|Cryptozoology, BioForteana, Zoological Oddities, Unusual Natural History|
Last of the Race
William Fryer Harvey
Little Billy Mungo, who kept the Accommodation House on Jackson's Sound, refused to believe in them. Flinders, who had prospected the whole country for coal, and was besides a naturalist, had seen them himself. He said that they were the footprints of a large apteryx.
But old Macnaughten, whisky sodden and argumentative, still held to his original opinion, that somewhere between Te Anau and the sea there was a new birdrather a bird so old that with its death the race would become extinct.
And though in Pembroke, where Macnaughten spent his money, the man's story was taken for what it was worth, there was something in it that rang true.
So at least thought Tradescant, as he sat listening to the fellow, watching his reserve thaw beneath the combined influence of the whisky and the naturalist's congenial company.
"I ought to know," said Macnaughten; "I've seen apteryx by the hundred in the North Island, and I've killed them too before the Government made their regulations. I've seen the mud by the lake shore covered with their footprints, and I'll bet my bottom dollar that not a single one was over three inches long. Why, those I saw in the bush that spring were twice as big. And Flinders says it's an apteryx! I measured them myself, and that'll tell you if I lie!"
He took out of his pocket a slip of brown paper with two marks in pencil about eight inches apart. To Tradescant the proof hardly seemed conclusive.
"I'll tell you how I first came across them," he continued. "I was working on my own, trying to find a new route to the West Coast Sounds from this side. It was just at this time of the year, and the weather was cold, and there was rain. I'd been out all day, and when at night I came to the place where I was camping, there were footprints everywhere. The bird had been looking for something to eat. I've seen them every year since, barring last year. This much I'll say. They're not so common as they were. Have you ever seen a feather like that before?" He took out of his leather purse a scrap of newspaper, and a little piece of down lay on the table.
Tradescant took it up, held it in his hand, and after carefully scrutinising it with his lens, handed the feather back to Macnaughten.
"My dear fellow," he said, "I've seen hundreds of feathers like that. Open your pillow case when you go home, and you'll find a few more."
"By God!" exclaimed Macnaughten, "you mean I'm a liar?"
"Hardly that," the other replied. "I mean that I don't believe you. I should be glad to listen to anything more you have to say when I've seen your footprints."
There was silence in the room, silence broken only by the ticking of the cheap alarm clock on the mantelpiece.
Then Macnaughten spoke.
"Look here," he said; "I'm a poor man, but I've got brains, and I know how to use them. When I left England, a thick-headed fool could always earn a shilling a day and his keep by standing outside the barrack doors. Give me what your blasted Tommy gets for a week, and I'll show you them. If I don't, I'll call Flinders a gentleman to his face!"
"Very well," said Tradescant, and he drank to the bargain.
. . . . . . .
He was standing alone in the heart of the New Zealand bush. Macnaughten had left him three hours ago. He had done what he had promised to do, and it was no business of his, if the conceited English fool lost himself before he reached Mungo's Accommodation House.
As for the bird, Macnaughten had no fears of it ever being discovered by a man who took that feather for goose's down, by a naturalist who called a kea a hawk, and who asked if there had ever been kangaroos in the island.
Macnaughten could have laughed in his face; but then he never saw Tradescant as he knelt in the mud, scanning eagerly that faint impression on its surface, smelling it like a dog. He had only donned for a short week the unpopular but effective disguise of ignorance.
. . . . . . .
Tradescant had taken stock of his belongings. In his knapsack was food that might at a pinch last for three days. He had his maps and his compass.
"One cigarette," he said, "and then my last little bid for fame."
His whole life was traversed, from the time between the lighting of the match to when, five minutes later, the glowing stump burned his fingers.
His whole life was traversed. Perhaps that was why the cigarette was not so pleasant as it might have been.
He had made so many mistakes.
There was the mistake of ever being born, that all the future honour of his family should have been left to him alone to augment or mar. There was the mistake of his marriage; though perhaps that was not a mistake, but only a tragedy. Then there was that awful failure of his scientific career. It was intolerable that, after spending the ten best years of his life in perfecting his discovery, an American, with all his nation's luck, should have proved and published the identical thing six months before his work was finished. He who should have been first, followed with the rest of the honourably mentioned.
It was a mistake Jack dying as he did at Eton, just the boy any man would have wished for an only son.
Perhaps the least of all his mistakes was this wild goose chase.
For Tradescant had sickened of the laboratory. The vibrations of the ether which had fascinated him of old, had become too intangible. And here he was in the heart of the primeval forest with the old ancestral passion for nature strong upon him.
A Maori carving had first put the idea into his head, and then he had seen a paragraph in an evening paper at Christchurch.
"My boy's dead," he said to himself, as he gazed at the grey cigarette ash, "but I'll hand my name down to posterity somehow, and this bird shall do it. 'Apteryx Tradescantii, Number 999 in the catalogue. Unique.' Yes, little bird, I'm afraid your days are numbered."
He shouldered his knapsack and followed the footprints into the bush.
The evening of the third day found Tradescant wet through, sitting at the foot of a giant totara. He had lit a fire of the driest twigs he could find, and was warming himself before the spluttering flame.
It was a foolish thing to do, for the bird was not far away now; all day the footprints had been fresher, and he knew that the smoke might frighten it.
But he was chilled to the bone, and felt certain of his success.
His face, as he bent over the flame, glowed; he was beginning almost to enjoy the cleansing feel of the three days' rain. And all the time his hand never left the barrel of his gun. He fondled it, stroking the dull metal lovingly.
What days those had been! The mid-day gloom of the forest with its wealth of timber, the rippling of the streams, English streams where English trout would thrive far better than in limpid Hampshire waters or brown North Country becks.
Then the scarlet wonder of a late flowering rata, that giant parasite of the forest; the scramble up the slopes where the tree ferns no longer showed their shabby dressing of faded fronds, and nothing but shrub and thorn found root on the shelving screes.
Was it yesterday or the night before that he had camped high up on the hill, and had seen to the eastward the snow-clad range of the Southern Alps rise cold and ghostly against the blue night with its strange stars?
Then there was the moment when, kneeling to pick a gentian, he had found the feather, and the feelings of love and wonder which the flower had aroused in him, suddenly changed into one of strange lust and hate, as he held the grey little piece of fluff in his palm.
There was the wonder of the rain, too. The torrents that scoured the hillsides, the shrouding mist. And, best of all, three hours ago, when he had come to an impenetrable thicket of some dark-leaved thorny plant, to find more feathers, and, how his heart had exulted, a little patch of blood.
Tradescant was fondling his gun as twenty years before he had fondled his boy.
. . . . . .
He arose in the morning stiff and with a fever. There was only half a round of bread in his wallet, and this he kept, breakfasting on the contents of his flask. From his sodden maps he calculated that he could not be more than twenty miles from a civilisation, represented by ten tin roofs and a beer and spirit licence. This was to be the last day's hunt.
The rain had not ceased all night, the streams were rivers, but Tradescant did not heed. He could hear now and then a monotonous piping ahead, and now and then the cracking of twigs.
The bird was leading him into the valley, and by mid-day he had reached the spot where two streams joined, a narrow tongue of land jutting between. Here he stopped, uncertain what course to pursue. Then he felt a sudden throbbing in the arteries of his neck. A tree had fallen across the smaller of the two streams, forming a natural bridge, and in the centre stood his bird. Of this much he could be sure, that no bird like this had ever before been seen by a white man. It was perhaps four feet high, almost wingless, as Tradescant had surmised, and covered with a softly-dappled plumage.
The man waited till the bird had reached a point where its body would fall clear of the water, took steady aim, and fired. The shot rang through the bush sharp and clear; the bird gave a shrill pipe, and half-fluttered to the tongue of land.
"Missed!" said Tradescant, "but I'll kill you yet."
It was no easy thing to cross the river, swollen with the three days' rain. The only way was to follow the bird.
Creeping on hands and knees, clutching the slippery bark with bleeding fingers, he had almost reached the further side when there was a cracking underneath him.
The bridge had broken. A minute's frantic scramble, with the water rushing below his dangling legs, while branches struck him in the face, and he was on firm ground again.
Then a mighty log, carried down in mid-stream, crashed against the broken tree and bore it away.
Of a truth the floods were out.
The spit he was on was low and sandy. There was little to hinder the flight of the bird. Tradescant began to run.
He ran a hundred yards, and then he burst out laughing, for he was on an island. The bird had gone into a death- trap. There it stood by the water side, flapping the useless wings, uttering its monotonous pipe. Tradescant had laughed, now he smiled, his old sarcastic smile, for he realised that if the bird had walked into its death-trap, it was to be his own too. Between the island and the further bank, there was a brown flood three hundred yards across, and he was no swimmer.
"But I've got the bird."
It did not resist. The bird opened its long, thin beak and made a faint hissing sound, as Tradescant, after tying the legs together, swung it over his shoulder. At the end of the island stood the stump of a tree, hollowed, and affording shelter from the rain. The ground around it was higher than elsewhere.
There he sat and waited. After a time he felt in his pocket for a piece of cord. He was no fisherman, and had always been clumsy with his fingers, but he finally succeeded in making a running noose to his liking, and slipped it over the bird's neck.
It was not perhaps the simplest way of killing it, but the body would not be spoiled. He tightened it, and the bird opened its mouth and began to gape, beating its wings.
"Come," said Tradescant, "no fuss, and don't look at me in that pathetic way, as if you'd never deserved this. It's the way of the world! Confound it!" he said, "the bird struggles too much. I shall have to postpone the operation," and he loosened the knots. "Cheer up, bird!" he said, addressing the beast. "I have no wish to put you to unnecessary discomfort. Now no shamming! When my boy carried on as you are doing now, I used to call him Charles Edward, known to history as the Young Pretender. Pluck up courage, Charles Edward, the date of your execution for the time being is postponed."
The south wind was bitterly cold; it might have come straight from the Antarctic icebergs, and the rain was turning to sleet.
Late in the afternoon, Tradescant awoke with a sense of warmth he had not felt all day. The bird had crept within his coat and now lay nestling close.
"A remarkably good idea, Charles Edward," he said. "I appreciate your returning good for evil in this way, and overlook the fact that your ulterior motive was probably selfish. If you'll excuse me one moment I'll ring for tea. I beg pardon, I was forgetting where I was. But I can still offer you refreshment. I have here," he continued, "brandy and bread. The brandy, I am informed, will cause a temporary dilation of the skin capillaries, accompanied by a feeling of warmth, which, however, is shortly followed by slight cardiac and nervous depression. As a stimulant it should only be used under exceptional circumstances and with moderation. I think we may call these circumstances exceptional. The state of the flask forbids excess. You decline the brandy? Let me call your attention to the bread, I believe a large part of its nutritious constituents has been removed in the process of manufacture, but it contains a percentage of carbohydrate varying from 55 per cent. in the best white bread, to 40 per cent. in the coarser varieties. The sample I hold in my hand would be classed among the coarse varieties. As a food, it far exceeds the value of the alcohol. Estimable bird! You choose the bread. It would have been my own choice, but you are my guest."
The bird pecked greedily at the crumbs Tradescant offered it, and showed the whites of its eyes every time it swallowed.
As the brandy reached the brain, the man began to laugh.
"Charles Edward!" he said, "has it ever struck you how grotesque it is, that I, the last of my family, should be sitting talking to you, the last of yours? We came over with the Conqueror. Tell me something about your ancestors!
"My dear bird, if you must yawn in that shockingly rude manner, do put your flapper in front of your mouth. If you have no objection to make, I now intend to go for a short stroll."
He had hardly walked a dozen yards when he came to the edge of the island. While he gazed, he saw the water rising inch by inch. Out in mid-stream the sodden body of a sheep was carried by. It was held for a minute entangled in the branches of a tree; then the eddy swept it clear, and bumping against logs and boulders, the yellow water washed it downwards. Far up the glen Tradescant heard the bleating of a solitary lamb.
After ten minutes, Tradescant walked back to the hollow trunk; the fever was still upon him. He was delirious now.
"There's no sign of the carriage yet," he said, addressing the bird, "so we must shelter here as best we can. You'll have to sit close. I'm afraid your feet will be simply sopping, and you'll catch your death of cold, but if you were such a goose to come out" Then he broke off laughing.
"Not goose," he said, "I'm forgetting myself, Apteryx. Apteryx Tradescantii. That's what I meant.
"And by the way, that reminds me I wanted to ask you about your wings. What's the use of having wings if you can't fly with them? I've often been told that I have wings myself, and my friends tell me that I ought to try and fly, and all I can do is to flop, flop, along the ground just like you. There's something wrong there, you know, Charles Edward."
Tradescant laughed again the high-pitched senseless laugh of delirium. He no longer saw the water rising inch by inch, making the ground at his feet a sponge-like mass. It was of the past he was thinking, of the other Charles Edward, his boy. And amid the rain thresh, his voice drowned by the turbulent cry of the stream, he talked to the phantasms he saw.
The bird crept nearer to its strange companion, it no longer seemed to fear him. And he putting out his hand, drew it towards him, wrapping it in his coat.
"Keep close, and don't gape, Charles Edward. One of us may weather it yet. Half a minute though; I was forgetting there are advantages in the appurtenances of civilisation, even in the bush!"
He searched in his pocket-book and took out a card,
Mr. Montague Tradescant,
On the back, his half-numbed fingers scribbled
He tied the slip of pasteboard to the cord around the bird's throat.
"It's awfully cold," he said. "I'll tuck you up, and then we'll both go to sleep, and I think I owe you an apology for hustling you so, the last three days. Good-night!"
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