The Toll of The Bush
Chapter X The Growing of The Crop
Chapter X The Growing of The Crop
The potatoes on the ploughed land had done well, and now that the hoeing was finished they presented a picture of which Robert as its author was justly proud. A strip had been left for the cultivation of kumaras, and on this Robert was busily engaged. He had worked the soil up into long ridges during the past week, and was now employed in the pleasant operation of putting out the sets at regular intervals all down the ridges. The tubers had been started in a piece of rich soil near the house, and now and then, as his work demanded, Robert came down to the bed for a fresh supply of shoots.
He was returning from one of these visits when he caught sight of a large straw hat and a black stocking between the slip-rails. Lena Andersen, for it was she, came through the vegetable garden and greeted him with a little serious nod.
'Oh, Robert!' she exclaimed.
'How beautiful you look, Lena!' Robert said soberly.
It was a wonderful November morning, with just sufficient movement in the air to soften the intensity page 101of the sun's vertical beams. The mingled odours of the standing forest came down the south wind, and the air was full of the liquid talk of the tuis as they sipped at the pendent blossoms of the honey-suckle trees. The crops were growing vigorously, the hardest of the work was done, and the reward of labour was in sight. Planting kumaras was a pleasant relaxation, calling for no physical exertion, and allowing the mind to wander at its will. So Robert, who would have scorned to pay a mere compliment, summed up his satisfaction with the moment by telling Lena that she was beautiful.
Lena seemed astonished. She had discarded the flour-bags from the day they had attracted the young man's attention, and was dressed in a gray print frock, with black shoes and stockings, all of which Robert had seen on other occasions. A wide rush hat rested on her sunny curls and shadowed her fair face and blue eyes. Altogether she was a sufficiently charming picture of a young maiden to justify Robert's remark; and if she were astonished, the astonishment probably had reference not so much to the words as to the quarter whence they emanated.
'Oh, Robert,' she said again, 'father has come back!'
Robert's face fell slightly, and he put the kumara sets back on the bed. 'Come and tell me,' he said.
They went together to a log behind the house and sat down side by side. A row of quince bushes formed a screen in front of them, giving the spot the privacy of a room. Their actions seemed to show that this was not the first time they had made use of the log. page 102'When did he come?' Robert asked.
'Last night; and he was awful. He chased mother with a knife round the house, and we put all the things against the door of our room; and at last I got the children out of the window, and we stopped together in the bush all night. He wanted to kill us all because he said mother——'
'Oh, I don't know…. Something he said. I was glad when daylight came.'
'Why didn't you come up here?'
'Mother wanted to go somewhere else, and I said we would come here; and neither of us would give way, so we stopped where we were.'
'Where is he now?' Robert asked presently.
'He's at home asleep. Of course he will be sorry when he wakes; but what's the good of that? Oh, Robert!'
'I wish he was dead—I wish he was dead and buried.'
The wish found an echo in Robert's heart, but he moved uneasily.
'It's no good wishing I was dead myself,' Lena said, looking at him, 'because that would help nobody; and why should I wish we were all dead rather than him?'
'It's a shame, Lena; but I don't like to hear you say that. Let me do it for you, because there's no harm in my wishing him dead—and I do!'
There was a long silence.
'Do you think you will be able to come tonight?' Robert asked at length.
'I don't know—I might—I will try.' page 103'Does he stop long as a rule?'
'No. When he wakes up he begins to cry and carry on, but mother takes no notice of him. Then after a bit he says he will reform and never touch drink again, and then he goes away to look for a job; and that's the last of him—till next time.'
'Does he never give you anything at all?'
'Then how on earth do you live?'
'Mother gets money somewhere. Mrs. Gird gives her some, and other things. She gave me these clothes. Oh, I hate it!'
Robert looked contemplatively at the clothes and the desperate young face, then he turned away and gazed fixedly at the bushes.
'I was thinking, Lena, I might do a great deal for you—if you wouldn't mind.'
'What could you do?' asked Lena quickly, her eyes on his averted face.
'I could give you things, you know—clothes and such, anything you liked. I have plenty of money, and I could get a great deal more if I wanted.'
'Why don't you want?' Lena asked, her attention diverted by this surprising statement.
'I suppose it's pride,' Robert said, after a thoughtful pause.
'And don't you think I have any pride? Lena asked. 'Besides, you do give me things, as it is.'
'Tea and sugar,' Robert observed contemptuously.
'More than that.'
'Soap,' said Robert, considering. page 104'Soap and—sympathy,' said Lena, with a little laugh. 'It sounds like that funny book, Alice in Wonderland.'
Robert looked round quickly. 'I meant practical things,' he said. 'Sympathy's cheap enough, Lena.'
'Sympathy is dear,' Lena averred.
'Would you let me give you some money?' Robert asked, sticking to the point as was his custom.
'No, I wouldn't.'
'I don't know.'
'But if you liked me you would think nothing of that.'
'Then I suppose I don't like you.'
Robert tried a fresh tack. 'You take money from Mrs. Gird.'
'Yes, because if I didn't we might starve.'
'Would you take it from—Mr. Russell, or—Major Milward?'
'And yet you won't take it from me! Why?'
'But that's no answer. You must have a reason.'
'Well, because I don't choose.'
'Very good,' said Robert, in a huff. 'I only meant to be friendly.'
Lena's eyes filled with tears, and presently they overflowed and a tear fell. Robert saw it, and his ill-humour vanished in an instant.page 105
'There!' he said. 'Don't cry, dear; I won't trouble you about it any more.'
The term of endearment slipped out unawares, but it sounded natural, and Lena, happily, appeared not to hear.
'It's because you are my friend that I couldn't,' she sobbed. 'Don't you see?'
'No,' said the practical Robert after a tremendous strain. 'But never mind. No doubt you are right, and it's only my stupidity.'
'But you think me unfriendly.'
'No, I don't. I think you are the nicest, and the prettiest, and the cleverest girl I know.'
Lena laughed through her tears. 'Boo!' she said. 'What a baby I am. But I have been wanting to cry ever since last night. And to think it was you that made me after all.' She turned a pair of tear-bright, wondering eyes on the delinquent.
'You know, Lena,' Robert said seriously, 'that I would not willingly make you cry for the world. I would do anything to give you happiness.'
Lena rested her chin on her hand and regarded him steadfastly. 'Do you like me?' she asked. 'Do you—almost—love me?'
'I do love you,' said Robert.
Lena clapped her hands. 'Oh, you dear!' she said. 'How much do you love me?'
'A great deal,' replied Robert, labouring heavily in the strong seas of emotion. 'It—it covers everything, and goes right out beyond, beyond what I can see, or hear, or feel. But I'm a fool at words, and I couldn't make you understand.'
'But I do—I do!' Lena exclaimed in awed rapture.page 106
'And what you said was beautiful and sweet. And why do you love me?'
'Because you are beautiful and sweet, and because I can't help it.'
'Would you like to help it?'
Lena gazed rapturously at her captive. 'Tell me some more?' she cried.
'That is everything,' said Robert. 'I think of you always, and when I say your name to myself I see your eyes. I can always see you quite plainly when I think of you.'
'Then I must be always with you,' Lena said, putting two and two together.
'Yes, all day long.'
'And you never told me!'—reproachfully.
'I did not think it would be so easy to tell you.'
'Because I was afraid of you.'
'Oh, you strange boy! Oh, you funny Robert! And you're not afraid of me any longer?'
'Yes, I am—a little. It seems too good to be true that you should be glad because I love you, and so I am afraid that it may not be true.'
Lena thought over this. 'Would you be very sorry if it were not true?' she asked with experimental curiosity.
'I should not care what happened to me after I knew that.'
'But it is true, Robert, it is. Because you love me, I don't care what happens. I don't wish any one any harm now, only happiness. I wish every page 107one could be happy. I feel sorry for poor mother, and I never felt sorry for her like this before. And I'm sorry for father too—yes, I am. And I feel glad and good. And it's all because you love me; and you say, "If it were not true." Oh, Robert, if it were not true, and I knew it were not true, I should wish I was dead.'
'If I could express myself like that,' Robert said, 'how I would make you believe!'
'It was just beautiful as it was,' Lena declared; 'and I shall remember every word of it as long as I live. And now I must go back home.'
'You will come to-night?'
'Yes, if I can. Good-bye.'
They came out into the sunlight, and Robert glanced with diminished interest at the kumara sets wilting on the bed.
'I believe you are sorry I am going,' Lena said, watching him.
'Well, but you have my second always with you. Let her run along the rows, and help you plant the kumaras.'
'She is not like you.'
'Good-bye,' Lena said again.
At the fence she stopped, and they stood still for a space, looking across the garden at one another; then she waved her hand and went on. Robert watched the straw hat till at the bend of the road her face was again turned towards him. Again she waved her hand and stood to watch him. A whole minute passed. At last, step by step, she moved backwards till the bush concealed her.
Robert rubbed his eyes, picked up the kumara page 108sets, and went slowly up the hill to his interrupted work.
The tuis had stopped singing in deference to his majesty the Mid-day Sun, but the little riro-riro who haunts the shadowy places in company with the fantail, popped out with a little silvery congratulation as Lena ran past.
'Thank you, you darling,' she said; 'but I can't stop to talk about it now.'
The fantail, perched on a supple-jack spanning the track, spread out his tail and made a dozen little grotesque bows and as many little rasping remarks, all with the kindest intentions.
'Oh, you funny little dear!' Lena said. 'I love you. I love every one and everything. And the world is just sweet.'
'Sweet—sweet—sweet—swe-e-t!' said the shining cuckoos in crescendo on the skirts of the bush.
Then Lena looked down on the house with the kerosene-tin roof which was her home, and saw her mother standing moodily at the door and her father gesticulating apologies at the slip-rail.
It was only a chapter from the past. She had seen it all before. The nightmare of his coming, the relief that followed his going; how well she remembered them. But now, somehow, she saw it all with different eyes. That was her mother in the doorway—that listless, untidy woman with the resentful eyes. Her mother! Oh, poor thing!
Her father turned at the sound of her approach, and looked at her curiously out of his bloodshot eyes. 'Vy, it's Lena,' he said at last in surprise.
'Yes, father,' said Lena gently; 'it's me.'page 109
'Vy! she is bekom a womman,' the father muttered. 'She is grown great gel. Now I vill warrk and warrk and never touch him again. You vill see the goot faters I vill be and the goot hosbands. Vill your mother say I forgif you, Sven, dis las' time?'
Mrs. Andersen, who had been apathetically watching the pair, shrugged her shoulders.
'Mother has forgiven you many times, father; and always you need to be forgiven again.'
'Ah!' said the wretched man, thrusting his hands in his hair. 'It is true as my daughter says. It is true, and I am beast and brutes, but never more vill I touch him—dis time vill I svear.'
'I have heard you swear before, father,' Lena said sadly,
'But never as dis time. If your mother vill give von forgifness then I shall be strong.'
Lena looked imploringly at her mother.
'Well, then, listen to me, Sven,' said Mrs. Andersen. 'You have called yourself a beast and brute, but you may thank Lena there that you have not to stand up and call yourself a murderer as well. You came very near it last night. Do you see this mark on my cheek? Ay, you may well call yourself a brute, but when the drink's in you, you are worse than any beast. Husband or no husband, that's a true word. Now you listen to me, for as God lives I mean what I say. This is the last time. Do you hear that?'
'Yes, yes; I vill svear—I vill go on mine knees——'
'And if you break your word and come again as you did last night, then—you may take the con-page 110sequences, for drunk or sober I will have nothing more to do with you.'
For an instant the woman's eyes blazed with passion, then clutching her throat she went sobbing into the house.
'Oh, father, father!' said Lena, her eyes shining, 'do try, and we might all be so happy.'
'Yes, I vill try,' said her father, staring at the closed door. 'I vill try so as neffer before.'
'And you will succeed, father; and then how proud we will all be.'
'Yes, I vill socceed. I vill make you proud as neffer was. Dis time I haf no money. Ah, filty wretch dat I am!'
'Never mind that, dear; only try.'
'Yes. Soon I vill bring some money—every veek I vill bring money. And your mother vill forgif me more'n more, and you vill be proud.'
'Yes, I will be proud, for it will be very, very hard for you; but this time you will conquer, won't you?'
'Yes, dis time I am strong. It is nutting. I vill not touch him again; I have said it.' And the poor wretch snapped his fingers at his absent enemy.
Lena looked at him and sighed. 'When are you going, father?' she asked.
'Straight avay,' said Andersen, and lifted his swag from where it had been lying since the night before under the fence. Lena helped to adjust it on his broad shoulders and to secure the straps, swollen with the dews; then she looked at him long and wistfully and said, 'Remember.' page 111Her father nodded, 'Gif me the kiss for the kia ora.'1
Lena lifted her face to his. There was moisture on her cheek as she drew away, and she saw that there were tears in his eyes. 'Be strong, dear,' she said.
He nodded again and went blindly away down the track as full of good resolutions as ever a man in this world.
The nearest public-house was fourteen miles off, and besides he had no money.