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Waitaruna: A Story of New Zealand Life

Chapter XVIII. — Drowned

page 243

Chapter XVIII.
Drowned .

"The farthest from the fear, the often nearest to the stroke of fate."

Young .

Harry's hurt did not prove any more serious than it at first appeared to be; it was, nevertheless, sufficient to debar him from any very active exercise for the next day or two, as his shoulder was considerably bruised, and consequently continued to be very stiff and painful for some days. This had the effect of keeping Gilbert more about the station than he would otherwise have been, for Harry was unable to ride out on the run, in which rides Gilbert would have accompanied him; and though the host was continually apologising and regretting that he was unable to take his guest about, and show him the lions of the neighbourhood, and the beauty and grandeur of the adjacent lake Whanaka, yet Gilbert, in his heart of hearts, was satisfied with the state of things as they were; and when he murmured a few conventional phrases in reply to Harry's apologies, such as, "I am enjoying myself immensely as it is;" "don't mention it;" or, "it does not in the least page 244matter, I don't tire of this scenery;" there was much more truth in them than there is usually in phrases of the same kind.

Gilbert Langton was in the presence of the woman he loved, and what other enjoyment did he want? Yet he did want something more, for though it was bliss to enjoy so much of Ottalie's society, it was bliss which evolved pictures of a yet greater happiness, and caused Gilbert to long to tell Ottalie that he loved her. He was more than once sorely tempted to do so, but he was doubtful as to the reception which Ottalie might give to such a piece of intelligence, and therefore he remained silent. He had a feeling, too, that he ought not to speak, seeing the prospect of his being able to keep a wife was vague and uncertain, and he shrank from asking a promise when he could not on his side fix any time when it should be fulfilled.

His pleasure was not, therefore, without alloy, for many a time during his stay at Hawera, did he pass through a conflict of contending thoughts. For while love and happiness urged him to declare himself, prudence and honour, nay, even love itself in another form, held him back. The time passed pleasantly enough, and fortunately Nellie was amiability itself during the rest of the visit. But at last Gilbert's leave drew to a close; he had, at Mr. Ramshorn's request, fixed a day for his return to his duties at Waitaruna, and though he was page 245hospitably pressed to extend his stay, both by Mr. and Mrs. Ewart, he regretfully declined their invitations, and decided to start the next morning. Harry, who had by this time pretty well got over the effects of his spill, said he would accompany him so far on the way, as he wished to get the week's letters.

Next morning, after bidding good-bye to the ladies, Gilbert started on his way homewards, and as Harry and he rode down the lake side, the former had many a joke at Gilbert's expense concerning the mistake he made on his upward journey.

It was simply a perfect day. The sun was bright and warm, and the breeze which rippled the water was just sufficient to impart a feeling of freshness to the morning air, and prevent the sun from beating too strongly. Large white fleecy clouds floated slowly across the sky, their passage being marked by the darker shadows which stole quietly across the lake, and then crept gently up the distant mountain side.

As they rode along, Harry, who was in high spirits, led the way, as the track was in many places too narrow for more than one, and carried on a conversation by bawling over his shoulder to Gilbert in a loud tone, a proceeding which he varied every now and again by breaking into snatches of song. The conversation had reference chiefly to sheep and horses, both never failing topics of discussion, but other subjects also helped to beguile the way. Noticing a bird which was strange to him flying page 246overhead, Gilbert called Harry's attention to it, remarking that it resembled a kaka, but flew too fast for it to be one.

"Well, you are not far out," said Harry; "for it is a kea, or green mountain parrot, and is first cousin to the kaka. The wretches," he continued, "have developed a new taste, that is, a liking for mutton. They actually attack the live sheep and peck holes in them, and how they learned to do that, if not by the exercise of the faculty of reason, I don't know. They may talk about instinct and reason as they please, but I am satisfied there is no very marked distinction between them, and that indeed they are only degrees of the same thing. These keas, or their forefathers, existed among these mountains long before there was a sheep in the country; and even after there were sheep here, they were not known to damage them. But the year before last, old Swainson, across the Whanaka, noticed the keas flying about a number of our sheep-skins that were drying on the rails of the yards, and pecking at them. Very likely they were blown a bit, and the parrots took to eating the grubs, and from that got to any little scraps of flesh which might have been left attached, and by this means they found out what a sheep-skin was. Very soon afterwards, Swainson saw them pecking at the skins on the sheep's backs, and they sometimes did this to such an extent that the sheep died. Some travel-page 247ling reporter had got hold of the story, and made a paragraph about it, in which he said: 'The keas were first observed by Mr. Swainson, pecking at the skins of some sheep which he had hung up to dry;' and some of the neighbours thinking that the whole affair was bunkum, used to chaff Swainson about it, and ask him if he had been hanging any more sheep out to dry lately. They dropped that very soon, however, when they found indications of the same thing having happened to their own sheep. There is not the least doubt about it, that the intelligence had spread among the kea tribe, and they all indulge in fresh mutton now. Now do you not think that the keas reasoned that if sheep-skins hanging on a fence contained food, that sheep-skins on the sheep's backs would do likewise?"

"Undoubtedly," replied Gilbert. "Do you know, I think that the sailor's parrot which did not speak, but was 'a beggar to think,' must have been a kea."

"I expect he was," said Harry, laughing; "but the keas seemingly do not think their new accomplishment may cost them their lives; for ever since the new taste was developed every one in this district has, I am told, been waging a war of extermination against them."

"Well, the sheep have not many enemies, or even diseases, to contend with in this country," replied Gilbert, "and the keas are, I suppose, only found on the highest runs, for I never even heard of them page 248down country, and judging from appearances they don't seem to be very numerous even here."

When the riders reached the foot of the lake they were a considerable distance from the river which forms the outlet for the waters of the Hawera, and which flows with great rapidity for a few miles, through a comparatively level piece of country, till it joins the river flowing from the neighbouring lake Whanaka. A rapid canter, however, soon carried them over the ground which lay between them and the river, on the other side of which was the hotel, whose landlord was the district postmaster. The hotel stood back some little distance from the river, and as Harry and Gilbert drew rein on the opposite bank they could not see any signs of life about the premises. They cooeed several times, but without any result,—at least no one showed himself.

"These people must either be all asleep or drunk," said Harry. "The last time I was here there were several shearers on the spree knocking down their cheques, besides several other swaggers, but to-day there does not seem to be a soul about the place. What are we to do?"

"We can't wait here all day, that's certain," said Gilbert; "but there is no necessity for my crossing here, as I can go a long way down on this side of the river, and get a boat at a lower crossing. As for you, I suppose you'll have to go home again."

"That I won't do without the letters, even though page 249I have to stop here all night. Nellie would never forgive me, I think, if I disappointed her in that way. I have half a mind to swim across."

"What! yourself?" asked Gilbert. "I would not risk swimming in that river for a good deal, and when there's no occasion for it, I don't myself see the fun of it."

"You need not do it," replied Harry, "but I shall. And if you wait here I'll bring the boat back, so that you can cross in it, and swim your horse behind it."

"Now, Harry, don't try it, there's a good fellow. I am sure Mrs. Ewart would not like your getting wet for the sake of her letters, to say nothing of the risk you run in crossing a swirling, eddying river like that."

"Pshaw! the risk is nothing. Do you think I have never swam a horse before? And as for my getting wet, I'm not likely to dissolve. I'll give one final cooee, and if no one turns up, then in we go."

They both cooeed lustily and waited for a few minutes, but still there was no response from the hotel opposite.

"Now, then, here goes," said Harry, riding down a breach in the steep river bank; "I'll be back presently with the boat."

Gilbert felt that further remonstrance was useless, and though he was uneasy about the matter, he said nothing more. Harry and his horse were soon in the water, which became deep very rapidly.

"I hope that I strike the opposite landing-place," page 250called Harry, as his horse plunged into deep water and began to swim. At first he headed up the stream a little way, but finding he made little or no progress, he turned his horse's head towards the opposite bank, and both horse and rider then shot rapidly down the river, but at the same time they made good progress towards the other side.

Gilbert anxiously watched their movements, and felt relieved as he saw that the further bank was all but gained, though he also saw that the current had carried them below the usual landing-place. However, the banks did not seem to be very steep, so that all difficulty appeared to be passed. Suddenly, as he watched, Gilbert saw Harry slip from the saddle and begin to swim alongside the horse, seemingly holding by the mane. Gilbert supposed that Harry found some difficulty in getting out of the water, and that he had got off his horse so as the better to scramble out, and he expected momentarily to see him rise up on the bank. But as he watched he saw instead Harry disappear from his horse's side beneath the water, and a second later he heard a cry of agony from his companion. With bated breath Langton watched the place where his friend had disappeared, and as he watched, his eye caught something black which rose for a moment to the surface of the water a little way further down, but which rose only to sink once more into the depths of the treacherous river. The riderless steed page 251extricated himself from the stream, and shaking his dripping sides, stood still as though quietly waiting for his master. But his master will require his assistance no more; the rapid river has swept him away, and sucked down by its eddies, Harry Ewart will never return from the waters alive.

Gilbert was horror-stricken, but powerless. He put spurs to his horse and galloped down the river; but before he had gone far he heard a loud cooee, and looking round he saw a man standing on the river's bank in front of the hotel.

Gilbert Langton waved frantic signals to the man, and when he saw him begin to run towards the boat, the former again turned his horse's head down the stream. As Gilbert turned the man stopped running, till catching sight of the riderless horse on the river bank, and at once conjecturing that an accident had happened, he immediately set out for the boat, and jumping in, was carried by the current swiftly down the stream.

As soon as he came within hailing distance of Gilbert he called out, "What's the matter?"

To which Gilbert replied, "Mr. Ewart's drowned."

"Great heavens! is it so?" said the boatman, at once putting in to the bank where Gilbert was. "Come into the boat," continued the man; "we can do nothing to help poor Mr. Ewart; but come and tell me all about it."

Gilbert did as he was asked, and as the boat again page 252shot across the stream he briefly told the boatman what had happened, and asked if there was any chance of their finding the body.

"Very little, I am afraid," replied the man; but he had hardly spoken before something black rose to the surface of the water close by the boat. "That's him," said the man in a whisper, as he stretched out his hand to seize the dark object. He caught it, and with Gilbert's assistance drew on board the lifeless form of Harry Ewart. Quickly they pulled to the bank, and making the boat fast to a flax bush, carried the burden ashore.

Gilbert had some knowledge of the treatment necessary to resuscitate the apparently drowned, which he at once put to practical use, and although his comrade shook his head and said, "No use," he rendered what assistance he could. From the evidences on his body it was plain that poor Harry had been struck by his horse while in the water, and so disabled, had been swept away by the current.

Gilbert persevered in his efforts to revive his friend till he was reluctantly forced to own that they were of "no use." He rose from the grassy bank where the lifeless body of his friend lay—his friend who so shortly before had been as hale and hearty as he was. Langton could hardly force himself to realise the fact that Harry was really dead. His face was paler than in life, but he had been page 253such a short time in the water that no other difference was observable, save that his hair and beard were wet and sodden. The face wore an almost pleasant expression, and as he looked, Gilbert half expected to see him open his merry eyes.

"We'd best put him in the boat," said the man; "and track it up as far as the hotel."

"Poor Harry," was all Gilbert could say in reply; for a lump had risen in his throat, and tears in his eyes. Stooping to hide his emotion, he began to raise the body, which with the assistance of the boatman was soon deposited in the bottom of the boat as carefully and gently as though poor Harry could have felt the least movement. Taking one of the oars, and placing the one end against the boat's prow, and the other in Gilbert's hands, so as to keep the boat out from the bank, the boatman took the rope over his own shoulder, and began to slowly drag the boat up the stream. Hardly a word was spoken till the crossing place near the hotel was gained, when after making the boat fast at its usual mooring-place, the man proceeded to the house for assistance, leaving Gilbert alone with the body. As he stood and looked at Harry lying quiet and still, the reality of the misfortune impressed, itself upon him, and tears rolled unchecked down his cheeks, while his lip quivered with emotion. But hearing voices approaching, he quickly struggled to master his feelings and conceal his tears as men will, with-page 254out thinking why, as though they were ashamed of honest, heartfelt grief.

"This is an awful business," said the landlord of the hotel to Gilbert, as he came up. "Tom tells me that you cooeed for some time, too. I must have been sound asleep, I suppose. I was the only one about the place as Tom had gone out to bring in the cows, and the rest of my folks started for town to-day. So you see I was all alone. Bless my soul! it's a most awful bad job. I never heard the like of it." And thus he chattered in a manner which grated uncomfortably on Gilbert's ear.

Tom, who was the boatman, had brought a board down from the house with him, and also a swagger who had arrived at the hotel in the interval; so all that remained of Harry Ewart was placed upon the board, and then slowly carried by the four men up to the house.

"What will Ottalie say, poor girl?" thought Gilbert, as the burden was deposited in one of the rooms. "I must go back to the station and break the news." He shrank from the task, but who else could do it? Already he heard the landlord calling to Tom, who was apparently the cook of the establishment, to get the tea ready at once, and seemingly matters at the hotel would go on as though nothing had happened.

Gilbert asked that he might be put across the river again before tea, as he wished to catch his horse page 255and start back for the station; but this the landlord refused to do, saying that he must have something to eat first, or they would be having two inquests instead of one. It was useless objecting, so Gilbert had to remain, and go through the semblance of partaking of a meal, and indeed he acknowledged the wisdom of what the landlord said, and forced himself to swallow a little food, for which he had no appetite.

"After you have put the gentleman across the river, Tom," said the landlord as they sat at tea, "you had better put the saddle on Nancy, and ride down to the township, and let the police know. I expect they will be for taking the body down there for the inquest, if they have one, for they could not get together a jury very well in these parts; so you had better see if you can get Tim Cossar to come back with you to take care of the place while we are away."

How the arrangement of these commonplace details jarred upon Gilbert. It was a relief to him to start on his mission of bearing the sad news to Hawera.