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The Toll of The Bush

Chapter XV The Man from England

page 153

Chapter XV The Man from England

It was two days since Sven Andersen had set off full of good intentions for the future, and he was still within a dozen miles of his home. Where he had been in the meantime was best known to himself; but for all improvement that had been wrought in his appearance he had better have remained elsewhere. As he moved along the dusty road, talking and gesticulating to himself, occasionally pausing to glare savagely at some object by the roadside, or, still worse, to express amusement at his thoughts in a harsh laugh, he had the look of a man well advanced in intoxication; but he was not drunk, unless drunkenness be given a wider interpretation than is usually allowed to the word.

'Either drunk or mad,' was the reflection of a person watching him approach from a verandah a hundred yards or so down the road. 'Not drunk in his gait,' he added awhile later; 'mad then.' And the man rose to his feet and went into the house.

A counter ran across the room in front of the door, and behind this stood a young man busy with page 154an account book. Piles of cheap prints, stacks of tobacco, candles, soap, and other universal necessaries on shelves round the walls showed the nature of the business sought to be conducted.

The man from the verandah seated himself on a cabin-bread case near the doorway and announced the approach of the supposed madman. 'Who is he?' he asked with a faint interest.

The storekeeper craned his neck eagerly to look along the road. 'Why, it's Andersen,' he said, relapsing into indifference. 'He's not mad; he's a foreigner. He's probably drunk; any way, Mr. Wickener,' he added, 'he generally is.'

But Andersen seemed neither drunk nor mad as he entered the store and nodded composedly to its occupants. Then he approached the storekeeper and whispered something in his ear.

'Not a taste,' said the latter aloud. 'Dry as a sack of gum dust, I give you my word.'

Andersen looked over his shoulder at the other man and continued his solicitations aloud. 'Von leedle tree finger, M'Gregor, like a goot fellow?'

'I haven't got it, Andersen. I tell you there isn't such a thing in the place, so that's enough about it.'

Andersen sat down and ran his eye over the shelves. 'You haf de Painkiller?' he asked presently.

'Not a drop,' said M'Gregor, lying cheerfully; 'the men at the camp on the new road took the last bottle yesterday.'

'Vot dat red bottles, like a goot fellow?'

'Sauce—Worcester. And this is castor oil, and page 155that's sheep dip, and yonder's embrocation, and the spirits of salts is under the counter.'

'Ach, Mac's the poy for the jhoke,' said Andersen, laughing boisterously and turning a pair of mirthless, bloodshot eyes on the other person present. 'Dat Vooster's horse, I vill take him,' he concluded suddenly.

'The price is two shillings a bottle,' said the storekeeper, without moving.

There was a short pause.

'I have not the pleasure of this gentleman's acquaintance,' said Mr. Wickener, coming forward with a smile; 'but sooner than the matter should terminate here, I would request permission to act as host to this excellent company. I should esteem it an honour if Mr. Andersen would drink my health in Worcester sauce or embrocation, or any other beverage he might prefer.'

M'Gregor handed over the bottle without more ado, and leaping on the counter, unhooked a tin pannikin from a string in the rafters. Andersen withdrew the stopper, and giving the bottle a shake poured the contents into the tin.

'Here's your very goot healts,' he said, nodding to Wickener, and drained the pannikin to the bottom.

'An inside like that must cost a shilling or two,' M'Gregor opined.

Mr. Wickener seemed much interested. 'Have another,' he suggested; 'or perhaps you would prefer a little embrocation? Fill 'em up again, M'Gregor.'

Andersen, however, professed himself satisfied, and picking up his pikau, betook himself to a seat on the verandah. Wickener lifted the empty page 156bottle, smelt it curiously, and followed the other outside.

'A nice morning, Mr. Andersen,' he said; 'warm, but just the weather to make one relish a cooling drink. Are there any after-effects from Worcester sauce, by the way?'

'It is the hollow,' Andersen explained; 'the crave to fill him. When man has warrked mooch in bush and wet and rheumatism, then Vooster's horse very goot.' He got out a briar pipe and felt tentatively in the bowl with one finger.

'Tobacco?' suggested Wickener with alacrity. 'M'Gregor, tobacco and matches. You live somewhere about here?'

Andersen's face darkened suddenly, and he clenched the pipe in his hand till the knuckles whitened; then he pointed vaguely along the road. 'I got vife in the bush,' he said.

'Good place to keep one,' Wickener observed, surveying the landscape; 'room, in fact, for more than one.'

'My Gott, there is not room for one,' was the rapid response. 'Should man have more than one vife? Gott prevent him!' Andersen twisted himself on his seat and laughed harshly.

'So that's the way the wind blows?' Wickener said, his eyes glittering. 'Domestic unhappiness, eh? Woman! What follows? Alcohol, Worcester sauce, embrocation. Curse them, and I'll give you curse for curse. Begin!'

'Ach, the wretches!' said Andersen.

'——!' said Wickener.

Andersen clenched his hands. 'All day you leave them and warrk, warrk, then you kom back.

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Vot you find? Nuther man's drunk all the visky.'

'True bill,' said Wickener. '——! Set 'em up again.'

'They got no decent like a man; they got no feeling like a man. She all flower and pretty things on top, and underneath the devil.'

'——!' said Wickener.

Andersen drew back and regarded his companion. 'You haf a vife too?' he asked.

Wickener dropped back into listlessness. 'What about the man?' he asked.

Andersen hugged himself and looked cunning, but he did not reply.

'Don't be in a hurry,' said Wickener. 'The best pleasure is in anticipation. Combine poetry with justice. Don't hit a man when he's down—because you can't hurt him enough. Hit him on the top of a precipice if possible. Andersen, I like you. Have another Worcester. No? Then name your drink.'

Mr. Wickener's liking was evidenced in the fact that a week later the Swede was still domiciled in the store as the guest of his singular companion.

M'Gregor, the storekeeper, who had been ready enough to accommodate the English stranger with board and lodging, raised no objection to this addition to the family when he understood that all charges were to be borne by Wickener. The Englishman's tastes were peculiar, no doubt, but his payments were made in advance, and he showed a lordly indifference to details which appealed favourably to a man whose predilections were all in the opposite page 158direction. If M'Gregor troubled himself at all to find a reason for the Englishman's patronage of the other, such reason was probably associated with Andersen's morbid craving for liquid excitement, Wickener seeming to take a pleasure in indulging his protégé, in season and out of season, to the top of his grotesque bent. He had, however, privately admonished the storekeeper to beware of the admission that there were any spirituous drinks on the premises.

It was not until Wickener had been a fortnight in the house that he discovered that the Maori woman who did the cooking, and whose shrill voice was occasionally heard from the kitchen, was the storekeeper's wife. The lady, in fact, was the first to supply the information, and though M'Gregor seemed disposed to minimise the fact, he did not actually commit himself to a denial of its accuracy. Her features were plain, even for a Maori, but she was young and her eyes were brilliant, and once the ice was broken, she was not indisposed to be communicative. Mr. Wickener had many questions to ask, and made full use of his opportunities. He appeared, so far as could be gathered from casual remarks, to have come straight to his present habitation immediately on his arrival in the country. He was absurdly ignorant on the most ordinary colonial matters, and, it may be added; indifferent; but trivial things occasionally interested him to the point of enthusiasm. He had a stock question with regard to every Maori name—what did it mean? It seemed to astonish him that every hill, vale, creek, clump of trees, rock had its own individual designation. 'Well, what is the name of this place? Eh? What's that?

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"Why-kick-her-why-whack-her"? Really, I have no notion.'

Tapaia considered his humour of the most exquisite character, and was always ready to provide him with a name or a meaning, for the pleasure of hearing him mispronounce the former, and of noting his frequent astonishment at the latter. It is characteristic of Maori names that they are descriptive often to an embarrassing degree.

'So "wai" is pronounced "wy," and means "water,"—I see. Then "Wairangi" will mean "watery-sky"?'

Tapaia laughed heartily. 'You got the cart before the horse,' she said. '"Wairangi" will mean "skyey-water." That Major Milward, his place "Wairangi."'

'Ah!—Major Milward—a settler, I suppose?'

'Major Milward the big rangatira,' Tapaia explained with respect. 'He the first of all the European to come here. This time he got the sheep station, the kauri bush, the gum-field, plenty big stores. You know my husband?—he the storekeeper before.'

'Oh, indeed! and who is the storekeeper now?' Wickener inquired with polite interest.

'Mr. Raymond come after my husband, then Mr. Hernshaw.'

'Hernshaw? Surely you have mentioned the name previously?'

'He and his brother have a section in the bush near to Mr. Andersen.'

'Yes, yes, of course, so you told me. And one of them is storekeeping for this Major—er—Milward? That will be the one who was born here, I suppose? page 160By the way, I think you told me one of them was born here, while the other emigrated only a year or so back? Or am I confusing the families?'

'No, that is right; but Geoffrey Hernshaw is the storekeeper, and he is the one from England.'

'Oh, indeed! that will be a nice change for him,' and Mr. Wickener smothered a yawn.

'Major Milward any family?' he asked presently. 'He two children here—Eve and Sandy. Eve the pretty girl.'

'Aha! Any chance for a young man of my complexion?'

'That Hernshaw's girl, I suppose?' Tapaia replied, laughing. 'Kapai1 you make a try, perhaps.' Mr. Wickener looked with smiling reflection at a fly-blown almanac on the wall. 'Hernshaw again,' he said quietly. 'No, no, dear lady; though the contemplation of Mr. M'Gregor's happiness must ever provide a powerful incentive, there is no guarantee that I shall be equally fortunate. Once bitten, twice shy.'

The friendship between the Swede and the English stranger developed rapidly as the days wore by. Neither seemed to find his lack of occupation galling, or to be in a hurry to move on elsewhere. The spot was a lonely one, but little disturbed either by travellers or customers, and but that Wickener had learned from Tapaia that the land for thousands of acres around was her private property, he might have wondered at the singularity of M'Gregor's choice in establishing himself so far from civilisation. The pair spent most of their day in the shadow of the tree ferns on the edge of the swelter-page 161ing bush road, retiring into the denser growth when the heat became unbearable to the unaccustomed Englishman.

Mr. Wickener was soon in possession of the family history of the Andersens, and it formed a constant subject for discussion between the two men.

'Yours is not exactly a strong case, Andersen,' Wickener remarked thoughtfully once, 'because there is a certain amount of culpability on your side. Still that does not excuse the other man. Nothing excuses the other man. Make a note of that.'

'Nuttings,' Andersen agreed.

'By the way, you have never been the other man yourself, I suppose? Ah, well, don't protest! How far have you got? Have you reached the boiling-oil stage yet?'

Andersen nodded morosely.

'Yes,' Wickener mused, 'it's interesting, no doubt, and picturesque, but it passes. The law of evolution holds even here; by and by you will come to higher things.'

'What things?' Andersen asked.

'The higher hatred, my boy; perhaps even to the perfect hate that passeth understanding. For observe the analogy between love and hate. The first distaste that precedes dislike and develops loathing. So, by obverse stages, the full-blown passion of love. Treasure these words, Andersen, my boy, for I shall not always be by to instruct and guide you. Then comes the brooding on the beloved or hated image; the hundred situations, fervently conceived and as intensely desired. The page 162passive mood becoming the active, the drawing of the loved or hated one's attention, the threat, the promise, and so on up the scale, through all the heightening tones, to consummation—devoutly to be wished.' He stopped, his glittering gaze fixed on a point opposite to him, and was silent.

'Is yours the hate porfect?' Andersen asked after awhile.

'Sometimes I am inclined to think so, my friend; at others I seem to descry an unattainable greatness just out of reach. Contrast my stage and yours. You would kill Beckwith by slow torture of—shall we say?—a few days' duration, then an end. Afterwards what will you do? You cannot expect two such passions in a lifetime; the gods are more chary of their gifts. Keep it, keep it, my boy, to warm your bones when you grow old. As for me, I can wait. I have become an artist in the matter. Nothing but the best will satisfy me. I want the supreme moment. If I could enthrone my man above the world, if I could load him with all that the earth, or better still, with all that he himself holds desirable, I would do it that in the next instant I might tear him down and leave him naked and accursed.'

The man's voice was light and bantering, and a mocking smile played across his features; yet Andersen, only partly comprehending him, shuddered as he listened.

'Vot you do with your man ven you got him?' the Swede asked with a shrinking curiosity.

Wickener stretched himself and laughed. 'We are discussing your affair, my boy,' he said placidly, 'and it is a peculiar one, because, as I have already page 163told you, there are two sides to it. Take my advice and don't hurry. The killing stage passes, the lust for violence goes by. Live up to the great idea, and some day you may reach that sublimity of hatred that would dictate the words, "Beckwith, take her!"'

1 Good.