The Heart of the Bush
Chapter V.The River of Images
Chapter V.The River of Images.
The way that Dennis had contrived for Adelaide to have her wish was that he should take his own mare and the pack-horse to the nearest cattle station, and leave them there while they were away, and that she should ride through the gorge while he went on foot leading the horse. He had examined the gorge and knew that from the farther side she could get a distant glimpse of the Alps. Adelaide thanked him and thought in her heart, "When I have got so far, who knows what may happen next?" And she fixed her hopes on the Tohunga.
But in the morning when they went to look for the Tohunga, he had disappeared, and they searched in his hut and on the side of the mountain. Adelaide almost thought she must have dreamed him, when looking down, she saw near the tent-pole some tree orchids, and she knew that he had "materialised" them.
"Cheer up, Aidie, never mind the — old lunatic, — him," said Dennis, with cheerful profanity. "I'll dispose of these animals first, and then we'll hunt up a sight of the glacier. If we keep to the river we can't go wrong." page 187But halfway through the gorge to their amazement the river too vanished. The mountains meant to hold their own. Even Dennis was stupefied at this portent. The Nor' West Spirit swept down to oppose them with troops of wind driven rains, but Adelaide rode on gaily without quailing, and the Spirit fled down the Pass behind them. The mountains broke open, and through the clefts showed the country they had ridden. Behind were rain and angry cloud, in front warm sunshine. A rainbow spanned the intervening space, dropping from rock to rock and glorifying the wet grass. Through its mist of colour they saw a tranquil shining valley with Alpine verdure and waving plumes of toi grass; a silent forest, sunlit at the top, stood in the valley, white sea-gulls sailing high in air above it. The Wainoni flowed out of Nowhere again to join a small still river, so still it seemed to lie in a dream without moving. On the farther side of the valley was a line of snow shapes that at first seemed clouds, a dome, a ridge of jagged shapes, a pyramidal peak. Between a heaven of white Alps and a chaos of iron-black crags and shingle slides, Dennis pointed out a silver streak of solid mist, and told Adelaide that this was the glacier from which the Wainoni flowed.
"And now you are quite satisfied, aren't you?" he asked.
"Of course," Adelaide answered in a page 188reluctant tone. "We cannot go any further, can we?"
"Can you walk through virgin bush or wade up the stream?" he inquired, not unkindly.
"You can, Dennis?"
"What has that got to do with anything? My little girl, remember I've taken you out of your own world into mine."
"That is what I wanted." Adelaide gave him a sudden quivering glance between light and shadow. "To see your world, dear, to share your life."
"You can't, my darling—not in that way." He spoke seriously, then became unexpectedly poetic as his eye fell on a rock with a celmisia growing in a hollow of it. "Mine's only a block of stone and earth, and your's is the flower that's grown up in the heart of it."
As soon as he had finished speaking he looked again at the small stream. There was the Tohunga floating in a canoe; and by a clump of nigger-head grass he stayed and watched them. But when they came near he was scared again, and stood up to push off. Dennis sprang from the saddle, threw the reins back and halloed. The Tohunga stood with his oar arrested. MacDiarmid went into the water and laid hold of the stern of the boat, but followed up this vigorous proceeding by the mildest persuasion, "You're never going off without the lady, mate?" he said in his most melodious tone, "And you've got in those page 189sheepskins on purpose for her to sit on, now haven't you? Run the prow into that point and I'll help her in. Come, Aidie." Adelaide made some faint protests, but in a few minutes he had lifted her in and settled the matter for two uncertain minds, and they, much the happier for it, were passing silently up the stream, while he mounted her horse bareback and urged her on into the jungle of thorny lawyer and rotting branch and trunk and bog and rotten bark that looked so fair above. Many a time he dismounted and led the mare, and cut through supple-jack and lawyer to make way. As he went he thought, "My poor little girl, no, she can never go where I go. But why on earth does she want to?" For that was a thing he never understood.
The canoe slid smoothly over the stream. The Wai-o-hine is the stillest of all rivers in that country, and seems to move only by an imperceptible current. The air above had no motion, and on the water the only ripple was where the oars broke. All was glamour and magic. From bank to bank was a stretch of only a few yards, and the bush dipped root and branch into the water. Every trunk and projecting bough, every space of grey sky hung upside down in the river. The keel of the boat drifted along with the curving side. Adelaide saw the images of herself and her guide below; she shunned the bank where there was no bank; she ran into a tree think-page 190ing it a shadow, and laughed to see a bird sitting on a bough in mid-stream. For nature itself has illusions. They floated into a misty lake, and on one side was a landing-place rotting to decay. Her guide moored the boat and went on in front, still without speaking. Adelaide followed, and their feet trod down the grass and fern. They came to a weather board house prematurely old, round which the bracken grew tall and rank. By the house wall stood a rose tree, crusted with hoary moss, and with few leaves but two pale blossoms. When they had entered, the Tohunga stood uncertain and perplexed, then told Adelaide to get through the house and choose which room she would have, and take whatever she wanted for herself. As she walked from room to room, she started at the sound of her own footfall. In one the window was boarded up, and she took a few steps into darkness. Some drapery wafted slowly and softly against her and she shivered. In the next room, where eyeless windows let in the light, there was a long table with benches on each side and a chair at each end, but no one sat there, and she fancied there were ghosts of parents and of children who had passed away. A door had fallen down, and in the dusk beyond she saw a wooden cradle. The last room she chose, because it had not been so long disused, though grass had sprung up in the rotten flooring. On one side was a wide open fireplace, and while she stood page 191looking around, a large bird, startled by the sound of human footsteps, fluttered and whirred past, then flew through the window. There was a single tester bed with shreds of drapery, and near it a large old-fashioned leather trunk, with a half-effaced name of which she made out the letters T. D. but no more. She opened the lid and took out one piece after another of household linen, yellow and almost crumbling with decay. She was just unfolding some sheets when Dennis came in. Adelaide told him it was a haunted house where something had happened long ago, but he only laughed and said he was starving; he would as soon dine with ghosts as anybody just then, sooner than wait any longer he would sup full of horrors if he only could get enough of them. Dennis had shot some redbills as he came along, and these the old man cooked while Adelaide made some damper, much better than Dennis's, as he was obliged to own. As the night went on, storm battered on the sheets of zinc overhead, and winds howled through every casement and gap of the ruinous house, and the lightning darted in through undraped windows, followed by blackness or seething showers. It might have been a scene of enchantment in the room, lighted only by the fireflames on the wall. Dennis felt poetical and mystic as soon as he had finished his dinner, and he leant one elbow on the table and sat listening intently to the Tohunga's tales, while Adelaide's eyes page 192became dreamier and dreamier and her hands played half unconsciously with a greenstone tiki, or charm, on her lap. The Tohunga's features grew keener, and a curious light came into his eyes as he talked of the vanished tribe who had been driven southwards and further south to the waters of this forest lake, where at last the northern invaders fell on them and slew every living one. He told them of a burial pit of the natives up north, and said he had gone down into it and taken from it the tiki which he had given to Adelaide. Then he spoke of the Wainoni, and said it tunnelled for itself a sunless cavern under the mountain and came out at the other end.
It was nearly midnight when they separated. Dennis made a fire in the room Adelaide had chosen; then he threw some sheep-skins in front of it, lay down on them and went to sleep. Adelaide lay the whole night long, half-awake, half-asleep in her mummified wrappings of old sheets, and she dreamed, not quite unconsciously, for Adelaide's dreams were sometimes like her imaginings of the day and not altogether involuntary. She dreamed the bird came fluttering and crying over her head, turning its restless eyes down on her, flying a little way towards the door, then back, until she got up. It flew in front of her and she followed it all through the house, but could not see the Tohunga anywhere. After a gap of unconsciousness, she was out on a mountain of grey page 193stones and slippery rocks, and there was the old man, thinner and taller and greyer than before. He held out one finger in warning, but she felt a current of wind blowing her on until she saw a frozen river. A thick dark mist lay over it, and the Tohunga hurried on through it, where she stumbled and could not follow.
Adelaide woke up but would not let her dream go without an end. Soon she was looking into a cavern full of mists; these coiled into the semblance of a robe trailing about the hidden feet of an infant, and of a white film veiling the face of an infant who seemed to lie in the cloudy vapours. Adelaide put out her hands to take the child but touched chill mists, and then it vanished. She asked the old man who was the infant, and imagined that he answered "Life." "What has become of the river?" she cried, and was distressed. The old man answered, "It is the River of Life." Then she asked the name of the valley that it flowed through, and he answered, "Love." "And you, who are you?" she asked, and her spirit was troubled. His voice sounded fainter and far away, and he began to melt into nothingness. Two words came into her head —"Time," "Death"—but she did not know which of them he had said, or whether he had said both. Repeating these words, she woke herself in a fit of palpitation. Rising out of the haunted bed she stood opposite Dennis, page 194ethereal in the last red glow of the fire. He stirred, looked at her fixedly, and after some minutes said, "It is you, Aidie, and not a ghost." "I think it is myself," said Adelaide, "but I am not quite sure," and she put one bare foot forward and then stopped, not wishing to come to him quite of her own impulse. Without altogether rousing himself, he grasped the situation enough to make a place by his side amongst the sheep-skins, and half rising on one arm to say, "Come, Love, and I'll soon tell." Adelaide was glad to be content with that invitation, so she nestled down by him and told him all her dreams. "They seem rather nice and visionary now they are over," she concluded, "but I didn't enjoy them at the time." Then she found that she had been talking to herself, for Dennis as soon as he had wrapped the rug round her and thrown his arm across had fallen fast asleep again.