The Toll of The Bush
Chapter XIV The Incident on the Bush Road
Chapter XIV The Incident on the Bush Road
Geoffrey's discovery in the private ledger caused him considerable perplexity. Without evil intention, in a fit of absent-mindedness indeed, he had come into possession of a fact which had been deliberately concealed from him. How was he to act? To seal up the pages again was to preclude the possibility of discharging the obligation under which his family laboured. While he retained the consciousness of the debt he must lose the power to allude to it. To leave the pages open, on the other hand, meant that the Major must be taxed with his generosity and the money returned. This, to Geoffrey, seemed a hard and ungrateful act, and one which, however delicately performed, would be certain to hurt Major Milward's feelings. That the Major would prefer the memory of his good action to the return of the cash disbursed was a foregone conclusion—the note that closed the account meant that or nothing; and though, doubtless, the good deed remained even after its pecuniary aspect was discharged, yet Geoffrey could feel no enthusiasm in this view. Where was the page 142money to come from? It meant that the obligation was transferred, not discharged. Why his uncle rather than Major Milward? And yet, he dared not be so beholden to the man whose daughter he sought to marry. At all costs the credit and good name of his family must be rehabilitated, and since the sons of the dead man were incapable of the task, the obligation devolved on the brother.
This decision was not arrived at immediately, because in the interim Geoffrey was in constant intercourse with the unconscious Major, and it seemed then so much pleasanter to let things be, to preserve a complete unconsciousness of what he had learned, or to accept the obligation frankly and generously and there an end. Indeed, it was only after consultation with Robert that the course to be pursued became fixed and irrevocable.
Geoffrey had not lived for three years in his brother's society without discovering that there was good holding ground for vessels inclined to drift, and on one or two occasions he had let down an anchor with good effect. The recollection of this occurred to him one morning as he was returning up the beach with Sandy from their customary swim, and he at once expressed the necessity for making a trip up the river.
'You will take the sailing boat, I suppose?' Sandy said.
'Not if you want it. Anything will do—or I could ride.'
'Eve has been wanting to pay a few calls inland for some time past, and I don't know when I can make it convenient to go with her. page 143I was wondering whether you would mind acting escort.'
'I shall be delighted if Miss Milward will condescend to accept my services,' Geoffrey replied, with his will on the curb.
It was not often that the storekeeper showed such care in his choice of language, and Sandy glanced at him out of the corner of his eye as he said: 'Let us go round to the kitchen, then, and make inquiries.'
Eve was not in the kitchen, where a couple of bright-eyed Maori girls were busy in the preparation of breakfast, but they found her gathering the scarlet hibiscus blooms in the garden, her long fair hair, alive with sunlight, falling below her waist.
'This is one of the seven wonders of the world,' said Sandy, possessing himself of a handful of the golden tresses; 'but it is not often that our weak eyes are suffered to behold it.'
And indeed Geoffrey stood by like a man dazzled with excess of sunlight.
Eve drew herself laughing away, the colour deepening in her cheeks. 'Tell me at once,' she said, 'that you have come for me because breakfast is late.'
'I shall never marry,' said Sandy gloomily, 'to be thus continually misjudged.'
'Look, Mr. Hernshaw,' said Eve, suddenly extending a double handful of the gorgeous blossoms; 'can you match these in the gardens of England?'
Geoffrey shook his head. 'Neither the flowers nor the gatherer.'
'Aha!' said Sandy. 'An extra plate of fish.' page 144Eve let the flowers fall to her side and looked with twinkling eyes from one to the other. 'What is it, then?' she asked.
Sandy explained. 'The only condition Mr. Hernshaw makes is that you won't talk religion. Farming, sheep-shearing, anything like that, but religion he bars.'
'Rubbish!' said Geoffrey, half annoyed.
'I shall take Prince,' said Eve, her eyes sparkling. 'May I take Prince, Sandy?'
'Ye-es. You won't be able to talk religion on Prince. He won't stand it. He believes in the other thing. I rode him to the gum-store one day last week, and I don't believe we exchanged a single heavenly word going or returning. Better take the mare, Evie.'
'That is because you don't understand him,' Eve said gaily. 'Tell the boys to get Prince in, Sandy. And now you do really deserve to have breakfast.'
They galloped together along the hard sandy beach, thence at a tangent through thick groves of tea-tree on to the steeper grades of the bush road. Prince's solitary misdemeanour so far had been to shy at a bullock, emerging heavily from the growths by the roadside; but he plainly watched every inch of the way with the profoundest suspicion, and—at any other pace than a gallop—when he was not sidling away in one direction, he was edging across the road diagonally in the other.
'What is it he is always expecting?' Eve asked laughing. 'Do you think horses believe in ghosts?' page 145'Horse ghosts or human?'
'Suppose intelligence takes us farther away from the perception of such things. What if a spiritual universe stands revealed at the bottom of the scale, and perhaps again at the top, and we, being out of sight of either, have only a vague legacy of dread coming to us out of the past!'
'Is this the thin edge of a religious argument?'
'I will give you a race to the big pine tree.'
'You see when he gallops he forgets or becomes indifferent. That would seem to show that it is not anything he expects which absorbs him, but the things he actually sees. I wonder that spiritualists have never thought of using animals for their mediums.'
'Asses,' Geoffrey suggested.
'You are the most sceptical person of my acquaintance, Mr. Hernshaw. What do you believe in?'
'I believe that the sun is shining, the woods are green; that a bell-bird is singing somewhere in the ranges; that we are together.'
'You have good ears. Listen.'
Faint, yet clear, came the silvery peal like the ringing of a bell in fairyland. They reined in their horses and remained motionless till the sound ceased.
'They are very rare,' Eve said. 'I have not heard one for years. Yet father remembers when the bushes were thronging with them. Then the tuis are not so plentiful as they were. Soon the forests will be as silent as a graveyard.'
'Soon they themselves will be gone.'page 146
'I hope I shall not live to see it,' she said passionately.
'Yes, civilisation is a ruthless thing. One is sometimes tempted to ask if it is worth the cost, but we are bound to think so. That is a thing we dare not disbelieve.'
'What wonder if it be true, as the bushmen believe, that the forest demands its toll of the destroyers. It needs no stretching of the imagination to believe that in this great silent outburst of life there is a soul that can offer resistance. Stephen, our bushman, is a firm believer in—in—what should one call it?'
'Vegetable vengeance,' Geoffrey suggested.
Eve laughed and pouted together. 'Uto1 is the word,' she said,—'payment in expiation—and he supports his belief by many gruesome instances. (Do believe in something!) Have you heard him tell of the night he spent in the bush with Jim Biglow?'
'No; I have not heard that one. Only about Mark Gird.'
'Do you believe that?'
'About Gird? I may believe it and attach no importance to it. The really miraculous thing would be if a coincidence of the kind never occurred. What did it amount to? A certain man dreamed that a tree had fallen and struck Gird. He says he dreamed it twice. That may be so, though the pathology of dreams allows of a vision appearing to the waking mind in duplicate. Any way, it was a natural enough dream for a bushman, even in its page 147association with Gird, who had worked with him frequently. Thousands of bushmen must have dreamed similar dreams,—possibly the bushman's nightmare usually takes the form of a falling tree. But in this case it happened that the coincidence established itself. There is no more in it than that.'
'I do not envy you your religion of science which reduces everything to the same dead level of the commonplace.'
'Let me try to give you a more pleasing idea of science. It is not a religion. It may be more aptly likened to the making of a road into the unknown. This road is being built stone by stone, backward into the past and onward into the future, and both ends have the same destination. Now and then the road crosses the old, worn track of a belief or a religion, and the crowds using that track are annoyed and endeavour to break it to pieces, to turn its course, to undermine it; but all the while the labourers come on, bringing their stones and setting them and pushing yet farther forward. Every stone in that road fits into the stones next to it, and locks and binds them together; when it fails to do so it is rejected and another takes its place, and so the work goes on. The formed road men call Knowledge, and on it rests the foundation of the civilised world to-day. The extremities of the road are where the labourers in science are for ever probing the abyss and securing fresh foothold for the great journey; but its destination is that to which all religions alike turn their gaze—the origin of things, the fountain of Truth, the Absolute.'
'That is very striking,' Eve said, after a pause. page 148'But does not science itself deny the possibility of man ever reaching finality by its means?'
'Science recognises that at some remote date she may reach a point where her tests will no longer meet with response, where the abyss will not yield to the plummet, and all the accumulated knowledge of the ages cannot carry her forward one single step.'
'Then,' replied Geoffrey, smiling, 'it may be justifiable for man to give a guess as to his Maker. He will at least have exhausted every avenue accessible to reason.'
Eve looked around her with musing eyes. The yellow road, blotted here and there with shadow, wound gradually downwards through the unbroken forest. On its margin, fern-tree and palm and springing sapling formed a continuous curtain of greenery at the feet of the lofty trees. A sweet earthy odour mingled with the honeyed breath of a myriad flowers. High in the flaming rata trees the wild bees hummed. Now and again a pigeon flew with a silky whisper of wings from one bough to another. The tui's note sounded briefly, a scatter of pearls. No jarring sound broke the serene peace of this temple of life.
'Is there nothing,' she said dreamily, 'that comes to you through the leaves out of the great Unknown?'
'Yes,' he said steadily. 'Law, unchanging, adequate, unconfused.'
'And to me—Love.'
They rode on for awhile in silence. 'I do not deny your love,' he said at last. 'That may well be page 149the reverse of the coin. But love that is bound by law, and law that is inspired by love. Is it possible we are on mutual ground at last?'
She looked at him eagerly.
'Teach me your love,' he said, 'and learn my law in exchange.'
Not until the words were spoken did the light of another meaning leap into his gaze and cause her eyes to swerve aside from his.
'That, I suppose, is Sven Andersen,' she said quietly. 'Who is the other man?'
Geoffrey, following the direction of her gaze, looked down the road, which had here taken a sudden turn. Three or four acres in the angle had been cleared and burnt, save for a few kahikateas and ratas, rising scorched and leafless from the black soil.
In front of the clearing was a low weatherboard building with a narrow verandah, and beneath its shelter, seated on a rough form, were two men. Sven Andersen had a pannikin on the seat beside him, and in this he was engaged in stirring up a decoction of vinegar and sugar. The other man sat with his hands in his pockets, his legs stretched out, and his eyes gazing straight before him.
As the riders approached Andersen appeared to make some remark to his companion, who turned his face in their direction. For awhile the two groups looked indifferently at one another. Then a singular thing happened.
Eve, becoming conscious of some change in her companion, turned quickly towards him. He was regarding the man on the verandah intently, with page 150eyes full of expectation. The man for his part had risen to his feet and was looking with equal intentness at the passing horseman. There was a strange glittering in his eyes and a mocking smile on his lips.
It seemed to Eve that the recognition of the two men was mutual, that that exchange of electric glances must result in speech—speech of a startling nature. But no—the horseman rode steadily by, the man on the verandah stood smiling in silence. In a moment the curve of the road brought the scene to an end.
Eve was unconscious of the tension to which she had been subjected till she surprised herself by a long breath of relief.
'Who is that dreadful man?' she asked.
Geoffrey was gazing thoughtfully, moodily, straight in front of him, and for a moment made no reply.
'He was a friend of mine in the old country,' he said carefully at last. 'His name is Wickener. I believe he is mad; but pardon me if, for the present, I say no more.'
The girl felt a strange stirring at her heart. 'Forgive me,' she said; 'I had no right to ask you. I had no idea that it mattered.'
Then Geoffrey turned and looked at her. There was compassion and a shadow of fear in her eyes. There was anger and revolt and love in his.
'If that man were to represent my past,' he said on the impulse, watching her.
'Then I should be sorry for you.'
'Yes, because of the man.'
Suddenly he reined his horse close to hers.page 151
'Eve,' he cried passionately, 'could you ever give me more than the compassion you might extend to any hunted creature? Is that the best you have for me now and always?'
'Why do you ask me now?' she inquired, regarding him thoughtfully.
'I suppose because it is the most inopportune moment I could select,' he replied with bitter reflection.
'I have not noticed that anything of the kind was characteristic of you,' Eve said after a pause.
'You have never before seen me stake my life on the hazard.'
Eve was silent, but her eyes still continued to scan his face with the same frank seriousness, not unmingled with something like reproach.
'I wish I could feel that I understood what was in your mind,' she said at length.
'There is nothing there but love and devotion. There has been nothing else there from the moment I first beheld you.'
'Why do you feel ashamed to tell me so? Is it against your will that you—love me?'
'No, no. How can you even imagine such a thing? The whole of me consents. Consents! The whole of me is one impulse towards you.'
'Then why are you ashamed?' Eve repeated steadily.
'It is true,' Geoffrey admitted. 'Even now I cannot forget that I am your father's servant.'
A light glowed in the girl's eyes and a smile flickered for a moment about the corners of her lips. 'You are not ashamed because—because the moment is inopportune?' she asked. page 152Geoffrey looked puzzled awhile. Then he understood, and shrank from the understanding. 'It is impossible,' he said, 'that I should tell you the story now.'
The girl's face trembled as she turned away and set her horse in motion.
'Then ask me nothing,' she said huskily.
1 The word 'utu,' meaning price, is also frequently used in the same sense.