The Toll of The Bush
Chapter XIII The Voices
Chapter XIII The Voices
At last the sun was going down. Never before in Robert's experience had there been a day of such duration. More usually the daylight was inadequate to the duties of a settler whose heart was in the performance of his work. But to-day the sun had displayed an unheard-of reluctance to complete his portion of the universal contract.
The last of the kumaras had been duly set out in the row. There had been time to do some more or less necessary weeding in the vegetable garden, to earth up the melons afresh, even to strew rushes on the strawberry patch, and to nip off the sly runners whose ambition it is to establish themselves before they are discovered; but still the sun delayed high up, as though he also would commemorate this day of days. But the instinct of the lover turns with longing eyes to the night, and when love's promises point also in the same direction, then the day becomes a stumbling-block and time itself a rack.
But the sun was going at last. In a languorous glory of reluctant adieus he dipped the horizon and page 133whirled his last beams across the bush-clad hills. The tuis were making a light supper amid a wild mockery of cat-calls and resplendent jests, and flocks of kakas1 rose high into the sky, and flew screaming away towards the advancing shadows.
'Good evening, Mr. Hernshaw,' said a demure voice among the quince bushes, and the blood rose duskily in Robert's tanned cheeks.
Lena looked at him steadily, with shy, sparkling eyes, her face catching the tell-tale reflection.
'Oh, what gooses!' she said, laughing softly. 'What has come over us?'
'I suppose it's because we love one another,' Robert explained soberly.
Lena sat down on the log a little distance away and continued her scrutiny of his face. 'I feel afraid of you,' she said presently.
'And—I think—I like it. But why should I begin to be afraid now?'
'Do you think it is because you love me?' Robert asked.
'I don't know,' said Lena; then she added, 'I am all a mystery to myself now.'
'Has the day seemed long?' Robert asked presently. 'I have done millions of things, and some of them hardly wanted doing yet, just to kill time; and it seems as though there were no more work left for to-morrow.'
'Let us go and see,' Lena said, jumping up; and together they went and inspected the kumara plants and the strawberry patch and the vegetable garden—even extending their examination to the page 134potatoes on the other side of the hill, until it became almost too dark to see.
'How nice everything is, Robert, and how hard you do work! Should you be glad if there were no more work after to-day?'
'I should not be glad—no.'
Lena's eyes flashed suddenly in the darkness. 'You would not be?'
'No,' said Robert decidedly.
'I like to hear you say no—say it again.'
'I will if you will say yes.'
Lena's lips parted in tribute to this little bit of artfulness. 'Now,' she said, shrinking a little, 'do you I-like me?'
'No, I will not say no to that.'
'You have, twice. What was that?'
'Only a morepork. Lena, do you love me?'
'Yes, I suppose it was, but it startled me.'
'Come closer to me. And—did you answer my question?'
'Yes. There are two yesses for your noes.'
'But we were talking about a morepork, and I want to be sure. I will put the question again.'
'No, not yet. How sweet the bush smells! There's the jasmine scent I never could trace.'
'It grows close to the ground and has a red berry.'
'Robert, I think I will go home.'
'Home? So soon? Very well.'
'Now you are angry. Perhaps I should not have come, either to-day or yesterday.'
Robert said nothing.
'Now you are going to be cruel.'
'I am saying nothing at all.'
'Ah! that is how.'page 135
Robert paused at the door of the house. 'So there is to be no reading to-night?' he said.
'Do you want it very much,' she asked—'to-night?'
There was a subtle undercurrent of meaning in the girl's words which appeased Robert's disappointment. Here was the sweetest romance in action, and he stopped to prate about books!
'Come, then,' he said, and led the way to the slip-rail.
The sky was crowded with stars in whose light they were visible to one another so long as the road lasted, but the bush track was like the jaws of darkness itself. There were bright jewels winking among the branches, now obscured, now suddenly reappearing, but the blackness below remained unsolved. Only the sense of touch formed a key to the enigma; the sole of the foot, the tips of the fingers. Robert felt a warm flutter against the back of his hand and caught at it. Then they went on, their fingers interlocked in a thrilling speech. Now and then one stumbled and caught at the other with a low laugh. When their feet brushed against vegetation they turned aside; to lose the track might be serious. The distance to the next clearing was not great, but touch is the slowest and most cautious of the senses, and he provides an immensity of detail. They spoke little and that in whispers, but their hands interchanged messages, warning, restraining, guiding, passionate.
Thoughts they had none, the senses dominated the situation; each was engrossed in the other; each was as much the other as if their spirits had changed dwelling.page 136
When Lena came out into the starlight on the hilltop she drew a deep breath and turned to look back. The bush stood black and insoluble; it seemed impossible that the entrance to it could ever be found again.
'I wish you had not to go back,' she said.
'I might wish it as much.'
'Shall you be able to find the track?'
'Quite easily. I have found it before.'
They went across the chalky summit till the light of the hut below was visible. There was a sound of talking—a woman's voice in monosyllables; a man's low, urgent. The words were not audible. Lena's hand tightened sharply on that of her companion; Robert placed his other hand over it and held it till the pressure relaxed. He had heard the voices on other occasions. A warm, languorous breath rose out of the hollow where the sun had slept all day, but the night air breathed sweet and pure across the hill summit.
'Do you love me, Lena?"
Lena drew impulsively half a step nearer. 'Listen,' she said, 'and you shall judge. There have been things to make me miserable to-day. I should have been wretched, ashamed, in tears; but all day long my heart has been stumbling and bounding, and I have been happy, happy, happy! This is the most glorious and beautiful day that God ever made. If I lived for a hundred years I should remember it when I died—every instant of it. That is because you love me. That is because I love you. No. Don't say anything, because I am going to make you sad. Oh, Robert! It began at twelve o'clock; it ends now—it ends now.'page 137
'Why are you crying, Lena?'
'Because of the voices. For me there is poverty and the shadow of shame. Oh, I understand it all! There was that in the darkness that told me its strength; and I would bring you everything that is dear and precious, and have only my rags and the shadow of a disgrace that is certain.'
'Bring me your dear self,' said Robert, 'and I shall have the most precious thing in the world.'
'Would you not some time reproach me when people should point and say, "Her father was a drunkard; her——"'
Robert put his hand quickly to her lips. 'Lena,' he said, grieved, 'do you think no better of me than that?'
'Never with your lips—no, no; but with your heart. Would it be enough that I loved you?'
'Oh, how you say that! But it is because you cannot now think for yourself that I think for you.'
'Very well; but you must not prevent me doing the same by you. And if we think for each other, the result is the same as if we each thought for ourselves. That is love. We do not want anything but one another. That is the whole world. At least it is so with me. You have told me you love me; you cannot be so cruel as to let anything prevent me making you my wife.'
'Your wife! Oh, Robert, what would Geoffrey say?'
'When he knows you, he will certainly be as amazed at my good luck as I am, and he will probably say so.'
'That is just sweet of you to say that, but——'page 138
'How old are you?' Robert interrupted.
'I shall be seventeen in two weeks.'
'We are both rather young, I suppose,' Robert considered in his practical way.
'Seventeen is not very young,' Lena said.
'Not very young. What I said was, it's rather young. But after all Juliet was a good deal younger; she was not fourteen, and Romeo—how old was Romeo?'
'It doesn't say; but he loved another girl before he loved Juliet, and so——'
'Probably forty,' was Robert's rapid diagnosis.
'Will you love another girl when you are forty?'
'I always go on as I begin,' Robert replied confidently; and Lena, beneath her amusement, was conscious of some justification for the egoism.
'I wish we were just a little older,' she said presently.
'Let us both wish,' said Robert.
Beckwith, as he climbed the track on the other side of the hill, heard a subdued laugh like a peal of fairy bells; the sound was not repeated, and he went on his solitary way.
'Geoffrey will be here in a day or two, and I will tell him all about it. Then I will see your mother—and your father, if I can, and after that——' The rest was conveyed through the twining fingers. 'Will you be ready for me when I say come?'
The twining fingers made their own reply.
'And you will not try to think for me any more—as if I could not tell quite well for myself what is good for me?'
'You shall do as you please.'
'But will you do as I please?'page 139
'Hark!' said Lena.
From the hollow beneath came the sound of a closing door, followed by a profound silence.
'I must go,' she said. 'Yes, I will do as you please. Only I will not come any more in the evenings. That would not be right—would it?'
'Right?' Robert echoed doubtfully.
'Weil, not wise. It mattered little what the waif Lena Andersen did, but Mrs. Robert Hernshaw is different.' Her voice lingered shyly and tenderly on the words.
'Say it again,' said Robert, delighted. 'Well, where then shall I meet you?'
'Here, so that if I am wanted I can hear mother's voice. Now go, and I will wait until you find the track.'
'Let me watch here until you are safely home.'
'I should be more content to know that you were on the track.'
'Well then, good-night, dear.'
It was easy to bid good-night, but their hands clung together and were not so easily parted. The eternity of the past meets the eternity of the future in that passionate clasp of lovers. In their interlocking fingers is the bond that holds creation. And these two were dumb.
Suddenly an owl screamed harshly on the edge of the bush; there was the pad, pad of some agitated creature—animal or human?—going by a few yards down the hill.
Lena drew back sharply. It seemed that spirits had been whispering at her heart, but she could not catch the words. Robert had moved away, and page 140unconsciously she whispered his name. He was at her side in a moment. Had she called him, she wondered, and why? Then a memory came to her, and she laughed softly.
'I do forget why I did call you back.'
'Was it because you had forgotten to kiss me?'
Robert asked at once.
'That is not right. You should say, "Let me stay here until you do remember it."'
'Yes, of course, but if he had been as near to you as I am, he would have said as I did.'
'She was up on the balcony,' Lena said wistfully after awhile.
'And he was down in the garden.'
'I will give you one—kiss—if you like.'
They leaned together in the dim starlight, and for an instant their lips touche; then tremblingly and with burning cheeks they parted.
Mrs. Andersen was sitting idly at the table. She looked up as the girl entered, and so searching was her glance, or so dazzling was the lamplight after the darkness, that Lena shut her eyes.
'Do you love him, Lena?' her mother asked suddenly.
'Yes, and he loves me; and he is coming to see you and father. And, mother, mother, I am the happiest and the luckiest girl in the world!'