The Toll of The Bush
Chapter XXVI Fire!
Chapter XXVI Fire!
With bowed head and lagging footsteps the Swede began the descent. The steep incline came to an end on a level cutting round the hill face. To the right the bush rose solid and black; to the left, it fell away an ocean of verdure to the misty river. An impenetrable obscurity clothed the track and all adjacent; but the mind sees through other senses than the sight, and the voice of the bush conveyed its own picture to the accustomed bushman. The night wind stirred the forest at intervals, coming slowly from immeasurable distances, culminating in a rocking and groaning of branches, dying away with a diminishing roar against the face of the hill. In the pauses of the wind a low mysterious shuddering made itself audible—a sound of awful majesty, one-toned, undying, afar, as it might be the roar of the great earth wheel through the gulf of space. With gathering speed Andersen turned round the hill, away from the sight of the river, and entered the tremendous obscurity of the bush.
Two hours later his pace had increased almost to a run. The long period of hesitation had passed.page 288
The impulse of his three months' purpose had spent itself and a fresh impulse taken its place. A rage of animal desire possessed him. His lips moved, his throat checked and swallowed, his eyes glowed like hot coals. A belated horseman coming up the road felt a pricking at the roots of his hair as the mysterious figure slipped past him into the night.
At a few minutes to ten the licensee of the Beach Public House and a few topers congregated round the bar were startled by the abrupt entry of a fresh customer, whom they recognised as Andersen the Swede. His face was set in hard lines, which, either from the effects of the lamplight or in response to inward emotion, trembled, and again fixed themselves in an expression of fierce expectancy. An immense desire blazed in his eyeballs, going out in front of him to the bright glitter of the spirit-bottles on the shelves. Even as he crossed from the doorway his hands fumbled with his breastpocket, bringing forth the handkerchief and the cheque. His fingers trembled in his eagerness as he thrust the document forward under the hotelkeeper's eye.
The latter contemplated the cheque with that combination of nonchalance and suspicion which denotes the frequent handling of such—good, bad, and indifferent. Then he removed the stub of a cigar from between his teeth, rolled a displaced leaf carefully, and turned to the till.
'What is it, Andersen?'
The hotel-keeper smiled, placed a bottle and page 289tumbler before him in the hospitable colonial fashion, and again moved to the drawer.
With trembling fingers the Swede drew the glass stopper and two-thirds filled the glass. The effect of the draught was electric. The hard muscular contractions of the face relaxed, the animal look died out of the eyes, a perfect placidity overspread the countenance. Hitherto the bystanders had watched the scene in silence, penetrated by a sense of the animality of the act; but now with the return of the human being they stirred, laughed, and drew nearer. One of them, a sottish-looking fellow, his rough clothing powdered with gum-dust, clapped the Swede on the shoulder.
'Well, Swedy,' he cried. 'How's things?'
'Fill 'em oop,' said Andersen hospitably. 'Vot dese gentlemen drink?'
'Long shandy, Bob.' 'Mine's plain whisky.' 'Same here.' 'Schnapps for me.'
The hotel-keeper dropped some loose silver back into the till and pushed over the change—a sovereign short. 'Yours whisky, Andersen? Here you are then.' And between the change and the bottle the Swede put the money in his pocket.
'Where you been, Swedy? Gosh! Thought you was dead. Us chaps are off the field. Milward's swamp—a devil of a place. Ever been there? Not in a season like this, I reckon. The top's like a rock till you get down a bit, and then the gum's not much—eh, Lanky?'
The man addressed as Lanky was a cadaverous creature over six feet in height, with a thin uncouth beard. His forehead was of noble proportions, bulbous, massive—the headpiece of a great thinker, page 290a philosopher. The eyes were small and shifty, and beneath the eyes the face died away rapidly into boneless insignificance.
'The gum's not a great deal, as you say, Chiffers,' he returned with a curious harsh irony of tone, 'but neither are the diggers. The solid gum comes from solid country, and the men who dig in swamps get corresponding results.'
'Stow that,' said Chiffers amiably. 'None of your damned M.A. business among friends, James Oxenford, Esquire, Master of Arts.'
Oxenford looked reflectively at his empty glass. 'Have I had this drink,' he asked, 'or not?'
'Fill oop again,' said the Swede, throwing some silver on the counter.
'That's the way to talk,' said Chiffers enthusiastically. 'Fact is, us chaps have touched bottom on this dive,'—he glanced quickly at his companions—'and things was gettin' unholy dry with us till you popped in. Mine's same again. We've lasted well, howsomever, ain't we, boys, considerin' the quality of the gum?'
The hotel-keeper saw to the replenishing of the glasses, then with a glance at the clock went out and closed the hotel door. When he returned he screwed down the lamp and opened the door of a room behind the bar.
'Get in here, chaps,' he said, 'and not too much noise. We've got a new broom up at the station, and the township's on short allowance till he's done sweeping. That's your style. You won't mind, Andersen? Yes, thanks, a cigar.'
The men filed into the room nursing their glasses. It was a small place, floored with cheap page 291oilcloth and furnished with a horse-hair sofa, a table, and a few bent-wood chairs. A series of pictures of negroes performing fantastically with mules ornamented the walls. The table was covered with a leather cloth, more or less glass-marked; on it lay a triangular scoring board and a few packs of soiled cards.
Oxenford shouldered his companions aside, and seating himself at the table ran his long skinny hands lovingly over the cards. 'Who's for a game?' he asked. 'Euchre, bluff, whisky-poker? Come along.'
'If we're going down this tide it's time we made a start,' some one objected.
'Damn the tide!' said Chiffers.' What'll you play, Swedy?'
'First we fill' em oop again,' Andersen announced. The salient lines of his face had dissolved, leaving an expression of fatuous contentment and goodwill.
'Mr. Andersen is a man of few words,' said Oxenford, dealing himself a hand and looking at it, 'and every one of them to the point. Mine's a plain whisky without intoxicants. Take your seats, gentlemen. The lowest deals. Deuce! Rackstraw has it. That's always the way with these men who say nothing. Fortune favours them. Yes, bluff. There's no game makes greater demand on the sterner qualities, nerve and endurance. It's easy to look a man in the eye and tell him the truth. You need attributes before you can shrivel him with majestic lying. None of that, Chiffers! A shilling in and I'll raise it a bob. What! All stiff? Take a deal, Rackstraw.' And Oxenford poured the contents of the pool into his palm.page 292
Chiffers swore loudly, but more in admiration than in dudgeon; a glimpse of Oxenford's hand as he threw it down had disclosed its paltriness.
The game, punctuated by drinks, continued with varying fortunes for an hour, then the Swede began to lose steadily. The liquor after his long abstinence had muddled him, and the muddling began to rouse his anger. He got good hands and failed to win with them, now one, now another beating him by the narrowest margin. At last Chiffers dealt him a flush sequence, king high, and Andersen raised the pool a pound. Every one retired but Oxenford, who raised again. The Swede swore savagely and raised the pool two pounds, and Oxenford, after a momentary hesitation, met him and raised it an equal amount. There was a dead silence in the room, the three non - players watching Andersen keenly but paying little attention to the other player. The Swede, his eyes fierce and bloodshot, pulled out three dirty notes and then a fourth—his last—and called. Oxenford smiled ironically and exposed his hand card by card. 'A remarkable coincidence, Mr. Andersen,' he said; 'I beat you by a point.' And he reached out his hand for the pool.
But Andersen, whether suspicious of a trick, or besotted by drink and rage, was before him, and a sudden scuffle ensued. The sound of falling chairs and breaking glasses brought the hotel - keeper hurriedly from the rear of the house. His quick eye took in the scene, and with judgment born of experience he at once ranged himself on the side of the four men who were endeavouring to throw Andersen to the ground. The Swede, a powerful page 293man at any time, now raged and fought like a madman, but in the end numbers prevailed, and he was forced backwards on to the verandah and hurled incontinently to the beach, his head, as he fell, striking heavily against a post used for mooring boats at high water.
For a few minutes he lay stunned, then raised himself to his knees. The house was closed and in darkness, but he had already forgotten it, and with it the events of the last few hours. His dazzled brain had returned to the earlier part of the evening, and he imagined himself still peering through the stems of the tree ferns at the home of his enemy. But with this difference, that his mood had changed, darkened, assumed a murderous quality. It seemed that now he learned his wife's treachery for the first time. All the repressed doubts and forebodings of the past few months rose up and took concrete shape in his mind. He had toiled and struggled and denied himself in vain. Every hour in which he had conceived himself drawing nearer to her had only served to cement the bond between her and that other man. And with the thought of him the smothered fire that had revealed itself on occasion in fierce flashes of physical effort glowed into violent flame. He rose to his feet and looked savagely about him. A strong breeze blew off the river, bringing refreshment and with it a half remembrance. The slate-black waves rolled in, broke into phosphorescent ridges, and spread themselves in sheets of pale flame across the sands. He watched them dizzily, and slowly there came to him a clearer understanding of his whereabouts. He remembered coming to the township, the taste page 294of liquor followed by some dim unpleasantness. What it was precisely he could not recollect, but that it had some connection with Beckwith he felt assured.
He scaled the sea wall on to the road, looked frowningly at the closed door of the hotel, and went his way back through the silent township up the long ascent into the bush. As he came, so he returned, gathering impetus as he went, conscious of nothing but the black impulse of hatred that drove him. Yet he had formed no plan of action. Drink and the thirst for vengeance had stormed and carried the enfeebled ruins of his better nature; he went forward blindly to do their bidding.
At the cutting on the hill face below the last steep ascent he paused, as he had paused earlier in the night, and looked across the great hollow to the encompassing hills. It wanted yet an hour of dawn; nevertheless, in one direction, there was a faint glow in the sky, radiating upwards, and gradually gaining in intensity. The night and all within it never mistake the advent of the dawn. Come she concealed in cloud and storm or draped in clinging mists, ere yet her foot has reached the threshold, she is known and acclaimed, and all dwellers in the open—plant and beast and man—know the expectancy that creeps into the face of night when the immortal event is at hand. But now, beneath that increasing radiance, the earth lay still and unresponsive, the wind breathed in fitful blasts as of old, nothing stirred in the rocked branches; and presently over the hill, red and distorted, in her last quarter, came the creature of the night—the moon. And with her, as though an page 295evil influence distilled from her into the mind of the solitary watcher, came for the first time a distinct and definite purpose.
The Swede felt hurriedly in his pockets, clutched something in his hand, and with a laugh, like the cry of an animal that sees its prey in sight, began the ascent of the hill. In a few minutes he had reached the summit and entered the clump of bush which sheltered Beckwith's house.
The sea wind came up the river, spread itself in the hollow, swept roaring up the hillsides and was gone. The night on its passing became deadly still, not a leaf stirred. So pronounced was the silence that the sudden cracking of a twig assumed extravagant portentousness. Then, again, with all the vigour and freshness of its long journey across the Pacific came the breeze, a whisper, a flood, an ocean of sound. But with its passing arose a roar mightier than its own, a complex sound; an infinite assemblage of diverse noises, shrieking, cracking, rending, tearing—a note of majesty and of horror. And with it the sky lightened, appeared to close in, to shut down, forming, as it were, a roseate chamber in the night within whose luminous walls titanic shadows fled hither and thither, assisting at the birth of some awe-inspiring event. For awhile the doomed bush stood darkling, expectant; then from the midst of it the monster the night had hatched sprang forth gorgeous, triumphant. With an unholy joy he danced and bounded above his prey, tossing his radiant locks to the four quarters of heaven. In his tremendous presence the bush was dwarfed, shrank all at once into insignificance. For here in his naked glory leapt the earliest and greatest page 296of the primeval gods, more ancient than life, older than the earth and stars, the Creator, the Destroyer. Again, this time unmarked in the hubbub, the wind rolled up the river floor, paused in the valley, renewed itself, and swept with wide pinions the faces of the hills. With an eagle's swoop it seized the glittering Fire-god, bore him back, hurled him hither and thither, tore at his flaming hair, scattering it broadcast through the sky. For awhile it seemed that the battle must go to the wind, the fiery monster withdrew, lay hidden, roaring angrily in the dry heart of the woods; then insidiously he stretched forth his glittering arms, first one, then another, and locking the shuddering trees in an irresistible embrace, sprang once again erect. In an instant the whole bush from edge to edge became a seething, rocking mass of flames.
Then, insignificant no longer, transfigured rather beyond all living possibilities of loveliness, the bush stood revealed to its centre. It became less a fire than an incandescence, waxing in brilliance to the point when, as it seemed, it must perforce burst into indistinguishable flame. Every leaf and twig of that fairy forest was wrought and hammered in virgin gold, every branch and trunk was a carved miracle of burnished copper. And from the golden leaves to the golden floor, floatingly or swiftly, there fell an unceasing rain of crimson flame petals, gorgeous flame fruits. Depth after depth stood revealed, each transcending the last in loveliness. And as the eye sought to penetrate those magic interiors there seemed to open out yet farther vistas, beyond belief beautiful, as of the streets of a city page 297incorruptible, walled and towered, lost in the light of a golden, incomparable star.
In the face of that vision of glory the cry rang out with all the ineptitude and inappropriateness of the human weakling. On one side the titanic forces of nature, inexorable, eternal; on the other the man, frail of body, the creature of an hour, matching himself against them.
Sheltering his face from the insufferable heat, the Swede hammered madly at the solid house-door. At the back, now utterly unapproachable, the kitchen, the roof, and a part of the main wall were already in flames. A few minutes—five at the most—would complete the demolition of the house. To right and left the great trees one after another went off like rockets, the roar of their burning foliage shaking the very earth. A deafening crashing of falling timber came at intervals from the bush beyond.
Frenzied by the continued disregard of his efforts, the Swede turned from the door and rushed full face at one of the windows. Woodwork and glass shivered and splintered at the impact and he rolled bruised and bleeding into the room. Then at last sounds of movement arose in the house itself, and Beckwith, horror struggling with sleep in his eyes, came through a doorway to the right of the house.
He stood still, staring at his companion. 'You, Andersen! Save the boys! For God's sake save the boys! Quick—at the back!'
Like a man demented he turned and rushed back the way he had come.page 298
Andersen darted into the hall and set wide the door; dense clouds of smoke were rolling forward from the back of the building. The first room he tried was empty. He dashed his fists into his eyes to rid himself of the scalding smoke, and penetrated farther along the passage.
Was that a human sound, faint and smothered yet articulate, rising above the roaring pandemonium without?
The Swede made a final rush, found a door, opened it, and stumbled, half suffocated, into clearer air. Through the window the light of the blazing forest poured as bright as day, but every pane of glass was cracked and splintered by the terrific heat. On a broad bed in one corner sat his eldest boy, sobbing aloud and monotonously shaking his three sleeping brothers. 'They won't wake, father,' he said piteously; 'and this is the end of the world.' Andersen caught them up in his arms, bedclothes and all, but the weight was beyond even his strength, and he set the eldest boy down. 'I kom back, Sven,' he said, looking into the child's eyes.
'Let me come with you, father; I can walk.'
'Ach, you can't walk on the burning floor; you got no boots, my poor one. You be a goot boy. I swear to mine Gott, I kom back.'
'Oh, father, take me with you now! You will never come back you never did come back.'
The Swede looked through the window into the heart of the hell without. 'Hear me, Christ Jesus,' he said hoarsely; 'dis I leave here is mine eldest sohn. With you I leave him.'
Again he caught the three boys in his arms and dashed down the passage on to the verandah. The page 299left side of the house was already in flames, and forks of light darted at him as he ran. Beckwith took the children from him and hurried with them back to the road, and once more Andersen turned to the burning building.
Whatever it had been before, it was an act of sublime heroism now. Over the roof the flames were pouring in a living sheet that in a few minutes must envelop the whole house. From the passage, as from the mouth of a tunnel, the red smoke rolled acrid and insufferable. The Swede gathered himself, and with his arms before his face dashed through flame and smoke to the room. He seized the boy, rolled him in the counterpane, and again turned to the exit. Nor was he an instant too soon, for even as he fled the flames broke through the partition walls and wrapped the right side of the house as the left in a cyclone of fire.
Choking, scorched, half blinded, he reached the verandah and leapt down. He saw a group of persons across the road, and Beckwith hurrying forward to meet him. All around the scene was brilliantly illuminated, he could make out the approaching man's face as clearly as if it were midday. And even as he caught sight of him he saw him pause and his face stiffen in sudden horror. Then he became aware of a stupendous roaring, of a dazzling light above, behind,—where exactly he knew not—and of voices calling to him warningly, supplicatingly, despairingly, from the group on the road. Of what was happening he had no knowledge, but in that instant there came to him an inspiration, and he acted on it. Drawing back his arms as he ran he hurled the boy forward full into page 300Beckwith's breast. It was a feat of tremendous strength, such as none but a frenzied man would have attempted or succeeded in performing. And as the child left his arms there sprang up all around him a great and dazzling glory as of the kingdom of heaven opened. For an instant he gazed into it, knew it as his heritage, and in that knowledge passed into eternal sleep.
But the agonised group on the road saw only the horror and splendour of the falling tree.