In the Shadow of the Bush
Flash Harry and his mates had been working hard all day, and the sun was now getting low. They expected to finish in two or three weeks the contract which they had taken from Ashwin, and were anxious to get through with it. There were four of them in the party, and they had been bushfalling together all the season. Harry and one of the others, known as Big George, had been chosen mates for many years; but the other two had only been taken into partnership in the contracts entered into during the present season. They were all looked upon as decent fellows, who could be relied on to carry out their work faithfully.
Harry had just given the last cut of the axe to a big rimu, which, after a few premonitory cracks as it began to move, fell, driving before it in its line of fall a dozen or so of the smaller trees, which had been "scarfed" or cut partly through in readiness, and skilfully, so that each, when struck, might again in its turn strike and bring down another. The noise of a fall or drive of this kind is like thunder—loud, prolonged, reverberating.
"Don't forget it's your turn to go for the butter to-night, Harry," Big George called out. "This is churning day, and we're about out; but don't stay too long talking to the good-looking girl down there—her that gave me the butter last time—or you won't be back in time for tea. I know your weakness when there's a pretty face about, and I expect I had better go again myself."page 84
"No you don't, my boy," replied Harry; "I have no doubt you would like to go again. I have noticed you haven't been quite yourself since your last visit down there—lackadaisical-like and absent-minded, dreamy, unsociable, too—and off your tucker a bit, I believe."
"Ha, ha!" laughed the other; "no fear of that, Harry; the sight of a pretty girl is not going to knock me over like that—not but it might make a fellow feel as if he would like to give up roving and settle down. If I had a couple of hundred acres of good bush land, and a wife like what that girl down there would make, I wouldn't call the Queen my aunt; and, by Jove! I mean to have a buck at some of those sections in the Whakatangi Block that'll be thrown open shortly, and I would advise you to do the same."
"Talk of the power of lovely woman after that," said Harry. "She has sent a good many men to the devil before now; but here we have the mere sight of her virgin charms transforming my mate, Big George—who was always an honest sort of chap, but a bit of a rambler—into a prospective, douce, staid, stay-at-home-of-an-evening-and-nurse-the-baby cockatoo of the future. But the difficulty with you, George," Harry went on, laughing, "will be in making the proposal, for though you can talk about women right enough when you're not in their company, you're as bashful as a young girl herself—a deal more so than many of them—when you get alongside of one. "Well, I must see this charmer of yours, if only for once; and I may be able to put in a good word for you. I'll promise you, though, that I won't enter for the marriage stakes against you; and, after this, you can go for the butter as long as we are here."
"Be off with you, now," replied George, good-humouredly, "The girl wouldn't have anything to say to either of us; and it isn't only this last week or two that I've been thinking seriously about anchoring myself to a bit of ground, as you know."
Harry struck his axe in a stump, and made his way to the page 85camp for something to carry the butter in. Here he washed and tidied himself a little, for he was particular about his personal appearance; and it was for this reason, coupled with his smart style generally, that he had been given the sobriquet of "Flash." But, indeed, nicknames are often given among men of his class without any particular reason, or any very obvious characteristic to account for them. Harry certainly dressed in somewhat better style when away from work (or when at it, too, for the matter of that) than his mates, or men in like position generally did. He was free with his money, too; and, in taking his pleasure, while many of his class were in the habit of knocking down their cheques at the nearest public-house, he, on the contrary, when he could afford a holiday, would generally pay one of the cities a visit, put up at a good hotel, and enjoy himself in a less debasing way. He had knocked about the Colonies a good deal; a "rolling stone" he had been; and had tried his luck for a time on the gold-fields of the West Coast, where he had picked up Big George for a mate.
Fortune, however, had not favoured them there; and about two or three years since they had, together, sought the bush districts of the North Island. They employed themselves here exclusively at contract work, bushfalling and fencing, sometimes by themselves, at other times taking a mate or two in with them, or engaging a man or two on wages.
Harry on this evening followed the track leading through the bush out to Robinson's clearing; and once there, with the house below, about half a mile away, struck across the paddocks towards it.
Billy and his younger sister were playing outside as he drew near.
"Well, my young shaver, and what's your name?" asked Harry.
"William Robinson; but they call me Billy, mostly," replied the boy. "I know who you are—you're one of the page 86bushfalling chaps that get butter here—but I don't think you have been here for it before."
"Oh, Robinson, is it?" Harry said. "Aye, to be sure, now I remember, that was the name. And this is your little sister, I suppose? Well, she is a nice little nugget, anyhow; and here's a sixpence to buy lollies for her and you."
It was Mary who came to the door in answer to his knock. "By Jove, George was right," thought Harry. "She's a regular clipper, and no mistake; and enough to make any sober-minded chap like George begin to think seriously about matrimony."
"Mother," Mary called out, when Harry had stated his errand, "here is someone come for the bushmen's butter—I suppose it is all ready."
"Yes, my dear; but I'll get it, myself, from the dairy," replied Mrs. Robinson, coming out of an inner room; but catching sight of Harry as he stood at the door in the as yet clear light of evening, which had begun, however, to fail within doors, she stopped, and looked at him eagerly, laying hold of the corner of the kitchen table as if for support.
"What might your name be?" she asked in a voice in which suppressed emotion might have been detected, and which, perhaps, had in consequence lost something of its natural tone.
"Well," replied Harry, an uneasy feeling coming over him, "I am commonly known among my mates as Harry only. We are apt to drop the surname, and almost forget it, I believe, sometimes; and pick up with a nickname, perhaps, instead."
"Yes, but tell me what it is—what your real name is," asked Mrs. Robinson, with a quivering voice.
"Well, I believe it happens to be the same as your own," Harry answered,—"a pretty common one—Robinson, Harry Robinson."
"And you ran away from home to sea in The Three Kings to Melbourne, twelve years ago?" Mrs. Robinson cried, with page 87increasing emotion, and coming forward a step or two; while Mary said, restrainingly:
"Mother, mother, it may not be him."
But over Harry's face there had come a conscious look that in some unmistakeable way recalled to it, bearded and changed though it was, the boyish expression of long ago. Mrs. Robinson saw it, and all her doubts vanished.
"You're my own boy—you're my own boy," she cried, throwing her arms round his neck, and weeping tears of joy, her head upon his breast.
"Why, mother, poor old mother," said Harry, kissing her, "who would have expected to find you here? I thought you were still in the Old Country."
Her husband, coming at this particular moment with one of the boys through a gate out of the paddock at the back of the house, caught a glimpse of what was going on, and exclaimed: "It's my belief your mother's at it again; and," after a second look, "she's either got the boy himself this time, or else somebody's playing a fine game on us, and no mistake—some impostor as likely as not, that, maybe, that Scotchman has sent here."
"Here's father," said Mary.
"Oh, John," said Mrs. Robinson, "our boy has come at last—to our own door, too. Look at him, John, look at him!"
"Eh? what!" said John, looking into the smiling, honest face of Harry, "it's my belief you have got him this time. You're welcome, my boy," holding out his hand; "if so be you are our boy; and there's no mistake about it, now I have had a better look at you—but what a big, strong chap, to be sure."
"Why, father," replied Harry, shaking hands warmly, "I ought to have known you anywhere—you're not a bit changed. It's a wonder I didn't drop across you somewhere since I came into the neighbourhood; but I never dreamt of you being in New Zealand."page 88
"Oh, Harry, why didn't you write again?" asked his mother.
"Still kept putting it off, mother, till I had something good to write about, and that time never quite came round. It was thoughtless, and too bad of me, I know," her son said. "And this is Mary, I suppose," continued he, kissing her, "that I left a little girl, just going to school; and Bessie, too, who hadn't started to go; and where is Annie, who was next to me; and Tom, and Hugh, who was a two-year-old or so when I left?"
"All here, and one or two more besides," said his father—"except Annie, who was married just before we left the old country, and Tom, who is working on his own hook now, but not far from here."
Thus Harry renewed his acquaintance with the members of his family. His mother's face beamed with truest happiness, watching him with a gaze that seemed as if it never would be satisfied. Mary, too, felt a pride in her big, handsome brother; and the younger members, shy at first, soon made themselves at home with him. Billy and the little sister could claim a previous acquaintance, and showed the sixpence he had given them before he knew how near a relation he was.
He stayed for two or three hours, and heard of their struggles in making their new home in New Zealand; of their anxiety regarding him, and of the efforts made to find him.
When he rose to go, the knowledge that she must part with him again, even for a short time, came like a shock to his mother, and she said:
"You must come and make your home here, Henry, now that we have found you."
Robinson backed up his wife's request. "You'll always find a welcome here, my boy." But Harry would not hear of doing so.
"I couldn't think of it," he said; "you have plenty of olive branches here without me; besides, I have roamed about too long to settle down quietly now, I am afraid. Perhaps I page 89may look out for a bit of bush-land near you some day, and turn cockatoo—marry and settle down in earnest, eh, mother? But you'll see plenty of me while I'm in the neighbourhood. If I'm within a day's journey I can always ride over on a Sunday and see you; and if I should go a little farther away, I'll let you hear from me regularly. No fear of me not writing to you now, mother. You'll always know of my whereabouts now, I promise you that. But, by Jove!" he went on, "I must be off, or we'll be having Big George coming to look for me. He'll think I'm lost in the bush, or else making love to the pretty girl he told me lived down here; eh, Mary, ha, ha, ha!" And Harry laughed to think of the fun he would have with Big George, and how he could tell him that he had the first kiss.
He took his leave, promising to come back and spend the whole day long on Sunday, which was only two days off. He came on that day early, but had been to the township the evening before, and arrived loaded with presents—picture and story books and lollies for Billy and the little sister Ruth; a stock whip for Hugh; a brooch each for Mary and Bessie; for his father, who, he saw, enjoyed his smoke of an evening, a silver-mounted pipe; and for his mother—nothing. "But you and I, mother," he said, "will go down to the township some afternoon, and see if we can get something worth buying—a new sewing machine, eh, or something really good? Oh! I can tell you, I'm quite a rich fellow, believe me."
"I want nothing but yourself, dear," she said; "that is quite enough for me. Thankful I am, and overjoyed, in having you near me again."
He came again one evening during the week, and in the afternoon on the following Sunday.