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The Toll of The Bush

Chapter VI The Service on the Beach

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Chapter VI The Service on the Beach

Major Milward left the store, locking the door behind him. It was Sunday afternoon. A native on horseback was scurrying along the beach with a tin of golden syrup under his arm, for which he had paid one shilling and fourpence in the belief that he was purchasing tinned meat. It is due to the Major to say that in this belief he fully shared. The store was closed against business on Sundays, but Major Milward, to whom serving at the counter was a pleasant relaxation, in which he was not supposed to indulge, occasionally managed on some pretext to obtain the key from the storekeeper when, if the opportunity offered, he would transact a little business sub rosa, frequently, as in this instance, with disastrous results.

The Major wore a sun helmet in compliment to the fine October weather, and a cigar, without which he was rarely seen, glowed between his teeth. In stature he was rather under middle size, but his figure despite his age was erect and active as a boy's. A pair of clear blue eyes looked steadily out on the world. He walked up the beach humming a hymn page 61tune and looking well pleased with himself. The native, who had ten miles to ride, making twenty in all, was equally pleased as yet.

Presently the Major paused and pished irritably. He had recognised the tune he was humming and discontinued it on the spot. 'The air seems charged with the wretched things,' he thought. He stood a moment looking along the shining river in the direction of the bar, then turned in at a side gate and walked slowly up the path to the house. 'I wonder whether Hernshaw will get carried away like the rest. Mind too well balanced, I should say.' A shade of anxiety and annoyance crossed his countenance. 'I always thought her like that until—Bah! What makes religion such a cold, inhuman business when it's carried to excess? This Fletcher now, is there anything about him beyond what he says? If one wanted a fiver, would it be obtainable there sooner than elsewhere? If one needed sympathy, would it come more readily from him than from—Hernshaw, for instance?' His eye had caught sight of that gentleman on the verandah. 'No, by Gad! There is more quick humanity in that chap's little finger than in the whole of Fletcher's carcass.'

Geoffrey, his finger between the leaves of a book, looked pleasantly at the Major as he mounted the steps.

'Come for a stroll round,' the latter said.

Geoffrey rose obediently and dropped his book into the rocker. 'Miss Milward has offered to introduce me to Mr. Fletcher,' he said, 'but I don't suppose it is urgent.'

'Not a bit,' the Major replied with alacrity. 'He is here then?' he asked in a lower voice.

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'Yes, sir. But I will get my hat and come along.' Geoffrey entered the wide hall and took his hat from the stand. He could hear talking in a side room and the door-handle turned as he passed. Reaching the verandah, he heard his name called, and turning he saw Eve Milward coming towards him, accompanied by a tall man of dark complexion. Geoffrey looked at him at first with indifference, then with more interest.

'Mr. Hernshaw—the Reverend Mr. Fletcher.'

The two men looked at one another and hesitated, then Mr. Fletcher, with a stiff inclination of his head, turned to Major Milward, who, having watched the meeting with curiosity, now came forward and shook hands with his visitor, making at the same time polite inquiries as to the success of what Mr. Fletcher was in the habit of referring to as the propaganda.

'Our efforts are bearing fruit,' said the latter, in his most clerical manner. 'Among the natives our ministrations have been more particularly blessed.'

'They would be,' the Major agreed.

'In the Waiomo valley more especially,' Mr. Fletcher went on; 'Heaven, in its goodness, has seen fit to bless our efforts in the conversion of every man, woman, and child.'

'What exactly do you imply by conversion?'

Major Milward asked.

'Conversion,' replied Mr. Fletcher, 'is a turning from ways of darkness to those of light.'

Major Milward looked at Geoffrey. 'This will be good news for you, Mr. Hernshaw,' he remarked. 'The Waiomo natives, I think you said, are owing the store some seven hundred pounds.'

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'Seven hundred and forty-three fourteen nine,' said Geoffrey with stiff precision.

Major Milward got out a fresh cigar, and Mr. Fletcher, whose ardour appeared to have suffered a slight check, turned to Eve.

When Geoffrey and Major Milward set out on their stroll, they saw Mr. Fletcher and Eve walking slowly along the beach in front of them, their destination being the little village of Rivermouth about two miles distant.

The Major led his companion through the orchard where they decided that the fruit trees promised well, then round to the poultry pens, with their valuable and well-cared-for contents, and thence back to the beach. Geoffrey appeared thoughtful and preoccupied, and the Major glancing at him surprised a puzzled frown not due to anything in their recent conversation.

'I beg your pardon,' said Geoffrey with a start, becoming conscious of his companion's observation.

'I was suggesting that we should go as far as the village and see what is going on; or would it bore you?'

'Not at all. This sort of thing is generally interesting and sometimes amusing. I suppose Mr. Fletcher is a well-known revivalist?'

The Major shrugged his shoulders. 'I suppose so. The Church of England appointed him down here—to get rid of him, I expect.'

Geoffrey was silent awhile; then he said: 'Isn't it a little unusual for that denomination to go in for anything quite so—er—violent as I understand Mr. Fletcher's methods to be?'

'I thought so. In fact, I had an idea of drop-page 64ping the bishop a friendly line on the subject. A parson is all very well to marry us and bury us and that kind of thing, but when he begins to distract our attention from the plain duty of sticking to our work he becomes a nuisance. I thought of suggesting that there might be room for a person of Mr. Fletcher's energies in the bishop's own immediate neighbourhood. By the way, that wasn't bad about the seven hundred and forty-three fourteen nine. I expect you got the odd money out of your head. But it is a fact that we shall not be sixpence the better for it. Fletcher doesn't know much about the natives and might expect permanent results.' The Major smiled grimly.

'Is he making many converts among Europeans?'

'A few of a sort among the men. Women, of course.'

The sound of a brass band had been audible in the distance for some time past, and as they now turned from the beach and surmounted a small hillock it burst on them in full blast.

A crowd was gathered on the sands at the foot of the hill, while another crowd of larger dimensions sat or lolled on the grassy slopes and looked on. Beyond lay the village, basking in the afternoon sunlight, apparently quite deserted. Major Milward descended the hill some distance and sat down. The crowd on the beach was arranged in a large circle. Geoffrey could see the tall figure of the clergyman at one side, with Eve and a few Europeans, male and female, close to him. The remainder of the worshippers were mostly Maoris, page 65fully half of them being armed with brass instruments of one kind or another. A large native in a red jersey was walking majestically round the interior of the circle clapping a pair of bones and bawling out the refrain of the hymn: 'Wass me—and I s'all be wha-iter than snow! Wass me—and I s'all be wha-iter than snow!'

'Why, it's Pine,' said Geoffrey suddenly.

'So it is,' the Major agreed.

Geoffrey caught sight of Sandy lower down the hill, and the latter, observing him at the same moment, came up and sat down, clasping himself rapturously round the knees.

'Isn't he lovely?' he exclaimed with his solemn chuckle. 'I would not have missed this for anything.'

'Your enthusiasm does you credit,' Geoffrey said drily.

'Pine is the latest convert and the most enthusiastic. Observe the intensity of his conviction as expressed in his calves. How Fletcher can stand there and retain his mental equilibrium passes understanding.'

'No doubt the intensity of his convictions sustains him. After all, is this quite as ridiculous as it looks?'

'More so,' said Sandy.

'Sincerity is entitled to respect.'

'It is entitled to the respect it can command,' said Major Milward. 'We are not bound to respect a man because he has a sincere conviction that the earth is flat; neither are we under any obligation to respect him because he believes the Creator can be propitiated by more or less unmelodious howling. page 66If it is a sense of humour that prevents me from joining the circle on the beach, then I am thankful I possess it.'

The hymn had come to an end, and Mr. Fletcher was now beginning to address his followers. His voice was powerful, and carried easily to those on the slope of the hill. He began by giving thanks for the success with which his labours had been blessed, and he went on to speak of the methods he had adopted for bringing the sheep into the fold. It was not those who came voluntarily to the House of God for whom the Church need feel its deepest concern. There was more joy in heaven over one sinner who repented than over a hundred of the righteous who needed no repentance. His predecessors had been content to guide and guard their flock, but for him that was not enough. There should be unceasing joy in heaven. The sinner should come daily into the fold, crying out for the salvation of belief. For it was one thing to know of God and another thing to know God. 'There are many,' he went on, raising his voice, 'who have put their reason in the place of their Creator and cried, "This is false, that cannot be; our reason denies the other." But later, when the spirit of God has possessed them with His knowledge, then reason falls back shamed before the over-reason of the soul.' He paused, and his voice dropped to a lower key: 'One such man I have known. With him, as with those of whom I have spoken, reason was the crown of his being. And reason told him that the Bible was false; that the story of Christ was half a lie; that there was no Creator. To what may such a man cling in the page 67strong waves of earthly temptation? He was placed in a position of trust, and possessed the unbounded confidence of his friend. That confidence he betrayed.' The speaker hesitated a moment, and the audience, recognising something vital in the story, preserved a complete silence. Major Milward, glancing at his companions, was arrested by the expression of Geoffrey's face and allowed his cigar to go out.

'Fortunately for him,' the speaker resumed impressively, 'his sin found him out. Then, as is the way with the sinner, he sought to fly from the judgment. Was it difficult? His sin was known only to two persons. Only to two!—two persons in all the world!' Again he paused; then suddenly his voice leapt out with startling clearness: 'To two! Nay, but to millions! He knew it himself—his conscience knew it—God knew it! The angels of heaven, whose number is as the stars of the firmament for multitude, knew it every one! The consequences of sin are eternal. Fly to the uttermost end of the earth, you shall not escape them.' His voice took a denunciatory ring: 'They will confront you in the hour of setting forth and in the hour of returning. They will cry to you, "Begone! Here also thou art known." Do you think to begin afresh as though your sin had never been? I tell you there is no spot on this earth or in the heavens above the earth where the consequences of sin shall cease and be no more. Is not that an awful thought?' He stopped and looked slowly round his circle of listeners; then in softer tones he began to point the moral of his story and to speak of the atonement of Calvary.

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'He can talk all right,' Sandy said with unwilling admiration; 'but the moral didn't seem to hang to his little story too well. 'What do you think of him?' he asked, turning to Geoffrey.

'It seems impossible to doubt his sincerity,' was the reply.

Mr. Fletcher was now addressing the Maoris in their own language, and the crowd on the hillside, as though ashamed of the temporary seriousness into which they had been cajoled, resumed their original levity of manner.

'There are some fairly hard nuts for the parson to crack down there,' Sandy said. 'That's Hogg, the storekeeper, talking to the half-caste girl, and she's a Miss Wayte from up the river. There are seven girls in that family and they've all had to stick to their name. Some people think Hogg's going to marry her, but they've thought things like that about Hogg for the last twenty years. That's Howell, the shoemaker, pretty well in, they say, and tight as wax. His brother keeps the pub, the two-storey building beyond there. Most of the young men are from the coast settlement—you can see their horses in Howell's paddock. They work like furies all the week, real hard graft, mostly bush-falling, and on Sundays they get their horses and ride them backwards or sideways or any other way the fancy takes them, and tumble off here on to the sand and look at the girls.'

'And what about the girls?'

'The girls look at them and ask one another their names, and say, "Oh, do look!" and "Isn't he good-looking?" and "I wish I knew him."'

'And then——'

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'That's all till next Sunday.'

'But in time, I suppose, they get to know him and marry him.'

Sandy shook his head. 'There are no marriages here,' he said; 'very few births and deaths only by accident. That's how it is that when the Government sends a man up here to collect statistics he always goes back a confirmed dipsomaniac.'

'I have wondered why that was so,' Geoffrey said, and Major Milward laughed.

The band was now in full blast again, and the voices of the singers came at first with uncertainty through the hubbub. Then the voices mastered the air, and put the band back in its proper place.

The three waited until the service was over, and by that time the sun had set and the evening star glowed at the river mouth.

Major Milward rose and scanned the groups on the darkening beach below. 'Home,' he said succinctly. 'Go and fetch Eve.'

Sandy departed obediently, and in a few minutes returned with his sister. Eve took her father's arm, and the two young men following behind, the party made its way back to the house.

Lamps were glowing brightly in the big dining-room, as they went up through the sweet-scented garden on to the verandah. The Major went straight into the house, but Eve waited for the others. Her cheeks were glowing and her eyes sparkling as she looked from one to the other, 'I hope you both enjoyed the service,' she said.

'I did thoroughly,' Sandy replied; 'and during our walk home, Geoffrey has exhibited all the page 70depression which could lawfully be expected of a man conscious of a misspent life.'

Eve smiled and looked wistfully at the person alluded to, but Geoffrey remained silent.

That night when he reached his room, he got out some writing materials and sat down to indite a letter. It was but brief, yet nearly an hour and two or three sheets of paper were expended, before it was finally sealed and addressed to the Rev. T. Fletcher, Rivermouth. Then he went out in his stocking feet and dropped it silently into the mail box.