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The Land of The Lost

Chapter XIX

page 167

Chapter XIX

It was not until the gong sounded for dinner that Hugh and Wilfrid again became visible to the other members of the household. Esther, looking curiously at them as they entered the dining-room, thought that Hugh's mouth had that stubborn, set look she remembered seeing on it once before, while Wilfrid appeared discouraged and seemed inclined to be argumentative.

"It is not nearly as warm as yesterday," he said, in opposition to the doctor's complaint of the heat of the weather; "nothing like as warm. By the way, uncle, you have not met Mr. Clifford, I think? Son of the Honourable Clifford, of Hawke's Bay, and my prospective brother-in-law."

"Oh, indeed," said the doctor. "I have met Mr. Clifford before, but he kept me in the dark as to the relationship."

"I was not aware of it at that time," said Hugh, glancing towards Esther, who stood listening in surprised silence. "I suppose Wilfrid must have told me about his people, but somehow I did not think of connecting them with you. The world is only a small place after all."

"I ought to have guessed it ages ago," said Esther, a bright spot of colour in her cheeks.

"I don't know that there is much to be surprised about," said Wilfrid, taking his seat at the table. "Apart page 168from myself, the families have been no more than names to one another so far."

"Are we waiting for anyone, Esther?" asked her father.

"For Mr. Roller," she said; "that is his step now."

Roller came in briskly, greeted the whole company with a comprehensive nod, and dinner commenced.

Maria, a big, handsome half-caste, did the waiting, walking in a leisurely fashion round the table and occasionally joining in the conversation, usually to contradict someone. Esther, knowing her habits, watched her with anxiety, for Maria was a desperate flirt and always in danger of being attracted by fresh faces to an extent impossible to conceal.

"You have forgotten to give Mr. Clifford some vegetables, Maria," her mistress said.

Maria had not forgotten, but she now walked elegantly and with the utmost deliberation to the sideboard, removed the vegetable dishes, and brought them round to Hugh, slightly leaning against him as she proffered them one after the other. This accomplished, she strolled back to a point opposite, and there by the exercise of all kinds of little stratagems endeavoured to attract the young man's attention.

Hugh, however, appeared to be totally unaware of these manoeuvres. His whole attention was absorbed by the girl, not in front of, but beside him, and in speculating on the depth of her attachment to Roller he found ample material to occupy his thoughts.

The storekeeper seemed in rough good spirits, and rattled away on the subject of the dispute between himself and the natives, addressing himself chiefly to Wilfrid, who responded crossly and in monosyllables.

"So," concluded Roller, "I told the old beggar I would page 169have nothing more to do with them, and I told him personally that he was an old shuffler."

"H'm!" said Wilfrid.

"You told Rewi that?" asked Esther. "I am sorry you did that. I have always looked upon him as the soul of honour. I'm sure he would not cheat anyone consciously." She spoke with some fervour and then turned to Wilfrid. "You remember Rewi, Wilfrid," she said—"the old chief who took us round his house?"

"Yes," said Wilfrid; "I was greatly struck with him, and am no less surprised than you at Mr. Roller's remarks."

"Ah," said Roller, "you don't know the natives; and as for Esther, she is always finding perfect gentlemen in the most unlikely places."

"That is not her invariable fortune," snapped Wilfrid, who observed the covert sneer and resented it.

"There is a good deal of difference in the natives," said Maria, speaking slowly and clippingly and gazing lustrously into Clifford's eyes. "Some are just like Europeans, while others are——"

"Still more like them," suggested Wilfrid as she paused. "That was remarkably brilliant of you, Maria."

"I was going to say no good at all," said Maria, who, failing generally to understand Wilfrid, was rather afraid of him.

"There is a lot of rubbish talked about the natives," said Roller aggressively. "They are a lazy, dirty lot, take them all round. I have never been able to find much good in them. A man has only to run through my ledger to discover what they are like."

"You would hardly set up your ledger as a criterion of the merits of the Maori race, I suppose," said Wilfrid. "For my part I am disposed to pay less and less atten-page 170tion to the cash book as a measure of human merit. I know that the dirtiest and laziest of your natives would cheerfully beggar himself in the cause of hospitality, and that the best of them have a hatred of the meanness and paltriness that is associated with so much of our civilised system of money-making."

Roller looked slightly chagrined. "They are always thought best of by those who know least about them," he said.

"And if so," said Wilfrid, "theirs is only the case of the majority of mankind. It would not be fair to judge them by a standard higher than is applicable to ourselves."

"There is a good deal to be said on both sides of the question," said Dr. Hamilton didactically. "The Maoris are universally admitted to be the most intelligent aboriginal race on the earth, but that intelligence does not go so far as to enable them to withstand the progressive movement of the European; they are doomed to disappear."

"Our discussion," said Wilfrid, "was as to whether the Maori were less honourable in business matters than the European."

"There was a Maori in the kitchen this morning," said Maria, "who picked up my thimble with his toes; if I hadn't seen him, he would have gone away with it."

Wilfrid laughed. "Obsessions like that," he said, "are common to humanity; but Maria has spiked my gun, and I shall say no more."

"Ah, well," said Roller, "I have given the natives best, and now I am going for Upmore. I always make a point of having a European to fall back upon in dealing with the natives."

"We'll see how you get on with the European, then," page 171said Wilfrid. "I've met Upmore once or twice, and if I am any judge of character, you will fare still worse. How does he come into it?"

"I suppose he was making a commission," said Roller, "but that's no business of mine. I refused to bind myself to anything with Rewi until he brought the signature of a reputable European to back him, and Upmore's fist was the result."

"I knew that man before you came here, Albert," said the doctor. "There have been some singular circumstances connected with his tenure of the inn, and I would advise you to be cautious in your dealings with him."

"He can't get round me," said Roller in his overbearing way.

"I suppose you see a good deal of him, Mr. Clifford," said Esther.

"Upmore?" asked Hugh, with a start. "I see him pretty well every day at a distance. He doesn't attract me, and I should judge that Dr. Hamilton is right and he might be dangerous."

"He is a hateful man," said Esther, with a sudden flash. "He has some dreadful place there that the diggers call the dead-house."

"Yes," said Hugh, "I've seen it; where he puts his violent drunks."

Esther nodded. "Do you know a digger called Jess Olive?" she asked—"the one they call the King of the Diggers; a man with the most beautiful blue child's eyes?"

"Yes," said Hugh, "I know him very well."

"Upmore put that poor soul in the dead-house," she said, "and kept him there all night. Can you conceive what it meant?"

page 172

Roller laughed as though at some amusing recollection. "You should hear Johnson describe the scene," he said. "He was staying there at the time, and it appears there was a digger they call Bart there, and Olive came to try and get him away from the place—thought he was drinking too much or something. Bart was drunk, and there were three or four others as bad as he was. Upmore had been bothered by Olive before—the man is a sort of mad reformer or religious crank, something of the kind—anyhow, Upmore took and shut him up in the dead-house. What followed beggars description. Olive was on one side of the door, howling supplications, and Bart on the other reciting impromptu poetry—he is said to be rather good at that kind of thing—while the others sat round drinking raw rum and applauding. Upmore leant against the shelves behind the bar, watching his customers' faces and apparently indifferent to the uproar."

"Was Johnson indifferent too?" asked Esther, with cold disgust. "One would have thought the prayers of that poor mortal would have moved the very walls to fall down and release him. You can feel what it meant, Mr. Clifford," she continued, turning to Hugh, "You know his horror of darkness and can guess what he must have suffered. When they let him out he was like one stunned by a cruel blow; his childlike faith in mankind was gone, and it was months before he was himself again."

"Yes," said Hugh. "I can understand your antipathy to Upmore now. I am surprised, however, that Bart should have had a hand in it. I know him, and though he has many defects, I did not think brutality was one of them."

"He was probably too intoxicated to know what he page 173was doing," said the doctor; "but he was most assiduous in his attentions afterwards; he became quite a nuisance tramping in here and begging permission to see him."

"Yes," said Esther, with a smile of recollection. "I like Bart. I must have heard him a dozen times asking Jess to forgive him. Jess's answer was always the same: 'You could not be expected to know; it is a strange weakness for a man to be afraid of the dark.' He never said anything else, and in time, I think, he forgot all about it; but one can never tell."

"How did he come to be here?" Hugh asked, interested.

"He always comes to me when he is in trouble," Esther said. "I remember him that morning and the shock his appearance gave me. His hands were cold and trembling as he held them out to me, and he stared about him as if in dread. 'It is always darkness now, Esther,' he told me. 'Nonsense, Jess,' I said; 'it is a beautiful sunny day.' And I took him right out on to the middle of the lawn. 'Darkness, Esther,' he repeated; 'why did God make the darkness to be a continual horror to His creatures?' 'What is the matter with you, Jess?' I asked. But it was not until Bart came that we learnt the reason for his disorder. We kept him doing little jobs in the garden for the next three months, until he was quite himself again and the voices of the gumfield called him away."

Hugh was touched by the little narrative and the tender eyes. "I know now what he meant," he said, "when he told me one day that angels still dwelt here and there on the earth."

After dinner Roller took his departure. He seemed loath to go, but it being, as he said, mail night, he page 174had no alternative. Esther walked with him as far as the gate, and they stood there for a minute or two almost in silence.

"Is that—Clifford going to stop here all night?" he asked, after he had said good-bye and gone out on to the road.

"Yes," she said.

He stood a moment invisible in the darkness; then with another good-night crossed the road.

Esther remained where she was, slowly rubbing her cheek where his parting salute had fallen, until a step on the gravel caused her to turn.

"Is that you, Esther?" asked Wilfrid's voice. "The doctor is showing Hugh his collections, and we shall not be missed for an hour. I am in trouble, like Jess Olive, and I want to unburden my soul to you."

"What is it, dear?" she asked, linking her arm in his.