The Toll of The Bush
Chapter III Ploughing the Land
Chapter III Ploughing the Land
It was a cloudless August morning, warm in the sun and cold in the shade. The settlement was wide-awake, and a pleasant smell of wood-fires mingled with the fresh breath of the river. The sun had been above the horizon a considerable time, but Mrs. Gird's rooster still proclaimed the fact at intervals, the announcement being received with derision or silent contempt by the birds nearer the river. The Girds occupied the outpost, so to speak, of the little army of pioneers, their section being the farthest from the water and the most densely timbered of any. The rooster might be excused, for there was hardly more than twilight there yet.
Robert had been fishing since daylight and was returning up the track, laden with a large bundle of schnappers. The track rose diagonally through the settlement, cutting it into halves and affording an outlet to the settlers on both sides. It was in fact a continuation of the road followed by the brothers some days before, but though the trees had been cut away to the correct width, it had not yet been formed and—paradoxical as it may appear to the page 26uninitiated—was consequently passable even to a pedestrian. Now the way would be merely a wide track through a dense jungle, again it would open out and disclose a fire-blackened landscape, covered with unsightly stumps, with perhaps a rude slab hut in the midst of it.
Robert's progress had been twice interrupted by morning greetings from neighbouring housewives, and fish being always an acceptable offering he reached the house somewhat more lightly burdened than when he had left the boat. Outside the fence was a team of bullocks in charge of a small native boy, whose striking likeness to Pine at once attested the ownership of the team. Pine himself was in the paddock with Geoffrey, looking at the land to be ploughed. Robert made his way to the door, where he found two persons seated on the doorstep, evidently waiting his arrival. The elder was a fair, blue-eyed girl, named Lena Andersen, while the other, a child of three or four years, Robert judged to be one of her numerous brothers and sisters. The girl was dressed in a flour-bag, from which the brand had not entirely faded, and this, so far as could be judged, was the whole of her costume.
'Well, Lena,' said Robert, 'what's the trouble?'
'Please, Robert, mother says can you spare her some tea till father goes to the store?'
The request was not an isolated one, and the implied promise of return Robert knew to be problematical of fulfilment, but he said 'Yes' cheerfully and went for the tea.
'And mother says,' Lena went on quickly, 'if you could spare her some soap she would do her page 27washing to-day while it's fine; but if not, it doesn't matter till father goes up the river.'
'That's all right, Lena,' Robert said. Then a thought struck him. 'What do you all do when your mother washes the clothes?' he asked.
The girl blushed furiously and backed out of the house. 'That's our business,' she retorted.
Robert seemed staggered at the result of his simple question and hastened to restore amicable relations by a gift of fish from his bundle. 'They're just out of the river,' he said; 'and here's the soap and tea, and I didn't mean to offend you.'
Lena, with downcast eyes, allowed herself to be burdened with the fish and other articles.
'You are sure you don't want any sugar or anything,' Robert asked anxiously, 'till—till your father comes back?'
'No, thank you,' said Lena.
Robert thought he detected a suspicion of a smile at the corner of the girl's mouth and became more cheerful. 'I haven't seen you going to school for the last week or two,' he said.
'I haven't been going,' replied Lena, looking up. 'I've left school—I've passed the sixth standard.'
Robert looked impressed, as he was intended to be. 'I suppose you've read Green's Short?' he asked tentatively.
Green's Short History of the English People was one of the volumes unearthed from the box of books, and Robert was already deep in the perusal of it. He spoke of it as Green's Short, not that he had any idea that there was a Green's Long, but to suggest lifelong familiarity with the work.
'No,' said Lena, puzzled.page 28
Robert smiled a little to himself. 'It's real good,' he said. 'And couldn't they fight! That Black Prince was a good piece. I'll lend it you by and by.'
'Oh, it's history!' exclaimed Lena, curling her lip disdainfully. 'Of course I've learned that, but it wasn't Green's. I know all the kings and queens by heart and all the dates.'
It had never occurred to Robert that there might be more than one history of England, and the possibilities opened up by Lena's concluding words brought him rapidly to his bearings. Still he let himself down as gracefully as possible. 'It's good reading of an evening,' he said lightly. 'That Henry VIII. was a fair terror,' he added.
'He was Defender of the Faith,' said Lena.
Robert looked thoughtful. 'I suppose he was in a way,' he admitted; then he made a dart for firmer ground, 'but he had a terrible lot of wives.'
Lena had nothing to say to this, and Robert, feeling that he had scored a point, wisely changed the subject.
'Geoff's got a rare lot of books, Lena,' he said, following her to the fence. 'When you want something to read, you come to me and I'll find you a stunner.'
Lena made no reply, but when the slip-rail was reached she looked quickly at her companion. 'Thank you for these,' she said, indicating the articles she was carrying; 'but I have a good mind to give you the soap back.'
Robert could make nothing of this remark until considerably later in the day, and by that time Mrs. Andersen's washing was probably on the line.page 29
Pine and Geoffrey were still discussing the ploughing. Pine, having had the piece pointed out to him, had cast his eyes about and found a spot easier of accomplishment, and he was now trying to persuade Geoffrey to select the easier site for the plantation.
'I tink much more betterer dis piece,' he said. 'Why for no?'
'That is the piece I want you to plough, Pine,' Geoffrey said with some exasperation for the fourth time; 'that and no other.'
'If you prough him, by'm-by rain come and wash taters down a hill.'
'No,' said Geoffrey, 'because we intend to nail them in.'
'I tink nail no good,' Pine replied doggedly; 'you want 'em screw.'
'Look here, you beggar, I'm not going to have you capping my jokes; take your bullocks and clear out.'
Pine groaned. 'Where your prough?' he asked.
The plough was got out from under the house, and Pine, after clucking disparagingly around it for awhile, called to the boy to let down the slip-rails.
By the time the porridge was cooked and the fish ready for breakfast, Pine came down carrying the ploughshare. He looked heated, and his mouth was contorted from swearing at the bullocks, which, not having done any ploughing for twelve months, were inclined to disregard the necessity for following a straight line.
'Too many rust your prough,' he said; 'you want to put some more greases on him.'page 30
'Have you had breakfast?' Geoffrey asked.
Pine chewed the cud of an early meal of potatoes, looked at the spread table, and replied in the negative.
'Put on your coat then and sit down. We'll see about the greases by and by.'
Pine did as he was bidden, and having discovered by watching the brothers that porridge was eaten with a spoon—this was after a momentary aberration with a knife and fork—he fell to, first helping himself liberally to sugar, pepper, and salt, the latter condiments being added to show a perfect acquaintance with European customs.
'Seen any more of the Reverend Fletcher?' asked Robert.
'I not seen,' said Pine; 'but my mother's father she seen, and all the people up there very religiously now.'
'Where's that?' Robert asked.
'Up to Wairangi. You know the how-you-call 'Vation Army?'
'That te ferra. My mother's father's people all belonga him dis time. I tink a very good ting dat, p'r'aps not?' he asked.
Robert nodded. 'What do they do?' he asked.
'And how did it all end?'
'By' m-by,' said Pine, 'ol' man do the haka,1 an' while he tance the roof bust up and he fall in the kumara pit. Then when Kanara's bull see, he say, "Aha! Goo' jhob!" and he go away.'
After breakfast the ploughing was resumed, the brothers meanwhile going on with their own work of digging up the vegetable garden. For the next couple of hours the only sounds to be heard were the cracking of the bullock whip and the cries of the driver.
'Cee Hernshaw! Get town, Fretchah! Come here, Mirward! Come here! (with rising inflection) Ah-h! (as the plough ran off). By clikey, Fretchah, you the bad burrock!' Half a minute of silence; then again: 'Cee Hernshaw! Cee Moblay! Get town, Tawperry! Ah-h, Fretchah! Damn! Bloomin'!!!'
A loud whistle from the direction of the road attracted the brothers' attention, and shading their eyes from the sun, they saw a young man on a big bay horse drawn up at their slip-rail.
"Sandy Mil ward,' said Robert, thrusting his spade into the ground and moving off.
1 Native dance; in this case the war dance of defiance.
The visitor was a young man of fair complexion, with gray-blue eyes and light moustache. The eyes were full of observation and humour, but the cheeks and jaw seemed fixed in an inflexible solemnity. A dog was running at his horse's heels, and he had a gun across the saddle in front of him and a net of game swinging from his shoulder. Both he and his horse were a good deal mud-bespattered.
'What brings you to this benighted spot?' Geoffrey asked when they had shaken hands.
'I was in the neighbourhood,' Sandy said, his eyes roaming critically over the section, 'so I thought I might as well look you up. Getting to be strangers a bit, ain't you?'
'I don't know,' said Geoffrey slowly; 'but get off your horse and come in.'
Sandy looked meditatively at his dog, who was running in and out amongst the high fern on the margin of the road. 'I'm looking for a couple of our beasts,' he said. 'I'll go as far as the end of the settlement and then come back.'
There was a whir from the fern where the dog had disappeared, and two cock pheasants whirled up and sailed across the road. Sandy's horse quivered, then stood like a rock, and a couple of shots brought the birds to the ground.
'What's the matter, Geoff?' Sandy asked quickly, as Robert moved off after the dog.
'Anything gone wrong with the boat? It's nearly two months since you were down the river.'
'The boat's all right, I think,' Geoffrey replied. 'I haven't seen it since we came back from Wairangi that time. We do all our travelling on the road.' page 33'How's that?' Sandy asked, standing up in his stirrups to get a better view of the ploughing.
Geoffrey laughed uneasily. 'All my life,' he said, 'I have had a tendency to go with the stream.'
'Well, it runs our way, you know.' Sandy took another good look at the ploughing and chuckled solemnly.
'What is it?' asked Geoffrey, preparing to feel amused.
'Oh, nothing. There's plenty of excitement down our way now,' he said. 'The new parson's making things hum all right.'
'I heard something of it. How are the Major and Miss Milward?'
'Old man's tip-top, barring a bad leg. Eve's pretty well too.'
'Has she been unwell?'
'No,' said Sandy slowly; 'health's all right. 'Tisn't that. Well,'—he broke off, seeing Robert approaching—'I'll see you again directly'; and picking up the reins he rode towards the younger brother. Geoffrey watched him pull up and exchange a word or two with Robert, then they both gazed for a moment or two in the direction of the ploughing; finally Robert came on, bringing the birds with him.
The point about the ploughing which had interested Sandy was the difference in time occupied by Pine in turning over the line on the side where, from the slope of the ground, he was out of sight, and the side where he was in full view of the brothers. The discrepancy seemed to need accounting for, and after Pine had got round the bend Robert ascended the hill to investigate. All along the front slope the bullocks had moved slowly, their page 34heads down, their shoulders set hard into the yoke, but along the back stretch the ground was apparently easier and the team went forward with much greater celerity. Yet when Pine's quick eye caught sight of one of his employers it seemed that the ground was, after all, of a varying texture, for the bullocks all but came to a standstill under the increased strain. Geoffrey probably would have regarded this fact without suspicion, but Robert, not so easily hoodwinked, strolled over and kicked up the turf. Pine brought the team to a stand.
'How you look?' he asked, his eyes rolling.
'Going a bit light, aren't you?' Robert asked.
'That te good proughing,' said Pine confidently; 'if too deep then no good.'
'Then why are you ploughing it deeper the other side?'
'Over the other side where we can see you.'
'That te other side te hill,' Pine explained.
'Your prough no good dis side te hill, no good at all. Where you buy dis prough?'
'If you can plough deep over there you can plough deep here,' was Robert's comment.
Pine looked at the plough and reflected. 'You got some more greases down to your place?' he asked at length.
'Oh, gammon!' said Robert. 'You get along and plough it the same depth all over.'