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The Land of The Lost

Chapter XVII

page 144

Chapter XVII

They had now left the main road, which, it will be remembered, led on in the direction of the racecourse and the sea coast, and were riding through a country which increased momentarily in interest and beauty.

As they left behind them the wide, sun-bathed plains of the gumfield, the manuka, rejoicing in a richer soil, sprang up to a height of twenty or thirty feet. Other and statelier specimens of the vegetable world began also to mingle their foliage with the minute-leafed tea tree. On every branch, almost on every twig, sat the evil-looking but harmless cicada, their assembled multitudes shaking the air with a deafening whir of voices, as of innumerable tiny grindstones among the foliage.

As they moved deeper and deeper into the warm, moist depths, the tea tree thinned and vanished, a hundred different varieties of trees now contending for mastery of the soil and mingling their varied foliage against the sky. In the heavily shadowed recesses glanced the foliage of the shapely native palm, standing in clumps or mingled with tree ferns, and fringing the banks of loud-sounding, yet invisible creeks. It would seem that gloom could go no further, but it was not so.

There had now begun to appear among the other members of the forest an occasional symmetrical pillar, page 145which, rising in stately grandeur from the earth, broke without branching through the leafy cover of the woods. Rare at first, these majestic beings became increasingly numerous. Beneath them the remainder of the forest was suddenly dwarfed and of no account. They were marked by another significant fact. In the ordinary mixed forest the trees lived on equal terms; they grew side by side; they jostled one another for a sight of the sun; they leaned sometimes in one another's arms: the bush was entirely republican. But with these fawn-coloured giants came a different order of things. They built for themselves mounds, and stood there, and nothing ventured within the sacred circle. No tree jostled them, no vine cast its arms about their feet or attempted to scale their sides; the demon parasite, on his way as a grain of dust through the air, shunned them and sought other prey.

"It is like riding through a cathedral," said Esther, looking upward to the great branches with their cloud on cloud of foliage. "Strange that such a temple should be without a single worshipper."

"This is the Holy of Holies," said Wilfrid. "The parson-bird has his service of song without the gates in the sun-warmed outer woods, where also food is to be found. He may sing sometimes of the tranquil majesty of the abode of the gods, but, like the rest of us, he prefers the certainty of a ripe berry and a cosy bough."

"I love these kauris," said Esther, scarcely heeding him, and suffering her eyes to roam among the mighty boles. "They are so silent, so enduring, so strong."

"I should expect a woman to admire them on those grounds," said Wilfrid.

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"On the principle that we love best those qualities we possess least, I suppose."

Wilfrid laughed. "You are too caustic," he remarked. "My intention was more innocent You might love them for the reason that those qualities are in themselves admirable."

"And not because I am myself talkative, fickle, and weak," continued Esther, with more seriousness than the occasion seemed to warrant.

"You are not talkative," said Wilfrid thoughtfully; "I should not have described you as weak; and as for fickleness, I have no means of judging."

"You are very literal," said Esther, with a suspicion of a pout, "and not very complimentary. I do not like being analysed in that matter-of-fact way."

"To which of my remarks do you take exception?" Wilfrid asked easily.

"To all of them. In the first place, the implication is that I am secretive; in the second, that I am—head-strong; and in the third, that I am not certainly faithful."

"I object to an argument on these terms," said Wilfrid, laughing. "I protest against your expounding my views as well as your own."

"Hark!" exclaimed Esther, suddenly holding up her hand.

The road, which was here very rough and little more than a horse track, had continued to ascend gradually for the last two or three miles; but by an increase of light in the forest ahead it was evident that they had now nearly reached the summit of the elevation. The sound which had arrested Esther's attention appeared to come from a point immediately over the brow of the hill, and as the cousins paused to listen, it was repeated over and page 147over again at regular intervals—the hollow ring of an axe. As they moved forward the sound of a second axe broke on the silence of the woods, then of a third and fourth, until the loud echoes blended with and destroyed one another. Drawing still nearer, several new sounds were added to and mingled with the ring of the axes—the rhythmic swing of the cross-cut saw, the clanking of heavy bullock chains, the occasional sighing groan of tired or angry oxen, the cries of their drivers, the voices of the workers talking or shouting to one another in their soft native tongue. These and similar sounds prepared them for the busy scene which met their eyes on surmounting the hill.

Below them, fifteen miles away on the horizon, glittered the sea. Then came a rolling tract of fern and scrub land, streaked and blotted with occasional patches of bush. To the left the broad, shining arm of a tidal river ran through an avenue of mangroves. To the right a dense and interminable forest lay black as night in the beams of the midday sun. Immediately beneath them, at the foot of the steep, tree-denuded hill, stretched a green valley dotted with huts, with here and there a shingle-roofed weatherboard cottage standing in its orchard of peaches and figs. The road led in a downward curve round the side of the hill, being broken at one point where a shoot had been constructed for the purpose of sliding the logs into the valley.

On the summit of the hill itself was assembled a large party of natives—some employed in cross-cutting or squaring with the broad axe the logs already sawn; others in yoking up the team of bullocks, whose duty it was to draw the squared timber to the mouth of the shoot; others, again, were engaged in the dangerous task of jacking and rolling the huge logs page 148from the spots where they had been felled and cut; while a number, at least as great as those who were actively engaged, lay or sat about in small groups, enjoying that extreme luxury of laziness, which is the possession of idleness in the midst of toil.

To the rear, slightly in advance of the standing bush, stood an enormous tree, close on three hundred feet in height. He stood alone, erect, his branches evenly distributed on every side, his foliage darkening the sky. Like a massive piece of masonry, clean, solid, absolutely without flaw, he stood, where he had probably stood for a thousand years, and where, uninjured, he might have stood for another thousand. But in the clean sound wood of his side the American steel axe had bitten deep, and his life blood ran from the gaping scarf. On a platform behind the tree four men were engaged in laying in the long cross-cut saw which was to complete the work of demolition.

The advent of the riders was the signal for an immediate cessation of toil, each one of the natives coming forward, as is their custom, to shake hands with the newcomers. Esther was acquainted with most of those present, and greeted them by their names. Then, in response to the request of a fine-looking man of about sixty years of age, she and Wilfrid dismounted and seated themselves, the Maoris squatting on their heels in a half-circle before them. After a few remarks had been interchanged, the old man addressed Esther in a low, musical voice, and continued speaking for some time to a chorus of "Ae" (yes), "pono" (true), from those around him.

"What is the matter?" asked Wilfrid, whose knowledge of the language was insufficient to enable him to follow the speaker.

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"They think we have come here on account of some disagreement between themselves and Mr. Roller," replied Esther. "They say they have sent to him to-day to endeavour to come to an understanding as to a fine which Mr. Roller appears to have imposed, and which they consider to be exorbitant."

"The sooner you disabuse their minds of that notion the better," said Wilfrid. "We have nothing whatever to do with Roller or his business methods."

Esther explained this to the natives, who received the statement with polite incredulity. "Mita Rora," said the chief, addressing Wilfrid in broken English, "very good man in some tings, I s'pose so; but to the Maori, no good. Ehoa (friend), sometimes ago we make contrac' with Rora; he say I buy so many tausand feet, I pay you so muttee. He say you bring so many every week; if you no bring, I make you pay all the same the fine. We say, 'Kapai' (very good). Two weeks, tree weeks, four weeks—oh, very good, all the same the swim. Then one week, no logs; nex' week, no logs; nex' week, too few; but af'r nex' week, all same's before. But Rora very angry man; he too hard altogether; he say, 'Pay up fine.' Then the Maoris tell, 'Too many dead body at our place that times.' Rora, he say, 'Damn um dead body—where my logs?' Then the Maori very cross man too; he say, 'Go to——.'"

"I say! steady on," expostulated Wilfrid. "Don't mention the exact spot on a sultry day like this."

The Maoris have a keen perception of the humorous, even where it tells against themselves; and Wilfrid's shocked air had the effect of converting their eager, attentive faces into laughing ones.

"Taihoa" (wait), continued the old chief, when he had had his laugh out. "Rora say, 'Kapai, we make new page 150contrac'. You buy your toa (stores) from me—ah, very good, no fine. You bring logs; I pay half toa, half money.' Then the Maoris say, 'No gooru that way; your place too far. Too many the utu (price) your toa. Kapai, all same's before.' Rora say, 'No.'" He waved his hand to denote that such was the condition of affairs at the present moment, and a chorus of approving "aes" greeted this lucid exposition of the case.

"We can't interfere in this," said Wilfrid in a low voice to Esther. "Timber has gone down in value, and I expect the real fact is that Roller is anxious to get out of the contract."

Conversation on the same subject continued in a desultory fashion for the next quarter of an hour, the Maoris endeavouring in vain to get an expression of opinion from Esther, of whose prospective connection with Roller they were well aware. Then Wilfrid suggested that they should proceed on their descent into the valley, which was to form the termination of their ride. But to this the old chief objected. The great kauri tree, one of the largest in the whole forest, was to fall within half an hour. He wished the pakehas to remain and see a sight which they might never again have a chance of witnessing; the direction of the fall was perfectly assured, and it could thus be watched in entire safety. Esther readily gave her assent to the proposal, and at the old chief's direction she and Wilfrid seated themselves to the rear and to one side of the tree. The workers then ascended the platform, and the saw, which was already buried in the wood, was again got in motion. As the instrument swung backwards and forwards on its deadly work, its path followed and assured by the levering powers of the steel wedge, the immense tree began a slow and imperceptible descent page 151towards the earth. Now and then, and with increasing frequency as the saw neared the apex of the deep scarf, an ominous crack, as of the rending of some titanic heart-string, spoke of the terrific force which, in response to the puny efforts of man, was now bringing this ponderous mass of timber to the ground.

None save those who have engaged in bush-falling, or have witnessed the descent of some such monarch of the woods, can conceive the intensity of the excitement which attends the process. Unable to remain seated, Esther moved close to the platform, nervously holding Wilfrid's arm, her whole soul absorbed in the event. The loud cracking noises from the heart of the tree now came at brief intervals, and the maul for driving the wedges home was in momentary requisition. At length, when but a few inches of the bole remained unsevered, the saw was withdrawn. A few blows on the wedges completed the work. Moving with increasing impetus across the sky, with groans and sharp rending sounds, and the roar of its foliage as it swept the air, the great giant of the woods fell forward and, leaping from his severed bole, came with a deafening crash to the earth.

Subsequently as Wilfrid and Esther, having mounted their horses, rode by on their way to the settlement, they found that the huge barrel of the prostrate tree still rose above their heads.

The old chief accompanied them down the hillside to one of the weatherboard cottages in the valley. Here they found a spot which, with a little greater regard for cleanliness and order, would have been little short of a paradise. A beautiful clear stream, sheltered by the thick branches of titoki trees, flowed close by the page 152house; all around were groves of fig trees, heavy with unripe fruit, their branches overrun and tangled with grape vines. Further out came the splendid green of maize and potatoes, the latter ready for digging. Beyond again were other paddocks, sprinkled with horses and cattle, after which came the hilly ramparts of the vale, clothed in tall white tea tree or the more sombre grandeur of the interminable forest. Disorder and a wasteful luxuriance of growth characterised the scene, and would have sufficed without other indication to announce the fact of its Maori ownership. The fences were patched and unsightly, the orchard choked with weeds, the buildings warped and black from want of paint. Such of the windows as remained unbroken were crusted with dirt, and spiders and mason bees had stretched their webs and built their mud pits on the frames and sashes undisturbed. Nor was the interior of the house more attractive. The paper was falling in strips from the walls and ceilings, the uncarpeted floors were rough with dry dirt, and such furniture as the place contained was mostly in a dilapidated condition. The old bare-footed chief, who marshalled his visitors through the rooms with an importance that did full justice to the palatial splendour he mistakenly saw in his surroundings, explained that he and his family never used the building, except occasionally on Sundays. Personally he could not afford to live in such state. The house was reserved for European visitors, who could be trusted to make no improper use of the good things it contained. He had at one time, on the occasion of the marriage of his eldest son, suffered the place to be occupied, but—he almost blushed to mention it—when he, the chief, went to see them, he invariably found the young couple page 153seated on the floor. He had also a suspicion that they did not occupy the best bed, but made their couch under the kitchen table. In short, he had felt compelled to eject them, and since then the house had remained tenantless.

It was with some difficulty Esther managed to convince the old man that they would prefer to take their lunch and their rest under the trees in the open air. He was astonished at this, because it seemed to show a similarity of tastes to his own. He loved the open himself; being a Maori, he said with humility, it was only natural he should; but it was evident that he was somewhat lifted up in self-esteem by the discovery of this unexpected bond between himself and the white man. Yet given the existence of such tastes, it was curious that the pakeha took such infinite pains to confine himself between four walls; but this was only another of his many puzzling characteristics which the Maori could never hope to comprehend.

The native hut, with its rush walls and palm-thatched roof, to which the chief next conducted them, presented a far more homely and comfortable appearance than was afforded by the house reserved for Europeans. It is true there was neither floor nor chimney, neither chair nor bedstead, but it possessed that air of being in constant use, that indefinable impress which speaks of contact with humanity, and without which the palace of an emperor is but a dreary and uninviting abode. Here it was again found necessary to go through the process of handshaking with the women and girls of the village, who, having descried their visitors afar off, had hastened to the fires on hospitable thoughts intent.

The afternoon passed pleasantly in excursions about page 154the valley and through the orchard, and at four o'clock the cousins remounted their horses and made the ascent of the hill.

On their way back through the forest Wilfrid, who throughout the afternoon had been subject to fits of abstraction, seemed little inclined to enter into conversation. His manner was that of a man engaged in thinking out arguments for and against a scheme on which he is already half determined. Beyond mechanically adjusting his horse to the motion of Esther's, he appeared almost unconscious of her companionship. This, however, was in appearance only, for presently, when they reached a point on the road near to which was a broken culvert, he recalled the fact to her memory, thus showing himself to be perfectly alive to his surroundings.

In due time the neighbourhood of the tent was reached. Esther, who since her conversation in the morning had found her thoughts constantly returning to the one subject, wondered if in his present mood he would pass the spot unregarded, and she was consequently startled when, without glancing in the direction of the tent, he reined in his horse and suggested that she should accompany him.

Esther shook her head. "I'd rather not," she said.

Wilfrid was silent a moment. "Shall I give him any message?" he asked next.

"No; you may remember me to him."

"Miss Hamilton begs to be remembered?"

"Don't be so ridiculously particular; give him my kind regards—anything. What does it matter?"

"I wished to avoid mistakes. He may think it singular, being so near, that you do not consider it worth while to deliver your message in person."

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"He may," replied Esther, who was in a doubtful and suspicious mood.

"Anything else?" asked Wilfrid after a pause.

Esther shook her head. "Just my kind regards. But, Wilfrid," she added, with sudden compunction, "you will remember he is a gentleman, and not——"

"Not what?"

"Not offer him money."

"The violets will be a sufficient offering on the shrine of gratitude," he said drily; "at any rate, for the present."

His hand was extended towards her as though the gift of the flowers were a matter of course, and Esther, falling into the snare, removed them from her dress and gave them to him. She regretted the act and her colour rose when, after a glance at the nosegay, he dropped it into his pocket. Whatever unusual he may have noticed, his face gave no sign as he turned his horse and rode off in the direction of the tent.

For five minutes Esther sat still, watching the tent, half fearing, half hoping, and fully expecting to see the figure of Clifford emerge and move towards her across the gumfield. Finally, however, Wilfrid came out alone, and remounting his horse, moved slowly back on to the road.

"Well?" asked Esther as he drew near.

"He is not there," he said. "We might have known that he was not likely to be there at this time of the day. I have left a message for him. I have asked him to come to the house."

The message he had left was as follows:—

"Come, like a good fellow, and let us talk things over. I am staying at Doctor Hamilton's, where I shall remain at home for the rest of the week in expectation of your visit.

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After a search extending over a fortnight, I discovered you rather singularly through the instrumentality of my cousin, Miss Hamilton, who sends you her kind remembrances. I have said nothing of our relations.


"Wilfrid Hamilton."