A Bride from the Bush, by E. W. Hornung

Chapter 4

A Taste of Her Quality

Mr Justice Bligh was an inveterate and even an irreclaimable early riser. In the pleasant months at Twickenham he became worse in this respect than ever, and it was no unusual thing for the slow summer dawns to find this eminent judge, in an old tweed suit, and with a silver frost upon his cheeks and chin, pottering about the stables, or the garden, or the river’s brim.

The morning following the arrival of the happy pair, however, is scarcely a case in point, for it was fully six when Sir James sat down in his dressing-room to be shaved by his valet, the sober and vigilant Mr Dix. This operation, for obvious reasons, was commonly conducted in dead silence; nor was the Judge ever very communicative with his servants; so that the interlude which occurred this morning was remarkable in itself, quite apart from what happened afterwards.

A series of loud reports of the nature of fog-signals had come suddenly through the open window, apparently from some part of the premises. The Judge held up his finger to stop the shaving.

‘What is that noise, Dix?’

‘Please, Sir James, it sounds like some person a-cracking of a whip, Sir James.’

‘A whip! I don’t think so at all. It is more like pistol-shooting. Go to the window and see if you can see anything.’

‘No, Sir James, I can’t see nothing at all,’ said Dix from the window; ‘but it do seem to come from the stable-yard, please, Sir James.’

‘I never heard a whip cracked like that,’ said the Judge. ‘Dear me, how it continues! Well, never mind; lather me afresh, Dix.’

So the shaving went on; but in the stable-yard a fantastic scene was in full play. Its origin was in the idle behaviour of the stable-boy, who had interrupted his proper business of swilling the yard to crack a carriage-whip, by way of cheap and indolent variety. Now you cannot crack any kind of whip well without past practice and present pains; but this lad, who was of a mean moral calibre, had neither the character to practise nor the energy to take pains in anything. He cracked his whip as he did all things — execrably; and, when his wrist was suddenly and firmly seized from behind, the shock served the young ruffian right. His jaw dropped. ‘The devil!’ he gasped; but, turning round, it appeared that he had made a mistake — unless, indeed, the devil had taken the form of a dark and beautiful young lady, with bright contemptuous eyes that made the lad shrivel and hang his head.

‘Anyway, you can’t crack a whip!’ said the Bride, scornfully — for of course it was no one else.

The lad kept a sulky silence. The young lady picked up the whip that had fallen from his unnerved fingers. She looked very fresh and buoyant in the fresh summer morning, and very lovely. She could not have felt real fatigue the night before, for there was not a lingering trace of it in her appearance now; and if she had been really tired, why be up and out so very early this morning? The stable-boy began to glance at her furtively and to ask himself this last question, while Gladys handled and examined the whip in a manner indicating that she had handled a whip before.

‘Show you how?’ she asked suddenly; but the lad only dropped his eyes and shuffled his feet, and became a degree more sulky than before. Gladys stared at him in astonishment. She was new to England, and had yet to discover that there is a certain type of lout — a peculiarly English type — that infinitely prefers to be ground under heel by its betters to being treated with the least approach to freedom or geniality on their part. This order of being would resent the familiarity of an Archbishop much more bitterly than his Grace would resent the vilest abuse of the lout. It combines the touchiness of the sensitive-plant with the soul of the weed; and it was the Bride’s first introduction to the variety — which, indeed, does not exist in Australia. She cracked the whip prettily, and with a light heart, and the boy glowered upon her. The exercise pleased her, and brought a dull red glow into her dusky cheeks, and heightened and set off her beauty, so that even the lout gaped at her with a sullen sense of satisfaction. Then, suddenly, she threw down the whip at his feet.

Take the beastly thing!’ she cried. ‘It isn’t half a whip! But you just hold on, and I’ll show you what a real whip is!’

She was out of the yard in a twinkling. The lout rubbed his eyes, scratched his head, and whistled. Then a brilliant idea struck him: he fetched the coachman. They were just in time. The Bride was back in a moment.

‘Ha! two of you, eh?’ she exclaimed. ‘Well, stand aside and I’ll show you how we crack stock-whips in the Bush!’

A short, stout handle, tapering towards the lash, and no longer than fifteen inches, was in her hand. They could not see the lash at first, because she held it in front of her in her left hand, and it was of the same colour as her dark tailor-made dress; but the Bride jerked her right wrist gently, and then a thing like an attenuated brown snake, twelve feet long, lay stretched upon the wet cement of the yard as if by magic. Swiftly then she raised her arm, and the two spectators felt a fine line of water strike their faces as the lash came up from the wet cement; looking up, they saw a long black streak undulating for an instant above the young lady’s head, and then they heard a whiz, followed by an almost deafening report. The lash lay on the ground again, quivering. Coachman and stable-boy instinctively flattened their backs against the coach-house door.

‘That,’ said the Bride, ‘is the plain thing. Smell this!’

Again the long lash trembled over her head; again it cracked like a gun-shot somewhere in front of her, but this time, by the help of the recoil and by the sheer strength of her wrist, the lash darted out again behind her — as it seemed, under her very arm — and let out the report of a second barrel in the rear. And this fore-and-aft recoil cracking went on without intermission for at least a minute — that minute during which the Judge’s shaving was interrupted. Then it stopped, and there was a fine wild light in the Bride’s eyes, and her breath came quickly, and her lips and cheeks were glowing crimson.

The phlegmatic lad was quite speechless, and, in fact, with his gaping mouth and lolling tongue he presented a rather cruel spectacle. But the coachman found an awestruck word or two: ‘My soul and body!’ he gasped.

‘Ah!’ said the Bride, ‘that is something flash, ain’t it though? I wonder I hadn’t forgotten it. And now you have a try, old man!’

Honest Garrod, the coachman, opened his eyes wide. He knew that this was Mrs Alfred; he had heard that Mrs Alfred was an Australian; but he could scarcely believe his ears.

‘No, miss — no, mum — thank you,’ he faltered. The ‘miss’ came much more naturally than the ‘mum.’

‘Come on!’ cried the Bride.

‘I’d rather not, miss —mum,’ said the coachman.

‘What rot!’ said Gladys. ‘Here — that’s it — bravo! Now blaze away!’

The old man had given in, simply because this extraordinary young lady was irresistible. The first result of his weakness was a yell of pain from the stable-boy; the poor lad’s face was bleeding where the lash had struck it. Rough apologies followed. Then the old coachman — who was not without mettle, and was on it, for the moment — took off his coat and tried again. After many futile efforts, however, he only succeeded in coiling the lash tightly round his own legs; and that made an end of it; the old man gave it up.

‘Show us some more, mum,’ said he. ‘I’ve got too old and stiff for them games,’— as if in his youth he had been quite at home with the stock-whip, and only of late years had got rusty in the art of cracking it.

‘Right you are,’ said Gladys, gaily, when her laughter was over — she had a hearty, but a rather musical laugh. ‘Give me the whip. Now, have you got a coin — a sixpence? No? No odds, here’s half a sov. in my purse that’ll do as well; and you shall have it, either of you that do this side o’ Christmas what I’m going to do now. I’m going to show you a trick and a half!’

Her eyes sparkled with excitement: she was rather over-excited, perhaps. She placed the coin upon the ground, retreated several paces, measured the distance with her eye, and smartly raised the handle of the stock-whip. The crack that followed was the plain, straightforward crack, only executed with greater precision than before. Then she had resembled nothing so much as an angler idly flogging a stream; the difference was that now, as it were, she was throwing at a rise. And she threw with wonderful skill; for, at the first crack, the half-sovereign spun high into the air and fell with a ring upon the cement; she had picked it up on the point of the lash!

It was a surprising feat. That she managed to accomplish it at the first attempt surprised no one so much as the Bride herself. This also added in a dangerous degree to her excitement. She was now in little less than a frenzy. She seemed to forget where she was, and to think that she was back on the station in New South Wales, where she could do what she liked.

‘Now that you’ve seen I can do that,’ she cried to the lad, ‘stand you with your back to the wall there, and I’ll take your hat off for you!’

The answer of the dull youth was astonishingly wise; he said nothing at all, but beat a hasty retreat into the safety of the saddle-room.

She turned to the trembling Garrod. ‘Then you!’

Even as he demurred, he saw her hand go up. Next moment the whipcord hissed past his face and there was a deafening report in his right ear, and the next a fearful explosion just under his left ear, and many more at every turn and corner of his face, while the poor man stood with closed eyes and unuttered prayers. It was an elaborate substitute for the simpler fun of whipping his cap off, the unhappy creature being bareheaded already. At last, feeling himself still untouched, Garrod opened his eyes, watched his opportunity, and, while the lash still quivered in mid-air, turned and made a valiant bolt for shelter. His shirt was cut between the shoulder-blades as cleanly as though a knife had done it, but he reached the saddle-room with a whole skin.

‘Ye cowardly devils!’ roared the Bride, now beside herself — her dark eyes ablaze with diabolical merriment. ‘I’ll keep you there all day, so help me, if you don’t come out of it!’ And, in the execution of her threat, the long lash cracked in the doorway with terrifying echoes.

At that moment, wildly excited as she was, she became conscious of a new presence in the yard. She turned her head, to see a somewhat mean-looking figure in ancient tweed, with his back to the light, but apparently regarding her closely from under the shadow of his broad felt wideawake.

‘Another of ’em, I do declare!’ cried the Bride. And with that the lash cracked in the ears of the unfortunate new-comer, who stood as though turned to stone.

The blue sky, from this luckless person’s point of view, became alive with the writhings of serpents, hell-black and numberless. His ears were filled and stunned with the fiendish musketry. He stood like a statue; his hands were never lifted from the pockets of his Norfolk jacket; he never once removed his piercing gaze from the wild face of his tormentor.

‘Why don’t you take off your hat to a lady?’ that lunatic now shouted, laughing hoarsely, but never pausing in her vile work. ‘Faith, but I’ll do it for you!’

The wideawake then and there spun up into the air, even as the half-sovereign had spun before it. And the very next instant the stock-whip slipped from the fingers of the Bride. She had uncovered the gray hairs of her father-in-law, Sir James Bligh! At the same moment there was a loud shout behind her, and she staggered backward almost into the arms of her horror-stricken husband. Even then the Bride knew that Granville was there too, watching her misery with grinning eyes. And the Judge did not move a muscle, but stood as he had stood under her fire, piercing her through and through with his stern eyes; and there was an expression upon his face which the worst malefactors he had ever dealt with had perhaps not seen there; and a terrible silence held the air after the mad uproar of the last few minutes.

That awful stillness was broken by the patter of unsteady footsteps. With a crimson face the Bride tottered rather than ran across the yard, and fell upon her knees on the wet cement, at the Judge’s feet.

‘Forgive me,’ she said; ‘I never saw it was you!’

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/h/hornung/ew/bride-from-the-bush/chapter4.html

Last updated Friday, March 7, 2014 at 20:51