The Toll of The Bush
Chapter IX The Red Line in the Ledger
Chapter IX The Red Line in the Ledger
It was Major Milward's custom to spend an hour or so of every morning in the office, when all matters of importance in connection with the estate were brought before him. Sandy had claimed that the real management of affairs was in his hands, and though there was a certain justification for this, it did not take Geoffrey many days to discover that the master mind belonged in fact to the head of the household. He was astonished at the clearness of judgment with which the Major dissected a commercial problem, and the far-reaching grasp of its possibilities which seemed to be present a few moments after the subject was first mooted. Nothing could exceed his keenness and shrewdness in entering into any speculation which seemed to promise profitable returns—unless it might be the laxity he displayed in pressing for his own after the venture had succeeded. Major Milward was above all things a companionable and good-tempered man so long as he did not meet with wilful or prolonged opposition. But there was something in his shaggy brows and bright blue-gray eyes which was cal-page 91culated to impress strangers with the belief that here was a man with whom it might be dangerous to take liberties. Those who knew him well needed no such outward indication to be similarly convinced.
Geoffrey found himself liking his employer better every day, and whether or no this good feeling was reciprocated, it is certain that the Major appeared to take pleasure in the young man's society, dropping in at the store at other than his accustomed times, and allowing himself to be defeated at the chess table with perfect placidity. Sandy could have assured Geoffrey that there was no more certain sign of his father's goodwill than that.
One morning, a few weeks after the event recorded in the last chapter, Major Milward entered the office at the customary time. Usually the cigar between his teeth was the only thing he carried, but on this morning he had what appeared to be an old account book under his arm, which he placed beside him as he took his seat at the writing-table. It was mail day, and a little packet of correspondence lay waiting attention.
'Anything fresh?' the Major asked musingly, as he glanced through the first letter.
'There is one note from a man called Wadham, who has a kauri bush for sale.'
'Ah!' said the Major eagerly; 'what's he say?'
Geoffrey found the letter and laid it in front of his employer.
'"Sorry to have to let go … kauri getting scarcer … twice the money two or three years' time,"' read the Major in snatches. 'H'm! Hope so. "About three-quarters million feet … easily page 92got out." Oh yes; write and tell him we'll take it if he halves the fire risk until we start cutting.'
'I suppose in that case we should fix a date when the cutting will begin,' Geoffrey suggested.
'He will probably think of that,' said the Major drily; 'and we'll let it stand over until he does. About the price—Sandy will tell you what it's worth.'
The Major returned to the letter he had been reading. Presently he said: 'I see Hogg writes that the lease will expire in fifteen months' time, and he asks with Howell's consent for a transfer to himself for ten years at the same rental.'
'Yes, sir, what reply shall I send to that?'
Major Milward referred to the index of the old account book and turned up a page. 'Just come here,' he said.
Geoffrey went round behind his employer's chair and looked over his shoulder.
'What do you make of it?' the Major asked after a moment.
'I take it to be a loan account for £480, on which there is £75 owing as interest.'
'That's the position,' the Major said, nodding approval. 'Write and tell him that when he has discharged arrears of interest on that loan and made a reduction in the capital amount, I shall be prepared to consider his application for this lease.'
'Is the rent account satisfactory?' Geoffrey asked.
'Yes, the rent is paid through another channel. That was the money you received from Howell a fortnight ago. Hogg is a sub-tenant.'
Geoffrey made a note of his instructions while page 93the Major finished the remainder of the letters. Then the latter turned again to the old account book.
'I should like you to go through this,' he said, running the leaves through his fingers with a lingering touch, 'and draw out a statement of what is owing in each case. You will find a number of accounts ruled off with a red line and those you can disregard. I have either been paid, or I am satisfied I shan't be, or I am content not to be. I should like a list of the others, but any time will do, and there is no hurry for a week or so.'
'Very good, sir.'
The Major rose, walked idly across the office and stood musing in the doorway.
'Everything satisfactory?' he asked finally.
'I think so,' said Geoffrey, a little puzzled.
'Don't feel bored out of existence? Satisfied with the money you are getting?'
'No to the first question, and yes to the last,' Geoffrey replied.
'There was a time,' the Major said, 'when I never saw a ship cast off for the old land but I wanted to be on board. Ever felt like that?'
'I have, often, but not now.'
'When you feel the craving return upon you and you are convinced that there is no place like England and no happiness away from it, tell me so, will you?'
'I will,' said Geoffrey, puzzled.
The Major nodded, seemed on the point of continuing the conversation, but finally departed without further speech.
Geoffrey sat at his desk with the pen arrested in page 94his hand. That instinct of return, which man shares with all migratory creatures, and which years of restraint can deaden but never kill, lay for the time wholly hidden from feeling by the one passion powerful enough to subdue it. There had been a time when, had he yielded to the intense desire that possessed him, he would have taken the first boat available: when the very name of England filled his heart with a rapture such as the lover finds in the name of his sweetheart. All the while it had been in his power to gratify the longing had he so chosen. Of the many letters that reached him from his uncle and his cousins not one failed to speak of his return as otherwise than a more or less immediate event. Things had prospered greatly with his uncle. The Boer war, which had brought sorrow and suffering to thousands, had brought wealth to him, and in this increased prosperity he desired that his nephew should return to share. Mr. Hernshaw refused to entertain the idea that Geoffrey would settle permanently in the new land, but he offered to buy and stock a small farm for Robert, or to provide the capital necessary to carry on operations on a place already selected. This offer led to a species of compromise, by virtue of which and pending any ultimate decision the brothers drew on their uncle for £150 a year. This until his coming to the station had been the whole of their income, and it was easily absorbed in the expenses of living and the demands made on them by their section. It was not that Geoffrey was indifferent to money, or the ease and comfort it provides,—having been reared in comparative luxury it was next to impossible that he should be so,—but he had a feeling that before page 95he could accept anything more from others he must first prove his ability to support himself by his own efforts. This—whether the incentive to it were pride or a desire to test his efficiency once for all by matching his strength against the world—was, he told himself, the venture which had drawn him from England.
Something of this passed through Geoffrey's mind as he sat listening to Major Milward's retreating footsteps. He wondered whether his employer's last words had been prompted by good-natured sympathy, or did they veil a knowledge of the facts of the case, and, if so, how was that knowledge acquired? 'When you are convinced that there is no place like England and no happiness away from it.' Had the word 'Wairangi' been substituted for 'England,' the answer must have been 'now'; for the place where love dwells is the only spot more desirable than that where we were born and bred.
Geoffrey's thoughts drifted easily from the father to the daughter. He reviewed the occurrences of the past two months, recalling every conversation, every chance word and expression of his beloved. At one moment it seemed impossible that the girl should be unconscious of his feelings; at the next—when he recalled the frank serenity of her manner—it seemed equally impossible that she should be aware. Could any girl be unconscious of the meaning of certain little speeches, hovering on the borderland of a declaration, such as love had drawn from him on occasions? He thought of her clear eyes, and admitted it might be so. He thought of her momentary silences, and hoped for page 96the best. There had been something in her looks at times—he recalled the momentary heart-shock of finding her alone with Mr. Fletcher, almost instantly annihilated by the radiant smile which had welcomed his arrival. If ever there were welcome for a man in a girl's eyes, it was in Eve's at that moment. But perhaps it was not the man but the interruption that was welcome. Of course Fletcher was in love with her. Possibly he was on the eve of a proposal at that very instant, and if the proposal were un-welcome anything likely to avert it would have been as radiantly received,—a cow, for example. Geoffrey laughed and frowned at the same instant. He thought of Mr. Fletcher with misgivings. Not that he considered it likely that the clergyman would prove a dangerous rival, but on account of the power he possessed to create mischief if he chose. As it was, there was an element of difference in his relations with Eve which had not existed previous to Mr. Fletcher's arrival. For some occult reason, the fiercest heart-burnings grow out of and accumulate round a religious disagreement. It would seem that just at that point where reason becomes powerless she makes the most obdurate fight to retain her supremacy. The man who in one breath will tell you that religion is a matter of belief and not of reason, will in the next educe every argument reason can provide to convince you that belief itself is a matter of reason; and thus, with growing anger in its participants, a religious argument will whirl round in a circle like the fracas of a pair of bantams fighting in the dust. Fortunately the religious difference between Eve and Geoffrey had so far been of an impersonal character. What-page 97ever feelings actuated the girl, the man's love kept all bitterness out of his side of the discussion, and probably Geoffrey was right in concluding that no taint of chagrin had clung to either party as a result of their mutual inability to convince. It was a great deal, however, to expect that this would continue to be so, and it was in the possibility of a coldness arising from this source, and in the growing influence of Mr. Fletcher, that Geoffrey recognised his most dangerous obstacles.
Geoffrey dipped his pen in the ink and automatically completed the task on which he had been engaged; then he sat down at the table and opened the old account book.
It began a long way back in point of time, and some of the earlier entries were veritable historical curiosities, the value of which was occasionally enhanced by a brief note written in red ink at the foot of the page.
'To Capt. John Shewn. Master mariner. On the hull of the schooner Martha, £250 at 8%.'
Interest appeared to have been forthcoming for two years. Then came a note in red ink, so faded as to be hardly decipherable:—
'Martha wrecked on the bar, June 12, 1852. Captain and all hands lost. Poor Jack Shewn!'
Lower down the page was a column of small amounts, debited to E. S., £5. Ditto £3, etc. etc. The account was closed with a red line.
Geoffrey turned the pages idly.
'To Joe Mallow, without interest, £100 to equip his boys for the West Coast goldfields.'
This appeared to have been repaid, but the Mallow account ran for two or three pages and page 98concluded with a considerable debit. At the foot of the first page were the words:—
'Mallows said to have done very well at the diggings. Bought a schooner and loaded her with goods, chiefly agricultural implements—but also, it is said, large quantity of gold dust—and set sail for the north. Schooner sighted off Hokitika September' 54. Never seen again.'
A little farther on was an account for £50 discharged by a contra of ten tons of gum. Gum was of very little value in those days. The loans on timber ran into very large amounts, and Geoffrey was pleased to see that they nearly always resulted profitably. The loans on real estate were more difficult to estimate, and it was the exception when any commensurate amount appeared on the credit side of the ledger. More frequently there was some such note as: 'Gave this bit for school-ground,' or less explicit, 'Church stands here,' or 'Allowed the family to continue at nominal rent on account of my friendship with the father.' But even in this last case there was nothing to show that the nominal rent had ever been paid. More often than not the red line went steadily across the page, and closed the matter up for good. It is not always in a man's ledger that he appears at his best, but Geoffrey found his heart warming as he read.
But he was fated to make a discovery that should bring the Major's business peculiarities home to him at his own door. In his idle turning of the leaves he came to a place where the pages adhered together, and absently lifting the paper-knife he divided them at the bottom and then at the top. Not until he had done so did it occur to him that page 99the sheets had been intentionally sealed against him, and at the same moment his eye fell on his father's name. There was a sum of over £300 to the debit of the account, and not one penny to the credit. Beneath was the note:—
'I wish with all my heart that Mrs. Hernshaw had let me do more to help her. As good and noble a woman as ever lived.'
The red line crossed the page with more than its usual emphasis.
Stung as he was in his pride by the discovery of this unexpected obligation, Geoffrey yet felt the moisture gather in his eyes at the tribute to the mother he scarcely remembered.
The sound of an approaching footstep caused him to close the volume, and Sandy came in booted and spurred from his customary bi-weekly visit to the branch store on the coast.
'Did you ever look through this?' Geoffrey asked, indicating the account book.
Sandy opened his eyes and whistled. 'No,' he said; 'that's tapu.'1
'Some day,' Geoffrey said, 'and may it be far distant, you will read it, my boy; and take my word for it now, who have read many books, that you will never twice read anything quite so noble and so foolish as your father's private ledger. And if it be possible to pay a man's nature a higher compliment than that, then I confess I don't know how.'
1 'Tahpoo,' sacred.