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The Heart of the Bush

Chapter I. A Retrospect—Where Childhood Sleeps

page 149

Chapter I. A Retrospect—Where Childhood Sleeps.

There was a lonely undiscovered valley that lured Adelaide's fancy when she was a little girl. Dennis told her there must be a valley there, because the Wainoni made a gap in the western ranges, but some distance away it swept, curving round into the unseen, and just at the bend a crag thrust its foot forward into the waters; and there the current ran deep and strong, and the forest trees formed an inpenetrable jungle. Mr. Borlase considered the entrance impracticable, and did not find it worth his while to try. Aidie liked to sit in the paddocks and watch the Wainoni flowing away under the sunlight of afternoon and evening, flowing away to where the great crag hid it from sight, away into the very midst of the Unknown and the Beyond. Like so many imaginative children in the Colonies, Aidie was always dreaming and waiting for the unseen world, which all her reading presented to her, and which was living in the memory of her parents. Just as she never doubted that the sky and the clouds were literally heaven, so she was sure that it must be in that western vale that fairies and dragons and knights and page 150heroes lived. She could never find them about Haeremai, and as she said to Dennis, "They must be somewhere." Everything invisible, impossible and romantically unlike her home inhabited that impassable territory. These things she told herself and Dennis so often, and so imperatively, that they both grew to believe them; she as proved fact, he as at any rate an undisproved possibility worth entertaining. Sometimes Aidie was satisfied with dreaming, sometimes she got fits of longing to run or fly or swim along the shining pathway of the Wainoni. One afternoon she began dipping first one foot, then another in the stream, and shrinking from the unkind stones and the cold water, when Dennis came whistling down the hill. He stopped and contemplated her with interest.

"What are you up to, Aidie?" he inquired. "You can't get over the river, you know."

"Oh dear, oh dear!" Aidie sighed in despair, "I do want to see over that hill where the river runs to. Dennis, Dennis, how can you?"

The boy had waded into the water, and was looking back at her with rather ostentatious enjoyment. She called to him to come back, then on second thoughts bade him stand in the very middle and tell her what he could see.

"Nothing much. Only crinkly water and little sparkles." Then, with sudden animation, "Oh, I say! Such lots of fishes!"

"Can you see up into the valley, Dennis?"

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But it was some time before the boy would be coaxed to leave off grabbing for the little fishes. Then he stood, looking and listening intently up the wind-blown track, almost expecting the moving clouds to alight and take visible human form upon the wavelets.

"I hear a sort of music coming that way," he said after a silence of suspense. "It is those Maori fairies that peeped at Te Kanawa and then ran away with the shadows of his ornaments for patterns. You know they always go about in little crowds singing together," said Aidie confidently. "O Dennis, do come here, please, and don't listen all to yourself. Don't the stones hurt your feet terrificabilly?" she inquired with sympathy as he waded back.

"Don't feel 'em a bit. Stones don't hurt if you walk on 'em enough. Better put your shoes and stockings on, Aidie; you aren't allowed to go barefoot."

"My foot won't never dry enough."

The boy felt for his handkerchief, said, "Dash it, he hadn't got one." He rarely had as a matter of fact. Fortunately, he never needed one. Then plucking some broad downy leaves he dried her feet gently. They seemed to him extraordinarily small, and she such a wee little lady, and so dainty. Aidie was the Boss's daughter, and her mother was the lovely lady of Haeremai, whom everyone looked up to; she was the only playmate near at hand; he was an unsophisticated boy, and in his quieter moods page 152nothing pleased him better than to play with her and tease her and take care of her. Aidie thought him a wonderful hero, and credited him with quite superhuman powers, but with rather a trying disposition. He put his arm behind her now without a trace of self-consciousness or even shyness, and if his eyes still kept a dreamy expression, it was because he was haunted by the wind music. Sometimes he did think of Aidie as his sweetheart, with much more knowledge of nature than had come to her from her story books. He always meant to marry her some day, but at present there were only green knobs of sentiment in him. Her imagination was in full flower already, but, so far as consciousness was concerned, she was a baby still.

"Couldn't I float up the river, Dennis?" she suggested in a beguiling tone. She felt sure he could arrange it for her somehow, if he tried hard enough.

"Floating's no use," he answered. "Nice and wet you 'ud get your dress that way. And the current flows East and the valley's West. See here, Aidie, don't you let on to anyone, and we'll ride down the river-bed to-night and get a look into those mountains. I'll catch our horses and steal your saddle for you, and then hide with them behind the matipos. You pretend to be tired and go to bed early, and when you hear a mavis sing, it 'ull be me whistling. So you climb out of the page 153window and come to me. Only if you say a word I'll get thrashed. Black and blue from head to foot and my bones all broken," he went on composedly, piling terror on terror, for Aidie at that age was of rather too confiding a disposition. "Then you'll cry, you know." Dennis's thrashings caused more acute anguish to her than to him.

Aidie shrank back terrified and yet fascinated.

"O Dennis, you might get hurt!"

"No matter," he answered with hardened philosophy. "I'm bound to get thrashed for something soon. And I'm going to find out where that music comes from, anyway. So you may as well come away too."

Never at any other time did Aidie do so daring and lawless a deed as on that night when she rose from her cot at the note of the thrush, and obeying Dennis's whispers, was lifted on to her horse and rode with him along the river bed. How dark it looked, totally changed from its everyday aspect. She had never seen or imagined it at night. The hills were only masses of darkness on each side. Somehow they seemed more alive than by day. One could not imagine what might be moving amongst them. The face of the moon flew fast in a many-coloured scarf of vapour. The river was "blacker than anything." There was little gurglings in it that one never heard in afternoons or mornings. A delightful, mysterious, guilty feeling seized the child. page 154At last they got near the crag and plunged into the stream, deeper and deeper, until they were clear of the shadow. Exactly what they saw or did not see, Aidie had no very clear idea; at first a great flood of moonlight, rushing waters, white shining mists moving amongst crags and blackness, little wisps of fog shifting over a marsh-garden of those rare blooms that grow only amongst the Alps, and white peaks, with only mists below them, rising out of the clouds instead of out of the ground. Even the very wind that rushed out of the mountains touched her cheek with an unfamiliar touch. Or was it really wind and not a mystic hand? Were those really moving mists or flying raiment? Surely there was a beautiful old witch with silver hair and blueish veils in amongst the fog and the moonlight! And who was ringing those little bells and the big bells in the water across the crag? Unfortunately the river flowed here deep and impassable, and rocks and forests kept the haunted vale forbidden territory. The children turned homewards discussing in a mixture of doubt and belief the extraordinary apparitions of that night, when in the strange darkness a most portentous thing occurred. A huge white ox strode into the stream and sent out a terrific bellow that echoed from rock to rock. It was of course not Willoughby's white ox, but a monster of a supernatural size. It had red fire for eyes; its horns were silver; smoke came out of its mouth; there were little page 155stars about its legs where they stood in the water. Aidie thought it was very likely Io, whom she was learning about in a little book called Heathen Mythology. Dennis felt certain it was a Taniwha, and that it was his duty to kill it, or as he had no weapon at hand, to throw stones at it. With this object he jumped off the filly and fired pebbles with considerable skill. The monster roared and Aidie shrieked. Dennis could not immediately leave off this exciting enterprise, but the fact that the ox continued immoveable convinced him that it was a phantom, and therefore impervious to stones. Now, though he was ready to deal with any creature of flesh and blood, he did not care much about tackling such an uncanny apparition as this, and was inwardly glad to yield to Aidie's agitation and leave the spot. Then they galloped back as fast as they could go, she deliciously thrilled with fear and with admiration of her hero, he fired by this midnight encounter with the Taniwha—a very rare monster even in Maoriland. The farther off they got the more enormous grew the dimensions of the ox and the fierier the sparks of its eyes. One might indeed see anything at that hour of dreams.

It was a very tired nervous little girl that Dennis lifted up to her bedroom window, and her pretty hair and her pretty frock were in most unusual disarray. He put his cheek down to hers, called her "Sweetheart," which page 156always pleased her greatly, then loitered a minute to whisper, "All right, Aidie?" and received her assurance and her farewell entreaty not to let anyone hurt him, as she stood tiptoe by the window to embrace him. Then he lingered about the bush for some time in the hope of evading his father. He had been suddenly struck with remorse for having led Aidie into this adventure. He knew the guilt was all his. She was only a wee little girl, and quite incapable of any wildness of her own, while he was a big boy of thirteen; besides he had heard Mrs. Borlase say, "Aidie is quite safe if she is with Dennis," and that made him feel proud and responsible. While he was thinking over his wrong-doing, he fell asleep until he was awakened by his sheepdog sniffling over him. Then he went home and opened the kitchen door quietly, but it was past four o'clock, and there sat his father taking his first breakfast by candlelight before going off to the milking. What happened after that, Dennis did not tell Aidie. No need to make her cry. Besides he deserved it that time. And the Taniwha was really worth being flogged for.

Aidie allowed the boy to take the burden of responsibility, but she had a haunting consciousness that she would feel guilty herself if her Mamma ever found out. Meanwhile, the recollection was a delightful, thrilling, mysterious secret, that she could not speak about even to her playmate except in whispers when they were alone.