The Story of a New Zealand River
the next morning the two men found their way up the road towards the bay, looking for a cottage they had been told might be to let. The hotel proprietor had advised them to have a house as well as their tents, and the lurid picture he gave them of the uncertainty of the weather in those parts had impressed them with the common sense of the suggestion.
At various places on the way they paused to look down through leafy gaps upon the river, which a fast-rising, angry wind was churning into clumps of froth. Every now and then a furious gust bore down branches in their faces, and sent showers of twigs scattering in all directions. There was an intoxication in the keen air that got them both by the throat.
Unexpectedly they came upon a well-trod path leading towards the river. They followed it a little way to find another branching from it, and after they had stood a moment speculating they followed this new one. It led into a small clearing, in the centre of which they saw what they rightly took to be the cottage they were searching. They picked their way over the logs, stumps and brushwood. There was a nice air of crudity about the small dwelling, bare and unpainted, and shut off from the world by its circular wall of bush. Ross liked it the minute he looked at it.
They walked round it, and looking through the windows, saw that it had three small rooms and an open fireplace. It was surrounded with its own wood supply in profusion, and for water there was a new zinc tank fed from spouting that ran round the corrugated iron roof.
“If this is it, I say we take it,” said Ross.page 268
“So do I.”
“You ought to be able to write here, and it would suit me fine for study. I wonder how near we are to the mill.”
In a lull of the wind they heard a weird sound, new to them. It was the mournful shriek of one of the circular saws.
“Sounds like machinery,” said Ross.
They retraced their steps to the well-trodden path. They had gone but a little way down it in the direction of the river when they felt rather than heard that some one was behind them. Swinging round, they came face to face with Asia, who was amused at their swiftly banished astonishment.
This time she did not hesitate to smile frankly into their eyes.
“Isn't it a wind?” she cried gaily. “We are going to have a storm. But our welcome to strangers is not always so ungracious.”
Both men felt the fire of a new exhilaration course through their veins as they looked at her. She looked like the Greek spirit reincarnate. Her blue eyes laughed at them out of the freest body they had ever seen.
She was plainly dressed in a well-worn navy serge suit, a comfortable thing that had modified itself to her swinging limbs and swift motions. The pale-blue cap of the day before nestled into her hair as if it lived there. It had an impertinent air all its own. On her feet were tan boots stained with mud and dust. Her arms swung loosely and her hands were gloveless.
As her eyes passed over Lynne to Ross the expression in them changed.
“I've seen you often,” she said to him, without waiting for either of them to answer her remark.
“Me?” For a moment Ross strained his memory in vain.
“Yes, in Sydney.”
“Ah.” And both men felt that much was explained.page 269
“You know Sydney?” asked Lynne delightedly.
“Yes, a little. I was there two years. I came back eight months ago.” She turned again to Ross. “I saw you first in the Domain. You were speaking to a howling jingoistic mob who yelled ‘Pro-Boer’ at you. But you kept on, and the police rescued you. I heard you speak for the labour movement many times. I know people who know you—the Gilbert Morgans. You were invited to meet me one evening, but you went to some meeting instead, and I don't think you ever sent a decent apology.”
He did not attempt to apologize now as his eyes smiled gleefully back at hers, but after a minute he sobered, wondering uncomfortably how much she knew about him.
“The world continues to be small,” said Lynne flippantly.
“Who are you?” she asked abruptly.
“Oh, my friend, Barrie Lynne,” introduced Ross.
“The Barrie Lynne who writes?”
“The same,” he bowed.
“Oh, then, I've read some of your stuff.”
“You needn't be. I came across it quite by accident.”
He laughed into her mischievous eyes.
“May I hope that upon mature reflection you regard the accident as a happy one.”
Her tone was more casual than he liked, but he met it gaily.
“I'm sure you are a very discerning critic,” he said gallantly.
“You're like that, are you?” she retorted. “Well, I may as well tell you I'm one of those awful people whom flattery does not flatter, nor deception deceive.”
“Dear me,” said Ross gravely. “What right have you to take the joy out of life that way?”
She flashed a delighted look at him.
“Don't you ever lie?” asked Lynne, aghast.
“Oh, of course. That's another thing.”page 270
She rose on her toes and caught a branch that was about to swish into their faces.
“What are you doing here?” she went on. “Are you looking for the mill?”
“Yes,” answered Ross. “We want to find out who owns the cottage in there. We'd like to take it for the summer.”
She looked up into the trees, catching at another swaying branch.
“I can tell you that. It belongs to a Mr. King, a farmer who lives at Kaiwaka, about three miles along this main road.” She waved in the direction. “I guess you will be able to get it. He built it for his daughter, who was to have married one of our men. But he was drowned six weeks ago.”
“That so? Well, we will go after it at once, then.”
The conversation came to an abrupt stop.
Asia plunged at swaying branches, not, as Lynne thought, because it showed off her supple figure to perfection, but because the joy of life in her had to express itself in motion of some sort. But after a minute or two she became aware that both men were looking to her for the initiative.
“Would you like to see the mill?” she asked Ross.
“We would very much.”
“Come on, then.”
As the path was not wide enough for three, Asia stepped out beside Ross, leaving Lynne to follow in a bad humour behind. Already the choice seemed significant. But he determined not to be put aside.
“I suppose we must explain ourselves, Ross,” he began.
But Asia shot an arresting glance back at him.
“You needn't,” she said curtly. “Nobody ever does here. We have ‘Dukes’ sons, cooks' sons, and sons of belted earls' scattered about the landscape, but none of them ever explained. Explanations stop behind at Auckland, though I believe they are going out of fashion there now. We don't page 271 care why you are here. This is the land of the lost, one of those happy spots where no questions are asked. Of course,” she added mischievously, “the fact of a person's being here is usually all the explanation necessary.”
Both men smiled.
“Oh, well,” drawled Lynne, “if you are not a bit interested——”
“Well, if it interests you to tell me, of course, as a matter of courtesy——” she drawled back.
Ross could not resist laughing at his friend's bungling, and at his foolishness at being hurt by her indifference. Why the devil should she be craving to know why they were there? It was only too obvious they were not the first men she had seen.
But Asia had not meant to snub Barrie Lynne. So she turned to him sweetly.
“You are ‘copy’ hunting, of course,” she said, “and you will find this place a storehouse of good yarns. I can put you on to several.”
“Thanks, that will be fine,” he answered gratefully.
They walked on some yards in silence. Asia was really curious to know why Ross was there, but she did not dream of asking. He rather hoped she was curious, but as he was not in the habit of explaining himself it did not occur to him to do so now. As they walked he threw his head back, sniffing the wind.
When they broke from the bush, to find themselves on a small rocky point about which the waves were lashing, Allen Ross stopped abruptly, and looked across the river at the desolate waste lands on the left bank below the turn.
“Good,” he smiled, “I wanted to get away from the world, the flesh, and the devil——”
“Are you sure you have?” she interrupted him, with a wicked little smile.
His bright eyes met the challenge in hers with swift responsiveness, but he parried the stroke.page 272
“I don't despair at the first sign of disappointment,” he shot back.
Then she laughed merrily into the angry wind.
Swinging round, they saw ahead of them the ranges of waste timber and sawdust that spoiled the beauty of the banks for acres on the western side of the mill yards. Asia led the way along a maze of tramway lines into a narrow canyon walled up on either side by stacks of flitches and boards of regulation widths. When they reached the end of the first wharf, which was the scene of a tremendous bustle of men, trucks, clanking chains, and donkey engines, Tom Roland caught sight of them, and came briskly forward. He greeted the two men with his childish delight in a new audience, and when Asia had introduced them he proudly led the way into the mill.
“Single file,” he advised, “and be careful.”
They went past the goose and circular saws and the moving platform of the breakdowns to the skids, where the winch had just got to work upon a log that lay down in the booms.
To both men everything was new and absorbing. The great framework of the double mill, its solid log foundations, the huge beams that held up its iron sides, the big spaces overhead, the accumulated roar of machinery, the blurr of the circular saws whizzing at terrific speed, the monotonous singing of the complicated loops of belts, the tremendous thrill in the air—all these things got their imagination.
They looked curiously at the huge blackboards suspended from the cross beams, covered with figured hieroglyphics, intelligible only to the initiated, and at the men and boys who swung iron grips and levers in and out of the very jaws of death.
They watched the progress of a log from the booms up the skids to the side of the breakdown platform, where, with astonishing ease, it was jerked into position on the sliding floor. Halved and quartered, it was then levered with re-page 273sounding thuds on to greased rollers and rushed towards the big circulars, which turned it into flitches. Then the small circulars, the drag, and the goose completed its metamorphosis into the regulation strips that were run on to various trucks and wheeled off, each kind to its appointed pile.
Roland then led the way to his engine room, where the two finest machines in the colony, as he was never tired of telling, lay carefully packed in brick, tended by a corps of perspiring stokers. The chief engineer came forward to be introduced, and to corroborate everything the boss said about the superlative qualities of his boilers, his driving capacity, and the excellence of all the appointments. After he had said all he usually said to impress visitors, the boss led the way again out into the timber yard, to a landing stage in the channel. There he showed the tramway, the booms, the position of the bush, and rapidly sketched the main details of the work.
The Australians enjoyed his enthusiasm. They realized a good deal of the difficulties he had overcome, and were amused at but not bored by his vanity. They noticed that Asia, who must have heard the tale many times before, heard it sympathetically, and inserted flattering details of her own occasionally.
The bay was now a township. It had its own post office, its little public school, its town hall, its football field. The store had grown till it was now a warehouse, ready to supply everything needed by the country-side for miles around. Bob Hargraves, risen to be its manager, was as proud of it as the engineer was of the engines.
Roland had reason to be proud of his success. The bay was now the biggest thing of its kind in the whole kauri milling industry. It had become a show place. The governors, when up that way shooting, always came along to see the big trees and the splendid dams back in the bush. Tourists from everywhere had visited it. The Government photographer had been sent to take numerous views of it, views that went into all the tourist publications, and hung enlarged page 274 in government offices all over the dominion. The boss could not help showing his pride in it. And he had a pleasant feeling that the world was a better place because he had made one corner of it.
When he had finished all he had to say, he asked the Australians what they were doing there. When they told him, he invited them to make themselves at home everywhere, he offered them a boat for nothing, he asked them to come to dinner any time they felt inclined, and made a date to take them into the bush the following week.
“It seems to be the sort of place we were looking for,” smiled Allen Ross, as the two men walked back to Point Curtis for lunch.
“Yes,” replied Lynne grumpily. “She liked you.”
“Oh, don't be a damned fool, Lynne.”
“Lord! Don't take me so seriously. What about the cottage?”
“I'll ride up this afternoon if I can get a horse at the pub, and if the rain keeps off. I shall enjoy a ride again.”