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The Passionate Puritan

Chapter III

page 28

Chapter III

By the middle of the afternoon Sidney had hardly begun to unpack the boxes and trunks that Jack had opened for her, because she had been beguiled from real work by the interest of examining her little house and the school.

She had settled with James Ridgefield that she would try the experiment of living by herself. She had almost enough furniture, she said, and he told her the Board would supply necessary things that she would leave behind. He assured her she would be perfectly safe, and he agreed with her that she would not want parents about her ears all the while, that her soul, being rather an individual specimen, would need all the aloneness it could get in a place where her habits would be continuously in the centre of the village green, as it were, for inspection.

"They mustn't know you smoke," he had said.

"Of course not," she laughed, thinking that would be easy.

In fact, she thought it would all be easy, absurdly easy, as she made her first exploration.

Her little house had a peculiar charm. It was 28page 29 brand new, unpainted, as were all the other houses, and zinc-roofed. It had one large room, as rooms went there, with an open fireplace, two large windows (one set in an alcove with a broad seat), and well placed bookshelves. It ran from front to back, and opening off it were a bedroom and a kitchen. The whole thing was unpapered, simply lined and ceiled with heart of kauri, sweet with the exquisite freshness of the pine.

In the yard she had found a woodshed and wash-house, and the primitive sanitary arrangement of those parts. There was a fine pile of wood cut ready for her and a big box of kindling. One or two heavy thunderstorms had fortunately half-filled her zinc tank. The ground round her house had been dug, and someone had begun a flower garden for her. She was deeply touched by all this preparation.

For a chain or more outside her fence the fern had been recently burnt off, as it had round the school and all the other houses. Sidney was to learn later that in the summer and autumn fire was the demon against which the whole village guarded unceasingly.

When she had gone through her house half a dozen times, changing her mind each time as to where she would put her furniture, she walked over to the school. It was the smallest institution for the improvement of the race that shepage 30 had ever seen. Its one room and porch were like a toy house. But in her comprehensive mood of loving everything she felt an instant passion of proprietorship for it.

The desks and furniture were all there waiting to be arranged. Again she blessed the Ridgefields, father and son, for having made her beginnings so easy. So far she had not discovered anything essential that they had not thought of, and even the Board had been prompt with her first batch of supplies.

She was full of unbounded interest and curiosity about the whole place.

After dinner she had stood on Mrs. Mackenzie's verandah looking over the tops of buildings at the mill. Set at the corner of the village farthest from the school it dominated the plain as a cathedral dominates a mediæval town. Its two giant smoke funnels rose, spires of industry, above everything for miles around.

The village lived by it, for it. The first morning whistle woke the whole place up; the second started streams of men along paths leading to it from all directions. At the third there arose a palpitating roar of machinery that vibrated out over the flat. Later whistles guided the lives of the men and their families throughout the day. In case of fire there was hardly a man who wouldpage 31 not have deserted his own belongings and rushed to save it first.

The plain about the mill extended for some six miles one way and three the other. It was a kind of table top between the lower ranges about Whakapara and the higher ones of the Puhipuhi proper. It dropped into deep gullies on three sides.

Thirty years before the entire flat had been covered with one of the finest bits of big kauri in the country. It had been cut by James Ridgefield's predecessor, who left him the much harder job of working out the forest on the ranges. The flat was thus a graveyard for the old trees, their enormous stumps the eloquent tablets to their memory.

The Puhipuhi had also known the glamour of silver mines. Years before, the rumour of metal back in the ranges had drawn a horde of prospectors seeking a new El Dorado, and though the gullies were mostly strewn with forlorn hopes, the magic name still clung, and there were still men who poked about its stony ravines with imperishable optimism.

Mrs. Mackenzie had taken Sidney past the engineer's house at the end of the row, to a spot where they got an uninterrupted view of the mill dam and the open plain beyond. The mill was built beside a shallow bush creek that came downpage 32 from the ranges. Nothing but the genius of James Ridgefield and his son could have made a working proposition of that summer dry watercourse. By a series of fourteen dams on various tributaries back in the hills the power for bringing logs down to the mill was so well managed that it never ran out of timber. When the mill dam got low and the logs scarce the "system" was set to work, and the birds of that country fled from the extraordinary sight of great trees bobbing down the dry river bed on the first rush of a flood that came from no rain they knew of.

So there was always more or less water in the mill dam, and when it was full it made a narrow lake an eighth of a mile wide at the facing and a mile long up the creek. Then, too, the overflow roared down a precipitous ravine into a lovely gully that broke the flat a chain or so behind the cottages. There was a curious rock formation under the dam that carried off at all times a certain amount of water by an unseen waterfall, so that if one stood in the gully below looking up the face of the precipice, there would, when the dam was low, be no sign of water falling anywhere, and yet there it gushed out at one's feet with weird cavernous gurgles, to run swiftly on through the valley. It made a continuous undercurrent of sound, often drowned by day by the greater noises of the mill, but always by night anpage 33 accompaniment to the breeze that stirred the fern.

Between the place where Sidney and Mrs. Mackenzie stood and the dam itself was a second bed where the creek had divided on coming to the precipice. This was now always dry, and above it was built the wooden framework of a railway that carried large trucks of sawdust and timber ends to be tipped over into an everlasting fire that burned on the face of the ravine among the rocks, occasionally shooting bursts of flame that were visible by night for miles, always smoking, always perfuming the air, always spitting and cracking and sparking. Every now and then, too, there would be a sharp crack like the shot from a small cannon that would make a newcomer jump, as a rock split with the heat.

Sidney observed enough of all this to realize the individuality of the place, and to have something inside her go out to meet it.