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The Toll of The Bush

Chapter II The Brothers

page 11

Chapter II The Brothers

The home of Geoffrey and Robert Hernshaw was a weatherboard shell, divided into three rooms by-rough wooden partitions. It possessed a brick fireplace and chimney—one of the two contained in the settlement—and was further remarkable in having three windows and being floored throughout. The furniture was scanty, comprising nothing but the barest necessaries. There were two stretchers in the bedroom, a table, a few wooden chairs and some cooking utensils in the kitchen. The third room, which also contained a stretcher, appeared to be used for the storage of anything not immediately required in the other parts of the house. The main door opened direct into the kitchen, and the first thing likely to strike a visitor was the fact that the opening of the door caused the chimney to smoke violently.

The smell of recent cooking had not quite left the kitchen. A Rochester lamp stood on the table. Robert was seated on a box in a corner scraping a few pieces of gum, which had turned up in the process of digging a vegetable garden. Occasionally page 12he looked thoughtfully at his brother, who was moving restlessly about the small room, giving vent now and then to a smothered exclamation as though his thoughts were too many for him.

'You never opened that last English paper, Geoff,' he said at last.

'Didn't I?' and Geoffrey coming to a standstill looked absently at his brother; then he resumed his restless movements.

'It's over there in the corner, under the oatmeal,' Robert said presently.

Geoffrey looked hazily in the direction indicated, then crossed over, pulled the paper from its resting-place, and tearing it open sat resolutely down at the table, and glared steadfastly at a picture purporting to portray a minor incident in the Boer war. He was still staring at it when, a quarter of an hour later, Robert, having finished his gum, came to look over his shoulder. Geoffrey turned a few pages hurriedly and found a fresh picture.

'"Re-inforcements leaving South-ampton,"' read Robert slowly. 'That's London, I suppose.'

Geoffrey paused before replying, and there was something of irritation in his voice as he answered: 'Your admiration for London rather carries you away, Robert. That city does not embrace the whole of England. If you could really grasp the fact that London is the capital of England and not vice versa, that would be a step towards the understanding of many things at present concealed from you. And, by the way, Elizabeth is dead.'


'You remember my alluding to Queen Elizabeth and your asking me whether she was dead. She has page 13been dead, as a matter of fact, about three hundred years.'

Robert sat down. 'It's a good job there was no one about when I asked you,' he said, with an uneasy laugh. 'But it's not exactly my fault that I am so ignorant. I don't think that I ever really had time to learn things. There was always something: what with father being sick and that—and no money in the house most times, except the bit I was able to pick up.'

Geoffrey let his hand fall on his brother's. 'I am a brute,' he said, flushing. 'Every word you say is true and a thousand more. God forgive me, old chap; you are worth a hundred such wretches as I! I have had all the good things of life and made nothing of them, while you have had to remain content with the crumbs.' He rose and resumed his pacing of the roam. 'If there were any way of escape,' he muttered. 'Is this to go on all our lives? For that's the devil of it—in a few years we shall cease to care, like every one else. Look at the beggars up in the township. A lot of young-old men, half of them bachelors, living a life of drift and satisfied. If I am to be content with such a life I should prefer to die now, while the lust for something better is gnawing my heart out. Are you content with the prospect?' he asked suddenly, facing his brother.

Robert looked ponderingly at the wall in front of him. 'I was telling you about Thomas's place,' he said slowly; 'but that's not the only one, and they all say the same thing. They stuck to it year after year, and the life was hard, there's no denying, but in the end they—got—there.' page 14'I see,' said Geoffrey, seating himself and watching his brother's face.

'There was Major Milward,' Robert resumed, in the same slow, calculating manner, as though possessed of an anxiety to say what was in his thoughts to the best of his ability; 'he used to tell me about it during the three years I was working for him before you came out. It was fifty years ago that he built his first whare on the sand-bank where he lives now. It is a long time, but in fifty years you would be no older than he is now. He didn't have a great deal of money—just a few hundreds. He got hold of things slowly—kauri1 bushes and that, and every now and then he put in a few trees, and branded a few calves, and added a room or two to the house. He kept on growing, and it didn't take as long as I said—not by a generation; he's been a rich man longer'n we've been alive. Yes, and he's given away more'n we've ever owned besides. And he's lived well and had the best of everything up from Auckland—wine and that; and he's been home in England, and most of his family have been there, and I guess he's got enough left to do all our fencing at one pop, and the bank'ld never notice he'd done it. Yet I'm not saying fifty years isn't a terrible time to look forward to,' he concluded a little lamely, turning an apologetic glance from the wall to the other's face.

Geoffrey sat watching him in a sort of fascination, and for awhile nothing was said.

Robert, if he had expected an outbreak, was page 15perhaps agreeably surprised when Geoffrey's next remark showed his thoughts to have slipped into another channel.

'There's that box of books in the other room. It's a pity we can't put up a few shelves for them—or would it be better to wait till the place is lined?'

'The rain does leak through the walls some when the wind's blowing; but perhaps the corner by the fireplace would do as it is.'

Geoffrey rose, measured the corner with his eye, glanced at one or two other possible positions for the library, then lit a candle and went away into the storeroom.

The place was in great disorder, and bore the appearance of having had its contents pitched in through a doorway only sufficiently opened to effect that object, and Geoffrey's new-born enthusiasm was slightly damped by the spectacle. However, he set down the light, took off his coat, and looked resolutely about him. The box he was in search of stood in one corner, and had been used as a suitable spot on which to deposit such articles as a camp oven, a bag of staples, a couple of rusty ploughshares and other miscellaneous ironmongery. Geoffrey removed them one by one, and having returned to the outer room for a bunch of keys, unlocked the box. Some stout oiled paper covered the top, and beneath were the books carefully packed away, as though by a hand that loved them. He remembered that it was almost exactly a year since he had placed the last volume in position, and the thought of the life that closed with the closing lid lay heavy on his heart as he gazed. But it was page 16not a book, he now remembered, that was the last thing to be put away; it was this bundle of letters, some of them dating back nearly twenty years. He pulled one out at random and, still on his knees before the box, began to read.

He was busily reading when, over an hour later, Robert put his head in at the door to remind him of the necessity for sleep.

What Geoffrey saw in the letters may be more conveniently put before the reader in narrative form.

More than twenty years before Robert Hernshaw, senior, journalist, having come within measureable distance of grasping one of the plums of his profession—it seemed he had but to stretch out his hand to attain it—was brought up standing by the verdict of his family physician. The latter diagnosed lung trouble of a serious nature, and put before his patient the alternative of a short life in London, or restored health and a prospect of longevity in a kindlier climate. Hernshaw, when he had become convinced that the alternatives were real, left the solution of the problem to his wife, merely expressing his own preference for the present order of things at whatever cost. But Mrs. Hernshaw decided differently. And so it came about that husband and wife sailed for New Zealand, leaving their only child, Geoffrey, then a boy of seven, in the care of his paternal uncle, after whom he had been named. Shortly after reaching their new home their second son, Robert, was born to them.

Having relinquished the prospect of power and page 17comparative affluence for the sake or an increase in years, Robert Hernshaw determined that it should not be through any action of his if the price of the relinquishment went unpaid. He had been told that an active outdoor life was demanded of him, and he was determined that the demand should be met. So when Mrs. Hernshaw proposed that they should make their home in a pleasant suburb of one of the larger towns, and that he should continue in the practice of his profession, Hernshaw at once vetoed the idea. Instead, he bought a piece of land in the Auckland district and settled down to make a living by the sweat of his brow. He had too lately emerged from the barren places of his profession to have accumulated much money, and his knowledge of his new pursuit would have been ludicrous if it had not been tragic in its inadequacy—the result was a foregone conclusion. All might yet have been well, even though his capital was exhausted, had his nature showed any signs of rooting itself in the new soil. But it was not so. The manual labour, the people with whom he was brought in contact, the very air and aspect of his adopted country, were alike repugnant to him. The scorn of his surroundings accompanied him throughout the days; and after some years the old malady, scotched for the time, again came to life, and added its torments to the general misery. Then the morbid brooding developed into a sort of madness. He was seized with a fierce resentment at destiny. He accused the heavens of treachery, as though his action in coming to New Zealand had been the result of a compact with God. In this persuasion he died miserably, supported towards the end by page 18the efforts of the wife and child whom, in his self-absorption, he had neglected.

Robert at this time was fourteen years of age, and had been brought up almost entirely without schooling. His mother had taught him to read and write and solve simple problems in arithmetic, but beyond this the only knowledge he possessed had been derived haphazard from the conversation of those about him. For seven or eight months mother and son were dependent largely on the charity of Major Milward, the pioneer settler of the district, and then the woman, worn out by the long trouble, sickened and died. It is probable that the sufferings of the wife had been little if any less keen than those of the husband, but she made no sign—not even when she lay dying with her arms round the neck of her beloved boy. 'It will be better for you, my darling,' was the one tacit acknowledgment she made that life had been a failure. And though the boy did not believe it then or afterwards, it may be that she was right. Life did in fact improve for him immediately. Major Milward, who had entertained a sort of half-tolerant, half-contemptuous pity for the father, showed only pity for the son. He made an opening for him on the station, and when finally, at the age of nineteen, Robert left to join his brother, he carried nothing but good wishes with him.

Far removed from contact with this sordid drama, Geoffrey meanwhile had grown up into manhood. The change which meant so much to his parents affected him not at all. From the comforts of his own home he passed easily to those of his uncle's well-appointed house, in whose serene atmosphere page 19he found none but the pleasant things of life. Though not exactly a wealthy man, Mr. Hernshaw was an extremely generous one. Having taken over the charge of the boy, he at once placed him on a footing of absolute equality with his own children, and so naturally was this accomplished that neither as a child nor a man could Geoffrey recall one instance of a distinction being made between him and his cousins. He received the same public-school training, the same holidays, the same allowance of pocket-money. His scholastic career, though showing no brilliance, was well above the average, and if the youth revealed no instinctive leaning towards any particular pursuit or profession, he at least showed a power of doing a number of very dissimilar things remarkably well. It was this very versatility that went against him in the end. His uncle, keeping a keen eye on his family, at once seized on any bent in his children which seemed to give a prospect of being profitably employed, but Geoffrey puzzled him. The youth, having visited a picture gallery, would come home full of the idea of painting a picture himself. With a liberal allowance of pocket-money, he was able to gratify any whim immediately on its occurrence, and he would set to work. In a space of time incredibly short, considering everything, he would have something to show the family, and whatever may have been its real merits, it was at least sufficient to convince Mr. Hernshaw that he had at last discovered his nephew's bent. But in the course of a month or so—or when, to speak precisely, Geoffrey had learned enough to know that his labours were only on the point of commencing—he would begin to lose ardour, page 20and very shortly thereafter the implements of his art would find their way to the lumber-room. This was a course of things which repeated itself again and again.

'Do you think you would care to study painting?' his uncle would ask.

'It would take some time, sir, and cost a good deal of money.'

'Well, that's all right; you find the time and I'll find the money.'

'It's very good of you, sir,' Geoffrey would say, and promise to think the thing over. That was the end of it.

Whether it were that there was an ineradicable defect in the young man's nature, or merely that his character was slow in developing, was hard to say, but the years crept by and left the problem still unsolved. If he had any taste to which he returned more frequently than another it was for literature. From his boyhood he had been in the habit of scribbling verses and tales for his own amusement, and though there were long intervals between these fits the number of them had given him a certain facility with his pen. His uncle had suggested that he should follow the profession of his father, and Geoffrey consented to give the thing a trial; but this did not last long. He satisfied neither his employers nor himself. The things they wanted done rarely possessed any interest for him, and when his interest was not aroused he was, and felt himself to be, but a dull dog.

'I was talking to Humphreys,' his uncle said at last. 'He seems to think you are wasting your time.'

page 21

'I'm sure of it,' said Geoffrey.

'Ah, well, I suppose we had better give it up and try something else. Humphreys tells me he thinks you might succeed in light literature. How does the idea strike you?'

'I fancy it would be preferable to the heavy, if the heavy is what I have been attempting so far.'

His uncle looked serious, and after a moment got up and paced thoughtfully up and down the room. The nephew noticed that some haggard lines that had lately come into the elder man's face were more pronounced than usual. 'I am willing to give it a trial, sir,' he said.

'Yes, but what I am anxious to find out is not what you are willing to attempt to oblige me, but what you are desirous of doing yourself, because time is going on and the matter is—important.' He came to a standstill and looked down on his nephew, his face working under the stress of some inward emotion. 'I have tried, my boy,' he said, 'to obtain and deserve your confidence.'

'Oh, sir,' said Geoffrey, springing to his feet, deeply moved, 'all my life I have looked up to you as the best and most generous of men.'

'I have endeavoured to make no difference between you and your cousins. When I die you will find that what I have is divided equally amongst all of you. I had already made up my mind to that when I first undertook the charge of you, and the only thing which could have made me alter my intention was the chance of your father's success in New Zealand. I never thought he would succeed, and as a fact he did not. From what Robert tells us he appears to have left very little.' Mr. Hernshaw page 22paused a moment and collected his thoughts. 'I have mentioned this for a reason you will see presently. Of late I have had losses; they have been long continued and severe, and though I believe I have weathered the worst and am now beginning to make headway again, yet, as a fact, I am a poorer man than I was fifteen or twenty years ago. At one time the fact of your having no occupation would perhaps not have greatly mattered, though to my mind every man is strengthened in character by making a living for himself; but now things are different, and though the means of subsistence are secured to you all, there is not, I am afraid, at this moment very much more.' Mr. Hernshaw concluded with an apologetic and anxious glance at his nephew.

Whatever Geoffrey's defects were, his heart at least was sound, and he was genuinely touched at the elder man's generosity and unselfishness, and could not but reflect that the losses so quietly referred to must have been a source of long-standing and wearing anxiety to his uncle. But the effect of the confidence was not what Mr. Hernshaw had expected or desired at the time it was made. The young man's placid acceptance of the existing order of things had in fact suffered disturbance, but the result was not apparently the creation of anxiety as to his own future, but the desire to relieve his uncle of the cost of his support.

It was at this juncture that a letter came to hand from Robert descriptive of his life at Major Milward's, and full of hopes and projects for the future. To Geoffrey it seemed like the opening of a direct path through a maze, and his resolve was quickly taken.

page 23

Then began a long and strenuous struggle with his uncle, his aunt, and his cousins. The girls promised him a Maori wife, and to arouse his aversion to such a lot appeared before him in petticoats, their hair dishevelled, whereat he was struck with admiration and expressed a still keener desire to be gone. The boys characterised the proceeding strongly as 'rotten,' and suggested all manner of harrowing and degrading occupations, which they feigned to believe were preferable to the abandonment of the land of his birth. Mrs. Hernshaw spoke of the grief he was causing his uncle, who, she said, suspected that Geoffrey had taken his confidence as an indirect way of saying he did not care to support him any longer.

Geoffrey fairly laughed at the idea. 'I should know myself an ungrateful scoundrel if such a thought had ever entered my mind,' he said. 'I want to go to New Zealand for my own personal gratification.'

'Is there nothing behind all this? If it were only for a short time! But you do not say that.'

'No, I do not say that; I don't know how that may be.'

That was as far as he would go towards the possibility of a return.

Mr. Hernshaw's objections were those of a man of the world. 'I have always believed,' he said once, 'that the people who succeed in colonial life are the people who would succeed anywhere.'

'Their opportunities may be greater there,' Geoffrey suggested.

'I should doubt it, except on special lines. The opportunities for a clever man in a city of four or page 24five million inhabitants must be enormous. New Zealand has only the population of a London suburb.'

'A man's chances would therefore seem to be proportionately increased.'

'With respect to the area of the country, yes; and were you proposing to ship a few million labourers the argument would be sound; but how does the fact that there are large areas of imperfectly populated country affect your prospects?'

Geoffrey was unable to explain with any clearness. His ideas, it must be confessed, were vague, but there was no vagueness about his determination.

And so it came about that one summer afternoon he stood on the deck of an outward bound steamer and saw the coasts of England fade into the haze.

1 Kauri Dammara australis, the chief timber tree of the North Island.