The Land of The Lost
During this time Clifford had not revisited the "Scarlet Man," nor had he seen anything of Upmore since the day he first set up his tent on the field. This particular evening, however, feeling a desire for society, he walked across to the inn, which lay at a distance of rather more than a mile from the spot where he was himself encamped.
A busy scene met his eye. From the doorway and the lamp above the door a patch of light was thrown across the verandah on to the road, where its edges were absorbed in the intense darkness of the moonless night Through this glare moved a constant succession of figures—male and female, children and adults. In the roadway before the inn were a number of horses, twenty or more being gathered with their noses over the verandah, while their native owners, squatted in all positions in and outside the house, kept up a perfect babel of talk.
Clifford made his way between the heels of the horses and through the groups on the verandah into the crowded bar. Contrary to his expectation, very little drinking was going on, the natives being from some settlement in Hokianga, where temperance in the matter of liquor was more prevalent than elsewhere. Mixed and mysterious sounds from the region of the page 55dead-house, however, convinced Clifford that that necessary adjunct to the bush pub was in requisition.
Upmore was in his shirt-sleeves, moving about as though he were busy, and from him Clifford learned the destination of the travellers to be a racecourse about fifteen miles distant, where some races were to come off the following day.
For the next quarter of an hour Clifford amused himself in watching 'the motley groups, who in their turn were not slow to bestow a curious regard on him. The Maoris were all in European costume, the men being clothed in the ordinary slop tweeds of the local stores, while the women and girls were robed in prints and other cheap and generally gaudy fabrics. A few of the older women had babies on their backs, closely enveloped in plaid shawls, while a number of older children ran in and out among the legs of the crowd. They had probably left some settlement among the bush-clad mountains of Hokianga well-nigh deserted of its inhabitants.
Presently there was a cry to horse, and the crowd began to troop off, the hubbub of their voices dying gradually out as horse after horse scampered away at full gallop into the night In a few minutes the place was deserted, and the ordinary quiet of the gumfield had again settled upon the lonely inn.
Clifford stayed a little longer to recount his recent experiences, then made off in the direction of his tent.
It was now eight o'clock, and an intensely dark night. For the first time since his arrival on the field heavy clouds had arisen from the northward and completely obscured the sky. Instead of returning across the field by the way he had come, Clifford determined for the greater comfort of the walk to proceed along the road page 56to a point a hundred yards from his camp and thence strike directly across. The way was a trifle longer, but the smoother nature of the ground more than compensated for the extra distance.
He had covered the greater part of the road, and turned off on to the rough ground of the field, when he heard the sound of a horse trotting steadily towards him from the direction whence he had come. For some reason he was never subsequently able to explain, he stood still where he was and waited for the rider to come up. From the sound made by the horse's hoofs, now loud and clinking, now dull and scarcely audible, he gathered two things: the horse was shod, and therefore in all probability the rider was a European; he was riding partly on the road and partly on the mossy margin to one side. It occurred to Clifford as he came to the latter conclusion that this was a dangerous thing to do. He had himself put his foot into more than one hole, which some careless digger had allowed to remain open, and though to a foot-passenger this might be merely a source of annoyance, the case was likely to be very different with a person mounted on horseback. Almost at the moment this reflection crossed his mind he heard the horse stumble, and a few seconds later the sound of its hoofs was again audible, this time advancing at a terrific pace towards the spot where he stood. Clifford ran forward on to the road in time to turn the frightened creature into the tea tree, where, after a loud rustling of leaves and cracking of branches, it apparently came to a standstill; he then moved hurriedly back in search of the rider.
About twenty yards along the road he thought he could discern some dark object in a semi-recumbent attitude by the side of the way. The sound of a voice, page 57apparently that of a young woman, saying, "What shall I do now?" caused him to hurry to the spot.
"Here is help," he said cheerfully, as he came up.
The person on the road made some reply which he did not catch. He struck a light. The air was singularly calm, the flame of the wax vesta barely flickering as it burned. Before him, half kneeling, half sitting, was a young girl of nineteen or twenty in a close-fitting blue serge riding-habit. Her face was white and drawn, as if with pain; she looked dazed and frightened.
"Are you hurt?" he asked.
"My foot—but I have lost my horse."
"I might be able to catch the horse for you," said Clifford; "but are you sure you have no other injury?"
"Only my foot," she repeated. "But oh, if you could catch my horse! I don't know what I shall do if he is not caught. Will you try?"
"Certainly," said he. "I will leave my match-box with you. Call out if you want help."
Clifford went off, listening carefully for any rustle that might betray the presence of the animal, but not a sound was to be heard.
After a fruitless search of a quarter of an hour he returned and reported his non-success. The girl was in great distress, and for a moment Clifford was in agonies lest she should cry.
"Whatever shall I do?" she ejaculated.
"Try if you can walk," he suggested. "Let me assist you to rise."
She offered no objection, and he raised her to her feet; but no sooner was she standing erect than she uttered a sharp cry of pain, and would have fallen.
"I am afraid my foot is badly hurt," she said tearfully. "I cannot set it down without extreme pain."page 58
"Throw all your weight on me," he said gently—"unless you would let me carry you."
"Where to?" she asked. "Of course, I would not let you do anything of the kind; but where is there to go to?"
"Nowhere but the hotel," said Clifford.
"Upmore's?" she asked, with a shiver. "I would sooner stay here than go to that place. Oh, dear, this is dreadful! If I only had my horse!"
"He is probably half-way home by this time," said Clifford. "But you cannot stay here, it will be raining heavily in a few minutes, and you have no protection; besides, your foot may be severely injured, and should be seen to at once. Why should you not let me carry you to the hotel? It is barely a mile distant."
"No, no," she said hurriedly; "let me lean on your arm, and I will try to walk. It is a shame of me to cause you so much trouble."
This was the first indication she had given that she did not demand and accept his services as a right, and the sweet tones increased the natural delight of the young man in his task.
"Think how I can be of use to you," he said, as they prepared to start.
But after moving a few yards it became clear that the girl would be totally unable to accomplish the distance to the inn, the intense pain rendering her breathless with every step she took.
"Look here," said Clifford suddenly, "I have a tent close by; if it were daylight you could see it from where we stand. Let me take you there, and then I will run off and find Mrs. Brandy, or Brandon, or whatever her name is, at the hotel. Will you do that? See, it is already beginning to rain; if we page 59stay here another ten minutes we shall be drenched through."
The girl hesitated, peering about in the gloom.
"No," she said at last despairingly "Leave me here; I can wait here till the morning."
"Nonsense!" said Clifford brusquely." I have thought of a good plan, and you must fall in with it. If you are silly enough to stop here in the rain, I am not so foolish as to permit you to do so. This is no time for ceremony; you must do as you are told."
"I shall stay here," the girl repeated coldly.
Clifford was at a loss. "If you were my sister——," he began.
"Well?" she asked.
"I should pick you up and carry you whether you would or no."
There was a pause.
"Is your tent far from here?" came her voice presently.
"Not a hundred yards," said he persuasively. "Come."
He again raised her from the earth, and they moved on to the rough ground of the gumfield. But if she had found hardship in walking on the comparatively smooth road, this was a hundred times worse. Clifford, supporting her as well as he was able, heard her uttering little pitiful "Oh's!" under her breath, until, no longer able to endure the thought of her suffering, he lifted her suddenly into his arms and set off with an amount of resolution that gave no heed to her cry of offended dignity.
Beyond this exclamation she suffered herself to be borne away in silence.
"Put your arms round my neck," said Clifford, after moving for some distance through the scrub.page 60
She laid her right arm across his shoulder.
"Now the other," he said masterfully.
She obeyed, her two arms lightly encircling his neck.
This, however, was not at all what the young man had intended, which was to transfer her weight from his left arm; accordingly he gradually loosened the support he was giving her, and she, feeling herself slipping, was obliged to cling to him with some energy. His left arm could now be used in grasping the bushes when from any cause he found himself in danger of falling. In this manner he bore her to his tent, and laid her down on the couch of fern. As he did so he was surprised and alarmed to feel her head droop suddenly across his wrist, and her whole body to become limp in his hands.
Clifford hastily lit a candle and found, as he had conjectured, that the girl had fainted. Once on a previous occasion it had fallen to the lot of our young man to carry a swooning woman from a place of entertainment, and he was not therefore so terribly frightened as he might have been had the event found him totally inexperienced. He at once set about restoring her to consciousness. With trembling fingers he undid the heavy diamond brooch at her throat, and loosening the collar of her dress, sprinkled her face and neck with water, but still there was no sign of returning consciousness. He felt that whatever course of action might be demanded of him by the proprieties, he could not leave her in this condition. He had a shrewd suspicion that the fainting-fit was not so much of a hysterical character as induced by intense pain, and that immediate steps should be taken to alleviate her suffering.
The position was a difficult one. To a right-minded man there is a sacredness in the body of a woman page 61which even in her own interest he finds it difficult to overcome. Clifford asked himself if he had the courage to release her foot from the boot in which it was confined. He grew indignant with himself as he felt the blood mantling in his cheeks, and this indignation finally nerved him to the act. As he unbuttoned and carefully drew off the long slim boot the girl sighed and moved. He at once returned to his restoratives, and in a few moments had the satisfaction of seeing her restored to consciousness.
Her eyes were deep and dark with pain as she turned them on him with a gaze of momentary wonder.
"You had fainted," he said. "I hardly dare leave you even yet."
"It is my boot," she said, with a catch of her breath; "it is killing me."
"I have taken the boot off," he replied. "I thought you would never come to."
"Is my foot broken?" she asked.
"I hardly dared," stammered Clifford, "without your permission—though I know something of injuries. Perhaps, if you would remove——then we could put some cold-water bandages——"
"Yes," she said, with a composure born probably of his nervousness. She raised herself, and putting her hands under the rug, in a few moments a white foot was peeping from beneath the long skirt of her habit. As she leant back her face was again of snowy whiteness and her eyes dimmed and dreamy.
"Don't," he said anxiously, suspecting another faint.
"No," she replied resolutely, with a faint smile that ended with a pitiful drooping of the mouth at the corners. "Is it broken, do you think?"
Clifford took the small white foot tenderly in his page 62hand. Over the instep was a villainous contusion, divided by a heavy purple line, where the steel of the stirrup had indented itself on the flesh. The whole of the ankle was more or less swollen and inflamed.
"There is a bad sprain," said Clifford, "but I do not think any of the bones are broken. Will you let me bandage it for you before I go up to the hotel?"
"If you will," she replied simply.
Clifford procured some handkerchiefs from his wardrobe, and having obtained a bucket of water from the creek, proceeded with the operation of bandaging the wounded member.
At the first touch of the cold water she breathed a sigh of relief.
"It is delightful just not to feel pain," she said, smiling. Clifford smiled in sympathy, and having completed his task, rose to his feet.
"Now," he said, "I will go for Mrs. Brandon."
As he ceased speaking there was a rushing sound audible in the still air, and the rain, loosened from the sky, smote the tent-roof in a perfect deluge.