Chapter I.

THERE were four of them, seated on their horses by the side of the Waitiri river. It was growing dark on a summer's evening, for in New Zealand there is little twilight, and in the uplands among the mountains night follows hard upon the heels of day. The surroundings of the party were sufficiently wild and grand, and had not yet been wholly obscured by the darkness. Mountains lay on all sides of them, snow-capped and covered at the base with thick bush; the only flat was that of the river bed stretching tortuously eastward. A New Zealand river is like none other in the world, and the Waitiri is a characteristic river. It takes its rise in the heart of the Southern Alps in a series of glaciers somewhere beneath the sheltering pinnacles

  ― 130 ―
of mountains ten and twelve thousand feet in height; then it rushes down on a headlong race towards the sea, a hundred miles away. It bursts through gorges, down cañons, by sweeping valleys, and through elevated plateaus for some sixty miles or more, and then grown fuller, less boisterous, but more deadly, catches breath, and rushing at a final gorge sweeps out upon the great plains that lead it to the Pacific. The impetuosity of this primeval river has left its marks upon nature; its fiery ardour rested not content with a single course, but has cut out courses innumerable. Once free of the overhanging mountains that give it birth, and for the first few miles confine it, it makes a bold plunge for liberty, and frets impatiently over the wide valley at its own sweet will. Each generation has it ventured some new channel, and each generation has tired of it; from side to side of the valley it has rushed foaming and frothing, dashing in a frenzy against mountain arête and tableland, as though to try its strength against even them. But even New Zealand rivers have their limitations, and the mountains stand unchanged; only the valley lies—a desolate picture of the terrible havoc Nature can work upon herself. It is fully a mile across the valley, and that mile is simply an expanse of loose shingle and débris. The main stream itself is but fifty yards across, but its bed in the valley twenty times as much. To see it from a distance curling in a silver line

  ― 131 ―
downwards you would think it a trifle; but when you approach it, and standing on the loose boulders, with never a patch of vegetation in sight, gaze at the grey waters sweeping by like a whirlwind, you realize its strength and wickedness.

Crawford stood dubiously a moment or two longer, and then he leapt from his horse. “Come,” he said, “off your horses, all of you, and gather firewood.”

In the river bed there is always plenty of dry wood, which in time past has been torn from the overhanging “bush” and left high upon some ancient course of the fickle river. In a few minutes, therefore, sufficient fuel had been collected to build a huge fire. Crawford applied a match, and presently the sky was alive with flames. The glare cast curious shadows over the shingle, outlining into fantastic shapes the patient horses and the four watchers. The pack-horse was so overcome by the novelty that he desired to display his satisfaction by a good roll on the stones, and was only just preserved from his intention by Drummond, who caught him getting down on his knees. Meanwhile they all watched in silence, some one occasionally throwing another branch upon the roaring fire, which was leaping above their heads. The river foamed and fretted near them, and tossed the firelight back upon them in sullen indignation. The sky grew heavier and blacker. Orion faded beneath a swirl of clouds; Sirius and the Southern

  ― 132 ―
Cross were blown out by the wind, which came galloping down from the grey gorges with an icy savour in its breath.

After half an hour a little light just dimly visible across the river began to move, and seemed to split in two; one portion—the smaller—coming swiftly towards them.

“It's all right. They see us!” said Crawford. “Marion, you won't have your nerves tried tonight; and, Alice, you may save your dress.”

The light grew larger, and soon halted on the other side of the river, and a man's voice hailed them.

“Hillo! What are you?”

“Bound for the Puritaka accommodation-house, but benighted here, and we are afraid to camp as there are some ladies with us.”

“All right,” said the voice; “follow up.”

He rode off along the bed, his horse's hoofs ringing on the stones, and they followed parallel to him. About three hundred yards further he halted, and turning his horse to the river urged him in, and in a few minutes was on their side. Crawford noted that the current had carried him thirty yards down in the passage, and looked grave.

“Well,” said the new-comer, pulling up his dripping horse; “I fancy you're just about in time. It's lucky you didn't try to cross by yourselves, as the ford is a beast, and there are no end of quicksands.”

  ― 133 ―

“Are you Mr. Craven, may I ask?” inquired Crawford.

The man, who wore a rough bush hat, and had a dark beard, grinned.

“Not much; the boss is away. I say, how many are you? Four, two and two; then, by Josh, I think we can put you up, anyhow.”

“Thanks, very much; we'll only trouble you for the night.”

The man laughed, and said something as he rode into the water which they could not catch. He turned in his saddle. “Keep well up, and hold your right rein taut; there's a devil of a current here.” He reached the middle and awaited them. When they came struggling abreast of him, he pointed forward. “Make for the stump. Look here, miss,” he said to Marion. “Give me your bridle; you'll go afloat to-night if you ride like that. Push on! Push on!” he screamed against the wind to Drummond in front. “Keep your reins up, or by the Lord you'll have the nag go down on a boulder! And don't let him swim, or you'll strike New Jerusalem instanter!”

The party reached the other side in safety, though the river curled and hissed under the saddle-flaps, and almost lifted the horses off their legs. They proceeded thence slowly across the bed by a rough track, and soon got upon a slight rise covered with long tussock grass, over which the horses stumbled in the darkness. The

  ― 134 ―
girls were both tired, and had got somewhat wet in crossing; but their guide maintained the conversation by remarks addressed to the company at large, and responded to by Crawford and Drummond.

“I tell you, I was in a blue mood when I saw your blessed fire. I thought it was some of those darned ‘swaggers,’ and Jimmy won't stir for them, so I had to come myself. But you ain't ‘swaggers,’ anyhow.”

“Where is Mr. Craven?” asked Drummond.

“Away at the out-hut; but he's coming back to-night. Jimmy turned crusty, and told him to be blowed, and go himself; so he did. Jimmy is surly because he can't get whisky.”

“Oh, we'll set that right,” said Drummond, gaily. “Jimmy shall have as much as he likes. I ordered a couple of bottles to be packed up, and the people put in a dozen by mistake.”

“I don't know how the boss will like that,” replied the man, soberly. “Well, here we are. By the way,” he said, with another grin, “there's no womankind here; but I guess you can put up without them.”

The house lay upon the tussock level immediately below the bush-covered slope of a mountain, and was T-shaped with a verandah in front. Their guide halloed to Jimmy, and very soon a gaunt individual with a carroty beard came round from the back of the house and responded gruffly. He led off the horses, and they entered the house.

  ― 135 ―

“Now, I reckon,” once more said the man, with a knowing wink, “that you want something to eat.”

“Oh, we won't trouble you,” said Marion, quickly. “We have plenty in the packs, if you will kindly send them in to us.”

“Cold—not much. We don't let our guests have cold ‘tucker,’ whatever we do. Jimmy!” And he walked off, banging the door, into the back of the house. They heard subsequently a stiff altercation going on, in which Jimmy's Scotch voice alternated with their friend's Colonial tones, and a good deal of hard swearing ensued. Finally, he appeared, and answered that Jimmy had “turned crusty” till he mentioned the whisky, when he had disappeared “instanter” into the kitchen, “and I never knew a chap who could dish up as quickly as Jimmy when he's inclined.”

They got their meal,—mutton and dumpling,—supported by cheese and dainties from their own stores, and settled down to talk over the day. Crawford was a surveyor in the North Island, and had undertaken this trip as a summer holiday, for the pleasure of his daughter and niece. At the last moment some friends had failed them, and their party had been reduced to four, the fourth being Drummond, a young squatter in Otago, who had lately returned from “home” and had succeeded to the management of the “run” on the death of his father. Marion Lister, the niece, was of a serious nature, and capable

  ― 136 ―
of an “intensity” unusual with Colonial girls; her cousin, on the other hand, was a regular Colonial, lively, free, audacious, fond of physical exercise, and careless as to the morrow.

Late in the evening their host arrived. An explanation was given by their guide, in the one narrow passage of the house, and overheard by them; and shortly afterwards Mr. Craven entered the room in which they were. Crawford started to his feet. “We must apologize for trespassing on your hospitality,” he began.

“On the contrary, it is I who am indebted to you,” their host interrupted, quickly. “I hope Deardon made you comfortable. I see you've had some sort of a meal.” He bent his dark eyes upon them each in turn, and acknowledged the introductions which followed.

Then he inquired about the excursion, and soon they were all busy talking. He had a very quiet manner, but to Marion he appeared to be highly nervous.

He was undeniably handsome.

When the girls had retired—for they were worn out—Craven said: “Now you will smoke, won't you? No true Colonial forgets his pipe.”

Pipes were drawn from their hiding-places, and a desultory conversation ensued. Then Craven looked absently about the room, and, frowning a little, said: “I am sorry that I can't ask you to take anything, as I have nothing in the house. I go so seldom to town.”

  ― 137 ―

“Oh, we heard about that and Jimmy,” laughed Drummond; “but I think we can put that right. I've got far too much in my pack.”

Craven started a little, drew his lips together, and rapped with his pipe on the table; then he said, “As you like; Deardon will bring it to you.”

The whisky was brought and passed round. Craven, who was gazing at the blinds in a fit of abstraction, interrupted himself to refuse.

“It's very good whisky,” ventured Drummond; “none of your local-make stuff. I get it direct from Edinburgh. Try it.”

Craven turned on him a pair of fierce eyes, and opened his lips to speak. “No,” he said, after a pause; “I don't take it.”

“Well,” responded the other, “here's to our host.” Craven bowed his head slightly, but kept his face away, and was apparently listening to the storm now raging outside. Then followed more talk about wool, and shepherds, and mustering, and other matters dear to run-holders. Finally the two guests rose to go to bed, and Craven rose with them.

“Good-night,” he said, and hesitated. “Would you mind putting away that—whisky? I don't care to have it lying about the house. Please put it in some secure place.”

“Jimmy again!” laughed Drummond, and they retired to bed.

Next day it was still raining heavily, and they

  ― 138 ―
could not proceed on their way. Indeed, their visit was likely to extend longer than they had had any idea of. “For,” said Craven, “you may as well know at once that this rain will prevent you crossing the river, in all probability. How is the river, Jimmy?”

“She's up,” returned that individual, laconically.

In the upland districts of New Zealand rivers are technically said to be “up” when they are in flood; on the plains towards the sea they are said to be “down” at such a time. There was nothing for it, therefore, but to become resigned to a possible stay of a week or more, until the floods subsided, and as yet this seemed quite a pleasant idea to the travellers. They were all interested in their host and his odd surroundings; and if the outer world were only brighter, they might find a great deal to explore in the mountains at the back. Craven himself accepted the idea of their prolonged visit with apparent indifference, though he politely informed them that his house was at their disposal. As the days went on, however, his reserve thawed. The weather did clear, and there ensued several of those brilliant days peculiar to New Zealand. He accompanied them on their excursions, and showed them the most romantic scenery. Every evening the men had their pipes and the visitors their whisky; but Craven could never be persuaded to take any, and invariably requested that they would lock up the whisky somewhere.

  ― 139 ―

The days wore on with no change in their situation, and seemingly no prospect of a change. Craven had grown much more communicative and genial than he had been in the few days following their arrival. He took them to some fine cascades, found out the hiding-places of the kidney fern, which Alice expressed her determination of attempting for the tenth time to rear in town; and on one very fine day he led them by a short route to the head of a tributary of the Waitiri, where they stood upon the glacier, and wondered at the curious phenomenon of red snow which turned the slopes to the hue of blood. She was pleased to remain in this strange place, provided there was, as had been the case hitherto, some novelty each day, and provided Drummond was her companion, which he was nothing loth to be. Marion, too, was content to stay, for Craven interested her greatly. She had never met with so much reserve, so much latent strength, so much of that sense of mystery which is ever fascinating to human, and especially feminine, nature. Moreover, her interest was reciprocated, and in their excursions she very frequently found Craven her companion. His moods were changeful. At one time he talked—for him—a great deal; and referred to episodes in his past, or dilated upon some more serious problem of life in which he found his sympathies were on the whole hers. At another time he grew even gay, and told anecdotes and laughed at them; yet again, he

  ― 140 ―
was silent, even morose, and walked by her side without more than an occasional response. She felt that he must have had some great trial in his life, perhaps a loss, to which his memory sometimes harked back, and which had led him thus to ostracize himself. So grew her interest, and his kept pace with it, till, ere she was aware, the unspoken sympathy reached a dangerous point. In a fortnight or so she looked at the river each morning in fear it should have gone down. In the evenings they talked, read, and played cards—as all true bushmen do. There were no musical instruments in the house save Deardon's concertina, strains of which came to them sometimes from the stables; but Marion was induced now and then to sing, and Craven listened with quiet attention, while Crawford read in one corner, and the other two chattered incessantly in another.

On one afternoon they set out to visit some caves about eight miles away across the run, in which there were the remains of moas, the greatest of all the bird creation extinct or extant. Deardon rode with them, for he knew the most convenient route, and Crawford chatted with him. Alice and Drummond were in advance, and Craven found himself bringing up the rear with Marion. A track had been roughly cut through the bush, and two could just ride abreast, though overhanging boughs had to be dodged, and innumerable stumps of trees unstubbed in the path gave the horses excuse for stumbling perpetually.

  ― 141 ―
They had approached within a mile of the caves, when Craven, who was in a very gay mood, stopped and said:

“I want you to see a small hot spring before we go on. We can't ride, I'm afraid; but if you don't mind walking we can tie the horses here, and go through the bush to it; it's not far.”

Marion was willing to do anything, and they forthwith alighted and plunged through the close-set black birch trees. The bush here was composed almost entirely of black birch,—a name which is considerably deceptive,—and there was but little undergrowth. Not a soul had passed here since the beginning of the world. The ground was coated to a height of quite three feet with the débris and fallen leaves of ten thousand years. The black birch does not lose its leaves in winter, and so some idea may be gained of the enormous time this débris must have taken to accumulate from the accidental droppings of the trees, decayed branches, and drift from ferns and moss. Through this loose deposit, covered with a superficies of club moss, their feet sank at every step, crashing through rotten branches and the unknown sediment of time, so that progress was necessarily slow. When they reached the verge of the bush, Marion noted a vapour smoke rising from beneath a steep rise in a spur of the mountain, round the base of which they had been riding; and on a nearer approach she perceived that the vapour rose from a bubbling stream of

  ― 142 ―
boiling water, which issued from a barren cliff in the hill, and trickled away into the bush. This was the hot spring.

Craven played the showman, but seemed little interested himself, and occasionally gazed away into the distance, and then back again at his companion, with a troubled look on his face. They turned to go.

“Thank you so much,” said Marion, looking up at him. She had noted his abstraction, and her heart leapt in pity for him. He stopped walking, and taking her hand, looked down upon her from deep-set eyes with an almost pathetic intensity.

“You were like my mother, then,” he said, gently. “God help me! I broke her heart,” he shuddered; tears crept into her eyes, and, scarce knowing what she did, she pressed the hand that held hers. For a moment he roused himself, and put out one arm towards her, as if to draw her to him. The answer to his movement was soft as her eyes, but with an effort he drew back.

“Not yet,” he murmured to himself. “My God, I dare not yet—not to-day!”

The girl stood tremulous, and he put his hand upon her head.

“Will you promise me,” he said, hoarsely,—“will you promise me that nothing shall change between us till to-morrow? Promise me,” he repeated, feverishly, “nothing shall change. Tell me I may resume this—this talk to-morrow, where I leave it to-day.”

  ― 143 ―

“Yes,” she whispered, simply.

He bent and kissed her hand, and moved off quietly through the bush. They regained the track, and later joined the others at the caves.

Marion went to her room that night with a delicious tremor in her heart. She replied absently to Alice's chatter, all of which concerned Drummond, but smiled in vague sympathy at the imagined drift of her remarks. When her cousin was safely asleep, she rose from the chair on which she had been sitting, and threw open the tiny window which looked upon the bush at the back. It would be full moon to-morrow, and the sky was cloudless; the icy wind flew down from the glaciers, and frosted the panes. It was midsummer; but in New Zealand uplands there are not infrequently frosty nights after burning days. Presently she sighed, softly, for very pleasure, and closed the window, undressed, and went to bed. Her coming awoke Alice, who turned to her sleepily and asked what was the matter, and in answer Marion put her arms about her and kissed her.

Craven, too, went to bed in an unusual state of mind; but it was not all pleasure with him. He could not sleep, but turned feverishly upon his bed. “I must think,” he said to himself. “I must think. Dare I? Have I given it a sufficient trial? What are the chances? and is it no longer hopeless? Would I could believe so. Let me think.” But he could not think nor

  ― 144 ―
sleep, and his ears caught every sound in the night. It must have been long past midnight when a noise attracted his attention, a faint bleating which the river could not drown; and then followed the barking of dogs. In a moment he leapt to his feet and opened the window. The noise gained in intensity.

“By Jove, they're in the river,” he cried, and slipped on his clothes with lightning speed. Rushing out of the house, he aroused Deardon and Jimmy, and, bidding them follow him, made his way down to the river bed. The Waitiri flows in a large stream through the centre of its bed opposite the station-house, but there are several smaller channels as well, none of them very deep or wide, but sufficiently dangerous to an unfortunate sheep should he happen to fall into one of them. Immediately below the tussocky plateau upon which the house stood ran the nearest of these streams, and hither, directed by the barking, Craven made his way. As he had conjectured, a flock of sheep had come down from the uplands, had reached the edge of the plateau, and one of them taking the leap across, towards an apparently safe tuft, had fallen into the stream, and was being rapidly followed by its companions. Two of the sheep-dogs, who like their master had been aroused by the bleating, had rushed to the spot, and were trying to prevent the main body from following. But the sheep in their confusion tore this way and that,

  ― 145 ―
and leapt frantically in any direction towards any spot that caught their eyes, and the result was that destruction was going on at a quick rate. Giving the necessary orders to the dogs, and so preserving the remainder of the flock from suicide, Craven directed his attention to rescuing those in the water. The current was fairly strong, and was carrying them away as fast as they fell in, so without a moment's delay he rushed in and began hauling the fleecy bundles to the bank. Soon he was joined by Deardon and Jimmy, and between them they managed to save about half the sheep that had fallen in; the others were swept along into the main stream half a mile away.

When it was all over they went back to the house. The night was bitterly cold, and the water like ice, and they were wet from head to foot. Benumbed and cheerless, Jimmy and Deardon went off to the stables, and consoled themselves with a glass of whisky, while Craven entered the house alone. His teeth were chattering, and he felt as miserable as a man can feel without the inward glow of life. He was going back to bed when he noticed the door of the room in which they had their meals was open, and he entered. The moonlight streamed through the window on to the table, and displayed tumblers and a bottle of whisky, which Crawford and Drummond had for the first time forgotten to put away. Shivering with the intense cold

  ― 146 ―
in his bones, he drew near and put out an arm.

“It will be the death of me if I don't,” he said; “and I sha'n't get a wink of sleep.”

Slowly his hand moved towards the bottle, then he half drew back, and finally with a harsh laugh seized it, and poured himself out a small glass. He went to the window, drew a chair to the table, and sat down and tossed off the contents of his glass.