The Toll of The Bush
Chapter XXIV The Affair of the Slip-Rail
Chapter XXIV The Affair of the Slip-Rail
George Flotter, who cultivated the section beyond Beckwith's, had a patch of Early Marvels, which had been planted a full fortnight earlier than the potatoes on the Hernshaws' section, and as Robert and George were in the way of being intimate friends, they frequently spent their Sunday afternoons in comparing the growth of the two crops. Robert was of opinion that the Early Marvels were not as scheduled, and anyway they were proving themselves a vastly inferior sort to the Lapstone Flukes, on which he himself had placed his reliance. But George Flotter had a catalogue in the house containing a full-page picture of a Marvel—one of a family of fourteen—together with eulogistic marginal notes from the gardeners of dukes and earls, from which it appeared that the aristocracy of Great Britain were discarding all other kinds and confining themselves to Marvels alone. Robert was impressed, but somewhat incredulous.
'They've got no tops on them to speak of,' he said, 'and what they have are measly-looking.'
Mr. Flotter was compelled to admit that this page 264was so, but he presumed that the aristocracy did not eat the tops, and, anyway, he was far from acknowledging the case as desperate. The catalogue had some remarks on manures, and special attention was directed to a Magic Potato Fertiliser, subsequently referred to, somewhat disrespectfully, as the M.P.F., which was calculated to make potatoes open their eyes. Mr. Flotter accordingly got in a stock of this compound unknown to Robert, and proceeded to dose his patch, possibly with more liberality than discretion.
Robert looked the crop over a week later. 'They've livened up some,' he admitted doubtfully; 'but it looks to me as though they were going to ripen off.'
A similar suspicion had occurred to Mr. Flotter, but he now rejected the idea with contumely. 'You'd be surprised at the work them roots are putting in underground,' he said. And Robert admitted with some irony that he would be.
Now the limits of friendship cover a remark of this sort with difficulty, and Mr. Flotter, considerably piqued, allowed himself to indulge in disparaging remarks as to lavish tops in general and Lapstone tops in particular. As to which Robert said good-humouredly: 'The proof of the potato's in the crop, you know, George, and we'll see how things are when it comes out.'
But it frequently happens that the settler proposes and the wandering bullock disposes.
One Sunday afternoon Mr. Flotter betook himself as usual to the Hernshaws' section. He passed the slip-rail, and seeing no one about ascended the hill. As he did so his eyes grew large and page 265round, and he gazed about him like a man in a dream, for the potatoes had disappeared. Then he saw that the vegetable garden was a heart-breaking wreck, and that the devastation had extended even to the kumaras.
Be it said that Mr. Flotter had desired with all his soul that his roots should eclipse Robert's, but now that it seemed probable that his wish would be gratified, he stood still and flushed to the roots of his hair. 'Damn them bullocks!' he said. 'Damn—them—bullocks! 'Then, intent on avoiding the sight of his fallen rival, he made for the nearest fence, and scrambled across country to spend the afternoon in solitary contemplation of his own patch. 'Marvels! 'he exclaimed later on, with a contempt sufficient to wither the sickly vegetables. 'Them Lapstones would have beaten you six to one; they would that. You and your M.P.F.!'
But Robert was not then employed in lamenting the damage, nor for a long time afterwards did the loss he had sustained trouble him greatly. Another and weightier matter engrossed his attention, and in wrestling with that what might otherwise have proved a keen blow affected him but slightly. Some attempt he made to dig and house the potatoes, but the job was too disheartening, and he soon discontinued. There the affair of the slip-rail seemed to end.
At Mrs. Gird's section in the thick bush the sunny days crept slowly by; Christmas came and went, week followed week, and still the young girl moved listlessly through the days, indifferent to all things but fixed in her purpose. Physically she page 266was, she said, well, and Mrs. Gird, after a vain effort, gave up the attempt to persuade her to the contrary.
'Wait,' she said to Robert. 'There is a key to all this, and some day we will find it and unlock the door.'
Kindness was lavished upon her; reproof was tried; but apparently the way to her heart was lost. Sometimes she refused even to see Robert, and held to this resolution for days. At others she sought to reason him into acceptance of her determination.
'It will be better for you, Robert, if you will only make up your mind that I mean what I say.'
But Robert held to the one anchor in the storm. 'You love me, Lena; you can't help loving me any more than I can help loving you.'
And the girl was silent. But she refused to allow him to touch her, and since the night he had left her with Mrs. Gird there had been nothing of lover-likeness in their relations.
'Patience,' said Mrs. Gird, with cheerful optimism; 'it will all come right. The wages of sin are paid in part by deputies, but not the whole bill.'
'I should never have let you love me, because I foresaw this from the first; but I will not do you a worse wrong by marrying you.'
'I want to be wronged,' said Robert slowly; 'that is the one thing I do want.'
'Some day you will be thankful that I was firm.'
'Then some day I must be thankful that I was page 267weak. If I thought that, I should ask the first man I met to kick me.'
'It would not be weakness, it would be doing right.'
'Then we come back to where we were just now—I want to do wrong.'
But Robert held doggedly on his way, and every day found him in attendance, ready to begin the discussion afresh. And sometimes Lena saw him and sometimes she refused to see him, but she always knew of his visits and even anticipated the time when they would be paid. In awhile she came to accept them as part of the day's routine, and then it was that Mrs. Gird suggested the exercise of a little diplomacy. It was a severe task she set the young man, but faith in her wisdom enabled him to bear it through somehow, and for a whole week he did not put in an appearance on the section. The first day passed without comment. Mrs. Gird was busy and talkative, and Lena made no sign that she noticed the omission. Neither on the second day nor those following did she make remark, but there was an increasing restlessness in her movements and a growing pallor in her cheeks, not without significance to the watcher.
It was not until the time set had nearly elapsed that Mrs. Gird alluded to the matter, checking herself in the midst of an account of the latest Robinson versus Finnerty case to do so.
'Why, where's Robert?' she asked with a fine surprise. 'It must be quite three days since he was here.'
'A week to-morrow,' Lena said.page 268
'So long? Dear me! what can be the matter?'
'Only that he has begun to recognise that I mean what I say.'
'Rubbish, my dear! He is far more likely to be staying away because he is too ill to come.'
The tea-things Lena was putting away rattled slightly, but she made no reply.
'I will send Mark up first thing in the morning,' Mrs. Gird continued. 'This is too heartless altogether.'
'I am not heartless,' Lena said; 'I wish I were.'
'Well, my dear, I don't suppose that young man is exactly enjoying himself.'
'It will be better for him in the end. Though he may not think so now, some day he will thank me for this.'
'Not if he is the man I take him to be. Robert has a strong nature, but you are doing your best to wreck it.'
'It would be wrecked if he were to marry a thing like me.'
'Lena! Oh, you unfortunate child! What are we to do with you? Will nothing reach that little frozen heart of yours? Do you not feel in your conscience that all this is wrong?'
'That is so strange to me, that you should be unable to see that I am right.'
'My dear,' Mrs. Gird replied with a tender gravity, 'I am on the side of true love every time, and not blindly, but with all the light God has given me. When I see it pure and unselfish, then I know that I am in the presence of a thing that is beautiful and holy, and I would array myself on its side though all the conventions of the world were page 269leagued in opposition. Fight against your happiness if you will, but your lover is stronger than you, and all the forces of nature fight with him. And I know this, that as sure as that star is shining on you through the doorway you will surrender to him, body and mind and will, freely and gladly, and that before many days have passed by.'
But Lena shook her head incredulously with a ghost of a smile, and said no more. There were stages when further argument seemed impossible, not that she was at such times self-convicted of wrong-doing, but that it appeared hopeless to attempt to carry conviction of her Tightness of conduct to the minds of others.
In pursuance of her expressed determination, Mrs. Gird sent one of her boys with a message to Robert early the following morning, and shortly afterwards she despatched Lena on an errand in the settlement. Lena had shown herself tractable and obedient in all but the one thing, and though this was the first time since her arrival that she had been asked to go beyond the bounds of the section, she put on her hat and set off without demur.
It was perhaps hardly an accident that half-way through the bush she met Robert coming rapidly down the track. He pulled up on espying her and came forward somewhat shamefacedly. Lena looked at him critically. There were unmistakable signs of trouble in his young face, and he looked slighter than of old.
'Have you been ill, Robert?' she asked.
'No,' said Robert, averting his gaze; 'I have been working—on the section.'
'This will be a busy time for you,' the girl said, page 270with an attempt at cheerfulness, 'I suppose you are digging the potatoes now?'
'That and — and other things. I've mostly finished.'
'And was it a good crop?'
'It was a fair crop,' Robert said slowly. 'Yes, I can't complain of the crop. It was a—real good crop—considering.'
'Considering what?' Lena asked, smiling.
'Well, you know, we farmers are never satisfied. It's been a bit dry.'
Lena looked at him attentively. 'You are disappointed,' she said, 'and I'm sorry. Why wasn't it a good crop?'
'It was a good crop, but not what you might call a heavy crop,' Robert explained.
Lena reflected a moment, then she said, 'I'm going past the section; would you mind my going in to see for myself?'
Robert felt thoughtfully at his ear: 'They're mostly all stowed away,' he said at last; 'but, yes, of course, you can see for yourself.' He turned and moved thoughtfully along the track at her side. Presently he said: 'I may as well out with it at once. It was just a piece of carelessness, but I left the slip-rail down a night or two ago, and the bullocks got in and chawed off most of the stuff.'
'Oh, Robert, what a pity!' Then suddenly the girl stood still, struck by an inconsistency in the story. 'A night or two ago,' she said slowly; 'it surely could not make any difference then.'
'It's the best part of a week, Lena,—yes, fully that. As you say, it doesn't make a sight of differ-page 271ence, but I thought I'd tell you, because there's a patch I haven't had time to dig up yet, and you'd be bound to see it.'
Lena watched him with heaving bosom. 'Yes,' she said, 'I'd be bound to see it. What I don't see is, why you should think of concealing it from me.'
'Conceal! Me! Haven't I just been telling you how it was? If I hadn't been so careless it wouldn't have happened. It was just——'
'Don't, Robert,' Lena cried sharply,—'don't; I can't bear it.'
She began to move forward rapidly, her cheeks flushing and paling. The young man increased his pace to keep up with her. 'You know, Lena,' he said uneasily, 'the season's been a bit dry, and one doesn't get a heavy crop in a real dry season. They're small mostly, but there's a rare lot of them—a rare lot,' he repeated with some enthusiasm.
'Did you get any at all, Robert? But I will see for myself. Please don't speak about it any more.'
So Robert followed in silence.
They passed the slip-rail, and went together up the hill to the site of the plantation; there the girl stood still and gazed as though she would never look away.
The last time she had stood on this spot the potato plants were all around her, rioting in a green luxuriance of life. Their dark glossy leaves spoke of an abundant sap that was to accumulate in the unseen tubers on the roots. Their tops were breaking into flower, pink and white and pale blue. Not a weed disfigured the plantation, and over all lay the impress of an intelligent and laborious hand, page 272long employed. Now, in place of the luxuriant green, shone the sickly light of the translucent stems; the poisoned haulm, shorn of its leaves, was sprouting miserably at the base; here and there the ground was roughly forked over, and white globes, hardly larger than marbles, lay scattered among the clods.
Let it be remembered that Lena was a settler's daughter. She knew to the full what was meant by the scene before her. She knew the care and sweat that went to the turning out of a satisfactory crop from rough and not too rich land. She knew also the hopes and devotion that had attended the cultivation of this particular patch. So as she gazed her eyes grew dim with tears until she could see no more.
'Mostly small,' Robert muttered, afraid to face her, 'but a rare lot of them.'
'Robert, Robert, take me somewhere where I can go down on my knees and ask your forgiveness. I am a wicked, wicked girl.'
Then the frost that had caught so fiercely at this young heart melted and dissolved in a rain of tears.
'And to think,' said Robert later on in private to Mrs. Gird, 'that it was the potatoes that did it after all.'
'Ah, Robert!' replied the lady, 'that's none so strange. It's only the same divine old Common Sense that God made in the beginning, and has never since suffered to die out of the world.'