Hilltop: A Literary Paper. Volume 1 Number 1
The Gods Descend
The Gods Descend
It was forbidden for a long time to tell of the adventure of Mr. Hobes because it was thought a fiction, but because there now lives none who knows what to make of the Gods of the hills, they preserve their mystery,—and the rest of the tale can be told. The scene was Waimarama, in the summer, where dwelt both human beings and Furies. The hero of the piece was Mr. Robes, whom the dwellers called the devil's advocate. Devil's advocate or hero, right or wrong, who knows? No-one has since found out, for the happenings diverted them all and the old feud died.
At first glance he looked like Rumpelstiltskin, but when you looked again you found he wasn't. He was only a small, strange-looking man, with immense over-weighted shoulders, who swung groceries across the counter at you, or bending low over milk cans, flourished the dipper and jammed the lid on with a "Right you are!"
Perched on the hillside at Waimarama his was the only store. The shady front looked out over the bay across the relucent water to where the Picton boat turned around the Snout, and from here Mr. Hobes used to gaze all around his beautiful bay from Shelter Island to the dense bush at the other side, and shrug his shoulders, screw up his nose, and solemnly say: "She'll keep fine for you," or "There's a southerly coming, I bet you," and the sudden gusts and scurrying of clouds would bear him out. But sometimes I thought his certainty must annoy the Gods just as much as his business affairs annoyed his customers, and I suppose in the end they did.
From the sea Waimarama had a brooding beauty. On both sides the hills sloped to the plain, and with more hills at the back it formed a natural theatre of Wagnerian proportions. To the left, and a little distant page 28 was the tallest mountain of all, and because the clouds often sat low in its bush and it was tall and mysterious, it was said that the Furies lived there, and it was called "our mountain" as if to make the unknown more intimate. But although the sunsets and cloud effects were of the same Wagnerian magnificence, in this colossal amphitheatre nothing much had happened. No great deeds had been done here; only gentle thoughts possessed it, and accustomed actions were accompanied by the pleasant rhythm of the seasons. This was so, until in the summer I am describing there came fulfilment in a manner as heroic and unexpected as any forgotten saga. But now, in these hot summer days, the greens became brown, and the clay dust drifting above the road through the pa was the only sign of life.
The heat had stilled most things, but all those who went to the store spent at least ten minutes of every day in becoming uncommonly vexed over the actions of Mr. Hobes. It would not be unreasonable to say that a silent conspiracy of deter-mined residents was directed against him, not because he was malicious, nor consciously defrauded you, but because such a conspiracy was the only reasonable answer to the situation. You were a fugitive from the comforts of your own home, but dependent on an unpredictable muddler for many essentials. Deprivation would mean a primitive fish-and-mussel existence.
All manner of odd things happened and your orders took on miraculous shapes. Beans might become peas and kidneys sausages, and your bread might vanish or multiply suddenly and if as sometimes happened, nothing was left at all, you smiled and said "It's all right, thank you." Oh, the difficulty of it all! With the conservative ways of the storekeepers in the town and the eccentricities of those living at Waimarama, it was no wonder the link was imperfect. And while affairs ran on in this combination of innocence and experience, so continued the conflict from summer to summer with lively persistency, and a certain pleasure was found in anticipating the next outrage.
Yet his next move showed so much imagination that it might have been invented by Daedalus, instead of by a slow-speaking, muscular storekeeper. On New Year Sunday he was going to organise for the first time in Waimarama a great yacht regatta. Yachts from Picton, from the Grove, and from Whatamunga, and pray God it would be a hot day and they'd all be dry and want drinks and ice cream.
His son, Bill, would sink the markers and his wife could sell ice creams on the beach. He would borrow dinghies from the rowing club and a judge's launch flying a red pennant from the Williamsons. And to cap it all—on a moored punt there'd be entr'acte music from the Blenheim Band. If this plan didn't stop all these tiresome arguments and show them he had their interests at heart, well, he'd be Wowed. And what with the holiday-makers from Picton, business would be booming.
"It'll be a big show," he said.
What the residents said when they heard of the 10/- donation towards expenses was simply awful. Jock Finshel was "not interested in yachts." "The old rogue," growled Hercus, but not to his face. Some paid, some didn't. And Henry lobe's great arms swung back and forth as he explained the course, day in and day out, stopping only to charge another threepence for a paper or absent mindedly add up a shaky list of figures.
The Old Year passed. Bonfires blazed on the beach, and up in the store Henry was busy making more ice cream. The buoys were down, the band engaged, and even a pound note had been donated for the first boat round from Picton.
The day dawned coldly and with the grey sky it might have been winter. Odd figures, scarves flying in the wind, dawdled along the beach. By eight o'clock the wind had risen, bringing with it a thick sea-mist from the heads. By nine o'clock and the start from Picton, the mist had reached Dieffenbach, and over at Double Bay the clouds were filling the valleys, rolling towards the beach and the sea as if they, too, would close in and envelop the bay.
Into this half light sailed twenty-two boats. Oilskinned crews watched the wind tear at their sails and some were very sorry they'd come and some who were not sorry now sat huddled and quiet as men on a grave purpose. In Waimarama there was expectation and jollity, and the preliminary tootling of the band, now clambering into dinghies for their floating punt, became mixed with the car horns and the "oohs" and "ahs" page 29 of the children who straddled the bank above. There weren't many people, but you'd have thought there were. Licking ice creams, sitting on running-boards to eat sandwiches, or throwing up a canvas shelter against the rain which it seemed must come, they were so busy doing things that when a drum roll and a tremendous "oom-pah" leapt from the band out in the bay, they jumped, with a "Goodness, what on earth was that?"
To Bandmaster Amberschust, band playing was a serious thing, and Sousa was Sousa even if they were playing on a decorated punt. Perhaps because they were playing so loudly and the hills had taken up the tune, nobody noticed the mist, or if they did, thought it didn't matter. And any minute the yachts would slip past the point to link the beauty of their movements with the patterns of sound.
It wasn't quite as Mr. Hobes had planned, but what with the music, the rush on the shop, and everyone asking, "Can yer see 'em yet?" he was busy himself and now almost ready to go out in the judge's launch. And this was when he looked at the weather. His old Waimarama was really very strange. Had it ever looked like this before? It was blowing like mad and over Blenheim way was a strange and delicate light. The wind would soon be out of hand, and then there'd be capsizes. It mightn't be a bad idea to hold on a while before getting off the next race. Then the launch started and somehow the noise of the engine and the water moving past seemed familiar and steady, and he laughed and wiped his forehead, staring at the top of the mountain, almost at the very place where the Furies were supposed to be sitting.
The band, playing like demons, had just started "Orpheus in the Underworld" when the first thing happened. Old Mrs. Anderson, who had been left high on the hill by her family to watch things, saw the first sail. She stood up and waved her handkerchief, as excited as the watcher on the roof of Agamemnon's palace.
"Ha! Yoo Hoo! Jimmy, here they are. Look!" and Jimmy stopped crab hunting and danced with his bare feet on the rocks.
The judge's launch had seen it, too, and with its load of unhappy, important people, it pitched into the waves, tossing spray right back to the stern, where Henry sat listening to Malcolm Wilkes, the English teacher at the college, a man who was never quite anywhere, but despite his preoccupation, spent long hours sailing in the sounds and many more playing difficult music on the piano. The piano had spoiled him for brass bands.
"A brass band!" he spluttered. 'Out h-here with the yachts, Mr. Hobes. I'd sooner teach poetry to third technical. There comes an end to that, but this is inescapable." He half wished he could poke out the bung from the punt to flood the men and the music. Mr. Hobes, whose feet were no longer part of him but tapping their way through the underworld, couldn't understand it. He remained silent. If Malcolm Wilkes didn't see music in this, then he wasn't going to tell him. He looked at Bandmaster Amberschust, who was hurrying through the difficult bits to reach the safety of the next melody. They played good music all right, but he still didn't say anything.
They both got much wetter, but there wasn't far to go and in a few minutes they'd be anchored. With what misfortune then did the next thing overtake them. Just two more minutes and it wouldn't have mattered. But time meant nothing to the gods in the hills, and unconcerned with the human performance developing before them, in frightful fury they descended and eclipsed it all. A supernal light shone behind the high mountain and the whole of Waimarama was lit up in unearthly radiance. For the last time in the memory of all on that Sunday morning, they could still see the yachts, the launch, and the punt in the gloom. Then the wind dropped as the light faded. The prelude was over.
A squall which can only be described as demonic swept the whole length of the valley and the boats fought it for their lives. The wind came from everywhere and the sails cracked and the centreboards strained. Clinging to supports, little groups looked on the water, at the confusion of the deep. Behind them their picnic papers whirled madly skyward. And together they decided that in this holocaust they could do nothing.
For at such times people remember their homes and their desire to return is matched by their feeling of helplessness when things familiar disintegrate into chaos. Car doors slammed and motors spluttered, as back to Picton trailed the cars. And all the time with an unrepressed hysterical boiling, the page 30 waves tore at the beach, dashing themselves to pieces, while over the bay lightning burst in excited punctuation.
In the punt when the first squall struck, Bandmaster Amberschust and his men were resting. He stowed the instruments and waited for it to end, but with a fearful jerk the anchors gave and the whole of the band, with instruments and uniforms, drifted and wallowed in the decorated punt. We'll have to swim it," he thought, and started to undo his overcoat and loosen his tie. The gaunt trees on the shore looked a long way off.
"Going to swim it, sir?" queried another, and the Bandmaster was just going to say "Yes" when he thought of the instruments.
"No, not yet. I think, think perhaps we'll stick it until the launch takes us off." And, of course, that was what Henry and poor Mr. 'Wilkes tried to do, and the attempt only made things worse, for Mr. Wilkes got one foot on the punt and one foot on the launch and ended up on neither. And Mr. Robes, now very unhappy at so much muddle, climbed on to the punt to help his friend. So there they were, adrift on a punt with the hand, and their launch out of sight in the mist, and the Bandmaster, not knowing where he was going, ordered his men to play, and as the punt blew further to sea, fishers on the rocks heard from the fog snatches of "Waltz Gallante", and "William Tell."
The Gods had descended, but was it all part of their own strange destiny or was it in some curious way a siding with the residents against Mr. Robes? It was hard to say, for both were equally discomfited. The next morning Waimarama looked just the same in the early sun. The returning workers passed the rustling poplars where crickets sang, and more dust rose and hung above the yellow road. But Mr. Hobes and the band were nowhere to be found. The yachtsmen had searched the coast. Mr. Wilkes had quite vanished. On the door of the shop flapped a notice: "Back in ten minutes."
Only the old mountain at the back was different. On this cloudless day when the rest of the sky was the deepest of blues, there hung all about its summit a thick haze as if it must look at the world through a veil and preserve its mystery. For the punt had gone to the straits and there it stayed and there it drifted.
In the afternoon the inter-island steamer on her trip from Wellington, heard the music and was lured to it and found them all sitting on the bottom in great discomfort. She blew her sirens then dropped a rope ladder. By the time the last feather of steam had drifted away, they had climbed to her decks and on she had sailed into the heads to Picton, and here my story ends.