Authors: Maurice Gee
Under the Mountain
Published by the Penguin Group
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Published in Puffin Books, 1979
Copyright © Maurice Gee 1979
The right of Maurice Gee to be identified as the author of this work in terms of section 96 of the Copyright Act 1994 is hereby asserted.
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A catalogue record for this book is available from the National Library of New Zealand.
For Emily and Abigail
One afternoon on a farm outside a small town in the King Country two children wandered into the bush and were lost. They were twins, a brother and sister, three years old. Their father was mending fences. For more than half an hour he did not notice they were gone. When he looked up and saw the empty paddock, the bush, the brown cold river, he had the dreadful feeling that his children were lost forever.
He ran up the river bank, calling their names. He plunged into the bush. For an hour he searched, growing more frightened, more frenzied. Then he ran back to his truck and roared across the fields to his house. He shouted to his wife in the kitchen, rang the police, rang neighbours; and by late afternoon a hundred men and women, many with dogs, were searching the river banks and bush by the farm. They found nothing. The sun went down behind the black hills west of the town. Darkness came. Winter is hard in this part of the North Island. The morning paddocks are white as though under snow. A frost of ten degrees was expected that night.
One man in the town had not heard of the search. He was just passing through. He was an old man and did not look as if he would have been much help anyway. The waitress at the hotel brought him his soup. She slopped it on the tablecloth and apologised. ‘It’s those poor little dears out in the bush,’ she explained. ‘I just can’t keep my mind off them.’
‘What little dears?’ asked the man.
‘The Matheson twins. You haven’t heard? They wandered away from their father into the bush. Only three they are. Rachel and Theo Matheson. They’ll freeze to death, the poor little lambs.’
‘Is somebody searching?’ The man put his spoon down. The quickness of his movement startled the waitress – and his face was suddenly younger than it had been.
‘Oh yes,’ she said. ‘More than a hundred people. Police and forestry gangs. And dogs. They’ve even had a helicopter. But they can’t do much in the dark. I’ve seen those children, here in town. Such bright wee things. Little red-heads, they are.’
‘Red-heads?’ The man pushed his chair back. ‘How do I get to the farm? Which way? No, never mind.’ His face went pale, his eyes closed for a moment.
‘Are you all right, sir?’
He said nothing, but in a moment stood up. ‘Yes, I’ve got it. I can help.’ He walked to the door.
‘Sir,’ the waitress cried, ‘your soup, your dinner.’ She ran after him to the foyer. But when she came into it he was not there. The glass doors were still and the stairs empty. She peered into the office, behind the sofa. Nothing. He had vanished. That was impossible. ‘Oh dear,’ she said, and sat down. She felt quite faint.
Out in the bush the Matheson twins were lying side by side on a bank of fern. They were too cold, too weak to cry out, too weak even to whimper. They could not see each other in the dark, but they held hands tightly, and whispered from time to time for their parents to come. Theo first, then Rachel, they drifted to sleep. As they lay there, damp and still, the small amount of warmth left in their bodies drained away. A searching policeman crashed by, twenty metres down the bank. His torch lit the trunks of trees. Further on he stopped to call their names. Deep, deep in their sleep, they heard no sound.
The policeman went on, calling now and then to the searchers up and down the hill from him. A short while later they came together in a clearing by a stream.
‘They’ll never survive.’
‘Look,’ the policeman cried.
A light like a flame was moving in the trees, so bright it made them hide their eyes. It floated high above the ground, turning like a mist through the trunks.
‘What is it?’ They ran over the clearing, but as they ran it vanished, and they stood bewildered in the weak glow of their torches.
In that same instant, deep back in the bush, the light came down beside Rachel and Theo Matheson. It covered them like a blanket, flowed round and under them, soft and honey-coloured, drew down and dulled itself. Warmth flowed into the limbs of the sleeping children. They smiled and murmured. All night they slept as though in their beds at home. They dreamed happy dreams. The light lay still and warm over them, murmuring like a hive of bees.
Greyness came through the black night of the bush. Trucks and cars roared into the Matheson farm. Policemen, farmers, gathered for a second day of the search. Dogs barked. A helicopter chattered down the valley from the town.
In the bush the light in the fern patch stirred, concentrated itself. Suddenly it vanished. An old man stood beside the sleeping children. He knelt and touched their faces. ‘Twins,’ he murmured, ‘twins.’ He touched their red hair. ‘Yes, yes, our colour.’ He looked into their minds. ‘And with the gift. They will be the ones.’ He knelt for a long time, watching them. ‘But will they be grown in time?’
The twins stretched, woke, sat up. They stared at him.
‘You are safe, children,’ he said. ‘Someone will come for you soon and take you home.’
‘You will know who I am one day. Ten years. Maybe sooner. I will call you when you have to do your task.’
They did not understand. They smiled at him.
‘I’m hungry,’ Rachel said.
‘Yes, yes, of course. I’ll send someone. Now go to sleep. And remember me.’
Obediently, they lay back in the ferns and closed their eyes. They slept.
The man watched them for a moment longer. He touched them again on the brow. ‘Poor things. Poor chosen ones. You must be brave.’ He stood up, bowed his head; and vanished.
A moment later one of the farmers searching along a stream bed noticed his dog stop dead, as though it had walked into an invisible wall. It turned at right angles, quivered, gave an odd yelp. Then it dashed away up the hill. ‘Come back,’ the farmer yelled, ‘I’ll take your hide off.’ He thought the dog must have scented a pig. He ploughed up the hill after it, falling behind. Then he heard excited barking. ‘He’s baled something up.’ Two other men joined him. But it was not a pig. The dog had stopped beside a patch of fern. In that wet frozen bush it was oddly dry. They peered into it. And there, sleeping, warm and safe, were the red-headed twins, Rachel and Theo Matheson.
The men lifted them up, wondering at the miracle, and carried them down through the bush to their parents’ farm.
At the hotel the old man ate his breakfast. A phone rang and a moment later the waitress rushed in.
‘They’ve found them,’ she cried. ‘They’re safe.’
‘The twins. The Matheson twins.’
‘Oh, them,’ the old man said. ‘Will you bring my coffee?’
She thought him very hard-hearted. She did not notice how he smiled as he ate.
The railcar clattered through the yards and rolled along at the side of a platform that Rachel and Theo thought would never end. They understood how much bigger a city was than their country town and they peered into the faces sliding by in the hope of seeing one that belonged to them.
‘I wonder if they forgot.’
‘There,’ Rachel cried, ‘it’s Ricky.’
They were first out on the platform, lugging their heavy bags.
‘Hi, kids,’ Ricky yelled, coming at them and grabbing their hair. ‘Let me warm my hands.’
‘Joke,’ Rachel said. They had stopped being amused by remarks about their red hair. But they could not be offended by Ricky. He was too good-humoured.
‘Where are your bags? Is that all you’ve got?’ He lifted the suitcases as easily as if they had been filled with kapok. ‘Come on. Wait till you see what I’m driving you home in.’
It was a beach buggy, with huge fat tyres, flaring mudguards, and red flames painted on the bonnet. ‘I built it myself,’ Ricky said. ‘Took me more than two years. She’ll do 130. Jump in.’
They climbed up and Ricky threw their bags in the back and leaped into the driver’s seat. ‘Course, I’m not allowed to do more than seventy with you kids on board.’ They roared out into the traffic and ducked and dived through the streets of downtown Auckland. ‘Good trip?’ Ricky yelled.
‘Rachel was homesick after five minutes.’
‘I was not. I was looking at the scenery.’
‘Some scenery. Cows and sheep. We can see those on the farm. This is better.’ He waved at the wharves and tall buildings. The buggy chugged along the motorway and up on to the harbour bridge – and Rachel had to admit the view was exciting. The city came down to the sea, the wharves jutted out, ships lay in the harbour – and out beyond the North Shore, Rangitoto turned dark as the sun went down behind the western ranges. Rachel stared at the island.
‘It’s a volcano,’ she said. ‘Or was. I read about it. Rangitoto means bleeding skies.’
‘Hey, no kidding,’ Ricky said. ‘I’ve been out there a dozen times but I never knew that.’
‘I think it looks sinister.’
‘There are lots of volcanoes round here. Extinct ones, I mean. Those little ones over there – that’s North Head and Mount Victoria. And you can see Mount Eden if you take a look behind.’
They went through the toll gates on the North Shore side of the bridge and drove along the motorway past mangrove swamps into Takapuna. Ricky kept at seventy. ‘I could have really wound her up along there,’ he grumbled. They passed tree-lined streets leading to the sea and then turned away from it and drove down a right-of-way to a house standing on the edge of a small round lake.
‘There you are,’ Ricky said. ‘You can fish from the bedroom windows.’
The house seemed made of glass with only ribs of concrete holding it together. Part of it jutted over the water. Curtains of different colours hid the interior. Theo stared at it nervously. It was so different from their own old wooden house, so rich-looking. But they were excited too. It was something to have an uncle who owned a house like this, even if he did make plastic toys that broke as soon as you looked at them.
Ricky blew the horn and Aunt Noeline came running out. ‘Twinnies,’ she cried, throwing her arms round them. They had learned to put up with the name. She was very kind. After she had finished hugging them she took them inside. The house was split-level. They followed her up wide stairs to their bedrooms, feeling rather like goldfish in a bowl.
‘I’ll leave you to unpack,’ Aunt Noeline said. ‘Then we can have tea and a good old talk. Your Uncle Clarry will be home by then.’ Ricky brought their bags up and put them in their rooms.
It took Rachel only a few minutes to get all her clothes into her drawers. She laid her brush and comb and toilet bag out on the dressing table. Then she pulled back the curtains over the end wall and found it was mostly glass. She was exactly above the place where the land met the water. Night was coming on quickly and lights were showing in the houses round the lake. Several small boats with coloured sails moved towards a landing place on the opposite shore. Seven or eight houses away, on a sloping lawn, under trees, two people were sitting on a bench facing the lake. They were hard to see because it was growing dark, and harder it seemed because they wore dark clothes. But it was a pleasant scene: two people – she strained her eyes – two old people sitting close together as the last light of the day faded from the sky. She felt she could write a poem about it.
Ricky’s voice rose from somewhere in the lower levels of the house. ‘Hey, Theo, come and see this.’
She heard her brother run down the stairs. A moment later a scraping sound came from below her and a splash of water. She peered down. Ricky and Theo were paddling a two-man canoe on to the lake. She opened part of the wall of glass.
‘Hi,’ she yelled, and Theo waved his paddle.
She was a little put out that Ricky had not called her. The canoe went straight out, then turned round to the left and vanished behind a curve in the shore. Rachel sighed. She would have loved to have been out there. The lake looked so still, so peaceful, with the last glow of sunset making pink reflections on its surface. But in a moment that was gone, the water suddenly looked very deep, very secret. Around its edge the houses seemed private, as though the people living in them had locked themselves away. Rachel shivered. She looked at the lawn where the old people had been sitting. But they were gone. Perhaps all the shouting had been too much for them. There were no lights in their house. It was cut off from the others round the lake by patches of wasteland covered with gorse and manuka.
The canoe came into sight, making along the shore towards home. Theo saw her standing in her window and saluted. She ignored him. She was, she admitted it now, a little bit homesick. At this time of day she was usually in the milking-shed hosing the yard for her father, or in the kitchen setting the table while her mother clattered around at the bench, and though neither was a job she enjoyed she found herself longing for them now – longing for her parents, the kitchen, the farm. Here she was, stuck in this spooky place with people she hardly knew. She felt like crying.
Then Aunt Noeline called her. She hurried down to the dining-room. Uncle Clarry had come home. He gave her a bear-hug. ‘Well, how’s the bush-fire blonde? My word, your brains must be sizzling in there.’ Ricky and Theo came in and soon they were all sitting at the table eating a meal of chips and steak and lettuce salad and ice cream and peaches. Rachel decided that all that had been wrong with her was hunger.
‘Ricky,’ she said, ‘next time you take me.’
‘As long as you don’t fall out,’ he grinned.
‘And don’t yell so much either. You chased those people inside.’
‘In that funny old house along the lake. The one with the spiky roof. You were yelling so loud.’
‘Huh,’ Ricky said. ‘Wilberforces. They’re a pair of weirdos. You know, I’ve never seen the lights on in their house. I guess they just go to bed.’
‘Don’t you go bothering them,’ Uncle Clarry said.
‘Not me. I’ll leave that to Old Jonesy.’
‘Who’s he?’ Rachel asked.
‘Jonesy? An old guy who lives round here – a couple of streets away. He hangs around the Wilberforces’ place. Kind of spying on them.’ He laughed. ‘We’ve got our share of looneys in this town.’
‘Don’t you talk about Mr Jones like that,’ Aunt Noeline said. ‘He’s a very nice old man. He brings me vegetables from his garden. He brought me some peas yesterday.’
‘He’s a bit nosey,’ Uncle Clarry said, ‘but he knows a thing or two, that old bloke.’
When dinner was finished Ricky showed them the garage. It took up most of the space under the house. There was room for Ricky’s buggy and two other cars besides. On a lower level, close to the water, a boat sat on a trailer. It was a fibre-glass run-about, orange and white, with the name
on its side in chrome-plated letters.
Ricky patted the motor. ‘Pushes her along at forty knots. I’ll take you for a spin one day. In the sea though. We don’t take her on the lake.’
‘Are there any fish in the lake?’
‘Nothing worth eating. They tried to stock it with trout a while back but they didn’t seem to take.’
‘Maybe it’s the smell,’ Rachel said.
‘Well, you know, there’s a funny …’
‘I can’t smell anything.’ Ricky was offended. ‘They used this for the water supply once for the whole North Shore. So it could hardly smell. I mean, it might be a bit polluted, everything is now. But there’s no smell. I live here. I should know.’
‘I’m sorry,’ Rachel said. ‘It was just when I opened the window of my room I thought I got a whiff of something.’
‘Me too,’ Theo said, ‘when we were on the lake. It was very faint,’ he said apologetically. ‘A bit like … it’s hard to say.’
‘Rotten cabbages,’ Rachel said.
‘Hey, come off it,’ Ricky cried.
‘I’m sorry, Ricky. I can’t smell it now.’
‘Me neither,’ Theo said. They avoided looking at each other.
‘Well, you’d better not let Dad hear you talking about smells, that’s all I can say. He thinks this place is Buckingham Palace.’
‘Ricky, can we take the canoe out now?’ Rachel asked. ‘You and Theo went out but I didn’t have a turn.’
‘Sure. Take it any time.’
The canoe was pulled up on the lawn below Rachel’s window. They launched it and Theo held it steady while Rachel climbed in. Then he pushed off and jumped into his seat. They paddled until they were out of the light from the house.
‘This is great.’
‘Theo, there is a smell. I’m not imagining it.’
‘I know. I can smell it now. It’s stronger out here. Must be the weed. Or dead fish.’
‘It didn’t look polluted. Why do you think Ricky can’t smell it? Or Uncle?’
‘Because they live here. They’re used to it. Like Rotorua.’
‘Well, I don’t like touching the water.’
‘Come on, Rachel, we don’t have to swim in it. We swim in the sea. Let’s go across to the other side.’
But they stopped in the middle of the lake and sat quietly in the canoe listening to the sounds of voices from the landing place where car lights showed some men fastening a yacht to the back of a jeep.
‘What’s that rumbling noise?’
‘Cars up on the road.’
It was strange to be in so dark a place, so enclosed by darkness, yet ringed with lights and city noises. There was a fainter sound too, a rhythmical distant hiss that must come from the sea.
‘We’re in the darkest place,’ Theo said. ‘And higher than the sea. I wonder how this lake got here.’
Rachel looked at the lights. Off to the west was a long low building like a hospital, and northwards a tall block of flats. She made out tiny figures in the rooms. When she turned she saw Uncle Clarry too, talking into the phone. His house threw more light than any of the others. Where the curtains were closed it glowed in different colours. It looked, she thought, like a flying saucer ready to take off. Beside it the lawns had an artificial green.
She found the Wilberforces’ house further along the shore. The glow from Takapuna outlined its roof. She made out spikes on the gable ends but the rest of it was hidden by trees.
‘Why do you think they never have their lights on?’
‘Maybe they go to bed, like Ricky said. Or maybe they watch television in the dark.’
‘Yes …’ She was not convinced. ‘It must be awful being old.’
‘It’s pretty awful being young when your sister keeps getting morbid.’
At that moment Aunt Noeline opened a window and yelled into the dark, ‘You twins come back. It’s getting late.’
‘She wants the whole of Auckland to know.’
‘Don’t answer her.’
‘It’s too quiet out here.’
They started to paddle back. Theo steered the canoe at the shore several hundred metres along from Uncle Clarry’s house.
‘Why are you going along this way?’
‘It’s fun zipping through the reeds.’
She was going to protest – they would have to go past the wasteland by the Wilberforces’ place. But Theo would be impatient so she kept quiet. She was very nervous. The dark, the stillness, were scary. She tried to concentrate on her paddling. Soon they were close to the shore and in the reeds. The canoe raced through them with a hiss.
‘See?’ Theo said.
They passed into the deep shade out from the wasteland. The trees on the low muddy bank at the foot of the Wilberforces’ lawn approached and bent over them. Suddenly something tugged at Rachel’s hair. She gave a small scream.
‘What is it?’ The canoe slowed down and rocked in the water.
‘My hair caught on a branch. It’s all right now.’ She looked nervously at the house. The animal shapes of trees crouched on the lawn. Between two of them she saw the dull gleam of windows and a faint bluish light marking the shape of a doorway. In that rectangle of light something moved.
‘Theo,’ she hissed, ‘look.’
‘The house. The door.’ A huge black figure stood there.
‘Who is it?’
‘Him. Mr Wilberforce. It must be.’
They sat very still. And the shape in the door remained equally still. At last Theo whispered, ‘He’s big, isn’t he? Must be more than two metres.’
‘Is he watching us?’
‘It’s too dark.’
Quietly, quickly, they paddled away. Soon, behind them, they heard a door thud shut. They reached Uncle Clarry’s house and pulled the canoe up on the lawn. Aunt Noeline called out of the window. ‘Come on, you two, I want you to ring your mother. Then it’s bed. You’ve had a big day.’
They went inside gratefully. On the phone to her mother Rachel was close to saying she wanted to come home. But Theo was bright and breezy and listening to him she began to feel better.
In bed she tried to go to sleep quickly. That was the best way, when something was on your mind. But she could not manage it. She kept on seeing the huge dark shape of Mr Wilberforce outlined against the blue light in the house. The smell still drifted up from the lake. Perhaps it was her imagination that made it seem stronger now. After a while she got up and closed her window. She would sooner be hot, she thought, than have rotten cabbages in her room. She must have slept then because she came awake with a start. Someone had opened her door.