The Toll of The Bush
Chapter XXXV Major Milward Plays a Game of Chess
Chapter XXXV Major Milward Plays a Game of Chess
And after the darkness—light.
'Put a match to the lamp, Sandy. I hear them at the gate.'
There was a tremor of eagerness in the Major's voice. He took a step irresolutely and stood still.
'Quick! I hear her voice. That's better.'
Steps sounded on the shelled walk, then on the verandah. A murmur of speech, girls' and men's commingled; a subdued laugh, with a note of gladness in it; a man's voice, pleasant, protesting, and in the open windows, against the background of the falling night, Eve, smiling and radiant.
'Welcome, my child; welcome to you both.'
With one swift movement her arms were round his neck, her glad tears moistened his cheek. 'Father, father, how glad I am to be home!'
'Home has been empty a long time, my dear,—a long time.'
'Yes, I have counted the months, all of them; but it shall not be empty any more. Wait.'page 415
She undid the fastenings of her cloak and hat and threw them recklessly from her. 'Now,' she said, 'love me. Yes, you may shake hands with Geoffrey. He's quite well, thank you. No; you are not going to talk with him yet. Now!' And the Major, nothing loath, allowed himself to be pushed into a chair and entirely obscured from the view of the rest of the company.
'How nice and kind you look, darling, and how well!'
'I am well, but I've not been kind; I've been a wretch. Life has been practically unsupportable to every one on the station for twelve months. I've interfered in everything. I have found fault with every one. The sight of me now inspires terror wherever I go. Even Sandy examines me carefully before he calls my attention to the weather.'
'Have any of the hands left?'
'Are any of them going to leave?'
'Not that I am aware of.'
'Then I don't believe a word of it.'
'Are you happy, Eve?'
She whispered long into his ear. 'There!' she said aloud in conclusion.
'Let me welcome you also, Evie,' said Sandy, looking down upon her.
She sprang up with a little cry of self-reproach and kissing him on both cheeks, looked guiltily round the room.
'I am so excited that I do not know what I am doing. I did kiss you, Robert,' ticking him off with a little nod; 'and you, Lena.'page 416
The contentment in her eyes was a wonderful thing to see.
'How beautiful you look! 'Lena said, with a shy impulsiveness.
'It's a case of the pot and the kettle,' said Sandy. At which, and the smiling attention the remark called down upon her, Lena drew back blushing.
'Where's this immortal baby, Robert?' his brother asked, and Eve, with shining eyes, drew nearer to her sister-in-law.
'The intention was to produce him at supper-time,' Sandy said, and appeared surprised when both ladies turned their backs on him.
'Take me to him, Lena?'
'I suppose they do think things like that about us in England, Geoffrey?' Sandy said, recovering himself as the door closed.
'Not quite so much so now since the waking up the war gave them. The English Geographical Society has definitely announced that New Zealand is not a suburb of Melbourne, and it is hoped in the course of time that a boundary may be agreed upon between this country and New South Wales. There is a fair idea of the monstrous creatures which people our forests—in fact, the only animal the British public find difficulty in accepting is the telephone. Tell them of a sanguinary encounter between a moa and a tuatara, and they listen with bated breath; conclude by ringing up the doctor, and they smile incredulously. But what I am pining for is local news. Tell me something with the colour of the country in it to make me feel that at last I am at home.'
Major Milward nodded approval. 'That has a page 417good sound,' he said. 'Sandy, see that there is sufficient champagne on the table. We will drink a toast by and by to the country of our children—the Fairest Land in the World.'
'What will satisfy your craving?' Sandy asked. 'Business has been good; timber and wool both top prices. The firm of Milward and Hernshaw has made a satisfactory profit for the year. Or is it the people? Mrs. Gird will be here directly. She has the native school across the river and is proving a huge success, though the authorities hesitated a long time before they gave the appointment to a woman. Raymond is here too; we sent him across in the yacht to fetch her. By the way, I wrote you that we bought Hogg out bag and baggage, so Raymond is our man again.'
'Go on,' said Geoffrey, as Sandy paused.
'Let me see. The Mallows? Mabel is married to a new chum from England—terrible swell fellow, but a decent chap too. Winnie's single still. Old man Mallow spoke to me the other day of his own accord—I was never more surprised in my life. Pine—you'll be interested in Pine; he has a wooden house and a flock of sheep and lives like a pakeha. I took our local member through Waiomo a month or two back, and he was greatly impressed with Pine's opulence. Pine took him over the estate and pointed out the objects of interest. "You appear to have an extensive property, Mr. Pine," said the member. "That so," said Pine. "All a land you see roun' here belong a me. All a land you can't see belong a my wire.
'That's characteristic,' said Geoffrey, laughing.page 418
'There's something about Pine,' continued Sandy, 'that fetches you. Howell was telling me that he once gave him offence by refusing him credit. I think that was the reason. But, any way, shortly after Pine came into funds he walked into the shop and bought four pairs of boots, planking down the cash like a white man. "You makit a pretty fair poot, Howell," he said patronisingly on concluding business. "Come and have glass wine." And that was how he took his revenge.'
'You can never tell what depth of water you are in with the natives,' said Major Milward. 'Did you go into Derbyshire again before you left, Geoffrey?'
'Yes, sir. We have about ten cases of mementoes for you from various branches of the family. Sir John Milward gave Eve a grand piano, and he sent you a walking-stick.'
'The rascal,' said the Major.
'There's the boat,' said Sandy, as shouts sounded in the direction of the water. 'That completes our little party.'
There was a streak or two of gray in Mrs. Gird's hair, but her eyes were as bright as ever as she held out her two hands to Geoffrey.
'Welcome home,' she said. 'I see the word written in your face.'
'It is written in his heart,' said Eve, looking up at her husband, her arm round the elder woman.
'Did you write it there, my dear? But you need not answer me. Whoever wrote it spelled it, I notice, with three letters.'
'How are the lovely boys?' Geoffrey asked.
'Here they come,' said their mother.
There was a shrill clamour in the hall, subdued page 419to whispers at the door; the handle turned softly, and Mark and Rowland came demurely forward to shake hands with Geoffrey and suffer themselves to be kissed by his wife. Then, of one accord, they made for the master of the house.
'Wasn't Columbus the greatest sailor in the world, Major Milward? Mark says——'
'He was a great sailor,' interrupted Mark; 'but he wasn't the greatest, was he, Major Milward? You told me who the greatest sailor was, didn't you, sir? But I have forgotten his name, and even mother doesn't know.'
'Tut, tut!' said Mrs. Gird. 'What's this?'
Major Milward took the lads between his knees. 'Mark is perhaps right, Rowland,' he said; 'and we will give honour to a brave man whatever his colour. The name you have forgotten, my boy, is Ui-te-rangiora. He lived some considerable time before Alfred the Great sat on the throne of England. He was the mightiest navigator of those times; he was perhaps the mightiest navigator the world has ever known. His vessel was a canoe; he had no compass other than his knowledge of the stars, yet in a voyage of four thousand miles he discovered New Zealand. Nor was that his longest voyage, for all his life he was a sailor, and it is claimed for him that he visited every island in the Southern world.'
It was a happy and merry party that sat down to the supper-table, and full of brightness were the faces that drank in brimming glasses the toast of the Fairest Land in the World.
'Now,' said the Major, rising with alacrity, 'set page 420out the chessmen, Sandy. Mr. Raymond and I will play a game of chess.'
'Only one, father,' said Eve.
'Just one, my dear.'
'And win it,' she whispered. 'You must win it, dear, for my sake.'
She looked hesitatingly at the others who were all crowding together on the sofa and, taking a low stool, sat down at her father's feet.
Rowland and Mark occupied a chair jointly on his other hand. Now and then Sandy or Geoffrey came and looked down over Raymond's shoulder, but it was plain that the storekeeper had no backers.
Whenever the Major secured a piece, the boys nudged one another gleefully; when he suffered reverse, a tragic gloom overspread their features.
'Mate,' said the Major at last, and Eve drew a long breath of relief.
'Two games out of three, sir?'
'Certainly, if you wish it, Raymond.'
The men were set out again and the battle recommenced. This time fortune dealt less favourably with the master of the house, and it was shortly evident that he was in trouble.
'Your move, sir, I think.'
'I am aware of it, Mr. Raymond.'
'Mate,' said the storekeeper.
'Ye-es, I cannot understand how the king's rook comes to be where it is. It must have been shifted inadvertently.' And Major Milward glared fixedly at the board.
'On the contrary, you gave four minutes' deliberation to that move.'page 421
'Oh, pardon me——'
'I saw you move it.'
'Game each,' said Sandy cheerfully. 'Now for the conqueror.'
The play this time was more deliberate. Raymond's mouth was set doggedly; he was plainly putting forth all his powers. Nor was the Major less determined. The eyes under his shaggy brows glittered with the light of battle, yet occasionally his hand trembled; for after all he was an old man. When his opponent's move was long delayed, he leant back with polite resignation, but his eyes never left the board. As the opportunity offered, Eve possessed herself of his hand and held it between her own or pressed it against her cheek. Her face was full of distress.
Sandy brought occasional reports to the party on the sofa.
'Old man got his queen jammed; have to sacrifice something.' Then more hopefully: 'Wairangi holding strong position on left front. Enemy retiring disconcerted.'
Geoffrey watched his wife's face with anxiety.
'Happy man,' said Mrs. Gird, following the direction of his gaze. 'Would you change one line of it if you could?'
Sandy crossed the room excitedly. 'Raymond hopelessly fogged,' he reported. 'Come and see.' And the whole party trooped over to the table.
Major Milward was leaning back watching the other's intent face, a bright spot of colour in his cheeks, a light of victory in his eyes.
Raymond put out his hand to move, hesitated, drew it back and sat up. 'I resign,' he said.page 422
Mark immediately knocked Rowland off the chair and fell upon him.
Eve sprang to her feet, and throwing her arms round her father's neck, kissed him rapturously. 'You clever man,' she cried. 'You brilliant general.' Then she turned with rosy compunction to the storekeeper. 'I did so want father to win to-night, Mr. Raymond.'
'It might have simplified matters if you had mentioned the fact at the beginning,' said Sandy drily.
The storekeeper looked round the assembled company, and gathered for the first time that the match had been of interest to all of them.
'If I had guessed your feelings, Mrs. Hernshaw,' he said, 'I might have declined to play, but it would not have occurred to me to offer Major Milward the insult of playing less than my best.' For after all he was a university-bred man and a gentleman.
'Mr. Raymond's generosity completes my triumph,' said the Major, rising to his feet. 'But come, it is late. The oil in the lamp is nearly burnt away. I have not enjoyed a game of chess so much since—since'—(the failing lamp flickered and cast a momentary shadow)—'since a game I played with Governor Brown in '57. And I beat him two games out of three.'