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The Toll of The Bush

Chapter XVIII Mrs. Gird Advises

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Chapter XVIII Mrs. Gird Advises

Mrs. Gird, who was every one's friend, yet had partialities of her own. She held human nature to be a dear and comfortable as well as amusing thing, but even she preferred to observe it through the veilings of civilisation rather than to contemplate its proportions in the rough. Such is the exaction of sex. The brutal did not dismay her, but it affected her animal spirits, and keen as was her sense of humour, it frequently proved inadequate to the naked problems of life. Of what kind was the soul of her—a tragic, a mocking, a tender thing—none could say, though many conjectured. Only one man had been permitted to gaze into that depth, and it closed and sealed itself for ever on the day that his shattered body was carried into the narrow house. To the sensitive the tragedy of the thing lay in that the woman made no sign. Neither at the time nor afterwards did she show a wound. Her face was turned to the future, and if the past ever rose like a ghost in her path, at least no one knew of it but herself. She made no confidences. That sin and suffering were; that it was necessary page 188to fight and subdue them, her whole life attested; but that they existed for her she never admitted either by word or deed. Yet her power in the settlement was a thing remarkable and apart. No ordinary interchange of mutual sentiments and amenities explained it, for the amenities were merely sources of amusement to Mrs. Gird, and her sentiments were her own. It was not that she supplied a spring of compassion that might soothe if it did not materially alleviate suffering, for the waters she administered were tonic and not seldom bitter with the bitterness of death. But a largeness of nature covered all. No vagaries of the human machine astonished her. There was no pettiness in her reproofs, no narrowness in her awards. Wrong, no doubt, she often was, but it was with the large wrongfulness of humanity. Yet Mrs. Gird had her partialities. To the young and the beautiful her heart turned instinctively, and with none was she on more intimate terms than Eve Milward. And Eve, recognising that it was so, gave her in return a wealth of love and sympathy defiant of obstacles.

Mrs. Gird was not free with her kisses, but she embraced Eve Milward and looked at her keenly. 'Sad and twenty,' she said. 'How's this?'

'How is Mr. Gird?' Eve asked.

Her hostess paused before replying, and her face stilled to calmness. She undid the buckle of the girl's saddle, pulled it off and, releasing the horse from its bridle, looked with significant eyes at the questioner.

'It has been a long road,' she said, 'but the end is not far away now.'

'Oh, Mrs. Gird!'

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'Ah, my dear, I understand that you do not know what to say! Why say anything? There is nothing to be said. His was a fierce vitality—the vitality of a man struck down in the heyday of his youth and strength. It has taken ten years of torment to quench his spirit, but the work is nearly done. Ten years of smouldering agony, and even now I do not know whether to thank God or curse Him.'

Eve had paid her visits and, until the return of Geoffrey from the section, had come to spend her time with Mrs. Gird. The sun still found its way into the clearing, though the shadow of the high bush on the margin was gaining rapidly on the sun-dried paddock. They went together to a log in the cool shadows. Before them the land rose in a bank of tree ferns, vivid with the new season's growth. Higher up stood a huge rata in full flower, its top, where it caught the sunlight, appearing as though freshly dipped in blood, its lower branches clotted in deepening shades of crimson and crimson-purple till they were lost in the undergrowth. Over the emerald sheen of the tree ferns spread a faint blood-coloured stain from the scattered stamens of the rata flowers.

Eve looked around her, her face still and pale, at a loss for words. At the evidences of toil everywhere, the blackened trees, the fallen logs, some with deep axe marks in them, the wilting grass among the stumps. Then, the untouched virgin forest, the tree ferns, the rata, weltering in his vivid summer garment. It seemed that the task set was too great, that God had forgotten—nay, that 'the beautiful blue heaven was flecked with blood.' With a little page 190shiver she turned to her companion and put her arms round her.

'I am sorry for you, Mrs. Gird,' she said gravely.

But the elder woman made no sign.

'Who can tell,' Eve continued in the same voice, 'why God has afflicted you like this—you and him of all people? Who can tell why God permits such things to be? But I believe that He will recompense you in the end—if not in this world, then in some other. He must; it is incumbent on Him, or there is no justice anywhere.'

Mrs. Gird smiled gently as she took the girl's hands. 'Let us talk of something else, dearie,' she said. 'Of life and its fulness, of the paradise that is in the gift of these soft fingers. Tell me about yourself.'

The desire for self-revelation that follows the tender emotions stirred in the girl's breast, yet she was silent.

'Is there nothing to tell?' Mrs. Gird asked. 'No fresh scalps? No new lovers?'

'Old loves are the best,' Eve replied, smiling, but averting her face from the other's keen scrutiny. 'Every day I find myself looking back with greater tenderness on poor Mr. Linkworthy. He was so nice, so considerate, so heart-broken, and now so married.'

'What about our friend the new minister?' Mrs. Gird asked, keeping to the point. 'He always speaks of you in terms of the highest admiration.'

'Is it a breach of confidence to speak of these things?' Eve wondered.

'I cannot see why, so long as it is not done from the housetop.'

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'Well, Mr. Fletcher proposed to me. He was very urgent, and put his case, as it appears to me, extremely well, but——'

'The case did not appeal to you?'

'Not at the time, but afterwards it has seemed to me better than I thought, and I don't know really what might be the upshot of a second display of its good features.'

There was a chill levity in the girl's tone which rang unpleasantly in her listener's ears. 'Is there any chance of such a second display?' she asked.

'Exceedingly good, I fancy. In fact, that was where the urgency revealed itself. Mr. Fletcher was by no means pressing for an immediate reply; on the contrary, he refused, I think, to take one, and he spoke of the results of a second, or perhaps even a later proposal, with a confidence in which I by no means shared. Still his judgment was possibly better than mine.'

'Why do you speak like this, Eve? Do you love the man?'

'Well, since you ask me—no; though I like him well enough, and as a minister I have the very highest opinion of him.'

'My dear child,' Mrs. Gird said bluntly, 'when a woman marries she marries a man and not a profession.'

'Yes, of course. Still it is Mr. Fletcher's profession which forms the inducement in this case. It is the case of the reed seeking support from the bank, the vine and the oak, the—the rata and the rimu.'

'Your similes are plentiful but dissimilar,' Mrs. Gird said. 'Do you know the story of the rata, page 192for instance? How he lodges no larger than a speck of dust in the fork of the rimu, how he germinates and sends down roots and puts forth branches until finally——' Mrs. Gird ceased speaking, and Eve, following the direction of her gaze, saw in the heart of the tortuous rata branches the dead trunk of the throttled rimu which had nursed it into being.

'What is the meaning of your parable?' she asked more soberly.

'It is capable of various interpretations, but let us take the one you yourself suggested. There is the profession dominating all, and there is poor human nature squeezed out of existence.'

'What of that, if the thing supplanting is more beautiful than the thing supplanted.'

Mrs. Gird turned impatiently aside. 'Don't let us confuse our minds with this rubbish,' she said. 'There is nothing so misleading as a simile, because in contemplating its justice we are apt to lose sight of the fact that it merely illustrates in place of supporting an argument. And this is serious. There is nothing more serious in life than this. We must grapple it with both hands and discover its nature. Eve, be sincere, be your own self and help me. Why should you desire support of that kind? Religious support, I suppose you mean. What has happened to you?'

But Eve, despite her real desire to become confidential, found a difficulty in overcoming her present mood of indifferent levity. 'Theologically,' she said, 'I am unsound; my faith is weak, and my credulity is gone in the wind. Surely it is in accordance with the order of things that we should page 193seek to bolster up the weaker side of our natures.' Then she added with compunction, as her gaze met the other's, 'Forgive me; I can't help myself.'

There was sincerity there at all events, and Mrs. Gird determined on other tactics. 'Well, we shall not get that straight, apparently,' she said. 'But what about Geoffrey Hernshaw? Has he also met refusal?'

'Mr. Hernshaw is among the few who have not honoured me with a proposal,' the girl replied lightly, but there was a trace of uneasiness in her manner.

'Have you ever given him the opportunity to do so? Well, not exactly that. But have you never checked him when it seemed he might be likely to consider the occasion suitable?'

Eve picked up her gloves and stretched them between her fingers. 'I believe,' she said, truthfully at last, 'that Mr. Hernshaw would have proposed to me to-day if I had permitted him.'

Mrs. Gird could not conceal her disappointment. 'Is there no chance for the poor fellow?' she asked, her eyes on the girl's downcast face.

'There might be,' said Eve; 'I can't say. I do not know my own mind.'

There was that in the hesitating speech which drew forth to the full the maternal instincts of the elder woman. 'Dearie,' she said, 'it's a pity you have no mother, for just now and here she would have put her arms round you and all would have been right. I might have had daughters of my own if—well—I am an old woman, not so old as years go, but very old in experience, and wise in the knowledge of the pitfalls and snares that are set page 194all over the valley of life. It may be that, if you could confide in me as you would in your mother, I could give you that in return which is worth having, if it be only a rough woman's sympathy and it may be that, in telling what you know of your mind, you will come to the knowledge of that which is at present concealed from you.'

'Dear Mrs. Gird, it is not that I do not wish to tell you, for I do, but I have a strange difficulty in speaking. Perhaps it is the intuition that things are bad, and that no amount of considering can put them straight. But you shall judge. You have asked me about Mr. Hernshaw.' The girl hesitated, and her manner took on a charming diffidence, while the colour mantled slowly in her cheeks. 'I like him extremely well; I suppose I may say I—love him. At least there is no man for whom I feel anything comparable with what I feel for him, but'—and the colour receded from her cheek—'there is a serious difference of opinion between us, so serious that, were it the only obstacle, it would still, I am afraid, be a barrier we could not pass. He is an agnostic.'

Mrs. Gird's countenance had changed momentarily during this speech, but she now sat up with a great deal of cheerfulness. 'So'm I,' she said; 'so's every one, or something akin to it. What does it matter?'

Eve shook her head. 'Don't you see,' she said, 'that a difference of that kind is vital; that nothing can overcome it; that it must ultimately drive us apart as completely as the poles, as well in this world as the next? One may agree to differ on a thousand subjects, but not on this one; one may change one's page 195opinions on a thousand points, but not on this. For this goes to the root. Other differences depend on the point of view, on the soundness of the reasoning, but this is beyond reason; it involves the fate of our souls, and may not be disregarded.'

'Stay a moment, young lady,' said Mrs. Gird shrewdly. 'I believe a few minutes back you confessed that theologically you were unsound, that your faith was weak and your credulity gone in the wind; that, I think, was the flippant manner in which you described your religious shortcomings. Am I to understand that, in the face of this difference—which, mind you, is vital—between yourself and Mr. Fletcher, you are debating whether or no you should immolate that gentleman on the altar of marriage?'

But Eve was not to be bantered from her train of reasoning. 'If I have confessed that I am not so firm in my beliefs as I would desire to be,' she said, 'I know at least that a marriage with Mr. Fletcher, whatever disadvantages it might otherwise possess, would place me beyond the possibility of any further retrogression.'

'And Mr. Fletcher is willing to take the risk of himself falling from his high estate? But of course he is. And you? Might it not by the same reasoning be counted as righteousness on your part to lend a helping hand to poor Geoffrey?'

Eve smiled reflectively and a soft light grew up in her eyes.

'However,' Mrs. Gird went on quickly, 'we can deal with the obstacles better when they are all before us. Now for the second.'

'The second?'

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'I understood you to say there was more than one. Let us have the whole case against Geoffrey Hernshaw, and then we will take the items seriatim.'

Eve moved uneasily, her mind busy with the scene of the morning. Again she saw the figure of the strange man, erect on the verandah, his eyes glittering, his face full of a triumphant mockery. Again she heard the fatal passionate words that seemed to breathe in one breath love and despair. 'The compassion you might extend to any hunted creature.' Hunted! Her cheeks grew hot. What story that was not shameful could account for that word? If there were not guilt in Geoffrey's countenance, there was mastery in the face of the other. Then the evident shrinking from her questions; the complete silence he had maintained as to the incident, and its singular effect upon him. Was it fear? Afraid, and of a man! In a country where, through the primitiveness of their lives, all men are of necessity compelled to face danger in one shape or another, it is only to be expected that the natural aversion of women to pusillanimity in the opposite sex should be accentuated beyond the ordinary, and the mere thought that the man she loved allowed himself to be held in subjection by another brought a curl of contempt to the girl's lips, while it brought also a pang of distress to her heart. Yet surely the thought did him an injustice. Afraid he may have been, but not with any mere physical fear.

Mrs. Gird awaited in silence the result of the girl's reverie, her eyes scanning her face with wondering curiosity.

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'I know of no other obstacle,' Eve said at last; 'but I have reason to think there is something I might consider one if I knew it. That sounds ungenerous, I know, but I cannot help it; the suspicion has been forced upon me.'

'What reason?' Mrs. Gird asked, surprised.

'I doubt if I ought to mention it even to you, Mrs. Gird,' Eve replied hesitatingly. 'My discovery of its existence was an accident, and the discovery was not pleasing to Mr. Hernshaw. If,' she added slowly, 'it concerns something he desires to conceal, I have certainly no right to speak of it even to my nearest and dearest.'

'Pooh,' said Mrs. Gird, 'there is nothing wrong with Geoffrey. I will wager the thing is a mare's nest; that it can be explained in a few words. But I'm all in the dark. It seems you trust neither of us, and at least we have this in common, that we are your lovers.'

'I will trust you, Mrs. Gird,' the girl said, with more resolution; 'and the mere fact that I do so should be an indication that I trust him. It was this morning, while we were passing M'Gregor's store, that the thing happened. There was a man there, a stranger—but I cannot explain it. He knew Mr. Hernshaw; he seemed to denounce and challenge him, and Mr. Hernshaw knew him, recognised him. There was nothing said, but there was an effect of something said which, had it been spoken, would have been dreadful to hear. Do I give you an idea of the scene? Mr. Hernshaw seemed to shrink away as though from a blow—that was at first. Afterwards he looked straight at the man and passed him without a word. But it is page 198hopeless to try and make you understand the effect it all had on me. I was so startled that I spoke without thinking, and it was then Mr. Hernshaw alluded to himself as hunted. I believe I made an effort to discover what he meant. I gave him an opportunity to explain the scene, but he did not do so. That is all—except that the stranger was not alone. Andersen was with him.'

'Andersen,' Mrs. Gird exclaimed sharply. 'And this happened at M'Gregor's store. What was the appearance of the man?'

'He was a dreadful creature — cruel and vindictive-looking; but I seem only to remember his eyes.'

'Fair or dark?'

'Fair. Yes, I recollect, he had a brown beard.' Mrs. Gird's eyes wore an introspective look. 'It is curious at least,' she said musingly; 'but don't let us jump to conclusions. After all, there are a thousand things which a man might find a difficulty in explaining to a girl. Even the best of men—even your paragon of virtue, Mr. Fletcher, might not be disposed to have his past laid bare in every particular. And Geoffrey is a good fellow, isn't he?—a warm-hearted, sensitive, intelligent, sweet-tempered man. They're not common, my dear, and sometimes that sort gets into scrapes quite easily. Supposing—it is only a supposition—there had been something in his life which we, no less than his present self, would prefer not to have been, shall we ignore the present and remember only the past?'

'That depends,' said Eve slowly. 'There are some things it would be impossible to forget,'

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'No doubt, and do not regard me as a special pleader on behalf of what is criminal and vicious; but the sins impossible of forgiveness are not for Geoffrey Hernshaw.'

There was a note of reproof in the elder woman's voice, and the girl recognised it with a heightening of colour.

'After all, Mr. Hernshaw's affairs are no concern of mine,' she said; then with a sudden surrender she cried: 'Oh, why am I so hard, so cruel, so suspicious!'

Mrs. Gird knew and smiled tenderly upon her, but she offered no explanation.

'Come into the house,' she said; 'I have something to show you.'

Eve rose and followed her hostess. In the bedroom she came to a standstill and pointed to a picture on the wall. It was a small engraving, such as might cover the page of an illustrated paper. To the right and at the back, infantry and horsemen were moving forward in extended order, men falling and shells breaking overhead as they moved. To the left the trenches of the enemy, the point of attack, belched forth a torrent of lead. In the foreground was a peasant, an aged man, ploughing with a team of horses. His hands, holding the reins, knotted themselves strongly round the haft; his calm eyes looked straight ahead.

'How singular!' said Eve. 'What does it mean?'

'Common-sense, my dear,' said Mrs. Gird.