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The Toll of The Bush

Chapter XXIII The Night of The Dance

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Chapter XXIII The Night of The Dance

His mind in a whirl, the young man turned back, into the office and closed the door. The instinct of disaster was upon him, though he would have found it difficult to define its exact origin. Less than half an hour ago he had seemed to read for the first time surrender in the girl's eyes. Her voice had held a lingering tenderness. She had shown him that she understood the uncompleted speech, the questioning glance. Her eyes had fallen in embarrassment; once they had dwelt on his for seconds, wherein his blood was tuned to music. There was a sweet homeliness in her manner, that self-revelation which is only for our nearest and dearest. And surely the thought of the coming night was in her mind as in his. The dances they were to have together; the talks, punctuated with tenser silences; the question he was to ask her. Then the dreamy delirium that followed her consent, for consent she would; in the intimacy of the morning he had read his answer in her eyes—the first love-kiss down on the sands, or in the scented garden; the times their eyes page 247would meet thereafter, their hands go out to one another in passing. Heaven! Was it not to be after all? What had happened? He rose to his feet in keen nervous distress and walked aimlessly about the room. She had never once looked at him. There had been something deadly in her manner. Why? He heard his name called from the other side of the beach, and made his way back to the shed. The man at the decorations had finished the work of suspending garlands round the walls, and wanted to know what next.

'Where is Miss Milward?' Geoffrey asked.

'Went away with Mr. Fletcher somewhere. What price some stuff round the tie beams?'

'Very well; please yourself. Did she say how soon she would be back?'

'And I was thinking of putting pohutukawa1 along the ridge pole,' continued the young man, intent on his work. 'It ought to look pretty well in the lamplight. Eh? No, she didn't say.'

'Very well; keep it away from the lamps. But Miss Milward will be back directly, no doubt.'

The decorator seized his ladder, and rousing the stable-boy to fresh activity resumed work.

Geoffrey stood idly by, his face heavy with thought. Occasionally the man on the ladder shouted to him, desiring an opinion as to the effect he was creating and, receiving mechanical replies. There is a morbid activity of the senses attends a troubled mind. Geoffrey was unpleasantly conscious of the heavy, sickly odour of green leaves, the acrid smell that dwells in the dense bush, where the light is dim and a deathly stillness prevails. He page 248turned to the doorway and looked absently along the beach. A horseman was receding in the direction of Rivermouth, a black spot in the golden blaze. What had happened? Suddenly the white gate at the end of the avenue opened and Eve appeared. She came forward a few yards, her eyes on the ground, her step slow and listless. Presently she looked up and espied him. For a moment she seemed to stand irresolute, then, turning abruptly, went back the way she had come. The avoidance was too pointed to allow of any possibility of mistake. His dreams of happiness for that day were dispelled as completely as if they had never existed. He crossed the beach to the store, his mind rent by anger, disgust, and despair. Anger for the man who had wrought this evil; disgust with himself that he had not long since put it out of any man's power to harm him; despair at the unforeseen results. On the table, in a pencil of sunlight, lay the list of debtors, an easy prey to the hand of a wrathful man. Geoffrey took up his pen, and setting his mouth grimly, began to write. The first demands were short and business-like, and such as none but sensitive debtors could object to, but as the list decreased and Geoffrey warmed to his work, the requests for payment took on an abrupt savageness calculated to raise blisters, and only stopping short of direct insult by an ingenious and narrow margin. The gong sounded for lunch disregarded, and when ten minutes later a native girl came to look for the storekeeper, he sent her back with the information that he was busy and had already lunched.

In the afternoon Sandy came in and sat down page 249on the other side of the table. Geoffrey looked up, frowned, and went on with his work. Presently Sandy lifted one of the sheets, read it through, read it again, coughed drily, and started on another. His interest appeared to deepen as he read, and he went steadily through the remainder, his eyes gradually widening. There was, in fact, a variety in the compositions, which spoke of literary talent of a high order.

'I say,' he said at last, surprised out of his silence, 'Hogg will never stand this.'

'Let him pay up, then, damn him!' was the savage retort. 'He's been owing the money long enough.'

Now Sandy had never on any previous occasion heard the storekeeper swear, and recognising that something had gone wrong, he refrained from pressing the point. What Hogg thought was, after all, a matter of indifference to him.

'Has the boss said anything about our going into partnership?' he asked presently.

'He has; but I doubt if it will come to anything.'

'You are not in a particularly amiable mood this afternoon,' Sandy observed, offended.

'I'm not, old chap,' Geoffrey said, raising a pair of savage but curiously friendly eyes; 'and if you don't mind, you might let me work it off a bit—alone.'

Sandy rose with alacrity and went off with the intention of making inquiries.

Geoffrey locked the door after him. The desire of the wounded creature to be alone is as old as life itself. In the course of half an hour the last demand was finished and sealed; it was a triumph page 250of invective in polite English, and as the young man read it through it seemed to do him good. One task remained to be performed. Geoffrey looked again at the list, and jotted down the amount of his father's account, then he got out his cheque-book from a private drawer. He had received official information from his bankers that they were prepared to honour his cheque for £1000, and for the first time he intended to take advantage of the information. For a moment he sat irresolute, gnawing the end of his pen, half inclined to include interest on the loan; but even in his then perverted state of mind the act appeared little short of an insult, and he refrained. On a separate sheet of paper he wrote the words: 'With Geoffrey and Robert Hernshaw's gratitude and thanks,' and folding it away with the cheque, he addressed the envelope to Major Milward and slipped it into his pocket. That also helped to rehabilitate him, and he unlocked the door and stepped out on to the beach.

The sun had set, and from the high mystery of the central heavens night was rushing down as with the flash and shadow of enfolding wings. The light of remote orbs broke here and there through the shimmering obscurity, and over the sand-hills hung the evening star, ruddy and large as an orange. The peaceful homestead, in its setting of lawns and groves, shone out vivid and clean cut as a cameo in the last white light. Then, as he gazed, the sharp lines trembled and faded into obscurity, there was a darkling as of a great shadow in the side-seen sky, the river heaped itself and breathed lingeringly on the sands, and with the whisper of page 251the landward breeze from the ocean came the deep note of the bar, full of a mysterious threatening. Then the darkness.

Geoffrey sat down on a stranded log and breathed in the cool night air. From the shed across the beach poured a sudden path of light, and through the wide-open doorways he could see the hands sweeping out the last of the debris. This was followed by a fresh powdering with rice; then the party trooped out and went away together in the direction of the men's quarters.

The dinner-gong had sounded some time since, and presently a shadow flitted down the beach, tried the store door, and flitted back again. It was not the woman for whom his soul thirsted. He wanted Eve for five minutes—for one, that he might tell her this thing was a black and hideous lie. For though he asked himself what had happened, he knew without the asking, and he knew that he had brought it on himself. Curses on the sense of delicacy that had held him silent when he had the opportunity to speak. He might have known that that man's presence boded him no good; that the first blow would count for all. But he would see Eve that night; whatever obstacle intervened, he would see her and speak with her.

Full of this resolution he rose and made his way up to the house. Through the uncurtained windows he could see the party assembled at the dinner-table. There were many guests—girls and young and old men—but Mr. Fletcher was not among them. Eve sat facing him, and Geoffrey, who knew her only as the simple young mistress of Wairangi, stood still, fascinated, in a sense appalled, at her magnificent page 252beauty. She wore a ball-dress of cream silk, which had only once previously seen the light—at Government House, Auckland. Diamonds gleamed in her hair and at her throat. Her bare arms and neck had the delicacy and grace and roundness of a young child's. Her face was dazzling, daring in its animation, and her cheeks glowed with the roses of youth and health. He watched her with a sinking heart. Could she be so gay and condemn him without a word? Yet if it were so, he had no right to complain. If they were lovers it was in thought only, and for that his mad scruples were responsible. Twice as he watched he saw her eyes turn suddenly to the opening door, and then by the lover's instinct he knew that if condemned he was not forgotten. She was expecting his advent, and though it might be with dread, that somehow was a consolation. He reached his room without encountering any one, and proceeded to dress for the dance. Dress suits were not de rigueur, but there was one in his trunk and he put it on. He had common-sense enough to perceive that it might advantage him to look his best.

The first dance was over when, an hour later, he entered the building, and the musicians were already beginning to tune their instruments for the first waltz. He made his way through the crowd at the door and up the room, where the couples were already beginning to arrange themselves, but saw nothing of Eve, until suddenly he came upon her, face to face. She was on the arm of a young man whom he recognised as Raymond, the ex-storekeeper, and they were evidently on the point of joining the dance.

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'Hullo, Hernshaw!' said Raymond civilly. 'Hurry up and get a partner.'

But Eve looked straight before her and said nothing.

Geoffrey muttered some reply and passed on down the hall out on to the beach. Rage and jealousy and, worst of all, self-contempt tore at his heart-strings. She did this with her eyes open; such refinement of cruelty was in the heart of a fair woman. Suddenly a girl hurried past him in the darkness, and urged by a sudden impulse, he followed her.

'Miss Mallow! One moment!'

Mabel turned and peered up at him. 'Oh, it's Mr. Hernshaw!' she said, laughing.

'Whither away so fast? I was looking for you. I want to ask you a question.'

'Well?' the girl said encouragingly.

'Will you favour me with this dance?'

'How mysterious you are! But I'm engaged to somebody else.'

Geoffrey took her hand and drew it through his arm. 'It would be too old-fashioned to dance with him then,' he said. 'The correct thing is to engage yourself to one person and dance with another. Come along.'

Mabel went with him, nothing loath, and they were soon circling round the room with the rest. Once or twice they were in Eve's vicinity, but the latter quickly desisted; and when he next saw her she was sitting beside Mr. Fletcher, whose objection to dancing apparently did not preclude him attending the function as an eye-witness.

Mabel was enjoying the dance, and showed no page 254disposition to release her partner, and presently an immense distaste possessed him. What an infernal idiot he was! Would the wretched musicians never stop? All the time he continued conversing with the girl, answering her chatter, whispering daring compliments into her ear, and watching with cold curiosity the play of emotion in her eyelids in response to perilous questions. He knew he was acting the part of a monster and a madman; but while his heart hung heavy in his breast, his brain seemed fired with a fatal exhilaration beyond his power to control.

The dance ended at last, and in response to his partner's suggestion he led her out into the open air. Fairy lamps were suspended amongst the shrubs in the garden, and the orange orchard glowed with a multiplicity of coloured lights.

'Oh, we must go up there!' Mabel said, enchanted, and Geoffrey led the way to a seat among the fragrant trees. The Pacific breeze had died away, and the night air breathed warm and languorous across the heated sands. It was a night for love, and the reflection struck bitterly to the heart of the man, stilling his brain to silence. Mabel rattled on, her words empty as the wind, her tones full of a subtle challenge, but the man replied only in monosyllables. What was he doing sitting by the side of this girl, for whom he cared nothing, when the one woman of the world was slipping from his grasp?

'Why are you so silent? What are you thinking about?'

'Of you,' he replied idly.

'Tell me,' she said coaxingly.

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A man with a cigarette came quickly up the path and paused in front of them. 'This is our dance, I think?' he said.

Mabel rose hurriedly. 'You have not asked me for another,' she whispered.

'Then tell me which it is to be.'

'The last waltz before supper.'

Geoffrey bowed, and the girl disappeared down the path with her cavalier. He heard her low laugh in the distance. Hateful sound! And this was the night to which in the morning he had looked forward with such intensity of longing!

He rose after awhile and wandered down to the beach and on to the doorway of the shed. A group of smokers blocked the entrance; now and then he caught a glimpse of a mad whirl of figures within. Presently a hand closed on his arm and he was drawn back to the beach.

'Come and have a drink, old chap,' said Sandy; 'you look bored.'

Geoffrey hesitated, then, yielding to the pressure of his companion's arm, went with him up to the house.

Major Milward was in his element. All the old identities of the county, rich and poor alike, were present. Withered old men with rosy cheeks, whose eyes many a time had looked squarely into the face of death—men whose memories went back to the beginning of things when the authority of the Maori chieftain was a stronger law than the Queen's. Grizzled, tongue-tied giants who knew only the cult of bush and river, but knew that with the intimacy of an instinct. Little wizened sailor men, with huge broad-chested sons already well past page 256middle age, whalers or deserted men-o-war's-men, it may be, whose talk was of the Eliza fane or the Rose of Bristol and of stirring adventures in low latitudes, even yet only partially explored. Frail, stooping veterans, talking familiarly of university boat-races away back in the 'forties, and cackling in high-pitched voices over jokes that had been dead and buried for a couple of generations. There was the burly form of John Manders, descended from the great missionary family, and owning twenty thousand acres of the richest land in the North country. There was Captain Russell, that prince of half-castes, dark, handsome, portly, held in honour by both races from the North Cape to the Bluff. There, again, his round old face wreathed in smiles, was little Tom Welch, the butt and boon companion of all ages, who had made and squandered at least three fortunes, and had not a vice in his composition, nor a regret.

'All the tribes,' Sandy said. 'God bless 'em!'

Major Milward, his blue eyes beaming, a spark of bright colour in his cheek, was pressing a liquid hospitality on his guests, passing from group to group, two or three hands on his shoulder at once to detain him. 'Was it '57 or '58?' 'I say, Milward, you remember that night in——? Here's Milward, he will tell you. It was a small convoy; they could have cut us up to a man, for the ambush was well planned. But it happened the Reverend John was riding along there a mile or so ahead, and the chief—Honi it was—came out to speak to him. "An ambush!" said Manders, when he understood what they were about; "but there is only a handful of them, and it's murder, not war.

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The Maori is too brave a man to commit murder." Honi scratched his ear. "That not the pakeha way?" he asked. "That the good war, I think." But Manders assured him differently, and the end of it was that the Maoris came out and let the convoy through. And the commanding officer got his supplies, and in a few days he had finished the job. But the parson was wrong and Honi was right for all that—the ambush was good war.'

'What are you boys doing here?' the Major asked, returning to the table where the liquors were set out. 'Drink up, and come back in thirty years' time when you are properly seasoned.'

'Ay, it's a tough crowd this,' said Tom Welch, nodding his cheerful old face. 'We could tell 'em things that would make their hair curl, eh, Major? Don't seem to know this young 'un,' he added, looking at Geoffrey.

'You remember the Hernshaws of Rukawahia, Tom? This is the eldest son.'

'Ay, ay, I mind them. He favours the father more than the mother. Yon was a man that couldn't catch on to the life. Some can't, while others take to it as natural as a duck to the water. Uncommon clever man yon, but no grip in him for a place like this. Ay, ay, and this is the son. Lay hold with two hands, lad, and you'll do all right.'

Geoffrey smiled amiably, but the words set him thinking, and his thoughts were hardly pleasant. He lifted a whisky bottle and began to pour cautiously just as some one, pressing from behind, jerked his arm, with the result that the glass Was half filled.

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Sandy laughed and passed him the water-jug. 'Drink it up,' he said; 'it will do you good.'

Geoffrey complied with a dull feeling that he had lost his will-power and was open to the suggestion of the first man who chose to direct him. He ran his eye observantly over the crowd around him, and was struck by a curious resemblance in the diverse faces, a resemblance which was not of feature or complexion but of type. These were the heads and bodies of strong and resolute men—men who laid hold with two hands, men whose deep chests spoke of mighty organs and the power to achieve great desires by the force of great vitalities.

The liquor sent its exhilaration through his veins with the speed of a lightning flash. Here, then, was the keynote to success. To demand forcibly, to take strongly with both hands, to hold resolutely in the face of all obstacles. Woe to the man who, in this new land, struggling with the giant forces of nature, should stand to count the cost or ask himself what he desired. Woe to him to whom a succession of obstacles brought not fresh lust of battle but the apathy of despair. And the stronger course was after all the simpler. To move forward undeviatingly to the desired end, suffering no hindrance from without or within. And if with no success, at least with the consciousness of a good fight well fought, and without that curse of self-reproach which for ever dogs the footsteps of the weak.

The last waltz before supper was about to begin as Geoffrey again entered the dancing-room. Through the crowd of moving figures he caught sight of Eve, still sitting with Mr. Fletcher, who was regarding her with smiling eyes. An impulse page 259came upon him to put his fate clearly to the touch, here under the public gaze. He would ask her to dance, he would force her to speak to him, to give him a direct yes or no. Full of this idea, he was making his way slowly through the crowd when he felt the light touch of a hand on his arm, and Mabel Mallow stood beside him.

'How late you are!' she said reproachfully. 'Did you think I would follow the fashion when it tells against yourself?'

'If I had found you in the arms of another it would be no more than I deserve,' he returned, inwardly fuming at the dilatoriness of the other men.

But Mabel, to do her justice, had refused several eligible partners, and she was bent on exacting payment for her abnegation.

'Why are you not dancing?' she asked as he swept with her down the room.

'How have I merited this unkindness?'

'Well, now, of course, but you have not been here since the first waltz. Was it so dreadful?'

'It was divine. Your eyes are as observant as they are beautiful.'

'You mustn't say things like that. Why don't you dance with Miss Milward?'

'Would you prefer to sit down?'

Mabel raised her glorious brown eyes and looked at him steadily.

'I believe you two have quarrelled,' she said.

'You are as clever as you are lovely,' he replied, smiling.

'Then you have? What a pity! And at Christmas-time too. Why don't you kiss and be friends?'

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'May I class myself among the number of your friends, dear lady?'

'You would not be so daring if you were in earnest,' Mabel replied composedly. 'But yes, you may, if you will go to her and say, "Forget and forgive."'

'You are a strange girl.'

'I know what it is to be as miserable as you two are now.'

'Is it so evident?'

'Not to others, perhaps, but to me, yes. What do you say?'

'I say nothing now, not even that you are beautiful.'

'No, because for the first time you are beginning to think so. Shall we stop?'

He led her from the room and in the wake of the couples who were moving up to the house. The supper-room was already crowded. Geoffrey attended to his partner's wants and stood by her in silence, his eyes scanning the room.

'Go away now,' Mabel whispered, 'and do as I have told you. There is time for happiness yet.'

He went obediently, and presently, finding the heat oppressive, passed out into the hall. The oillamp had burnt down, and the place was almost in darkness. He threw himself on a divan and listened to the clamour of voices in the room where the veterans were assembled. Presently Sandy came out, his face flushed but as solemn as ever, and sat down beside him.

'It's a fact the new generation can't live with the old,' he said; 'but I shall be astonished if some of the old boys don't have heads on them in the morning.'

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'They do seem to be celebrating a little.'

'The water-jug's been dry in there for quite half an hour, but they haven't found it out yet, and they keep on pouring all the same. Come in and watch, it's dead funny.'

'Oh, it's all right here!'

The curtain at the end of the hall lifted, and a white figure came out into the dim light.

'Well, Evie?' said Sandy. 'How goes it? Come and sit down.'

But Geoffrey started to his feet and placed himself before her. 'Miss Mil ward—Eve,' he said in low passionate tones, 'will you not speak to me? What have I done to deserve this?'

The girl drew herself to her full height, her eyes flashing dangerously. 'Kindly let me pass!'

He stepped aside at once, his face whitening, and she moved on into the supper-room.

Sandy rose and laid his hand on the other's arm. 'I'm sorry, old chap,' he said, 'and I don't pretend to understand anything about it—but hang the girls anyway! Come and have a drink.'

Geoffrey looked at him dazedly.

'If you feel it like that, why did you let her go? I would not have interfered between you. And the curse of it is, she has engaged herself to Fletcher; they are to be married in March.'

'My God, no!'

'But it's a fact. I had it from the old man's lips, and he is no more pleased than I am. But, good heavens, if it's like that with you, what have you been doing? You have had the game in your own hands for months past. Look here! Well, come and have a whisky.'

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But Geoffrey turned without speaking and went out through the merry crowd on the verandah down on to the beach.

And some hours later Eve sat white and trembling in the privacy of her own room, and asked herself despairingly what she had done.

1 The Christmas tree.