The Heart of the Bush
Chapter I. Haeremai
Chapter I. Haeremai.
Mountains all around, mountains unrolling in scroll after scroll of gold; edge and surface illuminated with jewelled tints of amethyst and pale yellow topaz. Mountains, shaggy and tawny with rock and tussock, but smoothed into velvet by the sunset light of a spring 'Nor' Wester. Far in the depths of them all a strange wild beautiful forest, palmy like the Asiatic East, but cool and green like an English wood—a picture graved on the heart of Adelaide's childhood. Somewhere hidden in the Bush, a primitive wooden house that was home. Between her and that vision an intervening plateau, over which she was being driven at ease—a plateau roughly plastered with tussock and strewn with stones, and crossed by clear shallow streams. All uncultured but all fresh, strong and great, and fragrant with the clean scent of grass and flax and warm earth. On this flat and over the hills thousands of sheep and of healthy well-conditioned cattle. Behind her, disappearing rapidly, a fine homestead like an English country seat, with a grand house of stone, and with pleasure grounds and many oaks and sycamores.page 10
Adelaide leaned back and put up a small gloved hand to draw her veil, then looked around with delicately-restrained enthusiasm. So all this country had appeared to her in dreams, often through tears of longing, during her ten years' absence.
"Now, is there any country in the world like New Zealand, Mr. Brandon?" she said, and threw a soft triumphant challenge to the faultlessly got up Englishman by her side.
"None—for sheep, Miss Borlase. But for civilised people—," he glanced with no favour at the mountains and the plain. "Excuse me if I prefer some culture and art. There isn't a castle nor an old cathedral, nor even a thatched cottage, in the whole colony. You can't seriously compare these weird mountains and woods with our grand old Rome and Venice and Florence?"
The little lady looked at him dreamily, "Mr. Brandon, I have begun to suspect that I am only a child of nature after all."
Horace Brandon glanced at the exquisitely cut riding-habit, that fitted like her own dainty gloves, the hat and veil so perfectly poised on her elaborate pile of hair, the tip of the small tan shoe that certainly did not look fit to tread amongst stones and shaggy grass. He smiled significantly and lowered his voice in a courtly fashion.
"Nature improved by art, as it should always be, Adelaide, I make a point of not page 11admiring Nature when there is anything more charming near." His voice grew still lower and more significant. "I have some hope you will come back to England in three months from now."
The noble grounds of the Miramar estate were now lost behind a shoulder of the lower range, and the "Haeremai" bush grew nearer and nearer to view, dark against the clear amber flame of the western hills, sweetly dark with a secret hidden in its depths. They jested and laughed over all the novelties and incongruities around. There was an intoxicating quality in the high mountain air—"demoralising" Horace Brandon called it because it made him feel nearly emotional, and he regarded emotion as a mental debauch. Yet the sensation was distinctly agreeable. Adelaide's vivid face and childish enthusiasm were so pretty that he began to wish he was alone with her. She was English enough to be tame and civilised, colonial enough to have the charm of novelty and piquancy. They had understood each other for some months now, and he had every moral right to call her Adelaide. But neither of them was in a hurry. The modern Londoner manages his love affairs with calmness and refinement. As for Adelaide, she enjoyed a dainty dalliance with love and lightly kept off even Horace when he came too close. They had travelled together, well chaperoned by his aunt, through Germany and Switzerland and page 12Italy and France, had met each other constantly during her one delightful and triumphant season in London. Just now he felt it would be a pity to wait much longer. Sitting so close to her, and looking now and then into the glad upraised eyes, he found the barbarous air and scenery producing in him an enjoyably primitive sensation, something like that of the schoolboy whose hands are about to close on the fluttering bird. There was something fugitive about her eyes that aroused the instincts of the British sportsman. But unluckily his aunt and his sister were also in the carriage, and though Evelyn loyally engrossed Mrs. Brandon's attention, the definite engagement would have to be postponed. It was a pity, because the psychological moment had undoubtedly arrived, and he knew enough of himself to feel uncertain when it might recur.
The bush came nearer and nearer. It was closing in around them. It sent out messengers to greet them, one lace-bark tree and then another, standing gracefully separate amongst stumps and sprouting fern, a fragmentary black-plumed rimu, and then the sound of a great soft murmuring and rushing of waters. The carriage passed down the road-cutting and stopped in a river-bed. The bush rose up before them on the high opposite bank, not so much like a wall as like rising galleries of green living shapes,—primeval, beckoning, calling. Out of its recesses there came a rough-coated page 13primitive bushman who made his way slowly across the ford, riding a bay horse and holding the bridle of another. His voice full and deep, as he urged the animals on, reached them melodiously like one of the forest sounds that echoed amongst the cliffs and rocks. The wildness and the shadows made Evelyn shiver and fasten her marabout closely at the throat. "Now I know what back-blocks are," she said, "Aidie, it's like those dismal things in Dante that you would dose us with at Ravenna."
"And here comes the native Charon of the flood," added Horace. He adjusted an eyeglass and scrutinised the advancing bushman with impersonal detached interest. "A son of the soil," he observed. "But really his makeup is rather disappointing. Can't you turn out something more local than this, Miss Borlase? This full dress must have been put on in your honour, but I am sure you would have liked him better in his everyday tattoo and feathers. Yet he is rather weird, now I come to look at him—all that can be seen of him through his beard and general hairiness. His hat is very, very squash, and has had too many experiences. As your father sent him, he can't be an unconverted cannibal, still I'm sorry we have to give you up to him."
The big brown New Zealander now emerged from the stream, the water dripping from his horses. He made his way to the carriage, favoured the whole party with a momentary page 14glance from brown bovine eyes, gave them a laconic "Good evening," and having singled out Adelaide with evident interest, said "Miss Borlase," not interrogatively.
"Mr. Borlase sent you? Thanks," and Adelaide, now on horseback, turned back to her friends.
"Come over to Miramar soon and have a little music, Adelaide," said Mrs. Brandon.
"A litttle civilisation, Miss Borlase. As much as we can give you out here."
"Yes. When I have enjoyed some of my native barbarism first."
"A rivederci." "A rivederci," was repeated gaily at intervals across a widening space until the carriage disappeared in the cutting, and Adelaide found herself riding across the ford in the wake of her guide. It was delicious to be alone and once more in the regions of childhood Following the careful directions of the man in front, she picked her horse's way amongst the boulders and large stones, with a romantic sensation of plunging into a flood not of oblivion but of memory. Then she ascended the wooded bank and got at last right into the bush, into its very heart, cool, liquid, full of scents and sounds, wild and grotesque, lovely and strange, and all dimly remembered. Oh, the Bush, the Bush, the homeland of her infancy! Just for a few rapturous moments her spirit flew straight back into childhood. Oh the flutter of little wings, and the bird-calls page 15never heard through the long years, and oh the deep, dear darkness, with even the sky shut out! There was too much remembrance to be held all at once, and she let her mind float hither and thither amongst it all in a golden mist and cloud.
The first thing that began to disturb this super-exalted rapture was the man. Yet a well-trained groom should know better than to interrupt the self-absorbed solitude of his mistress. From time to time he cast incomprehensible and questioning glances at her, and was visibly taking her in. It was impertinent of him, or at least disrespectful. Or perhaps it was not. After all, she was not riding in the Row, and Major Brandon had warned her that New Zealand was democratic. A sensation of universal benevolence, born of the rapture of sunset and mountain air and home-coming, filled Adelaide, and overflowed even on to the groom. She wished not to ignore him, but to be gracious. She also reflected that graciousness with aloofness is the softest and surest means of putting transgressors in their place. So she tried graciousness, but it did not seem to work on colonials. The man only answered in monosyllables, and as it was not worth while discovering a new means of managing him, Adelaide simply forgot him and lapsed into silent delights of recollection. As they rode slowly upwards, the fragrance of some forest leaves penetrated her senses beyond all the page 16other scents. There were no flowers, but yet it was so sweet and so unlike all other sweetness that no one with such fine senses as hers could pass the shrub unawares. "Why, it's the myrtle!" she exclaimed. "Yes, it is myrtle— rama-rama," the man answered, unnecessarily, for she was not addressing him. He bent from the saddle, broke off a small branch, and handed it to her without another word, and as he handed it, he gave her a longer and more disturbing look. A little startled, Adelaide noticed him for the first time, and saw a bearded face, brown with sun and weather, ox eyes, brown with golden lights, and heavily lashed. She could not get him or something about him out of her mind, and began to be annoyed and to wonder why he had looked at her. What he saw was a slight little lady, bearing herself very gracefully, one dainty hand laid lightly on the reins and another holding the myrtle bough negligently; a face with no grand beauty at all, but most finely shaped and finely cut in clear and delicate outlines, quivering with expectancy, a face not only speaking but singing "like the melodie that's sweetly played in tune," sometimes the face of a child, sometimes that of an English girl, sometimes far-off the face of a high-born lady.
"I seem to remember you," Adelaide said in some momentary confusion.
"It doesn't 'seem' so to me at all," was the unexpected reply.page 17
"I am not going to like democracy in the least," Adelaide thought. "However ought one to treat inferiors here?" Then she said, still coldly gracious. "You were perhaps on my father's farm before I left home?"
"I was. Very much on it."
So he wanted to be remembered, that was all. This idea touched her momentarily, and she tried to remember any large-limbed, broad-shouldered, bearded man, with a particularly pleasant voice, but there might have been a good many about Haeremai.* While she was pursuing an intangible evanescent phantom of recollection, something else distracted her attention. It was a little creek, a baby offspring of the river that had forced its way through the heart of the strong rock, and cleft it in two, making it more beautiful than if it had been unbroken. For each side of the cleft heart was living green with treasures of moss and fern, transparent, dewy, tremulous in light and shade. Adelaide reined in her horse a minute, possessed by the sheer joy of loveliness, then a confused memory began to inhabit the peace. There was a rough foot-track to the farther bank, almost untrodden, and on the top a group of six tall tree ferns. They stood with their six columns wreathed with creepers and tiny fernlets and moss, and above they spread out and formed an interlacing fan tracery that page 18mocked old architecture with their own richer loveliness and life. The phantom memory drifted near, and it too was lovely and mocking.
"I used to play here," Adelaide said aloud. "There was a footpath from the creek."
"It is there." The man pointed it out with his whip, and said in a pleasant even voice, "You remember this place anyway, Aidie."
Adelaide flushed with anger, and her little head was held haughtily. It was outrageous. Any man about the farm might have known her as a child of ten, but that gave him no right to use her pet name to a young lady of twenty. If this was democracy, she, for her part, never would give in to it. She wished her father had not sent this particular man, he was spoiling her home-coming.
Then in the distance the sheep-dogs barked from their kennels, and the rocks echoed with the barking. The phantom fled. Oh, how often she had heard that sound after a long day's absence! It was the first bit of home, and the next came soon, the gleam of a lighted window, an oblong of light in the darkness, the flash of a lantern, and then dear, dear voices calling out. "That you?" "Have you brought her?" "That you, Aidie?" "Haeremai." "Haeremai." "Really you at last! Let me have a look at you, Aidie." "Well, my little girl, so you've come back at last to your old dad."
And next moment a little lady with her arms page 19around her father's neck, her head on his coat, her heart beating fast and tears on her cheek, was calling him her dear and her darling. A man, not yet seen, but felt was saying, "Tut, tut, nonsense. Come in and get something to eat," when his voice got husky and he caught her to him, and nearly smothering her said, "My pet, my Ada's girl," and thought of his dead wife. Then Emmie, dear good Emmie, step-sister, but in love almost a mother to Adelaide's orphan childhood, Emmie who had been waiting her turn, hugged her in a long close warm hug and led her indoors. Adelaide stood in the middle of a bright old-fashioned room, her eyes dazzled with the light, and she sent soft glances around the homely walls and furniture while Emmie stood still to admire her. Ten years ago she had left her home, a little girl in a black frock with a white sad face. Now she had come back, a fairy dropped out of the darkness. When they all got into the dining-room, an odd constraint fell on them. They began to be shy of her and she of them, and to feel they had to make each other's acquaintance again.
Emmie was a disillusionment, though an agreeable one. Adelaide had always regarded her sister as an elderly person, but she had forgotten how decidedly homely she was. Emmeline was stout, with a shape between square and round, and a large face that plainly showed she had just been cooking. Yet it was a pleasant face, the face of a born mother, if such page 20a paradox may be allowed. You could not think of anything more comfortable than to be kissed and cuddled by Emmie. She took off Adelaide's hat and brought her to the table, and there heaped her plate with good things. There was a wood fire in the open white-washed fireplace and pine-logs blazing and spluttering, and on the table there was a shaded oil-lamp and a feast of Emmie's own cooking, such scones as Adelaide had not tasted even in Scotland, wild honey and clotted cream, tea-cakes in piles and preserves of amber-colour and ruby jelly, a cold Paradise duck and the home-cured ham of a wild boar. "It was an old chum of yours who shot the boar and the wild duck too, on purpose for you, Aidie," said Emmeline but Adelaide was in a delicious dream. She seemed to feel Emmie, see Emmie, taste Emmie all through that meal, and thought that, though she was from an æsthetic point of view plain, yet as she sat at the head of the table and poured out tea and served the good things she had cooked, she was more than beautiful to behold. From time to time the sisters examined each other, Emmie more openly, Adelaide under some well-bred pretext. Once they caught each other doing this and laughed, and some of the constraint wore off. Adelaide had been talking about her London season when suddenly the thought came, "Imagine Emmie in Mayfair!" and a light ripple of laughter just touched her lips. The next moment she was penitent, and going to her page 21bedroom brought from her trunks treasures of costly lace, a piece bought from a cottager in County Kerry, a scarf from Como, old point lace of Italy and lace of Malta, and long floating scarves of silk and gauze reminiscent of summer days' shopping at Liberty's and in Bond Street. These she draped gracefully about her sister and herself, over her hair and round her neck and floating down, taking up and throwing aside first one and then another. While she was amusing herself in this way under the fire of her father's sarcasm, the door opened, letting in the cool night air, and the man who had escorted her came in. He gave her one of his enigmatical glances, sat down at the table, and proceeded to help himself liberally to the provisions. Emmeline came to make some fresh tea and then poured it out, remarking, "How late you are!" He drained the cup at one draught, and then said good-naturedly, "Now, you look after your sister and don't bother about me."
Adelaide gave a slight shiver, which might have been the draught and might have been annoyance. The voice seemed familiar. "Do I remember him or not? I wonder how I ought to treat him?" she thought. Not being able to decide, she did not treat him at all, that is to say she ignored him. If he had been either a groom or a gentleman she would have known exactly how to behave, but he was clearly neither. His manner was not even insolent, it was quiet and unaffected. And yet this was a page 22profounder kind of insolence. It showed that he failed to recognise her superiority. This irritated her, and she talked a long way over his head about Gothic and early Norman arches and Cologne Cathedral and Tintern Abbey, the tombs of the Medici, and then about the London stage and Tree, of Ellen Terry and of Bernard Shaw, of Melba and of the Wagner Cycle at the Royal Opera. While she was talking, and she talked very prettily, she forgot about being annoyed, and was carried away by bright memories of those crowded years since she had left the girls' school at Wycombe. "Well, you've had a rare good time, my little lass," said her father. "I meant you should, but you'll find the bush deadly dull after London and the Continent."
"I will not, Father." Adelaide came and knelt by his arm-chair and put up her hand to his face as she used to do. Father alone did not seem changed. "It has all been delightful, Dad," she said. "And Grandmamma Bohun has been very kind. It all seems like a fairy opera these last two or three years. But I've only got one father and one sister in the world, and now I've come home to you both." The slender arms went up again and closed around his neck, and the flower-like head was laid down again in its old place.
The man got up and went out quietly. For a person who did not speak one word to Adelaide's hundred, he was remarkably trouble-page 23some. His going out was annoying as his coming in. It had a positive quality about it. Adelaide could neither give her mind to him nor yet get him out of her head until she had said goodnight for the fourth time and had finished saying, "O Emmie, but I must just tell you," or "O Dad, but I forgot." At last she was alone in her own mite of a bedroom, so small, so white and pretty, with bush flowers on the old cedar chest of drawers that used to be mother's. Whoever was he, this bronzed and bearded labourer, claiming to be her equal? Oh confusion, could it be Dennis MacDiarmid? Her heart seemed almost to stop, while there flashed across her mind familiar looks and tones. Long ago her grandmamma had forbidden her even to think of "any such person," and the child with an appalled sense of having committed some unknown crime, had done her utmost to fulfil the majestic command. While coming home, she had from the habit of years banished to a subconscious sphere the remembrances that kept floating upwards. But this— this large, broad, full-grown man, changed beyond all recollection—could this really be the boy-playmate of her childhood? Away back in the prohibited realms of her memory there had throughout been a vague expectation of meeting that boy again, sometime—but never transformed into such a questionable shape as this. The whole story came back now, and the phantom vision was scorching her. That creek page 24and that group of tree-ferns—how dared he remind her? She saw herself, a little girl of ten, putting on her best white muslin frock and her "old-gold" sash, stealing her dead mamma's wedding ring out of her workbox and going to her tree-fern "church" to be married to Dennis. She had made him be bridegroom and priest in one. She had made him read— oh, is anything in the world equal to the atrocities perpetrated by innocence?—she had insisted on his reading every word of the marriage service, beginning at that part where it begins to be interesting, "Wilt thou have this woman—." He had vowed he would. She could just see him as he looked then, mock-grave, enjoying it all. He was sixteen years old. She thought it was much the same look he had given her once or twice to-night. For two years after she went to her Cornish grandmother, Adelaide had cherished the romantic consciousness of a secret marriage, and had written to him. Oh those letters, did he dare to keep them still ?—letters signed, "Your loving wife," and ending with a row of crosses for kisses, until one day Lady Bohun opened a scrawl from Dennis, and the sprouting youthful fancy was levelled in the dust. Adelaide grew so hot that she put out the light, and throwing the window open, sat down by it. The recollection of that far-away bush idyll made her half shiver, half laugh. Of course she had been only a foolish child with a dramatic instinct. page 25But he remembered it all, that was clear. Was it possible he presumed—he had given her at that mock marriage a bridal bouquet of wild myrtle. She indeed had asked him for it. That was why he had given her the rama-rama to-night. She seemed to smell the scent again, and not only in fancy. Oh yes, she had left the branch on the dressing-table. Adelaide flashed into sudden resentment, and threw it out of the window. Ill-bred boor to take advantage of a child's folly and to suppose he could claim intimacy with Lady Bohun's grand-daughter, the fiancée of Horace Brandon, the pet of London drawing-rooms. Adelaide soared above her old playmate into those inaccessible heights reserved for the British aristocracy, and regained sufficient serenity to go to bed and fall fast asleep.
* "Haeremai" is Maori for "Welcome." It is here used as the name of a sheep and cattle farm.