The New Zealand Railways Magazine, Volume 4, Issue 10 (February 1, 1930)
Out of the Night
Out of the Night
The man trudged along—his shoulders slouching forward and his feet dragging heavily—still he walked on in a kind of dogged animal stupor. The night wind ruffled his black, untidy hair and drenched his brown face with a salty mist—his ragged coat flapped forlornly behind him—leaving his strong hairy chest bare to the breeze. On his back was a pack which looked heavy, even for his massive shoulders, and he clutched in his big hand a powerful notched stick.
There was nothing remarkable about this man who walked there through the night. He was neither tall nor short, neither old nor young—neither very ugly nor very prepossessing. He was quite an ordinary looking fellow—but in his very blue Irish eyes was a kind of fierce unconquerable misery—as though he were always fighting against overwhelming odds—and always losing. I have seen that very look in the dull eyes of an old draft horse pulling a load up a steep hill on a broiling day—a look of patient suffering and infinite sadness. But in these Irish eyes there glowed still the fire of youth—of hot blood and keen determination. His mother had never liked them—“Davie has kind of mad eyes,” she used to say—“they fair give me the creeps!”
He walked as if impelled by some unseen force—his hands thrust behind him—his eyes—those fierce, sad, animal eyes fixed upon the jagged horizon. Never once did he look to the right nor the left though the sun was setting in a stormy blaze of gold. The man began to hurry as fast as his awful weariness would allow him.
“Confound the night!” he said, for he was no lover of vivid sunsets, but merely a man with a goal to be reached as soon as possible—with a definite object before him. He reminded one of a dog who has been ordered home and is dead to the promptings of all instincts—the lure of all side tracks.
Night fell with that almost incredible swiftness so characteristic of New Zealand countrysides — night moonless, caressingly black and kindly, enveloping—a heavy impenetrable blanket.
Nothing ahead—nothing behind—nothing on either side or overhead, but something very solid beneath—the hard clay and the green grass. Our man—if he had known how to pray—would have offered thanks to Mother Earth. Instead, being very largely animal and child, he wanted to bury his face in the kindly soil and shut out the awful void of darkness. But on he walked and the hours slipped by as they always will.
Suddenly he knew that he was nearly there. Up went his head, back went his shoulders—he almost ran down the gently sloping hill-side. Ahead in the blackness he fancied he saw a page 54 page 55 faint and flickering light—fickle as a will o’ the wisp—tantalizing and mocking him—luring him onwards. His breath came in great gasps—the perspiration poured down his rugged face—blood hammered in his temples. He almost sobbed with relief as he stumbled against a broken-down gate. For a moment he leant there—utterly spent except for his eyes, which glowed like coals in the darkness.
Familiarly but gropingly — eagerly, he went up the overgrown path—sometimes waist high in brambles and tall, strange grasses. Then he came to the orchard and the moon broke timidly through the blackness—revealing the soft shining roundness of apples. In his ecstasy he seized one and kissed it passionately. We must forgive him for he had been long away, and just beyond the laden trees where he had romped as a boy lay the home of his childhood—“The Brow” as it had been called by the surrounding farmers because of its position on the hill. It had been a magnificent old homestead in the days when Gregory St. Clare had lived there and brought up his children within its kindly walls. St. Clare had bought his land from the Maoris “for a song” and established the wealthy station, built “The Brow”—married and settled there.
All that was many years ago—the family of St. Clare had quickly “gone to the dogs”—the land had been bought by an enterprising farmer who had built a bungalow there and left the old homestead deserted. One of the St. Clare boys, Gerald, he employed as a shepherd—the others had disappeared after spending the enormous wealth bequeathed to them by old Gregory. They had no love of the land and they cleared off as quickly as they could. The man whom we have followed through the night was John St. Clare—an utter failure in the game of life—who, “down and out,” had come to visit his brother Jerry—the shepherd. First he wanted to wander through the old rooms of “The Brow” before he went down to the bungalow and saw “old Jerry.” He thrust aside the greedy creepers and stood upon the rickety verandah in the darkness. The front door stood open — showing in the moon-light the wide hall half full of thistles and weeds and indescribable filth. He felt a swift pang of misery as he recalled its former lofty magnificence. Over the debris he crept among the shadows and moonbeams to the great staircase—rising into the blackness above. For a moment he leant wearily against the massive bannisters thinking of the days when he and his brothers had spent many an hour sliding joyously upon them. Then he began to climb—over the brambles, up—up. He wanted to see the nursery. Was that picture of “The Holy Grail” still on the schoolroom wall—how he had loved it! And the big window seat where Julian and Joan, the twins, had read their books by the hour. Julian and been killed in a brawl in a public house in Mexico and Joan—had disappeared.
Now he stood in the upstairs passage remembering how, as a little boy, he had been terrified by the rows of closed doors and how Jerry had sometimes accompanied him to bed although he was older and allowed another hour of noisy play in the orchard.
There was the nursery door—ajar at the end of the passage—John St. Clare stole in like a frightened child—trembling—eager. He could hear the shouts of Jerry behind the door—he could see Joan and Julian curled up in the window seat—and although the old room was quite empty he could see a crowded tea table in page 56 page 57 the middle of nursery. He sank down with his head buried in the ancient horse-hair sofa—sobbing wildly.
Next morning Jerry St. Clare—mustering sheep in a nearby paddock, fancied he heard a strange sound from the “Brow.” He dismounted—stood motionless on the verandah—paralysed with fear—for up above he heard shouts of wild laughter—peal upon peal.
They found John in the nursery, playing soldiers on the floor with sticks and laughing horribly. He had gone mad—“Poor chap,” they said, “the St. Clares were always a queer lot—bad eggs!”
A few years later Jerry died and the old “Brow” stands there still—weathering storm after storm—filled with shadows and echoes of children's voices.
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