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The Passionate Puritan

Chapter XXIII

page 240

Chapter XXIII

For a few days Sidney's mind was untroubled by indecision, except that she put off writing to Arthur.

It never occurred to her to doubt that this one chapter of her life was closed. In ways she was right She had left behind for ever one phase of her evolution. She was to look back afterwards and be thankful that sentimentality was killed in her so suddenly that a healthy cynicism born of this trying period was to save her from long-dragged-out funeral services over departed dreams. The sharp lance of disillusion had gone deep, leaving no roots of blind faith to sprout again.

She was determined never to allow herself to be hurt in the future as she had been. And she saw that to avoid that she must never expect again what she had expected.

Instinctively she turned to unchangeable things to help her, to the night, the stars, the slumbrous stumps browsing upon their past. That following week, too, she was helped by something else.

The autumn had been exceedingly hot and dry.

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The area round the mill and the village had been more carefully burnt than usual. Jack had doubled his night watch. But the menace of fire came on him from a source he could not control.

In the middle of the week it began in a gully, fifty miles away, from a fire left by picnickers, and a rising wind blowing incessantly from the northeast had fanned it into an ever-growing danger. Men were sent from various directions to try to beat it out, but it got beyond them. It broke across the Ridgefield boundary in spite of all the help that Jack could organize to stop it. And on the Saturday morning it had become so imminent and serious that he closed the mill and ordered all hands to concentrate on the bush camps, the tramways, the dams and the logs in the creeks.

The mill and the village were fairly safe from outside attack. Jack was more afraid of careless smokers there than he was of flying sparks. But the whole place was on its guard. The curious loyalty that in time of danger warms the heart of the man born to lead rewarded Jack Ridge-field as he rode from place to place, keeping watch and shifting his forces as circumstances demanded.

On the Saturday morning the smoke was so dense that Sidney could hardly see the mill chimneys. She felt very deeply the suspensive dangerpage 242 in the air, and was glad to feel it, glad to feel anything that would help her to forget herself. She walked over to Sophie before breakfast to learn if anything had happened in the night.

Little Mrs. Jack was more concerned about the small amount of sleep her husband had had than she was about the probable loss of a dam or two. Seeing she was worried about him Sidney decided to spend the day with her and help her to forget. Jack had gone off to the ranges saying he would not be home before night, if then. He had left Bob and Alec Graham and Tom Mackenzie to watch the mill and the tramway over the flat to the drop. This tramway and the camp and dam below it were the nearest points menaced by the flames. About the middle of the afternoon one of Sidney's pupils, Mary James, a girl of nine years, who had always had the air of carrying the world on her shoulders, came to the Ridgefields' looking for Sidney. She brought a note scrawled in pencil from her mother.

"Dear Teacher," it said, "I am very sick. My baby is seven days old, and my sister had to leave me yesterday as mother is ill. I am now alone and I am afraid. The smoke is all round me and I cannot walk yet. Is there anyone who could come and help me? Mollie James!"

"Good heavens!" exclaimed Sidney, looking into the oblivion beyond the village.

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The Jameses lived two miles up the creek. They were not mill people. Mr. James was a government surveyor, away from home a good deal.

Sidney turned to Sophie.

"I'll see if Bob can suggest anything, and if there is no one else to go I will."

She turned with Mary to the store.

"Christmas!" exclaimed Bob, when she told him. "I can't spare a man. I've just got back from the drop. They're fighting fire over there now down in the gully below, and it will take them all their time to save the camp and the logs in the dam. There's hardly a scrap of water there. And there isn't a man left here but the two watchmen."

"Well, I could drive for her," said Sidney.

"You couldn't get up that side of the creek with a vehicle now. The track's too bad. You'd have to get her over this side. But I have not got a horse left anyway."

"Well, for heaven's sake, what am I to do? I can't carry her and the baby. Send a woman or a boy down to Whakapara for a horse and buggy. Can't you do that?"

"Yes, that's the only thing I can do. You get on up, Miss Carey, and get her over the creek if you can. I'll get somebody up to you before night."

"Is the fire really near the creek?" she asked.

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"Up there? I don't know. A lot of it may be just smoke."

Sidney looked about her very doubtfully as she hurried on with Mary. The child knew every inch of the way, as she came by it to school. It was the main creek road leading to the ranges. Sidney had ridden it several times.

Presently Mary took a track leading to the creek which ran in many places parallel to the road. They crossed easily, stepping from one to another of the logs that had been left by the last tripping. The smoke here was so dense that they could hardly see the house on the other side, though it was only a couple of chains from the bank.

Sidney found the poor mother frantic. She had dragged herself out on to the verandah, and lay there on a mattress, the baby beside her. She was gasping for breath.

The heat round the house startled Sidney. She could not tell how near the flames might be. She listened anxiously, not realizing how desperate the situation would have been if she could have heard the fire coming on.

When she found out that Mrs. James had had food before Mary left for the mill she decided to get her over the creek at once.

"But what about the house, Miss Carey?" objected the sick woman.

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"We must leave the house, Mrs. James," she said firmly. "I cannot stop it from being burned if the fire comes on. But I can save you. Now there is-no time to be lost. We must get over the creek as soon as we can. When we get over, I'll see what we can do next."

It almost seemed as if Mrs. James would prefer to be burned, she was so reluctant to leave her possessions, but bit by bit Sidney got her to the edge of the creek, while Mary carried the baby. Then Mary went for a fan to keep the flies off her mother, and an umbrella to keep the glare from her, while Sidney dragged the mattress to the bank. After a rest they began the slow crawling from log to log.

When she was nearly over Mrs. James fainted. Fortunately Mary knew where her mother kept the brandy. She ran for it. Sidney gave the unconscious woman a good dose, and leaving Mary to fan her and hold the baby she dashed back to the house for a bucket of water and towels. She bathed Mrs. James' face and slapped her chest, and when she had come to, Sidney dragged the mattress to her and got her on to it, deciding that as they were nearly over she had better rest here for a while.

As soon as she could speak Mrs. James began to mourn her possessions. Couldn't they save some things? So leaving her on the log with thepage 246 baby under the umbrella, Sidney and Mary began a race back and forth for clothes and silver, and ornaments and even furniture. Sidney had never been so hot in her life. The perspiration poured from her and poured from Mary. She developed a swift new emotion—a profound admiration for Mary. The child knew everything her mother valued, knew where to find it, and was consumed with a passion to save it.

Presently the logs near Mrs. James were covered with a strange assortment of articles, and Sidney said firmly it was all they could hope to get across the creek before dark. She was alarmed still about the heat which seemed to increase even though the sun were going down.

She sat down to draw breath before buckling to the task of getting Mrs. James on another stage.

Suddenly her heart ceased to beat and, in spite of the heat, her blood ran cold. She started up, her head set like an animal's at the first suspicion of an approaching enemy. She distinctly heard a vibration on the air, and then an Intermittent thud, thud, thud, resounding weirdly round her in the smoke.

"My God! The dams! They've tripped them!" she gasped under her breath.

She gave one wild look round. Not far from the bank on the safe side was a large kauri stump.

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She saw that it would hold them all, and would keep them out of the water. It was the only possible thing.

"Mrs. James," she said, trying to keep her voice steady, "we must move at once, and get on to that stump; see? We can manage if you keep calm. You must not faint. Take this brandy. You carry the baby, Mary."

With help Mrs. James managed it, but fainted again when they got there. Sidney rushed back for the brandy, and the bucket of water, and the towels and the fan. Then, while Mary bathed her mother's face she managed to save the mattress, and a bag of silver, and several bundles of clothes before the flood came roaring round the bend.

Gasping herself, Sidney dropped on the stump, her ears booming, her head whirling, her throat dry, her limbs trembling like reeds, under her. For a few minutes all she could feel was that they were safe, and that the water would cool the air.

When she raised herself she saw Mary's face stoically set against the tears that would ooze from her eyes, a white strained terrified face. But Mary was holding the baby, and fanning her mother, as she had been told to do. The sight of her almost upset Sidney, and she carried a vivid memory of the child's frozen courage withpage 248 her all through life. A strange plant to blossom in such an atmosphere!

Sidney set herself at once to reassuring her. But Mary was not only afraid. She had seen two, chairs that her mother prized and several other things carried off on the backs of the reckless rollicking logs never to be seen again, and all the pathos of lost possessions disturbed her little soul as she anticipated her mother's grief. And then, very unfortunately, she thought of the cow, left behind to be burned.

Mrs. James recovered a little and for some time Sidney did her best to comfort them both. But she began to be terribly uneasy. They were marooned upon the stump. The flood stretched beyond them over the fern, and she knew that if many dams had been tripped it would last all night. And though now she had no fear of fire, she began to be afraid of the thickness of the smoke. It became harder to breathe. She kept a wet napkin over Mrs. James' face, and watched the baby anxiously. 'In the growing dusk she got more and more alarmed.

She saw she must send Mary back to the mill with a desperate call to Bob for immediate help. She tried the water, and was relieved to find it only a foot deep, and that the current would not carry her off her feet. Telling Mary what she wanted her to do and say, she carried her out to the road.

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There another inspiration seized her.

"Do you think you could carry the baby to the mill, Mary?" she asked. "I'm afraid it won't be able to breathe this thick air much longer."

And Mary said she could. Sidney went back for the baby.

After carefully repeating her message, and primed with the stimulus of her praise, Mary set off, a heroic little figure fading away in the smoke.

For a minute Sidney looked after her, her eyes dimmed. She was herself happier than she had been for two weeks. She had completely forgotten her own tragedy. And in the intensity of that danger she was aware of feelings much more significant than any self pity.

One has learnt much when one knows that there are other things in the world worth feeling besides; love and hate.

Sidney waded back to the stump, and began again to make air for Mrs. James.

She had strange reflections upon the uncertainty of life and the foolishness of anger as she sat there waving a wet cloth back and forth over the semiconscious woman.

The logs hurtled by her like mad monsters. The roar of the water drowned every other sound. The smoke grew denser, and now she began to see the glow of fire ail along the northernpage 250 and eastern horizon. It grew harder and harder for her to breathe.

She could easily have saved herself, but she knew she could not carry or drag Mrs. James out to the road, and once or twice she asked herself why she could not leave her there. The inaction drove her frantic. She knew she could not desert a sick woman in such circumstances even if it meant her own death, and she wondered why human beings had decided it was finer to lose two lives than one. It seemed strangely illogical. But one thing she knew was that she could never have faced Jack Ridgefield with the tale that she had saved herself while she left Mrs. James alone to suffocate upon the stump.

Looking round her and listening every minute, she realized that even if help came she would not be able to hear any call above the creek, and that in the dark they might not be discovered.

But even as she thought this she heard a faint cooee above the flood.

Startled into unexpected strength, she sprang to her feet on the stump and answered with all her might. Again she heard the call, and again she gave it. She had a splendid thrill. This being rescued was a wonderful thing.

"Mrs. James," she shouted, "we are saved. Lie still, while I get out to the road. I will be back in a minute."

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Jumping from the stump, she waded out to dry land. Through the smoke she saw the lights of a buggy coming from the direction of the mill. She cooeed again.

The lamps grew clearer, and in her light dress her figure showed up to the driver, who lashed his horses to a last run.

Then Sidney heard her name shouted through the smoke, and a quick faintness swept over her.

Her rescuer was Arthur Devereux.