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

Chapter VII. Storm

Chapter VII. Storm.

Christmas Eve at Melrose. The day had been hot and oppressive, and the sun had sunk wrathfully to rest behind a dense, lurid mass of clouds. High overhead the sky was still azure, and two or three stars were peeping forth, pale and timid, as if doubtful of their reception. But the clouds, mounting higher and higher with sullen sloth, soon extinguished them, and the gloom and intense stillness prelusive of thunder prevailed everwhere. Now and then the huge, bulging, inky pall was cleft with fiery suddenness by lightning tongues that darted athwart and across in weird, blue, zigzag lines. Then darkness won again.

On the broad verandah of the homestead stood Gower Hamilton and his cousin Nellie in close proximity—she watching the weather with much satisfaction, he gazing moodily out with an anxiety in his face that was utterly unconnected with the prospect of electric disturbance. page 129 “Nothing like a thunderstorm for clearing the air,” remarked Nellie. “We shall have a lovely Christmas day, Gower.”

“Nellie!” he exclaimed, with entire irrelevance, “I can't bear it much longer. I must see her.”

“What's the matter with the man now? How can you expect to see her when she is ill in bed?”

“I don't believe she is ill in bed. That man lied yesterday when he said so. I could see it in his face. Fools that we were not to insist upon seeing her!”

“Speak for yourself, my cousin. I hope that I have a stronger sense of good manners than to force my way into a man's house when he clearly shows his objection to my entrance.”

“I am almost certain,” said Gower, “that I heard a cry from the house as we stood there talking to him.”

“I heard nothing but the gobbling of the turkeys in the yard,” said Nellie.

“I know she is in trouble,” continued Gower, paying little heed to his cousin. I have felt that trouble was near her ever since that day she left us so abruptly. Yesterday and to-day I have been unable to rest for the feeling that she is in need of help—in need of me. Last night she called me; I heard her as plainly as I now hear my own voice; and I was broad awake.”

“O, for heaven's sake, have done! Don't startle one out of one's wits with your queer notions!”

“I beg your pardon, Nellie. I didn't mean to startle you.”

“There, now, you are huffed. Unlucky me! I am always putting my foot in it. Gower, don't be cross.”

“I'm not cross, Nellie. And you are the only one I have to speak to about her. I must go to her if this thing continues.”

“And suppose you see her, what then?”

“I will persuade her to come away with me.”

“O, you will? Have you said anything to her, may I ask?”

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“I have asked her to go away with me, if that's what you mean.”

“O, you have? And what did she say?”

“She cried, poor thing, and talked of the sin of it; as if it would be so great a sin as wearing her life out with that man whom I know she hates.”

“How do you know she hates him?”

“Couldn't I see? Why, her eyes are constantly full of a hateful fear of him. I could go now and drag him out, and kill him—kill him!—and never feel the slightest remorse. O Nellie, what spirit of evil possessed you to write that false fatal letter from Christchurch?”

“Gower, don't! Don't for pity's sake. Do you think I ever cease to reproach myself? Many and many a time I have wished that my right hand had been paralysed before it penned that letter. Yet surely it was not all my fault. You neglected her, and took up with that other woman.”

“I never thought of that other woman! But it's true about the neglect. I did neglect her, my poor little love. My poor little Marion! God forgive me—to think that a man could neglect that which was dearer to him than his own soul!”

“I have my own opinion about the strength and value of a man's affection,” said Nellie, scoffingly. “You always care for a thing in proportion to its inaccessibility. So she talked of the sin of running away with you, did she?”

“Yes. Do you think it would be a sin, Nelly?”

“Nay, don't ask me. We all know what the world would call it.”

“And what have we to do with the world? I would take her away somewhere where no one would know. We would be all the world to each other.”

“Yes, said Nellie,” Men have talked like that often before to-day. Witness the many shipwrecks of women's lives as a result. The beauty of it is, a man doesn't lose his world through so trivial a fault as that page 131 of running away with another man's wife. In the eyes of the greater half of this world such a thing is looked upon as rather a feather in his cap; the sternest of his judges refer to it lightly as a misfortune he couldn't well avert. But the woman!—ye gods! what epithet is vile enough to be applied to her by all save those who, out of their own stronghold of virtue or vice undetected, can cast at her a kind of cheerful pity, more humiliating than condemnation? And the most edifying feature in such affairs is that the man himself almost always, sooner or later, repents him nobly of hi share in the transgression, and gets him back into his world, carefully shutting her of whom he is awearied outside. If he is a brute, he slams the gate upon her rudely, and lets her do as she may; if he be a man of feeling (save the mark!) he closes it gently in her face with some trite sophism, and perhaps an offer of pecuniary reparation.”

“Well, Nellie, if your homily is through, I think I'll retreat.”

“Of course, that is what every man does when an argument goes against him, and he knows he has not a leg to stand upon.”

“Which is exactly every man's case when a woman is his opponent in the argument. But Nellie, you ought to know and feel that I could never act to a woman in the way you have been outlining.”

“Every man is a bright and shining exception to the rule—in his own opinion, my cousin. Every man not an absolute and deliberate villain, firmly intends to do all that is noble and honourable under all circumstances. But —— here comes Mary Melrose. I must go indoors.”

Three hours later, when the house was all in darkness and apparent slumber, Gower was in the stable, stealthily saddling his horse by the dim light of a lantern. Presently the touch of a soft white hand on his shoulder startled him, and he turned and clasped it with a short glad cry; only to relinquish it the next moment disappointedly.

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“Why, whom did you think it was?” said Nellie, with a nervous little laugh.

“O, I don't know. I was thinking of Marion. What brings you out here, Nellie?”

“Anxiety about you. I heard you creeping out, and scented mischief. What are you going to do?”

“I'm going to Blue Cap.”

“In the dead of the night? Gower, you must be stark staring mad!”

“It's no use, Nellie. I must go to her. She is continually crying out for me, and I must go.”

“Your brain is turned. I'll rouse the house.”

“Pray, do not. I shall go whether you do or not. You had best let me go quietly.”

“Then, saddle my horse and I will go too.”

“But that is absurd. What would Mr. Cook say?”

“Mr Cook is fast asleep. He didn't even hear me get up. Look here, Gower, if you go to Blue Cap, I go, so there's an end. What are you going to do when you get there?”

“I don't know—now. I shall know when I do get there. Perhaps nothing but wait near the house.”

“And Scariff will catch you prowling, and there will be murder. Have you got your revolver?”

“Of course I have.”

“I knew. Gower, don't go, for God's sake!”

“I must, Nellie. She wants me. I can't get the sound of her and the sight of her out of my mind for an instant. Trouble is with her and she needs me.”

“Then saddle my horse too. No, it is no use talking. If you go, I go. And anyway, it will be wiser and better for you to take me. If there should be anything—a woman is always more useful than a man. Saddle my horse: I'll be back in two minutes.”

In less than ten, the two were riding together slowly and cautiously through the black night.

“I awakened Mr Cook,” said Nellie, “and told him of this mad mission, lest he should miss me later and alarm the house. Hear the thunder! Upon my page 133 word we are a brace of fools,—I the bigger one of the two.”

“Go back, Nellie.”

“No, it's a case of excelsior now. And, hardened sinner as I am in a general way, I could scarcely rest comfortably in my bed knowing your prospects of being shot or ultimately hanged for shooting somebody else. Let us get on, in heaven's name!”

They rode a long time now in silence, and the storm, sluggish heretofore, made sudden haste to over-take them. Flash after flash of lightning made all things livid; peal after peal of thunder echoed with a peculiar metallic ring among the hills.

“Nellie, it is dreadful for you to be out in this.”

“O never mind me! Where are we now, Gower?”

“I'm afraid we've missed our track a little. We ought to be near the Blue Cap boundary now, but that last flash showed me nothing but hills and a bridle path that I firmly believe to be the Clinton one.”

“O what shall we do?”

“Stop a moment,” said Gower, “I'll get down and lead your horse, in case of fright.”

Too late. One blinding glare and awful crash, even as he dismounted, started Nellie's horse off at a mad gallop, and when he strove to get on his own again for pursuit, the frightened animal stood on its hind legs and fought at him. A fearful ride was that for Nellie—clinging closely and desperately to the saddle until at last she was brushed suddenly off by the upper half of the stable door at Melrose. Bruised and shaken, she thanked God that the brute's instinct had guided it home; and then she gathered herself up and crept quietly into the house and to her room, there to find Mr Cook just putting on his clothes preparatory to giving an alarm on her account after all.

Meantime Gower was doing all he could to soothe and master his steed. And finding it impossible to get on its back again, he was fain to stand close beside it and screen his eyes from the lightning against its quivering neck. And so time passed. By one of the page 134 flashes he made shift to examine his watch, and discovered that there lacked but ten minutes of the hour of midnight. And swiftly and strangely his mind went back three years to when, just at the same hour of the same night, he stood looking down the steep hills into the star-flecked water of Tory Channel, to be presently roused by sweet holy singing.

The rain beat upon him in big heavy splashes; the horse winced and trembled with every blue flash and roaring peal, but Gower, busy with the past, searce heeded the present until a voice—Marion's voice, he could not mistake it!—called to him. The first sound of it was faint and hoarse—then it rang out loud and full of anguish—with his name. “Marion, love, I am here!” he answered, flinging the bridle from his arm and thus releasing the horse, which bounded off with a terrified whinny.

“Marion, my darling, come to me!”

A great broad flash of vivid lightning irradiated heaven and earth, and revealed her to him where she stood, scarce two yards distant. How plainly he saw her! every outline of her figure distinctly visible under the thin white robe that clung close and wet about her; her hair, all glistening with rain drops and sweeping past her waist; her face—ah! me, how thin and haggard it had grown!—white and drawn with terror; her wide, grey, loving eyes full of woe; her hands outstretched to him in eloquent appeal.

The light was gone ere he could reach the place where he thought she stood, and the next flash showed him that she was a little further off. In the two seconds of its continuance his eyes took in every detail of her appearance again, even to the mud stains on her saturated robe, and the bruises and scratches on her small bare feet. Again he missed her—the lightning withdrawing its aid. He wandered about, feeling for her with extended arms, and he uttered her name with a loud prolonged cry.

“Marion, once more! O my soul—let me see you once more!” page 135 Then came another dazzling flame from heaven, showing him the hills, the tussocks, the rain—but not Marion. His eyes beheld her never again. The morning stars, peeping through the rent curtains of the abating storm, saw him dragging his exhausted limbs, slowly and by instinct rather than by design, towards Melrose, after hours of wandering futile search among the barren hills near Blue Cap.

* * * * * *

At Blue Cap, at ten o'clock of that Christmas Eve, the only living being apparent in the gloomy house was Hannah. She was in the kitchen preparing dough for to-morrow's bread in a deep wooden trough. Anger lent vigour to her arms (Hiram had been absent —as had been the swallow-tailed coat and high hat —since early morning), and she pummelled the unoffending mass before her severely, muttering spitefully the while—

“Ah wish she was dead, ah dew! T' plaace is a perfect hell upon earth—nowt else. T'owd maistress locked oop, and young maistress locked oop. T' maister a romping lunatic, and Hiram off agean. And t' thunder 'll turn this blessed duff sour afoore morning, as sewer as owt! Ah nobbut wish ah was dead and buried, soa nah then! Lord! what's that? Eh! hah yah did fley me. I thowt it was a boggart!”

It was Marion.

“Hahiver did yah get aht o' t' rume?”

“Shall I tell you?” said her mistress, laughing strangely. “I used my candle to the door-post, and burnt all round the lock till it was loose.”

“Eh! I thowt I smelt burning. Yah mought ha' setten fire to t' whole plaace.”

“I would—if he were still in it. But as I knew he was out I was careful. He came whining and crying with his hideous penitence and love-making, and I knew that, finding me obdurate, he would go out on the hills for an hour to calm himself. Curse him! he has turned me utterly at last. ‘Forgive me and promise to stay with me, Marion,’ he wails, ‘and page 136 you shall come out, and this shall never happen again!’ Curse him! I would die rather than ever speak a kind word to him again. What day is this, Hannah?”

“Twenty-fourth. Christmas Eve.”

“The time of peace and good will! Good God! And I have not seen the light of day for a fortnight! Hannah, what were those noises in his room the other night? I thought and hoped he was killing himself.”

“Noa; noan such luck! He was nobbut smashing things. Theer isn't a article in his rume but's brokken into little bits—t' organ and all.”

“Was it that that shrieked so?”

“Happen it wer. I doan't know, and I'm past caring.”

“Where is his mother?”

“Locked oop, same's yah wor.”

“Hannah, where are my clothes?”

“Brunt i' t' fire—ivery blessed stitch.”

“Then give me some of yours; quick.”

“Nay, I dursn't. Whet to dew with?”

“Why, to put on, of course, so that I may get out of this. Come, quick, Hannah; he will be back directly. Come!”

“Nay, I dursn't. Besides, yah couldn't goa nowheer a neight like this—pitch-dark; and hark to t' rum'ling o' t' thunder!”

“Hannah, do as I bid you.”

“Noa; nah, maistress, dunnot dew owt 'at's fulish!”

“So you won't? Then I'll go as I am. I thought I had a friend in you, but I see I am mistaken. You are as bad as he is. No, you shan't detain me. Let go;—and think how you would feel if you had a daughter used as I have been since I first came here. Don't touch me.”

She ran out into the night, Hannah following. But the white figure vanished quickly in the darkness, and the old woman came back alone.

“I mought ha' gi'n her a rag or two to cover her,” she said tearfully, “and a shoe to her foot. And I wad page 137 ha' done, if shoo'd nobbut waited. But shoo'll be back agean directly, sewerly.”

Presently in came Scariff. He stood a few minutes leaning wearily against the door-post, unheeding the old woman who, pretending to be busy with her bread, studied him furtively. He looked very human now in his unutterable sadness. Nothing of rage or madness in his face now. Nothing but trouble. Trouble that had drawn his mouth into a sorrowful curve and strained his eyebrows upward into an expression of infinite pain and distress. His great bovine eyes wore a filmy look, such as comes from intense suffering or the approach of death. He drew his breath heavily, and as if it suffocated him; every breath a deep laboured sigh. His slight but strong frame gave signs of utter fatigue and lassitude

“Tha's worn thysen aht, I wot,” muttered Hannah to herself sadly. She had nursed him in his infancy, and her heart ached just now with the memory of a fair innocent baby-face under a blue cap, which had hidden then, as now, his weird deformity. “Tha's worn thysen aht at last. But too late for peace, my lad, for tha's worn her aht as well.”

He quitted the kitchen and went up the house passage, and the next moment Hannah knew he had discovered his loss.

“Where is she?” he cried, rushing back and clutching her fiercely.

“Where's who?”

“You know. Tell me quickly. And no lies, or I'll strike the life out of you.”

“Then dew yahre warst, yah mad murdering devil!” cried Hannah, striking out viciously with both hands and feet. “I doan't knaw wheer shoo is, but if I did I'd be torr to little bits sooner nor tell yah, soa theer nah!”

He flung her from him and tore out of the house, and directly afterwards Hannah heard the clatter of horse's hoofs as he galloped down the slope.

Meantime, Marion, in her scanty night robe, was wandering on and on; running and stumbling down page 138 the hills; clambering and panting up them; feeling all the while strangely elated and giddy. She thought she was on the road to Melrose until her feet slipped over the ancles in a peat-bog that she knew to be in the opposite direction.

“Never mind! I will get to the Invercargill road,” she said “and perhaps find my way to Clinton, where surely someone will take me in.”

Carefully skirting the bog, she came to the last wire fence on the Blue Cap land, and scambled through, getting sorely scratched by the gorse that grew about it. Now she was on the high road; and she quickened her pace; getting over the rough ground with almost incredible swiftness. She felt so strong and glad. The rumbling of the approaching storm merely made her laugh. The lightning dazzled her; but she held up her arms gleefully to each flash, and remarked aloud on the ghastliness it imparted to her fair skin. Once she fancied she heard the sound of a horse galloping, and she crouched by a tussock at the roadside, and tremblingly listened. But nothing came of it, so she started on again. Presently she found herself making a steep awkard descent, and the murmur of water fell on her ear. Then she knew she was near Popotunoa Gorge, through which the creek foams and bubbles merrily, breaking into numberless tiny cascades, and forming manifold small deep pools, wherever a rock has fallen from the hills above, and stemmed or turned the current. She had gained the rough road scarped out of the hillside, and was half-way through, when the fury of the storm stopped her progress. Crouching and shrinking with her face in her hands, she heard nothing of the beat of a horse's hoofs approaching; saw nothing until, without any warning, she found herself clasped in Linfield Seariffs arms. With a hoarse frightened cry she escaped, and fled back along the road. Down into the Gorge, over the wet slippery boulders, and across the creek she sped; Linfield in close pursuit, now almost grasping her in the light of blue flame from above, now losing her utterly in the intense succeeding darkness. She reached the opposite page 139 side and began to climb; clinging to, and dragging herself up by the tussocks; and she had ascended to within a few yards of the top before her pursuer caught her by the skirt of her robe. Then went out the ringing, terrified, despairing cry: —

“Gower! Gower! O Gower!”

Ere the last sound had died on the troubled air, Linfield stood alone, holding only a shred of white linen in his hand. And below him in the creek lay a white lifeless heap with the water bubbling greedily over it. Moaning piteously, he scrambled down, and awaited another flash of lightning to show him the sight again. Five miles away, at the same moment, Gower Hamilton was waiting for the same light to reveal to him once more his white drenched love. When the light came, Gower beheld naught but bald drear hills and a storm-racked sky, but Linfield Scariff saw where to stoop and gather up from the stones and the water his slain wife.

In the pearl grey dawn of the new Christmas Day toiled the master of Blue Cap wearily home with his wet dead burden.

“Yah've gotten her then, thank God!” cried Hannah, whom much anxiety had kept from bed all night. “And shoo's fainted, poor lamb! Here, give her over to me at onst.”

“Stand aside, Hannah,” said Linfield gently. “Don't you see she's dead?”

The old woman fell back in her horror, and he passed on into Marion's room and laid the limp body on the bed.

When Hannah and the poor mother came presently, they found him crouching beside it on the floor, his hands clasping and his lips pressing the two small blood-stained feet. So close and passionate were the grasp and kiss that it was some minutes ere they realised that he no longer breathed; that his troubled spirit, like Marion's, was for ever done with life's storms, and had gone forth into the great eternal calm.