CAPTIVITY

CHAPTER XXIII

The hut was on the edge of a great patch of gorse that Mr. Twist said stretched for twenty acres or more, right to the limit of his holding. It was giant gorse, quite unlike the mild edition of it found in England. In many places it towered above the hut and the stems were almost as thick as tree-trunks, while the spines played havoc with clothes and skin. It was burnt dry now, by the sun. In the cooler weather, Mr. Twist said, the whole place was a golden blaze of bloom.

The cottage consisted of three rooms, built on the same plan as the Homestead. The middle room was a sort of kitchen. There was a big table and a bench of planed wood.

"There isn't a grate," said Mr. Twist, "they got their rations up at the house, you see." The absence of a fire-place did not trouble Marcella. She had often cooked on Wullie's open fire at Lashnagar, and Louis quickly explained that he would make a bush oven outside. Neither of the rooms leaning against the kitchen had any furniture, but Mrs. Twist seemed to have laid in a whole ship's stores of navy hammocks, which she said they could have until Louis had carpentered bed for them. There were hundreds of very fat, furry spiders who crawled about solemnly and fell with heavy bodies down swift silken threads as Marcella opened the door of the bedroom.

For the next few days they certainly did not earn their wages. They were like two children with a new doll's house, and at the end of the week the hut was unrecognizable. Louis, unskilfully busy with saw, hammer and nails put up a shelf for the box of books they were going to get from Mrs. King's as soon as someone went into Cook's Well to take a letter. Marcella wished a little that she had some money to buy things for her house, but it was the sort of wish she found it easy to conquer and when, in a spirit of mischief she took the tar brush with which Louis had been caulking the sides of the hut, and tarred CASTLE LASHCAIRN on the corrugated roof, she saw Castle Lashcairn rising there.

"After all, imaginary castles are the best," she told Louis after two days spent in clearing away dust and spiders, and limewashing the interior. "It only needs imaginary cleaning."

He was surveying his new white shelf on which the matronly Mrs. Beeton seemed to incline towards the sober black New Testament and give a cold shoulder to the lean-looking "Questing Cells" and the slim "Parsifal." He had made and patented a very wonderful reflector for their little lamp by cutting and bending a kerosene tin in such a way that it mirrored six times the light inside. Sitting out on the verandah he thought out the details of an arm-chair to be made out of a barrel Mr. Twist had given him. They sat on the edge of the verandah, their legs swinging. He was smoking—very distastefully—a pipe because there was plenty of strong shag at the Homestead but no cigarettes. Marcella had been watching him; it had amazed her to see how much more calmly he had taken the cigarette famine than she had guessed possible.

"If I can go on like this, dearie," he said at last, "there'll be no more bogeys. I've been busy—and very happy this last week. If I'm kept busy—"

"You'll be kept busy," she said, smiling. "When we've cleared the twenty acres of gorse it's all to be ploughed and planted. And when that's done and there isn't a single other thing to do, we'll start to tunnel a hole through the middle of the earth to Lashnagar, like they did in Jules Verne's book."

"I'm keeping my body occupied," he went on slowly. "The point is, will that satisfy my brain, and all of me?"

She looked down the little slope on the top of which Castle Lashcairn stood. The five gum trees stretched up to the cloudless night sky; a few hundred yards away the lake glimmered, star-reflecting and still. To the left the lamp of the Homestead glowed, and "Oh Dry Those Tears" started to groan out. Marcella waited for the line that almost sounded like a collection of bass "brrrrrs" and then she spoke.

"If you can forget yourself, my dear—get swallowed up," she said gently, and a silence fell between them.

The days drew into weeks. Castle Lashcairn grew more and more beautiful; the books arrived from Sydney and kept sentry on the white shelf. Several of her unnecessary frocks Marcella made into cushions stuffed with dried lucerne which made a most interesting crackling noise when one leaned against them. Louis spent most of his Sundays in making a cot for his son but his fatal lack of thoroughness was a drawback, for it seemed to come to pieces as quickly as he got it together. Marcella looked after the fowls and the cows; she did most of the cooking at the Homestead; she got the children beyond the hanger and pothook stage of writing and filled their minds, hitherto worried by family cares, with legend and fairy-tale. She wrote often to Dr. Angus, and he sent her books and garden seeds. All the time she and Louis never found a moment in which to be idle; about eleven o'clock every day she took his lunch across the clearing to him; she collaborated a good deal with Mrs. Beeton in making various ambitious dishes for him, but as they were almost entirely made of mutton, "standard" flour and eggs, there was not much variety. When the fried sheep had lived too long before being killed, or been kept too long after death, they spent considerable time looking at the pretty pictures in the cookery book: Marcella told of Wullie's feasts in the beach-hut. Louis remembered restaurant celebrations. But they were always too hungry to care much what they ate; the most leathery damper, the most difficult mutton was pleasant eaten out of doors in the faint smoke of the gorse fires.

During the afternoons she helped with the gorse grubbing. Before the great bushes could be approached they had to be fired, and she loved to watch the golden blaze flare swiftly to the sky, leaving a pall of grey smoke through which the carbonized gorse branches shone gold for a moment in a fairy tracery before crumbling to white ash on the ground. Then they had to take pickaxes and mattocks, chisels and spades to chop down the parent stem and uproot the smallest leader from the roots. Gorse is very tenacious of life. A root of only a few inches will spring up to a great tree in an incredibly short time, especially on virgin soil fertilized by many burnings.

They had faces perpetually blackened by smoke. Marcella worked with an oilskin bathing-cap sent by Mrs. King, over her hair; she wore an old blue overall on which the spines of the gorse had worked havoc. And still she would not be ill to fall in with Louis's preconceived notions; living an absolutely normal, rather tough life, hardened by her father's Spartanism, she found that a natural process made very little difference to her. To Louis's real distress she swam in the lake every morning; what he could not understand was that she had scarcely, even yet, awakened to consciousness of her body. Once or twice in her queer ecstasies, once or twice in Sydney the sleep within her had stirred and stretched and opened her eyes; from the force of the stirring and stretching she had gathered an impression of something immensely strong. But it had not yet risen and walked about her life yet.

One day she went across the clearing to Louis, through the smoke wreaths that were being gently swayed to and fro by a soft wind. In a blue shirt open at the neck, shewing a triangle of brown chest, he looked very different from the effeminate Louis of the Oriana. Just as she reached him, looking at him instead of the rough ground, all rutted with uptorn roots, she slipped and almost fell. In an instant his arm, taut and strong, was round her. She laughed and drew away from him.

"I was looking at you coming along here, Marcella," he said. "Do you know what you remind me of?"

"Dinner?" she said, sitting down to unpack the basket of food.

"No—a Maori woman."

"Louis! A savage?"

"They aren't savages. But after all, savage doesn't mean anything but wild, untamed. You're that, you know, old lady. Untamed even by motherhood. And I'd have thought that would have tamed even Petruchio's handful. But this Maori woman I was thinking about was in the King Country in New Zealand—You know, I'd read 'The Blue Lagoon' and thought it a bit overdrawn."

"What is it?" she interrupted, pointing to the food imperiously.

"It's about a girl and a boy living on a desert island, and she has a baby without turning a hair. Remembering my nerve-racking experience of maternity in the Borough I thought Stacpoole was rather talking without his book. But when I saw this Maori I felt like sending him my humble apologies by wireless. The tribe was trekking. I was with them for months, you know, in the Prohibition Country. My diagnostic eye had foreseen a birthday and, as a matter of fact, I was getting rather funky and wishing I had Hermann's 'Midwifery' to swot up. I saw myself the hero of the occasion, don't you know, dashing in to save her life, miles from civilization. One morning we were camping by a hot spring for the women to do some cooking and washing. My patient disappeared with an old thing we called Aunt Maggie. Presently we trekked again, and I was feeling horribly uneasy about her, when I nearly dropped. There she was, sailing along in the midst of the other women, with the kid in her arms, looking as cool as a cucumber! Lord, I did feel small!"

He laughed reminiscently, and lighted his pipe.

"It seems right to me," she said, looking away through the drifting smoke. "Why should the coming of life mean pain for someone?"

"Don't know, old lady. But it does. I say, how do you think I'm getting on?"

They looked across the clearing and felt rather proud.

"I love it," he said simply, "taking nature in hand a bit—she's a wicked old harridan, isn't she? A naughty old lady gone wrong! Look at that gorse! We'll have spuds here in no time, and then, in a few years, wheat. I feel I'm making a dint on the face of the earth at last. In a hundred year's time, when I'm forgotten, the effect of these few months' work will be felt. I say, am I talking hot air?"

"Not a bit. But let's do a bit more—Jerry calls it scene-shifting."

She tossed the last piece of cake to an inquisitive kookaburra who had been watching the meal optimistically, with bright eyes and nodding head. It was a triumph, this cake—in several ways. The stationmaster at Cook's Wall had built his "bosker hotel" at last, and had made it a store at which one could buy fruit, jam, sugar and various luxuries. Louis had been in twice to the store lately, and had actually remembered the seed-cake on the Oriana when he saw caraway seeds in the store. He volunteered the information that there was whisky for sale at the store, but did not mention whether he had wanted to buy it or not.

He got up, taking the mattock. Marcella began to fight a great stem running along the ground.

"Devilish stuff," he said, turning back to look at her. "See that little patch over there?"

She nodded, following his eyes. A brisk little gorse bush was bursting from the ground. A few feet away another was keeping it company.

"Devilish stuff!" he repeated. "Just like a cancer—in pathology. You chop the damned thing out, root and branch, and there it pops out again, miles away from where it started. Look at that piece there."

He attacked the little plant with rather unnecessary severity and dug up a thin, tough, cord-like root which he threw on the fire savagely.

"Louis, do you remember that schoolmaster on the Oriana?" she asked suddenly, staring thoughtfully at the long, thin leaders.

"Oh, that ass who sat in my chair? Yes. Why?"

"He told me a fearful thing about cancer."

"He would—blighted idiot. What was it?"

She hesitated a minute.

"He said he'd read in some book—he was always reading queer books—that cancer was an elemental that had taken possession of one's body. A horribly preying, parasitic life—feeding on one's body—Ugh, it made me feel sick! And it's so cruel, really, to say things like that. He seemed to suggest that elementals were something unclean that could not come except to unclean people. And—mother died of cancer. And mother was very beautiful."

"Well, you can tell the footling ass from me that he's a thumping liar. Elemental grandmother! Let me tell you this much—cancers come from one thing only, and that's irritation—injury, often. Corsets, sometimes—or a blow—If I were to thump you—"

He laughed, and turned away.

"Yes, I know," she said quietly. She was thinking of that stormy scene between her father and the two doctors when the faint smell of chloroform crept round her at the farm while she waited outside on the landing.



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