The Toll of The Bush
Chapter XXXIII In the Heart of the Bush
Chapter XXXIII In the Heart of the Bush
Water! What melody breathed in that hitherto unheeded sound! What enchantment in the thing itself! Its coolness, tastelessness—sweeter in imagination than the perfumed wines of Spain. The incomparable quality of it; the delicious flow, quenching the electric stammer of the fevered blood, allaying, satisfying. As a thing to be seen; in diamond dews at rest in the pure cold bosoms of flowers; in leaping cascades, glancing with a fearful magnificence in dusky glens; in the broad, full river, moving glassily, without a murmur. As a thing to be heard; the withdrawing roar of the breakers; the continuous thunder of the rolling bar; the ponderous tread of the cataract; the splash of a body plunging into the elastic depths.
He looked up suddenly from his reverie. In the division of the water he had found it possible to deceive her. Now in his suffering the terrible fear came over him that his abstinence might react to her injury. The thought whipped him to his feet.
'Water is surely to be found somewhere about page 384here,' he said. 'Let us go a little way along the channel and explore.'
And, as though the bush sought to play with its victims, they came presently to the thing they sought. The water lay in a pool at the foot of an abrupt descent, where the winter cataract had worn deep into the rocks. It was both abundant and pure, and when, an hour later, they quitted the brink of the pool they did so with strength and courage renewed.
By this the sun had reached his highest altitude. The heat on the hillside was like that of a hot-house, and reaching the tree at length, they were glad to sit down and rest before the final stage of their journey was attempted.
Then again the struggle began. For hours it was impossible to estimate their progress, no opening, even of a hand's-breadth, permitting them a view of the country they were traversing. So far as was possible where insuperable obstacles to a straight course were for ever occurring they kept to one level, but after awhile, beyond an occasional slight undulation, the suggestion that they were on a hillside vanished, and thenceforward it was but a blind burrowing through the growths. Deeper and deeper they penetrated into the primeval solitudes, where no man had come perchance since the beginning of the world. Nothing they had yet seen equalled in grandeur and beauty the scene they now invaded. Everywhere huge trunks of hoary antiquity rose like ponderous pillars of masonry into the obscurity of the forest roof. Monstrous plants of strange growth and in unnumbered variety choked the earth and wrestled with one another in page 385a fierce battle for life. Overhead, mosses and epiphytes, vines and climbing ferns draped the branches, and lianas and the rugged cables of the rata bound the woods together in a grip of steel. Now and then they burst into a tiny glade sacred to some majestic tree, the record of whose years might serve for the lives not of men but of races. At other times, less fortunate, they came on tangles of bush-lawyer, against whose ferocious claws no strength or agility might avail, and again and again they were driven away in search of easier country.
So in the hopeless struggle the day wore itself away, and again in the mysterious murmur of the leaves they read the signal of approaching darkness.
Late in the afternoon they had been seduced by easy stages into a country of unsurpassable difficulty and gloom. The vast trees still remained, blotting out the sky in a dense interlacing of foliage, but the place of the varied undergrowth had now been taken by one plant—the supple-jack. Casting its black canes from tree to tree, scrambling across the ground, turning and twisting snake-like on itself, this hellish vine added the final touch of horror to the scene. The dead sooty blackness that had displaced the vivid green of fern tree and palm, the distorted and suffocating saplings seeking to break upwards from that pit of terrors, the hideous fungoid growths like huge cancers on the trees, the chill air, the ominous rattling of the canes—formed together a scene in which the imagination of a Dante would have revelled.
Despite the care with which he had guarded it, Geoffrey's knife had been dragged from its sheath page 386and lost in the scramble, and this loss now added greatly to their difficulties. At every step the canes had to be forced apart and the body adapted to the opening thus provided. Almost fainting with fatigue, the girl endured this final torment in heroic silence, while the man, his eyes dark with sullen rage at his powerlessness, spent himself in her service till every nerve in his body vibrated discordantly.
Once, frantic at the sight of her sufferings, he opened his clenched lips and railed at himself, cursing the day he was born, accusing himself of bringing this misery of torture upon her; but the touch of her hand on his stilled the evil mood, and for a grateful moment he held her fast in his arms.
'We will try no more,' he said at last. 'When we get out of this hell—if we ever do—we will stay still and wait. And if we wait for death, better so than that we should struggle forward to meet it.'
And as though there were a charm in the words to break momentarily the net that held them, presently the maze opened into a little fern-covered glade, set about with lofty trees, kahikatea and totara and rata, with at their feet the glancing foliage of palms and the tender green of clustered tree-ferns. Scattered about the centre were the last white decaying remnants of the foretime giant tenant of the opening, and a mound such as is raised by man to mark the resting-place of his mighty dead covered his immemorial dust. Whether it were merely the contrast with the Inferno from which they had emerged, or that there actually was something in the peace and loveliness of the scene to inspire delight, the two looked around them and at one another with smiling eyes.page 387
'But that water is probably wanting this is an ideal camping ground,' Geoffrey said. 'Surely the good spirits of the forest must have spread it for us in the midst of the desert.'
'It looks like a cemetery,' Eve said suddenly. 'Look at the white things like stones among the green fern.' Her eyes still retained their smiling expression.
'A cemetery it is. Here lies the dust of one who flourished probably in the days of Solomon, and whose resting-place is sacred even in the fight for existence which is being waged here.'
In the reaction from the severe labours of the day all thought of the terrors that awaited them passed from their minds, and inspired with fresh energy, they set about their preparations for the night. From the palm trees Geoffrey tore the leaves by brute force, and, Eve plaiting them together, a protection was soon formed against the heavy night dews. The approaching darkness rendered it impossible that anything more elaborate should be attempted that night, and the remainder of the brief twilight was devoted to the collection of fuel and the building of a fire. The tree ferns under which the shelter had been erected formed with their trunks, to which the spent fronds still clung, a species of rough hut, and by piling other fronds against these a certain amount of comfort was secured. Their water-bottle was more than half-full, and three sandwiches remained from the store Lena had cut for Geoffrey. Thus the second night began.
The sky above the opening was of a perfect page 388clear darkness, deep also with a depth that passed infinitely beyond the stars. Sirius blazed, the binary star in Orion darted his rich colours through the trembling leaves, the Pleiades emitted soft beams as of lamp-lighted pearl, the 'most ancient heavens' were 'fresh and strong.'
'Can you read the stars?' Eve asked at last. 'Do they tell you anything of where we are?'
'I know the constellations,' he replied, following the direction of her gaze; 'but where they should be at this time of the year or at this moment of time I have no idea.'
'But if we watched their motions, should we not be able to distinguish the points of the compass?'
'Yes, within limits. But to make a further attempt to get out would be suicidal. Could you endure another day such as this has been? Our mistake was in ever leaving the spot where we camped last night.'
'Do you think they are searching for us?'
'That depends on how much is known of your movements.'
She reflected a moment. 'And what is our chance supposing a search party is out?'
'It was good yesterday, not so good to-day; tomorrow, if we move, it may vanish altogether.'
Eve looked thoughtfully into the fire. 'What brought you to the place where we met?' she asked suddenly.
He checked the words that framed themselves on his lips. 'Fate,' he said briefly.
'To save me?'
'Why, then—when it was too late?'page 389
'Was there something before—something from which you desired to be saved?'
'Yet you chose between us—with your eyes open.'
'No!' she said passionately,—'no! He blind-folded me; he lied away my reason. It seemed incredible that a man should love God and serve the devil. Every instinct of righteousness urged and compelled me to believe him.'
'Could I have broken down a belief so founded?' 'You could have tried.'
'Did I not try?'
'You should have held me by force,—you should have compelled me to listen—to believe. If you had killed me for my obstinacy I should have died worshipping you.'
'I loved you—I loved only you. Every hour which brought me nearer to him was an agony—yet you stood by.'
'Eve! Eve! was the fault mine? Could I guess at a love that went masked in hatred? What made you disbelieve in the end?'
'I learnt that he knew the charge was false; that he had known it all the time. But then—I was his wife.'
'God help us!' he said hoarsely.
'Has the law no mercy for us?'
'Is there any mercy in life?'
He was silent.
He took her hand and raised it to his lips, but still no word escaped him.page 390
'Geoffrey,' she said softly, 'even now, in the darkness, where no hope shows itself, and the shadows of eternity thicken around us, where life stands threatening on one hand, and death on the other, I believe that God exists, and that He has not forgotten us. Was it a blind chance that led me without volition from that man to you—that fated we should meet at the one point on the road where no choice was left to us? Then take my promise, since God has brought us thus together, that though I may not now be yours, at least no law nor force shall make me his. And if that be so in life, much more will it be so in death, when evil shall no longer have power against us.'
Still he kissed her hand in silence.
'Speak to me,' she said. 'Tell me what is in your mind.'
He raised himself slowly from the shadows at her feet, and in his eyes, as they caught the fire-light, she saw only the dulness of despair.
'What shall I say?' he said. 'How clumsy a thing is life if death be needed to repair its mischiefs. Yet each of us must believe according to his nature, and only death can prove who is right. If all that tremendous to-morrow shall be for us a silence, even as the tremendous yesterday is a silence, where then shall be the recompense for what life denies us? Hope, faith—what are they but shadows compared with the substance we shall have missed. Can I reconcile myself to die now, with the knowledge that you love me still beating in my blood? No, no; give me life with its chances, even though it part us for ever, rather than the risk of sleep and forgetfulness.'page 391
Orion passed out of sight. The Southern Cross, slowly turning in the black sky, appeared at the edge of the opening, leading up the glittering lights of Argo, the stars of the Centaur thrown off from its points like the spokes of a jewelled wheel. The night grew chill. He rose suddenly, and going out into the opening busied himself in replenishing the waning fire. When he returned, the girl had retired farther into the shelter, and after a moment he lay down in the fern at her feet.
The night passed for him, as had the last, in a weird mingling of dreams and waking anxieties, and at the first sign of daylight he rose stiff and unrefreshed.
During the darkness he had formed the idea of endeavouring to obtain a view of the country from one of the surrounding trees, and he now walked round the glade until he had found one suitable for the purpose. The strong lianas in which it was draped rendered the ascent of the lofty barrel possible, though by no means easy, and in his exhausted condition he found it necessary to rest for awhile in the fork before proceeding farther. Then branch after branch was scaled, until at a giddy altitude he was able to rise to his feet and look around him. In all directions rolled the billows of that great ocean of verdure; nowhere from horizon to horizon was a break or opening of any kind apparent. Beautiful was the scene, but terrible in its suggestion of loneliness; no bird sang, no breeze blew, no cloud was visible in all the expanse of sky. Black were the woods, save where at intervals a towering summit caught the beams of the rising sun and rayed them forth in sparkles of yellow fire.page 392
He gazed awhile, then began a cautious descent to the ground. Far below him he could see Eve, standing motionless in the opening watching his passage from bough to bough. Her form drew his eyes like a magnet, till in his divided attention his foot slipped, and he was saved from falling only by a miracle. That warning was sufficient, and he looked at her no more till he reached the ground. Then he found her white and trembling.
'Why did you do that?' she said passionately.
He endeavoured to smile away her fears. 'It is a fact I am a bit out of practice, but it was necessary that we should endeavour to find out where we were.'
'What does it matter where we are?' she returned in the same tone. 'What does anything matter now, if only——' She checked the words on her lips and turned away.
He was at her side in a moment and had taken her hand. 'If only what?' he asked.
'We are together.'
'To me—nothing,' he said.
After their frugal breakfast he turned to the shelter and suggested improvements with the object of more perfectly excluding the cold night air. 'Some more nikau1 and a few fern fronds,' he said cheerfully, 'should render it quite habitable.'
'Is it worth while?' the girl asked.
The question fell like a stone into a still pool.
'It shall be,' he said, and went resolutely to the work.
In an hour's time all the interstices between the stems had been plugged with stakes and rushes, and a large heap of dry bracken gathered for the floor page 393of the hut. The collection of fuel was the next task, and when this had been sufficiently attended to, Geoffrey expressed his intention of making a search for water.
'I will not go beyond the reach of your voice,' he said; 'and if you feel anxious as to my where-abouts, cooey to me and I will answer you.'
After some demur the girl consented, and he made his way into the forest.
A two hours' scramble proved profitless of results. Only slight undulations deflected the land from a dead level, and apparently neither creek nor spring existed. The part of the forest to which they had attained presented indeed some of the features of a skilfully constructed trap. Solid miles of cane-bound trunks surrounded them, offering here and there tortuous passages like blind rat-holes in the wall. The kiwi alone, the hair-feathered representative of a genus of wingless birds, appeared to possess the key of the jungle. These creatures, as they subsequently discovered, abounded, becoming visible at twilight, uttering their weird notes throughout the night, but frustrating any efforts at capture by their unceasing vigilance and rapidity of movement. The season for berries was not yet, but at one spot Geoffrey found a number of large purple drupes, with which he filled his pockets. There was not a sixteenth of an inch of rind on the woody kernels, but they were not unpalatable. At another bush, laden with black, grape-like berries, he looked askance, but subsequently returned and marked the spot with some care. Why he did so was not clear to his mind, yet he was aware of some significance in the action. The labours of the page 394morning, from the perilous ascent of the tree to this culminating struggle through the canes, combined with privation of food and sleep, had clouded his mind, and only the magnetism of the girl's voice drew him with many dull pauses from the chill gloom to the warm sunshine of the glade.
'Then it is to be without water,' Eve said quietly when he had reported his failure.
'We may have better luck next time. The water we have will not last over to-day however we economise it. Then comes to-morrow and tomorrow.' He stood looking drowsily down upon her.
'Drink now,' she said pityingly. 'You look utterly exhausted.'
'What—I! No. I have been feeding on the fruits of the forest. "And He bringeth forth His fruits in due season."' He let the berries rain into her lap.
'I have often eaten these,' Eve said speculatively, 'but is there life in them?'
'Surely—an abundance. Where was life more vigorous than it is here? Life, life everywhere, and for us—no life at all.'
Eve looked up, startled at the dull voice, and met the gaze of a pair of smiling, drowsy eyes. Even as she looked the man swayed on his feet.
She sprang up in concern, and catching his hand sought to lead him into the shelter. He raised the hand to his lips, but the lids of his eyes fell lower.
'Geoffrey! Geoffrey! Did you have no sleep last night? Ah, how cruel I have been to you! And you on the cold ground! Geoffrey.' She put her arms round him.page 395
'Sleep!' he said thickly. 'No, not for ages. Yes, I will come with you. Gently, my darling, or the boat will upset. Could I sleep while you were cruel? But now that you are—kind—see, I will kiss your feet.'
He made a motion to stoop, and in the attempt sank into the couch of fern, her arms still round him. For a few seconds he held her, then the weary muscles relaxed, and she was free to release herself if she chose.
In the darkness he awoke refreshed and with a clear mind. The fire burnt cheerfully, but the wind had veered into the south, and an Arctic chill was in the air. For moments he lay still, endeavouring to recall the events of the day, but for him one-half of them had no existence. He remembered dimly returning from the bush; that was the last fact which could be definitely separated from his dreams. The cold air bit into his limbs, causing him to change his position.
From the other side of the shelter came the sound of frequent movements, now slight rustlings, now louder, as of one tossing from side to side. He lay still listening, his heart beating painfully. There was a long-drawn sigh.
'Eve,' he called softly.
'Is it the cold? Let me put my coat over you.'
'Come then,' she said after a silence.
He moved to her, and she drew him down, encircling his neck with her arm. 'Would you kill yourself to save me pain?' she whispered.
'A thousand times.'
Her lips sought his. 'Will love endure through page 396the torments? Will he be with us there, when the trouble is done and we stand at the gates of death?'
'Lie down beside me. Put your arms round me. Oh, my beloved, whom I have tortured and killed! I would give you life if I could—life and love if it were possible. But for us there is only love in death.'
Outside the fire roared, eating into the heart of the night. The shadow of its drifting smoke swept across the spectral flare, moving upwards, aslant, in endless procession over trunk and bough. The deep monotoned ko-ko of the abounding morepork came with a profound significance, breaking the silence as it were the opening of a tragic door.
1 Palm leaves.