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The Story of a New Zealand River


page 310


no French to-night!” repeated Ross.

He had risen from a stump to meet Asia as she crossed the clearing. He saw that she carried a kit stuffed with things done up in newspaper, and a lantern.

She had on an old print dress faded to whiteness, and wore no hat. A bit of the sunset came through the trees to gleam upon her hair.

“Where are you going?” he demanded, as she came up to him.

“Over on the gum-field. Somebody dying. I think he came up the day you did. Consumption. Uncle David was there last night. But he can't go to-night.”

Allen Ross looked curiously at her. He saw she went to dying men as simply as she did other things belonging to the place. It did not occur to him to pay her any compliments about it.

“How far is it?” he asked.

“Between three and four miles.”

“Why don't you ride?”

“The track's too bad at night.”

“I want to come,” he said, a light flashing across his eyes.

She caught her breath, but tried to answer lightly.

“You would be bored. I may read the Bible and pray.”

But he did not smile, as she expected him to.

“Do you ever?” he asked gravely.

“Yes, often. Wouldn't you do anything a dying man wanted you to do?”

“Certainly, if I could.”

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They stood still, their eyes challenging back and forth. They both suspected that if they went together the night would hold more for them than the shadow of death.

“May I come?” he appealed.

She tried to keep her voice casual.

“Of course, if you want to. But it won't be pleasant. He may die.”

Again he looked at her. “Die?” he thought. “Could anybody die with her about?”

But he felt he passionately wanted to go, that nothing could keep him from going. He answered her by reaching for her kit.

With a few remarks about the beauty of the evening they went out of the clearing, and a little way down the Great North Road before Asia turned into a track that led over the range on the northern side. It was wide enough for them to see their way in the sunset light. As it was a good deal of a climb they scrambled up silently, Ross a few paces behind her.

At the top, at a place where fire had cleared a space, she paused, and they both stood to recover their breath, and to watch the sunset and the view.

The river, right-angled in the hills below them, was veiled in places by the gathering haze. Above the mill it lay leaden in the shadow of the forest slopes, but about the gap it was alive under the opaline shades in the sky. Roofs and windows about the bay in the line of shafts of light flashed back copper suns of their own. Stalks of smoke, spreading into filmy heads in the still air, rose from the cottage chimneys. From the chained powers in the mill mysterious vibrations floated upwards, mingling with the night stirring in the forest trees. Intermittent sounds cut in upon the flow of the undertones—scraps of song and music, the barking of dogs, the deep singing tones of bullock bells, mellowed by distance.

Lights starting up about the hills below Point Curtis revealed the presence of farm-houses and Maori settlements. page 312 East of them they could see only the bush wall that rose in tiers towards the gap beside Pukekaroro. To the north of them lay low land as far as they could see—the gumfield Ross and Lynne had heard so much about.

All Ross could see as he now looked at it for the first time was a wide area of what looked like nothingness in comparison with the view elsewhere. Its pigmy slopes and valleys, visible by day, now merged into the dead level of monotonous wastes. What vagrant trees it had were dwarfed to the level of the ti-tree and the fern, themselves the poorest of their kind, for the blood of the soil had gone centuries before into the life of a kauri forest, of which now the only trace was the gum, the hardened sap of the great trees that had once proudly whispered to the sun and the stars.

But as Ross looked at it there grew into it the colours he had heard Asia speak about. Such gullies as it had deepened into the strong barbaric blues that the modern artist has rediscovered for the world. Its burnt slopes sprang to life in patches of purple and brown that seemed lit from within. For five minutes its colours stayed hot and crude, like jewels glowing over a furnace, and then a film crept out of the night and dulled them, like clouds of grey tulle spread over a gay and many coloured robe. As they faded out they left the wastes they had glorified more desolate than ever.

Moved by the same impulse, Asia and Ross turned hungry eyes upon each other. Neither wanted to speak, but each wanted a swift assurance that the night had got them in the same way. Seeing that it had, they stood a moment, each trying to hide the exaltation of it.

Then Asia remembered the nature of their errand.

“Come on,” she said, resting her hand for a minute on his arm.

The track down the ridge on this side ran through a section that had been swept by fire. A leafless, sapless company of trees, whitened by exposure, raised mutilated trunks and page 313 branches above an undergrowth of young fern. These forest ghosts, growing more wraith-like every minute in the twilight, formed a fitting gateway to that desolation whither they were bound.

When they reached the border of the gum-field at the foot of the ridge Asia paused to light her lantern.

Ross looked out over the gathering darkness where he could distinguish nothing that could act as a guide. Already he fancied he could smell the stench of stagnant swamps, the dust of dead men's bones.

“Do you know the way?” he asked. But he was not afraid. He would have followed her anywhere that night, for the great and glorious madness had got him, as it gets a man only once in life.

“Oh, yes.” She looked up at him exultantly, knowing that in this, her domain, he would feel a feeble creature, and would the more appreciate her native cunning. “I know every inch of it. Our sick man is in the earl's hut—that is, we called him the earl. He had a title of some kind. He built it six years ago, and he died in it two years later—whisky. Then another Englishman had it. He was left money and went Home. Then a teacher, also an Englishman, drifted to it. He died there six months ago—whisky and pneumonia. Now this poor devil—whisky and consumption. I've read the Bible and prayed for them all in turn.”

“You have!” he mumbled, looking at her as if he saw her afresh.

“Well, they want it. Funny, but they want it. But it's so pathetic, it makes me sick. These gum-fields are the saddest places in the world. They won't bear thinking about. Come on.” And again she took up the lantern.

Some eight years before Roland had taken over from the government the right to lease this gum-field, which lay for miles beside his own bush, and since that time he and Bruce, and later Asia, had been more or less in touch with the strange company of down-and-outs who had applied for a licence to dig. In keeping with the usual custom, the dig-page 314gers brought their gum to the boss's store for sale at the current rates, and were paid either in money or in kind, as they preferred. As Roland had never exploited the squeezing possibilities of the arrangement made by the field owners and leasers for their own benefit, he was besieged with applications, all of which he could not fill, because a field had a capacity for so many men and no more.

Ross had learned enough of the facts of the gum-digging life from Asia to be tremendously interested in its peculiar atmosphere.

In the early days of the colony's history fortunes had been quickly made by the men who had the chance to pick up in quantities, on the surface of the ground and in the beds of streams, the nuggets of amber gum that only the kauri tree produces. As the tree itself grows only in the northern half of the Auckland province, the fortune giving area was limited, and the day of speedy riches soon came to an end. Then men found that the most barren places of the “barbarous north” hid the treasure in unknown quantities in the ground; that where neither tree, nor shrub, nor plant could flourish there they would most likely find it in the decaying beds of long forgotten forests. And so they began to dig down for what before they had only to pick up.

Although, even in the palmy days, the actual digging of the gum was looked upon by the respectable as rather a shady profession, many a man got his start to commercial success that way, and so long as money could be made fairly easily the decent settler would sometimes be found on the fields along with the adventurer and the pariah. In the beginnings of the industry men were free to dig anywhere without licences, but, as the possibilities of the trade were recognized, the landowners, both state and private, began to demand their share of the pickings, and with capitalization a good deal of the romance went out of the life. As the years went on it became increasingly hard to make money. Grounds were gone over by succeeding droves of page 315 diggers who went deeper and deeper each time, and who left less hope and fewer chances to those who followed. When it came to the day that a bare existence was all that a man working for himself could expect to make, the fields became more and more merely a refuge for the worthless and the hopeless, and to say a man was a digger was to call him an outcast as well.

The simplicity of the outlay was one of the reasons why men of no resources took to the life. All the tools needed were a probing spear, a spade and a kit or sack. The market was the nearest store, unless a man was under contract to the owner of his field for his output. He scraped the dirt off his gum or not, as he pleased; the store would take it either way. But if he was thrifty, which he seldom was, he did his own scraping and got the higher price.

For living conditions he had the freest and cheapest thing in the world. The problem of unearned increment never troubled him. Those privileges that men acquire as the perquisites of propinquity made no claims upon his gratitude. He lived alone, and rarely looked for company. When he had staked out his claim on likely ground, he hunted for the stream or spring that nature seldom denied him, and chose the one as far away from anybody else as he could get. There, under skies often wet, but otherwise amiable, especially in the far north, he made a dwelling after the finest traditions of simplicity. Either he put up a tent, sometimes new, or made a hut of sacks and mud and ti-tree, or he built a nikau whare, an art learned from the Maoris, out of the broad-leafed native palm. For weeks, perhaps, he would not see a soul. Then driven by loneliness, or the need for a fresh lot of food, or the craving for whisky, he would carry off the gum he had ready, and “go on the razzle-dazzle” at the public house that every gum-store ran as a sure getter of substantial profits. If the owner was generous he did not let a digger drink all his money, but set aside for him some of his old food stock against the day he should go home. Then when the rest of his earn-page 316ings had disappeared in doubtful whisky the thoughtful capitalist turned him out to sober him up again.

In the days when men worked mostly for themselves it might be a long time before a man who did not turn up as usual at a store was missed. He was likely to change his market once in a while, seeking a more generous buyer or better food. If he never turned up again, no one but a pal who had taken a special interest in him would try to find out whether he was dead, or had merely moved on to some other field. It was this freedom that attracted the characters that have made the gum-fields famous as a playground for the reckless and the damned.

Of all the English derelicts who have formed the majority of the floating population, the man who professed to be related to nobility has always been the most familiar type. The native born colonial, who affected to despise the ways of birth and breeding—with some reason, since he so often saw men of birth and breeding end their days in borrowed huts with no company but the wekas and the swamp rats—had a habit of sarcastically dubbing every Englishman who ever mentioned a title as “The Earl,” uttered always with mock reverence. And it was a common saying that there were more titled Englishmen on the fields than ever came out of England.

The shades of suicide and murder have always stalked abroad upon the gum lands. Whisky and the loneliness have brought many a man to the jump into a swamp, or to a shot that no one heard, or to the rarer use of a razor, while the poaching of claims put the brand of Cain upon most of those who killed under the open sky. After a man had staked out a claim with the sticks that were often the only mark of occupation, no one could steal a march upon him and work his ground until he removed the signs. A break of this unwritten law was followed by swift vengeance.

Settlers who have tried to reclaim old fields for cultivation have come every now and then upon a skeleton out in the open in the fern, a skeleton nobody ever bothered to page 317 hide, because there were a thousand chances to one against its ever being found. And then, if it had been found, there was nobody interested enough to bother to suspect anybody of the deed. If a digger found a body in the fern he would look to see that it was really dead, and if so he left it, and said nothing.

Much of this Ross knew as he followed Asia, and the stories he had heard peopled the shades around him with a grim company of the lost men, and intensified his sense of the haunting melancholy of those open wastes that he felt rather than saw in the darkness around him. He wished he could see more as they went, but it took all his care to keep easily upon his feet as he dodged the treacherous remains of rotten stumps, jumped the pigmy ravines that split the track, and avoided other pitfalls of the narrow path that had been dangerously pocketed by the winter rains with holes that would break an unwary ankle.

On either side of the way he could see in the circle of light cast by the lantern that every inch of the ground had been turned by the spade, some of it recently; and Asia told him that a field was like the widow's oil, that men would poke about on much dug ground hoping that something had been missed by those who had gone before.

In places the pipe clay was so hard beneath their feet that the sound of their steps carried far into the night. They passed small clumps of scraggy ti-tree, and went over rises that had not seemed half so high from the range above. But the lack of real height and depth about them seemed to bring the glow of the milky way down about their ears. On the low horizons the stars seemed to spring up at their feet, and the zephyr that stirred the fern seemed to come clear from the heart of the universe.

They felt extraordinarily alone, for not a live thing moved round them till they came to a swamp. Then there was suddenly a ghostly movement in the rapoo and the reeds, and something they could not see rose up and filled the night with a mysterious fluttering.

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Asia put the lantern under her dress, and when they got their sight they saw black specks against the stars.

“Swamp hens,” she said briefly, as they watched.

As they went on again they smelt the rankness of the mud and the stagnant water, a rankness that stung their nostrils long after they had left the cause of it behind them.

At last, as they dipped down into a little gully, they saw a blackness looming out ahead of them, and soon afterwards the lantern showed the sacking walls of a hut made on a ti-tree frame. Before they got to the doorway a horrid sound that made Ross shudder was coughed out of the darkness at them.

“Good God!” he exclaimed. “What's that?”

“Consumption, the cough; have you never heard it before? Don't come in. If I want you I'll call you. There's no reason why you should see it. Uncle David said he was pretty bad.”

She spoke softly, but he saw she was bracing herself to do what she had come to do.

As she went in he moved into the shaft of dim light that the lantern sent back into the heavy shadows.

The first thing he looked for inside was the figure on the low sacking stretcher over which Asia leaned. But he could see little of what lay beneath the dark blanket. As the sound of another wrenching cough burst from the sick man, Ross remembered with a pang of fear that Asia was breathing that poisoned air, and for a moment he felt she was taking risks no dying man was worth. Then he was ashamed of himself, but he was relieved to see that she took antiseptics out of her kit and used them liberally.

He looked curiously round the hut, searching for something to show what manner of man had lived in it. But for furniture there was only an empty box used as a table, with a tin mug and some plates, a pipe and tobacco, and some stale bread upon it. In the open zinc chimney there hung a suit of dungarees above the cold ashes of a fire page 319 that had not been lit for days. A gum spear and a spade leaned against the sack wall. There was a heap of clothes on the earth floor in one corner, with a dirty copy of The Auckland Weekly News near it. And the only other asset the sick man had was a small pile of unscraped gum, not enough to buy him food for a week.

Ross took it all in at a glance, and with the realization of its misery he felt his throat turn hard and dry.

Then he saw Asia take out a little billy she had brought and some matches, and with them in her hands she came out to him. He saw her lips were set against a show of feeling.

“Allen, there's a spring quite near, below us a little—there's the path. Get some water and make a fire and warm it. I must wash him.”

“Wash him,” he repeated, guessing what a revolting thing that would be.

“I can't let him die dirty,” she said firmly. “Even if I knew he would go in an hour I should wash him.”

Ross turned away from her, seeing her through a mist, and found his way by striking matches to the spring. As he looked about for sticks and lit the fire, which every colonial can make out of doors by instinct, he exaggerated the simple operation into something that seemed to stand out as a landmark in his life. As he sniffed the burning wood, and looked up through the smoke into the stars, he forgot the shadow of death hovering over the hut. For he was full of the thought of life, life and its wonders of love and romance.

When the water was warmed he carried it to the door. Asia had just finished feeding the sick man with sips of broth. Waving Ross back, she came forward to take the water.

“Let me wash him,” he begged, feeling that he could not bear to see her do it.

She looked eloquently at him, but shook her head.

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“No, you stay outside. He has bad bedsores—you wouldn't know how to do it. I can manage. I've done it before.”

He went back to his little fire, sitting so that he could look in at her. He knew by the expression of her face as he watched her work, mostly underneath the blanket, that it was a sickening job, but he guessed she did not shirk one bit of it. She stopped twice to help the poor wretch over fits of coughing, and when she had finished washing him she worked an old sheet over him, and bathed his body again with alcohol.

Then, as he lay in comparative comfort for a few minutes, the digger's lips moved. Ross could not hear what he said, but he saw Asia move the things off the box, take something out of her kit, and sit down beside him. And then he heard the first words of the fourteenth chapter of St. John. Sceptic and Socialist though he was he could not hear them without emotion. He had never tried to minimize their value to large numbers of the human race, but never since his childhood had they meant anything to him. But as Asia picked out the most comforting verses in the fourteenth and fifteenth chapters, and read them as he was sure they had never been read before, he felt that the spirit of them was the spirit that had saved and always would save humanity from itself, the spirit of the reformer, the dreamer and the idealist.

As Asia closed with the verse “I will not leave you comfortless, I will come to you,” she seemed to Ross as she sat in her white dress, her golden head a little bowed, to be indeed the spirit of Christ come to cheer the dying man into the unknown future. A mist covered his eyes as he saw her kneel down, and heard her pray a simple little prayer that God would comfort the dying man, and forgive him, and give him rest. Setting his teeth, he got up, and walked away along the path.

He had always known that he could not play with her. He had never wanted to. So far he had not allowed himself to come to a full expression of his love for her, feeling that page 321 if he once began he would have to abide for ever by the choice, and realizing that divorce at the outset of a political career, even in the tolerant colonies, was something of a handicap. And then it was by no means certain that he could get the divorce. But whether or no, he cared not now as he looked up at the stars, for she was finally bound to his soul with hoops of steel.

He was so full of his own thoughts that he did not hear the further fits of coughing in the tent. He was in the grip of a sweep onward that had carried him away into the future, to visions of obstacles overcome and victories won. He started when he heard his own name come to him out of the night.

Walking back, he saw Asia poking something into the fire, and he saw that she had changed her dress for something dark. The lantern and the kit were on the ground near her.

“Yes?” he asked.

“He's dead,” she said, her voice breaking.

“Dead,” he repeated stupidly.

“Yes—that last fit of coughing. They often go like that. Poor thing, but, oh, it's a blessing—he might have lingered for weeks.” Her voice ended in a sob.

Something twisted Ross's throat so that he could not speak. He saw mechanically that she was burning her white dress.

“What are you doing?” he asked hoarsely, because he could think of nothing else to say.

“I have to burn everything up that I can,” she answered, forcing calmness into her voice.

Turning from her, he took up the lantern and walked into the hut to look upon the dead digger, who now lay wrapped in a sheet, his eyes closed. It was hard to tell what kind of a man he had been, for prolonged dying had taken all the distinctiveness out of him. There was no meaning in his grey face. He was simply skin and bone. Ross had never seen a dead thing that was so inexpressive of anything but naked misery.

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He moved away from it with a groan. Just outside the hut door he saw a heap of the box, the blanket, the dead man's clothes. Asia had emptied all her antiseptics over them. With his foot Ross moved them down to the fire.

It was mostly in silence that they burned everything that could hold the fraction of a germ. When they had finished, there was not a thing left in the hut but the sheeted corpse on its stretcher, the tin vessels, the spade and the spear; and they had nothing to carry back with them but the lantern and the matches.

“What happens to him now?” asked Ross, when they had stamped out the fire.

“We report his death to Harold Brayton; he's the coroner. Uncle David will give the certificate. They may come to see the body or they may not. Our word is enough. And the pater will send men to bury him somewhere here in the fern. He never got any letters. No one knew who he was. He's lost. That's all.” Her tone was a damning indictment of something and somebody.

Ross gripped her arm.

“Come away,” he commanded. “We have done all we can. For God's sake let's get away from it.”

Their tongues loosened as they walked, and the impatient anger of their youth and strength vented itself upon the institutions of ages. To them the pitiful end of the dead man was a synonym for the failure of civilization. It represented waste, cruelty and disorganization, stupidity and indifference. They talked of the awakening of humanity through the teachings of socialism, of the hopelessness of established systems, of the great future before the Labour Party of New South Wales. And that brought them to themselves and the part that Ross, and through him the part that she, too, would play in it. And the great thing now to both of them, as they retraced their steps, was that they were of the same mind as to how the world was to be remade.

By the time they had reached the ridge above the river page 323 it was long after midnight. Their passion for the regeneration of mankind had worn itself out for the time being, and they stopped to look at a late moon of smoky gold that rose from the black shades of Pukekaroro. It was natural that looking together at her they should forget the failure of civilization.

They had not stood a minute before the realization of their own youth and nearness and common desires obliterated the troubles of the rest of the world from their minds.

They were caught by a conspiracy in themselves acting in concert with the time and the place.

Asia dropped the lantern, and it went out.

She did not stoop to pick it up because Ross's arm swept round her, pinning her helpless against him.

“God! I love you, you beautiful thing,” he cried.

And so they, too, for a time under the midnight stars, forgot the dead man in the hut.