everlasting brown-green hue of the land. But for a long time now I have seen none of these things even, for I have not been out. Virtually I am a prisoner here—Mr Scariff so dislikes my going out alone, and I am so reluctant to call him from his station and farm matters to be my escort. Since Dainty (my pony) and I some months ago climbed the highest peak we could find, and got into trouble on our return for going so far, I have not been a mile from the house. After all, it is pleasanter, I think, to crouch reading over my big fire of peat and lignite than to go roaming over those dreary hills through a cutting wind. It seems to be always blowing here, and always from the coldest quarter. The wind goes right through me, and seems to turn my thin Victorian blood into so much ice. I used to find Dunedin cold enough sometimes, but I am convinced that this place is several hundred degrees nearer the North or South Pole (whichever is the coldest) than Dunedin, though I daresay maps and geographies don't favour my theory. There is a garden page 108 in front of the house, but flowers won't thrive in it, and I don't blame them. And there is a dwarfed wattle under my window which is striving against circumstances, and giving a few pale-gold indications of victory. In Victoria the wattle-blossoms have been, and almost gone ere this. Here, with a cold sun, and a colder wind, and great patches of snow still upon the hill-tops, I am afraid my little friend has poor chances of believing in the existence of such a season as Spring. How I watch and caress every tiny cluster of tender buds, and wait with impatience for the famillar fragrance that I always call the yellow smell, because, through Australian recollections, the colour and the scent are so intensified in my mind! A little way from the house is a small plantation of young gums, round whose smooth grey trunks I often throw my arms, and cry with sick longing for my dear old Victoria, whence they—and I—are transplanted. Save for these, not a tree grows anywhere in sight, and save for these I often think I could not live.

“Mrs Scariff has been ill all the winter with rheumatism. She is a dear, good, patient soul, and nursing her would be a pleasure only for the pain one knows she suffers. Of Mr Scariff I do not see a great deal. He is busy during most of the day with station affairs; when he has leisure he stays generally in his own room, where his organ is, and gives his few hearers a foretaste of heaven with his wonderful angelic music.

“The only people I ever see, beside Mr Scariff and his mother, are the house-servants—Hiram and Hannah—a comical old Yorkshire couple, who came from England with the Scariffs. All the other servants, or “hands,” have their quarters in huts some distance from the homestead; and as for strange visitors, never, by any chance, do I see one.

“Now I think I have told you everything that you can want to know, dearest Nellie. And Nellie, darling Nellie, can you exercise a little self-denial for the sake of an old friend, and tear yourself away from the page 109 delights and dissipations of town life for a week or two? Say you will, and say when you will come, and I will meet you myself at Clinton, and will be for ever afterwards

“Your most loving, grateful
“Marion.

“P.S.—By-the-bye, pray don't worry yourself any more about having ‘put between,’ as you express it, me and your cousin Gower. You acted for the best, dear, and believed exactly what you said, I know, and, at any rate, it is worse than useless to harass yourself about the mistake now. Write at once and say when you will come to Blue Cap.

“Miss Nellie Dale,
“Armagh-street, Christchurch.

Marion had just addressed her envelope, when there came a rap at the door of her sanctuary.

“Come in,” she cried, and the master of Blue Cap entered.

“Busy writing?” said he, eyeing the letter suspiciously.

“No; I have finished.”

“May I see?”

“Certainly, if you are curious.”

He took the letter, and Marion walked away from him to the piano, where earlier in the day she had been reading “Oakshott Castle,” and improvising an air for one of Lord Oakshott's poems.

“I would God would sever
These memories from me,
I hear only for ever
The rush of the sea,”

sang she from the book which lay open before her.

“Why not have told the truth here and said that you hated to have me as your escort, and that you stay indoors because you have thus a chance, by locking yourself in here, or staying with my mother, to keep out of my way and escape being alone with me?” said Linfield Scariff, pausing at one portion of the letter.

page 110

Marion, if she heard, seemed not to heed. She went on with her composition, a mournful, melancholy air that, with her voice, sounded like nothing so much as the moaning of the wind through telegraph wires.

“I would I were lain
In the wild, driving sand,
You might pass me again,
And kiss my dead hand,”

she sang softly, her fingers bringing out the plaintive accompaniment, her heart aching with the pathos of sound and the yet greater pathos of the words.

“Marion!”

“Well?”

“Who is this woman you are writing to?”

“You know as well as I. This is not the first time you have read our correspondence.”

“But you never told me she was the cousin of the man—the man you were engaged to be married to?”

“Did I not? I suppose occasion did not offer.”

“And you are inviting her here?”

“Yes, why not? She is the only woman I can invite here, since my aunt will not come.” She went on with her song—

“I would I were dead
By the shore of the sea—”

“Marion!” said her husband, suddenly coming near to her, his great eyes wide and strained with the intensity of hungry love; “Marion, is there naught I can do to make you content with me? Is it possible that a man may love a woman as I love you and get nothing but hatred in return for ever?”

She turned her face to him, and her eyes fell on the blue cap, the two side points of which stood strangely in shape of what was beneath. He noticed the almost imperceptible shiver that ran through her.

“Tell me,” he said, “if you had known from the beginning—if I had told you, or showed you, what was under the cap, instead of letting you see when it was too late, would that have made any difference? Was page 111 it the deceit that made you hate me? Remember, you deceived me a little, too.”

“Linfield! Linfield! why go through all this again? What use to travel old painful ground? Do you think I am not sorry for you? Let us make the best of our great mistake, and talk of it no more.”

“I could make the best of it—a very happy best—if you would; but you continually crave for something or some one else.”

“How do you know that? I never say so.”

“Do you think I cannot read you?”

“Well, and if I do crave change, there is little to wonder at, I think! Life here—the life we live—would surely be intolerable if one had the gods for companions. Linfield, you drive me to complaint. Think what my existence has been since you brought me here! Month after month, and not a living being to enter the house save our three torpid selves, and Hiram and Hannah. And look at the prospect out of doors! Why, even love would wear out under such wilting influence.”

“And when there is no love,” said he, bitterly, “it must indeed be a trial.”

“It is,” she said, looking at him defiantly, yet shrinking a little as she saw his eyes dilate, till the white showed all round as in an animal waxing furious.

“One of these days you will drive me mad, Marion.”

“Or you me,” she replied. “If you are going to give way to your present paroxysm, pray quit me in time. I am too tired to-day to bear the spectacle.”

“Tired! what with? You have not been out?”

“No; you need not look at me so suspiciously. I have not been out, I tell you. I am tired, not with anything, but of everything. I wish I were dead!”

“I wish you were! Good God, how I wish you were! I could take you now by the hair and by the throat and hold you till you were dead; and then I should die too. Do you think I could stay an hour page 112 behind you? O, in your intense selfishness you never stop to think of the hell you put me through every day of your life! Why did not you tell me in time that your heart and soul were full of another man? I could have let you go then. That was the best time of my life—when I was softened and humanised by my love for you and my faith in you. I could have done a noble action then. I could have made a sacrifice. There was hope then of my forgetting that I was what I am. But now!—why, Marion, why did you ever tell me that you had no love for me?”

“You drove me to it.”

“Yes, I pestered you with mine for you. I entreated you for the words my heart hungered for, only to find that they were all said long before to him you had given yourself to, and that you married me for spite. Great heaven! is there any wonder that I am all a demon again?”

He snatched the blue cap from his head, and shook the red tuft of hair that showed in such hideous contrast with the other soft brown locks. His eyes flashed with animal fierceness upon her, and his breath came hot through his foaming lips. He moaned strangely as he moved his head up and down with the motion of a bull about to charge; and the short-pointed horns gleamed white in the twilight.

With a sudden rush he was almost upon her; but she passed swiftly round the table and escaped him. In another moment she was outside the door, and had it securely locked.

“Safe once again!” she gasped, leaning pallid and trembling against the passage wall, and listening to the awful sounds from the room she had quitted. “Safe once again; but God help us! what will be the end?”

Passing down to the kitchen, she gave Hannah the key of her room.

“You had better go and see to your master,” said she. “And, Hiram, when all is quiet again, I want you to go to Clinton to post a letter.”

page 113

“Yah want him to be off on t' spree agean, I suppoase,” said Hannah, glancing round irately.

“For t' love o' God, owd wench, drop thy dinging!” quoth Hiram.

“Niver!” retorted his spouse; “niver, till thy dom'd heead drops off, as I nobbut wish it sooin may, soa nah then! Dost think I dunnot untherstand that swaller-tail and bell-topper hat tha's gotten on? Dost iver put 'em on except when tha's hankering after a burst?”

Here Hiram began to perform a kind of solemn double shuffle, nothing but his feet moving; the rest of his body and his face preserving a stiff gravity that was ludicrously enhanced by the “swaller-tail” coat and tall hat.

“Drop tha ditherin!” shouted Hannah, making at him with a big wooden porridge thible. “Thee girt, ugly, flaysome seeght, I'll put a stop to tha hopping, see if I doant! Dang thee for a ill-bred, graceless good-for-nowt, drunken, claght-heead! T' Lord forgi' me for forgetting' mysen ovver sich a worthless God-forsa'en lump!”

Marion retreated, being too well accustomed to this kind of kitchen scene to take much interest in it, and unable in her present mood to find it amusing, as she did sometimes. It was not till afternoon of the following day that Hiram got away to post the letter, the chief reason being that Hannah had got possession of and hidden the coat and hat, and without these it was impossible for Hiram to go any distance from home, at least with any satisfaction to himself. He discovered the hiding-place at last, and retreated behind the stable to don the articles in peace. But ere he had properly mastered the coat, Hannah espied him. Her hands were all floury; so was her nose. It always got so when she was baking, yet nothing would exasperate her so much as an insinuation that she wiped it on the back of her hand. She had in one plump red fist the rolling pin; in the other a flour-dredger. Hiram saw her almost as soon as she saw page 114 him, and off he started—she in pursuit. The swallowtail hung by one sleeve; in the other hand Hiram clutched his bell-topper. The chase was down-hill, and brief, but exciting. With one bound Hiram cleared the high gorse fence, and with one bound poor Hannah went into it. For a moment all that could be seen of her was a confusion of white under-drapery and struggling red legs (Hannah affected scarlet hose, home-knitted), then she slowly extricated herself from the cruel thorns, and, rubbing her wounded arms and face, realized that Hiram was out of sight over the next hill.

“This'll be t' seventh burst sin' t' New Year,” she shouted, shaking the flour-dredger in the direction of his disappearance, “and I nobbut wish 'at ye'll tum'le into some hoile, or get sunk in t' peat bog, so's it'll be yer last. And dom yer drunken pictur, say I! Soa nah then!”

All this Marion witnessed and heard, but wisely kept out of the way.

The letter Hiram posted was the one to Miss Dale. In due time came the reply:—

“Christchurch,
“October 30th, 18—.
“My Dearest Marion,—

“What amuses me is your giving me such a lively description of your delectable location, and then asking me coolly to go there! It is really too rich. But seriously, dear, I should be glad to oblige you, and the dullness you so graphically describe would not frighten me from coming—indeed I don't sympathise with your dullness at all. Given a well-furnished house, a husband, an organ, a boudoir, and a pony, I don't see what more a woman can want! But as I was saying—only I always get off the track in writing, somehow—nothing you tell me about your place would deter me from coming but the utter manlessness of it. Do not suspect me of any reflection upon Mr Scariff. On the contrary, if you could only page 115 guarantee me such another man as he (as rich, too), I would be with you as fast as coaches would carry me. But, dearest, do consider my increasing years and diminishing chances, and ask yourself conscientiously how I could be expected to go up there, where, by your own showing, matrimony would be impossible since there are no men? Just now, particularly, it, would be madness, for lo! on the horizon of my future “a little cloud, no bigger than a man's hand,” which promises to “break in blessings o'er my head” if I mind my p's and q's. (Scripture in the above a little mixed, but you know I mean well.) In other words, there is a gentleman, a leetle elderly, but very nice, who is, it seems, on the point of yielding to my fascinations. You will agree with me that such a chance is not to be rashly trifled with. He cometh even now—I see him from the window—to take me for a drive, so I must hurry up and buckle on my armour. If I fail to take this scalp I shall bury my boomerang (or tomahawk, which is it?) in permanent despair. Farewell, dear; keep up your pecker—and wish me luck! If I catch him I'll come at all hazards, and spend a few weeks with you after the honeymoon.

“Yours affectionately,
“Nellie Dale.

“Lord, how sick I am of that Dale!”

Before Marion answered this letter, there came another from the same quarter:—

“Christchurch,
“November 10th, 18—.
“My Beloved Marion,—

“I've caught him! We start on the wedding trip in about an hour. The breakfast is just over. He proposed the very day I last wrote to you, and begged me to fix an early date. And that I did, you may depend, having a keen knowledge of man's uncertainty, and the mutability of human—especially matrimonial—affairs. I gave him a brief sketch of family history, and of the troubles that beset the page 116 daughter-afflicted author of my being, by way of excusing my very unmaidenly promptitude. He politely announced his thankfulness for any circumstance, calamitous or otherwise, that tended to expedite the ‘happy event,’ and so now it has ‘come off.’ He is not a boy, as I think I told you before, but I fancy he is docile and tractable. If he ever asserts himself too much, I shall of course explain my views on things in general. He will then discover that to preserve the peace and harmony so beautifully essential to nuptial happiness it will be necessary to let me have my own way in everything. You hear me! But I fancy I shall have no difficulties. I have great faith in his common-sense—already displayed in his liberal choice of wedding presents, and in my own capacity for skilful handling of the matrimonial ribbons. And now for my best bit of news, which I have been saving up, just as in childhood's happy hours I used to save up my nicest bit of jam tart—for a last delicious mouthful. Mr Cook, my husband, has some relatives living on a station adjoining yours. And they have invited us to visit them! And we are going to!! And we shall be there in about a week!!! And we shall very likely stay there until our new home is prepared for us in Wanganui, where we are to go and live happy ever afterwards!!!! The name of the people and of the place near you is Melrose. And now I must run. We are going to Dunedin in the Tararua, which sails at two.

“Yours joyfully,
“Nelle Cook.

“P.S.—Out of the Dale at last, which to me is equivalent to being ‘out of the wood,’ therefore I may surely holler!”

Marion hesitated long over this epistle. Should she show it to her husband, or should she not? He had been calm—almost lethargic—since his last outburst; but she was afraid. The scenes were so horrible; her sense of her own helplessness and desolation page 117 so cruel during and after them. Was it her duty to stay hero always and bear this horror? How long might it not last, growing worse and worse as time went on? Yet she had brought it on herself, and pity was as yet not gone all to hatred, and so, if only she might have some little help and mitigation like this promised meeting with Nellie, she might bear it and do what was right.

“And even the weariest river
Winds somewhere safe to sea,”

she murmured, her sad eyes wandering over the barren, bleak hills, the sight of which was so bitterly irksome to her.

But the letter! Acting upon a sudden thought, she hastily pencilled on a slip of paper—

Dearest Nellie,—

“Don't wait for me to come first to Melrose, but hasten hither at your earliest opportunity. And say nothing about this note.

“In haste, yours,
“M.S.”

This she put into an envelope, and then went in search of Hiram. The old man was in the yard.

“Hiram!”

“What is it?

“Would you like to go to Clinton to-night?”

“Can ducks swim? What is it for?”

“See, I want this note taken to Melrose Station, with the message that Mrs Cook is to have it as soon as she arrives. And no one here must know. And, Hiram, here is half-a-sovereign.”

The old man's eyes sparkled.

“But hah the divil am I to get my cwoate and tile?”

“O never mind the coat and hat this time, Hiram, dear, good Hiram. Go as you are this once.”

“Here yah are, then. Gi' me t' paaper an' t brass, and let me side aht o' this afoore t' owd woman page 118 cops me. And do yah get off indoors afoore shoo coomes aht and suspects summut.”

So Hiram sped off on his errand, and “t' spree;” and Marion went back to the house to plan the easiest way of revealing her good news where she well knew it would be ill received.