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The Passionate Puritan

Chapter XI

page 105

Chapter XI

"It's eleven o'clock. Jack ought to be showing up any minute now."

James Ridgefield spoke the words to a group of people who stood with him by the face of the Big Dam.

It was Saturday morning two weeks after Sidney's last visit to Mana. The final tripping of the autumn was to come off that morning. James Ridgefield had arrived the day before from Auckland bringing friends and tourists especially to see it. Sidney, who now had her horse and saddle, had ridden with two of the men, and stood beside him, smart in her new habit. Mrs. Jack stood with her, glad to know someone in the group of strangers. Their horses and vehicles were hitched behind a group of camp buildings a chain or two away.

James Ridgefield had explained the "system," and properly screwed up the feelings of his audience. Now was added the touch of suspensive delay needed to put them on the highest height of excited expectancy. For, of course, nothing could happen without Jack.

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He was working his way up the fifteen miles of creek from the mill, tripping dam after dam as he came. The Big Dam was the last in a chain of operations, and the way had to be prepared for it. The tripping had really begun two hours before. But the Big Dam was the chief glory of the spectacle. It was twice as large as its nearest rival there, and was easily the largest in New Zealand. It had taken twelve months to build. It was a quarter of a mile across, fifty feet high in the bed of the creek, and backed up a temporary narrow lake two miles long, and in places half a mile wide.

This lake, now a jam of logs, containing four million feet of timber, seemed to take up the whole of the valley in which it lay. Leading through the bush, over the ridges all round it were the wooden tramways and roads that fed it.

The valley itself was picturesque in a ragged desolate sort of way. It had been swept by fire many times, and was mostly a graveyard of skeleton trees. Everywhere the fern and scrub had rapidly covered up the ashes.

James Ridgefield was beginning to grow impatient when he spied three men riding fast round a bend at the lower end of the gully.

"Here they come at last," he said.

The sightseers eagerly watched the horsemen, and a gang of bush workers carrying long spikedpage 107 poles set off from the camp down the dry bed of the creek to meet them.

When they came up to each other they paused while Jack gave some final instructions. Then, as the three men came on Sidney recognised Arthur Devereux as one of them. She had wondered why he was not already on the scene, feeling sure he must have heard of the event. The third man was Bob Lindsay.

"How's she going?" called James Ridgefield, as they came clattering up.

"Fine," replied his son. And they passed on to the camp.

Arthur Devereux was the first to reappear.

"Hullo, Ridgefield," he called as he strode over the stony ground.

"Hullo, Devereux. I wondered where you had got to."

And then began general introductions. When they were over Arthur stepped back to Sidney.

"I went down for you," he said, lowering his voice. "We could have ridden up the creek with Jack and watched the other dams go. I've seen two off already."

"Oh, dear. But how was I to know you meant to do that? And besides, I should have had to come with Mr. Ridgefield's party, as he asked me days ago."

But she was pleased he had thought of her, andpage 108 her spirits grew even more elated than the glorious morning and the ride had already made them.

Arthur turned to Mrs. Jack.

"Your husband's a wonder," he began, with the frank admiration of other people's achievements that was one of his charms. "Look at that dam for a piece of work."

Everybody stopped talking and looked at it. Little Mrs. Jack blushed at being thus hurled into the limelight.

"How could he know the angle to give that face to make it resist the pressure of all that water?"

Having it thus pointed out to them the visitors stared intently at the face of the dam, and at the enormous timbers that propped up its underside. And they knew it was a job to be proud of.

Just then Jack Ridgefield came along with Bob Lindsay and another gang of men with pike poles. The group gazed deferentially at him, as a man clothed with mysterious attributes of power. But the hero of the day wore a very unassuming air, and was quite indifferent to the homage of his father's friends.

"Are we all right here?" asked James Ridgefield, while everybody hoped Jack would stop to talk.

"Yes, all right," he answered, passing by, and seeing no one but his wife.

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The group stood on a mound on the steep side of the creek. Here the gully rose so suddenly that they were near the gate, which was the centre of operations. It was on the other side that the dam stretched over lower ground for a quarter of a mile.

Jack and his men went on to a footbridge that ran the whole way across the top, the latter going right over while he and Bob stayed above the gate. Workers who had been poling logs into the centre of the lake now made their way back to the shore, jumping from log to log, and giving a final push to the one they landed from.

It was a clear morning, and the valley was very still. There was no sound of bush work, for every man had been taken off to stand by the creek to prevent jams at the numerous bends all the way down to the mill.

The visitors looked upon the lake ruffled only by the movements of a few rolling logs in the great pack, and upon the dry bed of the creek below, and wondered when the fun would start.

Suddenly the clear air was cut by the exciting sounds of horns blowing a series of signals far down the gullies. The echoes ran round and died away. And then there rang out one long clear call, followed by three short ones.

"Get your cameras ready," said James Ridgefield unnecessarily to the tourists.

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Sidney was so thrilled that her throat swelled. She wanted to seize the hand of Arthur Devereux, who stood beside her with his hat off and his face tense. She knew he was feeling about it as she was.

Jack Ridgefield turned on the footbridge, gave one look to see that no man was left on the logs, called to the men and was answered, and then waved his hand at his father with a funny little dramatic sweep very unlike him.

"Away she goes," he called.

The watchers stiffened. They saw him lean down, pick up a rope and pull it.

And there was no more peace in the valley that day.

On the lower side the great gate heaved up over the first rush of water that was churned instantly to foam upon the rocks. In a minute the dry creek became a raging torrent, filling the valley with its roar. Then in the dam there was created an enormous suction that drew the logs from all sides. They came slowly at first, till caught by the undertow they rose up like prehistoric water monsters coming up to breathe. They stood on end, poised for a fraction of a minute, and then they dived head first down at the foundations of the dam, hitting the gate upwards with a deafening boom that echoed round the hills. Clearing the gate they leapt up out of the waterpage 111 below it, thundered back upon the rocks, staggered, were swept onwards, hoisted one upon another, and swirled off again in a torture of movements that it worried the eye to follow. To the boom of the logs hitting the gate was now added an extraordinary thud, thud, thud, as they bounded from the rocks in the bed of the creek on their mad way to the mill.

For ten minutes the visitors stood spellbound.

James Ridgefield had tried to yell an explanation or two, but had to give it up. Nobody could hear him. Jack and Bob came off the footbridge and stood near them.

"How long will this go on?" one man screamed into James Ridgefield's ear.

"All day," he yelled back.

Magnetized, the visitors stood and would have continued to stand. But there were other things to be seen. They were to follow the logs part of the way to the mill, in many cases to get ahead of them. The creek wound so that it was possible to leave the Big Dam half an hour after it had been tripped, and by following a straight track to beat the logs to the second dam, to watch them go through it, and so on most of the way down.

Presently James Ridgefield beckoned to his party to follow him. They went back to the horses, leaving Jack and Bob by the dam.

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Sidney, Arthur Devereux and two other riders set off together.

"Stop at Watson's Bend, Devereux; that's the best place," called Jack after them.

When they had ridden fast some distance over ridges and gullies they pulled up beside a dry creek bed.

"We'll see it turn splendidly here," said Arthur.

"Why?" exclaimed Sidney, "is this the creek?"

"Yes. The water hasn't got here yet. Seems funny, doesn't it? We'd better tie our horses up over there," He indicated a safe spot.

When they had fastened their animals securely they walked back to the bank. Through some straggly trees they could see a group of men at the bend, waiting also.

In a few minutes they felt rather than heard a peculiar beating on the air, a pulsing something, vibrating like the panting of a fast advancing monster. Then they distinguished a dull roar with a distinct intermittent booming in it—a roar that grew into a more exciting crescendo than any ever imagined in the brain of a gloriously mad musician. It came on and on, like a march of fate, a pulverizing roar grounding into nothingness every sensaton but that of sound.

It was the weirdest thing Sidney had ever heard. She was so lost in it that she did notpage 113 notice the arrival of the rest of the party till they were out of the vehicles and there beside them.

"This is a bit near," said James Ridgefield. "The water will be over the banks here."

They all moved back a little.

Now they began to see things heaving up and down among the trees above the bend. Above the roar and the booming they heard the churning of the water on the rocks.

All at once, on round the bend it came, a dirty frothing wave ten to twelve feet high, sweeping over the banks on either side, levelling the fern, and on the crest of it, swirled as if they were matches, tossed the tangle of logs. The water came on like a wall. One could have run a yard or two ahead of it without being wet.

When it had raged by and was gone beyond the next bend, James Ridgefield called his party together again. He told them there was a fall of seventy feet half a mile or so away by a track, that they could neither ride nor drive to be in time, that they would have to run for it, and that weak hearts had better miss it and be driven to the lunch rendezvous by the road. He was leaving drivers for the purpose.

But laughing they all set off like a lot of children to follow him. It was rough underfoot, but otherwise the track was open. Now and again they could hear the logs booming their way downpage 114 the creek ahead of them. Then they would lose the sound to pick it up somewhere behind. And so it zigzagged about them as they scrambled on.

Mrs. Jack and Sidney and Arthur Devereux ran together. Sidney had been a good runner in her childhood. The race intoxicated her, and did not tire her at all. It added to her excitement to know that Arthur kept looking at her as they ran.

A shallow stream threatened to hold up the party. One of the women looked at it and gasped. James Ridgefield settled the matter by catching her up in his arms.

"Go ahead, gentlemen," he laughed. "No time to argue."

Sidney splashed in at once leaving Arthur free to help Mrs. Jack.

"Come on, Mrs. Ridgefield," he smiled.

She submitted gracefully, and on they went again as if they were running away from a fire.

It was a dishevelled, panting, red-faced lot of people who broke from a bit of bush beside the fall, and saw to their everlasting satisfaction that they were on time. Nothing but a feeble trickle was dropping into the pool below.

They followed their leader down and on to a hillock where they had a splendid view of everything. Here, under a fine puriri tree baskets of lunch awaited them—a delectable spectacle to thepage 115 exhausted and hungry runners, who dropped on the ground and began to mop their faces.

To Sidney's surprise Jack Ridgefield and Bob Lindsay came towards them from a gang of polers by the pool.

"Why," she exclaimed, "how did you get here?"

"We rode by an old track. It was a bit hard on the horses." Jack threw himself down by his wife. He was glad of a spell.

"That man is like the eye of God," whispered Arthur to Sidney. "He is everywhere."

"Sh!" she whispered. "He'll hear. Listen. It's coming."

They all sat up.

The great crescendo was bursting the valley again. It was as if the wrath of the gods was upon them, as if the accumulated roars of all the ages had been merged into one to split the ears of humanity.

With their eyes fixed on the smooth rocks at the top of the fall they waited breathlessly. All at once the wall of water heaved up into the sky, curled and rushed downwards. The logs, turning somersaults, leapt clear of it. Some of them dived head first into the pool to shoot up later, or be smothered under others coming down. Some among the first fell flat with an enormous splash. In a torment of motion they were swirled roundpage 116 till the current caught them and carried them off once more down the creek.

A gang of men poled vigorously from the banks, for this was a bad place for a jam.

For a long time they watched, perceiving no diminution of the roar.

Jack and his father consulted as to whether it were not too noisy for them to eat lunch where they were. But the tired visitors voted against change. So, with little conversation, they opened and ate the lunch prepared by the kitchen cook. At the end of another hour they could see no change in the tumult in the creek.

They rested till the horses and vehicles were brought along, and then James Ridgefield started them off once more.

This time Arthur and Sidney rode together.

Farther down they came to one of the three dams they were to pass. The water had partly subsided as a lake, and the logs were sweeping through it on a current already made for them.

They rode now to the accompaniment of continuous sound, for the waters of the first tripping had long since reached the mill, and were creating a thunderous outside fall over the overflow and down the ravine.

Sidney and Arthur rode mostly in a companionable silence. They found each other easy from the beginning.

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At intervals he told her facts of the day's work, that Jack expected to get between four and five million feet of timber down, that when it was over the logs would lie in an unbroken line up the bed of the creek for four miles, that it would take small trippings to bring the stragglers on, but that this combined flood would carry the mill for months, and that by such a system the place was independent of the weather. It had taken Jack and his father three years to work it out, he said. The older man had told what he wanted, and the son had seen that it was done.

The day ended with a supper in the pavilion of the bowling green, prepared by Mrs. Mackenzie, Mrs. Lindsay and Mrs. Graham, who were flattered that James Ridgefield had asked them to do it. Also, they were secretly expectant, for he always made expensive presents to the wives of his men who obliged him in such circumstances.

Before Sidney went home she had had a chance to ask James Ridgefield the question she would never have asked anyone else in the place.

They had walked away from the pavilion to look over the face of the mill dam at the cataract raging down the precipice.

"Who is Arthur Devereux?" she said, with a frank curiosity. If he thought her interest significant he did not show it.

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"He's an awfully decent chap, so far as I know. Came up here about eighteen months ago to shoot, liked it, took a place up in the hills, and stayed on. Nobody knows why. Probably no reason at all. He's travelled a good deal. Probably left England because he wanted some fresh air. I've met him at Government House in Auckland. He's stayed there. So he must be known to the Governor."

"He looks so funny up here," she said lightly.

"Yes. These Englishmen do get into unexpected places. I've learned that you can meet an Oxford accent all the way from a gumfield hut to a university."

She laughed.

"How did the horse go?" he went on.

"Oh, splendidly. Nice and easy."

"Good. You can't beat a Maori pony for these parts. They are as surefooted as goats."

When she got into bed that night Sidney was too tired to review the day. But she was not too tired to realize that it had been the most interesting day in her life. She did not know whether Arthur Devereux had made it so, or whether the day had intensified her interest in him, and she was too sleepy to sort out her impressions or attempt a classification of her emotions.

She dropped into a deep slumber with the dam overflow pounding like surf in her ears.