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The Toll of The Bush

Chapter XXI The Dividing of the Ways

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Chapter XXI The Dividing of the Ways

It is doubtful whether at this time Mr. Fletcher still entertained the conviction as to the result of his love-making which he had expressed to Eve on the occasion of his first proposal. There had been much in the interval to create doubt even in a mind of unusual determination, and it is not conceivable that a man of Mr. Fletcher's character should allow himself to dwell for any length of time in a fool's paradise.

To begin with, the frankness and pleasure with which the young girl had been wont to meet and welcome his visits were things of the past, and it was rather as a guest than a master that he was now received by the fair mistress of Wairangi. Religion had always formed the staple of conversation between them, but there had been little diversions into mundane subjects full of charm for the man. Eve had a twin capacity for radiance. She had the radiance of an angel when some chord of her spiritual nature was touched and a radiance of sheer wickedness, responding to motives less exalted. Both were alike fascinating, and the clergyman and page 225the man basked delighted in their respective beams. But now when they were alone religion took entire command. However the conversation might begin, a few steps carried it into the midst of a theological discussion. Religion stormed and carried by assault the most unlikely situations. It diffused itself through the atmosphere; the very landscape became saturated; finally, even Mr. Fletcher rebelled.

'Religion is not everything,' he said once in uncontrollable impatience, the man in him aware of something more immediately desirable.

'Oh yes, it is,' said Eve quickly; 'everything. There is nothing of any importance but that.'

It was a common remark of hers; and Mr. Fletcher was silent, for in a different sense he recognised that there was nothing else. Why, by his precipitancy, had he lost command of that one weapon? For the command was gone. It was no longer master and pupil, authoritative and respectfully recipient; it was no longer high discourse based on sacred and not-to-be-disputed texts. It was war—war without prospect of truce. Eve brought up her big guns and planted them fair in the open, where the masked batteries of the enemy put them quickly out of action.

'But you refuse to examine your side of the case. Don't you see how unfair that is? You tear science to pieces, but you refuse to stand or fall by anything yourself.'

'It has been said that a little learning takes us away from God, but a great deal brings us back to Him.'

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'Yes, I know. I could believe that. But does it bring us back to the same God?'

Sometimes religious zeal would prompt the parson to other tactics. He would rise and pour down upon her the wrath of the Church, thundering of the sin of blasphemy and the damnation that awaited the unbeliever, and Eve would sit still, stunned and crushed, white and silent. Mr. Fletcher appeared at his best in those moments; his strong figure full of an unconscious dignity, his resonant voice, his flashing eyes, all combining to make a picture of the beautiful and the terrible. But at the end, when he beheld his handiwork, his passion reacted upon himself, and only by the fiercest effort of will could he refrain from taking the girl in his arms and again offering her the support of his own unquestioning faith.

That his faith was unquestioning, there could be no doubt. Argument, irony, plain reasoning, glanced from that impervious shield and left no mark. Eve, looking at him incredulously, fancied often that he had not heard, but he showed all the outward signs of listening attentively. On the subject of his own beliefs he refused to argue, and when he spoke it was with the voice and in the exalted language of the priest. As for the girl's smattering of science and her logic, a few words sufficed in most instances to demolish them.

'The whole of your reasoning—all knowledge, in fact—depends on the correctness of certain primitive conceptions, as to which proof is impossible. We have established a number of relations, which have apparently held for some time past and hold now, but we cannot argue from the past into the future. page 227Religion is on a different basis. It strikes direct from God to the soul of man. Reasoning cannot take us to it—on the contrary, it must lead us from it. If my religion were capable of being reasoned I should cease to believe in it.'

But though crushed for the time being, the girl returned again and again to the conflict. 'It must be terribly boring for you,' she said; 'and I am really grateful, but there seems to be a strain of what Mrs. Gird calls "horse sense" in me—perhaps you would call it by a harsher name. At any rate, my will has absolutely no power over my beliefs.'

And Mr. Fletcher, recognising that in these discussions lay his only chance of continued intercourse with the girl, suffered and even invited the boredom.

It was symptomatic of Eve's unsettled state of mind that she should argue on the one side with Geoffrey Hernshaw and on the other with Mr. Fletcher, and it was a natural consequence of such action that the two men felt the conflict to be a personal matter. In the girl's arguments they frequently recognised each other's challenge, and at such moments both men alike drew back with repugnance from the conflict. Not on that sacred battle-ground would they fight for intellectual supremacy. And in actual intercourse they refused either to fight or be friends. Their meetings were naturally frequent, for Mr. Fletcher rarely passed the house without calling in, and two or three times a week he would be present at the dinner or tea table. They addressed one another only when not to do so would attract attention, and on other page 228occasions their avoidance of a meeting was marked by precautions so elaborate that they sometimes drew the notice of others. Major Milward had, indeed, on one occasion been startled to observe both men turn back when in the act of approaching him from different points, and Sandy once deeply offended the dignity of the parson by suggesting with preternatural solemnity that they should resort to the concealment of a tree trunk while the storekeeper went by.

It has already been said that the religious revival which had given Mr. Fletcher such a hold on the attention of the district had lapsed considerably from its original fervour, and it may be added that the parson's enthusiasm in the making of converts had waned also. Man, be his profession what it may, is incapable of sustaining two passions at a white-heat, and Mr. Fletcher, strong as were his convictions, was no exception to this rule. The movement had lapsed partly because its originator had allowed it to do so. It was probably true, as Mrs. Gird had once plainly told him, that not even an archangel could effect the permanent conversion of the county, but a good deal less than an archangel might have held its attention longer. Thus the meetings on the beach, at first held daily, had dwindled to two a week, and it was only on the Sunday afternoons, and not invariably then, that Eve was present to take part.

But while the one passion faded the other grew, finally assuming proportions alarming even to its victim. For who could say whether the visitation were of God or the devil? Were his thoughts turned overwhelmingly in the one direction in order page 229that this brand might be snatched from the burning? Or—thought to be hurried over rapidly—was he not rather on the verge of a pit that should engulf his soul past hope?

It was while this self-conflict raged at its height that he came from the sunlight into the darkened room, and recognising his visitor, stood like a man turned to stone.

For he knew that he had reached the dividing of the ways, that the choice, whether for good or evil, was to be set before him, past his power to refuse. Not to all men, never twice to any man, is given that deliberate selection of his earthly fate, and a man may well pause, stricken into stillness by the supreme character of the issues that confront him. The accumulations of habit and heredity are responsible for the life-drift of the majority of mankind; only to one strong nature here and there does Destiny hand the keys of his future, thrusting upon him, will he nill he, the blood-guiltiness or honour of his days.

Mr. Wickener came forward, holding out his hand in friendly greeting. 'You have not forgotten me,' he asked,—'Wickener?'

'By no means,' Mr. Fletcher returned. 'But I am astonished to see you. Pray be seated. Or, rather, come into my study; it is a little more—cheerful there.'

In the study the diffused daylight came in unchecked, and the two men looked steadily at one another before they sat down.

'It is a long cry from Kensington to River-mouth,' Mr. Wickener said lightly, 'and you are page 230naturally surprised to see me dropping in like this; but life is full of similar coincidences.'

'Is this a coincidence?' Mr. Fletcher asked doubtfully.

'So far as concerns you, yes. It is only a day or two ago that I dropped on the idea that you were—yourself, so to speak, and I came over at once.'

Mr. Fletcher bowed, but said nothing.

There was a little electrically charged silence; then Wickener brushed away the papers on the table before him and leant forward.

'It is no coincidence in Hernshaw's case, however.'

Mr. Fletcher lifted a paper-knife, looked absently at the handle, and laid it down again. His lips moved, then closed in a sharp line; but he did not look up, nor did he speak.

'A restful spot this,' the other said, leaning back with a weary smile. 'It is a pity that human passions must come to disturb its serenity. By the way, you agree with me on the necessity?'

'Pardon me——'

'Now, Fletcher, I speak to you as a man. I have not travelled twelve thousand miles to obtain the advice of a priest. You were saying——'

The clergyman shrugged his shoulders and returned to the examination of the paper-knife.

'And I understand that Wairangi is a spot even more restful. An oasis in this brutal world, where one might well hope that the past should die and be forgotten.'

'You have seen Hernshaw?'

'I have. We exchanged recognitions on the page 231road. It struck me he was looking well—improved. No doubt the climate is admirable. There is a marked increase in robustness about yourself.'

Mr. Fletcher made an impatient movement with his hand. 'Come to the point,' he said. 'I presume you are not here to congratulate us on our improved appearance; and my time is not absolutely valueless.'

'This is the point. You know the affair between Hernshaw and myself. As I have already mentioned, I have not travelled twelve thousand miles for nothing. The scenery of this remote spot is magnificent, but I am not here to admire it; the people are hospitable, but I am not here to take advantage of them; I have come, vulgarly speaking, for vengeance.'

'What do you propose to do?'

'Now you come to the point indeed. It is on that very question that I desire to consult you.'

'Me! By what right do you propose to consult me?'

'By the right that you dare not stand by and see the woman you love wedded to a scoundrel.'

'No doubt your information as to my sentiments has been carefully verified,' Mr. Fletcher said drily.

'Do you deny its correctness?' Wickener retorted, and the clergyman was silent.

'We have advanced thus far then,' Wickener went on, returning to his previous placidity of manner. 'It remains now to discuss the affair in detail. I have gathered that the young lady in this case is good-looking and an heiress—circumstances likely to appeal to a man of Hernshaw's stamp—and he is consequently deeply enamoured. Also I am informed that the prospects of a successful page 232termination to his suit are hopeful, and altogether the moment appears to be propitious for the striking of a decisive blow. As to whose shall be the actual hand that cuts him down I am indifferent, and if it will advantage you in any way to be the instrument of vengeance, so be it; the hand shall be yours.'

'Wickener, how dare you!'

'I dare,' said Mr. Wickener calmly, 'for two reasons. In the interests of justice—one; in the interests of a fair and innocent lady—two. Who so fitted as the servant of God to administer the one; who more suited than the lover to safeguard the other?'

'No, no, Wickener! Never! What assurance have I that this man has done you a wrong—what assurance have you?'

'The confession of the woman who was once my wife. This is an exacting world, but a man needs no more than that. He could do, indeed, with less. There was my two years' absence in China; there was the confidence I reposed in him: these provided the opportunities. As for the guilt, the evidence was plain, damnably plain; then the man makes a bolt for the Antipodes, the woman confesses.'

'All this might be capable of explanation. Wickener, if I had reason to think you were wrong; if I had reason to believe this man innocent of the thing you lay at his door—what then?'

'I should say that your reason misled you,' Mr. Wickener replied, smiling. 'Come, my dear fellow, we are wasting time. Be sure I did not start on an errand of this kind without convincing proofs of his guilt. If you can blot out the past, you can make him innocent; short of that, he stands as vile a page 233thing as God ever made and the devil guided. Even as it is, action may be too late. The girl may marry him in spite of all. For love women do desperate things no less than men. But now, at this instant, the game is in our hands. The man for some reason has hesitated—still hesitates, but in a few hours it may be too late or vastly more difficult. Now is the hour.'

Mr. Fletcher half rose to his feet, then settled himself again in his chair. His face was set in hard, untranslatable lines, as under the control of a fierce effort of will. His eyes were dark and sombre, and in their depths glowed momentarily the lightning flashes of encountering emotions, the spirits of good and evil at war for his soul.

For a long while neither man moved: a complete stillness held the little room. The slumberous drone of the bar, dull, unceasing, remote, seemed but to accentuate the silence: to throw it forward, to give to it a mystic and imperishable entity as of another Presence. Wickener watched his companion with glittering eyes, and slowly at last, and as it seemed fiercely, the other turned and looked at him.

'What do you propose?' the minister asked hoarsely.

Wickener moistened his lips and drew forward to the table. 'Go to her and tell her the story as you know it. From you it will meet with implicit credence, while from myself it might encounter doubt and misbelief. There is the complete proposal.'

'Very well, I will do it.'

Mr. Wickener leant back and looked thoughtfully at his companion. 'It is the simplest way,' he said. 'The task is not one that a man would covet—to page 234destroy faith in a fellow-creature, to shatter the roseate bubble of dawning love—but I do not delegate the task for that reason, but solely that the work may be immediate and complete. I thank you for your compliance, but as I have said, a minister of God is the most fitting——'

Mr. Fletcher raised his hand with a fierce imperativeness. 'I have stated my willingness to comply with your wishes,' he said sternly; 'we will not discuss the reasons that have actuated me.'

Mr. Wickener bowed. 'Then,' he said, rising, 'I need no longer occupy your valuable time.'

Mr. Fletcher rose absently with deeply introspective eyes.

'I take it you will not delay?' his visitor said, pausing in the doorway.

The minister looked at him without understanding, then, consciousness returning, he turned away. 'No, I shall not delay,' he said.

Out on the dazzling beach, Mr. Wickener came to a standstill and gazed about him somewhat wearily. Pine and Mallow were gone, but there was a large group of people opposite the hotel, and others were to be seen hastening towards it from the various houses. An air of excitement prevailed and bursts of laughter and cheering issued from the crowd. Speculating on the reason for this abrupt transformation in the sleepy little township, Mr. Wickener was moving forward to make inquiries, when he was startled by a loud clash of cymbals close behind him, and the Maori band, bare-footed and in rags, their eyes rolling, marched past to the stirring strain of 'The Soldiers of the Queen.'

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Great news had come to hand. A New Zealand contingent, after heroic forced marches, had seized Pretoria. The British army, with the baggage, was believed to be somewhere in the immediate neighbourhood.