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Man Alone

Chapter XIV

page 123

Chapter XIV

The silence that fell in the hut after the explosive sound of the two shots had died away was very complete: it had a heavy and final quality. Johnson was dazed by the wind and noise of the shots that had gone so close to him; he felt his face roughened and blackened by them. He put out one hand to steady himself and felt the edge of the plain wood table beside his bed with the candle and matches still on it. Lighting the candle he felt his hand shake uncontrollably. When the flame burned up he could not see for a moment; then he walked unsteadily with the candle across to the doorway to look at Stenning. It was not necessary to look long or closely at him; he was very dead. It was a kind of mockery to think of what lay there as being Stenning, with face and shoulder merged in a mess of blood on the floor. Johnson had not contemplated before the effect of a shot-gun at close quarters; it was like some old memory of the war that he had drowned. He turned and came back, still walking unsteadily, to put the candle down and to sit on the edge of the bed. It was an odd mechanical motion that made his fingers, at this moment, fumble in his pockets for tobacco to roll a cigarette. They met nothing and he remembered then that he had been sleeping in these clothes and that the pockets were empty. His hands dropped listlessly and his eyes wandered again towards Stenning.

Rua had not moved until now from where she had been, huddled up in the far corner of the bed against the wall. page 124 She sat up now, leaning forward. The light of the candle was kindly but showed enough. She was quiet for a moment and then broke out, with a voice that was half-crying:

‘My God,’ she said, her voice rising, ‘you've killed him.

‘I didn't kill him,’ Johnson said, without emotion. ‘He tried to kill me.’

She gasped, looking fearfully at the dead body of her husband.

‘God,’ she said, her voice dropping again to a whisper. ‘God, and he's dead now.’

Her hands were clenched and her eyes were staring at Johnson. He moved uneasily.

‘He's dead all right,’ Johnson said. ‘We can't help that now.’

Rua got up as if with difficulty from the bed. She did not look again at what lay on the floor nor directly at Johnson. She said: ‘You shouldn't ever have come here, you shouldn't have come. I told Bill that.’

She shivered at the sound of her dead husband's name. Her voice was thin and high-pitched. Great tears welled into her eyes and while Johnson watched her, curious of what she should say or do, he felt within himself an odd helpless pity for her as for a child.

‘That's right now,’ she said, ‘that's how it was. But you had to come and stay here, making up to him to get part of his farm and laughing at him all the time, laughing at us both. Laughing at me, yes, you were laughing at me, too, all the time. Well, he's dead now, he's dead, isn't he? That's good enough, ain't it?’ and her voice rose until she screamed shrilly.

Johnson caught her arm and held it.

‘You can cut that out,’ he said. ‘There's no time for that now.’ She was quiet at once when he spoke to her, but page 125 pulled her arm away and stood on the other side of the table from him.

‘Can't you go away now?’ she said, trying to keep her voice steady. ‘Can't you get out now, now that he's dead?’

Johnson said, speaking softly and levelly – he was trying to pick his words carefully, but found, nevertheless, his speech blurred and his throat dry as if he had been drinking heavily:

‘You and I are in this together, Rua. That's the way it is and you'd better make up your mind to it. What we've got to do now is to think out what we've got to do.’

He felt as if he had grown suddenly very tired and as if he were labouring in a dream to explain something of great importance which could not be explained in words. He repeated:

‘We've got to think out what's to do, Rua.’

‘It wasn't me,’ Rua said suddenly. ‘He wouldn't ever have hurt me.’

‘Yes, I know, it was me all right,’ Johnson said keeping his eyes on her. ‘I'm the home-breaker. It's me that will get the trouble. But you've got to tell what happened. I don't mind manslaughter – I'll get something for that. I don't want anyone to start talking about murder.’ He stopped, then added suddenly and viciously: ‘You ought to get twenty years yourself. I didn't ask you down here tonight, did I?’

Rua said, as if she had not been listening to him: ‘I'm going home. They can find me there when they want me.’

‘You can't run away from here like that,’ Johnson said.

She kept her face turned away from him. ‘Why can't I? You can run away if you want to. I'm going home. I'm not running away.’

She turned to go, hesitated for a moment at having to pass across Stenning's body, then went quickly across the page 126 room and half jumping, half falling through the doorway, disappeared into the darkness outside. Johnson got up from the bed and called out after her, but she did not stop, and he heard her footsteps running up the track. He did not call again, but sat there listening. Then he leaned over to where his coat hung at the top of the bed and, taking out his tobacco and packet of papers, began to roll a cigarette. He still felt dazed and as if, now that Rua had gone, the room and everything in it were unreal. While he rolled the cigarette he found himself talking and muttering to himself. Stenning should have known better than to act that way, he was saying, and so should I. We were old enough to know better than that. Only when the cigarette was finished and he put it up to his lips to light it did he seem to realize that his lips were moving and he stopped, ashamed of himself. As he lit the cigarette and drew on it his mind cleared and, looking steadily in front of him at the shadows of candle light on the wall, he thought of what he should do; but his lips still moved unconsciously, framing the words as he thought.

The argument that was in his mind was of manslaughter and murder. No one, he was saying to himself, could make this into murder, not even Rua, and however far her story was from the truth. But he knew that he would not stand well when it came to the law and the people who would judge him. Manslaughter, he thought, and maybe it won't be so bad – a few years in something a little worse than an unemployed camp. But I won't stand well, he thought, with the people around here; there'll be no popularity wasted on me.

He sat up straight at this point and his brain seemed to quicken as if it had come alive again. He looked round the room and saw everything clearly, even Stenning and the blood that was on the floor and splashed on walls and page 127 ceiling. He saw this now coldly and unemotionally. He weighed in his mind the possibilities of going away and escaping from it all and knew that, if this were possible, it was what he wanted to do. Looking at the situation now, clearly and almost impersonally, he knew that though it would be better if he stayed and faced things out it was not what he wanted to do. It would be the end of the things that he wanted for himself. They would have him then, Rua and Stenning and everybody else. They would take and tie him, probably for years, to work in a prisoncamp, perhaps under the shadow of the mountain there, where he had himself seen the convicts road-making in the rain; and he would be older after that, too old to go away or to do anything with himself. They would have finished him then, all right. If he could get away he could keep some things. He could keep one thing that he had had in all the years that he had known this country, and that was a freedom to go and to work and to live where he liked. He knew now, looking back, how the threat of seeming to lose this had driven him from a relief camp. It was driving him much farther now and a colder, more hopeless way, but it was driving him all right.

His cigarette had gone out and instead of relighting it he dropped it into the blue-enamelled candle-stick. The outline of a plan was maturing, clearly and definitely, in his head. As he stood up he heard, through the night, the sound of horse's hoofs galloping up the road. If it was Rua, as he guessed, she hadn't wasted time; and time was important. He had to get somewhere into bush-country before daylight. It would be a while before Rua or her people did anything; it would be morning probably; they would not want to be mixed up in anything if it could be helped; they would take action reluctantly. He looked at his watch; it was still only half-past eleven. He had gone page 128 to bed early and less than an hour must have gone by since Stenning had come to the door. He had six hours of darkness left to him which should be time enough.

He dressed quickly, changing the soft flannel trousers that he was wearing for strong dungarees. Then he tipped his packed kit-bag out on to the floor and packed it again, this time with only a spare shirt and woollen socks and another pair of working boots, iron-studded with nails. He strapped leather leggings over his trouser legs and fastened a scarf round his neck. While he did this – it took no longer than a few minutes – he did not look towards the body that lay a yard from him, nor trouble about the blood that he noticed for the first time on his shirt and arms. When he had finished all this he looked quickly about the hut, then blew out the candle, and with his kit in one hand, stepped carefully over Stenning's body and out into the night.

Outside there was a wind blowing; it was coming from the east. It blew with a steadiness and strength that meant a gale and rain. He did not worry about this now, but went on up to the house. The front door was blowing open and there was no one inside so that he knew that it was Rua that he had heard on the road. Lighting the oil-lamp on the kitchen table his eye caught for a moment the telephone on the wall and he wondered, without anxiety, if she had stopped first to give the alarm. While he looked at it the bell rang suddenly and startlingly. In the silence of the empty house the sound was shocking breaking down his newly-found clearness of mind. The bell rang, two long and one short, and again two long and one short – it was not Stenning's ring but that of a neighbour on the line, four miles down the valley. Johnson went over to the ‘phone and lifted the receiver gently. The conversation that he heard came through clearly; a telegram was being page 129 read out about the sale of a bull. He heard the voice of the woman from the exchange and the long drawl of the farmer at the other end. After a moment he put the receiver gently back again.

Johnson went into the kitchen and finished the packing of his bag, fitting each article in carefully. He took a great deal of tea and some salt, and about twenty pounds of mixed flour and oatmeal, as much as he reckoned he would be able to carry easily. After that he went into the bedroom and found Stenning's rifle; it was a small and light .22. He had some trouble locating the ammunition for it, but found at last two packets in the drawer of the kitchen table. He knew that some kind of axe would be necessary to him if he were to keep alive and warm in the bush. There was a small chopper in the wood-shed at the back. It was blunt, but it was all that he could afford to carry. He took it, fitting it down the side of his bag, and after that he had finished. He did up his kit-bag and swung it on to his shoulder and pulled his hat down over his eyes, knowing that he was ready to go.

Outside again the wind seemed to have grown even stronger. It was not cold but came down the valley shaking the trees and driving clouds across a waning moon. Going down with a bridle in his hand to find Darky he could not see the horses at first, but found them in the end grouped together in a sheltered corner of the field. When he went up to Darky the horse shied, starting away, and though he followed it quietly, talking to it gently, it would not be caught. The horse had always stood for him before and he smiled a little grimly to himself thinking of the scent of blood that was still on him. He went up to Stenning's Jonquil standing still and white in the darkness. The mare trembled as he put the bridle over her neck, but stood still, and came quietly when he led her to be saddled. It page 130 was just on midnight when he rode out from the farm and stopped carefully to close the white gate that led on to the road. Behind him the farm buildings were dark and silent and in front the road was heavy with the shadows of high clay banks. He rode quickly, using the mare's long raking trot and cantering on straight stretches, or, after they had come to the main road with its rough metal, whenever there was a softer clay strip by the side. He made good progress now, riding through the night along roads that he knew well.

He had to go a long way this time to disappear. He had to go where he could not be found for many months, until perhaps men would think him dead or would stop searching for him. This was too small a country for the fugitive. Men in it knew each other too well up and down each part of the island, and the cities were too small to be lost in. It was an easy matter to watch railway stations and ships. He was going instead into bush country, where for a hundred miles no one lived or travelled, where there were no paths nor animals except birds, but only high bush-hills and rivers going down to the sea. He knew that if he was lucky and could live through this, to come out months later away on the far side of the island, he would still need then to have luck with him, but might win, nevertheless, this game that he was playing. It was a gamble that he liked to think of. It would need not courage, but patience and endurance.

He was going over some of these things as he rode on this first night's journey, with his mind still clear and active. He was not thinking now of anything that lay behind him in the farm-house he had left. He met no one during the night nor was he passed by any cars on the road. He went through the darkened streets of the little dairy town that had served them, riding quietly here so page 131 that afterwards men would not trace his movements nor remember the time at which he passed too easily, and went on, going towards the railway and the mountain. He was travelling again the road that he had walked when he first came into this country. The mountain range that he wanted, the only hills that were deep enough and lonely enough for his purpose now, lay eastward beyond Ruapehu and across the tussock plains. He was making for the Kaimanawas, the great range that ran southward like a backbone to the island, its ridges grim and bleak and forbidding, the peaks snow covered in winter. He knew it as lost part of the country and unknown except to odd prospectors who went into it sometimes, believing in gold that might be there.

Making his plans now as he rode he knew that he could not get as far as that before daylight. Morning would find him on the tussock plains that ran from the foot-hills of the Kaimanawas across to the snow ridges of Ruapehu, and the tussock would give him no shelter if men were out searching for him. He decided then to make this first journey in two parts, with shelter during the daylight in between, and so he turned off and took a road that dwindled to a bush-track, leading, he knew, to Ruapehu itself. He reckoned to trust himself to the loneliness of its rocks and snow for the next day.

Day broke mistily as he was riding the last of the ten miles of this bush-track up the mountain-side. It broke with the wind growing stronger, so that he knew there was indeed a bad gale coming on. It blew fine rain across the mountain-side, wrapping him round. The track ran steeply through tall bush at first and then through bush which shrank gradually to stunted shrubs and mountain grass. He followed it up to where the snow-line came down in winter, but it was May now and only the ice of glaciers page 132 was left higher up. Mist swirled in the valleys on either side of the ridge he rode, hiding sometimes all but the track he followed, and sometimes breaking to reveal glimpses of rock and ice high above him. He was tired now and sleepy, and the mare went slowly, stumbling in the ruts of the path. He came out, at length, where the last trees died away to a hut of corrugated iron, built for mountaineers, and sheltered in a cleft of the ridge. He had not known of the hut and was glad to find it there, but it was a shock to him, now that he had framed himself into a mood of avoiding all men, to see smoke coming from the flat chimney. But he was not really troubled and looked gratefully to it for warmth and food. The hut was five thousand feet above sea-level and cold was wrapping him round. He rode Jonquil up to the door of the hut and, throwing his bag to the ground, jumped down.

The two young men that heard him and came to the door embarrassed Johnson. They were trampers going over the mountain in the dead season before the snows came, young men from college, he guessed, in football jerseys and shorts and striped stockings. They weighed him up gravely while they followed him into the hut, ready to show respect to anyone that was familiar with the mountain. Johnson could not hold this line. He explained himself shortly.

‘Wanted to see this mountain,’ he said. ‘Never been up here before. It's damn’ cold.’

They agreed, and gave him tea and bread and bacon from their own meal that they were just preparing. The hut was warm with a good fire and lined with open bunks. They told him that they were just leaving and going on round the mountain westward, and asked him if he were thinking of climbing.

‘Not far, I reckon,’ Johnson said, ‘not far today.’

page 133

‘You want to take an ice-axe if you're climbing,’ one of them said. ‘There's nothing but ice up there now and a little warm rain to make it slippery.’

‘The rain isn't so warm,’ Johnson said.

‘It's warmer than the ice. If you're going up the track's clear and marked for the first two miles. You want to watch beyond that with this mist about. It'll be cold out tonight if you miss the track.’

Johnson nodded. His eyes were heavy with sleeplessness and he wanted to rest. Outside the wind rising drove light mist against the corrugated iron walls of the hut so that it shook and rattled with the force of the growing storm. One of the young men noticed the rifle strapped beside Johnson's pack.

‘You shouldn't carry that here,’ he said. ‘This is a game preserve.’

‘I know that,’ Johnson said. ‘I'll not be shooting anything here.’

After a while the young men left, shouldering heavy rucksacks and, going westward round the mountain, went out of sight in the misty rain. Johnson took Jonquil down to a rough paddock that had been fenced off below the hut. There was feed of a kind there in the coarse mountain grass, though the paddock was bare and shelterless and bleak. When he had done that he dozed for a little while before the smouldering log-fire, to wake with a start about noon. He got up then hastily, thinking it was no longer safe for him to stay, and, with movements that were still sleepy, fastened his pack with straps from the stirrups of the saddle so that he could carry it over his shoulder, and tied the rifle on top of it. He planned now to go eastwards round the mountain, where there was no track, and, when he had passed the eastern ridge, to come down again on the tussock plains. Ten or fifteen miles page 134 after that would take him, crossing the coach-road perhaps by night, to the shelter of the Kaimanawas. Before he went he tidied the hut and let down the rail of the paddock so that the mare could go when she wanted. If she went back down the track now it would not matter much. The mare watched him without moving as he went up past the hut and then eastward across the open mountain-side of rock and tussock.

His brain was working clearly again as he moved against the weight of wind and rain, and he knew what was against him. He had heard men talk of how sometimes prisoners broke from the camp across the mountain and took to the bush. Then it was like a game to the prison guards, a game that they usually won. They picketed all the bridges and cross-roads and searched the mountain huts; after that they waited for the rain that always came to drive the fugitives out of the bush to them. He had on his side some food and an ability to last them out, but that was all.

He had a hard day, going these few miles round the mountain-side. He was forced up, higher and higher, in an attempt to avoid the deep, stone valleys that ran between ridges, steep and impassable, until he was up near the snow-line coming on small patches of snow among the rocks. Up here the mist driving against him was often half sleet and very cold on his face and ungloved hands. He forced his way on, going as well as he could, and trying to keep his general direction by the slope of the ridges, a journey made hard by broken, ice-worn rock and the heavy pack he carried. The weather cleared for a little while in the late afternoon so that he could see the sharp peak they called Girdlestone above him and could get his line before the mist came down again. He made his way down then, judging himself to have come far enough page 135 round the mountain, until he found the edge of tussock again. The bush died away here, on this side of the mountain, into small isolated clumps of trees breaking the stone and tussock. When night fell he dug himself into the loose pumice soil and slept with the sound of wind in his ears, and rain more heavy now, falling over him. It was a cold night, but not unbearable.

He woke to a morning that was just light underneath a sky still black with the storm. The gale had strengthened so that it had reached its height. He knew well from experience the course that it would take. This was the third day of its fury, with heavy rain in the wind now. It would blow like this all day and another night, and rain heavily, with a steady drenching rain, for two days after that, until the wind went round to the west again. He was chilled and wet through and foodless, but the wildness of the weather gave him a chance of escape.

As he went on in the early morning, fearful of losing all direction, but trying to judge the slope of the land as it ran down to the plain, he came to a strange and desolate country. What he saw was a waste of scarred and pitted desert, bare of all growth for long stretches, loose scoria and pumice powdered to sand by years of weathering, and lifting now, as the gale came violently, so that it rose in swirling clouds that wrapped him round and blinded him. Here and there stunted shrubs clung desperately in the shelter of breaks and hummocks in the sand, and the ground was strewn with the charred fragments of old forests wasted by volcanic fire. He had heard men speak of this, too, of the Rangipo desert, the waste area where long before the volcanoes of the mountain had burned and embedded the forests, and the loose volcanic sand, played on by years of driving winds, had given no home for anything to grow. It was a legend-haunted country, dreaded page 136 by the Maoris. He could remember them telling him how long ago the first natives of the country had been driven down here by invaders to die and after that there were stories of Maori tribes caught by snow and starved to death in these same deserts. There had been times when the desert held packs of savage and wandering dogs until they, too, died away in that lifeless area, and it was left as barren and desolate as ever. As he went blindly forward, going doggedly, his head down, barely seeing the ground beneath his feet, he came at length to what he knew must be the heart of it all, Onetapu, the place of the shivering sands. And there he seemed to be caught in something that was wild and furious and stronger than himself. The wind came no longer directly against him, but eddying and whirling in gusts of sand and storm so that he could hardly stand or go forward in any direction. The quiet and silence of the mountain-side was gone and in its place came a sighing and moaning of wind and sand as it stirred in the corridors of the desert, more mournful and more frightening than anything human that he had known. He fought this for a long time, both the feeling of terror and the force of the storm, baffled and angry, going sometimes forward or being swayed to left and right, stumbling and falling, going on his hands and knees, until at last he caught the shelter of a pumice bank and stayed there, burrowed into it, with his back against the shelter and the rain and sand blowing over him. He was exhausted and if snow came, he told himself, ready to die. Night fell and no snow came, but only rain and sand. He ate a little raw flour and oatmeal, moistened into a gritty paste in his hands, and did not sleep, stirring uneasily to keep the circulation in his limbs. With the grey of the morning the wind died and rain came down heavily and gloomily: the day was dark and remained dark with heavy clouds. There page 137 was almost no visibility, but it was possible to go forward now and to strike a rough line against the slight drift of the rain. He went on until he came out of the sand and on to tussock again that seemed by comparison alive and healthy.

About midday he came to the coach-road that crossed the plains. It was a lonely road and little used so that it seemed more strange to him to hear, as he came to it, the sound of a motor. He waited, crouched in a ditch by the side of the road while a service car went by. The two days that he had been alone on the mountain had already made a difference to him so that he watched this car go by with curious and hostile eyes. In the silence, after the sound of the car's running had died away, he crossed the road and went eastward over the plain. There was no need for him to wait for night: it was difficult enough by daylight covering this tussock country, where the appearance of flatness was deceptive and hid great hollows and billowing undulations. With the grey rain falling it was impossible for anyone to see him a quarter of a mile away, and he guessed that if they were after him they would not be searching these barren plains, but waiting by bridges and road-heads for an attempt on his part at food and shelter. He felt strong still and, so long as he was moving and warm, able to turn his back on them.

The clouds lifted a little in the late afternoon and showed him, for the first time, the shadow of the mountain range ahead that was his goal. The steep bush-hills rose up grimly and darkly out of the plain. But they were still farther from him than he had hoped and he spent the night again on the plain with rain still drenching down. He woke this time before it was light, with his limbs shaking and his jaws twitching uncontrollably, his head burning as if with fever. He was frightened then of falling ill, page 138 but the feeling went away as he forced himself up and on again, though his head was light; he felt giddy, and the movements of his legs seemed un-coordinated and unreal. He chewed tobacco as he went forward to keep himself from thinking of his hunger and cold.

Later in the morning he came to the edge of the bush and, as the rain ceased and began to dry in rising mist and fog, he stopped to rest. There, in the first edge of the real bush which closed heavy and damp and dripping, he made a fire, breaking open a dead log with his axe to find dry wood inside it. He cut bits of this into thin shavings, the size of match-sticks, with his knife and, lighting them, built the fire up carefully until it would take great sodden branches in its flames. There was a risk in fire so near to roads and humanity, but he was resolved to take it, and could rely still on the mists and haze of the day which the sun was only just breaking through. He made tea first and drank it black and strong, and then cooked a damper of flour and oatmeal which he ate slowly, drying himself all the time as much as he could, and feeling warmth come back into his body. Afterwards he rolled and smoked two cigarettes – extravagantly, for his store of tobacco was small – and then slept a little while by the side of the fire. He stayed there all day, looking out once or twice, but seeing nothing except the yellow plain and the last clouds rolling back from the mountain, and spent the night there as well, putting the fire down when it grew dark so that its pin-point of flame should not attract attention across the plains. He felt better now and slept easily, unmindful even of a sharp shower that rustled the leaves overhead during the night. With morning, the wind was in the west and blowing freshly.

This was real bush that he was going into now, not the mountain-bush of birch-trees that he had seen on Rua- page 139 pehu, but deep, thick, and matted, great trees going up to the sky, and beneath them a tangle of ferns and bushlawyer and undergrowth, the ground heavy with layers of rotting leaves and mould. To go forward at all was difficult, held back all the time by twining undergrowth. The air was dark and lifeless; it was rich with the sweet, rotting smell of the bush, and only stray glimpses of light came through the leaves above. He had only a general and limited sense of direction, but followed the path of a bush creek which wound its way through the bottom of the valley into the heart of the range. He was going deep into this, so deep, he told himself, that he might never come out again. Following the creek bed was difficult and exhausting, but gave some hopes of progress with its occasional short stretches clear of over-growing trees. As he followed it in, going for five days laboriously forward, making at best not more than eight or ten miles each day, the hills seemed to close round and over him until he felt himself to be farther than anyone could ever follow him, surrounded and drowned in the hills and bush, safe and alone and submerged. He had to climb after that to get over the first heights of the range that ran up six thousand feet high, and he did this after two weeks of journeying, going up again to a country of bare rock and lichen and down again to a great valley beyond that fell steeply two thousand feet. The day that he came down again into bush country, snow fell. It lay heavily on the heights behind him and would stay there, he knew, through the winter months that were on them now. Even lower in the valley it covered the trees and lay in patches on the ground. He decided then, that if he were to endure through the next three months he must have warmth and shelter for himself, and stopped then, when he came to the depths of this great valley, to find it.