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The Heart of the Bush

Chapter VIII. How the Heavens Smote MacDiarmid

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Chapter VIII. How the Heavens Smote MacDiarmid.

"Perhaps you will stop exciting her now, Mr. MacDiarmid?" inquired the doctor sarcastically sometime later.

MacDiarmid did not even raise his eyes, but as gently as one touches a new-born child, he moved Adelaide's head to where it often lay, "Come, love, to sleep," he said.

"She just gave a little sigh and off she dropped like an infant," the doctor told his wife afterwards. "She seemed pretty well used to sleeping that way. Her husband sat by her four mortal hours and never moved a muscle, and I hope he enjoyed it—nice state of cramp his arm must have been in. I'm glad she has pulled round. She is a nice little lady herself, and I don't altogether dislike MacDiarmid."

When Adelaide woke, they two were alone. She looked up at Dennis and spoke in a strange, thin voice, that seemed newly come back to the world from the borderland of death. "It is dead, dear," she said sadly, and felt she had not done all that was expected of her.

"What does that matter?" he answered. "You are safe. You are here. I have you still."

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The heart of the mother went out to her unheeded infant. "Bring it to me, Dennis."

He looked thoughtful. "You would not take it from me forever, and not even let me see it once?" she asked in anguished reproach. "I did suffer for it, dear."

"You shall see it, my love."

Dennis went into the next bedroom and saw the bare cradle and in it the wee, white, waxen body that should have been his daughter. His soul yearned over her, and he looked at her for a long time, then kneeling down, he touched the tiny hands and face. When he gave her to her mother, she laid her between her blue-veined breasts and kissed her many times. She looked sadly at the bare wicker-cradle. "I had not time," she said; and then, "Put some ferns and little daisies round her, Dennis."

The sun had not yet risen and the earth was heavy with drops of rain. Dennis went into the Bush, and then up the hill, which was dotted all over with pink and white flowerets, and he plucked them in handfuls and thought of the baby Aidie running out and getting her shoes wet, as she gathered the daisies in the spring, until, because he was almost dazed with want of sleep, the image of her and of his dead baby became confused in his mind. When he got back he made a bed of ferns and flowers, and Adelaide kissed the child again, sighed and gave her back. "I have been reasonable, page 304Dennis, haven't I?" she said. "Now take her from me. Goodbye, baby."

For a week Dennis and Emmeline nursed her night and day before the nurse came. Emmeline had been frequently sent for by the settlers' wives, who knew in their hour of sickness and peril that there was always at hand one tender woman, ready to leave her own affairs and minister to others. As for Dennis, he had nursed his Mother himself on her deathbed, though he was only a boy at the time. Men may do such strange and beautiful things in solitudes where conventionalities are of no importance. For weeks he put everything but Adelaide into the background. He fed her with his own hand; he bathed her face and hot hands; he carried her from her bed to the sofa and back, and always seemed to know what she wanted. There was nothing he would not do for her. It was such soothing and comfort to have him always near her. Adelaide almost thought the loneliness and separation had been morbid fancies, like her former fears of death.

But when Adelaide was out of danger, Dennis began to be more and more interested in the new Wainoni Flat Creamery and the Roslyn Refrigerating Works. To him they were bound up with his love for Adelaide, while to her they were her triumphant rivals. He meant to wean her gradually, and for more than a month he spent many hours with her, page 305carrying her from her bed to the sofa and back again, bringing her food, and talking or reading to her. The only convention he had was that there must be no interference between him and his wife. As he became more and more frequently absent, something like a silent revolt began in Adelaide, but only as an occasional relief to her utter submission to Dennis and to love. It is useless saying she should have spoken to him openly. She could not. There sometimes are, between lovers, subjects that become impossible. They had come to that stage when a third person's intervention would have been invaluable, as, in spite of all our consecrated cant, it often is between man and wife.

Emmeline saw what was going on and longed to be their guardian angel, but was rejected, first by her sister and then by Dennis. Adelaide thought that it was sacrilegious to reveal her trouble, and she grew so cross and impatient with Emmie for seeing it, that they became estranged. Emmeline, who loved to wait upon her, and who would have roused herself to be a tender confidant, now sank back into the apathy that had settled on her after her Father's death. She was so rooted in Haeremai that she was almost incapable of leaving it. There, when the short routine of work was finished, she chose to sit alone, imagining from time to time that she heard him calling her, and only fitfully waking to the blank reality.

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One evening she tried to make some impression on Dennis. He was walking home with her to get some harness from Haeremai, when she said bluntly—

"It is not fair to Adelaide to treat her as you have been doing. Dennis."

"What on earth do you mean?"

"You're away half the week, and when you are at home you're wrapped up in yourself."

"Wrapped up in myself?—You mean in my business, I suppose."

"It's the same thing so far as Aidie is concerned."

"You interfere too much, Emmie." Dennis spoke in his heaviest manner. Emmeline got red and slightly tearful, and they walked on in silence to the house. When he came from the harness room, he saw her sitting alone in her black dress, opposite her father's chair, in the patient idleness that was becoming habitual with her. He put his hand on her shoulder. "You mean well, dear old girl," he said. "I know that. But you must leave my Aidie to me." Then after a pause he continued. "You might as well be with her more, and I'll ask St. Aubyn to come now and then. She likes him, and he thinks no end of her." Dennis had mercifully transferred St. Aubyn to Miramar for a month or two.

"Oh, you great stupid!" said Emmeline hopelessly, and gave up the attempt. "She didn't marry me and St. Aubyn."

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Dennis went home to his wife. She was lying on a couch by the bedroom fire, where he had laid her in the afternoon. She wore a dressing-gown of pale nemophila blue silk, over the daintiest of cambric nightrobes, and the tiger-skin rug thrown half over her emphasised the more her fair and delicate grace. By day she looked too pale and thin, but at night, when her husband was near, nothing could look sweeter than she. He drew his chair to the side of the couch and, taking both transparent hands on one large brown palm, he began to stroke and fondle them.

"How very pretty you are, Aidie," he said admiringly.

Adelaide blushed with the blush of a bride. "Why, am I really more enchanting to-night than Prime Canterbury, Dennis?" she said, and gave him her lovely, flying smile. "I shall always wear sky-blue silk after this, and get overheated by the fire."

"Too hot?" he asked with his usual practicality, and got up to take off a log from the grate, then stood with his broad back to the fire, looking down on her, handsomest always when he was tenderest. "I am afraid you are rather lonely, dearie."

"Yes —, I am." Her eyes were closed now, and she spoke painfully.

"I'll ask St. Aubyn to come over and stay with you in the evening sometimes."

She looked up then, and for a moment there page 308was something in her expression that he did not understand. "Oh, Mr. St. Aubyn. Thank you, Dennis. He is a nice boy, but I am not quite strong enough to entertain strangers yet."

Dennis meditated. "Well, you write down a list of all the new books you would like, and I'll see what I can get you in Dunedin next week?"

"Thank you, dear, but I am in no hurry for more. Are you going to Dunedin next week?"

"Yes, I must."

The colour left her face. "It is beginning all over again," she thought, but tried to speak lightly, "I cannot keep you from the Frozen Meat Trade, can I? Not even if I wear blue silk?"

"Aidie, that is a little foolish, darling." He was trying to curb his impatience. "It was more for your sake than for anything else that I went into this business at all. I am doing you more good by working than by wasting time and idling about at home. I'm sorry we can't be more together, but it can't be helped. Now don't let us have any more words about this. My business is not in the least interesting to you, and I'ud rather you didn't pretend it is. Time you went to bed, love. Come, let me carry you."

He laid her in her bed, helped her remove her wrapper, and then took off her blue satin slippers and kissed her white feet, as he often did.

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"Now go to sleep," he said cheerfully, and went off to Te Puhi.

Adelaide lay watching the light of the flames leap up, and then die down on the bedroom wall, and listening to the clock tick and then strike one hour after another in the silent house. "This is the beginning," she thought. "The more strength I get the more and more he will leave me, and all will be just as it was before my travail. Why did he drag me back to life for this?" She looked back with longing on the weeks of pain and danger, when Dennis had scarcely left her night or day, and almost wished she could remain weak and dying, if that was all that would keep him. "Mother never had this to bear," she thought. "Father was at home every night, and all the hours and all the days when he was not at work on the farm. O Mother, my Mother, you were happier to die than to be left alone! I could count every hour he spends with me and is not thinking of other things. I wonder if women ought to be forsaken and try to make their homes and themselves sweet and pretty for men who don't half notice them and often do not come at all. To try to put me off with that foolish boy, who thinks he is in love with me, because there is no other woman near that he can talk to! 'Wasting time!' 'Idling about!' O Dennis!" A hot shame ran through every vein, and she lay helpless with humiliation. All those dear sacred hours of page 310companionship, the times they sat in silence and dreamed lovely dreams together, or read and talked or went about the hills and bush together in the glow and delight of love—the best part of her life—that was how he thought of them. Not even though she was given back to him from the grave could she keep her hold on him. To be despised, to be of no worth—and all the while to be adored—when he had a few odd moments to spare for adoration. "Oh that a man could be so loving and yet so cruel!" Nine o'clock. Adelaide tossed her fair head restlessly from side to side, and then thought she heard his step upon the gravel path. "How could I blame him? O Dennis, love!" she called softly through the dark, and sat up and held out her arms. "It's nothing. Only my sick fancy." She lay back desolately and the hours went on. "I gave you all my time, my life, myself. O Dennis, can't you understand? It's you, you, you, I want. I have a right —." She wept. "I know you love me. I am not disloyal, but how can I live like this? Oh!" She grew wilder. "For pity, Dennis, don't love me so much if you must leave me to myself. The District—the District—the Company—the money that is to make me happy when all these hours and days and nights have gone on into years, perhaps when I am old, perhaps when it is all too late. Twelve o'clock. He will not come to-night. How many of these nights must I go through? page 311My husband, my husband, my love, my life." Adelaide tried to pray, but she fainted off instead. She was still very weak and sometimes got light-headed.

Dennis stayed all night at Te Puhi, merely as a matter of convenience, not necessity, and next day rode with Willoughby to the Wainoni Flat School, where they held a meeting of the settlers to talk over the projected Creamery. After the meeting MacDiarmid took a friendly leave and swung himself easily into the saddle, his manner showing plainly the self-confidence and kindliness of a successful and popular man. Some half dozen of the settlers still hung about the schoolroom porch, loth, as back country people usually are, to break up any sort of gathering. As he rode away with the seat of a bushman whose horse has become almost part of himself, they watched him with enthusiasm, soon dashed by more critical sentiments. "There's a fine figure of a man, if you like," remarked Saunders, the horse breeder. "Ay, he's that, and a lot more than that," chimed in Grant, who liked him well. "If we had a few more men like MacDiarmid now, it would be the making of the province." "The making of New Zealand," said Saunders in a tone of conviction, determined not to be outdone. "MacDiarmid's right enough," said Willoughby shortly. "I can't see where anything remarkable comes in. I used to go to school with him once, and a fine scamp he was, page 312and got the strap every day that he wasn't playing truant." Willoughby was one of those cantankerous people who think they effectually dispose of any man's claims to distinction by asserting that they knew him when he was young. He did not dislike his neighbour, but he objected to the chorus of praise. "MacDiarmid is in too much of a hurry to make money," he continued in a disparaging tone. "And he leaves that poor little wife of his too much alone. He won't have her long, if he doesn't look out. I never saw a girl go off as she has done." Then amongst them they pulled his character and Adelaide's to pieces, until it grew so dark that they were obliged to disperse.

MacDiarmid galloped over the plain and thought at first of settlers and cows and factories, and then, as he got nearer home, he thought of his Adelaide. There was a reason for his wanting money in a hurry. St. Aubyn, after a few months of going back to the land, had decided that the charms of the Simple Life had been over-rated, and that he would rather try something a little more complex in the Army or Navy. So he was returning to England in a few more months, and this seemed to Dennis such a good chance for Adelaide to go with someone who would look after her. St. Aubyn's admiration for his wife was a thing he simply laughed over, just as he did over wee Elsie Grant's tricks of trotting to page 313the gate and following him about whenever he came to her father's house. Adelaide needed a change after all she had gone through. Poor little darling, what a delicate flower of a girl she was. "I think I'll just about manage it," he said to himself, as he entered the house. "But it's no use saying anything to her yet. I wonder what is the matter with her lately. She hasn't been quite herself."

Then the heavens themselves came to the rescue of these perplexed lovers who were so hopelessly at cross purposes. It was very literally the heavens, because it was all a question of the weather. When Adelaide was getting about the house again, there came a terrible spring, or rather, the hardest winter known for twenty years shifted itself into months that should have been spring. A great tempest swept the hills and the valleys, and the snows came down from the mountains and turned green life into one white universal death. Then when the snows had wrought their will, the tyrannous blasts and wild rains of the South West followed hard upon their tracks and bored through the white mass, then muddying it with soil from the hills, whirled it in dissolving fragments down all the water courses and the hollows. All across the wide shingly stretch of river-bed, fresh streams forced a way for themselves, and then swelled and swelled until they joined in one wide sheet from bank to bank. Still swelling with the snow as it melted and the page 314rains as they fell, the flood rolled over the lower bank and spread for miles across Wainoni Flat. All the strength of man was mocked and the toil of his hands was laid low. The Alpine elements and the floods laughed him and his contrivings to scorn. All these things followed an August of warm sunshine, and now it was the season when the ewes drop their lambs on the hills, and the corn sprouts in the paddocks.

MacDiarmid was always about the farm in those days, but he was no longer Adelaide's kind, beautiful Dennis. He was a silent labouring man, who rose in the twilight of tempestuous dawns, and said to her, not gently enough, "Go to sleep again, I won't have you get up," and went forth his ways across the plain of water, and in amongst the snowdrifts in the gorges and crevices of the mountains, where, hour after hour, from dawn to dark, the storm blasts fell upon him and battered against his strength. He waded up to his thighs through the flood, where the bitter waters ran as cold as ice, and he sank often knee deep in snow. He swam his noble mare across to a shingly island, that had once been part of the river-bed, and would soon be engulfed in the swirling waves. There the sheep and young lambs had gathered, idiotically, piteously waiting until the flood should swell and whelm them, and bleating meanwhile up to the dark, relentless skies and the sweeping sleet and rain.

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All these deeds seemed heroic to the Delight of Drawing-rooms, and she trembled at the sight of man the Barbarian at war with barbarous Nature. Oh, she was good and gracious to him in these rough days, and sweetly patient, as gentle wives and daughters often are in the backblocks to the strong men who fight the elements in the wilderness. For his sake she struggled back into a sort of desperate strength. She did such services for him as Adelaide had never dreamed of doing for herself, she who, until her marriage, had never soiled her hands with work. While he still slept, she rose on dark mornings to light the fires and get his breakfast, and then lay down by him and woke him up, pretending that these preparations had been made by Lena. When he found out her secret, he said angrily, "You're obstinate, Aidie. Don't think you're doing me any good by making yourself ill. I can't nurse you now. Well, if you will do it, don't let us have any more pretence about it."

Lena now took it into her head to get influenza, and Adelaide, determined that Dennis should miss no comfort, wore herself out, and crept to bed at night, feeling bruised in body, neuralgic, and too tired for anything but broken sleep. And for all this he gave her neither thanks nor praise. Dennis came in, wet, weary and heavy in soul, and sat in his armchair, not even reading. Sometimes he watched her, and sighed heavily with a torn heart. But page 316he had hardly a word for her, and at eight o'clock he went to bed. Adelaide stayed up later to mend and sew. Many a night she lay down by him, unkissed and uncaressed, and cried herself to sleep, and in her sleep she sobbed from weariness.