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The Toll of The Bush

Chapter XX On The Beach

page 213

Chapter XX On The Beach

The bloom of enthusiasm had worn off the religious revival at Rivermouth; there had even been a considerable backsliding. As a fire cannot be kept going without fuel, so an enthusiasm of this nature fails when the supply of converts is exhausted. The Maoris were the first to drop off; singly and in twos and threes they retired yawning and in search of fresh excitement. The band seceded in a body. It was in this way.

One of its prominent members having occasion to visit the Kaipara chanced on the farewelling of a contingent on its way to South Africa. The little town of Helensville was lavishly decorated in honour of che event. The heroes of the hour (six in number) were being triumphantly conducted to the railway station amid the cheers of the crowd and the braying of the local brass band.

What was that martial, that divine air? The dusky bandsman's heart bounded in his breast. He also was a patriot. He also was prepared to meet the hereditary foe Kruger in single combat. Great feelings entail action.

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The bandsman stepped forward into line, placed his instrument to his lips, struck the right note and launched impromptu on 'The Soldiers of the Queen, my lads.' It was the triumph of music over matter. For two days he remained in the township, studying the new airs, then he returned home.

The band met that night; the new music was played and received with delirious enthusiasm.

'Boys,' said the Prominent Bandsman, amid the wildest excitement, 'religion no good. That the ol' fashion'd. Patriotisnt!—that the ferra!'

And patriotism, as exemplified in martial airs, was the vogue from that hour.

Pine, who, through his conversion taking place somewhat late in the day, had never joined the band, was left out in the cold by these manoeuvres of his tribesmen. He had had the foresight to repress any religious cravings on the part of his family, and thus while the less thoughtful of the converts were growing daily leaner and sadder, he remained cheerful and well fed. Clothes, however, were another matter, not forthcoming without money. Pine's boots had reached that stage of decrepitude when repairs become no longer possible. Something had to be done and soon. He stood for some time outside the local boot shop, gazing longingly on the numerous specimens of the shoemaker's handicraft exposed for sale. The prices were marked in plain figures, but how to obtain the sums mentioned was not so clear. Pine, however, was never lacking in courage, and after one or two glances through the open shop door, he walked cheerfully in and seated himself in the workshop.

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Howell was quite accustomed to being watched at his work, so he merely glanced over his spectacles at his visitor and went on with what he was doing.

Pine watched the deft ringers with little clicks of admiration. 'By gorry!' he exclaimed at last. 'Te pest ferra you makit te poot.'

'Good boots, eh?' said Howell.

'Te pest! You makit all dese poots?'

'Every man Jack of them,' said the shoemaker, not uninfluenced by the other's admiration.

'I tink you te pest pootmaker. Dese other ferra makit te poot no good. You te pest, I tink so.'

He got softly to his feet, and with many ejaculations of astonishment and admiration perambulated the shop, feeling the leather and expatiating on the ingenuity of the pakeha1 at every step. At length he came to a standstill before a pair of watertights.

'Num'er ten, I s'pose so,' he remarked.

'Tens, yes.'

'I tink dese poots fit me,' Pine said tentatively.

'Just about your size, I should say,' replied Howell, sharpening his knife to cut a fresh strip of leather.

Pine kicked off his uppers and squeezed himself slowly down into the watertights. 'Te pest!' he remarked when the feat was accomplished. 'How you look?'

'First-rate! Couldn't fit you better if they were made for you.'

'I tink I take dese poots,' said Pine. 'How much the utu2?'

'Thirteen and six.'

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'Py crikey, te sheap poot! Dirteen and hikipene! I s'pose one poun'.'

'No,' said Howell, with a virtuous shake of the head. 'Thirteen and sixpence is the price.'

'Py gorry, te gooroo poot for te little money! I tink I take dese poots. I pay to-morrow.'

'No, you don't,' said Howell. 'You pay now.'

'No money dis time,' said Pine; 'but s'pose to-morrow—ah, prenty money!' He waved his hand to indicate the magnitude of the revenues that were falling due to him at the time mentioned.

Howell picked up a thumbful of sprigs. 'No money, no boots,' he said inflexibly.

Pine sat down on the bench, and extending his legs, regarded the watertights critically.

'I tink too small,' he said presently.

'I can stretch them for you,' suggested the bootmaker.

'If stretch, I tink soon bust. No gooroo te leather, p'r'aps so. You makit all dese poots?' he inquired coldly, casting an indifferent glance round the shop.

Howell admitted the charge.

Pine shook his head. 'No good your poot,' he said. 'If wet, soon bust; if dry, too hard. I tink no one puy dese poots. Why you make more?'

The shoemaker's little eyes shone fiercely over his spectacles.

'S'pose half-crown,' said Pine finally; 'ah, I take!'

'Go away,' said Howell, incensed.

Pine removed the watertights, clicked disparagingly over them, and resumed the tenancy of his own property; then, with a final glance of dis-page 217favour at the shoemaker's wares, he lounged into the street.

It was mid-day, without a cloud to intercept the intensity of the sun's beams, nor a breath of wind to temper them. The river lay like a sheet of glass, returning tint for tint the colours of the sky. Some distance off the shore a yacht lay becalmed, her white sails spread in invitation to the reluctant breeze. The beach was all but deserted. No sound issued from the houses, or through the wide doorways of the stores, or even from the hotel. Only from the schoolhouse among the trees there came a continuous hum, which on long listening developed into singing. On the far end of the beach Mallow was rolling up his fishing-net, which had been spread out to dry in the sun. All the activity of the township seemed vested in his sole person, and as though ashamed of this divergence from his neighbours, he sat down in the middle of his labours and got out a pipe.

Pine meditated joining him, but the beach was long, and he was low-spirited at his recent failure, and so he sat down where he was. The yacht afforded a pleasant resting-place for the gaze of an idle man, and despite the fact of its being becalmed there were more evidences of activity about it than were discoverable elsewhere. Figures were moving about, busying themselves with the ropes, and presently the white sail slid down and disappeared from view. Then a dinghey at the stern was pulled alongside, and two figures stepping into it, it began to make for the shore. The hollow sound of the oars in the rowlocks, and the voices of persons conversing, travelled clearly across the still water. Pine page 218soon identified one of the occupants of the boat. He belonged to the county township, and did the lion's share of carrying on the river. The other man was a stranger. Pine had all the curiosity of his race as to strangers, and rising to his feet, he sauntered down the beach in the direction of the approaching boat, arriving in time to put his hand on it as it reached the shore.

'Hallo, Pine! Good-bye, Mr. Wickener. Start back first streak of daylight in the morning. I'll knock you up at the hotel, unless you care to sleep on board.'

'I should prefer it,' said Mr. Wickener, 'if it would not inconvenience you too much.'

'My troubles. Well, ta-ta. See you again.'

Mr. Wickener turned to find the Maori regarding him with great intentness.

'Your name Wickerer?'

'That is my name,' Mr. Wickener replied, smiling.

'Where you come from dis time?'

Mr. Wickener indicated the upper river.

'You belong-a New Tealan'?'

'No, sir, I am from England.'

Pine regarded him with exhaustive earnestness. 'Where your wife?' he asked.

The Englishman moved restively, but continued smiling.

'You leave your wife up to your place in Inglan'?'

'Really,' said Mr. Wickener, 'your interest in my family affairs is flattering to the verge of embarrassment.'

Pine regarded him with intense thoughtfulness, page 219taking in every peculiarity of his person and every detail of his attire. A sparkle of gold in the Englishman's teeth attracted him, and he craned his neck to obtain a second view. 'You got te false tooth?' he asked, frowning.

Mr. Wickener looked musingly at his inquisitor. 'Now,' he said sotto voce, 'I understand the genesis of "Why, why," "How, how." '

Pine stepped sideways to observe a ring on his victim's finger. Then he subjected him generally to a searching stare that sought to tear the mystery out of him. The very apotheosis of curiosity was in that keen, rolling scrutiny. In its earnestness was summed up all the imperative necessity for knowing on which the existence of his savage ancestry had depended. 'Where you buy that hat?' he asked.

But Mr. Wickener thought it was time to bring the inquisition to a close. 'Where did you buy those boots?' he retorted.

Pine acknowledged the shaft with a backward step and a dusky blush. He had been hit in a. vulnerable place, and he regarded the stranger for the first time with respect.

'Your name is Pine, I think?' said Wickener in his turn.

'Dat my name. All same Inglis' pin.'

'Ah! Hence the pointedness of your attack. Now, let me see. So this is Rivermouth.' The Englishman looked smilingly along the sultry beach.

'That the hotel,' said Pine. 'Dat the good hotel, my word.'

'By all means,' said Wickener amiably. 'Let us go there.'

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'You got te money?' Pine inquired cautiously, with the idea of avoiding misunderstandings.

'I probably have an odd shilling. At any rate, the responsibility of the visit shall be mine.'

Pine led the way for a few steps with alacrity, then came to an abrupt halt, struck by a disconcerting recollection. He had taken the pledge!

'Come along,' said the Tempter, pausing and jingling a pocketful of coins.

Pine saw the necessity for rapid thinking. The pledge had been taken on the impulse of the moment without due forethought. It had never included the possibility that an Englishman with a pocketful of money should offer to shout for him. Plainly the matter had been misrepresented. This was not in the bill. So far as paying for drinks out of his own pocket was concerned, certainly and by all means nothing should exceed the rigour of his teetotalism in that respect, but in this case the responsibility was clearly with the other party.

'All ri',' said Pine cheerfully, 'I come.'

They entered the silent hotel, where, after repeated knocking, some one was found obliging enough to serve them; then they returned to the beach.

'What you do now?' Pine asked.

'Now,' replied the Englishman, 'I have a visit to pay. I want to see Mr. Fletcher.'

'Mita Fretchah!' exclaimed Pine, drawing back. 'My gorry! I tink p'r'aps you tell him I not 'total dis time.'

'I am a pattern of discretion,' Mr. Wickener replied. 'It is possible your name may not be mentioned.'

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'Dat te best,' said Pine innocently. 'Why for you go see Mr. Fretchah?'

Mr. Wickener returned smilingly to the landscape. 'A charming spot,' he said; 'so restful, so Rip-van-Winkleyan. Where does Mr. Fletcher reside?'

'I show you. He live Mr. Mallow's place. That ol' man Mallow along te beach. He te small rangatira but te good fisherman. Some times ago his wife was say: "You go get tree, four schnapper for te brekfas."' Pine cleared his throat and his eyes began to roll. 'When he get out he look an' see he leave all his bait ashore. He only got one small pipi, all same's dis,'—Pine indicated a cockle-shell on the beach with his dilapidated boot toe. 'But ol' man Mallow he te pest fisherman. He tink a big tink, den he say: "Good 'nuf!" First he catch te pakerikeri, dat te small ferra fish, all same's sprat; den te pakerikeri catch te kahuwai an' te kahuwai te good bait mo te schnapper. By'm-by te boat so full, he sit on te side and put out big hook for te shark. Plenty big ferra shark come along dat times an' ol' man Mallow he catch 'em seven an' tie 'em all round te boat. By'm-by Missus Mallow come along down-a beach an' she see ol' man Mallow pull for th' shore like te debil after him an' dirteen big ferra whales comin' in over'm bar. Ol' Mallow he pull an' pull an' soon he tumble out on-a beach like he dang'ously dead. "My glacious!" he say; "dat pipi te strongest bait ever I seen it." He te good fisherman, my word!'

Mr. Wickener nodded his appreciation of the story. 'I have done a little fishing myself,' he said, glancing at the stolid back of Mr. Mallow, page 222who sat over the half-rolled net, his eyes fixed in contemplation on the river. 'So this is the place?'

'I go talk to ol' man Mallow,' Pine said. 'By'm-by I see you again.'

Mr. Wickener was received by Mabel Mallow, who spoke of Mr. Fletcher as absent, but likely to return at any moment. Meantime she invited him into the parlour, gave him a comfortable chair, and adjusted the sun-blind.

'Mr. Fletcher is somewhere in the township,' she said, smiling at the visitor, 'so that he is sure to be back to lunch. It is not often one can speak so certainly about him.'

'Then I am fortunate,' said Mr. Wickener. 'I should be sorry indeed to miss him, having travelled a considerable distance with the express object of seeing him.'

Mabel could think of nothing to say, so she smiled again with additional sweetness and straightened an antimacassar on the sofa.

'I am an old acquaintance of Mr. Fletcher's,' said the gentleman, his eye on the girl's well-proportioned figure; 'though, as I have not seen him for some considerable time, my visit is likely to take him by surprise. I presume he is quite established—one may say domesticated here?'

'It depends on what you mean by domesticated,' Mabel returned roguishly.

'At least,' said Mr. Wickener, smiling, 'a powerful incentive to become so is not lacking.'

No girl had a keener ear for a compliment than Mabel, but she was not anxious just at that moment to allow herself and the parson to be connected in the stranger's mind. She rewarded the speaker page 223with a dazzling glance as she said: 'Mr. Fletcher perhaps finds his incentive a little farther away than Rivermouth.'

'Indeed? 'said Mr. Wickener, pricking up his ears.

'At Wairangi, for instance,' Mabel continued in the same tone.

Mr. Wickener started slightly, and a look of intense reflection gathered in his eyes. 'Just so,' he said musingly,—'just so.'

'There is Mr. Fletcher now,' Mabel cried suddenly, as a shadow passed the window. 'I will tell him you are here.'

Left alone, Mr. Wickener rose, crossed the room once or twice rapidly, his mouth twitching, his eyes glittering. There was something dæmonic and deadly in his tread, and it is probable that Mabel, had she come upon him now, would have had a difficulty in recognising the smiling visitor of a few moments before.

A strong step in the passage brought the restless movements to a standstill, and Mr. Fletcher, hat in hand, appeared in the doorway of the partially darkened room.

'Good day,' said the clergyman. 'I hear you wish to see me.'

Then he looked at his visitor; his sombre, handsome countenance stilled suddenly, and he stood like a man turned to stone.

1 White man.

2 'Potoo': price.