The Land of The Lost
Above the swing-doors of the inn was nailed a narrow strip of blackened tin, on which was painted in white letters the legend: "Cuthbert Upmore. Licensed to sell Wine, Beer, and Spirits."
Cuthbert Upmore himself leaned negligently against a post of the verandah and looked along the road. He was a tall spare man of dark complexion, with a long thin nose. He wore a heavy black moustache, but no side whiskers or beard, the stubble on his face and chin merely denoting that it was approaching the end of the week and drawing nigh to Sunday, the weekly shaving day. There was no particular reason why Cuthbert Upmore, who had little to do at any time, should not shave on any or every day of the seven, but he had fallen into the common habit of the people around, and clung there steadfastly, Indeed, the weekly shave assumed in these parts something of the nature of a religious observance.
Presently the man yawned, and relinquishing the support of the post, strolled round to the back of the inn. The ground here sloped gradually upwards for a quarter of a mile, where was reached the highest point in the near neighbourhood of the hostelry. Upmore, after moving irresolutely for some time, made his way to the summit of the elevation. From this point a page 8considerably wider extent of country was visible, and several new features were added to the scene. The additional height had the effect of levelling the billowy undulations of the gumfield. The kahikateas, whose summits only were visible from the verandah of the inn, were now revealed in their entirety, clouding the skyline in that direction with their sombre foliage. The curve of the top of the forest showed the formation of the country on which they existed, which was that of a cleft between two hills, the trees having possession of the cleft and part of the hill-slopes on either side. They were advancing on the gumfield in the form of a wedge, the point lying immediately in front of the dip, and the base spread across from hill to hill. At several other points round the horizon the forest could be seen breaking through the crevices of the hills, as though with the intention of resuming its ancient abode.
In the opposite direction, that, namely, which lay to the rear of the "Scarlet Man," the gumfields stretched out as far as the eye could see; but about a mile from the elevation on which Upmore stood could be descried a sudden dip, forming a narrow crevice, traceable for a considerable distance through the manuka: this was the bed of a creek. At one point a clump of cabbage trees brandished their sword - like leaves above the hollow. Further along was a square vivid green patch, glancing brightly in the sunlight with pale curls of blue smoke rising from the earth close beside it. This Upmore decided to be a hut of native construction, the freshness of the palm thatch betraying it to be of recent origin.
The watcher seated himself and continued his observations. This great, dreary circle, which at first appeared absolutely tenantless, seemed, on long scrutiny, page 9well-nigh as populous as a rabbit burrow. From the one extreme of emptiness the mind drifts into an equally erroneous opinion at the opposite extreme. Every thick tuft of manuka is conceived to be the lurking-place of a digger, every slight rustle and stir of the brushwood an indication of his presence. At times the quick eye of the innkeeper discerned a head bob up from the thick growth, or the complete body of a man pass slowly from one clump to another. Once or twice a figure bearing an empty, or partially empty sack on its back, a spade across its shoulder, and a thin spear, shining like a splinter of glass in its hand, came into an open space and prodded the ground here and there. This was a digger spearing for gum. At other times a man might be observed throwing out the soil with his spade; but no single figure remained in view for longer than a few minutes at a time.
Apparently surfeited with the view in this direction, Upmore now turned his face towards the inn and scanned the long white line of the road. Away on the summit of the low tableland the glittering, as of a glass wheel with rimless spokes, still went on, but a small black speck was now discernible in the heart of it. This speck moved steadily downwards for about ten minutes, and then suddenly disappeared. Upmore took out his watch and made a note of the time. There was generally a good deal of this commodity on his hands and a very limited number of ways of employing it. Ten years or so ago he had discovered the particular method which he now put in practice at the moment he pulled out his watch. From the spot where the speck had disappeared to the point where—from the winding of the road—it would again come into view was a distance of two miles. According to the time taken page 10by the traveller in covering this distance was the good or ill fortune in store for the watcher from that period to the next occasion chance suffered him to behold a similar event. There were several other more or less absorbing speculations to be got out of the business, but the main and most exciting point was the dependence of his own destiny on the speed or otherwise of the unknown.
Lonely men light on strange ideas; the pressure of solitude drives them home; time rivets them fast: they become credible facts, as things seen and heard are credible facts—the one being, not impossibly, on as sound a basis as the other. Upmore had formulated his creed as the result of experience; it had been of a tentative nature once, owing to the complexity of the experience, but it had long since settled into dogma and become as a consequence indisputable. On one occasion a man had spent an hour and a half between the two points and brought him ill-luck. He had remained at the inn for two months, stupidly drunk the whole time, and had ended by dying suddenly in the dead-house, putting Upmore to the trouble of burying him outside in the paddock, for the whole of which—board, drink, funeral expenses, and anxiety of mind—he had never received a penny to this day. Upmore thought of this now as he sat on the hill with his watch in his hand waiting for the reappearance of the speck. But there had been a worse occasion than this—that of a man who had done the distance in thirty-six minutes. Never was there such a devil of a business as followed the advent of the man who did the distance in thirty-six minutes! He brought worry and disaster with him, compared with which the board and burial of a dozen hour-and-a-half men were things page 11to be prayed for and rejoiced in. This man also had turned aside through the doorway of the "Scarlet Man." He had slept there one night, and risen the following morning swearing that he was robbed — robbed of a hundred single pound notes. Here was an aspersion to cast on the good name of a defenceless "Scarlet Man," licensed to sell wine, beer, and spirits! And the tremendous to-do that followed! The dreadful excitable nature of the robbed man; the wild and humiliating theories put forth by him to account for the fact of the robbery; the extraordinary interrogativeness of the police, who haunted the landlord's dreams for months afterwards in the shape of query marks in official uniform. Never was a man so cornered and bullied with embarrassing questions. He was considerably out of pocket, and had lost a great deal in weight before he saw the last of the man who did the distance in thirty-six minutes, and even now as he thought of him he shuddered. Disasters of a milder type had befallen him on other occasions, but they were always associated with a traveller unduly slow or swift in his movements.
Upmore glanced at his watch; thirty-two minutes had elapsed. The possibility of his having to wait another twenty minutes before the reappearance of the figure made no call on his patience. In a solitude such as this, with a daily average of two or three travellers, and perhaps as many visits from those digging in the locality, any employment which was not actually loafing assumed a dignity comically out of proportion to its true value, and had thus the advantage of diffusing that glow of self-satisfaction which follows on exertion at the smallest imaginable cost to the labourer.
Another minute passed, and another. Suddenly the curved white edge of the road, sharply outlined against page 12the darker background of brushwood, became at one point slightly blurred and uncertain. He rubbed his eyes and looked again. The uncertain had now become the certain, the body of a man was rapidly rising into view, surrounded by a halo of scintillating dust: in a moment he reached the brow of the elevation and began his descent towards the inn. Upmore looked at his watch—barely thirty-five minutes had elapsed since he lost sight of the speck two miles away. He rose and stood as one thunderstruck, helplessly gazing at the approaching figure. What disaster was this that advanced on him with a speed hitherto unprecedented in his experience? And here a circumstance occurred which to the superstitious mind of the innkeeper suggested all the irony of a malignant fate. The man, having completed the work of prophecy, deliberately sat down by the roadside and lit his pipe.
To Upmore's mind this was adding insult to injury—an overwhelming confirmation of the exactness of his theory of devil-worship, which in his present state of gloomy anticipation he could readily have done without. Upmore gazed on the unconscious smoker as he sat blowing the blue tobacco-cloud from his lips with less of hatred than curiosity. The creature before him was to his mind but the irresponsible instrument of something hateful behind. A less superstitious man might have taken steps to avoid an encounter with the traveller; to Upmore's mind this would have been merely working on the side of destiny. The correct attitude was that of an automaton, to be set going, shifted about, and stopped at the pleasure of its maker, if not with indifference, at least with avoidance of those struggles which have to be carried on entirely at the creature's own expense.page 13
With a philosophy worthy of a better cause, Upmore made his way back to the inn, creeping under the puriri fence and entering the house from the rear. The kitchen of the establishment lay to the right of the passage, and here the innkeeper, after glancing rapidly round and listening attentively for a few moments, commenced knocking the ceiling violently with a piece of wood. The sound of a step moving from place to place with that apparent aimlessness which conveys to the initiated the process of making a bed, suddenly ceased; and a moment afterwards the person above commenced the descent of the stairs. Upmore laid the wood on the fire, and blew it into a blaze.
As he completed his task a woman of between thirty and forty entered the room and stood without speaking, looking inquiringly into his face from a pair of exceedingly bright and watchful eyes. Upmore, standing with his back to the fire, gazed fixedly at, or rather beyond, her with the air of one engaged in abstruse speculation. The heavy, drooping, black moustache gave a drawn and anxious expression to his countenance.
"Did you knock?" asked the woman at length in the low monotone occasionally observable in very deaf people.
Upmore, becoming conscious of her presence, pointed his finger in the direction of the road and shouted, "Someone coming!"
The woman nodded her head, and her lips parted in a slight smile.
"Have you any meat?" asked Upmore.
The woman gave a sign in the affirmative. "Peter brought some beef this morning, but very tough and no fat. There never is any fat on the Maori cattle."page 14
Upmore nodded, and pointed to the fire.
Thus directed, the woman ceased in her watchful gaze on his face, and going to the fireplace, swung the huge kettle on a hook up the chimney. She then placed a large frying-pan on the bars.
Upmore now left the kitchen and took up his position in the doorway of the inn. The only moving object in the landscape was the figure of the stranger advancing rapidly along the white road. He was apparently heavily laden, and bore a spade and spear across his shoulder. His stalwart limbs were encased in a pair of snowy drill trousers, turned into a pair of yellow cotton socks. He wore a blue Crimea shirt open at the throat, but no coat or waistcoat A broad-brimmed hat, woven from the kiekie of the forest, completed his attire. As he drew nearer Upmore could see that his face—that of a young man of two or three-and-twenty—was tanned scarlet by the sun; and a few moments later he was aware of a pair of frank blue eyes looking into his own and a pleasant voice giving him a good-natured greeting.
Could this handsome, innocent-looking creature be the messenger of the Implacable Fates?