|Chapter Title||A FAIR LADY UPON A WHITE HORSE.|
|Newspaper Title||Adelaide Observer (SA : 1843 - 1904)|
|Trove Title||Cooee! A Christmas Tale|
A. FAIH .LADY UPON A WHITE HOIU3K.
One December afternoon a year later a traveller might have been Been (if there had been any one! there to see) riding across a stretch. of that rather uninteresting country
sometimes found in our "North Countrie. . The ground was stony and rocky, rolling up into low hills here and there. These little hills looked larger than they really were, because the small shrubs growing on their sides looked like trees, and deceived the eye as to distance, they , had, moreover, such a strong family likeness that it took a long acquaint* anoe to distinguish one from another. As far as the eye could see, to right, to left, before, and behind, lay the Bame shaped hills, clad in the same vegetation. It seemed ° just the place for a stranger to lose his way in, but the traveller in question (a lady, by-the-way) seemed to have no fear on this point. Perhaps she was not a stranger, and so knew the way from long use; perhaps she trusted to her
h< rse to find it; perhaps, and this seemed niost
likely, she had forgotten all about it, for she 1 was absorbed in a letter, which she read and read again and again, allowing her steed to go as he pleased, which as it happened was very slowly. Poor brute, no one could blame him:
the only wonder was that he went at all. If j ho bad ever seen better days it must have been so long ago that he had quite forgotten them, and as he sadly stumbled onwards as if he had not strength to stop he was indeed as sorry a mount as mind could well conceive, and to make things worse was white—would have been white, that is, if well fed and groomed, but had from long neglect assumed an indescribable shade which made his truly deplorable condi
tion seem even worse than it was.
Still his rider went on reading, though she must have known every word of that lettter by heart; now and then she pressed her handker chief hastily to |her eyes as if even tears must not be allowed to dim them for a moment,
and then read on as if hoping _ to find some new and better meaning in the trembling lines. At last her steed summoned up moral oourage to stop, and began to browse pensively upon the saltbush. His rider, aroused by the cessation of the uneven wobbling beneath her, at last folded up her letter, slipped it into the bosom of her habit, and gathered up the reins.
" Come, come. Rocket, this will never do. Get up! get up! or we shall never get home to night.
In response to this summons the inappro priately-named steed shambled forward with more vigour than one would have given him
" You poor old thing," she said, bending forward and patting him with a tenderness to which ho was evidently unaccustomed.
" You poor old thing, it's a shame to ride you, but I had to get mother's letter. My mother, oh, my mother! Why cannot I go to
Her heart was so full that unconsciously she j appealed to the old horse for sympathy as if he had been a human being. As a matter of fact, ho was far more sympathetic than the human beings among whom her lot was cast in her nondescript capacity of mother's help, which combines the duties of a nursery governess with those of a needlewoman and general
" How hateful it is to be poor!" she went on. " I don't mind so much for myself. I would break stones for mother's sake; but to be nway from her and yet to get so little, for all I can
do, and to know that she is ill and lonely " J Here her feelings got too much for her, and she j gave poor old Rocket a cut with her whip that startled him into a spasmodic canter, like the motion of a bench with two short legs and two long ones set comeriviee. The canter before long dropped into a trot, the trot into a walk, ana the walk grew slower and slower till it was
almost a standstill. His rider looked up, for the first time taking notice of the landmarks about her. She should have been nearly at home by this time, and on a beaten traok,
but all around, so far as she could see, the j
country was the same. Where had she got ] to ? Which way should she go ? She had not | the faintest notion; but surely Rocket knew. A sharp cut from her whip galvanized him into another canter, which, however, soon
showed signs of stopping; another out made ] him trot half a dozen steps under protest, then he stopped short—he was dead beat.
She slipped from the saddle and stood beside him. She was lost, so much was cer tain, and she dared not try to find her way on foot, fearing to go still further wrong. If Rocket got better after a rest he might be able to find nis way home. She must wait for
The sun had set, the last faint glow had faded from the west, and the short twilight was quickly merging into dusk, and still she stood irresolute.
"Surely I ought to try to find my way," she said. "Yet if I do I may only go further astray. I must wait till the moon rises at
any rate," and Bitting down upon a rock she | was soon lost in thought, sad thought it j
She sat there motionless for a long time, leaning her head upon her hand, only a weary shivering sigh now and then breaking the silence. Rocket, who had recovered a
little, was browsing languidly, but his rider j seemed to have forgotten his existence, for gotten everything in her own sad thoughts. By degrees a silver radiance in the east showed that the moon was rising, its slanting beams throwing long mysterious shadows, and when at last she roused herself the low scrub-clad hills looked weird and uncanny in its transforming light.
A sudden sense of loneliness and unreason ing fear came over her, and she sprang to her feet with a wild impulse to call for help. " What use ?" she reasoned with herself. " I
might call till morning, and no one would hear. But yet—yea, anything to break this dread ful silence."
"Coo-ee!" A long clear call broke through the still night air. Was that an answer? No—only the curlews beginning their evening song with peals of hysterical wailing.
"Coo-eo! Coo-ee! Coo-ee!" Three
calls in quick succession. Hush ! surely that
was an answer!
" Coo-eo!" " Coo-ee !"
Yes, faint, but unmistakable. " Coo*ec !" " Coo-ee !"
Nearer now, and more distinct. Rocket raised his head and listened.
"Coo-ce!" she cried again after a short
"Coo-ee!" the answer came, quite .close this time—a man's voice with a kindly ring in it.
A crashing sound of running feet, and then the bushes parted, and a tall figure sprang out into the moonlight.
" Slaty!" "Hugh!"
Foy a moment they looked at each other, and
then—it was wrong and undignified, of j course, and reprehensible in every Way; but she.was so overwrought that she forgot every thing, and just stretched out her hands with a trembling cry that was half a sob.
And Hugh? Whatwashe to dowhehhesaw this girl, whom, in spite of himself, he still loved better than all the world beside, standing thus so wan and weary, holding out her hands to him like a frightened child ? .What could he do but what he did do—take her in his arms and try to comfort her ? And she?' She, thinking of nothing save that he had come, laid her head on his shoulder and - indulged in a real good
cry, which had the effect of reducing him to ] the verge of despair. i
"Forgive me," she said at last, regaining J
her self-control. " I don't often cry like that, but I was lonely and miserable and frightened, and when I saw you I felt as if some one cared, and Iconldnot help it. It makes one cry to
he sympathized with, you know; when people j
are unkind one feels as if one's heart was shrinking—shrinking away to nothing—but one cannot cry."
This lucid explanation did not, however, make Hugh mucn the wiser.
" Unkind 1" he said, oatohing at the one word he understood, "surely no one is unkind to you!"
"They are not very kind to me up here, but that does not matter. I was thinking of
nr other and bow her friends seemed to have forgotten her just when she most wanted thein. Tbcy did not mean it, I dare Bay; they had
their own affaire to think of, but it seemed I hard to us. Oh, it is dreadful to be poor ; one sees the wrong side of things so much. Even those one trusted most," she said, and stopped abruptly.
" Sfary '." cried Hugh, catching her almost ' roughly by the wrists. ? "Mary, what does j
this mean? You are not poor."
"Of course we are; we lost everything in
that Bank failure a year ago. Eveu the dear j old home was sold, but there—you knew it at j
"I did not."
"Then, why ?" she began, "I do not j understand; why did you write that letter?" |
"I wrote to Sirs. Grant telling her that I j was ruined, and then you broke off out en gagement."
. "No, you did that; I have your letter now; I keep it because it helps me when I think of you too much."
" You thought I had deserted you when you were in trouble—deserted you because of thati trouble 1" he Baid, speaking rather slowly. " You thought me such a cur as that, and yet you cared for me ?"
He was holding her at arm's length, and gazing wonderingly into her grey eyes—eyes that had loBt their old merry flash and learned to be very sad of late.
"Yes," she stammered apologetically, "I know it was weak, and wrong, and unmaidenly; I tried' not to with all my might, but I could not help it."
"My darling! my darling!" holding her close. "And I, poor fool, thought all the while that you were a heartless jilt, and tried to turn you out of my heart, but, thank God, I could not." Bucket, for some reason of his own, came up at this moment, looming out in the moonlight like a dingy ghost.
"By-the-way," said Hugh, taking hold of his bridle, " by-the-way, how came you to be prancing about the country on an unarticulated old skeleton like this ?"
"Don't call icy friend names," said Mary; " Just think if he had not knocked up so con siderately you might never have found me."
" If he had been younger and stronger," she went on after a short interruption, "no would have taken mc straight home, and we would never have had a chance of explaining it all, for if we had met in any other way we would have stood upon our dignity, and been unhappy all our lives.'.
"I am deeply grateful, I assure you, but tell, me how did you come to take such a long ride alone ? How is it that you are in this part of the country at all? I have heard nothing of you since—since last year."
"Last year? An! what a hateful time thati was just this time last year."
They were walking towards the head station of the Ooringa Run, which Hugh said was quite near, walking very slowly, out of con sideration for Rocket perhaps; and Mary spoke dreamily, as if to herself.
"We heard that the Bank had failed, and knew that we had lost a great deal, but were not quite sure how much. _ Wo wore too bewildered to understand things'at first, but we thought you would explain them. _• We were sure that you would help and advise us. How we watched for you day after day; and then that letter came."
" People were very kind in a way," she went on; " promised to do their best to help us— but—well, it is hard to find work when you have had no special training, and I had almost lost hope, when at last I heard of a situation up here."
" But Dr. Brown, surely he helped? I should have thought him a most stauch friend."
"So he was, so he is ; he got mother a post as matron of an orphan home. He would nave done more, but I—we would not let him."
There was so much embarrassment in her
voice that Hugh looked at her in surprise.'
" There is nothing more to tell," she went on hurriedly.
" As long as mother was well I did not mind hard work, but lately her letters have been less cheerful, and I know she was not well ; then I. did not hear for two mails, and to-day no one could be spared to go for the letters, but I felt I could not wait. Mrs. Collins said she didn't see the use of my bothering; if my mother was ill I could not do her any good, and I could not he spared to go to her if she wanted me; besides, if she was as ill as I mode' out the chances were I would not be in time even if I did go." Here Mary broke off with a sob, and Hugh muttered something between his teeth, which made Rocket, who nad heard the word before and associated it with a kick or a blow, start forward spasmodically. " Mrs.
Collins is hard, but 1 don't think , Bhe I means to be unkind, for when she saw J wanted to hear so badly she said I might have Rocket and go myself. It-was rather late to start, but I could not wait another day. I should have got home long ago, but when I got mother's letter and found that she
had been ill I suppose 1 did not notice where ] I was going."
" Of course you will go down at once ?"
" I'm afraid I can't," she answered sadly. " Why not 1"
'• I don't think Mrs. Collins can spare me iuBt at Christmas time, and 1 dare not risk losing my place just when money is most wanted."
" But surely you want to go ?"
" Want to go ? I feel as if I should go mad with longing if I do not. It is so dreadful to think that .she may be wanting me and I so far away, but I must just learn to bear it.. I might be ever so-loug of hearing of another situation if I give up this."
"H'm," said Hugh. •' I think I could tell you of another as a housekeeper—a perma nency, you know."
Of course this put an end to rational conver sation for the time being, and though they talked all the way to the station, and at inter vals while Hugh drove her home through the moonlight—a Jong delicious drive they both remembered all their Jives—they said little
that would he of interest to outsiders.