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The Heart of the Bush

Chapter IV. How Dennis confessed to His Wife

page 256

Chapter IV. How Dennis confessed to His Wife.

The mists came down from the Alps, and the rain fell. Dennis had gone to Roslyn, and Adelaide sat alone machining. It was an artistic machine, and it hummed softly. The small foot on the treadle, under the parted skirts, was dainty enough for a Cavalier lyric, and the slim, half-draped arm was held gracefully to guide the work. But Adelaide was white, and there were tears in her eyes, and in truth she was not quite so pretty as she had been. "I thought of everything but this—that he should leave me," she was saying to herself. She had expected him back by four o'clock, and had made the room warm and bright, and baked his favourite scones and tea-cakes herself, and tired herself out looking after the dinner. Adelaide had developed the talent for cooking which is displayed by most clever colonial girls in the backblocks, and she took a pride and pleasure in it, which was half artistic, half loving. She had dressed herself with care, not so confidently as she used to do, indeed a little anxiously. She had tried first the blue dress, and put it away because her complexion seemed not so exquisitely fair just now, and page 257then she tried the pink, and thought the chiffon was beginning to look limp. And then at the moment when he should have blessed her with his coming, there came instead of her big, brown, loving Dennis, only a scraggy settler, named Grant, who had happened to be in Roslyn that day, and who handed her a folded leaf, torn from Dennis's notebook, with a few lines scribbled on it:—"I have to go on to Dunedin by to-night's express, Aidie dear. I want to get some of the business men in town to take shares in our Farmers' Freezing Company. Can't say when I'll be back. Take care of yourself, my little girl, and don't worry. I'll come home to you as soon as I can.—Your Dennis."

This was the first time he had left her for more than a day or two, but she felt it would not be the last. The first day's absence she had taken lightly, but now he was frequently away from morning till night. Was this to be the beginning of weeks of absence? And when he was at home, he often shut himself up in his office. Often men came to see him, and stayed to dinner, uninteresting, middle-class men, who smelt of rank tobacco, and who did not know what to say to her, but looked puzzled if she interpolated any of her light and airy nonsense. They talked of cows, of cream separators, of cargoes and of carcases, and of other deadly things. Meanwhile, everyone was praising him, that was the irony of it, her father and page 258Major Brandon, with whom he was now quite friendly, and Dr. Meares and the Willoughbys, everyone except Emmeline, who watched her, and often embraced her silently. This was the hardest thing of all to bear. When the others talked, she smiled gaily with lips that were a little pale, and said, "Oh yes, she was sure nobody else knew so much as Dennis about refrigerating plants and Prime Canterbury and all that sort of thing. She was getting quite learned herself about the frozen meat trade, and knew the names of all the ships that sailed under the Tyser flag." But she could not bear to be pitied by Emmeline.

Dennis never told her how the thought of her was mixed up in his business, and how could she guess, poor child? To make matters worse, he was a little short with her sometimes. He was worried, poor man, and she, poor girl, was overstrained and suffering. He saw that she suffered, and thought that she was finding Bush life bare and rough. So he worked the harder for her, and left her more alone.

Adelaide tried to impose on herself with the consecrated cant which makes all failure in love the fault of one alone. She had been trained to rely upon her own attractions, which were partly her radiant and joyous spirit and the pleasures of her life. She tried hard to be reasonable, but she went the wrong way about it, applying good old stock maxims which did not happen to be true about her Dennis. page 259"Men cannot be expected to love as women do," she said to herself, as she went on machining. "They must put outside interests first. It is only beauty and charm that men admire in a woman, and I look almost faded now, so of course he cannot love me so much." It is doubtful whether any woman who was deeply in love ever found much consolation in such reflections. Certainly Adelaide did not. They meant despair, pretending to be content. Unfortunately, both Dennis and she had lost their light-hearted humour. Neither of them spoke of their anxiety about her father, but it weighed heavily on both.

"If I have not Dennis, I have nothing," she thought, and her tears fell over the fine monthly gowns of cambric. Lena brought in her dinner, but it seemed to choke her. She had had a salmon trout, fresh caught from the Wainoni, and a roast duck and tarts of her own making, and clotted cream. It was a damp and chilly ride, and he would need a good dinner. She ate a few morsels of the trout, and then touched the hand bell. "Take it away, Lena, please," she said, "and don't bring the rest of the dinner in. I do not care about anything to-night."

Lena looked with mingled sentiments at the duck and the vegetables and the tarts on the kitchen table. "Poor body!" she said, with real sympathy for her girl-mistress. "I hope my bloke will come to-night, no use wasting these," and it struck her that if Johnnie page 260Saunders were to call on her there might be some advantages in MacDiarmid's absence. Johnnie, who looked after the Haeremai cattle and horses and slept in a bunk in one of the men's whares near the yards and woolsheds, was conveniently near at hand. Lena was a buxom lass, and not quite so demure with her blokes and her chums as she was with Mrs. MacDiarmid. She was more or less engaged to a storekeeper in Roslyn, but as he was such a long way off, she had taken the red-haired Saunders on as locum tenens, for, as she herself explained to Miss Borlase's Kate, "a girl must have a bloke that she can see."

Adelaide sewed Valenciennes edging on the dainty gowns until it was ten o'clock. The house grew almost deathly still. Lena and her Johnnie, having banquetted, strolled out to M'Ilvride's. The Bush trees became more and more unfriendly and insistent, crying, "You hear us now! You hear us now!" The rain went drip, drip, drip from the piping until she listened for each drop, and felt sure it was saying something cruel. "So many days he has been away out of four months' marriage. So many more days he may be away before I die." When she lay in bed, in the silence and the solitude, the dripping rain still went on, counting and working out curious problems of arithmetic, the answers to which could never be found out. "If I have only six more months to live, he will have been with me only so many days— page 261so many hours," and as she was falling asleep, she tried to reckon but could not, because there might be a geometrically increasing rate of absences, and there was always at least one unknown quantity somewhere. Adelaide had always had the true literary horror of mathematics, and the sum that had no conceivable answer began to haunt her nights deliriously.

The days went on drearily. There was no object in dressing nicely with no one to see; no meaning in cooking for herself or adorning a house that was no home. Yet she did go on doing these things almost mechanically. As she sat alone, she began to think of all that she had once so gladly sacrificed, friends and amusements and lovely moving scenes, all the gay opera that life had been a year ago. If she had had her husband she would not have pined for these things, but sometimes now she thought they would have been distraction and relief. It must be an immense love on both sides that can be all in all, and Dennis loved his business best. At least he was most interested in that.

MacDiarmid stayed in town for nearly a fortnight. He was bent on starting refrigerating works near Roslyn, and instead of putting the business into the hands of the city company, he determined to break through their monopoly of the freezing industry in the province and to start a farmers' company. For two years the foreign trade had been depressed, partly owing to the fact that the breeders' interests were not page 262immediately identical with those of the exporters of frozen meat, and that they held back supplies to raise the prices, or supplied inferior qualities indifferently if they could get a good price from the City Company. This policy might be profitable for the moment, but it was suicidal in the long run, and MacDiarmid thought the time was ripe for a company in which the breeders themselves should be involved in the profit or loss of the London market. When he went to Roslyn, it was to hold a public meeting in the Town Hall of the chief farmers and runholders in the district, but except Major Brandon, they were all too canny and too cautious, and they threw the whole burden of the enterprise on him. The district was a poor one, and as there was not enough capital forthcoming, he was obliged to apply to the wealthy men of Dunedin. Already he had a high business reputation in town, not only for integrity, but what was more important, for success, and the old proverb about success succeeding proved true in this case, for he got the capital subscribed, came back to Roslyn, and there held the first meeting of the Farmers' Refrigerating Company. It was a big thing for a farmer in the backblocks to undertake, but he was a big man in some ways, and he meant to see it through.

When the joy of his return had almost died away, like a hunger too long unsatisfied, he came home unexpectedly. Adelaide was lying on page 263the couch, tired and weak, and knowing that she did not look her charming self, when she heard his step on the gravel path. Though her face flushed as she went to meet him, it was almost as much with pain as with pleasure. She was immediately enveloped in his embrace, but he saw at the first glance that she had been fretting, and he was not pleased. "O Dennis, I did not expect you to-day," she said.

"Well, you're glad to see me, aren't you, Aidie?"

"Oh yes. Of course. But I have nothing in the house good enough for you—for your dinner, I mean."

"Nonsense, child. Some cold meat and some tea will do, and I suppose you've got that. Let's have it soon, that's all. I'm hungry. Wait—what's the matter, Aidie?"

"I haven't been quite well to-day, that is all. It is really nothing, Dennis."

"Aidie, I'm sure there's something wrong. I won't let you go till you tell me. Is it about my staying away?"

"You have been rather a long time," she said slowly and with some effort.

"I must attend to my business. Do be reasonable."

"I try to be, Dennis." She spoke with an appealing accent.

"Let Lena get the dinner and you stay with me, darling."

"I really can't." And then with just the page 264phantom of her enchanting smile. "I have a few duties too, dear."

Adelaide stood in her clean, new kitchen in domestic despair. There was absolutely nothing but cold ham and a very small piece of cold mutton. She had told M'Ilvride not to send up any meat until Mr. MacDiarmid came back, and that suited M'Ilvride particularly well just then. He always expected a spell in the autumn before the ploughing began, and he was busy cultivating his own ground when Lena, hot and red with haste, rushed up to the fence to say Mr. MacDiarmid had come home and would he get her some meat or would he kill a fowl. M'Ilvride was completely scandalised at both suggestions. He looked at Lena in silence a few moments, inexpressibly outraged, and then went on digging:—

"Mr. MacDiarmid will no be asking me to start work at five o'clock. I wull no believe it, Lena Thomson." Mrs. MacDiarmid he chose to ignore.

Lena, abashed, stammered out an enquiry as to whether Allan would run over to Haeremai and get something from Miss Borlase. M'Ilvride gave her another expressive look. "Ye're no blate, Lena Thomson," he remarked with sarcastic admiration, and drove his spade into the ground, but finding that his feelings were too much for him, he raised his head and his voice too, "And is it Allan ye would be sending over to Haeremai the nicht? Canna page 265ye see for yoursell the puir bairn's lame in both feet with the chilblains?"

The poor bairn, who with red, chilblained feet bare on the steaming earth, was grubbing up his kind parent's potatoes, had looked up eagerly at the prospect of a little excitement, with a cake at one end from Miss Borlase and another cake at the other end from Mrs. MacDiarmid, but now he subsided into hopeless gloom, and went on grubbing up potatoes, as Lena slunk away, ashamed of herself and of her mistress.

Adelaide, with anxious thoughts for the morrow, was obliged to tell everything to Dennis, but he only laughed as he consumed the cold mutton till nothing but bones was left.

"It's all right," he said. "I did promise him this week to himself, and it's against his principles to oblige his master. I'll see about it to-morrow, Aidie dear."

MacDiarmid knew M'Ilvride well and got what he wanted out of him. He could break people if he liked, but he did not like.

Adelaide tried so heroically to be bright and lively in the evening that she overdid it and was not natural. Dennis always resented this manner of hers more than any other; it was throwing to him the mere garment of Adelaide when he wanted the living body.

Early in the following afternoon he came into the house by the back way, as he often did page 266when he had been doing rough work, and would not soil her pretty curtained passage of French-polished rimu. Adelaide, who was directing Lena in the kitchen, came into the porch to meet him and suddenly turned faint. "Dennis? What is it? You have blood on you."

He laughed. "Oh, you're not as bold as Alice Brand, Aidie. "Tis but the blood of deer,' or rather of the sheep. I washed myself as well as I could, and I'll change in a minute."

She had forgotten a good many things in her ten years' absence.

"The blood of the sheep?" she said, "I don't understand."

"I've been killing, that's all," he answered shortly.

"Killing?" she repeated slowly.

"Yes, killing—cutting a sheep's throat," he said impatiently. "Aidie, don't stand there looking at my moleskins, if you don't like them. Go into the sitting-room and I'll be in presently."

Aidie went in and took up some mending. Her baby's gowns she could not touch in her present mood. She was almost afraid of her husband's coming in, and yet the incident fascinated her morbidly.

"I wish you were not obliged to do such things," she answered, when he kissed her and asked her if she were still lamenting the mutton.

"Well, you didn't think I sat on a hill with page 267a crook all day, or carried lambs about in my arms, did you? It wouldn't pay to keep sheep that way in New Zealand. I think there ought to be a Colonial version of the New Testament, it's misleading about shepherds," he said irreverently; but to Adelaide's mood the remark seemed in bad taste.

"It seems—unpleasant," she said, choosing her epithet carefully. The poetry of labour began to resemble tussock hills a little too near in the hard light of noon. Adelaide loved nature, but she loved it poetised, not plain.

"I am sorry for the sheep, poor brutes, but it's no use getting soft over it. There are a lot of things beside the killing I shouldn't like my little girl to see. I don't generally think about them when they've got to be done, and I don't want you to make me. Killing sheep for food is not half so cruel as hunting foxes and hares for fun, and you've done that yourself, my darling."

Adelaide saw no resemblance between the two, and her mind went back with almost a pang of longing to the aristocratic and sportive torture and slaughter. It was so historic, time-honoured, and so suggestive of immemorial ages of poetry and romance; it was such an exclusive perquisite and mark of rank and breeding. All the attendant pomp and circumstances were so charming, and now they seemed so far away from her present life as she sat and silently recalled them—the early break-page 268fast in some ancient hall, the start in the dewy October morning, the joyous race over the gentle downs and vales of England, the pleasant ride home, the eyes that smiled on her, the flatteries and gallantries and the light jests over the day's adventures. The hunted, slaughtered animal was such an insignificant feature in the whole entertainment, and she had learned to accept its fate with aristocratic serenity. But this killing of sheep was sheer unadorned butchery, it reeked of Smithfield market and the slaughter-yard, and her husband was the butcher. She began to feel as if there was something unknown, something potential about him that fascinated and terrified her.

"Why don't we have a butcher?" she asked.

"Oh, that's mean. If it's got to be done, I may as well do it." Then he went on, "As a matter of fact, it's not my work. I've got other things to look after, but there happened to be no one else handy except that boy from Eton—St. Aubyn, the cadet your grandmother sent to Haeremai. M'Ilvride had set him on to the job. It's their idea of a joke with a new chum, but it's a bit too rough on an English lad. Are you interested, Aidie?"

"St. Aubyn? Yes. I'm sure his people did not expect him to do that sort of work. They're one of the first families in England, and if there weren't so many elder sons, he wouldn't be here."

"No, I guess his Honourable Papa and his page 269Lady Mamma didn't know what they were sending him into. I'll wean him as gently as I can. But," he concluded with heavy force, "he's got to do that and other things too before long."

Adelaide sat looking at him and thinking that he was somehow different from the St. Aubyns and the people she had been accustomed to for ten years.

"Have you ever killed other things?" she asked lightly and yet tremulously.

"Yes, bullocks now and then."

"You don't mind my asking? You see, it's strange to me and—so interesting."

"Oh no, ask away. I'll tell you all my crimes."

They had never since the hour under the tree-ferns stood so far apart as now, and Adelaide shivered inwardly with a spiritual loneliness and chill.

"You certainly have not killed anything else?" she said, but felt a curious instinct of not having got to the end yet. The sense of his potentialities was overmastering her imagination.

Dennis sat still for some minutes, and then said, as if he were awakening out of a dream, "Yes, I have."

"Oh—what?" she asked still lightly, but unable to keep her eyes from him.

"I killed my sheep-dog, Rangi, the collie that we used to play with when we were children."

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"You killed my dear old Rangi?" It was a little cry, and her face was very white. Rangi was the dearest pet and plaything of her childhood, almost a rival then to her sweetheart Dennis.

"Yes. I shot him one night."

"Tell me all about it, Dennis," she demanded, piteous and yet imperative, dropping the society manner altogether.

He told her with a rugged and savage sincerity that crushed the girl's flower-like grace beneath it.

"You want to hear all about it?" he said, and forgot what he should have remembered, but she was driving him too hard. "Well, he got to worrying Willoughby's sheep. It was my fault. I spoiled him, petting him too much. He was all right under my eye, but directly he had a chance he was off and away to Te Puhi. Willoughby came over to us as mad as he could be—swore he'd cut Rangi up, and shoot him and disembowel him; I don't know what he wasn't going to do to him. Quite right too, and I'll shoot his dogs if they come worrying my sheep. But I would rather Rangi died by my hand. So I went to the kennels and let him off the chain, and he fawned on me and licked my hands and feet. Then he followed me down the valley, and I tied him to the rimu tree, and all the time he went on licking my hands. And I shot him. I made a pretty clean job of it, but he tried to crawl to me, and page 271he howled just once. That night when I was sleeping, I dreamt I heard him howl again, and I felt as if I had killed a child.—What did you make me tell you that for?"

"I wonder," she dropped her fair head lifelessly on her hand, and gave a shuddering laugh, "I wonder if you could ever kill me, Dennis."

"Adelaide!" he called out stormily, and faced her, with all his soul torn up. "Don't you ever say such a thing to me again." He paused, then went on, still with crushing force, too hard for such a delicate child, "I've got to do my work, whether it pleases you or not."

Adelaide had no refuge from him, no refuge at all but in him. She broke into helpless sobs, and did not even struggle against them. Her pride, her joy, her love were all beaten down. Dennis stood looking at her a few minutes, and then put out his arms and slowly took her into them, but could give her only cold comfort. There was not comfort enough in himself to give.

"It's nothing, nothing," she sobbed, "it's all about nothing!"

"It's not," he answered. "You don't like this life, and I never had a right to—all the joy I've had with you."

"Don't, Dennis," she sobbed on, childishly, unresentfully. Other women might console themselves by calling their husbands brutes, but not Adelaide her Dennis. She was a sweet page 272girl, only not strong enough for his mate, and yet he adored her very fragility. His arms closed around her now in helpless love. "O Aidie, Aidie, my poor child, my poor, motherless girl," he said, and thought of her dying father and of her unborn babe. "I can't make you happy, and I've tried so hard. You take the heart out of me when you look and talk as you did to-night. You were always happy before you came back to me. And now I've been cruel to you."

"No, Dennis, no."

"Come to bed now. You're not fit to be up."

He carried her to her bedroom and laid her on her bed, and then, going back to the dining-room, he sat inactive that evening and realised his harshness. She should not have had one impatient word now in her weakness and grief and fatigue, but he had given her a shock, and then had gone on increasing and feeding her fright, and when she wanted soothing he had stormed at her.

In the middle of the night he woke up (a thing almost unknown to Dennis), as a mother instinctively wakes up when her sick child stirs and needs her, and he felt that she was weeping to herself. "Aidie," he said, and knew he had not finished comforting her before she slept, "Come to me now, my darling, and let us have it all out."

"If I could only tell him what my real page 273trouble is," Adelaide thought, but shrank from hearing the old impatient explanation that he had business and must see to it, and that she must be sensible. Then she had a delicate pride that would not let her complain of being neglected. "Dennis, I'm sorry. I'm a baby to cry so. I don't really care what you do, so long as you love me."

"I'll always do that, my Aidie. More than my own flesh. I 'ud chop myself up into little pieces before I 'ud hurt you, love," he answered in a slightly Hibernian manner.

"My dear! My Dennis!" she cried to him in the sweetest thrilling tone, and kissed his slaughterous right hand and laid it on her heart. Then she came to the surface again with a little sobbing laugh. "I don't care if you cut the shearers' throats as well as the sheeps'. Only give me time to get accustomed to things. I thought we knew each other so well, and this afternoon you seemed quite strange to me. Are there other things I don't know about you, Dennis? I want to understand all of you. Tell me anything, everything."

"You mean all the wrong things that I've ever done, Aidie?" he asked. She had not exactly meant that, but he was in a penitential mood.

"Anything," she answered, with a hunger and thirst to understand him better.

For some time he lay quite still, thinking, page 274like a very large child, and tried to judge himself by the conscience of a dear innocent girl of twenty. He did not cant about the moral difference between men and women, nor make capital out of the blackness of other men compared to himself, as bridegrooms are too apt to do with youthful brides. Just as he used to stand by the knees of his mother, when he was a little boy, and tell her all about his misdeeds—all about the boys he fought, the sparrows that he shanghaied, the plum trees that he robbed, the times he played the truant and rode bullocks or draught horses or any other handy animals in lonesome gullies, the lessons that he shirked, the tricks he played upon the schoolmaster—so now he came to the dear breast of his wife and confessed the illdoings of his youth.

"I lose my temper sometimes, Aidie," he began. "I once knocked a man down and stunned him. I thought I'd killed him, and if I had, I suppose I should have been a big criminal and got locked up for the rest of my life. It was only a chance that he wasn't dead." Dennis paused, and an unholy satisfaction began to revive. "He deserved to be knocked down, though. He was slandering a woman who was fond of him. It was a bad business. I ought not to have stunned him, of course. But I'm glad I did."

The next confession came with far more emphatic conviction.

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"The meanest thing I ever did was to flog a mare till she nearly dropped. I was fond of her too, but there had been a banquet to Seddon over in Roslyn, and I'd drunk too much whisky. I was coming back about four o'clock in the morning. She'd got it into her head she would not pass the engine on the road, and I'd got it into my head I'd make her do what I told her somehow. She was only frightened, and I nearly paralysed her at last. When I did get down, she was trembling and covered with sweat and blood, and didn't she look at me—do you know the look in a dumb creature's eyes when you've been a devil to it? No, of course you don't. How should you? If I hadn't been a thundering ass and a brute, I 'ud have gone to her head at the first and led her past, and she would have come like a lamb. It was just my devil's determination to have my own way. "Yes," he concluded, "that was the— meanest thing I ever did. It wouldn't have mattered so much if it had been a man, but she couldn't even curse me."

Adelaide gave a sorrowful laugh. "O Dennis, you have used so many bad words."

"I'm sorry," he said contritely. "I forgot."

"Do all the people about here ill-treat animals sometimes?"

"No, some don't. Some do worse. Yes, I've seen some bad things done. But I'm not confessing about other men. And those that did the worst did not understand animals. page 276I do. Well, I've sometimes drunk more than is good for me, Aidie; not that I've ever been what men call drunk, but I forget myself and quarrel about nothing. I believe I 'ud do best to give up whisky altogether."

"Dennis,—is it true that all men do—things like those that some people say Horace Brandon did? I mean —," Adelaide broke off and began stroking his chest in confused agitation.

"Are you asking me if I've done harm to any girl, Aidie?" he said bluntly. "No, that I'll swear I never did. How could I, darling, when I loved you so?" He thought honestly for a few minutes. "I have kissed girls sometimes," he confessed. "They didn't seem to mind. I couldn't help myself. Girls are very nice sometimes, Aidie."

Adelaide thought these shameless women who beguiled her Dennis were far indeed from being nice. She stirred and nestled closer. "Kiss me, Dennis."

He kissed her with a great wave of passion. "Don't think that it was ever like this with anyone but you."

Adelaide was longing to hear him confess that he had been neglecting her. "Is that all, Dennis?"

"Things of that sort. I don't remember any more just now. Except being rough with you, and that's the worst of all. Good-night, love. Forgive me all my sins."

"And you, forgive me mine."

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"Yours? You have none."

"I'm afraid you know them without my telling you, Dennis."

"No. You are rather too fond of make-believe, and you do seem to go by what conventional people might think, and not to do your own thinking for yourself. And that's a pity, my dearie. But you haven't a bad wish or an angry thought in your heart. Don't move away. Put your head down on me and go to sleep—so."

Adelaide gave a sigh that was half disappointment, half contented love. She was still to be forsaken, and yet she was beloved.