Other formats

    Adobe Portable Document Format file (facsimile images)   TEI XML file   ePub eBook file  


    mail icontwitter iconBlogspot iconrss icon

The Toll of The Bush

Chapter XVI Mr. Wickener Goes Afield

page 164

Chapter XVI Mr. Wickener Goes Afield

Although, as has been said, Mr. Wickener spent most of his time in Andersen's company in the vicinity of the store, yet he did make a few excursions farther afield, and on one occasion he was absent a whole night. Of these journeyings he said nothing to Andersen, neither did he invite that gentleman's society, even though the Swede might happen to be a witness of his departure. Affable and companionable as the Englishman had proved himself, there was yet a certain aloofness in his manner which forbade question.

One of these rambles, for it seemed to be nothing more, brought him out above the river in the neighbourhood of the Hernshaws' section. It was a blazing summer afternoon, when to the idle man the mere thought of labour is a horror, yet there was a young man busily hoeing at the crops on the hilltop, and whistling as he worked. The whistling was good, and Wickener, when his astonishment at its mere possibility had been overcome, found himself listening with enjoyment. All the birds of the bush and the settlement appeared page 165to have combined to produce that melodious theme. There was the solemn chuckle of the tui, as at some joke really too exquisite for ordinary laughter; there was the plaintive trill of the riro-riro, in whose nest squats the cuckoo's offspring; the jarred bleat of the fantail; then the rollicking music of the European thrush, the scream of the parrot, the squeal of the morepork; finally, the ventriloquial crescendos of the shining cuckoo. Now and then a bird answered sleepily from the bush. 'Tonk, tonk! 'said the tui. 'Wait till it gets cooler and I'll talk to you.'

Mr. Wickener had found a tree easy of ascent and climbed into the fork. After awhile he was in danger of going to sleep himself.

The whistling began again presently, half a dozen birds together apparently, then there was a little gurgle of amused laughter much closer at hand. Fully awakened, Mr. Wickener peered down. Something white was passing underneath his hidingplace. A hat with a girl beneath it—a girl with the sunniest curls in the world. Mr. Wickener obscured himself still further and watched.

The girl came out of the bush, crossed the road, and slipping through the rails, walked soberly towards the young man on the higher ground. Presently the latter looked up and espied her; next moment they were together, walking hand-in-hand to the house, the girl's face turned upwards, the man's down.

'Young love,' said the watcher to himself, with a cynical twist of the lips.

The pair passed out of sight behind the house, and there was a long ten minutes of waiting; then page 166the girl reappeared, walking backwards, laughing and talking, every motion of her body a poem, the man after her, slowly, like a worshipper. A few moments of delay and the girl turned and ran towards the slip-rails.

Wickener examined her as she came, with a curious feeling of likeness about her to some one he knew. To whom? She was too lovely to be forgotten had he ever really seen her before. The girl passed with light step under the tree and away down the track out of sight. The watcher sat quiet for a moment, then let himself down and followed.

It was only a short distance through the bush to the bare hill above Andersen's house, and Wickener was hard on the girl's heels as she reached the slip-rail.

'Pardon me,' he said, raising his hat as she turned. 'Have I the pleasure of addressing Miss Andersen?'

A new face in the settlement was a thing as startling as rare, and this one appeared to have sprung suddenly out of the earth.

'I am Lena Andersen,' the girl said after a moment.

'I am fortunate in discovering you so easily, Miss Andersen. I trust I am guilty of no discourtesy in addressing you here rather than in the house.'

Lena looked at her interlocutor. He was a man probably thirty-five years of age, with a fair skin, a trim brown beard, and singularly bright eyes. There was nothing insolent or repulsive in his manner, which, on the contrary, was full of a polite respect.

'Will you walk into the house and see mother?' Lena suggested.

page 167

'I will not disturb Mrs. Andersen on this occasion,' said the stranger, after a moment's hesitation, which included a glance at the building; 'more especially as my business is with yourself. I am the bearer of a message from your father. He is some distance away, but I happened to have—an appointment in the neighbourhood, and so——' Mr. Wickener concluded the sentence with a friendly smile.

'I hope father is well?' Lena said with more animation; 'and I'm sure it is very kind of you to trouble. Where is he now?'

'So far as my information permits me, he is at a place called "Why-kick-her-why-whack-her," but you are probably more conversant with the peculiarities of Maori topography than I am.'

Lena looked puzzled. 'And what is the message, Mr.——'

'Wickener is my name. The message I am afraid is rather a prosaic one. It consists in fact of five effigies in gold of her gracious majesty the queen. I will ask you to relieve me of their responsibility.' And Mr. Wickener handed her the coins with the humorous suggestion that his fingers were being scorched.

'And is this really from father?' Lena asked, looking at the little pile of sovereigns in her palm. 'Oh, sir, I am glad, not altogether for the money's sake, but on account of something that passed between us when he went away! Will you tell him that from me, with my love?' The girl's face was dazzling in its animation, and there was a suggestion of tears in her eyes.

'I fear I can hardly promise to deliver any page 168message, Miss Andersen,' Wickener said slowly, and for the first time avoiding her direct gaze. 'It is not absolutely certain that your father will remain at the place with the mysterious name, or, indeed, that I shall return there. I would not, if I were you, take any steps in the matter.'

'What—not even thank him?' asked Lena in surprise.

Mr. Wickener appeared to reflect a moment. 'Forgive me,' he said, 'if what I am about to say should betray a closer knowledge of your family affairs than you would naturally care to be in the possession of a mere stranger; but from a knowledge of your father's character I am bound to think that it will be best to accept his offering without comment or even thanks.'

'Oh, sir,' said Lena, 'how can we do that?'

'I make the suggestion, Miss Andersen, with the best intentions. After all, the matter is in your own hands, and I have no kind of right to interfere.'

'I should be glad to follow advice given with the kindest intentions,' Lena said gently; 'if it were not that I must appear ungrateful to father.'

Mr. Wickener smiled pleasantly. 'Believe a man of the world of probably twice your years, Miss Andersen,' he said, 'that the expression of gratitude in so many words is not the safest way to ensure a continuation of gratuities. I do not presume to think that that argument will influence you, but I perceive a number of children in the background, as it were,'—he waved his hand towards the rear of the paddock, where a portion of the flour-bag brigade were noisily disporting themselves page 169—'on whose behalf a certain amount of sordid calculation would be, to say the least, excusable. Forgive me, if my candour appears offensive.'

'You are very good,' Lena said. 'I can only thank you for the trouble you have taken and for your thoughtfulness.'

'No thanks,' said Mr. Wickener. 'Delighted to be of service.' And with a generous exposure of his hair he took his departure.

'A good action is its own reward,' mused Mr. Wickener, as he descended into the bush. 'Also two and two make four and p-s-h-a-w spells pshaw!' He repeated the word with varied inflections of disgust once or twice aloud as he went his way. 'Pshaw!' Engrossed in his thoughts, he followed his feet without attention and presently they struck against a root and brought him to a standstill. He found himself on a narrow, worn track in place of the wide road he remembered, to have traversed in his coming. Retracing his steps, he came on two tracks and, following one at random, arrived in the course of a few minutes at three more.

'Ah, would you!' said Mr. Wickener admonishingly to the silent forest. 'You don't catch old birds with snuff,' he reminded the landscape. With careful steps he returned to the original track and went doggedly down it. 'A path like this leads somewhere,' he soliloquised; 'and somewhere is where I desire to go.' Presently he found himself in a clearing with a house at the farther end. In front of the house was a group of three people—a woman and two boys, the latter busily engaged in chopping firewood.

page 170

Mr. Wickener made his way through the stumps, becoming the cynosure of all eyes before he had traversed half the distance to the house. They were keen eyes, all of them, and the keenest belonged to the lady.

'Pardon this intrusion, madam,' he began; 'I am a stranger in this neighbourhood, and I have had the misfortune to miss the road.'

'Then you are the first man that has ever done it,' said Mrs. Gird. 'There is only one road in the whole of the north country, and if you miss that you are completely done.'

'This is consoling,' said Wickener, taking another look at the lady. 'What should you advise in the circumstances?'

'I can think of nothing more appropriate than tea,' said Mrs. Gird cheerfully. 'Mark, run and see if the kettle is boiling. Stay a moment; this is my eldest son, Mark—Mark Gird.'

'Wickener is my name,' said the Englishman for the second time that day, as he shook hands with the boy.

'And this is Rowland,' said the lady, bringing forward her second son.

Mr. Wickener repeated the hand-shake and remarked that they were fine children.

'My husband is an invalid,' Mrs. Gird said, leading the way to the house. 'He was injured some years ago by an accident in the bush. I mention the fact that you should not be shocked, as he is very sensitive of the effect of his appearance on others.'

'I am grateful for the information, madam.'

'It is plain that you are from England,' Mrs.

page 171

Gird said bluntly; 'a colonial might have felt as you do, but he would not have expressed himself so happily.'

Mr. Wickener bowed. 'Your diagnosis is correct,' he said. 'I have been less than a month in the country.'

Mr. Gird sat erect in his chair, the light still burning in his sunken eyes. No motion of the pupils, no flutter of the eyelids greeted the stranger, only in the depths of the eyes was a light that seemed to betray consciousness and showed that the motionless figure lived. What passed behind that sealed countenance—what thoughts, what memories, what sufferings, who shall say? Day after day, week by week, year in, year out, he sat there, forgotten of Death, like a shattered idol. Did love penetrate through that mask of death to the vital spark within? The woman thought so: in that faith she framed her life and that of her children. May be it was all a delusion; may be the thoughts she uttered as his were her own; may be there was room there for neither love nor reason, for neither regret nor hope. Ah, but the woman knew better! What though the gates of the senses were closed never to be undone, yet love spoke direct from spirit to spirit, and there was no message too trivial, none too strenuous for that ethereal messenger.

The table was already set for the evening meal, and Mrs. Gird invited her visitor to a seat without more ado.

'My stay in the country has not yet been long enough to diminish my sense of the hospitality of its inhabitants,' Mr. Wickener observed as he seated himself.

page 172

'Hospitality is rather a large word with which to describe acts of common humanity.'

'Happy is the country where common humanity is so broadly interpreted.'

'That is very nice, but don't run away with an exaggerated idea of our virtues,' said the lady. 'We are an extremely mixed community; for instance, there is probably as much hatred per square yard in this settlement as would suffice to keep two nations embroiled in constant warfare.'

'Do you tell me so? But the Lord loveth a cheerful hater.'

'Then we are certainly His chosen people,' said Mrs. Gird dubiously. 'But aren't you confusing your text? I remember that the Lord loveth a cheerful giver.'

'Probably you are right,' Mr. Wickener reflected. A moment later his lips had framed the word 'Pshaw!' 'There should be enough scope here for people to live independently of their neighbours,' he said presently. 'You, for instance, must find a difficulty in living up to the traditions of the settlement.'

'Beyond our boundary there are a hundred miles of native bush land, sacred to the kiwi and the wild pig, so that we are preserved on that side. On the other we have the Andersens, with whom we simply refuse to quarrel.'

'An excellent casus belli,' said Mr. Wickener. 'These Andersens appear to make but little use of their section,' he added.

'You passed the place? But of course you did; that was where you missed your road. No, the father is a great deal from home. He is a bushman page 173by trade; a splendid worker when he likes, but not so much given to liking as might be wished.'

'Poverty and neglect seem to be written large on the place, and from what I saw of the family, they deserve a better fate than to be sequestered there.'

'Whom did you see?' Mrs. Gird asked with interest.

'A young woman of prepossessing appearance, whose speech and manners seemed to be above her station.'

'That would be Lena, the eldest girl—yes. But you must not be surprised at poor people speaking good English; we are a very long way ahead of your countrymen in that respect, you know. Your people are handicapped by the fact that they have lived for hundreds of years in small communities, hence the language has been broken up into innumerable dialects. Our facilities for communication, on the other hand, enable us to speak one language, and our educational system ensures that that language shall be the best.'

Mr. Wickener bowed but did not discuss the subject. Instead, he fell back on his stock amusement of Maori names.

'Pray enlighten me,' he said, after a few remarks on this head; 'how is it that the native nomenclature is framed in the likeness of excellent, but apparently unanswerable conundrums? "Why-carry-me," for instance, and "Why-make-a-row," the two names you have just mentioned, and "How-marry-her," and "Whaty-whaty-why-how,"—an excellent and typical specimen, by the way—do they, by any chance, mean what they say?'

The Gird boys were too well bred to make any page 174audible comment, but they watched Mr. Wickener with the intensest delight and appreciation from that moment; nor was it many days before the fame of him had run through the settlement even to its farthest outposts.

'Are you proposing to settle in this country, Mr. Wickener?' Mrs. Gird asked by and by.

'No, madam; suspicious as my actions may appear, my intentions are, I assure you, innocent. I am a mere bird of passage—here to-day, gone tomorrow. A bird possessing the loquacity of—shall we say the jay?—and the curiosity of the magpie.'

'From what part of England are you, Mr. Wickener?'

'From many parts of late, madam; but York is the county of my birth.'

'My husband is a Yorkshireman; so also by birth are our neighbours the Hernshaws.'

Mr. Wickener showed polite interest. 'The latter, I presume, are settlers?' he asked.

'Yes, their section adjoins the Andersens. The elder brother is away for the present, but the younger is at home.'

'I wonder if I have seen him this afternoon. Is he by any chance given to amuse himself by whistling?'

'That is certainly Robert,' Mrs. Gird said, smiling. 'He is a nice boy—hard-working, sensible, straightforward, a good sample of the colonial-born youth at his best.'

Mr. Wickener had it in his mind to ask if colonial-born youths were also adepts at love-making, but he held his tongue, and the meal shortly came to an end.

page 175

Mark was deputed to guide the stranger on to his road, a task which he undertook with considerable eagerness.

'The rippling of the waters,' said Mr. Wickener as he stepped outside and caught the music of a neighbouring creek. 'Who would have guessed that poetic answer to the conundrum—"Why-carry-me"?'

Mrs. Gird nodded. 'By the way,' she said, 'what is the meaning of York?'

Mr. Wickener acknowledged the shaft with a smile and a bow, then he followed his guide across the paddock.

Mrs. Gird, as she stood in the doorway, remembering how little information had been vouchsafed to her in comparison with that which had been supplied by herself, was inclined to add to the loquacity of the jay and the curiosity of the magpie the secretiveness of the raven.

But she was destined to see a good deal more of Mr. Wickener, who, from whatever motives, developed a habit of calling at the house whenever, as happened not infrequently, he had occasion to visit the settlement.