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The Toll of The Bush

Chapter VII Mr. Fletcher Reads his Letters

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Chapter VII Mr. Fletcher Reads his Letters

Owing to the delivery of all letters being deferred until the arrival of the weekly overland mail, it was three days before Geoffrey's letter reached its destination two miles away.

The Reverend Mr. Fletcher boarded in the village, for though the Wesleyans and Roman Catholics possessed their mission stations, the Church of England had no local habitation within twenty miles of the county borders. The Mallows, at whose house he resided, belonged to the earlier pioneers, the family having been established in the days when the white man came alone into the native settlement and picked his wife from the bright-eyed kotiros of the hapu.1 The founder of the family slept in the graveyard, beneath the manoa trees on the summit of the hill, and his grave vibrated eternally to the tread of the ocean rollers on the bar. His descendants were in every township and settlement throughout the county. Some had sailed away and were heard from occasionally; others had sailed away and never been heard from.

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The Mallow who occupied the old homestead was a son of the founder of the family. He had married a half-caste woman, and had numerous olive branches with corresponding complexions. The sons had mostly disappeared—two were in South Africa, fighting the Boers. The daughters disappeared too, but more gradually. Now and then it became necessary to send one away to a distant relative, preferably in Auckland; and now and then one died of consumption. For many of the half-caste girls this was the dread alternative to marriage. As they left off their childhood the girls came to the window, where they could see the young men ride by, sitting loosely in their saddles, their hard bright eyes sweeping the beach. Sometimes at intervals of months, even years, the young men looked at the window. Then followed a season of danger and delight. The river was a sheet of silver in the moonbeams; the warm night wind breathed along the sands; the threatening of the bar was no more than a bee's drone. And there were dances occasionally here, and in the county township up the river, and at the settlers' houses; and though there might be a ride or a pull of twenty or thirty miles to the place of entertainment, the attendance suffered little from that. But the young men went back to their work in the bush, felling and driving and forgetting, and sometimes the girls wished that they had never been born.

The coming of the Reverend Mr. Fletcher was a golden event in the lives of the two remaining Mallow girls, and they were naturally his earliest converts. Winnie was twenty-four and Mabel twenty-one. They were fine buxom creatures, with page 73the glowing beauty of their mixed parentage in their dark skin and lustrous eyes. Though they had hitherto been among the gayest of the gay, nothing could now exceed the demureness of their conduct. It was tacitly understood that the clergyman was to marry Winnie, but the elder sister entertained the fear, and the younger the hope, that Mr. Fletcher would exhibit in his selection the usual perversity of his sex. As for the father of the family, he had never interfered in the love affairs of his daughters either for good or ill. He was an indolent, taciturn man, who appeared to live mainly on tobacco and reflection, supplemented by occasional financial assistance from his relations, but he left the management of affairs to his wife, who, for all her dark skin, was a European in her instincts. Mallow washed himself and brushed his hair only under pressure from his family. He preferred walking about the sands in his bare feet rather than in boots, and if the choice offered, he would hold companionship with a Maori sooner than a European, and with himself in preference to either. For all this he was an affectionate parent, and—which counted for a good deal—the best fisherman on the river.

Mabel had walked along the beach to Hogg's store for the letters, because Winnie was getting the parson's breakfast, and she now came back with the weekly paper, a bill for Mr. Mallow, and two letters addressed to the Rev. T. Fletcher. Mabel knew that one of the clergyman's correspondents was a local one by the postmark, and she judged that the writer was a man from the character of the handwriting. The other letter was plainly page 74penned by a woman, but the postmark showed her place of residence to be at the other end of the world.

Mr. Fletcher was seated at his breakfast, a meal which for domestic reasons he generally took alone, and Winnie was waiting on him. He received the letters with a kindly smile, and allowed them to lie by his plate while he conversed with the girls.

'Mr. Raymond struck me as an estimable and well-informed young man. I am pleased to think he has found an employer so close at hand.'

'Mr. Hogg is going to open a branch store on the gumfield,' Winnie said; 'so probably he will send Mr. Raymond there by and by. Have you met the new storekeeper Mr. Hernshaw?'

Mr. Fletcher's brows contracted slightly. 'Yes,' he said; 'I saw him on Sunday last.'

'Isn't he nice-looking?' Mabel asked. Something of the old leaven still worked beneath the demure exterior of the younger sister, betraying itself now and again in chance remarks. Winnie made warning signals behind the parson's chair.

'He is not outwardly ill-favoured,' Mr. Fletcher admitted. 'Has he been long in the district?'

'Two or three years,' Winnie hastened to reply. 'He has a brother'—such a nice boy—who used to be a shepherd on the station until this one came out. Of course Mr. Hernshaw's taking on the store is only a forerunner to something else.'

Mr. Fletcher looked interrogation.

'He and Eve are dreadfully gone on one another,' Mabel explained, with a roguish laugh. 'All last summer they were inseparable; so it is easy to see what his coming to live at the place means.' page 75Mr. Fletcher resumed his breakfast in silence, and the two girls exchanged glances.

'They will make a beautiful couple, don't you think?' Mabel asked, seating herself with her hands locked on her knee in an attitude that showed off the voluptuous curves of her figure to perfection.

Mr. Fletcher stirred slightly, and his eye fell on the letters. He laid his hand on them and turned to the last speaker. Her eyes were brown and bewitching, and he looked straight into them and read their meaning.

'Is it a fact?' he asked, with a half smile. 'Or is it just a conclusion drawn by lookers-on?'

'Do you mean are they engaged?' Winnie broke in sharply. 'Yes; or if they are not, then they ought to be.'

Mr. Fletcher regarded her fixedly with dark, cold eyes. Then, taking his letters, he rose abruptly and left the room.

'Bah, you flat!' said Mabel with disgust. 'You ought not to have said that, because it was silly, and I don't believe it was true.'

'He is in love with her, I suppose?' Winnie said, clattering the dishes together passionately. 'What do I care whether it is true? Every one is in love with her. Who are these Milwards, that they should have it all their own way?'

'They are the biggest people here,' Mabel replied good-humouredly; 'and they are ladies and gentlemen. Major Milward owns half the county, and what he doesn't own he's got a mortgage on, and I don't believe half these people who hold their heads so high ever pay him his interest. I'm sure we page 76don't; and he's had a mortgage on dad since the year one.'

'Major Milward's a darling,' said Winnie, surrendering at once.

'So's Eve,' said Mabel; 'only she's so beastly beautiful.' The adjective belonged, properly speaking, to the days before Mabel was converted.

Mr. Fletcher, when he left the breakfast-room, went into his private sanctum and closed the door. His writing-table stood near the window, and he sat down before it and looked out across the tussocks to the shining wet sands. His face suggested that the alliteration now being uttered in the other room might, had he heard it, have roused a responsive chord in his bosom; for it was the beauty of Major Milward's daughter which occupied his thoughts at that moment. There was no truth in what he had just heard; it was the cruel spite in which even decent women sometimes indulge. Was it true about Hernshaw? His lips closed, and he crushed the letters he still carried unconsciously in his hand. His attention thus directed to what he held, he lifted first the English letter, opened it, and glanced at the signature. Then with a shock his wandering thoughts were arrested and he read it through. He read it several times, sitting motionless all the while. Then, as though seeking distraction, he turned to the letter still unopened, and here also there appeared to be matter of unusual interest, for a single perusal did not suffice him. By and by his eye sought the window again, and for many minutes he sat looking straight in front of him. A barefooted man was pushing a boat down into the tide: this was Mallow going fishing. A boy, leading a horse, went by page 77close under the window. His mind disturbed by these movements, Mr. Fletcher turned his face from the window, and his eye fell on a text pinned to the wall: 'Be merciful, and thou shalt obtain mercy,' said the text in bold black letter.

Mr. Fletcher tore the local note across, and going to the fireplace, he put a match to it, and watched the pale flame curl up around it. A knock came to the door, instantly followed by the appearance of a lad of eighteen—the youngest hope of the Mallow family—who looked curiously at the burning paper in the grate.

'Your horse is ready, Mr. Fletcher,' he said.

The minister hesitated, thrust the other letter into his pocket, and taking his hat and riding whip from the wall, followed the boy out in silence.

Winnie had not anticipated Mr. Fletcher's stay in his study would be so brief, and she had gone up the bank to the well; but Mabel, who was on the watch, heard him and came out. 'What time shall you be back, Mr. Fletcher?' she asked.

'Probably not till this evening,' was the reply; 'but I do not wish the household arrangements disturbed on my account at any time.'

'Poor Winnie is sorry for what she said,' Mabel continued in a lower voice. 'She hopes you will forgive her, and not be angry.'

'It was a highly improper remark,' Mr. Fletcher returned, with a partial recrudescence of his colder manner; 'both because it was uncharitable and also because it was untrue.' He looked searchingly at her as he spoke.

'It was untrue,' Mabel admitted, 'if it suggested page 78any more than that Eve Milward and Geoffrey Hernshaw are lovers.'

'That is a truth, I suppose?' Mr. Fletcher said, smiling.

Mabel nodded. 'I know,' she said. 'If not yet—then soon. But, now or soon, it is certain.'

Mr. Fletcher mounted his horse, with the girl's words tingling in his ears, and they kept time to the lumbering canter of his big horse as he moved along the beach towards Wairangi. Certain! Certain! But was there anything certain in this world?

At the moment the black-coated figure turned up the track to the stables Geoffrey was in the office behind the store, and Eve was with him.

The girl sat on a low seat near the door, and looked eagerly up into her companion's face. 'Could you not reconsider it? 'she asked pleadingly. 'The case surely cannot be so one-sided as you think, else how may we account for the wise and learned men who accept it?'

'It would be no use,' Geoffrey replied. 'It is not that I will not believe, but simply that my reason does not permit me.'

'Do you remember what Mr. Fletcher said about relying on our reason?'

'Yes. But it is all we have—or at least it is all I have.'

'What is it you cannot believe?'

Geoffrey smiled at the little eager question, but his eyes remained troubled. 'It used to be details,' he said; 'but I have reached a stage when I can page 79regard them with indifference; it is the inadequacy of the sum total.'

'Do you think the story of Christ inadequate?'

'I think that the story of Christ would gain in beauty could it be purged of much that is inconsistent, and more that is incredible. But the moral teachings of Christ are one thing, and the Bible as an authentic account of the origin and history of the universe quite another.'

'Mr. Fletcher says that where the Bible is in conflict with our idea of what is probable, it is so as a trial of our faith.'

'That is a way of explaining it, of course. But you have mentioned Mr. Fletcher: if our own reason in these matters is to be distrusted, where is the justification for relying on the reasoning of another? Or is reason to be appealed to only when her answer is likely to be in the affirmative, and disregarded on all other occasions?'

Eve looked uneasy, then she laughed. 'Your arguments are more penetrative than mine,' she said; 'but for all that, I feel within me that the Bible is true. Would you not be glad to think so?'

Geoffrey hesitated a long while before he replied. 'Even to that,' he said unwillingly at last, 'I must say no. I have, like most men who have dipped into modern ideas, a picture of the universe such as is conformable with reason, and could I be convinced that the Hebraic account was the correct one, I should feel that I had suffered a loss, not reaped an advantage. The difference between the two shapes itself to me as though a house built for kings should have come by misadventure into the hands of a misshapen dwarf.' page 80Eve rose, looking troubled and disappointed. 'That seems to be final,' she said. 'If you have not even the desire to believe—— What is it,' she interrupted herself to inquire, 'you find so attractive in science? For mankind it seems to offer little, and for the individual nothing.'

'That is so,' Geoffrey replied; 'but the road has gone only a little way into the darkness. It is paved with truths, and truths are hard to come by. This is one,' he added, laying his hand on a volume on the desk,—' the book Mr. Fletcher advised you not to read.'

'Is the evolution of species so certain?'

'Either that, or the Creator has laid a trap for our reason.'

'Mr. Fletcher says that the Origin of Species does not disprove the Bible.'

'That is as well, because evolution nowadays is regarded as much a fact as gravitation. But the Church is wise, and I doubt if it would be possible to produce any argument which would disprove the Bible.'

Eve pondered awhile, then looked up more brightly. 'I do not despair of you yet,' she said. 'I feel that revelation is quite as certain as evolution, supposing that to be as certain as you think, and if you could feel the beauty of it as I do, you would be glad to think so also.'

This was the beginning of many similar conflicts between the pair.

1 Maidens of the tribe.