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The Toll of The Bush

Chapter XXV The Husband's Return

page 273

Chapter XXV The Husband's Return

For three months Andersen had been employed on the new road which was being cut through fifty miles of dense primeval bush to the gum-fields on the Kaipara river. Winding through dark valleys and around hills, a wall of living green in front, a sinuous track of desolation behind, the pioneers of civilisation forced their way ever farther and farther from the settlements into the gloom of the forest. The obtaining of stores, at first the work of a few hours, gradually increased into the arduous labour of days, and news of the outer world leaked through more sparingly and at longer intervals. M'Gregor's store, whence the supplies came, was itself off the track of gossip, but even thence the news of Mrs. Andersen's desertion would probably have travelled to her husband but for the action of Wickener in urging silence on the storekeeper and his wife.

'The thing is past mending,' he said; 'and he might have the good fortune to break his neck or love another woman before the news reaches him.'

'You think it the good fortune to break his neck?' Tapaia asked, laughing.

page 274

'At least as good as the alternative I have suggested.'

Andersen had developed the taciturnity of the man whose conduct is illumined by a strong and solitary purpose, and after a certain amount of chaffing, morosely received, he was allowed to go his way unmolested. Drink, under the heading of 'medical comforts,' was obtainable by the better behaved members of the camp, but the Swede stood aloof; an occasional bottle of painkiller was the only concession he made to the frightful craving that came over him at the smell of spirits in another man's mouth.

Once, early in the new year, there came to him two letters in one envelope—one in a man's handwriting, the other in his daughter's. He carried them about with him for days, seizing his unemployed moments to read them afresh, now chuckling, now dashing tears from his eyes; and when the packhorses were ready for their return to the store, he sent a reply, witnessed by the foreman of works, giving his full consent to the marriage of his daughter with Robert Hernshaw. Lena made no allusion to and sent no messages from her mother; but it was natural, he thought, that the subject of her letter should engross her to the forgetfulness of all else.

Even this, and the event it immediately foreshadowed, did not shake Andersen's resolution, rather the reverse. He would enter the house of his daughter's husband with money in his pocket—gold. She should take what she had need of, and if she took it all he would come back and work for more. When he thought of his wife his heart-page 275beats quickened as in the days of his first wooing. He would woo her afresh. As the long cross-cut saw drove through the wood, as the American steel axe circled and fell, he conjured up the scenes of that second wooing, when he should break through the sullen humour that enveloped her, should call back the smiles to her lips, the love-light to her eyes. And if not—she was his wife. But as the man's self-respect returned, the darker mood that suggested compulsion became of less frequent occurrence, more to be scotched and buried out of sight. What he yearned for was her respect, that she should point to him with pride: 'My husband, the best bushman in the county.' And with respect would come a return of love, of the old winsome manner that he had seen reproduced in his daughter that time he had beheld her last. With the rehabilitation of the man came a violent disgust at his past self, quivering along the haft of the tool and biting deep with the cutting edge. If he could have cut down that hideous past with his axe as he felled the giant denizens of the bush, with what joy would he have welcomed the labour. The thought of the man with whom his wife's name had been connected he thrust determinedly from him, though even so it lurked sometimes in a harsher grip of the saw's teeth, in a deeper burial of the axe head, a flash of torment thrust into the background by the violent physical effort. Whatever the past had been, he refused to regard it steadfastly. It was in contemplation of the future that he found solace in the midst of his labours and support in the achievement of his purpose.

One morning, towards the middle of March, as page 276the men were shouldering their tools to leave the camp, Andersen entered the contractor's office with his swag on his back and asked for his cheque.

The Swede was a hard and skilful workman, who never caused trouble so long as he was sober, and whom no task, however dangerous or difficult, could dismay, and such men are dear to the heart of the bush contractor, whose fortunes and even life are frequently at the disposal of his men.

'You are not going to leave us, Andersen?' he asked. 'Why, there's six months' work in front of you yet.'

'Tree monts oop last night,' Andersen said. 'I go home for a veek or tane days, den I kom back.'

There was something in the man's face which prevented the contractor arguing the point, and he turned doubtfully to the wages-book. He knew Andersen of old, and that knowledge assured him that his return in a week or ten days was a highly improbable event. The amount to be paid was mentioned and agreed to, and the contractor prepared to draw out a cheque.

'Better take half of it,' he suggested.

'I take it all,' the Swede replied briefly.

The contractor shrugged his shoulders and made out the cheque; then he entered up the amount and took the Swede's signature.

'There you are,' he said, laying his hand on Andersen's shoulder. 'I'm sorry you're going; you've worked like a brick. If I had twenty or thirty more like you I could make a living myself perhaps. Well, good luck. Come back as soon as you can.'

Andersen nodded, but said nothing, and stowing page 277the cheque away carefully in his pocket, set out on his long tramp.

That night he camped in a thicket of tree ferns by the side of the clearing. For hours he lay on his back watching the stars as they gleamed through the delicate lacework of the arching fronds, and only towards dawn did he fall into a troubled sleep. The stars seemed nearest at hand when least clearly seen; when he craned his neck and caught an uninterrupted view of them, they withdrew to an immeasurable distance. His mind went out to them in wonder, as the minds of all men have gone since men first were, but they returned him nothing more concrete than a doubt. Hitherto doubt had touched him with a fleeting wing, but in the starlight, in the dark hour when the life tide ebbs, it settled and brooded. He offered no resistance, made no examination, but let it lie; it was not a thought, nor the consequence of a thought, but a mood, gathered, as a cloud is gathered, out of the immensity, and with the first touch of sunlight it was gone.

He continued his tramp down the hard, narrow track, formed by the packhorses amongst the stumps, and presently reached the camp of the road-makers. It was the dinner-hour, and the men were all in the hut. Some one standing in the doorway called to him by name, and as he continued on his way disregarding, added something which set the Swede pondering. He had not caught the words, or caught them but indistinctly; it may have been the trend of his own thoughts that set the sound of a name surging in his ears. What should the speaker have to say about that page 278man? He stood still, half resolved to turn back, then resumed his way, his eyes bent on the ground. By noon he had reached the main road in the neighbourhood of M'Gregor's store. The store door was open, but there was no one in sight, and he entered and rapped on the counter. M'Gregor came in from the back.

'Oh, it's you, Andersen!' he said, looking curiously and with some embarrassment at his visitor.

The Swede loosened his swag and sat down on a cabin-bread case. 'Is Mr. Wickener here still?' he asked.

'Yes, but not to-day; he's gone to the wedding.'

'Ah, and who vill be married to-day?'

'Miss Milward; the day after to-morrow. It seems you don't get much news out there.'

The Swede looked thoughtfully out into the sunlight. 'Ver leetle news,' he said slowly. 'Who vill she marry?'

'Fletcher. It has been the talk of the place for ages. Half the county will be there. And you have heard nothing about it?'

'Nuddings,' said the Swede, and smiled in grim reverie.

Presently he roused himself and, taking the cheque from his pocket, turned to the storekeeper. 'You can gif me moneys for dis?' he asked.

M'Gregor turned the document over and glanced at his visitor with more respect. 'I think I can scrape together £25,' he said, 'and give you my own cheque for the balance.'

Andersen nodded. 'Gif me gold,' he said.

'Gold! Good heavens! What are you talking page 279about? There's no gold in Hokianga. What's wrong with bank notes?'

'Bank notes ver goot; gold is better.'

M'Gregor went away into the interior and presently returned with a bundle of notes and eight sovereigns. 'That's the best I can do for you,' he said. 'I ought to charge you a guinea apiece for the sovereigns, but seeing it's you— Would you like a taste of the real stuff?' he broke off, lowering his voice to a whisper.

Andersen's face darkened as he stood up and shouldered his swag. 'Ven I kom here before,' he said, 'you got no drink, also I got no money. Dis time I got the money, you got the drink. To hell with it!'

M'Gregor looked disconcerted and angry. 'That's all the thanks a man gets for being accommodating,' he remarked. 'Very well, my man, if you don't sing another tune in the course of a few hours I shall be astonished. Yes, off with you; you'll find you're expected all right, and I wish you joy of your welcome.'

Andersen turned in the roadway, his eyes glowing fiercely, but though his lips moved, no word escaped him, and after a moment he resumed his way. The sky was of that hard steely-blue which denotes continued drought. Now and then an attenuated cloud rose above the tree tops and was slowly burnt and consumed in the glaring atmosphere. In the hollows the air smelt like a breath from a hot-house; on the hill cuttings it glowed fiercely as from a furnace; nowhere—not even in the dense shadow—did it bring refreshment.

The Swede moved steadily forward, as though page 280unconscious of the physical effort that put the miles determinedly behind him. His mood had changed from that of the day before. Hope was dead in his breast. He knew intuitively what was in front of him, though he had shrunk from the spoken word, but he did not know how he would meet the catastrophe, and he did not ask himself. He had no clear thoughts on the subject, only a heavy feeling of depression, breaking now and then into violent flashes like a thundercloud. The purpose which had animated him for three months urged him forward now, because the impulse of it was not spent, but it existed no longer, and his actions were as little the result of volition as those of a creature suddenly decapitated.

It was late in the afternoon when he came to the bend in the road where the track ran off to the Girds' section, and a few steps brought him in sight of his own house.

There was no one about on the road. A few lean cows were cropping the weeds close under the broken windows, and an agitated pig rooted violently near the front door. The slip-rail was down, and a part of the fence had disappeared bodily, having probably been removed by neighbours in search of better protection to their own homesteads. No smoke issued from the rusty iron chimney, and no sound of life from the closed house.

Andersen moved forward and tried the door, the pig and cows, as though conscious that they were trespassing, breaking into a wild rush as he approached. The door was unfastened, and he opened it and entered the building. Apparently page 281nothing had been removed since he was last in the house, but there was a musty smell from the rooms which spoke of long desertion. Spiders' webs stretched across the windows and doors, the hearth was cold—a puff of gray ashes and a charred stick under the rusty fire bars.

The Swede loosened the straps of his pikau1 and let it fall heavily and unheeded to the floor. A cloud of dust arose and surged in the sickly shaft of sunlight streaming through the dirty glass of the window. From a nail in the wall depended an old and faded blue skirt that caught his attention and stirred him dumbly. He looked at it fixedly for a moment and turned away into the inner rooms. Everything was in order, as though for immediate occupation, but the same chill air of desertion clouded the sordid picture, and he retraced his steps to the living-room. He drew a chair to the cold hearth and sat down, muttering under his breath, his hands mechanically extended, as though from force of habit acquired long ago and in a different climate. Every now and then his gaze returned to the skirt on the wall, and finally it drew him to his feet and over towards it, till his hands were moving softly among the folds.

It was a pathetic garment of many darns, some carefully worked and almost imperceptible, others less elaborate, and so on down a diminishing scale of excellence to the merest rough makeshift, as though the wearer had gradually lost heart. The man turned it hither and thither with trembling fingers, finally raising it to his lips in a dumb caress, Then, leaving his swag where it had fallen, page 282he went out into the evening sunlight, closing the door behind him.

The settlement road skirted round Bald Hill, but Andersen took the track that led directly to the top, and crossing the summit, entered the bush. A ten minutes' walk brought him again on to the road in front of the Hernshaws' section. Across the road stood Robert's cottage, immaculate in a new coat of white paint, with a trim garden surrounded by a picket fence in front of it. The door stood invitingly open, and a hospitable curl of blue smoke went up from the chimney. Andersen crossed the road, opened the gate, and making his way to the door of the house, rapped with his knuckles on the panel. There was no response, and after awhile he knocked again, and then went round to the back. No one was in sight on the section or the road, and he sat patiently down on the doorstep and waited. Half an hour went by, and there was still no sign of the returning owners. At last he rose to his feet, and, entering the living-room, seated himself at the table. From his breast pocket he pulled out first a red handkerchief, then his money. The cheque he returned to his pocket; the rest he left lying on the table, while he searched the room for writing materials. Nothing was to be found but a pencil, and with this he wrote largely and laboriously on the white boards of the table: 'Lena Hernshaw, from her father.' As an after-thought he covered the money with a tea-cup.

The last beams of sunlight were gilding the tops of the rata trees as he closed the gate behind him and turned down the road in the direction of his enemy's house. A quarter of an hour's walk page 283brought him in sight of the section. A strong four-rail fence marked the road frontage. Within this was a paddock of maize extending back to the standing bush, and presenting in its vivid green a strong contrast to the sombre foliage of the forest. Andersen turned off among the trees, and made his way by devious cattle tracks until he judged himself to be in front of the house, when he stole forward towards the road. A thicket of tree ferns on the margin gave him the opportunity he sought, and he knelt down and peered through the stems.

Beckwith's house stood close to the road, a clump of bush, left either for shelter or ornament, enclosing it on three sides. It was a low rough building of considerable dimensions, with glass casements opening on to a broad verandah. Between the house and the road was a plantation of melons and sorghum, the rich musk scent of the ripening rock melons travelling to the nostrils of the watcher. Andersen could see his children at play among the vines, and hear their happy voices as they called to one another; but he had neither eyes nor ears for them, for on the verandah stood his wife.

The logic of facts is responsible for the wrecking of many theories. By all the canons of ethics as it is preached this should have been an unhappy woman; but the man knew as he gazed that never, even in the early days of their married life, had she eclipsed the radiance that now possessed her. She was neatly and comfortably dressed, a touch of lace and ribbon at her bosom and throat spoke of a returned care for her personal appearance. Her face, fuller and more youthful-looking than of old, was bright with health and contentment. If she ever page 284entertained fears or regrets, there was no sign of such in her countenance now as she stood looking down with smiling eyes on the children at play beneath her.

And the man as he gazed recognised dimly amid the last wreckage of his hopes the strong hand of Nature, which, regardless of the puny conventions of mankind and of the sufferings of the individual, fixes for ever her summoning eyes on the things not of to-day but to-morrow. One steady gaze at his wife's face, and Andersen knew instinctively, knew by the very poignancy of his own wretchedness, that appeal was vain. For there is no appeal from misery to happiness. The wretched to the wretched, the happy to the happy; but the reverse is a delusion, a mockery in sentiment and in fact.

So there in front of him was the problem. And since in even the coarsest natures are frequently concealed capacities for greatness and heroism, waiting only their proper crises, it may be that this man, purified and strengthened by months of hard toil and self-denial, would have reached a clear height of abnegation but for one fatal blemish in his armour, one ineradicable flaw in his constitution.

The brief evening light waned to darkness. The house and surroundings dimmed to a shadow against the limpid sky. A heavy dew began to settle, soft as starlight, on the parched lands. From a picture appealing to the eye the homestead began slowly to make demand on the sense of hearing. His wife's voice floated out high yet soft, the children responded from this place and that at intervals. There was a heavy step on the verandah, a man's voice, brisk and strong, followed by murmuring and laughter. page 285Presently he could hear a rush of feet as the children stormed the verandah, then the man's voice again, masterful, yet kindly; finally, a shuffling of feet and faint movements dying away into complete silence.

Andersen rose, and coming out on to the road stood for awhile irresolute. He was an alien in a strange land; an outcast, of whom none thought, for whom none cared. No place called to him. He was homeless, for to call that wretched, deserted dwelling—now lost in the merciful oblivion of darkness—home was surely to commit sacrilege. Where, then, should he go? He moved irresolutely a few steps forward past the house. Here the high land above the river, which culminated in Bald Hill, fell suddenly away in broad and mighty slopes, forming a cup-like hollow of uncertain depth, full of forest and the sound of wind and waters. Down in the depths of it, the river, silver, pale, phosphorescent, stretched its truncated arms into the blackness. Round the pale sky-line the black hill-tops, curved and pinnacled, crested and plumed, seeming strangely near at hand, formed the rim of the vessel, and above the rim, blazing with clustered lights, the sky arched itself, like a dome of limpid purple glass.

The Swede looked upwards into the glittering heights, and down into the trembling misty depths. Beneath his feet the descending road seemed suddenly cut off, leaving him, as it were, upon the edge of a mighty well of darkness, into which, if so he willed, he might plunge. And the thought was without the horror that the clear definition of daylight might have engendered; and but that he knew the effect to be an illusion, the man might have sought to page 286solve the problem then and there. But the road wound gradually and safely down round the hill-slopes until it reached the county township, where another solution offered itself. For in the depths by the misty river sparkled a pin-point of light, only to be made out by the long scrutiny of accustomed eyes—the light of the great kerosene lamp over the doorway of the hotel.

Slowly he began the descent of the hill.

There is no man so strong as to be independent of his fellows., and this man's will had already suffered shipwreck, amid the quicksands of an unthinking youth. Yet with all his strength he had striven; and perhaps had Lena been at home when he went to the house, or even had she met him now, while the new life still wrestled with the old, her pity and her love might have saved him; and in saving him, saved others whose fate indirectly he was to determine. But Lena, newly come in from the bush, whither she had gone to fetch her husband from his work, sat at the table, the money and the ill-written message before her, her blue eyes full of tears. And so the precious moment passed beyond recall.

1 Load carried on the back.