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The Heart of the Bush

Chapter VIII. The Return to Light

page 212

Chapter VIII. The Return to Light.

Dennis came back from Mount Rangatira in boyishly high spirits, singing a negro song and whistling. At last he had stood on the summit where no man had been before, and he had seen a great kingdom of mountains, peak beyond peak, long valleys with their glacial streams, crags and ice-falls, away to where the forest trees seemed small as plumes of moss, and the western ocean came in sight. Now he was coming back to his love in the hour of sunset. She had not been quite happy at his going he knew, although she had told him to go. He had not been altogether blind to the little shadow that crept into her eyes, and the slight strain about the lips that she yielded to him. It was the merest fancy on her part and not reasonable, but—"Darling!" he interjected half-aloud—he was not going to blame her for excess of fondness. Now he had had his own pleasure, and he would make it up to her tenfold. His own mood was hearty and fond enough to vanquish any mists and clouds. He had gathered some edelweiss for her, and as he carried an axe, a stick and page 213a rope, the rare blossoms decorated his wide-awake and his belt.

As he and the Tohunga approached the place below the ice-cave where he had left Adelaide, he bounded forward, calling "Aidie!" then stood astonished. She was nowhere to be seen. "Of course," he exclaimed aloud, "what an ass I am. I couldn't expect her to sit still here for five hours." Then he said to the Tohunga that his wife had taken a short walk, and that they had better sit down and wait until she came back. But his mood had received a check, and he could hardly contain his impatience as the minutes passed. The Tohunga sat and talked of the rivers that issued out of the Alps, and of the valleys that they flowed through. He said that there were rubies and emeralds and garnets amongst the grey shingle of their beds, and that he often wandered amongst their courses and picked up precious stones, but everybody laughed at him, so now he hid them in a secret place in his old house and showed them to no one. Then he began to speak of enormous reefs of pure gold on the west coast that they had seen from the Rangatira, and he talked of gold seekers who explored the hills but always missed the reef. Dennis dug his axe vigorously down amongst the loose stones, and began to be half angry with Adelaide, half anxious, as the whole valley shone with gold, and then flushed red even to the stones. What could have happened? page 214Her feeling of solitude among these moraines was an incomprehensible fancy to him. The very air of the Alps exhilarated him. These mountains had familiar voices and familiar looks. He had known them from childhood, and loved nothing better than wrestling with their hundred dangers, forcing their secrets from them and triumphing on their summits. That had been his chief idea of a holiday and its joys. But Adelaide astray amongst them! The Tohunga talked on and on, self-absorbed, as solitary people will do when once they have started. Dennis had ceased to pay any attention. The glow went out from atmosphere and valley, and the mountains turned spectral. Dennis astounded the Tohunga by leaping to his feet with a burst of profanity, meant for his companion or the scene around, or for fate in general. His face looked strained in the twilight as he stood collecting his powers. "Stay here," he said briefly, "and light a bonfire." And he went to search in the short space of daylight that remained. At first there seemed no clue as to what direction to take. If Adelaide and Tane had walked over earth, there would have been footprints, or if over grass it would have been trodden down, but these accursed stones gave no indication. Soon he had got beyond swearing or uttering a syllable that was not necessary. The most probable thing was that she had gone back through the bush to the house, and he followed page 215the course of the river back the way that they had come in the morning, and soon came to fern and loose soil. There were footmarks, but they all went towards the glacier. Except along the watercourse the bush was impracticable for one so inexperienced as she was and it was certain she and Tane had not returned. Indeed, it would not have been like Adelaide to go back alone. Where else, then? The valley of the Cascade? No! And he almost smiled when he thought over that chance. Adelaide enjoyed it at a distance, but she would never go near enough to get her pretty clothes wet with the spray. She would not be likely to climb such mountains alone, and if she had been on the terminal moraine he would have seen her. MacDiarmid returned to the spot where the Tohunga sat, now dumb and helpless in an emergency, and for some time he stood looking first in one direction, then in another, thinking. Then he went towards the ice-cave. It had fascinated her, and perhaps she had gone nearer to see it. Daylight was over, and the moon did not rise till late, though in the unearthly clearness of this atmosphere there was no absolute darkness; two planets and a multitude of stars shone with white points of flame, too remote to be effectual, but the bonfire blazed up and threw flame on the leaping torrent and the ridges of stone. She was not there, and though he searched he found no trace. Adelaide, unlike most page 216heroines, never dropped anything about, not even her gloves. Utterly at a loss, he scrambled up the unsound rocks above the cave on to the glacier. It was a perilous undertaking in the dark, and he felt cautiously with his stick or with bare hands as he went. Once he found himself on the very edge of a crevasse, but recovered his balance instantly. Then he knew what had happened, and sat down overcome. "Adelaide! Adelaide!" he called with all the force of his breath across the frozen snow, and heard distinctly the howling of a dog. That ended the terrible blankness of uncertainty. Still feeling every step before him, and often creeping along on his knees, he followed in the direction of the sound, calling at intervals from the powerful lungs of a mountaineer accustomed to send his voice into the distance. Many a time in his life he had found his way into the bush or among the hills guided by the barking of a sheep dog. Hearing no sound from Adelaide he shouted "Tane, Tane!" and with astonishing quickness the dog found its master, fawned at his feet, half mad with joy, looked for a stick, and in default picked up a stone by way of doing something or other. MacDiarmid wasted no time over him. "Find her. Go on," he said. Tane whined, he had a singular reluctance to return. MacDiarmid thrashed him as he had never done before, then repeated his command. Tane crawled dismally over the stones until they page 217reached the yawning gap. "God!" ejaculated MacDiarmid, and then, "My Adelaide!" For a while he lay looking over the edge into the blackness of the hollow without being able to distinguish anything. From time to time he called down into the depth, but only the echo of his voice came back.

In the starlight he fancied at last that he saw something glimmering against the side of the gap. It might be snow. He considered the possibility attentively and reckoned that it was unlikely that there would be a single patch at that depth. Still watching intently, he seemed to see a slight movement of wind from above touching something moveable, he fervently prayed, some drapery. If it were Adelaide's dress she was probably stunned. That she was dead he refused to believe.

With his clasp knife he peeled and split the ends of his stick, dipped it in the spirits he carried and setting it alight made a rough torch. This he held over the hollow, and by its flame made out dimly the light summer gown Adelaide was wearing. When MacDiarmid saw it he clenched the nails hard into the palm of his hand. His wife seemed to stand before him as he had seen her standing by the cave early that morning; he remembered how pretty the dress was, so incongruously pretty in these wilds that he had pretended to ridicule it, "woollen muslin" he called it, she said it was delaine; he had played with the page 218ribbons at her wrists. "Aidie, Aidie," he cried now to himself, and lay for a few moments broken. There was no time to lose. MacDiarmid held the flaming stick over the hollow to see if the boulder against which Adelaide lay would support both of them. It would at least give him a footing. The danger was lest he might loosen it by the additional weight of his descent, but this was a risk that would not bear considering. There was a rock a few yards away. Round this he fastened the rope which he had used when mountaineering that morning. The other end he fastened round his own body, and with the axe on his shoulder and the torch in one hand he descended slowly, not resting his weight on the rope but sliding and using it merely as a support until his feet were on the boulder. Finding that this bore his weight, he tried to attach the end of the rope to it, but from its shape it afforded no hold. With his axe he chipped notches in the stone, breaking off crumbling lumps with his hands, until he had formed a groove deep enough to be secure. Then he stooped over the heap of drapery and lifted his wife in his arms, turning her face full to the light, but not speaking one word. She stirred slightly; her breath came naturally. She was not even stunned. A strange thing had happened to Adelaide, she had fallen into a profound sleep while her eyes were fixed on the sky, questioning it. An immense tender-page 219nesspossessed MacDiarmid, and his breath went out in great sighs over her. He looked up at the clear sky as children look up for God. But the trial was prolonged. The light of the moon now filled the upper atmosphere, but all below the mountains, moraine, glacier and their pit, were in shadow. His torch burnt out. It was useless to try the ascent in darkness. In daily life Dennis was often impatient and angry over little things, but somewhere in him, before the inevitable was inexhaustible patience. He sat down on the narrow ledge with Adelaide upon his knees and waited, watching for the dawn. Inutterable love filled his heart. Every girlish charm of hers came freshly before his mind, as she lay still in the darkness, not yet rescues—her enchanting smile, her delicate reserves and her complete surrenders, her various pretences and half transparent unrealities. Adelaide's sleep was exhaustion, and she was too faint to help herself or to comprehend what had happened. The moon rose higher, but still an oblique shadow was thrown across the hollow. Adelaide opened her eyes and gazed with a long look at Dennis. "You have come. It seemed such a long time waiting." She sighed, but not in complaint. "Have you been frightened, love?" he asked. Both spoke below their breath, as if in the presence of some mystery. "Oh no, not really frightened. I knew that you would come." Then after a page 220pause, "Must we wait here?" "For more light, my love." "For how long, Dennis?" "An hour or two." He laid his hand upon her eyelids and kept them closed. "Don't open your eyes until I tell you. It will be over soon. Can you sleep again?" "Yes, I think so." "Then do." She slept peacefully.

The first glimmering of dawn crept down amongst the stones. There was no more time to linger. MacDiarmid took off Adelaide's blue sash, and fearing she might lose her hold he bound her to his own body. Then grasping the rope, he made his way upward, toilsomely and slowly. One arm still supported his wife, who was now awake, but too faint to clasp him securely. Often he was obliged to use both hands. For a few yards the ascent was over bare rock, and farther on the loose stones kept slipping from under his feet. The sweat broke out in great drops, and his eyeballs were strained unnaturally. But he never once lost his footing. Extraordinary force and certainty entered into him. This one thing had to be done, impossible or not, and he could not fail in doing it. At last he struggled to the top.

As they emerged from their stony sepulchre, "Look up, Adelaide," he said. There was exultation in his voice and it thrilled her. The moon still shone, and there were stars high overhead, but the far off approaches of the day had blanched their light into mysterious paleness. One might have imagined a voice from page 221the sky announcing some more glorious manifestation at hand which should quench the Pleiades and the Milky Way, Orion and the Southern Cross. Absolute solemnity was throned on the summits of snow, rock and ice, but now they looked benignant and no longer cruel. It might have been the Resurrection dawn.

Still in the solemn veiled light, the man carried his wife over the glacier and back to the ice-cave; then down the terminal moraine to the shingle banks of the river, now coloured like broken heaps of copper. The Tohunga was there and he looked at them wistfully. He could not quite understand these human happenings, but he vaguely remembered a girl whom he had loved half a century ago in a world that had no atom in common with this. "Get us some food," said MacDiarmid, not rudely but sparing of words. The old man disappeared in the gloom of the bush.

Adelaide was glad that she and her husband were alone again. They seemed to have something to say to each other, or better still, something secret to share. The bonfire had burned low into a heap of white powder and black wood, with only gems of scarlet. Dennis took off his jersey which he wore at night over his shirt, and spreading it on the stones he made Adelaide lie on it, keeping her head against his knee. "Now you rest," he said. She lay quite still with her eyes closed, not sleeping page 222but letting thought and feeling pass through her as they would. The solemnity of escape was in the minds of both, and at some moments possessed them entirely, but there began to be a welcome return of everyday sensations. Adelaide remembered with a curious pleasure that he had not given her one kiss or caress since they met, and that she had not missed either. There was no longer any need of endearments. Seeing that her forehead was still bleeding, he pressed his handkerchief to it. "Does it show much, Dennis?" she asked with a blush. He laughed that she should think of such a thing just then, and yet because it was Adelaide it was somehow sweet.

"Does it pain you? It is bleeding." "Oh, do wipe the blood away, please, Dennis dear," she begged. He laughed again but obeyed, and going to the river rinsed her handkerchief out, then bathed the wound. "Are you hurt anywhere else?" "Not particularly." "Are you hurt?" he insisted with impatience. "My shoulder and my foot—a little." She spoke reluctantly. Dennis crouched down and drew off the small shoe and the worked silk stocking, that seemed to him so absurdly and yet delightfully pretty. The leg was bruised above the ankle where it struck the rock, and the soft flesh was broken. He bandaged it with a strip torn from his handkerchief, then pushing up her sleeve found a bad bruise on her shoulder, and pressed the cold leaf of a lily to the page 223swelling. Adelaide lay quite still, but her lips and closed eyelids quivered. She had been adored, her husband had not touched her before, except after wooing, or in one of his overwhelming outbursts. "I am disfigured. Don't look at those bruises, Dennis," she said plaintively. "Aidie." He spoke with deep feeling. "If you knew how I love you, you would not mind anything." "I do know—my Dennis." She looked up at him a moment with wide-open happy eyes, as blue as the sky.

The dogs had eaten the remains of the meat, but Dennis had with him some hard bread and some of Emmeline's home-made wine, brought for an emergency, because Adelaide would not taste alcohol. She would eat nothing that he did not share, so she broke the bread and gave half to him. Then Dennis poured the wine into a horn goblet and they drank in turn. While they were eating and drinking, it struck Adelaide with a sense of awe that the meal was sacramental, and that somehow God was near, too near to them. They had never before so utterly worshipped each other as when they sat alone again simply sharing their food together. The body of the sun was itself invisible, but its spirit filled the upper atmosphere. In lower regions we see light through a cloudy medium of vapour, but here they were face to face with light itself, perfect light. Adelaide rose to her feet, and bride and bridegroom stood side by side to watch the page 224sunrise. Dennis laid his hand on her shoulder. "Look." A long line of serrated crags of ice and rock glowed like knobbed brass in the blaze of a furnace, and the snow-peaks shone like new-wrought gold. The Alps dazzled their eyes, and they turned to look at each other, and each was beautiful to the other. Then came a long embrace and kisses and simple words. The Alps were nothing, they themselves were all in all. "I am sorry, Dennis; I have given you so much trouble. You look tired." Thinking of her awakening in the dark to feel his hand on her, her heart beat extravagantly. "You have had scarcely any food, and you have not slept."

"Don't, love. As if that mattered. I wish I had not left you in this wild place. I meant to take care of you, and now you've been frightened and hurt. I have quite spoiled your honeymoon, Aidie."

"Oh no, Dennis, don't say that." She put up a light hand to smooth his hair, disordered with wind and clotted by the sweat of exertion. "Last night and this have been much the loveliest part of all. Don't you understand?"

For some time Dennis studied with serious intentness her vivid face, weary but delicately flushed and illumined.

"Why, yes. Of course," he answered finally.

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