A Maori Maid
Cyril succeeded at length in reaching the bank. He was exhausted with his efforts and he was sick with horror at the fate which had overwhelmed Jake. The face of the wretched stockman haunted him, the eyes, the oath, the wriggling back, the vain writhings were as some revolting nightmare.
For the present, however, he was safe from pursuit, but he was dizzy and faint Yet he could ill afford to rest He staggered to his feet and, missing the track in his first six steps, passed from the grip of the waters to the grip of the bush.
It is strange that grip of the bush. It holds you before you know it. You turn to leave. You retrace your steps a little distance, and behold, the trees, the harmless, beautiful trees you have been so enraptured with, are suddenly alive, are dancing and grinning about you. They mock you, they surround you. You notice one and you plunge forward, certain that it and one beyond it were passed by you as you came. And thus, from tree to tree, you scramble on, half realising, now and again, that the bush has laid hold of you, until, just when you expect to be free and in the open, you find yourself back on the old trail, the trail of the first tree. The grip of the bush has tightened. You are lost.
You realise it I You are wild, you are distraught! Every line of trees seems familiar. On all sides are marks you could swear you remembered. You press page 366on in some direction you feel most confident of. You run, you hurry, you scramble. You take no heed of falls, of scratches, of bleeding hands, of torn clothes. You press on and on; and suddenly you see the sign of a track, the marks where some one has passed, and you find you are back on your old trail, the trail of the path you were sure of. You are lost.
You shriek, you cry out. You coo-ee. You almost beat the empty air as a child might beat it. You curse at the bird that twitters to a branch beside you and flits away. It is happy; and you—you break out into a sweat. You shiver, you are tormented with thirst. You take off your hat, you wipe your brow with your handkerchief, you press your hand over your head, you hold it. It throbs. You are going mad, you may die! Yet that is impossible. You walked from the camp; you can easily walk back. Only you must keep calm. You must keep cool. You must retain your common-sense.
You try to think.
There is no sun to guide you. You can see no scud to tell you north from south. The trees cast no shadows, for under the dense, green canopy all is shade and shadow.
You look at your watch, if perchance you have one that is going, and you start to your feet as you realise the hour. You make careful plans for moving in a straight line and press on. On, on, on, until you are certain of having chosen a wrong direction. You turn and commence to retrace your steps. Presently the track you came by has disappeared. Once again all is strange. Once again all is familiar. You know nothing of where you are; yet you could swear to having seen every tree. The grip of the bush is on you. You are lost.
You stagger to and fro in the gathering dusk. You shriek, you coo-ee, you strike savagely at the great page 367trunks, and vent your wrath upon some slender shrub. And your only answer is an immense silence.
Weary and exhausted you drop under the shelter of some huge totara and sleep. The bush may well grant you that. It has a long sport yet to play with you, and the sport is better whilst reason lasts. It grows frantic and to a quick end when once the mind is unhinged and you are mad. Mad—oh, it's the beginning of the end of the grip of the bush is madness. The madness of exhaustion and hunger; the madness of lost hope; when the hair is matted and strewn with leaves and scraps of lawyer; when the clothes are torn and frayed by the branches and thorned creepers; when the hands are scratched and lacerated; when the legs are swollen and bitten by gnats and midges; when the face is gaunt and blood-stained, and pimples and blotches mark the disregarded onslaughts of the mosquitoes. You laugh, you shriek, you know nothing. The trees are quite, quite alive now—old friends smiling and beckoning and whispering to you. The leaves are women, just beyond your reach; and the breeze brings the rustle of their petticoats and the swish of their skirts. Pretty women, such pretty women. Then suddenly they strike you, your friends—in fun, of course in fun—and they jostle and trip you; and you cuff them and laugh and laugh and laugh at their solemn stupidity. As you pass among them you whistle and sing and shout, and you curse them for their inattention. Suddenly all changes. You are at sea, and the leaves and twigs crackling at your feet are the swish of the waves. You stagger to the rolling of the craft, and the whistle of the tui is the cry of the gull, the rustling of the foliage is the wind sighing in the shrouds. You sing as the sailors have sung to you, songs of the capstan when homeward bound.
Home! The idea is excellent, and you call for a cab; and hoarsely call, and shriek, and curse, for the fool of page 368a cabman with his hansom, which is a shimmering tree-fern, stands away from you in the middle of the road. You leave him, you won't take him. You will walk home, and you rollick along and fumble for the latch-key and wonder if the governor or the mater will hear you —they were dead years ago.
Do you really think thus, you men caught in the grip of the bush? Probably until you are mad. And then——? Who shall say how you think then! The bush knows, the bush has seen it all. It sees all until it sees you stagger and fall, and rise and stagger and fall again, and twist, and pinch at the ferns and moss, and chew, and try with a long jerky try to turn on your side. The grip of the bush has hold of you. You are lost.
A film gathers over your staring eyeballs. Your cheeks sink in, your teeth and gums project. Then as the days go by, the flies grow less, the pigs are no longer hungry, and white bones show through. The grip of the bush has let go of you. You are dead.
Cyril escaped the waters and he escaped the bush, but it was by a small margin. He was lost, and during the afternoon of his escape he wandered and stumbled blindly and hopelessly. During the next day he was too exhausted to travel far. He realised that he had escaped one death for a far more terrible one. He wept, he shrieked, he cried out, he blasphemed, he— prayed. No miracle was worked, as he had almost expected. Hour after hour slipped by and he still stumbled and clambered on in weary, hopeless fashion.
Suddenly he heard a sound—the distant report of a gun. He turned and, setting tree by tree, endeavoured to push on in the direction whence the noise had come. He was to an extent successful. Yet he might easily have failed, fox when night came he saw no signs of human life. Nor could he call. His voice was gone. As it was, the sight of a faint glow, seen through the page 369gathering darkness, lent him life and urged him to one more effort. He struggled on and gradually perceived that he was approaching a camp.
Then a fear possessed him that it was the encampment of the police who were out on his track. He approached stealthily and quietly. He saw by the fire two figures and both silent as though they had heard him. He was unable to clearly distinguish them in the flickering light. Yet after all what did it matter? Better jail than another night alone in the bush. He moved forward and paused as one of the figures stooped and stood up with a gun. Then suddenly the other figure rose for a moment and sat down again. Not before he had time, however, to perceive that it was a woman and therefore not of the police party. He pressed forward and stood by the fire.
Facing him were young Deverell and Ngaia!
He was too weak, too exhausted to speak. He staggered a pace and fell. The girl stepped to him and knelt by his side.
"Archie, he's fainted. Quick, give me your flask."
The spirit took effect. Cyril stirred, opened his eyes and raised himself.
"Ngaia! It's you, Ngaia?"
"Yes, it's Ngaia!"
"I'm starving. For God's sake—something—to eat."
They helped him to the side of the fire. They bathed his hands and face, and cut loose his boots from his swollen feet. They brought him the remains of the pigeons and some cold bush pork and camp bread. They boiled the big billy and made him some tea.
He was ravenous. He ate more like a wild animal than a human being. He slobbered, he gulped, he used his hands and plucked with his teeth.
The food worked a miracle of restoration He swallowed a last long drink of tea, he stretched his page 370limbs and pushed aside the tin plate and pannikin. He was strong again, he was invigorated, he tingled with renewed animation. He drew a deep breath of animal contentment, of physical satisfaction, and he loosened the belt about his paunch another hole.
Ngaia stooped and picked up the remains of the food and the tea-things. Archie took the tin dish and pannikin from her and commenced to wash them in the hot water from the big billy. He had barely spoken a single word to the starved creature who had stumbled into their camp. He had done what was necessary to relieve him and that was all. There was no welcome, there was no pleasure at having met him. It was impossible. The circumstances under which they had parted were far too fresh in Archie's mind and far too horrible. Cyril had insulted Ngaia grossly, lewdly. He had travelled beyond the limits of the pardon of renewable acquaintanceship.
In the bush, as on the great waters, or anywhere where nature is against man and where humanity must turn for help to humanity, all men stand forward without thought of hesitation between other men and their doom. Each and all are God's creatures first, and only afterwards become once more themselves— despised, thieving scoundrels.
What Archie did for Cyril was for pity, was but human, was but of the code of bushmen in their dealings towards each other.
Yet he loathed and detested the man.
When a man has set eyes of desire upon a woman and coveted her, and when the man whom she marries knows it, the two men must never meet or things may happen. For the girl's honour has become her husband's, and she has become one in flesh and spirit with him.
All men and most women doubted Cyril's honour, page 371and Archie had small faith even in his honesty. In his eyes the treasure of the girl and the treasure of the gold were in danger as long as Cyril remained in the camp.
The girl knew it too. Where instinct had once raised suspicion, her knowledge now more certainly warned her. It made her anxious and nervous, and thrust into her heart a fierce detestation for the man lolling on the log by the fire. And apart from danger to herself, if by any chance she were left at his mercy, was the thought that at any moment she might have to stand peacemaker between the two men.
Cyril, whatever might have been in his mind, appeared to have quite forgotten that between him and the two who were so generously attending him he had had any quarrel. There are some things some men forget easily. It is a gift, just as lying or smiling away an insult is.
"Have you got any tobacco, Deverell?" Cyril asked suddenly.
Archie had a small fragment, scarcely more than a couple of pipefuls, his last. He handed it to Cyril, who commenced to cut it up.
It was curious to watch the group. By the fire, as close almost as he could get to it, was Cyril, seated on a dead log, quietly cutting the piece of tobacco into fragments, which he dropped into the palm of his left hand. A little distance away knelt Archie, washing Cyril's tea-things. His face was hard and set. From time to time he cast quick glances across to the figure by the fire.
Standing by Archie, her hand resting lightly on his shoulder, was Ngaia, keenly, alertly watching the man she so thoroughly despised and disliked. In her mind, as in her husband's, was the same wonder.
What was he doing here in the bush? How had he got into his terrible plight?
Cyril shut his knife with a snap.page 372
"D——n it, I've dropped the bit left over," he exclaimed, as he rubbed the tobacco he had cut and proceeded to fill his pipe. "It wasn't much," he added, kicking in the grass at his feet. "Hope it doesn't matter?"
Archie made no reply. The man's manner, his voice, his indifferent selfishness, so apparent in his restored vigour, grated fiercely upon him. Perhaps also on Ngaia.
"It does matter; it's Archie's last piece," she exclaimed impetuously—and then regretted it.
Cyril, with the glowing end of a piece of wood drawn from the fire, was lighting his pipe, puffing great clouds of white smoke into the still air.
"Sorry," he said, throwing the ember back again. "I'm afraid it's lost. It's somewhere down here. I can't see it. There wasn't enough for more than a pipe anyway. Not worth making a fuss over."
"Never mind," said Archie shortly. He rose to his feet and drawing Ngaia to his side, sat down with her by the fire almost opposite Cyril.
There was a long silence.
"I suppose," said Cyril suddenly, "you are wanting to know how the devil I come to be in this condition down in this infernal bush?"
"I scarcely expected to meet you here; you of all people," said Archie.
Cyril gave a short, curious laugh.
"I don't suppose you did. I've had a devil of a rough time of it; ugh!" he exclaimed with a shudder. "It was horrible!"
There was a pause.
"Jake's dead," he remarked presently in the most casual manner.
Ngaia, her hand resting on her husband's knee, had bent forward in horrified surprise.page 373
"Oh, I forgot. He was your father. Well, he wasn't much of a father, some of us are cursed with rotten fathers, and he's dead—drowned."
"When was this?" asked Archie, drawing his wife close to him. She was trembling. Death is marvellous in its greatness. It sweeps away the pettiness of a dead man in the realisation that he is helpless, is lost, is mouldering, clammy clay. It comes as a shock to hear that a man you cordially detested but knew well is dead.
"The day before yesterday," said Cyril, "at the ford of the Rangitikei. He and I were coming down to Rayton's, Jake's horse stumbled and was swept off its legs. It hit mine, and we all found ourselves in the water. I got out somehow. Jake—ugh! I saw him sink." Cyril buried his face in his hands. Jake's horrible look had come again and was dancing, dancing, dancing in the flames, and grinning and leering in the glowing embers.
"Jake dead," whispered Ngaia. "Oh, Archie, how dreadful! Such a death—and poor Ka."
"He might have got out somewhere below."
Cyril looked up.
"My God, no! I tell you I saw him rolled and thumped and rolled over, and then—— No, no, he couldn't have got out."
Cyril shrugged his shoulders.
"They landed away below. I tried to find the track to Rayton's place. I must have missed it at the start. I was a bit dazed, and I got lost in the bush. I heard a shot this afternoon; I suppose it was yours."
"Probably. I shot a pigeon. One of those you had to eat."
"I saw your fire through the bush and—here I am."
There was a pause.
Cyril gave the fire a kick and a cloud of sparks shot up.page 374
"You and Jake were coming together to Rayton's?" said Archie presently.
"That's what I said, wasn't it?"
"Curious," murmured Archie.
"I'm hanged if I see anything curious in it."
"Jake and Rayton were bad friends. I never knew Jake to speak to him of late—much less go there."
"You wish to infer I'm lying," exclaimed Cyril.
"Certainly not—why should you? Jake may have made it up with Rayton since I left."
"What are you doing here, you two, yourselves? Where have you been since you left?" asked Cyril, seizing the opportunity to turn the conversation.
"Ngaia and I are married."
"So I heard," muttered Cyril. "Queer place for a honeymoon," he added.
"We've found it pleasant enough. Eh, sweetheart?" he said, pressing his cheek to the girl's soft hair as her head rested against his shoulder.
"I know what you've been up to. You've been out gold prospecting. Eh?"
Neither deigned to actually lie, and the silence seemed to Cyril to imply sufficient assent.
"What luck have you had? Have you found anything?
"Well," he said, as Archie remained silent, "why don't you answer? Do you want to keep your good luck all to yourself?"
Ngaia felt her husband's arms tighten round her waist.
"Look here, Anderson," he said in a hard, set voice, "it's just as well we should understand each other. I've not forgotten, if you have, what you said down at the yard that evening, nor am I likely to. You're nothing to me, and I don't intend to be anything to page 375you. I'd not lift a finger to give you a lift one way or the other, and if Ngaia and I have had any luck I'm certainly not going to give you the advantage of first information when there are others infinitely more deserving of it. What you told me about yourself you volunteered, and I for my part don't intend to tell you anything. You got slewed in the bush and I'm glad we've been able to help you. Ngaia and I are going on to-morrow past Rayton's place and we'll see you safely there. If by any chance we don't move our camp to-morrow, I'll take you down myself and put you right on to Rayton's track, or I may go down with you. You want to get there, I assume. We certainly don't want you here. That's honest—and understandable, I should say."
"Thank you," sneered Cyril. "Oh, it's mighty excellent. You needn't bother about seeing me down to Rayton's place. I'll find my own way down."
"Just as you like," said Archie curtly. "Anyhow, you're welcome to sleep here to-night. I'll lend you a rug."
"Beggars can't be choosers. If you get me the rug now I'll turn in. I'm sleepy."
They fetched him a rug, and presently there was a stillness over the camp. By the fire Cyril lay in the heavy slumber of intense exhaustion. In the tent Ngaia slept lightly and soundly, unconscious of the restless watchfulness of the husband at her side.
For once he had looked at his revolver and lay with it close to hand.