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Waitaruna: A Story of New Zealand Life

Chapter XVI. — Lost

page 218

Chapter XVI.
Lost .

"Journeys end in lovers meeting,
Every wise man's son doth know."

Shakespeare .

Mr. Ewart, after a few days' residence at Hawera, decided on returning to Pakeloa, and Harry, who had to go to the hotel at the junction of the Hawera river and the Waitangi for the letters, resolved to accompany his father so far on his way. As they rode along near the foot of the lake they descried a solitary horseman quietly riding towards them.

"Who can this be?" said Mr. Ewart; "it must be some one to see you, Harry; for I should not think any one else in your neighbourhood received visitors."

"I expect it may be Ramshorn or Gilbert Langton, and it looks uncommonly like the latter, I think. They both promised to look me up as soon as they could. If it is Gilbert, I expect Ramshorn does not know that Ottalie is up here, or he would have come himself instead."

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"You don't mean to say that Mr. Ramshorn has been making love to Ottalie, Harry!" exclaimed Mr. Ewart.

"Well, no; I can't say that, but I fancy he is disposed that way."

"Humph!" was Mr. Ewart's only rejoinder.

"How are you, sir?" exclaimed Gilbert to Mr. Ewart, as they met; "and how are you, Harry? I did not know you were in this part of the world, Mr. Ewart," he continued. "How did you leave all at Pakeloa?"

When their greetings were over, Harry informed Gilbert that he was going down as far as the post; and telling him that Mrs. Ewart and his sister would make him comfortable at the station, and that he would himself be back early next day, said, as he bade him good-bye: "You can't mistake the way. Keep along the shore where there is no track. You had better dismount when you come to Rocky Point, and lead your horse round."

"Shall I lose the track in some parts?" asked Gilbert.

"Yes," called Harry, turning round in his saddle; "but, if in doubt, take the lake."

Shortly after passing Mr. Ewart and Harry, the track, or footpath, for it was no more, led down to the shore of the lake; and he rode for a short distance along a shingly beach, but after a time this page 220stopped, and yet no track was visible on the side of the steep mountains which rose abruptly from where he stood. Gilbert had noticed that the legs of the horses that Harry and Mr. Ewart rode were wet, so after a moment's hesitation he turned his steed into the lake. It was quite shallow, and he could see that the beach extended into the water for a considerable distance. After riding in the water for some little way, he emerged again upon a shingly beach, whence he could see a track leading upwards towards the hill. The day was hot, and Gilbert was tempted by the cool, clear water to dismount and bathe. Making his horse fast to a bush, he quickly undressed and plunged into the lake, which he found deliciously cold, indeed, so cold was it, that Gilbert was afraid to venture beyond the edge of the terrace as he feared that if he attempted to swim out into deep water, he might be benumbed and unable to regain the shore. So after cooling himself by paddling about for a bit, he returned to the shore to dress, just in time to prevent a couple of Maori hens which had appeared on the scene, from carrying away some of the smaller articles of his clothing. If curiosity be really a feminine failing, both of those birds must have been hens; for even while Gilbert was dressing they approached so near to him, that he threw both his boots at the birds in default of better missiles, at the imminent risk of page 221losing them; but the Maori hens only retired for a few seconds to a small bush, and renewed the attack by advancing one on either side, to be alternately repulsed by Gilbert, who after dressing resumed his journey.

Ascending the track where it left the shore, he followed it for a little way along the mountain side, when he saw before him what he had no doubt was Rocky Point; for the track, only a foot or two wide, led round the face of an almost precipitous cliff. It wound along, now higher, now lower, but straight above him rose the mountain, and just below was the lake, which, there, was of an immense depth, close to the shore. At one part Gilbert had to stoop to avoid striking his head against an overhanging rock, for he had not dismounted, according to Harry's advice, when he came to Rocky Point, and when he had once begun to ride round, he did not like to do so, as he had hardly room to get off his horse. The whole distance was not very great, and the track soon emerged into a wider and less dangerous path; but here a new difficulty arose, for it appeared to be conducting him straight away from the lake, and leading up a large gully, which he could see extended away back into the mountains. Gilbert knew, from what he had been told, that the station stood near the water's edge, and remembering Harry's words, "when in page 222doubt, take the lake," he fancied that what he was on must be merely a cattle track, and that he had missed the turning by the lake side which he should have taken. He accordingly retraced his steps, looking the while for a path diverging from that he had followed, but as he saw none, he turned off along the gravelly beach of the lake, thinking that probably the same plan had been adopted here as had been lower down, of following the pebbly shore. After a little way, however, the beach ceased, and in place of it, the ground was thickly covered with a prickly scrub close down to the water's edge, through which it was impossible to ride. Gilbert struck boldly into the shallow water, and in this way continued his route some distance further, when it began to get deeper, and as he neared the point of the hill on the opposite side of the gully, large stones and rocks were discernible beneath him. There was nothing for it but to turn once more, which Gilbert reluctantly did, and as he had Harry's directions ringing in his ears, he resolved to leave his horse where he was, and proceed the rest of the way on foot, for he concluded he must now be close to the station.

"When I get round that point I should be able to see the homestead," he said to himself, "so I shall get in before dark." There was little fear of the horse wandering far, as at the foot of the gully there page 223was a nice grassy flat, and it was not likely that the horse would make any attempt to go round Rocky Point by himself; so taking off the saddle and bridle and depositing them carefully beneath some bushes, Gilbert turned his steed adrift.

He then went back along the shore of the lake, and by a short detour over some rough ground he gained the foot of the spur, which formed the side of the gully furthest up the lake. He found it exceedingly rough and rocky, but by dint of hard climbing he reached what had appeared from below to be the crown of the ridge; but this proved to be a delusion; for he saw instead of the station a rough gully, and a higher ridge beyond it. He was tempted once more to turn, but as he had had enough of turning for one day, he essayed to proceed. Following the ridge on which he then was, he climbed still higher, but he made very slow progress, as the spur was composed of large rough rocks, over which he had some difficulty in scrambling, and ever and anon he came upon a small thicket of dense scrub through which he had to slowly force his way. Gilbert began to fear he should be benighted, which would not prove at all pleasant. Daylight was beginning to fade when he at length emerged on open ground covered with short fern, where tired and heated he sat down to rest. Even then he could see nothing of the station, so after a few minutes rest page 224to regain his breath, he began to traverse the fern-covered ground as rapidly as possible. But now he was well-nigh choked, for the fern seed was ripe, and as he brushed quickly through the fern, the seed rose about him in a cloud of impalpable brown dust. At length, as the grey darkness closed around him, he descried a light away down by the lake side, about a couple of miles farther on. It was some satisfaction to know where his destination was, even though he must still have some difficulty in reaching it. After toiling along through the fern for some distance, Langton thought he would descend to see if locomotion would not now be easier at a lower level than where he was; but as he descended, he found the fern increasing in height and denseness of growth, till it became so tall that it rose above his head, and he could only force his way through with the greatest difficulty. At last he reached the level of the lake, but he found that the bank rose a foot or two above the water. It was too dark to see whether or not it was there deep or shallow. It might go down to an unfathomable depth or there might be only a few inches of water.

Gilbert thought of this, but he was so completely tired out that he decided to try whether it was deep or not by letting himself down from the branch of a bush, which was overhanging the water close to where he stood. Carefully he scrambled down the page 225bank and into the lake, and it was an immense relief when his feet touched the bottom, although the water rose above his waist. Losing his hold of the branch he began to wade along, keeping close to the land for fear of getting out of his depth.

Gradually it became shallower, till at length he emerged, dripping, on a loose shingly beach, along which he trudged wearily towards the light, which appeared, like an ignis fatuus, to retreat before him. At last he reached it, and, wet as he was, found his way to the back door, where he knocked, and was soon standing in the middle of the dimly-lighted kitchen, where a single home-made tallow candle guttered and swelled, making darkness visible.

It had afforded light enough, however, for Bella, the domestic, and her lover, one of the shepherds; and as the former ran to tell her mistress, the latter, holding the candle at arm's length, so as better to see the new-comer, exclaimed, when he heard whence Gilbert had come—

"Man! ye've mista'en the richt gate. Ma certie, it's a won'er ye was na drooned!"

Nellie and Ottalie both hastened to the kitchen to welcome their unexpected guest, whose arrival had been announced by the excited Bella, as though he had walked all the way from the foot of the lake under water.

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"I am very glad to see you, Mr. Langton," said Nellie; "but, however, did you come?"

"I came up by the proper road so far, aud then I came over the mountains and through the lake. I must have made a mistake somehow, but I am thankful I shan't have 'the bracken curtain for my head' to night, as I at one time feared I should."

"You are very wet," said Ottalie, "and should change at once. You can get some of Harry's things for Mr. Langton, I suppose, Nellie?"

"Oh yes! I'll do so at once. Bella, show Mr. Langton his room, and then come and I'll give you some dry clothes for him. I am sorry," she added, "that we have not a drop of spirits of any kind about the place, but I can give you what Harry took one day when he came in cold and wet, if you like to try it."

"What is that?" asked Gilbert, seeing that Mrs. Ewart smiled and seemed to be doubtful as to the reception her proposal might meet.

"A glass of Worcester sauce," replied Nellie.

"No, thank you," said Gilbert, laughing. "I daresay Harry would like to have a companion in affliction, but as I have a crow to pluck with him about his misleading me to-day, I shall not gratify him further."

After Gilbert had made himself as comfortable as he could in the slippers and garments of another page 227man of a somewhat larger build than he was, he descended to the sitting-room, and over a dish of smoking chops and a cup of hot tea he recounted to the ladies his adventures of the day. He then ascertained that Harry's direction to keep by the lake was really a misleading one, and that the track he had been following up the gully was the one he should have taken. Had he kept on that path a short distance further he would have discovered that instead of running up the gully, as it appeared to do, the track crossed a low saddle in the ridge on which Gilbert had wandered, and then led straight down to the station.

The ladies made merry over poor Gilbert's wanderings, but that he did not mind; and when Mrs. Ewart remarked about ten o'clock that she supposed he must feel tired and sleepy after his wanderings, Gilbert replied that he did not, and that he supposed his having partaken of strong tea at a later hour than usual had driven away any feelings of sleepiness.

"Perhaps that is the effect of the tea, and perhaps it is the result of something else," said Nellie, with a wicked twinkle in her eyes, which had the effect of making both her companions feel uncomfortable, and causing Gilbert to say that when he came to think of it he did feel rather sleepy and would go to bed.

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Next morning before breakfast Gilbert, by starting on the track leading from the house, found his way to where he had left his horse the previous evening. On the way thither he passed an exceedingly pretty waterfall, though it contained no great volume of water; but as the stream shot from the top of a precipitous rock, it fell for about fifty feet clear of it, when it came in contact with some huge grey masses of stone, over which it leaped and tumbled till it finally found a resting-place in a miniature lakelet in the valley below. This little lake, which was beautifully calm and still, was well-nigh surrounded by reeds and raupo, from amongst which Gilbert could see now and again a blue swamp-hen emerge, while a number of the small grebes were diving and disporting themselves in the open water. Gilbert lingered awhile watching the birds, but the fear that he might keep breakfast waiting hurried him on in search of his horse. He found his saddle and bridle without much difficulty, and he soon succeeded in catching his steed, which he saddled, and cantered back to the homestead.

Harry Ewart arrived home shortly before dinner, bringing with him the week's letters and papers; and when he heard of Gilbert's exploit he said, "I never thought of your going wrong there. It is fortunate that you did not try to go further than you did in the water, for you could float the 'Great page 229Eastern' close up to that point, and I'm sure, from what you say, that another yard or two would have taken you over the edge of the terrace, and down you would have gone, and would never have been seen again probably. If you had not turned up, I don't know what we should have done, for I don't think we could have raised twelve men within twenty miles to 'sit on you.'"

"O Harry! how can you joke about anything so horrible," said Ottalie; "you ought rather to be sorry that your wrong directions caused Mr. Langton to run such a risk and encounter so much difficulty."

Gilbert looked his thanks to Ottalie, who blushed and turned away her eyes as she met his eager gaze. But her simple remark somehow made Gilbert feel much happier than he had done before, and afforded new material for day-dreaming for days afterwards.