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The Toll of The Bush

Chapter I On the Road to the Section

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Chapter I On the Road to the Section

At that point, and for the next fifty miles, the Great North Road was a sea of mud, but the travellers paid small attention to the fact, and it was only when their horses' legs sank suddenly through a broken culvert that they made remarks uncomplimentary to the County Council and the Government. The horses said nothing, but there was a sufficient reason for that. They plodded along steadily, their noses down, their heels sucking at monotonous intervals out of the yellow clay. The track they followed was that of the horses which had gone before them, and it was churned up to the consistency, and much of the colour, of butter in summer-time. It led them sometimes into the middle of the road, sometimes—especially if there were a deep ditch there—along the extreme edge, and the only consistency it showed was in going to spots which the riders, for their part, would rather have avoided.

The men rode in single file, the man in front talking back over his shoulder to the one behind page 2him. Now and then the nature of the road permitted them to range up alongside, but this was seldom. Behind them, on a neck of land jutting out into the broad tidal river, lay the township—a handful of white wooden buildings—shut in, save where cut by the roadway, by an impenetrable sea of scrub. A steamer lay alongside the wharf, the throb of a winch floating up through the chill air of the wintry afternoon. A few cows grazed outside the Court House. These were the sole evidences of activity. The steamer was an excitement which repeated itself—weather permitting—once a fortnight throughout the year, and affected the destinies of the people for fifty miles around. The cows were constant—except at milking-time, when they had to be sought for in the scrub, usually standing perfectly still until discovered by an irate owner and driven off recalcitrant to a half-starved calf.

The men were both young, the elder not more than twenty-eight, and the other scarcely yet come to manhood. There was a likeness between them which betrayed some relationship, though this was rather in indefinable characteristics than in actual resemblance, the elder brother's face possessing a beauty and restlessness of spirit which were lacking in the simpler, yet more forceful countenance of the younger. The face of the man in front was for the moment clouded and gloomy, while that of the younger brother wore an apologetic expression.

'Couldn't see his way?' said the elder brother, with a short laugh. 'He's like ourselves, then. What else did he say?'

'Said he'd got a lot of money out he never expected to see again. The natives had gone page 3through him for four or five hundred, and that there was close on three hundred owing in the settlement alone. Said he'd put the wire in at a trifle over cost if we could manage to pay cash. He's not a bad sort, Geoffrey.'

Geoffrey was silent awhile. Then he said, 'I ought to have gone myself. You can't get credit without lying, and you're a poor hand at it, Robert.'

'I just said what you told me,' replied Robert slowly. 'Only when he came to talk back it looked different somehow, and—I'm not clever like you, Geoff.'

The words were simply spoken, and free from intent, but the elder brother laughed as though he saw something suggestive about them.

'We'll just have to go on blasting out rails,' he said presently. 'My God! how sick I am of the whole business. Is there any hope for the wretched country at all? Look at it! 'he continued with a sudden angry scorn,—'clay and scrub and precipices, with here and there an acre of orchard, and all the plagues of Egypt domiciled in it. What's the good of going on?'

'I was looking at Thomas's place,' said Robert ponderingly, 'when I was up there with the cricket team last Christmas. It must have looked like this twenty years ago. It's green enough now.'

'And you can look forward twenty years? Yet after all, why not? It's better than looking back. They have electric railways in England now, but when Queen Elizabeth lived they were probably content with roads no better than this.'

'Is she dead?' asked Robert, relieved at the sudden change of subject.

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Geoffrey started and laughed; then a flush deepened in his cheek, and he muttered, 'What a damned shame!' and thereafter jogged along in silence.

The road wound gradually upwards round the hillsides, presenting a clay bank on one hand, and a steep, scrub-covered slope on the other. Down in the hollow the river lay like a silver octopus, its tentacles stretching far into the black bush-covered lands. Here and there were clearings, dwarfed into insignificance by the immensity of the virgin landscape from which they had been hewn. Some were black from a recent burn, others vividly green with the newly sown grass; in their midst slab or weatherboard huts marked the abodes of the pioneers. The river itself was deserted—not a boat or sail was visible, and save for a pair of black swans drifting in with the tide there was no sign of moving life within the compass of the horizon.

Geoffrey's eye scanned the scene as he moved forward. 'Poor devils!' he said presently, 'working their hearts out, and for what? What we want here is an army. Why are there not armies of peace as of war? Man's the most astonishing kind of fool, if you come to reflect upon his ways. He could land an army corps here, and for an amount no greater than it costs to keep the beggars in idleness, convert the wilderness into a garden where men could live contentedly.'

'Perhaps some day he will think of that,' said Robert.

Reaching the brow of the hill, the tea-tree came to an end, and they began to descend through mixed bush, the road rapidly degenerating into a quagmire page 5as they proceeded. Here and there fascines of tea-tree bridged the more rotten places, and for a chain or so at a dark turn of the road rough slabs took the place of the tea-tree and slush. At length the winding track turned suddenly out of the bush, and beneath them, at the bottom of a steep slope, lay a green valley bathed in sunlight. Low scrub-covered hills walled it in; beyond rose great bushclad ranges, sharply outlined against the silvery sky.

Like pilgrims gazing on the Promised Land, the men scanned the scene, as their horses ploughed and floundered down the muddy slope. In the centre of the green plain was a group of white buildings, surrounded by a hedge of macrocarpa. Maori children were pouring out of a gate in the hedge and scattering themselves over the valley, the sound of their voices rising sharply through the still air. Large tracts of the green sward were unfenced, and over these strayed the cattle and horses of the native community. Along the sides of the road, and back in fenced paddocks, stood a number of unpainted weatherboard huts and rakish-looking whares,1 the edges of their palm-thatched roofs torn into fibres by the wind. Here and there was a storehouse built on piles, or a steep palm roof rising from the ground, and probably sheltering the kumara or sweet-potato pits. The only signs of cultivation were the bleached maize stems of the previous season. Old fruit-trees—chiefly peach, quince, and fig—grouped themselves at various points. Cattle, horses, pigs, dogs, fowls, ducks roamed everywhere through the broken fences at their own sweet will.

1 'Wharrey,' native hut.

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'If one had a place like this now,' said Geoffrey, reining in his horse, 'it might be possible to do something. It seems to me that the only land worth having in this north country is in the hands of the natives.'

'They were here first, I suppose?' Robert said.

'Yes, that is a good argument so far as it goes, but meantime the white men are sitting round on the hills eating grass, and the country is at a standstill. If this sort of thing were happening just outside Wellington, it would not be tolerated for longer than was necessary for the framing of an Act to put an end to it, but the justice of the case is not affected by the fact that we are a long way from the seat of government and unable to make ourselves heard.'

'The rails will be better in the long run,' Robert said, reverting to the original subject of discussion. 'There's plenty of good timber, and it's only just the difference of a month or so in getting it out. Of course, if you're set on doing the fencing right off there is no trouble about it—Major Milward will give us all the credit we want, and—there is Uncle Geoffrey.'

Geoffrey's brows contracted and he shifted his seat in the saddle. 'We will get out the rails,' he said shortly.

At the foot of the hill the ground became unexpectedly solid, and the horses, pricking up their ears, scampered gleefully forward.

'Shall we see about the ploughing?' Robert shouted, as they galloped round the bend by the schoolhouse, and came abreast of a low Maori whare.

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Geoffrey reined in his horse, and turning from the road, jumped the broken fence, and pulled up at the open doorway.

A young native girl, with dishevelled hair, came out at the sound of his approach and stood regarding them, rubbing the sandflies off one leg with the toes of the other.

'Pine1 in?' Geoffrey asked.

The girl turned and called to some one in the interior in a shrill voice. There was a rustling inside, and presently a native appeared, yawning and rubbing his eyes. He was an intensely ugly, good-humoured-looking man of some thirty years. His clothing consisted of a pair of tattered trousers and a faded and dirty singlet, which had long since parted company with its buttons. He looked at his visitors, said 'Hullo' in a sleepy voice, and leaned against the doorpost.

'Lazy beggar!' said Geoffrey, smiling. 'Why aren't you tilling the soil?'

'Too soon to tirr him yet,' replied Pine; 'nex' mont' prenty nuff time.'

'Now's the time for me. I want you to come over and plough up a few acres for the potatoes.'

'I tink dis time too soon for taters. More better by'm-by.'

'Well, we'll chance that. When can you come?'

Pine turned the question over in his mind. 'My burrock up te bush tese times,' he said at length, with a prodigious yawn. 'I not seen. P'r'aps tree days I find him. You got any prough up to your place?'

1 Pronounced 'Pinney.'

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Geoffrey nodded and gathered up the reins. 'Well, I'll look for you on Thursday then,' he said; 'and mind, no humbug. I want the thing done before you start working the bullocks to death on your own account.'

Pine laughed boisterously. 'How many acres you tink?' he asked.

'About three,' said Robert; 'it won't take you long.'

'All ri'; p'r'aps I come Wensday.' He pulled a pipe from his belt, thrust a finger into the interior, and then began to search his pockets, uttering little clicks of astonishment. Geoffrey threw him the remains of a plug of tobacco, which he caught dexterously and proceeded to cut up.

'New parson here little before time,' he said. 'Kapai dat chap mo te korero.1 Ah, te pest!'2

'Good talker, is he?' asked Geoffrey, pausing on the point of wheeling his horse.

'All the same te saw-mill,' said Pine; 'very big soun'.' He laid his hand suddenly on the girl's head. 'Aha, my ch-eild! Poh! poh!'

The girl ducked under his arm, and dived into the interior of the whare.

'He's like that, is he?' said Geoffrey. Then he smiled and added, 'Yes, I've heard of him.'

'Te big rangatira3 that,' said Pine admiringly, taking a slow and stately step from one doorpost to the other. 'Poh! poh! I tink very soon now all the people go to church a good deal.'

'Shouldn't wonder,' said Geoffrey.

Pine filled his pipe and lit it. 'You tink dat

1 Good man for the talk.

2 'Te pest,' the best.

3 'Rangatira,' a chief.

page 9ferra the big rangatira?' he asked, fixing his dark eyes on Geoffrey.

'All parsons are rangatiras, you know,' Geoffrey responded lightly.

Pine squatted down in the doorway and blew a fragrant tobacco cloud. 'Yes'day,' he said, 'I come roun' Major Milward's place up to Wairangi. I see te new parson on a beach, walk up an' down with Iwi, how you call Eve. I tink very soon dat te pair.'

Geoffrey was gazing moodily at some object across the valley, but he appeared to have heard. 'What makes you think so?' he asked idly.

Pine continued to watch him with undisguised curiosity. 'I come on a little way,' he continued. 'I see Sandy an' I say to him, "By'm-by your sister marry te pakeha?" "Oh, go to hell!" say Sandy. Dat why I tink.'

'Then because Sandy told you to go to hell you argue that his sister is about to marry a parson,' Geoffrey remarked with a wry smile.

'Dat why,' said Pine confidently. 'If Sandy laugh, den p'r'aps yes, p'r'aps no, but Sandy angry, I say to myself, "Aha!"'

Geoffrey lifted his eyebrows slightly, then with a curt good-night turned his horse for the road. Robert stayed a moment to renew the subject of the ploughing, then set out after his brother.

The sun was setting in the gap above the river, and the sky to the eastward showed signs of darkening. Geoffrey was already far ahead, flying along rapidly through the shifting shadows. Robert set his horse in motion, but it was not until he had left the confines of the valley and reached the muddy page 10road that wound through the gap, that he again caught up with Geoffrey. The latter acknowledged his arrival by a glance over his shoulder, and they jogged along in silence in single file as before. The road deteriorated rapidly as they descended the other side of the cutting, finally striking an un-bridged creek, where the flood waters roared up to the saddle flaps. From this point an ascent of half a mile brought them to the brow of the hill overlooking the river. There was still a glimmer of twilight, revealing dimly the slab huts of the settlers, the rigid arms of fire-blackened trees, extended as though in a sort of mad frenzy at the fate which had overtaken them, outlined here and there against the river.

There was a sound as of distant thunder that never died away—the roar of the surf on the bar at the river mouth.