Other formats

    Adobe Portable Document Format file (facsimile images)   TEI XML file   ePub eBook file  


    mail icontwitter iconBlogspot iconrss icon

The Passionate Puritan

Chapter II

page 17

Chapter II

As Sidney continued to look at the siding, wondering if a third load would drop from the hilltop, she saw a man appear beside the trucks walking along the railway line towards the station. She wondered as he came on if he was to meet her. She saw that he was tall, that he held his head well up, and that he swung easily without stumbling along the uneven track between the lines. When he came to a high bridge crossing a dip not far from the station, he stepped from sleeper to sleeper without diminishing his speed.

Not wishing to stare she retreated to sit down upon her baggage, and did not look again upon the stranger till he stepped upon the platform. Then as he came towards her she rose.

Jack Ridgefield did not smile, for he rarely smiled. And meeting a strange woman meant nothing to him. But his grave courtesy was a force that radiated from him, powerful to attract almost every kind of person. It was one of the secrets of his enormous influence over the men in his father's mill. He raised his hat some seconds before he spoke.

page 18

"Miss Carey?"

"Yes, it is."

"I'm Jack Ridgefield."

Her face lit up as she held out her hand. She always met people with the air of finding them the most interesting thing she had encountered in a long while. Then she knew a good deal about Jack Ridgefield. She knew much more of what his father thought of him than he did himself.

"I'm sorry you've had to wait," he said.

"I didn't mind it a bit, thank you."

"I have to get the mail. I shall be back in a few minutes."

She had noticed that he carried a dirty canvas bag. She watched him go along the platform and cross the road to the store. She knew his old dusty tweed suit had once been the best of its kind, and that his soft cotton shirt and collar had been clean that morning. She had seen that his eyes were hazel and his hair neither dark nor light. That there was nothing vivid about him but his strength and the sense of confidence he inspired.

In the store Jack met a sandy-haired country boy whose wagon was hitched outside. "Are you in a hurry, Jimmy?" he asked. "No, mister."

"Would you run some luggage along to the siding for me?"

page 19

"You bet."

"Thanks, Jimmy. It's there on the platform with a lady. Don't take the lady."

Grinning, Jimmy ambled out.

Sidney Carey looked at him inquiringly.

"I'm to take your baggage, miss," he said awkwardly.

"Thank you," she smiled.

He was well along the road before she heard Jack Ridgefield's steps again. She turned to meet him.

"We shall have to walk to the siding," he said, nodding his head at it. "I should have met you with a buggy, but we had a bad washout on the road up above two days ago, and it isn't fixed yet."

"Oh, I don't mind. I'm ready to do anything the country asks of me."

A suspicion of a smile crossed his eyes, enough to make her feel he thought her words a boast. Indeed, he looked at her tailormade citified appearance and wrongly judged she had no idea what she was talking about.

"I'll take that," he said, reaching for her umbrella.

"I can carry it, thank you. You have that bag."

But he took the umbrella, as he took everythingpage 20 he intended to take, and they started together along the dusty yellow road.

"Would you like it up?" he asked.

"No, thanks. I like the sun."

She calculated, as she swung along beside him with a step as free as his, that he was only a year or two older than herself. She felt already that he was difficult, that he was the kind of man for whom most speech was meaningless.

But Jack felt that as a host he must exert himself. He began by asking her what kind of boat journey she had had to Whangarei, and they found no difficulty in asking and answering questions till they reached the siding.

There the boy in the wagon passed them.

"Thanks, Jimmy," Jack nodded at him.

The boy grinned back, pleased to have served him.

Sidney followed on between the rails of the siding. Men unloading flitches from the mill trucks to the railway ones looked at her curiously, touching their caps. Beside a shed she stopped and gasped. From her feet straight up into the sky ran a line of steel rails. Her bags were already strapped to one of the two wooden trucks that seemed to hang at the bottom of a heavy steel rope.

"You don't have to ride up," said Jack Ridgefield, "there's a path."

page 21

She saw now the zigzag outline of it.

"Does anybody ride?" she asked, remembering her boast.

"We usually do. But I prefer not to take up people who don't like the look of it."

There was nothing in his voice or manner to imply that he thought nervous people foolish.

"I'll ride up," she plunged.

She had hoped for a responsive look from him, but she was disappointed. It didn't matter to him whether she was scared or not. But he carefully arranged his coat on the back truck for her to sit on, told her how to place her feet, for the trucks were not boarded right across, showed her the chain to hold on to, and then with another man jumped lightly onto the front truck and gave the signal to start. Someone at the shed blew a horn which was answered up the hillside, and they began to move.

The whole way up Sidney kept her eyes fixed on Jack Ridgefield's reassuring back, and held her breath. She would have been ashamed to admit her relief when they came to a standstill, and when a log was lowered as a buffer across the line behind them.

Waiting for them at the top was a short sad-eyed man with a pair of magnificent draught horses.

Sidney began to get up.

page 22

"Oh, we go on," said Jack, turning to look at her, "unless you'd rather walk. This line runs right into the mill. It's three miles."

She knew that if she walked he would have to walk with her. She settled back.

"Certainly, I'll ride," she answered, determined to enjoy the novelty.

After the horses were hitched to the trucks in tandem fashion they began slowly to ascend a long slope of even steepness. Almost immediately they plunged into high bush, the trees often meeting overhead. Sidney began to be thrilled. Down one side she saw a good way into the depths of a ravine and heard water roaring out of sight at the bottom. On the other side she stared into tropical undergrowth that looked as if no man had ever worked his way through it. She knew it must have been a tough job to lay that railway there. She learned afterwards that Jack Ridgefield had engineered it and overseen its construction as a boy of twenty.

Sidney sat, as she had to, very still, sniffing the bush, delighting in the rattle of the trucks, in the click of the horses' hoofs on the wooden sleepers, in the crack of the sad-eyed man's whip as he walked beside them, his queer language of exhortation moderated considerably by her presence. For a mile they proceeded ever upwards till they came suddenly out upon an open spacepage 23 where there stood a shed, a stable and a water trough. Two small trucks lay on a siding beside the line, and nearby there were piles of spare timber, large cans of black grease and a heap of sand.

Here the trucks were braked to a standstill and the horses unhitched. The driver, Bill Hardy, slapped the hindquarters of the animals with an exclamation intelligible only to them, and, their harness clanking, they set off along a track that ran beside the line.

Jack Ridgefield jumped off, the driver taking his place. The front truck then began to move, Sidney had not noticed why, and went off slowly at first, but gathering speed down the slope till it whizzed out of sight.

Jack held out his hand to her.

"Get off for a bit, Miss Carey, and stretch," he said. "You must be stiff."

She found she was so stiff that for a minute she could not straighten herself.

When she looked about her she was disappointed to find that haze and smoke veiled most of the country. She could see clearly only about half a mile down the line where the other truck had disappeared. She and Jack Ridgefield stood alone somewhere up in the air. She felt rather than saw that they were above everything for miles around. A gentle breeze, warm with passing overpage 24 hot valleys, but sweet with the scent of burnt fern, refreshed her.

"It's a pity it's so hazy," he said, seeing she was enjoying it. "There's a good view from here when it's clear. If you're rested we will go on."

He helped her back, let go the brake, gave the truck a starting shove, and jumped on.

That first bush ride, shooting down slopes and along flats, was one of the most exciting things Sidney had known. She knew well there would be no accident with Jack Ridgefield at the brake. She magnified the difficulty of his job absurdly at the time, so that the ride carried with it not only the romance of racing through a veiled and unknown land, but the thrill of certain danger if one thoughtless move were made.

She was conscious of spinning by the two big horses tramping their way back to the mill, of glimpses of a road on her right, and of bush on her left, and of racing down a last slope on to a wide flat, a curious flat, unlike anything she had ever imagined. As far now as she could see there were no green trees, there was only fern and scrub, with enormous table-topped stumps bleached white, rising everywhere above the parched brown. And here and there were clumps of twisted skeletons patched white and black, pitiful remnants left by many a fire to mark thatpage 25 lesser company of trees that had stood around the giant kauri like pages round a throne.

The great stumps stretched out their roots above the ground like the arms of an octopus, and all above them and around them rose visible waves of heat like the lines on watered silk. In spite of the wind created by the speed of the truck, Sidney was excessively hot.

In a few minutes buildings and timber stacks covering an extensive area began to shape themselves in the film ahead, and now above the roar and rattle of the truck she heard intermittent sounds that she could not recognise.

On the outskirts of the concentrated part of the village Jack Ridgefield braked the truck to a standstill.

With an inquisitive glance down an avenue of timber stacks at a huge zinc mill belching boards, she followed him along a narrow track in the fern, past stumps and rotting logs, at the back of a cluster of small houses, till they came to a newly-built structure set in the middle of a burnt patch. It looked to her just like a little shed.

"This is the school," said Jack, pausing a moment.

She was rather astonished at its crudeness, but in a mood of being prepared for anything remarked merely that it would seem small after what she was accustomed to. Then she followedpage 26 him on round the burnt patch to the end of a row of cottages, surrounded by paling fences, set a chain or two apart, on the western side of the village.

In this row lived the mill aristocracy. First nearest the school was her own house. Then came Jack Ridgefield's, then that of Bob Lindsay, his chief accountant, then the head saw doctor's, and at the end, the chief engineer's.

In front of her own prim little gate Jack turned with one of his rare smiles.

"Well, Miss Carey, here you are."

He opened the gate, and followed her in. He picked up her two bags which had already reached her verandah, opened her front door, and stepped after her into her one large room. It was filled with furniture and trunks and boxes of books.

"We've left everything for you to fix as you want it, Miss Carey, but I'll come along after dinner and open up your boxes, and you can have all the help you need. If you don't like the shelves where they are I'll move them. Anything you want done can be done without any trouble. The whole place will want to look after you. As a teacher here you'll be a god. You'll probably be bored to death."

She smiled eloquently at him.

"It will take a lot to kill me," she said gaily.

"That's fortunate, or perhaps it isn't." Now

page 27

I'll take you to the Mackenzies. We've arranged for the present for them to give you your meals. You can make any change later you like. But as Mrs. Mackenzie is the best cook in the place you will probably stick to her."

At the saw doctor's cottage a pleasant little Scotch woman bustled out to meet them. Sidney's eyes lit up at the sight of her. She looked so hospitable and capable, as indeed she was.

Jack introduced them briefly.

"Come in, Miss Carey. You must be very tired and hot."

"I'm leaving you in good hands," said Jack turning away. "I'll see you later on."

Sidney entered an oppressively immaculate little diningroom, with a beeswaxed floor that she knew set a standard for the village, and everything shining aggressively in keeping.

Mrs. Mackenzie, flustered with importance, drew forward a rocker to the open window.

"Sit here, Miss Carey. The mill whistle will blow in five minutes and then my husband and boy will be here, so we'll wait for them. But you shall have a cup of tea at once."