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Title: A Christmas Bride Author: Fred M. White * A Project Gutenberg of Australia eBook * eBook No.: 1303351h.html Language: English Date first posted: Jun 2013 Most recent update: Jun 2013 This eBook was produced by Maurie Mulcahy. Project Gutenberg of Australia eBooks are created from printed editions which are in the public domain in Australia, unless a copyright notice is included. We do NOT keep any eBooks in compliance with a particular paper edition. Copyright laws are changing all over the world. Be sure to check the copyright laws for your country before downloading or redistributing this file. This eBook is made available at no cost and with almost no restrictions whatsoever. You may copy it, give it away or re-use it under the terms of the Project Gutenberg of Australia License which may be viewed online at http://gutenberg.net.au/licence.html To contact Project Gutenberg of Australia go to http://gutenberg.net.au
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THERE was a glimpse of a ragged moon beyond the uncurtained windows—a cold, hard moon—with a thin drift of cloud lashing across it. The pines tossed and moaned, creaking in the intense cold. Inside, the atmosphere was unspeakable—a welter of stale, reeking humanity, kerosene, rye whisky, and sawdust. The tobacco was mercifully strong, and perhaps played its part in the beneficent scheme of the Creator as a disinfectant. The spirit of Christmas should have been in the air—but it wasn't.
The saloon was packed to suffocation, though that was nothing new. But there a was not a card to be seen, and this was a new and amazing precedent. Harold Oakshott stood with his back to the wall, dimly wondering what the Bachelor's Club and what the Household Brigade would say if they could see him now. At any rate, "the boys" were regarding him with marked hostility—that grave criticism that found vent always in rugged practical humour, beginning hilariously with tar and feather and working up the game to a noose in the end of a rope and the body of the unfortunate defendant filled with lead. Harold Oakshott, Lord St. Osym's, case was very fast approaching the latter stage. Dick Montfort's sympathy was his, but then Montfort was a committee of one, and his inevitable gambling luck had taken the keen edge off his popularity.
"Old Glory" Sainton was summing up the evidence all against the prisoner. Sainton was the father of the camp—a great, loose-limbed giant, with a rugged face hidden under a mass of hair. His big voice boomed in the smoky rafters. St. Osym was a slip of a boy compared with him. But slip of a boy or no, he was a mass of Wire and whipcord, and perhaps the finest "flying half" Oxford had ever turned out; also he could ride like a centaur, and the fear of no man had been put in his heart yet. Dick Montfort, the cool and collected gambler, looked a deal more perturbed.
"Sonny," Old Glory said, impressively, "you've had a fair run for your money. The hospitality of this yer camp 'as been yourn. You dropped in premiskus, and we let you stay. You was admitted into this saloon, and we won your money like gentlemen. We were not too proud to drink along with you. You came out to the land of glory to get a wife. Seein' as you'd got a considerable mortgage on the family woodpile, something had to be done. Your effete aristocracy has lifted some big dollars from the land of freedom lately."
"Pardon me, but your facts are not correct," St. Osym said, politely.
"Pass up the record, Pete," Old Glory commanded. A grimy hand holding a soiled newspaper cutting was thrust in the judge's direction. "Sonny, here it is. From the New York Messenger. I'll read it."
He spelt out the words with some difficulty from behind a pair of horn-rimmed spectacles:
"Lord St. Osym landed yesterday. He is a pretty boy, well set up, and cleaner in the eyes than most, of the gilded effeminates who come here gunning for our dollar princesses, and incidentally the boodle to set the ancestral home on a bond-paying footing once more. He didn't say much, but it was easy to gather what class of game brought him here. The title is an old one, and Royal blood runs in the young man's veins. He has the right to wear white spats in the presence of his Sovereign. These privileges come high, and doubtless there will be spirited biddings in New York amongst our gilt-edged darlings. St. Osym looks a white sort, and they might do worse."
A murmur ran round the bar. There was a good deal more of it mostly mendacious, but it was felt that Old Glory had said enough.
"Are that here true, sonny?" he asked, solemnly.
St. Osym coloured faintly. The paragraph was certainly founded on fact. Some day or another he would have to marry money; but he had no intention of selling himself. It was neither right nor tactful to plead that he certainly had had golden opportunities made for him in New York, and that he had moved West without a thought for the bright eyes he had left behind him. Besides, this might be constrained into a slight on the bright eyes of the many—on American womanhood as a whole.
"I came out here looking for sport," he said.
"And you found it," Old Glory proceeded. "What is the trouble? You found our little Chloe, and made love to her; and played with her feelings——"
"That, Mr. President, is not correct," St. Osym said, with a gleam in his blue eyes. "I certainly found Miss Chloe Western here, and certainly I made love to her. Since you force me to speak, I fell in love with her, and—well, she promised to marry me. She is going to be my wife."
A sudden hush fell upon the boys. The wind could be heard amongst the pines, the tapping of the frosty twigs came distinctly from the dark, rocking woods. Nothing happened to the young man standing there—no manifestation of Divine wrath or displeasure was vouchsafed.
"Not by a jugful you ain't," the president said, solemnly. "When little Chloe weds it'll be one of us. There ain't a man in the camp who wouldn't jump at the chance. Twenty-one years ago Hungry Bar didn't keep the soul and body of us hardly together. To-day there's no better paying silver reef in America. And twenty-one years ago there kim a man and a woman and a little girl in a cart. They came out from west of the hills, and they was done, sonny, absolutely, for want of food and water. And the man, he passed in his checks first, and the woman, she followed. And the little girl, she lived. Name of Western, probably, but not sure even of that. And we adopted the kid. She was the child of the camp, the pet of us all. And when she got older we sent her to school. We made a lady of her. And we put aside five per cent. of the reef, and it's all safe now in the hands of some great and good men in New York. One way and the other little Chloe's got four million dollars and more coming in. I don't rightly know how you found that out——"
"I didn't," the prisoner snapped. "All this is absolute news to me."
"I'd gamble my soul on that," Montfort hissed. "Who wants to dispute it?"
Nobody appeared to be particularly anxious. The president resumed with great gravity.
"We're going to give you the benefit of the doubt; but it don't make no morsel of difference. There ain't a man here who wouldn't give his life for little Chloe. She might have gone many years ago with her money, and had a lively time in the East. We couldn't have stopped her. She's the sweetest, sunniest thing that heaven ever made. She can shoot and swim and ride with the best of us. She don't know what the meaning of the word fear is. I'd rather have one smile from her than a week of sunshine. And when any of us are ill—well, ask a dozen of the boys. And yet with all the world before her she comes and stays nine months of every year here—the queen of the place. Course, we expected her to get married some day but it's got to be one of us. There are a dozen boys here to-night that any woman might be proud to call a husband."
The prisoner suppressed a smile, which was discreet of him. He had learnt a good deal of history in the past half-hour. Chloe Western had been a dazzling mystery to him. Her dainty beauty had touched him from the first. What on earth was a gem like that doing in such a setting? It might have been the pose of some spoilt beauty; but the liquid clearness of the eye and the transparent whiteness of the skin belied that. And Chloe was as fine a sportswomen as was St. Osym himself.
How had the whole thing come about? He hardly knew. He had fallen headlong in love with her; he had told her his real name and prospects, and what was expected of him. But that was all over. The family property and the family dignity must look after itself. He was going to remain in the States and marry Chloe and make a fortune. And Chloe was going to help. All might have been well, perhaps, had not Mustang Bob, or some other picturesque rival, seen Chloe in St. Osym's arms.
St. Osym did not know that he had walked with his life in his hands for the next few hours. He guessed nothing till a couple of miners had come to his hut with drawn revolvers and escorted him to the saloon where his trial was already in progress. Even now he did not fully comprehend. He did not know that Chloe was going to be protected against himself. His admission had sealed his doom. The man who had touched Chloe's lips could not be shot like a dog, but he must have his lesson.
"You're young," the president said, paternally. "You've good stuff in you, and you shall have your chance. You've got to clear, sonny. You've got to clear to-night. No, you ain't going to see Chloe again. We've already seen to that. The first man what spots you here after daybreak'll shoot you on sight. So you're warned. It's twenty miles over the hills from here to Guilty Creek, and you may make it by morning. On the other hand, you may not, seeing the snow's due, and may start at any time. It's a race between you and the snow, my lord, and the betting's about even. If you get caught—well, we would not go into that. Take what you like, and borrow the first horse you can lay your hands on. And that's all."
As Old Glory stopped he pointed to the uncurtained window. A thin rift lay over the rugged moon—a rift that was all in motion. Something dry and powdery tinkled against the window-panes. Some of the pines had lines of white along the branches.
The saloon hummed like a hive, glasses clinked behind the bar, and St. Osym heard the rattle of packs of cards in many grimy hands. He turned to find Montfort by his side.
"Am I awake or dreaming?" he asked.
"Call it the former," Montfort said, grimly. "Come across to my hut. No, I shan't play to-night. And remember you've no time to waste. Old Glory meant every word that he said, and these chaps are with him to a man. If you defy them your funeral is to-morrow, certain. And don't imagine that you can drop quietly out of the place and whistle Chloe after you, because you can't. The snow's been in the air all day, and it's a week overdue. If it gets you in camp before daybreak I'd not give six to four on you getting to Guilty Creek. And that's the only way. And that's your punishment too, my lad. I'm telling you all this—well, because I used to be like you, and my people live close to yours. Perhaps I'll tell you the name some day."
"I'll stay and face it out," St. Osym said.
"No you won't," Montfort replied. "You're going to make a fight of it for the sake of the girl. If you do get through, I'll see to the rest of it for you. And if you stay all that Chloe will get is a first-class funeral. Come, every moment is precious."
St. Osym followed into the wild and whirling night. The snow was falling in a thin powder now; the rugged moon was getting more and more obscured. Montfort cocked his eye at it anxiously.
"I'll get you a horse," he said. "And food. Also a flask of brandy. Directly the moon goes down she'll fall in earnest. And if you don't win through you're done. And don't you blame these boys too much. They are a rough lot, and they love that girl sincerely. You've got a sporting chance, and that's about all. And if you fail——"
St. Osym shut his teeth together with a snap. "I'll not fail," he said. "I'll show them. And you can tell Chloe from me that I—well, she'll know without any telling. I'll get her yet. And we'll come back after we're married, and she shall walk over the prostrate bodies of the lot of them."
It sounded all right; but Montfort made no reply. It was not for him to exaggerate the peril. So far as he could see, this was St. Osym's last Christmas; there would be no mingling of wedding and Yuletide bells for this young man and Chloe. He watched the exile as far as he could see him, then turned into the hut with a sigh. There was no help for it; absolutely nothing else to be done. The boys had meant what they said, and the solemn good-humour of it all made the threat none the loss grim. It was their way, and they knew no other.
And St. Osym pushed on in the teeth of it. The white powder sprinkled on his face, and the drift was over the fetlocks of his horse now. It seemed to him that he had been hours in the saddle; surely he must be past the Big Bear Cutting by now. The warring battalions ceased for a moment, and he cleared his eyes. Here was the spot where only yesterday he had cut holly with Chloe. His heart beat just a trifle faster. At this rate it looked hopeless to expect the big cutting before daylight. And if be couldn't——
Well! He set his teeth together. Once snowed in, and he was done. He might reach the hut at the end of the cutting; but what was the good of that? There were no provisions there, and once cut off from assistance he would starve and perish miserably. After the snow would come the frost, and then escape would be possible. Yet the snow might last for days, and at least two nights' frost would be necessary before the deep drifts would bear. He began to realise the cruelty of the sentence those boys passed on him.
Still, in his own dogged, determined way he struggled on. The storm grew deeper, the white fleecy tangle of the snow dazed and confused him. He longed to lie down and sleep. He came to himself presently with a start and a kind of half-consciousness that the hut was reached. At all hazards he would have to stay there for the night. He might find himself a close prisoner in the morning, but that was on the lap of the gods. The game horse struggled on, but Harold could feel his blown sides heaving. They might just as well perish in the hut as in the open. There was a stable by the side of the hut; the floor was littered with hay.
"You can lie there till daylight, old man," St. Osym muttered. "There is plenty of food for you for many a day to come. As for me——"
He closed the stable door and made for the hut. Did his eyes deceive him, or was this some new form of snow blindness? Surely that was a light gleaming behind the window of the hut. A lance of red flame turned the whirling powder to a brilliant crimson. With a trembling hand and a heart that beat fast St. Osym opened the door.
The stove was burning freely—the room was full of a grateful heat. There was a lamp and a rough deal table set out with supper. A few sprigs of holly decorated the deal board. And here was a beautiful face, a pair of brown eyes filled with happy tears, and then a pair of warm arms about St. Osym's neck.
"Chloe," he murmured, "I'm asleep. The snow has turned my brain. Chloe?"
She touched his lips with her warm, red ones. He could feel her heart beating. There was the fragrance of her hair, the gleam of her white teeth. Chloe in the flesh. Oh, this was the kind of thing you get at Christmas-time, but only in books. She would vanish presently. But it to a delicious dream while it lasted.
"Pinch me," Harold said. "Kiss me again, darling! Is it really you?"
Chloe laughed and cried in a breath. "Are you all that glad to see me?" she asked.
"Glad!" St. Osym echoed. "I don't know what I am. I'm frightened, dear. By daylight we shall be shut in, cut off from the world. I don't mind dying, but when it comes to you—But how did you get here? How did you find out? How did you know?"
"What the boys were going to do?" Chloe asked, demurely. "Oh, I was warned this morning. They are dear, good boys, and they worship the ground I tread on. And they have got some silly idea in their heads that you are not good enough for me."
"They're right there," St. Osym said, simply. "I'm not."
"Harold! Well, I got to know. It was no use my putting my foot down there. I had to save you because the coming of the snow was a sure thing, and nobody could have won through to-night. There are half-breeds in the mines, and they are my friends, too. They came down to the hut here in the afternoon with a load of provisions and fuel. And I knew I could trust them. Then when you were all in the saloon I walked here. Oh, I did. What is a ten-mile walk to me? There is enough food and fuel here to last a week. And these boys think that I am safe in bed, and that I shall get over it all right. And when they find to-morrow that I have gone——"
Chloe broke off into a ripple of laughter. "Oh! they'll come after me," she said. "The whole camp. They'll cut their way through the snow, and they'll find us here some time to-morrow—Christmas Day. And there's enough stuff here and in the stable to entertain them all to—to our wedding breakfast. I want them all to drink to the health of the Christmas bride."
St. Osym gave it up. What a wonder she was; what grace and spirit and beauty! And she had done all this for his sake. No wonder the boys had been mad with him. He began to feel a certain righteous anger against himself. What right had he to come there and spirit the queen of the creek away in this fashion? Why should he take her from them and regild the tarnished honours of his house with the gold that the camp had given her? He dropped into a chair, and regarded her with a deep, abiding love in his eyes.
"If they come here they'll hang me," he said. "And serve me right."
Chloe laughed again. She pointed to a case by the side of the stove.
"Browning pistols," she said. "Two of them and plenty of cartridges. But, my dear boy, there is going to be no occasion for that. Now sit down and have some supper, and you can smoke afterwards Then you can sleep in the stable. I have plenty of furs here. Cold turkey and mince pies. And I have some champagne too. You must be hungry."
It was wonderful—wonderful. It was page out of the "Arabian Nights" with the pine forest and the driving snow for a background. It was a cheerful meal too—one of the most cheerful that St. Osym had ever sat down to.
"What time do you expect the visitors?" he asked.
"Oh they will be here all right," Chloe laughed. "It all depends upon the depth of the snow. I should say about three o'clock at the latest. Isn't it all delightfully romantic, dear old boy? What would your English girls say if they saw us now?"
St. Osym didn't know; he didn't care. They were going to win through—that he felt certain. It would be a fine adventure to tell round the fireside at home in the days to come. He staggered off presently to the stable with his pile of furs, dazed and tired and drunk with fatigue. He came to himself in the daylight with the dazzle of sunshine in his eyes and a white cover all around. It was the typical Christmas Day that England dreams of and England never sees. There was no sign of the road to be seen. A thick smoke curled up from the hut.
"A merry Christmas to you, my darling," St. Osym said.
She lay in his arms and kissed him tenderly. Then she turned to the stove where the bacon was frying. Her pink, plump arm showed to the dimpled elbow.
"See how useful I am," she laughed. "You will find me just as much at home in a London drawing-room. There has not been as much snow as I had expected, Harold boy. With any luck our friends will be here to dinner. The goddess of fortune is on our side."
As a matter of fact, it was just two o'clock when the van of the invaders arrived. Here was "Old Glory" and half a score more, together with a man who was a stranger to St. Osym. Glory demanded admittance solemnly, with the air of a judge with a sentence to pronounce.
"Not yet," Chloe said. "Send Mr. Patterson in to me. And all of you go to the stable till I ask for you. I am ashamed of you all. How dare you send a man to his death like this simply because he loves me? Why shouldn't he love me as well as you do?"
"We ain't none of us ever kissed you," Old Glory said, harshly.
"I've kissed you hundreds of times," Chloe retorted. "Now I'm ready to make terms. But I'm going to make them with Mr. Patterson, because he is a clergyman and a man of peace. It was good of him to come and try to prevent—bloodshed. Send him in."
It was a fair proposition, and the posse behind Old Glory signified consent. The door of the hut was opened, and Mr. Patterson walked in. His clean-shaven face smiled, his lips twitched humorously.
"Well, young lady?" he said. "And what have you to say for yourself? I got your letter."
"Oh, that's all right," Chloe said, coolly. "You would not have come unless you had consented to do as I asked. And do get it over quickly, parson dear. We can have a swell wedding later on in New York if Harold likes, but it won't be so sacred in my eyes as this."
Ten minutes later the door of the hut was thrown open and the flower of the Gulch was invited in.
"Let me introduce you," Patterson said, grimly. "Mr. Old Glory and gentlemen, allow me to present to your notice Lord and Lady St. Osym."
There was no more—there was, indeed, no more to be said. For quite a long time Old Glory pondered the matter with his beard in his hand. His face expanded, a grin appeared, then he broke into a roar of laughter that rang in the rafters of the hut.
"Boys," he said, "she's done us. She's planned the whole thing. Heaven knows how she found out, but she did find out, and Nature helped with the rest. No use making a fuss about it, and no use to try and harm the man the queen of the creek has married. It might have been one of us——"
"Never," Chloe smiled. "A queen can't marry a subject. If you are going to forgive me——"
"We've got to," Old Glory cried. "We can't help it. Lordy, give me your hand. You're a real white man, and you've got for a wife the sweetest, daintiest, bravest——"
His voice broke and he stopped. There was an awkward silence for a moment.
"Come to the wedding feast," Chloe cried. "Come and eat with me and forgive me, and, wherever I may be, remember that my heart is ever with you, and will be till I am an old woman and I have almost forgotten the day when I was a Christmas bride."
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