THE EXTRAORDINARY THING about this story is its absolute truth.
All tourists who scamper through New Zealand have in their tours visited the geysers at Wairakei, but none of them have seen there what I have seen. It came about with perfect naturalness. I had wandered from one pool to another, from geyser to mud spout, mud spout to goblin bath, and goblin bath to fairy terrace, till I came to a still pool, where a wild duck sat bobbing on the warm green water, undisturbed by all the noises of the wonderful gorge. A steam jet hidden in the brushwood sighed and was silent, a tiny geyser gobbled, and a big one answered it with snorts. I thrust my stick into the soft ground, and something below hissed, thrusting out a tongue of white steam. A wind moved through the scrub, and all the noises were hushed for an instant. So far there had been nothing uncommon—except geysers and blow-holes—to catch the eye. Therefore I was the more astonished when from the depths of the pool, and so quietly that even the wild duck was not scared, there rose up the head and shoulders of a woman. At first I imagined that I had better get away. But, since I had seen the face, I did not move. The woman flung back her long hair, and said, laughing:
“I—I beg your pardon,” I stammered. “But I didn’t know—I didn’t—I mean—”
“Do you mean to say that you don’t know me?” she said. “To be sure in your profession I’m more talked about than seen.”
“To whom have I the pleasure of speaking?” I said desperately—for it is not seemly to stand on a bank and talk to a woman who is swimming in the water. Besides, I felt sure that she was laughing at me.
“They call me all sorts of things,” was the reply; “but my real name is Truth. Haven’t you heard that I live in a well? This is it. It communicates directly with the other side of the world, but I generally come here for peace and quiet on a Sunday. I have some friends here.” She nodded casually up the gorge, and I heard the geysers bellow.
Natural politeness and a strong desire to see whether she was not a mermaid led me to put the next question. It came rather clumsily.
“Aren’t you going to get out?” I asked.
“I can’t. You’d die if did, because I’m the Truth, the Whole Truth, and Nothing but the Truth. No man can see me and live.” She swam a few strokes towards the bank, and rested while the steam drifted in clouds across the pool. I sat down and stared again.
“Some people,” said Truth, “would say they were pleased to meet me.”
“I’m not,” I replied. “You see, or rather I see, in the first place, that you are too unconventional, and in the second place I never believed in you—much.” This was not in the least what I meant to say, but the words came of themselves. Truth laughed.
“Shall I go away?” she said.
“This pool is private property. I’ve paid to see it. You haven’t. What do you think yourself?”
“From your point of view you‘re quite right, but—you wouldn’t care to see a fresh geyser break out just under your feet, would you? or a mud volcano? or a rift in the earth? My friends would be happy to oblige me. Shall I ask them?”
“Truth,” I said, jumping up, for the ground was shaking like a boiler-plate, “you know as well as I do that you‘re making me say unpleasant things, and now you propose to boil me alive for saying them. You’re illogical, because you’re a woman, and I’m going back to the hotel.”
“Wait a minute,” said Truth, laughing. “I want to ask you a question, and then l won’t be rude any more. How do you like New Zea——?”
“Don’t!” I shouted, “Please don’t! Let me put the answer on paper, at least.”
“Tell me now,” said Truth, “or I’ll splash hot water at you, Tell me the truth.”
“Promise me you’ll tell me anything I want to know afterwards?” I said, for I felt the answer coming, and it was not a polite answer.
“I promise,” she said, and heard my remarks out to the end.
“H’m!” she said, gravely. “One big encumbered estate, is it? Folly to play at party government when the whole population is less than half the German army? All in the hands of the banks, is it? Forty thousand horse-power to drive a hundred-ton yacht, and the country not scratched? Upon my word, you’ll get yourself dearly beloved if those are your sentiments, and you say them aloud.”
“Well, it is absurd, isn’t it, if you can run the place with three men and a boy, to start Upper Houses and Lower Houses, and pay a few hundred men to help spend borrowed money?” I persisted. I knew that I had gone too far to explain.
“I admit nothing. I’m the Truth,” she said, “and I merely wished to hear what you considered the truth. It’s your turn to ask questions now. I’ll give you five minutes to think of them.”
“Tell me the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, about New Zealand,” I said promptly.
“Banks—railways—exports—harbour boards, and so forth—eh?” She smiled wickedly. “You will find all that in books.”
“No. I want to know how the people live, and what they think, and how they die; and what makes them love and fight and trade in the particular manner in which they fight and love and trade. That isn’t in the books.”
“No—not yet,” said Truth thoughtfully, drawing her pink fingers to and fro through the water. “It will come some day.”
“That’s just what I want to know. When is it coming?”
“The story of the lives of the people here. I want to read it.”
“Perhaps they haven’t any lives. You said they were all in the hands of the banks. How can you expect an encumbered estate, mortgaged to the hilt, to have a life of its own?”
“Truth, you’re prevaricating. You know I didn’t mean that. Banks have nothing to do with the inside lives of peoples. I have not the key to the stories myself, but they are here in the country somewhere—thousands of them. When are they going to be written, Truth, and how are they going to be written, and who are going to write them?”
“My young men and my young women. All in good time. You can’t fell timber with one hand and write a tale with the other. But they’ll come, and when they come—”
“The world will listen to them. Do you remember coming through some dense bush fifty miles down the road? Well, half a mile from the road, down in a gully among the tree ferns, there lies the body of a man under the butt of a great pine tree. He loved a woman at a sheep station—one of the women who serve up the ‘colonial goose’ to the tourist when he stops at the wooden shanties with the chemists’ presentation almanacks on the walls—a red-faced raddled woman who talks about ‘ke-ows,’ and ‘bye-bies.’ He was one of three lovers!”
“Whew!” I said. “That sounds like an old story.”
“Yes, it is an old story—otherwise it wouldn’t be new. And that woman in her sloppy, slatternly house among the fern-hills where the sheep live, played with those three lovers as a Duchess might have done; and the drovers and the sheep-men came down the road and said most awful things. She took her sentiment and her heroics out of the bound volumes of the Family Herald and Bow Bells—you’ve seen the tattered copies in the wooden houses on the tables where the painted kerosene lamp stands, haven’t you? But her iniquity was all her own. Two of her lovers were just sheep-men, but the third was a remittance-man, if you know what that is, and he had been a gentleman in England who thought a good deal of himself.”
“And she killed him?”
“No, he killed himself. At least, after some things had happened, he went out into the bush and carefully backscarfed a big tree so that it would fall in one particular direction, and stood there when it fell. Now he will become a rata-vine. Remember, he had loved her for three years and put up with everything at her chapped hands.”
“So she did kill him.”
“That comes of knowing too much. He killed himself after a good think, wholly and solely on account of a girl in England whom he had no chance whatever of winning. I think he realised that competing with sheep-men for stolen kisses behind corrugated iron sheds was not nice; and that showed him several other things. So he died, and the husband, of course, had to get a new hand for the shearing. But she believes that she killed him and—she is rather proud of it.”
“Truth, who is going to tell that story?”
“I don’t quite know. Perhaps one of her children, or grandchildren, as soon as the spirit of the fern hills—they are very lonely, you know—and the snow mountains has entered into his blood. Yes, it shall be one of her children (that is to say, one of his children) and he shall lie under wool-drays in summer, and sleep with his back on a salt-bag, and his heels on a bag of harness, and be frozen and sun-tanned, and ride long rides at night, fording rivers, to make love to big, round-faced girls, till he finds that story. Then he will tell it and a hundred thousand things with it, and the world will say, ‘This is the truth, because it is written so.’”
“Afterwards he may try to tell other stories as good as the first. If he tries he’ll fail, but there are thousands more. Hark! Do you hear nothing?”
Under my very feet there was the dull thud as of a steam-hammer in a mine—a thud that rippled the still waters of the pool and struck the geysers dumb.
“What’s that?” I asked, wondering and afraid.
“It’s down in the guide-book as a Natural Phenomenon. But you have heard of the Roaring Loom of Time, haven’t you? That‘s the shuttle clicking through the web, and you know who the Weavers are?”
I bowed my head and was silent, having no wish to meet the Fates yet.
“They are busy today,” Truth continued. “It is no easy work to weave the souls of men into their surroundings. So far, they have done little. The men don’t belong to the mountains and the plains and the swamps and the snow passes and the fiords and the thick fat grazing land—and the women, of course, poor dears, they belong to the men. But in time the men will be of the land, and write of the land and the life of the land as they have seen it and as they know it. Then the people will know themselves, and wonder at their own lives. There is a girl-baby nearly a thousand miles away from here. Her father found a pass through the Southern Alps, and good grazing ground the other side. So he stole people’s sheep, drove them through that pass, and was well to do till people found him out and he disappeared. That girl has lived among the mountains and the snow rivers all her days. She knows how the water comes down cold as ice, and chokes men and horses, and tosses them out on the shingle a dozen miles down stream. Some day, I think, she will sing up there among the mountains, and half the world will listen. After her will come others—women—and they will tell how women love men in this country, and all the women all over the world will listen to that.”
“Won’t that be rather an old story?” I demanded.
“Of course it will (Eve loved Adam very much, I remember), but you forget what the hills and the clouds and the winds and the rain and the sun can do. Remember how nearly some parts of this land run into the tropics, and wait till you hear them sing.”
I remembered at once and sat corrected.
“But won’t they imitate Shelley and Tennyson, and Mrs Browning?”
“At first, naturally. When they belong to their own country you will hear what you will hear.”
“And what shall I hear?”
Truth was silent for a while, and then raising one shapely arm from the water, said softly:—“Listen now! Listen and see!” The thud of the loom beneath me ceased, and the dead air became full of voices, thickened into shadows that took form and became men and women, before my amazed eyes.
A man with a shaggy red beard and deep sunk eyes strode forward scowling; and with savage gestures and a hundred hurrying colonial oaths, told a tale of riotous living, risk of life, sorrow, despair, and death. “I have suffered this, and I have suffered that, and my tale is true,” he cried. A woman cumbered with many children, but in whose face there were few wrinkles followed, and—“Our lives were very quiet in Christchurch,” she said, “as quiet as the river, and—and I thought, perhaps, that if I wrote just our little lives—for the children, you understand . . . But, oh!”——she clutched my arm nervously—— “it—it has just been the saving of our house.”
Truth laughed tenderly as the woman passed on, gathering her children round her.
“She will be taught through Poverty,” said Truth; “but thousands of mothers will laugh and cry over her tale.”
The men came next, assured and over-confident some, crippled and doubting others, but each with his tale to tell of the land he knew, the loves he had loved, and the life that lay about him. There were tales of the building of new cities; desperate intrigue for diversions of the local railroad; of railway frauds; local magnate pitted against local magnate, both fighting furiously, first for their own pockets, and next for the interests of their towns; tales of gumdigging under the dusty manuka scrub, and dreams of lost loves and lost hopes in the dead-houses of the country pubs; stories of the breaking of new lands, where the wisdom of men said that there was not feed for a rat; of Toil that began before dawn and lasted far into the starlight, when men, women, and children worked together for the sake of their home, amid the scarred and blackened stumps; stories of unclean politics, swayed by longshore loafers drowzing at wharf ends, and, in an almost virgin land, clamouring for the aid of a spineless Government; of money paid to three or four hundred of these who dared not work, and for each payment of a thousand pounds twenty times that much capital scared from a land that, on its own confession, was as hopeless as an eight-hundred-year-old island. Lastly, a change sudden and surprising, in the midst of this keen-voiced strife. I heard tales of gentle lives, as sheltered in the midst of the turmoil as the ferns in the gorge—lives of ease, elegance, and utter peace, begun under the trailing willows, where the little children go to school, two and three together, astride of the old bare-backed horse, and ended in some well-kept cemetery, looking seaward to America. They were old tales, but upon each lay the stamp, inimitable and indescribable, of a new land and of fresh minds turning the thought, old as Adam, to lights as new as the latest road across the mountains. And, Heavens! how they gambled and swore and drank in the pauses between the crises, thinking no shame of themselves, having no fear, and reverence only for that which was indubitably and provedly stronger than themselves. But there were liars, too, among the crowd, smooth-faced men who shaped their work as they conceived that other folk would best approve, and a few of those unhappy souls whose fate it is to pile up wealth of fact and fiction that stronger people may raid into it at will. I caught one wail of a weak-lipped shadow:—“But I—but I wrote all this before, and another has merely re-written my work, and he gets the credit. It was I—it was I!”
“He will suffer,” said Truth. “With his temperament he will probably die; but it is necessary. Hark to the women now. They tell the old story well.”
I listened as the shades went by—of girls too early dead—sterile blossoms whose only fruit was a song; of hard-featured Scotchwomen preaching wittily and wisely with illustrations drawn from the rainy wind-swept South, the fear of the Lord that goes to the making of home; of mothers driven by bitter grief and loss to soothe the grief of others, marvelling in their simplicity that they could so soothe; and of maidens who had never known love, and therefore told his power and his beauty till heartstrings quivered twelve thousand miles away. Since they were women they sang chiefly of the things about their homesteads, the orange-ribbed black velvet of the burnt fern-hills, the windy plains overlooked by the mountains whose scaurs are the faces of dead kings, the jade-green rivers with the oily swirls in them that run through the bush and take away the lives of little children playing at the back of the house, the long breathless days when the iron roof works uneasily over the new wood framing, expanding till noon and contracting till night, when you hear the buzzing of the flies about the face of the sick one under the roof, and outside the rush of the wild horses, their twilled manes flying free over the shoulder point, across the crackling, dried swamp-bed as it reels in the sun-haze. There was always a man in their songs—a man who went away and never came back, a face seen on horseback for a day and lost for evermore, or some treachery of a man with only the black stumps for witness to the sin, or a drowned man brought up from the river-bed at night through the grass that he had planted only that spring—only that spring. The shades passed, and the click and thud of the unseen loom recommenced.
“Well,” said Truth, “you have seen?”
“It is very well,” I answered. “But when does it begin?”
“Oh, I forgot that you people die so soon. In five years, in fifty, in five hundred. What does it matter to me?”
“Will it be in my time?” I asked eagerly. I wanted to hear some of the tales again.
“I cannot say. Perhaps—some of it—if you live long enough. Be content to know that it is coming.”
“In this country alone, Truth?”
“In every country that has not spoken as yet, and as surely as sunlight follows morning. You have seen the beginnings of it. Have faith. There is such a little time to wait.”
Once more Truth was forgetting the limitations of man’s life, and I did not care to remind her. I was thinking of the future, and the voices of all those shadows who had told me their tales. The more I meditated, the more magnificent did the prospect appear.
“What are you thinking of?” said Truth. “The banks and the loans again?”
“No. I’m thinking,” I responded loftily, for Truth was only a woman, and could not be expected to understand these things, “of the Future of Colonial Literature!”
“What?” said Truth, with a touch of scorn in her voice.
I repeated the words, emphasising the capitals.
“Oh, hear him!” she cried, lifting up her face to the fern-wreathed rocks around. “One short-lived son of Adam, who may die tomorrow, splitting his tiny world into classes, and labelling them, like dead butterflies. What do you mean”—she looked me in the face—“by Colonial Literature?”
“Oh—er—stuff written in the colonies, and all that sort of thing, y’know.” I couldn’t understand why Truth was so angry. The loom thundered under my feet till the sand by the pool shook.
“Isn’t the stuff, as you call it, written by men and women? Do the Weavers down below there at the loom make anything else but men and women? And, until you step off this world can you expect anything more than stories of the lives of men and women written by men and women? What manner of monsters live in your part of the world,” she concluded, “that you speak so blindly?”
“Fools,” I said, penitently. “Just fools, Truth. I’m one of ’em, and you’re right. It’s only men and women that we have to think of all the world over. But,” I added, remembering another country across the seas, “these people will be quite as foolish as myself when their time comes, won’t they?”
“I’m afraid so,” said Truth, with a smile, “they will be only men and women.”
“Ah!” I said triumphantly, “they will talk rubbish about a Distinctively Colonial Literature, a Freer Air, Larger Horizons, and so forth. They’ll vex ’emselves with unholy comparisons between their work and other people’s work. They’ll flatter each other and write of the Oamaru Shakespeare, and the Timaru Tennyson, and the Dunedin Dryden, and the Thursday Island Thackeray, won’t they?”
“They will,” said Truth. “(When did you leave America, by the way?) Some of the people here will do all those things, and more also. What else can you expect? They are only men and women, but those who make the noise will not be the people who tell the stories.”
“Thanks. That’s all I wanted to know. The banks can look after themselves. You are sure that the tales will come?”
“I have said so, and you have heard. Good-bye!”
Truth nodded and disappeared under the water. I watched the ripples stupidly, and not till they died away did I remember that I had a hundred questions to ask. Only the wild duck at the far end of the pool did not look as if it could answer them.
. . . . .
That same afternoon, riding in the buggy with Sam the Maori, across a new land teeming with new stories to which, alas, I had neither clue nor key, it occurred to me that I had largely discounted the future. But when I came to the sea coast and found a ten-thousand-soul town up to its tree-ferns in debt for a quarter-million pound harbour, the sand faithfully following each pile of the futile breakwater, and a sixty-thousand-soul town with municipal offices that might have served Manchester or Liverpool, I perceived that I was in good company.
You see, New Zealand is bound to pay her unwritten debt. Truth said so, and I have seen the assets. They are sufficient securities.
The other things are not of the slightest importance.