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The Heart of the Bush

Chapter VI. Tapu

page 195

Chapter VI. Tapu.

When morning came they found that the Tohunga really had wandered away by himself again. Dennis swore till Adelaide turned pale. But she thought of their honeymoon compact that he should do as he pleased until their return. So she said nothing, but she sat still looking at her hand, and she turned her wedding ring round on her finger. This he presently perceived, and began abusing himself and ingenuously swore that she never should hear him swear again, compact or no compact, if it hurt her the least little bit, and he called her many sweet things, and stooped down to woo her until all was well again.

After a morning with the outside world blank and blind with rain, a hot sun shone out, and Dennis made his way upward through the bush. Emerging from wet shades and crumbling trunks, he reached the realm of ice and snow and heard the Alps call him in a loud voice to come and conquer them. It was night when he returned, mud-stained but magnificently happy. He talked to his bride of blue ice and green, of the Dome, and of a range from which he saw not one but a dozen page 196glaciers, and the tips of snow shoulders and snow crowns one above another. If once she saw them, he said, she would own they beat all her marble palaces and temples hollow. "And you are going to show them all to me, aren't you, Dennis?" said Adelaide, with the air that had so often beguiled him when he was a boy. Dennis dropped his arms upon his knees in a pondering attitude and sat without answering, weighing his desire to see delight in her eyes against a common sense perception that the adventure was too rough for her. Adelaide decided the matter in her own favour by saying, "O Dennis, I have come to see your world, and you are going to keep the loveliest places to yourself?" And she leaned lightly over him and her breath was in his hair.

"I wonder when it will begin to be my turn to be obeyed," he asked. "All right, little girl, I'll make the first part of the track better for you."

All the next day and the morning afterwards Dennis toiled at the track, while Adelaide sat in the shade and admired him inwardly, or sang to him, or prepared meals in a South Sea Island state of bliss and simplicity except for some fear of injuring her delicate complexion. She heard the sound of great waters softened in the distance. MacDiarmid hewed with his axe through the jungle, cutting down the thorny creepers; he rolled away stones and logs, and sent them crashing down the side of page 197the precipice. Then he leapt down in good spirits and said they could begin the ascent. "Mind you tell me the moment you're tired," he said, "and I'll lift you up." But Adelaide never did tell anyone when she felt tired, and she did not want her husband to carry her for need, but only in an ecstacy of love. Dennis was much too matter-of-fact to understand this. For the first quarter of an hour Adelaide sprang lightly up the rocks, catching at one bough, then another. They went by the almost dry bed of a creek, where the rain of two days ago had left scarcely a trickling stream. Adelaide soon began to flag, and she became more and more afraid lest she should faint before Dennis. The more she feared the fainter she grew, but she thought, "It is not much further. I will not give way and let him think me so weak." Dennis wished to lift her over the steepest part, but she resisted him and said, "Oh no, she was not really tired," until while she was saying this she leaned against him and closed her eyes. Dennis was greatly wroth and rebuked her violently, but all the while held her fast to him. Adelaide unfastened his arm, and went and sat on the trunk of a tree and looked on the ground, because she never liked to be disesteemed. She thought the towers of Paradise were fragile and were falling around her.

"I think we had better go straight home to Haeremai," said Dennis, looking upon her and still angry and doubtful.

page 198

A tiny bird flew on to a bough just in front of Adelaide, and sang and sang and quivered as if its body were the magic song.

"Dennis!" said Adelaide, as she rose and lifted her blue eyes with a delightful smile. "I will go home or I will go on, just whichever you please."

"I want you to be pleased," said he, but his wrath began to be lowered.

"I will be pleased then," said she. "But what am I to do just now, dear?"

"I wish," said he, "you would let me swear."

"No, you must not," said Adelaide gravely, and looked like a bijou miniature of her grandmamma, "because you gave me your word of honour not to swear, and a knight may even be unkind to his lady and be forgiven, but he may never break his word."

At that he laughed a great laugh and threw himself down by her. "No," said he, "that you shan't do. You are not going to pretend to be an angel, my darling. You are a foolish little girl, and you nearly made yourself ill and gave me no end of trouble. But you're my goddess and my Elfin Queen all the same, and I'm sorry I scolded you. Pardon, Aidie." Then he took her up the ascent, and with strong hand lifted her up the steep slope. The sound of waters grew deeper and deeper until it filled all the air.

They came out of the edge of the forest, and Adelaide saw as it were the very heart and page 199soul of that mountain kingdom which it pleased her to call her husband's. Her eyes were dazzled and could not take the whole in at first, but saw it bit by bit. There was an undimmed splendour of blue sky, without earth-mists or vapours. Then her eyes followed the direction of the sound of waters, and she saw a giant mountain sheeted in flying spray. Where the spray reached, light and colour were veiled and glowed with moist brightness, and there was verdure and bloom. A little Alpine vale lay bathed in sun and spray, all one garden of celmisia and lilies and gentians, thorny spikes of yellow, and moss of amber and of emerald. From the rock cliff two trees of lace-bark trailed branches of white blossoms downward to meet the ground flowers below. Kubla Khan in a vision could not build a pleasure dome like that giant waterfall—a flying palace of waters that quivered with opal in the breeze and light, as they built themselves up afresh each moment, falling downwards incessantly with such force that they splashed some feet upwards from the levelled rock. They fell in sheets of thinnest glass, in columns and globes of crystal and of chipped marble, in flying buttresses and wavering towers. Adelaide sighed a little, and said the Falls were so glorious it made her feel desperate, and she did not know what she should do with herself if the ice-cave were really lovelier still as he told her. But when Dennis had helped her up the side of the cave page 200and she bent gracefully over it, she declared it really was a miracle. No one knows what purity of colour means until he has seen Alpine ice, purer than the atmosphere, its blueness only a tint of immaculate white.

They were standing on the verge of a great mountain plain of loose shingle and boulders, an older moraine joining the terminal moraine of the Wainoni. A high wall of grey stone, the banks of the Wainoni glacier shut them in on one side; at the end of the glacier was a rocky mass, and from the cave underneath the river rushed out in a mad tumult of life and strength, forcing its way downward. All around the grey valley rose mountains, one scarred with red cliffs and one a mass of iron-black rock, seamed terribly with jagged ice, and others covered with pure snow. From the farther edge of the glacier rose more peaks and a long line of snow and ice, sharp-edged against the deep blue of the atmosphere, and in one slope was a frozen cataract of ice with a green glitter in it. The bride and bridegroom sat down on a rock and almost involuntarily drew closer together as if to share each other's wonder, but Dennis was disappointed at missing Adelaide's quick rapture. Her very soul was exhausted within her, the more because her slight body was still fatigued. There is something appalling in the loveliness of these snow heights, barren of all verdure, something unearthly in the intensity of light, in the unmixed colour of the page 201sky, the silence and whiteness of snow, the icy glitter of frozen water, the grim blackness of rocks, and most of all in the colourless grey desolation that dominates these great stony moraines of Maoriland. Dennis pressed her to him that she might feel the solemn pleasure in his own mind, but she felt only the comfort of his touch. Something had gone subtly wrong. He relaxed his hold, his arm still round her, but his face turned to watch the mountain that rose from the further end of the glacier, a few miles distant. An avalanche of snow fell downward with the soft immensity of sound that is like nothing else, neither waves nor wind nor thunder, a sound that gathers and breaks in one vast volume, wakening echoes among deep gorges and giant precipices of rock. It was a voice that called him. Now what had gone wrong was this: Adelaide was thinking only of Dennis, and Dennis was thinking of something else. His desire to trace the river to its head had come from Adelaide, but he had one ambition of his own, and that was to climb the summit of the Rangatira, the snow peak beyond the glacier, not one of the great monarchs, but one which no one yet had climbed, though he himself had attempted it before from another side. The longer he looked at that mountain the stronger grew his conviction that this was the thing he had got to do. It became irksome to sit still with that white summit daring him to conquest. His large hand stroked Adelaide's hair and neck page 202and the sleeve of her dress with a touch that suggested restlessness, and she, under a pretence of changing to an easier position, moved from his touch. She never wished to give herself unsought, nor to let caresses be too easily taken.

"I want badly to get to the top of the Rangatira," Dennis observed. "You can't imagine what it's like climbing a mountain, hanging on to nothing in particular, clinging on to rocks and cutting steps in the ice, without an idea in your head except your next step, and something in you making you go up."

"I should think," said Adelaide tremulously, "it would be frightfully hard."

"Yes, that's it," he said; "it's so hard you get mad to do it, and when you have done it, when you've got to the summit where nobody else has been, why, you just feel you're worth something. If I had got a mate here and not you, my darling, I'd be up the Rangatira like a shot."

"Oh, what a pity," Adelaide said, with a little pride and a little pain, and she played idly with the twisted tiki.

"It's tapu," Dennis remarked; "must have been buried with some chief, and we shall certainly die from it—in the course of time. Halloo-oo-oo!"

Adelaide gave a slight start, and looking up saw the old Tohunga creeping cautiously amongst the frozen mounds of the glacier, his hand stretched out to feel one rounded mass of page 203white, his scanty beard and hair blown wildly by the wind, a lean dog at his heels. He had never before seemed so unearthly, and she thought of her dream and gave a little shiver.

The Tohunga raised himself from his stooping posture and pointed to the mountains, but Dennis hallooed "Wait," and he stood stock still in the same attitude.

"Now, you can go where you like, Dennis," Adelaide said.

"Why, yes, I suppose I could. The old man knows these mountains like anything. But what about you, child?"

"I am not a child, Dennis, and I shall be all right. I could not think of keeping you back."

"Let me see. I could be back in five or six hours, and I will, whether we get to the top or not. You won't get fancies, my dearie?"

"Do you think I would ever spoil your pleasure, Dennis?" Her face was pale, and there was a slight strain about the eyes and lips. "Do go. I want you to."

"Well, good-bye, my sweetheart." He took her in his arms, and she yielded herself passively to his kisses. Then he left her, but looked back once or twice, and she waved her handkerchief to him and smiled, but the smile died quickly when he was out of sight.

Adelaide was alone with his dog in the solitude of the Alps. Tane's anguish overcame his breeding, and he whimpered piteously, and holding his head pleadingly on one side and page 204looking up at her, he implored her to follow. He reasoned that it must be her fault that he had to remain here. When she wasn't about, he was always free to follow his human god; they went the wildest expeditions together, and the wilder they were the more they enjoyed themselves; when his master was alone he made a chum of him, and they had conversations together. His mistress was a new introduction; he was always rather jealous of her, and just now thought her a sad mistake. Finding his most moving whimpers had no effect, he left them off and sulked. This was the first thing Adelaide noticed after Dennis had gone, and, somehow, it made her feel exceedingly forlorn.

She had come into her husband's world, and, somehow, it did not seem quite meant for her. She was in the presence of nature, absolute and supreme. It was beautiful, but it was terrible. It had wrought her up into a state of exaltation, which a touch one way or other could turn to joy or to melancholy. She had not the least complaint to make of Dennis, she told herself. Here she was as safe as at home. There was water near, he had brought up meat and bread and all she needed in a swag. Until to-day he had devoted himself to her comfort and her pleasure. "Too much, perhaps," she told herself. He was strong, he must use his strength, She was delicate, she must endure her weakness. "He never shall be sacrificed to me in page 205any way," she said to herself, holding her head erect. "He shall stay with me only while he wishes; he shall come to me only for his pleasure." But somewhere back in her heart a stifled voice was crying that this might be the law of nature, it was not quite the law of love.

"If only Tane would not whine and sulk! I might spare Dennis these few hours. He will enjoy them so much." And at that thought she was ashamed to feel tears in her eyes. For a change of thought Adelaide began at first unconsciously to watch the scene around her. The very spirit of solitude seemed to reign here. Often in their valley she had spent three or four hours alone, and been perfectly happy in the thought of Dennis's return. He had often left her while he went out to shoot, or to bring back bread and milk for her. But as soon as they had slept in the tent it had become home, and when they had feasted among the rocks and ferns these had become familiar. The Alpine marsh had been her garden and the bush her park, and she knew the voices of the river. But the immensity of the Alps overwhelmed her, and these barren stones were an oppression. On the moraine there was not a tuft of grass in sight, not one tree grew among the stones. There was not one animal except Tane in sight. The sounds that reached her were strangely unfamiliar, the cracking of ice, the falling of rocks down deep hollows, the gradual page 206gathering and the final crash of an avalanche, the wild plunge and tumult of the new-born river, the answering of the waterfall, unseen from where she was now sitting. Her dream began to haunt her as if it had been reality, and with that kind of civilised superstition which is half sincere, half affected in jest, she let the tiki fall. Not two hours had gone by yet. Must she just wait and do nothing until Dennis came back? That was the hardest part of all, not that he had left her, but that she must wait until he was ready to return to her. "I wish it were you that needed me," she thought. "O Dennis, love, am I quite as much to you as you to me?" Then she checked herself. "I am getting childish and exacting." She took some food and fed Tane, then rose up. "Come, Tane, let us have a walk." Tane, only half propitiated, wagged his tail feebly. He knew the walk with her just then would be a poor affair, but it was better than nothing. Adelaide climbed up the bank of the glacier above the cave, and with the effort her depression almost vanished. She had got quite close to the white masses of frozen snow and ice and her pleasure revived. They were so beautiful, those curving outlines. To anyone regarding the whole length of the glacier their shapes suggested waves of the sea, one running into another and arrested and motionless. But looking at the mounds separately, she saw their shapes were page 207peculiar to themselves, irregular in size and form, here a long white ridge, and there a round dome pressing into it, squares and pentagons and hexagons and polygons of all varieties. And then the loveliness of the snow—There is always in it, in the sound as it falls, in flakes or in avalanches, in its very whiteness, in all its infinite multitude of shapes, a softness that fascinates the ear and eye. Adelaide's colour came back, and her heart beat with pleasure. It was a hard climb for her but she hurried on eagerly, now losing sight of the glacier in some hollow ridge, then delightedly gaining a still nearer view.

Suddenly the stones slipped from under her feet and she fell down and down into a hollow gap of stones.