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The Toll of The Bush

Chapter V The Bush Oracle

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Chapter V The Bush Oracle

The river lay like a string of jewels in the crevasses of the hills. Away in the sun-haze to the west the sand dunes of Wairangi blazed like pyramids of gold.

Geoffrey paused on the summit of Bald Hill to gaze at the familiar scene. Eighteen or twenty miles away, but looking vastly nearer, rose a green hillock, cut into terraces, a Norfolk Island pine on its summit. He had once spent an afternoon with Eve beneath the shadow of that tree, and memory recalled easily the homestead in its sheltering plantation, nestling under the pa.1 His mind's eye saw the flashing casements, the deep, cool verandahs, the sub-tropical flower-garden, the woods and orchards in which the house was embowered. Peace was there if anywhere in the world. It was in the pens, where were the prize-bred fowls in which Major Milward took such a deep interest; in the ducks diving in the creek; in the cows coming lazily down to the slip-rail for the evening's milking; in the flocks of sheep cropping the broad pastures over a page 46score of hills; in—and his heart-beats quickened as he called up the figure of the young mistress, moving everywhere with her light step, like the spirit of Peace herself.

Wairangi— 'the heavenly waters.' Such a splendour of light lay over the scene that he might well have been gazing into Paradise itself. There were rest and content. The memory of the resplendent glories of summer came to him whispering that there also was delight. How could he hesitate? What was it that bade him pause, his feet on the threshold, his will fainting to be there? Was it pride that could not brook the thought of asking so much and offering so little? All his life he had eaten the bread of dependence, but love had sweetened it to his lips. Would it not continue to do so? Was it doubt as to how his advances would be received? Doubt was there, but if it influenced him at all it was towards its own elimination.

The Bald Hill was the highest point in the settlement. It was so named on account of the landslips which had denuded its summit of soil and left the white inhospitable clay exposed. The settler to whom it had been allotted was supposed to be recompensed for its barrenness by an increased depth of soil in the hollows into which Geoffrey now descended, but there were no evidences of any attempt having been made to utilise this compensation—supposing it existed—beyond what were furnished by a hut roofed with kerosene tin and a small enclosure mainly choked with weeds. A slipshod youngish woman stood in the open doorway, watching him with the frank, sexless interest which is due to the presence of another human being of the same page 47race. A sound of children screaming came from the interior of the hut. Geoffrey touched his hat and was passing when the woman called to him and came down to the fence.

'I hope you didn't mind my sending for the things this morning,' she said as Geoffrey approached.

She leant her arms wearily on the fence and looked steadily at him as though she derived pleasure from the act. Her face showed traces of good looks, prematurely faded; her eyes were tired and sullen. Through her imperfectly fastened bodice Geoffrey caught a glimpse of a black bruise staining her white skin.

'Not at all,' he said. 'We were only too glad to be able to help you—that is, I hope we were——' and Geoffrey looked at her inquiringly.

'I got what I sent for,' said Mrs. Andersen, nodding. 'I always do when I send to you. That's why I go to you last.'

Geoffrey laughed, and the woman smiled slowly in sympathy.

'I suppose we have got to live,' she said, with a return of gravity. 'At any rate we do,' she added, the first proposition encountering a bar of doubt in her mind.

'Of course,' Geoffrey agreed, as though there could be no doubt at all.

Mrs. Andersen looked at him and condensed the problem of the ages in one word—'Why?'

The answer—several of them—came out of the house ready-made and arrayed in flour-bags. Geoffrey noticed that the family patronised two brands of flour, 'Champion' and 'Snowdrift,' and page 48there was also among the younger branches an attempt to advertise a special make of oatmeal from Tokomairiro.

'How is Mr. Andersen getting on?' he asked cheerfully, lifting one blue-eyed, tow-headed urchin of doubtful sex on to the rail beside him.

Mrs. Andersen shrugged her shoulders. 'I haven't seen him for the best part of a month—(Run away, kids, and don't bother)—I shouldn't care if I never saw him again,' she added, frowning.

There seemed no ready-made convention for a remark of this nature, and Geoffrey looked smilingly at the child.

'I suppose that shocks you,' the woman said bitterly. 'One thing, I don't often have the chance of saying what I think.'

'I'm sorry it's like that,' Geoffrey said, forced into saying something. 'You must have a hard time feeding and—looking after all these children.' He was going to say clothing, but, remembering the scantiness of their wardrobe, checked himself in time. 'If there is anything I or Robert could do to help you, I'm sure we should be very glad.'

Mrs. Andersen shook her head. 'What could you do?' she asked. And indeed Geoffrey was conscious as he spoke of the inadequacy of any assistance in his power to render. Short of the reformation, or in the alternative the death of her drunken husband, there seemed no help for her.

This contact with the troubles of another had turned his thoughts from the too intense brooding on the difficulties that beset himself, and he went on his way in a more reasonable frame of mind.

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"Ook, mammy,' ook, the pretty sing man div me!'

Mrs. Andersen clutched the money as a drowning person clutches an oar, and for the same reason. 'There,' she said, as the child began to whimper, 'don't cry. Mammy will get you some jam for tea. Run in, kids, and tell Lena to stir up the fire.' She turned on the threshold and waved her hand to the unconscious form of Geoffrey, whose back was just disappearing into the bush. There was a silent benediction in the act.

"I will ask Mrs. Gird's advice,' Geoffrey was saying to himself at that moment; 'and whatever she advises I will agree to.'

Many and very dissimilar people went to Mrs. Gird for advice, and she gave it to all with equal candour. Probably if it suited them they acted on it; but whether it suited them or no, she took care that they got what they came for. She was no witch whose elixirs were potent in the troubles of true love, yet the loves of the settlement were mostly confided to her. She rarely left her home on the section, yet everything that occurred for miles around was known to her almost on its happening. She knew when M'Clusky's bull had broken Finnerty's fence and eaten the tops off his apple trees, and she had a spirited account of the meeting of Finnerty and M'Clusky ready the same day for the amusement of her husband, who sat all day long in his invalid's chair following her with adoring eyes, but incapable either of speech or motion. She knew when Sven Andersen was in the lock-up for drunkenness, and whether or no Mrs. Andersen had gone into the township to pay his fine, and she called page 50herself a lucky woman when she related the facts to that same listener. She knew when the girls got into trouble, as they sometimes did, and who was the responsible party, and what was the best course to take in the delicate operation of bringing the delinquent to book. But whatever she knew the poor cripple knew also, for on that understanding alone would she accept a confidence. 'You can speak out,' she would say, when her visitor showed a delicacy in beginning, 'because I shall tell him when you are gone, whether or no.'

He made a splendid wreck, this husband of hers, as he sat there day after day, dead up to the eyes, but alive from that point upwards. She had been told that when the light dimmed in his eyes then he would die; so she watched him hour by hour, week in week out, instilling, perhaps, some of her own superabundant vitality into the dying flame. She was a tall, strong woman, yet not so very long ago that poor cripple was in the habit of taking her up in his arms like an infant, and holding her there till a hearty tug at his hair effected her release. But there came a black and treacherous day when wife and children looked for him in vain as the twilight fell. Struck by a flying branch, he lay in the shadow of the woods that should never again have cause to tremble at his tread. That was the first tragedy of the settlement, and nothing of all the subsequent happenings had made such a strong and abiding impression on the minds of the settlers.

Every bushman knows the toll of blood demanded by the virgin forest. It is fixed and inexorable, and though skill in bushcraft will carry a man far in the page 51avoidance of accidents, it counts for nothing when the time comes for the bush to demand its price. There was a superstition in the settlement that so long as Mark Gird lived the woodman was safe, and many besides the devoted wife watched for the dying out of the flame.

Geoffrey heard the sound of an axe in the dimness ahead, and, smiling to himself, he left the track and made softly towards it. In a few minutes he reached the clearing.

'Geoffrey, you wretch,' said the lady, 'how dare you come creeping up like that?'

'Like which? I thought you always completed your sentences.'

'Good. Your sentence is to take hold of the other end of that saw.'

'Everything all right?' asked Geoffrey, laying his hand on the tree and looking up.

Mrs. Gird allowed him to walk round the barrel and examine the scarf. 'Well?' she asked.

'The fowl-house won't be there when we've done,' he remarked, taking off his coat.

'Rubbish!' said the lady. 'The fowl-house is fifty yards off.'

'Well, you'll see,' said Geoffrey, bringing the maul and wedges up to the tree and picking up the saw. 'Are you ready?'

Mrs. Gird tucked the sleeves higher up her fine arms, made a mysterious arrangement of her skirt which seemed to convert it into a sort of sublimated masculine garment on the spot, gripped the handle and started the saw.

'Tell me when you are tired,' said Geoffrey, smiling retiringly behind his side of the barrel.

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'A likely thing,' said Mrs. Gird, 'that you should tire me.'

'I am rather nice,' the young man admitted.

'Heavens!' exclaimed the lady, with a laugh; 'what a gift of repartee. Why this abnormal cheerfulness? You are rather silent as a rule, Geoffrey.'

'That is so,' the young man admitted, and gave an instance. 'Spell oh!' he called presently. 'Time for a wedge.'

The wedge was inserted. Then came another spell of sawing, followed by more wedges; then more sawing and a vigorous driving with the maul, and presently down came the tree.

'Splendid!' Mrs. Gird exclaimed. 'Just where I wanted it to fall.'

'Beautiful!' agreed Geoffrey; 'but do you notice the undignified attitude of your fowl-house?'

'Well, I never!' said the lady, astonished.

'I did,' said Geoffrey; 'that's how I knew. I once blew a tent away in precisely the same fashion.'

'You might have told me!'

'Pardon me, if you reflect a moment, I think you will do me the justice to admit that I did.'

'You certainly said that the fowl-house would not be there.'

'Precisely,' said Geoffrey triumphantly; 'and the facts have borne me out.'

Mrs. Gird gazed at him with a severity which the twinkle in her eyes belied. 'Go,' she said, 'and put it back where it was.'

'I am afraid that is barely possible, but we might be able to make it pretty comfortable where it is.'

This proved to be so, and the fowl-house was re-erected not much the worse for the indignity to page 53which it had been subjected by the draught of the falling tree.

'Here come the bairns,' said Mrs. Gird, looking with bright eyes across the clearing, as a couple of boys shot out of the shadow of the bush and darted towards her. 'Steady now, Mark, don't tear me to pieces; let Rowly have some too. Now shake hands with Mr. Hernshaw. That's right. Off you go to father. Take off your school clothes, and then you can get your tomahawks and amuse yourselves till tea-time. Aren't they just lovely?' This to Geoffrey.

'Vain woman!' said he.

'Yes,' she said seriously; 'it is true. I pride myself on my common-sense, but I'm a fool with my own.'

'They are the handsomest, the cleverest, the best-natured boys in the settlement,' Geoffrey said.

He was still smiling, but Mrs. Gird's bright eyes looked a long way into human nature, and she nodded.

'You're not a bad sort, Geoffrey,' she said, turning away.

'Well, of all the——' Geoffrey began disgustedly.

'Where have you been this last month?' Mrs. Gird interrupted, leading the way to the house.

'At home, working.'

'I thought, perhaps, it was just possible you might be at Wairangi.'

'There is a good deal of the conditional mood about that sentence,' Geoffrey observed.

'And is there none of it about you?' Mrs. Gird asked shrewdly.

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'I propose to occupy a portion of your valuable time in the discussion of my worthless self.'

'Very well—when we get inside. What's stirring in the settlement? Anything fresh?'

'Nothing much.' Then, after a moment's thoughtfulness, 'I saw Mrs. Andersen as I came by; things seem to be in a bad way with her.'

'Do you mean that you judged so from her appearance, or that she told you so?' Mrs. Gird asked sharply.

'The latter.'

'Then why not say so. She told you things were in a bad way with her—well?'

'That's all.'

'H'm. Well, it's a fact; they are in a bad way, and they are likely to be, unless——' she pursed up her lips. 'Do you know a man called Beckwith?'

'Fairly well.'

'What kind of a creature is he?'

'I suspect him of honesty,' Geoffrey replied thoughtfully. 'He never stops working, and he's deadly silent. I think these be virtues.'

Mrs. Gird nodded, as though some previous account had received confirmation, then she laughed.

'Sven Andersen talks a great deal,' she said, 'and his English is as broken as his adopted country, ergo he is a fool.'

'No doubt you are right,' Geoffrey said.

'It is one of the data upon which our constitution is founded,' Mrs. Gird condescended to explain, 'that a foreigner whose English betrays him is necessarily an idiot.'

'Quite so; pardon my momentary forgetfulness. But what is your conclusion?'

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'I was thinking that Andersen might be forgiven for being a drunkard and a brute, but it is impossible to pardon him for being a fool.'

'And so——'

'And so, here we are at the house.'

Geoffrey took off his hat reverently as he entered the abode of the man who was dead and yet lived. Then he knew that his arrival was known long ago to the invalid, whose chair was drawn up in front of the window that looked out upon the clearing.

'Father is never lonely,' Mrs. Gird said cheerfully, as she wheeled the chair round towards the fire; 'there is always some one in sight from the window. Only the day before yesterday we had Finnerty chasing Robinson's pigs with a shot-gun, and that was enough to keep any one amused for a week.'

'It's marvellous how they carry on,' Geoffrey agreed. 'One half of the settlement appears to spend its existence in trenches waiting for the advance of the other half.'

'The mystery is how they manage to pay court expenses. Take the Finnertys and Robinsons, for instance; there is never a court day but what they are down on the order-sheet. If it's not Finnerty versus Robinson, it's Robinson versus Finnerty. Damages for assault, damages for trespass. Good Lord! they seem to be all mad together. Finnerty laid an action against Robinson for damages caused by Robinson's pigs. Defendant denied that any damage had been done, or that, if damage was proved, it had been caused by his pigs, and in any event he denied liability owing to the plaintiff not having a legal fence. Plaintiff alleged that he had page 56a legal fence "acchordin' to th' act, yer reverence," and that in the alternative said fence had been removed by the Robinson family for fuel. Then they went at it hammer and tongs. Mrs. Finnerty, duly sworn, alleged that Mrs. Robinson was a liar. "You'll not be lis'nin' to that woman, your worship, for she's desavin' yez."—"Well, never mind that, get on with the evidence."—"It's like this, yer worship (wheedlingly); last Tuesday Mrs. Andersen come around to give me back some tay she'd borrowed a while back, and she sez to me, she sez——"—"Yes, yes, never mind that; come to the sow."—"Yes, your worship, and Mrs. Andersen was tellin' me she'd littered——" — "Who littered?"—"The sow, your worship." (Laughter in the court.) Magistrate, severely, "I won't have this noise. Well? (to witness), for goodness' sake, get along." And so on, ad infinitum. Don't look so shocked.'

'Me! I defy you!'

'Well, you ought to be. But what's wanted in this settlement is a good heavy top-dressing of horse sense, and that's a commodity which is pretty scarce anywhere. But I am stopping you from talking.'

Mrs. Gird seated herself with her arm across her husband's chair and looked expectantly at Geoffrey.

'I saw Sandy Milward to-day,' the latter said after a moment. 'He wants me to take over Raymond's job in the store.'

'What wages is he giving?' Mrs. Gird asked.

Geoffrey shifted his position and looked foolish. 'I ought to have asked that, of course,' he said, 'but as a matter of fact I didn't.'

Mrs. Gird shook her head. 'Not that it matters page 57so much in this instance,' she admitted, 'because Major Milward is almost absurdly generous. Well, are you going?'

'I don't know. I could do the work very well; it would be less irksome to me than tilling the soil—supposing I could afford to consider my inclinations, which I can't. I am not a great deal of help to Robert, though I endeavour to do my share, and it has struck me that I might be able to assist him to better purpose if I were earning money independently.'

'Those are very good reasons why you should go; now let us hear one or two why you shouldn't.'

Geoffrey was silent awhile. 'There is only one,' he said at last slowly. 'You know that I was a good deal at Wairangi during the summer and autumn. It is a pretty place, and Major Milward has royal ideas of hospitality—you used to tell me jokingly what would happen.'

'Ah!' said Mrs. Gird, her eyes beaming. 'The one thing you haven't mentioned is that Eve Milward is a lovely girl.'

'She is too lovely for my peace of mind.'

'Good boy. So that's the problem? Now let me think. I suppose you have never said anything to her? No. And you have no idea how she regards you. Well, as a friend, of course.'

'If I go,' said Geoffrey, 'it will be as her lover.'

'And as her father's storekeeper.'

'That is the crux of the whole matter. Are the two compatible?'

'Perfectly—in this country. You are not in England now.'

'Then do you advise me to go?'

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'Not so fast, my young friend,' said Mrs. Gird, laughing; then she continued seriously: 'I believe in a man having the courage to avow himself and take his chance; but I should like you to have a good chance, both for your sake and for hers.'

'Thank you for that.'

'Well, I do not think it would be at all a bad thing for Eve; but I do not know if you accepted Sandy's offer that you would be in the best position to induce her to think so.'

'I thought you said——'

'I said, or I meant, that there was nothing in the fact of your being employed on the station that need cause you to hesitate, but that's not saying that a position of dependence on a girl's father is a good one from which to woo her.'

'Then perhaps I had better not accept.'

Mrs. Gird sat looking absently at him, and it was some time before her reply came. Then she said: 'After all, the position is nothing; everything depends on whether you are the right man. Yes, that is the answer to the riddle. If I were you I should go. But, Geoffrey, let me tell you of two faults you possess: you are too unpractical in money matters, and you have no self-confidence. Why have you no self-confidence?'

'I don't know,' said Geoffrey, knitting his brows; 'I have and I haven't.'

'Well, at any rate try and be practical. Make a start with Sandy. Whatever wages he offers you, ask ten shillings a week more.'

'I couldn't do that,' Geoffrey said slowly. 'If I thought he would refuse me or argue the matter it would be all right, but he would say yes at once.'

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'And that appeals to you as a practical reason for not asking him?' Mrs. Gird asked curiously.

'I don't know,' said Geoffrey; 'but it's why I couldn't.'

He looked so apologetic in his disability that Mrs. Gird conceded the point with a laugh. 'Young man,' she said, 'I doubt if you would be so scrupulous about your sweetheart's kisses.'

1 'Pah,' a fortified hill,