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The New Zealand Railways Magazine, Volume 14, Issue 2 (May 1, 1939)

White Bread and Treacle

page 38

White Bread and Treacle

“The apparent leader was holding the knife as if he were itching to use it.”

“The apparent leader was holding the knife as if he were itching to use it.”

Janet'S slim, deft fingers kneaded the stiff mass of dough into shapely, rounded loaves. She then hurriedly stirred the glowing embers on top of the camp oven, and added more wood.

She opened the oven door carefully, felt the hot air rushing out, and quickly decided the heat was about right. The last batch was slipped into the hot cavity, and Janet shut the door with a sigh of relief. No more bread making for a week—she was glad of that. There was a glow of pride in her eyes as they rested on the small, rough table, where other loaves, baked to a rich golden brown, were still steaming beneath a cloth.

White bread at last! Janet smiled happily as her thoughts flew to Jack, who had carried that sack of flour on his back all the way from Dunedin—long miles that led over rough, tussocky country, through swirling creeks, and then along the narrow bush track to the cabin. It was his idea of a pleasant surprise for her.

Brown bread made from the wheat which she herself crushed in a small, hand coffee mill, was the only bread she had tasted since she had left civilisation for the lonely log cabin in the bush. There wouldn't be any butter to go with the bread, but there was lard and treacle. There was always lard, for when Jack came home for an occasional short visit, he always shot a wild pig or two. They were so plentiful, and the lard and pork were uncommonly good.

Thoughtfully Janet paused in the doorway of the cabin, and her eyes sought eagerly for the plump little figure of baby Sally. There she was, a few yards away, playing with grey river stones. Sally didn't need toys to make her happy—her little round face glowed with contentment, as she playfully handled the stones in her lap.

Janet smiled dreamily—Sally was good company! Her eyes wandered across the small clearing in front of the cabin, and her smile faded a little. After all, she did hate the loneliness of the place, but the bush was lovely, even if she felt at times that it was too close—too dense, and mysterious. It had been worse at first. She had imagined all sorts of horrors that it might conceal, animals and Maoris—savages that were cannibals! But the only animals she had seen were wild pigs, and occasionally wild dogs—small animals that had originally belonged to the Maoris. These animals had run wild, and Jack had assured her that there were no Maoris in these parts. She was getting used to it all, and her fears were gradually dying. It would be wonderful, though, when Jack had saved up enough from his labouring job in Dunedin to start clearing the land for cropping. He would be with her always then.

To the left of the clearing, soft, curling green fern-fronds parted cautiously, and brown eyes peered inquisitively at the log cabin and the queer, pakeha woman standing in the doorway, and the plump little child in front, playing with smooth, grey river stones.

So cautious was the movement that Janet was blissfully unaware of anything unusual in the fringe of green. She turned inside, a smile on her lips, and was in the act of turning the hot oven knob, when her hand dropped suddenly, and the smile froze. Sally had screamed! A wild piercing scream of terror, that echoed another terror in the mother's heart.

She flew to the door, as Sally's fat little legs stumbled over the step towards her. Above the tousled head Janet saw the cause of the scream, and every atom of colour drained from her face. Maoris—at least a score of them, and their tattooed faces seemed to glint menacingly as they advanced in a long single file.

No wonder Sally had been terrified, for the child had seen no man except her father during her short life on earth.

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Janet's eyes widened in terror, and a half stifled scream left her lips, as the flax skirted figures rustled closer. There flashed through her mind all those stories she had heard. Terrible stories of cannibal and head hunting tribes that were supposed to have long disappeared from the locality. The next minute she was facing the stalwart dark-skinned leader. Sally screamed again, and clung frantically to her, while she tried to back away from the brown faces that were surrounding her.

Every nerve in her body felt weak, but she knew in that instant that she dared not show fear—that might be the finish! Her arms tightened around Sally, and she remained facing the mob defiantly, until one of the men pushed her farther into the cabin, and roughly marched in. She shrunk from the touch of the hot brown hand, and stepped back till she felt the wall behind her.

The rest of the party trooped eagerly inside, and broke into an excited gibberish. What they were saying she had not the slightest idea, nor could they understand her when she demanded sharply: “What are you doing here—please leave my home at once.”

Her speech brought head shakings and more excited talk. They gathered closer around, and the look on their brown faces sent a chill through her blood. Vainly she tried to persuade herself that they were merely curious, that they only wanted to have a better look, but all the dreadful stories she had heard, crowded out the more sensible thoughts.

The large sharp knife that Jack always used for cutting up the carcases of wild pig, lay on the shelf above the table, and to her utter amazement one of the party pounced eagerly on it.

The others were equally interested, and it was excitedly passed from hand to hand till each Maori had caressed it's sharp blade, with his fingers, and gabbled delightedly over the find. She almost expected that they might turn on Sally and herself at any moment. She remembered with horror just how sharp Jack kept that knife.

Brown hands pulled the cloth from the freshly baked loaves, and puzzlement expressed itself on the tattooed faces. In that instant, as her eyes took in the danger of the knife waving in one of the warrior's hands and the crusty fresh loaves on the table, Janet had a flash of inspiration. It might work—she could try the ruse at any rate!

With the child still clinging to her, she leaned timidly forward and pointed to the loaves, then to the knife, in an earnest attempt to explain what she wanted. The apparent leader was holding the knife as if he were itching to use it, and she turned beseechingly towards him, holding out her hand for the shining blade. He shook his bushy head, obviously puzzled, but determined to keep the knife.

She tried again. Holding a loaf in one hand, she made cutting motions over it, as with an imaginary knife, and turned again to take the steel from the brown hand. This time he reluctantly let it go.

She felt much safer with the ugly weapon in her possession, but she knew she must act speedily, or they might easily force it from her again.

Setting the terrified Sally on one end of the table, and leaning protectingly over her, she cut slice after slice off the first loaf.

She reached for the treacle above her, on the shelf, and spreading a generous layer of the sweet sticky stuff over the first piece, she forced a smile to her cold lips and offered it to the nearest native.

She thought he viewed it with suspicion at first, as he carefully licked the top, but the suspicion, if such, changed to delight. Excitedly he offered the others a lick of the wonderful treacle.

Working dexterously, Janet covered slice after slice as fast as she could, and handed them round. They came closer around her, eagerly watching the process of the knife as it slid through the loaf, and greedily snatching each finished piece, but they made no attempt to get the knife back, and that was her chief concern.

The last Maori was served and was licking his lips in childish appreciation, when Janet became suddenly aware that the leader was giving some new instructions. With many gesticulations and much more excited talk, they filed out of the cabin as abruptly as they had entered.

Janet could have wept with sheer relief, as she clutched Sally tightly again, and watched the dark heads and rustling skirts disappear into the green fringe of the clearing.

She pressed her trembling cheek against Sally's soft, rosy one, and there were tears in her voice as she uttered the reproach: “Oh, Jack—if you knew how terrified I was—how I need you—in this awful lonely bush.” Then she stopped ashamed. It wasn't Jack's fault—the hardship of being parted was his, too. Didn't he toil early and late to make enough money to get a start at clearing his property? Her voice was strangely gentle as she told Sally: “Poor Jack—no, we won't tell him. He mustn't know how frightened I was—how I hate this lonely bush.”

She remembered the bread in the oven then. Scorching hot odours rushed out to meet her from the open oven door, and black charred mounds lay smoking in the baking pan.

“Never mind,” she sighed, “I'll make more, Sally. There is still plenty of white flour left. But it does seem a waste to think those awful Maoris have gobbled up all my white bread.”

(Thelma R. Kent, pho A road construction scene near Makarora, South Island.

(Thelma R. Kent, pho A road construction scene near Makarora, South Island.

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