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The Heart of the Bush

Chapter VI. Under the Tree Ferns

page 88

Chapter VI. Under the Tree Ferns.

"Thou that bringest all that bright morning scattered."

When Evelyn had gone Adelaide went to rewrite her letter, but could not find it anywhere. At first she thought herself mistaken, and continued to search among papers and books with increasing alarm, but no letter came to light. She sat down petrified, trying to imagine what could have become of it. A girl's agony of shame came over her, and she recalled every word she had written, and every word seemed to burn and sting her. Had the servant stolen it, and was she—O Heaven mercifully forbid!—was she at that moment spelling it out with avidity by the kitchen fire? Kate was herself of a literary turn of mind and had a modest pride in her own compositions, mostly poems inscribed on the margin of Mr. Borlase's "Otago Witness," and on Emmie's best cake paper, and left artlessly about where they were likely to be discovered and appreciated. Oh, that letter, that letter, what had become of it? Adelaide dared not inquire, but nerved herself to the martyrdom of enduring page 89its loss, with the tormenting fear at her heart that meanwhile Kate or one of the men might be in full possession of Miss Borlase's love affairs. Was there to be no end to her humiliations? It was like a realisation of one of those unclad dreams that haunt early girlhood. She had a vivid remembrance of once starting from a nightmare in which she was entertaining her grandmamma's correctest friends in the drawing-room at Tremayne when she became conscious that she had only her nightgown on. This was just as bad, indeed it was worse. It was not to be laughed away, it would go on without an end. It was being mentally unclad and affecting to ignore the fact. The very extremity of shame nerved her, and you might have supposed it was a very proud little lady who went into the six o'clock tea that night, only that she started nervously once or twice and flushed and paled too fast. Dennis and Emmeline did not help her out; they seemed uncomfortably occupied with her, and yet not with what she said. Emmeline's unconsciousness was supernatural, but Adelaide rebuked herself for suspecting her sister. Dennis looked at her several times across the table with a look she could not fathom, a look of laughter, questioning and something else, that made her heart beat fast. As soon as their eyes met, he turned his away. When tea was over, he came to her and putting one arm on the back of her chair, said, "Come out to page 90the slip-rails with me, Aidie. I want to speak to you." He had never since their mountain ride used her pet name, and he had avoided touching even her hand, but now when she brought a long silk scarf, he took it from her and arranged it, as he had often seen her do, over her head. His touch was gentle, but she tingled with it. Only an accepted lover should have used that tone and that manner. Oh the letter, the letter! Of course he could not have read it; it was insulting him to imagine such a thing, but what had been told him, what did he know?

Adelaide had lost her usual faculty for covering agitation by a surface current of conversation. It was all she could do to keep her half-proud, half-plaintive air, that claimed respect and homage more than love. They came to the trysting-place of the schoolboy and the child long ago, before shames and agonies were known in the world. The slip-rails and the fence divided the bush land from the Western hills that rose from the valley, upwards and upwards to the great mountains and the great setting sun. The bush lay on one side with the creek and the tree ferns in sight, cool, liquid and glad in the shadows, and on the other side the hidden sun burnt through and through the intervening mountains as if they had been glass. Adelaide stood by the railings with one arm resting on them, a light girlish shape in waving silks and floating scarf, like a figure page 91by Botticelli; or (as Dennis thought) like a vision

"The cloud-mirrors fling
On the gaze of a shepherd that watches the sky,
Half-dreamed and half-seen in the soul of his eye."

Only the small and delicate face was very lofty in expression, and the light figure drew itself away perceptibly from the man, who watched her with the eyes of the bush, of shadow and sunlight, of laughter and seriousness mingled. It seemed she was not held worth the wooing. She was simply to be claimed as brides are claimed by savages. Even so she must come to him. She loved him and by some means he knew it.

"Aidie." And then failing to move her, "I've waited a long time for this."

"For what have you waited, Mr. MacDiarmid?" tremulously and yet proudly.

"Oh, the time for 'MacDiarmid' has gone by. I'll be your Dennis now for good and all."

"Please let me know what this means."

"It means that I've found my little sweetheart again. I understand you at last, and I'll have nothing come between us while there's life in me. You've kept me off and you've drawn me on, you've forgotten me one day and remembered me the next, till you've nearly driven me wild. I've had all I could do not to take you straight into my arms, over and over again, and make you tell me what you meant by it. Only I could not bear to see you page 92frightened or vexed. Well, now that's over, and I'll be as tame as an uncultured and ungentlemanly boor can be expected to be, if you'll drop the drawing-room manners, and remember we are here together in the bush."

A very pale lofty face beneath the floating silk scarf, and the shadow of soft hair, a small hand trembling on the rail, so light a hand the wind might almost blow it off. The man came a few steps nearer and laid his big warm brown hand over it. He knew—how much? Nearly all? Surely not all? Oh, this was worse than yesterday. Why could a lady not defend herself from such a barbarous lover?

"Are you so sure you have the right—"

"Now, don't. It's no use, my darling. You've given yourself away, and you can't go back on your own words. You love me and you can't live if I get drowned, and you're sure that I love you, and Brandon knows what that means," he quoted unsparingly, then added, "What's more, Aidie, so do I."

The small hand was torn away from his, and the cloud face, framed in the dying sunset, was tense and quivering with anger, contempt and injury.

"You read my letter?"

"Yes, I read it."

"You are not ashamed to tell me that?"

"Not a bit."

"Then, Mr. MacDiarmid, it is not true now. I do not love you, you are dishonourable."

page 93

A few minutes' silence. The man was a trifle pale now. Then he spoke quietly. "I won't let even you say that, Aidie."

"Oh, Dennis, Dennis, don't take me at my word." Of course Adelaide did not say this aloud, it was an inarticulate cry, followed by another, "Oh, what shall I stoop to at last?" What she said was, "I have been mistaken in you. I did not dream you could do anything disgraceful."

"I could if I tried, but I don't remember trying."

"You stole a confidential letter addressed to another man and read it."

"That's libellous. But I can't be angry with you to-night. It was not addressed, it was given to me, and I was told it was meant for me. I couldn't make head or tail of it at first. Until I came to that part comparing me to Brandon, blest if I didn't think it was the queerest new-fashioned way my little girl had got of writing to me."

"Emmie gave it to you!"

"Now, who said anything about Emmie?" But Dennis was so vexed she knew her intuition was right.

"It was Emmie," and to herself, "O Emmie, Emmie, how could you betray your sister?"

"Don't you turn round on Emmie. You're Emmie's little goddess, next only to being mine."

A little quivering of the firm set lips, a little page 94softening of the eyes, but still a resentful and severe fairy-queen.

"If you read my letter by mistake, you ought not to make use of it."

"Oh, nonsense, Adelaide!" He laughed delightfully, looking down on her. "Do you suppose I'll get a letter telling me you love me and then take no notice of it?"

"It was never meant for you. Give it back to me."

"Not unless you promise not to send it. Do you think I'll let my sweetheart crawl to a man like Brandon? You've nothing to apologise for. He took his chances like any other man. Let him be thankful for what he has had. He's had the smile of your pretty eyes and the touch of your dear little hands, while I've been shut out in the cold. Has he been rough to you?"

"Oh no, you do not understand. He could never be rough. He was," a shadowy evanescent smile, "not nearly so rude as you are, Dennis."

"I've no opinion of Brandon. He shouldn't try force with his sweetheart. I wish you weren't so vexed about the letter. I had the real claim to it, not he. And, Adelaide, if you write any more letters of that sort, I'll open them and keep them all, addressed or not. I'll take good care no other man sees what you wrote about me."

She drooped a little then, though still holding page 95herself from him, and her expression seemed not quite so distant, so far aloft.

"Dennis, I'm very, very sorry. I want to take back what I said against you. I did not altogether mean it—not in the way you think."

"I don't care a straw about your calling me hard names, if it amuses you, though why you like it I don't know. But you are not going to write to any other man about the old days, and about that night and the way we love each other. That's my affair, and I don't take Brandon into my confidence."

Then they both waited and had no more words. Adelaide's head was bowed on one hand, her arm still resting on the rail, while she seemed to watch the West. The sun had set. The clouds and the air were fields of flowers in a celestial spring, daffodils and faint primrose and orchard blossom, the blue of speedwell and the youngest green of leaves, but most of all the wild pink briar. It flushed the cold violet of the mountains, and the lovely snow lily of Aorangi, faint and remote, blushed at its neighbourhood into an aerial rose. The lark dropped down into its nest, and its low last cadence died away into the full content of silence. The lambs bleated to the ewes on the hills. So every sound and sight had seemed to the child half her lifetime ago. She often lay out on these hills cradled on Dennis's arm, and they would watch for the first star and then see who could count the most, until too many page 96came to be counted, and all the sky was countless stars. When it grew damp and chilly he used to fold the little girl in his coat; she remembered the feel of the rough Kaiapoi wool, and the scent of gorse and clover in it. "O Dennis, Dennis, you surely loved me better then." Adelaide was crying, her face turned from him, the silk scarf drawn carefully forward, and her hand shading her forehead as if she were only musing and watching the West. She meant Dennis not to see in the twilight, but he felt now rather than saw.

"Aidie, don't." He had put his arm round her, but she could not let him take her out of pity. It was too cheap, too common, too much like Pamela, to move him by tears. "Won't you let me comfort you? I promised you I would."

"Forgive me for that letter, Dennis."

"Why, Aidie, it was the best letter that I ever got. I don't mind how much you scold me if you'll tell me that you love me, and can't live without me."

"Don't keep it, Dennis, please."

"There." He took it out of his pocket and tore it into fragments. "That's an end of it."

"I have behaved very badly. I've injured you more than anyone else, Dennis."

MacDiarmid sat on the brae below her, her hands were left in his now, and he saw a little lady not too lofty to be sweet, only too shy yet for strong caresses, the scarf floating round her, page 97but no longer shading the face that looked down on him. The glow had gone, the first stars were coming out in a pale sky, and he remembered as she had remembered.

"My little sweet, my little dear, you haven't been injuring anyone, and don't you go fancying it. You'd got one set of English ideas and another set of Colonial, and you couldn't quite decide between them. It was a bit rough on me sometimes, and—yes, well, perhaps it was on Brandon too."

"You do despise me, Dennis."

"Now, why will you talk such nonsense? I despise you! You're a bit of a miracle to me, love, you with your songs and your flowers, your scraps of silk and gossamer, and lace that look as if they were part of yourself. And all the wonderful things you've seen in the countries and seas that belong to poets and kings and heroes; it's all of it been a real live poem to me. All the while you were away I used to come up to the house when the mail came in, and in the evening your father read your letters aloud, and we fancied you in the castle in Cornwall that the Tudor knight built. And the last two years it was magic, if anything ever was. One day you were on the Rhine, and another in Alt Heidelberg, and then in the gondola in Venice, and another you were hearing the 'high, high Mass' in St. Peter's, and then it was the Cathedral choir at Westminster and then in the court of the Queen. page 98That evening when I rode to the Wainoni to bring you home I kept wondering what you would be like, and I thought about Kilmeny coming back in the gloaming from a far countree."

Twilight and a soft voice falling on the silence.

"Aren't you going to tell me that you love me, Dennis? I have told you."

"What's the use of telling you that when you've known it all along? Love you? Of course I love you. God knows I do, my darling. I've come to these slip-rails many and many's the time when you've been on the other side of the world, and I've never come but what I've seen you here, as I see you now this blessed night. I can't remember when the love began with me, and I don't suppose it is ever going to end. First it was the wee, wee bit lassie in the red shoes running out of the house to pluck the daisies. And then it was the little girl in the muslin frock, who would be married to me under the tree-ferns whether I wanted or no. And then it was my lofty little lady up amongst the mountain lilies who would keep trampling over me."

"You couldn't have liked that one, Dennis?"

"That one? No, it wasn't to call 'liking' with that one. That one was next only to what I've got to-night—my love, my wife that shall be soon. Aidie, you've angered me often, and just for a moment or two I've almost thought I page 99'ud burn your dear, funny letters and give you up to Brandon. But I couldn't do it. Whatever you did or said, still it was you."

"I am only a vain, spoiled child, Dennis. I wanted to be courted."

"Oh! You wanted that, did you? What a blockhead I have been! Well, have I courted you now? Aidie, my Aidie, we're more than children playing now. Come and let me take you along the creek and show you your temple under the tree-ferns. The myrtle's there still. I wouldn't have a leaf touched." He rose. "Come, your hand, love."

It was starlight on the hills, but dear dark night in the bush. Adelaide knew it was not the voice of the boy that spoke to her now, and overcome by secret shyness of him and of herself, she gave him a hand that scarcely touched him, held out gracefully as if this had been a starlight dance. But the formality provoked Dennis beyond further endurance. He lifted her off her feet and held her to him. "You've kept me at arms' length too long. Give me just this minute," he said, and took a long hour. He carried her along the creek to the tree-ferns, and there sat with her in his arms. Adelaide made a protest, but it was insincere, and he knew and laughed low, but took no further heed. Dennis was by blood and birth a barbarian, of a race that had come from the wilds of the Highlands and the Isle of Achill, and had rooted itself here in the still more page 100savage country amongst the Alps of Maoriland. Then Adelaide let all the civilisation drift over her and far away from her, and came back to old, primitive childlike things. She was glad of the strength of his arms, and glad to feel his strong heart-beats against her own. She put up a small white hand to his cheek, and he held it against his lips. A little thin mist came up out of the waters and crept around his knees and around her as she lay on them, and the night dews fell. The white silk scarf was drenched with dew, and he took it off, and felt that her cheek and forehead were chilled, and her hair damp with mist and dew. Her dress was only of fine thin muslin. He drew her into the folds of his coat, and she knew the scent of grass and gorse, and then she was closer than before, as close as the lambs pressing to their mothers out on the hills. There is something maternal in all strong love, even if it is a man's. He held her in his arms as if she were his infant, and she remembered the bosom of her dead mother. His right arm held her, and it was strong to hold, his right hand was on her heart, and his left was laid upon her face, to give it warmth. There was the heat of the sun in his lips and in his hand, and all through his great frame. Adelaide thought he would never be anything but warm, even if the snows fell or the night froze around them. Her head lying back, she saw above them the tracery of arching tree-ferns. There was a gap in the page 101blackness of leaves and sky, and in that gap she saw a great star. Once or twice Dennis spoke, but only repeated her name, and each time separately, as if it meant more than all other words in the world. "Aidie," and then again, "Aidie." Adelaide was perfectly content, without one desire or fear. Beyond all the pulsing of joy and passion and remembrance, she felt herself encircled by some ultimate and large tranquillity. She put up her hand to secure a loosened comb of gold, but Dennis moved to stay her hand, and unfastened all her hair around her face and shoulders, and played with it at his pleasure. "It was just so long when you left," he said. That broke the spell of silence, and Adelaide spoke.

"Let me go, Dennis. I really mean it this time. It is late."

His arms relaxed, and they moved apart, and felt as if they had been all but drowned in deep waters. But they could not separate at once, and so came together again for one more long embrace and kiss. Then they went up to the house, hand in hand, through the dark and whispering leaves and the tremulous ferns, and they were children once more.