The Toll of The Bush
Chapter XXXII Together
Chapter XXXII Together
Eve was on her feet by the time he reached her. Her face was deathly pale. 'Is the road impassable?' she asked at once.
'For the horse, quite.' Geoffrey possessed himself of the reins of the plunging animal despite a movement on the girl's part to resist the attention.
'And it is not possible to turn back? Then what is to be done with the horse?'
Geoffrey looked round and shrugged his shoulders. 'Freedom is the only chance for him, Miss Milward.'
'I was married this morning,' she said quickly.
Geoffrey removed the saddle and bridle and turned the horse loose. He made no comment, nor did he look at her as he said brusquely, 'Where do you wish to go?'
'I was on my way to Mrs. Gird's, but if that is impossible——'
'Mrs. Gird's is as possible as anywhere else from here. Wherever we go we have only the alternatives of the bush or the fire. You shall say which it is to be.'
'How did you get here yourself?'page 372
Geoffrey pointed up the bank. 'Return that way, however, is no more possible than it is by the way you have come.'
The girl stood silent. The horse after snuffing the wind had entered the bush and was breaking his way noisily through the undergrowth.
'Show me the way then,' she said at last.
He took a step forward and paused. 'There is no way, and I know the direction no better than yourself. It is best you should understand that clearly. The bush is thick and rough, and there may be difficulty in getting through.'
'You have said there is no alternative.'
'I was wrong—there is one. We can stay here on the chance that the fire will burn itself out before it reaches us. When there is a certainty that it will not we can take to the bush.'
'By that time we shall probably be in darkness.'
'Yes, that is inevitable.'
'Then let us go now while we have the day-light.'
Geoffrey turned and led the way into the jungle. For all his set face there was the glow of an Indian summer in his heart. To him and not to her husband was given the blessed privilege to help her in her hour of need, and if the moments of their companionship were destined to be few, they should at least be unforgettable while life lasted. Yet he moved forward in silence, only occasionally pausing to hold aside some obstacle from her path or to assure himself that she was close behind him.
At first the bush was intersected by cattle tracks running in all directions, most of them formed during the winter when the soft roads were all but page 373impassable, and by taking advantage of these he hoped either to strike the road or to arrive in the vicinity of the Girds' section. But in this idea he had reckoned without the fire, which, having crossed the road at several intervening points, was slowly eating its way into the dark unvisited depths. Time after time they were forced from the direct course and pushed farther back into the forest.
Not every man born in a bush country becomes a good bushman, and to many a long-time dweller in cities has it fallen in time of need to demonstrate that the faculty of direction is as much a gift as that of mathematics. But Geoffrey Hernshaw was not of these, nor did he possess the long experience which might serve in the absence of the finer quality. So long as they kept to the tracks, even though they were those of mere beasts, their case was not hopeless, but in the confidence that he moved in the right direction, and tempted, as many a poor victim has been before him, by a stretch of country easier than the track seemed to afford, he made the fatal mistake of attempting to break fresh ground in the jungle. Then, as it were a net spread for their feet, the great mysterious forest closed silently upon them.
It was long ere they discovered it, and meanwhile their progress increased in difficulties and deviations. At first the girl resisted the proffered assistance of her companion. She had pinned up her riding-habit, and though suffering more inconvenience than the man, her physical strength and experience in many a bush ramble served her now in good stead. Yet his assistance was at times inevitable. Twice with trembling fingers he extricated her skirt from the page 374spines of the tataramoa1; once she gave him an icy-cold hand in stepping from one moss-grown trunk to another; and once she allowed him to lift her down a steep rock in a ravine, and then he was aware of the rapid beating of her heart and the extreme pallor of her face.
'Is it peace between us, Eve, at last?' he asked.
'Yes,' she said, and stood still, looking at him with strange eyes.
When all is said as to the mistakes of those first few hours, there remains the distraction of their thoughts to account it may be for everything.
The inevitable moment arrived at last. With great difficulty they ascended the other side of the ravine, only to find a bush denser and gloomier than that they had quitted. Geoffrey looked thoughtfully around him—at the matted growths, the darkening sky.
'I confess I am at fault here,' he said lightly enough.
Eve looked neither to the right nor the left, she stood patiently waiting, her face absolutely expressionless.
'What is your idea of our course?' he asked suddenly.
'Between those two palm-trees,' she replied at once.
'Really? I should have thought exactly the opposite.'
'Go on then,' she said.
'No, no. We have had enough of my bushmanship.'
He turned in the direction she had indicated and page 375began to force a slow passage through the dense growths. The ground rose gradually, and in the end culminated in a ridge whence a glimpse of the surrounding country was obtainable. It was no more than a glimpse, a few acres of tree tops, a narrow ribbon of darkening sky, with a segment of lurid cloud low down on the horizon. Not a leaf stirred, not a bird sang, an appalling loneliness held the scene. Even as they gazed a star twinkled forth, then another. Night was setting out his lamps in the ocean of space.
Whatever thoughts may have passed through the man's mind in the moments of gazing, they found no expression in his voice.
'Do you wish to go on?'
'It is impossible to go on.
'There is nothing to be done but wait for the daylight.'
For the first time her voice showed signs of unsteadiness, and he turned quickly towards her; she was still gazing at the remote cloud.
'The night will be long and probably cold,' he said in matter-of-fact tones. 'If you will sit down, I will light a fire and find you some protection.'
She obeyed in silence, and he busied himself in collecting firewood, of which an abundance lay scattered around the little opening. Soon from that island in the ocean of vegetation there arose a slender pillar of smoke that brandished itself against the stars and was lost in the growing darkness. Through the heights above went a faint whisper like the sweep of a garment. Remote at first, scarcely perceptible to the ear, it grew rapidly in page 376volume, the leaves turned themselves softly in the air, vibrating expectantly. Swiftly accumulating, the river of melody swept onward until the surrounding forest rocked and danced with a weird frenzy in the embrace of the first wind of night. A few minutes later a second gust followed, and after a further interval a third, then all was still.
'Will you come to the fire?'
Even in the shelter of the forest the night air struck chill. The girl rose with a shiver and followed him. He had cut some palm leaves and plaited them into a sort of screen, against which he had piled a heap of dry fern fronds.
'That is the best I can do,' he said. 'I am afraid you will suffer some inconvenience, but no more than can be avoided. The screen is on the weather-side. I will see that the fire does not go down during the night.'
She looked at his preparations but made no motion to avail herself of them.
'It is unfortunate,' he added after a moment, 'that my companionship should be forced upon you, Mrs. Fletcher, but I will endeavour to remind you of it as little as possible.'
Had he been watching her where she stood in the red of the firelight he would have seen her wring her hands with a despairing gesture, but still no word escaped her.
'I have brought you an incredible distance in the wrong direction,' he went on with the same biting calm; 'probably it would be impossible to convince you that I have not done so intentionally—nevertheless, such is the fact.'page 377
Then she raised her eyes and looked at him—looked at him long and reproachfully. 'Hate me if you must,' she said in a low voice; 'I have earned your hatred, but do not think it needs your cruelty to make me suffer.'
He drew back sharply, as a man withdraws who finds himself unexpectedly on the verge of a precipice. When he again approached the fire her figure was almost indistinguishable among the fern.
'Eve,' he called softly.
The girl moved and sat up.
'I had forgotten I have some food in my pocket. Are you hungry?'
'No, but I could drink.'
He unstrapped his water-bottle and, kneeling down, held it up between her and the light. 'There is not much,' he said; 'and if we are many hours in the bush to-morrow, you may need it more than you do now. Does that seem cruel?'
'Then give me just a mouthful.'
He complied and watched her as she eagerly drained the small metal cup. 'Now another,' he suggested.
Eve declined resolutely, and passed him the little vessel. The hands that held it were icy cold, and he possessed himself of them and held them with some force between his own.
'Why are you like this? The night is not so cold. Are you in pain—in fear? Tell me.'
Slowly, yet forcibly, she extricated her hands one after the other from his grasp; but her manner showed no resentment—hardly, indeed, feeling of any kind.
'Have you no speech for me?' he asked bitterly.page 378
'Is our separation such that even circumstances like these are unable to span it?'
Still she was silent.
He rose and stood looking down. A log on the fire fell in, suffusing her face with light. 'Is it in your mind that some sort of explanation is due between us?' he asked.
'Yes,' she said.
'Will it come before we part?'
'If you insist.'
'And if we never part?'
She looked up, and in her eyes was the same unreadable expression he had seen in them in the ravine hours before. That was all the answer she gave him; nor was there any further interchange of speech between them until the morning.
For Geoffrey the night was spent in attending to the fire, his labours broken by brief snatches of rest that never lapsed into complete unconsciousness. He had tasted no food since the early morning, and hunger conspired with cold and anxiety of mind to keep him waking. That they were now aware of the direction in which the settlement lay counted for little; for if they had been unable to strike the road when close to it, what chance had they of doing so when separated by two or three miles of untracked forest? Little, indeed! yet the attempt must be made and persevered in—must be made, too, possibly without water, and with very inadequate supplies of food. The absence of water constituted, indeed, the greatest threat. During the fight with the fire, 'water' had been the chief cry of the workers; and he knew that the forcing of a passage through the bush was a task little, if any, less arduous.page 379
How was it possible the girl could endure such hardships?
Yet with the coming of the light these gloomier anticipations vanished, and the thought of the long and intimate companionship with the woman he loved which was destined to be his filled his mind with a great unreasoned happiness.
In the first gray light Eve sat up. A tinge of colour had returned to her cheeks, and a greater serenity seemed to dwell in her eyes.
Geoffrey produced his supplies and began quietly to explain the situation. 'Fortunately,' he concluded, 'Lena has generous ideas as to what constitutes a mid-day snack, so things are not quite so bad as they might be. The liquid department, however, is in other case, and there is where the shoe is likely to pinch before long.'
Eve listened in silence. 'Very well,' she said, when he had concluded; 'if you will divide one of the sandwiches between us, we will eat it before we start. As for the water, we will take it when we must.'
'I'm afraid you have not been listening very attentively,' he returned quietly. 'I endeavoured to explain beyond possibility of mistake that these things were for you, wholly and solely, and that I have no idea, immediate or remote, of sharing in them.'
'Then put them away,' said the girl, her eyes flashing. 'Before I descend to a vileness like that, may I die a thousand deaths.'
'But you cannot surely be serious? Consider our probable disparity in powers of endurance. There can be no fair partnership where one page 380person is called upon to endure more than the other.'
She rose to her feet. 'Are you ready?' she asked finally.
He looked at her in perplexed reflection. There was a semblance of the old sunny smile he knew so well lurking in the depths of her eyes, and that more than anything convinced him that it was useless to continue the argument.
Before starting again on their journey, Geoffrey examined the scene long and carefully. 'If we can reach that big kauri,' he said presently, indicating a tree a quarter of a mile away, 'and then keep to the side of the hill, every step must take us in the direction of the settlement. I can see no better landmark than that.'
For upwards of two hours they searched the bush in vain, and long ere those two hours elapsed their sense of direction was again obscured. Trees of every other description there were in countless numbers, but of kauris apparently none.
'We have been keeping too close in,' Geoffrey decided at last. 'We must try farther afield.' And they pushed on with the idea of widening their circle of explorations. The third hour was nearly spent before their search was rewarded.
'I see it!' Eve cried suddenly; 'there below you.' And in a few moments they stood by the huge tawny barrel of the King of the Woods.
He stood, as is the manner of his kind, in royal isolation from the remainder of the forest; so magnificent in his suggestions of strength and eternal youth that, for a moment, the pair stood still, forgetful of self, in that mute reverence which page 381the mighty works of Nature must for ever arouse in the heart of man.
'It is lower down the hill than I thought,' Geoffrey said at last. 'However, our course should be simple; we have only to keep to the same level, and the trend of the spur must bring us to the road.'
'If only we could find some water!' Eve said, seating herself under the tree.
Already the demands on the bottle had drained it of its contents, and every creek they had so far come to had been dry. Geoffrey looked at her uneasily and then down the slope.
'There should be water in the gorge,' he said. 'I can try while you sit here and rest yourself.'
The girl sprang at once to her feet. 'If there is water, we will rest beside it—together.'
What evil lurked in the words to cloud his eyes with cold suspicion? 'Are you in fear that I will desert you?' he asked.
For a moment her eyes blazed passionately, then she turned away with cold indifference. 'Go, then,' she said.
But in an instant he was at her side, had snatched her hand and carried it to his lips. 'God forgive me! God forgive me! But try to conceive the miracle your presence here is to me. For months I have lain under the lash of your scorn. I, who would have died to save you an instant's suffering. Eve! Eve! there is not a drop of blood in my body that does not worship you. Life and death have no torments that can blot out the love I feel for you. Look up, my dear one, look up and tell me, however it may have been in the past, that now and for ever you trust me.'page 382
The face she raised to his glowed with an indescribable radiance. 'Now and for ever!' she said, and gave him her other hand.
So for awhile they stood in all but perfect understanding. And over them the kauri spread his leafy screen. Rooted in the centuries, he had watched through a thousand generations of man the fleeting shadows on the forest floor. And still they came and went.
The journey to the bottom of the gorge was made together, and together with the subsequent ascent, it proved the most arduous task they had yet encountered. Every foot of the way was a struggle with the dense vegetation that rioted in these dark and humid depths, where even the fiercest sun-ray was powerless to penetrate. Tangles of supple-jack, declivities of bare rock, fallen trees buried in filmy ferns blocked their way at every curn. And when at length they reached the pit of the gorge, where only the shade-loving palm had the heart to grow luxuriantly, they found that the long drought had penetrated even here, and the bed of the creek was dry.
Then, exhausted, they sat down on the rocks, which in the winter time were covered by a foaming torrent, and looked despairingly at one another.
1 A species of bramble.